Friday, November 28, 2008
The New York Times has done a clever thing: in addition to their usual "official" lists of the Top 100 and the Top 10 Books of 2008, they 've had their regular book reviewers pick their favorite books of the year. Michiko Kakutani and Janet Maslin both list their own personal top 10 here -- the only thing I wish is that they'd talk about why they loved these, rather than just including clips from their Times review.
I recently took a look at various lists of my own reading (our store staff picks, my little notebook, my Goodreads page, etc.) and compiled them, and somehow I seem to have read over 75 books so far this year. And I think this might have missed some that I forgot to write down.* (This counts trade editions of comics, though not individual issues -- so if you feel strongly that comics aren't books, for you the list is shorter.) They're not all newly published, though most are.
I've been trying to figure out how to talk about my reading, in a way that would be fun for me and useful for recommendations. Reviews of every book? Just the top 10? How could I possibly choose?
So I'm compromising. I'm listing all of the books I've read this year below. And then I'm copying a page from the Times, so to speak, and giving you my own list of favorites from this year. I couldn't manage to narrow it down to 10 -- I've got two dozen. And I couldn't even say these are the best books I read -- I can only tell you what I love about them. (I've also limited my favorites of the year to books that are currently available -- I read some galleys of books that aren't out yet, but that does you no good if you're thinking of buying them for Christmas, and I'll have time to write about them when they come out.)
But 24 makes for a nice Advent calendar sort of number -- one book per day, every day in December through Christmas Eve. So each day this coming month I'll post a short yearbook-style review of a book I loved this year. Hope it will spark your interest, give you some good gift ideas, and keep you entertained in one of the busiest bookstore seasons (because I can write them in advance and schedule them, ha!)
So to start out, here's the list of my reading for this year -- in alphabetical order, not reading order. (The Favorites are highlighted, just for a sneak peak -- if the numbers don't seem like they work out, don't worry, all will be explained.) Enjoy, and happy reading!
(Anyone else up for posting a list of every book they've read in 2008? Anybody want to share their own best-loved reads of the year?)
The 13 Clocks by James Thurber
The A.B.C. Murders by Agatha Christie
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Aya of Yop City by Marguerite Abouet
The Best of the Spirit by Will Eisner (introduction by Neil Gaiman)
The Book of Other People edited by Zadie Smith
Brooklyn Was Mine edited by Valerie Steiker and Chris Knutsen
The Customer Is Always Wrong: The Retail Chronicles edited by Jeff Martin
The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber
The Escapists by Brian K. Vaughan with various artists
The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Allison Bechdel
Fables: The Good Prince by by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham
Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
Flight Explorer Vol. 1 edited by Kazu Kibuishi
Freddie and Me by Mike Dawson
Free-Range Chickens by Simon Rich
A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam
Goldengrove by Francine Prose
The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Gus and His Gang by Chris Blain
Hellboy: Darkness Calling by Mike Mignola
Heroes Vol. 1 by Tim Sale & various artists
Heroes Vol. 2 by Tim Sale & various artists
Home by Marilynne Robinson
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley
In Odd We Trust by Dean Koontz
Incognegro by Mat Johnson
The Kingdom of Ordinary Time by Marie Howe
Laika by Nick Abadzis
Life Sucks by Jessica Abel and Warren Pleece
The Lost Colony Vol. 3 by Grady Klein
Manga Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Richard Appignanesi and Emma Vieceli
Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon
Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross
Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel
Monsieur Leotard by Eddie Campbell
Mudbound by Hilary Jordan
A Murder Is Announced by Agatha Christie
Netherland by Joseph O'Neill
The Night Of Your Life by Jesse Reklaw
No One Can Rescue Me by Elizabeth Daly
Personal Days by Ed Park
Poetry & Commitment by Adrienne Rich
Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis
The Rabbi's Cat 2 by Joann Sfar
Rock 'n' Roll by Tom Stoppard
Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead (April 2009 publication; I'll definitely write about this later)
Scott Pilgrim vol. 1: Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Scott Pilgrim vol. 2: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Scott Pilgrim vol. 3: Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Scott Pilgrim vol. 4: Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream by Jennifer Ackerman
Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow (HarperCollins)
The Size of the World by Joan Silber
Sloth by Gilbert Hernandez
So Brave, Young and Handsome by Leif Enger
Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman
Stagger Lee by Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix
Starman Omnibus Vol. 1 by James Robinson and Tony Harris
The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
Take This Bread by Sara Miles
Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan
The End of the Jews by Adam Mansbach
Three Shadows by Cyril Pedrosa
Time and Again by Jack Finney
Tinkers by Paul Harding (January publication -- I'll write about this next year)
Too Cool To Be Forgotten by Alex Robinson
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis
Who Can Save Us Now? edited by Owen King & John McNally
Y: The Last Man vol. 1: Unmanned by Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra
Y: The Last Man vol. 2: Cycles by Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra
Y: The Last Man vol. 3: One Small Step by Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra
Y: The Last Man vol. 4: Safeword by Brian K. Vaughan & Pia Guerra
You Don't Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem
Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection by Scott McCloud
* note: I have edited this list since I originally posted it, adding some books I read but forgot to write down, so the total is now over 75.
Monday, November 24, 2008
As I was delaying getting out of bed this morning, I had one of those weird morning dreams. I was reading a YA comic book about a boy and a girl who were left in the woods for dead. They somehow returned to civilization with a mutant superpower: if you got too near them you sickened and died. But it worked very slowly, so for most people it just manifested as a faint nausea. Then the boy and the girl became rockstars (apparently inducing nausea added to their mystique), and played a kick-ass show in which one of them played a Smashing Pumpkins song and the other simultaneously played some hip hop anthem, producing a harmonious chaos. As the kids were both either black or Latino, it was in a weird way a positive depiction of teens of color, influenced perhaps by Ivan Velez' Dead High Yearbook, and maybe by the animated comic (the ALP says "We used to just call it 'cheap animation'") in the extras of the Hellboy 2 DVD I watched last night. I specifically remember thinking in my dream, "I have to review this comic on my blog!" And now I have.
Emerging Leaders Scholarship winners
Last week, the intrepid members of the ABA Emerging Leaders Council looked long and hard at the 50 or so applicants for the Emerging Leaders Scholarship to Winter Institute. Since each of us represents a region, we shuffled things around so that we weren't judging candidates from our own region. And with very little trouble (well, except in narrowing it down among the stellar entries) we chose six awesome young booksellers to represent the Emerging Leaders generation at Winter Institute and have their travel and lodging paid for. Thanks to the generous sponsorship of Ingram Book Group, the following booksellers are going to Salt Lake City!
Carnegie Mellon University Bookstore
Book Department Manager
Books Inc. Burlingame
Tattered Cover Book Store
Third Place Books
Congratulations to all these winners! And thanks to my fellow council members Caroline, Megan, Sweet Pea, Emily, Jenn, and Jenn for being awesome and helping to make this all happen.
Riggio on the 4th Quarter
The Millions blog does their quarterly report on the Barnes & Noble quarterly report, which (though we indies may have mixed feelings about it) potentially offers insights on the state and future of the book industry. Steve Riggio comments thoughtfully on the decreased media coverage of books during election season, which will hopefully reverse itself now, but my favorite part is his articulation of the books=gifts strategy we've been talking about for weeks now:
"Books are fairly affordable and we hope that as consumers get into the holiday season they recognize that a purchase of $15 or $20 or $25 can give someone a fairly memorable gift."
"Fairly" used twice in the same sentence? Way to hedge your bets, Ridge old boy. But the silver lining is real enough, and it's good to hear it from the big boys.
Bookselling in hard times
Despite that silver lining -- or perhaps rather, in order to take full advantage of it -- we booksellers need to be at the top of our game right now to deal with the current and predicted hard times. Bookselling This Week has gathered all of their articles and other materials on "bookselling in hard times" - you can see them all together here. There's also an open invitation from American Booksellers Association CEO Avin Domnitz to arrange a one-on-one consultation with him. If you're having a hard time taking a hard look at your bookstore's weak spots, I highly recommend getting in touch with Avin. He's a successful bookseller from way back AND a lawyer AND a finance expert, and I've consulted with him a number of times as I've developed my business plan. I often feel a bit disheartened at first by his merciless practicality, but then I find I'm armed with the perspective and the tools I need to make necessary improvements. We can all use all the help we can get -- and talking with the ABA is free.
Obama and the book trade
Freelance book critic John Freeman (until recently president of the National Book Critics Circle, and a great friend to indie bookstores here in NYC) writes in the Guardian about how Obama's presidency will affect book sales. His prediction: we'll see bumps in the backlist titles that Obama, a great reader of history, mentions as influences, which will hopefully take the place of the anti-Bush administration books that have dominated our nonfiction shelves for years. That's not to mention the books by and about Obama, of course. The global news agency AFP has a similar story, which begins with the encouraging statement "The literati are back in charge of Washington." My fellow NAIBA board member Mark LaFramboise of Politics and Prose has a typically wry quote in the piece: after expressing gratitude that we have "a reader in the White House again", he notes "John McCain books are dead now. And we can't sell an Iraq war book now to save our souls."
At McNally Jackson, we have a display table sometimes referred to as "the Obama shrine": a dozen or more memoirs, audio books, photo retrospectives, hard policy analysis tomes, and children's picture books about the 44th president. And the shrine is selling very well, thank you. It's topped by our home-made signage using a photo of Obama and a quote from his election night speech: "Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow."
Books = Happiness
As if you didn't know this, you joyful booksellers. "A new study by sociologists at the University of Maryland concludes that unhappy people watch more TV, while people who describe themselves as 'very happy' spend more time reading and socializing." Maybe we can use this in our marketing as social proof?...
That's all for this Monday, kids. Happy reading!
Friday, November 21, 2008
First, do not fail to remember that tomorrow, Saturday November 22, is America Unchained! Communities across the country will be encouraged to shop only at independent locally-owned stores -- just for one day. If you care about the economic health of your community, the statistics are persuasive: Studies in Maine and Austin, Texas demonstrate that locally-owned businesses generate 3.5 times the local economic activity as chains. A study of 10 independent businesses and 10 chains in retail, restaurant and service in Andersonville, Illinois demonstrates independent businesses generate about 70 percent greater local economic activity per square foot and slightly more sales per square foot as chains. A study in San Francisco demonstrates the immense economic benefit to the community even a modest shift in personal spending can make.
As the American Independent Business Alliance puts it, "Now imagine the impact on your community if everyone shopped locally owned. You can stop imagining and help make it a reality."
Here in New York City, the IBNYC (that's Independent Booksellers of New York City) is doing a big push to make book buyers aware of America Unchained -- and member stores are offering lots of incentives to do your book shopping locally on the 22nd. BookCulture and HousingWorks are offering 10% discounts all day long. Bonnie Slotnick is serving free chocolate chip cookies. And there are classes, author events, and all the stuff you love from your favorite indie bookstores. As I wrote on our McNally Jackson blog, "The choice of where you buy your coffee, your prescription, your books, your lightbulbs, or your dinner might seem like just a matter of convenience. But when you choose to shop at a locally owned independent business rather than a chain store, you’re making a choice for what kind of city, and what kind of world, you want to live in." So buy local on Saturday -- it's good for the local economy, it's good for your favorite bookstore, and it's good for you.
And the incentives don't stop there. The neighborhood where I live (Park Slope) and the one where I work (SoHo) are both doing a day (or two) of incentives for shopping close to home. Buy In Brooklyn hosts the second annual Snowflake Celebration after 7:00 PM December 4 and December 11, with free treats and drinks, giveaways and discounts at great stores throughout Park Slope. The list of participants is like a who's who of all of my favorite hometown Brooklyn shops! And the evening of December 11 sees the SoHo Stroll, with great discounts, deals and giveaways from the posh shops of downtown Manhattan. These discounts are yours with the purchase of a $20 bracelet, and proceeds benefit the Association for Community Employment for the Homeless, a great organization which helps get work for homeless New Yorkers (our bookstore cleaning staff came to us through ACE, and they do a great job). Shop late, shop local!
Though readers of this blog are probably the choir that doesn't need to be preached to, there are a number of awesome initiatives happening now to highlight the perfection of books as holiday gifts. Here's what's out there so far:
Buy Books For the Holidays says "Our goal is to promote buying books as gifts for the holidays. We hope to share information about different genres and the book publishing industry, as well as help each other find books for even the most reluctant readers!" It's a brilliant grassroots efforts, supported by bloggers and readers all over. They've got gift book recommendations every day -- you can even email them to get suggestions for books for your most hard-to-buy for loved ones! And you can get a cool button like the one I've got in my sidebar to declare your book-buying intentions.
Random House knows that Books = Gifts! This site is for consumers, with giveaways, best-of lists, and other ideas for holiday book buying. And for booksellers, the Books=Gifts DIY site lets you download their clever graphics for your website, newsletter, or store signage. The message is simple and clear -- and kudos to RH for promoting ALL books, not just their own, in such a smart way.
If you find best of the year book lists helpful in choosing gifts, the wonderful blog Largehearted Boy has a huge roundup of those that have come out so far -- a good place to start.
AuthorBuzz, the brainchild of book promo genius M.J. Rose, is doing a special holiday book campaign too. M.J. explains the campaign on her blog here; starting next week, bloggers can get .gif links for their site that highlight 24 great book gift picks -- and make a percentage on click-throughs as well. Authors, readers, gift-givers, and bloggers all win!
In an internet-age take on the advent calendar (one of my favorite traditions), Bookreporter.com has a feature called "A book is the perfect gift because...", with a daily reason why books make great gifts.
And then of course, there's what I think of as the headquarters for buying indie and buying books for the holidays: IndieBound.
When you sign in to IndieBound, you can now create your own book wishlist on IndieBound -- it's just the books, not connected to any particular store or site. (Even without signing in, you can find your friends' wishlists with the search field on the front page. You can find mine under booknerdnyc... hint, hint). AND, when you become a fan of your favorite bookstores, they show up alongside your wishlist, so your loved ones who wish to give you the books you desire can purchase them at the bookstores you most want to support. As Rebecca wrote on our Bookstore in Brooklyn blog, "Nothing is finer than having a book you crave bought for you by someone you like, at a store you love."
And if you want to take it a step further, you can become an IndieBound Affiliate. You may have noticed I've finally converted my blog over to the new Blogger template -- my blog links are cooler now, my bookstore list has been updated, and you can see followers on the bottom right. This was a little like cleaning up your house before your guests arrive for the holiday party -- I wanted the blog to look nice for my IndieBound links. If you click on the "Shop Indie Bookstores" link at the right, or on ANY of the book images I'll be posting here in the future, you'll be connected to an indie bookstore where you can purchase it. If you buy it, I get a couple of cents as a referral fee -- just like bloggers can get from the big online stores. Yeah, it takes a few more clicks than some other affiliate programs, but it's a great way for bloggers to show their support for indie bookstores, and for blog readers to be able to see all book information online quickly
For example, here's a book I'd recommend highly for holiday giving: the latest from Shaun Tan, author of the award-winning crossover graphic novel The Arrival. His new book, Tales from Outer Suburbia, is really a short story collection, illustrated with Tan's beautiful, sometimes enigmatic art. It puts the mystery back into the tame streets and houses of the suburbs, revealing the adventure, romance, and pure strangeness around us. I'd recommend it for reluctant young adults, precocious young readers, or grown-ups with a well-developed sense of wonder. Click on it to find out more, or to buy it at an indie bookstore near you. And if you have your own lit blog, consider becoming an IndieBound affiliate to spread the book love.
Happy holiday season, and happy reading!
Thursday, November 13, 2008
So apart from the mildly interesting sense that I'm at the juncture of a zombie film and a sci fi future and a dystopian pop protest song... I've not got a lot going on in my fuzzy head at the moment. Back to blogging when there's something up there besides fuzz.
Monday, November 10, 2008
The link is to a site called Copyblogger, which has columns and advice about how to be a better blogger or online marketer. This particular column, "How to Change the World Using Social Media," seems especially timely after an exciting presidential election that used online media and social networking to make great things happen. It also has a lot to do with my optimism schtick around here, and I think it has the potential to be an inspiration to independent booksellers.
The key term here is social proof, which Wikipedia defines as "a psychological phenomenon that occurs in ambiguous social situations when people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior. Making the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation, they will deem the behavior of others as appropriate or better informed."
Translation: people are likely to do what they think other people are doing.
There are some fascinating examples of this: the Werther effect, in which a rash of suicides followed Goethe's novel of a suicidal hero The Sorrows of Young Werther in the 1700s, or the fact that if there is only one person on the scene when another person needs help, they're more likely to do something than if there are several people around, in which case they'll wait to see what other people are going to do, which is likely nothing.
The most relevant example for us, though, goes like this:
A well-intended statistic states, "42% of college graduates never read a book again.” (Dan Poynter’s ParaPublishing)
What people hear is “I don’t enjoy reading, and I’m in a lot of good company.”
This is the negative aspect of social proof: as Copyblogger puts it "it motivates people to do the opposite of what you want because you’re trying to change behavior already supported by social proof."
So, as Sarah wisely points out, "If you complain about how many books are sold through chains and online, it doesn't drive traffic to your store." In fact, it reinforces the message that "everyone" shops at chains and online, so if I do it, I'm just like everyone else.
Our first tendency as book people is probably to lament the herd mentality this represents; a lot of literature historically has been dedicated to individuals fighting against this sort of thing (remember the "Man vs. Society" segment in junior high English?) But in fairness, it's actually an effective evolutionary trait, that keeps us humans out of trouble for the most part, and gives us safety in numbers.
Our challenge is to be leaders of that herd, and to choose which way we want to steer. As my friend Susan and I say to each other, "You create the world you imagine." In terms of social proof, this may be literally true.
What if I tell you that bookstore sales rose 5.4% in August, to $2.43 billion, while the rest of the retail sector was flat in August? (It's true, right from the U.S. Census.) Even while book sales overall increased by only 0.6 percent , bookstore sales were up significantly higher! You'd think everyone must be buying books from brick and mortar bookstores, and that must be a good bet, and maybe you'd manage to get yourself to a bookstore to start your holiday shopping. There are other statistics you could quote that wouldn't be nearly as encouraging. But why would you steer people toward the trends you don't want them to follow?
This is one of the reasons why things like the NEA's depressing reports on reading habits make me so agitated. I understand that their goal is to get more funding for reading programs so they have to paint a desperate picture. But I can't help thinking that all this does is reinforce people in thinking that not reading is normal and to be imitated.
One of the best examples given in Copyblogger of effective social proof marketing is the bumpersticker slogan "Don't Mess With Texas." It was an anti-littering campaign, but it appealed to the tough guy types who would put it on their pickups, and who were then reinforcing non-littering behavior with their peers. It didn't lament the state of the highways and beg people to stop doing what they're doing -- it gave the target audience a way to reinforce positive behaviors among themselves.
I'm in no way advocating for dishonesty, for painting a falsely rosy picture. But I think we as booksellers should realize that we're not doing ourselves any favors by focusing on the negative. In fact, we're contributing to everything we worry about by reinforcing it.
Instead, let's get creative with ways to lead the herd -- to give tools for reinforcing the behaviors we want. IndieBound, with its cool-kid signage and slogans and social networking, is a brilliant example. (The ABA has done a brilliant job of making the IndieBound campaign pro-indie, rather than anti-chain.) The IBNYC's mission, focusing on the rich bookstore culture that exists instead of the perception that New York's bookstores have disappeared, is another. And we do it in our newsletters, in our store blogs, in our conversations with customers. Let them know what's going right, how many new email signups you've had lately, how many in the audience at your last great event.
Let's not talk about what people shouldn't do. Let's talk about the good stuff that they're already doing. Then watch our best instincts kick in, and let the good news go viral.
What do you think? How do you use social proof in talking to your customers? How have you seen it work in the negative? What do you think are some ways we can use social proof to help the cause of independent and local bookstores?
Friday, November 07, 2008
The last couple of days feel like the opposite of that. I keep remembering something wonderful has happened. Zan at A Cup of Tea and a Wheat Penny describes the almost silly sensation of joy: " Oranges look oranger. Sweaters feel warmer. Rain? Who cares!"
I respect Barack Obama all the more for emphasizing from the very first moment that this only the very beginning of a very long, hard road. But it's good to bask in the glow of something good for a moment. There has been dancing in the streets! I feel like my Pollyanna-ish optimism is suddenly in fashion again.
There is much good writing and reflection about all this, and one of the best (and briefest) is the New York Times' poetry op-eds. My favorite is Joshua Mehigan's, which I've taken the liberty of pasting below. It reminds me of the homely belovedness of my own polling place, PS 282 in Brooklyn, and the simple/complicated goodness/absurdity of American democracy.
The Polling Place
Same place as four years ago. The people arrive
tired by daytime. Nighttime is ten after five.
The flag is lit, and the sculpture of who knows who.
Here’s the fire door, wedged open with Voting and You.
From inside, a floor-wax smell. Shy people come after.
I walk past them into bright light and social laughter.
This could be Bingo. It could be a twelve-step meeting.
It could be a bake sale. I could be home eating.
The bathroom is closed to all but volunteers.
Democracy is slow. It can take many years.
Somebody’s take-out cancels the floor-wax smell.
I could be eating and doing laundry as well.
Suppose the will of the people was as heavy
as our bag of laundry out in the back of the Chevy.
Measured on that scale the will of the person counts
a fraction of a fraction of an ounce,
and if that’s correct my will is not very strong.
Still, if the right one wins I was right all along.
The bathroom is closed to all but the volunteers.
Three tons of dirty laundry is made in four years.
But then if the wrong one wins it’s not my fault.
And then one more poem, because Prose's novel has made me think of one of my favorite poets (the title and the sister's name are allusions to his poem "Spring and Fall: To A Young Child"), and because I feel like singing a hymn. Gerard Manly Hopkins' poem below is about loving complicated things, mixed blessings. We have a responsible and intelligent and progressive leader on his way to the White House -- but the world is still scary. McNally Jackson is doing okay -- but retail sales overall have slumped. Plans for my bookstore are going forward -- but the ALP is experiencing a very frustrating job hunt. Here's a hymn to all that complication, and some of the most original language and rhythms in poetry. Enjoy, and I promise I'll come out of the afterglow and get some book news up next week.
Glory be to God for dappled things --
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rosemoles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced -- fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Gerard Manly Hopkins
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
Sunday, November 02, 2008
I want to propose another reason for voting for Obama, though, appropriate to this venue: he's a man of the book. Hence today's link madness...
First, of course, he wrote a book, then another, that have been on the bestseller lists for many months, making him a friend to bookstores everywhere. I'll admit I've only read bits and pieces, but I've heard his speeches, and the man can write.
As the New Yorker recently pointed out, some Republicans have chosen Obama's skill with words as something to criticize -- equating eloquence and articulation with the opposite of action. Obviously this makes no sense -- some of our best and most decisive presidents have also been the most eloquent (Gettysburg Address? "Nothing to fear but fear itself?" Anyone?)
Then back in May, there was a flurry of excitement among litbloggers (and the publisher W. W. Norton) about this fantastic picture from the Times, which looks like it could have been a glossy book ad in a magazine. He's holding Fareed Zakaria's challenging and thoughtful work The Post-American World -- and the best part is, he's got his finger in it to hold his place. As we book nerds know, that's usually a sign you're really hoping all of these nice people will let you get back to reading before you lose the thread.
And then there's the bit about Sarah Palin maybe, kinda, asking/suggesting the idea of censoring books in the Wasilla, Alaska library. The NY Times has the extent of what's provable in all that, which is not much. But some librarians took it pretty seriously.
More recently, the San Francisco Chronicle looked at the books the candidates have said are their favorites, and asked local authors to opine on what those choices mean. Obama chose Melville's Moby-Dick, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, and Emerson's Self Reliance; McCain's choices here are For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. My favorite comment is from Daniel Handler, who's also one of my favorite authors:
All of us polish those lists for public view, and you can't get more public than running for president. But these lists do tell us something, even if it's not the truth.
Obama's list says that he'd like to convey a willingness to face heartbreak and irony, that he's open to the new and to the experimental, but that he's serious of purpose and true of heart.
McCain's list says that sure, he reads books, but he's not a pansy boy.
Actually, both candidates have expressed admiration for Hemingway's novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom The Bell Tolls, as David Margolick discusses in the New York Times. It's one of my favorite Hemingway novels as well, and it's interesting that the admired hero Robert is, uh, a socialist. Because he's an author, not an idealogue, Hemingway takes the specific circumstances of that war and makes them into a universal meditation on ideals and self-sacrifice and disillusionment and what's really worth fighting for (and being tough and making earth-moving love to boyish, vulnerable women, okay sure). But it is telling what the actual members of the idealistic Abraham Lincoln Brigade who went to Spain think:
The few veterans of that fight still alive remain unapologetically to the left; Mr. McCain won’t find many votes among them. “He’s the very antithesis of what we stood for,” said Mark Billings, a mechanic during the Spanish Civil War who now lives in El Cerrito, Calif. (He says he is only guardedly optimistic about Mr. Obama.)
There's lots more, of course: Laura Miller in Salon has a long piece analyzing Obama through his reading, and his influences range far and wide. To me, the point of that article, and the point of Obama as a book person, is what much serious reading does to one's perspective. Obama values clarity, but he also admits and respects nuance, and even ambiguity. He puts great stock in empathy: imagining yourself in the other person's shoes, which is what good fiction allows. And he's absorbed philosophers of an idealistic pragmatism: you have to give good to get good back.
Anyway, my own articulateness is at an ebb this morning, but I hope you get the point. I'm off to put my words into action and do a couple of hours at the Brooklyn phone bank.
UPDATE: One last addition: I just discovered Jon Meacham's essay in the Times about what we can learn about the presidents (and candidates) from their reading, which discusses Hemingway and the tragic/hopeful sensibility, among other things. Fascinating stuff.