At Slate, Paul Collins points out that Google Book Search heralds a new era of outing plagiarists. The searchable database of many thousands of books is a boon to researchers, but it also greatly eases the discovery of co-opted passages. Collins mentions a couple of examples and posits that “given the popularity of plagiarism-seeking software services for academics, it may be only a matter of time before some enterprising scholar yokes Google Book Search and plagiarism-detection software together into a massive literary dragnet, scooping out hundreds of years’ worth of plagiarists – giants and forgotten hacks alike – who have all escaped detection until now.” He also predicts that “in the next decade at least one major literary work [will get] busted.”
I.The other day, while looking for books to buy my future nephew, I recalled The Real Mother Goose, a classic I had loved as a kid. I could conjure the cover, with its illustration of a witch and a baby, riding a giant, flying bird (a goose, I guess). And the border was checkered – the squares were black and white. I remembered the size of the book in my small hands, and the texture of its cover, and the thickness of the pages inside. It thrilled me to think that my sister’s son might hold this book, and love it, like I had.For a period, novelist Katherine Taylor brought The Mystery Guest by Gregoire Bouillier to dinner parties. “Wine is boring,” she told me. “Books last longer.” Later, she took to giving everyone Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk, which, she said, “is not as dinner-party appropriate, but it was a gorgeous and largely overlooked book I thought my clever friends should read.” Now Ms. Taylor has moved onto handing out Maurice Sendak’s The Nutshell Library.My husband and I met and became friends in the summer of 2000 as coworkers at Book Soup. At the end of the summer, when I was due to return to Oberlin College in Ohio, he gave me a copy of Goodbye Columbus. On the first page, he had written a note: “Edan – For the summer. Thanks. Patrick.” Of course we got married.I love giving and getting books as gifts, and I’ve been wondering lately how the digital age will alter this ritual. Don’t get me wrong: I am not against the electronic book. As others have pointed out, ebooks will most likely inspire consumers to be more adventurous in their reading tastes. Nothing will go out of print, and the convenience is obvious. (I kind of want to read Infinite Jest on my iPhone – imagine how light it would be. Wait a minute… I don’t have an iPhone!) Once DRM goes away, and it will, the pass-it-on aspect of books will just explode. Book as mp3. Book as gossip. (If only that sexual astrology paperback we passed around in ninth grade had been digital…) In general, the ebook is a good thing for readers and writers. I prefer reading paperback novels, but if someone wants to read the book I’m writing on a fancy device, that sounds okay.So, let me make this clear: I’m not announcing the purity of print books over their digital brethren. I don’t want to wax poetic (not too much, anyway) about the sensual pleasures of print books, how they feel and smell, the weight of them – although that must account for something, because what fun will it be to receive an ebook for your birthday? Will anyone even bother? The emergence of a new technology implies the death of another, and the rise of the ebook could mean that no one will ever again give you a novel for hosting a dinner party. I think I’m in mourning.II.Why do people give books as gifts, anyway? I don’t mean just any book, but a specific book. Why did Patrick give me that copy of Philip Roth’s first novel? What did it imply?Last week, a woman came into the bookstore to get a copy of A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter. She said she always gives it as a gift to people she’s getting to know. Those who love the novel as much as she does become her friends for life.I have a friend who likes to give Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being to women he’s interested in romantically. I told him he shouldn’t be dating anyone who hasn’t already read it.For many of us, books are cultural signifiers: if you like this, you will like that, and I will like you. A book serves as an aesthetic litmus test, a conversation starter, a way to understand one another through a third party. The act of giving someone a book is an important performance; it’s not just the book, but the exchange itself, and that’s why a digital copy won’t mean as much. You could email someone a love letter, but if you write it by hand… Well then.So, this: Reading is both a public and private act. It’s private in the sense that no amount of discourse can mirror or capture the intimate experience a reader has with a book and its author. But that discourse is precisely why it’s public – the blog posts, the reviews, the conversations over coffee, all of that affects and informs your reading experience. When you give someone a book you love, you’re inviting them to understand a private encounter you had with a text. It’s the fusing of the public and the private, the social and the intimate.III.I’ve recently realized that I’m also mourning reading in public, because e-readers will change that game as well. If a book is a cultural signifier, then the act of reading a book in public conveys important information to other readers. I always check out what people are reading: in coffee houses, at the beach, in bars, on airplanes. I am taking note, I am building a reader’s identity. It’s like – what kind of jeans is your soul wearing? It saddens me deeply to think about how this kind of signal will be lost with the popularity of ebook devices. What can an anonymous Kindle tell me about your inner life, and about what entertains you?Of course, the privacy of an e-reader is appealing, too. There are times when I want my private experience of reading to be just that – private. With a Kindle, I could read Stephenie Meyer on the bus without embarrassment. When I’m reading David Foster Wallace on my (nonexistent) iPhone, I won’t have to worry about some geeky douchebag hitting on me.Again, I see the value of this new technology. I get it. I just can’t seem to let go of what will be lost…
Hillel Italie, the AP’s publishing beat reporter, has a story about how a couple of major book stores aren’t getting behind the impending release of the Sony Reader. According to Italie, both Barnes & Noble and Amazon won’t be carrying the device when it comes out this summer, while Borders will be carrying it. In a post from a couple of months ago, I mentioned the Sony Reader, which had gotten rave reviews from people who’d tried it out. Sony now has the Reader up on its Web site, and I have to say, even in the pictures, it looks a lot more usable than I expected. It’s small and relatively elegant looking, but the quality of the text on the screen is most impressive. There is certainly a paper-like quality to the display. Despite all this, I don’t think I’ll be pulping my books anytime soon. I simply enjoy all the non-textual aspects of books too much. I do think, however, that if this device is as pleasant to use as people have described it to be, then surely there will be some use for it, and certainly some categories of books will be ripe for transition to this format. Textbooks come to mind.Truthfully, I’m really not all that surprised that Barnes & Noble isn’t carrying the Sony Reader because I would imagine that the transaction of buying books for the device and the act of reading books on the device won’t have any real connection to the typical brick and mortar book store experience. Not unlike how the way many people now buy and listen to music doesn’t have much of a connection to the Tower Records down the street, and Tower Records (probably to its detriment) isn’t in the “eMusic business.” As for Amazon sitting this one out, that’s a little harder to understand, but I’d imagine it’ll jump on board if there’s any inkling in the early going that the Sony Reader is taking off. Ultimately, I think the Sony Reader will be a success if Sony manages to sell it as a comfortable reading device and not a replacement for books. There are a few other issues, of course. It’s expensive, set to retail for $300 to $400, and there are many handheld devices, and many more on the way, that can function as “eReaders,” though without Sony’s special, paper-like display, while also doing a lot of other stuff – I’m talking Palms and the like here. Regardless, though, 2006 should be an interesting year to watch the ongoing digital future of books.Supplemental Links: Another pic of the device at Gizmodo; Kevin 2.0 asks if dedicated eBook readers are really needed; Bookninja, on the other hand, calls it the “iPod for nerds.”
A few weeks ago, I spent several afternoons at a book morgue, otherwise known as The Monkey’s Paw secondhand bookshop in Toronto. It was a refuge of sorts. I had been feeling slightly down about writing and wanted to linger in a place of pure bibliophilia. Like many novelists, I tend to experience an existential crisis every time I finish a book. Why bother? Why engage in such an intangible and self-involved vocation when I could be doing something more tangibly and socially useful? (i.e., stopping a pipeline, regrouting the bathroom.) Why write longform narrative in a world that prefers to live swiftly and episodically?
In the past, this soul searching has lodged itself in the personal-neurotic realm. But lately it has ballooned into a broader crisis about how much less novels matter to the mainstream than when I started writing.
I don’t want to sound self-pitying or ungrateful (I’ve been very fortunate) but the work of writing novels — literary fiction no less — just seems an increasingly weird and arcane thing to be doing with my time. It’s fairly obvious when I look around that fewer and fewer people I know and love are reading books. (And, here, I’m not referring to people who are opting to read books on screen over print — I’m talking about reading books period.) They don’t see the point. They’d rather be watching Downton Abbey or clicking through obscure indie news sites. They would prefer to be resting in Supta Baddhakonasana or sitting on a meditation cushion at their neighborhood Sangha. Or hanging out with circus friends in the park or blogging at their local coffee joint. You get the idea. They are drawn to culture, just not the culture of reading books. And to my dismay, this lack of books does not seem to have left a yawning void in their lives.
So, I went to spend time at The Monkey’s Paw, feeling disgruntled about the ailing state of the literary novel; grieving somewhat for myself and my forthcoming effort (what a way for a new book to begin, intubated, on precious life support); and grieving for my children (what are the “soul effects” of choosing Angry Birds over Lewis Carroll?)
What compounded my disgruntlement and despair was the feeling that it needed to be borne stoically, in silence. Of course, I was silent. Any novelist with her head screwed on properly knows better than to announce publicly that the novel is doomed. As Jonathan Franzen cautions in his book How to Be Alone:
However sick with foreboding you feel inside, it’s best to radiate confidence and to hope that it’s infectious…In publishing circles, confessions of doubt are commonly referred to as “whining” — the idea being that cultural complaint is pathetic and self-serving in writers who don’t sell, ungracious in writers who do.
In other words, no unseemly griping, no joyless defenses of publishing, no intellectual shaming of non-readers, etc. No matter what misgivings may flicker beneath the surface, the smart writer knows to present herself as a polished and sanguine human.
This posture of dissimulation started me thinking about the tradition of non-disclosure in Japanese hospitals. I have had two uncles die without knowing they were terminally ill. One thought he had appendicitis. The other thought he had lower back pain. I began to wonder: What if the book was a patient in a Japanese hospital? What if it was actually doing more poorly than anyone would admit? I know what you’re thinking. We’ve heard people say that the “book is dead” forever and each time we’ve seen cultural attempts to make the book matter again. But what if it was really bad this time? What if the book was truly and irrevocably dead?
Cue: Stephen Fowler, owner of The Monkey’s Paw. It was while chatting with Fowler in his beautiful shop that I had an epiphany. At any given time, his bookshop is packed with over 6,000 dead titles on everything ranging from terrestrial slugs to false hair. Rows of books rest in peaceful repose on tables: gorgeous idiosyncratic corpses that would excite any literary necrophile.
These books are unquestionably deceased. I don’t think a single title in Fowler’s collection would be considered commercially viable if published today. (Some are barely readable. One can only imagine the prose challenges of a book called Carp: How to Catch Them.) Yet, oddly, it’s one of the least depressing bookshops I know. Even the bad books are not bad in the usual — vapid, trite, cynically formulaic — way. They are uniquely, bizarrely, captivatingly bad. (e.g., Vans and The Truckin’ Life, The World of Clowns, The Problem of Being An Icelander: Past, Present and Future.) A sense of strange beauty and calm pervades the shop. Fowler who describes himself as “the youngest person to come out of the old book trade,” and who was recently invited to join the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, has created a genuine Mecca for booklovers.
He has done this not by championing literature’s survival. Not at all. Fowler had accepted the book’s demise. In fact, having passed through the customary stages of grief, he may be the only person I know who can openly say, and with a smile on his face, that the book is dead. Dead as a doornail.
I was there one afternoon when he had just returned from a buying trip in the Niagara area. Sitting there, I watched as he went through his newly acquired stack, thoughtfully penciling in a price and sometimes a word or two (“quaint,” “uncommon,” “macabre,” “obsessive!”)
A man browsed through the “Ego Annihilation” section (books on sex, drugs and death.) A woman flipped through an old copy of Creative Wood Craft (a store bestseller). These were not calls of condolence. These customers were not looking for scented candles, bath salts or other non-literary tchotchkes. They had come to engage in the primordial, timeworn practice of pulling books at random from bookshelves. Inspired by what I saw, I also browsed. I browsed through the slowly aged Penguin paperbacks and the bird book that cracked audibly when I opened it. I looked through the poetry and film sections. I bought a book by Igor Stravinsky and a copy of Amerika by Kafka exquisitely illustrated by Edward Gorey.
By the time I left, I felt buoyant. It dawned on me that this is what happens when you are done with mourning. This is what is left when you pass through denial, rage, wallowing, when you lose the desperate edge of your grief: you free yourself up for other emotions, including curiosity and love.
I’ve heard some people say that as the publishing industry rapidly realigns to meet the digital age, antiquarian books and fine press books will thrive. I don’t know if The Monkey’s Paw is the bookstore of the future but, for me, on those cold February afternoons, it was a nice place to spend time; a place to befriend the dead.
As writers, perhaps the best we can hope for is that our books leave beautiful corpses, that they will be loved for what they are, visited occasionally, tenderly maintained.
I realize that this may not be your definition of a successful life but it’s enough for me.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Fowler
With each new holiday season the reach of ereaders expands, as a new crop of Kindles, Nooks and iPads are fired up. The first thing to do is download a few books.
Just a few years after ebooks and ereaders first emerged as futuristic curiosity, they are fully mainstream now. Even among the avid, book-worshiping, old-school readers that frequent The Millions, ebooks are very popular. Looking at the statistics that Amazon provides us, 45% of all the books bought by Millions readers at Amazon after clicking on our links this year were Kindle ebooks. Last year it was 33% and the year before it was 25%, so the trend continues unabated.
So, for all those readers unwrapping shiny new devices, here are some links to get you going.
For starters, The Millions published a pair of very highly regarded and very affordable ebook originals in 2013. If you are new to the ereader game, we hope you’ll pick up these titles:
Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever by Mark O’Connell ($1.99)
The Pioneer Detectives: Did a distant spacecraft prove Einstein and Newton wrong? by Konstantin Kakaes ($2.99)
Here are some of the most popular ebooks purchased by Millions readers in 2013 (which you’ll see are very similar to our Hall of Fame and most recent top-ten which take into account books in all formats). Publishers appear to still be having luck pricing ebooks pricing above the magic $9.99 number that has been a focus for many in the industry (all prices as of this writing).
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt ($7.50)
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner ($10.99)
Selected Stories by Alice Munro ($10.74)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton ($8.59)
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon ($10.99)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri ($9.99)
Tenth of December by George Saunders ($8.99)
Fox 8 by George Saunders ($0.99)
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer ($8.99)
Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda ($11.04)
MaddAdam by Margaret Atwood ($1.99)
Other potentially useful ebook links:
And in this fractured ebook landscape, you’ve also got your NookBooks, Google ebooks, Apple ibooks, and the IndieBound ereader app that lets you buy ebooks from your favorite indie bookstore. Finally, don’t forget Project Gutenberg, the original purveyor of free ebooks (mostly out-of-copyright classics) available for years.
Publishers want to be the only ones allowed to make digital copies of books, and what does the reading public get for it? Widgets. These self-contained online readers are meant to provide an anywhere-on-the-Web presence for books, especially on blogs and even, god forbid, on MySpace. But before we get to the merits of this initiative, lets look at what we’re working with.Earlier this week, HarperCollins unveiled its “Browse Inside” widget, and Random House followed soon after with its “Browse & Search” widget (announcing it to the world with a somewhat breathless “Breaking News” email alert). Both widgets have two components, a smaller interface that, when clicked, launches a larger digital reader. Here’s an example of HarperCollins’ widget (click it to launch the reader). And here’s Random House’s (It’s at the right. Once again, click on the widget to launch the reader.) Right now, Random House has more than 5,000 books in the program while HarperCollins has nearly 2,000, though both publishers intend to make more titles available by widget. At a glance, the Random House offering is much nicer to look at, faster to load pages, and offers additional functions like search. So, if you want to know who winds the first round of the “Widget Wars,” Random House does.But who cares. Publishers have exerted a tremendous amount of effort to wrest control of their books from third-party digitizers like Google, and the apparent goal of this effort is to spawn viral campaigns for their books and little more. While somewhat nifty to look at, these widgets offer little more in terms of functionality than the Amazon “Look Inside” feature. The only real innovation is the ability to place these readers on any Web pages. Frankly, however, I fail to see how this serves anyone but the publishers looking to “virally” spread the word about their books.As a book blogger, I am presumably an ideal candidate to place these widgets all over my Web site, but I have other, better ways to point people to info about books. A link to Amazon (or Powell’s) makes it easy for my readers to find out most anything they might want to know about a book, from its physical dimensions, to reviews from critics and readers, to, in many cases, a peek inside the book. It’s also important to note that both Amazon and Powell’s actually provide an incentive for linking to them, offering a small commission, should site owners decide to take it, for sales that result from click-throughs to their sites. These online bookstores also let the site owner control the interaction, so that appearance of the links and images add to, rather than distract from the content of the site they are on.These widgets, on the other hand, are akin to putting a big billboard on the side of your house and getting nothing in return.At the same time, from the perspective of readers, I fail to see usefulness of these widgets. Offering a dozen or so pages is fine. Readers can get a taste of a book if they want, but in this context the widgets again serve as little more than ads. we are meant to stumble across them on blogs or at MySpace and be enticed to make an impulse buy. They do not, however, harness the power of the Web to approximate any sort of useful experience. There’s a reason why you don’t see any bookstores selling only Random House books or only HarperCollins books. People want access to a bigger chunk of the universe of books when they are researching, browsing, or buying. This is why third parties (book stores) handle the selling, and, they more I think about it, this is why third parties should handle the online experience as well. And right now, Google Book Search does this the best. They have a widget, too, and as you may have realized I’m not a fan of widgets, but at least Google’s widget points to a useful service, where readers can discover (and if they want to, buy) books that interest them.Regardless of what I think, though, the age of the widget is here. Plenty of companies want a piece of our blogs and MySpace pages, and publishers are just jumping on the bandwagon.Update: I should add that Random House’s broader offering, “Insight,” is open to other publishers who want to sign on (for a fee, I’m guessing), and extends beyond the widget to potentially partnering with online retailers and making the contents of books accessible to search engines.Also, as Bookblog.net points out, I missed that Random House lets people allows you to customize the “Buy” button to point to your preferred online bookstore and supports affiliate links. Based on this new info, I think Random House has actually put together a pretty compelling tool. (Though I still won’t be likely to use it since I’d rather just point people off my site if they want to peek inside a book.)
Is there a “crisis in reading?” Last quarter’s Barnes & Noble conference call; the well-publicized demise of certain book review supplements and independent bookstores; the gripes of our editor friends; and a whiff of desperation around the marketing of literary fiction (typically referred to as “so tough” or “a hard sell”) would seem to confirm the encroachment of electronic reading matter – email, Facebook feeds, blogs – on the territory of print. Many of my students, ten years younger than I am, do not read books for pleasure. Sometimes, they don’t even read for school.On the other hand, a literary author, Jhumpa Lahiri, last week stood athwart the New York Times bestseller list. And huge chain bookstores apparently find it profitable to operate in towns like the one I grew up in, where previously you bought what K-Mart was selling, or you got bupkis.A recent study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts raised some alarms. “Fewer than half of all American adults now [read] literature,” the NEA reported. But, as many among the commentariat were quick to point out, the NEA was methodologically hamstrung by its insistence on defining literature as fiction and poetry; does our weekly New Yorker binge count for nothing? And so the “Death of Reading” metanarrative receded, for a time, into the murk that birthed it.Receded, that is, until Ursula K. Le Guin insisted on rousing it, via an essay in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine. The thrust of Le Guin’s argument was that readers weren’t the problem, exactly; that pessimism about reading can be blamed on the conglomerates that have, in the last two decades, swallowed most of New York’s most esteemed publishing houses. With its modest margins and arcane payment schedules, book publishing is more a labor of love than a maximizer of shareholder value, Le Guin pointed out; for every Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter, a thousand midlist authors languish in the wings. To the News Corps of the world, she posed the question, “Why don’t you just get out of it, dump the ungrateful little pikers, and get on with the real business of business, ruling the world?”But responses to Le Guin’s piece have inadvertently suggested an alternative explanation for the angst about the health of reading: the publishing world’s formidable self-regard. The editors whose letters grace Harper’s April issue are talented and admirable people (without them, some of my favorite books would not have found me), but none of them seem able to see in Le Guin’s essay anything other than a reflection of their own personal accomplishments.On one hand, Andre Schiffrin, founder of The New Press and a vociferous critic of the publishing conglomerates, pronounces Le Guin “right on.” After describing how his quondam employer, Bertelesmann-controlled Random House purged staff and backlists, “leaving only a hollowed-out label that can be affixed to any new book the group acquires,” Schiffrin declares, “Literary publishing is insufficiently profitable to meet corporate expectations…. One solution to this problem,” he suggests, “is to create not-for-profit firms as we did in starting The New Press.”On the other hand, Lorin Stein, Senior Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, finds Le Guin’s essay “so depressing, in its knee-jerk snobbery and thoughtlessness, one hardly knows where to start.” Le Guin’s heroic readers of yore, he argues, “were part of a mass market, created by ‘moneymaking entities’ in the business of selling books.” Without profit-motivated publishers (such as Holtzbrinck-backed FSG), writing becomes a pastime for the few who can afford to write for nothing, with no prospect of fame or glory beyond the cozy ring of ‘our own people.’ Fewer readers means lower stakes, lower standards, and more crap getting passed off as the real thing.Barbara Epler, Editor-in-Chief of the independent press New Directions, quite naturally defines the stakes more modestly. “Readers will always be here,” she writes, agreeing with one of Le Guin’s propositions. “That’s how writers like W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño [both published by New Directions] catch on like wildfire. There have never been so many thriving, struggling, astonishingly nimble small literary presses busy making beautiful books.”And, of course, a reader affiliated with Columbia University sees an industrial strategy to rule the world through publishing – which is even more whimsical in its premises than Mr. Stein’s notion that writers under the current dispensation aren’t already people who more or less “write for nothing, with no prospect of fame or glory.” (Or his parallel conceit that the nature of the book business remains substantially unchanged from the era of the “Ivanhoe-reading cowboy.”)Is there a crisis in reading? Impossible to say, when “our own people,” the arbiters of literary culture, decline one of its most valuable functions: self-criticism. To be fair to the editors quoted above, their enthusiasm on behalf of their respective projects is evidence of a laudable commitment to the culture of the book; as Lorin Stein puts it, “This is a business I believe in passionately.” And if we are to blame someone for changing the subject from the state of reading to the state of publishing, it should be Le Guin herself. Still, in aggregate, these responses work to confound, rather than to clarify. Their diagnostic power is that of the Rorschach blot.