Books in General

Stephen Colbert Was Late Night’s Most Passionate Book-Nerd

19 December 2014

From Vulture:

“It was the most warped author interview on television,” says Jonathan Karp, the publisher of Simon & Schuster’s flagship imprint. “The more stupid the question was, the more intelligent the conversation became.”

The Colbert Report ends its run today, but yesterday was its last “ordinary” show, and its last guest was, of all people, a fiction writer (Phil Klay, an Iraq veteran whose story collection, Redeployment, won this year’s National Book Award). It was a reminder, as Stephen Colbert prepared to slough off his idiot character for good, of his strange, honorable service to literature. In addition to everything else the show has accomplished since launching in 2005, it might have been TV’s most effective servant of books.

For nine years, Colbert enlisted roughly two writers a week into a bizarre form of theater, the Dick Cavett shadow-play today’s America deserves. It was intellectual combat repeated as farce — and a Trojan horse for the promotion of good books. Everyone in publishing prays that it survives Colbert’s move to CBS.

. . . .

Network shows have much higher ratings, but the authors they feature — from early morning to late night — barely make a Bookscan blip. “The caliber of author that will even get ontoLetterman or Fallon is going to be a best-seller anyway,” says another publicity head, “and these days, even the morning shows don’t do what they once did.” The Colbert Bump, on the other hand, is real, if not always spectacular. “What’s extraordinary is that even interviews that are completely absurd and barely touch on the books have this spike to them,” says Riverhead publicist Jynne Martin, who handles repeat Colbertguests Junot Díaz and Steven Johnson. She can’t say that about Good Morning America. “There’s an unbelievable trust in his instincts — $26.95 worth of trust. Hardcover books cost a lot of money.”

Link to the rest at Vulture

Americanize, Anglicise: Why Do Brits And Yanks Spell Words Differently?

16 December 2014

From i09:

“The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.” So goes the old chestnut commonly attributed to playwright George Bernard Shaw. One of those separations is in the spelling of words like color (colour), theater (theatre), and realize (realise). But how did this separation occur?

Modern English has always been a tricky language to wrangle. While it has some basis in Anglo-Saxon, English has been altered by Norman conquerors, Dutch typesetters, and orthographers who wanted to pretty up the language. And while spelling textbooks have been popular among the English upper classes for centuries, English spelling was not completely standard. In fact, the -or word ending that we know associate with American English in words like “honor,” “color,” and “labor” was preferred by some English lexicographers, who preferred to expunge the French “u,” an artifact of the Norman conquest, from the English language and return to the words’ Latin roots.

Early American colonial spelling was a bit more of a mess, with such creative spellings like “jinerll” for “general” appearing in official Hartford documents even as late as 1716. But eventually, two very important books would go a long way to standardizing English in both England and its colonies.

The first of those books is Thomas Dilworth’s A New Guide to the English Tongue, a textbook designed to teach children proper English spelling and pronunciation. The book was published in London in 1740, and then appeared in America seven years later thanks to America’s gatekeeper of the printed word, Benjamin Franklin. The speller is important in part because it was such a hit, with numerous Brits and colonists reared on Dilworth’s approach to the English language, and in part because it would provide the basis for a later American speller.

The other book is Samuel Johnson’s 1755 masterwork A Dictionary of the English Language. English language dictionaries had existed before Samuel Johnson, but mainly for obscure words. Johnson, on the other hand, created a comprehensive record of the language. If anyone wanted to know the definition or spelling of just about any word, they could simply look it up. It was a revolutionary text, one that would go unrivaled for generations.

There was a bit of a prescriptivist bent to Johnson’s massive undertaking. He felt that the English language was a mess (calling the language’s inconsistencies “a mark of weakness”) and that his dictionary could help to standardized the language. It was Johnson’s dictionary that finally codified the -our in so many British words—although some of his “u”s have since been dropped for words he spelled “horrour,” “emperour,” “mirrour,” and so forth. He also ended a number of words like “publick,” “attick,” “critick,” and “chaotick,” with a “k,” something that disappeared from English spelling within a few decades.

. . . .

 [A]fter America won its independence from England, questions of national identity arose. Some thinkers of the era actually wondered if Americans should even speak English anymore, as the language suggested the yoke of England. More radical suggestions included changing the national language to German (which roughly ten percent of the country already spoke) or Hebrew (which was taught in some New England schools).

Benjamin Franklin, meanwhile, had his own idea for the English language. Franklin proposed a major spelling reform, on that make English spelling completely phonetic. This would involve an overhaul of the alphabet, losing c, j, q, w, x, and y, and adding six new letters. The idea never caught on.

Into the linguistic fray stepped Noah Webster, lexicographer, writer, and relentless self-promoter. Webster was thoroughly Yankee; his family on both sides were American colonists several generations back and he even had an ancestor on the Mayflower. Webster’s family wasn’t particularly wealthy; his father was a farmer, but he did end up attending Yale and later joined the Connecticut bar. He developed relationships with many of America’s most prominent citizens, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, but he had a reputation for being rather obnoxious. Webster suffered from profound social anxiety, and tended to compensate for it with arrogance and bravado. Dr. Benjamin Rush was fond of telling a story about when he once greeted Webster and congratulated him for arriving in Philadelphia. Webster reportedly responded, “Sir, you may congratulate Philadelphia upon the occasion!”

Webster worked as a teacher and a lawyer, but he came to national prominence thanks to his spelling textbook. Webster had taught children with Dilworth’s speller, but found it pedagogically lacking. So, using Dilworth’s book as a starting point, Webster wrote a speller of his own. This was meant to be a thoroughly American speller. While Dilworth’s speller included the names and pronunciations of English towns, Webster’s included prominent American cities, with a special emphasis on his native Connecticut.

. . . .

Webster wasn’t a fan of Benjamin Franklin’s new alphabet scheme, but he did eventually warm to the idea of spelling reform. He wrote essays advocating for a more streamlined orthography, one that would steer American English in a new direction. He imagined that, one day American would be as distinct from British English “as the modern Dutch, Danish, and Swedish are from the German, or from one another.” And his 1806 A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language proposed such an orthography. Some of the spellings in that dictionary are familiar to modern readers—”jail” for “gaol,” “plowed” for “ploughed,” “humor” for “humour.” Others seem a bit odd today, like “speek” for “speak,” “determin” for “determine,” “bred” for “bread,” “bilt” for “built,” and “groop” for “group.” The dictionary was a financial and critical failure, and Webster was thoroughly ridiculed for what many commentators saw as prescriptivism gone mad.

It would be another 27 years before Webster put out another dictionary, his far more comprehensive An American Dictionary of the English Language. Although by this point, the older (and perhaps wiser) Webster had abandoned some his more extreme spellings, this volume contained many of the spellings we associate with modern American English. Words like “theatre” and “centre” became “theater” and “center.” “Masque” became “mask” and “offence” was now “offense.” And words like “colour,” “favourite,” and “mould” each lost their “u” (in part because Webster was staunchly anti-French).

. . . .

Webster’s brand of spelling worked its way into American homes thanks to George and Charles Merriam. After Webster’s death, the Merriams obtained the rights to Webster’s American Dictionary as well as his spellers. They hired a team of scholars to revise Webster’s book and weed out some of his more suspect etymologies. Instead of a $20 two-volume work, the Merriams published the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a single $6 volume. It was still pricey, but now affordable to middle-class Americans. The Merriams also happened to be master marketers, getting thousands of copies of their new dictionary into American public schools.

British spelling in America did not go out quietly, however. In 1856, the United States Democratic Review ran a series of pieces in which both supporters and critics of the late Noah Webster debated proper American orthography. Questions of -re vs. -er and -our vs. -or raged through the pages. Interestingly, Joseph Worcester, author of a rival dictionary, argued for Webster’s usage simply because it was the prevailing usage in the United States. He conceded that Webster’s spelling had won out.

. . . .

 The gaps between American and British English could have yawned much wider if President Theodore Roosevelt’s order to reform American spelling had taken hold. Following the lead of the Simplified Spelling Board, Roosevelt ordered the Public Printer in 1906 to alter the spelling of 300 different words. The words included many words that ended in -ed, which would now end in -t—so that “mixed” became “mixt,” “pressed” became “prest,” “possessed” became “possest” and so on. And the “-ugh” was dropped for words like “although” (“altho”), “though” (“tho”), and “thorough” (“thoro”).

Link to the rest at i09

PG is grateful that American spelling did not diverge so much that British books, newspapers and magazines became unreadable for Americans. For him, the differences are just enough to add some spice to the experience of reading books by the British.

Scraped Knees and Boyish Hair: The Tomboy in Literature

14 December 2014

From BookRiot:

I was always drawn to the tomboys in fiction, girls with cropped hair, grass-stained pants, and short tempers. The early books I fed myself on were Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Nancy Drew. Later I idolized Turtle Wexler, the shin-kicking, stock-obsessed 13 year-old in Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, and Harper Lee’s Scout Finch and Carson McCullers’ Mick Kelly, the young protagonist of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. While reading some of these books to my daughter, I was immediately struck by the gravitational pull these characters had on me as a child, and the way they influenced me as both a woman and a writer.

Little Women came first, as a gorgeous volume underneath the Christmas tree. I knew it was special, the kind of book you held onto for the rest of your life, and I secreted it away, stashing it in a wooden cabinet close to my bed. I read and re-read it, focusing on the sections about Jo and her precious notebooks full of writing, and the moment when she boldly decides to cut off her hair. The reader can’t help but be drawn to Jo; she’s a woman of action, ideals, and endearing flaws. I could feel her potential as a human being—if only the world would get out of her way.

Jo March, during a particularly grumpy monologue, cries, “It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys’ games and work and manners! I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy; and it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with papa, and I can only stay at home and knit, like a poky old woman!”  To be fair, I don’t aspire to fight, and I love knitting and other traditionally feminine, poky pursuits: cooking, gardening, antiquing. I don’t so much want to be a boy as I want to be free from expectations about traditional femininity and the messages society throws my way: clean your house, tend your children while your husband pursues his dreams, be gentle and beautiful, don’t age. I don’t think Jo resents being a girl as much as being treated like one; she resents her lack of agency, the sense of helplessness that permeates her work and home life.

. . . .

To me, the “tomboy” has enviable mobility, the option of moving between gendered activities, and the permission to be honest about her wants and desires. Jo wants to write and earn money, but still likes a good party and gossiping with her sisters. Nancy Drew and her best friend George go dancing with their boyfriends, but they also take physical risks, chasing “prowlers” down dark streets and inside haunted mansions, scaling fences, sailing boats, taking Nancy’s blue convertible on a high-speed chase. (Okay, maybe a medium-speed chase.) There is, I believe, evidence of the animus in tomboyish characters in fiction, the unconscious masculine personality asserting itself. I sensed this early on, and admired it, later recognizing a desire to honor it in my characters and in myself.

It’s hard to talk about tomboys without bringing up the contemporary issue of female protagonists and likeability, a conversation I usually find reductive. I’m not a reader who needs to “like” a protagonist—what I’m more drawn to as an adult reader is complexity, awareness, and emotional honesty, energy on the page. When I look back to how my earliest sensibilities as a reader were constructed, I inevitably think of the tomboys I loved. I train my eye on the complex, dream-pursuing woman, not the chit.

Link to the rest at BookRiot

Iceland’s Jólabókaflóð: The Christmas Book Flood

14 December 2014

From Publshing Perspectives:

Reykjavík may have just 230,000 people, but on a night in November there were no less than a half-dozen book launches taking place on the same night. Both the mayor of the city and the President of Iceland showed up.

. . . .

Iceland is said to produce the most books per capita anywhere in the world. The average print run here is 2,000 copies for a commercial title, with as much as 60-70% of all books being sold during the Christmas season. Publishers produce a holiday book catalog that goes to every home in the country and giving books for the holidays is a tradition that dates back to the period of austerity following World War II when imports were severely limited. Books were one gift that you could give that wouldn’t break the bank.

. . . .

“What can I say,” said one friend, “we’re Icelandic, we were raised on the Sagas, we like stuff to happen in our books…action.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

25 Genre Novels That Should be Classics

13 December 2014

From Flavorwire:

There’s been a lot of talk about genre in the air recently (well, really, when isn’t there?) — what it means, whether it’s changed, whether it’s even useful or important anymore. But no matter what is said, there’s still that lingering stigma that keeps worthy works of genre (for clarity, we’re mostly talking fantasy and science fiction, with a little historical fiction, mystery and crime thrown in for good measure) from ascending to full classic status: being taught in high schools, appearing on all-time best-book lists, etc. Some genre novels have already crossed the border into pure classic territory — Brave New World, Slaughterhouse-Fiveand 1984 are all genre and established classics by any measuring stick,The Lord of the Rings is so ubiquitous and grand that it’s forced itself into the canon, and let’s not forget that Wuthering Heights is a ghost story, and so, of course, is Beloved. To add to that list, here are 25 genre novels that should be considered classics.

. . . .

Embassytown, China Miéville

One of the leaders of the Weird Fiction movement, you can always count on Miéville for some strange brilliance. This novel, which won the 2012 Locus Award for best Science Fiction novel of the year, is concerned, among other things with language itself: the main character, who returns home after many years, is a living simile in a tongue she no longer speaks. Not surprising, since it takes two mouths. In any event, things soon begin to unravel, as things often do, and the result is a gem of a novel in any language.

. . . .

The Island of Doctor Moreau, H.G. Wells

Wells is probably best known for The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds — classics in their own right. But to my mind, this bizarre book is his greatest achievement, dubbed by Borges an “atrocious miracle,” and impossible to scrub from one’s mind.

. . . .

The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey

Tey’s 1951 novel is widely praised as one of the best crime novels of all time, but has never really crossed over into genre-blind classic. A shame, because it incorporates history, mystery, crime, and the way we construct the truth into a brilliant, important work.

. . . .

Duplex, Kathryn Davis

Davis’s slim novel is a mega-bonkers fantasy that uncorks what it’s like to be a young girl, and what it’s like to grow up from that girlhood, at the same time as it investigates robots and sorcerers without souls. How does she do it? She must be a sorceress herself. An ensouled one, of course. Maybe doubly so.

Link to the rest at Flavorwire

Somewhere West of Laramie

12 December 2014


Centuries ago, PG worked for a large advertising agency. During that time he was exposed to the art of writing advertising copy. The copy in many advertisements is sadly lacking in any artistic merit, but, sometimes art makes it past the agency suits and through the client’s marketing department to actually appear in public.

It helps if the copywriter is also the client.

Edward S. “Ned” Jordan founded the Jordan Motor Car Company in 1916. He also wrote the advertisements, which were sometimes more original than the cars themselves.

In 1923, Ned Jordan was on a cross-country train trip on the Union Pacific Railroad. As the train sped across Wyoming, he looked out the window and saw a stunningly pretty young woman on a horse, riding alongside the tracks as though racing the train, smiling and waving and looking like she was having the time of her life. Shortly thereafter, someone on the train remarked that they were “somewhere west of Laramie,” and Ned Jordan had a flash of inspiration. He wrote the phrase “somewhere west of Laramie” on the back of an envelope.

The following classic advertisement was the product of that rail trip.




Here’s copy from another Jordan-authored advertisement:

Somewhere far beyond the place where man and motors race through canyons of the town – there lies the Port of Missing Men.

It may be in the valley of our dreams of youth, or the heights of future happy days.

Go there in November when logs are blazing in the grate. Go there in a Jordan Playboy if you love the spirit of youth.

Escape the drab of dull winter’s coming – leave the roar of city streets and spend an hour in Eldorado.

The Jordan Motor Car Company survived the stock market crash of 1929, but succumbed to the Great Depression in 1931.

PG’s always had a weakness for the now-archaic words of early twentieth-century advertising.

Scant Clues to a Secret Identity

10 December 2014

From The New York Times:

The Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s gripping novels about the rich and complex lives of women — as mothers, daughters, wives, writers — have won her a devoted cult following. After several years of growing critical favor, her readership reached new levels this fall with the release of “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” the third volume in her series of Naples novels, which recount the lifelong friendship of two women.

In her most extensive interview in years, Ms. Ferrante, who publishes under a pseudonym and has never revealed her identity, addressed her choice of anonymity — or “absence,” as she called it. In an interview conducted by email and through her publisher, she disputed the oft-circulated notion that she might be a man. “My identity, my sex, are found in my writing,” Ms. Ferrante wrote in Italian in response to written questions conveyed by her longtime Italian publisher, Sandra Ozzola Ferri, who said the writer had declined to grant an in-person interview.

. . . .
The few things known about the author who signs her work Elena Ferrante come from what she has revealed in written interviews. She says she was born in Naples, studied classics, admires the novelist Elsa Morante and has a day job, which she has said “is not writing.” “I discovered as a girl that I liked telling stories,” she said in her interview with The New York Times, adding that she started writing at age 13 and made it a habit in her 20s.

Traditional in structure and sometimes veering into potboiler territory, the Naples novels follow the friendship of two women, Elena and Lila, from their impoverished childhoods in postwar Naples well into the women’s 60s. Elena escapes the city, attends college and becomes a writer, while Lila, whom Elena has always envied for her access to true feelings, stays behind and works at menial jobs, though she never loses her intellectual brilliance.

. . . .

“All my books derive their truth from my experience,” she wrote, but Elena and Lila, “are the ones that best capture me.” Not in their personalities and in the plot, but “in the movement that characterizes their relationship, in the self-discipline of the one that is continuously and brusquely shattered when it runs up against the disorderly inspiration of the other.”

Ms. Ferrante said she began the series six years ago. “I thought I could manage in 100, 150 pages,” she said, but the writing “unearthed memories of people and places from my childhood — stories, experiences, fantasies — so much so that the story went on for many years.” The book was conceived as a whole and divided into four parts after she realized the material wouldn’t fit in one book, she said.

. . . .

In all her books, the complexities and anxieties of being a mother are central themes. “Sometimes I think I haven’t written about anything else,” she said, calling motherhood “both thrilling and threatening.”

“It’s an experience close to awe, that ancient feeling that mortals had when they found themselves facing a god, the same feeling that Mary must have felt, immersed in her reading, when the angel appeared,” she said.

. . . .

Ms. Ferrante has always said she wants readers to focus on her work, not on her. “I didn’t choose anonymity. The books are signed,” she wrote. “Instead, I chose absence. More than 20 years ago, I felt the burden of exposing myself in public, I wanted to detach myself from the finished story; I wanted the books to assert themselves without my patronage.”

Ms. Ozzola refuted the idea that in image-obsessed Italy, Ms. Ferrante’s anonymity was a clever public relations move. “Not to have an author means she doesn’t go on TV, doesn’t go to festivals, doesn’t collect prizes, so you can’t enter her in them,” Ms. Ozzola said. “What kind of marketing strategy is that?”

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Here’s a link to Elena Ferrante’s books

What subgenre needs more books?

9 December 2014

From Dear Author:

If there’s one subgenre that I’d love to see more books published in it would be Westerns. I enjoy stories about enterprising women and the niches they carved out for themselves. I like the world weary, quiet lawmen. I like dust, the horses, the blackberry pies. It could be because I grew up reading Louis L’Amour books but I love a good Western and there just aren’t enough of them these days.

When I meet with industry folk, we always talk about what we think the next hit trend will be. New Adult is still popular, but it’s not the reader kryptonite that it once was. (And due to the glut of books that can be published to meet new trends, the cycle for trends to rise and fall is super accelerated) I have some ideas based on underserved subgenres and I think Westerns could be one.

I also think historicals could be another. So many big name historical authors are migrating toward contemporaries these days and their absence (even if it is only temporary) could open the door for new voices within the genre.

Link to the rest at Dear Author

Lessons from Dunning-Kruger

8 December 2014

From NeuroLogica Blog:


In 1999 psychologist David Dunning and his graduate student Justin Kruger published a paper in which they describe what has come to be known (appropriately) as the Dunning-Kruger effect.  In a recent article discussing his now famous paper, Dunning summarizes the effect as:

“…incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are,”

He further explains:

“What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

[T]he most competent individuals tend to underestimate their relative ability a little, but for most people (the bottom 75%) they increasingly overestimate their ability, and everyone thinks they are above average. I sometimes hear the effect incorrectly described as, “the more incompetent you are, the more knowledgeable you think you are.” As you can see, self-estimates do decrease with decreasing knowledge, but the gap between performance and self-assessment increase as you decrease in performance.

. . . .

The core of the effect, however, seems to be what Dunning describes – ignorance carries with it the inability to accurately assess one’s own ignorance. Dunning also points out something that rings true to this veteran skeptic:

An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.

This accurately describes  the people I confront daily with unscientific or unsupported beliefs.

. . . .

The Dunning-Kruger effect is not just a curiosity of psychology, it touches on a critical aspect of the default mode of human thought, and a major flaw in our thinking. It also applies to everyone – we are all at various places on that curve with respect to different areas of knowledge. You may be an expert in some things, and competent in others, but will also be toward the bottom of the curve in some areas of knowledge.

Admit it – probably up to this point in this article you were imagining yourself in the upper half of that curve, and inwardly smirking at the poor rubes in the bottom half. But we are all in the bottom half some of the time. The Dunning-Kruger effect does not just apply to other people – it applies to everyone.

Link to the rest at NeuroLogica Blog and thanks to Barb, who believes this explains some reviewers, for the tip.

When PG read this article, he immediately thought of some who are experts in various areas of traditional publishing of paper books who believe they are also experts on self-publishing of ebooks.

Prison book ban ruled unlawful

8 December 2014

From The Bookseller:

The High Court has deemed the government’s ban on sending books to prisoners unlawful.

Mr Justice Collins today (5th December) declared the ban unlawful saying he could see “no good reason” for the rule, “in the light of the importance of books for prisoners.”

New measures were brought in in November last year in England and Wales, preventing prisoners receiving parcels unless under “exceptional circumstances”.

. . . .

Referring to prisoners’ earning privileges, Justice Collins added: “In the light of the statement made about the importance of books… to refer to them as a privilege is strange.”

The Publishers Association’s chief executive Richard Mollet called the ruling “a victory for common sense, dignity and decency”.  He said: “Reading can play a huge part in rehabilitation and to deny this most basic of rights and enjoyments to prisoners always appeared daft and unnecessarily vindictive. Let us hope that the Ministry of Justice follows the Court’s ruling without further quibble and allow prisoners to receive and engage with books.”

. . . .

The book ban was challenged by a female inmate known as BGJ, who has since been revealed as Barbara Goron-Jones, a life-sentence prisoner at Send Jail in Surrey.

BBC “Newsnight” political editor Emily Maitlis reported that BGJ: “is an epilepsy sufferer, very highly qualified and she has said her life is in despair without access to these books, which have really been taking her through this life sentence that she will serve”.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

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