Monday, April 21, 2008

Guest Blogger | Robyn Scott

Note: Occasionally, I'll invite a guest to write a blog entry, giving insights into aspects of the book world outside my own. I am very pleased to have as my first guest blogger, Robyn Scott, author of Twenty Chickens for a Saddle. -Drew Goodman

The Art of Remembering

Strange, prickly times these are, in which to be publishing a memoir. “So how did you remember everything… all those details?” I’ve been asked meaningfully and on numerous occasions. Some are more direct: “In the light of the recent…”

It’s happened enough now that I no longer even feel indignant defensiveness of my own work. But each time it does strike me as an immense pity that a few scandals have so shaken faith in a genre – one in which the vast majority, at least, of stories are surely recounted sincerely and to the best of the narrator’s memory.

Herein too lies the intriguing irony of this new shadow of doubt and uncertainty. For, those unfortunate instances of falsified stories notwithstanding, the great scope for a divergence from “reality” in penned recollections lies disproportionally not in the hard facts, but in the (uncontroversial yet infinitely subjective) perspective of the memoirist.

So in my answers, having dealt with the generally assumed and accepted point that most dialogue is necessarily reconstructed, I’ll explain the process of gathering and testing the memories: I interviewed my family and many friends, and then later sent out the draft manuscript widely; for comment, dispute of any dialogue thought unreasonable, and general fact checking. At least for me, this – resolving the “facts” – was the easy part.

In book of more than four hundred pages, the single vehement objection from my father epitomises the treacherous and interesting territory of the much harder part. As he readily admits, he had a fraught relationship with his deeply eccentric, sometimes delightful, and profoundly difficult father. Nor will he dispute the fact that he and his father, living in two lonely houses opposite each other in the middle of the bush, did not speak to each other for more than year. Explaining this bizarre situation, I’d written that father and son had stopped speaking to each other. “That’s not how it happened,” protested my father, “He stopped talking to me.”

My mother, for her part, felt strongly about several sections in which I recount conversations involving her controversial decision to home school my brother, sister and I. Here, it was not what I referred to – my memories of her saying things like school stifles intellectual curiosity, constrains creativity et cetera – but of the contextual, qualifying details that I, as an eight year old, simply did not remember. “Robbie,” she’d say, “I may have said that, but I also would have said [vast complex paragraph of proposed dialogue]… and I might have said that then, but I didn’t always say it like that…”

It was also my mother who came up with one of the most insightful observations I’ve heard on this subject. At the time she was staying with me in London, and had spent many stressful hours helping me do a last minute fact check before I submitted the final manuscript. A natural pedant, the lengths she went to were great, sometimes to the point of absurdity – most memorably involving her reconstruction (with a wooden ruler, a drawing pin and a rubber band) of a catapult I’d described; to check if it really would fire accurately.

“It’s interesting,” she mused, “how one often remembers most the times a person acts out of character, how you don’t expect them to act.”

The same, I suppose, could be said for everything – we remember vividly and acutely not the usual. Nor do we remember predictably or statically; over time these haphazardly selected and catalogued memories take on subtly different meanings, wax or wane in significance, and shape the lens through which we both see and recall the world. Such is – and so is perhaps too often forgotten – both the limitation and attraction of the memoir; the chance to inhabit one person’s inherently flawed but richly human truth.


Purchase Twenty Chickens for a Saddle from the University Campus Store

Learn more about Twenty Chickens for a Saddle: The Story of an African Childhood

Contact Robyn Scott

Video Review of Twenty Chickens for a Saddle

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Are Books Still Relevant In The Internet Age?

Another article appeared yesterday, this time in the Wall Street Journal, once again sounding the death knell of the book and bookstore (I am referring to both as physical entities in the real world rather than wandering electrons on the information superhighway).

Are books still relevant in today's world of information on demand? Do bookstores still have a social role as gathering places, that so called, Third Place?

The Kindle, Sony's Reader, Microsoft's eReader, iPod's and even cell phones have become platforms for reading electronic editions of books. The book can go anywhere, be accessed anytime. With wireless access to the Internet, books can be downloaded as you wait for a flight in an airport or sip a latte at Starbucks. The digital genie is out of the fiber-optic bottle.

Yet, according to the Census Bureau, bookstore sales surged by 4.7% in January and 11.4% in February. Keep in mind the Census Bureau definition of bookstore sales: bookstore sales are of new books and do not include "electronic home shopping, mail-order, or direct sale" or used book sales. Although the age-old grocery store question may now apply to books, "Paper or plastic (enclosed electronic reading device?)," this simple question may be more difficult to answer when applied to books.

Lee Gomes, the author of the Wall Street Journal article, said in essence, that he didn't mind reading a book on his cellphone (or in this case his BlackBerry) after having discovered the ease and convenience of reading a book on a Sony Reader. He did draw the line at reading "Anna Karenina" on a wristwatch reader.

Interestingly enough, the other day on my way home, I walked down the aisle of the light rail car I was on and counted how many people were reading books, using cellphones, or listening to music. There are approximately 60 seats on the train, which were all filled, and another 15-20 people were standing. By my count, 33 people were reading books, 10 were using cellphones, 2 were using PDA's, and 15 were listening to music, leaving about 22 people staring out the window watching the graffiti roll by. Most cell phone users were talking while 3-4 were texting. I don't know if the PDA users were reading books; I didn't want to lean over their shoulders to find out.

My unscientific survey tells me reading actual books isn't dead quite yet. My gut feeling is that books still have a long way to go before we cast them off forever in favor of the digital domain.

In turn, bookstores still have relevance as a place to go to find books to read. Walmart and Costco may cut into bookstore sales, but how many books do they carry? Two or three hundred titles? Where do you go when they no longer carry the book you want? Amazon.com? Barnes & Noble.com? Borders.com? University Campus Store.com? Many people can and do. But how many of us walk, bike or drive to the local bookstore (independent or chain) to wander through aisles filled with books we might never otherwise see on-line? We go to a physical bookstore because that where the books AND the people are. The act of reading is mostly a solitary activity, but browsing, buying and sharing books is much more social. We look for recommendations, watch the bestseller lists for what others are reading, join book clubs, and look at what other people are picking up and reading at the bookstore.

Hunched over our internet devices, downloading and reading books, may be a matter of convenience (except for the eyestrain), but it is the social nature of books and the bookstore that will keep them relevant for years to come.

What do you think?

Friday, April 11, 2008

"Do You Wash Your Hands?"


"Who doesn't wash their hands after using a public restroom?" seemed a strange question to start the evening, but from that question througout the next hour, Stephen Dubner had the undivided attention of the large audience who had gathered at the University of Utah Union.

In response to that question, six people bravely raised their hands. Dubner congratulated the crowd on being so hygienic, or, on being a bunch of liars. He suspected most didn't wash their hands, but were just too embarrassed to admit it. He went on to explain that even doctors in hospitals, medical professionals who should know the risks of not washing after using the bathroom or working with patients, were guilty of the same thing. When doctors were asked to self report their hand washing habits, 73% responded that they washed after each interaction with patients. Little did they know that the nurses had been secretly pulled into this survey to report what they actually saw when it came to the doctors hand washing. Result: only 9% of the time did doctors wash their hands after working with each patient.

What does hand washing have to do with economics? This, my friends, is Freakonomics. This is the science of social and behavioral economics. It is how we perceive the world. It's the difference between perception and reality, and then in turn, how we react as human beings to these perceptions.

If we see a story on the news about a horrific murder, we assume the world is a very dangerous place. But, as Dubner made clear, news is news for a reason. It is something that happens that is out of the ordinary. If it were ordinary, we wouldn't report it. The perception- the world is an extremely violent and dangerous place and a murderer is lurking around every corner. The reality- most of us will never encounter a psychotic killer who will murder us horribly. The result- we act as if a murderer IS lurking around every corner and we act to protect ourselves from being murdered horribly.

Some of the examples that Stephen Dubner used to explain Freakonomics were laugh-out-loud funny and others were substantially more serious, yet each one showed how our actions, based on perceptions affect the way we live, act and work.

Dubner announced that he and Steven Levitt are working on a follow-up book to Freakonomics- Super Freakonomics (they should get Rick James to write the forward). I look forward to seeing the data collected from a whole new set of stories and examples.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Freakonomics at the University of Utah

Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics with Steven D. Levitt, will be speaking on Wednesday, April 9, 2008 at 7:00 p.m. in the Olpin Union Ballroom. We will be there with books available for purchase and Mr. Dubner will be signing copies of the book after his lecture. This is a great opportunity to get a signed copy of a book that has spent months on the bestseller lists.

Freakonomics is economics like you've never seen it before. Economics doesn't have to be boring, it doesn't have to be about crunching financial numbers either. Freakonomics is about the everyday, about questioning the mysteries of life all around us. Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? How much do parents really matter? How did the legalization of abortion affect the rate of violent crime?

A fascinating book that will make you see the world around you in a totally different way.

If you would like a copy of Freakonomics signed by Stephen J. Dubner, click here. All orders for signed copies must be received by 5:00 p.m. on April 9, 2008.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Author, Author!

You know I love the book.

You know I really like the author.

What you may not know is that the book, "Twenty Chickens for a Saddle: The Story of an African Childhood," is now available and is on sale at the University Campus Store for 30% off the list price.
If you haven't picked up your copy, now is the time to do so, because...

On April 23, 2008, author Robyn Scott will be coming to Salt Lake City, Utah to speak about her experiences growing up in Botswana, seeing the devastating effects of AIDS in Africa, and how these experiences affected the way she wrote her book.

Robyn will be speaking in the Saltair Room at the University of Utah Union building on April 23, 2008 at 12:00 p.m (noon). Seated is limited, so arrive early. Books will be available for purchase at the event (books are available now at the Campus Store and on the website) and and Robyn will be signing copies after her speech.

I am very excited to have Robyn back in Salt Lake as she is an amazing person whom I am glad that many more of you will be able to meet this time around. Look for updates on Robyn's visit and for a very special blog coming on April 21, 2008.