A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Posts Tagged ‘popular literature

[BLOG] Some Saturday links

leave a comment »

  • blogTO identifies the ten most important buildings in Toronto.
  • Centauri Dreams looks at evidence for plate tectonics in Europa’s ice crust.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze notes the discovery of methane, carbon monoxide and ammonia in the atmospheres of some brown dwarfs and looks at implications of variability in brown dwarf atmospheres.
  • The Dragon’s Tales notes China’s plans to launch a second space station into orbit.
  • A Fistful of Euros’ notes how Germany’s Left Party is continuing its strong support from Russia.
  • Joe. My. God. observes how Ted Cruz’ support for Israel was unpopular at an event for Middle Eastern Christians, including many Palestinian Christians.
  • Language Hat notes some signs of cultural cosmopolitanism in the Stalinist Soviet literacy scene.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money notes that global warming will devastate forests in the western United States.
  • Otto Pohl notes the arbitrariness of race and geography in bounding Africa.
  • Discover‘s Out There and the Planetary Society Blog’s Emily Lakdawalla both note Rosetta’s views of its target comet.
  • The Speed River Journal’s Van Waffle chronicles with photos the story of the vole he found eating his potatoes.
  • Towleroad notes a mother in Alabama who is trying to cut her dead son’s husband out of his estate.
  • Why I Love Toronto celebrates Queen Street West.
  • Window on Eurasia suggests that diasporas of Russian minorities should also be recognized as Russian, argues that Putin is cornered, and notes the significant differences between Estonians and Russophones in Estonia in beliefs about religious and the supernatural.
  • The Financial Times‘ The World notes controversy over whether Ukraine should try to cut a deal with Russia.

[LINK] “Why Indie Bookstores Are on the Rise Again”

leave a comment »

Slate‘s Zachary Karabell suggests that independent booksellers in the United States may be entering an era of modest prosperity, owing to the overstretch of major book chains in previous decades.

Only a few years ago, observers projected that the rise of chain stores and Amazon would lead to the vast shrinkage of independent bookstores. According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of member independent bookstores has increased more than 20 percent since the depths of the recession, from 1,651 in 2009 to 2,094 in 2014. Meanwhile, Borders went bankrupt in 2011, and the fate of Barnes & Noble, which failed to make the Nook into a viable e-reader competitor with Amazon’s Kindle, appears murky. What happened?

The short answer is that by listing their shares as public companies, both Borders and Barnes & Noble were drawn into a negative vortex that destroyed the former and has crippled the latter. Not only did they become public companies, but they positioned themselves as high-growth companies, focused on innovation and disruption. That forced them to compete with the growth company par excellence in their space: Amazon. It also forced them to pursue high sales volume at the expense of inventories. Those strategies, as it turned out, were precisely wrong for the actual business they were in: selling books to a selective audience. Which is precisely what independent bookstores are good at.

Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-A-Million, and even Costco looked to be squeezing the life out of indies in the 1990s and into the aughts. Borders alone went from 21 stores in 1992 to 256 superstores in 1999. Barnes & Noble saw even greater growth. Those stores offered more choices, cafes, magazines, and for a while, music. Many independents, already operating with razor-thin margins, couldn’t compete. Between 2000 and 2007, some 1,000 independent bookstores closed.

But even as they were expanding, the chains were beset by questionable management decisions pressured by the demands of public markets to grow, grow, grow. Facing the need for expensive investment in technology, Borders sold its online distribution to Amazon in 2001 and threw its efforts into more stores and bigger stores, using its share price to finance massive debt. Barnes & Noble opened more superstores as well, but it also decided to challenge Amazon by developing the Nook at a cost of more than $1 billion.

The results were disastrous. Barnes & Noble bled money; it just announced earnings with yet another quarter of losses and declining revenue. Amazon dominated because it could spend far more money on technology than the chains, and because its core competency was in the disruptive technologies of e-readers, distribution, and inventory management. Amazon was never seen primarily as a retailer, and hence it could carry massive inventories that were a drag on its earnings and then spend billions on research and development because investors accepted Amazon’s narrative that it was a disruptive technology company redefining how everything is sold, not just books.

Written by Randy McDonald

September 10, 2014 at 7:35 pm

[LINK] “Shelving to Save a Book’s Life”

leave a comment »

Susan Coll’s article at The Atlantic about the complexities of shelving books on the shelves of bookstores resonates with me.

The rules of shelving can seem arbitrary, even arcane, but the fundamentals are easy to learn: two hard covers, and no more than three paperbacks of the same title, on each shelf. The exception is the face-out. If the jacket is displayed horizontally, behind it you can stack as many books as can fit.

Turning a book face out is an act of tremendous power, or so it feels when you are working at an independent bookstore at a moment that has major chains shrinking and Amazon wreaking havoc with publishing’s already fragile ecosystem. In a bookstore, you can decide, unilaterally, without having to ask permission or sit in an hour-long meeting, to simply face out Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance because, well, because it’s one of your favorite books, and it also solves the problem of what to do with the space left by your desire to consolidate the David Mitchells, which means moving them all to the shelf below.

You can also show a little love to an obscure mid-list paperback you just discovered suffocating between two behemoth hardcovers—simply because it feels like the right thing to do. The positioning will likely only matter for a day or two before the next person doing some shelving undoes your handiwork, sticks three Fine Balances spine out, climbs the giant ladder, and puts the rest in overstock.

Written by Randy McDonald

August 27, 2014 at 7:44 pm

Posted in Assorted

Tagged with , , ,

[LINK] “In Thimphu”

leave a comment »

At the London Review of Books blog, Gavin Francis looks at a bookstore in Thimphu, the capital of the still somewhat isolationist Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Despite everything, books–and the world they represent–still come in.

At the Junction bookshop in Thimphu the manager is reading Sartre’s Age of Reason. ‘I’ve been trying to get hold of Nausea for months,’ she says, ‘but the Indian distributors won’t send it up.’ On a stand in the centre of the shop there are glossy photo books: cute, scruffy waifs; austere Himalayan panoramas; a coffee-table celebration of carved wooden phalluses (the Bhutanese strain of Buddhism employs phallic symbolism with zeal). These are the books laid out for souvenir shoppers. On the shelves, there’s a section dedicated to Ancient Greek drama, another to 19th-century Russian novelists (all in English translation). There’s a volume of Elizabeth Bishop, and some Freud. She has sold her last copy of Infinite Jest but still has a copy of The Pale King.

I take a copy of Barthes’s Mythologies over to the counter. On the floor is a stray dog, one of the custard-coloured mongrels that roll in Thimphu’s dirt by day and howl to one another at night. The manager strokes the dog’s patchy fur. ‘His name is Motay,’ her companion tells me. ‘It means “the fat one”. People here feed him because he barks only at the police.’

On the main square outside there are monks and nuns wearing burgundy robes; some have prayer wheels, others have cell phones. Most of the local men are wearing the gho, a robe with a knee-length skirt a little like a kilt, and the women the ankle-length kira. Bhutan wants its traditional dress to be more than a gimmick for the tourists: at many of the city’s institutions there are signs insisting ‘Formal Dress Only’.

I sit down with the Barthes and open to ‘The Lost Continent’, an essay that scolds the West for stereotyping and exoticising the East. ‘This same Orient which has today become the centre of the world,’ Barthes writes, ‘we see… all flattened, made smooth and gaudily coloured like an old-fashioned postcard.’

Written by Randy McDonald

August 26, 2014 at 7:54 pm

[LINK] “Healthy Words”

leave a comment »

Alec Ash’s post at the London Review of Books‘ blog about the popularity of science fiction in China touches upon something I’d last mentioned in 2007 in relation to Robert Sawyer’s popularity in that country.

In 1902 Lu Xun translated Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon into Chinese from the Japanese edition. Science fiction, he wrote in the preface, was ‘as rare as unicorn horns, which shows in a way the intellectual poverty of our time’. Not any more. The Three-Body Trilogy by Liu Cixin has sold 500,000 copies in China since the first volume was published in 2006 (it will come out in English in the autumn). Liu, an engineer, is one of the so-called ‘three generals’ of contemporary Chinese science fiction, along with Wang Jinkang and Han Song.

‘Sci fi,’ Han says, ‘can express a lot that can’t be expressed in other literature.’ His most recent collection of stories, High Speed Rail, begins with a train crash that recalls the politically sensitive rail collision in Wenzhou in July 2011. In an earlier novella, Taiwan Drifts, Taiwan has broken free from its moorings and is on a literal collision course with the mainland. Unsurprisingly, much of Han’s work isn’t published in the People’s Republic.

or is The Fat Years (2009) by Chan Koonchung. Set in 2013, it depicts an ‘age of Chinese ascendancy’ following a massive global financial crash. But the month-long crackdown that launched the golden era is missing from the population’s collective memory, and the water supply is probably spiked with a drug to keep everyone mildly euphoric. ‘The people fear chaos more than they fear dictatorship,’ a high-ranking Party official says.

But not being published in China doesn’t mean not being read. A lot of ‘unpublished’ sci fi is freely available online, and censors are engaged in a permanent game of cat-and-mouse with allusive writers and readers alert to disguised meanings. ‘For a long time,’ Chan told me, ‘Chinese intellectuals used history as a fable to talk about the present. Now, the newer generation is using science fiction to write about the present.’ (There are a few venerable precedents: Cat Country by Lao She was published in 1932; an English translation came out last year. It’s set in a Martian civilisation of cat-like people addicted to ‘reverie leaves’, oppressed by both physically stronger foreigners and the architects of ‘Everybody Shareskyism’.)

Written by Randy McDonald

August 26, 2014 at 3:00 am

[BLOG] Some Friday links

leave a comment »

  • blogTO wonders, in the aftermath of companies confiscating bicycles parked on city property, if Toronto should clearly mark off public and private space on its streets.
  • Centauri Dreams studies news that the Stardust probe may have captured bits of the interstellar medium.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze reports that sun-like Alpha Centauri A and B can both support planets in stable Earth-like orbits.
  • The Dragon’s Tales notes the impact of changing patterns of snowfall on Arctic ice.
  • Eastern Approaches studies Balkan volunteers in wars abroad, both that of Albanians in the Middle East and of Serbs for Russia in Ukraine.
  • Far Outliers looks at Japan’s farmer-soldiers on the late 19th century Hokkaido frontier.
  • Spacing Toronto favourably reviews the new psychogeography-themed book Unruly Places.
  • Understanding Society points to the massive success of a comparative statistical analysis of historical Eurasian populations.
  • Window on Eurasia links to a photo essay of an empty post-Olympics Sochi.
  • Writing Through the Fog’s Cheri Lucas Rowlands argues that modern social media hinders memoir writing, by making it too easy to publish quickly.
  • Wonkman points out that the problem with subtle homoeroticism in modern popular culture is that, well, it doesn’t need to be subtle any more. What needs to be hidden?

[LINK] “Readers absorb less on Kindles than on paper, study finds”

leave a comment »

Alison Flood’s article in The Guardian about the apparent issues associated with reading ereaders resonated with me, as it did with people around the world. I generally prefer reading from books to reading online, having noticed the same comprehension and retention issues in my own reading.

I wonder what the consequences will be in the future, when so much more reading material is only going to be online. Will ereaders technology advance enough?

The study, presented in Italy at a conference last month and set to be published as a paper, gave 50 readers the same short story by Elizabeth George to read. Half read the 28-page story on a Kindle, and half in a paperback, with readers then tested on aspects of the story including objects, characters and settings.

Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University, a lead researcher on the study, thought academics might “find differences in the immersion facilitated by the device, in emotional responses” to the story. Her predictions were based on an earlier study comparing reading an upsetting short story on paper and on iPad. “In this study, we found that paper readers did report higher on measures having to do with empathy and transportation and immersion, and narrative coherence, than iPad readers,” said Mangen.

But instead, the performance was largely similar, except when it came to the timing of events in the story. “The Kindle readers performed significantly worse on the plot reconstruction measure, ie, when they were asked to place 14 events in the correct order.”

The researchers suggest that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does”.

“When you read on paper you can sense with your fingers a pile of pages on the left growing, and shrinking on the right,” said Mangen. “You have the tactile sense of progress, in addition to the visual … [The differences for Kindle readers] might have something to do with the fact that the fixity of a text on paper, and this very gradual unfolding of paper as you progress through a story, is some kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual sense of progress when you’re reading. Perhaps this somehow aids the reader, providing more fixity and solidity to the reader’s sense of unfolding and progress of the text, and hence the story.”

Written by Randy McDonald

August 22, 2014 at 8:14 pm

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 365 other followers