Tag Archives: reading

Should Book Stores Charge for Author Events?

Yesterday’s New York Times business section, had an article about independent book stores charging people to attend author events, Come Meet the Author, but Open Your Wallet. I hadn’t thought of this as a trend even though I’ve coughed up more than a few dollars to see authors in person.  It’s usually an experience that goes well beyond a sales spiel about a book.

For example, I went to an event last week with David McCullough who gave an hour-plus

David McCullough, out to promote his new book, The Greater Journey. Is it worth it to pay to attend author events?

talk about his book The Greater Journey and his career in general.  The Bookcase, an independent bookseller in Wayzata, Minnesota, held the event at a local church to accommodate the large crowd. The tab: $20 per ticket, with $10 of that going toward the purchase of the book.  I left the event having had the pleasure of hearing McCullough speak and I walked out with a new hardcover copy of the book.  I was a happy camper. From the looks of it, the hundreds of people in attendance (who also left with copies of the book, many signed by the author) were equally happy, and it seems as a result The Bookcase and the author must have been pleased as well.

According to the New York Times article, “Bookstore owners say they are charging for author events because too many people regularly come to see authors having already bought a book online or planning to do so later. Consumers now see the bookstore merely as another library — a place to browse, do informal research and pick up staff recommendations.”

“They type titles into their iPhones and go home,” Nancy Salmon, the floor manager at Kepler’s, an indie bookstore in Menlo Park, Calif., told the paper.  “We know what they’re doing, and it has tested my patience.” (I have to confess I’ve been a lurker at these events and left the store empty handed.)

The downside of charging is that it may discourage people from attending author events and thus diminish the sense of a readers’ community that bookstores create.  That’s one thing that sets indies apart from the online booksellers, live interconnectedness, serving as a sort of cultural center.  The article quotes novelist Ann Patchett, who is currently touring to promote her new book, State of Wonder and who says she is concerned that people who do not have enough money to buy a hardcover book — especially students or the elderly — might be left out. “I wouldn’t want the people who have no idea who I am and have nothing else to do on a Wednesday night shut out,” she said. “Those are your readers.”

Yet for every Ann Patchett or David McCullough, authors who can attract a crowd to events because they’re already well known, there are little-known authors who booksellers could never charge you to see.  It’s every new author’s nightmare to stand alone in the back of the store with no one except the store manager to hear her presentation.

I say it’s okay for bookstores to charge for the big names that will draw people in and spur them to buy books, especially if a portion of the fee can go toward book purchases. It might even make more author events seem like a “hot ticket.”

An F. Scott Fitzgerald Walk in St. Paul

I took a walk last week through the Summit Hill neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota,

F. Scott Fitzgerald's debut novel This Side of Paradise

where F. Scott Fitzgerald was born, grew up, wrote his first stories and made the revisions on his debut novel, This Side of Paradise. (If its original not-so-catchy title The Romantic Egoist is any indicator, I can see why they suggested revisions)

Even if you’re not a big Fitzgerald fan, even if you don’t know Amory Blaine from Jay Gatsby, this is a great neighborhood for a stroll, especially in summer. With its gorgeous Victorian homes, overarching elm trees and fun shops nearby it’s—if not this side of paradise—really, really nice.

The St. Paul Public Library (which has a special Fitzgerald reading alcove) offers a brochure called “F. Scott Fitzgerald in St. Paul—Homes and Haunts” that you can download. Start the tour at 481 Laurel Ave., where Fitzgerald was born. Park there and start the walk. The house where his parents later lived (593/599 Summit) and where he finished This Side of Paradisehe described as “A house below the average on a street above the average.”

Fitzgerald's neighborhood is still above average and has many beautifully restored Victorian homes.

Published in 1920, this work launched his career as spokesman for the Jazz Age. He chronicles the changing mores of the generation of wild children of Victorian parents, who Gertrude Stein later dubbed the “Lost Generation.”  Fitzgerald presciently wrote in the most famous passage of the novel, “Here was a new generation, . . . dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success, grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald's St. Paul birthplace

Be sure to make a stop at W.A. Frost (374 Selby), which has the world’s best outdoor dining, part of your tour.  Frost’s was a drug store and soda fountain during Fitzgerald’s day and retains its historic charm.  Finally, end your tour across the street from W.A. Frost at Common Good Books (downstairs at 165 Western Avenue North), whose proprietor is another St. Paul author and host of “A Prairie Home Companion,” Garrison Keillor. It’s a gem of a bookstore.  To read more of Fitzgerald’s St. Paul works, look for The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by another St. Paul author, Patricia Hampl.  Read “The Ice Palace,” “Winter Dreams,” and “A Night at the Fair.”

The real Wilder Life versus my imaginary Wilder Life. I’ll take the latter.

I’ve been reading Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life in which she recounts her love of Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s  Little House on the Prairie books and her effort to re-create “Laura World” for herself. So, it was a fun coincidence to read a post on the Algonquin Books blog about An American Childhood by Annie Dillard.  Dillard says of her childhood:

What I sought in books was imagination. It was depth, depth of thought and feeling; some sort of extreme of subject matter; some nearness to death; some call to courage. I myself was getting wild; I wanted wildness, originality, genius, rapture, hope. I wanted strength, not tea parties. What I sought in books was a world whose surfaces, whose people and events and days lived, actually matched the exaltation of the interior life. There you could live.

That describes the qualities that have sent generations of young readers flocking to the Little Housebooks, and surely what sent McClure on her journey into “Laura World.”  What fan of “Half-Pint Ingalls” (who thanks to McClure now has her own Twitter account

Laura "Half Pint" Ingalls has her own Twitter account @halfpintingalls.

@halfpintingalls) hasn’t secretly wanted to venture just a little into Laura World? It was a relief to find someone so quirkily devoted to books and McClure’s descriptions of her attempts at some of the Little House activities—churning butter, for example, or making Vanity Cakes—are hilarious. I particularly enjoyed the chapter where she and her ever-patient significant other, Chris, spend a bit of time on a farm learning do-it-yourself skills that might have been of use in Laura World but it turns out they’ve joined a gathering of fundamentalists preparing for “end times.”  

I’m a huge advocate of  reading books to get a better understanding of places one is traveling.  And, a “field trip” to the place where a book took place extends the experience of reading the book. For example, what does fiction such as the Little House books tell us about life in the late 18th century and how does that experience affect us now?  How well would I measure up to the challenges of pioneer life?  How does the Long Winter of Wilder’s experience compare to the long winter I just experienced? I can tell you one thing:  it makes me happy to have central heat and store-bought sticks of butter in the frig.  I’m happy I don’t have to butcher a hog and make head cheese, though I’ve always had a kind of gross fascination with the way the Little House younguns blew up pig bladders and used them as balls.

But McClure also delves into the research about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the dynamics of Laura’s relationship with her daughter, Rose.  She discovers just how far the Little House books deviate from the life of the real Wilders and, (Holy Hoedown!) the suspicion that Rose had more of a hand in writing the books than Laura.

It makes me wonder if there’s a danger in learning too much. It just might diminish the magic of reading in the first place.  The real Laura World doesn’t hold a hand-dipped tallow candle to the world Laura created in our imaginations. I’m going to meet up later this summer with a group of Wilder fans from the Book Vault (see my previous post) in Oskaloosa, Iowa as they hit the Little House hot spots near Minneapolis where I live.  I’ll dip my toes in the water On the Banks of Plum Creek, but my view of Laura World will remain the one in  my own imagination.

Bikes and Books Tour of Minneapolis

The Twin Cities are regularly rated among the most literary cities in the country
(check out Flavorwire‘s pairing of top cities and books set in them) and Minneapolis has been voted the best biking city in America for the last two years.  So it makes sense to put the two together for a two-wheel tour of some of Minneapolis’ outstanding independent bookstores as well as its famous Chain of Lakes.  FYI, for anyone not familiar with this area of Minneapolis, we’re talking flat, paved bikes-only paths, great for kids and anyone who may not be Tour-de-France-fit.

Start out in the city’s Uptown neighborhood, home of some of Minneapolis’ most fun bars and restaurants, as proven by the continual discussion of noise regulations for the area at city council meetings.  It’s also the home of Magers and Quinn on Hennepin Avenue, the city’s largest independent bookseller which bills itself as “A bounty of the world’s best books assembled by biblioholic booksellers.”  This is a place that will make even the most dedicated e-book reader stow the tech and stock up on print.  It has that cozy independent bookstore feel and stacks you could wander for hours. They have everything, new, used (deals!), beautiful antique volumes and first editions…so bring your backpack.  And, if they don’t have a book you’re looking for, they’ll track it down and order it for you.  It’s also a good idea to get on their mailing list for author appearances and reading ideas.

If you haven’t come equipped, trot around the corner to Calhoun Bike Rentals on Lake Street and rent a bike for the rest of your journey.   They also offer bike tours of some of the most interesting areas of Minneapolis.

The Tin Fish restaurant in the Lake Calhoun Boat Pavillion makes a great place to stoke up for lunch. Then start pedaling.  The Chain of Lakes is part of the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway.  Head south along the east side of Lake Calhoun and on down to Lake Harriet.

A short side trip from Lake Harriett is Wild Rumpus Books a fantastic children’s bookstore that features, in addition to books, live animals and a tiny front door for children to enter through.

Head back to Lake Harriet and north again to Lake Calhoun, Lake of the Isles and on to Birchbark Books and Native Arts in the lovely, leafy Kenwood neighborhood.  It’s one of my favorite bookstores (see my previous post) with a special emphasis on Native American literature.  The staff and owner, novelist Louise Erdrich, carefully choose the books here and handwritten notes offer insight into books for browsers.  Books aside, any store with a confessional and dogs on the premises is good for the soul. You’ll need a little nosh to sustain you as you retrace your path back to Uptown.  Stop next door at the Kenwood Café.

Many bibliophiles make a point of hitting independent bookstores such as these whenever they travel.  To that end, IndieBound has an Indie Store finder that helps readers find indie booksellers just about anywhere.  For more on bookstore tourism, take a look at GalleyCat and Bookstore Tourism.

Art Museum Book Clubs

There’s been much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands about the decline of reading, diminishing book sales, and the “death of print,” but there’s no doubt that books clubs are thriving. It’s hard to know precisely how many book clubs there are because they are often informal groups. However, according to Publishers Weekly there are an estimated seven million such groups in the U.S. and that number is rising.

Art museums across the country are offering book clubs that combine literature with tours through their galleries. Blue Arabesque by Patricia Hampl is on the reading list at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

Some organizations, art museums in particular, recognize the power of book clubs and the potential of readers in general as a huge target for their marketing efforts. From the Delaware Art Museum to the Art Institute of Chicago (I love the name of their group, “Reading Between the Lions”) to the Santa Monica Museum of Art, museums are conducting book-based tours and book clubs that capitalize on the notion that reading can make other aspects of life come alive.  Debbi Hegstrom, associate educator for the docent program at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) says, “There are unlimited connections between art and literature. This is another way to promote the vision of the MIA, ‘Inspiring wonder through the power of art,’ to a specific but potentially very large audience. With the current popularity of book clubs, it seems like a logical way to tap into the existing interest and bring more people to the museum.”

Formats vary.  Some art museum reading groups revolve around special exhibits or a featured work; others focus on art-related reading in general, be it fiction or non-fiction. Some require museum membership; others, such as the MIA, are open to anyone. All provide great reading ideas and opportunities for book club field trips. At the MIA, museum tour guides have been presenting book-related tours for four years, as requested by organized book clubs, but a newer program, which is open to anyone on a drop-in basis, has been running for three months. Men, women, young adults to seniors participate.  Says Hegstrom, “The titles usually have something art-related but not necessarily. Guides can use artworks in the museum to explore themes presented in a book. Our goal is to include one fiction and one non-fiction title each quarter, with at least one of the books relating specifically to art or artists.” This summer they’re tackling The Savage Garden by Mark Mills, and Blue Arabesque by Patricia Hampl, a fantastic Minnesota writer.

What’s the common thread between books and art? Hegstrom says, “Literature and the visual arts are both creative expressions of the human spirit. To experience both media based on related topics and to share the experience with others brings depth to both. Books become the reason to get into the galleries and talk about a shared experience—in this case, the literature. I think it’s a way to reach some people who might not otherwise visit, but also to strengthen existing relationships. On tours, we are very interested in how people make personal connections to works of art. This is another avenue to help people build those connections.”

So, if you’re a local or a book lover on vacation, you’ll feel welcome at the MIA’s book tours which take place on first Tuesdays of every month at 11:30 a.m. and first Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. Also, for a list of what museums are reading and more information on the connection between art and literature, check out the Hol Art Books site.

Says Hegstrom, “We hope to expand titles, age groups, and partnerships in the coming year. Sometimes the subject matter and discussions can be serious, but in the end what we love to hear is, ‘Wow, that was really fun.’ “

A Literary and Culinary Trip Across the Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

Brooklyn Bridge
Manhattan to Brooklyn over the Brooklyn Bridge

The Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most famous landmarks in New York City and  walking its span over the East River (just over a mile) is one of my favorite things to do there. A dedicated pedestrian walkway, the Promenade, runs over the center of the bridge and below an estimated one hundred forty-four thousand vehicles cross the bridge every day, which makes it hard to imagine what it was like before the bridge connected the two cities of New York and Brooklyn.  How did the Brooklyn hipsters get to the other side? By boat.

Hike along the wooden Promenade… Cables composed of 3600 miles of steel wire weaving like a spider web around you, the 276½ feet foot towers rising above, the Statue of Liberty standing guard over the harbor to one side, and the view of the city’s massive skyscrapers all around combine for an experience that makes you feel humming with energy.

Reading David McCullough’s book The Great Bridge – The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, adds an extra dimension to a walk across the bridge. McCullough tells the story of the fourteen-year effort of building the bridge, which finally opened in 1883. It was at the time an unimaginably daring feat of engineering, exemplary of America’s Age of Optimism. As someone who lives not too far from the I-35W bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis four years ago, the enduring solidity of the Brooklyn Bridge seems even more impressive.

I was particularly fascinated by McCullough’s description of how caissons (used to plant the footings of the huge towers) work.  But, The Great Bridge is more than an explanation of civil engineering. McCullough also weaves in the politics and personalities of New York’s movers and shakers at the end of the Gilded Age, particularly the remarkable designers of the bridge, John Roebling and his son Washington Roebling, who was tragically debilitated by “the bends,” known as caisson’s disease, during the building of the bridge. For a nice discussion of the book, see the Past as Prologue blog.

Bridge-walkers disagree about which is the best way to go, Manhattan to Brooklyn or vice

Street art in DUMBO

versa.  Some recommend taking the subway to Brooklyn and walking back to Manhattan, which offers fantastic views of the Manhattan skyline.  However, I enjoy going the Manhattan-to-Brooklyn route, with the incentive of all the great food that awaits near the end of the bridge on the other side. So, find the pedestrian walkway near City Hall in Manhattan and stroll across the bridge to the DUMBO neighborhood. That’s an acronym for “Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass” but DUMBO is also under the Brooklyn Bridge.

From the end of the bridge it’s a short walk to Grimaldi’s Pizzeria, under the Brooklyn Bridge at 19 Old Fulton Street.  There’s almost always a wait, but it’s worth it.   Then, it’s time for more carb-loading, which you can justify with all that exercise you’ve done walking across the bridge. Almondine Bakery, 85 Water Street, which New York magazine calls the best bakery in the city, is a great place to stop in for coffee and pastry.  It’s especially cozy when the weather’s bad.  Or, pick up amazing chocolate-packed cookies, or homemade ice cream sandwiches at Jacques Torres  at 66 Water Street and head over to Brooklyn Bridge Park.  The Cove section of the park lies between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridge and offers an terrific Manhattan view.  It’s also one of the few places on the New York City waterfront where visitors can actually get down to the water. Its a rich habitat for fish, crabs, and birds of the New York Harbor Estuary.

New York, bridges and chocolate…what could be better?

New study: more books/reading equals educational achievement

I ran across an article in Miller-McCune about an interesting study that correlates the impact of books in the home with children’s success in education. “Home library size has a very substantial effect on educational attainment, even adjusting for parents’ education, father’s occupational status and other family background characteristics,” reports the study, recently published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. “Growing up in a home with 500 books would propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average, than would growing up in a similar home with few or no books.

But we book lovers already knew this.

Elizabeth Bennett or Lisbeth Salander? We may not agree, but reading unites us—no matter where we are.



“How was work today?” “Same old thing.”

“What did you do in school today?” “Nothing.”

These frustrating attempts at interaction take place between spouses and between children and their parents every day. It can be a struggle to engage, even if you have plenty of time over the dinner table. So, imagine what it’s like when
deployed soldiers and their families have just a short time to speak to each other.

Alison Baverstock, who is married to a British soldier stationed in Iraq, realized that her family was struggling to relate to one another during phone calls because of the difference in their daily experiences. She told the Guardian, “When your husband rings up from Afghanistan or Iraq, you have a very limited time to talk, but sometimes you just don’t know what to talk about. Your existence can seem quite humdrum in comparison to theirs – and you can’t ask them what they are doing [because military details are secret].”

She found an answer in books. “Being able to talk about a book we’re both reading is great because it gives us some common ground.” Consequently, this March she’s launching The Reading Force, a project designed to bridge the divide between military personnel serving overseas and their families at home by encouraging them all to read the same books. Reading Force will encourage groups of family and friends of soldiers to commit to reading the same book, and recording their thoughts about it – whether by letter, email or in a drawing – in a scrapbook. Those away on tour will also get involved, helping families feel connected and to bond again properly when the tour of duty is over.

Reading is at the core of another project that brings military family members closer, United Through Reading, which has been around since 1989. Through this program, soldiers bond with their families by reading books aloud, recording their reading on DVDs and sending the DVDs home.  So, it’s like a virtual bedtime story. The organization has similar programs for grandparents who live life far away from their grandchildren and for parents who are incarcerated or in treatment.

Reading the same books provides common ground and creates community through shared experiences and ideas. Colleges and universities see the value in this concept and often assign all of the incoming freshman the same book to read before they arrive on campus, thus putting everyone on “the same page,” at least a little. The “one book, one city” programs embraced in Seattle, Chicago and many other communities across the country have the same goal. Check out Chicago Library Foundation’s One Book, One Chicago reading list, even if you don’t live in Chicago.

No matter how noble the mission, not everyone sees the value in the idea of entire communities reading the same thing. Harold Bloom, the country’s most prominent literary critic told The New York Times in 2002, “It is rather like the idea that we are all going to pop out and eat Chicken McNuggets or something else horrid at once.’’

Moreover, choosing a book to read together can create as much dissention as harmony. Entire committees meet to choose the right book for the programs in Seattle and Chicago and a book club can end the evening with everyone in a huff after wrangling over the book choices.  I love discussing books with my family, but they’re all male, even the dog, and they each would rather have a root canal than discuss Jane Austen with me. We have found common ground in books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the rest of Larsson’s trilogy (over which you can start up a conversation with just about anyone in the world).

Okay, I can see why Larsson’s Lisbeth might be a more attractive character to guys than Austen’s Elizabeth. So, we compromise and end up with a mutual reading experience that brings us together for a while–far more satisfying than McNuggets.

I'm Not Enjoying This Book–How Many Pages to Read Before You Quit

I just ran across the answer to a question that people in my book club regularly ask, “I’m not enjoying this book.  How much should I read to give it a fair chance before I toss it aside and take up a book I really like?” So many books, so little time.

The answer is Book Lust Author Nancy Pearl‘s Rule of Fifty. She says: “People frequently ask me how many pages they should give a book before they give up on it. In response to that question, I came up with my “rule of fifty,” which is based on the shortness of time and the immensity of the world of books.  If you’re fifty years of age or younger, give a book fifty pages before you decide to commit to reading it or give it up.  If you’re over fifty, which is when time gets even shorter, subtract your age from 100—the result is the number of pages you should read before making your decision to stay with it or quit.  Since that number gets smaller and smaller as we get older and older, our big reward is that when we turn 100, we can judge a book by its cover!”

Another suggestion:  start skimming.  At least you can participate in conversation about the book.  I just did that with Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian.  It’s a vampire story, so you’d think it would hold one’s attention, but I it so convoluted, long, and full of explanatory letters, I became very impatient.

Or, take the book chunk at a time.  I just started thumbing through the gigantic Autobiography of Mark Twain which is less narrative and more bits, pieces and reflections.  It gives great insight into Twain’s character and I’m going to be quoting from it a lot.  I’m prone to stick with this volume because hefting it gives me enough exercise to forego the gym.  My aching biceps.

 

Reading + Travel = Empathy

It seems like every week brings a new sad development in Haiti—cholera a couple of weeks ago, flooding from Hurricane Tomas this week—added to the devastation of the earthquake earlier in the year. I was particularly sad this week to see people in Leogane, where I visited a couple of years ago, dragging themselves through waist deep water.  Then there are the earthquakes in Indonesia… Viewing these images on TV makes us stop for at least a moment and imagine what it must be like for people whose lives are devastated by these disasters, to empathize.

The New York Times’ Jane Brody, in her excellent piece  “Empathy’s Natural, but Nurturing It Helps” says that, “Empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and recognize and respond to what that person is feeling, is an essential ingredient of a civilized society. Lacking empathy, people act only out of self-interest, without regard for the well-being or feelings of others. The absence of empathy fosters antisocial behavior, cold-blooded murder, genocide.”

From natural disasters to politics (some might see those as overlapping), it seems like we could all use a little dose of empathy these days.   Brody reports that one way to cultivate empathy in children is “reading books and talking about how people (or animals) in a story feel and why they feel that way.” Reading Rockets, a great Web site about “launching young readers,” has an interesting article called, “It Happened Over There: Understanding and Empathy Through Children’s Books.” Scroll down to the end of the article for children’s book suggestions.

I’d add that it’s not too late for older children and adults, too, to cultivate empathy by reading.  Think about To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Ann Frank, Dave Eggers’ What is the What, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl DuWinn’s Half the Sky, Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kiterunner for starters. Do you have other suggestions for “empathy reading?”

Travel is, of course, another way to gain understanding and empathy for people whose lives are far different from ours.  It’s not always possible to travel (or in the case of places with natural disasters, desirable), but you can do it through the pages of a book.