Monday, October 11, 2010

What A Picture's Worth

I don't remember how old I was, but I have a clear memory of a somewhat wistful moment in my childhood when I realized that, going forward, most of the books I would be reading would be largely text with relatively few pictures.

I was reminded of this last Friday when reading a New York Times article which set the book world literally a-Twitter. According to the article, by Julie Bosman, picture book sales have been steadily decreasing in recent years in favor of text-heavy "chapter books." A part of the reason may be the economy -- a 32-page hardcover picture book routinely sells for between fifteen and eighteen dollars (though paperbacks cost less than half that). The more provocative reason proposed: due to highly selective private elementary schools and standardized testing, parents feel pressured to get their children reading at a more advanced level at an earlier age, and these parents see picture books as holding that process back. As one bookseller quoted in the article said, "It's a terrible pressure parents are feeling -- that somehow, I shouldn't let my child have this picture book because she won't get into Harvard."

Having never been a parent myself, I can't speak to this kind of pressure. But my experiences as a bookseller suggest that this move away from picture books is not universally the case. When parents -- and grandparents -- are in our store looking for books for their preschool-aged children, picture books are what they are almost always attracted to. After all, they want children not only to read books but to love them. And while text-heavy books can certainly be read aloud to young children, a picture book provides an entirely different -- and, in some cases, preferable -- read-aloud experience. The scenario mentioned in the Times article of parents in a bookstore steering a young child away from picture books because they're "beyond that" is something that, thankfully, I very rarely see at Accent on Books.

At the very beginning of Alice in Wonderland, we find a bored Alice sitting by her sister, who is reading a book. When Alice glances at the book she is dismayed to see that it doesn't contain pictures or conversations: "'...and what's the use of a book,' thought Alice, 'without pictures or conversations'?" Conversations may not be at issue in books for preschoolers -- practically all children's books have conversations. But when it comes to introducing young children to the joy, excitement and magic of books, Alice's rhetorical question is very relevant: what's the use of a book without pictures?  

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Nobel Prize to Vargas Llosa

Mario Vargas Llosa of  Peru has won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature. He is the first South American to win the prize in almost thirty years.

Vargas Llosa, age 74, has published both fiction and nonfiction in a career lasting almost fifty years. He first won international acclaim with his second novel, The Green House, published in 1965. Other well-known works include the quasi-autobiographical Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977), and The Feast of the Goat (2000), a novel about the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic.

In addition to being a writer, Vargas Llosa has been very engaged politically over the decades, even to the extent of running for the presidency of Peru in 1990 (he lost in a runoff to Alberto Fujimori). He has moved rightward in his political views over the years, going from being an ardent supporter of the Cuban revolution, for example, to being more of a supporter of capitalism, and an opponent of authoritarian regimes of both the Left and the Right.

Vargas Llosa has kind of an odd connection to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the last South American to win the Nobel Literature Prize (in 1982). An early admirer of Garcia Marquez -- even writing a book about him -- Vargas Llosa ended up feuding with the Colombian writer, and reportedly punched him in the face in 1976. The two have evidently not spoken to each other for more than thirty years. 

Heidi Johnson-Wright of January Magazine interviewed Vargas Llosa in 2001; the article can be found here. Also, the New York Times has a page of links to articles in that publication by and about Vargas Llosa.

Meanwhile, I continue to hold out hope that the Nobel committee will give a long overdue Literature Prize to Margaret Atwood. Maybe next year.     

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

In the Present

The Accent on Books Reading Group (contact us if you want more information) is currently reading Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel's Booker Award-winning novel about the intrigues of Henry VIII, as seen through the eyes of one of his advisers, Thomas Cromwell.

One interesting feature of Wolf Hall is that it's written in the present tense, or the "historical present," as the present tense is called in fiction writing. As John Mullan pointed out in a recent article in The Guardian, it is a narrative strategy which, while it has a long history, seems to be popping up more and more in current fiction. Some critics see it as a cheap affectation, the result of the ascendancy of university writers' workshops. Mullan quotes Philip Pullman as calling the historical present "an abdication of narrative responsibility": by avoiding the past tense the author is relieved from -- or abdicates -- the responsibility of putting his or her own perspective on the narrative. On the other hand, it can provide an immediacy, a sense of presence, that past tense would perhaps lack.

As with so much else in writing, the effectiveness of the historical present in the end depends on the talent of the writer using it. In the case of Wolf Hall, I find it to be highly effective, giving you a sense that you are with Cromwell as he navigates the maze that is the politics of Henry VIII's court. And since John Mullan was part of the jury that awarded Wolf Hall the Booker, he obviously agrees with that.

Mullan's article is here.

By the way, our reading group will be meeting at the store at 3:00 PM on Wednesday, October 13, to discuss Wolf Hall. Feel free to come by, if you want to join in.      

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Your (Banned) Reading List

Today's the last day of Banned Books Week, so I thought I'd point to one more link on the subject.

Britney Wilkins at the Online College Degree blog has a list entitled, "50 Banned Books That Everyone Should Read." She has divided the list according to reasons the books have been banned or challenged. The reasons and a few of the titles:

  • "Protect the Children" (Catcher in the Rye and Harry Potter)
  • "Religion and Politics" (Satanic Verses and Grapes of Wrath)
  • "Sex" (Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tropic of Cancer)
  • "Race and Gender" (To Kill a Mockingbird and Color Purple)
  •  "Multiple Reasons" (The most ironic title here: Fahrenheit 451)
All in all, a pretty distinguished list of books, found in its entirety here.

Read freely!