Listen to the Festival of New French Writing: E.L. Doctorow and Olivier Rolin

The Festival of New French Writing is happening at NYU’s law school this weekend. On Thursday  E.L. Doctorow and Olivier Rolin were in a conversation moderated by Benjamin Anastas. Anastas was filling in for Sam Tanenhaus, who no-showed the event. And though he tried to control the discussion, he couldn’t do much as an unprepared replacement to adapt to Doctorow’s palpable disgust with the topic of politics in writing. Rolin took his questions with good humor, but it would have been best if he could have redirected the discussion. Unfortunately, for the audience, he didn’t.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2009-02-27

  • What if making the web more valuable means making it advertising-free? #
  • Finished “U and I” by Baker, keep getting distracted from Bellow. #
  • Don’t like the Strand, but like Moleskine, and Strand is the place to buy the notebooks. #
  • Visualize Obama’s State of the Union using Wordle: #
  • I don’t think they grant degrees, but there is still #
  • Netherland Wins Pen/Faulkner Award The Pulitzer is next, mark my word #
  • Anyone going to the Festival of New French Writing? #
  • Zoë Heller in NYTimes: “The point of fiction is…to engage with people whose politics or points of view are unpleasant or contradictory.” #
  • E.L. Doctorow at NYU tonight. in reply to luxlotus #
  • Sitting next to Doctorow. #
  • They’re doing translation on the fly for the panelists and moderator through radioed earphones. Fancy! #
  • Somehow, the conversation at the table next to mine has revolved for 10 minutes around the same question: “Have you smoked with your kids?” #
  • “Publishers sell writers instead of books.” –Philip Gourevitch speaking the sad truth at NYU right now. #
  • Bernard-Henri Lévy just arrived with his entourage–only a French intellectual would. Will post the panel discussion on my website later. #

Who’s reading your blog in Google Reader?

Someone once said that weblogs contain a gold mine of information about your users, and it’s true. Between your logs and software like Google Analytics, you can find out where your users IP addresses are located, what keywords they searched for to find your site, how they arrived on it, how long they stayed, how many pages they viewed, what kind of browser they used, and much more. However, these are all characteristics of your users. When it comes to finding out exactly who your users are, you’re generally out of luck. 

But if a user is coming to your site by clicking on a link in Google Reader, it’s quite possible that you can find out who they are—sort of. I don’t often look at my own weblogs, but in doing so for the first time in months, I found something curious about visits coming from Google Reader. If you look at referring URLs from Google Reader, they should look similar to this: That number in there is a user id of the person from whose Google Reader account the visit originated. Take that number and put it into this URL and you’ll get that person’s shared items page, if they have one: (I intentionally made those numbers non-functioning in my examples.) Now, you’ll have a little more information: whatever public name the person has given herself and her shared items. Note that the number in these URLs is, apparently, different than the one use for public profile pages on Google. You people say you value privacy on the Internet, after all.

Engaging the unpleasant

Today’s New York Times features a profile of Zoë Heller in which she says: “The point of fiction is not to offer up moral avatars, but to engage with people whose politics or points of view are unpleasant or contradictory.” It’s uncomfortable, but true; this is exactly what good fiction does. I think the first time I really felt this effect was during my freshman year of college when I read Lolita and found myself enthralled by HH’s prose and disgusted by his actions. Do you agree with Heller? Disagree? Comment.

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.

Visualize President Obama’s State of the Union address

State of the Union

Perhaps, you’re watching President Obama’s address on with Facebook Live or reading it faster than Obama can speak. Well, I dumped the text into Wordle, played with the colors and styles a bit, and produced the above word cloud. If Obama left any doubt about the themes of his speech, this visualization reinforces them, though “energy” seems a bit small. Click the above image for the full-size version.

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2009-02-20

  • “We are all failed youths.” –John Updike #
  • The PPT slide from the Kindle 2 launch that Amazon didn’t want you to see: #
  • SF4 bricked my Xbox with the red ring after only one match. Now I wait for Microsoft’s border repair center to turn it around. . . . #
  • “…the management consultant [is] the personification of the sellout.” –Louis Menand in The New Yorker #
  • NYU occupation: I agree with fulfilling financial aid and making library public. Opening endowment is stupid: #
  • The McEwan profile in this week’s NYer is good, but Menand’s review of the Barthelme bio is better; neither article is available online. #
  • Is it just me or the did the #NYU occupation last about as long as students’ iPod and cell phone batteries? #
  • Love Jeter’s response to A-Rod’s blaming his missteps on not having gone to college: “Never went, man.” #

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.

Public, private, or pay?

When we post information online we often have the option to make it public or private. We can choose to share with some, everyone, or no one. My Flickr photos, my Facebook page, my Twitter feed, my Google Reader shared items–all of them involve making that choice. Well, how about offering another option? You want to see my Facebook page and we’re not friends? You’ll have to pay me $5. Want to read my Twitter feed? That’ll be $1. Just an idea, a modest one, from this morning’s train ride.

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.

Listen to Pandora Founder Tim Westergren


I heard Pandora founder Tim Westergren speak at Housing Works tonight. I’ve been a fan of the Pandora service since it launched a few years ago, and it was great to hear him speak about his passion for the business. When someone asked if Google has ever offered to buy Pandora, he replied, “We’re going to buy Google someday.” Click here to download the entire talk or listen above.

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


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


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 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 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.

A death in the family

In a line from Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary that has stuck with me for the past 15 years, the actor Billy Crystal says that the Dodgers move away from Brooklyn felt like “a death in the family.” So, I took notice when a traveler quoted in this week’s New Yorker reprised the analogy in the context of the financial crisis: “It’s like a member of the family has died, and it’s name is Money.” That seems about right.

30% off at Posman Books

People usually don’t mention Posman among the best bookstores in Manhattan; it’s an omission that the store doesn’t deserve just because it’s located in Grand Central Terminal. And what better time to discover it than now when they’re having a sale on everyhing in the store, which ends tomorrow. So, stop in and browse if you happen to be passing through on Metro North or the Lexington Avenue subway line.

Also spotted at Grand Central: a Target ad that allows you to plug in your headphones and hear Christina Aguilera’s new single.

Launching the iPhone version of


Point your iPhone to, and you’ll automatically be redirected to our iPhone compatible version. It’s much easier to navigate, than the site’s full version, though, of course, lacks any Flash-based elements that I include in my posts. Setting this mobile version up took me about five minutes using the excellent WPtouch plug-in for WordPress along with the iPhoney application for OS X to simulate the iPhone browser on my Mac (for previewing purposes). If you use WordPress, WPtouch seems like a no-brainer.