Category: books

Attention eaters

Great Craigmod essay on ‘becoming readers’, and the fierce competition books face:

The main adversary of book publishing is: Anything that eats attention. Publishing has always been a game of competing for attention. Any number of media inventions have threatened to finally eviscerate the book market: radio, movies, television, et cetera. But smartphones tip the scales unlike any previous object. They do so by placing into our pockets a perfect, always-at-hand vector for lopsided user contracts, arriving in the form of apps and websites.

Fascinating how he conflates Netflix with apps like Instagram and Twitter - all delivering an endless barrage of guff to hold your attention:

Browsing Netflix is an endless sensation of falling forward into ever more content. Previews auto-play. As soon as one episode in a series ends, the next begins before credits finish rolling. If there’s no other episodes in the series, random trailers begin to play. The very design of Netflix itself is constructed to reduce your ability to a) think about what you want to do, and b) step away from the service. It’s designed to be a boundless slurry of content poured directly into your eyeballs. In a way, it’s training us to never step back or even consider, say, reading a book or going for a walk.

Tolkien’s legacy

Adam Gopnik on high fantasy, for The New Yorker:

It is still one of the finest jests of the modern muses that this fogged-in English don was going home nights to work on perhaps the most popular adventure story ever written, thereby inventing one of the most successful commercial formulas that publishing possesses, and establishing the foundation of the modern fantasy industry.

The Crossing

He looked up. His pale hair looked white. He looked fourteen going on some age that never was. He looked as if he’d been sitting there and God had made the trees and rocks around him. He looked like his own reincarnation and then his own again. Above all else he looked to be filled with a terrible sadness. As if he harbored news of some horrendous loss that no one else had heard of yet. Some vast tragedy not of fact or incident or event but of the way the world was.

Cormac McCarthy - The Crossing

ƒ Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace

I don’t even know where to start. Or finish. In fact while reading this I twice had to turn away and read entire other books - William Gibson’s Zero History and Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing. Because to read IJ through from cover to cover in a single sitting was simply too much.

It’s impossible to really describe, other than to say it’s about addiction. And being human. And obsession - particularly the obsession of the man who wrote it. You can’t read it without desperately wondering about DFW’s mind, mental state, brilliance, breakdown, death. As David Edder’s writes in the introduction, “At no time while reading Infinite Jest are you unaware that this is a work of complete obsession, of a stretching of a young writer to the point of, we assume, near madness.”.

It’s got 100 pages of crazy footnotes, minute breakdowns of life in a tennis academy, political and artistic intrigue combined with high farce, and, most convincingly, detailed and depressing spirals into the world of the hard core drug and alcohol addict.

Those long sections about AA/NA are crushingly compelling, and an insight into a terrible world most of us know nothing about. Where getting through a single day, a single hour, is a victory. There’s a fantastic passage toward the end where a character realises that if he just takes each second, if he can just bear one second at a time, he can get through. But if he lets his mind project longer than that, he’s gone. It’s incredibly moving and heartfelt.

It’s not an easy read, it’s exhausting, but also exhilarating and rewarding. It almost demands post-reading meta research - and there’s plenty out there to support further investigation, from critical summaries to infographics to posters. People love it, and hate it, often at the same time.

It’s also a long book, and I was glad to finish, but the more I read the more enthralled and awed I became. It took around 300 pages before I started to click into the rhythm and pacing (and where I had to take the first break), which reminded me of Shakespeare: until you settle into the language and meter it’s a struggle to stay afloat. But once you do find that zone it’s wonderful. The closest comparison in terms of novels is probably Ulysses, which is equally tough to break into but equally rich once you do. Ulysses too drives the reader to further research, and leaves you incredulous at the skill of the author, 

Edders again: “[DFW] was already known as a very smart and challenging and funny and preternaturally gifted writer when Infinite Jest was released in 1996, and thereafter his reputation included all the adjectives mentioned just now, and also this one: Holy shit.”

Bang on. Holy shit.

ƒ The Windup Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi

Here is a great work of sci-fi, near future and entirely believeable. It’s set in a food starved world, where calorie companies control the distribution of sterile seed to a needy globe. Think Monsanto taken to the next degree, if all our paranoid fears about them were true.

The story takes place in the Thai kingdom of Krung Thep, kept (just) alive by a combination of keeping out the seed companies and fighting back the encroaching ocean. Using an Asian capital is a welcome and refreshing change from a more typical generic US future, and Bacigalupi’s environmental background makes the setting chillingly real.

His use of future slang to describe much of the slight reality shift elements of the story are terrifically evocative: blister rust, genehack weevils, kink-springs and the titular windups.

The story rollicks along, staying in real time and advancing the story from many points of view. Most of the characters are compromised in some way, none particularly endearing, yet strangely you start hoping they all come out ok. 

It’s one of those novels where as you’re reading it you start to realise that it’s only a small shift from where we are now to where this book takes us. Where food is the battleground, not terror. A scary place, not surprisingly when the author says in an interview that “the future looks a bit bleak to me”.

Definitely a keeper.

‘Free’ as a loss leader

Despite making his Dive into HTML5 book free online, people are still filling Mark Pilgrim’s coffers with cold hard cash for hardcopy:

I write free books and people buy them. It works out surprisingly well.

Hey e-book industry, listen up. We’ll still pay for hardcopy if your book is any good, so how about charging a lot less for the unshareable-DRMd-device-dependent-untactile e-copy.

Edit 2013.02.04: The links above are dead now due to Pilgrim’s ‘resignation’ from the web. Here’s a mirror of the HTML5 book.

eBook DRM

I like the idea of the eBook, but it seems like the industry is making the same mistakes the music business did - heavily DRM’d, non transferable, single device files. iBooks doesn’t allow you to read a book on your Mac that you bought on your iPhone. Google Books don’t work on Kindles or iBooks. You need to create an ‘Adobe identity’ before you can read the book you bought. Etc.

It’s like they want you to keep buying the dead tree option - and maybe they do, for the time being at least.