print books Posts

Oliver Sacks “Everything in its Place”

British neurologist, naturalist, historian of science, and author Oliver Sacks died in 2015. A huge loss to the world particularly to the world of writing and reading. He read voraciously, wrote beautifully and with a precision that is a sheer delight to behold. Fortunately after his passing, some of his unpublished writings were published in a collection called River of Consciousness and now Everything in its Place puts together his contributions to various magazines and newspapers. As always there is plenty to mull over. Sacks has the astonishing ability to make many light bulbs go on inside one’s head and think, “Exactly! This is it! He got it!” In Everything in its Place there are two particular instances when this happens. One when he wistfully records the demise of print collections in libraries in favour of digital books thereby losing the opportunity of serendipitous gems such as the 1873 book Megrim. This is what he writes in his essay “Libraries”:

When I was a child, my favourite place at home was the library, a large oak-paneled room with all four walls covered by bookcases — and a solid table for writing and studying in the middle. …The oak-paneled library was the quietest and most beautiful room in the house, to my eyes, and it vied with my little chemistry lab as my favourite place to be. I would curl up in a chair and become so absorbed in what I was reading that all sense of time would be lost. Whenever I was late for lunch or dinner I could be found, completely enthralled by a book, in the library. I learned to read early, at three or four, and books, and our library, are among my first memories.

When I went to university, I had access to Oxford’s two great university libraries, the Radcliffe Science Library and the Bodleian, a wonderful general library that could trace itself back to 1602. …But the library I loved the most at Oxford was our own library at the Queen’s College. The magnificent library building itself had been designed by Christopher Wren, and beneath this, in an underground maze of heating pipes and shelves, weere the vast subterranean holdings of the library. To hold ancient books, incunabula, in my own hands was a new experience for me … .

I first came to New York City in 1965, and at that time I had a horrid, poky little apartment in which there were almost no surfaces to read or write on. I was just able, holding an elbow awkwardly aloft, to write some of Migraine on the top of a refrigerator. I longed for spaciousness. Fortunately, the library at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where I worked, had this in abundance. I would sit at a large table to read or write for a while, and then wander around the shelves and stacks. I never knew what my eyes might alight upon, but I would sometimes discover unexpected treasures, lucky finds, and bring these back to my seat.

But a shift was occurring by the 1990s. I would continue to visit the library frequently, sitting at a table with a mountain of books in front of me, but students increasingly ignored the bookshelves, accessing what they needed with their computers. Few of them went to their shelves anymore. The books, so far as they were concerned, were unnecessary. And since the majority of users were no longer using the books themselves, the college decided, ultimately, to dispose of them.

I had no idea that this was happening — not only in the Einstein library but in college and public libraries all over the country. I was horrified when I visited the library recently and found the shelves, once overflowing, now sparsely occupied. Over the last few years, most of the books, it seems, have been thrown out, with remarkably little objection from anyone. I felt that a murder, a crime had been committed: the destruction of centuries of knowledge. Seeing my distress, a librarian reassured me that everything “of worth” had been digitized. But I do not use a computer, and I am deeply saddened by the loss of books, even bound periodicals, for there is something irreplaceable about a physical book: its look, its smell, its heft. I thought of how this library once cherished “old” books, had a special room for old and rare books; and how in 1967, rummaging through the stacks, I had found an 1873 book, Edward Liveing’s Megrim which inspired me to write my own first book.

The second instance is when Sacks rues his failing eyesight is robbing him of the pleasures of reading print books. For him it was the print book that held the greatest appeal and no amount of technological innovation such as audio books could persuade him to think otherwise. He has a point when he writes in “Reading the Fine Print”:

In January of 2006, when my vision began to decline, I wondered what I would do. There were audiobooks — I had recorded some of them myself — but I was quintessentially a reader, not a listener. I have been an inveterate reader as far back as I can remember — I often hold page numbers or the look of paragraphs and pages in my almost automatically, and I can instantly find my way to a particular passage in most of my books. I want books that belong to me, books whose intimate pagination will become dear and familiar. My brain is geared towards reading — …

We each form unique neural pathways associated with reading and we each bring to the act of reading a unique combination not only of memory and experience, but of sensory modalities, too. Some people may “hear” the sounds of the words as they read (I do, but only if I am reading for pleasure, not when I am reading for information); others may visualize them, consciously or not. Some may be acutely aware of the acoustic rhythms or emphases of a sentence; others are more aware of its look or its shape.

there is a fundamental difference between reading and being read to. When one reads actively, whether using the eyes or a finger, one is free to skip ahead or back, to reread, to ponder or daydream in the middle of a sentence — one read’s in one’s own time. Being read to, listening to an audiobook, is a more passive experience, subject to the vagaries of another’s voice and largely unfolding in the narrator’s own time.

Writing should be accessible in as many formats as possible — George Bernard Shaw called books the memory of the race. No one sort of book should be allowed to disappear, for we are all individuals, with highly indivualized needs and preferences — preferences embedded in our brains at every level, our individual neural patterns and networks creating a deeply personal engagement between author and reader.

This is so true! Any true-blooded reader would identify wholeheartedly with the sentiment expressed. For me it rings true at another level too. My nine-year-old daughter prefers print to audio books for she claims “audio interferes with her imagination!” Till I read this essay I attributed it to a child’s quirk. Now I know better.

Read Everything in its Place! There is so much to discover.

1 July 2019

Publishing & GST: Making the book fair & square

My article on “GST and publishing” has been published in the Economic Times on 12 January 2019. The original url is here. I am also C&P the entire article below. I had first written about the impact of GST and publishing within a week of the new taxation system coming into effect on 1 July 2017. My article was published on 8 July 2017. Here is the link.

Publishing is part of the creative economy. Books are made by transferring knowledge, information, data and ideas into a defined valuable product. According to Nielsen, the Indian book market is worth $6.7 billion. It is the third-largest English language market in the world, and many regional language markets are thriving.

It is broadly categorised into school publishing, academic (books and journals), trade (fiction, general non-fiction, graphic novels, etc) and children’s literature publishing. From independent players to large MNCs with varying business models — traditional, self-publishing and hybrid publishing —there is a broad spectrum of publishing firms.

No industry that sells its products commercially can be indifferent to costs. But in book publishing, the input costs are so high that everyone in the supply chain (from publishers to distributors and booksellers) operates on slim profit margins. In some cases, even these don’t exist, as the idea in the book becomes more important to publish.

On July 1, 2017, the goods and services tax (GST) came into effect in India. Many taxes imposed in previous systems have continued under GST, but new taxes have also been introduced. Asignificant one is the 12% tax on author’s royalties that has to be deposited as part of the reverse tax mechanism by the publishing firm on behalf of the author with the income-tax authorities. Unfortunately, publishers do not get any benefit in this arrangement, since most authors do not have GST certificates.

Other input costs, too, have increased, as GST has to be deposited on all invoices raised by vendors to whom publishing services are outsourced. There has been an effective increase of cost across the board of about 12-18%. Given that publishers don’t benefit from input tax credit as books are not taxed, some of the increased costs have had to be passed on to readers by increasing the price of books, which have increased by 10-15% since GST was imposed.

Overhead costs like rents, travel and communication have also increased from 15% to 18% due to GST. Those firms that can afford to pay for extra manpower to contend with the extra paperwork and monthly filing have hired extra staff to ensure smooth operations. But this monthly filing of returns impacts the cash flow of smaller companies badly, at times even bringing publishing to a momentary halt.

Every age of mechanisation has produced more texts, and with it a stupendous growth in reading. First, it was the invention of the moveable type that made ‘books’ easily available and a ‘reading public’ was created for the first time. Then, with the Industrial Revolution, mechanised printing presses sped up publishing dramatically. Currently, we are in the middle of yet another major dislocation: the Information Age.

On principle, GST is a destination based tax that aims to build better cash flows and working capital management for proprietors. Ultimately, it is also meant to help the consumer by reducing the tax burden on the product at point of sale. Unfortunately, the benefits of input tax credit can only be gained if the book is taxed.

Printed books are a non-taxable commodity primarily to make education affordable. For now, there is an uneven taxation policy on the different forms in which books are made available: print books (0%), e-books (5% if it has aprint component) and audiobooks and journals (18%). But, in India, the primary consumed product is the printed book. Survival of firms will depend on how much financial stress they can bear. Perhaps levelling a minimal GST on books across all formats will help contain the financial burden on most publishers. Ironically, technological advancements will further propel the divide. For, only those readers who can afford books — in any form — will be able to access information.

Both publisher and reader have been affected by GST. The question is whether publishing houses on all sides of the tax issue can sort out their differences, and present a united alternative to GoI —one that preserves the key benefits of GST, but removes its unintended side-effects.

12 January 2019

Literati: Happy readers ( 2 Nov 2014)

Literati: Happy readers ( 2 Nov 2014)

Jaya Bhattacharji RoseMy monthly column in the Hindu Literary Review was published online on 1 November 2014 and in print on 2 November 2014. Here is the url  http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati-happy-readers/article6555142.ece . I am also c&p the text below. 

A recent article, “The Percy Jackson problem”, argued that Rick Riordan’s rewriting of Greek myths for a contemporary audience is unacceptable since it lures young readers away from the “classics”. The journalist also did not subscribe to the view that kids should be allowed to read whatever they are reading as long as they are reading! Apparently the huge crowds of youngsters (outnumbering the adults) filling synagogues, theatres, and basketball stadiums to attend the interactions with Riordan, a former middle-school English and history teacher — who is currently on a tour to promote the last book in the Olympians series, The Blood of Olympus — was insufficient evidence that children were happy reading. A publishing colleague sent me a furious response to the article saying that it was mean spirited and unfair given that Riordan has touched thousands of kids’ lives in a positive way and reached many reluctant readers.

New generations of readers are crucial for the survival of publishing. While delivering his acceptance speech at the PEN/Pinter Prize 2014, Salman Rushdie said, “I always believed that the book is completed by the reader that out of the intimacy of strangers created by the act of reading emerges the book as it exists for that reader; and that out of that private act of union comes love, the love of literature, of reading, of that particular book …”

The powerful impact an author can have on a reader, even in a large group, was demonstrated at a literary evening that I curated at the Embassy of Ireland. To commemorate the centenary of World War I, three Indian authors were invited to a panel discussion on “Conflict and Literature”, moderated by the ambassador H.E. Feilim McLaughlin. The authors spoke powerfully of their engagement with conflict and how it has influenced their writing. The audience sat in pin-drop silence. Some wept. Most had lumps in their throat. The topics or narrated experiences touched a raw nerve in many, especially those with direct links with Partition, the 1984 riots and communal conflicts.

Of late there has been a growing debate on how the Internet is cutting into the time of readers. It is estimated that, by 2018, 3.9 billion people will be online; many on smartphones. It is not surprising to discover that Adobe has been collecting data about its customers’ reading pattern. Last week, Nielsen announced that it was expanding its ratings to include all kinds of digital content. The writer-reader relationship is evolving rapidly with the growth of technology. People are operating these devices not just to communicate with each other but also to read articles and books online. Consequently word-of-mouth recommendations will only grow. The relatively new ReadMyStori.com “is a platform that helps authors get readers to read, appreciate and popularise their work”. Authors say that at least 40 per cent of downloads are converted into book sales.

As Tim Parks points out in an NYRB article (June 10, 2014), “The conditions in which we read today are not those of 50 or even 30 years ago, and the big question is how contemporary fiction will adapt to these changes, because in the end adapt it will. No art form exists independently of the conditions in which it is enjoyed.”

An excellent example of such a response to the changing reading environment is Samanvay: IHC Indian Languages’ Festival (November 6-11, 2014), comprising 90 speakers and performers in 20 languages and dialects. The theme is “Translations Transnations” with focus on Indian languages that have a transnational presence like Bangla, Bhojpuri, Chhattisgarhi, English, Hindi, Konkani, Malayalam, Punjabi and Sanskrit.

The effect of storytelling sessions and stress on reading books other than textbooks is also evident in the crowds of happy children that attend Bookaroo: Festival of Children’s Literature (IGNCA, New Delhi, November 29-30, 2014). The youngsters can be seen mobbing authors and illustrators, seeking autographs, asking a zillion questions, offering authors manuscripts to read, listening in rapt attention to the writers, participating in workshops and buying piles of book at the temporary bookstore.

This year, 83 speakers such as Jamila Gavin, Natasha Sharma, The Storywallahs, Vivek Menon, Rui Sousa and Prayag Shukla will participate.

These children are accessing e-books and books in print, but it does not matter as long as they are reading!

2 November 2014

 

Eleanor Catton’s win celebrates the importance of literary craft and content

Eleanor Catton’s win celebrates the importance of literary craft and content

My article on the Man Booker Prize 2013 has been published today in the Op Ed page of the Hindu, 19 Oct 2013. Here is the link: http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-long-and-winding-road-to-the-booker/article5248697.ece?homepage=true . The article is published below.) 

The Luminaries

On October 15, 2013, the Man Booker Prize was awarded to Eleanor Catton for The Luminaries — a thriller spread over 800 pages with a variety of voices recounting and recreating details. It was a win that surprised many. Set in 1866 in a small town on New Zealand’s South Island, the story begins when a traveller and gold prospector, Scotsman Walter Moody, interrupts a meeting of 12 men at Hokitika’s Crown Hotel. These men are immigrants but locals now who gather in secrecy to solve crimes. The novel is about the mystery surrounding the death of Crosbie Wells and the stories told by those 12 men. The narrative architecture is based on the 12 signs of the zodiac and the seven planets; each chapter is half the length of its predecessor, adding pace and tension. Of the books shortlisted — Jim Crace’s Harvest, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, and Noviolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names — it was widely assumed that the battle for the winning post would be between Jim Crace and Colm Toibin.

The Luminaries is in the tradition of a good, well-told, 19th century English novel. It has a leisurely pace with the story slowly being told, bit by bit. Eleanor Catton has trained at the best creative writing schools and is an alumna of the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But this novel is an example of original thinking and excellent craftsmanship that are not easily taught.

The chair of judges, Robert Macfarlane, described the book as a “dazzling work, luminous, vast.” It is, he said, “a book you sometimes feel lost in, fearing it to be ‘a big baggy monster’, but it turns out to be as tightly structured as an orrery.” It is true that the 19th century novels were serialised (for example Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope) and then put together as a book. Present day writers are taking advantage of virtual publishing to do something similar. The Kills by Richard House, long listed for the Man Booker Prize 2013, actually began life as four enhanced e-books that were then published as a single printed volume. But in the 21st century, to first publish in print such a thick book as The Luminaries takes extraordinary courage — a fact that did not go unnoticed even by Catton. In her acceptance speech she said, “… The Luminaries is and was from the very beginning, a publisher’s nightmare. […] I am extraordinarily fortunate to have found a home at these publishing houses and to […] have managed to strike an elegant balance between making art and making money.”

FOR MORE ENTRIES

At 28, Eleanor Catton is the youngest winner of the Booker. (Before her the prize went to Ben Okri who won it when he was 32 for The Famished Road.) Catton was born in Canada and raised in Christchurch, New Zealand. The Booker is Britain’s most prestigious literary prize, awarded annually to a novelist from Britain, Ireland or a Commonwealth country. The winner receives £50,000, or about $80,000. The winner is selected by the judging panel on the day of the ceremony. In September 2013, it was announced that from next year the prize will be open to all those publishing in English, across the world, a move that has not necessarily been received well by many writers. Jonathan Taylor, chairman of the foundation, wrote at the time: “Paradoxically it has not […] allowed full participation to all those writing literary fiction in English. It is rather as if the Chinese were excluded from the Olympic Games.”

It is a fortunate coincidence that in 2013, three of the high-profile international awards for literature have been won by women — all for very distinct kinds of writing. Lydia Davis won the fifth Man Booker International Prize 2013 for her short stories (the length of her stories vary from two sentences to a maximum of two to three pages) and the Nobel Prize for Literature 2013 to Alice Munro, for her short stories and Eleanor Catton, Man Booker Prize 2013, for a novel that has been described as a “doorstopper.” For the world of publishing, these achievements sets the seal of approval on craftsmanship. It is probably recognition of geographical boundaries disappearing in digital space, conversations happening in real time and emphasis being placed on good content. It’s not the form but the craft that matters. Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize win is a testament to the new world of publishing.

(Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist. E-mail:jayabhattacharjirose @gmail.com)

19 Oct 2013