Notebook: September 24, 2018

From Ann Kjellberg, Book Post Editor

Satisfied readers in Malawi, from the Malawi Institute of Education and the Africa Libraries Project

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Elsewhere in the bookish life, British novelist Will Self serves up the latest helping of literary dolor over the state of reading in the current issue of Harper’s. He considers the scientific literature about the effect of digital engagement on concentration (dire), and dismisses some optimistic signs in improved book sales and so on. A piece by neuroscientist Maryanne Wolfe referencing similar research on the effects of habitual “skim reading” has also been making the rounds.

Self’s diagnosis is rendered more poignant by his having been once, by his own rueful admission, considered the bad boy of British letters—a role one outgrows it seems by becoming a defender of old forms. His lament comes in the midst of a convulsive few weeks in the world of magazines, whence he mounts his defense. Time recently became the latest aging media lion to be adopted by an idealistic tech magnate (following The New Republic, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic). The New York Review of Books, which had adhered to its old ways after the death of founder (my former boss) Robert Silvers last year, lost its new editor amidst scandal, raising the question again of whether its next step will prompt an update of its approach. Even as the Atlantic’s new patrons double down on optimism, bucking a stream of layoffs all around to increase its newsroom staff by 30 percent and create a “Talent Lab” to nurture the journalists of the future, down the road the Village Voice closed its doors for good, to widespread lamentation. The end of the Voice, however, seemed more attributed to the passing of the world that it covered and the sort of writing it celebrated—bohemian, adventurous, hard-partying, establishment-tweaking—than the digital threat to reading. A bouquet of colorful reminiscences was published by Artforum, and Susan Brownmiller offered an outlier in former Voice competitor, New York. Louis Menand put the Voice’s roots under a somewhat skeptical microscope in The New Yorker. The moment of retrospection offered its own oblique reflection on the state of the reading and writing life. The intimate, bold, pugnacious world of the Voice’s newsroom seems paradoxically hard to reproduce in a world where barriers to communication are lower. Meanwhile an offshoot of the old Voice spirit popped up amidst rumors of the revival of the acid-tongued gossip site Gawker.

Concern that the tendencies of big tech are undermining the quality of our thinking seem increasingly echoed from within tech’s ranks. At Vanity Fair this month, Tim Berners-Lee, oft-credited as the inventor of the internet, warned of big tech’s lulling us into the surrender of our personal data and our privacy in return for the illusory benefits of connectivity. He and a group of passionate volunteers are working on a new platform that gives users control of their own data. This reminds us a little of Book Post! Though a tad more ambitious…

Back in our own corner of the reading world, publishers seem to remain bullish on book reviewing, with New York announcing, as the both the New York Times did some months ago, revamped book coverage. Some interviews with working book critics give a personal look into how a reading life dovetails with a professional one, and how the business of publishing flavors the private enclaves of book judging: Poets & Writers interviews The Wall Street Journal’s Sam Sacks and the National Book Critics’ Circle interviews Slate’s Laura Miller and the Washington Post’s Carlos Lozados. The departure of Michiko Kakutani from the New York Times daily book reviewing beat, where she had ruled for decades with an unpredictable cocktail of ferocity and affection, prompted some interesting reflections on how book criticism should look in days like ours.

The National Book Award this week announced its finalists for 2018, including a new category for translated work, just as across the pond its sister prize the Booker opened its archives and revealed a carnival of sniping and self-serving among its jurors. We reported a few Notebooks back on the shenanigans over at the Nobel Prize. This week perennial Nobel favorite, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami (who incidentally has a new novel on the way), withdrew himself from the more populist alternative that was organized by a bunch of Swedish librarians and others, on grounds of not wanting distracting publicity. Hm.

An approach I like to the sorting of reputations was tried out this month by Vulture, who asked a bunch of writers to jump the gun by nominating their early favorites for best novel of the twenty-first century. Perhaps because the request was so comically premature, and the writers were encouraged to follow their wits and not try to speak for the ages, the resultant list is pretty juicy.

Among the trends Will Self was not reassured by is the unexpected health of independent bookselling. The once mighty chain Barnes and Noble, which, in the phase before Amazon, did much to weaken the independent book ecosystem, continues now to struggle, perhaps providing some downwind benefits to the independents. Also anti-trust advocates are starting to notice what booksellers saw long ago about Amazon’s threat to the health of markets (hence Book Post’s linking to independents!). The losses consolidation brings were also noted in consideration of the sale of storied English bookstore chain Foyles to the giant Waterstones. David Sax at Vox used independent bookshops as an interesting case-in-point in an article about consumer motivation: readers have more reasons to like bookstores than doom-saying economists ever guessed they did. If there’s a book you would like to help thrive in this storm-tossed world, Book Riot offers this useful guide to giving it a boost.

We want to applaud our own September partner bookstore, The Regulator in Durham, North Carolina, for its services to threatened readers during Hurricane Florence—an excellent example of how a local bookshop can be a 365-degree human operation. We’re very pleased to announce that our October partner will be Miami’s legendary Books and Books. We hope our partnership will not put it in the path of any dire weather events, hurricane season notwithstanding.

Meanwhile we received news this month of books finding their way to readers by more inventive means. Bookish Twitter’s heart was warmed by the story of John Bunn, who, after surviving a twenty-seven-year wrongful imprisonment by plunging into reading has, now that he has been exonerated, dedicated himself to bringing books to prisons and others potentially isolated from the benefits of reading. Someone name a library after that guy. Books in prisons are also the subject of a new novel by producer George Pelecanos (David Simon partner on The Wire, Treme, The Deuce), whose long bibliography of detective and crime novels made him a student of the criminal justice system and prompted him to volunteer himself in prison reading programs. He said his characters are “based on some of the thoughtful, intelligent men” he met there. The Moby Lives blog reported on a program that lets inmates read books virtually to their kids. Other great efforts to get books into the hands of people who see fewer of them include the Barbershop Books project, which creates inviting reading spaces for boys in barber shops, and the African Library Project, which helps Americans support African schools and villages who want to start libraries—we found out about that one when journalist Katha Pollitt tweeted that she had helped to build a library in Sierra Leone.  Finally, young women book collectors may seem somewhat less urgently needing of our attention, but we’re still glad that Paris Review gave them a cheer.

We hope you enjoy your week and get a moment or two to spend quietly with a book. If you like Book Post, please consider telling a friend, or a hundred.