Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Review of the Second Edition of Off-Topic

Preface to the Review:

Several weeks before Christmas, I was charged with writing the review to announce the publication of the print edition of Off-Topic, that which we are now calling the Second Edition. There were many changes and quite a few sacrifices we had to make before any online publisher would take our book and distribute it. As it stands now, we can offer the book for sale from both Amazon and Book Depository - which as any discerning person knows, is actually one and the same company. It was not easy, but now that we have finally made it, I hope you will join us on this final part of the journey.

Dear Reader,

I am pleased to announce the publication of the print edition of Off-Topic, a book we, the editors, began distributing for free several months ago, in eBook format. Everyone worked very hard, laboring over editorial decisions which only became harder, discovering tiny errors that had slipped through unnoticed for too long, and in my case, refining the cover, checking the spelling of 'protesters' and making sure we agreed on the gender of Ms. Reader.

It is with great sadness and trepidation that I tell you that our book, belonging to you as well as the editors, had been censored by people more careful than ourselves. An author whose name was not mentioned in the book, and whom I may presume has not read our book, notified lulu.com of abusive content that had been found within and our labor of passion was removed. Readers, lulu.com cannot be blamed.

When I was younger my understanding of publishing began and ended with the movie The Russia House. My journey through  the movie was guided by Michelle Pfeiffer and Sean Connery's attempts to publish a book while traveling around the Soviet Union. I didn't understand why the book in question couldn't be published in the USSR (not until I saw The Lives of Others) but I understood what censorship was as soon as I knew what banned books were.

This book isn't about authors or even books, not really. I will concede that some of the contributors to this essay collection are authors in their own right, and that we are book lovers, all of us, without exception. What unites us is that we don't want our books, our privacy, or our expression compromised. This book was about compromising our relationship with the books we read and the people we share that with.

My job in this book was relatively small. I scoured Creative Commons for quality photography to replace pictures we could not legally distribute, adjusted my cover concepts as the editors weighed in, and moved pixels back and forth as we debated titles. We needed something dramatic - but self-mockingly so. We do take this very seriously, despite our jokes and laughter. If you've read Franz Kafka's The Trial, or, never mind that, if you've read Gibson's essay, reprinted in our collection, you see the big picture. Our plight began with reviews posted which did not follow a strict book-report formula, gushing criticism hard to swallow for many, and continued, in vague wordings, enforced in bizarre ways, to the kinds of essays found within this book, the type of review our community thrived on. Our book no longer focused on authors mislead into a world occupied by naïve consumers, but on those who continued to interact as they had before, albeit some a little more loudly, hoping to test the boundaries.

I understand that this picture may not be as clear to those who are not affected by the Patriot Act. Or those who have not lived or whose parents or grandparents have not lived under an oppressive regime - I have had the the misfortune of having all three. My grandparents lived to tell of The Third Reich, extended family survived the Iranian Revolution, lived in The Eastern Block.

To typists poised to tell me I'm seeing things, that I'm abusive, that I'm only ensuring that loud jerks continue to run their mouths, I would like to ask a question. Are you contributing to a culture without privacy or freedom intentionally or unintentionally? Our possessions have been sold, our words constrained and you have turned tail and run. Or you've enabled the powers that be to take far more control than when we joined this virtual community. By saying 'this is the way things are' are you willingly giving up rights you never thought you had?

Then again, we write our reviews for an oligarchy, lest we forget. We catalog in full view of the public and company employed statisticians. I may not like what you have to say, but I fully support your right to say it, comrade. This is the not Soviet Block, not by any easy stretch of the imagination, but I find my ability to stomach being a reviewer on Goodreads, not more than a piece of data, just as difficult as waking up under a dictator's iron fist. While I won't self-censor either, I certainly won't become a mere piece of data to be mined.

It is a rule of the internet that if you are not paying for something, you are the commodity for sale. This has become alarmingly apparent since Goodreads was sold. This book was a selected reaction to this rude awakening. With this revision we hoped to have a modern gift to give for Christmas. Due to the wrench thrown in our plans by misguided individuals and overly-prudent IT peeps, we had to find a new distributor and are now able to offer you a beautiful print edition from Amazon or Book Depository. Believe me, some editors suffered at my hand because I simply could not keep my file formats and fonts straight. But it's finally here. I've ordered my copy and hope that you will read this book. if you haven't already, and continue to pass along the word. And friends, continue to be off-topic.

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