Bloggers vs publications: no contest

The debate or argument about the quality of book reviewing on blogs and in mainstream publications continues, with the weekend newspapers joining in ( an Observer article by Rachel Cooke is discussed at Literary Saloon via  Librarian’s Place.)

The Tart of Fiction/Fictionbitch (as Elizabeth Baines’ blog is titled) has written interestingly about "bloggers vs professional reviewers"  and about the Observer article (in which the T of F is singled out for poor spelling).

Saturday’s Times Books supplement featured a good editorial by Erica Wagner on the controversy.

My own take on it is: yes, most blogs are not as well written and edited as most publications, for a lot of very obvious reasons. But the two media are different — they coexist in harmony. I agree with Erica Wagner who writes immodestly but truthfully about the quality of the Saturday Times Books supplement — she is right to say that it isn’t full of literary pretentiousness, and although there is some "back-scratching" (literary editors reviewing each other’s books or rewarding each other with columns) it is not too intrusive. I love reading the supplement, and although some weeks there is nothing in it of interest to me, most weeks there is a considerable amount. The same is true of other publications’ book review features, for example the Philadelphia Inquirer, courtesy of the editorial vision of Frank Wilson.

Blogs, as everyone says ad nauseam, vary greatly in quality.  Take one of my own interests, crime fiction. I look forward as eagerly to the latest review by, say Karen M of Eurocrime or Norm alias Uriah Robinson of Crime Scraps as I do to Peter Millar’s weekly round-up in the Times.  Some reviewers, for example David Montgomery and Sarah Weinman,  blog and write for publications.

I have read a lot of poor and mediocre reviews in both media. Some blogs  are of extremely high quality, equal to the very best literary publications. (I challenge anyone to find a publication that offers reviews as wide-rangingly and consistently intellectual as those of Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence, for example.)

My view is that there isn’t a contest. You can find a reviewer that you can come to trust, irrespective of the medium in which the review appears. You can easily ignore the rest.

Apologetic note: I have not linked to all the blogs I have mentioned in this post because it is teatime and I am being kicked off the table. These blogs, and more, are all linked in my blogroll, to the left (until the next redesign 😉 ).

Things I’d never do

Bryan Appleyard has picked up on a good meme going the rounds:

Ten things I would never do.

He hasn’t challenged anyone in particular to do this meme, but I rather like it so I will have a go.

1. Have another child

2. Read or buy  a book "by" a pop star, model or person famous for having their photograph taken

3.  Give a recital at the Royal Albert Hall

4. Jump out of a plane with or without parachute

5. Uninstall Internet Explorer when told it will solve my broadband problem by a person in India answering BT’s customer service phone number

6.  Stop reading Frank Wilson’s blog Books, Inq (or indeed, a lot of other people’s blogs)

7. Wear jewelry and make-up

8. Take up ballet

9. Work in advertising

10. Watch reality TV shows

Anyone else want to have a go at this "infuriatingly irresistible"meme, as Bryan describes it? Drop the  link in the comments if so.

Scientific anniversaries

Last week I noticed that it was New Scientist magazine’s 50th anniversary (I noticed this fact because a great big 50 was plastered all over the front cover of the copies in our office).

On the New Scientist website is a facsimile of the first-ever issue with a link to an article "How New Scientist got started". There is a forum in which readers can suggest the "biggest scientific advances" of the past 50 years, and a selection of past articles on topics like television without wires, a baby computer  (the Burroughs E101), a threatened influenza epidemic from Hong Kong in 1957, the relationship between diet and heart disease, and so on.

Two articles in particular caught my attention, one for me and one for Debra Hamel. Mine: The Thing About Beards (which, sadly, turns out to be about a "shaving device"); Debra’s: Wind in the loo, reporting a new type of commode for the space shuttle. "From the outside it looks much like the uncomfortable apparata in jet airliners. In the works, however, liquid and solid wastes are directed into separate pipes by high velocity air streams (apparently not warmed)." More gory details ensue, but I will draw a veil and leave Debra to comment on those if she is so inclined.

Incidentally, Nature has the full contents of its first issue, published 4 November 1869,  on its website. Unfortunately, it does not contain the journal’s mission statement, as this seems to have missed the deadline. That is in the second issue (11 November) , and can be seen here.

A mixed bag of books

I was musing in a comment on Its a Crime… or a mystery earlier tonight about whether to post my "real" Christmas book list — the actual books I have in my Amazon wishlist (emailed to my nearest and dearest) and those that I have bought for my family. I’d quite like to, but am hampered by the fact that two out of three of my little nuclear lot do visit my blog occasionally and might get their surprise spoiled.

So for the time being, I’ll make do with some more suggestions I’ve come across on various blogs. First up is Crime Scraps, which gives Citizen Vince a good few stars. I was very impressed by Jess Walter’s  first book, Over Tumbled Graves, but slightly disappointed in the sequel, Land of the Blind. Because the subject matter of Ruby Ridge (true crime) and Citizen Vince (Elmore Leanordy political) doesn’t particularly interest me, I gave them a miss. But having read Norm/Uriah’s review of Citizen Vince, I’ll obviously have to read it. Jess Walter’s latest, The Zero, came out in the UK this autumn; I don’t know anything about it but maybe I should find out.

I’ve just visited a blog entitled Take off your Running Shoes, which, confusingly, exists to promote a book called Take off your Party Dress (link goes to first post of blog). The blogger, Diana Rabinovich, has breast cancer, and her blog is partly a diary of her experiences in that department, and partly about publication of her book, subtitled "when life is too busy for breast cancer".  She has just fallen out with her publishers,  but not to the extent of an OJian cancellation.

Because of the huge type, I’m going to mention only one more book before my post gets too long. It was inevitable, I suppose: there is now a "proper" book about Second Life , the online world in which millions of us now live, work and play. You have to smile, don’t you? I wonder how long Second Life will keep going as a sustainable "Linden dollar" economy, given that someone has now managed to write a program that can duplicate anything that has been created in there.

Honesty would be a better policy

Forgive me, I don’t want to get hung up on this celebrity auto/biography topic, as it honestly is not something I am interested in.  But having just posted about it, I was struck by an email I have just received from

The email starts out: "Dear Maxine, Our mission this week has been to discover the hidden gems that hit the bookshelves at Christmas, but sometimes get lost under the celebrity titles and the books with the biggest PR budgets. We’ve managed to find plenty to tempt us, and hopefully plenty to give you some inspiration for that extra special gift."

"Ah", I thought to myself, "how true! I shall read on and see what little potentially overlookable nugget they recommend". I did not have to read on very far, as the answer is in the next sentence:

"Mandela, the authorised portrait", which according to the blurb in the email is not a "book" as I know it but a collection of bits and pieces about him by lots of people, stuck together.


"The Dirty Bits — for Girls" by India Knight, about which I have no wish to know more. (I do know that India K is a journalist who writes a humorous column and books about topics such as romance and shopping, so this latest of her offerings will not be languishing under a shelf at the back of the shop.)

These books may be very good. Of course, Mandela is the towering figure of our age, not a "celebrity". But I just think it is lying to say that these two books are examples of "hidden gems" that one might miss when going into your local Waterstones between now and Christmas.

Snail blogs

I’ve just discovered a science blog called Snails Tails. Do you know of it, Clare (a.k.a. Keeper of the Snails)?

Snails tails has lots of postings about, er, snails and similar creatures. Not all limited to biological research, either: here is a nice entry about the appearance of land snails in Escher’s drawings.  Can you spot the one depicted here?


Winners and losers

My friend James of New Tammany College sent me a link to an interesting article by John Crace on Comment is Free (Grauniad) on the issue of celebrity (auto)biographies. (See earlier post on Petrona and discussion in the comments to that post.) I was surprised to find the article interesting because my initial reaction was "yawn" – but it’s a persuasive analysis of why these books get published even if nobody buys them (the article gives some examples of just how low some sales are). I recommend reading the article, but if you don’t have time, here is an extract:

"Who cares if you’ve paid £200,000 for a book that only sells a few thousand copies if you’ve recouped most of your cash from a newspaper?

The real losers in all this are the readers. And not just because they already know everything of any interest before they get to page one. When a publisher hands over a large advance, it earmarks a proportionate amount of its marketing budget to selling the book. Celebs are the ones who are going to end up on chatshows and their memoirs will dominate bookshop displays, crowding out other authors.

This Christmas, most people will play as safe as the bookshop buyers and walk out with a Jeremy Clarkson or a Gordon Ramsay, happy in the knowledge it won’t be them who has to read it. Chocolate used to be marketed on the myth that buying someone a box was a sign that you loved and cared for them. In reality, it showed that you didn’t – or not enough to buy them something that requires thought. Celebrity memoirs seem to be working to the same principle."

Museum of childhood

18203_image_1 The Museum of Childhood in London is reopening on 9 December after a £4.7 million development. The 130-year old building should be restored to its Victorian glory (I’m paraphrasing here) with upgraded "visitor facilities" and a stunning new entrance.

The museum used to be called the Bethnal Green Museum, and was opened in 1872. In an early form of placeism (of which this blog approves), the idea was that the local people would run it. This never happened, and nobody really knew what the museum was for, other than vague ideas of cultural enrichment for the impoverished East Enders.

The museum settled on an emphasis on food, which began to decay.  After the First World War, however, Arthur Sabin, one of the curators, began to focus on items that would interest children — and the museum kind of stuttered on like this until the 1970s, when Roy Strong, director of the V&A, decided to officially dedicate the museum to childhood.

On the museum’s website you can find pages of children’s activities as part of its aim" to encourage everyone to explore the themes of childhood past and present and develop an appreciation of creative design through our inspirational collections and programmes." The collections in the museum are indexed here.  Touring exhibitions are listed here.

Random PODs

Random House is more than doubling its print-on-demand (POD) programme, according to the 17 November Bookseller. I had missed or forgotten the fact that Random started this programme in May with 91 titles (children’s and adults’). Now, 120 more titles are being added, with more planned for next year. The books are printed by Antony Rowe.

From the Random House website: "A Print on Demand paperback looks and feels like any other paperback. The only difference is that it is only printed when you say you want it. It takes up to a week for us to take your order, print the book and deliver it. When it arrives it will be as good as new – because that is exactly what it will be…"

This has got to be good, hasn’t it? Am I missing something?  A list of the titles that are available for order is at the link above.

Google book search spruced up

Google book search is undergoing a much needed improvement. Unfortunately, its book search engine is not like the main Google search engine. On Google book search, you have to have a pretty good idea of the book you are looking for when you start to search. You can’t just enter a couple of relevant keywords and get returns for lots of near shots. Instead you get returns of books that have titles with your keywords in them.

I find this very strange, because when Google ran Amazon’s search engine, you could key in a few flaky, half-remembered words from a book title or subject, and you’d probably get what you were looking for in the returns on screen 1 or if not, 2. Amazon has now (deliberately) fallen out with Google and runs on A9, its own search engine, which drives me crazy. (Amazon has great plans for A9 beyond selling stuff on Amazon: they see themselves as rivals to Google. Ha!)

But I digress. The Amazon history shows that Google can do it for books. There is a niche, I am convinced of it, for people looking for a dimly remembered book via a few keywords. When I was a student I used to work in the vacations as a bookseller in Blackwell’s. I have lost count of the number of times a customer would wander in and say something like: "I’m looking for the book that was on that table about a year ago, or maybe two. It was blue and about this big [gestures with hands]. Do you still have it?" Ask the customer what the book was about, and he (invariably a male) looked at you as if you were a bit mad. And if you have ever been in Blackwell’s, and have an idea of the size of its stock, you will know who was the mad one.

All this is a rather convoluted way of saying I’m very pleased Google is paying attention to its book search,  and although some of the new features are not much cop (eg who needs more of that "search inside this book" rubbish?), some of them are said to be ways to make it easier to find the book in the first place. So I’ll be checking it out.

Incidentally, while on search, and moving from the sublimely grand to ridiculously minuscule (but pleasing to me), I’ve installed a new "widget" in the left-hand sidebar, a Google search of this blog (that’s the real Google search, not the Google book search type of search). I have performed detailed testing and it really works, unlike the Technorati equivalent, which simply drags you out of here and dumps you in the Technorati wastelands for evermore looking at pictures of Arianna Huffington. So if you put in a keyword or two into that Google search box thingy in my sidebar, and I’ve written posts using that keyword or two, you will find my words of wisdom, and what’s more still be in Petrona.