Please note the date on this issue and don't put too much faith in the links, as they can age quickly.
At The Margin
Vol. 2, Issue 10 (Whole Issue #24)
October 30, 2001
Details, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.
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1. The Magic of Lists
2. E-Book Watch
3. The Patron Saint of the American Police State
4. We Don't Need No Stinking Filters
5. E-Mail to the Editor
6. Do You Know Me?
7. Blue Underlined Words
1. The Magic Of Lists
"She bought colored beads, folding beach cushions, artificial flowers, honey, a guest bed, bags, scarfs, love birds, miniatures for a doll's house, and three yards of some new cloth the color of prawns. She bought a dozen bathing suits, a rubber alligator, a traveling chess set of gold and ivory, big linen handkerchiefs for Abe, two chamois leather jackets of kingfisher blue and burning bush from Hermes -- bought all these things not a bit like a high-class courtesan buying underwear and jewels, which were after all professional equipment and insurance, but with an entirely different point of view."
You may recognize these three sentences about Rosemary's shopping trip with Nicole from F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, Tender Is the Night (1934). They are part of a paragraph analyzed by David Lodge in his 1992 book, The Art of Fiction. Lodge's book, which for our money is the best of the many books bearing the title The Art of Fiction, consists of 50 brief essays on as many different literary devices and concepts, ranging from the familiar ("The Epistolary Novel," "Showing and Telling") to the unexpected ("The Telephone," "Intertextuality"). A chapter on lists was decidedly unexpected and just as illuminating. Lodge shows that in reading fiction, you can't simply dismiss a list as a writer's attempt to build word count. It often means much more.
We thought Lodge's view of the humble list as a literary device was unique, but the study of lists has some history. Henry Peacham's 16th century Garden of Eloquence actually categorized different types of literary lists. And William Gass's 1985 article, "And," explored the many uses of that word. That particular article is a favorite of Robert E. Belknap, a recent Ph.D. from Yale, who actually wrote a dissertation on lists: "Classification of a Chaos: the List and Its Deployment in the Works of Emerson, Whitman, Melville, and Thoreau."
Belknap is passionate about lists, and his dissertation advisors at Yale describe his work as "not only impressive and original but enjoyable to read." Such a characterization, of course, is for the budding academician likely the kiss of career death. And, in fact, Belknap has been able to find neither a university job nor a publisher for his dissertation. There is an interesting and sympathetic article about him in The Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/free/v48/i05/05a02801.htm). In addition to discussing his work and his plight, the article gives Belknap's three favorite lists, including this extraordinary one from the essay "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins" by Jorge Luis Borges: "... animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) etcetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies."
Once you start thinking about lists, you begin to find them everywhere. A two-minute visit to our bookshelf turned up this one: "He called the front basement room his clean workshop, and this was his machine shop. Here he had a six-inch Herbert lathe for heavy work, a three-and-a-half-inch Myford, and a Boley watchmaker's lathe. He had a Senior milling machine and a Boxford shaper, a large and a small drill press, and a vast array of tools ready to hand." (Nevil Shute, Trustee from the Toolroom, 1960).
The list of items that Nicole bought on her shopping trip in Tender Is the Night, incidentally, is followed by the list of manufacturing processes that produced those items. It is a tour de force in list making, not to mention an economical and elegant way to put the novel's characters in their context.
2. E-Book Watch
Two months ago, we looked at netLibrary, a company that sells libraries access to e-books. The October 15, 2001 issue of PW Newsline (an e-mail newsletter from Publishers Weekly) reported that netLibrary was unable to secure a new round of financing and is looking for a buyer. There's no word on how long it can stay in business without new financing, but netLibrary, which has been operating since July 1998, is not promising its 230 employees their jobs will continue unless it can identify "an interested buyer and related bridge financing."
The same issue of PW Newsline, however, carried news that iUniverse, the e-book publisher in which Barnes & Noble has a large stake, received $18 million financing from Warburg Pincus. IUniverse's (presumably the initial "i" is capitalized when it starts a sentence) $2 million dollar quarterly losses, it should be noted, have been shrinking.
This is the kind of thing that makes us sometimes question the wisdom of capitalism. The books produced by iUniverse are, except for being print-on-demand and e-books, exactly the sort of books you would expect from a mainstream publisher: fiction, gardening books, biographies, cookbooks, how-tos, children's, horror, New Age, and so on. But netLibrary tends to provide libraries with access to specialized research, textbooks, monographs, and the books you would expect to find in a university press catalog. NetLibrary's publishing partners, in fact, are mostly university presses.
There are important advantages to e-books, including searchability and hypertext, but they are not the advantages one seeks in novels, children's, or New Age. They are advantages suited to textbooks, reference books, and monographs. If we were academic researchers, we would love keyword searches, annotation software, and electronic copying and pasting.
The public apparently does not care about the advantages of e-books when it comes to the kinds of books they want to read on buses and in airports. And the market has proved quite resistant to e-books as substitutes for paper books. Portable e-book reader sales have been dismal. The few user studies of e-books (the Columbia Study and the Butterworth-Cranfield Study) have reinforced the conclusion that people want to read paper books. If the market is resisting the kind of product iUniverse makes and would embrace the products of netLibrary if it got half a chance, it makes no sense that iUniverse is apparently on the way up while netLibrary is on the way down. We wonder if the folks at Warburg Pincus have ever read an e-book.
For an issues paper from the E-Book Study Group of the Joint Information Systems Committee in Great Britain, see this website:http://www.jisc.ac.uk/dner/ebooks/strategy1.html. The paper looks at technology, trends, studies, and standards.
3. The Patron Saint of the American Police State
As I write this, the U.S. Senate has just voted legislation on a monument to John Adams. I assume it is no accident this happened in the same year a new biography of him was published. David McCullough, author of John Adams, has been promoting our heretofore neglected second president to audiences and the news media over the length and breadth of the country. There are a million copies of John Adams in print, and McCullough has been telling anyone who will listen that Adams deserves a monument and maybe his picture on some money. The U.S. Senate appears to have taken notice, which is testimony to the power of books.
McCullough (a National Book Award finalist and a Pulitzer Prize winner for Truman) has been so visible in promoting the book, that when John Adams missed a National Book Award nomination, it was news (http://detnews.com:80/2001/entertainment/0110/14/b02-316482.htm).
McCullough's book retails the life of Adams in considerable detail. There are many descriptions of things like clothing and the weather. And there are innumerable extracts from letters, many of which discuss things like -- well, clothing and the weather. At one point, the book even quotes Washington's inaugural oath, as if the author believes we might be unfamiliar with a formulation that has been used every four years through the history of the republic. And, although I found John Adams entertaining, I find myself wondering why it wasn't nominated for a National Book Award in the category of doorstop. I wanted historical analysis; I got personality and (wait for it, now) clothing and weather.
McCullough set out to write a book that would reveal the man in all his humanity. And he does a good job in showing that Adams was probably the crankiest and vainest of the Founding Fathers. Our second President must have been unpleasant to be around, which may explain why his contemporaries, at least, were anxious to forget him.
But he was also one of the most courageous of the Founding Fathers. He acted as the legal defense for the British soliders charged in the Boston Massacre. He was a leader in the movement for independence in the Continental Congress. And when he was President, he did not declare war on France, despite the clamoring of most of the country and his own political party for it. We owe him a debt of gratitude for keeping war at bay at a critical time.
But in the end, whether or not you think we should build a monument to John Adams comes down to whether or not you think he should be forgiven for the Sedition Act of 1798. "In two sweltering weeks," writes McCullough with characteristic attention to the weather, "the Federalist majority in Congress passed into law extreme measures that Adams had not asked for or encouraged. But then neither did he oppose them, and their passage and his signature on them were to be rightly judged by history as the most reprehensible acts of his presidency. Still, the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 must be seen in the context of the time, and the context was tumult and fear." Nonsense. Adams was too courageous to be influenced by tumult and fear.
Tumult and fear are the reliable friends of the police state. Apologists for sedition laws always claim these laws are necessary for national security. But then they invariably use them to punish their political enemies. That is just what happened in the presidency of John Adams. The Federalists packaged the Sedition Act as a war measure, but they used it used chiefly in the presidential election of 1800 to imprison newspaper editors of the opposition party, the Republicans.
As exhaustive as John Adams is, McCullough nowhere comes up with a good reason for the second president's support of the sedition law, except to speculate that Adams's wife, who supported a measure that might give her husband some respite from ridicule, influenced him. Adams must have left nothing in his papers or his writings to explain himself, or McCullough would have mentioned it. And that is the most horrifying thing about it. He apparently thought so little about abrogating his fellow citizens' right to free speech that he didn't even feel the need to justify it.
John Adams made important and courageous contributions to the republic. But in 1798, when the country desperately needed him, he didn't show up. Instead, he carved out of history a place for himself as the patron saint of the American police state. For my part, I would prefer the monument to him was built without tax dollars.
4. We Don't Need No Stinking Filters
Apologists for censorship have created a powerful marketing technique by putting the world "children" in the names of all their proposals. Thus the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which is now law, requires public libraries to install filtering software on their computers before 2003 in order to continue to qualify for federal funding. The ACLU and the American Library Association have filed suits, which will be heard next February.
But the city of San Francisco is pursuing a different plan, one that might be called the we-don't-need-no-stinking-filters approach. The city, through its Board of Supervisors, has voted to ban filtering software in its public libraries. This means that the city's libraries are likely to lose federal funds. It is admittedly not a great sacrifice for them. The total annual budget for the libraries is about $50 million. The money they will lose amounts to about $20,000.
The library administration insists that decisions about what patrons see on library computers is best made by the libraries themselves. In San Francisco, they say, the libraries are not plagued by hordes of computer users searching for dirty pictures. When somebody's use of a library computer offends other library patrons, they tell the person to use another computer. The library system says it is considering the possibility of installing filters on the computers in the children's area. The story was in Wired: http://www.wired.com/news/business/0,1367,47283,00.html.
It is doubtful that putting filters on the computers in the library's children's area would restore the federal money, but the libraries apparently consider the money less important than unfettered access to information.
Internet filters are notoriously ham-handed in their screening, and studies have shown time and again that they filter political as well as "obscene" material, that they prevent access to nonpornographic information (such as sites dealing with breast cancer or sites designed to help teens troubled by questions of sexual orientation, or even sites devoted Superbowl XXXVI), and that they promote the fortunes of the filter-writing companies in subtle ways. The evidence is abundant that software filters do not (and probably cannot) do what the partisans of censorship say they want them to do. But the would-be censors keep pushing them anyway. The prospect of centralized control over library users' access to information is apparently just too seductive to get them to consider any other ways of protecting children.
5. E-Mail to the Editor
The Wacky World of Adaptation
Was delighted to see your info on Jessamyn West -- Her niece is an acquaintance of mine. Her book, To See the Dream, is a fascinating study of her experiences when she went out to Hollywood to write the screenplay for The Friendly Persuasion. Although things in Hollywood are quite different now, I loved reading her account of the tradeoffs and the learning curve. Did you know she went on to co-write other screenplays with William Wyler's brother, who also co-wrote Friendly Persuasion? Anyway, reading the novel (short story collection, actually) and then seeing the movie is a wonderful experience in understanding the wacky world of adaptation. In fact, I use a quote from West in my press packet and as handouts when I do speakings to other writers.
"Writing is so difficult that I often feel that writers, having had their hell on earth, will escape all punishment hereafter."
Keep up the great work. How's your own new novel coming along?
[Editor's Response: The novel recently hit a boggy spot, but I got through it by spending a weekend watching old vampire movies. They aren't particularly inspirational, but I find my mind wanders so much when I watch them that they are indirectly productive of ideas. Great to hear from you two issues in a row, Randi!]
Police Haiku in lieu of Tickets
Entertaining & erduite as eternalllllllly the case with ATM [issue #23], from which I draw intellectual cash each issue. Notes: "an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea" reminds me uncomfortably of the groves of academe in which I shuffle. Portland has a citywide reading project called Poetry in Motion that for a day engages the whole city in poetry on streetcorners, flyers drifting everywhere, poetry printed on buses, haiku handed out by policemen in lieu of tickets, and etc. It's bizarre & hilarious. And the fact that there are Steinbeck books drifting out of print is chilling; while some are lesser (East of Eden), several are among the best ever written by an American, and a bold man might go so far as to start a ruckus on the poetry bus by posing Steinbeck as the greatest American writer since Twain -- more widely accomplished as a prose-maker than Faulkner or Hemingway.
At The Margin has 1,154 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 1,153 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:
The hedges of scented whitehorn on either side of the villa gates had the longest fiercest thorns they had ever seen.
I'm waiting for your guesses.
Last Issue's Sentence:
George Hare (of Hare, Briggs, Burton, and Kurtnitz) met Carey Arundel for the first time at the annual Critics's Dinner at Verino's.
Two readers tried to guess this time. One guessed Alexander Woollcott or Dorothy Parker or James Thurber, explaining that it seemed like the beginning of a New York story of some sort. The other reader, Chuck Groth, guessed correctly that the line is from a novel by James Hilton. The novel is called Morning Journey, and it was published in 1951. Flap copy: "Morning Journey is the stormy yet tender story of a brilliant filmmaker and his long affair with a beautiful, warm, and highly talented actress. The story of Carey Arundel and Paul Saffron and their lives together and apart in Dublin, London, and -- especially -- in Hollywood, will implant itself indelibly on your memory."
James Hilton was born in 1900 in Lancashire, England. He attended Christ's College, Cambridge and was awarded his bachelor's degree in 1921. He began writing when he was in college. His first novel, Catherine Herself, was published before he graduated, in 1920. He worked as a journalist and published a few more novels, although none of them did particularly well. But in 1934, The British Weekly published his novella, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, which got him some notice. It was reprinted (also in 1934) in The Atlantic Monthly, which gained it such popularity that his 1933 novels, Without Armor and Lost Horizon, were rereleased and sold very well. A year after the publication of Goodbye, Mr. Chips in The Atlantic Monthly, he moved to Hollywood and started writing film treatments and screenplays. Lost Horizon and Random Harvest both became extremely successful films starring Ronald Colman. Hilton got a writing credit on the film Mrs. Miniver, from the novel by Jan Struther. Goodbye, Mr. Chips has been made into a movie three times: 1939, 1969, and 1984 (television miniseries). A book called Something About the Author (Ann Commire) says Hilton wrote Goodbye, Mr. Chips in four days (there's a page here: http://snowcrest.com/jeannie/Hilton_Bio_Page.htm). He died in 1954 at Long Beach, California, one year after the publication of his 14th novel (Time and Again).
Hilton's books, based on the kind of sentimental stories that played so well in the Hollywood of the 1930s, are nevertheless pretty readable. One of them, Lost Horizon, contributed the word Shangri-La to English as a term to describe a remote, utopian place.
I was surprised at how difficult it was to find information about him. He may have been one of the most successful writers (commercially, at least) of his generation, but there is almost nothing about him on the web. I had to get the facts of his bio from the Encyclopedia Britannica. This tells me that his work is quite out of style. There are current editions of Lost Horizon, Random Harvest, and Goodbye, Mr. Chips, which may get their staying power from the movies. The rest of his books, however, are only available used, if at all.
But I found something pretty interesting. If you're a fan of Random Harvest, this site offers a 14-page synopsis of the story, complete with stills from the film and audible snippets of dialog: http://www.themave.com/Colman/RHarv2.htm. It's pretty well done, and it's almost like watching the movie -- without the tears.
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 Same Old New World
The news media are fond of saying that we are living in a new world since September 11, but Jeffrey L. Pasley has looked through the history books and found the current war is a lot like the previous ones, and we are reacting to it in the same ways.
It's Surprising How Small Some Minds Can Be
Neil Godfrey was subjected to a random baggage search before boarding a flight from Philadelphia to Phoenix. He was, unfortunately, carrying a copy of Hayduke Lives! by Edward Abbey, a novel about a radical environmentalist. The cover illustration of the book depicted a hand holding several sticks of dynamite. A National Guardsman considered it questionable, and this caused a discussion among the National Guard, the local police, and the airline management about whether Godfrey might be a threat to air safety. It's a fairly long story, but the upshot was they never let him on the plane.
Censorship as Art
The File Room is a sort of art gallery of censorship. It existed as a physical exhibit in several locations since 1994 and has now moved to the web. If you're interested in censorship, it's the place to visit.
The Wasted Cold War Victory
There has been a lot of commentary written about the meaning of September 11 and the outlook for the future. Here's one that happens to be written by John LeCarre. It's not particularly optimistic, but it certainly is well written.
Mysteries by Region
This page of the BookBrowser site has a map of the world, and when you click on a region, it brings up a list of authors who wrote mysteries set in that region.
A Commercial Message from Avenue Victor Hugo
See if you recognize this list: intelligent, interested, curious, thoughtful, sensitive, discerning... Yes, it's a list of qualities we routinely find in our customers! Come peruse our shelves and discover new worlds of literary lists. We are real people, selling real books. We have a real cat.
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In the lower 48 states of the U.S., we ship via UPS at $5.00 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.
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(c) Copyright 2001 Floyd Kemske
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