Miami book fair panelists describe what makes a “good book”

Photo by Maggie Diaz-Vera Pamela Paul, Ann Patchett, Nicholson Baker, Francine Prose and Walter Mosley describe what makes a "good book" for them in the panel event "By the Book: The New York Times Book Review Comes for Some Sun" at the 2014 Miami Book Fair International on Sunday, Nov. 23.

Photo by Maggie Diaz-Vera
[From left to right] Pamela Paul, Ann Patchett, Nicholson Baker, Francine Prose and Walter Mosley describe what makes a “good book” for them in the panel event “By the Book: The New York Times Book Review Comes for Some Sun” at the 2014 Miami Book Fair International on Sunday, Nov. 23.

Sunday, Nov. 23, I attended an event at Miami Book Fair International where editor Pamela Paul from The New York Times Book Review questioned Nicholson Baker, Walter Mosley, Ann Patchett and Francine Prose — novelists that contributed to her newest anthology — on the topic of “literature and their literary life.”

I took advantage of the Q-and-A session after their whole discussion and tossed them the question, “What makes a good book?”

“I’m really political,” Walter Mosley said, “ At some point or another, something can go awry politically for me, [it] might turn me away.”

If the politics are kosher for him, he then looks to language.

“It’s not just craft, not always craft, it’s the language and how well it flows forward for me,” he said.

Francine Prose agreed with Mosley.

“It’s all about sentences for me,” she said.

Nicholson Baker takes a different approach, he focuses on the person that’s writing.

“I like when somebody is funny and when I like the person. If I like the guy or gal who is writing the book, I think ‘OK, I’m willing to spend some time with this person,’ Baker said.

According to Baker, he also explores authors that aren’t being talked about as much.

“I often have a subversive streak where I want to read something that’s genre books or that are things that are not considered high literary books because I heard those names so often that I want to find out what people are doing who are less celebrated,” he said.

Paul added that Baker loved reading romance novels.

Ann Patchett said a good book was one that let her forget she was reading.

“When that part of my brain shuts off and I stop analyzing the book and figuring out how they did it, and I just fully enter in to it, then it becomes a truly great book,” she said.

Paul concluded she didn’t want to read about her city, she wanted to get away.

“For me, it’s about being transported,” said Paul. “I don’t want to read about other neurotic people my age in New York dealing with family and work, I want to be off in the Congo.”

At the end of the day, it seems each person has different criteria for a good book. Each panelist valued one thing more than the other, whether it was language, flow, writer or content. What might be a good book for each, might not be a good book for another. And that’s ok.

Baker addressed the issue earlier in the session when he spoke against writing negative book reviews.

“There’s a huge world of books and everybody has a different universe of interests. And I’ve gone through phases where I’ve loved certain books that I now don’t love as much, and I’ve also discovered books in my fifties that I thought I would never ever read,” Baker said. “It’s always a mistake, I think, to say bad things about other people’s books because you never know what phase someone else is gonna be in.”

Therefore, writers, keep the books coming. Even if you upset one reader like Mosley with your politics or can’t capture readers like Paul with your New York City romanticism, someone else might be interested in your work.

For more of the session, you can visit C-SPAN’s recording of it here.

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Gov. Rick Scott’s budget not pro-libraries (Part 2)

"Rick Scott - Caricature" by DonkeyHotey, via Creative Commons

“Rick Scott – Caricature” by DonkeyHotey, via Creative Commons

My sincerest apologies for the missed post last week, everyone. I had a personal issue to attend to, but it’s been resolved and I’m back on track. Unfortunately, Rick Scott won the position as Florida governor. Given that, I’ll skip my whole Charlie Crist section and focus on what Scott has in store for us.

In “Governor Rick Scott’s FY 2014-2015 Recommended Budget Highlights,” he said he will continue to support Florida public libraries with a recommended $24.7 million.

It’s big money for us, but not nearly enough to keep libraries in top working condition.

According to a Miami Herald article earlier this year, “Without more tax dollars, Miami-Dade County’s library system would fire 56 percent of its full-time staff and bring on part-time workers to operate branches that will see hours cut by an average of 35 percent…”

Rather than increasing “the special property tax,” the plan was to cripple the library system. I say “cripple” because without funding to update services and materials, it will become obsolete.

In another article, it states Miami-Dade public libraries is spending 90 percent less on children’s books than they have in previous years. This is problematic because many families turn to libraries to look for books for school, but some now have to turn to Amazon or other sources to find them because the library doesn’t have enough funding to get the latest books or even have enough books for all of the branches.

Just this Friday, I looked in the library system to get a copy of “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn for my book club, but all 85 English hard copies were checked out and 109 people have it on hold. That’s not even a book for school. What happens when a young student needs “Night” by Elie Wiesel for class, finds they’re all checked out and can’t afford to buy it?

“Library systems serving more than 1 million people typically invest about $600,000 a year on children’s books,” reported Douglas Hanks. “Despite a population topping 2 million, Miami-Dade children’s budget falls much closer to the $66,000 average that the [Library Journal] calculated for libraries serving communities of 100,000 people – about the size of Miami Gardens.”

I’m extremely worried because signs point to Scott not being in any sort of rush to supply libraries with the extra necessary funds to stay afloat. In the first line of the first paragraph of his recommended budget, Scott says he’s about “tax and fee cuts, eliminate[ing] government waste and pay[ing] down debt.”

I’m all for eliminating waste and paying down debt, but a tax increase is necessary to keep libraries in working order.

True, libraries are underused in our city, but perhaps they’re underused because people found they don’t have the books we need.

Whenever a semester started, the first place I would look for textbooks would be the library. If they didn’t have it, then I would turn to a used book store, then the internet.

And if their argument for cutting back on library money is that books are dead so we won’t have to buy as many, there are a couple holes in that argument. First, there is a large population that still uses print books, specially the poor and underprivileged that don’t have access to e-readers. Second, we need properly trained staff that is equipped to help patrons with evolving technologies available at these locations. Finally, libraries offer much more than books, they offer vital services such as resume writing workshops, gardening workshops and workshops on other essential skills that would better the community. If funding is cut, the workshops will be cut too.

As it stands, I don’t think the library is open enough. I work long hours during the week, and by the time I have time to go to the library, it’s closed. Sundays I often find myself wishing they were open.

Going back to Rick Scott, I foresee a battle coming on. For now, keep going to your local library and show him via numbers that libraries are still relevant.

If you would like to help financially, you can donate to Friends of Miami-Dade Public Library on Give Miami Day on Nov. 20, visit the Friends’ Booth at the Miami Book Fair International from Nov. 21-23, or buy books at the Friends’ Annual Book Sale on Dec. 10-13. Additionally, you can donate used books to the library. 

Indie bookstore shares their secret for success

While browsing through Publishers Weekly’s Opinion section, I happened upon Pete Mulvihill’s article, “How Bookstores Survive in the Age of Amazon.” The co-owner of Green Apple Books let us in on their secret for success, but stressed that we shouldn’t get hung up on numbers. This advice might seem counterintuitive for some business people, but I think he’s onto something.

According to Mulvihill, even successful stores could disappear for a number of reasons. He admits that one day indie bookstores might not be able to keep up with technology, yet he’s not pessimistic about the future.

Instead Mulvihill focuses on the present, on answering the needs of his local community, and on his love for his job – that’s what brings in the customers.

He writes, “‘It may not be a good living, but it’s a good life.’” This highlights that bookselling in today’s world is not a business done to accumulate fame and fortune. If you sell books, you should do it because you love it. It’s that consideration for books and people that will help booksellers meet customers’ needs.

I visited two independent bookstores in San Francisco this year: City Lights Booksellers and Publishers and Green Apple Books. After that experience, returning to my local Barnes & Noble was depressing.

Cristina E. Garcia standing next to the famous City Lights Books.

Cristina E. Garcia standing next to the famous City Lights Books.

Rather than focusing on books and having gizmos as an aside, my local B&N has a whole first floor dedicated to knickknacks, e-readers and toys with books as an afterthought. They thinned shelves and slowly phased out seating within the store to discourage patrons from staying. They even enacted a policy that prohibits potential buyers from sitting on the floor. Is it any surprise they’re becoming obsolete?

Rather than answering the needs of the local community, the B&N is focused on making money and cutting corners wherever they deem necessary. They think the answer lies in e-readers, but they’re only partially right.

If the company isn’t meeting consumers’ needs, consumers will opt for another bookseller. Even though B&N sells e-books, I go to Amazon because their e-books are cheaper and frankly I’m deeply upset with B&N’s customer service. And after the Bitch Magazine article I wrote about last week, now I’m looking for another e-book seller.

That said, where do you buy your books and why do you choose that particular bookseller?