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.”
A pair of interesting addenda to my post on Amazon from earlier in the month:The online bookselling giant went ahead and snapped up the piece of book cataloging site Shelfari that it didn’t already own.As we had noted, after buying AbeBooks, Amazon suddenly owned the two big rivals in the book cataloging space, Shelfari and LibraryThing, and since, to this observer, it seemed like combining the two sites would be a non-starter, Amazon was likely to throw its weight behind one or the other. Unsurprisingly, Amazon picked Shelfari, as Tim Spalding, LibraryThing’s founder, has long been wary of Amazon (though not hostile towards it). As TechCrunch speculates, Amazon may divest its shares of LibraryThing, and I’d guess that Spalding wouldn’t mind that too much.Secondly, bookfinder.com, the extremely comprehensive used book search engine (now owned by Amazon via its purchase of AbeBooks), has released its annual report on the most sought after out-of-print and hard-to-find books over the last year. Once again, Madonna’s relic from the 1990s, Sex, tops the list. But from there the list gets very eclectic and interesting, with books like Bob Dylan’s Drawn Blank, The Jerusalem Bible illustrated by Salvador Dali, and Bruce Davidson’s photo book Subway. The report also has lists by genre and offers up a little background on some of the more interesting titles.
Who knew. More than ten years after Amazon revolutionized retailing and became a dot-com-boom-and-bust poster child, online bookstores are once again a hot topic. Part of the reason is that corporate book retailing is experiencing a particularly tumultuous period. As we discussed over the weekend, Borders is in dire straits and may be bought out by Barnes and Noble within months. (Meanwhile, Barnes and Noble isn’t exactly hale – its stock price is down 32% in the last twelve months.)Borders, as we’ve noted, has been grasping at new strategies to keep it afloat. The latest is to ditch its long-standing relationship with Amazon to open its own online bookstore. Can Borders possibly gain ground on Amazon? I tend to agree with this sentiment: “‘Amazon just dominates,’ said Fred Crawford, managing director at turnaround consultant AlixPartners who has studied consumer attitudes toward major booksellers. ‘Amazon is nearly unassailable.'”Amazon, meanwhile, is looking to reinvent book retailing once again with the Kindle. The Kindle has been both praised and reviled – guest contributor Buzz penned a worthwhile take on the initial mania that surrounded the reading device’s release last year. A few months on, rhetoric from Amazon continues to suggest that the company sees the device as a game changer and positive reviews are trickling in. Perhaps more importantly, Kindles are back in stock after a long hiatus, and they are now sporting a slimmer price, slashed 10% to $359.What happens next? It would be foolish to predict, but don’t be surprised if a few months from now we have one fewer big bookstore chain. And don’t be surprised if, a few years from now, Amazon is still rolling out new mays to sell books.
Amazon has further tangled and interconnected its product pages by adding comments to its customer reviews. Amazon also now allows you to search across Customer Reviews and “Listmania” lists.The comments on reviews up the interactivity quotient on Amazon pages by several notches, turning the comments into the equivalent of a topical blog with dozens of authors all writing about a particular book. It also alleviates the previously frustrating inability to correct or add to information posted in earlier reviews. I had to dig around to find some examples of the new comments in action. Just as political books are among the most frequently reviewed, they are also now getting the most comments (if troll-like.) For example, have a look at the dedicated page for a review of Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival, currently in the news because Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez brandished it during his fiery Anti-Bush speech at the UN on Wednesday. Amazon has unleashed a free-for-all, but I applaud them for it. Why not let people communicate about individual books? Perhaps something good will come of it.The Customer Reviews search, meanwhile, probably has some value if you are either trying to drill deeper into what a particular book is all about – for example, a search for the word “Oprah” in the reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections – or trying to dig up information across Amazon’s whole catalog that may not be evident using the standard search – like this search for “desert island book.”The Listmania search allows for similar fun, if less serendipity.
A few years ago, a woman I hardly know and whose name I’ve now forgotten invited me to become her friend on Goodreads, a social-networking site on which users log the books they’re reading (or have read, or intend to read), and in some cases write casual reviews of these books and rate them on a scale of one to five stars. I thanked the woman but told her I didn’t participate in social-networking websites. Because, I didn’t elaborate, I found them more estranging than connecting, or suspected I would, and because I didn’t want to turn myself into some kind of product (not true: in my huffing, protracted climb from anonymity to obscurity, I’ve attempted quite a lot of that), and because I was very tired, and finally because I couldn’t afford another distraction from my writing or from checking my email forty times a day. I’ve since softened my position on all this and now have an impressive though not obscene number of friends on Facebook. Sometimes these nominal friendships bring into depressing relief my paucity of substantive friendships, but on the whole I’d say I’m slightly less lonely and no less productive (which is to say: not terribly productive) than I was before I joined Facebook. But this essay, if that’s what it is, isn’t about Facebook (boring), it’s about Goodreads (sort of).
So some night this past winter—it was very late; I’d been having trouble sleeping—I found myself Googling a minor figure in the publishing industry, and in doing so came across his Goodreads page, which he allows to be viewed by friends and non-friends alike. His tastes were impeccable and strikingly similar to my own, which is odd because my tastes aren’t impeccable. I studied this man’s picture; he seemed elegant, loyal, athletic. I imagined him as my literal, that is, non-internet friend, and also as my champion, my Colonel Tom, imagined our spandexed bike rides together, our shared energy bars, our semicolon debates. I joined Goodreads but didn’t send this man a friend request, not wanting to seem like some scheming gnat, nor did I elect to follow him (as one follows a Twitter feed), not wanting to seem like some mousy sycophant. I spent another hour or so snooping around the site, but didn’t do anything with my own just-established Goodreads page, mostly because I was very tired. Then I avoided the site for about six months, during which period I was mainly dealing with a bat infestation in our old and porous house.
Recently some other internet research of dubious value led me back to Goodreads, where I discovered that, during my absence, I’d received three friend requests. That seemed flattering, three is more than two after all, and in the embrace of my small public I finally put some information on my Goodreads page. First I noted the book I was currently reading, which I won’t note here, and then I considered adding my picture to the page, though in the end that seemed like too much work. Satisfied, I turned off the computer and read more of the book I’d just advertised while advertising myself on Goodreads. As I was reading, I sometimes paused to think of a pithy, even poetic comment I might post on Goodreads after finishing the book. I sometimes review books professionally, and in fact have a few books I should be reviewing now, so I didn’t want to write anything on Goodreads that might resemble a book review; I don’t mind procrastinating on writing book reviews, it’s one of my specialties, but it seemed foolish to put off writing a paying (barely remunerative) book review in order to write a volunteer one. But as I said, I thought I could come up with commentary of a different stripe, something terse and poetic—more and more I was thinking of something poetic. Such as: But I couldn’t come up with anything, or nothing good, even after I’d actually finished the book. I wrote and revised, took a walk, revised further. All junk. And even if I were to come up with something good, I thought, it might set an overhigh standard, and then, driven to routinely meet or exceed that standard, I’d devote altogether too much time to my Goodreads poems, distracting me from more serious writing as well as from checking my email and humanely (all in all) removing bats. The bats were just one of the things keeping me up at night; I blamed fatigue, in part, for my failure to write even one presentable Goodreads poem. I decided to ignore the comments box and just give the book a star rating.
All my favorite books are four-star books: great (or very good) books that here and there bore, vex, or disgust me. “Might I confess to finding that it is exquisite to be of two minds regarding works or art?” Robert Walser wrote in a four-star short story. “To find fault with something that I welcome on the whole, how nice I find it is!” Exactly, and I suppose there was no avoiding that frothy exclamation point. Although no artwork is perfect, some are perfecter than others, and whenever a book offers too few opportunities for fault-finding, flirts too brazenly with perfection, with five-starness, I lose interest. For me to give a book five stars would be to insult it, would be more or less the same as giving it three stars. Still, it would look sophomoric to give a close-but-no-cigar four stars to, say, Don Quixote, a book I love, even though parts of it bore, vex, or disgust me. Especially because at some point, for instance when a friend publishes a book, I’m going to trot out all five of those stars. I don’t have many writer friends, or many non-writer friends, my Facebook account notwithstanding, but I have a few, and the next time one of them publishes a book, I’d be inclined to give that book the maximum rating on Goodreads, even though none of my friends—I can just tell—are capable of writing a five-star book (which by my lights is a good thing), and no doubt some of them will write two-star books. And to those two-star books, fair books, neither good nor bad, I’d happily fill in five stars on Goodreads and hope that my friends would do the same for me if and when my two-star book quietly hits tens or even dozens of shelves. But that would make the four stars I gave Don Quixote look even dumber, and then everyone—all my friends, my three Goodreads friends—would know that either my judgment is unreliable or my rating system is a sham. I could refuse to treat my friends’ books on Goodreads, and inform them, my friends, of this policy so they wouldn’t wonder why I was neglecting their books, their mostly as-yet-unpublished books. But I fear my Goodreads friend numbers, already low, might suffer as a result. The whole pursuit seemed doomed. Better, I decided, to skip the star rating along with the commentary, simply let the book speak for itself.
This would be my clean, disinterested procedure: no clever (yet moving) poetic fragments, no reductive star ratings, just a log of the books I’ve read, or skimmed. Many people, including Art Garfunkel, keep such records. If you go to Garfunkel’s website, as I sometimes do, you can see every book he’s read since 1968. In April of ’72 he read Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity; in June of that year, when he and Simon reunited for a McGovern fundraiser at Madison Square Garden, he read no books (or finished up the Watts); last July he read Cicero’s On the Good Life, followed by Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. He was On. Of course I’m not famous and interesting like Art Garfunkel is, nor can I sing harmony, but my book log, I thought, might nonetheless be of interest to my three Goodreads friends, one of whom I’ve never actually met, or might at least be of interest to a future version of myself. Twenty years from now I would know that in June of 2010 I reread (skimmed) a book about insomnia, among others.
Having worked through these dilemmas, I needed to start a new book. This is one of my favorite things to do, to choose and start a new book. I try to really concentrate on my emotional conditions and intellectual acuity at that moment, and consider what plans I have over the next few days or weeks, and then home in on the one book, of all the books I know, or that I happen to find in my bat-ridden home or at the nearest bookstore (where I believe I’ve also seen bat droppings), that I most want, most need, to read, so that I won’t put the book at a disadvantage by reading it at the wrong time. These pains notwithstanding, I often choose the wrong book. It may be that I like to choose and start books more than I like to finish them. Probably I abandon sixty percent of the books I start. Sometimes I fail the book (and set it aside with some shame); sometimes the book fails me (and I hurl it away with some relish). As it happens, the book I was thinking about reading next was one I’d left unfinished several years ago, too many years ago to start from where I’d marked page 122 with the business card of a sleep therapist, it may have been, or a bus transfer (I threw out the bookmark without studying it). But starting again at page one is fine, since, as I just explained, I love to start books. As it also happens, I’d once, over ice cream with a friend I’m almost certain, claimed to have read and enjoyed this book—not entirely false, I’d read and enjoyed part of the book, and I’d read three other books by the same writer, so perhaps I had the right to fudge. Besides, I’d read all the books years ago—not twenty years ago, granted, but six, seven, or eight—long enough for memory to do its destructive, distorting work, to the point where the three wholly read books were about as hazy to me as the mostly unread one. Still, I didn’t want to indicate to my Goodreads friends that I was currently reading the book as if it were brand new to me, since after all I’d had the sense to start the book ages or at least seven years ago, when its author was a bit less fashionable, and furthermore I didn’t want my ice-cream buddy to discover and friend me on the site (I would have to accept), then call my bluff, humiliating me in front of the others, and yet I didn’t want to heap lies on lies in the comments section: “What a delight to revisit this longtime favorite,” or the like. I would have to start some other book, I decided. And probably it would be best, as long as I was on Goodreads, not to read any book I had earlier started but not finished, or any book I’d ever directly or obliquely but either way falsely claimed to have read in its entirety, or any book that I feel I should have read long ago, but didn’t, partly because I was so tired.
The next book I wanted to read was a famously difficult work of philosophy that, to judge from my previous experience with the same book, I would understand only sporadically and almost certainly not finish. Undoubtedly it would look pretentious to list this book on Goodreads; perhaps it would even be pretentious. But I might, I thought, be able to clear the air of some pomposity by reading the philosophy book in tandem with something breezy, even utilitarian (in the non-philosophical sense)—Psyching Up for Tennis or something like that. But I wasn’t about to read Psyching Up for Tennis or tell more lies. I decided to look for another book, but each one I settled on was wrong for Goodreads: too fancy, too populist, too hip, too square, too predictable, too self-consciously curve bally. I would have to give up Goodreads or give up reading.
I deleted my account, but felt no relief. Last night, disturbed by anxieties only tangentially related to Goodreads, I had trouble falling asleep again, and eventually got up at three-thirty, ate a bowl of cereal, and started a new book, a smart, soulful little book of poetry, a book that might, I thought, cast a becoming light on its public readers and even in some small way boost the poet’s career. I thought I could give Goodreads another go, and that this time I would relax and let the site link me to kindred spirits, let it give me fizzy blips of communitarian joy, let it alert me to overlooked books that I too might come to cherish. And it was these optimistic thoughts, and the book of poetry, which started to drag, that finally allowed me to close my eyes, make heavy my limbs, and settle into what I believe were the most restful three hours of non-postcoital adult sleep I have ever known.
[Image credit: pachakku]
A week ago, an article in the New York Times created a mini-furor in literary circles. As the resident Japan expert in my circle of friends, everybody was asking me, “So what’s the deal with these cell phone novels?”The NYT article was the first I’d heard of them. I did a quick Internet search, and what do you know? The Times was right, they’re all over the place. Google spits ups thousands of pages, and several of the more popular novels are listed on the Internet Movie Database as films in production.What does this mean for the English novel? Is this the future of literature? In Japanese, maybe. There are a number of features of Japan’s language and culture that make a cell phone novel more palatable than it would be in English. First, Japanese grammar is much better suited than English to the kind of short sentences writing on a cell phone encourages. As a high-context language, a complete sentence in Japanese can consist of just a single, lonely verb. Japanese speakers and writers frequently and freely omit subjects and objects from their sentences, expecting the reader to figure out what’s going on. Go figure. The use of Chinese characters also serves to compact sentences. Since you don’t have to actually spell out entire words, as in English, but can represent them with an ideogram, you can say a lot more in a much smaller space.Secondly, and perhaps just as important, cell phone novels tap into long traditions of Japanese prose and poetry. First, even a cursory examination of a cell phone novel will show a visual connection to the poetic traditions of haiku and tanka. The connection doesn’t end there, at its best the writing itself has an economy and – I’ll regret saying this – poetry that taps into the same tradition. The medium – you try typing a novel on the keypad of a cell phone – forces the writers to make every word count, and (in Japanese at least) it shows. The themes, as well, harken back to traditional Japanese themes. The first “modern” novel (written by Murasaki Shikibu in 11th century Japan), The Tale of Genji, was basically a high school love story, and nothing has changed since then. In manga, on television and in literature, the amatory exploits of high school students have always captured the imagination of the Japanese public. And the long, long literary tradition there, combined with the frequent use of public transportation, means that books in general, whether written on cell phones or not, occupy a much more important place in Japanese culture than in the West.So what are these cell phone novels like? For the curious, I’ve translated a short passage from Sky of Love, the number one best seller by Mika, recently made into a movie. I’ve only read the first chapter, but apparently it’s a heart wrenching tale of young love, as seen through a Jerry Springer filter of premarital sex, teen pregnancy, gang rape and mortal disease. Enjoy.Translation note: Two things. First, I’ve done my best to preserve the sentence structure and formatting of the original (at the expense of clarity and good prose, I’m afraid). This is more or less how it looks and reads in the original Japanese. Second, it’s common in Japanese for people to refer to themselves in the third person. The protagonist here does that frequently. It’s a habit that’s considered somewhat childish and endearing.Sky of Love (the novel in Japanese, for those who’d like a visual reference.)PrologueIf I hadn’t met you that day…I don’t think I would haveFelt this bitterness.This pain.This sadnessCried this much.But.If I hadn’t met you…This happiness.This joy.This love.This warmth.I wouldn’t have known that either.Today, I’m going to look through my tears and up at the sky.Look to the sky.Chapter One– A smile”God, I am so hungry♪♪”Finally lunch time. Felt like I’d been waiting forever.Same as always, Mika puther lunchbox on her desk and opened it.School is a drag.The only thing I like about it is eating with Aya and Yuka, my friends from class.–Mika Tahara–She’s a freshman, who started at this school in April.It hasn’t even been three monthssince she got here.She’s met some people she likes and gets along with. She’s had some pretty good times.She’s short.And stupid.And not that prettyDoesn’t have any special talents.Or even know what’s she wants to do with herself after graduation.Bright, tea-colored hair she dyed right after she got here.She’s wearing a little makeup, but it looks strange on her, especially at this time of day.She stumbled out of middle school and right into average.She had normal friends.She had normal crushes.She dated three guys.I don’t know if that’s normal, or what.But, what I know is normal,is that those relationships all ended fast. That’s what she’s saying.She doesn’t know real love.All she knows is how to fool around,Just that.Love…Who needs it?It was right then…I met you.Mika’s life: she expected it would end in the same boring way it had begun. Meeting you was going to change all that.Like always, Mika and Aya and Yukawolf down their food.Why is it everyone gets so quiet when they eat?The classroom door rattles open,A guy with one hand in his pocketwalks overto the three of them.That guy, he stands in front of themAnd he starts talking. Casually.”Hey! My name’s Nozomu. I’m in the class next door. You heard of me?”The three girls look at each other.They pretend they don’t know what he’s talking about.Just keep eating their lunches.Since I’d gotten to school, I’d heard a lot of rumors about Nozomu.A player.A flirt.A playboyIt seemed like he was walking around schoolwith a different girl on his arm every day.”Watch out for Nozomu!””If he’s got his eye on you, you don’t stand a chance.”Didn’t somebody tell me that…?He’s got a well-proportioned faceon a tall body.Highlights in his hair,styled with wax for that “casual” look.Eyes looking right at you, like they could see… something.He’s got the right stuff for getting girls. There’s no question about that.The problem is his personality.Maybe… if he was a little more serious…With all those rumors floating around. I don’t even need to tell you I’m not interested.The three girls continue eating their lunches, pretending they haven’t even noticed him.”Hey, now. You’re ignoring me? Let’s be friends. ♪ Come on, give me your number.”His insistence makes me thirsty.Mika, annoyed, grabbing a bottle of barley tea in one handgulping it all down.”What do you think I’m going to do? It’s cool. Just tell me your number.”There’s silenceSuddenly, Aya breaks it.Mika and Yuka, looking at each other in disbelief.Aya gives him her number with a smile.It’s hard to believe this is happening.I wait until Nozomu has left the room, all puffed up and full of himself. Then turning to Aya, blurting out:”Why would you give your number to a guy like that? He’s trouble.”Aya responds to Mika’s worry, like it’s no big deal.”What can I say? I like cute guys. Ha.”Aya’s a mature, beautiful woman.She’s stylish and her best feature isher long hair, a little wavy, and the red-brown of tea.She’s got bad luck with guys. All the ones she’s dated are just playing with her…That’s why, even when she gets a boyfriend, it’s just a few dates, quick break-up, repeat.”Aya. Don’t get serious with a guy like that.”To Yuka, with the serious faceAya turns and lightly replies.”Don’t worry about it.”School lets out.I go home, and lay around in my room, watching TV.That’s when…♪Ring♪The ring echoes through the room.There’s no name on the caller id.It’s from a number that’s not in my phone.I wonder who it is…I pick-up to find out.”Hello…?””…”… silence.”Hellooo…”I say it with a little more self-assurance.Click.Beep, beep, beep.They hung up.Prank call?Probably a wrong number.♪Ring♪Again, the ring echoes through the room.The same number as before.They’re not going to say anything anyway, I think.So, I answer like I don’t give a shit.”What?””…lo? Hello. Hello?”On the other end of the line, I can faintly hearthe sound of an unfamiliar man’s voice.”Who is this?”The guy on the other endshouts in a voice so loud I think it’s going to blow out my eardrum.”…Mika? The signal’s bad! It’s Nozomu! You remember? The guy who talked to you at lunch today!”WTF? Nozomu?The Nozomu who hits on all the girls? That Nozomu?The guy who got Aya’s number today… That Nozomu?I start to panic.I can’t findthe words to reply.I should just hang up. Shouldn’t I?