On the viability of book covers in an ebook world

A couple months ago I saw a girl press onto the subway, give the boy next to her a once-over, and casually tilt her iPhone — accidentally on purpose — so he could see what she was listening to. After a couple tries, it worked. By the time we reached Jay Street, they were talking about music.

As I told Motoko Rich when we spoke last week about book covers in an electronic world, I figure the same kind of thing will be possible with ebooks eventually. The gadgets will develop so that readers can signal their preferences to strangers, or people will find workarounds. True, nowadays I don’t particularly care whether strangers around me know what I’m reading* — this site more than satisfies whatever urge I have to broadcast my literary preferences — but to my college-era self, lurking near boys in coffee shops, it would have been important.

In today’s New York Times, you can read Rich’s consideration of what ebooks mean for cover art and for the social aspects of reading.

* Although I admit I’m just as happy not to have fellow subway passengers know when I’m reading Sarah Palin or extreme Christian fundamentalists on my iPhone.

Day in the Life: Hynes’ reading list for Next

My friend James Hynes’ Next is a departure from his prior novels in many ways, not least in that the action is set in a single day. Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Tod Goldberg says the book, is “wildly inventive, stunning… an essential piece of American literature that is both of its time and ultimately without present compare.” Michael Schaub calls it “a shocking, original masterpiece.” Janet Maslin praises it for the New York Times.

I’m able to enjoy Next at last, now that my Muriel Spark extravaganza is winding down (for me, not for readers of this site), and as I read I am privileged to post Hynes’ characteristically charming and smart day-in-the-life reading list.

There are all sorts of reasons to write a novel — personal, political, religious, economic, or any combination thereof — but sometimes it’s technical. In other words, the writer wants to try out a certain structure or technique that he hasn’t attempted before, just to see if he can bring it off. It’s usually not the only reason, of course, but often it’s the motivating one, the proximate cause of the book. I heard once that Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men as a play that was meant to read like a novel, and I’ve heard something similar about Henry James’s The Aspern Papers. In the case of my new novel, Next, I wanted to see if I could write a day-in-the-life novel, a narrative that would be set in a single day, or part of one, and by working backwards and forwards through flashbacks, encompass the entire life of a single character. There are lots of previous examples of this, including, of course, two of the most famous novels ever written. I wish I could say that I’d made a thorough study of the genre, which would make the following list vastly more instructive and rewarding, but the fact is, in the reading I did to psych myself up before and during the writing of Next, I pretty much limited myself to the Big Two famous ones and a couple others. And, in the interest of comprehensiveness, I’ve included in the list several other books that also had a big influence on me, but aren’t actually day-in-the-life novels.

Ulysses, by James Joyce. The Big Kahuna, the great white whale, the Everest of day-in-the-life novels. Like a lot of serious readers, I’d attempted it without success several times over the years, never getting past the first fifty pages or so, but by time I was in the early stages of Next, I told myself that I couldn’t write a day-in-the-life novel and not have read Ulysses. So one summer a few years ago, I took a running start by rereading Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (both of which, truth to tell, I still prefer to Ulysses), girded my loins with a copy of Anthony Burgess’ Re Joyce, and started once again to scale the face of Ulysses. This time I made it all the way to the top, and, for the most part, enjoyed myself, though it was often slow going, and I never would have made it without Anthony Burgess. How useful reading Ulysses was to me in the writing of Next, however, is unclear. Ulysses is a big toolkit of a novel, as a brilliant young writer sets off to encompass all of Western culture in one book, set during one day, with only two main characters, all the while showing off, with each new chapter, his vast erudition and his mastery of nearly every literary technique you can think of. Whereas all I wanted to do in Next was encompass one guy’s life, and perhaps a narrow slice of late 20th and early 21st century pop culture and history. In fact, looking back on that summer of reading, Next is probably much more influenced by my rereading of Joyce’s “The Dead,” which has always been my favorite work of his, a story in which a man’s understanding of his life so far is turned upside down on one fateful evening. So, in the end, it wasn’t so much that Ulysses influenced the writing of Next as that writing Next finally got me to finish Ulysses. And I guess that’s something.

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. This, however, was the motherlode. Continue reading…

Sarah Palin’s Planet Earth different from yours, mine

The Awl has published my examination of Sarah Palin’s fundamentalist background — a background not entirely dissimilar to my own. I have a hunch about what she’s up to with her new reality show, and it scares the hell of out me.

When Sarah Palin began shopping around a “Planet Earth-type” reality series based in Alaska earlier this month, the media responded with its usual gleeful incredulity: Caribou Barbie on a fishing boat! The former governor is reportedly seeking upwards of $1 million per episode, and, with Discovery and A&E interested in the project, she just might get it. Not only are her antics the best thing for Internet page views since Paris Hilton invented the no-panties dismount, they’re TV ratings gold. Jimmy Fallon said it best, “Any reality show about Sarah Palin will have to compete with that other reality show about Sarah Palin: the news.”

If you’re among those speculating about Palin’s intentions, I’m here to help. As a casualty of a tongues-speaking, faith-healing, demon-battling storefront church childhood, I keep track of Pentecostals and Charismatics the way some people stalk abusive exes, and I have a sick feeling that I can decode this new iteration of her mission for you.

It’s long. If you’re going to read the whole thing, you’ll want to get yourself a cup of coffee or crack open a beer first.

Out of humor: an obsolete but actual condition

Recently I was diagnosed with a disorder of the humors.* By a licensed gastroenterologist and everything.

The bile thinners notwithstanding, I honestly can’t think of a verdict that would’ve pleased me more. So Aristotelian, so Elizabethan, so hypochondriacal and tied in with my mother’s weird religious ordering of the world.

“I’m surprised they didn’t find fire and brimstone in there,” my friend Carrie joked. Oh my God, me too.

I need to visit the Folger Shakespeare Library for a close-up look at The Optike Glasse of Humours, “a guide to the system underlying science and psychology in Renaissance Europe. According to the theory of humours, the human mind and body are intricately connected to the physical universe.”

* Translation: I am bilious.

LaValle, Mun, Birkerts: My next two weeks

I can’t wait till next Monday, March 22, when I’ll talk with my friend Victor LaValle at Greenlight Books about his latest novel (Big Machine), his previous work, and race, madness, religion, and more. It’ll be kind of like getting some pints together, except without the slurring or frequent use of “fucking” as a modifier. We get started at 7:30 p.m.

On Friday, March 26, Girls Write Now’s new Chapters series presents Nami Mun reading from her excellent Whiting Award-winning novel, Miles from Nowhere, which I wish I’d read when it first came out. She’ll be followed by some of the girls and their mentors. If you’re thinking of getting involved with Girls Write Now, these events are the best way to get a sense of what we’re about.

On Thursday, April 1, I meet with Sven Birkerts at the University of Pittsburgh to discuss the future of books, in a conversation moderated by Cathy Day. While I respect Birkerts — who’s the editor of Agni — I reckon he and I will disagree on a few things. The Graduate Writing Program has asked Cynthia Closkey to cover the event at her blog, so you can follow along there, if you’re curious. I’ll also be reading at 2:30 that afternoon. Both events take place in Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning.

Writers, who gets your digital remains?

What will happen to your email account, blog, or Twitter feed when you die?

New online lockboxes allow you to specify beforehand who’ll get your passwords, which private Flickr photos should be purged, and what final status should be posted at Facebook, but these services are no substitute for a will. And writers and other artists should be especially careful about relying on them.

In the current Wired, Scott Brown looks at “three companies — AssetLock.net, Legacy Locker, and the charmingly named Deathswitch.com — [that] have arisen to keep customers’ passwords, usernames, final messages, and so on in a virtual safe-deposit box.”

Here’s how it works: For around $10 to $30 per year, or $60 to $300 for a lifetime — prices depend on the services you want and how much you’re storing — these companies organize and store all Net-borne Protrusions of You… Once it’s determined that you’re fully and finally degaussed, your probate probes fan out across the Net, making your last epayments, Old Yellering your avatars, perhaps even euthanizing your FarmVille stock, and, ultimately, sending sign-off messages to friends, followers, frag-buddies, and hookups: “Status update: I’m dead. It’s been real!”


Under many circumstances, these lockboxes will work out fine. For instance, if you don’t have a will, but the person you’re handing the keys over to is the same person the law says should get them, no problem. And if you have a will, and it’s consistent with your online directions, okay.

But let’s pretend you’re a young, single writer who’s estranged from your parents (or you’re married, and in the process of getting divorced; you’re a storyteller — you can spin out the scenarios). You’ve kept a blog for years, and you die with no plan, except a digital lockbox, shortly after your first novel has been published to wild acclaim and unprecedented sales.

Under state intestacy law, your parents may very well be entitled to your blog and email account and the rest of your online accounts, even if you’ve directed a site to place them in the hands of your best friend, your lover, or your sister. As one site says:

AssetLock offers no legal expertise and therefore can not draft legal documents such as Wills or Trusts which dispose of property after your death… If you die without making valid documents such as Wills or Trusts, the state government will disperse and tax your assets and belongings for you according to the law, no matter what you wrote down in AssetLock.

Of course there would also be the matter of the proceeds from your novel — your parents would probably get those too — but at least, once the book was published, it couldn’t be deleted. Unlike a blog. Or your personal email.

If you’re a writer, and you don’t have a will, you really should make one. And if you’re not sure how, Neil Gaiman’s tutorial is a good place to start.