Please note the date on this issue and don't put too much faith in the links, some of which are centuries old in Internet time.
At The Margin
Vol. 1, Issue 8
Thursday May 4, 2000
Details, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.
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1. The Topiary Is Neglected
2. Show Me the Muggles
3. Blood and Thunder for a Dime
4. Do You Know Me?
5. Special Bylined Story: "Adding a Middleman: Alibris"
6. Blue Underlined Words
1. The Topiary Is Neglected
I am sad to report to you (in case you missed one of the many printed or broadcast obituaries) the passing of author Edward Gorey, who died at the age of 75 of a heart attack at his home in Cape Cod on April 15. Gorey was best known for creating the opening titles for the PBS television show, Mystery. Before he got that gig, he acquired many fans in the 1970s by creating the stage set for the Broadway production of Dracula, a production for which he won a Tony Award (costume design).
But before Dracula and before Mystery, Edward Gorey had a small and devoted following (your editor included) for his wonderful little illustrated books, of which he apparently authored at least forty. These little books are filled with axe murders, flesh-eating monsters, deaths by consumption, poisonings, and mysterious disappearances. Gorey drew the expressive, Gothic-looking drawings that appear on every page and wrote the sometimes enigmatic and often hilarious text. You can gain some appreciation of Gorey's work just from the titles of some of these books, beginning with the first (1953): The Unstrung Harp; Or, Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel. The Unstrung Harp was followed by The Listing Attic, The Doubtful Guest, and The Object-Lesson. Other memorable titles include The Beastly Baby, The Fatal Lozenge, and The Vinegar Works. He once did an illustrated alphabet (his fifth one) called The Glorious Nosebleed. He was fond of making anagrams of his name to use as both pseudonyms and titles, as in The Awdrey-Gore Legacy, a mystery that is nothing but clues (it includes three parts: "The Toastrack Enigma," "The Blancmange Tragedy," and "The Postcard Mystery").
I have always had to read Gorey with a dictionary handy, and it was from one of his books that I learned the name for that decorative hedge work in upper class gardens. The line (from The Remembered Visit) has stuck with me for decades: "They were shown into a garden where the topiary was being neglected."
A 1969 book, The Epiplectic Bicycle, opens with the line, "Embley and Yewbert were hitting one another with croquet mallets, when they heard a noise behind the wall, and an untenanted bicycle rolled into view." Embley and Yewbert ride the bicycle through a barren turnip field, then they encounter a large, muttering bird and have to avoid an attacking alligator. Eventually, they return home to find nothing there but an obelisk bearing an inscription that says it was erected in their memory 173 years before, whereupon the bicycle falls to bits. Gorey didn't seem to put much stock in plotting, or even natural law.
For many years, I was convinced that he wrote The Recently Deflowered Girl: The Right Thing to Say on Every Dubious Occasion, which was published in 1965 and was illustrated by him. It bears the byline Hyacinthe Phypps. But on re-reading it, I realize the drawings are the best thing about it, and the text doesn't seem as imaginative as what you'd find in a real Gorey book.
A lifelong cat lover, Gore deserves credit for apparently never having made a novelty cat book.
Gorey's little books, which originally sold for anywhere from three to five dollars, now routinely sell for hundreds of dollars to collectors. In 1972, G. P. Putnam's Sons did an inestimable service for the reading public by collecting fifteen of Gorey's books in one large volume called Amphigorey. This was followed eventually by Amphigorey Too and Amphigorey Also. It is now possible, then, to get reading (as opposed to collecting) copies of his work. It's a shame, however, that Putnam's didn't simply republish the originals. Many of them had dust jackets with hilarious flap copy that I am certain Gorey must have written.
For accounts of Edward Gorey, read The Boston Globe obituary: http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/108/living/Dark_streak_marked_life _of_prolific_author+.shtml. And there's a profile from this past February in the web-based magazine Salon: http://www.salon.com/people/bc/2000/02/15/gorey/index.html.
2. Show Me the Muggles
In an interview, JK Rowling claimed to have invented the word Muggles, which her Harry Potter books use to denote nonmagic human beings. "'Muggles' is a twist on the English word mug, which means easily fooled," she said. "I made it into 'Muggles' because it sounds gentler."
Rowling's coinage is no doubt independent, but the word muggle appeared in English sometime before 1205, when the Oxford English Dictionary tells us it was recorded as a Kentish word for tail. There is a second line of usage beginning in 1607, which the OED describes as "origin and meaning obscure," but for which context in the quoted references suggests an endearment.
This is not to say Rowling should have checked the OED before submitting her book for publication. Her use of the word Muggles is both trenchant and original, as well as proper.
But is it worth a trademark?
According to an article in Book Magazine, Nancy Stouffer of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania is suing Rowling for infringement of Stouffer's 1984 book, The Legend of Rah and Muggles. Stouffer's book includes a character named Larry Potter. Stouffer's suit, which was filed in January, names Rowling, Scholastic Inc., Time-Warner, Mattel, and Hasbro. If it looks like Stouffer is simply trying to cash in on somebody else's success, consider that it is impossible for her to make any merchandising deals for her own Muggles, given Rowling's 20 million-copy sales and her massive presence among the commercial licensors, packagers, and parasites who orchestrate popular taste.
When Rowling's corporate keepers sent their lawyers to discuss the claim with Stouffer's attorneys, the Warner lawyers insisted the word Muggles could not be trademarked. Then Warner, discovering a website that sells clothes imprinted with the word Muggles, filed suit against it, saying the website violated Warner's trademark.
And they wonder why we all tell lawyer jokes.
For more background (including an interview with Rowling's childhood nextdoor neighbor, whose name is Potter), see the article in Book: http://www.bookmagazine.com/mar2000/potter.shtml.
3. Blood and Thunder for a Dime
Edward Z.C. Judson, who wrote and published under the pseudonym Ned Buntline, was born in Stamford, New York in 1823. He worked as a cabin boy in the U.S. Navy and eventually rose to the rank of midshipman. He contributed stories about his Navy career to the Knickerbocker Magazine, and in 1844 he left the Navy and began publishing magazines and newspapers himself. He founded the newspaper Ned Buntline's Own in Nashville, then transferred it to New York to escape a lynch mob while he was being arraigned for the killing of his reputed mistress's husband.
Judson was not a model citizen. He was imprisoned in 1849 for leading a riot and dishonorably discharged from the Union army in 1864 for drunkenness. But when he met William F. Cody and gave him the name Buffalo Bill, he staked his claim on a small piece of immortalilty, for he is known as an originator of the dime novel. Buffalo Bill was the hero of a number of Ned Buntline's dime novels (of which he wrote hundreds).
The dime novel was the nineteenth century's equivalent of the Arnold Schwarzenegger film: an artform in which refinement counts for less than sensation. According to the Library of Congress (http://lcweb.loc.gov/spcoll/061.html), "The first dime novels were largely Indian and pioneer tales that were highly nationalistic in spirit. In the 1870s detective adventures, society romances, and rags-to-riches stories were introduced and soon the term dime novel was popularly applied to any sensational, blood-and-thunder novel issued in pamphlet form." Irwin P. Beadle & Company is credited with being the first American publisher to issue paperback novels in series at the price of ten cents a copy.
If you use Google (http://www.google.com) to search for the phrase "dime novel," it comes back with 7,070 hits. Some of these represent the collections of various libraries (Library of Congress, Stanford University, Syracuse University, and Michigan State University, to name a few). Some represent gathering places for dime novel fans (http://thepulp.net/index.html), and some represent "publishers" claiming to have re-invented the dime novel (good luck!).
Buffalo Bill was not the only dime novel hero. Deadwood Dick, Nick Carter, Calamity Jane, Frank Merriwell, Wild Bill Hickok, and Jesse James all appeared in dime novels. If you happen to run a library and want to acquire a fairly complete dime novel collection, University Microforms offers 3,000 volumes on 73 reels of 35mm microfilm (http://www.umi.com/hp/Support/Research/Files/57.html). It is based on a bibiliography compiled by Albert Johannsen. The Johannsen bibliography is also the basis for The Beadle and Adams Dime Novel Digitization Project of the Northern Illinois University Libraries (http://libws66.lib.niu.edu/badndp/).
But the Stanford site, Dime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls, which is based on a 7,000-piece collection assembled by an Oakland postal inspector named P.J. Moran, can actually let you experience dime novels. It offers a dime novel timeline, a guided tour, and nine texts you can read on-line, including Adventures of Buffalo Bill from Boyhood to Manhood. You can see pictures of covers as well, although they are fairly low resolution. The site can be found at http://www-sul.stanford.edu/depts/dp/pennies/home.html.
4. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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:
Any resemblance between the Republics of Rome and the United States of America is purely historical, as is the similarity of ancient Rome to the modern world.
[Note: This first sentence is from the novel's foreword -- also written by the novel's author -- rather than from the text of the novel's first chapter. But I thought the latter would be too easy to guess.]
I'm waiting for your guesses.
Last Issue's Sentence:
Hiram Clegg, together with his wife Emma and four friends of the faith from Randolph Junction, were summoned by the Spirit and Mrs. Clara Collins, widow of the beloved Nazarene preacher Ely Collins, to West Condon on the weekend of the eighteenth and nineteenth of April, there to await the End of the World.
One reader ventured a guess: "A wild guess, but the author of your first line sounds like Peter DeVries."
That was a great (if wild) guess, but wrong.
The sentence is from The Origin of the Brunists by Robert Coover. It is Coover's first and most conventional novel. Winner of the William Faulkner Award when it was published in 1966 by Putnam, it describes the growth and destruction of a religious cult.
Coover's other novels include The Public Burning, Spanking the Maid, Gerald's Party, Pinocchio in Venice, John's Wife, Ghost Town, and Briar Rose. He is also the author of a collection of short fiction called Pricksongs and Descants and a collection of plays, A Theological Position. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes Coover as an "American writer of avant-garde fiction, plays, poetry, and essays whose experimental forms and techniques mix reality and illusion, frequently creating otherworldly or surreal situations and effects."
He was born in 1932 in Charles City, Iowa. After his first novel won the Faulkner Award, he picked up a number of other awards, prizes, and fellowships over the years (Rockefeller, Guggenheim, and so on) as he continued to write fiction that was said to be less and less accessible to a popular readership. One critic wrote, "By exploiting his characters' confusion over the ways in which fiction and fictive beliefs come to overwhelm and supplant protean, meaningless reality, Coover undermines fiction's authority and the suspension of disbelief it demands." Undermining fiction's authority may not be the best way to spend time on the fiction best-seller list. But I haven't come across any evidence that Coover ever wanted to spend time on the best-seller list.
Far from gaining a reputation as an enteraining writer, Coover is usually classified among the practitioners of metafiction. Metafiction is a sort of anti-storytelling in which the author tries to prevent the reader from entering the fictive dream (with an intrusive narrator, by breaking frame, or otherwise interrupting the story -- if not the narrative). The point is to show the reader something about the relationship of art to reality. Metafictionists are generally lauded for their wit (John Barth and Vladimir Nabokov are other practitioners) but don't usually excite much popular following since their work, almost by definition, prevents emotional response in the audience. Metafiction tends to be an intellectual exercise. Readers not educated to it often feel as if the author is saying "gotcha!"
Coover's career demonstrates a refusal to take the fictional process for granted. In 1980, he took an appointment as a professor of creative writing at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. There, in addition to teaching writing in the more traditional way, he has been an active explorer of technology and literature. In 1991, he founded the Program in Creative Writing Hyperfiction Workshops and has been working with students to develop nonlinear fiction for machine presentation (i.e., hypertext). In April, 1999, the program co-sponsored the conference Technology Platforms for 21st Century Literature, which brought together writers of hypertext with the programmers and developers who create the software and systems to author it. You can find an article about the conference at http://www.nytimes.com/library/tech/99/04/circuits/articles/15writ.html. [Please note that the New York Times requires registration to read its articles.]
5. Adding a Middleman: Alibris
by Gavin J. Grant, Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop
In the early 90s, if you were in the book business or occasionally read the trades, you'd have heard of Interloc. Interloc were one of many companies trying to bring together book buyers and sellers. However, their method was a little odd. They were building a searchable database that was only available to booksellers. The customer was left out. They were soon left behind as others realized the advantages of directly reaching the customers rather than a middleman. Services such as the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE), Bibliofind, and Bibliocity sprang up and quickly found both funding and revenue. All the while Amazon showed that books -- a concrete item with known specifications -- could be marketed and sold over the net.
Interloc were being pushed out of the market. They needed to reinvent themselves. So, a couple of years ago, they transformed into a customer-focused service, Alibris. But their business plan was again based on proprietary information. This time instead of the bookseller paying a fee to be part of Interloc, the bookseller disappeared into the Brand of Alibris. And paid 20 percent of the price of every book for the opportunity.
This is where it gets downright ugly. There are no saints in business. This is used books, as nostalgic and basic a product as there is outside the bare necessities. The market is changing from month to month and very rapidly concentrating. ABE has a business arrangement with Barnes & Noble (B&N), the "category killer" chain -- although Alibris just sneaked around the back and made a deal with B&N to be the first service they go to when an out-of-print book is requested. Bibliofind has been sold at least twice since starting up and is now owned by Amazon.com. Amazon have thus far left well enough alone (although I cannot condone Amazon's out-of- print search practices of adding huge mark-ups to the books). Bibliocity has disappeared into Alibris. So we need to take a more detailed look at Alibris's business practices.
Alibris are an oddity: a two-year-old company with $100 million to spend on advertising -- sorry, brand-building. They apparently have 1,700 book shops signed up, compared to the 6,000 plus on ABE and Bibliofind. The business model begun by ABE and Bibliofind, and later adhered to by services such as Global Book Mart and Yourbooks, is to charge the book shop a fixed amount per number of books listed with their service. Thus if a book shop sells one book or 20 books, the cost is the same. Alibris is very different. They charge a flat 20 percent fee on every book sold. There are two ways this 20 percent can be paid: Alibris either takes 20 percent of the original price of every book, or 20 percent is added to the price of the book.
Not surprisingly they have been slow to find book shops to sign up for this "deal." Thus they are looking for ways to leverage their name into becoming the only available choice for used books. Last year they bought a competing service, Bibliocity. We had been listing books with Bibliocity but when offered the chance to list with Alibris our answer was a very quick and definite no.
Imagine our surprise last month when we logged on to the website of our distributor for new titles, Ingram, and found an Alibris link. Alibris has signed a deal with Ingram to offer out-of- print searches in new book shops. Knowledgeable book shops do not do this. They will use Bookfinder or one of the other meta-search services to check a range of options and prices on the book you are looking for. When you go to a chain book shop such as B. Dalton or Waldenbooks, and they offer a search for used or out-of-print books, they will probably be using Alibris -- with the built-in 20 percent mark up. And Alibris thoughtfully provides a further mark-up chart for the new book shop to use. By the time they are finished, you are being quoted almost twice the price you would pay in a regular used book shop.
The only reason they are getting away with this is ignorance. The same books, the same dealers are out there and can be found on Bibliofind, Bookavenue, etc., but no one else is pasting the world with advertisements in quite so unsubtle a manner as Alibris. They know they have a short period of time in which they can take advantage of the public's ignorance as to the existence of other, cheaper services before they disappear just like last time, when they were Interloc.
National branding for used books is an idea that B&N, Borders, Book Sense, and others are investigating. But from the independent book shop's point of view it looks like we'd be losing our name, reputation, and the individuality that makes browsing so much fun. At this book shop we have spent 25 years building a unique and hopefully interesting shop. Alibris requires book shops to give up their name and spirit and package books under one brand. Books are no longer held in the shops, instead they are warehoused by the company. They are shipped by the company. Billing is done by the company. Book shops do not immediately receive payment.
According to a recent New York Times article, Alibris is burning through their cash reserves very quickly. They need to have something to show for it. So they have signed on with B&N and Ingram to be the out-of-print vendor of record. They have the cute ads in the expensive dailies and glossies. But who are they providing a service for? Neither the bookseller, nor the buyer. Who benefits? The potential shareholders of Alibris? I doubt they will make it to their Initial Public Offering. Their business model of controlling the flow of information and placing themselves as a nexus for book buyers and sellers to meet is outdated. There are already too many other highly efficient and profitable sites doing just that. They are a huge, sleek, good-looking dinosaur, which will soon be extinct.
For a more complete version of this article, with links to many book-finding sites, at the Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop website: http://www.avenuevictorhugobooks.com/home.php3.
6. 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.
The Future of Book Publishing
An article by Jason Epstein in The New York Review of Books suggests large conglomerate commercial publishers may be on the way out. The big book-selling chains require them to supply a constant stream of best-sellers, "an impossible goal but one to which publishers have become perforce committed."
What Does your Phone Number Spell?
This page lets you enter your phone number and tells you all the things it might spell, including what it might spell if you add one more digit. The Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop phone number generated 662 possibilities, of which the best one was a-mop-rim. Maybe you'll have better luck.
Background for the Term Spampoena
Cyber Patrol is website-blocking software sold by a company owned by toymaker Mattel. Its purpose is "protect" children from certain websites, and it is used sometimes by libraries and schools. Two programmers wrote a program called CPHack that shows a user a list of sites being blocked by Cyber Patrol. CPHack got posted on some websites, and Mattel went to federal court and got an injunction based on copyright violation. Then Mattel's lawyers e-mailed subpoenas to a raft of website administrators, demanding the names of anyone who had downloaded the software, thus giving rise to the term "spampoena." The whole sorry story is in The Standard.
The Thought for Today Quotation Archive
If you need a quotation, this is a good place to start. It has archives of nearly seven years' worth of thoughts for the day, a search facility, and links to a number of other quotation resources.
What the Library of Congress Puts on the Web
The Library of Congress has 119 million items, and the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, told the National Press Club on April 14 that it will not digitize books. The Library instead will use the web to make available special format material that nobody ordinarily gets to see. It already has three million documents on line, including the Gettysburg Address and 19th century baseball cards.
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