Readersforum's Blog

December 31, 2011

Examining The Newspaper Column As Literature

By Errol Louis

It’s only a matter of time before the newspaper column takes its rightful place as a recognized and respected form of literature, every bit as vital as its more celebrated cousins, the short story and the novel.

The recognition should have happened a long time ago. An impressive list of literary masters honed their craft writing newspaper columns, including Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, O. Henry, Mark Twain and Damon Runyon. Generations of students have pored over Hughes’s poetry, Twain’s novels and O. Henry’s short stories, unaware that the authors also tackled the issues of the day – death, war, sports, crime, politics – in thoughtful, delightful columns that often hold up remarkably well decades later.

Here is the start of “Chicago Gang War,” that a young columnist named Ernest Hemingway penned for the Toronto Star in 1921:

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11 Best Books Of 2011

We admit, it’s difficult to pick the best books of the year, particularly this year, during which it seems there were so many stellar books. However, do it we must. Our list was compiled by the three people on our Books team. Just so you know what we are looking for in a “best book,” here’s what each of us enjoys reading:

Andrew Losowsky, Books Editor: I like all books that reveal amazing, strange things about familiar places and familiar things about strange places (including my own head).

Zoë Triska, Associate Books Editor: I used to primarily stick to classic literature with a dash of non-fiction from time to time. I’ve expanded my horizon to contemporary fiction, but I’m just easing into it. I also enjoy YA novels (“Harry Potter” and “A Series of Unfortunate Events”). In addition to this, I love re-designed classics and pretty book design.

Madeleine Crum, Assistant Books Editor: According to Flavorpill, I’m totally twee. This isn’t to say that I’m a fan of overly precious plots, but I tend to pick up small, unique stories with authentic characters rather than sprawling sagas. And beautiful language is, of course, key.

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LitReactor Staff Picks: The Best Books of 2011

Filed under: Best Books of the Year — Tags: , , — Bookblurb @ 5:29 am

Column by Joshua Chaplinsky

We may have only gone live in October, but the staff here at LitReactor are a bunch of voracious bilbliophagists who have been steady readin’ all year long. So we figured engaging in a some year-ending listrionics would be a great way to play catch up, and would give you a better idea of who we are as readers. Who knows, we might even turn you on to something new. Hope you enjoy.

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Auld Lang Syne Rhyme


This day, or the moment of this day’s passing, has brought out the commemorative spirit in many. D. H. Lawrence’s “New Year’s Eve,” is from his book-length cycle of poems, Look! We Have Come Through, which documents Lawrence’s first years with Freida; though published in the same year as Eliot’s “Prufrock,” the poems offer a passionate alternative to measuring out life by coffee spoons.

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The Literary Year 2011

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — Bookblurb @ 4:43 am

Photo: Gary Taxali

A year of Booker bust-ups and beleaguered booksellers: 2011 in review

By David Robson

For a few mad weeks in autumn, it looked as if literary Britain was going to be split down the middle, with novelist set against novelist and publisher against publisher. The Man Booker shortlist was announced, the judges waxed lyrical about the readability of the books they had chosen and, within days, a rival Literature Prize had emerged, almost as if the r-word had been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Readable literature? Whatever next?

The mission statement of the new prize (“to establish a clear and uncompromising standard of excellence”) could not have been starker, nor could the tacit implication that the Man Booker had sold its soul, confusing art with showbusiness and enlisting politicians and celebrities as judges. The battle lines had been drawn and pundits rushed to the barricades, armed with their literary weapon of choice, be it Dickens or Proust, Joyce or Jane Austen.

It was a surreal debate, whichever side of the argument you were on. Imagine the cinema-going fraternity having a heated debate about whether films should be watchable. But it raised important questions and concentrated minds. Although the new Literature Prize is at an embryonic stage, still looking for a sponsor, its champions, including many leading publishers, are not going to go away. They have certainly challenged the Man Booker to look at itself in the mirror, which may be no bad thing.

The 2011 judges, chaired by Dame Stella Rimington, former head of M15, produced a flimsy, eccentric shortlist, with thrillers predominating. Was it just a lean year for fiction? Or were they guilty as charged of dumbing down the prize? Opinion was divided. It was hardly as if Jeffrey Archer or Maeve Binchy had made the list.

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December 30, 2011

The Book Beyond the Book

NewsMelville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is the latest to arrive in the form of a HybridBook, which bridges the gap between electronic and traditional books. Kindle photograph by Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

That sound you hear is the wrapping being torn off of millions of Kindles and iPads. When those devices are fired up and start downloading texts, it will be the greatest shift in casual reading since the mass market paperback arrived six decades ago. Will this dislocation destroy the traditional book? Will it doom the traditional independent bookstore? Will Amazon and Apple control the distribution of thought and culture in America? All these questions will be played out imminently.

The migration to e-reading is usually reported as a one-way journey: You get a device, start downloading and never look back to the old-fashioned book. You start mocking those type-filled volumes reeking of another century. Meanwhile, the defenders of the old ways are digging in their heels. I know readers who swear never to read anything electronic, saying they find the format muddy and confusing and sad.

Dennis Loy Johnson, a former academic who is the proprietor of Melville House, a small but innovative publishing firm, wants to reconcile these warring factions. Why should electronic and traditional not collaborate?

“It seems to me that most of us in publishing have been far too quick to look to a print-book-less future,” Mr. Johnson said in an e-mail. “But that’s like saying we don’t need the wheel because someone invented the airplane.”

Melville has introduced a new series, HybridBooks, to meld the two cultures. On the physical side, the Hybrids are attractive, stripped-down paperbacks, with nothing inside but a short classic text. The first five were all called “The Duel,” reprinting tales by Casanova, Kleist, Conrad, Kuprin and Chekhov. The latest is Melville’s tale of the first Wall Street refusenik, “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Bartleby, for reasons that do not become clear until the end of his tale, decides to opt out. The connection with the Occupy Wall Street movement is clear, and is no doubt the reason the Melville House edition is already in its fifth printing.

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The top 10 books stories of 2011

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 8:50 pm

An extract from Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test topped our books site chart for 2011. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

From non-fiction to Naipaul and psychopaths to Pottermore, here are the stories that brought readers to our books site this year.

By Richard Lea

Another year comes hurtling around the corner, another sinks gratefully back into its easy chair, and in the traditional spirit of openness and honesty it’s time to look back at the literary stories which have made 2011 – or at least the stories we’ve all been reading on the Guardian Books website. With only the briefest nod to the usual caveats, here they are: the most popular stories of 2011.

Except that, er, here they aren’t. I would love to share this year’s top story with you, but Jon Ronson’s witty, touching and illuminating account of Tony – who faked madness to avoid five to seven years for GBH and wound up spending over a decade in Broadmoor – was extracted from his latest book, and, so, as our page glumly announces, “has been removed as our copyright has expired”. Some of you are no doubt grinning smugly and turning to your paper archives, but for those who don’t have the relevant copy of Weekend magazine to hand, I suppose I could point you to Will Self’s excellent review of The Psychopath Test, or try to give you a flavour of how artfully Ronson flips between sympathy for Tony – who finds it’s “an awful lot harder … to convince people you’re sane than it is to convince them you’re crazy” – and the clarity provided by Robert Hare’s psychopathy checklist, but I guess I should really just apologise and move on.

Except, um, moving on is pretty hard when second on the list of 2011’s top books stories is a sorry page. Pottermore: Harry’s digital adventure was a specially-created page which lasted just one day to host one of the clues for the internet treasure hunt leading to JK Rowling’s online project, Pottermore. Maybe it’s only a marketing wheeze, as Sam Jordison suggests, but more than a decade after Harry Potter first found the Philosopher’s Stone, his popularity clearly remains undimmed. Our tech-folk had to wall off this page from our usual content in a custom-built silo to withstand the fierce attentions of Potter fans from around the world – my browser can’t even find the server that it was sitting on.

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Poetry anthology sparks race row

Rita Dove (left) and Helen Vendler Photograph: Garry Weaser/PR

Poet Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry attacked by renowned critic Helen Vendler for valuing ‘inclusiveness’ over quality.

By Alison Flood

A furious row has broken out in the rarefied confines of American poetry circles, after grande dame of poetry criticism Helen Vendler attacked former poet laureate Rita Dove’s anthology of 20th-century American poetry for its focus on “multicultural inclusiveness” rather than quality.

Dove’s collection, The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, is the Pulitzer prize-winning poet and professor of English’s pick of the best US poetry of the last 100 years. Vendler, a critic and Harvard professor, laid into the book in an excoriating write-up in the New York Review of Books, criticising Dove for deciding “to shift the balance, introducing more black poets and giving them significant amounts of space, in some cases more space than is given to better-known authors”.

Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg and Sterling Brown are left out of the anthology – although Dove explains in her introduction that this was down to a rights issue: Penguin’s budget was not enough to secure rights to include their poems in the book.

Vendler lambasts Dove for her inclusion of “some 175” poets and for her choice of poems: “mostly short” and “of rather restricted vocabulary”, she says.

“Multicultural inclusiveness prevails,” she writes. “No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value? Anthologists may now be extending a too general welcome. Selectivity has been condemned as ‘elitism’, and a hundred flowers are invited to bloom.”

Later, Vendler enumerates that “of the 20 poets born between 1954 and 1971 (closing the anthology), fifteen are from minority communities (Hispanic, black, Native American, or Asian American), and five are white (two men, three women)”, saying that “Dove’s tipping of the balance obeys a populist aesthetic voiced in the introduction”. And Dove feels obliged to defend the black poets she includes “with hyperbole”, says Vendler.

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Books and words: Another year, another apocalypse looming

Chad Harbach: the wonder boy of 2011 Beowulf Sheehan

By Bob Hoover

It’s the custom (or stubborn habit) around newspapers to reflect on the 11 months gone by when December arrives. “Best of” lists occupy the attention of many writers, including this one (see mine here), so their creation does force us to be reflective in a business where reaction usually trumps reflection.

But changes don’t come gift-wrapped in tidy 12-month packages. In the world of American book publishing, 2011 flowed gradually from 2010 without sudden shocks or change, the nature of the passing year shaped by the inevitable progress of movements in the business that started years before.

One image captured the direction of that movement concisely — Daniel Clowes’ cover for the Dec. 5 New Yorker titled “Black Friday.” The cartoon shows a store with shelves filled with T-shirts, caps, bags and figurines of famous authors and a table displaying e-readers. Only a bottom shelf carries a row of print books.

It’s the bookstore of tomorrow, if you can find an actual bookstore (cognoscenti call them “bricks and mortar”) these days. The traditional business model, which is at least 200 years old, centers around new hardcover books prominently displayed in a bricks-and-mortar outlet where shoppers browse looking for familiar names or interesting covers.

That model is slowly slipping away, to be replaced by versions of the one on the New Yorker cover. Eventually, the new plan envisions a small space where only the covers of available books will be displayed along with that small digital square.

You’ll scan the square with your phone, buy the book online and then you’ll choose if you want an ebook or tell the store to print on paper no less, a real book on its copier/binder machine.

Cartoonist Clowes is no great seer. It seems clear he was inspired by an article in another magazine, “The Book on Publishing” by Keith Gessen in the October Vanity Fair.

Mr. Gessen, a young novelist and journalist, tells us he is a close friend of Chad Harbach, the “wonder boy” of 2011 who sold his novel, “The Art of Fielding,” for $665,000 advance to Little, Brown. For a first-time (or anytime) author it’s like getting one of those multimillion-dollar bonuses paid to executives of bailed-out banks.

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Shelf life in hard times: The book folk who wrote glorious chapters in 2011

From digital wizards to library champions…

By Liz Thomson

James Daunt

Think long-term. That’s one of the mantras of the man who left JP Morgan to launch a business that combined his twin passions, travel and reading. It was 1990, Britain was in a recession but, within five years, Daunt Books had turned over its first million. Now, 21 years later, with five much-admired shops doing nicely, James Daunt has accepted the challenge of turning around Waterstone’s, bought for £53m from HMV by a Russian billionaire who was a regular at Daunts Holland Park.

It’s assumed that Alexander Mamut is also thinking long-term, for there’s much for Daunt to do as new MD at the beleaguered 330-store chain. In private hands, Waterstone’s is no longer required to issue trading statements so evidence about Christmas performance will be anecdotal. With Ottakar’s gone (bought by HMV and absorbed into Waterstone’s before it went into freefall) and Borders bankrupt, Waterstone’s is Britain’s only dedicated bookselling chain.

So much rests on Daunt’s shoulders. In 2012, we can expect to see him launch a full digital offer, including an e-reader – probably a version of the Nook, a success for Barnes & Noble in the US. It’s also likely we’ll see store closures, though Daunt will aim to minimise them. But there are too many branches, many in locales that don’t work. However, the reinvention of Waterstone’s has already begun: gone are three-for-twos, the crass advertising, the one-size-fits-all promotions. Homogeneity is out, individuality in, as trust and autonomy are returned to branch managers. If all goes well, by this time next year, Waterstone’s should be as exciting and intoxicating as it was in its 1980s heyday.

Faber & Faber

While it’s no longer possible to love the House of Eliot unconditionally – the music, film and drama lists are all much diminished – Faber is still a beacon among publishers, as much for what it has become (the flagship of the independent publishing community) as for what it publishes. Stephen Page, who took the helm a decade ago, has charted a careful course in difficult weather, not rushing headlong into digital but awaiting the right device, the right partner, the right project – see Touch Press. He has chosen well.

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