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.