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Scott Fitzgerald’s tax returns

For a ever-varied look at the importance of physical evidence in book history, take a look at this article in the most recent American Scholar on what Fitzgerald’s tax returns tell us about his life, his public and private image, and why he wrote what he did.


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Eyes on the prize

One aspect of literary history that has been studied very little is awards and prizes. There are many discrete studies of a certain writer’s winning the Pulitzer, say, and why, but very little about the notion of prizes and competition among writers in general.  (I note the exception of my colleague Leon Jackson, at University of South Carolina, whose Cornell book on the American literary marketplace, has a very good chapter in it on Poe in this context.)

We have talked a good bit both about the sales and marketing of books and about the vagaries of literary reputations — how they go up and down depending on various circumstances (including market forces) but also on honors.

Here’s a post from Newsweek on the recent awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature:

Posted Thursday, October 08, 2009 7:30 AM

Why the Nobel Prize in Literature Doesn’t Really Matter


by Malcolm Jones

What exactly does it mean for Herta Müller, the Romanian-born novelist, to take home a Nobel Prize in Literature? Most concretely, it means collecting roughly $1.4 million.

That’s not chump change, but after that, the benefits become more nebulous. If you’ve languished in semi-obscurity before winning the prize, it means a brief period of instant celebrity, a period in which critics play catch-up with your work and publishers lucky enough to have bought the rights to your work in leaner times now rush to get your books into print, if they’re not there already.

If you’re a writer, such as the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who’s been at odds with your government, it may buy you some protection. Nobel Prize winners don’t get locked up too often. In the long run, it probably means that you’re not going to have a lot of trouble getting your books published for the rest of your life. But if you think the prize guarantees you legions of new fans, think again. It may, but, then again, you may wind up like last year’s winner, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, who enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame and then fell off the radar.

Every now and then, the Nobel can resuscitate a career. When William Faulkner won in 1949, none of his books were in print in his home country. The Nobel turned his life around, and the resulting acclaim translated into sales that gave him the financial security that had eluded him all his life. And while most of his best work was behind him when he won, the prize allowed him to stop buying time by script-doctoring in Hollywood. He could stay home, where he became intensely prolific in the last decade of his life, completing the Snopes trilogy and capping his output with the uncharacteristically cheerful novel The Reivers, which, while minor compared with some of his most towering books, looks better and better with the passage of time.

Faulkner escaped the notorious Nobel curse, which, so the legend goes, condemns a writer to either silence or insignificance once he or she has won. The curse, though, is something of a joke, since most writers who win a Nobel are already near the end of their career, and therefore not too likely to produce major work whether they win or not.

Publishers and booksellers agree that any prize helps a writer, and the bigger the prize, the more it boosts sales, at least for a little while. But in the long run, the prize doesn’t seem to have much effect either way on a writer’s reputation. Nobel winners Pearl Buck and John Steinbeck are no longer in the front ranks of American writers, and even Sinclair Lewis isn’t read much anymore. And then there are all the authors whose greatness actually diminishes the value of the Nobel. How, we have to ask, could the jurors have erred so badly as to neglect James Joyce, Eugene Ionesco, Eudora Welty, and Vladimir Nabokov? It’s enough to make you think that the decisions aren’t made for strictly literary reasons. That can only diminish the cache of the prize. It doesn’t mean we don’t care who wins, just that we don’t care as much. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Writing is hard enough without turning it into a contest.

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Harvard gets Updike’s papers

News story in the NYT from the Houghton Library’s blog post of a couple of days ago about the literary manuscripts of the late John Updike. Read about it.

Updike Papers


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A Note on the Type

Apropos of our discussion about the form and function of typefaces — and their effect on the reader — this weekend I thumbed ahead to the end of a book I was reading to read the “note on the type.”

It was an unusual sort of thing for me to read — a memoir by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami (The Wild Sheep Chase, etc) on his life as both writer and long-distance runner. It’s called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

There are some keen insights in this quirky  book, which I recommend to you, on the connection between mind and body, but the quirkiest of all came not from the author but from the publisher’s staffer who wrote the “note on the type.” 

This particular typeface, it read, was not based on any standard font but was a hybrid designed to impart a sense of “fluidity and grace.”

Like the runner, I suppose, but also like the writer?

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Preserving the pixels

We’ve had a lively discussion, off and on the last few weeks, about the shrinking of physical library holdings and their replacement with digitized versions of hardcover books. Much of the argument in favor of moving to e-versions of everything has had to do with the soaring costs of storing and maintaining hardcopy, as opposed to the much lower costs of keeping everything “stored” in cyberspace.

Good point, but have we taken into account the inevitability of obsolescence? That is, the obsolence that arrives with every new electronic platform or technological advance. By its very nature, a technological advance is a stage in an ever-advancing process — driven by corporate profit making needs — which is by nature without an ending point.

The movies began with kinescope, moved through cinemascope, 16, 35, and –as I recall from the early 1970s– even 70 mm formats. Then came the Betamax, which was displaced by the VHS format, which has been all but displaced by the DVD, which is technologically inferior to the Blu-Ray disc. And, then, of course, there is YouTube, internet streaming, and direct downloads of films to your DVR, computer, or mobile device.

My point is, the media that we are “preserving” books in now will morph over the years and decades and centuries to come just as surely as lightning follows thunder. So how do we make sure that valuable records of the culture will still be readable, or somehow accessible, as formats and platforms become obsolete and replaced with newer technologies.

Does anyone know of a way to transfer  a Beta tape onto a DVD? I don’t think so.

How about those thousands of mp3 songs and jpeg photographs you have on your computer? Will you be able to summon them up to show your grandkids, or will those formats not exist forty years from now?

And for that matter, what will be the cost(s) of preserving  e-books and other items? The maintenance and preservation of e-forms might turn out to be more expensive than the same things with print volumes.

The point is, no one knows and no one can predict this with any certainty. So we need to be alert to the fact that the process of preserving the memory of history and culture won’t end by replacing print with pixels.


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The shrinking of the library

Thanks to Daniel Peeler, here’s a very interesting story from The Boston Globe on a venerated prep school in New England that has apparently removed all the books from its library and plans to build a “learning center” in its place. Take a look:  Bookless library

Let’s continue to think about the ways in which paper can or cannot be replaced with pixels. Can we make concrete arguments — and quantify data — about the inherent utility of paper over digital media?

Or not?


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Outtakes and bad ideas

Interesting post today on the SHARP-L list about “bad ideas” that don’t make it into scholarly books. Later in the semester we’ll look at classic works of literature and what did not make the final published versions of such texts, but it’s interesting to ponder academics writing scholarship, accumulating vast amounts of research that ultimately is not used and other such “outtakes.”

Here’s part of the post:

“to probe more deeply into what
gets cut and why, either by ourselves, our editors, or our software.
Is there a value to the bad idea, to the outside of a – or the –
book’s doxa?  Are there common features to bad ideas, a taxonomy of
the unbookish, if you will?  Can we begin to develop a science of the
“outtake” and the outside of media?  What happens when we shift the
conversation from what is in our books to what is not?  How might this
help us not only write better books, but perhaps more importantly, to
think about the nature of the book itself as a medium of scholarly

Academics can be notoriously bad writers, so I’m not sure that I’d want to see some of the flotsam that would wash ashore from such  a search, but it’s an interesting concept to ponder given the ease of saving “bad” writing, via the computer, and given the public interest in watching, reading, or listening to parts of movies, chapters of books, alternate versions of hit songs, and so forth that the new media have made it possible for us to get our hands on.


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