What are the books that have stayed with you? Top 100 titles from Facebook meme collated

September 9, 2014 by · 2 Comments 

What’s better (or stickier) than a viral meme on social media? An algorithm that aggregates the results of that meme. Which is just what Facebook has employed with the seemingly endless lists of books people have been posting to their status updates.

The rules of the meme are simple: Facebook users are asked to post the titles of ten books that have “stayed with them”: not great books, or books of lasting literary merit, but books that have been important or influential in an individual reader’s life. (There is obviously overlap here, and it is clear that some readers have given more consideration to curating their lists than is intended. The “rules” of the meme state that the compiler of the list should not think too much before responding.)

In a Facebook blog post, Lada Adamic and Pinkesh Patel point to a sample of 130,000 status updates from the final two weeks of August 2014 that site administrators collated and analyzed to determine the 100 books most frequently named by users (Nineteen Eighty-Four is at number twelve).

The heavyweight champion should come as no surprise: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of books led the charge decisively. At least, this should come as no surprise until one notes that the average age of the user in this “anonymized” aggregation of data is thirty-seven. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first volume of the series, was published in 1997, when the average age would have been twenty. Thus, the books that have overwhelmingly stuck with the average adult reader whose data has been mined for this purpose comprise a series of books for children. (The Hunger Games YA trilogy, the first of which was published in 2008 – eleven years after the first Harry Potter novel – clocks in at number eight.) There is an interesting study to be done about whether this reflects the increasing sophistication of children’s literature, cultural infantilization, or something specific about adults who use social media.

Other titles on the list seem reflective of books that make an impact on readers at a younger stage in life: To Kill a Mockingbird (number two); The Lord of the Rings (number three); The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (number seven); The Chronicles of Narnia (number ten); Little Women (number thirteen); Anne of Green Gables (number twenty-one); The Giving Tree (number forty-one); The Outsiders (number forty-nine); The Secret Garden (number fifty-three); and so on.

Women outnumber men in Facebook’s aggregate data by more than three to one, and the Facebook blog post provides a graphic that breaks down by gender the titles mentioned. (Women more frequently name Wuthering Heights, The Color Purple and Pride and Prejudice, while men more frequently single out Brave New World, The Stand, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.)

One interesting note involves the analysis of correlation between friends liking similar books; in brief, the Facebook’s data indicate that the long tail is active, at least across social media:

We computed the number of books shared between lists linked via tags, which was a mere 0.4 books on average! This number was 4 times greater than the overlap of 0.1 books between any two random lists. It is also an underestimate, since our automated matching identifies only 5.3 books/list on average (rather than the full 10), due to matching on just the 500 most commonly mentioned titles. Nevertheless, the low overlap underlines that even in a world of relatively few highly successful bestsellers, lists of favorites tend to be rather different, even between friends.

This seems to indicate a range and vibrancy in the responses of people participating in the meme; even Harry Potter appears on only 21.08 percent of the surveyed lists. Which is a good thing for a healthy reading culture. On Facebook, at least, there is room for both Hamlet and Tuesdays with Morrie.

Goodreaders and Amazonians: monetizing online readership

April 1, 2013 by · 5 Comments 

When deep space exploration ramps up, it’ll be the corporations that name everything. The IBM Stellar Sphere. The Microsoft Galaxy. Planet Starbucks.

Fight Club

There’s a rule of thumb you can count on in each succeeding version of the web 2.0 movement: the more radical an online social experiment is claimed to be, the more conservative, nostalgic, and familiar the result will actually be.

– Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget

GoodreadsIn the distant reaches of historical memory, sometime around the mid-1990s, proponents of the developing Internet championed the new technology as a utopian tool capable of realizing the McLuhanesque vision of a global village and creating an egalitarian space (or non-space) in which individuals could interact and exchange ideas unfettered by political or corporate forces. In the areas of journalism and art, we were told, independent voices would be allowed to operate freely, without the shackles of government, big business, or advertising that had long dictated the terms of reference. It was to be democratic, anti-authoritarian, and open.

It didn’t turn out that way, and in retrospect it’s almost inconceivable that we could have been so naive. In the second decade of the 21st century, repressive political regimes have discovered that the online environment is infinitely superior to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon for keeping tabs on dissidents, and the free marketplace of ideas has turned into another, much more recognizably capitalistic marketplace. The Internet has become a nexus for buying and selling things, not least its users and their personal data.

When news broke last Thursday that Amazon had entered into an agreement to purchase the social media site Goodreads, many people reacted with surprise, although it’s difficult to see why. Amazon has made no secret of its ambition to control the trade in books online and, by extension, offline as well. The company’s practice of deep discounting has savaged publishers’ profit margins and enfeebled independent booksellers unable to compete on price. It has implemented questionable marketing schemes such as the 2011 mobile app that offered users a $5 rebate for scanning an item’s barcode in a bricks-and-mortar store then purchasing the item through Amazon. And it hired publishing veteran Larry Kirshbaum to run a publishing arm that, according to one anonymous insider quoted by tech columnist Sarah Lacy, overpays on advances as a way of driving conventional publishers out of business.

So the purchase of Goodreads makes perfect sense from a business perspective. It simultaneously removes a potential competitor from the field and allows Amazon, which has come under criticism for undisclosed conflict-of-interest in its user reviews, access to a peer-to-peer rating system that is more transparent and trusted. Financial details of the transaction have not been disclosed, but Forbes online suggests that the purchase price is “likely to have been in the low eight digits.”

On its blog, The Authors Guild in the U.S. was quick to condemn what it referred to as “a truly devastating act of vertical integration.” Guild president Scott Turow is quoted as saying, “Amazon’s acquisition of Goodreads is a textbook example of how modern Internet monopolies can be built.” On social media, Twitter users lined up quickly in declaring they were ready to delete their Goodreads accounts.

AmazonMeanwhile, in a breathlessly effusive blog post on the Goodreads site, co-founder Otis Chandler assures users that “Amazon supports us continuing to grow our vision as an independent entity, under the Goodreads brand and with our unique culture.” That may be, but Chandler also says that the deal will see Goodreads made available on “the most popular e-reader in the world, Kindle.” As Moby Lives points out, this synergy allows Goodreads users “to sync their accounts with Kindles, something users undoubtedly have been looking to do for some time now.” But the Kindle is a famously proprietary device, and Amazon is not subtle in its monopolistic desire to rid itself of competition; it seems only a matter of time before Goodreads’ attitude of vendor agnosticism disappears.

Moreover, whether or not Goodreads’ user reviews and rating systems or buy-button options remain untouched, the deal gives Amazon something far more valuable than the low eight figures they are rumoured to have paid: access to the raw data of the members on the social networking site. This includes users’ virtual bookshelves, the lists of books they have read and want to read, what they liked and disliked. From a marketing perspective, this is a treasure trove, but it also means that users who post reviews no longer have the luxury of doing so without a corporate Big Brother looking over their shoulder and employing the information to sell them other products. As Rob Spillman points out in an article on Salon: “even if Goodreads succeeds in keeping a semblance of independence, the era of naively posting one’s preferences is over. We collectively were under the delusion that Goodreads was different than the data-mining machine that is Facebook, when in fact we’re all just data waiting to be harvested.”

This was always the case, of course. In The Filter Bubble, Eli Pariser quotes Andrew Lewis as saying, “If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” This was true of Goodreads long before Amazon appeared with its deep pockets and the promise “to build many new ways to delight readers and authors alike.” But the kind of data-mining that Amazon can now indulge in is not morally neutral, and has potential consequences not only for what we read, but for the way books get written.

It is no secret that the owners of e-book technology monitor the behaviour of readers: how much they read, how fast, what portions of a book they skip or reread, what they annotate, where they stop reading. All of this information can be used to artificially engineer books that the tech experts at e-reading companies think their users might prefer. As Stuart Kelly writes in the Guardian: “While the book’s relationship to the reader is one of privacy, with the e-book we are all part of an unacknowledged focus group.” As a result of Amazon’s most recent acquisition, its online focus group has grown exponentially: Goodreads currently boasts some 16 million members whose preferences, tastes, likes, and dislikes now become fodder for the company’s impersonal algorithms. Welcome to the machine.

Jane Austen, computer algorithms, and the enduring importance of the literary expert

February 1, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

To the literary critic’s toolbox, which includes concepts such as mimesis, irony, and the unreliable narrator, it might soon be necessary to add stylometry and culturomics. The former refers to a quantitative analysis of a writer’s vocabulary, syntax, and lexicon, and the latter refers to a similar quantitative analysis undertaken in the area of the humanities. What is significant about both is that they are handled by a computer running sophisticated algorithms like the kind used by Google or Amazon.

A recent New York Times article points to the way these computer algorithms were employed to determine that Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott are the two most influential writers of the 19th century. The study, undertaken by Matthew L. Jockers, found that Austen and Scott “had the greatest effect on other authors, in terms of writing style and themes.” To some extent, it is unsurprising that the authors of romantic social comedy on the one hand and mass-appeal adventure stories on the other should be influential: these are still the kinds of novels that dominate bestseller lists today. (It is important to note that when people talk about their affection for Jane Austen, it is usually Pride and Prejudice they’re thinking of, not Northanger Abbey.)

Here’s the NYT on Jockers’ project:

He based his conclusion on an analysis of 3,592 works published from 1780 to 1900. It was a lot of digging, and a computer did it.

The study, which involved statistical parsing and aggregation of thousands of novels, made other striking observations. For example, Austen’s works cluster tightly together in style and theme, while those of George Eliot (a.k.a. Mary Ann Evans) range more broadly, and more closely resemble the patterns of male writers. Using similar criteria, Harriet Beecher Stowe was 20 years ahead of her time, said Mr. Jockers, whose research will soon be published in a book, Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History (University of Illinois Press).

While not claiming to know what “the patterns of male writers” means precisely, this is interesting information, “an intriguing sign that Big Data technology is steadily pushing beyond the Internet industry and scientific research into seemingly foreign fields like the social sciences and the humanities.” It is probably overstating the case, however, to compare (as the NYT goes on to do) a statistical algorithmic literary analysis to the impact of the microscope or the telescope.

In any literary endeavour, statistics will only get you part way. Human beings are still needed to effect a more nuanced investigation into literary history and the traditions that inform it, something the NYT article points out: “Quantitative tools in the humanities and the social sciences, as in other fields, are most powerful when they are controlled by an intelligent human. Experts with deep knowledge of a subject are needed to ask the right questions and to recognize the shortcomings of statistical models.”

While unarguably true, this is not good news in a world that seems to devalue the role of “experts with deep knowledge of a subject.” In an editor’s note in The Walrus, John Macfarlane bemoans exactly this problem, noting that in the digital age, expert analysis has been forced to take a back seat to popular opinion:

A people’s choice award was once a consolation prize for not winning something more estimable, like an Oscar or an Emmy, but in the age of Facebook and Twitter popularity rules.

This egalitarian impulse is the cultural assertion of the neo-liberal belief – itself increasingly popular – that the market should determine nearly anything. But more alarming is the flip side: a growing disrespect for knowledge and expertise. In contemporary North America, one person’s opinion is as good as the next, no matter how uninformed.

Popularity is paramount, as Macfarlane notes, and frequently in matters that don’t carry a whole lot of substance or import. More people in 2013 are likely to vote for the winner of So You Think You Can Dance? than are likely to vote in a federal election. And when people who do vote are asked what quality most attracts them in a potential leader, the answer is frequently, “The person I’d most like to have a beer with.” While conviviality and approachability are certainly admirable traits, it is devoutly to be hoped that substantial intellect and sober judgment would be more desirable attributes.

There isn’t much in the current culture to bolster such hope, however, and certainly not in the literary sphere. Substantial book review sections are shrinking or disappearing for want of readers, who would rather give a quick thumbs up or thumbs down to a book on Goodreads than work through 1,500 words of carefully crafted analysis by a knowledgeable critic like James Wood or Rohan Maitzen. While computers are busy counting the number of times authors use certain words, and making quantitative judgments about their relative influence as a result, it would be good if we did not forget the importance of having human experts capable of parsing the data and placing it into a broader, deeper context.

Kobo preps for a digital world

April 1, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

April 1, 2010 is the deadline for Kobo, the digital books company spun off from Indigo Books & Music, to complete its  agreements with publishing companies moving from the wholesale model of pricing to the agency model, which effectively means that publishers will be responsible for setting prices on their e-book titles, and Kobo will not be allowed to offer discounts, 2-for-1 promotions, or specials. Writing on the Kobo blog, Michael Tamblyn, vice-president of content, sales, and marketing comments, “When the dust settles, it’s going to be a different world, whether you’re an e-book reader, industry watcher, publisher, or retailer.”

“A different world” may turn out to be an understatement. TSR has learned, through a source close to Kobo who spoke on the condition of anonymity, that the company is preparing for a world in which life itself is digital. “This is no longer the realm of science fiction,” the source said. “It’s quickly becoming science fact.”

In the same way that Indigo decided it couldn’t survive by selling only books, and began to stock its stores with everything from scented candles to Pilates balls and yoga mats, the digital side of the business is looking to expand its suite of offerings in preparation for a world lived 100% online. “We’re thinking totally outside the box,” said the source. “This ain’t your grandma’s Second Life.”

Recognizing that the development of e-ink was essential for electronic readers to catch on, the source said that Kobo’s R&D department is currently studying other revolutionary advancements, such as e-food, which would be downloaded directly into a user’s stomach. “No longer will users have to stand in line at the grocery store or go out to a restaurant to consume actual food. Digital food is faster, healthier, and much less hassle.”

Another intriguing advancement is the e-booze feature, which will apparently be customizable for individual user experience. “E-booze comes with a range of compatibilities,” the source told TSR. “Users can download an e-scotch, which will provide a pleasant, warming sensation, while e-tequila and e-Jägermeister will actually induce vomiting.” Downloaded in the morning, e-Jägermeister can also simulate morning sickness or provide an excuse to call in sick to work.

Won’t this cannibalize the company’s e-baby feature? Absolutely not, says the source. “If you’re faking morning sickness, you’re either doing it out of revenge or in an attempt to hang on to a failing relationship. E-baby is intended for people who actually want the physical experience of raising children, without the bother of having to undergo pregnancy or birth.” The e-baby feature also includes e-poop and e-urine, which set the product apart from earlier-generation devices such as the Tamagotchi digital pets created in Japan in the mid-1990s. “The e-urine feature is still under development,” says the source. “We’re trying to modify it so that it hits the user in the eye every time, but we can’t seem to replicate this peculiarity of actual babies. Still, it’s only a matter of time.”

Early estimates indicate that the world will be 100% digital in 20 years. Although a 2030 deadline seems tight, the anonymous source TSR spoke with has every confidence that technological development will keep up with incessant demand. “Users are sick of the physical world,” the source said. “We’re committed to giving them what they want: a completely digital life. No longer will people have to deal with the messiness of reality. The future isn’t virtual; it’s digital. Get ready.”

The new mixologists

February 17, 2010 by · 13 Comments 

You may not have heard of Helene Hegemann, but the 17-year-old German writer is at the centre of a brewing storm around the subjects of copyright and the nature of authorship in the Internet age. Hegemann is the author of a book titled Axolotl Roadkill, which has become a bestseller in her native country and was recently nominated for the fiction prize at the Leipzig Book Fair. What makes this book noteworthy is that it apparently contains passages – including one that allegedly runs an entire page – that have been lifted from the work of another writer, a blogger who goes by the online nom de plume Airen.

Hegemann, a child of the Internet age, does not consider what she has done plagiarism; she prefers to call it “mixing.” An article in The New York Times quotes the German teenager as saying that “Berlin is here to mix with everything.” Which sounds very DIY and cutting-edge, until you realize that Hegemann lifted that line from Arien’s blog. Hegemann claims to represent a new generation with new ideas about proprietorship vis à vis intellectual property. Essentially, for Hegemann (and, by extension everyone in her demographic cohort), in the Internet age, everything is up for grabs. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway,” Hegemann says, “only authenticity.” (How one can claim “authenticity” if one’s work is largely the creation of another is a mystery to me, but we’ll let that go for the moment.)

The current farrago puts yr. humble correspondent in mind of two other famous cases of “borrowing” material. In the first, Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan was roundly excoriated when it became apparent that her 2006 novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life contained passages that were lifted verbatim from two novels by Meg McCafferty. The second case, however, turned out rather differently. In that case, not only was the “borrower” not vilified, he went on to win the 2002 Booker Prize. When some perceptive readers noticed that Yann Martel’s novel The Life of Pi bore a suspicious similarity to a lesser-known 1981 novel called Max and the Cats, by Brazilian author Moacyr Scilar, Martel freely acknowledged the debt. At the time, Mobylives quoted Martel:

“This is how it happened,” he writes in an e–mail interview with Orin Judd at BrothersJudd.com. “Ten years ago. Review in New York Times Book Review by John Updike of a Brazilian novel by one Moacyr Scliar … Not a good review. Did nothing to Updike. But premise sizzled in my mind. I thought ‘Man, I could do something with that.'”

Martel went so far as to say that Scilar provided the “spark of life” for Pi, and told the Associated Press, “I don’t feel I’ve done something dishonest.”

That being the case, one might imagine that Martel would have a certain sympathy for Hegemann. But if Axolotl Roadkill represents the thin edge of the wedge, what can we expect the future of books to look like in a world where everything from current releases to classics in the public domain is available for remix, refashioning, and reuse? We’ve already seen a glut of Jane Austen-inspired “mash-ups,” thanks to last year’s unlikely Quirk Classics bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; can we now expect that similar revisions (or, more properly, “re-visionings”) of canonical works will be forced upon us by writers with a clever idea and access to cut-and-paste computer software? For modern works, will copyright have any practical value at all?

In an interview with Hugh Maguire for Open Book: Toronto, Sean Cranbury envisions a “ridiculously dystopic” future in which source texts become collages at the hands of Internet users employing the digital equivalent of scissors and a glue stick:

People are going take text that they like or want to use for a specific purpose from wherever they can find it, and they are going to manipulate it to whatever ends they desire. Then they’re going to slap it into some kind of digital container and probably cross-pollinate the work with video, stills, music, scans of random junk found lying around and then they are going to share it. That content will then be reconstituted by others who have picked it up somewhere in the digital aether.

In this new world, Cranbury posits, “Digital content will have a universal currency rate of 0. It will simply be given away, shared, remixed and reconstituted, and the only way to determine anything like our common sense of ‘worth’ will be by its buoyancy and popularity on the P2P networks.”

In his book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, Andrew Keen quotes cyberpunk author William Gibson as saying that the words “appropriation” and “borrowing” are in fact outmoded terms that don’t mean anything to the participatory culture of the Internet. “The record,” Gibson says, “not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital.” To which it is tempting to point out that without the record, there is nothing to remix in the first place (hence the term remix …), but again, we’ll let that one go for now.

Keen goes on to write:

A survey published in Education Week found that 54 percent of students admitted to plagiarizing from the Internet. And who is to know if the other 46 percent are telling the truth? Copyright and authorship begin to lose all meaning to those posting their mash-ups and remixings on the Web. They are, as Professor Sally Brown at Leeds Metropolitan University notes, “Postmodern, eclectic, Google-generationists, Wikipediasts, who don’t necessarily recognize the concepts of authorships/ownerships.”

Given Hegemann’s comment that there is no such thing as originality, it may be that the word “necessarily” in Professor Brown’s assessment is de trop. What makes me nervous, however, is not that the generation coming of age with the Internet has no conception of the importance of authorship. What makes me nervous is that they do recognize this – they just don’t care.

The problem of sustained reading in a distracted society

February 3, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

This past weekend, yr. humble correspondent finished reading Under the Dome by Stephen King. The endeavour took approximately 30 days to complete. While a novel of 1,072 pages is by no means a minor undertaking, 30 days to read a single book seems – to an inveterate reader such as myself – excessive. True, I completed two other, shorter books for review in the interim, but for the most part, my reading time in the month of January was devoted to a single book.

One reason for this is that I read the book in snippets – short gulps here and there whenever I could fit them in – rather than setting aside blocks of time to read, say, 100 pages or so. True, I have a day job that cuts into my reading time, and it’s clearly important to maintain a life outside the confines of a book’s covers, lest one become a kind of anti-social hermit. Still, it’s not as though my life is so back-breakingly full that I couldn’t find a quiet hour or two for sustained reading each day. Indeed, if I were to add up all the time spent staring at various screens in the month of January, the total would probably have been sufficient to allow me to finish a book of 1,000+ pages in 10 days or so.

It wasn’t always this way. I remember a time, not so long ago, when blocks of several hours per day could easily be found to read for pleasure. What has changed? In a word: distraction. The Internet, social media, reality television, and 24-hour-a-day celebrity culture have increased easy access to all manner of distraction, and distraction is anathema to sustained reading. Reading requires concentration and active engagement, qualities that are in short supply in today’s hyperlinked, attention-deficit society.

Alan Bissett, writing on the Guardian‘s Books Blog (yes, I recognize the irony), makes the same point, and extends it to include a value judgment:

So besieged are we by the entertainment industry that we are being stimulated only in certain directions. The sound of fizz is everywhere. Sustained concentration on the printed word, whether in-depth argument or fictional narrative, creates a particular cerebral event which visual-dependent media cannot. The assault upon this has meant the very theft of our thinking space.

This argument has been made before, notably in a 2008 article by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”. Carr points out that although we are engaging with the written word more than ever before, the way we are doing so is changing:

Thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may well be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice. But it’s a different kind of reading, and behind it lies a different kind of thinking – perhaps even a new sense of the self. “We are not only what we read,” says Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “We are how we read.” Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

This is no small matter. Skimming an online news article for tidbits of information or the next interesting hyperlink on which to click does little to develop the kind of complex thinking skills that are necessary to engage in a sustained analysis or argument, nor does it allow for an acceptance of ambiguity or nuance.

Jakob Nielson, an influential figure in “web usability,” provides statistics to support this shift in the way people read online: “People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. In research on how people read websites we found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word by word.” All of which might be fine in an online environment, but the same kind of reading habits have begun to bleed into our offline lives. Don’t believe me? Then you haven’t picked up the print edition of The Globe and Mail recently. If you had, you’d surely have noticed that the news articles are getting shorter, and are frequently displaced by verbal graphics, “charticles,” and bulleted lists. All perfect fodder for people who want their information provided to them quickly and cleanly, without requiring the reader to chew over intricate concepts or bedeviling subject matter.

Neil Postman was certainly ahead of his time when, in his 1985 work Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, he surveyed the media landscape and noticed the deleterious effect that television was having on our political culture. It was a brilliant time-waster, to be sure, but Postman also realized that the ubiquitous home entertainment device was destroying rational argument and civic awareness. In his foreword, he juxtaposes the visions of two authors, George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley in Brave New World:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

Huxley – who, while nailing our “almost infinite appetite for distractions,” could hardly have foreseen American Idol, Twitter, or Perez Hilton – was also far ahead of his time.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to read a book.

Notes from the dark side: UPDATED

June 24, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

Bookninja George Murray and I recently had a little e-mail exchange about the culture of book blogging and the implications for readers of a digital environment.

Quoth George:

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in six years of blogging it’s that the internet reader who will attach him/herself to your site and stay loyal isn’t someone who’s settling in for a long gawk at a good book or magazine. S/he’s an information addict who wants to pick and choose among info bits (what I call infochum) and meatier pieces. I’ve always done the blog side of Bookninja as a kind of newslog, in which I make brief, pointed commentary on news items and link out to longer articles. The Magazine allows for longer, in-depth forms.

Quoth yr. humble correspondent:

Last year, The Atlantic published an article called “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” which quoted Maryanne Wolf, among others, suggesting that the Internet changes not only what we read but how we read. We read horizontally online, we “power browse,” but we don’t allow for a deep immersion in content, and our sense of nuance and ambiguity is affected. Nicholas Carr, the author of the article, writes, “Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.”

The entire interview’s up at Open Book Toronto, should you be interested.

UPDATE: Okay, the interview was up earlier this afternoon, but it appears to have been taken down. I’ll let y’all know when it’s back live once again.

UPDATE: Link’s fixed. Thanks, August.

Welcome to my nightmare: UPDATED

May 9, 2009 by · 10 Comments 

Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the saying goes. However, the destruction of Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD occurred in an almost instantaneous onslaught of molten lava and ash. Building things is difficult; tearing them down is a breeze.

The catastrophe that befell yr. humble correspondent on this dreary, drizzly morning in May was not natural – to the contrary, it was entirely manmade. It being spring, the season of renewal and rejuvenation, I thought it might be a good time to clear out the cobwebs, dust off the shelves, and make some much-needed updates to my working environment. This included trading in my ancient Speadstream modem for a fancy new one with wireless capability and – here’s where a combination of hubris and ignorance led to my inevitable downfall – upgrading my WordPress blogging software.

Now, anyone acquainted with me even slightly will realize that the depths of my technical ineptitude know no bounds: when it comes to computers, I can turn them on, and perform a few basic data-entry tasks, but that’s about it. So, this whole project was likely doomed to failure from the jump. Still, I managed to convince myself that I was a fairly smart – or, at least, basically literate – individual, and could learn what I needed to know by reading relevant documentation about the ins and outs of upgrading from an outdated version of WordPress to the much fancier, more streamlined version 2.7. (By that rationale, of course, I should be able to perform brain surgery simply by reading a textbook on the subject, but clearly logic deserted me on this particular spring day.)

So, I diligently Googled “upgrading WordPress to 2.7,” or some equally vague series of search terms, and read what appeared to be the most reliable pages dealing with this subject, every one of which assured me that, although it was a fairly serious upgrade, it was also relatively painless and user-friendly. I even found a page indicating that the theme I was using – Barthelme – was compatible with the new version of WordPress.

All of which might be true, but what I didn’t count on was that the download would overwrite my old files, effectively erasing everything I’ve posted here since this site jumped ship from the earlier Blogger version in June 2007. I felt supremely confident pressing that download button, only gradually coming to the realization that the distant rumbling outside my window was getting louder and that there was a river of cascading lava heading straight for me.

Nor did I do the prudent thing and back up the site before making the switch. Fools rush in, and all that.

In short, I seem to have lost almost two years’ worth of data. Gone in the stroke of a key. (Whoever said that anything posted online was there forever can bite me.) To those of you who have been reading this site over the past two years, and especially all those kind enough to link to me during that time – links that will now lead you nowhere – I offer my sincere and profound apologies for this most dunderheaded of moves. Pride goeth before the fall, so they say, and pride combined with ignorance can be a truly deadly combination.

Still, in the spirit of spring, of rebirth and renewal, I’ll try to look on the bright side. This unfortunate turn of events has offered me the opportunity to give the site an overhaul, which includes a new look, and the implementation of an in-house style guide, something I’ve been meaning to put together for two years now. I’ll rebuild the links page and have that up in the next few days. The categories list will grow with the site, hopefully in a more logical and targeted way than was the case previously, allowing for easier navigation (once there is a site with content to navigate).

I’ve also clarified the site’s comments policy and its copyright, both of which can be found on the About TSR page in the navbar at the top.

Going forward, I hope to provide a greater number of substantial posts, with fewer quick links and brief asides, which in the past were used mostly as filler on days when content proved scanty, or when I was focusing on other projects. A certain amount of this will likely appear in the future – I do have a day job, after all, which puts food on the table (blogging is notoriously underpaid), and there are a number of writing projects, panels, and conferences that I’ve already signed on for. Nevertheless, my ambition for this site has always been for it to exist as a locus of intelligent, argumentative, and thoughtful responses to literature, writing, and publishing, and I hope that I’ve achieved something of that to this point. In any event, my goal moving forward is to make TSR an entertaining and illuminating (and, no doubt, occasionally aggravating) destination for readers with a yen for literary criticism and book chat. I hope you’ll let me know whether I’m succeeding, and as always, comments and suggestions are welcome.

A note about the site’s title: Regular readers will note that I’ve capitulated to the popular tendency to elide T.S. Eliot’s idiosyncratic spelling of “Shakespeherian” from his poem The Waste Land, and have reverted to the more conventional spelling of the word. I do this for craven reasons of being easier to locate in search engines, and apologize to any literary purists in the audience.

UPDATE: Many thanks to Carleton (in the comments section) and to Erin Goodman and James Patrick Mullins, who alerted me that Google’s cache contains records of web pages, so the work of the past two years is not completely lost. Now I’m on the horns of a dilemma: Do I rail against the blatant and arrogant copyright violation Google is perpetrating by using my content without permission, or do I fall at its feet in veneration for ensuring that all my work has not simply vanished into the ether of cyberspace? At this point, I think I’ll split the difference, and fall at the feet of Carleton, Erin, and James, with thanks.

The Google URL for TSR is here. I may try to rescue some of this content at some future date, but it’s doubtful that I’ll have the time to copy it all to the new site. However, it is comforting to know that it hasn’t all disappeared irretrievably.