Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Littlest eReader

Book publisher Scholastic (along with the Harrison survey group) has just released the fascinating results of their survey on the reading habits of modern kids: New Study on Reading in the Digital Age.  Some of the results are a little shocking and mildly disturbing - 39% of kids (age 9-17) agree with the statement, "The information I find online is always correct." - while others reveal the more concrete reading trajectory our society is on.  What can I say, the children are our future.  Some of the stats:
  • 25% of kids (age 9-17) think texting back and forth with friends counts as reading.
  • 28% of kids (ages 9-17) think that looking through postings or comments on social networking sites like Facebook counts as reading; (*39% of kids don't think any online activity counts as reading.)
  • 57% of kids (age 9-17) say they are interested in reading an eBook, and a third of children age 9-17 say they would read more books for fun if they had access to eBooks on an electronic device.
  • 25% of kids surveyed have read a book on a digital device - whether laptop, e-reader, phone.
  • 34% of kids read 5-7 days a week.
  • 41% of parents read 1-4 days a week; 28% read every (or almost every) day
  • 86% of kids feel proud and have a sense of accomplishment when they finish reading a book.
Part of me wonders how much was explained to these kids concerning the semantics of reading text messages and Facebook pages as opposed to books.  As in, "Yes, you are physically reading this text message, but...."  Even though both forms convey information and possibly narratives, there is a difference deep down in the core.  I think.  I just can't really prove it.

I do think that the fact that 25% of these kids have already read a book on a digital device speaks louder than anything else.  Digital books are such a new phenomenon - we forget this in the face of the dominance of the Kindle and hipster iPad commercials on TV - yet a quarter of our youngest readers have already read books that way.  How many adults do you personally know who have read a book digitally?  Be honest.

So, where does that put our society in 10 or 20 years?  I'm split in two over this one - if those kids turn into adults who read e-Books, I really couldn't care less how they read a book, just as long as they read it.  Literacy is literacy, man.  Yet where does that leave me as a bookseller?  If the eBook market continues to be cornered by Apple and Amazon, there's little to no room left for neighborhood brick-and-mortar bookstores.  It's up to us as a society to decide which we'd rather have down the road.

Before becoming a bookseller, adrift and fresh out of photography school, I worked for Ritz Camera for about three years.  (Ritz, once a giant, one-hour photo conglomerate which gobbled up all the smaller camera store chains, was my one-and-only foray into corporate retail structure and actually helped lead me to the independent model that seems to define me these days.  Weird, huh?)  During that short time period, I saw the steady influx of digital camera technology - from not stocking any digital cameras in stores to selling almost solely digital in just three years.  The influx of the technology was so steady and so powerful, that now, 13 years later, Ritz has gone through bankruptcy and reduced their number of stores from 1200 to 300, most of which focus on printing primarily digital images.  If you had asked me in 1997 where I thought the analog camera and film industry was heading, I never would have guessed that it was being so rapidly phased out.  My point is that when in the midst of a paradigm shift like that, it's almost impossible to step back and see the bigger picture.  We always attempt to project our opinions on the situation, but we have no way of being truly objective.  Imagine that in three years, you have plenty of paperbound books at home, but all the bookstores only sell brand-new eBooks.  Surveys like this Scholastic one help put things into perspective - for me, at least. 

I've always maintained that my objection to eBooks is completely personal - they're just not my thing & I'd rather hold an actual book in my hands.  But as this survey shows, my opinion has little to do with what our younger generations are interested in.  It would seem that a large portion of books are destined to be read on digital devices.  It's up to the rest of us to adapt, I suppose.

Yet it's the last stat posted above that gives me the most hope - whether it's an e-Book, a dogeared paperback, or whatever comes next, reading a book makes 86% of kids feel pretty damn good about themselves.  Anything else doesn't really matter.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Porn-egon, Part 2

This is a quick update on a bit I wrote about way back in April 2008 - "It's Raining Porn in Oregon" - about the law that had passed in that state restricting the display and sale of "sexually explicit" material, especially to children under the age of 13.  Under the infuriatingly vague Oregon law H.B. 2843, if a bookstore has a faceout display of, say, A Handmaid's Tale where those tiny hands can reach or where their barely developed eyeballs can see, then the bookseller is in violation of the law and could be subject to a year in the clink and a $6300 fine.  Michael Powell, owner of Powell's Books, pointed out that the law "says a 13-year-old can legally buy these books, but it's a crime to sell them to a 12-year-old. How do I card a 12-year-old?"  Hmmm.

Good news, though!  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the Oregon law on Monday, declaring it unconstitutional!  All is right in the world again - or at least a little bit.  In this second round of appeals, the state had been arguing that the intent of the law was to target "hardcore pornography," but the court decided that the law made no such allowances and did actually cover such relatively innocuous titles as The Joy of Sex and Lady Chatterley's Lover.  Which is ridiculous and unconstitutional.

You can read more about the case in ABA's Bookselling This Week, and, of course, my old post.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Behold, the Wells Tower!

Wells Tower, he of the acclaimed collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, has a new short story in the latest New Yorker, called The Landlord.  I am simply recommending that you read it.  Tower was recently named one of the 20 Under 40 by that same magazine - a list of 20 great American writers under the age of 40.  (Also on the list, Rivka Galchen, whose compact & punchy little story "The Entire North Side Was Covered With Fire" lead me to her novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, which I am now reading.  Yes, Rivka is a girl.)  But more importantly, Wells Tower makes me laugh:
I see blue eyes of startling clarity and nearly unlined skin that doesn’t show a single dilated pore. Somehow, Todd has found the secret of eternal youth. The formula is fourteen gallons of Pepsi-Cola a week, heavy use of Black & Mild cigarillos, and hatred of all living creatures.
But he can also awe you with his skills:
The beauty of the land out here is nearly absurd. Full-fed, ale-colored cattle watch us from fields of grass so vivid in the late light that each blade looks hand-tinted. Fall-blooming sneezeweeds dot the ditches, woozy with the weight of their broad red heads.
Wells Tower: read him, know him, love him. 

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Franzen vs The Universe

Over the last several weeks, the "commercial women's fiction" authors (note I am careful to avoid the dangerous term "chick lit") Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult have made internet names for themselves by complaining bitterly about the double glowing reviews in the New York Times for Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Freedom.  The novel is the far-and-away the most-hyped book of the season - Franzen's long-awaited follow up to his bestselling, 2001 National Book Award-winning, Oprah Book Club selection, The Corrections.  (***I would like to be the first to point out that I believe the upcoming Oprah pick - to be announced September 17th - will be Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.  You heard it here first - I'm callin' it.***)  Picoult kicked off the hate with her tweet: "Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren't white male literary darlings."  Ms. Weiner followed by labeling the love fest over Freedom "Franzenfreude" which she defines as "taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen."  In actuality, it translates to "Franzen joy" but that's neither here nor there.

Last month, Time magazine did a cover story on Franzen - their first on a living author in nearly a decade - and the reviews in the Times followed soon after.  Notorious hater, Michiko Kakutani (whom Franzen has called "the stupidest person in New York") called its prose "visceral," "lapidary," and "galvanic" and referred to it as "an indelible portrait of our times."  NYT book editor Sam Tanenhaus wrote an even more embarrassingly gushing review, equating Franzen to Dickens, Tolstoy, Bellow, & Thomas Mann.  Really?
It illuminates, through the steady radiance of its author’s profound moral intelligence, the world we thought we knew.
Put it back in your pants, Tanenhaus.

For the record, I have never claimed to be a fan of Jonathan Franzen.  I have not read The Corrections, partly because of the disgusting effusiveness of other 2002-era booksellers and also because I had no desire to read a 600-page novel about a dysfunctional family.  I had some mixed feelings about his spat with Oprah during that time period, although, honestly, that was mostly a one-sided spat on the part of O.  (After being selected for Her Book Club, he said in an interview that She had made some "schmaltzy" picks in the past, which was true, and She took affront & yanked Her endorsement.)  I kind of admired him for speaking his mind, rather than just kowtowing - especially after he won the NBA despite his Oprah-troubles.

However, as of right this minute, I am several hundred pages deep into his new book - a novel about, well, a dysfunctional family.  Maybe I'm a different reader than I was a decade ago when Franzen's last book was published or perhaps I just wanted to read the book that was getting a huge amount of industry buzz even 6 months ago.  Maybe Freedom was what I needed after 117 Days of JPatt.

So I began reading this thing in the midst of the storm of tweets and hashtags concerning the Times' handling of their heaps of praise.  Franzen may be a bit of a douche whose foot constantly resides inside his mouth, but his body of work seems to deserve neither the insanely glowing praise it has received, nor the unequivocal bashing hatred directed at both it and it's creator.  It's good, but I would be hesitant to put it above many, many other books I have read by some of his contemporaries.

Weiner & Picoult have directed their ire mostly at the fact that the Times reviewed Freedom twice in the week before its publication date - in and of itself not an entirely unusual practice for the paper.  Picoult has complained that "for every Danticat/Diaz review (in the NYT), there are ten Lethems and Franzens!"  This is a "fact" I have a hard time accepting.  (For the record, Lethem's latest, Chronic City, was panned pretty hard by Kakutani last year.  I believe the word she used was "lame.")  I hate to steal another man's research, but this comment was left by "Jon from Brooklyn" on The NYTpicker's story on the subject (which caused a massive reaction from Picoult) and I can't see a better way of putting things:
The 10 authors who were given "Best Book" by the NYTimes the last two years are: Steven Millhauser, Toni Morrison, Joseph O'Neill, Roberto Bolano, Jhumpa Lahiri, Maile Meloy, Jonathan Lethem, Lorrie Moore, Jeannette Walls, and Kate Walbert. That's 6 women (4 white, 1 african-american, 1 indian-american), 3 white guys, and 1 latino author. Lorrie Moore and Jeannette Walls were both double-reviewed.
So is there really the over-arcing gender bias at the Times that Weiner and Picoult are talking about?  I believe they have made a valid point, even if they are not the ideal messengers of that point, since the level of praise referred to does seem to be reserved exclusively for male authors.  (I hesitate to say "white male authors" because the critical praise for Roberto Bolano and Pulitzer-winner, Junot Diaz is equally heavy, despite their Latin flavor.)  There is, however, a distinct tone of abject bitterness in both of their comments and tweets: "Why not me?!" they seem to screech.  How is this comment by Weiner to the Huffington Post's Jason Pinter not sour grapes:
Super Sad True Love Story sold just shy of five thousand copies its first week in release, even after two very positive reviews, a magazine Q and A and the publication of Shteyngart's essay on the perils of technology. I think that comes out to something like one copy sold for every word the Times lavished on him.
Just because a book isn't as commercially successful as a Jennifer Weiner novel doesn't mean it doesn't deserve critical praise.  She seems to be living in an alternate reality here - I can maybe forgive the Lethem barb, but by dragging poor little Gary into it, she has earned my eternal hatred.
The NYT has long made it clear that they value literary fiction and disdain commercial fiction - and they disparage it regardless of race or gender of the author. I'm not commenting on one specific critic or even on my own reviews (which are few and far between because I write commercial fiction).  (Jodi Picoult)
Both, to me, come off as bitter for not having heaps of their own praise from the Times over the years.  Why does "commercial" fiction (whatever that is) deserve or need to be reviewed?  What if the reviews were all bad?  Would that be better?  Weiner's last review (and the only one I could find at all) came last summer in the form of a communal "Girls of Summer" bit by Janet Maslin where her book was one of 11 discussed and didn't make the accompanying photo.  Picoult's last review was in 2008 when Maslin wrote "...not even the most cultish Picoult fans are likely to think Ms. Picoult broke a sweat while preparing “Change of Heart.”  And this telling tirade:
...she seems to have written her latest tear-jerker on authorial autopilot. When writers become this popular (Ms. Picoult’s books currently top both The New York Times’s hardcover and paperback best-seller lists), they can coast in ways not possible for the up-and-coming. The opportunity to be long-winded yet perfunctory, paradoxically daring yet formulaic, is available to only proven hit makers at the top of the heap.
That has to create a little bit of resentment.  And if in your own head you are a great writer of literary fiction (who has been unfairly labeled "chick lit" or "commercial") then you will probably feel doubly slighted when Franzen comes along and writes a super-hyped novel about family relationships, just like you do.

But the point remains that the critical literary circles that the Times rolls in does tend to lean heavily on fiction written by male writers.  The "literary darlings" of our age seem to be almost exclusively male and it seems impossible that this is because women are not producing work on the same level.  (Like I said, perhaps Weiner and Picoult are not the best advocates for literary women's fiction.)  Is there a critical gender bias amongst the literary critical journals in this country?  Or is it that they review what is literary & pass on reviewing what they consider "commercial?"  All literary authors tend to get reviewed by the New York Times - regardless of gender and despite what Jodi and Jenny say.  (Remember, Lorrie Moore and Jeannette Walls both received double NYT reviews for their last books, just like Franzen and Shteyngart.)  Because the critical establishment is excessively effusive over Franzen's new book may just be because it is a great novel.  Weiner and Picoult have both admitted to not having read Freedom, so I cannot see how they can make such broad-sweeping judgments about the levels of praise it has received.  Perhaps it truly is "an indelible portrait of our times."  How the F do you know without reading it for yourself?!  

So I say to you both, either go eat your sour grapes while lying on your bed made of money or write something worthy of being praised by the critics.

All of which brings me to a related note: it has been pointed out lately that I have not read a book in 2010 written by a woman.  In fact, the last book I read that was written by a female author was Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood which I read in August of 2009.  I am not proud of this fact and I have spent the last two weeks thinking about what is wrong with me as a well-read man that I do not read books written by women.  I don't completely know yet.  Part of it, I honestly believe, is the packaging of novels written by women.  I know that this sounds like a cop out, but I think there is a great reveal to judging a book by its cover.  It may not be a conscious thing on my part, but I tend to glance past the covers with the soft focus and the wistful women and lonely, anonymous children on the covers.  I look at a lot of books every day and when asked straight-up to name a few "literary" female authors who currently have new books on the stacks, I draw a relative blank.  Is this because of their gender and my inherent gender bias?  Or is it because they are packaged like this:

Look at that Jane Smiley cover.  I would never pick that up on my own, even though I know for a fact that Smiley is considered one of the finest writers alive.

Lionel Shriver (who is a woman, by the way) wrote a brilliant essay on this subject for the UK's Guardian last week. While she mentions that Jodi Picoult may not have the "literary standing" to complain about the Times' handling of Franzen, she does point out that "publishers are complicit in ghettoising not only women writers but women readers into this implicitly lesser cultural tier" below the white male critical darlings like Franzen.  She shared her own experience:
Take the American reissue of my fourth novel Game Control – a wicked, nasty novel about a plot to kill two billion people overnight. The main character is a man, the focal subject demography. Yet what cover do I first get sent? A winsome young lass in a floppy hat, gazing soulfully to the horizon in a windblown field – soft focus, in pastels. Dismayed, I emailed back: "Did your designers read any of this book?" When I proposed a cover photo by Peter Beard of sagging elephant carcasses – perfectly apt – the sales department was horrified. Women would be repelled by dead animals. We settled on live elephants, but it was pulling teeth to get girls off that paperback.
So, I think it's fair to blame the publishers, at least in part, for steering male readers like myself away from women authors.  That said, I have been trying to think of a way to alter my reading habits to include women writers.  It has been suggested that I read only women for one month, but this feels too gimmicky, like a 117 Days with estrogen pills.  I think this would just cheapen the experience and make it into a sideshow act to be enjoyed only until I revert to my normal reading programming.  Should I just try and work in those authors I have been meaning to read all along?  I have The Lacuna, Rivka Galchen, Elise Blackwell, and Lorrie Moore sitting on a shelf, ready to go, but have just not pulled the trigger for some reason.

I am going to start reading the ladies as soon as I'm finished with the Franzen - either Gate at the Stairs or Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen perhaps - but I'm open to suggestions on how to proceed.  Should I go the gimmicky, "one-month of women" route?  Or should I just buck up, be a man, and read some books written by women?

PS: I'm not alone in this regard, of course - just last month, Chris Jackson, editor at Random House, wrote this piece for the Atlantic.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

David Mitchell, Snubbed Again

I arrived at work this morning to learn that David Mitchell's novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet has been left off of the 2010 Man Booker Prize shortlist.  I must admit, I never considered this a possibility.  Mitchell seemed to be in line for, at the very least, another shortlist nod, if not that elusive win.  I remain flabbergasted.

After nominating 13 titles for the "longlist" every August, the panel trims things down to a final six in September - here is the 2010 shortlist:

Peter Carey - Parrot and Olivier in America
Emma Donoghue - Room
Damon Galgut - In a Strange Room
Howard Jacobson - The Finkler Question
Andrea Levy - The Long Song
Tom McCarthy - C

Now, I would never want to take anything away from the actual finalists (especially not having read any of them), but it is my firm belief that Mitchell's novel belongs in their company.  I would not presume to demand that his novel be the winner of the Prize - that would be absurd, but I do think it was well-written enough to merit its inclusion in the final six.  My rational?  It made the longlist - as 4 of Mitchell's previous 5 novels have - and was - almost universally - considered the favorite to win.  Is this a snub for the sake of popularity?  The other "favorite," The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, was generating significant buzz (not to mention sales) and was also left off of the shortlist.  I assume that the decision of who makes the shortlist was made long ago, but how can we be sure it wasn't made last night?

Strangely though, I saw no other articles this morning complaining about the Mitchell snub - am I alone in this?  Am I taking this personally?

Peter Carey is in line to become the first 3-time winner of the Booker - although, if I were him, I wouldn't hold my breath.  This year's chair of the Booker committee, Andrew Motion has said, in reference to Carey, that "it's like being alive at the same time as Dickens."  God, really?!  That seems like a mouthful.  Could this just be a kindness thrown Carey's way before yanking that third Booker away from him?  I'm thinking that the smart money is on Emma Donoghue, but what the hell do I know?

One last thing: here's the info from the Booker site on this year's panel:
Chaired by Andrew Motion, former Poet Laureate; Rosie Blau, Literary Editor of the Financial Times; Deborah Bull, formerly a dancer, now Creative Director of the Royal Opera House as well as a writer and broadcaster; Tom Sutcliffe, journalist, broadcaster and author and Frances Wilson, biographer and critic.
Are these the most qualified people to decide which novel deserves the highest fiction award in the UK?  I have no idea, but a former dancer?  Really?

I hereby denounce the Booker Prize as a faded star, a former relevant prize now designated for the scrap heaps of literary awards.  By denying the fact that Mitchell's book deserves placement among the top six novels of 2010 and by not having any novelists or legitimate book critics on the judging panel, they have proven that the Prize no longer has any relevance in the literary world at large.  I dismiss you, Booker, at least until you get it right.

So yes, I am taking it personally.

Friday, September 03, 2010

A Friday Recommendation

I read the novel Far Bright Star by Robert Olmstead last week & feel like recommending it to you, gentle reader.  I'm phoning it in a bit here by posting my "Warwick's Staff Recommendation" in lieu of a full-on review, though.  It's Friday evening, I'm tired, and I just cracked my first brew, so lay off.  But before you do, you should check this little novel out.

"A compact, powerful, & moving little book set in 1916 in Mexico – a fascinating, transitional time between of the “last of the horse soldiers” and the dawn of the mechanical age. Napoleon & his brother Xenophon are aging soldiers in the US Army, tasked with leading an expedition into Mexico to find Pancho Villa & make him pay for attacking an American city the previous year. Easier said than done. Olmstead writes of the foolishness of men, the parched earth and the star-filled skies, and a world on the brink of an unheard-of global conflict with a tension-filled compactness ala Cormac McCarthy. A surprisingly smart & introspective little novel."

This bit yanked from its pages seems fitting for Labor Day weekend & the fading summer we never saw here in southern California:
Soon it would be autumn.  He thought autumn light old light and come from far away.  It was light that was bright and sorrowful and dense and galvanic.  It lacquered the world with its brilliance and increased by day, and when the sun set down it left you tired, cold and wanting.

You may purchase this item from your local independent bookshop: 

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Tonight's Homework: Coke is it!

It is a far, far better thing...
This complete and utter madness was brought to my attention this afternoon: the Sweetwater (California) Union school district (south of San Diego) has decided to remove the reading of classic literature from their English department curriculum in favor of a so-called "rhetorical approach" involving "expository, analytical and argumentative writing."  

The new approach eschews reading books in the manner than you and I remember - whether slogging through Wuthering Heights in 9th grade or having your eyes opened by Aldous Huxley - in favor of reading and analyzing "newspaper editorials, historic documents, advertisements and some nonfiction" which the district hopes will steer students toward improved argumentative and expository writing.

While the approach may be a noble attempt to prepare students for the critical thinking and analysis required in college level course work and beyond, removing the reading of literature - "classic" or otherwise - from the classroom is terrifying to me.  This is a quote taken from the San Diego Union-Tribune (which recently dumbed itself down & out of the conversation by re-branding itself as the San Diego U-T, but that's another story) by Glen McClish, a writing professor in the Sweetwater district:
“The idea is to prepare students to be able to read and respond to a wider variety of text. This is not to denigrate literature by any means. You don’t need to equip most high school students with a thorough command of English literature. If they have the reading ability, they can read more later. For most students, what’s really most important for their participation in college, life and work is basic literacy and critical thinking skills that allow them to read and write and understand, so they can join the conversation.”
"They can read more later."  This is from a writing professor!  What student, if not introduced to Steinbeck or Salinger or Austen or Vonnegut as a 15-year-old is ever going to just pick it up later?  Is not the issue being addressed that of general literacy, for isn't that what reading comprehension is all about?  So how is removing well-written novels from the syllabus the best answer for that?  What baffles me is that these teachers and this school district have so little faith in the cognitive abilities of their exiting students that they feel the need to streamline their curriculum to avoid literature, yet they somehow believe that those same students will have the wherewithal and the general worldly knowledge to gravitate to The Great Gatsby when they're 23.

I understand the aim here, I really do.  The kids are struggling with writing and comprehension skills once they move on in life - even beyond college.  This struggle is, of course, reflected in the standardized test scores for the district, which has become what it's all about these days.  (Even more alarming is that 58% of incoming SDSU students from the Sweetwater district were channelled into remedial English for their freshman year.)  Yet, is this really reason to remove a fundamental, developmental exercise like reading a piece of classic literature?  Can't there be room in the English department for both Fahrenheit 451 and an analytical study of the editorial page of the...(shudder)...U-T?  

To me, understanding both is critical to the development of the young, cognitive mind.  It frightens me to think that we're facing a new generation of Americans who have never read a book in a class.