Tagged: book club

Buying British Books from my couch by way of Porter Square and Google

I noticed a while back that local indie bookseller Porter Square Books sold ebooks on their website.  When I tried to buy one, I ended up with a format not readable on my Android phone, but the Porter Square crew did something I did not expect and promptly refunded me in full.  Win, except that I haven’t bought any ebooks from them since.

Now, some time later, I’ve learned that Porter Square Books now “carries” Google ebooks, which means you can buy a Google ebook on Porter Square Books’ website (not yet in their store unless you bring your own computer) and have that book appear magically in your Google books application on your phone, computer, tablet, whatever.  And just now I have done just that.  Big win, and I was rewarded with the 10-point thank you memo at right.

I’m not really sure I (5) nurtured any community since I did it at home and alone, or (6) conserved any tax dollars since I didn’t pay any sales tax so MA missed out there, or (8) used much of PSB expertise, but I am otherwise quite glad I did it.

For those keeping track, I picked up David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, which is listed in PSB/Google’s catalog as “Blackswangreen” in case you want to read along with my book club.  I paid $12 for the ebook, compared to $15 for the trade paperback at PSB.  The paperback was $10.20 on Amazon so I guess localism has its price.

How does Google’s ebook reader software, Books, stack up on Android against Kindle and Nook?  The big difference in Google’s favor I see is the “original pages” function which can switch you from simple text to a scan of the original book and back.  Pretty cool with older and illustrated books but of questionable use with the latest Tom Clancy.  What Google Books lacks – and it seems really odd to me that Google would leave this out – is search.  At least on the Android app, you cannot (at least I cannot) search for text inside a book.  I figured that would be a slam-dunk for the Googles, but I’m sure it’ll be in an update soon enough.

So I urge you to support your local booksellers and your not-that-local ostentatiously-not-evil giant corporations next time you feel ebook fever coming on.

Herman Melville two ways, or, a tale of two Gutenbergs

As you may know, the first rule of my book club is, well, I can’t tell you the first rule.  One of the other rules is, when it’s your turn, you pick the book and that’s the book.  No discussion, voting or appeals are needed.  Sure, there’s sometimes some friendly wrangling, but when push comes to shove, we read what is chosen for us.  Last month, it was a lesser-known early work by Herman Melville, Mardi, and a Voyage Thither.  The relative obscurity of this work provided some challenges and opportunities, as it’s pretty much out of print, but also out of copyright.

Having exhausted the obvious first choices of public libraries and used bookstores and come up empty, I decided to see what else was out there.  Regular and online bookstores had or could order the book, but at 300+ pages each for two volumes, I thought this might finally be the time to look into electronic readers.  The idea of carrying hundreds of books around in a few ounces of electronics never appealed much to me, but the idea of carrying around one very large book in a smaller form factor was starting to make me think again.

Kindle, Nook, iPod, iPad, PC – no shortage of reading devices, each covered plenty well by pundits worthier than I.  But what about the media itself?  It turns out that there’s something called Project Guternberg, a collection of free downloadable ebooks, generally ones that have landed in the public domain after their copyrights expired.  There’s also Google Books of course, where you can read but not generally download books.  Reading books on a 5 pound laptop wasn’t the answer I was looking for.

After some poking around, I found what I thought would be a terrible solution, but the price was right.  I downloaded the free Mobipocket reader for my phone and picked up the Melville at Project Guternberg.

Mardi on my HTC

As it turned out, I read 350 pages of turgid 19th Century prose a few pages at a time on my two-train commute over the course of a month or so.  It wasn’t ideal, but it was certainly convenient.  I could read with one hand while holding on for dear life with the other.  I didn’t have to worry about losing my place and even in a very crowded train, the device was small enough that I didn’t worry about elbowing fellow passengers while using it, and it was easy to slip back into a pocket without wrangling a book or larger device into and out of a bag or case.

I wondered if there was hope for paper.  And then I met Paige.

In the back of the Harvard Bookstore is a Rube Goldberg contraption consisting of two different printers, a couple of computers and a clear plastic box containing some very sharp blades and pot of boiling hot glue.  It’s called Paige M. Gutenberg.  Get it?  It’s a book machine.  In goes paper, ink, glue and a digital file, and out comes a perfect-bound book in a couple of minutes.  It’s a wacky marriage of cyber- and steampunk. You can smell the glue when you stand near it. I had to try it.

The Book Machine

After some consultation with the staff, I learned that you first have to select (which generally means buy) the digital file from a variety of sources, and then once the machine is warmed up, the printing and binding takes just a few minutes.  Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the files of Mardi were as costly, perhaps more so, than the pre-printed books.  But in the spirit of investigation, I paid $30 for volume two and watched Paige crank it out.  The print quality was great and the paper stock pleasant.  The cover (also printed on the spot with a different printer on different stock) was a little on the cheap side, and the binding was not quite perfect perfect binding.

All in all, if you really need it right away or it’s out of print, this is a great thing. But I fear it’s years late and more than a few dollars short in holding back ebooks.  Sure, it makes high(ish) quality printing and binding on demand available to small-time authors or artists, but even a five minute wait at a bookstore compares poorly with near-instant delivery to a computer or handheld device.  And if you insist on paper, you can often get cheaper and higher quality books shipped in a few days – even same day in some cities – from the giants of ecommerce.

Still, I’m glad there are options, especially because those options are evidence of interest in the business of publishing which means people are still reading, and that’s good.

The fourth part of book club; holiday globe appeal

Last week, we took Book Club to a new level with a guest appearance by the author – Belmont’s own Toby Lester – of our chosen book, The Fourth Part of the World.  I had worried that such an august presence would impede the club’s traditional focus on wine, gossip and whingeing about our jobs, but we had plenty of time for all four parts.

Lester’s book is a vivd and polymathematical ramble across a few centuries of history leading up to the European “age of discovery” largely seen through the prism of mapmakers, especially a certain Waldseemüller, who in 1507 first printed “America” on a map of the hemisphere from which I am now writing.  We got a fresh look at some familiar figures like Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus and some wonderfully-told new (to most of us) stories.  Have you heard of Prester John?

The Fourth Part of the World reminds us that Columbus was nowhere near the first to conceive of the world as round, and it tells the story of many approximations close and not so close of the actual size of the globe, and the gradual discovery by Europeans of the true arrangement of the continents and their contents.  Looking at the beautiful plates I was reminded that while today’s schoolchildren are pretty clear on the roundness of the earth, they might not be as clear on the arrangement or content of the lands upon it.

Perhaps you remember last Fall’s grumbling about non-educational globes for sale at Target?  Well, a quick scan of DonorsChoose shows over 100 classrooms in the US in need of globes and maps.  So, as if you haven’t been harangued enough on this blog to do some good in the world, I urge you to consider giving some of your holiday charity budget to one of these worthy projects – our children need the best understanding of the shape of the world and its different people that they can get.

Notes on used books, notes in used books

I’m a big proponent of the rights of authors to profit from the sale of their work, but I’m also a fan of the first-sale doctrine that lets me give away, lend or sell my copy of that work once I legally acquire it.  So, while I am mindful that when I buy a used book (or borrow one) I’m not contributing to author royalties, I support used bookstores for several reasons:

  • they make more books available to more people who are price-sensitive
  • they are the only way to get books that are out of print
  • sometimes, you find something interesting in a used book that you would never find in a new one: an inscription or notes, or a bookmark or some other ephemera

That last one, by the way, is something that future generations of digital book buyers will probably never know they’re missing.  See my recent posts on Kindle-related stuff for more on ebooks and intellectual property.  But it’s also worth noting that Google books, by scanning books, sometimes preserves this old stuff.  Check out page 8 of Google’s scan of a 1905 edition of Wuthering Heights for a taste.

Anyway… I popped in to my local used book emporium, Rodney’s Bookstore, this week seeking a copy of Wuthering Heights for book club. (My desire to contribute to author royalties and publisher revenues diminishes with the deadness of the author.)  I found three paperback copies in totally different editions and varying conditions, priced from $1.90 to $4.80.

One was a standard-issue trade paperback, part of some classic series.  It was in very good condition and the most expensive of the lot.

Next up, a Kaplan SAT Score-Raising Classic edition, billed on the Harlequin Romance inspired cover as “The Classic Novel with 763 SAT Vocabulary Words Identified and Defined!” The definitions were on the facing page to the text, swelling this edition to over 600 pages.  The bold SAT words might be a little distracting, but this one was well-proportioned and a relative bargain at $3.80.

Finally, the highbrow edition.  A St. Martin’s Press press trade paperback with a heavy paper cover, boasting the 1847 text and essays from “five contemporary critical perspectives” namely, psychoanalytic, feminist, deconstruction, Marxist, and cultural criticism.  Wow.  The downside, marked in pencil on the flyleaf, “$1.90 AS IS ROUGH” It was beat up, but appeared complete and had no highlighting or underlining, which are generally deal-breakers for me when buying a book.

Each edition certainly had its merits, but until I got my purchase home, I didn’t know the extent.  Here’s something you probably won’t ever see in your Kindle.

...it was all for a good reason...

PS I also bought the Kaplan edition, just for laughs, and just in case I need to look up a word.  What does “Wuthering” mean anyway?

CEOs don’t matter unless they’re boring; the rest of us should read more

People like to beat up on CEOs.  I figure it’s part of the job, but recently in a short span of time, I came across one article saying that CEOs don’t matter that much at all, and another suggesting that they should be boring.

The Atlantic trotted out some research about the actual impact of charismatic CEOs on the performance of their companies.  I was particularly amused that the URL names Steve Jobs without anything about CEOs in general.  Then, I saw David Brooks’ essay in the New York Times in which he opens with “Should CEOs read more novels?” and goes on to say the answer is no because they don’t actually need to have the depth of thought that novel-reading seems to engender.

I was offended on behalf of literature more than on behalf of the CEOs.  They can take it, I figure.  But I do firmly believe that everybody who can should make time in their lives for fiction.  I don’t mean it has to be novels, or even writing.  I mean people should make room for imaginative thought and storytelling, which could come from many kinds of media.

Brooks goes on to explain why he thinks that the skills and personality traits that make successful businesspeople, politicians and academics are fundamentally different.  I can’t completely disagree, but I think all of those groups could benefit from a little dabbling in the materials and traits of the others.  I’m a gourmand that way, I guess.

I’ve been on a high-fiber non-fiction diet lately, with Harvard Business Review, The Worst Hard Time, Uncharitable and now Thinking in Pictures occupying my queue.  And I don’t regret those choices at all – all good stuff that’s expanding my thinking.

But I saw the film, The Limits of Control last week and while some reviews have been mixed, I can safely say it was thought-provoking in an entirely different way.  Not just because it was a film – I’ve read books that were similarly jarring and fascinating at the same time. I can’t tell you that this movie will make me better at doing my job in any identifiable way, but I consider it a valuable mental workout to think differently on a regular basis, exercising both hemispheres equally if possible.

In business school, a place where the purely intellectual and artistic are often sidelined in favor of the practical (and I think I went to a more egg-headed b-school than most), I resolutely stuck with novel-reading and told everybody who would listen that they should do the same.

And now I’m in a book club half populated with business school classmates.  None of us are CEOs yet, and none of us are boring. Go figure.