Please note the date on this issue and don't put too much faith in the links, some of which are centuries old in Internet time.
At The Margin
Vol. 1, Issue 3
Wednesday October 27, 1999
Details, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.
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1. In Celebration of Bad Poetry
2. Finally Somebody Says It Out Loud
3. The Outlook for Encyclopedia Brittanica
4. The Amazon Wars
5. Do You Know Me?
6. Messages to the Editor
7. Blue Underlined Words
1. In Celebration of Bad Poetry
When his raft is run down by a riverboat and Huckleberry Finn finds himself ashore, he is taken in by a family mourning for their dead daughter. Huck looks over some sentimental pictures she had drawn when she was alive and observes, "I reckoned that with her disposition she was having a better time in the graveyard." He then has the opportunity to read a poem she had written about a boy who fell down a well:
Ode To Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd
And did young Stephen sicken,
And did young Stephen die?
And did the sad hearts thicken,
And did the mourners cry?
It goes on like that for the better part of a page, and by the end it is a pretty hilarious spoof of the "graveyard school" of poetry that was in vogue at the time. The character of this girl, it turns out, was based on an actual person. Julia A. Moore (1847-1920), whose first book, The Sweet Singer of Michigan, was published in 1876, has been savaged by critics continually since then. One of them said about her work, "Shakespeare, could he read it, would be glad that he was dead." Julia A. Moore lives on in the annual "Julia A. Moore Poetry Parody Contest," sponsored by the Flint Public Library in Flint, Michigan. This year's winners are "Julyamore" (first place), "What I Did On My Summer Vacation -- 452 Words" (second place), and "Yowl" (third). Previous winners include titles like "Do Not Go Naked Into That Good Ambulance" (third place, 1998), "The Composting of Sam McGee" (first place, 1997), "The Gaits of Heaven" (second place, 1996), and "Sprigtibe Id Bichigud" (third place, 1995). Seven years' worth of winners can be found at the contest website: http://www.flint.lib.mi.us/fpl/programs/jmoore/winners/winners.html.
Incidentally, Lycos, an Internet hub, reported October 12 that "Poetry" was recently one of its top ten user searches (after "Pokemon," "Halloween," "Dragonball Z," "Britney Spears," "WWF," "Pamela Anderson Lee," "NFL," "Beanie Babies," and "Backstreet Boys"). See http://news.excite.com/news/bw/991013/ma-lycos. Thanks to Peter Desmond for finding the websites and suggesting this item.
2. Finally Somebody Says It Out Loud
An essay in The Village Voice Literary Supplement by writer Richard B. Woodward says out loud something we have probably all suspected: "There has never been a time with more opportunities to write and read about books... But as the means for encountering books have proliferated in all media, reviews have probably never mattered less." Notwithstanding that book reviewing has turned into a media "pig-out" (Woodward cites Farrar Straus & Giroux's estimate that Tom Wolfe's A Man In Full got hundreds of reviews), there are few reviews that "establish how a new book or an unknown author is read."
Woodward suggests three possible forces that are at work to undermine the quality of book reviewing. One is fear. We might expect the best reviews of novels, for example, to come from novelists. But a novelist, asked to review a book, fears the possibility of retribution for an unfavorable opinion. And retribution, in the heavily networked world of literature, can be career-threatening. Another is the stress put on craft and networking (at the expense of say, critical thinking) in graduate writing programs. And the third reason is the web. Amazon.com, for example, is not interested in posting unfavorable reviews since they don't do a lot for sales. In fact, it is doubtful that any kind of thoughtful review does much for sales. A lot of people seem to buy books on the herd instinct, counting the number of favorable comments rather than evaluating what the reviews say. But this isn't just an Amazon.com problem. Increasingly, Woodward points out, publications that offer book reviews also offer links to book-purchasing opportunities with them. When the review and the sale of the book are tied together that way, it's probably too much to hope for anything thoughtful. Read Woodward's article at the Village Voice Literary Supplement site: http://www.villagevoice.com/vls/164/woodward.shtml.
3. The Outlook for Encyclopedia Britannica
CD-ROMs began disrupting the market for printed encyclopedias as soon as they appeared -- and not because they provide better graphics and motion video than print does. They were much, much cheaper. I can't remember exactly, but I think I paid about a hundred bucks for Encyclopedia Britannica CD-ROM in 1996. The 32-volume hardcopy cost $1,250. The next year, existing customers got a price break, and it looked like I was going to be able to have an always- current encyclopedia for about $50 a year. The CD-ROM-based encyclopedia has another advantage over print -- and it's a bigger advantage than cost: search capability. Search capability lets you open a sort of back door to the encyclopedia articles. If you were writing an ad for hiking boots and wanted to cite good places to hike, for example, you could look in vain under "hiking" in your encyclopedia. That gives you the history of hiking and the demographics of hikers but nothing about great hiking places. But if you load the CD-ROM and search for the word "hiking," it returns to you a list of every article with the word hiking in it, and many of them are about good places to hike. But Encyclopedia Britannica was late to CD-ROM, and by the time it arrived, much of the territory had been staked out by Microsoft's Encarta. For quality and depth of information, Encarta isn't fit to carry Britannica's jockstrap. But it has a lot of flashy multimedia garbage of the kind that magazines like to write about, and the price is unbeatable, which is to say it's generally given away free with PCs.
You may have heard over the past week, however, that Britannica is attempting to capitalize on its brand recognition to become a major web presence. It has been on the web all along as a subscription service, but the new site, http://www.brittanica.com, is free. The company has told the media it will continue with its CD-ROM, and it is even coming out with a new 40-volume hardcopy edition (http://www.wired.com/news/reuters/0,1349,31992,00.html). But you will be forgiven if you wonder whether the web will manage to suck the life out of the more traditional side of the company's business. There are two real problems for a product like Britannica on the web. One is that the advertising it needs to pay for the free service has little future because it doesn't work. The best evidence shows that web users don't even see advertisements, much less respond to them. See http://www.useit.com/alertbox/990711.html, a site you may have already seen, since I referred to it in the last issue. The second real problem for web-based products, however, is traffic. If you want to use Britannica on the web, you are in the position of having to compete with everybody else who wants to, and sure enough, traffic on the encyclopedia's first day brought down its server. Even when I tried to access it while writing this (nearly a week later, on October 25), I was given a page called "To Our Visitors" that says, "The launch of Britannica.com earlier this week created such an enormous volume of traffic that we were simply unable to handle the demand. If you've reached this page it means we are experiencing an exceptional volume of traffic at this moment." I wish Britannica the best, because I know if this thing goes under, it will take the CD-ROM with it, and then I'll be stuck with Encarta as my only encyclopedia.
4. The Amazon Wars
I am not given to gossip in this newsletter, but there is a wild situation developing in book retailing that is fraught with opportunities to take cheap shots and offer unqualified opinions. How can I pass up such opportunities? Amazon Bookstore in Minneapolis is a feminist bookstore that has been in business for 30 years. Amazon.com, you probably know, is a web retailer of books and kitsch that is five years old. Amazon Bookstore says its business is being disrupted by Amazon.com, and after attempting to come to some amicable settlement finally instituted a lawsuit against the web company. Amazon Bookstore cofounder, Barb Weiser, says her store has been subjected to "nonstop calls coming in from Amazon.com customers wanting service. Since Amazon.com doesn't display its address, and our store is listed on the Internet through the ABA's [American Booksellers Association] membership directory, people call us -- not only about books they want to order but about authors, gift certificates, conferences, reviews, submissions. We even get vendor invoices from publishers, of all people." Weiser was quoted in Holt Uncensored, the e-mail newsletter of Pat Holt, former book editor and critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. You can read the story at http://www.nciba.com/patholt/column80.html.
Holt Uncensored reports Amazon Bookstore is asking that Amazon.com stop advertising in Minneapolis and put a disclaimer on its website to tell customers there's no connection between the two organizations. Amazon Bookstore has been doing business continuously under that name for 30 years. You would think that the organization that owned and used the name for a couple of decades would take precedence over the one that came along later. But, as is usual in such situations, the contest hinges on who has the biggest lawyers.
And Amazon.com has proved itself to have very small lawyers indeed. In those hearings they always have before a trial, the Amazon.com legal team questioned Amazon Bookstore staff members about whether they were gay and whether some of them "married" to others. I am not well versed in either law or retailing, but I could have told them that wasn't a good thing to ask. Amazon.com has apparently been taking some heat for its lawyers because the web company has been sending a note to outraged customers about it. In the note, Amazon.com explains that Amazon Bookstore is a lesbian bookstore that is trying to reposition itself as a nonlesbian bookstore, and the lawyers' questions were related to establishing this as fact. How this relates to who owns the name is up to the judge, I guess.
For whatever it's worth, Amazon Bookstore's website (http://www.amazonfembks.com) says it is "a full-service feminist bookstore for all women." I don't know how long it has said that. I didn't start going there until this story developed. But the second thing that even I could have told them at Amazon.com is: if you ask somebody offensive questions for whatever reason, you're better off apologizing than defending your behavior. It's easy for me to say, since I wasn't the one with the idea of mass-market book selling over the web. But with all the savvy available at the offices of Amazon.com, you would think there would be somebody there smart enough to page through the ABA directory before they decided on the name. It certainly would have saved a lot of trouble. Whatever successes Amazon.com lays claim to this year, capturing the lesbian demographic is unlikely to be one of them.
5. Do You Know Me?
For those who like puzzles as well as books, this department brings you the first sentence of a novel, currently out of print in the U.S., by a famous writer (caution: he or she may not be famous for being a 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, e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 will be remembered that the death of Dr. Owen Dawnay was attributed to partisans of the Colombian National Liberation Army.
I'm waiting for your guesses.
Last Issue's Sentence: A good song, I think.
There were no reader responses this time. I think I made the eligibility requirements too strict. The contest is now open to anybody, even if you're related to me.
The sentence, at any rate, is from The Praise Singer by Mary Renault.
Here's the novel's entire first paragaph: "A good song, I think. The end's good -- that came to me in one piece -- and the rest will do. The boy will need to write it, I suppose, as well as hear it. Trusting to the pen; a disgrace, and he with his own name made. But write he will, never keep it in the place between his ears. And even then he won't get it right alone. I still do better after one hearing of something new that he can after three. I doubt he'd keep even his own songs for long, if he didn't write them. So what can I do, unless I'm to be remembered only by what's carved in marble? Tell them in Lakedaimon, passer-by, that here, obedient to their word, we lie. They'll remember that."
Mary Renault is the pseudonym of Mary Challans (1905-1983), who was born in London, where her father was a doctor. She studied at Oxford to be a teacher, then changed to study nursing. Her first novel, The Promise of Love, was published in 1939. She wrote three more novels in her off-duty hours as a wartime nurse. The novels from this early phase of her career had contemporary settings, and The Charioteer (1953) was a sympathetic treatment of homosexuality set during the Second World War. She turned her attention to classical history, and The Last of the Wine (1956) was set in Athens at the time of Socrates and Plato. The King Must Die (1958) and The Bull from the Sea (1962) were about Theseus, the semimythical king of Athens who invented scientific wrestling and killed the minotaur of Crete. Mary Renault is probably most famous for her trilogy of novels about Alexander the Great: Fire from Heaven (1970), The Persian Boy (1972), and Funeral Games (1980). She has the distinction of being mentioned in the "Art of Literature" article of the Encyclopedia Britannica as a successful practitioner of "fiction presented as biography."
6. Messages to the Editor
Is Writing Like Playing the Piano?
The quote from Jean Braithwaite's article on teaching writing, which you link to in At The Margin #2, compares writing to playing a piano; this represents a serious fallacy. Writing, a creative art, should be compared not to a performing art, but rather to another creative art, such as composing. Arguments against teaching writing would equally apply to composing. But it is even questionable how well one can teach writing's own performing art, literary translation, which even more than playing the piano (at a professional level, at least) requires not just teaching, but multiple talents and many years of devotion to a variety of skills.
author of Performing Without A Stage: The Art Of Literary Translation
[Editor's Note: Robert Wechsler is the editor of my novels, so I may be biased, but Performing Without a Stage is a rare look at the difficulty of translation, touching on philosophical and aesthetic issues that most readers probably never knew existed. I recommend it.]
Another Fan of the Alexandria Library
I'm intrigued by the piece on the ancient library ["From Alexandria to the Internet," At The Margin #2]. Recently I published a story in New England Review, "The Fires of Alexandria," which plays with the historical question of what happened to the library. I'd like to send you a copy.
[Editor's Note: I asked Vic to send me his story. It appeared in the Spring 1997 issue of New England Review. Set more than a thousand years ago, the story concerns an Arab physician. I can't tell you much more without giving it away, except to say that it feels like a thousand years ago in the reading. Lots of interesting detail and the atmosphere of another world. If you're interested in the library at Alexandria, it is well worth hunting it up at your local library. Vic Walter is also author of the novel The Voice of Manush.]
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.
How Stuff Works
How Stuff Works features hundreds of articles devoted to explaining the mysteries (technological and otherwise) of our daily lives. There are articles on cell phones, toilets, and power grids. But there are also less technical matters, such as how Christmas works, how time works, and how chocolate works.
Genochoice is a game that purports to predict the genetic characteristics of your offspring and then gives you a price schedule for "correcting" some of these characteristics. It would be pretty funny if it wasn't so chilling.
The Institutionalized Exploitation of Children
"No Truce in Psychological War on Kids" is an article by Norman Solomon (author of The Habits Of Highly Deceptive Media) about a little-publicized letter from 60 psychologists and psychiatrists to the American Psychological Association (APA). The letter (quoted by Solomon) addressed the "large gap [that] has arisen between APA's mission and the drift of the profession into helping corporations influence children for the purpose of selling products to them."
A call for participation in a symposium on narrative intelligence suggests: 1) narrative can be used as a principle in computer system design to improve human-computer interaction, 2) narrative is a way for artificial intelligence systems to understand the world (in the much the same way that human beings use it), and 3) narrative is cross-disciplinary and turns up in psychology, cultural studies, and artificial intelligence. It may sound a little bizarre, but it's fascinating to read.
Good Books by Dead White Guys
The Great Books Program is a website describing an academic program of Mercer University in Georgia. It is an eight-semester course sequence that students take from freshman to senior year and covers the foundational texts of western civilization. The list includes 57 books, from The Iliad of Homer to Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra. Checking to see which ones you've read is an interesting way to test your background in the "foundational texts of western civilization."
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