At The Margin
Vol. 4, Issue 2 (Whole Issue #37)
May 29, 2003
Matters, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.
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Note: everything in this issue is written by Floyd Kemske, who is the "I" sometimes referred to.
Disclosure: If you click on a link associated with a book title in this newsletter, your browser will take you to a page for that book at Powells.com, the bookseller. If you then purchase the book, 10% of your purchase price is remitted to At The Margin, which is the publication's only source of income. "No link" means the book is out of stock at Powells.com at the time the issue was written.
1. Calvin and Hobbes Trump Moby-Dick
2. A Meditation on Coupons
3. Production Notes and Personal Stuff
4. Blue Underlined Words
5. Email to the Editor
6. Do You Know Me?
1. Calvin And Hobbes Trump Moby-Dick
Here's something that begs for the involvement of At The Margin's readers: the Internet Book List. It's a volunteer effort, less than a year old, with the goal to provide a comprehensive and easily accessible database of books. You'll be able to go there and look up a book, see its marketing category, check its average rating, read reviews posted by other users, find out if it's part of a series, even look at the dust jacket in many cases. You can also search for and sort the books.
The founder, Patrik Roos, hopes to grow it into something big (although he has made a commitment to keep it as a user-managed effort). He hopes to eventually include all kinds of books, but the nonfiction section is waiting for "the right person to take care of it." For now, it is concerned only with fiction (but one of the books I found there is Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, and I wonder if that's an editorial comment). The database includes 8,226 titles by 2,832 authors. It has 2,993 registered users (you must register in order to rate books) and 803 reviews.
Here's why I think it needs the help of ATM readers. The 10 most highly rated books are
I'm embarrassed to say I can't remember ever reading a George R. R. Martin novel. I'm sure he's a great writer, but I wonder if he deserves three of the top four positions.
At number 46, To Kill a Mockingbird barely made it into the top 50. Middlemarch, Les Misérables, I, Claudius, The Handmaid's Tale, and A Tale of Two Cities all failed the cut for the top 200. Trustee from the Toolroom isn't even on the list, anywhere.
Internet Book List is not intended to be a database of the great books, of course, but right now, a user arriving from Mars would get the idea that The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book is a better book than Moby-Dick. I just don't think that's the case. This project is a laudable effort, but I think it needs some adult participation. Stop by sometime and rate some books. Put some in the database if you can spare the time. With help from the kind of people who read At The Margin, this thing could be useful.
2. A Meditation on Coupons
Changes in our language are always interesting, but I especially love those instances in which an expression somehow turns into its opposite. I ran across one of those this month. I saw a television commercial that used the term "coupon clipper" to describe someone who needed to watch expenses. The commercial suggested that if you cut coupons out of the newspaper, you can save on grocery bills.
But I thought I remembered that the same expression once referred to those who didn't need to watch expenses. I got out my favorite dictionary, Random House Unabridged (second edition -- no link) and looked it up. This edition was published in 1987, but even as late as then, it defined "coupon clipper" as "a well-to-do person much of whose income is derived from clipping and cashing coupons from coupon bonds." The dictionary said the expression dates from the 1880s.
With something like this, once I get started, it's kind of difficult for me to stop. I went to the Oxford English Dictionary (1971 edition [compact] ) and found that in old French, colpon or copon meant "piece cut off."
The word came into English as culpon, colpon, or coulpoun, a noun meaning slice, piece, or cut (as in a cut of meat). The word survived in Scottish as coupoun, cowpon, or coopin, but it disappeared from English until it was reintroduced from modern French in the nineteenth century. The first recorded use in the OED dates from 1822, in work called Compendium of Finance: "These 212,000 rentes are made to bearer and divided in coupons of 250 francs each."
In 1864, Thomas Cook introduced a system for prepayment of tour expenses that we would recognize today as a coupon book. This innovation was responsible for a second definition: "One of a series of conjoined tickets issued together, which entitle the holder to certain services rendered in separate instalments, after each of which the corresponding coupon is detached and given up."
Coupons are no longer a very good mechanism for paying bondholders, since most people who own bonds never even see them, much less have the opportunity to mutilate them. Today, coupons are used primarily to provide retail customers with discounts. If it seems like a lot more trouble than just lowering prices, it is. But it has the advantage of creating a mechanism for measuring the effectiveness of marketing efforts.
Today's coupon industry finds itself, like the rest of us, in something of a slump. In 2001, there were 239 billion coupons printed and distributed in the U.S. -- well over 800 for every man, woman, and child. That was a mere 3.6% decline from the previous year, but there was a 27% reduction in "the number of brand events per day," according to a press release from NCH Marketing Services, "the global leader in coupon processing."
Most coupons (84%) are distributed through Sunday Free Standing Inserts, a proportion that has been growing, notwithstanding such coupons have a lower redemption rate than those distributed by "Handouts, Magazines, and In & On-Pack" (whatever that is).
Only 4.0 billion coupons were redeemed in 2001 (14 per person), compared with 4.5 billion in the previous year (16 per person). NCH Marketing Services attributes much of this decline to manufacturers' increasing practice of putting two or more items on the coupon, requiring consumers to buy more things to redeem one. This has led to record lows in consumer satisfaction with coupons. Only 51% of consumers now say that coupons "save them a lot of money," and 70% of coupon users say they skip coupons requiring them to buy more than they normally would.
So "coupon clipper" has changed meaning from well-to-do person to one who needs to watch expenses. And if the coupon business continues to founder on high costs and consumer cynicism, perhaps it may eventually cease to mean anything.
If you're wondering where I got all this information about modern coupons, the Association of Coupon Professionals reports on coupon trends. It was my own idea to compare the association's numbers to population figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.
3. Production Notes and Personal Stuff
You may remember in the last issue, I developed a complicated story relating how often my novel, Coolidge College, had been downloaded to the preparation and various release dates of the movie, National Lampoon's Van Wilder (which takes place at a Coolidge College). But reader Allison Vigil wrote me (see below) suggesting the surge in downloads I saw in February 2001 may relate to my mention of the book in the January 2001 issue of At The Margin, in an item about stories told backward.
It never occurred to me to check the pattern of downloads against stories in At The Margin, but Allison's explanation is better. If my theory about the movie were correct, you would expect the number of visits to my site based on the search term "Coolidge College" to be higher than the number of downloads of the book (since people would come to the site looking for stuff related to the movie and would be disappointed). But last month, when I again mentioned the book here in ATM, there were 63 visits resulting from the search term "Coolidge College" and 97 downloads of the book. About half again as many people downloaded the book as came to the site looking for "Coolidge College."
In the promotion of my work, then, a mention in At The Margin is probably more powerful than a Hollywood movie, which is counter-intuitive and maybe a little scary. I will try to use this new knowledge carefully and promise not to subject you to indiscriminate promotions of my novels. Coolidge College, by the way, has now been downloaded about 1,800 times.
4. Blue Underlined Words
Interesting items I've found on the web this month, not always related to books.
How to Be a Philosopher
This humorous article is probably loaded with in-jokes for academic philosophers, but it's pretty funny to the rest of us, too ("Respond to an article or book that you have not read. Be relentless.").
Extraterrestrial and Bizarre Recipes
This page offers recipes that look reasonably legitimate. The one for "Apple Roast Hadrosaur" says you can substitute lean pork. And "Chunky Cat Barf" is only intended to look like cat barf. For some reason, the "Cold Lard Omelet" made me laugh out loud. Thanks to reader William Metcalfe for the tip on this one.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has approved a series of pictographic signs to warn us about terrorism, but many of them seem ambiguous. This site suggests alternative interpretations for many of them, and all the interpretations are hilarious, such as the one that's translated as, "If you hear the Backstreet Boys, Michael Bolton or Yanni on the radio, cower in the corner or run like hell."
Why It's a Bad Idea to Burn Old Libraries
People who think a destroyed library is no loss "because the books can all be reprinted" are foolish. Old libraries tend to house priceless and unique bits of knowledge, such as J. R. R. Tolkien's Beowulf and the Critics, recently discovered in manuscript at the Bodleian Library and published this year, or the Didache, an "authentic document of the ancient church discovered in 1873 in an old library in Constantinople," which includes a manual of church order and practice dating from 70 A.D. when people who knew Christ personally were still alive.
The Original Warblogger
The Iraq War brought to the web the phenomenon of warblogging -- weblogs run by people who offered opinions and information about the events of the war. This site purports to be the weblog of Julius Caesar (May 27, 2003: "Last night the Gauls attacked again from both sides.") What a concept.
Aggressively Publishing Public Domain Books
Barnes & Noble may be the book chain everybody loves to hate, but its aggressive program (starting this month) of publishing classics from the public domain may make easier the task of getting hold of well-produced editions of great books. The firm is promising low prices as well as enhancements to the books such as scholarly notes, illustrations, glossaries, discussion questions, and lists of plays and films inspired by them. I'm linking to a story about it from a newspaper in Naples, Florida, since most of the other stories appear to have disappeared into archives. I have seen other news stories that report Penguin is making a major investment in redesigning and promoting its classics line also. What does it say about modern literature that the industry's most promising area of growth is public domain fiction?
5. Email 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/ATM36.html.
The Appeal of Nevil Shute
A riveting read [ATM #36], as usual. I must add, as writer and editor and reader, that what has always appealed to me most about Shute is his command of tone. There is a quiet calm relaxed intensity and pace in his books that shines through the years, and while the characters themselves fade, their characters do not; as you point out perceptively. The quiet courage of his people under duress is the feeling that stays with a reader -- it being, I think, the best that we are capable of as a species.
More on the Handmaid's Tale
Okay, Floyd -- the answer's The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. It's an evocative first line -- the kind that sticks with you like a Garcia Marquez phrase. I like the line a few paragraphs on that asks, "How did we learn it, that talent for insatiability?"
Hope all is well with you.
Addressing Floyd's Ptolemaic Theory of Download Epicycles
I have been a grateful reader of ATM for years now. As I read your last issue, I remembered downloading and reading Coolidge College after you mentioned it in a prior issue of ATM. Some time ago, I began the practice of maintaining a list in my journal of the books I read and the dates I read them. I went back to the list to see where my reading of C.C. fell against your trend line and saw with amusement that I read it in Feb. of '01, your peak period. Did you perhaps mention the novel in a Jan. issue of ATM?
At any rate, I enjoyed the reading immensely, and it also launched me on a cassoulet craze that still continues to this day.
[Floyd's Response: Yes, I did mention the book in the January 2001 issue. Thanks for pointing that out!]
At The Margin has 1,116 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 1,115 others. Please limit your comment to 200 words and send it to ATM's editor, Floyd Kemske (email@example.com).
6. Do You Know Me?
For those who like puzzles as well as books, this department brings you the first sentence of a book 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 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:
"They made a silly mistake, though," the Professor of History said, and his smile, as Dixon watched, gradually sank beneath the surface of his features at the memory.
I'm waiting for your guesses. I'm eager to see how many people get this one.
Last Issue's Sentence:
We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.
One reader guessed A Separate Peace by John Knowles and said if it wasn't that it was probably All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Both were inspired guesses, but both were incorrect. Three readers, however, named the book correctly. Sister Caroline Thomas, Chuck Groth, and Arabella all recognized The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. Congratulations.
The Handmaid's Tale was published in 1985. It takes place in the near future, in a North American country called the Republic of Gilead, a state that rigidly controls the activities of women and sorts them into three classes: wives, domestic workers, and breeders -- called "handmaids."
Gilead does not educate women and forbids reading for those who still have the ability. Women are also forbidden to have money or gainful employment. Much of their conversation has been reduced to scriptural formulas. The novel's protagonist is Offred, a handmaid in the household of a man known as the Commander. We're never told what he's the commander of, but he appears to be (and here Atwood's irrepressible humor comes through) an expert in marketing.
Gilead's principal problem is a declining birthrate among the elite. In a world such as this, it doesn't occur to the authorities that there could be any problem with male fertility. They assume the problem is in their wives, and Gilead's elite has appropriated all women who appear to be fertile for breeding purposes. These handmaids are placed in the elite households for impregnation. The name "handmaid" originates in the required monthly ceremony. In this, the handmaid receives sexual intercourse from the head of the household while reclining between the legs of the wife, who grasps the brood woman's hands. Atwood's description of this act makes it sound about as erotic as the operating instructions for a kitchen appliance, which is, of course, the point.
Despite frequent public executions and "Prayvaganzas," Gilead is a joyless world. Atwood's portrayal of this society is immensely sophisticated: the elite appears to be victimized by its politics and culture nearly as much as anyone else is.
The Handmaid's Tale is an engrossing story, but to be perfectly frank, I haven't been sleeping particularly well since I reread it. It's not a good time to be reading a novel about a police state based on religious fundamentalism. Now that the U.S. has established secret courts and conducts broad surveillance of its citizens, our Attorney General's penchant for covering up naked statues isn't quite as funny as it once was. A recent enforcement action under the so-called "USA Patriot Act" was an investigation of online gambling. The investigation was based on parts of the law that "prohibit the transmission of funds that are known to have been derived from a criminal offense or are intended to be used to promote or support unlawful activity." Terrorists may be after us with dirty bombs, but our government puts resources into protecting us from Internet blackjack.
In the Bible, incidentally, Gilead is the home of Elijah, the prophet who contended with Jezebel for the hearts and minds of the Israelites. Jezebel has since become the archetype of the wicked woman.
Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario. Her father was a forest entomologist and her mother was a dietitian. The family spent a considerable amount of time in the woods as a result of her father's work. She was home-schooled up to eighth grade and gained from a somewhat isolated childhood a love a reading. She has written all her life, starting at about age five. When she was at Victoria College (Toronto University), her first poetry collection, Double Persephone (no link), was published in 1961. After taking her bachelor's degree from Victoria College, she studied literature at Radcliffe College and received a master's from Harvard University.
Atwood is a major figure in Canadian literature. In the 1970s, she was an editor for House of Anansi Press, a small press that was closely involved in the movement that created a modern, self-consciously Canadian literary culture. She has also written on the subject, including Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972) (no link). I read several websites this month that said she is regarded by Canadians as one of their most important novelists.
Her 2002 book, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, includes this remarkable description of how she became a writer: "It wasn't a likely thing for me to have done, not was it something I chose, as you might choose to be a lawyer or a dentist. It simply happened, suddenly, in 1956, while I was crossing the football field on the way home from school. I wrote a poem in my head and then I wrote it down, and after that writing was the only thing I wanted to do. I didn't know that this poem of mine wasn't at all good, and had I known, I probably wouldn't have cared. It wasn't the result but the experience that had hooked me: it was the electricity. My transition from not being a writer to being one was instantaneous, like the change from docile bank clerk to fanged monster in 'B' movies. Anyone looking might have thought I'd been exposed to some chemical or cosmic ray of the kind that causes rats to become gigantic or men to become invisible."
Negotiating with the Dead, incidentally, takes its title from one of its essays, which persuasively advances the notion that fear of death is the primary motivation of the writer. Whatever else it is, writing is a way of speaking to the living after you're gone.
Her work includes poetry, nonfiction, television scripts, radio scripts, short fiction, reviews, children's books, and criticism, as well as novels, of which she's had 11 published:
The Edible Woman (1969) A woman, recently engaged, finds herself increasingly unable to to take food and gradually begins to feel as if she is being eaten.
Surfacing (1972) A talented artist goes in search of her missing father to a remote island in northern Quebec.
Lady Oracle (1976) Bored with her marriage, a woman becomes a celebrity writer and has unlikely, hair-raising adventures.
Life Before Man (1979) A woman in midlife crisis is forced to make choices.
Bodily Harm (1981) On vacation in the Caribbean, a young journalist discovers a place where her survival skills don't apply.
The Handmaid's Tale (1985) A survivor from the days before the Republic of Gilead, Offred is valued only for her ovaries.
Cat's Eye (1988) Returning to the city of her youth for a retrospective on her art, a successful painter relives the fierce politics of childhood.
Robber Bride (1993) Three women come to terms with a malevolent figure from their past who reappears after everyone thought her dead.
Alias Grace (1996) A historical novel about a woman from the nineteenth century, convicted of a murder she cannot remember.
Oryx and Crake (2003) The survivor of an apparently worldwide disaster tries to piece together his past.
Among her many awards are the Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin and the Governor General's Award for The Handmaid's Tale. She has a substantial worldwide following. A Google search on her name yields over 139,000 sites, including The Margaret Atwood Society and her own site, O. W. Toad, a name that appears to be an anagram of Atwood.
She lives in Toronto with her husband, novelist Graeme Gibson. She has had children, but I don't know their ages or how many there are.
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At The Margin is a learning project of novelist Floyd Kemske. He is committed to keeping it free for readers who enjoy it. But if you are moved somehow to support what he's doing, consider ordering one of his books. You can read the first chapter of any of his novels at his website: http://www.thirdlion.com/, or you can order one right now through one of these links:
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At The Margin aims for monthly publication but is charmingly erratic.
(c) Copyright 2003 Floyd Kemske
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