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Someone recently criticized a review of a book I wrote because it contained spoilers, particularly about the ending. I won’t mention the book because, frankly, it doesn’t deserve any more of my attention, but I wondered whether I had been wrong about posting information within the review that might have “spoiled” the ending for others.

Then I thought, No, I wasn’t wrong.

What was “wrong” was that the person didn’t want to read a review they weren’t prepared to agree with, or at the very least consider my arguments.

Of course, I wouldn’t have wanted people, say, telling me what the big “twist” in “The Sixth Sense” was about, but when I went to see it (after many friends gushed about what a huge surprise it was) I was disappointed more to have guessed the twist in the first ten minutes of the film. Had I been warned that the entire film was based on a premise that the audience wouldn’t be smart enough to guess the twist in those first ten minutes I would have been more entertained, because, honestly, I felt the fuss over that film had more to do with how easily people could be fooled by a simple lack of visual literacy than it did some great narrative surprise. You want a real spoiler? Go into a deep philosophical discussion about the meaning of the ending in “Inception.”

Here’s where I find many people wrong about the notion of spoilers: What they want is to be reassured the book/play/movie is going to meet their expectations without being told how. By this very reasoning, it is impossible to write a critical (i.e. negative) review of any narrative form because a reviewer would need to discuss specifics in order to explain and justify their point. What is spoiler to some is a critical examination to others, and thus we come to the great truth about media reviews:

You should be reading them AFTER you’ve seen/read/experienced the thing in question if you don’t want spoilers, because who knows exactly WHAT is going to be a spoiler for any given individual?

People use reviews online to help them make decisions, and with a service like Amazon, reviews and their subsequent ratings (another topic, a question of pure evil) can determine the success of a product.

For example, earlier this summer I bought a car-top carrier for our family vacation and of all the warnings I read, all the positive and negative reviews, NO ONE mentioned this top-rated item had a zipper that was not properly stress rated for this design. It isn’t really a “spoiler” to say “There are design problems” or “I had problems with the zipper” but if someone had said “I have pants with stronger zippers than on this item” I would not have bought it, I would have been “spoiled” from making a purchase that in the end upset me.

So if I’m reading a book with an ending that is full of problems, and I simply say it was “weak” and “didn’t meet my expectations” you would not get as full a sense of my criticism as if I’d said “There are serious errors in human behavior that, in the real world, would have made this happy ending implausible, if not impossible” followed by a brief outline of the issues at hand. Does it reveal too much to be thorough? For some people, perhaps, but there’s still a larger issue here, one i came to many years ago when i began reviewing movies for radio.

See and read everything that interests you, and judge for yourself.

Don’t let a reviewer or a critic ruin anything, simply go out into the world and read the reviews AFTERWARD. If you felt cheated by the story, angered by the implausible, or otherwise burned by the experience, you have performed a very valuable service for yourself: You have gained insight into what does or does not appeal to you, and you have gained the insight without the aid of being told what to think by others.

And in light of recent concerns over reviewers accepting pay for positive reviews, perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing.

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Books don’t care who they’re seen with, only that they be seen for who they are, deep inside.
Strip them of their dust jackets to hide their contents and they don’t care, the reader is the one who is embarrassed and deceptive.

A book will be loyal and faithful in your possession, but think nothing of being sold, traded, abandoned, borrowed or lent.
Perhaps this is what bothers people about libraries and why they don’t like funding them.
Stacked with hundreds of thousands of faithless books, a brothel of the printed word, books are cheap and easy.

For children, books will endure scribbles, mauling, gumming, and whatever harsh abuse is meted out.
They understand that is a part of their purpose.
For adults, books hold their tongues for such behavior though they also hold grudges for a long time.
Some paper cuts are not accidents.

Books like to travel and aren’t fussy about their accommodations.
Packed in suitcases, in backpacks, stuffed into jacket pockets, it’s all the same to them.
Lucky are the books that open up to find themselves at the beach or poolside.
Every time they are opened they see the world anew, every page gets its own personal vista with a reader in the foreground.

Books are narcissists, they stare at their reflection in our eyes, but only because they know this is the only chance they get to see who they are.

Novels longingly dream of being textbooks, repeatedly used and referenced and pawed at by clumsy scholars; textbooks secretly wish for the novel’s life of luxury and lounging.
Auto repair and computer manuals outlive their purpose; dictionaries outlive their owners.

Though their content may be of any political stripe the physical book itself is a collectivist unit, each part pulling for the good of the whole.
Books do not mind this arrangement, their various pages and binding materials understand they serve a higher purpose than their individual parts.

They have no religion, but all books believe in some form of reincarnation.

Make no mistake, books can feel.
When a page is torn you will hear it hiss its disapproval, but a spine will crackle and snap with nervous excitement like knuckles bent-back before the piano recital.

In another time pages were bound by arranged marriages, lovers locked in an embrace that only a reader could separate through a surgical procedure along the outer edge.
Today we no longer insist on the marriage of a recto and verso or in deciding which is which – page numbers exist for our convenience, not the book’s.

For that matter, books make easy alliances with those they are shelved with.
Should they fail to yield their position or go peaceably alongside others in a new arrangement it will not be the fault of the book.
No book has refused the company of another book by choice.

Books keep their secrets.
They hide marginalia, preserve flowers, conceal money, hold recipes, adopt news clippings and bury love letters all without betrayal.

They do not like the weather too dry or the air too humid.
Books swell or become brittle with discomfort at either extreme, much like their owners.
That said, books adore inclimate weather, as it tends to cause their owners to seek them out.

For all these and many other reasons, books will continue as long as mankind does.

After all, they are made in our image.

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Yeah, that’s right, get ready for it. Spandex and roller boogie and perhaps even leg warmers and headbands!

Okay, maybe not, but it’s just as plausible as most dystopic fiction out there. And for proof, I now draw your attention to one of my favorite topics in the history of late 20th century American cinema, science fiction films of the 1970s.

What the heck was in the water back then?

There were movies about killer robots (Westword, Futureworld), movies about population control (Logan’s Run), movies about what was called “the greenhouse effect” back then (Soylent Green, which was also about population control), and of course, the reign of Charlton Heston as king of all things dystopian-to-come (Planet of the Apes, Omega Man, uh, Earthquake). In a decade that started with A Clockwork Orange (Cold War dystopia!) and The Andromeda Strain (killer viruses!) then ended with a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (virus from space!) and Mad Max (Cold War dystopia!) there had to be something that would pull us out of the doldrums.

And then along came disco.

Okay, so disco was a simultaneous response to the world, a response that also begat punk rock, but there was huge crossover. So much of the idealistic imagery of the future in 70s sci-fi movies looked like disco outfits — lots of white polyester and feathered hair — while the darker stuff looked like a fashion template for crusty punk squatters. But in the end, wherever there was a dark movie about sanctioned cannibalism there was a new Donna Summer dance tune or a Bee Gees hit!

If YA had been around back in the 70s — and I mean, as huge a market as it is today — I have no doubts teens would have gobbled up books like much of the dystopic sci-fi movies out there. I know, because I was there, and we were hungry for it. I also have no doubt those imaginary books would have been made into movies not unlike the ones that were made that all the teens saw anyway.

So to those adults wringing their hands about how “dark” YA has become, or worried about the boom in dystopic fiction I say fear not. This too shall pass, and in its wake we can expect there to be a rise in mindless pop confections to counter-balance all the darkness. Pastels and fern bars and a return to campy decor is just around the corner. Heck, for good measure, let’s have Woody Allen team up with Dianne Keaton one last time for Annie Hall 2: Electric Boogaloo where the two senior citizens kvetch about New York like nothing has changed in the last 35 years. Maybe Jeff Lynne can collaborate with Olivia Neutron Bomb* for a return trip to Xanadu.** Perhaps the old guard major networks can revive the oldest reality shows they ever created, Battle of the Network Stars, just in time for the Olympics.

Because maybe nothing has changed.

Mostly.

.

.

edited:

* This was a nickname that combined two of the greatest threats to our well-being in the late 70s, the omnipresence of Olivia Newton John and the threat of a neutron bomb which we were told would destroy populations by leave the buildings in tact – as if that were a reassurance!

** Shortly after I wrote this post, but before I updated it to the interwebs, Donna Summer died. The original line here was “Giorgio Morodor and Donna Summer need to get back into the studio STAT and show these girls what it means to work hard for the money.” As much as I mocked Donna Summer as a teen she did, indeed, work harder for the money than many singers these days. 

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It doesn’t take a Nostradamus or a Jean Dixon (is anyone alive making a living doing predictions these day?) to figure out what the big sellers in children’s books are going to be this holiday season. Unless a child is a fanatical follower of Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, or Shel Silverstein the chances are they didn’t get these books the day they were released recently, and more importantly they won’t own these books until the holidays roll around. They may have a chance to see them in the library before then, but given the way these authors are constantly checked out they may not see them anywhere but while hanging around with their parents on those rare occasions they step into a book store.

Not to suggest that these brand-name, marquee-worthy authors don’t deserve the sales, but my prediction has more to do with what I know about bookselling and the behaviors of those who shop for children. There is nothing more frustrating than standing in a store full of nothing but books for children, being solicited for an opinion or recommendation on a title for a child as a gift, only to have the parent (or just as often a grandparent) say “Yes, well, what about (insert well-known children’s book title here)? Do you have that?” When it comes to books, adult shoppers, more than children, fear what they don’t know.

This actually gets trickier as readers get older. When parents are still reading to their children they at least have a sense of the quality and range for what’s available. With voracious appetites for another story, parents will grab stacks full of picture books from the library to read to their lap-sitters, but once those readers become independent and move into newer realms parents have less say and less knowledge about what their kids are reading. I suppose it’s understandable that adults don’t want to have to read middle grade titles to determine their appropriateness or quality, and maybe they shouldn’t read young adult novels so that teens still have their own private club that excludes their parents, but this creates a difficult divide for the book-buying adult to breach. How do they purchase books and encourage reading for the minors in their charge while at the same time retain their distance from actually having to read them?

As with anything, buy what you know.

The truth is, it’s difficult to top Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, or Shel Silverstein. Any fan of these authors is hard pressed when looking for “something else like them,” as they often ask librarians and store clerks. And if it is difficult for younger readers its near impossible for adults to second guess what authors and titles are in the same realm as these authors. There are plenty of humorous poets who write for children, but when a child wants more Shel Silverstein they cannot easily be convinced that Jack Prelutsky is a worthy substitute.

So come the holiday season – which is just a polite way of saying, come the time of year we voluntarily agree to our tithing to the church of capitalism in the form of holiday-based purchases – as frantic adults go in search of gift books for their children and grandchildren, the familiar will win out over the new.

I could be wrong, I often am. We’ll see.

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I am a child of the 70s, mostly. I remember the latter half of the 60s as well but my generation pretty much came of age during the tumult of The Decade That Ate Its Young, that alternate (and perhaps more politically accurate) name of The Me Decade. There are many things we have now that we didn’t have then. Technology is obvious. The possibility of an African-American or a woman in the White House seemed far-fetched back then. Oh, and we didn’t have books written for and marketed to our specific teen demographic. The term “young adult” didn’t exist as a category of fiction, and when it was used by an adult it was used pejoratively. To be a young adult was to be one step above a delinquent.

Somewhere in all that we still managed to learn about sex. We didn’t really learn all that much about it in school, and our parents weren’t really talking about it, so we picked it up exactly where our parents were afraid we’d pick it up: in books. No, they didn’t think of it like that, they would say we “picked it up off the streets” like some sun-warmed blob of chewing gum. The irony was that those “streets” of books we learned about sex from were often in our own homes.

I was just learning the complicated and confusing joys of puberty when I discovered that some photos in the National Geographic held a strange fascination over my attention. I’m not even talking about the random shot of a semi-nude tribal woman dancing, but certain faces of young women just slightly older than myself. They could be Irish teens waiting on a low stone wall for a bus, or Japanese women modeling Western fashions in Tokyo, so long as they were a few years older I found myself having wondrous strange thoughts about and imaginary conversations with them. I scoured the three or four most recent issues in our house until I felt I’d exhausted myself over these images, then had a sudden realization: there were boxes and boxes full of back issues in our garage! One Saturday afternoon, when no one else was home to witness, I went into the garage.

And lo! like a beam from heaven in the form of a bare and yellow 60 watt bulb, I discovered a box of paperback books that contained the twin volumes that would forever change me: Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House and Dr. David Ruben’s Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex: But Were Afraid To Ask. Vonnegut is a subject I’ve spoken often about and is no concern to us here today. No, it’s that other book, that grail of information spilling out of its chemically bleached pages like a pulchritudinous serving wench exploding out of her Elizabethan bodice. That’s the stuff.

So full of vivid medical descriptions of body parts and how they work! So full of explanations of mechanics that made no sense to me! So full of information that was… totally unsexy!

Here was the perfect book, I thought, that would do what no adult dared to do: tell the truth about everything. And it turned out to be what I didn’t want. So much what I couldn’t use or apply. So unhelpful. If you’ve only had urges and strange sensations and never had a girl or boyfriend, never been on a date, never even kissed, the whole of a book like Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex was as lost as the acts of the son of Judah.

A few years later it seemed like there was another chance to really get the inside scoop on this sex thing when kids started bringing copies of The Illustrated Joy of Sex to school. We even understood the irony of passing that book around in biology class while our otherwise-preoccupied teacher showed us sex-ed films from the 1950s (Emergency Childbirth ring a bell for anyone else?). This time ’round we had less medical babble and more pictures. Yeah, pictures! That’s what we wanted! Skip this foreplay stuff, this weird section called “Pickles,” show us what we all pretended we knew how to do since we were ten, since the day we found our first copy of Playboy in the bushes and took it home to hide under our mattress. Now, finally, we could see it all, we knew everything about sex, and we were happy.

But we weren’t. Something was missing.

Books had given us something we wanted, information in its most clinical and mechanical forms, and we were grateful because they were at least filling in the gaps created by our parent’s ostrich-like behavior, but what we wanted and needed was something that bridged the gap. Explaining that our “urges” and “changes” were natural didn’t help us understand our feelings at all. They didn’t help us figure out what was normal in terms of communicating with the subjects of our desire, what was appropriate and inappropriate in terms of social and private behavior. We were as lost as if given a destination, a road map, and a car without wheels.

We needed more books.

We needed books that told us, showed us what it was like to live these awkward moments. We needed books that explained the emotional trajectory of first kisses and fumbled make-out sessions. We didn’t want first- or second-hand accounts from kids fumbling around aimlessly on their own – accounts we often dismissed as made up but accepted as truth simply because we had nothing else to go by. What do you do when your crush is unrequited? What do you do when a casual friendship flares up in the heat of the moment and turns into a carnal Lust Monster?

Kids today, they don’t know how good they’ve got it. Not only are there Young Adults books, but you can find them about pretty much any topic. Abuse. Drugs. Death and the afterlife.

Sex.

You can find books about teens wanting, and having, sex. You can read about their desires, and how they go about achieving those desires (or sometimes failing to), and learn a whole slew of lessons without ever having to emulate the characters at all! Imagine! Just like a mystery where you don’t have to murder anyone, or a horror novel where you don’t have to be hunted down by some vengeful spirit or madman, or like some historical epic where you don’t have to fight in a war or suffer from some (then) incurable disease, you can read about sex and interpersonal relations and decide for yourself how to use that information! Amazing! Books are amazing!

And so, while adults continue to wring their hands over the problem of whether or not there is a case to be made for “raunchy” books for teens, we must remember that adults have a long and storied history of this hand-wringing, silence-peddling, censorship-pushing nonsense. Adults will always try to “protect the children” and youth will always find a way around their overbearing protections. The chemical and biological sex drive is there and, for the teen caught in the maelstrom of these awkward and sudden changes, no amount of protective censorship will keep them from seeking out answers. Fortunately for teens today there are plenty of sources Unfortunately, there are still adults out there trying to limit that information.

I say, be young, young adults! Think about sex all you want! Be defiant and delinquent! Read everything and judge for yourself!

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Lay – to place, set, or locate; Off – so as to be away or on one’s way.
Laid off – the temporary suspension or permanent termination of employment.

I have been sent on my way. Business in the bookstore is down enough that my part-time services have made me redundant. Further euphemisms include: downsize, rightsize, smartsize, workforce reduction or workforce optimization, simplification and reduction in force. For a brief period of time I worked in Human Resources (I thought I might be good at it) so I’ve seen my share. I’ve also managed retail businesses and have been forced to make and justify my hiring budgets, including periods of “planned layoffs” and “periods of known attrition” which had to do with the transitory nature of college student employees.

With luck, perhaps, I can return to bookselling in the fall. I suppose it was only a matter of time before the crappy economy caught up with me. It’s also fortunate that we’re moving to a new place this month, and that I’ve got my residency in a week, enough to keep me busy from feeling the blow of once again “being made available to the industry.”

I’ll be spending some idle times over the next couple of weeks reassessing my situation to see if there isn’t some way to continue with my education and still contribute financially to the household.

I understand there’s money to be had in setting up bank accounts for overseas interests, Nigeria in particular. All I need to do is give them my personal information…

Other suggestions will be entertained as well.

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Get in the e-reader business.

Seriously.

Work with publishers to download new books directly from their site or iTunes. Make a reader that is thin like the MacBook Air, wireless, and with a touchscreen interface. Not too small, because it would be nice if picture books or illustrated books could be viewed on it without the images being to small to appreciate. And perhaps with the ability to use it for audiobooks as well. And the ability for users to upload their own texts, like personal manuscripts and research papers or PDFs.

A true Mac Book.

Apple, I know you cannot hear me but perhaps someone out there is listening. There has to be something better than K… what’s out there.

Please.

And thank you.

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