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I love Mark Zuckerberg’s book club: Unpacking his quest for literary meaning

I had seen references to Mark Zuckerberg’s book club but, despite being a fan of both books and book clubs, I wasn’t much interested in learning about it. But Laura Miller, senior writer for Salon and a self-described “book-recommender,” was. Most of the hype about the book club came from the publishing industry, she says, and compared Zuckerberg to Oprah Winfrey as a celebrity whose promotion of a title can sell a lot of books.

But Miller’s true interest in Zuckerberg’s book club, at least in this article, lies elsewhere:

But far more intriguing is the emerging portrait of Mark Zuckerberg as a reader. He is diligent, even driven, setting himself the challenge of reading and discussing a new book every two weeks, despite what must be a pretty full schedule as the CEO of the most popular social networking site on the planet.

Despite the fact that Zuckerberg’s own review of Naím’s book “reads like an uninspired term paper,” Miller writes, “personally I find his quest for meaning kind of touching.” She looks at Zuckerberg’s first selection, Moisés Naím’s The End of Power, alongside his recently announced choice for the second book, Steven Pinker’s 830-page tome The Better Angels of Our Nature. They are both hefty works of nonfiction that she thinks appeal primarily to middle-age men. Since women are the primary buyers and readers of novels, Miller hopes “he’ll expand the books he reads beyond nonfiction.”

If you’re interested in digging deeper into Zuckerberg’s book club, this article ends with links to several related pieces.

Popular TV Series and Movies Maintain Relevance as Novels

Alexandra Alter looks at:

a flourishing but often unappreciated pocket of the publishing world: tie-in novels. Writers have produced novels based on the terrorism drama “Homeland,” the British crime series “Broadchurch” and J.J. Abrams’s sci-fi series “Fringe,” and more titles are coming soon.

Tie-in novels continue to produce revenue related to long defunct television series such as like Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Murder, She Wrote. Yet, despite the ability of these novels to make money, “ in literary circles, these books have often been ignored or sneered at as mere merchandise rather than art.” But that attitude is changing:

Lately, however, this long-maligned subgenre has taken on a patina of respectability. New writers are flocking to the form as television, in its new golden age, becomes an increasingly significant cultural medium. Rather than summarizing familiar stories, many tie-ins deliver original plot lines and subtle character development that go beyond what fans already know.

Writers of tie-in novels even have their own professional organization, the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers, which has about 250 members. Most of the writers say that they are not afraid to change some aspects of the television show or movie because their aim is to write a good novel rather than simply to produce a memento of the source material. Nonetheless, Alter reports, the job of writing tie-in novels “still has its drawbacks. The writers often labor under impossible deadlines; the pay is modest; and writers typically have no claim to the intellectual property rights.”

What Happened to Experimental Writing?

Even though the title mentions writing, I’m including this article here because I think the writer is really talking about experimental literature, a topic that readers are just as interested in as writers.

In a piece with an experimental structure (numbered paragraphs), Susan Steinberg riffs on experimental writing:

4. I am often asked what makes writing experimental, how one knows to classify work as such. In graduate school, now aware that all of my work would be funneled into this category, I accepted the difference and armored myself with a few rules. Experimental writing a) had to be inventive or had to bend or advance or subvert preexisting approaches to writing, b) had to seriously take into account the possibilities of form and/or structure and/or syntax and/or language, and not just content, and c) could not just look different on the page.

Be sure to read the whole essay on how and why Steinberg undertakes to experiment with her writing. Or take a look at her recent book, Spectacle.

15 Things Only Contemporary Literature Lovers Know, Other Than The Fact That Rules Don’t Matter

Laura I. Miller admits that, as an undergraduate literature student, she was originally committed to reading the traditional canon, those hidebound works by “dead white guys”: “These were the kinds of authors who earned respect in the literary world.” Then, in a graduate creative writing class, she discovered contemporary literature: “I learned that everything I’d been taught about writing wasn’t even close to gospel.”

For some good reading recommendations, see the 15 lessons that reading contemporary has taught her:

  1. [No] Subject Is Taboo.
  2. Point of View Is Flexible.
  3. All Voices Are Valid.
  4. Structure Knows No Limits.
  5. Apocalypses Are Hot!.
  6. You Might Not “Get It,” and That’s Okay.
  7. Mixed Media Is All the Rage.
  8. Time Is Not Linear.
  9. Slang Is All Good.
  10. Non-Human Perspectives? Why Not?!.
  11. Genre Tropes Are Up For Grabs.
  12. There Will Be Depth.
  13. Gender Roles Suck.
  14. Print Is Alive and Well.
  15. Small Presses Rock.

Of Miller’s 15 points, these three resonate the most with me because they all relate to structure as an important characteristic in contemporary literature:

2. Point of View Is Flexible.
One of the dicta of classical literature was that a work must have unity, and one area that demanded such unity was point of view. This meant that whatever point of view opened a book must continue throughout the entire work. But now we know that there’s more than one way to look at an event or an idea, and that realization has led to the frequent necessity of multiple points of view, because …

3. All Voices Are Valid.
There are as many sides to any story as there are participants; therefore, to understand a story fully we must look at all sides. This realization has lead to some fascinating books employing multiple points of view (e.g., An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Possession by A. S. Byatt, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins).

8. Time Is Not Linear.
Because multiple narrators cannot all tell their stories simultaneously, contemporary authors interested in multiple points of view often experiment with structure to incorporate the all. A good example of this is David Mitchell’s brilliant novel Cloud Atlas. Many contemporary thrillers and mysteries also play with structure as their narration switches between the stories of the hunter and the hunted.

Three thousand reasons to choose your reading carefully

Beulah Maud Devaney muses in The Guardian on finishing her 1,000th book:

Assuming I live into my 90s (which my penchant for pasties and panic attacks suggests is unlikely), I will read just over 3,000 books in my lifetime – which doesn’t seem like an especially high number.

Noting that her aunt died of cancer at age 50, Devaney realizes that the reading time left to her is not unlimited and asks:

But what is a worthwhile read? If we can calculate how many books we will read in an uninterrupted lifetime, at what point should we draw the line? Life is short and books are long. We don’t get to read many of them and I’m starting to realise that some books don’t deserve to be among my theoretical 3,000. Life is too short for Martin Amis. Life is too short for Ayn Rand. Life is too short for 1,000-plus pages of Infinite Jest and life is too short to give Philip Roth another chance. I’m beginning to suspect that life might be too short for Virginia Woolf and John Updike. I’m undecided on whether life is long enough for George Eliot, but it’s definitely too short to miss out on Octavia Butler’s work because of being busy trying to like Joseph Heller.

Here’s part of her answer:

The books that deserve a place among my remaining 2,000 reads are those with an idea that excites me… . I’m going to spend more time reading authors I enjoy and relate to, either because of their use of language (Jackie Kay, Toni Morrison, Monique Roffey, Andrea Levy and Orhan Pamuk) or their subject matter (Jenni Fagan, Jhumpa Lahiri, HG Wells and Kazuo Ishiguro). In short; I’m going to demand more from the books I read. I’ve got 2,000 books left to read, at best, and I intend to be ruthless in choosing them.

I used to think that I had to finish every book I started. But sometime around my 40th birthday I, too, realized that the reading time left to me was not unlimited, since I had reached the midpoint of my expected lifespan. It was time to make my reading count, a commitment that has intensified since I’ve reached retirement age.

This is a main reason why I joined The Classics Club.

What about you? At what point in your reading life are you now? And what personal guidelines do you have for choosing which books to read and which ones to pass over? Do you finish every book you start? If not, how much do you have to read before you make the decision to stop? Please let us know in the comments.