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Bookish Diversions: The Incredible Shrinking Bestseller
Plus: Bob Dylan, the Birth of Egghead Paperbacks, Origen on Never-ending Research, More
Bookish Diversions is a new periodic feature of Miller’s Book Review 📚. When I find bits and pieces worth your time, I’ll drop them here. Hope you enjoy. Feel free to leave a comment below on any item that interests you.
¶ The incredible shrinking book? Bestselling books are getting shorter and shorter, according to a study of almost 3,500 New York Times bestsellers from 2011 to 2021. “The digital age brought a huge increase of various types of content fighting for people’s time and attention,” says researcher Dimitrije Curcic. One solution? Less intimidating—that is, shorter—books. And, honestly, I’m a fan. Authors and editors do us all a service by delivering books no longer than needed.
¶ Speaking of bestsellers: “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” I find this quote, attributed Haruki Murakami, fraught but interesting. A while back I shared it on Twitter. I quickly discovered it drives podcaster Erik Rostad crazy! He makes some good points about it on his podcast, Books of Titans.
¶ Egghead paperbacks? Here’s a great read about marketing serious nonfiction in the middle twentieth century: “One day in the early 1950s, an editorial assistant at Doubleday was walking across Central Park with his boss when he asked whether the company couldn’t publish quality paperbacks to sell in bookstores. The young man, named Jason Epstein, had an idea for a new line of sturdy, affordable editions of ‘books of permanent value’ in literature, history, religion, philosophy, and the arts, and he was confident that bookstore patrons would go for them.” He was right!
¶ Origen explains why research never really ends: “No created mind has the ability to comprehend completely. But as our mind discovers some small part of the goal it seeks, it notices other problems which call out for investigation; and when it comes to terms with them, it sees many more problems arising from them which must be explored.” Cited in Karlfried Froehlich’s Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church.
¶ “Everything worth doing takes time,” said Bob Dylan in 2016 when speaking about his Nobel Prize. I was recently thinking about this quote and roadblocks to achieving goals. And that reminded me of the following line from Dylan’s song, “Honest with Me”: “Lot of things can get in the way when you’re tryin’ to do what’s right.” One of those obstacles is our own lack of skill or knowhow. “You have to write a hundred bad songs before you write one good one,” Dylan said in the same 2016 interview. Another obstacle is cost. “You have to sacrifice a lot of things that you might not be prepared for,” he said.
¶ As long as we’re talking Bob Dylan, it turns out you should think twice, baby. It’s not alright to quote Bob Dylan lyrics. And not just Dylan—there’s nothing more vexing in publishing than securing rights for quoting song lyrics. Most editors I know just tell their authors avoid it. When I was in publishing, we followed a simple rubric: If the quote was one or two lines only, we figured it fell under fair use and we could let it slide; anything longer and you risked paying out the nose. Normally, the author bears the cost for securing permissions—but not always. I once had an author whose husband was a popular musician. She wanted to quote from several of his songs in her memoir. Her contract stipulated the publisher had to cover permissions, including every one of those songs. I won’t say how much it was. But ouch.
¶ Reading to sleep. We often read before bed, the book bobbing in our hands before we finally set it on the nightstand. King Ahasuerus has someone read him the archives to help him fall asleep (Esther 6.1). Suetonius tells us the emperor Augustus required readers for the same purpose (Twelve Caesars 2.78). At the end of a long day, a hot bath might also make us sleepy. I love reading in the bathtub and have done so for decades. This feels doubly risky, but amazingly, though I’m sometimes quite sleepy, I’ve only dropped two book under the suds.
¶ Need help writing stories that don’t put people to sleep? Aristotle has some advice. “I learned that Aristotle was much smarter than me in pretty much everything, including how to tell a story.”
¶ Tough-guy one-liners in action movies: Yeah, ancient literature had those too.
¶ Finally, can tweaking font weights accelerate your reading? A new startup thinks so. A thousand years ago (give or take), monks began separating words in manuscripts. Believe it or not, before that all the words in books RANTOGETHERLIKETHIS. Separating words allowed people to identify word-shapes instead of teasing out syllables FROMDENSECLUSTERSOFLETTERS. This new innovation, called Bionic Reading, seems to accelerate word-shape identification by emphasizing just part of the word and letting the brain predict the rest. Will this innovation prove as helpful as word separation? We’ll know in a thousand years (give or take).
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