Genevieve Tucker, the blogger behind Reeling and Writhing (formerly known as You Cried for Night) has penned an article for The Australian about book blogs that covers briefly the medium’s numerous squabbles and scuffles (have there really been that many? I blame Ed) in what amounts to a history of the nascent “litblogosphere.” A handy sidebar of prominent litblogs is included, though, sadly, The Millions has been left off. (Perhaps that will serve as fodder yet another litblog battle? Nah, I’m used to it.)
At 8 a.m. on a recent Monday, my first morning back in New York City after a year and a half away, I looked up from my newspaper – a Wall Street Journal, given away for free at my Financial District hotel – and saw that I was the only rider on the R train leaving South Ferry at the base of Manhattan reading print. Every other rider on the subway car was staring at a screen.
In 2004, when I first moved to Brooklyn, the commute on the New York subways was a world of paper. In the evenings most people read books or magazines, and in the morning it was newspapers. Riders from the outermost neighborhoods read the Post and the Daily News while those closer in read the Times and the Journal, fussily folding the broadsheet pages into quarters for easy reading on crowded trains. Here and there, a few younger kids might be sporting earbuds connected to then-newfangled iPods, but even most of them had at least a freebie AM New York parked in front of their faces.
To friends living elsewhere I described the New York subway system as a rolling public library. It was like one of those big, messy city library reading rooms where homeless men passing the time reading the day’s news sat next to uptight city-college profs correcting student papers minutes before class. New York is the only place I have ever enjoyed my commute. Each morning, as soon as the doors slid shut behind me I opened up my book and entered a different world for the twenty minutes it took me to get from my Brooklyn neighborhood to Midtown Manhattan.
A decade later, like real libraries across the country, New York’s rolling library is going digital. That first morning on the R train turned out to be an extreme example, but on every train I rode during my week back in New York, screens outnumbered printed pages, sometimes by a factor of two to one. When I’ve peeked, some of those screens have been displaying news stories and magazine pages and even a few books, but far more often my fellow subway riders were watching TV shows or playing Candy Crush on their phones.
None of this should come as a surprise, of course. The demise of the printed newspaper is by now very old news and it’s hard to imagine a venue where the shift from printed pages to screens makes more sense than on a crowded subway. Still, the speed and starkness of the change is a shock. A decade ago, none of the devices my R train companions were so avidly viewing even existed. Back then, if you didn’t want to read on your morning subway commute, you stared off into space.
When we talk about books, we tend to think in terms of great works of art and forget that for most people books, like newspapers and magazines, are merely a handy thing to have around for that idle moment when there isn’t something else better to do. Now, more and more often, those idle moments – on subway cars, on airplanes, in dentist’s offices – are being filled by games and movies and social media. By screens.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the end is nigh for literature as we know it. The golden age of American theater came in the 1940s and 1950s, a generation after radio and talking pictures seemingly outmoded live theater. Arguably, some of the greatest movies American directors have ever produced debuted in the 1970s, a generation after television seemingly outmoded movies. Still, a vibrant art form has to serve a utilitarian function in ordinary people’s lives or it gradually becomes relegated to the museum and the specialist viewer, as has happened to visual art and, more recently, to live theater. And if the printed page can’t survive on a New York City subway car, that once-great rolling library, where else can it survive?
Image via Erwin Bernal/Flickr
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.
As has been the tradition for the last several years, The New Yorker closed out 2008 with a fiction double issue. But astute readers may have noticed that this year’s installment was markedly slimmer than that of years’ past.Perhaps it is common knowledge, but I was surprised to discover a few years back that it is not the amount of “news” that principally determines the length of individual issues of newspapers and magazines. The length is actually determined by the amount of advertising that’s been sold. This is why, for example, issues of dot-com-focused Wired magazine were nearly as fat as phone books at the turn of the millennium but slimmed down considerably soon after.The New Yorker is one of the enduring success stories of magazine publishing and is generally able to command attractive advertising rates only dreamed of at other publications, thanks to its affluent and “thought-leading” mix of subscribers, but even The New Yorker may be feeling the ad spending pinch that is impacting the entire media industry right now.This year, the year-end fiction double issue came in at 120 pages. That’s noticeably smaller than the 154 pages in 2007 and 2006 and the 152 pages in 2005.The New Yorker has been exempt from the barrage of negative headlines about the news business, but in 2009, readers used to a hefty helping of long-form journalism and fiction may find themselves with a slimmer serving each week.
I’ve got an affinity for diagrams. I find the books of Edward Tufte fascinating, and my interest in such things extends even to the “infographics” contained in most newspapers. I like the idea of distilling something complex down to a visual representation.And what is more complex than Finnegans Wake, which was the subject of a dense and mysterious-looking diagram from the book Vision in Motion by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Richard Kostelanetz highlights the diagram in an essay about Moholy-Nagy, about whom he writes “Need it be said that no other modern artist wrote as well about literature?”Kostelanetz goes on to write “What Moholy established in Vision in Motion was a model of writing about all the arts as a single entity, to be called art, whose branches (literature, painting, etc.) were merely false conveniences conducive to specialization and isolation.” (via)This multi-discipline approach would seem to be of particular use in our multimedia world. It’s brings to mind another creative attempt to parse a complex work of literature via non-traditional means: the Pynchon wiki.
In the comments of the last post, Laura asked about a new novel by Zadie Smith called On Beauty. There’s no release date yet for the US, but I suspect it will be close to the UK date, which has been set for September. The Guardian has described it as “a transatlantic comic saga,” but I haven’t seen anything else regarding the subject matter. Smith is also writing a musical about based on the life of Kafka with her husband Nick Laird as well as a non-fiction book called Fail Better that will come out in 2006.Of all the books mentioned in my preview post, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close seems to be generating the most excitement. Among those excited is my mom, who was inspired to dig up some links to some old interviews with and articles about Foer. These may help you pass the time until his new book comes out: an interview with Robert Birnbaum at identitytheory.com, an interview with Decode Magazine and a profile in The Jewish Journal.UPDATE: Found this story when reading back through the archives at Conversational Reading. It asks when America’s fiction writers will take on the subject of 9/11. While I think it’s an odd request — I’ve never been under the assumption that fiction writers are expected to pen novels ripped from the headlines — we will soon have such a book: Foer’s new novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. From Houghton Mifflin’s description of the book: “Oskar Schell is an inventor, Francophile, tambourine player, Shakespearean actor, jeweler, pacifist. He is nine years old. And he is on an urgent, secret search through the five boroughs of New York to find the lock that fits a mysterious key belonging to his father, who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center.”