What America Is Reading Tells a Story

There are many ways to take the pulse of American culture. You can watch television talk shows and see what people are talking about. You can scan the bestselling songs on iTunes and hear what people are listening to. You can wander through your local mall and just watch people. Or you can do like I do and go to Amazon.com and look through the Top 100 books.

Now, I realize that fewer people are reading books these days, especially people under 35. They much prefer to access content online. That's okay with me. In fact, I think it's the future of reading, which is why I'm a big fan of Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon.com. Not only is Bezos the number one bookseller in the world, but he is leading the charge when it comes to electronic books. His Kindle device may not be the category killer that the iPod has been, but it's pretty close. Even now, when you go to Amazon to order a book, there's a good chance that the book you want is available on Kindle for about one-third the list price of the hardcover. For example, the number two book on Amazon's Top 100 (this list is updated hourly, so your results may vary) is A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. The book lists for $25.95, and is available from Amazon for $14.27. By comparison, the Kindle edition is $9.99. Not bad.

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The Indestructible Book

The numbers are in, and we have a winner. For the 551st year in a row, the Bible is the number one selling book in the world. More than 25 million copies of the Bible were sold in the U.S. alone in 2007, easily thumping the closest competitor, the latest Harry Potter book, which sold 14 million. Selling Bibles is big business in America. More than $770 million worth of the Good Book were sold in a dizzying variety of shapes, sizes, colors, editions, and translations. In America, having access to a Bible--a Bible custom fit to your preferences and personality--is a given. That isn't the case many other countries, where having even a portion of the Scriptures is a luxury. In other parts of the world, being caught with a Bible is a crime.

It's hard to understand why governments would fear this book. It doesn't call for the overthrow of those in power. The central character of its 66 books doesn't advocate violence. If anything, the Bible says we are to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us. On the surface, there's not a subversive word among its more than 31,000 verses.

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Let's Talk About Global Warming

There are so many voices speaking out on behalf of or in defense of or in denial of global warming, that it's getting increasingly difficult to know where to land on this issue. On the one hand, you've got a certain Nobel Peace Prize winner preaching the gospel of imminent global disaster unless we band together as a global community and do something now to fix the problem.

On the other hand you have a semi-popular conservative television commentator saying that the whole global warming thing is a scam, and that we should all drive Hummers as a way of thumbing our noses at that Nobel Prize guy.

What we need to find is a reasonable middle between these two extemes, and so I want to start a conversation that will produce some thoughtful dialog. I have no expertise in this matter. I don't even have a strong opinion either way, except that it makes sense to conserve resources when it helps me stretch my household budget (buy a more fuel efficient car, use less water when I brush my teeth, get rid of my pet cow, those kinds of things).

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How Not to Dialog With Mormons

Okay, so Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee has crossed the line in his not-so-subtle attempt to create a distinction between himself and Mitt Romney. Over the last several weeks, Huckabee has strategically positioned himself as the "true Christian candidate," which can only mean one thing. Huckabee doesn't think Mr. Romney (the only other Republical candidate who is open about his faith) is a "true" Christian. Rather than create a distinction between himself and Romney based on their political views, evidently Huckabee has chosen to focus on their respective faith views.

Now Huckabee has taken his rhetoric to another level, and in doing so he has probably alienated some of the very people he has been trying to attract. In a lengthy interview for a New York Times article, Huckabee threw out this question to the reporter: "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?"

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Can't Go to Starbucks? Oh, the Humanity!

For folks living in Southern California, the writers' strike is kind of a big deal. For people living in other parts of the country, it's a little less important than the latest government report on cholesterol.

The reason the writers' strike makes headlines in Lala land is that the ripple effect on the local economy is fairly significant. One estimate has the entertainment industry accounting for 7 percent of the GNP of Los Angeles County. That's around $30 billion annually. Now, that's not what the writers make, but the various productions they have a hand in generate that kind of money once you take into account everything it takes to make movies and television shows. When the writers stopped writing several weeks ago, it was just a matter of time before the productions, which depend on scripts (even Jay Leno can't tell a joke without someone writing it for him), could no longer move forward, putting thousands of people out of work.

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The Death of Books?

Books may not exactly be dying, but the current system that is responsible for getting books into print and then selling them to the general public is on life support. That's what Michael Hyatt, president of Thomas Nelson Publishers (the world's largest publisher of Christian books) is saying in a blog entitled "Why Traditional Books Will Eventually Die." What's amazing about this blog post is that it is coming from the president of a book publishing company. I happen to agree with Mr. Hyatt, but I'm not sure I would have the courage--hey, it's more than courage, it's chutzpa--to say what he said if my paycheck depended on selling books.

The problem with the current system of book publishing and distribution is that it is inefficient. Mr. Hyatt cites three inefficiencies: the manufacturing process, the distribution process, and the book buying experience. The manufacturing process for a book is pretty simple. You chop down a whole bunch of trees, make the tree pulp into paper, and send it in huge spools to printing presses, where massive amounts of ink are applied in the form of words and pictures. In this day of increasing environmental concerns, is it really necessary to go through such an arduous process when it's possible to read words on a medium other than paper (like you're doing now)?

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Trash Bags Make Me Thankful

I have several jobs on Thanksgiving Day. I'm not much of a cook (okay, I'll admit it, I don't cook at all), so my wife assigns me non-cooking related tasks: set the table, carve the turkey, refill water glasses, help with dishes, those kinds of things. I just completed my last Thanksgiving Day job, which is taking out the trash. This is not a pleasant job. When you pull the turkey out of the oven, it's one of the most appealing sights of the year. When you pick up a garbage bag filled with the turkey carcass and other assorted turkey bones, it's one of life's more disgusting sights. Except for today.

As I tied the top of the bag, using a technique taught to me by a friend more than 20 years ago, I immediately thought of that friend and smiled. We've lost contact over the years, but during that time we've had this interesting connection. Whenever I tie a trash bag (and that happens several times a week), I think of my friend. I should probably use this as an occasion to make a phone call, and maybe I will. Meanwhile, my trash tying experience has brought something to mind.

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Monkey Day

Even for a Monday, it's a little crazy. Monday should be called Monkey day, because trying to get a handle on Monday stuff is like trying to organize a group of Monkeys. If you don't do it right, by the end of the day you're going to have Monkey waste (decorum prevents me from using a more graphic term) all over you.

On this Monday, we have the release of Kindle, the new eBook reader from Amazon. There are articles and reviews all over the place, and already Amazon has more than 150 customer reviews posted on its site, many from people who don't even have the device. This is the kind of wide-ranging response Amazon should expect. Delivering content electronically is a hot issue, both for the content generators (the writers) as well as for the content managers (the publishers). As for the end users (the readers), embracing a device like this is going to come in fits and spurts. Some will love Kindle, some will hate it, but most won't care. Until there is a "killer device" along the lines of the iPod, there won't be anything near universal acclaim. And from the early reviews, Kindle is not a killer device. But it's a start in the right direction.

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Too Much Starbucks? Nah!

In the interest of full disclosure, I have a confession to make. I love Starbucks coffee. I've tried other so-called "mellower" brands (Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Jones, Peets, Postum), and they're fine as coffees go, but they can't stand up to a good strong cup of Starbucks. Literally. Starbucks coffee is so hearty and dark--many refer to it as "Charbucks"--I am convinced that the liquid could stand by itself without a cup. But I digress.

Starbucks has recently taken some hits on Wall Street, mainly because for the first time in its history, there may be a sign that coffee consumption--at least at Starbucks--is leveling off. I'm not surprised. Already there are 12 million Starbucks locations, and that's just in Southern California. I've been approached about opening a outlet in my living room, which I would gladly do were it not for my lack of parking.

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"The World is headin' for hell"

Literary icon Norman Mailer died last week, setting off a slew of retrospectives by literary pundits and cultural observers. Ironically, although he rejected organized religion (to his credit, he also rejected atheism), Mailer's last book was On God: An Uncommon Conversation. Here he pretty much sets up his own religious system and, in effect, reinvents God into his own image.

Supposedly one of Mailer's last quotes was something to the effect that "evil has triumphed over good." That's not exactly right, but it's close. Essentially he was reflecting the mood that seems to be overtaking a growing number of mainstream artists. In this day and age when atheism is enjoying new popularity, people are more skeptical about humanity's chances to make a bad world better.

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Stan's entire life has been wrapped in content: selling, writing and publishing books and resources that help ordinary people capture a glimpse of extraordinary things.