Sen. Ted Cruz wrote some of these books, and he's eager to sign them all. (Random House; Broadside; Regnery)
Have you seen it in the news?
Would you buy it signed by Cruz?
Just when you think Republicans’ hysteria over Dr. Seuss couldn’t get any weirder, Ted Cruz starts selling copies of “Green Eggs and Ham” signed by himself. The Cancún travel agent who moonlights as a Texas senator claims he's fighting back against “the cancel culture mob.” Cruz will send you a personally defaced copy of Dr. Seuss’s picture book for $60 — only six times its retail price.
Cruz is angry that Dr. Seuss Enterprises, which controls the Seuss literary estate, retired six titles that contain racist illustrations (my two cents). But “Green Eggs and Ham” is not one of those canceled titles, and it’s not clear how reselling books from Dr. Seuss Enterprises will punish the company for trimming its backlist. Projecting wildly, Cruz tweeted that in response to his Seussical fundraiser, “lefties are losing their minds.” On the first day, he raked in $125,000 from Star-Belly Sneetches.
As a book huckster, the senator has long been more dazzling than the Cat in the Hat. In 2015, Cruz published “A Time For Truth.” The memoir sold well, but the New York Times refused to include it on the bestseller list, noting, “The overwhelming preponderance of evidence was that sales were limited to strategic bulk purchases” (story). Copies of the book — signed by Cruz, not Dr. Seuss — were later offered on the senator’s website for $85 a piece.
Washington journalist Zach Everson noticed that last fall the Cruz campaign spent about $153,000 at Books-a-Million. The senator's office did not respond to questions from me about those purchases. Perhaps Ted is just a big reader. But coincidentally, the Cruz campaign is now offering autographed copies of his recent book, “One Vote Away” for $77. A lawyer with experience in campaign finance law tells me there's nothing necessarily illegal about the onanistic practice of using your campaign money to buy copies of your own book to offer them as donor gifts to raise even more campaign money. But it's a neat trick for making yourself a best-selling author. And that status comes in handy when negotiating advances for your next book. Oh, the thinks you can think when you're an ambitious senator!
Oprah Winfrey (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post); book covers courtesy of Picador
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the most cringe-inducing moment in modern book publishing. In 2001, amidst a chorus of critical praise, Oprah chose Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” for her massive TV book club (review). The first printing immediately swelled by more than seven-fold. But the cerebral novelist was concerned. In an interview on Fresh Air that allegedly caused his publicist to black out, Franzen said, “I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience, and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now in book stores say, ‘If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick.’”
It was like listening to a man who didn't realize he was already falling down the stairs. Franzen went on to note that he’d never actually seen Oprah’s “little coffee klatch,” but he speculated that if her viewers started his Serious Literary Novel, they would look up in dismay and wonder, “What was Oprah thinking?” Soon after that, Oprah announced, “It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable” and politely disinvited Franzen.
Of course, the suggestion that the Oprah Book Club catered to lightweights was never fair. Before “The Corrections,” Oprah had chosen books by Toni Morrison, Edwidge Danticat, Andre DuBus III and many other literary novelists. And in 2010, Oprah graciously picked Franzen’s “Freedom” (review).
This week should incinerate any spores of snobbery still lingering among the literati. Oprah’s newest selection is the Gilead quartet by Marilynne Robinson, whose Calvinist glance could melt the glasses right off Franzen’s face. “Gilead,” “Home,” “Lila” and the recent “Jack” are some of the most beautiful, profound and celebrated novels in the American canon (reviews). This marks the first time that Oprah has chosen a series of books, although in 2005 she selected three novels by that coffee klatch darling William Faulkner.
In a statement, Robinson said, “Oprah Winfrey is a singular voice in this country and in the world. It is wonderful and amazing that my books will have the kind of attention only she could bring to them.” And with that, the book world exhaled a giant sigh of relief.
The New York condo once owned by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. (Photo by Matt Vacca/Brown Harris Stevens)
If you were hoping to buy Toni Morrison’s New York condo, I’m sorry to report that it’s already under contract for under $4 million — somewhat less than its original $4.75 million asking price. The Nobel Prize-winning novelist owned the 3-bedroom loft in Tribeca from 2014 until her death in 2019 (tribute).
The buyers, who declined to be named, are a couple with one child who have been renting in the building. According to the listing agent, Amanda Brainerd with Brown Harris Stevens, “They want to honor Toni’s memory and are hoping to keep a signed copy of one of her books.” The condo was shown with Morrison’s furniture and library, which contains titles by the Obamas, W.E.B DuBois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and authors whom Morrison worked with as an editor and professor. For the time being, her family intends to keep the books, antiques and artwork, including pieces by Miró; Paula Whaley, James Baldwin’s sister; and Morrison’s late son, Slade.
The new owners, who hope to close on the sale in a month or so, plan to renovate the condo, which was last updated about 20 years ago. “The buyers saw the apartment a while ago, kept looking, but eventually came back to it because they wanted to stay in the building and were thrilled to buy Toni’s apartment,” Brainerd said. “They had the wife’s parents come see it, and the parents gave it their stamp of approval, which sealed the deal.”
In October 2020, Solid State Books in Washington participated in the “Boxed Out” marketing campaign, which criticized Amazon's position in the book market. (Courtesy of the American Booksellers Association)
The battle to rein in Amazon is heating up. This week, the American Booksellers Association made its strongest case yet with a 20-page document sent to the attorneys general in all 50 states and D.C. The ABA claims that Amazon “has used exclusionary, anti-competitive pricing schemes to gain market power and illegally monopolize the e-commerce retail market.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The ABA, a nonprofit trade association of indie bookstores, addresses Amazon’s behavior across its various businesses and services but says, “Nowhere is Amazon’s conduct more of a threat to the competitive process than in the online bookselling submarket.” Among other complaints, the document cites Amazon’s “punitive actions” against publishers that resist its terms, and it claims that the company uses the Kindle as a loss leader to “leave consumers with no alternative but to purchase ebooks and other products from Amazon.”
With a nod to the Teddy Roosevelt era, the ABA notes that “Amazon’s share of the online bookselling submarket is as large as Standard Oil’s before it was dismantled into 34 companies in 1911.” The paper concludes with a somewhat less granulated solution: “Amazon needs to be broken up into at least four autonomous companies: retail, e-commerce marketplace platform, web services, and logistics. Additionally, given how Amazon uses systemic below-cost pricing on books in particular, we urge consideration that Amazon’s retail operations be divided into book retail and other retail.”
An Amazon spokesperson said the company had no comment on the ABA's document.
(Hinchas de Poesia Press)
The $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill recently signed by President Biden contains $200 million for the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which supports libraries and museums across the country. This allocation marks the largest single increase in the agency’s 25-year history. And that support aligns closely with the country’s heart. At the start of 2020, Gallup reported that “visiting the library remains the most common cultural activity Americans engage in” — far more than going to movies, sporting events, concerts, national parks, museums, casinos and zoos.
EveryLibrary, a nonprofit political action committee, wants to make sure our representatives appreciate just how important federal support is. The group is raising money to send a copy of “Inspiring Library Stories” to every member of Congress (donate). The book, edited by Oleg Kagan, offers dozens of true stories and essays about the crucial role that these literary temples play in American life. (If you order your own copy of the book here, 30 percent will go toward EveryLibrary.)
The stories — short poignant moments — describe kids captivated by story time, a retired gentleman learning to read, a prison inmate finding hope, a woman trying to write an obituary, a new immigrant filling out a job application, and a little boy who finished making a tambourine in craft time and told the librarian, “Thank you. This will be my first toy since the fire.” I could go on, but I seem to have something in my eye.
Amy Mientus tries out the Story Cube at the Illinois Prairie District Public Library in Woodford County, Ill. (Courtesy of Joel Shoemaker/Illinois Prairie District Public Library)
You’re standing in front of the vending machines trying to decide: Snickers bar, Dr. Pepper or short story? That low-cal option comes from the Short Story Dispenser, a machine that blends Gutenberg’s dream with Silicon Valley’s technology. Select your genre preference, and this 5-foot-tall gadget spits out a free story printed on a strip of paper — like the most entertaining CVS receipt you’ve ever received.
There are about 300 Short Story Dispensers around the world in shopping malls, universities and airports. Users can choose from tens of thousands of stories, poems and even comics from a constantly updated catalogue beamed to the machines via the cloud. The pieces — one-, three- and five-minutes long — come from the public domain and from new writers who get paid by the licensing company based on how many people choose their work.
Short Édition, the French company behind this literary kiosk, recently released the Story Cube, a tabletop version intended for schools and libraries. Think R2-D2 with Dav Pilkey inside. Teachers can set the machines to distribute age-appropriate seasonal pieces, classic stories or the students’ own work. (All this cuteness doesn’t come cheap: Between $3,500 and $4,300 for the Cube and more than $1,000 a year for the subscription service.)
The first operational Story Cube in the United States just started serving patrons at the Illinois Prairie District Public Library in Woodford County, Ill. “It's been very well received,” library director Joel Shoemaker tells me. “So far, in just two weeks, we have printed nearly 60 stories, which is great for our rural area.” He intends to rotate the Cube through the districts’ six branches.
The Prairie District library system decided the Story Cube would also be good for “outreach efforts in schools and nursing homes.” The machine is touchless, which is especially handy in these covid days. Shoemaker says library patrons are enjoying the novelty of the little story distributor. “They like being able to be surprised by what comes out of it. It’s like a new form of reader’s advisory, too, because of all of the different categories offered.” And unlike a Snickers bar, every story is fat-free.
(Yale University Press; Random House Audio; Harper)
Literary awards and honors
- Tracy Campbell’s “The Year of Peril: America in 1942” won the New-York Historical Society’s Barbara and David Zalaznick Book Prize in American History. This $50,000 award recognizes a book of American history or biography that appeals to both general and academic readers. Washington Post columnist George Will raved, “Few Americans have memories of the only year in U.S. history comparable to 2020 for sudden and comprehensive disruption of Americans’ lives. To place today’s myriad social traumas and dislocations in perspective, read Tracy Campbell’s ‘The Year of Peril’” (column).
- Rachel Maddow won the Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album for her narration of “Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth.” This is the audio version of her 2019 book about the evils of the fossil fuel industry (review).
- Nicole Krauss won the Inspiration Award for Fiction. This new $36,000 prize “recognizes a well-known author whose books have made a valuable contribution to Jewish literature and who will serve as a role model to Fellows of the Sami Rohr Jewish Literary Institute.” Krauss’s most recent book is a collection of short stories called “To Be a Man” (review).
Kwame Dawes, the new editor of the American Life in Poetry column. (John Peterson/AP Images for Poetry Foundation)
Kwame Dawes relaunched American Life in Poetry this week. The column, started in 2005 by then U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, is offered gratis to newspapers and websites. With its vast audience, American Life in Poetry brings verse into the lives of many people who don’t ordinarily see it.
Dawes relishes that challenge and opportunity. “If you claim you don’t like poetry, I believe I can find a poem you will like, as long as you like something,” he tells me. “The great tragedy for American poetry is that for too many people it is associated with school, with lessons, with tests. I am not taking anyone to school here.” Wary of such didacticism, he compares his role to that of a good radio disc-jockey. “Some music makes us see things in ourselves that we did not know we had. Poetry is the same, and many times over.”
“Poetry offers the legacy of feeling and thought, of wit and humor, of emotion and intellect, as the necessary accompaniment to what we like to call history,” Dawes says. “Poets remind us that our bodies, full of emotion and feeling, have existed in this world. How many historical texts tell us what a flower smells like, what a meal tastes like, what grief feels like, what an athlete’s body looks like and so on? Poetry fills out the accounting of our lives in this world.” You can read the new American Life in Poetry column here.
We expect biographies to be written in prose, but other forms can be surprisingly illuminating. The British writer Ruth Padel recently published an evocative collection titled “Beethoven Variations: Poems on a Life.” Annotated with excerpts from letters and diaries, these 48 poems draw us through Beethoven’s tumultuous life and Padel’s own response to his music.
Forever Yours, Forever Mine, Forever Us
Never can another own my heart, never — never — O God why have to separate oneself from what one loves — my life in Vienna is a miserable life — Your love makes me at once the happiest and most unhappy. Only through quiet contemplation . . . can we reach our goal to live together — be patient — love me. . . What longing with tears for you — you — you my love — my all — farewell —
Beethoven, Teplitz, July 6-7, July 1812
Sometimes giving up what you love leads on
to everything you wanted in your life
but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t loss.
What remains is an echo, an afterglow
from a night with a woman he loves
maybe the only night he ever spent with anyone --
a letter from a man who broke down
on a midnight dash through a forest.
He was warned. He ignored the warning
he always does. A letter he maybe never sent
and nobody saw until he died
and it was found in a secret drawer.
A promise of eternal togetherness
a wishbone about to break
a letter of goodbye
from a man aching to be touched
walking away from what means most to him
except his art. Who wrote long after
to his publisher, Farewell
is said only from the heart
and when you’re alone.
Excerpt from “Beethoven Variations,” by Ruth Padel. Copyright © 2020 by Ruth Padel. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The best thing I read this week was Caitlin Flanagan’s witty rant about the obscene excesses of private schools in the April issue of the Atlantic (essay). Years ago I taught briefly at the ritzy John Burroughs School in St. Louis — Jon Hamm worked there as a drama teacher — but thankfully I never suffered anything like the parental horrors Flanagan describes. In fact, the one time a huge donor came after me — for suggesting that her little prince was more capable than he let on — the headmaster stood by me 100 percent. But apparently, such administrative support is now rare in the cash-craving halls of platinum-plated private schools.
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