The Art of Editing
April 18, 2011 in the literary conversation
Today’s long read comes from an issue of The Paris Review from 1994, per a colleague’s recommendation. It’s an interview with Robert Gottlieb, editor-at-large at Knopf, and his peers about the art of editing. So many great anecdotes and epigrammatic advice about being a good reader. I underlined many bits of it to share here, and then I callously tossed the thing into a street-side waste bin. Fail. You’ll have to find your own favorite bits.
Adding Value to E-Reading
March 9, 2011 in the literary conversation
Oh my bereft reader (hey, mom), I haven’t forgotten you! I’ve just dug myself into a large hole of social media platforms that must now be updated. So let’s do this:
Last week, Paul Pangaro of Cybernetic Lifestyles (not a fake company, although it sounds like one) talked to our company about aiding consumers’ participation with our digital text. Pangaro calls himself a conversation theorist, which means he’s made a living out of studying the mechanics of dialogue, whether it’s between people, between a person and an object, or within a person’s head. He started off by defining reading as the process by which the self conducts an internal conversation with itself to create meaning out of a text. In non-grad school language, that means we read a book by looking at the words on a page and asking ourselves questions about its meaning until we’re able to come up with an idea of what the book is about. So how can a digital book facilitate this line of questioning?
My thought is this: it’s the e-reader that’ll have to enable the internal conversation, not the e-book. I can’t think of a way to create a responsive digital book format, the kind of text that allows the reader to dive in and rearrange the furniture until meaning is made. Texts aren’t written on spec, unless you’re reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book. However, I can imagine an e-book reading device or application that can do the rearranging for you, a device that allows you to design the kind of conversation you want to have about a book. Pangaro would probably agree, because he’s come up with a hypothetical e-reader called thoughtshuffler, an application that splices up the text you’re reading to help you answer questions you have about the text (e.g. Who is this Adam I keep reading about? And what is his relationship with Penelope?).
I really hope an e-reading manufacturer starts thinking along these lines, figuring out how to add value to the reading experience, rather than to the device itself (“We’ll add email! and wi-fi!”). Along with Sam Anderson’s musing about shared marginalia layers on e-readers, reading an e-book could one day be more of an enriching experience than reading a book. Too bad no one’s come up with a way to make e-reading more physically pleasant.
February 18, 2011 in the literary conversation
I started reading Chad Post’s serialized essay, “In the Age of Screens,” about three days ago, and I’ve only just finished. I’m a slow and easily distractible reader. Which probably has something to do about reading in the age of screens!
I didn’t agree with everything Post wrote, namely the Manichean categorization of books as entertainment or books as literature, a distinction Post assures us we’ll know when we see. The definition of this distinction is that entertainment “reinforces current dominant cultural modes” while literature “upends beliefs, ways of thinking, assumptions,” which certainly sounds nice, if naive. But if I handed you the summer 2010 catalog of books being published by the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, who can separate the entertainment from the literature? Who’d want to? You’d certainly get a different answer from every person you asked.
More interesting is Post’s assertion that the majority of “influential” books are works in translation. He uses this example: ask an avid reader to name his or her favorite books, and translated works will likely be named. Just when my skepticism rose, Post continued:
What could be better at throwing a wrench into predicted patterns than something coming from an entirely different culture, with a totally different semantic web, and unique way of perceiving the world? And it’s worth noting that although we may initially resist these sorts of titles, it’s the uniqueness, the upending that is most memorable and has the longest lasting impact.
What a lovely thought! And it rings true for me. My most favorite book is Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio but my second favorite book is Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England precisely because of its exuberantly fluid prose, unique sense of history, and use of peasantly solitude as means to transcendence. Not a message one often encounters in suburban Connecticut.
Which makes me wonder: how many works in translation feature in your list of favorite books?
Social Media Week, part two
February 11, 2011 in the literary conversation
It’s over! Thank goodness. Back to only being social on the internet.
But before I retreat into bookish reflections, I’d like to recap the latter half of this week’s panels that I attended, because no sooner did I ask “What is a social book?” in my last post that I attended a panel on that very subject.
The standout speaker at this event was Clive Thompson, a writer for Wired and The New York Times Magazine. He brought up three points that I’d like to elaborate on:
- Conversing with your commenters to think more deeply. Thompson’s writing a book about computers…people…changing culture…something, something. Anyway, the point is that he frequently updates his blog to reflect the topic he’s working on and explicitly asks his readers to respond to his initial forays into the subject at hand. He finds that his commenters’ responses lead him to think more expansively about the subject than he would have if he were writing on his own. I love this thought! It reminds me of that brain-tingly feeling I’d get during my English seminars, listening to other students talk and formulating my response. The thoughts I developed in the classroom were more incisive for having been tested and prodded by my peers. I’d like to think—ahem—that if people commented on my blog, that’d provide the push I need to think more deeply about books, reading, writing.
- Ebooks are reshaping books. Thompson meant this literally. He brought up, as an example, publishers’ practices of beefing up slim novels (sometimes with wide margins—students, you’re not alone in this!—and sometimes by asking the author to puff up what ought to be a svelter piece) or cutting expansive ones, because big, heavy novels cost too much to print and ship to bookstores. (Er, by the way, these are Thompson’s accusations, not mine.) With ebooks, you don’t have to worry about this: a novella or long essay is free to be short without facing accusations of looking skimpy on a bookshelf. A doorstopper can revel in its length without having to settle for Bible-thin pages. Ebooks will free the author to write the kind of book he or she wants to write! Or so the rosy vision goes. Of course, if your ideal book has a physical component to it (e.g. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes), this argument does not apply.
- Digital annotations. Just like readers seek out annotated books in the physical space, readers are seeking annotated books in the digital space. Whether these annotations take the form of traditional footnotes, comments on articles and essays, or simply highlighted passages in novels or textbooks, it behooves device manufacturers and content publishers to provide this auxiliary material—and to make it easier for readers to provide their own, too.
Phew, lots of think about. Unlike the event that ended my Social Media Week, a heckle-fest called Suxorz. The audience was kind of tame (shoulda had more to drink before arriving, I guess?), and the examples were almost too varied to judge. However, I did find it reassuring to know that consumers aren’t offended by inept social media campaigns, but rather by exploitative and invasive social media campaigns. Good news for the bumbling marketer!
Social Media Week
February 8, 2011 in the literary conversation
Social Media Week, as most of you don’t know, is a multi-city week of panels and events bringing together people from different industries to talk about all things social media. I hadn’t heard of SMW before three weeks ago, and therefore held it in fairly dismissive regard…until my colleague and I were asked to speak on an SMW panel, at which point I held the conference in even lower regard. Any club that would have me as a member, etc.
That said, I’ve attended three Social Media Week panels so far (yes, that includes my own) and have two more on the horizon. I’ll go ahead and eat crow now: these panels have been helpful in prodding me to think further about the intersection of “social” and the act of reading. Some takeaway thoughts and many questions:
- In a panel called The Big Shift, Ann Shoket, editor-in-chief of Seventeen, talks about how her brand expanded from a tangible magazine to the intangible concept of seventeen. This makes me wonder: can book publishers move on from the tangibility of books to become proprietors of intangible content? Seems like they’ll have to—or perish.
- Shoket also encourages publishers to meet readers wherever they are—and, if possible, getting to that place before the readers even arrive. So where are book readers headed now? I’m trying to think of my own reading patterns, and I shamefully admit that I’m spending more and more time on Google Reader. Yikes. What does that imply about where books should go? Into an RSS feed?
- The social book / the social reading experience: what would that entail? I know Amazon tried to make reading social by sharing passages underlined in Kindle books, and GoodReads is a haven for message-board based book clubs, but is there some service out there that more closely approximates the feeling of reading along with other people? I’m not talking about interrupting the reading experience, but enhancing it—and obviously, this isn’t for everyone. Sometimes I read to be alone, too.
It’s so stimulating to think about the way publishing can evolve with reading behaviors, but it’s hard to know how much (not to mention when) these changes will take place.
To be continued…
Zadie Smith + Harper’s =
February 4, 2011 in the literary conversation
This past Wednesday, I had the distinct pleasure of attending Harper’s celebration of Zadie Smith as their new books columnist. This happy event is a mighty merger in my reading life. For a long while, Harper’s was my favorite magazine, but sometime in the past couple of years (perhaps with the passing of John Leonard), there was a palpable feeling of slippage, and I strayed…towards The New York Review of Books, where Zadie Smith and Orhan Pamuk were known to dabble in a few essays.
Now that Zadie Smith has decamped for more portable pages (honestly, NYRB is a pain in the ass to read anywhere except on the toilet), Harper’s is certain to reign supreme. Smith has come a long way from pissing off James Wood with her hysterical realist novels; I’d argue that she is now a public intellectual. That she’s done so as a young, earnest woman of mixed race is nothing short of remarkable. Having Zadie Smith up on stages talking about the craft and appreciation of novel-writing galvanizes one into reading more…and reading generously.
This last thought warrants elaboration: Smith talked about wanting to read with the grain rather than against it, giving authors the benefit of the doubt when she reads their novels. How uncommon in book criticism! Or maybe I’m reading the wrong reviews? Surely I’m not the only one who brings a lot of baggage to everything I read. In some respects, this baggage is what makes one an increasingly nuanced reader. But these extra changes of clothes can also make one reluctant to immerse oneself completely in the writer’s environment. To extend this metaphor further (when have I ever resisted!), if you don’t take off your coat, how can you get comfortable in the writer’s home?
Smith’s empathy for the writer’s work is going to play out beautifully in her reviews, I just know it. As a parting note, I leave you with “The Novelist” by Auden, which Zadie Smith quoted entirely (albeit haltingly) from memory. That she cares enough to recite this defense speaks volumes about her kindness, her ultimate optimism in literature.
Encased in talent like a uniform, The rank of every poet is well known; They can amaze us like a thunderstorm, Or die so young, or live for years alone. They can dash forward like hussars: but he Must struggle out of his boyish gift and learn How to be plain and awkward, how to be One after whom none think it worth to turn. For, to achieve his lightest wish, he must Become the whole of boredom, subject to Vulgar complaints like love, among the Just Be just, among the Filthy filthy too, And in his own weak person, if he can, Must suffer dully all the wrongs of Man.
March 19, 2010 in the literary conversation
Sorry for the vast, numbing silence here.
Forget about becoming a film critic. Become an intellectual, a person to whom ideas matter. Read in history, science, politics, and the arts generally. Develop your own ideas, and see what sparks they strike in relation to films.
The same certainly applies to the best book critics. I admire The New York Review of Book‘s much-delayed book reviews because they’re always written with a wide lens, one that scoops relevant comparisons in art, film, history, and modern politics.
It’s terribly difficult to write reviews like that—much easier to simply discuss the book at hand in a hermetic (lol, nearly wrote hermeneutic and had to look it up in the dictionary) analytical bubble.
And here’s where I justify my blog silence by reassuring you that I’m reading too widely to comment on what I’m reading.
Tearing Down Our Idols
November 16, 2009 in gewgaws, the literary conversation
Here‘s a great essay by Garth Risk Hallberg at The Millions about the myth of Robert Bolaño, and how everyone—the publisher, the reader, the blogger, and the reviewer—are complicit in its construction. It’s interesting to see such a vivid example of a community turning against its construction—by which I mean the myth, not the man:
If the Bolaño backlash augured by The New Yorker’s “Book Bench” materializes, it will not be because readers have revolted against the novel (though there are readers whom the book leaves cold) but because they have revolted against a particular narrative being told about it.
Tangentially, I’ve been thinking about the ways in which we rebel against our own constructions, especially vis-a-vis (and I say this with a cringe) The Office. I watched the wedding episode the other night, and I can’t stand to watch the saccharine wordplay between Jim and Pam anymore. On the other hand, aren’t I (and my ladypeers) responsible for Jim and Pam’s success? Didn’t we ask for this nerdy-romance plotline? If so, why does it disgust me so?
83 Slogans to Better Writing
November 16, 2009 in the literary conversation
…as curated by Allan Ginsberg. Here are a few of my favorites:
5. “My writing is a picture of the mind moving.”—Philip Whalen
9. “Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then I contradict myself,
(I am large. I contain multitudes.)”—Walt Whitman
15. Notice what you notice.—Allan Ginsberg
40. Maximum information, minimum number of syllables.—Allan Ginsberg
74. “Speech synchronizes mind & body.”—Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche
From The Huffington Post’s sometimes aggravating, sometimes fascinating, always worth-reading book blog.
Top 1 Habits of Amazing Writers
November 4, 2009 in the literary conversation
Taken from this lovely post on 43 Folders. At the recommendation of the blogger, I picked up my unread copy of Jack Hart’s A Writer’s Coach (yes, the to-read pile is still bigger than the have-read pile). Against the recommendation of the blogger, I will likely read this book instead of writing on this blog. Hopefully you readers out there will take me as your worst-case example: don’t be like me! Close your browser’s open tabs, except for the one with your WordPress dashboard!