The new British quarterly, The Book, is kicking things off with a poll to determine, by popular vote, “the Greatest Living British Writer.” As Gordon Kerr writes in his essay introducing the poll, “Now, there’s a question! It’s such a big one, in fact, that it requires capitals at the beginning of each word!” Indeed. If you’ve got an opinion on the matter, cast your vote. I couldn’t decide – how does one pick in polls like this? – so I selected John Le Carre, who seems to be sufficiently influential and popular while at the same time a little bit outside of the literary box. Thoughts?
Yesterday in a crowded elevator, I watched a man punch furiously at the door-close button, trying to guard his territory from further invasion. And I thought back to the April 21 New Yorker, in which Nick Paumgarten dropped this bombshell:In most elevators, at least in any built or installed since the early nineties, the door-close button doesn't work. It is there mainly to make you think it works. (It does work if, say, a fireman needs to take control. But you need a key, and a fire, to do that.) Once you know this, it can be illuminating to watch people compulsively press the door-close button. That the door eventually closes reinforces their belief in the button's power. It's a little like prayer. Elevator design is rooted in deception.For me, this was a Lewinski-sized revelation. Granted, Paumgarten phrases it as a kind of aside (much as Lawrence Wright broke the news in the January 21 issue that he's been the subject of FBI wiretapping.) Still, I expected this news to spread rapidly - and to lead to a sharp decline in door-close-button pushing. Of course, my assumption that hundreds of thousands of Americans share my enthusiasm for Nick Paumgarten's writing about just about anything appears, in retrospect, to have been misguided. I'll be curious to see whether The Millions, with its vast readership among elevator riders, can finish what Mr. Paumgarten started. The Door-Close Button Doesn't Work - pass it on!
Japanese writer Haruki Murakami has a reflective piece on becoming a novelist and his love of running, presumably adapted from his forthcoming memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, in the current Summer Fiction issue of The New Yorker. The piece isn't available online, but in it he mentions his first two novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973. As Ben explained a year ago, both are out of print in the U.S. and both have essentially been disowned by Murakami, who views them as something like juvenalia. However, the curious can check out our post that links to a pdf version of Pinball, 1973, along with some commentary from Ben.
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In the spring, we reported on an unusual event unfolding in the Books pages of The Globe and Mail. Each week, through 2008, someone - typically a published author or an academic - would write an essay for the Globe championing a book. Fifty books in total. They were not ranked in any order, and in reality they form a jumping-off point into a world of knowledge and literary imagination.About a third of the books championed were novels, from such usual suspects as War and Peace, Don Quixote, and Middlemarch, through Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, and One Hundred Years of Solitude.More interesting were the non-novels on the list. There were collected shorts from Borges, Kafka and Chekhov, and collected poems from Eliot and Yeats. There was Dante's Divine Comedy, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, the Decameron, and The Mahabharata, a 2000-year-old verse from India. Lady Murasaki's 1000-year-old The Tale of Genji pops up. Plays by Becket and Goethe were also championed.The King James Bible is there; as is the Koran. Books of philosophy by Plato and political economy by both Adam Smith and Karl Marx made the list.Darwin's Origin of Species is there; so is Diderot's Encyclopedia, Herodotus' Histories, Freud's Interpretation of Dreams and Rachel Carson's proto-environmental Silent Spring. Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, her 300-year-old rebel yell, is there, as are St. Augustine's Confessions, and de Montaigne's Essays, his 16th-century invention of a genre.Beside each essay are links to all the essays that came before it. So you should go to the 50th essay, championing Henry James' Portrait of a Lady, to get easy links to the other 49. Thank goodness for that, because there doesn't seem to be a central web page listing all 50, and I advise against trying to search through the Globe and Mail's Books section archives unless you want to get a blinding headache.
Though the Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley isn't the most "sexy" of critics (Pete Dexter's comments notwithstanding), I've always enjoyed his columns. He will champion anything he believes is worth reading, even naming a book by John Grisham as one of the "best" of the year in 2005. He also clearly loves to read, and it shows in his writing, as opposed to, say, Michiko who I'd imagine dreads every book that crosses her threshold. Yardley also has a wonderful column called "Second Reading" that does away with the tyranny of the new and allows him to select and ruminate over any title from the vast trove of books he's read. This week revisits a classic that I remember warmly from my childhood, Little House in the Big Woods, the first book in Laura Ingalls Wilder's well-known series about life on the frontier.Yardley offers some tidbits that were new to me: Wilder didn't start writing the books until she was in her early 60s, and her daughter, a popular journalist and novelist, co-wrote, or at least heavily edited, the books. In revisiting the book, Yardley doesn't succumb to nostalgia, but he does acknowledge why the books have had such staying power:Some of the readers who've urged me to include one of Wilder's books in Second Reading have said that they can be as satisfying for adult readers as for younger ones. In the sense that I had a pleasant time rereading Little House in the Big Woods, I guess that I agree, but it's not exactly an adult pleasure. Wilder's prose is clean, her people are immensely appealing and the details she provides of frontier domestic life are fascinating, but we shouldn't try to persuade ourselves that these books are more than what they are: very good books for children that -- as I realize far more keenly now than when I was a boy -- paint a rather idealized picture of the American past. Wilder herself never seems to have pretended that she wrote for any except young readers, so let's take her word for it.If you've read the books, you'll enjoy the essay.Bonus Links: The Home-Schooling Book Boom, The Little Men Who Love Little House
A quote from Steven Erlanger, the cultural editor of the New York Times on the changes afoot at the Book Review: "To be honest, there's so much s---. Most of the things we praise aren't very good." This, I suppose, is a rather blunt way of saying that things are changing at one of the most influential and widely used repositories of book reviews in the world. (Imagine that: people using book reviews. More on that later.) The charge leveled against the Book Review by its new keeper is that it has become formulaic in its style and perhaps a bit arcane in choosing which books to review. First to go will be the lengthy reviews of literary fiction, which will be replaced by an increased focus on non-fiction and popular, or mass-market, fiction. Furthermore, a concerted effort will be made to publish reviews that are more controversial with hopes, ultimately, of injecting enough hurly-burly into the Book Review that people will flock to see the literary wars waged on its pages. This practice of intentionally soliciting vicious, opinionated reviews in order to draw publicity and readership to a publication is probably almost as old as the book review itself, but recently, as the reviews have become more outrageous, the backlash has become louder. Early in 2003 the people behind McSweeney's rolled out The Believer, a magazine more or less dedicated, as outlined in Heidi Julavits opening piece in the first issue, to combating the pointlessly mean review. The results have been mixed, but they continue to fight the good fight, even maintaining a "Snarkwatch" on their website. Yet the "snarkiness" has continued unabated. Last spring all of literary Britain was up in arms over Tibor Fischer's unceremonious dressing down of Yellow Dog, a new novel by one of Britain's favorite sons, Martin Amis. The review, which appeared in the Telegraph, was entitled "Someone needs to have a word with Amis" and included the line "I won't tell you anything about the contents of Yellow Dog, but what I will tell you is that it's terrible." (LINK) Then, last summer a truly offensive review of Chuck Klosterman's Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs was penned by a gentleman named Mark Ames for a publication called NYPress. This review included the line, "I cannot ever recall reading a book as toxic, disingenuous and stupid as Klosterman's new collection of essays." (LINK) Ultimately, the review served its purpose, and, as it made the rounds via email and blogs, Ames and the NYPress put their names on the map. And now the New York Times Book Review is joining the fray, straddling that blurry line between entertainment and information; strange bedfellows indeed. There is certainly nothing wrong with trying to engage your readers nor is there anything wrong with entertaining them or titillating them so long as it is done within the framework of advising the reader on the merits or deficiencies of a particular book while at the same time taking on the responsibility of being the first word on a book whose ultimate importance has yet to be determined. The New York Times Book Review is a household name, but, until I worked in the bookstore, I had no idea how many people use the Book Review, really use it. They walk into the store clutching clipped reviews like life preservers in a sea of books, trusting that those reviews will not let them drown. If book reviews don't serve that purpose first, what purpose could they possibly serve. For more on the topic, check out this column at Poynter Online.
Shalom Auslander (Beware of God) pens a personal piece about his relationship with Leonard Michael's book I Would Have Saved Them If I Could for nextbook: "For Michaels, even happy endings aren't happy. Joy makes you vulnerable. Bad is bad, but good might be worse."And, while were on the subject of Michaels, I hope his books end up back in print sooner rather than later.
A recent Wall Street Journal story (I'll summarize here if you can't access it), is reporting that Borders intends to "sharply [increase] the number of titles it displays on shelves with the covers face-out." It is hoped that this move will increase sales, but "the new approach will require a typical Borders superstore to shrink its number of titles by 5% to 10%."The article goes on to note that "Reducing inventory goes against the grain of booksellers' efforts over the past 25 years or so. Chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble Inc., the nation's largest book retailer, became household names with superstores that stocked as many as 150,000 titles or more. The rise of Amazon.com Inc., which offers a vast selection online, made it even more important for stores to offer deep inventories." A little later, the reporter concludes, "With the book market facing unmitigated gloom, Borders has little choice but to experiment."I've talked about chain stores and how they do and don't satisfy the avid reader: In "What Makes a Bookstore?", a golden oldie from about four years ago, I granted that "when it comes to hanging out, it's hard to beat the chains." But I relish and much prefer the relevance of a good independent bookstore, which should allow one to "walk into the bookstore and be able to grasp, based upon which books are on display and based upon conversations with staff and fellow customers, what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood."In this framework, putting ever more books face-out and thinning inventory is exactly the opposite of what I want a bookstore to do. The failure of chain bookstores is that they try to make the bookstore experience like any other retail experience, placing the merchandise just so in the hopes that it will entice the shopper. Indeed, according to the WSJ, "The new display strategy is the brainchild of CEO George Jones, who says he learned when he was a buyer at Dillard's Inc. early in his career that dresses sell better when the entire garment is shown rather than hung sleeve-out." John Deighton, editor of the Journal of Consumer Research, has a similar point of view. "'Breakfast cereals are not stocked end-of-box out,' he says. 'You want to your product to be as enticing as possible. It's a little bizarre that it's taken booksellers this long to realize that the point of self-service is to make the product as tempting as possible.'"And who knows, tests have shown that "sales of individual titles were 9% higher than at similar Borders stores." Still, further down this path lies the ultimate in bookselling vapidity, the airport bookstore, where all the books are face-out, and the desperate traveler is forced to choose between bad or worse.As I thought about turning books into so many boxes of Froot Loops, the article left me with a final question. Many bookstore regulars may not be aware that bookstores, from chains to indies, accept what's called "co-op" from publishers. Ostensibly, this is money that is meant to help market certain titles. In practice, co-op money dictates display areas, what ends up on prominent front-of-store tables, and, yes, face out placement on shelves. The article doesn't mention co-op explicitly, but I wonder if this is another motivation for Borders. If so, putting books face-out may lead to incrementally more sales, but it may also bring in more marketing cash from publishers, and the end result is an ever more pre-packaged, market-tested, one size fits all experience for readers.Edit: Thanks to F.S. for the correct spelling of "Froot."