Sunday, June 28, 2015

Can you tell a book by its cover blurbs?

If you've ever picked up a hardback or paperback book, you've no doubt read the cover blurbs -- short endorsements, usually from other writers, extolling what's good about the book and why you should read it. But what should a reader expect after reading these always glowing snippets?

Occasionally, I'm asked to write blurbs. After the most recent request, I indicated that I might consider the assignment. The author then asked, "What would you like to read to consider doing so?"

"The book," I responded. He promptly sent me a pdf of the page proofs, also indicating that he would have gladly sent just the introduction and a chapter or two. After reading the book, which turned out to be good, I sent him an endorsement. In thanking me, the author wrote, "You may be the first person in history to actually read the book for which you write a blurb."

He was joking, of course. Plenty of other people endorsing books take the time to read them before producing a blurb. I like to think that those who've blurbed my books in the past read the manuscripts I sent. However, it's not uncommon for blurbs to be written by people who never read the book. On occasion, published blurbs are not even the work of the person to whom they're ascribed. Some blurbers demand payment.

The right thing for authors and publishers to do is make every effort to use only blurbs from contributors who commit to reading the book. Knowingly publishing endorsements from people who haven't done so -- or even written their own blurb -- may be de rigueur in the publishing industry, but it's dishonest. At best, it's a hollow effort to help prospective readers make informed decisions.

As for readers, since there's no guarantee of baloney-proof blurbs, the right thing to do is take them with a grain of salt. After all, author and publisher are unlikely to use anything but positive blurbs on a book cover.

Better to dump the practice altogether if no effort is made to ensure that those endorsing books start doing so honestly. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Excessive commencement cheering should not spell jail time

I've been to my fair share of commencement ceremonies. They're joyous, but usually very long events, often held outdoors in hot weather, or in humid auditoriums. Administrators regularly exhort graduates, their friends and family to keep their whooping and hollering in check. Some even warn that excessive cheering will lead to eviction from the event.

Every year, news reports spotlight overly enthusiastic supporters slammed with citations for disturbing the peace. Several years ago, I wrote about a couple of incidents that resulted in such arrests. In one case, administrators withheld diplomas from students whose families were deemed to have crossed the line.

While I think such responses are excessive, if the rules make clear that attendees can be ejected for excessive cheering, they should abide by the rules or expect to suffer the consequences.

Legal charges do seem over the top, though. And holding a student in cap and gown responsible for the behavior of family and friends in the stands? That's punishing the wrong person for the infraction.

Reports hit the news a few weeks ago of yet another commencement disturbance, this one in Senatobia, Miss. Arrest warrants were issued to four people for excessive cheering at the May 21 high school commencement ceremony. The Associated Press reported that Senatobia's school superintendent Jay Foster, "said that over the past few years, the yelling and screaming at graduation has become too disruptive, and made the ceremony unbearable." The AP also reported that charges brought against the revelers could result in "a fine of up to $500 and jail time of up to six months."

Foster acknowledged that he got "a lot of negative phone calls and emails" about the crackdown, but added that he'd also received a lot of support for his action. Support or no, less than three weeks later the complaints were withdrawn.

Foster and the school district did the right thing by withdrawing the complaints. Weighing the severity of the action, they wisely chose not to have the punishment exceed the "crime."

For the mother of one of those charged for cheering on his little sister at the ceremony, dismissal of the charges was not enough.

"I'm not done with him," Linda Walker told the AP, referring to Foster. Walker said she was talking to a lawyer and "it's going to cost them some money."

Just as the Senatobia school district has every right to enforce the rules it sets for commencement activities, Walker has every right to file suit over the incident, although doing so also seems excessive and another move that diverts attention from where it should be.

Unruly cheerers, the school district's actions in bringing charges rather than trying to better supervise graduation ceremonies (as hundreds of other schools do across the country) and Walker's actions detract from what should be at the heart of commencement: celebrating students' accomplishments.

The right thing is for attendees to tamp down their exuberance, administrators to find better ways to manage such events, and students to take pride in earning their diplomas. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of  The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apartis a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 


Sunday, June 14, 2015

Many happy returns to lost items

Judging from reader reports, people have a knack for misplacing wallets and purses --and how they respond when finding such items left behind by others says a lot about their character.

B.C., a reader from New England, wrote that he regularly spends time with old high school friends when they're home for a holiday. At one get-together, a friend told the group about the time he and his wife found a wallet on the beach. They removed the cash and tossed the wallet, with the owner's license and credit cards, in a dumpster.

Two people in the group "went nuts" over the story, telling the friend how wrong he was to care so little about the wallet's owner, and hammering him for the cavalier way he told the story.

"The friend was shamed to the point that he got up, left the bar, and we haven't spoken to him since," B.C. noted.

Janet experienced a far different scenario. When she and family were visiting Gettysburg, Penn., several years ago, her 13-year-old daughter spotted a small purse lying beside a tree. There was $20 to $40 in the purse and no identification. The visitor's center was closed, so they couldn't leave the purse in the lost and found.

The daughter insisted that they wait for more than an hour to see if the owner returned. When she didn't, the daughter placed the purse in the tree, hoping it would be obvious to the owner if she returned.

Another reader, S.K., recalled being at an Olive Garden restaurant in Ohio when she saw a woman leave the restroom just as S.K. was entering. S.K. noticed that the woman had left a purse behind. The ID information inside the purse matched the woman who'd left the restroom, but otherwise the purse contained only a wadded-up tissue, two gum wrappers and an empty coin purse.

"I took $20 out of my wallet and put it in the clutch," S.K. wrote. She then returned the purse to the woman, who was sitting in the restaurant with three young children. "She opened the clutch, looked up at me and got tears in her eyes," S.K. wrote.

At a gas station in Santa Rosa, Calif., reader A.L. and her husband noticed a wallet on the floor of a phone booth. (Apparently, some gas stations in Santa Rosa still have phone booths!) The wallet contained what appeared to be a month's worth of paycheck cash. The owner was nowhere in sight, so A.L. checked the info in the wallet and called the owner.

"The man who came to our door was a salmon fisherman," writes A.L. "He wanted to give us some reward money. But, inspired by the movie 'Pay It Forward,' we told him to just pay it forward to someone else who might need some help."

There's no one right way to return what isn't yours, but failing to at least try is wrong. The right thing is to do what you can to set things right -- with the hope that your action leads others to do the same. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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