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Sunday
Jul042010

Summertime & the Reading Will Be Easy

July Fourth is the official opening day of Beach Reading Season, and I've been invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch (um, book) before a major league barbecue at Hampton Beach, N.H., on Sunday.

Well, no, that isn't true. But as we roll into the holiday weekend and all those languorous summer hours to follow, reading--particularly "beach reading," whether or not you're literally at a beach--does matter to more people. The pressure is building among both dedicated and seasonal readers who are searching for the perfect summer books. What should they read? What shouldn't they read? What if they don't have time to read everything they take on vacation? What if they waste time reading the "wrong" books?
        
To smooth this annual transition to biblio-beach mode, booksellers, publishers, newspaper columnists and bloggers compile lists of summer recommendations. As an industry, our helpful advice to the public is simple: buy lots of great books, read them voraciously, and then buy more.
    
For those of us in the book trade, however, it gets a little more complicated. We read for a living, so what do we do on our vacations? I'd like to share a little strategy I'm using to enhance my hot weather reading this year. I plan to read well, but slowly--Dog Days of summer slow.

Once upon a time I was a slow reader, in the best sense of the concept. I lingered over pages, paragraphs and sentences. I underlined. I copied sections into commonplace books. I read aloud to any unsuspecting soul who happened to enter the room: "Listen to this."

From Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient: "Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page a lot, I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do. Some do not know the names of birds, though he did. Your eye is too quick and North American. Think about the speed of his pen. What an appalling, barnacled old first paragraph it is otherwise."

Before I started as a bookseller in 1992, I was practically monogamous when I read. I could spend a month with a book, six months with an author. Pages were covered with marginalia. I lived in them for long periods, then moved on, as if strolling a narrow garden path rather than weaving through rush hour traffic.

Suddenly, however, I had to change my game and learn how to read faster without sacrificing concentration, comprehension and pleasure. At the bookstore, customers thought I was a reading machine. They would sometimes ask, with unmasked awe, "How many books do you read a week?"

The answer is, as you know, complicated. I cheated. Ours is a world with stacks upon stacks of guilt-inducing ARCs waiting for their turn; of 50-pages-and-out reading. The relevant question from my customers should have been: "How many books do you finish a week?"

I did, however, learn how to be a more promiscuous reader during the 15 years I spent as a frontline bookseller and I haven't shaken that habit. Often I have three, four or five books going at once, and continue to cast my eyes with longing at the endless stream of new, tempting titles that come across my desk.

I don't necessarily like this feeding frenzy mentality, but it's what we work with in our profession. We're expected to know a little something about a lot of books; a little more about several key books; and a lot about a chosen few. We do our best to oblige.

Which brings me back to my reading plans for the summer. Beginning this holiday weekend, I'll experiment by slow-reading some of May Sarton's journals. Slowing down will take some practice after all these years, just to avoid getting the bookish bends. My transitional period currently involves a frontlist fix of Alan Furst's Spies of the Balkans and Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens.

There's another paragraph in The English Patient I like. Hana is reading again, this time to herself: "She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams."

Sounds good to me. It's summertime, and the reading will be easy.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1224.

Sunday
Jun272010

Ask Me Why I'm Writing About the NBA

We don't have a sports section at Shelf Awareness, but I'm creating a temporary one this week to acknowledge a notable moment in the history of books and sport. Last Thursday, the Los Angeles Lakers won the championship of the National Basketball Association.

You may or may not know this already. You may or may not care. And if you're a stickler for details, as we book people tend to be, you might even wonder how a team from the desert landscape of Southern California ended up with a name like the Lakers. Just to clarify that one, the team moved from Minneapolis in 1960.

So why, you ask, am I writing about basketball in a column devoted to the book trade?

Because the Lakers coach, Phil Jackson, has now won 11 NBA championships? No.

Because he has studied Zen Buddhism and Lakota spirituality and incorporates teachings from both in his life and work? No.

Because, as the widely acknowledged Zen master of the NBA, he is capable of statements like this one--"I've made up my mind I'm leaning towards retiring, but I haven't made up my mind."--which he fed this week to a national media speculating breathlessly about his possible retirement? No.

What makes Jackson's latest accomplishment resonate with me is his personal relationship with the world of books. He writes, he reads and, best of all, he recommends books. For example, it has long been a Jacksonian tradition to distribute reading material to each of his players. This season, his choices for a long January road trip were: 

Ron Artest: Sacred Hoops by Phil Jackson
Shannon Brown: Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
Kobe Bryant: Montana 1948 by Larry Watson
Andrew Bynum: Six Easy Pieces by Walter Mosley
Jordan Farmar: Makes Me Wanna Holler by Nathan McCall
Derek Fisher: Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
Pau Gasol: 2666 by Roberto Bolano
DJ Mbenga: Monster: The Autobiography of an LA Gang Member by Sanyika Shakur
Adam Morrison: Che: a Graphic Biography by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon
Lamar Odom: The Right Mistake by Walter Mosley
Josh Powell: The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
Sasha Vujacic: Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie
Luke Walton: The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

"You know, I handpick the books for the players, so they’re individually selected," Jackson told the Orange County Register earlier this month. "Some players that are new on the team I may give them a book about the offense or a book, something to do with our basketball team. But for players that I know, and I get to know players before I do that, I give them something that’s information for them. Pau Gasol, I gave him a book about Barcelona, adventure story about Barcelona. Kobe Bryant, I gave him a book about my home state, where I grew up in eastern Montana. Derek Fisher, I gave him Soul On Ice. It’s a book that made a big difference to me when I was a young man growing up in the '70s and the late '60s. So a variety of books depending on who people are and what I think they might be interested in reading."

Gasol talked about the 912-page Bolano novel on Jimmie Kimmel Live.

When Shaquille O'Neal was with the Lakers several years ago, Jackson gave him Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf and Siddhartha. In the OC Register, Jackson recalled how O'Neal "used to take the thing as seriously as anybody, writing reports on the books--usually philosophical in nature--that Jackson gave him. Jackson said that when O’Neal got in a fight in Chicago in January 2002 with Brad Miller, O’Neal went to the team bus upon ejection and lost himself in his homework. 'He got thrown out of the game,' Jackson said. 'He went on the bus and finished up his book report after that.' "

In 2007, Bryant, who has not always been on board with the book idea, credited a positive change in his attitude to Jerry Lynch's The Way of the Champion: Lessons from Sun Tzu's The Art of War and other Tao Wisdom for Sports & Life: "I read a book this summer from Mr. Phil Jackson that talked about warriors respecting other warriors. If you have respect for your opponent, the thing that you have to do is play hard every time down. That gave me a new perspective on things." Bryant and Jackson also bonded over Malcolm Gladwell's work.

Did books win the NBA championship this year? No. But if you ask me why I'm writing about Phil Jackson today, I can only reply that in a world where books often seem to matter less, there is this guy coaching in the NBA to whom they matter a great deal. And his team just won another damn title.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1218.

Saturday
Jun192010

A Valuable Father's Day Book 

Numerous bookstore e-mail newsletters hit my inbox this week touting Father's Day promotions and events. Since my father died nearly four decades ago at the age of 51, this is, at best, a bittersweet holiday for me, though he wasn't much of a reader and I wouldn't have browsed many bookstore displays for gifts had he lived a longer life.

But he did have a book; a book that has been passed among my four brothers and me for decades; a book that in many ways makes a statement about the "value of books" in general during an era when we seem to be trying to redefine that concept on a daily basis.

My father's book was Battle Diary: The Story of the 243rd Field Artillery Battalion in Combat by Frank Smith, first published in 1946 in what was probably a small print run. It reads like an edited compilation of after action reports as the battalion made its way from basic training to Germany by way of England and France.

Although Battle Diary has been in my possession for long stretches, I did not read it until about 10 years ago, on the 30th anniversary of my father's death. I remember approaching the book cautiously, and choosing to read it not as Smith had intended--a clear-sighted account of day-to-day life as an army grunt in wartime--but more as a fogged window with an obscure view of the past, a view that might yield shadowy hints of my father's life at this precise moment in history.

Like many soldiers of his generation, he didn't talk about his war. I knew he'd served as a Cannoneer, Heavy Artillery, and not much else. But I also knew whatever had happened to Smith during that 17-month tour of duty, wherever he'd gone from boot camp to VE Day, my father was probably somewhere nearby.

When I finally decided to read the book, I initially examined it with bookseller's eyes. The cover was frayed and weathered and the pages--with a faded typewriter font--quite brittle. I flipped to the last section, where all of the members of the 243rd were listed, and found my father's name.

I opened to the first page and began taking notes as I read, fully aware that using Battlefield Diary to find my father might be as frustrating as those Magic Eye books that were so popular years ago, the ones with pictures you stared at until you were cross-eyed--patiently, then impatiently, waiting for a promised 3D image to emerge from the camouflage.

22 June 1944: No bands played when they set sail for Europe; just one last peek at the Statue of Liberty and then nothing but the Atlantic Ocean for almost a week. Smith called this "the beginning of an adventure whose duration and result cannot be predicted," but I wondered whether it had seemed like an adventure to my father.

7 August 1944: Disembarked on Utah Beach at 2330 hours, and moved to an assembly area west of La Foyer, then to a bivouac area near Briquebec. "Everybody seems anxious to see their first day of battle," wrote Smith. A word man, I thought this an interesting choice and wondered what my father's definition of "anxious" would have been. Eager? Uneasy? Instinctively, I want to trust the words I read, but know they have their own camouflage.

14 March 1945: Smith wrote about a Private on guard duty at the number one gun position when a half-dozen rounds of 170mm hit at about 2400 hours. As the soldier dropped into a spade pit, a round landed fewer than 20 yards away and tore holes in the side of a truck. In the book's margin, my mother had scribbled "your father," with an arrow pointing to the entry. That's it. Just that brief description of my anonymous old man under fire.

On VE Day, Smith wrote the 243rd had been "miraculously lucky" as far as casualties were concerned, and that "every man who performed his duty to the best of his ability should feel a sense of satisfaction."

This means you, Dad, I was thinking when I first read that line, and wondered: How are you celebrating? How does it feel, this winning? You could get used to it, couldn't you? What will you do next? The possibilities are, if not endless, at least conceivable, on this singular day. Enjoy yourself, Dad. Enjoy it while you can. On Sunday, I'll be thinking about the value of my father's book.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1212

Friday
Jun112010

A David Markson Reader

"Als ick kan. Which Novelist finds himself several times repeating, even while not even sure in what language--is it six-hundred-year-old Flemish? And uncertain as to why he is caught up by van Eyck's use of it. That's it, I can do no more? All I have left? I can go no further? Als ick kan?"--from The Last Novel

I wrote the following brief note for Tuesday's edition of Shelf Awareness: "David Markson, 'a revered postmodern author who rummaged relentlessly and humorously through art, history and reality itself,' died last Friday, the Associated Press reported. He was 82." The AP quote contained key words that showed up in many other obits and tributes this week, like the inevitable "postmodern" tag as well as "revered" or other polite synonyms meaning "largely unread."

I'm sorry I became a devoted Markson reader so late in the game. He is the best author I've "discovered" in the past couple of decades at least. I should have read him earlier and recommended his work throughout my bookselling career rather than during the brief time I had remaining at the bookshop once my addiction was fully formed. He deserves a larger audience, but I found him some readers while I could.

I was introduced to Markson's brilliant and irresistible work about four years ago by a friend. I read Wittgenstein's Mistress first, then quickly devoured Reader's Block, Vanishing Point, This Is Not a Novel and, when it became available, an ARC of The Last Novel. I have others on my shelves now, but I tend to reread rather than move on. There will be time. Once you're hooked, Markson's novels draw you back again.

It was not difficult to handsell Markson, especially Wittgenstein's Mistress. I told potential readers that the protagonist, a woman who believes she is the last person on earth, is so convincing that once you succumb to her voice--an easy task--the possibility that she is not mad at all seems quite likely. I even handsold the novel to a psychotherapist who agreed.

"So that quite possibly the whole point of the novel might be that one can just as easily ask for Modigliani on a telephone that does not function as on one that does."--Wittgenstein's Mistress

 


I first met Markson about three years ago at a launch party for a friend's novel. The event was held at an Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan, and in the crowded space, a few of us who knew one another gathered in a corner to talk, creating one of those social islands that are a survival tool at such functions. This wasn't the sort of venue Markson liked, but he was there and we were introduced.

I was already his reader by then, and one moment from the night stands out. We were all discussing the etymology of a word that can't be repeated here, and after it was clear no one really had an answer, I noticed Markson pull an index card from his shirt pocket and scribble something on it. I was certain he would soon know where that word came from, and the card would join what I imagined must be hundreds of other fragments that had accumulated over the years, destined to be carefully placed somewhere in the precise mosaic of his novels.

"Author had been scribbling notes on three-by-five-inch index cards. They now come close to filling two shoebox tops taped together end to end."--Vanishing Point


I will always read Markson because he observed--or imagined--and recorded, it sometimes seems, everything.


"Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman went to Dodger games at Ebbets Field together."--Reader's Block
"Samuel Beckett once sat through a New York vs. Houston doubleheader at Shea Stadium."--This Is Not a Novel   


I spoke with Markson months later in a small Greenwich Village restaurant, and then one last time during the spring of 2008 on a college campus in Vermont. I recall two things from that final meeting. A New York City guy at heart, he was struck by how green everything was; and at some point in a conversation with several people, he quoted William Gaddis from memory.

Markson is now gone, but his words remain. Do yourself a favor. Read him.

"What is Hamlet reading, in Act II Scene ii, when Polonius inquires and Hamlet says Words, words, words?"--This Is Not a Novel


And words again at the end of The Last Novel, only this time as a declarative sentence, a wave goodbye, rather than a question: Als ick kan.--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1206.

Sunday
Jun062010

An Impressionist at BEA

Even though BookExpo America is, logically, all about the books, some of my lasting impressions of the trade show are not. I remember walking on the sands of Miami Beach during my first ABA convention in 1993, wearing a suit--pants legs rolled up, carrying my shoes and socks--and wondering if I could possibly look less cool and more bookish if I tried.

For BEA 2010, however, the impression that will stay with me is about the books, or more precisely the booksellers. It happened Thursday on the exhibition floor when I saw Jessica Stockton Bagnulo and Rebecca Fitting of Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn, N.Y., and realized this was the first time either of them had attended the show as bookshop owners.

It was a special moment. I've known them for several years and have watched as they carefully built Greenlight from a great idea into a great indie bookstore. At BEA, we chatted briefly and then went back to work because, well, we were working.

Jessica later shared her thoughts about being at the Javits Center this time: "It was so interesting to talk to folks like Chris Morrow and Carol Horne and Rick Simonson and Steve Bercu and others this year at BEA as a peer, rather than just an aspirational frontliner. Our stores and our challenges and triumphs are so distinctly different, but there are so many common threads. It's like we're all the captains of different ships. Paul Yamazaki and Rick came into the store the other day and I was kind of star-struck--it will take me a little while to feel really like an equal to people like that, but I'm honored to be among them."

There were many other moments at BEA that made an impression on me: observations, comments, statistics, even the unique scent of eau de Manhattan that hung in the 85-degree air Wednesday afternoon as I elbowed my way back to my hotel near Broadway amid the matinee throngs.

I don't know if this qualifies me as a word impressionist, but I did fill (product placement alert!) a Moleskin notebook with verbal sketches from the show, and I'll share a few of those here.

"There is some cannibalization going on," said Kelly Gallagher, Bowker's v-p of publishing services, while offering an early look at BISG's third fielding of "Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading." That word "cannibalization" came up a lot during education sessions in reference to whether e-books are displacing print books, especially hardcovers. May I suggest another word as a possible solution? "Exophagy," which is cannibalism outside a tribe or family.

Gallagher also said that in Japan mobile e-books, which are read by 86% of high school girls, are "re-growing the print market," and noted that 10 of the bestselling Japanese print novels in 2007 were based on cell phone novels, with each selling around 400,00 copies while "growing new readers in Japan."

At an education session called "Community Social Networking: A Guide for Retailers and Librarians," business book authors Charlene Li (Open Leadership) and David Meerman Scott (The New Rules of Marketing and PR) spoke about the now accepted fact in business that "it's all about relationships and sharing."

When considering where best to focus efforts among the cacophony of online options available, Li advised, "You have to start from your place of strength and build up."

"What I see is all of us are trying to generate attention," added Scott, who explained that before the Web, the three primary ways to do this were buying (advertising, etc.), begging (press releases, media relations) and hiring salespeople. With the increasing role of the Internet, however, a fourth way has emerged--earning attention. "I think that every single organization in the world, every person, is now a publisher of information."

He also advised booksellers and librarians to take advantage of free author-generated content for their websites. Writers "create lots of free content--blogs, free e-books, videos--and we are thrilled when somebody wants to syndicate our content. It's interesting how few people ask us for that kind of content."

Todd Stocke, v-p, editorial director at Sourcebooks, mentioned something to me that has also become one of my lasting impressions of this BEA, and perhaps signals where we're headed as well. He said that a few years ago, Sourcebooks altered its approach to booth design for the show. "We made the choice to have a less elaborate booth and room for more people," Stocke observed, emphasizing the importance of conversations, both scheduled and unexpected, on the exhibition floor. "You never know when just the right person is going to come by."--Published in Shelf Awareness, issue #1201.