Column: Banned Books Week

September 30, 2009

Banned_Books_WeekWhile I have my various gripes with the way our government works, there is one part of our founding documents that I am behind with universal support: the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Or something along those lines. It’s a principle that, while it does allow some bloated idiots to gab off at the top of their lungs on news networks, ensures that the development of ideas can continue without intervention and that these ideas can flow out and be discussed to the benefit of all. Plus, as a writer myself, I enjoy that it allows me to say things that would get me kicked out of some other countries or pushed into a tiny little room below the dictator’s palace.

As such, Banned Books Week (September 27-October 3 this year) is an event that has a special place in my heart. Sponsored by the American Library Association, the week-long celebration “highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted banning of books across the United States.” In addition to reminding us of prior censorship efforts going back to the 1920s, it also reminds us of the continuing efforts to remove books from libraries on various grounds.

And those efforts are still going on, sadly not dying out with the obscenity trials that allowed “Tropic of Cancer” and “Naked Lunch” to be disseminated in this country free of persecution. The ALA makes such a thing perfectly clear in its graph of reported instances, which reminds me of a road trip gone horribly wrong – cities marked with books that parents and community organizations have tried to pull from the shelves, many of which are award-winners that have been present on the shelves for years.

Out of curiosity this week I scouted out the ALA website to see what has fallen on the roster of banned titles. While the site has a variety of bans relating to contemporary authors I was more interested in the classics, being as that’s the majority of my shelf’s population – I wanted to know what I own that some fire-breathing morality group would consider unfit to have in the same county as a small child.

And the results were pretty impressive. At some point over the last few decades, all of these books which I own and have enjoyed have come up against battles to either take out of schools or even be banned from the country in older times: “The Great Gatsby,” “1984,” “A Brave New World,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “As I Lay Dying,” “A Farewell to Arms,” “Naked Lunch,” “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “In Cold Blood,” “Heart of Darkness,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Tropic of Cancer” are just the ones at first glance that fell on the challenge list.

A few thoughts flitted through my mind thinking about this: do censors just hate my bookshelf? Is it a prerequisite of a book being a classic for it to be attacked? Should I be investing in a nice locked glass door to cover the shelf? In any case, it offends my sensibilities to the nth degree to see that books like these – which have had a variety of dramatic effects on me over the years – could have come close to being taken out of my hands.

In my life, there hasn’t been a single book that I’d claim has had a negative effect on me – in many cases, it’s expanded my school of thought in very constructive ways by getting them early. If I found “Slaughterhouse-Five” when I was 10 instead of 20, I’m willing to bet its effect would have been positive and allowed for a little more creative thought in my English classes. Then again, I’d also say the same thing about “Naked Lunch” so perhaps they shouldn’t put me on the library board anytime soon.

What I’m saying is that my attitude towards literature tends to be libertarian in nature – I’m all for keeping overdoses of sex and violence to a more mature group, but I believe that there shouldn’t be any restrictions on what books are available in a library. Literature is something that’s made to be explored and hunted down without blockades, something that we go into blind and deserve to have our eyes opened in response. And if a child has questions, they can be dealt with in a reasoned manner – not by mothers who screech up a hissy fit every time a word pops up they fear their beloved’s little virgin ears can’t handle.

So, to honor/celebrate Banned Books Week, I’m going out to rent or buy copies of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” and J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” These are books that have been on my reading list for ages but for some reason I’ve never gotten around to, and now seems as good a time as any to indulge. People have put in a lot of effort to give me the right to postpone reading these classics.

And your homework assignment, due on Monday, is to do the same – check out the ALA websites and lists, and get your hands on one or two challenged books. No one’s going take your books away from you any time soon, but a lot of people have fought battles to make sure they can’t. Take a couple hours out of your day and pay them back.

Update: Boing Boing has provided a list of the most challenged titles of 2008, along with a little background on each.

Les Chappell may disagree with what you say, but he will defend to the death your right to print and publish it and have it read by anyone who feels so inclined. Feel free to agree or disagree with him at


Column: The Orwell/Kindle Fiasco

July 23, 2009

“Not even the ash remains” on screens: Kindle reveals its darker side

By Les Chappell

The Lesser of Two Equals

kindle2In the dystopian classic “1984,” the main character Winston Smith works in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, where his job is to aid in the alteration and destruction of documents so that history can never show the government as anything but infallible. Cubicles are set with small openings called “memory holes,” where the original documents are sucked out of sight into a furnace where “not even the ash remains.” The overall effect Orwell hit readers with was one of total control, where he who controls the records of history controls history itself.

As such, there were some darkly ironic overtones that came about last week with the annoucement that Amazon had remotely deleted electronic copies of “1984” and “Animal Farm” off of users’ Kindle reading devices. Bloggers of course dove onto the metaphor, with titles such as “Some E-books are More Equal Than Others” and speculation on whether or not “Fahrenheit 451” would wind up being the next casualty (most likely because they want to use the headline “The Temperature at Which the Kindle Burns” – though they can’t as I’m reserving the copyright).

Amazon was of course quick to realize the PR nightmare this generated, and a spokesperson quickly issued a statement that the deletion came about as a result of the copies being illegally added by “a third-party who did not have the rights to the books.” They also refunded the money to anyone who had purchased one of the titles, and made sure to emphasize that they will not do this in the future (sort of).

Now, I don’t own a Kindle myself (chiefly because Amazon always ignores my requests to be comped one for purposes of reviewing its technology) so I can’t comment too heavily on what inconvenience this causes users. I’m also tempted to give Amazon a bit of benefit of the doubt here, as copyright lawsuits tend to be problematic and they did at least have the good sense to refund their customers. What this little flap has done however, is bring a little noticed factor about e-books into the public eye.

As I said many moons ago in my column on e-books, the biggest issue I have with them is the lack of physical connection they provide the reader. I take a rather totemic perspective on my books, and have no small amount of pride that for every title on the shelf I can name the history of where I got the book and (typically) the circumstances of my first read-through. A book is supposed to be valued, both for the content and the memories.

But what this ruckus has done is bring an even scarier another issue into focus: the elimination of permanency it implies. When a book is a physical item it has to be destroyed physically, burned or shredded or blasted into pieces with a revolver (if you take the route Dr. Thompson did when autographing the books of his visitors). An e-book on the Kindle, on the other hand, could disappear with one push of a button, leaving the sense that your collection isn’t really yours – some sort of electronic library that doesn’t bother to tell you when it may be overdue.

And what happens if the Kindle takes over completely? I have a horrible imagery of the next generation’s book burnings being even more brutally efficient than the Nazis, adopting the form of a particularly clever program that fries the titles off your Kindle, removing the ability to reacquire it with a HAL-like voice entering in to say “This title can serve no purpose any longer. Goodbye.” Or perhaps some devious hacker, evoking “V for Vendetta” and releasing a virus with the tagline: “Your pretty little book took so long to write, and now, with a snap of a Trojan’s fingers, down it goes.”

But perhaps I’m going a bit overboard here, and the issue doesn’t really forebode planting a memory hole into every last Kindle. Printed books aren’t going anywhere despite what the naysayers say, a lot of people read e-books on non-Kindle formats and the backlash should be enough to chastise Amazon into doing this again. Perhaps this discovery will even allow society to ward off my fatalistic visions, and help secure the titles already into the virtual marketplace.

All I know is, the saga hasn’t made me any more eager to start saving up for a Kindle – at least until I brush up on my Newspeak.

Les Chappell is not exaggerating when he says he can come up with the history for every one of his books. He suggests you not encourage him on this, but if you feel so inclined to hear him ramble he can be contacted at

Collective List of Book Lusts

July 12, 2009

Long-time readers of TLOTE (if you exist) may have noticed that updates to the site have been somewhat scarce as of late, following a blitz of postings and columns and announcements. I do apologize for this, but the sad truth is I appear to have burned out my fuses and have had a hard time embarking on new projects. There are several things in the works, but between being unemployed and pursuing freelance projects outside of this site I have not been able to keep to my schedule.

So, I just wanted to take a brief moment to assure you that this site is not dying out – I love it and the content I’ve created too much to throw it on the pile of dead blogs I’ve already contributed two or three URLs to.  Content will continue to be posted from my contributors and myself, but rather than keeping to a weekly schedule will be posted “when it gets done.” Regular schedules are hopefully not too far off once I catch up to life, but some minds do need time to recharge.

In the meantime though, for a bit of filler that might also help you get inside the heads of our writers, please enjoy these lists recently compiled in our spare time. The theme was to pick fifteen books that have special meaning or that have stuck in your head, and compile them in a list that takes the quickest amount of time to create. Carrie did one first, then Anna, and then I felt I should join in as well. I hope such a listing gives you an idea of what we like and how our creative energies skew.

And yes, I am aware that each of our lists have sixteen titles rather than fifteen, but here at TLOTE we have a hard time keeping in the boundaries.


1. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson
2. Junky, William S. Burroughs
3. A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway
4. Watchmen, Alan Moore
5. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
6. Quinn’s Book, William Kennedy
7. Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut
8. This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald
9. Dune, Frank Herbert
10. A Catskill Eagle, Robert B. Parker
11. The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolano
12. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne
13. The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac
14. All the President’s Men, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
15. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
16. Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell


1. Atonement, Ian McEwan
2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
3. The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles
4. The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler
5. Proust was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer
6. The Night Watch, Sarah Waters
7. Little Children, Tom Perotta
8. The Things That Matter, Edward Mendelsohn
9. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
10. The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot
11. The Awakening, Kate Chopin
12. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
13. I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
14. Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery
15. Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris
16. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf


1. East of Eden, John Steinbeck
2. Franny and Zoey, J.D. Salinger
3. The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolano
4. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
5. Notes from the Underground, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
6. The Wind Up Bird Chronicles, Haruki Murakami
7. Ariel, Sylvia Plath
8. Mason/Dixon, Thomas Pynchon
9. The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster
10. Ulysses, James Joyce
11. what matters most is how well you walk through fire, Charles Bukowski
12. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
13. Fall on Your Knees, Ann-Marie MacDonald.
14. The Hairy Ape, Eugene O’Neill
15. House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski
16. The Lost Lunar Baedeker, Mina Loy

Column: A Classic from Classical Anna

June 23, 2009

(Lesismore’s note: As part of an introduction to our new contributors, here’s an early column from Anna Williams written on November 29, 2007 in the Daily Cardinal. Check back on Thursday for the first installment of her “Classical Anna” feature.)

(Author’s note: This is one of my favorite columns because it captures both my mental and physical connection with books. It highlights the sensual experience of reading a book, which is often overlooked. There are a few things I would change about the writing (particularly the sentence structure), but it shows off my voice. I hear the Kindle is doing well lately and that makes me sad.

“No, no, no, no!” That was me as I read an article from the latest issue of Newsweek entitled “Books Aren’t Dead (They’re Just Going Digital).” In this horror-inducing article, founder Jeff Bezos promotes his new electronic doo-hickey “The Kindle” as the savior of reading. Apparently, the Kindle is a gadget that holds over two hundred books and displays the pages on a screen.

Now, one might suppose that being the literature lover that I am, I would be in support of any new device that promotes and spreads reading. After all, Bezos says the underlying idea of the Kindle “is that you should be able to get any book – not just any book in print, but any book that’s ever been in print – on the Kindle, in less than a minute.”

But no. Despite all its advantages and possible benefits for reading, I do not support the Kindle. In fact, it makes me want to vomit. I love books, and by that I mean not just the words that when strung together form ideas, convey emotions and create a story, but also the physical book itself – feeling the soft pages of a book beneath one’s fingertips, dog-earing the pages, bending the binding. For me and many other readers, reading is not only a mental and emotional experience, but a physical, sensual one as well, and if books become mainly electronic, an essential part of the reading experience will truly be lost.

For instance, one of the best parts of reading is the smell of the book. In fact, I even consider myself a connoisseur of book smells: my sense of smell is so refined that I can detect a difference, no matter how small, between every book I’ve ever read. Even more than that, these scents are tied to my memory – all I have to do is flip through the pages of a novel, breath in the scent, and I am instantly taken back to the time when I first read it. Imagine me and other book-scent experts pressing our noses against a Kindle! All that would accomplish is smudging the screen.

Furthermore, if this Kindle creates the revolution in reading that Bezos predicts, we will lose the human mark and history that the physical book records. And readers love this history – why else would so many people collect used and first editions? I have many books my grandparents once owned, yellowed with age, their margins scribbled with notes. Sometimes I even find old newspaper clippings tucked between the pages. I just don’t think a future kid will appreciate it in the same way if his grandfather passes a Kindle along to him. (Grandpa, this is just a regular Kindle. I already have the Kindle 2.0!)

The idea of a world where people sit curled by the fire reading from an electronic screen or read to their children at bedtime from a Kindle sends a chill down my spine, as it should for any true book lover. So, here’s my plea to all readers out there: don’t buy the Kindle! Never ever! Instead, I suggest we all celebrate the launch of this little gadget by going to a local bookstore, buying a real book or two, flipping them open, and deeply inhaling the pages.

Column: Attempted Book Burning in WI

June 17, 2009

Apparently, the CCLU forgot the Inquisition is over

By Les Chappell

The Lesser of Two Equals

June 17, 2009

(I had been planning to write my column for this week on as a musing on just how much blame we as a consumer base are to blame for the closing of independent bookstores, but a link on Neil Gaiman’s website has pushed me into diatribe central today.)

While I no longer live in Wisconsin, having relocated to the greener valley of Portland almost a year ago, I retain a fondness for the state in which I spent the last 12 years of my life and where so many family and friends of mine still reside. As such, I like to keep an eye on how things are going in the state, both to remain up to date on issues I followed before leaving and because I am eagerly awaiting the weeping and gnashing of teeth should Brett Favre make his way to the Vikings.

Usually I enjoy the news that comes out of the state – and occasionally find a moment that pleases my bookish instincts – but this recent article from the Guardian (in the United Kingdom of all places) has been able to rouse a rare anger in me. In the proud tradition of Wisconsin’s housing political extremes on both poles (this is the state that brought us Robert LaFollette and Joseph McCarthy, lest we forget), we now see there are still parts of the state willing to go against the written word and channel the spirit of Tomás de Torquemada.

As the Guardian reported, the lawsuit has been brought by the Christian Civil Liberties Union on behalf of elderly West Bend citizens against Francesca Lia Block’s “Baby Be-Bop”, a young adult novel that focuses on its protagonist Dirk’s struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality. The book was depicted as part of a display in the West Bend Community Memorial Library, and apparently its appearance caused great trauma to the “mental and emotional well-being” of the plaintiffs by containing racial slurs toward gays and African-Americans.

Now this sort of argument is nothing new to the world of literature – books from “Huckleberry Finn” to “Naked Lunch” have been attacked on the grounds of obscene or insulting language. Even in West Bend it’s a familiar story, as some residents recently lost a campaign to restrict young adult titles of this nature. The key point here is what the plaintiffs are seeking: $120,000 in compensatory damages for being exposed to the title and the right to publicly burn the book for being a hate crime, “explicitly vulgar, racial [sic], and anti-Christian.”

I will repeat that: they want to publicly burn the book.

668px-Santo_Domingo_y_los_albigenses-detalleNow, I haven’t read it myself so I can’t comment on how offensive the content is, and in the interest of tolerance I will recuse myself from any religious judgment. What I will not excuse myself from is my anger at this ignorant assault on the concept of a library.

To me, a library by definition exists as a place that holds all books and offers their use in a neutral context, letting its visitors and members sift and winnow through the information at their own pace. The word “public” is put before the word library for a reason, in that anyone who goes there should expect full and unfettered access to its contents. Censoring what content is held in a library beyond exercising reasonable control (i.e. making sure erotica isn’t shelved alongside Louis Sachar) is only a few steps away from the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in my perspective.

Anyone who tries to remove titles from a library based on their own moral objections is implicitly stating that they consider their opinion above any other person’s ability to interpret the book, and that their negative reactions outweigh any potential positive someone else might find in the title – an attitude that implies an arrogant disregard for others thoughts. The argument is made that removing these titles creates an safer atmosphere for children, but I counter that removing these titles is a much more detrimental move. Censoring what children read is a job for the parents, not some authority figure who judges a book based on a few words.

This doesn’t even consider the logical paradox being demonstrated here, which has made blood pour slowly from my ears as I try to comprehend it. A large part of the group’s argument is based on the fact that the book (and I am quoting a legal document here) “constitutes a hate crime,” the words in the book “permeate violence” and that it “degrades the community.” And so to preserve the community, they want to hold a public ceremony condemning this work and destroy it in a gesture that evokes memories of Nazi Germany. There are irony flares going up in all directions.

Now, given the dismissal of the earlier attempts to “clean up” the library and the track record in this country for assaulting titles, I doubt “Baby Be-Bop” will be seeing an inferno anytime soon. But this still holds up as a cautionary tale: people who value their libraries need to keep an eye on them in case of the people who don’t.

Les Chappell encourages all of you to mail copies of “Tropic of Cancer” to Ginny and Jim Maziarka, who pushed for the earlier ban at the West Bend Community Memorial Library. If you don’t share his pettiness, then send your support to the West Bend library board for doing the right thing.

Column: Reading List for Summer 2009

May 27, 2009

reading_in_the_sunWell, Memorial Day weekend has come and gone, and with the beginning of summer the weather is now nice enough that hopeless shut-ins like myself can finally pry themselves away from their reading chairs and migrate outside to read amongst the sun and the squirrels. And with the seasonal change comes the summer reading lists, where students of all ages are united in a grand act of procrastination that usually leads to spending Labor Day furiously skimming over a title bought three months ago.

In that spirit of setting unrealistic expectations, here is TLTOE’s reading list for summer of 2009. Sadly, I am not well known enough as a book critic to have my recommendations posted on these titles’ covers the way Oprah does, but feel free to put stickers on your copies and know your reading choices are supported.

1. The Personal/Professional Interest Title: “2666” by Roberto Bolaño

2666_CoverI read Bolaño’s “The Savage Detectives” as one last summer, and I thought that it was one of the best books I’d read that year, a sort of Latin-American/Beat Generation hybrid recounting four decades in the “visceral realism” genre of poetry. Bolaño seems to have become the greatest nonliving writer of our generation, with his works being published to almost universal critical acclaim. I normally steer clear of other reviews prior to reading a book, but since all my professional contemporaries seem to be praising “2666” as The One True God of fiction destined to inspire us out of the Dark Ages I am contractually obligated to explore it and see what all the fuss is about.

2.The Obligatory Classic: “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway

For_Whom_The_Bell_Tolls_CoverThe only one of Hemingway’s novels I have yet to read (discounting “The Old Man and the Sea” which is more of a novella). I’ve always liked Hemingway’s war-weary style and spartan prose, and this tale of an American solider fighting in the Spanish Civil War looks to capture my interest as much as “A Farewell to Arms” did a few months ago. Granted, “The Sun Also Rises” might be more appropriate thematically for a summer read, but I’ve been going in chronological order and would hate to backtrack.

3. The Random Recommendation: “The Year of Living Biblically” by A.J. Jacobs

year-of-living-biblically_coverRecommended to me by my apartment manager and scooped up off the sale tables at Powell’s, this is exactly the sort of book I would have reviewed in TLOTE had it been operational in 2007. The saga of a magazine editor who lived one year of his life according to the most literal interpretation of the Bible, it promises to be both hilarious and interesting, if the opening page’s photographic journal of his beard is any indication.

4. The Sitting-On-A-Shelf-For-Months Title: “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace

infinite_jestThis is really less a part of the reading list as it is a long-term goal I have been working at for the past four years now. I have regularly tried to pick up this behemoth on the dysfunctional Incandenza family and work my way through it, a process that is hampered by my distractable nature, its 1000+ page length and the flow-breaking footnotes that earn you a bicep workout just for flipping to the end of the book a record number of times. However, a mix of factors – a constant stream of recommendation by friends as a life-changing experience, the author’s tragic death last year and the fact that I finally got my copy back from storage – have led me to once again try scaling the mountain.

5. The Anticipated Release: “Losing Mum and Pup” by Christopher Buckley

losing_mum_and_pupI’ve been a devout reader of Buckley’s column for The Daily Beast ever since he caused a minor ruckus by announcing he would vote for Barack Obama, and I think the books of his I’ve read rank among the funniest. For those reasons his latest title, a memoir on losing his famous and difficult parents in the span of a year, intrigues me: how will a writer who is chiefly a humorist and political columnist approach such a (frankly) depressing topic, and what does he have to say on a relationship that was known to be contentious? Watch this space for my reactions, as it’s in the review queue as soon as I get my copy.

6. The Book I Missed At First: “The Graveyard Book” by Neil Gaiman

the-graveyard-book-WEBDespite my affection for Gaiman’s writing I didn’t manage to read this one when it first came out, chiefly due to the fact that it overlapped with the “Coraline” film release and the reading/viewing occupied my attention. By the time I finished with that, it was a Newbury award winner and all copies vanished from the shelves for a few weeks until they could be reprinted with a shiny gold sunburst decal on the cover. Now that the reprints are out and Gaimania has lulled somewhat, this will be another title where I see what all the fuss is about.

7. The Book The Radio Told Me To Read: “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England” by Brock Clarke

an_arsonists_guide_coverAnother one I missed at first, I’ve been intrigued by it ever since I heard a feature about it on NPR when it was first released. It’s the sort of random concept that always appeals to me for the basis of a novel – a man accidentally burns down Emily Dickenson’s home and after his release from prison is framed for torching several other literary abodes – and critical response to the book has been rather positive. Reviews have pegged it as absurdist and quirky, two words that always bring me to pull a title off the shelf.

8. The Upcoming Text-to-Screen Preparation: “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy

road-cormac-mccarthy-hardcover-coverThe obligatory “read the book then see the movie” choice for this summer, in preparation for the fall release of the film starring Viggo Mortenson, Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall. The film’s release has actually been delayed for a year, and while I have yet to look into any details the film is apparently so good it stunned an Esquire columnist into silence for four whole pages. As I was very appreciative of “No Country for Old Men” and called years in advance how good the film would be, I have an obligation to experience this next volume.

9. The Book I Really Should Have Read By Now: “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” by Michael Chabon

the-amazing-adventures-of-kavalier-and-clayThis is the point where the literary elite get to beat me up and try to strip me of my rank and title, because I have to admit I know absolutely nothing about Michael Chabon beyond the fact that he has won a Pulitzer Prize and is “one of the most celebrated writers of his generation.” I tend to be a bit behind on contemporary fiction writers – Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Franzen to name a few – and I feel catching up is important. This one was picked because its comic-oriented story looked interesting, and I got my copy quite cheap.

10. The Book I’ll Be Rereading: “The Boys on the Bus” by Timothy Crouse

the_boys_on_the_bus_coverAfter Powell’s finally managed to get this book back in stock, I scooped up my copy right away. I read it a few years ago in college, but it’s a title worth owning and worth rereading – probably the best chronicle of what it’s like to be in the journalistic trenches of a presidential campaign and full of interesting portraits of other political writers of the time.

Will I get through all or even some of these works over the next three months, in between job hunting and barbecues and my own general distractability? Hard to say except for the fact that it’s a crop of titles I think I can’t help but get into.

So, what are you reading this summer?

Book Service Review:

February 25, 2009


As a freelance book critic, former employee of publishing houses and domovoi of Powell’s Books, I tend to frequently find myself in possession of more books than I can handle. A packrat nature means I like to keep as many of them as I can, but considering I live in a one-room apartment that stores only two major shelves, some titles and I are always going to have to part ways – especially if some of said titles are rejected for review or were so bad they have no place on my shelf.

Now when clearing out your library there are a few options. Certainly, stores like Powell’s and Half-Price Books are willing to pay for titles, but you have to haul rather heavy boxes to do so and run the risk of the books being undervalued or turned away. You can also give the books to a thrift store or to friends, but if you’re getting rid of titles you paid more than a little for (i.e. any books you didn’t buy used) you may feel a need to recoup your investment.

Selling and gifting books may seem the only alternative to letting them take up shelf space, but thanks to a third option exists: barter. Founded in 2006, is built on the principle of “give books away, give books you want” and successfully implements this concept through an accessible interface and a surprisingly broad range of titles on display.


To use BookMooch, simply register for a free account and use the homepage to add titles to your inventory, which the site identifies through a connection to the Amazon site of your country. Your books are then placed into the database where other users can find them in a search, and you receive an e-mail notice the same way you would for any eBay bid if it is requested. When requested you are provided the address and note from the moocher, and you may accept or reject. Accepting a mooch awards you a point, which can then be used to request books from other user inventories

How soon your books will be scooped up varies depending on titles posted, and what people have on their wish lists. I posted about half a dozen economic or political books I’d collected when my office was throwing out surplus, and most of those were mooched within 24 hours – though with one or two exceptions all were mooched by the same person, a site administrator who runs a book trading group between several university campuses. To experiment I posted a few duplicates of favorites I own, and while “Hooking Up” (Tom Wolfe, not Tila Tequila) is still up two weeks later, “Naked Lunch” is on 75 wish lists and was claimed in five minutes.

Once you accept a mooch, you can contact the seller directly for any clarification and keep them apprised through the site, which lets you mark when books are shipped out or if there are any delays. Shipping is simple, particularly as you’re only sending books – thanks to media mail you pay a flat weight rate much cheaper than normal shipping costs. International shipping will of course be more expensive, but BookMooch actually compensates you with two additional points for sending to another country. Once shipped, users give you feedback in the same way as eBay bids.

Giving away books proved easier than expected, but cashing in points proved a bit trickier. I searched for the authors whose canon I’m striving to complete, as well as some possible review titles, and found nothing in the way of what I was looking for. Some of those titles did pop up in a broader search, but a language barrier came up quickly: do I really have any use for “Anansi Boys” in Spanish, a Swedish version of “Fight Club” or a dozen German Terry Pratchett novels?

Yes, if you go into BookMooch looking for specific titles the odds are good you may not find what you’re looking for right away, unless it’s a title usually found at airport kiosks. At its core BookMooch is a bazaar of used titles, and like any used bookstore there are books being given away for a reason. The “Most Available Books” section is topped by “The Da Vinci Code,” followed by the works of Michael Crichton and John Grisham – barely a Vonnegut or HST to be found.

If you want to cash in your points, I recommend following proper used bookstore protocol and simply browse until you find something interesting. I randomly searched through author names and topics and found a book on literary quarrels, a collection of Montaigne’s essays and a Neil Gaiman short story collection. They’re not the sort of titles I’d go to the store looking for, but ones which I saw and knew I’d enjoy.

If there’s a particular title you’re looking for you can create a wish list and be notified by e-mail, but you’ll have to respond quickly if many users have it listed. Also, be sure to note that mooching from another country costs two points.

Overall, I endorse BookMooch – after only a few weeks of using the service, I’ve added four new titles to my shelf and cut my surplus down by a dozen with no problems in receipt or communication. It’s certainly not the site if you’re looking for something in particular or instant turnaround on your extra books, but if you want an informal exchange and used bookstore feeling without leaving the house it’s certainly worth registering an account.

For more background on, I recommend:
Clear the Bookshelf and Fill It Up Again, All Online, by Joanne Kaufman, The New York Times, October 15, 2007