Guy Eggers might have said it best last night, or at least most succinctly, when he told the crowd (and it was a big crowd) at Micawber's Bookstore, "You want good content--good things to read." How a person reads--on a Kindle or an iPad, on a book or a Nook--is, ultimately, less important.
E-books, said Patrick Thomas, editor of Milkweed Editions--"that's just another format. It's all reading."
Eggers, co-editor of Thirty-Two Magazine, Thomas, and several others were addressing the issue of how our reading habits have changed in a digital world. The consensus seemed to be that, well, we are still reading, avidly, and print is doing fine, and content is the more interesting question after all.
(Though it's true that a panel of bookish people talking to folks gathered in an indie bookstore might have had a wee bit of optimism fueling their opinions. The discussion was sponsored by Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, more book-lovers.)
The panel moderator, MPR arts reporter Marianne Combs, got things rolling by asking the crowd how many folks owned a smart phone: Nearly every hand shot up. How many own an e-reader or tablet? Again, most hands.
"And how many of you read predominately from a digital device?" Not one hand raised, and Combs said, "God bless you all."
Caroline Casey, marketing director of Coffee House Press, and Thomas of Milkweed Editions both talked about how their publishers have embraced digital as an opportunity to do things differently and reach out in more directions. Thomas said, for example, that Milkweed's online catalog includes authors reading aloud from their forthcoming books--something that would have been prohibitively expensive just a few years ago. (You can take a listen here.)
And Casey talked about how Coffee House is reinivisioning itself not just as a traditional publisher of books but as an arts organization that connects readers and writers in a multitude of ways--through readings, events, exhibits and experiences, both real and virtual.
"We decided that our role was to connect readers and writers whether or not they buy the book," she said.
All of the participants agreed that turning their backs on digital would be futile. "You don't want to hold off the technology by saying you're stealing from us," said Hans Weyandt, co-owner of Micawber's. "The music industry did that to great failure. For me, the thing is to fight against the idea that books are dying. That is not true."
With the digital world still in flux--there are no standard platforms for e-books or e-magazines, and devices are changing all the time--print offers stability. While Thirty-Two Magazine does have a website, they do not offer e-versions of the magazine and instead rely primarily on print--gorgeous print, high-quality paper, a magazine you can carry around and read and touch, said co-editor Katie Eggers. Creating digital versions for all the various e-readers would be prohibitively expensive--at least as expensive as creating a print version, she said.
Most panelists predicted a widening split between print and digital, with readers continuing to buy print copies of books they admire and want to keep and re-read, and with digital eating up the bulk of more disposable books--romance, mysteries, soft porn and other books that people read once, perhaps as a guilty pleasure.
Thomas said it's not uncommon for readers to buy an e-book as a convenient, less-expensive way to sample a book--and then, if they like it, go on to buy the book in print. "Quality really trumps some of the aspects of ease that e-books bring," Thomas said. "E-books are great for ease."
But for something you want to keep, there's nothing like a beautiful book. (Weyandt held up Milkweed's "Things that Are" by Amy Leach and Coffee House's "Potluck Supper With Meeting to Follow" by Andy Sturdevant as examples--both beautifully designed and illustrated hardcover books.)
And in the Twin Cities, where three of the four major literary presses live (and the panelists joke that they're going to force the fourth, Copper Canyon Press, to relocate here some day) and where libraries are vibrant and readers are everywhere, the health of the printed book is particularly robust.
"We see ourselves fighting a culture that is always telling us we're gonna die," said Weyandt. Not true, he said, and all in attendance last night almost certainly agreed.
When I travel, I like to scope out the other passengers' reading material. This is getting harder to do. The last time I flew, back in May, not one person in the gate area was carrying a book, at least not a visible book. One guy had a newspaper (God bless him). Everyone else was peering at screens of various sizes--phones and tablets and the occasional e-reader.
They make it so hard to snoop.
It might be that people in transit prefer digital devices because they're lighter weight than books. (Although, of course, no flight attendant will make you put your book away ten minutes before landing.) Or it might be that all of those people I saw read on devices all the time. Who knows?
This whole madness about the changing world of reading--how we read, and where, and on what, and how we think about what we read--will be the topic of discussion Tuesday evening at an event sponsored by the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library.
The panel discussion, "How We Read Now," will be moderated by MPR arts reporter Marianne Combs. The panelists will be Hans Weyandt, co-owner of Micawber's Bookstore; Chris Fischbach, publisher of Coffee House Books; Patrick Thomas of Milkweed Editions; Katie and Guy Eggers, founding editors of Thirty-Two Magazine, and yours truly.
The event is free and begins at 7 p.m. at Micawber's, 2238 Carter Av., St. Paul. Come on by and help us figure out this new complicated world.
Is there anyone left who hasn't read "Wild" yet? Well, after World Book Night next spring, thousands more will get the chance. The best-selling memoir is one of the 35 titles named Wednesday as one to be handed out at random on April 23, 2014, on the third annual World Book Night USA.
Books by two other Minnesota authors--"The Lighthouse Road," by Peter Geye, and "Pontoon" by Garrison Keillor--were also selected, as well as "The Weird Sisters," by Eleanor Brown, a graduate of Macalester College.
Here's the list, with links to Star Tribune reviews when available.
"The Zookeeper's Wife," by Diane Ackerman
"Kitchen Confidential," by Anthony Bourdain
"The Perks of Being a Wallflower," by Stephen Chbosky
"After the Funeral," by Agatha Christie
"Rangers Apprentice: Book One, The Ruins of Gorlan," by John Flanagan
"Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet," by Jamie Ford (In both regular print and large-print)
"The Lighthouse Road," by Peter Geye
"The Tipping Point," by Malcolm Gladwell
"Wait Til Next Year," by Doris Kearns Goodwin
"Catch-22," by Joseph Heller
"The Dog Stars," by Peter Heller
"Hoot," by Carl Hiaasen
"Pontoon" by Garrison Keillor
"Same Difference," by Derek Kirk Kim
"Enchanted," by Alethea Kontis
"Miss Darcy Falls in Love," by Sharon Lathan
"Bobcat and Other Stories," by Rebecca Lee
"Young Men and Fire," by Norman Maclean
"Tales of the City," by Armistead Maupin
"Waiting to Exhale," by Terry McMillan
"Sunrise Over Fallujah," by Walter Dean Myers
"Bridge to Terabithia," by Katherine Paterson
"The Botany of Desire," by Michael Pollan
"Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children," by Ransom Riggs
"When I was Puerto Rican: A Memoir," by Esmerelda Santiago (English, and Spanish editions)
"Where'd You Go, Bernadette," by Maria Semple (also in large print format)
"Wild," by Cheryl Strayed
"Presumed Innocent," by Scott Turow
"Code Name Verity," by Elizabeth Wein
"This Boy's Life," by Tobias Wolff
"100 Best-Loved Poems," edited by Philip Smith.
The books to be given away were chosen by a panel of booksellers and librarians. Two Minnesota authors--Kate DiCamillo and Leif Enger--had books chosen the first year. Last year, Minnesota was passed over, but Wisconsin writer Michael Perry made the list.
World Book Night is a mostly volunteer effort to spread books and reading across the country. Every year, volunteers give away 500,000 books at random. To learn more, go to www.us.worldbooknight.org
He is not angry anymore, no longer a rabble-rouser. There was no sitar accompaniment, no drums, no rubber masks, no embroidered vest. Robert Bly is old now, and a wee bit forgetful, but he still knows how to put on a show, and he still comes deeply alive for poetry. On Wednesday evening, he launched his latest book, "Stealing Sugar From the Castle: Selected and New Poems 1950-2013," at the University of Minnesota in front of about 250 people.
After a tender and lengthy introduction by writer Michael Dennis Browne (who recalled helping to jumpstart Bly's blue P lymouth after a night of poetry in Minneapolis in 1967, and who also recalled how Bly once damned-with-faint-praise a poem written by one of Browne's students, saying it was as exciting as the phrase "I almost went to Hawaii once"), Bly and his friend and fellow poet Thomas R. Smith took the stage.
With Smith holding the microphone and occasionally offering a gentle prompt, Bly read. Twenty-five poems, some of the lines and stanzas read more than once, in the way that Bly does, for emphasis. He was playful and sly, joking after a couple of poems that he had no idea what they meant. He beat out a rhythm with his hand, he sometimes lapsed into funny voices, taking on characters. ("One day a mouse called to me from his curly nest: / 'How do you sleep? I love curliness,' " and giving the mouse a squeaky voice.)
He turned serious with "When My Dead Father Called," and then deliberately broke the mood afterward by saying, "Did I really write this? My memory's so bad every time I read one of my own poems I think I've never read that before."
But he had of course proved that wrong just a few minutes before, reciting--not reading--"Poem in Three Parts," looking out at the crowd with those blue blue eyes of his, never glancing down at the page.
While it might be early poems such as that one that are imbedded in his brain, his newer poems, dealing poignantly with aging and dying, were deeply affecting. In "Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat," he says: "It's hard to grasp how much generosity / Is involved in letting us go on breathing, / When we contribute nothing valuable but our grief." And then he stopped, and looked up. "I didn't always believe that," he said; he used to believe we were valued for happiness and fun. And then he read the stanza again.
The poem ends, "Each of us deserves to be forgiven, if only for / Our persistence in keeping our small boat afloat / When so many have gone down in the storm."
"When you get to be my age, you notice that," he said. "How many have gone down in the storm."
Such a poignant evening, watching this 86-year-old white-haired man read from fifty years' of poems, watching him grow animated at the sound of his own remarkable words. In the end, of course, thunderous applause, and an uncharacteristic modesty. "It's good of you to clap," he said. "It makes an old Norwegian happy."
A history of the Scientology movement, a biography of Benjamin Franklin's sister, and a poetry collection published by Graywolf Press are among the finalists for the National Book Award, announced this morning on MSNBC's talk show, "Morning Joe."
And Minnesota poet Matt Rasmussen's debut collection, "Black Aperture," is among the finalists for poetry.
Rasmussen, born in International Falls, now lives in Robbinsdale and teaches at Gustavus Adolphus College. His book, "Black Aperture," also won the Walt Whitman Award. It was published by Louisiana State University Press.
Winners will be announced Nov. 20. Here's the whole list of finalists, with links to Star Tribune reviews, when available:
"Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin," by Jill Lepore
"Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields," by Wendy Lower. (Review runs next week.)
"The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America," by George Packer
"The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia 1772-1832," by Alan Taylor
"Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief," by Lawrence Wright.
"The Tenth of December," by George Saunders
"The Lowland," by Jhumpa Lahiri.
"The Bleeding Edge," by Thomas Pynchon. (Review scheduled.)
"The Flamethrowers," by Rachel Kushner
"The Good Lord Bird," by James McBride
Young People's LIterature:
"The True Blue Scouts of Sugarman Swamp," by Kathi Appelt
"The Thing About Luck," by Cynthia Kadohata
"Far, Far Away," by Tom McNeal
"Picture Me Gone," by Meg Rosoff
"Boxers and Saints," by Gene Luen Yang. Yang is a faculty member of Hamline University's low-residency MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults
"Metaphysical Dog," by Frank Bidart
"Illusion," by Lucie Brock-Broido
"The Big Smoke," by Adrian Matejka
"Incarnadine," by Mary Szybist, published by Minneapolis' Graywolf Press.
The 20 finalists were chosen from a long list, which included Minneapolis young-adult writers Anne Ursu and Kate DiCamillo. The winners will be announced Nov. 20 in New York.
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