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Week’s Highlights: A Nanotrend, Each of Us

PUBLISHED: September 1, 2009

In Venezuela, a reclassification of books as non-essential imports requiring government certification has had a devastating effect on the country’s publishing and book-selling industries. Not surprisingly, Hugo Chavez had a hand in this mess.

Gawker went after the Wall Street Journal for allowing Mark Penn to remain as a columnist, even though Penn’s position as CEO of a PR firm seems to constitute a conflict of interest. According to a leaked e-mail, Penn’s firm apparently has been trying to use his WSJ column to attract clients. (They wrote a follow-up post that includes a generic statement from Penn to the NYT.) Penn has another problem: he can’t form a cogent, fact-based argument, as Waldo elucidated in his post, “Mark Penn’s Completely Invented WSJ Article.” It seems like reason enough to can him that his column is based around spotting “microtrends”—is that a thing?—yet he can’t be counted on to use reliable data.

Los Angeles mainstay Skylight Books has launched a new web site that will include more content. In case you’re ever in the area, note that Skylight has plenty of fine in-store events.

Another entry from the not-a-trend-in-the-way-you-think department: In The Observer, Leon Neyfakh wrote an article (“The New Thing”) about jacketless hardcover books. That provoked some comments by readers pointing out that jacketless hardcovers are not a new thing at all; Chad Post, whose Open Letter Books has published paper-over-board books (as they’re also called), offered his complaint: ”he’s ignoring both the history of paper-over-board and the potential problems this format can cause. Maybe his American bias explains the fact that he doesn’t know that this format is extremely popular (actually, pretty standard) in countries all over the world.” Post also linked to an editorial he wrote on the subject back in June.

A site called Paper Cuts—not the NYT books blog—has been using Google maps to track newspaper layoffs, buyouts, closings, and other depressing news. It’s another innovative use of Google maps, which is now used to track events and patterns of all types. See, for example, the LA Times’ homicide map, or check out the ingenious, gorgeous illustrations at Information Is Beautiful.

Lev Grossman’s piece in the WSJ—”Good Novels Don’t Have to Be Hard Work“—has attracted some criticism. This is what happens when, among other strange efforts, you attempt to forecast what all novels will be for the entire 21st century. In response, Chad Post writes, “So here’s the basic argument: no ‘plot’ = difficult = boring = elitist = doesn’t sell in a supermarket.” At Conversational Reading, Andrew Seal calls one paragraph “temple-clutchingly ridiculous” and considers the whole thing “about the literary equivalent of a Glenn Beck broadcast.” And the ever pithy M.A. Orthofer (of the complete review) writes, “apparently, it’s popular (somewhere—I’m not quite sure where) to think that ‘good’ books have to be ‘hard’; dear god, who comes up with this stuff.” There’s a lot  to be bothered by here, and so I’ll add a few more complaints: calling psychoanalysis and mass media part of the “bad news of the modern era”; sentences like “the 20th century had a full century’s worth of masterpieces before it was half over”; some sentences don’t even have verbs (who edited this thing?); the unapologetically commercial impulses at play here that cause the essay to rely on dumbed-down generalities and reductionism; the misreading of history; and just about everything else.

These days, we are all about slowing down. In an interview with The Rumpus, Charles Baxter talks about “stillness”; for more than two years, Yann Martel has maintained a biweekly practice of sending Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper an inscribed book (and accompanying letter) that somehow fits the theme of stillness; David Ulin recently wrote that “the relentless cacophony that is life in the 21st century can make settling in with a book difficult”; the WSJ offers John Freeman’s “A Manifesto for Slow Communication” (adapted from his upcoming book, The Tyranny of E-Mail); and I wrote some screed called “The New Ludditism in Literature,” in part in response to Benjamin Kunkel’s essay “Lingering,” which in turn is a review of several books on our madcap digital age, including Lee Siegel’s Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. I look forward to Mark Penn’s poorly sourced payola piece on this “trend,” micro or otherwise.

Israeli President Shimon Peres recently turned 86, and PRI produced a podcast discussing his poetry, some of which has been set to music. There’s a promotional video for the upcoming album.

I don’t like most of the author video interviews the New York Times produces these days. There’s nothing wrong with the authors—Richard Russo, John Irving, Toni Morrison, Jeffrey Eugenides—but there’s little that’s interesting about these entirely mainstream choices, and the interviews are rather short. (Reminds me of the Woody Allen “and such small portions” joke.) That’s why I was pleased to find their extensive audio archive. I’m going to try this tribute to Italo Calvino.

Last week I posted about the Authors@Google program. For this week, here’s a talk by Paul Auster, performed almost exactly a year ago.

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