Today I am going to tell you a story about an odd literary encounter.
About two months ago I was at a used bookstore in Houston and noticed two college students browsing the modern literature section. One of them pulled out a book and pointed it out briefly to the other.
Normally I don’t make conversations with strangers, but in this case I had to. You see, I had a very distinct memory about this book, and for another person even to pick the same book up was an interesting event in itself. A year ago, while attending a game developers’ conference in Austin, I received a free copy of a book from a man standing outside. (As a freelance book reviewer, I am used to having review copies thrust at me, but not outside on a city street!) I talked briefly to the person distributing the book, but he was just distributing it (and had a boxful of others to give away). Obviously the book came from a POD/vanity publisher (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), but the binding was good enough and the writing seemed competent enough. I never had the chance to read it, but I did put it on my bookshelf on the off chance that I might want to pick it up later (crazier things have happened).
And now at the bookstore in Houston 150 miles away, these students had picked up the same book to talk about. I politely asked the girl why she was interested in this book.
The girl laughed and said, “Gosh, it’s the strangest thing. This man was giving away the book around campus. Everybody seemed to have a copy of this book. It was holding up tables, serving as doorstops, even serving as firewood.” Both students went on to relate the crazy contexts in which the book would turn up in people’s dorms; the book seemed to be everywhere.
“So what school do you go to?” I asked them. “I’m assuming you go to UT Austin.”
The girl’s reply left me speechless. “Oh, no, I’m just visiting Houston for the week. John and I go to University of Montana.” In other words, some man (or group of people) were distributing this same book at two college towns thousands of miles away!
I looked at the book more closely. My copy at home (labeled “Review Copy”) had peculiar marketing details on the back cover: 50,000 first printing, National Advertising budget of 100,000; Four City National Tour. I’m guessing a good portion of that advertising budget came from the author’s pockets.
Then (I couldn’t resist) I had to check amazon and the publisher’s website for more info. The Amazon listing showed over 70 comments about the book, almost all of them uniformly (even hilariously) negative. Some examples: I read this because someone mistakenly gave this to my 9 1/2 year old son, thinking it was a novel about nature, and we were all largely stuck inside for a week of -10 degree weather in Western Minnesota. Or: This was one of the worst book I have ever read. I only finished it because it was given to me as an advanced reading copy and I needed something to read while hitting the treadmill at the gym. I would give it ZERO stars if Amazon would let me. Or, in another review labeled “Worst Book in the Entire World,” one commenter writes:
This book was so bad, the author was giving copies away at a farmer’s market. That should have been a clue, but the book cover was interesting enough to make me want to read it. But once I started, I couldn’t put it down. I couldn’t put it down because I wouldn’t allow myself to believe a publisher would actually print this rubbish about an acid-head mountain climber who wanted to be a goat and jump into a volcano. I had to see if the story would get any better. It became an obsession really to read until there was something interesting in the plot. It never happened. I cried. I pulled my hair. I broke out into a rash. I began to binge drink. I became angry with people close to me, but there was no solace to be found. I wasted my time completely reading this high school paper. Why? Why? Why? I feel like my brain was raped. Can I file charges?
Unfortunately, I can’t give this book ZERO stars because the minimum is one – actually, I’d give it NEGATIVE stars! I received a free copy of this book a year ago and did my best to try and get through it, but I just couldn’t do it, it’s got to be the WORST book I have ever read. I can’t even tell you all why in more specific terms because I’ve done my best to eradicate from my memory the disgust I felt at having read as much as I did.
This is the worst book I have ever come across in my life. I received this book for free while leaving the state fair and my immediate response was, wow, it must be really horrible if they have to give it away. Now, I really don’t consider myself as an ultra-intellectual but I can confidently say that this book is not well written, creative or groundbreaking in anyway. It seemed to me that this guy was a man with a lot of money or some kind of “in” and got this book published by mistake. My roommates and me actually use this book as bathroom entertainment and highlight passages that we find comical.
Actually, one reviewer Brian M. Wise found redeeming qualities about the book object:
I found this book a delight to have around the house.
It served quite well as a monitor riser for my LCD screen.
My friend and I needed a book to add weight for a tofu press.
Pages 200 to 225 made wonderful firestarters when covered in paraffin wax.
One night, we took the cover and walked around the downtown Seattle area hiding our faces behind it and saying “Wooo, wolf eyes, scawwy wolf eyes”, while three people behind us kept asking people “Have you seen the walruses?” in Scooby-Doo voices.
One night we drank too much and began reading the worst prose we could find in voices like Darth Vader and Mickey Mouse over a microphone to loud techno music. People apparently loved this prose more than Lynne Cheney’s book on lesbian sexual relationships.
The cat ate pages 123 to 127 when we ran out of catgrass for him to chew.
The door below sometimes slams shut when coming in and out of the apartment, so rather than going out to buy a doorstop, we use the book!
Every so often you can pick a random phrase out of it that makes you howl with laughter.
Handing it to someone who’s taken more than six hits of acid in their lifetime and asking them whether it’s accurate in the description is highly amusing – especially when you get their faces to screw up like you’ve just asked them to kill the baby Jesus with a rusty spork.
It is an excellent candidate for book frisbee on a sunny afternoon in the park.
I take it with me when camping in the case that I run out of toilet paper.
Gosh, I’m sure I could find more excellent uses for this most entertaining book. If paper cuts were something desired, I’m sure you could add that as a bonus, since the cheap paper on the books provides HUNDREDS of those to the reader.
However, you might not want to expose your cortex to the language. It puts me in mind of the Douglas Adams characters, the Vogons, whose poetry is only the third worst in the galaxy. That, in of itself, is a distinction.
Like the movie Showgirls, this book is so jaw-droppingly bad that it’s an entertaining read just to see how badly a book COULD be written. It’s not just a gigantic cliche, it’s a cliched parody of every 1960s novel or poem written by every poet or writer seeking truth within the American experience.
So if nothing else, it’s a marvelous book to be used for anything except reading.
It’s clear from the Amazon comments that the book has been freely distributed in New York, San Francisco, LA, Denver, and probably a lot of other places. People gleefully have been trashing it from all over the country. Bookcrossing, for example, lists over 100 people who have picked up the book and found something to say about the book, some not altogether negative. Among the Amazon comments were several top 1000 reviewers (including the Amazon.com top reviewer Harriet Klausner). Clearly, these amazon.com reviewers were solicited by the author or publishing house, but still they gave the book a fair amount of reserved praise.
Some things are clear from this. First, somebody has financed an extremely zealous and expensive marketing campaign. Second, though the book is strange, slightly offensive and alienating to many readers, in fact the book is not bad, just different. A longish interview with the author on the publisher’s website is thoughtful and shows that the author is not an idiot. He’s a fan of Knut Hamsun and J.G. Ballard, is reasonably well-read and comes from a relatively successful career in the IT industry. Shapero makes it clear he is more interested in being provocative than producing great art:
R: Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. A mess of a book. The story doesn’t go anywhere. But the question it asks and the way the question is framed is so thought-provoking that it’s a valuable experience. I read it when I was a kid, and the question has remained with me my whole life. Sean Penn’s movie, The Pledge, struck me the same way. Not a well-told story. But the question it raises and the answer it gives are so unusual and so powerful, who cares? It’s like an experiment where things go haywire, but the scientist stumbles onto a precious truth. If stories exist to enlighten us, potentially to change our lives, the thoughts they leave us with are a lot more important than their technical virtues or vices.We’re talking now about one of the great misunderstandings of art. I don’t believe that art has much value when it’s used for self-affirmation–choosing art that pleases you, or rejecting art that displeases you. That’s just playing the Siskel and Ebert game. Art has value when it challenges you. When it rattles you. When it distresses you. When it poses questions you haven’t answered or been able to answer. When it forces you to grapple with something you weren’t aware of, or didn’t understand. When it forces you to change your self-definition. That’s how art becomes an enhancement to life, rather than a retreat or escape from it.
When people opine on what they like or don’t like about a work of art, I wonder if they got any benefit from it. When people talk about the idea presented in a work of art, and whether it was true or false, it’s a fair bet that they came away with something.
This attitude (a little defensive-sounding) is at least coherent: people don’t need to like his book to be changed by it in subtle ways. Good or not, the book has acheived its purpose in being talked about by a lot of people (even on this weblog). The marketing campaign operates on the premise that if a book successfully saturates a society to a certain point, it will find an audience (somehow). If Shapero is right about anything, it’s that oblivion means certain death for artists and intellectuals. He seems skeptical that society recognizes important ideas or works of art fast enough; this blanket campaign is an attempt to increase the probability of a nuclear isotape going radioactive.
I haven’t read the book yet, (though someday I might), but I have to say that the mass of negative comments about this book arise partially from the fact that it was a free gift (and it’s easy to deride the value of something you didn’t pay for). In fact, if the book were published on a smaller scale and only made the rounds of literary/naturalist circles, it’s quite possible that the book would receive better reviews (though a smaller amount of attention). I still have no idea whether the book merits serious critical attention or whether I’d like it. But mainstream marketing assures mainstream types of reaction.
The other problem with the reviews is that the readers seem to resent the investment of time involved in finishing this awful book. Oh, really? So the helpless reader couldn’t have chosen to stop reading? Nobody was holding a gun to his head. I am a voracious and catholic reader; yet there are lots (thousands!) of books I never will get into. And I don’t. And I don’t suffer from guilt or anger as a result. In this day and age where it is a rare coincidence to run into someone who has actually read the same book you did, I really don’t want to hear protests from people who didn’t know how to stop.
It’s a little like hearing complaints from a few hundred men about what a lousy lay somebody was. The fact that a man slept with her means that at one time he found something attractive about her. Frankly, the world doesn’t care about lousy lays or tainted love. They want to hear about the times when romance succeeds or when the union of two people in sex or marriage brings something interesting or remarkable. The fact that I have fallen in love with Person R doesn’t mean that Person S is awful. And if I fall out of love with Person R, when I start complaining about it, that says more about my own standards than Person R’s intrinsic qualities as a lover.
Social forces do exert pressure on individuals to certain works of art. Look at the photo below:
My Albanian host father was holding up a book by former Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha. Hoxha wrote several “bestsellers” (actually Marxist diatribes or autobiographies or –gasp–even fiction!) and hundreds of thousands of the books were printed and distributed everywhere. Every Albanian household was expected to possess copies and be familiar with their contents; now it is nothing more than a joke.
We are not living in Communist Albania. Here the tsunami of books by Dan Brown, Stephen King and Michael Crichton may seem inescapable. But we are not drowning; it’s easy to avoid the onslaught of multimillion dollar PR frenzies if we choose. As consumers and intellectuals in an age where books, dvd’s and mp3′s are everywhere, our job is to collect, filter, promote and even to ignore. What we collect becomes a part of us; works that don’t hold meaning or value need to be discarded or forgotten about. If our library consists of Stephen King, Metallica and Reese Witherspoon movies, that is who we are; if it consists of Giuseppi Verga, Siti Nurhaliza and I was Born But, that also defines who we are. Occasionally, in organizing our collection we have to exclude or discard. That’s natural. A massively-funded and carefully-orchestrated marketing campaign doesn’t absolve us of the obligation to choose our baubles carefully.
Update January 2009. Apparently the person in Austin who handed out the free sample has found my blog and written a comment here. We communicated privately by email and made tentative plans to recreate our meeting, and I will ceremoniously hand him back the book he gave me.
May 2009 Update. Apparently, according to one librarian, in the World Cat database, the sound recording that is available in the greatest number of libraries in the world is ….Wild Shapero’s Wild Animus (with Harry Potter books ranked number 2,3,4,5 and 6). (Do this query dt= “rec” and rank by number of libraries).
May 21 2010 Update. Amazingly, a box of Wild Animus books was mistaken for a bomb at Yale University. Could we be overlooking the obvious possibility that Rich Shapero is a terrorist trying to infiltrate the literature departments at our universities? Zeke Miller reports:
The Yale Police Department and New Haven bomb squad responded to a report of a suspicious package outside Woodbridge Hall today, but the apparent threat proved to be a false alarm.
Officers arrived shortly before 5 p.m. and closed Beinecke Plaza and part of Wall Street between College and High streets. Bomb technicians donned protective gear and used a robot to inspect the brown cardboard box, which they found contained copies of the book “Wild Animus.” Wall Street was reopened about 20 minutes later.
Similar boxes, with the same “Wild Animus” books, were seen elsewhere on campus Tuesday, including in front of Saybrook and Trumbull colleges.New Haven Police send bomb robot to examine Wild Animus books (Jeff Kaiser, photograph) Literary bomb defused! (Charlie Croon, photograph)
November 2, 2012 Update. Amazingly, ads for Rich Shapero’s new ebook have started appearing as ads on my Kindle. Arrgh! I haven’t started the first novel!