Describing the plot of this book would sound like one of Bill Hader’s Stefon skits from Saturday Night Live: It has Russians, terrorists, secret agents, a Chinese hacker in a Manu Ginobli jersey who writes a virus to steal money from people in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. Given that, it’s “24″-style, kidnap + extortion + ticking time bomb plot makes it a fun read full of Stephenson’s characteristically arcane detail on everything from online gaming to jihadist terrorism, including a subtle and nuanced commentary on American gun culture. I just wish Stephenson knew how to deploy his considerable storytelling talents in fewer than 1,000 pages.
What are the kinds of prose, and the kinds of thinking, that result from the imposition of the tweet form and other such brief reactions to extremely complex realities? My feeling is that there are millions and millions if not billions of words in tweets and blogs, and that they are not getting and will not get the critical attention that prose anywhere should have unless we find a new form of criticism …
… this means that billions of words go without the faintest sign of assessment. And yet, if one cares about language, if one cares about the sensibility in which language is expressed, and if one cares about the values that underlie our use of language, such as affection, privacy, honesty, cogency, clarity—then these media, it would seem to me, should qualify as the subject of criticism. We seem at the edge of a vast, expanding ocean of words, an ocean growing without any critical perspective whatever being brought to bear on it. To me, as an editor, that seems an enormous absence.
That’s from a much longer review with Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books. It was published before the Boston bombings, but after a week in which we saw a lot of criticism of social media for its accuracy and ability to spread misinformation, it feel prescient. What kind of criticism could address social media, besides the kind of media/journalism fact-checking we have now? How would you define a body of work—is it based on one account, one publication, an series of events? Who decides what to include? As shorter forms of disconnected text become the dominant form of discourse, it’s an interesting problem.
Daniel Gross talks about how he carries around the files for his long-term projects on an old thumb drive (it’s funny to think that they’re a little antiquated), as a physical reminder to work on them:
It’s precisely the physical, antedeluvian aspect of the drive that makes it useful. It’s like a worry-bead, or a bracelet — a constant physical reminder that there’s something I should be doing. When I remove it from my pocket to put it on the tray at security, before I board an eight-hour flight, it’s a reminder that maybe I should make some progress on that chapter rather than watch “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” for the eighth time. Or, leaving the office for the one-hour train ride home, I check to make sure it’s there and realize I should tinker with the presentation I have to give next month instead of spending the commute checking blogs on my iPad.
I like this idea. It reminds me of David Allen’s “leave it by the door” trick*, where you put something where you’ll literally trip over it on the way out of the house if you absolutely have to remember to bring it with you. Like Gross says, it’s a physical reminder that you can’t ignore, partly because it seems slightly out of context in a slick touchscreen and cloud world, and partly because it simply has a physical size and weight, not some list you can tuck away in a notebook or close on an app. From my experience, making long-term promises to myself in an Evernote list or Dropbox folder is a surefire way for me to forget them.
* PS: No joke, I went to search for a link on David Allen of “Getting Things Done” fame and one of the first things I found was something I wrote years ago for 43 Folders. I’ve been thinking about this stuff way too long.
From the Millions yesterday, Emily St. John Mandel writes about Mary MacLane, a lonely, would-be socialite from Montana whose 1902 book “I Await the Devil’s Coming” presaged the more narcissistic parts of the social media era. She points out that what makes MacLane’s self-obsessed writing particularly fascinating is her apparent self-awareness:
[S]he was extremely self-aware, and there are moments when she seems to recognize the corrosive potential of her self-absorption: “If I were not so unceasingly engrossed with my sense of misery and loneliness,” she wrote, “my mind would produce beautiful, wonderful logic. I am a genius — a genius — a genius.” It’s a startlingly candid admission: If I weren’t so engrossed with myself, I could accomplish greater things.
I don’t know about you, but who hasn’t had that feeling every time they log on to Twitter or Facebook. Maybe not the feeling that it’s self-obsession driving you to spend your time with fleeting updates, but a sense that if you just stopped to enjoy a moment with your own eyes instead of futzing with your iPhone you might take away something more meaningful.
When I upgraded my iPhone last year, I gave Carter my old one. It’s deactivated; he can’t make calls or send texts, but he can still use it for games, music, etc. We were off for spring break this week, and went to Shedd Aquarium Thursday. He brought the phone with him, stopping every few feet to take a blurry picture of every single fish in every single tank. At one point I told him to put it away. “Just stop and look at the jellyfish with your own eyes.” He argued with me. I sounded like a nag, as I probably do in this post. It’s just that sometimes all the photos and updates make me tired, and I hope he gets a sense of where to draw the line.
Mandel summed up the way I feel about the whole business in her essay:
I’ve been a sporadic and somewhat ambivalent participant of late. Long periods of time go by when I post almost nothing of my own and only respond to other people’s updates, because what it comes down to, I think, is that either you have an instinct for broadcasting your life on the Internet, or you don’t. It’s not that I find my life uninteresting, it’s just that I’m not at all sure why anyone else would be interested, aside from my mom. I keep a sporadic diary, because I want to remember my life, but I have a hard time imagining why I’d want to display that life for public consumption. I deeply value my privacy.
The privacy bit may be a little hypocritical for me. The longer I’ve been online the more I’ve drawn inward, but I lean more toward the “why anyone else would be interested” part. And this is probably not the best thing to admit now that I make a living in social media,and gear up to go back to work after a week off.
Like Colson Whitehead, Teju Cole is another author I’ve followed online for years without having read any of his work, so I sheepishly downloaded this debut novel. The book centers on the inner thoughts of the young psychiatrist Julius, though it becomes just as much the story of the people he encounters as he wanders the streets of New York City, takes a long vacation to Brussels and flashes back to his childhood in Nigeria. However insightful some of these reflections may be, they also had the same effect as staring intently at an object until the edges blur and my eyes lose focus, leaving me unsettled and wondering what, if anything, was really happening.
Clearly the focus of their development has been to replace mass-market paperbacks. E-readers are not designed for people who interpret books. No effort has been put into design questions for serious readers, for people who try to figure out the meaning of texts. They are hard to flip back to an old section and they are still awkward for note-taking. There are a significant number of people who want the best possible, coziest experience when they read, and they have been for the most part ignored.
I tend to agree. As much as I love the convenience of buying and reading books on my iPad, they are awkward for doing any real work. I reviewed a scholarly book on medical racism for TriQuarterly recently, and it would have been impossible to work with that text as an e-book. I’m a gadget guy through and through, but I needed to be able to flip back and forth to the bibliography, highlight quotes and flag pages with sticky notes to get anything done. That book was intimidating enough without wresting with clunky software.
My only question is how simple e-readers could evolve to accommodate this kind of work without sacrificing their convenience. Basically, how do you make them more useful without turning them into a laptop?
“Our stories don’t need soundtracks. Our interviews don’t need video ‘enhancements.’ We’re not in the movie business. The trick with new technologies and platforms is figuring out how they can help you—rather than tailoring your mission to match what they can do.”
That’s Lorin Stein from the Paris Review talking to Publisher’s Weekly about how literary magazines are adapting to digital, and I couldn’t agree more. One of the things that’s always bothered me when I read articles or hear talks about the fate of literature online is this insistence that writers and publishers have to turn into multimedia producers, because that’s just what people do on the web. People really seem to like YouTube, the theory goes, so we need to make our stories and essays look more like YouTube.
I’ve always compared this to DVDs stuffed with extras that no one watches, those director’s commentaries and “making of” shorts that are just tacked on because they had an extra gigabyte to burn on the disc. Sure, you can make beautiful things like Snow Fall out of literature and journalism online, but unless there’s a compelling reason to do it, one that adds to the telling of the story or advances a narrative, it’s just a waste of time for both the content producer (erstwhile writers and publishers) and consumers (what we used to call simply “readers”). There’s nothing wrong with adapting your tried and true publishing schedule or format to the web, but you don’t add value by pretending to be something you’re not.
He’s a 6’6″ three-point specialist nicknamed “Lights Out” who was drafted eighth by the Toronto Raptors. Oh, and he also happens to be named Matt Wood and looks a lot like me.
After years of begging, we bought Carter a video game console this year, a Nintendo Wii U, the fancy new one with the game pad with a second screen. We held out for so long because we wanted him to be old enough to work it himself, but I was also afraid if we got one I’d play it too much. You can see how well that’s going.
Carter’s favorite game is NBA 2K13, which besides having every single NBA player rendered down to the last drop of sweat, lets you start a career with a custom character. I suppose I could’ve made a 7’3″ guy who looks like Shaq and could dunk without jumping, but I couldn’t resist living out the Hoosier kid’s dream and making myself a scrappy, long-range gunner.
So instead of reading books after putting the kids to bed, I’ve been sitting downstairs practicing catch and shoot threes. Did I say living the dream? Maybe this is rock bottom.
Whether it’s the residual cool rubbing off of Justin Timberlake’s comeback or his front row seat at the inauguration, it seemed like a good time to read Jay-Z’s “Decoded,” a beautifully-bound collection of annotated song lyrics and personal essays reflecting on Hova’s life and career. The notes on the lyrics were interesting but I could have used about half as many, and the essays were tantalizingly coy, leaving me wanting to know a lot more about his life growing up and breaking into the rap game. What it did do though, was make me go back and listen to all of his music with a new appreciation of his craft, which is one of the best things I’ve done all year.
I’m a little embarrassed that this is the first Colson Whitehead book I’ve read since I’ve been following him on Twitter for years, but it was enough to make me want to go out and read the rest of his work right away. Zone One is set mostly in New York City following the zombie plague apocalypse, and while I’m no connoisseur of the zombie genre, Whitehead’s take carries a sense of loss and wistfulness for the days gone by that must put others to shame, while not skimping on the gore and black humor made possible by the concept. My only problem is why I enjoy stories about the end of the world—”The Road,” “Children of Men,” “The Matrix”—so much.