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At The Margin
Vol. 2, Issue 5 (Whole Issue #19)
Thursday, May 31, 2001

Details, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.

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Editor's Note: Readers should be aware that sponsorship of At The Margin does not imply endorsement of (or even agreement with!) anything you read in this issue. The editor, in fact, hardly considers an issue successful if he hasn't offended the sponsor a little bit.

This Issue:
1. The Choice Not to Read
2. The Loss of a Unique Sensibility
3. We Couldn't Have Said It Better
4. A Follow-Up (on an Item in ATM #18)
5. Cat Item
6. Messages to the Editor
7. Do You Know Me?
8. Blue Underlined Words

1. The Choice Not to Read
In 1991, according to a survey by an organization called NDP Group (as reported in The Washington Post by Linton Weeks), more than half of all Americans read for at least a half-hour every day. Eight years later, in 1999, that figure was down to 45 percent. A 1999 Gallup Poll suggests the number of people who don't read at all [emphasis added] has been rising for 20 years.

The Post story is about the rise of aliteracy, which is obviously distinct from illiteracy but is, according to the article, more dangerous. Illiteracy can be identified, measured, and tracked. Aliteracy, the choice to not read, "is like an invisible liquid, seeping through our culture, nigh impossible to pinpoint or defend against." The article draws anecdotal evidence from web development (a usability expert identifies increasing user impatience with text), transportation (a highway department in Virginia is increasing the use of logos and symbols on signs), and packaging (the editor of a packaging magazine says marketers are communicating more with colors and shapes: "researchers tell us that the hierarchy is colors, shapes, icons, and, dead last, words.").

The article is unintentionally hilarious in describing the habits of Jeremy Spreitzer, a graduate student in public affairs who prefers to avoid reading. He plans to be a teacher. He claims to keep himself informed by watching all the news stations on television. He says he also watches the History Channel, A&E, and Turner Classic Movies. When asked how he can hope to get through graduate school without reading, he described his strategy by citing the example of being assigned to read Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. He thumbed through the book, which gave him the outline of what Putnam says, and then for detail, he consulted television news programs, where Putnam has been doing a lot of interviews. He believes he understands Putnam's theory as well as he would have if he'd read the book.

The funny thing is that Spreitzer feels he can talk so freely to a newspaper reporter about bagging a reading assignment. This guy assumes his instructors don't read any more than he does! Unfortunately, he may be right. Teachers have the same aliteracy rate as the general public, where it is said to run about 50%.

The article also cites Kylene Beers, a professor of reading at the University of Houston, who says much of the problem comes from the failure of aliterates to understand there are different types of reading. Many people think all reading is efferent (the search for information) and don't realize there is such a thing as aesthetic reading, in which we make an emotional (as opposed to cognitive) connection to the words. But if 50% of the nation's teachers believe that reading is always efferent, the prospects for producing a generation of aesthetic readers are slim at best. The Post story: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A23370-2001May13.html.

I tried to follow up on the story with some web research, and I'm not entirely sure what to make of it. The press release for the 1999 Gallup Poll, for example, is actually fairly upbeat: "The vast majority -- 84% -- of Americans claim to have read all or part of at least one book during the past year, a number that has stayed roughly the same over the past 20 years."

"At least one book" might not sound like much, but the average number of books for all respondents for the year was 17, which isn't bad. Then again, the same press release says that 46% of readers prefer reading nonfiction, where only 35% prefer fiction. And nonfiction is where people most often do efferent reading. Gallup also found the preference for nonfiction increases with age. (Find the release at http://www.gallup.com/poll/releases/pr991004b.asp.)

In addition, the same report by the NDP Group that identified the decline in the proportion of people who read a half-hour or more per day, notes that the aging of the baby boom generation is fueling a reading boom. As people age and the constraints of work and child care decline, they change their daily activity patterns. Reading is second only to television in its increasing claim on free time of aging boomers. The study found that people moving from the 24-40 age group to the 45-65 age group spend 32 more minutes per day watching television, but they spend 19 minutes more per day reading. See http://www.npd.com/corp/content/news/releases/press_990714.htm.

What are the practical implications of this for At The Margin readers? The NDP Group survey, which says the number of people reading a half-hour a day went from 50% to 45% in eight years, gives us two data points. Two points constitute a line, and that line points toward 2071 as the year in which nobody in America reads more than half an hour a day. Many of us don't plan to be alive in 2071, but if you do, take care of your eyesight. You won't be able to count on anybody reading to you for more than a half-hour per day.

2. The Loss of a Unique Sensibility
On May 11, Douglas Adams died of a heart attack at the age of 49 while exercising at his gym. He was the author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a trilogy than ran to five volumes. It may be the world's only five-volume trilogy, but that's only one of many unique characteristics. It may also be the only book that began life as a radio show, first airing on England's BBC. (Your editor happened to be in Brighton, England for the World Science Fiction Convention in 1979, the year that the radio version of the Hitchhiker's Guide was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. It lost to the movie Superman, to the great dismay of the conventioneers.) It may be the only book whose fans keep it as a living and growing work.

After it was a radio show, Hitchhiker's Guide became a television show. It was only after the television show that it became a book. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is itself about a book called "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," which is a sort of survival guide for interstellar travel. Its principal advice -- "Don't Panic" -- appears on the front cover in large, friendly letters.

You don't have to be a science fiction fan to enjoy the humor in H2G2, which features alien monsters who use poetry for torture and intelligent shades of the color blue. In a day when most people seem to take for granted that humor consists of mean or sophomoric remarks about topical items, H2G2 is both timeless and intelligent. It doesn't once use the phrase "What's up with that?"

H2G2 became a long-awaited CD-ROM a few years back and is now a web site hosted by the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/h2g2/guide/. The web site includes a handful of entries by Adams, but most of its content is contributed by h2g2 Researchers, who are members of the public. It has thousands of topics, including "Tips on How to Deal with Difficult People," "Moroccan Lamb Meatballs," "Self-reference," and "The Barrowlands Ballroom, Glasgow, Scotland," to name a few that were highlighted the last time we visited. (We also saw a reference to "The Manifesto for the Campaign to rename Thursday, 'Thing.'")

Adams may be gone, but the web site's Researchers are working hard to sustain the skewed and generous sensibility he cultivated in the Hitchhiker's Guide. The web site welcomes tributes to Adams.

The Guide's advice seems more important than ever, but you have to wonder how we can follow it with Adams gone.

3. We Couldn't have Said It Better
"If I pick up a marketing brochure and it says, 'The only thing constant in today's world is change' I toss it in the bin without a moment's hesitation. What is it with business people that they're so lacking in imagination? Even when they want to be imaginative they draw on trite old phrases: 'Let's think outside the box.' I'd rather see you in the box, six feet under, along with all your marketing collateral." (Clint Witchalls, a business analyst, in an article called "Business and the English Language" posted at The Spectator,
http://www.spectator.co.uk/article.php3?table=old&section=current&is sue=2001-05-05&id=663)

4. A Follow-up (on an Item in ATM #18)
Last month (http://www.thirdlion.com/ATM18.html), At The Margin ran a story (more like a rant, actually) about an unconscionable court injunction to prevent the publication of Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone, a parody of Gone with the Wind. On May 25, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling and lifted the injunction. Houghton Mifflin expects to get the novel published within the next few weeks.

The court's two-page decision was quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as saying, "The district court abused its discretion by granting a preliminary injunction. Its ruling amounts to an unlawful prior restraint in violation of the First Amendment." According to the story, the appeals court heard less than an hour's worth of arguments, conferred briefly, and then issued the ruling orally from the bench, promising more later on the issue of copyright. The speed of the ruling surprised participants and spectators.

Here's the wire service story by Barnini Chakraborty: http://www.canoe.ca:80/JamBooks/may25_book-ap.html. Here's a long story that ran on May 26 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: http://www.accessatlanta.com/partners/ajc/newsatlanta/0526twdg.html.

Attorneys for the Mitchell Trusts, which sought the injunction, insisted the case was clouded by the involvement of dozens of authors and scholars who had been enlisted by the publisher to contribute testimony, not to mention the amicus briefs that were filed by various news organizations. The attorneys did not attribute any influence to contentious commentary in At The Margin.

5. A Cat Item
[Editor's Note: I have been concerned lately over a trend in At The Margin toward increased depth of thought. I imagine I try your patience at times with arcana and abstract notions. But I want to make sure I don't go too far. I consulted Tom Owen, at Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop, who suggested if I was really concerned I could prepare a special issue about cats. To get me started, he supplied the following report.]

To Stuff or not to Stuff
by Tom Owen
If spring was ever here, we missed it in the dark and damp days of recent times, but summer has definitely arrived. We can tell by the soaring temperatures, the decreasing amount of clothing on the throngs of passersby, and the fact that the cat now sleeps eight hours a day in the front window.

He lies there for hours on end, barely moving except for an occasional twitch of his tail. Once an hour or so he rises, stretches, and then lies down on the other side, the better to be wholly cooked. He is oblivious to the constant tapping on the window from onlookers, to cries of "kitty" from young and old as they approach him with outstretched hands for petting or clutching their cameras while they take snapshots of him, which they never send us any copies of!

Have we mentioned that AVH's business goes down in the winter, and for various reasons the cat does not sleep in the window then. The sun doesn't shine there so much, and there are some cold drafts. No, when the snow falls, he prefers to curl up in the office next to the radiator with the steam heat. From time to time there has arisen the question of what to do when and if the cat dies. When his predecessor was approaching ancientness, I suggested we hold a wake. Everyone, customers and staff, could tell cat stories and drink and eat in feline commemoration. However the unsentimental souls here neglected to inform me he had died until six months after the event. Another suggestion was that after the feline dies, we have him stuffed and put in the window. If he seemed to be sleeping no one would know the difference.

Current cat, except for his annual tooth extraction, seems to be in excellent health and in no danger of going to kitty heaven for some years yet. There still remains the problem of winter business, and we've wondered about perhaps buying a stuffed cat for that season. Where to find one, though? In wanderings through antique stores, thrift shops, etc., we've encountered stuffed grizzlies, buffalo, and plenty of pheasants, but never a cat. Turning to the contemporary cornucopia we've looked at eBay auctions under "stuffed cats" but most seem to be children's toys: Felix, Fluffy, Pokemon(?), and the like. We were intrigued by something that claimed to be made with "real cat fur" but those objects look decidely unreal, more like cats that have been abducted by aliens, or the alien abductors themselves.

So while the debate continues over this course of action, if any reader should stumble across a stuffed cat somewhere, artfully and realistically posed, preferablly sleeping and felinis domesticus only, we'd appreciate if they dropped us a line. There are some months to winter yet, but it might help business, and Lord knows AVH certainly needs that.

[You can email Tom at books@avenuevictorhugobooks.com. Find a photo of the cat at http://www.avenuevictorhugobooks.com/.]

6. Messages to the Editor -- Responses on Issue #18

More Is More
I read your latest issue of At The Margin with interest, especially the article about the volume of academic books on the market. As a professional writer and teacher, I'm constantly telling my students to express themselves. Unfortunately, the only type of writing many of them have experienced is academic writing, in which the writer tries to "impress" readers with his or her knowledge instead of "expressing" themselves on the subject.
In academia, more seems to be more, rather than the "less is more" concept of general writing. Your article backs up this theory. The requirement of colleges and universities that their staff publish books seems to be the only way they can prove to the world that they are intelligent and know their subject matter. The more books published by the staff of a particular institution, the better the institution must be, sort of thing.
The mere thought of all those "impressions" frightens me. But the thought of just as many "expressions" in the world of general writing gives me hope.
Thanks,
Bob Brooke -- Writer/Photographer

[Editor's Note: Bob Brooke is the webmaster and proprietor of the site "Writing At Its Best": http://www.bobbrooke.com.]

Hoaxes
Just wanted to let you know that, as always, I thoroughly enjoyed the ATM newsletter.
Speaking of hoaxes, Sally has recently received a chain letter via email that she swears cannot be a hoax. What she was instructed to do was to send her husband to the last person on the list, and she was guaranteed that if she did this she would receive within 30 days no less than 218 husbands. I believe the last name on the list was Hilary Clinton.
Richard

[Editor's Note: Richard is Richard Meibers, formerly a psychologist, actor, paratrooper, and logger, currently the author of the novel Steal Away Home (iUniverse.com, Writer's Showcase, 2000), the story of a young man who becomes a mercenary by force of circumstance. In a blurb I wrote for it, I said it was "fraught with learning and loss, and fearful sights that will haunt my imagination for years."]

Oh, to Be Drunk with Jack Kerouac
A startlingly thought-provoking issue, as usual. As re readers responding to writers or the book, this is a thread I have long pondered: some writers are so present under their prose, their furrowed faces peering up from the page, that readers end up not only savoring the book but chasing after the writer -- literally in some cases, like Kerouac, who spent a lot of time not fending off readers who wanted to get drunk with him, which is why most of his books after On the Road are awful. But some writers are so personable that their personalities infuse their works and make readers wish to know the men or women who made them -- Robert Louis Stevenson, for example, or David Sedaris, or Terry Tempest Williams.
yrs
Brian Doyle

[Editor's Note: if you have been reading At The Margin for more than a few issues, you probably know Brian Doyle is. And if you don't, you can still admire the economy and elegance of the prose in his messages.]

At The Margin has 972 subscribers, most of whom are interested in what you have to say about books or items you have read in ATM. Send a message to the editor and get those thoughts out to 971 others. Please limit your comment to 200 words and send it to ATM's editor, Floyd Kemske (fkemske@thirdlion.com).

7. Do You Know Me?
For those who like puzzles as well as books, this department brings you the first sentence of a book, currently out of print in the U.S., by a famous writer. The name of the author and title of the book will be in the next issue, so write your guess down. If you want to send me your guess, email it to fkemske@thirdlion.com. Please include your name (so I can congratulate you in this space if you're correct) and let me know if you recognized the writer's style or if you know the book, or both.

This Issue's Sentence:
The three of us -- Browdy, Rettig and I -- drove past the small airport about mid-afternoon.

I'm waiting for your guesses.

Last Issue's Sentence:
There will be a short interval.

No guesses this time. Too bad. You'll kick yourself when you see the title.

The sentence is from There Will Be a Short Interval by Storm Jameson. The novel was published in the United States by Harper & Row in 1973. I assume it was after publication of the British edition, because the dust jacket on my copy provides excerpts from British reviews of it ("She is writing better than ever. Her new novel is a luminous example to less experienced writers, and an uncommon pleasure to readers who value the craft of the novel... Every aspect of this firmly textured novel pleases." -- the Sunday Times [London]). It is the story of a distinguished British historian who learns he has a serious illness that requires an experimental operation. His wife is a hypochondriac, his twenty-year old son is involved in a scandal associated with the suicide of his girlfriend, and his family is run by his domineering mother. The personal life and the professional rewards he had denied himself in the pursuit of scholarly integrity demand his attention when he finds himself in crisis.

Margaret Storm Jameson (1891-1986) was a novelist and journalist, as well as a socialist, pacifist, and feminist who is particularly known for her interwar writing. She appears on many reading lists with Vera Brittain, whose autobiography, Testament of Youth, was made into a BBC film in the 1980s. Here are the basic facts of her life. She came from a wealthy shipbuilding family and was born in Whitby. She went to Leeds University and after she graduated, she moved to London and taught at the Working Women's College. During the First World War, her father was in the Royal Navy as was captain of the Saxon Prince, which was sunk off the Irish coast in 1916. He was taken prisoner. Her brother, Harold Jameson, was a second lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps, where he ranged German guns for Allied artillery. He was decorated twice in 1916. In 1917, he was killed when his aircraft was shot down over No Man's Land. He was 17 years old.

Her first novel, The Pot Boils, was published in 1919. I couldn't find a comprehensive bibliography of her work, but it included a trilogy about a family of Yorkshire shipbuilders: The Lovely Ship (1927), The Voyage Home (1930), and Richer Dust (1931). Other books were The Triumph Of Time (1932), Women Against Men (a book of stories, 1933), Company Parade (1934), Love in Winter (1935), None Turn Back (1936), Cousin Honoré (1940), The White Crow (1968), and her autobiography, Journey from the North (1969). She spent many years as the president of PEN (International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists). Her second husband, Guy Chapman, a historian, wrote a well regarded personal account of trench warfare called A Passionate Prodigality (1933). I don't know who her first husband was.

Her work enjoyed a brief resurrection in the 1980s when it was republished by Virago Press, but at her death in 1986, she seemed to go out of print for good. If you do a web search for her, you will find a dozen iterations of the same short article from The Columbia Desk Encyclopedia, and messages from researchers begging for information about her.

I own an ancient reference book called The Reader's Encyclopedia, edited by William Rose Benet (Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1948), and Benet or somebody on his staff didn't think much of her. Here is the entry for her, obviously prepared when she was still alive: "Jameson, Storm (1897- ). English novelist. Successful in evoking the Victorian era. A liberal and profound feminist but 'as English as Yorkshire pudding.'" It got her birthdate wrong.

I can't vouch for the authenticity of this, but I found a New Zealand web site (http://www.nzhealth.net.nz/wisdom/present2.html) that offers this Storm Jameson excerpt (from what it doesn't say) under the headline "Living in the Present": "I believe that only one person in a thousand knows the trick of really living in the present. Most of us spend 59 minutes of every hour living in the past, with regrets for lost joys, shame for things badly done (both utterly useless and weakening) -- or in a future which we either long for or dread. Yet the past is gone beyond prayer, and every minute spent in the vain effort to anticipate the future is a moment lost forever. There is only one world, the world pressing against you this minute. There is only one minute -- here and now. The only way to live is by accepting each minute as an unrepeatable miracle. Which is exactly what it is -- a miracle and unrepeatable."

8. Blue Underlined Words
I follow a lot of links in the course of compiling this letter, and some of the pages I visit look like they may be interesting or useful to you. I have only visited them and know nothing about them beyond what I could gather from the visit. So I'm not endorsing anything, just bringing it to your attention. Click at your own risk.

On Stolen Elections
The University of Chicago Press has convened a panel of leading constitutional scholars to contribute essays to The Vote, a "guide to the ultimate consequences and significance of the Supreme Court's action." If you go to its web site, you can read two sample chapters (one pro, one con), but if you preorder it ($18 paperback, $42 hardbound -- it will be out in October, 2001), you can read it online and participate in a readers' forum. Interesting idea.
http://www.thevotebook.com/

When Did Copyright Get to Be a Bludgeon?
The Secure Digital Music Initiative brought together 200 companies to develop a standard that would protect digital music with an "audio watermark" so it couldn't be pirated. To counter criticism that it was slow, it held a promotion in which it invited people to crack the code it had developed thus far. Edward Felten and his team at Princeton University broke the code in short order. When he wrote a technical paper to describe his strategy, the Recording Industry of America demanded he destroy his research or they would take action under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which makes it illegal to crack copy-prevention codes and can get you sent to prison. The whole sick story, "Copyright Thugs," is at The Standard.
http://www.thestandard.com/article/1,1902,24208,00.html

Don Delillo's Bum Luck
An essay about the declining cultural clout of novelists, based on the fortunes of Don DeLillo, a major author who has realized considerable success but has not achieved the status of household word, which happened so often for writers of the previous generation. It doesn't bother DeLillo, by the way, who says he prefers being obscure.
http://www.reason.com:80/0105/cr.ed.don.html

Mouse Trapping
Have you ever noticed that some web sites disable your browser's "Back" button when you arrive? You have to wonder what kind of moronic marketers think you are more likely to buy if they trap you in the store. Here's an article in USAToday that says this kind of mouse-trapping is on the increase, even among big, reputable sites.
http://www.usatoday.com/life/cyber/tech/2001-05-29-mousetrapping.htm

Tangled Roots
"Tangled Roots," a research project about the shared history of African Americans and Irish Americans, is part of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Abolition, Resistance and Slavery at Yale University. As unlikely as this sounds, it seeks to investigate the history of American slaves and immigrants from Ireland and to consider the links between them. It features a collection of primary documents from the 17th century to the present, including oral histories.
http://www.yale.edu/glc/tangledroots/

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A Commercial Message from Avenue Victor Hugo
If you like the company of books and readers, Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop is where you want to be. The aliterate never come here. And we are all real people selling real books. If you still read, your may be getting rarer, but you don't have to be alone. Come for camaraderie, advice, something to read, or all three.

Of course we sell out of print titles and will help you find any we don't have in our 150,000 book stock or among our 250,000 magazines. Inquiries and searches cost nothing. Just make your request on our "Feedback" page: http://www.avenuevictorhugobooks.com/feedback.php3

In the U.S., we ship via UPS at $4.50 for the first book and $1 for each additional book (UPS ships to street addresses only; no P.O. boxes). Overseas shipping is postage plus $1 per book.

Avenue Victor Hugo is your bricks and mortar alternative. Let us know what you're looking for. You can even give us a price range! You'll find us at http://www.avenuevictorhugobooks.com

 


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