February 14, 2014
I buy a good deal of stuff from Amazon, as do many Americans. It’s convenient, the prices are low, and delivery is quick. As an avid reader, author, and scholar, I also get obscure titles from the vast Amazon inventory. But I love going to my local bookstore, The Bookworm, to browse the latest hardcover fiction and non-fiction. When I am hot to get a new book, I first try the local seller before going online.
I just finished reading one of the most enlightening articles ever written about publishing, and one that every reader should consult before making another book purchase at “the world’s largest bookstore.” George Packer, the New Yorker writer who recently published The Unwinding to rave reviews, has taken his trenchant pen to the current dilemma facing all book publishers: whether or not to knuckle under to Amazon’s increasingly belligerent and destructive business practices. The fate of the book (not only print editions but also digital ones) is at stake.
I know something about how much power Amazon wields because I recently published a book with W.W. Norton. The Vintage House was written for a mass audience, and received rave reviews from every corner. My co-author and I signed a contract giving us 10% of “net sales” instead of cover price sales. We have yet to make back our modest advance, and Amazon has been our worst enemy.
You see, the giant bookseller, which controls the market worldwide, not only gets a discount of 50% or more from virtually every major publisher, but also charges promotion fees for each book on its site. These promotion fees directly determine where the book will be placed, how it will be seen, and ultimately how well it will sell. Only the biggest selling authors can demand a $10,000 promotion from Amazon, and only they receive the kind of royalties once standard among all writers of fiction, non-fiction or scholarly titles. Packer’s research suggest that royalties are virtually non-existent for many small market authors, and my experience suggests that he is right. Once Amazon takes its cut, not only royalties but also profit and overhead vanish. Books become commodities that do not even break even on their cost of production. As one publisher said, “Amazon has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimal value–it’s a widget.”
What does this mean for writers around the world who want to create art, advance knowledge, provide entertainment, share ideas, and generally do what writers have done since the advent of written language? Packer’s article suggests that unless “content providers” in the print media fight the Amazon model of books as low-value commodities, the public will be deluged with poor quality, Walmart-like units that pretend to be books. The dumbing down of culture by the Internet will look tame compared to what will happen to print media of all types, from newspapers and magazines to scholarly and art books.
The way to kill the octopus that is Amazon is not more market saturation but less. Just as musicians have taken their art directly to their selective markets, so authors will need to become producers and sellers who can control the distribution of their own work. The Internet’s vast reach can actually help authors to reach their audience, circumventing Amazon’s new wholesale distribution system.
Packer’s sobering survey of the publishing industry should cause a few intellectuals to take this technological threat seriously. Not only are libraries being looted by billionaires, these same captains of finance are dismantling a magnificent culture of book publishing that has flourished since the time of Gutenberg. Were he alive today, Homer would fear this brave new world, though he might well go on the road to sing his tales, encouraging us to be bards and to bring our stories directly to the people.
February 5, 2014
What was it about the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman that so touched both Hollywood and the American public? There have been other actors with similar gifts, most recently Heath Ledger, who ended their lives under a cloud. I recall James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Marilyn Monroe as stars with uncanny connections to the zeitgeist, alas dead at a very young age. Was Hoffman so different from these fine actors?
As an amateur performer myself (mainly in opera and musical theatre) I marvel at any talent so broad and deep. Philip Seymour Hoffman was an actor’s actor, to be sure, because he had the courage to stretch himself beyond what many actors considered advisable in the current film and theatre world. Yet he also walked dangerously close to the edge–of his emotions, his characterizations, his old demons–and paid a heavy price. Many performers are prone to addiction. He was unlucky in falling prey to heroin with no caregivers to intervene.
One of the extraordinary things that set Hoffman apart from even his closest peers–Orson Welles, Marlon Brando, Sean Penn–was his willingness to let all pretense and ego fall away from himself as he dug into a role. An actor is often said to jettison her persona, or basic sense of self, when pursuing a role. Think of Liv Ullman in Ingmar Bergman’s great film and you will grasp how dangerous this can be for anyone without a stable identity.
I have a sense that this late great American actor who cut his life short with drugs, walked too close to a mortal abyss, but in so doing gave us some of the most memorable performances in history.
January 31, 2014
Pete Seeger’s death on Monday left me sad for the loss of a hero, but also hopeful that our country can recognize his life as one of exemplary moral and spiritual zeal. Pete was in many respects the last truly untainted force for change in a world gone mad with greed and narcissism. His music and his actions were America’s conscience during much of the 20th century. He paid a heavy price for his ethical stands on everything from freedom of speech to environmental degradation in the Hudson Valley. We can thank him by having the courage to follow his example, if only in the smallest and most modest acts of kindness or moral rectitude in the face of the violence and hypocrisy we see all around us.
January 27, 2014
Those of us who make an effort to preserve the best historic buildings, structures, and landscapes in the U.S. get a little tired of the naysayers who can’t see value in artifacts from the past. And they get tired of our protests about lack of funding and political support from our lawmakers.
It’s particularly vexing when a politician can’t even acknowledge the value of a building in his home county, and one that nearly everybody reveres because of its association with an icon of the American folk revival. When asked about the prospect of saving Greystone Hospital, the home of Woody Guthrie during the last decade of his life, New Jersey Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco could only say, “There is some history there,” but “the taxpayers” should not be “saddled with” the cost of preserving the building and maintaining it.
Who but the residents of Morris County, and New Jersey, should take responsibility for buildings that have been compared in significance to Ellis Island as repositories of 20th century history? Only the Federal government, with its National Register program, might have the wherewithal to create a park or historic site at Greystone. Such a prospect is not inconceivable, but not without the support of local residents.
Mr. Bucco not only shows his ignorance of our national heritage, but also a disregard for the intelligence and commitment of his constituents, when he makes lukewarm statements about a historic site that even Governor Chris Christie believes is worth saving.
January 19, 2014
Opponents of the Central Library Plan got another reminder of why the NYPL board can’t be trusted last week. The library has put out a deceptive email request to supporters that purported to be asking for thumbs up on the mayor’s plan for library funding. Buried in the second paragraph was a reference to support for the “central branch library.” There is no such thing, but implicit in the statement was that everyone who cares about branch libraries should also favor the horrible CLP. Disgusting. The Committee to Save the New York Public Library will soon post a rebuttal.
January 13, 2014
Architects don’t get much press coverage these days. It’s unfortunate that when they do, the stories aren’t very flattering.
Today’s NYT has another disturbing piece about Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish architect and engineer who was once a darling of the press and a European cultural hero. It seems that mosaic tiles covering his new opera house in Valencia–the Queen Sofia Palace of Arts–have been flying off the surface in great numbers. Danger to the public caused the building to be closed in advance of a major Christmas performance to be conducted by Placido Domingo, another Hispanic cultural hero.
Architects have had problems with exterior tiles in other buildings–James Stirling’s History Faculty at Cambridge is a prominent case in point–but Calatrava’s high tech buildings have generally avoided the use of any traditional materials in favor of steel and concrete. He says that he wanted to pay homage to the great Catalan architect, Antonio Gaudi, who set tiles in cement or mortar to create many of his masterpieces. Gaudi, of course, was building according to centuries old traditions, not experimenting with untried new technology.
Calatrava was initially praised for his technical brilliance and structural engineering expertise. What has been most disturbing about recent reports is that, like the work of Paul Rudolf in the 20th century, Calatrava’s daring compositions have generally been poorly detailed, badly constructed, and extremely expensive to build. Stories of incompetent staff and inadequate drawings have emerged in connection with several projects, including the soon to be completed Port Authority Terminal in New York.
How, one might ask, can a renowned engineer/architect continue to win commissions and practice internationally with such a record of failed or over-budget projects? The answer is as disturbing as the question: the system that promotes and sustains “Starchitects” is blind to such mundane concerns as cost, durability, and functional performance. Questioning the judgment of artistic geniuses is off limits.
The architectural profession doesn’t need this kind of press at a critical point in history, when we are losing credibility in the eyes of the public on so many levels. The English Starchitect David Chipperfield was asked recently to give a TED lecture on, of all subjects, “Why The Public Hates Architects.” A realist, he admitted that we had encouraged such attitudes with just the kind of behavior shown by his Spanish colleague. He nevertheless defended his right to be provocative, daring, and modern.
Isn’t it time we stopped this hubris about the sacredness of “art” and the gods of “technology” and got to work on the pressing problems of the 21st century? Until we do, expect more public scorn and more damning stories in newspapers everywhere.
January 11, 2014
“Architecture may be likened to a symphony. It is composed of an infinity of parts which depend, for their execution, upon many individuals. The drawings in the architect’s office are no more than the score of a symphony; the are a potentiality only, and may lie hidden away in a drawer. On the other hand, the execution of the architecture corresponds to the playing of the symphony–to be heightened and glorified, or else ruined. The musicians of the orchestra are the craftsmen and workmen of architecture–graded down from the first violin to the battery–and the leader of the orchestra, with his baton, is the architect on the job. All have to work together, and each has his appointed part to play in harmony with his fellow-worker.”
Arthur Ingersoll Meigs, Architect, 1924
January 9, 2014
As a proud New Jersey resident, I have never liked the epithet used by New Yorkers to describe my tribe–bridge and tunnel people. However, now that Governor Christie has decided to use our bridges for guerilla warfare, I am happy to be on the side of Fort Lee. Let us use our bridges for travel, not political retribution.
I am hoping that people outside the Garden State realize what a true political bully is capable of, and write off Mr. Christie as a presidential candidate. The man is an embarrassment to every citizen on this side of the Hudson.
December 18, 2013
Yesterday was definitely a mixed bag for the people fighting to save the New York Public Library from moneyed interests in Gotham. Two plaintiffs in lawsuits to stop the horrible Central Library Plan argued persuasively for a halt to the project, and got a sympathetic hearing from Judge Paul Wooton in Manhattan Supreme Court yesterday in an all-day session with attorneys. The judge issued a temporary restraining order that will be in force until January 28, 2014.
Unfortunately for those fighting to save both the Mid-Manhattan Branch and the 42nd Street stacks, the NLPL board had an ace up its sleeve. Richard Leland, the library’s attorney, pulled out a mysterious “Letter of Resolution” from the New York State Preservation Office that appeared to give the green light for both the sale of the busiest branch library in the NYC system, and the destruction of most of the historic stacks in Carrere and Hastings’s masterpiece. Only two weeks before, Michael Lewis, professor of art history at Williams College, declared the building to be the greatest civic edifice in the United States. Apparently bureaucrats in Albany didn’t read the New Criterion’s indictment of “the tyranny of philanthropy,” as Lewis dramatically framed the problem with the Central Library Plan.
Why did the SHPO, which had twice rejected the NYPL’s proposal for demolition of the stacks in a National Historic Landmark building, change direction so abruptly? As we’ve seen before in this multi-year battle, the forces of greed are powerful and multi-headed. It’s not surprising that high-level politicians in New York state have succumbed to their pressure. But it’s certainly very disheartening.
December 16, 2013
In case no one has noticed, the American Institute of Architects seems to have made a dramatic turn during the past year with at least one decision. For the very first time the Institute decided to award its coveted Gold Medal to a woman, and not just any woman. Julia Morgan, who practiced a century ago, received the medal posthumously (only the second person so honored). Why did this happen in 2013 and not 2012, or 1995, or 1960? Last year, after all, the recipient was Thom Mayne, that most macho of avant garde sycophants.
Well, one can certainly speculate on what made the jury make such a radical turn. First, the AIA has been operating as if nothing has changed in a male-dominated, good old boy system for decades now, and recognizing the role of female architects was long overdue. It could well have given the award to a living architect like Denise Scott Brown, Merill Elam or Susana Torre. Julia Morgan’s award, however, sent a different kind of signal.
By honoring Morgan, the AIA showed that women have played a historic role in the evolution of American architecture, not just one that began with the feminist movement in the 1970s. While clearly a minority in 1900, women were designing key buildings for a wide variety of clients, just as were African American architects a few decades later. The fact that our professional organization could not recognize their achievements is an indictment of its leaders over the past half-century or more.
Happily, we have begun a new chapter in AIA history in 2013. Let us hope that our next Gold Medalist represents an equally important, and neglected, part of this richly talented and diverse profession.