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I’ve been away for Thanksgiving. I hope everyone enjoyed time spent with family and friends. Here is nice holiday story that is book-related, from the Washington Post. “While bartending at Dougherty’s Pub seven years ago,” writes reporter Emily Messner, “Russell Wattenberg overheard teachers at Friday happy hour lamenting their need for books. He began taking…

A Book Thing

imageI’ve been away for Thanksgiving. I hope everyone enjoyed time spent with family and friends. Here is nice holiday story that is book-related, from the Washington Post. “While bartending at Dougherty’s Pub seven years ago,” writes reporter Emily Messner, “Russell Wattenberg overheard teachers at Friday happy hour lamenting their need for books. He began taking 10 percent of his tips each week to buy books for them at flea markets and used-book stores, he says. He would give the teachers the keys to the van and tell them to take whatever they wanted.

"And so the Book Thing was born. It eventually incorporated and moved into a 950-square-foot basement at 27th and Charles streets near Johns Hopkins University about four years ago. Wattenberg, 32, says he now works full time at the operation, paying himself an annual salary of about $18,000."

It’s a good story. Tens of thousands of free books line the walls. The only condition is that each book must be marked with a stamp: This is a Free Book. “This way, we don’t have people who are book dealers come in, haul away a bunch of books and sell them,” Wattenberg explains.

Posted by Joel Schettler on November 28 2004 • Current Affairs

Google Print

imageIs this a move to compete with what Amazon has done? Google is beta-testing a Google Print site. Here’s what they say about the new service. “Google Print enables publishers to promote their books on Google. Google scans the full text of participating publishers’ titles so that Google users can see books that match the topics that they are searching on. When a user clicks on a book search result, they’re taken to a Google-hosted web page displaying a scanned image of the relevant page from the book. Each page also contains multiple ‘Buy this Book’ links, allowing users to purchase the book from online retailers."

If you remember, Amazon began to scan pages of books to allow users to search for specific content within books before they made their purchases. This drew some criticism from authors and others who citied copyright infringement concerns. As a company dedicated to helping Web users find exactly the information they are looking for, Google seems to be a natural competitor in moving toward documenting the content of books. Read more about the service FAQ here.

According to Google, the company’s “mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Since a lot of the world’s information isn’t yet online, we’re helping to get it there. Google Print puts the content of books where you can find it most easily; right in Google search results.” Also, Google recently began a Google Scholar site for writers and academics, allowing them to “search specifically for scholarly literature, including peer-reviewed papers, theses, books, preprints, abstracts and technical reports from all broad areas of research ... Find articles from a wide variety of academic publishers, professional societies, preprint repositories and universities, as well as scholarly articles available across the Web."

Posted by Joel Schettler on November 21 2004 • Books

Literary Darwinism

image"Human beings expend staggering amounts of time and resources on creating and experiencing art and entertainment — music, dancing, and static visual arts,” writes scholar Denis Dutton, a professor at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. “Of all of the arts, however, it is the category of fictional story-telling that across the globe today is the most intense focus of what amounts to a virtual human addiction.” Why?

The love of fiction is universal, Dutton writes, whether it is in the form of literature on the page, plays performed on stage, or as most evident in American anyway, dramas on television and film (the average Briton spends 6 percent of her entire life consuming fictions; I would bet the figure is twice that in America). The reasons for such conditions are lost in pre-history, writes Dutton, but we can gain much from looking at it through evolutionary perspectives.

Where did this seemingly universal human taste for dramas come from? Was there anything in our past that made it advantageous to acquire and develop such a capacity for imagined narrative? It’s a fascinating line of thinking. Dutton reviews a collection of essays written by the expert in the field: Joseph Caroll’s Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature and Literature.

Before heading down this road of thinking, Carroll wants it understood that there must be some basics in place, writes Dutton. First, one must have the proper understanding of literature as much as an understanding of psychology. One must also have a perspective that human development begins and evolves through a set of “behavioral systems”—that the concept of inclusive fitness, as Dutton puts it, is the mover of all adaptations.

These seven behavior systems are survival, technology, mating, kin, parenting, social and cognition. The development of narratives and story may have played an important part in allowing humans to develop and evolve in each one of these systems. Consequences of such emotional development, both on an individual and group level, can be read in a book I just finished: The First Idea.

Dutton asserts that much of what has occupied evolutionary psychology theorists has involved mating and courtship. But much that has affected human history and survival involves more than mate selection.

“Much of what has taken human attention in evolutionary history is directed at bodily survival and at social maintenance: keeping yourself and your family well-fed and healthy, defending family and tribe, and making the tribe a stronger, more fit social unit.,” Dutton writes. “Inclusive fitness toward successful reproduction is the ultimate goal, but the lived fabric of daily human life brings many other purposes and ideas into play. Issues of social dissonance and cohesion, death and its meaning, as well as the challenges and adventures of youth that do not involve courtship, can also be expected to figure into the cognitive content of stories and art.”

Posted by Joel Schettler on November 20 2004 • Books


imageMalcolm Gladwell, staff writer for the New Yorker and author of the very popular book The Tipping Point, has a new book coming out in January: Blink, the Power of Thinking without Thinking. Here’s what he has to say about the new book.

"It’s a book about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye. When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusion. Well, “Blink” is a book about those two seconds, because I think those instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good.

"You could also say that it’s a book about intuition, except that I don’t like that word. In fact it never appears in “Blink.” Intuition strikes me as a concept we use to describe emotional reactions, gut feelings--thoughts and impressions that don’t’ seem entirely rational. But I think that what goes on in that first two seconds is perfectly rational. It’s thinking--its just thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the kind of deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with “thinking.” In “Blink” I’m trying to understand those two seconds. What is going on in inside our heads when we engage in rapid cognition? When are snap judgments good and when are they not? What kinds of things can we do to make our powers of rapid cognition better?"

I enjoyed the Tipping Point very much, and I can’t wait to rush out and buy Blink. Read more of what Malcolm Gladwell has to say about his new book here.

Postscript: Malcolm has a good article in the current issue of The New Yorker about plagiarism. “Words belong to the person who wrote them,” writes Gladwell. “There are few simpler ethical notions than this one, particularly as society directs more and more energy and resources toward the creation of intellectual property. In the past thirty years copyright laws have been strengthened. Courts have become more willing to grant intellectual-property protections. Fighting piracy has become an obsession with Hollywood and the recording industry, and, in the worlds of academia and publishing, plagiarism has gone from being bad literary manners to something much closer to a crime. When, two years ago Doris Kearns Goodwin was found to have lifted passages from several other historians she was asked to resign from the board of the Pulitzer Prize committee. And why not? If she had robbed a bank, she would have been fire the next day."

This is an important issue. As a writer and editor, I have a closer understanding of the issues Gladwell brings up in his article. Intellectual property rights and plagiarism are serious issues. Even for bloggers. Part of the reason I started this blog was to simply point out some of the things that I was reading and thinking about to family and friends in the hopes of generating lively discussion. I quote many writers’ books and articles. But when I do, I make sure to use direct quotation marks when I am quoting them. And I provide a link to the original article so that readers can read an entire piece for themselves.

I believe this is important. With a background in journalism, I have an appreciation for these issues. Maybe I wouldn’t have had such a respect for the written word had I started this blog without it. I don’t want to sound like I am condescendingly scolding other bloggers out there, but it’s an issue that we writers in cyberspace must think about. By their very nature, blogs comment on other’s thoughts, whether they are generated in print or online. It’s important for use to acknowledge the source of our ideas.

In our own small way, we are still publishers. No, we don’t have printing presses rolling in our dark corner basements, but when we pound the keys, say our bit about America and hit “post” our words are out there for the world to see under our banner--in this case ‘Typeface.’ Not to sound preachy, but there endeth the lesson, I guess. Keep blogging, but if you use any words from here as your own, I’m coming for you ... only kidding.

Posted by Joel Schettler on November 17 2004 • Books

It's a Small World After All

Roy Disney has gotten into the luxury magazine business. According to this story in the New York Times, Disney and the family’s private investment firm Shamrock Capital Growth Fund have invested $50 million into Modern Luxury Media, publishers of such high-end magazines as Chicago Social and Modern Luxury Dallas.

According to the article, the move signals the coming of much greater competition for the luxury-goods advertising. Such publications possess much of the production values that the target demographic would appreciate: beautiful photography, good writing and thick glossy paper stock.

“Mr. Disney, the nephew of Walt Disney, said Modern Luxury was exactly the sort of company that he and Shamrock liked to work with. “Its publications are the highest quality, with exceptional growth opportunities,” he said. Another company specializing in high-end local markets, Niche Media, already competes with Modern Luxury in Los Angeles (Niche publishes Los Angeles Confidential; Modern Luxury publishes Angeleno). Niche owns the New York target market with a publication called Gotham, said the New York Times, but it won’t be alone for long.

imageThe strategy calls for publishers to sell national advertising via its network of local coast-to-coast publications. The new activity is expected to “increase the struggle among publishers for advertisers like Tiffany, Bulgari and Hermès,” said the Times.

“I’m not sure you need more than one in any market,” said Mark M. Edmiston, managing director at AdMedia Partners, an investment banking and financial advisory firm. “Even though these are very expensive products being advertised, the advertising budgets are actually not that big. It is unlikely that an advertiser is going to double his budget to accommodate both magazines in the market.”

Posted by Joel Schettler on November 16 2004 • Journalism

A Gentle Madness?

image"I wonder whether I am afflicted with something more than a “gentle madness,” as Nicholas A. Basbanes described it in his 1999 book on the history of book collecting,” writes this annonymous English professor from a Midwestern liberal arts college. “You see, I spend more on books than I do on food.”

This is a good essay on the reasons for collecting books. I have to admit that I can relate, although my collection isn’t quite so large. He writes: “There are at least 700 books in my English department office. There are another 200 stashed in filing cabinets in the hallway. In my home office I estimate there are more than 2,000 on the shelves and another 300 in a pile on the floor. There are about 400 books on cooking and gardening in the kitchen. And, finally, there are about 50 books on a shelf next to my bed. Those are the ones I intend to read soon. That shelf tends to fill up during the academic year and empty out during the summer.”

Benton, the professor’s pseudonym, lists reasons for his book collecting, including economics, pedagogy, aesthetics, community and preservation. “Increasingly, my fascination with old books makes me feel personally connected with dead writers more than living bibliophiles,” he writes. “Whitman understood that. He said of Leaves of Grass, “he who touches this book touches the man himself.” He liked to insert photographic portraits of himself in his books, along with inscriptions, and the pledge that he had personally handled the book. People don’t really “own” books; they are custodians of them for a time. Sometimes I think about who will own some of my books after I am gone, and I write short notes to them in the margins.”

I feel this way about some of the volumes that I have. I don’t buy books as heirlooms to be passed along; I probably buy more paperback than I do hardcovers. Yet, I often wonder if someone who leafs through the pages of one of my books will stop to think about how the words on the page affected my thoughts. I have only a few volumes once owned by my paternal grandfather, but I cherish each one. I wonder what understanding he sought or gained from his history of the Martial Plan, for example, or his leather bound copy of Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

My favorite quote from this essay comes from his section on Hope. “A couple years ago a cartoon from The New Yorker depicted a man in a book-lined study sipping a martini and talking to a woman in a black party dress. The caption: “These books represent the person I once aspired to be.” ... I have not yet given up on my professorial aspirations, and each new book is a small investment in that future, which, with any luck, could last another 40 years. At bottom, I suspect I am a scholar because I am a bibliophile rather than the other way around. One could scoff at that as putting the cart before the horse. But if professors and students spent more time buying books, instead of just writing them at a furious rate, it might help to revive the endangered enterprise of scholarly publishing on which we all depend.”

Posted by Joel Schettler on November 14 2004 • Books

Public Discourse

This quote is from an older issue of the New York Review of Books, but it says a lot not only about the nature of the current administration, but also hints at the nature of our media and how it shapes our views. In many ways our culture is like particle physics: the very act of observation changes the nature of the particles themselves. How far we’ve come. The quote is from Joan Didion, one of the country’s best writers. In particular, I enjoy her essays. A favorite collection: After Henry.

“Similar use was found for the word “faith,” originally introduced as a way to placate Republican base voters while spending, since few elected officials are anxious to go on the line against faith, the minimum amount of political capital. The President could have “faith” in the Iraqi people, which in turn was how he could “believe” that “a free Iraq can be an example of reform and progress to all the Middle East,” which could even be (why not?) the reason we were there. Similarly, as he considered “problems like poverty and addiction, abandonment and abuse, illiteracy and homelessness,” the President could again have “faith,” in this case “faith that faith will work in solving the problems.” As for faith’s problem-solving role, or “compassionate conservatism,” the specific promise to the Christian right of the 2000 campaign, the administration now spoke not only of “faith-based” schools and “faith-based” charities and “faith-based” prisoner rehabilitation but also of “faith-based” national parks, which translated into authorizing the sale in the National Park Service’s bookstores of Grand Canyon: A Different View, the “different view” being that the canyon was created not by the continual movement of the Colorado River since the Tertiary Period but in the six days described in Genesis.

“Peculiarities (faith-based national parks, say) that a few years before might have seemed scarcely possible now seemed scarcely worth remark. The more high-decibel political comment had become, the more blunted it had become, the more confined to arguments about “personality.” “What a difference these few months of extremism have made,” Jimmy Carter said in the Fleet Center on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention; on the cable shows that evening any potential discussion of what a former president of the United States might have meant by “extremism” got beaten back by the more pressing need to discuss his “cranky” refusal to allow his speech to be “scrubbed” of negativity by the Kerry campaign.”

Posted by Joel Schettler on November 13 2004 • Current Affairs

Sad News

I just learned of some sad news today. Noted author Iris Chang is dead. Chang was the author of the acclaimed book, The Rape of Nanking, which chronicled the often forgotten and brutle massacre of nearly 300,000 Chinese civilians during World War II at the hands of the Japanese army. Chang died of an apparant self-inflicted gunshot wound. She was only 36 years old. Here’s a story from the San Francisco Gate.

Posted by Joel Schettler on November 11 2004 • Current Affairs

Discontinued Demographics?

imageCould it be that American Demographics magazine will soon fade away? It seems that Primedia has had the magazine up for sale for the past two months, so far with no takers. Here’s a story from Folio. American Demographics is a favorite among readers looking to gain early insight into upcoming trends. The magazine is billed as a “marketing resource that business leaders and marketing executives rely on to stay ahead of the trends that impact America’s consumer marketplaces.”

According to Folio, Primedia officially declared American Demographics “discontinued” in August, and has since been trying to find a buyer. Two other publications put on the block at the same time have already found a new home. Crain Communications was rumored to be interested, but as Folio states in their report, they took a pass.

“Bill Morrow, EVP operations, refused to comment citing a confidentiality agreement,” said Folio’s report. “The Crain fit would be around its Advertising Age and B-to-B titles. At the time of the release of the last Census data in 2000, Ad Age and American Demographics executives had discussed collaborating on a series of co-branded reports for marketers, so the fit was at least explored at that time.

“Sources point to several factors that may take the wind out of a potential deal. One could be dwindling ad base. Ad revenues, which once totaled more than $1 million per year, have fallen sharply. Ad tracker IMS currently marks total ad revenue at about $500,000 through the September issue. A second issue could be the incredibly diverse, but dedicated, subscriber base that limits the reach of a particular ad buy. Paid subscription revenue had traditionally been the dominant revenue stream for AD.”

First launched in 1979 to 2,000 subscribers, American Demographics remains a favorite among its readers (me included). In 1997, the magazine was sold to Cowles, who soon thereafter sold the magazine to Primedia. At the time of that sale, according to Folio, the magazine was “was a profitable $5-6 million business with a circulation of about 40,000. Currently, the paid subscription base has slipped to 18,000.

Peter Francese, the magazine’s founding editor, said Primedia “treats the publication like a magazine, and that is dumb. It is a highly specialized information and knowledge resource.” He added that the magazine, if turned back into a portfolio of related properties including trade shows and other knowledge services, could “easily become a $10 million per year business.” I hope the magazine finds a home. Readers know the value it adds to their businesses; it would be missed.

Posted by Joel Schettler on November 10 2004 • Journalism

Books of the Year

imageThis is probably the first of several such lists, but Benjamin Schwarz lists his “books of the year” in the December issue of The Atlantic. A book of the year “is one from which you should be able to derive pleasure and profit a decade hence. That eliminates books that are important only for the moment—that is, most political and policy books ... and also a lot of books that I think are getting undeserved attention and winning undue praise—among them Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America,” writes Schwarz. In presenting his picks, Schwarz notes the lack of attention to serious nonfiction; only one of his picks was reviewed in the New York Times. Here is his list:

The Origins of the Final Solution, by Christopher R. Browning

The Reformation: A History, by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: From the Earliest Times to the Year 2000, edited by H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison

The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, by Benny Morris

Runaway: Stories, by Alice Munro

Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy, by David Stevenson

Honored Guest: Stories by Joy Williams

Posted by Joel Schettler on November 09 2004 • Books