Category Archives: the death of reading

More Books You Won't Read in the U.S.

Lewis Manalo, the buyer for Idlewild Books in NYC, must be doing a good job. Though I’ve never been to the store, by all reports Idlewild has a great selection of world literature.

What’s more, Manalo has penned an op-ed where he describes his efforts to get books–often great works of world literature–that have never been published in the U.S. into the hands of his customers. At the very least, this is evidence against the claim that “culturally insular” Americans don’t want to read beyond their borders:

Telling your bookseller that you’ve tried every other shop in the city before you’ve tried his won’t gain you any sympathy (I’m thinking, “Why, after all, didn’t you just try mine first?”) but I always do my best. In those few instances when I can’t produce the book, the customer always has to ask, “Why not?”

Though the answer is usually that the book is out of print or out of stock, very often the book is not American and has never been available in the United States. Since I started working at Idlewild, it’s very often the case that the book has never been published here. Now, in the face of all of these requests I can’t meet, the paltry amount of world fiction printed in the U.S. has become a personal embarrassment. For every customer who asks, “Why doesn’t the shop have more titles by Mian Mian?” “Only two titles by Cendrars?” or “Where is all the Clarice Lispector?” I can only offer an apology.

Of course, for about 50 suggestions for what classics of world literature need to be published in the U.S. right this minute, go right over to The Quarterly Conversation’s winter feature Translate This Book!. Featuring the likes of Chris Andrews, Susan Bernofsky, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Margaret Jull Costa, it’ll definitely make you wish more translated literature was available in the U.S.

The Tyranny of Email

Surprisingly enough, Andrew Keen has written a lucid and engaging review of John Freeman’s new book, The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox.

Ironically, then, the most troubling of Freeman’s numbers are not our collective annual 35 trillion emails, but rather the 200 e-mails which, on average, we each receive every day. Therein lies the cause of what he calls “e-mail bankruptcy” — “the communication subprime mortgage crisis of our era.” Instead of it being a help, these 200 daily e-mails have become a massive hindrance to both our productivity and happiness, eating up our mental attention, stealing our leisure time, wasting our intellectual focus.

So what to do? Freeman’s answer is “a manifesto for a slow communication movement” built around a very simple principle: “DON’T SEND.” Instead of mindlessly e-mailing all day, he says, we should only check our e-mail a couple of times a day; we should give what he calls “good e-mail,” which is both thoughtful and brief; we should try to replace e-mail with face-to-face meetings; and we should organize our days to include a substantial portion of “media-free time.”

Not so sure I believe that 200/day number, unless we’re counting spam, which most of us never see anyway. I do get what Freeman says about emails piling up and turning into a big energy drain, but email can be (and has been, for me anyway) a big time-saver. Just like with Facebook, Twitter, what have you . . . they’re all tools that can be a big waste if you do it wrong, but if you know how to use them you should get a lot out of it.

Later on in the review, this is intriguing:

Google, for example, is now working on a revolutionary new service called Wave which will collapse micro-blogging, e-mail, and collective instant-messaging into a powerfully seductive real-time messaging platform. Meanwhile, equally seductive devices like Apple’s forthcoming iTablet will continue to “liberate” us from our personal computer and provide us with convergence devices allowing us to simultaneously Twitter, telephone, instant-message, and e-mail.

This does seem to be the future of these media, with them all kind of being molded together into the same ball of clay, though I’m sure for that to happen some of them will have to be dropped from the equation, and others will be changed beyond recognition. Interesting times.

Breaking Down the Wall Between Readers and Writers

(This week I’m covering the International Festival of Authors in Toronto.)

One of the nice things about the IFOA is the amount of interaction possible between readers and writers–and writers and other writers, and publishers and writers–during the festival. In a lot of literary events there’s a very prescribed sort of interaction . . . the writer’s generally up on a podium speaking to the audience from a distance, and if there’s any interaction it occurs during the brief Q & A at the end of the event. I’m not sure this is the best way to present writers to the public.

One of the interesting things they do at the IFOA is that they tend to keep authors in town for about a week, and they’re encouraged to attend as many of the events as possible. What happens in that case is that: 1) a lot of authors and various members of the publishing industry start to get to know one another, and there’s a lot of opportunity to cross-fertilize and develop connections, and 2) to a lesser (but far from non-existent) extent audience members and casual readers are able to feel in touch with the writers themselves.

It should be fairly obvious why the first point is a good thing. As to the second point: while I do tend to be a “just the books, please” kind of reader, I can see the value for something like this in helping to build a literary culture, particularly by tearing down the distance that is often placed between authors and readers. Obviously some writers are extremely talented and dedicated individuals who deserve a kind of cultural cache, but I also think that putting readers in touch with authors as actual humans–as opposed to quasi-mythic beings who tend to stand behind podiums–is a good thing for promoting literary culture in general.

I tend to think of it as somewhat like an open studio or an art gallery with the artist in attendance. Certainly I’ve always enjoyed exchanging a few words with an artist after seeing an exhibit of her work (at least when said artist doesn’t feel the need for pretense). It doesn’t have to be the most cerebral, intense interaction possible, but if you can chat for a few minutes it does go a long way toward making you want to come back to the gallery next time, as well as keep an eye out for that artist’s work.

Where’s the Major Book Festival in the United States?

(This week I’m covering the International Festival of Authors in Toronto.)

After seeing how the Harbourfront Centre and the Canadian government (and in addition, Scotland, Ireland, England, and Australia) have been working together to promote national authors and reading this week, I’ve got to wonder where our national festival is. I know we’ve got the New Yorker Festival and the LA Times Book Festival of Books, but I don’t consider those the same, since they’re being run as a for profit venture by private firms. That’s fine, but I’m thinking that a festival that had the kind of size and gravitas of the LATFoB but that was largely publicly funded and administered by a nonprofit organization would look very different.

I know the U.S. is a big country and we’ve got at least three cities that would immediately lay claim to being the only possible spot that such a festival could take place, but Canada is also a very large country and it has its share of regionalism, so I don’t think it would be unworkable. And it would be a great opportunity to seriously spotlight a lot of the small- and mid-size press authors that are often doing the most interesting work in U.S. fiction. Heck, we could even do it a little differently and make it a genuine opportunity to reach out to some international authors that are important in other places but get no traction whatsoever in the U.S. (Herta Mueller, anyone?) and address some of the cultural gap that definitely exists, Liesl Schillinger et al. aside.

. . . just adding a few hours later here. Apparently there’s a whole Canadian literary festival season here in the late summer and through the fall. From what I’m hearing, things get busy enough with festivals going on throughout the country that scheduling gets tricky for authors in multiple festivals. That would be a nice problem to have in the States.

Beast Books

This is going to lead to some mighty fine reading:

On a typical publishing schedule, a writer may take a year or more to deliver a manuscript, after which the publisher takes another nine months to a year to put finished books in stores. At Beast Books, writers would be expected to spend one to three months writing a book, and the publisher would take another month to produce an e-book edition.

Don't people still spend one to three months writing a serious essay?

The Worst Lede I’ve Read In A While

Courtesy of Motoko Rich:

For more than 500 years the book has been a remarkably stable entity: a coherent string of connected words, printed on paper and bound between covers.

But in the age of the iPhone, Kindle and YouTube, the notion of the book is becoming increasingly elastic as publishers mash together text, video and Web features in a scramble to keep readers interested in an archaic form of entertainment.

I don't think there's a single true statement in this entire block. Certainly the book has evolved a great deal over the past 500 years: it's changed from something mainly found chained to carrels in monasteries to a middle-class consumer object universally identifiable by a small code imprinted on its back. Then there's the small matter of the idea of a book somehow magically becoming elastic in the past year or so (which none of us knows, but seems doubtful to me), and that loaded phrase archaic form of entertainment (along with, I suppose, the theater, the symphony, soccer (which Wikipedia claims can be traced back to the 2nd century BC), playing cards, and any number of other things).

And then there's the fact that two grafs later Rich identifies this text-with-video-embedded object as not a book but a "multimedia hybrid," which seems a little better, albeit inconsistent with the lede.

In contrast, this I find more or less sensible:

Brian Tart, publisher of Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Group USA, which released “Level 26,” said he wanted the book’s text to be able to stand on its own, but the culture demanded rethinking the format. “Like everybody, you see people watching these three-minute YouTube videos and using social networks,” Mr. Tart said. “And there is an opportunity here to bring in more people who might have thought they were into the new media world.”

Probably those who are more interested in watching YouTube videos than reading books will be more likely to buy a book-like object that has video embedded in it than a book. I suppose that with these book-like things it could be possible to attract a segment of the market that probably wouldn't buy an actual book. But those of us who prefer to read will want books.

Once Again Mainstream Publishing Mystifies Me

Michael Orthofer nails it: Why, again, must an editor try to "acquire books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like"?

Thats what former Random House Senior Vice President and Executive Editor-in-Chief Daniel Menaker says mainstream publishing wants out of its editors.

Genuine literary discernment is often a liability in editors. And it should be — at least when it is unaccompanied by a broader, more popular sensibility it should be. When you are trying to acquire books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like, you have to have some of the eclectic and demotic taste of the reading public.

I don't have stats at hand, but I can guarantee you that books selling 100K and up are at the far end of the spectrum and don't land anywhere near the meat of publishing, saleswise. In other words, they're the freaks, the flukes, the Hollywood action movies that sell out for $400 million domestically.

So why is it so essential that we have editors that know how to find these books?

If anything, we need more people like Richard Nash: pragmatists who know how to make a book that has a reasonable shot at doing 10 – 20K live up to its potential. In other words, editors who can grow a publishing house that sticks to its core values and doesn't go bankrupt (morally or financially) in the process.

To Menaker's credit, he says precisely that:

It's my strong impression that most of the really profitable books for most publishers still come from the mid-list — "surprise" big hits with small or medium advances, such as that memoir by a self-described racial "mutt" of a junior senator from Chicago. Somehow, by luck or word of mouth, these books navigate around the rocks and reefs upon which most of their fleet — even sturdy vessels — founder. This is an old story but one that media giants have not yet heard, or at least not heeded, or so it seems. Because let's say you publish a flukey blockbuster about rhinoviruses in Renaissance Italy — "The DaVinci Cold" — one year: the corporation will see a spike in your profit and sort of autistically, or at least automatically, raise the profit goal for your division by some corporately predetermined amount for the following year.

You’re Worth $46 Per Year

The Columbia Journalism Review calculates how much an online reader and a print reader are worth to the average newspaper each year:

My point is about paying customers, but okay. There are roughly two readers per copy of the print newspaper, so that would bring the number to about $470 per reader ($417 with the FY09 estimates) versus $46 per online reader, which matches up pretty neatly with the famed, lamented ten-to-one ratio that afflicts newspapers’ digital hopes.

And you don’t want me to run the numbers on online subscriptions versus print subscriptions, and anyway I don’t know of any data out there. I’ve estimated The Wall Street Journal, the only American paper to successfully charge, gets about $60 or $70 million a year from online subscriptions, which would add $1 to online revenue per reader.

Fairly interesting discussion in the comments section to the linked article.

On Paying For The Times

Levi makes some excellent arguments:

I understand the appeal of a payment system to support the Times’ massive journalistic infrastructure, and if Times management does actually go forward with this ambitious plan they will be applauded by many within the newspaper and publishing communities who yearn to see an online payment model succeed.

The New York Times has a history of seeking out innovative revenue models for its website. Under the leadership of Martin Nisenholtz, who has remained at the helm of Times digital operations for a remarkable 14 years, pioneered the “demographics first” approach in the mid-1990s, putting up content for free but requiring registration information designed to attract advertisers. This kind of experimentation should be encouraged, but after careful thought I am sticking with the conclusion I expressed in my tweet above. If the New York Times puts its web content behind a payment wall, that will be the end of my lifelong relationship with the New York Times.

The reason is simple: excluding the mass online audience, the idle surfers and linkers who won’t be bothered to pay for access, would irreparably change the nature of the New York Times.

And then, in closing:

The New York Times was absolutely instrumental in the early popular discoveries of Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan. Can a newspaper with a cultural legacy like this continue to thrive behind a payment wall? I don’t think so.

Levi’s absolutely right. Newspapers are made for mass audiences. At one point in the past, that was in print. Now it’s electronic.

The Life of Print

There's a lot to agree with in Eric Obenauf's "print is alive" article in The Brooklyn Rail, even if none of his arguments strike me as novel. Nonetheless, this is a pretty good summation of why corporate publishing is in disarray:

Such efforts expose a key fundamental flaw within the mindset of modern corporate publishing: the perceived role of the book in today’s society. In the past, because of the necessary evolution required to actually create one, coupled with an ambition to deliver a valuable artifact to the world, a book was imagined by publishers as a means to both inspire and inform culture. Now the opposite is occurring. In a flagrant attempt to compete with Internet culture, to crash books into the marketplace on hot button topics from steroids to celebrities, from political scandal to political ascension, corporate publishers aim now to meet immediate demand. If a book about teenage vampires becomes a bestseller, then the hustle is on to find and market a series about pre-teen vampires. And because of this constant rush to the market with books that have the shelf-life of a bruised tomato—in hardcover, with supplemental cardboard cut-outs that stand in chain store windows and usher customers down narrow sales aisles—this ideology has influenced the ebb and flow of the industry. A worthy book that has been crafted over several steps and patiently delivered with care is outshined by a gossip memoir by a B-list celebrity’s cat-sitter.

So yeah, print shouldn't try to be an ebook. And really, the electronic market is probably the proper home for all that gimmicky garbage: that'll save a lot of time and expense on getting rid of these books when their fad ends, and the fact that none of them will actually be actually printed will lead to less material waste.

But what of the future of printed books that really do deserve to be printed?

If there is any lesson to be learned from the work of Jacek Utko and his newspapers, it is that we live in an age where a newspaper in Estonia can be better designed and more successful than a newspaper in the United States. This is a time where independently published books—such as works by Europa Editions, Seven Stories, or tiny Bellevue Literary Press—can edge their way onto bestseller lists in major U.S. cities. Today, books released by Akashic, Soft Skull, Melville House, and City Lights are selected regularly as Editor’s Choice picks by the New York Times. These publishers are taking some creepy, run-down entertainment and putting it to the highest possible level of art. Without gimmicks. These are outfits run by a handful of dedicated individuals, without advertising budgets, a personalized sales force, or the vast web of contacts that larger houses depend on in getting word out about a book.

I agree, although I don't think this is really that novel. Small to mid-size publishers have always been the ones with enough interest in literature as art to stick behind an author like Beckett, even if his masterpieces took years to sell 1,000 copies. The difference now would be that the industry is far more corporatized and vertically integrated than ever before. That, and the traditional media's penchant for acting as though only a handful of the largest publishers matter, gives off the misimpression that all the important authors are handled by the biggest houses. That isn't the case, though. Small and mid-sized publishers are still the ones by and large discovering the talent; yes, every now and then a major house will do the same, but far more common is for them to buy off talent once a smaller press has done the legwork of bringing an author along.

I do have to take issue with this, though:

With the economy in the crapper, the American people are becoming more thrifty consumers, better able to discern what we want from what we need. Chain stores such as Barnes and Noble are realizing that books aren’t necessarily as profitable as home furnishings and are already redirecting themselves along that path. Meanwhile, the healthiest bookstores are the independents which have earned a reputation over the years based upon their own quality of taste and concern.

Sadly, no. After watching indie after indie close up in the SF Bay Area (which I am often told is one of the best markets for literature in the entire nation) I cannot endorse the idea that indies are the healthiest bookstores. Just a couple weeks ago I watched Black Oak Books die, and if quality of taste and love of literature was at all correlated with bookstore success, then that would not have been possible. Yes, some indies are surviving, but that has more to do with innovative business models than with some special indie juju. At any rate, the healthiest bookstore today isn't any indie, it's Amazon.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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