Hmm. You know I’m getting a familiar feeling in my abdomen now and it’s making me kind of uncomfortable.
Last year, when Mark Sarvas was a judge, you and I took issue with something in his judgmenthis tone or something, I don’t really remember what it was, and at the moment I don’t feel like going back and cringing while I read it. But we ganged up on him a little bit and it caused a bit of a controversy. We talked it out on Mark’s blog and more extensively in private emails and I’m pretty sure the whole thing was long over as far as the three of us were concerned.
Then last week you and I responded to something in Jonah Lehrer’s judgment about Mark’s book
not that he was advancing it, necessarily, but we had an issue with one of his reasons why. And I should have anticipated this, but I’ve received comments to the effect that I really must have HATED Harry, Revised
, which was not the impression I wanted to leave. I like
upsets in this tournament. It highlights the total arbitrariness of literary awards, the very thing we are both embracing and making fun of.
And now we have David Rees’s judgment on Harry, Revised
and I have to bring up, well, the tone
of it again. Because I really don’t want it to look like we’re ganging up on Mark Sarvas. We’re not. And even though David Rees didn’t start this fire I think it’s time for us to give Harry, Revised
Sarvas is actually trying to do something in this novel. He’s trying to put a 19th-century storytelling lattice over a modern novel with modern concerns. And we can argue about whether we think he’s always successfulJonah Lehrer thinks he mostly is, David Rees thinks he isn’tbut I don’t think any of us so far have given him enough credit for the attempt. This book is a little more ambitious than any of us have said.
And I think parts of it really do work. One of the main themes is about how small lies beget big lies and how lies of any size eventually become unsustainable. That part of the novel is really moving and true. It’s also never boringHarry’s story zips along quite pleasantly. There are people who will really enjoy this book and I don’t mean for the sometimes pack mentality of the ToB to put those readers off it.
As for City of Refuge
, this is a hard book not to like. I don’t know if anybody has thought of a novel this way before, but I might call it tournament-ready
. The kind of book that, when you start comparing it directly to another novel, is going to make a strong impression. It’s going to face some difficult hurdles, including the Bolañosaurus in the next round, so I don’t know realistically how far it can go (and this is way premature), but if City of Refuge
can somehow get to that final match where 17 people are going to vote up or down, you’d have to think it has a shot. If City of Refuge
went to your high school, it would probably be homecoming king, is what I’m saying.
A homecoming king with a real somber streak, no doubt, but you’d find it hard not to vote for him.
So, David Rees disliked Harry, Revised
enough to smash Mark Sarvas’s glass slipper into sand, which is indeed sad because, like you said, despite some qualms about how Mark’s vision turned out, I was rooting for the underdog to come out on top. But Rees has the only vote that counts, meaning City of Refuge
emerges as champion of the Susan Sontag regional to face 2666
, winner of the George Plimpton regional, in the next round.
(Something we’ve failed to note is that for this year’s tournament we’ve named each regional after a recently departed literary figure, with David Foster Wallace and John Updike being our additional honorees.)
Since you so ably sum up the actual substance of today’s battle, in this comment I thought I’d continue the story of my adventures in trying to acquire a copy of City of Refuge
to read for the tournament.
When last we left off
, I had described the futility of trying to acquire a copy of the physical book despite trips to more than a half-dozen bookstores (chain and indie) a mere four months after the book’s release. Yes, I considered the library, but our local at the time did not have a copy listed, and as I mentioned, I was aware that online options such as tourney sponsor Powell’s
as well as Amazon could put the book in my hands within a few days, but I also already had a dozen other titles lined up and it became a low priority. If not for the tournament and more importantly, if not for City of Refuge
advancing in the first round, there is no chance I ever would’ve come back to actually read the book as that passing desire would’ve quickly been buried under the avalanche of new books that made it onto my radar.
Our tale ended with me downloading a copy of City of Refuge
to my wife’s newly arrived Kindle 2 and the Kindle app to my iPod Touch.
I’ve now read City of Refuge
, and while I have some things to say about the book itself, I’m going to save them for the next round so I can stop talking about 2666,
which mostly seems to annoy our readers.
Instead, I’m going to talk about the experience of reading City of Refuge
on my iPod and the Kindle. Here’s the headline: Bookstores Are Screwed Unless They Adapt.
People have no idea how much it pains me to say this. I was, quite literally, raised in an independent bookstore that my mother founded with her partners when I was a year old. She was one of the owners until the year I graduated from college and the store still exists today a couple of storefronts down from its original location. The number of hours I spent reading in a special seating area in the children’s section cannot be calculated. I was practically a human display. Going back to do a reading at the store when Fondling Your Muse
came out was one of the highlights of my career as a writer.
I love books, physical books. When I left Chicago for graduate school in Louisiana, the only things in my car were my dog, my guitar, and my books. As I type this, I am surrounded by books and if my office were bigger, I’d be surrounded by even more of them because I have easily twice as many stowed away in boxes. I can look at my shelves and remember the time and the place I read each book.
But now that I’ve read City of Refuge
on a digital device (70% on the iPod/30% on the Kindle), I can now see the future and it looks very, very different for publishers, writers, and booksellers.
Prior to the experience, I imagined that reading on one of these devices is, for sure, inferior to reading a good, old-fashioned book. I was especially dubious about the iPod, since I’d found the device totally frustrating and unacceptable for reading online newspapers or articles. But I have to tell you, I actually found reading on the iPod totally pleasurable. In fact, I think it’s entirely possible that I read with deeper engagement and absorption than I would’ve had I been reading the physical hard copy.
I know, blasphemy.
Rather than being a liability, the small screen is an asset because it makes it almost impossible to skim since there’s not enough text on the screen to bother skimming. If I lose focus while I’m reading a physical book, I often find myself skipping down the page, looking for a fresh point of purchase into the text. With the iPod, it was remarkably easy to stay absorbed in the text. (That City of Refuge
is an absorbing book likely had something to do with it.) On the Kindle itself I had much the same sensation. Plus, whenever I switched between the two devices, thanks to some sort of magic fairy dust sent through the ether between them, each device always knew where I was in the book.
In the end, my experience reinforced what I think we all know, but are perhaps afraid to admit because it means reconciling with the change that’s going to come: it’s the content that’s important, not the container. I’m not saying that digital technology is going to wipe out printed books or bookstores altogether, but in an industry already in decline and needing very little to topple it over the edge, it is going to cause radical changes.
The good news is that I think most of them, ultimately, will be for the good. I don’t think anyone believes the Shamrock Shake limited-time-only hardcover release-and-return policy is viable. I also think books are a product that deserve and demand the chance to live beyond that three-month window that the current publishing model is tied to.
I think I know all the objections most people have to e-book platforms because I would’ve agreed with them until I actually tried them. The distribution system that’s tied to the Kindle is simply and literally killer. One of the commenters on the round where I offered my initial rant called my expectations to be able to acquire a book in less than three days at a price below list ridiculous,
and while I’ll admit that those wishes have more than a whiff of entitlement, they exist because they are the reality of the marketplace as it exists right now. People almost never pay full-price for books, particularly hardcover books, and on-demand isn’t just a service on my cable, it’s the prevailing attitude of the American consumer. We can bemoan the prevalence of this attitude all we want, but those lamentations aren’t going to save publishing. We are where we are and trying to talk book buyers out of their wishes isn’t going to help much.
Now, I’ve got all kinds of qualms about Amazon’s digital rights management policy and the potential for them to choke out the e-distribution market. I’d love to see some kind of universal distribution format that would allow someone like tourney-sponsor Powell’s to compete on equal footing in this arena, because, in reality, even with a different distribution model, we’re still going to find most of our reading via good old-fashioned word-of-mouth (even if the mouth is the Internet, as illustrated below) and a company like Powell’s that is tied into readers and offers additional value to the book selection process in ways Amazon doesn’t and can’t, like Brockman’s blog
or their staff picks
can be plenty competitive. One of the reasons I’m so exercised about this stuff is because I desperately want to sound the alarm so we can all get on the train before the whistle blows and it leaves the station with just Amazon on board.
If the bookstores we love are going to survive, they’re going to have to change to meet the new reality. I think the additional good news is that independent stores are in much better position to adapt to the technology than the big-box chains. The advantage Barnes & Noble has over most independents is the amount of inventory. With changes in distribution, this is no advantage at all. We already see Borders essentially circling the drain and Barnes & Noble suffering significant declines in sales
. We’re still going to need places that support and nurture book culture and that’s what independent stores can do in a way that Barnes & Noble can’t. Independent stores that experiment and find a niche in the changing landscape will not only survive, but thrive, as long as they don’t bury their heads in the sand and try to wish away reality.
One last anecdote to reinforce how and why I think change is going to come. Some months ago, on Jessa Crispin’s Bookslut I read a short piece
about the reissuing of Raven: The Untold Story about Jim Jones and His People
to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre. At the time, I filed this nugget away in my mental rolodex, thinking it sounded like a cool book that I should look for some time. As luck would have it, I literally tripped across it in the store about a week later and bought it, even though I knew that I had tons of reading for the ToB ahead of me because I also knew it was entirely possible, or even probable that when I did want to try to read it, I wouldn’t be able to find a copy.
Last night, for the first time since I started reading for the tournament I found myself looking for a new book and I chose Raven
. As my wife clicked away happily on her Kindle next to me (she’s reading Trevor Corson’s The Secret Life of Lobsters
), I cracked Raven
and learned that the book had been out of print for many, many years since its original publication in 1982, something that would never have happened with digitally available books. I also realized that this monster is close to two pounds with big pages and small print and I could not comfortably balance it in on my chest with one hand.
Yeah, all of us who live for books are in for changes, brother.
What doesn’t change is the current contenders for the Zombie round. Harry, Revised
doesn’t crack the top four vote-getters among the eliminated novels and so our list of potential Zombie Round resurrectees remains the same. Only two will return, but as of today the potential books are (in alphabetical order):
- The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
- Steer Toward Rock
- Unaccustomed Earth