An American Editor

January 6, 2012

Worth Noting: What do Liberal & Conservative Really Mean?

I am always interested in words and their etymology. But, I admit, I’ve not given a lot of thought to the question “What does it mean to say someone is [liberal, conservative, revolutionary, reactionary, counterrevolutionary, etc.]?”

As if answering my unasked question, the current issue of The New York Review of Books tackles the matter as part of a book review. “Republicans for Revolution” by Mark Lilla tackles the problem as part of his review of “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin” by Corey Robin, a book that Lilla pans. (Interestingly, the book under review gets little attention in this article. Instead, the focus is on the meanings of the various labels.)

I think you will find the article interesting and worth reading and thinking about. (And, no, it is not a liberal diatribe against Republicans.) Once you get a grasp of what the labels really mean, the labeling of politicians changes. I particularly found it interesting how fluid the labels are depending on your view of human nature:

Is the unit of political life society or the individual? Do you view “society as a kind of inheritance we receive and are responsible for” and for which “we have obligations toward those who came before and to those who will come after, and these obligations take priority over our rights”?

Or do you “give individuals priority over society, on anthropological as well as moral grounds” and “assume that societies are genuinely constructs of human freedom, that whatever we inherit from them, they can always be unmade or remade through free human action”?

Hard questions with no firm answer, but questions that need resolution when applying a political label.

As always, if you are not a subscriber to The New York Review of Books but are a book lover, I recommend subscribing. I think it is the finest magazine of its type, and significantly better than the New York Times Book ReviewThe New York Review of Books is what the New York Times Book Review once was, decades ago, and what it should be today.

March 8, 2010

On Books: Deciding to Buy or Not Buy (I)

I have been thinking about what goes into my decision whether or not to buy a particular book. An ever-increasing number of books are available every year — enough to overwhelm any dedicated book buyer. I suspect that the only time the decision was (relatively) easy was in the days of scribal versions and the early days of the printing press and moveable type. I recall reading that even at the time of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, thousands of books and pamphlets were being written and published every year.

Books have always been a treasure for me. I remember, in my childhood, going to the library every week to borrow a dozen or so books to hold me until the following week’s trip. And when I began to earn money, I spent more money buying books than on anything else that was leisure related. Although book buying isn’t my most expensive outlay today, I still spend thousands of dollars every year on books. Some of those books are books I plan to read some day when I have time, but which in reality will never have the binding cracked because something else will take reading precedence — and eventually time does run out.

So how do I decide which book to buy and which to pass over? The process is really more complex than I had thought, especially considering that (according to The Economist) more than 400,000 books are now published every year in the United States and United Kingdom. Plus, I need to separate ebooks from pbooks because the process is different in several respects, not least of which is that ebook purchases are always fiction whereas pbook purchases are almost always nonfiction.

Over the course of the next 3 articles, I plan to examine what goes into my book-buying decisions. Admittedly, this is a personal approach, but I suspect that many book buyers’ approaches mirror at least some of my approach. Let’s begin with reviews.

Reviews

Reviews as a factor do not need to be separated by the book’s format. The bottom line is a review is applicable to either the ebook or the pbook, unless the review is focused on formatting gaffes that are peculiar to one version rather than to both.

There are essentially four types of reviews: online starred reviews at the bookseller, independent online reviews, friend reviews, and magazine-type reviews, such as the New York Review of Books (NYRB), The Atlantic, and the New York Times Books Review (NYTBR). Each has its own credibility level. For me, I’ve listed them in ascending order, that is, least credible are the starred reviews, more credible are independent online and friends’ recommendations, and the most credible, for me, are the magazine-type reviews (including newspaper reviews).

A number of people have commented that when buying a book they look at the bookseller’s, such as Amazon, rating: What have other readers at this bookseller thought about a particular book? Some readers apparently give great weight to the online reviews, others scant weight. I give the reviews at the booksellers no weight whatsoever; I don’t even look at them.

Why? Because I believe that too few of the reviews are honest reviews of the content; instead, the reviewer has some other agenda (such as pricing or religious or political protests) and I have neither the time nor patience to weed through the reviews. If a book has 100 reviews, 95 of which are 1 star, how can you be certain — regardless of the review’s content — of the verity of the content review. Plus I have no idea who sallyfromarkana is or why I should care whether he/she liked or disliked a book: How do I know  sallyfromarkana really read the book? Or understood the book? Or isn’t bosom buddies with the author? Or isn’t a bitter ex-spouse? How knowledgeable about the subject matter is sallyfromarkana? Can sallyfromarkana really tell me how this book compares with the previous three books on the same subject, which is important in the case of nonfiction?

Then there is the “King” complication. I already know that hundreds of thousands of book buyers love to read Stephen King, James Patterson, Dan Brown, J.D. Robb, and many other authors. These best-selling novelists represent the King complication; that is, if sallyfromarkana reads these authors, how in tune with my tastes is she when I avoid their books? How do I know what other books he/she has read and/or reviewed and the quality of those reviews? Of how much worth is sallyfromarkana’s review of a Doris Kearns Goodwin book to me when sallyfromarkana gives Stephen King 4 stars, Dan Brown 1 star as a price protest, and Doris Kearns Goodwin 3 stars?

This problem also surfaces with the independent online reviews. Additionally, those reviews require searching to find and a lot of effort to discover whether the reviewer is good or bad, thorough or not. It requires a lot of time and work, something I am not desirous of expending looking for a review.

Friend’s recommendations have greater credibility for me, as I suspect they do for most book buyers. The problem is that our reading tastes rarely coincide; my taste in books doesn’t even coincide with my children’s. None of my friends have read, for example, Michael Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln: A Life or Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. But they have read the new Dan Brown or Clive Cussler novel.

That really leaves me, as far as reviews go, in the hands of the professional reviewers, such as the NYRB and NYTBR. The reviews in the NYRB are my particular favorites. They are in-depth, tell me whether the author knows the subject matter well, and refer me to other books on the same subject or from which the reviewed author obtained information. I’ve bought several books that have been mentioned in a NYRB review that are not the subject of the review.

Alas, outlets like NYRB and NYTBR are limited, especially for nonfiction. There are only so many reviews that each can contain in an issue. So although these types of magazine reviews do influence my decision making, they do so on a limited basis, simply because of the limited number of books reviewed compared with the ever-expanding number of books published. But also worthy of mention, at least in the case of the NYRB, are the book ads placed by university presses. With all the books being published each year, one of the things I rely on to learn about a new university press book are publisher ads. They aren’t reviews but they at least alert me to something that may be of interest to me and that I should check out.

Part II, tomorrow’s article, discusses the role and importance of a well-designed cover. Part III, the final article in this series, discusses the final two legs of the decision-making process: content and pricing.

February 25, 2010

Magazines in the Age of eBooks

I’m a big magazine reader. In addition to the many books I buy each year (I have more books in my to-read pile than I can read within the next few years), I subscribe to a lot of magazines. My subscriptions include Smithsonian, The Atlantic, The Week, The Economist, American Heritage, New York Review of Books, Business Week, PC World, U.S. News & World Report, The Scientist, Discover, and several more. I begin my day, every day, with a pot of tea and the day’s New York Times and my local newspaper. Between the books I buy and the magazines and newspapers to which I subscribe, I spend a lot of time reading!

I admit to being curious. I like to keep up with what is happening around me and I really dislike the 10-second news blurbs that TV and radio offer (although National Public Radio deserves kudos for All Things Considered). I think being broadly read helps me as an editor.

But times are changing. Magazines and newspapers are struggling. Several that I had subscribed to have folded print editions and are now available online only, such as PC Magazine and a book collecting magazine to which I once subscribed; once they became online-only magazines, I stopped reading them. Unlike the magazines that have made the transition to online-only status, I haven’t followed — I really hate sitting at my computer to read an online magazine: Isn’t spending my work life on my computer sufficient? Do I have to be chained to a computer — be it laptop or desktop — for my pleasures as well as my work? This feeling of being chained to work is one reason why multifunction devices don’t appeal to me for pleasure pursuits.

As illogical as it seems, I actually distinguish between reading on my computer and reading on my Sony Reader, a dedicated reading device. I enjoy reading on my Sony Reader, equally as much as I enjoy holding a print copy of a book. I had thought that I would switch my New York Times subscription from paper to electronic when the Times became available through the Sony store; this was to be the start of my evolution from print to electronic for my magazines and newspapers. But I was cautious and downloaded a single day’s issue to try.

The experience was okay, but not great. Setting aside the slight inconvenience of having to load the Times onto my Sony Reader (my PRS 505 model doesn’t have wireless), the screen size (6 inches) simply wasn’t conducive to enjoyable reading of something as “big” as the Times. Plus there is a tactile experience that accompanies and enhances the reading experience when holding the Times in your hands. Yet, I am determined to make the switch from print to electronic; the questions are when and on what device (and how cooperative the magazine publishers will be).

I’ve been contemplating “upgrading” to the Sony 900, which has wireless and a 7.1-inch screen. I had really thought about the iRex DR 800SG, particularly because of its 8-inch display, but there are just too many things I don’t like about the device, not least of which is that its touchscreen requires the use of a stylus and I think that will be much too easy to lose (and if my cat decides it’s a toy to play with,…). So I’m sitting on the fence and waiting.

I know the Apple tablet isn’t the answer for me for a lot of reasons, but the tablet idea intrigues me. PlasticLogic’s Que also intrigues me but the price seems exorbitant (if not extortionate) for my purposes — I am looking for a device for reading books, newspapers, and magazines, not for checking e-mail, visiting websites, watching videos, and all those other things that multifunction devices permit. I’m a dedicated-device type of person.

I’ve drifted a bit from where I had intended to go with this article, so let me shift my course. Who are the subscribers to newspapers and magazines? I ask because I know my demographics (and, yes, they are still desirable to advertisers even if I am gray-haired) and that surveys show that people in my demographic group tend to be the biggest spenders on and readers of books, newspapers, and magazines. Because those outside my demographic are significantly less focused on these ways of obtaining information, I wonder what the future holds for magazines and newspapers as information sources. What is the likelihood of print versions surviving many more years? And when they disappear, what will the electronic versions be like? Will they be as shallow as much of the TV/radio news reporting and “analysis” is these days? Will we lose access to in-depth reporting and analysis because all that will interest subscribers will be 10-word “wordbites” of the latest celebrity faux pas?

And what will readers like me do? Will The Economist still be The Economist in something more than name, or will it be more like People Magazine? Will Business Week become just a steady stream of feeds and wordbites? Does anyone but me care?

What brings my concerns to the fore have been my attempts over the past 2 years to extend my subscription to the New York Review of Books. My current subscription expires in 2012 (some of my magazine subscriptions run until the 2020s). Several times I tried to extend my subscription by 3 years, and each time NYRB has declined, saying it doesn’t know what will be so far in the future. I recognize that NYRB isn’t a magazine for everyone (although I think every book lover should be a subscriber; its reviews are significantly better than anything found elsewhere including online, in the New York Times Book Review, and in the London Review of Books), but I would think that it has a loyal base of subscribers and so it wouldn’t be so worried about its future. Like The Economist, the NYRB is not an inexpensive subscription so it attracts the serious and probably faithful subscriber. (Interestingly, The Economist, unlike most magazines, continues to show subscriber growth and without “special subscription deals.” So there must be a desire for this type of coverage.)

Clearly, I am wrong, and if the NYRB is worried about its future, perhaps I need to worry about the future of my subscriptions — and about the quality of reporting that one should expect to see — in the Age of eBooks. What will survive and in what form is worthy of consideration in this transitional period, before it is too late.

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