Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


National Book Awards 2008

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, November 19, 2008 07:17 pm

I had a great time at the National Book Awards ceremony last year, but I'm skipping the show this year, partly because I can't get excited by these nominations. I'm predicting that Marilynne Robinson will win for Home and Jane Mayer will win for The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, but neither possibility has me jumping up and down. As far as I'm concerned, this year's fiction award should go to Cost by Roxana Robinson and non-fiction to Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker, but neither title was nominated.

Kindle Konfusion

by Levi Asher on Monday, October 6, 2008 09:54 pm

Yeah, I got my hands on a real-life Amazon Kindle e-book reader for a few minutes. Did I "feel the power"? Hell no. The physical packaging reminds me of the Coleco Adam. I tried to read a story by P. G. Wodehouse and I felt like I was playing Pong.

The physical button interface is clumsy, but my main gripe with the Kindle has to do with market strategy: I believe Amazon should sell electronic books that play on a wide variety of popular devices, not a single overpriced dedicated device. When I first wrote on LitKicks that e-books won't succeed until we can read them on iPhones and Blackberries, several of you disagreed, but I think the success of a new iPhone reader called the Stanza is proving me right.

This leaves me, though, with a problem. I was originally going to get an iPhone but I didn't want to switch carriers or set my alarm clock to wait in line at the Apple Store, so I never got an iPhone. Instead, I'm rocking a Verizon LG Dare which is basically an iPhone wannabe, and I like the phone fine except it won't run Stanza. I hope the folks at Lexcycle are working on a few non-iPhone ports please ...

2. Check out Tina Brown's The Daily Beast, which features worthy contributors like Maud Newton and Rachel Maddow. At first glance the Beast appears to want to be an East coast version of Huffington Post, and since I like the Huff, I think that's just fine. The site will need to shake out a few tech things -- can we have author names in the RSS feed, please? -- but it appears to be off to a great start.

3. Andrew Gallix at the Guardian asks: whatever happened to the creative potential of digital literature? Good question. I have a bit to say about this, but it will wait for a post of its own.

4. While we're talking tech, I haven't had a chance to check Google's Book API out but I have a feeling this idea has long term potential.

5. Bat Segundo goes the distance in a feisty interview with the great film director Mike Leigh, whose latest character study is called Happy Go Lucky.

6. Bill Ectric interviews Ekaterina Sedia, author of the novel The Secret History of Moscow.

7. A linguistic study of Blog Speak (via Sully)

8. Tina Fey is writing a book! Will she reach the heights of other truly literary comedian-humorists like Groucho Marx, Robert Benchley, Woody Allen and Steve Martin? Well, she hasn't let us down yet.

9. Heaven-Sent Leaf is a new book of poetry by Katy Lederer, author of Poker Face. Poker and poetry have been a good combination since, at least, A. Alvarez.

10. A YouTube recording of a true castrato. Quite disturbing to listen to. Click through and you'll see what I mean.

11. I didn't get much of a response, folks, to my probing questions about Henry David Thoreau and the economy. Let's yak it up in the outfield, people! Really. I didn't think you were the types to get scared away by classic literature so easily (I know you can yak it up plenty when the topic is, say, Sarah Palin). So, the next round in our "Big Thinking" series will be about our public political dialogue, and our special guest writer will be Ludwig Wittgenstein. Tune in tomorrow evening when the fun begins.

The Two Times I Was Wrong

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, August 13, 2008 03:46 pm

When I'm wrong about something, I'll admit it. I called Amazon's Kindle e-book reader a loser last year -- not because I don't believe in e-books, but because the device is too expensive and too big. Amazon has refused to release sales figures for the Kindle (which would seem like further evidence that it's not taking off with consumers) but now TechCrunch is reporting that they've sold 240,000 units (based on information from "a source close to Amazon with direct knowledge of the numbers").

If 240,000 units have really sold, then I am flat out wrong. Nobody, not even me, can argue with $75 million in revenue for an innovative tech product's first year. I do find this figure slightly incredible (especially since I live in New York City and have never yet seen anybody walking around with a Kindle), but I also believe TechCrunch to be a reputable source of information, so I'm not sure what to think. Many other industry observers are similarly pondering what this all might mean; Chad Post's roundup of recent Kindle buzz is a good starting point for the ongoing discussion.

Wrong is wrong, and if TechCrunch's reported numbers are right then the Kindle is a big winner and my prediction was wrong. I still say that it's crucial for the electronic book industry to make e-books affordable for readers in all income segments, and a format that requires a $360 initial outlay goes against the grain of everything I believe about the importance of reasonable pricing for books, electronic or otherwise. Still, if 240,000 Kindles have sold than I clearly missed this call.

On a completely different front: I had never heard of historian Niall Ferguson four months ago when I lost my temper after reading his cover article about terrorism and global politics in the New York Times Book Review. I felt that Ferguson's article offered Bush-worthy cliches about terrorism and Al Qaeda, and I mocked his puffy academic credentials as harshly as I could.

I still can't explain what went wrong with this terrible NYTBR article. However, I recently noticed Ferguson's name on a TV listing for a public television history series called The War of the World: A New History of the 20th Century and tuned in to see what my nemesis had to say. I was surprised to discover in Niall Ferguson an aggressively original thinker with a valuable theory about the primacy of ethnic tension in the sad history of 20th Century international politics. I watched every episode of this series, and after it was over I bought a Niall Ferguson book called The Pity of War: Explaining World War I.

The Pity of War turns out to be a smart and important book designed to challenge long-settled notions about the Great War. Ferguson, who is Scottish, comes down particularly hard on Great Britain's role in escalating the conflict, and concludes that much of the misery that resulted could have been easily avoided. Like Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke or David Andelman's A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today, this book urges readers towards a wider understanding of the two world wars that still so haunt our world today. In complete contradiction to my original statements about Niall Ferguson, I am happy to say that I now consider him one of my favorite contemporary historians. I am certainly going to read more of his books (probably this one next).

Wrong is wrong, and I now freely concede that I was definitely wrong about Niall Ferguson, and was probably wrong (we still do not have solid information here) about the Kindle as well.

If I'm ever wrong a third time, I'll let you know then too.

Spectator Sports

by Levi Asher on Monday, July 28, 2008 07:53 pm

1. Shirley Jackson on "The Lottery" at Shaken and Stirred: "People at first were not so much concerned with what the story meant; what they wanted to know was where these lotteries were held, and whether they could go there and watch."

2. Jessa Crispin on William and Henry James, who are a favorite of mine as well, and also obviously a favorite of a novelist named Richard Liebmann-Smith, whose new The James Boys posits a strange scenario wherein Henry and William's ne'er-do-well younger brothers Rob and Wilky turn out to be Frank and Jesse.

3. I hear that actress Estelle Getty, who died last week, was in the TV show "Golden Girls". Actually, all I know of her is from a great, great play I once saw on Broadway, Harvey Fierstein's autobiographical Torch Song Trilogy, in which she played Harvey Fierstein's stubborn mother. The fact that this little lady could hold her own against the tornado of comedy that was young Harvey Fierstein says all you need to know about Estelle Getty. Later she was replaced by Anne Bancroft for a movie version of Fierstein's three-act play which was tellingly not as good.

4. It's good to hear that Frances Bean Cobain, now 15 years old, may be contemplating an editorial career by summer-interning at Rolling Stone. She has her father's piercing gaze; if she's going to make it in the tough New York City magazine biz, let's hope she's also got lots of her father's charisma and some of her mom's toughness.

5. From the computer science department at Columbia University: some truly intense palindromes.

6. Congrats to Kassia Krozser (one of the lively participants in our book pricing discussion last year) for her News Hour with Jim Lehrer appearance! I unfortunately missed it so I hope Kassia hits us with some YouTube.

7. This website is sort of strange, so that you have to scroll a full screen down to read Finn Harvor's article about future directions for the literary blogosphere. But I agree with him and I think this is worth reading.

8. Yay, there are functional iPhone e-book readers! In other news, I went to the Apple Store on 57th Street in Manhattan, heavily contemplating the immediate purchase of an iPhone. I said to a helper "I'd like to buy an iPhone!" and he said "Great! Be on line by 7:30 tomorrow morning and you should be able to get one!" I thought to myself "Goodbye!" and left. But I do believe an iPhone is in my near-to-distant future, and there better be a good e-book reader waiting for me when I get there.

9. If you liked Peter Carey's hilarious Theft as much as I did and are similarly not Australian, you may also have been wondering what a Magic Pudding is (via Inq).

10. It's only because Sarah Weinman turned me on to The Night Gardener that I know enough to be excited about The Turnaround, the new novel by popular Washington D.C.-based mystery novelist George Pelecanos.

11. Bill Ectric spins some thoughts around Thomas Pynchon.

12. Ed on the New York Times.

13. Detox, a new Dr. Dre CD, may come out as early as 2008. Dre doesn't release albums too often (the last one was the masterpiece 2001, actually released in 1999, and before that, "... my last album was The Chronic") so this is big news. Let's hope this gets out before Chinese Democracy.

14. Check out The View From Here, a new literary magazine, and see what you think.

Writing to Write

by Jamelah Earle on Thursday, July 24, 2008 10:44 pm

So, while Levi was busy getting married, I was busy watching him getting married and then doing the Hokey Pokey at the reception. And then when I came back home, my refrigerator broke, my computer crashed, my blog’s database exploded, and then when I tried to log in to write my post here, WordPress was all, “Access DENIED. No, seriously. Go away.” The moral of this story is, of course, don’t come back from vacation. Take it from me. It’s a bad idea.

Anyway, even though I wasn't smart enough to stay on vacation, the refrigerator has been replaced, I bought a new computer, I fixed my database, and here I am writing this post. So it all ended up okay, and all, but when my computer died, I lost a lot of stuff. I haven't given up hope on being able to fish around in the dead tower and retrieve some things, though I wish I'd been more vigilant about backing stuff up in the first place (this is a lesson I thought I learned a few years ago the last time I had a computer die on me, but I guess it didn't stick). It's funny though, because I obsessively back up my photographs to an external hard drive, and I'm pretty good about backing up my iTunes, so the main thing I've lost is my writing. It's a lot of writing. I may be able to get it back or not, but I can't help finding it interesting that out of everything, this is the stuff I didn't bother to save. And while I know there was some good work there that it would be nice to have, the truth is that I wasn't all that upset about it. A little upset, sure, but definitely not as upset as I thought I might be, as I thought I should be.

I'm not sure what that means, or if it means anything other than I am careless, but I sure have thought about it a lot. The main question I ask myself is that if I can write pages and pages and do almost nothing to make sure they survive, and when they're lost I don't seem to mind too much, then why do I write in the first place? Why not just take up sudoku? I've given myself a few answers:

1. I hate sudoku.

2. Habit. I've been writing all my life (or at least since I've been literate, which has been, you know, a few years), and at this point it's just one of the things I do naturally. I sit down and write something every day, good or bad, serious or not. It's just a guarantee that at some point during my waking hours I will write something, even if it's only a couple of sentences. And when I'm not writing, I'm often thinking about it, planning what I'm going to write next. It's a compulsion, almost, minus the "almost" part.

3. Words. I love them. Fiercely, passionately. I love them in four languages, and I'd love them in more languages than that if I knew more. Despite the fact that they fail me all the time in my day-to-day, face-to-face life, despite the fact that they are approximations, I love them. And it's important to spend time with the ones you love.

4. Because I can. There are a lot of things in the world that I can't do, and I am aware of them, but I can write. I don't even suck at it.

Are those good enough reasons? Does it matter? I don't know. What I do know is that I'll keep writing, and maybe I'll even get better about preserving what I write. But even if I don't get better at it, even if everything I write remains momentary and impermanent, it's enough that I do it. So perhaps the biggest reason is that I write just for the sake of writing. Sometimes I write for an audience, most of the time I don't, and I am after the creating more than the creation, I suppose. Perhaps someday that will change, but for now the very best part is the act itself, the practice. Lining the words up neatly in well-formed rows and then doing it again.

High Tech, High Touch

by Levi Asher on Monday, June 30, 2008 09:36 pm

Back in 1982, a business book called Megatrends by John Naisbitt made a big splash. The most memorable phrase in this study of future trends was "high tech, high touch", describing a product style or marketing approach that combines technical wizardry with heightened emotional appeal. The idea was that the cold touch of technology innovation can be balanced by a compensating increase in interpersonal intimacy and connectivity. This was some pretty nifty trend-spotting, because the year was 1982 and Naisbitt had just described the birth of the popular internet, still over a decade in the future.

I was thinking about "high tech, high touch" recently when I spent a weekend with my brother and our kids gathered around an amazing new gadget called Wii Fit. You know I'm no gadget-head, and I generally hate video games, but Wii Fit impressed the hell out of me. Perhaps the most appealing thing about it, as with many Wii games, is the deep integration of detailed personal avatars that are designed to realistically look like each player. With my brother and all the kids around, we were able to turn Wii Fit into not only a personal exercise/physical challenge game but a group exercise/physical challenge game, all of it taking place on a television in real time. Or was it taking place in the room? Or both?

That type of integration, as Mr. Naisbitt would now remind you, is called "high tech, high touch".

2. I was also recently thinking about "high tech, high touch" because a surprising number of LitKicks loudmouths commenters disagreed with me on a recent post about electronic books. I wrote that most readers would rather read books on high-end versions of the electronic devices they already carry (iPhones, Blackberrys, video players) than blow three or four hundred bucks on a Sony Reader or an Amazon Kindle. It seems that I'm alone in this opinion.

Well, this may shock you all, but I insist that I'm correct. For one thing, I notice that none of these enthusiasts actually own a Kindle or a Sony Reader. That says a lot about how the business is growing. All talk, no sales. Do you own a Kindle?

Electronic books will be a success. This is an absolute certainty. That doesn't mean E-books will replace or crowd out physical books, which will hopefully continue to exist forever. But there's a simple reason why I want to read a book on my phone. Because there's a phone in my pocket and I want to read a book. Make it easy for me. And if it's a good book, I'll forget about the fact that I'm reading it on my phone very quickly, because I will hopefully be engaged in the plot. That's what reading is about.

Those who wish to build businesses around E-books must remember to keep the barrier to customer entry low. I've written this before on similar business issues, and the same logic applies to electronic books. Readers will embrace the new format once it's made easily accessible and affordable to them. Why wouldn't they? It's a no-brainer, really.

Gimmicky E-book products like this one, which lets you simulate the "page turning experience" with an E-book reader, are absolutely laughable. This is the E-book equivalent of spray can leather scent for new cars. Maybe it will make a few odd people happy, but it has nothing to do with the future.

What else can E-book promoters do to get more traction with readers? Simple: high tech, high touch.

3. Tim W. Brown replies to an 18-month rejection slip: "When you say that my work doesn’t "suit our needs at this time," does that mean in 2006 or 2008?"

4. Sam Shepard's got a new play. It's good to see him out and about in New York.

5. Yeah, I'm still unpacked, I'm still a little crazed and I'm still very happy. Thanks for the nice wishes on the upcoming wedding, everybody ... one more short post tomorrow and then I'm closing up this lollipop stand for a couple of weeks. We'll be back in mid-July. Action poets, get your poems in quick ...

Good Ideas

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, June 17, 2008 10:55 pm

1. Now this is a good idea. I've said this before and I'll keep saying it: readers are ready for e-books, but we don't want to buy puffed-up $400 Kindles or $300 Sony Readers. We want to read e-books on the devices that are already in our pockets: iPhones, Blackberrys, high-end full-screen cell phones. This is the way e-books will succeed in the marketplace.

2. Here's an even better idea: a truce between Israel and Hamas. Many of my friends don't support this, saying that a truce can't possibly last. I say if it lasts one week with no rockets and no tanks, then that's one week with no rockets and no tanks. I'm pretty sure both sides will remain highly vigilant, so I think critics of this difficult truce are mistaking hope (and common sense) for weakness.

3. A sunset on Mars.

4. Caryn and I were at this very wet R.E.M. concert at Jones Beach, Long Island Saturday night. The funny thing you won't read in any of these articles, though, is that before all the thunder and lightning the opening act The National stole the show. R.E.M. did a fun and crazy set too, though. I liked it near the end when, mindful of the fact that everybody involved in this concert was risking their life and needed to eventually get home, they said "okay, pretend we just left for the encore and came back".

5. Sara Nelson of Publisher's Weekly taking a wider view of the industry:

it does seem that we're at a crossroads, reaching critical mass, name your cliche here. Something, in other words, is going on in the book business, and while the overall mood of its practitioners must be described as nervous, there also may be some -- dare I say it? -- hopefulness underneath. Is it just me, or is the hunger for change we see growing in the political world actually trickling down to l'il ol' publishing?

6. New York has a new literary-minded travel bookstore, excellently named Idlewild.

7. Artist (and Jack Kerouac's good friend) Stanley Twardowicz died on June 12 in Huntington, Long Island. A couple of years ago I got the chance to play in a Jack Kerouac tribute softball game with Stanley Twardowicz (on Kerouac's own favorite baseball field in Northport, Long Island). I remember him as a quiet and sturdy guy, proud to represent the memory of Jack.

Tough Love

by Levi Asher on Monday, June 9, 2008 10:30 pm

1. I used to review a lot of poetry chapbooks on LitKicks. I really loved doing that, but then more and more chapbooks started coming in the mail and I couldn't figure out what to do with them. One day I looked at a stack of chapbooks by my front door and realized I'd just been stacking them there for the last few months. I hadn't opened a single one. It was time to end the LitKicks poetry chapbook exchange, which didn't feel good, but I couldn't keep up.

Now I've got the same problem with novels -- specifically, novels by newer or lesser known authors. It feels horrible to exchange emails with a nice friendly author, get a crisp good-looking book with a nice handwritten note in the mail, and never write about it. But this keeps happening, because I am a slow reader and I've barely been able to begin most of these books. I really do feel horrible about this. I know the writers deserve better.

Then again, just because I run a literary blog, who says I want to run a filtering service for new and unknown novelists? This is not a role I ever wanted to play, and it's not the kind of reading I most enjoy. At least 2/3 of the books I read are older texts (lately, hmm, Edmund Wilson's To The Finland Station, the Gunter Grass Reader) or history or politics titles (recently, Jacob Weisberg's The Bush Tragedy, David Adelman's A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today). I also sometimes read cheesy rock biographies (Suze Rotolo's A Freewheeling Time, etc.), and I try to read international titles as much as I can, so there's just not that much time left for new upcoming novelists or desparate last-gasp novelists, as good as their books probably are.

And yeah, sure, I'm interested in knowing who the next big sensation is going to be. But I really don't need to be the first to know. Hell, I haven't even found the time to read Roberto Bolano yet.

I am going to run some very few long-overdue book reviews in the next couple of weeks. But once again I have to warn any novelists who communicate with me that I'm always happy to hear from you and I'm always happy to check out your books, but please don't send it unless it's okay that the odds are against me writing about the book.

But please do keep those global history/politics titles and cheesy rock biographies coming! I need some good beach reading.

2. Oxford University Press's Evan Schnittman has written a refreshing analytical piece that projects the likely (secret) sales figures for the two major E-Book devices, Amazon's Kindle and the Sony Reader:

The chatter, as reported in the NY Times, has publishers and others speculating that Amazon has sold somewhere between 10,000 - 50,000 Kindles.

I think all the speculations are completely wrong. By my calculations, combined sales of the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader will be 1,000,000 units in 2008. This estimate is based on solid data.

Schnittman's math is fine -- but a projection is just a projection, and since these conclusions are largely based on parts (screens) ordered for manufacture, his research is probably over-optimistic. But he's right that E-books are a growing business.

Of course E-books will eventually succeed. Anybody who thinks they won't is out of touch with the 21st Century. But pricing is key, and the Kindle is too expensive. By slicing across the price differential, Schnittman's research misses the main lesson the industry needs to hear -- make it affordable, stupid. Still, the article is a worthwhile read.

3. It's strange that Ben Child says in the Guardian that Deepak Chopra is the inspiration for the Mike Myers character in the new film The Love Guru, since the character looks a whole lot like real-life love guru Mahirishi Mahesh Yogi, who recently died. I'll go see this film ... Mike Myers hasn't steered me wrong yet.

4. Speaking of karma, Ed Champion is dishing some heavy stuff out here.


by Levi Asher on Thursday, June 5, 2008 09:22 pm

1. It's an honor to review the first posthumous Kurt Vonnegut book (and, in a way, the final note in his career) at The Quarterly Conversation.

2. Another good piece in this issue: Richard Grayson on his experience publishing his own book. My own experiences with print-on-demand indie publishing have been about equally mixed. It's a hell of a way to try to make a living.

3. More in this vein: Richard Nash muses on the plight of modern publishing.

4. So does Chad Post.

5. And we all know what's the real future of publishing: it comes in a flavor called TCP-IP. I'm not in the habit of reading Vanity Fair magazine, but this is a good piece, an extensive oral history of the birth and nurturing of the public internet, featuring early players like Vint Cerf, Bob Metcalfe and Marc Andreessen, put together by Keenan Mayo and Peter Newcomb.

6. Congrats to Elizabeth Wurtzel for getting a law degree! Though I have to correct Gawker -- she's not a lawyer till she passes the bar. Ask JFK Jr (sorry).

7. Will Harry, Revised become a movie? Mark Sarvas says there's interest. Somebody's speed-dialing Matthew Broderick as we speak.

8. In exactly one month ... Caryn and I are getting married.


by Levi Asher on Friday, May 30, 2008 05:21 pm

Now that's teamwork. Google is indexing LitKicks again, after John Honeck and a few other experts pitched in with helpful advice. It turns out the reason I couldn't see the spam links is that they were programmed to appear only in response to page requests from Google or other major search engines. The secret was to look at a cached LitKicks page from another search engine, which clearly showed the spam. Thanks also to Google for quickly restoring the site once the problem was solved.

As to how the spam device got there in the first place, it turns out to have been embedded in the WordPress theme I'd used to create the latest version of the site. The theme is called "Royaline", and anybody else who uses this theme will probably eventually run into the same problem I had. I posted about this on a WordPress forum.

It's a discouraging fact that prescription drug spammers would so carelessly violate the trust of the open source community. But it's equally encouraging that I asked for help with this problem and so quickly got what I needed. Good work, people.


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