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At The Margin
Vol. 2, Issue 2 (Whole Issue #16)
Wednesday February 28, 2001

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

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This issue of At The Margin is sponsored by Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop. "Most of our rights have already been traded away by those who prefer the safety of government control to the anarchy of individual freedom. Very few people understand the Faustian bargain they have made. This shop is dedicated to those who have rejected the bargain. It is open to those who might reconsider." Come see us at 339 Newbury Street in Boston or visit our website:

Editor's Note: Readers should be aware that sponsorship of At The Margin does not imply endorsement of (or even agreement with!) anything you read in this issue. The editor, in fact, hardly considers an issue successful if he hasn't offended the sponsor a little bit.

This Issue:
1. The Larger Meaning of Oprah's Picks?
2. The Small Press Business
3. At Least It Provides a Good Living for Analysts
4. This Is Not Another Rant About "Intellectual Property Rights"
5. Messages to the Editor
7. Do You Know Me?
8. Blue Underlined Words

1. The Larger Meaning of Oprah's Picks?
Alfred Kazin, in an item in The Los Angeles Times, described Oprah's Book Club as the "carpet bombing of the American mind." It is tempting to dismiss Oprah's invasion of literature as televised pap; it is, after all, television. And it is likely that nearly all writers despise the Oprah phenomenon. This is because an Oprah pick will push a writer into the next tax bracket, and it can, by definition, favor only a handful. Besides, the woman is already as rich as Croesus. Should she be allowed to dictate literary taste as well?

But maybe there's another side.

Carrie Snyder points out in an article called "Hurray for Oprah Books" in The National Post that it's no small feat to make book discussions entertaining television, particularly for those in the audience who haven't yet read the book.

Oprah's book segments feature backgrounders and author interviews, but the focus of a Book Club show is a discussion between the author and some readers. It being Oprah, the readers tend to respond to the books under discussion personally, which always runs the risk of degenerating into "I liked this..." or "I didn't like that part because the character reminded me of..." These kinds of personal responses don't make for the most thoughtful book discussions.

Then again, isn't the role of literature (besides providing a living for critics) to change our lives? What could be more personal? "A book should serve as the axe for the frozen sea inside of us," said Franz Kafka. There is a way in which Oprah is teaching much of the country to respond to books in a personal way, and if we can get past the daytime television aspect of it, there may be no better way to respond to them.

Almost none of this is original thinking with me. You can find Carrie Snyder's article online at the website of The National Post:

2. The Small Press Business
You may notice bookshops featuring more small press books this month, since March is Small Press Month. What sounds like an occasion to send a card to your favorite small press is actually a promotional occasion sponsored by the Small Press Center and the Publisher's Marketing Association (PMA).

It's easy to overlook small press publishing, because all the news in the publishing business is dominated by large publishers, who have the largest promotional budgets and therefore purchase the most news coverage. But it is a mistake to think that large publishers are all there is to the publishing industry. In 1997 (the year of a study by the Book Industry Study Group), there were 53,479 smaller and independent publishers in the U.S.

The difference between big publishers and small publishers is more than a difference in size. There is also, as a general rule, a significant difference in business strategy. For small publishers, the creation of books is a business. For large ones, it tends to be a promotional medium. Small publishers develop authors and build backlists, while large ones fill chain store remainder tables building tie-ins and trying to create blockbusters. I leave it to you to decide which business strategy makes more of a contribution to civilization. Just note that no major literary character ever became part of a Happy Meal(TM) without first being thoroughly debased.

In the end, it is smaller and independent publishers that build the book business. In 1997, for example, there were 1,433,762 titles listed in Books in Print, 1,102,813 of which were titles of smaller and independent publishers (that's 77%). That year, the small presses that had passed the five-year mark (a watershed for small publishers), continued to sell more than three-quarters of all the titles they had ever published.

Publishing is a unique industry in that the largest players are the ones that behave like fly-by-night operations, while the long-term business is done by the small organizations. The highlight of Small Press Month occurs on March 15, when the PMA releases its study of book industry returns, which lie at the heart of the dysfunctional and corrupt distribution system that dominates book retailing and mercilessly squeezes small presses. Don't hope for much, though. The PMA's goal is to "start a dialog." The press release for Small Press Month is at the PMA website: The press release and summary of the 1997 study is at Book Industry Study Group:

3. At Least It Provides a Good Living for Analysts
"For all its ups and downs, there's one group of people has consistently been good to: Wall Street analysts. Internet bubble celebrities like Morgan Stanley Dean Witter's Mary Meeker and Merrill Lynch's Henry Blodget rode to prominence in large part on Amazon's coattails as they cheered the company on." From "The Amazon Slasher," a February 27 article at the Industry Standard website. The rest of the article goes on to explain that the latest celebrity is a man who is making a reputation by questioning the company's credit worthiness. The article is at,1151,22397,00.html.

4. This Is Not Another Rant about "Intellectual Property Rights"
VolumeOne Publishing in Chicago decided to create an electronic replica of the 1865 Macmillan edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which is in the public domain. The staff set the text in a typeface called Monotype Modern, the nearest PostScript match to the 19th century typeface (known as Modern Extended) that was used in the original. An artist named John Tenniel recreated the original 42 illustrations. The result was a truly handsome volume, which was then released on to the Internet in three versions: a PDF file (you've seen me write about those before), a BookVirtual Digital Edition (I don't know what that is), and a Glassbook edition (readable on Adobe's e-commerce-enabled version of Acrobat Reader).

The Glassbook version came with the following restrictions: "No text selections can be copied from this book to the clipboard. No printing is permitted on this book. This book cannot be lent or given to someone else. This book cannot be given to someone else. This book cannot be read aloud."

Needless to say, a restriction that prohibits you from reading a children's book aloud provoked a storm of protest, as well it might. If ever there was a "fair use" of a book, reading aloud would be it. Adobe came in for a lot of flaming in online discussions over the restriction. But Adobe was dismayed, because the restriction was only intended to inform users that the software's "Read Aloud" feature was disabled in order to avoid possible problems with agreements for audio rights. Adobe could use some editorial help in composing its restriction messages. In any event, Adobe may have backed off, because I downloaded the Glassbook version and I couldn't find the "Read Aloud" statement anywhere.

The full story is in an article at The Industry Standard:,1151,22377,00.html. The Glassbook version of the book is free, and you can download it here:

5. Messages to the Editor
Nice Notes from Readers about ATM #15
Your publication has given me pleasure and proven that we are never too old to learn. Please continue the education.
J.J. Coyle

Your suggestion to improve reading comprehension of Beowulf by changing "lo" to "word up" induced, after I almost spit my coffee on my keyboard, a fit of laughter that still has my co-workers giving me strange looks.
Love the newsletter -- keep up the good work.
Cheers -- M.E. Nelson

Grrrrreat issue -- maybe the best ever.
1. I am horrified at the guy who tears up books. Savage.
2. Twain, you know, served in the Civil War (for about a month).
Brian Doyle

Backward Told Stories (Responses to Item in ATM #15)
Speaking of the backward plot, the first thought that will leap to many peoples' heads is the Harold Pinter piece, Betrayal, which was a play and also an entertaining movie. I've used it when I was having trouble writing long stories. I knew the beginning and the end, but not the middle, so I'd start at the end and then ask what happened just before this, and before that, and before that, till I got far enough back to see where I was supposed to be starting from.
Tom Owen
Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop

Martin Amis's Time's Arrow was told backwards, I believe. The movie Betrayal, based on a Harold Pinter play, was told backwards. Also, there is a novel that came out in the last 10 years, First Light by Charles Baxter, that tells the story of a grown brother and sister backwards. A beautifully written book.

Floydske --
I continue to enjoy ATM and have passed it along to the literate on my email list. One lovely learning from a previous issue was that the author of one of my favorite books on the history of technology (Behemoth) was also the author of one of my wife's favorite movies' story line (Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House).

For backward told tales: I did not read the book but cannot forget a review published in the 90s wherein the Holocaust is told backwards. The ashes shoveled into the crematoria, the smoke pulled back down the stacks, the still bodies now reconstituted brought back to the big shower rooms and laid softly on the floor, the hair, gold teeth, clothing, and jewelry, collected from generous citizens all over Germany, returned to the sleeping owners, the big doors shut and the poisons pulled from the bodies, their joyful reunions with their loved ones, the arrival of the trains that take them back to their homes, the old friends that come alive on the trip, the return to their beloved homes, the giving back by all the members of the community of property held for safekeeping in their absence. I could not stand to read it.
Best to you and Gerry.
George M. Greider

P.S. An electronic/Print on Demand edition of Forever Man is scheduled this year by iUniverse with a dreadful image of the protagonist on the cover. My fey, snobbish Phillip is shown as a left-handed smoker with a thick gold neck chain and an Atlantic-City-style, pave diamond sparkler on his middle finger. The publisher told me that was all he could find. Oh well, I am sure the original pulp publisher illustrated Kurt Vonnegut's Sirens of Titan with torn-blouse babes, so who am I to lodge aesthetic protest?

[Note to Readers: George's book, Forever Man, was first published in 1995 by Pennycorner Press. I wrote a dust jacket blurb for it in which I described it as "enormously entertaining," and I meant it. The book he was thinking of when he wrote this note is one Andy cited in his message: Time's Arrow by Martin Amis (1991).]

At The Margin has 862 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 861 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 book, 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
A resident magistracy in Ireland is not an easy thing to come by nowadays; neither is it a very attractive job; yet on the evening when I first propounded the idea to the young lady who had recently consented to become Mrs. Sinclair Yeates, it seemed glittering with possibilities.

I'm waiting for your guesses.

Last Issue's Sentence
Twice in his life a woman asked Lancelot for his love.

There was one guess this time: Walker Percy.

It wasn't correct. The line is from Galahad by John Erskine. I want to thank Tom Owen of Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop for suggesting this book. You should thank him, too, because John Erskine is a real find, and you will look in vain for substantive information about him on the web. He seems to be one of those authors who was too popular to be studied as a major literary figure and too literary to have a large base of fans. And nobody has made a website for him.

At this point, I usually give you the entire first paragraph of the book, but this time I want to give you the first page and a half, because the tone strikes me as subtly ironic and I enjoyed it:

Twice in his life a woman asked Lancelot for his love. Two very different women, both named Elaine. But as all the world knows, Lancelot cared for no woman except Guinevere.

To take the second incident first. In his middle age he came to the house of Sir Bernard of Astolat, who had a daughter. She was called Elaine the White, from her appearance and because she knew nothing of the world. This is the Elaine we usually hear of. The old books say she loved Lancelot incurably and died of it. Their words at parting are recorded.

"I would have you for my husband."

"I thank you," said Lancelot, "but I shall never be married man."

"Then, fair knight, will you be my paramour?"

"God forbid!" said he. "Your family would not like it."

"Then alas," said she, "I must die of love."

"Don't," said he. "I might have been married before this, if I had applied myself to it. It's too late now. But since you feel about it as you say, I will do what I can. When you marry -- oh yes, you will -- I promise a part of my lands to you and your heirs, and as long as I live I will be your true knight."

"No," she said, "--not unless you will marry me, or at least be my paramour."

"Fair damsel," said Lancelot, "from these two things I must be excused."

When he said he might have married before, he was not thinking of Guinevere. He was remembering his youth. There had been another Elaine, King Pelles' daughter. She too had offered herself, heart and body, and though at first he had said no, in the end he tired of saying it. Galahad was their son.

The tone of this passage is very much in keeping with the novel's full title: Galahad: Enough of his Life to Explain his Reputation. The book was published in 1926 by The Bobbs-Merrill Company.

Erskine wrote more than 45 books, including the novels The Private Life of Helen of Troy (1925) and Adam and Eve (1927). His nonfiction books include The Literary Discipline (1923), The Delight of Great Books (1928), and What Is Music? (1944). He was born in 1879 and died in 1951. He was a university professor, having taught English at Amherst College and Columbia University. He was coeditor of The Cambridge History of American Literature. But he was more than a writer and professor. He was president of the Julliard School of Music 1928-1937. And when he was in his late forties, he began performing as a concert pianist. He also left three autobiographical works: The Memory of Certain Persons (1947), My Life as a Writer (1951), and My Life in Music (1950). He was the father of the "great books" programs that you can still find at most colleges and universities.

His most popular book was The Private Life of Helen of Troy, which was a best-seller in 1926 and which was made into a (silent) movie of the same name that was nominated for an academy award in the category "Title Writing" in 1927. It was the first year of the awards and the only year an award was made in that category. Presumably titles were much more award-worthy when films were silent. The book appeared as a mass-market paperback in the 1940s, and the publisher, Popular Library, claimed it had sold half a million copies in hardbound, which is pretty impressive for a hardbound book from that period, but there's no reason to suppose flap copy was any more honest in the 1940s than it is today. The paperback edition achieved some notoriety for the famous "nipple cover," which featured an illustration by an artist named Bergey. Just beneath the sell-line "Her lust caused the Trojan War," is a picture of Helen in one of those sheer gowns that passes for classical Grecian style in comic books. The nipples of her bullet-shaped breasts are clearly outlined in the material.

I guess I've strayed pretty far from John Erskine here, but I think it's very interesting the way a book can be used by the vagaries of commerce. Right beside Helen on the paperback dust jacket (about even with her navel, which also visible through her gown) is the phrase "complete and unexpurgated." I assume this was added to enhance its appeal to those readers who might make their purchase decision based on the nipples of the cover model, since I doubt there is an expurgated version of the book floating around. But I imagine Erskine's reputation as a novelist will survive the famous nipple cover, even if only among the readers of At The Margin.

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.

Commentary on the Web Economy
The Web Economy Bullshit Generator uses a one-from-column-A-one-from- column-B approach to generate phrases you can use at business meetings. You click a button and it gives you a phrase consisting of three elements, calculated to amaze your friends and confound your enemies. When we tried it, we got "orchestrate strategic relationships."

The Savings of Former Slaves
In 1865, Congress chartered the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company to help former slaves build savings and establish their finances. The bank amassed deposits totaling $57 million before it was forced into collapse in 1874 by fraud and mismanagement. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints has produced a database of nearly half a million names of depositors. The Church sells this information on a CD for $6.50. Useful for geneaological work, but also for maybe gaining an understanding of yet another way in which African Americans were cheated out of the fruit of their labor.

Don't Be a Book Vandal
An article in The Washington Post explains how packing your books too tightly on the shelves risks damage -- nearly mortal, in some cases. It has some good information on how to shelve and retrieve books you care about.

A Tour of Typography
The site is called typoGRAPHIC, and it describes itself as an interactive experience informed by type and typography. There is history, a gallery, a glossary, a bibliography, and links. But there is also an outstanding tutorial (the link is called "Studies") that lets you do exercises exploring legibility and design issues as well as type's role in creating meaning.

Batman Is Not Public Property
A graduate student at Michigan State University named Chris York wanted to defend Batman against scholarly suggestions of homoeroticism. He wrote an article called "All in the Family: Homophobia and Batman Comics in the 1950s," which was accepted for publication by the International Journal of Comic Art. But his analysis was based on four panels that appeared in Batman comics in the 1950s, and he could not get permission from DC Comics to use them in his article. DC Comics won't comment on its reasons for refusing permission. The article appeared in Lingua Franca.

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

A Commercial Message from Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop
You might not be able to find John Erskine on the web, but you can find him at Avenue Victor Hugo, together with nearly every other writer who's been featured in "Do You Know Me?" Robert Graves, Mary Renault, Geoffrey Household, Elizabeth Bowen, Barbara Pym, Robert Coover, Taylor Caldwell, Eric Hodgins, Helen MacInnes, Eric Ambler, Thomas B. Costain, Mary Stewart... They are all here, and many more besides.

Avenue Victor Hugo is your bricks and mortar alternative. Let us know what you're looking for. You can even give us a price range! You'll find us at

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© Copyright 2001 Floyd Kemske

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