Category Archives: Book Publishing

Remaindering “The Art of the Deal” for … $184?

Remember a few weeks ago when Donald Trump announced that he raised $80 million in the month of July alone? And most of it came through “small dollar donations”?

Original edition, 1987

Original edition (with manly turned-up collar), 1987

I chalked it up as another Trump exaggeration to put it kindly until recently, when those fine and funny reporters on NPR Politics Podcast mentioned receiving phone tips from multiple “Trump entities” that Trump’s first book, The Art of the Deal (1987), was newly  available.

That was strange.  A month ago I wrote about The Art of the Deal as a big bestseller 40 years ago but an embarrassment today, the first indication that Trump sold out to corporate media.   Even Ballantine, publisher of the shoddy 2015 reprint, has soured on him.

Blurred photos from shoddy 2015 reprint

Blurred photos from shoddy 2015 reprint

So what was new on the NPR podcast?

“On my phone yesterday,” one reporter said, “I got five different appeals from five different Trump entities, all offering to sell me a copy of The Art of the Deal for … ”

“$184!” piped up another.

Stranger than strange, since anyone can pick it up on the Internet for ten bucks in paperback. The podcast folks joked that Trump “has got to give up his entire basement stash” of leftover originals.  But it turns out the campaign is offering the book as a reward to donors of — ta da — $184 and more. The question is, what book is being offered?

Webpage for the "very limited edition issue"

Webpage for the “very limited edition issue”

The Art of the Deal is now out of print,” Trump writes on the website, “so this is a very limited edition issue and only available through this special offer through my campaign. I want you to read about the unique leadership and business acumen I will bring to the White House.”

I love that term “very limited edition issue.” It’s like those authentic-looking gold coins you see advertised to old people with poor eyesight.  Something’s being commemorated that must be worth it for the unaffordable price they’re charging, but what exactly?

Well, by a “very limited edition issue,” Trump seems to mean he’s taken the shlocky 2015 reprint and slapped a signature plate on the front to dress it up as something worthy. The text is the same, so at least you get to see just how “unique” Trump will be as president.

Trump supporters probably don’t care about this, and neither do I if it’s just a ruse to get more donations. But the NPR reporters smelled something sinister about it, and so should we. Why would “Trump entities,” who ordinarily are religious about cultivating journalists by leaking secrets from inside a campaign, irritate those same contacts about an overblown, overpriced, decades-old book nobody wanted anyway?

I bet they were ordered to. I bet Trump wanted to bamboozle the press by saying he raised $80 million in small donations during a single month, and even if he had to launder his own money under the table, the campaign could point to $184 donations-with-the-book-as-a-prize and say, See? That’s how we did it.

You can subscribe for free through the Podcast app on your phone

You can subscribe for free through the Podcast app on your phone.

Oh, this is conjecture, of course, but we’ll never get a straight answer from Trump, and that’s why I’ve come to love the NPR Political Podcast: Here are four Washington insiders — I’ll list them with the full quote below** — who seem to have so much fun together it sounds like they’re at a bar after an incredibly fertile day for news.

So it’s fun for us, too, to listen in. Away from their keyboards, they challenge rumors, talk too fast, dig out facts and analyze strategies. They’re informed, opinionated, observant, gossipy and incredibly knowledgeable. They can’t give you a reason for something like a no-good book for $184, but they can toss around the data to see what has meaning and what doesn’t.

Alec Baldwin: Fuck or Walk

Alec Baldwin: Fuck or Walk

I think the meaning here goes as deep into Trump’s philosophy to put it kindly as we can get. It involves his gusto for winning every point in the short run and his fear of building a successful campaign in the long run. Who can blame him?  It’s as much fun to watch Trump’s glorification of Self as it is to, say, witness Alec Baldwin berating his underlings in that famous “Always Be Closing” scene in  the 1992 movie, Glengarry Glen Ross.

Remember that?  A merciless sales manager (Baldwin) harangues his salesmen to the point of evisceration in a speech that’s so cutthroat and so Trump, it’s almost poetic. As with Trump, we can’t take our eyes off him. He’s, powerful, dangerous, cold-blooded and perverted. Here’s what he sounds like in this a partial and condensed quote:

(People are) sitting out there waiting to give you their money. Are you going to take it? Are you man enough to take it? Winner, that’s who I am. And you’re nothing. Nice guy? Good father? Fuck you. Go home and play with your kids. You know what it takes to sell real estate? It takes brass balls. If not, you’ll be shining my shoes. (I’d) fire your fucking ass because a loser is a loser. … You can’t close the leads you’re given? You are shit. You are weak. You can’t play in the man’s game? Go home and tell your wife your troubles. Only one thing counts in this life: get them to sign. You hear me, you fuckin’ faggots? It’s fuck or walk.

Trump on the cover of his failed magazine, Trump

Trump on the cover of another he’ll-fire-us-all book

Okay, he’s a little coarser than Trump at the podium, and yet Trump is the one who called John McCain, an authentic war hero after five years of torture in North Vietnam, a “loser” for getting caught. The Alec Baldwin character would never go that far. Trump does because he doesn’t care how you judge him. When the spotlight stays on Trump, he wins.

That tradition of the dictatorial boss whipping his inferiors into shape always has the same outcome. Trump is most comfortable as the swaggering alpha male. I know it’s a tradition because Ben Affleck makes nearly the same speech to stock market trainees in the 2000 movie, Boiler Room.

Ben Affleck: fuck you, Mom and Dad

Ben Affleck: fuck you, Mom and Dad

You are the future big swinging dicks of this firm. Anybody who tells you money is the root of all evil doesn’t fucking have any. I have a Ferrari, a ridiculous house, every toy you could possibly imagine and best of all, kids, I am liquid. We want winners here, not pikers. People work at this firm for one reason: to become filthy rich. We’re not here to save the manatees. You want vacation time? Go teach third grade public school. Parents don’t like the life you lead? Fuck you, Mom and Dad. See how it feels when you’re making their fucking Lexus payments.

Well, say. Haven’t we all met someone like this in our lives? Years ago at a book publishing panel I was placed next to Ishmael Reed, a talented author of experimental novels who was well known in the Bay Area for his outspoken political views. Ish, as he’s called, abruptly began speaking very loudly, pounding the table in outrage about the book trade, which he thought was rigged (not his word but he was right), interrupting everybody and drowning me out when I disagreed with him.

Ishmael Reed, c. 1980s

Ishmael Reed, c. 1980s

The audience sat there stunned; the moderator couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and I felt mowed over by a man whose books I admired. At the end, Ishmail turned to me and laughed as though we were in on some kind of joke. “Hey, you were a great sport,” he said, holding out his hand. And what did I do, pillar of righteous feminism that I saw myself in those days? Of course I shook his hand. I wanted to be the gracious one, remembering my mother emphasize peace in the family, believing that the book industry needed people who pound the table — and giving him, I’m sure he thought, the win.

(It goes without saying that Hillary is  wise not to react when Trump so blatantly lays out the bait. Hillary co-founded Isis? Really, she can’t be bothered. Let him hang himself.)

I’ve thought of that panel many times since Trump started his run because I don’t think he wants to be president at all. Realizing he can’t win must be a big relief. His obsession starts and stops with winning in the short term– in speeches, tweets, interviews, debates — because that keeps him in the center of attention. He doesn’t mind being seen as a racist, a woman-hater, an ignoramus, a bully or a coward. To him, taboos exist to bring the spotlight back.

In terms of winning the whole shebang — well, look what happened to Trump the big businessman. He got tired of fighting the thousands of lawsuits, bankruptcies, labor problems, tax audits, the constant burden of accountability. That’s what The Art of the Deal tells us 40 years later: becoming a caricature of himself, making a million dollars to say “You’re fired,” reselling his books of dreck — well, who wouldn’t choose celebrity over responsibility?

as long as I'm not fired.

as long as I’m not.

That’s the role Trump likes to play now. He’s an accuser, a punisher, a winner of the moment. But eight years in the White House?. The TV series House of Cards couldn’t state the lesson more plainly:  The candidate may be interesting as he bludgeons, manipulates, kills and screws his to the top, but once in the White House, he’ll have to placate, he’ll have to convince, he’ll have to lead. Let Hillary have the headache. Trump has already accused the national election of being rigged, so he can’t lose. Come January, when Trump can’t be blamed for the next president’s mistakes, he wins.

Anyway, I’m not saying Trump lined up campaign workers and tore them apart for not selling more of The Art of the Deal at $184. I’m saying he didn’t have to. Word came down that the boss had another scam going, and everybody fell into place. Whatever their contribution to the $80 million in “small dollar donations,” they helped him look like a winner, at least for the month of July.

**About that NPR Politics Podcast, which ran August 4, 2016

In this episode the speakers were host/White House correspondent Tamara Keith, campaign reporter Sam Sanders, campaign reporter Scott Detrow and editor/correspondent Ron Elving. I can’t tell most of the voices apart so no one is identified, but here’s the full excerpt about the calls they received regarding The Art of the Deal:

Judging by what I get on my phone — yesterday I got 5 different appeals from 5 different Trump entities, or agencies that were working for the Trump campaign — all offering to sell me a copy of The Art of the Deal for —


For 184 …  


… every single one [of the calls was] the same, and they just kept coming in and coming in and coming in. There’s a little bit of expense involved in that, plus of course he’s got to give up his entire basement stash of old copies of The Art of the Deal —

Yeah, I bought The Art of the Deal on Kindle earlier this year for a story we did —

Did you like it?

It cost a lot less than $184 —

Gonna bet it did —

I think it’s important to bring the context back with the Trump fundraising.


The fact is that two months ago he had the amount of money in his campaign account that was less than a typical House (of Representatives) candidate. He had basically no money..

He had less than Ben Carson at one point, right?

Yes, everybody was freaking out about this. Shortly after those headlines, the Trump campaign kicked it in gear, actually made an effort to start making money. They’ve now had two months in a row where they’ve raised a decent amount of money. It’s still not as much as Hillary Clinton, but we’ve also not seen them actually take that money and spend it on things.

Hillary Clinton still has a huge advantage in terms of the number of ads that she’s going to be running over the next two months. The Trump campaign just has not bought that much advertising, and the fact is, for all the stuff that we’ve talked about high-tech outreach, you still get to the most voters with big TV ads.

This is the place to acknowledge that … is how Donald Trump gets away with spending so much advertising and winning primary after primary. He’s the master of social commentary, he gets a lot of free television, and I think he might just be thinking he doesn’t need to buy the kind of ads that Mitt Romney or John McCain bought, because he isn’t sure [advertising] did them much good, and he might just thrive without them.

It’s actually something he talks about in ….


(they all chime in)














About that “Publishing Revolution”

I’m very excited to speak next Saturday 3/5 in San Rafael for Sufi Women on “The Publishing Revolution.”

For years I’ve used that term to describe what Holt Uncensored is all about. Now for the first time I hope to answer two big questions about it in one talk:

#1 From the start, why did Americans follow the British model by allowing book publishers to locate in one place (the Atlantic seaboard at first, now New York), thus dictating to the tastes of the rest of the country? We certainly took our beloved newspaper presses Westward; why not book presses?

#2 Why don’t we call the present Internet era a transformation? What is it about the print-to-screen process that’s made it a publishing revolution? (Hint: arrogance and outrage, to be describe calmly.)

Coming with me will be a giant USA map (4 by 6 feet!) held up thanks to Sufi Women with clamps and tape and more than one easel, plus a red dot laser pointer used by actual snipers to show the glorious mess in media and book industries we’re living with now.

The energy of the crowd brings its own surprises, so come with burning questions and remember, the fee may be hefty ($30) but you get a terrific brunch plus the ambiance of golfers swearing outside the windows and me swearing calmly inside..

Pre-registration required but the great Sufi Women have extended the deadline to Wednesday 3/2. Here’s the information:

Patricia Holt


The Publishing Revolution

Saturday March 5, 2016

Brunch 9:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.

The Club at McInnis Park

350 Smith Ranch Road, San Rafael CA

For reservations call: 1-415-472-6959

Or register online at


P.S.: THANK YOU SUFI WOMEN, a spiritual and humanitarian  organization to beat the band.

Dumbness and Pornography at the New York Times

I used to enjoy the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times, in particular a page called The Ethicist. The writers there grappled with tough, snarly questions about ethics and moral clarity in our increasingly complicated times.

But something’s happened in recent months that make me want to toss the thing out the window. This once intelligent and thoughtful bastion of good writing has dumbed-down its content so much that kindergarten kids would laugh if they could read it.IMG_1938

Take this typical question: “Is it O.K. To Come to Work When I’m Sick and Sneezing?” Oh gosh, let me think. Answer: No.

Here’s another from a recent issue: “Should My Rich Friends Apply for Financial Aid?” You need an expert for this? Answer: No.

And Another: “Should I Help a Classmate Who Sexually Harassed My Friend Get a Job?” Are you nuts? Do you live on this planet? Answer: No.

And here’s one from the “Bonus Advice” column on the Ethicist page: “My husband complains that I use too much toilet paper. (We measured. I use approximately 20 squares per — .)” Answer: Never write to this column again.

IMG_1941Elsewhere, the New York Times Sunday Magazine has started a weekly survey that is so stupid and so appalling, I can’t believe anybody working there isn’t in jail.

The survey asks readers questions like this: “Would You Be an Anonymous Porn Star?”

That took my breath away. The editors write: “If you could star in a pornographic movie neck down and get paid handsomely for it, would you do it?”

To be kind, maybe the person who dreamed up this question is an older gentleman from the Penthouse/Playboy era who still believes that pornography portrays men getting laid by women who enjoy servicing them. Maybe this person thinks it’s fun to sidle up to guys like himself and say: Hey, it’s about anonymous sex with plenty of babes. You never get caught and it even pays well, so why not?IMG_1943

I’ll tell you why. We’re talking about the New York Times! Didn’t anyone research the fact that even 40 years ago, women “porn stars” were treated like sex slaves — beaten up behind the scenes; made to copulate with animals, submit to simulated and real gang rape, endure primitive breast implants and humiliating ejaculation scenes?

Remember “porn star” Linda Lovelace? She said the oral sex scenes in her famous movie, Deep Throat, were performed “with a gun to my head the entire time.” But let’s say women “porn stars” aren’t coerced — let’s say they need the cash and choose to appear being strangled or whipped while raped.  Is this the kind of image you’d want your son to see at age 11 (average age of boys first viewing pornography), or your daughter to aspire to as a “porn star”?

411vFXivT2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Plus, that was 40 years ago. As any New York Times assistant editor would have discovered through a cursory search on Google, today, thanks to competition on the Internet, the pornography industry is much worse — much more brutal, cruel, ruthless and jaded.

As documented by Wheelock College professor Gail Dines in her book, Pornland (Beacon, 2011) escalating forms of violence in pornography have made the sight of ripped vaginas, bloody anuses and faces blinded by ejaculate lure younger and younger male viewers.

So the problem isn’t only dumbed-down information. It’s the New York Times Sunday Magazine pimping out women as objects of sick fantasies. Who takes responsibility for this? Ultimately, it has to be the publisher, Andy Wright.

Andy Wright

Andy Wright

And look, he’s not an elderly gentleman at all! Just a nice-looking white guy, like your typical John.

Granted, Andy Wright gets to take credit, too, for an excellent article elsewhere in the magazine just last Sunday (January 5) called “To Catch a Rapist.” It describes SVU (Special Victims Unit) detectives in New Haven working through a huge caseload of sex crimes.

But that’s all the more reason for the entire staff to keep professional standards high in every article and item, including — ta da! — a page called The Ethicist. Or maybe they’re counting too many toilet paper squares to notice.

Amazon: The Spoof and the Store

Here’s a fictional job interview from a recent novel about Amazo — pardon, a retail book giant on the Internet with the made-up name of Scroll. See if you recognize this novel:

         “Tell me, Alice, how do you like to read?”

         “Oh — well, I love to read!”

         “I mean, do you use an e-reader or …?”

          She leaned forward slightly, like she wanted to reach over and catch my answer in her hands.

         “Of course. I have a Kindle, first generation. I also read galleys, manuscripts, hardcovers, basically whatever I can get my hands on.”

         “So you’re agnostic.”

         “Actually I was raised Catholic, and I’ve fallen pretty far from the flock, but I still consider myself a spiritual person, if that makes any sense?” (Why was she asking about religion? Was this even legal?)

         “Good to know. But I meant platform agnostic, meaning you toggle back and forth between your device and carbon-based books.”

If you spotted this as a scene from A Window Opens by Elizabeth Egan, published by Simon & Schuster in August, you’re right.

"A Window Opens," hardcover edition.

“A Window Opens,” hardcover edition.

Egan, who once worked as an editor at Amazon’s New York publishing office, has given us both a cautionary tale and a spoof about the horrid place. Instead of parodying the book publishing efforts that she witnessed for about a year, A Window Opens envisions what might happen if Amazon were to climb down from its e-Ivory Tower and open an actual brick-and-mortar bookstore.

And so, ta da! That very thing happened just last month, when the online retail giant opened Amazon Books, a 5500-square-foot retail bookstore in Seattle. Rumor has it this might be the flagship for a coming chain of retail bookstores across the country, but we won’t know for a year or so.

Amazon's first bookstore (not a Benihana)

Amazon’s first bookstore (not a Benihana)

In the book, Egan’s vision of Amazon’s first retail effort is different from the reality, as we’ll see. But in both cases, the store and the spoof, observers get to see how easily the language of e-everythinge-readers, e-books, e-devices, e-families, e-marriage, e-idiocy and e-tyranny — affects modern life.

A Window Opens is about Alice Pearce, a happily married mother of three kids in upscale New Jersey, who holds a part-time job as book editor for a popular women’s magazine called You.

This is the first of several parallels linking author and character.  Egan is also a mother of three living in suburban New Jersey, and You sounds like a combination of the real-life magazine Self, where Egan once worked as book editor, and Glamour, where she reviews books now.

Alice loves the fact that she can commute to Manhattan part-time and be a stay-at-home mother most of the time.  When, however, her husband Nicholas is passed over for partner at his hotsy totsy Wall Street firm, he figures his only option is to start a firm of his own. With no start-up money, no office and no clients, he needs Alice to step up and find a high salary-paying job of her own.

Author Elisabeth Egan

Author Elisabeth Egan

Facing that all-too-common terror of the long-out-of-work “soccer Mom” leaving a cushy fun employer like You and returning to full-time work, Alice finds out fast that she’s practically unemployable. Then almost out of the blue, she’s asked to interview for a job as “content manager” at Scroll, a new chain of bookstores that may quickly dominate the retail landscape.

“Our mission is to reinvent reading the way Starbucks reinvented coffee,” says the Marketing Specialist at Scroll who discovers Alice — not through an employment agency or head-hunter, of course, but by following Alice’s cute literary bon mots on Twitter.

Scroll outlets will not be bookstores exactly. They’re called “reading lounges” because for one thing, there will be no physical (carbon-based!) books in the stores. Instead, customers will be able to, as Alice learns, “browse e-books on docked tablets and then download files directly to all their devices at once. Plans for the lounges include fair-trade-certified coffee bars and eco-friendly furniture sourced from reclaimed local materials.”

Although based in Manhattan to be near the mainstream book industry, Scroll is “tethered to its parent,” a giant chain of shopping malls called MainStreet that “curates” retail needs in one place. “So patrons could buy, say, a wheel barrow along with their gardening book,” Alice tells us.

You can see the author’s smart set-up.  Words like CURATE, AGNOSTIC and CARBON-BASED all sound like exaggerations that could easily spring from a company like Amazon — or Google, Apple, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — where workers feel required to use language that sounds visionary, hip and brave.

At a Scroll store, customers can browse e-books in a recliner chair with cup holders that keep their organic beverage warm. And they can sit there as long as they like doing SSR (Sustained Silent Reading).

[DRIB (Don’t Read If Busy):

[I kept thinking that Scroll is the worst idea for a bookstore I’ve heard in years — for one thing because it’s already been done.  The very first B Dalton store in Minnesota (late 1960s) looked something like Scroll, with big easy chairs, wide aisles, parquet floors, a helpful-to-obsequious staff and muffled quiet to inspire as much SSR as people could handle. 

Pickwick Bookshop, founded 1938

Pickwick Bookshop, founded 1938

As I recall, that first B Dalton nearly failed until a management scout visited the noisy, congested Pickwick Book Shop on Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles.  The aisles were covered with ratty flooring and crowded with so many piles of books that customers had trouble walking anywhere, let alone sitting down for SSR. Shopping was entirely self-service and the lines at the cash registers were packed with people buying (not reading) books by the armload.

The lesson at Pickwick was that bookstore customers didn’t want to interact with a sales clerk who might ask embarrassing literary questions they couldn’t answer. And they didn’t like SSR in a retail setting — too much like a library. They preferred to do their reading at home or in a crowded coffee shop.

B Dalton mall store

B Dalton mall store

So B Dalton’s management adapted to this model by not learning anything in particular.  It simply bought and closed the venerable Pickwick Book Shop and its small local chain, copied the Pickwick approach and charged publishers for every inch of display space it could get away with. As a result, B Dalton’s junky, commercial-books-only shopping mall stores did well for a time, as did its competitor, Waldenbooks.]

Egan is clearly aiming her  expose at Amazon, but she’s too smart to quote CEO Jeff Bezos’ icky coined words, like “customer-centric.” Instead she turns to his other icky ideas, such as “the empty chair.” When Alice notices that at least one chair is left empty no matter how crowded the meeting, a Scroll colleague explains: “The empty chair is for the customer,” because the customer, nobody should forget,  “always has a presence in meetings.”

The "empty chair" theory as adopted by business consultant Gardner Customer Solutions

The “empty chair” theory as adopted by business consultant Gardner Customer Solutions

Yikes, how dumbed-down can Amazon get, you may scoff. But Bezos used the empty chair as “the ultimate boss at Amazon” — and the idea was picked up by so many management consultants for so many years,  it became a cliché. According to Forbes magazine, Bezos then replaced it with “specially trained employees” — actual human beings called Customer Experience Bar Raisers. “When they frown, vice-presidents tremble.”

In a similar way, Scroll increasingly takes on a kindergarten feel in Egan’s novel.  As part of their “onboarding” (orientation) period, workers must learn “the patois of Scroll,” such as “dropping a meeting” on someone’s calendar,  or showing team spirit by switching their candy preference to gummy bears made by Haribo, “the leading candy consumed by voracious readers,” Alice’s boss Genevieve declares with authority.

Customer-centric gummy bears: better than books?

Customer-centric gummy bears

True, the pressures on Alice are anything but child’s play. She must “liaise” with 30 agents and editors immediately and select 450 titles for Scroll’s first inventory; she must generate quickie e-books called ScrollOriginals (how close to Amazon’s “Kindle Singles” can you get?); and she must aspire to become a “ScrollCrier” who keeps the world “up-to-the-minute on our mission as it continues to evolve,” says Genevieve.

At first, workers at Scroll don’t have to punch in or account for their time, but soon an email circulates that everyone must “run their palms beneath our new Biometric Time Clock” each morning as a way of assisting “trackability.”  No matter. Alice’s first email from Scroll arrives at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday, so she’s on the clock 24/7 anyway.

And Scroll is not just any start-up. It’s backed by MainStreet, a hugely successful chain of high-end shopping malls founded by the Rockwell brothers — and here the author’s description sounds a bit like the brothers who started Borders Books, a now defunct but once tyrannical big-box bookstore chain. The Borders brothers sold out before they could do as much damage as the thuggy Riggio brothers of Barnes & Noble (not mentioned in the book, thank heaven). Still, they left their mark by contributing to the bankruptcy of every independent retailer in Borders’ path.

The first Borders brothers store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1971

The first Borders brothers store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1971

In any case, Scroll is set to become part of MainStreet’s new “lifestyle centers,” meaning shopping malls called Heritage Towne — and that’s TOWNE WITH AN ‘E,’ by the way. (Any time you want to evoke an old-timey feeling, just add an e or other letter, like the Bun Shoppe).

Heritage Townes are thriving, Alice learns, because they “mimic the hometown vibe of the very mom-and-pop stores they put out of business. Cobblestone, gaslit lanes connect Johnny Rockets (hamburger joints) with Hollister (clothing stores for “cool guys and gals”); phone charging stations are coyly housed inside old-fashioned phone booths; easy-listening renditions of folk favorites are piped to the furthest reaches of the parking lot, for the brave souls who forgo valet service. Heritage Towne has a gym, a movie theater, a band shell, a medical center, and its own Whole Foods.”

Liberty Bell topiary -- who could resist?

Patriotic topiary — who could resist?

Further, Alice notes, “all shrubbery was cleverly groomed with a patriotic theme. In the short walk around the place, I spotted topiaries in the shape of Uncle Sam, the Liberty Bell, and of course, a giant dollar bill.”

Alice doesn’t like the studied kitsch of Heritage Towne, but she is intrigued by Scroll’s boldness, even its vision, in the face of New York’s rickety old publishing industry.  “It would be fun to be at the beginning of something,” she thinks naively. “How many years have I been listening to the death knell of magazines?”

Or books.  “Who doesn’t want to see more bookstores, right?” says Genevieve, also thinking simplistically. Whether Scroll is good or bad for readers, for free speech, for capitalism, or for our democracy doesn’t seem to matter to Genevieve or for the most part to Alice.  What gets everyone’s attention is the latest upgrade in buzz. In the “simulated Scroll lounge” that’s been constructed in the New York office, Genevieve points out proudly, “we have a roaster on the premises so we know our beans have been treated humanely.”

What sustains Alice through her exhausting 90-hour weeks at Scroll is that allure so often heard in real life from Wonder Boys like Jeff Bezos — that you don’t just have a job when you work for companies like Amazon; you are changing the future.

Unknown-6Remember Bezos’ 10 business philosophies in real life? Just to dip into them for a moment:  #2 is Stick with Two Pizzas, meaning a project team should consist of 5-7 people, small enough to “feed with only two pizzas,” heh heh, pretty sophisticated, right?

Similarly, Scroll abides by its own Tenets of Winners, conveyed through acronyms such as:

WGIR Winners Get It Right

SADYC Surprise and Delight Your Customer

WTF not WHAT THE F–K as they say in Internet lingo, but rather  Winners Talk Frankly

WATOQ, Winners Answer Their Own Questions.

Using the Tenets of Winners, Alice is told, every problem has a solution: “If you couldn’t find the answer you needed, you could file a ‘trouble ticket,’ organized by six-digit numbers. Your manager would be cc’ed on any trouble ticket you filed, so new employees were cautioned to file them sparingly or risk flagging themselves as poor problem solvers.”

At one meeting, the young team leader mispronounces the word Tenet as TENANT, as in the TENANTS OF WINNERS — a mistake only someone like Alice (considered an editorial type in this crowd) catches but can’t share. She’s older than her bosses and doesn’t dare instruct them.

Sandberg and Zuckerman: dress code even for them?

Sandberg and Zuckerberg: dress code for her?

Nor does she change unwritten rules, such as: When visiting MainStreet’s midwest offices, women wear blazers, blouses and skirts, while men come and go in hoodies and jeans. This is so close to the bone (see photos of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg), you hear yourself groan.

Finally, Alice learns that she must defer especially to Greg, the self-empowered youngest MainStreet brother and founder of Scroll. Greg has his own wisdom statement, often repeated, which is: We have to ask ourselves, by which he means the older generation’s truths may not apply to today’s realities, so “they” were wrong and we —Greg and his brothers — are right.

In a rare visit to her office, Greg looks at a stack of books on Alice’s desk that are soon to be released from New York publishers. He should know that Alice is one of the very few people outside mainstream houses to see these books so early, but instead, thinking of that “carbon-based” label everyone at Scroll uses by now, he says,

     “You really want to pollute the environment with that crap?”

      “Excuse me?”

      “No, seriously, I just got back from a fact-finding mission at the Strand.** That place is a tinderbox waiting to go up in flames. We have to ask ourselves, what kind of impact is all that paper having on our planet?” He shuddered….

Alice begins to tell Greg how she’s curating her first list of recommended fiction titles for the Scroll customer, but he interrupts.

     “All good stuff. But we have to ask ourselves, what does the customer really want, right?”

     “Right.” I was still getting used to Scroll speak, which involved a semi-Socratic tic of inserting “Right?” at the end of every sentence.

     “Wait, sorry, Greg, what do you mean?”

     “I mean, does the customer really want books with his coffee, or might he enjoy something else?”

     “Like …?”

     “I don’t know. Isn’t that your job?” Greg gazed at me through heavy-lidded eyes. Was he high?

     “I guess I’m not understanding your question.”

     “I’ll break it down for you. What’s the best way for us to gain traction in the marketplace?”

     “By creating a bookstore experience like no other? By giving customers something they can’t get anywhere else? Beyond that, I haven’t really thought –”

     “Well, start thinking, girl!” Greg squinted at the picture on my desk.

     “Hey, switching gears here, is that your family?”

     “Yes, the kids are older now but — “

     “Let me ask you, what video games do they like to play?”

     I laughed. “Much to my son’s chagrin, we don’t have any video games…I want my kids to be readers and to live in the real world — not some fake universe. Not to mention the violence.” I congratulated myself on adhering to the sixth tenet, WTF: Winners Talk Frankly.

Oh dear. Well, we know where that’s going to get her. You only talk frankly to the company founder if his attention span is longer than the three seconds he allows himself to “switch gears.”

[**DRIB: Don’t Read If Busy

It’s worth taking a moment to note that Greg refers to his “fact-finding mission at the Strand” as though walking into a bookstore is a dangerous, heroic quest. All he sees are stacks of glued and sewn paper that make no sense to him in the Brave New World of e-bookstores he believes Scroll is bringing to life.

But something happens to customers at the Strand — it’s just a thought but it has the power of a thunderbolt — and I wish it had struck Greg when he was there. That is: It’s one thing to imagine the virtual universe of Amazon/Scroll’s access to a million books in the e-atmosphere; but it’s quite another to walk along the Strand’s incredible 18 miles of new, used and rare books that customers can actually see, pick up, open and start reading right there.

These 2.5 million books don’t represent anything — they ARE our reality; they bring to us just about everything humanity knows at this moment (in the English language mostly); and have been valued and traded in this one bookstore for nearly 90 years.  That’s before and after the arrival of the Internet.

The Strand, interior shot

The Strand, interior shot from ceiling

It’s this thought — the astounding physical fact of the English-language world in book form right in front of you, surrounding you and if you’re not careful about to topple down on your head — that astonishes customers and staff alike, so of course Greg is unimpressed. To Egan’s credit, he is not a Jeff Bezos lookalike or a Mark Zuckerberg stand-in. He is a well-drawn Internet caricature with no curiosity, no sense of history and no interest in the way differences in customer tastes could strengthen rather than weaken a company like Scroll.

Of more importance to Greg: Everything he says has such kingly import that he needn’t worry about “staying on topic.” It doesn’t serve him to think more deeply than the platitudes he believes are making Scroll a success. He is a grown child, both a big baby and a paternalistic brat who should be out on the fringes but somehow feels all too recognizable in any business, especially the postmodern Internet start-up world.]

So now let’s turn back to see what we can learn from A Window Opens and the real-life Amazon’s first brick-and-mortar store ever, Amazon Books, which just opened last month in Seattle.

First a question: is Amazon Books in the University Village of Seattle really located “just up the road”  from the historic (founded in 1900) University Bookstore of the University of Washington? (From a map it appears to be a dozen blocks away.) If so, do you think Bezos could have found a location more distant from another bookstore that sells, you know, books?

University Book Store, U. of Washington

University Book Store, U. of Washington

I ask this because barging into the neighborhood of an existing independent bookstore and stealing its customer base by offering heavily discounted books was the predatory method that chain bookstores used to cripple the competition in the ’80s and ’90s and early 2000s.

You’d think Amazon for once wouldn’t make that mistake, if only for the PR advantage of no longer being considered The Internet Bully of All Time. But no. Even the New Republic said “it’s difficult not to see Amazon’s choice of location as yet another act of aggression toward indie bookstores.”

Amazon Books, interior (not the Dish Room)

Amazon Books, interior (not the Dish Room)

Second, here is an excerpt from Amazon’s welcome letter to customers, written by Amazon Books’ vice president, Jennifer Cast: The books in our store are selected based on customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and our curators’ assessments. These are fantastic books! Most have been rated 4 stars or above, and many are award winners.”

Amazon Books: signs show just how "fantastic" these books can be

Amazon Books: signs confirm high ratings of customers

Okay, got it. Only good books at an Amazon bookstore, right? And Amazon wants you to know they are good because customers like you — your peers — have said so. Signs make it clear not to worry, you are secure knowing the books are “Highly Rated” with a positive customer comment printed out right there on the shelf.

[We figure Amazon didn’t fall for any phony wowzer comments the author paid for, right?  So let’s just bypass that conversation.]

Plus all titles, by the way, are sitting “face-out” on the shelf so you don’t have to lift your hand to pull a book out by its spine and turn it this way and that to examine the cover. Sort of like the Dish Room in the White House; kind of a static feeling. Books facing out take up so much space that Amazon Books offers a fraction of the inventory sold at an independent store, and yet customers on Yelp and other sites say the aisles are small and have that “cramp” feeling.

The real Dish Room at the White House

The real Dish Room at the White House

This is the difference between an Amazon bookstore offering statistically popular books and an independent bookstore employing buyers who choose books for different reasons than widespread acceptance.

In an independent store, the buyers meet with publishers’ sales reps as much as six months in advance to weigh the value of each title for every kind of audience.  There is some guesswork in this process — publishing is always a crap shoot, after all — and sometimes these buyers will recommend a title that offends some customers. Or at least, that is the hope. These buyers are looking for quality in messge and style; they trust that enough readers are out there who’ll seek out or take a chance on titles that might not be as popular as they are adventurous, off the grid, a little wild.

I wonder for instance if Lolita or Howl or The Color Purple or Lady Chatterly’s Lover or The Autobiography of Malcolm X or The Naked Lunch would have received 4+ stars from customers when these titles were first published — you know, when they were banned and reviewed with disgust and when they caused booksellers to be prosecuted simply for displaying them in the store.

Today you’ll find the modern equivalent in independent bookstores because that’s why these retailers ARE independent — an experienced buyer with vision and a sense of literary ambition for the store is always looking for the unpredictable, that rare opportunity to pique our interests.

On the other hand, at a store like Amazon Books, offering titles that are already established among readers is a safe, dull and (to me) insulting way to enter the retail market. Yes, there is reference to “our curators’ assessments” (sheesh, that word) but these titles seem confined to a “staff-favorites section” rather than as part of a buyer’s decision to mix up the inventory.

[Plus: The staff-favorites section at Amazon Books  includes several of Jeff Bezos’ own picks, isn’t that cozy?  Maybe we’re supposed to think, Oh good, Dad’s entered into the fun, since one of his favorites is Traps by his wife, MacKenzie Bezos.  Aw, Dad. you old softie.]

What’s missing at Amazon Books is that element of risk and adventure you can sense the minute you walk into an independent bookstore.  Of course, best-selling titles are everywhere in an indie bookseller, but so are books by authors nobody’s heard of who may be so original and fresh they just have to be read. Unknown, controversial, up-from-nowhere works may not appeal to everybody — they may, in fact, take your head off with their decidedly UNpopular views or style — but heavens, what kind of democracy would we have without that kind of choice?

So it isn’t just that Amazon Books looks like an expensive chain restaurant that’s been overdesigned in wood and signage. (How much of the  interior is “eco friendly” or derived from “reclaimed local materials” is not stated.) Rather, everything feels so tidy, so received, so Soviet, so data-molded that a blandness and prudency seem to settle over the place.

I’m sure many titles at Amazon Books do challenge us, but hell, you can get that kind of surprise from a spin rack in a drug store. What makes me nervous is the promise of statistical rankings (“4.8 Stars and Above”) that guarantee conformity.

What does novelist Elizabeth Egan have to say about all this?  A Window Opens shows how an Internet company like Amazon/Scroll not only limits our choices in books but corrupts the very language we use about the book business. Granted, fashions in word use come and go, like using “curate” because it sounds classier than “select,” or tossing in the term “carbon-based” so you’ll feel guilty about — well, whatever it describes.  But fashions are always short-term, thank heaven. The day everybody gets sick of “iconic” will herald a national holiday that I hope comes soon.

What scares me is that the narrowing of language leads to a narrowing of imagination, as represented in Egan’s novel by Greg and the Scroll team.  When workers see no difference between the TENANTS and the TENETS of Winners — or like Alice they can’t say they do without sounding unAmerican — the core message of Amazon/Scroll turns out to be: Stay low, use approved buzz words, don’t read (who has time?), be a team player, lean out and shut up.

One last thing about A Window Opens: It’s a great send-up by a former employee of the metastacized Amazon empire that’s consuming the world.  But it’s also a very good commercial novel with its own twists and surprises, its unexpectedly poignant moments about raising children and its intriguing subplots, some of which dont involve an expose of Amazon.

Woven throughout, for example, are Alice’s brother, seemingly liberated from capitalism;  her dad’s throat cancer (and the “Buzz Lightyear” appliance he uses for a voicebox); the children’s adjustment to Mom’s insane new job; and Nicholas’ own, very rocky transition from up-and-comer to failure to scaredy cat to independent thinker and Dad.

Plus there’s a very intriguing conflict between Alice and her best friend, who owns a terrific independent bookstore that may be the first to be knocked off by Scroll.  This store seems to be similar to Elisabeth Egan’s own neighborhood bookstore, Watchung Booksellers (of Watchung Plaza in Montclair, New Jersey).

Remembering how much she has valued this store, Egan commented recently that “Watchung Booksellers is the first place that my kids walked to alone.” This was just a casual comment made without much thought, but it’s a tribute as touching as anything Alice Pearce says in the book. It  means that the first time you let your kids walk anywhere on their own, you want the destination to be a trusted place where people know your children and keep an eye out to make sure they arrive safely. Local retail stores are like that, bookstores especially, because kids already know the way to story-time events, circle-time readings and the like.

Egan signing books at Watchung Booksellers

Egan signing books at Watchung Booksellers

And, more important than I thought at first, A Window Opens is the story of yet another mother trying to “have it all” by going back to work in a job environment so dictatorial and punishing that it may ruin her life. Here is Alice’s advice to the family’s indispensable baby sitter — who at 18 is leaving the family to start her own career— but the message applies to many:

“… please don’t waste time wondering whether it’s possible to ‘have it all.’ Banish the expression from your vocabulary; make sure your friends do, too. A better question is What do you really want? Diving headlong into the second quarter of your life without asking this question is like going grocery shopping without a list. You’ll end up with a full cart but nothing to cook for dinner. Figure out what you feel like eating, and then come up with your own recipe for the whole messy, delicious enchilada.”

This is in character for Alice but I’m kind of disappointed that she didn’t say what A Window Opens tells us, that “having it all” is a family thing. Everybody gets to have it all if everybody pitches in. Husbands need to balance priorities — not just to do the dishes or pick up the kids up but to assume full partnership with Mom and tackle that surprising array of family needs — and, most of all, experiencing those unpredictable heart-stopping moments when the kids do something that’s hilarious and serious and in character for the self-actualized beings they are still to become.

I think that’s what the book really proposes. It’s sort of a fictional take on Sandberg’s Lean In, and again I’m impressed that for all we learn about Amazon-type companies “reinventing the future” in an alarmingly bland, somewhat willy-nilly and domineering fashion, the book’s most valuable inside look is at our own humanity in the face of enormous change.






Where Did that ‘Foreigner’ Go

People who make decisions about media — heads of publishing houses, TV producers, Hollywood studio chiefs— believe that most Americans aren’t interested in anything “foreign.”

an old cliche

Typical Arab? an old cliche

As a result, for many years, much of what we heard about people in the Middle East were stereotypes of “rag heads,” exotic belly dancers and cowardly “A-rab” soldiers running away when the real fighting began.

Then came the attacks of 9/11, and the only possible benefit: that unheard-of prospect of a first novel about everyday life in Afghanistan, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, selling in the millions. Since then an outpouring of novels and memoirs about the Middle East have been published that we might not have seen otherwise.

"The Kite Runner" published 2003 (Riverhead)

“The Kite Runner” published 2003 (Riverhead)

I don’t mean to say The Kite Runner will stand as a great or exceptional novel. As critics noted, the details are accurate and the story is told earnestly and sometimes grippingly. The author, too, is something of a phenomenon, a promising first novelist whose family was given political asylum in California, where he became an M.D. and was practicing as an internist while writing Kite Runner in English, his second language.

So: Intriguing story, commendable author and trustworthy descriptions of a country that most of us knew little about. What’s the problem?

Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini

Well, plenty, according to a 2009 essay I found only recently called Can the West Read? Western Readers, Orientalist Stereotypes, and the Sensational Response to The Kite Runner by an Occidental College student named Sarah Hunt.

Drawing from Orientalism, scholar Edward Said’s groundbreaking 1978 study of stereotypes about Arab culture, Hunt suggests that The Kite Runner uses simplistic Western ideas to make the Middle East “a cultural backdrop against which to create and celebrate Western identity.”

The plot, she says, reads more like an American coming-of-age novel than a story that might have emerged organically from modern Afghanistan. Americans shouldn’t think that by reading The Kite Runner, they’re “creating a ‘bridge of understanding’ between themselves and Afghan culture.”

'Orientalism' by Edward Said, 1979

‘Orientalism’ by Edward Said, 1979

I never thought people ran out to read The Kite Runner in a conscious effort to correct American ignorance or become better world citizens. Rather a phenomenal word-of-mouth said The Kite Runner was a terrific novel you couldn’t put down about everyday life in Afghanistan, a country we were currently bombing because of 9/11.

Fine, but remember, says Sarah Hunt: People don’t just read a novel for the story, and then go on to another story, and another.  We bring our own biases to the page. We seek confirmation of preconceptions that have been on our minds, perhaps subconsciously, for decades.

In The Kite Runner, Hosseini makes his protagonist, Amir, “less and less ‘foreign’ ” to the Western reader, says Hunt, and more an “extension of the imperial self by using the East, in all its forms, for his own Westernized benefit.”

Don’t you love academic language like that — so literary, so righteous, so nostalgic (you Western imperialists, you bums). So pointy.

But I’m glad that someone like Sarah Hunt is here to keep the critical conversation going. Americans  love The Kite Runner because we do learn a great deal — about boys and dads, games and customs, geography and money exchange in Kabul — against the backdrop of huge societal changes in Afghanistan, from Soviet occupation to the entrance of the Taliban.

Edward Said

Edward Said

Of course, that’s the plot. Hunt, like Edward Said,  is more concerned about form. If Amir becomes less and less “foreign” and more like Western readers, so then do Amir’s friend Hassan (the victim) , and Assef (the villain) become more “foreign.” Hunt believes each character plays out unseen stereotypes that reassure Western readers of the “inferiority” and “barbaric” nature of Orientalist (in this case Afghan) characters.

Something like that.  It’s easy to poke holes in Sarah Hunt’s essay because she, too, is guilty of simplistic reasoning. But it’s equally important to note that Can the West Read? represents a critical conversation that is vital to a free culture. This kind of questioning flows around every piece of art we see, and every work of commercial entertainment in front of us, whether we’re aware of it or not.

Unlike plainer, shorter reviews that tell us whether a work in question is good or bad, the kind of cultural questioning that Hunt represents stretches and tests the reader — challenges us to notice  prejudices that stop us from having the empathy to understand how “foreigners” themselves feel about being exploited over and over again in Western works.

'The Panther' by Nelson DeMille

‘The Panther’ by Nelson DeMille

Take for example those toughboy action-junkie spy thrillers. (Seven Days from Sunday, National Security, American Assassin) that make so often characters from the Middle East swarthy evil bad guys with bad teeth. An example would be an otherwise fine novelist like Nelson DeMille turning his knowledgeable-wiseacre detective, John Corey, into a swaggering fathead. In book after book (The Lion, The Panther) Corey single-handedly saves the world from Middle Eastern terrorists who need to be killed for the benefit of humankind. He wins, as Americans must, because after all, We’re #1.

The scimitar guy in 'Raiders' - who could blame Indy?

The scimitar guy in ‘Raiders’ – who could blame Indy?

These bad-guy Arab characters come out of comic-book fantasies, so why take them seriously? Remember in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the threatening black-robed giant Arab guy swings his scimitar around so dramatically that Indiana Jones just shrugs and shoots him dead? The audience exploded with laughter when I saw it in a theater. There was no opportune moment for a rational critic like myself to stand up and point out the problems of cheap humor against the We’re #1 backdrop of American big shot storytelling.  The audience couldn’t be critical because they know the Western hero is always going to win — he just gets more points when he does it humorously.

And extends the fun by reporting that Harrison Ford in his role as Indiana Jones was suffering from dysentery at the time, so he “persuaded [director Steven] Spielberg to try the scene this much shorter way. (One could say Ford was given “the runs” of the place.)”

"Intrepid archaeologist extraordinaire" or shoplifter of sacred objects?

“Intrepid archaeologist extraordinaire” or shoplifter of sacred objects?

Ha ha, those Snopes writers sure got into the spirit of a real “rag head” moment. “Indy” gets away with using his gun instead of a whip because the villain is too stupid to notice that white people are his superiors in every way.  Plus Ford and Spielberg didn’t have to feel guilty for filming that scene because Raiders was just a kill-the-desert-rat movie for Americans anyway. Not to mention a let’s- steal-treasures-from-the-primitives theme, but that’s another story.

But what about those American viewers?  Why would an American audience raised on the concept of free speech and enjoying more choices than just about anybody in the world, give up its discriminating voice for easy laughs at other peoples’ expense?

For the answer let’s turn to the Showtime television series Homeland and the very amusing stunt pulled by Middle Eastern street artists a week or so ago.  They were hired to spray paint “authentic Arab graffiti” on the walls of the show’s sets which had been built in Berlin, for Season 5.

'Homeland is racist'

‘Homeland is racist’

But these artists had something else in mind, and I don’t know which is more hilarious —

1) that the graffiti didn’t say things like “God is great,” as the artists were told to write, but rather “Homeland is racist,” “Homeland is a joke,” “Homeland is a watermelon” (i.e., a “sham,” a “fake”) — and nobody on the Homeland staff noticed.


2) that the show’s co-creator tried to sound hip and cavalier about it by announcing to the press: “We wish we’d caught these images before they made it to air … but we can’t help but admire this act of artistic sabotage.”

Ha ha, sounds like something they’d say on except this guy at Showtime went on TV and put it in a press release.  He wanted to be witty and cool so he could dodge the real question, which is: You don’t have one person working on Homeland who speaks Arabic?

Why, Carrie, how you do stand out ...

Why, Carrie, how you do stand out …

And other questions that follow: You don’t have one fact-checker for scenes set in Iraq or Lebanon or Syria? You don’t care that CIA analyst Carrie Mathison is an agent trained in Arabic who botches words she should pronounce perfectly, or when the converted POW Brody prays with his shoes on (“a big blooper”), or when “a bustling metropolitan city” like Beirut is reduced to “dilapidated neighborhoods…(with) armed militias in jeeps terroriz(ing  residents) and Hezbollah commanders leaving their top-secret battle plans at the kitchen desk”?

Well, the producers don’t have to answer questions like that because they believe the audience doesn’t care. Homeland is a star vehicle for Claire Danes, goddamnit, so it doesn’t matter if Carrie’s blond hair flies everywhere as she runs around those filthy Middle East streets, or that she miraculously sneaks into a heavily guarded prison to find the one inmate who blurts out the show’s pivotal secret, or that the swarthy deodorant-needing Arab guards race in, missing Carrie’s miraculous escape by seconds.

Or is it the #25?

Or is it the #25?

That kind of slipshod action stuff doesn’t matter, because this is TV, where audiences check their critical standards at the door. I know I do. Do you ever care, for example, that surgeons on ER/Grey’sAnatomy/ChicagoHope/CodeBlack keep using a #10 scalpel blade when the obviously better #12 is sitting right there?  No, we want enough fake medical talk to get us into the scandal, the sex and the violence that make hospital shows so great.

I did love what a sardonic Tel Aviv critic said about Homeland being based on a successful Israeli TV series. The story in both versions is essentially the same, he said, but with this difference: In Israel, the show is about terrorists and the Mosad, while in the United States, it’s about terrorists and Claire Danes.

Madam and Mr. Cutie Pie

Madam and Mr. Cutie Pie

I thought that was so funny and so true that it shed new light on the reason a TV audience may silence its own critical voice. Give us romance, humor, action and stars we love, and we’ll tune in, period. (I so love Tea Leoni in Madam Secretary that it doesn’t matter how badly the show dumbs-down every political reality known to heaven. This Secretary of State does the dishes at home, for heaven sake, and she kisses that cutie pie husband Tim Daly over the soapsuds before flying off to stop nuclear war. What more can you ask from TV?)

Maybe that’s the reason CIA experts say about Homeland,  “It’s a good show, but it’s not an accurate portrayal of what happens inside the military or the intelligence community.” Duh. They mean it’s a good show for TV — it’s got intrigue, back-seat sex and torture. Throw in a homemade suicide bomb for the POW to wear at a reception with the Vice President and it doesn’t have to be authentic.

That may be why viewers turn a deaf ear to blistering revelations such as a Washington Post review that Homeland is “the most bigoted show on television, “churn(ing) out Islamophobic stereotypes as if its writers were getting paid by the cliche.” (That’s true but listen, it’s more important to know if Carrie is pregnant or what?)

The larger problem is that American institutions take Homeland so seriously they’ve awarded dozens of coveted prizes  — Emmys! Golden Globes! SAGs, Directors/Producers/Writers Guild awards, even an AFI, Edgar, Television Critics and Peabody (whaaaat?) — for being high-minded, intellectually stimulating and instructive.

That’s what makes the street artists’ “Homeland is a joke” graffiti so delicious. They showed what can happen in a culture where free speech may seem less and less valued until — bingo — something truly subversive hits a nerve.

Heba Amin

Heba Amin

And thanks to a statement issued by the lead graffiti saboteur, the Egyptian artist Heba Amin, the message proved just how serious people from the Middle East take English-language TV.

“The very first season of Homeland explained to the American public that Al Qaida is actually an Iranian venture,” says Amin. “This dangerous phantasm has become mainstream ‘knowledge’ in the US and has been repeated as fact by many mass media outlets. Five seasons later, the plot has come a long way, but the thinly veiled propaganda is no less blatant.”

Heba Amin is a person who’s felt outraged and frustrated for a long time that American television not only gets away with shameful inaccuracies but contributes in dangerous way to volatile relations with countries already angry with the U.S.

But the fact that her crew’s graffiti endured censorship (if only somebody had known) proves this lesson: You can drive a big-budget, overproduced, propaganda-loaded and flat-out bigoted blockbuster down the throats of capitalist viewers and get away with it for a while. But somewhere, dissent is going to come out — not the truth but a truth. And it’s going to be heard because the people who make decisions underestimate the people watching.

True, Homeland will probably go on with higher ratings and the usual awards, but from now on, the fun for viewers will be watching the kinks and the mistakes and the slapdash marks of a true “watermelon” production.

Meanwhile, I’m glad I work with books rather than other media. It’s in books that readers and writers meet according to centuries-old literary standards that are embedded in our psyches. Does that sound high-falutin? Doesn’t matter. The critical conversation goes on every moment of every day, whether we’re ready to hear it or not.












Oliver Sacks (1933-2015): A brief remembrance

One time I interviewed Oliver Sacks when he had a bout of knee pain and found it difficult “to negotiate your San Francisco hills,”  he said.

Oliver Sacks at the time of our interview, 1989

Oliver Sacks at the time of our interview, 1989

I think he was staying at the Mark Hopkins or Fairmont and tried to walk down Nob Hill to our interview, arriving sweaty and frustrated at the end.

My knee had problems, too, and I mentioned that walking backward downhill while leaning toward the pavement could make the trek a little easier. Parking meters were always there if one needed to grab onto something, and the only problem was feeling like a crab on the way down.

Going down California Street, Nob Hill

Tough on the knee: going down California Street

Dr. Sacks was delighted with the idea and wanted to try it, except for one thing. A person walking backward down a San Francisco hill must be “conspicuous, don’t you find?” And he had this confession: He might be too shy to do it.

But Dr. Sacks, I said, you work with people who act ‘conspicuously,’ to put it mildly, all the time! You’re famous for showing the world how to appreciate different behaviors because of the way you so eloquently describe what’s going on in the mind.

I pointed to Seeing Voices, his book about deafness that was the subject of our interview. There he writes beautifully about the use of Sign language, which he views as not just a substitute for communication but a “linguistically complete” language all its own.

Original hardcover, University of California Press

Original hardcover, University of California Press

Dr. Sacks picked up the book and embarked on a passionate account of how much he admired the hearing-impaired for developing Sign as both a language and a political movement (the book brings us a stirring account of deaf students’ protests at Gallaudet University in 1988).

But as for himself, Dr. Sacks said, the fact was that he was just not that courageous. When it came to speaking foreign languages or learning Sign, he would get so self-conscious that all he could do was “stumble and mumble” around.

We got off the subject so that he could describe how exciting the world of the deaf can be when you look at the ingenuity of the mind, especially when it’s nurtured by the community and culture around it.

Vintage edition, today

Vintage edition today

Once again I felt that thrill of discovery that only Oliver Sacks could convey. Along with his incredible knowledge as a scientist, and his instantly contagious astonishment at life in general, he had a gentle and unpresuming nature that somehow changed the world in uncountable ways.

And he leaves us over a dozen books that will remain “conspicuous,” thank heaven, forever.



Hey Bernie! Listen to Barney

If you’re already in awe of the fact that rogue Senator Bernie Sanders has been drawing as many as 10,000 people to hear his speeches about running for president, here’s an episode from Barney Frank’s memoir, Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage (Farrar), that may be of interest.

Barney Frank

Barney Frank

Early in the 2000 presidential campaign, Frank, the irreverent and tough-minded Democratic congressional representative from Massachusetts, sent a memo to Al Gore’s advisers about Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate.

Although observers were saying the vote between Gore and George Bush would be close, few worried about Nader’s effect on the campaign — except Barney Frank, bless his iconoclastic heart. He believed that Nader could pull enough votes away from Gore to give Bush the win.

Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader

So Frank came up with this great idea. He sent a memo to Gore’s advisors proposing that a group of high-level Democrats meet with Nader to convince him to drop out of the race before he could become a real threat to Gore.

Of course, Nader considered Democrats loathsome and ineffective and surely would have refused any such meeting. So, Frank writes, “I suggested that Ron Dellums, Pat Schroeder and I — an African American, a woman and a gay man — become core members” of a delegation Nader could not turn away.

It was a prescient move on Frank’s part, and it kind of wrenches the gut to read about it in his book, since we know that Gore could have won if Nader had dropped out of the running and encouraged his supporters to vote Democratic.

But no. “The (Gore) campaign’s first reaction,” Frank recalls, “was not to have one. My memo was ignored,” and as a result, nobody held Nader responsible for the consequences of his continued candidacy, and Bush creaked into office.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders

And what a cautionary tale it is! Every time Socialist-turned-Democrat  Bernie Sanders hits these high numbers, a little voice from 2000 is saying, Well, hooray this early in the campaign for a guy like Sanders whom many people love. But let’s learn from the RALPH NADER FIASCO OF 2000 (not Barney Frank’s words) that there IS a difference between Republicans and Democrats so we can be sure to make the pragmatically correct move and help Sanders step out when the time comes.

Warning: Policy Wonk Gobbledygook

Glimpses behind the scenes like the Nader memo are everywhere in Barney Frank’s memoir and should make this book more fun to read than it is. We expect it to be entertaining because in person, Barney Frank is a genuinely witty political presence. (About Ronald Reagan falling asleep during meetings, Frank once announced, “It’s not the dozing off of Ronald Reagan that causes us problems. It’s what he does on those moments when he’s awake.”)

Barney Frank chaired the House Financial Services Committee

Barney Frank chaired the House Financial Services Committee

Frank’s  publisher describes him as a “disheveled, intellectually combative gay Jew,” so he’s been accustomed, he writes, to “being in the minority.” And yet even with that garbled New Jersey accent, after 32  years in the House of Representatives (he retired in 2013), Frank’s ability to surprise and delight makes him oddly charismatic whenever he speaks into a microphone.

The problem is that whenever Barney Frank puts the same material down in book form, his message is so burdened with policy-wonk gobbledygook that the eye glazes over midway through every sentence.

Here, for example, is what he says about the long-term problems of having an idealist like Ralph Nader around in 2000:

“My fervor in this effort was stocked by more than my fears of a Bush victory. Throughout my career, I’d been troubled by my allies’ tendency to choose emotional gratification over tangible, albeit insufficient, progress. The fact that Nader appeared eager to help the right regain the presidency because he found the Democrats imperfect perfectly illustrated what was wrong with this approach.”

Wait. You what? They who?

What he means is that the Naders of the world use “extreme negativism” as a kind of “game theory” that says, “never let the other side think you’re satisfied.” When you play this game, you “maximize your gains in fact by minimizing them in characterization, until and unless you are 100 percent successful.”

Okay, the gobbledygook turned bippity-bappity there but his point is that if you complain about  your opponents giving you anything, they’ll “soon realize they can obtain the same response by giving nothing at all,” and that would be the end of negotiations.

I tried listening to Frank read his story for the audiobook version from Macmillan Audio, and the experience is much better.  His jowly marbles-in-the-mouth way of speaking keeps the ear intrigued in parts where the eye would stumble.

Barney Frank and Tip O'Neill in 1982

Barney Frank and Tip O’Neill in 1982

For one thing, you can’t help but laugh when Frank tries to do his impression of the Irish accent that made Tip O’Neill famous as the Speaker of the House when the two became friends during Frank’s early years in Congress.

One very touching scene occurs when Barney was forced to come out as a gay man in the early ’80s before the release of a book that would have exposed his homosexuality. In those days being “outed” could ruin a politician’s career, so Frank sought help from the influential O’Neill, who didn’t know much about gay life or gay language but promised to help. Approaching sympathetic members of congress to support Barney when he came out of the closet, O’Neill, also famous for his malapropisms, told his aides, “We might have an issue to deal with. I think Barney Frank is going to come out of the room.” (Frank’s reading: “I tink BAH-ney is gonna come outta da rum.” )

Surprise in San Francisco

There are plenty of surprises in the book, especially for San Franciscans who remember the exhilaration that spread across the city and the national LGTB community when Mayor Gavin Newsom decided to legalize gay weddings in 2004.  Despite the many ways Barney Frank strengthened the gay rights movement throughout his career, he reacted like a negative fuddy-duddy when Newsom proposed the idea in a phone call to Frank early on.

Gavin Newsom and newlyweds

Gavin Newsom and newlyweds

Opening City Hall to same-sex marriage would be a “well-intentioned mistake,” said Frank, and even today he believes it was a “drastic move” by Newsom that “regrettably bolstered the GOP argument than an antimarriage amendment was needed.”

In fact, Frank says, the backlash that occurred after photos went viral of gay couples celebrating outside San Francisco’s City Hall crippled the whole gay-marriage movement so much that Newsom’s actions “made no substantive progress at all.”

Man of the People

Well, you don’t have to agree with him to admire Barney Frank’s reputation as a man of the people, whether “the people”  liked the way he represented them or not. Take his dislike of folksinger Pete Seeger’s hit, Little Boxes, written by Malvina Reynolds in 1962. “The song was a mockery of the postwar housing that had been built for working-class and lower-middle-class Americans,” Frank says.  Even at the time, “I recognized (that disliking it created a) gulf that divided me from many others on the left.”

And he hated the lyrics, Little boxes on the hillside / And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky / And they all look just the same. “At one concert I attended at Harvard, most of the audience — filling Harvard’s largest venue — appeared to find this a hilariously accurate critique. They were oblivious of the fact that these ‘little boxes’ had been built on a large scale to be affordable by families who would not otherwise have been able to be homeowners.

Pete Seeger sings 'Little Boxes'

Pete Seeger sings ‘Little Boxes’

“The aesthetic disdain Seeger and many of my fellow students felt for these units was not, I knew, shared by the occupants, most of whom were happy — and proud — to own them…But Seeger, and many of his listeners, preferred to think that the capitalist profit-making system was depriving people with limited incomes of the chance to live in large, individually designed houses — which they of course could not afford.

“When I insisted that the inhabitants of this ‘ticky-tacky’ were very satisfied with their ‘little boxes,’ I was often told that they did not have the knowledge — or the sensibility — to know they were being mistreated.”

Goodbye, Barney

Goodbye, Barney

Well, good for you, Barney Frank, fighter for the little guy you have been from the start, and always on your terms. I just wish you had written this book a little more — oh, how to say it — down to Earth, where you always leveled with us before.


The Harper Lee Backfire

Don’t you think the whole debacle about Harper Lee’s “new” novel sounds like a Christopher Guest mockumentary?

For Your Consideration movie poster

For Your Consideration movie poster

Guest’s satires on American foibles about dog shows (Best in Show), folksingers (A Mighty Wind), small town theater (Waiting for Guffman) and the Academy Awards (For Your Consideration) portray big, big hopes for greatness building up all over the place in ways that are so, so stupid and so incredibly American that we have to laugh, even if the parody stings a little bit.

Go Set a Watchman jacket

Go Set a Watchman jacket

In the case of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, big, big print runs and really absurd hopes for another To Kill a Mockingbird are backfiring all over the place while a lot of people are making big, big money whether the author wanted the book published or not.

You have to admit, it’s funny.

On the one hand, we have America’s beloved dad figure and heroic defense lawyer, Atticus Finch, turning into the worst, most fatuous and disgusting racist of the new century.

On the other, what timing! Go Set a Watchman comes out in the midst of kill-a-mockingbird-1edwhite police officers killing African American men more frequently than ever, the mass murder of an African American bible study group in Charleston and a President calling for new gun control laws that prompted this no-nonsense patriotic reply: Yes SIR, Mr. President! Our response to mass murder by yet another white supremacist is to … remove the Confederate flag! That’ll show we in the South mean business. Just ask Atticu– well, better not.

In fact, a mockumentary might use this occasion to get to the heart of the real problem about Harper Lee’s first book, To Kill a Mockingbird.

First, just to confirm: It’s a fine novel that deserved the Pulitzer Prize, and I’m glad it’s taught in schools.

But come on. To Kill a Mockingbird is a white person’s view of racism that’s set the tone for scores of books and movies since its publication in 1960. It says that bad white people created slavery a long time ago, so now good white people have to fix the damage. African Americans get to stay in the background for the sake of this heroic modern story.

John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me

John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me

This view also goes back to that awful 1961 book, Black Like Me,  in which a white person darkened his skin — under a doctor’s care, mind you — so that he could travel in the South and tell the world what it’s like to be black.

We couldn’t trust African Americans to tell us this same thing because after all, they’re black. It could be emotional and confusing to explain their experience to objective white America.  As Atticus Finch says in that new blockbuster from HarperCollins, “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.”

Isn’t he great?  Such a kind man, and he shows us why truly committed white writers are needed to set history straight. Wouldn’t Atticus have loved William Styron, for example, the humble white author who in 1967 wrote  The Confessions of Nat Turner in the voice of slave-turned-revolutionary Nat Turner.

The Confessions of Nat Turner

The Confessions of Nat Turner

“I was especially lacerated and hurt that [The Confessions of Nat Turner]  was labeled racist,” Styron told an audience at the Library of Congress. “That was hard to take for a writer who attempted to expose the horrors and evils of slavery.”  Aw.

But see? Here is another  kind white man generously pushing African American writers aside so that he can become the heroic figure. “Basically it is a very politically incorrect book written by a white man trying to seize his own interpretation  and put it into the soul and heart of a black man.” What a guy. He knew the words “politically incorrect” would shield him from increasing criticism only for a while. In the end, he said, what really mattered was creating “a powerful book that satisfied my ideal for a novel.” Who else would know?

Also, a good mockumentary about Go Set a Watchman would feature heartfelt comments from all the legal advisors who’ve been in and out of the author’s nursing home for years. You’ve got to hand it to them. They not only helped Harper Lee unearth the manuscript that she herself kept buried for decades.

Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist, including "One Flew Over the Cosmo's Nest."

Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist, including “One Flew Over the Cosmo’s Nest.”

They also took helped her apply for a trademark in 2012 on important To Kill a Mockingbird merchandise (there’s a Tequila Mockingbird guide to cocktails, you know), and create Mockingbird Co., a nonprofit company to control literary rights like a spinoff play that’s been running in the famous courthouse of Lee’s hometown (though it’s now closed, apparently because of the nonprofit).  Royalties from the novel still bring Harper Lee something like $3.2 million a year, so you know she’s anxious to pick up extra dollars for those hardworking agents and lawyers and friends who’ve recently stepped into her life.

The mockumentary would also interview the publisher at HarperCollins who ordered only a “light copyedit” of the Watchman manuscript so that nobody could be blamed for Atticus Finch turning into a big, fat American bigot.

Of course, the question could be asked:  What about those dedicated lifelong editors with high editorial standards who might have advised Harper Lee to be careful of shocking readers over the abrupt transformation of Atticus Finch? Well, those editors got to stay in the background, too. Who, after all, would want to change a word of the historic question Atticus poses to white people everywhere: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do  you want them in our world?” Nobody was going to touch that one.

As to marketing, that’s easy in the case of Go Set a Watchman, the publisher could say: You just make a big, big deal of its relationship to To Kill a Mockingbird and keep silent about its, um, difficult contents right up to publication date. That way readers could pre-order millions of copies and have the fun of discovering an all new Atticus Finch by themselves.

Finally, wouldn’t it be great if the mockumentary concluded with big, big dumpsters all over the country collecting piles and piles of a book everybody bought but no one wanted to read? Nothing like a giant literary embarrassment that never should have seen the light of day mucking up the legacy of “our national novel,” as Oprah Winfrey called To Kill a Mockingbird.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

As the credits roll, the camera could then go back to the classroom and show us books being taught that all audiences love, written for example by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Walter Dean Myers, Octavia Butler, Cornel West, Nikki Giovanni, Al Young, Ntozake Shange, Ernest Gaines, Terry McMillan, Zora Neale Hurston, Alex Haley, Sherley Anne Williams, Bell Hooks, Walter Mosley, Paule Marshall, Malcolm X, Michelle Alexander, Angela Davis, Edward P. Jones, Jewelle Gomez, Ishmael Reed, Marita Golden, Lalita Tademy, Frederick Douglass, Gloria Naylor, Henry Louis Gates, Cynthia Bond, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Jesmyn Ward, J. California Cooper and Pearl Cleage, to name a only a few.







Brooke Shields and the Publishing Revolution

This is how actor and model Brooke Shields begins her memoir, There Was a Little Girl (Dutton), about the death of her mother and former manager, Teri, in 2012:

“I’d written my own simple and rather short obituary about my mom and had sent in the required $1,500. The following afternoon I got a call from the [New York] Times saying they wanted to print it on the front page of the obituary section. I said they could position it wherever they wanted.

Teri and Brooke Shields

Teri and Brooke Shields in the 1970s

“They explained that they thought Mom deserved to have a more prominent placement. This made me feel like maybe after all these years, Mom would finally get some modicum of respect. And deep down we all want to know our moms deserve respect, don’t we?

“The Times added that they didn’t want me to pay the $1,500, but I explained that I was fine paying and thanked them for the offer. Suddenly the person on the other end of the phone stated that the obituary was, in fact, already being moved to a more prominent part of the paper, so a bit more copy would be needed. This was the first red flag.

“ ‘I am not giving an interview. Publish my written obit, please.’

“ ‘Well, we may just need one or two additional facts that you could clarify.’ ”

[The back-and-forth conversation goes on. The Times reporter keeps insisting; Shields keeps refusing. Finally, the Times reporter gets one question answered (about the location of a city) and that’s it. Brooke thinks it’s over.]

“A few days later … I was shocked and horrified to read a piece I’d known nothing about. It was a scathing, judgmental critique of my mother’s life. I gasped and stared, wide-eyed, at the nasty, venomous piece of so-called journalism.

“The first line read, ‘Teri Shields, who began promoting her daughter, Brooke, as a child model and actress when she was an infant and allowed her to be cast as a child prostitute . . . died on Wednesday.’ What an opener!

The 1978 People headline reads: "Brooke Shields, 12, stirs a furor over child porn in films"

The 1978 People headline reads: “Brooke Shields, 12, stirs a furor over child porn in films”

“The obituary’s author highlighted—completely out of context—the most salacious facts and quotes. He painted [my mother] as a desperate single mom who sold her daughter into prostitution and nudity for her own profit. He even distorted Mom’s most famous quote, mistaking her wry humor for deep abuse—’Fortunately, Brooke was at an age where she couldn’t talk back.’ This quote referred to the fact I’d been eleven months old when I shot my first ad, for Ivory soap, not to human trafficking of a minor into the sex trade.

“Who the fuck did this guy think he was to write about a woman he never knew? How could he hurl such vicious allegations when an obit was supposed to be fact based? The piece was shocking and of the lowest common denominator, which was especially terrible coming from somebody who called himself a reputable journalist.

“Reading the obit, I felt myself beginning to lose it. I started to take deep breaths, trying not to panic or pass out. I ran into the kitchen and began pacing around the table as I sobbed and rambled: Why are they so cruel? Why can’t they let her be? Why can’t they let her die without being nasty?  Why can’t they be kind to her just once? Why was it so easy and acceptable for him to degrade her? Where was the human decency? Someone’s mother just died.”

So: what does this excerpt say about the “publishing revolution”?

First, there is the obvious point that huge changes in computer technology in the ’80s-90s were bound to outstrip the arcane and creaky newspaper (and book) industry. What followed was the phenomenon of millions of readers leaving print for screen, and millions of writers publishing their own blogs, books and websites.

But the motivation that fuels a revolution rather than simply a transformation in publishing is this very outrage that launches Shields’ book — that of being shut out, exploited and dismissed by arrogant and self-serving “journalists” and publishers who believe they’re superior to the public they’re supposed to serve.

Brooke Shields in a scene from "Pretty Baby" (with Keith Carradine)

American Film, 1977 — Brooke Shields and Keith Carradine in “Pretty Baby”

When even a celebrity like Brooke Shields must grapple with the status of being an outsider, her anger is not only legitimate but representative of people across the world who are furious with media entitlement.

Granted, Teri Shields was an easy target — she did allow photos of her very young nude daughter, she did manipulate the fashion and magazine industries, and she did work the Hollywood system to get Brooke cast as a prepubescent prostitute in Pretty Baby and sex kitten in Blue Lagoon. 

But none of that, Brooke insists, “damaged” or “wounded” her, as press stories suggest. Early on, she even grew accustomed to that brutish tendency of magazine publishers to make controversial subjects like Brooke and her mother defend the media’s rapacious appetite for scandal.

New York magazine, 1977. The caption reads: "Brooke is twelve. She poses nude. Teri is her mother. She thinks it's swell."

New York magazine, 1977. “Brooke is twelve. She poses nude. Teri is her mother. She thinks it’s swell.”

What did cause hardship in her life (Teri’s alcoholism, for example) is, Brooke insists, for her discuss through that fine old platform for personal  truth, the full-length book. 

In the case of the NYT obit, Brooke Shields is right: It’s inexcusable for a journalist to take that judgmental tone. When it comes to an obituary, she says, the facts of a person’s life are sacred (as every obit writer used to know).

Her point is that readers, even sources, have no power when it comes to anything that will increase audience ratings. Where was the human decency? she says about the New York Times in particular. After all, someone’s mother just died.


Something Literary

You’d think a traditional publishing person like me wouldn’t be intrigued by a tiny collection of iPhone snapshots such as this:IMG_1114Not a “real book,” right?  It’s smaller than a deck of cards, has fewer than 50 unnumbered “pages” and no text at all except the words iPhone Photos  Julie Gebhardt on the back page.

And yet I was drawn to this mini-book from the first moment I saw it, for one thing because it’s so cute (note the green push pin, placed there for scale) and is even kind of classy with its oversized spiral binding and heavy photo-card stock.

Production elements like these would have shot the costs up years ago, as would four-color printing (which I must say is sensational), but the price is affordable ($20) and shipping is free when you order directly from the author by emailing

But I kept thinking the term “snapshot” isn’t right, “collection” isn’t right, even “little” or “quickie” is disrespectful because there’s something bigger to ponder here, something even literary going on, which I’ll get to below. True, you can just flip through it like a keychain souvenir, but I guarantee that every time you close it, a larger conversation will follow you around in “real life.”

Julie Gebhardt

Julie Gebhardt

The author, Julie Gebhardt, caught the photo bug three years ago after acquiring an iPhone and reading a New York Times story about Instagram, the social network for sharing photos that’s used by subscribers all over the world (more than 150 million of them by now).

After downloading the app and looking at probably thousands of Instagram posts, Julie, or @juliegeb, began walking around the streets of San Francisco to see what caught her eye. Something as commonplace as building exteriors — walls, doors, windows,IMG_5865 gates — had personality and character when framed by her iPhone lens. She was particularly attracted to things that “are old and a little dingy, or made of cheap quality material, or that show the weathering of time.”

Even today, “I like corrugated metal any time I see it,” she says.  Aging paint, water stains, odd splotches, loose flashing — these may be signs that a building is falling apart or soon to be condemned, but for Julie they add a touch of animation and surprise to the eye, even if the thing itself is a little grim. IMG_1265

I’ve walked right by many of these scenes on my way to important appointments so it’s startling see the allure of decay — an ugliness that appears beautiful to me now, just because Julie decided to shoot them that way.

Sometimes you can detect a story behind the image. In the photo below, doesn’t it look like somebody was spray-painting that light blue color on the door oh, so carefully but messed up enough times with the blotches on the top and lower sides to think, All done! I have to go to an important appointment now — and left it that way? IMG_3313

This kind of Oh Well Art (not her term) happens often, she finds, when people are trying to spiff up or cover up rust or old paint or corrosion. So Julie created hashtags (categories within categories) like #sloppy_job and #graffitipaintout. That way, other subscribers can contribute their own photos, just as she can add to theirs.

For example, the photo on the right below, with its enormous bushy eyebrow sculpted over the door, appears in Julie’s feed as well as another subscriber’s as “Nature’s Comb Over” (#naturescombover).  IMG_8345

Things get a bit more complicated when the idea of intention crops up behind paint jobs of exteriors. When she came upon the brick wall below, for example, Julie believed she saw a Rothkoesque quality to clouds of different-colored paint and was particularly delighted by the unintentionial part, a dangling wire that so beautifully interrupts the action.IMG_5628

Soon she realized that any architectural element such as the drainpipe to the left (what gifted soul decided to paint it blue?) canIMG_6667 be part of that vast creative effort called “street art,” which is constantly percolating and newly visible wherever you look (or someone like @juliegeb looks) on the urban scene.

It was probably inevitable that Julie would make her own artistic decisions. She noticed that the iPhone camera doesn’t allow for much depth, so most of the photos are going to look pretty flat.  Instead seeing this as a problem or weakness, she developed an interest in “two-dimensionality as a style.”

In the photo below, for example, you have to look twice to see that a door is built into the graffiti-covered wall, and that theIMG_8841 artist — maybe commissioned by the building’s owner OR maybe just an unknown  person with half a dozen spray cans in a hurry because police or home owners or neighbors might be near and not happy — took the time to set it off by coloring inside the doorway lines, so to speak.

The startling orange-and-purple facade to the left offers a more dramatic and deliberate use of color that in turn defines the surrounding blocks of tile, wall and brick. And here Julie stands just far away enough so that the iPhone, IMG_5807for all its two-dimensional lens, can’t help itself: the leafy green branches billowing into the upper left corner give this photo unexpected depth and substance.

And this one at right is just a square of yellow wall with a mailbox, wouldn’t you say? (It’s another setting I’d walk right by without noticing.)IMG_8837 But I think because Julie sees a kind of geometrical art in squares upon squares sinking into that joyous yolky color, you can feel your fingertips anticipating the goosebumpy texture of the stucco wall beneath. Somebody also took the time to choose a stylish font for the address —  “the scroll of number 3 is so lovely,” sighs Julie. And there’s even a comical touch to the oval mail slot, which is stamped with the word “MAIL”  in case your letter carrier forgets what it’s there for.

So far, I’ve been talking about intriguing street scenes that Julie turns into photos with an artistic edge. But to get back to this gnawing feeling that something literary is going on in the book,  we need to see if that larger conversation I mentioned actually exists, starting with Julie’s notion of surrender.

You’ve probably assumed a continuing truth about street art is that everything’s changing all the time. Julie says most of the places she’s photographed are gone now — they’ve been taken down, painted over, razed, vandalized or re-graffiti’d shortly afterward, often overnight — which means every walk with her iPhone is going to be different: some new piece of something or overgrowth or fixer-upper or illustration is always going to pop out.

We would expect that to happen with a painting like this, where the beauty and IMG_8178freedom of the artist’s visual language (fascinating when you see it up close) might one day be dismissed as ugly by the owner of that building, who’ll “fix the problem” by covering it up with a layer of paint. That’s just the reality for anybody, artist or vandal, who takes to the street.

But it’s sad to see this enormous (see the pigeons on the sidewalk below), soulful face — part of a mural that Julie discovered in a back alley in San Francisco’s rough Tenderloin district  — already being eaten away by other people’s graffiti, which has begun to invade the picture from the sides and top.IMG_9945

“I have so much admiration for anonymous muralists who pour their heart and effort into these paintings,” Julie says, “and then just surrender them to the public. The minute they walk away, the art is transformed.”

Very often a sense of humor sneaks in that’s soIMG_5124-1 touching, like a wink from a dying building, that even people on their way to important appointments can’t help but slow down and chuckle.

Speaking of the humor that crops up in street art, while I’m not a fan of comic book art, I but have to say the question depicted in the painting below  — is it the colony of giant ants or the loss of his iPhone that causes this headless guy’s IMG_7942anguish? — offers a funny and arresting comment on modern life.

The always-changing nature of street art makes a person realize that for Julie, everything in a city scape must feel like nature in fast-forward, as in that YouTube video where you see the dead fox decaying and the skin peeling and teeth baring and the bones emerging while the remains of the fox get smaller and smaller until nothing exists in the spot where life once flourished — until the next object like a rock or egg or baby fox rolls into view.

Just as you could walk up to that fox and shoot a thousand different images, so do buildings on the street “host” something new or strange every day that will change in a second. Julie, bless her, respects this phenomenon but does not want to document it. She is not interested in going back to photograph the muralist in tears repainting his subject’s jaw or eyeball in the midst of cooing pigeons because that would be a human interest story and is really none of her business. Her iPhone is not there to intrude.

But it is there to capture the images she treasures. “I broke into a run when I saw this,” she says of the scene below.  “It’s a hillside near the ocean with a little IMG_8171shed in front that has no door and a rotting-away floor that’s full of sand. No roof exists, and the hill above it is bulging down  the back wall.  To think they’d [the owners or the army or the coastal commission] would paint this exterior bright red at some point is amazing to me.”

Right, the red paint, even when fresh, would be lost on the seagulls and snowy plovers that inhabit the coastal dunes, so even the people who built this shed surrendered their casual artistry to the elements at one time. And then Julie came along to capture that incredible mixture of beauty and decay that fits so well with the endless carving-out of cliffs and coast by ocean waves and weather.

The idea of surrender has a literary bent to it, I think —  a writer must surrender the work-in-progress to the reading public or it will never be finished —  but that’s not enough of an answer to my gnawing question about something literary going on in Julie’s mini book of photos.

I do know that just browsing through it gives me the impression that a larger conversation is taking place, and that philosophical connections are being made all over the place.  You can see an obvious example in the way Julie pairs photos in two-page spreads, often using color —  IMG_1122

— or themeIMG_1154–or artistic intentionIMG_1164as her bridge. (Pardon shoddy photos — these were taken of the book with my iPhone and they didn’t come out too good.)

But it’s in the pairing below that this larger conversation really comes out, at least to me, and I do think it has a literary nature. Both images are similar because of the color blue, of course, but it’s their differences that make an impression: the photo on the right emphasizes rigidity and corrugated metal as we have seen, while the photo on the left is fizzing with excitement, tossing about balloony yellows and stringy pinks and sly greens in a 1950s palette gone slightly berserk.IMG_1116

“I shot these two photos on different days,” Julie says, “but they have a relationship that’s more than a happy accident. Maybe it’s the piece of cardboard in each that might have drifted in, or been placed there. Who knows?”

Right, we don’t know anything except what we see: “An insanely dizzy wall on the left that seems to dance around a garbage bin, of all lucky things, across from the quieter but still varying tones, also of blue, in straight lines that nevertheless have a flow to them.”

Hold that thought for a moment as we apply the same curiosity to the photo below. Granted, it’s just IMG_1141a keyhole, one of so many locks that Julie started a hashtag called #keyholelove, to which hundreds if not thousands of Instagram users have already contributed. This one’s got some touches of red and green paint that could be accidental (another #sloppy_job photo?) but seem polished and deliberate.

In fact, says Julie, this keyhole is part of a huge and colorful mural that extends along the backs of several fences in the Mission District of San Francisco (where street murals abound). Of course you don’t have to know the keyhole’s function as a small detail in the overall canvas to sense a certain gravity about it that Julie doesn’t need to interpret: Her eye has focused on this one aspect of the mural, the brass lock. She loves it, and her camera loves it. She shot it close up in a way that makes me, the viewer, love it, too.

But the photo gains in significance when Julie as author puts it next to another picture with a completely blue exterior that also happens to have a keyhole, and this one shines out with no paint on it at all.

IMG_6575I find it kind of amusing that the vast Rococo design of the wrought iron with all its squares and circles, its graceful Xs and Os, its blocks and scrolls and flourishes, started out as just a gate to keep the bad guys out, and then somebody decided to make it stylish and pleasing.  And then again, the whole artistic presence of the thing was designed to fade and recede as the eye zooms in on that tiny, shiny brass keyhole.

Granted, the gate is painted that way to make it easier for the keyholder to find the keyhole. That’s fine. But look what happens when Julie pairs it with the keyhole-in-the-mural:IMG_1130First,  I like the idea of a universe arranging itself around a tiny speck, as we see on the right, placed as it is across the spiral binding from the unique and purposeful image of the similar tiny speck (now so big it’s a universe of its own) on the left. That’s one “conversation” between the pages in which we viewers get to participate (and only if we want to!).

But there’s more. As you flip through the book, every pairing of photos brings up the same Big Idea, something we humans ponder all our life, which may be stated in this way:  Time rushes by so fast in our high-tech, fast-paced world that suddenly we’re old, and our tenure is almost over, so the question is whether it’s possible, while hurrying off to important appointments,  to slow down and actually find meaning in life.

Julie’s book says YES, people may get jaded and hardened by the chaos of street life, but just the act of noticing something like what these pages bring to light can give life meaning. This is hardly an original thought (Buddhists sum it up with the word mindfulness all the time, although that’s more a spiritual practice), but it is an unexpected discovery in a tiny book like Julie’s.

Another question: Does this dialogue between readers and photos happen only as you turn the pages of Julie’s book. Yes again, I think — some kind of power is exchanged even without the presence of text.  For example, look at this: IMG_1155

On the left is a walled-off mausoleum sort of building with heavy columns and portico that’s hard to see because the whole thing is boarded up and surrounded by fences. (Another advantage to iPhones, says, Julie: “The lens is small enough to shoot through the tiniest of holes”).

On the right is such a rare discovery that I’m going to enlarge it below.  Can you guess what it is (I couldn’t at first)? IMG_3150Here’s what happened:  Julie and her husband Allen (also taking pictures but with a “real” camera) got into “this abandoned old warehouse that was entirely covered in graffiti,” she recalls. “The walls, the ceiling, the doors were all drenched in color and shafts of light were streaming down through broken windows, so just being inside, just seeing the character of the place was thrilling.

“Then in the middle of the floor we saw this ruined piano, every key ‘defaced’ by paint and tiny drawings, so I leaned over the keyboard looking straight down and shot it, missing keys and all. What comes forward is so abstract in shapes and colors that all we can see is  transformation.”

Again, we readers don’t have to know that it’s a piano keyboard, because something’s being said in a conceptual way that will come to mean whatever our eye decides it to mean. But what I feel most gripping about it is the way this photo relates to the deadly silent building on the left, which by contrast appears to have been caged up, locked down and blacked out for years. Here it is again:IMG_1155So when I talk about a conversation going on, I don’t mean to say these two photos actually tell us something. I mean there’s a connection here that’s interactive and open to participation with the reader. And when something like that keeps bubbling out of a book, page after page, with the kind of energy that strikes a nerve as deeply as it does in Julie Gebhardt’s teensy spiralbound collection, well, that something is literary.

Admittedly, I get romantic about these things, but because art is subjective, I also get to draw the line.  This photo on the left may IMG_3335-1show us exuberant examples of street art all talking at once  (ain’t the color gorgeous?), thereby forming a remarkable avant-garde image that only Julie Gebhardt can see amidst the mayhem. But I have to admit it’s messy and repugnant to me. If I came upon it in the street, I’d  walk right by with my face turned away. Perhaps  that too is a testament to the author who uses her book to present rather than hit us over the head with what she sees.

But because I’m also the traditional book publishing person, I remember when costs were astronomical and people had to (still have to) fly to China and Italy just to print expensive art books, which the publisher then had to ship to bookstores where very few customers could afford them. And then after a few months the bookseller with heart sinking had to ship the books back to the publisher who either dumped them off as remainders (sale items) in Australia or pulped them regardless of artistic message because nobody ever saw or appreciated the art.

Which brings us to today. Don’t you get weary when people keep asking whether the use of computers and the rise of the Internet are “good” or “bad” for books, for publishing, for bookselling, for reading? The fact is, technology has this infuriating way of changing the world before we know it. Asking questions about its value gets us nowhere. The Internet (like the other universe) is indifferent to human needs and wants.

But if Julie’s book teaches us to slow down and notice things that give life meaning, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the Internet as one big sorting machine that uses a toolbox like Instagram where talented, self-taught people like Julie are actively supported by an international community of millions. By the way, her personal followers total 28,542 as of yesterday.

So if you think a traditional publishing person like me should decry the way websites on the Internet may be gutting mainstream book publishers like Rizzoli, Abrams, Taschen, Thames & Hudson, Phaidon, Aperture and others of the once-honored opportunity to produce gorgeous oversized artbooks that sell comparatively few copies (well, enough to libraries, colleges and some collectors to make a buck);  and also may be robbing independent bookstores of hundred-dollar-plus purchases (Rizzoli’s All the World’s Birds sells for $350, but give them credit, that’s a lot of birds); let’s remember that before the computer revolution, the odds for unknowns like Julie to get anybody in the book industry interested in her potential as an author were zilch, especially for a tiny book like _________ (you see? it doesn’t even have a title).

Today we don’t talk about the bookstore or gallery approach where very few people get to view an art book, let alone buy it. Today we talk about the community approach where Julie felt encouraged to see “nothing precious” about jumping into a rushing stream of 150 million other photographers, and where she is increasingly supported by an audience she built from scratch that loves and appreciates her work.

Plus! It’s not just the mini book she created at Social Print Studio that’s for sale. Five of her photos are featured in This Is Happening, a book about the Instagram phenomenon from Chronicle Books. The wonderfully named Casetify has snazzied up many iPhone

Julie Gebhart iPhone case

iPhone case from Casetify by Julie Gebhardt

cases with Julie’s images, such as the one on the right, and thanks to an even more adventurous 60-page collection of Julie’s photos is available in hardcover ($36.95) and softcover ($25.99).

You can buy her photos at all sizes and in different frames, and at least one museum has displayed photos like this one below, which shows Julie finding a way to bring depth to that tricky two-dimensional style, after all (note the teensy red chair to the right: another speck in the universe! Okay, will stop here.)

IMG_4880I’ve probably finished “reading” Julie’s book a dozen times by now, and I always come away  thinking that the next time I start to dismiss some discomfiting  image on  the urban landscape, I’ll have been taught by Julie to notice if there’s something creatively interesting, even frameable there, for me.  And I’ll ponder more about it because of the book’s continuing conversation.

That’s all I’ve learned from the blessed thing, and yet what I’ve learned is kind of monumental. After all, when “real life” is out there calling, you want to have the eye to see it.