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Your first is always special

August 19, 2007|Kristina Lindgren; David L. Ulin;Nick Owchar

We're passionate about books -- and about encouraging reading. So is First Book, www.first book.org/site/c.lwKYJ8NVJvF/b .674095/k.CC09/Home.htm, a nonprofit organization founded 15 years ago with the mission of getting new books into the hands of needy children.

As part of its latest literacy campaign, the First Book folks polled authors, celebrities and plain old kids to answer this question: What book got you hooked?

Ray Bradbury's short story "The Rocket Man" was the inspiration for bestselling novelist Michael Chabon.

"I read it for the first time when I was 10, and the pleasure I took in reading was altered irrevocably," Chabon said. "Before then I had never noticed, somehow, that stories were made not of ideas or exciting twists of plot but of language."

Lois Lowry, who has captivated many a reader with "The Giver" and "Number the Stars," said she was 8 when "The Yearling" by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings "changed my literate life." She credits her mother with "the insight and wisdom" to read the book aloud.

"I still remember the sound of her voice, the shape of her shoulders as she held the thick hardcover book, and the hall light illuminating her as she sat in the hallway and read to me and my sister, each in our bedrooms."

More than 100,000 people responded to First Book's poll, www2.firstbook.org/ whatbook/top50.php. The vox pop's top five are:

1. Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene

2. "Green Eggs and Ham" by Dr. Seuss

3. "Little House on the Prairie" by Laura Ingalls Wilder

4. "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott

5. "The Cat in the Hat" by Dr. Seuss

"Many of us remember the one book that we wanted to read over and over again -- the book that really stirred our imaginations and left us wanting just one more chapter before bedtime," First Book President Kyle Zimmer told Publishers Weekly. "The fact that there are millions of children in our own country that will grow up without these kinds of memories because they have no access to books is devastating. We are delighted that so many people shared their stories in order to help us shine the spotlight on this critical issue."

-- Kristina Lindgren

Chapbook takes poetic license

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One of the things I love most about poetry is that it's adaptable. You can find poetry almost anywhere, if you look for it -- a bus billboard, a T-shirt, the lyrics of a song. I have one friend who used to publish poems on matchbooks and another who put poetry on postcards or in storefront window displays. If the poem is sharp enough, it almost works better in an unexpected setting because it takes us by surprise.

Charles Harper Webb's chapbook "How to Live" is an illustration of this idea in action. Containing a single poem (taken from his 2006 full-length collection "Amplified Dog"), it's an instantly digestible poetic experience, a crash course on the good life.

Published by Blue Q, a novelty store in Pittsfield, Mass., "How to Live" is a lovely little volume -- 2x2 1/2 inches, with different-colored pages and block letter text -- that packs a punch because Webb's work is so cogent, humorous and wise.

"Try not to lie; it sours the soul," he writes at one point. "But being a patsy sours it too." Later, he declares, simply: "Enjoy success."

Webb, of course, is a local stalwart -- a professor of English at Cal State Long Beach and a pioneer of Southern California's Stand Up poetry scene. With "How to Live," he reminds us that there is more than one way to get a poem across.

-- David L. Ulin

University presses may need the Web

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Is a book still a book if it's online?

Books are beautiful. But if the cost of even a small print-run gets expensive for some publishers, shouldn't book lovers give online publishing a chance?

That's what university presses may need to consider, according to a report cited at Inside Higher Ed, www.inside highered.com/news/2007/07 /26/ithaka.

New technology, higher production costs and smaller annual budgets are making it more difficult for these presses to function as they always have. That's the argument of "University Publishing in a Digital Age," a study conducted by Ithaka, a not-for-profit group looking at technology and higher education, and available on its Web page, www.ithaka.org/strategic -services/university-publishing.

"I wouldn't want to see online publishing replace scholarly books entirely," says Michael S. Roth, Wesleyan University's new president. "It's tough when you've grown up with books to see the end result of your work as something that's not exactly a physical book."

Like Roth, I struggle with the idea of reading online rather than on the printed page. But if the aim of writing is to share ideas and reach readers, shouldn't we let technology take us in new directions?

The study doesn't say that books should be eliminated entirely at university presses but rather that these presses must adapt to new technology to survive.

Of course, despite the study's forecast, some are thriving -- I think of Harvard University Press and the Belknap Press, which have found brilliant ways to straddle academia and the mainstream.

-- Nick Owchar

For more Jacket Copy, please visit us on the Web at latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacket copy/.

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