Sure, it’s hard to afford that first home. But rehabbing the neighborhood crack house – isn’t that a bit extreme? Matthew Batt did exactly that and claims the process made him a better husband and writer. Monitor books editor Marjorie Kehe recently talked to Batt about his renovation project and Sugarhouse, the memoir that came out of it. Here are excerpts of their conversation.
Q: You bought a onetime crack house, an utterly unloved property no one else wanted. Why?
It was 2002 and properties were coming and going almost on the same day. When we found the crack house in question, it was at least a blank slate. It was the kind of place we went into and with really active imaginations it was possible to see that we could make it a home, both for its sake and for our own.
Q: You evoke Thoreau in your memoir and say that you find home repair to be “essentially American” and “perfectly democratic.” What do you mean by that?
I think it’s kind of in our American DNA, that pioneer spirit where you have to be self-reliant. We Americans collectively, whether we’re a red state or a blue state kind of person, believe that we are best at being on our own, and that means that you have to be pretty intrepid when it comes to problem solving and finding a safe and stable place to live.
Q: Is there a morality to it? Did home repair make you a better person?
I hope it made me, if not a better person, at least a better husband. The thing I learned most is how important it is to really listen to your spouse. What became clear is that pretty much everything involved with home renovation is a metaphor. Jenae [Batt’s wife] brought up a set of these cool but really expensive drawer pulls that she wanted to use as curtain binders. My first reaction was, “That’s kind of ludicrous. Sure, it might work but that’s going to cost a lot of money,” and then I listened and I realized that this is important – it’s about who she is and who she wants us to be.
Q: You were also working toward a PhD in English and writing while you were renovating the house. Which was the bigger achievement – getting the degree or fixing the house?
The home was definitely the far greater educator. [But] I probably wouldn’t have been able to learn as much in the home renovation process had I not been enrolled in that degree program. [One time] I found myself very much needing to turn in an essay the next day for workshop. I sat down on a Sunday night to write and I literally had to shove away power tools and little scraps of wood and paint samples in order to find a space for my laptop. And I began writing about a hardwood-floor-laying workshop that I had attended the day before and it just unlocked something in me, gave me permission to write in a voice that sounded more like me than anything else I’d ever written. I think probably that without both of those things neither could have happened as well.
Q: You and your wife just moved to a new house. Is it also a fixer-upper?
Yeah, I’m afraid so.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.
Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese activist who escaped house arrest in his country last spring, has signed a deal with Times Books, which is an imprint of the publishing company Henry Holt & Company.
The book is planned for a fall 2013 release, according to Henry Holt.
Chen, a lawyer who drew ire from the Chinese government after he spoke out about the country’s policy about one-child families, said in a statement, “This is an opportunity for me to share with the world the true conditions in China, especially in the vast stretches of rural China.”
After escaping from his home, Chen sought sanctuary in the American embassy in Beijing. He now attends the New York University School of Law.
Despite ominous forecasts predicting the end of print books and bricks-and-mortar bookstores, traditional books and booksellers are still going strong, even as sales of e-books surge, according to BookStats, an annual survey that tracks the US publishing industry.
While e-book revenues have more than doubled in the past year and surpassed print to become the dominant format for adult fiction, print continued to account for the vast majority of publishing sales, the survey found.
“There’s been exponential growth [in e-books] in the past few years,” said Tina Jordan, vice president of the Association of American Publishers, which co-produced the BookStats survey. “From what we’ve seen so far in 2012, the growth is continuing.”
Conducted by two trade groups, the Book Industry Study Group and the Association of American Publishers, the BookStats survey includes data collected from nearly 2,000 US publishers.
Among the key highlights of the BookStats survey:
• E-book sales and revenues more than doubled between 2010 and 2011, from 125 million e-books sold in 2010 accounting for $869 million in revenues to 388 million e-books sold in 2011 accounting for more than $2 billion in revenues.
• In the adult fiction category, e-books made up 30 percent of net revenue, making it the dominant format in net revenue among all print and electronic formats.
• Print accounted for 85 percent of the publishing industry’s general interest sales in 2011, proving that the book market is a long way from going all digital.
• Online retail accounted for some 18.5 percent of book sales in 2011, or $5.04 billion in revenues, a 35 percent jump between 2010 and 2011.
• But bricks-and-mortar retail still ranked as the No. 1 sales channel for books in 2011, accounting for 31.5 percent of total book sales, or $8.59 billion.
• Overall trade publishing revenues remained flat, going from $13.90 billion in 2010 to $13.97 billion in 2011. E-book revenues were about $2 billion, replacing more than $1 billion in lost print revenues in 2011.
The survey revealed several telling insights. The popularity of e-books for adult fiction suggests “the growing strength of the e-book for narrative, straightforward storytelling,” writes the New York Times’s Media Decoder blog.
Aside from the surge in e-books, perhaps the brightest spot in books was in the children’s/young adult category, which saw a 12 percent increase in sales in 2011 to $2.78 billion – the largest jump of any subcategory.
The survey also suggests that the bankruptcy and subsequent shuttering of hundreds of Borders retail outlets took a toll on book sales, which tumbled 12.6 percent to $8.59 billion in 2011 (e-books helped replace some of those lost print sales, however). Still, despite the growing dominance of Amazon and the shuttering of Borders, bricks-and-mortar stores continue to be the primary method of getting books into the hands of customers.
“I would never dare to call an industry healthy, but it certainly seems to be robust,” Dominique Raccah, the publisher of Sourcebooks and co-chairwoman of the Book Industry Study Group, told the New York Times. “We, as an industry, appear to be getting books into more hands.”
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
But enough to name their children after them?
The baby name website Nameberry is reporting that names from “Hunger Games” and “Game of Thrones” have experienced massive spikes in popularity so far in 2012, with the name Arya soaring over 800 percent in popularity and coming in at number one on Nameberry’s list of most popular names.
Meanwhile, the name Cinna – along with Senna, a female version – are both up 1,500 percent from their rankings last year, according to Nameberry, and came in at number seven on the list.
The name Theon, the moniker of a male “Game of Thrones” character who struggles when he is torn between two families, has also had a surge, ranking at number eight on the list.
Other literary names coming to the forefront include Gatsby after the titular character in the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, which came in at spot number 11 on Nameberry’s rankings. (Perhaps influenced by the Baz Luhrmann film version of the book due out late this year?) And as for TV, the website credits popular British period series “Downton Abbey” with the rise of the name Sybil, which is the fifth most popular name on the list. On “Downton,” Sybil Crawley is the youngest of three daughters who becomes a nurse during World War I.
In 2011, the Social Security Administration reported that Jacob, also the name of the loyal werewolf from Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series, was the most popular boy name of the year, while Isabella, the full name of "Twilight" protagonist Bella Swan, was number two for female names.
Ask most Americans to describe the Taliban – the militant Pashtun tribesmen who once ruled Afghanistan – and "poetic" probably won't be an adjective you'll hear frequently employed. But that's exactly the point of publishing an English edition of poetry by the group, says Alex Strick van Linschoten, one of the editors of the newly released US edition of "Poetry of the Taliban." "Just like our soldiers have feelings and emotions, the Talibs do as well," he says.
Monitor correspondent Tom A. Peter recently spoke with van Linschoten about the book and his decision to publish it.
Q: How did you get the idea for this book?
A: We were running an organization to give voices to the debate and discussion happening in Afghanistan. As part of that project, we were monitoring the Taliban website and we saw that there were these Taliban poems in a very prominent location on the website. We started to have them translated because I was curious. We just kept on doing it even after our project had finished. Then, about a year and a half ago, we mentioned to our publisher that we had these 300 to 350 Taliban poems, and he said, "Let’s publish them."
Q: What first stood out to you about the poems?
A: There are the kinds of things that you would expect, like a poem called "Death is a Gift," and there’s a lot glorifying the war and the military aspect of the conflict. But then a very large number of the poems have nothing to do with the war. They’re about flowers, they’re about what it means to be a writer, they’re about religion and so on. There are self-critical poems about the destruction, but not glorifying it in the way that the others are. It was interesting that there were more in the way of these unexpected poems.
Q: What are your favorite poems?
A: There’s one quite interesting one where the Talib imagines himself as a deer running through the forest, and then he imagines the American soldier as the hunter who is trying to hunt him. I think this is an interesting image of the conflict. The final poem, which is about a widow visiting the grave of her husband every day, that’s quite a strong one.
Q: Do the poems have literary merit or are they only interesting because of who wrote them?
A: They’re really emotional. It’s not great art on the highest level, but still it has an emotional pull to it. I think you have a similar kind of dynamic here where people in Kandahar are listening to them, particularly the kind of writers and literary guys, they don’t necessarily think this is great literature, but it has an emotional effect on them.
Q: This book has been pulled into the political debate. Did you intend for that?
A: We didn’t publish the book with any sort of political agenda, but I’ve found it interesting how challenged people have been just by the idea that Talibs write poems, even regardless of the actual content. A lot of the negative responses we’ve had are by people who’ve never read the book; they’re just objecting to the pure existence of it. I think that says something interesting about how we view the Taliban. We don’t think of them as people who write poems. They’re the enemy, they’re terrorists, people who blew up the Buddha statues, they’re people who’ve done all these bad things to women. We have quite a limited frame of reference. If there was anything we were trying to do with the book, it was to try to offer an extended, more complex view of things.
Q: People have criticized you for over-emphasizing the Taliban’s humanity. What do you think about that?
A: It’s surprising that this is such an outrageous observation to have. Where do people think these guys come from? It’s not like they came from Mars in a spaceship. They’re Afghans and they’re engaged in this political conflict. Just like our soldiers have feelings and emotions, the Talibs do as well.
Q: Is this a book for Afghan experts or a general audience?
A: We tried to make it as accessible as possible to a general audience. There are a couple of introductions and forewords that explain the context of the poems. We footnote things that wouldn’t be understandable to a general reader. People who even just have a passing interest in Afghanistan or folk culture would find it interesting.
Q: Do you think this book will make people rethink how they view the Taliban?
A: Books are not the way to change the world, as I’ve discovered from other books I’ve written. Most of the discussion we’ve seen about the book has taken place without people actually reading it, but at least it generates some kind of debate.
Q: What’s your main hope for this book?
A: That people read it and there’s a discussion about it, and that they actually look at the poems rather than just talking about the idea of the book. You can’t engage with something without actually looking at it.
Tom A. Peter is a Monitor contributor.
The paperless office, the currency-devoid bank, the jobless recovery. The latest in a string of euphemistically-named contradictions? The bookless library.
It began with the academic libraries. Kansas State University’s engineering school went bookless 12 years ago. The University of Texas at San Antonio ditched print for e-books and e-journals in 2010. Stanford University’s engineering school pruned 85 percent of its books last year. Drexel University opened a new library just last month with nary a bound volume – just rows and rows of computers. And Cornell recently announced a similar initiative.
For better or worse, the trend is now spreading to public libraries. Facing a budget crunch, the Balboa Branch library in Newport Beach, California, is mulling a plan to strip its original library of most of if not all its 35,000 books – and from the sounds of it, a few librarians, too. If patrons wanted a book, they could approach a voice-activated kiosk, speak to an off-site librarian to order books, then wait by the library’s fireplace for the books to be dropped off in an on-site locker.
Even the grand New York Public Library, that “beautiful Beaux-Arts structure of marble and stone occupying two blocks’ worth of Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan,” is planning for, if not a bookless future, a future with far fewer books. The NYPL’s upcoming transformation “anticipates the parallel and integrated worlds of electronic digital systems and traditional books” in a flexible space that can change with the times, architect Norman Foster told Time.
As ludicrous as a bookless library sounds, the development shouldn’t come as a surprise. Steadily growing sales of tablets, e-readers, and e-books make a case for a more digital-centric library, as do the reports by many academic and local libraries that a majority of patrons use libraries primarily for studying or accessing the Internet. All that has led to the Association of Research Libraries’ findings that American libraries are spending more of their money on electronic resources and less on books. Take that a few steps further and you have yourself a bookless library.
As for us, we’re less than enthused by an idea that appears barely considered, ill-conceived, and just plain foolish. From our perspective, there are a number of problems with a bookless library.
As academic librarian Barbara Fister points out in Inside Higher Ed’s “The Myth of the Bookless Library,” libraries have to pay hefty yearly subscription fees to gain access to collections of e-books and e-journals. In essence, the library is renting these materials; it never owns them and if it stops paying “rent,” it loses the entire collection. “Instead of winning freedom by going digital the library commits itself to often extortiate annual fees to maintain its virtual collection,” writes blogger Alastair Creelman. “The books you used to buy were not cheap but once they were on the shelf you knew what you had. Not so with much e-literature.”
Perhaps more importantly for millions of Americans, the vanishing bookstore and shrinking library deprives us of a critical ingredient in the exploration and discovery of books: the ability to wander, browse, and stumble upon new treasures at random. In an age when bookstores are few and far between – this blogger recently moved to a new city in which she learned the closest bookstore is a 20-minute drive away and, when asked if there was anything closer, a local librarian pointed her to Target – we increasingly rely on our local library to fill our need for literary escape.
"The library is a societal tent pole,” best-selling author Michael Connelly told Time. “There are a lot of ideas under it. Knock out the pole and the tent comes down.” Wandering the aisles of his campus library led Connelly straight to a writing career, he told Time. “Can something like that happen in a bookless library? I'm not so sure.”
Perhaps we might consider the example of our cousins across the pond. When news broke that 350 libraries in England were set to close as a result of budget cuts last month, a group of British authors led “save the libraries” rallies at dozens of cities. A library-less future, author Philip Pullman warned, “will gradually make us a less informed, less intelligent, less aware, less useful, less imaginative, less kindly people than we might have been.”
We don’t know about you, but we’re ready to march.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
Sobol’s series featured the title character, Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, who earned his nickname for his immediate recall of any number of random facts. Brown often was able to puzzle out the mysteries faced by his father, the police chief, before dinner time was over. He also defended his schoolmates against fraudulent get-rich-quick schemes cooked up by local troublemakers such as bully Bugs Meany or the wily Wilford Wiggins (who, in one volume, tried to sell local kids “worm pills” to lure worms to the surface).
First published in 1963, the Encyclopedia Brown books included 27 volumes, with a 28th due for release this October, and have sold millions of copies around the world. Sobol also wrote a large number of other books, many of them for children.
Sobol first worked as a journalist for publications including the Long Island Daily Press, and penned a column titled “Two Minute Mysteries” that inspired him to create the Encyclopedia Brown books.
“I am totally unqualified to be a writer,” he is reported to have said. “My childhood was unimpoverished and joyful. Even worse, I loved and admired my parents.”
The plan for a national museum devoted to American writers has taken another step forward. The American Writers Museum Foundation, which has worked to develop a site centering exclusively on honoring writers from the United States, published a concept plan July 16 that explored how the museum might be laid out and what its focus would be.
According to Amaze Design, the company that developed the museum plan, many Americans are aghast that a facility honoring US authors does not yet exist. “The most common reaction to [the museum] is, ‘You mean we don’t have an American writers museum?’” the concept plan reads.
The stated goal for the proposed museum – which would be 60,000 feet in size when complete – includes the expectation that the first 20,000 feet would be completed by 2015. While nothing has been finalized, the museum will probably be located in Chicago, Ill., according to the foundation.
The concept plan was compiled after brainstorming sessions by authors, designers, museum workers, and others in Boston, New York, and Chicago, funded by the Stead Family Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The projected layout of the museum includes an education center, theater, cafe, bookstore, and literary lounge as well as an open area titled the literary commons. Visitors would walk through the literary commons to reach the writers’ hall, which would contain various sets devoted to topics like “American Families,” “American Towns,” and “Conflict,” with each including famous works that fit the theme. (For instance, Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” would be highlighted in the “American Families” section.)
Branching off from the central writers’ hall would be focus galleries, which could center on themes such as banned books or children’s literature.
The full text of the concept plan can be found here.
Gaiman, who has written for both children and adults, will begin with the picture book “Chu’s Day,” which follows a panda named Chu who has a loud sneeze. It will be released next January. The second picture book will also follow Chu’s adventures.
Of the three chapter books, one will be a sequel to Gaiman’s children’s novel “Odd and the Frost Giants,” a book about a Norse boy named Odd that was inspired by Norwegian mythology. Another of the chapter books for HarperCollins is currently titled “Fortunately, the Milk,” but no other details are known. All three books are classified as “middle grade" and are intended for readers aged 8 to 12.
Writer Gillian Flynn’s bestselling new book “Gone Girl,” about a woman who vanishes on the day of her fifth anniversary of a toxic marriage, will be adapted into a film by 20th Century Fox.
Actress Reese Witherspoon will produce the film, and Flynn will pen the screenplay for the movie version.
No word yet on who will star in the film or when the movie will be released.