Mark Athitakis Newsletter #20

Cheap books, recycled books, atonality.

Front Matter

What’s a book worth? If you’ve ever searched for a used book on Amazon, you know the answer is often “not much”---books can there sell for pennies, with the main expense wrapped up in shipping costs. For a society that reportedly doesn’t read much, we’re swimming in used books---literally used, cracked spines, dog-eared pages and all.

One of the starkest visions I had of this was a few years back here in Phoenix, where the annual VNSA book sale attracts hordes of people to the state fairgrounds. It’s usually held around Valentine’s Day for reasons I’m unclear on, but one of them surely must be to avoid killing people; the line of people to get inside on the morning I went waited about 90 minutes, a recipe for heatstroke during a Phoenix summer. People camp out overnight to get at the very opening, which sounds charming, but they’re not doing it because there’s a rare Hemingway or something to claim. (There’s a rare[ish] book area, but otherwise the stock is similar to any decent used-book store, just bigger.) Those early arrivals are resellers. Mere minutes after the doors officially opened, I could see people emerging from the venue with shopping carts filled with paperbacks, bought cheap and ready to be sold again cheap. (I imagined them clearing shelves full of titles into carts like contestants on Supermarket Sweep.)

For anybody who puts a book out into the world and wants to receive actual money for doing so, such scenes are disheartening---why would anybody pay more than a nickel for my book, when there are so many other books out there, and mine likely can be found online for even less than a nickel? (Don’t look. Buy from the publisher. Link at the bottom of this email.) So when I think about dealing with my own piles of unwanted books, I can’t help but think about how much I might wind up contributing to the problem. Which is why I don’t worry so much about tossing my unwanted ARCs in the recycling bin anymore.

I had mentioned the problematic nature of ARCs a couple of newsletters ago, and a reader asked me to write more about it. (Really, it’s that simple; ask me to write about something here and I’ll probably do it.) My local library doesn’t accept them. Goodwill does, but doing so presents the ethical problem of putting books in the marketplace that never delivered money to the author or publisher, and indeed risk taking away sales. “Can ARCs be sent to prisons?” my correspondent asked. For a time, one of my fellow parishioners gathered donations for a nonprofit that delivered books to prisoners, so I gladly brought boxes of ARCs to church. But last year the Arizona Department of Corrections began implementing new restrictions on what kind of published materials it would accept—-long story short, very few—-and she stopped taking collections. The prisons would prefer (if not explicitly demand) that books arrive directly from publishers, and even before then the Arizona DOC haphazardly censored titles. Such actions are lamentable, but if there are workarounds I’m unaware of them. (If you know of any, get in touch.)

Ultimately, though, I’ve simply concluded that ARCs aren’t real books---though they’re useful enough for review purposes, they typically contain errors large and small, and infelicitous design hiccups that make the books less enjoyable to read than the finished product. Also, because publishers understandably want to reduce costs on ARCs, they’re printed on mediocre paper, which may or may not be meaningful to you. (Side note: Am I the only one who’s noticed just how nice the paper is for Michelle Obama’s Becoming? In a time of paper shortages, her publisher still sprang for the good stuff, noticeably good in this cost-cutting era. Everybody I mention this to gives me a funny look, but I’m standing firm: If Ms. Obama is looking for a blurb for the paperback, I’ll say “The brightest, most satisfyingly weighty paper stock I’ve experienced in years!” [Assuming the paperback’s printed on good paper too.] ) One writer, a well-published poet, pleaded with me a few years back to put ARCs in recycling; doing otherwise not only takes money out of writers’ pockets but hurts their chances to put their best foot forward in the marketplace. And when books in a glutted marketplace sell for nickels, they need all the pennies they can get.

What I’m Reading

Responding to last week’s newsletter on race and comp titles, a friend directs me to this MetaFilter thread challenging some of the conclusions of the “Comping White” essay. (Also, we still have MetaFilter threads.) Adam O’Fallon Price explores the peculiar genre of books that defeat you not so much because they’re “difficult” but because you’re a poor fit for them temperamentally. I’ve been emailing with another friend---all friends are kept anonymous here, but I swear they’re all real, perhaps realer, because email is where everybody is actually honest about things---about Donald Hall, and he pointed me to this lovely, persnickety essay of Hall’s about a disastrously edited collection of Robert Frost’s poems that was hell on his punctuation. (“If [Frost] had wished to sprinkle his lines with new commas, as one might salt a roast, he would have pencilled them into his reading copy.”) James Wood considers Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, a novel I love but which I suspect is going to disappoint people looking for a straightforward crisis-at-the-border narrative. Marie Myung-Ok Lee explores how best to address autism in fiction when novelists seem increasingly eager to use it for ill-advised symbolic purposes.

End Notes

We can’t agree on what music we like or what’s funny anymore, which is probably one reason why we no longer have professional comic songwriters like Tom Lehrer. Considering that this also means we no longer have Mark Russell specials on PBS, this is probably a blessing. But this sweet bluegrass goof on atonal composers is enough to make me wish for a revival.

Thanks for reading. Send ranked lists of favorite Stanley Brothers and/or Schoenberg compositions and other correspondence to mathitak@gmail.com. Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.