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At The Margin
Vol. 1, Issue 11
Wednesday, September 20, 2000

Details, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.

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This Issue:
1. Mark Twain and U.S. Grant
2. Is the E-Book a Niche Product?
3. Time-Limited Books and Jailed Readers
4. As Not Seen on Television
5. Messages to the Editor
6. Do You Know Me?
7. Blue Underlined Words

1. Mark Twain and U.S. Grant
The year was 1870, and Mark Twain (who then had only one book, Innocents Abroad, to his credit) sat in silence across the desk from the most famous man in America (and perhaps the world), Ulysses S. Grant. The two sat for some time without saying anything until finally Twain remarked, "Mr. President, I seem to be a little embarrassed. Are you?"

Grant did not enjoy the joke apparently, and Twain later wrote that he "smiled a smile that would have done no discredit to a cast-iron image." The two met again about a decade later, and Grant said, "I am not embarrassed, are you?"

It took a long time for the friendship between Mark Twain and Ulysses Grant to get established. They were at once very similar and very different men. Both had lives marked by repeated failures, and both approached the verge of bankruptcy on more than one occasion. Both became world famous. But where Grant was the architect of victory in the American Civil War, Twain had more or less deserted the Confederate Army in 1861 to seek his fortune in the west.

After his second term as President, Grant got involved with a disastrous business venture and was thrown into poverty. He wrote some stories about the war for a magazine that were very well received, and the editor of the magazine suggested he write a book. Mark Twain learned the details of the editor's offer and claimed Grant was being cheated. He prevailed on Grant to publish with his own firm, Charles L. Webster and Company. Along the way, Grant learned that he had a tumor in his throat and decided the book project would be how he would provide for his wife after his death. Twain was able to read the galleys of Grant's autobiography, and at one point he learned that Grant was interested in his opinion of the quality of the book. Twain said he was as "surprised as Columbus's cook would have been to learn that Columbus wanted his opinion as to how Columbus was doing his navigating."

Grant died four days after completing his book. In the final stages of the writing, he could no longer speak and communicated with those around him by writing notes. Twain saw the book into production, and it was such an enormous success that Twain was able to present Grant's widow with a check for $200,000, the largest royalty check that had ever been written. Grant's autobiography is widely regarded as a masterpiece, which is remarkable, given that it was the man's only book.

Mark Twain's own autobiography is not regarded as a masterful specimen of the genre. It is beautiful in places and heartfelt, but he wrote it over 40 years, and it has been through several radically different editions as successive generations of editors have attempted to reorganize it into a coherent story.

There is an outstanding essay by Rachel Cohen about the U.S. Grant-Mark Twain friendship at the Doubletake Magazine site:

2. Is The E-book a Niche Product?
Media commentators are fond of saying Stephen King's experiment with a downloadable, honor-payment book has struck fear into the hearts of publishers. But if you give the matter more thought than the average media commentator, you can see how far wrong they are. King serves two distinct markets: those who desperately want his latest work and those who want something to read on the bus (or in the bathroom or in bed). Few people take a computer into bathroom or try to use one on a bus, so King can serve the former group without cannibalizing sales from the latter. Publishers should be able to look at the situation in the same way.

Real books will probably always be around, just because of the bathroom-bus-bed factor. But the e-book is beginning to be a surprisingly interesting niche product. Consider the backlists of academic publishers. After sales to a few libraries and the author's family, The Genesis of Discourse Grammar or Pergamon's Role in Hellenistic Sculpture is likely to just sit in the warehouse, costing money (because storage, especially book storage, isn't free). Yet the need for such books, if not overwhelming, is enduring.

Now there's a company called netLibrary that is seducing university presses into putting their backlists online. It has gotten the University of California Press to put more than a thousand books online. The company then sells the books to libraries without any shipping or handling hassles. In addition to providing "copies" of the books that can be downloaded, netLibrary offers print on demand to its library customers. One medium-sized university press is now receiving monthly checks on the order of 60 to 100 grand.

NetLibrary isn't the only company trying to make an e-book business model pay off. There is also a company digitizing books to put them on the Internet, with user payment by the download or by the printed page. There's also a company that charges people a monthly or annual fee for unlimited access to its books. There is another company that sells subscriptions to information technology departments of companies and other organizations. In return for the subscription, a company gets access to the latest computer books through its website.

Not all these business models will succeed. But at least one of them must, because e-publishing of obscure books is entirely too valuable a service to not work. Researchers (as opposed to casual readers) love e-books because you can search them for words or phrases and sometimes perform electronic analyses on them. And anyone who has ever done graduate work can tell you that some books are priceless at the same time that 99.9999 percent of humanity has no use for them. With the costs of storage and marginal production near zero, the e-book may be the means to help us preserve obscure knowledge that could otherwise be, if not lost, forever hidden in some university press warehouse.

You can read a story about netLibrary at the Lingua Franca site:

3. Time-limited Books and Jailed Readers
Speaking of e-books (and I promise I'll stop after this item), there is a North Carolina-based company called Vital Source Technologies, Inc. that just got a deal with Harcourt, Inc. to license and distribute content. The deal is for a slew of Harcourt dental textbooks. Vital Source digitizes all the books and puts them on a DVD-ROM.

Now here's the interesting part. Vital Source works with different dental schools to tailor their DVDs to the schools' curricula and reading lists. Now, you can start dental school and on the first day buy a DVD that includes all your textbooks for the entire program. Vital Source's press release points out that this has the benefit (in addition to the unstated one of saving people the energy of lugging around big dental books) of giving students a cross-volume searchable system. You can, in other words, find out what any of about 100 books says about cavities with a single query. The press release about the Harcourt deal is at the Vital Source site:

Now here's the really interesting part. A correspondent at the Slashdot site says Vital Source is providing time-limited books, i.e., the books expire, presumably when you're done with them. I don't know if what this person says is true, because I couldn't find anything at the Vital Source website about time-limiting. But technically it would be trivial to program in a shelf-life. Furthermore, the Slashdot correspondent says that when the second part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act goes into effect on October 28, you could face a civil lawsuit and criminal penalties of up to five years in jail and a fine of $500,000 for reading someone else's textbook. ( I haven't read the DMCA, and I don't know if that's true, but it does indeed sound like the kind of restrictions corporations are attempting to put on "content" these days. A word to the wise: don't ignore the DMCA. It could put restrictions on the flow of information, not through censorship, but through ownership.

4. As Not Seen on Television
Geoffrey O'Brien has written an article describing five 19th century novels that have never been made into Masterpiece Theater serials: Confessions of a Thug (1839) by Philip Meadows Taylor is story of a young member of Thugee, the underground cult of murder and robbery that appeared in India in the 1800s. The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monk Hall (1844) by George Lippard is a novel about the systematic seduction and abuse of working-class girls by the powerful. O'Brien says the book "veers relentlessly into dementia," but haunts you with its images. Armadale (1866) by Wilkie Collins is a story of "secret crimes, prophetic dreams, stolen identities" and heaps of melodrama. Thais (1890) by Anatole France takes place in Egypt during the early Christian era and presents what is now a timeless story of "the sexually repressed clergyman and the bad girl gone good." New Grub Street (1891) by George Gissing is another timeless story, this time about budding authors being destroyed with "slow and cruel meticulousness" by the marketplace. See the article at

5. Messages to the Editor
So Un-Internet
i just received the AVH newsletter for the first time. how wonderful. as i already to wrote a friend, i'm forwarding you the ave victor hugo bookstore newsletter because it is so literate, so intelligent, so boston, so un-internet-business-garbage-hype. good medicine.

love your epitaph.


From Boston to Hawaii
This message has no particular bearing on the latest issue of At The Margin per se. I just wanted to let you know that I look forward to every issue that appears in my in-box and thoroughly enjoy every passage. ATM brings topics to my attention (e.g., Thomas Kuhn) that would never have otherwise entered my sphere of being and I thank you for that. You provide me with a treat to be found nowhere else! So, keep up the good work, from Hawaii to Boston you are very much appreciated.

Mahalo and Aloha,

C. Crawford

The Corporate Nightmare
I would be interested in finding out more about your novels, and particularly your definition of "Corporate Nightmare." I would say that much of the work of Iain Banks would fall into this category and even a portion of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, envisioning as both do corporate culture gone amok. Or, is it more along the lines of Microserfs (author's name escapes me) which is much more straightforward in depicting corporate culture as it currently exists. I would love to hear your thoughts on this, if you have the time.

Thank you,


Loann E. West

[Editor's Reply: Sensing the possibility of gaining a reader for my novels (they aren't all that abundant, believe me), I wrote back to Ms. West directly. My message said, in part, "The way I practice the corporate nightmare, it is a story in which realistic, sympathetic characters try to cope with life in a workplace where things have gone wrong in a surrealistic way. The company might have developed a culture in which the only way to get a promotion is to murder a higher-up, or it might be under the management of a vampire." Other readers who want to know can read about my novels at my website ( or at the website of my publisher ( I'll say no more, in the interests of muting the self-promotion.]

Another Story from the Bookstore
So one of Elisabeth's friends was sailing around the world with her parents when she was about 12 years old. They were cruising across the Pacific, and for pretty much the whole trip the friend had been reading Stephen King's It. You know how thick that is, so it could take a trip around the world to read. Anyway the kid's father asked her to do something, but she was too enthralled by the book and just kept reading. Asked again, no response. Hello? Kid still reading, at which point the book was snatched out of her hand and heaved over the side into the ocean. She was only 10 pages from the end and for the next half hour proceeded to throw a tantrum. Finally her parents said all right we're going to turn the boat around, and they did. They sailed back in the general direction they'd come from and lo and behold, there was the book floating along, sort of like Queequeg's coffin. Kid fished it out and it was still readable so she finished the book. So if you're ever on a sinking boat (or there's a version of Survivor called Sunk) make sure you have the thickest Stephen King book you can carry.


Tom Owen
Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop

More on Eric Hodgins, Last Month's "Do You Know Me?"
Dear Floyd,
Gerry forwarded Issue 10 to me recently, and I wanted to tell you how fascinating the section on my father was. You told me two things I didn't know -- first, about the memex memo, and second, that there's a current paperback edition of Dream House. Sounds as though copies are not selling like hotcakes, but still, it seems to me that I should have some royalties coming. And in fact that I should have known about the new edition. Hmph. RKO last year bought an option for movie/TV rights, but it's expired.

If you're really into Hodginsiana, you should know that my father left an unfinished autobiography when he died. It was published virtually unedited, which is a shame, because it needed lots of tightening up; however, if you're interested, it's called Trolley to the Moon and was published by Simon and Schuster. I'm sorry I don't have an extra copy or I'd send it to you. The one chapter that didn't need editing is the one describing his first wife's death in childbirth, which is just searing.

My father also wrote, pre-Blandings, a history of aircraft called Sky High and a book about trains (and maybe steam engines in general -- it's been a while since I looked at it) called Behemoth, both with a coauthor splendidly named F. Alexander Magoun. Sky High is quite good, with lots of photos. And a final tidbit: Episode was translated into French, and its title was rendered Mon Cerveau Ne Fonctionnne Plus, which has always tickled me.

Patty Hodgins

[Editor's Note to Readers: Your editor did not consult Patty Hodgins in the preparation of last issue's item on Eric Hodgins, but he is delighted to provide the disclaimer that she is a friend of more than 30 years' standing. Meeting her was just one of the extraordinary benefits your editor realized in marrying the aforementioned Gerry in 1968.]

At The Margin has 623 readers, most of whom are interested in what you have to say about books or items you have read in ATM. Send a message to the editor and get those thoughts out to 622 others. Please limit your comment to 200 words and send it to ATM's editor, Floyd Kemske (

6. Do You Know Me?
For those who like puzzles as well as books, this department brings you the first sentence of a novel, currently out of print in the U.S., by a famous writer. The name of the author and title of the book will be in the next issue, so write your guess down. If you want to send me your guess, email it to

Please include your name (so I can congratulate you in this space if you're correct) and let me know if you recognized the writer's style or if you know the book, or both.

This Issue's Sentence:
Of all the myriad dawns which had broken over the dark Wald this one was the most beautiful, because never before had nature been afforded to much assistance.

I'm waiting for your guesses.

Last Issue's Sentence:
The warning message arrived on Monday, the bomb itself on Wednesday.

One reader guessed Dr. Fischer of Geneva by Graham Greene, which reminds me of why it is so much fun to edit At The Margin. The guess isn't correct, but it's both well-informed and perceptive.

The sentence is from The Care of Time by Eric Ambler. Here's the whole paragraph:

"The warning message arrived on Monday, the bomb itself on Wednesday. It became a busy week."

There is a kind of story, familiar to movie-goers of the 1950s and 1960s, in which an ordinary person, going about his business, is accidentally involved in some sort of international intrigue. The hero then winds up in a series of suspenseful escapes as he tries to get his life back to normal. The Man Who Knew Too Much, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is a well-known example of the type. Many people, however, believe that Eric Ambler invented that kind of story. And he wrote a number of them. Still others claim he originated the espionage fiction that dominated the 1970s.

Eric Ambler was born in London in 1909. In the 1920s, he attended the University of London, where he won an engineering scholarship. When he left the university, he became an advertising copy writer. He wrote advertising until 1935, taking time one season to work as an actor, comedian, and songwriter (his parents were show business people). By 1937, he was the director of an ad agency and he had two novels in print: The Dark Frontier (1936) and Uncommon Danger (1937). He resigned the ad agency and moved to Paris to devote more time to writing. During the war, he was in the British Army in North Africa and Italy and he received a Bronze Star.

Ambler wrote at least 29 books between 1936 and 1993. They were mostly novels, but there was a story collection and an autobiography among them. Discussions of his fiction usually list A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939), Journey into Fear (1940), Judgment on Delchev (1951), Passage of Arms (1959), To Catch a Spy (1964), and The Levanter (1972). On at least five of his books, you will not find his name, but he is listed as co-author (with C. Rodda) under the pseudonym Eliot Reed. In addition, he created two television shows: Checkmate and The Most Deadly Game. He collaborated on the scripts for the Alfred Hitchcock films Jamaica Inn and Rebecca. Only two of his books appear to be reliably in print, but his stuff sold very well when it was published, and you can easily find used copies. A Google search for Eric Ambler yielded 7,170 web pages, many of which are dealers offering his books for sale.

He died in 1998, at the age of 89.

7. Blue Underlined Words
I follow a lot of links in the course of compiling this letter, and some of the pages I visit look like they may be interesting or useful to you. I have only visited them and know nothing about them beyond what I could gather from the visit. So I'm not endorsing anything, just bringing it to your attention. Click at your own risk.

Keeping Tabs on Voodoo Science
The "What's New" page of The American Physical Society carries regular reports on nonsense posing as science, including specious patents, the missile defense system, pet-cloning, and who knows what. The page is run by Bob Park, who is currently recovering from surgery. Let's hope he gets well soon to continue the good fight.

Knowing Psychos on Sight
This article describes a study in which volunteers looked at photographs of faces and rated them for neuroticism, extroversion, and psychoticism. The ratings for neuroticism and extroversion were a bust, but the scores tallied closely with independent scores for psychoticism. The article speculates that evolution equipped us to recognize psychotics because they make poor mates.

The National Story Project
The first Saturday of every month, novelist Paul Auster reads a handful of stories sent in by listeners to Weekend All Things Considered on National Public Radio. They are short, often touching, sometimes funny. They are archived here.

Soon's Historical Fiction Site
Soon Y. Choi created the rec.arts.books.hist-fiction Newsgroup. This site provides lists of historical fiction authors, links to reference books, links to new and current historical fiction reviews, stuff on subcategories (historical mysteries, regencies, etc.), and all kinds of resources.

Financial Fiction
I continue to be amazed at what you can find on the web. This site is devoted to what it calls "The Financial Fiction Genre." It has sections for "From Chaucer to the Victorian Era," "From the Dawn of the American Century to the Cold War," and several more periods as well as a section for finance in other fictional categories. If you've been having trouble finding a banking novel, this is the place to look.

If you liked this issue of At The Margin, forward it to a friend, and encourage him or her to subscribe.

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