Book Purge Round 1: College texts, aspirational reads, and strays

Two bags full of worn out cloths and second-hand kitchen supplies have made their way to Goodwill, and there’s a box of purses and t-shirts bound for the same destination waiting in the corner. (It is an Amazon box, but it contained jeans, not books. I’m resolved: I’m not taking more until I’ve finished what I already have.)

I’ve also started a box of books. So far, I’ve identified the following:

The Aeneid, Virgil (Robert Fitzgerald translation). Read for my 2002-3 Epic Poetry seminar and, as far as I know, never opened again. A $10 paper back available in probably every public library in America, which I have moved approximately nine times over 15 years. Having already committed to this level, I’m actually kind of tempted to keep this one.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave & Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Fredrick Douglas, Harriet Jacobs. Read for my 2004-5 American Literature, History and Culture course. I think about Harriet Jacobs from time to time. Purging this tattered and sticky Modern Library Classics edition, but downloaded a free copy of Incidents for Kindle.

Manliness & Civilization, Gail Bederman. Read for the same history and culture class. People on the Internet hate this book. I spent some time reading one-star reviews, which seem to fall into three categories: people who misinterpret the analysis of 19thcentury culture as the author advocating in favor of the sexist and racist attitudes she attempts to explore, men who are angry that a woman would dare to comment on male identity under any circumstances, and students who would rather not have to read anything. For the record, found it to be a valuable piece of criticism.

The Prince and the Discourses, Niccolo Machiavelli. Read for some class at some point—possibly Renaissance and Reformation England during my freshman year. That would mean I haven’t cracked the cover since 2001.

A load of lit mags purchased from the now-defunct Cody’s in Berkeley in 2005, most of which I have not read or did not enjoy: Noon, ZYZZYVA, Blue Mesa Review, Ploughshares, and one year’s worth of Tin Houses (2007).

Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell. Purchased used from the airport Powell’s (trust Portland). Discovered two bus tickets dated February 25 and 27 2008 marking page 158. I think I forgot I owned this one and later listened to the audio book.

Hot Pink, Adam Levin. Selected based largely on the cover art, and purchased using a Pegasus gift certificate. I read this book on a really wonderful camping trip, so that, although I only actually enjoyed a couple of the stories, looking at it leaves me with a hazy happy feeling. I will never read this again.

Little Brother, Cory Doctorow. Purchased at random based solely on the San Francisco setting and the Neil Gainman endorsement. I have no idea why this particular quote was so compelling. (Book marketers take note.) Preachy, boring, skimmed the last half.

All now for sale on the internet. Because….I don’t know, it feels like I should at least try? Will most likely haul these down to the Goodwill with the rest.

Book Purge

I have an unfortunate habit of forming emotional attachments to objects with considerable inertia but little to no measurable worth. A 300 pound, 30 year old sofa, which I moved four different times, including two trips up narrow Edwardian staircases. Only one trip down though. A 1973 Oldsmobile, like a living room on wheels, which remained parked for over two years more than 3,500 miles from where I lived at the time. As I write this, roughly 60 pounds of thrift store clothing and costumes which no longer fit me are zippered into clear plastic bags, shoved under my bed. All of this flies in the face of common sense and Marie Kondo.

By far the most glaring example, though, is my book collection. Stacked two and three deep on bowed shelves, piled in the cabinet of my nightstand, lined up between risers under the foot of the bed, and generally strewn behind me as I move around my apartment, they are slowly swallowing up my living space like gathering snow drifts.

Overfilled bookshelves
Earthquake hazard? You decide.

There’s nothing objectively special about what’s on these shelves. A couple of first editions and signed copies, but nothing rare or valuable. There are several duplicates, purchased either because I liked the cover art, or had temporarily misplaced my first copy. Most of these books can be found in any public library in America. An embarrassing number have not been opened since college. A even more embarrassing number are still unread.

They have traveled though—extensively. In suitcases that consistently failed to meet with airline weight requirements; in duct-taped boxes mailed to college in the fall and home again in spring; in the back of a truck full of event tents and helium tanks bound for the Special Olympics; in moving vans and u-hauls and the trunks of cars driven caravan-style between nine different residences across the greater Bay Area. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t let them go. I never seriously considered it.

I learned to treat books as talismanic objects even before I could read them. They were an imaginative focus and, as I grew older, a symbol of personal ambition. As a teenager I carefully displayed my collection according to author, genre, and personal preference. Certain shelves were more prestigious than others. I’d take comfort and inspiration from looking at the spines lined up just right. I’d pull down a favorite and spend an hour rereading the best parts, sometimes just standing there beside the shelves, but more often sprawled out on the carpet in front of the hall heater, or pacing tight circles around my bedroom (because reading was too exciting to sit still for, obviously).

Even as a broke college student I can remember buying books with the intrinsic assumption that they would stay with me throughout my life. I believed, without applying a lot of scrutiny, that at some point I would live in a real house with actual storage space—built-in bookshelves down one side of a cozy living room, perhaps an office, or even (swoon) a library.

A question would arise and I’d go to the shelf and pull down a reference to search out the answer. Not that I have a lot of reference books or anything. I’d feel lonesome or nostalgic or bored and pull down one of my old favorites—a paperback, probably, but the edition with the best cover art, and the spine broken in all the right places. I’d loan books to friends and foist them upon my someday children at age appropriate intervals. What I expected, basically, was an old house, full of books and children, with a massive kitchen garden, set in the middle of someplace beautiful.

I’m sure this vision must be common among my particular subspecies of North American nerdy girl–former history and creative writing undergraduates, nature lovers who haven’t quite reached the multi-day backpacking level, people who form friendships based on mutual love of obscure (or embarrassing) authors, and those who thought a library degree was a good plan.

In the string of dorms and shared apartments where I spent my 20s, I attempted to preserve that early, strengthening combination of familiarity and safety, passionate admiration and excitement, by keeping my books close. This was not terribly successful. Somewhere along the way, the things that made me happiest started to feel more like a rebuke. (Why did I watch the entirety of Six Feet Under twice instead of reading Brief Interviews with Hideous Men?)

And what, ultimately, will become of all those books anyway? When I’m gone, I suppose my library might give my hypothetical descendants an excuse for a cathartic fight. Maybe the collection could be auctioned; donated to a grateful and deserving public institution; sold to theaters, real estate agents and hipster bars as bulk set dressing. Failing all else my corpse could always be burned on a pyre made of paperbacks.

I still want that house, that calm and beautiful life. What I’m realizing though, is that my coping mechanisms (which are many) have gradually shifted from comforting to stifling. Maybe I don’t need a safe place full of things anchoring me to earth. What exactly I do need isn’t quite clear, but I think it has something to do with flexibility, and openness, the willingness to expose myself.

So, in an effort to be light and mobile, I will use up and throw away what I can, box away the things I want for my whole life, and find what’s next.

I need to throw a bunch of shit out. Seriously, look at those sagging shelves.




Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

Almost a year ago I chose Atkinson’s Life After Life from the list of new ebooks on the Berkeley Public Library website based entirely on the cover art. In retrospect, I suspect I chose it because it reminded me of one of my favorites from high school, Robin McKinley’s Beauty.

Cover illustrations for Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson and Beauty by Robin McKinley

I entirely missed what huge deal this book was. I took it with me on a trip, reading it in the plane and during a couple of long, hot afternoons stretched out on a beach chair, until, frustratingly, it expired, leaving behind only an Amazon form letter inviting me to buy a copy (worst sales pitch ever).

Back home in California I followed a Twitter wormhole to an article with the specious headline “Is Kate Atkinson Britain’s Most Ambitious Novelist?” The tag was almost unrelated to the actual text, the kind of thing an editor slaps on to court clicks–which worked on me (I could hardly wait to start my explicative studded list of names…. Zadie Smith, Salmon Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Kazuo-freaking Ishiguro!) I re-borrowed the book immediately and tore through the final third in the comfort of my own bed back in Berkeley.

Life After Life extrapolates on two well-worn tropes: what if Hitler had been assassinated before he rose to power? and, as the main character’s favorite brother puts it, “What if we had a chance to do it again and again…until we finally did get it right?”

The novel opens in 1930 Ursula Todd walks into a German cafe and shoots Adolf Hitler. Ursula’s life, we learn, is relived in endless permutations. In some lives she dies in childhood, drowning on a seaside holiday, or during the flu pandemic of 1918. In others she grows into an adult, living in London during the Blitz, marrying a scarily violent man, staying single and becoming a secretary, traveling to Europe and marrying a German–ultimately returning again and again to her birth in an English country house during a blizzard in 1910.

Gradually, the shadows of her past lives begin to guide Ursula’s steps, instinctively driving her away from known dangers. As the depth of her experience builds, she comes to consciously understand and trust her foreknowledge.

I was reminded of a passing comment one of my writing teachers once made on the underlying structure of another of my old favorites, Middle March. She remarked that Elliot spends the first half of the book just on set up and character development before stepping back to let the action take its natural course in the second half, effectively keying the story up, then letting it all unwind. Life After Life works much the same way. The pace accelerates as the novel continues, with lives coming in quick succession, slipping into one another, the heroine’s memory becoming slowly enmeshed with the reader’s as time and perspective bend, unwinding until we find ourselves back in that first moment in the cafe.

Despite the world-shifting stakes, Life After Life is largely–perhaps even primarily–a book about fraternal love, particularly Ursula’s relationship with her younger brother Teddy, whose well being often forms a personal proxy for that of the population at large. It is Teddy’s fate, even more than her own that Ursula seeks to change when she begins to exert agency.

The dramatic shifts through time are surprisingly easy to follow. Atkinson orients readers through a combination of dated headings and repeated passages echoing through the layered realties, creating a de ja vu effect that readers share with the heroine. This ease also owes something to the popular premises the author has appropriated. Any respectable TV viewer has been trained to interpret this type of story. From Science Fiction to Romantic Comedy, the alternative reality is such a standard device that explanation is unnecessary, leaving the author free to concentrate on character and relationship. The book is at its most engaging when tightly focused on Ursula, her family, and their experiences. When the scope widens to encompass familiar world events, it can feel overdone, a little dull.

Atkinson is a talented novelist, meticulous both in plot and language, true and faithful to her characters. Life After Life was an enjoyable read, a technical achievement, and a creative cultural remix.

Top 5 Worst Calendars of 2015

It’s time again for the semi-annual worst calendar list. After a 2013 and 2014 full of goats in trees, I’m ready to move on to something new. There are all the usual contenders: different breeds of dogs, kittens, more kittens, gardens, sports teams, cars, hobbies…but what will it be?

The Worst of the Worst

5. Thomas Kincaid’s Disney Explosion. I’m sorry to repeat myself, but I’m afraid this particular selection is going to have to make the list each and every time.

4. Nude Circus Freaks. A case of knowing your strengths and sticking with them.

3. Butter my Butt. Another repeat, but seriously guys.

2. Minecraft. Sixteen months of artists’ renderings of Mincraft. The reviews are hilarious.

1. Baby Memes. Because once wasn’t enough with this shit?

Runners Up:

Keeping it depressing.

Rock and roll animals. I actually kind of want this one. Those eyes!

Squirrels. “Life lessons,” cutsie photos, what could be better?

Bronies! Sad, drunk bronies.

Sons of Anarchy. A heartwarming selection.

Intimidating Hens. And reaching for puns. I almost love this one, actually

And a little extra something from Regretsy. This advent calendar will give you nightmares.

And, I feel like an idiot…

…for my initial failure to connect Fun Home with every feminist’s favorite media analysis criteria, the Bechdel Test, with Allison Bechdel the cartoonist. I guess I was thinking of it along the lines of the Turing Test for artificial intelligence, presuming it to be rooted deep in the murky academic writings of the second wave (although I guess we could makes a case for a 1985 issue of Dykes to Watch Out For…)

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

Cover illustration for Fun Home by Alison BechdelI started Fun Home after attending yet another Radar Reading Series event where it was repeatedly held up as the pinnacle of what graphic novels can achieve (brilliant, soul-eating, MacArthur Genius earning, Tony Award winning Broadway musical inspiring, and so forth).

Lucky me, it came into the library just before young Brian Grasso’s inexplicably well publicized protests to the effect that images of naked lesbians are against his religion.

I don’t feel particularly compelled to pick this 18 year old apart, trusting that he’ll do enough of that himself once he gains a little perspective on one or more of the following: life, art, picking one’s battles. That said, his Washington Post op-ed is fairly amusing if read in the popper spirit (“even Freud, Marx or Darwin”….my you are open minded!) NB: Seriously, I hope that its impossible to graduate from accredited university without reading at least some Freud, Marx or Darwin–especially somewhere with that much ivy.

This isn’t exactly the first time Bechdel’s opus has come under fire. The same thing happened last year at the University of Southern Carolina, and from time to time various public libraries have been petitioned to take it off their shelves. Still, I feel very timely and fortuitous reading it just now. Everyone loves a banned book, or barring that, a moderately controversial one. Feeling rather guilty that my copy is overdue from the public library, as I’m sure the wait list is exploding.

Not that it wasn’t already. The 2006 graphic memoir has enjoyed enormous success overall (see above MacArthur Genius and Tony Award winning musical) earning a place among great literary memoirs like Liar’s Club and This Boy’s Life.

Illustration for Fun Home, by Alison BechdelBechdel describes her childhood in the family funeral home (the titular “Fun Home”) managed by her father, juxtaposing her growing self awareness through childhood and the process of coming out to her family at the age of 19 with her father’s life as a closeted gay man in a straight marriage in rural Pennsylvania. The work opens with and continually circles back to the death and probable suicide of the author’s father weeks after her own coming out, the end of his life of secrecy at the beginning of her adulthood in the open, the parallels and opposites in their lives a new variation on the Ouroboros themes of parent and child. That moment both typifies and is the underlying point of the work.

The work operates on two levels–the childish interpretation of events, replete with misunderstandings, deliberate obfuscations, and missed details, and the adult’s more informed assessment, consciously aiming for transparency. What was her father’s relationship with the family’s teenaged babysitter? Was that court case really just about giving a 17-year-old a beer, or was Bechdel’s father suspected of something more serious?

Unusually for such a well regard work, Fun Home does not demand much from readers. The author has given us the truths she expects us to know, the hard work of interpretation done for us, clearly articulated in mixed media, each point driven perfectly home, more like a play than a novel.

Illustration from Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
Bruce Bechdel leading his English class.

Except, perhaps, that the work is dense with eerily appropriate literary references drawn from the family’s reading material. The Bechdel’s was a household of artists, the mother an actress and musician, the father an English teacher and antique enthusiast, books and letters the vehicles through which the author and her father communicated best. The personal lives and works of Proust, Salinger, Colette, Wilde, and others run through the memoir like additional characters.

I was particularly struck with the role of place, the fatalism of living in the Alleghanys. The circumscribe existence, the isolation, and yet the fairy tale parallel to Kenneth Grahame’s Oxford. The fun home itself, lovingly restored by Bechdel’s antique enthusiast father over the course of her childhood, ostentatious and baroque, the Victorian trappings a strange but pleasing contrast to the family’s 1970 jeans and t-shits, a variation on an aesthetic faintly familiar from television (Six Feet Under, The Munsters).

Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, Fun Home retains Bechdel’s comic style, filled with humorous asides and flashes of irony, making the sometimes oppressive subject matter more palatable.  I’ve already put Are You My Mother on hold…

Serena, Ron Rash

Cover art for Serena by Ron RashIts difficult to say anything about Ron Rash’s Serena that the novel itself doesn’t convey more clearly, possibly even more quickly. Possibly its difficult to summarize in part because it is such a simple story. A Depression-era timber baron, George Pemberton, and his fierce, beautiful new bride, the titular Serena, push to finish clear-cutting their land in the Great Smoky Mountains before the newly formed National Park’s eminent domain forces them to sell. The ruthless couple will stop at nothing to secure control of their fortunes or revenge themselves on their enemies. Like Julius Cesar played in World War II costume (or MacBeth—ahem—recast in 1930s North Carolina) Serena is a familiar tale against a novel background.

The story opens as the new couple’s train pulls into the station in Waynesville, North Carolina. Pemberton is bringing his wife home for the first time after several months in Boston. Rachel, one of the timber camp mess staff, awaits the train, visibly pregnant, her infuriated father beside her. With his wife’s encouragement and support Pemberton kills the other man in a brief, brutal fight on the station platform using the knife that was Serena’s wedding gift to him. The incident defines the three central characters and establishes a pattern that will play out again and again throughout the work, the stakes rising as Serena assumes an increasingly active role. The pervasive violence and fear slowly degrade Pemberton’s personality, driving him to alcoholism and subterfuge, demonstrating to Serena that he may not be the mate she deserves after all.

The novelist Ron Rash is also a poet, so its unsurprising that the complexity of his novel comes from the layered symbolism and spiraling foreshadowing, rather than from the plot. Like a good poet, Rash doesn’t throw words away. Every line builds toward the conclusion until it feels inevitable, prophetic. Every thread is woven back in and neatly tied off.

Serena is dense with images of grandeur and destruction. Serena supervises cutting crews from the back of an enormous white horse, carrying an eagle trained to hunt snakes. Pemberton and his partners slaughter deer by the dozen on their hunting excursions. Rattlesnakes haunt the camp. The land is destroyed. Buildings burn. Serena herself suffers a harrowing late-term miscarriage. Workers are killed grotesquely, bitten by snakes and spiders, struck by misplaced ax blades, slipping between the logs in the millpond to drown trapped beneath. They die in such numbers that when the business prepares to relocate to a new camp, the graveyard is the first thing they build. And of course, there are all the people the Pembertons murder.

Serena is a force, exerting her power over nature, disturbing the balance, a point driven home repeatedly throughout the work, as when the workers discuss the rat problem in camp (“The thing to kill them is snakes…but that eagle done upset what the Orientals call the yen and the yang”), or when Serena expresses her pride in the destruction wrought on Nolan Mountain, telling one rich couple, “leaving something as it is leaves no mark at all” (p. 241), and insisting on having her photograph taken before the wasteland of stumps.

The novel is similarly highly structured, divided into five parts, the chapters focusing on the central couple periodically interspersed with commentary from one of the timber crews, with slightly longer segments following Rachel and her baby, Pemberton’s illegitimate son. The film copy includes an interview with Rash, reprinted from the journal Grist, in which he explains that modeled his novel on Marlowe, envisioning it as a five act Elizabethan play, punctuated by a chorus of rustics, and that both Serena and the elderly Mrs. Galloway speak in “lose iambic pentameter.”

With its striking dramatic imagery and growing sense of foreboding its easy to see why the novel was selected for a film adaptation–though the critics don’t seem to have appreciated the results very much. I think I’ll steer clear.

The Keep, Jennifer Egan

Cover illustration for The Keep by Jennifer EganI read The Keep one and a half times: the first half, on a beech in Thailand, and a second complete time, on the commuter train, or while lying on the bed wearing gym clothes in lieu of actually going to the gym. Its a short novel, easily tackled over the course of a day or two, but broken into discrete sections in such a way that putting it down and letting it rest feels natural.

The Keep, by Jennifer Egan, is a clever, weird, book full of the kind of humor that comes from the unexpected and the out-of-context, and studded with odd, surprisingly genuine moments of real feeling.

The story opens at 2:00 am with Danny, a New York hipster approaching 40, marooned in “some German-sounding town that didn’t seem to be in Germany” (p. 4) looking up at the medieval castle that his semi-estranged millionaire cousin Howie has recently purchased.

In a story made of up strange contradictions and juxtapositions, this is the first, and most pervading: image-obsessed, technology addicted, undignified modernity, against a background of atmospheric decaying gothic grandeur–like an episode of Scooby Doo where Shaggy is a middle-aged goth boy with a satellite dish in tow.

The first chapter introduces us to Danny and his cousin, their childhood friendship, and the familiar story of the decline of that friendship in their early teens, as Howie becomes increasingly and painfully nerdy, while Danny grows into a popular soccer star, anxious for approval. Danny sees Howie for the last time when, at a family picnic, he and an older cousin play a cruel trick on Howie that results in his being lost for days in a series of underground caverns. The guilt and shame Egan conjures in this recollection is startling–its incredibly evocative and relatable for such an over-the-top sequence of events.

Now, twenty years later, Danny has lost his latest restaurant job and fallen afoul of the mafia. Basically, he needs to get out of town for a while. Conveniently, a rich, successful Howie offers him a one-way plane ticket and a job helping him to help convert a medieval castle into a hotel.

Chapter 1 also introduces a variation on another trope of classic gothic fiction, the nested tale.  The narrator of Danny’s story, Ray, is present from the very beginning, but breaks in unambiguously for the first time on page 12 to critique his own work:

“He was heading into memory number two, I might as well tell you that straight up, because how am I supposed to get him in and out of all these memories in a smooth way so nobody notices all the coming and going I don’t know.”

Ray, we learn is a student in a prison creative writing class led by Holly, a newish teacher and the object of his erstwhile desire. Danny’s story is his contribution. Her voice will provide a final coda to the novel, like Nelly in Wuthering Heights or Captain Walton in Frankenstein.

Like Egan’s more recent work, The Keep is meticulously structured, full of echoes and bread crumbs, everything neatly tied up, everything connected. The last line harkens back to Chapter 3, when Howie’s wife describes her vision for the finished hotel. I remember thinking that piece of the story was a little off in my first reading–a little too tangential, just slightly out of character for a woman who otherwise barely speaks. But there’s always a reason.

The author calls readers’ attention to the mediated nature of the tale early and often, complicating what is otherwise a simple story with questions of perspective and reality. Is Danny the one obsessed with power–or is that Ray? Is Howie out to revenge himself on Danny, or is that pure paranoia?

The machinery of the story is so evident, the plot so outlandish, the physics of the world the characters inhabit so questionable–yet, like the gothic fiction it takes as a model, The Keep is compelling and, on emotional level, believable.

Evil-free internet shopping (or how to read books on an iphone without patronizing Amazon)

My many devoted readers will know about my obsession with Lorrie Moore.

This has been such a busy year that I completely missed the fact that she has a new short story collection until I sat down one Sunday in November to review the PW Best Books of 2014 list and saw it there: a new short story collection, Bark.

My first instinct was to go straight to Amazon and get it immediately–and then I thought, well, okay, this is a book I can by at any bookstore in America. Every book on this list is going to be available at any bookstore in America. Shouldn’t I maybe do that instead?

We all know why Amazon is evil, but just for a little refresher, here are some highlights in order of terribleness in my personal opinion:

8. Disappearing Kindle content.

In what everyone has already acknowledge was an ironic turn of events, 1984 and Animal Farm disappeared from Kindles everywhere Friday July 17 2009. The discount ebooks had been posted in violation of U.S. copyright law; Amazon, informed of the issue, made the illegal books disappear and distributed refunds to customers. Everyone was furious, not so much about the loss of their purchases as the overwhelming creep factor involved in the experience. (You’d think this incident would have given Apple some clue that the magically appearing U2 album of September 2014 would be unwelcome.)

7. Marketplace sellers

One of my least-favorite features as an Amazon customer is the difficulty in telling when you’re buying from Amazon, or from some guy in Minnesota who will take two weeks to mail a package and has a totally different return policy. But there’s an actual reason, other than mild-inconvenience, why the trend toward marketplace sellers is problematic. Basically, Amazon has successfully created an environment in which the only way these sellers feel they can survive is by selling through the Amazon platform; the company has found an ingenious way to earn a fee through sales by its direct competitors, further homogenizing everything.

6. Price fixing

Between the anti-Amazon author coalition, the Apple/DOJ settlement, and the rash of Amazon agency-model deals squeezing in before year end, this one can be a bit hard to frame. Is it the big six who have the problem, or Apple, or Amazon–or is it all some massive conspiracy? The general consensus seems to be this: in initial rounds of ebook negotiations back in the early oughts, publishers failed to appreciate the impact and importance of what would become the Kindle. When the deals were done and $9.99 or lower became the standard Amazon price, publishers felt threatened by low (and falling) ebook prices conceived the agency model, which put pricing at publisher’s discretion, rather than retailers’. Amazon argued that a lower price point would lead to bigger sales; the publishers argued that a higher price point reflects value.

5. Censorship.

In 2009, the company was shamed for excluding feminist, gay, and liberal texts from sales rankings. Because those kinds of books don’t count, obviously. Amazon has been known to employ such tactics as removing the ‘buy’ button from all Macmillian titles (2010), or more recently jacking up prices and delaying shipments of Hachette titles (2014) as part of a contract negotiation tussle, infuriating basically every author whose name you know.

4. Taxes

Or lack thereof. Amazon doesn’t pay state and local sales tax, and it passes those savings on to you. And your roads. And your public schools. And your emergency services. The company also avoids taxation internationally, sparking anger in the UKJapanGermany, among others. It’s not that they’re actually breaking laws (except maybe in Japan)…more taking advantage of outdated laws written with normal-sized businesses in mind and some extremely adept lobbying.

3. Differential pricing

That is, charging different customers different amounts based on previous internet traffic and buying patterns.

2. Undercutting indie booksellers

(And even corporate booksellers. Remember back in the day when Barnes and Noble was the bad guy?) Amazon’s business plan has always included strategic low-pricing: in the early days, selling print books below cost and eating shipping fees was designed to increase market share and eliminate brick and mortar competition. The same strategy has persevered in the ebook market, where Amazon beats out the competition by roughly $2.00. Of course, avoiding state and local sales tax probably makes this a lot easier.

1. Labor practices

Amazon fulfillment centers have been described as Industrial Revolution style assembly lines monitored by overseers in charge of of maintaining quotas, who doll out reprimands to workers for things like talking to one another and pausing to catch their breath. The list goes on: per hour quotas that rise in step with length of employment, culminating in eventual firing. Failure to meet expectations, or a clever way to get rid of people who are now entitled to benefits? Searches on entering and leaving the warehouse. Lack of climate control; workers collapsing from heatstroke or working in subzero conditions. Hiring temps, again, in order to skimp on benefits. Union busting.

So: no Amazon. I started to look into alternatives.

The status quo:

Amazon Kindle version is $9.99. I can order it and have it open on my phone in under a minute from anywhere. The same book is also available on my kindle and my home computer, all three of which sync against each other, so I never loose my place. My book is stored in the Amazon cloud, so I can download it again anytime I get a new device and I’m not responsible for maintaining the files myself; it’s also in Amazon’s own proprietary file format, which means its tied to an Amazon device or app. Its not clear what would happen for example, Amazon failed, or started charging a monthly service fee or any one of a dozen other business models. Plus, as previously discussed, there’s the evil.

The alternatives:

Disclaimer: I’m going to ignore the many awesome sites that offer out-of-copyright books (Project Guttenberg) or those that are specially for self-published authors (Smashwords, Lulu); I’m interested in buying a best seller.


For those more concerned with issues of format and ownership than buying into a massive corporate machine, there’s always this old standby. Books from the iTunes bookstore are delivered in ePub format, an open ebook standard which you can use across virtually any device except the Kindle. Just like your music, iTunes ebooks are available across a limited number of devices. You, the user, own your file, and you are responsible for backing it up.


Everything I just said about iTunes can be said with equal truth about Google Play ebooks. If you care about the supporting the indies or screwing the man, this is obviously not recommended. To their credit, Google did actually try an indie-driven model, but it didn’t work out. The devious thing about Google is that they know your search history, and, if you’re a Chrome user, they know your Amazon browsing history as well, so your first visit to the Google bookstore will include pretty much exactly what you might expect.

Google books come in a few formats: for those out of copyright, pdf scans or ePubs are the norm. Those for sale from a mainstream press will still be in ePub format, but will have the .ACSM file extension. This is an Adobe software used to keep you from steeling. The price for Bark is an identical $9.99 and like all things Google,  your books live in the cloud, and you don’t have to worry about keeping track of the files.

Barnes & Noble

Everyone knows that B&N’s online bookstore and Kindle-like device, the Nook, aren’t doing so hot, so we can more or less skip this one. For the sake of argument, though, you can get Bark for $11.99 at in ePub format, which you can then read on your Nook. Nook will also read ePub files from other stores, for example, you can transfer books from your Sony reader to your Nook, but it doesn’t go the other way, ie you can’t read Nook books on another reader. Be warned: the end is nigh.


Since it was acquired by the rapidly growing Japanese e-commerce beast Rakuten in 2011, shopping at Kobo really isn’t all that different from shopping at Amazon. Your buying from a company that sells 100 million different items and promises to deliver them all overnight (this is not an exaggeration; its from their Wired profile two years ago). (Incidentally, they also own a big old share of Pintrest–I still haven’t worked out how Pintrest makes money, but all that crap made out of mason jars is looking pretty corporate about now.) Anyway, direct from the Kobo site, Bark in ePub format will cost you $11.99. You can actually get the paperback from the Rakuten website and have it shipped for another fifty cents.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Kobo partners with brick-and-mortar indie bookstores (a full list is available on, allowing them to sell ebooks on their own store sites. I can get that same $11.99 ePub copy from the website of San Francisco’s own Green Apple books–or at first glance, it seems like I can.

A little background on book sales here. Typically, only stores big enough to take advantage of graduated bulk discounting buy direct from publishers, everyone else goes through a book distributor (Ingram or Publishers Group West are big out here in California) who can buy books in enough volume to take advantage of publisher discounts, save small presses the expense of in-house indie sales staff, and sell the books to independent booksellers at a better price than they’d get on their own. The publishing industry also has a bizarre depression-era returns policy which allows booksellers to return unsold books to the publisher for credit. There are some exceptions (magazines and certain mass market paperbacks are not eligible) but generally, if the public doesn’t buy it, it goes back and probably ends up getting pulped. This is why those of us in the publishing industry love it when authors go to bookstores and sign every copy–they can’t be returned!

You might assume your neighborhood books store has the same arrangement with Kobo as with their normal distributor, with a discounted business-to-business price and a similar profit margin, but this is not, in fact, the case. The language is vague here, but you’re not really buying the ebook from the bookstore. They don’t own it, even on a credit returns basis, and they aren’t making normal profits from its sale. Instead, they receive a kickback more akin to the Amazon ‘Smile’ program, or what your grocery store might do to support the local schools: a ‘portion’ of each sale goes to the store you’ve selected, but you’re still buying the book from Kobo, who bought the right to sell it from the publisher.

So, not great. But getting better.

Initial set up is a little worky. You’ll need to add the Kobo Indie App on your ereading device(s) and specify which participating Indie seller you want to receive a little boost from your purchases. Kobo, like Amazon, has a cloud where your activity is stored. You can download your books again; if you loose your files, its going to be okay.

The Public Library

Yes, your friendly neighborhood library has ebooks. If you go there once a decade, you probably already know this.

There are a couple of different ways this can work on the business end of things, depending on the service. In some models, libraries essentially have a subscription to a publisher or distributor’s titles. Often, this arrangement includes a cap on how many ‘copies’ the library can use; alternatively, the library may pay incrementally for whatever their patrons check out over a certain threshold. Many libraries have formed consortiums specifically to take advantage of programs like this, sharing e-resources across several institutions.

For example, Berkeley Public Library subscribes to OverDrive, an ebook distributor who’s subscription-based model allows libraries to create their own digital collections with their own specific numbers of e-copies available. In effect, if one patron has ‘checked out’ the library’s e-Bark, it’s not going to be there for me to check out until they ‘return it’.

In another model, which I’m sure is publisher preferred, the library buys and owns the title, but its only good for a certain number of reads. In imitation of a print book, the ebook version gets artificially worn out over time and must be replaced. This seems to be on its way out, as the restrictions make everyone angry.

Obviously, like all libraries, you have to give your ebook back. Conveniently (if you’ve finished the book; if not, perhaps less so) it will magically vanish from your account when your lending period ends.


In common with Amazon, Feedbooks is a distribution platform for mainstream titles as well as a publishing platform for indie authored titles. Unlike Amazon, it supports the Creative Commons licensing, and is very much focused on establishing format standards and protocols that will allow for cross platform use.

The search functionality and browsing aren’t nearly on par with what you’d see on a Google Play or an Amazon, but if you know what you’re looking for, getting it is easy.

Compatibility wise, Feedbooks titles are better than most, though still complicated and imperfect. Anything out of copyright can be read on multiple platforms, including Kindle. Copyrighted DRM material (anything you paid for in the store, basically) will not run on Kindle, but will work on devices that read Adobe Digital Editions, and of course there are apps for every device (again, other than Kindle). Bark is available at $11.99. Again, interface is a little rough…there’s no ‘send to’ function, but you can download from more than one device, apparently with no specific limits.

So here it is: my very own digital edition of Lorrie Moore’s Bark, on my very own power guzzling iphone, ready for action.