Category Archives: The Interesting Bits

GORE VIDAL, 1925-2012 – Prolific, Elegant, Acerbic Writer By CHARLES McGRATH

Published: August 1, 2012

Gore Vidal, the elegant, acerbic all-around man of letters who presided with a certain relish over what he declared to be the end of American civilization, died on Tuesday at his home in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles, where he moved in 2003, after years of living in Ravello, Italy. He was 86.

Bernard Gotfryd/Pictorial Parade—Getty Images

GORE VIDAL in a 1969 portrait. An author, screenwriter and essayist with definite opinions and no inhibitions about sharing them, he took great pleasure in being one of the larger-than-life figures of his time. 

The cause was complications of pneumonia, his nephew Burr Steers said by telephone. Continue reading

INTERVIEW: talkingbooks

 | 8th July, 2012

 

Ajmal Kamal is an editor, writer, publisher and bookseller. He edits the Urdu literary quarterly, Aaj

What are you reading these days?
For the last five years or so, my reading seems to have become more focused. It was a time when I encountered a vague idea in the course of a personal quest that all, or almost all, that is happening with us today as a society and as individuals members or groups of the society can be contextualised and understood in the perspective provided by what we have been writing and publishing ever since the printing press became an influential part of our lives. Continue reading

Why Book Publishing Can Survive Digital Age: Echoes

Gold Medal Books from Fawcett Publications
By Ellen F. Brown Feb 16, 2012 11:52 PM GMT+0500

Word on the street is that the publishing industry is under attack by technology. Amazon.com Inc. has launched a bare-knuckled assault against independent bookstores. Print-on-demand firms make it possible for anyone to get his work on the market, and thus threaten to render agents and editors obsolete. And with e-books priced so low, how can authors and booksellers earn a decent living?

Yet the publishing industry has a long history of weathering these sorts of challenges, and its past offers some optimism for the future.

In the 1920s, drug, grocery and department stores gave booksellers fits by offering popular titles at cut-rate prices. An old industry yarn tells the story of a flapper looking to buy lipstick. She walks into a bookstore and excuses herself when she realizes she had made a mistake. “I’m sorry,” she says, “I thought this was a drugstore, I saw books in the window.”

Also problematic was the Book of the Month Club, a distribution company founded in 1926 that sold inexpensive hardcover versions of popular books through mail order. Within 10 years of its founding, the club had almost 200,000 members. Ten years later, there were more than 50 imitator clubs in North America with more than 3 million participants.

And, of course, there was the ultimate competitor to bookstores: public libraries. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, communities across the U.S. funded the construction of facilities where books could be had for free, albeit only on loan.

Then came the “paperback revolution.” According to Publishers Weekly, word spread at the 1939 American Booksellers Convention that “some reckless publisher” was going to bring out a series of paperback reprints of popular novels to be sold for only a quarter a piece. The industry was equal measures aghast at the nerve of such a plan — American readers had proved notoriously resistant to paperbacks — and terrified that it might succeed. Major publishers fretted that, if the books proved popular, the reprints would kill hardcover sales of the featured titles. Most booksellers refused to stock the series, unwilling to compete with their existing inventories of full-priced books.

Undeterred by the negative buzz, publisher Robert de Graff advertised his New Pocket Books directly to readers with a mail-order coupon system and to wholesalers who sold magazines to newsstands and grocery stores. He touted his books as small enough to be carried in a pocket or purse and “as handy as a pencil, as modern and convenient as a portable radio — and as good looking.”

The industry watched with amazement when the books sold like wildfire. Skeptical publishers couldn’t remain aloof for long in the face of such obvious success and rushed to produce their own lines of paperback reprints.

The real test of the industry’s mettle came in 1949 when Fawcett Publications announced a new series of 25-cent paperback originals. A vigorous debate arose over the propriety of original work being released in such an inexpensive format. Mainstream publishers predicted that paperback originals would undermine the entire structure of publishing and threatened to blackball agents who negotiated contracts with Fawcett. Critics said quality authors would never be interested in selling their new work at such a low price and that the series would only be able to offer books unworthy of publication.

Once again, readers responded to low prices, and the new books were a sensation. Fawcett boasted of selling more than a million books in the first year. Copycat publishers rushed into the marketplace, and many fine writers who had struggled to make it into hardback — including Kurt Vonnegut and John D. MacDonald — readily signed contracts.

So how did all of this competition affect the traditional trade?

In the long run, low-cost books — whether reprints or original, paperback or hardback — posed a vigorous, but bearable, threat. Although there was much grumbling along the way, the industry gradually accepted that the new products and distributors, including libraries, were not evil incarnate. To the contrary, they were something of a boon in that they generated interest in reading among people who didn’t frequent bookstores.

The new products also had a hard time maintaining their early successes. It’s a simple matter of economics: Delivering a high-quality product at a bargain-basement price is difficult. Once competition heated up in the cheap-book market, signs of strain began to show. Editorial standards slackened, paper quality declined and, in a desperate attempt to catch the eye of readers in the crowded marketplace, many discount publishers resorted to covering their books in lurid images that often had nothing to do with their content. Readers eventually balked at the increasingly shabby products, and publishers were dismayed to find themselves stuck with warehouses of books they couldn’t give away. One firm resorted to burning its excess stock in an abandoned canal outside of Buffalo, New York.

By 1969, the New York Times Book Review was asking, “Is the Paperback Revolution Dead?”

Fast forward to today’s digital revolution. History suggests there’s reason to take heart. Despite years of cheap books, readers have consistently shown a willingness to buy quality material in a quality format. And as much as electronic retailers have to offer with their expansive inventories and cheap prices, and no matter how egalitarian self-publishers are in providing new opportunities for authors, the truth is, not all books deserve to be published, nor are they all worth sifting through. For decades, our reading experience has been incalculably enhanced by the editors, agents and booksellers who work behind the scenes culling books for us, and there’s every reason to think readers will be willing to pay a premium for such services.

This isn’t to say the industry won’t have to make adjustments, especially the bricks-and-mortar stores. They’ll have to be alert to changing dynamics and get creative about generating demand. Many already have dived in by offering e-books through their websites and by increasing the number of live events that bring readers into their stores. Some are even venturing into publishing. Hub City Bookshop in Spartanburg, South Carolina, for example, operates a nonprofit press that emphasizes books on the Southern experience. Such specialization — also known as expertise — is likely to be the distinguishing hallmark of independent sellers in the future.

Electronics are here to stay, but someday the digital revolution in publishing may well be seen as just another phase in the natural evolution of a vital and resilient industry.

(Ellen F. Brown is a freelance writer and co-author of “Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller’s Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood.” The opinions expressed are her own.)

For more from Echoes, Bloomberg View’s economic history blog, click here.

To contact the writer of this post: Ellen F. Brown at ellenfbrown5@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.

The art of writing an Urdu column By Tazeen Javed

The writer is an Islamabad-based freelance communications consultant. She tweets @tazeen and blogs at http://tazeen-tazeen.blogspot.com

I write a weekly column for this newspaper, an English language daily and at times it becomes difficult to comment on things with a perspective that is fresh, relevant and not dated — week after week. Not only that, but one is also required to be coherent and appear sane most of the time (there are some exceptions to the rule, though).

I envy op-ed writers of Urdu newspapers; most of them are not encumbered with the notions of relevance and coherence. If one reads Urdu op-ed pieces for a week, it becomes clear that the art of writing an op-ed in Urdu is quite straightforward. It mostly starts with a story of a brave king of the days long gone and how he took care of his people, somehow linking it to governance issues of fighting a multi-pronged war, the energy crisis or overpopulation. More often than not, the king will not have a name but when there is a name, that particular incident is not found to be a part of history. At times, I have even looked into Dastan-e-Amir Hamza for references but the stories were so fantastical that I could not find them in the centuries-old tales of Amir Hamza.

Introspection is alien to Urdu columnists; Pakistan is never to be blamed for its ills. It is always foreign powers who are trying to sabotage the fort of Islam. Foreign country bashing is not limited to, but is generally aimed at, the US and India — depending on the topic of conversation. And the really creative writers do not just blame India for all slights and transgressions — imagined and real — but they invent a fictional European character they have met in trips abroad and make him say that India is a horrible place where everyone is evil and that Pakistan is the ultimate Shangri-La. After all, the hidden racist within us would agree more with a learned white man than a Pakistani, even if that Pakistan happens to be an esteemed columnist travelling to these foreign lands.

Some Urdu columnists also like to reproduce the fan mail they get, usually from cities like Layyah and Narowal. English op-ed writers cannot do that because they generally do not get fan mail from Layyah. What they do get — and this generalisation is solely based on the mail I and two of my columnist friends receive — is hate mail for being (a) liberal fascists, (b) English medium elite or, best of all, (c) agents of the foreign variety.

At times, I envy Urdu columnists. I like the idea of starting a piece with a fairy tale but it is not that simple. For starters, I like to be historically correct and my editor, who is cyber-savvy, even asks me to provide hyperlinks for the internet editions of any topics mentioned in my piece in order to provide context and to substantiate my argument. This puts any fantasies I may harbour about introducing fictional characters in my pieces to sleep. For Urdu columnists, however, if fantastical historical characters and fan mail from Layyah are not viable choices, they are left with the option of blaming it all on the unholy trinity of India, Isreal and the US. This is how one masters the art of becoming an Urdu columnist.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 19th, 2012.

LIT BUZZ: Comic book drawing sells for 1.3 million euros

 | 1 day ago

A rare 1932 cover drawing of a Tintin comic book has been sold for a record 1.3 million euros at an auction in Paris. The previous record — of 764,000 euros — was also set by this Tintin in America cover, hand-drawn by Belgian writer and illustrator Herge. Tintin in America is the third title in the comic book series, The Adventures of Tintin.

The cover shows the young adventurer Tintin, dressed as a cowboy and sitting with his dog, Snowy, as axe-wielding American Indians creep up on them. The plot revolves around Tintin and his dog traveling to the US to report on a crime syndicate.

The drawing was bought by a private collector.

The Indian ink and gouache drawing work is one of only five remaining such works by Herge — real name Georges Remi — who died in 1983. Only two of those are in private hands.

Saturday’s sale was part of a rare larger sale of Tintin memorabilia, reportedly including draft sketches of Tintin and a copy of Explorers on the Moon, signed by the first people to walk on the Moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and fellow astronaut Michael Collins.

How to Work with Someone You Hate

January 30, 2012

by Amy Gallo |

Working with someone you hate can be distracting and draining. Pompous jerk, annoying nudge, or incessant complainer, an insufferable colleague can negatively affect your attitude and performance. Instead of focusing on the work you have to do together, you may end up wasting time and energy trying to keep your emotions in check and attempting to manage the person’s behavior. Fortunately, with the right tactics, you can still have a productive working relationship with someone you can’t stand.

What the Experts Say
If you work with someone you don’t like, you’re not alone. The detested co-worker is a familiar archetype. Robert Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University and the author of Good Boss, Bad Boss and The No Asshole Rule, says this is part of the human condition. “There are always other people — be they relatives, fellow commuters, neighbors, or coworkers — who we are at risk of tangling with,” he says. Avoiding people you don’t like is generally a successful tactic but it’s not always possible in a workplace. “Some people are there, like it or not,” points out Daniel Goleman, the co-director of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations at Rutgers University and author of The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights. Next time you find yourself shooting daggers at the person in the cubicle next to you, consider the following advice.

Manage your reaction
Your response to your dreaded co-worker may range from slight discomfort to outright hostility. Goleman says the first step is to manage it. He suggests that if there is someone who is annoying or abrasive, don’t think about how the person acts, think about how you react. It’s far more productive to focus on your own behavior because you can control it. To handle your triggers, Goleman advises you practice a relaxation method daily. This will “enhance your ability to handle stress, which means the annoying person isn’t that annoying anymore,” he says.

Keep your distaste to yourself
While working through your displeasure, avoid the temptation to gripe with other coworkers. Don’t corner someone by the water cooler and say, “There’s something about Jessica I don’t like, don’t you agree?” Sutton notes that we all have a tendency to look for confirmation of our own opinions, but we should also resist it. “Because emotions are so contagious, you can bring everyone down,” Sutton says. Besides, complaining about someone in your office can reflect negatively on you. You may garner a reputation as unprofessional or be labeled as the difficult one. If you find you have to vent, choose your support network carefully. Ideally, choose people outside the office.

Consider whether it’s you, not them 
Once you have your reactions in check, think about what it is you don’t like about the person. Is there something specific that sets you off? Is it that she’s just different than you? Does he remind you of your father? Do you wish you had her job? Jealousy and other negative emotions can cause us to wrongly assess and mistreat others. “When someone is doing better than us, we tend to scorn them,” Sutton says. Differences can make us biased. “Our favorite person in the world is ourselves. The more different someone is from us, the more likely we are to have a negative reaction to them,” he says. Focus on the behaviors, not the traits, that irk you; this will help you discern stereotypes from true dislike. “Start with the hypothesis that the person is doing things you don’t like but is a good person,” says Sutton. By better understanding what is bothering you, you may also be able to see your role in it. “It’s reasonable to assume you’re part of the problem,” says Sutton. Be honest with yourself about your share of the issue. And be on the lookout for patterns. “If everywhere you go there’s someone you hate, it’s a bad sign,” Sutton warns.

Spend more time with them
“One of the best ways to get to like someone you don’t like is to work on a project that requires coordination,” says Sutton. This may seem counterintuitive since you likely want to run from the room screaming whenever the person is there. But by working together, you can understand him better and perhaps even develop some empathy. “You might feel compassion instead of irritation,” says Goleman. You may discover there are reasons for his actions: stress at home, pressure from his boss, or maybe he’s tried to do what you’re asking for and failed. Spending more time with your foe will also grant you the opportunity to have more positive experiences. But before you sign up to lead the next task force with someone you don’t like, remember that there is one exception: “If it’s someone who violates your sense of what’s moral, getting away isn’t a bad strategy,” says Sutton.

Consider providing feedback
If none of the above has worked, you may want to consider giving your colleague some feedback. It may be that what bothers you is something that regularly gets in her way as a professional. “Don’t assume the person knows how they are coming across,” says Sutton. Of course, you shouldn’t launch into a diatribe about everything she does to annoy you. Focus on behaviors that she can control and describe how they impact you and your work together. If shared carefully, you may help her develop greater self-awareness and increase her effectiveness.

But proceed cautiously. Goleman says whether you give feedback “depends on how artful you are as a communicator and how receptive they are as a person.” If you feel he might be open and you can have a civilized conversation focused on work issues, then go ahead and tread lightly. But if this is a person you suspect will be vindictive or mad, or will turn it into a personal conflict, don’t risk it. “The landmine when giving emotional feedback is that they take it personally and it escalates,” says Goleman. You also need to be open to hearing feedback yourself. If you don’t like him, the chances are good he isn’t very fond of you either.

Adopt a don’t-care attitude
In situations where you are truly stuck and can’t provide feedback Suttons recommends you “practice the fine art of emotional detachment or not giving a shit.” By ignoring the irritating behaviors, you neutralize the affect on you. “If he’s being a pain but you don’t feel the pain, then there’s no problem,” explains Goleman. This type of cognitive reframing can be effective in situations where you have little to no control.

Principles to Remember

Do:

  • Manage your own reaction to the behavior first
  • Practice emotional detachment so the person’s behaviors don’t bother you
  • Spend time trying to get to know the person and better understand what motivates him

Don’t:

  • Assume that it is all about the other person — you likely play some part
  • Commiserate with others who could be unfairly influenced by your negativity or may judge you for your complaints
  • Give feedback unless you can focus on work issues and can avoid a personal conflict

Case study #1: Get to know him
Bruno West*, a senior executive in technology, was responsible for a post merger integration team that included members from both of the pre-merger companies. “It was a highly charged environment with aggressive deadlines and near endless work days,” he says. Harry*, the CFO from one of the companies was particularly challenging; he had a caustic style, often spoke in a pejorative way, and even withheld critical information from Bruno and others. Harry was frustrated by Bruno but tried hard to withhold judgment. “I always ask — do I really not like the person or does their experiences and background cause them to address issues different than I do?” he explains. Whether he liked him or not, Bruno knew that he needed Harry’s participation to be successful. He decided to spend time with Harry’s colleagues in the former company to better understand what it was that Harry brought to the table. They spoke highly of his experience and his long history with the organization. Bruno then took Harry out to dinner and let him vent. “He voiced many concerns and was quite derogatory,” Bruno said. Then he asked Harry to talk about some of the projects he had heard about from his former co-workers. “He shared with pride the teamwork, the late evenings filled with collaboration, shared success and accomplishment.” At the end of the dinner, Bruno felt he better understood Harry and where he was coming from.

Bruno then slowly began to bring up the other stories about past projects during team meetings and asked Harry to explain what he felt they could learn from those experiences. “Momentum became our friend. He wanted to be recognized for his past accomplishments in the eyes of the new company members. Everyone in the former company knew his great value but he felt he needed to prove himself again,” he said. Harry was much more cooperative when others asked for his viewpoint and acknowledged his expertise. Bruno had a much easier time working with him. Harry eventually left the new company but the two parted on good terms.

Case Study #2: Keep a healthy perspective 
When Alex Vanier*, a logistics officer with the Canadian Army, returned from a tour of duty in Kandahar, he was assigned to work for Major Newton*, a maintenance officer in Petawawa, an hour and a half northwest of Ottawa. Alex found the major to be standoffish and quick to criticize. Even worse, the major often unloaded work on Alex. “He gave me things that were his to do and were inappropriate for me to handle,” he says. The major didn’t mentor the people below him and it often seemed he was only looking out for himself. He would ask Alex for candid advice on supply issues and when Alex replied with what he thought was his confidential perspective, the major would forward on his reply unfiltered to the commander. “I didn’t really enjoy working with him at all. He had this real ‘better than you’ attitude,” he says.

Alex tried not to do anything that would put him in close proximity to the major. Since he was his boss, this wasn’t always possible. “I went to work and did my job,” he says. He saw that the major behaved that way with everyone. “I looked at him and thought ‘he has flaws’ but I didn’t take it personally,” he says. He also turned to friends outside of the office with whom he could vent. At one point, Alex thought he would go to the chief of staff to share what was going on but then thought better of it. “I didn’t feel it was my job to go and topple him,” he says. Plus he didn’t want to be seen as a complainer and wasn’t sure sharing his opinion would change anything. Since assignments in the military are often short, Alex decided to wait it out. Eventually the major was sent to another position and Alex filled in for his role for four months. He said it was a vindicating experience because people commented on what a better job he was doing. In the end, Alex says he has no ill will toward the major. He believes it made him more self-aware. “I often ask myself, ‘Is this something I do with my subordinates?” Ultimately he feels he’s a better manager because of it.

 

Amy Gallo

AMY GALLO  is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review. Follow her on Twitter at@amyegallo.

Book launch: Writers call for more funds for literary activities

Published: June 5, 2012

Events to make books more easily available to readers also on the cards. PHOTOS: CREATIVE COMMONS

ISLAMABAD: In the wake of the 2012-13 budget, literary figures on Monday, regretted the meagre allocation earmarked for Urdu literature and linguistics publications.

In an attempt to nurture the Urdu language and its literary contributions, the National Language Authority (NLA) is holding a series of multiple book launches, in spite of various constraints. Other events to make publishing accessible to authors and books more easily available to readers are also on the cards.

Four Urdu books were launched as part of the series. Last week a similar event took place where five literary books were launched. “We hope to launch a number of books every week if funds permit,” said NLA chairman Anwar Ahmed.

Unfortunately, without the government pumping funds into institutions such as the Pakistan Academy of Letters, National Language Authority and National Book Foundation, such activities cannot become a regular feature of the Urdu literary world in Islamabad, he said.

Moreover, prominent literary figure Iftikhar Arif said the money allocated for literary endeavours in Pakistan is even less than fuel expenditure of some ministries. “The government and the people need to understand the importance of literature and the mother tongue. In tough times, survival is of penultimate importance but literature can become both an outlet and escape for frustrated citizens,” he added.

Arif commended NLA’s efforts for reviving the book-reading culture in the country and said the fact they published 18 Urdu books in four months showed that it was possible to make a difference despite financial hurdles.

All of the four books launched in the ceremony, were appreciated by critics. Referring to Muhammad Asif’s book that chronicles and analyses poet Hazeen Siddiqi’s literary contributions, “Hazeen Siddiqi Shakhsiyat aur shairi”, Najeeb Jamal from the International Islamic University’s Urdu department commended the author for sketching Siddiqi’s poetic style and persona both sensitively and accurately. “Siddiqi is one of the most prominent Urdu poets of this generation,” said Jamal.

Abdul Aziz Sahir, who reviewed Ghazi Ilam Deen’s book, “Lisani Mutalay” (Linguistic Studies) and noted that writing about Urdu linguistics is especially challenging as Urdu has a rich, complicated and eclectic background.

“The author has fulfilled this challenge with poise and has expressed himself with simplicity, making the book more accessible and understandable to the public,” he added.

Meanwhile, Mubina Tallat talked about the book ‘Kulyat-e-Arsh Siddique’ (Collections of Arsh Siddique) compiled by the Muhammad Hanif, while Arshad Khanum discussed ‘Nisaai Shaoor ki Tareekh: Urdu afsana aur aurat’ (History of gender consciousness: Women in Urdu literature) written by Asmat Jameel.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 5th, 2012.