Bookish Berlin


I was very tempted to call this post ‘Goodbye to Berlin,’ but the truth is I have been back in Galway since late Friday night. Also, I have never read that book.

But Berlin was a trip. It really does appear to be the hippest city on the planet. Glad I got to spend a month there.

My travel philosophy as of late seems to involve following the bibliophile trail. And for some reason, I am in the foulest mood and really do not want to write tonight, so let’s see if the pictures can lead us through one more blog post.

First, some German-language books that caught my eye.


1) A bilingual edition of The Great Gatsby, which I found in a bookshop called Jokers or Jesters or something; it looked like a chain. The book was wrapped in plastic, so I’ll never know if it had facing bilingual pages, which would be ideal for learning a new language but difficult from a production stand-point (a friend I met in Berlin is a graphic designer; he said translations are a nightmare because the size of the text box varies so much from English to German). I was intrigued by this book and almost bought it, but am so glad I didn’t. I saw the movie in English while I was in Berlin, and I was so horrified in the first two minutes by the framing device imposed on Fitzgerald’s story that I sat through the rest of the screening simply shell-shocked. (From this day forward, high school English teachers will trip up their students with trick questions about Nick Carraway’s time in the sanitarium. Seriously. A f*cking sanitarium? That’s your improvement on the great American novel? And I won’t even get into the new dialogue – at least Romeo + Juliet stuck to the script.)

2) The Bloggess’s book in German. I actually have this book on my Kindle, and though I don’t read the blog with any degree of regularity, one of the posts I do remember is about seeing her book translated into German. That must be such a cool feeling. Even just browsing the bookstores, I was always thrilled to see a book I knew in its German edition.

3) A book of photographs by Efraim Habermann. I met him at the Literaturhaus one rainy afternoon. He invited me over to chat and see his photos while he had coffee and I uncouthly scarfed down spargel with hollandaise sauce, baby potatoes, and some sort of rhubarb concoction for dessert. A friend of his showed up, and they conversed in English for my benefit, all the while apologizing because their mastery of the language was not up to snuff. It was actually quite good, and I was sitting there with absolutely no German, fairly certain I was mispronouncing Danke. Anyway, the book contains a photo of Bruno Ganz, star of Der Himmel Über Berlin (Wings of Desire). I was thrilled to recognize him, trying to explain how I knew him from “that movie with Columbo and the angels.” So sophisticated.


Above, random book art on the sidewalk. This was outside a curio shop, located somewhere between Ron Telesky’s Canadian Pizza and the U-bahn stop where I screamed because I saw a rat run across the sidewalk in broad daylight. I guess I’m just a country mouse… can’t take me anywhere.

Below, the back room at Shakespeare and Sons, home of Tuesday Night Writing Club.


This is the Bebelplatz, site of the 1933 Nazi book burning. The big pretty building is the old library of Humboldt University, and in the plaza itself lies the underground library, which is a room of empty white bookshelves, lit from above. It’s very moving. I’m sorry the photos don’t do it justice; it was rainy and muddy. But I don’t think any of the photos I’ve seen convey the depth of the monument. It really was powerful, and I’m glad I went to see it.

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And finally, the Book Forest Library in Prenzlauer Berg. I had seen this on Pinterest and Galleycat, and was thrilled to find it was in the neighborhood where I was staying.


Also, nevermind why, but the apartment I was staying in came complete with a pile of giveaway books.


That’s my stack on the left. I had to halve it, halve it again, and halve it one more time before I left Berlin, in order to fit everything in my suitcase. See, on my way to Berlin, I got popped with a Ryan Air gate check fee, which is what happens when your carry-on is too heavy (or, in my case, simply too big structurally). The baggage fee ends up costing more than your flight ticket. It’s the budget traveler’s equivalent to the Cone of Shame.


One thing I thought I might do, though, to improve my travel karma, was to drop off some books in the tree library. I wound up leaving both of my Anna Funder books (including a copy of Stasiland with the €4 Charlie Byrne’s sticker still attached) and a current bestseller (and Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction contender) that I pilfered from the giveaway pile.


So, there it is. If you’re in Berlin, drop by the tree library and see if my books are still there. I need all the good karma I can get right now.IMG_1761

The Legend of Zelda Fitzgerald


It’s International Women’s Day, which is good enough reason to celebrate female authors.

I just finished the first draft of my essay on Zelda Fitzgerald – wife of F. Scott and the inspiration for his iconic flappers. Her own novel, Save Me the Waltz (1932), was written in a month during her second stint in a psychiatric clinic. She sent it to Scott’s editor, Max Perkins, without her husband’s knowledge. Scott was incensed when he found out.

The essay is for my Copy-editing and Proofreading class, so we’re focusing on the relationship between author and editor. The work flow between Zelda and Max was unique, and it’s impossible to talk about Save Me the Waltz without mentioning Scott. He essentially served as the novel’s first editor, and it went to print with some glaring errors.

I’m re-reading the novel now, and though it is as wildly metaphorical as my research has warned, Zelda Fitzgerald has a way of describing some truths of the female experience that few authors ever get right – including the great F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Irish Book Awards

The winners of the Irish Book Awards were announced at a ceremony on Thursday night, the recording of which is set to air on RTÉ tonight at 11pm.

Despite my best intentions, I have only read one of the winning books, Artemis Fowl: The Last Guardian by Eoin Colfer.

Voting for Book of the Year continues until December 14. (My money’s on Katie Taylor. Seriously. For the first time in my life, I’m considering a visit to a betting agency.)

eBook Incunabula

At the Dublin Book Festival this weekend, the debate over ebooks vs books raised some questions about how closely the ebook needs to remain tied to the printed book. A major point of discussion in my Book History class has been incunabula – that is, books printed within the first 50 years after the invention of the printing press (circa 1450). I think we are kind of in the era of digital incunabula right now. And just like the incunabula of the 15th century mimicked the manuscripts of an earlier era, the ebooks of today are mimicking the printed book. This mimickry is not always necessary, and, as we saw in the case of incunabula, many of the old formatting traditions fall by the wayside.

I think it’s important to pause here and distinguish between text and format. All books contain text, whether is is hand-copied by scribes, printed by Gutenberg, impressed in Braille, recorded on an audiobook, or uploaded to an ereading device. What is changing is the way those lines of text are treated and presented: sheets of vellum gave way to bound paper which gave way to ereaders. The earliest text was engraved in stone, then inscribed on papyrus scrolls, then written on wooden tablets. The classic codex – that is, the bound book with pages that we turn as we read – very much belongs to the physical world. I think what is so exciting about this ebook revolution is that ebooks can become anything, and may not always resemble the books that sit on our shelves.

The first and most obvious example of ebooks holding on to traditions of the printed book is the concept of pages. My Kindle (a very early model) features buttons that say PREV[IOUS] PAGE and NEXT PAGE, but why? There are no page numbers on a Kindle book, so that word “page” doesn’t really make sense in this context. Yes, it is how I have always experienced a book, and no doubt this early Kindle (or ebook incunabulum) needs to be rooted in the familiar so readers can easily adopt the ebook format, but if a Kindle book is demarcated by percentages and locations, the concept of the page is a bit out of place. Even the earliest codices didn’t have page numbers, perhaps because people were still adjusting to the very concept of pages. Turning a page is something we do in the physical world with a print book – ereaders of the future may drop this feature once we move out of this ebook incunabula era and into a more fluid ereading experience.

Another concept that is definitely going to change is the book cover. I have never even looked at the cover of most of my ebooks, and I have trouble recognizing a book in the shop if I have only read it on my Kindle. I don’t browse for Kindle books in the Kindle store – I just buy titles I already know I want to read – so the concept of judging an ebook by it’s cover is completely lost on me. Half of the public domain books in the ibookstore are simply book icons with the title written in some boring font – no photo, no design. One of the speakers at the Dublin Book Festival, the CEO of StoryToys, actually said his app icon was his book cover. There is a overlap here between apps and ebooks/ibooks, but the fact that we have to make a distinction means that the tiny little square on your smart phone functions more like a book cover than the generic Moby Dick that is sitting on my iBookshelf.

Finally, my own personal Kindle pet peeve, which is definitely going to have to change (if it hasn’t already been updated on the fancier Kindles or other ereaders): bookmarks. This is my least favorite feature on the Kindle and, unfortunately, the one I have to use most often. Adding a bookmark requires two clicks and the presence of an obstructive screen on top of the text. Recovering a location I have bookmarked requires another two clicks and an entirely new screen, and clearing those bookmarks when I’m done requires three clicks and a reset of the bookmark menu to see the next bookmark. It definitely detracts from the reading experience. This is all a matter of how the reader uses bookmarks, and clearly I am not compatible with my Kindle 2.5.2. I much prefer my printed book technique, in which I use a post-it to mark the exact line of text I need, or, at the very least, rip up the book receipt and shove little shreds of paper way up close to the spine and hope the physical appearance of the text will jog my memory. Either way, the real-world bookmarks are easy to see, easy to navigate, and easy to remove when I am done with the book. If the newer Kindles and other ereaders have a one-click add/remove bookmark function or some sort of touch-and-highlight feature, then hurrah – ebooks are evolving.

I am not even going to touch on hyperlinking text or ebook interactivity because 1) that is certainly not my area of expertise and 2) it gets into the question of “Is it really a book if it makes sound / plays video / offers a gaming experience?” Those are debates better left for another day. I also don’t want to hypothesize too much by way of digital innovation or improvement, because if I knew the way ebooks were going to develop, I would make some investments right now and be a very rich woman in a few years. The whole point is that people more talented and innovative than me are going to make some very cool advances in ebook technology in the next few years, and they are going to astonish us all. It is a very exciting time to be learning about the publishing business.

We are still in the early years of the Information Age, and sometimes I think we forget how lucky we are to be living through this. The parallel between the print revolution and the digital revolution is just a tiny part of this significant time in history, but it’s enough to keep my imagination occupied for years to come.

How many pages is that? has been very good to me.

Our speaker today was Jonathan Williams, a literary agent in Dublin who also used to teach a course in the Literature and Publishing programme here at NUIG.

He mentioned that “books are always dealt with in thousands of words.” In the book business, no one talks about pages – at least, not in the commission/submission stage of the process.

If a publisher wants to commission a book and approaches the agent in the search for a writer, they will talk about the project in terms of words. When hopeful authors submit their manuscripts to Mr. Williams, he prefers that the cover letter includes a note about the word count. Pages come much, much later in the process.

I have always thought in terms of word count, ever since college and up through my time as a freelance journalist and then a newspaper editor. The average news article is 300-400 words. Magazine articles run about 2,000 words. Novels are about 80,000 (although NaNoWriMo asks for 50,000).

Several of my loved ones, when hearing about my thesis, have asked “How many pages is that?” I have no idea. So based on my first essay and this words-to-pages calculator website, here is a quick break down of my assignments:

2,500 words = 10 pages double-spaced
5,000 words = 20 pages double-spaced
And my 18,000-word thesis? That’s about 75 pages.

“The House of the Random Penguin”

The big news in publishing this week is that Random House and Penguin publishers are maybe sorta kinda thinking of merging. This would effectively bring “The Big Six” down to “The Big Five.”

The question on everyone’s mind: Penguin House or Random Penguin?

I, for one, prefer Penguin House. It has a more timeless appeal than Random Penguin.

In trying to think of a clever joke that hasn’t already been done to death on the internet, I stumbled in the starting blocks, and am now fascinated by the name Random House.

Seriously. Am I just tired, or is that a really goofy name for a publishing company?

A photo of a random house in Dublin. (Actually, it’s not at all random; it’s the childhood home of Oscar Wilde – who, incidentally, has been published by both Penguin AND Random House.)