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Who will buy your book?

1.
“Nobody else is here,” the elderly woman said into her phone. “It’s embarrassing!”  

She was the first one to arrive at my reading at the Philadelphia Library, a week after the release of my third novel, and two weeks after the pinnacle of my writing life, when that novel was praised in both The New Yorker and The Washington Post, two articles that I had assumed would create something like buzz around me or my writing. It was 6:58, and the reading started at 7:00.  

Earlier that day, I had gotten messages from nine different friends, all saying they’d planned on attending but something had come up and they couldn’t make it. Each of their explanations was understandable—sick children, stuck at work, car troubles—but also it seemed cruel that every one of them would have an emergency on the same night. My wife was there, in the second row and I sent her a text from the front of the room: can we just leave? Will anyone notice? 

I did not leave. I had promised to do an event, and the library had made space for me, and even if only one person was in the audience, I had a responsibility to deliver. But in those next two minutes—as I kept hoping for, say, a bus full of book critics to break down outside—I was thinking grim thoughts about the creative life.

2.
I have been very fortunate as a writer: since 2010, I have had three books picked up by three different publishers. I have gotten coverage in major publications and been invited to do events in many bookstores along the east coast. I made enough money on my first book contract to buy a pretty nice couch.  

Before I ever published anything, I’d assumed that if I ever finished a book, there would be so much demand from family and friends alone that we’d have to go into a second printing before the release date. But I am here to tell you: most people in your family will never buy your book. Most of your friends won’t either.  

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A thing meant to be: The work of a book editor

In my senior year of college, having discovered that I generally liked working on other people’s prose a great deal more than my own, I confided to a professor that I was thinking of trying to become an editor. “Pretty thankless job,” she said. The truth is, despite its moments of frustration and overwhelm and failure, I have never found the job thankless.

More than anything, there is this: the sublime moment—and it never stops being sublime—when you get to attend, as beautiful, meaningful, and original work emerges in the world. When I gave birth to my daughters, one of my sisters-in-law said, “It is one of the rare experiences for which ‘miracle’ is not an overstatement.” It’s not an overstatement for the birth of art, either. What’s most miraculous is the “let there be” of it—the way a new and unique something yet again emerges from the wordless deep.

The sense is that the book is trying to communicate what it wants to become, how it wants to incarnate itself. Masha Gessen recently spoke of this process in an interview: “I know what my objectives are and I know what the topic is, and then I’m just reporting. I walk around for a bit, literally, bike and walk, and then suddenly, I get an idea of what it should be, what the structure is. I can’t tell you how I came up with this.” Peter Matthiessen thanked John Irving for his comments on the sprawling early draft of what would become his monumental Shadow Country back in “the book’s cretaceous days, when the whole was still inchoate, crude, and formless.” And when Matthiessen died, just before we at Riverhead had the precious honor of publishing his final book, Irving mourned the loss of “a friend I dared to show what I was up to, when I was still unsure of what it was.”

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What we are writing now

I remember the time the first Penguin India books came out. I stood in Mumbai’s now-defunct Strand Book Stall, reading from Nisha Da Cunha’s beautiful stories, Old Cypress and then saw Padma Hejmadi’s Birthday Deathday. Those were the days when I did not buy a book unless I had already read it and knew that it would be something I would want to own for the rest of my life, a belief that only a young man can have. But I promised myself, as someone who dreamed of having a book out, as someone who dreamed of being an Indian writer in English, that I would try and buy as many Indian authors as I could.

I already had a stack of strange-looking Jaico paperbacks: Nayantara Sahgal and Kamala Das and Raja Rao but those were second-hand books, bought on the streets. Now I would contribute to my biraadari, I would help my qaum, even if they didn’t know I was one of them, by buying their books.

That was 1985. It’s been a long time and much ink has flowed and I have given up even trying to keep in touch. We’re a huge bunch and there’s been two Booker Prizes, Arundhati Roy’s for The God of Small Things and Arvind Adiga’s for The White Tiger. We’re now getting close to what might be called a mature market: we don’t just have literary fiction, the epics and the classics in translation; we have genres: there’s chick lit and crime fiction and romances written by men and thrillers. We have 65 literary festivals across the country; I was told that one just ended in Amritsar. Mumbai has three or maybe five, I don’t know. Universities are organising their own. There are hierarchies now: Jaipur at the top and Kozhikode coming in second with the additional cachet of moral superiority.

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Selfie with cat, coffee and Karenina: Reading in the age of social media

Half of the fun in reading a book lies in going to a bookshop and browsing through the titles, no matter if you are buying them or not. When Amazon replaced bookshops, book-browsers took to social media sites to moon over gleaming first-edition covers, fresh from the oven.

Follow any one of the many book-related hashtags on Instagram and what shows up is an assembly line of photographs, all exquisitely composed. The featured books are usually collectors’ editions, the filters used in the photographs cover them in a warm glow and the frame often includes a brooding cat or a steaming coffee mug, sometimes both. But the story does not end with the photographs: social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, and even Youtube are playing a significant role in connecting book-lovers across the world.

Classic connect

“I started using Instagram when I was in between jobs,” says Arpita Bhattacharya, one of the ‘bookstagrammers’ who has been using the platform to build an online community of book-lovers.

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Sometimes the best way to read is to mark up the book

Nineteen years old, I sat at a long table in a small room, a poem in front of me. “Harry Ploughman” by Gerard Manley Hopkins felt impenetrable. A jumble of syntax. Frequent semicolons and dashes choked my reading. While I listened to my professor speak about Hopkins and Robert Bridges, I noticed her own copy of the poem was littered with pencil streaks and pen jabs. My copy was pale. Unmarked, and truly, unread.

In order to understand writing, I have to annotate it. I started with Hopkins. I bought a used edition of his selected poetry and prose, and started writing in the margins of the beige pages. This wasn’t defacing; this was an act of communion.

There’s a difference between line-editing and annotating. When we edit—when we are edited—the goal is to transform a draft into something better, something finished. When I annotate a poem, I am receiving words that have been formed and felt and hoped. “Harry Ploughman” exists without my acknowledgment or enjoyment. I’m there to learn from Hopkins. “Hard as hurdle arms,” the poem’s first phrase, is enough for me to linger on—and we’re a few stanzas away from the combined word “Amansstrength.”

In order to appreciate Hopkins, I had to walk my pencil among his phrases. The spirit of his lines opened; that is not to say that all of his mysteries were revealed, but I could follow the turns of his rhythms. “He leans to it, Harry bends, look.” When I marked that final word of the phrase, the terse stop of look, I was documenting the poet’s accomplishment. Annotation can be an action of reverence.

Ever since, it’s been impossible for me to read a book, or analyze a poem, or follow the routes of an essay without underlining, circling, drawing arrows, making notes in the margins. Most writers and readers I know love to mark up their pages.

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A Beijing bookstore where George Washington is on the shelves

After the brutal suppression of China’s 1989 democracy movement, Liu Suli, a student leader who had narrowly escaped being gunned down near Tiananmen Square, recalled a boyhood dream as he brooded in his prison cell.

If he owned a bookstore, he had mused at the age of 7, he wouldn’t have to spend money on books. From behind bars, and with his entrepreneurial drive still intact, he saw his dream in a different light. A bookstore might be a more plausible way to pursue the freedom of ideas that he and hundreds of thousands of others had failed to win with public protest.

He got out of jail fairly quickly. The authorities lightened up a bit. He opened a bookstore and ordered an eclectic range of volumes that leaned toward philosophy, history, political science and an ample dose of Western thought.

And now the All Sages Bookstore, a haven of precisely arranged shelves and display tables, thrives on the low-rent second floor of a nondescript building near Peking University.

A survivor of Beijing’s ferocious property market — it has moved three times since 1993 — and the government’s extremely tight censorship in the era of President Xi Jinping’s rule, the store represents an independent political spirit in an authoritarian one-party state.

A large image of Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and freethinker, stands out among a galaxy of literary posters lining the wall of the entry staircase, a taste of what’s to come.

“China is not a liberal society, it’s not a free country,” Mr. Liu said, sitting in a quiet corner of the Thinkers Cafe, a mellow hangout within the store that meanders along a side corridor to a small back room furnished with antique Chinese furniture.

“But the bookstore is a way to express our longing for freedom and our hope for the establishment of a free society,” he said.

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Rebuilding Mosul, book by book

Before the war, it was strange to see smoke in the sky.

Fahad Sabah looked out on the city from the roof of his home with a bad feeling in his stomach. He saw black, thick, heavy smoke rising over the river that bisects the city. He went down to the basement and pulled out a flat box about seventy-five centimeters wide. It contained his most prized possessions—a satellite dish, and a stack of books.

If anyone saw him, he’d likely have been executed in the public square.

Firing up the satellite in the stairwell leading to up to the roof, he managed to get a signal: a scratchy evening news report. A short line with the name of his alma mater scrolling at the bottom of the screen caught his attention. The words brought him to sudden, surprised tears.

The smoke he saw earlier that day was from the library at Mosul University. The men who had taken over his city, and made reading books into a crime, had burned down the library. In a day, thousands of volumes were lost. With them went a thread that had bound the city together for generations.

It was February 3, 2015—the 219th day of the caliphate.

*

Long before the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, proclaimed its empire, Fahad spent years in the University of Mosul, and knew its library like the back of his hand. Each of its sections, stacks, and bookshelves are like a photograph in his mind. He and his wife had their first date in the library’s engineering section. When she noticed poems scribbled in the margins of his notebooks and asked about their author, Fahad replied that the poems were his. “Wow! They’re so good!” she said. Fahad smiles as he recalls the moment.

When Fahad finally proposed to her, it was through a poem. “At the end of the poem, I told her I would be so happy if you would agree to complete our lives together,” recalled Fahad, smiling even wider.

Books weave their way through many of the defining moments of Fahad’s life. To watch so many of them disappear was unimaginable. The library was more than a physical space and its antiquities to him. “A library makes a difference,” said Fahad, “because libraries have books, books have ideas, and ideas make change.”

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Hanif Kureishi: ‘I haven’t read anything by Jane Austen. My shame is big’

The book I am currently reading
The Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra. He uses Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals to help understand why everyone is so pissed off these days. He has a good theory, the Nietzschean idea of resentment – the fury of people who are excluded – and uses this to talk about radical Islam and Brexit. You could also apply it to Trump.

The book that changed my life
James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. As a teenager from a mixed race background, I struggled with issues of race and identity and Baldwin had related all this to the race politics of his day. It gave me ideas of what I might write.

The book I wish I’d written
Frederick Seidel’s collected poems – they always make me laugh and they always move me. As I get older I read more and more poetry.

The book that influenced my writing
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. When I was a teenager and read it in my bedroom in Bromley, I thought this was a book for now – leaving the inheritance of the postwar settlement and making a new world. It inspired me.

The book that is most underrated
I recently found a wonderful book by Georges Simenon in a secondhand bookshop. It’s called The Train, and is about a man cut off from his family in Belgium at the outbreak of the war who begins a relationship with a woman he meets on a train. It’s about the fracturing of war and the possibility of love. Because of Maigret, people write Simenon off as a formulaic writer. To me he’s as good as Camus.

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A crash course in diversifying your bookshelf

Is your reading list looking a little monochrome? We’ve compiled 15 books to help you broaden your horizons

In the past year, I’ve made a conscious and intentional effort to read in an inclusive and representative way. For me this means reading perspectives that differ from mine, about experiences that are new to me, and learning from people who have lived in ways that offer precious teachings. It also means reading nonfiction and fiction in equal measure. Consuming the news and nonfiction about important but heavy topics can be emotionally draining; whereas poetry and comics can uplift us when we feel weltshmerz or despair.

This is why I’ve put together a list of books by writers, poets, and artists from a range of backgrounds. When read in the order presented, it creates a narrative arc of its own. The list builds from a slow crescendo of more accessible books to heavy-hitters that draw on academic and historical research, finishing with a few books that unearth the kinds of futures we want to create.

These titles will humble you and fill you with wonder. But most important, they will hopefully also inspire you to create your own stories in ways that are most representative of your experiences.

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Salman Rushdie: ‘I couldn’t finish Middlemarch. I know, I know. I’ll try again’

The author on meeting Pynchon, why Kafka is unbeatable – and the trouble with Trollope

The book I am currently reading
I recently visited the old mansion where Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks was set, that great house with the words “Dominus providebit” inscribed over the front door, and was immediately inspired to download the novel on to my iPad and plunge in. The pleasure of re-reading Buddenbrooks was so deep that I resolved to embark on a year of re-readings, which is why I now find myself about halfway through the first book of Don Quixote, in the terrific Edith Grossman translation. This is proving to be a more complicated encounter. On the one hand, the characters of Quixote and Sancho Panza are as beautifully realised as I remember them, and the idea of a man determinedly seeing the world according to his own vision, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, feels strikingly contemporary. On the other hand, how many more times are the Knight of the Dolorous Countenance and Sancho going to get beaten up and left in pain in various roadside ditches? The “greatest novel ever written” – I voted for it myself once – turns out to be just a little bit repetitive. To make the reading easier, I’m breaking it up and reading other books by other authors after every couple of hundred pages of Cervantes. At present, that interposed book is David Grossman’s wonderful A Horse Walks into a Bar.

The book that changed my life
Truthfully, the books that changed my life were books I wrote myself, not books I read. When Midnight’s Children was published in 1981 I was hoping that a few people who were not friends or relations of mine might read and like it. I was completely unprepared for what happened. It gave me the life I had always wanted, a writer’s life, and for most of the 1980s I lived that life with real gratitude and happiness. Then in 1988 another book changed my life in another way. But in spite of everything that followed the publication of The Satanic VersesI remain proud of it. And strangely I’m grateful for it, too. Its troubled pathway has taught me a lot about how to live, and what to live for.

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