In 2007, before releasing its first title, Open Letter Books, a literary press based at the University of Rochester, began running a blog called Three Percent. The title comes from an estimate of how large a share of the annual U.S. book output consists of translations. If anything, that figure may have been a little high even at the time. Given the continuing surge in the number of new titles published each year (up 14 percent between 2009 and 2010, thanks in part to print-on-demand), the portion of books in translation is almost certainly shrinking. Whether or not globalization is an irresistible force, provincialism is an immovable object. But Open Letter, for its part, is dedicated to doing what it can. The press brings 10 foreign-language books into English each year (most of them novels) and Three Percent tracks what is happening in the world of literary translation. The blog also sponsors the annual Best Translated Book Award, now in its fifth year.
As it turns out, the latest work from Open Letter was originally written in English. The Three Percent Problem: Rants and Responses on Publishing, Translation, and the Future of Reading is an e-book consisting of material that Chad W. Post, who is OL's publisher, has culled from his blogging over the past four years. (“Some were speeches that I had to give and wrote them first for Three Percent,” Post said by e-mail. “Two birds and all that.”) It can be downloaded from Amazon and Barnes & Noble for $2.99 -- with all of the profit going to pay translators. You could read all this material for free online, of course, but that would be miserly.
So cough up the three bucks, is what I’m trying to say. It goes for a good cause -- and besides, the book is a good deal, even apart from the low price. The pieces have been revised somewhat, and arranged by topic and theme, so that the whole thing now reads like a reasonably cohesive attempt to come to terms with the developments in book culture during the late ‘00s and early ‘10s. As John B. Thompson showed in his studyMerchants of Culture (Polity, 2010), dealing with any particular change in publishing requires you to grapple with the whole system -- the vast apparatus of production and distribution that connects writer and public. Translation is one aspect of it, of course, but it links up in various ways with the rest of publishing. While Post was making his running assessment of the state of literary translation, he also had to think about the new ways we buy and consume texts. One of essays is called “Reading in the Age of Screens,” which indeed could be an alternative title for the whole book.
Notification that the book was available came to me last week via Facebook, which is amusing given Post's definite ambivalence about the "all digital, all the time" tendency of contemporary life. "In the digital world," he said in a note, "we tend to stick to what we already know we want, reinforcing certain patterns, and losing some of the serendipity that a lot of readers point to as a huge influence on their life." True, and yet I did buy the book and start reading it (on a screen) within a few minutes, and was able to ask the author questions later that afternoon. The lack of serendipity was not a big problem.
One of the things I wanted to ask Post about was the peculiar role of academe in regard to translation. University presses undoubtedly account for a larger share of each year’s crop of translations than trade publishers do. At the same time, the actual work of bridging language barriers has long been undervalued as a form of scholarship. An uninspired monograph generates more institutional credit than a much-needed translation. The Modern Language Association began taking steps in a more encouraging direction a couple of years ago, when Catherine Porter (a prolific translator of books from French) was its president. And this spring, MLA issued guidelines for evaluating translations as part of peer review. But without stronger institutional recognition of the value of translation, the American tendency toward literary isolationism will only get worse -- apart from the occasional surge of interest in, say, Swedish mystery fiction.
According to a database kept by Three Percent, academic presses bring out roughly 15 percent of the translated fiction and poetry appearing each year. “I suspect this figure would be much higher if we tracked nonfiction works as well,” Post told me. “As it stands, nonprofits, university presses, and independents account for 80-85 percent of the published translations.” He mentioned the presses of Columbia University, Texas Tech, and the University of Nebraska as examples of imprints bringing out excellent books in translation. But talking with literary translators working in academe means hearing “a bunch of terrifying stories about their translation work interfering with getting tenure, etc.”
Even so, there are young professors interested in the study of translation -- “and surprisingly,” Post said, “I know at least a few who are being urged (and evaluated) by their departments to continue translating." At the same time, the classroom is a front line in the effort to overcome resistance or indifference to the rest of the world’s literature. “It always shocks me at how few books from France, Germany, Spain, Eastern Europe, etc., that students read during their studies,” he says. “It's as if American and British authors exist in a bubble, or as if students are just supposed to find out about the rich history of world literature in their spare time.... I think it would be ideal if more international works were taught in classes, giving students a chance to explore the issues of translation and helping defuse the trepidation some readers have when approaching a translated book.”
Open Letter works with the program in literary translation studies at the University of Rochester. Students “take a theory class, produce a portfolio of their own translations, and intern with the press.” Post admits that the trends in the publishing world do not point to a future in which translation will be a booming field. Thanks to "depletion in the number of bookstores (especially independents), increased focus on the bottom line, [and] the immense increases in the number of published titles," the portion of translated books "will remain around 3 percent, or even decrease when you start counting self-published titles.” At the same time, a number of small presses with a commitment to publishing translations have emerged over the past decade or so, besides Open Letter. They include Archipelago Books, the Center for the Art of Translation, Europa Editions, Melville House, PEN World Voices, and Words Without Borders.
Calling it an issue “as fraught as it could be,” Post notes that Amazon is not only “funding a lot of organizations involved in translation, but they've started AmazonCross, a publishing enterprise focused exclusively on literature in translation.” In 2010, the online bookseller gave $25,000 to the University of Rochester so that the Best Translated Book Awards could begin offering a cash prize to the winning authors and translators.
Someone willing and able to spend the money “could make a huge difference in the landscape for international literature in a short period of time,” Post told me. “This doesn't have to be a corporation at all.… I think that over the next decade, as more small presses come into existence thanks to advances in technology, changes in distribution methods, and general dissatisfaction with a lot of the stuff coming out from corporate presses, the audience for international literature will continue to increase. There may not be that many more titles being published, but the publishers doing this work will get more and more savvy at getting their titles into the hands of interested readers, academics, reviewers, etc. -- people who aren't put off by the idea of reading a translation.”
That last part is, in the final analysis, the real crux of the matter. Even when books do get translated, they are sometimes promoted very poorly. In The Three Percent Problem, Post refers to one university press that seems committed to describing the foreign novels it publishes in terms that are strangely unappealing. Without naming the press I can confirm that the complaint is all too valid: the publisher's catalog always makes the books sound desiccated, lugubrious, and inaction-packed.
It's the kind of thing that reinforces what Post calls "the overriding prejudice" about books in translation: "that they won't sell, that only the most sadomasochistic of people will read them, that reviewers will view these books as being secondary to the original version, etc." The only cure is for enthusiastic readers to communicate among themselves, to strike a spark of interest.
The walk from my front door to Inside Higher Ed’s grand new offices takes about 10 minutes – or 15, if I am following the route that runs past a couple of unmarked graves. So I’ve come to think of the plots of commercial real estate where good bookstores used to be. One was a locally owned shop. It went out of business after years of competition from a behemoth national chain that opened its doors a few blocks away. The other, of course, was the behemoth national chain bookstore itself, which left a vast, empty cavern when its holdings were sold off not long ago.
On the way home, I sometimes visit an international newspaper and magazine shop that regularly becomes frozen in time. Few, if any, new magazines will be put out for weeks at a stretch. Instead, the owner rearranges the stock, mixing in unsold copies of old issues, which makes browsing the shelves a somewhat melancholy experience. (Obama has always just been inaugurated.) A flood of fresh material sweeps through the place every once in a while -- including scholarly journals and titles so recondite that they can’t have much of a market – only to disappear again after a month or two.
The bookshops were weakened, over the years, by online vendors, and finished off with the economic downturn. And in a different way, so was the newsstand, which I have been visiting for 20 years: the non-periodical turnover of periodicals started in 2009. Nor is the end of these tendencies in sight. What little remains of the Borders chain (which has closed hundreds of stores over just the past few months) may begin liquidating as early as Friday.
The company’s owners “have no room to complain that Amazon ate their business,” writes one blogger, “when they destroyed the bookshops that belonged to serious book lovers and staffed their stores with bored college students who made out with their boyfriends in the storeroom (or maybe that was just me).”
But schadenfreude at corporate misfortune is, in this case, a bit shortsighted. The impact of “restructuring” the retail book and magazine trade (to use the blandest possible term for this wave of creative destruction) goes beyond the obvious immediate effects on consumer behavior. A revival of independent bookselling is the least likely outcome, at least in the short run. Rather, the shrinking number of outlets for hardbacks and paperbacks will create a greater incentive for publishers to emphasize e-books. (As if wiping out the expense of putting unsold copies in a warehouse were not enough.) The tendency is likely to be self-reinforcing: the easiest way to get an e-book is from an online vendor. Last summer, a prominent cyberpundit predicted that the printed book would be “dead” as a major cultural form within the next five years. This seems a little less preposterous all the time.
Actually, most of the material can be downloaded for no charge the other 11 months of the year, as well. Almost two-thirds of it comes either from repositories for public-domain works (e.g. the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg) or Wattpad, a.k.a. “the YouTube for e-books,” which describes itself as “a viral community where readers connect with authors, share stories they like with other readers and create viral fan bases for both established and brand new authors.” According to the figures available on the fair’s website, another 2.1 million titles come from the World Public Library, which normally has an annual subscription fee of $8.95 for individuals. (Educational institutions with up to 1,000 users can subscribe for just $2 a year.)
After spending a while looking into it, I’d say that none of these numbers mean all that much -- especially not the claim to be offering 6.5 million e-books. There is much duplication of content between the sources. Wattpad offers 17,000 texts from Project Gutenberg, for example. I got 17 results back from World Public Library following a search for work by the early 20th century American author and publisher E. Haldeman-Julius -- but seven of them were copies of the same book, which is also available from the Internet Archive (which offers four copies). The readability of the texts is also quite uneven. For example, World Public Library carries Joseph McCabe’s volume on George Bernard Shaw -- a title long out of print. One of the PDFs had blank pages where the original had not been scanned. The other was complete, but the text was faint.
Well, you can't beat the price, at least during the fair. A yearlong subscription to the World Public Library comes to just under 75 cents a month. It’s less like an investment than a wager: if there turns out to be some valuable but otherwise unavailable e-book in the collection, then the gamble will pay off. In any case, the fair continues for another couple of weeks. Take a look around and see if it seems worth the six bits.
“All of us who are digital immigrants have vivid memories of reading printed books in our childhood, youth, or early adulthood,” writes Tony Horava, an associate librarian at the University of Ottawa, in the June issue of Against the Grain. “We can recall the color, the cover design, and the typographical look of the pages, and any creases, folds, or imperfections in the pages; we can sometimes recall the smell and texture as well. Each book brought with it a unique experience that was intellectual, social, and emotional; the physicality of the artifact combined seamlessly with the richness of the world contained within the covers.” (Against the Grain is a magazine for publishers, librarians, and booksellers, with a particular focus on scholarly and reference books.)
Horava’s essay “eBooks and Memory: Down the Rabbit Hole?” is nothing if not ambivalent. While acknowledging that e-publishing is “being developed in a richer environment of functionality, portability, and integration than ever before,” he also worries it has “in some ways … led to a flattening of reading, an anonymizing of interaction with texts.”
The e-book “is far more than a digital version of a print book,” he writes; “it enables new associations of thought, new forms of learning and thinking, new forms of knowledge, and flexible ways to transmit scholarship.” Which sounds just grand, except for the novelty wearing thin: “In separating the intellectual content from the container of information, we have paved the way for standardization of experience and a narrowing relationship with the intellectual object.”
If Horava sounds self-contradictory, it is for good reason: his paradoxes reflect conflicting aspects of e-publishing and its effects on how we read. But his emphasis on how consuming print involves “both the physicality of the object and the world of people and ideas contained therein” seems to miss another dimension of the encounter. And that’s the place where reader and text first rendezvous – a bookshop or newsstand, often enough.
Simply having so many publications together within the same enclosed space generates a kind of surplus of information -- an excess that creates its own indirect effects on the reader. A volume glanced over one day may come to mind, years later, as worth giving another look. Accidents of shelving can teach you the meaning of synchronicity. The algorithms at Amazon are no match for an intelligent person behind the cash register.
A short video that just came out a few days ago evokes the mood of a remarkable bookshop where (to borrow Horava's expression again) “both the physicality of the object and the world of people and ideas contained therein” seem especially dense.
The venue in question, Brazenhead Books, might best be described as a literary “speakeasy” in New York City. It is not listed in the phonebook, nor are directions to it available online. You have to make an appointment to visit -- and that means you have to know somebody. A few months ago, I attended the meeting of a circle of writers, graduate students, literary agents, and uncategorizable bohemian cognoscenti that gathers at Brazenhead on Thursday nights. (My jacket still smells like an ashtray, though reportedly there is now a ban on smoking.)
The owner, Michael Seidenberg, keeps hours more typical of a Jack Kerouac character than a small businessman. It's easy to imagine buying something there at two in the morning. The books, which are all secondhand, are in excellent condition, well-organized, and reasonably priced. And the selection is crap-free. If you tried to sell him a Dan Brown novel or one of those Chicken Soup for the Soul things, Seidenberg would probably throw you out of the store and ban you.
Actually the curmudgeonliness doesn’t run very deep. “One thing I didn’t expect from selling books this way was how much I would enjoy all the people that come visit me,” he told me. “Very life-affirming.” If he thinks you are the right person for a given book and can’t afford it, something can probably be arranged. (On the other hand, he might decide he can’t part with it.)
The short film about Brazenhead by Andrew David Watson, who has taught as an adjunct in journalism at Temple University, captures something important: it’s less a store than a space. And what that space feels like is a bunker or a catacomb – a retreat from the blooming, buzzing, twittering confusion of the post-print world outside.Seidenberg makes clear that Brazenhead is not designed as a refuge for the impending collapse of civilization: "That wouldn't make sense," he jokes, "because it's already happened. I mean, what did you think the end of the world was going to look like?" At least I think he was joking.
Some months back, one of the cable networks debuted a movie -- evidently the pilot for a potential show -- that inspired brief excitement in some quarters, though it seems not to have caught on. Its central character was someone whose grasp of esoteric knowledge allowed him or her (I'm not sure which, never having seen it) to command the awesome mysterious forces of the universe. Its title was The Librarian.
The program was, it seems, a reworking of a similar figure in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That's in keeping with the fundamental law of the entertainment industry once defined by Ernie Kovacs, the great American surrealist TV pioneer: "Find something that works, then beat it to death."
At another level, though, the whole concept derived from a tradition that is pre-television, indeed, almost pre-literate. The idea that a command of books provides access to secret forces, the equation of the scholar with the magus, was already well established before Faust and Prospero worked their spells. The linkage has also left its trace at the level of the signifier. Both glamor, originally meaning a kind of witchy sex appeal, and grimoire, the sorcerer's reference book, derive from the word grammar -- one of the foundational disciplines of medieval learning, hence a source of power.
Today, it's much rarer to find the whole knowledge/power nexus treated in such explicitly occultic terms, at least outside pop culture. As for librarians, they are usually regarded as professionals working in the service sector of the information economy, rather than as full-fledged participants in contemporary intellectual life. That is, arguably, an injustice. But the division of labor and the logic of hierarchical distinctions have changed a lot since the day when Gottfried Leibniz (philosopher, statesman, inventor of calculus and the computer, and overall polymathic genius) held down his day job running a library.
The most persistent aspect of the old configuration is probably the link between glamor and grammar - the lingering aura of bookish eroticism. At least that's what the phenomenon of librarian porn would suggest. The topic deserves more scholarly attention, though an important start has been made by Daniel W. Lester, the network information coordinator for Boise State University in Idaho. His bibliography of pertinent livres lus avec une seule main ("books read with one hand") is not exhaustive, but the annotations are judicious. About one such tale of lust in the stacks, he writes: "Most of the library and librarian descriptions are reasonable, except for the number of books on a book cart."
But the role librarians play at the present time brings them closer to the most pressing issues in American cultural life than any cheesy TV show (or letter to Penthouse, for that matter) could possibly convey.
Their work constitutes the real intersection of knowledge and power -- not as concepts to be analyzed, but at the level of almost nonstop practical negotiation. It is the cultural profession most involved, from day to day, with questions concerning public budgets, information technology, the cost of new publications, and intellectual freedom. (On the latter, check out the American Library Association's page on the Patriot Act.)
Given all that, I've been curious to find out about discussions by academic librarians regarding current developments in their profession, in the university, and in the world outside. A collection of essays called The Successful Academic Librarianis due out this fall from Information Today, Inc. Its emphasis seems to fall on guidance in facing career demands. But how can an outsider keep up with what academic librarians are thinking about other issues?
Well, the first place to start is The Kept-Up Academic Librarian, the blog of Steven Bell, who is director of the Gutman Library at Philadelphia University. Bell provides a running digest of academic news, but for the most part avoids the kind of reflective and/or splenetic mini-essays one associates with blogdom.
My own effort to track down something more ruminative turned up a few interesting blogs lus avec une seule main run by librarians, such as this one. But this, while stimulating, was not quite on topic. So in due course I contacted Steven Bell, on the assumption that he was as kept-up as an academic librarian could be. Could he please name a few interesting blogs by academic librarians?
His answer came as a surprise: "When you ask specifically about blogs maintained by academic librarians," Bell wrote earlier this week, "the list would be short or non-existent."
He qualified the comment by noting the numerous gray areas. "There may be some academic librarians out there with an interesting blog, but in some cases I think the blogger is doing it anonymously and you don't really even know if the person is an academic librarian. For example, take a look at Blog Without a Library. I can't tell who this blogger is though I think he or she might be an academic librarian. On the other hand Jill Stover's Library Marketing blog is fairly new and pretty good, and she is an academic librarian -- but the blog really isn't specific to academic libraries.... Bill Drew of one of the SUNY libraries has something he calls BabyBoomer Librarian but it isn't necessarily about academic librarianship -- sometimes yes, but more often not."
Bell listed a few other blogs, including Humanities Librarian from the College of New Jersey. But very few of his suggestions were quite what I had in mind -- that is, public spaces devoted to thinking out loud about topics such as the much-vaunted "crisis in academic publishing." It was a puzzling silence.
"I can't say any individual has developed a blog that has emerged as the 'voice of academic librarianship,' " noted Bell in response to my query. "Why? If I had to advance a theory I'd say that as academic librarians we are still geared towards traditional, journal publishing as the way to express ourselves. I know that if I have something on my mind that I'd like to write about to share my thoughts and opinions, I'm more likely to write something for formal publication (e.g., see this piece.) Perhaps that is why we don't have a 'juicy' academic librarian out there who is taking on the issues of the day with vocal opinions."
And he added something that makes a lot of sense: "To have a really great blog you have to be able to consistently speak to the issues of the day and have great (or even good) insights into them -- and it just doesn't seem like any academic librarian out there is capable of doing that. I think there are some folks in our profession who might be capable of doing it. But if so they haven't figured out yet that they ought to be blogging, or maybe they just don't have the time or interest."
Now, that diagnosis may perhaps contain the elements of a solution. The answer might be the creation of a group blog for academic librarians -- some prominent in their field, others less well-known, and perhaps even a couple of them anonymous. No one participant would be under pressure to generate fresh insights every day or two. By pooling resources, such a group could strike terror in the hearts of budget-cutting administrators, price-gouging journal publishers, and even the occasional professor prone to associating academic stardom with aristocratic privilege.
Full disclosure: I am married to a librarian, albeit a non-academic one, who knew about the World Wide Web (and the proper grammar for using various search engines) long before most people did. She has proven to me, time and again, that librarians do indeed possess amazing powers. They also tend to have a lot to say about the bureaucracies that employ them -- and the patrons who patronize them.
An outspoken, incisive, and timely stream of commentary on the problems and possibilities facing academic libraries would enliven and enrich the public discourse. If anything, it's long overdue.
Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. One of his previous columns was on the pleasures of reading encyclopedias.
One sign of the great flexibility of American English -- if also of its high tolerance for ugliness -- is the casual way users will turn a noun into a verb. It happens all the time. And lately, it tends to be a matter of branding. You "xerox" an article and "tivo" a movie. Just for the record, neither Xerox nor TiVo is very happy about such unauthorized usage of its name. Such idioms are, in effect, a dilution of the trademark.
Which creates an odd little double bind for anyone with the culture-jamming instinct to Stick It To The Man. Should you absolutely refuse to give free advertising to either Xerox or TiVo by using their names as verbs, you have actually thereby fallen into line with corporate policy. Then again, if you defy their efforts to police ordinary language, that means repeating a company name as if it were something natural and inevitable. See, that's how they get ya.
On a less antiglobalizational note, I've been trying to come up with an alternative to using "meme" as a verb. For one thing, it is too close to "mime," with all the queasiness that word evokes.
As discussed here on Tuesday, meme started out as a noun implying a theory. It called to mind a more or less biological model of how cultural phenomena (ideas, fads, ideologies, etc.) spread and reproduce themselves over time. Recently the term has settled into common usage -- in a different, if related, sense. It now applies to certain kinds of questionnaires or discussion topics that circulate within (and sometimes between) blogospheric communities.
There does not seem to be an accepted word to name the creation and initial dissemination of a meme. So it could be that "meme" must also serve, for better or worse, as a transitive verb.
In any case, my options are limited.... Verbal elegance be damned: Let's meme.
The ground rules won't be complicated. The list of questions is short, but ought to yield some interesting responses. With luck, the brevity will speed up circulation.
In keeping with meme protocol, I'll "tap"a few bloggers to respond. Presumably they will do likewise. However, the invitation is not restricted to that handful of people: This meme is open to anyone who wants to participate.
So here are the questions:
(1) Imagine it's 2015. You are visiting the library at a major research university. You go over to a computer terminal (or whatever it is they use in 2015) that gives you immediate access to any book or journal article on any topic you want. What do you look up? In other words, what do you hope somebody will have written in the meantime?
(2) What is the strangest thing you've ever heard or seen at a conference? No names, please. Refer to "Professor X" or "Ms. Y" if you must. Double credit if you were directly affected. Triple if you then said or did something equally weird.
(3) Name a writer, scholar, or otherwise worthy person you admire so much that meeting him or her would probably reduce you to awestruck silence.
(4) What are two or three blogs or other Web sites you often read that don't seem to be on many people's radar? Feel free to discard anything you don't care to answer.
To get things started, I'm going to tap a few individuals -- people I've had only fairly brief contact with in the past. As indicated, however, anyone else who wants to respond is welcome to do so. The initial list:
An afterthought on the first question -- the one about getting a chance to look things up in a library of the future: Keep in mind the cautionary example of Enoch Soames, the minor late-Victorian poet whose story Max Beerbohm tells. He sold his soul to the devil for a chance to spend an afternoon in the British Library, 100 years in the future, reading what historians and critics would eventually say about his work.
Soames ends up in hell a little early: The card catalog shows that posterity has ignored him even more thoroughly than his contemporaries did.
Proof, anyway, that ego surfing is really bad for you, even in the future. A word to the wise.
Submitted by Eric Jager on August 11, 2005 - 4:00am
Unlike my first two books, produced by university presses, The Last Duel, about a notorious criminal case that riveted France in 1386, and drawing from new documents I found in the French archives, was published commercially and aimed at a popular audience. My last article focused on how to deal with commercial presses; what follows is focused on writing for them.
To appeal to a popular audience, my book had to avoid the forbidding jargon and arcane theory that now plague the humanities. It also had to offer a lively narrative that would capture and keep readers’ interest. Losing the jargon and the theory was easy -- and very liberating. But learning how to craft an appealing narrative for a general audience was a much bigger challenge. For 15 years, since beginning a full-time university teaching career, I had written mainly for other academics. How could I write a book that appealed to thousands, not just dozens, of readers?
Just as studying the trade-book business helped me to sell my book to literary agents and editors (as described in part one of this piece), studying other crossover books by successful scholarly authors gave me a kind of “on-the-job training” for the task. I also had the advice of some excellent readers, and a superb editor. Here is what I learned, including good advice and useful examples I tried to follow in writing my book, as well as some pointers and illustrations that have come my way since finishing it.
1. Getting the Reader’s Attention: A few months ago, a bookseller was telling me how people browse for books in his store, something he watches carefully. “First they pick it up and look at the cover,” he said. “If they don’t put it down, they turn it over read the quotes on the back. Then, if they’re still interested, they open it and begin reading. If they read it, there’s a chance they’ll buy it.” Of course, people don’t always begin reading a book at the first sentence. But if they do, you can grab their attention with a good opening.
"I always wondered how he did it." That’s Howard Bloch’s brief, curiosity-arousing start to God’s Plagiarist, his entertaining and revealing biography of the remarkable Abbé Migne, the 19th-century French priest who edited, printed, and sold more books by the yard than anyone else before him in human history.
Sometimes a longer, more descriptive opening works better, as when Natalie Zemon Davis maps out a whole journey at the start of The Return of Martin Guerre: “In 1527 the peasant Sanxi Daguerre, his wife, his young son Martin, and his brother Pierre left the family property in the French Basque country and moved to a village in the county of Foix, a three-week walk away.” By the end of that sentence, we’re already traveling with the family along the country roads of 16th-century France.
A dramatic conflict can open a book nicely, too. James Shapiro begins his new book, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, with the colorful story of how , on a freezing winter day, armed members of Shakespeare’s playing company nearly came to blows with supporters of the landlord of a disputed theatre, before they prevailed and hauled away the theatre’s dismantled frame. Before you know it, you’re in London 400 years ago, feeling the icy winter air and the heat of an off-stage dispute.
2. The Golden Triangle: Many readers want books about real, interesting people who lived dramatic lives in colorful times or places. Successful nonfiction books -- like most novels -- tend to work within a “golden triangle” of plot, character, and setting. Even jokes and anecdotes -- our shortest forms of narrative -- rely on these three basic elements. News articles do as well, as codified in the famous Who-what-when-where-how-and-why, which leads with character and plot. The authors of longer narratives, if they want readers, must do the same.
Plot, character, and setting -- essential to all good narratives, both fiction and nonfiction – have been analyzed in critical classics from Aristotle’s Poetics to E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. But as the humanities have abandoned the warm campfires of story for the frigid heights of theory, historians and other social scientists once given to dry fact-gathering have rediscovered the joys of narrative, as successful popular books by Simon Schama and others attest. Even in the sciences, narrative writing has enjoyed a renaissance, as popularizing experts such as the late Stephen Jay Gould have satisfied a hunger for good stories and readable essays once filled largely by the humanities.
Gould’s best-selling book Wonderful Life recounts the early-20th-century discovery of the Burgess Shale fossils in British Columbia and their profound implications for evolutionary science. Although the book is about biology, and some passages may slow down non-specialists, Gould, like many skilled writers, appeals to popular readers by telling a story. He weaves the discovery -- and belated rediscovery -- of the fossils (plot) into the personal histories of the scientists (character), situating both in the relevant geological strata or cultural milieu (setting). As signaled by the film allusion in his title, Gould even comments, by way of another story (George Bailey’s, as played by Jimmy Stewart), on the nature of narrative and its role in our scientific understanding of ourselves. Touché!
Paul Fussell’s widely acclaimed book, The Great War and Modern Memory, begins with a sentence that almost embodies the golden triangle: “By mid-December, 1914, British troops had been fighting on the Continent for over five months.” The British troops, soon to be fleshed out as individual poets and combatants, will be the book’s main characters. The “fighting” points to plot, which includes the myriad other activities -- eating, sleeping, smoking, talking, reading, and writing letters -- pursued by the troops between brutal shellings and risky raids. And “the Continent” is obviously the main setting, soon to be mapped out in Fussell’s meticulous and highly readable narrative as particular fronts, trenches, and wire-infested no-man’s-zones. From its first sentence, the book tells a story, drawing readers into its world.
3. Story Structure: As Aristotle famously said, every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or as the novelist Peter De Vries once quipped, "a beginning, a muddle, and an end." The main story in turn consists of smaller narrative units -- each with its own beginning, middle, and end -- that offer smaller payoffs to readers along the way as they move toward the big payoff at the book’s end.
The most obvious narrative unit in a book is the chapter, but chapters, too, generally consist of smaller units, often signaled by headings, or enlarged capitals, or simply white space. These smaller units tend to have their own narrative integrity. Yet all the pieces must add up to a single, compelling story.
In Trying Neaira, her unbuttoned biography of a courtesan in fourth-century B.C. Greece, Debra Hamel invites readers right into the story with her frank, immediate narrative style. Her first sentence even daringly risks a foreign term in italics -- a Greek verb with a sexual meaning -- in a way that’s sure to excite interest in the story rather than putting readers off. Hamel also divides her book (classically) into three parts that embody beginning, middle, and end. And she marks the reader’s path by dividing each chapter into bite-sized pieces of narrative topped by short descriptive headings such as “Buying Neaira” and “Playing the Sycophant.”
In my own book, The Last Duel, each chapter comprises a narrative of its own even as it advances the book’s main story. In chapter three, for example, a Norman noble leaves home to join a foreign campaign, risks his life in battle, and returns home in bad health and seriously in debt but having earned a knighthood. The chapter, although fact-based, assumes a familiar narrative shape through its pattern of journey–battle–journey (symmetry), and the character’s changed situation as a result of the campaign (development and contrast). The reader is meant to finish the chapter with a sense of completing one small story -- with its own beginning, middle, and end -- even as its results (illness, debt, a knighthood) set up the next chapter of the main story.
4. Surprise and Suspense: Crossover books can also exploit other traditional storytelling techniques, such as surprise, suspense, and foreshadowing. In The Return of Martin Guerre, Natalie Zemon Davis orchestrates a dramatic conclusion to one chapter as follows: "The Criminal Chamber was about to make its final judgment of the case, opinions being ‘more disposed to the advantage of the prisoner and against the said Pierre Guerre and de Rols,’ when a man with a wooden leg appeared at the buildings of the Parlement of Toulouse. He said his name was Martin Guerre."
Here are suspense (the wait for the verdict) and surprise (the new plot twist). The book’s title, of course, foreshadows the revelation all along, and the question is less one of what than of when. But even if we suspect what will happen, or we’ve seen the film before reading the book, the passage makes a powerful impression. The first long sentence packs its punch into its final clause, as the phrase "a man with a wooden leg" confronts us with a physical fact before the precise meaning of that fact is revealed. Thus we experience the man’s arrival, with its aura of mystery, as the people in the story did. The terse final sentence, an indirect quote, divulges the deferred meaning, as Guerre’s own voice, in effect, announces the identity of the one-legged man. The passage is founded on fact, but its carefully arranged details and rhetorical devices form the facts into a compelling piece of story.
A graduate school mentor once said to me about teaching: "You have to know everything about your subject, and then remember what it’s like not to know anything." There’s a useful writing tip here, too. For readers to understand and enjoy your book, you have to imagine how they experience the journey, the discoveries along the way, and the sense of an ending that is promised but, for a time, deferred.
5. Being There: The noted biographer Robert Caro, discussing how he tried to capture the atmosphere and events of the American Civil Rights era, once said: "Make the reader see, make the reader feel, what was happening. If it was thrilling, make it seem so." Not just another version of the old adage, "show, don’t tell,” this useful advice stresses the importance of putting the reader imaginatively at the scene. (I kept Caro’s quote taped up over my desk while writing my book.)
Caro abundantly illustrates his own advice in his widely read books. But to flesh out this fifth and final point, I’ll illustrate what Caro says with an example from an author who better embodies the crossover phenomenon, Simon Schama.
Schama’s many popular historical books have found a large readership, driven in part by his role as host for the TV-miniseries, “A History of Britain.” In the companion volume to part one of that series, Schama puts his readers right at the battlefield in 1066, as the Normans and the Saxons prepare to fight:
“If you were a Norman foot soldier you would be praying that the gentlemen on horses know what they’re doing. All around you is the scraping of metal: the sharpening of swords; the mounting of horses. You peer up to the brow of the hill and see a thin, glittering line. You cross yourself and toy with the linked rings of your coat of mail. Can they dull the blow of an axe? You’ve never faced axes in battle before....”
It’s not just the collar-grabbing repetition of “you” that makes this passage so compelling. It’s also the vivid physical details -- sights, sounds, even tactile sensations -- that tell us what it was like to be there, how it looked and felt. While the style may annoy some academic historians by “personal intrusions” or “lack of objectivity,” its vivid imagery and human emotion are precisely the things that thrill general readers and bring history alive for millions. As storytelling, it’s masterful, and it epitomizes the art of crossing over from the library or the archive into the reader’s imagination.
Eric Jager is a professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he teaches medievalÂ literature. He is the author of three books, most recently, The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France ( Broadway, 2004). The paperback will appear in September, and a BBC documentary based on the book will air during the next year.
Next week, Intellectual Affairs will undergo a big change. (For those who have been wondering why the column disappeared for the past couple of weeks, that's the reason: remodeling.)
From now on, the slot for Thursday will be dedicated to coverage of new books -- mostly, that is, of what is often called "serious nonfiction," with a definite bias in favor of scholarly titles. But the column won't entirely neglect fiction. Nor am I absolutely committed to seriousness, for its own sake, on a 24-7 basis. (Some academic books are preposterous, and they deserve attention as well.)
Work from university presses will have a definite advantage for coverage in this slot that they might not elsewhere. The same is true of books from small presses. Having a muscular publicity apparatus behind a given title won't do it any good; the only real criterion, to be honest, is the appetite and mood of my intellectual tapeworm.
You might very well find an interview with somebody whose books never get reviewed anyplace besides The Outer Mongolian Review of Phenomenological Ontology. At the same time, I plan to cover a couple of forthcoming books that will probably be best-sellers.
The distinction between "popular" and "specialized" titles is very important to booksellers; also, to snobs. Otherwise, however, it does not seem all that meaningful, let alone worthy of respect.
In its Tuesday slot, Intellectual Affairs will continue along the lines it has followed for several months now, offering the usual smorgasbord: thumbnail accounts of scholarship, glosses on current events, interviews with academics and writers, personal essays, reading notes, and the occasional targeted spitball.
The decision to take on regular book coverage is, in part, a matter of putting my backbone where my mouth is. It's easy enough to complain about the erosion of book coverage by mainstream media. Doing something about it is another matter.
Ever fewer newspapers give any space at all to books of any kind. And most that do, it seems, have cut back in recent years. Even then, they tend to run material "off the wire" -- that is, from news services. Which means (in turn) that titles and topics reflect some vague but rigid notion of what "the public" will find of interest.
As for the general-circulation newsmagazines, they are, if anything, even worse about it. Last year, I complained about this bitterly at some length in a speech at the awards ceremony for the National Book Critics Circle.
There was a murmur of assent from the crowd. And for one brief, adrenaline-charged moment, it seemed possible to imagine shaming certain very powerful media gatekeepers into a sense of responsibility.
Perhaps the days might return when Time and Newsweek felt some obligation to report on the same books covered in The New York Review of Books. They did, you know, once upon a time.
Well, no such luck. If the editors of Time and Newsweek do have a model for their cultural coverage, it seems to be People magazine.
Even when the mainstream media do attend to ideas or substantive books, there can be serious misfires, as discussed last time. After all, the ethos of a newsroom bears no resemblance to that of a seminar room.
After some years in journalism, I finally understood that the profession has its own metaphysics. Reporters exist in a universe that no scholar can quite imagine. In it, the world came into existence only during the previous week, and nobody understood a thing about it until earlier this morning.
There are good reasons for operating according to this "as if." It is a perfectly suitable framework for handling a zoning dispute or a payola scandal, for example. But it creates certain problems in covering ideas, books, or arguments with a complex backstory.
As a corrective, of course, one may zip past complexity and shoot for hipness by declaring that some concept or trend is "hot."
Lending an aura of sexiness to the otherwise abjectly nerdish strikes me, for various reasons, as a good thing. But there can be too much of a good thing. Whole sectors of academic life are already so dominated by the star system that, in attending conferences, you halfway expect to see a red carpet.
So this column will never, ever, under any circumstances, call any book, idea, or person "hot." (Paris Hilton can have that word.)
Is pessimism in order, then? Maybe it is. But there have been encouraging signs, from time to time.
The late and sorely missed Lingua Franca had a section called "Inside Publishing." It will serve as one model for the book coverage in the Thursday slot. (Between 1995 and 2000, I turned out many an Inside Publishing piece, so the inspiration here is not purely contemplative.)
And the Ideas section of The Boston Globe is an oasis in what often seems like a newspaper desert.
And while Intellectual Affairs is not a blog, it takes some inspiration from the emergence of a new and growing public sphere. Or rather, of a perpetually self-renewing multitude of public spheres -- organized in so many layers that broad, categorical statements tend to be reminders of Blake's aphorism: "To generalize is to be an idiot."
Sobering words for a generalist writer to consider, to be sure. Still, at whatever risk of nonspecialist idiocy, the new books coverage will start next Thursday.
And on Tuesday, I'll be back with a report on a contemporary thinker so disgusted by his own celebrity that he's faked his own death....well, sort of.