Gabrielle Zevin at Porter Square Books

elsewhereJust over a year ago, the children’s librarian at the library where I work pressed a book called Elsewhere into my hands and convinced me to read it simply because she had loved it so much herself; even though she’d read it for the first time years ago, she said she still thought about it regularly. (This is usually a good sign.)

I think I read the book in a day, or maybe a weekend. I found it just as sweet, thoughtful, and unique as promised. However, I neglected to hunt down the author’s other books, and when I began hearing about The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry a few months ago, I did not make the connection. I put two and two together just in time to see Gabrielle Zevin speak at Porter Square Books this past Monday.

A bookstore employee introduced Zevin as a graduate of “our local university down the street” (i.e., Harvard). Zevin started her talk by telling the audience how she got into publishing. She sold her first two novels, Elsewhere and Margarettown, in the same year; Elsewhere was an ALA Notable Children’s Book and won a few other awards as well, while Margarettown, despite several good reviews, “was a flop.”

“A flop” can mean two things in publishing: it can mean that the book was terrible and/or got bad reviews, but it can also mean that the book was decent, even good, but didn’t merit significant attention, and was buried beneath the next season’s books. Margarettown is still on the shelves of fourteen of the libraries in the Minuteman Library Network, so while it may be out of print, it’s still available; it may find fans yet.

Zevin spoke about her relationship with books going back to childhood. Ever since her parents used to drop her off at a bookstore while they went grocery shopping, she said, entering a bookstore fills her with “a heady sense of freedom and possibility.” In bookstores, she said, she always felt safe, like nothing bad could ever happen in a bookstore – “and nothing bad ever has happened to me in a bookstore.”

storiedlifeajfikryOn to the matter of inspiration: where do her ideas for books come from? “Most of my books have started with a question.” For A.J. Fikry, there were two questions: What is the importance of bookstores to the world? And what effect do the stories we read have on our lives?

Zevin is obviously a believer in books and stories. She stated, “Children who read grow into adults you want to know.” People who read develop empathy. (I’ve written about the link between fiction and empathy here before, especially in this post inspired by an interview with Lauren Groff.) Bookstores, Zevin believes, are special places; they “represent the good in a community. They are about more than just commerce; they are about the exchange of ideas.” (The same can be said of libraries, which are entirely about ideas and community and not about commerce at all.) Reading and writing may be solitary activities, but they connect us as a community. Though those in the self-publishing business (more about that later) may disdain gatekeepers, Zevin said, “We need people [editors, booksellers, librarians] to tell us what is good and what is bad. The future of literary culture depends on these people. Booksellers are curators.”

The book world is changing. From 2005, when Elsewhere was published, to 2014, there have been huge changes: the ubiquity of the Internet, the expectation that authors will have a social media presence, the rise of e-books. “I think it’s worth being mindful of what we lose as these changes occur,” said Zevin. She doesn’t worry about futures in which children fight to the death or Chicago is divided into factions by personality type (clear allusions to The Hunger Games and Divergent); “I do, however, worry very much about the world without books.”

An Indie Next Pick for April 2014, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was published as The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry in the U.K. The idea behind this title is that “collected works” can refer to everything a person has read in his or her life, rather than everything s/he has written. This idea instantly reminded me of Audrey Niffenegger’s graphic novel The Night Bookmobile, in which Alexandra discovers a bookmobile filled with every book she’s ever read. (The Night Bookmobile was first serialized in The Guardian, then published in hardcover by Jonathan Cape.) Such a bookmobile would be fascinating; as Zevin said, “Anybody’s reading life is so gloriously random.”

“We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. We are not alone.” –The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin

During the Q&A, Zevin spoke again about debuts. Her first two books were published quite close together, and while Elsewhere was successful, Margarettown was less so; its publisher actually folded, and the book is now out of print. Zevin said, “Everybody has a sad story about a first novel…Most of the time everyone fails. Most of the time everyone gets it wrong. How do you get over failure? You keep working…A lot of debuts are not a writer’s best work.” She added, “The work is separate from people’s response to it,” which struck me as a sensible and wise perspective to maintain.

Because Zevin writes for both YA and adult audiences, someone asked her how she shifted between them, and how she decided which audience to write for. Zevin said that the main character’s age and situation determine the audience; she has the idea first, then decides on the audience accordingly. She shared an anecdote from another author’s response to this question; that author said that the difference is hope – YA books must be hopeful – but Zevin thinks “adults like hope too.”

I haven’t yet read The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (though it’s next on my to-read list), but I know the eponymous main character is a bookseller. (Zevin read a funny passage wherein Fikry elucidates to the sales rep, Amelia, all the kinds of books he isn’t interested in.) However, Zevin said, “A.J.’s [literary] tastes aren’t mine.” She’s a keen observer of other people’s reading habits, and noted that spying on people’s reading on the subway is much harder now because of e-readers.

Another audience question concerned research. Zevin said that while she doesn’t write two books at one time, she can research one while writing another, and she did quite a lot of research for her novel The Hole We’re In, about “female soldiers in Iraq.” (She also mentioned, offhandedly, that she dislikes National Novel Writing Month - or at least thinks it “needs to be preceded by National Thinking About Your Novel Month.”)

After about ten years of working with traditional publishers, Zevin has learned a lot about how they work, and she has “respect and appreciation” for all jobs in publishing. Although “the books are still more important than how they get sold,” a tremendous amount of work goes into all aspects of a book: not just the writing of it, but the editing, the design, the jacket copy and cover art, the distribution and marketing and sales. She started off knowing very little of this – she admitted she didn’t even know that sales reps, who bring publishers’ books and catalogs to bookstores, existed – but concluded, “I do think it’s always better to be armed with information.” Many articles about self-publishing (she mentioned the Wall Street Journal particularly) display a “deep misunderstanding about the publishing process.” There is more to making a book that writing it and clicking a button. (See also: “In defense of editors,” “We built this together.”)

I’m really excited to start reading The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, and maybe some of Zevin’s other books too. You can see all of her books on her website, and if you live in the Cambridge area, check out the upcoming events at Porter Square Books.

World Book Night 2014

WBN2014_logo_672x652My fabulous YA librarian friend Anna wrote about World Book Night last December and inspired me to apply. I had heard of World Book Night before (basically, I knew that it was a night where people gave out free books), but Anna explains all the important stuff in her post.

This year is my first year as a giver, and I’m giving out Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Why did I choose Code Name Verity? Because it is one of the most compelling WWII stories I’ve ever read, which is saying something, given the glut of WWII fiction and the amount of it I’ve consumed. It features a young British pilot, Maddie, and a young Scottish (“I am not English!“) spy, and their friendship is central to the story: “We make a sensational team,” says the Scot.

The Scot tells the first half of the story as a written confession to her Nazi captors in occupied France. She has made a Faustian bargain with a Gestapo officer in order to be able to write her account, which she tells, mostly, in the third person, referring to herself as “Queenie.” It is a powerful narrative, heartbreaking and gruesome in turns, and also, improbably, with moments of humor.

I can’t well tell about the second half without giving much of the story away; suffice to say I think teens and adults can and will enjoy the story equally, and the conversational, journalistic style makes for easy reading. The audiobook, read by Morven Christie and Lucy Gaskell, is also incredibly good (though I won’t be handing those out on World Book Night, just the good old paper copies).

World Book Night is April 23 this year. If you missed signing up to be a giver this year, don’t fret – there’s always next year!

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

Last year, on the last day of November, Dana Sachs published an essay in Publishers Weekly called “Doing 50,000 Words in 30 Days.”  The title of the article refers, of course, to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which started in San Francisco in 1999 and has grown and spread since then. Now there are participants all over the world – over 300,000 in 2012 - and hundreds of “write ins,” many at libraries.

NaNoWriMo2013bannerThe idea behind NaNoWriMo is simple: write a novel in a month. Specifically, write 50,000 words in 30 days. This works out to 1,667 words per day. (For reference, Sachs’ essay in PW is 750 words.) Admittedly, 50,000 words is pretty short for a novel – about 200 pages – but still, to write that much in a month is nothing to sneeze at, regardless of quality.

In fact, quality isn’t the point of NaNoWriMo. As Sachs writes, “Many writers…suffer from a gnawing perfectionism that can, at its worst, torment us over the placement of a single comma. Forget completing a first draft; perfectionists have trouble completing even a paragraph. NaNoWriMo forces us to ignore our incapacitating inner critic and keep going. The genius of NaNoWriMo is that it obliges us to (temporarily) lower our standards.”

After November, the writer has a working draft; s/he can edit, cut, amend, tinker, and add. The novel may eventually go into a drawer (or computer folder, more likely), may be self-published, may be published through the traditional process with an agent and an editor. No matter the outcome, it’s still an achievement: you’ve made something. And NaNoWriMo provides an encouraging community in which to make that something.

nano_12_new_Come_Write_In_Logo1Library literature has been full of buzz about MakerSpaces lately. Many libraries are re-envisioning their mission and redesigning their space. This is an old idea with a new label (“making” instead of “crafting”) and new technology (e.g. 3D printers). The library was never purely a place for consumption; people have always come to libraries to create as well as consume. And what better place to write (or “make”) a book than a library?

That’s why I’m pleased to be hosting Write Ins at the Robbins Library for the second year in a row. Are you a writer in the Arlington area? “Come Write In.” 

“The real secret is that anyone can write a book… Writing is for everyone, and this is your chance to scrawl your name across the page. By month’s end, you’ll have done that which many dream of, but never accomplish.” -Gennifer Albin, author of Crewel

“As you enter this month of writing, write for yourself. Write for the story. And write, also, for all of the people who doubt you. Write for all of those people who are not brave enough to try to do this grand and wondrous thing themselves.”  -Kate DiCamillo, author of The Tale of Despereaux and Because of Winn-Dixie

The Great Migration

The Amazon acquisition of Goodreads came right on the heels of another major change that I didn’t blog about here (though I did do plenty of reading about it): Google is shutting down its RSS tool, Google Reader, on July 1 of this year. This news sent its millions (but not enough millions, apparently) of loyal users in search of alternatives.

Google_Reader_logo_GalliganFor those who don’t use any RSS feed: how they work is that you add subscriptions – to blogs, news sites, or webcomics, for example – and all new content from those sites is collected in one place. It’s a great way of keeping track of content from many places on the web, especially if they post content at irregular intervals; by highlighting new content when it appears, the RSS feed ensures that none of the sites you want to follow disappear from your radar.

So, which tool to use to replace Google Reader? I don’t have a smartphone, but I wanted something that I could access from my home computer, my work computer, and my tablet; I wanted something browser-based, not an app or plugin I’d have to install. Lifehacker’s March 13 article about Google Reader alternatives is worthwhile if you’re still trying to decide which one to switch to, as is the March 14 article from Extreme Tech.

the-old-reader-logoIf I’d had a smartphone, I might have gone with Feedly (my roommate’s choice), and I’m not ruling out changing to NewsBlur (Cory Doctorow’s choice) in the future, but for now I’ve switched to The Old Reader. It did feel a bit like going back in time, and because so many others were switching over at the same time, it took a few days(!) to import the OPML file that I had exported from Google Reader, but it’s been working well so far.

Uploading my exported Goodreads data to LibraryThing took a little time as well, but not as long as I expected, and I was very pleased with the outcome; all my Goodreads “shelves” became tags in LibraryThing (e.g. young adult, science, cooking, magic, to-read). I’m still getting used to navigating around the LT interface, as I’ve only really used it for cataloging before, but I’ve had no major problems so far, and the documentation is very good, so I can often find the answers to my questions.

The LT staff, including Tim Spalding, are active and responsive members of the site. The “LibraryThing: How to Succeed in an Amazon/Goodreads World” thread has been so active that it has spawned several additional topic threads. Barbara Fister has also written a good overview about the “culture clash” that occurred when a wave of Goodreads users joined LibraryThing (“culture shock: when Goodreads and LibraryThing collide“).

LT_logoIf you’re thinking of becoming a member of LT, or if you’re just curious to learn more about what it is, you can’t do better than this collaborative piece from LT staff and members, “What Makes LibraryThing LibraryThing?” They address the difference between users and customers (LT is free only up to 200 books; after that, you’re required to pay, but the amount is “suggested” and you can get either annual or lifetime membership at a very reasonable price): “We have no ‘users.’ If you’re not the customer, you’re the product. If a social website can’t support itself on customers and straightforward products, it’ll eventually sell out what you gave it—your data, your friends, and the community itself….We want what paying creates—customers, with loyalty and rights—not “users.’”

The “user vs. customer” difference is becoming more apparent as platforms launch and close, are bought and sold. As Alex Kantrowitz noted in an article for Forbes (“Google Reader Shutdown a Sobering Reminder That ‘Our’ Technology Isn’t Ours,” March 13), “The death of Google Reader reveals a problem of the modern Internet that many of us likely have in the back of our heads but are afraid to let surface: We are all participants in a user driven Internet, but we are still just the users, nothing more. No matter how much work we put in to optimize our online presences, our tools and our experiences, we are still at the mercy of big companies controlling the platforms we operate on.”

This is something to consider seriously: the major social media sites (e.g. Facebook, Twitter) are free, and users produce the content, signing away more rights than they’re aware of by agreeing to the various sites’ Terms & Conditions. Though everyone likes free, there are some things worth paying for, and having a little more control in the content you produce, and a little more confidence that the platform on which you’re creating it won’t be unceremoniously pulled out from under you, is sometimes worth it. (Not to say, of course, that just because you pay for something, it will always be reliable, TIME WARNER. Companies go under, or they’re sold, or they change.)

demandprogressSpeaking of Terms & Conditions, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) makes it extremely perilous to violate T&C (or Terms of Service); according to the Department of Justice, it can even be a felony. Read more and find out how you can take action to protect the internet as we know it.

This just in: Academic publisher Elsevier just acquired Mendeley, to the dismay of many of Mendeley’s users. Elsevier is notoriously expensive and anti-open access, whereas Mendeley is (was?) a free research and reference management tool. Many users will probably be jumping ship to Zotero, a similar service.

Why it makes sense to support public libraries

State Stats has created an awesome infographic about why it makes sense to support public libraries, especially during economic downturns. Unfortunately, economic downturns are precisely the times that library budgets tend to get slashed (or, in the best cases, level funded). No matter who you are – job-seeker, student, parent, someone who doesn’t want to (or can’t afford to) pay for books and movies – the library helps you! So please, take two minutes to read the infographic and pass it on.

Library Q&A

Stack Exchange, “a network of free, community-driven Q&A sites,” now has a Library and Information Science site in beta. Most of the library Q&A I have seen has been through LinkedIn groups’ discussions (mostly ALA), so this seems like a great forum for detailed, professional questions.

Because librarians are all about sharing knowledge, I’m optimistic that this site will be successful if enough library professionals know about it. So, librarian-friends, check it out! Read the FAQ before jumping in and asking/answering.

The science of working together

At the launch event for Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems, the authors John Palfrey and Urs Gasser gave an overview of interop and provided several relevant examples. Though they began years ago on a theoretical level (does increased interop lead to increased innovation?), interop is a deeply practical topic.

“Interop” here is short for interoperability, defined as “the ability to transfer or render useful data and other information across systems (including organizations), applications, or components.” The authors decided that this initial definition, however, could be broadened into “the science of working together” on many layers: institutional, human, data, and technological.

Though it may sound abstract, there are many good examples of how interoperability is important in daily life. Solutions to big societal problems depend on interop, said Palfrey and Gasser. They talked first about “smart cities,” which depend on sharing information: between police, firefighters, and ambulances, for example, and between various forms of transit (does your bus pass also work for the subway and the commuter rail systems?).

Next they talked about open platforms, such as Facebook, which made its API available so that anyone could build an app. However, this interconnectedness has a down side: many points of connection means more vulnerability to privacy and security breaches. (This is also true of credit cards – another example of interop – which are vulnerable to identity theft.)

Facebook is an example from the private sector, but the public sector can drive interop as well, by regulation and legislation, as Europe has done for standardized cell phone chargers.

Naturally, one of the areas in which I am most interested is that of libraries. Libraries, said Palfrey, are facing two large interop problems: preservation of knowledge over time, and the lack of an open standard for e-lending.

The first issue has to do with reformatting; over the past decade or two, data has been stored not just in print, but in a whole variety of other ways, including floppy disks, microfilm, microfiche, CDs, and on computers in a variety of formats, some of which are no longer readable because the software necessary is no longer in use. Libraries must be vigilant to make sure that the information they have is preserved in an accessible form.

The second problem is one that has been in the news more or less constantly for a few years: there is no open standard for e-lending. Instead, there are a lot of proprietary formats that are not interoperable at all (e.g. you can’t read a kindle book on a nook device). “This is crazy,” Palfrey said. “Why is this [print book] still better technology?”

I hope and trust that, in the next few years, an open standard for e-lending will develop. In an ideal world, both libraries and individuals would be able to buy and lend any e-book, which could be read on any device.

Fingers crossed.

Upcoming local events

There are two local events coming up that I’m looking forward to; the first is tonight in the Harvard Law School building, where authors John Palfrey and Urs Gasser will be discussing their new book, Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems. Palfrey and Gasser also co-authored Born Digital, and I’ve seen Palfrey speak before on the subject of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA); he is intelligent and articulate.

The second event, at the Brookline Booksmith on June 8, is an author talk of a different sort. Jenny Lawson, a.k.a. The Bloggess, will be appearing for her new book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir). As a fan of both blog and book, I am really excited to see her in person. If you haven’t heard of her before, I recommend reading her posts about Copernicus and Beyonce as an introduction.

Happy National Library Week!

April 8-14 is National Library Week! Show your support for your library by visiting in person, commenting on or “liking” your library’s social media pages (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) if it has them, participating in Library Snapshot Day on Thursday, volunteering, writing to your library director, or calling or writing to your local government representatives to let them know what libraries mean to you.

One of my favorite library statistics is that on average, a person will pay about $40 per year in taxes to support the library. That is less than the cost of two hardcover books – and libraries aren’t just for books (though they do usually have plenty of hardcovers, paperbacks, ebooks, and audiobooks). They also offer DVDs, public internet access, and programs – from storytime and crafts for kids, to movie screenings, to computer and technology workshops, and much more. What do you love about libraries? Leave a comment!

Anne Fadiman: “Never Do That To A Book”

Anne Fadiman, author of Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (and other books), spoke at the Main Branch of the Cambridge Public Library on April 1 as part of Harvard University’s 375th Anniversary. In her talk she revisited the subject she addressed in one of the essays in Ex Libris, “Never Do That To A Book”: in short, she identified two different types of book lovers, the “courtly” and the “carnal.” Courtly lovers treat the book as a sacred object; carnal lovers have a more physical relationship with books – folding down pages, underlining, highlighting, and writing marginalia, and in the odd case, using bacon for bookmarks.

Though Fadiman was most likely correct to say that “Everyone in this room loves books, but not in the same way,” most of the audience identified themselves as somewhere in the middle of the courtly/carnal scale. Fadiman is, by her own admission, a carnal lover of books, believing that marginalia is “a way of turning a monologue into a dialogue.” Reading, she believes, “is a relationship like any other.”

Fadiman also said, early in her talk,”The story of our lives is the story of our books,” which reminded me of a fragment of a poem (“Improvisations of the Caprisian Winter”) by Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Franz Wright):

So many things lie torn open
by rash hands that arrived too late,
in search of you: they wanted to know.

And sometimes in an old book
an incomprehensible passage is underlined.
You were there, once. What has become of you?

I am also somewhere in the middle of the courtly/carnal book lover scale; in books that I own, I have written and underlined (but only in pencil). I have folded down the corners of pages (but only until I finish the book – then I write down all the quotes I wanted from the dog-eared pages and un-dog-ear them). I do not splay books face-down; I do not highlight; I do not sleep with them under my pillow (though there is a stack on the nightstand and another stack on the floor).

And of course, whether the book was my own or belonged to the library, I would never use bacon for a bookmark.