Thursday, May 28, 2009


I'm currently reading Primo Levi's "The Periodic Table" and an odd thing has occurred - I find myself wanting to discuss the book at every moment. And I'm not even halfway into the book. It used to happen very rarely that a book made its way into my life so casually, but this is the third time in recent months where I've found a book that even as I'm reading it affects me so profoundly. This is one that can be discussed along the way.

"The Periodic Table" has perhaps the strangest structure I've encountered in a while. Told in short stories, it's basically a memoir that focuses on science. Each story is centered around one element. Some are long stretches (the opening story, for instance, serves much more as an introduction to Levi's background than any actual relation to chemistry) but others are chemistry stories: the second story tells of how Levi first fell in love with chemistry and a foolish experiment he conducted. Levi practically assumes anyone reading the book knows exactly what he's talking about when he mentions oxidation reduction, various textbook experiments, and many properties of certain elements. And if you don't know chemistry? Tough luck understanding some of the humor.

One of the points that keeps coming up for me is how different the book is. Even though I know it's a memoir, that this is Levi telling me straight-up about his life, the book doesn't feel like a memoir. And it definitely doesn't feel like a novel. It's somewhere in between, where the author is at once so close and so far from the reader, creating the mistaken sense that Primo Levi is currently sitting in front of me and is telling me a story. All the while confusing me further.

A final thought: The last story I finished (Nickel) made me realize that I'm not simply enjoying the book (for its writing, its chemistry, and its cleverness), but also that I now must read every other work Primo Levi wrote. Levi describes his struggles in extracting nickel from the mined rocks. The entire chapter built up my own need to see this problem solved and when Levi finally thinks of the correct (if slightly unorthodox) way to fix his problem, I, the reader, felt happy. Then Levi says how at the time, he tried not to think about the consequences of this discovery, that this method would assist the fascist war effort. He tried not think that this would assist Nazi Germany in continuing the destruction of his (Levi's) rights and life. Levi conveys this flat, distant emotion in an instant and it's impossible not to swallow hard, realizing the truth in his words. As a testament to this incredibly written book, I too discovered that I had tried not to think about those crucial points.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The second tier

A couple of months ago I read the splendid "The Master and Margarita", by Mikhail Bulgakov. For those who haven't read the book yet, go read it now. It's got that perfect mix of genius and hilarity. I was so impressed with the book, I decided to purchase another Bulgakov book, one that I was warned (by the product description) would be nothing like "The Master and Margarita". And so I read "The White Guard", a book utterly different from "The Master and Margarita" but special in its own right. Still, I found myself pondering certain points regarding the books.

Getting to know an author from his/her most famous work first seems to be the common way to go these days. At least, for me. I recently picked up a random Primo Levi book (my first), only to come home and discover that this is possibly the most famous of Levi's books. It explains how I possibly managed to find it, though. Similarly, after reading the excellent "Germinal", I learned that it was part of the whole Rougon-Macquart series, if one of the better known additions.

And indeed, searching for dead or established authors these days will lead the reader not to the author's first works, but rather the later, greater books. Tolstoy's masterful "War and Peace" came before the first-published "Childhood Boyhood Youth" and while many readers would find the latter a letdown, it's a charming little debut. It provides a lot of autobiographical insight on Tolstoy's life and makes for an interesting quick read, even if it lacks the power-punch of "War and Peace". It's not meant to be a similar book. It was, obviously, written first. But, of course, it's not well known at all beyond that Tolstoy wrote it. And many dismiss it because it isn't on the same "tier" as "War and Peace". Pity.

That's not to say I'm not guilty too. In fact, almost all the books I read are the "famous" ones, the ones that history has let continue. It makes sense. But with many authors, there's that feeling that by judging his/her books in the wrong order, I'm making some sort of horrible mistake. Say, for instance, with Bulgakov. "The White Guard" was written prior to "The Master and Margarita". These are two entirely different novels and while I do think "The Master and Margarita" is better, "The White Guard" is special in its own fiction field. If I'd read "The White Guard" first, I think I might have appreciated "The Master and Margarita" a bit more, simply because there's still a Bulgakov feel to both books.

Émile Zola is another example of this. I recently finished reading "Nana", which after the brilliance of "Germinal" and the unique touch to "L'Assommoir", felt like a simply good book. Not outstanding. Yet "Nana" predates "Germinal" by 5 years. Had I read the series in order (as I shall try to do from now on), perhaps I'd have found "Nana"'s bizarreness to be another sign of brilliance and not a tiresome tedium (though it's still a great book). Going back now to the source of the cycle, I'll probably be less shocked and surprised by many of the situations, having already tasted of the "greater" novels in the series.

There are opposite examples to this too but they are far and few between. I have almost always started with the more famous work by the author, with very few exceptions. Does this explain why many readers led backwards like myself find themselves often disappointed by excellent books? What does this say about our tendencies to compare very different books? People won't stop reading the great classics and it makes perfect sense. Some authors wrote horrible first books and only later hit their stride as writers. Others developed in such a way that their early works are overshadowed by the later; the books are good, display the writer's talents and are important, but by comparison they are not the well known books. Then, by coming back to read the perhaps only slightly less good book, I get the sensation of disappointment. "How dare the young, growing author not be as amazing as his more mature works?"

I can't and won't be expected to adhere to this new policy of early works first. It simply isn't possible. It's just interesting to think about. Some writers have horrible first works that may dissuade me from reading their later, better books. And sometimes those early, developmental books have fallen into obscurity. I know I'll face disappointment going back to read the early works and even lose some of the magic of watching an author develop. Comparing authors is often tricky. Comparing an author to his/her own works? Apparently trickier.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Literary conflict in Israel

If you think you've heard of all the literary prizes, here's an interesting one for you: the head of Tel Aviv University's literature department criticized the Sapir Prize, Israel's "equivalent" of the Man Booker Prize. In Haaretz:
"The list this year, on the whole, is good but in previous years I had many reservations about them," Gluzman said. "This prize tries to follow in the footsteps of the Booker Prize. Look at which books won the Booker and which the Sapir. Since its inception, the Sapir Prize has been a prize for lists of best sellers. There is no way that a literary prize should be given to writers of best sellers. That is contemptuous of literature."
The article goes on to describe the methods of boycotting the prize:
The editor of the The New Library publishing house, Prof. Menachem Perry, has been boycotting the prize since 2004 and does not submit his writers for the competition. He explained that the prize engages in the futile promotion of books without any literary value and misses out on books of real value. As a result of the boycott, David Grossman's book, "Isha Borahat Mabesora" (English title: "Until the End of the Land") whose publication was one of the most important cultural events of the year, is not on the list. Another problem with the prize is that some of the country's most important writers refuse to submit their candidacy for it, including Meir Shalev, Aharon Appelfeld, A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz.
Several of the most famous Israeli authors don't apply for this prize. That's really a shame because I think Grossman and Yehoshua are excellent writers ("Someone to Run With" and "Friendly Fire" respectively). The head of the judging committee, a prolific Israeli politician and writer, Yossi Sarid, defends the choices, pointing out that "quite a few of the books this year weren't best sellers" and that they "try to choose a book that was not a bestseller to help it get publicity". Facing critique, as he is not a literary professor or professional, Sarid adds to say that many of the fellow committee members are indeed colleagues of Professor Gluzman.

That a prize ultimately ignores many of the major Israeli writers is a situation that could never come to be in the English speaking world. Some books originally written in Hebrew are translated into English (Three Percent's translation spreadsheet for 2008 displayed 12 titles), often by established authors and a few that make it on their own. Perhaps Sarid and the Sapir prize believe it should focus on those other books, those that would otherwise not receive international recognition. So even if some great authors are missing out and the literati are getting riled up, there's some logic to the Sapir Prize's choices and methods.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Today's literary culture - 5 myths

Robert McCrum at the Guardian decided to tackle the "myths" of literary culture:

Myth One: We are uniquely afflicted by cultural crap.

Myth Two: Books used to be better produced.

Myth Three: In the good old days, books were longer, and more demanding. Today, given the minuscule attention span of the Twitter Age, the classics of yesteryear will inevitably slip off the modern reader's radar.

Myth Four: Literary hype is a 21st century affliction.

Myth Five: There was a Golden Age.

McCrum goes into depth regarding each myth, casually debunking them and offering examples as to why these are false claims. It's an interesting article, not least because it actually admits that many of the claims regarding the modern literary culture are so inaccurate. I offer my own additions. For instance, literary hype? Many of the old books in my grandmother's old basement (a good thirty, forty years older than myself) have excited stickers on them exclaiming how the book is "an international bestseller!" and "over 500,000 copies sold!" or "___ critics all agree!" and of course, "[quote by famous author] ___ - 'This is a novel for our times'!". All these stickers, alongside those advertising movies, scream of literary hypes. What's curious is seeing how these books fare today. Many have survived. Often, though, the initial hype disappears and the books are judged only by their literary merit. Who'd have thought?

These myths are obviously ones McCrum invented himself just to pass his point along. Still, these are opinions that can be found easily. There's always a view that the younger generation is somehow ruining the world. With the internet, the criticisms and generation gaps have become surprisingly wider. I've found myself defending young authors from older readers stubbornly refusing to accept a new generation of writers. I've heard, all too frequently, older generations remark that authors today are nothing like [authors from their youth]. And then the "twitter" myths, the idea that people today don't read (utter nonsense) and that books today are far worse than they ever were (also completely wrong)... generalizations abound, but these are points well grounded in truth. McCrum's list may be simplified and inaccurate at times, but it's still very interesting. It may serve as inspiration for a wider debate in the future.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Cheap and expensive, profits and losses

I just read this interesting article from Publisher's Weekly (hat tip, Conversational Reading) that, following the new Kindle DX, found that selling Kindle books for the "cheap" price of $9.99 is a loss for Amazon. Among other things:
That Amazon is currently treating the bulk of Kindle editions as loss leaders—items it either breaks even on or loses on to build market share in e-book sales and to fuel the growth of the Kindle—is one of the worrisome aspects of the current system.
Or so some see it. The article goes into some depth regarding the prices of Kindle books as opposed to the publisher's fees. It turns out that those overpriced Kindle books are crazy cheap when the fact that publishers charge as much for them as any hard-cover book is taken into account. However, an article like this, rich in its own right, brings forth a lot of other interesting side points. For instance, a bit of Amazon's long term goal is clear. Even as the Sony Reader tries to steal the British market from the as-of-yet unavailable Kindle, the feeling that Amazon is so invested in this one product is surprising and says quite a bit about the company. Amazon wants the Kindle to become a common, popular product, not unlike, I would guess, an iPod or an iPhone (even the design is vaguely similar). By making books "cheaper" (but still grossly overpriced), Amazon is trying to lure many standard book-readers to the developing world of eReaders.

And then on the other hand, as mentioned in the article, is the issue of publishers. That it costs the same to buy an eBook version of a book (in bulk, obviously) as it does to buy the hardback is absolutely ridiculous. That Amazon cheapens it is noble and nice, but the fact is that an eBook should be much cheaper than even a paperback. And this is not only to fit in with Amazon's publicity goal. The production costs for eBooks are nothing like for print books (this Three Percent summary from a little while ago jumps to mind: fascinating rough calculations that provide a lot of food for thought) and yet the difference is about 1-3 dollars. Strange. The book industry has become such a complex place that selling books at surprisingly high prices (and eBooks, no less) translates into company losses.
That's something to think about.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Now it's apparently the Kindle DX. I've seen one reference to the DX as standing for "deluxe" but I can't remember where I encountered it. In general, the post is less about the large-print almost laptop new Kindle, but rather something else. When the Kindle 2 came out, the news was flooded with Kindle stories. It still is, even a few months later. But curiously enough, there isn't that buzz of excitement around the new Kindle. Either because it's just not interesting after all the ravings of a few months ago, or the product doesn't seem worth it.

What's interesting about the DX is that it displays something about Amazon's market. While Amazon is trying to sell this new device as convenient for reading textbooks, it appears like it is better suited for the upper end of the demographic - older readers. It's a strange circumstance that finds a technological product trying to appeal to both the young generation and the older one simultaneously while fairly ignoring the middle-aged group, though also trying to make a grab at them too. Looking at the DX, it doesn't make much sense as a product. Yes, a large-screen book for the visually impaired is intriguing but at that point doesn't the DX lose the "book" quality Kindles are going for? It's more of a small, flat computer that can only perform one or two functions. Seems not particularly worth it. And for the price hike? Less so.

Still, I doubt Amazon would have developed the DX if there was absolutely no market. And even as this new release gains fairly little major attention (at least, compared to the release of the Kindle 2), it'll be interesting to learn more about it. It could be that Amazon is using the DX as an opportunity to work through some of the kinks that make the Kindle 2 a troublesome product. The prospect of carrying around all business documents seems to handle one of the issues I had. Still, these are simply uneducated musings. I'll go out and learn a little more, but in the meantime there's a lot of non-tech (or detail) related things to think about.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009