Archive for the 'Life and All' Category

A Fan of Comic Books

By Travelin’ Jack Eichner

[Jack is an assistant editor of Harold Rabinowitz Associates, the company that produces books under the leadership of Harold Rabinowitz and which sponsors this Blog. His specialty is graphic novels and graphic non-fiction, and we expect that’s what he’ll write about much of the time—though anything’s possible.]

I am not a fan of comic books.

Let me back up.  Last week, I paid a visit to my Local Comic Retailer, a cramped and dingy affair smelling strongly of dust.  Up against the wall just to the left of the entrance was the “current issues” section.  There were something like three-hundred different books on the racks.  I took a look at the Green Lantern titles.  There were about five of them, and with Major Comic Event Tie-ins, it came more than double that.  I know that in order to have any clue about the story, one has to buy all the books in a comic “family.”  I started running the numbers in my head.  At four dollars an issue, times twelve, it would cost well more than it would to go to the movies once a week for a month, and in the same neighborhood as a basic cable subscription.  That’s just one group of titles; there were a lot of others.

You might say, and rightly so, that you can dispense with some of these books.  Even if I were ensnared in this scheme, I would still give the book with the guy vomiting blood on the cover a pass (perfectly explaining why I remain outside the trap to begin with).  The point of this is not to give an exact accounting of how much it costs per month to be a fan of monthly comics, although this plays a part.  How much brainspace, mental horsepower, would I have to expend in order to stay with the current?  I probably wouldn’t have many other hobbies.  How much chaff do I have to endure in order to get something out of what good there is (see again, blood vomiting—also adolescent masturbation fantasies)?

Back in the comic shop, I came across an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, issue number eighteen of twenty-four.  I elected not to bother trying to find back issues in the enormous stacks of cardboard boxes; rather, I would wait for the trade edition. (Turned out they had thirteen of them. So I did buy number one.)

So here it is.  Monthly comic books, superhero comic books, are one corner of a huge art form (in a huge culture).  I read, enjoy, and appreciate many comics (enough to write about them on a blog), but the type of overspecialization demanded to follow mainstream (but nobody buys them) comics is something that is beyond (or beneath) me.  Rather, I’m all about watching how things interact with each other.

But I’m not a fan of comic books. Really. I’m not.

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Blogging is Not as Easy as it Looks–Part 1

What could be so difficult? You just put down a few thoughts, spill your guts a little, and, voilá, you’ve got a blog. I’ve been at this for a few months now, and let me tell you, it’s not that easy.

First of all, you have a problem of what to say; and then you have the problem of having too much to say. And then you have the problem (or is it one of the gifts of the blog form?) of separating your life from the objective of the blog, and both of those from the work you do day in and day out.

As far as I can see, just about everyone’s life is filled with events and developments that pass by in a dizzying flash that one can hardly recognize while it’s happening. The beauty of the blog is its immediacy–the fact that you can record what you’re feeling at the moment, and that’s not always easy to know. Blogging forces a kind of introspection that is authentic because it’s “of the moment.”

Here are some guidelines that I found useful from Naked Conversations, a book by the masters of the form, Robert Scoble–author of the blog, http://www.scobelizer.com —a blog with over 3 million readers—and Shel Israel, a guiding force at Sun Microsystems, and one of the developers of PowerPoint. They call this “The Corporate Weblog Manifesto,” and they seem to have last updated it on the blog back in 2003, when the list of principles stood at 20. But the book, published in 2006, contains 34 principles—hard to believe they haven’t updated it on the blog since then. The Manifesto—modified and renumbered to reflect the needs of personal blogging— appears below with my comments in bold italics (like a rabbinic gloss on an older text–you see that all the tme in the texts of Jewish law, near as I can remember). You might call this, then,

THE RABINOWITZ PERSONAL BLOG MANIFESTO (principles 1 to 10)

1. Tell the truth. The whole truth. Nothing but the truth. If the blog isn’t going to be a truthful reflection of what you’re really thinking, then you are losing its therapeutic value–and why do it? The problem is that the truth (as Herule Poirot says) is so hard to tell. How many meetings have I had where later my wife asks me, “so what happened?” and I have to admit, I’m not really sure. Figuring out what just happened or what is going on right in front of us–well, that’s the real trick, now, isn’t it?

2. Post fast on good news or bad. Someone say something bad about you? Link to it — before the second or third site does — and answer its claims as best you can. Same if something good comes out about you. It’s all about building long-term trust. The trick to building trust is to show up! If people are saying things about you and you don’t answer them, that distrust builds. Plus, if people are saying good things about your product, why not help Google find those pages as well? An enterprise I was involved in briefly two years ago (about which you’ll hear things from me and others over the next few weeks) was undone by the blogosphere criticism and displeasure. It was frustrating watching the ship sink while the “captain” and crew ignored the bloggers shouting from the shore why the boat was sinking–and being ignored. The fatal flaw was obvious to many people–but the bloggers made no secert about it. Ignoring or overlooking them turned out to be an arrogant mistake.

3. Use a human voice. Don’t get others and PR professionals to cleanse your speech. We can tell, believe me. Plus, you’ll be too slow. If you’re the last one to post, the joke is on you! Don’t worry about having a messy blog from time to time. If we don’t see a messy blog from time to time, we’ll start to wonder if you’re really human. This may be the most important principle—it’s the one that defines the blog’s personality. It’s also the part of blogging that seems the most narcissistic. Think about it: you’re writing down your personal thoughts in what is in some ways a personal journal, only other people can read it. So it’s not simply a personal journal. You’re not likely to jot down notes about how you feel and the weather, which you might sometimes in a personal diary. Who would care? I know some bloggers do just that, and that seems to be the most pathetic form of blogging. Interest in such a blog is voyeuristic in the extreme, and doing it is similarly the height of narcissism. (Incidentally, I am getting over a cold and it seems to be raining outside. Thought you might like to know.)

4. Make sure you support the latest software/web/human standards. If you don’t know what RSS feeds are, find out. If you don’t know what other bloggers are doing, find out. If you don’t know how Google works, find out. This is a tough one, especially if you’re not all that technology-savvy (i.e., that much of a tech-geek). Fortunately, I have, and rely on, several other people, most notably my wife, Ilana, to keep me up to date. How do you think I found out about this in the first place? Of course, one of the things that puzzles me is this: every technology makes way for some other technology sooner or later–records make way for CDs which make way for iPods; movie theaters are cut into by DVDs and downloads and home theaters; etc. So why aren’t the technomavens concerned that this technology is going to be replaced by something else, and someday somebody is going to flick a swith and everything will be lost? But they don’t seem to be concerned about this at all. How come?

5) Have a thick skin. Even if you have the worlds greatest product or idea (back in 2003, the blog had here: Bill Gates’ favorite product ), people will say bad things about it. That’s part of the process. Don’t try to write a blog unless you are willing to take a shot at answering all questions — good and bad — professionally, quickly, and nicely. We’re just at the beginning of the process, so I can’t say if this is feasible or not—but it seems right and we’ll certainly give it the ol’ college try. Right now, we are trying to develop a concept we call “A-List Media Group”–simply put, it calls for the integration of the internet with print and books by creating blogs and websites connected to every book (not always one-to-one; sometimes several books are connected to a website.) I hope to get into the theory of this much more in future posts, but the first reacton of people who know me is that I have joined the other side in the book-internet war. Why I don’t see it this way is something we’ll discuss, but for now, I want to leave you with the principle I am working under (one of my “articles of faith”): the book is going to be the savior of the internet, and the internet is going to be the savior of books. (“What the hell’s he talking about?” I hear you saying, or the classic comeback, “And what WE want you to do is just leave.” But this will take some explaining. I hope you and I are up to it.)

6) Don’t ignore the Blogosphere Seek out as many grassroots news sources as possible so that you know what’s being disdussed in areas of interest to you. In this area—books and publishing—that list for me runs to about a dozen sites. I check them regularly and we’ll get to them frequently during the course of the blog. In fact, commenting on what’s going on in that community is one sure and productive way of maintaining a steady—and useful—stream of material. It also gives me the sense that I am providing anyone who takes the trouble to read all this with some kind of service.

7) Talk to the grassroots first. Why? Because the main-stream press is cruising weblogs looking for stories and looking for people to use in quotes. If a mainstream reporter can’t find anyone who knows anything about a story, he/she will write a story that looks like a press release instead of something trustworthy. People trust stories that have quotes from many sources. They don’t trust press releases. For this principle to be important, you have to be well into the blogging enterprise and deep into the blogging world. But since blogging’s lifeblood is optimism, it will come into play sooner or later.

8. If you screw up, acknowledge it. Fast. And give us a plan for how you’ll unscrew things. Then deliver on your promises. For me, this means acknowledging errors of fact. So far, no one has pointed out any, at least not any I’d agree were errors. But I’m certain that will change. In defending books and promoting book publishing and reading, I think a lot of novel ideas are going to have to be explored and tried–and that means many false starts and dismal failures along the way. That’s inevitable. (I think Kindle is going to be just such a disaster, though I fundametally like the idea of an electronic book.)

9) Underpromise and over deliver. If you’re going to ship on March 1, say you won’t ship until March 15. Folks will start to trust you if you behave this way. Look at Disneyland. When you’re standing in line you trust their signs. Why? Because the line always goes faster than its says it will (their signs are engineered to say that a line will take about 15% longer than it really will). For me, this has more to do with the long-range goals of Book Templars, which, if you’ll recall, is to defend books and, more locally, restore the book culture to its prominence, at least in New York, by reviving the book fair that was once known as “New York is Book Country”—We’re now calling it “New York is Still Book Country” and one of the ongoing elements of this soap opera is to keep you informed on how this is going.

10) Know the information gatekeepers. Know the mavens, salemen and connecors of your marketplace. If you can’t connect to them in a crisis, you shouldn;t try to keep a corporate bog. (oh, and they better know how to get ahold of you since they know when you’re under attack before you do). I find this one also difficult: It means that a certain level of socialization is required, but it seems to me that blogging stems out of the solitary part of our lives. As I write this, it’s 5:30 in the morning. Who am I going to call? But I guess it means I am going to have to communicate with the bloggers through comments and e-mails, and that has always seemed to me presumtuous and even a little indecent. Let me ask you this: Have you seen the movie “You’ve Got Mail”? Remember how in the end it turns out that the Tom Hanks character is the person the Meg Ryan character has been e-mailing all along and falling in love with, only he’s the owner of a rival boostore that drove her out of buisness? Remmeber the final scene where she arranges to meet her mystery man in Riverside Park and it turns out to be Hanks? Well, is it just me or is her reaction (“I was really hoping it would be you.”) not completely whacko? My reaction on seeing this, “Call a cop, lady!”

Those are the first ten principles–in a day or so, we’ll go over the next ten, and I’ll add a few of my own. Ciao.

God’s Book

We just celebrated/observed Rosh Hashanah–the Jewish New Year— and tomorrow is Yom Kippur. This was one of those years when the Rosh Hashana holiday fell on Thursday and Friday, and in the days when I didn’t do any “work” on the holiday or on Saturday, these three-day jamborees were particularly wearing. Three solid days of running around, standing in the synagogue, meal after meal after meal–a trip to the river for the Tashlich ceremony for good measure, and enough sermonizing to turn a rabbi hoarse. This year, I spent it in the pleasurable company of the kids at a synagogue on the Upper West Side–for some reason, the rabbi felt it was important for us to know that the synagogue was being sued by someone who didn’t like the way a cemetery was being maintained. (I guess they no longer make a point of telling rabbinic students never to read a sermon from a paper.)

This period of the Jewish calendar has always meant something special to me, but for a reason that might surprise you: It is the holiday that places a lot of emphasis on books. (Then again, why should that surprise you?) People greet each other with, “May you be inscribed for a good year in the book of life,” and there are many references to God writing our fate and recording His judgement for the coming year in a book. I’d often wondered, where does all this “book talk” come from? Well, it comes from the Bible—from two verses in Exodus that I have always found strange and intrigung. I’ll always remember these verses, because they were the reason I got smacked in the head by Rabbi Goodman when I was nine years old.

I went to a parochial school (a yeshiva) that was modeled on the old Lithuanian paradigm: the language of instruction was Yiddish and the religious teachers hit us when we misbehaved. I was a pretty good (or at least obedient) student, so I rarely got hit. In fact, you could count the number of times I was hit on the fingers of one hand—which means I got hit a total of five times in the eight years I went there. Each time I was smacked, it was for blurting out something so outrageous, so borderline blasphemous, that the Rabbi hit me almost as a knee-jerk reaction. This was the time Rabbi Goodman let me have it.

It’s the part of Exodus just after Moses has smashed the Tablets when he comes down to find the Children of Israel have worshipped a Golden Calf. God, understandably upset, threatens to wipe out the Children of Israel and start again with Moses (promoting him to Patriarch status, as it were). Moses pleads their case before God: Exodus 32:32. “And now, if Thou wilt forgive their sin [then well and good;] but if not, blot me out from Thy book which You have writen.” I remember sitting in Rabbi Goodman’s class with about 35 other kids; we would read a few verses of the Bible in Hebrew and then translate them into Yiddish, and then we’d do the same with the Rashi commentary on those verses at the bottom of the page. On the day we reached this portion, it was my turn to read.

After reading the verse aloud, I translated it (again, into Yiddish), and then, without thinking, I looked up and muttered audibly, “‘Book?’ What book? Who said anything about a book?” I looked up at Rabbi Goodman and he looked at me.

“What do you mean, ‘what book?’ This book—the Torah.”

“You mean the very book we’re reading right now?”

“Of couse. Why not?”

“Well, because Moses is saying these words. Did he write them down as he said them—like dictation?”

Rabbi Goodman thought a moment. “No, Moses wrote it down later.”

“Right,” I said, “because at this point, all that had been written down was the Tablets with the Ten Commandments. So what book is Moses talking about? The book that he’s going to write? But if God destroys the Children of Israel and there’s not going to be any book, is there?”

“He’s not talking about the Torah,” Rabbi Goodman said, thoughtfully. “He’s talking about another book—a book that God keeps on High in which He records who will live and who will die in the coming year, just as we say on Rosh Hashanah when we greet people with, ‘May you be inscribed in the Book of Life’.”

“Ah, so Moses doesn’t mean literally a book—a physical book with pages and binding and ink. I mean, he’s just speaking figuratively, right? It’s just a manner of speaking.”

“That’s right,” Rabbi Goodman said, but now he was a bit hesitant.

“In that case,” I continued, “I have a real problem with the next verse (verse 33): “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against Me, I will erase him from my book’.”

“Yes. So what’s the problem?”

“You mean God uses the same figure of speech that Moses just used? He adopted the same colloquialism because Moses just used it? Is that what we’re saying? It’s as if the conversation went like this: Moses says, ‘Erase me from your book,’ and God thinks ‘Book? What book,’ and then says, ‘Anyone who has sinned, I will erase him…er…from my, er, book’.”

At this point Rabbi Goodman was peering intently at the Bible in front of him, taking this all in. He didn’t seem angered or even annoyed by any of this, and I was enjoying my primitive analyzing of the text instead of just the routine reciting of the text and the translation.

“And besides, isn’t there something missing in Verse 32?” I continued. “Moses says, ‘If you will forgive their sin…But if not, erase me from Your book.’ The part about what will happen if God forgives them is missing.”

“Well, the commentary of Rashi explains this,” Rabbi Goodman said, “He says that the ‘fine and good’ is understood.”

“‘Understood?’ ‘Understood!?’ I mean, what are we to imagine, that Moses made a motion with his hands to indicate that if the people are forgiven, then it’s good?” and I made a fine-and-good motion. (Today I guess we’d use a “thumbs-up” sign; I wonder what they used back then.) “It really seems that something is missing here–in fact the key words and the main idea of the text are missing. Rabbi, this verse seems to me to be very…very strange.”

Now, recall that the entire conversation had been taking place in Yiddish. And at the end of that last sentence, I used a common Yiddish word for “strange”—modneh. But modneh has the connotation of bizarre, screwy, unhinged—even disreputable and weird. So as soon as I said that—perhaps I was a bit proud of myself for making these observations—Rabbi Goodman jumped to his feet and hurried down the aisle to my seat and gave me a sharp smack in the back of my head. “Nothing in the Torah is ever ‘modneh’, Rabinowitz,” he said angrily. Then he returned to his desk and called the name of the boy sitting behind me and told him to continue reading.

At lunch that day, a few of us talked about what happened, trying to figure out what I had done to earn that smack. We were stumped. “Well,” said one classmate, “At least he didn’t make you come up to the desk to get smacked like he usually does.”

Later, I would discover that this practice (of leaving information understood) is used often in the Bible and it even has a name—apiosiopesis. And I would also learn that this is the source for a great deal of Kabbalistic lore about the Book or Books God (and the Heavenly Court) have up there. But it still seems like something went missing from the text–and the verse still strikes me as…modneh.

A Happy and Healthy New Year to everyone from all of us Book Templars.

It’s Not Easy Being Beige

Here comes the New Year like a freight train. We are moving into new offices and are sending out the attached letter to our authors, friends and associates (and even to a few nudniks and adversaries), explaining why we moved and that it means more than just a physical move. You can read it at:

A-List Media Group Letter

It’s got a new logo for something we are calling “A-List Media Group” and an explanation of what that’s all about. It’s our attempt (actually our commitment to MAKING an attempt) to change the way we develop and produce books. Read it and feel free to tell me what you think.

The people who will be in the office with us–the people of IideaGroup–have been as fussy about the details of the office as I ever could have imagined anyone could be. The floor is going to be a very particular kind of copper-pumpkin color with copper metallic flecks. It’s really quite nice and eye-cathching, but then the question came up: what should the walls be? They had to be just the right matching shade and I was amazed at how earnest and concerned they were about this. There was point in the exasperation when I shrugged and smiled, and said, “What’s the difference? What’s the big deal if the floor looks a certain way or the walls are colored a very particular shade of beige to match?”

The mastermind of that operation, Jo-Anne, looked at me and said, “Aren’t you interested in changing? In making your company more than a musty producer of books nobody wants anymore? isn’t that what all this is about?” It was a poignant moment that got lost in the frantic activity of the day, but I thought about that exchange for good long while.

When I was questioning the very idea of getting rid of that large portion of the books, I ranted that many of those books were “irreplacable” and thus “priceless.” “Oh yeah?” my wife and son, Ilana and Dan, said, “Give us twenty books you think you’ll NEVER be able to get again and let’s see just how ‘unfindable’ and ‘priceless’ they are!” So I gave them my list of twenty and they went on-line to abebooks.com and bibliofind (which is Amazon’s used book service) and looked for them.

Not only did they find them all—lots of copies—there were none that cost more than $10 and most were a dollar or less; a few were a penny plus the $3.99 for shipping. Some treasures! So I unloaded that baggage easily. What this experiment has to say about the value of books—the financial value, I mean—is jarring to anyone who has a large library, but one thing is clear, for the most part, the days of rummaging in old used book stores (assuming there still are such things) and looking for books I MIGHT one day need—those days are over.

What I’m doing is, I think, very difficult for a conservative, pretty even-tempered guy like me—a person whose moonstone color is beige: changing something when things were very comfortable the old way I was doing things for a good long time, even though I’ve known for long time that they didn’t work very well. So in the process of moving, I gave up about half the library of books in the office (about 8,000 books! But remember—that was only half the books in the office!); got rid of files and furniture that seemed like they were from the turn of two centuries ago, and set up operations in a very (what I imagine to be) current and cutting edge way.

It’s the attempt of someone who is beige to become a different color–or at least to add a shade to the beige that can pick up the flamboyant color of something in the vicinity. When you’re beige, your stuck—there isn’t a whole lot you can do and if a change or an alteration is necessary, there you are in beige and where do you go from there? When you’re beige, you can’t reach out a grab hold of anything that can whisk you away from the muddy quagmire and tar-pit you’re stuck in—even when it is within reach. When you’re beige, you go with a lot of different things, which means you don’t go with anything. Bill Maher once pointed out that when something is publicized as “fun for the whole family,” that means you can be sure it’s fun for no one.

I’m not ready for a Harley or a Mohawk (both old-fashioned symbols of what people going through a mid-life crisis do to signify their attempt at being contemporary, only I’m so far from that that even my clichés are cliché.) But here goes painting my world that shade of beige that has the hint of the colors of the “wild and crazy” way we are going to be doing business. I just hope someone slaps me if I wind up looking like Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd playing those “wild and crazy” Czechoslovakian Festrunk brothers.

I wonder if Harleys come in beige.

A Bloggin’ We Will Go!

This is the first posting of a blog devoted to the defense and protection of the book. You wouldn’t think a blog like this would be necessary, would you? How could books be in need of defending or protection? Well, they say that the first step to solving a problem is recognizing there is one. And I’m here to tell you: there’s a problem. With books. Books are in trouble.

It’s not reading that’s in trouble. There’s still an awful lot of reading going on. But not in books. People are reading tons of stuff on-line, in magazines, on websites–and people are getting lots of information from cable television, audio books, podcasts…the competition for people’s attention is dizzying. But books as a primary or even important source of information, insight, guidance, and entertainment is on the wane.

There are many places to look for evidence of this–and, believe me, we will look at many of them in the months ahead–but one appeared yesterday in the New York Times that you might have missed–mainly because on the face of it, it seemed to be extolling the virtues of books. As a person with a passion for books–as a Book Templar–I read it with sadness.

The article was on page B1 of the Saturday, September 1, 2007, as the last of the paper’s “Summer Rituals” series. This one was by Nina Bernstein and it was entitled, “On the Outdoor Book Tour, the Word is Spreading.” You can read it at:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/01/nyregion/01summer.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

As I said, on the face of it, it’s a very pleasant piece–about people in all sorts of public areas reading. But thinking about it, I was shaken: has reading become so rare an activity that we have to write (and read) articles about people simply reading a book in a public place? Imagine if someone wrote a piece about the joy of walking on the sidewalks of New York. Just that–walking. Or window shopping, or looking at tall buildings, or walking on grass in a city park…wouldn’t we come to the conclusion that we were dealing with an endangered and soon-to-be-extinct activity?

Wasn’t there a time in the not-so-distant past when people read all the time–on trains and busses, waiting in a waiting room, sitting on a park bench? I am always amazed at how totally engrossing a person listening to iPod is by what’s coming in through the earphones. Wasn’t there a time when a book could do the same thing? I haven’t seen that kind of immerssion in a book in a public place for a long time.

I wonder if someone who was sitting on a bench in a place where a “No Loiterng” sign was posted would be liable to being arrested or shooed away.

I’m glad Nina Burnstein wrote the article; I’m worried and disturbed by what I think it said.