Saturday, February 14, 2009

A Valentine For You

People have asked if I can name a great, romantic book for Valentine's Day. Not offhand, but I sure remember a great sex scene! It's from Ken Follett's 1981 Eye of the Needle, pages 247-247.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

View the actual Emancipation Proclamation. For reals.

If you want something fascinating to do tonight and you're in the DC area, hop over to the opening of the Library of Congress's Abraham Lincoln bicentennial exhibition. You'll see the actual first drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address, plus his first and second inaugural addresses. The exhibition runs through May 9, but tonight is the time for special evening hours.

Okay, yeah, this isn't exactly a book-packed event, but the Library of Congress is an amazing treasure, and I enjoy giving people excuses to go there whenever possible.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A C-Note Well Spent

I'm a contrarian, so in these tough economic times I'm going to suggest that you spend money on something you can't even take home with you. The Folger Shakespeare Library is hosting Acquisitions Night on March 18, as a fundraiser. Why is it worth dropping a hundred dolla on them? Here's the squib:

Guests have the chance to personally examine books and ask questions as the curators and librarians reveal the newest additions to the world-renowned Folger collection in the Old Reading Room. The reading rooms are only open to the public once a year and are a stunning setting for this special night. A buffet dinner is served in the historic Great Hall, where guests can enjoy the spring exhibition, To Sleep, Perchance to Dream.

You will even have the opportunity to adopt a rare book, manuscript or work of art. If you have ever had the extraordinary pleasure of doing research using Very Old Books and coming across someone's bookplate from 300 years ago, you'll appreciate the shivery excitement of having your own name put on a literary treasure to delight and surprise someone 300 years hence.

The photo above, from the Folger web site, shows guests at Acquisitions Night 2008.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Don't mind me and this 100-pound anvil

Some authors have a funny way of defending their approaches to books. Something psychological can occur to cause the author of a magnum opus to feel extraordinarily attached to it, even if it has obvious flaws that cause near-universal concern. Take, for example, the scholar who knows that he has written about two ideas that don't really mesh together naturally, except in his own mind. He has now written a longish manuscript (450 pages) about both, dealing in the first half with the earlier phenomenon, and then through a linking chapter, turning to the second phenomenon. Several editors have suggested he turn it into two books. One would think, given the pressure to publish academically, that notion would appeal to him. Two for the work of one, what's not to love? But instead I often find him in my office, defending his doorstop and asking me to give him the magic words to help editors see that the book must be this way.

Another author has a book with a universally acknowledged boring first chapter, but (says he) it has to be there as an introduction to what comes next. Hmmmm. I suggest that if it remains there then it renders the rest of the book unnecessary, because no living begin will read that far.

But many authors defend their literary anvils, often furiously. Sometimes the authors become quite annoyed with me, before I've had a chance to say a word. I'll just sit there while the author explains the enormous, obvious problem of the book, and then proceeds to argue for it item by item, becoming increasingly annoyed with me for what s/he perceives must be my unspoken thoughts on the matter. (Either that or my eyes speak volumes, and I'm unaware of it.)

I'm not saying that authors should cut, rearrange, re-write or otherwise muck about with their books just to please colleagues, editors and agents. That kind of insecure pandering is dangerous, and it can lead to a bland, groupthink manuscript that speaks to no one. But I do believe that collective wisdom can occasionally be wise, especially when every reader has the same issue in the same place.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Chick lit as a career move

As the post-holiday bad film season settles around us, I notice a couple of big-budget films based on chick lit books: Confessions of a Shopaholic and He's Just Not That Into You. I'm blogging about this because one of the biggest surprises of this job was the interestingly high number of full-time academics who would like to write and publish chick lit. I see at least one every season or so in my office who imagines this would be a fun, quirky career move.

In an act of full disclosure, I confess that I develp a rash whenever near the chick lit genre in any of its forms, and even though I pride myself on trying to read a bit of everything in the name of research, I have not been able to force myself to dip into a single one of those pink-covered literary confections that celebrate shoes, shopping, and sex. But then, I haven't read a word of Harry Potter, either, and the globe still seems to spin. But perhaps my allergy to the genre means I'm not the best judge of any of this. In fact, I'm probably the worst.

Still, the phenomenon is remarkable, whether you share my distaste for all things shopping, or whether you're a girlier type who enjoys that sort of book as an escape now and again. Why do so many academic authors also want to publish chick lit? What makes an otherwise intelligent and arguably over-educated faculty member think "Hey, in addition to my teaching, committee work and scholarly publishing, I think I'll type up a frothy little romance about an American doctoral student in London, no, make that Paris, who has an ooh-la-la affair with a sexy Middle Eastern scholar, only to return to the States and realize that he's the new head of her department. Along the way she goes shopping in the world's most famous venues (all on her teaching assistant's salary, but this is fiction), and she finds herself fending off advances from a surly, sexy biker who turns out to be an English movie star in deep disguise, and . . ."

My usual advice to someone contemplating this is to ask what will happen if you become famous for the book. What if it's a hit? The authors usually pooh-pooh this ("It's just for fun," "I'm doing this on the side," "I really want to be known for my research"), and I say that's great, but we can't control the world once we launch a book into it. We've conditioned ourselves for marginality and irrelevance, but what happens if you become a chick lit star? Do you want that reality for yourself? Is that your choice and goal?

If yes, then type away. I'm sure Sophie Kinsella or Greg Behrendt are easy enough to knock from their pedestals... and I will be happy for you if you succeed. I'll even bring pink champagne to your book party! But if your interest in writing the book is contingent on it remaining hidden from the world, then think twice. Go out there with something you will be proud of whether in its obscurity, or in the brilliant glare of its international fame.