“Often, at night, solitude loses its soft power, and loneliness takes over. I am grateful for when solitude returns.” Donald Hall’s late productivity is notable. This video by Paul Szynol is published by The Atlantic.

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The New Yorker published a longer article about Mr Hall’s burst of late creativity. Donald Hall died on June 23, 2018, at the age of 89.

The quotation at the head of this piece puts me in mind of Thomas Moore’s “Oft in the stilly night” sung here by the immortal John McCormack. (Don’t think there’s something wrong — there’s no image in this “video”. The sound’s enough! Perfection.)

Two infographics from the American Library Association:

Numbers 10 and 11 on the Challenged Books list were actually burned. Are we are getting back to the good old days? Maybe we’ll be having witch trials soon. Great to be great again.

Link via The Digital Reader.

Crazy, but perhaps a warning to us all.

Having made some money writing fake restaurant reviews for placement on TripAdvisor, Oobah Butler, a contributor to Vice News, said to himself that the only thing that can’t be faked on TripAdvisor is the actual restaurant. That got him thinking and he set out to create a fake restaurant, and furthermore to get it to the top rating among London’s restaurants. Thus was born The Shed at Dulwich. “If I can get my shitty and overpriced shed that I live in in Dulwich to the number-one-rated restaurant in London; anything’s possible” says Mr Butler. This video recounts the achievement, and proves that anything is indeed possible in a digital world dominated by trend-followers and FOMO victims. It’s equally hilarious and appalling.

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The Shed which did open for one night in 2017, still has a Facebook page which has 4,700 followers, and a Wikipedia entry.

Shelf Awareness reported yesterday, 15 May, that Mr Butler is at it again. “BS alert: booksellers around the country are reporting that Oobah Butler, a Vice News contributor and author of How to Bullsh*t Your Way to #1: An Unorthodox Guide to 21st Century Success (Where Publications), is apparently trying to bullsh*t his way onto bestseller lists by placing multiple fraudulent orders for the book. In many cases, the orders are being sent to non-existent addresses. It’s unclear whether Butler is doing this himself or enlisting fans to help or both.”

Emptor — caveat. While online reviews can be helpful, it’s impossible to distinguish sock puppetry from the genuine article. Remember that New Yorker cartoon: on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog (which also has its own Wikipedia page)!

We are always being told that being read to and living in a house with stuffed bookshelves is what it takes to make a child into a reader. While I was growing up the bookshelves were certainly stuffed, but often it was stuff other than books which was mainly contributing to the chaos. No doubt this explains my refusal to arrange my own bookshelves in any order other than the utterly random. I contend that I have a sort of internal map and can locate most books to within a couple of square feet — except of course when I can’t. I was trying to find A Child’s Garden of Verses the other day, but am now reduced to wondering if I gave it away to granddaughters. There’s also a nice old hardback of Edward Lear which is infuriatingly hiding from me. My one exception to this chaos-rules rule is my Library of America books which are in alphabetical order by author, but since they all look exactly the same, this is almost essential, isn’t it? I find I mostly find books by visualizing what they look like and this then yields to a location where a thing that looks like that turns up.

But nobody would have ever described me as a bookworm until I got a job in book publishing. Access made an addict of me. (I didn’t try to get into the business because I loved books: it’s the other way round.) As a child I was more interested in playing touch rugby and riding my bike around town with Muckie, Hugh and Jock. I was generally able to say I was reading a book and not be telling a lie, but it wasn’t that important to me. I think that the way to “make” a bookworm is probably to deprive a child of freedom and companionship. If you lock a child alone in a library they’ll probably come out a reader. To turn this around: I think it is utterly inappropriate to try to make a child be anything, especially a reader. Give them the opportunity, yes, but don’t try to direct them.

The Guardian asks 10 children’s laureates to tell us how the trick can be done. I can’t agree with Michael Morpurgo that a love of reading can start at school: my recollection is that everything I was made to read at school became the object of hatred and aversion (except strangely Goethe’s poems. Thanks Jack Hammer.) I empathize with Quentin Blake’s Oliver Twist problem. I still see that book in the small, loathed, blue cloth edition (Nelson’s?) I was forced to read at school. Like him I did manage to get back to Dickens in later life, but not until I was into my forties. Chris Riddell opines “The greatest barrier to children’s literacy is the lack of a librarian in a school” and goes on to credit his school librarian’s recommendation of The Catcher in the Rye with making him into a reader: a bit circular I fear. I have never been involved with a school that had a librarian, and find the idea rather extravagant!

The laureates write entertainingly but don’t really explain how to turn kids into bookworms — but then who’d expect that such a thing could really be achieved. If it happens it happens. For kids thus afflicted I’d strongly recommend a job in book publishing.

Well that’s what we called it — Forthcoming Book Notice. It was printed in blue and told you about a book working its way through the Press. It’d include title, subtitle, author with affiliation, brief bio and contact information, ISBN, cast-off page count, trim size, proposed retail price and trade terms, a description of the book and why it was worthwhile, together with a list of contents, and maybe some quotes from supportive authorities. There’d also be suggestions as to who might buy the thing, which is after all what the game is all about.

This document, produced as soon as the manuscript was more or less complete and had been worked over by the editor, was a necessary component in a book’s transmission into the production process, though its main aim was ultimately sales and marketing people. Anything on the form might end up changing, but it was a snapshot of the book as visualized by its editor as it started its way through the publishing process. Much of the information would be derived from the Author’s Questionnaire, a formalization of what had in previous years been the content of letters exchanged between editor and author. This Questionnaire committed the author to writing a brief description of their work, and this description would (unless it was way off target, as unfortunately all too often it might be) provide the basis for the brief description of the book, which, revised as necessary, would end up as the jacket flap copy.

A form like this only becomes necessary at the point where the publisher’s list grows beyond the size where you can expect everyone to have been able to read every book, or at least a significant part of every book. When I was an editor we were expected to have read every word of all our books or to have good reasons why not. This was virtually impossible, given the number of books we were dealing with and their often abstruse (not to say, for the non-specialist, boring) content. “Good reasons” would include the book’s being in a series where one could legitimately expect the series editor to have read it, or a something like a bibliographical work where “reading” wasn’t really the point.

But such a state of innocence cannot go on for ever. All companies seem inevitably destined to grow, and once you get to a certain number of books in the list employees cannot reasonably be expected to be familiar with the content of all of them: let’s say at about 100 a year. Then systems have to start being formalized so that a consistent stream of data can be provided for each and every book, so that even the most specialized of them gets the best start in life. It may look from the outside as if publishers favor certain books and ignore others. Of course they “favor” some — the ones they hope/expect will become bestsellers and for which they are willing to invest some extra publicity dollars, but none of the books is ignored. All processes in the promotion and publicity program will be carried out for all books, and of course occasionally a happy surprise is registered as a book unexpectedly transcends the basic publicity routines and sells like unexpectedly hot cakes. The FBN provided the grist which kept this mill turning out well formed and appropriately promoted product.

I suppose a psychologist might be able to give us an explanation of why we always think that we are living through the death of . . . you-name-it. Of course at a very basic idiot-level such a forecast can never really be wrong, in a sort of Second Law of Thermodynamics kind of way, and maybe people just like to get their marker down so that others can refer to them as the person who first said it. “The Book Review is Dead, Long Live the Book Review” is the heading of an article at Book Marks (link via Literary Hub). Coincidentally on the same day I’m reading a post from Jeff Peachey asking Is restoration dying? (He’s referring to restoring old books: apparently we now value the echt, unrestored original more.) And you remember the ebook and the death of print: it didn’t happen — yet anyway*.

Elizabeth Hardwick was, in 1959, only worrying about The decline of book reviewing, but her essay is part of this same “things fall apart” phenomenon.

Of course things were all obviously better in the days of our youth. Have you seen how they go on on a rugby pitch nowadays? But “better” isn’t really the mot juste: different is what things are, and different is always good, change cannot but be interesting, and interesting is the opposite of dull. So I’ve stopped watching rugby and now watch football (soccer to you Americans), a game which has also changed since my early days — what happened to mud and leather balls weighing a ton: not to mention bunnets (cloth caps) on the heads of goalies wearing yellow polo-necked sweaters? And don’t get me started on away kit, the freaky outfit Spurs (Tottenham Hotspur) were wearing last Wednesday when they unbelievably shouldered their way into the final of the Champions League. (This is a big deal — the final, not the kit.)

As long as there are books, there will be book reviews. Just because they do not appear in little magazines, newspapers, and newspaper books supplements where we grew up expecting to find them, doesn’t mean they aren’t there. People who read books have opinions, and all too many of them are distressingly ready and willing to thrust their opinions on the rest of us. They’ll find a way. And don’t go worrying about the death of the book, or the novel, or the printed page. People like to tell stories, and to hear/read them. Ways will be found to supply that need. The important point to hang onto is that if the delivery mechanism changes that will not be because some evil tyrant has decreed that there should be no more “books” (in the physical sense of an object with pages and type. See also This is my book) — it will be because we, the public, have decided that the alternative delivery vehicle is actually better.

See also More premature death notices, Death of reading?, The greatly exaggerated death of the monograph, The end of literary culture?.


* It seems almost as if that might be coming true in a twisted way — the panicked debate about “the death of print” seems to have discouraged print investment, and now we are facing constant shortages of book paper and manufacturing capacity as demand for printed books refuses to lie down and die as so confidently predicted almost a decade ago. Still, this too shall pass: non-book printers will move into the book manufacturing space, new equipment will come on line, and eventually the fit between supply and demand will overcome the pessimism which gripped the industry a few years ago.


Mental Floss seeks to provide an answer to this question by giving you a reading test prepared by Lenstore, Vision Care Experts. Well, I guess being able to see the words is an essential first step, though speed-reading glasses would be a great invention.

This has nothing to do with books, but it is fascinating. Just think of the thrill of slowly building this object bit by bit and then having it actually work. A wondrous mania.

But how often would you play it? The repetition might become a little trying.

In a way its complexity reminds me of the music typewriter I recently wrote about.

Link via Open Culture.

This is Shelf Awareness’ report from the 1st of May:

BISG Annual Meeting: Dealing with Paper and Printing Problems

A major focus of the Book Industry Study Group’s annual meeting last Friday in New York City was the paper and printing problems that resulted in booksellers having difficulty reordering many popular titles during the holiday season last year. Those problems were what Janet McCarthy Grimm, v-p of Lindenmeyr Book Publishing Papers, called “a perfect storm,” which included paper shortages, fewer printing and binding machines for books, several company collapses, a shortage of qualified workers, trucking and warehouse shortages, all occurring when the printed book has had a resurgence and some titles were in very high demand.

Although there were improvements in the general situation in the first quarter of the year, there is usually “some seasonal downtick at this time,” Grimm added. “When orders pick up, we could switch back to a situation like last year very, very quickly.”

Grimm (r.) and Baehr

Speaking at the session on State of the Supply Chain: Paper and Printing, Grimm emphasized that part of the problem has its roots in decisions in recent years by paper mills, printers and binders to cut back on book-printing capacity because of the consensus that the book business was going to take a digital path similar to that taken by movies and music. Although this hasn’t happened as predicted, the book-making industry hasn’t adjusted well. As Matt Baehr, executive director of the Book Manufacturers’ Institute, put it, “Those exiting the business are not coming back” and existing companies are not adding enough capacity. “No one is investing millions of dollars” in this area, he said.

In some cases, printers that don’t specialize in books are taking on books as a side business to printing cards, brochures and fliers. Hardcover printing remains the most troublesome area because of the need for perfect binding. And publishers doing digital printing for hardcover books still have to find the right binders.

Baehr noted that the general printing difficulties extend to shipping and warehousing, saying that “the trucking industry is under tremendous pressure.” Shipping continues to grow in volume, and there are many seasonal spikes, such as needing to transport food at harvest time and dealing with bad weather. Like the printing business and most other blue-collar businesses, the trucking industry is also having difficulty finding qualified drivers.

Both Grimm and Baehr emphasized that publishers need to be in steady contact with everyone in the book manufacturing chain and plan ahead as best they can. “Reach out to your manufacturing partners,” Baehr said. “They want to be partners.” Publishers should plan farther ahead than usual, and Grimm emphasized that this is especially true for big projects, and also lessens the stress of inevitable surprise projects.

Baehr noted that publishers who last year had “better luck printing generally were those who supplied their own paper.” He advised publishers to “consider taking their destiny into their own hands” by finding paper sources.

Both printing problems and possible solutions are international, Grimm and Baehr said. Grimm said one way to improve the general situation is “to fill holes in the system with product from offshore.”

The first paragraph does sound a little defensive: those naughty bookstores — buying too many books at Christmas; do they think we’ve got unlimited stocks? But of course it’s not that we want to hold onto our books: it’s that we can’t get them in fast enough. Back when I started in this business there was a wide-spread feeling that having lots of stock on hand did represent an assurance that you’d have something to sell in the coming months and years. Of course that was back when we worked under the technological determinant of letterpress printing, where logic pushed you towards printing once and for all time. Reprinting existed of course, but was a burden, organizational and financial, (when I started out we didn’t employ anyone whose job it was to order reprints, because there were vanishingly few of them). It wasn’t until offset lithography took hold that reprinting became cheap enough to be fully incorporated into publishers’ strategic vision.

Some of our recent capacity problems have something to do with a technological switchover analogous to the letterpress/offset switch which took place in Britain in the nineteen sixties, and over here somewhat earlier. We are in the midst of a move from offset to digital printing, and maybe there’s been an overeagerness to junk offset presses before the digital capacity was in place to take up the slack. This sort of problem is self-healing: it’s just a timing of investment issue. In the same way that the switch from letterpress to offset enabled publishers to reduce the quantities they’d print, so too does digital make it possible to print in smaller quantities than offset permits. That publishers find it desirable to print smaller runs does not have to mean that there’s less demand for books out there — it means publishers are better able to match supply to demand by printing the “right” quantity. And this reduces the cost of unsold or slow-selling inventory and cuts down on wastage. It does however depend on a book manufacturing industry with the capacity to cope. At the moment we seem to be slightly out of balance.

I’m not really sure what I think about this scandal, word of which, now that Nora Roberts has become involved, has started to hit our in-boxes. Of course I think copyright should be defended, but . . .

The Digital Reader gives us a good round-up of the facts. Brazilian “author” Cristiane Serruya has apparently been gaily selling 95 (and counting) books which are largely plagiarized. Ms Serruya is described as a “bestselling” writer, but I’ve not managed to discover what that means in terms of books sold and money made. The books she is accused of plagiarizing are listed at Caffeinated Fae. Many authors are frustrated; Ms Serruya has blamed lazy ghostwriters in her employ; and now Ms Roberts is suing.

There is a section of the book-buying public which really goes in for volume. These voracious readers chomp their way through 10 or more ebooks a week, mainly genre fiction like romance. The arrival of self publishing with its low prices has been a god-send to these insatiable customers. I wouldn’t be surprised if whatever it is these readers are seeking when they devour a book may be provided just as well by rereading the same stuff under a different title as reading something for the first time. I don’t know enough about the nature of romance writing, but I suspect that there are in any case a limited number of plots, changes on which are regularly rung. Readers are presumably seeking something beyond pure originality. Ms Serruya is providing a service for nympholectors, and maybe that’s OK. Of course Nora Roberts would like to get paid for her writing, but the truly voracious have probably bought her books already, and remain blissfully ignorant of any repetition in a book by Ms Serruya!

Richard Hershberger writes about this category of super-reader at his 2-part post at Ordinary Times saying “My final anecdatum is from Reading the Romance, a classic sociological study of romance readers by Janice Radway, first published in 1984. Her research included a survey of romance readers’ reading habits. The sheer volume of, um…, volumes is impressive. Over half reported reading between one and four romances a week, and more than a third between five and nine a week. Four readers claimed between fifteen and twenty-five. This seems implausible, and Radway is skeptical, but that isn’t the point. Neither are the absolute numbers, lest we get bogged down in discussions of self-reporting, small sample size, and sample selection. What comes through is that there is a body of readers for whom the word ‘voracious’ exists. These are people whose primary leisure activity is reading, and they read a lot.”

Whether Amazon should be required to stamp out hyper-commercial activity like Ms Serruya’s, as The Digital Reader suggests, seems a bit dubious to me. I’m not sure that there’s any requirement on a regular bookstore to guarantee that every book they stock is clear of plagiarism and any other illegality. Just because we can imagine some sort of AI plagiarism-detection program that could suss out duplication doesn’t mean that we have to build and deploy it. The present situation seems perfectly adequate: a law suit is the way to go. Yes, not all the affected authors can afford to bring a law suit, but then their “losses” are presumably also smaller. And, cynically, “all publicity is good publicity”.

I wondered whether there was any evidence of the number of ebook purchases by top nympholectors, but wasn’t able to find anything. In the physical world, according to The Telegraph Britain’s most avid reader is Louise Brown, aged 91, who has borrowed 25,000 books from the Castle Douglas library over the years. A brief search has failed to turn up information on who holds the record for ebooks consumed. Given that Ms Brown had actually to lug the books to and from the library, her record deserves to be in a category of its own. No doubt had she been born a bit later she would be deep into ebook consumption.