El libro que no puede esperar

Yesterday, I came across this Galley Cat post about El libro que no puede esperar (The Book That Can’t Wait), a new collection of Latin American fiction published by Eterna Cadencia which is printed with disappearing ink. Once the book is exposed to light and air (it’s sold in shrink-wrapped plastic pouches which have to be torn open), the ink will begin to fade. So it is only actually readable for about two months. After that, all you have is a blank book.

If this seems like a somewhat self-defeating, gimmicky concept, consider the rationale. Per the video embedded below:

“Books are very patient objects. We buy them and then they wait for us to read them–days, months, even years. That’s okay for books, but not for new authors. If people don’t read them, the authors don’t make it to a second book. That’s why Eterna Cadencia, an independent publisher and bookstore, decided to create something different, to launch their new authors into the market: The Book That Can’t Wait.”

Okay then. So now you’ve got an interesting concept, one which actually alters the relationship between the reader/book buyer and not only the purchased book, and also the book’s author. Additionally, given the limited time frame during which you can actually read it, this book challenges the expectations that most of us have for a reading experience. I’m not sure I’m totally in favor of it, honestly, but it’s worth parsing a bit.

On the reader/book relationship:

  • Part of the appeal of buying books, honestly, is owning the object itself. I freely admit this–I like being surrounded by books in my home and while I could just get everything from the library, there are a lot of books that I prefer to own rather than borrow. But it’s not like buying a painting–unless you are a collector of artist books, the object itself is still valuable and desirable because it’s functional, not solely because it has a beautiful cover. So if you buy a book which quickly loses its functionality, and isn’t in and of itself a beautiful, timeless object, what do you have, really? A conversation piece, I suppose, but not much else.

On the reading experience:

  • Part of owning a book is that you can always refer back to the text–can re-read and re-experience a story or novel. I’m not a chronic re-reader myself, but I do often find myself going back to specific passages in a book, or just as importantly, lending it to someone else who I think would enjoy it as well. By essentially restricting the reading experience to one person–the person who buys the book–you lose the communal, social possibilities–the shared experience of book lending. This is not so different from the ludicrous proprietary restrictions on a good many e-books right now which can only be read on one person’s device and can’t be easily or freely shared among readers. I understand that the intent is to encourage people to delve into a book quickly, but if the whole point is to boost new authors, wouldn’t it be in everyone’s best interest if those authors could be exposed to more readers through book sharing?
  • Again, most readers expect that their reading experience is not finite, but that it can be repeated, at least in part, over and over again. You return to a favorite passage, re-read a memorable scene, share the book with someone else. Owning a book usually means that you can go back and if not have the exact same experience each time, at least have a very similar one. But if the text itself disappears and you can only really read the book once, then this reading experience becomes much more similar to that of watching a play on stage. As a theater-goer, you know and expect that you will see a play or performance only once. Even if you were to go back and see the same play a few days later, it would be a different experience–you’ll never replicate the first performance completely. El libro que no puede esperar necessitates an experience more like theater-going than reading, and I actually think that’s one of the most interesting, and possibly successful, aspects. You have to be much more present and attentive during the initial reading because you don’t really have the option of going back and revisiting it again in a few months.

On readers’ responsibility to authors:

  • This is where I think the logic gets fuzzy, or perhaps just more transparent. According to the video, if  “people don’t read [authors’ first books], the authors don’t make it to a second book.” I get what they are saying: if an author’s first book doesn’t sell enough copies, then they frequently aren’t deemed successful enough to have a second book contract. But there is a big difference between being read and selling books. And this essentially brings us to the same argument that is being staged about all kinds of media/cultural output (most frequently music).

    To rehash the basic point: People (consumers) have grown accustomed to being able to access cultural products for free, and therefore are not buying nearly as many of these products as they used to. As a result, not only do the (book/music) publishers and corporate entities suffer, but the artists do as well because they can’t make a living from the sale of their art.

    I understand and, to a point, support this argument and its parallel imperative: if you value an artist’s work and want to see more of it, then you should support it–basically, you should pay for it. (I’m not going to get into all the gray areas with copyright law, open access, etc. right now–just keeping it simple for now.) But it doesn’t necessarily follow here that it is my responsibility as a reader to support all new authors by buying expensive books that I can only read once. It doesn’t follow that just because I buy this anthology and read it right away that the publisher will put out all of the included authors’ second books, either. It may be arguable that as a reader who is interested in international fiction I should make an effort to become acquainted with (and purchase, even) the work of up-and-coming authors, but I’m not sure that it’s any more my responsibility to support work just because it is new than it is the responsibility of the publisher to create multi-book contracts with new authors who may not furnish them (the publishers) with immediate best-sellers.

    And it still is a pretty slippy slope to imply that new artistic talent can only be nurtured by the frequent purchase of hard-back, first-run books.

To conclude: this is an interesting concept for sure, and it has kept me thinking (and writing) for two days now, so at the very least, Eterna Cadencia can be pleased that its hope to bring attention to the project has worked out. Although, I have to say, what I’ve spent all this time thinking about is the book’s format, not its content. I don’t know a single author in this collection. So maybe this project was a bust after all?

Spontaneous Reads: Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink

As a rule, I am perilously bad at keeping up with periodicals, lit mags, and other regular media outlets–I can’t exactly say why, but even if the topic of a long-form essay really interests me (I’m thinking here of a recent New Yorker piece on IKEA that I still haven’t finished, some six or seven months later), I often will often start it and then let it languish in a basket on my living room floor, collecting dust until I finally give up and recycle it. This is not an aesthetic judgement on the state of journalism, or even a stringently articulated preference for fiction–I just tend to spend more of my time reading short stories and novels.

My partner, however, is an adamant and regular cover-to-cover reader of several periodicals and is generous about sharing tidbits here and there of  recently acquired, timely, and esoteric factoids from journalists whose work he reads regularly. I’m often rather impressed and entertained by his summaries of articles and essays he’s been reading, so it was nice for me to recently pick up a copy of Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink–a collection of food writing in that magazine from the 1930s to the early 2000s. I frequently enjoy food writing–I think cooking and eating make for very fertile and evocative springboards for other interesting topics (memory, history, socio-cultural analysis, etc.) and it’s just fun to read about delicious food. So this collection provided an ideal framework for me to dip into the journalism that I’m always telling myself I should read more of.

Overall, the collection is wonderful; a very interesting window into the development of The New Yorker, as well as the gastronomic topics and themes that were very of the moment in which they were written. I also very much appreciated that many of the pieces were as much about the people involved in the production of food/meals as the food itself.

Since I read the collection almost cover to cover (not counting the fiction section, which looked enjoyable, but wasn’t the point for me), I made some short observations on most of the pieces as I went through. The book was divided into several sections, which I’ve indicated in bold.

Continue reading

Retaining the Strange: Tomas Transtromer (and Ismail Kadare) in (Re-)Translation

Last week, poetry critic David Orr published a great piece (“Versions: Tomas Transtromer’s Poems and the Art of Translation“) in the New York Times about two competing English translators of Swedish poet (and recent Nobel laureate) Tomas Transtromer’s work. While it’s typical, Orr explains, for Nobel laureates “outside the Anglophone world” to experience “a fair amount of pushing and shoving among your translators (if you have any)…”

…[T]he most interesting debates over English versions of [Transtromer’s] work actually took place before his Nobel victory. In this case, the argument went to the heart of the translator’s function and occurred mostly in The Times Literary Supplement. The disputants were Fulton, one of Transtromer’s longest-serving translators, and Robertson, who has described his own efforts as “imitations.” Fulton accused Robertson (who doesn’t speak Swedish) of borrowing from his more faithful versions while inserting superfluous bits of Robertson’s own creation — in essence, creating poems that are neither accurate translations nor interesting departures. Fulton rolled his eyes at “the strange current fashion whereby a ‘translation’ is liable to be praised in inverse proportion to the ‘translator’s’ knowledge of the original language.” Robertson’s supporters countered that Fulton was just annoyed because Robertson was more concerned with the spirit of the ­poems than with getting every little kottbulle exactly right.

Orr then goes on to examine–in really a very illuminating fashion–the tonal/metaphorical/stylistic variations between the two translators’ versions of Transtromer’s work, and how those do (and don’t) reflect back on the originals. (His thoughtful but accessible analysis of the few Transtromer poems in the article actually makes a very convincing sell for Orr’s forthcoming book, Beautiful & Pointless, a guide to poetry in which he “argues that readers should accept the foreignness of poetry in the way that they accept the strangeness of any place to which they haven’t traveled—that they should expect a little confusion, at least at first.”)

Orr’s explanation of why Transtromer’s poetry is “exactly the sort of writing that tends to do well in translation, at least in theory” is also useful. As he explains,

“The plainer a poem looks — the less it relies on extremities of form, diction or syntax — the more we assume that even a translator with no knowledge of the original language will be able to produce a reasonable match for what the poem feels like in its first incarnation.”

Ultimately, Orr is skeptical of Robertson’s “alterations,” although he concedes that they “do a fine job of conveying a poem’s spirit.” But what I found perhaps the most interesting about the article is that Orr does not dismiss out of hand the possibility that Robertson could have produced a successful version of Transtromer’s work, even though he doesn’t understand Swedish. Instead, he looks at two shot poems in alternate translations by the two translators and comes to the conclusion that in Robertson’s versions, “The changes generally make Transtromer less, well, strange and more typically ‘poetic.'”

For my own part, I have to say that I audibly tsked when I read that Robertson didn’t speak Swedish and had used, presumably, other (English) translations to render his own versions. It sounded to me more like a cover song (a parallel Orr draws himself late in the article), or an homage, maybe–but not a translation.

I won’t use this as a moment to completely digress into debates about translation theory and practice (which honestly, I’m not even fully equipped to have yet), but suffice to say that maybe before completely writing off Robertson’s viability as a translator, I should have taken Orr’s approach and considered–for one–how his ‘translations’ were or weren’t appropriate for the medium. After all, there have been scenarios in which “twice-removed translations” have been successful.

I’m referring in particular to the English translations (by David Bellos) of Albanian author Ismail Kadare’s works. For a whole host of viable–and fascinating–reasons, Kadare’s novels have almost entirely been translated into English not from Albanian, but from French. Kadare not only hasn’t minded that his works have been translated in this manner, he’s preferred it.

The history of Kadare’s body of work and its later translations is complicated (and again–really, really interesting), so when the Orr piece got me thinking about “re-translation,” I took the opportunity to re-read a piece that Bellos wrote in 2005 called “The Englishing of Ismail Kadare: Notes of a retranslator.” I would highly recommend this (short) piece, if any of the above topics are of interest. As with everything Bellos writes about translation, it’s sensible, articulate, and nuanced, and provides a fresh lens through which to consider the roles of translation and translators.

In Honor of Stan and Jan: My Top Five Berenstain Bear Books

Young Stan and Jan via pbase.com

Sad news today for those of us who grew up learning a whole lot about life from the Berenstain Bears: Jan Berenstain has died, after suffering a stroke at the age of 88. Her husband and writing/illustrating partner, Stan, died (of complications from lymphoma)  in 2005.

While this is sad news, of course, the couple certainly seemed to have a wonderful life together, doing what they loved. From the CBS News piece linked to above:

Stan and Jan Berenstain, both Philadelphia natives, were 18 when they met on their first day at art school in 1941.

They married in 1946, after Stan Berenstain returned home from serving as a medical illustrator at a stateside Army hospital during World War II. During that time, Jan Berenstain worked as a draftsman for the Army Corps of Engineers and as a riveter building Navy seaplanes.

Before their family of bear books was born, the young couple had already built a successful career in periodicals. A cartoon series they produced called “All in the Family” ran in McCall’s and Good Housekeeping magazines for 35 years, and their art appeared in magazines including Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post.

Mike Berenstain said his mother worked daily at her home studio in an idyllic part of Bucks County, north of Philadelphia, which served as inspiration for the books’ setting. He said he will continue writing and illustrating future Berenstain books.

In honor of Jan and Stan, here’s a quick list of my top five favorite Berenstain Bear books, in no particular order:


Please post your own favorites! If you’re having trouble remembering the titles, Wikipedia has a comprehensive list here, along with some summaries.

Michael Erard’s Language Identification Contest

Journalist Michael Erard is circulating the video above as part of the promotion for his recently-published book Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners. As reported by Maryann Yin on GalleyCat,

Erard assembled a group of friends who agreed to videotape themselves reading from his book. He collected these clips into the video embedded above–if you can list all the languages in the video, you could win a free book.

Here are more details about the contest: “Send an email message with 1) the name of each language and 2) in the order in which they appear to info@babelnomore.com, and I’ll put your name in a drawing for a signed copy of Babel No More.” A deadline has been set for February 23rd.

Erard is a contributing writer for Design Observer and a blogger for Psychology Today.

I think I was able to identify three–maybe four–languages the first time around. There were a few others that I think I recognized by language groups (Slavic, Scandinavian, etc.) but couldn’t identify specifically. I sure hope Erard publishes the answers after the contest is over.

Fun Reads for Friday: Bookstore Wisdom, NBCC Nominees, and Historical Guides to Local ‘Linnen-Lifters’ and ‘She-Friends’

25 Things I Learned from Opening a Bookstore (open Salon)

A former lawyer turned used bookstore owner shares some nuggets of wisdom. Some of my favorites:

1.  People are getting rid of bookshelves.  Treat the money you budgeted for shelving as found money.  Go to garage sales and cruise the curbs.

2.  While you’re drafting that business plan, cut your projected profits in half.  People are getting rid of bookshelves.

23.  Everyone has a little Nancy Drew in them.  Stock up on the mysteries.

Dubravka Ugresic’s Karaoke Culture is nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Awards

From Open Letter’s (the publisher’s) press release:

…we’re proud to announced that one of our titles—Karaoke Cultureby Dubravka Ugresic—is one of the five finalists in the “Criticism” category.

Since this is the first major American book award that Open Letter has a finalist in, we’re absolutely ecstatic. And it’s especially fitting that this is happening to Dubravka, since her last collection, Nobody’s Home, was the first book that Open Letter ever published.

I reviewed Karaoke Culture for The L last year–it’s a great collection, and I’d be delighted for it to win an award from NBCC this year. My previous post, with a link to the review is here. You can also read one of the collection’s more talked-about essays, “Assault on the Mini-Bar” on The Paris Review website here. (This actually wasn’t one of my favorites in the collection–but it’s gotten some really positive responses.)

I’m also pleased to see David Bellos’ Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything on the list of nominees for criticism, along with Ugresic. I’ve been meaning to read that book since it came out, and this gave me a little added encouragement. It’s fascinating so far.

Guidebooks to Babylon (Tony Perrottet for The New York Times)

Mr. Perrottet, author of The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe, takes a delightful look at the “guides to local harlots” that were produced for the benefit of gentlemen traveling from Paris, France to Kansas City, Missouri. His unnecessary first-line dig at librarians notwithstanding (after all, I know plenty of librarians who would be delighted with the premise of his research), here are some of the article’s more hilarious highlights:

To the uninitiated, these clandestine directories make the most dubious of all literary subgenres. They were created, of course, to provide practical information for gentlemen travelers venturing through a city’s demimonde, and so have titles that range from mildly risqué (“The Pretty Women of Paris,” “Directory to the Seraglios”) to unashamedly coarse (“A Catalogue of Jilts, Cracks and Prostitutes, Nightwalkers, Whores, She-Friends, Kind Women and Others of the Linnen-Lifting Tribe”).

The genre took a leap forward in the carnal free-for-all of 18th-century London with “Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies,” a best-­selling annual published each Christmas season from 1757 to 1795 under the name of the era’s most notorious pimp, Jack Harris. Each edition offered Zagat-style reviews of London belles, including their figures, tastes, complexions and personal hygiene (and a pre-modern-dentistry obsession with the condition of their teeth).

When it comes to American guides, the available examples are far less colorful…An exception to the rule is “The Little Black Book,” produced in the 1890s in the “Paris of the Plains” — Kansas City, Mo. In between generic ads (Emma Williams, “Abundance of Beauty,” and Julia Lewis, “Fit for the Gods”) are pages of rhyming verse, poems that spell out naughty words and tales of lusty nuns.

Fun Reads for Friday: Dancing Books, Nancy Pearl’s Wishlist, New Libraries, and Library Phantoms

Happy Friday!

Stop-Motion Bookstore Dance-a-Thon

This stop-motion video, “The Joy of Books,” is making its way around the internet. The (unnamed?) couple who made the video staged this after-hours book dance-a-thon in Toronto’s Type bookstore, which gives me yet another reason to go back to Toronto.

Nancy Pearl Gets Her Own Book Line

The inimitable Nancy Pearl, librarian for the masses, is partnering with Amazon to kick off her own line of reissued books: Book Lust Rediscoveries. The line, which will release six of Pearl’s “favorite, presently out-of-print books” every year, has already announced its first two titles: A Gay and Melancholy Sound by Merle Miller and After Life by Rhian Ellis. (The latter sounds particularly good to me.) Nancy has blogged about her “Reissues Wish List” before now–maybe we can guess what some of her future titles will be from this 2009 list. This is another example of Amazon using its new publishing power for good–I’m really looking forward to these (re)releases.

Canada Water Library — Review” (Rowan Moore, Guardian Architecture section, December 3, 2011)

Like libraries? Apparently, the Southwark neighborhood of London is the place for you. Not only have the    good people of Southwark decided to maintain all twelve of their existing libraries (it would be interesting to know what the size of the population that uses these libraries is), they upped the ante and decided to build a brand new one in the heart of a former shipping district, called Canada Water, within the old Surrey Commercial Docks area. “Ever since the 1980s, the intention has been to regenerate [the area], both to bring business and create something like a town centre.”

The article has a lot to say about this flagging process of regeneration and some of the features around the new Canada Water library, as well as about the building itself. Some highlights:

The best form for a reading room is wide and horizontal, but there was not enough space for this at ground level, squeezed between the tube exit and the waterside. So the reading room is at the top, with the building widening as it ascends to make space for it, with the added benefit that the most important part of the building is placed high up – if not in the clouds, at least sufficiently far from the ground to feel removed and a little dreamy, as a library should.

Raised, it makes occasion for the spiral staircase, which in turn makes the business of going somewhere for a book into a little event or ceremony, rather than a sideways drift such as you might make into a supermarket.

From a practical question – how to put a library on a site too small for it – comes the pleasure of the architecture. Within the ample volume of the reading room, zigzagging shelves create more intimate places in a way almost reminiscent of the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.

But while it doesn’t, apparently, “achieve Scandinavian levels of craftsmanship,” says Moore, “…the important thing about the Canada Water library is that a new public place has been created, where the architecture contributes to and expands the experience of using it.”

The Library Phantom Returns!” (Robert Krulwich, NPR, November 30, 2011)

In September 2011, I posted about an anonymous book-loving book artist who was leaving incredibly intricate, beautiful sculpture tributes in libraries and literary organizations all over Scotland. After a bit of a hiatus, the artist left three more amazing creations in the Scottish Poetry Museum, the National Museum of Scotland, and the Robert Louis Stevenson Room at the Writer’s Museum. These will apparently be the last of the mystery sculptures (there have been ten in all). Said the artist (in a short, third-person statement): “It’s important that a story is not too long………does not become tedious……….”You need to know when to end a story,” she thought.”

The statement also indicates that the artist is not a professional–“this was the first time she had dissected books and used them simply because they seemed fitting.” Which makes these creations all the more fabulous. (I also just love her sense of humor–the T-Rex bursting out of The Lost World.) She called these sculptures “a tiny gesture.”