Books

Capitola Book Cafe launching memberships

The Capitola Book Cafe is launching a membership program similar to the one used by Kepler’s.

The Book Cafe is instituting a membership program, in which they’re asking their customers to pay an annual fee in five levels from $25 to $250. Those fees will entitle them to a number of benefits — free food and drink, shopping sprees, tickets to events and other discounts — but they’re also needed to keep the Book Cafe in business.

Unfortunately, it looks like this membership program will, like Kepler’s, offer no accountability or provide donors—that’s what they are, not members—any insight into how the bookstore is using their contributions, which is a shame.

Moneyball comes to the NBA

I feel like every time Michael Lewis talks about Moneyball, someone asks him if Billy Beane’s approach to fielding a team based on statistical analysis has taken hold in other sports. Although people have calculated win shares in basketball based on other statistics, i.e. through regressions, no one has really told a Moneyball-like story of the sport. That is, until today when Lewis himself published an article about Shane Battier and the Houston Rockets in the New York Times Magazine. It’s highly recommended to anyone who enjoyed Moneyball.

The missing slide from Amazon’s Kindle 2 launch: longevity comparison

Amazon Kindle Longevity Comparison

I’ll buy a Kindle once Amazon’s device can win in a longevity comparison with a traditional book. As you can see from the PowerPoint slide above, it still has a long way to go, as the Kindle lasts about 14 months, while the 1766 edition of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet has lasted 243 years and counting. In the meantime, you can pre-order the new Kindle 2; just don’t expect it to last more that two years.

Booksmith beats the odds

The San Francisco Chronicle recently ran a story about the recent success of Booksmith on Haight in San Francisco.Preveen Madan and Christin Evans acquired the store in 2007,

Evans said they think of their staff as “book concierges,” gently nudging browsing shoppers toward books they might not have considered. They group books in unusual categories on shelves. A recent favorite is “Long Dead Writers – Read Them Before You Meet Them.”

That’s something that most bookstores don’t do. And it’s not a bad thing if their edit or selection of books is strong. However, most stores depend on the books selling themselves, which, in the absence of such a selection, will never work.

Jonathan Lethem and Joseph O’Neill on the death of John Updike and fathers

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Jonathan Lethem and Joseph O’Neill both have essays in the current issue of Granta on photographs of their fathers. They spoke about these pieces and, more generally, fathers with Granta’s American editor, John Freeman at Housing Works tonight. The conversation started with reflections on John Updike, who died at 76 today. Lethem told a moving story about how he rushed to a local hotel to give blood on 9/11. The blood donations had been a false rumor and driven several Brooklynites to the same hotel. Updike was one of them; Lethem noted his presence and said nothing to him. Download an MP3 of the event.

I would pay $100 for the NYTimes iPhone app

nyt_iphones

I recently received an iPod Touch and have been playing around with some of the applications available through the iTunes app store. I think the platform and device are excellent, and I’ll post a list of my favorite apps soon. The one that I use the most use is the New York Times app. I think every publication should have something like this available. It works by downloading the entire day’s paper on my iPod, which takes about three minutes or so over Wi-Fi. I can then read full-length stories wherever I am on the Touch. The interface is easy to navigate, and, in some ways, it’s even easier to swipe through the paperon screen  than to flip through the paper edition. Supposedly, the app will save the previous seven days of news on your iPhone or Touch, but I’ve only been able to get it to save the current day’s news, despite enabling more days of saved stories through the Settings menu. 

What troubles me about this application is that it’s free. Every day I get the entire paper delivered to my iPod Touch for free. And there’s just a little NYTimes.com banner ad at the bottom of each article. This seems wildly unsustainable when I consider the state the newspaper industry is in and how much I used to pay for the convenience that this application gives me. 

I started reading the Times on a regular basis when I was a freshman in college. I bought the paper almost every day for $1 and on Sunday for even more. (I think the Sunday price was $4 or $4.50 then.) I found the NYTimes.com website acceptable, but relatively inefficient to navigate, especially if you wanted to see all the headlines and all the stories of the day. When, during my sophomore year of college, I lived in France, I even paid much more to get the Times Sunday print edition because I found it so much more accessible than the website. 

I’ve subscribed to the Times on a daily basis for months at a time since then, but usually ended up canceling because I wasn’t reading enough of the paper to justify the cost to myself or because I lived in apartments where someone would steal my paper 50% of the time before I could get to it in the morning. Each time I subscribed, I usually paid $20-$40 or so per month to receive delivery of the paper, depending on how many days a week I got it and what sort of deal I received. 

Now, I get all the same content for free on the Times website or via the iPhone app. There’s something wrong here. Sure, the cost of publishing online is cheaper than that of printing a physical paper, but there’s still a huge gap. I’m not paying for something that I used to pay for, and advertising certainly isn’t paying for it either. If you’re going to move a readership online from print, someone is going to have to foot the bill. Unfortunately, we’ve become accustomed to the idea that online content is somehow simultaneously valuable and worthless at the same time. We consume it like crazy, spending hours a day reading websites, blogs, RSS feeds, etc. And yet we pay nothing for it except our isolation and attention deficit. 

So, I come to the headline of this post. I don’t know what other people’s willingness to pay for the iPhone app is, but mine is probably around $100. That’s with a few feature additions to the current app: 

  • Allow users to save stories permanently on their devices and export them to their computers in PDF or text format. For longer stories, I want a way to get them back on paper before I read them. 
  • Allow users to email stories to others. This feature should be in the current version. It seems like a no-brainer if the Times wants to increase readership. 
  • Let users read more than just the current day’s news. I know this is supposedly in the current version, but it still doesn’t work for me. 
  • Include a way for users to annotate, highlight and save snippets from articles they read. 

I don’t like subscriptions, so I would much prefer to pay some initial fee to purchase the application and have it available to me for the foreseeable future, a future that will only exist if the Times stops giving away its content for free.

Postmortem on Cody’s Books

Okay, so they really called it an Autopsy. Whatever, it’s the same thing. Business Week has an article chronicling the rise and fall of Cody’s Books in Berkeley. I loved this store when I was in college and thought it was the best new bookstore in the Bay Area. Their selection of literary journals was unmatched, except, perhaps, by Gotham Bookmart in New York. Oh yeah, Gotham is now out of business too. When Cody’s owner Andy Ross opened his San Francisco store on Stockton, I sort of knew intuitively that it was a huge risk and a bad idea, but I remember wanting to see it as a triumph of Cody’s. In this article, Ross calls the opening of the San Francisco store his “fatal mistake.”

Cody’s did many things right. They kept an excellent stock, made new and unheralded books discoverable and desirable to their customers, and held great author events. I believe that they happened to be in a bad location on Telegraph and in a business that, with such slim margins, doesn’t do a particularly good job of weathering long downturns. When business and the weekend tourists abandoned Telegraph Avenue during the late 1990s and into this decade, so went the fate of Cody’s. I only spent a couple years living in Berkeley, but I went to Cody’s almost every day that I did live there, and I miss it terribly. In the BusinessWeek article Ross cites the figure that 10% of all copies of Walter Banjamin’s Illuminations sold in the United States were sold at Cody’s. This isn’t evidence of Benjamin’s obscurity, but rather the display of Cody’s brilliance in attracting its customers to a certain type of highbrow criticism. It’s that sort of intellectual rigor or forcefulness that you’ll never find at a store like Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Sure, they both carry Illuminations, but neither cares or pretends to care if you buy it or the latest Stephanie Meyer novel. And, in case you’re wondering, my copy of Illuminations came from Cody’s on Telegraph in 2002—Where else?

Jonathan Franzen on the social novel

The 5th Estate has some excerpts from an interview with Jonathan Franzen that is running in boundary 2. A lengthy snippet follows:

We may just be little specks. As a percentage of the total world population, we’re ever smaller specks, and what we are is ever more mediated by the structures we’ve created for ourselves to live in. And yet, as you go through life, you still hit these points of crisis where something genuine is happening.  A choice is being made, or a life is being destroyed, or hope is being regained, or control is being relinquished, or control is being achieved. These moments may be utterly insignificant historically, but they’re still hugely meaningful to the person experiencing them as meaningful as everything else in the world put together. To try to connect with what might formerly have been called the soul, and what I might now describe as some interior locus of privacy and reflection where moments of personal significance are experienced: this, I think, is the job of the fiction writer. As great as our various glowing screens may be at capturing vividness and complexity, you’re still always on the outside and just looking at them. You’re never within. Even if you were to construct a very fine virtual reality device, you would be literally insane if you mistook a manufactured and mass-produced experience for a moment of genuine human importance. If you could believe in the simulacrum enough to think you were having a moment of genuine personal meaning, it would mean you were insane.

Only written media, and maybe to some extent live theatre, can break down the wall between in and out. You’re not looking at your feeling from within. An Alice Munro story rushes you along in about 25 minutes to a point where you’re imaginatively going through a moment of deep crisis and significance in another person’s life. I know I’m expressing this in very vague terms, but I think these epiphanic moments have a social and political valence as well, because they’re what we mean when we talk about being a person, about being an individual, about having an identity. Identity is precisely not what consumer culture says it is. It’s not the playlist on your iPod. It’s not your personal preference in denim washes. The moment you become an individual is the moment when all that consumer stuff falls away and you’re left with the narrativity of your own life. All the things that would become impossible politically, emotionally, culturally, psychologically if people ever were to become simply the sum of their consumer choices: this is, indirectly, what the novel is trying to preserve and fight in favour of.

Google is the answer to the problem we didn’t have

Jason Zengerie has a very good profile of Malcolm Gladwell in this week’s New York Magazine. Gladwell has been receiving a lot of press lately in advance of the publication of his new book, Outliers. Most of it is as fluffy as the critics who assail Gladwell. But Zengerie’s piece is actually well-written and pulls some excellent lines out of Gladwell. My favorite one is the following:

Google is the answer to the problem we didn’t have. It doesn’t tell you what’s interesting or what’s important. There’s still more in the library than there is on Google.

Michael Lewis on the end of Wall Street

I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I’m certain that Michael Lewis’s article in the current issue of Portfolio, The End of Wall Street’s Boom, is worth your while.

In the two decades since [I wrote Liar’s Poker], I had been waiting for the end of Wall Street. The outrageous bonuses, the slender returns to shareholders, the never-ending scandals, the bursting of the internet bubble, the crisis following the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management: Over and over again, the big Wall Street investment banks would be, in some narrow way, discredited. Yet they just kept on growing, along with the sums of money that they doled out to 26-year-olds to perform tasks of no obvious social utility. The rebellion by American youth against the money culture never happened. Why bother to overturn your parents’ world when you can buy it, slice it up into tranches, and sell off the pieces?

Amazon’s best 100 books of 2008

Amazon has posted their picks for the 100 best books of 2008. The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher claims the top spot. Honestly, I wasn’t planning to read this novel, but now I am. I find that one of Amazon’s most useful features is that it helps me discover new books better than most physical bookstores. And that, to me, is the value of a bookstore—how good a job it does of introducing me to books I didn’t even know I wanted. Every store will promote 2666, but how many will compel me to buy The Northern Clemency?

iTunes and Netflix are like books

As Tuesday’s publication of 2666 nears, New York Magazine has a piece about the continued importance of big, Pynchonian books, comparing their flexibility to that of current digital media. Yes, it’s a bit of a stretch, but still…

It bears remembering that a book, no matter how long and complicated, doesn’t require you to read it all in one go, nor does it force you to watch commercials. In this respect, other media are becoming more booklike, not the other way around. TiVo, Netflix, and iTunes enable you to consume what you want, when you want it, in or out of sequence. Take a break if you like — but only if you like. Watch a whole season of Lost in a weekend — or every morning on the subway. A longer, more intense experience — whether it’s a ten-show Mad Men block or a 100-song iPod playlist — at least gives you the option to stretch. And nothing does it better than a big, multifaceted novel. Take a year to read it, or one stormy weekend (well, several — we’re hoping for a long, cold winter).

Or just adapt your existing habits and read it every Sunday evening for an hour: Mad Men’s over and Entourage sucks, anyway.

Jonathan Lethem on Roberto Bolaño, or the best novel of the year?

In this weekend’s New York Times Book Review Jonathan Lethem offers high praise for Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, which comes out in the U.S. on Tuesday. Based on the review, it looks like 2666 will vie with Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland for the title of the best book of 2008. Lethem writes: 

“2666” is as consummate a performance as any 900-page novel dare hope to be: Bolaño won the race to the finish line in writing what he plainly intended, in his self-interrogating way, as a master statement. Indeed, he produced not only a supreme capstone to his own vaulting ambition, but a landmark in what’s possible for the novel as a form in our increasingly, and terrifyingly, post-national world. “The Savage Detectives” looks positively hermetic beside it.

. . . .

A novel like “2666” is its own preserving machine, delivering itself into our hearts, sentence by questing, unassuming sentence; it also becomes a preserving machine for the lives its words fall upon like a forgiving rain, fictional characters and the secret selves hidden behind and enshrined within them: hapless academic critics and a hapless Mexican boxer, the unavenged bodies deposited in shallow graves. By writing across the grain of his doubts about what literature can do, how much it can discover or dare pronounce the names of our world’s disasters, Bolaño has proven it can do anything, and for an instant, at least, given a name to the unnamable.

Now throw your hats in the air.

Even the design of 2666 is getting coverage from New York Magazine. I opted, at least initially, for the for three-paperback boxed set. You?

Jeffrey Sachs on the financial crisis

In a recent post on the Financial Times site, Columbia University Jeffrey Sachs economist proposes some steps that the international community can take to limit the damage: 

First, the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan should extend swap lines to all main emerging markets, including Brazil, Hungary, Poland and Turkey, to prevent a drain of reserves.

Second, the International Monetary Fund should extend low-conditionality loans to all countries that request it, starting with Pakistan.

Third, the US and European central banks and bank regulators should work with their big banks to discourage them from abruptly withdrawing credit lines from overseas operations. Spain has a role to play with its banks in Latin America.

Fourth, China, Japan and South Korea should undertake a co-ordinated macroeconomic expansion. In China, this would mean raising spending on public housing and infrastructure. In Japan, this would mean a boost in infrastructure but also in loans to developing nations in Asia and Africa to finance projects built by Japanese and local companies. Development financing can be a powerful macroeonomic stabiliser. China, Japan and South Korea should work with other regional central banks to bolster expansionary policies backed by government-to-government loans.

Fifth, the Middle East, flush with cash, should fund investment projects in emerging markets and low-income countries. Moreover, it should keep up domestic spending despite a fall in oil prices. Indeed, the faster a global macroeconomic expansion is in place the sooner oil prices will recover.

Sixth, the US and Europe should expand export credits for low and middle-income developing countries, not only to meet their unfulfilled aid promises but also as a counter-cyclical stimulus. It would be a tragedy for big infrastructure companies to suffer when the developing world is crying out for infrastructure investment.

Finally, there is scope for expansionary fiscal policy in the US and Europe, despite large budget deficits. The US expansion should focus on infrastructure and transfers to cash-strapped state governments, not tax cuts. This package will not stop a recession in the US and parts of Europe, but could stop a recession in Asia and the developing countries. At the least it would put a floor on the global contraction that is rapidly gaining strength.

Lit crit and the financial crisis

This week’s issue of the New Yorker has a piece by John Lanchester about books related to the financial crisis. He is the only journalist, so far, to draw an analogy between developments in the financial markets and philosophy and cultural criticism. For that, I take my hat off. In the high point (for English majors) of his piece Lanchester writes:

If the invention of derivatives was the financial world’s modernist dawn, the current crisis is unsettlingly like the birth of postmodernism. For anyone who studied literature in college in the past few decades, there is a weird familiarity about the current crisis: value, in the realm of finance capital, evokes the elusive nature of meaning in deconstructionism. According to Jacques Derrida, the doyen of the school, meaning can never be precisely located; instead, it is always “deferred,” moved elsewhere, located in other meanings, which refer and defer to other meanings—a snake permanently and necessarily eating its own tail. This process is fluid and constant, but at moments the perpetual process of deferral stalls and collapses in on itself. Derrida called this moment an “aporia,” from a Greek term meaning “impasse.” There is something both amusing and appalling about seeing his theories acted out in the world markets to such cataclysmic effect. Anyone invited to attend a meeting of the G-8 financial ministers would be well advised not to draw their attention to this.

The result of our era of financial deconstruction has been a decades-long free-for-all of deregulation and (for the most part) bull markets, ending in partial nationalization.

NYRB on the election

The previous issue of the New York Review of Books features a series of takes on the current election season from some of the Review’s frequent contributors. Joan Didion, of course, stole the show for me. She frames the current election in a contrarian light: 

. . . what seemed striking about the long and impassioned run-up to this election was not how different it had been—but precisely how similar it had been to previous such seasons.

We had kept talking about how different it was, but it wasn’t.

On a single mid-September morning these phrases would appear on the front page of The Washington Post : “stocks plummet,” “panic on Wall Street,” “as banks lost faith in one another,” “one of the most tumultuous days ever for financial markets,” “giant blue-chip financial institutions swept away,” “banks refusing to lend,” “Russia closing its stock market,” “panicked selling,” “free fall,” and “the greatest destruction of financial wealth that the world has ever seen.”

These were not entirely unpredictable developments.


Zadie Smith on Netherland vs. Remainder

Zadie Smith’s essay in the current New York Review of Books pits Netherland by Joseph O’Neill against Remainder by Tom McCarthy, using the books to represent opposing views on the state of the novel. She writes: 

All novels attempt to cut neural routes through the brain, to convince us that down this road the true future of the novel lies. In healthy times, we cut multiple roads, allowing for the possibility of a Jean Genet as surely as a Graham Greene.

These aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done—in a sense that’s the problem. It’s so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait.

Smith lays bare the contrast between these novels in her account of how each uses cricket: 

In Netherland cricket symbolized the triumph of the symbol over brute fact (cricket as the deferred promise of the American Dream). In Remainder cricket is pure facticity, which keeps coming at you, carrying death, leaving its mark. Everything must leave a mark. Everything has a material reality. Everything happens in space. As you read it, Remainder makes you preternaturally aware of space, as Robbe-Grillet did in JealousyRemainder‘s obvious progenitor. Like the sportsmen whose processes it describes and admires, Remainder “fill[s] time up with space,” by breaking physical movements, for example, into their component parts, slowing them down; or by examining the layers and textures of a wet, cambered road in Brixton as a series of physical events, rather than emotional symbols. It forces us to recognize space as a nonneutral thing—unlike Realism, which ignores the specificities of space. Realism’s obsession is convincing us that time has passed. It fills space with time.

As you may know, I think Netherland is the best novel of the past few years. As many have noted, it evokes my favorite novel, The Great Gatsby. But is that a bad thing? To execute a form so well that it stands alongside the best of the genre (of lyrical realist fiction)? I’m currently reading Remainder, and it’s equally well-executed, but, as Smith notes, a different type of novel. However, why should that matter? Both novels fall into the realm of realism with one focused on consciousness and one on physicality or factness. Why we must choose one or the other—why one is more valuable than the other just because it’s a less popular book from a newer tradition, I’m not sure. Change in the novel is incremental, not sudden. So, yes, it will take more novels like Remainder to push the form in a new direction. And yes, that is less likely to happen if people aren’t reading and valuing Remainder. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

I don’t think the balance is shifting in McCarthy’s favor, but it’s not because of a lack of awareness. Several of the readers I know have read McCarthy’s book, and those who haven’t are familiar with it. The nouveau roman has been around for decades, its principles available to any author with the willingness to pursue them. (For manifestoes, see McCarthy’s International Necronautical Society page.) I don’t have access to Nielsen to compare the sales numbers of the two books Smith cites. What I can say as a reader is that they’re both highly well-written, entertaining, funny books that deserve to be read. Anyhow, it’ll be interesting to see what Smith does next with her own fiction, and I’ll be eagerly anticipating it as I have her previous work. I will post more on this subject soon, including my recent reading of James Wood’s How Fiction Works, which argues for a realism’s large umbrella.

Gears of War 2, the New Yorker, and Nathan Englander is a gamer

In what must be the smartest profile I’ve ever read about the video game business, Tom Bissell profiles Epic Games designer Cliff Blesinski in this week’s The New Yorker. Blesinski designed the uber-successful game Gears of War, which I received once as a gift. Although I’ve never been a fan of shooters, there was definitely something different about this game. Bissell’s essay puts the game on the level of art and calls in Nathan Englander to help him make his case: 

The novelist Nathan Englander, a fan of the game, cites its third-person viewpoint, in which the player looks over the shoulder of the character being controlled, as a key to its success. “In literary terms,” Englander told me, “it’s a close-second-person shooter. It’s Jay McInerney and Lorrie Moore territory. You’re both totally involved and totally watching.” As for the collapsed architecture and blown-open spaces of the Gears world, Englander said, “There’s the hospital from ‘Blindness’ and the house from ‘The Ghost Writer,’ and I know that beautiful, ruined world of Gears as well as either of those.”

What really got me about the piece isn’t just the convergence of video games and literature, but rather Bissell’s location in the game of something—some emotion—that is very mournful and mature and sad that he traces through its advertising campaign:  

The advertising campaign for the first Gears was centered on a strangely affecting sixty-second spot in which Fenix twice flees from enemies, only to be cornered by a Corpser, a monstrous arachnoid creature, on which he opens fire. But it was the soundtrack—Gary Jules’s spare, mournful cover of the 1982 Tears for Fears song “Mad World”—that gave the spot its harsh-tender dissonance. This helped signal that Fenix was something that few video-game characters had yet managed to be: disappointedly adult.

Bissell continues later in the piece: 

Gears also contains what Bleszinski calls a “going home” narrative: “There’s a sublevel to Gears that so many people missed out on because it’s such a big testosterone-filled chainsaw-fest. Marcus Fenix goes back to his childhood home in the game. I dream about my house in Boston, basically every other night. It was up on a hill.” In Gears of War, the fatherless Fenix’s manse is on a hill, too, and getting to its front door involves some of the most harried and ridiculously frantic fighting in the game. When I told Bleszinski that Fenix’s homecoming was one of my favorite levels in Gears, he asked if I knew where its title, “Imaginary Place,” had come from. I thought for a moment. Earlier, he had made a nicely observed reference to the novelist Cormac McCarthy, and I was attuned to the possibility of an altogether unexpected window into his imagination. Was it from Auden? No. It was a reference to a line from Zach Braff’s film “Garden State,” in which “family” is defined as “a group of people who miss the same imaginary place.” When you start to peel back the layers of the Gears world, Bleszinski told me, “there’s a lot of sadness there.”

Bissell’s accomplishments in this piece are many, but the two most obvious are

  1. He takes the level of discourse around video games to a whole new elevation.
  2. He makes me want to play Gears of War. 

That second point, I think, is the the height of non-fiction writing about any subject—whether it’s art or sports or technology or business: the writing drives the reader towards its subject.

It’s all about words, words, words

Hillary Clinton did it, now John McCain are doing it too: expressing a disdain for Barack Obama’s command of language. James Wood has a piece in this week’s New Yorker about use of the Republicans’ use of language, which concludes: 

. . . when [Palin] was asked about Obama’s attack on McCain’s claim that the fundamentals of the economy are sound. “Well,” Palin said, “it was an unfair attack on the verbage that Senator McCain chose to use, because the fundamentals, as he was having to explain afterwards, he means our workforce, he means the ingenuity of the American people. And of course that is strong, and that is the foundation of our economy. So that was an unfair attack there, again, based on verbage that John McCain used.” This is certainly doing rather than mere talking, and what is being done is the coinage of “verbage.” It would be hard to find a better example of the Republican disdain for words than that remarkable term, so close to garbage, so far from language.

This reminded me of an interview with former JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen that appeared in the New York Times Magazine earlier this year. In it, Sorensen cites the power of “Kennedy’s rhetoric when he was president [which] turned out to be a key to his success. His mere words about Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba helped resolve the worst crisis the world has ever known without the U.S. having to fire a shot.”

Obama’s deputy speechwriter Adam Frankel worked with Sorensen on his memoir, and Sorensen himself has lent his hand to the Obama campaign.

The New Yorker digital edition is already a disappointment

I spent two hours yesterday waiting in line, unsuccessfully, for tickets to the New Yorker Festival event with Haruki Murakami. The tickets sold out, though they lasted longer than I had anticipated. A walking tour with Calvin Trillin and an event with Stephen Colbert were the first to sell out. You can even see me standing in line on the New Yorker’s current homepage above.

Today I stood in the line in the same place for about 50 minutes to get books signed by Murakami, whose wife stamped them after he signed them. Of interest was a kiosk set up to preview the New Yorker’s digital edition, which the magazine expects to launch in one month. They’re currently offering four free issues and a free digital subscription for print subscribers through the end of their current subscription term. It sounded like they still haven’t settled on a pricing model for the digital edition. Or, if they have, the reps at the Festival headquarters weren’t aware of it. The magazine plans to make each week’s issue available digitally at 12:01 am on Monday morning and to provide digital access to their archive.

Digital issues don’t appear to be downloadable, though the New Yorker rep said that users would be able to print from the magazine using the digital edition. The magazine is forcing users to use an online, web-based viewer from Realview Technologies. Unfortunately, that means no PDFs and no offline access. Moreover, the printing functionality seems to be severely limited and only lets users print one page at a time. It would be nice if I could just print the entire magazine on Monday morning, but it would seem essential that users would be able to at least print out an article or two for later reading.

One of the great advantages of the magazine is that it’s portable. Once I get my copy of the New Yorker in the mail, I can read it in class, I can read it in bed, I can read it in a cab or on a plane. I can even read it in the subway when I have no reception on my BlackBerry. I don’t even need my computer or an Internet connection to read it. Yes, I also happen to hate reading on computer screens and even print out op-ed articles from the Times out of my preference for paper over pixels. By restricting both printing and offline access, the digital edition becomes far less useful than the print magazine or its website. Given a chance to expand its reader base and further engage existing readers of the New Yorker, it appears the magazine has failed with its digital edition to do any more than create a niche product with infinitesimal appeal. I really wanted to like the digital edition, but I don’t see how it, in any way, improves on the magazine.

I suppose that’s no surprise, though, given the New Yorker’s previous experience with digital content. Its website was absolutely anemic for years and years, and it prevented all but the savviest users from copying the New Yorker Archive DVDs to their hard drives, which created a slow product. Because the New Yorker has such great content, such a great product, I feel it has a responsibility to put user experience above its fears of digitization. Its digital edition offers another chance to get that right. Let’s hope it does so before next month’s launch.

On another New Yorker note, their Festival blog is excellent.

Update: I’ve now had a chance to try the launched digital edition. 

Premium Denim and the Great Gatsby

Last weekend, by chance, I ended up at the Blues Jean Bar in the Marina. They have jeans, jeans, and more jeans. It’s rather impressive. However, I did a little research and it seems that their prices are over retail, so I doubt I would ever buy anything there. I also don’t like the fact that they keep all the jeans behind the “bar,” so you have to ask for everything. One thing I hate when shopping for clothes is interacting with the sales people.

Since last weekend I’ve given myself a minor crash course in premium denim. No, I definitely can’t distinguish the pocket design of one brand from another, but I did find a pair of jeans from AG called Great Gatsby. Being a complete sucker for all things Gatsby, I immediately wanted them. Not only did they bear the Gatsby name, but they also reminded me of another Gatsby-related piece of apparel, the Gatsby shirts from J. Peterman, which I first encountered in the Peterman catalog ten years ago when I was in high school.

However, after thinking about it, the AG jeans just seem downright stupid to me. While the Peterman shirts at least claimed to be inspired by Gatsby—the very shirt that Gatsby wore! the same sort of shirt that he would toss on the floor causing Daisy to weep!—I could never imagine Gatsby wearing AG jeans, not then and not now.

Though I can believe in the Peterman shirts, silly as they—and his whole catalog—may be, I can’t really believe that there’s anything at all Gatsbyesque about the AG jeans. It’s sort of like Moleskine notebooks, where the labels claim that Picasso and Hemingway used them. And, in fact, they actually did use similarly designed notebooks. Dave Eggers and many others actually use Moleskine notebooks themselves, which adds to their appeal. Of course, having the right tools counts for nothing if you don’t know how to use them, but their inspirational power—commercial and exploitative as it may be—also carries a degree of reality.

Weekend notes

  • Conversational reading has a fairly sharp piece about one of my favorite literary critics, James Wood.

I don’t think Wood believes there is much value in metaphors like Flaubert’s because as a reader he doesn’t appreciate what use they have in a novel. Wood is comfortable dissecting how an author attaches character traits to realistic people, but when an author tosses in an enigmatic metaphor, Wood finds it too fuzzy, and therefore meaningless. I think, perhaps, if he were better at imagining his way into the psychology of a work, he might better understand the value of metaphors like Flaubert’s.

Esposito seems to go a little over the top to make his point, for, after all, enigmatic metaphor and social commentary doesn’t really matter much without the existing creation in the novel of one real human being.

  • Prompted in part by this New York Times article, I’ve been reading up on recent cancer research. Most articles I’ve read, are, unfortunately, unlinkable (like this one), having come from ridiculously expensive medical journals. One of the recommendations I encountered in the Times is essentially to spend more resources on soi-disant “blue sky” research. One of the places that I became aware of at the beginning of this decade that actually works on this sort of stuff is the Webb-Waring Institute, which operates free of commercial interests.
  • An era ended in New York last week with Joe Torre’s departure from the New York Yankees. The teams from 1996 through 2001 played an essential part in my sense of who I am as an individual—Mo; Jeter; Posada; waking up at obscene hours in France to listen to the 2000 Subway Series; the 2001 playoff games that started on one day and finished the next, ending in October—and I’m rather sad about the end of things for Torre. These letters to the Times sports section express that sadness better than I can right now.