I just heard a segment of NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday describing a little magazine that has just started publication in Washington D.C., called Bit ‘o Lit.
Bit o’ Lit is a booklet-sized magazine that is handed out for free to commuters in Washington, DC as they board the bus or train on Monday evenings. The booklet’s primary contents are book excerpts, paid for by publishers, which passengers read on their ride home.
We believe that while readers support the idea of reading new books, in practice, they are hesitant to risk their time and money on untested books or authors. This is undeniably why there were no new authors among the thirty bestselling books last year.
With Bit o’ Lit, we give readers samples of new books at the key time: when they are bored on their long ride home. Thus, Bit o’ Lit brings new authors to the public’s attention in an unprecedented way. Readers will be able to judge for themselves whether or not they enjoy the writing.
You can read a more detailed history of the idea here. Although zeroing in on bored commuters is clever, what seems more clever about the magazine is that it consists almost entirely of advertising, but advertising of a useful sort, namely substantial excerpts from books which the reader can use to decide whether the entire book might be worth their time and money.
It made me think that it would be fun to edit a similar magazine, one devoted to highlighting important books which people are no longer reading. My own recent reading—really, most of my reading for the past twenty years—has centered on books that may or may not have made a splash when they were first published, but by now are nearly forgotten, usually based on the recommendation of writers and thinkers that I respect. Just a few weeks ago I stumbled across a short article by Richard Heinberg, a Peak Oil expert, naming three books that he thinks are very important: Captains of Consciousness by Stuart Ewen, Overshoot by William Catton, and Imperial San Francisco by Gray Brechin. I was especially intrigued that none of the books are about Peak Oil, and so I ordered all three. I’ve now finished the first two, and I agree with Heinberg; they are certainly among the best one hundred or so books that I’ve ever read.
For awhile I thought that bring such books to people’s attention would be a major part of what we did with our bookstore, and we do in fact carry a few of the very best. But our emphasis on carrying books that we can enthusiastically recommend tends to work against adding such books to the catalog. For example, I have often thought of carrying Daniel Boorstin’s book The Image, because Boorstin is a clear and insightful writer, and that particular book taught me important things about the dramatic social changes that were caused by the introduction of mass-produced images. But the subject is a bit too quirky for us; it could be very important to certain of our customers, but we can’t assume that most of them would benefit from it as much as we have.
Would a magazine that consisted of well-chosen four-to-eight-page excerpts from such books be valuable? I think so. Most of them would probably be engaging enough to make them worth reading, would contain a couple of ideas worth pondering, and would offer the hope of discovering a book important enough to buy and read. Could such a project be done economically, i.e. in a way that would reach the right audience to make the work worthwhile? I don’t know. Right now it’s just a thought experiment. Your opinions are welcome, as well as any suggestions you might have about how the idea might be fine tuned.