Monday, March 31, 2008

Biting the Long Tail That Feeds You

I love shopping at Given a choice between it and most other online retailers, I'll go for the Big A every time. But a new Amazon policy has the blogsphere abuzz and may change my shopping habits will I or nill I. According to Publisher's Weekly:

BookSurge, Amazon’s print-on-demand subsidiary, is making an offer that most publishers would like to refuse, but don’t feel they can. According to talks with several pod houses, BookSurge has told them that unless their titles are printed by BookSurge, the buy buttons on Amazon for their titles will be disabled.
One of the things I like about Amazon, indeed about the Internet in general, is that it's now so much easier for book lovers to find obscure books that just aren't carried by the average chain bookstore. And POD (Print On Demand) has made it possible for authors whose books appeal to a market too small to interest conventional printers, to get their works into print and, eventually, into my hot little hands.

Why should POD publishers and their authors be upset by Amazon's new policy? Well, apparently Booksurge is more expensive, harder to use, and produces a lower quality product than many of its POD publishers and their distribution is more limited than their major competitor, Lighting Source, which is owned by Ingrim.

There are a bunch of articles on this topic here.

HT to Sartorias who first brought the situation to my attention.

Sunday, March 30, 2008


A few weeks ago, for no discernible reason, I got to thinking about Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster. So I took it with me the next morning when I went to sit with my dad while my mother went to Mass. (My father had just been released from the hospital after having suffered another stroke. The physical therapists didn't want him to be home alone yet.) It's a small book bound in navy blue cloth which, according to the penciled price on the fly-leaf, I bought for fifty cents. It's one of my Woolworth books and therefore very dear to me.

We moved to Azusa when I was in the sixth grade. In those more innocent days my mom wasn't afraid to let me walk all by myself to the local shopping center which was about a mile and a half away. I loved the freedom of those solitary expeditions, especially browsing at Woolworth's where the merchandise was within my means and ranged from live goldfish and turtles to tiny Whitman Samplers and the sort of jewelry that children buy as gifts for their mothers.

On one of my visits to Woolworth's I discovered an enormous pile of used, hardcover books. For me, this was like stumbling upon El Dorado. You have to understand that there were no bookstores in our immediate area. (This was long before chains like Borders or Barnes & Noble.) My only source of books was the Scholastic Book Club at school which only offered paperbacks. But here, piled in profusion, were real books, i.e. hardcover books with the authority of age, official books such as might be found on the shelves of a real library.

And, mirabile dictu, I could buy them and take them home! But how long would that pile of books be there? And how many of them could I buy, with my carefully hoarded, minuscule allowance, before they disappeared?

I don't remember how many books I ended up buying, but I made many trips to Woolworth's and spent hours sifting through that pile as I weighed the merits of one book against another. I know I got my copy of Tom Sawyer there and my copy of Jane Eyre. And I'm pretty sure that's where I got my Robinson Crusoe. (Only 25 cents! Though that was a whole week's allowance at the time.)

But getting back to Daddy-Long-Legs. . .

Eighteen year old Judy Abbot, an inmate of the John Grier Home, receives the astonishing news that one of the institution's trustees has offered to pay for her college education based on a humorous (and somewhat irreverent) composition which she wrote for her high school English class. Her beneficiary wishes to remain completely anonymous and in return asks only that she write him a monthly letter describing the progress of her studies and the details of her daily life. He intends her to become a writer, and "he thinks nothing so fosters facility in literary expression as letter-writing." The only thing Judy knows about her benefactor is that he is very tall, so she dubs him "Daddy-Long-Legs." The novel consists of her letters to him written throughout her four years of college and the summer after graduation. By the end of the novel, Judy has published her first book, found true love, and discovered the identity of Daddy-Long-Legs.

When I originally read the book, I was fascinated by the author's description of college life and by Judy's efforts to become a writer. In later rereadings I found it interesting to compare her experiences at a women's college circa 1912 with my own in 1970. But what struck me this time was how much of Judy's education took place outside the classroom and how successfully she followed Mark Twain's dictum that one should never allow one's schooling to interfere with one's education.

As a freshman, she is very conscious of her status as an escapee of the John Grier Home and her diligent attempts to "pass" as an ordinary girl are both funny and poignant.

You know, Daddy, it isn't the work that is going to be hard in college. It's the play. Half the time I don't know what the girls are talking about; their jokes seem to relate to a past that everyone but me has shared. I'm a foreigner in the world and I don't understand the language. It's a miserable feeling.
Part of her "language" difficulties consists of a lack of cultural literacy.
You wouldn't believe, Daddy, what an abyss of ignorance my mind is; I am just realizing the depths myself. The things that most girls with a properly assorted family and a home and friends and a library know by absorption, I have never heard of. For example:

I never read "Mother Goose" or "David Copperfield" or "Ivanhoe" or "Cinderella" or "Blue Beard" or "Robinson Crusoe" or "Jane Eyre" or "Alice in Wonderland" or a word of Rudyard Kipling. I didn't know that Henry the Eighth was married more than once or that Shelley was a poet. I didn't know that people used to be monkeys and that the Garden of Eden was a beautiful myth. I didn't know that R.L.S. stood for Robert Louis Stevenson or that George Eliot was a lady. I had never seen a picture of the "Mona Lisa" and (it's true but you won't believe it) I had never heard of Sherlock Holmes.

Now, I know all of these things and a lot of others besides, but you can see how much I need to catch up. And oh, but it's fun! I look forward all day to evening, and then I put an "engaged" on the door and get into my nice red bath robe and furry slippers and pile all the cushions behind me on the couch and light the brass student lamp at my elbow and read and read and read. One book isn't enough. I have four going at once. [N.B. A girl after my own heart!] Just now they're Tennyson's poems and "Vanity Fair" and Kipling's "Plain Tales" and -- don't laugh -- "Little Women." I find that I am the only girl in college who wasn't brought up on "Little Women." I haven't told anybody though (that would stamp me as queer). I just quietly went and bought it with $1.12 of my last month's allowance; and the next time somebody mentions pickled limes, I'll know what she is talking about!
In fact, in her first semester she ends up flunking both mathematics and Latin prose in her autodidactic efforts to catch up to the other girls.

I'm sorry if you're disappointed, but otherwise I don't care a bit because I've learned such a of things not mentioned in the catalogue. I've read seventeen novels and bushels of poetry -- really necessary novels like "Vanity Fair" and "Richard Feverel" and "Alice in Wonderland." Also Emmerson's " Essays" and Lockhart's "Life of Scott" and the first volume of Gibbon's "Roman Empire" and half of Benvenuto Cellini's "Life" -- wasn't he entertaining? He used to saunter out and casually kill a man before breakfast.

So you see, Daddy, I'm much more intelligent than if I'd just stuck to Latin.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Public Library -- Public Education

"I received the fundamentals of my education in school, but that was not enough. My real education, the superstructure, the details, the true architecture, I got out of the public library. For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it. Now, when I read constantly about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that the door is closing and that American society has found one more way to destroy itself." — Isaac Asimov

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Hidden Treasures

After mentioning Barbara Hambly's Ishmael, a superb example of fan fiction which melded Star Trek and Here Comes the Brides, the theme music for the latter kept running through my head. In order to exorcise it, I had to reread the novel. And as I did so, enjoying the author's handling of two sets of widely disparate characters as well as her skill in inserting characters from other old science fiction and western TV shows in cameo roles and walk-ons, I stumbled across one of the joys of a long standing personal library. I refer of course to the serendipitous bookmark.

The one at the left must have journeyed through several books before coming to rest in Ishmael which was published in 1985. It's a picture of Peregrine Took which I sketched in 1976 while working at Telecredit. Every morning the supervisor would hand each of us a small slip of paper on which she had written the times at which we were to take our breaks. My job consisted of taking phone calls from retailers who would feed me the driver's license number of customers who wished to pay by check. I'd enter the number into my terminal and the company's computer would approve or disapprove the transaction. The whole process seems quaintly old-fashioned now. It was mind numbing work, but I preserved my sanity by doodling whenever the pace slacked off, and many of my sketches ended up as bookmarks in the paperbacks I brought with me to read at lunch. Every now and then I still discover one in a book I'm rereading.

But I find other things too. Many years ago, on April Fools Day, our kids thought it would be a splendid joke to put humorous notes into random books in our library. I don't think they realized how long it would take for their parents to discover them all. I ran across a new one just last week while rereading Daddy-Long-Legs. Judging from the handwriting, it was done by Fillius Major, my eldest. A parental looking spider has a youthful fly in its clutches. "Bedtime for you, young man!" proclaims the dialog balloon. (Obviously, he was writing from personal experience.)

Holy cards are so commonly found in our books that I suspect they breed between the pages. Some are the funeral cards of relatives, and I try to say a prayer for the repose of that person's soul whenever I find his or her card in a book. But a few, discovered in church parking lots or inside used books I'd bought, belong to complete strangers. I try to say a prayer for them too -- because, after all, there are no strangers in the Communion of Saints.

And every now and then, in the most unexpected volumes, I find little notes written in my late husband's spidery hand: random jottings, to-do lists, sweet messages from the past.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels!

Exult, all creation around God's throne!
Jesus Christ, our King is Risen!
Sound the trumpet of salvation!

Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor,
radiant in the brightness of your King!
Christ has conquered! Glory fills you!
Darkness vanishes forever!

Rejoice, O Mother Church! Exult in glory!
The risen Savior shines upon you!
Let this place resound with joy,
echoing the mighty song of all God's people!

--from the Easter Vigil liturgy

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

She's Baaaaaaack!

After a long hiatus, Maureen Martin has resumed posting at I've placed her link firmly in the Humor section of my blog roll. If you've never read her blog before, do spend some time browsing through her archives. One of my personal favorites is Man Gets Birthday Wish, Church Ceases to Exist. So is Wal-mart Superstores to Introduce Church Services this Fall.

(Okay, so now you know about my twisted sense of humor.)

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Sequels, Prequels, Fan Fiction

Despite my bibliophilic tendencies, I am seldom in bookstores these days. I live on a rather tight budget, so I follow this simple economic maxim: If you don't go into stores, you won't spend money. But the other day we had some time to kill between our meeting with the tax guy and a medical appointment. So we slouched into a nearby Borders to do a bit of browsing. While Fillius Minor disappeared into the science section, I worked my way through the new releases and the bargain books.

I noticed the new 100th anniversary edition of Anne of Green Gables. It's main virtue is that it is a facsimile of the 1908 edition, and it's illustrations can help the modern reader to imagine how readers of the time might have pictured the characters. (When reading old novels my mind's eye is sometimes oblivious to period details, such as what life is really like without central heating, the actual level of illumination in a room without electric lighting, and the fact that in certain periods the hero of a novel probably would almost certainly have had a beard.)

Sitting right next to it was Before Green Gables, a prequel written by Budge Wilson, a Canadian author. I hate it when they do that! But I can also understand the longing to catch a further glimpse of a beloved world. But such simulacra never satisfy when what you crave is not simply the author's characters, but her style which is her very essence.

I will admit that I have read and enjoyed some fan fiction, particularly when based on a movie or a television series. Perhaps that's because these genres are collaborative in origin -- they have no single author. (I am very fond of Barbara Hambly's Ishmael, which merges the original Star Trek with a lesser known '60s series, Here Come the Brides.)

But in the case of works by individuals, such as Montgomery or Jane Austen, I feel that the original author is being violated. And that goes double for living authors -- though I know that some writers accept fan fiction as a sincere and flattering effusion of their reader's enthusiasm.

I think that derivative fiction works best when one is not actually trying to duplicate the style of the original author. A parody? Yes. A pastiche? Sure. But no one can be Jane Austen except Jane herself. So if you're going to write in Jane Austen's world, it helps if you don't try to sound like her and it helps if you also have some original or clever twist to contribute. I suppose that's why I somewhat enjoy Jane Fairfax by Joan Aiken. The author uses her own voice and she turns the story inside-out, making Jane the heroine and viewpoint character. She also manages to make explicable Jane's engagement to Frank Churchill who, upon my first reading of Emma, seemed scarcely better than a lighthearted cad. (Okay, maybe cad is too strong a word, but he definitely didn't seem to deserve Jane. Subsequent readings of Emma have brought more nuance to my perception of him.) In Jane Fairfax Frank is plausibly presented as a more likeable fellow without doing any violence to the original novel.

One exception to my feelings on this subject are the Oz books. Perhaps it's because I was never that emotionally that involved with them; or because the Oz books are read for incident, not style; or because Oz has made its way into our American folklore that I don't mind a bit when other authors write works set in Baum's universe. (Baum only wrote about 14 out of the 40 canonical Oz books. I did like his best though.)