Look It Up!

Colleagues who heard University College of London professor Dennis Duncan was writing a book about indexes regarded him skeptically, saying, “Isn’t that a bit . . . niche?” He described the experience in a recent American Ancestors Webinar.

His cleverly titled Index, a History of the, turns out to be livelier than those people may have anticipated. Its significance was underscored when it appeared on the front cover of the New York Times Review of Books last February. What’s more, the history of the index is still developing. When we do a Google search, for example, we are not searching the entire Web, we are searching Google’s index of the Web. The possibility that such an index could be manipulated to provide or obscure certain results has thrust indexing into the political arena.

Having an index was such a good idea, Duncan says, that monks invented it simultaneously in two different places, around the start of the 13th century. One of them (Hugh of St. Cher, pictured; the glasses are an anachronism) was based in Paris, and the other (Robert Grosseteste—“big head”) was in Oxford.

St. Cher wanted to index the Bible by recording the occurrences of every word in it. Starting with “a  a  a  a,” which appears four times, the list was alphabetical and was created to facilitate preaching. As long as monks used their Bibles to read and meditate, an index wasn’t necessary, but once they started preaching they needed to navigate the Bible more efficiently. This type of index was like using Control-F, Duncan says.

Grosseteste, by contrast, created an index much more like the ones we’re familiar with. It was a subject index. But he went far afield with the concept, including in his index all the books he’d read. It was a parchment Google.

For the next approximately 150 years, every copy of every book was still hand-lettered (manu-script, manus being Latin for hand). And the copy was not necessarily the same size as the original. As a result, the page numbers and index were copy-specific; what’s on page 50 in the original may be on page 70 in the copy, if the pages are smaller. Once printing was invented, copies were duplicates, page numbers were consistent, and scholars referring to specific content could be sure they were “all on the same page.”

From the beginning, naysayers criticized people for being “index-readers,” rather than working their way through an entire text. This questioning of colleagues’ scholarly rigor reminds me of today’s critics of Wikipedia users and headline-scanners (guilty).

Several well-known battles between intellectuals broke out in indexes. “Brown, Jeremiah, his dullness, 24, 40-45, 213” and the like. A more recent tweak in an index resulted after Norman Mailer refused to let William F. Buckley quote from his letters in Buckley’s book, The Unmaking of the Mayor. When the book came out, Buckley sent Mailer a copy and in the index, next to Mailer’s name, he wrote “Hi!,” knowing that would be the first thing Mailer would look for and calling him out on it.

Books on Exuberant Display

It takes more than a some Ikea bookshelves to make a memorable display. A beautiful, thoughtfully designed library or bookstore incites the imagination. People who love to read are certain a beautiful display of books–whether bookstore or library–holds unknown, but discoverable treasures of knowledge and imagination.

We recently visited Manhattan’s beautiful Morgan Library to see the Hans Holbein the Younger exhibit and were equally intrigued by the exhibit on Woody Guthrie. Two more different experiences are hard to imagine, except with the common thread of explaining and reflecting their times, separated by five centuries. The accompanying photo shows the library behind an open copy of the Gutenberg Bible.

One library that turns up on every list of “world’s most beautiful” is the Admont Abbey Library, (above), part of a Benedictine monastery in Admont, Austria. The gold-and-white library is a confection of baroque excess. Not only is it the world’s largest library in a monastery (about 70,000 volumes), it looks like it belongs on a dessert plate.

We’re visiting Portugal later this year, and the bookstore, Livraria Lello, in the city of Porto is something I hope to see. Porto is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the bookstore is more than 115 years old.

This neo-Gothic structure, with its pinnacled grey exterior, is one of the oldest bookstores in the country. Not only does it contain a wealth of history, but keeps one foot firmly in the modern era.

JK Rowling once lived in Porto and reputedly frequented the store while she was working on the Harry Potter series. You now need a paid voucher system to enjoy this exuberant architecture.

One of my favorite bookstores is the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona. As its name suggests, it mainly features the crime, mystery, and thriller novels I enjoy. Plus it offers an ambitious program of conversations with noted authors. A Rogues’ Gallery of past presenters is tacked to the ceiling beams, and, if you like this genre, you’ll find many favorite authors pictured, some from their early writing days. We heard Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child talk about their most recent work there. Someone in the audience asked Preston, whose background is in science, about his predictions about the likelihood—even the inevitability of—a major pandemic. Barely a month later, we were in lockdown.

Successful Reading Experiments: 2021 Edition

I read a lot.  Forty to fifty just-published books a year that I review for the U.K. website CrimeFictionLover.com, Audiobooks of prize-nominees and winners. And books that have been out a while picked by my mystery readers book club. And a few books that have nothing to do with crime or espionage or the Dark Side.

Here are a half-dozen authors, debutantes and established, that I “discovered” last year. Maybe you would enjoy them too.

Two New Jersey writers who not only write with style and precision, they offer a nice dose of humor are Bill Baer, who has two books in his New Jersey Noir series, and experienced writer but new-to-novels Fabian Nicieza, with Suburban Dicks.

The unlikely team of characters in Chris Brookmyre’s The Cut—an elderly woman who spent her career devising grisly stage makeup for horror films and a young Black guy who’s the consummate horror fan—were a delight to chase around Europe with.

If you asked, I’d say I’m not a horror fan, but Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians presented horror in a way that made it work for me. One of the best books I read last year. (If you can, listen to the audio version, narrated by Shaun Taylor-Corbett. Genius.) Jones has a number of others, including My Heart is a Chainsaw, which NPR picked as a best book of 2021. Will have to get to that!

Liz Moore’s Long Bright River, nominated for a number of prizes, is the painful story of two sisters—one a cop, the other a drug addict—and the corners they’re forced into. She has more where that came from too.

About once a year, I scrub sentimentality out of my brain with the caustic prose of authors like Cormac McCarthy. The book that accomplished that job this year was Australian author Paul Howarth’s Dust Off the Bones. This year, maybe his Only Killers and Thieves.

Did you find a favorite new author last year?

Between Author and Reader: Amazon

A recent New Yorker article by Parul Sehgal that asks “Is Amazon is changing the novel?” sure sounds like a must-read for authors. There’s some history in there and some juicy stuff about the company some writers call “The Great Satan.”

The struggle writers face in meeting the demands of the book marketplace (versus readers) is not a new phenomenon. Sehgal cites an 1891 novel, New Grub Street, as an example of “pitiless portraits of the writing life.” A character in that book asserts that “literature nowadays is a trade,” and how many versions of that have you heard in recent years? The term potboiler was coined to reflect books created without regard to craft, but just to keep the stew pots boiling.

A hundred thirty years ago, the Amazon of book distribution was Mudie’s Select Library. Mudie’s market power–along with publishers’ financial incentives—demanded hefty three-volume works, much as publishers today like series books and for much the same reason. One popular book in a series sells the others.

But nine-hundred pages (roughly) were a lot to fill, then or now, and writing styles and habits developed to support that requirement. Victorian writers larded in subplots, created large casts of characters, and wrote desperate cliffhangers to carry readers (and themselves) through that long slog. Toward the end of the 19th century, new publishing forms began to take hold, notably less expensive books printed on cheap pulp paper, which opened book purchasing to new markets. As night follows day, new forms of reader enticement emerged, including the development of popular genre fiction—crime novels, Westerns, and the like.

Now, Amazon controls almost three-fourths of U.S. online book sales to adults and almost half of all new-book sales. In that river of print are the company’s own book imprints—16 of them. Do authors write a different kind of book when they know readers have power over not only their own book purchases, but can influence others, as well? Not one-on-one, either. Success or failure is right there on screen, thanks to reader-posted stars.

Kindle Direct Publishing takes reader feedback even farther, right to authors’ wallets. KDP writers are paid based on the number of pages read—increasing the financial incentives for producing lots of pages, new books every three months, and littering them with cliffhangers to keep readers hooked.

Whether all this has an impact on book quality, I’ll leave to you. In my opinion, it helps account for the increasing violence in crime novels, and the bizarre and gruesome nature these crimes. The frequency of plots with “girls” (usually not a child) and children as victims is simply used to raise the stakes. Do you see other evidence of Amazon’s effects? on you? on other writers? on readers?

A Feast for Book Lovers!

Last week, to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the New York Times Book Review, current staff and contributors presented an entertaining look back at books where reviewers got it dreadfully wrong and reviews that sparked particularly pointed letters to the editor.

Contemporary authors read scathing sections of reviews panning books now considered classics. Catch-22, reviewed in 1961, was deemed too long and too episodic—a collection of incidents, not a coherent novel. Though the reviewer of Anne of Green Gables considered her “one of the most extraordinary girls to ever come out of an ink pot,” she was deemed far too clever, well-spoken, and much too wise. (That’s why we readers loved her!) Fahrenheit 451, reviewed in 1953, was dismissed as a polemic. The reviewer believed Ray Bradbury had “developed a hatred for many aspects of current life,” and showed what would eventually happen if the tendency to treat reading as a heinous event went unchecked.

Book Review editor Tina Jordan called the letters the review has received “the Internet message board of their day,” containing praise, complaints, grievances, and corrections. In one from 1962, an author pointed out a mistake in the review, and the reviewer agreed she’d mis-read something (a bit unfathomably when they read us the disputed passage). Norman Mailer was mentioned in the review of a book by a different author, and Mailer wrote to dispute the comparison and in the process, assuring that more people heard about the controversy.

Best was Jack London’s response to a 1905 review that criticized the “unrealistic” fight scenes in his short story, “The Game.” A devoted boxing fan and amateur boxer himself, London felt obliged to respond, saying, “I have had these experiences and it was out of these experiences, plus a fairly intimate knowledge of prize-fighting in general, that I wrote The Game.” So there!

The 1986 novel in verse, The Golden Gate, by Vikram Seth, received only condescending praise from its reviewer, which instigated a fiery letter from Susan Sontag, who called it “a thrilling, subtle literary achievement.” Clearly, opinions differ.

This month, the Book Review will be publishing its list of finalists for the best book of the past 125 years—and you can nominate your favorite here! Meanwhile, you can read reviews and interviews selected from the Review’s amazing archives. The Book Review’s anniversary celebration isn’t ignoring the crime/mystery/thriller genre. Included in its retrospective content—linked above—are a 1912 review of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and commentary from over the years on such classics as Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Ellery Queen’s The Dutch Shoe Mystery, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and, one of my favorite books, not technically a crime novel, but filled with crimes, high and low—Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. A feast for book lovers!

Book Sightings

What makes a good book cover? An important questions because, as we all know, people are going to judge our book by the cover before they even pick it up. The old admonition not to do that is for naught.

While you might think your cover should be “unique” and “uniquely you,” marketing consultants say no to that. They say it should look the same as the cover of the books the reader typically chooses. Comfortably familiar. This must be the reason we see so many thriller covers with silhouettes of women walking alone at night, often into the woods. (Who does that? First of all, you’d ruin your shoes.) Here are the covers I’ve liked best far this year (and one outstanding cover from 2020). Maybe the best advice is, “if it works, it works,” in which case none of the other rules count.

Play the Red Queen – From the moment I saw this cover, I knew I had to read the book. It is part of a growing number of books with a graphic cover rather than a photograph, it looks interesting, it has action, and I liked the mesmerizing pattern. I felt the same way about The Aosawa Murders. Loved both.

Absentees and Infinite – both of these covers work very well with the book title, subtly and graphically reinforcing it, which is helpful on those extremely rare occasions when you can’t quite remember something. And they use the popular cool teal color scheme. Haven’t read either book. Any good?

Blacktop Wasteland – the derelict cars, the relentless daylight, the Black man seen, but not actually in the picture. Symbolically powerful. And the white type works both with the light sky and the darker car bodies. This is the cover of the audio version, so the format’s more square. (Another great book!)

Hotel Cartagena – Orenda Books has given Simone Buchholz’s police thrillers similar black night, neon-infused covers that are jazzy and unmistakable (so much for looking like everything else). A good fit with her lively protagonist.

Educated – This cover is a triumph of metaphor. The book describes a girl’s struggle to use education to pull herself up from the dominance and isolation oof her survivalist Idaho family. Look like a #2 pencil to you? The scatterings of black “graphite shavings” are her, standing on the mountain of obstacles she’s overcome.

What You Wear Is Code

Richard Thompson Ford’s new book Dress Codes: How the Laws of Fashion Made History was the subject of a recent American Ancestors Zoom presentation, the day the book was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal. Ford is a Stanford Law professor who got interested in how dress codes (what you wear, your hairstyle) have affected employment opportunities. Plus he admits to being a bit of a clothes-horse himself.

Legal opinion on dress codes’ effect on employment may treat them as if they are trivial. If so, the courts may be missing a lot of what’s important about the issue. What people wear is part of their self-presentation and sense of dignity. Back in Europe’s late middle ages, the puffy pantaloons called Trunk Hose (pictured) became the fashion for men. The upper classes resented their inferiors wearing the style and passed “sumptuary laws” prohibiting extravagant fabrics and attire except for those of high rank—a pure power play. No surprise, then, that in 1700s America, Blacks were prohibited from “dressing above their station.”

Ford noted that Queen Elizabeth I understood the power of fashion—magnificent, otherworldly fashion—to set her apart. Over time, the type of attire that signified the wearer’s importance changed, at least for men. Men’s attire became more sober and conservative. Think of the black-clad Dutch Masters. The culmination of this trend was the familiar business suit we know today.

Intended also to convey the message that men were all equal, of course, little signals continue today to let people recognize the high-value “bespoke” suit versus one from Target.

You may remember the photos from the early Civil Rights movement with Martin Luther King and his colleagues marching and dressed in suits. They dressed in their “Sunday best” to underscore the validity and seriousness of their quest. A few years later, younger activists wanted to express solidarity with the poor people they hoped to organize, so they dressed in jeans and overalls. The Black Panthers had their own dress code: black trousers, leather jackets, and berets. These were all deliberate decisions related to identity.

Until the 20th century, women wore draped clothing below the waist. Wearing pants was totally unacceptable. A 1903 article called women who insisted on wearing trousers “bifurcated” and clearly suggests they were a threat to the social order. As expressed in an essay for the Metropolitan Museum’s wonderful exhibit: China Through the Looking Glass, “Fashion is the means by which we convey identity and belonging (including nonbelonging),” as in the case of the trouser-wearing women.

By repressing the individuality of the wearer, requiring a certain type of dress can be a tool of degradation or control. The stricter the requirements, the more control exerted. Now, with casual Fridays all week long, new unarticulated “dress codes” still determine what people wear. It will be interesting to see how the extreme informality of working from home and never changing out of our pajamas may persist!

How the West Was Lost: Travel Tips

A recent trip to Scottsdale prompted a return visit to Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, at 2d Street and Marshall Way—a fine place to spend a couple of hours. There’s a permanent exhibit of Western “stuff,” ranging from saddles to signage to six-shooters, plus special exhibitions.

On view until August 2020 are more than 300 works from the man called “the West’s greatest artist,” Maynard Dixon. Born in 1875, he lived during the time the frontier American West began to disappear.

When he was a child, the wars between Indians and European settlers still raged, Texas cowboys herded cattle north long distances to railheads, and “civilization” was as flimsy as the frontier town stage sets in Blazing Saddles. Dixon not only painted hundreds of notable landscapes and portraits, he was a prolific illustrator, producing cover art for magazines and illustrating popular novels.

Artists gave Easterners their first glimpses of the beautiful and dramatic West, but they were less appreciated on their home ground. Said Dixon,
“In those days in Arizona being an artist was something you just had to endure—or be smart enough to explain why. . . . If you were not working for the railroad, considering real estate or scouting for a mining company, what the hell were you? The drawings I made were no excuse and I was regarded as a wandering lunatic.”

Also at the museum, we had the chance to see a one-man show, “Wyatt Earp: A Life on the Frontier,” in which one of Earp’s descendants gave the true “not-what-you-learned-from-Hollywood” story. It was a lot of fun (tickets best ordered beforehand, though I don’t believe the website makes that clear). While this program may not regularly repeat, the museum offers frequent special events, noted on its website.

By coincidence, on this trip I was reading David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, which puts a tragic twist on the story of the “conquest” of the West. In the 1870s, the Osage tribe had been driven into an unpropitious area—“broken, rocky, sterile, and utterly unfit for cultivation,” according to a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent. The Osage bought the land, located in what became northeast Oklahoma, thinking it so undesirable they would not be evicted again. Maynard Dixon’s works even evoke this suffering.

But the new reservation held a surprise. Oil. For a time in the 1920s, tribe members accumulated dollars in the millions, becoming the wealthiest people per capita in the world. Then the murders began.

It’s a riveting yet almost forgotten real-life tale of greed, corruption, and betrayal that reads like a novel. There’s even a bit part for J. Edgar Hoover, who intuited that solving this case would catapult his little agency—and himself—to national prominence.

Alas, we cannot look back at those days and think the exploitation of our beautiful West ended there. We are still losing it.

Or maybe this post should be titled “Small Museums: Part 2.” (Part 1 here.)

The Blues Are More Than a Color

peacock, bird, proud

Authors appreciate the power of color to not just describe a shade but evoke an emotion. How different is your reaction to a woman’s dress described as sky blue (flirty) versus electric blue (bold) versus navy (conservative)? The color choices tell you not just about the dress, but something about the wearer as well.

The colors of things are such distinctive characteristics that we have a full palette of clichés about them—another reason to give their descriptions careful attention in your prose.

Sherwin-Williams, the paint people who each year bring us the “color of the year” (read my take on their ironic choice of Living Coral for 2019) puts well-spent energy into trend forecasting. And there definitely are color trends. One of them may show up on the cover of your next book. Certain colors are so trendy that they age quickly and not well. The 2020 Color of the Year, by the way: Naval. Good old navy blue.

S-W’s color aces have announced the company’s colormix forecast for 2020. Their several palettes are lumped under the rubric of “wellness,” because, they say, designers are seeking colors that enhance social, spiritual, physical, and emotional factors. Go for it! Interestingly, a S-W marketing manager looks to our world in describing her goals: “Designers want color to enhance the story they are telling.” Raising my hand.

You might check whether one of the S-W palettes inspires an overall feel for a character or setting you’re working on. Scandi authors will likely stick with gray. Or, maybe you just need to repaint your office. A collection of some of my favorite books about color, described here and here too.

Photo: jpeter2 for Pixabay, creative commons license

Instant Replay

I wondered, seeing the cover for The Sleepover, if it was inspired by Adrian McKinty’s new best-seller, The Chain. or an example of the hive mind at work. The chains in McKinty’s book have nothing to do with literal chains, of course, and I didn’t warm to that book’s cover (though the book is great).

Then I saw this pairing. Though the new Through a Daughter’s Eyes is apparently nothing at all like Eimear McBride’s eye-opening The Lesser Bohemians, it sure conjures it. Cover copy for the latter says it “glows with the eddies and anxieties of growing up, and the transformative intensity of a powerful new love.” And lots of sex.