Friday, August 15, 2003

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Thursday, August 14, 2003

The Anti-Beach Book Crowd
Who said summer was a time for reading lite? Not the Chautauqua Literary and Science Circle, which has stuck with the heady stuff for 125 years.
By Margo Hammond
Book Editor, St. Petersburg Times

I just returned from the shores of Lake Chautauqua, a wooded area in western New York State, where the oldest continuous book club in America is celebrating its 125th anniversary. Founded by John Vincent, a bearded Methodist bishop who dressed in black cutaway suits, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (CLSC) evolved as an extension of the good reverend's summer educational program for Sunday School ministers.

The concept for the book club was simple: Members (who paid annual dues of 50 cents) were sent four books a year to read within a four-year period. OK, so the books were often written and published by Vincent -- even a man of the cloth doesn't live by utopian dreams alone. But the list was not for the faint-hearted. It included challenging treatises on Greek and Roman history, studies of astronomy, and Bible history. No beach books for these folks! After four years, members would take a test to prove they had read all 16 books and then come to Chautauqua (if they could) to participate in a "recognition ceremony," passing through a golden gate to the Parthenon-like Hall of Philosophy while children tossed flowers at their feet.

Sure, it was corny and a tad bit pretentious. But remember, this was a time before public libraries, when people, especially in rural areas, had little access to books, and few women received advanced education. More than 8,000 people -- of all faiths -- signed up for the CLSC in those first years, and many wrote passionate letters to Vincent, thanking him for the chance to enter the ranks of the educated. One woman confessed to crying profusely when her books arrived in her postbox.

In 1882, 1,718 members "graduated," carrying a banner and calling themselves The Pioneers. In the ensuing years, hundreds came to Chautauqua each year to hear prominent speakers like Thomas Edison and Booker T. Washington. Meanwhile, readers across the country set up circles in places like Blue Earth, Minn., and Humbolt, Ohio, to discuss the books and perpetuate the Chautauqua principles of a sound mind, body and spirit.

Remarkably, the club still operates (it now costs $10 a year). The books on the club's list have gotten, well, more readable, but they are no less challenging. Among this year's suggested titles were Forrest Church's "The American Creed: A Spiritual and Patriotic Primer," Brian Hall's historic novel about Lewis and Clark, "I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company," and L.A. Times journalist Robin Wright's "The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran." This week, Hillary Clinton is scheduled to speak there. All told, no fewer than 142,000 souls will show up this season to listen and learn on the grounds where the Chatauquans first set up their summer camp.

Which brings me to my question: Why does the media (and book editors in particular) always push the idea of "lite reading" at this time of year? People don't have to turn off their brains during the summer. Summer is not when we should stop learning, but rather the perfect opportunity to grapple with some of the more important issues of the day.

Excuse me while I go stretch out on the beach with a copy of "War and Peace."

Monday, August 11, 2003

Sunday Herald

Life Of Pi hits one million sales as Spielberg eyes movie chance
Booker prize-winning author Yann Martel expresses delight as Canongate smashes Scottish record for first imprint sales
By Liam McDougall, Arts Correspondent


CANONGATE, the Edinburgh-based publisher, will this week make literary history by becoming the first Scottish publishing house to sell one million copies of a novel in its first imprint.
As the Edinburgh International Book Festival gets under way and the city launches a bid to be named as the world’s first official City of Literature, Life Of Pi, a story about an Indian boy cast adrift in a lifeboat with a tiger, is set to propel the imprint into the record books.

Sales of the book, which is distributed in the UK, Europe, New Zealand and Australia under the Canongate name, have now reached 987,100. With the novel selling a massive 25,600 each week in paperback in Britain alone, senior figures in Scotland’s literary world say they believe that no other work of fiction by a Scottish publisher has breached the million mark in a year.

Film rights have been bought by Fox Pictures and screenwriter Dean Georgaris, whose credits include Tomb Raider 2 and the forthcoming Mission: Impossible 3, is set to adapt it for the big screen. Last night, there was also speculation that director Steven Spielberg was interested in becoming involved with the film.

A source close to the Fox studio told the Sunday Herald: “Speilberg’s name gets bandied about with all sorts of projects but he is nuts about Life Of Pi. It looks like he is keen to team up with the screenwriter to direct it.”

Jamie Byng, Canongate’s publisher, said: “The book has become a phenomenal success. It’s selling extremely well in the UK and has become a huge international hit.

“Without even having to break into a sweat it is out-selling all the commercial trash. It’s nice that a book that will change the way people think about lots of things is enjoying such an enormous readership.”

The achievement has placed the novel by Yann Martel, a Spanish-born Canadian, among the great literary works of fiction to have emerged from Scotland. Although sales of Life Of Pi fall short of those by the nation’s greatest novelists, the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan or Sir Walter Scott have sold over many years and been printed in numerous editions.

Even more copies of the book are likely to have been sold than the figures given by Booktrack, which monitors only 80% of all book sales in the UK.

Speaking from his home in Vancouver, Canada, Martel said he was thrilled with the achievement. He said: “I am delighted for myself and for Canongate. It means great things for the Scottish publishing house and Scottish cultural life in general.”

Last year the novel made history for the Edinburgh firm after it won the coveted Booker prize. It was the first time a book from a Scottish publishing house had taken the £50,000 award and has meant a glittering new chapter for Canongate.

From profits of around £50,000 in 2001, Byng has helped transform the flagging imprint into a multi-million pound business and one of the most vibrant publishers in Scotland, featuring writers as diverse as Michel Faber, Dan Rhodes and Louise Welsh. Earlier this year the imprint confirmed its place in the major league after taking the title UK Publisher of the Year.

Byng added: “There’s a great buzz in the office. Life Of Pi has opened up so many exciting possibilities and it also enables us to move forward. I get the sense that agents are keener than ever to get us to acquire books they are representing.

“Recently, bigger publishing houses in London have been offering more money for books than we have but the agents have decided to go with us. That is unprecedented for us and is really exciting.”

In Life Of Pi, 16-year-old Pi Patel becomes shipwrecked while emigrating to North America along with zoo animals bound for new homes. When the ship sinks he finds himself alone in a lifeboat – his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and Richard Parker, a 450lb Bengal tiger. The tiger soon dispatches all but Pi, whose fear, knowledge, and cunning allow him to co-exist with the animal for 227 days lost at sea.

The transformation of Martel’s life in the last year is a tale almost as incredible as the storyline of his book. At last year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival he was an unknown author who had sold only a handful of his previous two books. Now he is an international star.

News of the book’s record-breaking success was last night greeted with delight by the Scottish literary establishment. Catherine Lockerbie, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which begins this weekend, said: “It is a book of joyous imagination at its heart. From the very first instance I thought this was a wonderful work. I never dreamed it would win the Booker or sell a million but it’s a completely delightful surprise in every way. This does move things to another plane for Canongate. I am certainly not aware of another novel from a Scottish publisher that has ever sold a million copies.”

Liz Small, of the Scottish Publishers’ Association, added: “We are delighted for Canongate. Life Of Pi has a taut story of great dramatic tension, and this coupled with the charismatic directors of Canongate has drawn – rightfully – great public attention.”

The success comes as Edinburgh, which has produced Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ian Rankin and works by JK Rowling, plans to have itself recognised as the world’s first City of Literature. In the autumn a team led by Jenny Brown, former head of literature at the Scottish Arts Council, will ask Unesco, the UN’s cultural body, to grant Edinburgh the first title of its kind.

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