The Pacific Standard Fiction Series rolls on tonight at 7 p.m. with a reading by Colson Whitehead and Christopher Sorrentino. If you’re in or near Brooklyn area and are free, it would be great to see you. The Pacific Standard website has directions.
This week at the LBC blog, we'll be discussing my nominee for this round of books, All This Heavenly Glory by Elizabeth Crane. Ed has done a very entertaining podcast with Crane, and I can be heard at the beginning introducing the book (Ed decided to portray me as some sort of bionic man. I'm not sure I get the reference, but I like it!). Also up is a dialog about the book, featuring me and Kassia (of Booksquare). Tomorrow the dialog will continue with help from Sam (of Golden Rule Jones).
The public literary program, One Book One City, that is half-heartedly sweeping the nation apparently has an outpost in my new city. They are already on book seven, which means that Chicagoans are reading circles around my former city, Los Angeles, which, last time I checked, was only on book two. The latest pick for Chicago is In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. I'll be looking out for it on the "L". In other news, the first volume of Bob Dylan's extremely long-awaited memoir finally has a release date. October 12th will see the release of Chronicles: Volume 1 as well as Lyrics: 1962-2002, both from Simon & Schuster. I think we know what Dylan fans will be wanting for Christmas.
In the first wave of articles on Governor Sarah Palin at The New York Times, I came across a reader-comment that Ms. Palin looked like Geena Davis in the TV show Commander-in-Chief. In this short-lived 2005 drama, Davis played the first woman Vice President, who ascends to the presidency after the death of the President. The Times reader's comment also reminded me of another fictional first president, 24's President David Palmer (played by Dennis Haysburt). Had this wildly popular (and very long running - Haysburt played the president from 2001-2005) imaginary depiction of a black president helped acclimate Americans to the idea? I found myself wondering if shows like Commander-in-Chief and 24, which offer fictional visions of scenarios that have not yet come to pass, give history a nudge. Can art/entertainment (the distinction between these two being a debatable one) help us as a culture imagine historical changes - and so help to bring them into being?It would not be the first time in our history that art has given life - and particularly public opinion and national politics - a little push. There is the famous (and quite possibly apocryphal) story of Abraham Lincoln meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Or, Life Among the Lowly, in 1861, and greeting her with words, "So this is the little lady who started this Great War." Apocryphal stories aside, Stowe's novel from 1852, sometimes considered a direct response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 but more likely the result of Stowe's lifelong belief that slavery was a sin in the eyes of God, sold 300,000 copies in the US in its first year and went on to be the first international American bestseller, and the best-selling book of the century, after the Bible. While the novel's sentimentality and deeply Christian worldview can be alienating to some modern readers, its vivid narrative - by turns realist, gothic, and melodramtic - is undeniably haunting (though its perpetuation of black stereotypes has become proverbial). Uncle Tom's Cabin has been credited with capturing the national imagination, raising national consciousness, and giving the issues of slavery and emancipation a national urgency that precipitated the Civil War.Stowe's work - not that of the freed slave turned orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass - is more often assigned the role of cultural catalyst in the American move toward abolition. Douglass' work, both for its status as a first-hand account of life as a slave, and for the power and intelligence of Douglass' narrative voice, is far superior to Stowe's, but it is Stowe's - the more melodramatic, the more imaginative, the more comparable to television drama - that sold 10,000 copies in its first week, while Douglass' best-selling 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave had 11,000 copies in circulation only after three years in print. Also suggestive of a television-esque quality, Stowe's Uncle Tom was originally published serially in a magazine - in episodes. If popularity in fiction is any indication of a country's readiness for a historical change in fact, it would seem that America is ready for a black president but perhaps not quite ready for a female running mate who stands a decent chance of ascending to the presidency (given McCain's age and history of skin cancer). It's all much more complicated than this, of course, but I find the idea that the imaginary can give shape to the real (in a non-Don Quixote-ish way) quite captivating.
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.
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The long-awaited Iraq Study Group Report has been making headlines for months as Americans, weary of the war and our continuing struggles in Iraq, look for some fresh angles on this seemingly intractable mess. It should come as no surprise then that the book version of the report, which hit stores today, is shaping up to be a bestseller, as the Amazon ranking makes clear (and as has been discussed in a couple of wire stories today).In this respect, it follows in the footsteps another report by an independent bipartisan group that turned out to be a hit in stores, The 9/11 Commission Report, which was deemed sufficiently well-crafted to be named a National Book Award finalist. Not only that, a Graphic Adaptation of the book was created as well. The (salacious) granddaddy of this genre, of course, was the Starr Report, which sold approximately one million copies in book form but is now more or less out of print. (It will interesting to see if the two books mentioned above are still in print eight years from now. I suspect they will be.)Americans are often derided here and abroad for not being readers and for being disengaged with current events, but I think the success of these books goes a long way toward suggesting otherwise.Update: If you'd prefer to read the whole Iraq Study Group Report online (or print off a copy) you can get it at the United States Institute of Peace Web site, where, according to a Washington Post article (which has a lot of great tidbits about the report and how popular its been bookstores) "400,000 people downloaded the report within hours" of its release.
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