Happy Jólabókaflód

I think I’ve got the accents about right, but there might be a cross on that final d. In any case, we’re talking about an Icelandic book flood that occurs this time of year. A friend reminded me with this graphic:


There’s a sweet article about the tradition here, on Treehugger. I especially liked this quote: “The small Nordic island, with a population of only 329,000 people, is extraordinarily literary. They love to read and write. According to a BBC article, “The country has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world… One in 10 Icelanders will publish [a book].”

If you’d like to know more, visit this NPR story from 2012.

With so many stories on the internet, I’m surprised this one has so few articles from news sources. I suppose that’s a very good reason to go to Iceland this time of year. To read books with the wholehearted encouragement of a nation of readers.


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 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


High-Flying Book Report

Alaska_Airlines_Boeing_737Three across, seats A, B, and C in a exit row. All three of us reading a book. The ten year old girl who happened to sit in the window seat: a fat novel by Rick Riordan. My wife: The One Hundred Mile Walk, now being released as a Helen Mirren motion picture. Me, a terrific long novel by New York City newspaper legend Pete Hamill, who writes about his city with street smarts and an appealing sense of mysticism.

I never sit through an entire transcontinental flight. I always stretch, and always take a good slow walk. I like to see what other people are doing to occupy their minds during a flight that lasts a few hours or more. I didn’t write down the precise numbers, but here’s a reasonably reliable survey based upon a hearty attempt at serious snooping:

There were about 200 passengers on the plane (3o rows, 6 per row, plus some additional people in first class behind the curtain). About 50 people were fast asleep, many for the entire flight (I’m always impressed by people who can sleep more than two or three hours on a plane). About 25 were playing video games on their phones (as screens become larger, this becomes easier to do, and more fun, too). About 50 were watching movies, maybe half on tablets and the other half on portable computers (I would have expected a higher percentage of tablets). Maybe 25 were awake with blank stares. Add another 25 who were doing some work on their computers (few on tablets), and another ten eating while I was walking the aisles.

Here and there, somebody was reading a magazine (I think I remember two people reading the airline magazines—I wonder how much long they’ll exist.) How many were reading books? I counted the three of us. All in the same row. Maybe I missed another two or three book readers, but there weren’t ten on board. I suspect I selected an odd flight, but I also detect a what may be a trend. Digital devices offer more options—they play music, display the text of a book, show movies, enable videogame play, and help to get work done. Books are just books. For the price of an inexpensive tablet—say, $199—you could buy twenty good used books, but it still wouldn’t be able to play music, show movies, or help you get work done.

Still, books are lightweight and relatively inexpensive (and you can share them with friends, something you can’t [yet] do with music or an e-book). Books are wonderful traveling companions–they tell a good story and they communicate only when you’re interested). I cannot imagine traveling without at least one book in my carry-on bag. When we take forever to lift off or maneuver to the gate, I keep reading. When the flight crew requires all digital devices to be shut down, I just keep reading.

I guess I’m surprised that so few people (or, perhaps, simply fewer and fewer people) do the same.

My Favorite Rectangles

imagesThe old ratio was 3 by 4: a reliable compression of reality, the extra window in every household that looked out at the world. It offered a limited view, controlled by powerful producers and directors, versatile performers, intense journalists who learned the trade by explaining why and how the Germans were bombing the guts out of London during World War II. Very few people were allowed to put anything into that window: NBC, CBS, ABC and a few local television companies controlled every minute of the broadcast day. It was radio with pictures, a new medium that learned its way through visual storytelling when the only colors were shades of grey.

The new ratio is 16:9, and it seems to accommodate just about anything anybody wants to place in that frame. And the frame travels with us everywhere: on phones, tablets, on Times Square, on airliners and in half the rooms of our homes. In offices, too. There is little cultivation or careful decision making. If you want to make a video, you point your phone at anything you please, press record, and then, fill the frame with stuff that moves and makes noise.

The more video that YouTube releases—that would be 100 new hours of material every minute of our modern lives—the less I pay attention. I am overwhelmed. I cannot keep up with the two dozen new websites or apps or YouTube videos that friends and colleagues supply with the very best of attentions. I am fascinated by the range of material, frustrated because the lack of a professional gatekeeper means I must be my own programmer, and I just don’t have the time or interest in doing that every day. I want curation. I want the 21st century equivalent of a television channel, just for me. I don’t want to watch pre-roll commercials, and I don’t want to “skip this ad in 5 seconds.”

As curmudgeonly as this may feel, I think I’m happier reading a book. In fact, as media abundance increases, I find myself withdrawing into a very different series of rectangles—ones that don’t include advertising, don’t include pictures, don’t move or make noise. I’m now buying books by the half dozen—about as many as I can carry out of the increasingly familiar gigantic book sales that offer perfectly good volumes for one or dollars a piece.

I like the idea that the person who wrote the book is either an expert in his or her field—otherwise, the publisher never would have agreed to the scheme—or a superior storyteller—one that the editors, and the publisher, deemed worthy. I love the idea that the author writes the book and then hands it off to a professional editor, one with literary taste and an eye for clear, precise phrasing, and that the book then goes through yet another reading by a copy editor who makes sure the words and sentences are provided in something resembling proper English usage, and that, after the book is typeset, another editorial staff member proofreads the whole book and causes any number of errors to be corrected. When the book reaches my hands, I am confident that the work is, at least, well-manufactured.

Might it be any good? At a dollar or two, I’m not sure I care, but I do choose my books, and my authors, with care. Somehow, I feel that my side of the contract is to spend a bit of time selecting, just as I do before I decide that I should devote two hours of my life watching a motion picture.

When I find a wonderful film—not always easy, but always worth the effort—and it fills a 60-inch Samsung plasma screen with magic—I am thrilled. Most often, those wonderful films are made by people in other countries, or by smaller companies in the USA, or by animators. Just as it’s unusual for me to stumble into something wonderful in the land of books that is newly released, the films I watch are usually a few years old. Not really old, though those are fun, too, but old enough that I can get a sense of whether they had any staying power beyond the echo of their opening weekend. I was happily surprised by the depth of the storytelling when I watched Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks pretend they were P.L. Travers and Walt Disney during “Saving Mr. Banks,” for example. Do I care that a film was an Academy Award contender this year? Not really, but when I see the words Pulitzer Prize or Man Booker Prize on a rectangular book cover, I always give it a second look. There is a qualitative difference, I suppose, even if it exists only in my own prejudiced, confused, 20th/21th century mind.

What about flimsier rectangles? Magazines remain interesting, and it’s difficult for me to get on a train without finding something I want to read at the newsstand before boarding. Whether it’s The Atlantic, The Economist, The New Yorker, Harper’s, MIT Technology Review, or a dozen others, I sense that I am reading the work of a well-organized editorial culture, and that is presented in a form that suggests substance. When I read an article on a screen, the medium itself feels temporary, and rarely impresses me with the gravitas, or the well-honed humor, that these magazines (okay, some of these magazines) routinely provide.

The other flimsy rectangle—very, very flimsy in its form, in fact—is the newspaper. Sadly, few local newspapers possess the resources or clarity of focus that they did decades ago. Their industry has been devastated by technology and wickedly poor leadership decisions. Then again, there is still nothing better than reading The Sunday New York Times for half of the weekend, often with enough left over for Monday, or maybe, Tuesday morning, too. Except, perhaps, a good fresh New York bagel beside the paper. In a pinch, I can find similar joy in the morning with the Boston Globe, The Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, or whatever quality paper is nearby when I’m away from home. The Wall Street Journal’s weekend edition is every bit as good; after I finish today’s Times, I will work my way through the remaining sections of my new Sunday habit.

Interactive rectangles are something else again. Tablets, and smart phones, are wonderful, and I use them every day, but mostly for media creation (I write this blog, etc.) than for reading (eBooks, HuffPost, etc.). If I want to read, to seriously read, I guess I’ve learned to prefer it in print. And if I want to watch a movie, or a TV show, unless I’m on a train or plane, I would just as soon watch it in a comfortable chair with a nice large screen to fill part of a family room wall, and not listen to it through dinky speakers or a less-than-comfy headset or earplugs.

Who cares? Not sure, but I thought I’d put some ideas on a digital screen that I, for one, would prefer to read in another medium. Since that other medium has gatekeepers, and because few print publishers would allow me to zig from media theory to watercolors to interest gadgets to public poverty policy, then zag to book reviews or notes about recent jazz CDs that I think you should buy, I’m happy writing into a glass box, and I hope that doesn’t cause you too much inconvenience or discomfort.

Sorry to go so long this time. Without an editor, or an editorial hole to fill (love that term), I just wrote until I felt I had made said my piece.


What’s a MOOC Good For, Anyway?

This week, I’ve spent several hours with a friend whose intellect is recognized by a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university. We’re both deeply engaged at the intersection of media and learning, most often for some form of public good. Yesterday, we talked about why people go to school.  To be more specific, why people go to school beyond the point where law requires them (us) to do so.

Harvard-MOOCWhen I read this readwrite article, an interview with Harvard’s new vice provost of advances in learning (excellent job title!), I started thinking about why anybody bothers with, say, TED Talks, or for that matter, why we read non-fiction books.

Just as we’ve managed to bottle up massive quantities of spirituality into the structures we call religions, we’ve managed to do the same with massive quantities of learning into the notion of school and organized education. MOOCs shake up that formula. A MOOC–a massively open online course–carries no price tag, and, although it may be offered by the likes of Harvard or Stanford or UPenn, it carries no credit, either. You take the course because, well, because you want to learn.

The distinction is a simple one, or so one might argue. There is learning, and there is education, and if they sometimes overlap (as they are intended to do), they might serve different purposes. Learning is all about personal development, and refinement of understanding. Education’s purpose is a degree, a formal recognition, typically for a price, that serves as an admission ticket into parts of the job marketplace that are otherwise inaccessible.

So what’s a MOOC good for? Same thing as a book, I think. It’s for learning. Turns out, millions of people simply want to learn, on line, for their own development and understanding.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. Do read the readwrite article (interesting phrase, that), and you’ll find that a bit more of the picture comes into focus.

The Nuremberg Chronicle

Or, more or less, the Wikipedia of 1493, the year Columbus first visited the Western Hemisphere.

Nuremberg3It’s a big, old book, the kind of illustrated, illuminated, hand-lettered book that I would never expected to see in my own home. But here it is, nearly 2 inches thick, reproduced by the always-intrepid Taschen publishing company. As you can see, it’s quite a beautiful old book, with colorful illustrations of kings and townscapes on every page. Looking carefully, I can make out a page about Florencia, also known as Florenz, today’s Florence, Italy, and on another page, the now-German town of Wurtzburg. There’s Rom, or Roma, with its bridges and towers, and the formidable city gates. Here’s a stylist family tree, but the old lettering is difficult for me to understand. A book like this might occupy a few minutes in a museum, and then, I’d move on. But to have it in my hands, well, that’s another thing. Its age demands respect, and time to study, not to peruse but to study, every page, slowly and with a sense of insight and discovery.

imagesFortunately, the cardboard slipcase includes not only the main volume, but a large-format color paperback book entitled The Book of Chronicles. In essence, it’s a guidebook, written in English, nicely illustrated, and it helps to make sense of the larger volume.  It begins,

The handwritten layout for Hartmann Schedel’s Weltchronik, or Chronicle of the World, widely known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, has survived in the municipal library of Nuremberg… This chronicle is structured as follows: the First Age from Creation to the Deluge; the Second Age from the Deluge to the Birth of Abraham; the Third Age from the Birth of Abraham to the Kingdom of David; the Fourth Age from the beginning of the Kingdom of David to the Babylonian Captivity; the Sixth (and longest) Age from the Birth of Christ to the present day. A brief Seventh Age follows, reporting from the coming of the Antichrist at the end of the world and predicting the Last Judgement. This is followed, somewhat unsystematically, by descriptions of various towns…digressions on the subject of natural catastrophes, wars, reports on the founding of cities…biblical stories.”

The work was put together at the pleasure of several benefactors, financial backers who are credited. (Their names and stories are explained in the paperback, but none will be familiar to contemporary readers.) One familiar name is the artist Albrecht Dürer, whose sketches may have been the basis for the many woodcuts found in the Chronicle.

Approximately 2,000 copies were published, and about half went unsold. Many of the copies were sold by booksellers–nice to know that there were booksellers around 1500, sad to think that there may be none within our lifetimes. Books were sold sold by banking and trading houses, and their clients. Academics also sold books as a means to earn some extra money. Many books were sold in and near Nuremberg, but they were also sold in Milan, Florence, Geneva, Venice, Lyon, and Paris. The majority of the books were published in Latin, but some were published in German. It surprises me that we know so much about the publishing and marketing of a book that was current more than 500 years ago.

Here’s the scoop on Constantinople, circa 1493:


Here’s a look at Rome, slightly improved through digital technology:


Here’s what you’re seeing: “On the left we can see the huge Coliseum. To its right are the ruins of the Theater of Marcellus and Santa Maria Rotunda, formerly the Pantheon, the best-preserved of all Rome’s ancient buildings (27 BC), rededicated under Pope Bonafacio IV (AD 609) to Mary and all the martyrs. In the foreground, we see the Aurelian Wall with various city gates. From left to right, they are Porto Quirinale, the Porta Pinciana, and the Porta del Popolo, which was the first church visited by pilgrims arriving from the north and Germany. Just behind it is the bridge of St. Angelo which leads across the Tiber to the Castellum S. Angeli. From there, the pilgrim can continue straight ahead to the Vatican or left to the (old) St. Peter’s. At the top of the picture, in the middle of the Vatican walls and to the far right of the papal residence, is the Villa del Belvedere, built under Pope Innocent VIII (1484-1492).

Page after page, I kept wondering how I might touch the page and magically transform the old Latin or German text into words I could read. Odd to be wondering why a half-millenium old book won’t behave like an iPad, but that’s the way we’re now thinking about the world. Perhaps that’s progress.

Never Thought About It That Way Before…

brochure1-mBirthday: August 4, 1961

Statehood: August 21, 1959

The first is the birthdate of the current President of the United States. The second is the date that Hawaii was transformed, by law, from a U.S. Territory to a U.S. State. The two dates are separated by two years, and just about two weeks. If Mr. Obama had been born on, say, August 20, 1959, he could not become  President.

On October 5, 2004, a Yale Law Professor named Akhil Reed Amar testified before the United States Senate. At the time, the Senate was exploring the reasons why, in today’s world, an immigrant was not allowed to become President. Professor Amar knows a great deal about the U.S. Constitution. He points out, “the Founders did exclude…immigrants from the Presidency. But they did so because some at the time feared that a scheming foreign earl or duke might cross the Atlantic with a huge retinue of loyalists and a boatload of European gold, and then try to bully or bribe his way into the Presidency…In a young America, when a fledgling New World democracy was struggling to establish itself alongside an Old World dominated by monarchy and aristocracy, this ban on foreign-born presidents made a lot more sense than it does in the twenty-first century.”

He goes on to explain that seven of the Constitution’s thirty-nine signers were immigrants; that three of the first ten Supreme Court justices were foreign-born; and that similar statistics applied to other key government figures. What’s more, the Constitution was approved by an enormous number of people who were not born here; the same is true of nearly all of the Constitution’s amendments. People who serve on juries, people who vote, people who want to run for Governor of any state…all of these people may be foreign-born. But not the U.S. President.

It took me a bit to get past my emotional responses to Amar’s arguments, but after reading nearly 1,000 pages of his analysis and provocative investigations, my mind is now becoming accustomed to the kind of workout that a law professor can provide.

amar_akhilI started reading Amar’s book, American’s Unwritten Constitution: The Precedents and Principles We Live By last spring, but quickly realized that the book would make a lot more sense if I first read America’s Constitution: A Biography. The first book explains how the Constitution came together, and how its ideas have been interpreted, applied, shifted, calcified, de-calcified, respected, and transformed. The second book is more provocative; it requires the reader to consider his or her place, the decisions that we make within and beside the Constitution, the responsibilities that we accept as, for examples, voters and jurors.

The word juror, for example, is derived from the French and Latin words for “swear.” Not what I would have thought, but then, Amar shines the light on the concept of swearing an oath. What does the oath promise. In essence, we take an oath to use our conscience effectively. That is, we are swearing that we will, to the best of our ability, exercise a reasonable, moral, ethical judgment based upon the information provided to the jury. Which is to say, “when a juror is not told what punishments she is actually voting to inflict, and not told that she has a legal right to just say no and a legal duty to consult her conscience, then the moral foundations of the entire system begin to crumble.”

He goes on–these are long books, best appreciated over an entire summer of quiet nights–“Current practice…all too often instrumentalizes and infantalizes jurors by disrespecting or derailing their moral judgment. When a juror finds a man guilty of having shoplifted a baseball glove and only later finds out from a local newspaper or lawyerly acquaintance that what she really voted for was in the jury room was to send this poor soul to prison for life (and at taxpayer expense), she is apt to feel ill-used–as is the defendant, of course.

I think I’ve dog-eared the bottom corners of perhaps fifty pages–each containing a notable idea that I want to think about, learn more about.

Professor Amar, loose and having a good time as a guest on The Colbert Report last January.

Professor Amar, loose and having a good time as a guest on The Colbert Report last January.

In the second book, much is made about the Northwest Ordinance, a subject I vaguely remember from seventh grade, and perhaps, tenth grade in slightly greater detail. The key idea–and you’ll see why this phrase was so important in a moment–the key phrase in that document was “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” No slavery in what would become the states of Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Amar points out, “(these states) formed the backbone of the Republican Party. Men from these places filled the Union Army at every level, from Grant and Sherman on down. Without these northwesterners, there would have been no President Lincoln, no Civil War victory, and no Abolition Amendment… Residents of this region arrived there from many different places (especially from the free states, of course), and inclined toward a distinctly nationalist worldview. Whereas nineteenth-century Virginians like Robert E. Lee gave pride of place to their home state (which had pre-existed the Union by more than a century…), northwesterners tended to see themselves as Americans first and state residents second. America had chronologically preceded the states they now called home.”

I kept finding myself thinking, “gee, I never thought about it that way.” I suppose that’s why, through all of the details of Supreme Court cases, nuances of amendment wording, minute details about the judicial process, I stuck with it. I have fifteen pages remaining. I will finish my summer’s reading before I fall asleep tonight. This summer, Professor Amar taught me a lot. And based upon the dog-ears, I’m not going to finish with these ideas for a long while.

As it should be.


Digital Yiddish


(Photos by Howard Blumenthal)

Last week, we spent some time in central Massachusetts–we wanted to buy t-shirts at Hampshire College, and maybe a few children’s books at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. We’ve traveled in this area before. Although we’d noticed the shetl-style architecture of the Yiddish Book Center on the same campus, we never visited. It was a picture-perfect summer day in New England, and the last thing I wanted to do was spend any time indoors, but I inside “just for a few minutes.” I could have spent all day. In fact, I spent the next two days reading Outwitting History, written by Outwitting Historythe center’s founder and leader, Aaron Lansky. The book’s subtitle provides only a glimpse of what Lansky, and the Center, has accomplished, and will do: ‘The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Jewish Books.’

Much of the book is devoted to Lansky, his friends, co-workers, and friends collecting the inheritance–the books collected by Jews who had brought their culture from Eastern Europe, and other places, often overcoming obstacles before they landed in their small apartment in Brooklyn, the Bronx or New Jersey. Getting to know these people one by one, Lansky would load his rented truck with shopping bags and cartons of books, often from people whose next step was a retirement home. Just about every visit came with an obligatory range of dishes “cooked special for you” so “you shouldn’t be hungry.” In a typical spread, there would be onion bagels and lox, kasha varnishkes, potato latkes, and lokshn kugl (noodle pudding), plus herring, chopped liver, and other traditional dishes. And conversation. Lots of lots of stories, one about every book, the times, the culture, the memories. In time, Lansky learned to travel as one of a team of three people: “two do do the shlepping and the third to be the Designated Eater. the latter was the really hard job. While the others carried boxes, you had to sit with the host at the kitchen table, listening to stories, sipping endless glasses of tea, and valiently working your way through a week’s worth of dishes cooked ‘special’ just for you…”

Over two decades or so, Lansky and his colleagues accomplished the impossible–they collected a million copies of Yiddish books. The best ones are now safer than they have ever been; they’re housed in a carved-out mountain that was built as a military facility (remarkably, it’s less than a mile from their Hadley, Massachusetts headquarters). The Center has supplied about 500 university and research libraries with Yiddish book collections (before the Center, only six such collections existed anywhere in North America). If you’re in the area–between Amherst and Northampton, Massachusetts–you can look at any of thousands of books, and you can buy most of them (there are more than enough extra copies around). Some titles are Yiddish translations of popular works by Shakespeare, Hemingway, Poe, Dickinson, and other popular writers. Many are original Yiddish works of fiction, plays, poetry, history books, cookbooks, children’s books, and more. And if you can’t make your way to Massachusetts, you can visit the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, an online collection of more than 10,000 Yiddish titles, with each book page scanned (most of the original books were published on pulp paper, and some tend to disintegrate with each page turn, so digital technology saved the day).

New Yiddish Library's most recent title: Moshe Kulbak's The Zelmenyaners, translated by Hillel Halkin. One of the great comic novels of the twentieth century, The Zelmenyaners describes the travails of a Jewish family in Minsk that is torn asunder by the new Soviet reality.

New Yiddish Library’s most recent title: Moshe Kulbak’s The Zelmenyaners, translated by Hillel Halkin. One of the great comic novels of the twentieth century, The Zelmenyaners describes the travails of a Jewish family in Minsk that is torn asunder by the new Soviet reality.

There is, of course, one problem. The books are written in Yiddish, and must be read in the original language. The Center has a deal with Yale University Press, and some titles are now available in English translation, in book form. More are on the way, but this solution is a minor one.

The major one, of course, is that role of Yiddish has changed, and the people who knew, know, and can claim literacy in Yiddish has been greatly diminished. At one time, more than eleven million people spoke, read, and communicated in Yiddish. That time was 1939, a year before the devastation by the Nazis, and a decade before the the shift into modern times, suburbia, and beginning the end of the old Jewish neighborhoods that once defined so much of New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, and other cities where Yiddish was common currency.

When Lansky was a graduate student in search of a few Yiddish books for graduate school, when he traveled by truck to collect books from crumbling old publishing warehouses and Jewish community centers in the neighborhoods where many Jews once lived, his focus was saving books. Now, the agenda for the Center is even more compelling: books continue to arrive, but the people who can translate them, with appropriate cultural context, are few. It’s one thing to translate the words, quite another to present the story in ways that are both true to the original sensibility and sufficiently interesting to contemporary readers. Yiddish was always a people’s language, informal and spoken at home, never the official language of state affairs or religious ceremonies. As Lansky points out, time and again, all of his scholarship, all of the scholarship gathered by his many friends and associates, all of it pales in comparison with the ninety-year-old man who is sitting in his small Newark apartment, sharing tea and Entenmann’s crumb cake, shopping bag full of books at his side, ready to part with his lifetime of favorite Yiddish novels, books he loves because they were so much a part of his life.

His books are safe now. They will be treated with loving care. They will find a new home. Some will be translated into English so that even those of us who cannot read Yiddish can understand the basics of what they have to say. The work will be done by human translators, and in time, perhaps, by digital translators, too. The love, the sense of what the world was like, the passion, the feeling for the characters and situations created by the great Yiddish writers, poets, playwrights, stage performers, radio performers, singers, these will be more difficult to capture and store inside a mountain in Massachusetts.

yiddish-book-shelvesAt the very least, Lansky, his friends, his co-conspirators, the Center’s network of scholars and friends and donors, the network of zammlers (two hundred people who collect books worldwide for the Center) have taken the first step. We now have the books, and nobody is going to take them away from us. And they’ve taken the second step: the books are now available, through various re-disribution schemes, to people everywhere. The third step is the mind-bender. How to republish the works, maintaining the integrity and magic of their original words and ideas in a world where (a) the whole book publishing industry is trying to figure out its digital future and path to thrival (my made-up word that goes beyond survival into thriving); (b) few people read Yiddish; (c) Yiddish culture is becoming  historical fact rather than a cultural reality; and (d) as interested as I may be, I don’t think I have every read a single Yiddish book, and apart from Sholom Alechem (whose work was the basis for Fiddler on the Roof), I don’t think I can name a single Yiddish author.

That will change, of course. Shame on me for missing this part of my cultural education.

Thank you, Norman Temmelman of Atlantic City, Sorell Skolnik of the Mohegan Colony, Mr. Kupferstein, Marjorie Guthrie (Woody’s wife), and Sam and Leah Ostroff, for helping Aaron Lansky. And thank you, Mr. Lansky for opening the door for me. As I read the books, I will pass them along to friends, to my father and my sons, and attempt, in my small way, to be a link in the chain. I suspect there is a Yiddish proverb beneath all of this, or, at least, a few Yiddish words to describe what’s on my mind, but those words are lost to me. Perhaps I will find a few of them along the way.


Balancing Technique and Inspiration

A new book about pastels from artist Jean Hirons.  If you buy it by clicking on the link (instead of buying from a more traditional source, the author earns more money for her self-published effort.)

A new book about pastels from artist Jean Hirons. If you buy it by clicking on the link (instead of buying from a more traditional source, the author earns more money for her self-published effort when you click on the book cover and make the purchase through Author House).

Ten or fifteen years ago, I decided to try my hand at pastels. That is, I bought a box of pastels, some paper, and started making bad art. At the time, there were two useful books available: Bill Creevy’s “The Pastel Book,” and Larry Blovits’s “Pastel for the Serious Beginner.” Both of these books were well-organized, and helpful, but neither provided the complete education that I wanted to pursue.

Over time, I bought more (and more) (and more) pastels, experimented with various types of paper, played with and decided that I pretty much hated fixative, bought a field easel, and started spending weekend afternoons making pastel paintings. To be honest, I didn’t much care whether each painting was worth showing to anybody; most of the paintings were wrapped in glassine (which does not smudge the painting) and placed, ever so carefully, into a box. Mostly, my concern has been learning how to pursue a creative process.

Along the way, I have bought just about every book about pastels that I could find. I’ve scoured the lists of the top publishers (then, North Light Books and Watson-Guptill, the latter now part of North Light). I’ve been inspired by the beautiful work and eye-opening creative thinking so elegantly presented by Elizabeth Mowry her two best books, “The Pastelist’s Year,” which looks at painting through the seasons) and “The Poetic Landscape,” which examines perception and the psychology of art through pastel painting. Both of Maggie Price’s books have proven very useful: “Painting with Pastels” and the more specialized “Painting Sunlight and Shadows with Pastels.” The out-of-print book that taught me ever so much was Doug Dawson’s “Capturing Light and Color with Pastel.” The more sophisticated, and modestly entitled, “Pastel Pointers” by Richard McKinley, is only part of a larger instructional program that can be pursued online or in the always-excellent Pastel Journal magazine.

Still, I wish I was just starting out today, if only to do so under the guidance of Jean Hirons and her new (self-published) book, “Finding Your Style in Pastel.”

"Antietam Barns" by pastel artist Jean Hirons

“Antietam Barns” by pastel artist Jean Hirons

From the very first image on the very first page, I sensed, I can probably do this. Immediately, my confidence level increased. A brief but substantive review of types (soft, hard) and brands (Sennelier, NuPastel) is followed by a rundown on the many surfaces (papers, mostly) now available (with running commentary on the advantages of each ground), and comments on strokes, blending, layering, and other techniques. I like the way Ms. Hirons keeps the story moving; she makes her points clearly and with the right illustrations, then moves on. (She is my kind of teacher!) There’s a lot of “show me what I need to know,” as with a quartet of small images to explain toning and underpainting (two methods of pre-painting a surface).

By page 63, she’s defining personal styles. This is, of course, what every artist wants to know. Basic techniques are fine, but how do I make my paintings my own? So begins one of the better explorations of composition, value, edges and color theory that I’ve seen in book form. As with the earlier chapters, the author does not linger; the pace remains solid, brisk and professional. Once again, two images from the artist’s online gallery help to make the point about the difference between the works of an artist who pursues a distinctive, personal style:

Carroll County Farm by Jean Hirons

Carroll County Farm by Jean Hirons

"Dandelion Spring" by Jean Hirons

“Dandelion Spring” by Jean Hirons

Same artist, different seasons, different color palettes, varying levels of edge sharpness, atmospheric color, amount of foreground detail, use of line and shape, mood, overall colorcast, color temperature, and so much more.

Hirons rarely insists upon one particular technique or approach. Instead, she runs through available options, the techniques required to achieve the desired effects, and well-chosen images to illustrate each point.

Along the way, she also addresses the questions that lurk in the back of every pastelist’s mind. To what extent do I paint the colors that I observe? How do shadows work: how dark, how much local color, how much should I shift the color temperature? How far should I go with my interpreted color? To what extent, and under which conditions, should I pursue abstraction?

Yes, there are some step-by-step demonstrations, but only a few (I’ve never been a big fan of books filled with step-by-step demos because I tend to lose interest unless I am actually painting at the same time as I am reading). Hirons uses them only in her final problem solving chapter (where they can do the most good).

In one of several appendices, the author recommends books about art, color, composition, landscapes, and, inevitably, pastels. Somehow, her list of recommended titles (which I just found as I was writing this last sentence) matches my list (at the top of this article) just about one-for-one. She adds “Pure Color,” a compendium of excellent pastel work by contemporary artists. To her list of materials sources, I would certainly add the venerable New York Central Art Supply near Greenwich Village.

Over time, self-published books can become hard-to-find (the author depletes the current stock and may or may not decide to continue to be a publisher–an especially challenging decision for an artist who is not, by trade, a publishing mogul). That’s why I always recommend that a self-published book be purchased immediately. In this case, the bound book–a 200-page, full color, very handsome paperback–costs just over $50, but the same book can be purchased for just $3.99 as an eBook. Despite my interest in all things digital, I would opt for the paperbound edition because I like surrounding myself with very good books. And this one fits, very nicely indeed, into that category.

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