Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Best Book That I Think Of When I Think Of The Words "The Best Book."

I read yesterday on "Editorial Ass" that if you're a writer, and you get a book published, and your book is a "literary novel" and people buy that book, that a really good number of books to sell is...


Seven thousand books. That's all. That naturally made me wonder three things, in this order:

1. What's a "literary novel?"

2. Why won't my computer let me go to Amazon.com? and

3. What the heck is wrong with America?

I'll take those questions slightly out of order.

First, my computer at work will not let me to go Amazon.com. I don't know why. It's not blocked by my boss or work; if my boss had any idea what I do at "work" all day, I doubt very much that I'd be allowed in the office anymore. Or, at the least, he'd block my fantasy football team site, "The Superficial," all of my blogs, and the "Girl Genius" comic strip, since collectively those sites eat up 98.9% of my day; he wouldn't worry about Amazon, which I only go to when I'm trying to look up things like "What's a literary novel," or trying to track down a DVD to see if it's true that someone took a short story of mine and actually turned it into a movie.

So to answer question number 2: I don't know. That takes us back to question 1, which I answered by googling "what's a literary novel," which led me to the blog run by Nathan Bransford, Literary Agent, which then distracted me because I saw that he's willing to accept queries and submissions, but then I realized that his site isn't going anywhere, so I'll link to him and then deluge him with submissions and queries after I write this post.

Nathan answered this question, in a post that I enjoyed because it included the phrase "the death of an albino" by saying

In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface.

He explained that plot is first and foremost in commercial fiction and the development and internal reactions of the characters are first and foremost in literary fiction. So that answers that question -- I know now what literary fiction is.

Which leaves only the third question, which is again, What the heck is wrong with America? 7000 books constitutes a commercial success? That's ridiculous. That's awful. That's terrible. There are 305,000,000 people in America -- so if you sell 7000 books, you've sold a book to .002% of America.

So I went to see the best selling books of all time, and I ignored the religious or politically-required books at the top of the list, and found that the number one best selling book of all time that's not one of those religious or political books was, at number 6 overall, the first Harry Potter book, which worldwide has sold 107 million copies so far. While that sounds big, compare it to this. That book has been out for 11 years, so it's averaging 9 million books sold per year, give or take 727,272.

Compare that to one single episode of the horrid TV show "Yes, Dear," starring that insufferable AT&T girl. The August, 2003 episode of "Yes, Dear" was watched by 5,640,000 people. Nearly as many people watched the August, 2003 episode of Yes Dear as annually buy the most popular fiction book ever.

Which brings me back to What is wrong with America? Why do fewer people read a book than watch Yes, Dear? Why do people detest reading so much? Why do they view it as a chore instead of a fun activity?

Every night, Sweetie and I give the Babies! a bath and then get them into their jammies and then read them a story; it's usually one of the stories they like to read over and over, like So Big! starring Elmo, or What Are You So Grumpy About? but we always read them a story. They love it; they gather around and turn the pages and wait for us to read each page, and act out the part where Baby Elmo waves bye-bye.

They're two.

Somewhere between that, and my age, if the pattern holds out, they'll probably stop loving reading and start hating it and eventually will turn against books, the way even Middle turned against books; Middle used to read books but no longer reads much at all, even though she lives in a house full of books and people who read them, a house that includes me, an aspiring writer, who couldn't possibly love books more than I do.

I have a theory, as I usually do, about why people don't like reading, and that theory, as my theories usually do, is composed of several parts. That theory also, as I usually do, blames schools and society. Here's my theory, in its several parts, about why America hates reading:

1. Most books suck.
2. Books are hard to read.
3. People who could foster a love of reading deliberately stifle it.

Now, I'll take those in order, too.

1. Most books suck.
They do, don't they? I read a lot. An awful lot. And yet, I'm amazingly selective in what I read because there's so many awful awful books out there. Some of them are beloved by critics and writers and other snobs -- books like Mason & Dixon or The Name of The Rose-- but are still awful and stupid. Some are beloved only by people who buy their books at Walgreen's -- books like Chicken Soup for the Drugstore Book Shoppers' Soul-- but are still awful and stupid. Regardless of who loves them or hates them, the point is the same: Most books suck. For every great book I've read, I can think of 10 books that were okay, and a lot more than were purely awful.

Mind you, I'm not judging any one particular type of book; I'm not saying, for example, that all the Chicken Soup books are awful (although I think they are.) I'm saying most books, period, are awful. I can say that because most entertainment and art is not very good.

Seriously: Think about it. Count, r
ight now, the number of great songs you know -- songs that will live forever and are worthy, truly worthy, of being listened to by everyone. Now, compare that to the total number of songs out there. Whatever number of great songs you came up with, it's about 1/1 billionth of the total number of songs, period -- so the odds are that any given song you hear is not very good. Do the same thing with movies, TV shows, operas, paintings: Very few of them are truly great; a larger number are good. Many are passable, but a great great many examples of any art form are just... bad.

Which isn't that big of a deal for TV shows, paintings, and the like. If a TV show is bad, you invest a half-hour or hour and move on.
A painting, you walk right by. A movie that is bad is unlikely to be seen because it gets reviewed, but even then, it's only an hour or two and $8.50 or so out of your pocket.

But a bad book: That's Seinfeldian. That brings up point number two, which is Books are hard to read. Jerry Seinfeld said once that he doesn't make movies because if you see a bad movie, it's 2 hours, but being in a bad movie is months of your life. That applies to books: a bad book sets you back $6 for a paperback, $12 for a high-end paperback, and $20 or $30 for a hardcover. Plus, it sets you back time. Reading isn't quick. I don't know anyone but Sweetie who can read a whole book in a day; a book (for the most part) takes more than an hour or two. (Children's books for little kids like the Babies! generally don't take that long, but with little kids, your time is compressed -- you don't get a half-hour, you get about 3 second to catch and keep their attention.)

So a bad book absorbs hours and hours and days and days and weeks and weeks of your life... and if it's bad, you don't get those back. You invest all that time and either quit (like I did with Mason & Dixon, twice) or you're disappointed at the end (as I've been with other books.)

Who wants to invest that kind of time and not have it pay off? Most people, I suspect, simply opt not to read as much because they're not sure that the book will be worth it -- and the odds are against the book being good.

That's why people will read on the Internet, and magazines, but won't read books; a magazine is full of short articles, as is the Internet (except TBOE!) that don't require the investment of time or money; read a disappointing magazine article, you're out a couple of bucks and 10 minutes.

The combination of being hard to read and mostly bad is deadly enough to any art form -- but then you hav
e society forcing crappy books on people and deliberately destroying reading for them. That's all I can conclude from what I see about how society makes people read, and what it makes them read.

And by society, I mean "school," and "some parents."

School is, I venture, where 99% of reading is done for most people. School, from kindergarten on, is the primary source of people's exposure to books-- school occupies hours every day, hours away from parents like me who read, and then occupies more hours doing homework assigned by school. So school is society's represe
ntative for getting people to love, or hate, reading.

And school is making people hate reading because it is deliberately promoting books that are just god-awful boring horrible terrible books that make me want to doze off just thinking of them. Middle, who used to read, was assigned books to read over the summer, and some of those books to read included "1984" and "Animal Farm" by George Orwell.

Whatever the merits of "1984" and "Animal Farm," they are not terribly entertaining books to read. They are difficult to read and are boring. I know this, because I myself was assigned to read them when I was in school -- and I never read them. I faked my way through it, the way I faked my way through a lot of the assigned reading, because a lot of the assigned reading stunk. Like "1984," and "Animal Farm," and "The Canterbury Tales" and others, which I can't remember because I never read them.

Middle, to her credit, did read "1984" and "Animal Farm" over the summer -- but I haven't seen her read a book since. Or even pick one up. I think those books turned her off books for good -- something that would be easy to do because I've seen other books she's been assigned over her 12 years of school and most of them were terrible. Many were PC-ish books that were designed to make a point, some were "true" books that couldn't have been more boring, and none-- exactly none -- of the books Middle has been assigned appeared interesting.

Here, by contrast, are some books that I was assigned to read in school which were good and I loved: Childhood's End, by Clarke. Slaughterhouse 5, by Vonnegut. Catch-22, by Heller. The Sun Also Rises, by Hemingway. The Great Gatsby, by Fitzgerald. Great Expectations, by Dickens.

Each of those books was required reading at some point in my schooling, and each of them was great; so it's not like I'm some kind of bohemian, insisting that people spend their time reading The Integral Trees by Niven, although they probably should, because that was a great book, too. I like literary books and classics -- if they're good. And something being a "classic" doesn't make it good. Schools, though, miss the point and they teach "classics" that are terrible instead of books that are good -- so in the guise of "teaching" something, they are really making kids learn one lesson: reading sucks.

Parents add to that by discouraging reading, too-- they discourage reading by not reading themselves (probably because school taught them to hate books, too) and they discourage reading by disparaging things kids read. I'm a case in point for that: My main reading, as a kid, was Mad Magazine, comic books, and science fiction and fantasy. I read lots, as a kid -- 5, 6, 7 books a week on top of Mad and comics -- but most of it was stuff that parents think is drivel and not worth reading. My parents were critical of that reading, critical of reading comics and critical of sci-fi and fantasy and worried that I'd never amount to anything because one of my favorite books was Han Solo's Revenge.

My parents were wrong. Not about the "never amount to anything." They were 100% right about that. They were wrong about whether reading those things was bad. They were wrong because reading anything, no matter how awful or trivial it might seem, is not bad.

That is, if a person is reading... reading anything: Cosmopolitan, the back of a cereal box, "Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew," 1984, whatever... it's a good thing. It's a good thing because reading anything encourages reading everything. Once a person develops a love of reading, that person will keep on reading. That person may just keep on reading Cosmo or the cereal box, but they're still reading.

And that's a good thing, because reading exercises the mind and the imagination in a way that no other entertainment form does; reading makes the mind work because the mind has to take the words and turn them into pictures and characters and actions and whole worlds. Think of a book you've read. I'll take Missy, the most recent book I finished reading, by Chris Hannan. Got your book? Okay, now think about the world that book took place in, and picture the characters, towns, and environments of that book. In Missy, the book took place in Nevada and the west.

Now, think of how much of that world you can actually picture -- and then try to remember how much of it was described by the author. I bet the author didn't give you every single image and detail in your mind, and yet I bet that you can picture the entire world in that book you loved, in vibrant detail. You can do that because your mind took the story and images the author presented you with, and filled them in, coloring them and fleshing them out like an art director/stage manager/producer/costumer might -- all on your own.

Which makes that book come alive in a way that movies and TV shows and songs and paintings can't -- because it comes alive in its own unique way for each of us. That's one reason why reading anything is good: It makes your mind better.

And reading anything often, as I said, leads to reading everything-- people who love to read will expand their mind and expand their horizons and will begin reading more and more and more, often moving into new territories. From my humble beginnings with
Legion of Super-Heroes comics, I've moved on to read nonfiction like Longitude, and classic works of fiction like Les Miserables (overrated), and "literary fiction" like The Almost Moon and genre fiction and poetry and more. I've gone back and read classics, I've sampled authors I might never have read, I've picked up news magazines and entertainment magazines and even The New Yorker -- all because I learned to love reading when I was a kid, because reading comics and Mad was fun.

And that's what's wrong with America: America thinks reading isn't fun or worth doing, because so many books are terrible and because we were all made to read terrible books in school and by our parents, and because reading is the hardest form of entertainment -- it's the jogging of the entertainment world, and who wants to jog when there's liposuction available?-- so America has decided that reading is bad.

I can't tolerate that. I don't want my America to be an America where a successful book sells 7000 copies but 5 million people watch Yes, Dear. So I am instituting a second theme month, and declaring that October Is Book Month here on TBOE.

-- Don't click away! It'll be fun, I swear! And interesting!

All month long, each of my posts will relate in some way to books and will point out what's so great about books or a unique way of looking at books or a great book to read or something that hopefully, in some small way, will show people that reading -- reading books -- is fun.

I will begin, today, with what I promised way back in the title of this post: The Best Book That I Think Of When I Think Of The Words "The Best Book."

I was thinking of the words "The Best Book" even before I read Moonrat's comments about selling 7000 books being a big deal; I was thinking of it because I finally gave up on reading The Orchid Thief, a book I got from the library for a dollar and which I've been reading, off and on, since June -- off and on because after I started reading it I gave it up briefly and read Missy and then went back to read more of The Orchid Thief and then stopped again to begin reading The Abstinence Teacher, and when I stopped reading The Orchid Thief a second time I realized that I'll probably never go back to it.

It just didn't captivate me and I didn't want to invest any more time into a book that so far as I could tell had no point other than collecting some interesting tidbits of information about orchids and people who love them. Had I read those tidbits in a magazine article, I likely would have enjoyed it and shared them with my family over dinner. But reading them in a book was taking too long and I just couldn't get up the gumption to read them.

Not that The Abstinence Teacher is any better; it hasn't yet grabbed me the way a good book should. It hasn't, from the very start of it, made me want to keep reading it and compelled me to try to do so.

Missy did that; Missy, from the very first page, was a book that might as well have had printed, at the bottom of each page, the phrase keep reading, you know you want to, because I did; I did want to keep reading it. The same thing happened with Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town -- again, it made me want to keep reading, from the first word on.

That is more and more rare these days, that a book really grabs me. Most books don't; most, I don't even bother reading after I judge them by their covers and/or reviews. Some I stop reading after one or more tries. But even with the few that make it past all of that there are a relatively small percentage that grab me -- and only a handful that make it all the way to great, to the level where, when I'm done reading it, I'm regretful and wish I hadn't finished it because they were so great that I never wanted the book to end.

That is what constitutes a great book. I was mulling that over yesterday, sitting in traffic on the way home listening to Enya on my iPod: I was mulling over the last truly great book I read, and then wondering what book might be The Best Book I've read. I was surprised by what popped into my head when I thought that -- surprised because ever since I read it, this book has popped into my head whenever I think of the words "The Best Book." Since I read it, when I think "The Best Book," I think Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

I read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell the summer I had back surgery; I began reading it on the days when my getting up and moving around was limited to about 15 minutes a day, and I completed it that summer. I was in a lot of pain that summer, and also had to deal with physical therapy and trying to get back into some kind of shape and get caught up from 8 days off of work -- it would have been more, but I had a case to try so I came back on day 9 to try a case wearing my back brace -- and through all of that, I was captivated by Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, gripped by it in a way that made me think, on the way home from work, thoughts like I'll get home, eat dinner, talk with the kids and Sweetie, clean up, and then I can get back to reading.

The book tells the story of two English magicians -- real magicians, who do real magic-- over time: Mr Norrell, the old-style magician, secretive, tricky, and powerful, and Jonathan Strange, the youngster upstart who for a time studies with Mr Norrell. But it's so much more than that -- it spans an incredible amount of time, and blends the 'real' England with a world created by Susanna Clarke where magic works and there are other worlds and other types of beings -- blends them in a way that calls to mind Dickens, if Dickens' worlds had magic operating in them. The book feels like a true-life story, an exhaustively researched one, at that; it has the sense of a history or biography, despite being about the fantastic-- but it is not a boring or tedious history or biography, because the writing is clever and moving and the storyline is grand and intimate, all at once, a sweeping epic about two people, detailed and rich and moving and friendly. The people feel alive, more alive than many of the people I know in my actual life.

It's the kind of book that's so good it makes you feel like you're living in the author's world, or wish you could, for a little bit, maybe, the kind where you feel like you know the characters and want to know the characters.

I keep Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell front and center on my bookshelf, and everytime I see it, I'm tempted to pick it up and read it again. I haven't yet, because there's so many books to read that I don't like to repeat books; when I was younger and had time to squander, I'd re-read books but now I'm almost 40 and there's too many books and too little time to do that so much anymore. But I would, and I'm always tempted to, re-read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, because when I first read it, it made me keep reading it, and now that I'm done with it, it sits there and calls to me, saying I captured your imagination once; I can do it again.

That's what makes a good book great-- when the writing and story and detail and characters are so good that they work their way into your mind and stay there, permanently carving out a piece of mental terrain and owning it -- and that's what makes Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell The Best Book That I Think Of When I Think Of The Words "The Best Book.".

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