Pulitzer winner Junot Díaz talks with his fellow “Year in Reading” contributor Meghan O’Rourke in the debut episode of the online video series Open Book, co-sponsored by Slate and my alma mater. I’m thrilled that the producers elected to keep the same zany voice-over guy who reads Slate’s audio podcasts. Future interviews, we’re told, will include John Ashbery, Charles Simic, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
The other day I found a fascinating blog devoted to words, linguistics, languages and other related topics called Languagehat. I have been meaning to mention it for a while, and today I have good reason to. I don’t often talk about reference books on The Millions even though I use them every day. Lucky for us, Languaghat keeps track of these sorts of things. Today, he posts links to interesting reviews of new editions of two popular reference books, The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition.
In noting our new Nobel Laureate on Thursday, I also mentioned that “dating back to my bookstore days, out of all the major literary awards – the National Book Award, the Booker, and the Pulitzer – only the Nobel reliably drove significant interest. On the day the prize was announced, customers on the phone and in person would descend on the store, occasionally leading to problems when a relative unknown with little in print, like Imre Kertesz or Elfriede Jelinek, won the award.”Now, granted, this is purely anecdotal, but based on that experience and my haunting of various other bookstores over the years, I’d guess that generally speaking, the awards that generate chatter in the book pages are more important for burnishing writers’ reputations than for inciting genuine interest among the general reading public.It’s very different in the UK, of course, where the Booker Prize is a national event that lands on page one of the country’s newspapers. Even the gamblers get swept up in the action. In my experience, we Americans get swept up too, but it’s hard to get too wrapped up when American writers are excluded from the action. To give some specific examples. Winning the Booker undoubtedly helped The Life of Pi become a big seller in the US, but it was a slow building crescendo of word of mouth that made the book a mega hit. Vernon God Little, on the other hand, not so much. Still, if the Booker were to make American books eligible, a plan that has been proposed and scuttled in the past, I could see it becoming nearly as popular in the US as it is in the UKHere in the States, we have a pair of literary awards that are generally regarded as the most prestigious: the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. The National Book Award could be the US equivalent of the Booker, but it doesn’t market itself as well. The name is too… on the nose, and the judges have at times shown an odd predilection for the obscure.The Pulitzer, meanwhile, has plenty of name recognition, but it treats its “Letters” awards as little more than afterthought to its centerpiece journalism prizes. Bringing the book award to the forefront and creating a shortlist, as I have suggested, might be enough to create some Booker-esque excitement here in the States.And so, that leaves the Nobel, which in my experience, actually sells books. I think there are a few reasons for this. With its broad slate of awards and century old pedigree, it’s got serious name recognition. At the same time, it doesn’t push aside its literature award to put the spotlight on the other categories. Finally, it recognizes a body of work rather than a single volume, perhaps subconsciously appealing to people in that it presents readers with a reading list ready to be explored.In the end, these awards, even the Booker and the Nobel, are more fun to talk about than to get book recommendations from. I prefer to hear from my trusted fellow readers than any panels of judges.Some other favorite awards: The Lettre Ulysses, the IMPAC, the MacArthur Genius grants
I was at the last Cubs home game of the year at Wrigley this afternoon. I took the train down into the city from Evanston after class. Almost everyone on the train at mid-day was on their way to the game, easily identifiable in Cubs gear and sipping discretely on cans of Old Style. There were a couple of readers on the train (Seven Plays by Sam Shepard and Until I Find You by John Irving), but none of them seemed Wrigley-bound. The sky was grey and everyone seemed to know that rain was on the way.With the Cubs long ago out of contention, people showed up at Wrigley either out of habit or for the novelty of it. For example, I was there with my cousin because he hasn’t yet been to Wrigley, and we figured today would be an easy day to get a ticket. Indeed it was. In front of us sat a group from Scotland, bearing a Scottish flag. They were there to shout and eat, but not to see the Cubs. Others, the ones there out of habit, had pulled on their same Cubs jerseys, and, clutching scorecards, thought about April, just six short months away. The action on the field wasn’t totally forgotten, though. A few die hards were able to muster the energy to loudly boo Corey Patterson every time he came up to bat, but that was about the extent of it. The grounds crew, in recognition of their hard work all year, had the honor of singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch. Soon after, the long anticipated rain began falling. The Cubs, who had played sloppily all day against the Pirates, saw the game, and the season, wash away – down 3-2 with two innings to play, the fans had lost their energy to watch, and the players their energy to play. They played it out anyway, despite the rain, though the score remained the same. My cousin and I walked many blocks west from Wrigley as the rain got steadily heavier. After a long, rainless summer, the rain and the cooler air that accompanied it seemed to signal that summer was finally over. Even on my bus ride home, water leaked in through the roof, and everyone aboard seemed to feel a chill.
When: Early afternoon Monday 9/15/03Where: A park bench in Larchmont (A tony neighborhood in L.A.)Who: Twenty-something manWhat: Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There by David Brooks.Description: “Once it was easy to distinguish the staid Bourgeois from the radical Bohemians. This field study of America’s latest elite–a hybrid Brooks calls the Bobos–covers everything from cultural artifacts to Bobo attitudes towards sex, morality, work, and leisure.”Anyone else like to go bookspotting?
My favorite book critic, Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post, has put out his list of the year’s best books. He also takes the opportunity to make some comments about the National Book Awards controversy.My own view is that the literary judgment of the National Book Award panelists was clouded by their desire to Make a Statement (as, for that matter, was the judgment of their compatriots on the nonfiction panel), but it’s just my opinion and is worth no more than the paper it’s printed on, if that.He self-aware enough to note that books he has chosen are “by men, and mostly men of a certain age, which as it happens is an age pretty close to my own.” I’m not sure if the other litbloggers – who went to great lengths to defend the five NBA finalists – will jump on Yardley because he seems to say that the five women are not worthy, but my feeling is that he, at least, makes it clear that these choices are about opinions, and his opinion happens to differ from the opinions of the judges. Now, on to his book choices: An Unfinished Season by Ward Just, The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (excerpt), Nothing Lost by John Gregory Dunne (excerpt), Roads of the Heart by Christopher Tilghman (excerpt), and Human Capital by Stephen Amidon (excerpt). Yardley also lists his non-fiction picks in the column.Also out: 100 Notable Books of the Year from the New York Times.
I had no idea that I was the one who introduced Scott of Conversational Reading to Lawrence Weschler. I’m glad I did because otherwise he might not have attended Weschler’s visit to the City Arts & Lectures series and given us an excellent report. Every time I hear about Weschler I get more and more interested. I think, eventually, I’ll read all of his books.I was also happy to see Scott’s report that Weschler described Joseph Mitchell “as possibly the greatest writer he’s ever read.” I was introduced to Mitchell in an offhand sort of way in a literature course in college, and after reading Joe Gould’s Secret and dipping into Up in the Old Hotel from time to time, he remains one of my favorites.
I’ve talked about “sale books” once or twice here at The Millions, but since I just a got a great deal on some “sale books,” I decided to revisit the topic. “Sale books” are also known in the book biz as remainders. These are the books you see in your local Barnes & Noble, usually near the front, piled together in bins or on shelves under signs that say things like “clearance” or “all books on this shelf $5.99 or less.” It’s usually a rather odd assortment of books: super cheap hardcovers that mere months (or even weeks) ago were selling for full price. If you dig around you can sometimes find some decent books, but usually the titles are a who’s who of bad books, kind of like the mangled sale rack at your local department store. However, the path from frontlist to remainder bin can be a lot more circuitous than path from shop window to sale rack. And so I present the life cycle of the remaindered book. The remaindered book starts out as a regular old frontlist book, that is, one of the season’s new offerings from a publisher. Let’s call our new book Voyage to Hoboken, a widely anticipated coming of age story by a best-selling author. Since the book is expected to be a big seller, your local Barnes & Noble places a frontlist order of 60 copies from Turnpike Press. The book is released, and amid bad reviews and underwhelming publicity the book is a dud, an outright disappointment. After three months only nine people have bought the book at the full price of $26.95. Now, the book industry is rather odd in that, if a book doesn’t sell, the retail establishment can simply return it to the publisher and get most of their money back. Sometimes, when you work at a bookstore, you begin to get the eerie feeling that rather than selling books, you’re merely storing them until the publisher is willing to take them back. So, the time comes when the buyer at Barnes & Noble decides enough is enough and returns 50 copies to Turnpike Press, leaving one copy on the shelf in case some unwitting reader decides to buy it. At a Turnpike Press warehouse, thousands of copies of Voyage to Hoboken come in from all over the country. But the folks at Turnpike aren’t worried, they are ready to cut their losses. They have negotiated with “remainder houses,” companies that deal with these unwanted books, to get rid of our unfortunate novel in bulk, lets say $1.50 per copy. The remainder house then turns around and calls up the very same book buyer at Barnes & Nobel and sells back this once bought book at a severely reduced price, $3.00 per copy, and then Barnes & Noble tries to sell it to you, the reader, for $6.00. And, in the end, most folks can’t resist the bargain. So, such is the odd journey that bargain books take before arriving in their bargain bin. What inspired me to write about this? Well, the other day I got a catalog in the mail from one of those remainder houses, Daedalus Books, and, since shopping from a catalog is a lot easier than picking through the bargain bin, I got myself four fantastic books for about sixteen bucks. Not bad, eh? Here they are: The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey, Pastoralia by George Saunders, Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones, and The Founding Fish by John McPhee. By the way, bargain books can be found at Amazon, too.Speaking of Amazon, here is an interesting article about what those sales rankings at Amazon actually mean. It’s written from the perspective of a self-publishing expert.One last thing. During my time at the bookstore, one of the hottest sellers was a collection of short stories by David Schickler called Kissing in Manhattan. Now Schickler has a novel coming out called Sweet and Vicious. It looks interesting.