Essays

War Poetry. What is it Good For?

During the Second World War - unquestionably the "decisive, ideological struggle" of its time - the government instituted a draft, income taxes rose as high as 82%, food and luxury goods were rationed, and people further participated in the war effort by buying war bonds and planting victory gardens. What the President has often referred to as the "decisive, ideological struggle of our time," (italics mine) has not inspired in our nation a corresponding spirit of sacrifice or sense of urgency. Even he, the war's greatest supporter, tells us that to do our part, we need only shop and watch the increasingly blood-spattered and heart-rending images of destruction on the nightly news. Explosive violence is met with half-measures, and as Congress continues its endless posturing, Bush soldiers on and Iraq spirals into disaster. If only we could invest as much in this reckless war - to either win it or defeat it - as Brian Turner has in his poetry, we might still see ourselves free of the whole vile mess.Turner has done his part. After graduating from the University of Oregon with an MFA in poetry, he spent seven years in the U.S. Army, including one year as an infantry leader in Iraq. It was during this time that he composed Here, Bullet, an attempt not only to chronicle his involvement in the war, but also to serve as witness to its human cost. In this, Turner has succeeded as few have. Eschewing the easy route, Turner expands his telling of the war beyond the bounds of his own experience to encompass not only those who fight and die with him, but the lives of average Iraqis and, most strikingly, those he fights against.Although Turner's views on war in general are made clear in such poems as "Gilgamesh in Fossil Relief" and "Sadiq," where he writes to his fellow soldiers, "it should break your heart to kill," the majority of the book avoids politics, with Turner only betraying his true sentiments in the last few pages, when, observing the aftermath of a bombing, he writes:The stunned gather body parts from the roadwayto collect in cardboard boxeswhich will not be taped and shippedto the White House lawn, not buriedunder the green sod thrown over, box by boxemptied into the rich soil in silencewhile a Marine sentry stands guardat the National Monument, Tomb of the Unknown,our own land given to these, to sayif this is freedom, then we will share it.Although Turner understandably felt it necessary to address his feelings on the war, his work pays its greatest dividends when it avoids partisanship. Instead of haranguing the reader, his vivid imagery and often shocking juxtapositions force the reader to come to terms with the war as it is being lived. His eye for telling details is sharp - a mustache and wedding ring lie forlorn on the sidewalk after a roadside bombing, glow in the dark stars on the ceiling of an arms dealer's home - and his descriptions of violence are an integral part of the work, always horrific, sometimes possessing a distressing beauty, never gratuitous.In the year or so Here, Bullet has been out, although no reviewer has dared question Turner's qualifications, many have been critical of his language, commenting on a tendency towards purple prose and cliched usage. But by reducing the poems to a mere formal exercise, these critics miss the point. It's not Turner's language, as stirring as it often is, that gives his work its power, but his eye for detail and his unwillingness to spare his readers. These aren't the self-indulgent maunderings of a neurasthenic MFA at a bucolic liberal arts college, these are epistles written in blood, and in this context, even the cliches work: the image of sunflowers turning their faces to the dawn as seen through the site of a sniper rifle in "Observation Post #71" or "R&R"'s paean to "beer... so cold it sweats in your hand" closely followed by the seeming non sequitur, "I'm all out of adrenaline, all out of smoking incendiaries." The combination of the familiar and the harrowing catches the reader off-guard, and the impact, as in all the best writing, comes not from form, but truth.If there is one real complaint to be made about the book, it is that Turner's work borrows heavily from the tradition of the poet/warrior, an archetype that has existed at least since the days of ancient Greece, when the soldier Archilochus wrote:Some Saian mountaineerStruts today with my shield.I threw it down by a bush and ranWhen the fighting got hot.Life seemed somehow more precious.It was a beautiful shield.I know where I can buy anotherExactly like it, just as round.It's difficult to imagine anyone expressing the idea better, and the few weak pieces in the collection, such as "Cole's Guitar," bring nothing new to such commonly rendered themes as camp life. But despite these similarities, Turner takes a risk, unique at least in my reading, by making a genuine attempt to understand the people who he fights for and against. Where many poets have addressed their enemy as a faceless other, acknowledging, at best, the universality of human suffering, Turner has clearly studied Iraq and makes a concerted effort to use what he has learned to draw a clearer picture of the war. Excerpts from the Qur'an and historical references provide some necessary context for the war, which, as he writes in his opening poem "A Soldier's Arabic," "starts where we would end it... an echo of history, recited again." Turner skillfully deploys this knowledge, sharing it with the reader in lessons in the book's introductory poems, then building on those lessons, exposing the reader to the same words and images until what was once unfamiliar resonates deeply. This resonance combines with a (considering the circumstances) remarkable display of imaginative empathy to create Turner's best poems and reaches its culmination in "2,000 lbs" a narrative of a suicide bombing told from the perspectives of Iraqis, American soldiers, and the bomber himself. In fifty to a hundred years, this is the poem that teachers will use to teach the Iraq War, much as Wilfed Owens' poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" is used when discussing the First World War.So Here, Bullet, a great book. So what? Who wants to read it? Many people complain of "Iraq fatigue," and it is undeniable that the constant grim headlines and footage from the war make even the staunchest supporters (are there any left?) wish it would all just go away. There's already more information available than can be digested, and it's questionable if even the most diligent study will bear fruit. Why, then, should anyone care about one more book in a seemingly endless series devoted to the topic? Why would anyone want to know this war better? The issue, in my opinion, is not attempting to know the war, but attempting to identify with it. Art serves its highest purpose when it helps us to cultivate our sympathies. Because many of us have no personal stake in the war, it's too easy to turn off the television or ignore the headlines, to pretend the war isn't there or to let someone else take responsibility for a mess that isn't "mine" to clean up. But the war goes on, whether we voted for it or not, and everyday it destroys lives. We need to care, and for those of us who can't yet identify with the lives of soldiers and Iraqis dying half a world away, Turner's poetry is more than great literature, it's a revelation.
Essays

The Fabulist: Ryszard Kapuscinski

At Slate, media critic Jack Shafer cuts through the effusive eulogizing of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski (here at The Millions and elsewhere) to point out that it was "widely conceded that Kapuscinski routinely made up things in his books." As a trained journalist, I recognize and respect Shafer's insistence on this point (though the essay's incendiary headline might have been a step too far.) And as such, I'm happy to concede to Shafer's wish that we not use the same yardstick to compare Kapuscinski and contemporary foreign correspondents like Anthony Shadid who put their lives on the line to deliver reports on Iraq and other war-torn places.However, one shouldn't take Shafer's discomfort as a condemnation of Kapuscinski's work. I think it's telling that Shafer mentions Truman Capote and Joseph Mitchell, two masters of so-called narrative non-fiction, as others who "straddle the wall between fiction and nonfiction." And yet I'm glad to have read these writers' work. Even James Frey's now infamous memoir, A Million Little Pieces, was considered by many to be a great read, and had it not been for the Oprah factor and Frey's irritating arrogance, the reaction to the fabrications it contained would likely not have been as severe. To define these books as journalism (or memoir, or "truth") exclusively does a disservice to journalism - offering a context within which this work fits, or even a disclaimer, is more appropriate - but to suggest that there isn't a place for writing and books like these does a disservice to readers. (Thanks to Brian for sending the Slate piece my way.)
Essays

The Myth of the “R-Rated” Book

Want to sound out of touch? Start describing things by using movie ratings. That's what school board member Wendy Day does in an opinion piece in the Detroit News as she tries to convince readers to back her in her effort to pull a book from school curriculum that she and some parents deem "inappropriate." The book in question? The Freedom Writers Diary, which chronicles the story of a group of "at risk" students who, using Anne Frank as inspiration, write their own diaries, excerpts of which are strung together to make this book.Day says of the book, "A movie that included drug abuse, clear depictions of oral sex and repeated profanity would earn an 'R' rating... Put this same content in a book, and any objection to it is seen as censorship." But she fails, as do many who attempt to ban books, to recognize the context in which this "questionable" content is delivered. In this case, the context - some rough-around-the-edges teenagers describing their own lives - renders Day's concerns absurd.We rate and restrict movies because they are so much more likely to have different motives. Actions depicted on the screen are orders of magnitude more shocking than those written on the page (this is why laws restricting content on TV and radio have always been far more restrictive than what is permissible in print. See, for example, George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television"). To say that everything that would garner an "R" rating from our notoriously inconsistent movie censors deserves to be equally restricted when described in print strikes me as a sloppy blanket statement that is likely trotted out by many a would be book-banner.Moving back to Freedom Writers, though, this case, perhaps more so than others, illuminates how out of touch schools can become with those they are trying to teach. If the students in the Howell School district embarked on a similar project, keeping diaries as they learned, would it be so different from what appears in Freedom Writers? Not likely, even if parents would like to think that their children have nothing in common with a mix of struggling Asian, Hispanic and African American students. And when then message of Freedom Writers is not to glorify the bad things those students have done but to try to convey an authentic good message about personal growth and understanding, attempts to ban it based on perceived naughtiness show little respect for students who are no doubt old enough to appreciate that message. There is a reason we don't have, and never will have, a rating system for books like the one we have for movies, and those who understand that should protect books from those who don't.Backstory: The book was OK'd by the board earlier this month over Day's and some parents' objections. A Michigander explains why he thinks students should read the book. A letter from a local points out that Day is wrong in passing judgment on a book she has never read. Freedom Writers is currently a major motion picture.
Essays

Won’t Somebody Please Think Of The Children

Of all the things in this hectic world to keep kids away from, why books? Leslie Pinney, a school board member from District 214 (located in suburban Chicago), wanted to have the following books removed from the high school reading list because of their "inappropriate themes":The Awakening by Kate ChopinThe Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen ChboskySlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (It should be illegal for kids not to read this book.)Beloved by Toni Morrison (Take that New York Times best book of the last 25 years.)Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (More on this later)How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia AlvarezFallen Angels by Walter Dean MyersThe Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollen (What are we worried about here? Plant sex?)The Things They Carried by Tim O'BrienTo see just how twisted and depraved these people here, check out this entry at a Townhall site in support of Pinney, where someone has lifted the prurient parts from some of these books to prove that kids shouldn't be reading them - labeling the books - in a blaring font - "pornographic." What if the children find that site, though? Then they won't even have to read the books to get to the juiciest parts! At any rate, I find it comical and depressing that people think we should keep books with foul language or "adult" themes out of the hands of high schoolers. Isn't the classroom a better place for kids to learn the appropriate context for such things than other outlets?Thankfully this "controversy" turned out to be little more than a tempest in a teakettle as the six other board members voted against Pinney. In fact it was heartening to hear how many people were moved to discuss the banning of the books. From the Tribune: "Board President Bill Dussling said the meeting's turnout was the largest the district had seen in 25 years but evidently the issue struck chord within the community." A number of students rallied against the proposed ban as well.Meanwhile, at the Freakonomics blog, authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, followed the situation. Their book had made Pinney's list because it proposes the theory that legalized abortion has reduced the nation's crime rate. To mark the occasion, the Freakonomics guys are doing something pretty cool. They're giving out 50 free copies of the book to the first 50 students from the district who respond to their offer, and in the end, it seems likely that more kids will read Freakonomics and the other books than if this closed-minded woman hadn't proposed the ban.On a semi-related note, I talked to some people at BEA about what helps books and authors get mentioned by the blogosphere. One big thing is for the author or book to have a compelling Web presence, and the Freakonomics blog is a great example. It has kept readers interested in the book, while also letting readers interact with the authors and giving bloggers something to link to.Update: The fallout from the District 214 attempted book banning continues, as described in this morning's Tribune. The pro-banning forces are vowing to press on with their efforts to get books removed from schools. Peter LaBarbera of the conservative Illinois Family Institute calls the 6-1 vote against the book banning "a Pyrrhic victory" (and presumably LaBarbera was able to learn about Pyrrhic victories because Plutarch's Lives was not banned in his high school.) LaBarbera's contention is that "thousands of parents, not just in Arlington Heights but statewide, have been alerted that there are some pretty racy books out there that are required reading," and so now we can expect many more book-banning battles to arise. Luckily, though, this article also contains more accounts of students fighting for the right to have these books taught: "Some said it was unfair to judge a book on isolated passages. 'You cannot ban an entire book if you take things out of context, if you're not looking at a literary whole,' said Christine Fish, a member of the Hersey High School debate team. The group passed out fliers reading 'Fahrenheit 214,' a play on the title of the Ray Bradbury novel about book burning."The kids, as they say, are alright.
Essays, In Person

Book Expo Dispatch: Targeting Litblogs

NB: I wrote the following post a few hours ago, and I've been letting it simmer a bit. I've since visited the blogs of several other folks who were at BEA, and it made me want to point out that despite what I've written below, BEA was a very fun event and that it was possible to get a lot more out of it than I did - for proof check out Mark, Written Nerd, and Pinky to name a few.As previously noted, it wasn't really possible to do the sort of quick hit blogging that I wanted to do at BEA, but I've had the chance to cobble together my scattered thoughts on my overall impressions of the event in a post that will hopefully be better than a bunch of smaller ones would have been.First, I don't think I'll ever go again. The event obviously serves a purpose as the yearly trade show for the publishing industry, and BEA embraces the promotional atmosphere that is integral to such shows. Along with the hundreds (thousands?) of booths there are also dozens of panels and talks that address many aspects of the industry and allow for people to stay up to date on various topics. Some of the topics have a literary feel - there was an emerging voices panel, a panel on the short story, and the now infamous Sam Tanenhaus best books of the last 25 years panel - but many more were about salesmanship and other commerce-related topics (as there probably should be.) There was also the well-done, but poorly titled talk that Sarah of GalleyCat gave. It was called Syndicating LitBlog Book Reviews (Sarah didn't come up with the title), in which Sarah gave a nice little overview of the LitBlog culture. The unfortunate part was that there were only about 25 people there, half bloggers and half people trying to get bloggers to notice the books they were trying to promote. The question and answer period evolved into an off the cuff conversation where, essentially, we told these people how they could get at us. It hearkened back in a way to the pre-BEA topic that came up on several litblogs, the awkward relationship between litblogs and publicists (scroll down to the bottom of that post for links to what other bloggers were saying.) By the end of BEA I came to realize that the relationship between litblogs and the publishing industry as whole is ill-defined.At the heart of it, both sides want something. The publishers see blogs as a venue of growing importance, and, while perhaps overstating our influence, many are starting to see mentions on litblogs as a crucial aspect of bringing a successful book to market. Meanwhile, and forgive me for painting with a very broad brush, litbloggers want some grouping of the following things: we want free books; we want (often in a fanboyish way) access to authors and important publishing industry personalities; we want to be noticed and widely read, we want to feel that our devotion to book culture is filling the void left by the shrinking book review sections in newspapers and magazines; and finally - I'll admit it - some of us want to make a little coin (if litblogging isn't a dream job, I don't know what is).At mainstream publications, the rules of engagement are well-defined. Journalists are forbidden to accept freebies beyond just review copies. Popular reviews and interviews bring prestige to the publication for which the reviewers write as much as they do to the reviewers themselves. But we bloggers don't have ethics committees, and when we write something that becomes popular, all prestige (and a flood of readers) flow to the name on the blog. Publishers seem to know this, and the sense I got at BEA is that they see us as easy targets, venues for publicity that can be bought by playing to the vanity that anyone who blogs seriously must necessarily have. In the end, I'm not calling for a code of ethics for litbloggers or anything like that, it's just that being there in the center of the publishing industry's profit-driven heart, where books are flogged loudly and in a mind-bending number of silly and obnoxious ways, I realized that I should put a little more thought into my relationship with the publishing industry.
Essays

Preach It: Tips for Publicists

Amen. Dan Wickett writes an open letter to all the pushy publicists out there and all I want to know is where do I sign. Dan is writing about "the litblogging version of the Cold Call. An email from somebody I've never heard of, asking if I'd be interested in reading and reviewing their work, possibly interviewing them, linking to their website, etc." It goes on, with justifiable frustration, from there.Like Dan, I'm extremely grateful to the publicists, publishers and authors who regularly read this blog and who, based on their knowledge of what sort of books I like to write about, will let me know about titles that might interest me. But I think the problem is that somebody has convinced publicists, authors, and other publishing-industry types that getting talked about on blogs is a key ingredient in the secret elixir of publishing success. Sure books now hit number one on Amazon thanks to the Internet presence of their authors, and bloggers individually or in groups have raised the profile of certain titles, but no bestsellers have been made by cold calling. No way. Bloggers care about the books they write about, so the publicists have to do a better job of making bloggers care. So with the knowledge I've gained from being the recipient of countless pitches - too many of them cold calls - here are my thoughts on how to promote a project to bloggers. Hopefully, the following tips will be useful to anyone, not just book industry types, trying to pitch something to a blogger.My tips for pitching to bloggers: Most importantly, read blogs. Why spend the time and effort pitching a project to bloggers if you don't read blogs in the first place. If you don't get blogs and how they work, how can you expect to use them to promote your project?As Dan suggests, stop pitching projects that aren't appropriate to the content of the blog. It's rude and borderline spammy.Do not pitch any blog that you haven't been reading for at least a month. Bloggers are used to corresponding with their regular readers both on and off the blog, and, frankly, it's very unlikely that I'll mention your project if you just appear, out of the blue, in my inbox.Do not mass email. First of all, I don't care what kind of fancy email program you use, it's pretty obvious when I get a mass email. If you don't care enough to write me a personal email, then why should I care enough to support your project?Finally, don't oversell. If you are trying to let me know about something that you think I'll be genuinely interested in, then your email and a link ought to be enough. If I say sure send the book (or whatever), then send it along, but don't try to buy me off with swag, let your project stand on its own.I'd love to hear any other ideas people might have in the comments.See also: MJ Rose's post "Don't Do This" from today. Maud has encountered this as well. And Ed, too. Scott devotes a Friday Column to publicists.Update May 24, 2006: Mark has written a thoughtful counterpoint to the outpouring here and at other litblogs, which makes me think that the use of the term "publicist" was perhaps cavalier here and elsewhere. Please see my comment on his post as well as my more recent post-BEA post on the topic.
Essays

A Ship of Books

Recently, I happened upon a news story from a paper in India about a floating library, a giant ship of books, that was set to dock in Chennai. It sounded like something out of Borges, and I looked into it further. The MV Doulos is the world's oldest active ocean-faring passenger ship. In its long life, dating back to 1914, it has sailed under four different names and been a freighter, a luxury liner and, during World War II, it served with the US Coast Guard. In 1977, the ship was acquired by Gute Bucher fur Alle e.V. (Good Books for All), a German non-profit, and since then it has sailed, loaded up with books, to 100 countries and 515 ports of call. The Doulos Web site's description of what the ship does:Doulos carries a stock of half a million books. In total, over 18 million visitors have come on board to browse the selection of 4,000 available titles. Titles cover a wide range of subjects, such as science, sports, hobbies, cookery, the arts, economics and medicine, as well as books on faith in God and living life in God's service. The books have been carefully chosen to cater to interests of all ages, and keeping in mind the educational, social and moral needs of the local community. A large selection is devoted especially to children. Local language materials supplement the vast array of English books. The books are offered at a fraction of their retail value. In some ports significant quantities are also donated.It sounds pretty amazing, but you'll note as well the part in the above description about "faith in God and living life in God's service." Having, of course, never set foot on the Doulos, I wouldn't want to pass judgement on their mission, and I hope that "Good Books for All" is one of those organizations that does not let religion subvert its secondary mission, but a look at a few news stories about the ship show that it is not without controversy.In The Organizer an opposition weekly in India, there is an angry article about the ship's current visit to the country: "The crew was trying to spread Christianity among the visitors rather than promoting reading habit." Another article, this one in The Hindu, describes long waits to board, but not the religion issue.Prior to the India visit, in Bahrain, the controversy was not over Christianity but that the ship violated rules against commercial activity by foreign entities, according to this Gulf Daily News story. It was eventually resolved. After a few searches, though, it seems clear that most folks appreciate the ship, even in places that might seem hostile to it, including Abu Dhabi, for example. In Mauritius, local booksellers have been angered by the cheap prices of the books on the ship.The ship sounds like a complicated thing, noble and magical as it conveys books around the world, but vaguely sinister as it, according to some, pushes religion on visitors and undercuts locals. I'd like to see it for myself.
Essays

A Bit about Frey

I haven't said much about the James Frey fiasco, just because it's been covered so well by other blogs and news outlets, but I did want to share a couple of thoughts:I was working at a bookstore when A Million Little Pieces first came out in April 2003, and I think it should be known that there were questions about the veracity of the book from day one. When you work at a bookstore, you become pretty jaded about the publicity efforts of your counterparts from the publishing companies. When hyperbole is the order of the day, it's hard for a particular book to stand out from the crowd. But, on rare occasions, the publishers put on such a full-court press, you can't help but think - from the retailer's perspective - that a book is going to be big. Pieces was one of those books, and the number one selling point was that the book was unbelievable but true. Still, my coworkers who read advance copies found the book hard to believe, there were whispers among many in the industry that the book was heavily embellished and people who went to see Frey in person as he publicized the book found him to be both vague and abrasive when he was asked about particular parts of the book. With cases like this one - J.T. Leroy comes to mind here as well - it's almost as though the media knows about these doubts all along, but they play along to build a story line: the credulous public and media buys into the unbelievable story, the author achieves fame and fortune, and then, like clockwork, Boom! the big hoax is revealed and we - the public and the media - all gleefully tear him down. It seems like an age old story to me.My second point is that before this whole story goes away, I'd like one thing cleared up because I think it speaks to the publishing industry's culpability in this whole saga. Was Pieces originally shopped as a novel or not? As far as I can tell, this notion was first put forward by Frey in a profile by Joe Hagan in the New York Observer in February 2003:Mr. Frey said he originally shopped the book as a work of fiction, but Ms. Talese and Co. declined to publish it as such. He said he hoped Ms. Talese's imprint would deflect the characterization of his book as part of the sentimental recovery genre. "That imprint lends a lot of credibility to what otherwise might be considered a recovery memoir. Nan's not in the business of publishing that bullshit," he said.(I love that quote, don't you?) This idea has since been oft-repeated by the media and was, in fact, repeated by Frey himself on his most recent appearance on Larry King Live. A story in yesterday's New York Observer quotes Frey as saying this on the show:"We initially shopped the book as a novel, and it was turned down by a lot of publishers as a novel or as a nonfiction book. When Nan Talese purchased the book, I'm not sure if they knew what they were going to publish it as. We talked about what to publish it as. And they thought the best thing to do was publish it as a memoir."The question is this: Is Frey making this up or did Frey's agent, Kassie Evashevski of Brillstein/Grey, or publisher, Nan A. Talese, decide to relabel a work of fiction as a memoir in order to sell more books? Talese denies this in the same Observer story: "Ms. Talese said that she 'almost collapsed' when she heard Mr. Frey make that statement." I think most people will believe Talese, a well-respected name in the publishing industry, over the now disgraced Frey, but I still want to know for sure.Update: According to this GalleyCat post, Evashevski told Publishers Weekly, "Nan Talese believed in good faith they were buying a memoir, just as I believed I was selling them one." So Frey's been lying from day one.
Essays

Books: an inventory of life

My life boxed and crated. Transient. Completely uprooting my existence and collapsing it into the family Honda. University in one town. Internships in another. Back and forth, ping-ponging along Ontario's highways every four months for about five years. Years ago, this was my life.I learned to adjust to my new surroundings very quickly. Whatever record albums I happened to own at the time would be the first things unpacked, sorted and shelved along with whatever stereo I could afford. Next would be books and the milk crates that passed for furniture.Once these were set up I would generally think of my apartment as being complete. Four walls became a home. Anything else is basically an afterthought, an extravagance that I might or might not indulge in, like, I suppose, a chair.Every four months the following could be witnessed on Highway 401: a suitcase full of clothes with me in the backseat, a trunk full of crated books and records, my father at the wheel of the Honda still shaking his head from the contents of the trunk, completely mystified as to how the quantity of books and records had somehow increased exponentially since four months previous, and my mother riding shotgun, snacks at the ready. And, oh yeah, a giant bed tethered precariously to the roof of the car, overhanging front and back, providing shade under the Southern Ontario sun.More than anything else could, my books and records anchored me to my new surroundings - re-connecting me with me. They defined my home. They still do. The milk crates disappeared when I discovered Ikea and I've made the necessary overtures to furniture dealers. But the core of my world is as it always has been.There's a passage in A History of Reading that leads me to believe that Alberto Manguel would understand, that we're cut from the same cloth. The son of a diplomat, Manguel moved around a great deal as a boy. "Books gave me a permanent home," he writes, "and one I could inhabit exactly as I felt like, at any time, no matter how strange the room."It is sentiments like that, moments of memoir, that give what could have been a dry cultural history run-through its spirit. In the end, A History of Reading is anything but dry, as Manguel, a wonderful storyteller, chronicles "reading" from ancient civilizations on up to the modern age.As a young man in Argentina, Manguel was honored to be a reader to the great Jorge Luis Borges, by then blind. Manguel looks back on these reading sessions as "happy captivity", reading aloud whatever Borges asked him to from his own library. In this way did Borges re-connect and rediscover a part of himself. Reading a book (or having it read to you) has a cumulative effect. Manguel writes that "every book has been engendered by long successions of other books." Borges was intimately familiar with each of the books that Manguel would read to him. Yet with each new reading, Borges' brain would have a new take on it. His mind would not only connect it with other books he's read, but with previous readings of the same book. Each would leave its imprint.And different people, imprinted by different attitudes can perceive the same text in different, often contradictory ways. And no single reading can be isolated as the one correct reading. Manguel writes of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis which has, by different readers, been called: humor, parable, a Bolshevik tract, a Bourgeois tract, an allegory. Some readings might be better informed, more lucid, more challenging. But "no reading can ever be final," Manguel writes. "This is not a failure of the process, but proof of our freedom as readers."Manguel, in addition to assessing theories of reading, also teaches us a bit of history. He charts the development of paper and its antecedents - tablets, codex, scrolls. He writes about how the type of surface determined both the type of storage and one's own reading space. (In my case, reclining on a futon in my den, away from the distractions of the TVs and stereos that are the centerpieces of both bedroom and living room. If no remote control is within arm's reach, my reading stands a chance.)One of my favorite chapters in the book deals with public readings in mid-1800s Cuba. A largely illiterate workforce was nevertheless one thirsty for stories. So, while people worked, while their bodies performed routine functions, their minds would be engaged by stories - they would be read to. Eventually, fearing intellectual subversion, a prohibition went into effect resulting, as prohibitions will, in "underground" clandestine work-time readings. These kinds of readings continued among the Cuban immigrant population of the US into the early 20th century.Manguel also tells us about how the increase in world travel cried out for a new kind of portable book. And a 'good book', beyond just the already-available populist or pulp fiction. The result - the founding of the iconic Penguin.The history of libraries, the history of cataloguing, censorship through the ages, and a great little aside about a noted life-long book-thief - they're all given due consideration in Manguel's book. He even explores the history of reading-glasses (perched on the nose of the "bespectacled book fool")Well, this bespectacled book-fool is a hoarder. That trunk full of books and records would now barely cover the A's. Manguel, my kindred spirit, he knows what it's like. He reckons that his books were brought into his home for a reason. Sure, he could attribute it to thoroughness, or scarcity, or scholarship. But Manguel knows the truth. He knows its just "voluptuous greed". "I enjoy the sight of my crowded bookshelves," he writes. "I delight in knowing that I'm surrounded by a sort of inventory of my life."
Essays

Book blogs: do they matter?

Here's another one: this time it's a CS Monitor article by Randy Dotinga called "Book blogs' buzz grows louder." Over the last year many newspapers have printed some variation of this article. In it, the author introduces his readers to this online literary subculture book blogs. (And once again The Millions fails to get mentioned, but congrats to Mark Sarvas who leads the article - I've got to borrow his PR person.) Almost invariably, these articles also try to assess the impact, if any, that these blogs have on book sales, and almost invariably that question proves very difficult to answer. Here's Dotinga's stab at it:But is anyone listening? Many book bloggers seem to be talking only to themselves, judging by the dearth of postings by outsiders on their sites. And it's hard to tell if bloggers' mash notes translate into sales at Barnes & Noble.Which is another way of saying that book blogs have no measurable effect on book sales. We are a drop in the bucket, as it were. It's hard to disagree with that conclusion. Extrapolating from my own numbers, the numbers I've seen mentioned by other book bloggers and the numbers mentioned in Dan Wickett's interviews with book bloggers (1, 2, 3, 4), I'd estimate that on any given day no more than 75,000 people worldwide read a "book blog." Most large publishers wouldn't bother buying an ad if it was only going to reach 75,000, and yet, if my experience is representative, the more prominent book bloggers are recieving e-mail pitches, catalogs, and review copies almost daily. Are these publishers fools to be courting us? Well, yes and no. Anyone expecting a burst of sales from being mentioned on The Millions is sadly deluded, and the same is likely true of an isolated mention on any of the dozens of other book blogs out there. But, collectively, we book bloggers are able to deliver something that is hard to come by: a targeted audience. Publishers know that the people who read book blogs are many times more likely to buy a book than non-book blog readers, and by thrusting books into our hands, they hope to reach our coveted audience and get a little word of mouth going. If all the pieces fall into place, I think it's possible that book blogs are capable of boosting the sales of a particular book, though not enough to get it onto any bestseller lists.But I have another theory as to why these publishers are courting us: It's fun. For the first time there is an informed, entertaining conversation about books going on that anyone in the world can listen in on. No longer do the desk jockeys in the publicity department have to spend all their time clipping reviews and engineering in-store events, now they get to read blogs - now they get to feel like they're a part of the book discussion. They get to reach out directly to the most passionate readers. (I suspect this is why authors and all sorts of publisher types seem to love book blogs, too.) So, sure they want us to sell some books for them if we can, but, secretly, I think they just want to join in the fun.