Books in General

A Bookseller’s Elegy

21 July 2017

From The Millions:

“Do you have the book Hillbilly Elegy?”

“Yeah, we should have a copy on the front table; let me grab one for you.”

“Is it any good?”

“…It’s sold really well.”

“I hear it’s so powerful and important, especially now, since, well, you know…”

Working at an independent bookstore in the Greater Boston area, I find myself having some variation of this conversation a few times a week. To be fair, bookselling, like any retail or service job, comes with its fair share of repetitions. For example, the sales pitch for our loyalty program is so ingrained in me that it comes pouring out in a breathless flurry of words. Such things are largely innocuous, a necessary (if not occasionally tedious) part of the job. But when it comes to the above conversation concerning J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir, there is something a bit more personal at stake, viz. my moral objection to the book that has become, for conservatives and liberals alike, a means of understanding the rise of “Trumpism.” And while it’s easy enough to take this moral high ground, it comes into direct conflict with that old chestnut about the customer always being right, to which even the most fiercely independent of bookstores largely adhere.

I don’t intend to review Elegy here. More capable pieces have already been written about the book’s “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” message, its condemnation of a supposed culture of poverty, its dismissal of the working class’s material reality as a determining factor in their lives, and its callous claim that the welfare state only reinforces a cycle of dependency.

. . . .

Despite the immeasurable good work independent bookstores and their staff do—from promoting children’s literacy to hosting readings and book clubs to being a vital part of local economies, and more—I’d hazard that the primary goal is always going to be customer satisfaction. So what can you do when a customer wants a book that you not only find objectionable but also believe actually dangerous in the lessons it portends amidst such a politically precarious time? If it helps, swap Elegy for any book that you find particularly insidious, whether it’s Atlas Shrugged, The Communist Manifesto, or The Bible. The question remains: without stooping to the level of crazed book-burning, does the bookseller’s role ever evolve past the capitalist exchange of money for paper and pulp? And are there meaningful ways to resist the continued sales of disastrous books?

Link to the rest at The Millions and thanks to Joni for the tip.

PG wonders what percentage of bookstore staff focus their working energies on judging their customers.

PG also wonders if any of the judgmental bookstore staff realize that quite a few of their customers sense they are being judged by some twerp who is supposed to be helping them have an enjoyable discovery and purchasing experience.

And decide they prefer a judgment-free zone like Amazon over meatspace retail with a side of attitude.



Agatha Christie’s Fiery Letters Offer New Glimpse Into the Queen of Crime

21 July 2017

From Smithsonian Magazine:

In April of 1947, Agatha Christie penned a letter to her publisher Billy Collins about the cover for her forthcoming novel, The Labours of Hercules. An illustration of a Pekingese dog adorned the book’s jacket and, to put it mildly, Christie was not pleased.

“The wrapper design for Hercules has occasioned the most ribald and obscene remarks and suggestions from my family,” Christie quipped, according to Danuta Kean of the Guardian. “All I can say is – Try again!!”

This fiery note, along with other letters from the private correspondence between Christie and Collins, will be displayed starting today at the Theakston Old Peculier crime writing festival in Harrogate, England. The exhibition, titled “Agatha Christie and Collins: Rare Images and Documents from Her Life and Publishing Career,” will run until Sunday as part of a yearlong celebration marking the 200th anniversary of HarperCollins, Christie’s longtime publisher. Her letters—which are by turns funny, caustic, and vulnerable—offer a never-before-seen glimpse into the creative processes of the best-selling fiction author of all time. (“[O]utsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare” HarperCollins notes.)

. . . .

Wieman explains Christie’s books were all published right around Christmas time and so it became a tradition among her fans to give and receive the new Agatha Christie novel for the holiday.

. . . .

In 1967, for instance, Christie expressed her “fury” after being informed that without her knowledge, one of her books had been released early. “It’s usually [available] in November and then it comes in very handy for sending to friends at Xmas time – but one can hardly send it as that now?” she wrote, according to Kean. “I do think it’s treating your authors disgracefully.”

Link to the rest at Smithsonian Magazine


England Unveils New 10-Pound Note Featuring Jane Austen

20 July 2017

From The Telegraph:

The new, polymer £10 note is being unveiled by Bank of England governor Mark Carney on Tuesday. This marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen, who features on the new bank note.

Austen will be the only woman – apart from the Queen – to be featured on an English bank note, following the withdrawal of the old £5 notes, which featured Elizabeth Fry, in May. Fry was replaced with a picture of Winston Churchill.

. . . .

The note has already attracted some criticism due to the fact that Austen’s portrait appears to be “airbrushed”. It shows her noticeably prettier and less drawn than she appears in the only contemporary painting of her which exists (and is on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London.)

As well as Austen’s portrait, the tenner will feature a quote from Pride and Prejudice when Miss Bingley exclaims: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment but reading!”

. . . .

Austen’s presence on the new £10 note was one of the first announcements made by Mr Carney after he took up his position as governor of the Bank of England.

He said: “Jane Austen certainly merits a place in the select group of historical figures to appear on our banknotes.

“Her novels have an enduring and universal appeal, and she is recognised as one of the greatest writers in English literature.

“As Austen joins Adam Smith, Boulton and Watt, and… Churchill, our notes will celebrate a diverse range of individuals who have contributed in a wide range of fields.”

Link to the rest at The Telegraph


PG also saw a report that some Jane Austen fans are upset about the quote because the line is spoken by a deceitful character, Caroline Bingley – who has no interest in books and is trying to impress Mr Darcy.


E-books sales to drop as bookshelf resurgence sparks ‘shelfie’ craze

20 July 2017

From The Telegraph:

Bookshelves are making a comeback in living rooms as a “shelfie” interior design craze is sweeping the UK.

Brit’s increasing desire to show off their personality and intellect through their book collections is boosting book sales, but will see sales of e-books fall for the first time ever, consumer analysts have predicted.

According to Mintel sales of physical books are forecast to rise by 6 per cent this year to £1.7 billion while sales of e-books are predicted to fall by 1 per cent to £337 million in 2017.

Experts said consumers’ growing tendency to invest in physical books was partly down to a trend for bookshelves, which they believe make them look more interesting to dinner party guests and on social media.

Over the next five years sales of print books are forecast to grow by 25 per cent to reach £2.1 billion, Mintel said, while e-books will see only marginal year-on-year increases to reach £383 million in 2022.

. . . .

Award-winning interior designer Russell Whitehead told the Daily Telegraph: ” If you’re going to enjoy a good book its nice to have the physical thing and we are definitely seeing an increase in requests for bookshelves.

“Bookmakers are cottoning onto this trend and these days they are putting more effort into making books look beautiful. We are also seeing the rise of the social media ‘shelfie’ as proud collectors are posting pictures of their book collections on Instagram.”

Link to the rest at The Telegraph

PG says don’t forget the Books by the Foot solution to the shelfie challenge.


In a world of peak attention, how can books survive?

20 July 2017

From the Bookseller:

What happens when we run out of time?

This might sound like a philosophical question, but with the explosion in content and entertainment offerings such as social media and freemium games, we are rapidly approaching a state of peak attention. I define peak attention as the moment where the competition for our attention reaches a saturated point – when there is no more time to spare and something else must miss out.

As the old saying goes; time is the ultimate finite resource. Increasingly, ours is being spent online.

Herbert Simon first coined the term ‘attention economy’ way back in 1971. His simple conclusion was that an explosion of information must lead to a scarcity of what it consumes, our attention. From his office, it’s like he foresaw the entire rise of social media with its endless content feeds. We now collectively spend more than 10bn hours a week on the main social platforms, and it is rising fast. The total attention equation is different still. Between online and offline media platforms, the average American spends one more hour per day than they did just two years ago – almost 11 hours a day in total.

Simultaneously, from 2005 to 2015, the average amount of time Americans spent reading for personal interest on weekend days and holidays fell by six minutes to 21 minutes per day and 17 minutes on normal work days – a 22% decrease in a decade.

. . . .

I believe the advent of the data feedback loop from users, now a reality with all digital media, will prove the game changer. Software can now learn on its own, powered by unprecedented computational power and vast data sets of real human behaviour. Imagine a book that gets better and better suited to its audience every time it is read, gradually personalising to fit each person’s preferred narrative direction.

These new self-learning systems will inevitably get very good at hooking us in – and keeping us there.

. . . .

Rather than simply living side by side in harmony, there is a compounding effect on the competition for attention across all the media we consume. Every new entertainment offering and attention-consuming activity essentially raises the bar for all the incumbent things people used to spend time on. We have entered a state of hyper-competition. If everyone increasingly fights for the same attention pool, something must inevitably lose out. And that’s going to be books, if Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Netflix keep winning.

The true structural issue here is that all services and products compete for the same 24 hours.

Link to the rest at the Bookseller


My Autism Allows Me to See the World in a Different Way

18 July 2017

From Time:

Naoki Higashida is the Japanese author of  The Reason I Jump and now Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8. Here, he describes what it’s like to be a person with nonverbal autism.

You mostly cannot express your thoughts through speaking, but you’ve published more than 20 books. How does your writing process work?

My basic methods of communication are my letter board and computer. The letter-board method involves a card with the alphabet arranged in the QWERTY format. I point to individual letters and “voice” the letters as I touch them. I can also type on a computer keyboard, but I get stuck on or obsessed about certain letters. Or sometimes I’ll type a word over and over. I can’t converse well, but this doesn’t mean I don’t think. It’s just that when I try to speak, the words that come to mind disappear. I wonder if this isn’t similar to the sensation we all have of forgetting something? Even if a person with severe autism learns to use a computer, it doesn’t mean he or she will be able to express in writing all the emotions they have been unable to verbalize. Expressing what’s inside the heart and mind of my autistic self will always be problematic, I think.

. . . .

What do neurotypical people agonize over too much?

Human relations. Not wanting to be left out of the group, or wanting to be better than others — this kind of mentality makes relations between people way more fraught than necessary. Sometimes I wonder if the human intellect can nudge us backward.

Link to the rest at Time



18 July 2017

Mrs. PG and PG are pleased to have a group of grandchildren visiting with them.

Here’s one of them.



PG will continue to blog when things are (relatively) calm around Casa PG, but the blogging schedule will vary from spill to spill.


Learn a Language, but Not a Human One

17 July 2017

From The Wall Street Journal:

Donald Trump, whose wife speaks five languages, just wrapped up a pair of trips to Europe during which he spoke only English. Good for him. If Mr. Trump studied a language in college or high school, as most of us were required to, it was a complete waste of his time. I took five years of French and can’t even talk to a French poodle.

Maybe there’s a better way for students to spend their time. Last month Apple CEO Tim Cook urged the president: “Coding should be a requirement in every public school.” I propose we do a swap.

Why do American schools still require foreign languages? Translating at the United Nations is not a growth industry. In the 1960s and ’70s everyone suggested studying German, as most scientific papers were in that language. Or at least that’s what they told me. In the ’80s it was Japanese, since they ruled manufacturing and would soon rule computers. In the ’90s a fountain of wealth was supposed to spout from post-Communist Moscow, so we all needed to learn Russian. Now parents elbow each other getting their children into immersive Mandarin programs starting in kindergarten.

Don’t they know that the Tower of Babel has been torn down? On your average smartphone, apps like Google Translate can do real-time voice translation. No one ever has to say worthless phrases like la plume de ma tante anymore. The app Waygo lets you point your phone at signs in Chinese, Japanese or Korean and get translations in English. Sometime in the next few years you’ll be able to buy a Bluetooth-based universal translator for your ear.

Yet students still need to take at least two years of foreign-language classes in high school to attend most four-year colleges. Three if they want to impress the admissions officer. Four if they’re masochists. Then they need to show language competency to graduate most liberal-arts programs.

. . . .

The U.S. is falling behind. In 2014 England made computing a part of its national primary curriculum. Estonia had already started coding in its schools as early as first grade. The Netherlands, Belgium and Finland also have national programs.

Maybe the U.S. can start the ball rolling by requiring colleges and high schools to allow computer languages to count as foreign languages. A handful of high schools already teach the Java computer language using a free tool called BlueJ. Nonprofit exposes students to a visual programming language called Blockly. To compete in this dog-eat-dog world, America should offer Python and Ruby on Rails instead of French and Spanish.

Knowledge is good. Great literature reshuffles the mind. Tough trigonometry problems provide puzzles for the brain. Yet there is no better challenge than writing code that teaches a machine to do exactly what you want.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

PG studied some Latin both before and during college and enjoyed it. He thinks the experience made him more deft with English. If science manages to reanimate a very old Roman, PG is prepared.

In ages past, PG also wrote a computer program – for divorce lawyers. He called it Splitsville. It sold well among those in its small target market.

PG has to admit he liked the Splitsville experience more than Latin. The exercise of writing the program increased his fluency in the language spoken and written by divorce lawyers and the syntax and structure of their legal docouments.

However, the arcane document assembly language/system in which Splitsville was written has long since disappeared, which raises another issue.

The fundamental manner of structuring knowledge and breaking it down into a form perceptible to a computer is a skill that lurks somewhere in PG’s shrinking brain, but he would have to learn another computer language to write a program for divorce lawyers today. That task is probably not as difficult as Latin, but it’s more than a Diet Coke-fueled afternoon.

When PG was in college, his computer science friends were quite skilled in Fortran. Other college friends were fluent in German.

As far as PG knows, German has not become obsolete and is still in regular use. Fortran, not so much.

PG is not opposed to students learning to program in current computer languages and skipping French, but is skeptical about the idea that Java expertise learned in high school will benefit them through very much of their occupational lives.

But he could be wrong.


Thank Sherlock Holmes for the Phrase ‘Smoking Gun’

13 July 2017


The evidence is irrefutable. The headlines declare a “smoking gun” has been found. But how did this dramatic image of a phrase become synonymous in everyday speech with conclusive proof? Fittingly, the origins lie with one of the world’s most famous fictional detectives, and of course, a recently fired pistol.

The 1893 Arthur Conan Doyle short story “The Adventure of the ‘Gloria Scott'” depicts a young Sherlock Holmes solving his first professional case. Holmes was asked by a college friend to decipher a mysterious letter that had caused his father to drop dead. It turned out to be blackmail related to a mutiny that the father had organized on a prison ship taking him to Australia long ago. In the story’s climactic flashback to the event, the father explains the mutineers were forced to quickly massacre the crew when their stash of guns was discovered by the ship’s doctor. After shooting several guards, they moved to seize control of the ship:

 “[W]e rushed on into the captain’s cabin, but as we pushed open the door there was an explosion from within, and there he lay wit’ his brains smeared over the chart of the Atlantic which was pinned upon the table, while the chaplain stood with a smoking pistol in his hand at his elbow.”

“A good copy editor would have fixed Doyle’s awkward ‘in his hand at his elbow,’ and Sir Arthur chose pistol rather than gun,” wrote the late William Safire in his  “On Language” column for the New York Times Magazine in 2003. Nevertheless, those quibbles aside, he identifies Doyle’s use of the phrase as “the start of the cliché that grips us today.”

Link to the rest at


When the New Installment Betrays You

13 July 2017

From BookRiot:

The Scene: You finally have the opportunity to sit down with the long awaited second (or fifth or eleventh) installment in a series you’ve previously enjoyed immensely. You crack, or download, this work for which you have been longing or, at the very least, checking Amazon every five minutes.

You begin. You continue. You finish.

And you sit there, blinking, perhaps chewing on your lip or cracking your knuckles, attempting to process one, single, horrible fact.

That book you were so excited for? It… it just wasn’t that good.

You’re disappointed. Irked, perhaps even a bit angry. Your hopes are dashed, your enthusiasm quashed!

Look, we can all pretend we don’t take such let downs seriously or personally, but as much as we love books? It is personal. We, all of us, hold our reading time, however much we may have, precious. I feel genuine anger, even rage (depending on how invested I am), when I’m wishing and hoping and waiting and then I’m sent crashing back to earth with nothing to show for it but four or five hours I could have spent reading something else.

. . . .

There are many reasons a reader may find herself disappointed as a series progresses. Sometimes, it may be because so much time has elapsed between the volume in your hands and the previous one, important details are lost to the tens or hundreds or thousands of books you’ve read since, the threads tangled or dropped.

. . . .

It all depends on how invested you are in the characters and story, if you enjoyed what came before enough to delve a second time, if you have the time, the inclination, and the fortitude to immerse again (this is a conundrum I have heard expounded upon by many a Game of Thrones fan, my husband included. He’d like to finish but simply doesn’t have the hours required to reacquaint himself with thousands of pages).

Link to the rest at BookRiot

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