Saturday, January 29, 2011

Amazon Single Seeks Like-Minded Short-Attention-Span Reader. Must Love Kindle.

Yesterday, after short deliberation, I decided to give Amazon's newest money-grubbing scheme a whirl.  Kindle Singles are short-ish essays and stories, sold separately, currently being trumpeted by the world's biggest bookseller as "compelling ideas expressed at their natural length."  Well, howdy-do.

I gave up my daily "justacuppajoe" at Scenic Brew to buy two of the Singles and what did I get for just under four bucks?

Well....I was pleasantly surprised.  Based on my two picks--Long Island Shaolin by Darin Strauss and Piano Demon by Brendan Koerner--I'd say that Amazon has made an effort to publish well-researched, well-written creative non-fiction.*  Not unlike what you'd find in your average issue of The New Yorker.  But hey, Eustace Tilley can't deliver in 60 seconds or less via Whispernet, can he?

The main sticking point with the Kindle Singles is the price of admission.  As one grumbly user put it on the Amazon discussion board:
This is a great idea...but what would have made it a FANTASTIC idea is if the price was $0.99 each.  Think about this (please): I am NOT going to spend $2.99 for essentially a long magazine article but I WILL spend $0.99 each for 3 or 4 or 5 articles.  I am sure you have some outstanding marketing people at Amazon that can talk about price points and introductory pricing strategies. I humbly suggest and recommend that you talk to them and get their input.  Then talk to your financial and managerial accounting people about your target market (people like me) that will spend $0.99 times 5 a month versus $2.99 times zero a month.
I see his point and, for the most part, agree with the argument.  Without getting too sidetracked, I'd also add that the Amazonian pricing policy is starting to spoil and corrupt the way we value writing.  It's now possible for me to buy the Kindle version of The Autobiography of Mark Twain at less than half the price of the hardcover version at the local bookstore.  Similarly, I can visit the Kindle store and grab new titles for five dollars, ninety-nine cents, or--in many cases--absolutely nothing at all.  Something about the old "why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free" adage springs to mind.

By lowering the price all the way to the ground floor (primarily to entice and keep new Kindle users, I'm guessing), ebook retailers are getting us too comfortable with the idea of cheap words.  Far too comfortable.

When something with a higher price tag comes along, we balk--especially when the number of "locations" (Kindlespeak for "pages") is low.  Eventually, we start calculating the value of the reading experience on a price-per-word scale.  No one wins when we commercialize language to this degree.

But back to the Singles....

Sure, on a penny-value basis, it was a pretty steep price to pay.  But, all in all, I was glad I gave up my morning coffee to spend a couple of hours with good writing.

I knew I was probably in for quality literature simply by the two choices I made--I was already familiar with Strauss' work, and Koerner had written a book which I was (and still am) mighty interested in reading.  But some of the other Kindle Singles were equally tempting, including the account of "an audacious bank heist" (Lifted by Evan Ratliff), a portrait of movie director John Milius (The Real Lebowski by Rich Cohen), and a "wittily argued essay" about Octomom.  If none of those grab you by the literary gonads, then how about Singles from Jodi Picoult, Jonathan Littell, or Pete Hamill?

Sure, it's hard to shell out anywhere from one to three bucks for something that will take less than two hours to read.  But in the end, they linger longer than a latte ever did.

Long Island Shaolin by Darin Strauss
Novelist Strauss recently recounted an agonizing chapter of his young adulthood in Half a Life, which describes how, when he was 18 and driving with his high buddies to a game of miniature golf on a bright clear day, he struck and killed a girl (a fellow classmate) as she was riding her bike.  The rest of the book is a confessional memoir about his survivor's guilt and how he eventually came to uneasy terms with what happened.  Long Island Shaolin also delves into his teenage years, but offers wry laughter in place of bitter tears.  This quick-moving account of Strauss' adolescent foray into martial arts is a kinetic narrative of punches, jabs, and hard-knuckled boys.  It begins:
The toughest man I ever met, the strongest, quickest, the most immovable, was a middle-aged guy who stood five-feet-three.  His name was Chuckie Lau.  One day, a Kung-fu expert kicked Chuckie Lau in the balls and Lau didn’t react—he didn’t give a shudder, he didn’t even grimace.
Lau is the head of a strip-mall karate school in Strauss' hometown and he is so tough, he can punch holes in soup cans with his knuckles.  Strauss tells us he exacts a training regime that is "one extended heart-deep moan of agony."

The writing here is sharp, funny, and often very moving as the author shows how he grew from bullied wimp to a confident, hard-muscled teen.  It's in the details where Strauss excels; just look at this description of Lau, the Gung Fu sifu:  
He was short, unassuming; he didn’t seem explicitly muscled.  He walked with a slight limp, holding his chin very stiff, and his sparse beard looked like a few iron filings stuck to his face by magnetism.

Yeah, I'd pay $1.99 for writing like that.  I should also mention that there is a far better appreciation of Long Island Shaolin over at the Three Guys One Book blog and if you really want to be convinced of the essay's net-worth, then you should read what they have to say.

But what if I don't own a Kindle?  In addition to Half a Life, Strauss is the author of the novels More Than It Hurts You, The Real McCoy, and Chang and Eng.  Half a writing lifetime ago, I reviewed Chang and Eng and The Real McCoy.  I also had the pleasure of interviewing Strauss for January Magazine.  All of which is to say, you can purchase non-Kindle versions of his books elseweb, or in your local bookstore.

The Piano Demon by Brendan Koerner
Fats Waller....Jelly Roll Morton....Louis Armstrong....Teddy Weatherford....

Teddy who--?  That's exactly Koerner's point in this breathtaking, short biography of a nearly-forgotten pianist, a coal-miner's son from Virginia, who was at one time "Asia’s greatest jazz star."  The subtitle of Koerner's mini-book is "The globetrotting, gin-soaked, too-short life of Teddy Weatherford, the Chicago jazzman who conquered Asia" and he delivers a portrait of an overlooked legend that moves at the speed of a rousing Jazz Age rag.  As Koerner tells us near the beginning of The Piano Demon:
Weatherford usually receives no more than a skeletal paragraph in jazz histories.  His Wikipedia entry is thinly sourced and error-ridden; his music is almost entirely absent from the Internet.  He is the sort of figure whom scholars typically dismiss with a single, damning noun: footnote.
A child prodigy who developed international wanderlust (and, as his fame grew, an insatiable need for all the finest things money could buy), Teddy Weatherford quickly moved from tickling the ivories in Chicago clubs to playing in popular house bands in Shanghai, Bombay and Calcutta--exotic locales where segregation was less prevalent than in America.  Weatherford was a workaholic and would often bounce between three or four gigs in the same evening.  He was a big man with large hands--qualities not usually found in pianists--and he was a showman to the core, appearing on stage dressed in a distinctive white sharkskin suit.  Here's how Koerner describes him in one scene:

Weatherford honed his showmanship in the Harbour Bar, entertaining British soldiers and sailors who craved good times before they set off for distant malarial outposts.  To impress these men, Weatherford would sip a drink with one hand while playing with the other, never skipping a beat or losing a decibel’s worth of volume.  Such were the benefits of having been blessed with hands the size of gull wings.
As the title indicates, Weatherford did live a short life, but it was an intense one--a flaring flame of talent--and he earned a reputation as a well-loved, generous man.  When he died, Koerner writes, "40,000 grieving Calcuttans lined the city’s streets to watch his flower-strewn casket pass."  For a short film highlighting Weatherford's lingering legacy in India (and to hear a little bit of the music he recorded back in the 1930s), go to this You Tube video.

But what if I don't own a Kindle?  As I mentioned before, Koerner has a book that's on the short-list** of books I want to read: Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier's Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War II.  I suspect that The Piano Demon might have grown out of a footnote from that book because they both center around the trials and tribulations of black American men in Asia in the 1940s.  Based solely on the way Koerner's Kindle Single read like a gripping adventure novel, I would highly recommend Now the Hell Will Start.

*Kindle Singles also features some fiction, but for right now, non-fiction dominates their offerings.
**Which, really, is becoming quite a "long list" at this point.

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