I hardly ever visit bookstores now. On the other hand, I’ve read more books since last fall than in the previous several years; mostly on my Galaxy Tab. I’m going to miss bookstores, but maybe we’ll save some of the best ones. Just so that this isn’t all tech and biz, I’ve thrown in 21 capsule book reviews.

Bookstores · Throughout most of my adult life, they’ve mostly sucked. There was a brief renaissance when they got the idea that bigger might be better and most towns had a mall with a Borders or B&N or whatever, and there were comfy chairs and lots of interesting books. But those places feel chillingly empty and unwelcoming and uncomfortable to me, these days. Except for the kids’-books sections.

The good bookstores, the ones I’ll go out of my way to visit, have always had style and flair and usually a serious selection of antiquarian and visual-arts books. Since antiquarian and visual-arts books are the only ones for which paper really makes sense, any more, there’s a chance that the ones I love will make it through. And if there’s no more bookstores in suburban malls, then that’s the price you pay for choosing to shop there.

What’s Good Now · The big deal for me is, when I’m reading a magazine (still on paper for now BTW) or a blog or whatever, and someone mentions a book and I think “I should read that”, well, I usually do. I go and buy it right there and then, and usually only have one or two on backlog. On such occasions I used to tear pages out and scribble notes to myself; then reliably lose them.

Our house in general and my bedside table in particular bulge with books. The Galaxy Tab is immensely more convenient. I have exactly zero eye-strain or wrist-pain issues. And I can read in bed without turning any lights on, which is friendly when others are sleeping there.

And reading more long-form works is clearly a good thing.

What’s Bad Now · Not only is it tough to share books back and forth with Lauren, it turns out she doesn’t even know what I’m reading any more. This sucks. The natural unit of book purchasers is a household not an individual.

The Business · What is it that publishers do? I’m sure it’s terribly important, but is it worth what we and the authoring community pay? Just asking. I bet that when I’m paying between $5 and $12 for bundles of bits that aren’t going to be repurchased later at a used-book store, that’s a nice business to be in. I hope that lots of the money goes to people doing the hard lonely work of writing, as opposed to what in business we call the “G&A” and “Marketing” functions. Call me crazy.

The Selection · One great thing about electric books is that they’re all available via the magic of the Internets, right? Wrong!

Here’s a true story: When I realized that I was re-developing the steady book habit of my younger years, I needed to feed the top end of the hopper.

I’m a subscriber to the Economist, and I’ve long admired their best-books-of-the-year compilations; these would be good examples of the kind of pointers I jotted down then lost the jottings. So I went online and pulled up the last decade’s worth of compilations and extracted a list of twenty-odd good-looking books.

I discovered that only maybe half of them were available electrically. I use Amazon Kindle mostly with occasional recourse to Kobo, which has quite few titles you can’t get on Kindle, at least here in Canada. The Economist’s list is pretty global, with lots of non-mainstream stuff; but still.

Reviews! · But I can’t complain about what I’ve been able to buy and read. So, let’s do some capsule reviews, in no order at all [Disclosure: The links which follow are Amazon affiliate links and the affiliate is my wife.]

  • The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention by Guy Deutscher. Totally wonderful. Since languages seem to simplify with the passage of time (what happened to cases in English?) can we conclude that the primordial Indo-European and its siblings were towering edifices of formal linguistic elaboration? The answer is surprising.

  • Lyonesse: Suldrun’s Garden and Lyonesse: The Green Pearl, by Jack Vance. High-toned fantasy. There are more of them than these two but I stopped. Don’t remember much, to be honest.

  • Neptune's Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer. I’m no naval-warfare buff, and was thus flabbergasted at its monumental, essentially-stupid dance of death and destruction. It’s a hell of a story.

  • The Sorcerer's House, by Gene Wolfe. Disclosure: I’m a Wolfe fanboy. His late works have been very uneven but this one isn’t; a texture of shimmering strangeness populated by people who are simultaneously ordinary and memorable.

  • Lush Life: A Novel by Richard Price. Manhattan police procedural. There’s no mystery, and the plot is just a backdrop for the character writing, which is first-rate. My first from Mr. Price, but I’ll probably read more.

  • Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry. An epic Western, and I mean seriously epic. As in big and thick and sweeping. I don’t know if real cowboys said “dern” all the time and cried frequently, and I was troubled by so many of the women being whores, and the tone is dark and brutal. But the atmospherics are superb, the characters engrossing, and it’s really hard to stop reading once you’ve started.

  • Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow. Almost painfully in the moment, as in the present moment we’re living in. Still, lots of fun, with engaging if perhaps slightly 2-D protagonists, and a useful warning of a potential dystopia that could get us if we let it.

  • A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, and A Feast for Crows are the episodes-to-date of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, a mainstream-ish dark-hued swords-and-(a little)-sorcery swamp. This monster is insanely popular; has its own subculture and HBO series now. I dunno; Martin keeps killing off his most compelling characters but there are enough that I care about left that I’ll probably pick up the next volume when it’s available electrically.

  • Chains of Heaven, by Philip Marsden. I think I enjoyed this most among all the electric books. It’s a travelogue of a long walk through Ethiopia, mostly about the people Marsden met and conversed with; 100% fascinating.

  • Men at Arms, by Terry Pratchett. I apologize to the smart people, people I care about, who told me that I’d like Pratchett if I’d only read him, but after this and something else on dead trees I just don’t begin to get it.

  • The Android's Dream, by John Scalzi. A cute girl at the next café table was reading this and it had a cute cover, with androids! So I bought it and enjoyed it, and while I admire character-driven writing, the plot is unforgiveably lame. I might give Scalzi another chance though.

  • The Accidental Time Machine, by Joe Haldeman. Because it was a Hugo or Nebula or some such finalist. Glad it didn’t win.

  • The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson. I read the first volume on paper. I make no apologies for having enjoyed these things, along with 83% of the rest of the planet; they’re unique and flavorful. Also, the Swedish movies do a remarkably good job of subsetting them for the screen.

  • Life, by Keith Richards. Where by “by” I mean “with the involvement of a ghostwriter whose services are never detailed.” This contrasts sharply with Clapton’s autobiography which I also read recently on paper; Eric wrote his own and says so. I don’t mind ghostwriters but I like to get a feel for who did what. Anyhow, a lot of the stories about Keef are apparently true and they’re sure fun to read. I regretted the entire absence of anything about the business side or other practicalities of music; I guess Other People took care of that for him.

  • The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece, by Eric Siblin. The cover and write-up promise more than they deliver; this is mostly just a biography of Pablo Casals. Perhaps my expectations are overly high because as an occasional cellist, I’ve been to the mat with some of these things and care passionately. Still, I think many might enjoy this; it’s well-done.

  • Fatal Risk: A Cautionary Tale of AIG’s Corporate Suicide, by Roddy Boyd. I’m currently in the middle of this one. The writing is colorful but clumsy, and the editing is unspeakably bad; almost every page has a grammar lurch or usage botch. Still, it’s another angle on something that it behooves those of us who care about civics and economics to try to understand: How in the fucking hell did the financial sector implode so badly and nearly take us all with it?

Happy reading!



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Dave Pawson (May 20 2011, at 01:58)

So are you going to ask Google to start the library Tim, then you could share with Lauren?

Dave

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From: Dan (May 20 2011, at 02:14)

Richard Price's "Clockers" is a bloated must-read. The process behind his writing is amazing, it must require a great deal of tenacity.

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From: John Singleton (May 20 2011, at 03:22)

I agree, I've read more books since getting my Kindle and it's easy to take around than a dead tree book. I just wish that the books were always cheaper than their dead tree counterpart.

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From: dare (May 20 2011, at 03:38)

Two errors in this interesting article, Tim, one of which is recurring, or as we say in Britain, "reoccurring"...

"Electric books" would be books made out of electricity or books covering the subject of electricity, eg "gym books / gymnastics books" gymnastic books would be books that can possibly perform somersaults etc..

Secondly, characters (protagonists in your example) are said to be ONE dimensional if their depth is poor, as opposed to what you wrote; "2-D", unless you are partitioning character depth into three possible categories(?) thus extending our wonderful language

Forgive me if any of this is annoying etc. I am both a teacher of English and a fan of yours.

Also, when the heck is the official gingerbread release going to be available for mac users with samsung galaxy s'?

Finally would you recommend the galaxy tab? Which gen. do you have? Have you tried any others? Thanks

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From: Mike P (May 20 2011, at 06:23)

Speaking of Scalzi, he talks about the business side in his blog here:

http://whatever.scalzi.com/2010/02/03/why-in-fact-publishing-will-not-go-away-anytime-soon-a-deeply-slanted-play-in-three-acts/

If you're looking for another Scalzi book I recommend Old Man's War. He's also just released Fuzzy Nation, a reboot of H. Beam Piper's Little Fuzzy though I haven't had a chance to read it yet.

Another few recommendations based on your booklist:

Steven Erikson - Gardens of the Moon

First novel in his ten book Malazan Book of the Fallen series. The whole series probably weighs in at 12K+ pages so be warned.

Patrick Rothfuss - The Name of the Wind

Fantastic book, and the second in the series was just released.

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From: Sijmen (May 20 2011, at 08:20)

I felt the same since getting my Kindle. But instead of buying books that seem interesting, I send myself a sample chapter so that I don’t pay for the backlog of which most I won’t read anyway.

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From: Bob DuCharme (May 20 2011, at 08:40)

Maybe the electronic edition omits this, but the print edition of Richards' book includes James Fox's name on the title page and has a short paragraph about him on the "About the Author" page at the end. http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-10-27/keith-richards-memoir-writer-james-fox-speaks/# has more details on their writing (and editing) process.

In the genre of important musical history from a former junkie who told a lot of juicy and fascinating stories that got transcribed into a book, I highly recommend Miles Davis's autobiography as well.

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From: Eddie (May 20 2011, at 09:08)

Sorry to focus on the smallest detail of your post, but how occasional a cellist are you?

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From: Edward (May 20 2011, at 09:16)

In our household there is very little sharing of books going on - we have different interests when it comes to reading. (Our music is all shared)

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From: Paul Hoffman (May 20 2011, at 09:53)

I'm one of those people who was sure you would like Pratchett, and Men At Arms would have been a good start. If you want to give him another try, maybe do The Wee Free Men, a "young adult" book that has plenty of adult in it; your son might like it too. If so, the folllow-ons in that series are even better.

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From: Alex Cruise (May 20 2011, at 22:31)

The only drawback of bicycle commuting is I don't get to read nearly as much as I'd like to. But Kindle and Kobo on my Galaxy S are at least half of what I do manage.

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From: blufive (May 22 2011, at 13:35)

"What is it that publishers do? I’m sure it’s terribly important, but is it worth what we and the authoring community pay? Just asking."

Charlie Stross wrote a whole series of blog posts on this very subject. Number 2 is probably closest to what you're asking: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/02/cmap-2-how-books-are-made.html

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From: g (May 23 2011, at 15:53)

Dare,

Nothing wrong with "recurring" in BrE. (It's older than "reoccurring", according to the OED.)

Electric fences, electric guitars, electric hobs, electric lights: none of them either "made out of electricity" or "on the subject of electricity". (I don't think "electric" could possibly mean the latter; nor could a "gymnastic book", as opposed to a "gymnastics book", be one about gymnastics.) I do agree that our host's usage is strange (probably deliberately, though I'm not sure why) -- to me, "electric" as opposed to "electronic" implies merely being *powered* by electricity rather than using it for subtle things like computation.

Criticizing characters for being "two-dimensional" is surely absolutely standard; the unfavourable comparison is with the three-dimensional characters of real life. (Curiously, the OED has a number of citations for "one-dimensional" that concern *real* people who allegedly lack(ed) depth, but none concerning fictional characters; and one for "two-dimensional" that's about a fictional character and none about real people. Perhaps "two-dimensional" is particularly appropriate as a description for characters who exist only on flat pieces of paper (or indeed celluloid film).

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From: dare (May 27 2011, at 00:13)

No offense, g, but you didn't provide any links to dissuade me. If you check british english dictionaries you'll find what I wrote was accurate. You may be an amazing CompSci mind but human language isn't your area of expertise.

Of course, the Americans will continue to misuse English, as do many of us in Britain. It's only when you get out and live in another country for over a year that one can really begin to appreciate that we have a beautiful wonderful and far more precise language than other nations speaking eg spanish. We would do well to emulate the swiss and use precision in language, not just computers outside of the brain..

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From: g (May 27 2011, at 09:00)

dare, why should I have provided links? You didn't. But, since you ask:

[Note: OED links require a subscription. If you don't have a personal or institutional one of your own, but are a member of a local library, you may find that your library card's ID number will let you in.]

On "recur" and "reoccur", #1: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/160083 (recur; sense 4a is the one you want) and http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/162584 (reoccur) and note that (1) the first usage of recur (4a) listed is from 1636, and the first usage of reoccur listed is from 1734 and (2) there is no suggestion that there's anything improper about "recur" in BrE as opposed to AmE. (Conclusion: "recur" is older, as I said; and at least one notable authority on the English language doesn't seem to regard it as improper or characteristically not-native-English.)

On "recur" and "reoccur", #2: compare http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=recur+site%3Auk and http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=reoccur+site%3Auk and note that the former has over 3x as many hits. (Conclusion: it doesn't seem that people in the UK *actually* prefer "reoccur" to "recur".)

On "recur" and "reoccur", #3: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1342.txt.utf8 (Pride and Prejudice; contains "recurring" in something kinda like the sense relevant here but no form of "reoccur"); http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1400.txt.utf8 (Great Expectations; contains "recurring" in exactly the sense relevant here but no form of "reoccur"); http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/110.txt.utf8 (Tess of the d'Urbervilles; contains "recur" in exactly the sense relevant here but no form of "reoccur"). These were the first publicly available texts I found by each of Austen, Dickens, Hardy; those were the first authors I thought to check; I haven't cherry-picked ones that use "recur" rather than "reoccur". (Conclusion: English authors of universally acknowledged excellence do not prefer "reoccur" to "recur"; quite the reverse.)

I don't know what principles you happen to prefer when deciding what constitutes good English usage, but given that (1) length of tradition, (2) the opinions of the OED's lexical experts, (3) popular practice among people in the UK, and (4) first-rate English authors *all* appear to lead to the conclusion that "recur" is at least as good as "reoccur", it's hard to see what you could base the opposite judgement on.

On "one-dimensional" and "two-dimensional", #1: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/236185 (one-dimensional) and http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/236185 (two-dimensional), sense 2 in each case. (Conclusion: the OED is happy with "two-dimensional" in the sense Tim used. See in particular the last example cited there.)

On "one-dimensional" and "two-dimensional", #2: http://www.google.co.uk/search?q="one-dimensional+characters" and http://www.google.co.uk/search?q="two-dimensional+characters", showing very similar numbers for both. (Conclusion: people in general don't have a strong preference between the two.)

On "electric": I have no idea why links would be required or useful here. Do you dispute that an "electric guitar" is a guitar that works using electricity rather than a guitar made out of electricity or (nonsensically) a guitar on the subject of electricity?

On minds and areas of expertise: I have always found that personal putdowns are more effective when the person making them is actually correct.

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From: Toffanin (Jun 09 2011, at 08:05)

Your review about "The Unfolding of Language" by Guy Deutscher intrigued me a lot as I have read several books about glottal studies and linguistics, but never heard of Guy Deutscher before; it turns out to be a terrific lecture with fascinating and interesting theories, so thank you Tim for your suggestion.

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