Monthly Archives: February 2012

12 Famous Book Titles That Come From Poetry

Gabe Habash -- February 29th, 2012

Sometimes a book title is a no-brainer. Herzog. Mating. Cujo. But sometimes writers get directly inspired by other works, and that seed of a title worms its way in from a fleeting line the writer had once glanced on a page. Take, for example, John O’Hara becoming dead set on titling his masterwork Appointment in Samarra by that name because of an Arabian tale he read about in Sheepey by W. Somerset Maugham. Within that huge group of books whose titles reference other works, there are a number that borrow a line of poetry for their title. Here are some of our favorites.

1. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold comes from “I Knew a Woman” by Theodore Roethke

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,

When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;

Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:

The shapes a bright container can contain!

2. A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh comes from The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot

…I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

3. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe comes from “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

4. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck comes from “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough” by Robert Burns

But little Mouse, you are not alone,

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes of mice and men

Go often askew,

And leave us nothing but grief and pain,

For promised joy!

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I Almost Bought a Book Today: Why I’m Friends With Amazon

Peter Brantley -- February 28th, 2012

The majority of my fiction recommendations come from my father, a retired literature professor. He recently suggested that The Time in Between by the Spanish author Maria Dueñas was a worthwhile read, and so I scurried online to check it out. It’s available as an ebook at $12.99. That’s an agency price; the book is published in the U.S. by Simon & Schuster. I didn’t purchase it; digital books beyond $10.00 are generally unacceptable to me. (My partner bought a copy of the title in Spanish, El Tiempo entre costuras, for $9.99 for the Kindle; this edition is not distributed by Simon & Schuster).

There’s a backdrop to this story, as I did wind up getting the book another way. Both my father and I (as his digital tech support) are moving from Sony Reader to another platform for various reasons; my father was happy with his Sony device but it is breaking down. That’s a hard decision for me, because I am supportive of open standards; have labored for an open competitive marketplace in ebooks; and have served as a board member of the IDPF, which is responsible for EPUB and EPUB3, the dominant open standard for ebooks.

But as a consumer, I have to think about where my books are coming from and under what terms. No corporation works for me – they work for investors and shareholders – but sometimes interests more or less align. Amazon wants to sell things; the more things the better. Part of their strategy includes providing great customer service; putting downward pressure on prices; and generally providing an increasing number of services through the Amazon Prime subscription offering. That works for me; Amazon has my back as a consumer, at least for now. I would dearly love them to have a meaningful competitor, but that’s largely a longer term worry.

But Amazon can’t set pricing for titles from agency publishers, and I didn’t buy a copy of Time in Between for the Kindle – the book was muy caro. And, although my father is going to be moving with me to Kindle, he had already bought a copy on Sony. Since I am backing up all of his purchases on his behalf, I decided to read his Sony copy before retiring his device for good. What does that mean for Simon & Schuster? Lost sale. What it means for Maria Dueñas is less revenue.

When I heard that Amazon had decided to pull buy access away from Independent Publishers Group (IPG) Kindle titles in an attempt to get better terms, I assume that those better terms, if achieved, would ultimately be reflected in lower prices. Indeed, IPG has publicly lamented that they find it difficult to sell digital titles for less than $10.00 given their current cost structures. Yet as Jane Litte has observed, IPG is not offering anything in exchange to Kindle customers to convince us that the IPG strategy is better for me, as a consumer. In this case, my response is, “Go, Amazon!,” because as a consumer, I want a market that doesn’t treat digital books as the most holy manifestation of creative art ever conceived.

Some commentators have suggested that agency publishers seeking to keep ebook prices high are acting in their self-interest because the “price per read” is inevitably going downward. Higher ebook prices may retard the growth of ebook acceptance, preserving a larger relative share of print revenue, and thus granting larger publishers time to maneuver themselves into a stronger digital position.

But interests are not aligning well right now, and it is not just between publishers and libraries. Because we are living through a moment of a deep technologically-driven social transition, there’s much more conflict between all the sectors in the book economy. Previously stable organizational dynamics have been disrupted and outcomes are hard to predict. As Frédéric Filloux states in his Monday Note on ebooks, “The Giant Disruption“: “In less than a year, the ground has shifted in ways the players didn’t foresee. This caused the unraveling of the book publishing industry, disrupting key components of the food chain such as deal structures and distribution arrangements.”

For readers, high price points for ebooks might drive them to a library, except that publishers have withheld titles from libraries. Therefore, some readers might turn to pirated digital editions; others might turn to other forms of entertainment; others find cheaper books on Amazon. It has a dark beauty: through the combination of usurious pricing strategies and their undeclared war on libraries, the largest publishers have unerringly drawn their customers – readers with whom they’ve never cared to have a direct relationship – closer into the arms of the retailer whose market power and influence they most fear – Amazon. So much for a strategy of self-interest.

Many publishers and distributors must see themselves in a light quite different than the one Jeff Bezos casts on Amazon. Amazon is not merely seeking lucre for its balance sheet; it boosts its profits by delivering a positive consumer experience, because that is its uniquely competitive edge. As a consumer, that makes me a friend of Amazon. And, because publishers are not working in alignment with my interests, their marketplace goals have moved into conflict with mine. Maybe publishers have decided that pitting digital readers against their revenue goals is an acceptable trade-off. It doesn’t work for me; I didn’t buy a book today.

All Entertainment Is Not Created Equal or: How “Infinite Jest” Beats TV

Gabe Habash -- February 27th, 2012

There is something somehow right about finishing Infinite Jest on the same night as the Oscars and the NBA All-Star Game. The night of February 26th was a confluence of information and stimulation, and the TV’s background noise seemed like a perfectly fitting environment for finishing the greatest book we have on Everything.

For what it’s worth, I’m still not really ready to write about IJ in any sort of deep, informed way, and I’m not sure I ever will be unless I reread it. But for what it’s worth, the hierarchy of last night’s Entertainments looks like this:

Infinite Jest > NBA All-Star Game > The Oscars

That much I’m sure of.

I started out last night thinking I was going to do a sort of running blog, because somehow the serendipity of having 40 pages left in a book about stimulation, information, and, well, everything seemed like it should be documented alongside exposure to two of the year’s bigger spectacles–especially for this writer, for whom books, movies, and basketball represent three top personal interests, up there with milkshakes and English Bulldogs.

So I put my chair right up in front of my TP and prepared for some good old O.N.A.N. spontaneous dissemination.

The All-Star game started at 7:30 and the Oscars at 8:30. I had planned for a constant flicker between the two channels while reading the last 40 pages during commercials and every time Billy Crystal was on screen. The player introductions at the All-Star Game were interesting enough, if only because Nikki Minaj, backlit by a epilepsy-causing strobe show, pranced around in a spacesuit alongside a group of silver leotarded men, singing a song with a chorus that sounded like “Boombedoom boom boom be doom bembey.” I saw how when Carmelo Anthony’s name was announced, everyone in the building knew he didn’t deserve to be there, including Carmelo Anthony. I saw how LeBron James, for all his inhuman talent, only wants to be liked. (You can see it in the way he interacts with other players, the way he looks around at all times, including during the National Anthem and after every basket he scores, running back up the court. He has the face of a boy asking his mom to watch him do a cannonball, doing the cannonball, and then looking to see if she saw it.)

But somewhere around the second quarter and the flip to Tim Gunn creeping out Brad Pitt, something happened. I stopped taking notes on how Blake Griffin is probably the most exciting basketball player in the world; I stopped taking notes on how routine the Oscars are. I didn’t even make it to the actual ceremony itself–Billy Crystal’s dull opening, in which he impersonated Sammy Davis Jr. and Justin Bieber made an appearance, was the nail in the coffin. My excitement to chronicle three hyper-energized events took a nosedive. I put the TV on mute and started in on IJ.

The TV stayed on mute. With the exception of refreshing IMDb’s homepage as the awards were announced, and watching a few minutes at a time of the game, all my attention went to the book. I suppose a vanilla awards show with no special intrigue this year and a basketball exhibition never stood a chance against something I’d committed two months to. But I was amazed at how passive the TV shows were (the Oscars more so than the All-Star Game), and how active I felt as soon as I turned my head away and returned to IJ. Around 10:30, I took my only real break from the book to watch the last 4 minutes of what ended up being a highly entertaining All-Star Game. And that’s what is so interesting about these three things–Infinite Jest, the All-Star Game, the Oscars–they’re all meant to entertain. It just turned out that one was far more successful at its goal than the others–to the point where it blocked out the others.

And this is what’s really interesting (HERE COME SPOILERS IF YOU HAVEN’T READ INFINITE JEST). Much has been made of what IJ is, and what it’s about: addiction, stimulation, etc. But the “Infinite Jest” in Infinite Jest is an unintentionally lethal piece of entertainment, created by James Incandenza with this goal: to be so entertaining that it blocks out everything else, namely, yourself, as a passive, womb-dwelling, solipsistic vessel that just Takes In but doesn’t Give Back (Incandenza succeeds in some of these goals, and actually does the opposite in others). Incandenza wants to create “a magically entertaining toy to dangle at the infant still somewhere alive in the boy, to make its eyes light and toothless mouth open unconsciously, to laugh.”

Page 839 has maybe the book’s baldest statement of its goal(s): “The scholars and Foundations and disseminators never saw that his most serious wish was: to entertain.” So, for all the book’s pomp and circumstance, for all its endless criticism and interpretations, David Foster Wallace’s book is, to me, his closest attempt at creating a real-life “Infinite Jest.” That is to say, Infinite Jest the book is meant to give the reader the same thrilled feelings as “Infinite Jest” the movie, as Incandenza best intentioned it. That’s why the book is so involved, why it’s so long: it’s meant to be the antidote to the noise of information and the addiction of more (it’s “Infinite Jest” the film’s failure at the latter that makes the book a tragedy)–it’s meant to block out everything else. Infinite Jest shows that all Entertainments are not created equal. It shows that the most profound and satisfying entertainment is to make you think. Otherwise this post wouldn’t exist and in its place would be another recap of the best outfits from the Oscars.

How To Cure Reading Forgetfulness

Gabe Habash -- February 23rd, 2012

“To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don’t read the novel really. So I think that kind of concentration and focus and attentiveness is hard to come by – it’s hard to find huge numbers of people, large numbers of people, significant numbers of people, who have those qualities.” – Philip Roth

I have a problem remembering books. It’s a problem that I mentioned in my chronicle of the 55 books I read in 2011, and when I think back to most of the books that I read last year, I come up with patches of the story (and, if I liked the book, usually patches of inner character workings), and a whole lot of fog.

Aside from putting an insidious terror in me, my memory’s failure made me consider how we pay attention and what we choose to pay attention to when we read. I’m not sure how much of a problem memory is for you out there, but it made me think, with my rickety brain, if tweaking a few reading variables might put a little grease in the old mental clockwork.

1. The time it takes to read a book. I read a book, on average, every 6.63 days last year, which, at first, sounds like an ideal amount of time to read a book, especially if you consider Roth’s two week window. But, as I mentioned in my earlier article, many times last year I was reading for numbers and treating the next book like the nearest hurdle I had to get over. This year, I’ve been reading without numbers in mind and though I’m not downing book after book in 2012, I’m remembering more of what I read and–here’s the important part–I’m enjoying more of what I read. The conclusion I’ve drawn here is that maybe it’s best not to have a future reading regimen mapped out but rather to progress and discover the next book more leisurely.

2. Reading more than one book at a time. How many of you do this? Because, to me, the concept was completely foreign until a few months ago. Now, I’m reading Infinite Jest, while also visiting The Ice Balloon by Alec Wilkinson and Forty Stories by Chekhov every now and again.

(Not-so-quick aside: The whole idea for this post came to me because of Infinite Jest. One of the many things David Foster Wallace can do is concentrate. In point of fact, I think he can concentrate better than anyone else. Read one of his books, watch one of his interviews, and you see that every thought that comes into his head or every word that comes out of his mouth is so carefully considered, to the point that it’s hard not to concentrate like him. It almost feels like an insult to not give as much attention to Infinite Jest as he put into it. Which is why its taken me two months to read it. Which is why, despite breaking Roth’s rule, I can remember a ton of the book.)

I’m finding that having a short story collection as a literature sidearm is particularly useful. The other day, I read 20 pages in Infinite Jest, and then took a break by reading through three very short Chekhov shorts as a sort of palate cleanser. Having the nonfiction adventure account in The Ice Balloon provides an additional variety of narrative to keep my mind fresh. Maybe there’s something to this.

3. Keeping up with your “Favorite Lines” document. This one is my favorite. In 2008, I was reading Blood Meridian and I got to the long passage in chapter 11 in which the Judge tells a story about the harnessmaker welcoming a traveler into his home, seeming to repent and becoming a brother to his fellow men, and then killing that man out by the road and stealing his money. I opened a new Word document and copied out the whole little story. Since then, I have a never-ending document in which I retype passages and lines that I like whenever I come upon them. I underline in books I read, so I save the document for only the best of the best. A lot of lines from A Sport and a Pastime are in that document, as is the entirety of “The Symphony” chapter from Moby-Dick, that perfect self-contained piece of writing that is one of the very best things I’ve ever read.

I hope memory isn’t as much of a problem for you as it is for me. I always find it fun to talk with a friend about a book we’ve both read. My friends almost always end up telling me about massive chunks of the book I’ve forgotten. But whenever that happens, I just go home and start scrolling through that Word document. It’s a pretty comforting thought to know that I won’t ever be done adding to it.

How To Create a Magazine in 24 Hours

Gabe Habash -- February 22nd, 2012

“I am doing this crazy thing on Thursday,” PW reviews editor Rose Fox said. That crazy thing would be twenty-four Magazine, the Kickstarter project that at 10 pm on February 23, will put Fox and nine other creative professionals in a studio in Brooklyn. The task: create an entire magazine, start to finish, in the ensuing 24 hours.

“This project is based around the idea that creative people share unifying experiences and that deadlines are one of those experiences,” said Sara Eileen Hames, a writer and editor, in the magazine’s Kickstarter video. “Beautiful things can come out being on a really crazy deadline.”

The project will bring together a group of people from a great variety of backgrounds–storytellers, writers, photographers, editors, art directors, and composers will all bring their creative energy into one room. The Kickstarter campaign, with one day left before Zero Hour, has already exceeded its goal of $4,000, which will go toward supplies, resources, and lots of caffeine.

The best part: twenty-four is going to document the whole thing, so that not only will there be a polished, finished product you can hold in your hands, there will be a paper trail capturing all the moments that led up to the creation of that finished product. It’s this added rub that gives process just as much of the spotlight as product.

To learn more about twenty-four Magazine, visit the Kickstarter page.

Steinbeck’s Signed Will Costs $14,000 on eBay

Gabe Habash -- February 21st, 2012

An easy way to find strange books on eBay is to sort by price highest to lowest. That’s how you’ll find John Steinbeck’s original will selling for $14,250. That makes it the fifth most expensive “fiction and literature” book on the site. That’s respectable, but nowhere near this book, which’ll tell you exactly when the End of Days is going to happen.

Said to be one of two originals (the other filed in the public records), the document was signed in August 1968, four months before Steinbeck died. Every page is initialed and the final page is signed “John Ernest Steinbeck”–a rarity, as Steinbeck normally left out his middle name (and often included the Pigasus) when signing.

Maybe the eventual buyer can sort out the mess his heirs can’t seem to get themselves out of.



The Wonderful and Terrible Habit of Buying Too Many Books

Gabe Habash -- February 16th, 2012

Not pictured: annoyed roommate

“…ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.” -Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”

Last weekend, I found myself killing a Saturday afternoon at one of my favorite bookstores, McNally Jackson. I didn’t go with any specific book in mind. I walked out with four books: Stoner, A Meaningful Life, A Fan’s Notes, and The Intuitionist.

This past weekend, I found myself killing a Saturday afternoon in Brooklyn, at what’s becoming one of my favorite bookstores, Book Thug Nation (extra points for the gentleman working the desk, for his great conversation on horror books and films). I didn’t go with any specific book in mind. But they had this handsome Dell edition of The Circus in the Attic, complete with green gilding, for $1 and they had this edition of Wise Blood, which you can’t find anywhere and is far prettier than this ugly thing. I walked out with those two books, as well as Knockemstiff and The Castle in the Forest.

Depending on how you feel about books, you could call this either a habit of mine or a problem of mine. Either way, one thing it is is a pattern, something that repeats itself, that exists in its very repetition, that manifests itself on the bookshelf in my apartment and, because it’s a long-lived pattern, in piles seven and eight tall on the floor of my bedroom.

Continue reading

We will measure our loss

Peter Brantley -- February 13th, 2012

Last week was a hard one for readers, with Penguin pulling out of the library market by curtailing its agreement with Overdrive, possibly for allowing Amazon to directly lend files to patrons. It’s left a lot of us feeling markedly less charitable about large publishers.

I had a feeling it wouldn’t be an easy week. It started with a hard and passionate discussion on a mailing list for public library directors on the amount of support given the homeless that frequent urban libraries. Many homeless must maintain their belongings in large parcels or boxes that could block public access and potentially pose a security risk. If a library prohibits containers beyond certain dimensions, are they discriminating against the homeless because there’s no secure storage outside the library? Can they make a special allowance for baby strollers and childcare gear? Yet every librarian wanted to avoid making the homeless feel unwelcome, because they have a right to be in the library just like anyone else. Balancing competing expectations across people from very different backgrounds is part of what librarians do every day.

And more disturbing things as well. In the middle of the week, I had lunch with a friend who is director of a small urban library near San Francisco in what many people would describe as a pleasant community, with a mix of wealthy and working people from different backgrounds. She discussed having to deal with a growing number of methamphetamine addicts, including one recent individual who, screaming loudly, was threatening the library’s patrons and staff with the pair of scissors he was wildly waving about. The library director courageously enticed him outside, engaging him in a conversation about what exactly he wanted to do with the scissors, while her staff frantically called the police. Having to cope with crazed meth-heads in the library is disturbingly common, even as librarians struggle to shield it from their patrons. Continue reading

Read With Caution! 9 Books That Cause Irrational Phobias

Gabe Habash -- February 9th, 2012

One of the many benefits of books is that they provide catharsis. They have the rare power of purging stress and bad emotions through the experiences we find in them. But some books can have the exact opposite effect, producing the howling fantods in a reader. For those phobic victims, we’ll wait for your screaming to die down and nod in appreciation of the power of these nine books.

1. A Taste of Blackberries causes Apiphobia (fear of bees)

Do you remember playing fort at recess with some friends, planning how to best defend your stronghold for the impending marauder attack, and then a bee lazily flying through the top of the wooden playground clubhouse, and there was always that one boy inevitably named Melvin who absolutely lost it? It was impossible to keep pretending while Melvin crimped up and squinted and the bee floated around his head. Fort was ruined while Melvin was whining to get it away from him and flinching whenever the bee made a sudden movement.

Well, if Melvin had read A Taste of Blackberries by Doris Buchanan Smith, he’d never have gone outside to begin with. That’s because in the book young boy Jamie has an allergy to bee stings and he finds a bee hive and pokes the hive with a stick. Exeunt Jamie. His death has affected almost as many kids as Leslie’s in Bridge to Terabithia. Except that book just made kids stay away from rope swings and creeks. Blackberries gave Melvins all over screaming nightmares because how could you avoid a living thing that had a mind of its own?

2. “The Yellow Wallpaper” causes Xanthophobia (fear of the color yellow)

Here’s something to keep in mind: if you’re trying to recover from a “temporary nervous depression,” don’t let anyone lock you up in a room with yellow wallpaper. Because pretty soon you’ll start smelling something. And then you’ll start seeing something moving. And then things will start coming out of the wallpaper.

Other leading causes of xanthophobia: bananas, school buses, Post Its, sunshine, Pac-Man, The Simpsons, Ms. Pac-Man.

(Side note: I think we can all be thankful that that particular frame is the thumbnail for “Yellow”.)

3. The Unnamable causes Nihilophobia (fear of nothing)

How does a book with no time or place sound, and also a book where nothing really happens and the characters also may not even really exist, but rather may be constructs of the narrator? Nihilophobia’s most famous victim is chef Neelix from Star Trek: Voyager, who does a freak out dance when the ship goes through a jet black part of space known as The Void. You’ll also find that the phobia is the name of the 36th album by Spanish new age space-boogie group Neuronium. You can listen to the bleeps and bloops above.

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Publishers Talk Trash in Super Bowl Bet

Gabe Habash -- February 3rd, 2012

New York-based publisher Other Press and Boston-based publisher Beacon Press have a friendly wager riding on Super Bowl XLVI: if the New York Giants win on Sunday, Beacon Press has agreed to promote two Other Press titles for the following week, utilizing their website, newsletter, and social media channels; if the New England Patriots win, Other Press will promote two Beacon Press titles.

The wager was born at a dinner during the Digital Book World Conference earlier this month, where Other Press associate publisher Paul Kozlowski engaged in some healthy banter about the Big Game with Beacon’s Tom Hallock and Alyssa Hassan. They decided to make things interesting.

“I think it’s great that Beacon is basically volunteering to do my job for me for a week,” says Terrie Akers, manager of online publicity and social media for Other Press, “Maybe I’ll take a vacation.”

“I thought it was just a friendly bet,” says Kozlowski. “I thought we would maybe wager a cup of chowder, Manhattan vs. New England. The whole thing has spiraled out of control.”

Details of the giveaway will be posted online after the game. In the meantime, follow the conversation on Twitter and Facebook.