Sunday, May 10, 2009

New New Thing, again

Pretty much like everyone else in the publishing sector, I've been ruminating on e-books and it's place in the future of book printing. Needless to say, it's just ruminations since none of us can know the impact of e-books, regardless of the many publishing executives running around these days, patting themselves on the back for being innovative and forward thinking. Recently, I've begun to feel as though the whole industry is sort of like a rehash of presidential election 2008, with everyone saying "CHANGE!" in an optimistic way with sparse thoughtful considerations on what this change will mean.

Many in the tech sector along with marketers (generally marketing people who have published books and top-notch clients who pay them high salaries) are pushing for free or cheaper content. Yet, if the demise of newspapers proves one thing, it's that free content will not make the content more valuable to society. I've done my share interaction on political forums, including many debates in recent years about the fate of newspapers, and one striking element in the debates were the number of people who considered first-hand sources exactly the same as second-hand sources. While established newspapers are not always able to provide first-hand sources for every single written sentence, many journalists and newspapers are dedicated to validating as many claims as possible by checking through the sources and trying to ensure that claims come from first-hand sources. Blogs, on the other hand, are not tied down to such grassroots, laborious efforts. Instead, like the politically biased pundits on what passes for tv news these days, they take primary source news and then rant and rave a little bit. Devaluing primary source information monetarily, have newspapers devalued the service they provide to the various communities?

One can divide publishing financially in multiple ways...but what is clear is that production is not the only cost. There are multiple people who are necessary to publication, and all these people are specialized in what they do and need money in order to survive. I would list at least the following:
1) Authors: receive an advance and a royalty cut
2) Agents: receive a percentage of advance
3) Editors: receive a salary for acquiring books and for shaping the book
4) Marketers/Publicists/Sales people: receive a salary for positioning a book in media and within the market place
5) Production/Design: a book needs an interior design as well as a cover that highlights the contents of the book with a visual as striking as the book
6) Financial/Permissions/contracts people: keeps all financial operations going on a regular basis

Say all content was made free and books were kept alive through advertising...what then? How many advertisers are willing to support a new emerging author whose first volume of short-stories would be read by a extremely tiny number of Americans, roughly somewhere about 1,500 to 5,000? How many advertisers would put a flash banner on a collection of poems by an experimental poet whose audience ranges from 400 to 1,500? Would the survival of publishing houses be at the hands of advertisers? Would we all be providing content on par with a formulaic Hollywood movie, one that is guaranteed to draw millions of people?

Outside of business executives and marketing/advertising gurus (technically speaking, marketing and advertising gurus are in the same category of "business" in bookstores despite marketing and advertising gurus somehow labeling themselves as "creatives" these days), the writer willing to give up an advance and royalty are far and between. While there are writers who have finally established themselves materially by means of different academic positions cobbled together with fellowships, there are also many writers who struggle financially. Sure, what they are writing is "intellectual property" but why should their intellectual property be given away for free when many writers need the money? Isn't their writing worth $15 (paperback price...about the same amount as buying one pizza pie) or $24.95 (cloth price...about the price tag of a t-shirt at The Gap)?

We live in an odd world where material goods are priced higher and higher and intellectual goods are worth not even a cent. I remember half a decade ago discussing with a friend in the industry the price of art books, roughly in the range of $40 to $80 (or higher for the highest production art books). For those $80, the art book is in competition with blouses, dresses, a dinner at a fancy restaurant, an expensive bottle of wine, a moderately priced pair of shoes....yet, so many middle-classed and affluent Americans prove time and again that they would rather have clothes over an art book.

What then is the book industry to do? Is it a question of ebooks taking over? I don't think it's as simple as that. In my opinion, for what it's worth, the real problem does not lie with the format of the book as much as the devaluing of content. We live in an age where music explodes because the iPod is marketed properly. Don't get me wrong....I like music. And I liked my iPod until the battery died. But somehow, music seems to be intrinsically different than books.

For instance, music is a short-term commitment of minutes a day. A book is like a long marriage. It's settling into the content. In an age when people consider articles in newspapers dated and too difficult (yes, I know people who consider the New York Times difficult...and from looking up newspaper subscription and viewer rates, those seem to be the majority of Americans rather than the minority), where are the people who will consider the book worth their time, be it a e-book or printed on paper?

As you can see from my paragraphs above, I am talking about a specific kind of book: perhaps something like Greenblatt's Shakespeare in the World, W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants, or Paul Muldoon's Hay: a literary book which always has a limited audience. Is the audience for those books shrinking?

I suppose Murakami and the marketing around that provides one answer: make an author the ultimate cool. But somehow, I cringe at that. Yes, I like Allen Ginsberg but do I think that he's as good a poet as Paul Celan. No. And it's so much easier to market Ginsberg than Celan. In a world where books (in any format) are competing against the internet, movies, cable tv, tv, and music, will there be money for both Ginsberg and Celan?

I have no answers, just random thoughts on this topic which could or could not change much.

Monday, December 22, 2008


Go read my old friend Jeffrey's poems in his first collection, Aquarium. The New York Times Book Review, by Karl Kirchwey, was a rave:

Here is a first book written from a very high floor of the Tower of Babel, and the view is exhilarating. Not since D. H. Lawrence’s “Birds, Beasts and Flowers!” or the bestiary written by Kenneth Rexroth for his daughters has a poet wrung so much human meaning from the natural world. But whereas Lawrence is discursively tender, and Rexroth wry and epigrammatically clever, Jeffrey Yang speaks in tongues as if touched with a Pentecostal flame. He leads the reader through a net of allusions in poems barnacled with hard words. A typical Yang poem begins with the title “Oarfish”; traces it to the abode of humans called Midgard in Norse myth; invokes the ourobouros, the serpent devouring its own tail in a symbol of infinity; quotes the 19th-century American artist Elihu Vedder, the Baroque religious scholar Sor Juana and Lawrence’s poem “Fish”; glances at the Homeric word “oarismos” (roughly, “pillow talk”); and ends with guanine, a chemical that codes genetic information and also a substance found in fish scales. Nonetheless, as Ezra Pound would say, it all coheres — not just in art but in life. Yang is an editor at New Directions, which has published Rexroth, who edited a collection of D. H. Lawrence’s poems (and, like Yang, translated Chinese poetry). In fact, a fragment of Pound’s own Canto 36 is quoted by Yang, who is “testing the overtones” of language and history by means of a collage of brilliant fragments just as his master did, exploring the “divine quiddity” of the world.

Compounding his ingenuities, Yang has also arranged the poems in this book as an abecedary, proceeding from A (“Aba­lone”) through to Z (“Zooxanthellae”). What might feel like a gimmick instead leaves the reader dazzled at Yang’s polymathic knowledge: dazzled, but not threatened, since the advent of Google means that allusiveness in poetry is no longer the challenge it used to be. In any case, as one ancient master tells us, “What people / know is inferior to what they do not know.” Yang writes with a keen ear for the sound of language; indeed, his poems’ openings sometimes seem like verbal spasms, before they smooth into grammar: “Abalone Rumsen aul√≥n / Aristotle auriform Costanoans / cultivated, Brueghel painted, / awabi Osahi dove for / on September 12, 425 A.D.” Subject, verb and object resolve only gradually out of such a music. These poems are concerned with translation and with metaphor, both of which involve a “carrying across” from the natural into the human world; from the past into the present; from one language or civilization into another. Often they use the mousetrap form of the epigram, sudden and pleasing: “The barnacle has the longest penis / of any animal in proportion / to its body size. Happiness / and proportion: / never be ashamed of evolution.” Modesty figures among the lessons to be learned from nature, too; and honesty; and patience. And the poetic vehicle for these lessons is capable of great delicacy. A poem describing a kind of tetra, the familiar aquarium fish, reads in its entirety: “You can see straight thru / an X-ray fish to its heart. / We are just as transparent / so be true, gentle, honest, just. . . .”

Accordingly, politicians are at one end of the moral spectrum for Yang, and our genetic near-neighbors the dolphin and the manatee are at the other. For in addition to its other strengths — so considerable that they may distract the reader from its most important accomplishment — this is a moral book, in the best sense of the word. “Philosophy’s shadow: poetry. Poetry’s / shadow: philosophy,” Yang writes. And chief among nature’s lessons, it seems, is that of symbiosis or “mutualism,” exemplified by the type of algae that gives its name to the book’s final poem. Zooxanthellae live in tropical seas, dependent upon coral but also benefiting it. In this poem, the lines of which change progressively into prose as if under the torque of outrage, the peacefulness of such a coexistence is juxtaposed with the coldbloodedness of those American scientists and soldiers who first uprooted certain Pacific islanders, then destroyed their atolls in increasingly devastating nuclear tests and finally returned to their desolation to sample the extent of nuclear poisoning. “Mutualism” thus becomes a foil for the absolute corruption of natural instinct, which is more characteristically human. In fact the lesson is more complicated than this: the algae described are dino­flagellates; their presence in high concentrations in the flesh of fish causes sickness in the humans who eat it. The partners in symbiosis are not neutral, as Yang notes in an earlier poem: “Some causes / are invisible to the naked eye. / Strive for equilibrium / rather than neutrality.”

This poet is obsessive, as was the 17th-century English writer and physician Sir Thomas Browne, who tried to reconcile science and religion, and who believed he read numbers and lessons in nature that were of significance to humans. Browne has the last word in this book, in a concluding epigraph that reads in part: “Thus there is something in us that can be without us and will be after us.” He could have been describing an isotope of uranium — or just good poetry, which is what Jeffrey Yang has delivered in this book.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Hard Times Books

While I was in the midst of writing my Balzac entry, it struck me that there are many books appropriate to a recessed/depressed economy, books that either take place during America's Great Depression or where money and its machinations play a central role in the plot. Hence, my books for Hard Times (more appropriate to these times, perhaps, than the top 10 or top 100 now making its rounds in the remaining book review sections nationwide).

1. M.F.K. Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf
Written during WWII when food rations made gourmande treats impossible, when even every single egg was cherished, Fisher gives the full details on how to make the most out of every small piece of beef, every egg, the slightest bit of butter and cream. Until such dire times again arrive, we can read this book and relish each egg with its pat of butter.

2. Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, photographs over multiple volumes
While Walker Evans is best known for his collaboration with James Agee on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, I admit my ignorance of Agee's text. Instead, when I think of the worst of the Depression, the images of American men, women, and children as captured by Evans and Lange during their work for WPA flood my mind. The legs of a child lying down with a piece of white cloth thrown over the upper part of the body like a hasty shroud, the gaunt cheeks of a woman...such images speak of earnest good people trying to face the hardships that a national economy in turmoil has brought to their daily lives.

3. Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
Not having read Agee, I naturally people the American epic, Grapes of Wrath, with the faces of those who appear in Evans' and Langes' respective photographs. In many ways, things have not changed much since Steinbeck wrote this call to arms for the poorer folks. Corporations would still prefer to throw away goods rather than give it away to those without; profit still means more than a social responsibility to see one's fellow human beings clothed, sheltered, and fed; hypocrisy and machinations of profiteering are still what rules the country. But, in reading Grapes of Wrath, one is gratified to learn that there might still be the hope to become better people.

4. Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens
Almost any novel by Charles Dickens will suffice as all of them are interested in a character rising from poverty to prosperity, or vice versa. One of my favorites is Little Dorrit, one of his lesser-known novels but accomplished than many others. Like Dickens himself as a child, one of the main characters has a parent in Debtor's Prison where people lived perpetually in England until their debt was paid in full. BBC recently did a movie-series of Little Dorrit which I haven't seen yet but which I hope to see. In the midst of new publicity for the movie after the movie was announced, the Mail did an interesting article on the original real-life woman on whom Little Dorrit was based, a woman abandoned by her common-law husband turned prostitute to support her child. Furthermore, the Mail article talks about a house Dickens helped found to turn wayward girls into women who could respectably marry. All such real-life facts aside, I always find Dickens tremendous fun during dreary times, even while he writes about poverty. I remember once reading a part in Anne of Green Gables where Anne has to stop eating Dickens to eat because there's always so much eating going on in Dickens. I prefer the Oxford edition with an excellent introduction by Lionel Trilling.

5. Hard Times, Studs Terkel
If you want the real deal, the way the Great Depression was actually survived by real people...the best source is the primary source. And no one does it better than Studs, the one-person chronicler of American lives who detailed the Depression whether it be factory workers, bankers, or politicians. One co-worker whose parents lived through the Depression was telling me how her parents told her there were always men passing through the neighborhood asking for handouts of food. It's scary to think about it.

6. Buddha, Osamu Tezuka
I am up to Volume 4 on the life of Siddharta as depicted by Osamu Tezuka. This series makes it onto the list as we may all want to aspire towards an inward light with less consumption as we will have less money for consumption.

7. Lost Illusions, Honore de Balzac
As with Dickens, it was hard to pinpoint one novel for Balzac which should make this list as so much of Balzac's novels involve the fall and/or rise of wealth for an individual. Yet, Lost Illusions might be considered an encapsulating novel for Balzac because it contains vivid scenes of Paris as well as provincial life along with portraying the lives of aristocrats, writers, and inventors. While few will be tempted to read the ninety-nine volumes that make up the Human Comedy, no one should pass up the seven hundred some odd pages that make up Lost Illusions. The Modern Library edition, translated by Kathleen Raine and with an introduction by Richard Howard, is superb.

8. What Work Is, Philip Levine and Eunoia, Christian Bok
Very soon after 9/11, one bookstore buyer told me that he tries to keep his poetry section fully stocked as he considered it an important way of feeding the mind with other ideas besides current events. While What Work Is is mostly about Levine's own reinterpreted events of the Depression, it also has a somewhat inspirational tinge. Besides What Work Is, I would recommend Eunoia by Christian Bok, a poet singularly up to the tradition of Oulipo (whether he be professed as one of them or not). There's no greater joy for a lover of poetry than reading this accomplished piece of whimsy, genius, linguistic rules, and frivolity rolled up in one.

9. Theory of Moral Sentiment, Adam Smith
While Smith is better known for the Wealth of Nations and his metaphysical invisible hand, we are the worse off that Theory of Moral Sentiment is not as well read by American capitalist. While Wealth of Nations might detail the mechanisms of economics which has been reinterpreted to suit our current ideas of how finances should be jigged, Theory of Moral Sentiment details the relationships between human beings. In such notions, Smith shows an idealistic and humanist side that would have allowed for a more humane interpretation of his Wealth of Nations. Such a reinterpretation might be called for after the fall of capitalism in its current form.

10. Illuminations, Walter Benjamin
If there is one flaneur who daily interpreted culture and the effects of capitalism on culture, it is Walter Benjamin whose essays on every aspect of culture was shot through with the understanding that all of culture was being changed in front of his eyes by "Modernity" as enforced through manufacturing and technology. He understood that his very life was under such forces, that the cultural values that he esteemed would no longer be esteemed by societies that were being reshaped, where folk cultures were dying out, and objects that testified to history and its place in time were being eradicated. Even while questions about our economics and the financial underpinnings of the nation might need to be reassessed, will such things happen? Instead, will we all just want to be reassured that things will return to the way it was a few years ago?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Balzac and money

In this time when every single dinner party languishes into laments about the economy, it's fitting to read Balzac. Granted, buying the complete Human Comedy is not a cheap venture, but one can help along the economy with such an expensive outlay. Moreover, given that the Human Comedy is composed of 99 separate stories, the whole project can keep me entertained for at least two years for approximately $140 dollars (sixteen volumes purchased at $93 with the other two volumes being picked up separately through used book vendors on Amazon). The edition I purchased was edited by George Saintsbury (of History of English Prosody fame) and includes a useful introduction to each of the stories in the Human Comedy.

As Henry James notes in his essay, "Honore de Balzac", money is always of interest to Balzac and often a motivator for villainous or cowardly deeds. It is speculated that Balzac's great interest in money derived from the fact that he never could make enough to pay off all his debts. Indeed, if this is a primary reason to be so interested in money, those of us in publishing would only publish books with money as a central theme. I myself believe that Balzac, along with many French Naturalists, saw how much capitalism, in its evolving modern form, was changing the fabric of life and the values of society. Zola has that wonderful novel called The Ladies' Paradise where the real central character is the first large department store in Paris.

In regards to Balzac and money, Henry James wittingly says about one of his characters:

His women, too, talk about money quite as much as men, and not only his ignoble and mercenary women (of whom there are so many) but his charming women, his heroines, his great ladies. Madame de Mortsauf is intended as a perfect example of feminine elevation, and yet Madame de Mortsauf has the whole of her husband's agricultural economy at her fingers' ends; she strikes us at moments as an attorney in petticoats. Each particular episode of the "Comedie Humanie" has its own hero and heroine, but the great general protagonist is the twenty-franc piece.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

THE cookbook

Yesterday, I took the subway down to Union Square to the Strand where I was mentally prepared to browse for several hours. Suffice it to say that I did not last the four or so hours I anticipated to look over all of the fiction available at the Strand. Instead, I had to leave after two hours...because staying at the Strand can be extremely dangerous to my bank account (pitiable thing that it is).

In my many years of visiting the Strand, I had never once ventured to look over their cookbooks. I assume this is because I was always bewilderingly distracted by their poetry and fiction, along with the many tables of discounted new books. However, yesterday, I ended up meandering along the hardbound classic section as I have been keen on finding another Balzac novel translated into English (while famous Balzacs such as Lost Illusions, Pere Goriot, Cousin Bette, etc. are easy to find, much of his Human Comedy remains unavailable in English today).

Little did I know that the cookbook section is right next to the hardbound classics; in the midst of my Balzac search, my eyes wandered to alight on Julia Child and Simone Beck's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume II, first edition! Surely, this must have been an oversight on the Strand's part. Their loss, my gain. While missing a dustjacket, the cover was a beautiful blue fleur-de-lis pattern on an off-white background, classic and elegant.

As soon as I got back home, I settled for a long cookbook read while eating goat cheese on wafer-thin crackers. Nothing that will make you as hungry as reading Mastering the Art of French Cooking (I assume the same for Volume 1 which I plan on buying very soon). Even thinking about the book now has me reaching out for those crackers, anything to fill my mouth while thinking about those soups recipes rich with cream, the roasts studded with lardons before being briefly pan fried with pork fat, the sausage recipes with one portion ground pork to one portion pork fat, the pate cooked in brioche dough, the deconstructed cabbage reconstructed with a stuffing of ground pork and rice, the lighter than air pound cake...hungry yet?

For all the recipes, what makes Child and Beck's cookbook so outstanding is the thorough description of technique, the idea that each section is built around one technique which can be mastered and used again and again throughout one's cooking lifetime. In many ways, today's cookbooks are extremely light on technique with too many homecooks reliant on cookbooks to offer a diverse range of techniques that needs to be learned over and over again. However, this is not the way cooks of old did it. Instead, what matters are a core set of skills (after all, cooking is a craft) that can be learned and which can be reinterpreted through various recipes.

For example, Child and Beck cover a good range of beef stew recipes. However, underlying each recipe, as the authors point out, is the central skill of braising with variations on the beginning and finishing portions of the recipe as well as slight modifications of ingredients. In this section, the authors, amateur cooks themselves who loved food but did not cook for restaurants, offer comprehensive information on different cuts of meat, what makes a certain cut of beef better for braising.

Many of the recipes are illustrated with drawings showing technique. This isn't the cookbook as food porn, which is so often the case these days and a visual feast I fully indulge in frequently, but the cookbook as a serious manual to a central skill.

Why a central skill? I realize that many people now cook only for entertainment. However, nothing is as nourishing or as reliable as a good meal. There might be days when I won't have the time to read (that mental and even emotional sustenance that I need). But I must eat, even if my lunch is too frequently in front of a computer. And I always eat a full breakfast, not a continental breakfast of pastry and coffee. With such eating habits, I try to always make a substantial main course that will last me for several breakfasts in a row (today, I made chicken and rice porridge with jujubee). Even if I have a long day of reports ahead of me, I can look forward to my breakfast, enjoy having something warm and filling, particularly on these cold December mornings. I know pop psychology is popular these days as a means of working one's self towards happiness...but I really think everyone would be happier if they learned to cook so that they could eat something delicious everyday.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Not work reading, someday?

So, there are all the joys of working in publishing...such as all the free books, meeting people who do nothing but work on books in one way or another and talking with such people about books, and doing something I love for a living.

However, believe it or not, as everyone in the industry will tell you, you never get the time to read for pleasure. The problem is reading for work. Work at the office is filled with too many distractions to actually read, between people popping in and out with questions, emails, and sorting through the kazillion pieces of paper waiting in the in-box.

It makes perfect sense that a co-worker gave me for a birthday recently: Franz Kafka's The Office Writings! Among the contents are "Jubilee Report: Twenty-Five Years of the Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute" (1914), "Help Disabled Veterans! An Urgent Appeal to the Public" (1916/1917),"The Scope of Compulsory Insurance for the Building Trades" (1908), and much more written by Kafka as a lawyer working for the largest Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute in the Czech Lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Unfortunately, I haven't had a chance to dip into it...too much work reading!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

OT: The divine Eggleston

Go see it at the Whitney Museum. Your eyes will thank you.