Tuesday, April 23, 2013

books in conversation

Surprise!  I have something good to say about digital technology.

In the past, a few weeks before sales conference, several reams of manuscript pages would land on my doorstep.   Ideally, I would read them before our meeting.   

Don't get me wrong, I love the chance to delve into the actual forthcoming books, since so much about selling them to indie booksellers depends on vouching for writing quality, accessibility, and style.  But oh the trees consumed.

So this week I’ve been luxuriating in a dozen complete fall books downloaded onto my tablet.  My objections to reading books on a screen still hold, but for manuscript pages it’s a new day.

The presses I represent publish an eclectic mix of titles each season.  To the casual observer, the list might seem scattershot, as if the books appear without rhyme or reason in a particular seasonal catalog.  Though there is in fact an underlying method to the mash-up, the general trade book portion of the list can indeed leap from subject to subject with dizzying lack of purpose.

But an interesting thing that happens every season as we begin to get familiar with these new titles is that some of them begin to speak to each other.  I’m not referring to titles with actual dueling theses about the same topic, though that sometimes happens too.  It’s more often something about book A that turns up as an echo in book B, which is often on a completely different subject.  My friend Susan Donnelly at Harvard often talks about books on a list being “in conversation with” each other, a lovely idea. 
Sometimes that conversation simply consists of the meaning the individual reader brings to both books.  My personal bookshelves are loaded with matched pairs that have nothing obvious in common, yet are mentally inseparable.  Maybe I bought them at the same time, perhaps in the same bookstore, or read them at the same time, or read one during a love affair and one during the break-up.  What connects two books except the meaning we give them?

This is on my mind because two of the seemingly unrelated titles on the new fall Yale list which I’ve just read seem to have profound things to say to each other.

Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity and Branding in the Social Media Age by Alice E. Marwick, is a beautifully written survey of the ways in which digital self-branding has taken hold.  The chance to create an online self, to manage and tend to a kind of alternate or enhanced personality, is something not just available to celebrities but to drones like us.  Do you have a “self-presentation strategy?”  You need one to participate in the 21st century consumer capitalist marketplace.   What do authenticity and “being yourself” mean in a social media world?
“Strategic online self-presentation”- what would that phrase have meant to Susan Sontag?  I wonder because the manuscript I read after Marwick’s was Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview, which Yale is publishing in its entirety for the first time since appearing in 1978. 
Sontag is a spectacular interviewee, responding to Jonathan Cott’s questions- in person, pre-email!- in complete and brilliant paragraphs.  Her intellect roams over a vast landscape, all of it interesting.  But when Cott asks about how she handles “the Sontag mystique,” her reputation, I couldn’t help but imagine what she’d make of the internet age and digitally mediated celebrityhood.  Would Sontag tweet?

“I think of myself as self-created,” she says, but adds that she has a “persistent fantasy of tearing everything up and of starting all over again under a pseudonym.”  Would she be surprised to see how easy that’s become?

Ultimately, to Sontag, the key thing is “to be present in your own life- fully.”  Is there a better opening gambit for a conversation with a book about our contemporary, massively distributed and branded selves?

It’s hard to find books in conversation by looking for them- they tend to emerge on their own.  But when they happen it’s a special pleasure. 
Sontag’s 8,000+ book library is now at UCLA, and I wonder what sort of conversations those books might have had.  I like to imagine the books on my own bookshelves engaging in witty dialog and strident polemics long after I’ve gone to bed.

Perhaps only at Type Books.