Nota Bene

Nota Bene

Thomas Hardy typically had several notebooks on the go, each one carefully labelled Poetical Matter; Literary Notebook; Studies, Specimens, etc; or Facts. In Facts, Hardy and his first wife, Emma, recorded curious incidents culled from local newspapers. One three-line entry is titled “Sale of Wife”—a note that grew into The Mayor of Casterbridge.

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The Cutting Edge

The Cutting Edge

After seven years of researching and writing, I finally printed out a draft of my nonfiction novel The Convict Lover. The stack of pages was higher than a child’s booster seat. Even in my innocence, I knew prospective publishers were unlikely to read a 750-page prison tome, so I hauled out my scissors and glue pot—this was 1994, the digital dark ages—and attacked my hard-won words. Six months later, the manuscript was lean and muscular, reduced to a mere 88,000 words from its original 200,000. My heart, along with countless, priceless scenes, lay in shards on the floor.

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Under the Influence

Under the Influence

When Helen Keller was eleven, she wrote a story called “The Frost King.” The Perkins School for the Blind published it in their alumni magazine. Almost immediately, Helen was accused of stealing the idea from Birdie and his Fairy Friends, a book she’d never heard of. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, discovered that someone had, in fact, read the book to Helen when she was eight, finger-spelling the words for the blind, deaf child. Helen had no memory of this. For hours, the girl was grilled by a jury of teachers. She was absolved, narrowly, but the ordeal triggered a nervous breakdown. She never wrote fiction again.

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Where do Books Come From?

Where do Books Come From?

In one creation tale, from Tumblr’s
zwischendenstuehlen, books are hatched as tiny tomes — blind and naked creatures. Diligently, the writer makes little jackets to keep them warm during the first dark season of their lives. Those that make it through their various trials grow up to be big and strong and wise, taking their place on the shelf beside their older sisters and brothers.

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The Unexpected Nature of Collaboration

The Unexpected Nature of Collaboration

In an exhibition featuring Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts a few years ago, I found a small framed drawing in a far corner. The image was bizarre: a round-breasted woman holding a fig leaf on strings over prominent male genitalia. The title of the piece was Exquisite Corpse, the name the Surrealists gave to an old parlour game known as Consequences.

Exquisite Corpse is a kind of blind collaboration. The game begins when one person draws a head at the top of the page, then folds over the paper to conceal the image from the next person, who then draws the chest, handing the paper back and forth (or around the parlour) until the entire character is drawn and the image — often funny, always strange, and definitely accidental — is revealed.

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Why a blog?

Because sometimes the world moves too fast for books.

Because it feels good to be part of the conversation.

As I wrote Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, I thought a lot about books, what they are, what they mean, why I love them, how they are changing and how they are becoming what they started out to be. The brain doesn’t turn off when an editor says “Stop!” so in Books UnPacked, these thoughts spool on, exploring the past and future of books, and the actual books I’m unwrapping to read.

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