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2009: A Watershed Year in the History of Publishing

Make a note of it: Dec. 25, 2009, marked an inflexion point in the history of publishing.  That's the date online bookseller reports that its retail sales of e-book downloads exceeded its orders for hard copy books for the first time. Since nearly every "bricks-and-mortar" bookstore in the United States was closed for the Christmas holiday, Dec. 25 represents the first day in the history of print culture that retail sales of traditional hard and soft cover books were eclipsed by their digital equivalents. 
Amazon has never released actual sales data on its Kindle reader, or the number of e-books sold (as opposed to downloaded free) onto it, but sales figures obtained independently by MasterCard's SpendingPulse survey, which tracks all retail spending (including cash transactions) during the holiday season across the American economy, confirm that Amazon sold a record number of Kindles (which retail for an easily identifiable $259) during the month of December.  It is certainly plausible that recipients of those devices as Christmas gifts might spend the day purchasing their favorite titles from the Kindle Store.
Even as Amazon touted its corporate triumph, and shares of its stock shot up on the NASDAQ, a tremor was felt on the event horizon.  A leading tech blog reported on Dec. 23 that an Israeli hacker known as Labba claims to have broken the encryption code on the Kindle's proprietary e-book format making it possible to read downloads from the Kindle Store on other e-readers and wireless devices.  Since many market analysts believe that Amazon is actually currently losing money on its digital download business, any development that might undermine the exclusivity of the Kindle as a e-reader platform would jeopardize the entire business model Amazon has for it.
That's how quickly the ground shifts in the world of e-commerce, and with the rollout of the Nook -- Barnes & Noble's long delayed e-reader -- and the much awaited Apple Tablet device (something between an iPhone and a MacBook) sometime in late January, there is much seismic activity ahead.
Stories about e-publishing drove the news cycle in 2009, with the effects of the deepening recession forcing further layoffs and consolidation in the world of traditional publishing, which seemed on the defensive for much of the year.  Through the end of the third quarter of 2009, the Association of American Publishers tracked net sales as up approximately 2% for the year.

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Happy birthday, Mr. Rogovin

Oct nov. 2005
Photographer Milton Rogovin at a 2005 protest in Buffalo. Photo by Paula Rogovin. Courtesy The Rogovin Collection, LLC

Today, Milton Rogovin, the internationally known social documentary photographer who has called Buffalo home for more than 70 years, turns 100. Rogovin, whose photographic explorations of the poor and working classes -- in Buffalo and around the globe -- was honored earlier this month with a celebration at the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

Rogovin began his life in New York City, and moved to Buffalo to start an optometry practice in 1938. He was inducted into the army in 1942. In the anti-communist fervor of the 1950s, Rogovin was called before the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee and refused to name names. Because of his silence, Rogovin was effectively forced to give up his optometry practice and turned instead to photography, which he saw as a way to expose social injustices and to tell the stories of the world's oppressed minorities. This turned out to be fortuitous for Rogovin's social causes, and for the field of photography as a whole. His travels took him from Buffalo's West Side, where he still lives, to the factories and neighborhoods of Latin America, Africa and Europe.

The faces of his subjects, though they hailed from different continents, bore the unmistakable mix of strength and discouragement that characterizes the experience of the world's working poor. In this way, his photography became much more than mere documentation, but a link that joined together disparate sections of the world's population and pointed toward a great and painful commonality among all cultures.

Some of Rogovin's work, with accompanying poetry by local professor Eric Gansworth, is now on view at the Burchfield Penney. See a slide show of that work, with narration by Gansworth, below:

--Colin Dabkowski

Kindred spirits: Alexander Hamilton and Tupac Shakur

Poking around the inter-webs in advance of my interview with "In the Heights" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, I ran across this fascinating video of Miranda's performance at a White House spoken word event in May. It features a glimpse at Miranda's forthcoming concept album based on the life of founding father and treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton written from the perspective of his murderer, Aaron Burr. No lie.

--Colin Dabkowski

ABR remembers Federman, Starcherone to publish "Shhh"

The November/December 2009 issue of American Book Review features a special tribute section to the late Raymond Federman, the avant garde fiction writer, critic and longtime professor of Modern languages and Literatures at the University at Buffalo who died on October 6th in San Diego.
"Remembering Raymond Federman" isn't available online, so you might want to use it as a convenient excuse to visit your favorite local independent bookseller during this holiday season.  In it you'll find personal reminiscences by some 19 writers, including Geoffrey Gatza and Ted Pelton, two Buffalo-based independent editor/publishers of Federman's later work, as well as an excerpt from Shhh: The Story of a Childhood, Federman's final book which will be published by Pelton's Starcherone Books in April of 2010.  (Starcherone, incidentally, with the support and encouragement of the late writer's family, has also established The Raymond Federman Memorial Fund for Innovative Fiction to subsidize select publications which advance the spirit of Federman's inimitable work.)

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The best (and best) of 2009

And I thought the year-end list affliction wouldn't strike me. How wrong I was. For whatever reason writers and critics feel compelled to produce yearly retrospectives on their beats (I think it's written into our genetic codes), I have come up with a few of my favorite moments from the art and theater scenes in 2009. Some will appear in Sunday's ArtsBeat column in the Spotlight section. Meanwhile, just for the heck of it, I thought I'd post my brainstorming list of events and trends, in no particular order and with no claim of exhaustiveness, that seemed worthy of note this year.

Read the list after the jump.

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A new Louis Sullivan doc

I've been doing a little reasearch for a forthcoming piece about downtown Buffalo's architectural treasures and came across this beautifully shot preview for a documentary about Louis Sullivan, one of the most important architects in American history. Sullivan, as many know, designed Buffalo's Guaranty Building (or Prudential Building), widely considered a seminal piece of American architecture and an important prototype for the skyscrapers we know today.

The documentary, called "Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture," according to the YouTube description, is slated for late 2010. Check out the preview:

--Colin Dabkowski

Kathleen Turner to play Molly Ivins


Kathleen Turner will play the late liberal columnist and firebrand in the Philadelphia Theatre Company production "Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins."

One of the most entertaining radio interviews I have ever heard aired in February of 2007 on NPR's "Fresh Air." It was in commemoration of the life and work of Molly Ivins, the rabble-rousing, unapologetic and unfailingly incisive liberal columnist whose work consistently skewered American and Texan politics.

In the piece, which included Terry Gross's interviews with Ivins from 1991 and 2003, the late columnist talked about growing up liberal in conservative Texas, documenting the absurd lives of that state's legislators and, finally, running afoul of her boss at the New York Times for using the phrase "gang-pluck" in a description of a community chicken-slaughtering event.

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Of speech acts, poetry slams and marriage proposals

One approach to poetry involves looking at each individual poem in terms of what it proposes, the way it functions as an artifact in and of language, and how it performs as what the philosopher of language J.L. Austin called an "illocutionary act." 
Curiously, in his influential, albeit posthumously published How to Do Things with Words (1962), Austin maintained that if a "performative utterance" occurred in a poem, it must be an "infelicitous" or "unhappy" speech act (as opposed to a "felicitous" or "happy" one), presumably because poems cannot be evaluated on the basis of the same "felicity conditions" as more conventional speech acts. 
Austin died unexpectedly at age 48 in 1960, so there's no telling what the former Oxford professor of moral philosophy might have made of last Saturday night's final round of QEW Regional Poetry Slam held at the R Healin Center on Kensington Avenue in Buffalo. That's where Brandon Williamson of the Buffalo-based Njozi Poets ensemble concluded the performance of his piece "Life Changing Performance" with a proposal of marriage to his girlfriend, Julia Nicole Hopson.
You can watch the YouTube video of Williamson's dynamic, spoken-word performance piece here.
With all due respect to professor Austin, we submit that young Mr. Williamson's "performative utterance" was a very happy and felicitous one indeed. Ms. Hopson certainly believes so. She said "Yes!"

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Honolulu Symphony saying thanks

The Honolulu Symphony Orchestra, which filed for bankruptcy last month, is presenting a free concert of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony as a "thank you" to all the people who have helped them. The orchestra is considering canceling all concerts for the remainder of the season.

JoAnn Falletta, the music director for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, has also served as artistic advisor for the Honolulu Symphony. She will be conducting the Beethoven Ninth, donating her services the same as all the musicians are.

There is a sad state of affairs in Honolulu, is the impression I get from the story I linked to above.

--Mary Kunz Goldman

Vote for your fave 'signature bridge' design

Federal and state regulators (who are not really the people you want offering up proposals for pieces of architecture), have released five possible designs for Buffalo's fabled "signature bridge."

What's your take? And if you had to pick one, which would it be?



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