Mathematics of Brutality

From The Paris Review:

“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery,” goes Mao’s famous dictum. “A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence in which one class overthrows another.” The aftereffects of this kind of violence on a nation’s citizens is the subject of the South African writer C. A. Davids’s new novel How to Be a Revolutionary, out from Verso this month. In chapters that crisscross between present-day Shanghai, apartheid-era Cape Town, Beijing during the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests, and a series of McCarthy-era letters from Langston Hughes to a South African friend, Davids follows the friendship of Beth, a South African diplomat, and Zhao, a Chinese writer, as they come to terms with the moments of betrayal, naivete, and political cowardice in both of their pasts.

But history, like revolutions, is complicated, and Davids is sensitive in her portrayal of the impossible choices that ordinary people face during moments of acute political crisis. “Do not forget,” writes Zhao in a manuscript that will appear on Beth’s doorstep early in the book, “that there exists a mathematics of brutality where the amount of blood spilled is inversely proportional to emotional resonance, so that after the first viewing of an act of inhumanity one begins to grow numb somewhere inside one’s head and heart.” Writing isn’t a revolution—but it is a way of recording one’s humanity. 

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Stalin’s Library

From The Wall Street Journal:

Edward Gibbon sits proudly upon my bookshelf. A set of volumes that I own, neatly stacked, comprises his “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” What do you make of me because it is there? The set might indicate that I am a classicist, a scholar. It could signal my ambition—or my vanity. Perhaps it marks me as an anachronism: In this impatient, up-to-the-second moment, I display something written almost 250 years ago about a subject that is itself far older. While you form your judgment, let me divulge a secret. I have not read to the end of the famous series. Somewhere between Julian’s residence at Antioch and the revolt of Procopius, I lost the thread and laid Gibbon aside.

A famous reader who is the subject of a fascinating new study would have sniffed me out. Joseph Stalin went into the libraries of Communist Party officials to see if their books had truly been read or merely served to decorate the room. Stalin prized his own books and used bookmarks rather than dog-earing a page, good man. Yet his literary hygiene was not above reproach. One lender complained that Stalin smudged the pages of books with greasy fingerprints. As the party’s general secretary, he sometimes disregarded due dates. After he died in 1953, many of the volumes he had borrowed from the Lenin Library were quietly returned, the late fees unpaid.

Why should this matter of a cruel tyrant responsible for the deaths of millions of people? Geoffrey Roberts, a professor emeritus of history at University College Cork in Ireland, notes in Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books that Stalin kept no diary and wrote no memoirs. Therefore his personal library, which he carefully maintained and treasured, offers a unique window into his thoughts. “Through an examination of these books,” Mr. Roberts writes, “it is possible to build a composite, nuanced picture of the reading life of the twentieth century’s most self-consciously intellectual dictator.”

That is a complex claim. Mr. Roberts doesn’t assert that Stalin’s books or the marks he made in them hold the key to his psyche. And the word “intellectual” will raise an eyebrow—the man was as coarse as smashed rocks—although “self-consciously” is an essential qualifier. Stalin wasn’t a gifted rhetorician or purveyor of original ideas like his contemporaries Lenin and Trotsky, yet he lived in their highbrow shadow. Mr. Roberts writes that “complexity, depth and subtlety” were not his strengths. Instead, his “intellectual hallmark was that of a brilliant simplifier, clarifier and popularizer.” The American diplomat Averell Harriman observed that Stalin possessed “an enormous ability to absorb detail.” He came to meetings “extremely well-informed.”

. . . .

Books were his secret weapon. During World War II, Stalin read widely on topics like military strategy, artillery and field tactics. At other times, he devoured volumes on history and Marxism. He had always been a reader, Mr. Roberts says. As a boy, Stalin was a bookworm; in the seminary, he was censured for reading forbidden novels on the chapel stairs. His daughter, Svetlana, said that in his Kremlin apartment there was scarcely room for art on the walls because they were lined with encyclopedias, textbooks and pamphlets, many well-thumbed. Stalin often asked others what they were reading and was known to interrupt meetings by taking down a volume of Lenin’s to “have a look at what Vladimir Ilyich has to say.”

At the time of his death, Mr. Roberts estimates, Stalin’s personal library ran to approximately 25,000 books, pamphlets and periodicals. Roughly 11,000 were classics of Russian and world literature by authors like Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Hugo and Shakespeare. The remainder were nonfiction titles in Marxism, history, economics and other fields. Lenin was far and away the most represented author, at nearly 250 publications—there were also scores of works by Bukharin, Trotsky and Engels. Stalin had his own ex-libris stamp and classification system. The centerpiece of his Moscow residence was its library, although he preferred to store his collection off-site and have an assistant bring him reading material upon request.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Amazon is closing Westland, the Indian publishing company it acquired in 2016. What will happen to its catalogue and authors?

From The New Publishing Standard:

Amazon’s latest triumph of hope over experience comes to an end with the slow realisation that the India publishing industry, even if you own the largest digital platform in the world and have bought a successful home-grown publishing house with some of the country’s biggest author brands, is not a get rich quick scheme.

India has long been a triumph of hope over experience for Amazon, which has invested billions in the hope of one day returning profit from this huge market of 1.4 billion people, 755 million of whom are online.

. . . .

We don’t know, and likely never will, whether Westland ran at a loss for Amazon, but we can safely say Amazon is taking a loss by not selling on the company, rather choosing to close it down and absorb the human assets into the system. That of course being a reflection of how Amazon does business, not of Westland. Amazon buys, grows and profits from its acquisitions or buries them, to ensure a competitor doesn’t pick up the pieces.

In this case Amazon acquired Westland from Tata Trent back in 2016, and of course used its own platform to promote the books of its publishing company, just as it does APub – although interestingly Amazon never sought to meld Westland with APub.

Link to the rest at The New Publishing Standard

This Review Should Not Exist

From Public Books:

This review should not exist. I should not write it.

Pieces like this one always carry the same heading: “Dispatches from [insert country/geographic region],” “Three recent novels from [insert identity/language/culture].” If “natives” like me write these pieces, we acquire the voice of “our” culture and speak for its history. If others—nonlocals and, perhaps, nonspecialists—write them, historical specificity can evaporate into belles-lettristic formalism or stereotype, apolitical and stale. Such essays are, nevertheless, irrefutably important, since they can help bring foreign writers to US audiences. When well-written, they have the potential to rewrite harmful and boring tropes and offer new ways of pondering the literary landscape. Just like novels, though, they often uncritically fulfill the market’s demands (as I might be doing here).

The tangled incentives motivating this essay include: monetary and career incentives that led me to emigrate to and study in the US; monetary and career incentives that make translation into English essential for Third World writers (especially Latin American ones); and this publication’s platform—people interested mainly in American and British literature, with advanced humanities degrees conferred by US universities. Essays like this one risk calcifying the imperial dynamics that inevitably produce them, relegating the literary and cultural works they promote to the lesser literary field of keyword-laden generalities.

“Latin America” is one such keyword and, nowadays, a gringo fabrication. Even if I could rescue something decidedly autochthonous and pure that unified the region, I wouldn’t know how to tell it apart from the Yankee, imperial mythology. Latin American authors engaging elements of the continent’s shared canon and interconnected histories face a double bind that demands, in a sense, that they establish a relationship with “Latin America” as a formulation emanating from above—from centers of literary power, nowadays New York and formerly Paris—to be translated, to sell, to make money from their literature. Latin America registers in those literary centers as an aggregation of tropes established mostly by the aesthetics of token authors inducted into the “global” literary canon—Neruda, García Márquez, and Bolaño key among them. Borges, for these readers and critics, might as well have been French.

Obviously, economic and institutional rewards come to those willing to pander to US desires (just ask Isabel Allende). At the same time, one cannot deny that authors’ dependency on the US book market has increased exponentially in recent years. This has itself become a literary theme. Three recently translated, very different novels—César Aira’s The Divorce, Dolores Reyes’s Eartheater, and Pedro Mairal’s The Woman from Uruguay—each illuminate and interrogate aspects of top-down, imperial representational demands. At times critical of and dexterous in playing with gringo expectations, these novels attempt to develop forms of literary imagination, of reading and writing, that elude instead of rehearsing a partially gringo-defined, essential Latin Americanness.

. . . .

César Aira’s The Divorce was originally published in 2010 and comes to English courtesy of New Directions, translated by Chris Andrews and prefaced by Patti Smith. The novel assumes the voice of a wealthy, educated resident of Providence, Rhode Island (a Brown professor?), who moves, almost on a whim, to a Buenos Aires hostel following a painful divorce. “A temporary withdrawal on my part would be the kindest thing, for me and for my daughter,” he explains. “When I returned, all smiles and gifts, we would reestablish our relationship on the terms laid down by the judge.” Perhaps escape can quell the agonies of separation.

Latin America is ideal for fleeing, since it has historically been cast as exterior to history: a location in permanent, nondialectical détente. Think of Burroughs fleeing to Mexico after committing murder; Hemingway’s long love affair with La Finca Vigía; Britons awed by Patagonia. Atemporality draws imperialists like flies.

Likewise, for Aira’s narrator, Buenos Aires is a pause, unimportant and nonnarrative in his life because what matters is the “Providence (Rhode Island)” timeline. That name itself assumes an ironic guise, mocking gringo self-regard and foreshadowing the narrative’s distaste for P/providence.

Upon arriving in Buenos Aires, the narrator journeys to a local coffee shop. He witnesses a young man get drenched by the accumulated water of a retracting awning. Everything stops. As our narrator stares on, the soaked Enrique recognizes Leticia, the childhood acquaintance he was originally on his way to meet. A remarkable subnarrative arises here—“They hadn’t seen each other since the day they met, which was also the day that had marked the end of their childhood”—as Aira leads us down the story of Enrique and Leticia’s elementary school. That institution had burned down in a demonic fire they escaped by entering an also burning miniature model of the school that they found in a basement. This aside concludes with Enrique and Leticia’s reduction to atoms, which then escape the school together with millions of similarly sized priests.

. . . .

Aira does not really engage the more tangible historicity of Buenos Aires and Argentina, because his story mostly operates on a metafictional level. Meanwhile, Eartheater, Dolores Reyes’s first novel (translated by Julia Sanches) does tussle with the city’s specific pasts and presents.

Reyes narrates the story of an unnamed young woman from a Buenos Aires slum who sees her father murder her mother, then feels an uncanny urge to devour earth at her family’s property. Doing so, she briefly relives the moment of the killing. The narrator quickly realizes that by eating dirt from a specific location, she can witness the horrible events that transpired there. Quickly, albeit guiltily, she monetizes the skill, transforming into a sort of detective. Most of her clients are grieving parents looking for children, mainly daughters murdered by men—their partners and fathers. She hesitantly begins dating a policeman, whom she later encounters working at the scene of her ex’s murder, at a club she attends with her brother and his friends on the same night as the killing. Her ex’s murderer almost kills them, too, until her missing father reappears, saves them by stabbing their assailant, and vanishes into the night.

Eartheater gestures towards the vernacular of Buenos Aires villas (or slums), and Julia Sanches’s translation conveys that unique prosody remarkably well, despite some shaky moments. Mirroring the narrator’s mystical ability, the narrative hugs its haunted ground; land and earth document a history that the state does not. This is particularly the case in Argentina, where the aristocracy has historically hoarded and abandoned vast swaths of land, creating massive latifundios populated by poor, exploited workers who inherit the conditions and destitution of slaves.

Such land is increasingly owned by transnational corporations unconcerned with environmental and social destruction. These same heinous corporations probably produce the beer and junk that the narrator constantly devours. Her rate of consumption makes her inexplicable relationship with dirt feel almost satirical, as if Reyes were ironically refracting the deficient diet of the Argentine poor by suggesting that they eat the material base of their condition: land itself. Maybe then something will change.

At the novel’s very beginning, the narrator says, “Mamá stays here. In my house. In the earth.” Our narrator struggles to preserve her murdered mother’s proximity so that the latter’s life might not be forgotten, so that justice might remain possible, because dirt ties her to the absent. The traces of brutality that infect daily life can only be interpreted (literally) from below; her cop boyfriend cannot understand the violent histories that envelop the narrator, her family, and her friends. He reduces those subject to such histories to otherness by insulting them, calling them “estos negros.” Sanches’s use of “scum” here fails to fully relay the racialized connotations of the Spanish (literally, “those blacks”).

In Eartheater, locality—determined by the dirt the central character eats, the ground she walks—is the only true solution to the cycle of violence. Even so, Reyes does not offer a neat tale of redemption. The narrative ends when the femicidal father returns to save the main character’s life, and she says: “Twice I’d seen my old man kill.” The two killings were undeniably different—opposed, even—but murder nonetheless. The narrator’s departure, her flight from the neighborhood, interrupts but does not definitively end this cycle. Violence continues, and Reyes reminds us that individuals, no matter their gifts or nobility, cannot modify structures when acting alone.

If Aira undoes the legend of Argentina as a leisurely Eden, then Reyes does so twice over, turning Buenos Aires into a grim inferno of destruction and treason. An uncomfortable history comfortably forgotten undermines yet again whatever pastoral sense of benevolent calm existed in the US conception of Latin America.

Link to the rest at Public Books

PG is not an expert on the subject, but his observation (which may be unfair or incorrect in whole or in part) is that, according to the accounts PG has read in recent years, many second and third-world nations share some similar characteristics.

  1. They are either currently governed by dictatorships or have a 20th Century history of being governed by dictatorships with any sort of democracy being new and less-than-perfect.
  2. Often, outsiders (beneficiaries of colonial power or capitalists exploiting local individuals or resources) are blamed either explicitly or implicitly for some or all of the problems in their societies and governance.
  3. Living standards are lower than in first-world countries and writers portraying these countries either blame western/colonial history for current problems or otherwise show resentment toward individuals or groups that have had the benefits that accompany residence in first-world countries AKA “the rich” or “those who are richer than most in my country”.

PG understands that he has lived his life in what some regard as the most-heinous of Western Exploitational Nations, the United States.

However, to the best of PG’s knowledge, he has never personally benefitted from the exploitation that took place in any second or third-world nation. Neither he nor any member of his family of origin inherited any wealth or power. PG knows a lot about his ancestors and doesn’t think any of them had inherited wealth or oppressed the American Indians or others in this nation or in their nations of origin.

Prior to settling in the United States, none of PG’s ancestors were wealthy by the standards of their day and place. None were rulers of anything outside of their home and small land holdings. On one line, some male ancestors attended one of the colleges at Oxford, but it was for the purpose of becoming ministers which is what they did after they finished their studies. Then, as now, earning a living as a minister is not one of the better ways to become rich and pass riches down to your children.

Nobody killed any Native Americans. Some of PG’s ancestors were, however, killed by Native Americans.

Any money that existed in PG’s family of origin in the Twentieth Century was earned, not inherited and disappeared in the Great Depression. Nothing tangible was inherited by PG’s parents (who are both deceased after lives spent working hard to support their family, including PG).

From his family of origin, PG inherited a Protestant work ethic and, from his mother, a degree of intelligence.

Prior to college, PG attended either isolated country schools in the American West or typical midwestern small-town schools. Less than 10% of PG’s graduating class in high school finished college. Less than 20% tried to go to college.

With the help of large scholarships, student loans and working 15-40 hours per week while he was in college, PG graduated from what many would characterize as a good school. That helped him get a good job when he graduated and, eventually, to attend law school.

To the best of his knowledge, neither PG nor any member of PG’s family going back a long way has ever exploited anyone of a different race or ethnic origin for any purpose. Definitely nobody got rich doing so. Most definitely, PG has never inherited anything tangible from his ancestors. He did inherit a work ethic and a tradition of attending church, each of which he values.

Thus, PG has never felt any white guilt or guilt for being an American or sense that he owes a particular ethnic group any recompense or help other than general Christian charity towards those who have less than he has regardless of their race or ethnic origin.

WH Smith’s ‘bestselling’ book charts filled with titles publishers have paid to feature in rankings

From Inews UK:

Book lovers are unwittingly paying for titles which appear to be the top-selling releases of the moment, when in some cases a publisher has paid the retailer to feature them in its “bestseller” charts, multiple industry figures have claimed.

Rankings displayed at shops such as WH Smith, as well as those compiled by online retailers, are determined partly by whether a book has been boosted in a deal with publishers, industry insiders say.

The practice has come to light after a former WH Smith employee alleged that when he worked at the retailer, staff were instructed to display author and TV presenter Richard Osman’s novel The Thursday Murder Club in the number one slot in stores, regardless of sales figures, because publisher Penguin Random House had paid for the space.

“When the last Richard Osman came out, Penguin bought the number one spot on all WH Smith in-store bestseller charts so it had to be displayed as the bestseller in every single store, whether it actually was or not,” Barry Pierce, who worked at the retailer from 2020 to 2021, recently claimed on social media.

. . . .

[T]he chart comprised books that WH Smith wanted to “push”, and was treated as a “promotional space” rather than a “legitimate chart” based on which books were selling the most copies, he claimed.

“Often… our area manager would come in and rearrange the chart so certain books [would] appear higher,” Mr Pierce added.

True bestseller charts based on figures from Nielsen BookScan – which collects point-of-sale data from more than 6,500 UK retailers – are widely regarded as the most accurate reflection of the top selling titles and authors.

The admission has prompted astonishment from readers and authors, but industry figures, who backed up Mr Pierce’s claim, maintained that such agreements have long been part of the way publishers and retailers do business and should not come as a surprise to the book-buying public.

James Daunt, managing director at Waterstones, the UK’s largest bookshop chain, said it was commonplace for other retailers to exchange spots in their charts for money.

Waterstones itself previously accepted millions of pounds each year from publishers to position titles in its “bestseller” charts, but Mr Daunt said he put an end to these deals as soon as he was appointed.

“Since I took over in 2011, Waterstones has never taken one penny to place books [on shelves]. The year before, Waterstones took £27 million [from publishers],” Mr Daunt said.

Link to the rest at Inews UK and thanks to H for the tip.

The question that occurred to PG was, “If a publisher was ethical in its business practices, would it pay for phony best-seller rankings.”

PG is certain a publisher would respond that this was just a time-honored method to increase sales and, thus, profits.

Inquiring minds might ask if calculations of the amount of royalties owed to authors were ever subject to this sort of “publishing industry practice.”

Beatrix Potter’s Eye for Nature

From The Wall Street Journal:

Britain’s brief but fertile Edwardian period was a golden age of children’s literature. The first decade of the 20th century saw the stage premiere of J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” and the publication of Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows.” But no writer represents the genre in its heyday better than Beatrix Potter, whose diminutive illustrated picture books gave the world Peter Rabbit, Tomasina Tittlemouse and a host of other precocious animal characters. Precise, expressive watercolor illustrations by the author were the trademark of her books, which have now sold hundreds of millions of copies.

Potter, born in 1866, didn’t publish her first book, “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” until her mid-30s. She would go on to write 23 tales for children, but as early as 1913, at the height of her fame, she began to wind down her career to devote herself to sheep farming in England’s Lake District. When Potter died in 1943, she left behind a treasure trove of drawings, letters and personal effects, which form the basis of a new exhibition opening on Feb. 12 at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

“Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature” includes nearly 200 artworks, books, photographs and other objects, from Potter’s childhood sketches, already demonstrating a keen eye and a steady hand, to a letter written the week before she died. Potter was raised in an upper-middle-class Unitarian clan that made a fortune from printing calico cloth; a photograph of her at 15, holding one of her many pets, shows a cosseted young Victorian. The photo also hints at a sense of thwartedness. In spite of her career, she arguably lived under the thumb of her parents until she married at the age of 47.

. . . .

A toy from the 1920s based on Potter’s character Jemima Puddle-Duck is an artifact of her enterprising forays into merchandising. A cross between J.K. Rowling and John Muir, Potter set herself up in midlife as a guardian of the Lake District’s picturesque countryside and traditional farming methods. She first visited the area on childhood vacations with her family and eventually bought up some 4,000 acres of farmland, which she left to Britain’s National Trust. A 1909 watercolor landscape in the exhibition—“View across Esthwaite Water,” painted near where she eventually settled as a farmer—seems to cross objective topography with frank affection. Later, a 1930 photograph of Potter with a shepherd and a prize-winning ewe casts the London-born writer as a timeless rustic.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes if you hit a paywall, but this should be a free link.)

Dominant languages can spread even without coercion

From The Economist:

Never think the world is in decline. A recent book, “Speak Not” by James Griffiths, looks at the bad old days when it was seen as acceptable to impose a culture on others through force. The author tells the stories of Welsh and Hawaiian—languages driven to the brink of death or irrelevance before being saved by determined activists.

. . . .

Americans fomented a coup in Hawaii that led to its eventual annexation. Missionaries built schools and fervently discouraged local customs like the hula, a performance in honour of ancestors that the Americans considered lascivious. Oppression of culture and of the language went hand in hand: by the late 20th century the only fluent Hawaiian-speakers were worryingly old. But activists fought to expand teaching of it, and eventually brought Hawaiian into many schools. The number of speakers is now growing. Even some of the state’s many citizens of other ethnicities find it fashionable to learn a bit.

Welsh survived centuries of union with England largely because of Wales’s relative isolation and poverty. But in the 19th century British authorities stepped up efforts to impose English; schoolchildren had to wear a token of shame (the “Welsh Not”) if they spoke their native language, the kind of tactic seen in language oppression around the world.

Again, activists fought back. In 1936 three of them set fires at an air-force training ground built despite local opposition. The perpetrators turned themselves in, then refused to speak any language but Welsh at their first trial. It ended in a mistrial; their second resulted in a conviction, but on their release nine months later the arsonists were feted as heroes. They had lit a fire under Welsh-language nationalism, which in later decades would not only halt the decline in Welsh-speakers, but reverse it. Today the right to speak Welsh at trial (and in many other contexts) is guaranteed.

Mr Griffiths’s book ends with a sadder tale. Though Mandarin is the world’s most-spoken native language, China still has hundreds of millions of native speakers of other Chinese languages such as Cantonese (often misleadingly called “dialects”), as well as non-Han languages like those used in Inner Mongolia and Tibet. Evidently regarding this variety as unbefitting for a country on the rise, the authorities have redoubled their efforts to get everyone speaking Mandarin—for instance by cutting down Cantonese television and resettling Han Chinese in Tibet, part of a wider bid to dilute its culture. A regime indifferent to the tut-tutting of outsiders can go even further than American and British colonialists.

But English spreads by less coercive means, too. Rosemary Salomone’s new book, “The Rise of English”, tells the tale of a language that has gone from strength to strength after the demise of Britain’s empire and perhaps also of America’s global dominance. These two forces gave English an impetus, but once momentum takes hold of a language, whether of growth or decline, it tends to continue. Everyone wants to speak a language used by lots of other influential people.

Link to the rest at The Economist

A Tall ‘Dune’ Appears on November’s Charts, Driven by Film

From Publishing Perspectives:

The new Warner Bros. adaptation by Jon Spaights and director Denis Villenueve of Frank Herbert’s 1965 Dune was released on October 22 in China. With Hans Zimmer’s exhilarating score, Patrice Vermette’s design, and the complex performance of Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name) as Paul Atreides, the film seems to be working its windswept magic on the Chinese readership.

Dune in an edition from Jiangsu Literature & Art Press has entered the overall fiction list at No. 19 in November, just as in the United States, the film tie-in edition (Penguin Random House/Ace Books) has arrived at No. 2 on the Most Read Amazon Charts and No. 7 in Most Sold.

Our associates at Beijing OpenBook note that the book has been published in China before now, although the interest driving it onto the lists is clearly related to the film release. The edition you see at No. 19 in overall fiction–and moving up a spot from No. 5 to No. 6 on the international fiction bestseller list–was first released in 2016.

The real question becomes how much staying power something like a film-fueled Dune can be expected to show on the Chinese list.

Those who regularly follow our lists will see that the top three positions in November were occupied by the 2008 The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin. It’s followed by its series-mates, The Dark Forest and Death’s End at Nos. 2 and 3, respectively. This can be interpreted to be a reflection of Dune-prompted science-fiction interest, of course, but Liu’s trilogy has been charting for decades and these books are some of the cluster of the most reliably popular in the Chinese book industry.

What the OpenBook team describes as a condition of “insufficient hot spots” remains in sway on the Chinese lists. New work seems to have a tough time displacing the relatively recent “classics” that dominate this market’s slowly moving –most of these titles dating from the mid-20th century. “If a new book wants to be known by more readers,” our associates say in their discussion of the November charts, “it must overcome the existing bestsellers and gain an advantage. And that increases the difficulty of selling new authors and new works” who don’t come with their own following already intact.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

We ask “C”: how do intelligence services need to change in the 21st century?

From The Economist:

IN HIS first public speech since he became chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, Richard Moore said the service needs to “become more open to stay secret.” On “The Economist Asks” podcast, host Anne McElvoy and Shashank Joshi, The Economist’s defence editor, ask Mr Moore exactly what that means in practice.

The spymaster, whose position is traditionally referred to simply as “C”, describes the “entrepreneurial animal spirits” he hopes to attract by lifting the veil on MI6’s plans and challenges. Can partnering with technological talent lend British intelligence the heft it needs to punch above its weight against larger rivals like Russia and China?

China, Mr Moore says, is the service’s most pressing priority. Alongside what he calls the “key battleground” and exponentially-growing “digital attack surface” of technology and data-gathering, debt traps threaten to slowly erode the sovereignty of other states as China garners ever-more influence in emerging markets.

A key challenge, he says, will be to assert and defend Western democratic values while securing China’s “cooperation on the key transnational issues”, including “the biggest issue of all”—climate change.

. . . .

“Vladimir Putin…really does think that Russia, in the 21st century, has the right to impose limits on the sovereignty of the countries on its periphery,” he says. “And that’s a problem.” Still, he adds, Mr Putin runs the risk of underestimating his counterparts in Washington.

Despite a strong focus on technology, the business of intelligence is “still, fundamentally a question of building a relationship with a fellow human being,” he says. “That hasn’t changed. So I need officers who can build trust with people who are taking significant risks to work with us.” But as adversaries build up extraordinary surveillance capabilities, and after the heavily-publicised assassinations by Russian operatives, we ask Mr Moore how British intelligence services continue to guarantee protection to their agents.

Link to the rest at The Economist

The OP includes a link to a podcast of the interview with C.

Bookstat: Ellis scales the chart at long last

From The Bookseller:

JR Ellis’ Murder at St Anne’s (Thomas & Mercer) has clocked in as the Bookstat e-book number one for the week ending 11th December, marking the author’s first number one in the chart.

. . . .

The e-book and print charts tend to divert more than ever at this time of year, with the print market so laser-focused on Christmas gifts and e-books still firmly in the self-gifting arena. The Bookstat chart saw a flurry of new entries, with Nicolas Sparks’ The Wish (Sphere), Robert Bryndza’s Darkness Falls (Sphere) and Emma Haughton’s The Dark (Hodder & Stoughton) debuting in the top five.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

The best books of 2021

From The Economist:

Politics and current affairs

Empire of Pain. By Patrick Radden Keefe. Doubleday; 560 pages; $32.50. Picador; £20

This is the tragic, enraging story of the Sackler family, the previously low-profile owners of Purdue Pharma—which in 1996 introduced the drug OxyContin. The author shows how an epidemic of prescription-opioid abuse morphed into a worse one of illicit heroin and, later, fentanyl.

Do Not Disturb. By Michela Wrong. PublicAffairs; 512 pages; $32. Fourth Estate; £20

A devastating exposé of a remarkable leader, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda. He won global praise for ending the genocide of Tutsis in 1994 and promoting development. But his regime has ruled through fear, invaded its neighbours and assassinated opponents even after they fled abroad. The author, a former admirer, spent years gathering evidence for this terrifying account.

Invisible ChinaBy Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell. University of Chicago Press; 248 pages; $27.50 and £22

The biggest obstacle to China’s development is that rural children—two-thirds of the total—do terribly in school, argues this stunningly researched book. Many are malnourished, lack reading glasses or suffer from energy-sapping intestinal worms. If these basic problems are not fixed, say the authors, China will struggle to reach its goal of broad prosperity.

. . . .

History

The Gun, the Ship and the Pen. By Linda Colley. Liveright; 512 pages; $35. Profile Books; £25

A wide-ranging account of the forces that propelled the writing of constitutions—documents that have defined the modern world—from the 18th century until today. The trend was driven by the evolving nature of war and turbocharged by high-speed printing presses. An illuminating and original global history.

Tunnel 29. By Helena Merriman. PublicAffairs; 352 pages; $28. Hodder & Stoughton; £20

Using a narrow, 120-metre tunnel beneath the wall that had recently divided their city, 29 East Berliners escaped to freedom in September 1962. A captivating retelling of one of the most astonishing episodes in East Germany’s grim history.

. . . .

Biography and memoir

Fall. By John Preston. HarperCollins; 352 pages; $28.99. Viking; £18.99

The story of Robert Maxwell, a monstrous, enigmatic, bullying, narcissistic crook of gigantic appetites—who at his peak was one of the world’s most recognisable businessmen—may be largely unknown to anyone under 40. This book tells it with great verve and the benefit of extensive interviews with, among others, Maxwell’s one-time rival Rupert Murdoch.

The Radical Potter. By Tristram Hunt. Metropolitan Books; 352 pages; $29.99. Allen Lane; £25

Josiah Wedgwood wanted to “astonish the world”. He succeeded, says this delightful biography of the 18th-century British potter. To boost productivity, he aimed to make machines of men—and he did.

. . . .

Fiction

Mother for Dinner. By Shalom Auslander. Riverhead Books; 272 pages; $28. Picador; £16.99

In this laugh-out-loud, gravely serious satire on identity politics, a mother’s deathbed presents a solemn decision: whether or not to eat her. The family are Cannibal-Americans, the most reviled minority in a place where “everyone else was retreating to their cages and calling it freedom”. What, the novel asks uproariously, do individuals owe history?

The Books of Jacob. By Olga Tokarczuk. Translated by Jennifer Croft. Fitzcarraldo Editions; 928 pages; £20. To be published in America by Riverhead Books in February; $35

The tome that secured its author the Nobel prize of 2018 encompasses a “fantastic journey across seven borders, five languages and three major religions, not counting the minor sects”. At the centre of this epic of faith, ideas and the Enlightenment is a real-life 18th-century mystic.

The Plot. By Jean Hanff Korelitz. Celadon Books; 317 pages; $28. Faber; £8.99

There are too many novels about writers, but this is one to read. A down-on-his-luck author steals a slam-dunk plot from a creepy student. The result is wealth, fame—and spiralling disaster. At once a close-to-the-bone satire on publishing, an inquiry into the ethics of storytelling and a propulsive upmarket thriller.

. . . .

Science and technology

A Shot to Save the World. By Gregory Zuckerman. Portfolio; 384 pages; $30. Penguin Business; £20

A journalist at the Wall Street Journal tells the story of the great vaccine race of 2020. A superb scientific drama of failure, determination and triumph.

I, Warbot. By Kenneth Payne. Oxford University Press; 336 pages; $29.95. Hurst; £20

A thought-provoking reflection on how artificial intelligence will change conflict. The offence will dominate, the author says. Martial virtues such as courage and leadership will yield to technical ones.

Being You. By Anil Seth. Dutton Books; 352 pages; $28. Faber; £20

Understanding consciousness is a “hard problem”, noted the philosopher David Chalmers. Here a pioneering neuroscientist takes readers to the edge of what is known, how scientists know it, and, most importantly, how that knowledge could be made useful in medicine and psychology.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG notes that the Economist’s original list is much longer than PG’s excerpt.

He didn’t do a careful comparison between the Best Books list published by The Economist and that published by the New York Times, (posted just before this post) but he doesn’t think either publication’s list contained a book listed by the other.

He will grant that the New York Times is a general distribution American newspaper with a shrinking subscription base (as is the case with virtually every newspaper except, perhaps The Wall Street Journal, which currently has more than twice as many subscribers as the Times) and The Economist is a business magazine, but, even so PG expects most Economist subscribers who live in or near New York City are also likely to be subscribers to the Times. (As are the salaried employees of every New York publisher)

PG admits to not seeing any books on the NYT list that interested him. This surprised him somewhat. Several on the Economist’s list are on PG’s mental to-read list (which floats in and out of his mind and can’t be described as unchanging and for which he has no check-boxes).

No Christmas Without Books

From Publishing Perspectives:

Warily watching the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic numbers in Europe, particularly with the picture of the omicron variant’s presence still coming into focus, the European and International Booksellers Federation (EIBF) in Brussels has opened a “No Christmas Without Books’ campaign.

The Booksellers Federation is joined by the Federation of European Publishers and Intergraf, the organization of more than 110,000 European and United Kingdom printing companies in this appeal, which calls on EU leadership and all the member-states’ national authorities to “Follow the lead of several European countries—Italy, France, Belgium—in recognizing books as essential cultural goods, thus allowing bookshops to remain open.”

The effort is a kind of pre-emptive strike, in the vernacular, a warning prior to many actual such closures having been put into place.

There’s a decided and understandable emphasis on print, of course, not only as the most desirable format for bookish gift traffic but also as the retail segment most vulnerable to sales-point shutdowns. In such closures lie the worst memories of the pre-vaccine part of the pandemic era, when, for example, Germany saw its bookstores closed just 15 days before Christmas 2020.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Kaaps Writings From South Africa

From Publishing Perspectives:

While many in South Africa have felt understandably penalized by travel restrictions resulting from the initial report and detection of the variant, Stephanie Nolan at The New York Times has a fine feature on the state-of-the-art KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) in Durban and the accompanying door-to-door campaign being deployed to reach the population. The speed with which KRISP reported out its findings has contributed to the timeliness of today’s coordinated, cooperative international research effort on the variant.

. . . .

Words Without Borders, before moving to its December edition, has featured in November guest editor Olivia M. Coetzee’s look at Kaaps writing from South Africa, and we want to bring this to your attention, not least because it’s an example of Words Without Borders’ work in bringing to light some of the niche linguistic contexts.

In her introduction to Kaaps, Coetzee–who is originally from Namibia and was raised near Cape Town–points out the question “What is Kaaps” produces more than one answer. “Some would say that Kaaps is an Afrikaans dialect spoken by the so-called ‘Coloreds’ living in Cape Town. Others see Kaaps as a language distinct from Afrikaans,” she writes.

In notes provided by Words Without Borders editorial director Susan Harris notes, “Kaaps was created in settler colonial South Africa, developed by the 1500s, and took shape as a language during encounters between indigenous African (Khoi and San), South-East Asian, Dutch, Portuguese, and English people. Late-19th-century Afrikaner nationalists appropriated Kaaps and eliminated the indigenous elements in order to create the dominant version of the language in the form of Afrikaans.”

Coetzee points to the fact that Kaaps has been considered slang, and thus “Kaaps literature and identity are in their infancy.

“While the first written form of Kaaps appeared in the Arabic Afrikaans alphabet of the early 1800s, there is a limited literary history where Kaaps is concerned. And this absence of Kaaps in the greater South African landscape contributes to the assumption of a people without an identity, agents of the ‘White man’s language,’ Afrikaans.

“And this is problematic for so many reasons to do with who we are as a people,” she writes, “with our identity, our roots, how we see ourselves in the world, where we see ourselves, and our place in the greater society of South Africa.”

What Coetzee is experiencing, it turns out, is the rise of Kaaps as a bonding agent between those who speak it. It begins to function as an element of identity, as she writes. “Language is important, not just as a communication tool, but as a marker of agency,” even with its image still in need of an upgrade.

“A lot of work must still be done to grow positive ideas about Kaaps and the Kaaps movement,” she writes, “but there are already some exciting initiatives underway. Currently a group led by Prof. Quentin Williams at the University of the Western Cape is in the process of producing a trilingual, first-of-its-kind Kaaps dictionary, and this work is a massive step in the direction of becoming as a people.”

The writers whose work she brings to the edition, she says, “not only expand the body of Kaaps literature, but also confirm the link between language and its speakers’ identities.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

A war correspondent’s intimate portrait of an embattled minority

From The Economist:

After a strict convent education, Janine di Giovanni, an American war correspondent, drifted from religion. Yet as she travelled the world, reporting from Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda, her faith returned. Wherever she went, she writes in “The Vanishing”, she would find a church, seeking “ritual and a sense of belonging”. Her book is the culmination of two decades of fieldwork in the Middle East, its four sections reflecting her stints in Egypt, Gaza, Iraq and Syria. As the title suggests, it is a portrait of a disappearing people.

Christians are an embattled minority in many countries, including North Korea, where tens of thousands are believed to be held in concentration camps, and Sri Lanka, where around 250 people died in the Easter bombings of 2019. In the Middle East, Islamic extremists depict Christians as Westernised interlopers, yet the region was the birthplace of the religion, which flourished until the Muslim Arab conquest of the seventh century. Christians have since faced discrimination in varying degrees, precipitating waves of emigration. Today 93% of the population of the Middle East and north Africa are Muslim.

Ms di Giovanni brings a compassionate perspective to her narrative, interweaving complex, sometimes dense history with evocative vignettes and interviews. Her interlocutors range from nuns to imams, from the last vestiges of Gaza’s Christian elite to Cairo’s impoverished Zabbaleen, who sort rubbish in “Garbage City”. These “dying communities” of various Christian denominations, some claiming direct descent from Jesus’s disciples, share a stark choice: to abandon ancestral roots in search of a better life elsewhere, or cling on for a precarious future. Most keep their heads down, but the allegiance of some to dictators—seen as bulwarks against extremism—has antagonised Islamists.

. . . .

In the fourth century Gaza was wholly Christian. By the 21st century the community had shrunk to under 1,000, and the consequences of the election of Hamas in 2006 imperilled its members further. They endure the same hardships and dearth of opportunity as other Gazans and receive scant government protection; unemployment among young Christians stands at 70%. Egypt’s Christian population, chiefly Copts, is the region’s largest, but still suffers legal and social discrimination, even if some families are insulated by privilege. “The underlying sense of inferiority is our greatest persecution,” says one woman. “I’ve had Muslim men grab me by the hair and try to drag me because I don’t have a headscarf on.”

Link to the rest at The Economist

Congo’s government has banned songs that annoy it

From The Economist:

“I consider myself to be like a mosquito,” says Bob Elvis, a musician, from his studio in downtown Kinshasa, the sprawling capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. “I may be small but I can annoy you all night long, by singing, biting and not leaving you alone.”

Mr Elvis’s latest rap song, “Letter to Ya Tshitshi”, has rankled the president of Congo, Félix Tshisekedi, so much that it was banned days after being released. The song addresses Étienne Tshisekedi, the president’s dead father, a firebrand opposition leader, by his nickname. It laments his son’s incompetence.

In the video, Mr Elvis raps to a photo of Mr Tshisekedi senior, surrounded by flickering candles. He repeats the refrain “since you left” and describes the country’s woes, from the scarcity of clean water to the abundance of corruption, electoral fraud and conflict. “Since you left, war in the east goes on,” he raps. “We are fighting for the rule of law.”

The Censorship Commission banned another six of Mr Elvis’s songs as well as a track called “What we have not done” by mpr, a hip-hop group. This song is about the failings of every Congolese president since independence. The ban on mpr’s track was rescinded a day later when fans kicked up a fuss.

Mr Elvis has not been so lucky. Broadcasters that play his forbidden tracks risk having their licences revoked. Other musicians have been targeted, too. A rapper from southern Congo, Sébastien Lumbwe, known as “Infrapa”, fled the country two weeks ago after being harassed by officials over his songs, which poke the government. “It is part of a pattern of shrinking civic space,” says Jean-Mobert Senga of Amnesty International, a watchdog. “It goes against President Tshisekedi’s commitment to respect human rights.”

Link to the rest at The Economist

A Czech Second-Hand Books Boom

From Publishers Weekly:

The Czech digital seller of second-hand books Knihobot reported sales of some 18 million Czech koruna (US$792,000) for the entire year of 2020, but in October of this year alone, it generated sales of 10 million koruna (US$440,000).

This month, having raised its monthly sales to a level above the 2020 total, Knihobot is looking to expand its services to neighboring Slovakia, according to company officials.

. . . .

“Knihobot is an online platform and e-shop that helps with the circulation of books,” she says in describing the company’s brand.

“That means we’re helping people to sell their books and to find new ones. We arrange everything around the selling, storage, and even the transportation from your home to Knihobot’s storage.

“After the book is sold, we pay a commission to the original owner.”

Hladíková’s outlook in the near term is optimistic: “For this year,” she says, “we’re projecting a number of 70 or 80 million karuna. We’ll see.”

This upturn in Knihobot’s business may not indicate that Czech readers are losing interest in buying new books.

The latest available data from the Association of Czech Booksellers and Publishers (SKCN) suggests that in 2019, the country’s book market expanded by 3.5 percent to some 8.6 billion Koruna (US$379 million), reporting an annual increase for a fifth year.

. . . .

Asked whether it’s possible that the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged more readers to buy second-hand books, perhaps instead of using public libraries, Hladíková points to a number of factors that might explain Knihobot’s strong financial performance in past months.

“There are many reasons for this change of behavior” among consumers, she says.

“Sustainable consumer approach, a wider range of books because you can buy new and older publications in one place, better prices, and the rising online presence of second-hand bookshops overall.”

. . . .

Asked by Publishing Perspectives about the rising interest in used books and its potential impact on publishers’ and authors’ revenues, Czech publishing industry representatives have been reluctant to comment.

A Warsaw-based academic publishing executive speaking on condition of anonymity, however, tells us, “When you look at the size of the publishing market, second-hand  book operations don’t represent a big share of the industry—but it’s another factor that is trimming [publishers’] profit margins, which already are quite slim.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

7 Books About Life After a Civil War

From Electric Lit:

I remember traveling in the north of Sri Lanka, two years after the civil war, in areas where some of the worst fighting had taken place, and seeing yellow caution tape cordoning of large tracts of land. Signs warned in several languages of land mines. Later, I sat, safely ensconced in a Colombo café, as the leader of an NGO showed me pictures of women, protected by nothing more than plastic visors, crouched over piles of dirt and sand with implements that looked surprisingly like the kinds of rakes and hoes you find at a local Home Depot. The work clearing the land of mines, she told me, would likely take two decades.

I started working on my latest collection, Dark Tourist, after that 2011 trip as a way of exploring aftermath. Once the fighting has stopped, the ceasefire arranged, the peace treaty signed we turn our attention to the next conflict, too often ignoring the repercussions of the trauma and the attempts to heal. I wanted to explore the ways that grief both marks us and also the ways we manage to survive, to persevere, and to reckon with and make stories of our memories.

. . . .

Some of the books explore the impact of conflict on individuals who are trying to manage deep traumas. Others document the impact on generations one or two decades removed from the fighting. All the works are testament, to the need for fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry to document and give voice long after the journalists and the NGOs decamp to other hot zones.  

A Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasm

Anuk Arudpragasm’s novel A Passage North begins with an invocation to the present:

“The present, we assume is eternally before us, one of the few things in life from which we cannot be parted.”

The novel goes on to carefully unravel that opening assertion. The present of the protagonist, Krishnan, is impinged on by multiple losses: the death of his father in a bombing during the height of the civil war; the estrangement of a lover, an activist who refuses to return to Sri Lanka; the imminent death of his aging grandmother; and his duty to her former caretaker. As Krishnan undertakes the titular voyage, the novel transforms into a meditation on loss and grief and also a reckoning in the ways his sorrow often blinds all of us to the suffering around us.

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

In a reversal of the traditional immigrant story, Thi Bui, in her graphic memoir, sets out to understand why her parents, both refugees from Vietnam, have failed her and her siblings. Bui’s delicate ink wash drawings provide a careful and detailed reconstruction of her father and mother’s experiences during the Vietnam war and their losses: the separation from family members, exile from home, the death of a child. As the memoir progresses, it becomes clear that Bui’s intent is not merely to document but to reconstruct, to revision, and finally, with deep care and compassion, to make her parents’ story truly part of her own. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

The Best We Could Do
Dark Tourist

The Book That Taught Me What Translation Was

From The New Yorker:

To write, first and foremost, is to choose the words to tell a story, whereas to translate is to evaluate, acutely, each word an author chooses. Repetitions in particular rise instantly to the surface, and they give the translator particular pause when there is more than one way to translate a particular word. On the one hand, why not repeat a word the author has deliberately repeated? On the other hand, was the repetition deliberate? Regardless of the author’s intentions, the translator’s other ear, in the other language, opens the floodgates to other solutions.

When I began translating Domenico Starnone’s “Trust,” about a teacher, Pietro, who’s haunted by a secret that he confessed to a one-time lover, the Italian word that caught my ear was invece. It appears three times in the volcanic first paragraph and occurs a total of sixty-four times from beginning to end. Invece, which pops up constantly in Italian conversation, was a familiar word to me. It means “instead” and serves as an umbrella for words such as “rather,” “on the contrary,” “on the other hand,” “however,” and “in fact.” A compound of the preposition in and the noun vece—the latter means “place” or “stead”—it derives from the Latin invicem, which in turn is a compound of in and the noun vicis, declined as vice in the ablative case. When, after completing a first draft of my translation, I looked up vicis in a few Latin dictionaries, in both Italian and English, I found the following definitions: change, exchange, interchange, alternation, succession, requital, recompense, retaliation, place, office, plight, time, opportunity, event, and, in the plural, danger or risk.

But let’s move back to the Italian term, invece, of which Starnone seems either consciously or unwittingly fond. Functioning as an adverb, it establishes a relationship between different ideas. Invece invites one thing to substitute for another, and its robust Latin root gives rise in English to “vice versa” (literally, “the order being changed”), the prefix “vice” (as in the Vice-President, who must stand in for the President, if need be), and the word “vicissitude,” which means a passing from one state of affairs to the next. After investigating invece across three languages, I now believe that this everyday Italian adverb is the metaphorical underpinning of Starnone’s novel. For if Starnone’s “Ties” (2017) is an act of containment and his “Trick” (2018) an interplay of juxtaposition, “Trust” probes and prioritizes substitution: an operation that not only permeates the novel’s arc but also describes the process of my bringing it into English. In other words, I believe that invece, a trigger for substitution, is a metaphor for translation itself.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

The Will to See

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Will to See” is a pugnacious little book—part reportage, part autobiographical manifesto—written by a man whose conscience is frozen in time. That judgment isn’t meant as a put-down. It’s a way of saying that the moral compass of its author, the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, appears not to have been reset since he graduated from the École Normale Supérieure in Paris in 1971. Now 73, he was then an idealistic (even quixotic) 22-year-old with a degree in philosophy, “a young graduate with heart.” Living life as a cloistered intellectual seemed to him like “poison,” as did the prospect of working as a “servile technician” in the service of the academic establishment or the French state.

So he turned his back on the paths, cozy and conventional, that lay before him. He wasn’t alone in his rejection of life’s bourgeois roadmaps. Some of his classmates went to work in factories. Others slipped away “to stir up revolution” outside France. The political project that Mr. Lévy “chose”—his verb—was Bangladesh, where for several months he “endeavored to support the birth of a nation” that was fighting to secede from Pakistan in a harrowing civil war. He stayed on after the country won its independence. Working as an adviser, he counseled the fledgling government to treat as birangona—heroines—the 400,000 Bengali women who had been raped by Pakistani soldiers.

Mr. Lévy’s account of his intellectual formation is littered with the names of French philosophers, poets, historians and economists, many of whom will be unfamiliar to Anglophone readers. Alongside this flurry of intellectual exotica, readers must grapple with such assertions as: “to those who would ask what an inner voice might mean, I recommend reading Kant”; or “the only worthwhile philosophy is one that places ethics over ontology.”

Mr. Lévy was persuaded to hurl himself into the Bangladesh maelstrom by two works that resonated with his youthful romanticism: Franz Fanon’s “scathing, seething, incendiary” book “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961)—a call for the violent overthrow of the world’s colonial order—and “Portrait of the Adventurer” (1950), by Roger Stéphane, a minor thinker who enjoyed some cachet after World War II, including the admiration of Jean-Paul Sartre. Stéphane urged the educated young of France to be men of action, and Mr. Lévy writes that his book “was in my pocket like a viaticum at the time of my departure for Bangladesh.”

Although Mr. Lévy is a prolific writer for Paris Match—which he describes as “the consummate mass-circulation, mass-retail magazine of sensational human-interest stories”—and an occasional contributor to The Wall Street Journal, he insists that he is not a journalist. His slant, he writes, “is the inverse of the journalist’s: I never set out on a reporting trip without the firm intention of intervening in what I see and changing what I show.”

. . . .

His dispatch from Bangladesh, which he revisited in March 2020, is a powerful essay that wastes no time on sterile objectivity. He describes the country, for which he professes enduring love, as the “front line of the planetary war against radical Islam, poverty, migratory chaos, and ecological cataclysm.”

. . . .

Mr. Lévy declares himself to be an “internationalist,” and this calling leads him “time and again to leave my family and embrace the cause of a people not my own.” Justice, he says, is “no different on one side of a border than on the other.” The title of one of his chapters is “Man Is Not a Local Adventure,” which is his way, one senses, of taking a kick at Jean-Marie Le Pen, the French politician of the nativist right who has said: “I prefer my daughter to my cousin, my cousin to my neighbor, my neighbor to my countrymen, and my countrymen to Europeans.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (This should be a free link that gets you to the article, but, if not, PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out another way around it.)

The Century-Old Russian Novel Said to Have Inspired ‘1984’

From The New York Times:

My book critic origin story is that I was nearly kicked out of A.P. English for not liking George Orwell’s “1984.” I found the prose stilted (I vaguely recall an invective I launched against his similes) and the overall project didactic. Of all things to be didactic about, I said — totalitarianism. How original — not liking totalitarianism; I mean it just sounds bad. My teacher was aghast (she loved his similes). I had to be transferred to another class.

Born on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the translator Bela Shayevich outright refused to read “1984”: “I had no interest in a book routinely deployed as a vaccine against communism. I was born in the Soviet Union: I didn’t need to hear it from an Englishman.” It was for this reason that she had not read the Russian science-fiction novel that is said to have inspired “1984” — WE (Ecco, paper, $16.99), by Yevgeny Zamyatin — now out in her translation.

When asked to take on “We,” Shayevich — best known for translating “Secondhand Time,” by the Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich — was surprised to learn that Zamyatin, and Orwell for that matter, was a committed socialist and, most important, a wickedly fun writer. Shayevich describes his style as emblematic of a “jagged and ruthlessly fat-free early Soviet aesthetic.” Though there have been numerous excellent translations of “We,” Shayevich’s best preserves the experimental qualities of Zamyatin’s writing. She subtly conveys from the Russian the jumpy texture that the narrator’s voice takes on as he becomes a kind of jammed robot, ecstatically malfunctioning as he falls in love with a sleek femme fatale, a rogue individualist with a “name” to match: I-330.

Set 1,000 years in the future, “We” transports us to an authoritarian society called the One State that is governed by technological efficiency and an enforced suppression of individual identity. The novel is the diary of D-503 (citizens of the One State have numbers, not names), lead engineer of a spaceship called Integral set to travel into outer space to rescue “unfamiliar beings on alien planets who may yet live in savage states of freedom.” The residents of the One State don identical gray uniforms and listen to machine-generated music: “A musicometer,” D-503 tells us, “can produce three sonatas an hour.” Monogamy is a vestige of ancient times (a.k.a. our times), and sex is arranged through a bureaucratic system involving pink tickets. “He’s registered to me today,” interjects D-503’s girlfriend O-90 when she sees him chatting with another woman.

A mathematician who hates imaginary numbers — “Get √−1 out of me!” he shrieks — D-503 is the golden boy of the One State.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Making Nice

From The Economist:

British novelists excel at capturing the cut and thrust of a newsroom in a genre perhaps best described as the hack picaresque. Evelyn Waugh is its standard-bearer. His novel of 1938, “Scoop”, follows a man of modest means mistaken for a foreign correspondent and sent to a fictional country in east Africa. The tale is an outstanding satire of the media’s mores and its insatiable hunger for titbits and gossip.

Making Nice”, Ferdinand Mount’s new novel, is clearly indebted to “Scoop” but updates its setting to the modern information age. Here news stories are written about social-media posts. Any middle-aged old-school reporters who aren’t dreaming up clickbait for meagre salaries have been tossed onto the slag heap, along with their obsolete fax machines.

The book’s protagonist is Dickie Pentecost, a diplomatic correspondent who has recently been made redundant. Like Waugh’s hero, William Boot, Dickie is swept up in a series of misadventures, this time in a digital world. Ethelbert (“Ethel” for short), the eccentric and mysterious panjandrum of Making Nice, a publicity agency, hires Dickie to participate in various schemes involving a corrupt African leader in exile, a Trump-like American politician and a pompous British mp who presses Dickie into service to ghostwrite his memoirs. The operating principle: make the greedy seem altruistic, and transmute tyrants into humanitarians, all in the name of “reputation retrieval”.

Mr Mount has a great ear for corporate doublespeak, used by Ethel to justify his company’s online skulduggery. When Dickie inquires about the company’s name, Ethel tells him that his mission is to “transform the System into a game you can’t help falling in love with”.Sure enough, Dickie’s daughter Flo is seduced by Ethel’s dazzling pitches and takes to writing fake positive reviews for clients (known as “astroturfing”) at his behest.

Link to the rest at The Economist

7 Books About People Having a Worse Day Than You

From Electric Lit:

[T]he first five books I’ve published have all been my attempt to answer that question: how do we endure?

No surprise, The Book of Job has always been my favorite part of the Bible. That tale of one man with a mountain of misfortune heaped upon him is one of the presiding spirits of my book. The epigraph of Machete is the old Spanish proverb, “Dios apriete, pero no ahorca.” While the English equivalent is “God never gives you more than you can handle,” my literal translation strikes a different note: “God squeezes, but He doesn’t strangle.” As a survivor of childhood trauma, this question has been at the center of my art from day one. Not surprisingly, as a reader I’m drawn to books about survival in all its many forms. Here are a few books that kept me company while I wrote Machete, and a few that have made it onto my nightstand recently. 

Lima::Limón by Natalie Scenters-Zapico

The poems of this collection chart how women navigate the violent waters of machismo without drowning. While she writes about women along the U.S. border with Mexico, these women could have just as easily been from my South Texas hometown. How these women find ways to thrive, and not merely survive, is nothing short of heroic.

. . . .

The Life by Carrie Fountain

In “Time to be the fine line of light,” Fountain writes:

“There are so many things 

that destroy. To think solely of them

is as foolish and expedient as not 

thinking of them at all.” 

While one could say the backdrop of these wise, muscular poems is the Trump presidency and the pandemic, the way they examine parenting small children during times of great upheaval is timeless. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Spanish crime writer Carmen Mola reveals her most stunning plot twist: She doesn’t exist and her books are penned by three men

From The Daily Mail:

She’s gripped Spain with her ultra-violent crime thrillers and was regarded by critics as the country’s answer to Italy’s reclusive novelist Elena Ferrante.

But now Carmen Mola has revealed her most stunning plot twist: she doesn’t exist, and her books are penned by three middle-aged men.

On Friday night the €1million Planeta prize was awarded to Mola, an author who until now had been presented as a female university professor writing under a pen name so she could remain anonymous.

But when the main prize at the ceremony was announced in the presence of King Felipe VI in Barcelona, three men stepped up to the podium – throwing the literary world into a state of confusion.

Agustín Martínez, Jorge Díaz and Antonio Mercero published novels and worked as scriptwriters under their real names before writing as Mola. Credits include work on TV series Central Hospital and Blind Date.

. . . .

Their lead character in the Mola novels is detective Elena Blanco, a police inspector with a fondness for karaoke, grappa and casual sex, according to publisher Penguin Random House.  

The men, all in their 40s and 50s, denied choosing a female pseudonym to help sell the books. Mercero told Spanish newspaper El País. ‘I don’t know if a female pseudonym would sell more than a male one, I don’t have the faintest idea, but I doubt it.’

They previously claimed in interviews that Mola was a professor in her late 40s, telling Spanish ABC newspaper three years ago they needed anonymity to ‘protect a settled life that has nothing to do with literature’. 

Link to the rest at The Daily Mail and thanks to K. for the tip.

And Carmen Mola has an author page on Amazon.

Dave and Goliath: maverick writer Eggers makes a stand against Amazon

From The Guardian:

The plight of the high street bookshop, struggling against the power of the online giants, is a common complaint either side of the Atlantic. But not often do the prominent players, the authors and publishers, put their words into action and take a stand against the tide.

This month, Dave Eggers, the award-winning campaigning author, is to risk American sales of his new novel, The Every, by limiting access to the hardback copies. Only small bookstores will stock it.

It is a typical move for Eggers, who has long pushed back against the conventions of the industry, setting up his own non-profit publishing house, McSweeney’s, in 1998, two years before his breakout bestseller A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. But it is also something that fits neatly with the subject of his new book. A sequel to his 2013 hit, The Circle, it is a dystopian satire, featuring a company that looks much like Amazon.

For the US release of the book, on Tuesday, Eggers will allow hardcover editions to go on sale only in small bookstores. Weeks later, Vintage, a division of Random House, will publish an e-book and a paperback version. Even then, customers won’t be able to buy the hardcover on Amazon.

Eggers’s maverick move has been met with great gratitude by America’s independent bookstore owners, who are struggling with the huge post-Covid shift to online services.

“It’s made us feel like the author and the publishing industry really care about the smaller stores,” said Laura Scott Schaefer, owner of Scattered Books in Chappaqua, New York. “It’s been hard to compete with the bigger retailers. Any small advantage we can get in any kind of space is great.”

Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Miami and creator of the Miami book fair international, goes further. He believes Eggers is recognising “the important role independent booksellers play in the ecology of our literary culture”. Kaplan sees Eggers’s innovation as support for stores more than an attack on Amazon, which, after all, has had a negative impact on a wide range of other small businesses. The larger question for Kaplan is what would be lost if independent bookshops disappeared.

“You’d be losing a diversity of voices when you lose a diversity of sellers. The people who sell literature in a community help people to discover voices that might not otherwise be introduced,” he said.

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to D for the tip.

PG just checked on Amazon (US) and the book is available for pre-order in Kindle, paperback and audiobook formats. It’s scheduled to release on November 16. As usual, no preview was available from Randy Penguin.

PG will let those with more information about sales of speculative fiction in hardback decide whether this heavily-promoted virtue-signalling will save any bookstores or not.

France is trying to protect booksellers from Amazon. Is it a decade too late?

From Quartz:

French lawmakers are coming to the defense of booksellers who continue to lose business to major retailers like Amazon with a law that would set a fixed minimum delivery rate for books.

The bill, which was presented before the National Assembly today (Sept. 29), is the latest move to even the playing field for independent booksellers, who face competition not only from Amazon, but also French online retailers such as Fnac and Cultura.

“Small booksellers face costs that are far away from those of major retailers,” Géraldine Bannier, the law’s sponsor, said before the National Assembly. In the age of Amazon, she argued, booksellers have to make a choice between eating the cost of delivery themselves or charging their customers, in which case they may risk losing a sale.

French bookshops have for years been protected by a 1981 law that mandated books be sold at a fixed price, and not be discounted at more than 5%. The National Assembly passed another law in 2014 forbidding online booksellers from giving a 5% discount or free delivery to customers, though Amazon fought back by setting delivery fees at just 1 cent.

. . . .

Ryan Raffaelli, a professor at Harvard Business School who has studied how bookstores remain resilient despite Amazon competition, says that independent sellers tend to do well by “bringing people into physical spaces and creating spaces for conversation.” This has proven challenging for stores during the coronavirus pandemic, and some French sellers have suffered for it. The iconic Paris bookstore Gibert Jeune closed its doors in May.

No matter whether France’s law passes, Amazon will continue to take risks that independent booksellers cannot, Raffaelli says. The retailer is willing to be a “loss leader”—that is, sell products at a loss—because it can bring in revenue across other categories.

This approach paid off for the company between 2008 and 2018, when independent booksellers’ retail sales declined by an annual average of 3%, whereas e-commerce sites including Amazon and Apple boosted book sales by 5.6% and captured 16.5% of the French market, according to the SLF.

Still, Raffaelli says the latest French tactic is different from similar anti-competition lawsuits brought by US booksellers against Amazon because the legislation is underpinned by the belief that bookstores are not just a form of commerce, but a cultural product. Culture minister Roselyne Bachelot echoed the same belief after the law was passed by the French Senate in June, saying “a book is not a good like others.”

“When you think about a bookstore as a cultural product, that creates a different rationale for why you would protect an industry,” Raffaelli says. “If you truly believe that bookstores are a form of art and culture, then you can potentially approach how you regulate it differently than if it’s just about transaction and free trade.”

Link to the rest at Quartz

Publishers Should Include Translators Names on the Cover of Books

From The Authors Guild:

“As the U.S. counterpart to the UK’s Society of Authors (SOA), the Authors Guild fully supports today’s open letter from the SOA to all published writers asking them to request that their publishers provide cover credits for the people who translate their work, “ said Mary Rasenberger, CEO of the Authors Guild, which earlier this year issued the first model publishing contract for literary translators.

“Translators play an irreplaceable role in creating a vibrant world literature and introducing new readers to important works by authors across the globe. Yet all too often they are overlooked when it comes to the publishing industry, viewed as neither authors nor editors. It is long past time that translators be acknowledged for their contributions by including their names on the book’s cover. That’s only the first step, however; translators should also receive royalties and a share of subsidiarity rights. We also urge both authors and publishers to hire more translators of color or from diverse backgrounds to better reflect and capture the unique perspectives they bring when translating a manuscript,” she added.

Link to the rest at The Authors Guild

Here’s the letter created by the Society of Authors:

For too long, we’ve taken translators for granted. It is thanks to translators that we have access to world literatures past and present.

It is thanks to translators that we are not merely isolated islands of readers and writers talking amongst ourselves, hearing only ourselves.

Translators are the life-blood of both the literary world and the book trade which sustains it. They should be properly recognised, celebrated and rewarded for this. The first step towards doing this seems an obvious one. From now on we will be asking, in our contracts and communications, that our publishers ensure, whenever our work is translated, that the name of the translator appears on the front cover.

Inside the rise of influencer publishing

From The New Statesman (UK Edition):

“We live in a world where everyone is a brand,” said Laura McNeill, a literary agent at Gleam Titles, which was set up by Abigail Bergstrom in 2016 as the literary arm of the influencer management and marketing company Gleam. Many of the UK’s biggest selling books of the last few years, from feminist illustrator Florence Given’s Women Don’t Owe You Pretty to Instagram cleaning phenomenon Mrs Hinch’s Hinch Yourself Happy, have been developed at the agency, and then sold for huge sums to traditional publishing houses.

Celebrity autobiographies and commercial non-fiction have existed for a long time. Gleam Titles’ modus operandi is more specific: it has a focus on “writers who are using social media and the online space to share their content in a creative and effective way”. The term “author”, for the clients with which McNeill and her colleagues work, may be just one part of a multi-hyphen career that also includes “Instagrammer”, “podcaster” or “business founder”. These authors – whose books will become part of their brands – therefore require a different kind of management to traditional literary writers. “I do think the move to having talent agencies with in-house literary departments comes from these sorts of talents being a bit more demanding,” McNeill said. “I don’t want to come across as if those clients are difficult. But they are different.”

The biggest draw for publishers bidding for books by influencers is that they have committed audiences ready and waiting. Gleam understands the importance of these figures: on its website, it lists authors’ Instagram and Twitter followings beneath their biographies. When publisher Fenella Bates acquired the rights for Hinch Yourself Happy in December 2018, she noted Sophie Hinchcliffe’s impressively quick rise on Instagram, having grown her following from 1,000 to 1.4 million in just six months. Upon publication in April 2019, the book sold 160,302 copies in three days, becoming the second fastest-selling non-fiction title in the UK (after the “slimming” recipe book Pinch of Nom).

Anyone who has harnessed such an audience to sell products, promote a campaign, or otherwise cultivate a successful personal brand is an exceptionally desirable candidate to a publisher that wants to sell books. What’s more, the mechanics of social media means the size of these audiences is easily measurable, making the authors “cast-iron propositions” for publishers, said Caroline Sanderson, the associate editor of the trade magazine the Bookseller, who has noticed a huge increase in the number of books written by social media stars over the last couple of years. 

A spokesperson for Octopus Books, which published Florence Given’s Women Don’t Owe You Pretty in June 2020, suggested that a book deal can raise an influencer’s profile too. When the book was acquired, Given had approximately 100,000 followers on Instagram. “Her book was acquired because she was an exceptional writer, not because she was an influencer,” they said. “By the time it was announced, she had 150,000 followers and when the book was published her audience had jumped to circa 350,000 followers. As the book and its message grew, so did her audience.” Women Don’t Owe You Pretty has spent 26 weeks in the Sunday Times bestseller charts according to data from Nielsen BookScan, and, as of August 2021, has sold over 200,000 copies.

Link to the rest at The New Statesman (UK Edition)

PG reminds one and all that, unlike plebeian self-publishers, traditional publishers are curators of culture.

Why translators should be named on book covers

From The Guardian:

Translators are like ninjas. If you notice them, they’re no good.” This quote, attributed to Israeli author Etgar Keret, proliferates in memes, and who doesn’t love a pithy quote involving ninjas? Yet this idea – that a literary translator might make, at any moment, a surprise attack, and that at every moment we are deceiving the reader as part of an elaborate mercenary plot – is among the most toxic in world literature.

The reality of the international circulation of texts is that in their new contexts, it is up to their translators to choose every word they will contain. When you read Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights in English, the words are all mine. Translators aren’t like ninjas, but words are human, which means that they’re unique and have no direct equivalents. You can see this in English: “cool” is not identical to “chilly”, although it’s similar. “Frosty” has other connotations, other usages; so does “frigid”. Selecting one of these options on its own doesn’t make sense; it must be weighed in the balance of the sentence, the paragraph, the whole, and it is the translator who is responsible, from start to finish, for building a flourishing lexical community that is both self-contained and in profound relation with its model.

Since I began an MFA in literary translation at the University of Iowa exactly 20 years ago, there have been numerous positive changes in the way translators are paid and perceived. Take the International Booker prize, which since 2016 has split the generous sum of £50,000 between author and translator, thereby genuinely recognising the work as a fundamentally collaborative entity that, like a child, needs two progenitors in order to exist.

Despite this type of extraordinary progress, there is ample room for improvement still. Often enough, translators receive no royalties – I don’t in the US for Flights – and a surprising number of publishers do not credit translators on the covers of their books. This is where the author’s name always goes; this is where you’ll find the title, too. People tend to be surprised when I mention this, but take another look at the International Booker, and you’ll see what I mean.

Since the 2016 launch of the redesigned prize, not one of the six winning works of fiction has displayed the translator’s name on the front. Granta didn’t name Deborah Smith there; Jonathan Cape didn’t name Jessica Cohen; Fitzcarraldo didn’t name me; Sandstone Press didn’t name Marilyn Booth; Faber & Faber didn’t name Michele Hutchison. At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, 2021’s winner from Pushkin Press, doesn’t name Anna Moschovakis on its cover, although its cover does display quotes from three named sources. Four names, in other words, on the cover of a book Moschovakis wrote every word of. But her name would have been too much.

The underlying assumption on the part of many publishers seems to be that readers don’t trust translators and won’t buy a book if they realise it’s a translation. Yet is it not precisely this type of ruse that breeds distrust, and not translation itself? What tends to encourage a reader to pick up an unfamiliar book is the thrilling feeling that they are about to embark upon an interesting journey with a qualified guide. In the case of translations, they get two guides for the price of one, an astonishing – an “astounding”, a “wonderful”, a “fantastic”, a “fabulous” – bargain.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Advance copies of Sally Rooney’s unpublished book sold for hundreds of dollars

From The Guardian:

When advance reading copies (ARCs) of Sally Rooney’s new novel Beautiful World, Where Are You were sent out in May, there was a flurry of social media posts. A lucky selection of editors, writers and influencers flaunted their copies; others bemoaned not having been granted one. Soon listings for proof copies (which are clearly marked “not for resale”) started to appear on trading sites such as eBay and Depop. One copy, listed on eBay by a seller in North Carolina, sold in June for $209.16. Even the canvas tote bag that Rooney’s publicists had been sending out with the ARC copies was fetching prices in the region of $80.

As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week, advance copies of popular and classic novels have long been collector’s items: a rare proof copy of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stonefor example, or classics by authors such as Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck can sell for up to £30,000, while Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroadswhich will be published in October, sold earlier this month on eBay for £124.

But this high demand for ARCs of books that are yet to be published has only emerged recently, fuelled in part by the rise of book bloggers and influencers.

“Part of the purpose of proofs is to make people get to feel like they’re in an exclusive club,” said Adam Howard, who works for Scribe Publications. “But it happened with the Sally Rooney on a scale we’ve never seen before.”

Posting under hashtags such as #Galleybrag, Instagram influencers show off the advanced copies of novels to which they were granted access. Among these, Rooney’s forthcoming Beautiful World, Where Are You is by far the most prized. Given the social currency that a selfie with an advance copy of the novel can carry, Howard is not surprised that people are prepared to pay large sums to get their hands on it.

“When a book appears on social media months before official release, other bloggers and readers go mad for it,” said Dan Bassett, a Bristol bookseller and blogger who is regularly sent galley copies of forthcoming titles. “This has led to people selling them though market places, with others asking people like myself if I would sell it to them.”

However, the sale of ARCs is a legal grey area. Advance copies are clearly marked as not for sale, and publishers remain their legal owners. This means that technically, a publishing house could recall an ARC at any time – but this is largely unheard of. And since proofs of big releases have only recently become such a hot commodity, publishers have not traditionally had to police ARC sales stringently – and have generally been willing to turn a blind eye to a small number of proofs being sold in charity shops.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

It’s not exactly a conspiracy theory, but if PG was hired to do some on-the-cheap promotion for an upcoming traditionally-published book, he might use a few social media accounts to do exactly what’s described in the OP, then have someone contact the Guardian books editor with a hot tip and some screenshots.

For years, a mysterious figure has been stealing books before their release. Is it espionage? Revenge? Or a complete waste of time?

From Vulture:

On the morning of March 1, 2017, Catherine Mörk and Linda Altrov Berg were in the offices of Norstedts, a book publisher in Sweden, when they received an unusual email. A colleague in Venice was asking for a top-secret document: the unpublished manuscript of the forth-coming fifth book in Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” series. The books, which follow hacker detective Lisbeth Salander, have sold more than 100 million copies. David Lagercrantz, another Swedish writer, had taken over the series after Larsson’s death, and his latest — The Man Who Chased His Shadow (later The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye )— was expected to be one of the publishing events of the year.

Norstedts was guarding the series closely. Lagercrantz wrote his first “Millennium” book on a computer with no connection to the internet and delivered the manuscript on paper, at which point Norstedts mailed a single copy to each of the book’s international publishers. With the new title, Norstedts wanted to streamline the process — Lisbeth Salander’s publisher, they figured, should be able to protect itself from hackers and thieves. Mörk and Altrov Berg, who handle foreign rights at Norstedts, consulted with other publishers of blockbuster books. The translators working on one of Dan Brown’s follow-ups to The Da Vinci Code, for instance, were required to work in a basement with security guards clocking trips to the bathroom. Norstedts decided to try sharing the new “Millennium” book via Hushmail, an encrypted-email service, with passwords delivered separately by phone. Everyone would have to sign an NDA.

The unusual email came from Francesca Varotto, the book’s Italian-edition editor, and arrived shortly after Norstedts sent out the manuscript:

Dear Linda and Catherine,

I hope you are well. Could you please re-send me the link to the manuscript of The Man Who Chased His Shadow?

Thank you!

Best,

Francesca

Minutes later, and a few blocks away from Norstedts headquarters in Stockholm, Magdalena Hedlund, the agent representing the book, received a similar email from Varotto. It was strange that Varotto had lost something so valuable, but she and Hedlund were old friends, and the email struck a familiar tone. Plus everyone was scrambling: The book was set for release in 27 countries simultaneously, and the translators had to get started. Hedlund sent her friend the link to the manuscript.

Varotto replied instantly. “I’m sorry M,” she wrote. Varotto said that her password was “disabled/expired.” Could Hedlund send a new one?

Back at Norstedts, Mörk also received an email from Varotto. “Sorry Catherine,” the message read. “Could you please give me the Hushmail code?” Altrov Berg dashed off a separate message to Varotto, asking if everything was okay.

Suddenly, her phone rang. “Why are you sending me this?” Varotto asked. Altrov Berg explained what was happening. Varotto was confused. She hadn’t sent any emails to Norstedts all day.

With Varotto on the phone, the two Norstedts employees scrolled through the messages. The emails looked like ones Varotto would send: The text used the same font, and the signature at the end was styled just like hers. Then, with Varotto still on the line, Mörk got yet another email asking for the password.

They scanned the messages again. Only now did Varotto notice that the signature listed her old job title; she had been promoted two months earlier. The subject line also misspelled the name of her companyFinally, they realized the email address wasn’t hers at all: The domain had been changed from @marsilioeditori.it to @marsilioeditori.com.

Everyone deleted the emails. What other malicious tricks were lurking inside? The IT department at Marsilio Editori began investigating and found that the fraudulent domain had been created the day before through GoDaddy. It was registered to an address in Amsterdam and a Dutch phone number. When an employee tried calling, it went straight to a recording: “Thank you for calling IBM.”

The “Millennium” team was in a panic. The thief didn’t yet have the password, as far as they knew, but was clearly determined to get it. Publishers around the world depend on a best seller like this, and an online leak of the manuscript could derail its release.

But the book’s publication came and went without a hitch. The manuscript never reappeared. What was Fake Francesca Varotto after? Much more than Lisbeth Salander’s best-selling exploits, it turned out. On the same day as the “Millennium” emails, Fake Francesca asked someone else in publishing for an early look at Lot, Bryan Washington’s story collection, as well as a debut novel about an accountant who becomes a fortune teller. Even stranger, the thief had other identities. Later that day, a fake Swedish editor went to the Wylie Agency in London to request a copy of Louise Erdrich’s just-announced novel, and someone pretending to be Peter van der Zwaag, a Dutch editor, asked a colleague in New York for the same fortune-teller book. Fake Peter then introduced his new assistant to request that she be added to a private mailing list filled with confidential publishing information. The assistant followed up with a friendly note: “It’s so busy and overwhelming now with the London Book Fair, isn’t it?” The assistant didn’t exist.

Link to the rest at Vulture and thanks to DM for the tip.

The Thursday Murder Club

From The Guardian:

So now we know what Pointless creator Richard Osman has been up to behind that laptop: drawing on his passion for classic English crime fiction for his own attempt at the genre. When word got out it sparked a 10-way publishing auction, and the novel has become the fastest selling adult crime debut since records began.

That’s quite an achievement for what turns out to be an amiable if undemanding cosy caper. What marks it out is the originality of the setting, inspired by a visit Osman paid to an affluent retirement village boasting a full range of recreational and medical facilities including a “contemporary upscale restaurant”.

In the novel this becomes Cooper’s Chase, an exclusive development secreted on the Kentish weald: “You can’t move here until you’re over sixty-five and the Waitrose delivery vans clink with wine and repeat prescriptions every time they pass over the cattle grid”. Every Thursday the amateur sleuths of Cooper’s Chase gather in the jigsaw room, “between Art History and Conversational French”, to investigate unsolved murder cases that the Kent police force have been too incompetent to prosecute themselves.

Cooper’s Chase sits on the site of a former convent: now the developer, a brash vulgarian who owns a red grand piano, is exploiting a contractual loophole to turn the chapel and graveyard into eight new flats. Clearly he is not long for this world, and when somebody slips him a lethal injection in a scuffle, the Thursday Murder Club have a real life homicide on their hands.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Four hundred years of melancholy—why Robert Burton’s masterpiece speaks to our pandemic age

From Prospect:

It has become increasingly difficult to ignore our great capacity for experiencing and describing psychological pain. To many observers across the globe, mental illnesses and disorders are now alarmingly prevalent, and talk of crises, unprecedented surges and epidemics has become widespread amongst clinical experts and in the media. Living through a viral pandemic and enforced lockdowns has further concentrated attention on mental wellbeing. Conversations about emotional health proliferate. As with the cliché about the Eskimo words for snow, our abundant vocabulary testifies to the variety and intractability of our disturbances, and also to our enduring need to work through them with language.

This phenomenon has deep roots. Sadness, anxiety, lethargy, dejection, discontentment, torpor, perplexity, horror, shame, suspicion, anguish, diffidence, weariness, languishing, misanthropy, despair: such emotions and dispositions live in our present, but they have long been observed in human nature. Four hundred years ago, surveying a world that had evidently succumbed to similar debilitating passions, the Oxford scholar Robert Burton declared an epidemic of melancholy. In his view, melancholy had become “a disease so frequent… in our miserable times, as few there are that feel not the smart of it.” For Burton, who himself suffered from melancholy, the condition was then “so grievous” and “so common,” that he felt compelled to “show the causes, symptoms and several cures” of “so universal a malady, an Epidemical disease, that so often, so much crucifies the body and mind.”

The result was The Anatomy of Melancholy, unquestionably the greatest work on this subject in English literature. It is a book that guides its reader through the territory with wit, compassion and curiosity. Its many admirers over the centuries have included John Milton, Samuel Johnson, John Keats, Laurence Sterne, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Sayers, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, Philip Pullman, Patrick Keiller and Nick Cave.

As befits its subject matter, the Anatomy is enormous. By the time of the sixth edition, published posthumously in 1651, Burton’s sprawling masterpiece had expanded to more than half a million words. It also included over 13,000 quotations, drawn from learned and popular sources stretching back to antiquity, illustrating and lamenting our psychological dispositions, self-destructive passions and moral pathologies, surveying the causes and consequences of our curious susceptibility to melancholy, and offering a bewildering range of possible cures.

Anyone encountering Burton’s book for the first time today will be struck by its idiosyncrasies. It is both serious and humorous. The main subject is medical, but the subtitle signals that melancholy will also be treated “philosophically and historically.” It opens with an extended satire, in which the laughing (possibly unhinged?) philosopher Democritus Junior ridicules the madness of the world. He doesn’t spare the reader: “Thou thyself art the subject of my discourse.” The main treatise then applies the structure of medical pathology—kinds, causes, symptoms, prognostics, cures—to different forms of melancholy. This structure, however, incorporates a variety of different kinds of writing, including poetry, history, moral philosophy, theology, geography, astrology and mythology. Despite attempts to assign the book to a specific genre, it resists categorisation.

Burton’s personality is stamped on every page, in prose that is eccentric and unmistakable: conversational, expansive, expressive and frequently digressive. Many sentences end only with an “et cetera,” suggesting that more could always follow—and in later editions often did. The text is punctuated with splenetic outbursts (especially against Burton’s pet hate, the idle aristocracy), but these are often accompanied by self-doubt and self-reproach: “Thou canst not think worse of me than I do of myself.”

Link to the rest at Prospect

China Bestsellers: July Was Driven by Summer’s School Reading Lists

From Publishing Perspectives:

hose summer reading lists. Just when you start to see the arrival of some new books on China’s bestselling fiction charts as we did in June, the curriculum-driven course recommendations take over and we’re looking once more at classics of the classroom.

You’ll find they include Luo Guangbin and Yang Yiyan’s Red Crag from China Youth Press (moving up 13 spots to No. 1); To Live by Yu Hua from Beijing October Art & Literature Publishing House (at No. 2); and The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin from Chongqing Publishing House (at No. 3).

Additional familiar titles from the reading list include Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin (People’s Literature Publishing House), which was powered 10 spots up the list to No. 7 by the syllabi provided by the school system. And here’s Water Margin by Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong (People’s Literature Publishing House); Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en (another from the People’s Literature Publishing House); and Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder in a new edition ( The Writers’ Publishing House).

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

A Great Storyteller Loses His Memory

From The Paris Review:

Writing about the death of loved ones must be about as old as writing itself, and yet the inclination to do it instantly ties me up in knots. I am appalled that I am thinking of taking notes, ashamed as I take notes, disappointed in myself as I revise notes. What makes matters emotionally turbulent is the fact that my father is a famous person. Beneath the need to write may lurk the temptation to advance one’s own fame in the age of vulgarity. Perhaps it might be better to resist the call and to stay humble. Humility is, after all, my favorite form of vanity. But as with most writing, the subject matter chooses you, and so resistance could be futile.

A few months earlier a friend asked how my dad was doing with his loss of memory. I told her he lives strictly in the present, unburdened by the past, free of expectations for the future. Forecasting based on previous experience, which is believed to be of evolutionary significance as well as one of the origins of storytelling, no longer plays a part in his life.

“So he doesn’t know he’s mortal,” she concluded. “Lucky him.”

Of course, the picture I painted for her is simplified. It is dramatized. The past still plays a part in his conscious life. He relies on the distant echo of his considerable interpersonal skills to ask anyone he meets a series of safe questions: “How is everything?” “Where are you living these days?” “How are your people?” Occasionally he’ll venture an attempt at a more ambitious exchange and become disoriented in the middle of it, losing the thread of the idea or running out of words. The puzzled expression on his face, as well as the embarrassment that crosses it momentarily, like a puff of smoke in a breeze, betrays a past when conversation was as natural to him as breathing. Creative, funny, evocative, provocative conversation. Being a great conversador was almost as highly regarded among his oldest group of friends as being a good writer.

The future is also not completely behind him. Often at dusk he asks, “Where are we going tonight? Let’s go out to a fun place. Let’s go dancing. Why? Why not?” If you change the subject enough times, he moves on.

He recognizes my mother and addresses her as Meche, Mercedes, La Madre, or La Madre Santa. There were a few very difficult months not long ago when he remembered his lifelong wife but considered the woman in front of him claiming to be her to be an impostor.

“Why is she here giving orders and running the house if she is nothing to me?”

My mother reacted to this with anger.

“What is wrong with him?” she asked in disbelief.

“It’s not him, Mom. It’s dementia.” She looked at me like I was trying to pull a fast one. Surprisingly, that period passed, and she regained her proper place in his mind as his principal companion. She is the last tether. His secretary, his driver, his cook, who have all worked in the house for years, he recognizes as familiar and friendly people who make him feel safe, but he no longer knows their names. When my brother and I visit, he looks at us long and hard, with uninhibited curiosity. Our faces ring a distant bell, but he cannot make us out.

“Who are those people in the next room?” he asks a housekeeper.

“Your sons.”

“Really? Those men? Carajo. That’s incredible.”

There was an uglier period a couple of years earlier. My father was fully aware of his mind slipping away. He asked for help insistently, repeating time and time again that he was losing his memory. The toll of seeing a person in that state of anxiety and having to tolerate their endless repetitions over and over and over again is enormous. He would say, “I work with my memory. Memory is my tool and my raw material. I cannot work without it. Help me,” and then he would repeat it in one form or another multiple times an hour for half an afternoon. It was grueling. That eventually passed. He regained some tranquility and would sometimes say, “I’m losing my memory, but fortunately I forget that I’m losing it,” or “Everyone treats me like I’m a child. It’s good that I like it.”

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Most people prefer reading paper books over digital books on tablets, phones

From Study Finds:

Digital books on tablets, smartphones, and devices like Amazon’s Kindle are certainly convenient, but according to a new survey most people still prefer a good old fashioned paper book. There’s just something satisfying about turning the page and holding a physical book in one’s hands, as over two-thirds of adults say they always opt for a real book over digital reading.

Put together by Oxfam, researcher polled 2,000 respondents in the United Kingdom regarding their thoughts on paper books versus digital books. Close to half (46%) enjoy physically turning pages and 42 percent prefer the feel of a physical book in their hands. One in four say they love the smell of paper books. Meanwhile, another 32 percent feel like they become much more immersed in the story while reading a paper book and 16 percent go for traditional books because they remind them of libraries.

. . . .

Interestingly, over a third of respondents (35%) enjoy buying paper books because that allows them to proudly display them on their bookshelf as a background during Zoom meetings.

All in all, only 16 percent of adults prefer digital books and a meager eight percent who favor audio books. On average, the survey finds most adults own 49 books and read for three hours per week.

“People prefer to read physical books because they offer something more tangible and grounded. There’s something that can feel more “permanent” about real books over digital formats,” says Dr. Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, in a statement. “Reading offers us a form of escapism. It provides us with a break from our everyday lives, and often also, an opportunity to learn something new and expand our minds.”

. . . .

Three-quarters say they’re considering donating books they’ve finished and 72 percent usually buy used books themselves. Moreover, this research suggests that books are the top item most adults are willing to buy used. Seventy-one percent say they buy used books because it is cheaper and 52 percent do it because it is better for the environment.

Link to the rest at Study Finds

Hong Kong Police Arrest Five Over Children’s Books

From The Wall Street Journal:

Hong Kong’s national-security police arrested five people for allegedly conspiring to commit sedition through a series of picture books that portray sheep being targeted by wolves—an allusion to China’s crackdown on pro-democracy supporters in the city.

Hours after police detained five members of a speech therapists’ union, police displayed three illustrated books that they say incited hatred against the government among children as young as four. The cartoons simplified “political issues that kids wouldn’t comprehend and beautifies criminal activities,” Superintendent Steve Li Kwai-wah told a news conference. “They’re meant to poison the minds of children,” he said.

Described as teaching aids, the books were distributed through pro-democracy businesses, local political offices and online by the speech therapists’ union, which was founded in November 2019—a time when some activists formed workers’ groups as a way to organize protest actions against the government.

The books include one titled “The Guardians of Sheep Village,” which is set against the backdrop of antigovernment protests that rocked Hong Kong in 2019. It depicts a malicious plot by the wolves to take over the sheep’s village and devour them all.

Another, “12 Warriors of Sheep Village,” refers to a dozen activists who were caught by the Chinese coast guard during an ill-fated boat escape from Hong Kong last year. The third book in the series, titled “Street Cleaners of Sheep Village,” alludes to a medical workers’ strike last year when Hong Kong faced its first coronavirus infections imported from China, using cartoons of littering wolves to portray outsiders.

. . . .

Thursday’s arrests are part of an intensifying crackdown on dissent in the former British colony and were made on the same day that four former executives and journalists of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily appeared in court charged with violating the national-security law by conspiring to collude with external forces. Apple Daily, founded by jailed media mogul Jimmy Lai, was forced to cease publication last month after authorities seized its assets.

. . . .

Publishers have been among the targets of authorities since the national-security law was imposed last year. Media groups and opposition groups have raised concerns that free speech is being eliminated and so-called red lines about what amounts to a crime are being expanded to eliminate criticism of authorities.

“Even children’s picture books cross the red line,” Herbert Chow, a local businessman who supports the protest movement, wrote in a Facebook post referring to the arrests.

The five people arrested—two men and three women, aged between 25 and 28 years old—are board members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists. They were detained under a colonial-era antisedition law rather than the security law imposed by China.

In its online mission statement, the union says it has chosen to align itself with the politically marginalized. “We are a group of speech therapists, we should walk with the unheard,” it said on its website. “Those who are lucky won’t understand that being able to speak is a luxury. But we resonate with this.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Italy’s Publishers Report 44-Percent Unit Growth, First Half of 2021

From Publishing Perspectives:

Despite what’s described as lingering difficulties in “large-scale distribution,” the Association of Italian Publishers (Associazione Italiana Editori, AIE) today (July 13) is reporting strong book-sale growth in the first six months of this year, both in units and in revenue.

According to analyses conducted by AIE’s research department based on NielsenIQ data, between January 4 and June 20, some 15 million more copies of printed books were sold, a 44-percent jump over the same time period’s sales in 2020. This encompasses all trade book channels, including bookstores, both online and physical, and large-scale distribution, with the exception of schoolbooks.

Even more significant, media messaging from AIE in Milan points out, is the growth compared to 2019, prior to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic’s arrival. By comparison to the first half of 2019, 11 million more copies of books were sold January to June this year, an increase of 31 percent.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

The cut-throat business of the secondhand book trade

From The Spectator:

I happen to have, by chance, a small library of books about books, including a collection of guides to book collecting. They tend to advise the collector to choose a particular subject — a period, movement, theme, an author — early on in a collecting career, something I have singularly failed to do. They also advise collectors to attend book auctions, to inspect booksellers’ catalogues and only to buy the best — I don’t do that either. Like most normal people, my main source and supply of books (including books about books) has always been among the dross and dreck to be found in secondhand bookshops in unfashionable provincial towns — which is probably what makes the novelist Nicholas Royle’s White Spines seem both so thrillingly familiar and so utterly refreshing.

It’s not a book about the world of grand auction houses and expensive signed editions. It’s an account of how, at some point — around the mid-1990s — Royle decided to start collecting ‘every single B-format Picador paperback published between 1972 and 2000, when the publisher abandoned its commitment to the white spine with black lettering in a more or less uniform style’. He currently has 959 Picadors in his ‘main collection’, including reissues and rejacketed titles, most of them picked up for a couple of quid in unprepossessing bookshops up and down the country.

It’s not exactly a history of Picador, though we certainly learn a lot about the imprint, launched by Pan Books in 1972 by Sonny Mehta. Nor is it exactly a memoir, though there are plenty of details about Royle’s time as a student and his work for Time Out, his teaching and his running of his own small press, Nightjar. There’s mention of a divorce, a new relationship and children — all subtly tipped in, or interleaved, in chapters about various Picador-related matters, including descriptions of book covers.If you think authors are really only interested in writing, Gekoski will quickly disavow you of the notion

What keeps this assortment of reflections and reminiscences hanging together is Royle’s delightful accounts of his trips to charity and secondhand bookshops across the UK: Goldmark Books in Uppingham; George Kelsall Booksellers in Littleborough; Southend; Coventry; Wigtown in Scotland. Over the years, Royle has been everywhere. White Spines is a sort of Bill Bryson for book lovers, wry, cosy and full of amusing asides and lovely cameos.

But the question remains, why? Well, Royle is clearly temperamentally a collector, on a limited budget, which makes £3 charity shop paperbacks the perfect buy. And he collects poetry magazines — also things no one else really wants — and bread labels: ‘You know those little plastic adhesive ties you get around the end of the plastic bag your supermarket loaf comes in? With the best before date on?’ (He sticks them inside his cupboards.) He’s just that sort of bloke. But there’s something else:If I could just acquire a few more Picadors … I’d have a bookcase, a white bookcase no less, full of white-spined Picadors. It would be a thing of beauty. It would be a small masterpiece, and it would be easier to achieve than the masterpieces I was trying to create at my desk in the attic.

Collecting books as a distraction — a displacement, an alternative — from actually writing books. Sounds familiar.

‘I wonder if I might not be the Ronnie Corbett of Contemporary Letters,’ Royle asks himself. (He’s pictured on the dust-jacket wearing large Corbettesque glasses.) ‘And if that’s the case, who is my Ronnie Barker?’ Anyone of a certain age with mild literary proclivities will fondly remember many of the Picador titles he discusses — Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains. Which makes us all Barkers to his Corbett.

The great, renowned rare-book dealer Rick Gekoski is another sort of character entirely. He’s like something out of a Raymond Chandler. In Guarded by Dragons he relates the story of one particularly fraught book-related negotiation: ‘The call ended there. I put the phone down, and lit a cigar. “Son of a bitch!” I said in a very loud voice, as I put my feet up on my desk, and said it again.’ He is not a man to be messed with: ‘They might suppose me clever, self-satisfied and disputatious, rich and aggressive, as the clichés demand, but to these putative qualities I would add “relentless”.’

. . . .

Guarded by Dragons is indeed relentless — and clever and self-satisfied and disputatious — which makes it an absorbing read, like listening to your favourite uncle regale you with tales of life and work back in the day when men were men and book dealers were cigar-chomping buccaneers, ready to go to battle at the slightest hint of a rare first edition. The book’s title relates to Gekoski’s sense of having spent a lifetime on a great adventure: ‘There’s something enticing and valuable out there, the intrepid hunter-dealer seeks it out, but it is guarded by a jealous owner-dragon, and other hunters are circling.’

Gekoski’s tales from 50 years on the front line of rare-book dealing — his encounters with writers, institutions and fellow dealers — make the whole business sound like such fun that one is tempted to take it up oneself, not least because the barrier to entry seems so low ‘There are only two things a rare-book dealer must know: at what price is a book buyable and at what higher price one might sell it.’ Alas, it’s not quite as simple as that. In order to succeed you’ve got to be a bit like Rick.

He tells how he gave up a secure academic teaching position to pursue book dealing, starting out with a few D.H. Lawrence first editions, until eventually he ended up handling entire archives, jetting around, smoking cigars, fine-dining, drinking and generally wheeling and dealing across continents at the highest level. You’ve got some original documents relating to the Balfour Declaration? You need to quickly offload some Ulysses first editions? Or you’re Rachel Cusk, looking to sell your archive? Rick’s your man.

Link to the rest at The Spectator

Why do so few men read books by women?

From The Guardian:

The byline at the top of this piece reads MA Sieghart, not Mary Ann. Why? Because I really want men to read it too. Female authors through the centuries, from the Brontë sisters to George Eliot to JK Rowling, have felt obliged to disguise their gender to persuade boys and men to read their books. But now? Is it really still necessary? The sad answer is yes.

For my book The Authority Gap, which looks at why women are still taken less seriously than men, I commissioned Nielsen Book Research to find out exactly who was reading what. I wanted to know whether female authors were not just deemed less authoritative than men, but whether they were being read by men in the first place. And the results confirmed my suspicion that men were disproportionately unlikely even to open a book by a woman.

For the top 10 bestselling female authors (who include Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood, as well as Danielle Steel and Jojo Moyes), only 19% of their readers are men and 81%, women. But for the top 10 bestselling male authors (who include Charles Dickens and JRR Tolkien, as well as Lee Child and Stephen King), the split is much more even: 55% men and 45% women.

In other words, women are prepared to read books by men, but many fewer men are prepared to read books by women. And the female author in the top 10 who had the biggest male readership – the thriller writer LJ Ross – uses her initials, so it’s possible the guys thought she was one of them. What does this tell us about how reluctant men are to accord equal authority – intellectual, artistic, cultural – to women and men?

Margaret Atwood, a writer who should be on the bookshelves of anyone who cares about literary fiction, has a readership that is only 21% male. Male fellow Booker prize winners Julian Barnes and Yann Martel have nearly twice as many (39% and 40%). It’s not as if women are less good at writing literary fiction. All five of the top five bestselling literary novels in 2017 were by women, and nine of the top 10. And it’s not as if men don’t enjoy reading books by women when they do open them; in fact, they marginally prefer them. The average rating men give to books by women on Goodreads is 3.9 out of 5; for books by men, it’s 3.8.

Turning to nonfiction, which is read by slightly more men than women, the pattern is similar, though not quite so striking. Men still read male authors much more than female ones, but the discrepancy isn’t so large because women tend to do the same in favour of female authors. But there is still quite a difference. Women are 65% more likely to read a nonfiction book by the opposite sex than men are. All this suggests that men, consciously or unconsciously, don’t accord female authors as much authority as male ones. Or they make the lazy assumption that women’s books aren’t for them without trying them out to see whether this is true.

Why does this matter? For a start, it narrows men’s experiences of the world. “I’ve known this for a very long time, that men just aren’t interested in reading our literature,” the Booker prize-winning novelist Bernardine Evaristo told me in an interview for The Authority Gap. “Our literature is one of the ways in which we explore narrative, we explore our ideas, we develop our intellect, our imagination. If we’re writing women’s stories, we’re talking about the experiences of women. We also talk about male experiences from a female perspective. And so if they’re not interested in that, I think that it’s very damning and it’s extremely worrying.”

If men don’t read books by and about women, they will fail to understand our psyches and our lived experience. They will continue to see the world through an almost entirely male lens, with the male experience as the default. And this narrow focus will affect our relationships with them, as colleagues, as friends and as partners. But it also impoverishes female writers, whose work is seen as niche rather than mainstream if it is consumed mainly by other women. They will earn less respect, less status and less money.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

As PG examines his own reading habits, he believes that he doesn’t care whether a book is written by a woman or a man. In many cases when he hears something about a book that makes it sound like he is likely to enjoy it, he may not even pay attention to the author’s name.

(PG understands that many people, especially authors, will feel that PG’s lack of attention to the author’s name is exceedingly disagreeable and even worse than it would normally be since he has and does represent a number of authors, but it’s an old habit that long predated him marrying an author or representing any. If he’s going to point to the source of this habit, he’ll mention a childhood lived largely in book deserts a long way from any libraries in a family which owned a few books, but couldn’t afford to buy any new ones very often. Under those circumstances, PG read any book he could get his hands on that was not vastly above his reading abilities. Rereading books he liked several times was something he always did as well. He read the poem, The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes so many times that he still remembers most of it from memory.)

As an adult, when PG finds an author of any gender he likes, he tends to read every book the author wrote. Dorothy Sayers comes to mind as an example as does Vera Brittain on the prose side and poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Dickinson.

Plus almost everything J.K. Rowling has written and close to everything that Barbara Tuchman published, including The Guns of August, The Zimmerman Telegram, Stilwell and the American Experience in China: 1911-1945, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century and The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World before the War, 1890–1914. (Listing Ms. Tuchman’s books has made PG realizes that he wants to reread all of them again.

The real-life plan to use novels to predict the next war

From The Guardian:

s the car with the blacked-out windows came to a halt in a sidestreet near Tübingen’s botanical gardens, keen-eyed passersby may have noticed something unusual about its numberplate. In Germany, the first few letters usually denote the municipality where a vehicle is registered. The letter Y, however, is reserved for members of the armed forces.

Military men are a rare, not to say unwelcome, sight in Tübingen. A picturesque 15th-century university town that brought forth great German minds including the philosopher Hegel and the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, it is also a modern stronghold of the German Green party, thanks to its left-leaning academic population. In 2018, there was growing resistance on campus against plans to establish Europe’s leading artificial intelligence research hub in the surrounding area: the involvement of arms manufacturers in Tübingen’s “cyber valley”, argued students who occupied a lecture hall that year, brought shame to the university’s intellectual tradition.

Yet the two high-ranking officials in field-grey Bundeswehr uniforms who stepped out of the Y-plated vehicle on 1 February 2018 had travelled into hostile territory to shake hands on a collaboration with academia, the like of which the world had never seen before.

The name of the initiative was Project Cassandra: for the next two years, university researchers would use their expertise to help the German defence ministry predict the future.

The academics weren’t AI specialists, or scientists, or political analysts. Instead, the people the colonels had sought out in a stuffy top-floor room were a small team of literary scholars led by Jürgen Wertheimer, a professor of comparative literature with wild curls and a penchant for black roll-necks.

After the officers had left, the atmosphere among Wertheimer’s team remained tense. A greeting gift of camouflage-patterned running tops and military green nail varnish had helped break the ice, but there was outstanding cause for concern. “We’d been unsure about whether to go public over the project,” recalls Isabelle Holz, Wertheimer’s assistant. The university had declined the opportunity to be formally involved with the defence ministry, which is why the initiative was run through the Global Ethic Institute, a faculty-independent institution set up by the late dissident Catholic, Hans Küng. “We thought our offices might get paint-bombed or something.”

They needn’t have worried. “Cassandra reaches for her Walther PPK” ran the headline in the local press after the project was announced, a sarcastic reference to James Bond’s weapon of choice. The idea that literature could be used by the defence ministry to identify civil wars and humanitarian disasters ahead of time, wrote the Neckar-Chronik newspaper, was as charming as it was hopelessly naive. “You have to ask yourself why the military is financing something that is going to be of no value whatsoever.”

In the end, the launch of Project Cassandra saw neither paint bombs nor sit-ins. The public, Holz says, “simply didn’t take us seriously. They just thought we were mad.”

Charges of insanity, Wertheimer says, have forever been the curse of prophets and seers. Cassandra, the Trojan priestess of Greek myth, had a gift of foresight that allowed her to predict the Greek warriors hiding inside the Trojan horse, the death of Mycenaean king Agamemnon at the hands of his wife and her lover, the 10-year wanderings of Odysseus, and her own demise. Yet each of her warnings was ignored: “She’s lost her wits,” says Clytaemestra in Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon, before the chorus dismiss her visions as “goaded by gods, by spirits vainly driven, frantic and out of tune”.

Link to the rest at The Guardian