Commentary Magazine


Topic: Amazon

Farewell to Independent Bookstores

Fascinating discussion of independent bookstores yesterday at Instapundit. Glenn Reynolds started things off by linking to a Slate article by Farhad Manjoo, which characterized independent booksellers as “the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find.”

Reynolds’s readers piled on, describing indies as “unwelcoming” and “elitist,” with an inventory of books that is “ridiculously one-dimensional.” Amen to all that. When American fiction went through its Great Schism in the early Eighties, dividing into a “literary” rite and a “genre” rite, bookstores followed suit. The large chains with franchise stores in shopping malls (Waldenbooks, B. Dalton) scooped up the largest market share; the hoi polloi shopped there for the books they had heard about, the books everyone was reading — including the fiction that still believed in Story.

The indies went upscale. By the time Borders was acquired by Kmart and merged with Waldenbooks in 1992, the concept of the bookstore had been changed forever. The new bookstore, modeled upon famous indies like the Gotham Book Mart, City Lights in San Francisco, and Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, were more like literary salons than retail businesses. They were identified with local writers and literary schools; they hosted readings; they recommended this book, not that one (definitely not that one); they supported causes (say hello to Banned Book Week). They were the storefront headquarters of the literary left.

Perhaps most tellingly, they encouraged their customers to loiter. They offered comfortable reading chairs and library desks. You were urged to take a stack of books to a corner and stay awhile. You were even welcome to sit down with a cup of coffee (and eventually the bookstores opened their own coffee shops on the premises). The books were confined to the walls: large open spaces were given over to those who wished total immersion in the pseudo-literary experience. (Before long, teenagers had commandeered the library tables for after-school get-togethers, where they could gossip and text instead of studying and no adults would hush them or chase them away.)

I keep trying to imagine a hardware store with a floor plan (and a customer base) like an independent bookseller — middle-aged men, sprawled in chairs, intermittently gunning the impact driver; talkative groups of day laborers crowded around a table saw, slurping energy drinks and hoping that no one hires them. Clerks sniff haughtily if a customer asks for Black & Decker. In the evening, a soulful drywall man expounds, in a dramatic voice, his emotional experiences with joint compound and black silicon carbide paper.

Maybe the independent bookstores have a lousy business model? Maybe that is what’s killing them — that and the inevitable crash of the high-end literary market. Not Amazon. The only advantage that Amazon really enjoys is an understanding of the book market, which is still strong when customers can be served efficiently (and with a minimum of self-congratulation on the part of sellers).

Although some of my happiest memories are of bookstores, where I have passed long hours of my life, I haven’t “browsed” in a new bookstore for several years now. The only time I linger, losing an entire afternoon to fruitless searches and unexpected discoveries, is in a used bookstore. Despite feeling sorry for the employees who lost their jobs, I wasn’t particularly upset to see Borders go bankrupt, and I am not saddened by the plight of the independent booksellers. They bet everything upon the literary elite, and the shooter has crapped out.

Fascinating discussion of independent bookstores yesterday at Instapundit. Glenn Reynolds started things off by linking to a Slate article by Farhad Manjoo, which characterized independent booksellers as “the least efficient, least user-friendly, and most mistakenly mythologized local establishments you can find.”

Reynolds’s readers piled on, describing indies as “unwelcoming” and “elitist,” with an inventory of books that is “ridiculously one-dimensional.” Amen to all that. When American fiction went through its Great Schism in the early Eighties, dividing into a “literary” rite and a “genre” rite, bookstores followed suit. The large chains with franchise stores in shopping malls (Waldenbooks, B. Dalton) scooped up the largest market share; the hoi polloi shopped there for the books they had heard about, the books everyone was reading — including the fiction that still believed in Story.

The indies went upscale. By the time Borders was acquired by Kmart and merged with Waldenbooks in 1992, the concept of the bookstore had been changed forever. The new bookstore, modeled upon famous indies like the Gotham Book Mart, City Lights in San Francisco, and Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, were more like literary salons than retail businesses. They were identified with local writers and literary schools; they hosted readings; they recommended this book, not that one (definitely not that one); they supported causes (say hello to Banned Book Week). They were the storefront headquarters of the literary left.

Perhaps most tellingly, they encouraged their customers to loiter. They offered comfortable reading chairs and library desks. You were urged to take a stack of books to a corner and stay awhile. You were even welcome to sit down with a cup of coffee (and eventually the bookstores opened their own coffee shops on the premises). The books were confined to the walls: large open spaces were given over to those who wished total immersion in the pseudo-literary experience. (Before long, teenagers had commandeered the library tables for after-school get-togethers, where they could gossip and text instead of studying and no adults would hush them or chase them away.)

I keep trying to imagine a hardware store with a floor plan (and a customer base) like an independent bookseller — middle-aged men, sprawled in chairs, intermittently gunning the impact driver; talkative groups of day laborers crowded around a table saw, slurping energy drinks and hoping that no one hires them. Clerks sniff haughtily if a customer asks for Black & Decker. In the evening, a soulful drywall man expounds, in a dramatic voice, his emotional experiences with joint compound and black silicon carbide paper.

Maybe the independent bookstores have a lousy business model? Maybe that is what’s killing them — that and the inevitable crash of the high-end literary market. Not Amazon. The only advantage that Amazon really enjoys is an understanding of the book market, which is still strong when customers can be served efficiently (and with a minimum of self-congratulation on the part of sellers).

Although some of my happiest memories are of bookstores, where I have passed long hours of my life, I haven’t “browsed” in a new bookstore for several years now. The only time I linger, losing an entire afternoon to fruitless searches and unexpected discoveries, is in a used bookstore. Despite feeling sorry for the employees who lost their jobs, I wasn’t particularly upset to see Borders go bankrupt, and I am not saddened by the plight of the independent booksellers. They bet everything upon the literary elite, and the shooter has crapped out.

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The Battle between eBook and Print Is Not Yet Over

An excellent longish piece in the Guardian this morning by the novelist Lloyd Shepherd argues that the death of books has been greatly exaggerated. As opposed to the armchair philosophizing that most of us who debate this subject are prone to — I include myself in the indictment — Shepherd marshals empirical evidence to back up his claim.

Shepherd points out, for example, that while it is may be true that Barnes & Noble “sells three times as many digital books as all formats of physical books combined,” those numbers are for online sales only. Although it is still losing money, Barnes & Noble reported that book sales in all formats has increased by twenty percent so far this year. And while Amazon now says that it peddles more Kindle-ready texts than hardbacks and paperbacks combined, the sales of printed books are still increasing (the italics are Shepherd’s).

The conventional wisdom is that the price discrepancy between new hardback releases and digital editions at least partly explains why the ebook business is booming. (That’s the reason my wife bought me a Kindle — to cut the family’s book-buying expenses. She was not amused when I quoted Erasmus to the effect that, after buying the books I want, only then do I spend money on food and clothing.) Shepherd wonders if there is not another explanation. After all, most people are content to wait another year for a new book’s paperback release. Is it possible that the relatively less expensive digital version (less expensive than the hardback, at any rate) merely speeds up the process? That the convenience of downloading a book you want to read now is fueling the rise of ebooks?

In other words, the format — text shimmering on the screen of an electronic device versus handheld codex — may have less to do with what is happening than ebook enthusiasts like to think. Look, I am not in the business of predicting the future. My guess is that digital texts in their current format will not fully replace the paper-and-binding books. If even college students, the very population that should be most accustomed to electronic devices, prefer their textbooks in print by three to one, then the codex is not going to disappear any time soon.

What will happen, I imagine, is the emergence of a three-dimensional electronic text, or the invention of devices that make it possible to print one’s own books from source codes that have been downloaded from the internet. The means will evolve, I would bet, to integrate the convenience of etexts with the conceptual advantages of the codex. In any case, the battle between the ebook and the codex is not over. It has barely gotten started.

An excellent longish piece in the Guardian this morning by the novelist Lloyd Shepherd argues that the death of books has been greatly exaggerated. As opposed to the armchair philosophizing that most of us who debate this subject are prone to — I include myself in the indictment — Shepherd marshals empirical evidence to back up his claim.

Shepherd points out, for example, that while it is may be true that Barnes & Noble “sells three times as many digital books as all formats of physical books combined,” those numbers are for online sales only. Although it is still losing money, Barnes & Noble reported that book sales in all formats has increased by twenty percent so far this year. And while Amazon now says that it peddles more Kindle-ready texts than hardbacks and paperbacks combined, the sales of printed books are still increasing (the italics are Shepherd’s).

The conventional wisdom is that the price discrepancy between new hardback releases and digital editions at least partly explains why the ebook business is booming. (That’s the reason my wife bought me a Kindle — to cut the family’s book-buying expenses. She was not amused when I quoted Erasmus to the effect that, after buying the books I want, only then do I spend money on food and clothing.) Shepherd wonders if there is not another explanation. After all, most people are content to wait another year for a new book’s paperback release. Is it possible that the relatively less expensive digital version (less expensive than the hardback, at any rate) merely speeds up the process? That the convenience of downloading a book you want to read now is fueling the rise of ebooks?

In other words, the format — text shimmering on the screen of an electronic device versus handheld codex — may have less to do with what is happening than ebook enthusiasts like to think. Look, I am not in the business of predicting the future. My guess is that digital texts in their current format will not fully replace the paper-and-binding books. If even college students, the very population that should be most accustomed to electronic devices, prefer their textbooks in print by three to one, then the codex is not going to disappear any time soon.

What will happen, I imagine, is the emergence of a three-dimensional electronic text, or the invention of devices that make it possible to print one’s own books from source codes that have been downloaded from the internet. The means will evolve, I would bet, to integrate the convenience of etexts with the conceptual advantages of the codex. In any case, the battle between the ebook and the codex is not over. It has barely gotten started.

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The Kindle Takes Over

If you want to know just how fast the world of the printed word — and thus the intellectual world as a whole — is changing, consider a report in today’s Washington Post.

Amazon is reporting that it is now selling 143 Kindle books for every 100 paper-and-ink books. Kindle books outsold regular books for a while after
Christmas last year, and everyone assumed, doubtlessly correctly, that many people had gotten Kindles for Christmas and were loading them up. But now, half a year later, it seems to be a permanent shift. The recent cut in the price of a Kindle has tripled sales.

“We’ve reached a tipping point with the new price of Kindle,” Bezos said in the statement. “Amazon.com customers now purchase more Kindle books than hardcover books — astonishing when you consider that we’ve been selling hardcover books for 15 years, and Kindle books for 33 months.”

Those of us who love books have to be of two minds about this trend. Books are lovely objects and convey a tactile pleasure along with, hopefully,
cerebral ones. But the horse and buggy was not without its charms too. I’m quite confident that 10 years from now, only a minority, perhaps a small
one, of books will be published in paper-and-ink form. That goes at least equally for magazines and newspapers.

When I first went to work in publishing as a production editor, fresh out of college, books were still being set “hot metal,” i.e., by linotype machines. That makes me feel like I remember the Dark Ages.

If you want to know just how fast the world of the printed word — and thus the intellectual world as a whole — is changing, consider a report in today’s Washington Post.

Amazon is reporting that it is now selling 143 Kindle books for every 100 paper-and-ink books. Kindle books outsold regular books for a while after
Christmas last year, and everyone assumed, doubtlessly correctly, that many people had gotten Kindles for Christmas and were loading them up. But now, half a year later, it seems to be a permanent shift. The recent cut in the price of a Kindle has tripled sales.

“We’ve reached a tipping point with the new price of Kindle,” Bezos said in the statement. “Amazon.com customers now purchase more Kindle books than hardcover books — astonishing when you consider that we’ve been selling hardcover books for 15 years, and Kindle books for 33 months.”

Those of us who love books have to be of two minds about this trend. Books are lovely objects and convey a tactile pleasure along with, hopefully,
cerebral ones. But the horse and buggy was not without its charms too. I’m quite confident that 10 years from now, only a minority, perhaps a small
one, of books will be published in paper-and-ink form. That goes at least equally for magazines and newspapers.

When I first went to work in publishing as a production editor, fresh out of college, books were still being set “hot metal,” i.e., by linotype machines. That makes me feel like I remember the Dark Ages.

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Rome and the Romanovs We Are Not

Niall Ferguson delivers a typically well-written and provocative essay in Foreign Affairs: “Complexity and Collapse: Empires on the Edge of Chaos.” But I remain unconvinced. His thesis is essentially threefold. First, that empires can collapse suddenly and unexpectedly without a long period of decline. “A very small trigger,” he writes, “can set off a ‘phase transition’ from a benign equilibrium to a crisis–a single grain of sand causes a whole pile to collapse, or a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon and brings about a hurricane in southeastern England.” Second, that “most imperial falls are associated with fiscal crises.” And third, that the United States may be ripe for a sudden collapse because of a crisis of confidence engendered by our ballooning public debt.

Start with the second claim — about the crucial role of fiscal crises in triggering imperial collapse. The list of fallen empires provided by Ferguson actually shows that military defeat (or even an overly costly victory) has far more often been the cause of disaster. Rome was overrun by Barbarian hordes in the 5th century. China was invaded by the Manchus in the 17th century. The Habsburg, Ottoman, and Romanov empires were all defeated in World War I. Britain used up all of its resources — including, most important, its stock of national will to maintain great power status — in winning two world wars. And the Soviet Union collapsed after its defeat in Afghanistan (and also the fall of the Berlin Wall). He might have mentioned, but didn’t, the collapse of the Manchu Dynasty in 1911 following China’s defeats in a long string of conflicts stretching from the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century to the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 and the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

One can actually quarrel with his premise that all these events can even be characterized as imperial downfalls, since China, Russia, and France (he also cites the French Revolution, which he argues was triggered in part by the financial strain of subsidizing the American Revolution) all expanded after their revolutions under new regimes (Manchus, Soviets, and Napoleon). What about the role of financial insolvency? One can argue that it contributed to the fall of empires in all these cases; but with the possible exception of Britain (which experienced a severe balance-of-payments crisis after 1945), the financial problems were an example of the kind of long-term “decline” identified by Paul Kennedy and dismissed by Ferguson — they were not sudden crisises that destroyed otherwise healthy polities. Moreover, most of the empires he mentions (Britain is the sole exception) experienced debilitating political problems long before their end — most were ruled by increasingly unpopular and illegitimate regimes. The later Roman Empire was a particularly notorious case, with multiple self-proclaimed emperors competing for authority and military coups occurring with monotonous regularity. Does this really characterize America today?

Thus I am skeptical that a sudden loss of confidence in the American economy will lead us to crash and burn, á la Rome and the Romanovs. To be sure, a financial crisis can be costly, even catastrophic — conceivably worse than the events of 2008-09. Such a downturn would undoubtedly be painful, but would it lead to America’s eclipse as a great power? I doubt it, because our fundamentals are so sound: a stable political and legal system; a relatively low level of corruption; an innovative, productive economy; a growing population that is not aging as fast as our major rivals (the EU, Japan, China, Russia); an optimistic and self-confident ethos; the world’s most powerful military; and a bipartisan commitment to preserving American leadership. We are not going the way of Rome anytime soon.

Niall Ferguson delivers a typically well-written and provocative essay in Foreign Affairs: “Complexity and Collapse: Empires on the Edge of Chaos.” But I remain unconvinced. His thesis is essentially threefold. First, that empires can collapse suddenly and unexpectedly without a long period of decline. “A very small trigger,” he writes, “can set off a ‘phase transition’ from a benign equilibrium to a crisis–a single grain of sand causes a whole pile to collapse, or a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon and brings about a hurricane in southeastern England.” Second, that “most imperial falls are associated with fiscal crises.” And third, that the United States may be ripe for a sudden collapse because of a crisis of confidence engendered by our ballooning public debt.

Start with the second claim — about the crucial role of fiscal crises in triggering imperial collapse. The list of fallen empires provided by Ferguson actually shows that military defeat (or even an overly costly victory) has far more often been the cause of disaster. Rome was overrun by Barbarian hordes in the 5th century. China was invaded by the Manchus in the 17th century. The Habsburg, Ottoman, and Romanov empires were all defeated in World War I. Britain used up all of its resources — including, most important, its stock of national will to maintain great power status — in winning two world wars. And the Soviet Union collapsed after its defeat in Afghanistan (and also the fall of the Berlin Wall). He might have mentioned, but didn’t, the collapse of the Manchu Dynasty in 1911 following China’s defeats in a long string of conflicts stretching from the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century to the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 and the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

One can actually quarrel with his premise that all these events can even be characterized as imperial downfalls, since China, Russia, and France (he also cites the French Revolution, which he argues was triggered in part by the financial strain of subsidizing the American Revolution) all expanded after their revolutions under new regimes (Manchus, Soviets, and Napoleon). What about the role of financial insolvency? One can argue that it contributed to the fall of empires in all these cases; but with the possible exception of Britain (which experienced a severe balance-of-payments crisis after 1945), the financial problems were an example of the kind of long-term “decline” identified by Paul Kennedy and dismissed by Ferguson — they were not sudden crisises that destroyed otherwise healthy polities. Moreover, most of the empires he mentions (Britain is the sole exception) experienced debilitating political problems long before their end — most were ruled by increasingly unpopular and illegitimate regimes. The later Roman Empire was a particularly notorious case, with multiple self-proclaimed emperors competing for authority and military coups occurring with monotonous regularity. Does this really characterize America today?

Thus I am skeptical that a sudden loss of confidence in the American economy will lead us to crash and burn, á la Rome and the Romanovs. To be sure, a financial crisis can be costly, even catastrophic — conceivably worse than the events of 2008-09. Such a downturn would undoubtedly be painful, but would it lead to America’s eclipse as a great power? I doubt it, because our fundamentals are so sound: a stable political and legal system; a relatively low level of corruption; an innovative, productive economy; a growing population that is not aging as fast as our major rivals (the EU, Japan, China, Russia); an optimistic and self-confident ethos; the world’s most powerful military; and a bipartisan commitment to preserving American leadership. We are not going the way of Rome anytime soon.

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Painful Changes in the Publishing Industry

I am not usually saddened to hear that publications that I never read will cease to be published. But I am saddened to learn of the fate of Editor & Publisher and Kirkus Reviews, two publishing-industry trade titles.

From my vantage point as an author, their demise is part and parcel of the general decline of the publishing industry. There are still lots of publishers producing plenty of titles, but there are increasingly fewer bookstores and book reviews to peddle their wares. To some extent the slack has been taken up by the Internet — but only to an extent. Amazon is a godsend for all sorts of reasons, not least because it makes it so easy to acquire even obscure titles — a service of which I make ample use.

But Amazon is also leading the march toward e-books. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; you can argue from an author’s standpoint that it shouldn’t matter whether words are delivered by paper and ink or by digital means. But the pricing structure of e-books — with most new titles going for less than $10 — severely undercuts the economics that have traditionally underpinned the industry. If books no longer sell for $15 or $20 or more in hardcover, there will not be much left over to support editors, publishers, publicists, designers, and all the rest. It’s not as if book publishing had fat margins to begin with; e-books threaten to make financial statements that once looked weak into sheer catastrophes.

I realize that there’s a danger of sounding old and cranky when you complain about the impact of technology upon any industry. No doubt buggy makers around the turn of the 20th century felt similarly threatened by the arrival of automobiles and missed the fact that the transportation industry as a whole was growing even as their small sector of it was receding into nothingness. And no doubt information will continue to be purveyed in the digital age, and information purveyors will continue to be paid — just not in the same way as they were before.

Still, the adjustment is a painful one. The scribbling classes are now feeling the pain felt for decades by industrial workers. Wonder who will be next as computers continue to transform one economic sector after another?

I am not usually saddened to hear that publications that I never read will cease to be published. But I am saddened to learn of the fate of Editor & Publisher and Kirkus Reviews, two publishing-industry trade titles.

From my vantage point as an author, their demise is part and parcel of the general decline of the publishing industry. There are still lots of publishers producing plenty of titles, but there are increasingly fewer bookstores and book reviews to peddle their wares. To some extent the slack has been taken up by the Internet — but only to an extent. Amazon is a godsend for all sorts of reasons, not least because it makes it so easy to acquire even obscure titles — a service of which I make ample use.

But Amazon is also leading the march toward e-books. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; you can argue from an author’s standpoint that it shouldn’t matter whether words are delivered by paper and ink or by digital means. But the pricing structure of e-books — with most new titles going for less than $10 — severely undercuts the economics that have traditionally underpinned the industry. If books no longer sell for $15 or $20 or more in hardcover, there will not be much left over to support editors, publishers, publicists, designers, and all the rest. It’s not as if book publishing had fat margins to begin with; e-books threaten to make financial statements that once looked weak into sheer catastrophes.

I realize that there’s a danger of sounding old and cranky when you complain about the impact of technology upon any industry. No doubt buggy makers around the turn of the 20th century felt similarly threatened by the arrival of automobiles and missed the fact that the transportation industry as a whole was growing even as their small sector of it was receding into nothingness. And no doubt information will continue to be purveyed in the digital age, and information purveyors will continue to be paid — just not in the same way as they were before.

Still, the adjustment is a painful one. The scribbling classes are now feeling the pain felt for decades by industrial workers. Wonder who will be next as computers continue to transform one economic sector after another?

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The Protocols of the Elders of Amazon

A few years ago, the Goliath of online booksellers, Amazon.com, purchased a company called BookSurge which offers on-demand publishing of thousands of books. Rather than keep an inventory of books in a warehouse, on-demand publishing allows buyers to choose the title they want and have it printed for them. This reduces the overhead associated with publishing a book, and so allows books that otherwise might not be published-since publishers expect they wouldn’t recoup the costs of producing them-to make their way to readers.

As a result of this foray into the on-demand book business, Amazon has become a publisher of books as well as a seller, and so has taken on an unusual level of responsibility for some of the content it now sells to readers.

I tell you all this because this morning I received a press release by email from BookSurge, informing me in breathless tones of the publication of an exciting new book called Persecution, Privilege & Power, edited by Mark Green, and offering “a searing collection of articles about the organized-but often unrecognized-exploitation of political and cultural power in the United States.” Here is how the email describes the book:

In Persecution, Privilege & Power, Green has collected the sharpest commentaries and analyses from 30 different writers as they critically examine the role that Zionism plays in shaping U.S. policies abroad as well as cultural transformations at home. This riveting volume provides a broad and exhilarating inspection of Zionist machinations as well as the entrenched taboos and covert alliances that sustain them. Green’s array of commentators includes James Petras, Charlie Reese, Alison Weir, Kevin MacDonald, Gilad Atzmon, Ray McGovern, Joe Sobran and many others. Persecution, Privilege & Power unearths the unchecked malfeasance within the political wing of organized Jewry, specifically examining that international lobby’s political excesses from a multiplicity of perspectives.

The email is signed by Amanda Sullivan Wilson, BookSurge’s public relations manager, and it details the company’s status as “a subsidiary of Amazon.com Inc., (NASDAQ AMZN)”.

You have to wonder if anyone at Amazon realizes they are now the publishers of conspiracy theories about the “Zionist machinations” of “organized Jewry,” and that BookSurge is actively promoting the book in their name.

A few years ago, the Goliath of online booksellers, Amazon.com, purchased a company called BookSurge which offers on-demand publishing of thousands of books. Rather than keep an inventory of books in a warehouse, on-demand publishing allows buyers to choose the title they want and have it printed for them. This reduces the overhead associated with publishing a book, and so allows books that otherwise might not be published-since publishers expect they wouldn’t recoup the costs of producing them-to make their way to readers.

As a result of this foray into the on-demand book business, Amazon has become a publisher of books as well as a seller, and so has taken on an unusual level of responsibility for some of the content it now sells to readers.

I tell you all this because this morning I received a press release by email from BookSurge, informing me in breathless tones of the publication of an exciting new book called Persecution, Privilege & Power, edited by Mark Green, and offering “a searing collection of articles about the organized-but often unrecognized-exploitation of political and cultural power in the United States.” Here is how the email describes the book:

In Persecution, Privilege & Power, Green has collected the sharpest commentaries and analyses from 30 different writers as they critically examine the role that Zionism plays in shaping U.S. policies abroad as well as cultural transformations at home. This riveting volume provides a broad and exhilarating inspection of Zionist machinations as well as the entrenched taboos and covert alliances that sustain them. Green’s array of commentators includes James Petras, Charlie Reese, Alison Weir, Kevin MacDonald, Gilad Atzmon, Ray McGovern, Joe Sobran and many others. Persecution, Privilege & Power unearths the unchecked malfeasance within the political wing of organized Jewry, specifically examining that international lobby’s political excesses from a multiplicity of perspectives.

The email is signed by Amanda Sullivan Wilson, BookSurge’s public relations manager, and it details the company’s status as “a subsidiary of Amazon.com Inc., (NASDAQ AMZN)”.

You have to wonder if anyone at Amazon realizes they are now the publishers of conspiracy theories about the “Zionist machinations” of “organized Jewry,” and that BookSurge is actively promoting the book in their name.

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The Reluctant Communist

Can a deserter, a seeming traitor and a star in a propaganda film produced by a Communist dictatorship also be, in the end, an American patriot? That is one of the questions posed by the life of Charles Robert Jenkins, the author of The Reluctant Communist. This extraordinary book is now available for sale on Amazon and elsewhere. It is one of the most important documents to come out of North Korea ever. I review it in today’s Wall Street Journal.  The review can be found on their site, or you can click on the “Read the rest of this entry” link below to read it here.

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Can a deserter, a seeming traitor and a star in a propaganda film produced by a Communist dictatorship also be, in the end, an American patriot? That is one of the questions posed by the life of Charles Robert Jenkins, the author of The Reluctant Communist. This extraordinary book is now available for sale on Amazon and elsewhere. It is one of the most important documents to come out of North Korea ever. I review it in today’s Wall Street Journal.  The review can be found on their site, or you can click on the “Read the rest of this entry” link below to read it here.

The Reluctant Communist

By Charles Robert Jenkins, with Jim Frederick

University of California, 192 pages, $24.95

Can a deserter, a seeming traitor and a star in a propaganda film produced by a Communist dictatorship also be, in the end, an American patriot? That is one of the questions posed by the life of Charles Robert Jenkins, the author of The Reluctant Communist.

Uneducated, dirt poor, from rural North Carolina, Mr. Jenkins joined the U.S. Army in 1958 and rose to the rank of sergeant within three years. He was soon sent to South Korea, where he was assigned to patrols along the demilitarized zone and regularly came under hostile fire. Depressed and drinking heavily, he started searching for a way home. The scheme he cooked up: Cross into North Korea, get handed over to the Russians and then repatriated to the U.S. At most he would face the sanction of a court-martial.

But there was a hitch. “I did not understand,” Mr. Jenkins writes, “that the country I was seeking temporary refuge in was literally a giant, demented prison; once someone goes there, they almost never get out.” Mr. Jenkins was to spend the next four decades in North Korea. His memoir, written with the help of Jim Frederick, a Time magazine senior editor, is the story of his life in that bizarre and barbaric land.

After his capture, Mr. Jenkins recounts, he was subjected to a none-too-gentle period of interrogation and then brought together with three other Americans who had done the same thing, “all young dumb soldiers from poor backgrounds” like himself whose misbegotten actions turned them into North Korea’s “cold-war trophies.” Their lives were privileged compared with those of ordinary North Koreans, but the physical hardship was extreme: scarce, rotten food, lack of heat and indoor plumbing (not to mention privacy), insect and rat infestation.

But the mental strain was far worse. Complete isolation from the familiar world was a mere backdrop to the ordeal inflicted by an endless procession of Communist Party minders, who monitored Mr. Jenkins’s every move and who strove, by means of compulsory self-criticism sessions and beatings, to inculcate in him the “correct ideology.”

Under threat of transfer to a prison colony and almost certain death, Mr. Jenkins was routinely assigned to socialist toil. Sometimes it was weaving fishing nets, sometimes teaching English to North Korean military personnel. Sometimes it was acting in North Korean films, including one celebrating the North Korean capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968. (Mr. Jenkins played the captain of a U.S. aircraft carrier.) With characteristic inefficiency, the North Koreans shot the scenes in the order in which they would appear in the film, breaking down the sets each time and then rebuilding them when needed.

Thanks to Kim Il Sung’s “glorious benevolence,” as the North Koreans called it, Mr. Jenkins and his American comrades were eventually provided with female personal “cooks.” They were expected to serve the state as another set of watching eyes and, as it happened, as “unofficial wives” — potential consorts. The first words that Mr. Jenkins’s own cook said to him were: “I am not cooking for an American dog.” Relations between them, he observes, “went down from there.”

One of North Korea’s cruelest policies was to intersect bittersweetly with Mr. Jenkins’s life. Beginning sometime in the mid-1970s, the regime began kidnapping young Japanese women, some as young as 13, snatching them off streets near beaches in Japan and conveying them to North Korea to fulfill various tasks for its intelligence service. One such young woman was Hitomi Soga, seized along with her mother, stuffed into a black sack, taken by submarine to North Korea and, after a suitable “adjustment period,” delivered to Mr. Jenkins’s home and made to live with him, presumably to bolster the morale of a cold-war trophy.

Mr. Jenkins’s minders, he says, encouraged him to rape her. Instead he treated her with kindness and respect. Before long, the two fell in love, a bond apparently made all the stronger by the suffering both had endured at the hands of their common tormentors. Marriage followed, along with three children, one of whom died at birth. The whereabouts of Hitomi’s mother remain unknown to this day.

In 2002, North Korea unexpectedly acknowledged its kidnapping program and Hitomi was repatriated to Japan. Mr. Jenkins and the couple’s two daughters followed 18 months later. At that point, he turned himself in to American authorities in Tokyo, becoming the longest-missing U.S. deserter ever to report again for duty. The U.S. Army sentenced him, humanely, to 30 days in the brig. “Going AWOL to avoid combat is a serious crime,” Mr. Jenkins writes, “and abandoning troops under your command is one of the worst things a military man can do. . . . I am sorry for that, and I have spent my life having to live with my conscience and the consequence of my actions on that day.”

However we judge Mr. Jenkins’s actions so many years ago, “The Reluctant Communist” is itself an act of redemption. This extraordinary book opens a window on a world of fathomless evil, and it tells a heartbreaking story — of a life lived in adversity and conducted with a mixture of fortitude, resignation, tenderness and regret. Clearly Charles Robert Jenkins emerged from his years of ordeal with his Americanness intact. True patriotism can come in many forms.

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Light the Fire

So much in our hectic, 21st century lives takes place onscreen, why not literature?

Jeff Bezos and his company Amazon have treaded where all other such attempts have failed: into the land of e-book readers. Bezos’s device is called the “Kindle” and features a six-inch screen and a $400 price tag. Mediabistro’s GalleyCat blog today displays the headline, “Two Weeks In, Kindle Still ‘Fugly’ & Expensive.”

It seems the Kindle could become a kind of iPod for books, where content can be catalogued and shared. Personally, I find it difficult to read at length onscreen. But if the device were comfortable to use, I would do so. And let’s face it, books are dirty and take up space. Why not get rid of them?

According to an opinion column in last week’s Wall Street Journal, reading is on the way out. Do electronics like the Kindle have what it takes to save reading?

So much in our hectic, 21st century lives takes place onscreen, why not literature?

Jeff Bezos and his company Amazon have treaded where all other such attempts have failed: into the land of e-book readers. Bezos’s device is called the “Kindle” and features a six-inch screen and a $400 price tag. Mediabistro’s GalleyCat blog today displays the headline, “Two Weeks In, Kindle Still ‘Fugly’ & Expensive.”

It seems the Kindle could become a kind of iPod for books, where content can be catalogued and shared. Personally, I find it difficult to read at length onscreen. But if the device were comfortable to use, I would do so. And let’s face it, books are dirty and take up space. Why not get rid of them?

According to an opinion column in last week’s Wall Street Journal, reading is on the way out. Do electronics like the Kindle have what it takes to save reading?

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Caveat Emptor

Are there people out there who take Wikipedia seriously as a source of objective information? There shouldn’t be, but unfortunately there are. In fact, lots of students use it a source of first resort. It’s so popular, that whenever you type almost any subject into Google, the first hit is usually for a Wikipedia entry.

Yet disinformation abounds, often motivated by animus or prejudice. There is, for instance, the by-now famous story of a former assistant to Robert F. Kennedy who was brazenly—and completely without foundation—accused on Wikipedia of complicity in the assassinations of both JFK and RFK. (For this sorry tale, see his article.)

A friend has now called my attention to another bizarre distortion, this one an attempt not to besmirch the character of one man but of an entire country. If you look up the Philippine War (1899-1902) you get this entry. And in the very first paragraph you get this statement: “The U.S. conquest of the Philippines has been described as a genocide, and resulted in the death of 1.4 million Filipinos (out of a total population of seven million).”

I was pretty startled to read this. I have written a whole chapter on the war in my book, The Savage Wars of Peace, and I have never once heard that the U.S. was guilty of genocide. How could it have entirely escaped my attention?

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Are there people out there who take Wikipedia seriously as a source of objective information? There shouldn’t be, but unfortunately there are. In fact, lots of students use it a source of first resort. It’s so popular, that whenever you type almost any subject into Google, the first hit is usually for a Wikipedia entry.

Yet disinformation abounds, often motivated by animus or prejudice. There is, for instance, the by-now famous story of a former assistant to Robert F. Kennedy who was brazenly—and completely without foundation—accused on Wikipedia of complicity in the assassinations of both JFK and RFK. (For this sorry tale, see his article.)

A friend has now called my attention to another bizarre distortion, this one an attempt not to besmirch the character of one man but of an entire country. If you look up the Philippine War (1899-1902) you get this entry. And in the very first paragraph you get this statement: “The U.S. conquest of the Philippines has been described as a genocide, and resulted in the death of 1.4 million Filipinos (out of a total population of seven million).”

I was pretty startled to read this. I have written a whole chapter on the war in my book, The Savage Wars of Peace, and I have never once heard that the U.S. was guilty of genocide. How could it have entirely escaped my attention?

There is, needless to say, not a scintilla of evidence that Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt made any attempt to wipe out the population of the Philippines. There is no doubt that a lot of Filipinos died in the course of the war, but most of those deaths were the result of disease, not American bullets. In my book, I cite the generally accepted casualty totals: 4,234 American dead and, on the other side, 16,000 Filipinos killed in battle and another 200,000 civilians killed mainly by disease and famine. My sources for these estimates are books written by William Thaddeus Sexton, an historian writing in the 1930’s, and two more recent accounts written by Stanley Karnow and Walter LaFeber. Neither Karnow nor LaFeber is exactly an American imperialist; in fact, both are well-known liberals. Yet their casualty counts are seven times lower than those claimed by Wikipedia, and they make no mention of any genocide.

Where does the Wikipedia figure come from? The footnote refers to an online essay, “U.S. Genocide in the Philippines” by E. San Juan Jr., posted on an obscure website. The author is described as follows: “E. San Juan, Jr. was recently Fulbright Professor of American Studies at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium, and visiting professor of literature and cultural studies at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, Republic of China.” Not exactly a pedigree that instantly screams out that he has any special expertise on the Philippine War.

In his short essay (1,046 words), E. San Juan Jr. concedes that his claims of genocide and of 1.4 million dead do not come from any mainstream sources. He writes: “Among historians, only Howard Zinn and Gabriel Kolko have dwelt on the ‘genocidal’ character of the catastrophe.” But even these ultra-left-wing “revisionist” historians (who also have no expertise in the Philippine War) have, in his telling, cited no more than 600,000 dead Filipinos.

So whence the figure of 1.4 million? According to Mr. San Juan, “The first Filipino scholar to make a thorough documentation of the carnage is the late Luzviminda Francisco in her contribution to The Philippines: The End of An Illusion (London, 1973).” I confess to never having heard of Ms. Francisco (whose works are cataloged online by neither the Library of Congress nor the New York Public Library), but Amazon does contain a link for one of her books. It’s called Conspiracy for Empire: Big business, corruption, and the politics of imperialism in America, 1876-1907 and it was published in 1985 by something called the Foundation for Nationalist Studies, which doesn’t have a web page (or at least none that I could discover).

I am, to put it mildly, underwhelmed by the historical evidence gathered here to accuse the U.S. of having killed 1.4 million people in an attempted genocide. This is not the kind of finding that would be accepted for a second by any reputable scholar, regardless of political orientation. But it is the kind of pseudo-fact that is all too common on the world’s most schlocky wannabe “encyclopedia.” Caveat emptor.

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Bookshelf

• Time was when the writer who published his own book was by definition an amateur and, more often than not, a crank. Vanity-publishing outfits like Vantage Press existed to divert the life savings of literary innocents into the printing of unreadable, amateurishly designed volumes that promptly vanished without trace, leaving their hapless authors thousands of dollars poorer. A visit to Vantage’s website is guaranteed to make the hardest of hearts sink (“We believe that you and all other authors have the right to express your ideas in print . . . if funds are needed for basic living expenses, this program may not be for you”).

But times have changed, and so has the book business. Nowadays most major publishers are less and less willing to take a chance on promising manuscripts that are deemed unlikely to sell in reasonably large numbers. At the same time, the simultaneous emergence of online booksellers and computerized print-on-demand technology (which allows books to be printed, bound, and shipped to buyers one copy at a time) has made self-publishing economically feasible for professional authors who know how to market their own books.

This new style of self-publishing is already having an effect on the availability of out-of-print titles. Two weeks ago, I wrote about a paperback edition of Mary McCarthy’s Theatre Chronicles published by the Authors Guild Back-in-Print Bookstore, a service of iUniverse, the biggest and most influential print-on-demand service in America. Will living authors be equally quick to embrace self-publishing—or is it destined to remain as marginal and disreputable as vanity publishing? For what it’s worth, I suspect that in the short run, we’re more likely to see the adoption of print-on-demand technology by new, independent publishing houses that will use it to slash their overhead, thus making it possible for them to gamble on worthy but hard-to-market manuscripts that the major houses are no longer willing to consider.

Read More

• Time was when the writer who published his own book was by definition an amateur and, more often than not, a crank. Vanity-publishing outfits like Vantage Press existed to divert the life savings of literary innocents into the printing of unreadable, amateurishly designed volumes that promptly vanished without trace, leaving their hapless authors thousands of dollars poorer. A visit to Vantage’s website is guaranteed to make the hardest of hearts sink (“We believe that you and all other authors have the right to express your ideas in print . . . if funds are needed for basic living expenses, this program may not be for you”).

But times have changed, and so has the book business. Nowadays most major publishers are less and less willing to take a chance on promising manuscripts that are deemed unlikely to sell in reasonably large numbers. At the same time, the simultaneous emergence of online booksellers and computerized print-on-demand technology (which allows books to be printed, bound, and shipped to buyers one copy at a time) has made self-publishing economically feasible for professional authors who know how to market their own books.

This new style of self-publishing is already having an effect on the availability of out-of-print titles. Two weeks ago, I wrote about a paperback edition of Mary McCarthy’s Theatre Chronicles published by the Authors Guild Back-in-Print Bookstore, a service of iUniverse, the biggest and most influential print-on-demand service in America. Will living authors be equally quick to embrace self-publishing—or is it destined to remain as marginal and disreputable as vanity publishing? For what it’s worth, I suspect that in the short run, we’re more likely to see the adoption of print-on-demand technology by new, independent publishing houses that will use it to slash their overhead, thus making it possible for them to gamble on worthy but hard-to-market manuscripts that the major houses are no longer willing to consider.

In the meantime, though, there are still a few smaller-than-small houses that are continuing to take chances on off-center books. A case in point is Doug Ramsey’s Poodie James (Libros Libertad, 151 pp., $19.95 paper). Jazz aficionados know Ramsey as a distinguished critic, whose previous books include Take Five, the definitive biography of Paul Desmond. In recent years, though, Ramsey has also embraced the possibilities of new media, launching a blog called “Rifftides” that lets him write as he pleases, instead of being restricted to the fast-shrinking roster of print publications whose editors care about jazz. Now Ramsey has written his first novel, which was brought out not by a mainstream house but by a new, independent Canadian publisher who puts out serious, well-designed books, whose authors were unable to place them elsewhere. You probably won’t find Poodie James at your local brick-and-mortar bookstore, but you can order it easily from Amazon or directly from Libros Libertad. You’ll find that the cover and typography are as elegant-looking as anything published by Knopf in its salad days.

Why did Ramsey go to Libros Libertad? Undoubtedly because no major publisher would take a chance on a Gatsby-length novella by a first-time novelist who is no longer young. Worse yet, Poodie James is about a small-town deaf-mute, and it’s written in an old-fashioned, determinedly non-experimental style not unlike that of Jon Hassler. What could be less sexy?

No doubt you already know where I’m going, so I’ll cut to the chase: Poodie James is a very good book. Not only is it handsomely and lyrically written, but Ramsey’s snapshots of small-town life circa 1948 are altogether convincing, and he has even brought off the immensely difficult trick of worming his way into the consciousness of a deaf person without betraying the slightest sense of strain. I especially like the scene in which he tells us how it feels for the title character to “listen” to Woody Herman’s big band at a local dance:

A man with a big smile walked out holding a clarinet. The musicians sat up and brought their horns to their mouths. The man raised his hand and brought it down. The force of the sound hit Poodie and traveled through his chest as a tingle…. Poodie wondered if the dancers got the same sensation from hearing the music that he did from feeling it, radiance in the belly, warmth around the heart.

I wish I’d written that.

Ramsey is no less adept at sketching the constant tension between tolerance and suspicion that is part and parcel of the communal life of every small town. I grew up in a place not unlike the Washington town where Poodie James is set, and so can testify to the knowing skill with which it is portrayed here.

A quarter-century ago, Poodie James would have had no trouble finding an East Coast publisher, and it might even have made its way into the hands of a Hollywood producer, since it could easily be turned into a very nice little movie along the lines of The Spitfire Grill. That Ramsey had to travel another route to get his first novel into print says more about the postmodern culture of publishing than it does about his gifts as a writer of fiction. I commend it to your attention, and I hope its author has another novel or two—or three—up his sleeve.

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