Sunday, January 29, 2012

Who Wrote Dante’s Inferno? Booksellers Really Wish You Knew.

Dante wants to know: Who wrote my Inferno?
Anyone who works in a bookstore or library is used to the mangled titles. In between giving directions to the bathroom (the number one bookstore request of all time), we keep a poker face while fielding inquiries about The Count of Monte Crisco and How to Kill a Mockingbird. It’s easy not to crack, mostly because of how often the same twisted titles get repeated.

What never ceases to boggle the mind, though, is the number one non-bathroom question customers ask over and over again.

Who wrote Dante’s Inferno?

No joke, it’s something bookstore customers really want to know, and with alarming frequency. It’s tricky to keep from sounding curt when answering  “Dante,” but it’s the correct and only response, despite the temptation to wickedly answer “Nostradamus” or even “Jackie Collins.”

I’m not sure why it’s poor Dante alone who falls prey to this phenomenon (though The Diary of Anne Frank gets occasional questions about its authorship, presumably by people who think it’s a work of fiction.)

No one ever walks in the door and asks, say, “Who wrote Shakespeare’s Hamlet?” or “Do you happen to know the author of Judy Blume’s Superfudge?” No, it’s Dante and The Inferno alone that befuddle students and mature adults alike.

Friends from other bookstores confirm that they hear it too, and so do librarians. And, to add to my astonishment, not only do people take to the Internet to ask who wrote Dante’s most famous work, but the Internet sometimes gets it shockingly wrong.  (Screenshot below.)

So, just to be clear to anyone who pulls this article up in a search because they --like thousands of other bookstore customers across the country-- need to know who wrote Dante’s Inferno-- the answer you’re looking for is Dante.

But of course you knew that.


Book shop employees and other folks: What are some of the most bizarre questions you've heard? And who wrote Dante's Inferno?

Friday, January 27, 2012

All Roads Lead to Book Dirt: Baby Beatnik Edition

Book Dirt: for all your baby beatnik needs, apparently.

One of the unexpectedly hilarious perks of blogging comes from checking blog statistics. There among the page view numbers and traffic maps, I can also see which search terms led people my way.

In the case of Book Dirt, plenty of the folks who happened across my articles found them while entering the search terms “old books,” which means I must be doing something right.

Sometimes, though, the search terms that led readers to Book Dirt are downright confounding, leading me to scratch my head and wonder, “What on Earth were they looking for?”, “Why did they click Book Dirt in the search results?”  --or even, “Should I notify the F.B.I.?”

Here are some recent bizarre searches from folks who landed on this page, whether they meant to or not.


Search term: baby beatnik

What they were looking for: An overtly niche-specific doll? A hipster cartoon in the Muppet Babies vein? Parenting advice on raising bongo-playing progeny?

What they found: My post on beatnik spoofs, which, though it contains everything from Herman Munster spouting impromptu beat poetry to a hippie-fied Steve Buscemi, the post is 100% baby free.

Search term: novel where man lives life from fortune cookie fortunes

What they were looking for: Probably Matt Kelsey who spent a year opening fortune cookies and letting the results guide his daily routine. While Matt’s (now defunct) blog isn’t exactly a novel, with so many bloggers getting book deals these days, it’s an easy mistake.

What they found: Book Dirt’s story on professional fortune cookie writers.
Search term: morgue metal table

What they were looking for: I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that the searcher wanted a table for a morgue? Either that, or they have a whimsicle interior decorator. Turns out, one can buy morgue tables online, even morgue tables for two.

What they found: Write a Mystery Novel, WIn a Morgue, which still doesn’t have a winner yet, so keep voting.

Search term: pepe the king prawn cakes

What they were looking for: Given the number of Muppet confections photographed in blogs, a Pepe fan must have wanted an example of his favorite prawn star rendered in fondant. (I could only find one. It’s a group shot, and not the most flattering image of Pepe.)

What they found: The 10 Best Books Written by Muppets, which does include Pepe’s literary masterpiece, but is sadly devoid of recipes, unless you count Oscar’s Chunky Fish Ice Cream.

Search term: stuff related to Chinua Achebe

What they were looking for: Stuff related to Chinua Achebe, though this person needs a crash course on better search terms. Information about...? Facts on...?

What they found: Stuff related to Chinua Achebe, most notably his legal brouhaha with 50 Cent. Perhaps “stuff” isn’t the worst search term after all.

Stay tuned for more odd search terms, or even better: Subscribe to Book Dirt via RSS or email (see feeds to the right), and thumbs-up that Facebook icon while you’re at it for bonus bizarre Book Dirt bookishness.

Bloggers: Do you check your search term stats? What are some weird ones that led people to your blog?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

George W. Bush Spotted on a Pulp Fiction Cover

Nicolas Cage isn’t the only one to pop up unexpectedly on book covers (both a Serbian textbook and a children’s history book).

During a recent browse through the huge cover archives at the blog Those Sexy Vintage Sleaze Books, I spotted a disturbingly familiar face on the cover of Charles Willeford’s Honey Gal: George W. Bush.

Honey Gal and Dubya. The sheep's in the meadow and the cow's in the corn, no doubt.

I don’t normally recoil when I see W’s visage, but when he (or his doppelganger) is sprawled under a haystack grasping confusedly at a busty barefoot vixen, I get caught off guard.

There’s no record of young Bush doing any modeling for pulp mystery paperback cover artists in his pre-prez days, but I can definitely hear him uttering the expression “honey gal.”

"Mr. Willeford, I'm ready for my close-up." (Photo via

For those who don’t know Charles Willeford’s work, don’t be too put off by the sensational packaging. He’s actually quite readable (though I haven’t read Honey Gal.)

Both The Pick-Up and The Woman Chaser are fine examples of pulp mystery. The latter was made into an odd (though worth watching) little film of the same name with the also-odd-but-worth-watching Patrick Warburton, whom you might remember as TV’s real-life version of The Tick.

Spotted any famous doubles on book jackets? Let me know. Book Dirt is poised to become the repository for celebrity book cover sightings.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

8 Famous People You Never Knew Wrote Mysteries

From strippers to TV stars to U.S. presidents, a collection of unlikely mystery authors that just might surprise you.

Mystery novels sometimes take place in star-studded settings: the murder happens in a Hollywood movie studio or backstage in a Shakespearean theatre. Sometimes the victims themselves are rising starlets, news anchormen or notable politicians. But, in several cases, the famous folks have actually written mysteries themselves, trading the limelight for a backbreaking desk chair (or, at least in quite a few cases, their ghostwriters did).

Abraham Lincoln, not long after his lawyer days.
Abraham Lincoln: "The Trailor Murder Mystery"

Much is made of the fact that Franklin Roosevelt once suggested a mystery novel plot (The President's Mystery, which later became a movie), but less well known is the fact that Abraham Lincoln actually penned a mystery short story himself.

Technically a true crime piece, Lincoln's story is a retelling of a murder case which involved the Trailor brothers, whom he defended at trial in 1841. The piece was originally titled "A Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder," but is known under its present title since Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine reprinted it in 1952.

Lincoln was a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, and that could well have been his motivation for writing out the Trailor brothers' case, which has a real-life twist ending worthy of a master. The story ran on the front page of The Quincy Whig on April 15, 1846, five years after the trial. (Full text here.)

Lee or Rice: Who did the writing?
Gypsy Rose Lee: The G-String Murders

The first striptease artist to become a household name, Gypsy Rose Lee turned her reknowned burlesque gig into an acting career, then added another slash in 1941 when she became a stripper/actress/writer. The G-String Murders is a wise-cracking (what's now know known as snarky) murder story set in the burlesque milieu, where characters have names like Lolita LaVerne and Biff Brannigan, and strippers are found strangled to death by their own skimpy G-Strings.

Lee casts herself as the novel's detective (a trope used to great effect today by mystery writer Kinky Friedman), though some claim the book was actually penned by Craig Rice. Biographers say that written evidence proves Lee wrote at least a large amount of the book, if not all, with Rice only offering advice. The Feminist Press reprinted the book in 2005.

Maybe in Margaritaville?

Jimmy Buffett:
Where Is Joe Merchant?

In between the cheeseburgers and the lost salt shaker searches, the son of a son of a sailor has done more than just pen songs. In fact, Jimmy Buffett has written seven books, including children's stories autobiographical meanderings and a couple of novels.

Where is Joe Merchant?
is a mystery novel with a missing rock star, who may or may not be dead, at its center. It's also crammed full of Buffett-style good-natured goofiness, including a one-armed soldier of fortune, a psychic named Desdemona and a villain with eyeballs tattooed on his eyelids.

A spy in the House.
Hugh Laurie: The Gun Seller

Several years before American households knew him as House (though British TV fans already knew him as Bertie Wooster and Blackadder's King George), Hugh Laurie wrote a corker of a mystery novel. The Gun Seller is further proof (along with playing the piano) that Laurie can do just about anything and do it quite well.

Laurie cites Kyril Bonfilglioli as one of his favorite writers, and the influence shows. The Gun Seller is a witty send-up of the spy genre, with sort of a Wodehouse-meets-James-Bond vibe. Though the book first appeared in 1998, a planned sequel, The Paper Soldier, has yet to appear. Release dates of 2007 and 2009 have come and gone, with Laurie himself admitting that the book is "very, very late." Astute fans believe that The Paper Soldier won't be written until House runs its course.

Total Zone = Totally ghostwritten?
Martina Navratilova: Jordan Myles series

Billie Jean King once said of tennis star Martina Navratolova, "She's the greatest singles, doubles and mixed doubles player who's ever lived." Does that kind of talent translate to mystery writing --or even co-writing, as the case may be? Not necessarily. Navratilova's three books, The Total Zone, Breaking Point, and Killer Instinct, have mixed reviews, but the athlete may have had little to do with the actual writing of them.

The three-book series is co-written by Liz Nickles (also author of some lackluster women's fiction). The main character, Jordan Myles, is a tennis champ-turned-sports therapist who becomes embroiled in murder cases, always in a tennis milieu. Some critics have speculated that Navratilova's contribution may be in name only, especially as some glaring tennis-related errors have slipped through. One reader has questioned whether Navratilova even read the final draft of The Total Zone at all.

Smaller than a breadbox.
Steve Allen: The Talk Show Murders (and more)

When Steve Allen died in 2000, a lot of people were surprised to find that the multi-talented actor, composer, and possible inventor of the expression "Is it bigger than a breadbox?" had more than forty books to his credit. In addition to poetry, short stories, grumblings about the ignorance of the masses, and other books, Allen wrote a whopping ten mysteries.

Allen couldn't have picked a more charismatic main character: himself. Like Gypsy Rose Lee, Allen solves fictitious mysteries --along with wife Jayne Meadows-- while otherwise doing things the real-life Steve Allen would do. Murder in Vegas, for example, finds Allen and Meadows doing some sleuthing in between Allen's nightclub shows.

Not brought to you by Smucker's.
Willard Scott: Murder Under Blue Skies (and sequel)

The Today Show's former weatherman, one of the original Ronald McDonalds, and voice of Smuckers Willard Scott is also the co-author of a pair of meteorological mysteries. It's uncertain how much actual writing Scott may have done, but considering that his co-author is writer  Bill Crider, he of the five pages-worth of titles on Amazon (and blogging phenomenon), it's a good bet that Scott's contributions were largely related to checking the weather.

Just as he replaced Scott on The Today Show, Al Roker has also picked up the mantle of weatherman-who-also-writes-mysteries. Roker is on his third of the Billy Blessing books, featuring a chef who does talk show cooking segments. Roker's partner in crime is New Orleans mystery writer Dick Lochte.

Is there anything Asimov didn't write?
Isaac Asimov: Murder at the ABA, Black Widowers mysteries, many more

Nothing produced by Asimov should be shocking, really. We're talking about the man the OED credits with inventing the term robotics, after all. Even though he wrote some of the best-known science fiction works in the genre plus a whole slew of non-fiction works on topics from Shakespeare to quasars, (and is even a doll), Asimov still seems to surprise people with his mystery novels.

Asimov wrote a staggering 120 mystery stories, some of which had a sci-fi bent, but more than half featuring the Black Widowers club. The Black Widowers mysteries are masterpieces of puzzle-type mysteries, involving real deduction, brain teasers, and often word play. He also wrote full-length mystery novels, including Murder at the ABA, which includes Asimov himself as a character, and a detective based on none other than Harlan Ellison.

Famous names appear on book jackets outside the mystery genre, too. What are some that you've encountered?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Quotable: McMurtry fails, Harry Dean Stanton rules, and more

Hans Sloane: "Get yer dadgum crumpet off my First Folio."
Sometimes I come across lines in articles --or even in the comments section-- that strike me as particularly clever, funny or apt. Book Dirt’s new Quotable roundup will regularly collect my favorite one-liners as I trawl around the Internet reading about books and writing.

These are some recent I-wish-I-wrote-that bits from around the web. The articles the quotes are pulled from are all well worth a read.


  • “It’s slightly embarrassing to have to admit that the best book you read all year was Anna Karenina. It’s a bit like saying that you’ve been listening to an album called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club by these Beatles kids out of Liverpool and that, yes, you can confidently reveal that they were definitely onto something.” - Mark O’Connell at The Millions

O’Connell’s best-of-the-year wrap-up includes modern fiction too, so don’t worry: he’s not stuck in the classics --just plenty well-balanced.


  • “Waiter! I think we’re done here.” - David Daley at

Harper’s magazine’s newest book reviewer is none other than Larry McMurtry, but Daley is sure that the writer is no Zadie Smith (Harper’s former critic.) Daley gives a blow-by-blow of McMurtry’s first column that wittily takes apart “the worst new book critic in America.” 


  • “The way I see it, if your hero can't be played by Harry Dean Stanton, you're on the wrong track.” - User comment at The Guardian

The UK’s Guardian ran a useful feature in which well-known crime writers recommended their own favorite crime writers. Some of the best recommendations --as well as commentary like the quote above from user name Henrylloydmoon-- are found in the comments section. 


Prolific writer (and reader) K.C. Shaw reviews books across a dizzying array of genres (YA, mystery, fantasy --ratkeeping?), and with a refreshing degree of straight-to-the-point honesty. From another review: “Brock scratches his beard so much in this one that I wondered if he had a skin condition, or fleas.”


  • “Did Sloane realize the peril his collection might be in, if left open to the slings and arrows of outrageous baked goods?” - Beth Dunn at Wonders & Marvels

This absolutely delightful piece on how a buttered muffin may have (seriously) inspired the founding of the British Museum is a perfect blending of humor and history. Beth Dunn has both an enviable writing style and a firm grasp on reality. 


Note: As this is the first installment of Quotable, a few of the articles have been languishing on my desktop for a time. While they’re all still wonderfully relevant, the next batch should be much more fresh.

Give these quotable folks a visit, and let me know what you think. Comments welcome.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Amazing Stop-Motion Bookstore Video: How Many Titles Can You Spot?

Short film fans know that it’s usually toys that come to life after the shop closes up. At Type bookstore in Toronto, the books on the shelves have lives of their own after dark.

This short video ‘Joy of Books’ was made by art director Sean Ohlenkamp, who teamed with the bookstore to painstakingly create the stop motion effects over four nights.

‘Joy of Books’ has already gone viral (racking up 27,000 views in just one day), and part of the success seems to be its resonance with book lovers.

 The Joy of Books - Stop-Motion Bookshop Video

Part of the fun is in spotting book titles. Those who work around books will see titles, cover art, and even recognizable publishing imprints fly by.

These are some of the titles I’ve spotted. If you’re a fan of Where’s Waldo, you can try to check these off.

  • 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created
  • David Lynch’s Works on Paper
  • Hoopla: The Art of Unexpected Embroidery
  • Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
  • Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore
  • The Damned UTD by David Peace
  • The Anthology of Rap
  • The Veganomicon
  • Kraken by China Mieville
  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  • Moby Dick
  • Kenneth Silverman’s bio of John Cage

Does this mean we need to add a 26th reason to Why Real Books Are Here to Stay?

Did you spot any additional titles? Add them in the comments section.

Book Dirt is now on Facebook! Look for the 'Like' button in the right-hand sidebar. 


Sunday, January 1, 2012

25 Reasons Real Books Are Here to Stay

The e-book publishers would have us believe that paper books are being rounded up to cries of “Bring out yer dead” and dumped by the cartload into burning plague pits.

Don’t sound the death knell just yet.
Old books in a Czech castle. (Maurizio Abbate/Creative Commons License)

While printed book sales figures are down (like everything else), the industry still generates billions of dollars per year while e-books are still in the high millions, not to mention the fact that folks are still willing to plonk down $75 for a coffee table art book.

Just check the comments section of any article predicting doom for paper books and you’ll find a near-rabid gang of defenders who say you’ll have to pry their ARDs (Ancient Reading Devices) out of their cold, dead hands.

Why do some of us prefer books made of trees? The easy answer is that you either get it or you don’t, but for those who don’t, here are 25 reasons some of us --even those of us who own Kindles on the side-- will always love our pulp.

1. Reading in the bathtub.

Or by the pool. Or in a light drizzle. E-readers don’t take kindly to getting wet, and the warranty often doesn’t cover damage. A cheap paperback, though, is made all the more sentimental once the two of you have had a bubble bath or two together. (And you won’t have to frantically stick it in a bag of rice afterward.

Don't try this with a Kindle. (goldsardine/Creative Commons License)

2. Re-selling.

Once you buy a print copy of a book, it’s yours. You can sell or trade it at the used bookstore for more books, auction it off on eBay, make some extra nickels at your next garage sale or swap it for magic beans.

3. Gift-giving.

Books still make lovely gifts (which is why they sell like the dickens at Christmas time), and downloads are hell to try to wrap.

4. Sharing.

Passing on books is one way that readers maintain bonds with their friends and family. Sure, you can still read the same books on your e-readers --and simultaneously-- but the sharing and passing around of the book itself is almost sacred. (Yet another “You get it or you don’t” example.)

5. Collections.

Some people merely read books, others read and collect. The curating of a book collection is as satisfying to some as collecting art, antiques or glass menageries is to others.

6. Book signings.

There’s no way around this one. If you’re an avid fan of a particular writer, the sine quo non of your collection  is a copy signed by the author herself. No author wants to inscribe “Never forget the bloaters” across your Nook with a metallic Sharpie. Book signings require books.

7. Reading on airplanes.

You can open a paperback anytime you want, without the flight attendant’s say-so. What’s more, you can ditch a cheap book at the hotel when you’re done with it, freeing it for someone else to read, and lightening your luggage at the same time.

8. Shopping.

Sure, the web makes it easy to browse books, even to peek inside a little. Shopping for print books allows you to read as much as you like, though, and see a book’s size and scope, as well as who else is reading what. Shopping for books doesn’t just mean hitting Barnes & Noble, but also digging through the bargain bins at the warehouses, searching for gems at the antique book shops, or finding boxes of forgotten ephemera at estate sales. 

Browsing for books is part of being a reader. (_SiD_/Creative Commons License)

9. Showing off.

It’s something few people want to admit, but sometimes some of us want people to admire our books, and admire us for the books we choose. Displaying a book collection is part of it, but also showing the world what we’re reading when we read in public, revealing our intellect, our beliefs, our romantic nature, etc. as the case may be. Taking an unusual title with you to the coffee shop is also a sure way to spark a conversation if you need company.  

10. Hiding things.

If books go completely digital, where will anyone stow away a secret stash? In a de-gutted Kindle? That hollowed-out copy of Alice in Wonderland will be pretty easy for thieves or cops to spot if it’s the only print book in the house.

11. Pop ups and fuzzy parts.

Yes, the technology for interactive e-book displays is amazing, but they still can’t duplicate the surprise of having a pop-up literally leap out of the book. And what about Pat the Bunny? (Yes, there’s an app.) Will the next generation of children think rabbit fur feels like glass?

Classic lit that literally pops off the page. Try this, Nook! (abrinsky/Creative Commons License)

12. Appreciation.

The financial kind. Downloads have pretty much no value once you buy them, except in personal reward. Many books, though, can increase in value over time. First editions, limited editions and specialized titles just may see you through your retirement if you choose wisely.

13. Choice.

With out-of-print books becoming available and digital self-publishing made easy, it would seem as if more books are available than ever. That’s only partly true. Plenty of obscure books will never be digitized. Titles are lost any time there’s an upgrade in technology. Just as some silent film reels were never converted to VHS and many VHS titles were never converted to DVD, publishers make choices about what’s worth converting. Some things don’t make the cut.

14. Art.

Don’t hate books because they’re beautiful. And boy, are they. There are few other consumable items that people want to decorate their homes with. Book-lined walls are gorgeous, as swoon-worthy as The Marriage Plot claims to be.

And, not just as collections, books can also be real stunners as individual specimens. Leather bindings and gilt edges can’t be reproduced digitally. They just can’t. Popular paperbacks count, too. Those ultra-cool pulp covers from the fifties didn’t seem like anything special when they were new. Even today’s mass market paperbacks may be tomorrow’s collectible objets d’art.

Old book as objet d'art. (jsbanks42/Creative Commons License)

15. Sentiment.

The book itself can evoke memories in a way a download can’t. No one stores old PDFs in a hope chest, inscribes them to a child, or returns one in anger to an erstwhile lover. If print books disappear, a lot of flowers will go unpressed.

16. Posterity

Bequeathing a well-curated collection of books to a library or university is a way of passing on one’s love for a subject from beyond the grave. You don’t have to be a rich collector, either. Passing down books to a family member who will love them can be appreciated just as much even if the books are romance novels or comics.

17. Permanence.

Technology can fail. So can companies. Because the technology is so new, your e-reader probably won’t even be compatible with digital books in the future. (Can you play 8 tracks on your CD player? Or Atari games on your X-Box? So long, e-books you already bought.) Your print books, though, will always be readable, come mergers or apocalypse.

18. Security.

No one will mug you for a copy of The Hours. And if someone does steal your backpack with your book in it, you won’t lose your entire collection.

19. Burning.

Not that any of us would participate in such a thing, but in a society that allows free speech, the burning of books is a powerful political statement that has no substitute. (The small upside to organized book burnings is that people often purchase the books solely to destroy in public, thereby supporting the very thing they decry.)

20. Motivation.

Having a stack of unread books by the nightstand is a hard-to-ignore reminder that you need to catch up on your reading. With e-readers, there’s no physical difference no matter how many books you buy.

21. Reference.

When doing academic research, the ability to have more than one book open and glance back and forth between them is crucial. (Even Thomas Jefferson invented a bookstand to do just that.) While tabbing back and forth is useful, it’s no substitute for seeing multiple pages at once.

22. Power.

Books don’t need it. Just the energy in your index finger, which is infinitely renewable.

23. Smell.

You knew it was coming. If there’s one thing that separates the old-school book people from the technophiles it’s this. There’s no faking it, and there’s no explaining what old book smell does and means. 

Don't you wish you could scratch and sniff to smell the magic? (Moyann_Brenn/Creative Commons License)

24. Magic.

Opening a book is a powerful action. If you don’t believe it, you’ve never been young and/or you’re not reading the right things. It’s a signifier. It embodies possibility in a way that pushing a button can’t. It’s like the difference between coolly clicking a remote to unlock your car and slowly turning an old skeleton key in a big wooden door. What happens next?

25. Having your books and reading them too.

Owning an e-reader doesn’t mean giving up on books, and plenty of readers --especially the lifelong book addicts-- have both. There’s even evidence that e-readers may ultimately be a boost to the print book industry, as readers try new authors, then want to own hard copies (for the various reasons outlined above.)

Why do you love print books? Maybe there could be 26 reasons. Weigh in, and Book Dirt will update to add any new answers.