The Book Don - Show your book who's boss

The Book Don's blog is devoted to powerful books and other writings that bravely and beautifully strive to better our world.

April 27th, 2014

The SAT is Changing …. and George Orwell Would be Sad

Hello there! This is my first post in over a year. I reemerge with the double promise of frequency and brevity: I will post once a week, and my posts shall be short! (ish. Short-ish. Errr …. shorter than before.)

If you’re a new reader, here’s the pith: The Book Don’s blog is devoted to powerful books and other writings that bravely and beautifully strive to better our world. I focus on books or essays that have an obvious social, cultural, or political impact. I also post about current events or developments that affect the role of the written word in our society.

The latter brings me to the focus of today’s blog entry. Last month, the College Board announced significant changes to the SAT effective spring 2016, including replacement of the legendary fill-in-the blank vocabulary section that tests knowledge of esoteric words like “pulchritude” and “byzantine” with a new section that will test oft-encountered words like “party” and “synthesis.” The revamped test seeks to be more applicable to skills that a student is likely to actually use during college and in the workforce.

Apparently, it’s not expected that our students will be using a large variety of words during their college years—and the administrators of the SAT seek to ensure that this continues to be the case. The man behind these changes to the SAT is the well-intentioned David Coleman, who played a pivotal role in developing the Common Core State Standards, which are now—controversially—being implemented in 45 states. The Common Core standards are a series of education benchmarks in math and English for K through 12 education. Tests will be administered to assess whether schools and states are reaching these benchmarks.


The lack of public support for the Common Core is best summarized by this New York teacher, who sent this editorial to the New York Times last week after the NYT published multiple articles representing opponents to Common Core as being far-left and far-right fringe groups:

And I must reiterate my disappointment that The Times, the only paper of record as far as I am concerned, totally missed the point: that parents and students and educators are ALL up in arms about the Common Core, not just extremist politicians on both sides, because to us, the Common Core standards are not even standards. They are vague ideas being developed (for huge personal profit) by billionaires and testing companies, imposed upon teachers, students and parents with complete disregard for education, learning and progress.

A sentiment that I agree with. The reason I bring this all up is because the Common Core gets a lot of media coverage (and will be getting more, now that individual states, particularly red states, are opposing its implementation). Opposition to the Core is accessible, if you should choose to peruse the topic. The changes to the SAT are implemented by the same folks behind the Common Core, a fact that’s swimming below the radar.

And these are the folks who don’t believe that vocabulary is important. Or, more specifically, they believe that one’s vocabulary should be molded to the demands of one’s likely future workplace. If you grow up to join the growing brigade of “health care administrators,” then the words you should know include: Data. Input. Demographics. Overpayment. What need have you (says my imagined David Coleman), to know the word “byzantine”?! To which I say: Blimey, you troll bogey!

The rest I leave to George Orwell, who wrote about the ability to consciously shape and mold a language (and the accompanying societal repercussions) in his thoroughly brilliant 1946, essay, “Politics and the English Language.” These are the first two paragraphs. The essay in full should be read here.

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.




December 30th, 2012

Harper Lee’s “Mockingbird” as a Novel of White Southern Conscience

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to write a YA (Young Adult reader) biography of Harper Lee for Morgan Reynolds Publishing, a Greensboro, NC-based educational publishing company. Real Courage: The Story of Harper Lee was published this month, and I can’t think of a better topic for my own blog than Harper Lee’s only novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.

If you want to know more about Harper Lee and why she never wrote another book, I suggest that you purchase my biography. For the purposes of this blog, I’d like to focus on Mockingbird and its reputation as a book that directly influenced the Civil Rights Era and race relations in the United States.

Mockingbird was published in 1960, but the semi-autobiographical novel takes place in the early 1930s, when Nelle Harper Lee was a girl in Monroeville, a small town in southern Alabama. In Mockingbird, Lee’s alter ego, Scout Finch, is a girl in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. The book’s second half focuses on the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man who has been falsely accused of rape by a young white woman and her abusive father. The plot of Nelle Harper’s novel has since become associated with the Civil Rights Era, and so what became interesting to me as I learned more about Nelle was that the authoress of Mockingbird didn’t intend for her book to be political. In the interviews that Nelle subjected herself to before she stopped talking to reporters in the mid-’60s, Nelle states that her book was intended to capture Southern small town life in the 1930s; in some cases, she explicitly distanced herself from the civil rights movement. In an interview with the Birmingham Post Herald, Nelle said:

My book has a universal theme, it’s not a ‘racial’ novel. It portrays an aspect of civilization. I tried to show the conflict of the human soul—reduced to its simplest terms. It’s a novel of man’s conscience . . . universal in the sense that it could happen to anybody, anywhere people live together . . . It amuses me that ‘Mockingbird’ is taken as a dreadfully liberal novel by some of our dinosaurs. It’s not liberal or conservative. I just hope it’s a good book.

Harper Lee is no Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin with the specific purpose of advancing Abolitionism, which I wrote about in an earlier Book Don post. Harper Lee’s intent was not political. However, insofar as the personal is always political, Lee certainly would have hoped that her message of tolerance and justice would influence her readers’ lives. In chapter seven of Real Courage: The Story of Harper Lee, I focused on the ways in which  Mockingbird influenced white Southerners in the early 1960s, especially after the release of Mockingbird’s film adaptation. What follows is an excerpt from Real Courage: The Story of Harper Lee. If you have inquiries about how to purchase Real Courage for school classrooms and libraries at a discounted rate, please visit the Morgan Reynolds website or contact me directly. Enjoy, and Happy New Year!!

From Real Courage, chapter seven:

“Over time, the public’s relationship with the book has changed. Due to its enormous popularity in schools, it ranks on the American Library Association’s list of books that are frequently challenged for potential banning. The first famous challenge occurred in 1966, when the Hanover County School Board in Richmond, following a complaint from a local physician, who labeled it “improper” and “immoral” due to the rape trial. A flurry of disputes followed, and Nelle wrote to the local paper, expressing incredulity at charges against Mockingbird’s morality: “Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners.”

… Beginning in the late ’70s, a new wave of challenges was leveled against the book: To Kill a Mockingbird was considered racist. Challenges of this nature picked up after 1981, when Warren Township, Indiana, contended the book “represents institutionalized racism under the guise of good literature.” In 1985, a similar challenge was supported by the NAACP.

It’s true that Mockingbird is told from a white perspective and contains one-dimensional black characters. A 1963 Time review of the Mockingbird film saw Tom as the stereotypical “good Negro” who is “just too goody-good to be true.” In 1966, critic W. J. Stuckey wrote that Calpurnia, the Finch’s housemaid, fills the “lovable ‘mammy’” stereotype. Novelist James McBride, in an interview about Mockingbird for Hey, Boo, a recent documentary about Harper Lee, said that Nelle’s perspective as a white writer “doesn’t absolve her of the responsibility of handling the character Tom better.” Nevertheless, McBride said that when he read Mockingbird as a boy, “it was the first time I read a book by a white writer who really discussed the issues of racism in any way that was complicated and sophisticated.”

When Mockingbird was published in 1960, its contents weren’t surprising for many black readers, who lived daily with the fear that friends or family might suffer a fate like Tom’s. Rather, the book was illuminating for white readers. Nelle’s narrative technique of showing racism through the eyes of a child allowed them to witness certain aspects of their society. Mark Childress, a novelist who grew up in Mississippi, recalled in “Hey, Boo” the impact that Mockingbird had on white readers in the ’60s:

It gives white southerners a way to understand the racism that they’ve been brought up with

and to find another way. And for white southerners at that time, there was no other way.

There were either outsiders yelling at you because you were a racist cracker, or your leaders,

George Wallace saying, ‘I’ll never be out-niggered again.’ There was no middle ground. Most

white people in the South . . . were not throwing bombs and causing havoc, but they had been

raised in the system . . . the book really helped them come to understand what was wrong with

the system in a way that any number of treatises could never do, because it was popular art, told

from a child’s point of view.

Historical writer Diane McWhorter, who was a girl in Birmingham, Alabama, when the Mockingbird film was released, recalled what it was like to sympathize with Tom Robinson at a time when racial hatred in Birmingham was at its peak: “I started getting really upset about being upset, because by rooting for a black man you were kind of betraying every principle that you had been raised to believe in. And I remember thinking, What would my father do if he saw me fighting back these tears when Tom Robinson gets shot?”

Mockingbird stays forever perched on the brink of the civil rights era, which Atticus hinted at, telling his children: “Don’t fool yourselves—it’s all adding up and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it.” In her book, Nelle is ambivalent about southern heritage. Social and racial snobbery are portrayed as a negative aspect of southern culture, while bigotry, poor education, and irrational hatred are portrayed as the worst aspects. At the same time, Nelle treasures the South—its tight-knit communities, its languid pace of life, its humor, warmth, and hospitality. In Mockingbird, Nelle hoped to show that there was another route for the South—a way to nurture its best qualities while smiting out its worst.”


October 9th, 2011

Stuff I Learned From Google Alerts: Self-Help, Rap, and the Allure of Conspicuous Consumption

Ever since starting this blog, I’ve had my Google Alerts set to the following: “Book inspired her to” – “Book inspired him to” – “Inspired by book.” For those of you who don’t know about Google Alerts, every time there’s an important article including those words, the article is sent to my email. This is how I find stories about “brave and beautiful” books that inspire distinct action.

I’ve learned a lot about other books as well. Comic books, for example, inspire a surprising number of books, plays, art gallery showings, and (of course) movies. First-time novelists are inspired by 1) their home town, or 2) an illness in the family. And finally, a lot of folks are (allegedly) inspired by self-help books.

This blog is devoted to books that are brave and beautiful, so I don’t include self-help on my list of Books That Bewitch Their Readers. I’m also skeptical that these books really inspire distinct action, or the kind of action that betters our world. Articles about inspiring self-help books go something like this: “Rich Dad, Poor Dad has inspired millions.” Such a sentence will appear before an interview with the author. Not yet have I found a story about an actual reader who actually changed their life, though surely such stories are out there.

Self-help books have been around for a long time, but they didn’t become a separate, highly profitable genre until the ‘80s. More recently, self-help books have adopted a decidedly profit-oriented message. Rich Dad, Poor Dad and Awaken the Giant Within are explicitly about money, but books masquerading as spiritual are also about money. Read this from the first page of Joel Osteen’s best-selling Become A Better You:

Frank Lloyd Wright understood the principle of stretching, constantly pressing forward, never being satisfied simply with past successes . . . too many people are living far below their potential . . . they’ve gotten comfortable, settled where they are, and lately become too easily satisfied . . . God wants you to go further. He’s a progressive God, and He wants every generation to be increasing in happiness, success, and significance . . . He never wants us to quit growing. We should always be reaching for new heights in our abilities, in our spiritual walk, in our finances, careers, and personal relationships.

He’s not talking to the top 1%, is he? Osteen is the head of a mega-church and preaches a less radical version of prosperity theology – a popular and deeply influential brand of evangelicalism that promises financial success to its followers. If you’re not rich yet, you’re not praying hard enough. Prosperity preaching gained popularity just when the gap between rich and poor was widening. It profits off the frustrations of the (growing) lower middle class. It teaches that financial woes result from personal and spiritual failure. Rather than be angry with the rich, one must strive to be rich.

Complacency with economic exploitation is likewise promoted by popular rap music. Famous rap musicians, for the most part, are individuals who became suddenly and exceptionally rich. With money, one can buy expensive alcohol, jewelry, and cars. And if you follow your dreams, you can likewise buy a Maserati. From 50 Cent’s hit song, I Get Money:

I’m stanky rich/I’m a die tryna spend this shit/Southside’s up in this bitch/Yeah, I smell like the vault, I used to sell dope/I did play the block, now I play on boats….first it was the Benzo, now I’m in the Enzo/Ferrari, I’m sorry, I keep blowin’ up….I was young, I couldn’t do good, now I can’t do bad/I ride, wreck the new Jag, I just buy the new Jag/No nigga, why you mad? Oh, you can’t do that?

He’s an asshole, but in the end his listeners want to be just like him.

Amidst a worldwide chasm between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ (as defined by capital), the rich have succeeded in convincing the poor that they can be rich, too. The more stagnant the economy becomes, the stronger the delusion of the American dream. The more dire the circumstances that artists like 50 Cent have escaped from, the more they embrace their new lifestyle. Capital accumulation has been at work for nearly two centuries, and inflation is no longer sufficient to create the mirage of ever-expanding capital; or, as some might term it, progress. From the Wikipedia page on capital accumulation: “Capital accumulation can only occur by taking income or assets from other people, other social classes, or other nations.”

As we all know but don’t like to think about, conspicuous consumption is supported by exploitative, old-fashioned industrialism in other countries, while capital accumulation (and its flip side, permanent poverty) is supported by the growing finance, insurance, and credit industries here in the states. Karl Marx, from Das Kapital:

“It is concentration of capitals already formed, destruction of their individual independence, expropriation of capitalist by capitalist, transformation of many small into few large capitals …. Capital grows in one place to a huge mass in a single hand, because it has in another place been lost by many…. The battle of competition is fought by cheapening of commodities. The cheapness of commodities demands, caeteris paribus, on the productiveness of labour, and this again on the scale of production. Therefore, the larger capitals beat the smaller. It will further be remembered that, with the development of the capitalist mode of production, there is an increase in the minimum amount of individual capital necessary to carry on a business under its normal conditions. The smaller capitals, therefore, crowd into spheres of production which Modern Industry has only sporadically or incompletely got hold of. Here competition rages…. It always ends in the ruin of many small capitalists, whose capitals partly pass into the hands of their conquerors, partly vanish.”

And from Wikipedia:

In a stagnating, decadent capitalism, the accumulation process is increasingly oriented towards investment on military and security forces, real estate, financial speculation, and luxury consumption. In that case, income from value-adding production will decline in favour of interest, rent and tax income, with as a corollary an increase in the level of permanent unemployment.

Sound familiar?

Annually, self-help products create $11 billion in profits. The top buyers of self-help products are those who previously bought self-help products. (No results. Or, as others might conclude, a good product in high demand.) It’s no surprise, then, that Occupy Wall Street isn’t a larger movement. Self-help empires, mega-churches, reality TV and prosperity-preaching music have romanced the public into a state of complacency. Why would one protest Wall Street when one wants to work there? When one, in fact, deserves to work there? When there is nothing morally wrong with working on that particular street? From The Secret, which earned its author at least $300 million:

People who have drawn wealth into their lives used The Secret, whether consciously or unconsciously. They think thoughts of abundance and wealth, and they do not allow any contradictory thoughts to take root in their minds. Their predominant thoughts are of wealth. They only know wealth, and nothing else exists in their minds. Whether they are aware of it or not, their predominant thoughts of wealth are what brought wealth to them. It is the law of attraction in action.

So . . . if we all thought about money all the time, we would all be rich. No wonder Occupy Wall Street lacks a cohesive message; we’ve all been deluded by this hogwash. We’re drowned in a paralyzing concoction of hatred (for the rich) and envy (of the rich). If we start to question the true value of accumulated wealth, of levels of conspicuous consumption that border on reckless nihilism (wrecked my car just to show that I can buy another!!) — well, I’ll stop here, because this is a contradictory thought, and I must not let it take root in my mind.

September 19th, 2011

Plague of the Locks of Love

Before I get to the locks of love, here is the continuation of my ever-expanding list of books that inspire distinct action, also known as —

Books That Bewitch Their Readers

– This coming winter, a library in Pima County, Arizona will introduce “the book bike,” a mobile distributor of free books. Karen Greene, the librarian who secured funding for the project, says she was inspired by Mia Birk’s “Joyride: Pedaling Toward a Healthier Planet,” a memoir about Birk’s involvement in Portand’s cycling revolution.

– Writing songs about books has been deemed a trend by The Seattle Times. Local musicians recently showcased “Songs About Books,” not dissimilar from The Bushwick Book Club.

– Inspired by Dave Eggers’ “Zeitoun,” the Chico City Council Chambers has organized an Emergency Preparedness Panel Discussion. Eggers’ true-story book chronicles a family effected by Hurricane Katrina. The panel discussion will address such questions as “What would likely happen in the first two to three days following a large-scale emergency in Chico?” A few days after the panel, local colleges will sponsor an event that includes readings from the book and New Orleans-style jazz. (I just spent five minutes resisting the urge to comment on this panel/event. I could never be a newspaper reporter.)

The featured book this week is “I Want You,” a 2006 novel by Italian author Federico Moccia that has inspired lovers throughout Europe to attach padlocks to local bridges, swear their eternal love, and throw the key into the waters below. As reported in The Guardian, this trend first plagued Rome’s Milvian bridge, which was the setting for the emblematic scene in the novel. The lampposts of the bridge were so encumbered with padlocks that the Mayor ordered special railings for the locks.

More recently, the trend spread to the Rialto bridge in Venice, where journalists and city officials have voiced strong dissent; one editorial deemed the locks “vulgar.” The same Italian newspaper reports that these locks also plague walls and bridges in Paris, Madrid, Lithuania, Hungary, South Korea, and China. The Huffington Post, recognizing the need to report this story with suspicion, notes that the locks of love are “allegedly inspired by Federico Moccia’s 2006 novel.”

Mountain Huangshan, China

Indeed, the provenance of this trend seems to be multiple. (I just realized there is no plural for “provenance.”) The occurrences in western European cities seem to be inspired by the book, but locks of love existed elsewhere before the book was published. In the 1980s, ‘love padlocks’ became popular in a small Hungarian town. And on the guard bars and iron chains lining walking trails in Huangshan Mountain, China, lovers throw “lover lock” keys off a cliff as symbol of eternal devotion. This devotional act is linked to a local legend:

A long time ago, a beautiful girl fell in love with a poor young man, but her father didn’t want his daughter to live a poor life. The father told his daughter to marry a rich man. On the day of the wedding, the poor young man stole the girl and they escaped to the Huangshan Mountain. In that situation, they held hands and jumped into the deep cliff. Before they jumped, they said to one another: “I have the same mind with you, faithful to you, I have my infatuation for you, and will never change my mind.”

It’s interesting that the same object – a small padlock – inspires similar stories and metaphorical acts in different locations and cultures. This is a well-documented phenomenon with animals and other “nature objects” like trees. For example, metaphors and language about the sun are so laden with words/images of nurturing/power/truth that we forget such language came from the sun in the first place (the light of truth, etc.). It seems that in this case, a padlock plus key makes people think about the binding power of romantic love. What other industrial products, I wonder, inspire such ubiquitous flights of fancy?

August 18th, 2011

Birth of a Recovering Plunderer

Before I get started about the recovering plunderer, the gentle king of carpets, here’s the debut of my ever-expanding list of books that have inspired distinct action:

Books That Bewitch Their Readers

– Recently, the research-and-development arm of the U.S. military announced an award of up to $500,000 in seed money for a project that will bring us closer to interstellar (that’s ‘between the stars’) space travel. David Neyland, the founder of the project, was inspired by Time for the Stars, a sci-fi novel by Robert A. Heinlein in which an organization called The Long Range Foundation invests in interstellar travel. Read about it here.

– On March 31, 1973, heavyweight boxer Ken Norton broke Muhammad Ali’s jaw, thus becoming (and remaining) the second man to beat Ali in a professional match. Norton attributed his win to Think and Grow Rich, a self-help/philosophy book by Napoleon Hill. To quote sportswriter Jim Murray: “Close students of the game are inclined to credit a man in his corner more than the book on his nightstand.” But such was not the case, it seems, with Ken Norton. According to Jim Murray, when Ken Norton beat Ali, “The world couldn’t have been more shocked if a statue in the park began to swat the pigeons.” Actually, you should really just read Jim Murray’s article in full, a potent reminder that journalists once had greater creative license.

– Books mentioned in my earlier posts include The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek (inspired Ron Paul to become a politician) and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (inspired, umm, the Civil War).

The featured book this week is Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability, in which the author argues for ecological and humanistic business models. In 1994, Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of one of the world’s largest carpet and commercial fabric manufacturers, read this book. The reading of this book was later recalled by Ray as a “conversion experience.” It was a “spear in the chest.” Ray was reborn as a “recovering plunderer.” In a 2005 speech, he said,

“I read on and was dumbfounded by how much I did not know about the environment, and the impacts of the industrial system on the environment — the industrial system of which I and my ‘successful’ company were an integral part. A new definition of success burst into my consciousness, and the latent sense of legacy asserted itself. I got it. I was a plunderer of Earth, and that is not the legacy one wants to leave behind. I wept.”

Ray didn’t waste any time. According to a 2007 New York Times profile, Ray’s company Interface Inc. had reduced its consumption of fossil fuels by 45% since 1994. The company’s worldwide contribution to landfills was cut by 80%, and its use of water was down one third. During this same time period, sales were up 49 per cent. Innovative solutions were central to Ray’s plans. He and individuals at his company engineered the “cool blue machine” which transforms carpet waste that would have been landfilled into carpet backing. They harnessed the power of local sources by converting the local landfill into a bioreactor that burns the methane released by garbage and uses the resulting energy to fuel their factory.

Ray passed away this August at age 77. He spent the later years of his life traveling around, spreading the message of business responsibility. He emphasized that the divide between profits and environmentalism is illusory; moral businesses, he argued, are profitable businesses. His words lacked the platitudinous ring of other so-called “social response capitalists.” In an amazing eulogy that was printed with permission by The New York Times, Paul Hawken, author of the book that started it all, said,

“Business audiences in particular had no defenses because they had no framework for Ray. Was he really a businessman? Yes. Was he a conservative southern gentleman with that very refined Georgia drawl. Yes. Was he successful? For sure. Well, then where did these radical statements come from? Ironically, because people could not connect the dots, he was extraordinarily credible.

People called Ray a dreamer. To be sure, he was, but he was also an engineer. He had definitely seen the mountain, but he also dreamed in balance sheets, thermodynamics, and resource flow theory. He dreamed a world yet to come because dreams of a livable future are not coming from our politicians, bankers, and the media. For Ray, reimagining the world was a responsibility, something owed to our children’s children, a gift to a future that is begging for selflessness and vision.”

August 3rd, 2011

Could E-Books Breed Apathy?

Last month, I read a book on a Kindle for the first time. But it wasn’t the first time I had read this particular book; I first read Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood about six years ago, when I was a few years older than the book’s adolescent protagonist, Toru Watanabe. Years later, I couldn’t remember the book’s plot as well as I could remember the feeling it left behind – something of mournful nostalgia, muted emotions, angst and heartbreak. I also remembered the book itself. It was a light paperback, fluttery and vulnerable, like the book’s female characters. The cover image was a close-up likeness of a woman’s face. Her expression is woeful and distant but otherwise impossible to interpret. The colors are bright pink and bright purple and bright yellow: the contrast between this chromatic cheerfulness and the sadness of the face and the tragedy of the novel itself left an indelible impression: my memory of the book is bound with this cover image. I read the first chapters in the living room of my mom’s house during the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college; I remember that bright cover in the summer sun of the glass-walled room. I read the latter part of the book upstairs, in a dark bedroom, and as the novel’s morbid plot revealed itself fully, that wraithly face on the cover changed expression in the shadows.

When I re-read this book on a Kindle last month, I disliked it. I found the writing to be simplistic, the characters flat, the plot insipid. I attribute most of this to my changing tastes as a reader. But I was surprised by the depths of my apathy toward a book I had once liked so much. I wondered if my reaction would have been different had I read from the old paperback copy. I would have disliked the writing itself, surely, but perhaps something of what I felt before would have stirred within me. The synesthetic clashing of words and smells and tastes and sounds and images that coupled the book and its cover with the story inside the book is singular; it is tied to me, my memories, the physical book, and the story. When reading Norwegian Wood on a Kindle, I was overwhelmed by a surprisingly urgent impulse to go home and find that paperback.

In a post entitled “In which, Emphatically and Forever, I Decline to Care How Books Smell,” NPR blogger Linda Holmes lampoons the army of luddites who lament the smell-less-ness of e-books. In response, Holmes lists the various perks of e-books: changeable font size; affordability; convenience. She also mistakes the obsession with olfaction as being a simple matter of olfactory preference: “I’m not offended by people who like how books smell,” she writes. “Everything can and should have fans…the problem comes when you imply that if you do not have that instinct, then there is something missing from your life as a reader.”

For me, a book’s smell falls under two categories: Smells that lead to sneezing; smells that don’t lead to sneezing. (I’m allergic to must.) I suspect that many have latched onto “smell” as the easiest way to express something more complex that they find lacking in e-books. As Holmes points out in her blog, those who complain about smell begin with the smell hypothesis, but then discuss seemingly unrelated factors, such as where they read the book or where they bought the book.

Immanent in a physical book is not just a particular smell, texture, size, color, design and weight, but also the exchange of the book, which takes place at a store, through the mail, or elsewhere as a hand-to-hand exchange. These transactions become memories, and for me, these memories become inextricable from the meaning of the story within the book. When I later recall a book’s content, I find this recollection colored by memories of where I found it, who gave it to me, its weight, its size, its look. An e-book, in contrast, is always bought onscreen, absent a conversation with a bookseller or a drive to a friend’s apartment to pick the book up. Font and format notwithstanding, its physical presence is always identical to other books viewed on the e-reader.

This is all rather self-evident, and one could easily argue that a book’s actual meaning is better off unadulterated by the sandwiching context of the book’s purchase or the oppressive influence of the book’s smell. What I’m concerned about here is the actual formation and retention of memory, which is influenced by the five senses, and retention of narrative, which is influenced by the context in which a narrative is told.

Smell, for example, indeed prompts access to stored memories – but only when a person is confronted again with the same smell. Similarly, recollection of a particular narrative is dislodged from stored memory in the brain when an individual enters the place in which the narrative was told, or is confronted with an object that provokes recollection of the narrative. For a book, this could mean picking the book up or entering the location in which the book was sold. Could the sensory void of an e-book actually diminish our ability to remember the content and meaning of the book within? And if so, might books with political or polemic ambitions be less influential if read on an e-reader?

To explore context and physicality as it relates to the influence of a particular book, let’s analyze the original editions of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, a pamphlet that is often cited as inciting the Revolutionary War.

Historians contend that Common Sense was widely disseminated throughout the U.S. within months of first publication in 1776. Its power is recalled as magical, as though every American read Common Sense and then instantly hated the British. In truth, it’s possible that the pamphlet’s success was propelled by a highly publicized conflict between Paine and his publisher, Robert Bell, who released the second edition of Common Sense one week after the first edition sold out before first consulting Paine – who, irate, went to a second publisher, William and Thomas Bradford, to print a new third edition. This set off an escalating war between Bell (as the first publisher) and the Bradfords (as the second publishers) which resulted in sixteen separate editions of Common Sense that were published in Philadelphia alone. As scholar Trish Loughran writes in Disseminating Common Sense: Thomas Paine and the Problem of the Early National Bestseller,

“Paine’s commercial dispute with Bell was, in many ways, as crucial to the book’s celebrity as were its arguments for independence. Not only did this debate ensure, quite apart from the issue of demand, that twice the number of copies would be printed in Philadelphia (one set by Bell and one set by the Bradfords), but it also made the book a kind of local scandal whose fifteen minutes of fame lasted several months as Bell (at his own expense) and Bradford (at Paine’s expense) repeatedly displayed dueling full-page advertisements in opposite columns of the Pennsylvania Evening Post, each making claims not for or against independence but for or against the characters of the locally identifiable disputants.”

Loughran imagines that during this time, the politically conscious and higher class consumers of Common Sense might have bought the different editions as a type of prized commodity. She also points out that while Common Sense probably sold around 100,000-150,000 copies – astronomical for that time – many of these were purchased by the same individuals, and copies sold outside of Philadelphia would have been delivered in small and highly anticipated bundles along the King’s Highway, which ran all the way to New York City. As a physical commodity, the early editions of Common Sense were highly prized objects that would have been excitedly purchased and discussed at local bookstores all over the east coast.

The driving forces behind an e-book’s success are very different. They consist of a similarly mysterious tipping point in popular excitement – an author’s blog explodes overnight; clicks on Amazon increase exponentially; a review is written; clicks explode again – yet this all occurs onscreen, as does the reading of the book. Since our memories are influenced by context and physicality, will a reader feel the same visceral allegiance to a popular e-book as to a highly anticipated paper book? And when the book is polemical and requests action born of passion on the part of the reader, does the author’s task become more difficult when the finished product is not something that can be traded and held, but words in electronic typeface that with the pressing of a button will be replaced with different words from a different book? When the commodity is the e-reader itself, does the content of one particular book, held fleetingly onscreen, somehow get filed away as ‘less important’ during the context-sensitive process of memory storage and retrieval?

Loughran wrote of the influence of Common Sense:

“To the degree that printed texts—like Paine’s pamphlet, or later, the Constitution—are able to solve key problems in modern political economy (and ideologically there can be no doubt that they do just this), it is not solely because they emanate from no place, or no one, in particular, but because they have the peculiar ability to be both particular and non-particular at once. We might say that every book has, like the King before it, two bodies—one that is present in the form of a reliably fixed, real, and always self-identical material text and the other that is promised by its endlessly reproducible, presumably identical, counterparts.”

With an e-book, the body of the “endlessly reproducible, presumably identical, counterparts” becomes the sole body of the text. Books read on an e-reader are peculiarly non-particular. As for the possibility that this renders them peculiarly ineffective in evoking certain stripes of passion, or conversely deepening particular shades of apathy, I don’t know, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about.

May 17th, 2011

Harry Potter and the Muckraking Journalist