Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Questions About Reading

A friend of mine, who is a teacher, asked me if she could teach my post How You Find Books, How Books Find You, in the context of choosing independent reading. That is bucket-list awesome. What is even awesomer is her students asked some very thoughtful questions, the kind of simple, direct, but also really important and challenging questions, young people are uniquely capable of asking, and because I am a responsible adult, I answered them as best as I could. So here are their questions and my answers. Fair warning, I list a little towards the shmaltzy at times, but, hey, I'm talking about reading to kids. That's gonna happen.

What made you pick up The Haunted Bookshop instead of you other choices?

As a bookseller I've developed a really close relationship with the publisher, so I know there's a good chance I'm going to like anything they send me. They told me this book was a great celebration of bookselling and given that I was at the end of a very exhausting bookselling project I was looking for a "remind me why I do this," kind of experience. FYI, I started reading Seiobo There Below and it also would have been the perfect book. Its long, lyrical, and artistic sentences, the complexity of the images, the fact that its chapters are number with a Fibonnacci Sequence (1, 2, [1+2] 3, [3+2] 5...), the hyperfocus, the flat-out gutsyness (I'd probably prefer to say "ballsiness" but feel free to use "gutsyness") of attempting a book like this, are all things I love about books and were pretty much completely absent from the books I read for the panel.)

What strategies do you use to identify if you will enjoy a book? How do you know before you start reading it/how do you essentially choose your book?
Sometimes I listen to suggestions. There are some authors whose books I will always read. Sometimes I'm intrigued by the plot. Sometimes I happen to start reading and am intrigued by the style. The important thing is that I listen to my own brain when I'm interacting with a book. Do I feel interested? Do I feel as though my mental ears have perked up? Do I want to know more about whatever the book is saying? If yes, I'll read the book. But if I don't "hear" my brain doing those things, I probably don't read the book.

What genre of book is your favorite? I love mysteries.

I read pretty much everything. Mysteries (my favorite is The Maltese Falcon) Sci Fi (my favorite is The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov) Graphic novels and comics (The Sandman), poetry (Cesar Vallejo & Walt Whitman) and books that don't really have a genre that people usually just consider literature. (Ulysses) I guess if I had to pick just one genre, I'd go with books people consider literature because those are the most important to me. They're also the books that keep giving no matter how many times I read them.

I hate reading. My teacher says that means I haven't found the right book yet. What's the right book? [Quick aside. As a writer, reader, and bookseller, this one was a hell of a challenge. Getting it was like saying to your friend, “Hey want to go for a hike today?” and then YOU ARE IN THE HIMALAYAS AND IT IS TIME TO HIKE. Anyway, I did my best.]

For me, it was The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper. For some reason, that particular story showed me what the imagination is capable of. For you it could be The Golden Compass, or Feed by M.T Anderson or Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos or Northern Lights by Jennifer Donnelly, or The Hobbit or Moneyball or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, or American Born Chinese (which is a comic book) Ender's Game or Vampire Academy or a cookbook or a magazine or maybe you'll be playing one of those really good video games and realize the game makers are actually using the storytelling tools books use...The thing is, you're your own person living your own life, so there's really a ton of different right books out there for you, but if you approach every book you read assuming you're going to hate it, there's a good chance you're going to hate no matter how good it is. But, if you keep you're mind open, the next book might be the right book.

How do you force yourself to read books you don't really like?

If I'm reading a book I don't like it's because I have a responsibility to another person. Whether it's because I'm going to write a review, or give critique, or evaluate it for an award, like the panel I wrote the essay about, I've promised someone I'd read it and so I read it. I also try to remember that I can learn almost as much from books I don't like as from books I do. I just have to ask myself “Why don't I like this book?” and then actually try to find the answer. For example, this one book I really didn't like in part because I thought the writing was careless. One sentence was “He was slim but broad.” Those words don't really go together. I know the author was trying to say something like “He had a thin waist and broad shoulders,” but that's not what was written. I didn't like it, but the careless prose made me think about careful prose.

We don't read your blog. Can you tell us why you dislike conventional stories?

It's not that I don't like conventional stories. I do, especially when I'm reading to relax, but I don't feel like most conventional stories ask the questions I'm asking. I want to know about the stories people will be telling in 10, 50, 100 years and I want to know what people will be like in 10, 50, 100 years. Conventional stories usually don't think about those people. I also think the problems in the world are different from what they used to be. They're more complicated and more confusing. I believe complicated and confusing books help me think about complicated and confusing problems. Finally, everything that's conventional today, used to be unconventional. Before Jane Austen, (I'm sure Ms. Boncek has mentioned her) nobody wrote about realistic relationships from the perspective of women. And nobody wrote with Jane Austen's sophistication. But now, lots of writers write about realistic relationships and try to have her sophistication. I believe reading and supporting unconventional books now, helps make sure that those people living 100 or 200 years from now will have their own Jane Austen from our time.

What made you want to be a writer/critic?

I just started writing stories and poems when I was about 12 or 13 (maybe even a little younger) and haven't stopped. I don't know why I wrote that first story, or the second, or even really why I do it today, but it is who I am. Being a critic grew out of that. In order to be a better writer, I tried to figure out how the books I liked worked. How did they express their ideas? Why did they make me feel what I felt? Kind of like taking a clock apart to see how it works, except that, because these are books and words, the clock kept telling me the time even after I had separated all the gears and springs and coils. With books, even when you pull apart all the words to see why they made you think about something, they still make you think about that something.

Is there any book that has the same meaning for everyone?

There are books that have been read for long enough by enough people that we've come to a kind of agreement about what they mean. We can all kind of agree that Too Kill a Mockingbird is about looking past the surface and skin color to the real person within. And it's important to work at agreements around books. Books are important, in part, because they help us have difficult discussions, because we learn about the world and ourselves by how we agree or disagree over books. But the most important part is what happens between the book you're reading and your brain. And because no one else can ever really share your brain, there aren't any books that have the same meaning for everyone.

How would you describe your own writing, since you said you dislike conventional books?

I write what's in my head. Sometimes what's in my head is a story that goes back and forth around an event, has text boxes in the middle of the page, and includes a poem. Sometimes what's in my head starts at the beginning, goes through the middle, and ends at the, well, end. I kind of like to think of it as if I'm a scientist in a lab, trying different ways to express different ideas.

How long did you take to edit this essay?

Since I wrote this for my blog, I probably went over it four or five times over the course two days or three days finding better ways to say things, making sure everything makes sense, and fixing mistakes. If I'm writing something that I'm going to send to someone else to publish I usually do at least four or five drafts, sometimes completely re-writing whatever it is I'm working more than once. It can take weeks or months or sometimes even years.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Start with Die Hard, Pass Through Jargon, and End Up at Reading: A Rant with Mention of Two Corollary Rants

One line of trochaic tetrameter? You go it.
Let's begin with a thought experiment. Imagine that, instead of a willing suspension of disbelief, you approached every silly action movie with the assumption that the writer/director thinks the average movie goer is too stupid to realize how ridiculous the movie is. In fact, you assume the only reason a movie like Die Hard was made was so the movie makers could prove the stupidity of the public by convincing it to pay for such absolute nonsense. How many goofy action movies would you enjoy? Just keep that in mind.

There are about four reasons why jargon comes into existence. (This is the “Pass Through Jargon” part) The first is that whoever comes up with the jargon hasn't put enough effort into what they are trying to express to discover the words, terms, and ideas that already exist to express what they are trying to express. The second is a more sinister take on the first; the jargonner is actively trying to convince us the idea is new even though it's not (See: The Entire World of Advertising). The third is that the jargonner wants to somehow exclude other people from the form of expression, as happens in clubs, frats, secret societies etc to strengthen the sense of community, or as happens in legal documents and fine print to facilitate horrible corporations totally screwing you. And the fourth and final source of jargon is when someone actually has a new idea/discovery/concept to express and must invent a term to help them express it. To focus this a little more on books and reading, if you encounter jargon in an essay or book, it could be poor communication and writing skills, but it could also express a relatively new idea that doesn't have a word or term in our daily lexicon. But how can you tell the difference?
It's not jargon. It's German.

Considered from another angle. If you happened upon an issue of say, The Lancet, or whatever magazine all the cool astrophysicists are reading these days and tried and failed to comprehend even a single paragraph of a single article because it was essentially a word mash of Latin or an equation with no numbers, would you accuse that article's author of being willfully obtuse, of blatantly demonstrating her own intellect (which if they're writing for The Lancet or are an astrophysicist is probably pretty fucking huge) by purposefully writing something he knew most people would be unable to understand? Probably not. You would understand that the author of The Lancet article is expressing highly complex, highly specialized ideas for which an entire second language was developed, not because she is being a pretentious dick, but because it is the best way for him to express her ideas about heart disease. Heart disease is complex and complex ideas sometimes require jargon to be expressed accurately. We would naturally assume that the doctor or physicist is trying to communicate, and though we probably wouldn't feel communicated to, we also probably wouldn't blog about how its author spent hours and hours writing it for the sole purpose of showing us how dumb we are.

Of course, an author doesn't have to use jargon to be accused of writing for the sole purpose of showing us how dumb we are. (Now to “End Up at Reading.”) In the “humanities” and even more so in “literature,” all an author has to do to be accused of writing to stroke her own ego is use atypical diction, long sentences, complicated syntax, and idiosyncratic narrative structure. Maybe throw in some direct examination of art, philosophy, and/or science just to be sure. (To my way of thinking, writing with the assumption that her reader is just as smart as she is, but that is a corollary rant.) Just like jargon, complicated, difficult literature sometimes is created by poor communication skills and sometimes is created as an honest and efficient effort to communicate a complex idea or event. (And given how complicated the decision between, say, organic tomatoes grown in Chile or conventional tomatoes hothouse grown in Massachusetts is in terms of carbon foot print, social economics, taste, and health, literature does need to confront complex ideas and events to be relevant to contemporary society, but, that's another corollary rant. I mean, fuckin' A, have you tried to vote recently?) But how do you tell the difference?
Yes sir, you are way smarter than the idiots watching this movie. Over.

Back to Die Hard. If we are willing to employ a suspension of disbelief for works of entertainment, or, rather, if we are faulted for NOT suspending our disbelief and critiquing works of entertainment with standards of scientific realism, why don't we also employ an assumption of communication for difficult literature? Just like not holding works of entertainment to high standards of realism to facilitate our enjoyment of them, why not approach difficult literature under the assumption that the author is not trying to exclude or show off, but to communicate something difficult and complex, in order to facilitate our enjoyment of those works. Sure, some of those difficult works will not support that assumption and, though you give it your all, will feel willfully, exclusively, obtuse, but, in the exact same way that the entertainment so ludicrous you can't enjoy it no matter how much disbelief you suspend doesn't invalidate the act of willing suspension of disbelief in itself, the books that don't reward the assumption of communication don't invalidate the assumption itself.

Back to our Die Hard thought experiment and all those silly action movies you would now hate. Assuming every difficult, jargon-filled, syntactically complex, stylistically unfamiliar work of writing is designed to show off the author's intellect and exclude those the author looks down on is exactly like assuming every action movie director/writer is too lazy to research the physics of explosions while assuming movie goers are too stupid to realize how much the movie relies on wild coincidence and preposterous physics. If we went into action movies assuming the movie makers tell a story in which a million shots are fire and not a single one so much as grazes the hero because they don't think we are smart enough to wonder about the statistical likelihood of a particular individual surviving a million shot rocket launcher grenade filled fire fight, pretty much all action movies would be unwatchable. Of course reading a difficult book is going to suck if you approach it assuming the author is a pretentious asshole who spent years and years of her life pouring his soul into a book she wants no one to understand. (Another topic for another time is how so many people end up with the assumption.)

Furthermore, the willing suspension of disbelief is not a pity party for the movie maker, it is a technique for extracting as much joy as possible from the movie for yourself. The same applies for the assumption of communication. We would hold that assumption not to give the author something, but to help ensure we get something. In fact, I'd argue that committing yourself to being communicated to, will 93% of the time, create some communication. Not every time, but enough that it might change your perspective on “difficult” or “obtuse” literature. If we can forgive Die Hard for being preposterous in its efforts to entertain, we can forgive difficult literature for its difficultly in its efforts to communicate.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

How You Find Books, How Books Find You

I've just finished up my reading for the debut authors panel (much more about this later) and though it was, overall, a lot of fun, and though I would absolutely do something like this again, whether its reading for a prize or for acquisitions, the last weekend was a bit of a drag. I had read all the books I liked (much more on them later) and was reading books I didn't like to figure out which ones I disliked the most in relation to each other. I was weighing flaws rather than joys. It is the exact kind of toil that brings with it the extra frustration of constantly reminding you what you could be doing instead More specifically, while sorting these last few unfavored books, I couldn't stop myself from pining for the books I could have been reading and/or writing.

The week before Melville House sent me a copy of The Haunted Bookshop . An exuberant celebration of books and bookselling. There is a beautiful quote on nearly every page about the power of books and the unique joy that comes from being the last link in the bucket brigade that gets the book from the author's head to the reader's hands. I've been reading it with a constant smile. About three pages in on Sunday night, after “finishing” the last of the books I didn't like, I said to myself, “Isn't it amazing how the perfect book can find you at the perfect time? What an amazing fucking world?” And The Haunted Bookshop is the perfect book for me for right now, obliterating any trace of frustration and exhaustion by shouting at the top of its lungs “BOOKS FUCKING RULE!”

But what are the odds really? Out of all the books in the world, all the books in my apartment, all the books in my need-to-read-this-next pile, what are the odds that I would find the perfect one for the perfect moment. Or, more to the point, why is it so common for something so unlikely to happen. In following books on social media, recommending them in the store, and reading them myself, the book we need, against the statistical odds, often finds us when we need it.

To me, this phenomenon reveals, perhaps the most powerful and in some ways paradoxical trait of books; despite being the exact same words for every reader, every time they are read, they are almost magically flexible. It's an act of quantum tunneling, in that, as we read, books can reach into our minds, find whatever it is that is occupying them, and seamlessly incorporate those occupiers into themselves. To continue with the quantum imagery, I've always imagined books as energy fields, fields of potential within fixed boundaries, and as quantum particles acquire mass by passing through the Higgs field, meaning is created when minds pass through these fields of potential meaning. Books themselves are meaningless, but they contain the potential for infinite meaning.

Let's think about this from the other direction, what are the odds that, given I know what I like to read and are pretty good at identifying those traits in books I haven't read, every single one of the books I might have picked up next would have been the perfect book at the perfect time? It could have been Shantytown by Cesar Aira, in which he turns his imagination, wit, and playfulness on the urban noir. It could have been Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball. Ball is one of my favorite contemporary writers and, like Shantytown, it leverages Ball's unique and innovative imagination to examine a dark and perplexing crime. This is his first book that is getting the full publicity support of his publisher, including a national advertising campaign and a hardcover release, so could be the work that turns one of my favorites into a superstar. It could have also been The Hanging On Union Square, a wildly inventive originally self-published novel of leftist politics in the Depression written by a Chinese immigrant that includes, as kind of an epigraph, snippets from its many rejection letters. Of course, it also could have been Seiobo There Below, the new Laszlo Krasznahorkai that brings his endless sentences and even endless-er paragraphs from the rain-drowned misery-drenched Hungary of Satantago to a Fibonacci sequenced story of ancient Japan.

There was a lot of conventional submissions to the panel, books that were competent executions of old tropes, tired plots, and exhausted characters. There were a lot of solid opening chapters (you know, the chapters that convince editors to acquire the book and readers to buy it) followed by sputtering plots, un-taken twists, un-challenged assumptions, un-asked questions, leading up to a final and resounding, “OK, that was a book, so what?” There were a lot of books that were a year's worth of rewriting and editing away from actually being pretty damn good, maybe even special, but since so much of the book buying world doesn't seem to realize editors need to eat too, and really the bottom line difference between an OK book and a great book is negligible, they're going to be published without that year's work. As readers of this blog know (Hi, Mom.), conventional is not really how I prefer to roll.

Given my state of mind, it is actually likely that its motion through any one of the fields of potential presented by these books would have felt perfect. And I wouldn't have know how extra-super-perfect The Haunted Bookshop is for this moment, because I wouldn't have read it in this moment.

There is a way to misconstrue my point and conclude that the reader is the ultimate and primary source of meaning in the reading experience and that the book itself, really doesn't matter all that much. I've seen “readers” argue this point, essentially destroying the very idea of criticism and quality. If only the reader counts, then Stephanie Meyer is just as good a writers as Jennifer Egan. (Since Meyers writes entertainment and Egan writes literature it actually isn't accurate to compare one to the other, but it tends to be the Meyers supporters who argue against the idea of quality in books rather than for Meyers quality as entertainment, that push this idea, way, way too far.) But if you've ever said “I really wanted to like this book,” or “I really didn't want to like this book,” you know the book counts. It is not just a conduit for the reader's entertainment or imagination but a participant in the creation of substance.

The way I see it, this inability to extract the influence of your own mind from the influence of the content of the book on a particular thought and emotion is exactly why reading is so powerful. Something is created that is unique and shared; unique to your own thinking and shared by everyone who reads the book. The most powerful influence on your own experience is, somewhat tautologically, your own mind, and yet sometimes, books are even more powerful than that. They need your mind for meaning, but can determine what stays in your mind after it has passed through the field. And if you remove the influence of the substance of books, if you take my belief that readers often make their own perfect books out of the books they happen to have on hand too far, that power is erased. Books are important to us, in part, because some books really fucking suck, even if we ultimately and definitively cannot prove what it is exactly that makes them suck so fucking much.

The story of a perfect book for the perfect moment is also a story about people. In this case, it's a story about me and a story about Christopher Morley. But it's also a story about Dustin from Melville House who sent the copy to me (and, wisely I think, probably just about every indie bookseller he knows). And it's about how I came to be on that mailing list, which is a story of reading, writing, and Porter Square Books. Which is also a story about how my partner and I ended up moving to Boston, which is also a story of how my partner and I got together. Jumping back to the nearer past, it's also about the Indies Introduce panel, which makes it a story about my blogging and social media stuff, for Porter Square Books, which gets at some of the other things I've mentioned, but also, how I read books and how I write about books, which is its own story of other books and professors and friends and book clubs. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of reading the perfect book is not the moment itself, but how that moment unfurls your life before you as you read. When you read the perfect book, you also read your life.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Indie Brand Paradox

The general indie bookstore publicity strategy in our competition with Amazon is pretty straight forward. When you shop at an indie bookstore you get the kind of service only a person can provide; conversation, camaraderie, and community. Handshakes. Dog treats. Safe place for the kiddos. Air conditioning in the summer. A free flip through The New Yorker and/or US Weekly. Like the olde timey general stores, not only do you get the opportunity to buy something you want/need, you also get the opportunity to be a person with other people. (Indie bookstores were also leaders in the Buy Local movement, but that's a different kind of argument.) And for the most part, I think this strategy is, when backed up by smart management, excellent buying, and a knowledgeable and personable staff, pretty successful. The stores that survived the Borders/B&N/Amazon purges add enough value to their books, that customers are willing to pay up to 50% (or more) more for them.

I assure you, that door is not a time machine.

But this strategy has a strange side effect. In many customers' minds the ideas of “community,” “personal service,” and “conversation” are associated with “old fashioned,” while online shopping is associated with “modern,” and, quite often, also “convenience.” The result is that, even though it is 2013 everywhere, customers assume we are unable to provide a lot of services we have been able to provide, roughly as long as there have been bookstores, or as long as bookstores have had computers. My two “favorite” expressions of this assumption are, “Are you able to see if you have a book?” and “Are you able to order books?” They're followed quickly by “Can I order books online from you?” and “Do you sell ebooks?”

A more public example is when Ron Charles, excellent critic and solid indie supporter, said this on his blog “By pre-selling these big-name novels, Amazon removes even the possibility that you might see and buy a copy in your local bookstore in October...Brick-and-mortar bookstores could offer the same advance sales, of course. But how many of them do?” The answer is: nearly all of them. What most of us don't do (and what PSB just started doing) is publicize this capacity. So, even though indie bookstores have pretty much always been able to take pre-orders in some capacity, and have been able to take online pre-orders as long as they have had ecommerce websites, because of the indie brand, customers either flat out assume we can't or don't even think about it as an option.

It was weird. I asked them & they got it for me.

What is strange about these questions and assumptions is that we have computers and people can see them. We have had computers as long as everybody else. Sure, ebooks are newish (2+ years at this point) but we have had the capacity to sell books through our website since we opened almost nine years ago. And bookstores have been able to order books for customers, roughly as long as there have been bookstores, long before there was even an internet, let alone an Amazon. To add a nice extra level of frustration to this whole issue, sometimes we can be even more convenient than Amazon. Sometimes, you can order a book from our website on you lunch break, and pick it up from the store on your way home. I can't guarantee that every book you think of on your lunch break will be ready for by the time the T drops you off by our store, but probably a lot more than you would think.

So what is the source of this dissonance? Why do customers assume that they must sacrifice the conveniences of technology for personal service and community values? My best guess is that, in general, our brains like big, simple concepts and it takes real effort to break those big concepts down into their complicated, nuanced constituent parts. Think about why first impressions are so important. When you meet someone for the first time, you create a big, simple concept about them, something easy to apply in future situations. Not accurate, but applicable. And it takes real work to break through a negative first impression. Often, no matter what else you learn, you just can't shake it.

They said the word I fear most: Yes.
Advertisers have been using this tendency to form and apply big simple concepts to their advantage as long as there have been advertisers. So, rather than, say, spending the time and money it takes to make good tasting beer at a fair price, Budweiser spends the time and money to hammer our brains with ads to create a big concept association in our minds between its horrible, horrible beer, and “fun” or “taste.” Once that big concept is formed, once someone understands Bud Lite as “what I drink when I'm out or at a party,” it is very difficult to break down that big concept. In a similar vein, all the early (and continuing) advertising for online retail options, hammered home the idea that online shopping is convenient (which it is), so people created a big concept “online shopping is convenient.” Simple. Direct. Easy to apply.

When indie bookstores and their allies began to mount a coordinated self-defense effort, they focused, obviously, on what distinguished them and so created the big concept “Indie bookstores provide community,” as their way to do it. And, for the most part, it worked. But because it didn't include convenience and because it was created in opposition to the big concept of convenience, people assumed that community did not include convenience. Furthermore, an idea lost between these two big concepts is “just a little less convenient.” For example, if you stop by the store, call in, or go online on Monday morning and we don't have the book for you, there's a pretty good chance we could get it to the store by roughly Tuesday afternoon. Just slightly less convenient than “definitely Tuesday morning,” but still, pretty goddamn convenient. Sure, sometimes that Monday morning ordered book won't get to the store until Thursday afternoon, but is that really so bad. And the store doesn't get deliveries on weekends, but is a Thursday to Tuesday wait really “inconvenient?” Less convenient, sure, but a truly negative experience? And when you add all the other positives about shopping at an indie bookstore, including the general economic good you do for your community and everything that we already celebrate about indie bookstores, how bad does that wait actually feel? Of course, this really isn't about how we think when we sit down to think, but about the shortcuts our brains and cultures have evolved to streamline decision making. For soulless, myopic corporations, these shortcuts are an advantage, because they can spend a billions of dollars exploiting them, but for small businesses with little money and nuanced arguments, often the best you can hope for is a brand paradox with a preponderance of positives. At least Indie bookstores have that. (And computers for god's sake!)