My New #ShelfieProject

I enjoy learning in a nonlinear fashion — tracking knowledge like a detective following a lead — and while the internet has greatly facilitated this process, I find that the world of print materials is often my best inspiration. So I’ve decided to start a #ShelfieProject to remind myself (and others) that print libraries and other sources of print materials are great ways to learn in a serendipitous way. Whenever I find an appropriate book or magazine — at a library or a thrift store or wherever print materials present themselves — I plan to follow it wherever it leads me. Below you will find my first shelfie, and the blogpost that the pictured books inspired.
Shelfie 1
Though I spend many hours on the internet each day, I always enjoy browsing the stacks of a well-stocked library. When I was at the Pima Community College West Campus library recently, I saw a book by Jacques Bonnet called Phantoms on the Bookshelves. Intrigued by the title — and the cover which shows a collection of ghostly pale books on ghostly pale shelves — I took the small volume to a nearby table and began to skim through it. Bonnet has a personal library of over 40,000 books, and he says he has acquired them “[b]y a combination of chance, systematic curiosity, and impulses generated by conversations or reading.” I decided to take a page out of his book, so to speak, and to go wherever my chance encounter with Bonnet took me.

In the context of his discussion of both fictional and real owners of very large private libraries, Bonnet mentions a novel by Giorgio Bassani called The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Bonnet says the professor in Bassani’s novel has more than 20,000 volumes, and on impulse I checked the Pima library shelves and found there the first English translation of the novel, published in 1965. I read the (fictional) Forward and learned that the Finzi-Continis were a family of Italian Jews from the town of Ferrara who were deported to Germany in 1943 and later killed by the Nazis. Having acknowledged this tragic end, the unnamed narrator goes on to tell an ironic coming-of-age story. I decided that I wanted to continue reading, so I borrowed the Bassani novel, along with the Bonnet book.

Besides telling an engaging story of unrequited love, the novel also presents a wealth of details about the period of the Mussolini dictatorship. At first Ferrara’s Jewish community had mixed opinions about Mussolini, and the unnamed Jewish narrator says that his own father joined the Fascist Party in 1933 when membership was opened to everyone. Though some Jews thought this was the patriotic thing to do, the aristocratic Finzi-Continis, who habitually isolated themselves behind the walls of their estate, chose not to join Mussolini’s party.

Then in 1938 Jews begin to feel the effects of new Racial Laws. These included decrees to end mixed marriages, to keep Jews out of state schools, and to forbid Jewish membership in “leisure time clubs.” Because he can no longer use the local tennis club facilities, the book’s young narrator joins a number of other, mostly Jewish students who regularly play tennis on the somewhat dilapidated courts of the Finzi-Contini estate. Later, when the narrator is expelled from the Ferrara public library, Professor Finzi-Contini allows him to use the estate’s huge book collection so he can do research work for his degree. The narrator accepts this invitation, in part because he is infatuated with the professor’s daughter Micòl.

Ferrara’s Jewish community manages to cope with these early violations of their civil rights, but in 1939 Mussolini entered into a military alliance with Germany, called The Pact of Steel, and his positions on race increasingly came to be based on those of the Nazis. Eventually, the 183 members of Ferrara’s Jewish community were deported to Germany, and all but one of them died there.

While I was reading Bassani’s novel, I did some research about fascist Italy online, and, coincidentally, I saw many news articles about Donald Trump’s retweet of a quote by Mussolini. Of course you might say that, compared to calling Mexicans rapists and praising the use of “bullets dipped in pigs’ blood” to kill Muslims, this is not his biggest outrage, but it is a remarkable thing for a presidential candidate to do. I decided, still following Bonnet’s lead, to learn more about it.

First I found a Gawker article called “How We Fooled Donald Trump Into Retweeting Benito Mussolini.” I learned that Gawker’s Ashley Feinberg set a trap for Trump last year by creating a Twitter account that would post Mussolini quotes and attribute them to Donald Trump. Eventually, in February of this year, Trump retweeted that account when it featured the following quote: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” The folks at Gawker say that, whether or not Trump is a fascist, he “tweets like one.”

From Gawker I went to the New York Times and learned that while he was on “Meet the Press” Trump said he didn’t know the quote was from Mussolini, but he didn’t care. “‘It’s a very good quote,’ said Mr. Trump. ‘I didn’t know who said it, but what difference does it make if it was Mussolini or somebody else…?'”

Then I read an article translated from Huff Post Italy called “Dear Trump, Better to Live One Day as a Sheep Than One Hundred as Mussolini,” in which Mirella Serri says that the “one day as a lion” maxim was inscribed on the Italian lira in 1928 and also became a motto for Italian soldiers. But she suggests that someone should point out to “America’s overexcited tycoon” that Mussolini was not a lion-hearted conqueror but a man with “a sheep’s soul” who never demonstrated much courage, either in his rise to power or his ignominious end.

Trevor Noah, host of The Daily Show, made what I consider to be the best comment on Trump’s fascist retweet. He said, “I don’t blame Trump for retweeting a quote that he didn’t know was from the father of fascism… I have to play devil’s advocate here, you know. That’s not an obvious fascist quote… And by the way, personally, I’ll take living one hundred years as a sheep every time. I’m gonna have to go with that… One day as a lion? You’re just gonna be chasing down and killing things — it sounds exhausting — and then at the end of the day you’re just gonna be killed by some shit dentist from Minnesota… But here’s the thing. Once you do know that it’s a Mussolini quote, then at that point you should care.”

After reading a few more comments about the Trump retweet, I went back to finish Phantoms on the Bookshelves. Bonnet says that, because of the internet and a tendency toward more specialized research, “Bibliophiles will still keep their collections, and libraries devoted to precise topics will survive, but we may be pretty sure that vast and unwieldy personal collections of a few tens of thousands of books are likely to disappear…” Elsewhere, I’ve read that the same thing will happen to all large libraries, as books become increasingly available in digital form. Yet I would not have encountered Bonnet and Bassani for the first time if I had not been browsing the Pima College Library, and I remain convinced that well-stocked libraries complement the internet and digitized resources and cannot be replaced by them.

@digitalgloss’ Five-Year #Twitterversary

[I read this short post about my experience with Twitter at the National Writers Union reading and open mic on Monday, December 21.]
twitterversaryIn January of 2011 I started a Twitter account, intending to focus on digital publishing, the future of books and libraries, and how ongoing changes in publishing affect readers and writers. During the nearly five years that have elapsed since then I have learned to enjoy what some call microblogging and others call a waste of time.

Twitter is an acquired taste and also requires a certain amount of self-control. Though less extreme than Anthony Weiner with his TwitPic scandal, Joyce Carol Oates has tweeted herself into accusations of insensitivity, anti-Muslim bias, and worse. (An example of one of her controversial tweets: Still can’t comprehend why the Danish zoo killed the beautiful young healthy giraffe. Yes, they had “reasons”–so did Nazi doctors.) In 2014 Michelle Dean at Gawker advised Oates to delete her Twitter account, saying “You fundamentally misunderstand the medium. …[y]our habit of treating your Twitter feed as a means of publicly working out half-baked thoughts makes you look terribly foolish. Even: stupid.”

With this in mind, I mostly confine myself to tweeting links to and comments on online content about digital publishing, but I do tweet what I’m reading under #FridayReads and occasionally tweet something that I later worry might make me look foolish. On Thanksgiving, for example, I tweeted my vegan holiday menu (first menu tweet ever! Honest!) in which I also misspelled tempeh (though I already knew it’s not spelled like ASU’s home town). But of course my Digital Gloss account, with its mere 420 followers, didn’t make Gawker’s list of “The Worst Tweets of 2015.”

In a book called Build Your Author Platform: the New Rules, co-authored by National Writers Union member Mike McCallister, the authors recommend having your own website or blog and using a variety of social media, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter. Twitter, they say, “… can be tremendous fun… Your job is to (a) Find interesting people interested in things you’re interested in; (b) Share content and engage conversation.” That’s what a lot of writers try to do, and I think many of them succeed at using Twitter very well. Examples include Margaret Atwood, Sherman Alexie, and Cory Doctorow, all of whom I follow.

Twitter’s not hard to use -– there’s enough information on the Twitter Help Center to get you started. But if you’re not yet using Twitter and you’d like some good advice, check out Jane Friedman’s site. In December she featured guest posts by Kirsten Oliphant on “Engaging Audiences through Twitter in 15 Minutes a Day” and by Chris Jane on “Overcoming My Fear of Twitter.” In the latter post Chris Jane says “…if you aren’t actively present and engaging online, in that world, you—your books, your businesses, your blog entries, your thoughts—simply don’t exist.” While I’m not sure that’s entirely true, it is helpful to have an interactive and dynamic way to announce your projects and link to your blogposts. Twitter can certainly provide that for you.

If you need more enticements to become part of the Twitterverse, note that Huffington Post recently called Twitter “The Hottest Self-publishing Platform,” noting that authors are turning to Twitter to publish and distribute stories. Just as one example, R.L. Stine, author of the Goosebumps series, recently tweeted a short story, and each of its composite tweets got hundreds of re-tweets. Bear in mind that tweets, each no more than 140 characters or around 28 words, can be archived on sites like Storify so that the entire piece will continue to be available to readers.

Poetry also finds a home on Twitter. In fact, as a recent article by Huma Qureshi at the Guardian reports, the “Instapoet” movement, consisting of a group of young poets who have thousands upon thousands of followers across Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter, has produced three of the top 10 bestselling poetry books in the US at present. A quick search on Twitter under #instapoetry leads to more results than I cared to read — not all of which are the best quality — and I don’t see as many well-published poets from previous generations on Twitter. But you could change all that…

As Mike McCallister says, “…[I]f you’re one of the folks who doesn’t get the appeal of the little blue bird, you’re probably looking at it with the wrong lens. Twitter is a gigantic cocktail party with millions of people all talking at the same time. Some engage in conversation. Some are promoting something. (Don’t be one of those). Still others seek to explain what’s going on in front of them.” And, I’d like to add, you don’t always have to be tweeting. Sometimes you can just sit back and watch the Twitterstream go by, amazed by its diversity and creative energy.

On the National Writers Union’s New Website and Solidarity Among Writers

home_pageOriginally, I planned to begin this post about the National Writers Union’s new website by saying that, though I have been an NWU member since 2001, I continue to pay my dues out of union solidarity and because I want to be a part of the labor movement. In truth my freelance work involves only occasional writing jobs, and a lot of the writing I do is for my own blogs. As a result I don’t think I’m as much of a “professional” writer as some of my fellow union members are.

But when I described my proposed opening to my partner Greg, who is also an NWU member, he said it was rather a weak and idealistic explanation for why I stay in the NWU. So I asked him why he keeps paying his dues each year, and he said, “Because I’m not a fool. I think that everybody who knows what’s what also knows that it’s important to be part of an organization that advocates for your profession/ trade/ line of work, and freelance writers are no exception. I would certainly also argue that being part of a trade union allows you to be part of a larger struggle, and there’s strength in numbers. But I’m trying to be practical here and not just idealistic.”

I liked his answer, and I agree with it. I guess I justify my union membership the way I do because I sometimes feel a little underwhelmed by my own writerly resume. Other writers in the NWU have many published books to their credit (as does Greg) or have had their freelance work appear in lots of major publications that pay in dollars per word. As for me, most of what I’ve had published is short, literary fiction that only occasionally pays anything, and then it’s usually an honorarium. So I identify myself within the union as being a part of the Biz Tech division, which incorporates business and technical writers, as well as “all other writers who are not book authors or journalists.”

In any case, I decided to write a piece about the NWU because a few days ago (July 13) they rolled out their new website, which has been in the works since the 2013 Delegate Assembly. There’s much to like about the new site, including a “Hire a Writer” page that will allow you to search the union’s “talent database” to find a union writer appropriate to the job you have in mind. Or, if you are an NWU member, you can add your profile to the database and possibly pick up a freelance job through the new site.

But what I liked even better about the site is that it contains some real messages of solidarity, encouraging writers of all types and skill levels to join and giving them good reasons to do so. Part of the answer given to the question “Who Can Join?” which is given a prominent place on the home page is the following: “The National Writers Union (NWU) represents all types of writers working in print, electronic, and multimedia formats… As writers’ work moves online, we will continue to support all writers. All are valuable economic participants whose labor as creators is the driving force behind the new age of digital content.”

OK, I thought, that sounds very welcoming and inclusive. Then I went to the Frequently Asked Questions page and looked at the answer given to the question of why a well-published and experienced writer should join the union when it’s “open to both professionals and writers just breaking into the field.” Because, says the reply, “[i]n our experience, more established writers aren’t treated less well when less experienced writers demand better treatment. We all gain.”

And finally, in answer to the question of why a writer who writes for pleasure and considers herself to be an artist, not a worker, should join the union: “Yes, some of us write for pleasure and don’t depend on writing income to support ourselves. Yet our writing has value: since publishing is a profitable business, we deserve to be treated with respect and consistency and to receive a fair share of the proceeds. We all need to ask for what we deserve so that we don’t become a society where only the wealthy can afford to write.”

If I had to make one criticism of the new NWU website, I would say I was disappointed that it’s not a whole lot more vibrant-looking and colorful than its predecessor. So many members asked for more of an eye-catching design that I was surprised to see the same old limited palette of blues, greens and greys and a continued lack of photos and graphics. But the message of solidarity and the reminder about “strength in numbers” lets me know that I’m making the right decision when I pay my dues and continue to be a member of the National Writers Union.

A Community of Critics and Readers Benefits Literature

Summer in Kathy's GardenQuite frankly, I bought the latest print issue of Harpers because the online site has a paywall and I wanted to read Caleb Crain’s “Counter Culture: Fighting for literature in an age of algorithms.” (I decided that if I had to pay I’d rather have a paper magazine.) Though I was less impressed by the issue’s other content, particularly a commentary in praise of bloodsport (falconry) and an article that damns with faint praise the Affordable Care Act, I found Crain’s piece on literature in the digital age to be very worthwhile reading.

Crain begins with a description of a “new kind of disenchantment [that] has come over literature” that affects how people determine which works deserve to be considered literature and which should endure. Then he describes the “revolutionary advance in counting,” by which he means computerization, that has led to algorithms that claim to be able to recommend appropriate reading matter to you, depending on what you say you have read (e.g., on Goodreads) or what you want to buy (e.g., on Amazon).

After taking a quick look at counting — and literature — in a historical context Crain discusses how we see things we judge to be countable, such as “likes” on Facebook or the number of stars in an Amazon review. We tend, he says, to see instances of a countable thing as interchangeable, and when we apply this interchangeable status to works of literature, why should we chose to read one work as opposed another? Why should one single instance of a countable thing matter more than another? Asking such questions can lead us to “equate the value of a thing with the popularity of it,” as the number of clicks or views seems to indicate the worth of an online article or video.

Some say that paying attention to what is popular is more democratic than adhering to a rigidly determined canon of great literature, which was extant when I took my first Survey of English Literature course in the 1970s. And in fact present-day readers are more open to a diverse array of voices partially because the canon is no longer sacrosanct. But Crain says, “The canon is a mystical sum, which can never be tallied: its only true index is written in living and fallible hearts./ This myth of unknowability is being replaced today by an illusion of certainty.” And that certainty is based on quantifiability, such as the Amazon sales rank of a book or how many stars it got in reader reviews.

But if the internet, at least in theory, gives everyone a voice, who are the influencers in the internet age? And why should we value the opinions of critics at the New York Times, for example, over other voices and opinions? Crain says, “It’s impossible for a critic to judge a book unless she holds it to a standard, which may take the form of a rule, such as ‘Language should be no fussier than what’s needed to convey its message,’ or of a personal touchstone, such as Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy. But where does the authority for the standard come from?” He notes that in the past a critic appealed for her authority to her shared community, i.e., those who regularly read the publication she wrote for. And if she no longer reflected their views and tastes, she would no longer be able to influence them. Now, however, readers of reviews aren’t necessarily readers of publications and are more likely to find reviews on Twitter and Facebook. (And in fact, though I’m at least occasionally a part of the Harpers readers’ community, I came upon a link to Crain’s article on Twitter.) Crain says that, though most critics are cut off from their community of relevant readers, new communities of “critics and readers with borders that are porous and expansive but nonetheless meaningful” could be just the thing to help literature survive.

Though I prefer the term “reviewer” to the term “critic,” I’m heartened by the implication that community is more important to the future of literature than either saving the canon or bowing to inevitable algorithms. In fact I usually choose what to read based on reviews in trusted sources or on recommendations of friends whose tastes I share, so for me community is already the most important influence. And that community does not usually include an unknown group of people posting reviews on Amazon, whose values and point of view are otherwise unknown to me.

Manifesto for a Reader-Centered Universe

Recently I decided to make reading a higher priority. I started doing book reviews. I got a library card at a nearby community college library that still has lots of books. I joined Goodreads. I wrote this manifesto at the height of the excitement over e-books and new publishing technology, and I still stand by it.
One of the most challenging and frustrating things about being a writer in the 21st century is the fact that there seem to be more writers than readers, and probably the most annoying thing about the buzz over digital publishing is that the focus is on the technology, rather than on the human element.

We refer to Kindles and the like as e-readers, yet they are passive objects, and the real reading is done by me and billions of other humans like me. This isn’t simply a matter of semantics. As we go down, level by level, from the legal fictions of corporate persons who produce the e-readers and the publishers who make e-books available; through the bookstores and libraries, where we are at last face to face with other humans; and finally encounter individuals in the act of reading, we see that one phenomenon is most important: a human reader interprets a script or other text produced by a writer in order to understand something that a writer or group of writers produced yesterday or a thousand years ago.

Once you make your way past the corporate persons and the bureaucratic entities and you begin to reach the level of other human beings, you realize the true importance of the reader. We are not just consumers: we are the goal, the grail, the intended endpoint of all that is written! If it weren’t for us, gentle readers, people like you and me who read newspapers and magazines, books and academic articles, whether online or on paper, over the internet (or perhaps we are distracted or not literate or can’t see and we must listen to them being read to us in audio books or by screen readers), in whatever form we take in the words that were written by writers, we readers and auditors are the intended audience and what the whole process is about. We must not let them forget that.

A reader, an auditor, the intended audience of the written word is a human being. And an e-reader is a device, not a reader, any more than your speech recognition software really hears you. As we begin to try to automate the process of putting writers’ words into “print” and making them available on the internet for download to e-readers, we have to remind ourselves that reading is an active process and it means nothing and affects nothing without the willing cooperation of readers, human readers. And if you think that how we say this doesn’t matter, then you’re not being a very good reader, dear reader. But if you care about being a reader (auditor) of the words of writers and care how they are presented to you, you deserve to be treated very respectfully and with the full knowledge of your worth and importance. As a writer, as a publisher, and as a web designer, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a reader-centered universe.

Should Writers Get a Little Help from Their Governments?

[posted by Alice]

Earlier this year more than 9,000 writers took part in the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey. Results were reported at, among other places, Publishers Weekly (“DBW 2014: Survey Finds Most Authors Want to Earn More“) and the Guardian (“Most writers earn less than £600 a year, survey reveals.”) According to the survey, 54% of traditionally-published authors and almost 80% of self-published writers are making less than £600 or $1,000 a year. Only a tiny number — 0.7% of self-published, 1.3% of traditionally-published — are making more than $100,000 a year from their writing. Most of the writers told the survey-takers that getting their work out there was more important than making money, but living the writing life isn’t sustainable if there isn’t any financial reward. How can a writer keep going if she can’t sell her books?

A few days ago I read an article that showed that not all writers have to rely on making money from book sales. Edward Nawotka in Publishing Pespectives (“German Writers Rely on Readings, Fellowships for Income“) reported that many young and aspiring German writers, like those interviewed for the above-cited survey, make money from bookstore and event readings and from fellowships. In Germany people pay to hear writers read; cities have writers-in-residence programs; and there’s something called The Artists Social Program which offers writers discounts on their health insurance.

That sounded remarkably good to me until I found an article called “The Norwegian Government Keeps Book Publishers Alive And other reasons it’s the best place in the world to be a writer,” and I learned that Norway has the best of both worlds. Just an example: “So long as a new Norwegian book passes quality control, Arts Council Norway purchases 1,000 copies of it to distribute to libraries — or 1550 copies if it’s a children’s book.” So writers are guaranteed to sell many copies of their books, and the country also lends other kinds of support to writers. Well-known artists receive a guaranteed income, usually until retirement, and others are eligible for 1-5-year work grants.

So what does all this mean? Does it mean that the United States and Britain don’t value literature as much as Germany and Norway do? Or does it just mean that small rich countries with languages that are not widely spoken (like Norway) have governments that are more willing to subsidize the nation’s literature? Obviously, I don’t have the answers, but it does seem that the U.S. and Britain have more of a market-oriented approach, forcing writers to depend on how many books they can sell, and Germany and Norway give writers a wider range of ways to make an income (and help popularize their work). And it isn’t a simple matter that rich countries can afford to subsidize writers. Norway does have a higher per capita GDP than the United States, but the United States has a higher per capita GDP than Germany does. In any case I think that forcing writers to depend on book sales might not be the best way to insure that we in the U.S. have the thriving literary culture we deserve.

Sports Illustrated Enters the Daily Fantasy Sports Marketplace

[Posted by Alice]

According to Forbes, Sports Illustrated, a publication once best known for its annual swimsuit issue, has announced that it is launching a daily, play-for-cash app and entering the “daily fantasy sports marketplace.” In the past, daily fantasy sport was dominated by startups, but the government has taken a hands off approach and professional sports leagues have not legally challenged these games, so the playing field is wide open, no pun intended. Major League Baseball maintains a cooperative agreement with one daily fantasy website, and though there are possible federal challenges ahead, that probably won’t stop CBS and Yahoo from entering the “daily fantasy sports marketplace.”

Wikipedia says, “A fantasy sport (also known as rotisserie, roto, or owner simulation) is a game where participants act as owners to build a team that competes against other fantasy owners based on the statistics generated by the real individual players or teams of a professional sport… Probably the most common variant converts statistical performance into points that are compiled and totaled according to a roster selected by a manager that makes up a fantasy team.”  According to this same Wikipedia entry, the Fantasy Sports Trade Association estimates that 32 million people aged 12 and over in the U.S. and Canada played fantasy sports in 2010, and participation has grown 60% in the past four years. And mobile devices have made it easier to play these games.

SI publisher Brendan Ripp said, “With consumers flocking [to mobile], with advertising dollars flocking there, what we wanted to build … is a successful mobile plan so that the consumer will consume our content across any device including desktop and come away with a positive experience with the right advertising built into it.” SI doesn’t intend to have fantasy games on its site, like ESPN and Yahoo, but wants to “get ahead of the curve” with this app, allowing people to challenge their friends “to single-day matchups” that they can gamble on.

The idea of picking players and running a game based on stats has been around since the 1940s, but the idea that a computerized statistical modeling of professional sporting events could be something that would help to keep a publication like Sports Illustrated in the running is another remarkable effect of the proliferation of mobile devices.