Sunday, January 27, 2008


Searching for Bobby Fischer... In The Bookstore?

Via Galley Cat, an article in Smart Set on where Bobby Fischer spent his final years: in a downtown Reykjavik bookstore.

Bókin, or The Book, is essentially a 1950s version of New York’s Strand Bookstore. Besides the books stacked head-high, under card tables, and on plywood shelves, the first thing you notice about Bókin is its smell, decayed and airless. Walking inside the 35-year-old establishment is like entering a Parisian flea market without the noise: overwhelming, a paralysis of the senses. But it was here, between narrow aisles lined with thousands of fraying biographies and history books, sitting in an ordinary chair whose varnish had worn thin, where Bobby Fischer could be alone in his thoughts. It was here where he could contemplate his place in history by poring through books on outlaws and rebels from Russia, Britain, Libya, and the Soviet Union with whom he could relate. And it was here, beneath the quiet hum of the fluorescent lights above, where Bobby Fischer could, for at least a few hours a day, seem to live a normal life.

“Bobby said he liked this kind of bookshop because it reminded him of his younger New York years. The mess everywhere, the stacks of books, the smell,” says owner Bragi Kristjónsson. “He was often sitting here so long, reading from these shelves, that he fell asleep.”
If you know Icelandic, here's a Visir article from last week, complete with the above photo of Bragi in his shop.

Fischer seems to have made a circuit of local bookshops, as a one Reykjavik guide says of neighboring bookstore Penninn - Eymundsson: "Bobby Fischer likes to sit by one of the upstairs window seats and read. Could ask for anything more from a bookstore?"

Saturday, January 26, 2008


Book Ends

A haunting set of photos taken by an urban explorer in the derelict Detroit Book Depository reveals a vast landscape of rotting books and school supplies abandoned in the late 1980s (via Boing Boing):

Many are still wrapped and on their shipping pallets; some of the English workbooks are actually decomposing into soil and now... Have trees growing out of them:

Monday, January 21, 2008


Can Running Mates Be Predicted By Cover Art?

....Probably not.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


Greetings From Israel

Weirdly fascinating for no particular reason: US states renamed for comparable GDPs.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


Proust's Stereo

In the latest New Scientist, I've got a piece on what is just about my most favorite invention ever:

Sickly and often bedridden, by February 1911 French novelist Marcel Proust had one constant companion in the solitary confines of his cork-lined Paris sanctuary: a mysterious contraption that he kept by his bed. When he wasn’t labouring over his magnum opus, A la Recerche du Temps Perdu, Proust would collapse into bed, grasp a pair of wires trailing into a primitive headset, and lose himself in Claude Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande.What he heard was no scratchy gramophone recording, but a live broadcast—and in stereophonic sound.


That's right: while we were stuck for most of the 20th century with crappy mono sound, Victorians and Edwardians actually had live stereophonic broadcasts -- thanks to a telephone-music system wired to theatres in Paris, London, and Budapest:

The brainchild of one Clement Ader, the Theatrophone (Electrophone in the UK) carried online stereo music for audiophiles for decades. At Ader's first demonstration in Paris in 1881, a reporter for Scientific American pretty much had his mind blown:

“Singers place themselves, in the mind of the listener, at a fixed distance, some to the right and others to the left. It is easy to follow their movements, and to indicate exactly, each time they change their position, the imaginary distance at which they appear to be."

They didn't even really have a word for it yet, but this is one of the very first descriptions ever written about what it's like to listen with stereo headphones.

Then, like now, musicians got upset -- one Verdi's last acts was to sue an Italian online music firm for carrying Rigoletto. But that's not what killed online music. It was radio that killed the telephone star: sure, radio was crappy sounding, but it was cheap and wireless and portable. For the next four decades, consumers actually went backwards and lost the immersive feel of stereo sound. It's startling today to see photos of an Electrophone salon in London, and I closed my article on this thought:
Perhaps Ader’s invention has only truly arrived with today’s music downloads via souped-up phone lines and cables. Proust would hardly have been surprised by our iPod era: one photograph from 1901 shows clients at the Electrophone saloon in Soho all slouched in headphone reverie and bearing distant expressions on their faces; they neither talk nor look at each other. Change their headsets for earbuds, and their petticoats and frock coats for T-shirts and jeans, and you have the very picture of modern commuters.
Here, by the way, is that picture:


And They All Swiped Happily Ever After

A year ago I wrote in Slate about Google Book Search's potential to ferret out plagiarists. Although I focused on long-dead cases, the search engine has now caught a live one.

From yesterday's Times:

Allegations this week that Cassie Edwards, a popular romance novelist with more than 100 books to her name, inserted large chunks of unattributed material into her work blossomed into a controversy that led Signet Books, one of her publishers, to announce on Friday that it was examining all of her work that it has published. The controversy began when, a blog devoted to romance novels, posted excerpts from Ms. Edwards’s novels this week alongside passages from other sources to show the similarities, which the site’s authors said they had discovered by plugging some of Ms. Edwards’s writing into Google.
So will this damage her?

Well, let's put it this way: it depends. And namely, what it depends on are Bookscan figures. Last year, after my Slate piece ran, I heard from a prof in Texas who despaired that noted authors could plagiarize and get away with it, and posited that this was indicative of a broader societal malaise regarding intellectual property. I wrote her back and agreed with her... but only about the noted authors getting away with it part:

I think the key in what you've said below is the phrase "noted authors." There is a different law for the rich than the poor in publishing, as in so many other places, and as long as Ambrose or Goodwin write bestsellers, plagiarism charges will not be fatal to them. But for writers who are not bestsellers (ie almost everyone), a charge of plagiarism is deeply damaging. And the taboo, again, is in part an economic one. It's worth a publisher's while to hire interns to vet Goodwin and Ambrose mss for plagiarism; but if you're a publisher of a book with a print run of a couple thousand copies, it's unwise to risk your reputation and possibly your finances on a known plagiarist.

As long as Ms. Edwards sells well, I'm sure some kind-hearted publisher will take an expansive view of intellectual property.

Sunday, January 06, 2008



I'm on this week's broadcast (and podcast) of Live Wire -- recorded in front of a full house at the Aladdin Theater a couple weeks ago -- along with Death Cab's Chris Walla and poet Scott Poole.

Questions discussed include: If you're taking a cherry syrup medication, how can you tell whether you've stopped spitting up blood?


9 for 24 for 3?

Nicholas Lezard of the Guardian treads where few critics dare: namely, into print-on-demand books, where he has apparently found a gem:

Here's a first for this column: publishing on demand. I'm not sure I quite get it. Unless I've got hold of the wrong end of the stick, it would appear that if you want a copy of this book - which, when you get to the end of this review, you should - you send off a cheque for six quid to CB Editions, 146 Percy Road, London W12 9QL, and they will print one out for you.

The novel in question is Jennie Walker's 24 for 3, and Lezard appears to be downright amazed by it:
24 for 3 contains some of the tightest, cleanest writing I have seen in a long time. Both serious and playful, this is the best example of style revealing the contours of the interior that I have seen all year. It is hard to pick on a single paragraph that shines out - which is a good sign. I could point out a few wonderful similes (such as the noise of the Welsh double L "that reminds me of when you push a clockwork toy that's stuck") but it's about more than wonderful similes: it's the running stream of thought of an intelligent woman going through a crisis.... I wonder if it's too late for it to go on the Orange prize shortlist.
So far, Lezard's find (which ran two weeks ago) seems to have attracted no notice whatsoever. Googling the author and title brings just 9 hits -- and they're mostly the Guardian's own internal links to Lezard's article.

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