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A Cheat Sheet for All You New Kindle (And Other Ereader) Owners

The New York Times highlighted the trend last year and it will no doubt be even bigger this year: when it comes to ebooks, what was once a day of rest from shopping is now a booming day for ebook sales. That’s because when all those Kindles (selling a million a week), Nooks (sales up 85%), iPads, and other tablets get unwrapped, the first thing to do is to fire up and download a few books.

Just a few years after ebooks and ereaders first emerged as futuristic curiosity, they are fully mainstream now. Even among the avid, book-worshiping, old-school readers that frequent The Millions, ebooks are very popular. Looking at the statistics that Amazon provides us, just over a quarter of all the books bought by Millions readers at Amazon after clicking on our links this year were Kindle ebooks. One in four books, incredible.

So, for all those readers unwrapping shiny new devices, here are some links to get you going.

For starters, here are the top-ten most popular ebooks purchased by Millions readers in 2011. You’ll notice that these aren’t all that different from the overall Millions favorites. The big change this year is the emergence of the “Kindle Single” format, which offers long-form journalism and short stories at a bite-sized price point. Three of those lead our list. Interestingly, while those Singles are expanding what’s available at lower price points, publishers are pushing the high end of the price range higher, focusing especially on some of the year’s highest profile books, four of which land on our list despite going for (as of this writing) more than the magic $9.99 number.

The Enemy by Christopher Hitchens ($1.99)
The Getaway Car by Ann Patchett ($2.99)
The Bathtub Spy by Tom Rachman ($1.99)
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman ($9.99)
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan ($9.99)
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami ($14.99)
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides ($12.99)
The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson ($12.99)
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins ($4.69)
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace ($14.99)
The Late American Novel edited by yours truly and Jeff Martin ($8.99)

Other potentially useful ebook links:

Editors’ Picks
Best of 2011
Top 100 Paid and Free
Kindle Singles

And in this fractured ebook landscape, you’ve also got your NookBooks, Google ebooks, Apple ibooks, and the new IndieBound ereader app that lets you buy ebooks from your favorite indie bookstore. Finally, don’t forget Project Gutenberg, the original purveyor of free ebooks (mostly out-of-copyright classics) available for years.

Happy Reading!

The Millions Interview: Eleanor Henderson

Eleanor Henderson’s debut novel, Ten Thousand Saints, follows a group of teenagers between New York City and Vermont as they do drugs, give up drugs, form bands, get pregnant, fall in love, and alternately avoid and seek out their parents. Confronting the adult world that awaits is rarely a graceful process for adolescents, and Henderson’s novel recalls all the sweat and fury of coming of age for anyone who dove into a mosh pit, or just fell for somebody who did. It’s also a beautifully rendered study of devotion—to a cause, a religion, a scene, and one’s own family—and all the conflict and sacrifice that devotion entails. The book was recently featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, where Stacy D’Erasmo wrote that Henderson “writes the hell out of every moment, every scene, every perspective, every fleeting impression, every impulse and desire and bit of emotional detritus.” I spoke with Henderson by phone about youth, gay marriage, the straight-edge scene today, and how many young people continue to wear Misfits jackets.

The Millions: Can you start off by talking a little about the process of writing this book? How much time did it take you? How close is the finished product to the idea you started with?

Eleanor Henderson: I started the book in 2001 when I was living in New York, and it took me about nine years to finish it. So it was a long, deliberate, painstaking process. I wasn’t writing every day for those nine years, but it was a project I was living with for those nine years.

The final draft is very different from the one I produced at University of Virginia. I began writing the book in graduate school and the first draft was 540 pages and it was all in Jude’s point of view. So it was incredibly long and messy but incredibly claustrophobic. And I realized I was limited by Jude’s perspective and really needed to open it up to other voices. So the biggest change the book underwent is it grew in scope, even as the pages shrunk. It now includes eight points of view. Over that process I realized it wasn’t one voice coming of age but a book about a whole generation coming of age. So that was the biggest transformation the book went through.

TM: You mentioned in an interview with the Times that your husband grew up on St. Marks Place in the time period the book takes place, but I noticed in the acknowledgments you have a pretty serious list of books you consulted (Our Band Could Be Your Life, American Hardcore: A Tribal History, All Ages: Reflections on Straight Edge). What is your process of doing research for your writing? Do you do all the research first, and then write, or do research as you are writing?

EH: I do research as I’m writing. My husband’s experience definitely planted the seed for the book. It’s not based on his life, but based on the world he lived in and grew up in. He certainly was my number one source of information for that period and the bands and the setting, but I wanted to make sure I presented as full a world as possible of that time and place but also the straight edge scene in general. It’s a pretty intense little group of participants so I wanted to honor that history.

As I was writing the middle of the book, which is more boy-band focused, I probably spent more time at that point reading about the history of the bands. Something I found was that the anthologized zines that were written in that period really helped me listen to the voices of the kids that were producing these zines, helped me hear the syntax of these kids and the voices that were coming through. So the books helped but I certainly couldn’t have done it just based on the books.

TM: Are there fiction books you read as well, for inspiration, other novels that take place in the period or deal with similar themes?

EH: I didn’t go out of my way to read books that were about the same period or subject but two books that were on my mind as I was writing were Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. I really love those two books because they capture an era in New York that was all about teenage boys sort of making trouble and trying to do good at the same time and really kind of representing a larger cultural movement in an intensely personal way. And the language of the books and their stylistic accomplishment was really admirable to me. I asked myself, what kind of book do I want to write? I wanted to write a book that’s extremely detailed but also wide in scope.

TM: When I heard last month about gay marriage passing in New York, after I thought about my real friends and family for whom this could be life-changing, I thought about Johnny, and how his story might have been different if he’d been born ten or twenty years later. Did you encounter any limitations about writing about the late 80s, things you wished the characters could do if the book took place today? Are there elements of the story that wouldn’t have worked in a different time?

EH: I didn’t feel limited by the time period. I still find it so fascinating that just 20 years ago we were living in a much more closeted age. I read a statistic the other day that one out of every two or even more college educated gay people are still closeted at work. So it’s not that everything turned around. But I do think it’s remarkable how much has changed, not only the way the city works but the openness of the city and, you know, the freedom of lifestyle that the city now affords in a way that wasn’t possible 20 years ago. So I thought about Johnny, too, in a bittersweet way because I think he does, as he heads to California [at the end of the novel], achieve his own kind of liberation. But I don’t think his adolescence would have been as dark or as tortured as it was. But he’s just one character, and there were certainly people who weren’t as closeted. For instance I had an uncle who likely contracted HIV in Central Park in the ‘80s, as Johnny’s partner Rooster does. He was living an openly gay lifestyle, but it killed him. It isn’t just that we’re more open but we’re also a safer, more aware culture. So that’s relieving to me and exciting to me but it’s really kind of bittersweet that not even a generation ago people were paying the price for their openness.

TM: In an interview for the New York Times Book Review you mention that the straight-edge movement is still going strong today.

EH: Yes. Many of the people I talk to about the book a) haven’t heard of straight edge and b) don’t know it’s still around. I chose to write about the late 80s because it’s full of an energy that hasn’t been captured before. Straight edge began in the early 80s and exploded all over the world. There are straight edge scenes that are much more developed in Europe than here in the States. Straight edge is thriving and I think it’s great. There are many faces to the movement, more and more sociological studies are coming about straight edge even though it’s an underground scene. There are straight edge kids who are into environmental activism, who are into animal rights, there are straight edge kids who may have romantic relationships but they don’t take any substances. And I think maybe more you’ll see more straight edge kids who haven’t had the kind of dark experiences with substances that Jude and his generation had and it’s easier for them to choose the straight edge lifestyle than it was for my husband, who grew up around such a mighty offering of drugs. So I think it’s changing a lot in a healthy way, but I think it still has its limitations. I don’t identify with straight edge, I never did. Although I love punk music, I sort of came of age a few years later during the grunge scene. I think I was drawn to the intensity of the music and the scene and the way these boys connected to each other in the 80s. I think it’s still happening now but maybe with a little less authenticity. Because I wasn’t a part of that tough little crowd I wanted to explore what it might have been like for a character who was.

TM: The ending is sort of tragic, heartbreaking. There’s a CBGB’s gift shop but no CBGB’s. Even during my punk phase in high school, I was buying my Manic Panic and band t-shirts at Hot Topic at the mall. Do you think there are authentic, unmediated subcultures left for young people to find their identities within?

EH: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I teach at Ithaca College and I see a fair amount of punk-minded students coming in with Misfits jackets, and they’re adorable and in a way maybe they’re more connected than we are, because we’re just a little bit removed from them. I don’t know if they’re buying their shirts at Hot Topic but what else is there? I don’t know if there are any alternatives. It’s hard for me to imagine a post-punk, authentic music movement. Maybe that’s just the grandmother in me talking about the good old days, but even when I came of age in the 90s, sitting in these enormous stadiums watching the Stone Temple Pilots, I felt an age had passed.

TM: I’m so out of touch with music today I’m probably not the best judge of what’s authentic but music does seem to be so commodified and digitized it’s hard to have the direct relationship with music that straight edge kids did.

EH: This is sort of a tangent but I was talking the other day about reading books on Kindle and listening to music on iPods and I’m still sort of the grandmother who is listening to CDs. But you hear a lot of people saying they love to hold the weight of book in their hands, love the cover art on CDs… One of the things I admire about my 3-year old is he’ll always have in hand the case of whatever video he’s watching along with his Batman doll. He wants to look at the cover art and see the pictures. These boys [in the novel] as they were producing their own records and pressing their own records and designing the zines about these records, that’s an intimacy with their own culture that we’ve gone a long way away from. We have very little connection to the actual source of our art these days.

TM: Why do you think punk continues to endure whereas the music of, say, the hippie generation doesn’t?

EH: Yeah, maybe that’s true. There is an energy from punk music that is inimitable and I wanted to capture some of that energy in the book. It’s irresistible, it’s so explosive culturally and just on the stereo. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that every Prius commercial is orchestrated to “Blitzkrieg Bop” or whatever. There is something really enduring about punk and something really classic about its, you know, its rites of rebellion. Because you know this generation, the hippie generation thought that they perfected rebellion. And they did, in a way, which required a lot of creativity for the kids of the 80s to reinvent their own kind of rebellion. So it was fascinating for me to see this very backwards sect of rebellion. Punk just turned its hippie forbearers on their heads.

TM: Are you a fan of The Wire? Did you hear that David Simon agreed to make a sixth season of The Wire if “the Department of Justice is equally ready to reconsider and address its continuing prosecution of our misguided, destructive and dehumanising drug prohibition.” Do you agree with his characterization of the War on Drugs?

EH: I don’t know that the book is a statement of the failure of the war on drugs, although it sort of alludes to it and tries to capture the complexity of it. I don’t know that the book is richly concerned with the war on drugs but I do think the book is concerned with showcasing side-effects of the war on drugs, particularly with the gentrification of the Lower East Side. The Lower East Side is a much safer place to exist because there aren’t a bunch of needles in Tompkins Square Park anymore. But the costs of that were pretty violent.

I’m interested in the choices that the Just Say No generation made in the face of that war on drugs. And these kids are really embracing it in a way that their hippie parents cringe at. So I guess the social implications are more interesting to me.

TM: Your author bio says you teach. Do you find that teaching has an effect on your writing practice?

EH: Yeah, I mean so obviously the fact that I’ve been teaching full-time probably has something to do with the book taking nine years to write.

I really find that teaching complements my writing. It makes it more difficult on a practical level but it fuels my writing. The conversations I have with my students about craft are things I think about when I sit down. Having to formulate conversations about craft with young writers can only make you a stronger and more self-aware writer. I love having conversations with my students. I’ve been at Ithaca College for a year and feel really lucky to have landed in the right place.

The Lively and Maybe Lost Art of the Literary Reading

1.
Call it a sign of the times.

To compensate for dwindling sales, some bookstores are apparently starting to charge for readings. Though payment may seem antithetical to the open and accessible spirit of an event marking a book’s publication, the news should come as no surprise. Bookstores are in danger of extinction, and it only makes sense that if a writer’s habitat is in danger, readings will also struggle to survive.

Yet the shift goes beyond the economic changes precipitated by e-books and extends to the realm of author branding. Modern writers are advised to blog about their process, tweet the banal details of their lives and self-promote via book trailers. Lacking an online presence is bookselling suicide, but creating an online identity also lets authors broadcast a voice vastly different from the one that resonates on the printed (or e-reader) page. If I can “meet” an author online, why bother to go to a reading in the first place? It’s not like I can get my Kindle signed.

It’s ironic, of course, that as writers become more available online, face-to-face interactions may be put behind a paywall. And if open access to readings diminishes, will readers grow more familiar with an author’s brand than with the real person behind a text? Considering that packaging and promotion are just as much part and parcel with being writer as creating content, why shouldn’t an author’s public appearances be monetized? Writers have increasingly become products in and of themselves while getting paid less and less for their literary artifacts.

The underlying problem with charging for readings isn’t the cost (though even a few bucks will deter the cash-strapped) but that the very notion of payment turns readings into something they are not: artistic commodities. Authors are not performers; their readings are not meant to be entertaining in a splashy musical sort of way. Readings exist to promote and sell books, but they also serve a more important function: they provide space for writers and readers to directly communicate and transmit ideas, taking the solitary slow drip of the reading process and infusing it directly into the bloodstream.

However, an economic transaction implies a different sort of exchange between writer and reader. Will authors feel compelled to offer something tangible in addition to words intoned? Will they pass out cookies and break into song? Charging for readings problematically conflates books with how said books are marketed and presented, meaning that writers will feel pressure to cater to their (paying) audiences. We all want to get what we pay for, right?

2.
Ever since my very first communication from an author — a purple form letter from Judy Blume — I’ve felt the need to connect with them. Exactly why I felt moved to write Blume I’m no longer sure, but I think it had something to do with Sally J. Freedman, Margaret and Blubber. How could a total stranger create characters that seemed to channel my most private feelings? After many years and countless books I no longer feel that authors are writing expressly for my validation, but the yearning to connect with those who intimately understand the landscape of my inner world hasn’t ceased.

A live reading is a crapshoot, but that’s the point. There’s always the possibility that a writer I revere will turn out to be stilted, less interesting in person than on the page, or just a total jerk. But I don’t really care. I want to know how writers who echo my experiences intone each sentence. I want to discover whether or not the cadence of their voices confirms the meaning of the text in my mind. In short, I want to know who they are, and that’s different from knowing their marketing plan.

Distinguishing between a writer and her brand becomes a challenge when Internet exposure reduces complex people to rough sketches. I like being intrigued by writers, and I like discovering them rather than being told how to think about their work. Tao Lin is one who knows how to remain elusive even while maintaining a strong online presence. When I went to hear Lin read, he mumbled his way through a short excerpt and made no eye contact. He spoke in a tumbling monotone that fit the terseness of his prose, and offered laconic responses to questions. The reserved demeanor stood in sharp contrast to his strong online presence. At the end, he drew a smiley face with feet in my copy of Richard Yates. I was in love, for a second.

I’m especially curious to hear writers with an unconventional prose voice read. When I went to hear Aimee Bender read from The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, the story felt like an extension of herself, as though she was recalling something from a psychedelic childhood rather than reading from a book. I spoke with her afterwards, and she mentioned that when her first book came out, someone asked her what her reading persona would be. “I felt nauseous,” she told me. “It feels disingenuous. What works best is what suits you,” she explained, acknowledging the pressure to brand oneself.

One of my all-time favorite readings was at Chicago’s Book Cellar, where five writers and critics paid homage to David Foster Wallace and The Pale King by reading their favorite selections from the late author’s body of work. A palpable intensity filled the room as the readers summoned Wallace’s voice through his text. I felt most connected to Wallace through Adam Levin, who seemed like he might be fun to grab a beer with, if I actually drank beer.

Yet I knew part of what made it special was that Wallace wasn’t there. Think Salinger, think Bolaño: their absence — online and in the flesh— makes them all the more captivating. It’s precisely the lack of accessibility that makes readers hunger for their work — and their presence.

I’m not quite sure what happens to writers — and readings — when social media self-promotion becomes not just a distraction, but part of the job description. What I do know is that being perpetually plugged in runs counter to the very nature of writing. I admire those who can disconnect and burrow inside long enough to untangle a thread of human experience with which to spin a story. It’s hard but satisfying, and that’s why I get annoyed with myself when I opt for the instant gratification of Facebook (or sometimes the refrigerator) over a sustained writing session.

I worry that having to pay for readings will make writers’ online personas more valuable than the content of their work. I don’t know if I’d trust an author who was packaged with the glossy cellophane usually reserved for pop stars. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy readings, and still believe in their importance: I want to see writers without a filter and know they are flawed and imperfect, and that they struggle to get words out too — yet still carry on. Perhaps in an age of e-readers, we’ve forgotten that tired cliché about not judging a book by its cover.

(Image: Podium in the screening room from spine’s photostream)

On the Desire to Be Well-Read: A Review of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

I’ve been miserably, neurotically obsessed with becoming well-read for so long now that I sometimes hope I’ll get over my obsession simply out of boredom.  Bookstores make me panic; they’re just collections of shiny reminders of everything I have not and will likely never read.  Friends’ bookshelves, though they deviously keep secret which volumes have actually been finished, or for that matter opened, can ruin an otherwise fun party, leading me to wonder why I’m wasting my time engaged in the kind of idle chatter lamented by Heidegger, so I’ve heard, in the book I’m staring at, rather than spending that very hour pursuing the goal of finally reading enough so that I can stop flagellating myself and maybe go out and enjoy myself at parties.  A conversation with a colleague about the virtues of a handful of lesser-known works by a semi-obscure author, whom my colleague happened to re-read recently can precipitate a despair that lasts for days, during which I will try again vainly to increase my page per hour count, a numerical value that I will abstain from revealing here, because it’s just too depressing.  All of which is to say that Alan Jacobs’s book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction is designed for me, for people who are as interested in “having read” books as they are in reading books; it is designed in fact to cure my illness.  Unfortunately, it does not seem to have succeeded.

Jacobs positions himself as the heir to cultural authorities like Mortimer Adler, Charles van Doren, and Harold Bloom, who have sought to teach regular Americans how to appreciate literature, but he believes that his predecessors present reading as too much of a duty.  Reading literature, Jacobs argues, ought to be a profoundly pleasurable activity, one we engage in primarily for the sake of enjoyment, and not out of obligation.  We’d be happier, better readers if we stopped obsessing about what we’ve read, how much we’ve read, and what we haven’t read.  We should let whim, rather than guilt or shame, propel our reading choices.  Though he is a literature professor at Wheaton College, Jacobs acknowledges that universities are largely to blame for encouraging individuals to treat reading as a chore, valuable only insofar as it serves a higher purpose.  But, as Jacobs contends in one of the book’s most honest moments, reading is not a virtuous activity, and it does not strengthen or elevate our character.  Only by freeing ourselves from this misconception can we rediscover the private, at times anti-social joys of reading.

There is of course another threat to the pleasures of reading, registered by the second half of the book’s title: the onslaught of distractions, the majority digital, that seem to consume more and more of our leisure hours.  Jacobs is not categorically opposed to gadgets; he credits his Kindle with reviving his own passion for books.  But he recognizes that they do pose a danger.  The problem, in fact, with relinquishing the sense of obligation associated with reading literature is that we may simply end up spending our free time watching Youtube clips of celebrity outbursts or liking our friends’ bland witticisms and culinary experiences on Facebook.  Thus Jacobs is forced to argue that reading literature is more satisfying than these other pursuits and habits.  He even distinguishes between “whim,” the “thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both” and “Whim,” a kind of intuition based on “self-knowledge” that allows us to satisfy our most authentic cravings.

“Whim” with a capital “w” requires self-cultivation and introspection, and thus Jacobs manages to smuggle back into the reading experience almost all of the aspirations and neuroses that his book promises to banish.  Ironically enough, The Pleasures of Reading tends to make one all the more anxious about one’s own reading habits.  How else are people like me supposed to respond to a book that painstakingly considers the question of whether to read quickly or slowly (slowly, says Jacobs), confronts the temptations of making lists of important as yet unread texts (don’t give in, he warns), and compulsively alludes to various canonical and non-canonical works (including Gibbon’s intimidating three-volume tome The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire).  By his own admission, Jacobs is a recovering dutiful reader, one still slightly ashamed to have finished a disappointing second in a grade school speed reading competition, and who remembers the exact page he reached in William Gaddis’s The Recognitions before giving up.  The latter moment of clarity was liberating, he claims, but even now he can’t help but dwell upon his former compulsions.

While it labors to disentangle pleasure reading from dutiful reading , Jacobs’s book actually serves as a reminder of the inseparability of the two.  Part of the enjoyment of reading a serious book or going, say, for a vigorous run is the belief that what you’re doing is difficult but good for you—that it offers proof of your character, even while it helps to build that character.  Your superego, after all, is really just your id redirected, as a certain prolific Viennese author of many important works that you ought to have read by now, insisted.  Jacobs observes, “the American reading public, or a significant chunk of it anyway, can’t take its readerly pleasure straight but has to cut it with a sizable splash of duty”—and though pleasure is booze and duty water in this metaphor, anyone who has enjoyed a good mixed drink knows that the ingredients need in fact to mix, to become indistinguishably combined in one smooth solution to be truly satisfying.

Of course some people don’t need to mix their drinks; these people, whom Jacobs refers to as his “tribe,” can handle their pleasure straight, and they are clearly, in his view, the elect.  Paradoxically, in reserving his praise for this category of readers, those who read merely for pleasure and not in order to prove anything about themselves, Jacobs is, like any highbrow arbiter of taste, appealing to people’s aspirations.  The cultural elite, after all, has always consisted of those whose good taste appeared spontaneous, effortless, inborn.  Wouldn’t many savvy but ambitious middlebrow readers like to say and like to believe that they read solely for pleasure, that they find Shakespeare enjoyable simply because they are sensitive and intuitive enough to appreciate his wordplay, and not because they know they are supposed to appreciate it?  I’ve been struggling for years to become someone who reads solely for pleasure—at least since college when certain old-fashioned literature professors suggested that we ought to be experiencing the highest, most refined satisfactions in doing the assigned reading.  This was a kind of instruction far more daunting than anything devised by the most merciless of high school taskmasters.  These people were putting my very soul to the test.  And what if I failed?  What if I didn’t enjoy King Lear?  What did that mean about me?  Wouldn’t I have no choice but to find a way to make myself enjoy it?

Jacobs would suggest that he is not celebrating an approach to literature specific to the cultural elite.  In fact, he praises the British working class for their reputed auto-didacticism.  Moreover, he is not saying that you need to enjoy King Lear.  He is simply advising people to read what they enjoy—and abundant references to fantasy and science fiction novels suggest that his tastes are fairly democratic.  But The Pleasures of Reading also features numerous casual allusions to serious, difficult authors ranging from Virginia Woolf to Leo Tolstoy to David Foster Wallace, and thus demonstrates a kind of cultural mastery that allows Jacobs to get away with his somewhat less canonical attachments.  Or to put it more strongly, his references to genre fiction actually serve as proof of his unimpeachable status as a cultural authority—one who is so well-read that he has the luxury to indulge his lowbrow desires, and so assured of his position that he is not afraid to publicize these desires.  Whether intentionally or not, Jacobs presents himself as a kind of ideal reader, as a model that he believes others ought to strive to imitate.

As I was reading The Pleasures of Reading, I began to take pleasure in noticing the various rhetorical tricks Jacobs performs in order to avoid giving the impression that he is imposing duties onto his reader.  “If you want to understand Tolkien better you might want to start by reading Beowulf, and some of the Eddas and sagas of medieval Iceland, and then perhaps Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; and it would even be worthwhile to get to know the nineteenth-century medievalism that Tolkien despised and against which he reacted, or thought he reacted.  Listening to the music of Wagner would help also.”  Quite an assignment!  But Jacobs is of course hesitant to tell us what we ought to do: we “might want” to peruse the items on this list, and though of course he doesn’t intend to tax us unduly, “perhaps” we could read Sir Gawain (not presumably in the fairly unreadable middle English), and if we’re still enjoying ourselves, it would “even be worthwhile” to study a relatively obscure movement from the nineteenth century.

I’m suggesting here that Jacobs’s advice, like that of many aesthetes, turns the reader’s capacity for pleasure into just another test of his cultural status—and the effect of this kind of sly pressure is to make it more difficult to distinguish what we enjoy from what we think we ought to enjoy.  It’s possible of course that all of this is simply my own neuroticism talking.  Jacobs doesn’t seem to think that reading needs to be so fraught with complications.  Though he addresses his former doubts and obsessions, his attitude now seems to be remarkably calm, relaxed, and confident—which he demonstrates most conspicuously by writing in a graceful, readable style free of excessive qualifications or convoluted syntax designed of course to make reading his own book a pleasurable experience.

In discussing a twelfth-century abbot’s advice on how to read, Jacobs remarks, “Let me risk one more Latin word here: for Hugh this meditation, especially on sacred texts, could best be achieved by ruminatio, a word which may call to mind something rather more highfalutin’ than Hugh intended.  For us to ‘ruminate’ is to engage in a pretty dignified, or dignified-sounding, act, but Hugh was thinking of cows and goats and sheep, ruminant animals, those who chew the cud.”  Yes, with this esoteric terminology, his text may suddenly sound just a bit mandarin, but he’s not terribly worried, and actually what he’s talking about is quite down-to-earth.  And yet this casual, unflappable tone conceals hidden labor, hidden angst:  Can I get away with a Latin term?  Only if I self-consciously acknowledge the danger I am courting while also humbly requesting the reader’s indulgence: “let me risk” does the trick.  But in case this is not enough, I’ll immediately adopt a populist vernacular, the kind of language ordinary people use when they talk about egg-headed intellectuals: thus “highfalutin.”  Of course nobody by this point is going to think of me as common folk, and so am I going to end up sounding inauthentic?  No: they’ll read this moment as tongue-and-cheek.  But is it dangerous to use irony here?  Won’t that just reinforce the image of me as an elitist, out-of-touch intellectual?  Not at all: it just shows I can laugh at myself, and so that even as I make fun of my inability to sound folksy I’ll actually come across like more of a regular guy who isn’t really trying to place himself above his readers.

In imagining the process by which Jacobs has arrived at these sentences, I am not trying to be mean-spirited; I am simply trying to suggest that a fair amount of work and struggle underlies his seemingly easy-going enthusiasm for literature.  Nor am I arguing that reading is not in fact pleasurable, or that pleasure is not one of the most compelling motives for turning to books.  I am simply arguing that the very sense of duty that Jacobs claims he wants to exorcise is a key ingredient in that pleasure.  And it is a key ingredient especially for the majority of American readers who are not as yet a part of Jacobs’s serenely hedonistic tribe, who are insecure about their cultural status and class position, and who are operating under the late-day shadow of the Protestant Ethic.  That feeling of almost existential satisfaction that comes from finishing a long difficult book, the sense that one has thereby inched upward toward that unlikely pinnacle of moral virtue, aesthetic sensitivity, and social status, accompanied by the anxious itch to keep reading more, keep climbing—this whole masochistic, complexly satisfying struggle, however illusory its object, is something many of us simply wouldn’t do without.  Reading features other pleasures of course, but a lot of people will continue to need a nudge, a dose of guilt, in order to experience them.  Especially given the multitude of other diversions, the kind that we are able to enjoy far more effortlessly than books, but which tend to make us feel lethargic, irritable, and aimless, we need some stern professorial curmudgeons—including Jacobs—to tell us, as we lurch toward our laptops and or our iphones, snacking some more, though we’re already full: you know, you probably ought to be reading a book right now.

Kindle-Proof Your Book in Seven Easy Steps!

A little over three years ago, in a fit of apparent insanity, a New York-based independent press bought a sizeable chunk of the short-story collection I’d been working on and published it as a stand-alone volume. I remain proud of the book, A Field Guide to the North American Family, which was reissued last month in paperback. A lot has changed since the end of 2007, though, and the new edition has me thinking again about a couple of misapprehensions I was laboring under at the time of its writing. The first was that inserting an “illustrated fiction” into an otherwise un-illustrated cycle of stories was just the thing to ignite the bidding war that would make me a millionaire. (Thanks a lot, W.G. Sebald!) The more important, related misapprehension, though, has to do with “the future of the book.”

In college, I had been an extracurricular binge-reader of 1960s and ’70s “experimental” literature, in secret rebellion against the masterpieces-only Atkins diet that comprised my coursework. Even in my mid-twenties, I was convinced that the novel of the future would incorporate as much Cortazar and Cather, as much Willie Masters as Wilhelm Meister. History had different ideas, as usual. Two weeks after my exuberantly book-y book came out – replete with color photography and typographic mayhem – Amazon launched the first Kindle, which sold out in less than a day. The book of the future, it turned out, had a built-in battery. And what I’d just published would never work on it.

Then again, as my therapist suggests (though my accountant begs to differ) maybe this accidental Kindle-proofing is a blessing in disguise. My nostalgia for print, after all, is something like Balzac’s for the wooden printing press in Lost Illusions:
At the time when this story opens, the Stanhope press and the ink-distributing roller had not yet come into use in small provincial printing-houses…. [Now] the rapid spread of machine presses has swept away all this obsolete gear to which, for all its imperfections, we owe the beautiful books printed by Elzevir, Plantin, Aldus Didot, and the rest…
In the novel that follows, Balzac links speedier and more efficient printing technology, and the larger cultural pressures it stands for, to the artistic failures of his would-be hero, the “provincial” Lucien Chardon. Unable to withstand the allure of a fast franc, Lucien becomes in Paris whatever is French for “sellout.” (Not to mention – horrors – a critic!) But I would become no Lucien Chardon – not with Field Guide, anyway. To “sell out,” you first have to sell, and in committing to the ideal of the “beautiful” book, I had pretty much guaranteed that this particular project would remain unsullied by commerce.

Now, in honor of the future that never was, the durable pigments of the almost obsolete, I offer you the following trade secrets to fellow writers. The availability for the Kindle of some of the titles mentioned below points to the difficulty of the task; nonetheless, here are:

Seven Ways to Kindle-proof Your Book

Step 1. Use Color
The iPad and Barnes & Noble’s NookColor have already gone some way toward countering this strategy, and Amazon is rumored to have plans to follow suit with a full color, full-functionality tablet.  As of this writing, however, the top-selling eReader, the Kindle, remains a black-and-white only affair. I suggest, then, that all of you aspiring Kindle-proofers out there familiarize yourselves with the color palette on your word-processors. You may, as Mark Z. Danielewski does in House of Leaves, choose to assign a single word its own color, like the sodapop in the old Cherry 7-Up commercials. (Isn’t it cool…in pink?) Or you may opt for a subtler approach, à la Richard Flanagan. In Gould’s Book of Fish, Flanagan uses a different color for each chapter, to represent the different dyes employed by his ichthycidal narrator. Still not persuaded? I once heard that Faulkner planned to use different-colored type to distinguish the different voices in As I Lay Dying. If it’s good enough for a Nobelist, isn’t it good enough for you?

Step 2. Illustrate, Illustrate, Illustrate
In an essay published in The New Yorker a couple years back, Nicholson Baker complained that “photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don’t fare so well on the little gray screen” of the Kindle. Of course, as with Step 1, the iPad complicates things, and glossy (“glossy”?) magazine readers are apparently “flocking” to the NookColor. (Constant vigilance is the price of Kindle-proofing!) But it’s worth pointing out that, where words on a page are an abstraction of an abstraction, illustrations are only one representative step away from the visual world. And so the venerable tradition of the illuminated manuscript still seems to favor, at this stage of the game, the codex book. No wonder that, as writers grow anxious about the fate of print, we’re seeing an uptick in illustrated fiction; it’s the literary equivalent of abstract painting’s retort to photography. (This is to say nothing of graphic novels.) Lavishing attention on hand-made illustrations – as in Joe Meno’s Demons in the Spring – or incorporating photographs, like Rod Sweet and Tim Williams’ Instructions for the Apocalypse or Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts, is a great way to add an extra exclamation point to your literary pooh-poohing of the eReader.

Step 3. Play With Text, Typeface, and White Space
eReaders currently use two approaches to rendering text. One is quasi-photographic, but the Kindle’s remains the more battery-efficient method of imposing a standard typeface. This makes the effects of a textually playful book like Danielewski’s House of Leaves or Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel or William H. Gass’ The Tunnel – difficult to render on a Kindle. If you want to up the degree of difficulty, you can try combining this with step 1, following Gass’ lead in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, wherein text in a range of typefaces and sizes curves and distends and floats around and behind the illustrations. And then there’s white space. Mallarmé may have got there first, but Blake Butler’s There is No Year is moving the ball forward. It’s available for Kindle, but only the good Lord and Jeff Bezos know how it reads there. (I don’t think I need to point out the irony of the Amazon customer review for A Visit from the Goon Squad that finds “the ‘powerpoint’ chapter…extremely difficult to read on the Kindle.”)

Step 4. Run With Scissors
The opening story of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, famously invites readers to take scissors to it and create a Mobius strip. This cut-up aesthetic is more literal in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes, which slices and dices the pages of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles to create pages like lace. It’s a piece of found prose-poetry whose sentences change as you turn the page. Except on the Kindle, where it doesn’t – and couldn’t – exist.

Step 5. Go Aleatory
Narrative fiction, as Vladimir Propp would tell you, need not proceed in a straight line. Presumably, the HopScotching of Cortazar’s Rayuela would be easy enough to approximate via hyperlink on a Kindle, as might something structured like Raymond Queneau’s “A Story As You Like It.” But what about a story where the order of the pieces genuinely doesn’t matter. Or one where an Oulippan element of chance is built in? A narrative like Coover’s “deck of cards” story from A Child Again, say. Or B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, which consists of a beginning, an ending, and 25 middle chapters to be shuffled and read at random. Speaking of The Unfortunates…

Step 6. Put It In A Box
Gass at one point imagined reinforcing the random, “pile of pages” aspect of The Tunnel by printing it loose-leaf and selling it in a box. It can’t be any coincidence that, in the age of the Kindle, the book as boxed set has been making a comeback. New Directions, in addition to The Unfortunates, has given us the slipcovered (and thus far unKindled) Microscripts of Robert Walser. McSweeney’s, another box-loving press, has delivered any number of issues of the Quarterly, not to mention One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in boxed form. And in 2008, Hotel St. George Press published Ben Greenman’s archetypally box-intensive Correspondences, albeit in a limited edition.

Step 7. Pile on the End Matter
This strategy exploits not so much a technical weakness of the Kindle as a practical one. My theory is that, because the number of pages remaining in a book aren’t palpable on a digital device, readers are less likely to go digging around in appendices, acknowledgments, and so forth. The endnotes function on the Kindle apparently makes it pretty easy to jump from the main text to the famous fine print of Infinite Jest. But with other kinds of end matter, aren’t you likely to hit “The End” and think: I’m done? Writers who sneak interesting and potentially meaningful information into the back of the book are thus a step closer to Kindle-proofing than the rest of us. Here I’m thinking specifically of William T. Vollmann, whose resolutely booktacular books often contain dozens, even hundreds of pages of end matter (interesting in direct proportion to the interest of the main text.) Or Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. But I was struck, reading Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual this spring, by the way the various indexes and appendices offered a variety of possible reformattings of the main text.

Bonus List: 10 Pretty Damn Kindle-Proof (at least, as of this writing) Books:

1. Nox, by Anne Carson (Rules Exploited: 1, 2, 3, 6): In many ways, this boxed version of a mourning journal Carson made after the death of her brother is the paragon of the Kindle-proof book: a book built out of books, and alert to its own status as an object.

2. The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nabokov (Steps Taken: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5): The chief attraction of this slender posthumous work is its Chip Kidd design, which invites readers to cut out facsimiles of the notecards Nabokov composed on and make their own book…though, given the $35 cover price, I can’t imagine too many readers took Kidd up on it.

3. A Field Guide to the North American Family, by yours truly (1, 2, 3, 5): This is probably the only excuse I’ll ever have to insert my name in a list between Nabokov’s and Jonathan Safran Foer’s. There. I’ve done it.

4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer (1, 2, 3): A Kindle version of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close actually exists, but, even if Amazon were to insert an animation, there is just no way to achieve in e-form the flip-book effect on which this novel’s conclusion rises…and falls.

5. The Principles of Uncertainty, by Maira Kalman (1, 2): Okay, this is actually pretty easy to recreate on an iPad. But who would want to read this gorgeous thing on a screen?

6. Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic (5): The chief Kindle-resistant feature of Dictionary of the Khazars is that it is actually two books: a “male version” and a (slightly different) “female version,” bound back to back. You move from one to the other by flipping the book over and starting from the other end. Kindle that, Amazon!

7. Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski (1, 3, 5): Unlike House of Leaves, the National-Book-Award-nominated Only Revolutions is too insanely Kindle-proof to actually be a good book. I found its main text – which takes the flip & read logic of Pavic a step further – to be a hackneyed pastiche of Finnegans Wake. But you can’t blame a guy for trying.

8. One Hundred Thousand Million Poems, by Raymond Queneau (4, 5): This echt-Oulippan “poetry machine” is a set of 10 sonnets, bound to a spine, but with incisions between the lines that extend out to the edge of the page. Readers can manipulate the pages to form and reform sonnets. Mathematically, there are 1,000,000,000,000,000 possible variations. In theory, an eBook equivalent of this would work beatifully (you’d just have to build in a “shuffle” function) – though by equivalence rather than reproduction.

9. Rising Up and Rising Down (the unabridged version), by William T. Vollmann (2, 3, 5, 7): In theory, this should be the perfect eBook candidate, in the sense that no one wants to lug the damn thing on the subway. It is, in a sense, almost all appendix. I’d bet dollars to donuts, though, that, via the logic sketched in point 7 above, no one would ever get through a digital edition. Vollmann’s detractors would argue that’s a good thing. I’m not so sure…

10. Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak (1, 3): The brilliance of Where the Wild Things Are, as a children’s librarian once pointed out to me, is not just the illustrations, but the way they gradually expand to fill the page spreads (what’s called a full-bleed)…and then recede again into white space. It enacts for children the dialectic of wildness and safety that is the book’s explicit subject, and has, this librarian insisted, a deeply therapeutic effect. Wild Things, that is, uses its book-ness beautifully. You could reproduce this on a screen…but unless the aspect ratio was 2:1, it would have to be in thumbnail form. Perhaps the solution, as Reif Larsen has suggested, is to get away from the idea of reproduction altogether. Rather than deluding ourselves that the eBook is a book, we should think carefully about the effects each can achieve that the other can’t, and then work to find equivalents between them. And lo and behold, a fantastically inventive app of Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (Steps Taken: 2, 3) is now available for the iPad…perhaps pointing the way to yet another future of the book.

The Amazon Alphabet: From Audio Books to Zane

You’ve probably noticed that Amazon, like many sites, employs an “auto-complete” feature on its search box. When you start typing in letters, it suggests things that begin with those letters. It’s probably safe to assume that it suggests the most frequently searched words, so, if we look at Amazon’s book section we can type in letters and discover, for each letter of the alphabet, the most popular searches on Amazon. Last time we did this, about a year and half ago, vampires were the dominant theme. This time around, the vampires have mostly disappeared and things are perhaps a touch more literary. As we termed it last time, you might consider this exercise, the ABCs of Amazon (a peek into the reading habits of America and, like it or not, a primer for what’s popular in the world of books):

Audio Books
Bible
Charlaine Harris (ok, some vampire books are still popular)
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (the very popular children’s series by Jeff Kinney)
Ebooks (a sign of the times)
Free Kindle Books (Ibid)
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Harry Potter (as if there was any doubt)
ISBN number search (funny because ISBNs work in the search box)
James Patterson
Kindle (no surprise here)
Lee Child
Mark Twain Autobiography 2010
Nora Roberts
Outliers (by Malcolm Gladwell)
Pretty Little Liars (there’s a TV show based on these)
Quilting
Room (by Emma Donoghue)
Stephen King
The Help (by Kathryn Stockett)
Unbroken (by Laura Hillenbrand)
Vince Flynn
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
X-Men
Yoga
Zane

(Amazon has been known to personalize and regularly adjust its results, so your Amazon alphabet may vary.)

A Special Note for All You New Kindle (And Other Ereader) Owners

The New York Times has been highlighting a new trend. With all the Kindles, Nooks, iPads, and whatnot being unwrapped on Christmas day, (to home in on just one of those devices, they say Amazon may have sold over 8 million Kindles this year), what was once a day of rest from shopping is likely to be a booming day for ebook sales. Some in the publishing industry are even beginning to see the ebook emergence as a ray of light in a stagnant industry.

It’s pretty clear by now that ebooks and ereaders are a fully mainstream technology. Even among the avid, book-worshiping, life-long readers that frequent The Millions, ebooks are surprisingly popular. in fact, looking at the statastics that Amazon provides us, about 15% of all the books bought by Millions readers at Amazon after clicking on our links were Kindle ebooks. Put another way, that’s about one out of every seven books.

So, for all those readers unwrapping shiny new devices, here are some links to get you going.

For starters, here are the top-ten most popular ebooks purchased by Millions readers in 2010. You’ll notice that these aren’t all that different from the overall Millions favorites — to the extent that they are different from other books popular with our readers, these books tend to skew towards the page-turner (Tolstoy notwithstanding) and the cheaper (all but one are, as of this writing, at or below the $9.99 magic ebook price point).

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson ($5.20)
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell ($7.66)
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan ($9.34)
The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky ($4.46)
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart ($9.10)
Faithful Place by Tana French ($12.99)
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen ($9.99)
The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson ($7.57)
The Passage by Justin Cronin ($9.45)
Tinkers by Paul Harding ($5.68)

Other potentially useful ebook links:

Editors’ Picks
Best of 2010
Top 100 Paid and Free

And in this fractured ebook landscape, you’ve also got your NookBooks, Borders ebooks, Google ebooks, and Apple ibooks. All of these purveyors happen to do a brisk “business” in “selling” free, out-of-copyright ebooks, but readers may prefer Project Gutenberg, an unaffiliated site that’s been making free ebooks available for years.

Happy Reading!

A Year in Reading: Seth Mnookin

In November 2009, my wife gave birth to our first child. At the time, I was working on a book which I was planning on handing in three months hence. I didn’t actually finish until the following October, and for most of that time I was writing for between twelve and fourteen hours a day. It was not fun for anyone. I can count the combined number of restaurants my wife and I ate at and movies we saw in 2010 on one hand — but I filled three pocket-sized notebooks keeping track of the books I read. Most of those were mysteries, with authors from the UK (Ian Rankin, Colin Dexter, P.D. James) and Scandinavia (Sjowall & Wahloo, Jo Nesbo, Hakan Nesser) especially well represented. It was two American writers — and their very American main characters — that I’ll remember the most:

The Parker novels of Richard Stark. Fifteen years ago, I got turned on to Parker after a thread-pulling expedition led me from Jim Thompson’s nihilistic noir to the 1990 film adaptation of The Grifters to screenwriter/novelist Donald Westlake to Westlake’s pseudonym Richard Stark to Stark’s Slayground, a dimestore shiv of a book about what happens when corrupt cops tip off the mob about a car accident in which an incompetent wheelman flips a getaway car next to an amusement park called Fun Island. (Hint: Master thief/antihero extraordinaire Parker survives; lots of other people die.) Then, earlier this year, I chanced upon Darwyn Cooke’s The Hunter, a brilliantly disturbing graphic novelization of Parker’s debut. Four weeks later, the combination of a Kindle and my deadline-induced insomnia had led to my tearing through another ten books in the Parker canon.

Stephen King once said reading the Parker novels was like getting a PhD in crime. John Banville called Parker “the perfection of that existential man whose earliest models we met in Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky.” For me, he was the most enjoyable way to spend those dozens of nights when I was too tired to write and too anxious to sleep.

The Nero Wolfe novels of Rex Stout. In October, I was telling a friend about my recent Parker obsession when he asked me if I was a Rex Stout fan. On the surface, his question made no sense: Parker is lean, instinctive, dangerous, alluring; Wolfe is obese, erudite, possibly alcoholic and obsessed with orchids. Parker has no real home and at one point had reconstructive plastic surgery to disguise himself; Wolfe almost never leaves his Manhattan brownstone and delights in outsmarting cops. Parker is a stone-cold killer; Wolfe is a genius detective. They’re both awesome. My friend told me to start with Fer-de-Lance, Stout’s first Wolfe book. I took his advice, if only because I had no other idea about how to start a series that includes something like 80 novels and novellas.

More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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