Books for life

A reader has written to say how tough it is to find good business biographies. He's enjoying Driven to Succeed, the book about Frank Hasenfratz I co-authored with Susan M. Papp, and wondered if I could recommend others. Here are six of my favourites: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson; Harrison McCain by Donald Savoie; The Reichmanns by Anthony Bianco; A Gentleman of the Press by Floyd Chalmers; Titan, Ron Chernow on John D. Rockefeller; and Iacocca, the 1984 book by William Novak that set the standard for ghost-written business memoirs.

Books have deep meaning in my life. I was lucky enough to have a father who taught me how to read before I went to kindergarten. He'd sit with me at bedtime and listen to my early struggles pronouncing words like "gnaw" as guh-naw in The Adventures of Danny Meadow Mouse by Thornton W. Burgess. I can still recall his patient explanation about how the "g" was silent. I was four at the time. Among others, I went through all the Burgess books, the Hardy Boys, Freddy the Pig, the brave heroes of G. A. Henty and the twenty-volume-set of the Book of Knowledge in the half dozen years that followed.

By the time I was ten, I'd read everything in the children's section of the Guelph Public Library and was allowed to get an adult card. But not all adult books. I was maybe fourteen when I tried to check out By Love Possessed by James Gould Cozzens. Said the librarian as she put the book on a shelf behind her, "I don't think your mother would want you reading that." Ah, the merits and demerits of living in a small town.

Even buying second-hand books used to be a memorable pursuit. There was a time it could take months to track down a title. I vividly remember finally finding Peter C. Newman's first book, Flame of Power, in a used bookshop in Elora, Ontario, and Memory's Wall, by Lady Eaton, on Harbord Street in Toronto. It's way easier now, but there's no thrill of the hunt buying online from Abebooks or Alibris.

My six favourite books of all time are Goodbye, Darkness by William Manchester, any one of Robert Caro's series on Lyndon Johnson, Surfacing by Margaret Atwood (her only readable book), A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, Gentlemen, Players & Politicians by Dalton Camp, and Jane Leavy's book on Mickey Mantle, The Last Boy

And if you asked for my one hundred favourites, I could rattle off that list, too. 


The merits of mediocrity

A year ago, there were six female premiers in Canada. Now, for various reasons, there are only two. Life remains tough at the top for women in the professions, too. Of the 193 Lexpert Ranked Lawyers pictured in the ROB Magazine distributed today, only 15 per cent are women. And this in a field where for two decades women have comprised 50 per cent of the law school graduates. Some of the banks and other corporations are making progress with female director appointments following a push by the Ontario Securities Commission, but full boardroom equality remains a distant, forlorn hope.

Some women in politics are not helping the cause of the sisterhood. There have been allegations about expense account and travel fiddles made against women in three levels of government: former Alberta Premier Alison Redford, Senator Pamela Wallin, and Susan Fennell, the mayor of Brampton, Ont. All of these complaints appear to fall into the category of a sense of entitlement, a failing that catches men at the top, too. Conrad Black, Garth Drabinsky and Alan Eagleson, all of whom went to jail, come to mind. 

But rather than commit major fraud, as do many men who go astray, women seem to get ensared by spending issues, just like the stereotypical female shopper. As for real equality, that day will only arrive when numerous mediocre women are promoted. Lord knows there have been too many mediocre men in charge for far too many years. 

Your money or your life

The current ruckus between retail giant and publisher Hachette will have a huge impact on the publishing industry. Amazon already dominates the retail book business. There used to be numerous bookstores along Bloor Street over the 10 km between my house in the west end and Yonge Street in downtown Toronto. Now there is one.

To date, no one has given much consideration to authors, nor is that likely to change. A group of 900 authors took out a full-page ad last week in the New York Times to protest Amazon's monopoly power, but the public won't rally to the cause. They like the convenience of e-books online; lower prices are a bonus. The standard price for an ebook is $16.99. Amazon wants to sell at $9.99. If that happens, the outcome will be costly for authors and publishers who are, after all, two of the three legs in the book sales stool. 

Readers have already been getting a good deal. Hard cover book prices haven't even kept pace with inflation. In the thirty years I've been writing books the retail price of a book has risen 50 per cent while inflation is up more than 100 per cent. As for income, royalties remain 10 per cent of list whether it's a hard cover or e-book. At $9.99, an author makes $1 versus $3 for a hardcover. As e-books increase as a proportion of sales, author incomes will fall. In times past, 25,000 hard cover books at $32.95 yielded $82,000; 25,000 e-books at $9.99 is $25,000, more than a two-thirds drop. There is no sign that a cheaper ebook version will sell more copies than a fully-priced hard cover did. Even as ebook sales have increased to one-fifth of sales, overall sales are flat. 

So here's the bottom line. You can have lower prices if you want, but you'll have fewer authors and fewer books. Is that a worthy choice? 

Robin Williams 1951-2014

The suicide of Robin Williams is a chilling reminder of what's important in life and what's not. The only time I ever saw Williams in person was in Florence a decade ago. He was ambling alone along Via dei Calzaiuoli, one of the pedestrian streets in the city's historic centre, carrying a large Dolce & Gabbana shopping bag. Despite dark glasses and a stubble beard, he was instantly recognizable. People were gawking at him and popping out of shops for a better look.

His body language was fascinating. His eyes were fixed on the pavement two metres ahead. Every once in a while, he'd veer toward a shop and peer intently in the window, then resume the same slow pace. He was smirking, as if trying out jokes in his head. While he didn't seem to be seeking recognition, if someone stopped him to say hello or take a photo, he was happy to oblige.

It struck me that Williams was afraid to make eye contact in case that individual didn't know who he was or couldn't remember his name and had to ask. What a catastrophe that would be for a needy comic who requires constant feeding and attention. The way Williams was comporting himself was safe. If a stranger was flummoxed, it didn't matter, because Williams was unaware. He was lonely but would be satisfied by nothing less than adulation. 

Janis Joplin suffered similarly. She used to complain that she spent the evening with 10,000 fans at a concert and then passed the night alone in her hotel. She died of a drug overdose in her search for happiness. Whether it's Williams, Joplin or Philip Seymour Hoffman, the message is the same. Fame isn't what it's cracked up to be. 

A tale of two teams

On my way to the Blue Jays game last night, I caught up and passed another fan wearing an Arencibia shirt, the worst-hitting catcher we've ever had. We traded J.P. to Texas but he got his vengeance when he clubbed a three-run homer last time he was through town. Anyway, I asked this man, "How are we going to do tonight?" To which he replied, "Depends on which team shows up."

Indeed. The Bad Blue Jays showed up and we lost 9-3. I've been down to the ballpark nine times so far this season and the Bad Blue Jays have shown up for six of those games. I've only seen three wins.

Fortunately, there's a rhythm to these events that begins well before I'm seated. There's the flow of fans along Front Street, the piper in front of the convention centre with his left shoe tapping the pavement, a stop at the Don Juan chip wagon for a hot dog and fries, the scalpers and the panhandlers, Batman and Spiderman (where's the silver Elvis?), and Ralph, who's been selling programs since the Jays played at the CNE. Ralph and I always have the same conversation. I say, "Hi Ralph." He looks at me quizzically and asks, "Where do I know you from?" And I say, "Here, Ralph," and keep walking.

On the field are more rhythms: R. A. Dickey's pump-handle windup, Jose Bautista's back-bending antics with his bat while he's on deck, Edwin Encarnacion spitting in his glove, and the choreographed moves of Jose Reyes greeting a teammate who hits a home run and arrives back in the dugout.

The Jays organization has gone to some trouble this year to reach out to fans through social media. As a result there's all kinds of silly contests involving tweets and something called the Chirp Chair where famous players from the past like Robbie Alomar sit and smile for the camera.

Instead of all this jim-crackery I'd prefer another month like our high-flying May when anything seemed possible. Meanwhile, just don't mess with the rhythms of the game.