J.D. Drew and the curse of potential

J.D. Drew may be the toast of the town in New England after his grand slam yesterday against the Indians, but New York Times and Deadspin blogger Will Leitch writes about how Drew is one of the most disliked players he has ever watched. Leitch notes that “the real reason Drew rankles us so much is that he doesn’t seem to be having much fun. He’s not loafing, exactly, but he roams the diamond with the countenance of a man finishing out the end of a prison term. For all his obvious skills, he is thought to have no passion for the game.”

Drew’s case here seems to raise two questions: one about wasted potential and another about making one’s life’s work something for which one has no passion. But does Drew really have no passion or does he just appear that way? And is that such a bad thing? And what really is the difference? Is Drew simply not a hard worker? I think the sentiment about Drew results from a combination of his not having lived up to his projected potential from the time he was drafted and his apparently blasé demeanor on the field. If the guy had driven in 100 runs this year, would the fans really be all over him? I doubt it, but then again, when you play in front of thousands and thousands of people, performance matters in both senses of the word.

The development round

The New York Times has an editorial today about the 2001 Doha talks and the commitment to making it easier for poor countries to have access to global markets to sell their goods. However, as the Times notes:

The package for the poorest should be improved. At the very least, the duty- and quota-free access to markets in industrial countries should be extended to cover more of the poor countries’ most competitive exports, starting with textiles. Middle-income countries should also offer equivalent open access for exports from the least developed. And rich countries should tightly limit any exceptional subsidies and protections for agricultural products, like sugar and cotton, that poor countries can export.

The New Yorker’s Arts Issue

Earlier this week, I had lunch with New Yorker writer Alex Ross, whose new book The Rest Is Noise is an excellent history of 20th century classical music. Ross has an article in this week’s New Yorker about how the Internet, commonly held to have had a deleterious effect on the music business, has lead to a revival in the classical music business.

What really struck me in the article is a passage Ross quotes from the blog of pianist Jeremy Denk about the experience of playing Oliver Messaien’s “Quartet for the End of Time”:

Somewhere toward the middle of the last movement, I began to feel the words that Messiaen marks in the part, I began to hear them, feel them as a “mantra”: extatique, paradisiaque. And maybe more importantly, I began to have visions while I was playing, snapshots of my own life (such that I had to remind myself to look at the notes, play the notes!): people’s eyes, mostly, expressions of love, moments of total and absolute tenderness. (This is sentimental, too personal: I know. How can you write about this piece without becoming over-emotional?) I felt that same sense of outpouring (“pouring over”) that comes when you just have to touch someone, when what you feel makes you pour out of your own body, when you are briefly no longer yourself—and at that moment I was still playing the chords, still somehow playing the damn piano. And each chord is even more beautiful than the last; they are pulsing, hypnotic, reverberant . . . each chord seemed to pile on something that was already ready to collapse, something too beautiful to be stable . . . and when your own playing boomerangs on you and begins to “move yourself,” to touch you emotionally, you have entered a very dangerous place. Luckily, the piece was almost over. . . . When I got offstage I had to breathe, hold myself in, talk myself down.

Denk does an excellent job of conveying simultaneously the the way it feels to be overwhelmingly moved by something and the very impossibility of expressing that feeling. Also in this week’s magazine is a relatively interesting piece by Sasha Frere-Jones about why indie rock is so white.

Orhan Pamuk at the JCC San Francisco

pamukforblog.jpg

By chance I discovered that Orhan Pamuk was reading at the JCC in San Francisco last night. Unfortunately, tickets were sold out. And yet, I decided to drive up to the city after work, anyway, to see if I might be able to score a ticket by standing outside on California Street. I happened to also be very hungry during the drive, and couldn’t help but make a sushi stop at Whole Foods before I got to the JCC. By the time I did arrive, it was 8:07 pm, and I was seven minutes late for the event and probably 15 minutes late for my chance at buying a ticket from someone going in with an extra. So, I went over to the ticket booth on a whim, and asked if they had any tickets available. And indeed they gave me one. “How much is it?” I asked, and the girl at the booth told me, “Don’t worry about it.” (Free ticket to see Orhan Pamuk! And I got sushi!)

I absolutely loved the event and am going to see him again tomorrow evening at Stanford. Some of the things I remember from his talk at the JCC, which will be broadcast on November 12 at 8 pm on KALW 91.7 FM:

  • The central work of the writer is spending a lot of time alone in a room, looking inside yourself and putting what you find on the outside.
  • Pamuk paraphrasing Adorno in response to a question about the writer’s position at the border of his culture: “Morality is to never feel at home anywhere.” The actual line from Adorno, which I looked up afterwards: “It is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.”
  • Pamuk’s comments on always falling into depression when he reads the English translations of his work because English is the one other language he understands well enough to be critical of.

Overall, I came away from the event reminded of my love for both writing and reading, and I look forward to finishing up Pamuk’s Other Colors and then diving into Snow.

I laugh more often now

I attended two shows last week worth mentioned. The first was Peter Bjorn and John at the Wiltern in LA on Monday night. I missed the opening band, the Clientele, but their backing vocalist Mel Draisey joined PB&J for their performance of “Young Folks.” (I’m impressed by the fact that the Clientele quotes Jean Baudrillard on their website!) One thing I just learned about “Young Folks” is that the vocals in the album version are done entirely by the band, i.e. there’s no female singing the part that you think is sung by a female.

Overall, the band had a lot of energy, and I enjoyed the show quite a bit. Their set seemed rather short to me at only 14 songs, including most of Writer’s Block. Writer’s Block was the soundtrack to my summer, and “Young Folks” its theme song. However, it’s the song “Objects of My Affection,” that I’ve been thinking about recently. Its chorus: “. . . and the question is, was I more alive / then than I am now? / I happily have to disagree; / I laugh more often now, I cry more often now, / I am more me.”

In the song, these musings are prompted by encounters with writing and music that had been encountered before in another time. This reminded me of an article I read this summer in the New York Review of Books by Joyce Carol Oates. Her review of the “amnesiac” novels The Raw Shark Texts and Remainder includes this brilliant passage:

The amnesiac’s quest resembles the artist’s quest for inspiration: the artist must be alert to “messages” beneath the seeming disorder of the world, leaving himself open to disponibilité—availability of chance. For it is likely to be a “chance” image or encounter that will unleash a flood of memories, and allow the amnesiac to reclaim the narrative of his life.

I love the idea of the unexpected evocations, but the thing that really got me about this passage was the idea of reclaiming the narrative of one’s life, or as PB&J put it, being “more me.” It seems to me that most of my adult life has been devoted to returning to some narrative track that was set in adolescence. And nothing feels better than knowing that I’m back on it.

I also saw Arcade Fire and LCD SoundSystem play in the rain at Shoreline on Friday night. The venue seemed altogether too large for Arcade Fire; I wish I had been able to see them at someplace like the Greek in Berkeley or the Fillmore in San Francisco. However, I was delightfully surprised by LCD. One of my friends has been telling me about their song “All My Friends” for months, but I didn’t pay much attention to it or to the band, despite having picked up both of their albums. The live version of this song was absolutely amazing, soaring and wonderful. I haven’t been able to stop listening to it since the concert, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s likely the best song I’ve ever heard about the alienation and disappointment of adult life: “You spend the first five years trying to get with the plan / And the next five years trying to be with your friends again.” There’s also a decent cover out there by Franz Ferdinand.

The world’s greatest gadget

Anthony Lane has a story in this week’s New Yorker about the almost century-long fascination with and fanaticism about Leica cameras and lenses. Like Lane, I share a huge reverence for these things. I think a Leica camera may well be the best, most beautifully made object in the world. Lane writes:

Many people would disagree. Bugatti fans, for instance, would direct your attention to the Type 57 Atlantic, the only car I know that appears to have been designed by masseuses. Personally, I would consider it a privilege to die at the wheel of a Lamborghini Miura—not difficult, when you’re nudging a hundred and seventy m.p.h. and waving at passersby. But automobiles need gas, whereas the truest mechanisms run on nothing but themselves. What is required is a machine constructed with such skill that it renders every user—from the pro to the banana-fingered fumbler—more skillful as a result. We need it to refine and lubricate, rather than block or coarsen, our means of engagement with the world: we want to look not just at it, however admiringly, but through it. In that case, we need a Leica.

My dad was, among other things, a photographer and so I grew up around cameras—Mamiyas, twin lens Rolleiflexes, Canons—but didn’t use a Leica until I lived in New York four years ago, and it truly is different from any other camera I have encountered. It is, like Lane suggests, a way of seeing the world.

Lane continues:

There, if anywhere, is the Leica motto: watch and wait. If you were a predator, the moment—not just for Cartier-Bresson, but for all photographers—became that much more decisive in 1954. “Clairvoyance” means “clear sight,” and when Leica launched the M3 that year, the clarity was a coup de foudre; even now, when you look through a used M3, the world before you is brighter and crisper than seems feasible. You half expect to feel the crunch of autumn leaves beneath your feet. A Leica viewfinder resembles no other, because of the frame lines: thin white strips, parallel to each side of the frame, which show you the borders of the photograph that you are set to take—not merely the lie of the land within the shot, but also what is happening, or about to happen, just outside. This is a matter of millimetres, but to Leica fans it is sacred, because it allows them to plan and imagine a photograph as an act of storytelling—an instant grabbed at will from a continuum. If you want a slice of life, why not see the loaf?

Letter to the editor in Inc. magazine

A couple months ago, Inc. magazine published the second in a series of stories about the revival of Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, CA. I responded with a blog post and a letter to the editor, which appears in the June issue of Inc. and is reprinted below.

It’s telling that Part Two of Bo Burlingham’s story about Kepler’s, a bookstore, doesn’t once mention a single author or book title [“The Plot Thickens,” March]. Burlingham also fails to include views from anyone outside of the store’s management team and its consultants. I couldn’t imagine him writing a similar story about a software company without mentioning an engineer or views from outside industry observers.

If Anne Banta and Clark Kepler want to revive the business, it’s essential to pay more attention to their primary product and how customers relate to it. Banta may know good business, but without knowing good books, her efforts will be futile.

Why I no longer love Stanford Shopping Center

I used to big a big fan of Stanford Shopping Center going the 1980s. I love the outdoor atmosphere and the selection of shops, which, though not great, is certainly better than most malls. I’m disappointed that some of my old favorite stores are no longer there: Hear Music, Phileas Fogg’s Travel Shop, EB Games, and a sports bookstore whose name I forget. But there are some new, good stores too like Rugby by Ralph Lauren.

I remember the Banana Republic there before the Gap bought it and it looked like a Jeep had crashed into the storefront. That was my favorite store when I was a kid just because of its facade. Speaking of car crashes, that’s exactly why I am no longer a fan of Stanford Shopping Center: This Sunday while I was parked near Max’s, someone hit my car’s rear bumper, valence and left fender causing easily $3,000+ in damage. This person did not leave a note. Leaving a note is something that people really should do if they hit someone else’s car while it’s parked. In fact, I remember hearing that it’s the law to do so.

Things like this have happened to me in the past, and I made sure to park all the way out along Sand Hill, next to a tree on the right and a couple empty spots on the left. I pulled into the middle of the spot and then readjusted, moving my car all the way to the right of the spot—next to the tree—so a car parking on my left wouldn’t hit mine. And yet. It happened anyway.

I called the Palo Alto police to file a police report, but they refused to send an officer because Stanford is on private property. The woman at the police department directed me to Stanford Shopping Center’s private security department.

I went to the directory in the middle of the shopping center and called the security number. The woman who answered the phone there said they would send an officer over. When the officer arrived, he said that he would not be able to issue me a report and that Stanford did not have security tapes that I could see. I didn’t expect there to be a videotape of the incident involving my car because I parked so far away. However, what disappointed me tremendously is that the security officer said that I would need have the court subpoena them if I wanted to obtain access to any sort of report on the incident. Of course, these sorts of reports are generally useful for insurance purposes, but the security service at Stanford proved to be entirely useless. I understand that these people are trying to protect Stanford, but to do so at the great expense and frustration of their customers seems to me self-destructive.

This is one of the worst customer service experiences I’ve had anywhere, especially since I now need to have two of the largest pieces on my Audi repainted, and we all know that once you get something repainted, especially on a German car, it never looks quite the same. I will probably still shop at Stanford, just not as frequently and without any enjoyment, but I certainly won’t be driving there.

If you were at Stanford Shopping Center on Sunday, May 27, 2007, and you happen to have seen the car that hit my silver 2002 Audi A4, please email me. Judging by the paint transfer, it looks like the car that hit me was white. For the other auto detailing enthusiasts out there, I did try to take out the scratches on the bumper with SSR 2.5 and a white pad on my Porter Cable, but wasn’t able to minimize the scratches at all. So, it looks like I’ll be making a trip to the body shop soon.

Here’s a picture of the damage:

stanfordscratches2.jpg

Can we care about genocide?

Nicholas Kristof has an interesting column in the Times about our inclination to care about individuals rather than groups. He uses a paper by Paul Slovic at the University of Oregon as his starting point. Slovic writes, “Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue individual victims whose needy plight comes to their attention. These same good people, however, often become numbly indifferent to the plight of individuals who are “one of many” in a much greater problem. Why does this occur?”

According to Kristof, Slovic “argues that we cannot depend on the innate morality even of good people. Instead, he believes, we need to develop legal or political mechanisms to force our hands to confront genocide.” Kristof, however, believes that we need a public outcry that can only be promted by media emphasis on a single, suffering, sympathy-inducing Darfurian—or a Darfur puppy.

Sarah Kerr on Joan Didion

Sarah Kerr has a very toughtful consideration of Joan Didion’s nonfiction work in the April 26, 2007, issue of the New York Review of Books. The highlights:

The problem is something like this: A writer writes from a point of view. This point of view is partly a factual matter of physical or social positioning (either she is inside or outside, close to the problem she is writing about or out on the periphery). Further, point of view implies the more abstract positioning of an attitude toward time (does she look to the past for orientation, or the future?). The writer can never totally transcend her point of view. She would be dishonest if she tried to deny it. So how can she stay true to it, while meeting her ethical duty to hazard larger truths about the world?
. . . .
“Style is character”: at several points in her career, Didion has offered this sentence as one of her core beliefs. But what does it mean? Not that you are what you look like, or that what you look like is what counts. Style is the writer’s site of decision-making—literally, the site of actions whose integrity can be measured. It is the place where the self meets the world. And so Didion felt a need to do what for her was, by her own admission, extremely difficult: go out and meet the world.
. . . .
Because Didion’s later reporting on politics, often for this magazine, took a turn generally more critical of a reawakened American conservatism— and critical, also, of paralyzed Democratic accommodation—it’s sometimes been said that at some point in the decades after these first two books she was radicalized, or at least nudged toward something more like traditional liberalism. To argue this is to ignore how much the writing life has always been her central concern, and how much politics has always been a secondary, if all too gift-giving, subject. All along her aimed-for target has been behavior that is in error, above all behavior that resists—and therefore demands from the observing writer—irony.

My favorite line from the piece, and the one with which I identify most, comes from Didion herself in one of Kerr’s epigraphs: “to be paralyzed by a past no longer relevant.” She’s talking, in “Notes from a Native Daughter” about the fate of those in the Sacramento Valley, but also, as usual, about everyone.

The demise of book reviewing

The New York Times uses the occasion of the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s eliminating the position of book review editor held by Teresa Weaver to once again cover the dichotomy between traditional newspaper coverage of books and coverage in the blogosphere. Newspaper reviews, for me, occupy a sort of middle-ground: they can never cater to niche interests the way that blogs can while they also don’t provide the sort of in-depth, well-considered review that one might find in the New York Review of Books or the New Yorker. They do, however, provide some level of volume, i.e the sheer number of books they review, and consistency, while covering a broader range of subject matter than any individual blog could.

The Times is especially fond of quoting novelist Richard Ford in the story:

Obviously, the changes at newspaper book reviews reflect the broader challenges faced by newspapers in general, as advertisement revenues decline, and readers decamp to the Internet. But some writers (and readers) question whether economics should be the only driving factor. Newspapers like The Atlanta Journal-Constitution could run book reviews “as a public service, and the fact of the matter is that they are unwilling to,” said Richard Ford, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.

“I think the reviewing function as it is thoroughly taken up by newspapers is vital,” he continued, “in the same way that literature itself is vital.”

Cody’s Books in San Francisco closing

Cody’s Books on Stockton Street in San Francisco will be closing on April 20, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.

The 22,000-square-foot store on Stockton Street, between Union Square and Market Street, will close on April 20. It will send 20 percent of its inventory to the last remaining Cody’s location, on Fourth Street in Berkeley.

Cody’s President Andrew Ross, who mortgaged his house to open the San Francisco store, said it has been losing $70,000 a month.

When Cody’s Telegraph location announced its impending closure last spring, Ross asserted than the San Francisco store was doing quite well, and on pace to be profitable. Obviously and sadly, that didn’t happen.

Blacks in baseball and authors on video

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, powells.com, 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

brandt.jpg

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?

indies.jpg

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

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.

Inc. magazine’s second story on Kepler’s

The second part of Bo Burlingham’s three-part series on Kepler’s appears in the March issue of Inc. magazine. Burlingham recounts the struggles that Anne Banta, Clark Kepler, et al have had over the past year or so after the store reopened in October 2005. It seems that Banta has finally come to some conclusions that she should have reached a long time ago. She’s quoted, “I feel hopeful about how it’s going. But the idea of people from high tech coming in to save the day—it was so naive to think that we could. We have to find other people who know the industry–an advisory board or something. If we can tap into some industry experts, it would make a big difference.”

The only problem here is that the sort of industry experts she seeks out are people like Michael Hoynes, who recommend diversifying product lines, targeting the store to families, and other marketing nonsense that has nothing to do with books or how to reach people who care about books and are willing to spend money on them.

In September of 2005, I wrote a letter to the San Jose Mercury News criticizing the composition of Kepler’s board of directors and suggested that they include someone from the literary community on the board. They still have not done this. (You can read the letter reprinted below, if you click on the “more” link.)

Burlingham’s article definitely provides some hope that the store is on the right track and that Banta and Kepler have finally realized that the store can’t be everything to everyone—that it needs focus, and having focus inevitably means alienating some people. At one point in the article, Burlingham quotes Banta when she exclaims, “But I don’t know what we want [the store] to be!”

I obviously love the store quite a bit. I still buy most of my books there—about 100 a year. I claim at least some responsibility for the store’s revival, and yet I also understand that in order to reshape itself to survive, Kepler’s may, in fact, alienate me. I sure hope they don’t, that they beef up their literary fiction section, stop cutting back on periodicals, and find some way to finance doing so. If that means selling ridiculous games and diaries and DVDs and Christmas cards, then so be it. But I think they still need to figure out a) How are we going to make money? and b) What are we going to invest that money in? What is going to give us the greatest return? And what is going to be of long-term, literary value to our customers? This is a decision that you can only make with strong leadership and leaders who are interested in books and business. When I used to travel more and visit new bookstores on a regular basis, I had two tests for whether the store was good or not: 1. Did they stock all books by F. Scott Fitzgerald? (He died at 44, after all, and only has about a dozen books.) and 2. Do they have The Recognitions by William Gaddis. Fail both, and you’re out of the running. Those tests have not changed in years, and I don’t expect them to.

On a final note, the article mentions setting trackable benchmarks for the staff, which I completely agree with, but the question is this: Can a metrics-driven business model be compatible with an art form that is not. Seriously, if the literary business was entirely driven by sales, we would have only be able to choose a bunch of crappy best-selling novels by John Grisham, Michael Crichton, et al.

As Banta had come to realize, Kepler would have to learn an entirely different management style if the company were to be turned around and set up to last for another 50 years–the goal set by Méndez and the board. He would have to put managers in place, give them real responsibilities, and hold them accountable. He would have to commit to a plan with realistic projections, quantified goals, and specific benchmarks. Banta and her colleagues had already identified the key areas to concentrate on. They were the six imperatives that made up her “bubbles of focus.” The first bubble was the core: doing the things that defined Kepler’s mission of being the local area’s community and cultural destination. The second: sell more effectively to current customers. The third: expand and diversify the customer base. The fourth: expand and diversify the store’s product line. The fifth: develop an employee culture of empowerment with total customer focus and an understanding of person-to-person marketing. The sixth: reduce costs and improve efficiencies. Banta wanted the participants in the meetings to lay out all the ideas they had for addressing the imperatives. She then wanted them to decide on the three to five most promising ones in each area, estimate the costs and returns, assign responsibility, and settle on the measurements they would use to monitor progress.

While I was living in New York four years ago, I ran into a former Kepler’s employee, who recounted Clark Kepler’s ridiculous rules for his employees, which included not being allowed to sit down or read while on the job. Burlingham seems to suggest that these rules were actually legitimate.

As a manager, he was a one-man band. Every significant problem came to him. He wasn’t even willing to delegate responsibility for checking the suggestion box. On top of that, he had an elaborate set of written rules governing everything an employee might do. Aside from contributing nothing to the business, the rules sent exactly the wrong message to the staff: You are not empowered to think for yourself.

This, generally, seems like a poor way to manage a business, but, hey, what do I know? I’m just a writer. More →

The new n+1

n_1_5_cover_small.jpg

A few months ago, I wrote a magazine article about the experience of spending a day without any digital devices—no cell phone, no Internet, no computer. Unfortunately, the piece was edited to express almost none of my ambivalence about the state we technology users currently find ourselves in—assaulted all day long by emails, unable to resist using our cell phones, content to set our iPods to shuffle. The article I wish I had written appears in the current issue of n+1’s opening department, “The Intellectual Situation.”

In it, the editors address cell phones, email, and the blogosphere. On email: “. . . it has lately become clear that nothing burdens a life like an email account. It’s the old story: the new efficient technology ends up costing far more time than it ever saves, because it breeds new expectations of what a person can possibly do. . . . The true mood of the form is spontaneity, alacrity—the right time to reply to a message is right away. But do that and your life is gone.”

On the cell phone: “The two effects, for the individual, of the cell phone’s contribution to the decivilizing process are ceasing to be able to be alone, and yet refusing solitude without entering into company. This leads to the loss of one of the great comforts of modern urban life…the fraternity of solitude. Sometimes you eat dinner alone; sometimes you do your grocery shopping alone; often you’ll ride the bus alone. At such times, in a city, there are always other people who are dining alone, shopping alone, sitting in their bus seats alone, in exactly the same situation. The fraternity of solitaries is always there for you to join. . . . Go into a restaurant now, sit near a fellow single diner, and you will see him dial his cell phone during the appetizer and talk through to dessert. The only choices you have are to pull out your own phone or listen in.”

Their point about how cell phones prevent you from being able to be alone, to seek real solitude, combined with the barrier they provide to real connection is dead on. How many times have you been hanging out with someone when their cell phone rings or they decide they have to call someone? It doesn’t even have to happen, but the idea that it can, that it could, prevents us from ever fully being able to focus on individuals for any length of time in our daily lives.

For some reason, I feel like Jonathan Franzen once used the phrase “fraternity of solitude,” but no matter. I’ve been reading n+1 ever since it debuted, and it may now, after its previous issue’s survey of American writing and the 10 pages I’ve read of the new issue, be my favorite magazine. Period.

Yves Bonnefoy out of obscurity

When I was a freshman in college, I asked one of my teachers to recommend a French poet whose verse contained much lyricism and obscurity, and she pointed me towards Yves Bonnefoy. I picked up a couple volumes of his work, which I read at the time. I saw him read sparingly when I spent a year studying at a university in France, and then I never heard of him again until I read Charles Simic’s review of Bonnefoy’s new collection, The Curved Planks, in the New York Review of Books last week. Simic closes his essay:

He insists that we must face our mortality, that from our finitude comes whatever wisdom we have. His poems strive to remind of of our earliest experiences of solitude, those moments of wordless feelings that shaped our identities. We must return again to that moment when we found ourselves for the first time in the presence of that most ineffable of realities. Poetry for Bonnefoy is a story of one subject, one great emotion. Not much else happens in his poems. There are no cities, no history, and almost no other people. He is a poet of small ephiphanies: some long-ago summer evening when the night forgot to fall while a lone child played on the road and a distance voice kept calling him. This is the secret of his lyricism, the memory of a fragment of time touched by eternity that he cannot let go. Is this one obsession enough for a lifetime of poetry? In a few of his finest poems, Bonnefoy makes us believe that it is.

Back from Sea Ranch

searanch1.jpg

When I was in high school, one of my best friends would occasionally tell me that his parents were spending the weekend at Sea Ranch. I imagined a bunch of cows living by the ocean, and he explained, “No, no cows. There’s, like, golf and stuff.” I would respond, “Cows! Moo!” It turns out that there are indeed cows. Sea ranch is a community of vacation homes along the coast about 120 miles north of San Francisco. I finally went there over the long Presidents Day weekend, and did not want to leave yesterday.

searanch2.jpg

While there, I read an excellent article in the New Yorker about the HP “pretexting” scandal by James Stewart along with a slightly less interesting article about the ramifications of Ruth Lilly’s $200 million gift to the Poetry Foundation. In it, Dana Goodyear portrays opposition to the commercial view of poetry expressed by the foundation’s head, John Barr, whom she quotes, “If you look at drama in Shakespeare’s day, or the novel in the last century, or the movie today, it suggests that an art enters its golden age when it is addressed to and energized by the general audiences of its time.” He seems to be dead on, if he wants to doom poetry to irrelevance. The problem with his view is that art that considers its audience, art that treats its audience like consumers to be pleased and entertained is exactly the sort of art that becomes stagnant, which is, apparently, Barr’s greatest fear.

On my way back from Sea Ranch, I stopped at Green Apple and picked up Joan Acocella’s latest collection of essays, Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, most of which first appeared in the New Yorker. The Times Sunday Book Review has an excellent review of Acocella’s collection by Kathryn Harrison. Harrison writes,

What emerges from a reading of “Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints” is Acocella’s — and through hers our own — respect and in certain cases even reverence for the dogged faith on which an artistic career is built. We know the seductive alchemy of art. To transform private anguish into a narrative of truth if not beauty; to make sense where there was none; to bring order out of chaos: these are the promises art makes. Fulfilling them requires something else entirely, an attribute closer to blindness than to inspiration — the refusal to give up when the odds predict defeat, again.
. . . .
“The relation between morality and imagination may be a complicated one, but it does exist,” she writes, analyzing the narrowness of Dorothy Parker’s vision, a function, she believes, of her selfishness. “Hope, forgiveness — these are not just moral actions. They are enlargements of the mind. Without them, you remain in the tunnel of the self.” Like Sontag, like every great critic, Acocella is subjective, uncompromising. She has a distinct point of view, a refreshingly not-fashionable one — she salutes Sunday-school virtues! — and writes from her conviction that beneath its hectic, irresponsible, even intoxicated surface, art makes singularly unglamorous demands: integrity, sacrifice, discipline. Hers is a vision that allows art its mystery but not its pretensions, to which she is acutely sensitive. What better instincts could a critic have?

Before Green Apple, I stopped at the Sausalito Taco Shop, which deserves every one of its five-star ratings on Yelp.

Baseball under the umbrella

stanfordbaseball02102007.jpg

Before going up to San Francisco today, I watched three innings of the Stanford vs. Fresno state game in the rain. I’ve only missed three Stanford home openers in this decade, and I wasn’t about to miss this one after having stayed home on Friday night when the game was rained out.

Milan Kundera’s The Curtain

I read Milan Kundera’s new book, The Curtain, at Stanford’s Green Library last weekend, and enjoyed almost all of it. The book-length essay, parts of which appeared in the New Yorker, argues for a unified tradition of world literature. Kundera basically suggests that we need to view all work in the context of this tradition, which in turn demands increased ambition from both novelists and readers. He writes,

A nation’s possessiveness toward its artists works as a small-context terrorism, reducing the whole meaning of a work to the role it plays in its homeland.

….

Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional–thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious–is contemptible.

I found Kundera’s work to be rather powerful. I have to admit that for years, I only read books written in languages that I could read–English and French–and avoided most literature in translation with some exceptions: Kafka, Murakami, Nietzsche. I wouldn’t even read Nabokov’s russian novels until a couple years ago. I did this, in part, because I care intensely about prose styles when I read and had doubts about reading a translated style that could be entirely different from what the author intended. But reading Orhan Pamuk’s essay, which I blogged about over a month ago and this book by Kundera, I’m more convinced that these things don’t matter. What does still matter and why I’ll continue to primarily read American authors is that they’re mostly the ones who are concerned with the project that I’m trying to tackle by writing a novel: knowing America. Yes, I have in mind Kerouac’s famous line, “Nobody’ll ever know America completely because nobody ever knew Gatsby, I guess.”

Steve Jobs on DRM

Steve Jobs posted his “Thoughts on Music” on Apple’s website, calling for the music industry to end its insistence on DRM. As many have noted, the statement is aptly timed to address growing pressure on Apple to open the iTunes music store to other digital music players. I’ve never quite understood what the music industry is so scared of, anyway. Though I love my iPod, I’ve only bought 2 songs from iTunes because I couldn’t find them on CDs elsewhere. I still fail to understand why so many people are willing to pay for such inferior copies of songs. Seriously, play an AAC file from iTunes and a real CD; you’ll hear the difference.

Anyhow, Jobs writes:

In 2006, under 2 billion DRM-protected songs were sold worldwide by online stores, while over 20 billion songs were sold completely DRM-free  and unprotected on CDs by the music companies themselves. The music companies sell the vast majority of their music DRM-free, and show no signs of changing this behavior, since the overwhelming majority of their revenues depend on selling CDs which must play in CD players that support no DRM system.

So if the music companies are selling over 90 percent of their music DRM-free, what benefits do they get from selling the remaining small percentage of their music encumbered with a DRM system? There appear to be none. If anything, the technical expertise and overhead required to create, operate and update a DRM system has limited the number of participants selling DRM protected music. If such requirements were removed, the music industry might experience an influx of new companies willing to invest in innovative new stores and players. This can only be seen as a positive by the music companies.

Much of the concern over DRM systems has arisen in European countries.  Perhaps those unhappy with the current situation should redirect their energies towards persuading the music companies to sell their music DRM-free.

Winning Eleven and Amazon

I pre-ordered Winning Eleven Pro Evolution Soccer for Xbox 360 last month from Amazon, and expected it to ship yesterday. However, today I received an email from Amazon stating that the game wouldn’t ship until next week. In my disappointment, I cancelled my order and went out to GameStop to buy a copy of the game. Like many others have said, the game looks like an HD PS2 game, but the classic Winning Eleven gameplay is still there. I’m really looking forward to EA’s UEFA Champions League 2007 game, which is coming out next month. The videos of this game look amazing.

In another disappointing note, being a huge college baseball fan, I was really looking forward to the new EA NCAA baseball game, which also came out today. Unfortunately, the game is only for PS2 and the rosters aren’t even accurate, which makes no sense. EA uses accurate rosters with fake names for their NCAA football and basketball games. Why couldn’t they do the same for their baseball game?

Weekly reading

  • Jeffrey Toobin has an article on Google Book Search in the New Yorker.
  • The Chicago Fire made an attempt to sign Zinédine Zidane only to be told, like other MLS clubs, that the French midfielder is not coming out of retirement.
  • Wired has a short feature on Zidane: Un Portraît du 21ème Siècle, which was recently shown at the Sundance film festival. The magazine says: “. . . Zidane provides some sublime pleasures. At moments, the filmmakers give us near silence, suggesting Zidane’s isolation, or sound effects that sound like a herd of stampeding wildebeest that connect his physicality with survival, wildness and nature.”
  • I read an article in the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology by Jason Hobbs about designing the web for users in Africa, which didn’t say much except that we need to pay attention to their specific needs: “The real challenge is not low bandwidth, small user bases and budgets for building but our notions of what constitutes a user and how we can design for them and their contexts of use. The opportunity is to design within the limitations that exist to increase trust in the channel (as a meaningful alternative) and thus increase use of the channel.”
  • It’s listening not reading, but still worth checking out is Dave Eggers’s appearance on KCRW’s Bookworm this week. You can listen to the show here. Bookworm, for the uninitiated, is the best show about books in the country.