Monday, May 28, 2007

Size Matters

In the May 10 LRB, Michael Dobson reviewed the new complete Shakespeare published under the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare Company. While Dobson did a masterful job of discussing the merits and failings of this particular edition as well as the history of publishing and editing Shakespeare's work, I have to admit I was most intrigued by his brief aside on the massiveness of Shakespeare editions:

[The Riverside Shakespeare] is described by its publishers, Houghton Mifflin, as ‘the beautiful cornerstone of any home library’, and, given that the Shakespeare canon is only just short of a million words in length, the inadvertent suggestion that most of these books are hefty enough to be used as building blocks rather than just as reading matter isn’t far wide of the mark. (For the record, the RSC weighs in at 5lb 12oz, substantially lighter than the 1986 Oxford’s commercially suicidal 8lb 8oz, but noticeably heavier than the 2005 revised Oxford’s 4lb 8oz.)

As someone who often reads lying down and never travels without packing at least 2 or 3 books, I've always been mildly nonplussed by the tendency to publish physically large, heavy books. The RSC Shakespeare is nearly six pounds. That's heavy for a book. I can see a Renaissance scholar buying it: whatever love he may for Cymbeline or Twelfth Night, for him Shakespeare is work. I can imagine the RSC Shakespeare lying open on someone's desk as they outline their next lecture. But for a layperson, the weight of the RSC sends a message: that this is a book that's part reference book and part furniture, something to sit on your shelves and impress your guests, to be taken down and consulted from time to time, but not to take with you to read on the subway or curl up on the couch with.

I took a few of my own books and plunked them on the postal scale at work. My hardback copy of Possession (one of my favorite novels) weighs in at an eminently manageable 2 pounds 3 oz. At 15.6 ounces, 1831: Year of Eclipse is almost the perfect weight for a book. I re-read it when my left arm was useless due to a muscle injury and my reading was limited to books small enough to be managed with one hand. The World According to the Simpsons is even better: 13.5 ounces. These were all books I bought for my own reading pleasure. Books bought for class requirements were another story entirely: my Riverside Chaucer was 5 pounds eight ounces, and my Pelican Shakespeare 4 pounds 3 ounces.

As much as I understand the desirability of large, comprehensive works for educational purposes, I dislike the message sent by their massiveness: that reading is not really a part of your daily life. No one's going to lug the Pelican Shakespeare with them for a long subway ride or take the Riverside Chaucer to the local Starbuck's. I grew to love Thoreau's Walden when I read excerpts in The Norton Anthology of American Literature (3 pounds, 11 ounces); but for an edition of Walden I could really read I bought a Signet Classics paperback edition (5 ounces).

I appreciate that edition of Walden not only for its light weight but also for its manageable size: its four inches wide and seven inches tall, small enough to fit in my coat pocket or hold open in one hand. I love the message the size of this books sends: that reading is a part of your life, that people want to read and take whatever chances the day offers to do it, whether it's the afternoon break at work or a few minutes in a doctor's waiting room. A number of publishers used to produce books roughly the size of a modern mass-market paperback, both in paper and hardcover. Such books don't seem as common now, but there are a few still around. Some are imprints devoted to specific themes or topics, such as Modern Library Chronicles or Penguin Lives. Nevertheless, most hardback books are around ten inches tall and six and a half wide. Whatever the merits of the writing between the covers, I find the size a little off-putting, as if the volume is less a book to be read than a possession to be shown off. I realize that many books, many fine books, will be that size, but for ease of carrying and reading, and the feeling of intimacy that such ease enables, I will always have an instinctive preference for volumes the size of my paperback Walden.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Off Topic

When I started this blog I intended to write mostly about matters of a literary nature, unless I could use books or my work as a librarian as a jumping-off point to other topics (e. g., the links in One Nation/One Book).

But frankly I am so enraged by the subprime lending and student loan industries that I know I won't be able to think about anything else until I vent. I had heard stories of the utter venality of subprime mortgage companies before, but yesterday's story on Ameriquest left even me shocked: former employees spoke of giving false income figures for applicants so they would qualify for higher mortgages than they could afford; others described inserting extra paperwork into the stack of forms that applicants signed. The result was that applicants thought they were agreeing to mortgages with fixed payments whereas they were signing contracts that stipulated their monthly payments could be raised at any time. Of course, to subprime mortgage companies it doesn't really matter if these people default on their mortgages or not; because by the time they do, the mortgage contracts will have been sold to another company.

The stories about "preferred lenders" have been almost as infuriating. University financial aid offices maintain lists of "preferred lenders" (companies that provide student loans) towards which they steer their incoming students. The problem is, these companies often did not get on these lists by offering the best deals to students. They get on these lists by providing gifts to university employees or paying kickbacks to the universities themselves. One lender agreed to pay Drexel University $250,000 in exchange for listing as a preferred lender. The financial aid director at the University of Texas actually owned stock in a lender with which the university worked (he's been fired). The average student finishes college with $19,000 in student loans. Their universities could at the very least provide them with the most advantageous terms for such monstrous debt.

And then there's the separate issue of the obscene cost of a university education. Tuition and fees at public universities have increased an average of 35 percent in the last five years. Meanwhile, real wages have fallen. The average student graduates owing $20,000. The student loan companies better think more about sweetening the deals for their real customers--the students--and less about gifts to universities. If college costs keep spiraling, don't they realize that many young people simply won't be signing up for student loans, because they won't be going to school at all?

It is as if the most powerful institutions in our society have declared war on everyone who's not wealthy. The short-sighted ways in which companies such as sub-prime lenders pursue profits and the Shylockian game of financial aid are likely to prove destructive to the well being of the very businesses guilty of such practices. Ultimately the health of individual businesses is linked to the health of the economy, which depends on people having money to spend. People who have just lost their homes are unlikely to be spending money. Neither are twentysomethings in debt for more money than they've ever made.

Ever since Reagan untied the regulatory leashes, American businesses have been acting like wolves. And the American people are one big herd of sheep.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

One Nation/One Book?

Friday I read on-line that Attleboro, Mass. is one of the latest communities in the United States to sponsor a One City/One Book program. The One City/One Book programs are campaigns to promote reading: a municipal library suggests a specific book, and people throughout the community read it during a set time period and discuss it.

Then I pondered the absurd notion of "One Nation/One Book." I suppose the closest we'll ever come to that is Oprah's Book Club. Still, I love the idea of a nationwide book discussion. A lot of candidates came to mind: Democracy in America, 1984, Collapse.

But ultimately I settled on Henry Kamen's Empire: How Spain Became A World Power, 1492-1763. The last time I read it, I was particularly struck by the incredible talent shown by Spain's rulers for squandering good fortune. After the conquest of Mexico in 1521, staggering amounts of gold and silver flowed into Spain from the mines of the New World. But rather than enriching the country, the gold and silver simply flowed into Spanish ports and right back out again, to make payments on the monarchy's staggering debts and to buy manufactured goods from other nations, all the while neglecting industrial development in Spain itself.

Spain's troubles were further exacerbated by a crusading mentality among its rulers that led them into disastrous foreign adventures. The destruction of the Armada is the most famous debacle that befell Spain, but far worse in cost of lives and money was the long and unwinnable war in what is now the Netherlands. In spite of the presence of many dazzling minds, Spain stagnated intellectually during much of this period as well, thanks largely to a conservative religious establishment that easily felt threatened by ideas.

Your turn: what would you pick for One Nation/One Book?

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Strange, Slow Death of the American Newspaper

Newspaper book review sections are fast going the way of the mastodon. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Raleigh News and Observer recently eliminated the position of books editor as a cost-cutting measure. The stand-alone book review section of the Los Angeles Times is gone. Books coverage has been cut at the Dallas Morning News, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and other papers. Novelist Michael Connelly notes these and other cuts in books coverage in an op-ed piece published in last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times. Connelly questions the wisdom of these “business decisions” with admirable commonsense. While book review sections in and of themselves do not generate much revenue, they attract people interested in books. In other words, readers—people for whom reading is part of daily life, who read not because they “should” but simply because they enjoy it: the people most likely to subscribe to a daily paper. Of all the activities a newspaper would want to encourage, I would think reading be at the top of the list.

And despite laments about the decline of reading, those Americans who do still read are willing to spend a lot of money to do it. In 2005, the last year for which complete figures are available, net sales of books totaled $25.1 billion. From 2002 to 2005, the compound annual growth rate for trade book sales rose 9.1 percent. Instead of seeing the people spending those billions as a market to be pursued, McClatchy et al. are walking away from them.

Of course, the shareholders of the large companies that now own so many of the country’s daily papers don’t see it that way. They see very little besides the fact that circulation is down and that profit margins aren’t as high as they would like. In the May/June 2006 Extra! author Ben Bagdikian remarked that 30 years ago most major dailies considered 15 percent a handsome profit margin. Wall Street now thinks it should be 25 percent. In pursuit of those profit margins, newsroom staff have been cut, bureaus closed and total page numbers reduced. While these measures do cut costs, I doubt profit margins will increase. When news staff are cut, reporting suffers. And circulation will inevitably drop further—if the price of a product remains the same, and the quality worsens and quantity diminishes, more and more consumers will simply stop buying it.

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