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.
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?