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From Harry Potter-style mega-hits to controversy over banned books to hot competition for literary prizes, there is never a dull moment in the book world. Chapter & Verse keeps readers up-to-date on the latest in literary headlines. Check in with us daily to learn about books and their people - those who write them and those who love them.

The Kindle is Amazon's official e-reading device. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Is Amazon asking independent bookstores to sell Kindles?

By Staff Writer / 06.05.13

Is Amazon contacting independent bookstores and asking them if they want to sell Kindles?

Considering the animosity that some booksellers feel toward Amazon, it’s a strange idea, and Amazon isn’t commenting. But a handful of independent bookstores are reporting that they’ve received calls from someone claiming to be representing Amazon. According to the indie staffers, the caller asked if they’d be interested in working with the company to sell the e-readers.

As reported by independent bookstore newsletter Shelf Awareness, Los Angeles bookstore Skylight Books wrote a post on their Tumblr about a phone call the store had received from a representative claiming to be from Amazon. Appropriately enough, the post is titled “WHAT THE WHAT THE WHAAT!?!?” The post was written by a staff member named Charles.

“Apparently, [the caller] was given the task of reaching out to independent bookstores in order to ‘build’ a ‘relationship’ with the indies in order to ‘partner’ with us in a program to sell Kindles in our store…. yea, really,” he wrote.

Charles wrote that he “stated flatly that we wouldn’t be interested.”

According to Charles, the caller expected the skepticism.

“He said he understood and that he knew Amazon was facing a number of ‘hurdles’ they would need to cross in order to implement this program,” Charles wrote.

The caller asked Charles what would prevent his store from saying yes. Charles, according to his post, answered that: Amazon would need to start paying sales tax in every state; that Amazon would have to stop what Charles called its “predatory business practices”; and that the Kindle e-reader would have to be open-source. (Three indie bookstores recently sued Amazon and the six biggest American publishers, claiming that digital rights management of e-books is making it harder for them to sell electronic titles. However, some observers found fault with their logic. Check out the full story here.)

According to Charles, the representative “calmly and quite graciously said that he understood and that he felt Amazon was making progress on all three of those fronts (…!!…).”

Apparently Skylight Books isn’t alone. Island Books co-owner Roger Page says his wife received a similar call and that she also said no to Amazon. Page, whose bookstore is located in Mercer Island, Wash., told Shelf Awareness that hearing from the company isn’t unusual because the store is located near Seattle, Amazon’s headquarters, and that Amazon staff have floated new initiatives by him before.

“I think this is how they test out ideas," he said. "A lot of these guys know me.”

But Page said that, given that at least one other bookstore had received a similar call, it sounded to him like this was about something more than his simply being Amazon’s sounding board.

In addition, Page said that the caller his wife spoke to mentioned Kobo, the e-reader company that has a partnership with the American Booksellers Association and whose e-readers are currently sold by many independent bookstores. According to Page, the caller said that Amazon “could offer competitive prices” against Kobo.

The Seattle newspaper The Stranger looked into the matter after Skylight Books wrote about the call and Stranger writer Paul Constant found other booksellers who said they’d also received calls.

“Over the weekend, I heard from a few other booksellers who confirmed that they also received calls from people who claimed to be from,” Constant wrote on The Stranger website.

Constant said that one bookseller had received an e-mail address from the sales representative who had contacted them and that the bookseller gave him the address. Constant e-mailed the address but received a form e-mail back that said, “Thank you for your interest in Kindle” and asked him to supply his information to the “Amazon Kindle Wholesale Team.”

Is Amazon trying to offer an olive branch to indie bookstores? Would bookstores ever join up with the online book titan? If Amazon is truly contacting bookstores, it’s a surprising move.

'Anna Karenina' and 'Middlemarch' were two of the titles mentioned in a recent New York Times piece questioning whether or not literature "expand[s] our imaginations and refine[s] our moral and social sensibilities?"

Can books make us better people?

By Husna Haq / 06.04.13

Does literature make us better?

That’s the intriguing question behind a provocative debate percolating through the literary community.

It was sparked by a piece in the New York Times by University of Nottingham professor of philosophy Gregory Currie. Though kitchen table – and indeed, ivory tower – wisdom would have it that literature improves us as human beings, Prof. Currie argued that the evidence is simply not there to support such a claim.

“Wouldn’t reading about Anna Karenina, the good folk of Middlemarch and Marcel and his friends expand our imaginations and refine our moral and social sensibilities?” he asks, touching on the very benefits many readers attribute to reading good literature.

And yet, Currie says, proof of such benefits doesn’t exist. 

“What we don’t have is compelling evidence that suggests that people are morally or socially better for reading Tolstoy,” he writes.

One reason this is such an interesting debate is that many readers take for granted the premise that reading good literature makes us better people – smarter, more empathetic, more cultured. Currie goes so far as to say that so pitched are the emotions over this debate we fail to even question the premise or seek out the evidence.

“There is a puzzling mismatch between the strength of opinion on this topic and the state of the evidence,” he writes. “In fact I suspect it is worse than that; advocates of the view that literature educates and civilizes don’t overrate the evidence – they don’t even think that evidence comes into it.”

In fact, counters Time’s Annie Murphy Paul, reading literature does indeed make us “smarter and nicer,” and what’s more, the evidence is there to prove it.

In a June 3 article, she writes that 2006 and 2009 studies by Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto suggest that “individuals who often read fiction appear to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective.”

That’s because literature acts as a cognitive exercise of sorts, walking us through complex affairs in preparation for situations we may encounter in real life.

“The emotional situations and moral dilemmas that are the stuff of literature are also vigorous exercise for the brain, propelling us inside the heads of fictional characters and even, studies suggest, increasing our real-life capacity for empathy,” Paul writes. 

Paul likens reading literature to “deep reading,” and contrasts it with the superficial reading done on the Web. The two engage different parts of the brain and studies have found that the latter is less satisfying and less engaging than the former. 

“Recent research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated that deep reading – slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity – is a distinctive experience, different in kind from the mere decoding of words,” Paul says.

Taking the debate a step further, Lakshmi Chaudhry of First Post piggybacks on Paul’s argument. 

“Little else forces us to make that leap of empathy in our 21st century life,” she writes. “Great literature may not make us better human beings, but it forces us to encounter the world – and our self – in its wondrous and fearsome complexity. For that alone, a good book is and will remain one of the great achievements of humanity.”

Nonetheless, the question remains - does literature make us better?

If we turn to literature itself and the nuanced messages it conveys, we may find that the answer, unlike the question, is not nearly so clear-cut and precise. Literature, after all, deals with the messy, the ambiguous, the muddled, and, we suspect, that’s just what we have on our hands with that deceivingly straightforward question.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

Leon Panetta's memoir will be published by Penguin Group. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta will release a memoir

By Staff Writer / 06.04.13

Former Secretary of Defense and CIA director Leon Panetta will write a memoir for publisher Penguin Group.

According to the New York Times, Panetta received an advance of almost $3 million.

“I have seen Washington at its best and at its worst,” Panetta said in a statement. “My goal is to give readers the opportunity to go behind the scenes and learn the lessons of how our democracy works, and sometimes how it fails to work.”

Neither a release date nor a title has been announced.

Panetta served as a Congressman for California from 1977 to 1993 and became former president Bill Clinton’s chief of staff in 1994. He began serving as CIA director in 2009 and became Secretary of Defense in 2011, leaving the job this past February.

The former Secretary of Defense's book will be only one of many political memoirs coming out over the next years, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, David Axelrod, Jeb Bush, and Condoleezza Rice all planning books.

James Agee's manuscript for one of his most famous works, 'Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,' may have had more conventional beginnings than previously believed.

James Agee's legacy changes with discovery of new text

By Contributor / 06.04.13

This week, with the publication of James Agee’s “Cotton Tenants: Three Families,” literary sleuth John Summers is trying to correct a small but important part of Agee’s literary history.

Agee, who died in 1955 at age 45, is perhaps best known as the author of  “A Death in the Family,” a beautiful, posthumously published novel based largely on the author’s early loss of his father.

But Agee (pronounced Ay-gee) is also famous for one of the most curious incidents in American letters – an episode that the new release of Agee’s long-forgotten “Cotton Tenants” is aimed at clarifying.

In 1936, Fortune magazine publisher Henry Luce sent Agee and photographer Walker Evans to do a slice-of-life story about poor Alabama farmers. But Fortune rejected the story, which eventually led to “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” a book that combined Agee’s cryptic, stream-of-conscious narrative with Evans’ haunting pictures of Depression-era families to become a landmark of social documentary.

Over a couple of generations, while reading “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” even many of Agee’s admirers had little doubt about why Fortune rejected Agee’s peculiar material. Asked to write about “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” several years ago, essayist Phillip Lopate said that the book “is often glibly spoken of as a classic, but if it is, it must be one of the most unread and unreadable classics, which educated people would rather compliment than endure.”

But in 2010, Summers, who edits The Baffler literary journal, became aware of an Agee typescript that seemed, based on circumstantial evidence, to be the original – and only known version – of the piece that Fortune had declined to publish. Interestingly, the typescript contains a much more conventional account of Agee’s Alabama travels than the story within “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”

Summers’ discovery calls into question the long-held assumption that Fortune rejected Agee’s Alabama travelogue because of the article’s unrelenting experimentation. What now seems more likely is that “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” is a radically reimagined version of Agee’s Alabama experiences, and not merely a book version of his magazine piece. The unpublished magazine piece, although it contains flashes of Agee’s eccentric vision, is a much more conventional piece of journalism than “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”    

Summers published a part of the rediscovered typescript in an issue of The Baffler. Now, the entire typescript has been published, along with Evans’ related photographs, in “Cotton Tenants: Three Families."

The new book is a more accessible take on Agee’s Alabama trip, offering a sublime showcase for his frequently masterful prose style. Agee describes a poor tenant farmer’s day, for example, as “strung between two flowerings of a lamp; slung from its meals as from three wooden pegs; and mostly work; and the leisure mindless.”

But in other parts of Agee’s narrative, he proves maddeningly opaque, and a few of his sentences read like riddles, anticipating the mystical pronouncements of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”

Listen to this, for example: “Human life, we must assume in the first place, is somewhat more important than anything else in human life, except, possibly, what happens to it.” Huh?

Even so, the virtues and complication so “Cotton Tenants” stand on their own, making the book memorable in its own right, beyond its connection to “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”

As reviewer John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote in an advance review of the “Cotton Tenants,” it’s “not just a different book; it’s a different Agee, an unknown Agee. Its excellence should enhance his reputation...”

Danny Heitman, an author and a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is an adjunct professor at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication.

'Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason' starred Renee Zellweger. (Laurie Sparham/Universal Pictures/AP)

'Bridget Jones': Helen Fielding offers hints about third book

By Staff Writer / 06.04.13

What will a new book featuring terse diary writer Bridget Jones look like in the age of texting?

Author Helen Fielding gave a few clues during Book Expo America, which was held in New York City from May 28 to June 1.

The book’s title, “Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy,” came from a version of the song written by Noel Coward, which singer Dinah Washington covered in 1992.

Fielding called the new book “fun,” according to USA Today.

“I'm not trying to write social commentary,” she said.

She mentioned themes including Bridget’s biological clock, the new role the Internet plays in everyday life, and Bridget's struggles with what she sees as women being expected to look like they’re always “on the red carpet.”

“Boy” is planned for an Oct. 15 release.

Fielding’s last Bridget Jones novel, the sequel “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,” came out in 1999. The movie adaptation of the first novel starring Renee Zellweger in the title role came out in 2001, delighting many "Jones" fans by casting "Pride and Prejudice" actor Colin Firth as Mark Darcy, the "Jones" hero who is a play on one of Firth's most famous roles, "Pride" character Mr. Darcy.

An “Edge” film adaptation followed the first movie in 2004.

Assistant director of the Durango Public Library Sandy Irwin demonstrates various e-readers. (Shaun Stanley/The Durango Herald/AP)

E-book price fixing: As the trial begins, here's what you need to know

By Husna Haq / 06.03.13

After months of accusations, court filings, and assorted settlements, Monday marks the start of a high-stakes trial in which the US Justice Department accuses Apple of price-fixing e-books

The trial, which takes place in Manhattan, will provide insight into e-book pricing and how digital books changed publishing. It will also feature testimony from top executives from publishing as well as those from Apple, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

The DOJ’s case, in a nutshell: The agency said last year that Apple conspired with five top publishers to raise prices for e-books in competition with Amazon. It alleges that in 2009, Apple met with top publishers and persuaded them to adopt a publishing model known as the "agency model" in order to drive up e-book prices. The agency model, in contrast to the traditional wholesale model, allows publishers to set the prices for e-books, then split the proceeds with Apple and the retailer. The result, according to the DOJ, is that e-book prices rose from the $9.99 standard set by Amazon to at least $12.99. The agency alleges that price fixing has reduced competition in the e-books industry and raised e-book prices.

Five publishers accused in the DOJ’s suit have settled, some citing a lack of resources to pursue a legal battle. Apple has vowed to fight.

Apple’s response: The tech company’s CEO Tim Cook has called the allegations “bizarre” and is maintaining that Apple has done nothing wrong. In fact, the company says it helped the publishing industry by challenging Amazon’s “monopoly.”

In a statement to the Los Angeles Times in the spring of 2012, Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr said, “The DOJ's accusation of collusion against Apple is simply not true. The launch of the iBookstore in 2010 fostered innovation and competition, breaking Amazon’s monopolistic grip on the publishing industry."

The trial, which is expected to last about three weeks, will feature testimony from top executives in publishing and technology, including the late Steve Jobs himself.

The DOJ is expected to quote the Apple founder via an email he wrote to James Murdoch of News Corp., which owns HarperCollins, in which Jobs writes, “Throw in with Apple and see if we can all make a go of this to create a real mainstream e-books market at $12.99 and $14.99.”

It will also quote Jobs’s authorized biography in which Jobs allegedly told publishers “We'll go to the agency model, where you set the price, and we get our 30%, and yes, the customer pays a little more, but that's what you want anyway.”

Apple says the quotes are taken out of context. Still, in her pretrial review, Judge Denise Cote has said the government has a strong case. 

“I believe that the government will be able to show at trial direct evidence that Apple knowingly participated in and facilitated a conspiracy to raise the prices of e-books, and that the circumstantial evidence in this case, including the terms of the agreements, will confirm that.”

The stakes are high for the publishing business. You can bet the entire publishing industry is paying attention.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

'Outlander,' the first book in writer Diana Gabaldon's series, was first released in 1991.

Diana Gabaldon's 'Outlander' series is coming to television

By Staff Writer / 06.03.13

Fans of Claire and Jamie, rejoice: author Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series is coming to television.

Starz, which also recently announced that it’s releasing a miniseries of Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War trilogy titled “The White Queen,” is giving a series order to an adaptation of Gabaldon’s books following protagonist Claire Randall, which currently comprise seven novels. According to Deadline, Gabaldon mentioned the news while at Book Expo America in New York City, which is being held from May 28 to June 1. Starz has reportedly ordered 16 episodes.

The series will be coming from “Battlestar Galactica” writer and developer Ron Moore, who has already hired several writers for the show, and “Outlander” will begin filming in Scotland this fall.

Gabaldon’s septology follows Claire Randall, a married former nurse living in 1945 who is transported back to Scotland circa 1743 after she touches part of a stone circle in the Scottish Highlands. While there, she meets warrior Jamie Fraser and is torn between him and her husband back home. Gabaldon will release the eighth book in the series later this year.

Besides its planned “White Queen” adaptation, Starz recently concluded its original series “Spartacus” and was also behind a take on the King Arthur legend, titled “Camelot,” and Kelsey Grammer’s series “Boss.” The channel is currently broadcasting the show “Da Vinci’s Demons,” which imagines the early life of the legendary figure, and “Magic City,” which follows the owner of a Miami hotel shortly after the Cuban Revolution.

'The White Queen,' one of the books in Philippa Gregory's Cousins' War series, is the story of Elizabeth Woodville, who became the wife of King Edward IV.

Philippa Gregory's 'Cousins' War' series will become a Starz TV show

By Staff Writer / 05.31.13

Historical novelist Philippa Gregory’s British history series will be the basis of a new Starz miniseries titled “The White Queen,” which will premiere this August.

“Queen” will follow the events of Gregory’s books “The Lady of the Rivers,” “The White Queen,” and “The Red Queen,” which are known as the "Cousins’ War" series. “Red” centers on Margaret Beaufort, the mother of the first Tudor king Henry VII, while “White” follows Elizabeth Woodville, who became queen by marrying King Edward IV. “Rivers” is the story of Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Elizabeth’s mother. The conflict around which the series is built is the War of the Roses, in which the houses of York and Lancaster struggled for the English throne.

The series will run for 10 episodes and is produced in tandem with the BBC.

“All are heroines in the real sense of the word,” Gregory said of her characters in a statement. “They were courageous and determined and went through extraordinary danger, but they never abandoned their unwavering desire to return their family to power.... I think people are going to be surprised to see these remarkably powerful women when traditional history tells you female were simply relegated to be victims or wives or mothers.”

The series stars “Ripper Street” actress Amanda Hale as Margaret Beaufort; “Albert Nobbs” actress Janet McTeer as Jacquetta of Luxembourg; actress Rebecca Ferguson as Elizabeth Woodville; Max Irons of “Red Riding Hood” as Edward IV; and “The Tudors” actor James Frain as Lord Warwick, who serves as mentor to Edward IV.

“Queen” will premiere Aug. 10.

Gregory is best-known for her novel “The Other Boleyn Girl,” which followed Anne’s sister Mary Boleyn and her relationship with her more famous sibling and was released in 2001. It was released as a movie in 2008 starring Natalie Portman as Anne, Scarlett Johansson as Mary, and Eric Bana as King Henry VIII.

Book Expo America attendees wait to have books autographed. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

BEA panel asks: Do book critics need an ethics code?

By Staff Writer / 05.31.13

Just about every industry has rules and standards that its workers are expected to abide by in order to succeed at their jobs and uphold the reputation of their professions. 

Should that be the case with book critics as well?

A panel was held yesterday at this year's Book Expo America (in New York from May 28-June 1) to debate what a code of conduct for book reviewers would look like. As the journalism industry changes, standards are changing with it, including what makes up a book review, and even veterans of the business are finding the ground shifting under their feet.

The National Book Critics Circle surveyed reviewers recently and its findings will become available this fall. After that, according to Time Magazine, the NBCC will release what it considers to be best practices for critics.

NBCC board of directors member Marcela Valdes served as moderator for the panel at BEA. Participants included NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan, Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, and literary agent Eric Simonoff.

Corrigan stressed the importance of objectivity, impartiality, and fairness in book reviewing (which, she also noted, are not synonymous terms). But what gets tricky, it seems, is arriving at a common definition of these words. Exactly how impartial and objective must a critic be?

“It’s kind of the Wild West these days,” Valdes noted of the book review industry during the panel.

Some of the data from the NBCC survey was discussed during the panel as well, and it was revealed that more than 62 percent of respondents said it was acceptable for a critic to refuse to review something he or she dislikes.

Apart from our obvious stake in the matter, we’ll be interested to see what this discussion means for the literary journalism industry.

Neil Gaiman's new book 'The Ocean at the End of the Lane' is due to be released June 18. (Jayson Wold/HarperCollins)

Neil Gaiman's new novel = boffo sales in Cambridge

By Staff Writer / 05.30.13

Neil Gaiman’s new book “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” has already brought blockbuster sales to one Massachusetts bookstore. 

“Ocean,” which is due to be released June 18, follows an artist who comes back to his family’s home in England and remembers the events of many years ago which almost tore apart him and his family.

Gaiman, who is currently living in Cambridge, Mass., granted permission for only two booksellers to receive pre-orders of signed copies of his book: Barnes & Noble and the bookstore Porter Square Books, which is located in Cambridge.

And for Porter Square Books, the pre-orders alone have equaled more books sold than for any title co-owner Dale Szczeblowski has ever seen.

“We’ve never handled anything on this scale,” Szczeblowski told the Boston Herald. “We’ve never sold that many copies of any book in any place I’ve ever worked, and I’ve been in the business 30 years.”

Szczeblowski told the Herald that the store had sold 4,500 copies of the book so far.

“It’s better than Christmas,” he said.

The book was also recently named as one of the best titles of the summer by British newspaper The Guardian.

As noted by the Herald, Gaiman has been promoting the fact that signed copies of the book are available through Porter Square Books through his Twitter account for several months. 

“Reminder: US only,” the author tweeted on May 25. “You can order SIGNED copies of OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE via @PorterSqBooks.”

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