Archive for the ‘Reading’ category

Garrison Keillor Thinks The Kids Have Already Left His Lawn: Future of the Book edition.

July 15, 2010

This post has whiskers on it, but even though the Garrison Keillor column “When Everyone is a Writer, No One Is” is long since gone for fishwrap, the issue it attempt to raise is, of course still with us.  So I thought I’d reanimate this from my fallow period for your reading pleasure.

To be sure, there was a fair amount of blog traffic on Keillor’s jeremiad about the book industry, at the time.

Broadly the response seems to have been pretty dismissive, which is right.  This is an awful piece, self aggrandizing, a work of anecdotage (h/t the irreplaceable Herb Caen, I think), not to mention that it’s a bizarre misreading of media history, given Keillor’s place of pride in that obsolete venue, radio.

It begins with a bit of don’t-you-wish-you-were-me aw-shucksitude:

In New York the other night, I ran into my daughter’s favorite author, Mary Pope Osborne, whose “Magic Tree House” books I’ve read to the child at night, and a moment later, Scott Turow, who writes legal thrillers that keep people awake all night, and David Remnick, the biographer of President Barack Obama. Bang bang bang, one heavyweight after another. Erica Jong, Jeffrey Toobin, Judy Blume….I grew up on the windswept plains with my nose in a book, so I am awestruck in the presence of book people, even though I have written a couple books myself…I’m not one of them — I’m a deadline writer, my car has 150,000 miles on it …

Well, yeah — and he is a nationally broadcast host of a signature program on America’s most prestigious radio network, and a contributor to places like The New Yorker, and, as he notes, the author of a few books himself which haven’t done badly at all.  He may say he hit that party by the grace of a well connected friend, but dude, you don’t need to go all bachelor Norwegian farmer on us.  You know as well as we that everyone else there was making the same list:  there’s Remnick, and Blume, and Jong and by gum that’s Garrison Keillor too….

But leave the formerly uncelebrated their conceits. (And remember that Hemingway retort to Fitzgerald’s “The rich are different.”  “Yeah — they have more money.”)

Keillor gets down to cases by declaring that all this glittering pleasure is a mask, or rather a vision of the unknowing dead walking under the delusion that they yet live:

…this book party in Tribeca feels like a Historic Moment, like a 1982 convention of typewriter salesmen or the hunting party of Kaiser Wilhelm II with his coterie of plumed barons in the fall of 1913 before the Great War sent their world spinning off the precipice.

What’s going to send all these beautiful people to a Western Front  in which the trenches are lined in Book Antiqua and Garamond?  Not the loss of readers, an audience for, if not The Word, then words.

We live in a literate time, and our children are writing up a storm, often combining letters and numerals (U R 2 1derful), blogging like crazy, reading for hours off their little screens, surfing around from Henry James to Jesse James to the epistle of James to pajamas to Obama to Alabama to Alanon to non-sequiturs, sequins, penguins, penal institutions.

So what’s the problem?  There are several:  the first is the lack of that which by asking for it (as the joke of my youth had it) New York singles used to get rid of their apartments’ cockroaches:  commitment.

and it’s all free, and you read freely, you’re not committed to anything the way you are when you shell out $30 for a book, you’re like a hummingbird in an endless meadow of flowers.

This is just weird.  I was and am a reader — and the author of four books,* all published by major trade houses, all sold in that price range (not quite that high, actually) as hardcovers, half that or less in paper — and this isn’t how I either acquire or engage books.

I use libraries, I borrow, I dig through give away boxes, I buy used…and if there is a book that is a beautiful object, and it tickles me, and I have the money, I pay vastly more than the words could be had for to get that volume in its role as an object, a work of art.

And now, I have classics and pulp and all the rest on at least three devices (yes, I plead iPad-ity.  It ain’t worth it, but I love it…)

All of which to say is that you don’t read a long work because it cost you a lot.  You read it — I read it — because it gets its hooks in me.  And the medium is less important than you think, at least than I thought, once that hook is well and truly set.

I read most of U.S. Grant’s memoirs (h/t Ta-Nehisi Coates) on my iPhone, all 3.2 inches worth of screen, through a download from  It’s better on the iPad, and I wish I had had access to proper maps, but I couldn’t stop reading, pulling out my phone at every crosswalk, at the supermarket counter, and so on.  And I am 50 mumble mumble years old; this isn’t some damn kid doing a byte dance.

The idea that how much someone pays for a piece of work evokes a reader commitment to it is…how to put it?


Then there’s Keillor’s odd complaint that too many people are writing these days.

And if you want to write, you just write and publish yourself. No need to ask permission, just open a website. And if you want to write a book, you just write it, send it to or BookSurge at Amazon or PubIt or ExLibris and you’ve got yourself an e-book. No problem. And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.

And so what?  If someone wants to write for pleasure and share it, who cares.  There are lots of things wrong in book publishing and the like, but it’s not that people aren’t buying my book on Newton (see below for all the links to let you do just that 😉 just because John or Jane Doe just popped a book with Newton  in its title up on Lulu.  And it’s not that the publicity/marketing problem is made difficult because there are lots of free or cheap books.  It is that the broader demise of go-to media makes it harder to promote books — to enable original work to find its audience readily.

That is:  we are definitely in a transitional phase, but from where I sit, having done pretty ok in getting the word out on Newton and the Counterfeiter through a variety of channels, the fact that what used to be called literary journalism has evaporated from mass print media and drive time radio even faster than science writing has gone is the most important single change in America’s book culture.  Not the fact that you can buy my work on Kindle for ten bucks, in hard cover for 17 or so, and in paper for around 9 — and certainly not that someone else out there might be writing a work they’ll sell for less.  It ain’t my grandma, nor Cory Doctorow that’s the problem here.

Rather, as Rebecca Skloot’s incredibly innovative (and exhausting) self-created book tour (warning: PDF) shows, there are ways to reach audiences, (and it helps to have written a damn good book, of course).  But of course, Skloot’s experience is a prototype of new ways to make connections between authors, works, and audiences; it’s not the finished version that non-maniacal (and/or childless) folks can precisely emulate.  We will, we are getting a new interconnected web of readers and writers, I think (I certainly hope so). But as in so much of the digital transformation, the collapse of a distinctive regional as well as national, print-based culture of writing about books isn’t getting replaced instantly.  And whatever constellation of ways to get the word out  emerge (a bit of Scalzi here, a bit of barnstorming there), it’s going to take a while before at least fogies like me really figur out how to use these resources to reach all the people who might in fact want to check out what I have to say.

Here that sermon endeth. But back to Keillor’s jeremiad:

Back in the day, we became writers through the laying on of hands. Some teacher who we worshipped touched our shoulder, and this benediction saw us through a hundred defeats. And then an editor smiled on us and wrote us a check, and our babies got shoes.

Really?  I became a writer because I felt books telling me to write.  I still write because of what I read, or because I feel compelled to say something (like this!).  I’m not going to claim universal truth for a data set of one, but I know plenty of other authors whose experience is the same.

Yes, of course, the encouragement of teachers, editors, fellow writers all matter. It can be hard to go on if no one seems to think what you do is any good.  But in fact such notice is the result, not the source of writerly identity.  If what Keillor really means is that it took professional acknowledgement to make a living as a writer, well of course that’s true, banal, but still factual enough.  But writers write; the laying on of hands, when it happens, may encourage, but it does not alter the underlying dynamic.  All that has changed is that those who do not or do not choose to have a commercial career (see Adams, Henry) have ready means to create an expression external to themselves and their desk full of copy.  And what is so bad there?

Well Keillor thinks that’s pretty dangerous:

But in the New Era, writers will be self-anointed. No passing of the torch. Just sit down and write the book. And The New York Times, the great brand name of publishing, whose imprimatur you covet for your book (“brilliantly lyrical, edgy, suffused with light” — NY Times) will vanish (Poof!). And editors will vanish.

Really?  Does Keillor actually think, in spite all the evidence of major media enterprises on the web, that the proliferation of data will reduce the audience’s demand for assessment, validation of consumer choices, the critical filtering role that acquiring editors and critics (maybe not at the Times, but in the newly emerging literary mediasphere)? The way the book writing and reading world will communicate is certainly changing…but there is no evidence, none, that Keillor adduces to suggest that self-anointed writers will be anymore successful or significant than they now are.  The mechanisms by which writers of books reach audiences and make money are changing; but the fact that some writers command both more audience attention and more cash than others hasn’t changed, and won’t.

And as for editors:  Vanish?  Really?  News to my wonderful editors over twenty years now.  The models by which books are acquired, helped and published are all changing, of course…but change is not the same as evaporation…and the blunt truth is that authors I know are hiring free-lance editors because book publishers have (long before this latest round of transformation) abdicated a lot of that task, and real writers know that real editors make them look yet more brilliant.

The upside of self-publishing is that you can write whatever you wish, utter freedom, and that also is the downside. You can write whatever you wish, and everyone in the world can exercise their right to read the first three sentences and delete the rest.

And this is different from my right to follow Einstein with Newton, and Newton with — I’m not going to tell you yet — and your right to stop after the first line of my first book “In the beginning…,” never to return again?  How, exactly?

Self-publishing will destroy the aura of martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for centuries. Tortured geniuses, rejected by publishers, etc., etc. If you publish yourself, this doesn’t work anymore, alas.

Bullsh*t.  Trust me.  Writers can martyr themselves at the drop of a hat (“Ouch! My back!).  Writing a book is a long, slow, hard slog for the most ephemeral and capricious of rewards at the end.  It hurts to spend a day casting prose, knowing all day it isn’t working, not knowing how to make it work, and not wanting to stop until it does, but running out of daylight, of eyesight, of words.  Then you get up the next day and, if you are lucky, figure out what is now obvious (any f*cking monkey could have got that one, bub), and get on with it.  We don’t need any help feeling lousy; the process of sustaining a long work contains all the resources to enhance our self-loathing that anyone needs.  The moments of joy are there too, (they have to be, or else no one would do this a second time, just like bearing children).

What I’m trying to say here is that Keillor has stopped even trying to make a coherent case; this is just masturbation.

And last:

Children, I am an author who used to type a book manuscript on a manual typewriter. Yes, I did. And mailed it to a New York publisher in a big manila envelope with actual postage stamps on it. And kept a carbon copy for myself. I waited for a month or so and then got an acceptance letter in the mail. It was typed on paper. They offered to pay me a large sum of money. I read it over and over and ran up and down the rows of corn whooping. It was beautiful, the Old Era. I’m sorry you missed it.

And I walked to school in bare feet through the snow.  Uphill.  Both ways.


What crap.

When I got my first contract, one guy bought me a drink at a bar on the Upper East Side when he heard someone was paying someone else to write.  That felt great too.

Then, starting in 1985 I had to write the thing, which I did, on a Zenith laptop running MS Dos that boasted not one but two 3.5″ floppy disc drives — hot stuff indeed in those days.  I can’t tell you how happy I was not to have to confront my dad’s Olivetti electric typewriter nor smudge my hands on a single sheet of carbon paper.  What Keillor is touting here is a fetish bathed in nostalgia.

Words are toys, books are miracles (and albatrosses) and I don’t give a damn what you use to make them, nor how you choose to read them, nor whether someone I don’t want to read still chooses to write and let the world know that they have done so.  Keillor’s dream of a closed circle of self-congratulatory demigods*** (“it was beautiful the Old Era” and all that) is the muttering of someone too scared to pause, even for a moment, against the chance that all that chaos and noise out there might yet contain the reward of beauty.

His loss, not mine.

*Not to miss an opportunity to plug a little — you can find my most recent, which a lot of folks seem to like, Newton and the Counterfeiter, at all the usual suspects: AmazonPowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound and  across the pond at, and John Smith & Son — not to mention electronically Amazon’s Kindle store — and while there are no electronic editions of the earlier ones, you can check them out here.

**Bonus Eddie Izzard, Alan Rickman version for your viewing pleasure:

*** Demigods in the sense Einstein described his new Princeton neighbors as “puny demigods on stilts.”

Images:  Simon Vouet, “La Richess,” 1633

Carl Spitweg, “The Poor Poet,” 1839.

Okumura Masunobu, “Book and Paper Peddlar” 1720-1730.

Why I Love the English Language (and writing)

April 16, 2010

From Nick Mamtas

Carver became a legend on 72 short stories. I just sold my 60th.  But thanks to the handy chart at the back of Carol Sklenicka’s mammoth biography, I know that Carver never sold stories to anthologies with names such as The Walri Project, The Naked Singularity, or Fucking Daphne. Am I doing something wrong?

(h/t Andrew Sullivan.)

I don’t quite know why this tickles me so, except that as a writer, I love reading writer’s rants.  Or perhaps its the fact that I now have some almost-certain-to-be-unreached destinations to which my own work could aspire.


mage: Cover of the pulp magazine Weird Tales (January 1937, vol. 29, no. 1). Covert art by Margaret Brundage.

Short Friday Reading Notes/List

February 26, 2010

Amidst the ruins of the day (and it’s only 10:24 a.m. as I start this!) just a quick note to highlight some stuff I hope to blog at greater length about soon.

First:  Just this early a.m. finished Masha Gessen’s Perfect Rigor, about Grigory Perelman, the Poincare Conjecture, the nature of mathematics and mathematicians, and the last days of the Soviet empire.

Readers of this blog from back a year or so ago will know that I am serious fan of Masha’s, and have recommended her previous book, Blood Matters as the best account I’ve seen of the science, personal and social implications of genomics as applied to human health and well being.

Perfect Rigor is a very different book, of course, but it captures such a range of human experience:  passion and/or obsession, the cost of purity, the vicious absurdities of Soviet history, utopianism within mathematics, greed, envy, desire:   the whole shooting match, all centered on a deceptively simple-seeming statement about the nature of a shape we almost — but can’t, really — see in our mind’s eye.  It’s great historical writing; it’s a test of the limits of biography (what do you do when your living central character will not talk, not to you, not, anymore, to anyone?); it’s subtle blend of memoir, history, and contemporary conflict evokes a comparison with another book I’ve recently read and admired, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of HEnrietta LAcksand I want to write about all this with a bit more depth soon.  But for now, take my word for it:  Masha is a fine, fine writer, with an economy and elegance of style to match the intelligence and — her word applies here — the rigor her subjects demand.

Another book I’ve just begun and have not yet fully digested, but am loving, is just out:  Timothy Ferris’s The Science of Liberty.  Tim and I are old friends, and I’ve been hearing about this book for years; it’s the product of years of thought and reading.  I’m just getting started, so I don’t have a detailed comment yet, but it is as beautifully written as the best of Tim’s prior work, and it is smart as hell.  I’m going to be curious when I get to Chapter Ten, “Totalitarian Antiscience,” to place Tim’s thinking in the context of Loren Graham’s very nuanced studies of Soviet science — the disasters (see The Ghost of the Executed Engineer) and the surprising moments of accomplishment, (see What have we learned about science and technology from the Russian Experience?).  But that’s the pull of this book for me: Tim’s not trying merely to write descriptive history.  He wants to argue with his reader, to persuade, and I am interested in both his subject and the structure of his thinking.

Last, for this Friday at least, some pure fun:  Elif Batuman’s The Possesssed, a memoir/polemic/picaresque of reading and thinking and graduate school (not always conducive to either) and Russian literature.  Batuman is a craftsman of sentences (and she would loathe hearing herself described so, given her brutal dismissal of what she rather inaccurately terms a specifically New England tradition of writing instruction), and as craft does in the hands of artists, those sentences become beautiful, singly and in combination.

She’s also a viciously, hilariously acute observer, of herself and of anyone or anything in range.  It’s a serious hoot, with equal emphasis on both adjective and noun.  Plus the one thing taken deadly (but not humorlessly) seriously throughout is great fiction by dead Russians, works which accumulate into one of the mother lodes of investigation of the human condition.

Worth your time, in other words…have fun.

Image: Nicolas Neufchâtel, “Bildnis des Nürnberger Schreibmeisters Johann Neudörffer und eines Schülers,” 1561.

A quickie Saturday post with a brief answer to the question: how do I become a (better) science writer?

February 6, 2010

It’s reasonable, I guess.  My day job has me running what I can confidentyl say is one of the best science writing programs in the country.* So I often take part in some version of this email conversation I had recently with a graduate student in one of the physical sciences.

This student told me that “Though I am currently studying experimental science, one career path I am interested in is science writing or journalism.”

To which I said, in effect, “Great!”  We need good science writers more than ever, and someone committing to the field from a base of advanced training as a bench scientist is a clear win, from where I stand.**

The next question is the one they always ask…beyond or until they can sign up for a class or a program, “If you have any other advice as to how I could learn more about this field I would greatly appreciate it.”

So, just in case anyone out there may also wonder, here is what I wrote back, the short form of a theme on which I expand (as my students can certainly tell you) at much greater length when I have a captive audience:

The most immediate way to learn about writing about science for the public is to read a lot of it.  I’d go to the “Best American” series of science writing — there are actually two, Best American Science Writing and Best American Science and Nature Writing, published every year. While one can argue about some of the selections, the worst of the pieces there are not bad, and some are superlative.

Read like a pro — don’t just focus on the content, what you are learning — but try to analyze how the pieces are written. What’s the structure involved.  How do the different writers use sentence length and rhythm; what kind of voices do different writers employ.  How present are they in the piece — how present do they demand their audiences be — and so on.

You could pick up a copy of A Field Guide For Science Writers, edited by Deborah Blum, Mary Knudson, and Robin Marantz Henig.  That gives you a  good overview of the field and some basic techniques.  Though it is a bit long in the tooth, I like Elise Hancock’s Ideas Into Words. Follow the Knight Science Journalism Tracke, — a good aggregator blog that offers some commentary on good and bad science writing.

I’d add that there a bunch of excellent science blogs out there on which one can see others honing their craft (and talking a ton of science).  But actually, I think blogs are better to read as you write one, or are working on traditional articles.  I’d say that for someone first trying to get one’s ear and eye in on the forms and styles of good writing about science it’s better to read pieces crafted with a view towards a longer life than a blog piece.  Perhaps this is just projection, for though I do spend quite a bit of time on much of my writing for this blog, I also know that I don’t work the prose the way I do when I’m writing a book or an article intended to stand on its own, without the fabric of the ongoing conversation of the blog to sustain it.

But in any event, the core message is to read and read and read — but always like a pro.  There’s an old joke:  Q: What do writers talk about when they converse among themselves?  A: Money.  What else?

Within that truth, this one — writers as writers don’t read for pleasure.  They read to learn, to steal.  If you want to be one, in any genre, start taking apart your pleasure.  It will be less short-run fun to open a book, but much long-term gain to come.

And now, off to drink a very nice bottle of wine with a couple of very smart Harvard Med types…and talk a little science.

*Actually, of course, I’m sure it is the best, full stop — just as I know my son is the most wonderful boy in the world and that my cat is a prince among felines.  These are beings under my care, and if my connection to them is more immediate than that of an institutional responsibility, still, the same emotional logic applies.

**Though some of you know from my exchanges with Bora among others that I don’t think that such advanced training is a requirement for science writers.  This is a long conversation, but the gist is that whether you enter this field as a turn from the bench or towards it, there are distinctive strenghts you bring with you, and particular weaknesses as well.

Image:  Gerald Dou, “Portrait of an old woman reading (also, Rembrandt’s mother reading),” c.1630.

A Brief Note On Kleingate/Aimai grace note edition

September 4, 2009

The intertubes burnt up this last week with news of the latest tantrum by occasionally satisfactory MSM writer Joe Klein.  The essence of the fracas has been Klein’s shame at being outed for nasty (and inaccurate) stuff he wrote about Glenn Greenwald to a “private” list of about 300 journalists.

(Memo to Joe — back when I worked at Time Inc., when dinosaurs ruled the earth, I heard the legendary Henry Grunwald tell a small group of us peons that nothing in writing should be assumed to be private.  If he hand-wrote himself a note on a memo pad on his desk, he said to us, he simply took it as a given that its contents would be known to his counterpart at Newsweek within the day.  Email?  It’s like taking out an ad in Variety. It says little for the acuity — the mere competence — of a journalist that he would commit anything to such a public medium as a message to a listserve that he wasn’t willing to hear read out in open court.)

Into this furore came the story of  the n0w-famous confrontation on the beach between blogger/blog commentator Aimai and the Great Klein himself, also much discussed.  To Klein’s distress, I might add, given that (a) Aimai is a witty, graceful, and stilleto-wielding writer, and, as it turns out, possessed of some serious progressive and hard-core journalistic bloodlines, being as she is a grandchild of the genuinely great I.F. Stone.

Klein made another elementary error here: he assumed that his audience was composed of folks he outranked on some intellectual or journalistic or simply analytical scale.  He was wrong.

Aimai herself described the encounter here, and then her response to Klein’s digging himself deeper, here.

I wrote an admiring comment to the latter piece in which I gave the most love to this bit:

I didn’t confront Klein because I’m somebody. I’m nobody special. I confronted him because I’msomething important—I’m a reader. In fact—I’m one of his readers.* That, it seems, was the unkindest cut of all. Because Klein writes, after a fashion, but he doesn’t read much. Certainly, he doesn’t read like a reader—lots of sources, lots of texts, across genres, and with curiosity. And thus he doesn’t expect that of his own readers. And because he thinks we are helpless birds, mouths open to consume any old regurgitated pap from daddy’s crop, he doesn’t acknowledge the duty he owes to his readers. To be diligent, to be thoughtful, to be honest, and above all to remember what he himself has written. He lacks the ethic of responsibility in a journalistic sense.

What I love about this, above the topical joy of this exacto-fine dissection, (Klein “writes, after a fashion”….yeeow!), is the way she celebrates reading as a a vocation.

That strikes a chord — and perhaps corrects an error I’ve made for years now. Each year, at this season, I tell my students that if they want to succeed as writers, they have to start reading like a professional.  And by that I mean they can’t just read for pleasure, or for the information or whatever. They have to read with an attention to form, to technique, to the work behind the words that they can identify.  And that’s true.  Reading to penetrate the process of writing that gave rise to what one perceives as the success or failure (or perhaps better, merely the qualities of) a piece of writing is something that writers do all the time, ultimately almost unconsciously, as part of our continuing education.

But Aimai’s comment points to something deeper, I think.  Reading like a pro is an instrumental practice; we do it to achieve something through that action.  Aimai’s reading is a craft: it is at once a means to some desired outcome and  an end in itself, a process that is its own reward.

And that’s what I want my students to grasp; it’s what I want to remember to do, to avoid being swamped by the fact of information when I want to achieve understanding — and even more, that deep pleasure when I get what some other voice is trying to tell me, across whatever distance of time, experience, distance.

So, starting yesterday in the orientation for the next class of MIT science writers, I told the newest crop that they need to read like pros, certainly, but never to stop thinking of themselves as members of a craft.

One more thing — Aimai had a little more to say, it turned out, and she was kind enough to respond directly to my comment on her blog with a story, one that tells a great deal about the difference between a genuine reader and writer and those masquerading as such in our public discourse now.

She wrote:

Since I’ve been outed as Izzy’s granddaughter (one of three), Tom Levenson, I’ll tell you that my earliest memories of my grandfather were of watching him walk down to the Out of Town News Agency, [now gone, and lamented, as the greatest repository of the world’s newspaper I ever knew in the middle of Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA–tl] when he was visiting, and return with a stack of newspapers. Izzy read from the back of the paper to the front, something I still do. I think it was because, as he said, “you never know on which page of the Times you’ll find a page one story.” Another reason was that the meat of the story was always low down and the mere teaser at the front was usually very deceptive.

He would start at the back and then tear the paper into long strips of columns that he would clip together and then compare across writers, newspapers, and of course across time and genre.

A few years ago I read a biography of Darwin. He spent years working on earthworms, every afternoon in his study. One of his sons, upon hearing that a neighbor’s father was going out in the afternoon, asked “but when does he work on his worms?” That’s the way I feel about the practice of reading. Surely, every journalist does the same thing? But then, you meet up with a Klein, and you find out that they *aren’t working on their worms at all.*

Thank you, Aimai, for this story.  You don’t get to be Mr. Stone unless you do Mr. Stone…

That is all.

Image:  Pieter de Hooch, “Woman Reading a Letter,” before 1684.