Just One More Fact…

I can relate to this from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“And then there’s the reference manual on amphibians and reptiles that first crossed her desk in 1994, during an earlier stretch of her career at the Kentucky press. The author in that case, Ms. Salisbury wrote, had spent more than 30 years collecting data for the book. But every time publication seemed imminent, the author would discover a new data point — say, a new span of territory that a lizard might inhabit in the state.”

At some point you just have to declare a book done.

Libraries are a Bold Expression of the American Dream

“In the library I felt better, words you could trust and look at till you understood them, they couldn’t change half way through a sentence like people.”-Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.

I discovered via The Discarded Image (and a nice article there on libraries) that it is National Library Week.  As it is also National Poetry Month the best way to celebrate would be to go to your local library and check out a book by Natasha Trethewey.  (You did know she was the current U.S. Poet Laureate, right?)

The Discarded Image article, written by Mindy Rice Withrow, gives three reasons to support public libraries.  I would like to add one more:  It is in the library that you find the finest example of the American Dream, the ideal that every person regardless of his or her background or birth should have the tools to obtain a higher status, to learn, to invent, to create, to change the world.

The American dream is alive in libraries. The library is an idealistic expression of our value of true meritocracy, knowledge made available to anyone who wants it.No PhD required, no bank account, no credit score, only a curious mind.

Praise be to whatever higher power you believe in that the great thoughts of antiquity, high culture, modern information are accessible to anyone with a mind and a will to seek it out.
Glory hallelujah. Hosanna in the highest.

Public libraries, as we know them, are a distinctly American invention. There were manuscript archives before that, of course, but there was little need for libraries for the masses. The masses could not read, and there weren’t that many books to go around anyway. Until the middle of the 15th century, Europe was said to have produced no more than 1,000 hand-written books a year.

Medieval archives chained their books to desks like banks do with the pens. The idea that you might take a book home to read was impossible. Books, painstakingly reproduced by clerics with quills, were simply too valuable.

The printing press, of course, changed things a bit. In 1950, Europe produced 120,000 books, meaning a library that would once have taken a century to assemble could be collected in 10 months. Ten years later, the output of books had risen to 1,000 titles a day. In 1995, Book Industry Trends reported almost 2.3 billion books were sold in the previous year. There are now more than 1,000,000 books titles in print and the United States alone produces about 65,000 new titles a year.

It was that radical Benjamin Franklin who came up with the notion of the lending library. His model was a bit different than the modern library. It was a “social library,” which was a kind of book club. (They didn’t send you books you didn’t want if you failed to mail a card back.) You paid to join, but then you got to share books with a large group of other people.

Franklin’s Library Company, which he referred to as the “public library of Philadelphia,” was formed with an idealistic view to break down class distinctions and allow artisans to become as well-read as the well-born.

“These libraries have improved the general conversation of the Americans, made the common tradesmen and farmers as intelligent as most gentlemen from other countries, and perhaps has contributed in some degree to the stand so generally made throughout the colonies in defense of their privilege,” Franklin wrote in his autobiography.

As noble as his sentiment may have been, it would be a while before his concept caught on in a big way. Before 1876, about 3,000 social libraries had been founded mostly in the northeast United States. But most were small and short-lived.

The library movement started to grow as public schools were built across the country. People began to wonder, what good is it to learn how to read if you don’t have anything to read? Legislation in the late-1830s permitted school districts to levy taxes for school libraries. By 1850 Massachusetts had 2,084, while New York schools had some 1.5 million library books.

The patron saint of the American library system was the millionaire Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie poured his fortune into the construction of 1,679 libraries in the United States. The gifts came with the obligation that communities pay for their maintenance and support in perpetuity. Today, more than 1,000 of them are still in use as libraries.

“I choose free libraries as the best agencies for improving the masses of the people, because they give nothing for nothing,” Carnegie said in 1900. “They only help those who help themselves. They never pauperize. They reach the aspiring, and open to these the chief treasures of the world-those steeped up in books. A taste for reading drives out lower taste.”

Interestingly, another great boon to libraries came in the 1950s and 60s, when the nation found itself in a literacy race with the Soviet Union. The Library Services Act in 1956 and the Library Services and Construction Act of 1964 may have come about in response to a 1950 report “Public Library Inquiry,” published by the Social Science Research Council, which observed that “communist countries have been most active in promoting public library growth within their borders.”

Today our nation has 10,000 library systems with 16,500 outlets, and 80% are located in rural areas or small towns with less than 25,000 people. Modern libraries not only make it possible for the cash strapped to share in the great literary works of our culture, they provide community programs and allow free internet access to millions. They offer access licensed databases, homework help, online instruction access to local community information and service for job seekers.

Be proud, America, of your free lending libraries. Be proud of the ideals they represent.

-This article was adapted from a chapter in my book Broke is Beautiful.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Uncollected Oscar Wilde

ImageIt seems that Tuesday has come again.  And so I will pick up the book that is nearest to my left hand and tell you a bit about it.  Here’s how Teaser Tuesdays works:

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Today I was reading The Uncollected Oscar Wilde edited by John Wyse Jackson.Image

The selection is from a lecture to art students delivered in June 1883.

“To begin with, such an expression as English art is a meaningless expression.  One might just as well talk of English mathematics.”

If you would like a couple of bonus lines (the conclusion of this paragraph):

“Nor is there any such thing as a school of art even.  There are merely artists, that is all.”

Why Book Buying Stats Might Stifle the Next Great Author

Given the pressure to reduce costs, something had to give in the formerly genteel world of book publishing, and it’s not the publishers…

Many mid-list authors have fallen victim to increasingly sophisticated, widely available sales data, according to agents and publishers. Publishers can now assess every author’s lifelong sales thanks to such services as Nielsen Bookscan in the United States and BookNet Canada.

And once reduced to pure numbers, those track records determine the fate of proven writers looking for cash advances to begin their next books…

The upheaval is such that an author like Dan Brown “would never get published now, because his first three books sold nothing,” Bukowski said. But as everybody knows, Brown’s fourth novel, The Da Vinci Code, has sold more than 80-million copies.

Even when they agree to publish the fourth book of a mid-list author, publishers today hedge their bets by paying minimal advances based on past sales of the author’s work.

Why Book Buying Stats Might Stifle the Next Great Author

Five Stages of Grief Following the Publication of Your First Book: The Awl

I loved the title to this article, which was picked up by Publisher’s Weekly’s twitter feed.  The article itself didn’t impress me as much, but I think most writers know, and most non-writers probably do not, that publishing a book— especially one that matters a lot to the writer, is often a grief process.

All of the hope and expectation that a writer had during the creation process comes crashing into the reality of a glutted marketplace.  Imagining possibilities makes people happy.  Recognizing limitations is a small death requiring a mourning period.

Five Stages of Grief Following the Publication of Your First Book: The Awl

Interviewing in 140 Characters or Less

In case you missed it, this is a transcript of the “twitterview” I did yesterday.  This visual version was prepared by Novel Publicity.  I did want to point out that a couple of my answers, which were across two tweets, were combined in this transcript and a few of the questions and answers were omitted.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

On the question of whether aspiring writers should look for an agent or try to find a publisher directly I replied:

Initially, I just sent proposals using Writer’s Market. My biggest seller (85,000 copies) sold that way. After that, got an agent

Once you have a track record you can get an agent. Yes, it is a Catch-22.

Upsides and downsides to working with agents. They get you things you won’t on your own, and it is good to have someone in it w/ U. (I ran out of characters on this tweet.)

But if your agent doesn’t like a proposal and you really believe in it, don’t take it as the last word.


Also after the end of the official twitter view I answered a question about whether there will be more from the characters in Angel.  (Short answer: Maybe.)

And I added on the question about the inspiration for the character of Ian:

A bit more on the inspiration for the character Ian, see the third question in this interview:

Excerpt from Wayward Things interview with author Laura Lee

Will Green: What book are you reading right now?

Laura Lee: I usually have several going at any given moment. I’m on a theology kick right now.  I’ve been reading The Restored New Testament by Willis Barnstone (a translation of the New Testament) and The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen. I’ve been reading through the New Testament of the Bible in chronological order, the order in which scholars think it was written. I’ve been reading a lot of books on Biblical interpretation, the development of Christianity and the historical Jesus as well. After writing from the perspective of a Christian minister in Angel, I’ve become very interested in reading about Christianity. What I take away from it is probably idiosyncratic and unconventional. Then again, I think we all have our own internal theologies. It’s conventional to be unconventional.

Will Green: See I’ve tried to read more than one book at a time, but it just doesn’t work for me. It seems like it takes so long to get through just one if I do that. I prefer to concentrate on one and get through it. But you take the cake, you’re reading those deeply religious books at the same time. I agree it is “conventional to be unconventional.”

Now without getting too heavy into the subject would you agree or disagree that there are some contradictions in the story of the Bible?

Laura Lee: Of course there are. There are supposed to be. I would just note that there is not a story of the Bible, it is a collection of works. The different books of the Bible have different perspectives. They are in dialogue with each other. My way of thinking about God is that he did not make a man in his image, he made mankind in his image, and to get as full a picture of God as possible you need to listen to many different perspectives. In fact, the people who compiled the New Testament chose to include the same story told four ways. (The Gospels) They were not stuttering. They were trying to include a richness of perspectives. It frustrates me when people try to “debunk” the Bible by showing its internal contradictions or by saying that this or that wasn’t historical or scientific. To me, that is not the point. Whether Jesus was born in a manger in reality is not the point. You can believe that he was and that it is important that he was, or you can believe it is mythological. In either case, the important question is why people are telling this story and what it means. Why have people been telling this story for years? What are we supposed to take from it? Is “that it happened” really the moral of something like the resurrection or Noah and the flood? No, I don’t think it is. I don’t think that is really the importance of those stories for the people who believe that it literally happened, nor should believing that it didn’t literally happen be a reason to abandon those stories or assume they have nothing of value for us today. To me the literalists and the atheist “debunkers” are arguing within the same framework and it sometimes misses the point.

Will Green: That is a very intelligent and well informed response, thank you for that. It’s refreshing to know you are so open minded about all things religion. You don’t seem to let yourself be too strict in any one area of religion.

Laura Lee: I see it as a process of discovery.  I don’t expect to come to a final conclusion.  I don’t want to stop exploring. When it comes to questions of the nature of the universe, I am not sure we’re equipped to say we, as human beings, know it all.  Every time you decide you have the absolute answer, you’ve closed the question.  For most of the big questions, I tend to find that the truth doesn’t come down to an either/or question.  The answers tend to be a matter of balance and context.  I do think that the type of religion that speaks to a person has something to do with his personality.  Some people are comfortable with things being more open ended, and some people are not comfortable unless they have things resolved.  I am fine with things being more open ended.

Read the entire interview at Wayward Things.

Literary Irony: Walden Pond Edition

Two paragraphs from one page on The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau:

From Walden:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

…Walden enjoyed only moderate success in Thoreau’s lifetime…

The Purpose of Epigrams and L’Esprit de L’Escalier

A couple of days ago I had the pleasure of attending the Plymouth Book Club in Grand Rapids, Michigan at the Plymouth United Church of Christ.   I met some great people and we had a wonderful discussion of the novel Angel. 

One of the questions that I was asked had to do with the epigrams that begin each of Angel’s chapters.  Some people don’t like them and tend to skip them, which doesn’t bother me, and shouldn’t impact the understanding of the story much.

So why put them there?

I gave an answer to the question, but not a very good one.  Rather than explaining why they were there, I talked about the process of finding them and deciding which illustrations to use.  After the fact, I thought about this question a bit more and I have come up with a better answer.  

This phenomenon is called Treppenwitz in German and l’esprit de l’escalier in French.  Both expressions refer to finding the perfect rejoinder or answer the moment the other person has left the room.  Writers are the masters of Treppenwitz.  In fact, I have a theory that a large portion of literature is made up of the things writers thought of later and wished they had said at the time.  They have their characters say it instead.

(One such Treppenwitz of my own, which found its way into Angel, was Paul’s response to a woman who said that gays shouldn’t advertise their sexual orientation, which Bishop Craig Bergland mentioned in an article on his blog Engaged Spirituality.)

It can be difficult as a writer to articulate why you wrote something the way you did.  This is not because you don’t know why you did it.  Rather it is because finding the right words and style is more a matter of feeling than intellect. 

I put the epigrams there because I felt they belonged there.  That’s the short answer.

The longer answer, now that I have analyzed it, is this:

The novel Angel was inspired by Mount Rainier in Seattle.  The mountain provides the spiritual center of the story.  It was the image that I kept going back to in order to find the right feel for the events of the story.  In the book club meeting we talked about some of the things the mountain represents in Angel

It symbolizes the church and is tied into an internal church debate about whether or not to repair a crumbling steeple.  The steeple is a man made mountain, designed to remind us of our smallness and humility in relation to divine forces.

It is also a symbol of natural forces that are of a scope that does not allow them be controlled through human will (as is the attraction the character Paul feels toward Ian).

The mountain also symbolizes the relationship of the protagonists.  I consciously thought of Ian and Paul as being like the mountain, where heaven and earth meet, so Ian is earthy and Paul has his head a bit in the clouds.  This shaped the characters and what makes them compatible. 

The mountain symbolizes beauty and the fear that sometimes accompanies our experience of beauty.  (Our experience of the mountain is one of of “beauty and terror” as the author Bruce Barcott wrote.)  Thus as Paul discovers his attraction to Ian’s natural beauty, he is forced to face his fears.  And like the dormant volcano that is Mount Rainier, the relationship has the potential to be destructive in the future. 

The cycle of destruction and renewal that a volcano represents also ties into a theme of resurrection that is a subtext of the novel.  It comes into the novel through Paul’s discussion of the mass with Ian, Ian’s participation in communion, and the new life direction that each finds through his relation to the other.  (At the cost of the death of a previous way of existence.)

Finally, a volcano, so seemingly solid, is a reminder that everything beautiful is transitory and therefore we should remember to cherish it.

The mountain informed the story for me from the beginning and infuses every aspect of the story.  It is the breath of the story.  So I wanted it to remain a poetic presence.  In the body of the narrative itself, however, I did not want to constantly refer to the mountain.  Ian and Paul’s story is their story, not a metaphor. 

The epigrams at the beginning of the chapter, however, ask the reader to back up for a moment and view the intimate and personal events of the story in light of universal truths, the types of truths that are difficult to articulate, but which can be discovered and felt by contemplating nature.  It asks the reader to connect the specific to something that is, like Mount Rainier, larger than the story and its characters. 

This is what I would have said at the book club if I’d been able to go off in a corner and write my reply.  That might be a good way to interview authors in general, really.