The worst marketing idea in the history of ever

This is normally the kind of story I would save for my “this week on the bookish internet” posts, but when I read this piece by Brady Dale for The Observer, my blood pressure spiked and I started to sputter eight sentences at the same time in an effort to say all the things that were wrong with this idea at once. Dale reports:

“Globo Books is asking readers to pre-order the next two Nouvella titles (Ciao, Suerte by Annie McGreevy and One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place Left to Hide by Christian Kiefer) and then ‘destroy’ them once they arrive,” Deena Drewis, Nouvella’s editor, wrote the Observer in an email. The funds will be used to pay for the print run of the next two volumes, their ninth and tenth titles respectively. Volumes purchased through this campaign will arrive with instructions for destroying them.

Backers who pledge $50 will get both books and handwritten apologies from the authors for writing them.

This is the most asinine idea I’ve ever heard—worse than the “girl with the dragon tattoo” scheme earlier this year. Thankfully, the tattooing was called off.

A more generous person might describe this kickstarter as performance art, but the quote from Deena Drewis and the language from the kickstarter page seem gleefully spiteful more than artistic to me. While I am willing to send books to the recyclers at the end of the useful life, the idea of burning perfectly good books bothers out of me. It bothers the hell out of me to learn that someone is raising the specter of book-burning to get attention for their new imprint—which I suspect is the whole point of this scheme.

I have a hard time believing that someone who truly loved literature could think up something like this.

On Terry Pratchett

Sir Terry Pratchett (1948-2015)

Last night, in a flurry of book talking, I recommended Good Omens to a reader. I didn’t know that this morning I would learn that Sir Terry Pratchett had passed away. I’ve never felt this affected by an author’s death before. When a major writer dies, I feel a bit of sorrow that there won’t be any more masterpieces to savor. But I’ve been reading Sir Terry’s work for years. His quirky, highly humorous and deadly accurate satires are an integral part of my reading experience.

It’s not just that there will never be another new Discworld novel. One fan on tumblr remarked:

A great many died today.

Just for a second, it feels as if many others died with him: a cowardly wizard and a perfectly imperfect watch commander, a shrewd politician and a pink-wearing ancient vampire, an angel and a demon, a witch and a witchfinder, a teen boy and his friends, a mother and a crone, Death’s granddaughter and Death’s almost grandson-in-law, even the grand ole scythe man himself.

And many, many others. So many.

When a truly beloved author passes, it feels like a gigantic book cover has just been slammed shut before you were done reading the story.

The tumblr fan continued, “But you know what? Tomorrow someone will turn the page, and all of them will rise again, and live on, forever.” Perhaps that’s the best way to mourn a writer like Sir Terry, a writer I can quote verbatim. There won’t be any more new books about Sam Vimes or Death or Tiffany Aching, but we still have the ones that have already been written. As long as we keep reading, they will keep living. 

The most fitting parting words for Sir Terry appeared on his twitter account:

Censor spectrum

On one of the library tours that I gave last January, a student asked me if book banning was still a problem. I regretfully had to inform them that, yes, book challenges and bans happen regularly. This post highlights just a few of the most recent, from the minor to the kind of story that turns me into a towering rage monster.

Clean Reader: Bowdlerizing Since 2015

My usual response to people who are offended by something in print is to not read that book. That book is clearly not for them. Given that there are so very many books out there in the world, this doesn’t really limit their reading choices. However, if they feel left out, there is now an app that can take the swear words out of literature: Clean Reader. The Washington Post story on Clean Reader begins with a reminder about a publisher who wanted to publish Huckleberry Finn without all those offensive n-words. Clean Reader isn’t censorship in the traditional sense; it’s Bowdlerization.

This sort of thing makes me roll my eyes. Yes, the n-word is offensive, but it’s there for a reason in Huckleberry Finn. Taking out the words that offend changes the meaning and the effect of the book.

Won’t someone think of the children?

When I worked for my alma mater before I took a job at my current library, a student worker got in trouble for using a Sharpie to put bikinis on the nude women in the foreign magazines like Der Spiegel. This is a step up in intensity from Clean Reader. In this case, someone took it upon themselves to cover up what they thought someone else would be offended by and should be protected from. Today on Twitter, a librarian used the #LibrarianProblems* hashtag to share a photo of a damaged copy of a book by Eric Carle.

Like someone who has just eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, the person who borrowed the Eric Carle book strategically covered the innocent nude figures with homemade leaves. Not only did they ruin a copy of a children’s’ book—which are surprisingly expensive—but they crossed the line I draw in the metaphorical sand when it comes to censorship. My issue here is that this person made the decision about what other people should be protected from. Further, I believe that making a big deal about something like nudity creates an issue out of nothing.

At this point in the censor spectrum, I am annoyed. What sends me over the edge is this story from Kansas. The Kansas State Senate voted at the end of February to pass:

A bill making it easier to prosecute teachers and school administrators for distributing materials deemed harmful to minors passed the Kansas Senate on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 56, which passed 26-14, removes a provision from current statute that protects schools against such prosecution. It keeps the protection in place for universities, museums and libraries.

The law makes it theoretically possible to send teachers to jail for assigning books that are “deemed harmful.” Harmful is not defined. Leaving the law vague opens the door to a very scary place. The law was originally intended to protect children from being exposed to pornography—another term that doesn’t have a legal definition. My first thought is, “Does this happen often enough that there needs to be a law against it?” I can understand wanting to protect children from pornography, but it’s such a slippery term. The article from the Kansas City Star that I linked to at the top of this paragraph goes on to report that, “Earlier in the week, Rep. Joseph Scapa, a Wichita Republican, called a book by Toni Morrison, a Nobel Prize-winning author, pornographic.” This is the problem. One person’s pornography is another person’s essential American author.

I need to wrap this post up soon, because I can feel myself starting to slide into gibbering fury.

Stories like these—Clean Reader, defacing library books, jailing people for “distributing materials deemed harmful to minors”—are the reason why librarians still carry a torch for intellectual freedom. They are why I point out that the children’s books in my library are where visitors can find most of the books on ALA’s “Frequently Challenged Books” list and give presentations about book banning and censorship. They are why I share information via Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr to other librarians and readers.

___________
* One of my favorite sources of information about what’s happening in the daily lives of librarians and libraries.

A librarian’s lament

A few years ago, I was watching Inkheart with my sister and her kids. We had to stop the movie at one point to explain why it was such a bad thing to burn books. They’re just ink and paper and cardboard and glue, after all. It was hard to put the feeling of profound sadness I was feeling at seeing books burn. I told my niece and nephew that burning books was an attempt to destroy ideas. I didn’t tell them about the destruction of libraries in the past, like the burning of the National Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992. That burning was an attempt to destroy the history and heritage of a people.

It may be time to have that conversation. 
Mosul Public Library, March 2015
Last week, reports came out that ISIS forces had burned thousands of books and documents from the Mosul Public Library. This week, Western media reported that members of ISIS also obliterated sculptures and artifacts at the Mosul Museum. Mohammed Rabia Chaar was quoted in the New York Times about cultural assaults by ISIS:

The feeling of sickness is growing more and more, day after day, against these imperialist Muslims. Daesh wants people with no memory, with no history, with no culture, no past, no future. (Source)

That’s why people burn books. It’s not the books themselves; they’re trying to erase an idea that they abhor.

I’m not sentimental about books, in and of themselves. I get sentimental about what books represent, about the memories of reading books that transported me when I was a kid, of the amazing facts and perspectives I found between the covers (digital or otherwise) of a book. Still, scenes like the one above of the burning books of the Mosul Library make my heart break.

I will leave you with this image of Vedran Smailović playing the cello in the ruins of the Bosnian National Library. This haunting image speaks to me of the futility of book burning. The books themselves—the ink, the paper—may be gone, but the ideas and history can never be destroyed.

Turnabout is fair play

Biersteker’s prototype. Image from The Guardian.

Artist Thijs Biersteker has created a book that won’t open unless it sees a “neutral expression” on its viewer’s face, reports Alison Flood for The Guardian. This was bound to happen, considering how many books we judge by their covers. If your face expresses an emotion other than calm blankness, this book will stay closed.

I’ve written before, at length, about book cover design. Book covers are advertisements, meant to entice potential readers to at least pick the book up and glance at the back cover or inside jacket flap to find out what the book’s about. Blogs on tumblr and elsewhere mock bad covers mercilessly.

It’s only fair that a book (art project) gets to judge us back. Biersteker has this to say about his project:

My aim was to create a book cover that is human and approachable hi-tech. If you approach the book, if you’re overexcited or your face shows a sceptical expression, the book will stay locked…But if your expression is neutral (no judgment) the system will send an audio pulse and the book will unlock itself. I often worry about my scepticism and judgement getting in the way of my amazement. Judgment should never hinder the relentless enthusiasm of seeing things for the first time. (http://thecoverthatjudgesyou.com/)

My first thought when I saw this story on The Guardian was, “This had better be a friggin’ fantastic book.” (My first reaction to most modern art is usually skeptical snark.) Then, I thought more about the artist’s objective.

I chose to read books based on their reviews and, sometimes, their reputations (as with my classics reading project). I only see covers when the book arrives on my kindle or in my local library. Unless the cover is particularly amazing, I rarely look at the cover again. What makes me skeptical about books is overuse of tropes or pointed criticism in the reviews. Perhaps Thijs Biersteker’s project isn’t for me?

No, that sounds too smug.

Biersteker has a point about not letting a first impression get in the way of something great. (“This had better be a friggin’ fantastic book.”) This book isn’t about books. The original expression isn’t about books, either. It’s about prejudice. Biersteker just ran with the idiom.

Still, I will absolutely judge books with covers like this:

Only $2.99!

Talking to the future

Through NetGalley and Edelweiss, I can read books from the future. If I’m lucky, I can read a book up to six months before it’s scheduled to appear in bookstores. I try not to gloat (too much) about this.

But there’s one book I can’t get…unless I learn how to become immortal. 
Getting a picture of actual Norwegian wood is
harder than you might think. You have to sift through
pictures of John Lennon, Haruki Murakami novels,
and, because it’s the Internet, cat pictures.
Katie Paterson, a Scottish artist, has bought a forest outside of Oslo. In 100 years, the trees will be used to create paper for books that have not yet been written. Except, one has been written. Margaret Atwood was asked to write a book that will be the first book in the Future Library. Even if the first book wasn’t by Atwood, I would still be pissed that I wouldn’t get to read it. 
The Future Library website explains its purpose:

Tending the forest and ensuring its preservation for the 100-year duration of the artwork finds a conceptual counterpoint in the invitation extended to each writer: to conceive and produce a work in the hopes of finding a receptive reader in an unknown future.

But aren’t authors already writing for the future? Their intended audience might be readers alive and buying books right now, but their books will still exist in the future. That’s why we still have Dickens and Austen and Shakespeare and Sophocles. I suppose the only writers that really need this kind of future insurance are the hack writers. (Even then, I suppose its possible that some future librarian will stumble across some ancestor’s copy of Fifty Shades of Grey and get sqwicked out.)

Atwood doesn’t need to worry about this. I’ve always ascribed to Italo Calvino’s definition of a classic as a book that “has never exhausted all it has to say to its reader.” (Okay, technically, there are 14 things Calvino used to define a classic.) I wonder how a writer goes about deliberately writing for a future audience, for readers who will have different cultural shibboleths and history and who might not understand the mindset of 2014? What a strange assignment to take on. 

That time when the CIA started a book club

Yesterday, the book world gleefully reported on a series of declassified documents from the late 1950s about the CIA’s efforts to disseminate Boris Pasternak’s classic Doctor Zhivago behind the Iron Curtain. The documents and the history of the publication of Doctor Zhivago are the subject of a book due out this June by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée entitled The Zhivago Affair.

I suspect that part of the reason all the bookworms are excited is because—apart from the fact that Doctor Zhivago is a great work of literature—this story shows just how powerful literature can be. The Doctor wasn’t kidding when he said books were the greatest weapons. We bookworms have known this for years.

What is it about books that makes them such a powerful means of changing deeply ingrained modes of thought and prejudices? Is it because we spend time alone with just an author’s words on a page? Is it because the reader has to take those words and construct them in their minds using their imagination? A CIA memo, recovered by Finn and Couvée, dated 24 April 1958 had this to say about Doctor Zhivago:

“This book has great propaganda value, not only for its intrinsic message and thought-provoking nature, but also for the circumstances of its publication: we have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government, when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country in his own language for his own people to read.”

The memo is correct that Zhivago wasn’t available to Russian readers at the time. A legal copy wasn’t available in Russia for years. According to the articles I’ve read about The Zhivago Affair (The Guardian, The Washington Post), CIA agents were encouraged to pass the book around and even discuss it with people from communist countries.

I wonder if this happened with any other books. There may be a CIA book group that still meets, even today.

A book that is more than a book

Books are “uniquely portable magic,” as Stephen King says. Carl Sagan calls them magical, too. Studies show that stories can help us become more empathetic. Books can be art. I shouldn’t be surprised that books can be monuments, too. Teacher Phil Chernofsky has created the first such monument book (that I’ve heard of): And Every Single One was Some One.

And Every Single One was Some One, by Phil Chernofsky

This book is comprised of only one word, repeated six million times. It is page after page of the word, “Jew.” There are no names, just that one word. Even the picture of the book above had an impact on me. Can you imagine, turning those pages, with the title reminding you that every single repetition represents a person that was taken away by the Holocaust?

There are innumerable monuments to the memory of the Holocaust’s victims, but they’ve all struggled with the task of conveying the immensity of the event. It might be that, because I’m a book person, this one hits me where I live.

House of Leaves again

Even though I never managed to finish House of Leaves, I am still fascinated by this novel. I’ve never seen a book before that managed to actually exploit its textuality. Any way, the Table of Malcontents post I saw today really sums up what it’s like to read HOL:

If you haven’t read House of Leaves, the plot is complicated to describe, as it is tiered through multiple narrators of varying degrees of sanity in the form of an endless, nearly stream-of-conscious series of clippings, manuscripts and footnotes.

It’s not really the plot that keeps this novel going–though that’s pretty interesting, too. It’s trying to figure out what’s really going on and how sane the characters really are.

The Table of Malcontents post also has a great image of one of the pages, demonstrating how hard this sucker is to get through.

Via Blog of a Bookslut.

Why don’t they read anymore?

This article from The Washington Post has been making the rounds on some of the book news blogs I read, and when I read it, it annoyed me enough that I had to comment on it. In it, a high school librarian bemoans the fact that reading rates are in serious decline at his school. I disagree with a few things that he writes about library and science and information literacy, but what really bothers me is his approach to trying to get students to read.

Nowhere in this article did I get the sense that he was trying to show his students that reading was fun. I did note that he was trying to show kids that reading would improve their minds, improve their concentrate, etc. But, honesty, my primary motivation for reading is–as you can probably tell by the kinds of things I read–is to have fun. I want to read a good story that I can escape into for a while.

Yes, I’ll agree that reading can improve your concentration, your imagination, and so on. But I really think that what will hook new readers and keep them reading is their finding out that reading is another form of entertainment.

Link found via Bookninja.