More Thoughts on Digital Book Publishing

Sometimes—but not often enough—I attend a conference that really gets me thinking. That’s what happened earlier this month when I attended Digital Book World in Manhattan.

In session after session, the elephant remained in the room. Fundamentally, books are physical objects, sometimes treasured, certainly thought to be more valuable than other forms of mass merchandise because they contain ideas intended to linger in the home or office for many years, and, perhaps, a lifetime. In this regard, the physical books that we buy at a local independent bookstore, or from a bricks-and-mortar Barnes & Noble store, or from Amazon, are vastly different from the pillows that we buy from the Bed, Bath and Beyond. We associate books with stories, characters, important events, the people who recommended particular volumes, the rainy afternoon spent reading, and so on.

At the same time, books filled with text are easily digitized, and, unlike most merchandise, they can be delivered almost instantly to any connected device. These devices also serve as a reader. So books are suitable for digital distribution as files. As technology advances, books with pictures pose no less of a technology challenge. As evidenced by speakers at this particular conference, some publishers, authors and producers are attempting to transform some aspects of some books into interactive and social media.

More or less, traditional book publishing follows rules. The book is written by an author who receives either a flat fee or the promise of royalties based upon the number of books sold (some authors also receive an advance against royalties, which is a measure of the publisher’s commitment to the project). The publisher’s staff chooses its titles and authors with care, then assigns expert copy editors and other staff to the process of moving manuscript to printed book. Various marketing, distribution, warehousing, logistics and trucking companies make the business go. Physical bookstores sell books, and so do digital bookstores. Maybe 2/3 of Americans buy books, but most buy fewer than five books per year.

With digital publishing, the rules don’t apply—and for so many reasons. For example, publishers need not limit the number of titles they publish for any practical reason—there is no scarcity of shelf space. (They may limit releases due to marketing considerations, but that’s another story altogether.) Of course, bookstores are helpful parts of the marketing and distribution system, but they are no longer mandatory—Amazon ships just about any book, next day.

Still, the roadmap is fragmented. Healthy experimentation seems like the best thing to do. And so, there’s a working session at the Digital Book Conference about book trailers (kind of like movie trailers, but they’re selling books), and another about whether HTML5 is the magic bullet that will ease book production burdens, and another about subscriptions for eBooks (like Netflix: all you can read for about $100 per year, sometimes less). Maybe the solution is a game format—to engage readers who already love the characters. Maybe it’s all about brands—that’s been the key to success in so many genres, including mystery, romance, young adult, etc. No, the answer isn’t traditional at all. Instead, the focus ought to be on search engine optimization and digital means of discovery—people will find books the same way they find out about other things, on Google! Maybe authors don’t need publishers as much as they did in the past: think about indie bands and their schism with record labels. Certainly, data analysis is the key to growth—if you know who your customers are (exceedingly difficult with individual buyers of books on paper, far more practical if the merchandise is digital). Is it unreasonable for Amazon and Apple to control the digital business by essentially duopolizing both the players and the file formats? Should there be another open format and should that format be supported by an industry that promises to thrive on  independence? Maybe global thinking is the key—publish for a worldwide audience because there are so many more people outside the U.S. than inside it.

What are the answers? Gosh! There are no clear answers. Not only is every reader and every bookstore unique, every book is unique, too. The first book by a new author could be a blockbuster and the followup could be a dud. An author who makes his mark on YouTube or Kindle could become the next transmedia sensation. An Young Adult book could (and often does) become a hit among older readers. Just as hipsters rediscovered vinyl records, they might continue to propel indie bookstores as the next big thing (though readers 18-30 are notoriously challenging customers).

What do I love about this discussion? Just about everything. There’s the intrigue of large vs. small companies, comfortable analog behaviors that stubbornly won’t go away, the big bad Amazon that’s “destroying” the book business as those of us who complain love the deep discounts and free shipping, the inevitability of the end of the bookstore that’s been inevitable for as long as anyone can remember. The fact that I am writing about books on a computer’s screen so you can read about books on an iPad—without spilling any ink at all. It’s screwy, it’s fun, it’s a business that can and does move in a hundred directions at once. And that’s why I find this industry, in some ways, even more interesting that television, software, or the other dozen industries I deal with every day.

 

The Isaacson Paradox

isaacsonWalter Isaacson is one of the smarter people in the media industry. As a keynote speaker for this past week’s Digital Book World conference, he talked about the limitations of his most recent book, The Innovators. (You probably know him as the author of the spectacularly successful biography of Steve Jobs.) Nowadays, he’s the leader of the Aspen Institute, the latest in a series of senior roles that include, for example, the chairmanship of CNN and the various old and new media roles at TIME Magazine. Frustrated by the lack of innovation in the slow-moving book business, he encouraged the audience to think beyond the printed volume and its close relative, the eBook filled with the same words and ideas.

Fresh from a deep investigation into media and technology innovation, Isaacson told the story of Dan Bricklin, inventor of the spreadsheet, whose innovation story deserved more space and more attention than Isaacson’s innovation book could reasonably provide. Bricklin told Isaacson the story, and Isaacson was appropriately fascinated. Somehow, Isaacson wanted to extend the conversation with Bricklin, open the book (the whole concept of a book) up to to a broader discussion so that other innovators could tell their stories, and readers could gain a much broader, deeper, more nuanced understanding of the subject matter that so fascinates Isaacson. A book should be more than a book, it should be the beginning of a conversation, an interactive gateway to more information, a means to connect interested parties. Books don’t do that, but given the available technology and associated behaviors of the digital generation, maybe they ought to do more than they do today.

I like the way Walter Isaacson tells a story. I like to watch and listen to him on stage, and I enjoy reading his books. I enjoyed reading his biography about Einstein, and I know that I will read his book about Ben Franklin in 2015 (I bought it for my wife, as a birthday gift when it was new in 2004—so many books, so little time!). There aren’t many biographers or historians I would place next to David McCullough, but Isaacson is one of them. He is one of America’s finest authors.

Walter, you just published 560 words about innovators. You’ve made sense of the science and divergent thinking pursued by Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Tim Berners-Lee and other technology heroes. The story is neither simple nor easy to tell, but you’ve managed to put the pieces together in a very appealing package that I can buy for 20 bucks (hardcover), or 10 bucks (Kindle). Two words for you: good job!

Seriously, you do a terrific job with every book. That’s why we buy your books. You’re a reliably strong author who finds just the right details, composes just the right stories, paints a coherent picture, and provides a satisfying experience. Not many people do the job as well as you do, but plenty of people try, and some come pretty close.

At the risk of typecasting, and at the greater risk of being accused of being stuck in the 20th (or 19th) century, I’m really happy with your work. If I want to know more about Albert Einstein and his world, I can pick up Ronald Clark’s biography, or read the scientist’s own books. If you suggest another book, or perhaps a documentary or a good museum, I’ll jot it down and follow it up. I don’t need or want an expanded version of “The Innovators.” I’m sure you’ve collected far more information than you could possibly corral into a single book, and if you feel there’s a follow-on book, I’m sure you’ll write it and I’m equally certain that it will become a best seller, too. But I would prefer that you moved on, as I will do. I’ve gotten a good and healthy dose of the innovators’ story. I want you to write another great book that illuminates a part of life that I don’t know I want to know more about. I’m sure you’ve got a list of a dozen new ideas for next books. You’re going to be 63 years old in March—and your pace tends to be a new book every 2-4 years (let’s say 3). Keep writing until your 93rd birthday, and we can look forward to perhaps 10 more Walter Isaacson books.

Better for you to explore the wild new worlds of digital publishing and invent some new forms? Sure, go ahead, but do not stop writing books, and don’t slow things down too much. We need more Walter Isaacson books.

So there’s the paradox. Although Isaacson is eloquent about the future, his great value to society is in the present (in fact, telling stories about the past). And if he spends too much time on the future, we lose something wonderful about the present and the past, which diminishes the future.

Same idea, different words: Mr. Isaacson is one of the best hopes in the publishing industry for credible, popular new directions for books. On the other, we simply want him to be a wonderful author. If the author’s job is to tell a great story, does it make more sense to mess with the medium or master the message? Or to just keep doing and allow the road to lead where it may?

Reinforcing the paradox: on the first day of Digital Book World, I learned about the new interactive exploration application that children’s author/illustrator David Wiesner is going to release through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It’s called “SPOT,” and I plan to write about it soon. Why am I so excited about a new interactive venture from one of our best children’s authors, but so conflicted about how I hope Mr. Isaacson will spend his next thirty years? ‘Tis a paradox.

 

The New Rectangle

The old rectangle turned out to be a pretty good idea. Take a stack of papers, imprint each one, on both sides, with words and pictures, bind it all up, and sell it at a reasonable price. Printed books for children date back about 500 years (a fine article from a January 1888 of The Atlantic tells the story of the early years). Today, children’s books account for 37 percent of all books sold in the United States. In survey after survey, reading books shows up as a top activity for children from one to ten or eleven years old. About 70 percent of children in this age group read books for pleasure—compared with about 20 percent of adults. For most American children, reading books is a wonderful part of childhood.

By age 14, many children find other ways to occupy their time. Out-of-date mandatory school readings don’t help matters—“A Catcher in the Rye” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” are dubious “must reads” for 21st century middle schoolers. Is the answer a newer rectangle? Perhaps a new style of novel with some sort of built-in social network? A book on an iPad with snazzy interactive features?

Roughly 1 in 5 books sold in the United States is an eBook. Parents are interested in seeing their children read—so they buy lots of books, encourage literacy at every opportunity, and justify investments in iPads because these devices could encourage children to read more books, and spend more time reading. For some parents, that may seem reasonable, but 66 percent of teenagers read for pleasure–and they strongly prefer printed books!

And yet, I can’t help but wonder whether traditional books offer one type of experience, and iBooks / eBooks / digital books provide another. (The usual argument: when home video became popular, the movie theaters did not go out of business.) I love the idea of reading a non-fiction book and AFTER my time with the book ends, I love to do a bit more research to learn more about the concepts that the author failed to discuss in detail. Do I need all of that in one digital package? Not really—I am fine reading the book in my comfy leather chair, then meandering over to the computer, or picking up the iPad, to learn more. But that’s a very narrow interpretation of what a digital book experience might be.

scaled_OM-BookBeginnerCollection1-Screen0-w997L-(255,255,255)-iPad.jpgFor example, maybe a digital book is not a book at all, but a kind of game. Scholastic, a leader in a teen (YA, or Young Adult) fiction publishes a new book in each series at four-month intervals. The publisher wants to maintain a relationship with the reader, and the reader wants to continue to connect with the author and the characters. So what’s in-between, what happens during those (empty) months between reading one book and the publication of the next one in the series? And at what point does the experience (a game, a social community) overtake the book? NEVER! — or so says a Scholastic multimedia producer working in that interstitial space. The book is the thing; everything else is secondary. In fact, I don’t believe him—I think that may be true for some books, but the clever souls at Scholastic are very likely to come up with a compelling between-the-books experience that eventually overshadows the book itself.

And what of the attics of the future? Your child—a grandpa with a dusty old attic in 2085—ought to have a carton filled with Rick Riordan stories and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” that he can pass on to the young ones. He ought not mumble through some lame excuse about how every one of his favorite books was digital, and how those books were zapped from the cloud during the great digital storm of 2042.

So do we leave it there? Children’s books ought to be printed and saved, placed on library shelves and in attic boxes for the ages? Not when there’s a new rectangle! Imagine a book that makes sounds and flashes pictures on command, that builds a bridge to the imagination in a way that enhances the experience of a parent reading a book to a very young child (or, an older one). Gee, this must be done carefully! We want to retain so much that is special and unique about the old ways—the ways that we have perfected over hundreds of years, and really managed to get right during the past fifty or one hundred—and yet, we’re raising a digitally native population. So far, 58 percent of children enjoy daily access to a tablet (often, an iPad). Much of what will be invented has been invented—at least until there is a massive new injection of innovation. Today’s tablet probably resembles the tablet of 2018, but it might be smaller, thinner, more flexible. What we have now is a reasonably stable rectangle. But what to do, for children, within its four digital walls?

Last week, I spent a day pondering this issue with a few hundred people in the children’s book publishing industry at a conference called Digital Book World—the special section being entitled LaunchKIDS. Mostly, it was populated by people who work within the old rectangles, but remain curious about the new. Here and there, we learned about newer ones. Blloon (yes, it is spelled correctly) is encouraging people 18-34 (typically, less bookish than other populations) to subscribe to their service by using the number of pages read as a kind of currency (consumers pay for a certain number of pages, and engage in social activities to earn more). Google wants to “massively transform” the space (Google seems to say that about everything it sees or smells). Amazon is trying to make sense of analog vs. digital books, comparing the paradigm to hardcover vs. softcover books, for example.

Of course, there are no easy long-term answers. Except one. Kids like books. And parents like to buy books for their kids. So far, that doesn’t seem to be changing very much at all.

The four most popular children’s books (based upon Amazon’s sales—bookstore sales may vary).

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And, a popular Scholastic books into multimedia project, Spirit Animals.

Spirit Animals

 

Ellen Rocks On

I am beginning to read what Ellen Willis wrote. Some of it is familiar, but I lost track of her sometime last in the last century. She wrote about the counter culture, and, apparently, continued on that path long after everyone else had moved on. Willisimage_mini was an extraordinarily clear thinker about things that matter. That clarity, and her passion, and her just-plain-good writing are the reasons why I will spend the winter reading every one of about fifty articles and essays in a book that her daughter Nona put together. It’s called “The Essential Ellen Willis.” I’m guessing you won’t find it in many bookstores despite the best efforts of the University of Minnesota Press, but it’s certainly available online. For someone who enjoys smart writing with more than a small dose of social conscience, it’s an ideal holiday choice.

Lots and lots of interesting material about Ellen on this Tumblr page.

Lots and lots of interesting material about Ellen on this Tumblr page. To go there, click on the picture.

Who was she? Ellen Willis was born in 1941 and died in 2006. She was the first rock critic for The New Yorker, a columnist who wrote regularly for the Village Voice, and an educator at New York University (she founded the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program). She was a feminist, and an authentic, long-term voice for what was, in the 1960s and 1970s, a movement, and became, in the 1980s and 1990s, a reasoned approach to social outrage. Her daughter Nona, who caused Willis such consternation about her own feminist place as a mother, is the protagonist in one of this book’s best articles, a Voice column entitled “The Diaper Manifesto.” Grown up, Nona Willis Aronowitz is a fellow at the Rockefeller Institute, an author, and, now, the compiler and editor of her mom’s best stuff. (This is the second effort: the first collected Willis’s rock articles and criticism in a book called “Out of the Vinyl Depths” from the same publisher.)

I wasn’t sure where to start navigating 536 pages of a writer’s collected work, so I started with an article about Bob Dylan that she wrote for Cheetah in 1967. Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” was a new release, nearly two years after his serious motorcycle accident. It’s been nearly fifty (!) years since she wrote the article. She starts at the beginning, assessing the emerging folk music scene and his place in it:

When Bob Dylan first showed up at Gerde’s [Folk City] in the spring of 1961, fresh skinned and baby faced, and wearing a school boy’s corduroy hat, the manager asked him for proof of age. He was nineteen only recently arrived in New York. Skinny, nervous, manic, the bohemian patina of jeans and boots, scruffy hair, hip jargon and hitchhiking mileage barely settled on nice Bobby Zimmerman, he has been trying to catch on at the coffeehouses. His material and style were a cud of half-digested influences: Guthrie-cum-Elliot, Blind Lemon Jefferson-cum-Leadbelly-cum-Van Ronk, the hillbilly sounds of Hank Williams and Jimmy Rodgers; the rock-and-roll of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. He was constantly writing new songs. Onstage, he varied poignancy with clownishness. His interpretations of traditional songs—especially blues—were pretentious, and his harsh, flat voice kept slipping over the edge of plaintiveness into strident self-pity. But he shone as a comedian, charming audiences with Charlie Chaplin routines, playing with his hair and his cap, burlesquing his own mannerism and simply enjoying himself.”

From July, 1986’s “The Diaper Manifesto,” which begins with Willis exploring her conflicted feelings about hiring someone to care for her child so that she can continue to write…

Before I had a child, I had lots of opinions on the subject. Two years afterward, some of them have stuck with me: I’m still convinced that staying home full-time with a healthy, rambuctious kid would turn me into squirrel food, that child care should be as much men’s job as women’s, that communal child rearing in some form holds the most hope of resolving the collision between adults’ and children’s needs, as well as the emotional cannibalism of the nuclear family. But for the most part, figuring out what kind of care best meets my daughter’s needs has been—continues to be—a processing of disentangling prejudice from experience.”

Progress is made.

“In the end, we hired a Haitian woman who, as a friend drily put it, ‘fit the demographic profile for the job’ and quickly put to shame all my stereotypes. Without the benefit of higher education, middle class choices, or green card, Philomese had all the psychological smarts I could ask for and tended to the baby with love and imagination…Quite aside from our own needs as working parents, Nona was clearly better off having an intimate daily relationship with another adult.”

From September 2009, outrage and clear thinking about the drug war:

According to the drug warriors, I and my ilk are personally responsible not only for the death of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix but for the crack crisis. Taken literally,, this is scurrilous nonsense: the counterculture never looked kindly on hard drugs, and the age of crack is a product not of the 60s but of Reaganism. Yet there’s a sense in which I do feel responsible. Cultural radicals are committed to extending freedom, and that commitment, by its nature, is dangerous. It encourages people to take risks, some of them foolish or worse….If I support the struggle for freedom, I can’t disclaim responsibility for its costs. I can only argue that the cost of suppressing freedom are, in the end, far higher. All wars are hell. The question is which ones are worth fighting.”

 

A Thousand Moments in Time

The image is not entirely white. The paw prints — very big paw prints —are indigo, the color of the surrounding sea. Apart from the burst of white light near the sun, the sky is rendered in various shades of indigo, too. Most of the remaining ice floes are  pure white, tinged with indigo’s inky blue. The ice seems to be melting by the minute. It is no longer a solid mass. A polar bear sits on one of  larger ice floes, polar bear looks to the sky. His or her coat is faded yellow, the color of a baby chick.

That’s the second image in the new 478-page compact coffee table book by one of my favorite authors of photography books. This one handsome volume is entitled, “Photography: The Definitive Visual History,” and it’s a wonderful way to make someone very happy this holiday season ($50, but less than $40 on the internet).

The first image is very familiar: “Migrant Mother,” also called “Prairie Mother,” created in March, 1936, the heart of the Depression, by Dorothea Lange. At the time, Lange was working for the Resettlement Administration, a New Deal program that became a part of the Farm Security Administration a year later. The location: a camp of pea pickers in Niporno, California. Lange: “I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn to a magnet.” The family had recently “sold the tires of their car to pay for food.” The woman in the picture’s name was Florence Owen Thompson. She knew her own name, but she couldn’t do much good with that knowledge. Thompson was a poor Native American woman, and at age 80, when she was dying of cancer, she won an appeal and received $32,000. In 1998, the “Getty Museum paid $244,500 for a print.”

Here’s the image from the U.S. Library of Congress.

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The image above is the one that became famous, but, as Ang explains, it was not the only one. “Using a Graflex camera…Lange made a total of six exposures…within a mere ten minutes or so. For each image, Lange moved in closer. The first image was wide, to show context. The final one is above. The second image below was a step along the way.

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Ang goes on to explain how the famous photo is constructed: the “careworn face,” the way the each of the older children frame their mother, the sleeping baby, so apparent in the mid-shot, so nearly absent in closely-cropped image.

Way back in the book in the section labelled “2000-Present: The Digital Age,” this is a small but striking picture of four lions. They seem to be heading directly for the photographer (his name: Chris McLellan). It was shot in 2013—last year. He used a Nikon D800E with a very wide angle lens to take the picture—and many more like it—but the camera was not in his hands. Instead, the camera was mounted on a remote control buggy, and the 18mm lens was installed in order to capture the images of the lions that it passed by, or got curious.

Chris-McLennan_buggy_011-780x520

According to Ang, “the resulting shots were viewed more than two million times within three days.”

For me, the heart of the book is the (mostly) black-and-white middle section where Robert Doisneau’s “Kiss by the Hotel de Ville,” is followed by the remarkable Zeiss 80mm Planar medium format lens (Ang mostly features photography, but also devotes some spreads to important equipment innovations, the likes of LIFE and LOOK magazine, and other parts of photography’s long story), and Andreas Feininger’s “Midtown Manhattan Seen From Weehawken, New Jersey,” and Edward Steichen’s “monumental” (a good word for the project) 1955 book and exhibit, “The Family of Man,” fashion magazines and their aesthetic, and just before the spread on the Nikon F 35mm SLR camera, a few photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt, who worked for 36 years as a LIFE magazine photojournalist. A few pages later, there is the famous quote by Lennart Nilsson:

Patience is the most important tool. Patience. Patience. Patience.”

And, Lennart’s 1965 photograph of a human fetus. “The first time he saw a fetus sucking his thumb, he was ecstatic and took a picture.” But nothing happened—the flash was broken (remember, he’s shooting inside a human body with an endoscope. The image shown below is his most famous. Sadly, the child was easier to photograph because the child was no longer alive.

Lennart-Nilsson-100

Others survived, thrived, and were photographed by Nilsson along the way.

Lennart Nilsson

This collection of Lennart Nilsson images comes from another fine book about photography, “A Child Is Born.”

Photography can take your breath away.


 

Here’s the book cover, just so you don’t pass it by when visiting your local bookseller. It’s a very special holiday gift.

Photography-History_cover

BTW: On final note. If you’re even remotely serious about digital photography, Tom Ang’s your man. He’s a wonderful teacher, and his many other books about digital photography are among the best in the industry.

 

An Old Master

Kudos to Jules Feiffer for creating, writing and illustrating a graphic novel in a fantasy space that he clearly adores. Why the kudos? Who cares that the guy is in his 80s—he tells a helluva story.

FeifferobamaOkay, more about Jules before begin. Actually, you get a fair sense of him from his 2008 cartoon for NYC’s Village Voice. I found it on Wikipedia. He won a Pulitzer Prize for political cartooning, was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Writer’s Guild of America, and he’s got his place in the Comic Book Hall of Fame. And now, he’s got this new book.

It’s called “Kill My Mother,” and I like this description: it’s a “noir-action-romance.” It’s a story dominated by powerful, smart women—a story where men are rather foolish, easily misled, or weak. The plot winds through 1940s Los Angeles, and through a World War II battle zone—it looks and feels like a cross between a graphic novel and a rough storyboard for a post war-time black-and-white film, one that has its doubts about what happened and why. In fact, it’s the sort of noir tale that works best when it makes it way through dark and ambiguous questions. Annie is the protagonist (and the gal on the cover of the book). Her dad is dead. He was a cop. Somebody killed him. She wants to know who did the deed and why. Her mother, well, Annie despises her mother, in Annie’s eyes, a coward of a woman who deserves the worst.

Feiffer bookIn theory, it’s the book that drives the story, but in practice, here, it’s the pictures. Actually, it’s the whole page, the whole well-designed, elegantly organized duotone watercolors and pen-and-ink that feel so dark, so thick with intrigue. Most of the book is rendered in sepia—not the old tones of photographs, but lively, contrasty, vaguely seedy renditions of what otherwise might have been black. The accent is usually a very pale green, the color of a Hollywood swimming pool on page, a cadaver on the next.

It’s vengeful and bluesy, jivey and filled with songs sung way too late at night by a tall woman with a long past. It’s not jokey—this is serious work by a serious creative pro whose resume is dates back before most of the people who will read this article, or that book. There’s nudity and violence, crude language and tenderness, idiotic situations that feel quite real, and a wonderful sense of place and time.

What works best for me? Just scanning every page, considering the creative decisions that a long life are capable of producing. This isn’t just a good graphic novel. It’s a late stage work by one of our twentieth, and now, twenty-first century masters. I love the way he sets up a page, brings his print characters to life on the page, uses flowing line and dabs of color to fill my head, and feed my imagination. Gosh, he’s good.

Pages-from-KMM_feiffer-4-1000-580-BPages-from-KMM_feiffer-2-1000-580 Pages-from-KMM_feiffer-1-1000in-kill-my-mother-erzaehlt-jules-feiffer-von-seiner-jugend-in-einem-amerika-dessen-werte-er-noch-nachvollziehen-konnte

 

 

 

The Warmth of Isabel Wilkerson

cover_bookBeginning around 1915, six million people left their native land hoping for a better life. Nearly all of them were Americans, but they were poor, without prospects. For the next half century, they left the South, many for northern cities where they knew a relative or felt they could find work, some for the west, where they hoped Jim Crow would not be a factor in their lives. They left in faith, and without much information. Three of them were fortunate because their stories were told, in considerable detail, by a compassionate, literate, well-informed journalist named Isabel Wilkerson. Her work, which she completed in 2010, involved thirteen years of her life and over a thousand interviews. the book is a solid ten-hour read (it’s over 500 pages), and you won’t want to miss a single story about her chosen few, the Americans whose stories she tells so well. They are: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, Robert Joseph Pershing Foster and George Swanson Starling. Ida Mae starts out in Van Vleet, Mississippi in 1928, and survives the completion of the book. Leaving Monroe, Louisiana far behind, Robert survives a punishing trip to the California of his dreams, and becomes a wealthy doctor in Los Angeles with a soft spot for people in need. George is a bit of troublemaker in his native Florida, and ends up working on a New York-Florida train while living a new life in Harlem. (I use their first names because of the kinship that the author kindled in me; I feel as though I knew them from the neighborhood.)

Ida Mae, with flowers in her hair, sharecroppers’ daughter, living in Chicago in the 1930s

Ida Mae, with flowers in her hair, sharecroppers’ daughter, living in Chicago in the 1930s

Wilkerson takes care to paint a full picture of these people, their lives back down South, their struggles in making the decision to leave, the tough times they endured during their period of relocation, family and friends who weave in and out of their lives. The sense of never quite being at home is a constant companion; so is the the sense that they don’t completely belong where they ended up. They resolve these conflicts in their own minds, sometimes rationalizing, sometimes considering just how fortunate their lives became, sometimes trying to untangle the equally tangled thoughts and behaviors of others.

Young Doctor Robert Foster in the years before he made enough money to do anything he pleased.

Young Doctor Robert Foster in the years before he made enough money to do anything he pleased.

George was known as “schoolboy” because he was among the few citrus workers in his area who had attended any college at all. His father talked him out of the idea, and George spent the rest of his life wondering what might have been.

George was known as “schoolboy” because he was among the few citrus workers in his area who had attended any college at all. His father talked him out of the idea, and George spent the rest of his life wondering what might have been.

Wilkerson also scores scholarly points by resolving not to accept common knowledge. Her responsibility to Ida Mae, Robert and George is powerful, and she insists on providing commentary and context to keep the reader on track and clear about what actually happened, and why it matters.

Intrigued? Watch an excellent hour-plus interview with Ms. Wilkerson on the award-winning public affairs series that survived the old New Jersey Network and now resides at Rutgers University. Find it here.

Studying Funny

There is a dead frog with its guts all over the place. More about this unfunny amphibian later.

HumorCode52GfQLFor now, the challenge is to figure out what’s funny, why it’s funny, how funny is constructed, what happens inside our brains when funny is happening, how funny works in different countries and why funny often misfires. Although I want to believe that this is a fascinating intellectual and scholarly pursuit, the whole idea of studying funny seems, to me, to be an odd pursuit that’s not likely to yield meaningful results. And yet, there are these two books, each with an embarrassingly unfunny cover, that have been staring at me all summer long. One puts Groucho glasses on a globe and calls itself The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny and the other has a big goofy grin with the word “Ha!” writ large with “The Science of When We Laugh and Why” down below. The former was written by a University of Colorado professor named Peter McGraw; he runs the Humor Research Lab (or, “HuRL”) and promises to be “a leading expert in the interdisciplinary fields of emotion and behavioral economics.” His co-author us a free-lance writer named Joel Warner. HA! was written by Scott Weems, whose Ph.D. is in cognitive neuroscience.

Weems taught me that it’s possible to make a rat laugh. How? Tickling works pretty well—scratch its belly and a rat will emit a high pitched screech at around 50kHz (which other rats can hear, but humans cannot). If you stroke a rat, it doesn’t laugh. Young rats are more likely to laugh, and laugh bigger, and more often, than older rats. Apparently, humans are the same way. If you leave a rat alone for an extended period, then tickle him, the rat is more likely to laugh a lot.

And then, things get weird. A rat scientist named Burgdorf (I’m sure there’s a better title) inserted electrodes into each rat’s dopamine-producing center and “achieved the same result.” Then, Burgdorf taught his rats to tap a metal bar to administer the dopamine provocation on their own. Similar result. All of which leads Weems to this conclusion, “Apparently, rats aren’t so different from humans, which suggests that laughter might have been around for a very long time.”

Yeah, you’re seeing the same problem I am. It’s cool that we can make rats emit a sound by tickling them, but there’s a pretty large gap between explaining that screech—which may or may not be laughter—and, say, what Richard Pryor or Robin Williams could do on their least productive days. Or why, when I’m bored, I will try (and often succeed) in making others laugh and lose focus (I’ve been doing this since fourth grade). Or why elephant jokes are still funny.

Q: Why did the Elephant stand on the marshmallow? 
A: So she wouldn’t fall in the hot chocolate.

Men and women seem to laugh at different things, at different times, in different ways. We don’t yet understand how computers might make us laugh. Research related to laughter, short-term health and longevity is inconclusive (but it couldn’t hurt). Ethic humor remains popular (throughout the world), but the 21st century’s political correctness limits its use in polite company. We’re still okay making fun of animals, and even in our enlightened world, nothing succeeds like a good poop joke:

never-think-outside-the-box1

 

All in all, I didn’t learn much, but I did find out that scientists are taking an interest. That’s nice, but frankly, I’d rather watch a funny movie.

The comedy team of McGraw and Warner trekked a lot further (“two guys…19 experiments…five continents… 91,000 miles…”) but didn’t manage to cover any more ground. Studying humor is exceedingly difficult, probably because we’re not smart enough to understand what’s happening, which is why scientists come up with theory and do their thing, but the process is not much fun to watch. McGraw’s intrepid performance at a comedy club—these guys really are trying—is a flop. Their Venn diagrams are promising (one circle: “vomit in church” and the other “causing mass vomit in church” with the intersection marked, simply, “funny”). Both books tell the story of the girls in Tanzania who couldn’t stop laughing and comedian Gilbert Gottfried’s “too soon?” excuse to roll into the Aristocrats schtick shortly after NYC’s towers came down; and, sure enough, on page 81, the authors are talking about tickling rate here, too.

Their world tour is interesting, mostly for people who don’t usually follow the comedy business. This book attempts to be a global comedy road trip, and it’s interesting to visit Yoshimoto Kogyo in Japan: a comedy school that also manages 800 Japanese comedians (not sure why, but the image of 800 Japanese comedians makes me laugh). The company owns many of Japan’s comedy clubs and used to own a comedy theme park, too. There are Yoshimoto Kogyo golf balls, and instant ramen meals, too. The authors make good use of their travel budget, visiting Scandinavia where their obsession with the Danish cartoons that rattled Islam sensibility tends to overshadow the warmth and classy outrage that has been part of Danish humor since the days of Victor Borge (don’t miss this!). Humor on the Gaza Strip (conflict and humor are often linked), and in a chapter about the Amazon (where the inevitable Norman Cousins story about laughter as medicine is told, along with some notes on Patch Adams).

In the Montreal chapter—which is about the world’s largest comedy festival, the authors summarize what seems to be a list of items that didn’t require a full volume:

– Make fun of yourself before others get the chance to do so.

– Laughter is disarming. Make light of the stuff everyone’s worried about and you’ll negate its power.

– Create a safe, playful space where folks are free to laugh.

And so on.

I read these two books because I was hoping that the state of the science had greatly advanced (two books from two major publishers in the same year), but I was mostly wrong. We don’t know much more than we did before. And after thinking about that on a rainy weekend afternoon, I came to the conclusion that there is no problem in not understanding comedy. Maybe there is a point in studying it—or, at least, continuing to study laughter—but in some ways, I hope we never figure it out. I don’t think I want a science of humor. And I certainly don’t want a funny robot to be programmed into my brain to provoke dopamine provocation. Really, I’m good not knowing, I’m great knowing that Robin Williams and Victor Borge were funny, and not knowing or caring how or why that happened or how to replicate his magic.

So what about the frog? For that answer, everyone seems to refer to what E.B. White wrote in 1941:

“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but

the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging

to any but the our scientific mind.”

Frog

 

 

 

 

The Art of a Fine Magazine

The Art of Waterolour Magazine: The Art Magazine for Watercolourists, Issue 15 is now available. Race to your Barnes & Noble bookstore to have a look; copies are always in limited supply.

The Art of Waterolour Magazine: The Art Magazine for Watercolourists, Issue 15 is now available. Race to your Barnes & Noble bookstore to have a look; copies are always in limited supply.

Note the “u” in “watercolour” — this is an article about an extraordinary magazine published in Europe. If I happen to show up at a well-stocked Barnes & Noble store in the U.S., I might catch the 15th issue, but so far, my success rate has been inconsistent. Yes, $15 is a lot to pay for a magazine, and no, this magazine is not printed on special paper or especially thick (about 100 pages per issue). It’s just, well, a very good magazine about a subject that interests me. It was interesting to write that sentence because I am interested in lots of different things, but this is among the few magazines (in the world, I guess) that would win that kind of recognition. (I enjoy Pastel Journal, for example, but I would rate it only “good” in comparison with The Art of Watercolour’s “very good.” As a rule, The New Yorker is very good, but most weekly issues would probably score a “good-plus” if there was such a rating.

So what makes a magazine “very” good? Of course, it’s helpful to offer an abundance of good stories and wonderful illustrations that are specifically intended to delight a very distinct target audience, in this case, the thousands of artists who call themselves “watercolourists.” The magazine assumes a relatively high level of familiarity with the medium, the artists with a national reputation, and a high level of interest in the work of many different types of watercolour artists throughout the world.

Take, for example, the recent issue #14. It begins with a report on the very first World Watercolour Competition which drew nearly 2,000 participants and 82 nationalities. Turn the page and there’s a spread about the Narbonne 2014 Watercolour Biennial (the magazine’s home base is France, so that country gets more attention that others, which makes me feel very international when I have the magazine in my hands). I love finding out about U.S. watercolor events in a French magazine—a blurb about the IWS competition coming up in May (now past), for example. Letters that matter—questions about the leading watercolour paint brand (Winsor & Newton) and whether it has changed its formulation; how to sign a painting; the Munsell color system. Serious discussion, nicely presented, far more up market and smarter than the discussions in, for example, Watercolor Artist in the U.S.

Here’s the cover of Issue 14 with a good painting by Stephen Scott Young on the cover.

Here’s the cover of Issue 14 with a good painting by Stephen Scott Young on the cover.

And then, there are feature stories about artists. The warm-up is called Revelations, and several artists are featured, each with his or her own page. Turn the next page and there’s a fabulous spread, a watercolour of an old New York City apartment building complete with fireplaces and elaborate window wells, a six-page spread including an artist’s career timeline, lots of juicy images, and a demonstration, by American-born Sandra Walker. Next is a four-page spread celebrating Australian painter Ron Muller’s atmospheric landscapes, followed by the Japanese artist working en plein air in Venice. And then, the extraordinary portrait work of Stephen Scott Young, Hawaiian-born, with an extraordinarily eye and a sensitive, realistic way of painting the lives of dark-skinned people living in the Bahamas and Florida. The next profile—the profiles are worth the price of each issue—is a feature about an abstract artist named Mark Mehaffey, which includes some very useful guidance about the composition and building of a nontraditional painting. I have a friend who paints cityscapes and especially enjoys the challenge of reflections and store windows—and in this issue, there’s a feature about David Stickel, whose opening pages attest to his abilities with his nearly realistic image of the clear box Apple store on Fifth Avenue near Central Park.

I’m still going—and this is a typical issue. There’s an instructional piece by American art teacher about color harmonies, followed by another long instructional piece about getting colors right (not easy because some colors are native and some are affected by light and nearby objects, and by the way the eye perceives contrast). And then, another meaty instructional feature, again dealing with a fairly sophisticated topic in an elevated way: it’s all about shadows, light and reflection. The consideration of these tricky issues as a single idea makes the article work, but it goes further, allowing for a sidebar about color temperature and the nuances of semi-transparent surfaces. Finally, there’s yet another instructional piece on the very difficult challenges associated with all prima watercolour portraiture (that is, capturing the human face—here, a young child) created by dabbing color onto wet paper which is notoriously impossible to control without extreme practice and polished technique.

So there! I just wrote hundreds of words about a magazine. I don’t think I’ve done that before. In fact, I’m so taken with what I’ve been browsing for the past hour, I’m going to order some back issues, direct from Europe.

To close, something more from Stephen Scott Young, from his website.

6K8C4875

From Abe to Apple

Here’s an interesting new tool from the R&D labs at The New York Times. It’s a chronological graphing tool that maps search terms against dates from 1860 until the present day.

So: Abraham Lincoln—he appeared in 1 or 2 percent of all NY Times articles during his presidency (and in its aftermath), and long-term, he’s been a fair stable presence.

Abraham-Lincoln

George Washington preceded The New York Times, but the newspaper has been more interesting in George than in Abe about a century and a half. Lots of interest in the 1930s (I wonder why), but a good solid plater through the second half of the 20th century. Tall man, long shadow.
George-vs-Abe

According to The New York Times, Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick didn’t produce much long-term interesting, so I tried FDR instead. I suspect there’s something wrong somewhere—FDR should have been represented with much more coverage in the 1930s and 1940s than the graph allows. I guess that’s why this is still an R&D effort—George should not outpace FDR during the Great Depression and the Second World War.

Lincoln-Washington-FDR

Apple Computer made a splash in the 1980s, and seems to have peaked in the early 1990s, with the combination of iPhone and iPad causing a second peak just a few years ago.

Apple-Computer

How does Apple compare with Microsoft? Not even close—Microsoft’s coverage was much, much greater. If the graphs are correct—which, again, I question because Apple has been so prominent in the past two or three years, especially when measured against the snooze of Microsoft news.

Microsoft

Add Google to the mix (green line) to the mies, and things look about right. The orange line is IBM, which was, somehow, interesting around 1865 or so, more interesting than any time in the 20th century.IBM

These are percentages—the more articles the Times published, the less value for each individual article. So what about the raw numbers? Just for fun, I added Teddy and also John F. Kennedy. There isn’t a huge difference between the percentages and the raw numbers, not for this set of searches, but it’s worth flipping the $ / # switch for every graph to see anything there is to see.

So: next time there’s a rainy afternoon and you don’t feel like doing anything useful (or you’re deep in analysis of historical trends), The New York Times Chronicle is a tool worthy of your time and attention. And, by the way, if you click on any point on any graph, the Times provides a list of relevant articles that you can read online. For even the most casual researcher, this is a terrific tool, one that would be SO MUCH BETTER if every newspaper followed the lead of the NYT, and then shared their databases for combined graphing! But this is a wonderful first step.

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