My public library is also a free video store

I recently saw my public library’s latest annual report with these figures on items borrowed:

WarrenvilleLibraryBorrowing2015

While books are still the largest category, it isn’t much of a drop to the next category of DVDs. One interpretation of this data? The DVDs are nearly as important to the library’s patrons as DVDs. This makes the library one of the best video stores around with free prices and a decent selection.

Here is the stated mission of the library:

It is the mission of the Warrenville Public Library District to collect, organize and make available the representative records of humanity’s actions, concerns and aspirations. It exists for the common good to support a literate and informed citizenry.

I know this trend has been underway for a while now as the DVDs might help keep people coming to the library and we certainly live in a visual culture. But, it would be interesting to think about how all those DVDs contribute to supporting a “literate and informed citizenry.” Of course, some could argue not all or even many books meet this guideline.

Selling Bibles is big business

The market for the Bible is still strong:

No official sales projections are publicly available, but if history provides a guide, the “NIV Zondervan Study Bible” could easily sell 100,000 copies by the end of the year — probably a lot more. The new study Bible by Zondervan, a Christian publishing house in Grand Rapids, Mich., owned by HarperCollins, could follow earlier blockbuster sales. The last NIV study Bible, published by Zondervan in 1985, sold more than 9 million copies.

The Bible business is booming. There are annual sales of 40 million Bibles — from study Bibles to family Bibles to pocket Bibles. That’s not even counting foreign markets. As journalist Daniel Radosh observed, “The familiar observation that the Bible is the best-selling book of all time obscures a more startling fact: The Bible is the best-selling book of the year, every year.”…

The “ESV Study Bible” is actually only one of 19 Bibles that have sold more 1 million copies in the past decade. The editors behind Zondervan’s new offering are undoubtedly looking for the same sort of sales, and there’s reason to believe they will get them…

The anxiety over kinds of Bibles — aggravated by the market — creates a demand for new, more authoritative works. Some of the most popular study Bibles are designed to reassure readers of the text’s accuracy and authority, while at the same time promising to be easy to read.

I worked for two summers in the warehouse of Tyndale House Publishers where we shipped a good number of Bibles (among other items, such as plenty of Left Behind books). We had all sorts of Bibles: different translations, ones for different people groups (teenagers, women, seekers, those with the education to make use of the original language and the translation side by side), and in all sorts of packaging from software to metal cases to real leather. I remember noting the two forces at work: the impulse to make the Bible available alongside the motivation to make money.

This is an area where Christianity and materialism come head to head and yet I’m not sure it gets discussed much. How useful are all those Bibles? How much do people need new and improved versions? Where does all that money go? Americans love to consume things…are the sales of Bible more of an indication of consumption than of religious fervor?

Big claim in a new book title: “Society Explained”

Go big or go home with your sociology book titles as this new sociology book Society Explained illustrates:

Rousseau had a couple of overriding goals in writing the book, his third.

One goal was to make the case that technological change, the use of social media and a sense of both economic and personal powerlessness are causing people to turn inward and become increasingly self-absorbed.

“People are much more alone than they need to be,” Rousseau said.

His other goal was to write a book that “is not dull or jargon-filled,” as many sociology texts tend to be, using personal examples and historical perspective.

“I was trying to take a very down-to-earth look at how our society functions,” he said.

In that, he appears to have struck a chord. After reviewing more than 7,000 titles, the American Library Association has named “Society Explained” one of the top 25 academic books of 2014.

Does this book offer one or a few key social forces that explain society today or does it take the typical introduction to sociology approach of looking at numerous subfields? I would expect the former with such a title though I’ve seen enough books to suspect the latter might be true. Alas, society is complex with numerous moving parts and doesn’t have the same kind of universal laws that might be found in the natural sciences. (What is the sociological equivalent of the law of gravity?) Yet, this is precisely what makes the subject so fascinating.

Hunger Games salute used by Thai protesters

Young adult fiction can lend itself to protest movements:

Fans of the popular book and film franchise The Hunger Games will recognize the hand signal instantly: the middle three fingers of the hand, raised to the sky. A gesture of resistance against the repressive government in the fictional world of Panem, it has now become a very real symbol of protest in Thailand at demonstrations against the junta that took power after the May 22 coup d’etat.

Crowds making the gesture have been pulled off the streets, according to reports, and a lone protestor was dragged into a taxi and arrested after making the hand signal…

Although the junta imposed a media blackout for television, satellite, and radio thanks to the immense popularity of social media in Thailand, discussion and criticism of the coup has continued on platforms like Twitter and Facebook—including tweets both documenting and encouraging the salute.

This is a fascinating example of protesters borrowing from the realm of literature and entertainment. The Hunger Games books contain some interesting commentary about modern society amidst their action and made-for-TV scenes. Just how different is the situation with the Capitol from the situation in Thailand? It may not even matter as it links their protests to a well-recognized symbol from mass-produced and consumed books and movies that can draw attention to their plight. Is there a similar symbol they could have used that would get them more attention or help their cause more?

What kind of sociology book gets trade press attention before it is published

Books by sociologists don’t often become bestsellers or draw the attention of a broad range of presses, reviewers, and the public. But, here is some backstory on the soon-to-be published On the Run and why it is drawing attention:

As an author, Alice Goffman has a few things going for her. She’s the daughter of the late Erving Goffman, a giant in the field of sociology, and her surname alone has long made her of interest to those in academia. Then there is her young age (32) and the somewhat dramatic nature of her fieldwork: starting her research when she was a college freshman, Goffman spent six years following a small group of young black men in inner-city Philadelphia. All of this has put a spotlight on Goffman’s forthcoming book, On the Run, which the University of Chicago Press is releasing on May 13. The excitement around the title has led the scholarly publisher to break with a number of norms; it has gone back to press three times already, and has auctioned off the paperback and digital rights to a trade house…

The planned book was an ethnography examining the effect of the prison system beyond the reaches of confinement; it focused on the lives of a group of young, male African-American friends in a Philadelphia neighborhood. The proposal was brief, touching on the failings of the war on drugs—specifically, the havoc wreaked by the parole system—but it was impressive enough, Stahl said, that the press acquired it. (At the time, Goffman was a 20-year-old undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, and, according to Stahl, UCP had never before acquired a title by someone still in college.) When Goffman turned in her manuscript a decade later—the submission date was loose, given the lengthy nature of fieldwork—Stahl said UCP’s editors realized the book was not only a “great ethnography,” but also a “gripping read.”…

While Star said it’s “striking” that Goffman started her fieldwork when she was so young, and that there are elements of her own backstory that may draw media attention, he believes the book stands on its own. And, although On the Run is an academic text, Star thinks it touches on themes front and center in the public debate: namely, the inordinately high incarceration rate for black men in the U.S. In the wake of books like The New Jim Crow (Free Press, 2010), which Star felt began “raising questions about who goes to prison and why,” On the Run taps into a “very important set of issues involving the intersection of justice, crime, poverty, and race.” And, echoing Stahl’s feelings about the trade appeal of the book, Star said that On the Run is also, despite its academic nature, a book with “novelistic qualities.”

If it is accurate to compare The New Jim Crow to On the Run, FSG and UCP have a hit on their hands; the former book, by Michelle Alexander, has sold over 200,000 copies in paperback and hardcover combined at outlets that report to Nielsen BookScan. Star certainly feels the topicality of On the Run will help it in the trade market; he pointed to another book he recently acquired, tentatively titled Locking Up Our Own, by Yale Law School professor James Forman Jr., which also delves into the subject of black men and prison. Locking Up examines the correlation between the rising number of African-American elected officials and the incarceration of African-Americans in cities like Washington, D.C.

It will be interesting see how much attention this gets after its release as well as the book-sale figures. Several things seem to make this stand out from other academic books: the backstory of the author from her young age at the beginning to a well-known father; a topic that lines up with a lot of recent conversations (inequality, race, the prison system, the plight of cities); and “novelistic qualities” that help it move beyond a dry academic texts with more elements of story. I wonder if a parallel to this work isn’t the work of Sudhir Venkatesh which shares some similar traits: interesting story of how he started the project (held by a gang while trying to do survey research in a housing project); describing the business-like qualities of gangs even as urban crime and economies were becoming prominent conversation topics; and Venkatesh has plenty of interesting stories (which lately seem to have drawn some criticism for being “thin”). So, based on On the Run and Gang Leader for a Day, sociology bestsellers need to be ethnographic works that focus on race, cities, and crime?

Another question: is this the sort of book that is the left’s answer to all of the right-wing best-sellers of recent years? I wonder who exactly will purchase this book.

Was Jane Austen the first sociologist?

An English professor argues author Jane Austen made observations similar to those of sociologists:

In his lecture “Jane Austen, Sociologist,” Wednesday night James Thompson argued that Jane Austen is the first sociologist because the focus is on human interaction and conversation in her novels.

“As a careful observer and recorder of association of small group interaction and the minutia of conversation, I am going to argue that Austen is less a moralist than the first sociologist,” Thompson, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said…

He said Austen’s work [Pride and Prejudice] had similar observations as Erving Goffman, a 20th century sociologist. Both Austen and Goffman emphasize the importance of first impressions. Thompson said Austen and Goffman both see a first impression as “a crucial test case of social form.” He explained that a first impression is a measure of how well the participants of a conversation understand the “rules” of social interaction.

“Jane Austen and Erving Goffman are simply the most acute observers and analysts of the minutia of conversation so far,” Thompson said.

Interesting to note that this argument comes from an English professor; how many sociologists would agree? I suspect sociologists might argue sociologists aren’t just people who can make astute observations about social life. Rather, sociologists have a particular approach to society that involves theories and a method to collecting and analyzing data. For example, while Austen and Goffman both looked at interactions, Goffman aimed to explain why humans act this way: to make a good first impression and save face.

I’ve wondered why there isn’t more formal overlap between sociologists and those in the field of English. The topics of study are study can be similar though the focus in English is often on the text while sociologists have a wider range of data sources. Sociologists of literature are rare even though texts have had a large influence on American society.

Using algorithms to analyze the literary canon

A new book describes efforts to use algorithms to discover what is in and out of the literary canon:

There’s no single term that captures the range of new, large-scale work currently underway in the literary academy, and that’s probably as it should be. More than a decade ago, the Stanford scholar of world literature Franco Moretti dubbed his quantitative approach to capturing the features and trends of global literary production “distant reading,” a practice that paid particular attention to counting books themselves and owed much to bibliographic and book historical methods. In earlier decades, so-called “humanities computing” joined practitioners of stylometry and authorship attribution, who attempted to quantify the low-level differences between individual texts and writers. More recently, the catchall term “digital humanities” has been used to describe everything from online publishing and new media theory to statistical genre discrimination. In each of these cases, however, the shared recognition — like the impulse behind the earlier turn to cultural theory, albeit with a distinctly quantitative emphasis — has been that there are big gains to be had from looking at literature first as an interlinked, expressive system rather than as something that individual books do well, badly, or typically. At the same time, the gains themselves have as yet been thin on the ground, as much suggestions of future progress as transformative results in their own right. Skeptics could be forgiven for wondering how long the data-driven revolution can remain just around the corner.

Into this uncertain scene comes an important new volume by Matthew Jockers, offering yet another headword (“macroanalysis,” by analogy to macroeconomics) and a range of quantitative studies of 19th-century fiction. Jockers is one of the senior figures in the field, a scholar who has been developing novel ways of digesting large bodies of text for nearly two decades. Despite Jockers’s stature, Macroanalysis is his first book, one that aims to summarize and unify much of his previous research. As such, it covers a lot of ground with varying degrees of technical sophistication. There are chapters devoted to methods as simple as counting the annual number of books published by Irish-American authors and as complex as computational network analysis of literary influence. Aware of this range, Jockers is at pains to draw his material together under the dual headings of literary history and critical method, which is to say that the book aims both to advance a specific argument about the contours of 19th-century literature and to provide a brief in favor of the computational methods that it uses to support such an argument. For some readers, the second half of that pairing — a detailed look into what can be done today with new techniques — will be enough. For others, the book’s success will likely depend on how far they’re persuaded that the literary argument is an important one that can’t be had in the absence of computation…

More practically interesting and ambitious are Jockers’s studies of themes and influence in a larger set of novels from the same period (3,346 of them, to be exact, or about five to 10 percent of those published during the 19th century). These are the only chapters of the book that focus on what we usually understand by the intellectual content of the texts in question, seeking to identify and trace the literary use of meaningful clusters of subject-oriented terms across the corpus. The computational method involved is one known as topic modeling, a statistical approach to identifying such clusters (the topics) in the absence of outside input or training data. What’s exciting about topic modeling is that it can be run quickly over huge swaths of text about which we initially know very little. So instead of developing a hunch about the thematic importance of urban poverty or domestic space or Native Americans in 19th-century fiction and then looking for words that might be associated with those themes — that is, instead of searching Google Books more or less at random on the basis of limited and biased close reading — topic models tell us what groups of words tend to co-occur in statistically improbable ways. These computationally derived word lists are for the most part surprisingly coherent and highly interpretable. Specifically in Jockers’s case, they’re both predictable enough to inspire confidence in the method (there are topics “about” poverty, domesticity, Native Americans, Ireland, sea faring, servants, farming, etc.) and unexpected enough to be worth examining in detail…

The notoriously difficult problem of literary influence finally unites many of the methods in Macroanalysis. The book’s last substantive chapter presents an approach to finding the most central texts among the 3,346 included in the study. To assess the relative influence of any book, Jockers first combines the frequency measures of the roughly 100 most common words used previously for stylistic analysis with the more than 450 topic frequencies used to assess thematic interest. This process generates a broad measure of each book’s position in a very high-dimensional space, allowing him to calculate the “distance” between every pair of books in the corpus. Pairs that are separated by smaller distances are more similar to each other, assuming we’re okay with a definition of similarity that says two books are alike when they use high-frequency words at the same rates and when they consist of equivalent proportions of topic-modeled terms. The most influential books are then the ones — roughly speaking and skipping some mathematical details — that show the shortest average distance to the other texts in the collection. It’s a nifty approach that produces a fascinatingly opaque result: Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne’s famously odd 18th-century bildungsroman, is judged to be the most influential member of the collection, followed by George Gissing’s unremarkable The Whirlpool (1897) and Benjamin Disraeli’s decidedly minor romance Venetia (1837). If you can make sense of this result, you’re ahead of Jockers himself, who more or less throws up his hands and ends both the chapter and the analytical portion of the book a paragraph later. It might help if we knew what else of Gissing’s or Disraeli’s was included in the corpus, but that information is provided in neither Macroanalysis nor its online addenda.

Sounds interesting. I wonder if there isn’t a great spot for mixed method analysis: Jockers’ analysis provides the big picture but you also need more intimate and deep knowledge of the smaller groups of texts or individual texts to interpret what the results mean. So, if the data suggests three books are the most influential, you would have to know these books and their context to make sense of what the data says. Additionally, you still want to utilize theories and hypotheses to guide the analysis rather than simply looking for patterns.

This reminds me of the work sociologist Wendy Griswold has done in analyzing whether American novels shared common traits (she argues copyright law was quite influential) or how a reading culture might emerge in a developing nation. Her approach is somewhere between the interpretation of texts and the algorithms described above, relying on more traditional methods in sociology like analyzing samples and conducting interviews.

A society that develops deep readers

Sociologist Wendy Griswold has written about what it means to develop a reading culture and recent research about “deep reading” suggests people have to learn to have to do it:

Recent research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience has demonstrated that deep reading — slow, immersive, rich in sensory detail and emotional and moral complexity — is a distinctive experience, different in kind from the mere decoding of words. Although deep reading does not, strictly speaking, require a conventional book, the built-in limits of the printed page are uniquely conducive to the deep reading experience. A book’s lack of hyperlinks, for example, frees the reader from making decisions — Should I click on this link or not? — allowing her to remain fully immersed in the narrative.

That immersion is supported by the way the brain handles language rich in detail, allusion and metaphor: by creating a mental representation that draws on the same brain regions that would be active if the scene were unfolding in real life. The emotional situations and moral dilemmas that are the stuff of literature are also vigorous exercise for the brain, propelling us inside the heads of fictional characters and even, studies suggest, increasing our real-life capacity for empathy…

To understand why we should be concerned about how young people read, and not just whether they’re reading at all, it helps to know something about the way the ability to read evolved. “Human beings were never born to read,” notes Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Unlike the ability to understand and produce spoken language, which under normal circumstances will unfold according to a program dictated by our genes, the ability to read must be painstakingly acquired by each individual. The “reading circuits” we construct are recruited from structures in the brain that evolved for other purposes—and these circuits can be feeble or they can be robust, depending on how often and how vigorously we use them…

This is not reading as many young people are coming to know it. Their reading is pragmatic and instrumental: the difference between what literary critic Frank Kermode calls “carnal reading” and “spiritual reading.” If we allow our offspring to believe that carnal reading is all there is—if we don’t open the door to spiritual reading, through an early insistence on discipline and practice—we will have cheated them of an enjoyable, even ecstatic experience they would not otherwise encounter.

If we put this in sociological terms, it sounds like the research suggests that deep reading is a socialized experience. Deep reading is a developed skill, perhaps explicitly modeled and taught and also observed and absorbed. For those who see the benefits of deep reading, the next logical question seems to be how to continue this socialization process. When Griswold studied reading culture in Nigeria, she discussed the role of printing presses and publishing companies, educated authors, citizens have the money to buy books, and citizens having the time to read novels and longer works. There are not the same kinds of issues in the United States: there are plenty books, authors, and potential readers with the time and money for deep reading. Instead, the issues are things like a lot of competition for reading and a value system that privileges progress, novelty, anti-intellectualism, and pragmatism.

What happens then if a society is post deep reading, having advanced past that stage according to the practices of many residents? Does this affect civic and social life in meaningful ways? Or, if a society is divided along reading and non-reading lines? There has been plenty of discussion about inequality regarding the Internet but what about with books and reading?

McMansions part of the “dark side” of the Midwest

A review of the work of author Gillian Flynn suggests McMansions help fill in the scene for the darker side of Midwest life:

But the novel – like the 41-year-old Flynn herself – is a deeply felt product of the midwest. The real place, not the idly dismissed fantasy image held in the minds of those too lazy to venture out into what really goes on in the American heartland. The book is set in an ailing Missouri river town on the banks of the Mississippi – the same giant waterway that inspired Mark Twain. But the town is dying, its mall crushed by an ailing economy and its McMansions crumbling at the seams. Beneath the surface glitter of the marriage of Nick and Amy Dunne, dark things lurk: secrets, hidden plans and desperation.

To anyone who knows the midwest for real, this is no surprise. This is the same region that gave us Truman Capote’s exploration of random, empty Kansas murderers in his masterful In Cold Blood. This is a place founded on the old grass prairies, whose Native American inhabitants were butchered and displaced, and whose soil was ripped up. The midwest is the Indian Creek massacre and the “dust bowl” as much as Little House on the Prairie.

Who knew the Midwest was so dark? Actually, this sort of portrayal sounds very similar to a common genre of work about suburbs that arose after World War II. Both the Midwest and suburbs might be viewed as the “heartland” or where “average” Americans go to live. (At the same time, the Midwest can’t claim the same sort of population proportions as the suburbs – now over 50% of Americans live in suburbs.) But, authors, filmmakers, artists, and musicians have frequently “exposed” the seemy underside of these places. There is no doubt that there are bad things lurking below the surface in all places so perhaps the issue here is the facade that cultural producers think too often gets portrayed as “the truth” about the Midwest and suburbs.

Overall, certain places tend to get a more noir treatment compared to others. For example, the Los Angeles School of urban scholars has argued that Los Angeles also is presented in this way – it may look like a glamorous, sunny place but there is a lot of crime and cruelty below the surface. (See the revered movie Chinatown or the TV show Dragnet.) From the perspective of the LA School, this noir treatment tells the truth as it exposes the capitalistic underpinnings that make Los Angeles both glittering and a hotbed of inequality. Should we take a similar perspective about the Midwest – it really is a place with problems that need to be revealed to the world?

Barnes & Noble as “the last bookstore chain standing”

Here is a look at the dwindling fortunes of Barnes & Noble:

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Mitchell Klipper, chief executive of Barnes & Noble’s retail group, said that, over the next decade, the chain will reduce its outlets by about twenty a year to reach a figure of about 450-to-500 consumer stores, down from a peak of 726 in 2008. A separate chain of 674 college bookstores (which thrive on tchotchkes and their exclusive franchises) is not part of that calculation. Even with so many fewer consumer stores, Klipper said, “It’s a good business model. You have to adjust your overhead and get smart with smart systems. Is it what it used to be when you were opening 80 stores a year and dropping stores everywhere? Probably not. It’s different. But every business evolves.” Klipper disputes the notion that bookstores will be unable to hold their own in the digital era, despite the chain’s need to downsize where rents or locations are hurting the prospect of acceptable profitability. Only a handful of the stores–fewer than twenty–are actually losing money, he told the Wall Street Journal’s Jeffrey Trachtenberg. But the company’s revenues have been significantly impacted by its commitment to build the Nook franchise.

While holding on to ownership of nearly 80 percent of its Nook division, a $300 million investment in Nook from Microsoft last fall, followed by an $89.5 million commitment from Pearson, which sees value in the growing electronic textbook market, are signs that Barnes & Noble can forge a way to secure enough of the digital business to offset the problems it faces in traditional bookselling.

But the overall impression of Barnes & Noble’s situation in the book industry is not nearly as positive as its owners and investors would like to portray. Publisher’s Weekly reported last week that Barnes & Noble is in the midst of contentious negotiations over terms with Simon & Schuster. “Although the exact nature of the disagreement is not yet clear,” Publisher’s Weekly reported, “Barnes &Noble has significantly reduced its orders from S&S. The main reason for the cutback seems to be, according to sources, Barnes & Noble’s lack of support from S&S.” (One way or another, this means a dispute over the size of discounts and advertising.) Another factor for concern is the impending merger of Random House and Penguin, which is expected to give this corporate behemoth the ability to deal with Google’s Android ecosystem, and Apple’s consumer cachet as well as Amazon’s dominant position in online retailing. There was an initial belief that Borders’ bankruptcy would bring a substantial portion of its in-store business to Barnes & Noble, but that has not turned out to be the case.

“Barnes & Noble is the last bookstore chain standing,” Wharton management professor Steve Kobrin, who is also the publisher of Wharton Digital Press, told the Knowledge@Wharton newsletter. “There’s still a niche there, but it may go to small independent bookstores.”

As I’ve watched these stories over the last few years, here are a few thoughts:

1. There still is a lot of irony in people lamenting the loss of Barnes & Noble today when not too long ago they were lamenting the rise of big box bookstores in general.

2. We could have a larger conversation about reading in society in general. Is this just about Amazon and online retailers taking away business or are less Americans reading in general? (Book sales were down 2.5% in 2011.) This extends to libraries as well: do people go there for books or DVDs?

3. There is room for interesting conversations about the goals bookstores meet in society or the function they play. Are they supposed to be more like “third places,” commercial learning centers where the average citizen can encounter a world of knowledge (commercial versions of a library), or retailers looking to make money? If bookstores are lost, what is really lost? If people aren’t going to bookstores, what are they doing instead?