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Overview

The family of musical styles known as jazz came into being around 1900 as several popular black musical idioms coalesced. This free-flowing, spontaneous music based in improvisation emerged primarily from ragtime and the blues. But jazz did not remain solely in the domain of American music, for very quickly it swept through virtually all of the national culture as fiction, poetry, film, photography, painting, and classical music came under its spell. If it's art that expresses a nation's essence best, then jazz set America's tempo and afforded an artistic pattern for modernism.

In this book for the nonspecialist Peter Townsend shows how during an entire century jazz has appeared in a wide diversity of times and places and in many different cultural settings.

He reveals how jazz surfaced early in America's movies (The Jazz Singer, Strike Up the Band, Orchestra Wives, Blues in the Night) and how it became an aesthetic model serious composers (George Gershwin, Aaron Copland) did not miss. Jazz has punctuated literary fiction (Ralph Ellison, Eudora Welty, James Baldwin, John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac, Toni Morrison) and American poetry (William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, Percy Johnson). Jazz influenced painting (Jackson Pollock, Romare Bearden, Stuart Davis, Archibald Motley, and Jimmy Ernst), and several photographers have devoted their careers to documenting jazz performers and their music scene (William Claxton, William Gottlieb, Roy De Carava, Carol Reiff).

Townsend probes the deep-rooted mythology that holds jazz as indefinable, unteachable, and instinctive with blacks but tough for whites and that its birthplace was New Orleans brothels, that its musicians live tragic lives, and that jazz is dominated by males and despises whiffs of the mainstream.

As modernism swayed to the tempos of jazz and adapted to its modes, the once clearly defined lines of demarcation faded and jazz became well established as one of the great musical cultures of the world.

Peter Townsend is a senior lecturer in the School of Music and Humanities at the University of Huddersfield in England.

Copublished with Edinburgh University Press

For sale in the U.S.A., Canada, and U.S. dependencies only

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Editorial Reviews

New York Review of Books
A persuasive appreciation of what jazz is and how it has permeated and enriched the culture of America.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In the spirit of scholarly enthusiasm, Peter Townsend (not of Who fame) delivers a thoughtful, historical analysis in Jazz in American Culture. He argues that jazz is a culture unto itself, complex and influential. In chapters such as "Jazz As Aesthetic Model" and "Jazz As Myth," Townsend explores the music's status as "culture" via its various spheres of influence. And, of course, there are leading roles and cameos by jazz superstars like Lester Young and Charlie Parker, as well as genre-crossing discussions of artists such as Jackson Pollock and Stuart Davis. ( Mar.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781578063246
  • Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
  • Publication date: 8/1/2000
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 193
  • Product dimensions: 5.45 (w) x 8.54 (h) x 0.45 (d)

Read an Excerpt


Chapter One


The Language: Jazz as Music


Throughout the twentieth century the American musical idiom knownas jazz has undergone regular, sometimes radical, changes of style. Ithas telescoped into a few years a cycle of harmonic development that inEuropean music took several centuries. Its rhythmic basis, its instrumentation,the nature of its ensembles and its repertoire, have constantlychanged. Jazz has never enjoyed the long-term stability typicalof folk musics — since its origins lie at the beginning of the century, it ishardly old enough for that. Its rate of change has been comparable withthat of other forms of art and entertainment in the twentieth century,subject to pressures of the market and responsive to changes of technologyand public taste, as well as to the explosive creativity of itsperformers.

    There are other dimensions of variation: the musical style of jazz hasnever been homogeneous at any one time. Outside the dominant styleof any period, there have always been distinct traditions and ways ofplaying, some of these based on regional differences within the USA, orparticular instruments: for example the `Harlem stride' piano tradition,which never became a dominant jazz style, but continued as a sometimesseparate stream of development alongside the group or orchestraljazz of the day.

    Jazz has been a democratic music, in which innovations have beenaccepted regardless of where they originated, and in which there hasnever been a sense of central control, through academic or otherinstitutions. A high level of ability has been widelydistributed, withhundreds, or even thousands, of musicians achieving distinctive personalstyles. The change and diversity within the music are comparableto the variations within a language: there are innumerable variations oftime, place, function, dialect, idiolect. At the extremes of the musicthere are styles between which the variation is so great that there arefew common components left. It is a long stretch stylistically from thejazz pop songs of Clarence Williams in the 1920s to the fractured atonalimprovisations of Cecil Taylor half a century later.

    To sum up the characteristics of such a rich and diverse music is totry to reduce the complexity of a natural phenomenon to the simplicityof a formula. A large part of the picture is inevitably left out of anygeneral description, and the reader can be left with the impression thatwhat is being described is a single, unchanging style. In the case of`jazz', a term that covers music produced over almost a century in awide diversity of times and places, for different purposes and indifferent cultural settings, this generality is particularly misleading.What `jazz' is and has been exemplifies Wittgenstein's explanation ofthe meanings of a word: rather than an `essential' jazz that a definitionshould try to isolate, what there has been in actuality is a `family' ofmusical styles closely related enough for one generic term to be appliedto them all. The failure to accept the limitations of the term `jazz', andto allow for the diversity that it conceals, is responsible for theproblematic nature of some studies of the subject and some of thearguments that have sprung up about it.

    Accounts of jazz as music, however, usually agree on the importanceof a number of musical features that in general distinguish jazz fromother musical languages and traditions. These stylistic continuitieswithin the jazz tradition can be established by sampling music producedacross the decades of its existence. The common elements in jazzperformance between a recording made by Louis Armstrong in 1927(`Wild Man Blues') and one made by Miles Davis in 1959 (`All Blues')are at first hearing hardly more apparent than the differences. Jazz is nota single, homogeneous style of music in all times and places. Its historyis relatively brief, but the sum total of innovation and stylistic changeacross that period has been enormous. As well as following a developmentalcurve, the music has received all the inflections that locality,ethnicity and individuality have brought to it. One may in the end agreethat Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis are shown by these two recordingsto be jazz performers, but arriving at that view is a result of abalancing of similarities and differences, and not as obvious a fact asmany writers on jazz have assumed.

    This chapter will concentrate on some of the features of jazz as musicthat are found in most of the definitions that have been written, andwhich make jazz an identifiable sector within the spectrum of Americanmusical cultures. These are improvisation, rhythm, repertoire, andinstrumental sound and technique. Where an instrumentalist is improvisingon a certain repertoire, with a certain approach to rhythm,instrumental sound and technique, the result is likely to be what amajority of listeners would agree to call `jazz'.

Jazz Styles and History


To retell the story of the development of jazz is not an aim of this book,partly because the job has already been done thoroughly elsewhere.But the character of the music, and the manner of its change, areinextricable from the historical circumstances in which it has beenpractised. Again, it is necessary to be aware of the simplification that isimplied by telling the story of a single entity, `jazz'. What is, and what isnot, part of the history again raises issues about boundaries anddefinitions. To a large extent, also, its history has become entangledwith myth, and with the reshapings of the story that correspond withvarious interpretations of what jazz is.

    As in many other areas of cultural life, the history is a contested area,with different conceptions of jazz being bolstered by different versionsof how and why it came to be as it is. These different narratives of thelife of jazz have sometimes had ideological overtones. One example ofthis is in the value which is sometimes given to the idea of collectivity:some critics have had an ideological preference for collective playingwhich caused them to regard the post-1920s emphasis on the soloist as aloss from which jazz has never recovered. The same argument came tothe fore among some proponents of `free jazz' in the 1960s, who saw areturn to musical collectivity as the ideologically radical act that jazzhad long needed. Although, as these examples show, its history can beitself a contested area, it is difficult to address these issues without atleast an outline of jazz from its beginnings. What follows is a briefhistory mainly in relation to changes in musical style.

    It appears that jazz came into being around 1900, by the coalescenceof a number of existing popular musical styles, primarily ragtime andthe blues. These were both in origin black musical idioms. Ragtimereached a high level of popularity in all sectors of the Americanpopulation from the 1890s onwards. It was a rhythmically lively styleof solo piano performance which made use of patterns of syncopationthat had long been known in black American music, perhaps even in itsAfrican origins. Ragtime depended upon a certain level of musicalliteracy: a lot of ragtime music was written down, and played withoutimprovisation. However, there is evidence that improvisation was anelement in the musical culture surrounding ragtime. In other musicaland non-musical activities, improvisation was already an importantcharacteristic of African-American culture. The blues, which had comeinto being late in the nineteenth century, was a simpler, looser,primarily vocal idiom, based on a three-line verse form, with a simplerepeated harmonic sequence. Its performers were improvisatory andindividualised in approach: the music allowed scope for the rewriting ofwords and melodies and a wide range of vocal and instrumental effectsand variations.

    The earliest forms of what present-day listeners would recognize asjazz resulted from a blending of the materials and the approachesprimarily of these two idioms. As ragtime and blues drifted towardsjazz, what was produced combined the musical discipline and relativecomplexity of ragtime, the individualized and improvisatory propertyof the blues and the musical materials of both forms. A third componentwas the more formal and European brass-band tradition, which influencedthe instrumentation and the repertoire of early jazz. An earlyperformer like Jelly Roll Morton played a repertoire largely made up ofragtime-like and blues-based compositions, resulting in a looser form ofragtime and a more formalized and musically varied type of blues, withoccasional march-like and Latin American influences.

    Morton is one of many musicians associated with the city of NewOrleans, which was, in the first two decades of the century, the first ofthe major American urban settings where conditions were favourablefor advances in the development of jazz. Until the middle of the FirstWorld War, sections of the city were given over to places of entertainmentwhere, alongside sex and alcohol, music was in demand. Thecity's strong and ethnically diverse musical traditions produced largenumbers of performers able to supply that demand. New Orleanssupported a rich set of musical subcultures that reflected its population:elements of Spanish and French music, as well as indigenous styles,entered into the musical vocabulary of men like Morton, King Oliverand later Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong.

    Some histories represent jazz as originating specifically in NewOrleans and then appearing elsewhere only by transmission from thisoriginal source. It is clear, however, that although New Orleans waspre-eminent in this process, other areas were producing their owndistinctive developments in the first decades of the century. Forms ofjazz-like music were already being performed before 1920 on the WestCoast and in other urban areas. The chief point of arrival for musiciansmigrating from New Orleans and the South was Chicago, whereanother suitable milieu existed for musical activity. As well as a largeand rapidly growing population of black migrants from the southernstates, Chicago had other conditions required for jazz culture: a pool ofavailable musical talent and an active night life. A characteristic of thesocial history of jazz has been its development in sectors of the entertainmenteconomy away from the mainstream. Because of its marginality,a frequent characteristic of the kind of setting in which jazzoperated was a relaxed attitude towards legality, overseen in some casesby urban machine politics and organized crime.

    The New Orleans jazz style was initially polyphonic, based oncollective improvisation by `front-line' instruments, normally trumpet(or cornet), trombone and clarinet (or saxophone), supported by threerhythm players. The commercial potential of this music became evidentat the end of the First World War. There was a massive broadening ofthe jazz audience in what F. Scott Fitzgerald named the `Jazz Age' of the1920s. Firstly Chicago, and later New York, became influential newcentres of jazz activity. As we shall see in Chapter 2, the last of the greatNew Orleans innovators, Louis Armstrong, was largely responsible,through the impact of his own virtuosity during these years, for a newemphasis on the improvising soloist, which has since become an almostinvariable feature of jazz performance. At the same time, under theinfluence of the more highly trained musicians entering jazz and of thetastes of the wider urban audience, group performances moved awayfrom improvised polyphony towards pre-arranged formats, based inlarge part on written scores, with improvisation delegated to featuredsoloists who would improvise in turn.

    From the mid-1930s, this movement towards the larger, organizedensemble led to an elevation of jazz in popularity to a point where aform of jazz became the mainstream popular music of the United States.This was the `big band' period in which certain band leaders andsoloists, such as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, became nationalcelebrities, and these and numerous other orchestras broadcast theirmusic through the new media of cinema and radio as well as on phonographrecords and in public performances. The generic term for themusic associated with this period is `Swing'. The style of the largeensembles of the period was highly organized, but an important placewas left for improvising soloists. In these and in the less formalizedsmall groups of the 1930s there was produced a string of improviserswho followed Armstrong in developing the art of jazz with an increasingemphasis on individual improvisation. In the playing of such soloistsas Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Art Tatum there was acontinued exploration of the harmonic and rhythmic resources of jazz.

    The big bands declined rapidly from the mid-1940s onwards. Bythen a new dominant jazz style had been synthesized by a group ofadept and sophisticated younger musicians who had become disenchantedwith the conservatism (as well as the economic and racialinequities) of the big band system, but were also driven by a generalprogressivist desire to develop the musical idiom. The new style wasreferred to as `bebop' (after the rhythm of one of its favourite phrases).Bebop introduced new repertoire, a more exacting standard of technique,and a new asymmetry of rhythm and phrasing, and it greatlyadvanced the complexity of jazz harmony.

    Movements in jazz since bebop have tended to involve some simplificationof or withdrawal from its complexity. The `free jazz' associatedin the 1960s with musicians like Ornette Coleman made the mostcomplete break with the harmonic stringency of bebop. Free jazz usedits own principles, varying from atonality to the complete abandonmentof set themes and procedures. It represented a liberation of a kind, butwas never in a position to gain acceptance by a mass audience. Anumber of its practitioners have had to endure spells of almost totalrejection both within the jazz community and by the public.

    The late 1950s were also the moment of another simplification. Withthe appearance of albums such as Miles Davis's Kind of Blue in 1959,musicians began to use `modal' forms. The harmonies over whichsoloists improvised became simpler, at times almost static. Instead ofhaving to formulate their solos over strings of changing chords, soloistswere now improvising for long spells within a single scale of notes.Davis's composition `So What' allows the improviser to play fortwenty-four of its thirty-two bars over the single chord of D minorseventh. The only movement away from this occurs when the harmonytemporarily moves a semitone higher, before returning to the D chord.The improviser has a slower rate of harmonic change to deal with thanin the sometimes hectic sequences of chords in bebop harmony. The useof modal forms enabled jazz to draw closer to rock, which has alwaysmade use of simpler materials. Jazz and rock players could now meet onthe common ground of modal harmony. In the 1970s this movementcame to be called jazz-rock or `fusion', and it provided one way inwhich jazz musicians were able to gain access to a popular musicmarket.

    The period of jazz history since the early 1980s has been variouslydescribed as one of conservatism, pluralism or fragmentation. A numberof influential younger musicians, most notably Wynton Marsalis,have espoused a disciplined, tradition-conscious re-examination of olderstyles, and this aspect of the scene has presented the most prominentpublic image of the music. But the spectrum of styles of music beingperformed under the title of jazz has been wider in the 1990s than everbefore. One development seems likely in the long term even to challengethe idea of jazz as an American music. To the jazz foundationof rhythmic improvisation, musicians of other traditions and nationalitieshave added elements of their own folk musics, and a specificallyAmerican jazz has been subsumed in a worldwide panorama of improvisedmusic which is still usually categorized as jazz, but whichsometimes strains the elasticity of the term to its limits.

    At the same time, the full range of old and new jazz styles continues tobe played. There are, throughout the USA and in practically all otherindustrialized societies, groups of musicians who have taken it uponthemselves to recreate and keep alive all of the past styles of jazz, fromturn of the century ragtime to 1970s jazz-funk. Among these are manyrenowned professional players, but many are exemplars of what JamesLincoln Collier has called `local jazz', musicians whose non-professional,non-institutional, practical involvement with the music helps to maintainthe past styles of jazz as active musical idioms at the end of the century.


Improvisation and Form


We may state the task before the jazz musician as follows: Given some predetermined materials ... and a knowledge of jazz styles, compose a coherent musical statement spontaneously. Lewis Porter
`All the Things You Are' has been played thousands of times; yet, if a musician is playing it again, he is putting his own life through it. Clint Eastwood


Improvisation is often taken to be a defining and unique feature of jazz,but neither of these adjectives is strictly justifiable. Firstly, there ismusic generally accepted as jazz that does not contain improvisation,and secondly there are many other musics in which improvisation isequally important. One of the peculiar features of Western musicduring the last 200 years has been its exclusion of improvisation. Inearlier times, composers and performers, among them Mozart, Beethovenand J. S. Bach, were accomplished improvisers. Improvisation ofone kind or another has been endemic in the folk musics of the world.In some `classical' forms, such as Indian music, improvisation is centralto the musical culture. European `serious' music of the nineteenth andtwentieth centuries is an ethnomusicological exception in its completeseverance from improvisatory methods.

    Against the background of this culturally prestigious `serious' music,and the popular forms that stem from it, the improvisatory ethos of jazzhas been seen as exceptional or aberrant. Jazz exists in an intellectual-artisticclimate in which improvisation is liable to be seen as compensationfor a deficiency (the inability to read written music), or as afreakish kind of gift (the jazz musician as the spontaneous, innocent,`natural' player). Improvisatory music is close to a worldwide norm ofmusical practice. Nevertheless, the marginal status of improvisation inWestern music reinforces the notion of the jazz musician as a `primitive',`instinctual' performer, and this meshes with the racial identificationof the music as African American and the stereotypes of the`instinctive', `natural' musician that this drags in its wake.

    Each idiom of improvised music throughout the world has its ownmethods and musical materials related to the cultural situation thatformed it. The procedures of jazz are strikingly different from those of,say, Indian classical music. One of the most important factors in thesedifferences is the material that musicians improvise on. Provided thatimprovisation is based on something (unlike the `free' jazz practised bysome musicians from the early 1960s on), it takes an imprint from thematerial used. So, in jazz, the nature of the vehicle for improvisation, ofthe song forms that make up its repertoire, partially determines thenature of the improvisation. What improvisers do is done within aframework provided by certain kinds of song form.

    The repertoire of song forms that have been used by jazz musicians isenormous. In principle any song can be improvised on: there areinstances of musicians improvising on `Jingle Bells' and `La Marseillaise'.The repertoire of materials includes, in addition to any popularsong published in the past century, a large corpus of compositions byjazz musicians and traditional songs from various American andEuropean sources. Over the decades of the music's development,however, there has been a shakedown effect that has perpetuated somefavoured songs and ignored or rejected others. The result has been thatmost jazz improvisation has used basic material drawn from a corerepertoire of songs. This core, however, is still large. Levine, forexample, gives a list of 965 songs as a model repertoire for jazz players.However, he highlights only 248 of these as being essential, while thefull repertoire is reduced for particular styles: a bebop player is unlikelyto find the chord sequence of `Jazz Me Blues' of practical use, whereas a`traditional' player could not function without it. Skilled musicians ineach established style will normally have a working repertoire ofbetween fifty and 100 songs that can be played and improvised on frommemory and at will. Some songs are expected to be known by all playersworking in post-Swing idioms, and there is a short list of about fiftynumbers that operate as a jazz lingua franca. The guitarist Jim Hallcommented: `I've played with guys in little towns in Italy where Icouldn't get through a sentence with them, but they could play "Stella"and "Autumn Leaves"'.

    The constituents of the repertoire for any jazz style are drawn fromthree main categories: popular songs, blues and jazz tunes. Jazz hasalways made use of whatever material the popular music industry hasprovided, especially from the 1920s on. The first jazz versions of somepop songs were recorded very soon after the songs were first published.Artists like Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday were, in effect, enlistedinto the publicity effort for some songs. In the postwar period, artistssuch as Charlie Parker recorded versions of numerous songs by Kern,Gershwin and Porter. Ian Carr has shown how Miles Davi's choice ofmaterial on his mid-1950s sessions was related to a series of popularrecordings issued by Frank Sinatra a few years before.

(Continues...)


Excerpted from Jazz in American Culture by PETER TOWNSEND. Copyright © 2000 by Peter Townsend. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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Table of Contents

Preface vii
1 The Language: Jazz as Music 1
2 `A Marvel of Social Organization': Jazz as a Culture 35
3 Rhythm is our Business: The Swing Era 1935-45 65
4 Telling the Story: The Representation of Jazz 92
5 `An Analogous Dynamic in the Design': Jazz as Aesthetic
Model 137
6 `A Tamed Richness': Jazz as Myth 160
Select Bibliography 186
Index 190
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