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At The Margin
Vol. 2, Issue 12 (Whole Issue #26)
December 31, 2001

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

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This Issue:
1. Are Books Getting Too Expensive?
2. Where Do Orcs Come From?
3. Melville Predicts 2001
4. Electronic Paper Again
5. E-Mail to the Editor
6. Do You Know Me?
7. Blue Underlined Words

1. Are Books Getting Too Expensive?
A December 16 article in The New York Times suggests book retailing is suffering from sticker shock. Customers show increasing resistance to $35 hardcover books and $15 trade paperbacks. The article claims that book sales have fallen off this fall, but it discusses only new book sales.

Consumers always cut back on purchases in a recession. It's especially hard to justify $35 for a book if you're out of a job.

According to the article, large publishers are caught in a squeeze. They have become dependent on the deep discounts of major chains (not to mention giant retailers like Wal-Mart) as a major part of their marketing. If Borders or Barnes & Noble is selling your $35 book for $21, you can move quite a few copies and not worry about how badly you have priced it. The article notes that Wal-Mart and the discount buying clubs can be responsible for a quarter of the sales of a best-selling book.

But book retailers are now reconsidering the discounts, and all those easy-to-move, previously discounted books are becoming a drug on the market. Leonard Riggio, the chairman of Barnes & Noble, in a recent speech, told publishers their pricing was foolish.

Riggio has apparently chosen to ignore the role of Barnes & Noble in the publishers' foolishness, but he's probably on to something here.

The NYT article quotes Stephen Snyder, executive vice president of the Book Manufacturers Institute, as saying book manufacturing costs have declined significantly even while publishers have been jacking prices up. Paper costs are cyclical, but printing and binding costs have declined steadily. The article claims that a typical hardcover book costs a little more than $2 to manufacture.

Retailing margins in most markets are usually somewhat slim, and the publishers' own margins are known to be among the lowest in media. Although the NYT article didn't ask, you have to wonder, if a publisher sells a $2 item for $35, where does the other $33 go? Marketing, which would have to include those big discounts at the chains, comes to mind. Then there's insane advances some publishers pay to celebrity authors. Then there is the cost of returns (the NYT article said it's typical for 30 percent of a book's print run to go unsold). These would apparently be the major components of a book's cost, as compared to printing and binding, which are the minor components. Note that the major cost components add no value to the product.

Books compete with movies, and although movie ticket prices aren't declining, movies have opened major new distribution channels over the past decade or so. You still have to go to the theater to see first-run films, but movies seem to get into the rental market earlier and earlier all the time. Publishers like to act like there's no competition between books and movies. The NYT article quotes Richard Heffernan, president of hardcover sales at Penguin Putnam: "Compared to a movie, you get quite a few hours of entertainment for the price, you can give it to somebody when you are done, and 9 times out of 10 the book is better than the movie anyway."

Everything Heffernan says is true. But of course publishers have another major competitor: their own product, used. Used book sales are not as organized as new book sales, and nobody keeps good records on them. But they are enormous; you need only to spend a little time on the Internet to see that. Here in New England, we see towns too small to support a new bookstore often support a used bookstore. A lot of money is changing hands for used books. Publishers could get a piece of that action through careful pricing and cultivation of their backlists. But backlist-oriented publishing requires more than warehouse space. It needs long-range thinking and the courage to base your business on some editor's judgment. It's probably easier to give lots of money to celebrities and factor in 30 percent unsold copies.

The New York Times article, "Buyers Reading Cover Price, and Opting Not to Read the Rest," by David D. Kirkpatrick, is at Note that NYT requires registration to read its articles on the web. The site makes an article available free for a week, then charges 80 cents for it.


2. Where Do Orcs Come From?
Gerry and I go out to the movies only rarely these days, ever since the theaters started showing commercials. But I have a real fondness for going to the movies on Christmas Day, and I got her to agree to go with me to see The Lord of the Rings. We went to the early show, and there were about twelve people in the theater, and there was no line for popcorn. That's the great thing about Christmas Day at the movies. The Lord of the Rings is entertaining, if a little tiresome in the butt, which must remain in one place waiting for the movie to end so you can get it off the seat.

Among the more fearsome creatures in the movie are the Orcs -- brutal, underworld creatures that are ridiculously easy to enlist as an army if you're associated with the forces of darkness. They are apelike and extremely ugly. If you do a Google search on Orc, you will learn that they are also a mainstay of computer gaming. I don't know if the gamers simply appropriated Tolkien's creation or if they came up with name orc independently. But I am quite sure Tolkien, the author of A Middle English Vocabulary and Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics, did not take the name out of the air.

The word originally appeared in English in the sixteenth century as orc or ork, with additional spellings orque, orke, or orch. They weren't so strict about spelling in the sixteenth century. Its precise meaning was a type of cetacean. In 1520, the writer L. Andrews, in a work called Noble Lyfe, wrote, "Orchun is a monster of the se.. & he is the mortal ennemye to the balene, & tereth asonder the bely of the balene." In the eighteenth century, Linnaeus used a form of the word to classify the mammal in question as Delphinus orca. The creature is now known as Orcinus orca. The orca's public relations people have pretty much got us all shifted away from the name killer whale.

But the word orc has a dual tradition. In Latin, Orcus was another name for Hades, the realm of the dead. And at about the same time the word was acquiring more precision in describing a type of whale, it had a secondary, more vague meaning. In this less precise usage, it meant a generic monster of indiscriminate appetites. In 1598, it appeared in a book by one Sylvester: "Insatiate Orque, that even at one repast Almost all Creatures in the World would waste." Then in 1656 in Zara by S. Holland: "Who at one Stroak didst pare away three Heads from off the shoulders of an Orke, begotten by an Incubus."

In this second tradition, the word has come down to us in the present day as ogre.

The word apparently got tested out in English four or five centuries before the first recorded usages in the Oxford English Dictionary. In Beowulf, it appears as orcneas, which is the plural form for a type of monster, or perhaps a sea monster. The singular has been rendered as orken, although I don't think the singular form appears anywhere in Beowulf (I don't read Old English and don't even understand its alphabet, so I haven't tried to check the original).

But in the late fifteenth century, about the time it was becoming an English word, it appeared in the Italian poem, Orlando Furioso by Ariosto, as the name of a sea monster. (The hero, Rogero, rescues the fair Angelica from Orc while riding his horse Hippogrif.)

Now here's something really interesting. For linguists, the most conspicuous characteristic of Celtic languages is the loss of the p sound from the original Indo-European. The Latin porcus (pig) turns up in Gaelic as orc.

The poems of William Blake's Prophetic books (which appeared in the 1790s) work out a complex mythology about the contention of the three forces of reason, imagination, and rebellion. The spirit of rebellion has the name Orc.

So today, the word's "legitimate" English form is orca, the name we give to the whale. Otherwise, it has a number of fanciful usages and it may come to our language from several different places, and it actually seems to have been reinvented a couple times.

If you're writing a book or designing a game that features orcs, you may want to consult a lawyer. Tolkien Enterprises licenses "fanciful names and/or characters" from the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (see The word would seem to be in the public domain, but you never know, where lawyers are concerned.

At BBC News ( there is an amusing story about an extra who worked as an orc on the film.

Apparently, in writing The Hobbit, Tolkien used the term goblin for the creature that in later books becomes the orc. This page ( says that he recovered from what might have essentially been an error by saying that "goblin" was a slang term used by the hobbits for orcs.

If you're building an orc army, this page has an orc name generator: When I used it, it gave me the names dumskin, pipipuke, wingork, kunstrong, and puliggy. You can have them if you want. I'm not going to be building an orc army any time soon.


3. Melville Predicts 2001
For many of us, 2001 was as ugly a year as we ever lived through. I won't catalog the many ways in which it screwed up so many lives, but I will remind you that there were already troubles enough (including a recession and the specter of a presidential inauguration that had to be protected from the public) before September 11 eclipsed them.

As we say good-bye to such a horrible year, however, it may be worth noting that Herman Melville pretty much predicted it in Moby Dick (1851):

And, doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:





4. Electronic Paper Again
Electronic paper is one of those subjects that comes up from time to time in those this-is-the-future-books articles. But people keep coming up with things that are supposed to be the future of books, and books continue at that same level of indispensability they've had since 1453.

But according to Scientific American, a couple of start-up firms are trying to get electronic paper to market within the next ten years. Both are working on some variation of a clear plastic sheet that holds charged beads. With one technology, electric current makes the bead turn its dark or its light side up, allowing the creation of an image of dots, like a half-tone or a fax. In the other technology, the the beads are tiny clear capsules that have pigment chips in them, and a current makes the desired color rise to the surface.

The turning-bead technology is being sold as SmartPaper by Gyricon Media, a spinoff of Xerox PARC. E Ink Corporation, which markets the other technology, is a start-up effort by some people from MIT with funding from Motorola and the Hearst Corporation and a Defense Department grant.

One of the reasons the landscape for electronic paper looks different now is that both companies have had successful prototypes in department store signage. A chain like Macy's can spend unconscionable amounts of money redoing signs, and the electronic paper technologies, which allow them to erase signs and print new ones instantly without throwing anything away, promise to save a good deal of that.

SmartPaper is still three times the thickness of a sheet of paper, and both technologies have yet to make satisfactory colors or a resolution in any way comparable to normal print (right now, they are getting about 80 dpi, which is comparable to a computer screen). But more labs and companies are working up concepts and products. IBM has just announced the development of a technology, and other companies are beginning to chime in. The market is just about to tip over into a competitive phase with many entrants.

One of the reasons that e-books, with their clunky readers, have never taken off is that many people need to orient themselves in the material they are reading. If you don't know the exact words to search for, it is easier to look for something by turning pages than it is to do it by scrolling. This isn't just a matter of getting used to a different way of reading. It has to do with spatial sense, which is extremely important for some people. The electronic paper people are well aware of it, which is one of the reasons they may come up with something useful.

Joseph Jacobson, the creator of E Ink, has assumed as his goal the creation of "last book." It's the kind of phrase that starts a book lover's blood boiling, but his vision doesn't sound half bad. He imagines a book with several hundred pages and enough microchips embedded in the spine to hold the contents of the Library of Congress. So the book can simply become whatever book you want it to be. That doesn't help much for those of us who manage our research by keeping the relevant books in different piles, but it does sound like something you can use on a bus or in the bathroom.

Go to for the article.

5. E-mail to the Editor
[Editor's Note: The messages we receive here at ATM often take on the character of a dialogue or conversation with the previous issue. You can find that issue on the web:]

On This Month's "Do You Know Me?"
I don't know who wrote this line, but wanted to thank you for the grin of delight caused by the resonance of your selection.

Whether intentional or no, thanks for including a quote this month with a list.

Allison Vigil

[Editor's Response: Lists are everywhere, aren't they? Thanks for the message.]

On "Do You Know Me?" In General
I'm all in favor of making the "Do You Know Me" feature a bit easier. Frankly, I'm always out of the running and would appreciate more reasonable choices that would give me a fighting chance. Thanks,

Marvin Schneider

[Editor's Response: I didn't get a single message from anyone opposing my plan to make it easier, so that's the way we are going with it from now on. I did not check to see whether this month's book (which will be revealed next month) is out of print. But I know it is more than 10 years old.]

From the Land of Borges
I've been enjoying At The Margin for some months now. I find it informative, witty, perceptive, full of food for thought (see the alliteration?). I collect your newsletter, the only one among the several dozens I receive.

I only wished to thank you for being such a good e-friend but your last issue provoked me into writing to recommend Hank Drought another book by one of my favourite authors: David Lodge. Please Hank, read The Practice of Writing. This wonderful ex-professor of Literary Theory is also a great novelist. Try The British Museum Is Falling Down, Changing Places, Small World, Paradise News, try anything that Lodge wrote.  You'll find humour and soul.

This opportunity is good also for wishing you very happy Christmas and a New Year full of hope. Hope for peace and human brotherhood  (this from a sister, can you believe?)

Thank you again,
Susana Puggioli (from the city where Borges was born)

[Editor's Response: My favorite David Lodge novel is Nice Work, which includes a hilarious conversation between a graduate student and a businessman, in which she painstakingly explains to him the metonymy and synecdoche in a billboard advertisement for cigarettes! It was great to hear from you.]

At The Margin has 1,147 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 1,146 others. Please limit your comment to 200 words and send it to ATM's editor, Floyd Kemske (


6. Do You Know Me?
For those who like puzzles as well as books, this department brings

you the first sentence of a book by a famous writer that is at least 10 years old. 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

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 Hall Porter was a little white about the gills as he came out of No. 7 box.

I'm waiting for your guesses.

Last Issue's Sentence
Somewhere far to the north of Newfoundland, the St. Lawrence Seaway, Place Ville Marie, the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway, the bald-headed prairie and Stanley Park lies an unreal world conceived in the mind's eye, born out of fantasy and cauled in myth.

There were no guesses this time, and I feel a little guilty for giving you such a hard one. Maybe next month's will be easier. The sentence is from Canada North by Farley Mowat. It's a coffee table book published by The Canadian Illustrated Library of McClelland and Stewart Limited in 1967. It's a beautiful book, filled with photos, drawings, and paintings. And how often do you see a coffee table book written by an author of the stature of Farley Mowat? Of course, he wasn't quite such a legend in 1967, but the publisher no doubt recognized his potential. He used caul as a verb, for goodness' sake. ("Caul. n. 1. a part of the amnion sometimes covering the head of a child at birth." The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition)

Farley Mowat was born in Belleville, Ontario in 1921, the son of a librarian. He grew up in Windsor, Ontario and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. When he was 14, he accompanied his uncle, an ornithologist, on an Arctic expedition which changed his life. He served in the Canadian Army during the Second World War, and after the war he graduated from the University of Toronto in 1949. He has supported himself by writing ever since. He has written 36 books which have sold 14 million copies in 24 languages. His most famous book is probably Never Cry Wolf (1963), which was made into a Disney movie in 1983. It is the story of Mowat's study of a wolf pack in the wilderness. After being foiled in all his attempts to get close to the wolves, he decides to approach them on their terms. He marks his territory by urinating at its boundaries, begins eating raw field mice, and sheds his clothes. It's a moving story, not least because he is unable to arouse an uncaring government to the plight of the wolves, who have been marked for extermination.

Mowat's first book, The People of the Deer (1952), chronicles his trip to the Northwest Territories in 1947. On this trip, he visited an Inuit camp, and he was the first white man to ever be there. The book describes the starvation threatening the Inuit as the whites encroach on them.

He lived for eight years in Newfoundland, and that experience produced A Whale for the Killing (1972), about the wanton shooting of a trapped whale. He also wrote war memoirs, comic recollections from his youth, and a biography of Diane Fossey. His other books include three novels (Lost in the Barrens, The Black Joke, and The Curse of the Viking Grave) for young people. He also wrote several sea adventures (including The Boat Who Wouldn't Float [1969] and Grey Seas Under [1980]) that aren't about conservation but are much loved for their drama and even humor.

Mowat is a Canadian national treasure. Virtually all the accounts of his life include the phrase "brilliant natural storyteller."

He is also a man who attracts controversy. During the Reagan administration, he was refused admission to the U.S. when he tried to come here for a book tour. I haven't been able to find the reason he was kept out, but he had once boasted of shooting his .22 at Strategic Air Command planes because he thought they were disturbing the wilderness. Then again, the Reagan administration was no friend to conservationists, and Mowat may have been considered dangerous by Interior Secretary James Watt and the free-mining crowd who wanted to pillage undeveloped public lands as a matter of policy.

But Mowat's most troublesome controversy occurred in 1996. The Canadian magazine, Saturday Night, published a cover story about him called "A Real Whopper." In it, a writer named John Goddard, who had studied Mowat's notes and papers, found some of the material at odds with the content of his books. Goddard said that Mowat had never seen a starving Inuit, that he had never been in an Inuit camp, and that he had abandoned his wolf study after only four weeks. Furthermore, he said, Mowat had misrepresented the policies of the Canadian government toward wolves and Inuits. Mowat promised a reply to the charges, but his reply offered few details beyond the assertion that the story was despicable. To date, he has not answered the most substantive of them.

Mowat's biggest mistake may have been in packaging his books as true stories. They may offer a different kind of truth than what you find in nonfiction. There can be little doubt the Inuit people are suffering from the encroachments of white people, and it is clear that centuries of official policies of extermination have gone hard on the wolves in both the U.S. and Canada. Mowat himself is quoted as saying, "I never let the facts get in the way of the truth."

In any case, Mowat seems to have suffered little lasting damage from the controversy. People who loved his books before the story appeared continue to love them now. And why not? They are exciting, heroic, and passionate. Here's a brief bio from the Canadian and World Encyclopedia: Here's a booklist: Here's a very well written account of Mowat as a Canadian icon:


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.

Should Children Use Mobile Phones?
"Scientists have discovered that a call lasting just two minutes can alter the natural electrical activity of a child's brain for up to an hour afterwards." This is from a story in the U.K. newspaper, Sunday Mirror. The story doesn't appear to describe a full-blown epidemiological study, but if you have kids, you might not want to wait for that while the mobile phone industry runs its experiments on their brains.

No-style Fiction
An article by Linton Weeks discusses the virtual absence of style from most best-selling novels and how their authors make no apologies for writing books that, at the level of the paragraph or page, are indistinguishable from one another.

Phantom Body Parts
You've probably heard or read that amputees can sometimes get pains or itches in their missing limbs. Here's an experimenter who has devised several interesting experiments that he claims can give you sensations in your dining room table. Spooky.

Yours Is a Very Bad Hotel
These folks had a bad experience at a Doubletree Hotel. Rather than just repeating their horror story to their friends, they have created a PowerPoint presentation and put it up on the web. It's pretty funny, although they probably didn't think so at the time.

World Lightning Map has the world's first complete lightning map. It shows that lightning rarely occurs on the open sea and almost never occurs at the poles. Cool.

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(c) Copyright 2001 Floyd Kemske

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