Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Every Day I Hype the Book

I have to confess, I'd reached the point where I actually had started feeling sympathetic with Barnes & Noble. Haunted by the ghosts of Borders past -- it's hard to drive past any mid-size American shopping plaza without seeing the faceless hulk of one of their stores -- and realizing that, compared with the evil Amazon empire, B&N's market share was small. I'd become persuaded -- in part by a recent article from the New York Times --that perhaps yesterday's big-box Goliath was today's David, and might in fact be -- gulp! -- the "Bookstore's Last Stand."

But this morning, when I checked my e-mail and found yet another of the almost-daily promotional missives from B&N, I fell out of all sympathy. Under the dual headings of "Our Picks" and "The Books Readers are Talking About," I was treated to a virtual version of the same old Barnes & Noble bestsellers-first front table. Ken Follett, a name that always appears in 'all caps,' topped their list with Winter of the World, hyped as "a brilliant, page-turning epic from a master of the form." Fair enough, I thought at first, B&N has to make a living -- it's a business after all -- and scrolled downward. After a second "shelf" of bestsellers -- Sandra Brown, Joel Osteen, Salman Rushdie (I suppose he gets a pass), and the immortal 17 Day Plan to Stop Aging, there followed a few themed categories -- "New in Fiction," "Reads for Teens," "Best New Kids Books" (Lego Batman? Really?) The one that stuck out for me was "Discover Great New Writers" -- under which they offered Zadie Smith (why White Teeth and not NW?), Junot Diaz, Sherman Alexie, and Mark Danielewski. All I can say is, if you haven't "discovered" these authors by now -- they've been writing for a collective 48 years -- I'm not sure you're actually much of a reader.  And, dismally, that's still who Barnes and Noble has in their sights -- people who are not actually, well, readers.  Maybe it's because their new CEO, William J. Lynch Jr., by his own account in the NYT article cited above, never sold a book in his life until 2009.  But I think it runs deeper than that.  Lynch is just the latest in a long line of bookstore chain management who don't, primarily, come from a book background, or realize that selling books isn't at all like selling shoes, cellphones, or sportswear.  Lynch, in the same article, happily declares that B&N is, in fact a "technology company." Ouch.

I began my post-college career as a bookseller, working the floor in the late great Yale Co-Op in New Haven, which we called, accurately, the "largest independent bookstore between New York and Boston." We carried 80,000 titles, more or less, and in those heady pre-internet days we did our own homework: we knew who'd just been on Oprah, which was the most anticipated cookbook of the season, and who'd just died.  And we had their books, or if we didn't, we'd nip over to the microfiche reader, check the Baker & Taylor inventory, and get it to you in three days. We sold books, as a manager at San Francisco's Books Inc. described it to me recently, "by hand." Of course, we sold our share of bestsellers, but we didn't make the mistake of thinking that they were why most of our customers were there.

And then it started.  I'd moved on to grad school, but my friends in the bookstore trade -- Borders, as it happened -- saw the writing on the wall: those who really knew and loved books were passed over for promotion, while managers were hired from outside -- from TJ Maxx, PayLess Shoes, or Pier I Imports -- or trained in programs run by the chain's home office. Books, the gospel ran, were just like other retail products: have a lot of 'em, have the top brands and new products everyone is excited about, and they'll sell.  What matter if you misspell "Louise Erdrich" as "Erdich" and wrongly tell a customer you don't have any books by that author?  They probably really wanted Ken Follett, anyway.

So I'm officially out of sympathy with Barnes & Noble.  They haven't learned from the mistakes of the past, they're just repeating them frantically in hopes of a different outcome.  And, like most vendettas, mine has a personal element -- the old Yale Co-Op bookstore closed some time ago, and is now -- you guessed it -- a Barnes & Noble.

UPDATE JULY 9th 2013: Lynch is out. Many have blamed him for mismanaging the very part of B&N that he supposedly was best at managing: its Nook reader and digital products. But in the meantime, the retail stores are in free-fall ...

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Day in the Life of a Meme

What a difference a day makes -- in the life of a meme, that is.  Meme (coined from the Greek mimesis, or "imitation"), was a term within aesthetics and evolutionary biology long before it was appropriated by the Internet; some credit its use in Richard Dawkins' widely-read The Selfish Gene as its most immediate source. In this context, it carries multiple meanings -- to imitate, surely, but also to mimic, and finally to mutate into a thousand variations, each competing alongside the other for resources -- in the case of the Internet, attention.  And while Warhol's prediction that in the future everyone will have "15 minutes of fame" may now seem too generous an allotment, Internet memes do seem to have a sort of life cycle of their own.

Take the image above, for instance.  At first, it looks as though DaVinci's "Last Supper" has been taken over by a bunch of clones of "Alice the Goon" (a figure invented by E.C. Segar, creator of Popeye).  But of course, as with most online memes, there is an antecedent image, one you'd have to have seen to 'get the joke': the image of a fresco of Christ in a church in Borja, Spain, "Ecce Homo," which had been "restored" -- that is, "ruined" -- by the apparently well-intentioned efforts of an elderly parishioner, Cecilia Giménez.  It seems that Giménez had already, with the priest's permission, been retouching Christ's tunic on the fresco; the trouble started when she tried her hand at his face.  The meme got underway quickly, given the grotesque awfulness of the effort; some early efforts pasted the face of (respectively) the Pink Panther, Alf, and Michael Jackson.  This was only the beginning: soon the goonish face appeared on a piece of toast, a reference to the "Christ on Toast" apparition (here as reported by the BBC in 2004); as the face of DaVinci's Mona Lisa, superimposed on a DEVO record cover, and painted over the screamer in Edvard Münch's "The Scream."  Then came the texts: "Viva La Restoration!" (in Che Guevara-like high contrast black on a red tee), "Paint me like one of your French girls" (a nod to Kate Winslet's line in James Cameron's Titanic), "A Star is Born," "It's Cool. I Fixed it," and the somewhat cryptic "I Pray to Potato."  But it wasn't until I saw "The Last Supper" version that I laughed.  And then I couldn't stop laughing.

Why?  Because of the artful symmetry: Cecilia Giménez had been trying to fix a damaged fresco; DaVinci's Last Supper survives only in a damaged state; the Goon head is funny on Jesus and thus, perhaps, it's 12 times funnier on all the apostles.  Actually, it is.

As one would expect, there are already several websites -- Memebase and  Know Your Meme among them, that do nothing but track and evaluate memes -- the Spanish Fresco is still a bit new for them ("currently being evaluated") but already well over 600 variations have been tracked, and groups on Pinterest and Facebook formed. Want to make a meme of your own? Drop by the Meme Generator. Some of the more impressive sites, such as memetracker.org, are geared toward verbal memes only, but offer vivid visualizations of their rising and falling trends.

But why?  And why do we care? When I think of this phenomenon, I think of the word cliché, which originated with the "clicking" sound made by a pre-cast piece of type containing a common set of words.  Of course we always had clichés, but we didn't know what they were until the printing press, and then the linotype machine, made them so readily visible to all of us.  Before that point, in oral traditional terms, one might be forgiven for thinking that an oft-repeated phrase was somehow truer or richer for its frequent repetition.  But the printed page showed us: what was common was cheap.

Now the Internet is performing the same miracle, only multi-media style.  After all, simple visual editing tools are readily accessible; all of us can cut and paste and some of us have Photoshop and Illustrator at our command. And we can quote -- that is -- repeat -- these images and texts on our own, using any of many social media platforms.  The path from originality to dead letter has never been faster.

A few months ago, I stumbled on one meme -- a text, but graphically represented as though on a poster: "BEWARE OF ARTISTS," the text declared, "THEY MIX WITH ALL CLASSES OF SOCIETY AND ARE THEREFORE THE MOST DANGEROUS."  Nearly 90% of these images had a text attached to them, claiming that this was an "actual poster" (always a suspicious way to make such a claim -- one might call it an "authenticity cliché") issued by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.  Needless to say, most of the people who liked this image the most were self-identified as artists.  After all, they need to feel that people care enough to be suspicious of them.

But the words rang false to me.  I tracked them using Google Books and other tools, and found that, in the age of printed memes on paper, this same phrase had often been attributed to Queen Victoria.  That sounded, if anything, even wronger (as Blackadder might say), but I gave a Google e-Book edition of the Letters of Queen Victoria a try.  And there, I found the meme's source -- a letter from Victoria's cousin, King Leopold of Belgium, written not by but to Her Majesty:
Dealings with artists, for instance, require great prudence; they are acquainted with all classes of society, and for that reason dangerous; they are hardly ever satisfied, and when you have too much to do with them, you are sure to have des ennuis — Leopold to Victoria, 10 October 1845
Delighted with my find, I eagerly posted a mimetic "correction," and a few sites, such as this one, picked up on this.

But really, I needn't have bothered; no one who shared the original version really cared; they had all moved on after the purported poster had done its all-too-brief work.  And that's the way it goes, with memes, at any rate.  Their power isn't in their truth, but in their infinite replicability.  One might as well criticize a piece of DNA.