Sunday, April 27, 2008


Kill Your Bittersweet Muse

Following up on the Times list of book-review cliches (poignant, compelling, intriguing, eschew, craft, muse and lyrical), Mark Sanderson at the Telegraph suggests some no-go terms for British reviewers: "bitter-sweet, breathtaking, wonderful, impressive, moving, finesse and, the worst of all, readable."

Sanderson also links to Kill The Cliché, which allegedly tracks the use (and overuse) of terms in American newspapers. (And yes, allegedly is one of their top picks.)

But allegedly is the correct word here: The idea here is more impressive than the flawed execution. E.g. I wouldn't call "insurgent" a cliché so much as a simple reflection of what happens to be newsworthy this year. (And, according to John McCain, newsworthy for the next hundred years.) Yet the basic concept of a cliché tracker is a worthy one. Some J-school site needs to take up this idea and run with it.

Saturday, April 26, 2008


Best Unmade Movie Ever?...

...or best unmade Mystery Science Theater 3000 ever?

A random search result turned up a post at Airminded with this movie poster (created to entice investors) of a never-made Hammer Horror film in the early 1970s.


Kids These Days

The Times weighs in on the flood of students vying for seats in the British Library.

I've noticed it getting steadily more crowded each time I go back. I usually wind up sending my entire book order down to Rare Books, where it's rarely crowded -- though I suppose that might start changing too.

Might I just add that this is a good problem for a library to have?

Sunday, April 20, 2008


Journey to the Center of The Desk

There was a dust-up this week over Lonely Planet covering some lonely destinations indeed... as in, there's not even a writer there. Travel writer Thomas Kohnstamm claims he wrote about Colombia without actually going there, while Lonely Planet denies that he had anything to do with allegedly cooked-up sections.

But much more troubling for industry is this article in yesterday's Age of Melbourne, in which LP veteran writer Chris Taylor reveals that it's more than just one bad apple in the barrel:

Lonely Planet writer Jeanne Oliver challenged that response in a post on the company's internal authors' forum, which was leaked to the Sunday Herald Sun, describing Kohnstamm's coming book as "a car crash waiting to happen". Oliver has declined to make further comment, but as an industry insider, I agree with her.... With so many competing guidebook series, many titles do not generate sales revenue that justifies the legwork that results in genuine personal recommendations. Most publishers who make claims to the contrary are being disingenuous.

.... [The] company's internal authors' forum bristles with author posts about pay rates that have forced them to cut corners.... Lonely Planet author forum posts include one that complains: "For South Australia I was told outright that large chunks of the outback would be desk research, because LP (Lonely Planet) couldn't afford a 4WD budget."

....An interesting exchange on the forum concerns "desk updates", which one writer refers to as Lonely Planet's "dirty secret". The fact is, "desk updates" are not just Lonely Planet's "dirty secret" but the industry's dirty secret. It is little commented on, but the huge proliferation of guidebook titles that now line bookshop shelves coincided with the rise of the internet.... you can sit at home and Google the town you might otherwise be exploring on foot, and hopefully some random blogger has done the legwork for you.

It's hard to imagine that, having bought a 75% stake of Lonely Planet in October, the BBC is going pleased to learn that they paid millions of pounds for an internet connection.

For a genre that's been around since even before the 19th century heyday of the Baedeker guide, it would be alarmist to declare "The Death of the Guidebook"... which, in fact, is what the Age's headline writer did. But it's fair to question whether the demographics of guidebook publishing will eventually show it to be a slowly dying industry. If we can do our own "desk updates" on blogs or Tripadvisor for free, then exactly what is Lonely Planet for?

All that said, I'll always love them for having done a guide to backyard Micro-Nations....

Saturday, April 19, 2008



One of my favorite blog posts ever was Caleb Crain's search a couple years ago -- after mockingly telling his boyfriend that he was going "Mad, mad I tell you!" -- to find the origin of that phrase.

Caleb traced it back to 1879:

Anyway, the phrase seems to have come from Within an Inch of His Life, a melodrama by James A. Herne first staged in 1879. I hope it won't disappoint anyone too grievously if I confess that I was able to resist reading the thing through. Here's the money shot:

Jules de Dardeville. You wanted to be free that you might prevent me from breaking the chains in which you held me. At our last meeting, when I thought you were crushed by grief, and was softened by your hypocritical tears---your anger, which I mistook for love---I was weak enough to say "I marry Dionysia only because you are not free." Then you cried "Oh, God! How lucky it is that thought never entered my brain before!" What thought? Come! Answer me! Confess!

Genevieve, Countess de Clairnot. Confess?

Jules de Dardeville. Aye! That thought was murder!

Genevieve, Countess de Clairnot. I was mad---mad---I tell you, with jealousy and anger! I have outraged and destroyed my husband's honor! But to murder him! Bah! You accuse me of what you know to be a lie!

I fear that I will never be able to top Caleb's quote -- which, it should be noted, gloriously possesses both a "mad" and a "Bah!" -- but this morning I pushed madness all the way back to the antebellum era.

It's on page 293 of Caroline Hyde Butler Laing's 1855 novel The Old Farm House:

For a moment Mrs. Lorraine made no reply -- then she said:

"You call her my daughter's child! I had no daughter, Amy, she was a serpent that stung the breast which nourished her -- and he -- he! Amy, I shall go mad -- mad I tell you, if you don't take that child from my sight!"

There are also, it turns out, some surviving oil portraits of our newly crowned inventor of Mad--Mad!....

Yup. She looks crazy.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


It Could Make a Million For You Overnight

Bookseller Barry Miles in yesterday's Times on London recalls the origin of Paperback Writer:

PAPERBACK WRITER WAS written by Paul McCartney in the early spring of 1966. “Penguin paperbacks was what I really thought of, the archetypal paperback,” McCartney reflected when I asked what his inspiration was. Penguin was almost a generic term for paperbacks in the early Sixties: they had such market dominance that people used the word to mean any paperbound book.

The kind of Penguin that McCartney was thinking of was The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks, published in 1963. The working-class novels of the late Fifties and early Sixties had an immediate relevance to a group of youths down from Liverpool. McCartney: “We would be staying in Gower Street. It was like ‘digs'. You could read The L-Shaped Room and totally associate. ‘This is what I'm doing! This is about me.' It's true. It was an exact parallel; young professionals in a rooming house.” In the days before they stopped touring, and before they moved to London, the Beatles clocked up enormous numbers of hours in vans and buses, going from concert to concert, TV studio to recording studio. Cassette tape recorders were not yet in use, so they passed the time with books and magazines, unless a pirate radio station was within range.

Idly Youtubing the song brought up a transfixingly awful Beatles cartoon series that aired in the mid-Sixties. John and George were voiced by the same guy that did Boris Badenov. (Seriously!)

From the UK site Television Heaven:

Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager, was so horrified of what the British public may have thought that he banned the series from being shown in the UK....When The Beatles cartoon series premiered on ABC's Saturday morning line-up at 10:30 am EST on September 25th 1965, it captured an unprecedented 52 per cent of the audience. The show proved to be extraordinarily profitable.... But in the early 1990s the series' rights were purchased by the Beatles own company Apple Corps. Ltd. Since then they have been kept firmly out of sight.

Sunday, April 06, 2008


All Your Essay Are Belong To Us

Remember how, back in 2005, MIT director of undergrad writing Les Perelman damningly discovered a virtual one-to-one correspondence between SAT essay length and scoring? Last year the Chronicle of Higher Ed covered Perelman running the College Board's pants up the flagpole yet again, this time by having students submit long but incoherent essays. They duly received a 5 out 6 -- with, by the College Board reasoning, an essay that "demonstrates strong critical thinking, generally using appropriate examples."

Ah. Well, surely the College Board then took steps to fix this test. Yes?

Um... Passing unnoticed was this tidbit buried deep in a Wired article last month about retaking the SAT at age 38:

My score on the essay question — the College Board breaks out a separate assessment — was shockingly low. One grader gave me 4 out of 6 ("adequate mastery"), the other 3 ("displays developing facility in the use of language").

And who is this "developing" writer? Why, that would be Steve Knopper, who during his remedial period has written for the Chicago Tribune, Wired, Spin, Rolling Stone, Newsday, and Esquire.

Say, good luck with that "learning to write" thing!


Show, Don't Tell

There's an entertaining gallery of 1940s paperback covers up on Flickr; a number of them feature the practice among some Dell mysteries of a "crime map," back covers showing the floor plan for the events of the book...

Saturday, April 05, 2008


Buttons to You

Recently the Guardian covered the new sequel to last year's charming Bollocks to Alton Towers: Uncommonly British Days Out -- which has now been released in the US! -- and the sequel's title is, naturally.... More Bollocks to Alton Towers.
The authors have devised a droll tone of voice which never tips into facetiousness, partly because they know what they're doing, and partly because of the genuine affection and wonder they feel for such places as the Clarks Shoe Museum, the Hundred Acre Wood, the Yelverton Paperweight Centre and the 40-odd other offbeat attractions that they describe.

....Writing about the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising ("somewhere along the way you may, quite reasonably, ask yourself, 'why have I been staring at a thirty-year-old packet of Polos for nearly two minutes?'"), they acknowledge the power of the past's trivia to arrest us. "The older you are, the longer it takes you to get round the museum. You stroll through the collection, quietly engaged, until you reach the bit where you were about five years old, at which point you slow to a complete stop, gasp and crawl the remaining decades at a snail's pace, the doors to the less frequented corners of your mind blown wide open and flapping in the breeze."

British media will once again have to twist themselves into knots to deal with the book's title, as co-author Jason Hazeley reported back in 2006:
The real depth of our stupidity wasn't apparent until we started the round of radio and TV interviews. "Obviously, we can't say the title on air" sounded as familiar as "hello" after the nth time. The spoken word doesn't do asterisks.... Elsewhere on the airwaves, the part of Bollocks was taken by its understudies Buzzcocks, Cobblers, Pillocks and Beep Beep. BBC Radio Kent opted for the truly odd Buttons To Alton Towers. The most visible rabbit in the headlights, by some stretch, was ITV comfort zone This Morning. Citing its Orwellian "compliance guidelines", it wouldn't even mention Alton Towers. A production assistant was let loose on the dust jacket with masking tape and, when it appeared on screen, we'd apparently written a book called To.

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