Monday, 27 September 2010

Books I have been reading

I've decided I'll only blog about five at a time.
Susan Hill, The Mist in the Mirror
Lots of people rave about Susan Hill's ghost stories. I've always found them a little unsatisfying. There were a few spooky moments in this one I suppose.
Jenny Valentine, Broken Soup
This is YA fiction and got very good reviews. I saw a copy for a quid in a remainder sale so I bought it. It's quite well written, but reading it reminded me of the tremendous rubbish we were all supposed to enjoy as teenagers, in which people have, you know, feelings, and social problems. It was supposed to speak to us in some way, and I'm quite certain it was well meant.
Eça de Queiroz, The City and the Mountains
Very good. About a man who lives in Paris, surrounded by the best in early twentieth-century gadgets (electric lighting, and the théâtrophone, etc). He undertakes a journey to his ancestral estates in Portugal, but it goes disastrously wrong and he loses all his luggage. Quite a funny and amiable book, more comfortable than much of the work of Eça de Queiroz.
Molly Keane, Good Behaviour
This is quite good. The point is that their behaviour is at once very well-mannered, and absolutely atrocious. The main character is a bit of a monster and blithely unaware of what is going on around her, and has been very nastily treated by her family.
Erick Setiawan, Bees and Mist
This sounded to me like just the sort of thing that would annoy me. But I read a few reviews which said, essentially, not as annoying as you'd think, and they were right, it's only a bit annoying. It's about two families, and a girl who marries from one into the other. The first family is haunted by several different-coloured mists, while the second family's mother has at her disposal a swarm of maddening and persuasive bees. You could go so far as to see these bees, these mists, as some sort of metaphor. Anyway, on the plus side it's readable and at least a bit unusual. On the minus side there's all the mists and bees, plus the mother-in-law is a pretty 2-D villainess, and the characters all have names like Meridia and Gabriel. Buy it if you see it on a market stall for two quid, but not from Oxfam, who will probably want £3.95. That's my advice anyway.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Kage Baker PS

Something I forgot to mention about Kage Baker is that I like the attention she pays to the mechanics of writing. For example, the first book mostly takes place in Tudor England, so there's some Elizabethan-y language in it, when the owner of the house holds feasts and such like. But no one wants a whole book where all the dialogue is like that, and she unobtrusively makes it clear that when the lovers are alone they talk Latin, as a more straightforward language. And when the immortals are alone they speak something they call Cinema Standard, which is essentially the language of golden age Hollywood, as spoken by the people in the future who tell them what to do. So she has this distinction between the different types of English which marks out the strangeness of the immortals' situation, but it's far from laboured, and you could ignore it and just get on with the story. Likewise a certain amount of explication is inevitable in a series of books like this, and at the start of most of the books in the series it is necessary to recap the basic premise of immortal agents controlled by people in the future, working to preserve things which would otherwise be destroyed. But she makes it so that it's a different person who explains it each time, and they each present it differently, with slightly contradictory accounts of how it all started, and that way she not only shows the personality of that character but also introduces to the reader suspicions about the reliability of certain accounts. So if you come across a book from the middle of the series without reading the earlier ones you still understand the premise; but if, like me, you read all the books in order as fast as you can get your hands on them, you still find these bits interesting and not just explication blah blah blah. I think it's good craft.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Two very good authors, part II

I discovered the books of Kage Baker this summer. She is not that well-known in this country, and I had to turn to ebay, amazon marketplace, and to source most of her work. Now, Joyce Carol Oates is a serious writer, so very serious in fact that I didn't feel at all like reading her work until I found out that some of it is in genre; whereas Kage Baker wrote science fiction. Nonetheless I feel like Kage Baker was the better discovery of the two. There's a certain quality that some writers have which I find very relaxing, and which I'm now going to find hard to describe. I think of it as "humanity". It's a sort of sympathy with the whole human race without sentimentality. When you read, say, Martin Amis, whatever you may think of the book itself you know that the author is an arsehole; what I'm talking about is the opposite of that. It's a sense that the author would make an excellent aunt, or warden in a women's prison. It's something I tend to associate with female writers; Barbara Kingsolver has it, and so does Barbara Trapido. But I think Terry Pratchett may have it too, a sort of wise kindness. Anyway, I probably haven't described what I mean very well, but Kage Baker's work has it in bucketloads. It's particularly good to discover it in science fiction, because the genre as a whole is prone to a sort of aspergers-y coldness.

Most of her work is in the Company series. The premise is that in the twenty-fourth century a consortium of scientists and merchants have come up with two remarkable inventions, neither of which turns out to be marketable in the way they had hoped. They have invented time travel: but it's a really unpleasant procedure; and although you can go back in time and then return to where you started, you can't go forwards in time from your start point in any other way than living it. Plus you can't change recorded history. Martin Luther King still gets shot; the Titanic still sinks. They also invented immortality: but it's even more unpleasant to go through; it only works on carefully-selected small children; and at the end of the process you're not entirely human any more, but a sort of cyborg. So neither of these can be marketed to middle-aged billionaires. But then they find out that although you can't change recorded history, you can work around the gaps. You can't stop an animal from going extinct, but you can take a population from the wild before it happens, and hide them away somewhere to be rediscovered centuries later. And if you don't want to go through all the nasty time-travel yourself, why not go back to the dawn of time, make some suitable children immortal, and then leave them to it, preserving things to order for the billionaires of the future, and recruiting other children to join them.

The first chapter of the first book, which explains all this, is available for free here. The rest of the book is about a girl called Mendoza. Aged about four she is rescued from the dungeons of the inquisition in Spain, and put through the immortality process. She trains as a botanist, and is sent to England to stay in a house with a remarkable garden, and to take clippings and DNA analysis of some rare plants which are soon to go extinct. She's violently anti-mortal because of her inquisition experience, and although she's been made immortal she's still only seventeen years old so far. Unfortunately she falls head over heels in love with the garden-owner's secretary, a protestant. But it's the reign of Mary Tudor, who has just married Philip of Spain, and the inquisition is coming to England.

The second book involves Joseph, the man who recruited Mendoza. The Company sorts him out with some impressive prosthetics and sends him to the west coast of America, where he has to pretend to be Sky Coyote in order to persuade a Native American village to let anthropologists come in to document their doomed civilisation.

As well as the main books in the series, Baker has also written collections of short stories and novellas, some set in the same world. I've read almost all of them now. Some aren't quite as good as the others, but they are all an enjoyable way to spend time. Kage Baker is the sort of writer I would like to be, and I'm glad she managed to finish the Company series before her death earlier this year.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Kindle: some thoughts on it so far

My kindle arrived yesterday, hurray! I like it. Here are some things I have thought about it so far.
1) Reading on it is fine. It tells you how far through a book you are, and is pretty easy to navigate. When you turn a page it's fast enough. The screen flashes black as it changes and some people find this distracting -- I don't mind it myself, because for one thing you can see the words of the next page in white on black just for a moment, and so continue reading. The screen is better than any e-ink screen I've ever seen before, but it is still a little grey rather than bright white. If you try really hard and turn it the right way you can just about get a little glare off it, but on the whole the more light the better.
2) The dictionary is more useful than I would have expected, maybe because I've been reading nineteenth-century material. I expect it's rather good for me; for example I wouldn't usually bother to look up words like indurated, because the context suggested the correct meaning, but it's so easy just to flick the cursor to the right place that I did it, and now I know. And because it's the Oxford English Dictionary it can cope with the odd Classical reference, which can be useful in nineteenth-century stuff. (Though you do have to change it to the OED in the settings, instead of the default American dictionary.)
3) Somehow it's rather charming.
4) But I find that I miss the blurb on printed books. I don't quite know why. I must consult book blurbs more often than I thought I did. I have been reading a few pretty obscure things, and some of them I downloaded a while ago in kindle readiness. Reading the blurb of a book sets you up for reading the real thing, I suppose. But I wouldn't have expected to miss it. And once you've finished a book you're just stuck on the last page, which leaves me feeling some odd sort of need to do something like reread the blurb, or shut the book in a definite manner. In time I'll probably feel just as satisfied by moving it into my "Finished" collection.
5) You can organise books into collections, but this is not yet flexible enough. And for some reason you can't put magazines into collections.
6) I wasn't expecting to use the magazine possibilities, but after browsing a lot I have taken out trial subscriptions to two which consist simply of short stories.
7) The browser is pretty good -- perhaps less so if you have high expectations. I don't have a smart phone, and every now and then I really feel the need of a way of checking train times, or looking for a nearby shop, or some such. I think it works best with mobile versions of websites. But I haven't tried it out on the road so far. It connected very well to the wifi here, but we don't have 3G here, so it will be interesting to try it the other way round.
8) Buying things from is very simple indeed. Downloads are remarkably fast. You can also get a sample of a book sent to your kindle before deciding whether or not to read the whole thing. I've done this with some items, e.g. to find the best Kindle edition of Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici. (This is the best kindle edition; Amazon tell me they are trying to sort out the mislabelling issue with the publishers.)
8a) I bet that suggesting samples could be a good way of sharing book recommendations with friends. Amazon could add a feature saying "suggest this to a friend" and the friend could get a message saying "XX recommends this to you, would you like to download a sample?"
9) I really like the highlighting feature, and I will tell you why. It's very easy indeed to highlight a bit of text, and the kindle assembles on the fly a text file of all your highlighted stuff, labelled with where it came from, as a sort of immediate commonplace book. I wasn't expecting to annotate things much on the kindle, so this comes as a surprise to me.
10) You can share those annotations over facebook or twitter. You can read other people's annotations of books you have downloaded. Needless to say I turned this feature off as soon as I got the kindle. Just imagine reading Moby Dick if you could see all the annotations and underlinings of all the American high school students who have to read it! On the other hand it might be a good sociological experiment, or a new form of novel.
11) As for choosing books, you have to watch out for the really cheap or free items, because some are very badly OCR'd from old copies of texts, and I have heard that poetry in particular can be very badly formatted on the page. If you come across a problem like this it's very easy to get your money back from Amazon; and it's a problem you're most likely to find in free things anyway.
12) Other shops: check what format they supply in. Kindle uses .mobi, but it can't use .mobi with DRM, as I understand it, unless it's Amazon's own DRM. A program called Calibre will turn epub documents into Kindleable documents, as well as other formats; but this only works on epub docs without DRM. So watch out for DRM. But stores other than amazon are often dramatically expensive anyway. I've only used one other shop so far. I've found it very easy to put non-Amazon .mobi files onto my Kindle.
13) But so far I have not experimented with putting onto it files which are not ebooks.
14) Instapaper is quite good. It gives you a "Read later" button for articles on the web, and then you can export the whole lot onto your kindle as a sort of self-made magazine.
15) I think that for the moment I shall continue with cheap or free stuff for a while, or things which it wouldn't be easy for me to get in another format.

Friday, 17 September 2010

PS another odd thing

Here are the four finalists for the third annual "Dance Your PhD" competition.
I like the chemistry one: it has the most smiling; also "props", as it were, to the guy with the beard who plays Urea. But the Social Sciences one looks somehow like archive footage from the 70s.
My PhD dance would start with lots of English scribes dancing Whigfield's Saturday night.

Odd stuff

Before I post about Kage Baker, here are some odd things I've seen:
1. Someone in Russia made a high energy dance track about wanting a man like Putin. Putin now uses this at his rallies. Oh, those Russians!

2. Talking of Russians here are some excellent Russian photo sets. Here are some pictures of Russian 'types' from the 1860s: this link takes you straight to the start of the photostream, while this one goes to one particularly excellent picture of a peasant, looking like he came straight out of Dostoyevsky. And here are pictures from the school for female cossacks. Go female cossacks! They're just as brassy as you'd hope.

3. Talking of tough ladies, there's a very interesting documentary about women competing in a prison rodeo on 4OD. I found it via Boing Boing, which has a trailer, and a lot of heated argument about whether it's OK to watch prisoners get beaten up by bulls for entertainment. In the documentary itself the rodeo and the chance of maiming are the light-hearted bits. In fact it's probably not fair to call these women tough -- they're very very damaged, and most of them started failing their children before they had really finished being failed by their own parents. Sad but interesting.

4. Someone has thoroughly analysed the way that genders are divided by signs on toilet doors, and it's quite interesting. I hate it when toilet door signs try to be clever.

5. This Six Degrees of Francis Bacon poster shows how all literature is related.

6. The new X Factor magazine is quite good. I'm not going to apologise for reading it -- I need amusement in my reading life, and I can't get it all from Anglo-Saxon liturgy or intensely clever books by Joyce Carol Oates. (You can probably guess who the senior editor is...) I think you can only get it in Tescos though.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Two very good authors, part I

I have discovered two excellent writers, specifically Joyce Carol Oates (her Gothic novels), and Kage Baker. I'm going to blog about them separately, but before I start: hurray that there are always good books to be found!

Joyce Carol Oates's Gothic novels
I found these because I read a Guardian article by Carlos Ruiz Zafon about twentieth-century Gothic novels. I had to buy them secondhand from the USA, and I love that they come in slightly trashy mass-market covers; they remind me very much of the sweeping family sagas which I used to find in my granny's house as a kid. At the same time, Joyce Carol Oates is clearly formidably intelligent, and she has chosen to write this group of novels each in a different related genre because she has points to make underneath the stories.
Bellefleur is the first I read. The cover has a hole cut in the O of Oates to show part of a picture which is revealed when you turn the page:

It's about several generations of a rich and exploitative American family in the nineteenth century. Frankly it's gloriously mad, and cries out to be illustrated, perhaps with melodramatic engravings, something like Goya's Sleep of Reason. It starts with the traditional stormy night and something unknown approaching the castle, and the impetuous young wife who rushes down to let it in before anyone can stop her. The family members tend to meet strange fates -- about the best you can hope for as a Bellefleur is to disappear and not be known for certain to be dead. There are lots of grotesque elements, like Leah's unusually attractive pet spider Love, the Bellefleur Vulture, and the woman who accidentally fell in love with a bear. Oates writes extravagantly, daringly long sentences which deliberately push at ridiculousness and sometimes curve back on themselves like Pynchon. There's a sort of chutzpah quality to the writing which you also find in Julian Rathbone's works -- as if you read something and think "hang on a moment, what?" and the author replies "you heard".
The Mysteries of Winterthurn was the next one I read. This is a "mystery" in that it has a detective figure, but also in that it has elements of horror and the supernatural. It's less exuberant than Bellefleur, and much angrier -- it has that undertone of suppressed rage which is found in many nineteenth-century novels by women -- just think how angry Jane Eyre is. It's very spooky and could be read as a straightforward story, or rather three stories; but the first two stories also hint something rather disturbing about the third, and all three together make points about different types of suppression, points which are there to be discovered rather than forcing themselves on the reader.
A Bloodsmoor Romance is the story of five sisters; and starts with the sudden abduction of one of them from their grandparents' garden by a sinister black balloon. It's the funniest of the three, and the one which most clearly has points to make, as the five sisters meet their different fates. The reviews, or at least the reviews quoted on the flyleaves, reflect this, saying things like "that rare and valuable thing, a warm-hearted and humorous feminist tract", and "female, clever, facetious and mischievous... the book is a feminist romance with a lot of axes to grind, and it grinds them wittily until their edges are polished to a fine sharpness". Either the reviewers or the publishers seem to have taken this one rather more seriously than the others.

I am currently waiting for My Heart Laid Bare to arrive from America. And the last of the five, The Crosswick Horror, has not been published (apart from an extract about rabies) and lies, complete, in an archive in Syracuse. People often talk about the Great American Novel, often in a rather tongue-in-cheek tone, but I think that maybe in this group of novels about the American family and class system Joyce Carol Oates may actually have written it, without many people noticing.

The odd thing is that I still feel a bit cautious about reading Oates's other books. She's famously prolific, and I don't know where I'd go next. The same is not true of my other new discovery, Kage Baker. Tune in tomorrow (or sometime soon) for information about why you should read everything Kage Baker has ever written! She's not as literary, and she doesn't put genres on and off like outdoor coats, but I'm still just as glad to have found her work.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Stylistic contamination

Today I have been writing a book review, a somewhat overdue book review, of a worthy, one might almost say excessively learned tome. Yet because of the influence of Joyce Carol Oates' excellent Gothic novels (on which I shall blog further at a later day) I am having immense trouble not to write it in a slightly overwrought, faux nineteenth-century style. A book, I want to say, design'd more to be consulted, than read.

Well, hopefully it will wear off soon. Here's Kylie's new single (embedding disabled by request), which might help me remember which century I live in.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Interesting Radio 4 piece

A friend alerted me to this short piece by Lisa Jardine on hardbacks and ebooks. Apparently Oprah's book club readers wanted books in hardback to keep on their shelves. That's quite interesting, I think. It was on Radio Four, and I don't know how to embed the iplayer, so here's a link:

Friday, 10 September 2010


That thing where authors sell books to publishers who sort them out and distribute them for money is obviously only part of book culture. I don't think it's likely that there will be a wholesale move to eBooks any time soon in the way that cassettes got replaced by CDs, just because the codex format of book is such a brilliant one. It has tons of advantages, perhaps foremost among them how easy it is to move from place to place within the book -- I don't know yet but I rather suspect no one is going to want to read a book with endnotes on the Kindle -- and also how little is needed in the way of accessories to get at the words. Plus, they are likeable and there are so many of them out there. I don't think the codex is going to die out. But maybe there will be a big shift for certain types of book, perhaps chief among them 3-for-2 paperbacks, Tesco books, cheap genre fiction, casual consumable throw-away books. I can't think of any way in which this might be to the detriment of the publishers and authors -- except insofar as they will eventually feel it if book culture suffers damage. Take the question of how many people read each copy of a book. Presumably authors and publishers feel that the ideal number is 1, and with the current model of ebook-distribution they can pretty much achieve that. But then some of those putative second readers of books might like the author, or the genre, and this might lead to more sales in the future.

So the thing that concerns me about this likely shift has to do with the implications of fewer chances to be physically proximate to a random book. To be honest it seems likely to me that other things will pop up to take their places in unpredictable ways, and that serendipity will still occur. I have often heard people bemoan the loss through digitisation of discovering the book next to the book you're looking for on the library shelves: but not only do most library catalogues show you things in shelf-mark context if you want, digitisation has helped me discover quite a few obscure references in places I wouldn't have thought to have looked, quite randomly while searching for other things in Google Books or Google Scholar. So I think it evens out, pretty much. And for myself these days I mostly decide what to read from reviews and recommendations, rather than by browsing in bookshops. (The big exception is the Waterstone's near the Cathedral in Exeter, which always has good stuff on its shelves.)

But I'd be sad if opportunities are lost to the young, with their unformed tastes and lean pockets. The picture at the top of this post shows excellent nephew one Sunday afternoon when he got bored with us all and went to fetch a book instead. (I can tell him from experience, that behaviour will only be treated as cute for a limited number of years.) When I was a kid I, like many, read anything I could get my hands on, which meant terrible trash at my dad's parents', repulsive Reader's Digest abridged books at my mum's parents', utterly random things from book stalls at village fetes, pretty much anything the library was selling for 20p or less, my parents' books, and stuff from the local book exchange which sold Mills and Boons by weight. Also, of course, second-hand bookshops and those small local independent bookshops, now largely disappeared (which were actually pretty rubbish and don't quite deserve the sentimental way we remember them). If it's that very class of entertaining, consumable literature which is likely to go less physical, won't it be harder for children to bump into books randomly? They say that having books lying around is a good thing for children's literacy, but I'm not quite sure how that will work if the easy-come-easy-go books which used to stack up on the windowshelves of spare rooms are instead intangibly stored on devices.

Which doesn't mean it won't work, of course, just because I can't quite imagine it. Maybe when he's old my nephew will reminisce about how he loved to visit his mad aunt because she'd let him play with her ebook reader, and that's how he first discovered Wilkie Collins or something. Maybe gadgetising books will make them more appealing to some kids who might not otherwise have become readers. And they will be in luck about having the old and reasonably obscure at their fingertips, thanks to Project Gutenberg and the like. Perhaps the kids of tomorrow will grow up voracious readers of Anthony Trollope and Sir Walter Scott.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Some videos

1. Here are some free-runners in Cambridge, leaping about, pretending to be cats. OK so maybe climbing on old bits of carved stone has the potential to cause damage to both stone and climber, but I still think the thing at my block of flats where I was supposed to call the police when I saw them was an over-the-top reaction. I think that one of these kids in this video is one that I stopped and talked to one time. I like the ending too. It's quite "hang on lads, I've got a great idea".

2. I watch the X-factor with about half of one eye and about a quarter of my brain, and with a remote constantly ready so I can put it on mute. It's at the auditions stage, so really it's just waiting for them to open their mouths, when either they can sing and people clap, or they can't and people laugh, or the song doesn't go that well and Simon Cowell says have you got another song, and then he says, you really turned it around with that song. Best bit by miles so far was a 16-year-old called Cher singing like someone who is 16 in 2010, which really shows up the wierd time-warpy quality of most of the performances. It's Keri Hilson's version of Soulja Boy's Turn My Swag On, and if you want an example of the way in which the X-factor is occasionally cheerful and life-enhancing then you can watch it below:

(Here's Keri Hilson's version.) Poor kid must be a bit disappointed that no one gave her more than 100 percent. Maybe they're all saving the illogical percentages for live finals this year. Anyway, suspend your disbelief, try to ignore how it's somehow sinister when Simon takes a sip of water while the audience is applauding, and remember that this could well have a happy ending.

3. Here is an excellent remix.

4. I found that last one on popjustice, of course, and here's popjustice hifi's second single release, a brilliant song by a good-looking man from Wales.

5. If I were quicker with my camera I'd have put here a video of Jemima the baby alpaca chasing rabbits. But I didn't catch it so you'll just have to imagine. It's very cute, if that helps.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

What is a book?

Arrrrgh. I'm really interested in all this eBook stuff but so much incredible rubbish is written about it, like this really stupid Guardian article. It's not a matter of the Kindle versus the Book! Dracula on a Kindle is still a book! The Kindle is a good thing for books and the book-industry because it gives people extra ways of reading them. I take a lot of books with me when I travel -- if I'm going alone then at least one a day. If I take a Kindle instead would this make me anti-book? Would it signal the end of the book? Will Self, who annoys me even though his books are pretty much all brilliant, talks in the same terms, or at least is quoted in those terms, in that article. But Will Self, who makes money through writing, should be saying hurray that there is a now a new way to sell his stuff to readers, and what's more sell another copy to someone like me who might suddenly want to reread Great Apes and be unable to find my paperback copy which may have gone to Oxfam anyway, I can't remember.
(PUBLIC INFORMATION ANNOUNCEMENT: do not ever read Will Self's My Idea of Fun. It's an excellent book but it's grimmer than American Psycho.)

Anyway it makes me very annoyed. If they come up with a format for books where trained monkeys whisper the chapters into your ears at twilight Frankenstein will still be Frankenstein; Jane Eyre will still be Jane Eyre. Will Self will still be writing wierd novels for someone to teach to the monkeys. Please everyone get a grip and remember that the word "book" has several meanings. A decline in hardbook sales is not an assault on literature. Hardbacks are rubbish anyway.

If you want to know, the proper term for a physical book with pages linked together at one side is a codex. It replaced the roll as a physical format for most purposes during the late antique period. I'm sure it seemed like the end of the world to everyone at the time. I can't imagine reading Vergil, they would have moaned, in one of these cheap objects where it's so easy to lose your place. Oh for the smell of old papyrus! And it may be convenient not to need a slave to rewind it for you once you're done, but where's the dignity in that? It's the death of literature.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Books and gadgets PS

I'm a huge fan of Neal Stephenson, and I know there are others out there, they post on Boing Boing and such. But the Baroque Trilogy, which I think is fantastic, has failed to be liked by both my friends whom I have managed to persuade to read it. I don't think either of them got past the undergraduate Newton bits so didn't even encounter the excellence of Half-Cocked Jack the king of the vagabonds.

I still strongly recommend Crytonomicon; the Baroque Trilogy; and The Diamond Age, or a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. The electronic book in this last is a brilliant device.

Anyway, Stephenson's latest project is called The Mongoliad. It's not just him, there are others involved, and I think it's an attempt to make a new format of publication which takes advantage of the sorts of things that technology now does well. As I understand it, stories are published in installments, and these will later form a novel which will be published as such at some point. There is also a world in which the novel is set. I think you can read the chapters without subscribing but I'm not sure. You definitely have to subscribe in order to do all the contributing-to-the-world stuff. On the one hand, kudos to them for engaging with the whole fan-fic thing; on the other, apparently when you sign up you give away all rights in anything you produce. I don't know how well it will catch on because people who write Neal Stephenson fan-fic are also likely to be pretty savvy about the copyfight. (Myself, I prefer to consume; I think Web 1.0 had a lot to recommend it.) The problem is, much as I like the Dickensian publishing by instalments thing, and Tolkienian interest in back-story, it looks like a lot of it is just going to be about sword-fights and various types of armour. But if it's good I will post about it.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Books and gadgets

I'm going to blog about books at some point, but I keep being interrupted by work or power cuts or traumatic alpaca births (Jemima is doing very well by the way, I am watching her frolic about as I write). The book I'm reading at the moment is by Eça de Queiroz. The blurb on the back says of the protagonist:
He lives in a mansion crammed with books and all the latest gadgets, for he believes that human happiness depends on a combination of erudition and the most sophisticated of mechanical aids.

I think happiness itself might depend on other things, but you can't deny that books and gadgets make a pretty strong contribution. Hurray for books and gadgets! So I've pre-ordered a Kindle. (It's not really pre-ordering obviously, it's just that it's going to take ages and ages for it to arrive.)

I have also come up with a genius idea. When people talk about eReaders vs actual books they always talk about a) can you read it in the bath and b) real books smell nice. Almost as soon as the Kindle appeared people started making clear watertight covers, or just using ziplock bags, so that the bath thing became less of an issue. I am going to make felt covers which are impregnated with the smell of real book! Either I will come up with my own somehow -- my copy of the Centaur press paperback of Lucy Toulmin Smith's 5-volume edition of Leland's Itineraries smells fantastic -- or I will use this spray by people who came up with the idea before me. Though I don't think they get it -- it's not new book smell, like with cars, it's old book smell you want. Those Leland volumes smell amazing because they just sat in a warehouse forgotten from the 60s. (You can't get them at a bookshop, you have to know the name of the man to write to, and I'm afraid I've forgotten it.) It's not a musty smell either, it's oddly sweet and slightly spicy. I read somewhere that the lignin in the wood-pulp paper breaks down into vanillin -- I don't know if that's true.

(I'm pretty sure the smell argument against digitisation of books was first made by Giles in the fantastic Buffy season one episode where Willow accidentally scans an ancient demon onto the internet. Then he gets in touch with her via a chat room. And Buffy says "He says he's a sixteen-year-old boy but you've never even met him! He might have a hairy back!" Excellent episode, you can watch it here if you either speak Italian or can read subtitles backwards. "Did you know in the last two years more e-mail was sent than regular mail?")

My other gadget news is sad news. There is a rumour about that Apple is dropping the ipod classic. When they announced all the new versions today they didn't mention the classic at all. But I need all 120Gb of my ipod space -- I can only get all my stuff on there because I tell it to sync to the ipod at a lower quality than my actual files. Trying to fit it onto a 64Gb iPod touch would involve thinking about what music I'm likely to want at any particular time, which would be a boring job. So I hope that they didn't mention the Classic because it's not changing at all. The standard 160Gb version is still there in the Apple store, which is hopeful.

In other things-contributing-to-happiness news, the Pet Shop Boys sang "I want a dog", and it's easy to agree. But they went on to specify that it should be a chihuahua and I've never really agreed with them about that until now: