If you’re like me, you keep a list of books you read, and at this time of year, you may run your finger back over it, remembering not just the plots, the soul-lifting favorites, and the drudges cast aside in frustration. You also remember the when and where of each book. This one on a plane to somewhere cold, that one in bed on a warm summer night. That list, even if it is just titles and authors and nothing more, is a diary in layers. Your days, other plots, imaginary people.
And so when, in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we ask our esteemed guests to tell us about the “best” book(s) they read all year, we do it not just because we want a great book recommendation from someone we admire (we do) and certainly not because we want to cobble together some unwieldy Top 100 of 2011 list (we don’t). We do it because we want a peek into that diary. And in the responses we learn how anything from a 300-year-old work to last summer’s bestseller reached out and insinuated itself into a life outside those pages.
With this in mind, for an eighth year, we asked some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2012 a fruitful one.
As we have in prior years, the names of our 2011 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.
Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Ben Marcus, author of The Flame Aphabet.
Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints.
Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin.
Nick Moran, The Millions intern.
Dan Kois, senior editor at Slate.
John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass.
Michael Bourne, staff writer at The Millions.
Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org.
Scott Esposito, coauthor of Lady Chatterley’s Brother, proprietor of Conversational Reading.
Hannah Pittard, author of The Fates Will Find Their Way.
Benjamin Hale, author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore.
Geoff Dyer, author of Otherwise Known as the Human Condition.
Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding.
Deborah Eisenberg, author of Collected Stories.
Duff McKagan, author of It’s So Easy: And Other Lies, former bassist for Guns N’ Roses.
Nathan Englander, author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.
Amy Waldman, author of The Submission.
Charles Baxter, author of Gryphon: New and Selected Stories.
David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World.
Emma Straub, author of Other People We Married.
Adam Ross, author of Ladies and Gentlemen.
Philip Levine, Poet Laureate of the United States.
Mayim Bialik, actress, author of Beyond the Sling.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer of The Walkmen.
Chris Baio, bassist for Vampire Weekend.
Bill Morris, staff writer at The Millions.
Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There.
Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer at the LA Times.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer at The Millions.
Emily M. Keeler, Tumblrer at The Millions, books editor at The New Inquiry.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer at The Millions, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Jami Attenberg, author of The Melting Season.
Dennis Cooper, author of The Marbled Swarm.
Alex Ross, author of Listen to This, New Yorker music critic.
Mona Simpson, author of My Hollywood.
Yaşar Kemal, author of They Burn the Thistles.
Siddhartha Deb, author of The Beautiful and The Damned: A Portrait of the New India.
David Vann, author of Legend of a Suicide.
Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Edie Meidav, author of Lola, California.
Ward Farnsworth, author of Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric.
Daniel Orozco, author of Orientation and Other Stories.
Hannah Nordhaus, author of The Beekeeper’s Lament.
Brad Listi, founder of The Nervous Breakdown.
Alex Shakar, author of Luminarium.
Denise Mina, author of The End of the Wasp Season.
Christopher Boucher, author of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.
Parul Sehgal, books editor at NPR.org.
Patrick Brown, staff writer at The Millions.
Jacob Lambert, freelance writer, columnist, contributor to The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, author of Last Night in Montreal, staff writer at The Millions.
Kevin Hartnett, staff writer for The Millions.
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family, staff writer at The Millions.
Jeff Martin, author of The Late American Novel.
Jane Alison, author of The Sisters Antipodes.
Matthew Gallaway, author of The Metropolis Case.
Nuruddin Farah, author of Crossbones.
Natasha Wimmer, translator of The Third Reich.
Jean-Christophe Vatlat, author of Aurorarama.
Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination.
Brooke Hauser, author of The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens.
Belinda McKeon, author of Solace.
Ellis Avery, author of The Teahouse Fire.
Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast.
A.N. Devers, editor of Writers’ Houses.
Mark Bibbins, author of The Dance of No Hard Feelings.
Elissa Schappell, author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls.
Rachel Syme, NPR contributor.
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Infrequent Millions contributor Buzz Poole has written for numerous publications and is the author of Madonna of the Toast. He is also the proprietor of a blog by the same name.The scene: an all-night, drug-fueled party. We could be in New York, London, Berlin or Buenos Aires, until the host turns down the music, telling revelers “Be quiet, or we won’t be able to hear it – it should be coming now!” People laugh knowingly and accuse the host of being disrespectful, but then at 5 a.m. comes the Azan, the first call to prayer:A high-pitched male voice, singing in Arabic, soars through the air. The crowd begins to cheer, whistle and clap. Then the music is turned back up and the party continues.Such is life on the Persian hip-hop scene – one of the many examples of how the global influences of the 21st century have fused with tradition in Iran.Transit Tehran: Young Iran and Its Inspirations provides myriad ways to trace the contradictions and dichotomies that define contemporary Iran, especially in Tehran. Fiction, nonfiction, photography, film stills, paintings and illustrations speak to every aspect of the capital’s 14 million residents, while also exploring the burden that artists bear as “cultural agents to the West,” in the words of contributor Shirin Neshat. These potent and incisive creative acts and cultural investigations are complicated by the current government’s imposing role in controlling the flow of information in and out of the country. But it is not only the Islamic Republic that has used authoritarian tactics to maintain power over its people. Transit Tehran presents Islam as just one of many aspects of the country today, reaching back to Persian history, kings, shahs, the influence of foreign governments and oil.Many of the stories and studies in this book hinge on the dilemma of change without change, which according to Neshat dates back to the nineteenth century. “[T]he tragedy of Iran seems to repeat itself, with no escape,” he writes, in an appreciation of the exiled illustrator Aredeshir Mohassess. Living in New York since 1976, Mohassess is considered “the most significant living Iranian artist to date… almost entirely forgotten by both the Iranian and the Western public.” The strength of Mohassess’s work, as Neshat sees it, is that it “facilitates an understanding of the modern political history of Iran, from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries: a history that proves to be overwhelmingly dark and authoritarian.” Of the black ink samplings of Mohassess’s illustrations in Transit Tehran, chains figure heavily, rendering forced servitude, almost always at the hands of government figures. But just as this work alludes to a bloody history of exploitation, the resilient and revolutionary spirit of the people is celebrated with macabre humor. The illustration “The king is always above the people,” for example, comprises a group of modest men, with their king strung up above them.Khosrow Hassanzadeh’s series of paintings “Guys in the Hood,” inspired by his desire “to remind people that although the Revolution happened, in many ways, beneath the surface, nothing changed,” features such modest men. His subjects are his neighbors, who enjoy long-standing pastimes like waterpipes, wrestling and chai. Proud, assured faces define these portraits, which derive from martyrs’ portraits and the fact that the “government still says the Iranian people are living martyrs; sixty million people ready to die for their ideology.”Women are the focus of several of the pieces in Transit Tehran. Newsha Tavakolian’s “Girl Power” photographs convey “one of the many contradictions of life here. The new generation [of women] is completely different from that of their mothers who just ran households.” This difference ranges from attending university and running businesses to martyrdom, but even the empowerment generated by these changes does not eradicate the patriarchic reality of the culture at large. “Dragnet Tehran” introduces Iranian policewomen, in existence as trainees since 1966 but only just making their “first official public appearance during the 2006 demonstration on International Women’s Day.” “Going Home,” perhaps the most personal offering in the book, eulogizes the pre-Revolution days when women would wear bathing suits in the Caspian Sea. Javad Montazeri’s images of women enjoying a day at the beach and swimming in the hejab were shot for his daughter, who will also have to cover herself when she turns nine years old: “The change that has taken place didn’t evolve naturally. It was imposed on us… They altered surface appearances, but people’s minds were unaffected.”The Western media tends to cover only certain aspects of Iran, creating a perception that these alone define the country. For those of us on the outside looking in, every page of Transit Tehran peels away a layer of misunderstanding and sheds light on the dynamics of Iran and its people.Update: It’s been brought to our attention that the Transit Tehran’s co-editor, Maziar Bahari, has been imprisoned in Tehran since June 12. PEN issued a letter last week, signed by a who’s who of contemporary writers, demanding his release[Images courtesy Garnet Publishing]
Infrequent Millions contributor Buzz Poole has written for numerous publications and is the author of Madonna of the Toast. He is also the proprietor of a blog by the same name.”Illustrated book” – the term is as vague as it is precise. Most children’s books are illustrated, yet they are rarely lumped into this category. The same is true of graphic novels. So what’s left? Photography, graphic design, typography, illustrations, artist monographs, pop culture kitsch, collectibles, graffiti, architecture, courtroom sketches – really any book on any topic in which the illustrations outnumber the words, permitting the illustrations to tell the story.So begins a semi-regular “illustrated book” column here at The Millions. Most of the books covered – but not all of them – will be new releases; some installments will be a mishmash of titles, while others will be themed; there will no children’s books; there will be no graphic novels, though there will be illustrated fiction (more on what differentiates the two next time). I reserve the right to contradict what I have just written, though I promise all books discussed in this column will contain images. Like the best novels, poems and essays, the most intriguing illustrated books transcend their authors. I consider three such books below.1. Sites of Impact: Meteorite Craters Around the WorldSites of Impact not only takes us way beyond photographer Stan Gaz but also rockets us into outer space as we imagine the forceful trajectories of meteorites that have collided with Earth. Gaz’s stunning black-and-white aerial studies of these impact craters show us what millions of years look like and how these visible remnants of destruction and decay permit scientists to study and speculate about the planet’s geological and biological histories. These craters, in Gaz’s words, “are footprints of the stars… the circle of life, writ large; physically, environmentally, and metaphorically.” Complementing Gaz’s thoughts about the journeys he made for this tremendous project, impact-cratering expert Christian Koeberl outlines the history of scientific inquiry regarding these sites. And Robert Silberman situates Gaz’s work in the continuum of landscape photography and its efforts to capture the sublime. Their informative essays provide context for the work, but Gaz’s eye for conveying the magnitude of the unknown requires no explanation. These locations existed before language and will doubtless exist well beyond it. Getting lost in Gaz’s photographs is an intimidating experience, but they impart a greater respect for the natural world. They remind us of humanity’s status as a blip on geology’s timeline.2. Sometimes I Think, Sometimes I AmVery much rooted in language, Sometimes I Think, Sometimes I Am is actually two books in one, like Russian nesting dolls, albeit ones with onion heads. Sara Fanelli illustrates the themes of “Devils and Angels,” “Love,” “Colour” (which gets it own little book), “Mythology” and “the Absurd” as prompted and framed by artful adages from Wassily Kadinsky and Francis Bacon, Melville, Nabokov, Calvino, and others. Whereas Maira Kalman reacts to people and objects, Fanelli uses the words of artists and writers to create her worlds. The sketchbook aesthetic – a heavily trod illustrated book niche – succeeds here because of the intimacy and whimsy of Fanelli’s work. Writer Marina Warner likens Fanelli to Paul Klee, highlighting the work’s “unencumbered rhythm of the doodle.” In most of the selections text weaves, crouches and splatters, participating in the images, as in the illustrations of Stephaine Mallarmé’s poignant advice about writing poetry: “To write a weepy poem try onion juice.” The richness of Fanelli’s collage-like illustrations draw you back again and again to these pages, especially if you are in search of a timeless bit of inspiration, a la Lewis Carroll’s “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”3. Hundertwasser Complete Graphic Work 1951-1976Hundertwasser, one of Austria’s most famous twentieth century artists, would most certainly agree with Carroll’s sentiment. His Complete Graphic Work 1951-1976 is one of the most elegant (and amazingly affordable) gems of a book I’ve seen in a long time. The black linen case, foil stamping and six-color printing emulate the original edition of this catalogue, which the artist assembled on the occasion of a 1973 tour of museums in Australia and New Zealand. According to the book’s original publisher, Hundertwasser’s idea was to produce something “small enough to be carried in a handbag or jacket pocket like a much-loved treasure.” Apparently before the book went out of print in 1983 it had sold over 750,000 copies. It’s not hard to see why; more confounding is the question of why it fell out of print, which is never actually addressed here. Luckily, it is available again and the paintings and woodcuts pulse colorfully with the world’s myths and the patterns of the natural world. The spiraling circles in particular echo certain of the landscapes of Stan Gaz’s photographs. Faces with metallic eyes also figure heavily in this work, all of them in concert with the environment. Hundertwasser was “green” before it was a catchall spin word. He reveled in nature’s ability to nurture our spirits and this comes across in the writing paired with each painting as well as some of the biographical material.Future installments of this series will include a look at illustrated fiction and self-aware art movements. What else would be of interest to readers when it comes to illustrated books?
Infrequent Millions contributor Buzz Poole has written for numerous publications and is the author of Madonna of the Toast. He is also the proprietor of a blog by the same name.I recently bought Aleksandar Hemon’s latest book, The Lazarus Project, on a whim. Always a sucker for fiction with photographs I had not heard of the book, Hemon’s name a vague item on a mental list of contemporary authors I’ve been told to read. The jacket copy raves about Hemon’s ability to invigorate the English language, his second language, telling the two stories that comprise the novel.The book’s title makes itself an obvious choice as the two parallel narratives unfold: one shadows Vladimir Brik, an expatriated Bosnian living in Chicago under the pall of the war on terror; the other makes fiction of a historical event, the 1908 killing of Jewish immigrant Lazarus Averbuch by the Chicago chief of police. Both stories concern themselves with returns that unlike the title’s biblical namesake cannot be resurrected.We meet Brik at a Chicago celebration of Bosnia’s Independence Day where he unexpectedly reunites with his old friend from Sarajevo, Rora, who unlike Brik suffered through the Bosnian War. Married to an American neurosurgeon, writing a newspaper column about expatriate experiences and working on a novel, the American life Brik has built for himself since his 1992 arrival in Chicago is one of a self-inflicted, guilty complacency. Rora, a photographer, shares a worldview more aligned with a resignation to struggle indicative of something that not even America’s abundance can slake: “a poor people’s affliction: the timeless feeling that plenty never means enough.”Brik receives a grant so he can travel to Eastern Europe to research his novel about Lazarus Averbuch, planning to retrace the immigrant’s path to America, which is signposted by pogroms and refugee camps. Brik decides to bring Rora along, and the journey becomes a homecoming of sorts. What both narratives share in common is the fact that home is not a place one can always return to, or find it easy to create elsewhere.Using newspaper clippings and imagination, Hemon’s examination of the circumstances resulting in the death of Lazarus focuses on Olga, the only person in Chicago that really knew her brother. Speculation about anarchist leanings and the persistent bigotry that neither Olga nor her brother could escape cloud the actuality of what really happened to Lazarus, the police and the press favoring their assumptions over the facts.It is here at this intersection of history and imagination where the two stories weave in and out of one another. For Olga, as news of her brother’s slaying evolves into an issue of great civic import, she has no way of knowing what really happened to her brother, and therefore cannot fathom how to break the news to their mother, who is still in Europe. The lack of any objective clarity about Lazarus inspires speculations about the man he had become, the friends he made, the meetings he attended, as contrasted with her memories of their happy pre-pogrom upbringing. On a grander scale, this inability to connect the dots, or even discern them, speaks to the development of the American experiment during the early 20th century, something that was in full swing but nearly impossible to decipher.For Brik, his imaginative indulgences not only make stark the rift between history and imagination, but also reveal his solipsistic selfishness. The ostensible reason for this trip is to learn about the past, the personal history that delivered Lazarus to his demise. But before Brik and Rora leave, intimations are made that for Brik, it is only about him. Rora’s presence is not so much about companionship but to serve as a foil for Brik to absolve his guilt about not staying in Sarajevo.Discovering Lazarus Averbuch’s past becomes a secondary activity as Brik and Rora shuttle through the Ukraine, Moldova, Romania and Bosnia. As Rora does little more than drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and snap photographs, Brik is either considering his marriage or needling Rora about the sordid details of wartime life. Both lines of questioning reveal the inadequacies Brik sees in himself, though it doesn’t seem that anyone else sees them in him.The photographs in the book – a mix of images shot by Velibor Bozovic and culled from the Chicago Historical Society – separate the chapters, which trade back and forth between the two narratives. The photographs do correspond with the two plots, but they also insinuate vagueness. Rora and the photographs he takes serve in the same capacity within the context of the book. Photographs rely on the imagination of the viewer. Whatever photographers see in a scene they shoot, whatever they do or do not capture, they are present at the moment of the photograph, but the viewer is not.Before Brik and Rora depart, Brik reminisces about his pre-American life: “The one thing I remembered and missed from the before-the-war Sarajevo was a kind of unspoken belief that everyone could be whatever they claimed they were – each life, however imaginary, could be validated by its rightful, sovereign owner, from the inside.”This internal validation defines Brik and his quixotic quest. His endless string of questions for Rora (which for most of the book Rora deflects with jokes) finally results in Rora calling out his travel companion: “Even if you knew what you want to know, you would still know nothing. You ask questions, you want to know more, but no matter how much more I tell you, you will never know anything.”After a booze-fueled argument with his wife, Brik is locked out of their home, leaving him to wander. Having nowhere to go gets him thinking about “home.” Without home, everywhere is nowhere. Later, he defines home as a place where people miss you when you are gone. But, where Brik wants to be missed is a place where no one knows him.In The Lazarus Project, birthmarks rhyme with eye color; sparking bottles overflowing from a dumpster elicit pleasure; twiggy arms emerge from sleeves like tongues; Jesus is either “Mr. Christ” or a “nailed gymnast;” sunflowers are coy, despair “brick-thick.” The lively writing makes for a vivid read that casts a glaring light on the horrors of pogroms and the Bosnian War and what was left in their wakes. Some of the book’s most intriguing ideas are not followed through, however, because of Brik’s single-mindedness, which eclipses the Lazarus Averbuch story, leaving us with a character who cares only about himself.
Infrequent Millions contributor Buzz Poole has written for numerous publications and is the author of Madonna of the Toast. He is also the proprietor of a blog by the same name.Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier furthers what Henry James had begun to chip away at with his novels of manners and paves the way for the modernist dilemmas that comprise the work of Joyce, Beckett, Eliot and Pound. How do individuals define themselves and interact with others when everything they have known changes? John Dowell’s cagey narration folds in on itself and doubles back, making for more questions than answers as the story of two couples besieges what is thought to be the “extraordinarily safe castle” of their lives. As one of the four primary characters, Dowell relates how this quartet’s existence was like a minuet, lives of orderly precision that never inspired questioning, until it was too late. The story is Dowell’s post-mortem report, which is rich with point-of-view tactics and metaphors cribbed by Ford’s successors. As Dowell warns early during his tale: “I don’t know. And there is nothing to guide us. And if everything is so nebulous about a matter so elementary as the morals of sex, what is there to guide us in the more subtle morality of all other personal contacts, associations, and activities? Or are we meant to act on impulse alone? It is all a darkness.”Four decades later, William Gaddis’s The Recognitions hit the increasingly surreal, overtly commercialized scene, a potent cocktail of Christian morality, creative license and New York City bohemia. Fitting in somewhere between Joyce and Pynchon, Gaddis’s pages read with ease, though he devotes much ink to the blasé poses of just about everyone trying to be someone else. At the center of this carousel of masquerades, painter Wyatt Gwyon, his talent so prodigious, and crippling, he begins to forge the works of Flemish masters. Crafting his own canvases and paints, Gwyon’s lines, shadings and textures fool everyone, even Gwyon, to such a degree that his greatest anxiety, and the novel’s for that matter, is how to create a copy of something that has never existed. The lexicons of the transfiguration, academia, fine art and advertising mingle and bristle – a wonderful novel of ideas, full of jokes, japes and jabs.The Roberto Bolaño bug also bit me this year, the excitement orbiting around 2666 prompting me to finally read The Savage Detectives and then 2666. Both books have been picked apart enough, and my praise for them echoes much of what has already been written and said. But, for me, what has made the emergence of these translations most exciting is Bolaño’s Shakespearean appreciation for jokes. I haven’t seen much exploration of this particular aspect of his writing, but both of these novels brim with humor, from the tense tomfoolery of two writerly rivals dueling on a beach to the darkly vicious jokes of the detectives investigating unsolvable murders: “Then the inspector, exhausted after a night’s work, wondered to himself how much of God’s truth lay hidden in ordinary jokes.” Laughter requires humility, which forces you to put your ego in check, oftentimes easier said than done. Bolaño baits these moments, however, reminding his characters and readers that life, while not a joke, is not a dance. Life is not a prescribed set of steps, but a consistently inconsistent stream of events and happenstance, full of contradictions and confusions, sorrows and the sublime, it can ramble, deviate and detour, and like many jokes, the punch line is not always delivered correctly, or even understood as humorous.Both Gaddis and Bolaño use laughter – at times crass, inappropriate and awkward – because it possesses the tremendous power to disarm you, an effect the characters in Ford’s book would have avoided at all costs. Had Ford’s narrator acknowledged laughter as an invaluable impulse, perhaps the circumstances of his life would not strike him as so strange. But of course, that was Ford’s point. For my taste, too much contemporary fiction forgoes laughter. There just is not enough laughter (smirking at irony doesn’t count), probably because the authors and their characters take themselves too seriously. There’s nothing wrong with being serious, but as Gaddis and Bolaño demonstrate, laughter can morph into the proverbial light in darkness, revealing the unnoticed or unrealized, much of which is serious, though it surfaces when we least expect it, caught off guard in the throes of belly-holding laughter.More from A Year in Reading 2008
The distractions of a good book have been in high demand this year. A quiet corner and a transporting story offered a reprieve from relentless campaign news not to mention cheap entertainment for the many feeling a sudden impulse for thriftiness. 2008 was a loud year, and this final month seems likely to be only more deafening. The annual shopping frenzy has already ramped up, this year with overtones of desperation and the macabre.Yet in the spirit of the season (though in defiance of the prevailing mood), we offer a month of gifts – collected with the help of many generous friends – to our readers. There will be plenty of lists in the coming days assigning 2008’s best books (and movies and music and everything else you can think of), but it is our opinion that these lists are woefully incompatible with the habits of most readers. As it does with many things in our culture, what we call “the tyranny of the new” holds particularly strong sway over these lists. With books, however, it is different. We are as likely to be moved by a book written 200 years ago as we are by one written two months ago, and a list of the “Best Books of 2008” feels fairly meaningless when you walk down the aisles of your favorite bookstore or library.Being a reader is about having millions of choices, and a lucky reader has trusted fellow readers as her guides. With this in mind, we’ve asked a number of our favorite readers (and writers and thinkers) to be your guides for the month of December, with each contributor sharing with us the best book(s) they read in 2008, regardless of publication date. And so we present to you our 2008 Year in Reading, a non-denominational advent calendar of reading recommendations to take you through to the end of 2008.We’re doing it a little differently this year. The names 2008 Year in Reading contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post to follow the series from here, you can just load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.Stephen Dodson author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of LanguagehatNam Le author of The BoatBenjamin Kunkel founding editor of N+1 and author of IndecisionRosecrans Baldwin founding editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me ThereHamilton Leithauser lead singer of The WalkmenMark Binelli author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!Dan Kois founding editor of VultureAmanda Petrusich author of It Still MovesJoseph O’Neill author of NetherlandRex Sorgatz of Fimoculous.com.Elizabeth McCracken author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My ImaginationJoan Silber author of Ideas of Heaven and The Size of the WorldAnder Monson author of Other ElectricitiesDon Lee author of Wrack and RuinTraver Kauffman of Black GarterbeltBuzz Poole author of Madonna of the ToastEdan Lepucki of The MillionsJim Shepard author of Like You’d Understand, AnywayPeter Straub author of seventeen novelsRachel Fershleiser co-editor of Not Quite What I Was PlanningCharles Bock author of Beautiful ChildrenEdward Champion of The Bat Segundo Show and edrants.comHelen Dewitt author of The Last SamuraiManil Suri author of The Age of ShivaCharles D’Ambrosio author of The Dead Fish MuseumChristopher Sorrentino author of TranceWells Tower author of Everything Ravaged, Everything BurnedLawrence Hill author of Someone Knows My NameJohn Wray author of LowboyEd Park founding editor of The Believer and author of Personal DaysSarah Manguso author of The Two Kinds of DecayKrin Gabbard author of Hotter Than ThatJosh Henkin author of MatrimonyJosh Bazell author of Beat the ReaperBrian Evenson by The Open CurtainCarolyn Kellogg of Jacket Copy and www.carolynkellogg.comHesh Kestin author of Based on a True StoryScott Esposito editor of The Quarterly Conversation and proprietor of Conversational ReadingGarth Risk Hallberg author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, contributor to The MillionsSana Krasikov author of One More YearSeth Lerer author of Children’s Literature: A Reader’s HistoryLorraine López author of The Gifted Gabaldon SistersAnne Landsman author of The Rowing Lesson and The Devil’s ChimneyMark Sarvas author of Harry, Revised and proprietor of The Elegant VariationBrad Gooch author of City PoetKyle Minor author of In the Devil’s TerritoryChristine Schutt author of Florida and All SoulsTodd Zuniga founding editor of Opium MagazineDavid Heatley author of My Brain is Hanging Upside DownV.V. Ganeshananthan author of Love MarriageFrances de Pontes Peebles author of The SeamstressLaura Miller cofounder of Salon.com author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in NarniaDustin Long author of IcelanderMaria Semple author of This One is MineRob Gifford of NPR, author of China RoadJohn Dufresne author of Requiem, MassMatthew Rohrer author of Rise UpMickey Hess author of Big Wheel at the Cracker FactoryGregory Rodriguez author of Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and VagabondsDavid Ebershoff author of The 19th WifeTim W. Brown author of Walking ManPablo De Santis author of The Paris EnigmaHugo Hamilton author of DisguiseJoshua Furst author of The Sabotage CafeKevin Hartnett of The MillionsRoland Kelts author of JapanamericaNikil Saval assistant editor at n+1The Year in Reading RecapBonus Links: A Year in Reading 2007, 2006, 2005
Buzz Poole, the managing editor of Mark Batty Publisher, has written for the likes of The Believer, PRINT, Village Voice and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also the author of Madonna of the Toast, a look at the cultural ramifications of unexpected religious and secular icons. Keep up with his adventures in surprising iconography at his Madonna of the Toast blog.In light of the many detailed and more timely reports from this year’s Book Expo America, this is not so much about BEA, but about how the setting of this year’s American publishing-industry high holiday really defined BEA 2008. Unlike the other two events of that paper and ink (and more recently pixilated) trinity – Frankfurt and London – this event ventures out from New York from time to time, and this year it tucked itself into downtown Los Angeles – not quite as sexy as American Apparel would lead you to believe, though it is not difficult to interpret those ads as remnants of lascivious thoughts burped up by Charles Bukowski as he leered at a waitress in some cafeteria in this very same downtown. You can imagine how the fact that I stayed in the Stillwell Hotel, a place right out of a Bukowski book (except this hotel reeked like curry) would skew how I was taking in the days. Like all great cities, Los Angeles has a feel that is unmistakable and, for better or worse, wholly its own.That je ne sais quoi struck me on the flight, in fact. The woman sitting next to me, a relationship expert and author, barraged me with her war stories, from her first publishing gig working at Grove Press, fielding phone calls from Sam Beckett (who was asking where his money was) to schooling me about how you know when a television interview has gone well (hers went well on “Oprah”, but not so well on “The Today Show”). And so it began.I arrived on Thursday. A blue-haired resident paying her rent, in cash, delayed my check-in to the Stillwell. Once she counted that $400 out – it took her so long that I worried about her several bags of frozen dinners thawing – I ditched my stuff and was back on the streets. Sunset portioned downtown into stark blocks of shadows and light as I noticed droves of people – young and old, of all ethnicities – snaking into a hotel. I assumed a publishing event, but I was wrong. A toothy, plastic-looking woman informed me that it was a “creating happiness seminar.” This notion alone made me pretty happy, so I decided not to attend.After a busy day of meetings on Friday, I kept away from industry parties that night, opting to hang out with an old friend of mine in Santa Monica, but even there the star-studded grip of publishing choked me. Someone I met works for a talent agency and this guy is a celebrity handler, and had been hanging with Slash the night before, who just so happens to have a book out. I know, because I had seen Slash earlier that day, smaller than I would have thought, but wearing his trademark top hat as he signed books. If you’re not a celebrity in LA, it always seems like you’re only one conversation away from talking about a celebrity.All three days drew people in search of free tote bags and celebrity autographs, but once all of the initial business was done – the true purpose of BEA, the selling of books, foreign rights and film rights, which mostly happened on Friday – things seemed subdued. As Saturday got underway, everyone was talking about how attendance was down. Not only was day one public attendance down by thousands compared to previous years, but everyone was joking about all of the agents, editors and publishers that did not bother making the trip from New York, let alone Europe.And so we were all there, spending the days under artificial lights, nursing hangovers and figuring out where to head at 5pm for some hair of the dog. The big houses threw lavish parties, like Simon & Shuster’s late-night star-studded Prince concert, which happened at his abode. The Consortium/Foreword Party at Hotel Figueroa, peppered with celebrities of the indie publishing realm, also exuded that “only in LA” vibe, what with all of us standing around a pool, blinded by the sun. Yes, we were all in Los Angeles, and most of us seemed ready to be back home, especially once the open bars ended.Some other random BEA observations:Leonard Nimoy has spent lots of time photographing obese nude women (Lucien Freud would approve): check out his The Full Body Project.I, like many others, made it a point to get an advance of Robert Bolano’s 2666, one of BEA’s big stories.Bill Daniel’s Mostly True: The Story of Bozo Texino (Microcosm Publishing, distributed by AK Press) and Over and Over (Princeton Architectural Press) represent the two best trades I made over the weekend.Beyond any logical explanation, BEA did include a teeth-whitening booth (right in the mix close to scores of children’s book publishers, as well as Continuum and McSweeney’s). A session cost $99, and the few times I made it a point to go and gawk, there were always at least three people getting treated, their mouths painted a strange electric cobalt.I’ve never seen such a booth at BEA before, but it struck me, like most everything else about the weekend, as emblematic of where I was, something about the authenticity of the superficiality. There are lots of us that rely on these trade shows to pay our bills – if sales people don’t sell titles, bookstores would be empty and publishers would fold; writers, editors, designers, illustrators, proofreaders and indexers wouldn’t get paid; agents and publicists wouldn’t have clients; critics and academics would have to… I don’t know what they would do.Don’t get me wrong: I am one of these people. And when you get a bunch of us together – anywhere in the world – there can be some good times, because one way or another we’re all in it for the books. For three days last week, there was an enormous cache of books stored in the Los Angeles Convention Center, yet there was a sense that this year the books mattered less, while being seen was the imperative, for those who bothered to show up. For those of us that did make the trip, what really seemed to come to light were the differences between the independent presses fighting like hell to remind everyone that they exist and the big-money houses that spend more money promoting books than it costs to produce them. Of course, this happens when BEA is in New York (and it happens in Frankfurt and London), but LA really seemed to exert itself. Maybe it was just me. I guess between all of the happiness and teeth whitening, however, there were plenty of folks with nice smiles.
Buzz Poole, the managing editor of Mark Batty Publisher, has written for the likes of The Believer, PRINT, Village Voice and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also the author of Madonna of the Toast, a look at the cultural ramifications of unexpected religious and secular icons. Keep up with his adventures in surprising iconography at his Madonna of the Toast blog.I first met Adam Mansbach a few years ago, through mutual friends in Berkeley, California. Not too long thereafter, he relocated from New York City to Berkeley, where we hung out from time to time, because both of us are talkers, and we both like to talk about big, important, at times unwieldy, ideas like America, politics, writers, writing and jazz. Not too long after Mansbach moved west, I headed east, landing in New York City. The following questions are framed by the many conversations that we have had since first meeting, though they exist on the canvas of the release of Mansbach’s third novel, The End of the Jews, and the forthcoming US Presidential election. Like his first two novels – Shackling Water and Angry Black White Boy – in The End of the Jews, Mansbach examines the legacies of race and religion, legacies that demand attention if there is to be any true understanding of today’s America – as James Baldwin, a major influence on Mansbach, wrote about time and again. Buzz Poole: More than most authors, your background seems like something readers want to connect to your fiction, as if to validate your work, or perhaps even dismiss it. Is this something that has ever bothered you? In looking through the promotional materials that accompany review copies of The End of the Jews, you acknowledge how your family very much impacted you as a writer. Has there been a shift in your perception of how to reconcile your life with your work in public? Adam Mansbach: There have been a number of shifts. I think with each project the relationship is different, the goals are different, and the interface with the public is different. With my previous book, there was a very clear agenda: to try to jumpstart some dialogue about race and white privilege by discussing these crucial issues through satire, humor, and absurdity. And also to apply hip-hop aesthetics to a novel in some kind of significant way, as I’ve discussed at length elsewhere. I was clear on who I wanted to reach, how I wanted to do it, and my own willingness to personalize these issues by speaking publicly about my own past, my entrance into hip hop, how it shepherded my race politics, the pathology of white hip hoppers in the 1980s and 1990s, how the landscape has changed since then. Talking about myself was a way to show audiences – especially at colleges, where I do the bulk of my speaking – that talking honestly about these difficult issues can be easier, and more fun, than they thought.The End of the Jews is a totally different kind of book, and you’re right, there does seem to be an appetite for some kind of way to connect my life or my family to the plot, the characters. I don’t think it’s about dismissing the work, but rather enlarging it with some kind of “behind the scenes” angle – for some reason, there always seems to be an appetite for that. I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with it, because this time around it’s not so interesting to me. Or maybe it is, but there’s a high probability of people misunderstanding, or me failing to explain right, because it’s near impossible to explain how life and fiction dovetail in this book. It requires such an involved recounting of the artistic process, the research process, the adaptive process, the speculative process. All of which played out over a five or six year period.The funny thing is that the book itself grapples with these very issues. Some of the main conflicts involve artists cannibalizing each other’s lives, and where the boundaries lie, what is art and what is exploitation and what is both – what it means, for instance, when an old man slams his grandson’s novel down and says “even the parts he made up are true,” and threatens to never speak to him again because he feels so violated. On top of which, he’s a novelist himself, so he thinks he understands just what the kid is doing – and on top of that, his wife feels vindicated and liberated by seeing her silent pain find a kind of alternate voice in this same book. Meanwhile, the grandson is still pissed because he feels his grandfather stole some shit from him for his previous book, which is why he felt entitled to put the old man’s life on blast. So for me to try to explain this book biographically ends up messy, and already people have taken liberties, like assuming Tristan Brodsky is my grandfather. Some of that is probably my fault, for even mentioning him in interviews. But the true relationship between the man – who I love as dearly as anybody on this planet – and the character is far more complicated. There are stories from my grandfather in this book verbatim – funny ones, mostly. There are wild leaps of speculation, like the relationship between Tristan and Peter Pendergast, which is a kind of ghastly, made-up version based nominally in a fact of my grandfather’s life, the fact that he had a WASP mentor who made it his business to open doors for Jews professionally and socially – but he was a man my grandfather had nothing but admiration for, whereas Tristan essentially resents Peter and can’t respect him. Buzz:You credit your grandfather for the title The End of the Jews as something he whispered to you while the both of you were attending a garish bar mitzvah. What is that “end?” Is it a loss, or forgetting, of a culture’s traditions? Does commercialized spectacle mark the end of reverent history, or is it just a change, an evolution, for better or worse? Is it something that can be spotted in Jews in Europe, or Israel, or is it a distinctly American issue? The fact that your character Nina is a Czech Jew raised in a family where being Jewish is a secret – in the late1980s – leads me to believe that you consider this a global condition. Why is that? Is there a kind of market-driven homogeny spreading through the west? Adam: I have no idea. I’ve never been to Israel, and my travels in Europe have had nothing to do with Judaism. I thought it was a great line, and I filed it away, and eventually this turned into a book fitting, I think, of the title. I grew up very marginally connected to Jewishness – got kicked out of the So You Think You Might Be Jewish Sunday School and Grill, didn’t get Bar Mitzvahed, didn’t grow up with religious parents or even grandparents. So for me, it’s very hard to talk about “the Jews” because it’s not a monolith; I’m very resistant to that notion and even more resistant to the idea that I’d be qualified to speak for them if it were. I can speak for myself, and my characters. That being said, I think the “end” is not so much about homogeny or spectacle, but about community, about the disappearance or the active destruction of traditional forms of identity, of fitting in, of understanding yourself in relation to a tradition in an uncomplicated way – whether religion, history, art or family. I think that for every community there are outskirts, margins. And for every person nestled comfortably in the bosom of community, there’s somebody feeling alienated, ostracized, conflicted, marginal, ambiguous – regardless of who is trying to include or exclude him or her. To me, those margins are where art comes from. And to pin it more closely to this book, it’s where 20th century Jewish-American literature comes from. That’s where Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Mailer, and Kazin were. That’s what Chaim Potok wrote about, even though he was deeply religious. So everybody in this book is conflicted and is often surprised at the ways identity, religious and otherwise, is wielded – by them, and against them. The moments at which they claim Jewishness, or refuse to. The ways in which their creativity hinges on remaining on these margins, and the critical distance the margins allow – and also the pain inherent to that. At the same time, the spirit of inquiry at the heart of the Jewish tradition – which I most connect to – is also perhaps most operative from the margins. That’s the spirit that gave us a Talmud with no margins – literally no margins, because motherfuckers couldn’t stop arguing and rearguing the interpretations of these esoteric, self-generated laws, so they filled the whole page.Buzz: This book links the margins that your Jewish characters inhabit to the margins that African Americans inhabit in this country, and I guess to continue, or butcher, the metaphor, the page is America. After meeting jazz musicians in Prague your character Nina, a photographer, moves to America. Early on in her stay, one of the players tells her: “[T]he legacy of black folks in America is so profound that it functions as a metaphor for all humanity.” What is that metaphor? Adam: The metaphor is about survival, connection, and creativity in the face of systematic brutality and deliberate attempts to destroy families, communities, languages, all forms of expression and humanity.Buzz: What works of fiction did you keep close to you while working on The End of the Jews?Adam: The Big Book of Jewish Humor and The Joy of Yiddish were deep-background reading – not so much because there’s any Yiddish or any jokes in the book, but because they helped me think about Jewish sensibilities. New York Jew by Alfred Kazin was very important. I wish I remembered who recommended that book to me so I could thank them, but all I remember is reading it on a bus between New York and Boston. I worked on this novel for a long time, and certainly I read plenty, but I guess I don’t so much hold books close when I’m writing. I read much more when I’m not writing, before I start, during breaks, that kind of thing. I suppose I made an effort to read or re-read the work of artists in Tristan’s age-range, especially the Jews: Bellow, Roth, Malamud. I re-read some of what he’d have read as a young man: Kafka, Fitzgerald. I’m trying to remember some other folks who made an impact on me during this time I was writing this. Denis Johnson, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Russell Banks, James Baldwin, Tobias Wolff. I’m blanking on two-dozen other books, I’m sure.Buzz: The End of the Jews is your third novel in 6 years. What’s your writing routine?Adam: I like to work as soon as my coffee’s ready in the morning, and go as long as I can. I’m working on a first draft of a new book now, and it’s been so long since I’ve been in that position that I’m kind of reinventing my writing process. I always long for the part I’m not currently engaged in: a first draft seems like the most fun when you’re editing, and when you’re writing it you can’t wait to get to the end and go back and start shaping. I think I’m getting much slower as I age. I used to try to write 2,000 words a day. That amount seems ludicrous to me now. I have a home office, a garage converted into a studio, which I usually write in. But I also love to work in cafes, and I think I’m more focused when I’m not at home. I tend not to be able to work well unless I know I have a nice open vista of time ahead of me: no travel for a week or two, at least. Otherwise, I can only work on short stuff – stories, journalistic pieces.
Buzz Poole, the managing editor of Mark Batty Publisher, has written for the likes of The Believer, PRINT, Village Voice and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also the author of Madonna of the Toast, a look at the cultural ramifications of unexpected religious and secular icons. Keep up with his adventures in surprising iconography at his Madonna of the Toast blog.If you were able to introduce the sets of characters from Missing Soluch and The Possibility of an Island, they would not be able to understand one another, and it would have nothing to do with the difference between speaking Persian and French. The vagaries weathered by the two books’ respective characters chart the human continuum as it has unraveled over the past several decades. This first English translation of Missing Soluch (originally published in 1979) by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, an esteemed Iranian writer and activist, depicts a small, poor pre-Revolution village whose inhabitants do little else other than struggle to keep warm and fed. As the pending arrival of the village’s first tractor renders with delicate ferocity the tricky transition from agrarian to industrial ways, a mother, Dowlatabadi’s central character, does the best she can to maintain some semblance of her family.Where Missing Soluch hints at how technology dilutes cultural traditions, for better or worse, polemicist Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island focuses on the human race and its conversion into the “neo-human” condition. What do deathless humans look like? How do they behave? What motivates the goal of immortality? At the heart of this uncanny allegory, Houellebecq muses on such notions and in doing so denudes religion and love as nothing more than responses to the fear of aging. Most of the reviews of this book couldn’t get past the graphic sex scenes, but that’s because they’re the easiest parts to think about. However, they are but one facet of this fully realized indictment of the human species and its aspirations for an ageless, technological utopia.Both of these books transcend the cultures that inspired them, making for two truly human stories that remind their readers, in the words of Houellebecq, “of this absurd or sublime determination, present in humans … to bear witness, to leave a trace.”More from A Year in Reading 2007
The media is aglow with the heatless light of Kindle, Amazon’s just launched reading device that is essentially an iPod for books, magazines and blogs. The online demo video trumpets the wonders of this text vessel. You can drop the thing, read it in direct sunlight and, most notably, use it and acquire new reading materials without a computer. Much of the mainstream print media is on board, as are the big publishing houses.I watched a portion of Charlie Rose’s interview with Jeff Bezos last night, unimpressed by Bezos’s forced-laugh self-satisfaction about this new product that, in his words, will “out book the book.” Fact is, plenty of folks have been tinkering with this concept for years (see my piece about The Institute for the Future of the Book), but with Amazon’s resources behind this endeavor, it seems clear that Kindle will attempt the same sort of market saturation that the iPod has achieved – and here lies the real essence of this development.Now, the shift won’t be complete, at least not at first, as Kindle cannot handle color images or illustrations, yet. When you receive your daily newspaper, or the latest issue of a magazine, you will be getting only the text. On Charlie Rose, Bezos claimed that the technology to handle images is currently in the lab and hearing him say this, for me, smacked of the planned obsolescence of the gadgetry we have embraced.The same as the ideas behind furthering the book with multi-media, open-source applications possess a great deal of exciting potential, the notion of enslaving ourselves to yet another always-improving device is something that needs to be considered and not just ballyhooed blindly, for it seems that the issue of reading is at stake in how it relates to the readers. At one point during the interview, Bezos used the term “Amazonians,” referring to the beta group of Kindle users. The term conjures the idea of tribes (something that Marshall McLuhan and Michel Houellebecq evoke in their work when considering the human relationship with technology). Like the iPod, Kindle, if Amazon succeeds in the way they seem hell-bent on, becomes a lifestyle networked into a corporate hub.As Bezos explained Kindle to Rose he got most excited about what happens when Kindle reaches its new owner: “You turn it on and it already knows you.” You need an Amazon account to buy this thing, and once you do, all of your preferences and browsing history are waiting for you. Filtered through Kindle, it seems fair to say that it is not just about text imparting information to its readers, so much as the text tracking its readers. If you resist the idea of libraries handing over their cardholders’ borrowing histories, isn’t this the same, but on some exponential algorithmic level?This is not a Luddite’s lament, but it is a call to not let the traditional book be demoted in its status as an invaluable tool. I stopped watching Charlie Rose last night after he asked Bezos about the future of books. Bezos nodded, expecting the question. He answered by saying there would always be that “cabinet of curiosities” but that he saw Kindle as the beginning of the future. The curios, in his mind, are codex books, and this is the wrong attitude because it creates a hierarchy that is a disservice to the exchange of ideas. It also seems to displace the ideas, channeling, in an admittedly off-the-cuff leap by yours truly, Plato’s Myth of the Cave. The word “kindle” denotes the starting of a fire. Light from fire, according to Plato, cast shadows that people mistook for the actual world. The challenge of reconciling the object and the image is as ancient as human thought. Kindle, when talking about books and their content, furthers the metaphor, in a way destined to make the culture, or at least the market, forget about traditional books.The book, as I seem to always write in these offerings, will never die (especially illustrated books). I believe this. Rethinking the book vis-a-vis the available technology is a natural human tendency. But forsaking the printed on paper words that have documented human history for the convenience of Kindle seems, as one comment on the NYT Paper Cuts blog posits, more like burning them, as opposed to improving them.Bonus Links: The Future of Reading (A Play in Six Acts), With blogs available via the Kindle, Ed looks at how they ended up there and who’s getting paid.This guest contribution comes from Buzz Poole, the managing editor of Mark Batty Publisher. He has written for the likes of The Believer, PRINT, Village Voice and the San Francisco Chronicle, and is the author of Madonna of the Toast, a look at the cultural ramifications of unexpected religious and secular icons. Keep up with his adventures in surprising iconography at his Madonna of the Toast blog.
This guest contribution comes from Buzz Poole, the managing editor of Mark Batty Publisher. He has written for the likes of The Believer, Village Voice and San Francisco Chronicle, and is the author of Madonna of the Toast, a look at the cultural ramifications of unexpected religious and secular icons. Keep up with his adventures in surprising iconography at his Madonna of the Toast blog.No better does the difference between books and the book business make itself known than on the Sunday of the Frankfurt Book Fair. A severe degree of indifference descends on one Hall as rabid bookishness thrives in others. I had been warned, but the bustle of the first few days caused me to chalk up these claims to hyperbole. After endless meetings between publishers and sales people, agents, printers, packagers, fulfillment houses and foreign rights managers – and don’t forget the nights that can easily last all morning – the weekend (especially Sunday) was dead in the Frankfurt Messe’s Hall 8: the cavern of commerce that housed, primarily, English-language publishers.With the chance to visit one of the other Halls (there are 10, making the Javits Center in New York look like my one-bedroom apartment), you begin to grasp the breadth of what publishing looks like all over the world, so long as you are willing to contend with the throngs of book fans, only a small portion of whom bother to trawl the Hall 8 aisles, where by noon on Sunday the crackling of packing tape replaced the cacophonous chatter of deal making so constant during the early going.It is an overwhelming experience, no matter the size of the company or nature of its books or services. Everyone is there to do business (as opposed to show off books). My visits to other halls were limited in light of how much time I spent at the Messe from Tuesday evening’s set-up to Sunday evening’s teardown. I never saw the agents’ pavilion, or the TV and Film Hall. The other international Halls hosted publishing industry outfits from across the globe, all of which were situated in loose regional confederacies.The hometown German publishing Hall was packed all the time, as was Hall 4, where you found illustrated book publishers and incredibly high-end book arts publishers and artisans (including New York’s own Booklyn). I returned to Hall 4 the most (for my own meetings and for curiosity’s sake). If I could read German, I would covet all of Orange’s books; Index from Spain is great; the books from Lars Mueller were a revelation – Who Owns the Water being one of my better personal acquisitions of the week.But, as I said, and as The New York Times reported, Frankfurt at its core is about the business of books. According to the October 13 Frankfurt Book Fair Daily, in 2006 the world’s 45 largest publishers generated $73 billion in revenue! Yes, billion. McGraw-Hill Education came in 7th on the list, the most profitable American publisher with just over $2.5 billion in earnings. The next two spots also belong to American companies, Reader’s Digest and Scholastic respectively. Of those three companies’ business, very little of it has to do with fiction, or even trade books for that matter. The top earners are more mixed, highlighting, like the Fair itself, just how huge the global book industry is, and why wheeling and dealing foreign rights and film options are one of the event’s priorities.And so, after several days steeping in this environment, it only seems natural to ponder the state of the book business today. It is lucrative, but it is clear that if these larger companies intend to plump their cash cows they must make changes that will, eventually, affect the actual books.Two encounters stick with me as indicative of these shifts. The first happened during a wonderful little dinner party. Of the 10 or 12 of us in attendance, I was the most “indie” of the crew, meaning I have never been involved in a six-figure deal (or five-figure for that matter). These were agents and industry entrepreneurs, Americans and Europeans. Friendly and interesting, I was sorry that we adjourned to a noisy party where reasonable conversation went by the wayside.Prior to that, however, I learned about DailyLit.com from its co-founder Susan Danziger. The basic idea is this: books are emailed to you bit-by-bit. Available titles include public-domain classics, as well as contemporary works of fiction and nonfiction in a few different languages (illustrated books are also in the works). The contemporary books require paid subscriptions, and I was told that the program’s subscribers number in the hundreds of thousands. It seems to me that it is misleading to say this service is about reading books; it’s really more about reading the textual contents of books. It is, without a doubt, though, about publishing. A great deal of us, myself included, spend large amounts of time in front of screens. DailyLit.com aims to add some well-worded and intriguing distractions to help us better use our Time, that ever more elusive and flitting notion. The trend to reformat books into our digitally reliant ways was apparent at the Fair, from Google’s impressive stand to the number of e-book makers, sermonizing about convenience and lifestyle, efficiency and the future.As I manned the Mark Batty Publisher booth on Sunday morning, bored and tired, an Australian woman stopped to fondle a few of the books. As she flipped the pages issuing exclamations about the lovely photographs and design, she mentioned that she worked with e-books. I nodded and said that I would never read one. Having obviously heard such a sentiment before, the perky Aussie said defensively, “We’ll get you all one day, this is the future of reading.” Judging by the popularity of DailyLit.com (a relatively new endeavor) and the hordes of money being invested in converting such assertions into fact, there are many interests that want to see the future of reading as something that does not involve ink on paper. And in light of the way we live now, perhaps the public’s demand will in fact secure these new models.But this next anecdote contests the public’s willingness to start dismantling their bookshelves in order to make room for new flat-screen televisions on which they could as easily watch a movie or read a new novel. This encounter happened even farther away from the capacious Messe, at the bar in my hotel out by the airport. I met a German engineer in town for work, and on his way back home to Connecticut. He knew of the Fair, but his trip had to do with installing a machine in a factory. He was curious about the Fair for a very exact reason, however. He had a meeting coming up with a Silicon Valley company (he had already signed a non-disclosure agreement so he could not tell me which company) that, according to my new friend, planned to open close to 60 print-on-demand facilities in the United States within the next couple of years.Because this gentleman could not divulge fully the nature of the business in question, it is fair to assume that these facilities would not strictly be used for vanity publishing, but rather they will allow businesses to order an array of printed material with greater ease than traditional off-set printers, though he did ask me if I had seen many print-on-demand books. His background was in printing and he was dubious about the quality of the books such machines could offer, suggesting that vanity publishing was indeed an aspect of this Silicon Valley company’s business plan. No matter the products made in these 60 facilities, it is a return to ink on paper. We as a culture have not yet totally disregarded the paper page’s status as a valuable vessel for information.In the case of vanity publishing books, however, these would mostly be sold through non-traditional outlets, if they were sold at all. These products would be the blog equivalent of codex books, objects made because the authors want to see their words printed on bound pages. And like with blogs, some of these books could of course be quite good, while many of them would doubtlessly be middling, yet they would exist nonetheless. (Admittedly, the major difference between blogs and print-on-demand books is that the books usually still cost something.) Hang around with enough writers and you will inevitably hear frustrated rants about the difficulty of getting their completed works published. Take that small portion of the population and couple it with everyday folks who want to tell their stories or spout off about politics, and you have lots of potential books.Now, these books, for the most part, would not be shopped around in a setting like Frankfurt, but that is the point. Books and the book business are not the same and the rift becomes apparent during this international trade show, which is so all-consuming for its attendees that it bounces back at them time and again, even once the day’s meetings have ended and the parties begin. I knew this, of course, because even in the small and independent strata of publishing this reality rears its head more than I care to admit. It is a business that no matter the scale requires many participants, all of whom expect, and deserve, to be paid for their services.Perhaps at the heart of this is how the range of services that falls under the publishing umbrella is expanding, and how all of the interests strive, and struggle, to keep up. The Frankfurt Book Fair has a history that reaches back to the time of Gutenberg, and what this behemoth of an event proves is that it will most likely have a future that extends for another 500 years. What that future looks like remains to be seen, but the hints become more apparent, as this year’s innovations become next year’s standards, or running jokes.No matter what, however, the beautifully designed and well-printed book is not going anywhere, and that should be a comfort to anyone that has ever loved the experience of reading one.
This guest contribution comes from Buzz Poole, the managing editor of Mark Batty Publisher. He has written for the likes of The Believer, Village Voice and San Francisco Chronicle, and is the author of Madonna of the Toast, a look at the cultural ramifications of unexpected religious and secular icons. Keep up with his adventures in surprising iconography at his Madonna of the Toast blog.In the wake of what was the weltering sea of publishing professionals awash in New York City’s Javits Center for Book Expo America 2007, The New York Times ran the piece “Waxing Philosophical, Booksellers Face the Digital.” The writer invoked John Updike’s speech from a year ago during which he beseeched booksellers to “‘defend [their] lonely forts’ against a digital future of free book downloads and snippets of text.” In the constant digital flutter of information that courses at us through screens – the one you read from this moment, PDAs and cell phones – it stands to reason that technologists would aim to bring reading, writing and the notion of books into the fray of this constantly shifting landscape. While the conversations of how books will endure our digital age have gone on for years, often at rates that far exceed the available technology, this Times piece evidenced the inevitable changes to publishing in the presence of companies like Google and MySpace at places like BEA While the dissemination of books has certainly changed over the years, downloaded or bought at highly reduced prices from Amazon, the product is still very much a book that meets the conventional standards of writing and reading, in the sense that an author has written something for readers, and agree or disagree, like it or hate it, nothing will change about the actual text. Wired editor Chris Anderson was apparently touting his forthcoming book at BEA, something called Free, which will indeed be free to readers willing to download a version interspersed with ads. Print-on-demand books allow more writers the satisfaction of seeing and holding their words on bound pages held together by glue and a case, but they are still, “just books.”In the realm of publishing, however, especially mainstream publishing, the concerns and campaigns are geared to getting better at selling books, not to how the very nature of books is, and has been, changing for years.The Institute for the Future of the Book is on the bleeding edge of this evolution. Headquartered in Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, the Institute is redefining the act of reading, with the ultimate goal of democratizing how information is created, conveyed, maintained and understood. The Institute is not the first on the block to try to make the best of technology for such a purpose, but it is making its ideas reality. The Institute is a project of the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California, funded by the MacArthur Foundation. But it is much more than money, technology and profile that put the Institute at the forefront of this evolution; the Institute’s founder Bob Stein is why the Institute will change how we understand the acts of writing and reading, or not.With the look of a mischievous urban Zen monk, replete with the tonsured pate, Stein has long advocated for the optimal uses of the newest technologies to reinvent the conventions of media. Stein founded the Criterion Collection, today a carefully curated series of films transferred to DVD and supplemented with all the extras, outtakes and commentary we have become accustomed to. But pre-DVD, Criterion took classic films and put them on laser discs. (For those of you who don’t remember, there was a time, albeit brief, during the nascent stage of the digital revolution, when both audiophiles and cinephiles thought the future of film was on a record-sized CD that had to be flipped in the middle of the movie.)The second Stein project to fuse various technologies with the hope of creating a multi-media experience to go beyond just “watching” a movie or “reading” a book was Voyager CD-ROM. In 1988, Voyager produced the first consumer CD-ROM, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The release is also considered the first interactive electronic publication. The recording of the symphony by the Vienna Philharmonic, with the help of Apple’s HyperCard, blended the aural with the visual, altering how users could link and interact with time-based events, in this case music accompanied by a cursor, controlled by the user, that moved across each and every note, elucidating aspects of the music like Beethoven’s sense of rhythm.Voyager released over 500 titles, like Art Spiegleman’s Maus, an examination of Marshall McLuhan’s ideas and a compilation of Mumia Abu Jamal’s writings and interviews, all in the name of creating books that were about much more than ink on paper. Regardless of the subject matter, all of it complex one way or another, Voyager put readers inside the book as active participants. A book was no longer something readers acted on, but acted with.The zeal with which Stein approached these projects, however, has been ramped up tenfold through the Institute for the Future of the Book because now technology can keep up with ambition. The enthusiasm fires out in the office as Stein, Jesse Wilbur, Ben Vershbow and Dan Visel spend their days blogging, writing treatises and hosting a revolving door of programmers, artists, writers and academics chasing and dreaming up ideas with the hope that their programmers, scattered all over the world, can hang with the whimsical but relevant musings of what Vershbow refers to as a group of “wayward humanists” and Wilbur calls “technical evangelism.”At any given moment, the Institute juggles many projects at once, though they all relate to free, accessible networks of information. The cornerstone of these projects, however, is Sophie, an open source digital infrastructure that synthesizes the best aspects of applications like Final Cut Pro, Word and the entire Adobe Creative Suite. (The alpha version of Sophie is available for download, free of charge.) Stein and friends coined the name based on its Greek etymology, meaning “knowledge,” or “wisdom.” They also appreciated the happy coincidence that three of the eleven Sophie programmers live in Sofia, Bulgaria (the other eight live in the United States, Canada and Germany).The potential for Sophie is totally untapped, and if one is to believe the Institute, the potential is limitless, kept in check by nothing other than the bounds of one’s imagination. “When you make a tool,” Stein states matter of factly, “you want people to use it. How they use it has nothing to do with us.”And it is here that things really get interesting. The most influential people behind the Institute are not so much about the technology; rather they are about intellectual economies where theory and practice are equally valued. The Institute wants to do more than democratize information; it wants to reappraise the exchange of information and how it is valued.Reading has always been a transformative activity; look at the Bible or the Qu’ran. Whether for the purpose of educating, manipulating, entertaining or escaping, readers throughout time have read for the purpose of being taken to places outside of their respective physical environments. Both reading and writing have been associated with the ever elusive post-modern “Other,” that state of being or understanding totally apart from the confines of convention. If the powers that be define meaning, like what is “good” and what is “bad,” with nothing but their own interests in mind, once you step outside of that box, the new perspective reveals the subjectivity of those definitions. This is the perspective of the Other, a vantage point from which you can see the entirety of the construct rather than just the walls of the construct in which you are contained.The genteel protagonist of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past: Swann’s Way is often associated with this notion of stepping outside of the tradition of meaning and understanding. He loathes outside activities; what he relishes, however, are inside activities, especially reading. He greatly appreciates the power of books: “I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book… Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to choose whether I would form part of it or no.” A century removed from Proust’s days, the Institute strives for the same kind of total immersion into the act of reading, where reader and author act as partners, in a process that can conceivably go on forever, never ending just evolving.So What Does the Institute Actually Do?Before this question is answered, first it should be established how the Institute defines a “book,” because it has nothing to do with ink or the tactile turning of pages. No one at the Institute wants to defame the traditional codex book, for they are the primary sources of inspiration that have fed these hungry minds. However, the rapid availability of information has reshaped culture at large; the Institute wants the act of reading, and publishing, to directly respond to the nature of social interaction. We live in a networked world, so there is no reason why books shouldn’t be fully networked landscapes of social interaction, according to the Institute. Cast in this light, a book becomes anything that contains information, whether it is text based around music or images, or images based around text and music, or any permutation of media you can imagine. A book is anything that serves as a vessel for information, really no different from the dead trees you have on shelves and stacked up on the floor, with the exception that traditional books can’t be networked.Sophie is the ultimate example of such new books, a 21st century Voyager in many ways. Though, unlike Voyager products, Sophie, in Stein’s words, “is a very flexible tool. You will be able to make open-ended projects like Gamer Theory or ‘pickled’ objects that resemble printed books.” Sophie is rigged for laypeople; you don’t need to be a programmer to make these books. The spec for Sophie, written by Dan Visel, and found on the Institute’s website, avers: “Sophie is media-agnostic: all media is the same inside of Sophie.” No matter the media employed while using Sophie, the end product is a book, as cut from the fabric of the Institute.”Because Sophie is open source,” says Stein, “it continually evolves itself.” The author will evolve into more of a moderator, the readers will become like panelists or members of a live audience, free to add their thoughts, contest, agree, diverge, all in the pursuit of unfettered knowledge the source of which can always be identified.Though it is a prototype, a mere shadow of what Sophie will permit in terms of media synthesis, McKenzie Wark’s GAM3R 7H3ORY, one title in the “Thinking Out Loud” series, is the best example of what the Institute is getting at in terms of how information can be made transparent and foster new ways of intellectual discourse. The basic premise of Wark’s “electronic monograph” is that life looks and acts like a game. It’s not surprising that the Institute champions GAM3R 7H3ORY, since they are all of the age, with the exception of Stein, in which the video game is ubiquitous, not some novelty that you fed quarters to at the mall if you were lucky enough to catch a ride. Wark contends: “The whole of life appears as a vast accumulation of commodities and spectacles, of things wrapped in images and images sold as things.”In the case of GAM3R 7H3ORY, and as is the essence of this notion of transparent information, readers can respond instantly to Wark’s words, or the words of other readers, and often times Wark responds to them. The text develops with every comment and any subsequent responses. When the whole process is made available for scrutiny, you can be sure certain readers will address the flaws, something the guys at the Institute get excited about. They study the differences in the rhythms of print versus networks, striving to reconcile where analog meets digital. These books permit “the ability to see the layers, the documentation of time.” Ben Vershbow, the guy responsible for bringing Wark on board for this experiment, not without an understandable tone of pride says, “With this kind of model, it’s no longer the author speaking, it’s the book speaking.”Any student of Marshall McLuhan would recognize the relevance of Wark’s book. McLuhan long ago posited that we become the forms of media that we create. He hinges the point on the creation of the printing press, as a matter of fact. The mechanized process of publishing was the first major step toward full-throttle industrialization because objects could readily and regularly be produced, over and over again. “Typography, by producing the first uniformly repeatable commodity,” says McLuhan in an interview in Playboy, “also created Henry Ford, the first assembly line and the first mass production. Movable type was archetype and prototype for all subsequent industrial development.” If you place the emphasis, as McLuhan insists, on the medium rather than the content, then the Institute truly is on the pulse of the culture, even if the culture doesn’t realize it yet. The Institute’s experiments in book making are social experiments, taking place through screens, keyboard and fiber optic cables. For them, it is the means to an organic economy of information that gives voice to any voice that wants to be heard. That’s why the Institute gives Sophie away for free; it is the vessel that transports the information that they are most concerned with. Giving Sophie to anyone that wants it is like throwing out handfuls of wild flower seeds and waiting to see what pops up, except in this case the result is an electronic ecology.And so, where does this leave us? What do you think? We are left with many ideas, many new ideas that need time to breathe and suffer the vagaries of actual application. What the publishing industry needs to realize, however, is that books are primed to be more multifaceted than ever, in ways far more important and compelling than how to sell them. For better or worse, the digital age has made us media junkies in that we expect information delivered as text, imagery and sound, often as quickly as the event from which the information derives happens. These cultural developments do not threaten the traditional book, but they do necessitate writers, publishers and readers to explore and foment these developments, because if they don’t, they will miss out, spending too much time figuring out how to put banner ads in books.If this piece were a Sophie book, what would it look like? You’d have the text, the piece you just read. I will have scanned in various drafts, from which you could read scrawled notes to myself in the margins. There would be lists of what I have been reading, listening to and working on during the process of writing about the Institute. You would be able to read the 1969 interview with Marshall McLuhan from Playboy; River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit, Proust and Steinbeck’s often overlooked In Dubious Battle; an article about James Joyce’s cantankerous grandson and the ethics of copyright abuse. And as you read, you’d listen to Jeremiah Lockwood, Broken Social Scene, Amalia Rodrigues, hell, I could dump my entire music library into this thing and you could ride the shuffle the same as me. And don’t forget about Nathan Troi Anderson’s Shadows of Time, a book of black and white photographs of ancient petroglyphs juxtaposed with contemporary advertising. All of these media have influenced this piece. And this is what is important, influence, the influence of the individual to have control of the information he or she is expected to swallow, often times like a dose of castor oil (and now watch a Looney Toons cartoon where Bugs Bunny foists castor oil on Yosemite Sam).Lastly, you would be able to add your own voice to what I have written. You could call this a bunch of futurist hogwash; you could use a single sentence as the point of departure for your own piece about information economies, or McLuhan, or Bob Stein and the Institute for the Future of the Book, and it would all be welcomed as the essence of how information should be relayed and ricocheted today, in a space you can always step outside of and call your own, creating an inside that is always outside the box.
Buzz Poole’s Madonna of the Toast documents the mysterious appearance of icons sacred and profane, in rock formations, housewares, and foodstuffs the world over. A potato chip shaped like Bob Hope? It’s here. Vladimir Lenin on a shower curtain? Likewise. And it wouldn’t very well be Madonna of the Toast without the titular grilled cheese, which – you guessed it – NEVER GOES BAD.Poole has launched a blog where observers of related paranormal phenomena can document their encounters. If you’ve recently run across a Charlotte Bronte-shaped underarm stain, or a puddle that looks like William Shatner, we can only suggest you head over to the blog and share your experience… Inquiring minds, after all, want to know.