The Future of Bookshops

So Borders have gone into administration. In an analysis for The Evening Standard, Lucy Tobin describes how independent bookshops might benefit as the sector is hit by the rise in online shopping and supermarket competition.

[James] Daunt reckons his competitive advantage is his “bricks and mortar”. His stores host author talks and events “almost every night” — next month Michael Palin and Will Self are amongst the billing. “We make our stores really nice places to come into,” he says.

That’s the way to survive, according to retail analyst Neil Saunders, at Verdict: “The books industry is still a very difficult market to trade in. Margins are very thin in books, and a lot of people are increasingly focused on price.

“But there’s still a place for the book shop on the High Street because people do like to browse, and a lots of people go into book stores for reading inspiration — that wasn’t really the case with the music industry, and it’s a key differential.”

Tobin’s piece goes hand-in hand with Clay Shirky’s recent post on the decline of the American bookstore, and the Cnut-like attempts of the American Booksellers Association to induce protectionist measures from the US Government. Shirky analyses the ‘value-added’ model described by Tobin and her interviewees. He explains that bookshops will need to start charging for all the extra social benefits like events, or coffee, but also recruit patronage, philanthropists and local subsidies if they want to remain. Finally, he expresses pessimism as to whether this will be possible:

… trying to save local bookstores from otherwise predictably fatal competition by turning some customers into members, patrons, or donors is an observably crazy idea. However, if the sober-minded alternative is waiting for the Justice Department to anoint the American Booksellers Association as a kind of OPEC for ink, even crazy ideas may be worth a try.

One can only hope. The protectionist lobbying of the music and film industries are doing enough damage as it is, without the book industry meddling as well.

Two Americas – Infinite Jest and The Wire

(This post contains mild spoilers).

A double loss – It has been a couple of weeks since I finished reading the brick-like Infinite Jest, which I was reading as part of the Infinite Summer project.  And now I’ve just finished watching the last ever episode of The Wire, the Great American Novel of TV shows.  I am now feeling the loss of two sets of characters.  I have been removed from Boston and Baltimore simultaneously.

The two pieces are obviously very different in style.  The Wire is brutal realism (if not totally real), whereas Infinite Jest is satire, fable, comedy, with a little magical realism thrown in.  At least, I think it is.

Nevertheless, the two have a fair few similarities.  The first is the theme of interconnectedness, which any piece of fin du millénaire art must include. Infinite Jest painstakingly introduces us to the back-stories of a dozen or more  minor characters, justifying the route that each addict takes to the door of the Ennet half-way house (the first, when Ken Erdeddy awaits the delivery of his dope, is one of my favourite sequences in the novel).  Meanwhile, The Wire presents hundreds of co-incidences and minor tragedies that culminate in all the best-laid plans going awry.  Many of these involve the bald and simple Herc, one of the low level officers in the Serious Crimes Unit, who is too stupid to realise the negative effect his indiscreetness has on the investigations of those around him.  Instead, he feels under-appreciated and hard-done-by, which makes him one of the most dislikable characters in the series.

A strong parallel is of course in the theme of drugs and addiction, which both Infinite Jest and The Wire have by the kilo.  At the end of series 4, street-junkie Bubbles (who tried and failed to get clean in earlier episodes) inadvertently causes the death of his young charge Sherrod, and tries in vain to hang himself.  When we meet him again in series 5 he is at NA meetings and on the road to redemption.  Sherrod’s death is clearly the “cliff” that David Foster Wallace describes so eloquently in Infinite Jest, the point-of-no return.  Bubbles fails to eliminate his own map for good.  He has hit the very rock bottom, which provides his motivation to get clean, however demeaning that might be.  Bubbles’ NA ‘sponsor’, the biker Walon, is a giant of a man, who doesn’t know big fancy words, but has the wisdom of one who has transcended his addiction.  He could be Infinite Jest’s Don Gately (if Don let his hair grow out).

Bubbles at an NA meeting (Series 5, The Wire)
Bubbles at an NA meeting (Series 5, The Wire)

I never had faith that Bubbles would survive.  Of all the characters we met in series 1, he was the least likely to make it through to the final credits intact.  I expected the writers to find a way for him to die senselessly and tragically (at the whim of some low-level dealer, perhaps?) that would shock the audience.  But Bubbles is a good character, with a sense of justice, and he deserves to beat his addiction, and the tribute of the newspaper article, late in series 5.

Bubbles success is a triumph of sincerity over cynicism, which is, as Matthew Baldwin has been arguing this week, a major theme in Infinite Jest.  In the book, the sincerity is for the most part internalised:  Hal Incandenza and Don Gately talking to themselves.  But Don’s AA meetings teach the value of openness with others (most hilariously, in Ken Erdeddy’s meeting with Big Tony on page 505).  Hal’s brother Mario, slightly warped both physically and mentally, is the embodiment of sincerity, while their Mother – “The Moms” – is ruined by her inability to communicate honestly with anyone else in her family.

Back in Baltimore, “high-functioning alcoholic” Jimmy McNulty is at his happiest when he is true to himself: twirling a baton out on the streets at the end of series 3, and celebrating with his ex-colleagues after finally, spectacularly crashing out of Baltimore PD.  And the little montage which closes The Wire, beginning and ending with Jimmy looking out over the city, shows us that those who have made a stand for something other than themselves, seem most happiest:  Gus Haynes, the Baltimore Sun‘s City Editor, is content at his desk; Bubbles finally gets to eat dinner with his sister; and Cedric Daniels is smiling in a cheap lawyer’s suit, having dumped his police career on a point of principle.  Meanwhile, poor Duquan, who waits until the final episode to tell his first lie, is seen shooting-up by the junk-yard fire; and ex-Kingpin Marlo, in a suit and trying to be something he is not, looks disorientated and confused on a street corner.  Tommy Carcetti wins the State House, but he seem troubled, his idealism in tatters, after a series of compromises made in the pursuit of power.

There are plenty of cynical characters in The Wire, and the power-bureaucracy it describes is depressing.  Nevertheless, the message that emerges is positive and noble.  None of the dramatic moments, in any of the five series, would be possible, if it wasn’t for the abundance of good characters – on both sides of the law – trying to do good things.  It is an uplifting, optimistic TV series, despite all the blood.

Sadly, I think the reverse is true of the country David Foster Wallace has created in Infinite Jest.  This is odd, because of the two, the book is a much funnier creation.  I don’t think that the America of The Wire and the America of Infinite Jest can be the same place (and this is not just because, in the book, the USA has annexed Canada and Mexico!)  While Foster Wallace is clearly a sincere and honest writer, the darkness in his America seems more malevolent.  The corruption is psychic, psychological.  It erodes the minds of the citizens like a cancer, and “The Entertainment” – a mysterious film that kills viewers – is just an manifestation of this.

The decline of Foster Wallce’s America is terminal.  This is not so in The Wire, where we have had a stolen glimpse of a better way.  Baltimore could be saved, perhaps.  Boston, I fear, is already lost.

MIT, Boston, 31 May '07. Photo by vincent-b
MIT, Boston, 31 May ’07. Photo by vincent-b

Big Geeky American Novels

Over at Infinite Summer, there’s an interesting and personal post by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who knew David Foster Wallace and now teaches a course on his work.  She also taught Infinite Jest as past of another course called ‘The Big Novel’.

I’d taught Infinite Jest twice before, as part of a course called The Big Novel. In that one, we read Gravity’s Rainbow, Underworld, Infinite Jest, and Cryptonomicon, attempting to think through the impulse of a subset of recent authors toward producing such encyclopedic novels, and what they have to do with the state of U.S. culture after World War II.

I’m glad to see Infinite Jest mentioned alongside Cryptonomicon, because there are some obvious similarities.  There are plenty of time-line shifts and digressions in Cryptonomicon, of which the reader must keep abreast, although Stephenson doesn’t lose himself in cross-refencing and footnotes as Foster Wallace does.  Both authors have a penchant for describing and revelling in technological advances, both real and extrapolated, in a little more depth than your average novellist would be comfortable with.

There is also an undeniably lustre of geekyness to the prose of both, I find.  Is geekyness the right word?  To elaborate: both texts are centred around the doings and thinkings of earnest and high functioning American males, fin du millénaire.  And although both novels have a third-person narrator, there is the sense that we are nevertheless hearing the story from the direct p.o.v. of the protagonists (this is something that Stephenson excels at, the skill more evident in the Baroque Cycle trilogy and Anathem, where the characters’ language, and therefore the narrators, is much further removed from twentieth century North American norms).  Both text are peppered with the idioms and slang that mark them as the work of someone comfortable and practised in the ways of modern technology, and the associated culture.

Neal Stephenson, by Flickr user jeanbaptisteparis
Neal Stephenson, by Flickr user jeanbaptisteparis

Infinite Summer: A Database? A Metaphor for the Mind?

I enjoyed Jim Brown’s thoughts on the idea that Infitite Jest is a database, rather than a narrative as such.  David Foster Wallace conveys his thoughts and (crucially) his feelings about the modern world through an onslaught of facts about the characters and their environment.  Its difficult for readers, in the habit of reading linear narrative, to parse the wealth of information.

Guided by Infinite Summer, I’ve chosen to let the information flow over me, not worrying about unlocking a code or ‘getting’ the story before the author chooses to reveal it.  Through this approach, I find I am quite comfortable with the abrupt changes in both style and the timeline.  The dissonance, the confusion and the sheer forbidding nature of human existence, all emerge as powerful themes, despite the apparent disconnect between the myriad storylines.

Jim also mentions the idea of Lev Manovich’s “New Media Objects”.  True, such objects do not need to be electronic, but Infinite Jest would be seem much easier to understand if we saw it in web form.  The footnotes, and footnotes on footnotes, are really hyperlinks rendered in print form.1

Another New Media Object:  Judith Adams’  Sweet Fanny Adams in Eden, definitely.  Its still one of the most expansive and intellectually challenging projects I’ve ever been involved in.  Not for the first time, here’s a key quote from my essay on what we did:

The constituent parts of the script (I hesitate to call them pages) existed in their very own piece of cyber space, one that neither preceded nor succeeded any other. They therefore made as much sense when put in one order, as they did in another. This matters, because non-linearity better reflects the human mind, thoughts, history. We are constantly affected by the actions of others, and each thought (indeed, each life) is affected not by one, but several narratives that have gone before. A scene has two meanings, one for each character. A scene may have two meanings, depending on what has preceded it. There is circularity to our lives and our history that is ideally represented by a non-linear medium.


1. w/r/t footnotes, I’ve complained before about those people, such as George Monbiot, who still seem to use footnotes in their online texts, when a simple inline link would do it.  However, I am enjoying the way those participating in the Infinite Summer Project have ‘regressed’ to using old-styley footers, a nod to Infinite Jest.

Infinite Jest and Attempts on Her Life

David Foster Wallace in San Francisco, 2006. Photo by Steve Rhodes
David Foster Wallace in San Francisco, 2006. Photo by Steve Rhodes

I’ve taken the plunge and started reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, using the Infinite Summer blog as a handy pacemaker and reading aide to what I am beginning to understand is a supremely complex book.

It’s only annoying if you look at the novel as a code to crack, if you see everything as a clue.
Marcus Sakey: ‘Decoding Infinite Jest; or, Don’t’

The first similarity I’ve noticed is between Infinite Jest, and Attempts on Her Life by Martin Crimp, a play I know intimiately after working on it at the National Theatre back in the ’07.  The chapter beginning on page 27 of the book is written in a style highly reminiscent of several of scenes in Crimp’s play.  I noticed it when the phrase “quote-unquote” popped up in the dialogue.  It is utilised in a similar manner in both pieces, to convey a certain official or professional manner, a style of speaking that prentends to be disinterested, but it actually quite hostile.  From there, it was pleasing to see that the chapter follows a similar structure to a couple of scenes from Attempts.  The characters actually present describe another by means of a list that becomes an incantation of sorts, who said x or who did y:

“Who requires only daily evidence that you speak…

“Who used to pray daily for the day his own dear late father would sit, cough, open that bloody issue of the Tuscon Citizen, and not turn that newspaper into the room’s fifth wall. “

Compared with Attempts on Her Life:

Is this the same little Anne who now has witnesses breaking down in tears? …

Who screwed tiny mechanisms and mercury tilt switches to a mercury circuit board, with a mouth of deep pan pizza?

Another major parallel is in the structure.  Like Infinite Jest, Crimp’s Attempts is not a code to be cracked.  The seventeen or so ‘attempts’ are not related to each other, plotwise, although certain refrains and themes return more than once.  It remains to be seen whether this happens with Foster Wallace’s book, but from what I have read (no spoilers, I’ve made sure of that) I am assuming this will be a feature, to some degree.   Marcus Sakey confirms its not a code to be cracked, at least.

And finally, I sense several themes emerging in Infinite Jest that are shared with Attempts:  A satire on commercialism and product placement; pretensiousness in modern art; women attempting suicide;  and above all, an attempt to describe a dissociation brought about by modern society.

Martin Crimp. Photo by Graeme Robertson
Martin Crimp. Photo by Graeme Robertson

Twitter Books

There’s a lot of banter around about how print is dying and the net is taking over.  Here’s a couple more ways in which print and the web are in symbiosis.

First, James Bridle at BookTwo.org says:

Well, someone had to do it, and I think I’m the first. I’ve archived my first two years of twittering to a hardback book.

Image below.  I’m glad it has been typset so well.  Its reminiscent of Things Our Friends Have Written on the Internet.

James Brindle archived two years of twitters into a hardback book.  Photo by STML
James Brindle archived two years of twitters into a hardback book. Photo by STML

Meanwhile, Adam from downBOUND has edited HeadTweets, a book of Old Wives Tales/Conventional Wisdom on the subject of headaches.  The pithy one-liners are the the perfect contributions to solicit online, and Twitter seems the perfect tool for the job.

Note here how the web doesn’t short-circuit the entire publication process.  These are projects that still require an editor (maybe not so much in James’ case) and a designer in order to make them readable.

Update

The ridiculously huge Daily Dish blog will be self-publishing a book version of the popular A View From Your Window feature.  No mention of where the revenues for this will go.

Update December 2009

There will be no revenues for the Daily Dish book.  Its a labour of love.

The Printed Blog

Meanwhile, down the rabbit hole, The Printed Blog is a US newspaper created entirely from blog content.  The founders are currently “beta testing” the newspaper at “select locations”.

It reminds me of Things Our Friends Have Written on The Internet.  The Main difference being that The Printed Blog is a paid for product, not a labour of love.  I know Blurb.com offer a blogbook service.

As the internet becomes exponentially more popular, and the international credit-crunch hits home, newspapers have been identified as a failing industry.  Clay Shirky criticises their business model in Here Comes Everybody and Andrew Sullivan has been chronicling the possibility of a newspaper “bailout” to save the New York Times.  Its odd that a publication that uses twenty-first century technology to supply its content, should be experimenting with a twentieth century sales and distribution model… so I’m not confident it will succeed.

What could redeem the project, is if the publication is launched as a customisable, subscription product.  For example, I could select the blogs or newspapers I like, and some system compiles a customised newspaper that is printed digitally and despatched to my door.  It would be the first step towards the dynamic electronic newspapers from science fiction – Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age, which I just finished reading, includes such fantastic technology.

(And yes, The Printed Blog does have a blog).

Update

From 1981:

Internet Humour

Chris at QWGHLM has created a mash-up of the bunker scene from Downfall.  It depicts Hitler as Nick Griffin, loser of membership lists. (via LibCon).  Godwin’s Law apparently does not apply.

It reminds me, loosely, of an article in Salon on the ICanHazCheeseburger? phenomenon, on the cartoonish nature of the images of cute and not-so-cute cats:

By articulating profound feelings through cats and marine mammals speaking garbled English, we’re able to shroud genuine emotions in pseudo-irony — which means those animals can evoke deeper emotions without fear of mockery or cheapness.

“The animals aren’t animals at all, they’re stand-ins,” explains Mankoff. “They’re hybrids we use as devices to talk about the feelings we can’t name in other ways.”

How does this relate to Hitler and making fun of the BNP?  Well, only in that Chris’ mash-up is essentially a one-panel cartoon in YouTube form.  Like a one-panel cartoon, its actually a one note joke.  Put an emotion or context you want to mock into a preposterously stretched yet analagous situation, et voila!  Mirth ensues.

As I’ve said before, we live in the age of the remix, the mash-up, so its only natural that our humour should be of this form too.  Pick two ideas, any two ideas, and put them in a blender.  Corporate Pie-Charts vs Commercial Pop Music, for example.   Or another, which rather brings this post to a full, zen-like circle: Cats and Hitler:

Kitler, from catsthatlooklikehitler.com
A Kitler, from catsthatlooklikehitler.com

With the exception of the truly extraordinary image above, I would suggest that another feature of this kind of humour is its rather transient nature.  Over at the Liberal Conspiracy, Unity may indeed be ROTFLHFAO just now, but when the news story fades it is unlikely to be quite so hilarious.  It is certainly true of the GraphJam site (which is in desperate need of an editor).  Anything that includes the word’s “Sarah” and “Palin” now seems very passe.

Interestingly, the one-panel joke lends itself very well to a cross-over into the print world.  Nowadays, publishing an annual ‘best-of’ book allows these site owners to monetize their humour.  The Onion AV Club has a run-down of 27 Popular Websites That Became Books.  LOLCats is at Number 1, obv.  More on them another time…

Was it worth it?

ATLAS Hadronic endcap Liquid Argon Calorimeter
ATLAS Hadronic endcap Liquid Argon Calorimeter

The Large Hadron Collider at Cern is being switched on tomorrow. Stephen Hawking says it is safe, and that the machine will not create a black-hole that will suck the entire world in on itself. It is the perfect Douglas Adams scenario. We could all be anihilated by ten past nine tomorrow morning, and no-one will bring the milk in.

Can you imagine just how embarrassing such an event will be for humanity? One moment, we are daring to behold the secrets of the universe, edging closer to the mind of God. The next, we are all squashed, star dust again – only this time, your base materials will be blended with those of your office colleagues and that beige laser printer on the filing cabinet. Perversely, it might actually be the one moment where human beings discover a true understanding of one another. Six billion people united in a single thought: “Whoops.” Perhaps that moment will be worth it.
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