The litter in littérateur. Ricky Opaterny on Books, Music, Art, and Sports


Blacks in baseball and authors on video

Filed under: Baseball,Books,General — Ricky @ 9:42 pm

Harvey Araton, in response to a question posted by CC Sabathia, meditates on the decline of black players in Major League Baseball over the past couple decades. He writes:

The most recent tabulation, done by Richard Lapchick in 2005 for the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, put Major League Baseball’s black population at 8.5 percent, the lowest in 26 years and about half of what it was a decade earlier.

. . . .
How did this happen? Did baseball unwittingly wake up to a significant cultural shift (in particular to a burgeoning Latino market) or did it abandon the African-American community and its vital contributions to the history of the game?

Elsewhere in the Times today, Julie Bosman has an article about authors who are distributing videos to be shown at bookstores instead of going on tour. Powell’s is producing the videos and other bookstores will be showing them. The first video in the series, featuring Ian McEwan, will debut at BEA this summer.

For Mr. McEwan, the film will virtually replace his standard book tour, since he has declined to do traditional bookstore appearances to promote his new novel in the United States. The book, On Chesil Beach, will be published on June 5 by the Nan A. Talese imprint of Random House’s Doubleday division.

For years publishers and bookstores have tried to lure book buyers by featuring authors in blogs, podcasts and question-and-answer forums with readers. Mr. Weich said Powell’s did not expect to profit from the first film but hoped to attract more visitors to its Web site,, by posting the videos there.

I saw McEwan read at Printer’s Inc. in Palo Alto back in 1998 and would love to see him again. Although I attend and host a fair number of author events, I’ve always understood that it’s totally unreasonable to expect anything more than a book from an author. As William Gaddis wrote, “What is there left when he’s done with his work, what’s any artist but the dregs of his work, the human shambles that follows it around?”

The Cigarette Century

Filed under: Books,General — Ricky @ 8:51 am


I had lunch yesterday with Harvard professor Allan Brandt, whose new history of the cigarette industry, The Cigarette Century, appears on the cover of Sunday’s Washington Post Book World. His book is eye-opening, engaging, well-told, frightening, and, above all, necessary. Recently, Brandt wrote an op-ed piece for the LA Times, in which he argues that a successful attempt to quit smoking by Barack Obama will actually be a victory for the tobacco industry because it will prove that smoking is an individual choice. They’ll say, “Well, if Barack can quit because he wants to, then you can too.” Brandt writes:

For every American like Obama who may successfully quit, there are “replacement smokers” in foreign lands. When Americans and others in Western developed nations began quitting in greater numbers in the 1970s and 1980s, the industry ramped up its efforts abroad, often with the assistance of the U.S. trade representative. Philip Morris International now sells more than four times as many cigarettes as its American sister company.

This dramatic rise in global consumption will prove disastrous in the future, especially in poorer countries. While 100 million people worldwide died of tobacco-induced diseases in the 20th century, the World Health Organization now predicts that nearly 1 billion such deaths will occur in this century.

. . . .

If Obama quits, no doubt Philip Morris will be the first to congratulate him. After all, won’t that prove that anyone can stop anytime he wants to? If only that were true. Then the global epidemic of tobacco deaths would be coming to a precipitous end instead of spiraling upward. As the tobacco executives know all too well, a new smoker is born every minute — and they are ready with a pack of Marlboros.


Indies Under Fire: better than the trailer?

Filed under: Books,General,Save Kepler's — Ricky @ 3:47 pm


A few months ago, I posted about what was, at the time, an upcoming screening of the film Indies Under Fire sponsored by Kepler’s. Based on the film’s trailer, which I watched online, I wrote that it looked to be “another sentimental, corporate-bashing look at indie bookstores that refuses to do the hard work of pointing a critical eye at indies themselves and asking why the independent bookselling business has been stagnant and so incredibly slow to innovate or pioneer new business practices over the past few decades.” I recently received a comment from a reader who thought I might not have written that had I actually seen the film.

I did attend the screening, and though the film is slightly more nuanced than I had expected, its implied argument is that Borders and the corporate booksellers led to the demise of Printer’s Inc. in Palo Alto. I grew up down the street from Printer’s Inc., and must note that it wasn’t a particularly good bookstore. When compared to the other big indie bookstores in the Bay Area–Cody’s, Kepler’s, ACWLP, Book Passage, Green Apple, etc.–Printer’s rated very low in my book.

Although the sentimental view of the indie bookstore getting killed by the heartless, bland corporate bookseller certainly appeals to people’s emotions, it seems that indie bookstores are really responsible for their own survival. Berkeley’s Nydia MacGregor wrote a paper in which she argued that the presence of chain stores has little effect on the sales of independent bookstores in the same area as long as the local community is engaged and the independent store provides them with a unique identity. She writes:

Independent booksellers link consumers with an identity that connects to a more differentiated self-concept, that fits within a narrower social group. Given the complementary nature of the relationship between these two organizational forms and the differentiated resources that they demand, branch store openings will not negatively affect the baseline survival rates of independent stores, even when they enter into the same community.

In short, the relationship that Indies Under Fire suggests between Borders and Printer’s Inc. is flat out wrong. Printer’s Inc. killed itself.


Revisiting Kundera and Acocella

Filed under: Books,General — Ricky @ 10:40 pm

Today I read very positive reviews of two books about writing, which I’ve posted about in the past month. In the Sunday New York Times Book Review, Russell Banks reviews Milan Kundera’s The Curtain, while Joyce Carol Oates reviews, in one of the most unequivacally praiseful reviews I’ve read in a while, Joan Acocella’s Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints in the New York Review of Books.

Oates cites one of the better passages I encountered this week. Following Acocella’s visit to Penelope Fitzgerald in which the older writer provides nothing of much use during their interview, Acocella writes,

Why do we bother to interview artists? Why expect them, in two hours, to tell us their story, or— what we’re really looking for—a story that will dovetail with their work, explain it? The better the artist, the harder it is to produce such an accounting, for the life has been more fully transformed. Why violate their privacy, brush aside their years of work—the labor of creating stories that are not their story?

Banks, in his review, obviously loves Kundera’s work. He writes that Kundera “is one of the most erudite novelists on the planet. Not since Henry James, perhaps, has a fiction writer examined the process of writing with such insight, authority and range of reference and allusion.”

However, at the end of the review something curious happens. Banks falls into the trap of the model positive New York Times book review, getting in a last second jab. He writes,

If I have any quarrel with Kundera’s description of the history of the novel it’s that he’s not inclusive enough. He does not discuss a single female novelist, even in passing. It’s as if no Western woman has ever tried writing a serious novel in 400 years. And, in his appreciation of non-European novelists like Fuentes, García Márquez and Chamoiseau, he colonizes them, as if culturally they gazed longingly toward their European mother- and fatherlands instead of their homelands. But then, he’s not writing literary criticism; he’s writing the secret history of the novels of Milan Kundera and teaching us how to read them.

It’s as if he’s saying, “Look, everyone! The great Franco-Czech novelist is not perfect!” Well, of course, no one’s perfect, but pointing this out adds absolutely nothing to Banks’ review and cheapens what I suspect is a genuine appreciation of Kundera’s work.

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