Burning the Page by Jason Merkoski – Book Review

Burning the Page: The Ebook Revolution and the Future of Reading by Jason Merkoski
Published by Sourcebooks

Eventually the “e” will be dropped, and books will be assumed to be digital, just as most music is now digital; after all, we don’t refer to music as e-music.

You have to ask yourself whether you trust these men (because they are mostly men – and mostly white men, at that). Do you trust them to make decisions for you on what books you’re permitted to buy?

Jason Merkoski, Burning the Page

Once upon a time, Jason Merkoski worked for Amazon, where he helped make the first iteration of a little product you might have heard of, something they call the Kindle. Actually, Merkoski was involved in ebooks even pre-Kindle, and as someone who has been dealing with this technology for decades, Merkoski not only has information about the format’s past, but also a vision for its future.

What I really like about Burning the Page is the way that Merkoski is somewhat ambivalent about the digital future. For instance, the above quote about white men and their hold over ebook stores and distribution means. However, he clearly sees ebooks as the wave of the future, and something that will quite likely completely supplant new print books. I can’t say I’m crazy about the idea of print books completely disappearing (after all, I still don’t trust my ereader in the bathtub), but some of his ideas of exceptionally social reading or essentially livestreaming books from an author to a reader basically terrify me as a reader. Socialization around reading is great, but having it completely integrated into every sentence goes so far beyond the past changes in format that it seems completely recreate reading, rather than simply recreating books.

Although I had issues with some of Merkoski’s predictions, I think Burning the Page is an important read for those interested in the past, present, and future of digital books.

For more information, please see the publisher’s page.
Source: Publisher.


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Literary Rogues by Andrew Shaffer – Book Review

Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors by Andrew Shaffer
Published by Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins

From the Marquis de Sade to Edgar Allan Poe to Bret Easton Ellis, there are, in the history of authors, some seriously screwed up individuals. In Literary Rogues, Shaffer details the lives and debaucheries of more than thirty, as the title says, wayward authors. As might be expected, there is a whole lot of sex, drugs, and alcohol herein, but somehow Shaffer manages to keep all of the authors from running together.

Shaffer does not divide up the lives of his subjects here as clearly as he does in Great Philosophers Who Fail at Love. In Great Philosophers, Shaffer gives each philosopher a separate chapter, even when they are interrelated. In Literary Rogues, on the other hand, writers who were friends, lovers, and compatriots frequently occupy chapters together, the narrative even drifts occasionally between two authors as the history warrants it.

What is particularly impressive about Literary Rogues is that Shaffer does not simply stick to the bad boys (and girls) of 20th century literature. Whole books could be (and indeed have been) written about Hemingway or the Fitzgeralds, but Shaffer begins all the way back in the 18th century with the Marquis de Sade and doesn’t stop until he comes to James Frey, drug addict and pseudo-memoirist extraordinaire.

Because many authors have similar vices, Literary Rogues might be best enjoyed in bits and pieces, a chapter here, a chapter there so as not to get bogged down in all the alcohol-induced deaths. Still, this is a fascinating account of some of the best-known writers of the later-day Western canon.

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ucy Arlington

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Hit Lit by James W. Hall – Book Review

Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers by James W. Hall
Published by Random House Trade Paperbacks, an imprint of Random House

One of the most frustrating things that can happen to a reader is to have a book you simply adore, that languishes on the shelf without sales, without critical reviews, without other readers. Wonderful books make evangelists of us, and when people eschew our recommendations in favor of the Next Hot Thing, it can be depressing, not least because we have no one with whom to discuss our love of our new favorite book. What is it that makes other readers skip over the lovely and moving book we are recommending in favor of the next The Da Vinci Code? In fact, why is The Da Vinci Code so popular in the first place?

Creative writing professor and thriller writer James W. Hall believes he can answer this very question. The success of The Da Vinci Code is no accident, in his mind. On the contrary, it shares a number of specific hallmarks with other books which have also become bestsellers. To illustrate just how bestsellers work, Hall presents case studies of twelve twentieth century (and technically one twenty-first century) megahits, showing how each of them work from some of the very same themes. The books in question are:

  1. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, 1936
  2. Peyton Place by Grace Metalious, 1956
  3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, 1960
  4. Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann, 1966
  5. The Godfather by Mario Puzo, 1969
  6. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty, 1971
  7. Jaws by Peter Benchley, 1974
  8. The Dead Zone by Stephen King, 1979
  9. The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy, 1984
  10. The Firm by John Grisham, 1991
  11. The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller, 1992
  12. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, 2003

It should be noted that these are either first novels or the author’s breakout novel, it is not instructive to talk about The Runaway Jury or Clear and Present Danger, these books may have also been bestsellers, but they could sell on name recognition alone and may or may not contain the same elements, present in The Firm and The Hunt for Red October, which catapulted their authors to household names.

Although I was confident that Hit Lit would be instructive and interesting (I was right about this by the way, it is absolutely fascinating), I was somewhat worried about its appeal. In talking about what makes a best seller, would Hall be appreciated only by authors, reviewers, and industry insiders? Perhaps the greatest success of Hit Lit is that it does not fall into this trap of talking too much inside baseball. Although the above-mentioned groups would certainly be intrigued by Hit Lit, Hall approaches his subject in a way that makes it of interest to even the casual reader. Just why were you drawn to read everything that Grisham or King ever published? Hit Lit can help you answer that question.

Hit Lit is an endlessly fascinating look at some of the bestselling books of the last century, and how they got that way. Highly recommended.

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Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley – Book Review

Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley
Published by Penguin (Non-Classics)

From the publisher:

With delectable wit and characteristic sensitivity, Jane Smiley presents a fresh, illuminating take on the life of Charles Dickens. Smiley naturally finds a kindred spirit in the author of such classics as Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol, who was not only a prolific writer but also one of the first modern “celebrities.” She offers interpretations of many of Dickens’s major works, exploring his narrative techniques and his innovative voice and themes. Smiley’s Charles Dickens is at once a perceptive profile of the great master and a fascinating meditation on the writing life.

In addition to being a sketch of Dickens’s life, Charles Dickens: A Life provides a description, and some degree of comparative analysis of his work. Being able to see how Dickens’s work changed over time, and how his own life influenced what he wrote was, in my mind, the most valuable part of Charles Dickens: A Life. Understanding his place as, essentially, one of the first modern celebrities was fascinating as well, but did less for my depth of understanding of Dickens than the exploration of his work.

If you are looking for a hugely in-depth biography of Dickens, then Charles Dickens: A Life may not be exactly what you are looking for. Smiley herself, it seems, would recommend Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens.  Indeed, she uses Ackroyd as a source extensively, mentioning many of his hypotheses and discoveries throughout Charles Dickens: A Life. However, if you are looking for a brief biography of Dickens with an easy-to-read and engaging style, a book that blends beautifully his work and his private (and public) life, Smiley’s biography is a great one to pick up.

All in all, Charles Dickens: A Life is a short but successful biography, and one I would recommend to those with an interest in Dickens and his work.

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Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making by John Curran – Book Review

Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making by John Curran
Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins

Agatha Christie is one of the most prolific, best-selling authors in the world. More than 3o years after her death, she is still read and beloved by millions. The question of however she came up with so many plots, and with such frequency continues to fascinate writers and readers alike. For everyone who has ever marveled at Christie’s immense output, John Curran’s dive into her private notebooks in Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making is fascinating and occasionally revelatory.

In many ways, Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making is a partial biography of Christie’s body of work. Curran progresses through each decade of Christie’s work, highlighting some of the more significant and representative  works from each period. Not content just to discuss her books based on his own research, Curran actually combs though Christie’s less-than-organized notebooks to show the reader her own initial jottings on the various titles.

It is important to note that Curran’s primary audience is inveterate Christie fans, not those of us who have read a handful of titles. Because he is discussing the intricacies of Christie’s work, there is no room to be shy about spoilers, often the most important aspect of a given novel is the ending, rather than the beginning, and to attempt to account for everyone’s sensibilities and skirt around the issue would be prohibitively difficult. In order to protect those who may be worried about spoilers for the books they have yet to read, Curran does include at the beginning of each chapter a list of the books which will be spoiled, which they then are to greater or lesser extent.

Although Christie’s own writings in her notebooks lend Curran’s work an air of authority, they are often the most challenging part of Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making. They are often staccato and vague, which makes them particularly difficult to parse if one hasn’t read the work in question. Luckily, Curran excels at pointing out both the significance of the work and the significance of Agatha’s notes. He is comprehensive enough that one can skim or even skip many of Christie’s notes and still receive a firm grounding in her oeuvre.

Fascinating, but don’t pick it up yet if you have a great deal of Christie’s work in front of you and are concerned with spoilers.

Buy this book from:
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Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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