Thursday News: RIP Ursula Le Guin, the print sales crawl, NBCC finalists, and a deadly book
Ursula K Le Guin, by Margaret Atwood: ‘One of the literary greats of the 20th century’ – I’m sure you know by now that Ursula Le Guin died earlier this week, and there are a ton of obituaries and articles on her life and her work. I have chosen to highlight this piece by Margaret Atwood, in part because it’s eloquent, but mostly because it engages with her work in simultaneously personal, political, and literary ways, amplifying its complexity without sentimentalizing it (or her). And I love the internal conversation she has with Le Guin – because it illustrates so perfectly the processes of reading and writing.
What if, I was saying – what if I write a piece about The Left Hand of Darkness, published by you in 1969? What if I say it’s a book to which time has now caught up? . . .
What do you think, Ursula? I asked her in my head. Were you predicting anything? Not exactly, she answered. It’s a thought experiment. But then, so is our society. In all her work, Le Guin was always asking the same urgent question: what sort of world do you want to live in? Her own choice would have been gender equal, racially equal, economically fair and self-governing, but that was not on offer. It would also have contained mutually enjoyable sex and good food: there was a better chance of that. – The Guardian
NPD BookScan Recaps the Year in Books 2017 – Print is king – at least when there is a blockbuster release that sells a gazillion copies. As the NPD analysis notes, “[u]nit sales of [print] books increased 1.9 percent in 2017, which is slightly less than annual growth rates of 3 percent posted between 2013 to 2016.” Which doesn’t mean that print isn’t selling; it just means that the robustness of print sales growth depends on that One Big Book, and on trends like adult coloring books (now on the decline) or cookbooks (still growing). And in leaner years, slower sales may mean that smaller books don’t get published, because the big books aren’t bringing in the money to subsidize less profitable projects.
“Returning from the huge sales of ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ in 2016, and the rise of adult coloring books, last year’s book sales growth was more modest than the industry has seen in recent years,” said Kristen McLean, books industry analyst for The NPD Group. “Big blockbusters are both a blessing and a curse for the book publishing industry. In the years where they hit, they drive tremendous success for publishers; but afterwards the inevitable drop in sales back towards normal feels like a loss. It is a feast or famine phenomenon, if no blockbusters emerge to take their place the following year.” – NPD
Book critics name finalists, award prize for reviewing to Tribune contributor – Thirty finalists have been announced in anticipation of the March 15th award ceremony. The National Book Critics Circle is an NEA-funded non-profit organization that focuses on criticism and reviewing, so honoring published work in book form and reviewing form. So in addition to titles in categories including fiction, non-fiction, biography, poetry, and autobiography, there is also a category for books of criticism. And in addition to individual authors being honored (e.g. Carmen Maria Machado for the debut of Her Body and Other Parties), Charles Finch will receive the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.
- “You Play the Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages” by Carina Chocano (Mariner)
- “The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story” by Edwidge Danticat (Graywolf)
- “Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood and History” by Camille Dungy (Norton)
- “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions” by Valeria Luiselli (Coffee House)
- “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts and Fake News” by Kevin Young (Graywolf)
How a Library Handles a Rare and Deadly Book of Wallpaper Samples – I read this article with a kind of nauseated fascination at the thought of a physically toxic book sitting on library shelves. Which the 1874 tome Shadows from the Walls of Death, a collection of arsenic-soaked wallpaper samples, did for many years. Although only 100 copies were produced, the book’s existence speaks to a historical era (mid-to-late 19th C) in which more than half of U.S. wallpaper had arsenic in it. And women, who were also subjected to patriarchal medical practices like “the rest cure” were exposed to it:
The Victorians knew that arsenic was poisonous when eaten, of course—it had gained a reputation as an “inheritance powder” that could be used, for example, to bump off elderly aunts with large fortunes—but most saw little risk in plastering their homes with the stuff. Kedzie argued (correctly, we now know) that arsenical wallpapers shed microscopic dust particles that can be inhaled or ingested. In the preface to Shadows, he warns that arsenic can kill not only by “sudden and violent destruction of life” but by slow, chronic poisoning, a mysterious and lingering illness that might baffle sufferer and physician alike. He wrote of women taking ill and withdrawing into their wallpapered bedrooms to recover, not knowing that all the while they were inhaling “an air loaded with the breath of death.” – Atlas Obscura