Sunday, June 28, 2009

A library story

A semi-local library has a strange annual tradition. At the beginning of summer every year, this small library cleans out its shelves and puts books outside for any library patron (or even simple passerby) to take. These aren't a few weeds here and there that the library removes. Hundreds of books are placed outside and anyone walking by (this is within a larger building, not the street) can take however many he/she chooses. This collection of books is a strange one, with volumes ranging in languages and difficulty levels (classics alongside childrens' comic books), but it's very interesting. People come out of curiosity, convinced they'll find nothing and leave with an armful of books. The books are also different ages: some are fairly modern novels that didn't get a lot of attention from readers and others are ancient hardbacks with dust all along the spine and pages. The purpose of this spring cleaning is obvious. The library, which is small and doesn't have much room for expansion, needs to clear space for new books. Rather than throwing away these at-times falling apart books or selling them, the library chooses to hand them out for free.

There are many pros to checking books out of a library. The books are free, there's always bound to be a wide variety, etc. For some readers the library isn't enough. I, for instance, thoroughly enjoy rereading books. I like being able to pick a book up at any moment and know that I can set it aside whenever I like, without having to renew or return the book. There are many advantages to owning books and the two often come head-to-head. Many feel that purchasing books is wasteful; some think that checking books out from the library is too much effort. Used bookstores serve as an in-between. This case goes even further.

Nobody ever complains about book gifts. To receive a gift is a pleasure, not a frustration. Worries about space for the books become almost irrelevant when you don't pay for them. Even if you don't get around to reading them, the guilt sensation of not finishing a book before returning it to the library isn't there. For the library giving away books, this scenario works well too. They get rid of books and don't have live with the shame that they threw them out. Many libraries do similar things with book sales, but looking at some of these books (one of which literally has dust climbing out of the pages) makes me wonder if that's the right way for the libraries to make money. With the exception of one brand-new book (still in its wrapping), all these books are clearly used. Some to the point where any price would be too high, either because the book is falling apart or because my level of interest in the book is so low there's no chance I'd ever spend even a cent on it. However, when offered for free, I grabbed these books no questions asked. And, I suppose, even the most ardent of library supporters would not hesitate to do the same.

There is no particular lesson to be learned from this, just observations. I wonder if other libraries have similar "give away" policies and if, indeed, other readers find this form of book acquisition suitable. In the meantime, I'll enjoy the books I managed to grab and await next year's stacks of "unwanted" books, where I might once again find a few gems.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Brave new irony

Another example where the reader knows something the author doesn't. Except in this particular case, the result is pure amusement:
"But what would Socialism mean, according to your idea of it?"
"Oh! Some kind of Aldous Huxley Brave New World; only not so amusing ... " [p.88, Keep the Aspidistra Flying]
Oh, irony. Perhaps, then, Mr. Orwell was aware of what a dull little masterpiece his "1984" would be. Perhaps, in fact, it was all planned ahead...

Monday, June 15, 2009

Wishful thinking

Dystopias are a common enough discussion in literature. With dystopian literature found in a wide variety of genres, presenting futures where each highlights one potentially prophetic aspect of modern society, it's easy to forget that another type of book exists as well: that of wishful thinking. I can think of no better example than "Truth", by Émile Zola.

"Truth" is loosely based on Zola's own experiences in the Dreyfus affair, in that it highlights anti-Semitism in [the then] modern French society. The first three quarters of this large book is about anti-Semitism and the Catholic Church's influence in France at the time. It's hard not to walk away from the book with a clear image of Zola's own personal views of religion and education. The book centers around Marc and his desire to see secularism triumph against the evils of religion. The last quarter of the book displays Marc's (aka Zola's) wishes. While these 150 pages are entirely unnecessary for the book, they shed quite a bit of light on Zola's own wishful thinking. He takes the reader years into the unnamed future and rough estimates suggest it ends well into the early 20th century. Zola's desire to name the future he'd like is clear: he declares that the legislature "finally" voted for a complete separation of church and state, decades into the book. The translator then notes that this is indeed Zola's wishful thinking, for as of the translation (1902-3), such laws have not yet passed though the translator adds that it "has never appeared more likely than it does now". Zola doesn't leave it at that and goes further:
Why did he speak of the Jews? Anti-Semitism was dead--to such a degree, indeed, that the new generation failed to understand what was meant when people accused the Jews of every crime. [p. 542]

That once filthy print had been quite transformed by the new spirit, which had raised its readers both morally and intellectually. ... The Press will, indeed, become a most admirable instrument of education when it is no longer, as now, in the hands of political and financial bandits, bent on debasing and plundering their readers. [p. 564]
On the one hand, reading Zola's thoughts at the time are enlightening. Aside from his blatant political views, his Dreyfus style ideals are showcased in the form of his mirror character, Marc. Yet by setting to print what he hoped would occur, Zola ultimately serves rather as dystopian books do: the truth to his words casts an ugly light on what readers know actually occurred around the time the book ends. In the end, even wishful thinking and Utopia bring the modern reader the gloom of a dystopia novel.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Author feedback

A couple of years ago, I wrote a positive review, one where I wholeheartedly recommended the book. Still, I pointed out my one problem with the story as a sort of warning to any reader who might get turned off by it. The next day, the author responded to my issue by dismissing it and even almost mocking it. I was at first a bit surprised that the author would bother reading my review and then slightly annoyed. I had stated my opinion but to be ridiculed by the author for it seemed a bit harsh.

In recent months, I've seen this happening in a number of places. Authors can now be found quite easily on the internet. They write about upcoming works, keep up-to-date blogs and websites, and are very involved in the internet publicity of the book. Along with this, though, come situations like the one described above: authors find reviews of their books and respond to them. Sometimes graciously, sometimes less so.

Immediate feedback is a general internet trait, but when it comes to writing, it seems to take on a life of its own. Talk of "interactive literature" (where readers can respond as the author writes the story) and mass-reader reviews make it much easier for the author to see reader responses (sometimes positive, sometimes not). At the same time, it makes it much easier for authors to respond. An author can immediately try to defend his/her work and "fix" the image or correct the interpretation. I once saw an author try to explain that her book was not part of the genre the reviewer assumed it to be, was not about what the reviewer felt and the reviewer had, in fact, missed the point. Which, of course, raises the question: How can a reader who interpreted something differently than the author intended be missing the point? It is still a fault on the side of the author.

But author feedback brings many good things too. Just as it's incredible to read authors' letters and notes on a manuscript in order to further understand their writing, it's helpful to see them blog and describe how they see their books. It's adds another level of understanding, the same way a biography might. Author responses give the impression that they really care what people think and that they read each and every opinion, meaning that they might possibly learn from the less-than-favorable opinions.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Of publishers and industries

BookExpo America may have been a couple of weeks ago, but its impact is still being felt. At least, by those of who follow Three Percent, eagerly awaiting the next installment in the series about points that popped up during the expo. While all are interesting in painting a picture of publishing today, a few particularly striking points were raised (*profanity warning):

If the industry wasn’t fucked, there would presumably be enough space in the culture for long-form, independently edited print reviews, book news magazines, online literary mags, bloggers, social networking recommenders, etc., all of which would connect readers with books in different ways, with different levels of authority.

Presenting the problem in one concise paragraph. While the entire entry in the BEA series is interesting, it's the point raised here that really got my attention. The article aims to bring up the problems regarding bloggers and publishers but here it's pretty clear. The left hand has no idea what the right hand is doing. Each medium is separate, has separate rules and different points but all seem to be competitive. Unnecessarily so, especially taking into account how different they are. The book-blogging panel was allegedly meant to find a way to bridge bloggers and publishers together, but all it did was highlight the industry's flaws, misunderstanding the purpose of many blogs. Bloggers have existed for years; many get free advance copies from publishers and do plenty of publicity for these books. But all of the coverage takes blogging as competition when compared to newspaper critique. Which, Post points out, is hardly relevant anymore, especially since newspapers barely appear at this expo. The next installment (the most recent), though, is the one that stands out most:

Or even better, why couldn’t BEA have a panel about e-books that includes a cultural critic, a publisher, an author, a reader? Create a space for real debate and discussion?

I know I’m repeating myself, but publishing is really, really shitty at doing market research. But what if you had a few thousand (ten thousand?) “regular readers” hanging out in one place where you could potentially interact, ask them questions, engage in some sort of feedback loop that would improve your business practices? This could be revolutionary . . .

The panels that I've seen (National Book Critics Circle on book reviews in 2010, here and here) don't have this. Which is a pity, because it really makes the most sense. The book industry spends all day complaining about how they're failing, how nobody wants to read anymore and how everything is over for them. The fact is that they're wrong. People still read and being arbitrarily told what people do or don't want to read shows how out-of-touch publishers are with the readers who ultimately purchase their books. For instance, some publishers are certain that Americans don't want to read foreign literature (part III; also Literary License's thorough take). And so they will not bother seeking out quality foreign literature for translation. A pity and a shame.

The book industry has for too long done whatever it has thought is right and has too often been incredibly wrong. Most readers want different types of books. Even readers with strictly set comfort zones enjoy looking outside the box every once in a while. Only publishers aren't willing to think clearly when it comes to eBooks and the future of the printed book. Publishers aren't willing to admit that the internet and access to free information make the market a different place than it was ten years ago. They aren't willing to work with the public to finding a solution. We get patronizing publishers who don't ultimately care about getting quality books out there. We get a book fair that doesn't admit itself to the greater public and alienates common readers. Post points out that almost every other country with a major book fair gets massive publicity in the non-book world. Only BEA remains exclusive and closed off, preferring pointless panels about how bloggers shouldn't be considered the same as professionals and other subjects along those lines. It all seems a stupid affair, something that may have once worked wonderfully to hype booksellers and reviewers up about books. A novel idea. Now it only seems like a display case of an out-of-touch industry. Harsh, but sometimes that's how it looks.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Some light reading and a quote

Found in the form of Sylvia Plath's unabridged diaries. While reading someone's personal thoughts is a bit disconcerting at times, the book is good for sporadic reads. Plath is one of few poets I've actually read and the occasional poems and poetic moments in her diaries make this a fascinating read. That and Plath's infamous depression. And irony of ironies, as I began reading this heavy book (674 pages, not including the notes), I came across this line on page 10:
And I don't want to die.
Normally, that would appear to be a completely normal sentence. Especially taken in context, where she sounds glum but determined to live. Still, knowing how Plath's life ends makes this simple sentence positively reek of irony. Aside from that, the book is, so far, not much beyond well-written diaries with a bit too much angst on their mind. Also perhaps the prequel to "The Bell Jar". The stalker-sensation is slowly fading and I think this might help further my understanding of "The Bell Jar" and of Plath's poetry. Or I'll continue analyzing this like I might a novel and point here to some foreshadowing. But that seems a bit too morbid.