Richard Russo: Eloquence and the “Amazon Jungle”

In the early fall of 2002, I herniated a disk in my lower back and spent three weeks lying on various floors in my house: The family room, the bedroom, my office. My family’s memory of that time is bringing me dinner while I was lying on the ground and how interesting it was to find me lying on the floor next to the bed at night like a loyal pet.

For me, the memory is of Richard Russo’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Empire Falls. A timely, eloquent story of decline, fall and a middle aged man who must come to grips with the choices he has made in his life.

Ironically, the Kindle version would have been handier while I was stuck on the floor.

Time and hydrocortisone injections can heal wounds. The memory of physical pain quickly fades. While I could easily picture and identify with the fading New England mill town featured in the story, there was really nothing in Miles Roby’s life that remotely mirrored mine.   So I was able to move on and heal and be grateful to Mr. Russo for a comforting and interesting read at a time when I really needed one.

In Monday’s New York Times, Russo wrote a very thoughtful Op-Ed piece entitled “Amazon’s Jungle Logic” that bears close reading. In it he discusses a series of emails he exchanged with other American writers as he solicited their opinions on Amazon’s smartphone app.

If you’re an avid reader, bookstore browser, library user, novel collector, wouldn’t you love to be able to exchange emails with the likes of Stephen King, Dennis Lehane, Ann Patchett, Anita Shreve, Tom Perrotta and Andre Dubus, III?

What was perhaps most interesting, to me at least, was the rather balanced, almost resigned approach the authors took to the latest flare up regarding this internet retail giant.

Blockbuster seller (and blog topic) Stephen King acknowledged that Amazon had done well by him in selling his books. He has a Kindle that he loves. But maybe the promotion was a “bridge too far.”

Other authors like Scott Turow offered more lawyerly thoughts. However I think Ann Patchett, author and now part owner of a new independent bookstore in Nashville Parnassus Books summed it up best when she noted that:

There is no point in fighting them or explaining to them that we should be able to coexist civilly in the marketplace. I don’t think they care.”

(Bold face emphasis mine)

Russo summed up his piece with this memorable thought:

“Is it just me, or does it feel as if the Amazon brass decided to spend the holidays in the Caribbean and left in charge of the company a computer that’s fallen head over heels in love with it’s own algorithms?”

Not a computer, Mr. Russo. Most likely a whole team of very well educated, highly paid, nicely talented, and probably rather friendly staffers who believe in those algorithms and can show you lots of charts and graphs (with the appropriate circles and arrows) that point out why what they are doing is right. The Amazon brass left them in charge because they make money and improve shareholder value.

There’s nothing inherently wrong or evil about making money or improving shareholder value. We can certainly agree that giving consumers a “good deal” is a worthy goal. But unless we want our future to look like a grimer version of Max Barry’s “Jennifer Government” we should probably decide on which comes first, community or shopping; and how we balance the two.

Why I Still Think Stephen King is one of the Best American Writers of All Time

Long time readers of this blog may remember that I grew up in the  magazine and book distribution industry. So sometime around 1977, when the first paperback edition of Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot” showed up (sans cover) on the carpeted stairs leading to our second floor, I snagged it, made a beeline for my room, and didn’t come out until it was done. That took awhile. It’s a long book.

The book made it’s way around my circle of friends. Many of us worked on the school newspaper and we all had the reading bug. It was the mid to late ’70’s so we were all open to pretty much anything we could try and experience. Soon, the catch phrase, “There’s lot’s more of us now” was heard in the newspaper office and it’s all over my Junior Year yearbook.

If that phrase is meaningless to you because you’ve never read the book. Get it. If that phrase is meaningless to you because you’ve read the book, but don’t remember it. Get the book. It’s held up better than you’d think over the years.

Why on earth am I suddenly so excited about a thirty six year old novel written by one of our better known, wealthy and celebrated novelists in the country? I recently had the opportunity to sit through the audiobook version of “Salem’s Lot” on a long ride out and back to Kansas to pick up my daughter from college. I managed to hear about three quarters of the book and the rest will be heard piecemeal while running errands over the next few weeks.

What I’ve always liked about King is his honesty, the depth and openness of his characters. While I will never want to have a beer with a politician, a night spent in Matt Burke’s living room having beers with Ben Mears and Susan Norton and listening to old rock and roll records sounds like time well spent. I love Kings ability to describe the New England landscape and towns that we both love and know so well (Although I don’t get to live there anymore). Some people I know are big fans of his “Dark Tower” series. They always left me cold. For me, Kings’ best work is this book, “The Stand,” “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon,” “The Shining”, “Cell” and most recently, “Under the Dome”. There are others too, but King has written many books. These are the ones I always think of when I consider his work.

Let me share with you the passage that got me to sit up in the middle of the Iowa cornfields and pay attention:

Fall and spring came to Jerusalem’s Lot with the same suddenness of sunrise and sunset in the tropics. The line of demarcation could be as thin as one day. But spring is not the finest season in New England-it’s too short, too uncertain, too apt to turn savage on short notice….

But when fall comes, kicking summer out on its treacherous ass as it always dones one day, sometime after the midpoint of September, it stays awhile, like an old friend that you have missed…

Get the book. Read this passage. If you’ve ever lived in New England, you get this. If you’ve never been in New England, you will get it, and you will want to witness it for yourself. And the seasons will stay with you.

In his earlier books King wrote about working class people – people I grew up around, if not with. The descriptions always resonated deeply with me. It gave me a glimpse into the lives of people who I knew from school, saw in the neighborhoods of my working class city. But I always wondered what their lives were like. His descriptions ring true.

Over the years I’ve seen critiques of his writing that imply that Stephen King is a hack. A pulp writer. Not serious. Nonsense. He gets America. Spend a few minutes reading one of his columns from Entertainment Weekly. He gets our culture. He loves our culture. When he critiques it, he does it with love and insight. And I’m very glad that I had a long, back aching, Jolly Rancher chomping opportunity a week ago to get reacquainted.

He’s an old friend, and he was missed.