Archive for the ‘Reading Habits’ Category

Chances are there’s a Borders store near you that’s either closing or will close within the next year. Fortunately, the store in my town will remain open – for now – though another location 15 minutes north of here isn’t quite so lucky.

I’ve visited the unfortunate Borders store three times since they put up the deadly yellow “Store Closing Sale!” and “Everything Must Go!” banners, and each time felt a bit like a vulture. Every time I visit I’m effectively picking the bones of the carcass that was once a bustling store. And it’s a distinctly cringe-worthy feeling I don’t like at all.

I know it’s inevitable the store must rid itself of inventory, but at the same time it’s just so sad. I’ve spent a lot of time there since it went up, though, admittedly I preferred the Barnes & Noble down the street (better selection, more comfy chairs, more neutral decor), but I still spent a lot of time at Borders, partly because I’m a member of their rewards program and received regular coupons, because I spent that much there (DID I EVER!). There’s another reason I’m shocked it’s closing, that I wasn’t able to keep them in the black with my purchases alone.

But it’s not just the local closings that’s bothersome. It’s more the fact Borders is one of the two book mega-chains, the brick and mortar biggies that were responsible for putting the independents – with few exceptions – out of business years ago. Now they’re going bankrupt, struggling to keep themselves alive by streamlining, cutting jobs and closing less profitable stores. So, without the assurance Borders will make it, everything now hinges on Barnes & Noble. And it’s having its share of problems, too.

Why? I see the reason as two-fold: first, GIANT retailer Amazon is able to undercut the prices of all brick and mortar stores, and second, the spectre of eBooks that require no manufacturing, no shipping and the convenience of instant delivery. Oh, and they’re generally cheaper than regular books.

So, what will happen to books once eBooks eventually take over? Or will they? Look at the music industry. Once there were Victrolas, then reel-to-reel and vinyl records. Along came 8-track tapes (a travesty!), cassettes, then CDs. Now, iPods and electronic downloads.

Recording artists are also having their works pirated, downloaded for absolutely free online, cutting their profits to the bone. Once books go all electronic the same will happen with them, you can bet on it. Writers who’re unable to live off writing proceeds alone will have that much less incentive to write – assuming they’re not in it for the love of the art itself. What will happen to the publishing industry? As goes music, soon will follow books.

Best case scenario, used book stores will thrive. Those of us who covet the written book will be able to get our fix buying lower-priced, pre-owned if you will, books. And there’s always print on demand, too. Not a bad option, at least if they’re priced reasonably.

For the sake of disclosure, though I love books I own a Sony eReader. I even have the Kindle app on my iPhone. And, when Kindles are given away for free – which is rumored to start happening by the end of this year – I’ll take one of those, as well. I do buy eBooks. I love the portability of them, the fact I can load up on library and bookstore books, carrying a virtual library with me wherever I go.

So, have I stopped buying books? Not by a long shot! Instead I’ve been buying way too much, between eBooks and book books. Not the best financial strategy, but I’m putting the brakes on that right now. Right. Now. Or, after I’ve bought the last batch of cheap books at the doomed Borders store that’s a mere 15 minutes away.

Ahem.

None of us can predict what will eventually happen, but the writing is on the wall. Resist though we may, this is already in motion, such a strong tide can’t be stemmed. All well and good to try to fight it, if it makes a person feel better, but in the end logic, and economics, will prove the big publishers get their way. They’re already struggling. Tell me how the prospect of making larger profits on eBooks, which don’t have to be manufactured and shipped, won’t keep ailing publishers afloat. Or at least assure the survival of the most powerful of them. There’s no way around it.

I’ve posted a lot re: eBooks, and with a great deal of passion, but from here on I see there’s not much point in denying the inevitable. The demise of Borders is a dire event. The bell is tolling for bookstores.  Soon we’ll be left with just Amazon, which I predict will still be standing when the mega-chains are shuttered. Where Amazon goes, there goes publishing.

Keep your eye on the Amazon basket. That’s where the remaining eggs lie. But this librarian/book reviewer/manic reader predicts what will be left, when the dust settles, are eBooks and print on demand. What will happen with picture books, graphic novels, etc., is a different kettle of fish. Likewise, children’s books. Maybe specialty publishers will continue to exist for those. But this may turn out to be the exception to the rule.

Probably not what you wanted to hear, and it’s definitely not what I like to say. I’ll take no pleasure in “I told you so!” in this case. And nothing would make me happier than being proven wrong. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.

The question is when, not if. And it may be a gradual shift, as in cassettes and albums giving way to CDs. Like LPs, maybe books will enjoy a renaissance, for the novelty. But I’m afraid to say it’s not looking good for lovers of the book. Never mind I already own more books than I can read in my lifetime. In several lifetimes, I think. I’ll mourn the passing of books regardless.

Just let me be wrong. That’s what I hope.

Current list of Borders closures.

According to a columnist for the Guardian U.K., these are the ten most boring books ever written:

1. Robert Burton: The Anatomy of Melancholy

2. Robert Musil: The Man Without Qualities

3. Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled

4. Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano

5. Virginia Woolf: The Waves

6. James Joyce: Finnegans Wake

7. Thomas Wolfe: Look Homeward, Angel

8. William Thackeray: Pendennis

9. Karl Marx: Capital

10. James Woodforde: The Diary of A Country Parson

The only two I’ve read from this list are Woolf’s The Waves and Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. While I’ll admit The Waves pushed me to my intellectual reading limit, I blamed myself more than the book. After all, This is Virginia Woolf! She was smart! She’s one of my most adored writers! She committed suicide on my birth date (the month/day, not the year, to clarify)! Surely it must be me, and not her.

The Waves is extraordinarily confusing. I had no idea what was going on 3/4 of the time. Then again, I felt the same way the first time I read Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury, but after two subsequent reads I ultimately saw its beauty. And, Faulkner’s another of my triad of worshipped writers, Dickens being the other.

Both books are written in stream-of-consciousness style, that is, the writer basically spews forth whatever they’re thinking with no thought as to a coherent plot. So, yeah, what’s in one person’s head will never be the same as what’s in another’s. However, I doubt either wrote with the thought, “HAHA, suckers! Just try to figure this one out!”

Then again, I can’t rule that out completely. Write a few brilliant books, establish a reputation for superior intellect, then throw in something in that’s incomprehensible just to see what critics say, if they continue falling all over themselves praising you or muse whether you’ve had a head injury lately. Now that’s entertainment!

Then, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. I read this in high school, on my own time since I was just that much a nerd. It never occurred to me it could be boring. I thought it was lovely. Of all the books on the list, this is the one I feel most compelled to challenge. I’ll let The Waves slide, since it was about 80 % incomprehensible the whole way through. But no way will I agree about Thomas Wolfe.

Maybe it’s because it’s such a southern U.S. book the average British reader can’t quite get a handle on it? I dunno. I only know I thought it was wonderful. The last scene left me weepy, it was so beautiful. Boring my @$$!

Which books would I consider the most boring in publishing history? Hmm. That’s a tough one.

Maybe:

1. Ulysses: James Joyce

2. The Old Man and the Sea: Hemingway

3. Pamela: Samuel Richardson

 4. The Golden Notebook : Doris Lessing

5. Portnoy’s Complaint: Philip Roth

6.  Pilgrim’s Progress: John Bunyan

7. The Book of the Courtier by Baldesar Castiglione

8. Lives: Plutarch

9. The Vicar of Wakefied: Oliver Goldsmith

10.  Sentimental Education: Flaubert

I’ve attempted or actually read all of these, and in most cases have been unable to due to extreme boredom. I’m willing to allow I could have read them at the wrong times, though. Could be I was too busy to fully concentrate, or I just wasn’t in the mood for the subject matter. But most of these were impossible for me to get through.

In one case, Richardson’s Pamela, familiarity bred contempt. I’ve read it at least three times, with different online book groups, and I’m so sick of it I can’t stand the thought of ever reading it again. Ditto The Vicar of Wakefield. Both are 18th century novels, and so over-wrought it takes extreme patience getting through them. Patience I’ve since lost.

Ulysses is the one I’ve vowed I will read one day, when I work up the nerve. I think it would best be read alone, with no other books going simultaneously, but that’s just not how I read. I would get far too impatient having no variety to console me in my misery. What I can give it is undivided attention when I am reading it, extreme concentration, plus having a notebook handy to jot down things to look up in various volumes explaining obscure references, etc.

The time I tried to read it I also bought a sort of guidebook to get the reader through, chapter by chapter. What alarmed me was that book was longer than Ulysses itself!

The Old Man and the Sea I read in high school. We also watched the film, which consists largely of a man in a boat pulling on a fishing line. Dear God.

Portnoy wasn’t challenging from a literary standpoint, it was just disgusting to me. It’s supposed to be funny, but if that’s the case I didn’t get it. A young man dealing with rampaging hormones isn’t my thing. Neither do I want to read about his methods of “relieving” his sexual frustrations. Yuck. It’s the one gross out on the list.

I am game to give almost any book a try, and in many cases more than once. I firmly believe there’s a time and place for reading every specific book. Some books need to be read when you’re young (The Catcher in the Rye), and some when you have more years behind you (Death Comes for the Archbishop). Some are seasonal, and some depend on what else is going on in your life, and I’m willing to allow for that. But after two or three attempts that’s usually it.

At mid-life, I’ve also thrown in the towel as far as reading classical literature, i.e., the Greeks and Romans. If I feel so inclined, in old age I’ll turn back to them, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. More likely I’ll want to revisit favorite books one more time, reliving fond memories.

Right now I’m still reading very widely, tossing out that drag-net in most every genre. Nonfiction has become an unexpected favorite, so now that wide world is open before me. My reading list is so full when I finish one book I immediately pick up another. Though I hardly watched before, I’ve cut out 95 % of TV viewing in favor of reading. I even schedule my housework to alternate with reading a set number of pages in between tasks. That helps alleviate the guilt, so I don’t let the house completely slide while I indulge my passion.

It’s safe to say I’m a pretty big reader, and unwilling to suffer badly written books that waste precious reading time. With so much out there I can never hope to get through it’s necessary to be discriminating in my tastes.

Do you have a list of “boring” or simply impossible-to-read books? If so, send them to me! I’d love to see what you think.

[Content previously published in another, undisclosed location where I can swear with abandon and discuss embarrassing personal habits, none of which are considered appropriate on a professional blog. Go figure. And not the same undisclosed located which Dick Cheney inhabited for eight years, which was called “Narnia.”]

Welp, I finished it. All 1,200ish pages of War and Peace. I’m feeling rather smug about it, too.  And yes, this may not be the most honorable of emotions, but so it goes. Reminds me of the five years I was vegetarian, another time I felt vastly superior to most – at least the percentage of the American population who are obese. In fact, I’m considering going back to vegetarianism. Maybe I’ll even become vegan!

I am mad with power.

Discussing a book as incredibly vast as Tolstoy’s masterpiece is no small feat. We had only an hour and a half for our Classics Book Group discussion, and though that sounds like an incredibly short space of time I think we did a pretty good job getting through some of the major themes. Yes, you could spend a year addressing  all the details, but would you really want to? This isn’t a Masters class in Russian literature, but rather a group that reads classics for pleasure. That three out of four of us finished seemed reward enough.

Considering not everyone will read the book in their lifetime, and because I am a librarian/defender of all knowledge, I thought a lot of people would appreciate a short summation of the book, just to get an idea what all the fuss is about. The following is from one of the major character’s perspectives. There are a mere 508 characters total, but I chose Natasha Rostov because she plays such a major role throughout, and because her character  undergoes an extreme change.

Ready? Here we go.

Once upon a time there was a family named Rostov. They had a son named Andrei, who was really cute. Later he would go to war and be a big hero. But the light of this family’s life was their daughter, little Natasha, because she was cute and sang prettily.

When she was 13, she figured it would be a cool thing to ask her first cousin, Boris, (who was what, 20 years older?) to marry her one day. Boris thought she was cute, so he said, “We’ll talk again in four years, when you’re 16, and not complete jail bait.”

Natasha1.jpg

Meanwhile, Natasha started growing up, becoming more and more womanly. Every year she became prettier, and her voice more beautiful. So, along comes a dude named Denisov, a character with a really weird speech impediment.

Natasha3

He shoots, he doesn’t score! Mama Rostov made sure of that. Besides, Natasha wanted someone a lot better – not to mention good looking and rich.

Someone like…

Natasha5

Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, whose wife Liza – the moustached princess whom Nikolai had treated like garbage – had died in childbirth. While  in some ways convenient for him, the look she had on her face when she died (“Why did you do this to me, jackass?!”) haunted him. At least until he decided Natasha was prettier, anyway.

And so they were engaged. But the deal was, they had to wait a year to get married, per Nikolai’s father’s demand.

In the meantime… Anatole! Hot, hot Anatole swept Natasha off her feet, convincing her to run away with him and forget Nikolai, who was a real drag at parties, anyway.

Natasha4.jpg

Goodbye, Andrei! Helllloooo, Anatole!

One snag. Anatole was already married. Ah, but she was off in some eastern European country, anyway. What could be the harm?

Meanwhile…

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War – Russia vs. France.

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And more war.

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And way, way more war.

A lot of other people died, even a few major characters. People like Nikolai, who realized on his death bed he’d forgiven Natasha, and would have gone ahead and married her if not for the inconvenience of a mortal wound.

After the war, there was Pierre. Oh, did I forget to mention Pierre? He was rich. Incredibly rich. And married, for a while, to a hottie named Helene, who died. Again, conveniently, since the two of them detested each other. This allowed him to propose to Natasha, who figured he was better than no one, considering everyone else was pretty much dead. Plus, he was rich. Did I mention that? And her own family was flat broke. He’d also been in love with Natasha for ages. She was his frail flower, and he her big, strapping husband.

Pierre1

Pierre married, had a ton of kids, and Natasha’s mom moved in with them, too.

Then Natasha porked out, stopped washing her hair and dressing nicely, and never went out into society again.

Pierre2

But Pierre? He’d never been more happy in his life.

Pierre3

So, why did Natasha completely change from the sweet, beautiful debutante to the dumpy matron? Our verdict was Tolstoy’s theme is war is hell, that no one is left unaffected by its ravages. Natasha had seen so many people die, notably her little brother Petya, and of course Nikolai. So she became bitter and completely let herself go. Nevertheless, Pierre loved her unconditionally.

So there you  have it – War and Peace condensed. It was my pleasure, but please, students, don’t rip off my content. Not if you’d like to pass your class. EYES ON YOUR OWN PAPER!

April 18, 2010

Scrawled in the Margins, Signs of Twain as a Critic

By ALISON LEIGH COWAN

By the end of his life, Samuel Langhorne Clemens had achieved fame as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, a globe-trotting lecturer and, of course, the literary genius who wrote “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and other works under the name Mark Twain.

He was less well-known, but no less talented, as a literary critic. Proof of it has resided, mostly unnoticed, in a small library in Redding, Conn., where hundreds of his personal books have sat in obscurity for 100 years. They are filled with notes in his own cramped, scratchy handwriting. Irrepressible when he spotted something he did not like, but also impatient with good books that he thought could be better, he was often savage in his commentary.

Read more in the New York Times

This from The WashingtonPost.com:

” Amazon ( NSDQ: AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos has been famously tight lipped on anything to do with data on the Kindle. Just about the only hard stat ever given out is that of the 125,000 titles the company sells in both physical and electronic forms, the electronic ones account for 6 percent of unit sales. Other than that, it’s been all speculation. We’re not expecting any hard numbers for a long time, so here’s some more speculation: Pacific Crest analyst Steve Weinstein argues that global e-book sales at Amazon could reach $2.5 billion by the year 2012. ”

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/06/23/AR2008062300925.html

Okay, is this just speculation, someone talking out of his or her posterior, or is this really going to happen?

Everyone I know – or almost everyone, save my tech loving husband – poo poos the idea of electronic books ever taking over the paper and glue variety we know and love. There is nothing like the physical book. Nothing. It’s perfect as it is. It’s what the egg is to protein, the banana to… well, to a lot of good stuff.

My house is crammed full with books. I have so many we could never afford to buy enough shelves to hold them all. They’re overflowing everywhere, in every space with room to stack a few of them. The nightstand next to my bed is crammed with them, there are piles on the floor next to my bed I’m forever tripping over. There’s a pile on the fireplace hearth, another beneath the family room table… My books abhor a vacuum.

In the back of my car there are four bags of books I’ve been meaning to donate to the library – I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. And it’s been at least six months. My reason? Parting with them is such sweet sorrow.

I’ve already made the first round of donations. About four years ago I cleared out hundreds upon hundreds of books – once I stopped online bookselling – donating them all to the library. Now I’m starting to dig into the ones I was reluctant to give away the first time around, the ones I put my hands on but couldn’t quite bear to give away.

I think I’ve admitted it here before – or maybe it was on my other blog – I have bought back books I’ve donated to the library while at used book sales. Yes, I have bought back my own books. Paying for them twice seemed a very small price to have them back where they belong.

I’d never have that experience with the Kindle. I’d never have that attachment, that stab of happiness I feel in the pit of my stomach when I bring home more books, or when I drag a finger over the bindings of the books I own. I’d be worried about dropping the damned thing, and I’d never take it into the tub with me, I’d never look at it lovingly thinking “this is mine.” The Kindle is not a thing of beauty, not a joy to behold.

Maybe ebooks are more efficient. Maybe they’re cheaper than buying paper and glue new books, but for one thing they’ll never have every book in that format. And for another, no electronic medium can ever replicate the book. Nothing else can replace the soothing comfort of curling up with a good read, turning pages quickly if it’s a thriller, or more slowly if it’s a poetically written work of literary fiction, feeling the paper between your fingers. Caring about ebooks is like preferring robots to living, breathing humans. It’s not organic. It has no soul.

It may happen. In the publishing world’s zeal to improve the bottom line there may come a day they’ll stop publishing real books and make them all electronic. I just hope I’m not here to see it. That would break my heart.

Is there a difference between what men and women look for in a novel? Apparently so, according to at least one study conducted this year in the UK. The researchers found, among other things, these contrasts between the sexes:

” Women readers used much-loved books to support them through difficult times and emotional turbulence. They tended to employ them as metaphorical guides to behaviour, or as support and inspiration.

“The men’s list was all angst and Orwell. Sort of puberty reading,” she said. Ideas touching on isolation and “aloneness” were strong among the men’s “milestone” books. ”

The _Guardian_ (UK) published the resulting two lists of top 20 favorite novels, one reflecting the choices of men, and the other the top choices of women. Perhaps surprisingly (or perhaps not), there was little overlap between the two lists.

Here they are:

MEN’S LIST

1. Albert Camus – The Outsider
2. J.D. Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye
3. Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse-Five
4. Gabriel Garcia Marquez – One Hundred Years of Solitude
5. J.R.R. Tolkien – The Hobbit
6. Joseph Heller – Catch-22
7. George Orwell – 1984
8. F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby
9. Milan Kundera – The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
10. Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird
11. Vladimir Nabokov – Lolita
12. J.R.R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings
and Fyodor Dostoevsky – Crime and Punishment
14. Graham Greene – Brighton Rock
15. Nick Hornby – High Fidelity
16. James Joyce – Ulysses
17. Mark Twain – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
18. Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness
19. Franz Kafka – Metamorphosis
20. John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath

WOMEN’S LIST

1. Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre
2. Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights
3. Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale
4. George Eliot – Middlemarch
5. Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice
6. Toni Morrison – Beloved
7. Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook
8. Joseph Heller – Catch-22
9. Marcel Proust – Remembrance of Things Past
10. Jane Austen – Persuasion
11. Mary Shelley – Frankenstein
12. Jeanette Winterson – Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
13. Gabriel Garcia Marquez – One Hundred Years of Solitude
14. George Eliot – The Mill on the Floss
15. Louisa May Alcott – Little Women
16. Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary
17. C.S. Lewis – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
18. Margaret Mitchell – Gone with the Wind
19. Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness
20. Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird

My own top 20 list would draw partly from both of these two lists, and add titles not mentioned on either. It would also most likely fluctuate depending upon which day you asked me, and what sort of mood I was in. That’s one thing about these lists of favorite books. I doubt there are many people who’d list the same 20 without fail, unless they’d spent an awful lot of time thinking about the subject and weighing their opinions in the past. So, if you asked me today, this would be my top 20 list (not in any particular order):

LISA’S LIST

1. Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse
2. Charles Dickens – Great Expectations
3. Gabriel Garcia Marquez – One Hundred Years of Solitude
4. Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre
5. George Eliot – The Mill on the Floss
6. Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice
7. Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary
8. Charles Dickens – Our Mutual Friend
9. Virginia Woolf – Mrs. Dalloway
10. William Faulkner – The Sound and the Fury
11. William Faulkner – As I Lay Dying
12. F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby
13. Margaret Atwood – The Blind Assassin
14. George Eliot – Middlemarch
15. Jane Austen – Sense and Sensibility
16. Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina
17. Kate Chopin – The Awakening
18. A.S. Byatt – Possession
19. Willa Cather – My Antonia
20. Carson McCullers – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Not surprising I’m heavy on British fiction and heavy on southern fiction, with drops of Russian and Latin literature thrown in. That sounds about right.

Anyone else have a Top 20 list to share? I’d love to hear from you!