April Links: EBooks, Zombies, Writing, and more

* Terry Teachout’s prescience regarding e-books deserves to be noted and commended, despite my reservations.

* Speaking of ebooks, Randall Monroe describes how to read a Kindle while in bed. Personally, I prefer to just hold my forearms up with a book in front of me.

* It’s hard for me not to like this description, from Amazon’s review page, of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” So begins Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, an expanded edition of the beloved Jane Austen novel featuring all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem.

* Although I disagree with the conclusions in Life On Venus: Europe’s Last Man, I find it fascinating:

Precisely because novels are not, and should not be, political documents, they offer a less guarded, more intuitive report on the inner life of a society. And when novelists from different European countries, writing in different languages and very different styles, all seem to corroborate one another’s intuitions, it is at least fair to wonder whether a real cultural shift is under way.

Kirsch cites three major novelists—Ian McEwan, who is one of my favorites, W.G. Sebold, and Michel Houellebecq—as major examples of modern European-ness, and then looks at a book by each:

Three more different writers could hardly be invented. Which makes it all the more suggestive, I think, that their portraits of the spiritual state of contemporary Europe are so powerfully complementary. They show us a Europe that is cosmopolitan, affluent, and tolerant, enjoying all the material blessings that human beings have always struggled for, and that the Europeans of seventy years ago would have thought unattainable. Yet these three books are also haunted by intimations of belatedness and decline, by the fear that Europe has too much history behind it to thrive. They suggest currents of rage and despair coursing beneath the calm surface of society, occasionally erupting into violence. And they worry about what will happen when a Europe, gorged on historical good fortune, must defend itself against an envious and resentful world.

This, however, could also describe a great deal of science fiction since the 1970s, or any number of major American writers, who often take it upon themselves to demystify the American dream—and here I’m thinking of Philip Roth’s later novels, much of much of Melville, and so on.

(Once again, I found this somewhere on the web and forgot to write down the original linker. Sorry!)

* William Zinsser on On Writing Well, a book I often recommend to those interested in, well, writing well:

I would write from my own convictions—take ’em or leave ’em—and I would illustrate my points with passages by writers I admired. I would treat the English language spaciously, as a gift waiting for anyone to unwrap, not as a narrow universe of grammar and syntax. Above all, I would try to enjoy the trip and to convey that enjoyment to my readers.

(Hap tip to somewhere, but I forgot where. Sorry!)

On Writing Well is, along with James Wood’s How Fiction Works and Francine Prose’s How to Read Like a Writer, an important discovery in my own writing life. T.C. Boyle said you can’t teach writing, and maybe he’s right, but you can learn the principles that’ll make it easier to learn through experience and teaching yourself.

* Men, women, and reading:

A study of reading habits showed almost half of women are ‘page turners’ who finish a book soon after starting it compared to only 26 per cent of men.

The survey 2,000 adults also found those who take a long time to read books and only managed one or two a year were twice as likely to be male than female.

(For a really fun time, now debate whether this is cultural or biological.)

(Hat tip Marginal Revolution.)

* Although I’ve praised Amazon’s prices elsewhere, those prices come at, um, a price:

Is Amazon.co.uk targeting Britain’s indie publishers with an offer they have little choice but to accept? That’s what the trade group the Independent Publisher’s Guild is saying after a Friday meeting with Amazon in which the American internet retail giant refused to negotiate a new demand for greater discounts from the indies.

* Rouss Douthat on The Tough-On-Crime Trap.

* Regarding Literacy and Suicide, from Alan Jacobs:

Dr Andrej Maruai, a Slovene psychiatrist involved in organizing the conference, presented a paper called “Suicide in Europe: Genetics, Literacy and Poverty” which convincingly shows the links between the social factors of literacy and poverty, and suicidal behavior. . . .

According to Maruai’s theory, the higher any given country’s literacy rate and the lower that country’s GNP, the more likely the country is to have a high suicide rate. The theory can be convincingly applied to the countries with the highest suicide rates in Europe, namely the three Baltic states, Hungary and Slovenia, where literacy is at almost 100 percent and where the GNP and standard of living have been adversely affected by the transition process.

* I love this quote, provided courtesy of Daring Fireball: “My muse for the session was this quote from Walt Disney: “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.” To me, that’s it. That’s the thing.”

* Alexander McCall Smith writes “Lost in Fiction” for the WSJ, saying that

This, and many other similar experiences, has made me think about the whole issue of the novelist’s freedom — and responsibility. The conclusion that I am increasingly drawn to is that the world of fiction and the world of real flesh-and-blood people are not quite as separate as one might imagine. Writing is a moral act: What you write has a real effect on others, often to a rather surprising extent.

I don’t buy the moral act comment, or at least not in all cases (see additional comments here). As for Smith, he wrote “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” books, of which I read, or, rather, tried to read the first two, and I quit because they were tremendously boring and kitschy. I wonder if his political views on fiction are part of the reason; later in the same article, Smith writes, “It is one of the jobs of fiction to report on the sorrows and tragedies of this world. This must be done, though, from a morally acceptable standpoint.” That line could require an entire essay to refute, but I would say rather than part of what a novel does is a) explore what is and b) explore what “morally acceptable” means, rather than reinforcing what is already considered by most of society as morally acceptable. And a novel doesn’t have to accomplish a) and b) at once, and it could accomplish neither and still be an excellent novel. I would argue that Lolita is such a novel.

* Megan McArdle asks, Whither GM? Notice this:

As GM moves through its forecast period, its cash needs associated with legacy liabilities grow, reaching approximately $6 billion per year in 2013 and 2014. To meet this cash outflow, GM needs to sell 900,000 additional cars per year, creating a difficult burden that leaves it fighting to maximize volume rather than return on investment.

This seems, if not impossible, then at least very close to it. Someone is going to write The Reckoning for this time period.

* Check this out: “The School Edition:”

One way to see the difference between schoolbooks and real books like Moby Dick is to examine different procedures which separate librarians, the custodians of real books, from schoolteachers, the custodians of schoolbooks. To begin with, libraries are usually comfortable, clean, and quiet. They are orderly places where you can actually read instead of just pretending to read.


Real books conform to the private curriculum of each author, not to the invisible curriculum of a corporate bureaucracy. Real books transport us to an inner realm of solitude and unmonitored mental reflection in a way schoolbooks and computer programs can’t. If they were not devoid of such capacity, they would jeopardize school routines devised to control behavior. Real books conform to the private curriculum of particular authors, not to the demands of bureaucracy.

* On The Radical Honesty Movement:

Once again, I felt the thrill of inappropriate candor. And I felt something else, too. The paradoxical joy of being free from choice. I had no choice but to tell the truth. I didn’t have to rack my brain figuring out how to hedge it, spin it, massage it.

“Just being honest,” I shrug. Nice touch, I decide; helps take the edge off. She’s got a thick skin. She’ll be okay. And I’ll tell you this: I’ll never get a damn gift certificate from her again.

* Alain de Botton: Brilliant or poseur? I tend towards “brilliant” with a dash of “neither.” But I think he speaks to modernity better than many other writers, and you can expect a post on his novel On Love shortly.

(Hat tip Mark Sarvas.)

* Although I haven’t actually read any of the novels mentioned in this paragraph, I’ve read about all of them prior to reading further about them in Slate’s thoughtful “Readin’ Dirty: Wetlands is the ‘2 Girls 1 Cup’ of novels.

Looking in the most obscure corner of the Grove/Atlantic library, you might notice that the publishing house has imported such hits as 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, an “erotic coming-of-age novel” crafted by a Sicilian authoress of jailbait age; The Sexual Life of Catherine M., a French art critic’s Foucauldian analysis of having many trains pulled upon her; and Baise-Moi, a revenge thriller that is somewhat an odd duck in this subgenre as it boasts an actual plot. While studies have shown that every boat on the sea will be floated by something, even Helen’s grill tools, these books don’t rate as erotica; seldom does anything like an Anaïs Nin fever shiver through them, except perhaps Catherine M., which is kind of hot. On the whole, these books do not intend to arouse but to titillate, and, in this respect, Wetlands is the epitome of the form.

* The battle against barbarism continues, per “Video of girl’s flogging as Taliban hand out justice: Mobile phone movie shows that militant influence is spreading deeper into Pakistan” from The Guardian. The horrific video attached is difficult to watch.

* That battle isn’t just far away, either, since the Phoenix police raid[ed the] home of [a] blogger whose writing is highly critical of them. Apparently no one can find out any specifics regarding the alleged reason the police raided Miller’s house, as this Arizona Republic article shows.

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