Big Brother or the Wave of the Future
There's been much discussion lately, some of it bordering on hysterical, about radio-frequency identification devices or RFIDs. The idea is that the barcode will be replaced by a tiny radio transmitter that will allow computers to monitor inventory in real time as it sits on the shelves. It would also make things more efficient at the cash register. Since hundreds of the transmitters can be "scanned" at once, the checkout process can be completed almost instantaneously. RFIDs are meant to streamline the retail process and prevent theft. Walmart has already begun requiring its suppliers to include them in certain products, and privacy advocates have been registering their concern. If an all-seeing computer inside the Walmart can track the tennis racket that you're carrying around, what's to stop them, or anyone, from tracking that tennis racket home with you? I don't know why anyone would want to track a tennis racket to your home, but still, the idea of all your belongings being embedded with trackable transmitters is a bit unsettling. Privacy concerns aside, anyone responsible for a large and complicated inventory has to look at RFIDs as the holy grail of inventory management. And that includes librarians. Librarians have, especially in recent years, been vigilant about monitoring privacy issues, but in the case of RFIDs, it appears as though the convenience outweighs the risks. On Thursday the San Francisco Library Commission approved the use of RFIDs, and the deciding factors seem to be ease of use and lessening the risk of injuries to library workers. According to this San Francisco Chronicle article, "San Francisco librarian Susan Hildreth has said the technology will make it easier for library staff to check books out to library patrons. She said the chips would also cut the cost of repetitive stress injuries, which have totaled $265,000 at the library in the past three years." (An open letter from Hildreth was published in the Chronicle on Thursday to allay the fears of San Francisco's library patrons.)The BiographerYesterday I met Ron Chernow, whose biography of Alexander Hamilton is receiving praise from all corners these days. As we discussed the promising sales of the new book, Chernow expressed concern about the many headline-grabbing political books that threaten to drown out his new biography. According to Chernow, the folks at Penguin, navigating the crowded release calendar, deliberated over the "street date" and took special care to avoid overlapping with Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack. Before there was any release date to worry about, Chernow spent years researching the book and sifting through the voluminous papers of the prolific writer. He even uncovered some previously undiscovered writing that Hamilton had done as a stringer for newspapers in New York. I asked Chernow what he's reading at the moment, and he said, almost sheepishly, that these days he feels obligated to keep up with books about Hamilton's era because he is always asked about this or that new book at his many speaking engagements. Among his favorites from the recent crop are An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America by Henry Wiencek and "Negro President" : Jefferson and the Slave Power by Garry Wills.It Begins AgainIt was inevitable. It looks like The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason may succeed The Da Vinci Code as the next pseudo-religious, conspiracy theory, mega-blockbuster bestseller.
Hollywood and Capitol Hill
Jennifer 8. Lee in the New York Times describes the "Washington read." A practice in which Washington insiders peruse the index of a current political best seller, Plan of Attack or Against All Enemies, for example, to see if they have been mentioned. It is sort of a test one's own importance inside the beltway, and many, prematurely certain of their own historical significance, are crushed to find that they have been omitted from history's first draft. Washington, however, does not have a monopoly on such practices. I lived in Washington D.C. for most of my life before moving to Los Angeles, and I have observed many times the similarities between the two cities' chief industries. I don't know if I coined this analogy, but I've always thought that politics is just Hollywood for ugly people. And so it makes sense that I discovered, over the last couple of years, that there is such thing as a "Hollywood read." It usually goes something like this: an older guy stands at the front of the store flipping through the latest Hollywood tell-all. He is deeply tanned and his shirt is unbuttoned to reveal tufts of silver chest hair. He is wearing ridiculously oversized sunglasses and smells of cigar smoke. He leans over to me and points to the book and says, "I used to work with this guy," and then he goes back to scanning the index to make sure his old buddy mentioned him. Samuel Fuller's posthumously published A Third Face generated this reaction. And those in the music biz went straight to the index of Walter Yetnikoff's Howling at the Moon. Last fall, a mention in Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind meant that you officially matter in today's Hollywood. But to have been mentioned in Robert Evans' The Kid Stays in the Picture indicates a special sort of notoriety.
Books As Newsmakers
My travels to the East coast last weekend swept away any doubt about the importance of the current wave of bestselling books about the Bush administration. In airport lounges, on planes, and in the New York City subways people everywhere are getting their news, not from the Times or from the weekly newsmagazines, but from a handful of books by people who enjoyed unfettered access to the current administration. I especially noticed an abundance of copies of Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack as well as a handful of copies of Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies, (which, at the moment, come in at number one and number six respectively on Amazon's Top 100). The content of these books is interesting, but so is the phenomenon behind them. According to many who have been following this trend, we are in uncharted territory. In the Times, David K. Kirkpatrick explains why all of this is unprecedented and suggests that the administration's vigilance over the information that ends up in newspapers and magazines has caused a spillover into books. Here is the article.
New Books and Book News
Some quick observations: Bob Woodward's new book Plan of Attack is selling as fast as I have seen any book fly off the shelf in my two years at the book store: faster than Hillary and approaching Harry Potter levels. One time Millions contributor Kaye Gibbons has a new novel out called Divining Women. Early reviews are mostly good. On the other hand, the review that New York Times' "Madame" Michiko Kakutani gave Alice Walker's new book, Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart, is just about the most brutal I have ever seen in that paper. View the carnage hereIn Millions news, I'm heading to New York tonight. I'm in a wedding this weekend and there are other East Coast errands to run, so I probably won't be blogging much, if at all. I will, however, be checking the comments here as well as my email. I don't know how special this makes me, but I have been asked to be a trial user for Google's mega-hyped webmail service, GMail, so if you are curious about how well it works, feel free to drop me a line.
What Makes a Bookstore?
I met several Chicago natives while I was there last weekend, and as we discussed the city's various merits and drawbacks, the subject of bookstores came up. The Chicago natives, being aspiring reporters, astutely asked me what I look for in a "good" bookstore, and why a chain store is unlikely to bear this mantle.When it comes to hanging out, it's hard to beat the chains. Your nearest Barnes and Noble probably has dozens of plush chairs and couches where you can sit for as long as you want. The stores are vast wide open spaces with a controlled climate and a bit of piped in music wafting just overhead. The shopper can make a day of it, grabbing a snack and a coffee from the cafe and lounging through the uncrowded weekday afternoon. Stay as long as you want, they won't tell you to leave until they're closing down for the night. If you want to kill an afternoon, it's hard to beat Barnes and Noble, likewise if you need to pick up a specific title, but don't expect to walk away with anything unexpected from these forays. Don't plan for a literary discovery.And therein lies the problem with the chains, they are designed not to surprise you. Their displays will, as decreed from the home office, contain a calculated mix of bestsellers assembled from the major lists. The information that they disseminate is predetermined by prevailing tastes; they are not, themselves, tastemakers. And yet, if there is any more important generator of tastes, trends, and shared knowledge in the commercial world than the bookstore, then I don't know about it. Nonetheless, there are very few bookstores that serve this purpose. And that, precisely, is what I am looking for.To my mind, a good bookstore will have on display the "important" books not just the bestselling books, though there will always be bestsellers among those important books. For example, The Da Vinci Code is important because it is a cultural phenomenon, but not simply because it sits at number one on the Times bestsellers. There are all sorts of reasons why a book can be important. The idea is that one should be able to walk into the bookstore and be able to grasp, based upon which books are on display and based upon conversations with staff and fellow customers, what matters at that moment both in the wider world and in the neighborhood, from Presidential exposes to burgeoning local talent. At a good bookstore you can place your confidence in the people who run the place.At Barnes and Noble you can get any book you want if you can find it in the vast fluorescent retail gymnasium, but at a good indie, the kindly book clerk will take his favorite book off the shelf and hand it to you, as if a gift. Most cities of any size have at least one of these good bookstores, and thanks to some recommendations that I have already received, I'm confident that I'll find what I'm looking for in Chicago.