Friday, September 26, 2003


Writer Shelley Jackson invites participants in a new work entitled "Skin." Each participant must agree to have one word of the story tattooed upon his or her body. The text will be published nowhere else, and the author will not permit it to be summarized, quoted, described, set to music, or adapted for film, theater, television or any other medium. The full text will be known only to participants, who may, but need not choose to establish communication with one another. In the event that insufficiant participants come forward to complete the first and only edition of the story, the incomplete version will be considered definitive. If no participants come forward, this call itself is the work.

Prospective participants should contact the author ( and explain their interest in the work. If they are accepted they must sign a contract and a waiver releasing the author from any responsibility for health problems, body image disorders, job-loss, or relationship difficulties that may result from the tattooing process. On receipt of the waiver, the author will reply with a registered letter specifying the word (or word plus punctuation mark) assigned to participant. Participants must accept the word they are given, but they may choose the site of their tattoo, with the exception of words naming specific body parts, which may be anywhere but the body part named. Tattoos must be in black ink and a classic book font. Words in fanciful fonts will be expunged from the work.

When the work has been completed, participants must send a signed and dated close-up of the tattoo to the author, for verification only, and a portrait in which the tattoo is not visible, for possible publication. Participants will receive in return a signed and dated certificate confirming their participation in the work and verifying the authenticity of their word. Author retains copyright, though she contracts not to devalue the original work with subsequent editions, transcripts, or synopses. However, correspondence and other documentation pertaining to the work (with the exception of photographs of the words themselves) will be considered for publication.

From this time on, participants will be known as "words". They are not understood as carriers or agents of the texts they bear, but as its embodiments. As a result, injuries to the printed texts, such as dermabrasion, laser surgery, tattoo cover work or the loss of body parts, will not be considered to alter the work. Only the death of words effaces them from the text. As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died. The author will make every effort to attend the funerals of her words.


Thursday, September 25, 2003

Sure, the dictionary got 'phat,' but it also trimmed the fat. Let's shed a tear for forgotten pieces of our language.
And there goes your last hope of learning what 'snollygoster' means. Pity.
David Kipen, Chronicle Book Critic
Wednesday, September 24, 2003
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback


When the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary came out in July, the publisher and the media mostly stressed the 10,000 newly added words and senses. "Phat," especially, came in for a lot of attention, as did "Frankenfood" and "cheesed off." What got hardly any attention were the evicted words -- the fat that got trimmed to make room for "phat." According to Karen Wilkinson, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster's offices in Springfield, Mass., a list of such words would run into the hundreds.

Of course, if Merriam-Webster didn't show a few hundred words the door every 10 years or so, there would be no room for all the new words coming down the pike. But let us just the same consider the unmarked graves of the words that Merriam-Webster's 11th has so unceremoniously whacked, and perhaps suggest a way that mourners might light a candle for their resurrection.

Among these ghost words, the most unjustly cashiered may well be "snollygoster." A snollygoster is . . . a snollygoster is . . . actually, without a previous edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary handy, there's no telling anymore what a snollygoster is. Luckily -- and here's a phrase that must give every last lexicographer at Merriam-Webster the fantods - - that's what Google's for. Thanks to Google, somebody named Michael Quinion at would have us all know that a snollygoster is "a shrewd, unprincipled person, especially a politician." Now there's a word that's outlived its usefulness, you bet.

But before anybody gets too high and mighty about Merriam-Webster's excommunication of snollygoster, it probably bears repeating that languages are living things, not museum pieces. Dictionaries are snapshots from life, not idealized friezes.

This goes for Merriam-Webster's new desk reference just as it did for the first major English dictionary, Samuel Johnson's, in 1755. That year of Johnson's presumptuous task, by the way, is so momentous in the annals of lexicography that Merriam-Webster still uses it to demarcate "obsolete" words from merely "archaic" ones.

A fine new condensed version of Johnson's dictionary has just come out from Walker/Levenger, and it still rewards browsing far more than any other dictionary on the market. Snollygoster isn't in it, but "abligurition ("a prodigal spending on meat and drink") and 3,100 other selections are -- including many now-unfamiliar victims of Merriam-Webster's previous thinnings of the herd.

This time around, according to Merriam-Webster's Wilkinson, the 11th edition bounced not just snollygoster but also microcopy, microreader, microreproduction, record changer, portapak, pantdress, pocket-handkerchief, poke bonnet, vitamin G, lantern pinion, frutescent, impudicity, wool stapler, long play, retirant, sheep-dip, ten-cent store and traffic manager. A few hundred more, too, but nobody keeps a special list.

Why were these poor, preterite words shown the door, while countless others lived to define another day? It all has to do with the 15 million citations thus far cribbed by Merriam-Webster's faithful scriveners. Electronically and by hand, these lexicographers spend hours "pluck[ing] a few words from the multitudes rushing toward the Void of forgetfulness," as Thomas Pynchon has James Boswell say in "Mason & Dixon." If a word goes too many years without getting plucked for any citations -- falls out of usage, that is, even from historical novels -- it, too, could wake up snollygostered.

Hard to believe that even a fuddy-duddy could work up much indignation over the ouster of vitamin G, now that pretty much everybody calls it riboflavin. But more than a few folks are bound to miss a lovely mouthful like "frutescent, " which means "having or approaching the habit or appearance of a shrub."

There is, mercifully, a court of appeal for these and other condemned words.

Use a word often enough in print (Merriam-Webster hasn't yet got the hang of tracking radio and television citations, let alone untranscribed conversation),

and the same cruel statistics that doomed a word can just as easily resurrect it. According to Wilkinson, it's already worked for "wheatgrass," which is enjoying a second flowering thanks to a new generation of healthy eaters. As in muscle tone, so in vocabulary: Use it or lose it. Failing that, work extra hard to bring it back.

But there's a catch. Ask Wilkinson which publications (other than books) Merriam-Webster sifts for all those life-giving citations, and here are the sample titles she comes up with: the New York Times, the New Yorker, Newsweek, People, Air & Space, Better Homes and Gardens, Cats, Consumer Reports, Yoga Journal, Discover, Harper's, Library Journal, National Geographic, the New England Journal of Medicine, PC Magazine, Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, Sports Illustrated, Time, TV Guide, Vanity Fair and Vogue, and Chocolatier.

Yes, come the 12th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary in 2014, these are the publications by whose choices about usage all English words will live or die. Not to be a broken record here -- and how much longer does that expression have to live? -- but how many of those titles are edited west of the Mississippi, or even the Hudson? Could it finally be time for a Dictionary of the West, as different from its Yankee predecessors as Noah Webster's first American dictionary in 1806 was from Samuel Johnson's?

Harry Truman might have thought so. A Midwestern master of American English who lived most of his life west of the Hudson, Truman supposedly numbered among the last to use the word "snollygoster" freely. This raises an uncomfortable question for Merriam-Webster: How are those of us dedicated to the biodiversity of language ever going to save the snollygoster from extinction when regional pockets like Truman's Missouri, where the word thrived -- and may still thrive, for all Massachusetts knows -- tend not to write for, or get quoted in, or even subscribe to, the New York Times?

Let alone Chocolatier.

The Internet lexicographer Quinion adds one final postscript to the arcane saga of the snollygoster: "The origin is unknown, though the Oxford English Dictionary suggests it may be linked to snallygoster, which some suppose to derive from the German schnelle Geister, literally a fast-moving ghost, and which was a mythical monster of vast size -- half reptile, half bird . . ."

So Merriam-Webster's fine dictionary may still earn a place on the reference shelves at most publications, including this one, but the snollygoster may yet have its revenge. If some day a shadow should fall across the window-facing desks at Merriam-Webster, and a cry, somewhere between a reptilian snorting and a screech, pierce the sky, well . . . they can't say they weren't warned. If those lexicographers are smart, they have 10 years to find an excuse to mollify the snollygoster in time for the next edition. It doesn't sound like anything you want to get cheesed off.

E-mail David Kipen at

©2003 San Francisco Chronicle

Streams of 'Mystic River' fed by Lehane's old town
By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY
A decade ago, novelist Dennis Lehane was living in the Charlestown section of Boston, an old working-class Irish neighborhood, when he saw the first hints of gentrification.
Lehane says he wondered "what would happen to the neighborhood once the Saabs outnumbered the Chevys and the corner store became a Starbucks."

Sean Penn stars in the film version of Mystic River, out in October.
By Merie W. Wallace, Warner Bros.

That became the seeds of the setting for his murder mystery, Mystic River, the latest selection of the USA TODAY Book Club.

A few years later, Lehane says, "a sentence started bopping around in my head: 'Brendan Harris loved Katie Marcus like crazy, loved her like movie-love, with an orchestra booming through his blood ....'" And that became the first sentence of the part of the novel set in the present.

"Pretty soon after that," Lehane says, "the rest of the characters began to wander onto the stage and scuff the floorboards and start looking at me like, 'So what do you want us to do here, boss?' "

Which, more or less, is how Lehane came to write the novel about three childhood friends entangled in a murder 25 years later — as father of the victim, police investigator and suspect. The movie version opens next month.

Find this article at:

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Whose Book Is It Anyway? When Journalists Get Book Deals
by Sara Nelson

Last spring, Seth Mnookin landed himself the kind of book deal every journalist who’s honest would admit to coveting: a healthy six-figure deal with Random House for a book about the debacle at The New York Times. A longtime media reporter who had covered The Times at and Brill’s Content, Mr. Mnookin, a senior writer for Newsweek’s national-affairs desk, found himself with a 12-month deadline and a six-figure contract negotiated with Random House editor in chief Dan Menaker by agent David McCormick. There was just one problem: Could Mr. Mnookin write his book—which would necessarily include some information he’d uncovered during his time on the magazine’s staff—in his so-called free time and thus remain at the weekly, or would he need to take a leave of absence? And what exactly would such a leave of absence entail? Or would he be required to resign from his job?

In Mr. Mnookin’s case, at least, there was no conflict of interest about his jumping off from the research he’d gathered at Newsweek. "The Times was an institution I was covering from before [I got to the magazine]," he said. "Technically or legally, there was no issue." Still, when Mr. Mnookin asked Newsweek brass about the possibility of a leave, he was refused—for other reasons. "The most they give in this situation was two or three months," he said. Besides, most places only grant leaves to longtime staffers, and Mr. Mnookin had been there only a little over a year. The result: He resigned his job.

Or did he? "I’m still writing media pieces for them, and they’re paying me," he said. Never mind that they’re no longer paying him a salary or benefits and that the magazine is under no obligation to hold his job for him. "They’ve said they’d love to have me back," he said.

The world is full of journalists who look for—and get—book deals. (In the depth of the recession, a lot of us believe it’s easier to get a book contract than a raise at our day jobs, or even a new staff position altogether.) But who gets permission to do a book, and who gets a leave of absence, and why, and what it all means, varies from case to case and place to place.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why journalists would seek out extracurricular writing projects—"How else can we supplement our not-great salaries?" one asked, rhetorically—but the issues are different for management. "Granting book leaves is a way for companies to reward people they like; not granting them is a way to get rid of people they don’t," said one former New York Times staffer who was one of the latter. Which might explain why the brass is always so vague about how they make their decisions. "We won’t comment on specifics," said Bill Schmidt, associate managing editor of The New York Times and the person with whom staffers are supposed to discuss their book plans (along with their department heads), when I try to ask him about two recent Times people: Jere Longman, who wrote Among the Heroes for HarperCollins, and Alex Kuczynski, who is currently at work on a book for Doubleday about women and power. Ms. Kuczynski said she expects to return to the paper by the beginning of the year.

"While we want to encourage people to have rich and full careers, you always want to know what this is going to do to demands on their time," said Mr. Schmidt, adding that his first concern is conflict of interest: "We’re very leery if a reporter is keen to write a book about an ongoing story that he or she is covering that moment." As for whether the leave-grantees get to keep their benefits, access to their offices and/or their jobs in the long term (perks I thought were, in fact, the very definition of a "leave"): At The Times, anyway, that’s now "all part of the negotiations," according to Mr. Schmidt.

Basically, it comes down to this: Sometimes it means granting you a full-out leave with perks, like the kind John A. Byrne got when, in 2000, he took 101¼2 months off from BusinessWeek to write Jack Welch’s autobiography, Jack: Straight from the Gut—and retained his office and his benefits. And sometimes it means offering certain "incentives" intended to help both the individual and the organization. At The Times, for example, authors in search of publishers are encouraged to sit down and negotiate with Times Books—a publishing imprint jointly operated by Henry Holt and The New York Times. Writers who have considered publishing with Times Books say the terms of the leave they’re offered—office access, benefits, sometimes even their salaries or portions thereof—are far more favorable than the ones they’d get if they opted to publish with, say, Simon and Schuster. The problem, said one person close to the Times Books set-up, is that the advances they offer are not competitive.

So sometimes the news organizations have to be even more creative in finding ways to protect their own stories and hold on to the reporters who cover them. Take the case of The Smartest Guys in the Room, Penguin Portfolio’s forthcoming book about Enron. The authors of the book are Bethany McLean, who wrote one of the first stories about the corruption at the energy giant, and Texas-based reporter Peter Elkind, under the guidance of Fortune editorial director Joe Nocera—who, Ms. McLean said, had the original idea for the book and decided "it was the right time" to pitch it. Both Ms. McLean and Mr. Elkind—who had never worked together before—are Fortune writers now on leave from the magazine. According to Ms. McLean, however, they retain their titles, their offices, the use of such facilities as the Time Inc. library and, most importantly, their salaries. (They have contributed only a few small pieces to the magazine since embarking on the project.) They will also share the byline, which doesn’t include any mention of the magazine that employs them, so as to head off any suspicion that the book includes recycled or unoriginal material. So what’s the catch? "This was a deal that was done with Fortune, not with the individuals," said someone close to the process. Which means, presumably—though neither Ms. McLean nor a Fortune spokesperson will confirm it—that the authors were at least one level removed from the negotiating process, that they didn’t necessarily get any of the advance and may not even be getting future royalties. When I suggested to Ms. McLean that she might have gotten a better deal if she’d struck out on her own in search of a publisher for the story many believe she "owned" from the beginning, she said she was "not necessarily comfortable jumping off and doing the book myself." She pointed out that had she gone it alone, she would have had to hire her own researchers, find her own place to keep documents, and suffer without double phone lines and high-speed computers—not to mention without the companionship of an office full of helpful (but not intrusive) colleagues.

All of which may not be the best reasons for letting your magazine bosses take control of your book deal, but they’re not inconsequential ones, either. "If I hadn’t been at Fortune, we wouldn’t have done as good a book," Ms. McLean said.

Spoken by exactly the kind of staffer you really want to keep.

You may reach Sara Nelson via email at:

This column ran on page 8 in the 9/29/2003 edition of The New York Observer.

Whose Book Is It Anyway? When Journalists Get Book Deals

September 24, 2003
Clinton 'History' Doesn't Repeat Itself in China

BEIJING, Sept. 23 — In her autobiography, "Living History," Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton recounts how China's imprisonment of a prominent human rights activist, Harry Wu, caused a sensation in the United States and nearly derailed her plans to attend a United Nations women's conference held in Beijing in 1995.

In the officially licensed Chinese edition of Mrs. Clinton's book, though, Mr. Wu makes just a cameo appearance. While named, he is otherwise identified only as a person who was "prosecuted for espionage and detained awaiting trial."

Mrs. Clinton's book has become a major best seller in China, as it has in the United States, and her smiling likeness decorates bookstores and airport shops nationwide. Yilin Press, the government-owned publisher of the mainland version of the book, says it has become the most popular foreign political memoir in Chinese history, with 200,000 copies sold in just over a month.

But nearly everything Mrs. Clinton had to say about China, including descriptions of her own visits here, former President Bill Clinton's meetings with Chinese leaders and her criticisms of Communist Party social controls and human rights policies, has been shortened or selectively excerpted to remove commentary deemed offensive by Beijing.

The Chinese publisher has acknowledged making changes in the text but said they were "minor, technical" alternations that did not affect the integrity of the book.

Mrs. Clinton and Simon & Schuster, her American publisher, dispute that. "I was amazed and outraged to hear about this," Senator Clinton said in Washington today. "They censored my book, just like they tried to censor me."

In a statement issued today, a day after Mrs. Clinton was alerted to the editing changes by The New York Times, a spokesman for Mrs. Clinton said Simon & Schuster had sent a letter to the Chinese publishing house demanding that it recall the Chinese edition and provide a new translation that faithfully adheres to the original.

Robert Barnett, a lawyer for the Clintons who has overseen the book's domestic and international release, said the changes had been made without consultation, adding, "The senator will do everything she can to make sure that her readers in China get an accurate translation of her book."

Simon & Schuster prepared a new translation of passages dealing with China and posted them on its Web site today.

China often censors political content in its newspapers, television broadcasts, films, books and many of the arts, as well as the Internet. The authorities also routinely ban the publication or screening of foreign books or films that depict China in a negative light.

But the publication of books like "Living History" is part of an effort to show that China is becoming a more open society. China has been publishing more foreign titles and screening more imported films recently, at least partly fulfilling commitments to loosen media controls that it made as a condition of entering the World Trade Organization.

The heavy promotion of Mrs. Clinton's book initially seemed to signal new tolerance, given that the English version refers repeatedly, and in some cases pointedly, to Chinese political repression, the status of Tibet and other topics that are not generally discussed here.

In fact, the publisher has advertised the book — titled "Qinli Lishi," which translates to something like "Personal History" — as the most unabridged foreign political memoir in Chinese publishing history.

"In the past, translated books always had some cuts," an official of Yilin Press told the Beijing Evening News after the book's release last month. "But the Chinese translation of this keeps 99.9 percent of the original's content."

What the official did not mention is that the other one-tenth of 1 percent, if the edited passages indeed constitute such a tiny fraction of the total, involve most references to China itself.

The manuscript appears to have been combed for even stray mentions of China or its leaders, though the Chinese editors did not mark or otherwise indicate where they had made changes or elisions in the 466-page text.

For example, while Mrs. Clinton's English text discusses her concerns about China's treatment of the women's groups that attended the 1995 United Nations conference on women, the Chinese version leaves that part out. It also deletes a paragraph in which she criticizes the Chinese for not allowing a speech she made to be broadcast, in effect censoring references to censorship.

Though the Chinese edition includes much of Mrs. Clinton's account of her visit to China in 1998 with President Clinton, it selectively strikes out sensitive passages, including her statement that she was "haunted by the events at Tiananmen," the violent crackdown on a student-led pro-democracy demonstration in 1989.

The Chinese version says Mrs. Clinton attended a Protestant religious service in Beijing but omits a line that religious freedom was still "a right forbidden to many."

Mrs. Clinton's original version included a lighthearted story that needled the Chinese for making extensive preparations for a visit by foreign dignitaries.

She wrote that before she had stopped for an informal lunch in Shanghai, the police had replaced the staff in nearby stores with "attractive young people wearing Western clothes." That anecdote did not make the cut in the Chinese book.

Mr. Barnett said the changes constituted a breach of contract. The agreement between Simon & Schuster and Yilin Press, he said, allows only modifications that are essential "to achieve a competent and idiomatic translation."

When first asked about the editing, Liu Feng, the deputy editor in chief of Yilin Press, said that any changes were minor and that allegations of a breach of contract were "at the very least inappropriate."

But later today, after Mr. Liu said officials at the company had reviewed a letter from Simon & Schuster complaining about the changes, he described the American publisher's concerns as understandable.

He said Mrs. Clinton's book had been translated hurriedly because Yilin as the official publisher had to compete against China's vigorous black market in unauthorized versions of best-selling books. As such, he said, Yilin had no time to discuss changes with Simon & Schuster.

Despite competition from pirate publishers, Mrs. Clinton's book appears to have been a financial windfall for Yilin, which paid $20,000 for the publishing rights and has so far sold 200,000 copies at a cover price of $3.60.

Mr. Liu said the changes had been made by Yilin alone, without government consultation. Most state-owned media companies are not subject to advance censorship, though they can be held responsible if they publish something deemed offensive to the leadership.

The same company has already purchased the Chinese rights to sell Mr. Clinton's forthcoming autobiography. "You can bet that translation will be carefully scrutinized," Mr. Barnett said.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

Monday, September 22, 2003
Dewey Decimal Owner Sues 'Library' Hotel

The Associated Press
Saturday, September 20, 2003; 10:01 PM

DUBLIN, Ohio –– The nonprofit library cooperative that owns the Dewey Decimal system has filed suit against a library-themed luxury hotel in Manhattan for trademark infringement.

The Library Hotel, which overlooks the New York Public Library, is divided according to the classification system, with each floor dedicated to one of Dewey's 10 categories.

Room 700.003 includes books on the performing arts, for example, while room 800.001 has a collection of erotic literature.

In the lawsuit filed last week, lawyers for the Online Computer Library Center said the organization acquired the rights to the system in 1988 when it bought Forest Press, which published Dewey Decimal updates. The center charges libraries that use the system at least $500 per year.

Melvil Dewey created his system — used in 95 percent of all public and K-12 school libraries — in 1873, but it is continually updated, with numbers assigned to more than 100,000 new works each year.

"A person who came to (the hotel's) Web site ... would think they were passing themselves off as connected with the owner of the Dewey Decimal Classification system," said Joseph Dreitler, a lawyer representing the center.

Hotel general manager Craig Spitzer and OCLC spokeswoman Wendy McGinnis did not return phone messages Saturday seeking comment.

The complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Columbus seeks triple the hotel's profits since its opening or triple the organization's damages, whichever is greater, from the hotel's owner.

Dreitler said Saturday he and his client do not yet know the size of the hotel's profits. The center, based in Dublin, is willing to settle with the hotel's owners, he said.


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