The book that didn’t exist — until hundreds asked for it

Trump supporters on Reddit last week tried, but failed, to keep Hillary Clinton’s new book from reaching No. 1 on Amazon’s bestseller lists. It wasn’t the first time an effort by a group of people affected the book industry. Perhaps the most interesting one, though, involved demand for a book that didn’t exist.

Jean Shepherd had the graveyard slot on New York City’s WOR radio in the early 1950s. Shepherd frequently offered monologues and commentary on his show. A frequent topic was the difference between “night people,” as he dubbed his listeners, and “day people,” who let their lives be governed by rules, lists and schedules. He found what he considered a prime example of day people and their effect on night people in April 1956.

Shepherd went to a noted New York City bookstore looking for a book with the scripts of an old radio show. The clerk told Shepherd that not only didn’t the store have it, the book didn’t exist because it wasn’t on any publisher’s list. Shepherd, though, knew the book existed and the clerk’s insistence to the contrary led to one of the better book hoaxes.

In telling his audience about his experience, Shepherd suggested they ask bookstores for a book they knew didn’t exist. He and listeners came up with I, Libertine, the first novel in trilogy on 18th century English court life. The imaginary author was Frederick R. Ewing, a retired Royal Navy Commander “well remembered” for a BBC radio series on “Erotica of the 18th Century.” Hundreds of night people responded, asking bookstores and libraries throughout the country for the book. Soon enough, publishers were getting calls from befuddled bookstore clerks and librarians. The nonexistent book was actually banned by the Catholic archdiocese in Boston after a listener who worked for the archdiocese put it on the church’s list of prohibited books as a joke. Once there, evidently no one dared to remove it

Given the number of inquiries publishers were receiving, Ian Ballantine of Ballantine Books investigated and discovered I, Libertine was hokum. He decided to capitalize on it and actually publish a book by that name. He contacted Shepherd and noted SF writer Theodore Sturgeon. Shepherd outlined the story and Sturgeon wrote the book in 30 days. The cover, of course, listed Frederick R. Ewing as the author and called the book “Turbulent! Turgid! Tempestuous!” Shepherd posed for the author photo on the back cover.

I, Libertine was no longer a hoax come September 20, 1956, when it was published with an initial press run of 130,000 copies. The book lost some momentum before it was published, though. On August 1, 1956, the Wall Street Journal ran a front page story detailing the hoax and Ballantine’s plan to publish a book by that name. The media and others felt they had been played for fools, some saying it all was a tawdry publicity stunt. Others, though, suggest the WSJ article actually helped sales.

Today, print copies of the book on Amazon cost from $65 for a paperback to $125 for a hardcover while prices on AbeBooks go as high as $300. Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble offer I, Libertine as an e-book with Sturgeon as the author.

There’s been some who claim I, Libertine hit bestseller lists. I can find no evidence of that — but there’s little doubt that it sold well — for a hoax.

A barrister needs to know the law; abiding by it is quite another specialty.

“Frederick R. Ewing,” I, Libertine

Book Review: A Force So Swift by Kevin Peraino

We’ve all watched with fascination those arrangements where hundreds or thousands of dominoes tumble one after the other to form an elaborate illustration. And who hasn’t somewhat envied the person who got to tip the first domino?

Such concepts aren’t limited to fun or entertainment. Images of dominoes falling were crucial to U.S. foreign policy following World War II. In fact, tipping dominoes became a political question, phrased as “Who lost China?” The fears that a communist China meant other Asian nations would, like dominoes, fall under communist control would, in fact, eventually lead America into the Vietnam War.

A number of books have been written about China becoming “Red.” Kevin Peraino, though, makes this a highly readable excursion in A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman, and the Birth of Modern China, 1949. Peraino’s approach to drawing and keeping the reader in the story of American-Chinese relations in 1949 is by “slipping into the participants’ skins and looking at the dilemmas of 1949 through their eyes.”

Part of America’s problem was that Mao had one objective — to complete the efforts to make China “Red.” As A Force So Swift details, Amerca couldn’t decide on its objective. While a communist China was unanimously seen as detrimental, the well-intentioned but indecisive Harry Truman and U.S. foreign policy were caught up in a variety of factions. Some wanted to continue to support General Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists but even they differed on the nature of that support. Others viewed the Nationalist regime as corrupt and saw supporting it as throwing good money (or military equipment) after bad. Additionally, the government was divided on whether it should attempt to work out accommodations with Mao and whether it should diplomatically recognize a Red China.

The fact thousands of Protestant American missionaries went to China in the first half of the 20th century played a significant role in two ways. First, their reports to their churches reached a large audience, helping create a large ”China lobby” in the U.S. For them, a communist China was anathema. Second, as Peraino shows, Madame Chiang Kai-shek was a far more powerful force in her husband in trying to cultivate and maintain financial and military support for the Nationalists. Her father had traveled to the U.S., where he became an ordained Methodist minister and returned to China to spend a few years as a native missionary. She, in turn, was sent to America at age 15 to be educated, eventually graduating from Wellesley College and becoming thoroughly acculturated to the U.S.

As an indication of her role in efforts to influence American policy, the first chapter opens with her arriving in Washington, D.C., in December 1948. The extent of her clout is evidenced by the fact that she not only visited then-Secretary of State George Marshall on the day she arrived but also a few days later — and both times he was hospitalized for kidney disease. While her husband would withdraw from public view for a lengthy period (by coincidence, the same day Dean Acheson succeeded Marshall in late January 1949), she would remain in the U.S. throughout the year, ultimately unsuccessful in generating support for a continued battle against Mao.

Acheson believed any further U.S. role in supporting the Nationalists was doomed to failure. On the other hand, Louis Johnson, appointed Secretary of Defense in March 1949, argued for continued support for the Nationalists. In addition, Congressional support for the Nationalists was headed by Minnesota Congressman Walter Judd, who’d spent approximately 10 years as a missionary in China. Like others, he argued that if Mao was victorious, other Asian countries would fall to the communists.

Truman, like Acheson, thought a wait-and-see attitude toward China was the best. Part of the State Department’s thinking was that by waiting China and the Soviet Union would come into conflict, reducing political conflict between China and the United States. Ultimately, events outpaced the administration. Not only did Mao take over China and find support from the Soviet Union, Great Britain would recognize Mao’s China.

With an established Red China, Congress wanted to know who, particularly in the State Department, “lost” China to the commies. In the eyes of many policymakers, the first domino had fallen. And in formulating foreign policy no one wanted to be the one who lost the next country.

To court Mao or to confront him? Truman did not want to do either.

Kevin Peraino, A Force So Swift

Book Review: Iraq + 100, edited by Hassan Blasim

Want to see how the marketing of a book is affected by who publishes it? Look at Iraq + 100, a collection of stories by 10 Iraqi authors imagining how their country would look 100 years after the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation by the United States. When originally released in the U.S. last December, the book was subtitled Stories from Another Iraq. Forge, an imprint of noted science fiction publisher Tor Books, has changed the subtitle to The First Anthology of Science Fiction to Have Emerged from Iraq.

That change doesn’t alter the book’s mission, which is perhaps represented by the fact that, having roots in September 11, 2001, the Forge edition is released this week. Rather than wrapping stories around the 2003 invasion, something editor Hassan Blasim did in his own short story collection The Corpse Exhibition, Blasim asked the writers to do something rare for Iraq. As he notes in his introduction to the book, “Iraqi literature suffers from a dire shortage of science fiction writing.” In fact, Blasim was concerned it would be difficult to find writers willing to imagine Iraqi cities 100 years in the future.

Like most anthologies, the end result is mixed. Additionally, Western readers’ perception or appreciation of the book may be affected by the fact seven of the 10 stories were originally written in Arabic and each has a different translator. To the extent this is science fiction, it is “soft” scifi exploring the cultural, political and psychological effects of the invasion and occupation of the country. There’s also a little magical realism and surrealism utilizing Iraq’s and Islam’s history and culture.

Some stories offer optimism. In “The Gardens of Babylon,” Blasim’s own story, while Baghdad is managed by a Chinese corporation, it has become “a paradise for digital technology developers.” Likewise, despite desertification and environmental degradation, this Baghdad is divided into 24 Chinese-designed domes, each a new garden of Babylon. The city exports the world’s best software and extraordinary scientific discoveries.

Ali Bader imagines a peace-filled future, at least for Iraq. In “The Corporal,” an Iraqi soldier returns to Kut, where he died in the 2003 invasion. “There are no more Sunnis, Shi’as, Christians” in Iraq, he is told, because organized religion is viewed as an impediment to knowing God. The country is long free of conflicts or civil wars. America, however, has become “an extremist state” ruled by religious radicals much like the Taliban governed Afghanistan. In fact, the U.S. is “part of the axis of evil.”

Other futures are far more dystopian. In “Operation Daniel,” Khalid Kaki’s Kirkuk is a wealthy city-state cut off from the rest of Iraq and governed by the Chinese. All languages but Chinese are forbidden and the punishment for anyone speaking or reading in them is being incinerated and “archived” in a synthetic diamond. Diaa Jubaili bases “The Worker” on a statute of that name in Basra. The city exports or has consumed every imaginable resource. It never lacks corpses, whether from disease or starvation. Despite a virtual total collapsed, “the Governor” reassures those still in the city with a monthly address about historical events that surpass the city’s own catastrophes and suffering.

Whether hopeful or despairing, these stories may have Americans ruefully recalling what Gen. Colin Powell reportedly told President George W. Bush before the invasion of Iraq: “You break it, you own it.”

Violence is the most brutal sculptor mankind has ever produced.

Hassan Blasim, “The Gardens of Babylon,” Iraq + 100

Weekend Edition: 9-9

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubez

  • Why Books and Reading Are More Important Than Ever (“…books remain one of the few defenses we have against narrowness, domination, and mind control. But only if we read them – and then only if we spring into action based on what we’ve learned and discovered.”)

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage

  • “Fuck” first appeared in court records more than 700 years ago
  • A majority of Americans adults under the age of 30 now reject capitalism
  • Political cartoons in the age of Trump
  • The Voyager spacecraft have explored space for 40 years run by computers that have less computing power than the key fobs we use to unlock our cars

I sometimes feel that I should carry around some sort of rectal thermometer to test the rate at which I am becoming an old fart.

Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22

Goodbye Walter

Those of you of a certain era will know that Walter Becker, a co-founder of Steely Dan, died Sunday. Steely Dan seems to be one of those bands you like — or you detest. I was a big fan.

Lke most people my age, the first Steely Dan music I heard was in late 1972-early 1973 when “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” hit the charts. Both came off the band’s first album and “Reelin’ in the Years” always makes me think of high school. Becker and Donald Fagen started the band and “Do It Again” hinted at what would come.

The fact the band was named after a dildo in William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (a fact confirmed on Steely Dan’s website) is a clue about the music. It wasn’t straightforward rock, it wasn’t jazz, it wasn’t blues. With Fagen singing and his piano prominent in the mix, the public viewed him somewhat as the leader of the band. Yet Becker’s subtle guitar playing was a crucial part of the sound, a sound with far more layers than almost any other group.

The band’s music was increasingly complex so that when it’s third album, Pretzel Logic, was released in early 1974 Steely Dan stopped touring. Instead, Becker and Fagen retreated to the studio where they could use technology and select musicians to produce what they heard — and what they heard wouldn’t be easy to replicate on stage. Regardless of how meticulous they were, each album fed the backlash that Steely Dan wasn’t really a band, just two guys amusing themselves in recording studios.

Hearing the results, my reaction was, “So what?” Their fourth album, 1975’s Katy Lied, is one of my two favorite Steely Dan tunes. The title alone reminds me of a dear friend who died far too young 25 years ago.  And my favorite tune on the album,  “Doctor Wu” (with a solo by jazz saxophonist Phil Woods), analogous to “Reelin’ in the Years,” always reminds me of college. In the video below, the band performs “Black Friday,” the opening cut on the album. There are few bands being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that would choose to play a song about a financial collapse from the perspective of a man who plans to stand outside and “catch the grey men when they dive from the fourteenth floor.”

But Steely Dan’s peak, sonically and musically, came with 1977’s Aja. I’ve previously written a full post about that album so suffice it to say that is almost perfectly layered and has pristine sound. It was followed by three years of commercial silence, during which Becker struggled with a variety of issues. Finally, Gaucho was released in late 1980. But Becker and Fagen split the next years, perhaps because their attention to detail had become obsessive. They reportedly spent four hours to mix a 50 second fade-out on the song “Babylon Sisters.”

In 1993 Steely Dan actually toured and in 1995 released a live recording, Alive in America. It was not until 2000, however, that the band would release a new studio album — and the album, Two Against Nature, would win four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. Becker had always been the quiet one in the partnership and that became even more true when he moved to Hawaii following the 1981 split. In recent years, Becker evidently had health problems. In fact, unspecified health problems were reported to be the reason he didn’t perform when Steely Dan appeared at the Classic West and Classic East concerns in July.

Fagen says he intends “to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.” Sorry, Donald, but without Walter Becker there is no Steely Dan.

You can try to run but you can’t hide from what’s inside of you

Steely Dan, “Any Major Dude Will Tell You,” Katy Lied

Weekend Edition: 9-2

Bulletin Board

Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubez

  • Why We Must Still Defend Free Speech (“It is easy to recognize inequality; it is virtually impossible to articulate a standard for suppression of speech that would not afford government officials dangerously broad discretion and invite discrimination against particular viewpoints.”)

Bookish Linkage

Nonbookish Linkage

Humankind cannot stand very much reality.

T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”