Where People Talk about Books

The other week, the first Future of Reading conference took place at the Rochester Institute of Technology. It was a fantastic few days, very interesting, with a range of great speakers. Rather than summarize each panel or person, I want to try and explore a few of the topics that came up. A lot of these posts will be simply referencing and pulling together some of the ideas and/or articles/books that came up, but hopefully it’ll lead somewhere sorta interesting.

In the same issue of Wired that included an excerpt from Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which basically argues that the Internet has rewired our minds, there’s also an interesting conversation between Clay Shirky (author of Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age) and Daniel Pink (author of Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us) about the idea of cognitive surplus and how the interactivity of the digital age is allowing us to accomplish a lot more than ever before. Here are a few excerpts:

Shirky: People have had lots of free time for as long as there’s been the industrialized world. But that free time has mainly been something to be used up rather than used, especially in postwar America, with the rise of suburbanization and long commutes. Suddenly we no longer lived in tight-knit communities and therefore we spent less time interacting face-to-face. As a result, we ended up spending the bulk of our free time watching television.

Pink: The numbers on that are astonishing.

Shirky: Staggering. Someone born in 1960 has watched something like 50,000 hours of television already. Fifty thousand hours—more than five and half solid years. [. . .]

Pink: Any sense of how much of that giant block of free time is being redirected?

Shirky: We’re still in the very early days. So far, it’s largely young people who are exploring the alternatives, but already they are having a huge impact. We can do a back-of-the-envelope calculation, for example, using Wikipedia, to see how far we still have to go. All the articles, edits, and arguments about articles and edits represent around 100 million hours of human labor. That’s a lot of time. But remember: Americans watch about 200 billion hours of TV every year.

I still need to get a copy of Shirky’s new book, but one of the main ideas seems to be, that today’s technologies (smartphones, laptops, etc.) are not just consuming devices (a la TV), but also devices that make us producers. And rather than simply sitting there passive and consuming media, we tweet, Facebook, e-mail, text, interact “socially” in all sorts of mediated ways that nevertheless are interactions.

Back in the day—and good god, do I mean back in the day . . . I’m exactly 5 days away from my 10 year anniversary working in publishing . . . and I forgot to ice my Achilles last night, so I’m limping again like an old man—I used to work in independent bookstores and loved giving and receiving book recommendations from other booksellers, from reps, from hardcore readers. I found about Dalkey Archive Press this way, about the NYRB reissue of Julio Cortazar’s The Winners, about the Oulipo. It was face-to-face, reader-to-reader, booklover-to-booklover stuff.

But nowadays, that doesn’t work so well. Not just because of my desertion of the retail side of things to spend all my time, well, marketing and doing sales and p.r., but because of the decline in the number of really excellent independent bookstores. Well documented, but over the past few years, Cody’s has closed, Shaman Drum, etc. etc. And here in Rochester, we don’t have a single indie—just a few B&Ns and Borders. Which is fine, fine, they carry a lot of books, host readings, etc., etc., but these stores aren’t necessarily set-up to foster discussions between clerk and customer.

Frequently, these bookseller/readers found out about various titles both via this word-of-mouth network, but also from all the various newspapers and book reviews they were reading. I worked in bookstores after the true heyday of newspaper book review sections, but nevertheless, the scene was much better than it is now.

This is all widely known and reported on, but I really want to draw special attention to John Palatella’s The Death and Life of the Book Review, which appeared in the June 21st issue of The Nation. John’s brilliant and over his two (three?) year tenure as book review editor of The Nation, he’s continued in the line of great Nation book review editors before him (including Adam Shatz), and has helped The Nation remain one of the best book review sources out there. Pieces are long, in depth, fascinating, written by excellent reviewers (like Joanna Scott and Marcela Valdes), are very well edited, and often focus on fascinating international authors (like Juan Carlos Onetti). The Nation does everything a weekly book review section should do. (Unfortunately, the subscription department managed to cancel my subscription after three issues, but whatever, databases are only as perfect as computers.)

I highly recommend reading the essay above. Even if you already know the basics of the situation, this is incredibly informative, well-written, and comprehensive. Lot of good bits to choose from . . . The part that most struck me was this bit about the anti-intellectual edge to newspapers that underlies all the decisions to cut the number of pages devoted to book coverage:

It’s necessary to explain these broad economic trends to understand a crucial and overlooked point—namely, that it is disingenuous for newspaper executives to justify the elimination or reduction of the book beat by claiming that books sections don’t turn a profit. Undeniably, the executives’ math is correct. A newspaper books section, if one were to total up its costs, loses money. But does not the sports section or the metro section? Yet of all the sections that fail to turn a profit on their own, it’s the books section that is most often killed or pinched. Claims that books sections are eliminated or downsized because they can’t earn their keep are bogus. It is indisputable that newspapers have been weakened by hard times and a major technological shift in the dissemination of news; it is not indisputable that newspaper books coverage has suffered for the same reasons. The book beat has been gutted primarily by cultural forces, not economic ones, and the most implacable of those forces lies within rather than outside the newsroom. It is not iPads or the Internet but the anti-intellectual ethos of newspapers themselves.

“Anti-intellectual” is a hefty allegation, but bear with me as I substantiate it with a few stories from the newsroom and observations about the response of newspaper books sections to some important publishing trends of the past several decades. First, a definition. In a news context, “anti-intellectual” does not necessarily mean an antipathy to ideas, though it can be that too. I use the word “anti-intellectual” to describe a suspicion of ideas not gleaned from reporting and a lack of interest in ideas that are not utterly topical.

In 1999 Steve Wasserman was three years into his tenure as the editor of The Los Angeles Times Book Review, and that July he published a review of Richard Howard’s new translation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma. The reason was simple: Howard is among the best translators of French literature. As Wasserman explained several years ago in a memoir of his days at the Los Angeles Times published in the Columbia Journalism Review, the review of the book, written by Edmund White, was stylish and laudatory. The Monday after the piece ran, the paper’s editor summoned Wasserman to his office and admonished him for running an article about “another dead, white, European male.” But the paper’s readers in Los Angeles thought otherwise. Soon after the review appeared, local sales of the book took off; national sales did too when other publications reviewed the book. The New Yorker ended up printing a “Talk of the Town” item that traced the book’s unexpected success to The Los Angeles Times Book Review. In his memoir, Wasserman relates a similar story about Carlin Romano, then the books critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer, who was scolded by an editor for running as the cover story of his section a review of a new translation of Tirant Lo Blanc, a Catalan epic beloved by Cervantes. “Have you gone crazy?” the editor asked. “Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of America’s newspapers in the 1990s,” Romano reflected, “is their hostility to reading in all forms.”

This is scary shit.

So we no longer have book reviews in papers, never really have on TV (Oprah excepted, but using the words Oprah and book review in the same sentence feels uncomfortable), and overly-well-read and talkative booksellers are going the way of Amazon.com and whatever . . . But yet, according to Shirky, we’ve redirected our free time into creative endeavors—many of which reflect the new state of reading in which we spend a lot of time in the world of links and info nuggets and skimming and over-sharing. And for most people of my generation, this is just the new normal. We still love books—the joy that the “long-form narrative” brings to our lives hasn’t changed, it’s just been supplemented with infinite amounts of information that can be gotten in a seemingly endless variety of modes. From the ironic and charming Facebook update to the overly exuberant and bewildering tweet (Thanks!!! So funny! RT @rachweiss http://bit.ly/bZJ8kJ).

So. A few weeks back, I was scrolling through my daily update of books read, reviewed, marked to read, etc. by my GoodReads friends. Every day I receive this e-mail, every day I at least scroll through to see what all the cool kids are reading. On this particular day, Jeff Waxman—Three Percent contributor, bookseller at 57th St. Books in Chicago, all around great guy—gave 5 stars to Albert Cossery’s The Jokers, which is forthcoming from NYRB and translated by the French by fellow Facebook friend Anna Moschovakis.

Although this book is listed in our Translation Database, I had never heard of Cossery and whenever I entered the data, it didn’t make much of an impression. Ah well. There’s data entry that’s exploratory and exciting and then there’s data entry. I marked The Jokers as a book “to read” and moved on.

The following day, same e-mail comes from GoodReads. This time, Tosh Berman—excellent publisher of Boris Vian and others via TamTam Books, bookseller at Book Soup in L.A.—gives 5 stars to Albert Cossery’s A Splendid Conspiracy, which had just come out from New Directions.

More curious than ever about this elusive Cossery character, I again marked this “to read” and went on my way, which, on this particular day included going for a walk in the forest with my kids. Now, while they were safely jumping off of various things (same things I would eventually bust my Achilles tendon on trying to perform the same jumps), I was checking Facebook on my phone. And because I had linked GoodReads to Facebook, all of the recent books I had marked “to read” had popped up on my news feed. And not surprisingly, Cossery had caught the eye of another friend, one who went through the trouble of researching him on Wikipedia and posting info about this author “devoted to a philosophy of laziness” on my “Wall.”

Now more than intrigued, but stuck in a forest, I checked to see if I could buy the Kindle version. No such luck. But, according to bn.com, copies of A Splendid Conspiracy were available at the local store. So I corralled the kids, took off, bought the book, and read it over the next three days—something that never would’ve happened in the pre-information overload of my life days.

So what does that all add up to? God only knows. And I know none of this is particularly new, but hell, if you’ve read this far, maybe the one thing I want to really say is that you should rush out and buy a book by Albert Cossery. Who will get his own post(s) in the near future. Which I’ll tweet about. And try and get his name into the flood of information readers read to figure out what to read.

Coda: So I finished A Splendid Conspiracy while doing my laundry. Bored, with about 45 minutes left for things to dry, I headed over to Tapas 177, the local bar that I frequent maybe a little too much. It was a Monday, it was pretty empty, it was as pleasant and wine-soaked as it always is. As I sat there drinking my glass of wine and spinning my book around, I overheard the two youngish women next to me mutter something about a book . . . Assuming they were making fun of me or about to—it’s not that I’m overly paranoid, but outside of the universities, Rochester can be a bit anti-intellectual—I was thinking about how odd it is to carry books around to bars, or rather how odd it is that it would be thought of as odd to carry a book into a bar when one of the girls suddenly asked what I was reading. I gave a silly spiel about Cossery, his belief in laziness, about how the book is about a Cossery-like character who left Egypt for France to study, but ended up spending all his time chasing tail and boozing. He’s called back to Egypt by his father though, and is initially super-depressed about being stuck in such a crappy little town until he stumbles upon a small group of like-minded libertines who stumble upon a mystery involving the sudden disappearance of a lot of wealthy men . . .

All of this appealed to one of the two girls. She became very interested in Cossery, and I gave her the book. (After moving for the ten millionth time, I’ve decided to give away and and all books at any and all moments of time. They should flow like water.) And so an electronic recommendation became one of the best reads of recent times became a chance for an actual real-life social interaction and a word-of-mouth recommendation.

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