Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" was dismissed by a critic for the New York Times when it first came out. "His characters are as shallow as the saucers in which they stack their daily emotions," the review, from 1926, said.
The New Yorker had no love for Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer." "Mr. Percy's prose needs oil and a good checkup," someone wrote in that magazine in 1961.
And John Updike's now-classic "Rabbit, Run," was panned in the Chicago Tribune by a critic who called it a "grim little story" that adds up to nothing. "The author fails to convince us that his puppets are interesting."
These, and other mocking, insulting, or just highly critical reviews--amusing given the hindsight of literary history--were collected 25 years ago in a cheeky little book called "Rotten Reviews," compiled by Bill Henderson, editor of the Pushcart Prize series.
Now Henderson sees need to revive his book, with a new introduction explaining that he was inspired by the Internet (even though he doesn't own a computer), where negative and snarky reviews flourish--and are usually anonymous, to boot.
"I realize now that we live in an on-line Wild West," he writes in his new introduction. "All civilty gone. Empathy, balance, decency, knowledge, out the window. Everybody a blogger. Everybody an instant critic."
Henderson believes writers deserve better. "These books had taken the authors years to compose, sometimes a lifetime," he wrote. "And so to have them dismissed so casually, well ... it just wasn't fair."
"Rotten Reviews Redux: A Literary Companion," pubs Nov. 22 by Pushcart Press and sells for $18.95.
A second book that arrived today celebrates books, and book-owning, and book loving, and bookshelves. Several dozen book-lovers--mainly authors, but not entirely--were asked to choose one shelf of books that best represents them and write a brief essay about it.
The design of this book is lovely, with glossy pages and with paintings, rather than photographs, of each contributor's chosen books. Roseann Cash, you'll find, was moved by "The Diary of Anne Frank," "Little House in the Big Woods," and E.B. White's "Here Is New York." What's not to love?
Junot Diaz (you've all heard of him, right?) read voraciously as a child to help improve his own English. "I had come from a family and a place in the Dominican Republic where books were basically medieval--few people had them, and they were very precious," he wrote. "The United States was a country of books."
Francine Prose's shelf contains Chekhov, Chekhov, Chekhov, Chekhov, Chekhov, Chekhov and Chekhov, along with a few others.
What a beautiful way to get to know a writer: to browse his shelves.
"My Ideal Bookshelf," is edited by Thessaly La Force, with art by Jane Mount. It pubs in mid-November and retails for $24.99.
Before Google, before the Internet, the Britannicas were our first stop (before the library) for gathering information for school reports and for looking up things we needed to know. But their real joy came from the serendipity they allowed. They opened up the world! All you had to do was turn the page.
On a rainy Sunday afternoon, bored out of your gourd, you could sit down on the dining room floor, lug one of those great books off the shelf and into your lap, and leaf through it, stopping at whatever looked interesting.
Ah, but no longer. It was announced on Tuesday that Encyclopedia Britannica has stopped publishing a print edition. When the current stock runs out, it's done. They will continue to publish digital versions--which have, indeed, been the bulk of their sales for the last several years. This ends a long tradition, beginning in Scotland in 1768.
And of course I understand that. Encyclopedias are big and heavy, they take up a lot of room, they grow dusty and outdated, they are expensive to replace. Each volume can only be used by one person at a time. ("Hey, who has 'Freon to Holderlin'?")
Digital encyclopedias are more efficient in every way--you can scan, you can search, you can click immediately to whatever it is you're looking for.
But efficiency, I think, is overrated.
In this age of targeted, surgical searches, we are missing so much! Without card catalogs in libraries, there's no more leafing through those narrow wooden drawers, flipping from manila card to manila card, stumbling across things that you didn't know existed. Without neighborhood bookstores (and yes, some cities no longer have bookstores), how do you browse the tables and discover new titles, new authors? Amazon is no replacement for that.
A digital encyclopedia will tell me everything I need to know--as long as I know what I'm looking for.
But on a rainy Sunday afternoon, who knows what I'm looking for? I am looking to be captivated, caught by surprise and transported. And I don't think Wikipedia can give me that.
Perhaps you've heard of World Book Night, a magical day last March when a million books were handed out across the United Kingdom and Ireland--books by Seamus Heaney, John Le Carre, Nigel Slater, Muriel Sparks. What a lovely thing, to be hurrying to work or the grocery store or sitting in the park minding the baby and to have a smiling volunteer suddenly hold out a free paperback book.
Now, World Book Night is spreading to the United States. On Monday, April 23, an estimated 50,000 volunteers will give away a million books, in nursing homes, in hospitals, in schools, in coffee shops and malls, on the street--wherever they see a likely person who looks as though they could use a good read.
What better way to start a Monday?
Thirty titles have been chosen for World Book Night, and 35,000 copies of each title will be printed in special "not-for-resale" paperback editions. The list is nicely varied: Sherman Alexie, Kate DiCamillo, Leif Enger. Buzz Bissinger--something for everyone.
Said DiCamillo, in a press release, 'It makes perfect sense to me that World Book Night will take place in the spring. Extending your hand to give someone a book, a story, is a gesture of hope and joy. It is a chance for all of us, givers and receivers, to break into blossom."
Anna Quindlen will serve as national chairperson. "What's better than a good book?" she said in a press release. "A whole box of them, and the opportunity to share them with new readers."
World Book Night is a nonprofit organization, and is supported by publishers, booksellers, and libraries. Last year's giveaway in the UK reportedly helped boost sales of several of the titles, despite fears from one horrified Scottish bookseller that the massive giveaway was misguided. (It's worth noting that the cost of the giveaway is being underwritten by publishers, printers and paper companies, and all 30 writers have waived their royalties, according to USA Today.)
If you're interested in volunteering to give away books in 2012, you have until Feb. 1 to sign up. Some folks who took part last year blogged about it--here's one from an English gent, who found it a little more difficult to give books away than he had thought. And here's one from an English woman, who had more success.
Here's the link to the U.S. site. (If you get the UK site, click on the American flag.)
And here's the list of 30,which includes several Minnesota writers. (Neil Gaiman, who we like to claim as ours, is on the British list.)
"The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," by Sherman Alexie.
"Wintergirls," by Laurie Halse Anderson
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," by Maya Angelou
"Friday Night Lights," by H.G. Bissinger
"Kindred," by Octavia E. Butler
"Ender's Game," by Orson Scott Card
"Little Bee," by Chris Cleave
"The Hunger Games," by Suzanne Collins
"Blood Work," by Michael Connelly
"The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," by Junot Diaz, and the Spanish-language edition, "La Breve y Maravilllosa Vida de Oscar Wao."
"Because of Winn-Dixie," by Kate DiCamillo
"Zeitoun," by Dave Eggers
"Peace Like a River," by Leif Enger
"A Reliable Wife," by Robert Goolrick
"Q is for Quarry," by Sue Grafton
"The Kite Runner," by Khaled Hosseini
"A Prayer for Owen Meaney," by John Irving
"The Stand," by Stephen King
"The Poisonwood Bible," by Barbara Kingsolver
"The History of Love," by Nicole Krauss
"The Namesake," by Jhumpa Lahiri
"The Things They Carried," by Tim O'Brien
"Bel Canto," by Ann Patchett
"My Sister's Keeper," by Jodi Picoult
"Housekeeping," by Marilynne Robinson
"The Lovely Bones," by Alice Sebold
"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," by Rebecca Skloot
"Just Kids," by Patti Smith
"The Glass Castle," by Jeannette Walls
"The Book Thief," by Markus Zusak.
The book chosen this year as Minnesota’s Best Read for 2011—the book chosen to represent the state at the National Book Festival in Washington D.C., the book chosen by the Center for the Book of the Library of Congress---is a simple picture book.
If you follow Minnesota Historical Society Press director Pamela McClanahan on social media, you might have seen her chipper "Frugal State Worker" postings, which she has been writing daily since Friday's shutdown.
The Press gets only about 20 percent of its funding from the state; the rest comes from earned income, grants and endowments. But the Society gets more than half of its funding from the state, and the Society is closed, and so when midnight came on June 30, the Press shut down too.
The Press, McClanahan said today, is in good shape for weathering a shortish shutdown. "We crammed about a summer's worth of work in June," she said. July is usually a quiet month for books. But there is still plenty of work that's not getting done. "We can't respond to professors' exam copy requests, we can't start or complete our publicity work for our fall books. This is the time that that background work happens."
The Press's website is still up and running (in a somewhat limited way). "We are still selling books through our distributor, and through Bookmobile, which handles all our e-book commerce," she said. "And that decision was made because they're offsite and aren't state employees. But we are not editing, designing and printing books."
The fall lineup is OK for now, she said, with the exception of one book, which is tied to an exhibit at the State Historical Society (which is, of course, also closed). But if the shutdown goes beyond July, it's harder to predict. Now is the time when they should be meeting to decide on next spring's lineup--not just which books, but how, and what they will look like, and how they will be promoted.
"We earn 45 percent of our total revenue from the front list," she said. "And if any of our fall books are delayed--if we miss a month--we'll really see an impact."
After we talked, McClanahan sent a follow-up message: "The Press surpassed our annual sales goal again this fiscal year," she said. "We are a good return on investment for the state, both culturally and fiscally, and we'd hate to see that impacted negatively by a prolonged shutdown."
I think we can all agree with that.
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