… I'm not the first or only one to have noticed Amazon.com's utility

My recent post on how Publishing Industry Gloom is Readers’ Gain discussed the pervasive fear of used books. But now I’ve found an article from a decade ago concerning and predicting its rise, in Philip Greenspun’s hilarious (and depressing) piece about his experience writing a tech book. Towards the bottom, he included this:

Looking at the way my book was marketed made me realize that amazon.com is going to rule the world. A traditional bookstore is useful as an entertainment venue. You can arrange to meet someone there. You can kill 20 minutes browsing. But if you’re picky about what you want, the chance of them having the book is pretty small. They carry books that are being heavily hyped and books that were popular and relevant six months ago. Traditional bookstores can’t respond quickly to customer demand for new or newly popular titles. In dozens of cases, friends of mine would go into a store to ask after Database Backed Web Sites. Usually the book had not been ordered and the store had no intention of stocking the title. The front desk clerks had no mechanism to provide feedback to the buyers. If a person did not plunk down his credit card and special order the book, no record would exist of the inquiry.

Although I couldn’t find a date of original publication on his site, it appears to have been sometime around 1997. Talk about prescience. Not long ago I desperately wanted a copy of Chaim Potok’s The Gift of Asher Lev—which was a mistake—so I could start it immediately after finishing My Name is Asher Lev. None of the Bookman’s stores in Tucson had it. Antigone (of course) didn’t have it, but that didn’t stop me from calling. Eventually I found two stores, both inconveniently located, that did: a Barnes & Noble and a Borders. The Barnes & Noble didn’t actually have it, though their computer said they did. The Borders did have it for about $15. If I’d just started driving to bookstores, I would’ve been irate by the journey’s end. For the privilege, I paid a little more than $15.00. Amazon charges $10.20 as of this writing. A used copy costs $8.08 with shipping. Don’t get me started on the dearth New York Review of Books Press or Library of America titles, which are two of my favorite imprints.

This is why Amazon is growing in power.

In Seattle, I would go to Elliott Bay and the University Bookstore to hear authors. In Tucson, I lack even that reason.

Still, it appears that used books might not be substitutes for most Amazon buyers, according to Internet Exchanges for Used Books: An Empirical Analysis of Product Cannibalization and Welfare Impact, which says

Our analysis suggests that used books are poor substitutes for new books for most of Amazon’s customers. The cross-price elasticity of new book demand with respect to used book prices is only 0.088. As a result only 16% of used book sales at Amazon cannibalize new book purchases. The remaining 84% of used book sales apparently would not have occurred at Amazon’s new book prices. Further, our estimates suggest that this increase in book readership from Amazon’s used book marketplace increases consumer surplus by approximately $67.21 million annually.

Then again, it was also written in 2005, and I wouldn’t be surprised if reader behavior changes quickly.

… I’m not the first or only one to have noticed Amazon.com’s utility

My recent post on how Publishing Industry Gloom is Readers’ Gain discussed the pervasive fear of used books. But now I’ve found an article from a decade ago concerning and predicting its rise, in Philip Greenspun’s hilarious (and depressing) piece about his experience writing a tech book. Towards the bottom, he included this:

Looking at the way my book was marketed made me realize that amazon.com is going to rule the world. A traditional bookstore is useful as an entertainment venue. You can arrange to meet someone there. You can kill 20 minutes browsing. But if you’re picky about what you want, the chance of them having the book is pretty small. They carry books that are being heavily hyped and books that were popular and relevant six months ago. Traditional bookstores can’t respond quickly to customer demand for new or newly popular titles. In dozens of cases, friends of mine would go into a store to ask after Database Backed Web Sites. Usually the book had not been ordered and the store had no intention of stocking the title. The front desk clerks had no mechanism to provide feedback to the buyers. If a person did not plunk down his credit card and special order the book, no record would exist of the inquiry.

Although I couldn’t find a date of original publication on his site, it appears to have been sometime around 1997. Talk about prescience. Not long ago I desperately wanted a copy of Chaim Potok’s The Gift of Asher Lev—which was a mistake—so I could start it immediately after finishing My Name is Asher Lev. None of the Bookman’s stores in Tucson had it. Antigone (of course) didn’t have it, but that didn’t stop me from calling. Eventually I found two stores, both inconveniently located, that did: a Barnes & Noble and a Borders. The Barnes & Noble didn’t actually have it, though their computer said they did. The Borders did have it for about $15. If I’d just started driving to bookstores, I would’ve been irate by the journey’s end. For the privilege, I paid a little more than $15.00. Amazon charges $10.20 as of this writing. A used copy costs $8.08 with shipping. Don’t get me started on the dearth New York Review of Books Press or Library of America titles, which are two of my favorite imprints.

This is why Amazon is growing in power.

In Seattle, I would go to Elliott Bay and the University Bookstore to hear authors. In Tucson, I lack even that reason.

Still, it appears that used books might not be substitutes for most Amazon buyers, according to Internet Exchanges for Used Books: An Empirical Analysis of Product Cannibalization and Welfare Impact, which says

Our analysis suggests that used books are poor substitutes for new books for most of Amazon’s customers. The cross-price elasticity of new book demand with respect to used book prices is only 0.088. As a result only 16% of used book sales at Amazon cannibalize new book purchases. The remaining 84% of used book sales apparently would not have occurred at Amazon’s new book prices. Further, our estimates suggest that this increase in book readership from Amazon’s used book marketplace increases consumer surplus by approximately $67.21 million annually.

Then again, it was also written in 2005, and I wouldn’t be surprised if reader behavior changes quickly.

Life: Innocence or lack thereof edition

“One should be no great admirer of innocence, in either narratives, individuals, or cultures. Where it’s genuine, after a certain age it’s unbecoming, off-putting, even freakish and dangerous. Where it’s false, it’s false. To admire it much is patronizing and sentimental; to aspire to it is self-defeating. Let us admire—in cultures, narratives, and people—not innocence, but experience and grace.”

—John Barth, The Friday Book.

(In case it is not already apparent, The Friday Book is highly recommended.)

On books, taste, and distaste

Jason Fisher made this astute observation in an e-mail:

One thing I will say, as now a fairly regular reader of your blog, is that you don’t seem to read very much that you actually like. You seem, in some ways, doomed to be disappointed either by your tastes or the bar you’ve set up. Do you do any reading purely for non-intellectual pleasure, I wonder? I, for instance, read Palahniuk novels, Crichton novels too, and pulpy fantasy and science fiction, and so on. I know this isn’t great literature, but because I know that, and don’t expect it to be, I can enjoy it for what it is. I suppose it’s a bit like cleansing one’s palate after watching a Masterpiece Theatre miniseries (Middlemarch, say), by tuning in to several ridiculous half-hour sit-coms. Do you do anything like that? Some people, very stuffy and high-minded people usually, like to say life’s too short to waste precious time reading anything less than the most serious, intellectually stimulating challenging works of literature, but I think this is rather missing the point: that’s not necessarily wasting time so much as just spending it in different ways. I personally cannot keep up a constant level of serious intellectual stimulation at all times; I need some pure entertainment, pure diversion. What about you?

There are some very fine and accurate observations here: I am disappointed by a lot, as a cursory examination of recent posts will show, although I would also say that some of what comes across as disappointment is analysis. For example, I liked Richard Price’s Lush Life. Even within that praise, however, I discuss the off notes:

Imperfections in Lush Life are minor: Tristan is flat, which is perhaps appropriate given his youth and the cruel environment in which he lives. Some allusions are improbable; would Eric or the third-person narrator mention the dancing of Tevye? Maybe, but despite Eric being Jewish I’m skeptical.

Occasionally I do find the excellent novel, and I had Fisher’s e-mail in mind when I took Wonder Boys from the shelf and reread it in a great gulp, like a full water bottle after a long run. The last paragraph of my post says:

This is the kind of novel that reminds me why I like to read so much, and why I find bad books disappointing out of proportion to their menial sins: because those bad books suck up the time, space, and energy, both mental and physical, that could be devoted to the wonderful and extraordinary.

Knowing how wonderful writers can be makes those who don’t rise to the challenge of their predecessors and contemporaries rather disappointing, like spending time fixing random and unimportant errors rather than focusing on systematic issues that could prevent them in the first place. Although I don’t think my taste stuffy necessarily—I like the whimsical and humorous far too much—I don’t like to waste my time on the high-, middle-, or low-brow. Faulkner’s weaker novels are of little more interest to me than The Da Vinci Code, and the hysterical realists (see more on them here, in a walled garden).

In How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, Daniel Mendelsohn says of the critic:

What motivates so many of us to write in the first place is, to begin with, a great passion for a subject (Tennessee Williams, Balanchine, jazz, the twentieth-century novel, whatever) that we find beautiful; and then, a kind of corresponding anxiety about the fragility of that beauty.

I might quibble with the words “anxiety” and “fragility,” both of which strike me as close but not precisely akin to those ephemeral qualities Mendelsohn is trying to describe, but the idea is fundamentally right: why it is that so many works of art are off just enough to cast them from the great to the good, the good to the mediocre, the mediocre to the atrocious. It’s that initial passion that propels us, and me, forward, however, and as one does move forward, one’s knowledge of what makes good and bad becomes steadily more refined and one’s taste further develops. When I began reading adult books around the time I was 11 or 12, I devoured innumerable pulpy fantasy and, to a lesser extent, science fiction novels. My taste then was much coarser, and as I’ve developed as a critic and person, I’ve become more aware of the—not fragility, exactly, but the very tight rope suspended over a wide chasm, and how difficult it is to stay on that rope and not to fall in. Now commonplaces are more apparent, patterns become clearer, and ideas that seemed vivid the first time I encountered them have become stale. The quest for novelty evolves, and the initial passion becomes more discriminating, and as it does, disappointment becomes common in a way that makes one almost in danger of enervating.

Such discrimination also makes the highs all the higher, and what I before had perceived as the difference between good and bad novels was the difference between a boy evaluating on a mound he just dug to the hole from where the dirt came versus an adult evaluating the difference between the Himalayas and the Grand Canyon. Perhaps that is somewhat overblown—the Himalayas? Really?—but it nonetheless helps express the contrasts in scale that I’m describing. The wonderful and extraordinary don’t necessarily have to be Melville or Tolstoy, and that’s where I’d distinguish Fisher’s point:

I suppose it’s a bit like cleansing one’s palate after watching a Masterpiece Theatre miniseries (Middlemarch, say), by tuning in to several ridiculous half-hour sit-coms. Do you do anything like that? Some people, very stuffy and high-minded people usually, like to say life’s too short to waste precious time reading anything less than the most serious, intellectually stimulating challenging works of literature […]

I’d count Richard Russo’s Straight Man, Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem, and Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado among my favorite recent novels. If they have elements of being half-hour sitcoms, it’s their devotion to humor, but they are all far deeper than most sitcoms—or novels—and have a core of meaning if one wishes to find it underlying their jokes. In some ways, such novels are my favorite: they’re intellectually stimulating but lighter than a perfect souffle. The best sit-coms are like this too: some early episodes of Sex and the City had this mixture of the profound through the banal and vice-versa. But a show like Friends never seemed to have that depth, at least to judge from my relatively limited experience: it was melodrama without the drama, all surface and nothing beneath. Art like that doesn’t usually appeal to me, but I don’t think it a requirement that serious precludes being funny, or that serious is an absolute virtue to be worshiped. For more on this subject, see James Wood’s The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel.

In humor we might get at the deepest truths; I can’t remember who said it, but someone noticed that comedy is tragedy that happens to someone else. But I don’t go for empty vessels in reading or watching. In pop songs I listen to while driving, sure, but very seldom elsewhere. A corollary of that might be that I don’t like a lot of novels, or books in general.

[…] I think this is rather missing the point: that’s not necessarily wasting time so much as just spending it in different ways. I personally cannot keep up a constant level of serious intellectual stimulation at all times; I need some pure entertainment, pure diversion. What about you?

I might be driving toward the same point and might have also misrepresented Fisher’s meaning if not his exact words in responding, above. But I would say that I’m not convinced pure entertainment or pure diversions exist: art needs to have some depth (or height—I’m forced into using these relative positions to average without specifying really whether they should be up or down) sufficient to be genuinely entertaining and diverting in the first place. Failing at that task means they can’t be diverting. To me, greatness in fiction starts with entertainment and diversion, though diversion from what I’m not entirely sure. Maybe the real—whatever that is.

To summarize, Fisher is right that there are many novels I don’t like, but I would also say that those I don’t like throw those I do into sharper relief, and that there is little if any place for a mediocre novelist in this world. Different people have different standards for art and greatness, and I don’t deny those standards exist. Nonetheless, Philippa Gregory and Tom Clancy will never rise to them. The latter is writing speculative nonfiction most of the time, whether he realizes it or not, and the former doesn’t write skillfully enough to distract me from anything because her stylistic and other mistakes are so common. I’ve also noticed that I’ve tended to write more about nonfiction over the last month or two, and perhaps that’s partially because one can still derive something from bad nonfiction; bad fiction, on the other hand, might be a total deadweight loss of time, money, and thought.

I have to quote from Kundera’s The Curtain:

(Hermann Broch said it: the novel’s sole morality is knowledge; a novel that fails to reveal some hitherto unknown bit of existence is immoral […])

and, later:

Every novel created with real passion aspires quite naturally to a lasting aesthetic value, meaning to a value capable of surviving its author. To write without having that ambition is cynicism: a mediocre plumber may be useful to people, but a mediocre novelist who consciously produces books that are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional—thus not useful, thus burdensome, thus noxious—is contemptible.

Kundera is perhaps overly grandiose here, but he is more right and wrong. And too many novels are ephemeral, commonplace, conventional, and I usually try to point those novels out and point out why and how they have those qualities. Sometimes I succeed better than others, and I often feel too aware of my own deficiencies in expression, which I try to remedy even as I fear that I am like a short person trying to grow by wishing for height. Fortunately, that analogy is imperfect because intellectual growth is possible, I believe, for all people who are open to it, but I’m not so sure that becoming an intellectual giant is. Nonetheless, I think there are worse quests in this world than the quest for knowledge and for representation.

Life: Existential humor edition

“The hero of my first novel beings by believing that ‘nothing makes any ultimate difference,’ and decides to end his life; he ends by realizing that if nothing makes any difference, that truth makes no ultimate difference either, and so rather than committing suicide he predicts that he’ll go on living in much the same manner as before.”

—John Barth, The Friday Book

"Dippy Verses," John Barth, and Tolkien

John Barth’s collection The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction contains an excellent piece on what I take to be the novel as vacuum cleaner, or, to use his title, “The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses.” A reviewer called four lines—in his estimation, three and half—of verse/poetry at the beginning of Barth’s novel Sabbatical: A Romance “dippy,” leading him point out that a) of course they’re dippy, given that they’re a joke between the protagonist and his wife, b) they’re intended ironically, and c) they’re part of a novel, a genre that is by its nature pastiche, and therefore should be considered part of its whole and not poetry as such. If poems within a novel happen to work as standalone poems, all the better, and if not, they should be evaluated as part of the whole.

“The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses” is worth reading in full, especially for Barth’s wonderful extended metaphor on osprey nests, conservationists, shoal lights, and solutions, which is too long to repeat in full here, and to summarize it would be to admire a small bird in the wild, kill it with a shotgun, and then bring the results home to prove how beautiful the bird is. Much criticism works this way to a lesser extent anyway, but in this case it seems particularly egregious.

The topic arises in part because an upcoming conference session on Tolkien will focus on his poetry, which probably would not be judged much good by the Modernist standards of the mid-Twentieth Century, but that’s of little importance: for one, he wasn’t trying to write modernist poetry—he was presenting poetry in its Medieval and older role—and for two, he was working from pre-printing press cultures. Part of Tolkien’s beauty is the extent to which he recreates that earlier time. When books and parchment are exceedingly expensive, transport tenuous at best (see The Pursuit of Glory: 1648 – 1815 for more on historical developments in that field), and history transmitted generationally from person to person, verse made memorizing and disseminating oral information easier. Some scholars have speculated that the reason for the variations in titles in The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the like, where references to “giant-killer Hermes” and “Prince Telemachus” abound, those two picked at random from a page of The Odyssey. Tolkien’s doing something similar. The distinctions we have among genres and among fiction and nonfiction weren’t well developed until sometime around the Seventeenth or Eighteenth Century, as Michael McKeon argues in The Origins of the English Novel. Therefore, to characters in Middle-earth, poetry is not just artistic, but historical documentation.

I’m only too happy to see Tolkien’s poetry analyzed as such, but what’s embedded in Lord of the Rings should be judged a component of a novel, that most slippery and contaminated of art forms. I don’t know what if anything Barth thought of Tolkien, but his essay more than defends the aesthetics of judging the works within works that many novels contain.

As for The Friday Book more generally, it’s probably the most hilarious literary essay collection I’ve read, particularly because Barth is as skeptical of and engaged with the writing of essays as he is with the writing of novels. At one point, he says “[…] I don’t much enjoy analyzing my own [work]. It’s sobering enough to see what curious things my novels say to other people; never mind what they say to me.” Elsewhere, the simple and profound gets wrapped in the cloak of the ridiculous, or perhaps vice versa, as when he notes “Of painful searching and futile running around, our literature is unavoidably full […]” Above I implied that “The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses” cannot be given in even an adequate form save in the one it takes, as with most good essays. It did, however, leave me with deeper and stranger thoughts about its subjects than when I began, which is the test that matters. That many apply to other fields—including Tolkien—is just another bonus.

“Dippy Verses,” John Barth, and Tolkien

John Barth’s collection The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction contains an excellent piece on what I take to be the novel as vacuum cleaner, or, to use his title, “The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses.” A reviewer called four lines—in his estimation, three and half—of verse/poetry at the beginning of Barth’s novel Sabbatical: A Romance “dippy,” leading him point out that a) of course they’re dippy, given that they’re a joke between the protagonist and his wife, b) they’re intended ironically, and c) they’re part of a novel, a genre that is by its nature pastiche, and therefore should be considered part of its whole and not poetry as such. If poems within a novel happen to work as standalone poems, all the better, and if not, they should be evaluated as part of the whole.

“The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses” is worth reading in full, especially for Barth’s wonderful extended metaphor on osprey nests, conservationists, shoal lights, and solutions, which is too long to repeat in full here, and to summarize it would be to admire a small bird in the wild, kill it with a shotgun, and then bring the results home to prove how beautiful the bird is. Much criticism works this way to a lesser extent anyway, but in this case it seems particularly egregious.

The topic arises in part because an upcoming conference session on Tolkien will focus on his poetry, which probably would not be judged much good by the Modernist standards of the mid-Twentieth Century, but that’s of little importance: for one, he wasn’t trying to write modernist poetry—he was presenting poetry in its Medieval and older role—and for two, he was working from pre-printing press cultures. Part of Tolkien’s beauty is the extent to which he recreates that earlier time. When books and parchment are exceedingly expensive, transport tenuous at best (see The Pursuit of Glory: 1648 – 1815 for more on historical developments in that field), and history transmitted generationally from person to person, verse made memorizing and disseminating oral information easier. Some scholars have speculated that the reason for the variations in titles in The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the like, where references to “giant-killer Hermes” and “Prince Telemachus” abound, those two picked at random from a page of The Odyssey. Tolkien’s doing something similar. The distinctions we have among genres and among fiction and nonfiction weren’t well developed until sometime around the Seventeenth or Eighteenth Century, as Michael McKeon argues in The Origins of the English Novel. Therefore, to characters in Middle-earth, poetry is not just artistic, but historical documentation.

I’m only too happy to see Tolkien’s poetry analyzed as such, but what’s embedded in Lord of the Rings should be judged a component of a novel, that most slippery and contaminated of art forms. I don’t know what if anything Barth thought of Tolkien, but his essay more than defends the aesthetics of judging the works within works that many novels contain.

As for The Friday Book more generally, it’s probably the most hilarious literary essay collection I’ve read, particularly because Barth is as skeptical of and engaged with the writing of essays as he is with the writing of novels. At one point, he says “[…] I don’t much enjoy analyzing my own [work]. It’s sobering enough to see what curious things my novels say to other people; never mind what they say to me.” Elsewhere, the simple and profound gets wrapped in the cloak of the ridiculous, or perhaps vice versa, as when he notes “Of painful searching and futile running around, our literature is unavoidably full […]” Above I implied that “The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses” cannot be given in even an adequate form save in the one it takes, as with most good essays. It did, however, leave me with deeper and stranger thoughts about its subjects than when I began, which is the test that matters. That many apply to other fields—including Tolkien—is just another bonus.

Links and Books Briefly Noted: Norman Rush's Mortals and Stephanie Kuehnert's I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone

* Books Briefly Noted: Norman Rush’s Mortals is fun, but not as good as Mating. Read that first.

Mortals has lots of thought on the subject of identity, and internationalism, and love, and other Big Ideas, but they don’t quite coalesce into a whole. Still, to say a book is good but not up to the standards of Mating isn’t too terrible a comment, given the high standard of excellence. Ideas recurse through Mortals, growing bigger and smaller in relation to each other; in one early scene, Ray, a spy built closer to the ineptness of Austin Powers than the skill of James Bond but nonetheless an intellectual, thinks, “Like the development process itself writ small, the paving of the mall was a process of improvement that never seemed to get finished.” It’s not the only process of improvement that’s never finished. Yet those ideas and the events reflecting them are not so cohesive or moving as they are in Mating.

* The New York Times inquires: If you’re online, are you really reading? My response: isn’t it obvious? Steven Berlin Johnson already answered preempted the piece with his response, Dawn of the Digital Natives.

* The uses of book blogs over search engines, argued by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution.

* Books Briefly Noted: Stephanie Kuehnert’s I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone shows promise that fizzles into too many stilted conversations, clichés (Carlisle, Wisconsin, is “a small, tight-knit community” and Emily’s face is “a mask of irritation” in a sentence that’s awkward as a whole), and banal statements. For example, from the air, “Emily lifted her eyes from the brown squares of land carved up by rivers and roads […]” Compare this to Bellow, as originally posted here:

“And at a height of three miles, sitting above the clouds, I felt like an airborne seed. From the cracks in the earth the rivers pinched back at the sun. They shone out like smelters’ puddles, and then they took a crust and were covered over. As for the vegetable kingdom, it hardly existed from the air; it looked to me no more than an inch in height. And I dreamed down at the clouds, and thought that when I was a kid I had dreamed up at them, and having dreamed at the clouds from both sides as no other generation of men has done, one should be able to accept his death very easily.”

—Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King

(Notice James Wood’s remark in How Fiction Works: “Bellow had a habit of writing repeatedly about flying partly, I guess, because it was the great obvious advantage he had over his dead competitors, those writers who had never seen the world from above the clouds: Melville, Tolstoy, Proust.”)

Granted, it’s not entirely fair to compare first-time novelists to a master, but any novelist needs to realize that they should be comparing themselves to the best, because if they aren’t, they’re wasting their time and everyone else’s. Nonetheless, I will reiterate that Kuehnert might improve over time, and even Bellow’s first was clearly not his best. In one passage, Kuehnert writes, “Where I saw, grass struggled to grow in gnarly turfs, nourished by spilt beer and cigarette butts. Just a few feet away […] it was lush, green, and tall, which made the area surrounding the warehouse look like the patchy head of a balding man.” Notice the smooth alliteration and consonance of the first sentence, with the sibilant “s” of “saw” merging into the end of “grass,” then the repeated “g’s” and finally the harmonious end of “beer” and “butts,” in a sentence expressing anything but harmony. The comparison to a bald head works, and the contrast between where Emily is and what’s within easy reach functions as a metaphor regarding her larger experience. Alas: passages like this are far rarer than the one about flying. In addition, she keeps using bad near-synonyms for “said,” and, even worse, likes attached adverbs to those synonyms. Stop!

* The LA Times’ blog, Jacket Copy, asks about writing and running.

Of course, maybe I’m not one to talk: neither of the unpublished novels in my proverbial drawer discuss running or feature athletes, and this note bemoans the lack of writing rather than solving the problem.

(Ugh: look at five and a half minutes in the first transition zone. I was disoriented from the swim and couldn’t get my shoes on and then forgot my helmet.)

* Ars Technica tells us that Yahoo’s music store is closing for good—and anyone who bought music from them won’t be able to play it in the future. This fear is the major problem with the Amazon Kindle, as discussed here, here, and here.

Links and Books Briefly Noted: Norman Rush’s Mortals and Stephanie Kuehnert’s I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone

* Books Briefly Noted: Norman Rush’s Mortals is fun, but not as good as Mating. Read that first.

Mortals has lots of thought on the subject of identity, and internationalism, and love, and other Big Ideas, but they don’t quite coalesce into a whole. Still, to say a book is good but not up to the standards of Mating isn’t too terrible a comment, given the high standard of excellence. Ideas recurse through Mortals, growing bigger and smaller in relation to each other; in one early scene, Ray, a spy built closer to the ineptness of Austin Powers than the skill of James Bond but nonetheless an intellectual, thinks, “Like the development process itself writ small, the paving of the mall was a process of improvement that never seemed to get finished.” It’s not the only process of improvement that’s never finished. Yet those ideas and the events reflecting them are not so cohesive or moving as they are in Mating.

* The New York Times inquires: If you’re online, are you really reading? My response: isn’t it obvious? Steven Berlin Johnson already answered preempted the piece with his response, Dawn of the Digital Natives.

* The uses of book blogs over search engines, argued by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution.

* Books Briefly Noted: Stephanie Kuehnert’s I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone shows promise that fizzles into too many stilted conversations, clichés (Carlisle, Wisconsin, is “a small, tight-knit community” and Emily’s face is “a mask of irritation” in a sentence that’s awkward as a whole), and banal statements. For example, from the air, “Emily lifted her eyes from the brown squares of land carved up by rivers and roads […]” Compare this to Bellow, as originally posted here:

“And at a height of three miles, sitting above the clouds, I felt like an airborne seed. From the cracks in the earth the rivers pinched back at the sun. They shone out like smelters’ puddles, and then they took a crust and were covered over. As for the vegetable kingdom, it hardly existed from the air; it looked to me no more than an inch in height. And I dreamed down at the clouds, and thought that when I was a kid I had dreamed up at them, and having dreamed at the clouds from both sides as no other generation of men has done, one should be able to accept his death very easily.”

—Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King

(Notice James Wood’s remark in How Fiction Works: “Bellow had a habit of writing repeatedly about flying partly, I guess, because it was the great obvious advantage he had over his dead competitors, those writers who had never seen the world from above the clouds: Melville, Tolstoy, Proust.”)

Granted, it’s not entirely fair to compare first-time novelists to a master, but any novelist needs to realize that they should be comparing themselves to the best, because if they aren’t, they’re wasting their time and everyone else’s. Nonetheless, I will reiterate that Kuehnert might improve over time, and even Bellow’s first was clearly not his best. In one passage, Kuehnert writes, “Where I saw, grass struggled to grow in gnarly turfs, nourished by spilt beer and cigarette butts. Just a few feet away […] it was lush, green, and tall, which made the area surrounding the warehouse look like the patchy head of a balding man.” Notice the smooth alliteration and consonance of the first sentence, with the sibilant “s” of “saw” merging into the end of “grass,” then the repeated “g’s” and finally the harmonious end of “beer” and “butts,” in a sentence expressing anything but harmony. The comparison to a bald head works, and the contrast between where Emily is and what’s within easy reach functions as a metaphor regarding her larger experience. Alas: passages like this are far rarer than the one about flying. In addition, she keeps using bad near-synonyms for “said,” and, even worse, likes attached adverbs to those synonyms. Stop!

* The LA Times’ blog, Jacket Copy, asks about writing and running.

Of course, maybe I’m not one to talk: neither of the unpublished novels in my proverbial drawer discuss running or feature athletes, and this note bemoans the lack of writing rather than solving the problem.

(Ugh: look at five and a half minutes in the first transition zone. I was disoriented from the swim and couldn’t get my shoes on and then forgot my helmet.)

* Ars Technica tells us that Yahoo’s music store is closing for good—and anyone who bought music from them won’t be able to play it in the future. This fear is the major problem with the Amazon Kindle, as discussed here, here, and here.

The Best Software Writing — Joel Spolsky

Well-written, insightful books on subjects I know nothing about often impart some lasting and surprising ideas. The biggest problem is finding them, since you don’t know they’re well-written or insightful till it’s too late. Pleasant surprises have abounded recently, one being The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood. Another comes from Joel Spolsky, who writes a popular blog on software called Joel on Software and edited The Best Software Writing I. In an industry where books age date so fast as to be almost pointless, like the hardware that runs software, one astonishing aspect is how The Best Software Writing, published in 2005 and composed of many essays written earlier, is still relevant and fascinating—and will probably be so for a long time yet.

Take Danah Boyd’s “Autistic Social Software,” which, like most of The Best Software Writing, explains how computers and people interact. It was published around 2004, which represented a societal turning point not widely recognized at the time, as virtually everyone my age hopped on what we now call “social networking sites.”* She observes that those sites weren’t very good because they’re not focused on users, even drawing a not entirely apt analogy similar to the one I made Science Fiction, literature, and the haters:

While many science fiction writers try to convey the nuances of human behavior, their emphasis is on the storyline, and they often convey the social issues around a technology as it affects that story. Building universal assumptions based on the limited scenarios set forth by sci-fi is problematic; doing so fails to capture the rich diversity of human behavior.

Her comments about science fiction are accurate regarding much, but not all of it, just like her comments about the focus of programmers on computers and their limitations, forcing us to adapt to them rather than vice-versa. The market has a knack for giving people what they want, however, and that focus is changing over time as iterative generations of software improve and people move to sites that work better. Boyd says, “[…] there is a value in understanding social life and figuring out how to interact with people on shared terms.” Right: and those who figure out what that means will be rewarded. I’m reminded of a programmer friend whose e-mail signature says “Computers aren’t the future; people are,” and I suspect he would approve of the lessons in this essay and larger book.

That’s a single example of how you take offline phenomenon—how people congregate—and apply it to an online context. Other essays reverse that dynamic. Clay Shirky’s “A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy” explains how online groups form and break apart in much the same fashion as offline groups. You could look at this in terms of clubs, families, countries or jobs, all of which have similar cohesive and destructive forces assailing them over different time periods. One thing the military has going for it is hundreds of years of experience in taking people and forcing them to work together toward a common goal. Many sports accomplish the same thing. But in both cases, the tasks—destroying things and killing people, moving a ball down a field—are narrow and well-defined compared to the wide-open field of artistic creation. Granted, both the military and sports have their wider, macro possibilities—what do we destroy and who do we kill and why? (this question is more often known as politics), or what rules should the game have and why?—but they’re not intrinsically undefined like software, or other forms of intellectual endeavor (Paul Graham wrote about this in Great Hackers.) The incentives are easier to get right. In software, like life, they’re not. Compensation becomes harder to get right when goals are less easily defined, which is a major subject in one essay and subsidiary in others. I wrote about it as applied to grant writing, using Spolsky as a launching pad, and if more people realized what he’s already discovered, we might not waste so much effort trying to reinvent the wheel or invent futile algorithms for what is inherently a tricky subject.

The Best Software Writing is, yes, about software, but it’s about more, including the future. Those interested in seeing it, and the inside of the most transformative industry of recent times, would do well to read it. It contains more thought than Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?, a New York Times article published yesterday (read it, or the rest of the paragraph won’t make much sense). Why hasn’t the reporter figured done enough background research? I wish I could say. It contrasts with Shirky’s other article, “User as Group,” which demonstrates much of what’s right about the new mediums without questioning the medium’s utility—something that the New York Times article utterly misses. Furthermore, on the individual level, the individual is going to suffer the pain of insufficient literacy or numeracy in the form of inferior jobs and a less intense life. Many seem happy to make such trade-offs, and we go on telling them to eat their Wheaties. If they don’t, they won’t be able to write at the level of skill and detail in The Best Software Writing, which would make the world a poorer place, but those involved don’t seem to care as a group. Oh well. What harm not reading Spolsky or Fred Brooks will harm the individual, but it will also cause splash damage to others who have to work with them. To the extent reading online ameliorates those problems, as Shirky implies, we’ve made improvements. He, Spolsky, and Brooks who write about programming only to the extent you’re unwilling to see programming as a metaphor.

The major fear articles like “Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?” express, I suspect, is that many people are getting along without books and stories. On a societal basis, this probably isn’t a good thing, since democracies depend on educated citizens with historical knowledge—but on a personal level, if you’re a mid-level account manager at some large company, how much does your familiarity with Tolstoy and Norman Rush really help or hurt you? On the other hand, if you want to be at the top of virtually any field, you need to read and understand the world. In software, that means books like The Best Software Writing, which, though it consists almost entirely of pieces that originally appeared online, is a physical, dead-tree book that I liked reading on paper far more than I would’ve on the screen, where I already spend entirely too much of my face time. I want what I find convenient, as do most people, and many of the essays point toward defining what that means. It’s got more about how fulfill human desires than most books, fiction or nonfiction. Volume II of The Best Software Writing might never appear. Given the strength of the first, I wish it would.


* I hope future readers find this strange phrase an anachronism showing how primitive we are, because it’s ugly and imprecise. If a phrase must be one, it at least shouldn’t be the other.

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