Amar Bakshi was about five years behind me at my high school in Washington DC, but he has my dream job, traveling the world to author a blog for the Washington Post, taking on the charged topic, “How the World Sees America.” I started reading it because of the high school connection (Amar is a friend of my little brother’s), but I’ve become an avid reader of it over time as Amar follows in the footsteps of some of my favorite traveling journalists: Jon Lee Anderson, Paul Theroux, and, of course, Ryszard Kapuscinski. Unlike those masters of the form, Amar also carries a video camera with him to further chronicle his experiences. Since starting in May, he’s been to England and India, and now he’s back in the States hashing out plans to travel farther afield. It’s an interesting experiment from a young writer. Worth a read if you’re looking for another blog to follow.
It's officially been summer for coming up on two weeks, which means that, in accordance with typical publishing and bookselling practices, near the front of the bookstore there will be stacks of books by new and unknown authors all vying to become this summer's "breakout hit." Last year the winner of the "breakout hit" lottery was won by Alice Sebold whose book, The Lovely Bones, was much purchased and enjoyed by the majority and vehemently despised by the minority of readers who are not willing to shut off the part of the brain that determines what is tasteful and what is not. What's funny about this way of selling books is that every bookstore that you walk into will try to make its customers think that their staff personally discovered these new authors and that the customers are among the lucky first few to enjoy these newcomers. In reality, the candidates for "breakout hit" are chosen months in advance by the publishing companies and aggressively marketed much in the same way that one would market a film. In a sense The Lovely Bones is not very different from The Hulk. In my opinion this year's winner has already been declared: Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code is already the book that recreational readers ask for by name when looking for a summer reading distraction. This non-threateningly clever, historical thriller acheived success in a couple of ways. First, like all of the other "breakout hit" candidates it is engagingly written and also contains a "hook," in this case the idea is that embedded within da Vinci's famous artwork are hidden clues that can solve a present day murder mystery while at the same time unravelling some of humanity's great unsolved conundrums. Very Indiana Jones. Secondly, in the weeks leading up to the release of The Da Vinci Code, Doubleday reps blitzed bookstores to talk up the book, hand out advance copies, and put up teaser posters. Finally Doubleday's publicists were able to get the book mentioned in all the weekly newsmags and grocery store aisle gossip rags. Voila! Breakout hit... There are lots of books sitting on either side of The Da Vinci Code on the "breakout hit" display, all are almost as heavily marketed but some might be a bit more rewarding: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is narrated by a 15 year old autistic math savant who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes and tries to find out who murdered his neighbor's dog. Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy is an example of what a multi-generational saga can look like when written by a young writer. Bangkok 8 is a debut by John Burdett. This one is perfect for those who like thrillers in exotic locals. (In this case, a U.S. Marine is dead in Thailand. Great cover art, too). Finally, Benjamin Cavell's Rumble, Young Man, Rumble and Sherman Alexie's Ten Little Indians are two much lauded short story collections. Bye now...
Even though this blog is devoted almost exclusively to books, I would be remiss if I did not mention the remarkable natural phenomenon that has been going on around me these past few days. The 17 year cicadas have emerged en masse from underground. Everyone, I'm sure, in their lifetime has had an encounter with a swarm of one type of bug or another, termites, bees, mosquitoes perhaps. In one of my grungier apartments in Los Angeles I once walked into to the kitchen to find more ants than one ever likes to see in one place. But the cicadas, they are something completely different. Brood X, as the scientists call this particular population, inhabits highly localized spots in the mid-Atlantic and Ohio River valley, and in some areas, like where I live, there are as many as 1.5 million per densely forested acre. The bugs themselves are large, larger than nearly any bug I've encountered, but they are oddly non-threatening. They are so dumb as to be barely functioning organisms. Walking through my yard, I'll see a cicada approaching at a distance of fifty feet, and it will continue to fly in a straight line until it plows into me and then falls to the ground, dazed or unconscious. Each morning there are hundreds of them in piles against the side of the house, which they were unable to avoid during their night time travels. We sweep them away and an hour later there are dozens more. They give off this high pitched drone, and when you get a million or so together you can hear them from inside the house. Combined with the ungodly humidity, the noisesome, gigantic bugs have lent a prehistoric feel to the summer, not unlike the dinosaur simulation I remember from Epcot Center when I was younger. I half-expect a giant plastic animatronic T. Rex to be lurking behind my house. But they'll be gone in a month, not to return for another 17 years, and I'll be able to put away the plastic whiffle bat that I use to beat them back every time I leave the house.Vladimir Nabokov, of course, adored a more likeable sort of bug, the butterfly. In yet another fantastic "Second Reading" column, Washington Post book reviewer, Jonathan Yardley revisits Nabokov's memoir, Speak, Memory. If this all sounds familiar to you, you may recall that a New York Times article about Nabokov inspired me to write about this book a few weeks back.And in non-bug news, E. L. Doctorow, whose new book Sweet Land Stories came out recently, comments in the Washington Post on the heckling he received during his controversial commencement speech at Hofstra University last weekend.
Chin Music Press has put together a nice-looking blog to chronicle the long, lingering aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans:After Katrina and its horrible aftermath, Chin Music Press felt compelled to shine its wobbly flashlight on New Orleans. This effort resulted in our second book, Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans? Along the way, we met a community of passionate, eloquent writers who care deeply about what happens to the Big Easy. This blog became a natural extension of the book. It's our way of adding voices to the unfolding story of New Orleans.
The effects of Amazon.com on the book industry, the debate as to whether it is good or bad for the cause of reading and literature, remains heated, and I find myself rooting both for and against Amazon. One thing that I AM decided on, though, is that Amazon watching is fun. Whether they are announcing a new innovation with a front page letter from CEO Jeff Bezos, like the recent introduction of the "Search within a book" feature, or just slipping new technologies quietly into their listings, there always seems to be something new popping up there, and each new feature seems like it generates another round of debate about this behemoth of a website. The feature I discovered yesterday isn't likely to ignite too many debates, but I found it interesting nonetheless. Part of what is fascinating about Amazon is the way they turn the inner workings of their operation into content for the website. Features like Purchase Circles, "Customers who bought this item... also bought these books...", and "Customers who bought books by this author... also bought books by these authors..., take information that typical companies guard closely and turn it into entertainment for readers and fodder for search engines. The new feature that I noticed the other day is called "Early Adopters." According to Amazon, "These are the newest and coolest products our customers are buying. The following lists, updated daily, are based entirely on purchase patterns." The term "early adopter" has more or less entered the popular vocabulary in recent years. Books like Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point have popularized the notion that there is a certain type of person that is predisposed to seeking out, learning about, and owning the newest technologies. This idea is based on the broader theories of an economist named Everett Rogers whose book Diffusion of Innovations (1965) explained that individuals could be divided into five categories based on their openness to innovations. 2.5% of the population are Innovators; these are the extremely adventurous, willing to take risks on unproven technologies. These folks pay top dollar to be some of the first people in the world to own flat screen televisions and Segways. 13.5% of the population are Early Adopters; these are the folks who have the insight to seek out the best of new technologies and with their buying power and word of mouth, they can turn an obscure new product into a household item. Early adopters are considered among the most important consumers in the marketplace, and when a new product is introduced marketers spend millions directing ads at this population, knowing that they can make or break their new product, a fact clearly not lost on Amazon in the naming of their new feature. The rest of the population is less exciting. The Early Majority (34%) is slightly more adventurous than average, the Late Majority (34%), slightly less. Then there are the Laggards (16%) with their rotary phones and wooden tennis rackets. Clearly, marketers have no patience for folks with more "classic" tastes, and the marketers at Amazon are likely no exception, hence their choice of buzz words. What's interesting about the Amazon "Early Adopters" area is that, along with more typical applications like Electronics and Cameras, they apply the term to music and books, where new products are more likely to be derivative than innovative. Regardless of their intent, the algorithm used to generate the list for books needs some work, since the list is clearly made up of books that are being purchased in bulk by students, churches, and self-published authors, not books that are being purchased by folks with literary tastes on the cutting edge.
Last week, my New Yorker didn't show up. This has happened a handful of times in the close to ten years I've been reading the magazine. Typically, wherever I've lived, my issue has landed in my mailbox between Tuesday and Thursday. If I haven't gotten my issue by Thursday, I tense up a bit and begin to plan, setting some time aside for a run to a bookstore or newsstand so that I don't fall behind and so that my gnawing yen for the New Yorker is satisfied.But over the last decade, my New Yorker addiction has felt burdensome at times. I like to read - a lot - and yet with busy work schedules and other demands, I don't have as much time to read as I'd like. And though my Reading Queue occupies several linear feet of shelving, I still find myself devoting about four days a week to the New Yorker (which I read all the way through, skipping only reviews of theater, dance, and music). Being the best magazine in the world, the New Yorker is guaranteed to provide me with at least one transcendent reading experience per month, often more than that, and very few clunkers. It is exceedingly rare that I quit reading an article halfway through. Still, though I love it so, I sometimes grow resentful of the time I must devote to the New Yorker and I sometimes fantasize about the day I'll decide not to renew, though even formulating the reasons behind such a rash act is difficult.And so this week, when Thursday rolled around and my mailbox was still empty, I again felt that nervous pang and began to set aside some time for the ten-block walk to the Barnes & Noble. But then, I thought about it some more, and decided to miss this week's New Yorker (though it may still arrive inexcusably late). So far, I feel pretty good, no withdrawal symptoms, and I think, if the day comes that I have to give up on the New Yorker entirely, I'll survive, bonobos be damned.Update: That missing issue turned up after all.
The New York Times whipped bloggers and readers into a frenzy with its linkbait list of the best books of the last 25 years along with A.O. Scott's voluminous essay on the "great American novel." The reasons why this list is silly and flawed have been discussed on a number of blogs - the panel of judges skewed male and boring, the timeframe and criteria are arbitrary, etc. What amused me about the list was that the Times made such a big production of it - with a panel at BEA, a press release, and, of course, Scott's giant essay. It's like the Times didn't realize that such lists are standard filler at glossy magazines. Was the Times' best fiction list all that different from People Magazine's annual "Most Beautiful People" list? No, not really.The Austin American-Statesman was similarly bemused by the Times list and so it put together its own list using the Times list as fodder. It asked academics and critics to name the "most overrated" books on the Times list. The resulting comments from their judges are both thoughtful and funny. And for those of you scoring at home, the most overrated books on the Times list are A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.
My wife and I are moving out of the apartment we've rented for the last five years and into another apartment in the same neighborhood. The onerous task of culling through our books has fallen to me - perhaps justly, since I'm the one who collected most of the damned things in the first place. My goal is to discard at least two boxes. I've been struck, though, by the number of books on my shelves that I found among other people's discards.Indeed, hardly a day goes by in Brooklyn that I don't see a box of cast-off books sitting on a stoop or by a curb, with a "Free - Take Me" sign, or (once) a glow-stick casting its alien light over the offerings. The entire borough, viewed from a certain angle, is like a great rotating library: you take my copy of Mules and Men, I'll relieve you of your Sense and Sensibility.What follows, in no particular order, is a catalogue of the 30 books I've apparently taken from other people's stoops over the last five years: a sort of portrait of a certain time and place. I'd be curious to hear about your own finds in the comments box below.Baker, Nicholson: Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of CivilizationAckerman, Diane: A Natural History of the SensesMaugham, W. Somerset: The Razor's EdgeElizabethan Plays (a 1933 anthology; no author)Heidegger, Martin: Being and Time (trans. Macquarrie & Robinson)Baldassare Castiglione: The Book of the CourtierGarcia Lorca, Frederico: Three PlaysBréton, André, ed.: What is Surrealism?Tsvetaeva, Marina: Selected PoemsMitchell, David: GhostwrittenHarvey, David: Spaces of HopeGrimm, Jacob and Wilhelm: Fairy TalesPinter, Harold: The Proust ScreenplayMarlowe, Christopher: Plays and PoemsWoolf, Virginia: Essays, vol. IIFaludi, Susan: Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American WomenMerot, Pierre: MammalsPope, Alexander: The Rape of the LockReed, Lou: Rock & Roll Heart (okay, it's a VHS tape, but still pretty cool)Marcuse, Herbert: One-Dimensional ManCalvino, Italo: Italian FolktalesThompson, Willie: Postmodernism and HistoryCocteau, Jean: Five PlaysAmis, Martin: Visiting Mrs. NabokovGibbon, Edward: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. IVBissell, Tom: God Lives in St. PetersburgCalasso, Roberto: KaPortis, Charles: NorwoodDidion, Joan: MiamiSt. Augustine: The City of God[Image credit: steelight]
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