Thursday, June 26, 2008

Summarize Olympic sport

Bully sent me this video link when I wrote my visualizing a la Proust post. I've been so hectic that I haven't had a chance to watch it until today. It's worth watching, particularly for Monty Python fans. Then, give the competitive summarization of Proust a shot yourself:


Not books, nor book-related...but I am sure you can use a book break occasionally as well.

Christmas Island Red Crabs - video powered by Metacafe

Monday, June 23, 2008

Moby hibernating?

When I discovered the website, it was like stumbling on a motherlode, a veritable treasure chest of all things book-related that were bound to fascinate and awe me.

However, the website seems not to have been updated since 2006. My guess is that the founders, since venturing out into the perilous and exciting world of independent publishing, are too busy to post on their site. And who can blame them? Melville House is a wonderful addition to the industry, a great mix of eclectic, smart and fun books. Go check it out.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Booksellers and Independent Bookstores

Over the last week, I've been spending a great deal of time talking with independent booksellers. I am lucky enough to be living in a city, San Francisco, with some of the most active independent booksellers.

When I try to explain to people outside of the book industry why independent bookstores are so important, people often don't understand. It could be that my view is so much as an insider that it doesn't connect with people who are not immersed in the book world as I am. However, I feel it is important to explain the necessity of independent bookstores and to try continuously to explain in the hopes that more people will support the independent bookstore in their neighborhood.

First off is the very general explanation for supporting independent businesses locally. Chain stores are not a good way to create a middle-class within a neighborhood because the majority of the money is sent to the headquarters. Even while such stores might employ local people, the profits will not be spent by locally. The employees will earn the salary, and given that we are talking about retail stores, most of these employees will not be earning a great deal whereas the larger profits will be given to headquarters and corporate employees who live in a different region of the country. However, if one spends money at a local store, the profit goes directly to someone who lives in that city or town and who will be spending the dollars within the community. Therefore, the cash flow remains within the community and helps to make a more stable middle class and one that is not based too much on flow in and flow out from other regions.

The second reason is how you, the reader, benefits from the expertise of people who live and breathe books for a living. When I started working in publishing, I started actively questioning all my friends and acquaintances on how they bought books, what compelled them to pick up a book in a bookstore and buy it. What surprised me is how many of them answered that the biggest problem they faced was that they didn't know what to buy. Generally, these were friends who are not writers, who read on a moderate basis, have subscription to the New Yorker, but do not actively follow the book reviews. They might happen upon a book review occasionally, but they do not see it as part of their weekend morning to peruse the book review to see what book might interest them.

For such readers, independent bookstores are a gift. There, the bookstore staff actively follows book reviews, knows what other people in the industry has recommended, but also, crucially, knows the local taste. On top of all that, they will often spend the time to talk with customers and make recommendations specifically based on your taste in books and what type of book you are looking to read at that exact moment. I recently watched a bookseller in action as I had inadvertently visited him at the busiest part of the day. He would be talking with me at the counter when a customer would come up and ask for a recommendation. He would give some ideas of his favorite books at that moment, ask the customer what she kind of book she was reading, and then start walking her towards different categories to show her a few books that might suit her. She ended up with two books that interested her.

For a serious bookreader, the need for independent bookstores is different. Possibly the last thing I need is more books. I have a bookshelf filled with double rows of books, books in stacks on top of the bookshelf, and stacks of books on the floor. Yet, books are an addiction, and I need to constantly replenish. If I know exactly which book I want, it would be easy. But like the casual reader, I want to be informed, but also excited, stimulated, and thrilled by falling in love for a new book. Here, independent bookstores that I know and trust serve as my drug dealers. We have a relationships. I might not even talk with a bookseller while I am there. Instead, I will spend several hours browsing, and end up with three books. I take this addiction very seriously; it is central to my very existence. When a bookstore that I rely on for such browsing hours close down, it is a catastrophe in my life. When Posman on University Place closed down, I was quite upset and talked about it for a year in confusion and sorrow. When Gotham closed down, not only was it upsetting on a personal level as I knew a number of the staff, but also upsetting as a lose of a known space. Each independent bookstore is distinct in how they choose to lay out the space, what kind of shelves they use, and the final atmosphere they achieve, from the small and cozy, to the large and spacious, from cluttered to neat, from the labyrinthine to rows of symmetrical shelves. Often I end up at a different bookstore based not only on my knowledge of the kind of books they are likely to stock, but also on what kind of space in which I want to spend my hours at that given moment. Each is an atmosphere that interacts with my personal needs. It is a dynamic that no chain nor online retailer can achieve.

Finally, I'd also like to say that for someone working in an independent publishing house as I do, independent booksellers are our front row of defense. They are the ones who promote our books, who take on risks to buy our books and sell it. In much the same ways that my company takes on a risk to acquire a manuscript by an unknown author and publish it, independent bookstores will take on the risk to promote an unknown author as long as they like the book. This is the kind of mentality that has made the book industry such a thrilling industry, and it is one that is in danger of fading when people start thinking that the industry should be about profit. Everyone in the industry needs to make their business work and to make a profit. Last thing I want to see is a business fail, whether it's a publishing house or a bookstore. However, I also think the central mission of our works are books. In saying that, I believe that we should all be dedicated to making the best books work.

I started off this post talking about my visits with booksellers here. I had previously worked as a sales rep, meaning that I once sold books to independent bookstores for a living. However, I found out that spending time socially with booksellers is a different phenomenon. A selling session is always rife with the certain tension needed to banter and to go back and forth focused on the actual selling. In a social setting, we are also freed of such business. Instead, we are people in the same business who also love books. And it turns out that booksellers are almost natural raconteurs, an often unseen and rare species of the extroverted bookworm. They talk for hours about their favorite books, their moments in the bookstore, the industry, and everything else on the planet. They happen to be among the best informed citizens of the world, having read about everything there is to read about and then discussing these things with their customers. They are a delight, real individuals and vocal citizens.

So, if you have finished reading this post and stayed with me throughout this lengthy push for one of my favorite things in my industry, please go to an independent bookstore and buy some books.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Visualizing Thoughts a la Proust

The same friend (who was mentioned in the previous Visualizing Thoughts post) and I were discussing the difference between visualizing when reading as opposed to reading without visualization. She had read my post, and said that my post clarified what reading as an event was like for me (should one call reading an event or an act?).

We segued into discussing music and visualization. When I was in high school, my band conductor talked about a certain composer, whose name I have since forgotten, as evoking one image after another for me. I tried quite sincerely to listen to the same composer and to try to evoke images. I could not, but what I felt was a rush of emotions, similar to the sensation of reading. Now, when I hear a piece of music that I played when I was younger in high school band or orchestra, I often hear the instruments that sat behind me: the trumpets in band and the cellos in orchestra. Particularly during Bizet's Carmen, I hear the rough timber of the bow against the cello strings. Perhaps my love of the cello can be attributed to the years I spent sitting in front of them and admiring the grandeur of that instrument, hearing its deep resonance.

In reading the third portion of Swann's Way, I was struck by how Proust talks about language and visualization:

"Words present us with little pictures of things, clear and familiar, like those that are hung on the walls of schools to give children an example of what a workbench is, a bird, an anthill, things conceived of as similar to all others of the same sort. But names present a confused image of people--and of towns, which they accustom us to believe are individual, unique like people--and image which derives from them, from the brightness or darkness of their tone, the color with which it is painted uniformly, like one of those posters, entirely blue or entirely red, in which, because of the limitations of the process used or by a whim of the designer, not only the sky and the sea are blue or red, but the boats, the church, the people in the streets."

Here, Proust is talking of language as a categorizing function, particularly nouns. Yet, anything which is given a specific name is endowed with a identity which takes it out of a category and places it as unique, one of a kind.

However, I must say when I read the word "bird", I don't see "little pictures" but merely understand it conceptually while I am reading. For this reason, I tend to be very focused on characters in my reading rather than the plot. Non-fiction generally tends to be a more difficult category for me, particularly more fact based non-fiction such as history (as opposed to more conceptual non-fiction based such as philosophy or theoretical writings).

When I read fiction, the central character is the center of emotion, the one whose inner-life is the pivot of all action. One might say that I fall into the inner-being of the character, but it is one whose eyes are closed to the visual, whose ears are closed to spoken words. Instead, the book is a hermetic seal within the inner-life; this is how a book functions for me.

For this very reason, to read a book without a central consciousness nor one central character is much more difficult for me to focus on. Large works of history, which I try to read occasionally to understand important portions of history, tend to be difficult. Science books, where visualization is difficult. Philosophy, while requiring mental agility and clarity, is more appealing than a history book to me.

It was interesting to me to hear my friend talk about how visualization works for me. Even when she reads a non-fiction book where there isn't a visual scene that is a component of the fact being conveyed, her brain will come up with a visual component. If her brain does not immediately come up with a visual component, she will read the passage over and again until a visual component is arrived at.

In talking over the book as a hermetic seal, which is part of the argument that some critical theory is based on, I wondered how many critical theorists have thought about reading as conceptually based as opposed to sensory based. In thinking this, I realize that there are some early linguists (and of course Wittgenstein, as discussed in my previous post) that tied visualization to language. It's been a long while since I studied critical theory, but I don't recall this difference in reading as being discussed in any of the essays I read. If this difference in reading approaches was discussed and written about, would it change the way critical theorists wrote about the book? For instance, the phrase "field of language"...what does that mean for people who visualize? For me, it means the hermetic seal, the closed in world of the novel, the closed in play of language itself where language can be unmoored and played with through alliteration, syllabic counts, rhymes and off rhymes. But if language is moored to a visual orientation, how does the field play out for those readers? Interesting to wonder about.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


Now that my brain has stopped obsessing about Scottish terrier barrettes, I can talk somewhat intelligently about Maupassant.

Like so many people (or at least the majority of Maupassant reviewers on Amazon), I had read a couple of short stories by Maupassant, the most anthologized being The Necklace, during high school years and then never read him again. What a shortcoming it is of contemporary American culture that Maupassant is not better appreciated!

Reading "Mon oncle Jules et autres contes" (the bilingual Dover edition, even though my French is non-existent except for the usual Mon Ami, Mon Cherie with me being worried as to the feminine/masculine ending on even these slightest usage...and I even took French lessons in high school and college; one of these days, I will put together a post on how to take 5 languages and not retain a single one) was a revelation. Maupassant can take the briefest of descriptions and reveal the psychological makeup of a character. Here's a couple of sentences describing the central character, Hector de Gribelin, in On Horseback:

Then, at twenty, a position had been found for him and he had entered the Navy Department as a clerk with an annual salary of fifteen hundred francs. He had run aground on that reef like all those who hadn't been prepared early on for life's rough combat, like all those who see life through a mist, unaware of the necessary measures and staying power, those in whom no special aptitudes, particular faculties, or fierce energies for the struggle have been inculcated since childhood, all those in whose hand no weapon or implement has been placed.

How many Hector de Gribelins do we know, those who come to life without the necessary faculties and skills to negotiate their way? The description also points to a concern that is scrutinized time and again in this brief volume of stories: the human preference for self-deception and delusion over observation. Such delusions are tied in to notions of societal status (as in On Horseback), the ego, and justification of avarice.

It should be mentioned that Maupassant was part of the Naturalist group. He was mentored by Flaubert and knew both Zola and Huysman well. I assume he must have also been friendly with Balzac, whose analysis of human psychology seems closer to Maupassant than either Flaubert or Zola. Like Balzac, Maupassant uses every single episode, every single detail to show us how greed motivates dishonesty, and leads to justifications of cruel acts. One story that I found horrifying was Pierrot about a little dog that is taken on as a guard dog by an elderly woman when onions are stolen from her garden. The problem, though, is that the woman finds the cost of feeding the dog too dear and decides to throw the dog down a quarry where it seems that dogs were regularly thrown away in this Normandy town (quite a different Normandy than Proust's Normandy). Hearing the dog yelp in fear and in pain (the dog hurt something in falling down the quarry), her feelings are then thrown into guilt and she starts throwing food down to the dog in the quarry. Initially, she tries to get someone to go down the quarry and get the dog out, but the labor charge he cites is too dear. In the end, she finds a way to justify stopping feeding the dog and letting him die.

It's not so much the death of the dog that is horrifying but watching the vacillations of emotions, the vicious cycle of parsimony and self-justification that are the two poles of her true nature and her desire to justify her actions. In the end, it reveals human nature so minutely (the banality of evil that Hannah Arendt talks about) that it's rather horrifying...cynical, yes, but also true.

However, I will also say that not all the stories are so cynical, in the same way that Balzac's novels also contain characters of goodness. There's nothing more charming than the Bohemian friendship in Mouche, the humor in Toine, and nothing more touching than the Frenchmen in Two Friends.

But what is prevalent throughout it all is a close examination of how human beings actually behave, and the inner motivations for such behavior. It's no wonder that Henry James was such an admirer.

Friday, June 13, 2008


I could tell you about Maupassant, or I could tell you that this company makes me want to spend the most ridiculous sum of money on Scottish terrier barrettes with Swarovski crystals.

I will talk about Maupassant later. I am too busy window-shopping on the internet.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Borders, swan song?

Speculations have been flying for the last year or so as to what would happen to Borders, whether they would be able to survive financially or be forced to sell themselves off.

Unfortunately, it looks like they might have to sell themselves off.
One potential buyer is, of course, Barnes and Noble. However, Border's major stockholder, William Ackerman of Pershing, is saying that Borders should approach Amazon for a buyout.

People are always surprised when I defend Borders. Many people consider Borders to be the same as Barnes and Noble. It's only within the last five years that Borders became very similar to Barnes and Noble in look as well as books chosen for their shelves; this was part of a decision to purposefully encroach on Barnes and Noble marketshare. It backfired for Borders with Borders losing their original customer base which was more sort of a young male geeky crowd (what does it say about me that I find myself more part of that demographic than others?).

I've always loved Borders' depth and range in Ancient Greek history and literature. Outside of a university store and online stores, they were the most reliable bookstore for this category. Additionally, their store on Park Avenue had an unusually large poetry section (had, I say, as that store is slated to be closed down). Also, they carried university press titles that Barnes and Nobles did not carry in the 90s. I remember going to a Barnes and Noble store in 1998 and trying to special order a university press title and being told that it was a service they didn't provide.

It will be interesting to see what happens to Borders. They were once a fascinating company, and the vestiges of their unique culture still remain in the older stores with deep backlist representation and wide variety of titles. I've bought Korean cookbooks there that are not available in other brick and mortar stores, philosophy titles, and many volumes of poetry in the Park Avenue store. In some ways, their stores complemented the independent bookstores as Borders often had large sections of categories that many independent bookstores do not. And of course, in other ways, Borders was another direct competitor to the independent bookstores in the categories that most trade bookstores cover (fiction, history, current affairs). It's a shame that Borders lost that commitment to books and decided to pursue greater profits in a change of mission that might cost them everything.

non sequitur

Because sometimes you need to take a break from reading to save bunnies:

Cure The Bunny

Click here to play this game

I think bunny is happier in heaven.

And then I decided a longer break was needed, visited Bully's website and stole this:

Alright, alright, I am actually going to read.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Bully says...

"Your bow is not broken but you've run out of arrows. How can you fake being a bard?

It might be better to switch to being a poet. After all, things can go from bard to verse."

While I've always delighted in Bully Says Comics Oughta Be Fun, this was the first time I checked out his profile page. The quote above is what I found as part of his profile...a punning bull is one after one my own punning heart.

For those who read comics and graphic novels, make sure to check out Bully's blog. One of my favorite things is to look at the Ten of a Kind feature which matches comic book covers with the same theme.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Will Work for Books

What's one thing that anyone in the book industry needs (besides books, that is): tote bags!!

And BEA is the best place to get many different kinds of tote bags specifically made to carry many many books. Sadly, I was pretty much chained to a booth to a whole time and could not roam around the floor to pick up one tote bag after another. The best tote bag I saw going around said: Will Work for Books (I think that's a wry shot at the book industry salaries).

While I did not get a chance to pick up many tote bags (although I did make one very quick trip to the Oxford University booth to pick up an Oxford English Dictionary tote bag. I must express my inner-geekiness!) I had many wonderful conversations with all sorts of industry people from those in publishing to bookstore people as well as some book reviewers.

Books are one reason to be in the book industry. The other reason are the people. Some of the smartest, nicest, and most interesting people are in the book industry (and I am lucky enough to know the best ones!). Plus, I am convinced that this industry is the one with the best conversations. I am all about the conversation.