Is there a “crisis in reading?” Last quarter’s Barnes & Noble conference call; the well-publicized demise of certain book review supplements and independent bookstores; the gripes of our editor friends; and a whiff of desperation around the marketing of literary fiction (typically referred to as “so tough” or “a hard sell”) would seem to confirm the encroachment of electronic reading matter – email, Facebook feeds, blogs – on the territory of print. Many of my students, ten years younger than I am, do not read books for pleasure. Sometimes, they don’t even read for school.On the other hand, a literary author, Jhumpa Lahiri, last week stood athwart the New York Times bestseller list. And huge chain bookstores apparently find it profitable to operate in towns like the one I grew up in, where previously you bought what K-Mart was selling, or you got bupkis.A recent study conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts raised some alarms. “Fewer than half of all American adults now [read] literature,” the NEA reported. But, as many among the commentariat were quick to point out, the NEA was methodologically hamstrung by its insistence on defining literature as fiction and poetry; does our weekly New Yorker binge count for nothing? And so the “Death of Reading” metanarrative receded, for a time, into the murk that birthed it.Receded, that is, until Ursula K. Le Guin insisted on rousing it, via an essay in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine. The thrust of Le Guin’s argument was that readers weren’t the problem, exactly; that pessimism about reading can be blamed on the conglomerates that have, in the last two decades, swallowed most of New York’s most esteemed publishing houses. With its modest margins and arcane payment schedules, book publishing is more a labor of love than a maximizer of shareholder value, Le Guin pointed out; for every Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter, a thousand midlist authors languish in the wings. To the News Corps of the world, she posed the question, “Why don’t you just get out of it, dump the ungrateful little pikers, and get on with the real business of business, ruling the world?”But responses to Le Guin’s piece have inadvertently suggested an alternative explanation for the angst about the health of reading: the publishing world’s formidable self-regard. The editors whose letters grace Harper’s April issue are talented and admirable people (without them, some of my favorite books would not have found me), but none of them seem able to see in Le Guin’s essay anything other than a reflection of their own personal accomplishments.On one hand, Andre Schiffrin, founder of The New Press and a vociferous critic of the publishing conglomerates, pronounces Le Guin “right on.” After describing how his quondam employer, Bertelesmann-controlled Random House purged staff and backlists, “leaving only a hollowed-out label that can be affixed to any new book the group acquires,” Schiffrin declares, “Literary publishing is insufficiently profitable to meet corporate expectations…. One solution to this problem,” he suggests, “is to create not-for-profit firms as we did in starting The New Press.”On the other hand, Lorin Stein, Senior Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, finds Le Guin’s essay “so depressing, in its knee-jerk snobbery and thoughtlessness, one hardly knows where to start.” Le Guin’s heroic readers of yore, he argues, “were part of a mass market, created by ‘moneymaking entities’ in the business of selling books.” Without profit-motivated publishers (such as Holtzbrinck-backed FSG), writing becomes a pastime for the few who can afford to write for nothing, with no prospect of fame or glory beyond the cozy ring of ‘our own people.’ Fewer readers means lower stakes, lower standards, and more crap getting passed off as the real thing.Barbara Epler, Editor-in-Chief of the independent press New Directions, quite naturally defines the stakes more modestly. “Readers will always be here,” she writes, agreeing with one of Le Guin’s propositions. “That’s how writers like W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño [both published by New Directions] catch on like wildfire. There have never been so many thriving, struggling, astonishingly nimble small literary presses busy making beautiful books.”And, of course, a reader affiliated with Columbia University sees an industrial strategy to rule the world through publishing – which is even more whimsical in its premises than Mr. Stein’s notion that writers under the current dispensation aren’t already people who more or less “write for nothing, with no prospect of fame or glory.” (Or his parallel conceit that the nature of the book business remains substantially unchanged from the era of the “Ivanhoe-reading cowboy.”)Is there a crisis in reading? Impossible to say, when “our own people,” the arbiters of literary culture, decline one of its most valuable functions: self-criticism. To be fair to the editors quoted above, their enthusiasm on behalf of their respective projects is evidence of a laudable commitment to the culture of the book; as Lorin Stein puts it, “This is a business I believe in passionately.” And if we are to blame someone for changing the subject from the state of reading to the state of publishing, it should be Le Guin herself. Still, in aggregate, these responses work to confound, rather than to clarify. Their diagnostic power is that of the Rorschach blot.
Guardian literary editor Robert McCrum has compiled an odd and rather subjective book list, collecting what he describes as “books that still speak volumes about the time in which they were written.” The list contains some obvious entries – we are taught in school that Nineteen Eighty-Four was not just a dystopian fantasy but a stark portrayal of the time’s prevailing years as well as some less well known (to me at least) selections like 1967’s The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. But the list falls apart somewhat as it approaches the present day with McCrum anointing some of the last decade’s blockbuster bestsellers – Bridget Jones’s Diary, the first Harry Potter, and The Da Vinci Code – and falling prey to the notion that the deluge of press these books have received will amount to something in the eyes of future historians looking to view our time through the lens of literature.
Adonal Foyle, the former basketball standout at Colgate who has had a long career with the Golden State Warriors, has an impressive Web site that includes his very own book club. The club’s current pick, The Da Vinci Code isn’t terribly inspired, but I’m nonetheless impressed that an NBA star is broadcasting his love of reading. Note as well Foyle’s “Top 10 Books” which includes an ample mix of basketball books and political non-fiction with a leftward-leaning bent.via the Freakonomics blog, where a commenter has noted another NBA player with a literary side, Washington’s Etan Thomas who has published a book of poetry.
While it should come as news to absolutely no one that Sony is readying Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons (IMDb) for the big screen (Would it surprise anyone if Dan Brown’s grocery list fetched an eight figure deal?), what might come as a shock is the price paid to screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. That price, $4,000,000, is a new record for a “for hire” project, and ties the payday Shane Black received for “The Long Kiss Goodnight” (IMDb) for most money ever paid to a screenwriter for a single writer credit. Goldsman secured this filthy lucre despite tepid (read hostile) reviews of his adaptation of The Da Vinci Code (IMDb). With this record-setting paycheck, and kudos from the ever-fawning LA Times column “Scriptland,” does this signal a new golden age of screenwriting? Not according to this LA Weekly article “Screenwriters in the Shit“. It’s articles like this that make me want to move to the sticks and take up animal husbandry.
Can you handle another Da Vinci Code story? It has just emerged that Justice Peter Smith, who presided over the Dan Brown plagiarism trial, embedded a secret code within his ruling that refers to both The Da Vinci Code and Holy Blood, Holy Grail, whose authors sued Brown. In the first 13 and a half pages of the 71-page ruling, a handful of italicized, boldfaced letters are embedded, that when combined, spell out “Smithy Code.” But there’s more. A further jumble of italicized, boldfaced letters have yet to be deciphered. In her New York Times piece, Sarah Lyall describes a series of “brief and ultimately frustrating e-mail messages” in which she tried to pry the solution from Smith, to no avail. She also relates Smith’s dismay when, for the first couple of weeks after the ruling was released, no one noticed the secrets that lay within: It has been nearly three weeks since he handed down the ruling. Probably disappointingly for Justice Smith, nobody seemed to notice anything unusual about it when it was first released. But he alluded to the possibility that there was something more soon afterward as a throwaway line in an e-mail exchange with a reporter for The New York Times, saying, “Did you find the coded message in the judgment?”It’s silly, but I admire Justice Smith for his cleverness. After all, a blogger can’t exactly look down on someone for grasping at his 15 minutes of fame.Update: From the comments, a mysterious anonymous commenter has provided us with the code. It starts out “smithy code” and from there, the jumble of letters is “Jaeiextostgpsacgreamqwfkadpmqzv”.Anybody want to take a stab at it?Update 2: Judge Smith has released some clues.Holy Blood, Holy Grail refers to the Dossiers Secret and the hidden message. It is revealed by spotting that certain random letters appear to be different in form from the majority of the text.Applying that to the judgment reveals the following highlighted letters: SMITHYCODEJAEIEXTOSTGPSACGREAMQWFKADPMQZVZ (the first part reveals there is a message)There is no significance to the placing of the letters in the text.Da Vinci Code also uses codes. The most liked one is apparently a numerical one (p.255 The Fibonacci Sequence). In the book it is changed.The correct sequence up to 21 is: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21The code is created by letter substitution.The letter change is creating by applying the Fibonacci Sequence numbers above letter by letter.The relevant number shows where you start for each letter to substitute. Thus the first letter is identified by rewriting the alphabet stating at the first letter in the alphabet ie for the first letter A A. The second letter is also started at 1; the third at 3. When 21 is reached the code reverts back to 1 etc and repeats that until all the letters are substituted. A message ought then be revealed (there is a deliberate typo to create further confusion). The message reveals a significant but now overlooked event that occurred virtually 100 years to the day of the start of the trial.The preparation of the Code took about 40 minutes and its insertion another 40 minutes or so.I hate crosswords and do not do Sudoku as I do not have the patience.Update 3: The Smithy Code has been cracked.
A week doesn’t go by that there’s not some new news related to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The plagiarism court case, the book’s paperback release, and the book’s connection to the recently discovered “lost Book of Judas” have all made headlines recently. Not bad for a book that first came out over two years ago. People wonder how the book can continue to sell so well (the paperback sold as many as 500,000 copies in its first week of release), but being on the front page of the newspaper every week goes a long way when you’re trying to move product. Incredibly, with the The Da Vinci Code movie coming out in May we’re actually in for another round of news about the book. Undoubtedly the movie will get tons of press, but I was particularly surprised to see that Google is participating in a special promotion for the movie. If you go to google.com/davincicode and follow the prompts, Google will add “The Da Vinci Code Quest” to your personalized homepage (assuming you have a Google account.) The “Quest” is some sort of puzzle game that officially starts on Monday and there are various prizes being offered. Now, Google has certainly morphed into a pretty big company over the last couple of years, but you don’t really expect them to do promotional tie ins. Once again, The Da Vinci Code seems to be rewriting the rule book.Philipp’s got more details.
The revelation of the so-called “Book of Judas” last week made for some good news stories. The newly discovered gospel claims that one of history’s oldest bad guys wasn’t so bad. It’s a provocative story and there’s an element of Indiana Jones to it all, as the lost text was found in Egypt and made its way to the public through years of intrigue and backchannel trading. Scholars, meanwhile, are already debating how relevant the document is. The New York Times article on the gospel gets into the scholarly debate somewhat, but an illuminating essay by David Kopel at the Volokh Conspiracy explains why the “Gospel of Judas” is not a lost book from the Bible, but rather a Gnostic text. But what interests me most are not the theological ramifications of the find, but how its public unveiling is tied to the release of so many books (and a movie).First of all, it’s unlikely that this news would be of such interest were it not for the success of The Da Vinci Code, which has made once obscure Gnostic texts mainstream reads for fans of Dan Brown’s book. It’s also worth noting that The Da Vinci Code movie comes out soon, on May 19th, which is sure to keep early Christian mysticism in the news. But then there are the books themselves. National Geographic, which officially made the documents public, has two related books out now: The Gospel of Judas, which is an annotated translation of the original documents, and The Lost Gospel, which is about the discovery of the gospel and the research that went into deciphering it. The David Kopel essay cited above mentions an AP story in which James M. Robinson, a rival to the National Geographic scholars, explains why the find is probably not all that important. It turns out Robinson has his own book on the gospel coming out, too, The Secrets of Judas, which gives his view on the find.So, for something that was portrayed in the media as a stunning new find, this all seems to be very stage managed to me. The Gospel of Judas itself has been floating around since the 70s, but the three books (and the National Geographic TV special) all seem timed to hitch onto The Da Vinci Code’s next wave of publicity as Dan Brown emerges from his court proceedings and his best seller hits the big screen.