A Response to Michael Bourne and Reading Fewer Books

January 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

I just got through reading Michael Bourne’s article over on The Millions: My New Year’s Resolution: Read Fewer Books.   My initial reaction was how stupid a New Year’s Resolution is that?  Then I read the 24 comments after and realized that it was as inane and condescending as my initial repugnance suggested, only much more so.  People are lazy asses and don’t want to read — fine, but it isn’t something to be lauded.

Writers are self-indulgent.  Let’s face it, we type something out with our word processor in the hopes that everyone will read our golden prose and tell us how phenomenally gifted we are.  Even the purists writing in longhand before their precious words are ever defaced by a mechanical act such as typing crave for nothing more than having those words they’ve written out illegibly, typeset and mass produced and stuck on the shelf at Wal-Mart and ogled endlessly by the adoring masses.  Let’s face it, most of the words we write are nuggets, but not of the gold variety.

Bourne unfortunately carries the same surname as the girl that I crushed on from first grade to sometime when I gave up the futile pursuit in high school, so I can’t be assured that my response to his article is completely sane, given my history with the name.  Yet, as I read the article, my initial reaction was maybe my New Year’s Resolution should be to read less articles on the Internet.  (Yeah, I know usage says ‘fewer’, I was just seeing if you were paying attention and you still knew what I meant.)

Bourne starts out the article telling us how many books he has read since he started keeping track on January 1, 2000 in some kind of millennial resolution and has read 776 books in the last twelve years, roughly half fiction and half non-fiction.  He then states how happy he was when he hit 720 books for a 60 a year average.

This is when the article got weird.  As a compulsive list-maker of the books I consume, tracking the books you read isn’t weird to me.  My millennial book list hit 760 on May 23, 2009.   Not weird in the least.  What was weird is that after reading three paragraphs about his compulsive list taking, Bourne writes this: “No one even knows I write lists.”  Uhh, yes we do.

Look, I read 204 books last year — yeah, I’m fucking competitive too.  And I have close family members who questions my voracious consumption of books.  And I have a day job that consumes vast quantities of my time and I have a young son in elementary school, not to mention four daughters in college.  And this all has what  to do with my reading and list making?  Absolutely jack squat.

The fact that in 2012 I broke the 200 barrier for the first time since first grade (a 44 year drought) was not a perverse form of satisfaction.  I relished it, cherished it and yes, I wanted to brag, but the accomplishment and internal satisfaction isn’t perverse.  Part of the human condition is to strive for improvement and growth and growth feels good — unless you are content being a couch potato, in which case I suggest less television viewing for a New Year’s Resolution, accompanied by reading more books.

The desire to track progress isn’t a bad thing either.  I like going back to 2002 and see the books I was reading and compare that to where I was at in my life.  Re-reading becomes more meaningful when the book is juxtaposed against your own life’s timeline.  And reading carnivorously  does not a genius make.  A simple number of books read speaks nothing of aptitude and genius, but merely one measure of quantity — page numbers being another.  The weight and gravity of the books read also carry significance.    “I read all of Kundera’s oeuvre in 2012” is more meaningful than any number.

Reading voraciously doesn’t mean that good writing isn’t appreciated and the books aren’t savored.  Think of reading like sex.  Would you ever have a New Year’s Resolution to have less sex in the New Year because I really need to learn to savor the essence of sexuality and come at it sideways?  That’s nuts and so is reading less as some sort of sacrifice to the Gods of Writing and Art.  If you have sex a lot, some of it will be mind blowing, swinging from the chandeliers, split you open and some will be nothing more than a feel-good romp.  It’s the same with reading. And like sex, reading transforms you in ways that you can’t predict or fathom.  Participating in an exchange with another human mind through the page alters your own sense of self, incorporates another person’s thoughts into your head and makes the world a more empathetic place.  You can’t read a broad spectrum of literature, non-fiction, essays, short stories and poetry and not alter how you see the world.  Each book, even if through its slipshod language it shows you how you don’t want things to be, focuses the world through a new lens and you will never be able to write or read exactly the same way again.

Each of us is given a limited amount of time on this planet.  The limited resource requires us to make choices on where to spend our time.  For those of us who love words, narratives and other people and want to write and communicate with the broader world, the cacophony of voices and constant harangue for our attention means that our New Year’s Resolution should not be to read less or fewer, but to read more and to read with more intent and direction.  Who knows Mr. Bourne, if I took your advice and read fewer books, that book I don’t read might be yours.

Saul Bellow to Philip Roth: The Holy Trinity of Writing Motives

October 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

An interesting missive on why author’s write.  I give much thanks to my brother Dave for sending me the letter.  I’m going to go get the book of all of Bellow’s letters.


To Philip Roth:

January 7, 1984
Chicago

Dear Philip:

I thought to do something good by giving an interview to People, which was
exceedingly foolish of me.  I asked Aaron [Asher] to tell you that the Good
Intentions Paving Company had fucked up again.  The young interviewer turned my
opinions inside out, cut out the praises and made it all sound like disavowal,
denunciation and excommunication.  Well, we’re both used to this kind of thing,
and beyond shock.  In agreeing to take the call, and make a statement I was
simply muddle-headed.  But if I had been interviewed by an angel for
the Seraphim and Cherubim Weekly I’d have said, as I actually did say to the
crooked little slut, that you were one of our very best and most interesting
writers.  I would have added that I was greatly stimulated and entertained by
your last novel, and that of course after three decades I understood perfectly
well what you were saying about the writer’s trade – how could I not understand,
or miss suffering the same pains.  Still our diagrams are different, and the
briefest description of the differences would be that you seem to have accepted
the Freudian explanation: A writer is motivated by his desire for fame, money
and sexual opportunities.  Whereas I have never taken this trinity of motives
seriously.  But this is an explanatory note and I don’t intend to make a
rabbinic occasion of it.  Please accept my regrets and apologies, also my best
wishes.  I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do about the journalists; we can only
hope that they will die off as the deerflies do towards the end of August.

– Saul Bellow, Letters


So what are your trinity of motives for writing?

Prerequisite to Bitching About eBooks

October 20, 2010 § 5 Comments

Before you can bitch and complain about eBooks, you have to actually have purchased a book in the 21st Century and read it. Experience has taught me that most people yearning for the smell and feel of old musty volumes, haven’t read an old musty volume or an new, binding breaking volume in a very long time.

My biggest beef with most of the discussion about the Kindle is that it usually comes from people who don’t buy books. Can you name the last 7 books you bought? The last 20? Here is my October list (20 days). Unless otherwise noted, I bought them all on Amazon.

1. Dead Man’s Cell Phone Sarah Ruhl
2. Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Mark Vonnegut
3. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned Wells Tower
4. Why Theology Can’t Save Us John Gustav-Wrathall
5. The Proviso Moriah Jovan
6. Sons of the Fathers Paul Toscano
7. Out of the Mount Various Authors
8. TDTM JulieAnn Carter Winward
9. A Scattered Life Karen McQuestion
10. Reading Lolita in Tehran Azar Nafisi
11. Nemesis Philip Roth
12. The Great House Nicole Krause audible.com
13. At Home Bill Bryson audible.com
14. House of Meetings Martin Amis audible.com
15. Where Good Ideas Come From Steve Johnson emusic.com
16. Breakthrough Dental Marketing Joel Harris moxzee.com
17. The Moral Landscape Sam Harris
18. Republic of Debtors Bruce Mann
19. Sister Wife Natalie Collins
20. The Fourth World Natalie Collins

When you buy that many books in a month and only spend around $100, your printed words that you possess are thriving, not dying.

I have them all with me now (along with 400 other books), not to mention the complete works of Dostoyevsky, Dickens and Austen — and I have five different tools to read or listen to them on (Kindle, iPad, Laptop, cell phone and iPod).

Do yourself a favor and get off the Luddite Express going nowhere and actually read something. Oh and while I was writing this post, I bought The Sayings of Confucius.

Packing Books

October 19, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’m moving my physical library. I’m at 30 boxes and not even half done. I’ve read countless articles on digital books and I love my 350+ digital library that is with me all the time, but I’ve never once read anything about whether an important metaphor will be lost with the digital flood.

Words are so heavy.

Words overwhelm me, press down on me. I pick up a box of books and the muscles strain and my breathing quickens. I hold in my arms the lives of people — authors, actors, translators, editors, typesetters, booksellers. Their words are heavy.

Dust has accumulated on the shelf were they sat. No book burning ash, but they have returned to dust. I could start reading my library today and if I did nothing else, I would be dust before I finished.

Tomes are tombs where we bury our dead. And the tombs are made of heavy granite.

Everyone Has Ink By the Barrel

October 18, 2010 § 1 Comment

Now everyone has ink by the barrel, the power will go to those who can hold our attention.

The changes in publishing are exciting, but how do you get past the narcissism of an audience of one? The CEO of Border’s stated, ” “Everyone has a story to tell, pictures to share or advice to give.” Yes, we want to hear other people’s stories, but even more so, we want our story heard, often to the exclusion of everyone else. The paradox is we want connectivity and individuality.

Facebook quickly turns into numbing sameness. Everyone may have pictures to share and advice to give — and most of it is bad or mediocre at best.

Places like Borders, Amazon, B&N, Apple that allow us to self-publish are cashing in on our narcissism — post your stuff for people to buy. Maybe only 3 people will buy it, but hey, that is OK, because we publish everyone and 3 times everyone is a lot of money for us. This is vanity publishing exploded into tiny little profitable bits.

I am in the race, but not the publish everything race. I’m in the filter race. Even the filter world will be fractioned, but the filter pie is the pie I want to eat — not the crumbs of self-publishing.

The Publishing Pendulum

October 11, 2010 § Leave a comment

Traditional publishing is restrictive. The restriction comes from economic constraints on the publisher. Publishing has always been a few hits to lots of misses and the only way to eliminate the economic risk was an extreme conservative approach. Yes, many authors are feeling the liberation of not having to answer to those conservative publishing enclaves, but economics still govern.

The problem isn’t being “branded” as a self published author, but rather the author never gets a brand. JA Konrath has a brand, “the self-publish” brand, which he has been cultivating for a couple of years quite successfully. This is why his books sell. Everyone knows who he is, even people who don’t read his type of books.

Somewhere there is a happy in-between, a sweet spot where the author has freedom, the publisher allows it and readers get what they want and a lot of books get sold as everyone plays off each other’s strengths and needs. I think that is the future and that the self-publishing pendulum will swing back until it is resting somewhere in the middle — which is good news for the middleman.

Content, Content, Content

October 7, 2010 § 1 Comment

What makes a book last?
To play off the old real estate adage — content, content, content.

I can’t even keep up with the stuff I write, let alone anyone else, and I read — a lot. As a publisher, I hope I can direct my readers to the types of content they desire. Desired content is as varied as humanity, so directing the reader to what they may be interested in feels like an overwhelming task.

I feel the tension as I’ve begun the publishing company in a whole new way. Immediate gratification seems to drive the human compulsion to buy. And motivating the compulsion to buy is what a business is all about. Content, however, is what gives the book legs. A great book is not like a great feast. A great book can sit on the shelf for decades and it will still be a great book. A great feast can sit on the table for about four hours before it starts to go bad. The battle between immediacy and longevity is just one paradox the writer and the publisher must face, but it is a biggie.

As a publisher, I hope I can provide great books and great feasts.

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