Skip to content

What I’m reading, what I’m writing, thinking about LibraryThing

Today is Tax Day in Tallahassee. Well, it’s Tax Day for me in my house, because I filed an extension (as I always do; it’s legal, I always have a good reason, and I do pay what I owe) and got my tax stuff halfway done and then got into the “hustle and flow” mode of pitching, writing, presenting, and pitching some more.

So naturally, to procrastinate for just another half-hour (no Harry Potter movie for me until this is done), I’ll catch you all up on my writing and reading.

I keep turning out IT-related pieces for publication, and when people ask me why, I say because I get paid to do it. Someone commented that I wasn’t getting much use out of my MFA by doing this tech pieces, but I demur: I can tell the difference. I get in later and out earlier, and even the most workmanlike piece has more rhythm and shape than from my pre-MFA days. So there.

Writing of the delicate, craft-laden, do-it-for-love sort has included revising older pieces to move them forward (or in a couple of cases, deciding that they should slumber forever); resuming, and temporarily abandoning, a piece about lying (but not after requesting and skimming an amazing pile of books about deception — I had no idea people studied that for a living; goes to show writing makes you smarter); starting, and building on, an essay about California that I work on time from time, and I am considering finishing it as a much shorter piece and submitting it to online journals; and fleshing out the research phase for a piece about Florida seafood, in which a relative newcomer finds that much lies beneath the halcyon surface (just say “net ban” in these parts and watch folks turn red as a cooked lobster).

But the big deal is this weekend is a marathon revision session — a teardown,quite frankly — of my portrait of Ann Lipow. I was going to save it for a retreat I had applied to, but Roy Tennant is calling in his cards, and this is a great weekend to do it. I may even skip church (you won’t tell Sandy, will you?). Oh wait — I’m bringing six bags of biscuits for the shelter meal that evening — might as well attend the 9 o’clock.

I have also sent out essays, which requires that I re-read them end to end to make small revisions. I just had another rejection for The Outlaw Bride this morning, and with email you don’t have the “scribbled note” effect (where the editor, to show you that your piece stood out, scribbles a handwritten note on the rejection form letter, always a comforting touch), but I’m going to assume that this was sincere: “I really enjoyed reading it and wish we could find a place for it in the next issue.”

My new rule is that for every rejection I send two out, so Tuesday I’ll get out the manila envelopes and screw up my courage once more. I always hit a wall right before I take the envelopes to the mailbox where I hear the Bad Voice say, “nobody wants this junk, give it up,” but I will whisper to myself over and over, “enjoyed reading it… wish we could find a place for it” until the essays are safely on their way.

Bookly reading has included Wine and War, a respectable narrative about the French, their wine, and World War 2, marred by an ungainly structure and portrayals of American soldiers that make them all look like Jerry Lewis, but an interesting story all the same; a collection of essays by Jonathan Franzen, in which I tried to forgive him for being snotty to Oprah but despite his elegant turns of phrase did not buy his tale of woe (*sniff, sniff* I had it so hard signing all those books people were buying, poor pitiful me) and I got all torqued when not once but twice he suggested that the Chicago postal system was screwed up in part because they hire veterans (because we’re all nutsos waiting to blow); O. Henry story collections from the early years (1919) to the last several, and oh, Henry, how language changes: one story begins with a woman described as “continent” (I guess she wasn’t taking Alli); a collection of Iowa award stories, yeah, they think they’re so smart there, o.k., maybe they are, pretty good batch; and finally (because I am cautious about books about writing — I feel bad for not liking Bird by Bird more) Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, which is charming and resonant (her point about moving her desk to face a wall reminds me how in Palo Alto I placed my desk to face a brown picket fence — a great palette for imaginative efforts); and at least one damn thick book I hoovered up, enjoyed immensely, and have since forgotten. (*urp* pats mouth with napkin)

Then there are my serials: New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Atlantic, Missouri Review, American Scholar, Antioch Review, Poets and Writers, Lesbian Connection, The Week, The Sun, People, and heaven knows what else, plus of course the New York Times, which is essential reading in a town where the daily paper is All Football, All the Time, and which relegated the recent Supreme Court decisions to page 9. I skim a bazillion blogs and feeds, but only swoop in selectively (it bothers me when I hear people say they “read all their feeds” — it’s not an assignment! Though then again, for some students, it may be an assignment).

I use LibraryThing for the books I purchase, but it doesn’t readily accommodate the idea of a “borrowed” book; I’ve tagged a couple books that way, but I really need some better field function. In the same vein, I’d really like a way to note article-level and issue-level serial reading. If LibraryThing is about the aboutness of my reading life, without those functions, it’s badly skewed. Is it cool and fun? Worth using for the books I purchase? Yes, on both counts. But LibraryThing is oddly named, given how weak it is at describing the “library” side of my life, which extends far beyond books and far beyond my personal library, into the global bookshelves where my reading mind lives.

This is in part sour grapes from reading that the first batch of books in LibraryThing’s “Early Reviewer” program — selected by a carefully-hewn computer algorithm — “went to the people most likely to enjoy them.” Hey, nobody enjoys a nice algorithm the way I do, but that statement felt as wrong as “polygraphs never lie.” We are not the sum totals of LibraryThing’s engineering. Reading between the lines to learn that some reviewers haven’t even posted their reviews yet — Amy Bloom’s Away only has fourteen posted, and an email to early reviewers nudged the delinquents — well, there you go. Amy Bloom, New York City, Yukon, Holocaust issues, the 1920s: I’d-a been on that book like white on rice. I once drove over the river and through the woods to hear Bloom read (I’d like to see LT fields for having attended readings or book groups), and she has a marvelous speaking voice that I now hear when I re-read her stories, as I have done from time to time (another field missing from LT).

You can add a million fields to a database, but there will always be an elusive side to the question of what is “most likely.” We are not machines, and machines do not know us, the way we know one another, intellectually, spiritually, carnally. A small bone for this terrier to worry, perhaps (and I do adore LibraryThing and its freewheeling zeitgeist; if nothing else, what fun to skim my CueCat across an ISBN bar code and watch the book pop into my collection), but pride goes before an algorithm’s fall.

Posted on this day, other years: