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Monday
Apr022012

I'm Reading as Fast as I Can!

Maura Kelly sparked a flurry of online commenting, sharing and retweeting this week with her "Slow-Books Manifesto" piece for the Atlantic. "In our leisure moments, whenever we have down time, we should turn to literature--to works that took some time to write and will take some time to read, but will also stay with us longer than anything else," she wrote.

The enthusiastic and "real-time" electronic call and response struck me as deliciously ironic, given her censure of the "Fast" entertainment we are subjected to on "the screens that blare in every corner of America (at the airport, at the gym, in the elevator, in our hands)."

And yet, by nature and temperament, I have always been a slow reader and tend to agree with her manifesto, even if I harbor considerable reservations about the dismissal of "non-literary books" and "emphasis on literature."

Before shattering my readerly innocence by accepting a bookseller's job in the early 1990s, I was a lingerer over pages, paragraphs and sentences of the books I loved. I underlined and committed excessive marginalia. I read passages aloud to people I liked, saying, "Listen to this."

I could have been a poster child for the Slow Book Movement before there was one, though as Malcolm Jones pointed out a couple of years ago, the "phrase 'slow reading' goes back at least as far as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who in 1887 described himself as a 'teacher of slow reading.' The way he phrased it, you know he thought he was bucking the tide. That makes sense, because the modern world, i.e., a world built upon the concept that fast is good and faster is better, was just getting up a full head of steam."

In Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, Hana receives this advice: "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."

During my slow reading years, I was habitually monogamous, spending a month with a book, three months with an author's works. Most of those habits became seriously compromised, however, when I entered "the trade" and quickly adopted their bookishly promiscuous ways along with a professional need for reading speed.

For a long time now, I have juggled several books at once--good books and bad books; print books, e-books and audiobooks--while ever casting a covetous gaze toward other tempting titles within reach on shelves and online. There have been far too many one-night-reads, when I scanned 50 pages and bailed.

Despite these ongoing betrayals of my slow reading heritage, I've tried to remain faithful to the ancestral tomes as well (currently slow re-reading Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens). It may not be enough.

A booklover's life is a complicated affair. As a professional reader--which is what booksellers and editors become--I don't have a vested interest in the titles that land on my desk incessantly, though I begin each with hope and the desire for love. Page one is always virginal.

Books are, in fact, irresistible to me. Always have been. Can I read them all? No. But within the considerable limitations of my ability, time and attention span, I'm reading as fast as I can. Except, of course, when I'm reading... slowly.

As I said, it's complicated. What does that mean?

Not this: "The average person reads between 200 to 400 words per minute. By at least tripling your reading speed you would possess a much wider and more flexible range of reading rates and experience for the first time the thrill of DYNAMIC COMPREHENSION. It is like watching movie."--Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics

This: Reading is journey. On any trip, sometimes I go fast and sometimes slow. The key lies in not choosing one speed over another permanently (you'll hit a tree), but learning how to shift gears. Yesterday, I was reading and writing at high speed in upstate New York. Today I downshift to Our Mutual Friend and will spend an afternoon in 19th century London. I can even see the road sign coming into view. Caution: Slow Reader Ahead--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1704.

Sunday
Mar252012

Will 'Booksing' Lead to the Bibliocalypse?

"In our new digital lives, we're deluged by text but evermore removed from proper reading. The textures and objects that once filled our lives have been replaced by the bald touch screen, though for every physical thing left behind, the Internet generates a billion virtual simulations. One result is booksing: a palliative appreciation of books as things, which muddles up the nostalgia for a more tactile world with our anxiety about just not reading enough."

I came upon Raghu Karnad's article late last week in Mint, an Indian business daily that has a content partnership with the Wall Street Journal. Provocative writing haunts readers long after their eyes leave the page, and this piece certainly did so for me. Even the headline is a challenge, if not an outright scold: "Fake bibliophilia: Our irritating new tendency to fetishize the physical book is actually an excuse not to read."

What intrigues me about Karnad's damnation of fake bibliophilia is his assumption that the roles of reader and "bookser" are mutually exclusive; that booksing is an inevitable sign of the bibliocalypse. As an old reader and bookser, I must disagree.

A booksing high is best when shared. As Karnad notes, "If you use Facebook or Twitter, you may have noticed the recent popularity of 'booksing,' which is very different from reading. Booksing tends to show up as a gushy, shared celebration of the idea of books, rather than of the experience of reading any given one."

I do use Facebook and Twitter, but I've also noticed that the same people getting a little "gushy" about "the idea of books" are just as often evangelizing for works and authors they have read and loved. I'm blessed by the fact that a majority of the people I know are readers. (This was not the case for much of my early life, so I appreciate my bookish clan.) And here's a little secret: Most of them are, as far as I can tell, fully addicted "booksers" as well. Hmm... I wonder if surrounding yourself with people who love books and reading as much as you do is just another deadly strain of booksing.

Karnad contends that booksing "often celebrates books through their most cosmetic aspects." He criticizes, among many things, "the over-scrutiny of cover design, the fetishization of typefaces, the reading of writing about reading and writing." He warns of "an epidemic of Tumblr pages that you can broadly call 'Hemingway, Typewriter,' in which famous authors are seen doing things." He scolds us for the "veneration of the collection, the shelf, the bargain bin, the discount haul, and other forms of textual abundance (or, as we know too well, unread accumulation)."

Well, I'm part of that problem, too. Every day I scout the Web wilderness for items that might be included in our Book Candy section of Shelf Awareness for Readers. As unofficial Booksing Editor, I find stuff like amazing book spaces, unusual book products, even surgically carved book sculptures. And if booksing is really a bad drug for a terminal malady, then beware the recent escalation of Pinterest, which is essentially a booksing doctor writing prescriptions on demand.

Karnad seems particularly miffed about The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which recently won an Oscar in the best animated short category. He observed that you can leave it "feeling that both the film and the Academy's tribute are hollow and, all the more for their loveliness, self-defeating. I'd call them 'booksy.' " The Joy of Books video, which currently has three million views on YouTube, is also cited as symptomatic of the decline and fall.

"The joy of reading is harder to access than The Joy of Reading video," Karnad wrote. "I'm as vulnerable to this as anybody. Yet when booksiness gets a big plug from the Academy Awards, it leaves me feeling suspicious and sad and mad, because it looks like a worthless welfare check from a healthy creative form to one that's thought to be moribund. If reading is indeed about to die, then booksing is a good sign of its dropping pulse. If we stopped booksing instead, we'd have one less distraction."

Stop booksing? Never! In fact, I just saw a photo of this amazing "library loft" I want to share with you. And now I'll go back to reading my new favorite book--Geoff Dyer's Zona, an intriguing exploration of Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker, which ends with a striking shot of a girl reading in a room filled with books. Wait a second. Is that too booksy as well?--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1699.

Sunday
Mar182012

Not Just Another Comeback Story

Consider this a twist on the traditional comeback story, in which a protagonist overcomes great odds not merely to survive, but to thrive. It's a classic narrative form--Moses, Odysseus, David Copperfield, George Smiley. Now consider the definition of, and odds against, success as a contemporary novelist. The mere fact that someone wants to publish your book could be viewed as a comeback, given the stops and starts, the revisions and rejections, necessary just to bring a manuscript to the starting gate (aka, appropriately enough, the submission stage).  

Peter Golden's story could be framed as an ongoing comeback that just keeps getting better. His novel Comeback Love, about a couple exploring the possibility of a second chance at love 35 years after their relationship ended during the turbulent 1960s, will be published April 3 by Washington Square Press/Atria, but its comeback really began more than two years ago as the first novel released by Staff Picks Press, a small publishing house started by bookseller Susan Novotny, owner of Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, N.Y., and Market Block Books, Troy.

"I'm happy that my 30-plus years in the book business has taught me something--namely, how to recognize a novel that readers will enjoy and my indie colleagues can sell; and how to find an author like Peter, who I think will be pleasing readers and booksellers well into the future," said Novotny. Staff Picks Press recently published Where's the Watch and Other Tales: A Memoir from Seinfeld's Uncle Leo by Len Lesser and Tama Ryder.

Golden recalled that Novotny "was certainly diligent when it came to spreading the word about Comeback Love. More than anyone she brought the novel to the attention of publishers. And I might not have met my agent, Susan Golomb, and my editor, Greer Hendricks, both of whom have been enormously helpful."
 
In 2010, when the Staff Picks Press edition was published, Golden observed that while his marketing responsibilities were substantial with a small publisher, they were still essentially the "same as the author who publishes with a major press. The fact is unless you are extremely lucky--I mean winning a $300-million-lottery lucky--writers have to use all of the avenues available for marketing their books."

I wondered if he felt like a lottery winner now. "Absolutely," he agreed. "I suspect the mathematical odds of winning the lottery are greater than selling a first novel, but it doesn’t feel that way."

That said, he is still focused upon doing whatever he can to help market his novel again: "My responsibilities haven't changed--I just have more help. The publicity and marketing departments at Atria have been wonderful and taught me a good deal about the pleasures of social media."

Ariele Fredman, his publicist at Atria, said that having Comeback Love available on NetGalley "has been very useful in getting the word out to bloggers and reaching more people without having to print more galleys." She also noted the benefits of publicizing a novel with a sales track record: "There hasn't been a disadvantage to working on Comeback Love in its second form. Because the book was published by a small press, the groundwork of support for the author was already laid and as the publicist, I've been able to build on that. The subject matter--love, second chances, women's rights--covers a lot of areas of interest and appeal to a wide range of readers and reviewers."

Golden praised his editor, noting that "this version of Comeback Love is much improved, and Greer is responsible for that." And Hendricks returned the compliment: "I'm so excited about Peter and Comeback Love because to me it perfectly captures the passion of young love. I think readers of all generations will fall in love with this book because it explores that lingering question so many people have: What if you had a second chance with the one that got away?"

The comeback story for Comeback Love goes on, but Golden said his basic writing life hasn't changed: "I've been earning a living writing nonfiction for 28 years, so from a financial perspective fiction simply became another market. But I always wanted to write and publish novels, and so personally it was quite satisfying. As for changing my life: I'm happily married to the same woman, and I still get up every morning and write."--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1693.

Monday
Mar122012

Singapore Booksellers 'Really Love What We Do'

"No one has cracked the discovery problem. In a world without bookshops, or at any rate with fewer and smaller bookshops, how will people discover the books they didn’t know they wanted to read?.... Maybe a new kind of bookshop is needed, one that allows for book browsing within a stylish setting, and gives the retailer a slice of e-book revenues. After all, it is Singapore’s smaller shops, like BooksActually, with their great design and active event programs, that have bucked the prevailing downward trend in bookshops over the last few years."

That paragraph appeared earlier this week in an e27 article headlined, "A City Without Bookshops," but I first learned about BooksActually last year. I followed up--in the typically 21st-century way of the Web--by joining the shop's Facebook group and began receiving event invitations.

Though the odds are slim that I'll be attending a bookstore event in Singapore any time soon, I do like being invited, and a recent notice for "Babette's Feast chapbooks LAUNCH at Kinokuniya!" prompted me to contact BooksActually bookseller Renée Ting--not with my RSVP, unfortunately, but to learn a little more about their operation.

"BooksActually opened in November, 2005, on the second floor of a shophouse at Telok Ayer Street," she replied on behalf of her colleagues, who include owner Kenny Leck and bookseller Erna Marliny. "It started because of our love for literature, and the need to widen our reading appetite in Singapore. Retailers play a very big part of shaping the society's appetite. There were many readers in Singapore, but the books they were reading were limited to the ones featured at chain bookstores--self-help titles, business books, and for fiction, popular mass-market titles. We were hungry for more literary works, and wanted to bring in and showcase more breadth to the title selection available to the people, because we believed in the importance of literature."

What matters most to any bookseller is sharing great reads with great readers. Staff favorites at BooksActually include Paul Auster, Cyril Wong, Ted Hughes, Rainer Maria Rilke and John Wyndham. Popular with the shop's customers are Christine Chia, Alvin Pang, Haruki Murakami, Jeanette Winterson and Alfian Sa'at. And like all committed indie booksellers, they also champion certain underappreciated writers there--Verena Tay, Georges Perec, A.L. Kennedy, Naguib Mahfouz and Ismail Kadare.

The initial challenges BooksActually faced in the retail market may sound familiar. According to Ting, "We were the first local independent literature bookshop to appear in Singapore when we started. During that time, everyone was only familiar with the concept of a mega-chain bookstore so they found it difficult to comprehend what an independent bookshop was--it took a long time for us to convince people that we were an actual bookshop, and that we started this because of our passion for literature.

"Also, finance was always an issue for us, seeing how we don't come from well-to-do families and being a small and new player in the harsh business world. We knew nothing about running a business, but somehow found our way around by doing things ourselves, finding alternate ways of solving problems, and being self-reliant." Seven years later, the bookstore has "seen a vast increase in the readership in Singapore, but now that we've started actively publishing, we're hoping Singaporeans will be more receptive towards local literature."

Last summer, BooksActually launched its publishing arm, Math Paper Press, which features experimental novellas, poetry and essays; and distributes books by selected publishers.

"As mentioned before, we were hoping for Singaporeans to be more receptive towards local literature, and also we wanted to be a voice for the newer writers in Singapore by publishing works that other publishers dare not publish," Ting said.

About the same time, the store began creating handmade stationery under its Birds & Co. brand, offering items in which "we always try to sneak in a literary element by subconsciously exposing them to good literature (e.g., pencils named after authors; notebooks with passages from books typewritten on their covers, or notebooks dedicated to a particular specie of plants/animals; parties and exhibitions with literary themes, etc.)."

When I asked Ting if there was anything else she would like us to know about BooksActually, her enthusiastic reply struck a familiar chord with this former bookseller: "Yes! We work really, really, really hard and we really love what we do."--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1687.

Sunday
Mar042012

Where Have All the Signed Books Gone?

You may have heard the tale: George Bernard Shaw finds a copy of one of his works in a used bookshop and quickly notices it is signed: "To ___, with esteem, G.B. Shaw." Buying the volume, he subsequently returns it to the original owner with an additional inscription: "With renewed esteem, G.B. Shaw."
 
Could be apocryphal, but that doesn't matter. I love the story anyway and think of it every time I cull my book collection and decide to part with a signed or, more reluctantly, a personally inscribed book. It's usually a space decision, prompted by the business I'm in; I've received (acquired is too ambitious a word for the way in which my books accumulate) many signed editions over the years. Some mean a great deal to me; others not so much. I guess that's a confession. Sometimes, forgive me, I abandon signed books.

Not yours, though.

Obviously I'm no collector. There are, however, many books on my shelves that I'd never part with for reasons that can be emotional as well as intellectual--an attachment to the memory of a great author event, for example.

But where have all those exiled signed books gone? This question, along with the Shaw anecdote, occurred to me recently when Janet Geddis, owner of Avid Bookshop, Athens, Ga., shared the story of a visit to her shop by poet and noted Rumi translator Coleman Barks, who lives in the city.   

"He asked me where the local shelf was so that he could sign any copies of his books we had in stock," Janet recalled. "He reached over for a used copy of The Drowned Book and, when he opened it to sign, saw that he had already signed it years ago to a friend named Charlie. I was embarrassed for a minute, hoping he wouldn't be upset that Charlie had passed the book along to Avid. 'Well, you could sign it again,' I said with a laugh. I walked away to ring up another customer and forgot about the book. An hour later when it came time to close up, I remembered the book and opened it to the title page. Coleman had signed it twice after all. Today's autograph reads, 'Charlie Gardner left this book, Coleman Barks.' "

Geddis noted that she is also not "a big collector of signed copies or celebrity autographs. I'd rather have a cool interaction with someone and not have any documentation than simply have their name scrawled on a book for me. Of course I'm also in a rather spoiled position now: I get to go to book events several times a year and, as a bookseller, have a great excuse chat with well-known authors. It's for business, after all."

And the business of signing can be rewarding, in many ways. During the four months that Avid has been open, internationally known chef Hugh Acheson (Top Chef) "has signed hundreds of copies of his book A New Turn in the South for us," said Geddis. "It's been really fun and rewarding to have Hugh personally inscribe books for people all over the country--even the world--before we ship them off. He's pretty game when it comes to signing, too, stopping by every month or so to inscribe big stacks of cookbooks."

Acheson also fields personal requests. Geddis said an Avid customer "called in an order for her husband before Christmas and asked if we could have Hugh personalize it. 'My husband has such a man-crush on Hugh,' she said, and then decided what the perfect inscription would be. Hugh saw the request, laughed, and signed as instructed: 'Dear So&So: I love how much you love me. Eat well! Hugh Acheson.' That story still brings a smile to my face."

In addition to traditional book-signings, Geddis asks visiting authors and illustrators to sign Avid's bathroom Door O' Fame: "It's pretty cool to look over the people who have been in our store in the last few months of business--I'm pretty sure we're going to fill up all the available space and have to start having authors sign the opposite side of the door within a year or so."  

Those are nice autograph stories, but what does fate hold in store for my abandoned inscribed books, now buried on dusty shelves in used bookstores nationwide? Suddenly I remember the terrible floor planks in Edgar Allan Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart." Even if I can invoke plausible deniability for the "To Bob" editions out there, I fear the "To Bob Gray" copies may yet return and haunt me.--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #1680.