Monday, December 17, 2007

Someone else agrees

Here is another post on why Jonathan Franzen is completely wrong and annoyingly high-brow about ebooks.

Jonathan Franzen hates technology

Ok, maybe that is taking it a bit too far, but he clearly opposes the mingling of books and technology. I guess he doesn't want publishers, booksellers, and authors to make more money. He also doesn't want more people to read. In the LA Times last week, Franzen tried to develop an argument against ebooks:

"People who care about literature care about substance and permanence. The essence of electronics is mutability and transience. I can see travel guides and Michael Crighton novels translating into pixels easily enough. But the person who cares about Kafka wants Kafka unerasable. [...] Yes, in theory, words are words, but literature isn't data. The difference between Shakespeare on a BlackBerry and Shakespeare in the Arden edition is like the difference between vows taken in a shoe store and vows taken in a cathedral."

Well this is just ridiculous, for the following reasons:

1) Just because something is electronic doesn't make it anymore lasting than words in a book. If a piece of writing is deemed worthy of permanence in our society, it will naturally be preserved through reprints and reproductions, regardless of where the original text came from. Original texts from Shakespeare? Missing. Yet we still read his works because society as a whole has bought in to the idea that his plays and poems are worth reading. Is Jonathan Franzen worried that his own work might not stand the test of time?

2) Where is Franzen drawing the line between books that are acceptable to read electronically and ones we absolutely must read in print? Apparently he is proposing that we make some kind of distinction and prevent "literature" from being distributed and read in electronic formats. Clearly his own books must be preserved in print only.

3) Who cares how someone reads Shakespeare? With competition like Perez Hilton and YouTube out there, we're lucky anybody still cares enough to read him! Isn't it better to have more people reading through a variety of media rather than a few people reading printed books?

4) Franzen said himself, "words are words." Well, I don't really see how you can argue against that. We absorb the information the same way. Shakespeare takes your breath away even on a screen. "The world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch" (Shakespeare, Othello, I, iii). Admittedly, I got a few goosebumps reading quotations online while looking for this one. Words work no matter how you read them.

5) We should expand, rather than limit, the ways people can read. Just because one person prefers dusty tomes over BlackBerry ebooks doesn't mean another person might prefer the ebook. Give them their books!

Jonathan, would it really be that offensive to you if someone read The Corrections on a Kindle?

Sleeper Hit of 2007

This season's unexpected hit has to be The Rest is Just Noise by Alex Ross. By New York Times music critic, this book investigates tracks common sounds throughout twentieth century music and how different genres are related to one another. Despite the high level of musical analysis, Ross's book is ultimately quite readable for music enthusiasts and average readers. This book is one of the NY Times "10 Best Books of 2007" (egregious self-promotion) and number 8 on Amazon.com's "Best of 2007" list.

Preliminary investigation reveals that this book is already difficult to get. Two B&N locations in the NYC area are out of stock, and Amazon.com sold out, too. More copies will be available on December 20. Same for Borders. Books-a-Million is out of stock with no word on when they will get more. On Powells.com, only the audio version is available. Barnes & Noble seems to be the only place to get this book of the big online retailers. Good luck, intrepid shoppers!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Sad sales number

The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz has consistently topped the "best of 2007" book lists, and book reviewers practically fell over themselves with joy at this book's literary quality and readability. However, according to AP's Hillel Italie, the book has only sold 27,000 copies to date.

In addition to confirming the decreasing popularity of literary fiction, it seems to suggest that the average reader does not read book reviews, or that they do not follow reviewer recommendations when buying books. Are we screaming into the void, or what?

Friday, December 7, 2007

Dept. of Gross

During a discussion about Ancient Greece squabble show The View, co-host Sherri Shepherd asserted that nothing predates Christianity and that "Jesus came before [the Ancient Greeks]." You can't use scientific facts to argue with people like this. For example, stanch evolutionists might tell you that dinosaurs have been fabricated by the scientific community to refute God's Truth, or something like that. They might tell you that humanity cannot possibly understand God's plan and that things like carbon dating are our feeble and incorrect attempt to understand an impossibly complex world.

Ok, but even die-hard Christians who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible have to admit that Judaism came before Christianity. Shepherd can't even get that right! Way to give ignorance a bad name, Sherri.

Best Translations of 2007

Get ready to revise your holiday shopping lists. Books are good presents, and these are some good books. From Three Percent, here is an end-of-the-year list of the best translations:

  • How I Became a Nun by Cesar Aira, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (New Directions)
  • Amulet by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (New Directions)
  • The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (FSG)
  • Christ versus Arizona by Camilo Jose Cela, translated from the Spanish by Martin Sokolinsky (Dalkey Archive Press)
  • Autonauts of the Cosmoroute by Julio Cortazar, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean (Archipelago)
  • Ravel by Jean Echenoz, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (New Press)
  • Guantanamo by Dorothea Dieckmann, translated from the German by Tim Mohr (Soft Skull)
  • The Little Girl and the Cigarette by Benoit Duteurtre, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (Melville House)
  • The Collected Poems: 1956-1998 by Zbigniew Herbert, translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz, Peter Dale Scott, and Alissa Valles (Ecco)
  • Today I Wrote Nothing by Daniil Kharms, translated from the Russian by Matvei Yankelevich (Overlook)
  • Sunflower by Gyula Krudy, translated from the Hungarian by John Batki (New York Review Books)
  • Montano’s Malady by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated from the Spanish by Jonathan Dunne (New Directions)
  • The Flying Camel and the Golden Hump by Aharon Megged, translated from the Hebrew by Vivian Eden (Toby Press)
  • In Her Absence by Antonio Munoz Molina, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (Other Press)
  • Day In Day Out by Terezia Mora, translated from the German by Michael Henry Heim (HarperCollins)
  • Lost Paradise by Cees Nooteboom, translated from the Dutch by Susan Massotty (Harcourt Inc.)
  • The Unforeseen by Christian Oster, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter (Other Press)
  • Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born (Graywolf Press)
  • Ice by Vladimir Sorokin, translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell (New York Review Books)
  • The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition by Cesar Vallejo, translated from the Spanish by Clayton Eshleman (Univ. of California Press)
  • The Assistant by Robert Walser, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)
  • I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Young-ha Kim, translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim (Harcourt Inc.)

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Free Book Freak-out

I decided to jump on the bandwagon and address an issue that all the cool lit blog kids are writing about. Galley Cat picked up on the Literary Saloon post and Scott Esposito's post about Chad Post's original post about giving book away. [Insert gasp of disbelief here] This is the original quote that sparked the storm:
The core of this idea can be extracted from the commercial marketplace and actually be evidenced in the world of nonprofits. Most nonprofit presses receive funding from the government (state and federal), from private donors, from foundations, with the goal of offsetting the losses that almost always occur when publishing literary fiction. And in the nonprofit world, we usually don’t talk as much about sales as we do about reaching readers, about finding a way to cultivate an audience for a book or author outside of the traditional marketplace model. So the idea of someone underwriting a book that’s truly just given away isn’t all that crazy . . . and would probably “only” cost $35,000 or so, depending on how many you wanted to give away.

Note the phrase "would probably 'only' cost $35,000 or so." Let's dust off our close reading skills from college here, paying careful attention to Chad's use of quotation marks, to uncover the real meaning. By highlighting the word "only" with quotation marks, Chad flags this word as sarcastic. Thus we can assume he believes $35,000 to be a significant amount of money, too much money to lose. While the rest of his arguments in the paragraph are valid observations of the publishing business, I do not think we can really read this as an earnest suggestion that nonprofit publishers actually give books away.

My two cents? Good job to everyone who responded to Chad's idea with thoughtful consideration because there have to be more ways of making money and funding literary publishing than what we have going right now. Maybe nonprofits should pull a Radiohead and offer pay-what-you-want ebooks of their new releases.

Amazon Kindle already out of stock

That's right, the Kindle is out of stock just in time for the holiday rush. It is that cool and great that more people want one than Amazon anticipated (or maybe Amazon played a marketing trick on us all by using the ol' econ lesson of less supply=more demand, those sly dogs).

Just so we're clear, I am pro-Kindle. I am pro-digitization. Since Amazon released Kindle in November, a litany of blog posts and news articles have swamped my Google Reader on the subject, commenting on everything from the hideous design to the relevancy of such a device among modern readers. Unfortunately, I can't argue that Kindle isn't ugly and expensive, but I disagree with the traditionalist readers out there that e-books are unnecessary and even potentially harmful to the book business. The digital wave has already washed over the economy, and because publishing has not successfully fought off its own technophobia, the industry isn't making as much money as it could (and everyone is underpaid for what they do).

E-books are not required, and they will not replace print books any time soon. What they do is represent another format for reading. I don't understand why people are so afraid of this. If you don't want an e-book reader, don't buy one. Let me address some of the typical arguments against digital books.

1) The book format is already ideal. Ok this is true, but e-books are not meant to completely replace the p-book, but rather provide an alternate format design for speed and convenience. You can still purchase those very special and sentimental tomes in print, then download a little light reading or reference manual. E and P can coexist in publishing, people!

2) Piracy will cause publishers and authors to lose money. Umm, has it occurred to anyone who makes this argument that piracy already exists among p-book readers? Once you buy a book, you have free reign to copy it, loan it to all your friends, whatever. If you buy an audio book on a CD, you can email the files to people, burn them onto new CDs, and share them online. How is an e-book any different? Just because there is no physical form backing up the file doesn't mean it will be a beacon to people looking to rip publishers off. We all saw the music industry fall to its knees because of piracy, but we should also acknowledge that the audience for e-books is somewhat different than MP3 users. Can you really imagine college kids pirating e-books in their dorms at 2 am?

3) Nobody will pay that much for a device that doesn't do anything else. The Kindle is the just first step. It is ugly and expensive, but Amazon got a few things right. They are going to pay for your internet connection so you can painlessly buy and download books. Like iTunes, Amazon understands that if it is easier to buy a file than to steal it, most people will buy it. Wait a year or two. I predict that the Kindle will be sleek, reasonably priced, and popular.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Pardon...

...me for my long absence from blogging. Let's call it a mental lapse (or a tropical vacation).

...the Washington Post's book editor Michael Dirda and the egregious self-promotion of his book Classics for Pleasure, which coincidentally ended up on the Washington Post's Best Books of 2007 list.