The Literary Pyramid Scheme: On Book #2

Those of you who follow this blog know about what I call the Literary Pyramid Scheme. Nonetheless, in case there are some newbie readers, here’s a quick recap:

Some time ago, I posted a call for volunteers to step forward to help me with a literary experiment. I described a letter I received that invited me to become a member of an informal book club. It went on to outline a kind of literary pyramid scheme, whereby I would send out one book and six letters. In return, I could expect to receive a maximum of 36 previously read books selected by strangers from their very own shelves.

The idea behind this project is to write an essay about the books I get in the mail from strangers. The first book to land in my mailbox was Gods and Generals, and it prompted some musings on the traces of former lives and journeys that we find in second-hand texts.

Book #2 arrived last week: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. And even though it arrived quite a few days ago now, I haven’t written about it yet for the simple reason that I’ve been too busy reading it.

I’m a die-hard New Yorker reader, so Gladwell (a regular contributor) is very much on my reading map. Still, I’m not sure why, but I’ve never read any of his books. Recently, though, I have been especially tempted by Outliers, where he argues that geniuses become who they are and accomplish what they do in no small part because of the sheer number of hours they spend doing whatever they do: hockey, cello, writing, painting, you name it. I think the magic number of hours was 10,000. Now, for someone who spends every day in front of some manuscript or other, logging hour after hour, this is oddly comforting news.

Blink, by contrast, is about the genius of intuition. It’s about micro-cognition, and how we all carry split-second wisdom deep inside our most unconscious thought processes. I’m not done reading yet, but so far, the most fascinating and terrifying chapter for me (married eight years, and counting) has been his account of how the outcome of marriages can be predicted with shocking accuracy by analyzing very short snippets of conversations between couples. I’m sure you know this study (the key emotion is contempt). If you don’t, it’s worth reading about.

This book made its way to my home near Montreal from a stranger in West Virginia. What a lovely gift. It’s furthered my thinking on creative nonfiction (Gladwell’s version of it, though quite different from mine, is very good indeed). It’s satisfied a curiosity about a writer I’d wanted to get to know better, and made me want to read more. Outliers will be next on my list of his books for sure.

Here’s hoping for more packages from strangers!

[Photo: angelferd]

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The Literary Pyramid Scheme: A Few Thoughts on Book #1

A while ago, I posted a call for volunteers to step forward to help me with a literary experiment. I described a letter I received that invited me to become a member of an informal book club. It went on to outline a kind of literary pyramid scheme, whereby I would send out one book and six letters. In return, I could expect to receive a maximum of 36 previously read books selected by strangers from their very own shelves.

Well, my first book arrived! The package came with a Maryland postmark and inside I found a second-hand copy of Jeffrey Shaara’s Gods and Generals.

Lately, my husband and I have been talking about the benefits of e-books as compared to paper ones. One of the things that the arrival of Gods and Generals has reminded me of is that paper books come with traces of their former lives and readers. And Book #1 contains some interesting clues as to its history.

Trace number one: the former owner’s name (female, interestingly) on the first page.

Trace number two: the book sent contains a business card from the South Mountain State Battlefield in Middletown, Maryland that was likely used as a bookmark. A vestige of some kind of civil war pilgrimage? Did the reader/owner of this book take it on a trip to places it describes?

Trace number three: amazingly, this book has been signed by its author — the autograph is dated Sept. 1, 2002. Why, I wonder, would a reader send away an author-inscribed book to a complete stranger?

All of this reminds me of a 1990s Algerian raï song sung from the perspective of a beauty parlor chair that tells about all the beautiful women and behinds that have graced it. Or of François Girard‘s film The Red Violin that traces the life of an instrument as it is passed from hand to hand. Tracking the life of an object, it turns out, is another way of writing life.

Finally, though American Civil War history is far from a major interest of mine, I’m so thankful for this gift, whose conception is a beautiful gesture of love. Jeffrey Shaara wrote this book as a prequel to his father’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Killer Angels, that told the story of the Battle of Gettysburg. He wrote it after his father’s death, so the very text is a kind of conversation with the dead, an elegy, or maybe even a love letter.

Already new avenues for thinking about reading, writing and exchange have opened up for me with this first arrival. I hope more books will come, and with them fodder for a solid essay. If not — if months go by without another book — that will be something to write about too.

Keep reading. Keep writing. Happy Holidays!

[Photo: Troy Holden]

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Alternate Economies and a Literary Experiment: An Invitation to Help Me with an Essay Project

Yesterday I received a letter in the mail from a really funky writer friend of mine in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It contained an invitation to be part of an “informal book club” project. The letter asked me to send one already-read book to a designated recipient, and to send six more such letters to others, inviting them to do the same. In theory, the invitation explained, if everyone down the line participated, I would receive 36 random and gently used books through the mail.

Yes — it’s a literary pyramid scheme!

Now, ever since an old high school friend handed me a video and implored me to watch it, saying it was something I would be “really interested in” (it turned out to be some sort of incomprehensible Amway pitch), I’ve been really wary of this sort of thing. I don’t like chain letters by email or otherwise, and won’t take part in them, but something about the informal book club has appealed to me.

I’ve always loved alternate economies: garage sales, freecycle websites, barter networks. I love the flow of infant clothing and equipment that happens among young mothers who pass on articles to the next woman down the line as their little ones grow, knowing that more will come their way from those with older children. It’s a simple method of recycling and a way of resisting the message that we should consume more and more and more.

The informal book club idea strikes me as being in this spirit — it’s a cashless or low-cost exchange of goods, but with a surprise factor.

I like the idea of selecting a book off my shelf that I’ve read, enjoyed, but can do without, and sending it off to a stranger as a gift. And I like the idea of random people doing the same for me. It’s an experiment I’d like to try, and I think there may be an essay in it. If you help, I’ll do my best to write something insightful and funny about the experience.

I’m looking for six willing participants to take part in this literary experiment with me. If you are interested, please send me your mailing address via the contact page, and I’ll send the letter off to you so you can get started. As you can see by the fact that I have no ads on this site, I’m not particularly capitalistic by nature or spam-minded, so there’s no danger of your address being sold or used for nefarious purposes. Information you transmit through the contact page comes to my private email address, and is not made public. I’ll send you the book club letter and that’s it. Promise.

Drop me a line, and let’s see what comes.

[Photo:patrick colgan]

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