What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Books for Kindles: Some Thoughts & Recommendations

In today's issue of The Observer (the Sunday edition of The Guardian), there's a fascinating article by John Naughton about the doors that have been opened to previously unpublished authors by the arrival of the Kindle and other e-readers. That prompted me to ponder the proliferation of Kindle-only content, "independent" publishing and other such phenomena, and generated some mixed conclusions.

The first of these is that -- without question -- Naughton's observation that "at a stroke, all those tiresome gatekeepers – those self-important agents, editors and publishers who stood between you and recognition – are abolished. Suddenly, the world can see your hitherto unrecognised talent in all its glory" is all-too-true. Out of curiosity, I have downloaded some books that looked appealing, only to find that they were almost literally unreadable. Even when the plot was borderline coherent, and the characters marginally interesting, the authors have failed to realize that their work could only be improved with some oversight by some of those very "tiresome gatekeepers." After all, the job of the latter is to try and make a book the best book it can possibly be, and thus they have a vested interest in winnowing out purplish prose, eliminating repetitive redundancies (yes, I did that on purpose...) and cleaning up typos and grammatical hiccups. Some authors, sadly, fail to realize that their deathless prose might actually be improved by an editor or that their stories need a lot of work before they are ready for prime time, and interpret constructive criticism from pernicious gatekeepers as a refusal to recognize their peerless prose for what it is.

Don't misunderstand me. I have stumbled across some winners among self-published books, particularly in the arena of historical fiction. Susan Higginbotham's debut (and still my fave among her books), The Traitor's Wife, was picked up by a mainstream publisher after wowing a lot of historical fiction fans with its fascinating and well-researched look at the fall of Edward II, orchestrated by his queen and her lover. (In my eyes, it helped that the story was told through the eyes of a little-known player, the king's niece and wife to his 'favorite', Hugh le Despenser.) Another veteran of the HF scene, Brian Wainwright, has written a few self-published books, including the absolutely hilarious Adventures of Alianore Audley and the rather dense Within the Fetterlock, both of which definitely deserve wider audiences and a mainstream publisher.

By and large, however, the Kindle-only titles contain -- sadly -- a lot of books that never reach their full potential, for whatever reason. With one glaring example: Kindle Singles.

I don't know which genius at Amazon (or elsewhere) came up with this concept, but whoever it is should be carefully followed, because that person has a good eye for publishing concepts that will work in the digital era. I've now read more than half-a-dozen of these small-scale offerings (which translate into anywhere from 14 to 70-odd pages in "real" "dead tree" books), and conclude that this is a brilliant way to bring great reporting to a wider audience than would otherwise be possible -- and to do it in a timely fashion.

For instance, within only a few weeks of Osama bin Laden's death, Kindlers like me (and remember, you don't need to own the e-reader itself to sample these; the Kindle app is available for computers, phones and other devices) could read Christopher Hitchens's musings on "bin Ladenism" in The Enemy. I've read the moving tale of Jacques Leslie's return to Indochina, where he worked as a war correspondent in Vietnam and Cambodia, in War Wounds. ProPublica has taken advantage of the Kindle Single to showcase some of its prize-winning work by folks like Sebastian Rotella, who scored an Overseas Press Club Award for reporting that shows up in Pakistan and the Mumbai Terror Attacks, and the inimitable Jesse Eisinger, who scored a Pulitzer for his reporting on the financial crisis this year -- which Kindle Single followers can read in The Wall Street Money Machine: together, these are a great example of a new kind of journalism (for more info on the non-profit ProPublica, check out its site here) taking advantage of a new kind of publishing model.

Of all of these, a list of my three favorites have to start with the painful and painstakingly-researched piece by Jon Krakauer that put an end to Greg Mortenson's career as philanthropic hero, Three Cups of Deceit. From David Wolman, author of an upcoming book about the future of money, came The Instigators, a behind-the-scenes-look at the Egyptian revolution of early this year, through the tale of Ahmed Mahar, an engineer who unexpectedly found himself becoming a political activism in the years that lead up to Mubarak's ouster. Chinese Dreams, by Indian writer Anand Giridharas, addresses China's economic boom in a way that I've been curious about for years, but haven't seen many writers focus on in isolation: the question of whether there is a uniquely Chinese approach to being a superpower and whether the rejection of the West's "lessons" might be more than just pique. All three are heartily recommended -- 4.5 star offerings from the world of the Kindle Single.

The ability to send content out into the world, unmediated, via Kindle may be a trap for writers without the ability to take a cold, hard look at their own prose, it can be a boon for those of us with an interest in longform journalism. At any rate, in spite of Naughton's valid qualms about e-book publishing outlined in his article, I can only conclude that there's at least some gold to be found out there in Kindle-land by those willing to hunt for it -- and that means that we'll see even more creative uses of this new way to reach readers in the future.

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