At the Freakonomics Blog, Steven Levitt explains how the publishing industry is putting out more bullshit than ever these days.
I once lived for furthering my collection of autographed books. Getting a book signed meant going to hear the author read, waiting in line with other fans, and then, finally, being presented with the chance to utter words of praise. Sometimes it meant getting teary-eyed with envy, worrying over whether I would ever write anything so poignant. This happened when Amy Tan walked by in purple velvet with her lap dog trailing behind her. During middle and high school, at the height of my obsession with autographs, I spent a lot of time writing letters, poems that exhibited the same longing for impossible love, and short stories that revealed I was fixated on the same themes of displacement and loneliness that I am now. I heard Jamaica Kincaid read twice. The first time she read at the local university from her novel Lucy. I was in seventh grade and inexperienced in matters of love. She read a passage about sucking on a boy’s tongue and I was mesmerized. She stood before a large audience and I couldn’t help but see that she was someone important. The second time I went to hear her read, I got Lucy signed by her before she spoke. My father told her that I wanted to be a writer. She didn’t say anything, only proudly signed her name. Later, during the Q & A, she asked in perfectly enunciated words, “Where is that girl who wants to be a writer?” I shyly raised my hand. She went on to recommend Gertrude Stein to me. Following the reading, I began to imagine Jamaica Kincaid as my writing teacher. With her intimidating stature, I divined she would be just as intimidating of a teacher. I thought only she would be capable of whipping my writing into shape. I wanted her to treat my writing so harshly that my only option would be improvement. Yevgeniy Yevtushenko read in Russian at the Jewish Community Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Neither my father nor I spoke Russian, but my father decided to expose me to culture. What I remember is Yevtushenko’s ostentatious blue jacket and his sweeping gestures when he spoke. I later learned Russian, partly thanks to falling in love with his incomprehensible poetic voice, I read some of the poems from his collected works, wondering which he might have read that evening. When Jennifer Egan came to the suburban Barnes and Nobel to read from her novel The Invisible Circus, my mother and I were the only audience members. Afterwards, I asked Egan one of those typical questions about her writing schedule. I came away with the interesting information that she worked part-time as a detective. Later, I composed a letter to her, which led to another obsession. I spent a grand portion of the day waiting for the mail. A letter was just another passage into the literary world. Not only was I waiting for personal letters, I was also waiting for acceptances from literary journals. The postman arrived after I got home from school, so I would sit in the armchair near the window and wait for his footsteps. They would culminate in the metal clamor of the mailbox closing. When he had moved on to the next house, I would open the door and collect the mail. I received one response from Jennifer Egan and an acceptance from a neighborhood newspaper, but most often I received letters from my pen pal who lived on the other side of the city. I met her at a poetry reading at a café called Brewed Awakenings. I played Irish tin whistle and read some poetry. She came up to me afterwards and gave me a copy of the literary journal called Zink in which she had been published. She was also a writer and yet she was incredibly accessible. She asked for my address, and pulled a blank piece of paper from the pouch around her neck for me to write on. I felt uncomfortable about giving a stranger my address, but I did it anyway. At that time of my life I said “yes” to everything. To my surprise, a few days later I received a typed letter from her in a handmade envelope. I wrote back and she was quick to respond. It wasn’t long before I began to live my life in order to write it to her in a letter. The events that occurred during the day, occurred so that I could describe them. It was then that my writing probably took on its autobiographical quality. As an adult, I haven’t had such a faithful pen pal, another writer with whom to commiserate. The advent of email and real responsibilities make it impossible to live just for handwritten letters, but most of all, it’s hard to find someone who can be a friend and somewhat of an idol at the same time. Though I once attended readings regularly and took great comfort in spending Sunday night at the fiction series at the KGB Bar, some of the luster has been lost. Writers seem so accessible that an autographed book doesn’t bring me the same pleasure as it once did and writers seem just as much friends as idols. Now a writer myself, I realize that writing isn’t such a magical process. Still, there are moments when I can happily transport myself to those simpler times of books and letters, the time when I was open to every ounce of experience. Just recently I came away from a reading with a signed copy of Joshua Cohen’s Witz, heard Mary Gaitskill read at the crowded Franklin Park Reading Series, and went to hear Cory Doctorow, Rivka Galchen, and Gary Schteyngart talk about the bleak future while drinking dark and stormys. I also went to hear Jennifer Egan read at Greenlight Bookstore. This time it was to a packed house, inspiring me with the possibility that my writing can also grow in this way. [Image credit: Weston Boyd]
Ms. Millions, who listens to KCRW (LA's hipster/NPR beacon) while at work, heard somebody mentioning quirky holiday book gifts on the NPR show Day to Day and immediately thought of me. I'm a lucky guy. From a list, which she scrawled in her delicate feminine hand, I've gleaned a few books worth mentioning... and I commend the folks at Day to Day for coming up with some quirky books. The Girl Who Played Go is a novel by Shan Sa, a Chinese writer by way of France, who won a number of international awards for her previous novels, including the French heavyweights the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Cazes. This book, her first to appear in English, tells the story of a 16-year-old Manchurian girl and a Japanese soldier who tragically fall in love in the midst of war in the 1930s. From Manchuria to Tuscany: the NPR culture mavens also mentioned a new book by the photographer Joel Meyerowitz, who is pretty well known for landscape photography that is rich in color and clever with light. Tuscany: Inside the Light is a pleasant take on a charming place. And now from Tuscany to..... the bomb shelter? 100 Suns is an eerie collection of photographs of mushroom clouds from atomic bomb testing sites at the height of the cold war. The mushroom cloud is a familiar, iconic symbol, and seeing so many in one place with such a stark presentation is an oddly moving experience. The book was put together by Michael Light, who salvaged and reprinted the photographs. He did the same thing a few years back with NASA's collection of lunar photography in a book called Full Moon. Thanks to the little lady for giving me some books to talk about
Visit this link (and scroll down) for an excerpt of the new Philip Roth novel, The Plot Against America. In other news, Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones is one of 23 people to be given a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award. That's "annual checks for $100,000 for the next five years, to be used however they want," for those of you keeping score at home. This year's other literary geniuses are short story writer Aleksandar Hemon (The Question of Bruno, Nowhere Man) and poet C.D. Wright (Deepstep Come Shining, Steal Away). Here are profiles of Chicago's two geniuses.
This week is turning out to be a mini-family reunion for me. My parents and two of my brothers are in town as are some aunts and uncles and cousins. Yesterday evening at a family barbecue near Venice Beach I fell into a conversation with my aunt and uncle about the reading habits of my young cousin, Tim, who is 10. He's a very precocious reader and has finished off nearly all of the highly recommended children's series that are out there right now: Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and Brian Jacques' Redwall Series (I recommended Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy since he hasn't gotten to that yet.) The thing is, there's a limited amount of high quality young adult fiction out there, so what do you do if your kid has read it all? Since I started working at the bookstore I have occasionally been posed this question by parents. It's actually a crucial moment in the life of a young a reader, the point where they could very easily lose some interest reading because they have read all the kids' books and aren't allowed to read adult books. What folks sometimes forget is that there are quite a few books that, though they are shelved in the adult fiction section, are perfect books to help segue strong, young readers into the wider world that lies beyond the young adult section. Some people call these books classics, but they are perfect for challenging kids and keeping them interested in reading: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Time Machine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Journey to the Center of the Earth, to name just a few. I would also recommend that these children read the books in their original forms, not the abridged versions. I remember reading abridged versions of various classics when I was younger, and I think lots of other folks do as well, but looking back it just doesn't seem necessary. In fact, as an eleven or twelve year old, I learned a lot of complex things about the world around me from the books I read, and these important details, the harsh language in Huck Finn, for example, seem to be just the things that are excised in order to create the kid friendly versions. We challenge kids in many aspects of their lives, why not challenge them to explore the big questions that arise from reading the classics. I hope that the children's book industry continues to move in this direction, and a lot of the intelligent and challenging kids' books that are out there indicate that it will. On the other hand, my friend Edan pointed out to me the other day the upcoming release of a "Student Edition" of Yann Martel's international bestseller Life of Pi, from which, one can assume, the editors have removed anything that might distress, and therefore challenge, a young reader. Here's hoping that this doesn't kick off a new trend.
You recall a couple of weeks ago when I previewed The Morning News 2007 Tournament of Books. As it turns out, they've incorporated a contest for readers - an office pool - into this year's Tournament and I'm involved. How to play along:Here's how the contest works. In addition to this year's brackets, below you'll find a set of brackets filled out by each of our selected Office Pool Book Bloggers. Review them, then select the one you think is the most likely to win - the bloggers will be scored for each match they predict correctly, with scores updated each day of the Tournament. Email us at the address below with the name of the blogger you like in the email subject line, and your full contact information in the body of the email. (You can only enter once.) We'll randomly select one reader for each blogger to "play for," and the winning blogger's reader will win every book in the tournament, courtesy of Powell's Books. Note: The contest will close at 6 p.m. EST this Wednesday, March 7So, go there and pick The Millions' bracket, there could be a whole bunch of books in it for you.
There are probably two cardinal rules of blogging; that is, there are two things that a blogger must do to have a fully realized blog within the mass that is the blogosphere. One, the blogger should post relatively frequently and consistently, several times a week lets say. Second, a blogger should link to other blogs. I've been reasonably successful at the former, but inadequate at the latter. But I can assure you, this has been out of laziness and not by design. When I started this blog about 18 months ago, it didn't occur to me that there might be other blogs about books out there, but indeed there were, and new ones crop up all the time. It occurred to me recently that the readers of my blog, being book fans, might like to know about the litblogs that are out there. So here are some of my favorites. Add them to your bookmarks, read them. Enjoy their daily nourishment:Beatrice -- It's not what you think. Beatrice isn't an old woman with a beehive hairdo, it's blog run by Ron Hogan. Beatrice is probably my favorite of all the litblogs. Hogan touches on all the big stories with humor, and he often has his own insights to add. Plus, and this is a very big plus, he has an unbelievable archive of interviews he's conducted with literary luminaries over the years.The Elegant Variation -- I met Mark Sarvas once at the bookstore I worked at in Los Angeles. He was there for a sparsely attended reading, by whom I can't recall, and we got to chatting. Like first time fathers, we talked about our, at the time, brand new blogs. And while I would continue to plug away in my fashion, Sarvas quite rapidly put together one of the most widely read litblogs out there. If you want to stay on top of the lit world and the litblog world, the Elegant Variation is essential.Golden Rule Jones -- When I moved to Chicago, my goal was to have the city's second-best litblog. His listings of local readings are indispensable, and his understanding of the city's literary scene is deep. Still, Golden Rule Jones is a quieter redoubt, and Jones isn't afraid to present his readers with the occasional poetic interlude. If you live in Chicago and love books, you might as well make Golden Rule Jones your homepage.The Literary Saloon -- The Saloon is a very newsy sort of litblog with a British bent. It's great place to keep up on Booker gossip and the like. n.b. The Saloon is attached to one of the best book review sites on the web: The Complete ReviewMaud Newton -- Maud Newton is the grande dame of litbloggers. Her tremendously popular blog lays it all out on the table from her literary loves to her daily trials and tribulations. Something about Maud makes you really want to root for her. Go Maud!Rake's Progress -- A relative newcomer, Rake's Progress consists of terrific links and off the cuff literary analysis delivered with a well-developed sense of irony and humor.Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind -- Sarah Weinman is professional book reviewer who has been kind enough to share her talents with the blogosphere. Her background is in crime fiction, but she turns her journalist's eye on all aspects of the literary world. She's a real pro.GalleyCat -- An outgrowth of the publishing networking site, Media Bistro, GalleyCat is a newsy spot that will keep you up to date on all the latest stories in the publishing world and in litblog land. If you just have time to read one blog a day, GalleyCat will keep you in the loop.Bookdwarf -- Bookdwarf is a blog that's close to my heart because it has a lot in common with The Millions. Bookdwarf works at a great independent bookstore, just like I used too. And just like me she can't help but spread all that bookstore knowledge far and wide.Tingle Alley -- Tingle Alley is a blog by a writer who happens to be, as all good writers should be, an avid reader. She shares her thoughts on the latest book news, on the books she reads, and on the progress of her novel.Waterboro Library Blog -- Lots of libraries have a web presence, but none of them blog like the folks in Waterboro, Maine. In the helpful spirit of librarians everywhere, the Waterboro Blog is a great source for important book news. It's a real public service.Conversational Reading -- Scott Esposito's blog is a real readers' blog. He eschews the gossipy book news and sticks to discussing reading, posting long, insightful pieces about his reading experience. Esposito also reviews books for various publications.Casa Malaprop -- Don Lindgren is a rare book dealer who has an eye for interesting links, (and, presumably, rare books).languagehat.com -- I've mentioned languagehat on this blog before. Its not really a litblog per se, but languagehat is so chock full of interesting linguistic information that it really shouldn't be missed. After reading languagehat, you will be tempted to become an amateur linguist yourself.Old Hag -- Jimmy at Old Hag is a funny guy. He finds the humor in the book world, in trying to be a writer, in blogging about all this stuff. He'll make you laugh. (Lizzie's funny, too.)So that's it for now. I've probably forgotten to mention many worthy litblogs and misrepresented some of the ones I did mention. The point is, there's lots of great blogs about books out there, and if you only read mine you're missing out. So check these guys out; you won't be disappointed.