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Friday
Apr202018

'The Best Way to Tell the Story'

On Monday, I read that during the London Book Fair's Quantum Conference, Hachette U.K. CEO David Shelley said he was "optimistic" about "people's relationship with paper" and the trend of younger generations gravitating back toward paper, along with the resurgence of independent booksellers. "If you look at what consumers are saying they want from us, they're not saying they want interactive e-books," he observed. "What consumers are saying that they want from us are really, really beautiful books."

That's true... and heartening. I'm one of those people described above who have a lasting "relationship with paper." I'd guess you are, too. It is only a slight exaggeration to say: "Books are my life." But I'm also intrigued by other voices out there. No, this isn't a ghost story, though there is a ghost story coming up if you read just a little further.

On Tuesday, I read an interview with "applied futurist" Tom Cheesewright, who contends that e-book sales statistics "are completely wrong--they only take account of established publishers, so it's measuring the wrong thing. As I say, technology breeds diversity, and that includes diversity of publishing models as well as diversity of formats." The next question posed to him was about the future of bookshops, and he was optimistic, in a futurist kind of way: "Machines remain really bad at giving us a good discovery experience."

So... that's a consolation.

On Wednesday, I read Kate Pullinger's story "Breathe" on my iPhone. It was produced in association with the Ambient Literature project, which launched in 2016 to "investigate the locational and technological future of the book. The project is focused on the study of emergent forms of literature that make use of novel technologies and social practices in order to create robust and evocative experiences for readers."

"I plan to write a ghost story to be experienced in a bedroom in a city--any bedroom, in any city," Pullinger had noted in the Bookseller when the Ambient Literature project began. And she did just that, later describing "Breathe" as "a literary experience delivered through your smartphone that responds to your presence by internalizing the world around you. Using APIs--application programming interfaces--the story leverages data about you, including place, weather, time, in order to create an experience that is personal and uncanny."

In a recent blog post, Tom Abba wrote: "Ambient Literature has been an extended conversation about storytelling, situation, audience, presence and much much more." During this year's Hay Festival, his group will be running workshops, hosting a panel discussion and making a new piece of work--"Words We Never Wrote"--that will premiere there and "explores the meaning of writing, language, and storytelling. I'm incredibly proud of this piece--it asks questions about linearity and form, art and suggestion that I've been aching to address for years."

Ambient Literature is one of many ways to answer the eternal storytelling prompt: "What if?" As a reader, former bookseller, working member of the book trade, and person "of a certain age," I am as devoted to the traditional book as I've always been. I have never become an e-book guy, but I am intrigued by alternative ways in which stories can be told using technology.

In 2016, the same year Ambient Literature launched, I saw Simon McBurney's stage production The Encounter in New York (It has just opened in London to begin a European tour). You could say that the production is "based on" Petru Popescu's book Amazon Beaming, which chronicles the head-spinning 1969 journey by National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre into a remote area of Brazil, where he became lost and literally/figuratively blew his mind.

You could say it was about that, but it becomes so much more when filtered through McBurney's imagination. He explains it better than I ever could here, and here, and here. I sat in a sold-out Broadway theater, wearing headphones like everyone else in the audience, and became part of this incredible act of storytelling. Safer than being lost in the Amazon jungle, but mind-blowing nonetheless (trailer).

On Thursday, I read an interview with Gareth Fry, a member of The Encounter's sound design team, who said: "Simon was given the book about 20 years ago and he spent a long time mulling over how to do it. He did some workshops before I came on board and began to think about the story's epic scale, its claustrophobia and its characters. That the audience wear headphones is something that evolved out of that process of trying to find the best way to tell the story." (McBurney's take on storytelling).

That's it, really--"the best way to tell the story." Printed books have always done the job flawlessly for me, and still do every day. But there are stories that can be told in other ways. Kate Pullinger's "Breathe" is one; The Encounter another. While e-books themselves don't interest me, I'm fascinated by the technological exploration of "What if?" Ultimately, I think the best way to tell a story depends upon who the storyteller is.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3232

Friday
Apr132018

Libraries of Future Past

"We are still chasing those magical, fractal, visceral encounters with real libraries of real books." --Stuart Kells, in a Paris Review blog post titled "The Strange Magic of Libraries"

It's National Library Week, which has somehow reminded me of the 1975 film Rollerball, set in "the not too distant future" of 2018. Based on William Harrison's short story "The Rollerball Murders," the movie features a pair of library scenes that have stayed with me for more than four decades.

Rollerball imagines a corporate-controlled world in which the human instincts for competition and violence are tightly wrapped up in a single, deadly spectator sport designed to illustrate the futility of individual effort. In his New York Times review, Vincent Canby snarled: "If a man's science‐fiction is a measure of his imagination, then Rollerball suggests that Norman Jewison's is about the size of a six‐pack of beer and a large bag of pretzels."

Rollerball superstar Jonathan E. (James Caan) has probably never read the Canby archives, but he has been infected with a potentially fatal virus--curiosity. Confronting forced retirement, he begins to wonder how the hell his world got to this point. It's an unexpected moment of introspection from an otherwise action-oriented guy and propels him down a dangerous path, which just happens to include a couple of library visits.

At his local "library," he encounters a vacant-eyed Circulation Unit clerk:

Jonathan: Yeah. I tried to order some books and they sent me this notice that I had to appear here at the center personally.
Clerk: That's right. This is our circulation unit. You can make your choice here or by catalogue. There must be some mistake. The books you've ordered are classified and have been transcribed and summarized.
J: Who summarized them?
C: I suppose the computer summarized them.
Moonpie (friend & teammate): What do you need books for?
J: I just want to study up on some things.
C: You could go to the computer center where the real librarians transcribe the books, but we have all the edited versions in our catalog, anything I think you'd want.
J: Well, let's see then. This is not a library, and you're really not a librarian.
C: I'm only a clerk, that's right. I'm sorry about it, really.
J: And the books are really in computer banks being summarized. Where is that?
C: There's a computer bank in Washington. The biggest is in Geneva. That's a nice place to visit. I guess that's where all the books are now.

My Rollerball flashback may also have been sparked by the release of HBO's official trailer for Fahrenheit 451 (recurrent theme: bad times for book people in the future). In an interview with Deadline, director Ramin Bahrani said that when Ray Bradbury wrote his novel in the 1950s, it was set in the distant future, and today people can read books on a "super computer in your pocket.... It's not hard to control what is on the Internet given that things are so centralized.... Bradbury said we asked for this. We asked for things to become this way.... We've turned it all over to Google, Facebook and the government. We decided we don't want to have any part in that. We've willingly given it up."

I kept reading... on my computer.

In Holland last year, the Charles Nypels Laboratory made a heat-sensitive edition of Fahrenheit 451, featuring pages that "are covered in what appears to be a soot-black, screen-printed layer. Words are only revealed when a high temperature is applied."

The Ambient Literature Project was established in 2016 "to investigate the locational and technological future of the book." In the Bookseller, Tom Abba observed: "The authorial address of The Cartographer's Confession, in which an unreliable narratorial voice from thirty years ago merges with the city around you in 2018 has specific registers, ways of linking place to voice to personal experience. That the ghosts in Breathe break down the fourth wall of the reading experience is a particularly subtle use of API data, designed to unnerve each reader."

In Rollerball, a bewildered Jonathan E. travels to Geneva in search of the "real books." He meets an elderly librarian/programmer (Ralph Richardson).

J: What about the books?
L: Books, books, oh no, they're all changed, all transcribed. All information is here. We've Zero, of course. He's the central brain, the world's brain. Fluid mechanics, fluidics. He's liquid, you see. His borders touch all knowledge. Everything we ask has become so complicated now. Each thing we ask. This morning we wanted to know something about the 13th century. It flows out into all our storage systems. He considers everything. He's become so ambiguous now. As if he knows nothing at all."

In the introduction to my copy of Fahrenheit 451, Neil Gaiman writes that once upon a time, Bradbury crafted "The Fireman," a short story that "demanded to be longer. The world he had created demanded more. He went to UCLA's Powell Library. In the basement were typewriters you could rent by the hour, by putting coins into a box on the side of the typewriter. Ray Bradbury put his money into the box and typed his story. When inspiration flagged, when he needed a boost, when he wanted to stretch his legs, he would walk through the library and look at the books."

Despite dire predictions--real as well as fictional--the libraries of my past, present and future still inspire "magical, fractal, visceral encounters." I'm glad they do.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3227

Friday
Apr062018

Canadian National Poetry Month... by the Numbers

Can poetry be a numbers game? Sure. Why not? Let's start with the number 20. This year marks two decades since the League of Canadian Poets held its inaugural National Poetry Month "to celebrate poetry and its vital place in Canada's culture." The Academy of American Poets launched the first NPM in the U.S. in 1996.

For 2018, the LCP is "letting you take center stage this year to celebrate National Poetry Month in ways that are meaningful to you! We will be sharing some contents, lists, and recommendations, but more than anything we can't wait to see what Canada's biggest poetry fans will celebrate this April. What will you read? What events will you organize, attend? Will you start your own poetry writing project? Will you write your first poem? Will you share your poetry on stage for the first time?"

By my calculation, poetry readers matter as much as poets do, though the theory may be tempered slightly by my personal history as a bad poet, if good reader, of poems. Nonetheless, I value the chance to discover poets I haven't read before, and Poetry Month increases those odds and opportunities.

The Star, for example, recommended "new books to kick of National Poetry Month"; and 49th Shelf "decided to go back in time 20 years to 1998 and remember some of the outstanding poetry releases of that year. We've highlighted the winners of some of Canada’s most notable poetry prizes from 1998 and we are so excited to fall in love with these works--again--with you."

There is also poetry in statistics, as Mary Cornish (who wasn't Canadian, unfortunately) explored in her poem "Numbers." It begins:

I like the generosity of numbers.
The way, for example,
they are willing to count
anything or anyone:
two pickles, one door to the room,
eight dancers dressed as swans.

In Canada, the writing and reading of poetry appears to be good business for some. BookNet Canada's The Canadian Book Market 2017 reported that for the second year in a row, unit sales in the poetry category increased significantly, led by Canadian poet Rupi Kaur. Her book The Sun and Her Flowers sold the second-most in Canada in terms of volume in 2017, while her debut collection, Milk and Honey, continued to perform well.

Poetry sales increased 79% in 2016 compared to 2015, and between 2016 and 2017 units sold increased by another 154%. During poetry's slowest week in 2017, 3,907 books were sold, while the slowest week in 2016 generated only 1,715 book sales. The category represented more than 1% of all print unit sales in Canada last year, compared to 0.4% of the market in 2016.

On BookNet Canada's blog, Kira Harkonen offered perspective in a post headlined "#NationalPoetryMonth: Rupi is the new Rumi":

"We are in the midst of a poetry renaissance, and it's all thanks to the Internet," she wrote. In 2015, at the age of 22, Kaur published Milk and Honey. "Her poetry debut took the Internet and the publishing world by storm. She and other so-called Instapoets, such as Lang Leav, Nayyirah Waheed, Warsan Shire, Tyler Knott Gregson, and r.h. Sin took over bookstores everywhere, largely thanks to social media. In a world of 140 characters or less, these poets are finding a way to be heard."

According to The Canadian Book Market 2017, 93.45% of poetry books sold in 2017 were paperbacks. Of poetry books sold in this format, the top 10 were all by millennial poets. Comparing top 10 poetry book rankings since BookNet started collecting sales data in 2005 until the year before the publication of Milk and Honey (2005-2014), Harkonen observed that the "so-called Instapoets have completely knocked all literary classics from the list," adding that more traditional poets "have been bested by the powers of Instagram (for now, at least)." She also noted with pride that "Canadians love reading Canadian poetry! Hooray! Both lists are topped by notable Canadian poets: Leonard Cohen, Rupi Kaur, and Atticus."

Cohen, I suspect, would have been amused, and not displeased, to still be counted among these poets ("Thousands").

Here's a final number. On Tuesday, House of Anansi Press tweeted about the Anansi Poetry Project, "an ideas series that takes you inside the mind of a poet." This led me to another number--one. As a reader, I discover one poet at a time. What really counts during National Poetry Month, and beyond, is a simple, kind of sacred process. I didn't know Emma Healy's poetry before this week. Soon, however, I'll be reading her recently published book, stereoblind. Here's a taste:

Still, we understand the greater meaning: shards refusing to make a pattern, tiny mirror that fails to focus in small the whole of the great room. We know, too, without needing to be told that while some people might be born to be with others, others still are built to spend their nights like this, tracking a past that isn't theirs with antique, glitching equipment. Which kind are you? Stop, enhance.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3222

Friday
Mar302018

'Waiting Sharpens the Senses' in Surfing & Reading

I'm waiting for a book. Tim Winton's novel The Shepherd's Hut was released earlier this month in Australia, and will be published June 19 by FSG in the U.S. I don't have to delay the pleasure of reading one of my favorite authors. There are magic spells and secret portals in our book world through which I could acquire this title in some form, but I won't do that. Sometimes waiting is part of the process, part of the pleasure.

It's like... surfing.

In addition to being one of Australia's greatest authors, Winton is a lifelong, dedicated surfer. "Waiting sharpens the senses," he writes in Island Home: A Landscape Memoir.  On the surface of that sentence, he's contemplating the long moments spent patiently waiting to catch the right wave before springing into short-lived action. Beneath the surface, and because he's Tim Winton, there's so much more at stake. The sentence is bookended by these words:

This was how I came to understand nature and landscape. By submitting. And by waiting. Waiting sharpens the senses. Which is to say it erodes preconceptions and mutes a certain kind of mental static; the clutter and glare in the foreground recede. Immersion and duration are clarifying. While waiting for the next set, for the wind to change, or the tide to turn, I had thousands of hours in which to notice things around me.

What does surfing have to do with reading, or with me? Well, for five years in the 1980s, I was managing editor of a windsurfing trade magazine called Sailboard News. I spent more time than I would ever have previously imagined with surfers. For many of the retailers I interviewed, surfing, windsurfing and sailing were inextricably linked. Reading the water and wind was their job description. Once, flying over the West Indies, I was sitting beside two colleagues who excitedly read island wave breaks thousands of feet below us.

So it's no accident that surfing/reading analogies might bob to the surface of my brain decades later, as I think about why I sometimes choose to wait for a new book the way Winton lets the right wave to come to him.

Although I'd known this novel was on the horizon for some time, my anticipation for The Shepherd's Hut really started to build early this month as I watched a digital wave of excitement wash over Aussie booksellers on social media:

Avid Reader Bookshop, Brisbane: "It's here! Tim Winton's latest book The Shepherd's Hut has officially hit the shelves."
Pages & Pages Booksellers, Mosman: "Your weekend reading. Sorted."
Abbey's Bookshop, Sydney: "When you enter #abbeysbookshop #131york #sydney this is what you're looking for. NEW TIM WINTON."
Fairfield Books, Fairfield: "We are open today until 3pm so you have plenty of time to get the new Tim Winton!"
Not Just Books, Burnie, Tasmania: "The new book from Tim Winton--The Shepherds Hut has arrived."

Winton signing at Imprints Booksellers in Adelaide.

Then another wave gathered force with reviews and as Winton started making appearances in shops like Imprints Booksellers in Adelaide ("The one and only Tim Winton and a whole lotta signed copies of The Shepherd's Hut. Hurry in before they race out!") and many others ("Thanks to everyone for coming out to meet Tim Winton to celebrate the release of The Shepherd's Hut in Perth and Fremantle on the weekend. Collins Booksellers Cottesloe, Lane Bookshop, Beaufort Street Books, Diabolik Books & Records, Dymocks Karrinyup, Collins Booksellers Southlands, Dymocks Garden City & New Edition Bookshop.").

"I really think it's one of the best books of the year," Scot Whitmont of Lindfield Bookshop & Children's Bookshop in Sydney, said in a radio interview. "He really is a master.... I knew this was a great book when I was still thinking about it three or four days after I'd finished it."

In the Sydney Morning Herald, reviewer Michael McGirr concluded: "After three readings, The Shepherd's Hut was still yielding the riches of its unblinking vision of hope, a vision that will renew readers for generations to come."

This week, author Cynthia Banham told the Guardian that The Shepherd's Hut was the next Australian book on her reading list: "I read my first Tim Winton novel for HSC English in 1989, An Open Swimmer, and love the rawness of his writing and the way he brings the landscapes and characters of Western Australia alive. I'm looking forward to seeing how he does this in his latest book."

I've devoured many of his books since opening my first Winton novel, Breath, in 2008. I can't believe it took me so long to "discover" a major author, but it did. Shame on me, though late converts are often the most passionate followers.

My anticipation for The Shepherd's Hut has been heightened further recently by news of the first Australian International Screen Forum, which included the New York premiere of the highly anticipated (by me at least) film adaptation of Breath, directed by and starring Simon Baker.

I think reading is a form of surfing--watching, and waiting, for the next good book, riding it out, then seeking another, even better read. Having the patience, using your skills. "The watching and waiting are the bulk of what it means to be out surfing. It's about observation as much as anticipation," Winton writes in Island Home. And now I'm waiting for The Shepherd's Hut... because I want to; because I know the wave will be worth it.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3216

Friday
Mar232018

World Poetry Day: 'Thank You for the Words'

Tomorrow will be
Lawrence Ferlinghetti's 99th birthday.
Wednesday was World Poetry Day.
Just two sentences
could be this week's column
or a poem.

"Why San Francisco?" the Chronicle asked Ferlinghetti in a recent interview.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti in front of City Lights Books, 1955

"It seemed like it was still the last frontier, which it isn't anymore," he replied. "I mean, in 1951, it was a wide-open city, and it seemed like you could do anything you wanted to here. It was like there was so much missing that if it was going to be a real city, there was so much that it had to get, that it didn't have. And, for instance, as far as bookstores go, all the bookstores closed at 5 p.m. and they weren't open on the weekends. And there was no place to sit down. And there was usually a clerk on top of you asking you what you wanted.

"And so the first thing I realized, there was no bookstore to become the locus for the literary community.... So, from the very beginning, when we started City Lights in June 1953, the idea was to make it a locus for the new literary community that had developed out of the Berkeley Renaissance, so called, and it proved to be true. People just flocked to it because there had been no locus for the literary life."

Why World Poetry Day? To open her annual message celebrating the occasion, UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay quoted the Langston Hughes poem "Dreams," and said: "This poem is about the extraordinary power of words that open up infinite horizons, enhance our lives, change reality, embellish it, show it in a new light which has never been seen before. Poetry is not a trivial game of sounds, words and images: it has a creative, transformative power."

During #WorldPoetryDay, I kept watch on social media's explorations of the realm (Among my favorites: @doctor_oxford, @kwamealexander, @brainpicker, @BBCAfrica, @britishlibrary, @SpursOfficial).

I was looking for signs of "transformative power," and found one in "Dear Vikram Seth," Ishita Sengupta's "open letter to my favorite poet," published by the Indian Express.

"You might not remember this, but the year was 2014 and the place was Victoria Memorial. A crowd, buzzing with anticipation had gathered to hear Naseeruddin Shah read Manto," Sengupta begins, then tells the story of being with a "giggly crowd of college students" when she spotted Seth, "sitting, alone in the last row."

Having just bought his poetry collection All You Who Sleep Tonight, she, along with her friends, "finally mustered some courage to put up a collective front. Perhaps recognizing the awe writ large on our faces, you stood up the moment we came near to your seat. Almost overwhelmed, I asked you to sign your name for me. 'But where, Miss?' you asked. It struck me, and perhaps, all of us then, that we had walked up to you without a shred of paper in hand." She quickly found some and returned.

"It has been four years since then," Sengupta wrote. "I do not live in the same city anymore.... Your note, however--now tattered and a bit incomprehensible--has remained with me. And so have your words. The puny book, which I have gifted to more people than I can count, was brought by me while I was shuffling cities. And while I have gushed over your words with friends within the safe confines of university, they spoke to me later. They spoke to me when I read them in isolation, crippled with nostalgia and yearning, and on nights, I could not and had resolutely decided that I would not sleep."

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love
Know that you aren't alone
The whole world shares your tears
Some for two nights or one
And some for all their years.

"Your words acknowledged my grief but also assured me, comforted even by telling me that I was not the only one," Sengupta observed. "Perhaps never will be. Grief might be private but it was not unique.... Thank you for the words, Mr. Seth."

It's a big world in a bigger universe. Gratitude seems to be the best response.

For World Poetry Day, the Independent featured a video of Stephen Hawking, who died last week, reading Sarah Howe's poem "Relativity."

"I'm there in spirit all the time," Ferlinghetti said of City Lights.
"How about in reality? How often is he at the shop?" the Chronicle asked.
"As a poet, I don't deal in reality," he replied with a laugh.

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3211