Monday, June 29, 2009

"Twitterature" Has Book World Atwitter

Two nineteen year old freshmen at the University of Chicago have scored a publishing deal for their book, Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Books, Now Presented in Twenty Tweets or Less, to be released later this year by Penguin.

The students, Emmett Rensin and Alex Aciman, “had an epiphany,” they declare on their website. "What, we asked, are the grandest ventures of our or any generation? And what, to give this a bit more focus, best expresses the souls of 21st century Americans?"

Their answer: that the two most important platforms of expression for their generation were literature and Twitter, and so they sought a way to marry the two.

"More than any other social networking tool, Twitter has refined to its purest form the instant-publishing, short-attention-span, all-digital-all-the-time, self-important age of info-deluge that is the essence of our contemporary world. So what could be better than to combine the two? After all, as great as the classics are, who has time to read those big, long books anymore?"

And so their "humorous retelling of works of great literature in Twitter format aimed at people aged between 18 and 35.”

The intent is to metaphorically throw the works of Dante, Shakespeare, Stendhal, Joyce and JK Rowling into a log-chipper and have twenty 140-character Tweets for each come out the other end. The humor, presumably, will be added somewhere along the process, like carnauba wax in a car wash, then polished to hilarious sheen. Humor’s a tricky thing; without meta-context the laughs get lost and there's no room for any sort of context in a Twitter tweet.

This is not exactly a fresh idea. In early May of 2009, the U.K. Telegraph reported that writer Tim Collins has a new book, The Little Book of Twitter, comprised of plot summaries of the great books and aimed at the Twitteratti, i.e.:


jamesjoyce: Man walks around Dublin. We follow every minute detail of his day. He’s probably overtweeting.

Great Expectations:

charlesdickens: Orphan given £££ by secret follower. He thinks it’s @misshavisham but it turns out to be @magwitch

The Catcher in the Rye:

jdsalinger: Rich kid thinks everyone is fake except for his little sister. Has breakdown. @markchapman is now following @johnlennon

Pride and Prejudice:

janeaustin: Woman meets man called Darcy who seems horrible. He turns out to be nice really. They get together.

Bridget Jones’s Diary:

helenfielding: RT @janeaustin Woman meets man called Darcy who seems horrible. He turns out to be nice really. They get together.

Okay, this is fun up to a point; I got paid to do this in an earlier incarnation: Ultimately, Collins’ book is an exercise in writing what in TVLand-speak is called the “high-concept,” a high-fallutin' way to describe the log line for the program/movie’s TV Guide entry, nothing more. Writing “high-concepts” sounds a lot more significant than writing TV Guide teasers, along the lines of “sanitation engineer” for garbageman which, come to think of it, was exactly what I was doing.

Twitterature apprs 2B aimng at smthng mre &, hopefully, litteratwerps hu thk plot is bk wll B dsapntd.

If Rensin and Aciman can capture the soul of a book within its theme, plot, character, and milieu in twenty Tweets of 160 characters each or less, and include a wry slant, that would really be an accomplishment; high art, I think, and poetry of the highest rank.

I’m not counting on it.

There is, however, a way to salvage the project so that the preciousness and intrinsic humor of each Twitter-fied book is suitably captured but it'll have to wait for the audio book version: Twitterature. As Read by Internationally Renowned Star of Looney Tunes Cartoons, Tweety-Bird.

"Cawl me Itchmale! I taut I thaw a mighty whitey-whale dwown a cwazy captain and hith cwew!"

Image ™Warner Brothers.

Friday, June 26, 2009

High School Locker is Banned Books Library

A U.S. student at an unnamed private school has created an illegal lending library in the locker adjacent to hers to serve the interest of fellow students in books banned from the student curriculum by zealous school officials.

Anxious that she may be subverting her future success in life by current criminal activity and seeking guidance from the wise, she posted her dilemma on Yahoo! Answers:

“Is it OK to run an illegal library from my locker at school?

“Let me explain.

“I go to a private school that is rather strict. Recently, the principal and school teacher council released a (very long) list of books we're not allowed to read. I was absolutely appalled, because a large number of the books were classics and others that are my favorites. One of my personal favorites, The Catcher in the Rye, was on the list, so I decided to bring it to school to see if I would really get in trouble. Well... I did but not too much. Then (surprise!) a boy in my English class asked if he could borrow the book, because he heard it was very good AND it was banned! This happened a lot and my locker got to overflowing with the banned books, so I decided to put the unoccupied locker next to me to a good use. I now have 62 books in that locker, about half of what was on the list. I took care only to bring the books with literary quality. Some of these books are:

•The Perks of Being a Wallflower
•His Dark Materials trilogy
•The Canterbury Tales
•The Divine Comedy
•Paradise Lost
•The Godfather
•Interview with the Vampire
•The Hunger Games
•The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
•A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
•Animal Farm
•The Witches
•Shade's Children
•The Evolution of Man
• the Holy Qu'ran
... and lots more.

“Anyway, I now operate a little mini-library that no one has access to but myself. Practically a real library, because I keep an inventory log and give people due dates and everything.

“I would be in so much trouble if I got caught, but I think it's the right thing to do because before I started, almost no kid at school but myself took an active interest in reading!

“Now not only are all the kids reading the banned books, but go out of their way to read anything they can get their hands on. So I'm doing a good thing, right? Oh, and since you're probably wondering 'Why can't you just go to a local library and check out the books?’ most of the kids are too chicken or their parents won't let them get the books. I think that people should have open minds. Most of the books were banned because they contained information that opposed Catholicism.

“I limit my 'library' to only the sophomores, juniors and seniors just in case so you can't say I'm exposing young people to material they're not mature enough for. But is what I'm doing wrong because parents and teachers don't know about it and might not like it, or is it a good thing because I am starting appreciation of the classics and truly good novels (Not just fad novels like Twilight) in my generation?

“More books I have:
•One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
•The Picture of Dorian Gray
•Lord of the Flies
•Bridge to Terabithia
•East of Eden
•The Brothers Grimm Unabridged Fairytales.
...the list goes on.

“Twilight is banned also, but I don't want that polluting my library.

“As for getting the press involved, reporters are not allowed on campus. Besides, my parents would be so mad if they found out I was doing this.”

It’s a regular Vatican Library Index Prohibitum she’s running there. It’s nice to see kids engaging in productive, enriching activity rather than the usual teen shenanigans. Where was this young woman - the high school valedictorian, as far as I’m concerned, with excellent taste - when I was in high school?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The 19th Annual Havana International Book Fair - Feria Internacional del Libro de La Habana - considered by some to be the most important in Latin America, is scheduled for February 13-20, 2010.

The entire island becomes a festival for books. Beginning in Havana's San Carlos de la Cabaña fortress overlooking Havana Bay, the fortress becomes a fairground with numerous expo pavilions and several halls where authors present their books throughout the day. There are also poetry readings, children’s activities, art exhibitions, museum events, and evening concerts. The Book Fair then extends to other cities throughout all fourteen provinces, ending in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. Over one hundred international publishing houses exhibit their books.

Each year, the fair, whose motto is Leer es Crecer ("To Read is to Grow"), highlights a country—last year it was Chile—and features international booths, screenings, and author readings. It reviews all aspects of Cuban libraries, and Cuban literary and cultural production. The fair is an all-encompassing event drawing huge crowds.

Cuba boasts a 93% literacy rate, the highest in Latin America but it was hard won. At the time of the 1959 revolution, the illiteracy rare was 26%. During 1960-61 there was a major push for island-wide literacy and the illiteracy rate dropped from 26% to 7%. The Cuban literacy program, Si, Se Puede ("Yes, We Can"- no relationship to a certain U.S. president) is now used as an international model, and over twenty-seven nations have adopted it to success.

Overlapping for three days with the Book Fair is the Havana International Jazz Festival, February 7-16th. Double-whammy. Add the great food, the dancing, and the people and this is a monster event.

The Havana Book Fair routinely attracts librarians from all over the world, and their feedback on the experience is uniformly positive. University and public librarians in the U.S. can legally attend as professionals and provides an easy step-by-step license/visa application kit.

Cuba Educational Tours has an all-inclusive travel program for the Havana Book Fair. Early registration to ensure participation is encouraged.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Stats of a Romance Novelist (Pass the Prozac)

nora-roberts.jpgRomance novelist Nora Roberts has written 182 novels, in addition to short stories and novellas.

Writes futuristic police procedurals under the pseudonym J.D. Robb.

Was born Eleanor Marie Robertson in 1950.

Publishes five new Noras, two installments for a paperback original trilogy, two J.D. Robb books, and a summer "Big Nora" stand alone hardcover, annually.

Twenty-seven Nora Roberts books are sold every minute.

There are enough copies of Nora Roberts books in print to fill Giants Stadium in New York four thousand times.

Wrote three of the ten best selling mass-market paperbacks in 2008.

Her publisher, Penguin, shipped 600,000 copies of her summer 2008 "Big Nora" hardcover.

Penguin shipped a total of eight million copies of her books in 2008.

Roberts sold five and a half million copies of backlist titles last year.

As J.D. Robb, Roberts sold four and a half million books in 2008.

Grossed $60 million in 2004, according to Forbes.

Roberts has spent more than seven hundred weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.

She has been reviewed by the New York Times only once.

Nora Roberts' one key commandment of writing: "Ass in the chair."

Writes 6-8 hours a day.

It has been calculated that she completes a new novel every forty-five days.

Roberts is not a hugger or a crier.

Roberts has a dirty mouth, a smoker's voice, and a closet full of Armani.

Shopping is her main form of self-indulgence.

She once bought a Land Rover over a cell phone when her regular car stalled in the snow.

Has a sense of humor (see below).

Her ambition: "I hope to write the first romantic suspense time-travel paranormal thriller set in Mongolia dealing with Siamese twins who tragically fall in love with the same woman who may or may not be Annie Oakley."

Owns a small boutique hotel, called Inn BoonsBoro, in Booneboro, Maryland, near Keedysville where she has lived in the same home since 1972, long before her success. The hotel has seven themed rooms, each dedicated to pairs of literary lovers, i.e. Jane and Rochester, including a pair from one of her books.

Roberts has won nineteen RITA awards from the Romance Writers of America (RWA) since the award's inception in 1981.

Roberts has been inducted into the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame three times.

She inspires awe and envy amongst her peers. My cousin, the award-winning romance novelist and current president of the Romance Writers of America, Diane Pershing, says of Roberts, "You know that movie 'Amadeus,' where Salieri was jealous because Mozart seemed to be talking to God?"

Those expecting snarky commentary here on romance novels will be disappointed. While it is a genre that I never read nor plan to, it cannot be ignored: of people who read books, one in five read a romance novel. According to the RWA, romance novels generated $1.4 billion in sales in 2007, more than science-fiction and fantasy ($700 million), mystery ($650 million), and literary fiction ($466 million) combined.

According to the VJ Books website, "Having spent her life surrounded by men has given Ms. Roberts a fairly good view of the workings of the male mind, which is a constant delight to her readers. It was, she's been quoted as saying, 'a choice between figuring men out or running away screaming.'"

Since we men, for the obvious reason, rule out running away screaming from women except in the most extreme cases (knife-wielding, heat-packin' psychos), where is the male novelist who will devote his writing career to helping male slobs figure women out? (Sorry, Norman Mailer, it ain't you).

Is Nora Roberts a hack. Yes. Does she have talent? Her storytelling ability and knack for instantly engaging her readers are legendary. She creates characters that her readers understand and recognize. "Character is plot," she asserts. She's right; too many authors get it backwards. She's apparently broken many of the rules of the romance novel, provides snappy, witty dialogue, and plots that don't depend on the ripping of bodices. She changed the game and is the best romance novelist working in the genre today. She is not writing literary fiction, does not pretend to, and is justifiably proud of her accomplishments and huge audience for a genre that gets little respect.

All genre writing is critically dismissed until an author of such breaks through and all of a sudden the genre gains respectability as literature. Until Dashiell Hammett came along detective-murder mysteries were disdained by tastemakers. Same with Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and science-fiction. "Pauline Reage" aka Dominique Aury neé Ann Declos, The Story of O, and erotica (The Story of O the ultimate romance novel - with welts), etc.

Nora Roberts will never be confused with Jane Austen. She is as unpretentious as her readers who, contrary to popular belief, are not looking to escape but to identify with the female protagonist in romances. In this, the numbers demonstrate beyond doubt that Roberts has tapped into universals that resonate with her readers. Considering that that is the aim of all novelists and the reason that novels become lasting classics, hers is no mean achievement.

It is highly unlikely that any of Nora Roberts' novels will ever earn classic status, the fate of most popular authors. E.P. Roe, the best-selling American novelist of his generation (he outsold Twain), is now largely forgotten, despite his eighteen best-selling novels (including the first full-length American novel to feature drug use, Without A Home [1881]).

Her books, however, have become highly collectible, with paperback copies of her books, in merely good condition, fetching up to one hundred dollars.

Universities worldwide are now recognizing popular culture as a legitimate and worthy subject of inquiry. Some university libraries are devoting special collections to its study. Comic books, science-fiction, mystery and crime, and pulp literature in all it's forms - save one: the modern romance novel.

This should be rectified. The first romance novel in English is considered to be Samuel Richardson's Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740). Austen and Brontë follow. Even Tarzan of the Apes (1914) is, at heart, a romance novel with Jane trying to figure the big lug out and settle her dilemma: return to civilization, its stultifying roles for women, and boring, passionless men, or renounce her sterile but comfortable life to be literally carried off into the trees by a primitive bo-hunk and live a life of simplicity and hot, jungle sex. Want to understand what's going on in the heads of contemporary Western Civ women in general and American women in particular? Look no farther than the modern romance novel.

Pornographer Samuel Roth, the most prosecuted publisher in American history, once told his lawyer, Charles Rembar, that reading is itself a great good and that any kind of reading is better than no reading at all.*

It is better to read romance novels than not read at all, and any writer who can park "ass in the chair," apply themselves with iron discipline, and finish the exhaustive process of completing a book has my respect if not my dollar. While her success is surely depressing to writers with artistic aspirations, it is not reason for suicidal ideation in and of itself. Literary writing has always had a rough go of it in the popular marketplace but publishing is not a zero-sum game; there is room for all kinds of fiction, all kinds of books on bookstore shelves, and the success of one does not steal readers from another. Indeed, most novels that become classics never appear on best-selling lists.

No, if you want to slit your wrists because Nora Roberts is insanely popular while you continue to slave on the Great American Novel in your vermin-infested one-room walk-up or fulminate because Roberts sells better than [fill in your favorite non-mainstream writer] and life jus' ain't fair, do it because her only indulgence in her fame and fortune, beyond her affection for Armani, is a chartered private jet for traveling to her many appearances across the country. Yet, on her writing desk Nora Roberts has a bobble-head doll of Mad magazine's Alfred E. Neuman, Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a pop-up nun.

Private jet mitigated by cool. irreverent, hip attitude.

Unless the earth shifts on its axis or I am offered a chartered private jet to take me to work and back (L.A. freeways growing too awful to bear) to do so, I will likely never read one of Nora Roberts' books. That may be my loss. The more I learn about this writer, the more I like her.

"For years," the New Yorker reports, "people have been telling her to hire a cook. She has no assistant or research aide.

"'Why would you want people in your house?' she said. 'Then you have to talk to them.'"

Nora Roberts, the Larry David of romance novelists.


*Rembar, Charles, Tropic of Cancer on Trial, p. 45.

Stats on Nora Roberts from Real Romance by Lauren Collins in the June 22, 2009 issue of The New Yorker.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Birth of the Slow Reading Movement (The Longest Story ever Told)

A shortage of oddities has compelled Ripley Entertainment, parent of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, to send great weird hunters across the land in search of strangeness. Seems Ripley’s has been opening so many new museums of curiosities that their collection of bizarreness is being spread thin and needs to be beefed up, according to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal.

They need look no further than Opium magazine, Issue 00, The Infinity Issue, featuring The Longest Story Ever Told: Estimated Reading Time: 1,000 Years.

The story is nine words long.

Before you sign up for a master class at Evelyn Wood Speed Reading school, be forewarned that no matter how hard you try you cannot read this nine word story in less than the appointed 1,000 years.

The writer is San Francisco-based conceptual artist, journalist, and diabolically inspired Jonathan Keats who in the cover to the magazine has embedded the nine word saga.

Wired reports:

“The printing process in question is a simple but, as usual with Keats, pretty clever idea. The cover is printed in a double layer of standard black ink, with an incrementally screened overlay masking the nine words. Exposed over time to ultraviolet light, the words will be appear at different rates, supposedly one per century.”

“The precise quantity of ink covering each word is different, so that the words will appear one at a time,” Keats said. “Provided that your copy of Opium is kept out in the open, and regularly exposed to sunlight over 1,000 years to be read progressively."

One may have to smoke opium to have the patience to read the story to the end - or perceive to have done so.

“The high-quality acid-free paper on which Opium is printed will certainly last that long,” Keats assured the anxious. Then, dashing all peace of mind, he added “Whether humankind will, of course, remains an open question.”

Keats is not your average reader-writer. It has never occurred to me to copyright my mind, try to pass a Law of Identity, or attempt to genetically engineer God. But they have to Keats. So, what’s the point?

“Like most people, I live my life in a rush, consuming media on the run,” Keats admitted. “That may be fine for reading the average blog,” he said, “but something essential is lost when ingesting words is all about speed. My thousand-year story is an antidote. Given the printing process I’ve usPost Optionsed, you can’t take in more than one word per century. That’s even slower than reading Proust.”

Yes, reading should never be about speed. Yet this is a cruel man. He doesn’t even provide a plot summary. So, after waiting with baited breath, century by century, we will either be blissfully satisfied at the outcome of this tale or bitterly disappointed to have invested so much time and for what?

I’ll wait for the reviews.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Smell Any Good Books Lately?

  Those who, like me, are beginning to see the faint outlines of Thanatos on the far horizon may remember a malodorous movie from 1960, The Scent of Mystery, a film notable only for its inclusion of Smell-O-Vision, a process that would emit key scents at particular plot points, when certain characters appeared, or when the producers just wanted to exploit the gimmick for all it was worth (not much). Ads for the film proclaimed: "First they moved (1895)! Then they talked (1927)! Now they smell!" Oh, brother did that movie stink.

Aromarama preceded Smell-O-Vision by a year. It, too, stunk out theaters. Later, John Waters would use Odorama for his film, Polyester.

Sense enhancement for movies died the death it deserves.

But sense enhancement for books? The smell of literature?

smellofbooks.jpegIntroducing Smell of Books, a new aerosol spray from those wonderful folks at DuroSport Electronics.

"The DuroSport Electronics Company was founded by Oleg Tarlev of Moldova in 1962. An inventor by trade, Tarlev was an early pioneer in the use of steam to power home appliances. Tarlev hoped to apply his engineering expertise to develop a line of steam-powered consumer electronics.

"After a failed experiment with a steam powered television convinced Tarlev that steam and vacuum tubes do not mix, he quickly abandoned the idea and began developing more conventional electronic devices."

Tarlev is a visionary. Seeking a solution to the problem of the increasing cost of consumer electronics, he had a breakthrough insight: the smaller a consumer electronics product, the higher the cost, so, naturally, he reasoned that the reverse should be true. Hence the closet-sized DuroSport digital audio player, loaded with everything except a washer and dryer.

But I digress.

I love the smell of plastic in the morning. It smells like victory. But the good folks at DuroSport don't share my love of polymer chains and have come up with a product to meet the needs of today's reader who may love books but not books themselves, has a Kindle but misses the aroma of a freshly opened new book, old book, or rare book. They understand that a book is more than the text and the sum of its parts; reading is a gestalt activity. The product is designed to enhance the ebook reading experience.

I do think, however, that they've missed the essential here. Though Smell of Books is available in Classic Musty, Scent of Sensibility, Eau You Have Cats, New Book Smell, and Crunchy Bacon can-bacon.jpeg(for those, I suppose, who are crazy for books but not whole hog for 'em), it really needs to take its cue from Smell-O-Vision.

Imagine reading Wuthering Heights and your head fills with the aroma of soil, heath, and rain in the atmosphere. Or, you're reading Gone With The Wind and every time Scarlet O'Hara appears, the sweet, heady perfume of magnolias fills your nostrils. The possibilities are endless.

Yet there are certain books where it would be far better to read about the scent within a scene and imagine it rather than actually smell it. I'm thinking A Confederacy of Dunces. Protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly, who revels in his own flatulence, is not someone I actually want to hang out with, much less smell. There are probably many characters in fiction who have bad breath, body order or smelly feet but their authors determined that demerits for poor personal hygiene would not serve the theme and plot. Few are aware, for instance, that Jay Gatsby smells like dead fish. Fitzgerald was wise to ignore it; it would have thrown the entire novel off balance. Authors constantly have to make creative decisions like this, what to leave out as important as what to include.

(The redolence of a decaying big mouth bass would be perfect, however, for the scene in The Godfather when Luca Brasi symbolically returns to the Corleone estate after his ill-fated meeting with Virgil "The Turk" Sollozzo and Bruno Tattaglia).

Smell of Books is destined for failure. In fact, due to sharp protest from the Author's Guild and reports that the Chinese company supplying the aerosol cans to DuroSport sold them cans recycled from Smell of Cars, Smell of Books has been recalled.

But surely there are off-label uses. Though Smell of Books discourages it, it can be used as an underarm deodorant. A quick oral spritz before that first kiss? The romance of literature! Throw a little SPF in there and it's perfect for reading at the beach while acquiring a nice bronze burnish to the skin.

These are all fine uses and can be a real boon to those who, like me, aspire to be a Total Book Person. And provide a force field of pheromones to discourage non-readers from approaching and disturbing us.

I'm thinking Incredible Incunabula, the scent of books so old, rare and expensive that non-book people recoil in horror and run at first whiff. Put enough of us together in a room and we'll smell like the inner sanctum  of the Bodleian Library. Or the inside of Dracula's castle.

"The book is the life, Mr. Renfield."

A pen-salute to Jeanne Jarzombek, The Book Prowler, for putting me on the scent.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Book Club For Hipsters? Solid Baby!

Sisters and Brothers and Children of the Flip:

When, in the course of literary events, it becomes necessary for one peeps to dissolve the bonds that are such a drag due to connection with Squaresville, and to assume it’s a gas to watch the laws of nature and nature's Big Sky Daddy-O pull their coat on respect to the jaw music of mankind, man, it requires that they should lay out the beefs which impel them to Splitsville.

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

Listen, knock me your lobes, ‘cause, DIG!, we hold these riffs to be self-evident, that all you cats n’ kitties are created equal but that some are more equal than others - y’know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout! - that they are well-endowed, baby, oh yeah!, by the Hip One on High with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of hipness.

Feeling the need to channel your inner Lord Buckley? Does Danielle Steel homogenize your blood and thin it to sugarwater? Does the sound of one hand clapping tickle your cochlea? Do you run down the Best-Seller list and realize to your utter joy that you have not read a single one nor will you ever read any of them, on principle?

Welcome to The Hipster Book Club, a “website…created as an offshoot of the LiveJournal community of the same name. Formed in October, 2003, the Hipster Book Club LiveJournal community grew from word of mouth alone. It currently boasts over 3,400 members from a variety of nations, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Germany, Spain, Japan, Honduras, and the Netherlands.

"The website began when one community member asked why a good comprehensive website didn’t exist to focus on book reviews and literary topics…so we decided to make one.”

What makes this site so “hipster”?

“Well, obviously, we’re better than you.

"Just kidding. The term 'hipster' is and always will be used in an ironic sense for us. We don’t consider ourselves particularly ‘hip.’ Instead, we strive to be accessible to people of all ages without pandering only to what is popular. We do, however, bear some of the elitism associated with what people consider hipster: We believe that if you don’t read books, you’re totally not cool.”

Amen, sista!

The latest issue of The Hipster Book Club features a must read piece, The Influence of Anxiety: Wading In by Marie Mundaca, who, while a production staffer at Little, Brown worked with David Foster Wallace, designing his book, Oblivion. This is the story of their collaboration and friendship.

Not much point in reiterating what Ms. Mundaca has so well-written. Suffice it to say, if you value your hip cred – or are looking to gain some – check out The Hipster Book Club.

Now, it’s a sad state of affairs when reading becomes so marginalized, so fringe that it becomes an activity only for in-the-know initiates. In other words, hip. I’m quite certain that when R&B group Tower of Power released What Is Hip? (1973) they did not figure reading into the equation.

Pure, vintage hip used to have a timeless connotation. Now, alas, it has deteriorated into an adjective for faddish style.

That is SO unhip.

Reading? Hip eternal. Goatees and berets for the gents, black turtlenecks and capri pants for the ladies, unnecessary. Wear words on your sleeve, all you Jacks n' Jills!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Two Stenos To Literary Stars

One day in 1939, Frances Kroll Ring, a 22-year old with typing and dictation skills, was interviewed by Rusty's Employment Agency on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles.

"At the agency," she recalls in an excellent article in yesterday's Los Angeles Times, "they asked if I knew Scott Fitzgerald and I said I wasn't really sure. I hadn't read Fitzgerald then. I'd read Hemingway, who was the big muck-a-muck."

200px-Francis_Scott_Fitzgerald_1937_June_4_(1)_(photo_by_Carl_van_Vechten).jpgIt was Frances Kroll Ring who was at Fitzgerald's side when he began work on The Love of the Last Tycoon, his unfinished swan song, released posthumously as The Last Tycoon (1941). In addition to typing and dictation, she wound up being his confidant. At the time of his death, it was she who settled his affairs and made the funeral arrangements; Fitzgerald's lover, newspaper columnist Sheila Graham, who would write of their affair in Beloved Infidel (1958), was bereft and unable to function. It is through Frances Kroll Ring that we know the daily details of the last eighteen months of Fitzgerald's life.

Ms. Ring's interview appeared just a few days after I wrote and posted Help Wanted: Professional Reader, within which I mentioned that I had been a story analyst ("reader") for a major TV and film production company (Lorimar). I worked as reader/assistant to Eleanor Breese, the Executive Story Editor, one of the most fascinating women I have ever known, who began her career, as Frances Kroll Ring did, by being sent by an employment agency for a job, one that turned out to be in the center of New York's  - and by extension, America's - literary universe: she joined the steno pool of 180px-Maxwell_Perkins_NYWTS.jpglegendary Scribner's editor, Maxwell Perkins.

It was the mid-1930s, she was in her mid-20s, Perkins was in his early 50s, and her assignment, Thomas Wolfe, was in his mid-30s.

Before sending her out to Brooklyn, where Wolfe lived, Perkins gave her the following warning: "No matter what, if you can't decipher his writing, don't interrupt him; we'll figure it out later."

Eleanor showed up at Wolfe's pad. It was late morning; Wolfe was still in his pajamas and needed a coffee IV-drip. Few words were exchanged. She set up her typewriter on the kitchen table, he began to write.

Upright. He couldn't sit still at a desk. A tall man, Wolfe used the top of the refrigerator as writing desk.

200px-Thomas_Wolfe_1937_1.jpgAnd, according to Eleanor, this was his writing method: he wrote longhand on yellow legal pads, his penmanship small and on the lines. He would quite literally toss completed manuscript pages over his shoulder to her; she would grab them, sometimes in mid-air, and type them up. As he became more enraptured with the writing, his nervous energy would increase and his penmanship would slowly enlarge and deteriorate to the  point where, beginning with twenty-eight standard lines with neat words stretching across the pad of paper, by the end of his work day he was furiously writing a frenzied 4-5 giant words per page, if that many. The man needed a lot of writing paper real estate when he wrote, and somewhere there's a large scar in a forest dedicated to Wolfe, who suffered from the opposite of writer's block, writer's blabber; there was no stopping him: he stepped on the ink, raced off into wordland and left an endless, thick plume of 300 horsepower verbal exhaust in his wake.

That book, October Fair, a massive work, was beaten into shape by Perkins and published as Of Time and the River (1935).

Eleanor, 65 when we met but very young at heart with a libido to match and a datebook to prove it, enjoyed being surrounded by bright young men. (She preferred, however, the intimate company of contemporaries. Her fave was ID'd only as "Numero Uno," who she suspected of being with the CIA because of his peripatetic international travels, always on a moment's notice). She, thankfully, lowered her standards and I was extremely proud then, and remain so today, to become one of "Eleanor's Boys," as her circle of young male friends and/or employees was known.

against current.gifFrances Kroll Ring wrote a short memoir of her time with Fitzgerald, Against the Current: As I Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald (1985).

Eleanor Breese, born in 1912, died in 1999. She is survived by a son, daughter, granddaughter, and at least five men I know out of countless others who, because of her early, crucial support and encouragement, established themselves as writers. She was, and will always remain, "Numero Uno" to us.


If you have not already read it, I highly recommend A. Scott Berg's Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978). He was, in addition to Fitzgerald, Wolfe, and other literary luminaries, Hemingway's editor.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Help Wanted: Professional Reader

To provide cogent, erudite and insightful marginalia to digital books and thus help foster social reading. Must be able to read in a crowd and accept potentially constant input and distraction. Digital sociability a must; digital loners, misfits, hermits, screwballs need not apply.

As Clive Thompson writes in The Future of Reading in the Digital World in this month’s issue of Wired, “We need to stop thinking about the future of publishing and think instead about the future of reading…Books have a centuries-old tradition of annotation and commentary, ranging from the Talmud and scholarly criticism to book clubs and marginalia.”

Bob Stein, director the Institute for the Future of the Book, recently posted Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962) online with a sleek commenting system, then hired seven writers to collaboratively read it and provide notes. “Stein believes that if books were set free digitally, it could produce a class of ‘professional readers,’” Thompson writes, “people so insightful that you'd pay to download their footnotes. Sound unlikely? It already exists in the real world: Microsoft researcher Cathy Marshall has found that university students carefully study used textbooks before buying them, because they want to acquire the smartest notes.”

Thompson relates the story of McKenzie Wark, who wrote Gamer Theory (2007), an analysis of why people enjoy playing videogames, that Harvard University Press published in hardcover. Wark, however, published it online using CommentPress, "an open source theme for the WordPress blogging engine that allows readers to comment paragraph by paragraph in the margins of a text. Annotate, gloss, workshop, debate: with CommentPress you can do all of these things on a finer-grained level, turning a document into a conversation." The free blog theme opened the book into a series of reader-book/reader-to-reader interactions, with every paragraph potentially spawning its own discussion forum for the readers.

“Sure enough, hundreds dove in, and pretty soon Gamer Theory had sparked erudite exchanges on everything from Plato's cave to Schopenhauer's ideas on boredom. It felt as much like a rangy, excited Twitter conversation as it did a book. ‘It was all because we opened it up and gave readers a way to interact with each other,’ Wark says. ‘It changed the way they read the book.’"

Digital books could, conceivably, have a URL for every chapter, paragraph, sentence. “Readers could point to their favorite sections in a MySpace update or instant message or respond to an argument by copiously linking to the smartest passages in a recent best seller,” Thompson notes.

The technology is available for digital publishers to link to Facebook or Twitter to facilitate the creation of digital book clubs devoted to a single book with links to every online reference to the book, author, content, and beyond to other books or virtually anything related. The immediately apparent advantage to this over a real-world book club is that you’d only read what you truly want, rather than books chosen by other group members who may not share your tastes.

For all the buzz about it, however, "social reading" seems like an oxymoron. For most of us, reading has always been a private and solitary activity, a way to not only learn, intimately interact with the author and our own thoughts but to deeply focus, become lost in the book and, for awhile at least, escape the boundaries of temporal existence. The act of reading is deeply layered and much more than the simple acquisition of information. While I’d enjoy listening to my friends’ thoughts about a particular book, I don’t want to be interrupted until I’m finished with not just the reading but the thinking and feeling about it.

This all reminds me of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the classic show’s sometimes rude, often sarcastic, always hilarious voice-over running commentary from the peanut gallery that accompanied the worst sci-fi movies ever made. It was a great formula for watching lousy movies but would have been a horrible one for good films - and pointless; no one likes a chatty-Cathy circus in a movie theater. The darkened theater of a book is, however, apparently another matter: "This Theater Available for Conferences and Meetings."

On its face, "professional reader" sounds like a dream job. Perhaps in this context it would be. But in the late 1970s I worked as a "story analyst" aka "reader" for a major TV and film production company and had to read and analyze every book and screenplay thrown my way. Many if not most of them were only suitable only to be thrown. Hell is being paid to read but only crap.

I do not anticipate curling up in bed at night with a souped-up, maximized content social Kindle any time soon. I don't know about you but I don't want a crowd with me in the sack for any reason much less reading company. Albert, my companion of thirty-four years and most successful LTR, is about all I can tolerate. Albert is a Yellow-Naped Amazon parrot. When he isn't attempting to eat whatever book I'm reading, he quietly sits on my shoulder. And though he has the ability for verbal self-expression, he thankfully keeps his comments to himself.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Literary Bios Loose Luster In Recession

From Brian Busby, writer, reporter on the Canadian literary scene, Our Man In The Attic, and author of the highly anticipated biography of Canadian poet, novelist, literary rogue and hoaxster, John Glassco:

"Bad news concerning the Glassco biography. A couple of weeks ago I was told that Knopf Canada is dropping the book. Nothing wrong with the manuscript - they're even giving me the acceptance fee in full - they say that the market is to blame."

The publishing world is, apparently, now focusing on producing sure-fire hits and nothing but.

Brian continues, "Apparently, 'serious' non-fiction, literary biography included, just isn't selling these days. Though no names have been mentioned, I'm told that I'm far from being alone in being dumped. While my agent is confident that the biography will soon find a home elsewhere, she cautions that the other big branch plants (Penguin, HarperCollins et al) are of like mind concerning the current state of bookselling."

The Guardian recently covered the phenomenon at length.

Neil Belton, an editor at Faber is not sanguine about prospects: "The book trade and publishing industry has embraced its inner philistine. The bigger book chains have semi-withdrawn from interest in serious books. The number of publishers that are committed to trying to bring these books to an audience is smaller. When they are interested in serious authors, the big publishing conglomerates are often chasing only the very big names, people established in their fields."

Literary agent Peter Straus is also concerned: "It is more and more difficult to place good books. Retail's changed. Advances have come down in the last two years. So many books haven't sold. There are too many books published. The harsh realities of the market will impinge on certain writers, certain publishers, certain agents."

" There used to be a lot of noise around these books. They were books made for great reviews. But people didn't want to buy them," says Scott Pack, head buyer at Waterstone's, Britain's top book chain.

Brians ends on a more positive note, though the good news depends upon bad news becoming yesterday's story: "Vehicule Press, Montreal's largest remaining Anglo publisher have asked me to put together a collection of Glassco's letters. This is going ahead, but publication will likely be delayed until the bio is published."

This is personally distressing to me as I have knowledge about some of what Brian has uncovered about this most interesting literary provacateur that is very exciting but I am sworn to secrecy. Those secrets are growing like a tumor-cluster in my brain and, without relief, threaten to burst their boundaries and spill out of my mouth like a bunch of sweet, ripe grapes.

Call me self-centered but the whole financial crisis comes down to this: I am prevented from reading what I what I would very much like to read.

All politics is local.

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