Thursday, July 30, 2009

Wi-Fi plans

Barnes & Noble, following the launching of their brand new e-book store, have decided to go all out on the digital front by offering free wi-fi in their stores. Via Publisher's Weekly:

CEO Steve Riggio said providing free Wi-Fi to customers is helping the retailer “[extend] the sense of community that has always been in our stores.” The company also stressed that in offering free Wi-Fi, customers will be able to easily download and preview e-books. [...] Riggio called the addition of free Wi-Fi in all stores “a natural progression of our digital strategy to provide customers with more choices in how, when and where they want to read.”
Irony lies in that a few of the customers will probably end up taking advantage of this free wireless to use the still cheaper Amazon, after comfortably comparing prices at the store. Will it succeed in making the giant, often incredibly not customer friendly corporation more "communal"? Unlikely. We'll have to see if B&N's assumption that more people will buy e-books while sitting at the store comes true. It seems completely contradictory to all laws of internet logic (like using the internet to buy things in order to not go the store, convenience, etc.), but it'll be interesting to see what happens.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The merits of negativity

With the drama surrounding Alice Hoffman and Alain de Botton's responses to seemingly spiteful and mean reviews against their books fading, there's a good opportunity to look at the "negative review" a little. Not how authors should respond to them - that's been handled quite a bit - but rather if negative reviews should even be written. And if they should, how? In my post on why we review from a few months back, R.T. left an interesting comment:

As a reviewer (for print and online outlets), I try to adhere to a straight-forward policy: I do not write negative reviews. In other words, if the book lacks merit and I can find nothing positive to say about it, I take a pass on reviewing it. There are too many good books to spend precious time on the others. I have had editors insist upon a review, even when it was going to be unfavorable, and at that point the editors and I have had meetings of the minds in which my policy prevails. My reasoning for the policy is simple: Readers look to reviews because they are seeking out good books to read, so why tell readers about bad books? To do so is a waste of time for everyone involved.

It's an interesting policy, one that I absolutely disagree with. The purpose of a review, in my mind, isn't simply to say if it's a good book and pass it along, but perhaps also to steer people away from it. It's more difficult today with blogs that often pump up the same books but if a reviewer says, "You will not like this book because of: ... ", I'll understand it and take it into account. But if all I see is gushing praise for a book, people saying, "It's the best book ever! It's amazing!" I'll be getting a skewed view of the book.
Perhaps this is just my own personal method, but before I purchase/acquire a book, I like to see the so-called negative reviews, whether they're on Amazon (I use Amazon as a blanket term for all localized review sites), blogs, or elsewhere. My philosophy is as follows: If someone can logically and reasonably convince me that the book is flawed, clearly listing reasons why (without resorting to petty name-calling), I accept their points and reach my own conclusions. If all the "negative" reviews are one sentence blurbs of "worst book ever" without offering any support for the claim, I have to assume the book is actually good, because nobody has provided me with proof otherwise. And if everyone followed R.T.'s idea, instead of just most reviews being positive, all reviews would be positive and gushing, meaning that it would (mistakenly) appear that all books are amazing. Or a bad book would have no information on it, meaning people simply wouldn't know to stay clear.

Negative reviews are necessary. Not all books are perfect and a reviewer should never feel bad for voicing an honest opinion (assuming it is done in a calm, reasonable fashion without resorting to childish insults - this is applicable to the author's response as well!). A reader spotting a negative review is getting another opinion, rather in the same way that another positive review would bring forth some new points (hopefully...). Negative reviews are not spiteful, angry responses, they are different sides to the issue and are sincerely helpful. In my mind, to avoid them is simply foolish.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Amazon review of the week

Often after I read a very good book, I like to see other opinions. This old review (in its entirety) of "If This is a Man" ("Survival in Auschwitz") caught my eye:
I have read many Holocaust biographies and autobiographies and this one was by far the worst one i have read. I could not finish the book, it was so uninteresting. i felt no connection with the author and narrator and I felt like he was making his experiences up. If you want a good book on the Holocaust try Alicia: My Story by Alicia Appleman-Jurman. It shows a true hero of the Holocaust is one of the best and most amazing books I have ever read.
After I had the gall and the audacity to compare this exact book to "Night", I should not mind another reviewer finding a different memoir to compare to. However, "Alicia: My Story" tells a completely different survival tale and much in the same way that I felt Anne Frank's diary cannot be used in a comparison, I feel perhaps Appleman-Jurman's account should not come up against Levi's. Still, even as I disagree with the reviewer's opinion (and face a few twinges of annoyance at the implication that Levi's story is made up), once again I must respect this dissenting view and appreciate the interesting points it raises.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Extras and packages

While most new books today come elegantly packaged with a nice cover image, a small author blurb, acknowledgments or an afterword by the author, and (increasingly) the occasional reader's guide (often rather pointless), some books still seem to lag behind. Sadly, these are usually the books that need the additional information most.

In the internet age, it's useful but unnecessary to have so much information about a new book unless the book takes place in a certain period and the author (or publisher) feel it's their duty to add small tidbits in addition to the hard facts. An amusing author blurb is always enjoyable but rarely sheds light on the book in cases of standard fiction. Reading guides are occasionally interesting but should probably remain on the internet (why waste the millions of sheets of paper for something most people don't read?). A reading group guide is perhaps helpful to reading groups but even so, it is not a required part of the book itself. There's no need to include it directly in the book. Author afterwords, on the other hand, often do provide a bit of food for thought, showing the reader a bit of what the author thought writing the book. Always interesting.

What's frustrating is a case like "Truth" (Zola). The book was published in English in 1903. The single available English edition is this 1903 version, published almost immediately after the book was written. The only occasional interference by the translator is the fairly irrelevant introduction or the rare comment about how the book wasn't properly edited because Zola passed away as he was beginning the editing process. But reading this today proves to be a problem. The points the translator references (discussing secular education and how soon it might change) are certainly outdated. It would be fascinating to have, like what Oxford World Classics tends to give, detailed annotations. Rather than wonder, "Well then... when did this happen?" and have to search futilely, the book would offer answers to all the time relevant questions.

With older books, this "extras" issue seems a little more relevant. It's the way of the world that things change, meaning that even the best books occasionally need a little explanation. It's extremely annoying to get a book packaged exactly as it was a century ago, down to the same font and translator notes, with no additional information regarding everything that's changed in the last century. Or, perhaps even worse, books that have phrases in other languages and don't come with a mini-dictionary. A book like "Villette", by Charlotte Brontë. The constant French may not have troubled the Brontë sisters and their contemporary readers, but for most readers today, something like the Bantam edition I own is a slap in the face. Riddled with French, the publishers did not see fit to provide readers with translations for any phrase, even though they occasionally serve as the main point of the paragraph. And it's simply not enjoyable to read a book and not understand about a third of what they're saying. I don't ask the book to give me the historical context in this particular case, but at the very least casual footnoted translations.

For modern literature, there's less of a problem. The packaging issue is so important to selling, most books come with too much. The older books suffer and ultimately torture the readers for it. I have to wonder about the reasons for blessing modern books with unnecessary information but leaving out crucial bits from older literature. If only publishers felt packaging was as important for the classics as it is for debuts, readers might better appreciate the classic literature. Yet I do maintain some level of optimism, as I suspect the next reissue of "Truth" in a century from now will come with a couple of time relevant annotations... for 2003.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Publisher gloom

It's hard to view the publishing industry very cheerfully after reading Publisher Weekly's annual salary survey. While some results are understandable (employee job security has dipped in the last year, unsurprisingly), others are not. Take, for instance, this: the average pay for men is higher than that of women by $30,000 (the stats are all for the U.S. only). Trying to find an excuse is proving difficult in this case. So the number is perhaps down from previous years... but that's still big. Or perhaps take a look at "Number of Employees Receiving Bonuses" table:

Percentage Median Bonus
Editorial 34% $2,500
Sales/Marketing 45% $6,000
Management 43% $15,000
Operations 39% $2,750
Why such a gap between editorial and sales? Sales almost always end up with significantly higher salaries (with the exception of the south, where they're equal). Half (50%!) of employees are unsatisfied with their job and 53% complain that their salaries are too low. Another point of interest is the "greening" of the publishing industry. The stats are intriguing if a little disappointing. Why are only 52% of companies printing on recycled paper as opposed to, say, 70%? It's not as if the quality is any worse (particularly when some companies insist on using rough, poor quality paper).

The entire article is fascinating and though I don't fully understand all of the various charts, there's a lot to mull over. For instance, though I'm mostly pointing out the disappointing aspects of the survey, the fact that fewer employees plan on quitting in the next two years is very interesting (and positive). Still, pay is down and employees are nervous. And the gap between men and women should not be so wide. There's still a way to go.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Happily ever after?

I wonder if I'm the only one finding this slightly odd, but there seem to be a whole lot of book related dating sites popping up and getting attention. First Penguin Dating and now Borders UK has started Happily Ever After, a dating service for readers. The Guardian laughs:

I don't know if Borders will actually be making recommendations for dates in the same way as they recommend books, but it would be priceless if members got regular email updates: "Did you enjoy, Mark, 34, of Swindon? Then you should try Gareth, 36, of Slough." Or: "After dating Sally of Birmingham, 86 per cent of customers go on to date Jayne of Devizes."

Meanwhile, both sites recommend books to read while waiting for dates. Penguin offers author tips about dating (thus advertising the authors' books) and Borders offers self-help books or books about dating, in order to make things smoother. Or in their words, they offer "the latest and greatest advice on all things dating". In other words, both sites have found a way to sell dating related self-help books. Huh.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Summer reading for kids

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times is best known for op-ed articles about critical world issues. So it's interesting to see him talk about summer reading for kids and give a list of recommended books.
A mountain of research points to a central lesson: Pry your kids away from the keyboard and the television this summer, and get them reading. Let me help by offering my list of the Best Children's Books — Ever!
Kristof's list has a few age-old titles alongside immensely popular modern counterparts. He even described within series' which book is the best to start with, a point I've always wished would come included in lists of this sort. He encouraged readers of his column to come up with their own ideas, leading to the third post on the subject, where he offered some of the reader suggestions. In this post Kristof acknowledged that perhaps those who read his blog aren't the parents whose kids are at-risk and that they may not need to ensure as critically that their children read this summer, but it's still very important and obviously never hurts.

In regards to Kristof's original idea, there's quite a bit to be said. It's not surprising to hear that the lack of cognitive stimulation in the summer probably hits at-risk kids more than it does middle-class ones, and I certainly see how reading helps this problem. Encouraging literacy and reading is always good, but it's particularly important among kids. I definitely appreciate his efforts at fixing this situation and encouraging parents to help their kids read good books. This list may only be a starting point, but it's an absolutely great one. Mr Kristof, I tip my hat.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Comparing Auschwitz

It's very difficult to get away with comparing books, particularly if the books are not all that similar. Somehow, though, as I finished reading Primo Levi's "If This is a Man" ("Survival in Auschwitz" in the U.S.), I found myself thinking a number of things which led me to some comparisons. Reading this powerful account of Auschwitz made me wonder how "If This is a Man", written in 1946, was not required reading for me at any point while many other Holocaust memoirs and stories were. Following that train of thought, I pondered over books that are frequent class reads: "Night", by Elie Wiesel and the ubiquitous "The Diary of Anne Frank" or its various poor variations (the play version that my class suffered through, for instance, was terrible).

Anne Frank quickly falls into another category. Hers is a diary, childishly written and focusing (understandably) on her small world. It's the story of hiding. Levi and Wiesel's accounts fall into a different but shared category of survival in the work camps, specifically Auschwitz. One is by a living author, a man who has received the Nobel Peace Prize and whose work was picked as an Oprah book club choice. The other author is a suspected suicide case (on which Wiesel actually commented with a famous quote), a man whose writing appeared only relatively late in his life (the exception being the aforementioned book), and enjoys little fame in the U.S. (though he curiously enough appears to be much more popular than Wiesel in the U.K.*).

The main difference between their books, though, is in the actual content. Wiesel's account is almost literary: it's an emotional read where he presents the story in simple, touching phrases. Levi's memoir, meanwhile, is factual. Instead of delving into the emotional turmoil of Auschwitz, he presents the way prisoners "lived" there, highlighting various aspects of survival in the camp, from stealing to friendships. Levi writes rather intellectually and almost distantly, keeping himself fairly far, for the most part, from the actual goings-on. "Night" is clearly about Wiesel's own personal views.

The reason for comparing these two books is stupid. So I've heard of "Night" my entire life and only now encountered the strength and importance to Levi's words in "If This is a Man". Yes, many very bad novelizations and memoirs are taught around the world during Holocaust units over the calm brilliance of Levi's writing. "Night" is fairly ignored in the U.K. and in the U.S. "If This is a Man" continues to be minor. The comparison serves only to highlight how some books achieve fame in different ways and how their popularity is so completely contrasted. Perhaps there is a reason why Levi is not taught and Wiesel is. Perhaps there is only room for one such memoir and between the two, "Night" was picked. But it seems to me like these books come as complimentary to each other. First comes Primo Levi with the facts of life in Auschwitz and then comes Elie Wiesel, filling in the missing emotion from Levi's account.

The conclusion from comparing incomparable works is simple. Each book deserves its own attention and fame. Each seeks to present a different side of Auschwitz, different literary tactics and very different lives. Attempting to justify the popularity of one over the other proves to be pointless: both books are excellent and special - and must be read.

*Based on,,, and sales ranks, number of reviews and number of ratings