As Labor Day arrives, signaling the end of another summer reading season, you might be wondering why you didn’t read as many books at the beach as you thought you would.
But that problem isn’t a new one, as evidenced by some remarks on travel and reading that Aldous Huxley offered back in 1925.
Huxley, who died in 1963, was best known as the novelist behind the celebrated science fiction story “Brave New World.” But Huxley was also a travel writer, and in “Along the Road: Notes and Essays of A Tourist,” he offers this reflection:
“All tourists cherish an illusion, of which no amount of experience can ever completely cure them; they imagine that they will find time, in the course of their travels, to do a lot of reading. They see themselves, at the end of a day’s sightseeing or motoring, or while they are sitting in the train, studiously turning over the pages of all the vast and serious works which, at ordinary seasons, they never find time to read. They start for a fortnight’s tour in France, taking with them ‘The Critique of Pure Reason,’ ‘Appearance and Reality,’ the complete works of Dante and the ‘Golden Bough.’ They come home to make the discovery that they have read something less than half a chapter of the ‘Golden Bough’ and the first fifty-two lines of the ‘Inferno.’”
Huxley conceded that although he was still far too optimistic in judging how much he’d read on a trip, he’d become more prudent, not carrying quite as many volumes along. But he welcomed the innovation of India paper, which allowed very thin pages, meaning that long texts could be carried in lighter formats. “All Shakespeare... gets into a volume no bigger than a novel,” Huxley noted with satisfaction.
Which leaves us wondering what Huxley, an early champion of compact books, would have thought of the e-reader.
Danny Heitman, a columnist with The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”
There’s more trouble ahead for the US Navy SEAL behind the controversial account of the Bin Laden raid, “No Easy Day,” recently revealed to be retired commando Matt Bissonnette.
In a letter obtained by Reuters, the Pentagon warned Bissonnette it was considering legal action for breach of non-disclosure agreements in his first-hand account of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden – and hinted that the government may seize the book’s royalties.
“You are in material breach and violation of the non-disclosure agreements you signed,” said the letter from Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson, according to Reuters. “The Department of Defense is considering pursuing against you and all those acting in concert with you, all remedies legally available to us in light of this situation.”
The letter was addressed to “Mark Owen,” the pseudonym under which Bissonnette wrote. His identity was revealed by Fox News and confirmed by Reuters soon after the book was announced.
The Obama administration and Pentagon officials have said they were surprised by the announcement of “No Easy Day,” and had no prior knowledge of it. Early reviews suggest Bissonnette’s account in the book contradicts previous accounts by White House officials, particularly as to whether Osama bin Laden presented a threat when SEALs first fired at him. The differing accounts could potentially raise a public relations nightmare for administration officials.
According to the terms of Bissonnette’s non-disclosure agreements, he would have to submit any manuscript for pre-publication review and obtain permission before publishing it, according to the letter obtained by Reuters. The book was not vetted by government agencies prior to publication. Disclosure of classified information is a crime and the US government may be entitled to all “royalties, remunerations, and emoluments” from Bissonnette’s disclosures, the letter warned.
“The letter did not say what classified information the book revealed but the book says an unarmed bin Laden was looking out from his bedroom door when he was shot in the head during the May 2011 raid on his hide-out in Pakistan,” Reuters reported.
(Reuters is also reporting that – in addition to possible legal troubles with the US government – Bissonnette also faces threats against his life, as an al Qaeda website last week posted his name and photograph, calling him "the dog who murdered the martyr Sheikh Osama bin Laden.")
“No Easy Day” has stirred a media controversy in recent weeks, with many in the White House, Defense Department, and Special Operations community expressing unhappiness with the book and the attention it has received.
For his part, Bissonnette said in a statement released through his publisher that the first-hand account was written “with respect for my fellow service members while adhering to my strict desire not to disclose confidential or sensitive information that would compromise national security in any way.”
Earlier the Navy SEAL said he hopes to give a majority of the book’s proceeds to military support groups.
At this point, it’s unclear if he’ll see any of those royalties.
A while ago, I stumbled upon a photograph of President James Garfield and his young daughter Mollie. (You can see it here.) Even though it was taken in the 19th century, a time when just about everyone looked stern in front of a camera – maybe because exposures lasted forever – Garfield appears to be positively delighted.
Are his eyes filled with humor because he's about to tell a joke? Is he just ecstatic to be spending time with his daughter, who's giving the evil eye to someone outside the shot? Or is that grin hidden under his beard just a sign that he's a jolly guy?
Whatever the case, the photo hints that Garfield was a remarkable man. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, one of last year's top bestsellers, confirms it.
"Destiny of the Republic," which our reviewer Erik Spanberg wrote brings back to roaring life a tragic but irresistible historical period," is now out in paperback. I contacted author Candice Millard, who previously wrote the bestselling "River of Doubt" about Theodore Roosevelt's treacherous African trip, to ask about the reaction to the book and what she found when she looked into the fascinating life of this most obscure of presidents.
Q: How did you come across the little-known story of President Garfield?
A: I came in to this book without an interest in Garfield. I didn't know anything about him other than he'd been assassinated.
I was actually interested in Alexander Graham Bell and looking at a book with a lot of science in it. I stumbled upon the story of him trying to find the bullet in Garfield.
I wondered why Bell would do this. He's young, he just invented the telephone a few years ago, and he abandons everything he's doing to work night and day on an invention. I start researching Garfield, and I'm blown away by how brilliant he was and the huge heart he had.
It took me three years to work on the book, two years of doing research, and I was far into it by the time I wrote his death scene. I called my husband in tears.
I didn't want to write it. That's ridiculous: It's been 130 years since he died. But I felt like I knew him. I cared about him, and I admired him, and I was surprised by all of that.
Q: Four presidents have been assassinated, but we remember just two: Lincoln and Kennedy. Why have we forgotten Garfield?
A: We forget because it's been so long since his assassination, and he was in office for such a short time.
It was interesting to me in the National Museum of Natural History they have a little alcove about presidential assassinations. Fortunately for Garfield he's right across from Kennedy. But when I was there one day, I'd watch people come in, and they'd look at Kennedy and Lincoln and leave. They'd never turn around to see anything.
We forget, and we don't know the tremendous tragedy this was for the country at this time.
Q: What made him unique as a leader?
A: He was trusted, and he's really the first president since the Civil War to be accepted by the whole country as its leader. The assassination was shocking and devastating.
Q: He was a major advocate for black people, wasn't he?
A: From a very young age, his religion was the Disciples of Christ, and they were fierce abolitionists. He cried when John Brown was hanged, hid a runaway slave, and was a staunch fighter in the Civil War and a hero in the Union Army.
For him, it was mostly about abolition, and he was instrumental in bringing about rights for freed slaves after the Civil War, including suffrage.
During his inaugural, freed slaves were openly weeping in the crowd. A party of 600 black men formed after his assassination to lynch the assassin, Charles Guiteau.
Q: Some presidential rankings don't include him because he was only in office for a few months. But those that do typically rank him toward the bottom. Is that fair?
A: It's unavoidable. He was in office for only four months, and I think that's the reason for that.
But he was in Congress for almost 18 years. And what he accomplishes in four months is to defeat arguably the most powerful and most corrupt man in the country, Senator Roscoe Conkling, by sticking to his own ideals and believing in himself.
What makes him very rare was that he was his own man. I can't think of another presidential candidate, at least in recent times, who didn't hunger for the presidency. He didn't have presidential fever.
At the Republican National Convention, he didn't want to be a candidate but to give a nominating address for another man. He found himself thrust into this role, and never had to compromise his own values and ideals along the way. He was his own man as president, and that would have made him very powerful.
Q: The assassin, Charles Guiteau, is a fascinating character in this own right, a deranged stalker who kept pestering the White House for a job. What did you learn about him?
A: He was delusional and mentally ill. He had been for a long time, and should have not been near anyone, let alone the president.
It was a time when people could sort of slip away. His family tried to have him institutionalized, and he'd disappear. He'd move from city to city, skipping out on his bills, and being very isolated and on his own. He lived in his own foggy, deluded mind, becoming more obsessive.
He believed he would personally make Garfield president by delivering the speech he'd written, and then, through gratitude, Garfield would make him ambassador to France.
He became more obsessive and desperate. He went to the White House and Department of State every day.
Q: Why didn't Garfield have better security?
A: There were all these assassinations going on in Europe, but people believed that's because they had these monarchies. They truly did not believe this would happen again. They didn't want any distance set up between them and their leader; they thought that's something for monarchies and kings.
One night, Guiteau follows Garfield and his secretary of state all around the city. They have no protection, and Guiteau is holding a loaded gun.
Q: It's amazing how this random person actually had direct access to the president and to the secretary of state, who eventually got so frustrated that he told him to get lost. How did that happen, just a couple decades after Lincoln was shot?
A: People believed even if they didn't have any experience or credentials they should be able to make their case directly to the president about getting a job.
It was a nightmare for Garfield. He had to spend 10:30-1:30 every day meeting one-on-one with office speakers.
Q: Guiteau's defense at trial was that he was insane. What can we learn from our debate today over the insanity defense?
A: Guiteau's was one of the earliest insanity defenses. If anyone should have gotten off, it was Guiteau, but the country was determined to see him pay.
Because he was he was delusional, he loved all the attention he was getting. He gave every interview he could, so I could be in his mind.
You can see this horrible danger coming toward this young president who has so much promise and life ahead of him. You see this threat coming, and there's nothing you can do to stop it.
Q: Has the reaction of readers surprised you?
A: When you write about Theodore Roosevelt, you've got a built-in audience. I knew I was taking a real chance writing about Garfield. It was thrilling to see that there was an interest, that people would give it a chance.
Q: Are readers falling for him?
A: They seem to be. When I go out and talk, I get big audiences, and people seem very enthusiastic. I follow things on Twitter, and every one in a while I'll see the hashtag #garfield2012.
Garfield was brilliant and had a heart to match his mind. People respond to that.
Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor the Monitor's Books section.
Big news in the Justice Department’s e-book price-fixing suit: Three of the five publishers accused of price-fixing – Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster – have agreed to pay $69 million to consumers to settle claims they illegally conspired to fix the price of e-books.
The publishers will reimburse consumers who bought books between April 1, 2010 and May 12, 2012, a total of $69 million, with reimbursements ranging from 25 cents to $1.32 per book, according to the Baltimore Business Journal.
In announcing the settlement, Connecticut attorney general George Jepsen called the payout “restitution to customers who were harmed by this price-fixing scheme.”
The publishers must also pay $7.5 million in fees and costs to states.
“We will not tolerate publishers colluding to overcharge consumers millions of dollars for some of the most popular e-books,” John Suthers said in a statement.
A spokesperson for HarperCollins said, “HarperCollins did not violate antitrust laws but made a business decision to settle to avoid the expense and distraction of litigation.”
According to the settlement, the settling publishers must also terminate their existing agency pricing agreements (whereby publishers set the price of books rather than retailers, as in the wholesale model).
The settlement, which must still be approved by the US District Court, is a major victory for the Department of Justice, which brought a highly controversial lawsuit against five of the country’s largest publishers, and Apple, for allegedly conspiring to fix the price of e-books. While Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster agreed to settle early on, Apple, Macmillan, and Penguin vowed to fight the charges and a separate suit against is continuing.
It’s a highly controversial lawsuit (remember NY Sen. Chuck Schumer challenging the DOJ and charging that “the suit could wipe out the publishing industry as we know it”), and this settlement marks a major victory for the DOJ.
We’re eager to see how this settlement impacts the continuing suit against Apple, Macmillan, and Penguin.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
Writers have long argued that the book review was a silly exercise at best. Edgar Allan Poe called reviews a mere “tissue of flatteries,” as the Guardian recently reminded us. Virginia Woolf once said “the clash of completely contradictory opinions cancel each other out.” Perhaps most damning was Elizabeth Hardwick, who, in 1959, had this to say about book reviews: “sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns…. For sheer information, a somewhat expanded publisher’s list would do just as well as a good many of the reviews that appear weekly.”
Today's literati remain equally at odds over the value of the book review. Jacob Silverman stirred up a tempest in the literary teapot earlier this month when he suggested in Slate that the online book culture has spawned an epidemic of "niceness" and turned book reviews too tame. Salon's Laura Miller responded with a defense of positive reviews, while Dwight Garner of The New York Times made a case for "critics who are actually critical."
But all of the above is, at least, honest controversy about professional reviews. What to make of business-for-hire review writing, the less-than-ethical practice that had one entrepreneur advertising on Craigslist for folks to churn out positive reviews of books for $15 a pop?
According to an excellent expository piece in the New York Times, “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy,” Todd Jason Rutherford made a small fortune selling positive reviews of self-published Amazon titles. He started his website, GettingBookReviews.com, in the fall of 2010. “At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99,” writes the Times’s David Streitfeld. “But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50.”
Orders started pouring in for good reviews and Rutherford quickly realized he couldn’t produce all the reviews himself. “How little, he wondered, could he pay freelance reviewers and still satisfy the authors? He figured on $15. He advertised on Craigslist and received 75 responses within 24 hours.”
“Before he knew it,” writes the Times, “he was taking in $28,000 a month.”
Rutherford’s business was eventually outed and forced to stop churning out paid reviews – but by then Rutherford has flooded Amazon with scores of phony reviews (4,531, to be exact) by folks looking to make a quick buck, the vast majority of whom had never even opened the book they were reviewing.
Amazon has said it took down some, though not all, of Rutherford’s paid reviews, according to the NYT piece. Still, Bing Lu, a computer science professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, estimates that fully one-third of all online reviews are fake – and it’s nearly impossible to tell the fake from the real.
And though many users never put full stock in online reviews, literary or otherwise, this latest news has us wondering what to trust.
(For the record, Rutherford is now selling R.V.s in Oklahoma City and says “he is now suspicious of all online reviews – of books or anything else. ‘When there are 20 positive reviews and one negative, I’m going to go with the negative,’ he said. ‘I’m jaded.’”)
So what’s a reader to do?
Use smaller and more traditional outlets. For some quick feedback, turn to smaller, more specialized sites, like Goodreads or Librarything, where you’re more likely to find genuine reviews by trustworthy readers.
And don’t forget the traditional book review (we won't be shy about mentioning the reviews provided right here at CSMonitor.com/Books), those literary appraisals maligned by writers like Woolf and Poe, and which may now be making a comeback thanks to Rutherford and company.
“[I]t ... seems to me that the Amazon scandals reaffirm the importance of the much-maligned traditional book review,” writes the Guardian. “Reviews in, say, newspaper book sections ... are vital in offering a properly critical (often negative) opinion of new books…Yes, there’s only one voice rather than the wisdom of the crowd, but these critics are convincing, independent, entertaining and trustworthy enough that, time and again, they are paid to offer their opinion.”
“And not in the way that Todd Rutherford was paid, by the authors of the books themselves.”
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
“Wolf Hall” centers on Thomas Cromwell, an advisor to King Henry VIII, and his attempts to navigate the treacherous waters of the English court, while “Bring Up the Bodies” tells the story of Henry’s second, ill-fated wife Anne Boleyn.
Disturbed by the runaway success of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy?
You’re not the only one.
While some have credited the book with reviving stale relationships and setting off a “Fifty Shades”-inspired baby boom, one British charity is so outraged by the sado-masochistic bestseller it has called for a “Fifty Shades” book burning.
Wearside Women in Need, a charity that focuses on domestic violence, has asked readers to drop off their copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which it calls “an instruction manual for an abusive individual to sexually torture a vulnerable young woman,” for a Nov. 5 book-burning bonfire.
"I do not think I can put into words how vile I think this book is," Wearside Women director Clare Phillipson told the BBC. “And how dangerous I think the idea is that you get a sophisticated but naïve, young women and a much richer, abusive older man who beats her up and does some dreadful things to her sexually.”
Phillipson told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that she had been waiting for “a feminist icon to savage this misogynistic crap, but nobody did,” so she decided to organize a protest herself.
EL James’s “Fifty Shades” trilogy charts the romance between Anastasia, a naïve college student who has an affair with Christian Grey, a handsome billionaire her introduces her to sado-masochistic sex. The books have become a publishing phenomenon, selling more than 20 million copies in a matter of months to become the fastest-selling paperback of all time .
Lost in the runaway success of the racy tale are “Fifty Shades” detractors.
And Erica Jong, author of the 1973 “Fear of Flying,” a novel known for “its frank treatment of female sexual desire,” writes the LA Times. “I couldn’t find anything that turned me on, other than the fact that he gives her a rare copy of ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles,’” Jong said during a panel discussion of literary writers known for writing about sex earlier this summer in New York.
And physician and TV personality Dr. Drew Pinsky came out against the books on the “Today Show,” according to the Huffington Post. “It does disturb me. The ‘swept away’ fantasy is a common fantasy. But … it’s going beyond that into actual violence against women.”
Defenders, including publisher Random House and “Fifty Shades” fans, say the sex in the trilogy is not abusive but “entirely consensual.”
But Wearside Women’s Phillipson isn’t buying it. “It really is about a domestic violence perpetrator, taking someone who is less powerful, inexperienced, not entirely confident about the area of life she is being led into, and then spinning her a yarn,” Phillipson said. “Then he starts doing absolutely horrific sexual things to her.” Later she said, “That message is so dangerous…There will be a whole generation of young women hearing the women around them say, ‘What a great book’… and thinking ‘This is all right.’”
“My main objective is that at a time when local authorities are making cuts to outreach and refuge services for women experiencing domestic violence, we have libraries wasting and grossly misusing public to buy a book which says, ‘domestic violence is sexy,’” Philippson said. “The money would be better spent supporting victims.”
Phillipson is encouraging women to bring copies of the trilogy to Wearside Women in Need offices for a scheduled Nov. 5 bonfire in which both the books and an effigy of Christian Grey will be burned.
A dangerous step or a step in the right direction? Tell us what you think.
The writer behind the Navy SEAL memoir about killing Osama bin Laden is anonymous no longer. The author of "No Easy Day" is now said to be Matt Bissonette, a 36-year-old former Navy commando who is retired but who earned five Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart during his time in the military.
Fox News reported the author’s identity less than a day after the book was announced. The book had been scheduled for released on Sept. 11 under the pseudonym Mark Owen. Penguin, the publisher behind “No Easy Day,” says that the production schedule for the book will not be changed by the revelation of Bissonette’s identity.
There was criticism of Penguin, whose imprint, Dutton, will publish the book, when the book was first announced. The Defense Department says the book needs to be approved by them before publication because of the information about the department within the book. A Pentagon spokesperson, Lt. Col. James Gregory, said they have not received a copy of the book for approval, and Colonel Tim Nye, a spokesperson for the US Special Operations Command, told Reuters Bissonette could be subject to “potential investigation” because of this.
Dutton spokesperson Christine Ball said there wasn’t any information that could be construed as classified in “No Easy Day,” and a “special operations attorney” has looked through the book for information pertaining to military tactics or procedure, according to Reuters.
“The two reasons [Bissonette] wrote this book were to raise awareness about the sacrifices the SEALs make and to raise money for charities that support fallen SEALs,” Ball said.
Nye told Reuters that approval by Penguin's "special operations attorney" was “irrelevant.”
Bissonette lives in Wrangell, Alaska, according to the Fox News report.
Why rely on one book review when you can read five?
The website The Bookscore aims to fill that need with its collection of aggregated reviews for new titles. On The Bookscore, the articles for a certain book are gathered so that, like on movie websites like Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic, a website visitor can look at a title and get an overall score for a book, averaged from multiple reviews. For example, “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed currently holds a score of 8.8; “Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel” is the proud possessor of a 9.1.
“The Bookscore sets itself apart by including reviews from the only the most trusted sources, by giving users a complete online forum for news and discussion to go along with the reviews, and by allowing the users to contribute to the content directly by requesting books to be scored,” said co-founder Sam Griswold, who founded the site with Chris Laursen.
A button on the front page of the website lets visitors ask for a title to be included. The site’s blog includes articles on book world controversies like “Imagine” author Jonah Lehrer allegedly committing plagiarism and the frontrunners for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.
When looking for reviews, visitors can search through the category “Most Recent” for new releases, “Critic’s Picks” for books with the highest scores (“Bring” by Mantel has the all-time highest score, with other titles like "A Dance with Dragons" by George R.R. Martin also occupying slots), or Editor’s Choice, which currently features titles like “Cheerful Money” by Tad Friend.
It’s the Kentucky Derby of literature, the Super Bowl of bibliophiles, the most bet-on literary competition of the year. The announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature may be months away, but bet-placing is in full swing. In the top spot with 10/1 odds is Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, according to British gambling site Ladbrokes.
If past precedent is any indication, it might just be a good bet. Last year the prize was awarded to Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, who was Ladbroke’s second favorite with initial odds of 9/2 (just behind Syrian poet Adonis, at 4/1). Interestingly, Murakami was a favorite last year, too, with odds at one point hitting 8/1.
The author of “Norwegian Wood” and “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” Murakami is perhaps best known for his recent “IQ84,” an epic trilogy that sold millions in Japan and the US. As we wrote in an earlier Chapter & Verse post, his novels “often feature defiant protagonists who run against the orderly, group mentality predominant in Japanese culture…. Like his protagonists, Murakami is a vocal critic of Japanese policy, particularly its reliance on nuclear power.” The Nobel Prize is often a political statement as much as a literary one, and in this increasingly anti-nuclear climate, Murakami’s views won’t go unnoticed.
Of course, Murakami’s not the only contender. Some 210 writers were nominated for this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, some 46 of whom were nominated for the first time, according to the Swedish Academy.
Behind Murakami is Chinese author Mo Yan (12/1) and Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom (12/1). Tied for fourth are Albanian author Ismail Kadare (14/1), Syrian poet Adonis (14/1), and South Korean poet Ko Un (14/1). Cormac McCarthy is currently running at 16/1, Alice Munro at 20/1, Bob Dylan’s rocking 33/1, and Jonathan Franzen’s way down at 100/1.
The betting kinds would be wise to check out Michael Orthofer’s deliberations on Literary Saloon before plunking down cash on a choice like Bob Dylan (“....anyone who bets on Dylan is basically just handing the money over to them,” writes Orthofer).
As for us, we’re keeping our eye on Murakami and new names like Chinese writer Mo Yan, Italian writer and daughter of a Sicilian princess Dacia Maraini, and Spanish novelist Eduardo Mendoza Garriga.
Let the betting begin!
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.