Ed Champion has a nemesis, Time magazine book reviewer Lev Grossman, as we discover in Grossman’s latest column. Though somewhat tongue in cheek, Grossman is basically asking bloggers to use their power for good. All in all, it’s far more civilized than Steve Almond’s pathetic attempted takedown of Mark Sarvas in Salon from a year ago, which read like a laundry list of Almond’s insecurities. Grossman’s essay and Ed’s response make it clear that Grossman is an altogether more pleasant person than Almond and that the relationship between book bloggers and the literati has matured. As Ed notes in his brief response to Grossman, he (and other book bloggers) are regularly paid to pen book reviews in major newspapers. The lines are blurring. Oh, and I’ve met Ed. He’s not that scary.
Millions contributor Garth pointed me to a funny little piece by Calvin Trillin in the New York Times in which the New Yorker writer is asked to test out the new Lexus “Advanced Parking Guidance System.” Perhaps you’ve heard of this; it supposedly enables the car to park itself. Trillin, as he indicates, believes that he has been asked to try this newfangled technology out because he was the author of Tepper Isn’t Going Out, “which is considered by most scholars to have been the first parking novel” and because in 1964 he was the founding co-editor of Beautiful Spot: A Magazine of Parking, which, Trillin says, “I’ve seen referred to as a one-issue publication even though we prefer to say that the second issue hasn’t come out yet.” Indeed, Trillin views himself as something of a parking expert:If I were asked to name my talent – talent, that is, in the way the Miss America pageant uses the word talent, as in “Miss West Virginia will now do her talent” – I would say “parallel parking.” For the second issue of Beautiful Spot: A Magazine of Parking, I’ve been preparing an article on how I came up with the term “slicing the bread” to describe maneuvering into a spot that leaves only the width of a bread slice between your bumpers and the bumpers of the cars ahead of and behind you. In a later issue, I intend to discuss “breaking the matzo” – getting into a spot so small that a matzo would crack if you tried to place it between the relevant bumpers. Just for the record, the last time I broke a matzo was May 1994, on Riverside Drive, between 83rd and 84th; unfortunately, there were no witnesses.Good stuff.
Last week, The New Yorker ran a profile (subscription required) of Ian McEwan that was scarcely shorter than McEwan’s most recent novel, On Chesil Beach. For all its expansiveness, however, the article failed to offer readers the supreme pleasure of McEwan’s best fiction: a kind of psychological X-ray. And where writer Daniel Zalewski did manage to see inside McEwan the man, he seemed to discover there – perhaps unwittingly – a certain metaphysico-aesthetic complacency. For example, of John Banville’s quite valid complaint about Saturday’s “rosy” view of marriage (the wealthy and brilliant protagonist starts his day with wake-up sex), McEwan remarked, “The critic was revealing far more about himself and his wife’s teeth-flossing habits than anything about the book.”A measure of pride may be in order – Atonement sold 2 million copies! Still, self-satisfaction represents one of writing’s occupational hazards, in both senses of the phrase. Doubt is for the novelist what faith is for the priest.Anyway, I’m pleased to report that my worries about McEwan were short-lived. His meditation on John Updike in the New York Review of Books shows us an empiricist still capable of wonderment. Better yet, unlike the New Yorker piece, the NYRB essay is free to all online. If time constraints force you to choose between reading Ian McEwan and reading about Ian McEwan… well, you know what to do.
I’m not really one to analyze the New York Times Book Review, but I noticed that the section got a couple of mentions in the journalism industry magazine Editor & Publisher. The first points out that the section’s online version has introduced a new bestseller list, one devoted to politics. The usefulness of such lists aside, the introduction of a politics list highlights how important these books – often little more than lengthy screeds coming from the Left or Right – have become to the bottom line for the publishing industry. From the New York Times’ point of view, it’s “‘The more best-seller lists, the better,’ Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the Book Review, told E&P.”Separately, E&P published a piece about the glowing review that the Times gave to The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina by its own columnist Frank Rich. As E&P puts it: Ian Buruma, the well-known author, in a front-page review, offers enthusiastic praise both for the book and most of Rich’s commentary, which is extremely critical of the media for shirking its watchdog role in the runup to the Iraq war. The Times itself gets hit by its own columnist.So, to recap, the Times praises a book which is critical of the Times but is written by a Times columnist. It’s a small world, no?
Most reviews of Andrew Keen’s anti-blogger screed The Cult of the Amateur have been pretty unflattering; take for example James Marcus’ assessment in the LA Times. But apparently Kakutani is a fan, “calling it a shrewdly argued jeremiad against the digerati effort to dethrone cultural and political gatekeepers and replace experts with the ‘wisdom of the crowd.'”I haven’t, and likely won’t, read Keen’s book, and I’m skeptical of the position that freely available tools allowing anyone anywhere to express themselves to the world are a bad thing. The intermet’s (alleged) damage to highbrow culture is more than obviated by its contribution to democracy. For every 100 mindless bozos on YouTube, there’s a whistle-blower revealing injustice somewhere or a witness to history offering up a first-hand account. To me, the trade-off is plenty worth it, and even if we are going to make the blanket claim that the internet is nothing but “superficial observations of the world around us rather than deep analysis, shrill opinion rather than considered judgment,” there is value to be found in at least some of those superficial observations.It’s hard to say where Kakutani is coming from here, but I suspect she’d back any philosophy that might staunch the flow of all those “amateurish” books she’s forced to read and then summarily dismiss in the pages of the Times. (This is in keeping with my image of Kakutani as the ultimate harried reviewer, who long ago lost the ability to enjoy books and loathes on sight every tome that crosses her desk.)
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.”
As some of you know, I read the New Yorker, more or less methodically, every week, and as a result the magazine very much becomes a fixture in my schedule. The problem is, I’d gotten used to my copy showing up in the mail every Wednesday, but recently and unaccountably, my issue has been showing up on Fridays, throwing my reading schedule out of whack and making me feel like I’m a little behind the curve.So, having finally gotten a chance to delve into the most recent issue, I was quite amused by Alec Wilkinson’s Talk of the Town piece about lost books that are retrieved from the New York subway with help from the “Operations Specialist, Asset Recovery Rejected Material, Material Division.” The idea of lost books on public transit sort of added a new element to my recent hobby of spotting what books people are reading on Chicago’s El. I also recently discovered that this is a hobby that I share with some other people including the folks at the CTA Tattler (who were kind enough to link to me last week. The Tattler is a blog about what is “seen and heard on the Chicago Transit Authority” and is a must read for any Chicagoan.)Though outnumbered by iPods and tabloid newspapers, according to my unscientific research, books are the third most popular public transit accessory.