(I didn't make it to the Brooklyn Book Festival this year, but Tara Olmsted did, and here's her report! -- Levi)

The Brooklyn Book Festival can be a mixed bag. At its worst the annual autumn event is complete chaos: no consistent theme, hot and crowded rooms, poorly moderated panels, no-show authors, smug hipsters as far as the eye can see. This year's list of participating authors is less exciting at the outset than in previous years: the type of book being discussed on all the panels feels pretty much the same, as if some kind of homeostasis has been achieved.

But at its best, the Brooklyn Book Festival s a platform for small, independent presses.  Publishers like Melville House, New Directions, & Other Stories, Europa, Other Press, Archipelago and Greywolf are there. (Technically some of these are not exactly indie publishers anymore, like New Directions, which has been absorbed by the big five publishing conglomerates. I still consider the presses “indie” because they’ve managed to retain the literary identity and traditions on which they were founded.)

Smaller indies are here too: Zephyr, Bellevue, The Head & The Hand. There are literary magazines: BookForum, The Paris Review, NYRB and Lapham’s Quarterly. And many of Brooklyn’s independent bookstores attend, including WORD, The Community Bookstore and Greenlight.  There’s a lot to discover at the outdoor booths.  And for me the highlight of the festival has always been (and remains) the author panels.

"Catch a Fire: Social Collapse in Multiple Voices" began one panelist short (a fairly common occurrence at book festivals). The Somali author Nuruddin Farah was unable to attend for reasons that were not explained.  But the smaller panel created an opportunity for the two present authors to expand their discussion beyond their individual novels and discuss the politics of Jamaica and Somalia.

Marlon James’ novel A Brief History of Seven Killings opens in 1976, Jamaica - the year men armed with machine guns invaded Bob Marley’s home and opened fire, seriously injuring his wife and manager. Marley received only minor wounds and went on to perform at the free “Smile Jamaica” concert two days later.  And then he left Jamaica, choosing not to return for two long years. Taking those events as the novel’s launching point, James goes on to explore the history of Jamaica and the Jamaican diaspora over the next three decades.

Marlon James is a charismatic speaker and the scope of the book, as he describes it, is impressive:  687 pages, 76 characters, written in Jamaican patois, set in both Jamaica and New York City. The panel's moderator hinted at moments of disturbing violence, which James defended as being necessary. He didn’t seem to believe in trivializing violence by sterilizing it. James also spoke on the topics that interested him and had crept into his writing: the politics of the island where he was born and its role in the Cold War; stereotypes and expectations he’s encountered as a Jamaican author; his views on politics as they relate to his writings; and, in response to one audience member’s question, which of Marley’s albums was the soundtrack underscoring the events in his novel (Rastaman Vibration is the correct answer, not Exodus).

Nadifa Mohamed’s novel is set 13,295 kilometers away in Somalia. The Orchard of Lost Souls follows the lives and fates of three women at the outbreak of that country’s 1987 civil war.  Like James, Nadifa Mohamed did not discuss her novel’s plot at length. She talked instead about her relationship to the place where she was born and the current wave of the Somali diaspora.  She and her family immigrated to England when she was only four years old, and so her experience is completely different than those of the (more conservative) Somali expats arriving in London.  She spoke of the ways in which the country where she was born is and isn’t home, and of how the characters in her novel both experience and perpetrate acts of violence.  The common theme for both both authors -- as for many authors on the panels I attended this year -- was our relationships to the countries where we are born and what that means in the wake of ever increasing globalization.

My next panel, again dealing with international literature and authors, was called "Cultural Collisions: Around the Day in Eighty Worlds".  I’m still not sure exactly what the title had to do with the actual panel.

This included the Brazilian author Paolo Scott (Nowhere People), Mexican author Valeria Luiselli (Faces in the Crowd) and Cuban author Mylene Fernandez-Pintado (A Corner of the World).  All three books are translations.  Anderson Tepper, a Brooklyn Book Festival staple, was an excellent moderator as always, allowing each author to discuss their books in depth and give short readings.

Nowhere People is the first and only Brazilian novel about that country’s native population -- the Guarani Indians -- a subject on which Scott expressed strong feelings. Brazilians, according to Scott, avoid addressing race in a way that is detrimental (and shameful) to the society as a whole.  His novel tells the story of a young Brazilian man who is drawn into the world of an indigenous girl he sees walking along the side of the road.

Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd and Mylene Fernandez-Pintado’s A Corner of the World are so different that I’m not sure how they all ended up on the same panel. Luiselli’s book moves in time between modern New York City and 1950’s Philadelphia. Her characters are a young Mexican translator living in Harlem and the real-life poet Gilbert Owen (who the author described as “an all-right poet”). Taken directly from the back cover: “As the voices of the narrators overlap and merge, they drift into a single stream, a mingling that is also a disappearing act, and an elegiac evocation of love and loss”.  Fernandez-Pintado, in contrast, has written a love story set in modern Havana, a story about a society that lacks choices and opportunities.

I’ll say it again: the Brooklyn Book Festival can be a mixed bag. Particularly this year. The panels for which I harbored the highest expectations turned out to be terrible. And the one’s I felt lukewarm about turned out to be fantastic. But where else can you spend an entire day lining up to hear (mostly) obscure authors talk about books that will never make it onto the New York Times Bestseller List?

At the Brooklyn Book Festival I feel as if I’ve managed to escape the influence of Amazon’s algorithm, NPR recommendations and the Colbert bump. For one day a year I get to be on my own. Which is enough to bring me back in 2015.


Tara Olmsted finds a mixed bag at the annual book festival in downtown Brooklyn.

view /BKBF2014
Friday, September 26, 2014 09:35 am
Brooklyn Book Festival 2014
Tara Olmsted

I used to go to BookExpo in New York City every Spring. It was a grand event, a joyous social swirl of writers and publishers and editors and bloggers and critics. But, regretfully, I stopped going to BookExpo a couple of years ago. Some friends tell me the event has shrunk and that I'm not missing much. But I know I'm missing a lot whenever I get a chance to hang out with book people.

This year, I strangely found myself for the first time at DrupalCon, an amazing gathering of web development technology gurus, experts and dabblers who use the very powerful Drupal open source platform to build websites. I've been a Drupal developer since 2009, and I ported this blog from WordPress to Drupal in 2010. Drupal has been both my day job (currently, an exciting new federal government health information and community website launching in October) and my personal obsession. This is my first DrupalCon, my first chance to hang around with thousands of other developers who are as obsessed as I am.

I bet many of the people clustering around me as I write this in the convention center in Austin, Texas share the same sense of happy unreality that I've enjoyed this week: finally, we are surrounded by other people who know what Drupal is. The brand is not at all well known outside software development circles, though it is one of the most popular web dev platforms in the world. It's especially strong in science, education, arts, media, entertainment and government, and Barack Obama's is one example of a flagship site. (Litkicks, of course, is another).

Drupal is fully free and open source, and lives on the free and open source LAMP (Linux Apache MySQL PHP) stack. It's both extremely easy and incredibly hard to use, depending on how unique your requirements are. If you need to create a blog and plan to use designs and templates and features created by others, you will get great results very quickly with a Drupal install. In this sense, Drupal is similar to WordPress. But WordPress is not as complete a platform as Drupal. If you need to implement a custom design with complex functionality that integrates dynamic data with a variety of external services, Drupal will allow you to go as deep as you need to go. WordPress won't take you there. But going there with Drupal won't always be easy, and it won't always make sense.

Because Drupal is so popular among web developers, it often generates a lot of backlash, and I know some very smart web developers who consider it an infernal mess of quirky legacy code. They may have a point. Web development is a perplexing and fast-changing field, and developers like me choose Drupal -- not because it's always the best platform, but because it's the one with the greatest positive convergence of developer enthusiasm and technological vision. Web development thrives on hive-mind wisdom, and hive-mind wisdom is what the Drupal technology community provides.

Really, the whole magic of Drupal is simply the fact that web developers all over the world are doing things the same way. We modify forms with hook_form_alter, create lists with Views, cache with memcache, build custom search engines with Search API. It's not that this grab bag of techniques is any more valid than any other grab bag of techniques found in any other PHP toolkit. The strength that Drupal creates is the strength of community. Because we all agree to build websites the "Drupal way", we can share knowledge, share code, share experiences. We can build upon each other's work. We can meet at a convention and discover deep currents of commonality within the very private and often isolating mental processes that define our daily work challenges, and we can discuss these challenges at a very precise level with a crystal-clear vocabulary. For a software developer used to working and struggling alone, this can feel like a miracle when it finally kicks in.

This is why I find Drupal so transcendent, even though spending a week in Austin in crowded roving packs of peer developers can sometimes be obnoxious, frustrating, disappointing. Smelly, even. Well, each individual Drupal developer may or may not have a transcendent mission in life. Together, we definitely have a transcendent mission in life: we are creating Drupal, even as we use it.

It's funny for me to compare DrupalCon, the annual convention that seems to compel my presence at this point in my life, with BookExpo, which used to compel it. I'll be upfront about one thing: book people are more gregarious, and more skilled at the art of conversation. But there is a beautiful purposefulness to social interactions here at DrupalCon. It seems to be a general rule here that one should not speak unless one has something intelligent to say. Book people should try that sometime ...

But it's not just a roomful of techies I'm in right now: it's a roomful of web development techies, and this adds an interesting flavor to the brainy mood of this strange gathering. Software developers can choose many paths, but people choose to become web developers because they are creative or artistic or socially conscious in some way. Our work is public facing by definition.

Pure scientists and engineers don't deal with audiences. Nearly every introvert that surrounds me right now in this room in Austin is thinking about how to engage with audiences. Maybe that's what gives us Drupalistas -- not just here in Austin, but all over the world -- the bare minimum of social sense that allows us to work harmoniously together towards a quiet but brilliant goal: the continued development of awesome open source software.

In this way, DrupalCon people are like BookExpo people. We're into reaching audiences. And we all enjoy the chance to work together, to communicate harmoniously and productively with friends and strangers in a shared public workspace.

I only wish I could go to a convention and be with my Drupal peeps and my book peeps at the same time. Now that's what I'd call convergence.

* * * * *

NOTE: I'm flying home from Austin this weekend and will have to take a break on Philosophy Weekend. See you in a few!


I used to go to BookExpo every year. Now I go to DrupalCon.

view /DrupalCon2014
Wednesday, June 4, 2014 10:59 pm
DrupalCon 2014 in Austin Texas
Levi Asher

It's because I respect musicians who bravely venture into the dark literary territory of autobiography that I am so fascinated by musical memoirs. It's also why I'm sometimes critical of them. I have high standards regarding what a good memoir should be.

My standards are high but simple. An autobiography of a musician or any other artist must be written in a voice that feels distinct and artistic. It must tell a coherent story in chronological form. Most importantly, a good memoir must tell the truth.

On these terms, I criticized Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace for lacking story coherence, and for substituting undercooked present-tense for thoughtful past-tense. I knocked Steve Tyler's Does The Noise In My Head Bother You? for an inconsistent voice: the first few chapters about Steve's childhood and teenage years were very well written, but once Steve grew up and got famous the book shifted in tone to something like a People magazine interview about his rock star lifestyle. That ain't memoir.

Today I'm going to tell you about a memoir that I bet you never heard of, even though there's a good chance you dearly love the legendary rock band the author of this autobiography played drums for.

I bet you don't know that Nick Mason -- who played drums for Pink Floyd and is the only member of the band who played at every single Pink Floyd concert and on every single Pink Floyd record -- wrote a book called Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd in 2004. Or maybe you've seen this book around and maybe even bought it, but I bet you didn't read it, and didn't know that it contains a full-fledged personal autobiography that is beautiful, warm, informative, funny, inspiring and reflective. Why don't you know this? The publisher screwed it up.

Nick Mason's book should have been published as a straight memoir, like Pete Townshend's memoir or Bob Dylan's memoir or Patti Smith's memoir. Instead, probably because of Nick Mason's lack of celebrity (all the members of Pink Floyd kept a low profile), Inside Out was published as a big coffee table book, crammed with full-page color pictures and Hipgnosis artworks. Sure, the photos are striking, and there's no doubt that Pink Floyd's visual experimentations are good enough to fill a coffee table book. However, the horrible "two-for-one" idea of packaging Nick Mason's autobiography with an visual record of the history of Pink Floyd seriously devalues Nick Mason's text, obscuring his thoughtful words like so many clouds.

Let's face it -- people don't read coffee table books. They buy them as presents, they decorate with them. Inside Out is expensive, and it's the size of a large dinner plate. It's as heavy as a brick. The pages are thick shiny cardboard, so you have to pin the whole contraption down with a wrestler's grip to read a damn page. And you can forget about carrying it on a train or taking it to work for lunch hour. Inside Out was not designed for actual reading, and that's why nobody reads it. There isn't even a Kindle version available.

Could it be that Chronicle Books, publisher of the American edition (and an otherwise excellent and innovative publishing company) didn't know that a Nick Mason memoir would sell on its own, that Pink Floyd is one of the most popular rock bands of all time, that Pink Floyd fans read a lot of books? Have they seen Pink Floyd fans? This book could have been a number one bestseller -- after all, many Pink Floyd albums were.

Word of mouth would have boosted sales, because Nick Mason has a very natural voice and a charming British sense of humor. Here, he's talking about the hangers-on who began to show up after The Wall hit it big:

As always there was some political and financial repercussions as the album climbed the charts. We had lawyers representing all and sundry trying to scramble aboard the gravy train. One voice heard on the album after we recorded a random turning of the TV dial belonged to an actor who thought the success was primarily due to his contribution. We offered him a settlement with the option of doubling the amount if he gave it all to charity. He took the half for himself.

Mason is an observant, detail-minded and philosophical writer. He often muses about the technology of music (or, equally often, the technology of racing cars or lighting systems or houseboats) as it relates to human nature.

I loved the sound he [Alan Parsons] could get on tape for my drums. In rock music, getting this right is still one of the great tests for any engineer. Since the drum's original use was to spur on troops to warfare, rather than winning over a maiden's fair heart, it is hardly surprising that many a battle has been fought over the drum sound.

As the anecdotes accumulate in Inside Out, one suspects that the punchlines only work so well because the stories have been worked out over dinners and wine for decades. Well, this is one reason storytellers go to dinner parties -- to practice -- and it's one reason that older people write such good memoirs.

The passage of years probably also helped to strengthen Nick Mason attitude in life. He appears throughout the career of Pink Floyd to have been a humble, accepting and nonjudgmental person. This is a good trait in a drummer, who has to get along with guitarists and singers, and it must have come in particularly handy for Nick Mason, who spent two decades as half of a rhythm section with Roger Waters, Pink Floyd's genius bassist and a notoriously difficult man.

Mason hints wryly in Inside Out at scenes of near-abuse from the temperamental Waters in cold studios on sleepless nights. But he also makes it clear that he considers Roger a lifelong best friend. On the first page of the book, he and Roger Waters are fellow teenage architecture students in a London school, along with a third architecture student and jazz keyboardist named Rick Wright. The first time Roger Waters spoke to Nick Mason at this school was to ask to borrow his car.

The vehicle in question was a 1930 Austin Seven 'Chummy' which I'd picked up for twenty quid. Roger must have been desperate even to want me to lend it to him. The Austin's cruising speed was so sluggish that I'd once had to give a hitch-hiker a lift out of sheer embarrassment because I was going so slowly he thought I was actually stopping to offer him a ride. I told Roger the car was off the road, which was not entirely true. Part of me was reluctant to lend it out to anyone else, but I think I also found Roger rather menacing. When he spotted me driving the Austin shortly afterwards, he had his first taste of my penchant for occupying that no-man's-land between duplicity and diplomacy. On a previous occasion, Roger had accosted Rick Wright, who was also a student in our class, and asked him for a cigarette, a request Rick turned down point blank. This was an early sign of Rick's legendary generosity.

I love this opening sequence, and I also like the way a closing sequence in the book's final chapter echoes it perfectly. Here, the late-period post-Waters Pink Floyd is picking songs for Division Bell.

At band meetings we now started whittling down the possible songs to the probables. We set up an extremely democratic system whereby David, Rick and I would each award marks out of ten for each song, regardless of who had originally generated the piece. This should have worked smoothly, had Rick not misinterpreted the democratic principles underlying the voting system. He simply awarded all of his ideas the full ten points, and everything else got nil points. This meant that all of Rick's pieces had a ten-point head start, and it took David and me a while to work out why this new album was rapidly becoming a Rick Wright magnum opus …

The same issue reappeared a decade later when we were selecting tracks for inclusion on 'Echoes', the compilation album which required input from David, Rick, myself and Roger. As well as the oars being poked in by a whole galley-load of record company executives, engineers, producers and managers, this time we had to deal with the fact that Roger, like Rick before him, would only vote for his own tracks. God bless democracy.

It's fitting that Nick Mason, Roger Waters and Rick Wright were architecture students, because Pink Floyd's amazing record albums were among the most diagrammatic and conceptually ambitious of the classic rock era. The albums they are most famous for today, though they are not my favorite Pink Floyd albums, are The Wall (a heavy psychological dissection of Roger Waters's personality problems), Wish You Were Here (their gentlest work), and Dark Side of the Moon (their most complete masterpiece). As great as these three records are, I sometimes resent the way they overpower Pink Floyd's previous career, which was even better. I also resent the fact that the blatant, earnest, almost adolescent expressionism of these three rage-filled albums has left an impression that adolescent rage was all Pink Floyd was ever good at. In fact, their earlier records were their best, and these lack the mawkishness of their more famous works.

I'm taking about the amazing experimental albums they recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, like Soundtrack from More, Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother. This was after they recovered from the loss of Syd Barrett (whose Pink Floyd-created solo albums during these years are also masterpieces) and all four members of the band began reaching their potential and fully exploring the possibilities of their ensemble.

These were also the years in which Nick Mason's ability to create dramatic and dynamic drum parts became most evident. His name is often neglected when listing drum legends like John Bonham of Led Zeppelin or Keith Moon of the Who, but Mason's clever, theatrical drum style put him in their class. For a glimpse of Nick Mason and the entire band at peak power, here's A Saucerful of Secrets from the Live at Pompeii movie:

The release of Dark Side of the Moon in 1973 ended Pink Floyd's reputation as a collegiate prog band. They transformed into blockbuster rockers, specializing in massive stadium concerts (two of which I was lucky enough to see in my teenage years). During this period Roger Waters began to dominate the band, and much of Nick Mason's later story in Inside Out is about the power struggle that eventually took a surprising twist when David Gilmour and Nick Mason managed to wrest Pink Floyd slyly out of Roger Waters's hands and recreate the band without him. (As a Roger Waters fan, I mostly lost interest in Pink Floyd at this point.)

Nick Mason reveals many musical secrets in this book, such as the fact that he had to play the heartbeat in "Speak to Me" on a drum because their tapes of real heartbeats sounded too "stressful", that the climactic crescendo that segues between "Speak to Me" and "Breathe" is a piano chord played backwards, that Rick Wright played the melody of "See Emily Play" on the fading notes of the Wish You Were Here album as a tribute to Syd Barrett, who Nick Mason remembers as a once "delightful" former band-mate who frighteningly lost his mind.

Nick Mason was as sane as Syd Barrett wasn't, and as calm as Roger Waters wasn't. Together, Barrett and Gilmour and Waters and Mason and Wright produced a body of work that equals that of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, though Pink Floyd has never reached their level of wide acclaim.

This may be because the members so rigorously avoided celebrity -- an avoidance that might have been grounded in necessity, since they didn't really have the personal charisma to achieve it. Pink Floyd was music by nerds, for nerds. That's why I'm sure Inside Out would have sold so well: nerds read a lot of books.

Note: While this review is about the American edition of Inside Out, I see that there is a British edition which may be easier to read, and thankfully is available on a Kindle. This British edition, which I have not seen, apparently also includes an update about Pink Floyd's reunion (including Roger Waters, finally) at Live 8 in 2005. This wondrous 25-minute reunion can be enjoyed in full right here. It'll probably make you want to read this book, and I suggest you try the British edition.


Pink Floyd's drummer has written a clever and honest autobiography, though unfortunately the book's format will keep readers far away.

view /NickMason
Tuesday, March 11, 2014 04:17 pm
Nick Mason and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd
Levi Asher

Some of you have met Eli Stein before; he's written Litkicks articles about P. G. Wodehouse and Al Jaffee, and he's my father. He's also a cartoonist with a body of published work dating back to the 1950s. If you've read a lot of the Wall Street Journal or Chronicle of Higher Education or Good Housekeeping or National Enquirer, you've probably seen his work, and might recognize his clean, round graphic style, which to my admiring filial eye always resembled the classic drawing style of Syd Hoff or Charles Schulz.

A few years ago I built my dad a blog, which he maintains and regularly updates himself (he does a great job with it, and I wish most of my other website clients were as productive and technically drama-free as he has been). One of the regular features on the Eli Stein Cartoons blog is a cartoon caption contest, originally inspired by the New Yorker's cartoon caption contest. The latest entry has just gone up, and since it has a bookish theme I thought I'd share it here and invite my Litkicks friends and readers to submit entries. Please give it a try! You don't win anything except a congratulations and a good time. Enjoy ... Eli Stein Cartoon Caption Contest #62.

UPDATE: The winner (it wasn't me) was announced here.


Cartoon Caption Contest by classic gag cartoonist Eli Stein.

view /EliSteinCaptionContest
Wednesday, January 22, 2014 09:57 am
Eli Stein cartoon caption contest
Levi Asher

Amiri Baraka, a seminal Beat poet, angry playwright, revolutionary activist and scrappy indie publisher from Newark, New Jersey has died. The Allen Ginsberg Project blog has the scoop. Here's a Litkicks article about Amiri Baraka by Jamelah Earle from 2003.

Please feel free to share your memories or personal encounters with Amiri Baraka by leaving a comment below.


Amiri Baraka, a seminal Beat poet, angry playwright, revolutionary activist and scrappy indie publisher from Newark, New Jersey has died.

view /AmiriBarakaNewarkPoet
Thursday, January 9, 2014 09:09 pm
Amiri Baraka
Levi Asher

Legendary book editor and publisher Andre Schiffrin died last weekend at the age of 78. Years ago, I read his memoir/broadside The Business of Books. Here's Schiffrin describing the scene at Random House in the early 1960s, after Random House acquired Pantheon Books, a literary publisher his father had helped to build:

I arrived at the Pantheon offices with a great deal of anticipation. These were housed in the triangular skyscraper known as the Little Flatiron Building at Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue. My father's office used to be at the prow of the ship-like edifice and had been kept empty in his homage for many years after his death. The building was shabby, and most of it was occupied by manufacturers, including the premises of an accordion maker and various garment firms. But it was also the site of a number of the country's most interesting publishing houses: New Directions, Pellegrini, and Cuddahy shared our floor, as did the left-wing journal the 'Nation' and the Marxist 'Monthly Review'.

Since the Wolffs' departure, the firm was bring run by the people who had previously been in charge of production and sales -- well-intentioned and agreeable men who, however, lacked the editorial skills necessary to maintain the level of books for which the list had become known and that Random expected it to continue publishing …

It strikes me now as an extraordinary display of confidence, as well as an indication of how comfortable the Random bosses were in their own roles, that never once was I prevented from taking on any of the many initially unprofitable titles that we published. The closest I remember getting to being reproached was an ever-so-slightly raised eyebrow when I confessed to Donald [Klopfer] that I had not yet read the new Mary Renault. (Her historical novels were among the most profitable books we had inherited from the old Pantheon but very far from my own interest.)

As a result of this ideal situation, we were able to spend our time looking for the books that seemed to us to matter the most. We were not so naive as to fail to realize that an occasional best-seller would help, and we spent a great deal of our time on the few promising titles that had been left to us. Thanks to the Wolffs, we were able, in our first year, to publish 'The Tin Drum' by Gunter Grass, an author who would be awarded the Nobel nearly forty years later. When we presented the book to our sales people, Bennett [Cerf], who had read the manuscript, was concerned by some of the sexual episodes it contained and expressed his doubts. (Amusingly enough, he did so after asking the only woman in the room to absent herself, lest she be embarrassed by the discussion that was to follow -- an indication of the puritanism of those in publishing at the time.) We persuaded Bennett without much difficulty that the manuscript should retain intact …

Nineteen Sixty-Two, the year we started, was not an opportune one for thoughtful, inventive publishing. Even though the McCarthy era had finally ended in 1954, the effects of the years of purging were still powerful. American intellectual life was devastated in this period.

… In my first months at Pantheon, I suggested publishing the work of I. F. Stone, the left-wing journalist who was one of the few to speak out against the folly of the McCarthy period. In later years Stone was recognized as a major influence on American journalism, the mentor to a generation of writers and critics. But when I presented Stone's book, the people at Pantheon who had hired me responded by looking uncomfortable and making excuses about why we could never take on anything so controversial.

Ahh, the joys of the publishing memoir! The classic texts are by Andre Schiffrin, Michael Korda, Bob Epstein -- and the pleasures are always found in the details of the literary discoveries, the tales of the tough cases worth going to bat for, the descriptions of the often shabby and unremarkable physical spaces in which major editorial decisions are made. (Note: after first reading this book years ago and then skimming it again to select a passage to quote here, I was still under the mistaken impression that Schiffrin's Pantheon office was in the Flatiron Building. It was only when I slowed down my reading enough to type in the above passage that I realized it was in plain print that the building was not the Flatiron Building but rather the so-called Little Flatiron Building at the intersection of Fourth Street, Sixth Avenue and Cornelia Street. Yes, it's all about the details, and yes, I am a terrible reader.)

When a legendary editor dies, it's tempting to bemoan the current state of the literature business and declare that the era of greatness is now completely over and dead. But I happened to have just begun reading a new editorial memoir called My Mistake by Daniel Menaker when I heard the news about Andre Schiffrin.

Daniel Menaker began his long career as a fact-checker and then copy editor at the New Yorker, and eventually became editor-in-chief at Random House, now a much different company than the one Andre Schiffrin now. His voice is more intimate and less angry than Schiffrin's, which might reveal something about the literary evolution of the memoir, but more likely simply reflects the different personalities of the two editors. His observations are artful and pithy:

Centrello takes me to lunch and let's me know that she would like me to step aside as Editor in Chief. Why? Numbers, evidently. Prizes -- lack thereof. My high salary. It comes back to me that Harry Evans, when he hired me, said "You have five years to fook oop," and I have barely finished four years.

Here, he's having a "typical" phone conversation with an agent about a new book by an author with a middling track record:

ME: How many copies did it sell last year?
AGENT: Fifteen thousand.
ME: Fifteen thousand as in twelve thousand five hundred?
AGENT: Yeah, about that. Twelve thousand five hundred.
ME: Twelve thousand five hundred as in eleven?
AGENT: Twelve-five as in twelve.
ME: So it sold about eleven-five?
AGENT: Yeah.

Or, he steps back with a quick realization:

I sometimes think that many books at all houses are more nearly privished than published.

Why do so few editors ever publish their memoirs? (It's a good bet that many editorial memoirs have been written but never published, because this is a business that thrives on confidentiality.) Menaker was apparently inspired by a bout with cancer. A few other ghosts from his past show up in his book, along with cameos by Steven Pinker, George Saunders, Pauline Kael, Roger Angell, Alice Munro. These names don't quite compare to the impressive names in Andre Schiffrin's memoir -- Jean-Paul Sartre, Marguerite Duras, Eduardo Galeano, Studs Terkel, Michel Foucault, James McPherson -- but perhaps time will smooth out the difference. It's the same world of book publishing, a world still totally alive, and the editor's side of the story is a side we don't get to enjoy often enough.


Excerpts from two publishing memoirs, 'The Business of Books' by the late Andre Schiffrin, and 'My Mistake' by Daniel Menaker.

view /SchiffrinMenaker
Wednesday, December 4, 2013 06:08 pm
Two memoirs by celebrated literary editors
Levi Asher

A surprise announcement that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is buying the Washington Post has signaled the end of a distinctive era in family publishing. The Washington Post has been owned by three generations of a single family since Eugene Meyer bought it in 1933. The Post was then only one of several scrappy newspapers in the District of Columbia, and it wasn't until Eugene's daughter Katharine married a very smart young journalist and entrepreneur named Philip Graham that the Washington Post began to rise above the Capitol City sludge to become a world-class newspaper. Eugene Meyer entrusted his new son-in-law to run the entire Washington Post organization. Philip Graham became a sensationally successful newspaper publisher, also establishing himself as an early multimedia visionary when he bought Newsweek magazine and a radio station.

Philip and Katharine Graham married for love -- they were part of a fashionable young set in Georgetown, and had a strong relationship at first. But Philip Graham was a complicated man, prone to terrible episodes of weird manic-depressive extremes, and he seemed to resent the fact that he had only become publisher of the Post by marrying into the family. The young businessman pushed himself hard and pursued risks, alternately stumbling and flying. He became a close friend and supporter of Lyndon Baines Johnson, which gave him a distinctive position both as a newsman and as a Georgetown socialite when LBJ was elected Vice President in 1960. He fell in love with another woman, which put him in an impossible position because his marriage to Katharine Graham was his connection to his business, his life: the Washington Post/Newsweek company.

Caught in an unbreakable bind, and in the midst of a painful emotional spell, Philip Graham violently killed himself in June, 1963, just a few months before another gunshot would put his friend Lyndon Johnson in the White House. He enacted his suicide in the Graham family's idyllic Virginia country house, as his perplexed wife relaxed nearby.

At this point, the story told in Katharine Graham's Personal History -- one of the most amazing, charming and unforgettable memoirs I've ever read -- begins to get happier. This is a rare story where most of the tragedy (Katharine's childhood relationship with her eccentric mother is another) happens early. After Katharine's husband's suicide, nobody believed the bright, prim, genteel wife of the publisher could possibly do the job herself except for one person: Katharine Graham.

Following her husband's suicide, Katharine Graham named herself the new publisher of the Washington Post. This was an unusual step for a woman in a man's business, and much of Personal History describes the powerful sexist barriers Katharine Graham had to knock down. She found that she was good at knocking down barriers, sexist and otherwise. In the next two decades, Katharine Graham would surprise the world and probably herself by becoming an even more legendary newspaper publisher than her husband or father had been.

This is mainly because she found herself with a hotter potato to handle than either Eugene Meyer or Philip Graham ever had in 1972, when her city beat reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward began digging up odd messy stuff about the Committee to Re-Elect President Nixon. The Watergate scandal exploded, and Katharine Graham handled her key role coolly. She and editor Ben Bradlee agreed to support Woodward and Bernstein through some risky acts of reporting, and the Nixon White House began to threaten the Washington Post both directly and indirectly.

Kay Graham became a tangible symbol of the weird Watergate state of mind when Carl Bernstein reported that Nixon's close associate John Mitchell had hissed to him during an intrusive phone call that Kay Graham would get her "tit caught in a wringer". If John Mitchell could have read Personal History, he would have understood how tough Kay Graham was, and would not have bothered trying to frighten her.

These stories and more are told in a sparkling voice with a deep penchant for honesty in Personal History -- a book that I only began reading because I am a Watergate buff, but liked far more than I ever expected to. There is no book I'd recommend more to anybody who wants to read about adventures in journalism, or about the unique insular culture of Washington D.C., the city where Graham was a regal presence until her death in 2001.

It's her probing self-directed honesty that makes this memoir so remarkable. At one point, during a thoughtful summary of the strengths and weaknesses of her past marriage to Philip Graham, she reveals that her beloved husband never really did respect her mind. Worse, he often made fun of her for having a "limited intellect" in front of family and friends. It must have been painful for Katharine Graham to reveal something as personal as this. I guess that explains the book's title.

For one year of my life, in 2009, I found myself working for the technology department at Slate, a Washington Post company, and I was invited often to meetings in the famed Washington Post building on 15th and L Street in Washington DC. I cherished the moments when I could walk into this building (though I didn't always cherish the meetings of the Washington Post digital brain trust, which often consisted of a lot of huffing and puffing and very few ideas other than "let's add a Facebook button").

The Washington Post building always had a homey, warm mood -- much more so than the New York Times or Time-Life Buildings in New York City. This may have been due to the friendly presence of several members of the Graham and Weymouth families, who were always around. It happens to be a favorite WaPo fact of mine, for anyone who'd like to know, that Tina Weymouth, bassist of the Talking Heads, is a member of the extended Graham-Weymouth family -- here she is with the Tom Tom Club:

It's been a few years since I stepped inside the Washington Post building, but I wish the legendary Washington Post well as it transitions into whatever the hell it is that Jeff Bezos plans to transition it into. What would Katharine Graham think? I don't know, but maybe she'd think "I could do it better."

"Personal History" by newspaper publisher Katharine Graham is one of the most stunning and inspiring autobiographies I've ever read.

view /KateGraham
Monday, August 5, 2013 09:30 pm
Personal History, the memoir by Katharine Graham
Levi Asher

(Here's Toro!, who runs a book cover design website and has designed posters for FOX and HBO and covers for J C Sum and John Kemmerly, and shares here some of the lesser-known challenges and tribulations of his career. -- Levi)

The cover: a one-page ad forever bound to its product, the most ubiquitous piece of marketing a book will ever have. The cover, a glossy cherry on top of a cake of words, chapters and (maybe) a story. The cover, an aide, a friend, a guiding beacon in that mind-boggling, panic-inducing, head-scratching state we often enter when inside a bookstore. Yes, it can be daunting to be surrounded by hundreds of books, all begging for our attention, all silently wishing to spend the next few days, weeks or months with us. (Very persistent books have been known to hold on to their victims for centuries).

The designer lives in a constant state of stupor, a sort of lethargy, waiting for a stranger (a writer, that is) to show up with a piece of literature, any piece, to be attached to. Designers rarely consider writing quality, they will design whatever is thrown at them, the same way a dog wouldn't reject a steak because it is not true Kobe.

A sudden email, an unidentified call, vague smoke signals; the author has made contact, and so the designer is awaken by the project coordinator. If the designer is lucky, this brother or sister in arms is not only the administrator/coordinator but a creative partner, a decision maker, a quality control obsessive and the practical-minded side of the business; the perfect comrade to any designer. You see, at the end of every project the designer will keep adjusting the cover with extra tweaks. As the deadline approaches, it is the business partner who ties the designer up and puts him/her back to sleep. This will happen time after time; remember, designers design, whatever the circumstances.

Where was I? Oh, yes, an urgent call comes in. A cover is needed. First, the business partner clarifies the terms with the client (author, publisher or such), including the tedious technical specs and the money-talk. Designers often have trouble discussing money; they don't understand it and so it is easy to take advantage of them. The business partner, on the other hand, is usually a tough bone, possessing innate survival skills. Finally it's time to read the material: ALWAYS READ THE MATERIAL. One may think it a good idea to cut some corners, maybe read a couple of pages and fill in the blanks with the synopsis. Wrong! Nail biting and hair pulling will rapidly ensue, and the core of the story, the magical idea for the perfect cover will rarely come this way. Read it once and you will be assaulted by a handful of concepts, from general all-encompassing approaches to tiny nods; something good shall come. (The bird that book designer Rodrigo Corral came up with for Chuck Palahniuk's Lullaby is surely not on any synopsis, but it quietly conveys the spirit of the book).

The designer and his/her partner read the book and discuss it, its strong (and weak) points. Obviously, the better the book, the easier it is to make a good cover, but there are exceptions. When a designer says it was tough designing your cover, please don't take it as a sure sign that he hates your book. He may have been overwhelmed and/or too intimidated to do it justice (we are all friends here). And, before starting, it's time for the designer to have a quick conversation with the client, but only if the partner hasn't gotten the author.s notes beforehand, in which case ...

Wait. I must take a small detour now that we are entering the core creative process.

Books, cinema and music; these three have a lot in common, oftentimes overlapping each other. They all require covers, be it for albums, books or posters. It is easy to understand why movies provide the least creative covers: much of the visual work is already in the film. On the other hand, music albums usually lack a hard narrative, inspiring the most abstract cover designs. Books sit somewhere in the middle, they hold a great balance; a lack of visuals but a concrete storyline, a path to follow and, most importantly, tone. Book covers can be abstract like music albums and they don't need the specificity and practicality of movie posters. It still surprises me when fiction authors ask to see the faces of their characters on their cover.

Isn't that against the very nature of what a book is? Wouldn't this hinder your reader's experience? .I thought the deal was that you describe the character and the reader imagines it however he/she wants? This is what I'm tempted to tell these writers, but I never do. Instead I politely offer an alternative.

In this sense, book covers are often conceived to be similar to movie posters. Some authors want to market their novels as a sort of blockbuster experience, as attractive, easy-to-digest entertainment. A book, in my opinion, should try to be something greater. Movie posters are mostly made in committee with heavy influence from studio marketing people. Therefore, they are probably not the best style to follow for something as personal as a book.

So, BANG! The actual designing starts! No set rules here. One may try to keep it within the computer realm, but every once in a while it is refreshing to create something by hand; ultimately it is about capturing the essence and tone of the book and, with a bit of imagination, almost any object in your studio can work for any given book. Take the cover of A General Theory of Love by designer John Gall to see a great use of mundane objects, or look at Isaac Tobin's pin-inspired cover for Obsession (the latter not without the aide of his wife, by the way).

Though the marketability of the cover is of utmost importance, nothing works better than an honest cover. Avid readers are generally smart and they can appreciate when a cover stands out. Of course you do want the buyer to judge the book by its cover, but one must remember that books are displayed next to each other (whether online or in bookstore shelves), and it is always a good idea to be different. So, I would try not to copy every other best-­.selling book of the same subject.

Spines, blessed spines. Many authors forget that spines are the most common display of their book in stores. Make them different, get them right! With the advent of e-­books, we should keep in mind, the role of the spine is being taken over by the thumbnail ...

The design process can take two days or two months, but let's be honest; you are lucky if the author gives you three weeks.

It is peculiar how authors spend months, sometimes years, writing a book -- and then expect the cover artist to spend a week or two. You would be surprised by how many authors want the cover made in less than a week. Eventually the batch of concepts is sent to the author. It's not much pressure, to be honest, the worst that can happen is the author hates it and you have to go back to the drawing board (pretty rare, though); the second try is almost always successful. After a couple of revisions the cover is finished, well, almost; there is the necessary adjustment on the spine width, the bleeds, the this and that. If the book is going for print, then color profiles may have to be checked; if electronic, then it is a resolutions and color depth, finding a good balance between image quality and file size, and making sure the it displays well on all devices.

Throughout this very personal process of collective reimagining and stylizing, the author will always be your toughest critic. The author is also the one you should most listen to, and will be the most rewarding to please. A good experience can help keep you warm if you go into hibernation before the next project.

When the author gives the go ahead, and hopefully is proud of his cover, it is all worth it; then you realize that you, the book cover designer, were part of a pretty special process.


"The designer lives in a constant state of stupor, a sort of lethargy, waiting for a stranger (a writer, that is) to show up with a piece of literature, any piece ..."

view /ToroCovers
Wednesday, May 29, 2013 08:44 pm
Book cover designs by Toro

All this spring and summer, we'll be hovering over the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web's breakthrough into mass popularity. This week presents another possible "birthday" date for the WWW craze: it was on April 30, 1993 that CERN announced its intention to fully share its homegrown HTML and HTTP standards and supporting software with the world as free open source. It seems likely that the exploding popularity of the Mosaic browser (which we discussed last month) helped push CERN to take this step. In fact, Unix developers already assumed that WWW software was free and open by this date anyway, so CERN's announcement wasn't really a revolutionary step, though it is a notable moment.

Why are exact dates so difficult to determine when tracking the history of the Internet, and of the open source software that powers it? This is because Internet projects and software releases don't tend to get released with a bang. They sneak out as beta versions, passed from friend to friend. They go through major changes and revisions before they are released as version 1.0. By April 1993, the chain reaction of the Web craze had definitely begun. Even so, the web was still small enough on this day 20 years ago that the starting page at CERN's primordial website could still attempt to include all the web servers in the world on a single list.

Perhaps coincidentally, a touching article by a journalist named Paul Miller about his experience staying off the Internet for one year made the rounds on the week of this 20th anniversary. The story reaches a conclusion that seems to have surprised the author himself:

My plan was to leave the internet and therefore find the "real" Paul and get in touch with the "real" world, but the real Paul and the real world are already inextricably linked to the internet. Not to say that my life wasn't different without the internet, just that it wasn't real life.

Twenty years ago, we all lived without the Internet. Today, it often feels so central to who we are that we easily forget it's there. Perhaps the most valuable lesson of all is not about how much the gigantic phenomenon of the World Wide Web has changed us in the past twenty years, but about how much it has not.


All spring and summer, we'll be hovering over the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web's breakthrough into mass popularity. This week presents another possible "birthday" date for the WWW craze ...

view /CERN1993
Thursday, May 2, 2013 07:21 am
First page of original Berners-Lee WWW Proposal
Levi Asher

Because the enigmatic South African novelist J. M. Coetzee's first novel Dusklands is out of print everywhere I've looked, I always figured the book must have been a weak start to a great career.

Dusklands was published in 1974, years before Coetzee started hitting his powerful stride with The Life and Times of Michael K. and Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello. Since I couldn't buy the book in bookstores or order a new copy online, I satisfied myself at first by reading summaries of what Dusklands appeared to be: a divided narrative constructed of two invented "found manuscripts", the first an American military psychologist's report of propaganda efforts during the Vietnam War, the second an early Dutch South African explorer's report of a journey into the unknown regions of the continent.

Eventually, as I recently waited for Coetzee's new novel The Childhood of Jesus to be released in my country, I broke down and ordered a used copy of Dusklands online. It probably wouldn't be any great Coetzee, I figured, but I wouldn't mind a small minor work, a glimpse at the uncertain youthful voice of a later genius.

Oh. My. God. Did I have it wrong.

Now that I've read this tour de force, which may be the most bleak and upsetting book J. M. Coetzee has ever written, I am wondering if it is out of print for a completely different reason. Perhaps the book is out of print because its horrific violence and sense of menace is too hard for readers to handle. Imagine a combination of Joseph Conrad and Harold Pinter -- with a lot more blood and torture than each. But this disturbing book appears also to be at least a small masterpiece. I remained gripped and compelled by the narrative for days after reading the final pages.

The bisected narrative of the Vietnam War psychologist and the 18th century Boer explorer presents few common plot points, except that both stories are journeys into horror. In the first of the two texts, the brilliant but confused desk worker named Eugene Dawn explains the deft logic behind some of the propaganda techniques used by invading USA forces in North Vietnam. Dawn describes why some programs to destroy enemy morale among pre-literate rural Vietnamese societies succeed while other programs fail. His vaguely Jungian interpretations of the mythological power of political messaging in Vietnam are believable and insightful, but this talented psychological analyst turns out to be himself unhinged in an unexpectedly sinister way. This half of the book leaves the reader with a sense of being dropped off by a speeding bus into the ninth circle of hell.

The second half of the book continues the demonic ride. We meet a bigoted Dutch farmer who likes to smirk and rant about the local "Hottentots", natives (also known as Namaqua) of southern Africa, who he and his fellow colonial settlers joyfully kill at will, at times hunting them down from atop galloping horses. This settler is leading an expedition into inland Africa, manned mostly by a few "loyal" Hottentots, which turns to disaster when they are all taken prisoner by and treated cruelly by a native tribe. Some of the explorer's own men "go native", enraging him and inspiring him to eventually instigate the book's second violent climax: a murder rampage through an Namaqua village that will remind readers (though the connection is never made) of atrocities committed by American soldiers in Vietnamese villages.

The straight-faced double narrative never circles back to Vietnam, though. Instead, it ends with an ironic flourish, as later commentators summarize the murderous explorer's manuscript only by celebrating his famous legends, completely glossing over his crimes, and replacing the facts we have just read with ludicrously trivial fragments of heroic myth.

Throughout both found texts, familiar J. M. Coetzee themes abound. The concept of fatherhood is weighed and deconstructed. Sexual anxiety runs amok. Most Coetzee-esque of all, the author's identity and presence is subverted in various comic meta-fictional twists that recall two of his most recent books, the multi-voiced Diary of a Bad Year and the pseudo-biographical Summertime (which told the story of a dead novelist named John Coetzee). "Coetzee" appears by name within Dusklands, first as the stern and unlikable boss of the sensitive (crazy) psychologist Eugene Dawn, and then as the Dutch explorer himself, whose name is Jacobus Coetzee.

Taking it further, Jacobus Coetzee's original Dutch manuscript is also "translated" and edited by later people named Coetzee, including J. M. Coetzee. The bibliographic mumbo-jumbo surrounding this section of the book is presented with such a straight face that we almost believe it's real. Of course, the only thing Jacobus Coetzee's narrative was translated from is J. M. Coetzee's vivid imagination. Which perhaps does speak a foreign language -- a spookily familiar one.

Beyond the meta-fictional structure, the Dusklands stories also appear to provide several keys to later Coetzee novels. For example: in Disgrace, the professor David Lurie finds himself strangely offended at the way his awkward and unconfident young object of attraction Melanie (who is, presumably, of native African ancestry) "wiggles her bottom" when she appears in a college play. In Dusklands, the explorer Jacobus Coetzee is angered by a Hottentot woman shaking her "high rump" at him during a suggestive dance. Given Coetzee's tendency to tie threads between his novels, we can only assume that the moment in Disgrace was meant to echo the moment in Dusklands.

Several other Coetzee connections spring from this book. The fact that his first novel was a Rosetta stone of his later themes makes it all the more inexplicable that Dusklands is out of print. It's an essential Coetzee work.

I was so floored by the power of this debut novel (which was, apparently, fairly well received at first publication in 1974) that I began looking for commentary as soon as I finished it, and found many positive reactions to the book. A review at the blog The Mookse and the Gripes matched my own conclusions to a remarkable degree:

I am on a Coetzee completion project. Though I have liked Coetzee’s early books that I have read, I have not liked them as much as his later books, so I was a bit nervous to go back and read Coetzee’s first book, Dusklands (1974). I wondered if I would find it an overwritten (a worry because I greatly admire Coetzee’s pared down prose) or under-developed first novel, but this book is exceptional. Coetzee, it seems, was on his Nobel track from the very beginning. It’s a shame that this book is basically out of print.

Yes, Coetzee certainly was on his Nobel track from the very beginning, and Dusklands must be brought back into print in the United States of America immediately. Nearly all his other books are in print. Penguin Books, what are you thinking?

Could it really be possible that Dusklands is out of print because it's such a disturbing work? Could this book be that mythical creature, the novel so truthful that noone can bear to read it?

One thing's for sure: Dusklands carries a gut-punching message. It's a message about war, about mythology, about genocide, about ethnicity, about colonialism, about love -- and the message is certainly no less relevant today than it was in 1974.


Because the enigmatic South African novelist J. M. Coetzee's first novel 'Dusklands' is out of print, I always figured the book must have been a weak start to a great career. Oh. My. God ... was I wrong.

view /Dusklands
Tuesday, April 16, 2013 09:48 pm
First edition cover of Dusklands by J. M. Coetzee
Levi Asher