Archive for October, 2009


“What a good girl, what a smart girl, what a pretty girl…”

Wide-eyed freshmen straining to seem a little older, straight-on rain hitting sideways bikes—when I hike to American University to use the library, I’m struck by how autumns on campuses all feel the same, how the mood falls and rises according to rhythms that no one can sense only two blocks away. Science fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr., AU class of 1959, certainly felt it; in November 1957, after nine months at American, Tiptree wrote to a friend:

The first semester is like an arctic trip; in the warm weather you sign up for the long plunge into the dark tunnel of winter, and you sail North with the weeks; the trek across the campus growing colder, the inside of the night bus hotter; darkness coming earlier, and finally closing in to the tough struggle of the exams, an inhuman time—and suddenly the lights and confusion, the camp of Christmas . . . And then the voyage home out of the darkness, back up the tunnel to the great blaze of Spring ahead….

“James Tiptree” was, of course, Alice Sheldon, who returned to college at 41 after serving in the Army and working for the CIA. According to Julie Phillips, author of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, AU’s campus oddballs found Sheldon awfully compelling. In a letter to her mentor, Sheldon half-jokingly rued her status as a weirdness magnet: “It’s plain, now no more than ever, will I meet the normal sunshine people of this world.”

Flash forward a few years to find Alice Sheldon, graduate student, working toward a Ph.D in experimental psychology at GWU and teaching classes in statistics and psych at her alma mater. In a letter to a friend, she recalled making the mistake of estimating her hourly earnings, thus inspiring her own formulation of the adjunct’s lament:

Stupid kids come up and say I’ve been here three years and you’re the first faculty member that ever TALKED to me—and bang goes three hours. Or bright kids, and you find they went to some progressive so-called school and can’t read or write an English sentence, and want to. And piss goes ten hours. And they aren’t getting the material so you revamp your whole series. And you give real exams, essay exams, and READ them. Yeah. $.75 with your fucking Ph.D.

When I’m on the AU campus, I can’t imagine Sheldon there. For one thing, there’s no trace of either her real name or her pseudonym on the AU Web site; the school doesn’t claim her as one of its own. Maybe the circumstances of her death, a murder-suicide pact with her bedridden husband, made her alma mater disown her—or maybe they simply forgot. If any of Sheldon’s worshipful oddballs from the class of ’59 pause to recall her at Friday’s reunion, will any of them know she was also an acclaimed science-fiction author? That an award is named for her alter ego? Will anyone remember her at all?

In Sheldon’s sardonic 1973 story “The Women Men Don’t See,” a government librarian from D.C. tries to explain to her male traveling companion that women’s rights are insecure, so clever women must scramble to survive. “We live by ones and twos,” Ruth Parsons says, “in the chinks of your world machine.” When the clueless Don Fenton likens her comments to the manifesto of a guerrilla movement, Ruth counters with a more pathetic metaphor: “Think of us as opossums, Don. Did you know there are opossums living all over? Even in New York City?”

And Washington too. In a city that’s hopelessly, willfully normal, where even the artists are sleeping by ten, the Sheldon-Tiptrees pass unseen, less like opossums than aliens—not the dome-faced, squid-fingered monsters that float through Sheldon’s story, but lonely, troubled, rain-drenched blurs.

“It’s uncanny,” Sheldon wrote, “they come to me—the one just out of shock therapy, the one in love with an older woman, the one who drove a taxi for five years and only goes out at night, with big dark eyes.” Fifty years later, they seek out each other in library niches or clear across dimly lit classrooms, the oddballs, aliens, and opossums, astounded when somebody sees them.

“I study nuclear science, I love my classes…”

It would have been idyllic: basking in the glare of the Adriatic, nudging sleepy turtles in the olive grove, ignoring the pre-recorded pleas of the muezzin that tumble down the mountain…but when a friend invited me to write Becoming Charlemagne at his Montenegrin beach house, I turned him down, just as I had to say “no” to generous offers that might have put me in a cottage in Ireland or poolside in Florida. Traveling with easily-misplaced articles and books felt like a great way to miss a deadline, and I vividly imagined Balkan crime lords challenging me to win back my crate of medieval scholarship in a drinking contest ungoverned by nominal adherence to the rule of law.

My irrational fear of becoming a cautionary tale in The Economist notwithstanding, I’ve kept an eye on the e-book market for a device that does everything I need it to do. A few weeks ago, I was stunned to see a TV commercial for the latest Sony Reader, an obvious attempt to scrape away some market share from the Amazon Kindle. But how big, really, is that market? Amazon hasn’t said how many Kindles are out there. I’ve spotted two Kindles in the wild, and plenty of pundits, media people, and bloggers do go on about them, but the device is hardly ubiquitous. So how un-ubiquitous is the Kindle?

Here are some ratios derived from my latest Becoming Charlemagne royalty statement. I have no idea how typical these numbers are, but here’s where e-book sales stand in the life of one modest, midlist pop-history book that’s been in print for three years:

  • Ratio of Kindle copies sold to print copies (hardcover and paperback) sold: 1 : 302 
  • Ratio of e-books in all formats sold to print copies (hardcover and paperback) sold: 1 : 47
  • Ratio of Kindle copies sold to other e-book formats sold: 1 : 5.45
  • Ratio of Kindle copies sold to Microsoft Reader e-books sold: 1 : 3

Interestingly, Kindle sales are lumped under “MOBIPOCKET” on a HarperCollins royalty statement because the Kindle uses that e-book format (and Amazon owns the company), but 16% of the Mobipocket sales for BC occurred before the release of the Kindle in late 2007—so there’s no telling if all the sales I’m ascribing to Kindle even went to Kindle users.

So there it is: e-books account for only 2% of this one book’s total sales, which includes hardcover, paperback, and various e-book formats—and Kindle sales account for no more than 0.3% of total sales.

Perhaps, compared to sales in other genres, these numbers are weirdly low. For all I know, people who read little medieval-themed pop-history books by unknown authors are atypically hostile to e-books or simply aren’t early adapters in general. Maybe people who buy mysteries, science-fiction novels, or political screeds are far more open to new technology?

Whatever the case, while I’d like to be enthusiastic about e-books, I can’t help remembering what Charlemagne said in 793 when his flunkies promised him a canal between the Danube and the Rhine: “When you say it’s going to happen ‘now,’ well, when exactly do you mean?”

“Got your number from a friend of mine who lives in your hometown…”

Life was funny, growing up around characters but not inside a story. I’m not complaining; it was simply true that stories happened in New York or in California, on the shores of Earthsea or the plains of Krull, but never in central New Jersey. We didn’t have major radio or TV stations, so the news showed us Brooklyn and the movies showed us suburban Chicago, and I think we knew the wider world better than our own. Later, expat filmmakers flirted with caricature or danced around the edges of the odd, and sometimes a novelist knew the state well, but most wrote New Jerseys that didn’t ring true.

I mean, I didn’t find it strange that we rode sleds into traffic, that my friends stole software from Finland, that our principal hijacked a bus so fourth-graders could see Ronald Reagan, that escaped mental patients slept on our lawn, that we buried our dead in coffins stuffed with beer cans, that the girl next door walked a rabbit on a leash, that my uncle kept sheep in his suburban backyard (and wrapped the old ewe’s legs in duct tape to keep her from falling over)—but I knew these lives weren’t fit for proper fiction.

Then along came The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the story of a Dominican-American misfit who’s too obsessed with science fiction and fantasy to realize he’s living in a magical-realist novel. Readers love the geeky obsessions of Oscar de León, and Junot Díaz’s take on Dominican history is vital to his story, but I was drawn to the book by something else: Díaz went to Rutgers and Kean, and Oscar Wao is very Central Jersey.

At first I thought he’d whiffed it. Díaz names New Brunswick streets but barely shows or describes them. He mentions Amboy Cinemas, but the adventure of seeing movies there is a tale he doesn’t tell. He knows the late-’80s “nerd circuit” at Woodbridge Center (comic shop, gaming shop, Waldenbooks), but he won’t stop to linger and make the place real.

Then a landmark looms from the pages:

What he did was this: drank a third bottle of Cisco and then walked unsteadily down to the New Brunswick train station. With its crumbling facade and a long curve of track that shoots high over the Raritan. Even in the middle of the night, doesn’t take much to get into the station or to walk out onto the tracks, which is exactly what he did. Stumbled out toward the river, toward Route 18. New Brunswick falling away beneath him until he was seventy-seven feet in the air. Seventy-seven feet precisely. From what he would later recall, he stood on that bridge for a good long time. Watching the streaking lights of the traffic below. Reviewing his miserable life. Wishing he’d been born in a different body. Regretting all the books he would never write. Maybe trying to get himself to reconsider. And then the 4:12 express to Washington blew in the distance. By then he was barely able to stand. Closed his eyes (or maybe he didn’t) and when he opened them there was something straight out of Ursula Le Guin standing by his side…

I’ve been to the top of that train bridge—not for the same reason as Oscar, but compelled, as he was, by something other than reason. How did no one notice a teenage, microscopic me scaling a scrubby slope along a highway? For years I was sure I was all on my own—but then I learned that in the 1930s, the cops caught my grandfather trying to cut an hour off his commute by using that same viaduct as his personal footbridge. That was a very Junot Díaz discovery: places run in families.

It’s not a bad bridge to have climbed at least once. Glance down, and you will get dizzy; a train flies past and blows you to the edge, and you wince through a hideous gust. But when calm settles in and the tracks are all clear, there are weird sights to see up there, stories to spot, if you just know the right way to look.

(Photo © Gerald Oliveto. Used with permission.)