Please note the date on this issue and don't put too much faith in the links, some of which may be centuries old in Internet time by the time you're reading this.
At The Margin
Vol. 2, Issue 6 (Whole Issue #20)
Saturday, June 30, 2001
Details, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.
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This issue of At The Margin is sponsored by Coolidge College, one of the most popular free novels on the web. Since October, 2000, it has been downloaded by 672 readers. If you like ferrets, higher education, mass market advertising, near-death experiences, and romance, this is the novel for you. Our motto: "Over 600 readers -- no complaints." Stop by and download your copy today. http://www.thirdlion.com/CC.html
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.
1. Book Reviews and the Art of Piling On
2. In Which a Prayer Book Saves Mathematical History
3. Who in the World Programs these Things?
4. The Web Giveth, the Web Taketh Away
5. Messages to the Editor
6. Do You Know Me?
7. Blue Underlined Words
1. Book Reviews and the Art of Piling on
Some weeks ago, thousands of newspaper readers in the Boston metropolitan area desperately paged through their Sunday Globes in search of the "Books" section, only to find a brief notice that there is no more "Books" section, and book reviews are now part of some other section. The Boston Globe is just one among many newspapers that are trimming book review pages. The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times, and San Jose Mercury News have all reduced the amount of space regularly devoted to book reviews.
The drastic reduction in general-interest book reviews (and it does seem to be drastic) appears to be at least partly the result, of all things, of web-based job recruiting. If you're looking for a job, your time is now spent far more efficiently at a recruitment website (such as http://www.monster.com) than reading the "help wanted" advertisements in the newspaper. Advertisers are aware of this and are cutting back on help wanted ads. In fact, Matthew Storin of the Boston Globe, appearing on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, specifically cited the decline of help wanted advertising as the cause of the financial pressures that inspired the decision to drop the "Books" section. (He said it was one cut among many.) Note also that four of the newspapers noted above are based in centers of high technology, an industry particularly keen on web-based recruitment advertising. The fifth is New York, which is, well, New York.
Storin also pointed out that the "Books" section was running a deficit of about $600,000 a year (section advertising minus costs of production). In the end, he said, the decision to terminate the "Books" section was "very much" a "bottom line decision."
The News Hour discussion also featured Jason Epstein of Random House. Since Storin pointed out the section was losing money due to lack of advertising, it fell to Epstein to provide some explanation of the shortage of advertising for book sections. "I don't think book advertising helps very much," he said. "We do it in a limited way for other reasons." So it appears that book publishers are not even supportive of book reviews, at least as far as the purchase of ads is concerned.
For more about the News Hour discussion, see Holt Uncensored (http://www.holtuncensored.com/members/column245.html -- this may require a subscription). Pat Holt is formerly the book editor at San Francisco Chronicle, and she points out just how limited the News Hour discussion was. Who says book sections should only run ads from book publishers? The demographics of the book section readership are the best of any section of a metropolitan newspaper, except for perhaps the financial and business pages. If the book section is read by an elite, why not accept advertising for jewelry, cars, and cruises in it?
The News Hour is not the only place that has noticed the declining space given to book reviews. A website called The Complete Review has noted "brutal" cuts in the "Books in Brief" section of The New York Times Book Review. The Complete Review claims that NYTBR provides insufficient coverage to fiction and is woeful in its coverage of foreign fiction in translation. The Complete Review, which apparently doesn't mince words, characterizes The New York Times Book Review as "tame, pedestrian, provincial, and limited both in its outlook and in the number of books covered." The writer (there's no byline) did a tabulation of the books covered in a month's worth of issues: 58 nonfiction titles, 27 fiction titles, seven poetry titles, and 10 crime titles. Only four of the 102 books were originally written in a language other than English. This is a devastating indictment of the publication that likes to consider itself the arbiter of literary taste (10 crime titles?). See it at http://www.complete-review.com/quarterly/vol2/issue2/edit1.htm.
An essay by James Atlas, "Everyone's a Critic," examines a different part of the elephant. Atlas is the author of Bellow, a controversial biography of author Saul Bellow. "Coverage of books is almost too plentiful," he writes. He cites the weeklies: The New Yorker, New York magazine, Publishers Weekly, The New York Times Book Review, and the (London) Times Literary Supplement. Beyond those are The New York Review Of Books, Vanity Fair, Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and Talk. On television, there is the C-SPAN book feature and Charlie Rose. On radio, there is Fresh Air with Terry Gross. "Instead of having to brood over a dozen reviews," Atlas moans, "I have to brood over a hundred." Atlas's main theme in the essay is that reviewing is discordant and chaotic and that criticism, unlike what it was in previous generations, lacks any sort of consensus. His essay can be found at the Brill's Content site: http://www.brillscontent.com/2001june/depts/books_atlas.shtml.
It may sound strange, but these two views -- that 1) there is too little coverage of books and 2) there is too much coverage of books -- are not inconsistent. Even while fewer and fewer books are being reviewed, more and more reviews are being published, as new websites and magazines debut. With few exceptions (e.g., The Complete Review), however, everybody is reviewing the same stuff! Atlas's book is no doubt significant, but why should it be the subject of "hundreds" of reviews? You would think five or six might do the job admirably.
The capitalistic spirit of innovation alone should inspire some book editor somewhere to steal a march on his or her competitors by exercising some tiny bit of originality in selecting books to review. Books by midlist authors, books from small publishers, fiction in translation... These books are going into the marketplace unnoticed, while a handful of books get "hundreds" of reviews. Yes, it's a problem that review space is being cut back, and yes, it's a problem that so many reviews are really badly done. But it's more of a problem that nobody in the review game seems capable of exercising leadership. At their best, smart and well-read reviewers can be arbiters of culture and literary taste. Instead, the reading public is expected to make its way through the book marketplace with guidance from nobody but sheep and pile-on artists.
2. In Which a Prayer Book Saves Mathematical
Sometimes a used book fetches a pretty good price. In October 1998, a book known as the Archimedes Palimpsest was sold in New York for $2 million. But you could argue that $2 million was a bargain price, for the book has changed our conception of intellectual history.
A palimpsest is an overwritten manuscript (it gets its name from the Greek word "palimpsestos," which means "scraped again.") The book in question was a prayer book, probably written and compiled around the 13th century (A.D.), by a monk of the Greek Orthodox Church. But the monk had made the prayer book from an older book, a mathematical treatise (why let all that good parchment go to waste?), from which he had separated the binding. Then he soaked the page-spreads with orange juice or some other preparation to remove the old ink. He cut the spreads in half and used the halves as new page-spreads, turning them and binding them along an edge perpendicular to the old binding. Then he wrote in it: descriptions of the ceremonies for blessing loaves at Easter, for engagements, for marriages; and prayers: one for himself and others for exorcisms and for unclean things falling into wine, oil, or honey. A Danish scholar saw the book in Constantinople and was able to make out some of the overwritten mathematics. He recognized it was the work of Archimedes, and he translated and published some of it in 1907.
The prayer book eventually found its way to Paris, however. It was there, in the 1930s, that somebody glued forged illuminations to some of the pages to increase its value(!). Owned by a collector, it was auctioned off by his children after he died. The unnamed buyer who purchased it for $2 million has turned it over to scholars for study with multispectral imaging and remote sensing software. What they have discovered is extraordinary.
The original was probably transcribed in Constantinople in the late 10th century, about 1200 years after Archimedes wrote it (and 300 years before the monk decided to recycle it). Scholars believe the scribe who prepared the Archimedes book was working from a faithful copy of the original. It comprises works in mathematical physics: Planes In Equilibrium, On Floating Bodies, and Method; and in pure geometry: Spiral Lines, On Sphere and Cylinder, Measurement of a Circle, and Stomachion. Of these seven works, Method is new in the modern world and would not exist today except for the palimpsest. What it does is combine mathematics and physics in a way that was not achieved again until the 19th century. Archimedes was over 2000 years ahead of his time in scientific reasoning. The palimpsest discovery has not inspired any changes in modern science or mathematics, but it is comparable to discovering Roman mosaics in a cubist style or steam locomotives being used as troop transports in the Pelopennesian Wars.
For the story of the palimpsest, see the Sunday Times Magazine: http://www.sunday-times.co.uk/news/pages/sti/2001/06/17/ stimazmaz03006.html. For a discussion of the mathematics and physics of the Method, see Physics Today: http://www.aip.org/pt/june00/origins.htm.
3. Who in the World Programs these Things?
"Users in libraries that currently employ filters complain that the programs block such home pages as the Super Bowl XXX, the Mars Exploration site (MARSEXPL), the Quakers, 30 Congressional candidates, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Native-American Indian sites, the American Association of University Women, Mother Jones magazine, the National Rifle Association, the Democratic Party (but not the Republican Party), Beanie Babies, and millions of other sites of legitimate interest." -- Nancy Kranich, president of the American Library Association, writing in Information Impacts magazine (http://www.cisp.org/imp/june_2001/06_01kranich.htm).
4. The Web Giveth, the Web Taketh Away
I had an interesting time putting together "Do You Know Me?" this month.
There was one successful guess for last month's puzzle, and it was made by a reader who cheated. "I'm regularly frustrated by my inability to recognize any of the wonderful first lines you put up," he writes. "For this one I just said, Hell, there are enough distinct words there for a Google query.... I just copied-and-pasted the words 'The' through 'small' into the Google search form, and it located what seems to be a complete, text-only copy of the entire book." As it happens, this reader found the book at the same place I did: the James Drought Home Page.
I won't tell you this reader's name. He is rather ashamed of himself for cheating. "I know this isn't in the ATM spirit," he writes. But I think his ingenuity is in the ATM spirit.
This anecdote illustrates some of the extraordinary richness of the web. The Google search engine (http://www.google.com) is one of the best things to happen to humanity since the moon landing, and the people who run it make it available without charge.
Searching isn't the only free thing the web offers. This month's book, The Gypsy Moths by James Drought, is also free. If you have an Internet connection (which is pretty likely, since you're reading this), you can go to the James Drought Home Page and download it in Microsoft Word format. The Gypsy Moths is only one book of thousands that are offered on the web without charge. Long-time readers will remember project Gutenberg (http://promo.net/pg/) from previous issues of ATM. Classics are available there for the taking. And there are individual sites all over the web where publishers and authors offer books without charge as loss leaders (like my own Coolidge College: http://www.thirdlion.com/CC.html), as a way to gain recognition, or in the simple spirit of human generosity.
And of course the research resources on the web are bountiful. I needed some primary source documents from the 19th century for the novel I am writing, which is set in the Civil War. I was able to find the entire run of the Congressional Globe (predecessor of the Congressional Record) at a site maintained by the Library of Congress: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwcg.html. It isn't readily searchable, because the pages are presented as pictures rather than text, but it's easy to browse, and I was able to find the full text of an 1861 Congressional resolution I needed. I also found important articles from The Atlantic Monthly and De Bow's Review, at the libraries of Cornell and University of Michigan: http://cdl.library.cornell.edu/moa/browse.journals/atla.html. http://www.hti.umich.edu/m/moajrnl/moajrnl_browse.html.
That's the good news.
The bad news is the web is changing.
For the past year, I have been reading articles in business publications about how the web is changing, but I generally dismissed them, since the changes didn't interfere with what I use the web for. I am generally pretty slow to adopt change, and a number of things came and went before I got around to checking them out. I never once visited Napster, and I had never found anything I needed at a shopping site that offered free shipping. So I never noticed the restrictions on trading music files, and I wasn't at all put out by the general resurrection of shipping charges. And a lot of really trendy sites have vanished before I ever knew about them.
But until now, and this may have the character of a confession, one of my primary tools for putting together "Do You Know Me?" has been Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com). When I got a lead for an out-of-print book, I could go there and search for it. As far as I could tell, if the book ever existed, Amazon.com had a listing for it. If it was out of print, the site told me it was out of print and offered to find it for me. Sometimes the reviews posted by readers could get me started in researching a book.
But I just went to Amazon to check on the new book with which I'm testing you this month, and my initial search turned up nothing. No listing at all. So I clicked on "Rare and Used Books" and tried the book's title. The search engine found 57 "zShops" that are willing to sell the book to me, but it seems to be up to me to infer it is out of print. Nobody ever actually said it was.
I guess it's not such a hardship to go to a two-step search instead of a one-step one, but I feel a little at sea to no longer have books identified as "out of print" (which is one of the requirements for them to appear in "Do You Know Me?"). I have seen news stories that Amazon is cutting down its inventory, but I haven't been able to learn whether that means it is cutting its listings correspondingly. I have looked through various information pages at Amazon.com, and I find no indication that its listings include all the books that are in print (although it does say that the listings at Amazon.com UK include all the British books in print). So I feel as if I've lost a definitive resource.
I could check Books in Print (http://www.bowker.com/bip/), of course, and now the same publisher offers Books out of Print (http://www.isbn.org/bop/). But the publisher, R.R. Bowker, charges a subscription fee for either of these, and it's hard to justify the fee if you aren't a bookstore or a library.
I have no grounds for complaint. Amazon.com isn't, after all, a public service. And I've gotten a lot of use out of it since ATM's first issue in September, 1999. But the disappearance of what was an important free service strikes me as a watershed in the evolution of the web. I'm now prepared to agree with all those articles in the business publications. The web is changing. It's pretty distressing to lose a tool I had integrated into my work. I'm just glad that I hadn't gotten dependent on one of those grocery shopping sites.
5. Messages to the Editor
Editor's Note: In last month's issue, your editor responded to a message from Brian Doyle, editor of Portland Magazine, with the introductory comment, "If you have been reading At The Margin for more than a few issues, you probably know who Brian Doyle is."
This Month's Brian Doyle Message
Man -- I like your emagazine more than any other magazine of any sort. It's tart, informative, and bizarre. Advice: roast the cat and be done with the cat. What's the deal with cats and bookstores, anyway?
1. I do know Brian Doyle, and it's not pretty. He snarls when he talks, he over-edits prose, he insults poets at every opportunity ("in what other craft do we accept 5000 bad efforts for the 10 well-made ones?" as Flann O'Brien said), he's addicted to run-on sentences and semicolons in his own essays, his oeuvre is undisciplined and murky (I mean, the man has written essays on chicken-sexing, alto saxes, Blake, and Plutarch -- where's the pattern there?), and he was arrested once in New Jersey for cheerfully joining in a bar brawl with a pool cue. What kind of readers do you have, anyway?
2. As re editors, I quote my favorite two remarks: "My idea of a great writer is someone who turns his or her piece in on time and is then immediately killed by a bus" (Michael Kinsley), and "All editors are arrogant heartless bastards at heart -- if they have hearts" (Barry Lopez).
3. As re blurbs on books, that's a whole issue of ATM in itself, hmm? I wrote one recently for a fiction manuscript that arrived unannounced on my desk from the publisher, with a note that the deadline for blurbs was in four days. I read the book quickly, worked hard on my blurb ("This book is better than a stick in the eye"), and have not heard since.
yrs Brian Doyle
The Pursuit of Authors
Thanks for including my father (James Drought) and his novel The Gypsy Moths in the "Do You Know Me?" column.
To add to Brian Doyle's observation of authors being personally pursued by fans, I would like to add Carlos Castaneda, author of The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge and Tales of Power. He was supposedly pursued in the US and Mexico, not only by general public fans, but by celebrity fans as well, including the rock bands the Beatles and the Eagles. And B. Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, was so reclusive he was pursued for years by curious individuals and reporters who wanted to know his true identity before his apparent death in 1969. In Traven's case there is still much speculation on who he was and where he came from. When film Director John Huston was making the The Treasure of the Sierra Madre movie, Huston coaxed Traven into meeting him on the film set in Mexico. But in Huston's autobiography, An Open Book, he speculates that the man posing as Traven was an imposter.
Keep up the great work on ATM, Floyd!
Editor's Response: Hank Drought is the son of this month's "Do You Know Me?" author, James Drought. He maintains the James Drought Home Page.
Casual Attack on Cat Stories
Got your latest ATM and thoroughly enjoyed it despite your inclusion of the stupid cat story. Especially enjoyed your tribute to Doug Adams and the website info. I'm reading a book on tape by Bill Bryson called Notes from a Small Island about his twenty-year love affair with England, where he lived for two decades. Really entertaining because it is both well-written and well-performed -- a key feature of a book on tape. Particularly enjoyed his observations on Scotland and could relate with familiarity to some of his travels.
Editor's Note: your editor went to high school with Ken Wiggins. It may be appropriate to note that although not all ATM readers are relatives and friends of the editor, due to his constant importunings, all of the editor's relatives and friends are probably ATM readers.
More on Cats
I was reading your latest posting with my usual interest and enjoyment, when I came upon your article about a cat in your window and your failure to find a realistic stuffed one.
I was reminded of a newspaper article a few months back -- NYT or WSJ, perhaps -- about a new "trend." It appears that in a certain segment of our society, a pet that dies is no longer stuffed but instead freeze-dried.
The results are said to be very realistic ...
So perhaps you can find a freeze-dried cat that no longer matches someone's decor offered on E-Bay.
Editor's Note: Last month, in the "Messages to the Editor" department, we referred to Richard Meibers's novel as Fly Away Home. The correct title is Steal Away Home (iUniverse.com, Writer's Showcase, 2000). Although he got the title wrong, your editor stands by his characterization that the book "will haunt my imagination for years."
At The Margin has 995 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 994 others. Please limit your comment to 200 words and send it to ATM's editor, Floyd Kemske (firstname.lastname@example.org).
6. 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 email@example.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:
It took Armand Bergeron a long, long time to die and even then there was no dignity to his dying.
I'm waiting for your guesses.
Last Issue's Sentence:
The three of us -- Browdy, Rettig and I -- drove past the small airport about mid-afternoon.
Two readers guessed this time. One is described in one of the stories above, and the other suggested it might be a novel by Graham Greene, which is a pretty good guess. The correct answer, however, is The Gypsy Moths by James Drought.
The novel, published in 1964, is about a trio of stunt parachutists, and the tag line says, "When the ground comes up at you like a sledge-hammer... when the sweat freezes on your brow... when skydiving isn't only a way to live, but a way to die, too... you're a Gypsy Moth."
James Drought was born in 1931 in Aurora, Illinois and grew up on the outskirts of Chicago. He was known as a hell-raiser, and he did some stunt parachuting (the subject of The Gypsy Moths). He married in 1952. In the Army from 1952 to 1954, he served in the 82nd Airborne Division, which is a paratrooper division. He was himself a paratrooper, but he appears to have spent most of his time in the Army writing press releases and speeches for the Office of Public Relations. Somewhere along the way, he decided to do more than press releases and speeches, and began to write fiction. He was unable to interest publishers in his work, and he published it himself, traveling around in an old car and selling his books directly to campus book stores. The books caught on. Paperback publishers picked up some of them and paid him some decent advances.
He moved his family to Norwalk, Connecticut in 1960 and worked as a magazine editor in New York. In 1973, Drought was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature by European critics. He died in 1983. A complete collection of his works is kept in the Special Collections Department at Boston University's Mugar Memorial Library in Boston, Massachusetts.
Drought's books, plays, and scripts are Boxed in by the Rich (1950), The Wedding (play, 1953), The Gypsy Moths (1955), Memories of a Humble Man (1957), Green, Brown and Red (anthology, 1958), Mover (1959), ii: A Duo (1961), The Secret (1962), The Enemy (1964), Drugoth (1965), Alivemoviebook (1967), The Gypsy Moths (feature film, 1969), The Master (1970), Sonny Davis Televised (1972), Blessed Bob Bunyan (1974), The Book of Names (1976), Superstar for President (1978), WriteriIn Exile (1980), So Long Chicago (1982), and Queen of Spades (unpublished, 1983).
In 1969, MGM made The Gypsy Moths into a film starring Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman, Deborah Kerr, and Scott Wilson. He has a writing credit for the film, which you can find on the Internet Movie Database: http://us.imdb.com/Title?0064397. Movies are the key to fame for most writers, and The Gypsy Moths was probably the peak of Drought's popularity. (All this month, I have been asking people if they know anything about James Drought, and although nobody had read him, a couple asked if he wasn't involved with a movie called The Gypsy Moths.) This is a shame, because no less a luminary than Colin Wilson, when writing an introduction to Drugoth in 1964, said, "Before I started this introduction, I spent a week re-reading James Drought's books in chronological order. The result surprised me. I had given him credit for being a writer of sincerity and vitality, as well as one who indulges in the unfashionable exercise of thinking. But in reading his books one at a time, over a considerable period, I had never noticed that he is also a craftsman of unusual subtlety."
Up to the mid-1960s, Drought's books were about the hell- raising of his youth and being at odds with society. But his book Drugoth (an anagram of Drought) showed a more mystical or spiritual side. This made Wilson believe the author was at watershed when he wrote an introduction for Drugoth. "It will be interesting to see what happens," he wrote. "Drought has shown such incredible vitality so far that I cannot doubt that the major part of his work is still ahead of him. And if this is true, he will be the first American writer to live out the full career instead of stopping halfway. If he can do that, he will be entitled to a position among the European 'greats' -- with Goethe, Tolstoy, Ibsen and Shaw."
I don't believe any of James Drought's books are currently in print, but the James Drought Home Page offers three of them free just for the downloading: The Gypsy Moths, Memories of a Humble Man, and The Secret. They are offered either in Word 6.0 format or plain text, and in each case, you can download either the whole thing or single chapters. There's also a short biography of James Drought and Colin Wilson's essay on the site: http://www.drought.com/.
7. 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.
The World's Worst Writers
In Search of the World's Worst Writers features excerpts from execrable writers, including Amanda McKittrick Ros, James McIntyre, Sir Thomas Urquhart, and seven others, including the indomitable Julia Moore. Based on a book of the same name. http://www.users.waitrose.com/~nickpage/worst/home.html
Even Giants Have their Small Moments
"Kerouac Spins Out on the Superhighway" is Justin Driver's review of Jack Kerouac's new e-book, Orpheus Emerged. "The novel is strikingly conventional, plagued by the stilted prose typical of budding fiction writers." That's about the kindest thing he said about a book the author wrote when he was 23. http://slate.msn.com/ebookclub/01-05-23/ebookclub.asp
Identity Theory features "just about every form of human expression that can be made digital," and it welcomes contributions. It doesn't pay anything, because it exists "outside the realm of commerce." Pretty interesting, though. http://www.identitytheory.com
The Orange Prize
The Orange Prize is a literary competition open to any woman writing in English. This year, responding to complaints, the Orange Prize committee appointed an all-male jury panel as well as the all-female one. But the male jury's vote didn't count. The story is at Salon.com. http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2001/06/08/orange_prize/
Bob & Ray Komodo Dragon Skit
It's difficult to tell who put this transcript on the web or why, but reading it made me laugh so hard I nearly had to change my pants. Better not look at it until you're alone. http://www.mindspring.com/~biohaz/komodo.txt
If you liked this issue of At The Margin, forward it to a friend, and encourage him or her to subscribe.
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At The Margin is published monthly, but is otherwise charmingly erratic. It aims for release sometime during each calendar month.
(c) Copyright 2001 Floyd Kemske
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