Our Bookshelves Are Over-Flowing With Books

On Wednesday night, I helped organize and participated in Digital Book World’s second 7x20x21 event at the Bowery Poetry Club, and I had an amazing time!

Return of the Optimists” was co-hosted by the dynamic duo (and two of my publishing partners in crime), Ami Greko and Ryan Chapman, and the other 5 presenters — Nick Felton, Al Katkowsky, Davin Kuntze, Lynne Procope (my a little bit louder co-founder), and Isobella Jade — were all excellent, an eclectic assortment of geeks, writers, and book lovers speaking passionately on everything from data visualization and the wonders of books, to authors not taking no for an answer — and I had the honor of closing the night out.

That’s the video above, and  text of the presentation is below (including the poem, Behind the Music), pretty close to how I delivered it.

[Shout-outs to Denise Berthiaume and Tom Thompson (a fellow poet!) of Verso Digital for co-sponsoring the night with DBW, and to the Bowery Poetry Club, simply for existing.]

Our Bookshelves Are Over-Flowing With Books

My unofficial title at the day job is Chief Executive Optimist for Digital Book World, which is an online and in-person community for people in the business of publishing books. The cynics might refer to that as being similar to being the band leader on the Titanic, but I prefer to think of it as more like the Patrick Henry role during the Revolution: “Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Death!”

There’s no shortage of cynics gleefully proclaiming the death of publishing (and the death of print, in general). Pundits, tech fetishists, and even some bitter writers better known for their bitterness than their writing are riding the “Publishing is DOOMED!” bandwagon, without the slightest glance at who’s in the driver’s seat.

It’s like playing a game of Get a Clue:

“It was Jeff Bezos in the Kitchen with a Kindle!”

“It was Steve Jobs in the Living Room with an iPad!”

“It was Ev and Biz in the Basement with the Twitterz!”

I’m sure it was no coincidence that the iPad was released in time for Easter Weekend, a not-so-subtle nod to Jobs’ hopes that it was the second coming of the iPhone. If you were unfortunate enough to be on Twitter that weekend and have Apple fanatics as friends, their breathless tweets painstakingly tracking every step – “It’s still syncing!” – like they were caught up in the Rapture was absolutely crazy.

But a funny thing happened in one small group of early adopters – the eBook fanatics.

Turned out eBooks on the iPad weren’t all that exciting, especially compared to some of the other cool reading apps like Marvel Comics and ComiXology, or the Disney Toy Story app that really gives a hint of what a full-color enhanced eBook could look like in more creative hands.

When I was a kid, we used to call these fancy apps “software”, and there was no confusing them with books.

Underneath the fancy techie containers is something that doesn’t get nearly enough attention these days – the stories they hold, and the writers who create them.

At its best, I believe publishing is a community service – not a non-profit one, either – and our job is to represent ideas we believe in, and to connect great writers to readers.

Of course, writers typically can’t afford to attend the big ticket conferences that keep the doom-saying pundits and tech fetishists in the limelight, so it’s more profitable to focus on the new shiny, no matter what the downsides might be.

It’s more profitable to devalue the creators of the content that gives their devices a reason to exist.

I bought my wife a Kindle a year and a half ago, when Oprah had her $50 discount going, and while she likes it well enough – whenever she can find a book she actually wants to read available on it – like most avid readers, she’s not ready to disown the printed word. eBooks are additive for her; she reads books she doesn’t necessarily want to own, and if she discovers something really good in e, she likely buys it in print so SHE CAN ACTUALLY OWN IT.

Our bookshelves are over-flowing with books; some we re-read, some we share with friends, some we expect to pass on to our kids, like I recently did with Jeff Smith’s BONE, nine volumes of awesome that even the iPad can’t match. Some, like the first-edition Hardcover of Matt Ruff’s Fool on the Hill, which I tracked down in Ithaca in December, where the book is set, are reminders of stories that had a significant impact on us.

Like a good bookstore, our bookshelves are a curated collection of stories and ideas – some true, some imagined, some a questionable mix of both. Each one of those books say something about who we are, what we believe in, what we cherish.

I’ve always dreamed of owning a bookstore one day, so I’m very biased. I want it to be somewhere away from the City, where books aren’t taken for granted. It will be that fabled “third place” — a place of business but also a place for the community to gather. It will serve coffee, and it might even publish a local newspaper. It will also have an amazing kids section, because contrary to some pundits’ claims, kids do read, and far more than just text messages.

Especially if they have parents who read, too.

My mother claims I learned to read early because it was the only way to get my father’s attention on Sundays when he was buried in the NY Times.

At the Empire State Book Festival this past weekend, Gregory Maguire made a great point:

“There are people and places without our resources, for whom hearing a story can be life-changing.”

That’s sometimes easy to forget when we live in New York City, and we’re talking amongst ourselves on Twitter, or playing around like Captain Picard on our iPads, paying ridiculous mortgages and rents just so we can live at what’s still the center of the publishing industry. The City I grew up in, though, didn’t seem quite as oblivious to the larger world as it does now. There were far more shades of grey here when I was a kid.

Behind the Music
the evolution of dreams


In the 7th grade,
dreaming under the influence of
I want my MTV!
when hip-hop was still for partying
and Hall & Oates ruled the charts
I decided to learn the guitar

12-year old hormones assuring me
this was the perfect way
to get girls.

John Peter agreed.

We agreed on almost everything –
Batman over Superman
LL over Kool Moe D
Robotron over Pac-Man
so when we signed up for strings

we both had visions of
money for nothing
and chicks for free
dancing in our heads.

On the first day of class
we learned to mistrust authority
finding a New York City public education
limited dreams to tradition
left us to choose between
the viola, violin, cello

and bass.

Lacking any MTV reference point
but wanting to retain some shred of cool
jazz unconsciously imprinted on our hybrid genes
we chose the bass.

There were only three in the class
the third claimed by a kid nicknamed cockroach
before the final bell had rung.

We quickly planned our first video
scanned the class for potential co-stars.


In the 7th grade
girls ruled the world
and she was Catherine the Great
in that first-to-develop

breasts-and-hips kind-of-way
leaving young boys goofy
professing their love
with songs they don’t understand.

I wanted to do things with her
I’d only seen in movies
imagined her body leaned against my leg
fingers plucking at her strings

her voice a low chord
whispering my name.

Her name has faded with time
but the memory of that moment
when she held up her hand
–        said she wanted to play the bass, too
stayed with me.

John Peter and I argued
like long-time bandmates
both ready to sacrifice our souls

convinced the reward would be a kiss
…at the least.

For the next two years
we played the cello

third row back
behind the violas
reading Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star
from sheets yellowed with neglect.

Cockroach stood in the back
–        with her
plucking away from memory
a low throb echoing
in our hearts.


Rock star dreams fade
when exposed to the light of day.

Years later
I’d hear someone say
there were more poets in the ghetto
because guitars are expensive
pen and paper, cheap.

I remembered carrying home that cello
pressed against me like an unwanted sibling
on the rush hour 5 through the Bronx
adjustable leg loosened by time
threatening to put out an eye
wishing that my load was
a little bit heavier.

Today, I write poems in low chords
silencing the echoes
pen and paper less default than option
swearing that my children
will never have to trade in their dreams.

[NOTE: The last slide in the presentation includes an excerpt from a poem I wrote last year, “Blue (for India)” , on the 16th day of  NaPoWriMo.]

Between 7x20x21, and the amazing Marketing & Editorial Forum I hosted the next day, surrounded by some of the smartest, passionate publishing pros I know, it’s been quite an inspiring week!

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One thought on “Our Bookshelves Are Over-Flowing With Books

  1. Why, oh Why can we not have something exciting like this in NC. You would think in a state which produces some remarkable poets and writers, and has one of the best universities (UNC) to study literature, that Chapel Hill, NC could gather up people like this. Kudos for seeing that the “third place” is place that real poets and writers enjoy visiting. I enjoyed reading this.


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