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Why are we still reading Dickens?

Charles-Dickens-001

As someone who teaches and writes about Dickens, the question of why we still read him is something that’s often on my mind. But that question was never more troubling than one day, nearly 10 years ago, when I was standing as a guest speaker in front of a class of about 30 high school students. I had been speaking for about 20 minutes with an 1850 copy of David Copperfield in my hand, telling the students that for Victorian readers, Dickens’s writing was very much a “tune-in-next-week” type of thing that generated trends and crazes, much as their own TV shows did for them today.

Then a hand shot up in the middle of the room.

“But why should we still read this stuff?”

I was speechless because in that moment I realised that, though I had begun a PhD dissertation on Dickens, I had never pondered the question myself.

The answer I gave was acceptable: “Because he teaches you how to think,” I said. But lots of writers can teach you how to think, and I knew that wasn’t really the reason.

The question nagged me for years, and for years I told myself answers, but never with complete satisfaction. We read Dickens not just because he was a man of his own times, but because he was a man for our times as well. We read Dickens because his perception and investigation of the human psyche is deep, precise, and illuminating, and because he tells us things about ourselves by portraying personality traits and habits that might seem all too familiar. His messages about poverty and charity have travelled through decades, and we can learn from the experiences of his characters almost as easily as we can learn from our own experiences.

These are all wonderful reasons to read Dickens. But these are not exactly the reasons why I read Dickens.

My search for an answer continued but never with success, until one year the little flicker came – not surprisingly – from another high school student ()

Poetry in translation takes off

Poets steal. T.S. Eliot concealed this offhand assertion in plain sight 90 years ago in his essay on English playwright Philip Massinger: “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” It had the effect of recalibrating readers’ expectations for originality. All readers. Granted, this was the same effect Emerson achieved in his essay, “Quotation and Originality,” but the recursion supports Eliot’s point. Literary culture alternates between those periods when it refuses to look at anything new, and those when almost nothing like the old is allowed. As for the literary influence of other times and places, the emphasis shifts between defensive isolation and expansive engagement. At the moment, major anthologies of contemporary poetry from Germany, Russia, and Vietnam are appearing in the United States. Though the influence of these poetries on American letters has been muted, or at least restricted to a narrow list of headliners for the last fifty years, that may be about to change.

Where Emerson insisted that “genius borrows nobly,” Eliot used his borrowing to establish a hierarchy of poets, with small-time artisans at the bottom, and at the top, barons of text who, having identified valuable resources to extract as well as a means of converting them to finished goods, integrate operations vertically, overseeing the marketing plan right down to the reviews. This makes it sound like a world-historical crime, but there is a motive on the up-and-up for this behavior: in order to stop talking about themselves, to be inspired, to say something recognizable in an unfamiliar way, poets make believe, generalize, extrapolate from an overspecific detail, and otherwise appropriate what is not theirs. Translation and signaling foreign influence are some of the more prestigious means to effect this escape from the self and its unchallengeable rules, even if they only lead to alien rules, equally unchallengeable. Indeed, Eliot, a bit of a rule freak, emphasized both the importance of stealing from sources “remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest,” and making what is taken into something better. ()

Elgan: What’s wrong with eBooks?

You stayed up late last night reading your hardcover print edition of “The Enchantress of Florence” by Salman Rushdie. It’s just too good to put down.

During breakfast, when you normally read The New York Times on your Kindle eBook reader, you felt compelled to read the Kindle version of your book instead.

The second you get into your car, you punch up the audio version, and let Rushdie himself read to you on the way to work.

During your lunch break, you visit the DMV to renew your driver’s license. The wait is 15 minutes, so you whip out your iPhone and keep on reading. You’re loving the fact that you bought all versions of the book in the $34.99 bundled edition.

Unfortunately, this whole scenario is pure fiction. Sure, “reading” a book on multiple formats is easy. The fairy tale is the price. It could actually cost you $76.34 to buy all copies. (The hardcover print copy costs $29.98 at Barnes & Noble; the Kindle version costs $9.99 at Amazon.com; and the audio version costs $36.37 at Audible.com.)

Can someone explain this to me? Since 99% of the value of a book is created before it’s spun off into multiple formats, why does that additional 1% of value cost between 30% and 300%?

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Google Working to Revise Digital Books Settlement

The Justice Department’s filing on Friday, echoing other critics, said that the settlement could give Google a virtually exclusive license to millions of out-of-print “orphan books,” whose rights holders were unknown or cannot be found, making it impossible for anyone else to build a comparable digital library; the interests of some class members, including authors of orphan works and foreign authors, might not have been adequately represented; and the efforts to notify class members about the settlement might have been inadequate.

But unlike some of the more strident opponents, who have argued that the settlement is so flawed that it must be rejected, the Justice Department said it hoped the accord could be fixed so that its benefits — most notable the unprecedented access to millions of out-of-print books it would offer — could be achieved. And it said the parties appeared willing to make changes to address such concerns.

Laying out a path forward, the department said some of its antitrust concerns could be mitigated by “some mechanism by which Google’s competitors’ could gain comparable access to orphan works.” And it said that concerns about the fair representation of some authors could be addressed if some rights for Google to profit from out-of-print books were granted only if their authors agreed, rather than by default.

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The Beijing Book Fair?

A censorship scandal has already erupted around October’s Frankfurt Book Fair, whose guest of honour this year is China. This coming Saturday, in the lead up to the fair, Frankfurt will be hosting a symposium on “China and the World”, (pdf) together with the Chinese. One of the speakers, an influential investigative journalist and environmental activist, Dai Qing, has now come under pressure from the Chinese delegation not to give her talk, as Bernhard Bartsch reported yesterday in the Frankfurter Rundschau: “The written invitation issued by the Frankfurt Book Fair, which Dai needed to apply for her visa, vanished into thin air at the behest of the Peking authorities for Press and Publication (GAPP), which is now threatening to pull out of conference entirely if the disagreeable author is allowed to enter the country.”

In the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Henrik Bork reported: “The Chinese have ‘stated unequivocally that if Ms Dai Qing does turn up after all, they will pull out all together,’ according to Peter Ripken, the symposium’s organiser. This has created a ‘catch-22 situation‘, because it would mean that the entire 10-person delegation from Beijing boycotts the symposium.”

It was announced today that Dai Qing has received an express visa from the German embassy and is intent on coming to Frankfurt this weekend, Henrik Bork reports. And the Book Fair? It is making “worried noises about Dai’s insistence on coming to Frankfurt. ‘It could bring the whole event to its knees,’ says Peter Ripken. ‘We want a real debate, but without the Chinese attendees the conference would become a tribunal.’ Last Wednesday he was still under the assumption that Dai would agreed not to come to Frankfurt until October when she would talk at an event that was not connected to the official Chinese programme at the Book Fair.” Hang Hui, professor of Humanities at Tsinghua University and a pioneer of the government-critical “new left” in China who was to give a key note speech at the symposium, will also not be attending. He told the FR that “his visa application had been rejected by the German embassy on formal grounds”.

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Tomorrow’s E-Utopia?

E-books and graphic novels (which, at least at this point in time seem perfectly incompatible) are two of the fastest growing segments of a pretty slumpy book market. Beyond this rapid growth—and of course it’s rapid, it’s gone from zero to something in a mere year-and-a-half—there’s something about e-books that captures the imagination and out-strips any of the advantages or flaws found in the Kindle or Sony eReader or iPhone. In every other medium, digital has proven to be the future, and as books move in this direction, everyone is collectively freaking out.

And I mean that in the most polarizing of ways. E-books and the future of reading tends to be a very divisive topic, with bibliophiles lamenting the loss of that book smell, with geeks panting over the possibility of an iBook reader, with bookstores watching their ever shrinking margins continue to erode, with publishers and the Authors Guild locking into an outdated DRM-model and fretting over the quickly-becoming-standard $9.99 retail price, and with authors nervously trolling Scribd to see if anyone is illegally stealing their work. (Although it may be worse if no one is thieving your work—we all want to write something worthy of piracy, no?)

As you’ll see below, I’m internally divided as to whether or not the e-book revolution will good for book culture or not. (The first time I saw an ad for Kindle accessories in the NYC subway, I had visions of the apocalypse. And yes, I am one of those weirdos who’s annoyed by the fact that I can’t see what book people are reading on their Kindles. I love having the opportunity to make snap judgments about people based on what they read in public. And, to be honest, my dream is to see someone reading an Open Letter book on the subway—a dream that will go unfulfilled if the Kindle takes over the world.) But there are at least a couple of distinct advantages offered by e-books that are worth looking at—especially in relation to distribution.

Before getting into all this though, I do want to state upfront that I’m going to indulge in a bit of science fiction in this speech and imagine a more ideal e-book market with different e-readers than exist today. ()

Some things won’t change in the ebook revolution

When, towards the end of the 15th century, the printed book first appeared, after Gutenberg and Caxton, it was an expensive luxury of comparative rarity to be enjoyed by a tiny, literate minority. About a century later, an educated person might possess, if they were lucky, a library of no more than a few score titles. Shakespeare, we know, worked from some fine sources, like translations of Plutarch, but they were few. It’s often been pointed out that the library of the entire European intellectual tradition could have been loaded onto a single wagon as late as 1700.

In an age of mass culture, mass printings, and mass audiences, I think we sometimes lose sight of just how limited our capacity for books inevitably must be. Just because Random House will print and distribute some 5.5m copies of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol doesn’t mean that The Book typically enjoys a million-copy sale. Far from it. Titles like Dan Brown, though they will attract an extraordinary amount of attention, are the exception

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Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Jonathan Galassi

Galassi says his job is to ensure that FSG stays true to its mission of publishing important voices as effectively as possible. When I asked him what he’d change about his job if he could, he lamented that he doesn’t have as much time to read as he used to; he also wishes he had “more of that immediate engagement with new authors.” Note to readers: If you can find a way to make Galassi’s wishes come true, yours might not be far behind either.

I don’t want to bore you with a lot of questions about your childhood but I am curious if there were any books that had a big impact on you at an early age.
I was a big reader as a kid. I used to go to the little library in the town where we lived in Massachusetts and read voraciously. I read everything. I was in the Weekly Reader children’s book club and I remember loving The Wind in the Willows and Johnny Tremain and books like that. My grandmother was a big reader. She lived in Boston and would come down and bring books like The Alexandria Quartet or The Fall or Passage to India. I remember the romance and the exotic quality of those books. I remember what they looked like, what they felt like. Eventually all of my grandparents’ books ended up in our house, so there were a lot of old books around. It wasn’t that I would sit and read them all. It was more that I would pore over them and feel the textures of them. My grandfather was Italian, so there were all these books about Italy, and I would pore through them and look at the pictures of the different places. I was just very absorbed by books as a way of escape and as something to escape into.

But there was no particular book that altered the direction of your life?
I don’t think I can point to any one book. But I was bookish. I was very unathletic. I had bad eyesight. I was a typical geeky kid. I remember reading The Count of Monte Cristo when I had the mumps or something and just being overwhelmed by the romance of the story. I loved stories that had a medieval or foreign feel. I loved The Golden Warrior and books about the ancient world. I loved all of that stuff. And then I went away to school when I was thirteen and got very interested in languages and poetry. In high school I got interested in everything that I’m interested in now. That’s where I started to write and edit. I was an editor of the school literary magazine. I remember the experience of working with my friends on their writing and how exciting that was to me, and how rewarding it was, even more than my own writing. I felt a real sense of connection to them, and a certain effectiveness. That was a powerful experience. I remember that my best friend, who wasn’t a particularly literary guy—he was a jock, really—wrote a short story that ended up being the best story published in the magazine in our time. I was blown away by the intensity and the power of that story. I got a real thrill out of being present at the creation of somebody else’s work.



Did you teach yourself how to edit?

I guess so. My first job was as an intern in the editorial department at Houghton Mifflin in Boston in 1973. They just sort of threw you into it. Nobody was sitting there and teaching you how to do it. I think you learn it by watching how the people around you work with authors, and it happens almost by osmosis. There are many different styles of editing, too. It’s an apprenticeship. There are courses you can take to learn the mechanics of the business, like the Radcliffe course, but I don’t think they teach you how to edit. Editing is more by-the-hip. You look at a text and ask yourself how it can be improved. One thing I have noticed is that when you’re a younger editor, you’re more intense about it. As you go along, you relax a little. More and more, I feel that the book is the author’s. You give the author your thoughts and it’s up to him or her to decide what to do. One time [Jonathan] Franzen made fun of me about that. He didn’t take some suggestion I had made and I said, “Well, it’s your book,” and he sort of mocked me for that. [Laughter.] But that’s what I really believe. I believe it with poetry, too. The texts are so personal. Yes, there are times when I’ve worked with poets to edit their work, but usually you either buy into what they’re doing or you don’t. If you don’t, you shouldn’t be working with them, and if you do, you realize that they know what they’re doing.

What were the hardest lessons for you to learn when you were a younger editor?

One of the really hard lessons was realizing how much of a crapshoot publishing is—how you can love something and do everything you can for it, and yet fail at connecting it to an audience. Maybe you misjudged it. Maybe it didn’t get the right breaks. One of the hardest things to come to grips with is how important the breaks are. There’s luck in publishing, just like in any human activity. And if you don’t get the right luck—if Mitchi [Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times] writes an uncomprehending review, or if you don’t get the right reviews, or if books aren’t in stores when the reviews come, or whatever the hell it is—it may not happen. That was one of the hardest lessons: how difficult it is to actually be effective.

Another really hard thing is that, as a young editor, each book is like your baby. I remember wanting to publish Peter Schjeldahl’s biography of Frank O’Hara so desperately. I lost it to some other editor who paid more money, and I was melancholy about it for months. Of course the book ended up never being written. [Laughter.] But at the time I felt like a piece of me had somehow been sawn off. I wanted to pour myself into that project so much, and it takes time for that sense of wanting, and identification—which is what publishers live on, really—to relax a little. I see my young editors going through that and I empathize so much. But you have to learn to let go of things. That was a very painful lesson.

But when I was young I had so much reverence for writing. Elizabeth Bishop was my teacher in college—she was my favorite teacher, and I revered her work, and I loved her as a person very, very much—and I remember that when she would invite us over for dinner I would get almost physically ill. It was this combination of conflicting feelings: excitement, discomfort, a sense of unworthiness. It mattered so deeply that it made me almost physically ill. Caring that much was painful. I don’t know if that’s a lesson but it was certainly something where the intensity of my devotion was overwhelming.

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‘Hobbit’ Heirs Seek $220 Million From Time Warner Over ‘Rings’

J.R.R. Tolkien sold movie rights to his “Lord of the Rings” novels 40 years ago for 7.5 percent of future receipts. Three films and $6 billion later, his heirs say they haven’t seen a dime from Time Warner Inc.

The accounting methods used by New Line Cinema, the Time Warner unit that made the movies, will face a jury’s scrutiny in October, when the heirs’ lawsuit against the New York-based media company is set for trial in Los Angeles Superior Court.

The case, if not settled by then, may provide a window into accounting practices that let Time Warner deny proceeds of the Oscar-winning films to Tolkien’s heirs. The litigation also threatens to derail two “The Hobbit” films that, if their predecessors are a guide, could generate $4 billion in sales.

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