Book Notes: S, by Doug Dorst and J. J. Abrams

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This fascinating book (, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) is one of the oddest printed objects I’ve ever seen. It’s a novel; it’s an enigma; it’s a treasure hunt; it’s a non-linear story. Written by Doug Dorst, apparently from an idea by J. J. Abrams (the creator of Lost and Alias, the director of Star Trek and soon Star Wars movies), it is a multi-layered immersive reading experience. And there’s a story in there somewhere.

41-oATFYEQL.jpgFirst, when you open the book, you see how strange it is. It comes sealed in a slipcase, with the title Ship of Theseus, by V. M. Straka. It is purported to be translated and presented by the mysterious F. X. Caldeira. But this novel is only part of the story; what emerges is an intriguing mystery as two readers, Jen and Eric, hunt down the author and translator, conversing through notes written in the margins of the pages, and through some two dozen disparate papers inserted in the book. These include notes, post cards, napkins, letters and more.

I read the first chapter last night. It’s not an easy read; it makes me think of books by Thomas Pynchon, but it’s more confusing because of the notes in the margins. (You have to have some suspension of disbelief, that these two people could have written hundreds of notes, each visiting the library where the book is held to add a comment. At the rate of a few notes a day, it would take a year or more to write all the notes.) Jen is a student and Eric is researching the mysterious author. They write their ideas and converse over time, glossing parts of the novel, and just chatting, as though by instant message in the book’s margins. (No respect for books, these two, writing all over them…)

You quickly realize that you need a strategy to read this book. First, the different papers stuck between the pages most likely need to be read at specific locations. So I took them all out, and put post-its on them with the page numbers where they are found. Next, it’s hard to read the text of the novel and the notes at the same time. So I decided to read an entire chapter of the text, then go back to the notes. You could also read the entire novel, then read the notes, which might give you more story, but I have a feeling that what will transpire in the notes will help make sense of the novel itself as it goes on.

This book reminds me of the computer game Myst, where you land on an island and have no idea what you are to do. There are no instructions, just a strange book and an even stranger conversation in the margins. But this non-linear type of story is closer to life than fiction is. When you read a book, you don’t read it all the way through: you live your life in between reading sessions, and you may discuss the book you’re reading with friends.

S is an intriguing book. I hope it lives up to the promise of what the first chapter offers.

Book Review: Portrait of a Novel, by Michael Gorra, Is a Fascinating Look at Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady

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9780871406705.jpgBuy from, Amazon UK, iTunes Store.

I’ve long been obsessed by Henry James. I’ve read all of his fiction, and much of his non-fiction as well, in the Library of America editions (, Amazon UK). I’ve read a half-dozen biographies of James, and the James family, and many of books about James’ work.

So Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel interested me right off the bat, even though I waited for the book to come out in paperback. Gorra set out to tell the story of The Portrait of a Lady, one of James’ finest novels, weaving a narrative talking about the novel, about Henry James’ life, especially when writing The Portrait, and about the times in which it was written and set.

The result is fascinating. While Gorra’s critical discussion of the novel would be enough for a book, the way he manages to tell the story of much of Henry James’ life through its relationship with The Portrait of a Lady is impressive. This isn’t a full biography of James; the book opens with some background information about James’ early years, then moves on to show James at work on The Portrait. Throughout, you get a picture of what Henry James was doing in the novel, and how it related to his experiences.

Gorra takes a Sainte-Beuvian approach, and rightly so. Not all of James’ works reflect experiences he had in his life, but many did. For example, Isabel Archer is partly based on Henry’s cousin, Minny Temple, who died aged 24 of consumption, in 1870. Isabel Archer is not diseased, but she does have the Emersonian independence that Temple had.

Gorra bases much of his discussion of James and women on the interesting biography of James, A Private Life of Henry James, by Lyndall Gordon (, Amazon UK), looking at James’ relationship with Temple, but also his later relations with Constance Fenimore Woolson, who James met around the time he was writing The Portrait.

Gorra goes beyond strict biography, giving insight into the way James published his work – with The Portrait of a Lady, and earlier novels, they were published as serials, which impacted the way they were constructed. He also looks closely at James’ later years, when he was revising his favorite works for the New York Edition, and discusses the changes he made to The Portrait, many of which gave much better insight into the characters and their motivations.

Gorra adroitly sums up the message of The Portrait of a Lady:

“She [Isabel Archer] learns that Her own life has been determined by things that happen before she was thought of, a past of which she was ignorant and that she only understands when it’s already too late.”

This book is not a full biography of the fascinating life of Henry James; if you want that, the best bet is still to go back to Leon Edel’s pioneering work (available used in a one-volume reduction of the original five volumes (, Amazon UK). Or check out this fascinating biography of the James family – one of the rare families to have two geniuses as siblings, William and Henry: House of Wits, by Paul Fisher (, Amazon UK).

And go back and read The Portrait of a Lady in the original version (, Amazon UK) or the later version, revised for the New York Edition (, Amazon UK). Or watch the movie with Nicole Kidman, who portrays Isabel Archer quite well (, Amazon UK).

Lamb House, in Rye, where Henry James lived from 1898-1816.

Kindle MatchBook Not So Useful

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Amazon has finally unveiled Kindle Matchbook, a service where your previous dead-tree book purchases will entitle you to buy Kindle versions of the books for a pittance, or even get them for free.


According to my order history on, I’ve been buying from the company since 1997. (I have a feeling it goes back a bit further than that; I may have used a different email address in 1995 and 1996.) Of the hundreds of books I bought from the company – several hundred, at least – not one single book is matched with Kindle MatchBook.

We were not able to find any Kindle MatchBook eligible titles based on your past print book purchases.

You can see a list of books available via Kindle MatchBook here, though the numbers don’t add up. With some 65,947 titles as of this writing, there are 12,966 in the Religion & Spirituality category alone. There are more than 33,000 in Literature & Fiction, and I’ve certainly bought a lot of novels from Amazon, but more than 10,000 of them seem to be romance novels.

I find it simply astounding that not one single book I bought from Amazon shows up in their matching service. I’m going to assume that it’s an error; my reading tastes are broad, and there should be dozens of matches. I’ll have to check back in a little while and see if anything turns up.

Ten Years of Take Control Books: A New Publishing Paradigm

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With all of the hullabaloo last week surrounding new Apple products and OS X 10.9 Mavericks, Adam and Tonya Engst were too busy to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Take Control Books. Adam set things right in an article today on TidBITS, recounting the history of Take Control Books, which began in 2003.

I’m proud to be a part of Take Control books since the beginning, and for me, and for other authors, it has represented a new publishing paradigm. Instead of the long process of writing, editing, proofreading and printing, we became able to produce books more quickly and more efficiently, and we also are able to provide updates to our readers as the software or hardware we write about changes.

For example, my Take Control of iTunes 11: The FAQ was updated last week to include new features that Apple added to iTunes 11 on September 18. The book was released on October 17, and would have been out a week earlier if not for other new Apple products that got in the way. The ability, in this case, to push out an update of a nearly 250 page book in three weeks is powerful, and can only be done with ebooks. In addition, my Take Control of iTunes 11: The FAQ is the first Take Control book to benefit from Apple’s new feature which allows us to push new updates to users, via the iBooks app. (Remember, we sell books in PDF, EPUB and MOBI formats, both directly, from the Take Control Books web site and through the iBookstore, Amazon and other digital book sellers.)

But the Take Control model is about more than just a lithe publishing machine. It was initially designed to offer authors better conditions than print publishers do. Not only do we make much higher royalties, we get monthly royalty statements. Print publishers generally give you royalty statements every six months, and some once a year.

I’m proud to have written (so far) nine titles for Take Control (this counts various editions), and I’m especially chuffed that my Take Control of Scrivener 2 holds the record for the best-selling single edition of a Take Control book, with over 13,000 copies sold.

With more than 375,000 copies sold, and 48,000 direct customers, Take Control books is going strong, and I’m looking forward to another few decades working with Adam, Tonya, and all the rest of the great Take Control people.

Interview with Shakespeare Scholar and Editor Stanley Wells

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At the end of my Shakespeare week in Stratford-upon-Avon, I sat down with Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells. Professor Wells is the Honorary President of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Professor Emeritus at the University of Birmingham, the author of numerous books and articles about Shakespeare, and is general editor of the Oxford and Penguin Shakespeares. You can learn more about Professor Wells on his website, and you can follow him on Twitter.


Photo ⓒ The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Professor Wells discussed the Shakespeare authorship controversy, speaking and pronouncing Shakespeare, and editing Shakespeare’s texts.

Professor Wells, you and Paul Edmondson have edited a book published by Cambridge University Press, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt[1] and written a free ebook called Shakespeare Bites Back[2], defending Shakespeare in what’s called the “authorship controversy.” Why have we gotten to the point where someone of your stature has to spend time answering conspiracy theorists?

Stanley Wells: Because the conspiracy theorists are vocal and getting a lot of publicity, partly through the film Anonymous[3]. It’s a bad film, very complicated, a silly story.

I’ve taken part over the years in a lot of events to do with authorship. The event at the Inner Temple [in London] in 1988 was a fundraising event for the Globe [Theatre]. I was at an event in the Theatre Royal in Bath some years later. I’ve often broadcast to the world through television programmes about it. I think anyone who’s interested in Shakespeare naturally wants to put the Shakespearean case against who don’t agree…

But the particular catalyst for the current campaign, conducted with my friend and collaborator Paul Edmondson, is because it’s spread to the academy. There are two universities now – one in America, one in England – where you can do courses in authorship [Brunel University in London, and Concordia University in Portland, Oregon].

The one in England claims that they’re not propagating the anti-Shakespearean case. They’re claiming that they’re just studying it as an intellectual phenomenon, which is a legitimate thing to do, and which has already been done by James Shapiro in his book Contested Will[4].

Why does it matter?

Stanley Wells: It matters because history matters, because truth matters. It matters because it’s wrong for university teachers to propagate theories for which there is no basis in fact.

It matters because history matters, because truth matters.

Read more

Oyster: The Ebook Smorgasboard

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If we can have all the movies and TV shows we want for a monthly fee, on Netflix, why not do the same for ebooks? Oyster is doing just that. Currently rolling out by invitation only, Oyster plans to offer unlimited ebooks for $10 a month. The company claims to have more than 100,000 titles, Oyster works via an iPhone app, and the company says an iPad version is coming soon.

This is a great idea, and, unfortunately, I’m unable to test it, as it’s US-only for now (and, perhaps, forever, given the way licensing agreements work). I’d want to be able to access books on more than just an iPhone: for me, an iPad is essential, and I’d expect the company will extend to other platforms, such as Android, in the future.

I’d certainly pay $10 a month to read ebooks, but only if the selection was good enough. I subscribe to Netflix, and, while there’s plenty to watch, there’s a lot of dreck. Netflix is great for TV series, but not so good for recent movies. For an all-you-can-read ebook service, I’d expect a broad selection, and, for now, the only major publisher on board is HarperCollins. But I’m sure that, if this proves successful, Oyster will be able to get other big publishers, and offer a selection that would be worth the cost.

To Sell or Not to Sell? A Controversy Over a Library and First Folios

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There’s a kerfuffle brewing in the academic community in the UK. The University of London’s Senate House Library is planning to sell its four first folios, editions of Shakespeare’s plays from 1623. There are thought to be 228 copies of the first folio still in existence, from a print run of 750, and only 40 of them are complete.


The first folio, or First Folio, as it is often called, may be the most important book in western literature. The Book of William, by Paul Collins, tells the interesting story of the First Folio. How it was printed, how it was sold over the years, and how it became a literary relic.

Part of the controversy is the fact that these First Folios were part of a bequest, which stated that the works were to be permanently housed in the museum. Many scholars are up in arms precisely for this reason: they are worried that future donors may not bequeath works of art if they are worried that these conditions might not be respected. But Martin Paul Eve, writing in The Guardian, seems more concerned that a non-scholar will purchase them. “…the prospect of these irreplaceable volumes falling into private hands fills me with dread,” he says, because, well, “private hands” would certainly not respect the book, perhaps? Bill Gates bought Da Vinci’s Codex Leicester, and there’s only one copy of that. He seems to be keeping it in good shape. I’m sure any reputable researcher will be able to see the book, upon request. There are many other First Folios that researchers can examine.

The alternate viewpoint is also in The Guardian. Jerry Brotton writes that “It’s possible to make digital versions of the folios [...] at a high enough resolution to see every blot of ink,” and that in this digital age, it’s less important to hang onto these books.

It is now possible to produce digital facsimiles of the four folios that the library proposes to sell at a high enough resolution to see every correction, revision and blot, even down to the nature of the paper stock and its watermarks (issues which are crucial in providing clues to the book’s creation, and hence its potential meaning).

It’s already possible to see the First Folio online, and current technologies will allow even better quality digitization and access. It’s true that digital content is more fragile than books; as file formats and media change, we can assume that, 400 years from now, current digital files will likely be unreadable.

But libraries face such costs for journals and books that, in the absence of other funding, they sometimes need to sell their treasures. Museums do the same from time to time, and rightly so. Is it fair that the great museums may house millions of works of art that no one ever sees?

I admit that I was very moved to be able to glance at a First Folio during a visit to Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. If there’s a single book that deserves being saved, it’s that one. But there are many First Folios. If a library can put the value of these books to better use, they should do so.

Amazon Announces Kindle MatchBook; Users Can Buy Cheap Ebooks of Print Books They’ve Purchased

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Amazon has announced Kindle Matchbook, a new program where Amazon will let users buy Kindle ebooks of print books they’ve bought from Amazon at discounted prices. Announced at prices ranging from free to $2.99, Kindle MatchBook, launching in October, is said to provide Kindle editions for “thousands of books.”

I wonder how this will work for me. I’ve bought far too many books from, but I live in the UK. (I used to live in France, and bought more English-language books from the US than the UK, because they were cheaper.) Will I be able to get Kindle editions of my books? I guess I’ll find out in October.

No matter what, I think it’s a great idea. I’m looking forward to seeing how this works out, and how many books offer this. As an aside, this is something that Amazon can do but that Apple can’t, since Apple only sells digital products. This is similar to Amazon’s AutoRip, where you can get MP3 versions of CDs you’ve purchased, but with AutoRip, you’re simply getting files that you could create yourself.

So when will Amazon offer the same thing for DVDs and Blu-Rays…?