Entries from April 2010

The Price of Procrastination

“Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.”

— William James

Not-So-Random House

Candide colophon

What is that little house in Random House’s logo? The New York Public Library explains (via):

In 1928, Random House commissioned the great American artist Rockwell Kent (1882–1971) to illustrate Voltaire’s Candide as the first book under its imprint. The volume’s colophon page contains the image of a house — intended to be where Candide and his companions lived and where they cultivated the final garden of the tale — which became the company’s logo, still in use today. Kent’s Candide is one of the landmarks of the American illustrated book, with specially made paper from France, a new typeface from Germany, and multiple illustrations, all exquisitely integrated. Random House issued a limited edition of 1,470 copies and another 95, these hand-colored in the artist’s studio.

Now, about that Bantam rooster…

Image: Kent’s colophon page for the 1928 Candide, number 83 of a limited edition of 95 copies hand-colored in Kent’s studio. Approximate value of the rare hand-colored books: $25,000. Image source: Felt & Wire.

Read more on Candide, including the Rockwell Kent edition, at the NYPL’s site for the recently closed exhibit on the book. About Voltaire himself, look here.

Categories: Publishing    Tags: · · · ·

Sven Birkerts: “the Internet and the novel are opposites”

Sven Birkerts on reading in a digital age in which “the novel is the vital antidote to the mentality that the Internet promotes”:

We always hear arguments about how the original time-passing function of the triple-decker novel has been rendered obsolete by competing media. What we hear less is the idea that the novel serves and embodies a certain interior pace, and that this has been shouted down (but not eliminated) by the transformations of modern life.

The essay takes a while to find its feet, in part because Birkerts seems to be thinking through the problem as he writes, but also because the subject is so damn complicated — how do we read novels now, and why bother?

Categories: Books    Tags: ·

Portrait: Philip Roth


Philip Roth at his home in rural Connecticut, 2004. (Via.) Photo by James Nachtwey. More about Roth’s work habits here.

Novels like letters

“A novel, like a letter, should be loose, cover much ground, run swiftly, take risk of mortality and decay.”

— Saul Bellow, letter to Bernard Malamud (1953)

Categories: Books · Writing    Tags: ·

How Writers Write: Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan

From “The Background Hum: Ian McEwan’s Art of Unease,” by Daniel Zalewski, The New Yorker, 2.23.09:

… McEwan keeps a plot book — an A4 spiral notebook filled with scenarios. “They’re just two or three sentences,” he said.…

McEwan said that he never rushes from notebook to novel. “You’ve got to feel that it’s not just some conceit,” he said. “It’s got to be inside you. I’m very cautious about starting anything without letting time go, and feeling it’s got to come out. I’m quite good at not writing. Some people are tied to five hundred words a day, six days a week. I’m a hesitater.”

When McEwan does begin writing, he tries to nudge himself into a state of ecstatic concentration. A passage in “Saturday” describing Perowne in the operating theatre could also serve as McEwan’s testament to his love of sculpting prose:

For the past two hours he’s been in a dream of absorption that has dissolved all sense of time, and all awareness of the other parts of his life. Even his awareness of his own existence has vanished. He’s been delivered into a pure present, free of the weight of the past or any anxieties about the future.… This state of mind brings a contentment he never finds with any passive form of entertainment. Books, cinema, even music can’t bring him to this.… This benevolent dissociation seems to require difficulty, prolonged demands on concentration and skills, pressure, problems to be solved, even danger. He feels calm, and spacious, fully qualified to exist. It’s a feeling of clarified emptiness, of deep, muted joy.

For McEwan, a single “dream of absorption” often yields just a few details worth fondling. Several hundred words is a good day.… He told me, “You spend the morning, and suddenly there are seven or eight words in a row. They’ve got that twist, a little trip, that delights you. And you hope they will delight someone else. And you could not have foreseen it, that little row. They often come when you’re fiddling around with something that’s already there. You see that by reversing a word order or taking something out, suddenly it tightens into what it was always meant to be.”

Photo by Annalena McAfee.

Categories: Writers · Writing    Tags: · ·

Tweet of the Day

The only mood in which to start writing is self-disgust. Writing becomes an act of atonement for procrastination — and “self-waste.”

Alain de Botton, master Twitterer

Categories: Writing    Tags: · ·

Only Disconnect

Plug Face by Jake Mates

Two recent tweets by Alain de Botton capture the way I’ve been feeling lately:

Awkward mathematics of my profession: for every one hour of actual writing, I need four hours of daydreaming.

So cruel that the machine I use for concentrated, slow thinking is also, in another window, more exciting than any TV could ever be.

The frenzied, always-on, real-time “Web 2.0” creates an expectation that to be well informed is to hear every bit of news the moment it breaks, no matter how remote or trivial. It is exhausting. Worse, it obliterates the sort of slow, contemplative thought that writing requires. We move so quickly from one news bit to the next that we don’t take the time to really think about any of them. Like food, information today has become too cheap and too ubiquitous, and we overeat. What we need is an information diet. De Botton again: “We require periods of fast in the life of our minds no less than in that of our bodies.”

Lately I’ve been hearing more and more echoes of my own web fatigue. Cartoonist James Sturm flees the web, leading Nicholas Carr to suggest, “Disconnection is the new counterculture.” Even among the web priests, the buzz is about the need for more filters, more “curation.” (Curation, you may recall, is what we used to call editing, which is what newspapers used to do for us.)

All of which is my (typically) prolix way of saying I’m going offline for a week or two. You may see some posts pop up on the blog, but they will be ones that I have already written and scheduled for automatic publication, like those timers that turn the lights on and off while you are away on vacation. If you drop me an email or post a comment, you likely will not get a response for a while. I suspect the web will get along without me. I know I can get along quite happily without it. See you on the other side.

Image source: “Plug Face” by Jake Mates.

Categories: Internet    Tags: ·

Flickr Find of the Day

Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, from the Library of Congress Flickr photo stream. The photo apparently dates from 1913 or thereabouts. I always imagined Conan Doyle as a less modern, more Victorian character than this — more like Holmes.

Flickr has lots of wonderful vintage images like this one, not all book-related obviously. I recommend the streams of the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, and the George Eastman House for starters, but there are lots more. If you find any needles buried in those haystacks, do let me know.

Writing Is Play

“The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression,” says Dr. Stuart Brown in this TED presentation on the importance of play. (The quote seems to originate with Brian Sutton-Smith.) I ran across this epigram yesterday in a blog post by Garr Reynolds called “The Secret to Great Work Is Great Play,” and a light bulb flashed on in my head.

I have been in an unproductive loop lately. About six weeks ago I submitted the manuscript for my third book. My editor loved the pages (the book will be released as a Random House “lead fiction” title, whatever that means) but, as always, she requested changes. I agreed with all her recommendations and was determined to finish the rewrites as quickly as possible. But the process has dragged on.

Why? Maybe I have been staring at the same project too long. I’m bored, ready to move on to a new book. Or maybe it’s the usual completion anxiety — the apprehensiveness that comes with releasing a manuscript out into the world, where its many flaws will surely be exposed.

Whatever the reason, a familiar vicious cycle has set in: the harder it is to write, the more I dread writing; the more I dread it, the harder it is to do. Mule that I am, I have responded to this dilemma the only way I know how — by working harder and harder and harder. But pulling the rope only makes the knot tighter.

So it was useful to be reminded that fiction-writing is a form of play — imaginative play. Which is not to say it is easy. Obviously it is not. But many kinds of play are not easy (weightlifting, crossword puzzles, classical piano). I have been writing for pleasure a lot longer than I have been doing it for money, but somehow the last few weeks I allowed my life’s passion to become drudgework. You cannot create that way. You have to relax. You have to bring a sense of play to your work. You have to enjoy the story you are creating even as you create it, because if it feels like drudgework to the writer, imagine how it will feel to the reader.

Image: My son Henry shows me how it’s done.

Categories: Writing    Tags: · ·


Facebook introduced the verb to “friend.” Chatroulette has introduced “nexted.” When two strangers meet randomly face to face either one can “next” the other, immediately, or at any time in the conversation. The NEXT button terminates the meeting and brings on the next stranger. If you are not female, or over 30, you’ll most likely be nexted without remorse. In fact on old guy like me will treat any encounter that is not nexted as a victory.

Kevin Kelly

Categories: Internet    Tags: ·

The Burry Principle

“Once you become an idea’s defender, you have a harder time changing your mind about it.”

— Michael Lewis, The Big Short, paraphrasing investor Michael Burry (slightly paraphrased again by me)

Categories: Odds & Ends    Tags: · ·

Is an ebook still a book?

When a printed book is transferred to an electronic device connected to the Internet, it turns into something very like a Web site.

— Nicholas Carr, “The Post-Book Book,” quoting his own upcoming book The Shallows

Categories: Books · Internet    Tags:

Can a writer quit?


… our tendency to view writing as a sort of an existential vocation, rather than a job, gets in the way of our ability to grasp that a person who writes one or two (or even five) books at one stage of his life ought not to be constantly asked when their next is coming out — because maybe they’ve turned to a new focus for their life’s work and the real answer is that they’re no longer a writer. Publishing pundits seem convinced that Salinger was sitting on a treasure trove of new work in his run-down New Hampshire home … But the evidence seems limited, in light of Salinger’s noted reluctance to share his work with anyone. Yet we continued to live and hope that something would turn up — because it’s easier to pursue false hopes and prolong fandom, than to avoid entertaining the possibility that he simply wasn’t especially interested in writing — or publishing — any more.

— Jean Hannah Edelstein, Guardian Books Blog, “Once a Writer, Always a Writer?”

Image: Salinger in 1951.

Categories: Books · Writing    Tags:

Will e-novels be shorter?

Ephraim Rubenstein - Still Life With Burned Books

A few weeks ago, over on Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell wrote a post that I’ve been thinking about ever since.

I would estimate that about 80% of the non-academic non-fiction books that I do not find a complete waste of time (i.e. good books in politics, economics etc — I can’t speak to genres that I don’t know) are at least twice as long as they should be. They make an interesting point, and then they make it again, and again, padding it out with some quasi-relevant examples, and tacking on a conclusion about What It All Means which the author clearly doesn’t believe herself. The length of the average book reflects the economics of the print trade and educated guesses as to what book-buyers will actually pay for, much more than it does the actual intellectual content of the book itself. Length may also, of course, reflect some practical judgments concerning the book as a display object.

He went on to predict “an explosion in the number of very short books/essays” as we move to a world of electronic publishing, because buyers will not be put off by shorter books when they can’t actually see (or display) them as physical objects.

I hope he is right, of course. The extinction of padded-out nonfiction books would be good news for everyone, except maybe Malcolm Gladwell.

But what struck me most about the post was how rare it is to see a discussion of how this new medium will affect books themselves. The conversation about ebooks is obsessed with the business of publishing. Which traditional publishers will survive, which won’t? Which reader will dominate, iPad or Kindle or something else? How will authors get by when publishers’ margins approach zero, as resellers like Amazon drive down prices and tent-pole authors find they don’t need traditional publishing houses at all? In all this, relatively little is said about the books.

What about fiction? In a world of ebooks, will fiction shrink, too?

I think it will, but not for the same reason. Unlike nonfiction, which begins to feel overstretched when there are more pages than ideas, there is no “natural” length for a story. Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby are equally masterpieces, of unequal length. I just finished Wolf Hall, a cinderblock of a book, but it did not feel overlong at all. If anything, it ended too soon. (I raved about it here.) The test is whether a story works dramatically. Even a very short story can feel too long.

And that is what will force novels to shrink: as we increasingly move to reading on screens, everything begins to feel too long. The reading public is losing its ability to stay focused on a longer text. Online, readers are conditioned to graze, to nibble and move on. Even the verbs we use for reading on the internet, browse, surf, suggest how superficial the experience feels. These increasingly are our readers, of fiction and nonfiction alike: harried, restless, impatient.

Worse, ebooks will increasingly share the same screens as the rest of the digital tsunami. No longer will you turn off your computer and open a book in peace. The iPad and whatever is likely to follow will be fully web-enabled, so the whole Times Square of the internet will always be one click away. For the moment, dedicated ebook-reading devices like the Kindle offer a quieter reading environment, but that is likely to change as more versatile devices like the iPad enter the market.

I have seen my own patience for long books begin to shrivel. So many novels now seem to drag, particularly in the second act. To be fair, part of it may be other pressures: between two young kids and working, I am squeezed for time. But part of it is the distracted feeling we all share today. It is the way we read now.

I have begun to tune my own writing accordingly. I made a conscious decision to make my third novel shorter than my first two by about 20%. Most of the tightening is in that critical second act, where the pace tends to slow down and the plot often wanders, to no real purpose. I am keenly aware that this novel will be competing with an array of new media and that my hold on the reader’s attention is precarious, and it scares the hell out of me. My competition  is not other novelists; it is all the other media crowding onto my readers’ screens and into their minds, try as they might to shut them out. I simply can’t afford to shuffle my feet for a hundred pages and expect the reader to still be there for act three.

Of course, there is nothing new about novelists shaping their work to the tastes of contemporary audiences. Dickens’ novels are long and intricately plotted because that was what his audience demanded. He generally wrote for serial publication in periodicals, so his stories had to extend and ramify over very long periods, like modern TV series. (HBO’s “The Wire” was often compared to Dickens’ stories, and rightly so.) Serial publication also allowed Dickens to monitor how his books were being received and tweak them as he went along to give readers what they wanted.

It is hard to give readers what they want, of course, because it is impossible to know what they want. But I suspect that shorter novels will increasingly become the norm, just as shorter nonfiction will. This, it should be noted, is a hopeful prediction. Better that novels go on a diet than die out altogether.

Image: “Still Life With Burned Books” by Ephraim Rubenstein (oil on linen, 38″ x 50″).