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.
Jennifer 8. Lee in the New York Times describes the “Washington read.” A practice in which Washington insiders peruse the index of a current political best seller, Plan of Attack or Against All Enemies, for example, to see if they have been mentioned. It is sort of a test one’s own importance inside the beltway, and many, prematurely certain of their own historical significance, are crushed to find that they have been omitted from history’s first draft. Washington, however, does not have a monopoly on such practices. I lived in Washington D.C. for most of my life before moving to Los Angeles, and I have observed many times the similarities between the two cities’ chief industries. I don’t know if I coined this analogy, but I’ve always thought that politics is just Hollywood for ugly people. And so it makes sense that I discovered, over the last couple of years, that there is such thing as a “Hollywood read.” It usually goes something like this: an older guy stands at the front of the store flipping through the latest Hollywood tell-all. He is deeply tanned and his shirt is unbuttoned to reveal tufts of silver chest hair. He is wearing ridiculously oversized sunglasses and smells of cigar smoke. He leans over to me and points to the book and says, “I used to work with this guy,” and then he goes back to scanning the index to make sure his old buddy mentioned him. Samuel Fuller’s posthumously published A Third Face generated this reaction. And those in the music biz went straight to the index of Walter Yetnikoff’s Howling at the Moon. Last fall, a mention in Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind meant that you officially matter in today’s Hollywood. But to have been mentioned in Robert Evans’ The Kid Stays in the Picture indicates a special sort of notoriety.
The concept of self-improvement through reading has always struck me as hopelessly vexed. I was surprised and delighted, then, to discover in Megan Hustad’s How to Be Useful an erudite, pragmatic, funny, and endearingly humble “Beginner’s Guide to Not Hating Work.” It was the kind of book I wish someone had given me when I was fresh out of college.Back then, in the giddy afterglow of the Clinton years, my enormous sense of entitlement hid behind a contorted ideological posture. Sure, I would benefit financially from global capitalism, but I would maintain my purity by doing a really mediocre job. (Take that, Milton Friedman!) What’s refreshing about How to Be Useful is that it presents an ethical, rather than a moral, argument for working hard. Hustad doesn’t attempt to say that you should work for The Man; rather, she argues that if you have to, you might as well do it well.Surprisingly, the secret to success, according to Hustad’s meta-analysis of a century of business advice, is making yourself indiscriminately useful to those around you. At some point, she argues, people will want to return the favor. And in the meantime, while you may not have addressed global economic inequality, you will have made the world around you a little more pleasant for your coworkers and for yourself.This week, we’ve invited Ms. Hustad to give us some “Usefulness Training” based on our own first-job hijinks. Every day, one of our contributors will post an anecdote about his or her misguided work ethic. Hustad will rate us on a scale of 1 to 5, with one being Mildly Useless, and 5 being Irremediably Useless. She’ll also try to tease out the misguided assumptions we held upon entering the workforce, and to explain how we might have conducted ourselves more helpfully. These links will become active as the posts are published:Welcome to the Working Week 1: MaxWelcome to the Working Week 2: EmreWelcome to the Working Week 3: GarthWelcome to the Working Week 4: AndrewFinally, we invite our readers to contribute their own first-job stories (ideally 100 words or less) in the comments box. At the end of the week, perhaps we’ll ask Ms. Hustad to respond to one of them.
Borders’ plan to display more books face-out and, as a result, to stock fewer titles has generated quite a bit of discussion. On our own post about the plan, we received several interesting comments, but I was most intrigued by what commenter Matthew had to say:The Froot Loops example is classic thinking from retailers who enter bookselling from another retail environment.The next time I go down to my local chain Cerealseller to choose my cereal for this week from among the 150,000 cereals on offer Mr Froot Loop can come and offer me some buying advice.Finally, the point of facing out is to attract attention to specific titles from the larger product range. The larger product range sells fewer copies of individual titles, but sells well by total volume… it also serves to attract serious bookbuyers and lend kudos to the bookstore.If chains chose to employ staff with knowledge (and local control) of that enormous range then they’d have a most effective sales tool. These retail gurus need to spend less time in supermarkets and more time at beauty counters and in cell phone stores. Books are a knowledge product requiring retail guidance and salesmanship… do these guys spend as long with their Wheaties as they do with a novel?Emphasis mine. What Matthew has so deftly put into words is something I’ve mulled over since my bookselling days but never quite found the right words for. I’ve always known that knowledgeable booksellers are a huge asset to any bookstore – I was lucky to be surrounded by many when I worked at one – but I had never fully grasped what it means to sell a “knowledge product” as opposed to a “commodity product,” nor had it occured that generally products can be described as one or the other.What’s key here is the distinction between how knowledge products are sold versus commodity products. To use Matthew’s example, when buying a cell phone or going to the beauty counter, you are confronted with many dozens of choices offering an array of specific features suited to a variety of specific needs – bluetooth or dry skin, for example. When it comes to breakfast cereal, you don’t need the guidance as much. The product is cheaper, “wrong” choices cost less, and cereal box mascots aside, one type is generally as good as another.Viewed in this light, it’s crazy to try to sell books as a commodity product because, (and this is just a guess) out of all the retail categories out there, bookstores by far offer the widest array of products, and therefore would require the most guidance and the best systems to help customers find what they are looking for. Undoubtedly, there are many knowledgeable booksellers at chain stores, but if the chains continue to view books as commodity products, their booksellers’ efforts will be futile. It’s also clear why Amazon has been so hugely successful. The site is the ultimate resource for selling knowledge products, with a wealth of information at the ready for anyone looking for a book. It’s possible that, thanks to the internet, the costs are simply too high for chains to go the knowledge-product route, but running in the other direction, towards Froot Loops, hardly seems the answer.For those still interested in this issue even after all this, check out these links:GalleyCat wonders if face-out books will put more emphasis on cover design and follows up with further questions about the co-op payment aspect of this.The Stranger guesses we’ll see more extremely popular and/or bad books face-out at the expense of those hidden gems.A dissenting opinion
It seems like there’s a new magazine debuting every week. After Brigid Hughes was ousted at the Paris Review, she started her own litmag called A Public Space, the debut issue of which has just arrived. Contained within: work by Charles D’Ambrosio, Kelly Link, Haruki Murakami, Marilynne Robinson, Rick Moody, and others. Here’s the full TOC.
Bookfinding is a science of sorts. Ostensibly, it is a money issue: the goal is to find books for two dollars or less a piece. But there is another element to this exercise. When you walk into a Salvation Army store, or any non-bookstore that has a few shelves full of books at the back, you never know what you’ll find. It’s a real treasure hunt. Sometimes you walk out the door with arms full of books, other times you walk out with one or none. Some of the highest yield bookfinding spots that I have found so far are the Out of the Closet thrift stores that are ubiquitous in some parts of Los Angeles. Out of the Closet is a charity that raises money for AIDS, and like any charity-based thrift store it does not discriminate. Along with a vast selection of clothing, each store has a ton of housewares and furniture and a mindboggling array of random junk. Still, there’s something slightly more hip about Out of the Closet. The staff is young, helpful, and fashionable. They’ve always got good tunes on the radio, and they put together clever displays and windows. It’s only a half step away from the church basement, but that half step makes a difference. I always go straight for the shelf or two of books tucked away at the back of the store, in the dimly-lit corner behind the broken exer-cycle. Though it requires the same amount of digging, the treasures that can be found are incrementally better. At the Salvation Army, I’m pleased to find old paperback editions of classics, but at Out of the Closet, you might just as easily come upon a cult-favorite and books that are more obscurely charming. Which brings me to Monday, when I made a quick run to an Out of the Closet that I hadn’t yet raided, spent ten bucks, and walked out with eight books. Good ones, too. I’m most excited about finding a hardcover edition (though it lacks its dust jacket) of Woody Allen’s print masterpiece Without Feathers. You really can’t go wrong with a book that in its first three pages has about two dozen gems like this one: “Play idea: a character based on my father, but without quite so prominent a big toe. He is sent to the Sorbonne to study the harmonica. In the end he dies, never realizing his one dream — to sit up to his waist in gravy. (I see a brilliant second-act curtain, where two midgets come upon a severed head in a shipment of volleyballs.)” Genius! I also picked up Fraud by David Rackoff, the frequent contributor to This American Life. I usually recommend this one to fans of David Sedaris who have read all of Sedaris’ books. I also somehow remembered that Michael Lewis is the name of the author of Moneyball, and when I saw a copy of Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street, his 1989 memoir about working in the cut-throat, 1980s Wall Street world, I snagged it. I also found another first book by an author I like: Michelle Huneven’s debut Round Rock. And I picked up a slick little paperback edition of a somewhat forgotten 20th century American classic, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. I rounded out my purchases with three classics of the Calvin & Hobbes oevre which I gleefully found sitting neatly in a row: The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book, Weirdos From Another Planet!, and Yukon Ho!… not a bad take for 10 bucks!