Category Archives: books

Long Reads and the Stockholm Syndrome

Since read­ing one of the longest nov­els I have shied away from oth­er lengthy tomes des­pite thor­oughly enjoy­ing my 1000-page adven­ture. When con­sid­er­ing this choice, I frame my decision as defend­ing against a type of lit­er­ary post-pur­chase ration­al­isa­tion: after invest­ing such an enorm­ous amount of time in read­ing a book, will I be able to object­ively con­sider both its mer­its and imper­fec­tions? After 900 pages, are the quotes I’m high­light­ing really as pro­found as I think? I’m doubt­ful.

Appar­ently I’m not alone in this, as Mark O’Con­nell makes clear in a light-hearted essay ask­ing how much of the enjoy­ment we get from read­ing long nov­els can be attrib­uted to a lit­er­ary Stock­holm syn­drome?

You fin­ish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rain­bow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewil­der­ment or frus­tra­tion or irritation—you think to your­self, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monu­ment­al­ity, this grat­i­fied speech­less­ness that we tend to feel at such moments of clos­ure and vale­dic­tion, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achieve­ment in hav­ing read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achieve­ment in hav­ing writ­ten it. When you read the kind of nov­el that prom­ises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow […] there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more prob­lem­at­ic­ally, is often dif­fi­cult to sep­ar­ate from an awe at the fact of your own sur­mount­ing of it. […]

And there is, con­nec­ted with this phe­nomen­on, what I think of as Long Nov­el Stock­holm syn­drome.

via The Browser

The Inefficiencies of Local Bookstores

We should not hold Amazon in con­tempt for pres­sur­ing loc­al inde­pend­ent book­stores to the brink of clos­ure and instead should embrace the com­pany for tak­ing advant­age of inef­fi­cien­cies, fur­ther­ing a read­ing cul­ture, and–believe it or not–helping us ‘buy loc­al’ more effect­ively.

In response to Richard Russo’s recent New York Times art­icle berat­ing a recent not-so-well-con­sidered Amazon pro­mo­tion, Far­had Man­joo takes a dif­fer­ent per­spect­ive on the Amazon vs. inde­pend­ent book­stores debate, this time com­ing down firmly in the Amazon camp.

I get that some people like book­stores, and they’re will­ing to pay extra to shop there. They find brows­ing through phys­ic­al books to be a med­it­at­ive exper­i­ence, and they enjoy some of the ancil­lary bene­fits of phys­ic­al­ity (authors’ read­ings, unlim­ited magazine brows­ing, in-store cof­fee shops, the warm couches that you can curl into on a cold day). And that’s fine: In the same way that I some­times wander into Whole Foods for the lux­uri­ous exper­i­ence of buy­ing fancy food, I don’t begrudge book­store devotees spend­ing extra to get an exper­i­ence they fancy.What rankles me, though, is the hec­tor­ing atti­tude of book­store cult­ists […] when they argue that read­ers who spurn indies are abandon­ing some kind of “loc­al” lit­er­ary cul­ture. There is little that’s “loc­al” about most loc­al book­stores. Unlike a farm­ers’ mar­ket, which con­nects you with the people who are sea­son­ally and sus­tain­ably tend­ing crops with­in driv­ing dis­tance of your house, an inde­pend­ent book­store’s shelves don’t have much to do with your com­munity. Sure, every loc­al book­store pro­motes loc­al authors, but its bread and but­ter is the same stuff that Amazon sells—mass-manufactured goods whose intel­lec­tu­al prop­erty was pro­duced by one of the major pub­lish­ing houses in Manhattan. […]

Wait, but what about the book­stores’ own­ers and employees—aren’t they bene­fit­ting from your decision to buy loc­al? Sure, but inso­far as they’re doing it inef­fi­ciently (and their prices sug­gest they are), you could argue that they’re bene­fit­ing at the expense of someone else in the eco­nomy. After all, if you’re spend­ing extra on books at your loc­al indie, you’ve got less money to spend on everything else—including on authen­tic­ally loc­al cul­tur­al exper­i­ences. With the money you saved by buy­ing books at Amazon, you could have gone to see a few pro­duc­tions at your loc­al theat­er com­pany, vis­ited your city’s museum, pur­chased some loc­ally craf­ted fur­niture, or spent more money at your farm­ers’ mar­ket. Each of these is a cul­tur­al exper­i­ence that’s cre­ated in your com­munity.

That said, occa­sion­ally I like to pay a ‘premi­um’ and buy books from loc­al stores, but not for any of the reas­ons men­tioned above. Rather, I hope for that bit of lit­er­ary serendip­ity and haphaz­ard dis­cov­ery that only seems to hap­pen in loc­al inde­pend­ents.

Robert Gottlieb on the Art of Editing

The author-edit­or rela­tion­ship is an intim­ate one, and Robert Got­tlieb, edit­or of many well-loved books and of The New York­er for five years, knows this more than most. One of the best insights into this rela­tion­ship comes cour­tesy of an inter­view with Got­tlieb in The Par­is Review where the ‘ques­tions’ are actu­ally anec­dotes provided by some of the writers with whom he has worked over the years.

With com­ments from the likes of Joseph Heller, Dor­is Lessing, Michael Crichton and Robert Caro, the one thing that par­tic­u­larly struck me in the inter­view is how Got­tlieb con­tinu­ously describe­s how to be a good edit­or, one must also be a good read­er, writer and author.

He’s humble about the craft, too:

The fact is, this glor­i­fic­a­tion of edit­ors, of which I have been an extreme example, is not a whole­some thing. The editor’s rela­tion­ship to a book should be an invis­ible one. The last thing any­one read­ing Jane Eyre would want to know, for example, is that I had con­vinced Char­lotte Brontë that the first Mrs. Rochester should go up in flames. The most fam­ous case of edit­or­i­al inter­ven­tion in Eng­lish lit­er­at­ure has always bothered me—you know, that Dickens’s friend Bul­wer-Lyt­ton advised him to change the end of Great Expect­a­tions: I don’t want to know that! As a crit­ic, of course, as a lit­er­ary his­tor­i­an, I’m inter­ested, but as a read­er, I find it very dis­con­cert­ing. Nobody should know what I told Joe Heller and how grate­ful he is, if he is. It’s unkind to the read­er and just out of place.

A quote I missed on first read­ing the inter­view (but saw high­lighted on his Wiki­pe­dia entry) is this brief com­ment regard­ing his approach to edit­ing:

You have to sur­render to a book. If you do, when some­thing in it seems to be going askew, you are wounded. The more you have sur­rendered to a book, the more jar­ring its errors appear.

Many (all?) of The Par­is Review’s The Art of… inter­views are online and worth spend­ing some time with. Gab­ri­elle from The Con­tex­tu­al Life provides a high­light of some of the best inter­views, dat­ing back to Ern­est Hem­ing­way’s 1950s inter­view.

via @RebeccaSkloot

Our Self-Centered ‘Default’ Worldview: DFW’s Commencement Address

Recent talk of the cor­res­pond­ence bias (here) reminded me of pos­sibly the best com­mence­ment speech that I’ve not yet writ­ten about (and I’ve writ­ten about quite a few): Dav­id Foster Wal­lace’s com­mence­ment address to the gradu­ates of Kenyon Col­lege in 2005.

The speech, often cited as Wal­lace’s only pub­lic talk con­cern­ing his worldview, was adap­ted fol­low­ing his death into a book titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Sig­ni­fic­ant Occa­sion, About Liv­ing a Com­pas­sion­ate Life and is essen­tial read­ing for any­one inter­ested in per­son­al choice: the choice of think­ing and act­ing in a way con­trary to our self-centered “default” world­view.

Actu­ally, scrap that, it’s just essen­tial read­ing for every­one.

Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long check­out lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a con­scious decision about how to think and what to pay atten­tion to, I’m gonna be pissed and miser­able every time I have to shop. Because my nat­ur­al default set­ting is the cer­tainty that situ­ations like this are really all about me. About MY hun­gri­ness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like every­body else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repuls­ive most of them are, and how stu­pid and cow-like and dead-eyed and non­hu­man they seem in the check­out line, or at how annoy­ing and rude it is that people are talk­ing loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and per­son­ally unfair this is. […]

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the free­way, fine. Lots of us do. Except think­ing this way tends to be so easy and auto­mat­ic that it does­n’t have to be a choice. It is my nat­ur­al default set­ting. It’s the auto­mat­ic way that I exper­i­ence the bor­ing, frus­trat­ing, crowded parts of adult life when I’m oper­at­ing on the auto­mat­ic, uncon­scious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my imme­di­ate needs and feel­ings are what should determ­ine the world’s pri­or­it­ies.

To read the speech I recom­mend the ver­sion from More Intel­li­gent Life linked above as it is true to the speech as it was giv­en. If you prefer a slightly more edited read, The Wall Street Journ­al’s copy and The Guard­i­an’s copy may be more to your taste.

WordPerfect Business Advice

In 1980, as a $5‑an-hour part-time office manager, W. E. Peterson joined the small com­pany that would go on to become Word­Per­fect Cor­por­a­tion. Then, twelve years later, after help­ing grow the com­pany to half a bil­lion dol­lars in annu­al sales and becom­ing the Exec­ut­ive Vice Pres­id­ent, Peterson was forced out of the com­pany and set out to chron­icle the rise and fall of Word­Per­fect in his book, Almost Per­fect.

You can read Almost Per­fect online like I did after hear­ing about it from Jeff Atwood two years ago. Why am I post­ing this now? Now that the book has a Kindle ver­sion I’m re-read­ing it and liked this para­graph of busi­ness advice from the after­word:

If you read [Almost Per­fect] hop­ing to learn more about run­ning a busi­ness, then I hope you noted the parts about teach­ing cor­rect prin­ciples and allow­ing employ­ees to gov­ern them­selves. In spite of the prob­lems I had under­stand­ing and imple­ment­ing this philo­sophy, I am con­vinced it is the best way to run a busi­ness. In today’s com­pet­it­ive envir­on­ment, busi­nesses can no longer afford the over­head of one super­visor for every five or six employ­ees. As organ­iz­a­tions flat­ten and super­vi­sion decreases, employ­ees will make more decisions on their own and gov­ern them­selves much more than they have in the past. If a com­pany is to func­tion effect­ively, its employ­ees must have a good under­stand­ing of what is expec­ted of them. Very small organ­iz­a­tions may be able to find suc­cess without defin­ing and teach­ing cor­rect prin­ciples, but any busi­ness with more than 25 or 30 people must get organ­ized.