Norway — Books as far as the eye can see.

I read a lot of books. Aside from a brief fanfic stint in my early teens, I’ve largely left writing one to the experts. I don’t have the time, the original ideas, or the patience to put thoughts to paper and then see it through to an actual published book. Hats off to the people who do, though, we wouldn’t all be here listening to me blather on about books if you didn’t.

All that said, though, I know at least at a basic level what it takes to go from a Word document of jumbled plot points, character sheets, place descriptions, and hand drawn maps to succeeding (or, more probably, failing) at getting something published. It takes up-front money, a lot of patience, and a lot of luck. Publishers don’t like to take chances on things that seem too out-of-the-ordinary, and so a lot of truly valuable books die on the vine. Sometimes a book gets published and then, for any number of reasons, goes overlooked by the general public and the author is politely shown the door by the agency, even if what they’ve published is valuable. Let’s not get into the gamble that is publishing a book (or, several books as it usually takes) and then actually making money from doing so. Or, heaven forbid, making enough money to live off of. Perish the thought.

I ran into a little factoid on Reddit a few weeks/months/I don’t remember how long ago about Norway that I didn’t know before. Perhaps people who are more worldly than I am already knew this, but I am only mortal and can’t get to all the places I would like to visit in my lifetime on a part-time library aide paycheck. Norway is actually extremely friendly, extremely positive, and extremely supportive of authors, books, and reading. The single factoid I ran across that led me on this journey of discovery was that Norway’s Arts Council actually purchases 1,000 copies of every Norwegian book published and donates them to libraries across their country. The idea behind this is to encourage Norwegian authors to publish books, to safeguard Norwegian cultural items, and to provide authors something of a reliable wage for their efforts. Being a library worker myself and seeing how poorly libraries in America are treated in terms of funding and demands, the idea that the nation is so supportive of libraries and authors is phenomenal.

Some additional pro-book factoids about Norway I uncovered include that it boasts a 100% adult literacy level, 93% of adults in Norway report reading at least one book last year, and 40% of those having read more than 10. When compared with the literacy rate in the United States (79% as of last year) or the number of adults who read just a single book in a year (72% in 2018, I was unable to locate statistics for 2019) I found those statistics fascinating, inspiring, and encouraging. At my small library, movies and video games are checked out far more than a book, any book at all. As someone who really loves reading and who tries to encourage everyone to read, it’s somewhat disheartening to see. I just want people to enjoy my hobby, man.

Another super interesting literacy-forward factoid about Norway is that there are so many books, bookshops, and book-minded people there that there are many small towns that boast more books than people. Mundal, in western Norway, has a population of 280 people (you really have to love your neighbors there), but contains more than 150,000 books. Free libraries, book shelves, and book shops line its streets. Most books sold in this town are used, as the residents believe strongly in preserving old books in an increasingly digital age. As someone who almost exclusively buys used books, this is an effort I support.

So, I suppose in closing, if you want to visit someplace as bookish as you are, consider Norway. If Norway wants to sponsor me doing a travelogue from your beautiful country, call me! 🙂

Source links, for additional reading:

Why Norway is the best place in the world to be a writer

The scintillating Norwegian publishing scene

Book towns are made for book lovers

This picturesque Norwegian town has so many more books than residents that roadside libraries and bookshelves line the streets

Why I’m interested in The Pavement Bookworm, and you should be too.

In my quest for more blog material, I stumbled on an Instagram photo posted by @thediaryofaclassteacher with a guy sitting on a curb in South Africa, a stack of books at his side, and the caption claiming that he reviews books for anyone passing by who’s interested. I, a born-and-bred internet skeptic, thought to myself, “nahhhh this photo’s either staged or misrepresented or something“. You should always be wary of something you read on the internet, but maybe not in this case.

Meet Philani Dladla, resident of Johannesburg, South Africa. Formerly homeless, formerly addicted to drugs, and survivor of an extremely difficult life on the streets, he decided he needed to save himself and make something of himself — and he did that through books. Refusing to beg and with a book collection he had been carefully creating and reading since the age of 12, Philani created a mobile library. Not only lending books, he started reading and reviewing his books, using those reviews to entice motorists along Empire Road in Johannesburg.

Philani’s story made it out of Johnnesburg thanks to a documentary filmmaker Tebogo Malope, who interviewed Philani and posted the interview video online. Viral videos being what they are, his story about surviving a life of homelessness and drug addiction through his love of books spread quickly.

He published an autobiography in 2015 called “The Pavement Bookworm”, and many people call it extremely inspiring. I’ve added it to my To Read list and hope to get to it soon. He also has a charity page up where he lists some of his book reviews, and raises money and book donations to help pay it forward to other struggling adults and children in South Africa.

Noteworthy links:

SA People News: The unlikely story of The Pavement Bookworm

Pavement Bookworm: Official Site

Philani Dladla TED Talk, 2014 Johannesburg

Happy birthday, Patience and Fortitude!

I have never made the pilgrimage to the New York Public Library, but I’ve seen enough movies and looked at enough images to recognize the two iconic lion statues out front. In fact, Fortitude in particular played a large part of my childhood for his opening shot in Ghostbusters. At the time, though, I had no idea they had names, and it wasn’t until just a few years ago that I learned that these two iconic statues had names. Meet Patience (on the south side of the entrance) and Fortitude (on the north side of the entrance).

This majestic pair happens to be 109 years old today, and were carved by the Piccirilli Brothers in 1911. The Piccirilli Brothers were paid $5,000 for their contribution to the New York Public Library’s front door, and they carved them out of pink Tennessee Marble. They’ve been cleaned and restored periodically throughout their lives, most recently in 2019.

What I hadn’t known until researching this pair was that Patience and Fortitude are not their original names. Instead, they were named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, after the founders of the New York Public Library (John Jacob Astor and James Lenox). Their names were changed in the 1930s by the mayor of New York to Patience and Fortitude, because he felt these were two qualities the residents needed to get through the Great Depression.

So give a thought to this majestic pair of library mascots on this day, the day of their christening, as you open your book to read. They’ve seen over a century(!) of New York history and become an iconic representation of one of the best-known libraries in the United States. It’s pretty incredible when you think about it!

For some further reading:

New York Public Library: The Library Lions

New York Public Library: The New York Public Library’s Iconic Lions Are Restored, Repaired, and Ready to Roar

Classic New York History: New York Public Library Lions: Patience and Fortitude

Top Cats: The Life and Times of the New York Public Library Lions

I’m here to ruin the magic of book covers.

The phrase “never judge a book by its cover” doesn’t really mean a whole lot in the literary world. Books live and die by how eye-catching and unique their covers are, how well they stick out to consumers browsing bookshelves. Imagine the last time you were in a bookstore, library, or otherwise browsing books. Was it a particular color, a particular style, a particular layout that made you pull that copy off the shelf? I’d like to say that I’m immune to all the gimmicks publishers use to get someone to buy their books, but I’m just as guilty as the next person of being suckered into pulling a book off a shelf solely based on the cover.

I never really stopped to consider what goes into the making of a book cover, and maybe assumed (naively?) that it was like any other art form — each was its own unique snowflake in a blizzard called a bookstore. But then my friends started reading Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (which I also read back in 2017) and one of them pointed out that the cover looked familiar to another book they knew of. Suddenly, the magic of book covers was ruined for me. And now I’m here to ruin it for anyone else who was like me, with literary blinders on.

What I learned from probing a bit deeper into this strange new factoid I had stumbled on is that, much like anything else in the modern world, book covers rely heavily on templates and stock photography. The same small cohort of photographers crop up time and time again in the credits of book cover images, and their photographs are added to stock image packages that many designers pull from. These stock images are then applied again and again, because if it isn’t broke, why fix it?

Like most things in life now, the essence of a book cover has been distilled and watered down by marketing professionals everywhere to include only the basic items necessary to appeal to the most adults possible (curiously, children’s and YA books seem immune to this formulaic approach). Book covers go through trends, where some years the fad is handscript titles with simple handmade illustrations (think John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars), other years the single-object-on-white-background is appealing (Malcom Gladwell says hi). When marketers and book designers tap into these trends, they tend to run with them, and run them into the ground. What we’re left with in today’s world of same-ism are a lot of covers that start to become indistinguishable from each other.

My dad had a wall of books when I was growing up, mostly pulp sci-fi from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I remember looking through a lot of those book covers and wondering at how different they all were from each other. I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed this trend of book cover cloning before, but now that it’s been pointed out to me, I can’t unsee it. Certainly there’s exceptions to the rule, but the bestsellers all have similar covers. Probably for a reason.

Interesting related links:

Entertainment Weekly: Books with strangely similar covers

Eye on Design: Why do so many book covers look the same? Blame Getty Images

The Atlantic: Book cover clones: Why do so many recent novels look alike?

The New Yorker: The decline and fall of the book cover

Cool bookstore, hot backstory.

In my quest to find interesting content for this blog of mine, I stumbled across this image of an arched doorway made of books, posted on Instagram by @enchantedlibraries. My mind went in two directions — first, are those books secured? And second, where is this bookstore located?

While I was not able to answer the first question based on careful examination of so many different Google images of the same arch (I’m willing to start a GoFundMe so I can answer this question in person), I learned a lot about the actual location in pursuit of the second question, and uncovered a neat story to boot.

To get the immediate questions out of the way first, this is a bookshop called Le Bal des Ardents located in Lyons, France, along the Rue Neuve (temporarily closed currently due to COVID-19). People call the bookshop small, quaint, but very distinctive in terms of its entryway and picturesque interior. It evidently champions the small, unknown authors and independent publishers, which I greatly respect.

The cool (ha!) story comes in when I started looking into the actual name and what it meant (because I don’t speak a word of French beyond food names). The name translates in English to “the dance of the burning ones”, and strangely enough has nothing to do with books. Le Bal des Ardents (otherwise known as Dance of the Savages) evidently was a masquerade ball held in 1393. People partied hard back then apparently, as all of the partygoers were dressed impersonating savages. The costumes they wore were extremely flammable (I imagine due to the materials used at the time), and several partygoers were carrying torches to complete the ensemble. I imagine you can see where this is going, but just in case, it was the King’s (Charles VI) brother who carried the fateful torch that really, ah, turned up the heat at the party. After the conclusion of the, ah, “dance of the burning ones”, only the King and one other dancer survived.

So there you have it! A really neat looking bookshop with a kind of morbid-but-fascinating name! I don’t see myself in Lyons anytime soon, but just in case, this place would be something I’d check out.

References and cool places to check out related to the bookshop:

Le Bal des Ardents Official Page

Le Bal des Ardents: Is This the Prettiest Bookshop in Lyon?

Bibliophile’s Corner: Le Bal des Ardents Bookstore

On the Grid: Le Bal des Ardents