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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.


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July 05, 2012


I suppose it's merely an extension of Amazon's predictive sales offers: "Your last purchase was Moby Dick; you may be interested in How to Maintain a Home Aquarium".

There's an irony here. These new techniques touch on a darker or - let's say - less commendable side of my character. Not all conversations about books include allusions to Joyce and Proust, but the ones I'm involved in do. I can't pretend I'm above letting people I've read both. And if that doesn't impress, I'm fully inclined to add "Several times." In fact I'm doing it now, to which charge I would stonily reply Carpe Diem.

Given a system that does my self-aggrandisement for me I can only clap my hands. However this system is not discriminatory. I wouldn't be too worried having the fact that I'd read Das Kapital and Lady Chat shouted into cyberspace. Less so that I re-read Ed McBain paperbacks in the bath.

I appreciate your concerns about the implications of this new system and they admirably reflect your seriousness when it comes to the important matter of how publishing may be affected in the future. But let me offer you the future comforts of old age. In my younger days I was au courant with what was new and good. Now with less time on hand and other more pressing matters to occupy me I read less and certainly less of what has appeared during the past two or three years. However I do from time to time catch up and thus benefit from the fact some works have persistence and some don't. I aso have an intermittent policy regarding classics and now only ready masterpieces: thus if I were suddenly presented with, say, George Eliot I would make sure I read Middlemarch and/or The Mill on the Floss, rather than Romola or Adam Bede. Also I re-read masterpieces.

I realise I stand accused of sitting on the fence when I should be taking a more active stance on behalf of readers as yet unborn. And were there a trend towards pulping older books on the grounds of irrelevance we might well find ourselves sharing the same barrier. But the publishing industry has always had to struggle with the dilemma of putting out good (thought not popular) stuff and making a crust and this I think is simply the most recent manifestation of that problem. But reading can be regarded as a subversive activity and that part of its appeal will continue. So will good books. Enough. Enough

I see that this is another way in which information is gathered by people whose interest is only in making money. But the information in many cases may be quite faulty. If I lend my computer to my son I suddenly start to get ads for on-line dating sites. I get emails from a lawyer about a will and ads appear on my email offering me criminal lawyers. What will the Kindle sleuths make of the fact that I got stuck in the middle of The Eustace Diamonds because I couldn't stand the main character and so picked up a hard-backed copy of John Adams by David McCollough. That's a book of more than 600 pages, so it was a while before I started back on the Kindle, this time to read Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont in a day and a half. It seems to me that this is a jumble of meaningless info.

I don't go to Barnes and Noble any more. I never find much there that interests me. I think that your press is an example proving Loren da Ponte's proposition that good books will last.

Dear Lorenzo, dear Anne: thank you both for commenting, and so thoughtfully. I wrote this post partly because it just bugs the hell out of me when commercial interests masquerade as altruistic - I agree with you, Anne, and think much of the information gathered will be utterly useless. And the constant incursions into our privacy outrage me too, along with society's indifference. But my sadness about the trends in publishing (which is the emotion I think I feel most) has to do with the fact that so much good work goes unpublished now, and so many good authors become hopelessly discouraged. I suppose I occasionally need encouragement myself to keep going at Phoenicia, where I can still only publish a small number of books per year, through my own work and resources. But it's also a more general sadness about what will happen to reading and readers, as well as writers -- and I wonder if the readers, eventually, will even realize it. The internet, however, makes a very rich mix of writing available to all of us, more so than ever before, and this mitigates the problems of the more traditional publishing industry. I do a great deal of my reading online now, and am really grateful for the wealth and breadth of what's there. I'm with you, Anne, about Barnes and Noble. I walk in and walk out, and rarely even go to the chains anymore in person. Here in Canada they seem like they're selling more gifts and home decorating items than books!

Well, it is lovely that you do what you do, and that you embody in one person the ability to edit and design.

Most good writers have had to be very strong not to be bent or broken, and I believe that will always be so. It's a strange enterprise, the writing life!

And I think we are already in that place where there's a little world of more serious readers inside a greater one that can depress with too much book-flogging and too much catering to lowest denominators.

Statistics about software usage is gathered on a regular basis. When you use google mail, google is constantly gathering information about which buttons you clicked, what features you used. Over time, they fine-tune their offering based on this feedback.

Statistics about reading is only another form of this initiative. I am conservative about online privacy - the blog is anonymous, I am on no social network - but I know that my online habits are being constantly monitored by ISPs and browsers (in general) and websites (in particular) and I've come to accept this as a necessary tax I have to pay for spending time online. So if I begin to use an eReader, I suppose I'll accept the usage statistics gathering that happens with my reading too.

The point from Anne about faulty information is not so much of an issue for these "statistics gatherers" if this is averaged over a large segment of readers. A few people abandoning The Eustace Diamonds in the middle does not say much; if a thousand do, then there's something worth thinking about there.

This kind of information will be welcomed by genre writers, yes, but I think literary writers - who also aim for a certain effect upon readers - may also begin to see benefits here. The real problem comes when, as you point out, when publishers begin to take these numbers too seriously and base their choices on a quantitive assessment of the books potential popularity rather than a qualitative assessment of its literary merit.

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