Sunday, December 28, 2008

Year in Review 2008: Literature -- from Texas

By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.

The year 2008 should erase any lingering doubt about Texas' importance on the literary landscape. Texas writers hit best-seller lists, took home national awards and sparked international controversies.

On the business side, one of the largest new independent bookstores in the country opened for business in Plano.

And elsewhere, it was a good year for vampires – and a bad one to be an American looking for a Nobel Prize.

TOP 10 OF 2008

1 Texans win National Book Awards: The swells in New York City might have been shocked when two of the four National Book Awards went to Texans this past November – but we weren't. (After all, Texans have also won a trio of Pulitzer Prizes for books over the last three years). Thank you, Mark Doty, University of Houston professor and winner of the poetry prize for his collection, Fire to Fire, and Annette Gordon-Reed, the Livingston-born author who won in the nonfiction category for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. You did our state proud.
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2 Legacy Books opens: Sleek, modern and, at 23,000 square feet, huge by independent bookstore standards, Legacy Books opened just in time for the economy to start crumbling. Still, you have to see the new store in Plano for yourself: It boasts an 1,800-square-foot kids section, a kitchen for cooking demos, a cafe that offers beer and wine – and 110,000 books. North Texans now have another excuse to keep their spending local.

3 Stephenie Meyer bewitches: If you think 110,000 books sounds like a lot, it's nothing compared with the 7 million copies sold of Ms. Meyer's Twilight saga, about teenage Bella and her vampire boyfriend, Edward. It was a big year for the author, who turned 35 on Christmas Eve: She published her first adult novel, The Host, in May; the final Twilight volume, Breaking Dawn, in August; and saw the film version of Twilight land in theaters in December. A May event in Frisco attracted more than 1,000 fans.

4 Cormac McCarthy archives purchased by Texas State: Though he now lives in Santa Fe, N.M., Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Cormac McCarthy allowed his literary archive to be purchased by the Southwest Writers Collection at Texas State University in San Marcos. There, it will reside in perpetuity alongside the works of other notable Texans such as Willie Nelson. University President Denise Trauth called Mr. McCarthy's papers "the crown jewels of our literary treasury."

5 The Jewel of Medina controversy: Down the road in Austin, the University of Texas made headlines after Denise Spellberg, a UT professor of Islamic history, warned the publisher Random House that a novel it was about to publish might incite a violent reaction from Muslims. That book, The Jewel of Medina by one-time Texan Sherry Jones, fictionalized the life of a bride of the prophet Muhammad, portraying her in sexual situations. A witch hunt ensued, with Salman Rushdie and others accusing Ms. Spellberg and Random House of censorship. The book was eventually published by Beaufort Books, an indie press, and received mostly indifferent reviews.

6 Kathleen Kent's debut: Speaking of witch hunts, Dallas novelist Kathleen Kent used the Salem witch trials as the basis for her first novel, The Heretic's Daughter. The book, which is based on the life of Ms. Kent's distant relative Martha Carrier, one of the first women tried and hanged as a witch in Salem, was one of the most buzzed about books of the year and hit the New York Times extended hardcover fiction best-seller list.

7 Texas-size best-sellers: Dallas native Alice Schroeder's The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, an 838-page bio of the investment tycoon, received an $8 million advance from its publisher Bantam, one it looks likely to earn out. Since it was published in September it has consistently stayed in the top 10 on best-seller lists. And on the fiction side of the list, former Austinite David Wroblewski's 576-page novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, was already being heralded before Oprah Winfrey picked it as the 62nd selection for her Book Club in September.

8 Deceased authors win accolades: Two of the most talked about books of 2008 came from authors who didn't live long enough to relish their publishing success: Roberto Bolano's novel 2666, which is based in part on the story of the hundreds of young women murdered in Ciudad Juarez, sits atop many book critics' top 10 lists, despite his having died in 2003. Mary Ann Shaffer died in February, just six months shy of her debut novel about World War II, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, becoming a bookseller and book club favorite.

9 Nobel committee snubs American writers: It has been 15 years since an American, Toni Morrison, won a Nobel Prize for Literature, and it was clear this wasn't going to be our year either. Weeks before the Nobel was announced, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Horace Engdahl, said American writers are "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture," adding "Europe still is the centre of the literary world ... not the United States." Unsurprisingly, the prize went to a European: Frenchman Jean-Marie Le Clezio.

10 Writer as president: Barack Obama is a great communicator. He's an especially good writer, having honed his skills as editor of Harvard Law Review. His two books, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope, were instrumental in his election to the presidency. It was through books – not television, not the Internet – that Mr. Obama introduced himself to millions of Americans, making him a literary story, not just a political one.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Book Review: 'A Great Idea at the Time' by Alex Beam

12:00 AM CST on Sunday, December 21, 2008

By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.

From 1952 until the mid-1970s, some 1 million households bought sets of Britannica Great Books of the Western World, either through mail order or pushy door-to-door salesmen, "Britannica hucksters" promising "better living through reading."

The books, which cost hundreds of dollars, comprised 95 titles, starting with Homer's The Illiad and The Odyssey and ending with Freud. They represented 443 works by 74 authors totaling 32,000 pages of 9-point, double-column type.

Ranging from household names (Aristotle, Plato, Dante and Chaucer) to those known only to specialists (William Harvey and Christian Huygens), the books still decorate many a living room (both my parents and in-laws still have sets), where they sit unloved and unread in their homely brown bindings with a candy colored stripe on the spine coordinated to an academic discipline. And for a time during that same period, reading the classics became almost faddish.

According to Alex Beam's breezy new history of the Great Books, A Great Idea at the Time, we have a pair of ambitious academics to thank for igniting so many autodidactic aspirations: Robert Hutchins, who became dean of Yale Law School at age 29, and Mortimer Adler, an assistant professor at Columbia University at age 26. Both ended up at the University of Chicago, Hutchins as president, where they helped install a curriculum based entirely on the Great Books. The experiment lasted just four years but persisted far longer in the form of the core curriculum.

Acolytes went on to establish a similar curriculum at St. John's College, which maintains campuses in Santa Fe and Annapolis, and where all four years continue to be spent committed to the Great Books.

(Adler had less luck selling the Great Books in Dallas, though. In 1952, he met with H.L. Hunt in hopes of persuading the legendary oilman to buy multiple copies of a special Founders Edition of the books at $500. Hunt balked at the offer. Twice. His reasoning: The set included Karl Marx's The Communist Manifesto.)

Mr. Beam, a columnist at the Boston Globe, makes it clear early on just how unfashionable reading the Great Books is in this era of multicultural liberal education. He mocks the practice as middlebrow and marvels at what rubes Adler and Hutchins were for believing so earnestly in the promise of books to edify the masses.

Maybe he's just spent too much time in Beantown with all those professors, but Mr. Beam shows little sympathy for anyone involved in academics or with academic ambitions, period, and even sneers at those who unwittingly bought Adler's and Hutchins' pitch.

While I tend to agree with Mr. Beam that liberal arts education is oversold, his frequently flippant tone mars this otherwise fascinating book. If Mr. Beam should have learned any lesson from his subjects, it's that few people appreciate being lectured to by a know-it-all.

Edward Nawotka is a freelance writer in Houston.

A Great Idea

at the Time

The Rise, Fall and Curious Afterlife

of the Great Books

Alex Beam

(PublicAffairs, $24.95)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

New iPhone E-book Apps from ScrollMotion

By Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 12/23/2008 7:31:00 AM

ScrollMotion, a two year old iPhone application development company, has launched Iceberg, an e-book reader for the iPhone with titles from six publishers: Random House, Hachette, Penguin, Counterpoint, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Simon & Schuster.

“What makes the software different,” said ScrollMotion’s chief literary officer Calvin Baker, “is that each book is a self-contained app. You download the book, not a piece of software.” Iceberg mimics the natural reading experience, allowing the user to “flip” the page with a swipe of the finger and uses the iPhone and iTouch’s interface to allow for scrolling, shrinking and expanding text, bookmarking and note taking.

Among the first titles available are Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, Extras by Scott Westerfeld, Brisingr by Christopher Paolini, Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen, and When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale. Matt Shatz, v-p of digital at Random House, told PW, “We really like the ScrollMotion application and the guys behind it.” He said the difference ScrollMotion brings to iPhone e-book reading is their treatment of DRM, which is tied to Apple’s iTunes store. “The way ScrollMotion does it, they offer us a way to sell DRM protected books directly on the phone, which the other main readers out there do not yet do at this time.”

Like the Kindle, books can be downloaded wirelessly, though unlike the Kindle which sells most titles for $9.99 or less, prices for the Iceberg-formatted books are the same or more as retail list -- $27.50 for the Paolini, $23.95 for the Kneale, $12.99 for the Westerfeld ($2 more than the paperback). As of today, two dozen titles are available for download. Baker said he “anticipates 200 titles should be available within weeks.”

The company arrives on the e-book scene with a publishing pedigree. Josh Koppell, founder and chief creative officer of ScrollMotion, published a memoir Good/Grief with HarperPerennial and earlier launched a digital music packaging company called TuneBooks, which was adopted by the iTunes music store to display digital liner notes, credits, biographies and other ephemera. Baker has written three novels, including Dominion, published by Grove in 2006.