Pew Research: Bookworms Going Increasingly Digital

Digital bookworms
Pew finds more readership of e-books, mirroring the healthy increase in tablet computer, smartphone and e-reader sales.

According to the Pew Research Center’s latest survey of American adults (ages 16 and older), ownership of a tablet computer or an e-reader such as a Kindle or Nook has grown substantially in the past year.

According to Pew’s year-over-year findings, ownership grew from ~18% in late 2011 to ~33% by late 2012.

[For those who are counting, tablet ownership increased from ~10% to ~25% of adults, while e-reader ownership rose a little slower, from a similar 10% level to about 19%.]

Based on these findings from Pew, it shouldn’t come as much surprise that e-book readership is also on the rise.

Other results in the Pew survey confirm this: The percent of U.S. adults who read an e-book within the past year is now ~23%, up from ~16% a year earlier.

Conversely, the proportion of printed book readers is declining; Pew finds that ~67% of adults read at least one printed book during the year, which is a drop from ~75% in late 2012 and ~78% in late 2011.

Who are most likely to be reading e-books? According to Pew, they’re the “usual suspects”: better-educated (college or greater); higher-income ($75,000+ annual household income); and folks who are in the 30-49 age range.

No significant differences were discerned in gender or racial segments, although the incidence of e-book readership skews somewhat higher among urban/suburban dwellers compared to those living in rural areas.

And there’s one other type of book platform with some degree of popularity among U.S. adults: ~13% of respondents reported that they had listened to at least one audio book over the course of the year.

Now to a fundamental question: Are we a nation of readers?

The answer to that question depends on your point of view, of course. Some people devour books all the time, while others will do anything they can to avoid reading a single one.

The Pew survey found that book readers tackled an average of 15 books across all “platforms” during the course of the year.

But the median number of books read was just six, leading one to conclude that some people are really, really voracious readers, and they drive the average much higher than the median figure.

Additional findings from the always-interesting Pew research in its invaluable Internet & American Life Project can be found here, for those who are interested in looking through more of the “entrails” …

David Goodis, the “Poet of Losers,” Finally Gets His Due

David-Goodis-Noir-NovelistWhen the Library of America’s republishing of five books by the author David Goodis hits the street later this week, it will reaffirm this writer’s preeminent place in the realm of “noir” fiction.

If David Goodis is a novelist almost no one recognizes, it’s not hard to figure out why. He was an author who worked in a genre of fiction writing that was popular from the late 1930s to the early 1960s that’s somewhat difficult to classify. Not quite mystery, not quite thriller, these “noir novels” take on the sober work of describing the grubby reality of life.

Cultural historian Geoffrey O’Brien says it well: “David Goodis is the mystery man of hardboiled fiction … He wrote of winos and barroom piano players and small-time thieves in a vein of tortured lyricism all his own.” The way O’Brien sums up Goodis: “He was a poet of the losers.”

O’Brien seems on target. Goodis’ 17 novels are filled with characters who epitomize the three Ds of disaster: Depressing, down-and-out, desperate souls who can’t ever seem catch a break. Many of them have experienced a fall from grace. Most have made wrong choices at seemingly every fork in the road.

Just consider some of the titles of the novels in the Goodis canon:

 Street of No Return
 Black Friday
 Night Squad
 Down There
 The Moon in the Gutter

They tell the tale all by themselves.

As Brian McManus, a writer for Philadelphia Weekly magazine put it: “This is noir: a literary genre that does the sobering and thankless work of describing the life you’ve been dealt, not the one you wish you’d had.”

Several Goodis books were considered good enough to be made into screenplays, and one – Dark Passage starring Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart – made it to the big screen in 1947. But in some respects the Hollywood connection to David Goodis led to the author’s own downfall.

Dark Passage, by David GoodisIn fact, Goodis’ life almost reads like a character in one of his novels. He was born in 1917 and raised in a middle class section of Philadelphia. After graduating from Temple University with a degree in journalism, he began his career as an advertising copywriter with a Philadelphia ad agency while moonlighting as an author.

His first published book, Retreat from Oblivion, came out in 1939, following which Goodis moved to New York City to pursue a career in writing.

Goodis was soon active in the pulp fiction-writing business, penning as many as 10,000 words a day under numerous pseudonyms for periodicals like Dime Mystery Magazine. He also wrote scripts for radio serials such as Hop Harrigan and House of Mystery.

In a major coup, in 1946 Goodis’ novel Dark Passage was serialized by The Saturday Evening Post and later came out in book form – the same work that would be produced by Warner Brothers as a film. This newfound success enabled Goodis to travel to California and try his luck at screenwriting.

And here’s where the trajectory of Goods’ life begins to turn downward. Fame and fortune were destined to slip through Goodis’ hands like so much sand. Not only was his screenwriting career wholly undistinguished, he found himself ill-suited to and socially awkward in Hollywood society. A short-lived California marriage to a transplanted Philadelphian would prove no more fulfilling.

By 1950, Goodis was back in Philadelphia, living with his parents and taking care of a younger brother diagnosed with schizophrenia. For the remaining 17 years of his life, Goodis would spend his days at home writing paperback originals for publishers like Gold Medal and Lion … and his evenings plumbing the depths of Philadelphia’s infamous Southwark skid row district that once ran along the banks of the Delaware River, in the truest “don’t ask, don’t tell” fashion.

If a Goodis novel seems to capture the realism of its bleak atmosphere with uncanny authenticity, it’s because Goodis actually “lived and breathed” that very atmosphere – nightly.

During the last few years of his life, Goodis was engaged in a legal challenge against the producers of the TV series The Fugitive, claiming that they had stolen the idea from his novel Dark Passage. His suit appears motivated, at least in part, to gain monetary compensation he would use to support his brother’s institutionalization (by then his parents had died). But the suit would drag on for years, long past Goodis’ own death.

In the “no hope left” school of living and writing, it would seem that Goodis had no peer. In fact, his own death could have been ripped from the pages of one of his novels: He died at age 49 from injuries sustained in a nighttime mugging that occurred outside a seedy diner in North Philadelphia.

Appropriately enough, his last novel, published posthumously, was titled Somebody’s Done For.

Within a few short years of his death, none of David Goodis’ books remained in print in the USA, and it seemed as if his name and legacy would be destined for the literary dustbin.

Except for one thing: France. As it turned out, Goodis’s noir novels took off like a rocket with French readers. Most of his books were translated, and their existentialist nature proved highly appealing.

Brian McManus believes that without the French connection, Goodis would have probably been forgotten forever. “They threw a giant croissant tied to a line into the abyss … and they fished him out. Plucked him from the obscure fate of so many pulp novelists of the past,” he writes.

In fact, famous French filmmakers like François Truffaut would adapt several Goodis novels for the screen.

And today, the circle is now complete. Goodis is finally getting his due here in his native land. Not only are many Goodis novels back in print, the author’s fame has taken on mild cult status.

There’s a David Goodis website devoted to his life and work. And the city of Philadelphia, whose bleak neighborhoods and seedy streets were the hardscrabble backdrop for nearly every Goodis novel, plays host to NoirCon, an annual gathering of genre fans that includes film screenings, lectures, literary awards, and “Goodisville” field tours of the city’s now-gentrified former skid row neighborhoods.

Should you wish to take the night train to Philadelphia, the next NoirCon event is scheduled for November 8-11, 2012.

Are e-Readers Changing our Reading Habits?

e-reader products available todayE-readers have become the rage. That’s clear from how many people are now using them.

A Harris Interactive survey of ~2,180 consumers in July 2011 has found that ~15% of Americans over age 18 are using an e-reader device. That’s about double the percentage compared to last year’s poll.

Beyond this, another ~15% reported that they’re likely to buy one within the next six months.

The Harris research found some interesting regional differences in e-reader usage. I was quite surprised to learn that e-readers haven’t taken off nearly as strongly in the Midwest as compared to the other three regions of the country:

 Westerners: ~20% have an e-reader
 Easterners: ~19%
 Southerners: ~14%
 Midwesterners: ~9%

What are the characteristics of those who own e-readers, besides where they live? It turns out they’re far more active readers than the rest of the population.

For example, about one third of all survey respondents reported that they read more than 10 books during the year. But for those who own an e-reader, that percentage was nearly 60%.

And just because someone owns an e-reader doesn’t mean they’re stopped purchasing actual books. While one-third of all the survey respondents reported that they haven’t purchased any books in the past year … that percentage was only 6% of those who use e-readers.

The criticism commonly heard that e-readers may be the death knell for traditional books because cause people to download fewer books than they would purchase in physical form may not carry much weight, if the Harris survey results are to be believed.

On the contrary, the e-reader phenomenon appears to be making some people even more voracious readers than before. About one third of the e-reader respondents in the survey reported that they read more now than before – and not just on their e-readers.

Clearly, e-readers represent a phenomenon that’s taken firm hold and is here to stay. But whether it’s radically changing the reading habits of its users … that remains an open question. The early signs suggest “no.”

What about your experience? Have your habits changed with the advent of e-readers? How so?

Amazon continues to push the envelope … while pushing books right off the table.

Amazon Kindle continues to push the envelope in book publishingIt’s hard to deny that the growth and success of Amazon has had a huge impact on the book industry. The liquidation of Borders Books is just the latest evidence of that.

But other market moves by Amazon demonstrate that the company has set its sights on far more than just owning the traditional retail book and recorded music segments. The introduction of the Kindle e-reader and release of subsequent newer, cheaper models proves that Amazon seeks to dominate the “information” space no matter what form it takes.

Two recent developments show how this is continuing to happen. First, the company announced that it is launching a new public-library feature that gives the Kindle the same library-borrowing abilities as competing e-reader devices like the Nook offer.

Public libraries have taken notice of the announcement, because Kindle so dominates the e-reader market. According to Forrester Research, an estimated 7.5 million Kindles are being used in America; that’s about two-thirds of all e-readers in the country.

Already, large public library systems such as those in Chicago and New York offer free digital-book lending. A trip to the library is not needed. Instead, patrons simply use their library card ID numbers to download books from the library’s website.

As with conventional “paper and glue” books (I love that new term!), there are “lending periods” for e-books usually ranging 2-3 weeks. Libraries purchase the e-books from publishers as they do bound books, and only one borrower can check out an e-title at a time.

How are Amazon’s latest e-lending developments affecting book publishers? For one thing, e-books never wear out, which means publishers (and authors) can’t benefit from reorders of popular titles due to book wear. Partially for this reason, several major publishers such as Simon & Schuster and Macmillan don’t sell their digital works to libraries … yet.

Adam Rothberg, senior vice president and director of corporate communications at Simon & Schuster, commented, “We value libraries for their work of encouraging literacy and the habit of reading, but we haven’t yet found a business model we’re comfortable with.”

Another publisher, HarperCollins, decided to set a checkout limit for each title of 26 times, after which a library would need to repurchase the book in order to continue lending it out.

Not surprisingly, that policy has been greeted with hoots and catcalls by the library industry.

Regardless of the selling policies under consideration, one wonders how much longer the major publishers can continue to hold out, as the entry of market-dominant Kindle should significantly raise consumer demand for library e-titles.

And in another move that is sure to shake up another segment of the book world – educational textbooks – Amazon announced several weeks ago that it has opened up a “textbook store” for the Kindle platform. That store is already offering thousands of textbook titles for rental, with many more in the offing.

Here’s how it works: Amazon will allow buyers to acquire textbooks at a deep-discount off of the standard print pricing. The charge will be based on the amount of time the student plans to hold the book – with a minimum rental period of 30 days (which can be extended, if desired).

And to further sweeten the pot, borrowers will be able to access any “notes” and “highlights” they’ve made to their texts even after they’ve “returned” the textbooks.

I’ve blogged before about the college textbook publishing segment — a niche some see as an unholy alliance between book publishers and college bookstores that more resembles a “racket” than a fair business model.

Charging ridiculously high textbook prices along with releasing suspiciously frequent “updated” new editions that change perhaps 2% or less of a book’s content have been all too common.

Moves by Amazon – along with similar programs introduced by smaller providers like Chegg, Inkling and Kno – may finally usher in an end to the indefensibly high prices of textbooks that have long been the bane of students (and their parents). And no one is mourning that.

Franz Göll: Witness to History

The Turbulent World of Franz GollAn old saying goes like this: “There are three types of people in the world: Those who make things happen; those who watch things happen; and those who wonder what happened.”

The implicit meaning is that only the first set of people are consequential in life.

But sometimes those who watch from the sidelines make their mark in surprising ways.

I think a good example of this is a person who is the subject of a new book. The Turbulent World of Franz Göll, by Peter Fritzsche [Harvard University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0674055315], is a fascinating read. It chronicles the tumultuous events of the 20th century as seen through the eyes of a lower-level administrative manager, a lifetime resident of Berlin.

What makes the book so interesting is that everything is taken from the meticulous diaries and notes written down by Herr Göll over the course of his adult life. And his 85 years of life happened to span the entire sweep of the consequential events in Germany and Europe during the 20th century (1899-1984).

This isn’t the first book that deals with private diaries kept by people living in Berlin during World War II. About 25 years ago, the diaries of Marie Vassiltchikov, a young Russian/Lithuanian princess who moved to the German capital city after the Soviets had occupied her country in 1940, were published by her son after her death. In Berlin Diaries: 1940-1945 [Vintage, ISBN-13: 978-0394757773], we get a blow-by-blow description of life as an aristocrat in Berlin … a city full of nervous energy that quickly becomes an inferno. As an adrenaline rush, it’s hard to top that book. (In fact, I’m surprised Mlle. Vassiltchikov’s story hasn’t been made into a movie.)

But this volume on Franz Göll is quite different. Peter Fritzsche, the book’s author, is a professor at the University of Illinois who specializes in German history. In researching the book, Fritzsche had a veritable treasure trove of material to work with. That’s because Göll bequeathed his entire set of diaries plus other ephemera to the Berlin State Archives upon his death in 1984.

There they remained, essentially untouched, until Professor Fritzsche came across them and realized what he had found: some 23 volumes of diaries meticulously chronicling one man’s life in Berlin from the era of World War I all the way up to the modern day.

… And more. Not only was Göll a writer, he was an obsessive collector as well – so much so, he’d probably be a prime specimen for a psychoanalyst.

Göll kept copious notes on his voracious reading … created poems … collected postcards (more than 8,000 of them!) … clipped and saved countless newspaper and magazine articles. A lifelong bachelor who would live in the same two-room Berlin apartment his entire adult life, he was a loner who likely felt out of place in his working class surroundings despite being of working-class rank himself.

He was largely self-taught in his knowledge, and his entertainments were solitary pursuits like going to the movies.

Surely a “sad sack” case if there ever was one.

But author Fritzsche has gleaned all sorts of interesting material from Göll’s diaries — and in the process helps us understand that, far from being “in the dark” about the conditions of Jews and other minorities during the era of the Third Reich, Göll was aware of what was happening. Maybe not the details, but certainly in a broader sense.

In a diary posting from 1941, he wrote: “It is an open secret that they are proceeding against the Jews in the most rigorous way with sterilization [and] removal to the Eastern territories.”

An early supporter of the Nazi party, as early as 1935 Göll had became disillusioned with conditions under Hitler, his diary postings reveal.

Some of Göll’s diary entries from earlier decades of Germany’s turbulent history are equally interesting. He wrote of the hungry Berlin winters at the end of World War I, and during Germany’s period of hyperinflation in the early 1920s, took note of what he saw all around him.

Later in life, as a resident of West Berlin, Göll saw his younger countrymen shake off their “German-ness” and embrace a generalized Western materialism that he found difficult to understand or accept. (In this regard, he was probably no different from many people of the older generation – in Germany or elsewhere.)

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that it shows how an obscure person with no claim to fame — a loner with virtually no friends or relatives — can accomplish something important for posterity. As “obsessive-compulsive” as Göll may have been, even he seemed to think what he was doing was for naught. Writing in 1954 at the age of 55:

“I used to take myself very seriously: my diaries, my collections, my readings, my poems, and not least, my ‘self.’ Today, I have to admit it: It would have been important to have acquired a trade, to have become a man, and to have founded a family … Nothing I did ever bore any fruit; it was all an idle wasting of time.”

Readers of this book will disagree. In “watching things happen,” Herr Göll actually accomplished a great deal — for historians and for us.

Marshall McLuhan: The Great Prognosticator

Marshall McLuhan, scholar, writer and social theorist
Marshall McLuhan: The Great Prognosticator
I’ve been reading a new biography on Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian educator, scholar and social theorist who is notable for having predicted the rise of the Internet years before Al Gore or anyone else took credit for inventing it.

The succinct biography, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! by Douglas Coupland [ISBN-10: 1935633163 … also available in a Kindle edition], is quite interesting and I definitely recommend it for anyone interested in mass communications and popular culture.

Reading this biography, one gets the impression that McLuhan was a man who correctly predicted a good deal of the world of communications in which we live today. Not only did he forecast the rise of the web 30 years before it came about, he was the one who coined the expression “the medium is the message” … and who spoke about the “global village” long before Hilary Clinton came on the scene.

It turns out that this extraordinary thinker led a pretty conventional life, actually. Born in Edmonton, AB, he spent the better part of his career in Canada, although it was as a visiting professor at St. Louis University where he met his future wife, with whom he would have six children. (Born an Anglican, McLuhan was influenced by the writings of G. K. Chesterton and had converted to Roman Catholicism by his late 20s.)

Although trained as an academician in Canada and at Cambridge – and being on the faculty at prestigious educational institutions like the University of Toronto where he eventually had his own research center – the demands of raising a large family drove McLuhan to more financially lucrative work in the advertising field as well. He also had consulting stints at large corporations like AT&T and IBM.

Although passionate about and partial to his teaching and academic work, it was as an ad industry personality that McLuhan probably made his biggest mark.

As early as 1951, McLuhan published a book of essays called The Mechanical Bride, which analyzed various examples of “persuasion” in contemporary popular culture.

In his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” as he wrote of the influence of communications media independent of their content. He contended that media affect society in which they play a role not by the content they deliver, but by the characteristics of the media themselves. True enough.

And how did McLuhan come to predict the rise of the Internet? It was right there in his 1962 book The Gutenberg Galaxy, which attempted to reveal how communications technology – alphabetic writing, printing presses, electronic media — affects cognitive organization and, in turn, social organization. Here’s what he had to say:

“The next medium, whatever it is – it may be the extension of consciousness – will include television as its environment, and it will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.”

Remember, this was written in 1962!

McLuhan also used the term “surfing” in a way that seems uncannily similar to its meaning today – in his case, using the word “surfing” to refer to rapid, irregular and multidimensional movement through a body of knowledge.

More books would come from McLuhan’s pen in subsequent years, including:

 The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (McLuhan’s best seller)
War and Peace in the Global Village
From Cliché to Archetype

All of these volumes sound pretty fascinating – definitely ones to explore in the future, although the biography provides good synopses of their contents.

It is difficult to think of someone that has had more influence over the world of media and advertising than Marshall McLuhan. Sure, there are people like David Ogilvy, but his influence has been confined almost exclusively to the advertising industry alone.

By contrast, the McLuhan’s biographer contends that McLuhan influenced scads of writers and critical thinkers – I was pleased to see Camille Paglia among them – along with politicians like Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Jerry Brown. McLuhan was even named a “patron saint” of Wired Magazine, and a quote of his appeared on the publication’s masthead during the first decade of its publication.

And finally, it’s nice to discover that McLuhan’s years in academia have been given their due as well: The University of Toronto has continued his work by running a center at the school named, appropriately, the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology.

End-Game for Borders and Blockbuster?

Blockbuster logoBorders logoTwo items reported this past week are yet more bad news for one of the most beleaguered sectors of the retail industry. Borders Books & Music will be filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and Blockbuster is preparing itself for sale.

Does this mean we’ve now reached the end-game for these iconic brands – and for the entire retail book/movie store segment?

Actually, we’ve seen this play out before. Less than 15 years ago, Tower Records and Sam Goody were two vibrant national chain store operations selling CDs and other recorded music. But these and most other music merchants are now history.

In fact, the only bricks-and-mortar music retail segment remaining is made up of used record and CD stores – typically one or two shoestring operations operating in major urban markets that manage to eke out a hand-to-mouth existence.

It appears that the same thing may now be happening to books. Consider Borders. It’s tried all sorts of ways to branch into other revenue-producing endeavors to make up for the consumers’ shift to buying books online or downloading to e-readers. Those endeavors have included coffee and juice bars, greeting card kiosks, giving customers the ability to download books and music, and even to explore genealogy and family history. Despite all that, Borders has been unable to stem the decline of its business.

Mike Shatzkin of consulting firm Idea Logical Company contends that the problem is bigger than Borders. He believes bookstores are going the way of music stores. “I think that there will be a 50% reduction in bricks-and-mortar shelf space for books within five years, and 90% within ten years,” he predicts.

The immediate question is whether Borders will be able to restructure its business, or in the end will be forced to liquidate. Borders’ debt is so high (it’s expected to report nearly $1 billion in liabilities when it files), the company is already committing to closing about a third of its ~675 Borders and Waldenbooks store outlets.

It’s possible that book superstore rival Barnes & Noble will see at least a short-term gain from Borders’ travails. It’s a larger entity and is doing better financially. Gary Balter, an analyst with Credit Suisse, believes Barnes & Noble could add as much as $1 billion in sales if Borders ultimately goes out of business.

But that kind of benefit may well turn out to be temporary. After all, Tower Records benefited from the closure of Sam Goody – for a time. But ultimately, Amazon and online sales were the big winners, and there’s every indication that they will be the main beneficiaries now as well.

In the movie rental business, things aren’t any better. I’ve blogged before about the challenges faced by Blockbuster, the nation’s leading movie-rental chain that went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September 2010. The company is now preparing itself for sale, but there are ominous signs that the initiative may be stillborn.

Some bondholders, led by investor Carl Icahn, are concerned that the company’s value is eroding in bankruptcy court, which has made it more difficult to take the steps necessary to compete with Netflix and other rivals that aren’t hobbled by the cost of running retail storefront operations.

According to business news reports, that is what’s behind the drive to try to sell the company now. Blockbuster’s holiday sales were lackluster at best, and the cost estimates for effecting a successful turnaround are going ever higher. The bondholders have essentially lost their appetite for plowing more money into the enterprise.

So who’s actually going to be interested in buying Blockbuster? That’s a very interesting question, because the company’s business model and financial situation don’t look like strong ingredients for business success. So if a buyer emerges, it may be from among the ranks of those who already have a financial stake in the business – like Mr. Icahn.

Will we look back on this week a few years from now and say that it was the beginning of a turnaround – or the final nails in the coffin? If you’re a betting person – or an investor – where would you place your money?

A Surprise? College Students are Ambivalent about e-Books

College textbooks
Surprisingly, college textbooks still reign supreme over their digital counterparts.
The digital revolution is having its first and greatest impact on the younger generations. Whether it’s mobile apps, hyper-texting, online gaming, or keeping up on the news without the benefit of the daily paper, they’re the ones most on the cutting edge.

So it might be somewhat surprising to read the results of a survey of college kids about how they prefer to access their textbook information. I’ve blogged before about the racket that is college textbook publishing – a rip-off if ever there was one. So one would think that college students (and their parents if they foot the bill) would be very keen on any advancements that begin to render expensive textbooks obsolete.

But according to a survey conducted in mid-2010 by OnCampus Research, a division of the National Association of College Stores, only 13% of college students had purchased an electronic book of any kind during the previous semester.

And of that percentage, ~56% revealed that the prime mover of their e-book purchase was because it was required course material for class, not because they chose an available e-version over a printed version of the textbook.

What’s more, nearly three-fourths of the students in this survey stated that they prefer printed textbooks over digital versions.

And when it comes to what devices people are using to view their e-books, most are accessing the contents on laptop computers rather than newer devices that have hit the streets in recent times:

 Prefer reading e-books on a laptop computer: ~77%
 Prefer reading on a desktop computer: ~30%
 Prefer reading on a smartphone: ~19%
 Prefer reading on a Kindle or similar e-reader device: ~19%
 Prefer reading on an iPad or similar device: ~4%

Laura Cozart, a manager at OnCampus Research, had this to say about the survey results: “The findings of the report are not surprising. Every new innovation takes time before the mainstream population embraces it.”

Reflecting the current situation, of the NACS member stores that offer digital content, e-books comprise only ~3% of course material sales. But NACS is expecting that percentage to rise to 10% or 15% by 2012.

But the impetus behind that anticipated increase is expected to come from faculty members as they get more familiar and comfortable with the interactive possibilities to enhance their classroom instruction — rather than from those oh-so 21st Century students.

It wouldn’t be the first time the “leading edge” meets the “back edge” going around the other side.

Amidst the Depression … An Inspiring Tale

Samuel J. Stone, aka "B, Virdot"
Samuel J. Stone, the real identity of "B. Virdot," whose act of kindness benefited the citizens of Canton, Ohio in the Winter of 1933.
One topic that’s been “done to death” in the world of books is that of the Great Depression. It seems very little new could possibly be written about it. But I’ve come across a very interesting book just published that sheds new light on this chapter of American history – and does so with a personal poignancy that strikes right to the heart.

The book is A Secret Gift: How One Man’s Kindness – and a Trove of Letters – Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression, written by Ted Gup, a former investigative reporter with the Washington Post (ISBN-10: 1594202702 … also available in a Kindle edition). It’s about an act of kindness done by the owner of a chain of clothing stores, who posted a pseudonymous announcement in December 1933 in his hometown (Canton, Ohio) newspaper offering to send holiday cheer to those in need.

The holiday cheer was in the form of $5 checks (worth about $100 in today’s money) which were sent to ~150 families in response to letters received that described family hardships of that year – one of the worst of the entire Great Depression. The announcement stated that the identities of the letter-writers would be kept secret “until the very end.”

This act of kindness would remain hidden for decades until Ted Gup’s mother (the daughter of the benefactor) gave the author a suitcase filled with memorabilia from her father, Samuel J. Stone. Among the artifacts was a bundle of letters written to a person named “B. Virdot.”

At first seemingly unrelated to the author’s grandfather, the giveaway clue was an old clipping of the “B. Virdot” newspaper announcement, revealing that “B. Virdot” was, in actuality, Samuel Stone.

The letters sent by families laid low by the economic events of the day revealed that the Great Depression did not discriminate by social class or status. Some of the checks Mr. Stone sent were to former business owners who had lost their companies, savings, insurance policies and homes.

Many other checks were sent to families of more modest means; one was sent to a recently widowed mother of two children who had no savings and a house mortgage. “It looks pretty dark sometimes but we still hold on to that ray of hope – that this terrible depression will soon be over,” she wrote. She went on to state, “I have never received charity of any kind.”

That’s one of the themes that runs through the letters: These were people with dignity, who were not inclined to ask for charity nor even to discuss their plight with others. They had played by the rules in their lives – taking responsible jobs, buying homes, building their savings, raising their families – until the collapse of the economy and closure of the banks robbed them of nearly everything.

Drawing on his investigative reporting background, Ted Gup proceeded to research as many of the families as he could find, to learn more about them and to interview their descendants (he would eventually interview nearly 500 descendants).

One of the interesting aspects of this endeavor was how few of the people he interviewed really understood (or even knew) the hardships that their families had suffered in that time. Yet tell-tale signs were there when descendants were told of the events those many years ago. One son spoke of his mother: “There was a loss of confidence. For her, the good times were wonderful, then all hell broke out. Friends of hers said she had been full of pep and vigor. I didn’t know her that way at all, so I think it probably did a job on her.”

Dignity was important to these people of the 1930s, when folks felt uncomfortable talking about hardships with their relatives or with their children. Yet they opened up to a total stranger in their letters – maybe the only time they ever did so. One man asked “B. Virdot” to reveal his real name to him so that one day he might repay the gift with interest.

But Samuel Stone never did so. Instead, he took his secret to the grave. And his grandson discovered that this wasn’t the only secret his grandfather had kept. Instead of being “Samuel J. Stone, born in Pittsburgh” as he’d always claimed, Ted Gup found out that his grandfather’s real name was Sam Finkelstein … and instead of being from Pennsylvania, he had been born in Dorohoi, Rumania.

Not only that, it turns out that Sam Finkelstein entered the United States illegally and never normalized his immigration status – even after becoming a prosperous businessman in America. Even much later, during World War II when the U.S. government required foreign-born residents to register or risk deportation, Samuel Stone was still afraid to take any chances and did not step forward.

So what in the end was the basis for Samuel Stone’s gesture to his fellow Canton residents? Was it an act of kindness delivered anonymously so that the families in question could maintain their dignity and not have to face the person who knew their innermost hardships and fears? Or was it Stone’s own fear of being discovered as an illegal alien that kept his gifts anonymous?

That part of the story will never be explained. But thanks to Ted Gup, the grandson, we have a surprising new story to add to the chronicles of the Great Depression.

And this one is more inspiring, heartwarming – and intensely personal – than any other I’ve read. As the author himself states, “For one moment, in one forgotten town, one man managed to shrink the vastness of the Depression to a human scale.”

As a side note, Samuel Stone would keep his promise “until the very end,” but 400 of the descendants of those who wrote the letters held a gathering in Canton just last week in a reunion that was never meant to happen — but did, thanks to this book. (And one of those who wrote a letter to “B. Virdot,” now a a 90-year-old woman, was actually on hand for the occasion.)

This book is definitely at the top of my list for holiday gift-giving this season. I heartily recommend it – it’s that good.

The Most Fascinating Civil War General You’ve Never Heard Of

General Jo Shelby
General Jo Shelby
I’m not a Civil War buff. But when two different people mentioned to me how much they enjoyed reading a new book on the life of Confederate General Joseph Orville ‘Jo’ Shelby, I decided to get myself a copy.

General Jo Shelby’s March, a just-published book written by Anthony Arthur [ISBN-13: 978-1400068302 — also available in a Kindle edition], is quite a read. It tells the story of how General Shelby, rather than surrender to the Union, led a regiment of soldiers from Arkansas through Texas and into Mexico. In a wild and dangerous journey, they marched all the way to Mexico City, where the soldiers offered themselves up in the service of Emperor Maximilian’s army.

While the Emperor turned down this offer, he did invite the Confederate soldiers to stay on in Mexico and become farmers. The expatriate colonies that sprung up there were not as successful nor as long-lasting as Rio Americana in Brazil, but more than a few of the soldiers ended up settling in Mexico for good.

General Shelby turns out to be one of the Civil War’s most fascinating characters. Born into wealth and position in Kentucky, he struck out as a young man for Missouri, where he found early success in farming and business (hemp and lumber), and before long had built his own white-columned mansion on the banks of the Missouri River in Waverly.

But the cross-border skirmishes between pro- and anti-slavery forces in Kansas and Missouri during the 1850s led to the destruction of Shelby’s sawmill operations. Shelby himself gained fame for leading retaliatory raids into Kansas. When the Civil War finally came in 1861, Shelby chose to fight for the Southern cause, even as most of his Kentucky relatives remained Unionists.

[People tend to forget that Midwestern Missouri was for years a state with distinct southern sympathies. Even as late as 1956, when the Republican Eisenhower was handily winning re-election, Missouri joined with only six Deep-South states – Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North and South Carolina – in voting against the party of Lincoln.]

Throughout the war, Shelby was to command forces in the so-called Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederacy, even as his wife and children were forced to flee Missouri for Kentucky after their mansion was torched and their lands plundered. For Shelby and many of his men, the decision to run for the Mexican border was easier to make because there was so little to return to at home.

Anthony Arthur’s recounting of the confusion that characterized the western theater of the Civil War, and later the harrowing march through Texas and Mexico, is an exciting and gripping read. Particularly moving is his description of Shelby’s soldiers as they reached Eagle Pass on the Texas-Mexico border. In a ceremony on the banks of the Rio Grande, a tattered Confederate flag – one that had been with the regiment through many battles and skirmishes in Missouri, Arkansas and Texas – was folded for the last time and placed into the river, the waters enveloping the flag as it disappeared from view.

Once in Mexico, Shelby had his wife and eight children join him, where they lived for several years. But as Emperor Maximilian’s position became ever more untenable and the French army decided to ditch the country, it became increasingly clear that staying in Mexico was not an option. While some of the ex-Confederates decided to migrate to Cuba, Brazil or other foreign lands, Shelby made the decision to return to the United States.

Renouncing his support of slavery and pledging allegiance to America, Shelby now commenced the second part of his life. He took up residence again in Missouri, and was eventually named marshal for Western Missouri by President Grover Cleveland. This was not a trivial responsibility, as this was the region where the notorious Jesse James Gang and other outlaws roamed.

When the general passed away in 1894, more than 2,000 people attended his funeral and 4,000 joined in the procession to the cemetery. As reported by the Kansas City Star, Bill Hunter, an African American who as a slave boy had been purchased to be Shelby’s manservant, led the general’s riderless horse with its empty saddle, boots and spurs to the burial site at Forest Hill Cemetery. It was a poignant farewell for two men who had remained friends for life.

In the conclusion of his book, Anthony Arthur sums up the General’s life this way:

“Shelby was the model of the gifted, principled man who had fought bravely for a doomed cause, and who ultimately reconciled himself not only to defeat but to the fact that his cause had been fatally flawed by the greatest evil in American life, chattel slavery … in classic American fashion, he reinvented himself and showed the way for others to do the same.”

In the end, not a bad legacy at all.