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LibraryThing: State of the Thing
Dear Reader,

Welcome to the November State of the Thing. New this month: our sixth annual SantaThing is underway, we've made some upgrades to event listings in LibraryThing Local and for every event added through the end of 2012 we will give money to put books in the hands of those who need them! There's also a year-end ReadaThing coming up!

We have author interviews this month with Jon Ronson, Nancy Marie Brown, Jon Meacham, and Christopher Bonanos. There are 2,309 free Early Reviewer books available in November.

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News and features

SantaThing 2012! The sixth annual SantaThing, our Secret Santa program for book lovers, is now underway! It's a fun way to give and receive some books, and you can help suggest books for all the other Santas too!

You can sign up as many times as you like, for yourself or for someone else (they don't even have to have a LibraryThing account). See the blog post, or go right to the SantaThing page to sign up. This year you can choose how much you pay ($15-$40) and which bookstore you'd like your books sent from, including Longfellow Books, Powell's, Book Depository, or Amazon.

Signups will close on Thursday, November 29 at 4 p.m. EST, so don't delay, sign up now!

LibraryThing Local Events upgrades We've made some changes to how events are added and displayed in LibraryThing Local: the old system, involving picking authors, picking books and characterizing the event ("X reads from Y") is out, replaced by a simple description box, but with the ability to add touchstones, just like on Talk. New events can also include a cover image (based on the works touchstoned within the event description), and you can filter out events you don't want to see. For all the details, see the blog post.

Give books to needy readers by adding LibraryThing Local Events! Along with the simplified method for adding events, we're trying something new that we've wanted to do for a long time: for every bookstore and library event added to LibraryThing Local from now until January 1, LibraryThing will donate up to 15 cents to put books in the hands of the needy. See the blog post for the full announcement, or chime in here and help us choose how to spend our money.

Calling all programmers! We've launched a brand-new Add Events API to make it even easier to add events to LibraryThing Local. Go forth and build! Details here.

End-of-2012 ReadaThing! The ReadaThing group group is planning an end-of-year Readathon, running from December 23rd through the 31st. Chime in on the planning thread, or watch the group page for the announcement thread soon.

Free books: Early Reviewers

Read and review free books, before they even hit the shelves! We've given out a grand total of 124,704 books so far through Early Reviewers.

The November batch of Early Reviewer books contains 2,309 copies of 88 different titles. The deadline to request a free book to read and review is November 26 at 6 p.m. EST. The December batch will be up at the beginning of the month.

The list of books

The most requested books so far this month:

Interview with author Jon Ronson

Jon Ronson is a journalist and documentary filmmaker whose books include The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test. Ronson's new book, Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries, was recently published by Riverhead.

For those who haven't had a chance to read it yet, give us the nutshell version of Lost at Sea. What's the thread that ties these twenty-two short pieces together?

These are funny, sad stories about people lost at sea, trying to make their way through the world. Sometimes they reach for crazy ideas to get them through, sometimes horrifying ideas, sometimes silly ideas, sometimes even inspiring ideas. I see this as an empathetic book about people spiraling out of control.

They sometimes feel like adventure stories. I get into some dangerous scrapes. Other times they feel like mystery stories: there are actual mysteries that need solving. Sometimes the mystery is, Why does this person believe this crazy stuff? Or, Why does this person act in this baffling way?

There's a Christmas-themed town in Alaska where every day is Christmas and the kids have to be Santa's elves. A bunch of them were recently arrested for being in the final stages of plotting a school shooting. There's a real-life superhero who dresses in a supersuit of his making and breaks up gangs of armed crack dealers in the dead of night. I went along with him. It was terrifying. There's a billionaire filtering her money into creating a robot version of her real-life partner that she's convinced is about to burst into spontaneous life. I interviewed the robot. And so on.

Do you have a favorite among the stories included here? Which, and why?

I love the Christmas-town story. I'm also very fond of "Citizen Kubrick". I was the first person ever to look through the thousands of boxes Stanley Kubrick left behind at his home. It was mysterious and exciting and a great honor, and also a real challenge to try to piece together this enigmatic man through the things he left behind.

And I love the story about the incredibly violent rap act Insane Clown Posse, who have been surreptitiously embedding cryptic messages about their secret love of God within the lyrics of their songs. We had a fantastically absurd conversation about whether elephants constitute miracles: "Have you ever stood next to an elephant, my friend?" one of them asked me. "A f***ing elephant is a miracle. If people can't see a f***ing miracle in a f***ing elephant, then life must suck for them, because an elephant is a f***ing miracle. So is a giraffe."

Tell us about "Amber Waves of Green." Where did you get the idea, and how did you pick the people to profile? What did you learn as you went through the process of writing this story?

The original idea was the editor of US GQ, Jim Nelson. He was thinking that income disparity is so important yet people tend to be bored by stories about it. He asked me to find a way to humanize it. We talked about looking at the subject mathematically.

I went off and did sums, and I worked out that there are six degrees of economic separation between a minimum-wage dishwasher making less than $8 an hour and a Forbes billionaire, if you multiply each person's income by five. Then I decided to journey across the United States to meet one of each multiple.

How did I pick the people? It was completely mathematical. For Frantz, the Haitian dishwasher, I approached a restaurant workers' advocacy group in Miami. For Dennis and Rebecca in Des Moines, who earn five times what Frantz makes, I heard that local charities offering food to the needy were seeing more and more middle-class families; I found Dennis and Rebecca through a charity. I was the person who made five times what they made. Above me was a woman I've done some work with, who wanted to remain anonymous. Above her was a progressive gazillionaire named Nick Hanauer. I met him at TED, where I had been invited to give a talk. I loved how he was on a crusade to be forced to pay more tax. And the guy at the very top was a Forbes billionaire—once the sixty-first-richest man in the United States. He made his money from public storage.

What I learned kind of astonished me. All of them, from every income level, basically justified their place on the ladder by inventing illusory fears of terrible things that might happen to them if they got richer. Dennis and Rebecca, for instance, said people with more money tend to fall into a destructive hedonistic abyss of sex and drugs because they can afford it. The woman who made five times more than I did said she didn't want to be richer, because then she'd have to have her own plane and it would be stressful to have friends and family beg to fly on it. She meant it!

Another thing that really surprised me was that the only person who was angry about the politics of his situation was the storage billionaire—the richest man. He was angry about all the spongers below him, with all their "entitlements." Those at the bottom looking up showed no such animosity.

Read the rest of our interview with Jon Ronson.

Interview with author Nancy Marie Brown

Nancy Marie Brown is the author of several non-fiction books, including The Abacus and the Cross and The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman. Her latest book, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Tell us about Snorri Sturluson: who was this man, and what did he do?

Snorri Sturluson (1178-1241) is the most influential writer of the Middle Ages. It is his wry sense of humor that infuses the Norse myths of Thor bashing giants or of Odin wandering the nine worlds in wizard's guise, telling provocative tales, and it is Norse mythology that has inspired much of modern fantasy. In addition, Snorri created our image of the Viking hero, as seen in today's sports teams, movies, and video games. Finally, he wrote one of the earliest (and best) of the Icelandic sagas, establishing the genre and giving the word the meaning we still use today.

But Snorri is a fantastic character in his own right. He was one of the richest men in Iceland in the early 1200s, in control of nine of Iceland's 39 chieftaincies. It was the "Age of the Sturlungs" (named for Snorri and his brothers), a violent period during which Iceland's Golden Age came to a dismal end—due in large part to Snorri's ambition. At his grand estate of Reykholt, Snorri gave excellent feasts, with storytelling and songs and lots of ale. He was fat, troubled by gout, given to soaking long hours in his hot tub—not a Viking warrior by any stretch of the imagination. But he was an excellent lawyer and businessman. Twice he was named Lawspeaker, the only elected post in the independent Icelandic Commonwealth. He had few scruples, and could out-argue anyone, so he often twisted the law to favor himself and his friends. As a family man he was similarly self-serving. He married a wealthy woman, then left her when he had control of her property. He kept several mistresses before establishing a "partnership" with another heiress, twenty years his junior, of whom he seemed genuinely fond. His daughters were forced into unhappy marriages to further his political goals. He argued with both his sons over money. Shortly after writing his classic books, Snorri was murdered, cowering in his cellar. He had betrayed Iceland's other chieftains and made a pact with the king of Norway, selling out Iceland's independence so that he himself could be called an earl. Then, foolishly, he betrayed the king.

How much of what we know about Norse mythology is Snorri responsible for preserving (and/or creating)?

Snorri is our main—and often our only—source for all of Norse mythology. Other than Snorri's Edda and the beginning of his Heimskringla, there is very little else to go on. We have some poems, true, but few of these would be understandable if we did not also have Snorri's tales to explain who the gods are and why they act the way they do. The same is true for the images of the gods on runestones or jewelry.

People used to think of Snorri as a scholar or antiquarian who just collected and preserved the myths. But the more I learned about his life—and his reasons for writing his books—the more it became clear to me that he was a creative writer in the modern sense. Iceland in the 13th century was a Christian country. It had been Christian for over 200 years. But Icelanders still liked to compose and recite poems in the old Viking style. Snorri was especially good at it and had memorized nearly 1000 verses.

When he came to Norway for the first time in 1218, Snorri expected to be named King's Skald, or court poet, a position historically of some importance. He was horrified to learn that the 14-year-old king would rather read the romances of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table than hear poems about the splendid deeds of his own Viking ancestors. The Viking poems Snorri loved were dismissed as old-fashioned, too hard to understand, and possibly blasphemous, filled as they were with references to the old pagan gods.

Snorri began writing his books to impress that 14-year-old church-educated king and to introduce him to his heritage. But it had been 200 years since anyone had believed in Odin or Thor. Many of the references in the old poems were unclear. So Snorri simply made things up to fill in the gaps. Our understanding of the ancient Scandinavian belief system—and especially its humor—is a product of Snorri's imagination.

What first interested you in this topic?

Like most of my books, Song of the Vikings has a long back-story. It begins when I was about four years old and my babysitter read aloud The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. I discovered The Lord of the Rings when I was about thirteen. Through my college days, Tolkien was my favorite author, in spite of the scorn such a confession brought down on an English major at an American university in the late 1970s, where fantasy was derided as "escapist".

Then in a course on comparative mythology I was assigned The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson. Page 41 in Jean Young's translation was the turning point of my literary life—I began recognizing names: Durin, Bifur, Bafur, Bombor, Nori, Ori, Oin. And Gandalf! What was Tolkien's wizard doing in medieval Iceland? I read Tolkien's biography and learned how important Icelandic literature had been to him. I began reading the Icelandic sagas, first in translation and then in Old Norse. Then I went to Iceland—and ended up going back about 15 times and counting. Everywhere I turned, I kept hearing the name Snorri Sturluson. Who was he? It took me 35 years to answer that question.

Read the rest of our interview with Nancy Marie Brown.

Interview with author Jon Meacham

Jon Meacham is an executive editor at Random House, and the former editor of Newsweek. His books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, and American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation. Jon's new book is Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, out this month from Random House.

One of the major themes of your book is Jefferson's understanding of political power and how to use it. Tell us a bit about the personality traits and skills Jefferson deployed that contributed to his political successes.

As a student of history and of human nature, Jefferson understood what made other men tick, and he appreciated that we should make the perfect the enemy of the good. Accustomed to authority and deference as a scion of Virginia, he was also comfortable with power.

Did you come across anything during the research process for this book that particularly surprised you about Jefferson? Anything that changed a view of him that you'd previously held?

Two things. The first was his thorough and perennial immersion in the ways and means of politics and government. The other was his evident sexual appetite, something that emerges in his correspondence from very early on.

As part of your research process, you spent a night in Jefferson's bedroom at Monticello. Can you tell us about that experience? What insights did you gain from being there that helped you understand the man better?

I was struck by the play of light in his rooms. The sun strikes his chambers first, and he always woke at first light—a sign of his constant engagement with the world, and of his endless energy.

You write in the Epilogue about Jefferson's legacy, and about how he has, over time, "provided inspiration for radically different understandings of government and culture." What is it about the Founders in general, and perhaps Jefferson in particular, which has lent itself to such wide-ranging interpretations? What do you see as some of the most common misconceptions of Jefferson's philosophy or positions today?

Jefferson represents the best of us and the worst of us—our highest aspirations and our most disappointing failures. It's easy, then, to find ourselves in a kind of conversation with him as we look to the past for inspiration and for instruction. I think the most stubborn misconception about him is that he was solely a man of ideas. My view is that he was at once a philosopher and a political realist.

If you had the chance to interview Jefferson, but could only ask a single question, what would it be?

What is your greatest regret?

When and where do you do most of your writing?

I usually write the lion's share of my books in Sewanee, Tennessee, where we have a house on the Domain of The University of the South.

Read the rest of our interview with Jon Meacham.

Interview with author Christopher Bonanos

Christopher Bonanos is an editor at New York Magazine. His first book, Instant: The Story of Polaroid, was published in late September by Princeton Architectural Press.

How did this book come about? What first got you interested in the story of Polaroid?

I was always a Polaroid shooter, from my teenage years, when I got a secondhand camera. (A Model 900, from 1959, marked $5, bargained down to $3.) And when Polaroid film was discontinued for good in 2008, I wrote a little magazine story that led me to the story of the company's rise and fall and rebirth, and Land and his extraordinary invention. You find a good story with an amazing central character, and if you're a writer, you start to think "that's a book."

Tell us about your research process: what sources did you find most useful? What was the most surprising thing you learned?

Polaroid's archive contains a few million documents and photos, and during the company's bankruptcy, the whole pile went to Harvard Business School's Baker Library. The person in charge of it, a librarian named Tim Mahoney, is going to spend his whole career on this one collection, it looks like, and the first tranche of it came open to researchers around the end of 2009. So in January 2010, I started logging a lot of time there. Also, the company's museum collection (prototypes and such) went to the MIT Museum, where I also did quite a bit of digging. And then a lot of the extraordinarily smart people Land hired are still around, and I spoke to lots of them.

Surprising things I learned: Polaroid kept everything. EVERYTHING. In the company's early days, Land had been involved in a patent dispute, and after that, each idea was disclosed, signed, witnessed, and dated. I'll tell you, there's nothing like those files when you're trying to figure out how an invention got off the ground.

Another big surprise: Land made a point of hiring woman scientists, which was highly unusual back then. He was friends with an art-history professor at Smith College who would recommend his smartest students, and Land would scoop them up every year. A lot of them were, as you'd expect, art-history majors, and he'd send them off for some chemistry classes and build his own scientists that way. It was an end run around the usual pool of graduating talent, and it also made those women extremely loyal. A lot of them stayed at Polaroid for decades.

Edwin Land, Polaroid's founder and driving force, had some fairly unorthodox business methods. Describe his style a bit, if you would, and how do you think he made the company work so well for so long?

One of his friends once said he "never had an ordinary reaction to anything." He worked like a pack animal: all his close colleagues from Polaroid have stories about calls at 3:30 in the morning in which he'd say something like "I was thinking about something … can you come in and discuss it over breakfast at 5?" It exhausted people, but they also say they were always challenged, and nearly all of them stuck around for most of their careers. Many told me that he made them do things they thought they couldn't do—in part because he believed in them, in part because they so wanted to please him, in part because he gave them all the resources they'd need.

You write about the relationship between Land and Steve Jobs, of Apple fame. How did they get acquainted, and do you see in Apple some "Landian" principles or practices at work? Are there other companies out there today that you would compare in any way to Polaroid in its heyday?

They met by accident, almost: Jobs deeply admired Land, and at one point he was in Cambridge with Tom Hughes, a colleague who'd formerly worked for Polaroid. So he was able to broker a meeting of minds. And there are so many parallels: the obsession with product design, the perfectionism, the idea of creating an object you never knew you wanted but immediately understood you had to have.

There are relatively few companies that are as focused on R&D as Polaroid was back then—everyone's so beholden to shareholders and quarterly profits now that it's hard to spend that kind of money on the very long term. Polaroid, at its best, was like a think tank that periodically kicked out a billion-dollar profit-maker, and companies like Google, and maybe Microsoft (if it's finally getting its act together) have some of that same vibe.

Polaroid is known, of course, for its cameras and film. But the company also worked on other products in its early decades. Tell us about a few of those, if you would.

Right—for its first decade, Polaroid had little to do with photography. It was a company created to commercialize Land's first invention, the sheet polarizer—a filter that, when used in pairs, could become a sort of valve to control light very precisely. It had many applications: glare control, sunglasses, even 3-D movies. Polaroid grew up during the Second World War, when polarizers went into everything from pilots' goggles to bomb sights to aerial-reconaissance equipment. That product, incidentally, is where the name comes from: the words "polarizing" and "celluloid," blended together. When the instant-photo system came along, it was called the Polaroid Land Camera, but almost everyone elided the "Land" part, because it was confusing. A lot of people somehow thought you couldn't use it, say, on a boat.

Read the rest of our interview with Christopher Bonanos.

More free books: Member Giveaways

At any given time, there are hundreds of books available from our Member Giveaways program. Member Giveaways is like Early Reviewers, but isn't limited to select publishers—any author or member can post books. Request books, or offer your own!

Hot titles this month

  1. The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
  2. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  3. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
  4. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
  5. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
  6. Fifty Shades Freed by E L James
  7. Insurgent by Veronica Roth
  8. Fifty Shades Darker by E L James
  9. Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James
  10. Quiet by Susan Cain

That's it.

Questions, comments, ideas, suggestions? Send them our way.

—Jeremy (jeremy@librarything.com)

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