by Campbell Geeslin
E.B. White’s fame continues mostly because of a pig and a spider (Charlotte’s Web, 1952). But throughout his life, he had a special affection for dogs.
Now, his granddaughter, Martha White, has collected and edited E.B. White on Dogs—a book of essays, letters and poems about his canine friends.
Over the years he had labs, Scotties, half-breeds and mutts. He wrote of his “ignoble dachshund, Fred,” “I like to read books on dog training. Being the owner of a dachshund, to me a book about dog discipline becomes a volume of inspired humor. Every sentence is a riot.”
POWER PAIR: In a year’s roundup, The Guardian said, “In publishing, 2013’s key event was the marriage of Random House and Penguin, and the bestsellers list shows this power couple tightening their grip on the market.”
LOOKING AHEAD: Dwight Garner, book reviewer for The New York Times, predicted that one of the interesting books in the year ahead will be a biography of John Updike by Adam Begley. Garner said of Updike, “There are hints of darker shadows behind the man Martin Amis once called a ‘psychotic Santa of volubility,’ a man who made it all look easy, probably too easy.”
The Guardian’s list of notable books due out in 2014 included Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, his “first hard-boiled detective novel.” The Haunted Life by Jack Kerouac will be published 70 years after the manuscript was found in a taxi. He was 22 when he wrote it. Travel writing by Dave Eggers is titled Visitants. Edmund White’s memoir of 1980s Paris is Inside a Pearl. The News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton tells what news “does to our minds.”
POETRY TOO: Sixteen poems by Billy Collins were posted on placards at the New York Botanical Garden’s holiday exhibition of electric trains, a new touch for an annual event. Collins also recorded commentary on each poem, which visitors can access by dialing in from their smart phones.
It’s “an interesting enhancement,” Collins told The New York Times. “Having read the poem, you can hear something coming from the horse’s mouth, how the poem got composed, what the thinking was behind the poem.”
Collins said his guide was like “listening to Cezanne himself saying where he was when he was painting the apples.”
The show continues through January 12.
BOOK LOVER: Steven Pinker is a Harvard professor and author of several books including How the Mind Works. He was a contributor to Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books (2011), edited by Leah Price.
Pinker wrote: “Just as television didn’t put an end to radio or the movies (to say nothing of books), I don’t think e-books will put an end to hard copies . . . For many purposes paper is an excellent technology. For example, it allows you to use your own spatial memory as a guide to how to locate a book (which is often faster than electronic searching), how far along in a book you are, and where in the book you remember seeing a passage (when you can’t remember a distinctive keyword).”
In the January 8 Times Book Review, columnist Anna Holmes wrote, “after close to half a decade of downloading and consuming any number of novels, autobiographies, comics and self-help titles in Kindle form, I have yet to feel as fully invested in the pixels on a Bezos-imagined screen as I do in the indelible glyphs found on good old-fashioned book paper.”
ON HIS SHELF: Sebastian Faulks is the author of A Possible Life and Jeeves and the Wedding Bells. He was asked by The New York Times Book Review, “Which books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?”
Faulks’ reply: “Sex Tips for Girls, by Cynthia Heimel. I think someone must have left it there.”
TOYS: The late V.S. Pritchett wrote in The New Yorker in 1979: “All writers—all people—have their store of private and family legend which lies like a collection of half-forgotten, often violent toys on the floor of memory.”
AN AUTHOR LIVES ON: Few writers turn out to be fascinating decades after they die. One who succeeded is Charles Dickens, a character now in a major film, The Invisible Woman.
This movie is described by critic Stephen Holden in The New York Times as “the true story of Dickens’s longtime clandestine affair with Nelly Ternan, who was 27 years his junior.” The movie Dickens, played by Ralph Fiennes, is “an irresistible, charismatic, tirelessly energetic celebrity who was the life of every party he attended.” After all these years, Dickens turns out to be as compelling and vivid as any of the characters he created.
AWARDED: Danielle Steel lives in San Francisco. There are 600 million copies of her books out there in the world. The French have just awarded her the Legion of Honor. Her comment: “I love French literature. Colette is a special favorite of mine.”
NEW DATA: E-books are providing writers with information about reader’s reactions never previously available, aside from a too frank friend or relative. Did readers of your book skip or skim? Did they slow down or speed up when the end was in sight? Did they linger over the sex scenes?
In a Page 1 article in The New York Times, reporter David Streitfeld wrote, “The longer a mystery novel is, the more likely readers are to jump to the end to see who done it. People are more likely to finish biographies than business titles, but a chapter of a yoga book is all they need. They speed through romances faster than religious titles, and erotica fastest of all.”
The new data shows that readers are 25% more likely to finish books with short chapters. “That is an inevitable consequence of people reading in short sessions during the day on an iPhone," Streitfeld wrote.
Would having such information about your work change the way you write? Quinn Loftis, a bestselling author of young adult paranormal romances (Fate and Fury, 2013), said: “If you aren’t careful, you could narrow your creativity. You won’t take risks. But the bigger risk is not giving the reader what she wants. I’ll take all the data I can get.”
COMMENTS: Reaction to the above article followed in letters to the editor of The Times. Author Mark Slouka of Brewster, N.Y., wrote, “Once artists start asking how many ‘likes’ they’ve garnered, or listening to customer-satisfaction surveys to increase their sales, they’re no longer making art; they’re moving product.”
Bruce Joshua Miller of Chicago wrote that authors who modify their writing in hopes of increasing sales “could be described as ‘tech savvy,’ or known by an adjective that predated the digital age: hacks.”
Naoki O’Bryan of San Francisco, wrote, “It’s important for writers to listen to their readers. But it’s just as important for writers—reporters, poets or young-adult paranormal romance novelists—to give readers what they need but may not necessarily want or even be aware of.”
IN CHELSEA: Christopher Buckley’s But Enough About You will be published in May. In an essay for The New York Times Sunday Travel pages, he described three months when he lived in London’s literary Chelsea.
Among the names dropped were Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Bram Stoker, Henry James, T.S. Eliot, Ian Fleming, Agatha Christie and the fictional George Smiley and James Bond.
One of Buckley’s great pleasures in the neighborhood was stumbling onto a pub called the Surprise. It became his hangout. Buckley did not include the address but wrote, “It’s there, and with a bit of luck, you’ll get a bit lost on the way.”
NEW JOB: Kate DiCamillo, prolific author of bestselling Y-A novels and winner of the Newbery, has been named national ambassador for young people’s literature. She will spend the next two years making appearances throughout the U.S. to promote reading.
HIC AGAIN: What impact does alcohol have on authors? That seems to be an eternally favorite subject for exploration. The latest is The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing, deputy book editor of The Guardian.
Lawrence Osborne, author of The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker’s Journey, reviewed Laing’s book for The New York Times Book Review.
Subjects include John Cheever, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver. Osborne concluded, “As for [Laing’s] six alcoholics, they wrote some of the best American prose and poetry of the last century, and surely there is a cause for wonder in that.”
Another cause for wonder is that William Faulkner wasn’t included, at least not in the Times Review. Henry Allen’s review in The Wall Street Journal takes note of Laing’s failure to include Faulkner, the great American writer whose prose may be the most bourbon-soaked of all.