Friday, November 14, 2008

For A Brief Moment, Robert Hutchins & Mortimer Adler Were America's White, Male, Oprah Winfreys

The Great Books of the Western World. What a title! What a marketing concept! What hubris! Everybody's grandparents had at least a couple of copies. They were lined up proudly on the top shelf of the living room library, a dusty row of pleather bound volumes that nobody ever did get around to reading. So why did they sell so well? In A Great Idea At The Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, author Alex Beam examines this weird, post war phenomenon. And in today's NYTimes, James Campbell reviews this examination.
An excerpt:
In the middle of the last century, a committee of commercially minded academics came up with its own strategy to undermine the enjoyment of reading. With the backing of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Mortimer Adler and a few others whittled the literary, scientific and philosophical canon down to 443 exemplary works. They had them bound in 54 black leatherette volumes, with the overall designation Great Books of the Western World, then hired genial salesmen to knock on suburban doors and make promises of fulfillment through knowledge...Each was a small library in its own right, with slabs of text arranged in monumental double columns. The Great Books of the Western World were what books should not be: an antidote to pleasure.
To read the entire review, click here.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Book News, In Brief

An untitled Michael Crichton novel was scheduled to be released in May, only to have its listing mysteriously removed a few days after his death. This has lead many to speculate that the book has been canceled by publisher HarperCollins. Not a chance. My guess: They're pulling it temporarily, but only so's they can build up the hype.

If you're counting our current economy, this makes two good reasons to go dumpster diving. Via BBC News: A mystery donor has left four 18th Century volumes described by experts as incredibly rare in a charity book bin. The books, in gold-tooled calf binding, were given to Stirling's Oxfam bookshop and form part of Clarendon's 1731 six-part History of the Rebellion.

Sure, this lawsuit has to do with the Batman movie and not the comic, but it seemed ridiculous enough to include here. From Variety (the Publishers Weekly of the movie biz): The mayor of an oil-producing city in southeastern Turkey, which has the same name as the Caped Crusader, is suing helmer Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros. for royalties from mega-grosser The Dark Knight. Huseyin Kalkan, the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party mayor of Batman, has accused The Dark Knight producers of using the city's name without permission. "There is only one Batman in the world," Kalkan said. "The American producers used the name of our city without informing us."

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Recommended Viewing:
Elmo Interviews Kevin Clash
(Elmo's Puppeteer & Author of My Life As A Furry Red Monster)

It's like Being John Malkovich -- with Muppets. Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Tuesday's Tip For Flailing Writers:
How to Avoid Tedious Descriptions of Imaginary Technological Devices

Okay, so this tip won't appeal to everybody. Those folks who preferred reading the logistics of Arthur C. Clarke's 'space elevator' more than they enjoyed reading the book it was a part of (Fountains of Paradise) might want to turn away now. But for the rest of you -- the ones who toss an imaginary technological device (I.T.D.) or two into your stories but don't want to have to write long-winded descriptions of how they're made/operated/sold/re-sold/recycled -- these tips will be well worth bookmarking.

Tip #1:
Have an ignorant or impatient character explicitly express their lack of interest in the details of your I.T.D.
In The Fantastic Four, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would often have resident genius Reed Richards begin to explain the whys and what-fors of a new invention, only to have burly lummox, the Thing, say, "Aw, save it, Stretch. Yer givin' me a headache!"
This technique tricks your tech-curious readers into believing that you, the author, wanted to elaborate on the workings of your I.T.D., but that your pesky characters wouldn't let you.

Tip #2:
Have a character lament the fact that the details of your I.T.D. have been lost to the ravages of war/time/inclement weather/an overzealous butler.
In Kirsten Bakis' Lives of the Monster Dogs, she gets around an unnecessary explanation of the surgeries and technologies used to make the monster dogs with one quick line of anti-exposition: It is rumored as well that the blueprints for creating these prosthetic devices were destroyed along with the laboratories of Rankstadt, and the dogs themselves don't know how they were made.
Pretty smooth, eh? Be careful, though. This technique is actually a lot trickier than it looks. Do it right, and it can actually enhance the realism of your tale. (After all, life's full of unanswered questions and unexplained phenomenon.) But do it wrong, and it'll be painfully obvious to your readers that you're just making up excuses for your laziness.

Tip #3:
Make the I.T.D. so advanced that no one in your story is able to fully explain it.
Tolkien's 'palantir seeing stones' from The Lord of the Rings.
Oh, J-double-R tells you their basic function (a magical melding of crystal balls and web cams), who created them (the elves of Valinor), and even the various sizes that they come in (anywhere from a foot tall to large enough to fill a room), but dude never bothers to explain the nuts and bolts of they work. The closest Tolkien comes to an explanation is when he has Gandalf rattle off ways in which the stones don't work. Perhaps the instruction manual for the palantir stones is among the "much that once was is lost" that Galadriel spoke of. You think?

Tip #4:

Don't even attempt to explain your I.T.D. Just act like it's a given and move the f**k on.
Back to Jack Kirby for this one. In his sprawling, unfinished, Fourth World saga, small electronic cubes called 'mother boxes' pop up at key moments in almost every characters' storyline. So how does 'The King' describe the workings of the mysterious mother box? He doesn't. The first time a mother box is introduced in The New Gods, he has a woman gasp in amazement at its wonderous, unspecified powers. From then on, Kirby only refers to its capabilities when he's adding new ones. And it works!

Book News, In Brief

Well, there's one Obama themed book that is not topping the sales charts: A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win. Author Shelby Steele defends his tome -- but not its subtitle -- in the NYTimes.

Here's a disturbing new trend: schools selling off their libraries to pay for repairs. What's worse, it's a worldwide trend. Here's an article about it happening in Florida, and another article about a rare books sale going on at a New Zealand university. (This is why tax increases are sometimes necessary, folks!)

I'm not speaking to the NYTimes. They went and told the whole world our secret fears in yesterday's paper: Booksellers and Publishers Nervous as Holiday Season Approaches. Oh, sure, they tried to cover for it with this bit of wishful b.s.: "I think that people have not been reading for the past year because they’ve been checking political blogs every 20 minutes," said Larry Weissman, a literary agent. "At some point I think people are going to say, 'You know what, this is not nourishing.'" But still...

Monday, November 10, 2008

Book News, In Brief

EDITOR'S WARNING: Today's Book News, In Brief is deadly dull. But suffer/scroll through it, and you'll be rewarded with some choice recommendations for lurid crime comics.

Less than a week after reporting their tumbling profits, HarperCollins has announced a three year partnership with the Wall Street Journal for a series of books written by the WSJ's editors and reporters. Is this a smart investment for either party?

Atiq Rahimi's Stone of Patience has all the hallmarks of an award-winner: debilitating illness, a foreign locale, a tragic love story, and a plot revolving around the ravages of war. Now it's got the award. Afghan author Rahimi wins France's 105-year-old Prix Goncourt literary prize.

This should surprise no one, especially not those of us in the book industry. Via the AP: On the weekend after he became the country's first black president-elect, Obama's The Audacity of Hope and Dreams from My Father, both already million sellers, ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on and Barnes &

Quick Picks: Crime Comics
(er...socially conscious graphic novels)

Scalped by Jason Aaron and R.M. Guéra
Most reviewers describe this comic as The Sopranos on an Indian reservation, but it's actually closer to an old, low budget film noir set on a rez. The basic premise is this: undercover FBI agent Dash Bad Horse returns to the reservation he was raised on after having gone to both jail and war in an effort to escape it. The feds have assigned Bad Horse one task -- dig up enough dirt on the tribe's chief, Red Crow, to put him away for life. This is easier said than done, though, as Chief Red Crow is as complex and commanding a foe as Deadwood's Al Swearengen and the aforementioned T. Soprano...combined. Mix in a newly opened casino, a gang of corrupt cops, a trailer park worth of mobile meth labs, and a large, multi-generational cast of sad and seething characters, and motherf**k my aforementioned 'film noir on a rez' summation. Scalped is a monster all its own.

Catwoman by Brubaker, Cooke, etc.
Catwoman mixes 1930's pulp novels with late 60's crime flicks to create a smart, sexy and tragic tale of anti-heroes and anti-heroines. It's the story of recently reformed master criminal, Selina Kyle, and her attempts to live life on the up and up. But just like the ol' cliche says, we may be finished with the past, but the past isn't finished with us. Old foes, friends, and inner demons begin popping up immediately, causing Kyle to question the practicality of living a moral life.
Since finishing his stint on Catwoman, writer Ed Brubaker has gone on to gain mainstream acclaim for 'killing' Captain America and tossing Daredevil into prison. Those stories may have gotten him mentions in Newsweek and Entertainment Weekly, but it's Catwoman that put him in the comic writers' pantheon.
Recommended titles: Volume 1: The Dark End of the Street, Volume 2: Crooked Little Town, and Volume 3: Relentless.