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I love the Oxford English Dictionary. When I bought my copy of the Compact Edition about 15 years ago for $299, I began poring over it using the magnifying glass provided for that purpose. Since then, I’ve watched for the online version to become a reasonable proposition. It hasn’t.
Today, one can buy a year’s individual online access to the OED for $295, four dollars cheaper than the print Compact Edition cost me a long, long time ago. In fact, the print Compact Edition has increased to $380 over that time. The online edition is still the same price as a print product 15 years or so ago.
Granted, the definitive source of information about the English language isn’t cheap. The OED’s authority is partially a function of its ability to define the language. Why has the OED remained stratospherically expensive in digital form? It seems obvious that the company could go down market with the price and drive both more sales and, with existing customers like me who have never had the print copy fail us, get ongoing revenue for providing updates in real-time.
The cost of fulfilling a digital order — one order, not the infrastructure — for access to the OED is microscopic in comparison to the print version. The cost of Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Suite and everything else has fallen while the OED sits tight on a small institutional market with some dedicated wordies like me picking up print editions.
The OED should be $29.95 a year, not per month. They could get $99 a year easily. I’ll pay that price right now, just give me the opportunity.
The lack of a lower-priced product makes no sense, when the OED could literally wipe out the competition with a reasonably priced web service based on its brand. At minimum, please open an API for developers and allow others to innovate on search and presentation while focusing on its linguistic excellence. Let them sell the subscription as part of their app cost and take a share. Give me my words in more places — apps, platforms, contexts, such as embedded in other applications as an up-sell — and I’d consider $199 a year. The magic price is south of $100, I believe.
What got me started on this topic today? My copy of the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary app, the closest I can get to a digital OED for $29.99, asked me to rate it. My response was to look for a way to get the real OED, even if it cost me more. No one would reasonably pay the same price for the digital service as they did for a book they may replace once a decade or less often, if they ever replace a book.
Digital books are revenue streams. Tap into it, OED.
Be dismayed. Rather than using ebook technology to liberate readers to share and expand on works in the same way social media has expanded conversations (and shuttered many, too), ebook vendors are now returning detailed usage data to writers and, this NYT article misses, publishers, who will monetize the reader’s habits instead of exploring how to use the potential two-way dialog to open the door to new depths of reading experience.
It’s the misery of ever more predictable media, designed to speed your pulse and get to the end, when the mystery of a good read is the journey from start to finish, wherever it takes you. Dostoevsky would have ignored the visit to Ivan Karamozov if he’d been tuned into what the readers’ expected and reacted to. Art goes places that aren’t necessarily fast or profitable.
Walter Benjamin, in an essay called “Unpacking My Library,” writes that “Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like.”
I spend a lot of time reading old books, and a few new ones. It seems to me that more books are like snack food than great meals, and it has always been so. But we live at a time when many great meals from the past are available to anyone who cares to read carefully and think. This, I think, bodes well for the future, when some of the great readers will get sick of the junk they are offered and reinvent the book, the magazine, fiction and non-fiction alike.
Call me an optimist, at last.
Okay, the first draft of the first fiction I’ve written in many years….
Invitation to Connect
What was unusual about the invitation to connect was that it was as casual and indifferent as any other friend request that led to nothing. Bill was pretty sure he’d never met Jill Salverson, nor done business with her company, Grand Banks Partners, though the invitation said they had, that Bill was a colleague. Jill, an old friend with a movie starlet’s black hair falling over milky white skin to cover one of her topaz-colored eyes. She appeared to have been carved from an alabaster dream of his, so he accepted and that began all the trouble.
Bill worked for a boutique investment bank in San Francisco that specialized in medical technologies, but his profile didn’t include any of that information. He was a hip indie music enthusiast looking for accidental experiences to last a lifetime. He was 26 online and thirty-four in real life, weighing more and carrying less hair than the old picture of himself he had posted suggested. Bill was not a liar, only a little behind on updating his details. Not that he wasn’t updating his networks constantly, pinging close friends automatically from his mobile to give them his location every five minutes, tweeting what he had for breakfast or who flubbed a presentation in a meeting — Bill was good copy for the industry press who followed his deal-making, and the women who followed his social life. His life was one of the products he produced, his own investment in career chemistry.
Which is why Jill’s note, clearly phony though her picture showed some promise, made it past his well-honed bullshit detector. If she wasn’t the girl in the photo, he’d be able to ditch her before they ever met. A meeting at the Aces Cafe, where he could see her first and bail if she wasn’t the genuine goods, would keep him in control of any social consequences of this lapse in judgment, if in fact this wasn’t just social-sexual manna falling from Heaven. And what if she was fudging on her current looks a little, so was he. She might make up for it with clever conversation or a connection with band her profile mentioned, Jade Eels.
“Your reply has been received,” his phone told him. Pocketing the device, he jumped down from the trolley and crossed Market Street to head up toward his office on Montgomery Street. It was 9:45 AM.
There was a crash and shrieking sound, like a long rubber band reaching its breaking point and then a snap as the overhead cables powering the trolley broke under the torquing force of an impact from a dairy delivery truck that knocked the antique car off the rails. Sparks exploded at each point where the cables touched the ground, one another, and a woman standing on the curb near Bill. She stiffened, her coat bursting into flames, and fell in what seemed to be parts on the pavement as Bill jumped back.
Another spark ignited the spilled fuel from the truck, which was pouring under the overturned trolley car. A scramble for exits began with banging and shouts from within the burning car. Hands flew up through the windows but fell away as the fire or other passengers struggling pulled them back.
The only thing that made it to safety was a briefcase that landed at Bill’s feet, in the pool of blood spilled by the electrocuted and mangled woman.
Bill had thrown himself back and against the wall of a building and did not see the briefcase, nor did he register much of what happened as first the police, the fire department and ambulances arrived. He sat under a reflective blanket half a block up the street as the rescue turned into a clean-up operation and the morning gave way to early afternoon.
Bill was interviewed by the local Fox and NBC affiliates, as well as some citizen journalists who busied themselves snapping photos with their phones. Bill asked where the ijournalists had posted and added his own comments to the pics, forwarding them to his friends. By the time the police were done with him, it was too late to go into work, and his boss had messaged him to take the day off. Bill went to the Aces for espresso and to post his own photos and the “real story” as he’d seen it.
As he worked on his report, neglecting many details that didn’t fascinate his morbidity, describing how the electrocuted woman died without making any perceptible sound — though she, in fact, had made several sounds — Bill neglected the growing chatter in the cafe, due to his rumpled celebrity growing through the network that connected the room. He’d neglected to straighten an upturned collar and had grime smeared across his face. “That’s him,” circled the room, as people realized that he was the one to which something had happened.
Bill had been staring at his phone for so long that, when he looked up, his eyes were unfocused and slow to bring the room to him. Yet he enjoyed the blurry recognition of his notoriety as people caught themselves looking and looked away. Except for one dark-haired figure who, sitting by the window, it took him several moments to see.
At first, he thought she was a ghost from his past. Her features were familiar enough that he felt comfortable continuing to squint at her, thinking through all might-be women she could be, until he realized that he’d seen her picture that morning on his phone. It was Jill Salverson, who’d invited him to be her friend.
She was typing on a laptop, stopping occasionally to look out the window, frowning. Her complexion was as white as it appeared in the profile photo because she wore a heavy base and accentuated her eyes and lips with mascara and lipstick. She looked like a doll, a doll dressed to perform mime — Bill was thinking this and hoping she wouldn’t notice him when she turned and looked him in the eye, saying, “well, you’ve had quite a day, so far.”
How did she know that? A fleeting sense of personal space and private history evaporated for Bill as he realized that anyone in the room would know he’d flirted with death this morning from the social networks or his disheveled appearance. It wasn’t hard to guess, even less to know so, and this made her comment all the less feeling than she might have intended.
“Excuse me?” Bill sat back in his chair. If only she knew.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, and the pics on your Clikr page look like Market Street turned into a war zone,” she said. “Are you alright?”
The question, though only polite, seemed to Jim a blessing of authentic importance after all the perfunctory exclamations of condolence via his messaging friendships. It made Jill, who looked more like she was dead than he, seem like an angel to him. Mercy spoke through her to Bill.
She was waiting for an answer.
“I’m okay,” he said after staring at her momentarily. “How are you?”
She smiled, turning away from him to look out the cafe window at the afternoon sun sitting above the peaks of Nob Hill. Bill followed her gaze and thought that he’d never seen such a sun, shining brightly and without it’s fierce heat through the window. What if I hadn’t been here to see that, he wondered to himself. I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t just be missing this sunny afternoon, I’d be dead. It was beautiful and so, in her turn was Jill Salverson, on whom he looked he was sure for the first time, as if she were newborn.
Bill suddenly felt what it was to be alive. It started in his gut and spread down through his waist, groin and legs; it did travel upward to his head, which swam lazily in a dream as he looked back toward Jill. He felt a sudden urge, like a man who missed a bus to meet a lover many years before, but has only now found a picture of the lost girl, to make love to her so that she and this moment would not escape him.
“That’s a silly question,” she said to him. “I’m fine. It’s you who had the horrible day.”
“I did,” he answered, studying her face. No, he’d never met her before. With or without her makeup, there was something hideous about her, he thought. What was the makeup covering? Yet, his judgment on this matter was suspended by his desire for contact with her. “I did have a horrible day, the worst.”
She frowned now. The white base near the corner of her mouth cracked a bit.
“Except for all those poor people who died,” she said matter-of-factly. “They had a much worse day. You got in the newspaper.”
Bill found this candor an elixir and reinvested himself in his mission to bed Jill Salverson as soon as possible. She had nice hips, he said to himself as he sat back and looked her over and giving the appearance of composing a response.
“You friended me today.”
Jill looked startled, as though she’d been caught in a lie. Her light blue eyes shot from Bill’s face to the door, then she returned to looking at him impassively.
“I’m surprised you remembered.”
“I accepted your invitation,” Bill said replied in a polished way he usually began a meeting, feeling very comfortable with what he was sure was a chase now.
“But you don’t remember me,” she said with a smile.
Here then was the challenge, to sustain the lie of familiarity while acknowledging that, no, he had no idea who she was — as if that was what mattered right now. Jill shut her laptop and checked her reflection in the cafe window. Touching the corner of her mouth with the tip of her finger, she smudged away the crack in the makeup. Her legs uncrossed and her feet did a little dosie-do as though she were going to rise. But she had no intention of leaving, both of them seemed sure. “I assure you, Mr. Carter, that I am confident I can be of service to you. Al Levine suggested I reach out to you.”
Al Levine? Bill didn’t know him, either. But he did not let that get in his way.
“Hmmm, Al sent you to me?”
“I must tell you, it has been a terrible day,” Bill murmured almost to himself, turning and raising his hand for the check. He knew the game. Make them want it, whether it was sex or money, and threaten to take it away. Jill stared at him as he paid and tipped the waitress lavishly. “I need to get out of here. Perhaps we could talk after.”
They left the cafe and walked the three blocks to Bill’s apartment without talking. Bill sped forward, eyes on the ground passing rapidly before him, filling with a kind of fear that grew out of her apparent surrender to him and the odd power he felt as he dragged her home without the slightest touch.
He felt powerful and he knew he was doing something wrong, yet this seemed like exactly the role he was to play, as though the whole strange day, which now felt as though it had passed in a few seconds, was leading him home with this stranger in a mask of face paint. The absurdity of the situation, from the thrust of her black pumps into his field of vision with each step to the unexpectedness of her being near him after an email solicitation and the sickening events of the day, made his stomach turn. He was ready as they mounted the steps to his door to turn to her and say goodnight, to push her if necessary down the stairs in order to get into the apartment alone.
But she took his hand as it emerged from his pocket and forced the key into the door. She seemed immensely strong, yet it was the same weakness of watching fate coming at him like a milk truck skidding out of control on the street that let her take control of the moment.
They fell through the door. Quickly and almost drunkenly, she swayed over Bill, pulling his pants off. He tried to cover himself, but she pushed his hands away as he gave in to the act, which was finished as energetically and rapidly as it began.
She slumped forward over his face and Bill could see for an instant in the half-lighted hallway that her lipstick was smeared from her mouth up onto her nose and that she was wearing a wig over blond hair cut short or tied up in a net. She stood, almost falling as she pulled up her panties and skirt as though the muscles in her legs had failed, and turned away from him.
“Well, there,” she said, breathing heavily with a raspy coughing that rattled as if from the grave.
“What?” Bill sat up against the wall.
“You got what you wanted.”
Bill was thinking this had to be the worst day of his life, that after almost being killed on the street he was facing some kind of rape setup, when Jill said, “don’t you think you’d better find out what was in that briefcase?” as she walked out and shut the door.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about writing. Writing on the blog, writing at work, writing a book or two. And one of the things that has been eating at me as I felt these writerly urgings is the predominance of self-help books in the world and on *-seller lists.
Everyone seems to have a lesson to teach these days. Everyone seems to want lessons. I think it is a symptom of the troubling times we live in, not to mention the mixing of work and life to a degree that everything becomes “investment” rather than sometimes being just for fun, or a good scare, or whatever motive one might have for reading other than self-improvement. The fact that so many deem themselves fit to teach suggests our collective self-critical faculties are shaky, or shaken by the deeply fucked up times.
Then I ran across this in the newly released Authoritative and Complete Autobiography of Mark Twain (first volume — two more are coming):
That’s all I want. I only want to interest the reader, he can go elsewhere for profit & instruction
I can afford to take a lesson from Twain and concentrate on keeping your interest instead of improving you. I’ve never had any expectations that you be better than other folks, so sit back and enjoy. I’m going to let the writing muscles stretch a bit….