Friday, December 9, 2011

That's Not a Real Book and in a Few Years You Won't Be Able to Read It Anyway

Ray Bradbury finally in ebook?  Well, not all of Bradbury, unfortunately, but at least a major title as opposed to a couple of short stories.  Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury's classic of a society in which firemen burn books, has finally been made available for the Kindle.  It's welcome news for those who, like me, saw his comment at the end of his Paris Review interview a while back -- as I recall, he said that he'd answered offers regarding ebook releases with an emphatic "Go to hell." -- and assumed that his major work would never be made available in digital editions.

Naturally, there have been disapproving comments in some circles, suggesting that the release of Fahrenheit 451 in ebook form is somehow a betrayal of the book.  It isn't, of course; there isn't a reason in the world why there can't be both print and digital editions of Bradbury's work.  Or anyone else's for that matter.

But one of the objections occasionally brought up regarding ebooks is that literary treasures would vanish if they exist only in digital format, that books cannot be entrusted to the computer.

Well, yes and no.

If an ebook never appears in a printed edition, is published only in digital form and then only in one or two formats, and is never migrated to new formats as new formats are developed, then that title runs the risk of being lost.  But exactly how does that differ from the case of a print title released by its publisher to little fanfare and never reissued after the original printing is sold out or remaindered?  Eventually the supply of used copies runs out, the libraries withdraw their copies if they aren't circulating quickly enough, and finally that title is facing oblivion just as surely as its digital counterpart.

There are the inevitable you-don't-need-to-recharge-a-real-book comments, the laments over the weight and feel and even the smell of the physical object.  And no question, a well-designed and printed physical book is a delight.  But not an unalloyed delight.  Take Stephen King's 11/22/63; that's one good-sized item, and these days I find it difficult to hold a book that size, and I doubt I'm alone -- the Kindle edition is a godsend.

The notion that's inevitably raised, though, and in tones that suggest that THIS is the unanswerable argument, is the fact that so many old computer files are no longer readable.  And for some files created in early operating systems, before there were computers on nearly every desktop in the known universe, that's true.  But, for instance, on my desktop PC in my home I have files created 15 or 20 years ago on other machines, files that I moved with no difficulty as I upgraded, files created in software programs that I no longer use or own, files that I can now open in other programs if need be.  I don't believe I'm unique this way, but I'm small-time, and not looking at trying to make sure my files survive for a century or more.  Does anyone seriously think that as publishers go digital they won't consider storage of their titles in formats that can be easily migrated?  That there will be no libraries or other archives working on automated migration procedures?  (I'm assuming here that publishers are rational beings wishing to preserve valuable assets for the future, though a number of them still don't seem at all comfortable with digital material yet.)  Or that writers won't do the same with their own work?

Take a look at Smashwords.  Every ebook published there can be made available in multiple formats as specified by the author; those formats include plain text and rich text format, both of which can be read by any word processor, and HTML which can be read with any web browser.  The ebooks created there can be run through conversion programs like Calibre and saved in other ebook formats as well.  Unless the EMP attack happens (in which case we'll have more pressing problems anyway), there shouldn't be any reason to worry about those files.  Copies should be available for as long as anyone cares to maintain them.

Now, that's Smashwords, where the authors publish their own titles, and no DRM is used.  Most commercial publishers still insist on DRM, which is meant to make sure that you can't move your ebook to any but approved devices, to make sure that you don't take your copy of the file and run it through a conversion program to create a copy for your Kindle if you change from a B&N Nook or vice versa.  The ebooks crippled with DRM are the ones you may not be able to read later if the seller goes out of business or you switch from one ebook reader to another -- that's not some unavoidable limitation of a computer-generated file, rather it's a deliberate attempt by the publisher to make certain the file can't be read elsewhere easily.

DRM strikes me as something that would increase the risk of digital extinction for the ebooks so burdened, most of which are from the same publishers who are happy to discontinue print versions that don't sell enough to justify keeping them available.  But that's a subject for another time.


Elsewhere on the backlist scene:

While Fahrenheit 451 is the big news backlist ebook title recently, there are other publishers busily reissuing older titles as ebooks

Bloomsbury Reader has recently issued more than a dozen titles by V. S. Pritchett.  Pritchett was probably best known for his short stories and reviews, but he also wrote biographies of Balzac, Turgenev, and Chekhov, travel books, novels, and two autobiographical works.  Much of his work is out of print in the US and his reappearance in ebook formats here is good news.  If you've not read Pritchett, you can get a nice sampling of his work in the Bloomsbury Reader edition of The Other Side of a Frontier or in Modern Library's The Pritchett Century (the latter a bit more pricey than the Bloomsbury title, though with some different selections -- this one is available both in print and ebook form).  Bloomsbury is also reissuing titles by Ronald Clark, Storm Jameson, Alec Waugh, and others. is working with Open Road to reissue backlist titles by a number of mystery writers, among them James Ellroy, Donald Westlake, and soon, Brian Garfield.  Garfield is probably best known for Death Wish; that title will be forthcoming along with other excellent thrillers like Hopscotch, Recoil, and Fear in a Handful of Dust.  It'll be nice to see them back.  Open Road has been very active on backlist over the past year, releasing titles by Stanley Elkin, Andre Dubus, Natalie Goldberg,  Lawrence Block, and more.

Good stuff coming, but there's a lot more good material waiting for revival.  Faster, please.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Few Treats for Halloween

Halloween's less than a week away.  Turner Classic Movies has been running a nice selection of horror films on Mondays this month, and on Halloween the channel will run a day of Hammer horror films and top off the evening with the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, THE HAUNTING, and THE INNOCENTS, as well as an hour with Stephen King talking about horror films.

But there's plenty of horror to be found on the printed page too.  In case you've missed them, you might want to check out some of the following short story collections.  Why short stories?  Well, we drop bite-size treats into the kids' Halloween bags when they come to the door -- same principle. 

There's no real need to remind anyone to check out the work of Stephen King or Ray Bradbury or Shirley Jackson this time of year.  If you've missed King's collection NIGHT SHIFT or Bradbury's THE OCTOBER COUNTRY, or Jackson's THE LOTTERY, you're cheating yourself.  But unless you're a devoted fan of horror year-round and not just on Halloween, you may have missed some of the following.

NIGHT'S BLACK AGENTS, by Fritz Leiber.  The first collection by the writer who brought the tale of supernatural horror into the modern urban setting.  Try for one of the later editions that includes the classic chiller "The Girl with Hungry Eyes."  The later collections SMOKE GHOST and THE BLACK GONDOLIER include several of the stories from NIGHT'S BLACK AGENTS as well as newer and equally chilling pieces.

DUEL, and NIGHTMARE AT 20,000 FEET, by Richard Matheson; and THE HOWLING MAN, by Charles Beaumont.  You know their work even if you don't recognize their names.  Matheson is the author of I AM LEGEND, SOMEWHERE IN TIME, THE SHRINKING MAN and others.  Beaumont and Matheson were responsible for many of the original TWILIGHT ZONE's most memorable episodes, and these three collections are perfect Halloween reading for any fan of that series.

Classic supernatural fiction can be found free in ebook form these days.  M. R. James's GHOST STORIES OF AN ANTIQUARY, for instance, or stories by E. F. Benson, Oliver Onions, Algernon Blackwood and others are available at the Kindle store or at sites like

There are several excellent treasuries of horror stories available; anyone looking for terrific Halloween reading should find a copy of the Modern Library collection GREAT TALES OF TERROR AND THE SUPERNATURAL, and David Hartwell's THE DARK DESCENT.  Both are nice survey collections, spanning the history of short horror fiction from its early days through modern times, and Hartwell's (the newer of the two) offers work by contemporary writers such as Ramsey Campbell, Dennis Etchison, and Charles Grant. 

I've mentioned Kealan Patrick Burke and James Everington in this space before; their collections THE 121 TO PENNSYLVANIA and THE OTHER ROOM (by Burke & Everington respectively) are highly recommended for the season as well.  In particular, Burke's "Empathy" is one of the most frightening short stories I've read in years. 


Brief commercial:
I've put five short stories into a collection called FIVE OF THE HAUNTED.  The stories ("The Point," "The Old Neighborhood," "The Back Row of the Balcony," "Passenger," and "Anonymity") are all available separately at Amazon's Kindle store, Smashwords, and other retailers at 99 cents each.  FIVE OF THE HAUNTED gathers them into one ebook at the bargain price of $1.50.  Give it a look if you get a chance.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Digital Divide Just Got a Bit Narrower

    Much of the buzz surrounding the announcements of Amazon's new Kindle devices is understandably focused on the tablet device, the $199 Kindle Fire.  Overlooked a bit is the low-end model, a bare-bones wi-fi ready, e-ink screen Kindle that can be had for as little as $79.  A decent pair of Nikes will set you back more than that.
    For as little as that, you get an electronic bookcase that can hold more than a thousand ebooks.
    Of course, there's still the matter of content.  Getting the books to put in the bookcase will cost plenty, though, right?  Well, that's true if the content you want consists of new books.  But think for a minute about content that isn't current.
    One of the country's premier liberal arts colleges is St. John's, with campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe.  It's known as The Great Books College -- every student goes through the same curriculum, and the reading list is a demanding one.  For a look at the list go to
    The education you'd get at a college like St. John's will come from class discussion of the readings as well as from the books themselves, but the readings form the heart of it.
    Just for fun, pick some titles from the reading list and search for them in the Amazon Kindle store; sort the results of your searches by price-low-to-high.  You'll find that there are free editions available for quite a few of these titles.  If you search for the contents of the Encyclopaedia Britannica's Great Books of the Western World set (54 volumes in its earlier edition, and 60 volumes in the more recent incarnation; for a list of titles included go to, you'll find a number of the titles included in that set also have free editions available in the Kindle store.  A search for many of the books listed in titles like How to Read a Book or The Lifetime Reading Plan, or included in sets like the Harvard Classics, will also show a number of free editions.
    Not that long ago, building a home library of the classics would mean shelling out for sets like the Great Books, or purchasing a large number of paperbacks from the Penguin Classics (or Signet, or Bantam, or Modern Library), or scrounging for the titles you wanted in used book shops and library sale tables.  The process would still set you back hundreds of dollars, and maybe a thousand or more, or cost you a long time searching for your books in second-hand sources.  It's possible now to gather a lot of that material in a weekend with an under-$100 ebook reader.
    We've hit the point where almost anyone who really wants to can have available for study at his own pace most of the core titles of western civilization, for about what you'd pay for a pair of running shoes.  That's not the same as actually getting the reading done, of course, but the material just became even more widely accessible than it already was.  A few weeks back, I posted some comments about Cornelius Hirschberg's book on independent learning The Priceless Gift; Hirschberg's account of his own self-education is must reading for the lifelong learner, and the methods he used (as well as quite a few of the books he used) are still appropriate for use today.  If memory serves, Hirschberg died in 1995 so he didn't live to see the ebook revolution really get under way, but I'd bet he would have loved it.

Brief commercial: I've put another short story, "Passenger," up at Amazon and Smashwords (from where it should find its way to Sony, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble some time soon).  Give it a look if you get a chance.

Monday, September 5, 2011

News on ebooks in Richard Stark's PARKER series, by way of Terry Teachout

One of the niftiest arts blogs around is Terry Teachout's About Last Night.  It's always a source of good recommendations and commentary on books, movies, music and theater.  The current post on that blog, "Top of the Barrel," includes the following little tidbit of news regarding the University of Chicago Press reissues of the Donald Westlake/Richard Stark Parker novels:

"If you haven’t yet jumped on the Stark/Parker bandwagon, I have good news, which is that the University of Chicago Press is giving away free copies of the e-book version of The Score, the fifth novel in the Parker series, throughout the month of September. You can download your copy by going to the U of C Parker page, and you can also order it directly from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. (If the $0 price hasn’t shown up yet on these sites, come back later today or tomorrow.)"

Mr. Teachout's post provides links to the U of Chicago's page where The Score can be downloaded.  The $0 price has shown up at Amazon.  The good news doesn't stop there -- ebooks of three early novels in the series, The Hunter, The Man with the Getaway Face, and The Mourner, are currently priced at just $2.66 each at Amazon.  If you love lean, mean crime fiction and haven't discovered this series yet, treat yourself to these.  You won't be disappointed.  The two most recent releases, Flashfire and Firebreak, are also available -- Mr. Teachout provided an introduction to these titles, and if you're one of those people who never bothers with the intro, make an exception this time.

And if you're not already following Terry Teachout's blog and articles in Commentary and the Wall Street Journal, check them out -- you won't be disappointed there either.

Bests to all,


Friday, September 2, 2011

Mass Market Paperback Blues

I started spending a lot of my time haunting paperback book racks around 1963.  I've worked in public and college libraries, and worked in the paperback department of the main Kroch's & Brentano's book store in downtown Chicago from the end of 1976 to late 1985.  For a long time, I had a fairly good idea of what sort of material you could expect to find on mass market paperback racks.. 

This probably isn't an original observation, but the mass market selection used to be a LOT wider.

Look at the mass market racks these days -- unless you're in a large bookstore (and probably even there), mostly what you'll find is romance, crime fiction, science fiction and fantasy, horror, some general fiction, a few classics depending on how close to the start of classes we happen to be, some non-fiction dealing with you-name-the-hot-topic-of-the-day.  That's not surprising -- it was always this way.  There was always a lot of display space devoted to the hottest sellers.  But...

First, a few things that strike me as more than a little weird, and then a brief trip down mass market memory lane.

John D. MacDonald -- probably the king of the paperback original in the 50s and 60s.  Frequently reprinted.  Probably best known for his Travis McGee series and for the excellent suspense novel THE EXECUTIONERS, aka CAPE FEAR.  Following his death, most of his work went out of print; today there's not much MacDonald out there except the McGees and THE EXECUTIONERS, aka CAPE FEAR.  Time was, Fawcett kept a lot of his work available at any given moment, and if you looked at a paperback rack chances were you'd find at least one MacDonald title; he was almost as much a fixture as the rack itself.  The last major run of MacDonald reprints was in the mid 80s.

Ross MacDonald -- author of the Lew Archer series, which has been called the finest series of detective novels by an American.  Bantam went through I don't know how many printings of all the books in this series.  The Lew Archers are back in print again -- but not from Bantam and not as mass market paperbacks.  Trade paperbacks, at twelve to fifteen bucks each.

When a writer put out a new book, the publishers holding the paperback rights to his backlist used to reissue backlist titles so that they'd be purchased by readers who hadn't discovered him until the new title came out.  Take Elmore Leonard, author of numerous excellent crime novels and westerns.  If you were looking for the definitive example of a high-quality-and-mass-appeal writer, a writer made for permanent mass-market availability, it would be hard to find better than Leonard.  He'll publish a new novel, RAYLAN, in January, and this fall a number of his books will be reissued in new paperback editions.  Not mass market editions, though, if I'm reading the Amazon listings right -- trade paperback editions, at  twelve to fifteen bucks each.

And now that fast trip down mass market memory lane.

Among the books I remember seeing (and in some cases owning) in mass market paperback editions:
John O'Hara's novels and short story collections
Irwin Shaw's novels and short story collections
Isaac Bashevis Singer's novels and short story collections; his non-fiction too
All twelve novels in Anthony Powell's A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME
About a dozen novels by Brazilian writer Jorge Amado (Avon books had quite the line of Latin American fiction in mass market for a while.  In addition to Amado, the novelists whose works were published in this series included Mario Vargas Llosa, Manuel Puig, Julio Cortazar, G. Cabrera Infante, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.)
A few titles by Jorge Luis Borges, including THE ALEPH, THE BOOK OF SAND, and A BOOK OF IMAGINARY BEINGS.
Novels and non-fiction by Anthony Burgess, including RE:JOYCE, his book-length work on James Joyce.
Novels and short story collections by Saul Bellow.
Novels and short story collections by Jack Finney, Gerald Kersh, James M. Cain, Graham Greene and Shirley Jackson
Leon Edel's 5-volume biography of Henry James
Science titles by Isaac Asimov, not just his science fiction
Most of the novels of Don Robertson, Thomas Williams, Thomas Pynchon, and Vladimir Nabokov.
THE COLUMBIA ENCYCLOPEDIA -- yes, there was a mass market paperback of this, in one volume; I carted it around in my book bag for reference use through most of my time in high school.  A very bulky item, and pricey too -- around two or three dollars as I recall, which was steep for a paperback around 1964.

Granted, most of these writers were still active at the time (though they weren't all permanent fixtures on the best-seller lists and this was well before the Nobel committee gave the nod to Singer, Vargas Llosa, Marquez or Bellow), but during that period it was also possible to find mass market editions of work by writers who were no longer actively publishing and work by writers who were never going to achieve the kind of popularity enjoyed by current heavyweights like Stephen King, Nora Roberts, or Lee Child.

And while I saw many of these books at Kroch's and Brentano's and other large book stores, I should point out that I saw work by O'Hara, Shaw, Burgess, Powell, Asimov, Bellow, Greene, Jackson, both MacDonalds, Nevil Shute, Joyce Carol Oates, Nabokov, and that encyclopedia on the paperback racks at Penner's Drug Store at 62nd and Kedzie in Chicago in the early and mid-1960s.  (Penner's had a decent amount of rack space for paperbacks, but the place was primarily a neighborhood pharmacy, not a bookstore.)  Mass market publishing and distribution of the day was putting titles like those in front of casual browsers in general outlets.  But not now.

Outside of used book shops, I don't believe you'll find many of these in mass market editions any more, except perhaps for Marquez's ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE and Burgess's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and in some cases it's been over twenty years since publishers issued them in formats meant for mass distribution.

When I was still working in libraries and the bookstore, and still reading magazines like PUBLISHERS WEEKLY and LIBRARY JOURNAL, I thought I understood at least a little of the rationale for some of what went on in the bookbiz.  These days -- well, I don't get it any more, and most of what I thought I knew then was probably wrong.  But it's still the case that the paperbacks that get seen in the most places are the mass market editions; trade paperbacks will be placed almost entirely in bookstores -- people who get their books from the racks in the local WalMart will see only a few of these, and people who buy their books from the local supermarket racks won't see them at all.  Perhaps even trade paperback editions of some titles wouldn't be profitable at all without online sales.

But I can remember a time when publishers used to aim books like the ones I mentioned, and many others, at the mass audience, and the distributors servicing the racks displayed those titles in a lot of places where they could be seen by casual browsers who didn't often go to large bookstores. 

And I miss, more than I can say, looking at the mass market paperback racks and finding the range of material I used to see at the neighborhood pharmacy in the 60s.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Key to the Kingdom

    Let's say you're a librarian, and a patron walks up to you and says he never went to college, but he'd like to read his way to a good liberal arts education; he'd like to touch all the bases—history, art, music, mathematics, literature, philosophy, science.  So would you show him where to start because he'd like to go about this systematically?  And quickly, please, because he's on his lunch hour and he's due back at the office.
    And you know just the book to start with, right?

    In his essay "The Lifetime Reading Plan," Joseph Epstein tells of a student who wanted to do a second draft on his college education.  The student felt there was too much he hadn't read and too much he'd missed, so he asked Epstein what books he should be reading.  Epstein's resulting essay on reading habits and what books should be read is witty and worth your time—you'll find it in his book ONCE MORE AROUND THE BLOCK.  Epstein concludes his essay by observing that "there is no systematic way to go about it, no list, no key to the kingdom of the educated."
    But there is.

    Books about books usually belong to one of two types.  The first is the Great Books List.  Here you'll find Clifton Fadiman's THE LIFETIME READING PLAN, J. Sherwood Weber's GOOD READING, and others.  The second is the Where To Look It Up Directory.  Alden Todd's FINDING FACTS FAST, Lois Horowitz's KNOWING WHERE TO LOOK, and dozens of others fit here.  They're all useful.  But they aren't helpful to our hypothetical patron.  Not yet.
    The people who wrote those books weren't asking the same questions as our patron.  They were dealing with questions like: "Which books are the best in their fields?" or "Where do you find specific types of information?" or "What books should an educated man have read?"  In the case of Mortimer Adler's HOW TO READ A BOOK, we see a guide to reading intelligently in particular areas, but that's not quite what our patron's looking for either.  Our patron doesn't know where to start; he's looking for a systematic way to go about getting his independent education, a key to the kingdom.
    But would your patron believe it if you told him that a fine place to start was with a book published fifty years ago by a middle-aged jewelry salesman from New Jersey?  For that matter, would you believe it yourself?

    The salesman's name was Cornelius Hirschberg.  He published two books.  The second was a mystery novel called FLORENTINE FINISH, which won a Mystery Writers of America award in 1963.  His first book was THE PRICELESS GIFT.
    That first book wasn't a novel.  Nor was it the treacly "inspirational" book that title may suggest to the cynical contemporary ear.  The title is dead serious; when Hirschberg called his book THE PRICELESS GIFT, he meant it.
    Cornelius Hirschberg never had the opportunity to go to college; he decided as a young man that though he made his living as a businessman, he would spend his free time learning all he could about art, literature, music, science, history, and philosophy, getting on his own the education he was never able to get formally.  He intended to acquaint himself with everything the world's best minds had to offer.  He didn't understand that nobody (except perhaps Isaac Asimov) could become acquainted with such a wide range of human knowledge any more.  And so, not knowing that it couldn't be done, he got on with the joyous work of doing it.
    But Hirschberg didn't stop there.  In 1960, he published THE PRICELESS GIFT; in that book, he explained exactly how he went about the process of self-education, and how anyone who can read and count can do the same thing if he's willing to work.
    In his introductory chapters, Hirschberg tells the reader that he isn't writing to teach any subject, but to help the reader plan the curriculum of his own independent university.
    Hirschberg divided his book into sections on history, literature, math, and so on, saying "... I do not teach these subjects.  I only show how I study them. . . This is a book to read before you read the books from which you will learn things."
    Hirschberg describes his self-education, lists books he found to be most useful and explains his methods of approach to each subject.  His writing communicates not only what he did and how he did it, but also the excitement of it and the sense of accomplishment.

    Much of Hirschberg's study was done in what he calls "The Subway University."  He rode the subways, or buses, or commuter trains to and from work, and read during the commute.  That time and his lunch hour gave him two and a half hours a day for serious reading -- over 20,000 hours of reading by the time he wrote THE PRICELESS GIFT, covering enough ground for several degrees. 
    He used history as the starting point.  Once the reader has a grasp of history, other learning becomes easier.  This notion is echoed in Robert Heinlein's 1980 essay/story "The Happy Days Ahead," in which Heinlein states "The three-legged stool of understanding is held up by history, languages, and mathematics.  Equipped with these three you can learn anything you want to learn."  Without history, other areas are more difficult to master.  Hirschberg points out that for us the works of Dickens, Tolstoy, and others are historical novels now. Awareness of their context helps the reader understand them better.  This holds true not just for literature, but for other areas as well.  For Hirschberg, history is the most important leg of the stool, and he makes a persuasive case for that opinion.  Indeed, he states that the sections on history and literature are the essential portions of the book, and that approaching any subject through its history will take you anywhere you want to go.  So, to get the meat of this book, you don't even have to read all 350 pages—100 will do. Reading the first 100 pages of Hirschberg's book can give any reader the tools necessary to plan a program of study that will fill in the gaps in his education.
    Hirschberg wrote well, as an ordinary man speaking to ordinary readers, and if he pushes a little hard sometimes. . . well, what of it? He was a salesman, making what he had to believe was the most important pitch of his life.  He was selling the tools for self-education, performing a public service.

    Now, when our hypothetical patron came in, did you steer him straight to Hirschberg? Did you know about Hirschberg?  If you didn't, and you're a librarian, doesn't it strike you as a bit odd that you didn't know about him? Did you hear about this book in library school?  Did you ever run across references to it anywhere? Doesn't that seem odd to you? It does to me.
    This book should not be as obscure as it is.  In its essentials, it is not outdated.  As a road map for the general reader trying to broaden his education, it is still extremely helpful.  But THE PRICELESS GIFT is long out of print, and it does not appear in the standard catalogs for public and college libraries.  I recall no mention of this book in library school.  The first book in which I saw it referenced was Ronald Gross's THE LIFELONG LEARNER, published in 1978 by Simon & Schuster and now also out of print.  Gross didn't mention Hirschberg's book in his more recent INDEPENDENT SCHOLAR'S HANDBOOK, though he did describe Hirschberg's self-education in the introduction.  Hirschberg goes unmentioned in numerous books about books and the guides to reference work.
    That this book goes unmentioned in high schools and colleges is regrettable.  That it is apparently almost forgotten in the library world is inexcusable.  One of the ideals of the library is the notion of the library as the poor man's university—the place where anyone can go to learn anything.  But when the reader gets there, he may find nothing to help him start.  We can show him how to use card catalogs and periodical indexes.  We can show him reference books until he and we are senile and we can provide all the proper great books lists.  But how many of us could show him how to plan the best curriculum for his needs and temperament? Hirschberg could and did.
    So why is it out of print? Why no rediscovery of this book?
    It was apparently received well on publication.  The reviewer for LIBRARY JOURNAL said that the book should be known by all librarians and should be found in all general libraries.  Comments from other reviewers were favorable.  But as Jay Jacobs pointed out in his review in THE REPORTER, Hirschberg had no formal academic credentials.  People without academic degrees sometimes have a hard time being taken seriously by people with them.  THE PRICELESS GIFT was probably never bought by all the libraries that should have purchased it, and many of those have probably weeded it from the collection in the decades since then.
    THE PRICELESS GIFT is 50 years old now, and Hirschberg wrote portions of it several years before it actually saw print; it's likely that its age may lead some people who know of the book to think it outdated.  A few of his recommended titles are now outdated, but Hirschberg's methods are not, and many of the books he cited are still widely available (some in updated editions and newer translations) and still of use to Hirschberg's proper audience.
    And who is that audience?  Every high school or college student.  Every librarian and teacher.  Every adult with the nagging feeling that he didn't learn as much in school as he should have.
    If there's any justice, THE PRICELESS GIFT will one day occupy a place on the same shelf with Adler's HOW TO READ A BOOK and Fadiman's LIFETIME READING PLAN.  But until then, you'll have to haunt used book stores, or pay steep prices for the occasional copy online, or try to borrow it through interlibrary loan if you want to read it.  If you're in libraries or education, you should look it over. THE PRICELESS GIFT is still one of the best reader's advisors ever.
    And if anyone out there has any clout with Simon & Schuster, why not drop them a line recommending that THE PRICELESS GIFT be reissued? Making it available again could be one of the nicer things to happen to lifelong learning in some time.
# # #

And a brief commercial: Have recently put up another short story at Amazon's Kindle Store and Smashwords (from where it will eventually find its way to Sony, B&N, Diesel and others).  It's a dark time-travel story called "The Old Neighborhood."  DRM-free, 99 cents.  Give it a look if you get a chance.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Few Recommendations

With books like BLEAK HOUSE, WAR AND PEACE, and A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME still in the to-be-read pile, other titles get added to the stack and, simply because they're not as massive, get read first.  Sometimes I ask myself how this happens when I know that if I stopped buying books today and started the backlog I could keep myself busy for at least three years (and possibly until I'm planted).  But there's no need to ask, really -- I know how it happens.

It's Amazon's fault.

If you search an author's name in Amazon's book and Kindle stores, you'll get results that include other authors as well.  So while checking to see if any more of Jack Ketchum's backlist had been published for Kindle, up popped a title for which Ketchum had done an introduction.  The book was a novella called "Midlisters," by Kealan Patrick Burke.  After reading Ketchum's introduction in the sample, I bought "Midlisters," and by the time I read it several more of Burke's stories were available.  If you're a fan of horror fiction and have not yet read Kealan Patrick Burke, you're missing out.  His short story "Empathy" is one of the most frightening pieces I've read in years, and while I haven't yet read all of the ebooks now available by Burke, I've yet to be disappointed by any of those that I've finished.  This guy's GOOD.

While checking to see if any more of Shirley Jackson and Ramsey Campbell had been issued for Kindle, a title that showed up in searches for both was James Everington's THE OTHER ROOM.  It's a collection of short horror stories, light on grue and long on chills.  Everington's author page notes Jackson, Campbell and Robert Aickman as influences -- it shows, and I don't think that readers of Jackson, Campbell, and Aickman will be disappointed if they read THE OTHER ROOM.  Very nicely done, particularly the title story and "A Writer's Words," "Red Route," "First Time Buyers," and "Home Time."

And while checking to see if Thomas Williams' work had been issued for Kindle, there was a listing for his National Book Award winner from 1975, THE HAIR OF HAROLD ROUX.  I wasn't planning on unloading the hard copies, but wanted his titles as ebooks as well.  The ebook included a new introduction by Andre Dubus III and a new afterword by the author's daughter Ann Joslin Williams, of whom I hadn't heard until reading the afterword.  Ann Joslin Williams is also a writer, and her short story collection THE WOMAN IN THE WOODS and her recently-published first novel DOWN FROM MOUNT CASCOM use the same New Hampshire settings (and the fictional town of Leah) where most of Thomas Williams' work was set.  The collection and the novel are both excellent; somewhere Thomas Williams is smiling.

No need to bother with plot descriptions -- you can find them in the book descriptions at Amazon.  Here are links to Amazon's author pages for Williams, Everington, and Burke.  Enjoy.

Ann Joslin Williams:

James Everington:

Kealan Patrick Burke:

And bests to all.


Brief commercial -- free short story offer.
My short ghost story, "The Point," is available free through the end of July at Smashwords as part of their summer site promotion. 
Link is:
Use discount code SSWSF when purchasing to get it as a freebie.

Friday, June 17, 2011


A cursory glance at the Amazon rankings for Stephen King's books suggests that his 1981 non-fiction title DANSE MACABRE may be the King title least likely to have been purchased by the horror fan.  I was still working at Kroch's & Brentano's bookstore in Chicago when the book was originally published, and DANSE MACABRE didn't sell nearly as quickly as King's fiction.  Understandable -- if you're looking for a horror novel, will you really want to read a survey of horror in film, fiction, television and radio?  But for even the casual horror fan who isn't interested in studying the field but just wants a good book to read, skipping DANSE MACABRE is a mistake.  Most readers of science fiction and fantasy probably never picked up an issue of LOCUS or FANTASY NEWSLETTER.  Readers who never miss a novel by Dean Koontz may never have bothered to read a copy of his earlier non-fiction title HOW TO WRITE BEST-SELLING FICTION.  Fans of any particular writer may read the novels and short stories, but ignore interviews with them.  In doing so, they may be missing acts of generosity by those writers.

Some of the best money I ever spent was at the 1969 World Science Fiction Convention in St. Louis.  Three dollars bought a copy of THE DOUBLE:BILL SYMPOSIUM, a small press pamphlet that collected the responses of science fiction and fantasy writers to a number of questions on writing and books and reading.  The writers generously took time to answer questions from Bill Bowers and Bill Mallardi.  One of those questions asked about their formative reading.  The answers introduced me to writers I hadn't read, and pointed me back toward writers I'd read in school without really paying sufficient attention.

When I was following science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery fiction more closely than I do now, one of the best things about the genres was the number of fan and specialty journals that printed interviews with the writers.  And at some point in the interviews, the writers were usually asked which writers they themselves enjoyed reading.  And the writers were always happy to recommend books and writers they thought worth seeking out.  This is why anyone who checked out those interviews, who looked over books like DANSE MACABRE, or HOW TO WRITE BEST-SELLING FICTION, or THE DOUBLE:BILL SYMPOSIUM has probably never been in danger of running out of things to read.  If anything, there's always been so much worthwhile material recommended that there's no way to ever get around to all of it, or even a majority of it.

Their generosity steers readers not only to other works of their own, but to writers who may not yet be household names.

Just a couple of examples.  Harlan Ellison's long interview with Comics Journal in 1980 steered readers to writers like Jorge Amado, V. S. Pritchett, Jose Donoso and Mario Vargas Llosa.  Comments and blurbs from Stephen King pointed to the work of Jack Ketchum, Don Robertson, Thomas Williams, Ernest Hebert, Ron Carlson, and more; the lists at the back of his books DANSE MACABRE and ON WRITING are gold mines of recommendations.  And note that most of the recommendations mentioned in this paragraph weren't for the work of fantasists, but for the work of general fiction writers.

If there's a writer you like, do you read interviews with them as well as their fiction?  If you run across an article by that writer in which he talks about his reading and the influences on his writing, do you read it?  You should -- if a writer you like mentions a book he likes, there's a good chance that's a book you'd like too.

Blurbs can be a little trickier.  Far too often, the blurb on the paperback will consist of glowing commentary from a magazine or newspaper rather than an individual.  But if you check all the blurbs, not just on the front or back cover but on the blurb pages preceding the title page, you'll usually find some individuals quoted rather than just periodicals.

The interviews, and articles, and blurbs are often acts of generosity by writers who may be among your favorites.  Watch for them as well as for new books by your favorites, and you'll never run out of books or stories to read.  Your problem will be finding a way to keep up.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Incredible Shrinking Attention Span

    In a new book called THE SHALLOWS: WHAT THE INTERNET IS DOING TO OUR BRAINS, Nicholas Carr argues that the internet, in changing the way we search for information, is also changing the way we absorb and process that information.  That change is not for the better.  Specifically, the capacity for sustained concentration on lengthy or difficult material, the ability to stay focused on arguments and exposition developed at book-length, suffers from our growing tendency to take in our information in bite-sized bursts.
    At this time, I've read only Carr's opening chapters, though the book has joined one of about eleven gazillion on the to-be-read pile, a pile that I'll be getting around to One Day Soon...  But Carr's view of this harmful effect of the way we use the tools offered by the internet doesn't strike me as something new.  The same phenomenon was noted years ago in connection with television by McLuhan, Neil Postman, and others, if memory serves.

    Ever wondered why we had to take algebra or read Dickens and Eliot in high school?  That's not as great a leap into off-topic irrelevancy as it may seem at first glance.

    Before I hit the eighth grade, I'd read a number of books by Dickens, Dumas, Hugo, Haggard, Verne, Stevenson, Defoe, and others.  Not all of their works by any means, but a respectable number for a kid of twelve or thirteen.  In eighth grade I discovered contemporary science fiction and fantasy books and for nearly twenty years almost all my pleasure reading was in those genres, with generous dollops of mystery and suspense fiction as well.  I didn't neglect my school work, but any reading I did that wasn't required was in work by contemporary writers, and most of those writers came out of the science fiction and mystery pulp magazines.  So heavy was my concentration on this material that one of my high school English teachers (Edith Nelson at Lindblom Tech in Chicago -- hello, if you're still out there) tried constantly to steer me back into more of the classics, to no avail.

    Fast forward a bit.  High school was 45 years ago.  There are a lot of books on hand, on my shelves and on my Kindle (and as I noted last week, that stack is more aspiration than accomplishment).  Among them: Montaigne's essays, Proust, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Anthony Powell's DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME, Samuel Johnson, and yes, George Eliot too.  All of these writers, dipped into, but not read in any systematic way.  Some of their books read, but not nearly all and not nearly all the ones I know I should get around to before I'm planted (and these are books I'd like to get around to because I expect to enjoy them much more than I would have in high school or college, and not out of any sense of obligation).
    And why are so many of them still unread?
    Call it the Carr effect if you like, but it predates him.  The internet can lead to atrophy in our capacity to concentrate on demaning material?  So can spending too much time on less demanding material regardless of the medium.  I'd never go so far as to say that good popular fiction is a waste of time -- I don't regret a moment spent reading the work of Theodore Sturgeon, for instance -- but an overemphasis on it can, I think, cause the attention span to shrink to the point where it becomes very difficult to stay focused on lengthy and demanding material.  The mental muscles, like the physical, atrophy if they don't get enough use.

    Why did we have to take algebra or read Dickens and Eliot in high school?  Call it mental gymnastics.  If you actually did the assigned work, you knew that you could read a long demanding book, you could focus on intricate problems; you knew you could concentrate.  That's something you don't get from reading a lot of contemporary popular literature.  That's my experience, anyway, and I'm probably not unique.

    How about you?  Finished BLEAK HOUSE, WAR AND PEACE, and Montaigne yet?

    If you have, my hat's off to you.  If you haven't, don't feel like the Lone Ranger -- I haven't finished them yet either.  But they're on my list.

And bests to all,


Friday, May 27, 2011


Just over a decade ago, Joseph Epstein wrote an essay called "Books Won't Furnish a Room."  In that essay, he talked about the process of trimming his personal library; Epstein cut a collection of 2000 volumes down to about 400.  At the time of publication, that essay filled me with the kind of cosmic dread usually reserved for the doomed narrators of Lovecraft's stories.  Dear God in heaven -- weed four books out of every five?  How could anyone force himself to do that?  Easier to saw off your own leg, I thought.  Shows how wrong you can be.  I didn't know it at the time, but I'd already started that process myself.

When my wife and I moved from Chicago to Kansas 25 years ago, we shipped more than a hundred cartons of books.  They weren't small cartons, either; we worked for Kroch's & Brentano's bookstore in downtown Chicago for nine years, and when we packed all those books we got publishers' shipping cartons from the stockrooms.  The cartons would hold 25 or more hardcovers, 50 to 100 mass market paperbacks.  Our house once had 8 or 9 bookcases in the main living areas and two or three 6-foot metal utility shelves in the basement, all double-rowed (some triple-rowed) and sagging, and some boxes stashed in closets.

Most of the books on those shelves are gone now.  They've been given to libraries, or sold to individuals and second-hand book dealers.  It wasn't nearly as painful as I'd thought it would be, because quite a few of those departed books are still here.  The nicest thing about ebooks isn't price or search functions.  It's the space savings, the fact that ebooks let you eat your cake and have it too where shelf space is concerned.  Just replacing Stephen King's hardcovers with ebooks freed up something like 6 feet of shelf space.  We've been replacing print with ebooks for a decade, and while we haven't chopped 80% of our print volumes yet we're getting there as more backlist titles finally see ebook publication.  Thanks to ebooks, we've been able to keep our personal library while achieving Epstein's goal of living in a home where not every wall has a bookcase.

Of course, downsizing the physical space doesn't mean that the book collection has actually been downsized.  Anybody with a serious book-buying habit learns quickly to buy 'em when they're there, because later they might not be so easy to find; that's not as true in these days of online booksellers as it was pre-web, but habits are habits and they don't die easily.  And that means, at least in my case and I'm not unique, that I'm still buying them faster than I can read them; changing to ebooks hasn't changed that even a little bit.

In "Paladin of the Lost Hour," Harlan Ellison's protagonist talks about his library and says "Who wants a library full of books you've already read?"  Well, having a library full of books I've already read will never be my problem.  Leaving the question of catching up with the backlog -- these days, the books in the collection represent aspiration far more than they do accomplishment.  Bet I'm not unique there, either; but that's a subject for a little later.


A brief commercial and free ebook offer -- skip it if you like:
I've got a few short stories available at Amazon's Kindle store, Smashwords, and other ebook sites, and I'm hoping to see comments from reviewers, so until June 7 I'm making 100%-off-purchase-price coupons available at Smashwords.  You can find the ebooks at

One story, "Ghost Writer," is already available free at Smashwords; the other two titles are usually 99 cents each, but you can get those free as well until June 7 by using the coupons at the time of purchase.
Smashwords coupon code for "The Point" is NL93T
Smashwords coupon code for "The Other Iron River, and Other Stories" is QP57C.

If you use the coupons, please post a review at Amazon, Smashwords, and Goodreads at your earliest convenience.

Thanks in advance, see you next week, and bests to all,


Friday, May 20, 2011

Who Is This Guy, Anyway?

A retired librarian, bookseller, teacher, and computer programmer, not necessarily in that order.  The publishing business is currently turning itself upside down and inside out and nothing works the way I used to believe it did.  So naturally I'll start writing now, when most of what I thought I knew about the bookbiz no longer applies.

While working at the above-mentioned trades, I wrote, but not nearly enough.  Most of my effort went toward paying the bills, and writing was backburnered.  Well, the mortgage is paid now and I'm working part time instead of full time plus extra, and the family won't have to eat cat food if I spend more time writing now than preparing reports for the office.

There's just one problem.

When you backburner something like writing, you wouldn't believe how hard it is to get back into practice.  I wrote on and off, and it's coming back, but so very slowly -- if I hadn't written at all during those years, chances are that there wouldn't be anything left.

This will be a blog about books, ebooks, dealing with the eternal book-lover's problem of limited shelf space, writing when it feels like the faculties are so atrophied that you can't put together a single coherent sentence, the amusements of formatting and publishing your own ebooks, and the even greater amusements of trying to figure out how to market them, and any related subjects that come to mind.  I'll try to be pleasant and entertaining about it, I'll try to post every weekend, I'll try not to bore your backside off, I won't spend every blog post trying to get you to buy my stuff, and if I stumble over something that would be useful to those of you out there in the same situation, I'll pass it along.

And right now, the most useful thing I can say to those of you who want to write but spend most of their time paying the bills is this: Do as I say, not as I did -- make time, because the writing muscles are like any others and you've got to use 'em or lose 'em.

And on that cheery note, hello, welcome aboard, and see you next week.

Bests to all,