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The Delicate Art of Reading in Public

The only straight line in Nature that I remember is the spider swinging down from a twig.

Emerson again. Our recent conversation here about e-books seems to prove his point, since responses to last week's column wandered nicely off topic in an intriguing way that proved irresistible. We'll get back to e-books, but this time we'll happily veer from the spider's straight line.

I had confessed that by reading Emerson in a supermarket checkout line on my iPod, I felt much less conspicuous and/or pretentious than I might have with a hardbound copy of the essays perched on the shopping cart handle.

Nicki Leone of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance raised a valid point: "I can't help but think that if more people read in public, it would stop being 'conspicuous.' And why 'pretentious?' What is it about our current culture that reading books in public feels pretentious, even to a book person?"

Great question. I've read a lot of articles about public readings, but fewer about reading in public. Without venturing too deeply into psychoanalysis, why do I feel self-conscious?

Here's my take on the issue: I was raised in an essentially non-reading, working-class home with a sports-obsessed father and four competitive brothers. We were groomed to be athletes, not academics. The fact that I was essentially the only obsessed reader in the family was never an issue, but even as a kid I saw reading as a deliciously private act of rebellion.

Some of this lives on, I'm sure, in my occasional self-consciousness about reading in public ("public" being a tricky word, since airplanes or subways, for example, seem less problematic because other people are reading, too). Part of this may just be vestiges of my hard-won battle for a reading life--nature over nurture.

Linda Barrett Knopp of Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe, Asheville, N.C., rationally suggested that "to be seen reading a book in public is neither pretentious nor conspicuous." Such an act is "a clear signal to this biased bookseller that a mind may be focused on something higher, educational, funny, who knows, but at least on something besides the tabloids near the register."

"I appreciate that within a non-reading family you would feel self-conscious," she added. "My mom read all the time and took me to the bookmobile (I still remember having my hands inspected by the librarian to see if they were clean enough to handle books) to borrow books every week. Reading was a great way to avoid family interaction, too, and tolerated by my parents, but watching too much TV, well that was more rude to them, and I still find it very odd when you go visit people and they keep their TV on while you talk. Like this intruder in the room just yakking at you. I was fortunate to have such encouragement in my early years and books still remain the most significant part of my life besides family."

Knopp also had some thoughts on the e-book/indie booksellers issue, which I'll share with you soon.

Novelist and memoirist Lev Raphael noted that he "always felt naked in public if I didn't have something to read with me--magazine, newspaper or most often, a book. Though we were poor when I grew up, there were always books in our house, and I rarely left home without one. Perhaps because I got used to being stared at in the 1960s for my longish hair, tie-dyed jeans, and peace regalia, I don't blanch today when I'm stared at in a doctor's office or airport lounge for my choice of reading material.

"Back before it became acceptable to openly criticize George Bush, I was on a book tour and my choice that trip was admittedly provocative: The Lies of George W. Bush by David Corn. The book and I got lots of hostile stares, but I kept reading. Surprisingly, nobody said anything. When I was on the way to speak at Yale years before that, I was reading Kitty Kelley's Nancy Reagan biography and people actually said, 'How can you read that trash?' I replied that it was simply an update of Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country."

How do you feel about reading in public?

Emerson again:

The art of writing consists in putting two things together that are unlike and that belong together like a horse & cart.

Me . . . reading Essays: First Series, even in a supermarket, even on an iPod.


Just Thinking Inside & Outside the Book

So I'm at the checkout counter of my local supermarket on Monday, waiting behind two customers who seem to be stocking up for Armageddon. What to do? I consider going with their instincts and buying lots of batteries, but recall making that mistake during the Y2K scare a decade ago.

I resist the panic impulse. Instead, with fluorescent lights glaring and bad, bad music wafting obnoxiously (as if sound could literally stink), I take out my iPod touch, open Stanza and continue reading Emerson's Representative Men.

This moment is a perfect example of "incidental reading," a phrase that Agate Publishing's Doug Seibold used in last week's column. Here's one advantage to reading Emerson on an iPod: If I stood in the same place and read my hardbound copy, I'd feel conspicuous and a little pretentious. But I can read anything in public on an iPod and nobody cares, since it looks like I'm checking my phone or performing any of the other blips and bleeps that keep us going these days.

Just before it's my turn to start "loading the belt" with my items, I incidentally and coincidentally read:

Every book supplies its time with one good word; every municipal law, every trade, every folly of the day, and the generic catholic genius who is not afraid or ashamed to owe his originality to the originality of all, stands with the next age as the recorder and embodiment of his own.

Suddenly, I'm thinking about digital evolution, revolution and devolution; the ongoing debate over copyright and intellectual property issues; and the presumed death of the book as we know it. I also consider, again, my relationship to books and e-books and audiobooks and that magical iPod from my perspective as a reader and writer.

We can cite plenty of statistics about declining book readership and the seemingly endless aftershocks from our economy's quake, which continue to reverberate through the book world. November's AAP sales figures (Shelf Awareness, January 26, 2009) showed an expected, yet nonetheless unnerving, downward spiral. E-book sales were one of only two categories that were exceptions. Even though the numbers are still small and reflect Amazon's Kindle push, the November total--$5.1 million--was up 108.3% over 2007, and the category showed year-to-date sales of $46.7 million, a 63.8% gain.

Does that scare me? Yes, for reasons that have to do with my concerns about indie booksellers. Does it fascinate me? Yes, because it is happening and I'm intrigued. Can I deal with the changes? Already trying to.

"I long to have been a writer in the 1920s. But I'm not. So I need to do what it takes to be a writer in the 2020s," noted Michael Perry in response to last week's column. Perry's books include Population: 485, Truck: A Love Story and Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting, which will be published this spring.

"I spent many years hanging out with and writing about musicians and what I'm seeing now in book publishing holds many parallels to what happened ten years ago in the music industry," he observed. "The musicians who thrived weren't necessarily the early adapters, but the early adjusters. They kept abreast of developments, read the future with a realists eyes and incorporated change as it came along, but never let their primary focus drift from craft and performance. So I try never to forget that the number one key to my survival is that I must write--regardless of the state of the industry and/or its 'delivery systems.' I am certainly concerned about the future of publishing, but thanks to the musicians I try to focus on navigating--rather than flailing against--those changes."

I agree. With change in the air, Emerson has been on my mind a lot recently. His works are always within reach on my shelves (and in my iPod). I'm funny that way. My fascination with the new requires grounding in the old. Call it perspective.

When I return from the supermarket, I open a well-thumbed and copiously underlined copy of Emerson in His Journals for a different kind of incidental reading. Eventually I stumble upon the following cautionary note:

In the progress of Watt and Perkin's philosophy the day may come when the scholar shall be provided with a Reading Steam Engine; when he shall say Presto--& it shall discourse eloquent history--& Stop Sesame & it shall hush to let him think. He shall put in a pin, & hear poetry; & two pins, & hear a song. That age will discover Laputa.

I forgot about Laputa. Time to read Swift again, I guess.


Where Will You Be Reading Next?


In response to last week's column, Doug Seibold, publisher of Agate Books, shared his recent post to a group discussion administered by Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks at LinkedIn, the business social networking site. Seibold envisions "the e-book turning into a complementary format, like the audiobook did 20 years ago. I think only the heaviest readers, e.g. students and academics, will really need a dedicated appliance, and even then it will need to come down under $100 for people to adopt it in big numbers. Using Stanza myself on my iPod Touch really opened my eyes--it's perfect for incidental reading, like at the doctor's office or waiting in line or on the train, and in situations like those the backlit screen is a real plus, and not the negative so many assumed it would be."

Stephanie Anderson, new manager of WORD bookstore, Brooklyn, N.Y., is an indie bookseller trying to address "now" and its implications for her profession. She begins by considering the "old chestnut" theory that some readers will always want traditional books.

"Well, I do think that the old chestnut is important," she observes. "When I worked at Moravian Book Shop, our clientele was much older, and we would be doing them a disservice by really pushing e-books. Some readers always will want to handle a book, and I suspect the percentage of that group is more likely to shop at an indie store than a random sampling of readers. So the real challenge, I think, is how do we serve our existing, loyal (to us and to physical books) customers but also serve customers that want e-books. How do we balance? And how do we keep an eye on the balance as it changes? I think the rapid and stunning popularity of the iPod is a good example here. I was in high school when it was introduced, and then it was this cool, young-people thing. But now my grandfather has one. He loves it (but he, and I, still have CDs, too)."

Anderson believes that, "If there isn't a place for e-books in the indie store retail future, there isn't an indie store retail future. I like your Genius Bar example. That is always what I've envisioned--you handsell the book and then the customer sets their e-reader into the dock, pays you, downloads the book, and leaves. It's important for indie booksellers to look at this as an opportunity, not, groan, another thing to add to an already busy day. As I see it, once most books are available in e-book form, and presumably stored on someone else's server and accessible through the Internet, the so-called advantage that chain and online bookstores have in terms of number of titles available just disappears. Everyone is on a level field now--except that we still have the advantages we've always had, like solid customer service/hospitality, staff who read books and handsell well, etc."

Can booksellers redefine and reinvent their handselling expertise for the digital age? Anderson offers a personal example: "I have handsold books through my blog to people I have never seen before and never will, because I don't even know where they live. I think Twitter can do this too, I hope to experiment with that this year with a store Twitter feed and track sales of books mentioned on blog or Twitter."

Anderson adds that she has "just switched jobs and I think my new boss is willing to let me play with a lot of these ideas, although I think the industry is still at least a year away from any serious implementation of bookstore-level downloads of e-books. The neighborhood I'm in now is younger and more technology-literate, and so I plan to keep a very close eye on any developments. I would love WORD to be one of the first stores to make this work. Personally, my G1 (Google and T-Mobile's response to the iPhone) is arriving in the mail today, and I look forward to playing with the e-book readers that develop for it. I have a personal Twitter and I'm going to be running a store one as well."

And what comes after now?


For Anderson, this means "keeping an open mind, and always remembering that whatever comes next, it's going to have to work just as well at my new store as my old one. Both groups of customers are important to the success of indies, and I don't want one to get left behind or the other to get out of our grasp."


Indies Through the E-book Looking Glass

And still the Queen kept crying "Faster! Faster!" but Alice felt she could not go faster, thought she had not breath left to say so.

Maybe it reached crisis point last weekend when I discovered that the Whole Earth Catalog, that iconic counter-culture tome of my youth, is available online in a time machine of editions. Or maybe I've been thinking about e-books too much lately.

Whatever the catalyst, I felt particularly drawn to Ann Kingman's recent post at her excellent Booksellers Blog, where she asked some pertinent--and usefully impertinent--questions about the possibilities and challenges in a retail environment where e-books and consumer access to information online for readers of all ages increasingly conspire to challenge indie booksellers.

I read articles about e-books every day, and seldom is the perspective of booksellers solicited. If their future is considered at all, it's often noted as a side comment about impending doom, the dangers of Fahrenheit 451 apparently being usurped by Web 2.0, 3.0. 4.0, 5.0 . . . Like Ann, I keep wondering how indies will surf these treacherous but seductive electronic waves.

I'm a book person by nature and profession, but new technology intrigues me, too. Although I own neither a Kindle nor Sony Reader, I read on screens of every description. What I seem to be waiting for is a device that allows me to bypass Remote Control Syndrome.

What is RCS? There are often three or four remote control devices on coffee tables throughout the land. If you visit friends and haven't been properly trained, you can't perform the simple act of watching their television because firing it up requires one controller to turn on cable, another for the TV, yet another if a DVD player is involved (or, bless them, a still functioning VHS player), and still others for music systems. Which one controls volume is anybody's guess.

With RCS in mind, every time I toss another electronic device into my briefcase, I wonder why, if we can put an electro-metaphorical man on the moon in terms of wi-fi and touch screens and downloaded episodes of Lost, we can't get all this stuff on a single device.

But I also wonder how all of this figures into the future of independent bookselling and what we can do about it. Which brings me to e-books and what I hope will be our first discussion of 2009. Here's a conversation starter:

  • AFP: "Shortcovers expects to be turning iPhones into electronic books . . ."
  • Newsday: "Boy, do I have high-tech idea for those of you who got a shiny new smartphone for Christmas: Try reading a book on it."
  • The Tennessean: "In the trade space, what I think we'll see is a period of time where we'll see a lot of experimentation," said Frank Daniels III, COO, Ingram Digital Group. "But our observation thus far is that you can't underestimate people's willingness to read on a smart phone. There have been less than 500,000 Kindles and Sony Readers sold in 2008. And there have been how many millions of iPhones sold?"
  • Wired: "But what about whole books? Think you need to invest in the Kindle? You could, but why lug around yet another device when the iPhone can do a perfectly acceptable job?"

I'd like to join Ann in asking readers for their thoughts on e-books and bookstores. As Alice told the Red Queen, "Well, in our country, you'd generally get to somewhere else--if you ran very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."

  • How do independent booksellers find their way in the new world without leaning too heavily on the old chestnut that some readers will always want to handle a book, feel the pages, etc.?
  • Is there a place for e-books in the indie store retail future and what will that look like?
  • Can indie booksellers find even more ways to redefine and reinvent their handselling expertise for the digital age?
  • Could there be an indie bookstore version of Apple's Genius Bars, helping readers navigate both paper and digital worlds?
  • What are you doing now?
  • What are you doing next?

Consider the Red Queen's advice: "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

If we're already running as fast as we can to stay where we are, how do we run even faster?-


'The Thin Ice of a New Day'

Meanwhile back in the year one.

As 2009 begins, I find myself channeling Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. I'm not sure why, but I hope it presages more of a "Songs from the Wood" kind of year than an "Aqualung" one for all of us.

In my final column of 2008, I posed the giddily optimistic--under current circumstances--question, "What if it all works out?" Author and marketing wizard M.J. Rose asked if she could reprint it on her great blog, Buzz, Balls & Hype. I said yes, and then discovered that the request triggered a strange sort of nostalgia. I started a blog in the fall of 2004 called Fresh Eyes: A Bookseller's Journal. This was during the Paleolithic era, when there were only a few million instead of a gigazillion blogs roaming the virtual savanna. M.J. was there long before I was, and her request made me wonder what was on my blog mind in January, 2005, when I was still a full-time bookseller and buyer. What follows is a blend of quotation and paraphrase, but since the words are mine, I'll go light on the punctuation:

2005: As a bookseller, I've met people at every level of the so-called publishing pipeline, though of course I spend the bulk of my time with that most elusive of creatures, the reader. I voraciously ingest all news about the business. I often talk with publishing folks by e-mail or in person. I try to read the ever-altering surface of the business the way a sailor reads ripples caused by wind shifts.

I do not feel jaded by the industry, nor do I feel alienated from the publishing world, nor do I think that most publishers and editors are out of touch with the readers I work with every day. I feel weirdly hopeful in the face of every negative bar chart and snarky column, even though I'm a devoted fatalist at heart.

There's a scene in the football movie North Dallas Forty that I often recall whenever I'm thinking about my "place" in the publishing industry. Wide receiver Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte) has been summoned a meeting at the corporate, high-rise headquarters of the team's owner, Conrad Hunter Enterprises (Oil, Electronics, Chemicals, Construction, Export-Import, Hotels, etc.).

In the lobby, Elliott is cornered by Mr. Hunter himself, who puts a friendly arm on Phil's shoulder and not-so-subtly reminds him who the fox is in the pecking order of this big biz chicken coop. "Now, Phil, people who confuse brains and luck can get in a whole lot of trouble," Hunter says in a Texas drawl that comes across as both paternal and manipulative. "Seeing through the game is not the same as winning the game."

Seeing through the game is not the same as winning the game.

News about the business of books, whether positive or negative, is crucial and useful, but it's just one ingredient in an extremely complex recipe. Skill is important. Luck is important. Timing is important. Publicity is important. Everything is important.

Some of it can be controlled.

I can't help but see through the game. I still think I can win it. There is a lot of negativity out there. Writers work hard, often for little or no financial reward (so do booksellers; some choices I made, huh?). They've been hurt by rejection and less than aggressive marketing efforts from their publishers. They feel, often justifiably, that they have to do all the work themselves to get their books any attention.

Editors are swamped with manuscripts good and bad, solicited and unsolicited. Sales and publicity departments must handle too many books at once. Bookstore buyers spend hours every day looking at hundreds of titles, reciting a litany that runs something like, "five of those, two of those, no, no, no, one, no, two . . ."

Everybody's buried. Everybody thinks that no one else understands.

We need to understand, however, the positive as well as the negative. I don't think we're all whining. In fact, we're equal parts Pollyanna and Eeyore.

2009: I'll be in New York next week for a few days, and at some point in every conversation I have with people who work in this business, one of us will ask, "What are you reading?"

It's still about the books.

Skating away,
Skating away,
Skating away on the thin ice of a new day

Tie those laces tight, my friends. Maybe the ice will hold