What “The Art of the Deal” Tells Us 30 Years Later

Since I found it so enlightening to read Hillary Clinton’s first book, It Takes a Village (1996, revised 2006), I decided to look at Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal (1987), with a fresh eye.

Jacket illustrations of both books have been updated, but inside The Art of the Deal, things don’t look so good.

Blurred type in 'The Art of the Deal'

Blurred type, uneven lines in “The Art of the Deal”

Remember in the days of Xerox when you’d lose the original and have to copy from a copy? And the next one would copy the last copy, and on and on until the words blurred together and illustrations faded out?

Apparently something like that has happened to the most recent (2015) edition of The Art of the Deal: It’s as if the plates weren’t replaced for so long that the type wore down, the photos faded and the lines wobbled.

In the book trade we used to call this a “begrudged reprint,” meaning the publisher (Ballantine) feels obligated to keep a former bestseller in print but doesn’t want to spend the money. So out comes something shoddy, like a pulp novel from the 1930s.

Blurred photo from The Art of the Deal -- for some reason the bottom photo is signed "Nancy and Reagan Reagan"

Faded photo from “The Art of the Deal” — for some reason the bottom picture is signed, “Nancy and Reagan Reagan”

In this case, I wondered if that great Mr. Sweetie Pie of paperback publishing, Ian Ballantine himself, rolled over in his grave and said, “Keep that idiot Donald Trump in print? Over my already dead body.” And so it was.

What He Didn’t Say

But back to what Donald Trump was saying 30 years before running for office. Of course The Art of the Deal was written with a professional author, Schwartz, so it’s a polished version of the same old braggadocio stuff Trump blows out today:

Most people are surprised by the way I work. I play it very loose. I don’t carry a briefcase. I try not to schedule too many meetings. I leave my door open. You can’t be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you’ve got too much structure. I prefer to come to work each day and just see what develops.

So: all he does every day is telephone powerful people and make deals. That’s how he’d be President of the United States today. Like a Mafia don, “sometimes I have to be the bad guy,” but usually the world presents him with prospects, and he doesn’t have to do any research; he just goes by his gut:

… A pair of beautiful gleaming white towers caught my eye. I made a couple of calls. It turned out they’d been built for about $120 million and a major New York bank had just foreclosed on the developers. The next thing I knew I was making a deal to buy the project for $40 million.

This kind of King of the Hill talk appealed to millions 30 years ago. People thought the book would give them tips about How to Win from a true real estate tycoon. Of course, Trump gave away nothing.

But today we recognize The Art of the Deal as the first indicator of the way Trump sold out to corporate media. Instead of conquering the world, he began performing for the world. Instead of reaping profits, he became a clown for money.

With each new book, he was more showman than author. On his reality television show, The Apprentice, he turned into caricature. He glowered for the camera; he growled “You’re fired!” He wanted to sound authentic, as long as it was scripted.

But the giant Trump, the powerful Trump who once made New York sit up and beg (or so it seemed) was gone. He never recovered from his bankruptcies. His real estate failures were colossal, and his books, gradually unreadable, stopped selling in the high numbers.

Suddenly Donald Trump was talking dirty in a desperate way on Howard Stern. The “brand” that at one time could sell anything — steaks, casinos, that stupid university — began to sound mean and sniveling.

Marcia Cross, best known for her role in Desperate Housewives

Marcia Cross, best known for her role in “Desperate Housewives”

“Would you go out with Marcia Cross or would you turn gay, Howard?”

This week Rachel Maddow said there’s a rumor going around that Trump is writing a sequel called The Art of the Deal 2.0. This would explain why he’s still hawking the 1987 book, as she showed in a half-dozen video clips:

“President Obama, Secretary Kerry,” he says from the podium, “I highly think you should read this book quickly.”

“Oh, he’s got The Art of the Deal,” says Trump, spotting a man in the audience. Hold that book up, please. One of the great books …”

“Who has read The Art of the Deal in this room?” he asks a baffled audience. “Everybody. I always say, [my book is] a deep, deep second to the bible.”

Trump pleading for a place in history would be funny if it weren’t so tragic, but as Maddow showed, it’s all part of a grand scheme to exploit the presidential election and make money.

As we saw this week when he had to reveal his campaign expenses, Trump has funneled donations of about $6 million to pay himself for use of the Trump jet, Trump hotels, Trump restaurants, his own homes, his son’s wineries and every possible item down to ice in drinks and merchandise like Make America Great Again baseball caps.

What an idiot (to quote my fantasy of Ian Ballantine): Does Donald Trump really think he can get away with this? “It’s a racket,” says Maddow, pointing to perennial candidates like Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachman, Herman Cain and Mike Huckaby. She asks: What do these people do for a job?

Well, they don’t hold office; they campaign for office. And they live off the donations that support each campaign. “What we’ve created is a weird system of incentives where people appear to run for office, but actually they run as a job where they can….get deals [as consultants] on Fox News.”

Trump would never do that — it’s too cheap, too weak, too pathetic. Plus they’re all losers. It’s just that he can’t help selling himself because that’s all he knows how to do. As a result his campaign looks like one big book tour.

And yes, if there’s an Art of the Deal 2.0, Trump may make a couple of million dollars from it, and add that amount to the other millions skimmed off donations to pay himself. Why not? Listing $1.3 million on record to finance his campaign (as opposed to Hillary Clinton’s $42 million), he’ll be given billions of dollars’ worth of free publicity by craven American media. So why should he care?

Well, the one thing The Art of the Deal tells us is that Trump cares only about being the conquering hero. He’s wants the glory of the conquest, and once that deal is made, he’s bored.

I think Trump is already tired at how much the campaign asks of him; he’s sensing the Oval Office will make him work 100 times harder. No wonder this Saturday he’s going to fly off to Scotland to open another golf course.

Of course, Scottish residents and elected officials hate him there for real estate developments he’s already promised and botched. But then, they’re not the American people.

Voting with Our Winkies

I keep hearing this statement from women about the presidential election:

“Don’t ask me to vote with my genitals,” they say, meaning, Don’t tell me to vote for Hillary Clinton just because she’s a woman.

IMG_2013 (2)They’re right. If we voted for women only because they’re female, Carly Fiorina and Sarah Palin would still be around. These two are gone because they were ridiculously inexperienced, plus: you can’t cram femaleness down the throats of American voters, male or female.

Still, the fact is, the presidential election has been hijacked by genitalia.

From the moment Donald Trump said that Hillary Clinton got “schlonged” in a primary election, to his delight in describing the size of his penis, to his disgust at Megan Kelly’s menstrual period (“blood running out of her whatever”) and even at Hillary taking a bathroom break, genitals have been Trump’s way of avoiding serious subjects and generating headlines for himself.

But here is my hope:

After decades of hearing increasingly blunt slang about men’s private parts, I respectfully suggest the term “winkies” as a gentle way for women to refer to ours.

I’ve never had an erection or worried about genital size or understood what penis envy is all about. But I do know that just as the stars wink from above, wondrous reminders of life’s joys for women twinkle below.

The language of winkies is elegant and subtle. It connects our biological apparatus with life-inspiring things — love, babies, growth, purpose, harmony. It overrides Donald Trump’s references to a woman as a “bimbo,” a “pig,” a “fat ugly face” or “piece of ass.”

And it defuses Trump’s hate-mongering of other men as “rapists,” “losers,” “liars” and “killers.” When he threatened Ted Cruz with plans to “spill the beans on your wife,” he again cheapened the whole conversation with genital-based remarks. So the erosion of winkiedom continued.trump-matthews-575x341

Then came the recent Chris Mathews interview about abortion, Here more blatantly than before was Donald Trump stomping around our winkies to say that our choice about our reproductive organs and our belief in the moment of life’s conception were all for Himself and the government to decide.

So it’s no longer a question whether you even want to vote with your genitals. Donald Trump is saying his genitals overtake yours, if you let him.

Voting with my winkies, I won’t let him.

Back to Hillary

Most people acknowledge that Hillary Clinton is the most experienced candidate by far. That fact alone should be enough for a landslide victory.

But it isn’t enough, and the reason is well known: Hillary has a trust problem. I find it painful to watch, but she’s just not convincing at the microphone sometimes, not in the way Trump is. Perhaps that’s why Trump supporters forgive his many gaffes — yes, he’s belligerent, they say, but at least he’s honest. Maybe he’s fibbing, but he would never lie to us. Not in the way Hillary could.

The red (unfavorable) line ascends while the black (favorable) drops

The red (unfavorable) line ascends while the black (favorable) drops

The most eye-opening umbrella poll (combining data from 10 polls in one) charts her “unfavorable” rating from 33.4% in January 2009 to 54.7% by the end of January 2016. That’s a lot of lost trust.

Things might not get better for Hillary, as TV comic Jimmy Kimmel “man-splained” while she pretended to give a speech on his show: “You’re too shrill,” he said, followed immediately by: “You’re like a mouse up there.” “Is that what you’re going to wear?” “It would be nice if you smile” / “It’s too forced! Do you want to be president or a Lakers’ girl?” / “Oh my god with the sourpuss…”Unknown

It was funny and revealing. Hillary was a good egg about it. But the point landed beautifully:

Kimmiel: “You’re not doing it right. I can’t quite put my finger on it. You’re not ….”

Hillary: “A man?”

Kimmel: “That’s it! But listen, that was really cute the way you said it.”

The takeaway one couldn’t shake was that if Hillary Clinton were Donald Trump, she would wear her entitlement like a shroud. She could, as Trump has said about himself, “go out and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” And Jimmy would really approve.

A book reviewer’s perspective:

Maybe it’s Hillary’s advisors. There must be dozens of them making pronouncements about her style of speaking, dressing, talking, debating and, unfortunately, writing.

This last — her writing style — is my purview. I’m a book reviewer who for 20 years has been decrying and pounding the table and worrying about the narrative voice that Hillary Clinton uses in her books.

She’s written three memoirs to date and I’m sorry to say they’re all overwritten and full of palaver. Here’s an example from page 26 of Hard Choices, her 2014 book about being Secretary of State:

“My confidence was rooted in a lifetime of studying and experiencing the ups and downs of American history and a clear-eyes assessment of our comparative advantages relative to the rest of the world. Nations’ fortunes rise and fall, and there will always be people predicting catastrophe just around the corner. But it’s never smart to bet against the United States. Every time we’ve faced a challenge, whether war or depression or global competition, Americans have risen to meet it, with hard work and creativity.”

Oh, dear. You have to prop up your eyelids to slog through the blah-blah effect that takes up about a third of this 635-page book.

It sounds so superficial that I used to joke after reviewing Living History, her 2003 memoir: Why, the committee that wrote this book should be ashamed: Two or three words of actual significance sneaked through.

The “Rape Capital of the World”

At the same time, however, I want to say, READERS, KEEP THOSE EYES OPEN, because when Hillary Clinton decides to take action, the writing comes alive, and big, trustworthy events take place.

Hillary Clinton in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo

Hillary Clinton in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo

For example, on page 280, here is Hillary going to the “rape capital of the world” — the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (She was the first Secretary of State to visit an active war zone, according to the New York Times.) She went to Goma because soldiers on both sides of the conflict were raping women “as a way of dominating communities and gaining tactical advantage.”

This hideous idea, that rape has become tactic of war, systematically used to demoralize entire populations, was so brutal that women “could no longer bear children, work, or even walk,” she writes. And the practice wasn’t limited to Goma. Hillary would tell National Public Radio that rape as a weapon of war spread “from the Balkans to Myanmar, Sri Lanka to Guinea.”

Forget for a moment how many Secretaries of State risked their lives to enter a war zone. I want to ask how many of our highest officials before Hillary have mentioned the horror of soldiers raping every woman in sight as a war tactic?

Colin Powell’s report on “the atrocities in Darfur in 2004” included “exactly five sentences” on the subject in 2004. Madeleine Albright mentioned “organized rape” as a weapon of war in Kosovo in 1999. Condoleezza Rice spoke about it movingly on ABC News in 2008.

But it was Hillary who made international headlines in 2009; Hillary who declared it the responsibility of America to expose what is now recognized as an “epidemic of rape“; Hillary who introduced a mobile banking system for soldiers whose salaries were being stolen by corrupt officers; and Hillary who didn’t just meet with Congolese president Joseph Kabila but talked to rape survivors, aid workers, engineers, medical personnel and children in refugee camps that were getting larger by the day.

With Joseph Kabila

With Joseph Kabila

I go into this episode at length to acknowledge how quickly, and how deeply, Hillary Clinton learned to address complicated problems with long-term solutions during her term as Secretary of State.

In the Goma instance, for example, she could have waited for the usual State Department bureaucracy to grind out thousand-page reports nobody would read.

Instead she announced while still in the Congo that the United States would provide $17 million to “train doctors, supply rape victims with video cameras, send American military engineers to help build facilities and train Congolese police officers, especially female police officers, to crack down on rapists,” according to the New York Times.

And that kind of approach is just beginning. When it comes to women-related issues that too often get lost in obscurity across the world — issues like “domestic violence, forced prostitution, rape as a tactic or prize of war, genital mutilation, bride burning,” as Hillary’s “list of abuses” then included — Hillary Clinton knows how to work with her counterparts to find an answer.

Didn’t government used to be about getting things done? By comparison, the short-term, headline-making, genital-waving Donald Trump only wastes the world’s time.

John MacEnroe

The MacEnroe Syndrome

Maybe it’s the MacEnroe Syndrome — that tendency named after tennis player John MacEnroe to explode with righteous anger when officials make what he saw as the wrong call. MacEnroe played great tennis, of course, but perhaps his real performance was disguising that quivering lip, that scrunched-up face, so no one would see a little boy throwing a temper tantrum over which he had no control.

Trump’s version of this, whether attacking Rosie O’Donnell or China, is to distract people from how much anger he really carries around by acting tough and worldly:

“Get even. When somebody screws you, screw them back in spades. I really mean it. I really mean it. You’ve got to hit people hard and and it’s not so much for that person, it’s that other people watch.”

It comes on as a syndrome because blam! all of a sudden the weirdest outrage overwhelms the senses. By contrast, we may not like Hillary’s style, but she’s never apoplectic. Trump so believes in his sucker-punch persona that he wants his genitals to rule.

(Note: I quote the NYTimes and NPR above because [Donald, are you listening?] Hillary doesn’t brag. In Hard Choices we see that she did even more in the Congo and later at the United Nations about stopping rape as a war tactic (pages 279-282), and she makes clear these actions were only a start.)

So I don’t care if …

So I don’t care if Hillary sounds phony when her advisors tell her to raise her voice at the microphones, or look angry for the cameras, or develop that male swagger that makes Donald Trump such a compelling fascist to some.

It’s Hillary’s actions that count — hundreds of acts as complicated and terrifying to contemplate as standing up to the rape epidemic in Goma. And hundreds of others require the kind of calm, firm, transparent testimony she gave to the bullying and interrupting Republican members of Congress, who made the House Committee on Benghazi “thoroughly discredited as a partisan sham.”images

That test of leadership included eleven hours of grueling testimony, from which she emerged as both trustworthy and presidential. Baited, patronized, attacked and dismissed, she never raised her voice, never responded angrily or tried to distract the proceedings by referring to genital size. She doesn’t have genital size from Trump’s point of view. She doesn’t care about genital size.

And then, voila, her most formidable critics could not contain their praise. If the hearing had been “designed to go after” Hillary so she’d wouldn’t dare run for president, it failed. As a result, her approval ratings soared.

That lasted about a week.

I’d also like to say a word about how great it is to fall in love with Bernie Sanders, as Susan Sarandon and a lot of women voters have. Bless him, he was a fierce opponent of the war in Iraq (Hillary voted for it); he’s passionate about income inequality and Wall Street reform; he’s taught us all to prioritize the issues (“your damn emails“), and I bet no one is more embarrassed and ashamed at Donald Trump bringing his genitals to the table than Bernie Sanders.

I worry that Bernie with so little foreign policy experience would, on his first day in the White House, be so completely overwhelmed at how close the world is to nuclear war that he’d want to call Hillary, who used to eat those Top Secret briefings for breakfast and digest them by noon, every day for four years as Secretary of State.damn_emails_2

But most of all, I worry that if Bernie loses the nomination and urges his supporters to vote for Hillary, it won’t be enough.

It’s like the Equal Rights Amendment. Remember? A simple statement that said women are equal to men. Introduced to Congress in 1923 — a shoe-in, right? — pronounced dead by 1982. And that was a trust issue, too. A lot of women believed it but did not trust it.

The parallel seems to be that in the United States, when complexity is reduced to simplistic ideas, voters are supposed to sort things out. That’s going to be hard in November when we face opposites defined by cliche: Hillary wants to lead; Trump wants to rule. She is a feminist; he is the patriarchy. Hillary wants to be president; Trump wants to be king.

Not vote with your winkies?

Listen to them, girls — it’s the only shot we have.

Note: I’ve said all of this without mentioning Hillary’s first book, It Takes a Village, which is still the foundation of her candidacy. More about that, the recent fiasco about abortion, and a Hillary Clinton most of us don’t know in Part II.

 

One More Question Before Saturday

Preparing for my talk on “The Publishing Revolution” this Saturday, the host group, Sufi Women Organization, asked if women played a particular role in publishing history.

Vat a question! You wouldn’t think that women in the fine old “Gentlemen’s Profession” ever wielded a lot of power, and I’ll talk about why they didn’t — until, that is, a fantastic turning point in the 1980s.

A quick glimpse: Before then, just about every general book review section was dominated by reviews of white male authors — Saul Bellow, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe, Joseph Heller and others.

After the 1980s, a Big Shift took place when those same front pages ran reviews of books by women — and very often women of color — such as Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, Barbara Kingsolver, Arundhati Roy, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Bharati Mukerjee and more.

Want to guess why? (Hint: Think Bay Area.) Actually I’ve never understood it, but come for brunch on Saturday and let’s all figure it out in the Q&A!

A few seats are left and advance reservations are required (no tickets at the door) by the end of Wednesday, March 2. Here’s the info — see you then!

Patricia Holt

on

The Publishing Revolution

Saturday March 5, 2016

Brunch 9:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.

The Club at McInnis Park

350 Smith Ranch Road, San Rafael CA

For reservations call: 1-415-472-6959

Or register online at ias.org/swo

 

About that “Publishing Revolution”

I’m very excited to speak next Saturday 3/5 in San Rafael for Sufi Women on “The Publishing Revolution.”

For years I’ve used that term to describe what Holt Uncensored is all about. Now for the first time I hope to answer two big questions about it in one talk:

#1 From the start, why did Americans follow the British model by allowing book publishers to locate in one place (the Atlantic seaboard at first, now New York), thus dictating to the tastes of the rest of the country? We certainly took our beloved newspaper presses Westward; why not book presses?

#2 Why don’t we call the present Internet era a transformation? What is it about the print-to-screen process that’s made it a publishing revolution? (Hint: arrogance and outrage, to be describe calmly.)

Coming with me will be a giant USA map (4 by 6 feet!) held up thanks to Sufi Women with clamps and tape and more than one easel, plus a red dot laser pointer used by actual snipers to show the glorious mess in media and book industries we’re living with now.

The energy of the crowd brings its own surprises, so come with burning questions and remember, the fee may be hefty ($30) but you get a terrific brunch plus the ambiance of golfers swearing outside the windows and me swearing calmly inside..

Pre-registration required but the great Sufi Women have extended the deadline to Wednesday 3/2. Here’s the information:

Patricia Holt

on

The Publishing Revolution

Saturday March 5, 2016

Brunch 9:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.

The Club at McInnis Park

350 Smith Ranch Road, San Rafael CA

For reservations call: 1-415-472-6959

Or register online at ias.org/swo

 

P.S.: THANK YOU SUFI WOMEN, a spiritual and humanitarian organization to beat the band.

Dumbness and Pornography at the New York Times

I used to enjoy the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times, in particular a page called The Ethicist. The writers there grappled with tough, snarly questions about ethics and moral clarity in our increasingly complicated times.

But something’s happened in recent months that make me want to toss the thing out the window. This once intelligent and thoughtful bastion of good writing has dumbed-down its content so much that kindergarten kids would laugh if they could read it.IMG_1938

Take this typical question: “Is it O.K. To Come to Work When I’m Sick and Sneezing?” Oh gosh, let me think. Answer: No.

Here’s another from a recent issue: “Should My Rich Friends Apply for Financial Aid?” You need an expert for this? Answer: No.

And Another: “Should I Help a Classmate Who Sexually Harassed My Friend Get a Job?” Are you nuts? Do you live on this planet? Answer: No.

And here’s one from the “Bonus Advice” column on the Ethicist page: “My husband complains that I use too much toilet paper. (We measured. I use approximately 20 squares per — .)” Answer: Never write to this column again.

IMG_1941Elsewhere, the New York Times Sunday Magazine has started a weekly survey that is so stupid and so appalling, I can’t believe anybody working there isn’t in jail.

The survey asks readers questions like this: “Would You Be an Anonymous Porn Star?”

That took my breath away. The editors write: “If you could star in a pornographic movie neck down and get paid handsomely for it, would you do it?”

To be kind, maybe the person who dreamed up this question is an older gentleman from the Penthouse/Playboy era who still believes that pornography portrays men getting laid by women who enjoy servicing them. Maybe this person thinks it’s fun to sidle up to guys like himself and say: Hey, it’s about anonymous sex with plenty of babes. You never get caught and it even pays well, so why not?IMG_1943

I’ll tell you why. We’re talking about the New York Times! Didn’t anyone research the fact that even 40 years ago, women “porn stars” were treated like sex slaves — beaten up behind the scenes; made to copulate with animals, submit to simulated and real gang rape, endure primitive breast implants and humiliating ejaculation scenes?

Remember “porn star” Linda Lovelace? She said the oral sex scenes in her famous movie, Deep Throat, were performed “with a gun to my head the entire time.” But let’s say women “porn stars” aren’t coerced — let’s say they need the cash and choose to appear being strangled or whipped while raped. Is this the kind of image you’d want your son to see at age 11 (average age of boys first viewing pornography), or your daughter to aspire to as a “porn star”?

411vFXivT2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Plus, that was 40 years ago. As any New York Times assistant editor would have discovered through a cursory search on Google, today, thanks to competition on the Internet, the pornography industry is much worse — much more brutal, cruel, ruthless and jaded.

As documented by Wheelock College professor Gail Dines in her book, Pornland (Beacon, 2011), escalating forms of violence in pornography have made the sight of ripped vaginas, bloody anuses and faces blinded by ejaculate lure younger and younger male viewers.

So the problem isn’t only dumbed-down information. It’s the New York Times Sunday Magazine pimping out women as objects of sick fantasies. Who takes responsibility for this? Ultimately, it has to be the publisher, Andy Wright.

Andy Wright

Andy Wright

And look, he’s not an elderly gentleman at all! Just a nice-looking white guy, like your typical John.

Granted, Andy Wright gets to take credit, too, for an excellent article elsewhere in the magazine just last Sunday (January 5) called “To Catch a Rapist.” It describes SVU (Special Victims Unit) detectives in New Haven working through a huge caseload of sex crimes.

But that’s all the more reason for the entire staff to keep professional standards high in every article and item, including — ta da! — a page called The Ethicist. Or maybe they’re counting too many toilet paper squares to notice.

Amazon: The Spoof and the Store

Here’s a fictional job interview from a recent novel about Amazo — pardon, a retail book giant on the Internet with the made-up name of Scroll. See if you recognize this novel:

“Tell me, Alice, how do you like to read?”

“Oh – well, I love to read!”

“I mean, do you use an e-reader or …?”

She leaned forward slightly, like she wanted to reach over and catch my answer in her hands.

“Of course. I have a Kindle, first generation. I also read galleys, manuscripts, hardcovers, basically whatever I can get my hands on.”

“So you’re agnostic.”

“Actually I was raised Catholic, and I’ve fallen pretty far from the flock, but I still consider myself a spiritual person, if that makes any sense?” (Why was she asking about religion? Was this even legal?)

“Good to know. But I meant platform agnostic, meaning you toggle back and forth between your device and carbon-based books.”

If you spotted this as a scene from A Window Opens by Elizabeth Egan, published by Simon & Schuster in August, you’re right.

"A Window Opens," hardcover edition.

“A Window Opens,” hardcover edition.

Egan, who once worked as an editor at Amazon’s New York publishing office, has given us both a cautionary tale and a spoof about the horrid place. Instead of parodying the book publishing efforts that she witnessed for about a year, A Window Opens envisions what might happen if Amazon were to climb down from its e-Ivory Tower and open an actual brick-and-mortar bookstore.

And so, ta da! That very thing happened just last month, when the online retail giant Amazon.com opened Amazon Books, a 5500-square-foot retail bookstore in Seattle. Rumor has it this might be the flagship for a coming chain of retail bookstores across the country, but we won’t know for a year or so.

Amazon's first bookstore (not a Benihana)

Amazon’s first bookstore (not a Benihana)

In the book, Egan’s vision of Amazon’s first retail effort is different from the reality, as we’ll see. But in both cases, the store and the spoof, observers get to see how easily the language of e-everythinge-readers, e-books, e-devices, e-families, e-marriage, e-idiocy and e-tyranny — affects modern life.

A Window Opens is about Alice Pearce, a happily married mother of three kids in upscale New Jersey, who holds a part-time job as book editor for a popular women’s magazine called You.

This is the first of several parallels linking author and character. Egan is also a mother of three living in suburban New Jersey, and You sounds like a combination of the real-life magazine Self, where Egan once worked as book editor, and Glamour, where she reviews books now.

Alice loves the fact that she can commute to Manhattan part-time and be a stay-at-home mother most of the time. When, however, her husband Nicholas is passed over for partner at his hotsy totsy Wall Street firm, he figures his only option is to start a firm of his own. With no start-up money, no office and no clients, he needs Alice to step up and find a high salary-paying job of her own.

Author Elisabeth Egan

Author Elisabeth Egan

Facing that all-too-common terror of the long-out-of-work “soccer Mom” leaving a cushy fun employer like You and returning to full-time work, Alice finds out fast that she’s practically unemployable. Then almost out of the blue, she’s asked to interview for a job as “content manager” at Scroll, a new chain of bookstores that may quickly dominate the retail landscape.

“Our mission is to reinvent reading the way Starbucks reinvented coffee,” says the Marketing Specialist at Scroll who discovers Alice – not through an employment agency or head-hunter, of course, but by following Alice’s cute literary bon mots on Twitter.

Scroll outlets will not be bookstores exactly. They’re called “reading lounges” because for one thing, there will be no physical (carbon-based!) books in the stores. Instead, customers will be able to, as Alice learns, “browse e-books on docked tablets and then download files directly to all their devices at once. Plans for the lounges include fair-trade-certified coffee bars and eco-friendly furniture sourced from reclaimed local materials.”

Although based in Manhattan to be near the mainstream book industry, Scroll is “tethered to its parent,” a giant chain of shopping malls called MainStreet that “curates” retail needs in one place. “So patrons could buy, say, a wheel barrow along with their gardening book,” Alice tells us.

You can see the author’s smart set-up. Words like CURATE, AGNOSTIC and CARBON-BASED all sound like exaggerations that could easily spring from a company like Amazon — or Google, Apple, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — where workers feel required to use language that sounds visionary, hip and brave.

At a Scroll store, customers can browse e-books in a recliner chair with cup holders that keep their organic beverage warm. And they can sit there as long as they like doing SSR (Sustained Silent Reading).

[DRIB (Don’t Read If Busy):

[I kept thinking that Scroll is the worst idea for a bookstore I’ve heard in years — for one thing because it’s already been done. The very first B Dalton store in Minnesota (late 1960s) looked something like Scroll, with big easy chairs, wide aisles, parquet floors, a helpful-to-obsequious staff and muffled quiet to inspire as much SSR as people could handle.

Pickwick Bookshop, founded 1938

Pickwick Bookshop, founded 1938

As I recall, that first B Dalton nearly failed until a management scout visited the noisy, congested Pickwick Book Shop on Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles. The aisles were covered with ratty flooring and crowded with so many piles of books that customers had trouble walking anywhere, let alone sitting down for SSR. Shopping was entirely self-service and the lines at the cash registers were packed with people buying (not reading) books by the armload.

The lesson at Pickwick was that bookstore customers didn’t want to interact with a sales clerk who might ask embarrassing literary questions they couldn’t answer. And they didn’t like SSR in a retail setting – too much like a library. They preferred to do their reading at home or in a crowded coffee shop.

B Dalton mall store

B Dalton mall store

So B Dalton’s management adapted to this model by not learning anything in particular. It simply bought and closed the venerable Pickwick Book Shop and its small local chain, copied the Pickwick approach and charged publishers for every inch of display space it could get away with. As a result, B Dalton’s junky, commercial-books-only shopping mall stores did well for a time, as did its competitor, Waldenbooks.]

Egan is clearly aiming her expose at Amazon, but she’s too smart to quote CEO Jeff Bezos’ icky coined words, like “customer-centric.” Instead she turns to his other icky ideas, such as “the empty chair.” When Alice notices that at least one chair is left empty no matter how crowded the meeting, a Scroll colleague explains: “The empty chair is for the customer,” because the customer, nobody should forget, “always has a presence in meetings.”

The "empty chair" theory as adopted by business consultant Gardner Customer Solutions

The “empty chair” theory as adopted by business consultant Gardner Customer Solutions

Yikes, how dumbed-down can Amazon get, you may scoff. But Bezos used the empty chair as “the ultimate boss at Amazon” — and the idea was picked up by so many management consultants for so many years, it became a clich?. According to Forbes magazine, Bezos then replaced it with “specially trained employees” — actual human beings called Customer Experience Bar Raisers. “When they frown, vice-presidents tremble.”

In a similar way, Scroll increasingly takes on a kindergarten feel in Egan’s novel. As part of their “onboarding” (orientation) period, workers must learn “the patois of Scroll,” such as “dropping a meeting” on someone’s calendar, or showing team spirit by switching their candy preference to gummy bears made by Haribo, “the leading candy consumed by voracious readers,” Alice’s boss Genevieve declares with authority.

Customer-centric gummy bears: better than books?

Customer-centric gummy bears

True, the pressures on Alice are anything but child’s play. She must “liaise” with 30 agents and editors immediately and select 450 titles for Scroll’s first inventory; she must generate quickie e-books called ScrollOriginals (how close to Amazon’s “Kindle Singles” can you get?); and she must aspire to become a “ScrollCrier” who keeps the world “up-to-the-minute on our mission as it continues to evolve,” says Genevieve.

At first, workers at Scroll don’t have to punch in or account for their time, but soon an email circulates that everyone must “run their palms beneath our new Biometric Time Clock” each morning as a way of assisting “trackability.” No matter. Alice’s first email from Scroll arrives at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday, so she’s on the clock 24/7 anyway.

And Scroll is not just any start-up. It’s backed by MainStreet, a hugely successful chain of high-end shopping malls founded by the Rockwell brothers – and here the author’s description sounds a bit like the brothers who started Borders Books, a now defunct but once tyrannical big-box bookstore chain. The Borders brothers sold out before they could do as much damage as the thuggy Riggio brothers of Barnes & Noble (not mentioned in the book, thank heaven). Still, they left their mark by contributing to the bankruptcy of every independent retailer in Borders’ path.

The first Borders brothers store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1971

The first Borders brothers store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1971

In any case, Scroll is set to become part of MainStreet’s new “lifestyle centers,” meaning shopping malls called Heritage Towne – and that’s TOWNE WITH AN /E,’ by the way. (Any time you want to evoke an old-timey feeling, just add an e or other letter, like the Bun Shoppe).

Heritage Townes are thriving, Alice learns, because they “mimic the hometown vibe of the very mom-and-pop stores they put out of business. Cobblestone, gaslit lanes connect Johnny Rockets (hamburger joints) with Hollister (clothing stores for “cool guys and gals”); phone charging stations are coyly housed inside old-fashioned phone booths; easy-listening renditions of folk favorites are piped to the furthest reaches of the parking lot, for the brave souls who forgo valet service. Heritage Towne has a gym, a movie theater, a band shell, a medical center, and its own Whole Foods.”

Liberty Bell topiary -- who could resist?

Patriotic topiary — who could resist?

Further, Alice notes, “all shrubbery was cleverly groomed with a patriotic theme. In the short walk around the place, I spotted topiaries in the shape of Uncle Sam, the Liberty Bell, and of course, a giant dollar bill.”

Alice doesn’t like the studied kitsch of Heritage Towne, but she is intrigued by Scroll’s boldness, even its vision, in the face of New York’s rickety old publishing industry. “It would be fun to be at the beginning of something,” she thinks naively. “How many years have I been listening to the death knell of magazines?”

Or books. “Who doesn’t want to see more bookstores, right?” says Genevieve, also thinking simplistically. Whether Scroll is good or bad for readers, for free speech, for capitalism, or for our democracy doesn’t seem to matter to Genevieve or for the most part to Alice. What gets everyone’s attention is the latest upgrade in buzz. In the “simulated Scroll lounge” that’s been constructed in the New York office, Genevieve points out proudly, “we have a roaster on the premises so we know our beans have been treated humanely.”

What sustains Alice through her exhausting 90-hour weeks at Scroll is that allure so often heard in real life from Wonder Boys like Jeff Bezos — that you don’t just have a job when you work for companies like Amazon; you are changing the future.

Unknown-6Remember Bezos’ 10 business philosophies in real life? Just to dip into them for a moment: #2 is Stick with Two Pizzas, meaning a project team should consist of 5-7 people, small enough to “feed with only two pizzas,” heh heh, pretty sophisticated, right?

Similarly, Scroll abides by its own Tenets of Winners, conveyed through acronyms such as:

WGIR Winners Get It Right

SADYC Surprise and Delight Your Customer

WTF not WHAT THE F-K as they say in Internet lingo, but rather Winners Talk Frankly

WATOQ, Winners Answer Their Own Questions.

Using the Tenets of Winners, Alice is told, every problem has a solution: “If you couldn’t find the answer you needed, you could file a ‘trouble ticket,’ organized by six-digit numbers. Your manager would be cc’ed on any trouble ticket you filed, so new employees were cautioned to file them sparingly or risk flagging themselves as poor problem solvers.”

At one meeting, the young team leader mispronounces the word Tenet as TENANT, as in the TENANTS OF WINNERS – a mistake only someone like Alice (considered an editorial type in this crowd) catches but can’t share. She’s older than her bosses and doesn’t dare instruct them.

Sandberg and Zuckerman: dress code even for them?

Sandberg and Zuckerberg: dress code for her?

Nor does she change unwritten rules, such as: When visiting MainStreet’s midwest offices, women wear blazers, blouses and skirts, while men come and go in hoodies and jeans. This is so close to the bone (see photos of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg), you hear yourself groan.

Finally, Alice learns that she must defer especially to Greg, the self-empowered youngest MainStreet brother and founder of Scroll. Greg has his own wisdom statement, often repeated, which is: We have to ask ourselves, by which he means the older generation’s truths may not apply to today’s realities, so “they” were wrong and we -Greg and his brothers – are right.

In a rare visit to her office, Greg looks at a stack of books on Alice’s desk that are soon to be released from New York publishers. He should know that Alice is one of the very few people outside mainstream houses to see these books so early, but instead, thinking of that “carbon-based” label everyone at Scroll uses by now, he says,

“You really want to pollute the environment with that crap?”

“Excuse me?”

“No, seriously, I just got back from a fact-finding mission at the Strand.** That place is a tinderbox waiting to go up in flames. We have to ask ourselves, what kind of impact is all that paper having on our planet?” He shuddered….

Alice begins to tell Greg how she’s curating her first list of recommended fiction titles for the Scroll customer, but he interrupts.

“All good stuff. But we have to ask ourselves, what does the customer really want, right?”

“Right.” I was still getting used to Scroll speak, which involved a semi-Socratic tic of inserting “Right?” at the end of every sentence.

“Wait, sorry, Greg, what do you mean?”

“I mean, does the customer really want books with his coffee, or might he enjoy something else?”

“Like …?”

“I don’t know. Isn’t that your job?” Greg gazed at me through heavy-lidded eyes. Was he high?

“I guess I’m not understanding your question.”

“I’ll break it down for you. What’s the best way for us to gain traction in the marketplace?”

“By creating a bookstore experience like no other? By giving customers something they can’t get anywhere else? Beyond that, I haven’t really thought -“

“Well, start thinking, girl!” Greg squinted at the picture on my desk.

“Hey, switching gears here, is that your family?”

“Yes, the kids are older now but – “

“Let me ask you, what video games do they like to play?”

I laughed. “Much to my son’s chagrin, we don’t have any video games…I want my kids to be readers and to live in the real world – not some fake universe. Not to mention the violence.” I congratulated myself on adhering to the sixth tenet, WTF: Winners Talk Frankly.

Oh dear. Well, we know where that’s going to get her. You only talk frankly to the company founder if his attention span is longer than the three seconds he allows himself to “switch gears.”

[**DRIB: Don’t Read If Busy

It’s worth taking a moment to note that Greg refers to his “fact-finding mission at the Strand” as though walking into a bookstore is a dangerous, heroic quest. All he sees are stacks of glued and sewn paper that make no sense to him in the Brave New World of e-bookstores he believes Scroll is bringing to life.

But something happens to customers at the Strand — it’s just a thought but it has the power of a thunderbolt — and I wish it had struck Greg when he was there. That is: It’s one thing to imagine the virtual universe of Amazon/Scroll’s access to a million books in the e-atmosphere; but it’s quite another to walk along the Strand’s incredible 18 miles of new, used and rare books that customers can actually see, pick up, open and start reading right there.

These 2.5 million books don’t represent anything — they ARE our reality; they bring to us just about everything humanity knows at this moment (in the English language mostly); and have been valued and traded in this one bookstore for nearly 90 years. That’s before and after the arrival of the Internet.

The Strand, interior shot

The Strand, interior shot from ceiling

It’s this thought — the astounding physical fact of the English-language world in book form right in front of you, surrounding you and if you’re not careful about to topple down on your head — that astonishes customers and staff alike, so of course Greg is unimpressed. To Egan’s credit, he is not a Jeff Bezos lookalike or a Mark Zuckerberg stand-in. He is a well-drawn Internet caricature with no curiosity, no sense of history and no interest in the way differences in customer tastes could strengthen rather than weaken a company like Scroll.

Of more importance to Greg: Everything he says has such kingly import that he needn’t worry about “staying on topic.” It doesn’t serve him to think more deeply than the platitudes he believes are making Scroll a success. He is a grown child, both a big baby and a paternalistic brat who should be out on the fringes but somehow feels all too recognizable in any business, especially the postmodern Internet start-up world.]

So now let’s turn back to see what we can learn from A Window Opens and the real-life Amazon’s first brick-and-mortar store ever, Amazon Books, which just opened last month in Seattle.

First a question: is Amazon Books in the University Village of Seattle really located “just up the road” from the historic (founded in 1900) University Bookstore of the University of Washington? (From a map it appears to be a dozen blocks away.) If so, do you think Bezos could have found a location more distant from another bookstore that sells, you know, books?

University Book Store, U. of Washington

University Book Store, U. of Washington

I ask this because barging into the neighborhood of an existing independent bookstore and stealing its customer base by offering heavily discounted books was the predatory method that chain bookstores used to cripple the competition in the ’80s and ’90s and early 2000s.

You’d think Amazon for once wouldn’t make that mistake, if only for the PR advantage of no longer being considered The Internet Bully of All Time. But no. Even the New Republic said “it’s difficult not to see Amazon’s choice of location as yet another act of aggression toward indie bookstores.”

Amazon Books, interior (not the Dish Room)

Amazon Books, interior (not the Dish Room)

Second, here is an excerpt from Amazon’s welcome letter to customers, written by Amazon Books’ vice president, Jennifer Cast: The books in our store are selected based on Amazon.com customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and our curators’ assessments. These are fantastic books! Most have been rated 4 stars or above, and many are award winners.”

Amazon Books: signs show just how "fantastic" these books can be

Amazon Books: signs confirm high ratings of customers

Okay, got it. Only good books at an Amazon bookstore, right? And Amazon wants you to know they are good because customers like you — your peers — have said so. Signs make it clear not to worry, you are secure knowing the books are “Highly Rated” with a positive customer comment printed out right there on the shelf.

[We figure Amazon didn’t fall for any phony wowzer comments the author paid for, right? So let’s just bypass that conversation.]

Plus all titles, by the way, are sitting “face-out” on the shelf so you don’t have to lift your hand to pull a book out by its spine and turn it this way and that to examine the cover. Sort of like the Dish Room in the White House; kind of a static feeling. Books facing out take up so much space that Amazon Books offers a fraction of the inventory sold at an independent store, and yet customers on Yelp and other sites say the aisles are small and have that “cramp” feeling.

The real Dish Room at the White House

The real Dish Room at the White House

This is the difference between an Amazon bookstore offering statistically popular books and an independent bookstore employing buyers who choose books for different reasons than widespread acceptance.

In an independent store, the buyers meet with publishers’ sales reps as much as six months in advance to weigh the value of each title for every kind of audience. There is some guesswork in this process — publishing is always a crap shoot, after all — and sometimes these buyers will recommend a title that offends some customers. Or at least, that is the hope. These buyers are looking for quality in messge and style; they trust that enough readers are out there who’ll seek out or take a chance on titles that might not be as popular as they are adventurous, off the grid, a little wild.

I wonder for instance if Lolita or Howl or The Color Purple or Lady Chatterly’s Lover or The Autobiography of Malcolm X or The Naked Lunch would have received 4+ stars from customers when these titles were first published — you know, when they were banned and reviewed with disgust and when they caused booksellers to be prosecuted simply for displaying them in the store.

Today you’ll find the modern equivalent in independent bookstores because that’s why these retailers ARE independent — an experienced buyer with vision and a sense of literary ambition for the store is always looking for the unpredictable, that rare opportunity to pique our interests.

On the other hand, at a store like Amazon Books, offering titles that are already established among readers is a safe, dull and (to me) insulting way to enter the retail market. Yes, there is reference to “our curators’ assessments” (sheesh, that word) but these titles seem confined to a “staff-favorites section” rather than as part of a buyer’s decision to mix up the inventory.

[Plus: The staff-favorites section at Amazon Books includes several of Jeff Bezos’ own picks, isn’t that cozy? Maybe we’re supposed to think, Oh good, Dad’s entered into the fun, since one of his favorites is Traps by his wife, MacKenzie Bezos. Aw, Dad. you old softie.]

What’s missing at Amazon Books is that element of risk and adventure you can sense the minute you walk into an independent bookstore. Of course, best-selling titles are everywhere in an indie bookseller, but so are books by authors nobody’s heard of who may be so original and fresh they just have to be read. Unknown, controversial, up-from-nowhere works may not appeal to everybody — they may, in fact, take your head off with their decidedly UNpopular views or style — but heavens, what kind of democracy would we have without that kind of choice?

So it isn’t just that Amazon Books looks like an expensive chain restaurant that’s been overdesigned in wood and signage. (How much of the interior is “eco friendly” or derived from “reclaimed local materials” is not stated.) Rather, everything feels so tidy, so received, so Soviet, so data-molded that a blandness and prudency seem to settle over the place.

I’m sure many titles at Amazon Books do challenge us, but hell, you can get that kind of surprise from a spin rack in a drug store. What makes me nervous is the promise of statistical rankings (“4.8 Stars and Above”) that guarantee conformity.

What does novelist Elizabeth Egan have to say about all this? A Window Opens shows how an Internet company like Amazon/Scroll not only limits our choices in books but corrupts the very language we use about the book business. Granted, fashions in word use come and go, like using “curate” because it sounds classier than “select,” or tossing in the term “carbon-based” so you’ll feel guilty about — well, whatever it describes. But fashions are always short-term, thank heaven. The day everybody gets sick of “iconic” will herald a national holiday that I hope comes soon.

What scares me is that the narrowing of language leads to a narrowing of imagination, as represented in Egan’s novel by Greg and the Scroll team. When workers see no difference between the TENANTS and the TENETS of Winners — or like Alice they can’t say they do without sounding unAmerican — the core message of Amazon/Scroll turns out to be: Stay low, use approved buzz words, don’t read (who has time?), be a team player, lean out and shut up.

One last thing about A Window Opens: It’s a great send-up by a former employee of the metastacized Amazon empire that’s consuming the world. But it’s also a very good commercial novel with its own twists and surprises, its unexpectedly poignant moments about raising children and its intriguing subplots, some of which don/t involve an expose of Amazon.

Woven throughout, for example, are Alice’s brother, seemingly liberated from capitalism; her dad’s throat cancer (and the “Buzz Lightyear” appliance he uses for a voicebox); the children’s adjustment to Mom’s insane new job; and Nicholas’ own, very rocky transition from up-and-comer to failure to scaredy cat to independent thinker and Dad.

Plus there’s a very intriguing conflict between Alice and her best friend, who owns a terrific independent bookstore that may be the first to be knocked off by Scroll. This store seems to be similar to Elisabeth Egan’s own neighborhood bookstore, Watchung Booksellers (of Watchung Plaza in Montclair, New Jersey).

Remembering how much she has valued this store, Egan commented recently that “Watchung Booksellers is the first place that my kids walked to alone.” This was just a casual comment made without much thought, but it’s a tribute as touching as anything Alice Pearce says in the book. It means that the first time you let your kids walk anywhere on their own, you want the destination to be a trusted place where people know your children and keep an eye out to make sure they arrive safely. Local retail stores are like that, bookstores especially, because kids already know the way to story-time events, circle-time readings and the like.

Egan signing books at Watchung Booksellers

Egan signing books at Watchung Booksellers

And, more important than I thought at first, A Window Opens is the story of yet another mother trying to “have it all” by going back to work in a job environment so dictatorial and punishing that it may ruin her life. Here is Alice’s advice to the family’s indispensable baby sitter — who at 18 is leaving the family to start her own career- but the message applies to many:

“… please don’t waste time wondering whether it’s possible to ‘have it all.’ Banish the expression from your vocabulary; make sure your friends do, too. A better question is What do you really want? Diving headlong into the second quarter of your life without asking this question is like going grocery shopping without a list. You’ll end up with a full cart but nothing to cook for dinner. Figure out what you feel like eating, and then come up with your own recipe for the whole messy, delicious enchilada.”

This is in character for Alice but I’m kind of disappointed that she didn’t say what A Window Opens tells us, that “having it all” is a family thing. Everybody gets to have it all if everybody pitches in. Husbands need to balance priorities – not just to do the dishes or pick up the kids up but to assume full partnership with Mom and tackle that surprising array of family needs — and, most of all, experiencing those unpredictable heart-stopping moments when the kids do something that’s hilarious and serious and in character for the self-actualized beings they are still to become.

I think that’s what the book really proposes. It’s sort of a fictional take on Sandberg’s Lean In, and again I’m impressed that for all we learn about Amazon-type companies “reinventing the future” in an alarmingly bland, somewhat willy-nilly and domineering fashion, the book’s most valuable inside look is at our own humanity in the face of enormous change.