The Best Five Books I Read in 2011

The list someone, somewhere has been waiting for:

The End of Education by Neil Postman
According to Plan by Graeme Goldsworthy
Weapons of Mass Instruction by John Taylor Gatto
The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman
Growing a Farmer by Kurt Timmermeister

I'm considering taking on the 52-Book Challenge again in 2012. What should be on my list? 

Dispatches from the Publishing Frontier

Last week I had the opportunity to speak to a capstone English class at the University of Central Oklahoma. My presentation, titled “Dispatches from the Publishing Frontier,” addressed the new landscape of the publishing industry and opportunities for recent graduates to get their foot in the door.

As I prepared it was eye opening to look back over the last fifteen years and put the students’ generation in a historical context. There is no way to overstate the impact the Internet has had on all business, and especially media. The last ten years have been nothing short of revolutionary for our culture. As we know, revolutions can have good and bad results, and often a mix. In the next three posts, I’d like to delve into three dramatic shifts in the publishing industry in the last decade. Today, we look at distribution.

Part One: The End of The Distribution Monopoly 

The monopoly on book distribution has been all but wiped out. Forty years ago, the one route to getting your book in front of an audience was this: AgentàNY PublisheràDistribution ManageràRetail Book BuyeràCustomer. Today, it is possible to hurdle some of these steps and still reach an audience. Let’s take a look at these one by one:

  1. Agents. The agency route is certainly still an option, but some publishers, like Tate Publishing, have Acquisition Editors who accept and review unsolicited manuscripts not tied to an agent, and this role has lost more than a modicum of its gate keeping authority.

  1. Publisher. Some have attempted to argue that the role of publisher is losing importance as well. I would argue that this is actually the most dynamic and vital cog in the chart above. Nothing can take the place of experienced Editorial eye, elegant Cover Design, subtle and eye-pleasing Layout Design, and Marketing and Publicity, all of which Tate Publishing provides. And now communication technology has freed us up to do business in areas of the nation outside of Manhattan.

  1. Distribution Managers warehouse books for retailers. With modern digital printing technology, we can print books in shorter runs and have them ready for retailers in weeks. Distribution is also dependent on traditional book retailers, which we will address next.

  1. Retail Book Buyer. I could sum this up in one word: Borders. National book chains are struggling. It’s a painful thing to realize, but admit it we must: customers are much more likely to buy from an online site that in a bookstore. We still value our relationships with book buyers and bookstores. Yet there is another avenue we can approach customers, one at which the Tate Publishing Marketing team is both particularly experienced and adept: Events outside the bookstore; also known as Niche Marketing. Tapping into your niche market is the new way of the industry, and Tate Publishing has been pioneering the path for years

Part Two will look at Chris Anderson’s important work defining The Long Tail.

Book Review: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

"Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.”

You feel it. You sense it, tugging at you right now. “Am I being entertained? How much longer do I feel like reading this? This is boring. Is there a picture or video here somewhere? What’s going on on Facebook?” When you’re on the Net, there is a constant tug at your attention. In the back of your mind you’re sure there’s something that could bring you more pleasure. The possibilities are endless, and here you sit on a lowly blog about books. All you have to do is click two buttons and you could be watching a laughing baby or seeing what 600 of your friends are doing in real time. The average reader on this site stays 94 seconds.

The Internet grabs our attention the way no other entertainment technology has before, then scatters it in a wind of hyperlinks and search boxes. The gratification of the technology is immediate and seemingly limitless. The dopamine we get when we get a message, a like, a tweet, etc. is a powerful drug, and it’s a high we aren't keen to lose. 

In the western world over the last century we have adopted technology so wholly, accepted its necessity and inevitability so completely, and created its monopoly so rapidly that we’ve had little time to contemplate the blowback—the unintended consequences of maximum connectivity.

Technology and culture writer Nicholas Carr examines these consequences in The Shallows, an utterly compelling look at an ominous phenomenon that is well underway. Yes, most scientists agree that the Web is morphing your mind. Some argue this is for the better while others, contrarians like Carr, argue for worse. 

If you’ve recently noticed you look at your smartphone rather than look friends in the face, that your memory seems to be getting frazzled, that you have more trouble reading an entire book than you used to, this may be a consequence of using the Web. Carr explains with neuroscience that without repeated use our minds begin to lose the ability to concentrate on one subject for an extended period. It's the old axiom: Use it or lose it. Pertinent, fascinating studies are used to illustrate that our abilities to digest information and process complex arguments are dwindling. 

I could say a ton about The Shallows, but I'll end with this: I listed this as the most affecting book I read in 2010. It remains that, and I’ve just had the opportunity to chew on and discuss its content with with some of my coworkers, where it sparked much introspection and debate. This book will challenge (and possibly change) the way you live.

P.S. If you want a primer check out Carr's article in The Atlantic: "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

I’ve come down in the middle on this book. It was unique and full of solid, sagely advice, but felt uneven. As I mentioned, this is the only King book I’ve read, and I was very impressed with his ability. He’s no doubt the type of writer who’s not fully appreciated in the canon because of the material with which he’s decided to work.

The first section of the book, titled "C.V.," deals with Mr. King's youth, education, family, and the beginnings of his writing career. This was well written--excellent similes, pacing, and a wry, conversational tone--but was also clearly written for fans of his many other works. These vignettes describe how he grew up and where some of his inspiration and story ideas came from. I suspect these fans appreciated this section more than I could.

The second and third sections, "Toolbox" and "On Writing," outline and illustrate his writing advice, which lacked structure but was all swell. He begins with the exhortation to take writing seriously, advice I’ve given quite often to new writers, in particular those reluctant to hone and refine their book after the first or second draft. "Do not come lightly to the blank page," writes King. "It's writing, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can't or won't, it's time for you to close the book and do something else. Wash the car, maybe."

The last section of the book, "On Living," describes an accident King was involved in and harkens back to the first section of the book in its first-person narrative. I’m not sure if it was the tone of the book (light-hearted and conversational), the angle at which we see the accident and subsequent recovery, or the fact that I’m cold-hearted, but I was little affected by the story. It seemed a throw-in, something more important to writer than reader.

As a writer, the most inspiration I received was from King's metaphor of paddling across the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. Having spent seven years as a professional editor, I have developed an occupational hazard that can severely stymie my writing efforts. When it comes to freewriting a first draft, putting on the page the first cliché or adverb that comes to my head and moving on, I'm caught in two minds. This idea of furiously paddling before the waves of self-doubt sink my tub is valuable, and something I will carry with me.

Since mentioning I was reading this book I’ve received emails and messages from many friends and authors who are big fans of it, and I’m glad to hear that these writers are taking the time to learn from one of the masters. As the father once told his son, “Find a man you want to be like, and sit at his feet.” Soaking up advice from a man as prolific and skilled as Stephen King can only make you a better writer.

A few quotes for good measure:

On Description:
"Description begins in the writer's imagination, but should finish in the reader's...Good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else. In most cases, these details will be the first that come to mind. Remember that it's as easy to overdescribe as it is to underdescribe."

On Characters:
"It's also important to remember that no one is 'the bad guy,' or 'the best friend,' or 'the whore with the heart of gold' in real life; in real life each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, big cheese; the character is on us, baby. If you can bring this attitude to your will be harder for you to create the sort of one-dimensional dopes that populate so much pop fiction."

"Skills in description, dialogue, and character development all boil down to seeing and hearing clearly and then transcribing what you see and hear with equal clarity (and without using a lot of tiresome, unnecessary adverbs)."

On Reading:
"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write...Reading is the creative center of a writer's life."

"One learns most clearly by reading bad prose--one bad novel is worth a semester at a good writing school."

"Good writing, on the other hand, teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling...Being swept away by a compbination of great story and great writing--of being flattened, in fact--is a part of every wrier's necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.

On "Inspiration":
"There is a muse, but he's not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and sprinkle creative fairy dust all over your computer. He lives in the ground. He's a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. He may not be much to look at, and he may not be much of a coversationalist, but he's got the inspiration. It's right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There's stuff in there that can change your life."