Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In Praise of a Great Local Antiquarian Bookshop

Three cheers for Wessel & Lieberman Booksellers. They are my favorite antiquarian bookshop in Seattle and were recently covered by The Seattle Times.

From the small piece...

If you think you have a valuable book, you probably have googled it to see what it's worth, and a "too much information!" moment has followed. What's the difference between "fine" and "near fine" condition? Why does one seller want $30, and another $300? What's the difference between a first edition and a limited edition?

Lieberman says one guide to getting a realistic appraisal is to deal with bookseller who's a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association ( — prospective members are screened by other members, and must agree to abide by a code of ethics.

Often, a W&L customer has lost a loved one, and though they may have loved the deceased, they don't love the books. "They just know they're there [the books], and they just want to get rid of them," says Lieberman. Though many old books are worth very little, there's always the exception. Lieberman says the store is currently sorting through the library of a retired University of Washington professor, and it's a treasure trove of Northwest history — "In every box we're opening, there's something unbelievably cool."

Photo care of their website.

What Does Your Bookcase Say About You?

The BBC wants to know.

Photo by John Bokma.

Science Reporting and Evidence-Based Journalism

In The American Scholar, David Brown makes remarks to the University of Iowa for the Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry.

From the piece...

I want to take the next little while to talk about writing about science in the popular press. My comments will be principally confined to science as it is reported in newspapers—how it’s done, and how to do it better.

I have been writing for newspapers for much of my working life. They are now what might be considered the wooly mammoths of the American media. People like me are hoping the Ice Age lasts as long as possible. But even when it ends, and the last newspaper keels over into the peat, there will be descendants of these once thriving behemoths, and some of them will be writing about science.

Enough of that metaphor.

What I’m trying to say is that science writing will go on forever, in one form or another.

Why? Because there’s so much science in our world, and it’s so interesting.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Jon's Writing on Venuszine

I recently went to a show by Ontario-based The Most Serene Republic. Good, they are. You can read my review here.

Here's a video of them singing "Content Was Always My Favorite Colour":

Photo by Michael Fox

Ghost Writers

The Wall Street Journal discusses the recent spate of books written by people who are already dead.

From the piece...

After author David Foster Wallace committed suicide last September, his longtime agent, Bonnie Nadell, found herself lost in a maze of words. Scattered on two different computers and in hard copies stashed around the cluttered garage where Mr. Foster Wallace had worked in Claremont, Calif., she discovered multiple versions of his final, unfinished novel. She had no idea which draft he preferred. Mr. Wallace's novel about I.R.S. agents, due out next fall, is being assembled based on the author's notes. "A great deal of it is a puzzle," she said of the novel, titled "Pale King."

A new wave of posthumous books by iconic authors is stirring debate over how publishers should handle fragmentary literary remains. Works by Vladimir Nabokov, William Styron, Graham Greene, Carl Jung and Kurt Vonnegut will hit bookstores this fall. Ralph Ellison and the late thriller writer Donald E. Westlake have posthumous novels due out in 2010. The posthumous works may generate as much controversy as enthusiasm.

Photo courtesy of (taken by Mike Guy).

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Quote of the Week

A great book should leave you with many experiences and slightly exhausted at the end. You should live several lives while reading it.
- William Styron

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday's Poem

University of Washington Professor, poet, and genius Heather McHugh, reads her poem "Space Bar":

Jon's Writing on Venuszine

I was afforded the opportunity to chat with and do a small profile with Cranberries lead singer Dolores O'Riordan for the Fall issue of Venuszine. On newsstands now!

A Conversation with Jon Krakauer

Krakauer is one of my favorite non-fiction writers working today. His books, including Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, are simply tremendous haunting works. His latest is about Pat Tillman, the NFL football player killed by friendly fire in the war in Afghanistan.

Katie Drummond, for, chatted with him recently about his writing.

From the piece...

“Every single time I write, I ask myself what the fuck I’m doing, why the fuck I’m writing,” he says, comfortably off-the-cuff at the midway point of our conversation. “Every book I finish, I swear I’ll never write another one.”He’s been obsessed with climbing since childhood, but Krakauer never had the same enthusiasm for writing. After earning a degree in environmental studies from Hampshire College, he spent his 20’s working odd jobs, then venturing out to get his fix in the mountains. When he married wife Linda in 1980, Krakauer was ready to slow down and earn a steady income, but work in his trade of choice, carpentry, was hard to find. It was then that a former professor at Hampshire, David Roberts, himself a longtime outdoors writer, suggested freelancing.

“He said that freelance writing was the best gig you could get, and I always said I’d never do it,” Krakauer recalls. “It was a last resort, but I gave it a shot and it paid the bills.”

That backup plan was soon a full-time job.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Finding the Pieces That Turn Words Into Poetry

The L.A. Times Off the Shelf blog discusses the writing of poetry.

From the piece...

Looking back, I somehow knew I should be a writer instead of a graduate student, and when I sat down before a keyboard, poetry was what happened. Why poetry and not novels or stories or screenplays is a mystery to me. Maybe it had to do with some deep internal need, or maybe I didn't have the stamina or concentration to write something longer than a page or so.

Mostly at the beginning I was putting down stray lines, and trying to fit them into what it seemed to me at the time were poems. The problem was that I had absolutely no idea what a poem was. Or maybe I had too many shallow ideas. I knew what you were if you were a good poet -- a winner of the Nobel Prize, a professor, published in the New Yorker -- but I didn't know why the poems those people wrote were considered good. They were all so different. Once I started reading literary magazines, and books haphazardly recommended to me, I just got more confused.

One burning question I remember having at the time was: Why doesn't poetry rhyme anymore? From what I could remember, the limited amount of poetry I had read in high school and college was formal. Even the 20th century poets we read -- Yeats, Frost, Auden -- wrote in forms. The only exception was T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," which was completely baffling to me.

Image care of

The Holy Grail for Stephen King Collectors

Have $90,000 laying around? Have a deep seeded desire to own the rarest book within the Stephen King bibliography? You're in luck.

10 Facts about Stephen King

Mental Floss runs down all sorts of interesting tidbits about America's favorite horror writer.

For instance...

5. He wrote a musical with John Mellencamp. It’s based on a house that Mellencamp bought in Indiana that came complete with a ghost story. The legend is that three siblings were messing around in the woods and one of the brothers accidentally got shot. The surviving brother and sister jumped in the car to go get help, and in their panic, swerved off the road right into a tree and were killed instantly. Of course, the three now haunt the woods by the house Mellencamp bought. The singer approached King about maybe doing something with the story, and between the two of them, they wrote songs and a plot for a musical called The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County.

6. If you’re a regular Q10 reader, you already know that Stephen King plays rhythm guitar for a band made up of writers. They’re called The Rock Bottom Remainders and they “tour” about once a year. King shares the stage with Amy Tan, Mitch Albom, Matt Groening and Ridley Pearson, among others.

Image care of Weekly Reader

Care to see King sing?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Jon's Writing on Vintage Seattle

I had the pleasure to write a short essay about a fascinating building down the road from where I live. It's the Home of the Good Shepherd, a former home for "wayward girls." I hope you like the piece.

Photo: Courtesy of the

2001: A Space Odyssey

Before it was a Stanley Kubrick movie (see the trailer below), it was a novel, written by one Arthur C. Clarke. How did he come up with the title anyway? How Books Got Their Titles, appropriately, answers that question.

The Lost Art of Handwriting

The Guardian has the famed author Umberto Eco discuss the lost art of handwriting and why it's important that out children learn how to do it.

From the piece...

Recently, two Italian journalists wrote a three-page newspaper article (in print, alas) about the decline of handwriting. By now it's well-known: most kids – what with computers (when they use them) and text messages – can no longer write by hand, except in laboured capital letters.

In an interview, a teacher said that students also make lots of spelling mistakes, which strikes me as a separate problem: doctors know how to spell and yet they write poorly; and you can be an expert calligrapher and still write "guage" or "gage" instead of "gauge".

I know children whose handwriting is fairly good. But the article talks of 50% of Italian kids – and so I suppose it is thanks to an indulgent destiny that I frequent the other 50% (something that happens to me in the political arena, too).

The tragedy began long before the computer and the cellphone.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

38 Facts about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Mental Floss does it again with all sorts of tidbits about the famous monster.

Liccy, Roald Dahl's Widow

The Times Online has a profile about Liccy, Roald Dahl's widow. Dahl, of course, is best known for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and other fun books for the tots.

They speak to her as buzz builds over Wes Anderson's cinematic take on Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox...

Where Does Travel Writing Go From Here?

The world is shrinking, what with the interwebs and tweeters and whatnots and hoohaws. Who will be the writing explorers now? The successors to Chatwin, Lewis and Thesiger? This is the question the Guardian tries to answer.

From the piece...

Returning to travel writing after such a long gap made me think again about the form. Has the genre anything left to offer in the age of mass tourism and the internet? And is there anyone of real talent still at work in travel writing? I believe the answer to both question is yes. Since 9/11 there has been a new insularity about English letters. The British once prided themselves on their cosmopolitan, island-nation global experience, yet throughout the Bush years our literature and media, as much as the Blair government, swallowed the Neocon lies and over-simplicifications about the Islamic world hook, line and sinker. As article piled on article, one longed to bring back the dead masters: where was Wilfred Thesiger or Bruce Chatwin when you really needed them?

Nevertheless, over the last few years there has been a slow trickle of books by younger writers which have, I think, been as good as anything published in the 1980s. Suketu Mehta's Bombay book Maximum City is one of the greatest city books ever written, in my opinion, while Alice Albinia's wonderful Empires of the Indus is a breathtaking debut by an author who writes enviably cadent and beautiful prose, but has nerves of steel and the pluck of a 21st century Freya Stark. I hugely admired Pankaj Mishra's collection of travel pieces Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond, am currently reading Christopher de Bellaigue's extraordinary book on Eastern Turkey: among Turkey's Forgotten Peoples. There are probably many others.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Dan Brown's 20 Worst Sentences

Dan Brown, the author of that book you may have heard of called The Da Vinci Code, and who just sold about 1.3 zillion copies of his newest book, The Lost Symbol, gets picked apart a little by The Telegraph as they list his 20 most clunky sentences to date.

Here are a few!

10. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: Five months ago, the kaleidoscope of power had been shaken, and Aringarosa was still reeling from the blow.

Did they hit him with the kaleidoscope?

9. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 32: The vehicle was easily the smallest car Langdon had ever seen. "SmartCar," she said. "A hundred kilometers to the liter."

Pro tip: when fleeing from the police, take a moment to boast about your getaway vehicle’s fuel efficiency. And get it wrong by a factor of five. SmartCars do about 20km (12 miles) to the litre.

8. The Da Vinci Code, chapter 3: My French stinks, Langdon thought, but my zodiac iconography is pretty good.

And they say the schools are dumbing down.

More Crappy News for Short Story Writers

That's the headline from The Rumpus about the current state of short story publishing.

From the piece...

Mark Trainer publishes an excerpt of a note he received from a “thoughtful, well-respected agent” on his blog.

“I have no confidence in being able to place a collection at this time in the world of publishing. Publishers don’t like to publish short story collections in general unless they are VERY high concept or by someone very strange or very famous or Indian. In the current climate, it is harder to publish even those. Some of the authors I represent have story collections I have not been able to talk their loyal publishers into publishing. I can’t in good conscience encourage you to send them to me. It will just make both of us feel bad. I am very sorry. If you write another novel, I will gladly read it.”

I may be doing a bit of armchair publishing here, but what are the publishing houses thinking?

The form of the short story collection is so uniquely well-suited to the Internet age. A good short story should grab you by the junk and make you yelp in that first line. So should good web copy. A good short story should be no longer than it need be. So should good web copy. I could go on. There are many very important differences between the two types of writing, but the publishing houses could be taking advantage of the similarities to develop a model that could turn a profit.

Book Thieves and their Bounty

The Chicago Tribune has a story about the criminals who steal books.

From said story...

Yet the same question -- is stealing books a simple, black-and-white issue? -- sent Bartlett to the prison in which John Charles Gilkey, another highly successful stealer of books, was then being held. Unlike Blumberg, who received a 5-year sentence for his crimes, Gilkey stole mainly from antiquarian book dealers, not libraries. Blumberg worked out intricate systems to thwart university security systems; Gilkey stole credit cards and wrote bad checks.

Bartlett spends a great deal of time interviewing Gilkey, both in and out of prison, recording his equivocation and his loneliness and his pathetic self-denial. "The Man Who Loved Books Too Much" ends up underlining an important sociological truth: For all of our excitement about new media and innovative forms of storytelling, when it comes to signifying high culture, books still rule. Books are symbols of erudition and sophistication. If you want people to think you're intelligent, you install bookshelves in your home and you fill them up. Gilkey, Bartlett notes, was obsessed with "the image of an English gentleman with a grand library." He wants books because, he tells her, " 'There's that sense of admiration you're gonna get from other people.' "

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Bored to Death

One of my favorite humorists, Jonathan Ames (great first name, by the way), is interviewed by the Huffington Post about a new series on HBO based on his writings, "Bored to Death."

The trailer for said program:

Is he America's most daring humorist? Yes.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday's Poem

John Ashbery's "Paradoxes and Oxymorons," read by DJ Spooky:

Curious What the Denver Broncos Cheerleaders Are Reading?!

Me too.

When Crime Pays

Crime fiction is big, in Scotland. Some say Scottish writers are producing some of the best crime fiction in the world today. Herald Scotland finds out why.

From the piece...

With tales of brutal murders in Georgian town houses, gang wars in grimy estates, serial killers in the north east, and missing persons on misty Hebridean isles, all investigated by a gallery of anti-hero policemen and journalists, crime writing has dominated Scotland’s literary scene since Rankin’s Rebus made his bow in 1987.

And it shows no sign of abating. The Inverness Book Festival, which starts October 5, is selling itself on the glut of Scottish crime writers attending. Writing Scotland, a strand showcasing this country’s work at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto, will be full of Scots crime writers, including Rankin, Denise Mina and Quintin Jardine. Rankin’s new book, The Complaints, introducing his major new character, Malcolm Fox, is selling just as strongly as his Rebus novels, which have racked up sales of more than seven million worldwide.

Mina, alongside Louise Welsh, Helen Fitzgerald, Harry Morris and Karen Campbell, will be taking over Glasgow’s Eastwood Park Theatre tonight to talk about the joys and challenges of the genre. Crime, it seems, certainly pays – at least if you write about it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I Thought You Might Be Interested in Seeing Book Covers from Slovakia

That said, here they are.

Pat Tillman - Anti-War War Hero

The Daily Beast discusses a new book about Pat Tillman written by Jon Krakauer, author of the tremendously powerful non-fiction books Into the Wild, Into Thin Air and Under the Banner of Heaven.

From the story...

Krakauer’s journey with Tillman’s story almost ran aground. It would prove to be his hardest book yet, with singular challenges, including two separate embeds with troops in the Afghanistan combat zone where Tillman was killed in 2004 by friendly fire from one of his fellow Rangers. The writing proved so daunting that the frustrated Krakauer fell far behind his deadline and got so “freaked out” that he withdrew the Tillman book from possible publication at one point. But part of what kept him going was the powerful voice of Tillman, who never publicly discussed his decision to leave the Arizona Cardinals for the Army in the aftermath of 9/11. Tillman’s widow gave Krakauer access to Tillman’s personal journals, and what emerged was a portrait of a complex, smart, sensitive, eloquent, and questing figure far different than the stereotypical hardass football jock portrayed in so much coverage of his life and death.

Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman (Doubleday 416 pages $27.95) is a riveting examination of another American idealist’s startling path and haunting death, as well as a trenchant recounting of this country’s troubled course amid terrorism and war.

The New York Times also discusses the book.

Ancient Book of Buddhist Chants Found

The Korea Times has a story about an exciting new discovery.

From the piece...

A Hangeul copy of an ancient Chinese book that contains the notes of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) scholar Kim Si-seup has been discovered.

The book was originally written by a Buddhist master from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and dates back to the 16th century.

``We discovered the `shiphyeondam eonhaebon' while we were examining the library of Ven. Seong Cheol (1912-1993) at Baekryunam, Haein Temple, in April this year,'' Ven. Won Taek said at a press conference at the Jogye Order, northern Seoul, Tuesday.

``It's a rare book ― perhaps even the only copy ― that is not included in the Natural Treasures list nor on the lists of national libraries and university libraries,'' he said.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Swayze Question

The literary magazine, Barrelhouse, loves Patrick Swayze. Every time they had an interview with an author they asked said author what their favorite Swayze movie was. Since Swayze died this week they decided to compile all the responses in a thoughtful post.

From the piece...

For the past five years, Barrelhouse has ended every interview with the same question: what is your favorite Patrick Swayze movie? We’ve asked The Swayze Question, quite literally, to anybody who would talk to us, everyone from Emmylou Harris to Ian MacKaye to Malcolm Gladwell to the Hold Steady.

Why The Swayze Question? Part of this whole Barrelhouse enterprise, as evidenced in our tagline, is the celebration of low culture along with more traditional “art.” And there are no movies that embody the greatest aspects of “low” culture better than Swayze movies. Road House and Point Break may be preposterous, but they are so unabashed and inventive in their preposterousness, so goddam comfortable in their own preening, goofy-ass, impossible skin, that some of us quite literally had no choice but to fall in love with them.

And alongside those ridiculous, accidentally hilarious movies, there was Dirty Dancing and Donnie Darko, Ghost and the Outsiders. People love these movies.

Confounding. Fascinating. Kind of awesome.

Also, kind of awesome, this famed Saturday Night Live piece (sorry for the quality):

I Will Not Read Your F!#*ING SCRIPT

The screenwriter of "A History of Violence" doesn't mince words.

A Life in Writing: William Boyd

One of my favorite authors is profiled on The Guardian.

From the piece...

When William Boyd decided that he wanted to be a writer, at the age of 19 or so, he had, he says, a fairly shadowy notion of what a writer's life might be like. The ambition descended on him in Nice, where he studied for a year between school and university and "started writing these little vignettes and mini-stories. I started to fantasise, in the way you do at that age, about my future life, and I wanted to be a novelist. But I didn't know anybody who had anything remotely to do with the world of literature, didn't know any writers or publishers or agents. The fantasy of being, as Chekhov said, a free artist was coloured by novels I'd read or movies I'd seen. That was where I got my information from. So it was a sort of parodic version: get up from the typewriter, stretch, mix yourself a drink, step out on to your balcony and look at the sea. That was the life for me ..."

Boyd tells this story with an emphasis on the hard work that lay ahead of him, as well his callowness then. By this stage of his career, though, it has to be said that his early daydreams seem almost laughably modest in comparison to the life he actually leads. Born to Scottish parents in Ghana in 1952, Boyd is a successful writer in the way that earlier generations - Somerset Maugham's, say, or Graham Greene's - popularly imagined such a figure. A saleable and prize-winning novelist, with a large readership in France as well as the English-speaking world, he's also in demand as an art critic, journalist and screenwriter, in which capacity his credits include Chaplin (1992), numerous adaptations of his own and others' novels, and a war movie, The Trench (1999), which he also directed. He knows both Sean Connery and JMG Le Cl├ęzio, and divides his time between France and a large townhouse in Chelsea.

You owe it to yourself, by the way, to read one of my favorite novels I've read in the last ten years or so. It's this one.

The Old Bookbinder of Beirut

There's a nice profile in The Independent about Sheikh Tijlid.

From the story...

They call him "Sheikh Tijlid" – Sheikh Binder – because he is the oldest and the most honoured bookbinder in Beirut.

There are only five left in Lebanon, repairing old newspapers, handwritten 17th-century Korans, ministry archives, cutting and pasting and then modelling fine leather covers and impressing on that wonderful soft leather the title of each volume in gold leaf. Riyad Shaker al-Khabbaz lives for his bunker of an office with its ancient iron presses, its century-old steel Arabic typeface from Germany, France and England. Some of his presses come from the homes of priests – who were the bookbinders of Beirut in centuries past.

He hands me a Koran, written in black and red ink, the margins adorned with yet more handwriting, interpretations of the sura – 300, 400 years old? – and he tells me about his client. "He is a man who greatly loves a Lebanese woman and he wants to give this to her as a gift. It is worth $100,000."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Astronomy Photography of the Year

The awards have been announced, care of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

Don't forget to celebrate by putting down your book, for but a moment, and click on some of your favorite book-related websites.

It Would Be Best for the Country to Keep Baseball Going

There's a great new site I found - Letters of Note. It's just that, letters that are significant in some way to the cultural fabric of who we are. Recently they posted a letter from Kenesaw Landis - the Commissioner of Baseball - to President Roosevelt asking if they should cancel the baseball season after Pearl Harbor and the beginnings of the U.S. involvement in WWII.

Roosevelt's reply, in part, said...

I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before.

And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.

Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half and which can be got for very little cost.

Monday, September 14, 2009

For Your Spiritual Enlightment On Monday Morn

BibliOdssey presents The September Testament.

From the description of the book...

"Luther’s first translation of the entire New Testament ['Das Newe Testament Deutzsch'] from the Greek original was published by Melchior Lotter the Younger in September 1522, with woodcut illustrations by Lucas Cranach. The so-called September Testament was received so enthusiastically that a second edition with corrections by Luther was printed as early as December of the same year.

Not only is the September Testament regarded as a milestone in the history of German Bible translation, but also it had an unequalled hand in the promotion of the Reformation, as well as in the dissemination of the High German language. Numerous reprints bear witness to its success: 12 editions were published in Basel, Augsburg, Grimma and Leipzig during the year 1523 alone."

How to Write a One-Page Wonder

A good little story has been published recently on Utne Reader.

It reads, in part...

The next person to press their forehead to my shoulder and weep over the fate of the printed word will be fined (standard practice) and then made to sit in a comfortable chair with a copy of the emerging writers issue of Urbanite. In it, there is a down right inspiring interview with the husband and wife team (writer Matthew Swanson and illustrator Robbi Behr) who run a tiny press called Idiots’ Books. They are purveyors of “odd, commercially non-viable illustrated books” distributed through a subscription service. As long as there are relentlessly innovative storytellers like these two around, words will find their way to the page and the page will find its way to a reader (who will pay for it, I assure you).

Lately, Swanson and Behr have been creating short stories they call One-Page Wonders, which Urbanite describes as “circular confections of words and images whose elements can be cut, folded, and manipulated by enterprising readers.”

Quote of the Week

To know is nothing at all; to imagine is everything.
- Anatole France

Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday's Poem

Sonia Sanchez, reading "Poem for Some Woman":


In the always wonderful Believer, there's a story about the picketing that went a spelling bee.

From the piece...

“What’s the hacksaw for?” I ask Mark Twain. “For these.” He grabs a stack of bamboo rods from the back of his car, and adds a large butterfly net, thick rolls of duct tape, a hammer, poster board, ribbons, and a stapler. The early evening by Capitol Hill throws the ineffectual shadows of office buildings across us, the air convecting heat up from D.C.’s sidewalks; you can smell the gypsum getting baked right out of the concrete.

“OK,” says his friend Tim, rubbing the sweat from his mustache and adjusting his glasses. “Let’s go.”

We slip unnoticed up to room 606 of the Grand Hyatt. Canasta cards lay untouched on a side table, along with Ziploc bags of metal badges and boxes of brochures. An international team of eight protesters is waiting, representing the London-based Simplified Spelling Society,[1] New Zealand’s Spell 4 Literacy, and both U.S. and Canadian members of the American Literacy Council. They’re engineers, retired teachers, temporary Mark Twain impersonators—and they are all spelling activists.

One of them examines the goods.

“A net?”

“It’s for catching bees.”

Out comes the hacksaw and they all set to work, cutting down the bamboo to the right size, and duct-taping picket boards to the slender rods. The average age here is about sixty-five; after traveling thousands of miles from around the globe, grandparents are getting stumped by a craft project. Pete Boardman, a retired bus driver from Groton, New York, reddens as he relives every bad art day he had in second grade. He hacksaws unsteadily, tries unsuccessfully to staple into the bamboo, and then he tangles with the tape.

“Use rubber cement,” counsels Niall Waldman, a Glaswegian transplant to rural Ontario. He grew up in the same area and time as comedian Billy Connolly, and he retains the same mischievous burr as he warns that the signs will need to be strong. “Some of the parents can get pretty testy. They’ll break your pelvis.”

A cardboard box of a thousand brochures bearing ALC and SSS acronyms stands at the ready, illustrated with portraits of Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain and proclaiming: HELPING MORE PEOPLE LEARN TO READ, WRITE, AND SPELL. Both organizations descend from spelling reform groups dating to the 1870s. At its peak in 1919, the SSS alone had as many as 2,972 members; it now has only 82, and the ALC has just 12. But like their mighty forebears, they’re on a crusade against illiteracy, delinquency, and poverty—all traceable in some degree, they believe, to the English language’s inhospitality to new learners among children and immigrants. Both groups have found new life online.

“This couldn’t have happened before the Internet,” one protester explains. “You can’t organize a picket through a quarterly journal.”

One by one, the signs are hoisted. Organizer Elizabeth Kuizenga hefts one of a cute cartoon bee pleading TAKE THE STING OUT OF SPELLING. Niall’s bears photos of Ronald Reagan on both sides, proclaiming GOOD ENUF FOR HIM, GOOD ENOUGH FOR US. The Twain impersonator—Mike Carter any other day of the year—embodies temporal dislocation by examining a picket sign of Harry Potter: MUST YOU BE A WIZARD TO SPELL? Masha Bell, a British reformer, opts instead for a sandwich board of what sounds like a breakup line: LET’S END THE I IN FRIEND.

The team festoons the picket signs with black ribbons hanging down, and pinned with dozens of badges—I’M THRU WITH THROUGH… LET’S SPELL RIGHT RITE!—until they clank like medieval banners for a crusade against the Sultanate of Merriam-Webster.

It’s the night before the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and the picketers are ready.

Hungry Like the Wolf for Reading?

If so, you might want to join the Duran Duran book club.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Amazing Poet-Bot

More here.

The Other Side of Sylvia Plath

The Second Pass talks about Plath's other writing, not including her famed The Bell Jar.

From the story...

Sylvia Plath’s only work of fiction, The Bell Jar, continues to be one of the most widely read books of all time, finding a home in most high school English curricula as the female version of The Catcher in the Rye. It’s unfortunate — and surprising — that Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, a collection that includes nonfiction, should be so neglected by the literary establishment and even by her fans.

It’s true that the book is not for the faint of heart. It takes stamina and patience to read in its entirety. Johnny Panic is the product of the Ted Hughes camp’s total control of Plath’s posthumous legacy, and Hughes’ arrogant introduction comes as no surprise. Although Hughes claimed there were seventy unpublished stories extant, he only chose twenty to include, tossed with five essays and five journal entries. His excuse for not publishing more was his determination to protect those Plath chose to caricature in her stories: “Her description of neighbors and friends and daily happenings is mostly too personal, her criticisms frequently unjust.” We might reasonably translate this to say that her description of Hughes is too just.

Here's Plath reading some of her own poetry:

Tough Love for Writers

Trying to sell a novel? There's a Query Shark out there who wants to help, even if it means telling you that your writing sucks. Canada's fine publication Maclean's has the story.

From the piece...

You’ve finished writing your novel. Now you need a literary agent. To get an agent, you must write a query letter. There’s just one snag. You don’t know the format, or how to pitch the book or to introduce yourself. You’re drowning in questions. But wait. Here’s Query Shark to the rescue.

Query Shark is the mercilessly frank alter ego of New York literary agent Janet Reid. Query Shark tears queries to shreds, circling errors and snapping at statements that make no sense. Query Shark critiques queries for free, and then posts them at for all to learn from. Names of writers are removed. Fiction queries only.

The idea came out of an event Reid started for the New York chapter of the Women’s National Book Association. Reid told Maclean’s, “My idea was that writers would come meet with agents and bring their queries. The agents would help them refine their queries: this works, this not so much. People responded very positively to seeing queries and comments. A light bulb went off over my head, and Query Shark was born in April 2008.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

46 Essential Rock Reads

Like to rock n' read? The L.A. Times has your back.

Now, how about some freakin' Led Zeppelin? Oh yeah, baby...

Fairy Tales Go Way Back. Way Way Back.

U.K.'s always brilliant Telegraph, has a story about the origins of fairy tales.

From the story...

Dr Jamie Tehrani, a cultural anthropologist at Durham University, studied 35 versions of Little Red Riding Hood from around the world.

Whilst the European version tells the story of a little girl who is tricked by a wolf masquerading as her grandmother, in the Chinese version a tiger replaces the wolf.

In Iran, where it would be considered odd for a young girl to roam alone, the story features a little boy.

Contrary to the view that the tale originated in France shortly before Charles Perrault produced the first written version in the 17th century, Dr Tehrani found that the varients shared a common ancestor dating back more than 2,600 years.


The new book blog, The Art of American Book Covers, does it again, with a fascinating exploration into cover variants.

From the piece...

Many books were issued in several variants of the same design. Some are on well defined subsequent printings or editions, or from the same dies used by a different publisher, while others are on copies that appear bibliographically identical. There are many possible reasons for this, as a related current discussion on the Exlibris listserv indicates. Books were issued in several colors to appeal to different tastes, or to fit in with home decor. One Exlibris member noted an entire private library where all the books were in blue cloth.

Reprints were sometimes done from the same type or plates with no stated print run. On a large run, more than one bookbinder may have been used. Cloth of one color or dye lot may have been insufficient for the quantity needed. Errors in stamping may have occurred and been corrected when discovered, allowing the copies with errors to be sold if the copies were still usable. If you read the various Exlibris postings there are many other possibilities as well.