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At The Margin
Vol. 3, Issue 1 (Whole Issue #27)February 7, 2002
Details, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.
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I am sorry to be late with this issue, but the direct mail business has begun to come back after the anthrax scare, and I am starting to make a living again writing copy. Thank you for your patience. This is supposed to be the January issue. I will try to get another out before the end of February.
You can find all back issues of At The Margin at thirdlion.com: http://www.thirdlion.com/ATM.html. They are usually posted within about a week of this e-mail, depending on the editor's work load.
1. Acid Paper at the Library of Congress
2. Should the Police Know What You're Reading?
3. The Passing of a Wise and Inquiring Man
4. A Meditation on Brand-Name Books
5. E-Mail to the Editor
6. Do You Know Me?
7. Blue Underlined Words
1. Acid Paper at the Library of Congress
If you have any old books around, particularly paperbacks and pulps, you've probably noticed the effects of acid in paper. As the paper ages, it becomes discolored. Eventually, it can get so brown that the print is barely readable. At the same time, the paper becomes brittle and ultimately disintegrates.
Paper acid is very much a modern problem. In the 17th and 18th centuries, paper was manufactured almost exclusively from rags, which have a very low acid content. But the explosion of literacy in the 18th century created such a demand for paper that a rag shortage developed in Europe, which is why paper manufacturers turned ultimately to wood as a source of cellulose. But in order to make a serviceable paper, wood has to be processed with chemicals that make the final product highly acid. In addition, the cellulose in wood loses moisture easier than that in cotton. The result of these two things is a paper that tends to yellow and disintegrate faster than rag-based paper.
Alkaline paper was invented in the nineteenth century, but it has had a small market share because it was more expensive to make. It is reputed to survive four times as long (200 vs. 50 years) as regular acid paper. It never caught on for mainstream use because it was so much more expensive and difficult to manufacture. But it has always been prized for archival uses. Now a breakthrough in the manufacture of calcium carbonate has made alkaline paper cheaper, and it is rapidly becoming the standard. In Europe about three-quarters, and in the U.S. about 35 percent, of fine papers are now alkaline, popularly known as "acid-free" paper.
The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) sets a standard for what is called "permanent paper" based on its pH, alkaline reserve, tear strength, and low lignin (a component of cellulose). When the paper in a book meets the standard, the publisher is entitled to print an infinity symbol on the back of the title page.
If you care about whether a book's paper is truly acid-free, you can buy a pH pen. Marking on a page with the pen will show the acid content by the color of the mark. For more on this pen and who's using it: http://palimpsest.stanford.edu/byorg/abbey/ap/ap06/ap06-5/ap06-505.html -- which is where you will find a publication called The Alkaline Paper Advocate.
This lesson in paper-making (and I didn't know any of this stuff myself until I started looking into it) is background for the news that the Library of Congress is conducting a mass deacidification program. The Library claims leadership in the development of deacidification processes, and it has been deacidifying books in quantity for nearly a decade. It hired a contractor to do it on a larger scale in 1997. But the Library announced it would deacidify 100,000 books in fiscal year 2001, and it is increasing the number by 50,000 a year. Ultimately, it intends to deacidify a million books and five million manuscript pages in five years. The overall program, however, is scheduled to run 30 years, in which time the Library intends to treat 8.5 million books.
The Library is limiting the first phase of the project to eight general areas: American History, U.S. Local History, U.S. Family History, Fiction in English, American Literature, U.S. Political Science, U.S. Federal Law, and Americana Literary History and Collections. The picture on the page describing this project shows the books being dipped into a bath that deposits magnesium oxide on the pages and changes their pH characteristics and alkaline reserve. It's called the "Bookkeeper" process. For more information: http://lcweb.loc.gov/preserv/deacidbrochure.html. The Library also has several publications on line about deacidification and how well it works: http://lcweb.loc.gov/preserv/pubsdeac.html.
I have been unable to run down any information on how much the process costs and whether it will eventually be marketed for home use.
2. Should the Police Know What You're Reading?
You probably remember a bookstore in Washington DC that refused to hand over records of book purchases by Monica Lewinsky to Kenneth Starr. Ultimately, Lewinsky's settlement with Starr's office obviated the brewing court battle over the privacy of book purchase records. Congress had made a law safeguarding the privacy of video rental records (after the excessive research staged by opponents to Robert Bork's Supreme Court appointment in 1987), but it seems to have overlooked book purchase records.
In March 2000, Denver police found an invoice number and mailer from a bookstore outside a trailer. The next day, they raided the trailer and found an illegal methamphetamine lab as well as two books (Advanced Techniques of Clandestine Psychedelic and Amphetamine Manufacture and The Construction and Operation of Clandestine Drug Laboratories) that fit in the mailer. The mailer was from Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver.
The police went to the bookstore and demanded the record that would say who ordered the books, hoping to gain evidence that would link the suspect they had arrested with them. Tattered Cover refused to provide the record, saying it was a freedom of speech matter and that people have a right to read what they want without fear of the authorities knowing about it.
By December 2001, the case was in the Colorado Supreme Court (see http://w3.trib.com/FACT/1st.lev.tatteredcoverrec.html). The case has been argued, and a decision is expected in spring. Tattered Cover (which has condemned the illegal manufacture of methamphetamine in no uncertain terms) is being supported by American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (http://www.abffe.com/), which is coordinating the support of about a dozen other author, publisher, and bookseller groups.
In January, about 500 people turned up at a bookstore in San Francisco (A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books) to show support, see celebrity authors, and contribute money to the cause. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/entertainment/arts/newsid_1756000/1756933.stm for a report from the BBC. "It's not a far step from wanting to know if someone is buying books about opposition political parties," said author Michael Chabon at the gathering. "Someday I could have the FBI trying to find out if I bought any books on Judaism or Islam."
Defending the purchase records of somebody who keeps an illegal methamphetamine lab in a trailer cannot be a particularly gratifying undertaking. But, thank goodness, Tattered Cover thinks it necessary. As Michael Chabon's remark implies, this situation with the authorities is going to get worse before it gets better.
3. The Passing of a Wise and Inquiring Man
Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop lost a friend -- and the world lost a thinker of importance -- in January when philosopher Robert Nozick died at 63 after eight years with stomach cancer.
Nozick was the author of Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World (2001), Socratic Puzzles (1997), The Nature of Rationality (1995), The Examined Life (1989), and Philosophical Explanations (1981). But he is best known for Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), which he wrote as a critique of John Rawls's Theory of Justice (1971). Rawls's book was a justification of modern bureaucracy and income redistribution. Nozick's book developed the proposition that "The minimal state is the most extensive state that can be justified." Nozick's book was listed by The Times Literary Supplement as one of the 100 most influential books since the War. He is credited with bringing Newcomb's Problem -- concerning free will -- to the attention of philosophers and the public at large (see http://slate.msn.com/?id=2061419). But his interests were wide- ranging, and he grappled with issues like objectivity, consciousness, principles, and values. Unlike many philosophers, who devote their careers to a single area, Nozick covered many different areas of his discipline, and was driven mostly by a desire to relate philosophy to the tasks of everyday life. His desire to examine many different questions was born in part of necessity after the spectacular success of his first book. "I didn't want to spend my life writing The Son of Anarchy, State, and Utopia," he said in an interview. Anarchy, State, and Utopia argues for a minimal state, but Nozick was anything but an ideologue. His rejection of ideology is best illustrated by his unique concept of philosophical pluralism, developed in Philosophical Explanations. He did not see the need for philosophical proofs but instead propounded the notion of adopting several views simultaneously, gaining from each a different level of truth and insight. "There are various philosophical views, mutually incompatible, which cannot be dismissed or simply rejected. Philosophy's output is the basketful of these admissible views, all together." In a world anxious to classify everything into the categories of right and wrong (not to mention good and evil), this is more than maturity. It is courage. Nozick taught at Harvard, having become a full professor there in 1969 at the age of 30. Much of the information in this item is from his obituary in the Harvard University Gazette. It is online: http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2002/01.17/99-nozick.html.
4. A Meditation on Brand-Name Books
I've been thinking about marketing lately and wondering why there is so little "branding" in the book publishing business.
Branding is an interesting sub-discipline of marketing. Some brands are nothing but identification. These are the ones that require constant advertising to maintain market share: Coke, Budweiser, Chevrolet, Exxon, and so forth. No matter what their owners think, these brands are worth nothing more than the products they represent. They inspire no loyalty and offer no promises beyond a consistent level of product quality. So when you think about it, you understand they aren't really brands; they are just logos.
But some brands are so valuable that they virtually exempt their owners from marketing expenses. When have you ever seen a television commercial for Porsche? The truly great brands -- Campagnolo, Mag Light, Zegna, Dom Perignon -- are not heavily advertised, but they don't have to be. People who know the products in their categories know, and aspire to obtain, the products represented by those brands. If companies stopped advertising these brands altogether, the effect on their market share would probably be negligible. Buyers would continue to look for their marques and consider them in their buying decisions.
But there are almost no brands in the book publishing business that seriously influence sales and marketing. Nobody really shops for books by publisher. The only exception I can think of is Harlequin (http://www.eharlequin.com/), which actually manages to sell many of its books by subscription. Otherwise, some publishers have vague reputations in the minds of the reading public, but these reputations have very little effect on sales.
Part of the reason for this is in the nature of branding. According to Rob Frankel, "Branding is not about getting your prospects to choose you over your competition; it's about getting your prospects to see you as the only solution to their problem. (SM)" (http://www.robfrankel.com/). Frankel is the author of a book called The Revenge of Brand X, and he is an acknowledged authority on branding. And he treats the remark quoted as a registered service mark.
If you believe Frankel, the best possibility for building a publishing brand is in problem-solving books. As far as fiction goes, forget it.
In fiction, it seems to me, the brand is the author. And some authors do indeed work to create and establish their brands. If they are not writing the same book over and over again, they at least strive to create a consistent reading experience. And they often attempt to differentiate themselves from their competitors with personas, even including costumes, which are comparable to the logos used by brands like Coke and Chevrolet.
Fictional categories -- science fiction, mystery, western, horror, romance -- are particularly productive of these author- brands. Bylines like Tom Clancy, Danielle Steel, and Anne Rice promise a particular kind of reading experience that is as comforting to some people as a meal at McDonald's. But there are a lot of these brands, and many of them are like Budweiser. If they aren't heavily advertised and promoted, their readership will not grow, and it may drift off to embrace other products.
Brand differentiation. Is that the goal of the Naked Novelist? Her name is Carol Muskoron, and she's a "housewife" (her description) from North London. Her web site (http://www.nakednovelist.com/) implies that you can watch her work on her novel, My Middle Class Girl, in the nude. (No, she's the one who's nude, although I guess it doesn't really matter what you wear when you access the site.) I can't verify this, because she requires Real Player, and I gave up trying to make that software work on my machine several years ago. She also posts work on the site as she completes it. She has already achieved a certain amount of success. The site claims that she now has a sponsor, Camden College of English in London. Her site is a lot of fun. She posts messages from her viewers and readers, and she gives her opinion of novels she has read.
If any ATM readers visit her site, please report back to us. Not that I am interested in this kind of gimmick, you understand. But I am considering trying to install Real Player again and doing a more thorough investigation of her site. In the interests of my literary education, you understand.
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: http://www.thirdlion.com/ATM26.html.
The Joy of Used Book Stores
In your article on the exorbitant price of new books, you mention that an attraction of used bookstores is saving cash. An equal attraction, for my wife and myself, is the variety of books in a good used bookstore. Many new book retailers carry only a few of the most recent and best selling texts, but good used bookstores offer an eclectic collection and the joy of finding some unknown or long lost volume.
Suggestion: How about taking a poll on the best cities for used book stores? Seattle is our first nomination, and we'd add Dublin, Ireland for a second.
Thanks for your entertaining and informative newsletter, as well as the fine Avenue Victor Hugo store!
Editor's Response: I don't know if I can manage a poll, but I hope other ATM readers will offer their nominations, because I know you folks, and I know your nomination messages will be witty as well as informative. Send your nominations to email@example.com.
The "Bad Hotel" People Are Twits
Enjoyed the newsletter [ATM #26] as always.
However, unlike all other issues, I had a negative reaction to one of your links, the one about the Doubletree Hotel in Texas. What a bad taste that left in my mouth. Those two people who made up that PowerPoint display should each be sat, not lightly, onto some other type of power point. I suppose they thought they were being cute by launching their campaign against some hapless night clerk, but they came off as two whiny little twits. From their information, it's obvious that the hotel had just suffered some damage to a significant portion of their rooms and the front line, low-level help wasn't dealing too well with it at 2 o'clock in the morning. Okay, it's an occasion for grumbling, even swearing, among the unlucky guests. After all, on the scale of catastrophes that can befall a traveler, what they suffered was way down there below the flat-tire-on-the- freeway level. For them to go on to vent themselves in the form of that overly snide and truly bratty slide presentation reminds one of a couple of four-year-olds in the throes of a hissing and spitting temper tantrum.
Editor's Response: yours is a more thoughtful perspective than mine on that site. Thanks for getting in touch, Richard.
Dear Floyd (and Susana Puggioli):
Thank you for your David Lodge reading recommendations. I read The Practice of Writing and enjoyed it very much. I particularly liked Lodge's section on Graham Greene; his thoughts on whether or not writing can be taught; and the differences in novel, screenplay and stage play writing. I'm just starting Lodge's The Art of Fiction, which looks excellent. Then I'll move on to Nice Work and Small World. Thanks, again for the recommendations. Reminder to all ATM readers: You may read some of my late father's books (James Drought) free on the website: http://www.Drought.com. Free downloadable books include: The Gypsy Moths, The Secret, Memories of a Humble Man, and now Mover. Take care, and thanks, again.
At The Margin has 1,204 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 1,203 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 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 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:
He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.
I'm waiting for your guesses.
Last Issue's Sentence:
The Hall Porter was a little white about the gills as he came out of No. 7 box.
There were no guesses this time. The book is Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum. It was published in 1931 by Doubleday, Doran & Co. An interesting thing about the book is that it was originally published in 1929 by Ullstein AG. under the title Menschen im Hotel. It's a translated book, and I didn't realize that last month when I grabbed it off the shelf and copied down its first line.
But this gives me the chance to spout off about the art of translation, so I'm glad it happened. The copy that I found on my shelf is one of those handsome book club editions. It has textured paper, speckled endpapers, a long ribbon attached at the binding for a bookmark, and a cover embossed with a design in gold color. The publisher is the International Collectors Library, and I'm sure you've seen these books around before. I don't know how it came to be on our shelf. We may have bought it at a garage sale or we might have once belonged to the book club. The book looks nice, and it's reasonably durable, but I have a bone to pick with these International Collectors Library people. Nowhere in the book can you find the name of the translator.
I assume it is the same as the Doubleday, Doran & Co. edition, which after some research I discovered was translated by Basil Creighton. I haven't been able to find out much about him. A Google search on his name yields about 3,000 hits, none of which points to anything about him, but some of which are pages about books he translated. He did an edition of Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf that is fairly popular. He translated both French and German.
Why am I so interested in the translator? Because his achievement, although different, is hardly less than Vicki Baum's. After all, he wrote the same book she did, just in a different language. For more on this subject, I refer you to Robert Wechsler's Performing Without a Stage (1998), which discusses the art of literary translation. "Like a musician, a literary translator takes someone else's composition and performs it in his own special way. Just as a musician embodies someone else's notes by moving his body or throat, a translator embodies someone else's thoughts and images by writing in another language." You can find out more about Wechsler's book at http://www.catbirdpress.com/bookpages/trans.htm. (Disclosure: Robert Wechsler is the editor and publisher of five of my novels.)
Vicki Baum was born Hedwig Baum into a middle class Jewish family in Vienna in 1888. As a child (eight years old), she studied the harp. When she was 16, she went to the Vienna Conservatory and, as a teenager, performed with the Vienna Philharmonic. But she had been a writer from childhood, too, and had her earliest stories in print at the age of 14. At the age of 18, she married a journalist named Max Prels. One source says she ghost-wrote for him. That marriage ended after six years, and she took a job with the Darmstadt city orchestra. At the age of 28, she married Richard Lert, a conductor. She quit professional harp playing that same year. The couple's financial situation was precarious, and she began writing at night to earn money. She won a literary contest judged by Thomas Mann in 1925, and in 1926 got a job as an editor for a magazine called Uhu. She wrote stories, poems, and reviews for several magazines owned by the same publisher and made a conscious decision to write for a mass market.
In the late 1920s, Baum became a best-selling author with Stud. Chem. Helene Willfuer, which is a novel about a chemistry student who struggles to control her own life and ultimately ends up sacrificing her career for love. It was serialized in one of her employer's magazines (Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung), and it was said to have increased the magazine's circulation by 200,000 or more. The same thing happened with Menschen im Hotel. For that novel, she had taken a job as a hotel chambermaid for six weeks to gather research. She turned the novel into a script for stage performance, and it was a great success in Berlin. An English adaptation (Grand Hotel) was enormously successful in New York. MGM created a film version starring Greta Garbo (it was the origin of her famous line, "I want to be alone."), and that was an enormous success as well, gaining an Academy Award for Best Picture.
Baum went to the U.S. in 1932 to work on the film. She returned to Berlin after this, but decided then that she really wanted to live in the U.S. She emigrated that same year, one of the few Jews in the early 1930s to voluntarily leave Germany for the U.S. She worked as a writer for movie studios until 1941. Along the way, she became an American citizen in 1938. In 1941, she went back to writing novels. Most of her novels after 1941 have English titles, and all of them before 1941 have German titles. Her bibliography includes 30 titles, and she averaged a book a year in the 1920s and only slightly fewer in subsequent decades. She had a realistic view of herself and was quoted as saying, "I know what I'm worth: I am a first-rate second- rate author." She died in 1960. Here are some sites about her: http://www.american.edu/DSHEP/modern_students/ti0765a/home.htm , http://www.usc.edu/isd/locations/ssh/special/fml/Baum.html.
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.
An Open-Source Encyclopedia
Wikipedia is a collaborative project to create a new encyclopedia from scratch. It has 20,000 articles so far. Articles are licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License, meaning they remain free to the rest of humanity forever.
The owner of this site collects abandoned places. When he finds them, he photographs them. Looking at the photos is like walking through an abandoned building: emotionally moving in a way that is difficult to put a name to.
The Sacredness of the Written Word
This article explains the holy reasons why calligraphy is an art form in Islamic civilization and why the Koran can embody beauty and truth in more ways than one.
General William J. Donovan served as special assistant to the U.S. chief of counsel during the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. His papers, which include extensive notes from the Nuremberg trials, are housed at Cornell University School of Law Library. They are being digitized and posted on the web.
A Method for Improving Web Searches
Many unsavory web sites put specious keywords in their metatags to corral unsuspecting searchers, a practice I always thought was pretty stupid. But there is a similar problem to web sites: being visited by searchers looking for something they aren't going to find. The existence of a phrase on your web site, even when it is used metaphorically or negatively ("There's nothing on this web site about bananas") can bring in visitors who will not find what they are looking for but nevertheless increase the traffic on your server. Nicholas Carroll suggests that web protocols allow site managers to insert metatags that conceal web sites from certain searches. He calls it the Anti-Thesaurus.
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(c) Copyright 2002 Floyd Kemske
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