At the Freakonomics Blog, Steven Levitt explains how the publishing industry is putting out more bullshit than ever these days.
I spend so much time talking about serious (grown up) books that I sometimes forget that books had a completely different hold on me when I was a little fella. These days I like to read something that will challenge me, and I seek people out who will discuss a particular book with me. We turn the book around in our heads poking it and prodding it, making this or that judgment, and then we set the book carefully aside and rush onward to the next one. It really doesn't bear much resemblance to the way my five year old self felt about books. Back then it was the purest escape. I could open a book and be utterly immersed within its confines. Such is the boundlessness of the young imagination that I could dwell in the same book almost endlessly. I gave no thought to picking up the same book day after day for weeks on end. As we grow older, our imaginations atrophy and it becomes difficult to immerse ourselves in a story and pictures in the same way. There are, however, a special handful of books that are powerful enough to remind you of what it was like to be five again. The Olivia series by Ian Falconer is able to do this. Something about the dreamy illustrations and the antics of a stubborn pig can make you forget yourself for a few minutes. The third Olivia book comes out today. It's called Olivia . . . and the Missing Toy, and if you are at a bookstore today and you want a bit of merriment, take a look, you won't be disappointed.
Michael J. Arlen's 1958 humor piece "Are we losing the novel race?" (which can be found in the New Yorker's anthology of humor writing) starts out thusly: "As if things weren't bad enough already, word has just reached me that the Russians have recently published a 1,600 page novel." The amusing little piece, published at the height of Cold War hysteria, spoofs both the nation's fear of an impending nuclear war and the literary world's longtime obsession with heft. The Cold War is over now, but people are still fascinated by really big books.The latest really big book is a 1,360 page debut novel called Hunger's Brides: A Novel of the Baroque by a Canadian named Paul Anderson. An article in the NY Times - which includes this quote from Anderson's publisher: "I told him, 'You can't not go there.' And that's how it got longer." - is dutifully descriptive on the subject of the book's size: "It weighs 4 pounds, 9 ounces, equivalent to two and a half copies of The Da Vinci Code, and it is thicker than Verizon's Manhattan telephone directory (either the white or yellow pages)." Luckily, the author seems to have a sense of humor about having published such a, shall we say, weighty book: his official Web site includes a slideshow of "safe reading positions". And if you're really curious, there are several excerpts up as well.
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I got the latest catalog from Soho Press in the mail recently. Soho is an independent press in New York that puts out a few books of literary fiction a year. They've also got a crime imprint. A flip through the catalog drives home Soho Crime's reputation for detective stories set in exotic locales. This time around there's New York's Chinatown, Bethlehem, and Paris, as well as paperback editions for recently released hardcovers set in Seoul, Florence, Granada, and Paris again.Also on the way is a mystery set during World War II called Billy Boyle by James R. Benn. Billy Boyle is a Boston cop who gets unexpectedly thrown into the war and ends up investigating the death of an official of the Norwegian government in exile. It's the first in a three book series about Boyle. The catalog also has word of the paperback edition of The White Earth, Andrew McGahern's multigenerational tale set in Australia that I read and discussed in January.If you are a publisher and would like to send me your catalog, please email me.
The first time I read Huckleberry Finn, I must've been nine, because I remember padding down the staircase one evening book in hand, and taking a left into the living room where my parents were sitting on the couch. We moved away from the house I'm remembering when I was in fourth grade, so ten years old might be the upper limit here. I remember the book too. It was one of those editions designed to look old and expensive, with a faux-leather cover that had a padded feel to it, like the back seat of my parents' minivan. The edges of the thin pages were "gilt," giving the book a faintly biblical aspect. I was walking down the stairs with the book in hand because, though a fairly precocious young reader, I'd come across a word I'd never seen before. I held up the book, open to one of the early pages, and pointed. What does this word "nigger" mean? My parents, I think, had not planned on doing any more parenting that day -- maybe there were glasses of wine sitting on the coffee table -- let alone having to carefully explain to a nine-year-old the gravity of this particular word. It wasn't "where do babies come from?", but it was close. Nonetheless, and sensing, I assume, that they had better fully satiate my curiosity lest I bring this word carelessly with me to school the next day, they explained. I paraphrase: "this is a very, very bad word that white people used to call black people. You must never, ever use this word; it's one of the worst things you can call someone." They did not, I note now, take the book away from me. I went back to my room and kept reading, and eventually, some days or weeks later I finished the book. To the best of my recollection, despite it appearing six times in the text, I never went back downstairs, book in hand, to ask my parents what the word "slave" meant.
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I got back from New York yesterday. The Recoys show was unforgettable. Look for pictures here and here. Everybody packed into the sweaty back room of the Kingsland Tavern, and the Recoys became, for the last time, an underappreciated and raucous band from Boston. This time plenty of people knew better. In the years since the Recoys split, I've heard several people say that they are far better than many of the big name bands that they presaged. I agree with them, and so do a lot of folks, it seems. It looks like the record (Recoys Rekoys) is pretty much sold out, so hopefully we'll be able to get a cd out soon. I was definitely digging New York this time around. I haven't been in a while (about nine months I think). I rode the subway a bunch. At one point I noticed a girl reading Life of Pi by Yann Martel and I thought to myself... wouldn't it be great if I could sit and read on the way to and from work each day, or on the way anywhere really, and I could check out what my fellow citizens are reading as we lumber along in our rolling athenaeum. Instead I gas and break my way around like everyone else in L A, and I have less time to read and everyone here has less time to read (assuming they would want to read anyway). It's a shame. On the other hand, the radio here is really good.Watch out Harry Potter gonna kick yo assIsn't it annoying when a writer is writing about some really popular nugget of pop culture and he opens his snarky article with "Unless you've been living in a cave (are a yak-herder in Khazakstan... have been trapped under a large pile of potatoes, etc. etc.) you've heard of Harry Potter (The Matrix... The Lord of the Rings, etc. etc.). Yes... ha ha ha, we all know about this very popular thing, oh snarky commentator, now get on with your witty dressing down of popular culture. Well, for the weekend anyway, I made like that yak-herder and forgot all about Harry Potter for a couple of days. I forgot he ever existed and then I stumbled sleepily and still a little bit drunkenly into JFK where they had a towering heap of yet another J. K. Rowling juggernaut Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. You'll notice on the Amazon page that it says "in stock June 25." That's because Amazon shipped a million copies on the first day! In fact, it turns out that the full 8.5 million copy first run was pretty much sold out before it ever hit the shelves due to the preorders alone. Through some serious finagling (like the buyer buying a few hundred copies from Costco on Saturday) my book store has managed to keep this 870 page behemoth of a book in stock so far. And since midnight on Friday we've gone from general book store to Harry Potter store. In the past 3 days we've probably sold more of this book than all other titles combined. This is all the more shocking when you consider that my store, due to location and clientele, has a meager childrens' section and typically very few children ever come in. I just hope Rowling has enough room for the dump trucks full of money she's making. As for the book itself, I doubt I'll be reading it any time soon, but here's what Michiko Kakutani had to say on the front page of the New York Times, above the fold no less.A Tasty BookI have a soft spot for food writers. Maybe it's because I enjoy a good meal, perhaps too much, but I think it's because I've found food writers to be charming in their obsession with food related minutiae. No one is more charming than Calvin Trillin whose "register of frustration and deprivation" leads him to travel the world seeking those foods that he can't live without. the result of this is Feeding a Yen I can't put this book down. He's like an adventurous and kindly uncle. It's a treat.