A Word from the Author

On Wednesday, we’ll hear from author Rebecca Fjelland Davis who will tell us about her books, her writing process, her road to publication, and what happens when you get a book accepted for publication.

Meanwhile, just for a bit of fun, here’s how some Macmillan employees decided to explain publishing. In case something about it seems off . . . uh, yes. It’s a spoof from beginning to end.


Uncovering Covers

Some cover art fun:

This Flavorwire post shows covers of Alice in Wonderland over the years and in different countries.

The Rap Sheet, a blog about the crime fiction genre, has tracked down many instances in which lazy cover designers have used the same stock photography over and over. Here are some examples of copycat covers discovered by the blog.




But using stock photography isn’t always a simple short-cut. This short video (which comes in at just under 2 minutes) shows how a cover was designed using stock photography and some designer skillz.

Finally, Jim Hines, a prolific author of science fiction, has been posing in gender-bending cover remakes, most recently doing so as a fund-raiser for medical research, but also to explore and critique gender stereotypes in the covers of his favorite genre. This one involves a number of authors and is pretty hilarious. More on this project from the BBC.

Images for Book Design

For two days, we’ll be designing real or imaginary books – both the jacket (which includes front and back, spine, and the two folding panels with information about the book) and the interior design (title page and a first chapter page, including chapter heading, whether to drop the first capital or emphasize first words of the chapter, and placement and look of the page number – and of course which font you feel is most appropriate and readable for the story).

These sites for royalty-free images might come in handy for covers. These may also be useful for your final projects.

  • Flickr – a social networking site for photos. To find photos you can use without violating copyright, use the advanced search option and select “creative commons” toward the bottom of the page.
  • Flickr Commons – a collection of mostly historical photos from libraries and museums that have no known copyright restrictions.
  • MorgueFile – a collection of royalty-free photos you can reuse.
  • Wikimedia Commons -over 7 million images you can freely use.

lt_coversA random selection of covers from our LibraryThing catalog of student recommendations.



Oprah, Popular Reading, and the Social Side of Books

How different is it to read a book just for pleasure versus reading a book in a course? Has a particular teacher or course shaped the way you read or the books you choose – or are these kinds of reading mostly separate?

Oprah’s book club is somewhere between those experiences. Reading one of her chosen books is voluntary, but readers are encouraged to delve into the book and explore its meaning. Because the numbers of people reading the books she recommends is so vast, she’s credited with “saving the alphabet.” Though the existence of the book club didn’t significantly raise the numbers of books sold, it certainly raised the sales of the books she chose – and the profile of books in general.

Oprah has made reading both a  part of her autobiography (in that being a reader was a saving grace in a difficult childhood). Her narrative is a story, just like the books she recommends, and there is a connection between those stories and her story. She identifies with the writers of books that were important to her as guides. And makes her television book club an invitation into her home and her life, which gives her a connection to potential readers. She’s not the same kind of authority figure as a teacher. But while she dismisses pretension, or a visible authority, she does want to challenge readers to read difficult books because reading will improve them in an inspirational way. They are both self-improving and a means of self-discovery, a mix of social betterment and social change.

This distinguishes her from the literary elite who shun the “self-help” and uplift through books that Oprah promises. Literary critics do not encourage readers to relate books “lessons” to their own lives. They are more focused on the books and how they work; on developing certain critical frameworks for understanding books without reference to what those books do to readers and their personal lives, which is often considered irrelevant to the reading. Reflecting on parallels between characters in a book and your personal life is considered an unsophisticated approach to reading.

The Franzen affair: when Oprah chose Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections for her book club, he commented to the press that he had mixed feelings. He didn’t want the corporate brand on the cover of his book, and he was afraid that people would think less of its literary merits. He knew people who avoided Oprah books because they thought they were too sentimental and too accessible to the middle class readers and to women. She was furious, disinvited him to her show, and soon after discontinued her book club. Many characterized this controversy as a gap between those who feel literary novels are those too sophisticated to be appreciated by the masses and those who feel literary types are snobs.

Eventually she restarted her book club with classics. When she departed from the classics for a popular book, there was yet another huge controversy – when James Fry’s Million Little Pieces was debunked as untruthful. Now she has launched an online bookclub tied to her magazine, Oprah’s Book Club 2.0.

The Idea of “Bestsellers”

Bestseller lists first appeared in 1896. These are based not on books shipped to bookstores (because they may not sell, but be returned) but on sales information gathered from stores around the country. Now there is a system to gather these numbers electronically (“Bookscan”) but no bestseller list includes every bookstore everywhere in the country.  Still, it’s a fairly accurate estimate.

Sometimes deciding what counts is a problem. When Harry Potter nailed the top three spots in The New York Times list, they decided children’s books should be counted separately and started a different list for them, fearful there would be nothing but Potter on their list. At some point, religion got its own list, too, and that has changed what “makes the list” over the years. But by and large, we have over a century’s worth of information about what books have been popular year by year.

Though there are far more books available now to more people than there were fifty years ago and some pundits think the key to satisfying people’s interests is to offer them a wealth of niche-market books – Chris Anderson’s idea of the “long tail” – the fact is, the book industry still makes a lot of money from a very few books, and to make it to the bestseller list far more copies need to be sold than before there were massive chain bookstores and Internet sales.

Reading: Solitary and Social

In one sense, reading is a very solitary activity. As Spufford describes it, it’s a way of detaching totally from the world around him – like an airlock: “It sealed to the outside so that it could open to the inside.” The child and the book exist in a world completely cut off from the world around him. It’s a form of escape. It’s a form of turning inward – shared only with the book, which takes you away from the world you share with those around you.

Yet, there is a social side to reading. In some senses, the bestseller list is shaped by that impulse to share books. We want to read what others read so we can share an experience with them and be part of the gang. The experiences we have with books as we become readers (or not) are very much shaped by the social encounters around them. We read because we associate reading with a warm lap and a comforting voice. Or perhaps we don’t have that association and books are something from a strange and scary place that isn’t like our personal experience. If books are not something we share with family and friends they may be only a school task and be just as much fun as a math worksheet. Or if you enjoy reading, but nobody in your social circle does, it may be less enjoyable for you.

Often, finding a reading mentor can change someone’s life. Mark Edmundson wrote a book, Why Read? in which he made a case for the importance of reading good books, and in it he described how a teacher opened his life up to books – which totally changed his future. For me, it was a librarian who was the first person to think of me as a reader. Mike Rose, a teacher, has written about the obstacles that stand in the way of inner city kids becoming literate, including the way we stigmatize students and make literacy a problem of productivity and criminality, not about human beings and their potential. So the solitary nature of reading is only one side of the ways we interact with books. They also have a social life.

Elizabeth Long wrote about women’s reading groups and the ways they both are influenced by literary norms – our collective expectations about what makes for a “good” book – but also how they negotiate their own responses to books and their place as women in culture. A sociologist, she was criticized by colleagues for choosing this as a subject – “oh, book clubs. My wife belongs to one of those.”  Because they were for middle class women, they presumably were unworthy of attention.

When people get together to discuss books, their reading practices are not those of the literary elite – the professionals – even if they try to adopt those practices. They talk about characters as if they are people in real situations, not as if they are constructs to be disassembled and examined. There’s a level of support and connectedness in the groups. And they have  complex identity as middle-class women who are privileged, but who are also devalued because they are women. This article very much reflects its time, when scholars were trying hard to figure out the power relationships involved in gender and questioning how class intersects with those power relationships. Yet still – as reactions to Oprah’s Book Club such as l’affair Franzen demonstrate, there’s a certain devaluing of reading when it’s done by women.

In addition to face-to-face book clubs, there are thousands of online communities focused on reading and discussing books. And now there are several social networking sites specifically geared to books, including these which we looked at in class:

Amazon, a massively influential player in the book business, was an early adopter of social media, inviting readers to post reviews, discuss books, comment on reviews, and connect with authors. All of this interaction provides useful data for Amazon. It also makes their site “sticky” – people return again and again. But the impartiality of their reviews is often in dispute. Most recently, Amazon has responded to complaints that writers were posting reviews under pseudonyms by removing reviews by authors.

Questions for Thursday, January 17

Reflecting on the book chapter we looked at for today, think about these questions:

1. When you think of an “Oprah” book (or books popular with book clubs), what comes to mind?

2. What kind of reading experience did she present to her viewers? What did she say her audience would get out of reading the books she chose?

3. How does that reading experience differ from the reading people do in English courses at school?

4. What made people want to read a book chosen by Oprah? What value does it add to the reading experience?

5. Why did Jonathan Franzen object to the Oprah label on his novel, The Corrections?

6. What do you take away from the James Frey affair? How did Oprah’s perspective on Frey’s book change?

Libraries, Culture, & Democracy

Until fairly recently, libraries were only for the wealthy. The movement to found public libraries only started in the 19th century. In England, the Public Library Act of 1850 was passed, though conservatives opposed it because of the risk that it might make working class people uppity, and few cities funded them. In the US there was no national act to establish libraries, but a movement swept the country in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Boston Public Library

Boston Public Library

By 1876 there were 188 free public libraries. Between 1883 and 1929, Andrew Carnegie contributed to the founding of more than 2,500 public libraries. To a large extent, obtaining funds for a public library was spearheaded by women’s groups, who had to  demonstrate a need, find a site, and provide for ongoing funding. Now there are more public libraries in the US than there are MacDonald’s. It’s so universally expected that it can come as a huge shock when funding issues force closures.

Jackson County Libraries - Closed

Jackson County Libraries – Closed

A library system in Oregon was shut down for months because of funding issues and only reopened on a limited basis when the county government hired a for-profit company to run it for them. The article about the “book mules” delivering books in Venezuela and the donkeys carrying books in Ethiopia demonstrates the value of books when they are not otherwise available.

Libraries can be incredibly important for people who live in places where books are rare. . In Venezuela and Columbia, activists use  “book mules” to deliver books to rural areas. In Laos, a literacy charity brings books to remote villages by boat. In Kenya, camels deliver books to nomadic people in remote areas, making regular rounds. A BBC report quotes one of the men who work on this project.

We start early in the morning and work Monday to Thursday. Each box contains 200 books. One camel carries two boxes of books. Another carries the tent and the third one carries our things.

We have nine camels – three caravans. From our two headquarters, Garissa and Wajir, the caravans go to 12 different sites….

As the camels arrive, the children are actually waiting for us. The day we come is fixed and they are expecting us. The schools that we serve have told us that already there is a big impact – their standard of education has improved and they did well in the national examinations.

In Ethiopia, donkeys pull a caravan full of books


We tend to take access to books and public libraries for granted, but even in the developed world, libraries can face closure. In the UK, 200 libraries were closed due to the government’s austerity program. Author Zadie Smith analyzed the issue in the New York Review of Books, arguing that Keynesian economic theory suggests some goods should be made public and managed by the government because there is no market solution that will work as well.

It would seem the most obvious thing in the world to say that the reason why the market is not an efficient solution to libraries is because the market has no use for a library. But it seems we need, right now, to keep re-stating the obvious. There aren’t many institutions left that fit so precisely Keynes’s definition of things that no one else but the state is willing to take on. Nor can the experience of library life be recreated online. It’s not just a matter of free books. A library is a different kind of social reality (of the three dimensional kind), which by its very existence teaches a system of values beyond the fiscal.

I don’t think the argument in favor of libraries is especially ideological or ethical. I would even agree with those who say it’s not especially logical. I think for most people it’s emotional. Not logos or ethos but pathos. This is not a denigration: emotion also has a place in public policy. We’re humans, not robots. The people protesting the closing of Kensal Rise Library love that library. They were open to any solution on the left or on the right if it meant keeping their library open. They were ready to Big Society the hell out of that place. A library is one of those social goods that matter to people of many different political attitudes. All that the friends of Kensal Rise and Willesden Library and similar services throughout the country are saying is: these places are important to us. We get that money is tight, we understand that there is a hierarchy of needs, and that the French Market or a Mark Twain plaque are not hospital beds and classroom size. But they are still a significant part of our social reality, the only thing left on the high street that doesn’t want either your soul or your wallet.

If the losses of private companies are to be socialized within already struggling communities the very least we can do is listen to people when they try to tell us where in the hierarchy of their needs things like public space, access to culture, and preservation of environment lie. “But I never use the damn things!” says Mr. Notmytaxes, under the line. Sir, I believe you. However. British libraries received over 300 million visits last year, and this despite the common neglect of the various councils that oversee them. In North West London people are even willing to form human chains in front of them. People have taken to writing long pieces in newspapers to “defend” them. Just saying the same thing over and over again. Defend our libraries. We like libraries. Can we keep our libraries? We need to talk about libraries. Pleading, like children. Is that really where we are?


Libraries have a lot of built-in contradictions. They are both a source of warm-and-fuzzy feelings and of a certain amount of anxiety about rules and overdue fines. They are democratic institutions, but they can also be palatial, formal, imposing places that might not be welcoming to all. They are traditional – preserving culture – but also forward looking, to the point that traditionalists like Sally Tisdale are annoyed by it.

Umberto Eco wrote about two kinds of libraries in “De Bibliotheca.” (Bostonia Spring1993: 57-60). One is a nightmare with a great many rules. The information desk for readers must be inaccessible. Borrowing should be discouraged. Interlibrary loans should be impossible, or take months. Hours of opening should coincide with working hours. Refreshments of all kinds will be forbidden. To the extent possible there will be no toilets. Ideally, no reader should be allowed inside the library.

Then he describes library utopia. Apart from providing good espresso and comfortable chairs, these libraries encourage exploration. “The whole idea of a library is based on a misunderstanding: that the reader goes into the library to find a book whose title he knows. . . . The essential function of a library . . . is to discover books of whose existence the reader has no idea.” This discovery is a collaboration between the seeker and the shelves, a mix of deliberation and serendipity. “This sort of library is made for me. I can pass a whole joyful day there. I read the papers, I take some books to the bar, I fetch others, I make discoveries. I entered to work, in true empirical English fashion; instead I find myself among commentators on Aristotle, I wind up on the wrong floor, I go into a section, say Medicine, in which I never thought to stray, and suddenly I stumble upon works about Galen, full of philosophical references. This way, a library is an adventure” (59).

British Museum Reading Room

British Museum Reading Room

Not long ago, a big library consortium commissioned a market survey that found that people by and large have good feelings about libraries but they were upset to discover that most people think of books when they think of libraries.

It would be delightful to assume that when respondents say “books,” what they really mean to say is that books, in essence, stand for those intangible qualities of information familiarity, information trust and information quality. The data did not reveal it. We looked hard. We reviewed thousands of responses to the open-ended questions that inquired about positive library associations and library purpose. We searched for words and phrases that included mentions of “quality,” “trust,” “knowledge,” “learning,” “education,” etc. We found mentions of each, but they were relatively few in number. “Books” dominated – across all regions surveyed and across all age groups.

So in answer to this “problem,” they suggest leveraging this archaic belief into a stronger brand for the library – because libraries aren’t supposed to be about books, they’re meant to be about information.

This need to focus on a kind of usefulness that is more than merely providing books goes back a long way. At the beginning of the twentieth century it had a name: the “fiction problem.” Public libraries, that were intended to elevate and educate the masses, had trouble discouraging their patrons from choosing fiction. At the end of the 19th century, the library director in Allegheny, Pennsylvania reported he had successfully rid his library of Horatio Alger stories and other popular material, saying “It is certainly not the function of the public library to foster the mind-weakening habit of novel-reading among the very classes – the uneducated, busy or idle – whom it is the duty of the public library to lift to a higher plane of thinking.” Reading fiction was not only unproductive it was dangerously addictive: “once the habit . . . is formed, it seems as difficult to throw off as the opium habit.” In the same vein, in 1906 the Toronto Public library’s annual report bragged about their success in decreasing in the circulation of fiction as if they had averted a public health crisis: “there is an indulgence in the reading of trashy novels which is destructive to the mind.”

Fortunately, most libraries got over the notion that they were supposed to improve people by force. In fact, the public library has provided a diverse banquet of books that suit many tastes. One library historian says libraries have served “the democracies of culture” by allowing people to choose their own books and “evolve multiple canons unique to their own culture.”

Libraries, Freedom to Read, and Civil Liberties

Libraries support uncensored access to information and strongly support the idea that privacy is a necessary condition to the freedom to read without fear of consequences. The idea is basically this: people need to be able to explore ideas, even reprehensible ideas. They should be free to read and to think what they like. Reading can never be a criminal offense. However, books can be controversial, as Banned Books Week reminds us every fall. And almost all public libraries provide access to the Internet. While reading itself cannot be a crime, crimes can be committed on computers connected to the Internet.

Here are some scenarios to think about:

  • pornography on the Internet – obscene speech is not protected by the first amendment, but filters that block porn also block perfectly legitimate sites. Libraries have resisted installing filters because they block access to sites on things like breast cancer and information about sexuality. Yet sometimes people use library computers to look at porn, which is offensive to library users. In one system, library staff sued their own library for creating a “hostile work environment.” What to do?
  • people are used to giving up privacy in exchange for personalization. They may want to create lists of the books they’ve read or have a “my library” function that records what they’ve checked out and use that information to make recommendations as Amazon does. They might be interested in knowing which books are checked out the most. Librarians want to protect privacy, but with companies like Google and Facebook routinely keeping information and using it to supposedly “improve the customer experience” – e.g. customize advertising messages – library users don’t always want privacy.
  • libraries want to give teenagers the same privacy they afford adults, but adults often pay the bills when books are lost or overdue. How would you respond if you asked a librarian for a list of books checked out by your scatterbrained fourteen year old and were told “I can’t do that. You’ll have to ask your child”?
  • police in Boston got a tip that a bomb had been placed in a public building. Believing there was relevant information on a computer in a public library, they went to the library and tried to remove the computer without a warrant. The librarian pointed out that if she complied, she would break a Massachusetts state law. Her abiding by the law caused an outcry.
  • a Vermont librarian demanded a warrant when police wanted to seize library computers, suspecting a teen had used one to communicate with her abductor. The girl was later found dead. The information on the computer does not appear to have been material to case, yet at the time police felt the girl’s life was at risk.

Questions for Tuesday, Jan. 15

What did you think of Sally Tisdale’s article? Should libraries be places where silence is enforced? Should they have more books and fewer electronic resources?

Think about the last time you visited a public library. Was it a place conducive to study and learning? Was it loud? Did you enjoy being there?

Is Barnes and Nobles more like a traditional library than most libraries are? What makes bookstores better than libraries (or less than libraries)?

Was there anything surprising to you about the Library Bill of Rights? What did you think of the librarians who went to court to fight against the gag order imposed on them by an FBI National Security Letter? Do you think the librarians were overreacting?