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Book List 2012: Holiday Edition!

So we are officially approaching the holiday season now that Halloween is over. Like me, you’ve probably made a list of people you need to buy or make gifts for, and what better gift than a book? So, I’ve compiled a list of some of this year’s best reads (according to me) for everyone on your list. I have listed the full prices, but bargain hunters are sure to find a good deal at discount stores and online. I’ve also provided some paperback alternatives in certain categories. Also, my list is limited to the people I encounter in my social circle, so I might have missed a couple categories. Happy shopping!

For the female friend: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, hardcover $25.95.

Don’t let the Oprah’s Book Club endorsement fool you–Strayed’s powerful and insightful writing makes this memoir both harrowing and honest. Strayed recounts how, at twenty-two, she faces the loss of her mother to cancer and must find a way to survive emotionally. Four years later, now facing the destruction of her marriage, she impulsively decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. This story is one of healing and coping with crushing grief. Strayed is a masterful writer who combines wit, humor, lyricism, and emotion. I love the way she treats grief, death, and the reality that closure is just a dream.

For the mystery lover: Broken Harbor by Tana French, hardcover $27.95.

In her fourth novel, French returns with the same emotional force and talent that marked her previous three books: In the WoodsThe Likeness, and Faithful Place. This time her protagonist murder detective is Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy who, with a green rookie, takes on one of the biggest cases of the year: a father and two children slain in their own home, the mother in a coma. French employs the same psychological insight to create this masterfully constructed murder mystery, her most shocking and powerful yet. When I read this book, my jaw literally dropped when I figured out the murderer. Definitely a page turner and definitely full of plot twists and surprises, French has written another tour de force. A must-read for anyone who loves psychological thrillers.

For the statistician/math nerd: The Signal and the Noise: Why so Many Predictions Fail But Some Don’t by Nate Silver, hardcover $27.95

Nate Silver, famed author of the blog five-thirty-eight on the New York Times, is renowned for his uncanny ability to use statistics to make amazing predictions in politics and in his previous career, baseball. He recently received flak from political pundits for projecting a solid electoral win for President Obama, and his predictions turned out to be right. I’ve seen him on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and he is adorably geeky, a lovable nerd with his large glasses and awkward demeanor. What can I say? I have a thing for smart guys. Even for those who aren’t the best mathematicians, this book is great for anyone who loves to stretch his or her mind. Settle down with your calculator to learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff in a world full of proliferation of polls and manipulation of numbers.

For the journalist/CNF lover: Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries by Jon Ronson, hardcover $26.95

One of the current kings of nonfiction and investigative journalism, Jon Ronson has captured America with his The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test. His subtle humor and hilarious handling of some of the most absurd situations in modern society make Ronson one of the most entertaining and intelligent authors on the market. In this book, Ronson examines the deep, underlying crazy that defines human society and some of the more bizarre ideas we’re willing to believe in, from seemingly mundane topics like credit card companies’ ability to bleed you dry to the more outlandish, like self-made superheroes. His humane treatment of some of the most inhumane and puzzling issues in our world today makes for a fascinating read, colored by his self-deprecating and goofy British humor.

For the fiction fan: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, hardcover $25

I keep seeing this book in lists of the best books of 2012 and at the top of bestseller lists. If you keep up with publishing industry news, you can’t escape the darn thing. Suspense writer Flynn takes a look at the dark side of marriage with unflinching honesty and thrilling prose. An ingenious plot, a dark tone, and a fast plot make this book a must-read. If you’re looking for a calmer piece of fiction, you might want to look elsewhere to avoid reading about a serial killer. I’ve been behind on my fiction reading this year, so I’m lost in the dark on this one, but hopefully one of your friends will appreciate this great thriller. If you’re looking for an alternative, Barbara Kingsolver’s new book Flight Behavior is now available for $26.99. With Kingsolver’s usual lyrical writing, she delivers another social commentary (this time on global warming) through her incredible storytelling.

For the history buff: The Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum, hardcover $35

With so much misperception around the Cold War, Applebaum’s thoroughly researched work sheds light on the traumatic period from the end of WWII to the beginnings of the Cold War. Applebaum debunks myths, clarifies confusion, and shares testimonies of men and women caught in this time and place. Not a fan of the Cold War, European history, or modern history? Don’t worry; this book is highly readable and based on primary research, so no slogging through academia and secondary sources. If you’re looking for something more suitable to your tastes that you might have missed last year, consider Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie, now in paperback for $20, a fifteen-dollar reduction from last year’s hardback.

For the psychology student: Coming of Age on Zoloft: How Antidepressants Cheered Us Up, Let us Down, and Changed who We Are by Katherine Sharpe, paperback $14.99

Katherine Sharpe blends the best of both worlds in this well researched and personal book: personal narrative memoir and interviews with history writing. In an age where many of us are medicated, Sharpe takes a look at the antidepressant age’s effects on adolescents, who either find antidepressants freeing of depression and a return to normalcy or instead those who find them too altering and hate the label of “chemically imbalanced.” Sharpe combines her personal experience with antidepressants and skillful historical writing. A balanced discussion of a controversial topic.

For the comedian: America Again, Rebecoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t by Stephen Colbert, hardcover $28.99

Colbert showcases his satire and parody in his latest book, which addresses the paradox that Americans are clamoring to become great again without admitting that America might have fallen from being the best country ever. Whether or not you’re a fan of the show, this book is sure to entertain as well as provoke some thought while providing America with a blueprint with how to get back on track. If you’re looking for a less expensive alternative, consider Tina Fey’s Bossypants, her hilarious memoir, now in paperback. With her usual self-deprecating humor and odd-earned wisdom, Fey discusses her childhood, dealing with “crotch muffins,” and “having it all.”

For the chef: Barefoot Contessa Foolproof, Recipes You Can Trust by Ina Garten, hardcover $35

Even though I dislike the Contessa for turning down that dying little boy who wanted to cook with her for his Make a Wish, you can’t deny that Ina’s recipes are delicious (probably because the first item on each one is at least one cup of heavy cream or two sticks of butter). Garten focuses on making cooking easy and helping you plan menus and coordinate cooking so that you host the perfect dinner party. A must-have for anyone who loves to host, entertain, or cook. If you’re looking for a low-cost way to give your friend some cooking ideas, consider giving them an iTunes gift card so they can buy that Food Network or All Recipes app they’ve had their eye on.

For the intellectual: Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks, hardcover $26.95

Neurologist Oliver Sacks is back to explain to us that hallucinations are everyone’s problem, not just the clinically insane. We have hallucinations for a whole host of reasons: sleep deprivation, lack of food, illness, etc. Sacks discusses his patients and investigates the cultural and scientific history of hallucinations to show us how halluncinations are an integral facet of the human condition. Written for laypeople, Sacks’ writing is accessible to the non-neuroscientists of the world. If you’re looking for a paperback alternative, consider getting Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach, one of the best science writers out there.

For the political scientist: The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Political Campaigns by Sasha Issenberg, hardback $26

Prepare to be creeped out by Sasha Issenberg’s new book that looks at how the political campaign has become an industry full of market research using voters as unwitting test subjects. By collecting information from where you live, where you shop, what websites you visit, what magazines you subscribe to, campaign advisers now think they can predict for whom you’ll vote before you do. You’ll discover that political campaigns have adopted advertisers’ tactics of tracking your habits without your consent to predict your behavior. Possibly paranoia-inducing, this book promises new insights into a multi-million dollar industry.

For the friend who is never afraid to tell you that no, those shoes do not go with that outfit: Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible: The Fascinating History of Everything in Your Closet, hardcover $28

In his second book about fashion, Tim Gunn (famous for his sass, flavor, and wit on Project Runway) takes you through the different items in your wardrobe and tells you the history of each piece and forms a narrative of the history of fashion from togas to chain mil to corsets to skinny jeans. If you love Gunn’s flair, this book is a great gift for the intellectual fashionista who will be glad to have a historical reason as to why that top and those pants just don’t work together. If you’re looking for more on fashion and culture and want a paperback alternative, consider Joan DeJean’s Essence of Style about how the French invented haute couture, haute cuisine, and everything fashionable in between.

For the person who has to read the book before seeing the movie:

  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, paperback $6.95: The unforgettable, timeless Russian classic by one of the great masters. The movie comes out on November 16.
  • Life of Pi, Deluxe Illustrated Edition by Yann Martel, hardcover $16.50: So I’m sure many of you have already read Life of Pi, but I just recently found out about the illustrated edition, in which Croatian artist Tomislav Torjanac illustrates scenes in beautiful oils. The movie comes out November 21.
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, paperback $21: The new movie Lincoln starring Daniel Day Lewis will be out November 16, 2012, so prepare to read through this long, fascinating historical account of how Lincoln worked with his “team of rivals” to lead the US through the Civil War.
  • Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, paperback $9.95: French classic, the movie adaptation of the famous musical stars Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman and will come out Christmas Day.
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, paperback $8.75: A staple of the American literary canon, The Great Gatsby will receive a new interpretation by Baz Luhrmann, director of Moulin Rouge. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire, the movie will come out on May 10, 2013.

If you want to give a book-related gift but don’t have the cash or the time to sniff out deals, consider making bookmarks for your family and friends! Lamination is fairly cheap these days, and personalizing a bookmark is easy: cut some cardboard or scrapbook paper into a long, thing rectangle, personalize with stickers, quotes, pictures, etc., and laminate! Or, for a more crafty touch: http://www.countryliving.com/crafts/projects/practically-free-crafts#slide-1

Anyway, happy holidays everyone! I’ll be spending this month counting out the things I’m thankful for: good books, great friends, wonderful family.

Am I Killing Literature?

My purview is not reviewing books. As far as I know, I haven’t reviewed any books on my blog as of yet. For one thing, it’s not really my area of expertise, and  when I read for pleasure I’m not really evaluating a book for its literary quality. I do enough reading and evaluating of writing at my work and in my courses. When I do get time to read a book, I’m not spending time reading it as a writer; I’m reading it as a reader. If that doesn’t make any sense, I’ll try to explain the difference between reading as a reader and reading as a writer. When approaching a text, I’m of the opinion that you can read it through several different lenses. The main two for me are as a reader and as a creative writer (I also read as a copyeditor and as a peer tutor, but those are nitpicky subsets that aren’t really at issue right now). Reading as a reader is what we all learn in high school: looking for symbolism, reading for themes and motifs, identifying figurative language and other literary goodies. Reading as a reader is what most undergraduate lit students focus on: evaluating the text merely from the end product, not the process of producing it. Writing majors look down on lit students sometimes, because we snobbishly think, “That’s not that difficult. I learned how to do that as a freshman in high school. Big deal.” Of course, reading literature as a reader well and truly analyzing it at a high level is incredibly difficult, so I do not mean to discredit the work of literary scholars. But writing majors get stuck up because reading as a writer takes a whole different skill set, and usually when reading a piece, you have to read it as a reader and as a writer, which is usually why when I’m reading a piece for a creative writing workshop, I read it twice. First, I read as a reader to get comprehension and get that out of the way. Then I read it again as a writer, looking for how the writer crafted the piece and how well he or she did it. I usually ask myself, “What is the writer trying to do, and how well is he or she doing it?” I look for how well they structured the piece, how well the language works, if the rhetoric fits, if the diction works, and so on. Reading as a writer takes a certain level of maturity, because you can’t evaluate a text on whether or not you personally like it, but whether or not it’s written well.

When I was an editor for eleven40seven, the acquisitions staff often hit these snags about personal opinion versus literary evaluation. One of the editors on staff was quite opinionated, but she could not back up her opinions with, “Well the literary allusions he/she employs are trite and cliché” or “The structure of the piece is too confusing and convoluted to effectively tell the story.” She simply would stubbornly put down her foot and say, “I hate this piece. We are not publishing this if I have anything to say about it.” The result was that the whole acquisitions process was like pulling teeth, and we all ended up hating each other. That’s besides the point. The main issue became persuading this editor that we didn’t give a damn whether or not she personally liked it; she needed to support her opinions with commentary and how well the piece was written. I recognized that some of the pieces I really enjoyed were actually not all that good–I merely identified with the subject matter or was in a good mood when I originally read it, so I backed off when no one else liked it.

Wow, that was quite a tangent. Anyway, if I’m going to review a book, I’d review it as a writer, not a reader, and that takes more time and brain power than I’m willing to give. I just finished Broken Harbor by Tana French, and I loved it. It was a whodunit where my jaw literally dropped when I realized who had committed the murders. I think I might have actually said under my breath, “Oh. My. God.” while eating dinner at my kitchen table. But I’m not going to review it, because I read through it at lightning speed because I couldn’t put it down. I’m not going to be able to give a well-reasoned argument on why it was good. I loved it as a reader, but I couldn’t tell you if the book had merit from a writer’s perspective.

So, I’m not a reviewer of books, but I’m a blogger. I don’t have great credentials just yet. I’ve been published, and I’m just a couple months away from receiving a BA in Writing from Texas Christian University, but apart from that, I can’t provide any solid reasons why anyone should listen to what I have to say about literature apart from the fact that I love to read and that I’ve spent the past three years honing my craft and reading works from a literary standpoint, from a writer’s standpoint, from an acquisition editor’s standpoint, from a copyeditor’s standpoint, and from a writing tutor’s standpoint. That’s a lot of perspectives, but I don’t work at a publishing house, and the only awards I’ve gotten for my writing have come from TCU. I don’t have ethos, as a rhetorician might say.

However, I still took offense when reading this article about how book bloggers are harming literature: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/sep/25/books-bloggers-literature-booker-prize-stothard. Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement and a book blogger himself, is of the opinion that the mass of online opinion about books is damaging to the literary world. Stothard claimed, “If the mass of unargued opinion chokes off literary critics…then literature will be the lesser for it. There is a great deal of opinion online, and it’s probably reasonable opinion, but there is much less reasoned opinion….If we make the main criteria good page-turning stories – if we prioritise unargued opinion over criticism – then I think literature will be harmed. Someone has to stand up for the role and the art of the critic, otherwise it will just be drowned – overwhelmed. And literature will be worse off.”

Apparently, there are snobs toward the snobs such as myself. If I go ahead and start reviewing books, I’ll just be white noise in the buzz of literary criticism,  and I realize that, which is part of the reason I abstain. But I think there is a lot to be said for people going online and saying what the they think about books, even if they are not credentialed reviewers. For one thing, literary critics may have the literary background to give sound, well-argued opinions, but I like to hear what “regular people” are saying about books. If I find many favorable reviews online, I’ll probably discount a few as paid for by the author, but I have to believe that at least one or two are the real deal. And I like knowing that real, live people, not just regular reviewers, are liking and reading the book I’m considering sinking my teeth into. Although I’m a bit of a snob of people being able to read like writers, I think that anyone who reads a lot can get a feel for whether a book is worth reading or not, even if they can’t clearly articulate why.

I think that the practice of online book blogging should be encouraged and definitely should continue. If there are people out there who are still passionate about reading and recommending books, then we should celebrate that. Simon Savidge fortunately disagreed with Stothard, saying, “All the blogs I follow are written for free by people who have a passion for books, many of whom are currently reading some of the Man Booker shortlisted novels, and recommending the books that excite them. I think anyone who reads a lot, just by reading, has the ability to critique anything they read … reading and the reaction is a personal experience based on life experience. Interestingly, you don’t find bloggers scathing review pages; you find them reading them between books, along with other blogs, because we are all united on the love of literature in all its forms and genres.” We should want people being so moved or annoyed by what they read to share it from the world or shout it from the mountaintops.

I’m going to keep blogging, because I love to read, and I love to write. If anything, bloggers are keeping the literary world alive and continuing to practice of loving literature.

 

Also, Banned Books Week is coming up! I’ll be having a post on whether or not YA books should have rating systems. Happy Banned Books Week in advance!!

A Manifesto Against the Manifesto

My mother just recently sent me this link: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/03/a-slow-books-manifesto/254884/, which basically is a call to read more often and to read more literature. I’m all for this argument. We should all read fairly often, as much as possible. As the article argues, neuroscience confirms that reading, especially reading fiction, uses multiple parts of the brain and gets our brain waves going. Exercising our brains is important, of course, but where I take issue with the article is its argument that we read “classics” and “literature.” I almost expected the author to capitalize “literature” as “Literature,” because literature with that capital L demands seriousness, importance, and dare I say–pretension.

First off, I’m going to ask people to knock it off with the use of the word “manifesto.” Manifesto calls up ideas of call to action, Karl Marx, and revolutions. A manifesto is a clear-cut, straightforward set of ideals, or as Merriam-Webster puts it: “a written statement declaring publicly the intentions, motives, or views of its issuer.” I recently read a book called My Green Manifesto by David Gessner. The title, for all its provocative-ness, gave readers a false set of expectations. I hoped for a direct message of how this man views being environmentally-minded and how his green-ness calls us to act. However, the book was little more than 200+ pages of rambling about his experiences, different books he’s read, various environmentalists he has and hasn’t met, contradictory statements, etc. The manifesto seemed more of a ploy on the part of the publisher rather than the actual intention of the writer, which brings me to this lovely article by Maura Kelly. She has a clear argument: “Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.” from Michael Pollan. Yet her explanation and extrapolation leaves one wanting for more clarification.

This credo is a good one, albeit one the author didn’t think of herself. Where I take issue with this article is her argument that non-literary books aren’t as good as literary ones. The idea that only fiction can be literary (and she doesn’t even supply a definition of what “literary” is) is preposterous, and the further idea that only the classics can be literary is even more ridiculous. As a creative nonfiction writer, I can tell you here and now that the well written memoir (The Bell Jar, anyone?) belongs on the hallowed shelves of the classics as much as Dickens or Austen or Melville. On a side note, I find classics worship abhorrent. Classics are classics because they effectively tap into a part of the human story and speak to the human experience. In short, they help us understand what it means to be alive and to exist in the human experience. Treating them as infallible, uncorruptible, impeccable, flawless texts is both a disservice to the writing, as no author is perfect, and a disservice to the reader, who never is called to question or critically analyze what might not be perfect about this supposedly perfect text. More contemporary books that haven’t been canonized can still tap into this human experience and fall into what a classic should do. Additionally, the essay in and of itself is an art form. One only need read Montaigne to understand that the essay can be elevated to the level of the haute livre (a term I just made up). Even humorists such as Sloane Crosley and David Sedaris can and should be seen as “literary.” After all, we find them funny because we see a bit of our own lives tucked into the humorous corners of their works.

Kelly argues that magazine articles and newspapers don’t count as reading, and she insinuates that pop culture books preferable to a general audience aren’t worth it to make it into her manifesto either. I understand the idea that we should all burrow into the in-depth, long read that requires serious cognitive and critical effort, but I’m of the school that if anyone is reading and enjoying reading, they’re seeing the value of words, and that’s worth keeping around. Someone who reads the New York Times from front to back every day has just as much reading merit as someone who consistently reads Victorian literature. Or someone who likes to read is involved enough to read Time and Newsweek should get a little credit for recognizing the value of words and how they can communicate to a broad audience. For pop books, I say that as long as people recognize the joy and entertainment that can come from a book, I’ll tolerate even the Twilight series. Pop books get us out of the danger zone of Fahrenheit 451. As long as people recognize and care that books can move us and make us feel something (even if they weren’t written in the 19th century), they’re less likely to argue for the burning/banning of books.

But of course, I do have to agree that yes, we should all read more often. We should also practice deep reading more often ( http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/6868/). Carr argues that the skimming, superficial reading encouraged by the Internet and some of those forms bashed in the “manifesto” hinder our ability to focus on longer pieces of writing. So we should practice stepping away from the computer, the search engine, the brief Internet article and dive into the book. But this book does not have to be “literary” fiction. It can be a book of essays, a memoir, contemporary fiction, contemporary nonfiction, biographies, history, etc. Just read something longer than two pages. Sit down with a book for more than 20 minutes and read straight. Don’t text; don’t check your e-mail; don’t tweet; don’t update your facebook. Just breathe and read. As Carr says, “In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.” But we can achieve deep reading through more than the classic. We can achieve deep reading through a myriad of genres and styles. Let’s not limit ourselves. Let’s all read what interests us, what gets us to sit down for more than 20 minutes without distractions and read. I’m currently trying to get back into the swing of it, reading a little bit more every day. Because my work and school both are so involved with writing and reading, I sometimes push my own personal fun reading to the back burner when I get home at the end of the day. No more. I’m going to sit down with my Kindle and finally finish all those books that have been sitting untouched for too long.

Details, Details

They say that when you start copyediting, you can’t turn off the editing. You notice mistakes everywhere: on billboards, on advertisements, in your favorite books, in brochures. Everywhere you turn, there’s an error. Although I have read a  linguist who argues against the idea of a “standard” written English because of its prescriptive and often nonsensical rules, the writing world insists on proper grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling. Why? Because these elements create credibility. Typos, grammar mistakes, and malapropisms make a reader think that the writer, editor, or publisher doesn’t know what’s going on and subsequently is not a reliable or credible source.

Oftentimes, readers won’t catch these tiny mistakes. We either hear the mistake in spoken English, or our eyes gloss over the error, because we comprehend the meaning and care little about the minutiae of nitpicky grammatical rules. However, careful readers and those pesky copyeditors (hopefully) will notice, simply because they can’t stop and the urge to notice error is involuntary. These critical readers and those in the publishing business sometimes dislike the inability to turn off the editing. These readers want to enjoy a book without being annoyed by a confusion of subject-verb agreement or pronouns agreeing in number and gender to their antecedent, but oftentimes they simply cannot stop themselves. Readers who can’t turn off this mode are often seen as “grammar nazis” or uptight grammarians with no ability to make exception to the rule for writing purposes. Sometimes writers and editors need to take a descriptivist approach to grammar and let go of some of the rules for more informal writing or a more colloquial tone.

I get that. I’m a creative writer. I understand bending the rules for poetic license and creativity’s sake. I get being flexible so that the tone is more accessible to a general reader. Sometimes a writer needs to use a fragment to get a point across or mess around with diction to create interesting wordplay. Sometimes a writer needs to use the second person “you” to create a bond with the reader. Creative writing (particularly poetry) is given a wide latitude to break these rules–if they’re broken for a reason.

I’m one of those people who believes that the rules are made to be broken in creative writing and less formal writing. Thing is, you have to learn the rules first in order to effectively break them for rhetorical or creative purposes. Breaking the rules out of sheer error is a sign of an inexperienced writer. But breaking the rules intentionally with a specific literary goal in mind is a great feat–if pulled off correctly.

But creative writing aside, part of me expects a certain level of perfection once the genre turns away from the creative and experimental and toward the academic and nonfiction. I begin to see typos as careless mistakes and a copyeditor who just wasn’t looking closely enough on that second pass (I don’t judge–I miss things more often than I would like, but I’m not a professional copyeditor). I’m currently reading Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. Massie is an amazing historian–I’ve already read The Romanovs: The Final Chapter and Nicholas and Alexandra. I had high hopes for the book on Catherine the Great. I expected Massie’s excellent historical accounts to live up to his earlier works. However, I soon became disappointed. Not only did I spot some obvious typos–“Catharine” instead of “Catherine” and “women” instead of “woman”–but the writing itself fell short of Massie’s earlier works. There was too much reliance on block quotes from primary sources. His overarching theme that Catherine’s active love life came from damaging past experiences is underdeveloped, usually because of the plethora of lengthy quotes. Occasional long quotations serve an excellent purpose to expand on idea best expressed in the original writer’s words. But using several block quotes on a single page is both overwhelming to the reader and signals the writer’s reluctance to interpret and explain.

As Massie is a historian–albeit for a commercial audience–I wondered if when he was reading the final product that he caught the errors. Writers I know who have published works say that when they catch a typo in the finished work, they cringe and can never stop. There’s something about knowing that anyone can catch the mistake and make a subsequent judgment on the writer’s ability. It’s a kind of horror that all writers hope to avoid.

Why did a professional publishing house not catch these mistakes? For one, it’s a long work–574 pages– and may have needed to be published on a specific schedule before the Christmas shopping season began or when the publisher needed to finish a line of books. Another reason may be the pressures put on copyeditors. The term “copyeditor” is slowly morphing into the role of “content editor.” Content editors not only do the work of a copyeditor but work on the quality of writing itself such as structure, organization, language, etc. Some content editors also have to step out of the comfortable realm of English grammar and literary quality into layout, typesetting, design, and so on. Suddenly one person has to do twice the work in the same amount of time in multiple fields without extra pay. The time that could have been spent on catching typos suddenly goes to communicating weaknesses in the writing to the author or perhaps having to check the notes at the end of the book or the accuracy of the quotes.

This change in the game is only part of the growing pains that publishing houses are experiencing from the technology revolution and advent of e-readers and self-publishing. There’s less money for greater needs, and some of that has to fall on the staff who have to do more with less time and less pay. For most of us, this loss of attention to detail is no big deal–after all, who’s going to notice if someone uses “they” instead of “he or she” except for a minority of type-A perfectionists out of touch with the evolution of spoken English? But at the same time, those tightly wound perfectionists are caretakers of the language, keepers of modern English. And although over time even prescriptive grammarians may let go of rules about splitting infinitives (the source of that rule I’ll discuss in a later post), the written word can’t be careless. It must persevere to preserve our language.

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