- Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing has delivered her acceptance speech. In it, she discusses her native Zimbabwe, where there is still a thirst for books even amid oppression, inflation, and deprivation. “Having taken a box of books out to a village – and remember there is a terrible shortage of petrol – I can tell you that the box was greeted with tears.” Her speech doesn’t offer specific ways to help, but look at another recent post here for other ways to give back with books.
- Those in a charitable and literary mindset may also be interested in an auction being held by the Paris Review to benefit the venerable magazine. Contained within, a number of intellectual big ticket items, including lunch with editor Philip Gourevitch. $450 gets you the top bid for that lot. The auction ends on December 13th.
A new Colors magazine came out the other day. The theme of this issue is violence, and as always they go to the ends of the earth to track down haunting, though-provoking stories and photographs. The Colors website further illustrates each issue. On the lighter side of the newsstand is a magazine that I first noticed in Derek's bathroom. It's called Wax Poetics and it is all about the sublime art of "beat digging," which is how all those DJs keep bringing hot new tracks to the turntables. They scrounge through the record bins looking for a long forgotten monster beat and then they mix it up on Saturday night. Wax Poetics serves the growing ranks of turntablists out there, but it's also great for anyone who has a turntable and won't pass up a Steely Dan LP for a buck when they come across one. It's also real nice to look at, full high quality reproductions of classic album covers and retro urban graphic design.Retail NotesI was marooned at the cash register for a while today. I was keeping myself busy by finishing Feeding a Yen by Calvin Trillin when I noticed that in the course of a half hour I had sold three copies of the lastest by the ubiquitous Dalai Lama himself, The Art of Happiness. I do live in Southern California and our typical clientele is pretty much the target audience for Zen Buddhist self help with the Richard Gere stamp of approval, but these people were tourists and that book is pretty old, and it's not supposed to be flying off the shelves right now. Then I realized that someone had put this book on the recommended shelf; probably it was the new girl. Like most independent book stores and like some of the chains, we have a prominently displayed shelf full of books especially recommended by the staff. Next to each book is a little blurb that we come up with to say, basically, "this book is good, buy it." We rotate the books on this shelf pretty regularly and without fail whatever is up there flies out of the store. We could borrow a fetid sock from one of the many crazy homeless people who hang out on the block, put a card next to it that says "This moving tale of loss and redemption will not fail to enrich and entertain," and it would be bought and paid for in under five minutes. Luckily, we try to take the moral highground and we recommend books that are better than what the customers would select if left to their own devices. The "recommend shelf phenomenon" has gotten me thinking about the current state of literature. There are many people out there who love to read, but for some reason, people have no idea which specific books they want to read. They look at the piles of books and they grow disoriented and dizzy, unwilling or unable to trust their instincts and judge a book by its cover, which is what they must do since only the smallest fraction of people read book reviews or even seem to be aware of their existence. That is where we come in. We tell them what to read. It's no wonder that people read so much crap. I can't imagine what tripe the typical Barnes & Noble clerk must be pushing on his confused customers.I have already done a great deal of planning for when I'm rich. I know what sort of yacht I would like to own, my air of disinterested aloofness has become ingrained after months of practice, and I have prepared myself to feel perfectly at peace when purchasing a particularly expensive pair of Italian loafers. I also, thanks to my delightful customers, have acquired an hilarious little joke with which I can entertain the various clerks and barkeeps who will provide me with goods and services. It goes like this: Select a moderate quantity of goods, bring them to the cash register, and whip out a hundred dollar bill from amongst a clutch of other one hundred dollar bills. When the clerk uses the counterfeit marker to ensure that the bill is not a fake (which he is REQUIRED to do by his bosses and might just LOSE HIS JOB if he doesn't) chuckle and wink and say "I just printed it this morning," in your very best ironic voice. Watch the clerk stare back at you blankly, barely able to conceal his rage, accept your change, go to the next establishment, and repeat. See! I can't wait. It will be so much fun.
I had such a good time reading the Count of Monte Cristo that it made me wonder why I don't read more so-called "classics." So many times I have wandered into a book store or browsed through Amazon fruitlessly, when I might have gone for the known quantity that is the classic. First, let me define what I'm talking about here. People shy away from classics for two reasons: because they are old. You worry that the book will seem moldy and out of touch. And a classic is the sort of book that is assigned in middle school and high school, and therefore it doesn't seem like the sort of book you'd want to read for fun (it might bring back bad memories, after all). But again and again I find that this is the wrong way to look at it. I am almost never disappointed when I read a classic novel. So, for all you casual readers out there, consider the classic.But classics aren't just great for us grown ups, they're perfect for precocious young readers. When I worked at the book store, I would often encounter parents trying to find books for kids who had read all the kids books. These young readers had read all the Harry Potter, all the Lemony Snicket, and the parents were looking for more of the same. I realized that classic novels are the perfect way to graduate these young readers to the next level of reading. Sure they may get assigned some of these books in school, but I know that when I was young, I found reading books for fun to be far more gratifying than reading for school. Here's a quick list of classics that I like to recommend to precocious young readers (I'm only recommending books that I have read, so if you've got any ideas please share - there are so many more!):The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark TwainThe Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel HawthornePride and Prejudice by Jane AustenGreat Expectations by Charles DickensGulliver's Travels by Jonathan SwiftFrankenstein by Mary ShelleyOr you could just get ALL of themUpdate: From the comments:Awakening by Kate Chopin (suggested by edan)Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (suggested by edan)Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (suggested by erin)The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (suggested by The Happy Booker)Related: Ask a Book Question: The 27th in a Series (Classifying Classics)Related: Giving Kids the Classics
C.S. Forester's fictional naval hero, Horatio Hornblower (of the Hornblower series of adventure novels), has one of the more memorably silly names in literary history. So, British researchers were quite surprised when they found a real life Hornblower in centuries old census records. Other silly names uncovered: Boadicea Basher, Philadelphia Bunnyface, Faithful Cock, and many more.
Babbittry’s an old word but hardly a dead concept. It first emerged -- by that name, anyway -- 90 years ago with the publication of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, a slim, strange novel that drifts through its chapters with little thought to plot. At the heart of the novel is George F. Babbitt, a real estate salesman in his mid-40s whose life revolves around his family, dinner parties, boosters’ club, his business ambitions, and all the middlebrow fashion concerns of his age in the fictional neighborhood of Floral Heights in the equally make-believe town of Zenith. Lewis showcases Babbitt’s morning routine: “Last, he stuck in his lapel the Boosters’ Club button. With the conciseness of great art the button displayed two words: ‘Boosters -- Pep!’ It made Babbitt feel loyal and important. It associated him with Good Fellows, with men who were nice and human, and important in business circles. It was his V.C., his Legion of Honor ribbon, his Phi Betta Kappa key.” See how society weighs on this poor soul? Babbittry refers to the disease of conventionality and banality. The novel traces its way through the title character’s colloquial phrases, his fretting over social etiquette, and his laundry list of goals and frustrations. It’s the American dream at its most mundane, the inertia of the lifestyle a constant palpable anvil. Ultimately the sin of Babbittry relies on the social mores and manners of others -- Babbitt doesn’t have a strong enough sense of his own self to defy that broader socially constructed set of values and meaning. The diagnosis of Babbittry entered our lexicon and stayed for a half century or so before fading away. But what of the disease itself? The world George Babbitt inhabited changed radically in the nine decades since Lewis released his book. The United States engaged in wars, built highways and the Internet, embraced mass media and organic tomatoes, found drugs and the sexual revolution. Through our 21st-century lens, Babbitt looks all the more like a stuffy philistine dad. Lewis’s insights into human nature weren’t, however, limited by time, and we’re all guilty of Babbitt’s crime perhaps more now than ever before. In 2012, social media thrives more than any 1920s booster club did. Millions engage in a bustling, active world in which not only can’t a person be alone, but dozens see and watch and, crucially, expect every day. One overriding criticism of the social soup of the Internet is the tendency toward groupthink. Once a few loud voices establish a joke or a premise, the herd follows. Binders of women! Bayonets! Chuck Norris as Superhuman! KONY 2012! A viral sentiment must be true, yes? This candidate completely botched the foreign policy debate questions. This politician is shady because of this allegation. Here’s the premise through which we should view X news story, and yes, expressing Y opinion makes you Z. Politicians understand this well. They send surrogates to the media right after to spin the common consensus. As The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote in October, social media causes “conventional wisdom to be set, simplified and amplified, faster and more pervasively,” pointing to debate coverage as a prime example. There’s a “Twitter-forged consensus” gelling within 30 minutes, Milbank laments. Beware, Internet surfer. A disease is out there, and it’s infecting our iPhones, our Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and more. Disease, thy name is Babbittry. The display of symptoms is all that’s changed. Modern technology fuels a far more insidious type, one not defined by 1920s fashion so much as the deeper sin Babbitt was guilty of throughout. Babbittry eats at Babbitt’s life not because he’s boring, but because there’s no control or independent intellectual force at work. His materialistic life is guided by what others dictate. Whether the information comes via a Twitter newsfeed or from 20th-century church fellows, ads, and business pals, the effect is the same. Leave it to the crowds! Let the masses decide! This is still straight Babbittry. Babbitt makes the commodification of opinion clear in many different passages and specifically tries to kill the idea of Babbitt’s agency: “Just as he was an Elk, a Booster, and a member of the Chamber of Commerce, just as the priest of the Presbyterian Church determined his every religious belief and the senators who controlled the Republican party decided in little smoky rooms in Washington, what he should think about disarmament, tariff, and Germany, so did the large national advertisers fix the surface of his life, fix what to believed to be his individuality.” Thus, toothpaste and socks are his “symbols and proofs of excellence,” Lewis declares. Material details evolved, but has the critique ever disappeared? The charge has become its own cliché in the years since, shades flickering into Don DeLillo novels and American Beauty. Adbusters infamously ripped hipsterism as a lifestyle completely subject to marketing four years ago (an opinion then shared 48,000 times on Facebook). And the Babbitt archetype of course popped into our culture before Babbitt (the stuffy Karenin of Anna Karenina comes to mind) but never quite as crisply. Twitter and Facebook are just the latest avenues for Babbittry to thrive. Targeted advertising and niche media channels make the conformism and herding all the easier today. Social media editors practice just the right, predictable voice and casual humor that pulls in readers. The Internet elevates the right linguistic affectations and rewards them, just as Babbitt was rewarded for his own professional and fashionable ones. Modern groupthink often unfolds in trivial, unstructured ways -- the social judging and banter of Facebook, say, comparing photos, adding your digital “like” to the mix. This anxiety surrounding social media is apparent, as any Google search will show. Real headlines: “Kony 2012 Movie and the Perils of Social Media ‘Group Think,’” “Social Media and the Groupthink Problem,” “Does Social Media Produce Groupthink?” Lewis artfully portrayed the phenomenon exactly 50 years before the first formal psychological study, Victims of Groupthink, was published (since republished as Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes). Celebrate the 90th anniversary of Babbitt, then, by tracing its connections with our lives now. Lewis, saint that he is, never quite demonized George F. Babbitt despite the satire. The character struggled his way into rebellion, questioning and quibbling away from the mainstream in small ways. Lewis recognized the fundamental humanity of even the iconic Babbitt -- we’re social animals for a reason. But don’t cut Babbittry from our vocabulary quite yet. It creeps back, as Babbitt well knew. A rebellious streak would “endanger his security and popularity by straying from the Clan of Good Fellows.” We’re all guilty on bad days, one retweet at a time.
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The numbers are huge, 8.2 million copies sold in 24 hours in the U.S., 2.65 million in the U.K., but Harry Potter isn't necessarily a boon for book stores. The big chains, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and the like, discount the book sharply in order to compete with one another, and then they hope that customers will pick up some other books where the profit margins are better. Independent bookstores are far less likely to discount at all. They don't get the books in large enough quantities to get a deal from the publisher, and, less efficient than the chains, they can't afford to trim profit margins much.Generally, this is the case for most any bestseller, where the chains discount 20%, 30%, even 40% or more, and the indies sell books at full price, getting by on atmosphere, customer loyalty, and skillfully selling non-bestsellers that may not be on the front tables at chain stores. In the case of Harry Potter, however, a whole nother layer of retail establishments gets in on the action. The big box stores, like Wal-Mart, Costco, and Target, have already put the squeeze on the bookstore chains with bulk quantities of deeply discounted bestsellers, so a book like Harry Potter fits nicely into their business plan. But the net is cast even wider for Harry Potter. Grocery stores, usually not likely to have much in the way of books aside from the occasional rack of mass-market paperbacks by the register had stacks and stacks of the final boy wizard installment. Even Best Buy, whose products are probably more typically responsible for a decline in reading, had customers lined up at midnight so it could sell the book, placing Harry Potter alongside the Wii and the PlayStation3 in the pantheon of must have products hawked by the electronics giant.And so, by selling the book at full price and getting by on charm, it's likely some of the indies got a bottom line boost from the Potter madness, but for the chain stores, squeezed by other giant corporations, profits may be tougher. On a much smaller scale, this challenge was evident in Malaysia, where book chains protested the price slashing of grocery giants, who sold Harry Potter at below cost, by boycotting the book (imagine Barnes & Noble trying that!) Eventually, the Malaysian booksellers worked out a deal with Penguin, Harry Potter's distributor in the country, but the episode highlights the high stakes competition that book retailers face when they are forced to go up against retail heavyweights.
Some new books that are getting lots of praise, and some excerpts from those books:Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis -- review, excerptLittle Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt -- review, excerptYou Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon -- review, excerptCrossing California by Adam Langer -- reviewAlso of note: the creation of the Man Booker International Prize has been announced. From the press release, "Worth £60,000 to the winner, the prize will be awarded once every two years to a living author who has published fiction either originally in English or whose work is generally available in translation in the English language. The first winner will be announced in mid 2005." Now Americans will finally be able to get their hands on a Booker.
One of my roommates moved out last summer, but he hasn't changed his address so we still get a lot of his mail. Every month or so he comes by to pick up another mound of ephemera. It seems mostly to be junk mail and cell phone bills, but the occasional magazine can be found jutting from the pile. Today, in fact, I couldn't help but notice the corner of the most recent issue of Esquire peeking out from under envelopes and circulars, and on that corner of glossy magazine cover I could see the words "The Best Books of 2003," so, naturally, I took a gander. It's not much of a list. They asked eight of their writers to name their favorite book of the year, so there are eight random books on the page, each with a blurb. Still, it gives us something to talk about. Here they are (with my comments, of course): Stagolee Shot Billy by Cecil Brown: I had forgotten about this book, but I remember when it came out it sounded very interesting. In the book, Brown, a literature professor at UC Berkeley, tries to discover the truth behind the legend of Stagger Lee, a quasi-mythical figure who is the inspiration for hundreds of versions of the seminal blues song of the same name. It sounds like a really interesting book, full of folklore and roots music. The book's official website offers up a couple dozen versions of the song (along with a neat map showing when and where they originated) for your listening pleasure.Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis: I feel like I spent most of the summer talking about this book. If you've been lurking around here for that long you'll remember. Several folks have called it "the book of the year," and it's hard to argue otherwise. The book is extremely compelling on many levels, even for a non-baseball fan, as it delves into psychology and economics and business. For a baseball fan the book approaches divine.What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller: I think I've mentioned this one, too. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize. In it, a prudish, old schoolteacher recounts the indiscretions of a younger colleague's dalliances with a 15-year-old student. What starts as a clearcut case, slowly turns itself inside out.Life of Pi by Yann Martel: Hmmm... didn't this book come out last year? Anyway, this one won the Booker in 2002 and has been a slow burn sensation. It was released to modest acclaim, began to sell well on word of mouth, won the Booker, and never looked back. The paperback edition still appears on many major bestseller lists. I, for one, am still dying to read it, but haven't gotten to it yet. Everyone I know who has read it (including my grandmother who is one of the "best" readers I know) adores this book about a boy and a tiger.BBQ USA: 425 Fiery Recipes from All Across America by Steve Raichlen: Mmmmm, BBQ. Actually, BBQ is a major American cultural artifact, with countless versions (at least 425) betraying the rich regional diversity of American cooking, which reminds me, some friends of mine have been working for over a year now on a BBQ documentary called Barbecue is a Noun. Sounds pretty tasty.Platform by Michel Houellebecq: Somehow it seems inevitable that Esquire would name this among the best books of the year. I know that there are some serious Houellebecq fanatics out there, but I'm afraid I don't get it.Rumble, Young Man, Rumble by Benjamin Clavell: Released last spring to stellar reviews, this book surely ranks among the top two or three short story collections released this year.Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers by Katy Lederer: I hadn't really heard of this one, but it's one of those "f'd-up-childhood" memoirs, but this time it's not about being the child of shrinks or mobsters, but gamblers instead. This sort of book has really become a genre of its own and is therefore getting somewhat tiresome; on the other hand, the jacket of this particular book features a blurb from none other than the late, great George Plimpton so it must be good.Actually, that list turned out to be pretty fun.