Against Disruption: Louis Menand, Douglas Adams, Books and Technology


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Have you ever smacked into a glass door when you didn’t realize it was closed?  I have.  It hurts.  The intersection of my face and a glass door happened at my great aunt’s tiny desert house in the 80s, where the mix of a trick of the sunlight and my distracted boyhood mind made the door invisible.

More alarming than the pain was the surprise.  A barrier I could not see had prevented me from making progress in the direction I wanted to go.

Many people and many businesses have this problem.

Sometimes life throws you glass doors, and the trick is to find your gratitude.  You need to appreciate that now you know about the barrier while you’re rubbing an aching schnoz. 

I felt this way after reading Louis Menand’s insightful, generous and intelligent piece “The Birth of Pulp Fiction” in the latest (January 5th) issue of The New Yorker, which shows that the paperback book and the bookstore itself were relatively recent developments in the United States:

Back when people had to leave the house if they wanted to buy something, the biggest problem in the book business was bookstores. There were not enough of them. Bookstores were clustered in big cities, and many were really gift shops with a few select volumes for sale. Publishers sold a lot of their product by mail order and through book clubs, distribution systems that provide pretty much the opposite of what most people consider a fun shopping experience—browsing and impulse buying.

Allen Lane created the mass-market paperback in England when he founded Penguin Books in 1935, and Robert de Graff brought it to the United States in 1939 when he launched Pocket Books.

Menand synthesizes several books in this article, leading to useful nuggets like:

The key to Lane’s and de Graff’s innovation was not the format. It was the method of distribution. More than a hundred and eighty million books were printed in the United States in 1939, the year de Graff introduced Pocket Books, but there were only twenty-eight hundred bookstores to sell them in. There were, however, more than seven thousand newsstands, eighteen thousand cigar stores, fifty-eight thousand drugstores, and sixty-two thousand lunch counters—not to mention train and bus stations. De Graff saw that there was no reason you couldn’t sell books in those places as easily as in a bookstore.

The mass-market paperback was therefore designed to be displayed in wire racks that could be conveniently placed in virtually any retail space. People who didn’t have a local bookstore, and even people who would never have ventured into a bookstore, could now browse the racks while filling a prescription or waiting for a train and buy a book on impulse.

Reading Menand’s terrific piece, I kept waiting for him to connect the dots between the birth of the mass-market book seventy or eighty years ago and the rise of Amazon.com over the last few years.  Perhaps the fact that I was reading The New Yorker on an iPad made this all the more compelling a connection, but Menand is a historian rather than a futurist, so he didn’t make the link and the article pivots instead into a discussion of censorship.

So what was my glass door?

A lifelong book lover, I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s, in Encino in the San Fernando Valley.  Back then, L.A. was a great bookstore town from tiny little specialty shops like Scene of the Crime for mysteries, Dangerous Visions and A Change of Hobbit for science fiction, to broader bookstores like Alpha Books, the Bookie Joint and Midnight Special… to name just a few of my then favorites now long shuttered. 

For years, I’ve blamed Crown Books, Borders, Barnes and Noble and, of course, my own love/hate relationship with Amazon.com for the death of the independent bookstore in one of the biggest — and most readerly — cities in the country.  Intrinsic to my resentment was a conviction that until these black mustachioed villains skulked onto the scene my beloved bookstores had been there forever.  They were institutions!  Instead, Menand shows compellingly that they’d just been around since around the time my parents were born.  If my grandparents were still alive they could have told me this… if I’d thought to ask them.

Smack.

The glass door connects to a perspective on technology and innovation that Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams articulated in his hilarious and smart 1999 London Times article, “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet” —

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

(Add smart phones, tablets, wearable computers, 3D printers and automated homes to Adams’ list to update it for 2015.)

For me, bookstores were “just normal” because they were already there when I started reading, but my normal is different than my grandparents’ normal was. 

This is like the conversation I have with my kids about how back in the stone age before they were born people had to watch television shows when they were on rather than record them and watch later, and how it wasn’t that big a burden because there weren’t that many channels anyway.  My son looks at me like I rode a brontosaurus to the office.

The book-selling and business that Amazon is so effectively pressurizing hasn’t actually been around that long, similar to how general literacy hasn’t been around that long.  That  means that rather than think about how Amazon disrupts the book-selling business, it might be more useful to think about how the mass-market book-selling business is still pretty new and still evolving.

This might seem like a subtle distinction, but the problem with disruption as a buzzword — and oh boy is it a popular buzzword lately — is that it sets up binary* David versus Goliath dynamics where the realities are more complicated.

Life is easier when you only have to worry about two entities: the Empire and the Rebellion, the Federation and the Klingons, the Ducks and the Buckeyes, Russia and the USA.

But the reality is that more than two entities are in play most of the time.

Over the course of the last few decades: book selling, buying and reading has increased by many orders of magnitude.  More people buy books and read for pleasure now than they did when my grandparents were born.  This happened because of the reduction in costs in the creation of books and the ease of distribution in the selling of books, first with paperbacks and then with Amazon.com.

That’s not a disruption.

It’s an eruption.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

* Americans love binary arguments: Deborah Tannen talked about this is her useful 1998 book, The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words.

My 2014 in Books


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I read a lot — magazines, two newspapers, email newsletters, and countless social-media-shared links I chase down digital rabbit holes. I’d never know anything, for example, without Jason Hirshhorn’s magnificent daily Media Redefined.

But I’m lost without books.  Actual books.  Whether paper or digital, if I’m not reading at least two books then I get grumpy and feel IQ points oozing out of my ears and down the shower drain.

So one year ago, inspired by my friend David Daniel who keeps a list of books he wants to read, I decided to keep a list of books I finished in 2014. Since it is now 12/31/14 and I’m not going to finish any of the three books I’m reading at the moment, what follows is my 2014 list with brief remarks added.

Note: with the exception of My Side of the Mountain I am not counting re-reads. Often, at night, or when I’m in need of a visit with an old friend, I dive back into a novel I’ve already read. My kids are the same way. Since I tell the two of them that this doesn’t count for their reading, I’m not counting it towards my own.

Looking back, there’s a lot of fiction in this list.  I need fiction like I need oxygen (except when I’m writing fiction), and most of the business writing I read comes in articles.  I wonder what the fiction/non-fiction balance will be next year?

So here’s the list:

Dashner, James.  The Maze Runner.  Finished 1/1/14.

I read a fair amount of YA or children’s books, usually in quest of reading matter for my kids, but in this case it was for a project a friend and I were contemplating. Not bad but not good enough for me to read any farther.

Sloan, Robin. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Finished 1/4/14.

A fun ride, albeit only pancake deep. I inhaled this over a day or so at the start of last year. A good yarn for any of the digerati who mourn the loss of bookstores and wonder about the future of book-length reading in a digital age.

Elberse, Anita. Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking & the Big Business of Entertainment. Finished 1/22/14.

Interesting and thoughtful, and powerfully presented. What I wanted, though, were more connections outside of entertainment to the rest of business and human endeavor. A missed opportunity.

Eggers, Dave.  The Circle. Finished 1/23/14.

A frustrating book… it annoyed but compelled me in a similar way to Aaron Sorkin’s just-finished HBO show “The Newsroom.” There’s a smugness to Eggers that grates, and I don’t think he understands how companies like Facebook and Google work.

Asaro, Catherine. The Spacetime Pool.  Finished 2/5/14.

Novella in Asaro’s fantastic “Saga of the Skolian Empire” series, which is great fun for people who like space opera with good physics and a bit of romance.

Aaronovitch, Ben. Broken Homes: a Rivers of London Novel. Finished 2/15/14.

#4 in Rivers of London. I saw #5 on the shelves at Foyle’s in London last week and am excited to read it when the e-book comes out in a few days. This series is delightful fantasy set in modern-day London, written by one of the many “Doctor Who” alumni who go on, like Douglas Adams, to write novels.

Semmelhack, Peter. Social Machines: the Next Wave of Innovation; How to Develop Connected Products that Change Customers’ Lives. Finished 3/09/14.

A good introduction to the Internet of Things, more practical than visionary.

Craighead George, Jean.  My Side of the Mountain.  Finished 3/11/14.  

I read this when I was a kid, found it on my son’s shelf, and re-read it with lip-smacking pleasure.  I was looking in particular for a discussion of how you want a machete rather than an axe, which I remembered from a book I read decades ago, but didn’t find it in this terrific book. Anybody out there know what I’m talking about?

Thomas, Rob.  Veronica Mars: the Thousand-Dollar Tan Line.  Finished 4/3/14.

Loved the Veronica Mars movie that came out around the same time and couldn’t get enough of it, so I read the novel. Fun. Nailed the voice and sensibility of the series. I look forward to the next one, which comes out soon.

Grant, Adam. Give and Take: a Revolutionary Approach to Success. Finished 4/11/14.

One of the best business-y books I’ve read in the last few years, I tore through this after Dana Anderson praised it at the AAAA’s, and had the pleasure of trading notes with Adam Grant subsequently. I can’t say enough nice things about this book. It’s brilliant, and — perhaps more importantly and certainly a surprise coming from a social scientist — it’s beautifully written.

Greenwood, Kerry.  Cocaine Blues.  Phrynne Fisher #1.  Finished May sometime.

Between May and July I inhaled seven of these murder mysteries set in Victorian Australia.  Karen, a woman who practices Tae Kwon-do with my son back in Oregon, and I talk books, and she was flying through them. These are like McNuggets: I kept tearing through them at high speed until I hit a satiation point and stopped.  Formulaic and with a bit of the Ensign Mary Sue about them, I recommend these to historical mystery lovers who also like a recurring cast of characters. The Australian TV series based on these (streaming on either Netflix or Amazon Prime) isn’t bad, although not as good as the books. Things rarely are.  Just this note for all this series.

Greenwood, Kerry. Flying Too High. Phyrnne Fisher #2.  Finished May sometime.

Greenwood, Kerry.  Murder on the Ballarat Train.  Phrynne Fisher #3.  5/28/14.

Greenwood, Kerry. Death at Victoria Dock.  Phynne Fisher #4. Finished 6/13/14.

Greenwood, Kerry.  The Green Mill Murder. Phynne Fisher #5. Finished 6/16/14.

Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Finished 6/20/14.

A friend — either Ari Popper of Sci Futures or Brian Seth Hurst of Story Tech — recommended this to me at CES.  Good popular science journalism, but I don’t have clear memories of it now, which is a bit of a ding.

Deaver, Jeffrey. The Skin Collector. Finished 6/24/14.

I read it because of my affection for The Bone Collector, but it wasn’t very good.

Miller, Derek B.  Norwegian by Night.  Finished 7/13/14.

My friend Rishad Tobaccowala recommended this to me when he found out I was moving to Norway for the school year.  It’s fantastic: an emotionally engaged and heart-stopping thriller starring an 80 year old Korean War Vet set in Oslo. I can’t believe this hasn’t been made into a movie yet. Clint Eastwood should direct and star.

McKeown, Greg.  Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.  Finished 7/13/14.

This book taught me a lot about how I sabotage my own productivity: I read it with passionate intensity in paper, and then bought a digital copy to bring with me to Norway. It’s on my “to re-read in January list,” which isn’t a long one.

Greenwood. Kerry.  Blood and Circuses. Phynne Fisher #6. Finished 7/18/14.

MacLeod, Hugh.  Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity.  Finished 7/23/14.

I admire MacLeod and hadn’t gotten around to reading the book for no good reason. It’s short, sweet and smart. Don’t miss, particularly if you like his cartoons.

Greenwood. Kerry. Ruddy Gore.  Phynne Fisher #7. Finished 7/24/14.

Russ, Joanna.  The Adventures of Alyx.  Finished 8/14/13.

Back in college, my friend Keylan Qazzaz wrote her senior thesis about women in science fiction with a particular focus on this book. I picked it up a few years later, but never got around to reading it.  Then, as I was packing for Norway and grabbing books from the “I’ve been meaning to read this” pile (a big pile), I saw this.  Turns out, it’s a collection of short stories and novellas featuring a terrific protagonist who seems to have amnesia between each story.  More strong space opera.  A bit hard to find now, but quite good.

Shenk, Joshua Wolf.  Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs.  Finished 8/31/14.

I enjoyed the Atlantic excerpt of this book and decided to read the whole thing, which I did in short order.  It’s a powerful antidote to the “genius alone is his garrett” Romantic myth that still pervades western notions of creativity and genius. However, I’d have liked more on how groups collaborate, and think that his focus on the pair is unnecessarily limiting.  Still a worthwhile read, and in addition it lead me to Carse (see below).

Huizinga, Johan.  Homo Ludens: a study of the play element in culture. Finished 9/9/14.

Play is important to how I think about disruptive technologies (much more about this in 2015), and a few years ago my friend and partner Susan MacDermid mentioned this book from the 1930s.  It’s a tough read — continental philosophy that seems deliberately, almost hermetically sealed away against non-specialist readers — but worthwhile and interesting and useful for my thinking.

Powers, Tim.  Expiration Date.  Finished 9/20/14. 

Powers wrote my all-time favorite time travel story, The Anubis Gates, but I never managed to get into this one or it’s quasi-sequel (see below) even though I’ve had them for years.  Powers’ imagination is powerful and intricate, and it takes time to settle into the worlds he creates.  By the time I made it to page 50 I was hooked, and then I was sorry when it ended.  Don’t give up on this one too easily.

Wilson, Daniel H.  Robopocalypse.  Finished 10/10/14.

My friend Renny Gleeson recommended this, and it’s yummy sci-fi candy along the lines of the Terminator movie series only updated to include how the world works post-internet.  For paranoiacs worried about AI, this is either something to embrace or something to avoid for fear of never sleeping again.

Carse, James P.  Finite and Infinite Games: a vision of life as play and possibility. Finished 10/12/14.

As I mentioned, the Shenk book turned me onto Carse.  Like Huizinga, this is far from an easy book to read or understand, but it’s an important meditation on play.  It’s particularly important for Americans, I think, with our cultural tendency to bottom line everything and be more concerned with the final score than how the game was.

Gawande, Atul.  The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Finished 10/21/14.

Gawande is one of those people who does so much in a day to make the world a better place that he makes me feel like a loser, even though I’m sure that if I said this to him in person he’d charm me into feeling like a superhero until the next morning.  He’s a terrific writer, and in our information-overload era this book is both moving and useful for anybody who despairs of getting the important things done.

Mann, George.  The Affinity Bridge: A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation. Finished 10/28/14.

The Steampunk genre and movement appeals to me, but I keep holding back because it feels like it will turn into an addictive time-suck that will pull me far deeper than just reading the novels.  Suddenly, I’ll be going to maker fairs and dressing in lots of metal-studded leather.  I just don’t have that kind of time.  This is also why I rarely play video games and don’t drive a motorcycle.  Still, I ran across this book at Books, Inc. in Palo Alto and was so interested that I found myself reading it while walking down El Camino Real on my way to a dinner.  For Sherlock Holmes lovers as well as Steampunks, this is great fun.  I also read the sequel immediately thereafter (see next entry) and a cluster of free short stories on Mann’s website.  Like Ben Aaronovitch, Mann is a Doctor Who alum.  I’ll read more of this series eventually.

Mann, George.  The Osiris Ritual: A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation.  Finished 11/6/14.

Scalzi, John.  Lock In. Finished 11/16/14.

Fascinating notion about telepresence for quadriplegics (a reductive description, I admit) as background for a compelling near-future science fiction adventure story.  Scalzi’s voice is the closest to a 21st century Heinlein that I’ve found, particularly with the Old Man’s War series.

Bach, Rachel.  Fortune’s Pawn. (Paradox Book 1.) Finished 11/22/14.

IO9 compared this to Lois McMaster Bujold’s work, and since she is my favorite living science fiction writer I immediately bought the first one.  Bujold it ain’t, but it’s not-bad space opera.  One key difference (literature geek spoiler alert) is that while Bujold practices Austen-like free indirect discourse, Bach’s narrative is first person, which is harder to carry off if you’re not practicing the skaz a la Mark Twain in Huck Finn.  I really like how Bach’s protagonist is a kick-ass woman mercenary soldier, but I wish the writing was better.

Catmull, Ed.  Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Finished 11/29/14.

Rishad and Renny both put this on lists of influential books, and I loved every page both as a Pixar fan and as a consultant who watches businesses get in the way of their own success time and time again.  I managed creatives for many years, and wish I had this book on my desk when I started. Don’t miss. Like Adam Grant’s book, this one will stick with and help any business leader.

Powers, Tim.  Earthquake Weather. Finished 12/22/14.

See above note on Powers’ Expiration Date.  I was delighted to discover that Earthquake Weather was a quasi-sequel, because that made it easier to get over my usual 50 page learning curve with Powers.

Connelly, Michael.  The Burning Room: A Harry Bosch Novel. Finished 12/29/14.

My last completed book of 2014, which I finished on a plane this Monday.  Is there anybody who doesn’t love these books?  Connelly seems to be easing Bosh towards retirement or a dramatic death, and while I’m eager to see how it all ends I despair at the notion of a fictional Los Angeles without Harry Bosch solving crimes in it.

Looking forward to 2015: I’m currently reading four books that I hope to finish in January or February:

Daniel J. Levitin’s Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston’s Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness.

(After I finish these two, I’m ambitious to dive into Daniel Goleman’s new Focus, which seems to be along similar lines to both of these.)

James H. Carrott and Brian David Johnson’s Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian And A Futurist Journey Through Steampunk Into The Future of Technology.

And although I haven’t read it, I picked up Lamentation, the sixth Matthew Shardlake novel by C.J. Sansom in London. If you want murder mysteries set in the same time as Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books, don’t miss this excellent series. 

Any must-reads for the coming year?  Please share in comments below…

In Praise of Atul Gawande’s “The Checklist Manifesto”


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I first smacked my forehead (ouch!) against a wall of decision fatigue when I was the Editor in Chief of iMedia Connection (a daily trade journal covering a different collision between marketing and technology). The best part of editing involves coaxing order from mess, making points pointier and helping writers to say what they want to say. The part that makes the days long is having to make a lot of decisions that matter in the moment but not in the long run: yes, let’s run with that one, the other one, and, oh wait, did that thing we’ve been waiting for come in? Editing — like management — is an endless series of arbitrary decisions, but somebody’s gotta pick and that’s the EIC.

I wouldn’t feel my decision fatigue until lunch. If we were heading out for a group lunch, the editorial staff would look to me. “You’re the boss, so where do you want to go for lunch?” Something in my hungry stomach would sink and I’d chose a place. Eventually, I changed my response. “I’m happy to pay for lunch, but I’ve made dozens of decisions already today.” I’d then point at one of the editors. “You pick the place. Nobody is allowed to complain.”

That was years ago, and in the interim — even though I’m no longer in that job — the scope and number of decisions I have to make each day has grown. Email vexes me in particular: do I check it when I first wake up? If I do, then I risk falling down a rabbit hole for the rest of the day. If I don’t, then I might miss something important. On top of that, the number of things bleeping at me, vibrating and waving their electronic hands like importunate fifth graders who know the answer to a question, keeps increasing year after year. I joined Ello because I was curious, for example, but now it’s another damned thing to check.

Greg McKeown’s remarkable book Essentialism helped me to recognize some of this and to intervene in my own behavior, but with smart phones breaking down all barriers our environment no longer does the work it used to do to help us know who we are at a given moment and what we’re supposed to be doing or not doing.

It’s not just me.

For the past dozen years or more I’ve been reading books tracing the same picture: life is getting evermore complicated. And, even though the human brain is the most sophisticated and powerful comprehension machine in the world, we just can’t keep up with the onslaught of information coming from new gadgets, screens, media and the increase in chatter from the old ones like radio, TV, books and the like. These are books with titles like Chaos, Frontiers of Complexity, Think Twice: Thin Ice, but also other books like Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), Predictably Irrational, and Thinking Fast and Slow.

Like the old saying about how people complain about the weather but nobody does anything about it, most of these books were of the point and exclaim variety rather than being helpful. “Look at how irrational we are!” “Look at how things appear chaotic but actually have hidden patterns of order!” “Look at how you can never make a smart decision, but don’t give up!”

On the other side of the bookstore (when I can find one), the self-help books don’t help much. They’re too involved in a method to which I must enslave myself before seeing any benefit. I can Get Things Done, but only if I start managing endless lists that suck up a ton of time. I can Hack my Life (yuck) but that involves having a gadget or twist tie for everything. Often, when I read these books I feel like I’ve just shelled out twenty bucks for a commercial for the author’s consultancy.

All this is why I’m excited by Atul Gawande’s 2010 book, “The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right,” which I read in a day. Gawande is a globetrotting Harvard Medical School surgeon who works with the World Health Organization and writes for the New Yorker.

Gawande is intimidatingly smart and eloquent with an eye for evocative detail, but he didn’t write a book about himself. Instead, it’s a passionate defense of the simple checklist as a tool for embracing and mastering the complicated tasks in front of us day to day.

Wait, didn’t I just backhand David Allen’s list-oriented Getting Things Done approach a few paragraphs ago? (Answer: yes.) How is Gawande different?

First, The Checklist Manifesto isn’t a self-help book. It doesn’t have a handy appendix that helps you to create your own list, nor does it advertise how there are other books in the series that you can buy, or how you can hire Gawande as an efficiency expert to make your business run better (you can’t, although my sense of the author is that he would probably come up with a referral for you if you asked).

Second and more importantly, The Checklist Manifesto isn’t about self-help at all. It’s not about individuals doing things, it’s about how groups of people working together can work together better, and how empowering the group is more important than empowering an individual… even if the individual is the boss, like a surgeon, editor or CEO.

This is different than crowd-sourcing (another raft of books I’ve read in recent years) where trusting to the mass can reveal information uncloaked by individual or observer bias.

Instead, this is about teams working in environments of massively overlapping subspecialization. We have lots of technologies that help us to track and manage the what of collaboration, but surprisingly few to help us with the who.

That’s where the checklist comes in.

Here’s an example that Gawande articulates from skyscraper construction when he talks with a man named Finn O’Sullivan about two lists in O’Sullivan’s field office. The first list is the microscopically detailed construction schedule:

But the list on O’Sullivan’s other wall revealed an entirely different philosophy about power and what should happen to it when you’re confronted with complex, nonroutine problems– such as what to do when a difficult, potentially dangerous, and unanticipated anomaly suddenly appears on the fourteenth floor of a thirty-two-story skyscraper under construction. The philosophy is that you push the power of decision making out to the periphery and away from the center. You give people the room to adapt, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is that they talk to one another and take responsibility. That is what works. (pages 72 to 73)

Gawande’s vision of the checklist isn’t merely another device (albeit a simple one) to outsource our increasing cognitive burden somewhere else. Instead, The Checklist Manifesto puts that device into the moments where tasks move from one person to another. It puts interaction at the heart of a project, not at the periphery.

For anybody working as a member of a team (and this pretty much means everybody), managing a group or leading a company, The Checklist Manifesto will help you to rethink how to collaborate to enhance the work at hand and avoid avoidable mistakes.

It’s also a spritely read with terrific stories.

Journey Back, Journey On: Watching my son rediscover a comic book 4 years later


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W_SatAM_Reading2

Saturday morning. Mom’s at yoga. Dad’s puttering downstairs. 13-year-old Big Sis is hibernating — those pesky teenagers.

What’s an almost-9-year boy old to do?

That’s my imagination of what W, my son, was thinking after I shushed him for the fifth time when he was playing in the open area right next to where his sister’s puberty-induced coma went on… and on.

Then I remembered that a few days back one of his buddies had asked about the comic book hero “Green Arrow,” whereupon W had turned to the ultimate authority in his life on the topic of superheroes— me.

We’d talked through the legend of Oliver Queen getting marooned on Starfish island, how the character started as Batman with a bow but slowly morphed into something more interesting.

I told him about the “Hard Traveling Heroes” sequence from the 1960s and 1970s when Green Arrow and Green Lantern went on an Easy Rider like journey around the country. “Dad,” he replied. “Why didn’t Green Lantern just create a force bubble to travel in… why did they need a car?

It kept coming up, so when I needed him to find a quieter activity this book came to mind:

SecretOrigins

 By Dennis O’Neil, circa 1976.

I trotted over to his bookshelf and grabbed it, opened it to “Green Arrow,” and walked him back into his room.

The front and back covers of my copy — acquired when I was his age — are long gone and what remains is in tatters, but as the picture at the top of this column indicates, W is lost in that book right now.

I remember my own fall, wondering at the paired Golden Age and late-Silver Age tellings of the stories, feeding my brain with the basics of the superhero rhetoric that would inform decades of comic-book reading.

Although he started with Green Arrow, when I snuck in (to adjust his pillow, make sure he wasn’t starving, and — I confess it!— to snoop) he was deep into the Golden Age account of Wonder Woman’s origin.

I first gave W this book shortly after we’d moved to Oregon, when he and I were busy watching the “Justice League” and “Justice League Unlimited” series. That was his first go-round with superheroes, and his primary interest was in collecting action figures. He looked at the book, made it a little more tattered, but didn’t fall inside.

This morning, he fell.

Books are fixed points in our ever-changing lives. This is the glory of re-reading.

Reopening an old friend reminds us of how far we’ve come, reintroduces us to past selves and sometimes points us onward towards where we want to go.

I remember back when I was finishing my doctoral thesis on Shakespeare a moment when I felt my sympathies slipping from Romeo to Capulet (Juliet’s father), where they have stayed.

The lousy version of this is when you pick up an old friend and find that you’ve moved irrevocably on— I can’t stomach Edgar Rice Burroughs anymore, for example, which I discovered when I tried to re-read “A Princess of Mars” after the mediocre “John Carter” movie a couple summers ago.

I hear thumping upstairs.

Time to make breakfast.

I wonder if he made it to the“Hawkman” origins…

[Editor’s Note: cross-posted on Medium.]

Is there life after Harry (Potter)?


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I’m Single-Dadding it for a few days whilst Kathi is teaching down in L.A., and our seven-year-old son just made me so proud that I must share.

Post school, post Tae Kwon Do, post dinner (pizza, because Dad’s a little under the weather and doesn’t want to cook), I offered him the chance to finish watching the movie “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”

His response, “can I read instead?”

I paused, then said — like it was a concession — “Oh… Okay.”

Here’s what he looks like right now, in the last 200 pages of the seventh book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”:

WReadingHP7

So I will forever be grateful to J. K. Rowling because her books transfigured my video-game-obsessed son into a reader. Like he had chugged a vial of Polyjuice Potion, only if I’m lucky in his case the transformation will be permanent.

Not to pat myself on the back too vigorously, but I did the right thing by withholding the movies until significant progress happened with the books. He has seen movies one to four and is DYING to see #5, but he’s invested in the written story in a way that he wouldn’t be if he’d galloped past the reading point and watched them all.

But what waits after Harry? What series can capture his imagination so deeply and for so long? For his sister, almost 12, the transforming books were Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson” series (the first five), and therein lies a tale for another time. For me it was comic books, then Edgar Rice Burroughs, then Star Trek and then Shakespeare.

For a post-Harry boy, what works?

I’ll be eager for suggestions, dear readers.

Everybody’s a Muggle in Rowling’s “A Casual Vacancy”


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As I type these words I have reached page 160 of J. K. Rowling’s new novel, “A Casual Vacancy,” so I’m about one third done and have made enough progress to know that I’ll finish the book and that I can draw early conclusions.

Note: there are no plot spoilers here past the first five or so pages of the book, but you’ll get the sensibility.

It’s impossible to read this novel without Harry Potter in mind—nor would the “A Casual Vacancy” be so inescapably present in bookstores, airports and Costco without the Boy who Lived. It’s particularly true for me at the moment as my seven year old son is obsessed with Harry Potter, my eleven year old daughter is in the middle of reading the final book, and our idea of a great Saturday night is a bowl of home made popcorn and one of the Harry Potter movies—“Goblet of Fire” is on deck for my 45th birthday family celebration tomorrow night. We’re all in with Harry.

But Harry Potter is also a great way into what’s interesting about “A Casual Vacancy.”

If you take that series of novels and subtract the magic, you get a painful, grey story set in a British boarding school during one of the world wars. It’s “Dead Poets Society” sans Robin Williams or a British version of John Knowles “A Separate Peace.”  Bleak is an understatement.

Take away the boarding school and you have a novel set on Privet Drive starring Vernon and Petunia Dursley and their disappointing brute of a son and ingrate, possibly psychotic, nephew.

And that’s the sensibility of “Casual Vacancy.”

The novel begins with the death by cerebral hemorrhage of Barry Fairbrother, a  banker and town council leader in the picturesque British town of Pagford. We’re only in Barry’s head for a few pages before he strokes out, but in that time he comes across as dull– a caring but detached man, put upon by his wife Mary’s expectations and resentfully doing things because he ought to rather than because he wants to do them.

By any reasonable account Barry is a nebbish, which makes it all the more surprising when his death sweeps Pagford like an emotional earthquake, throwing relationships into conflict, destabilizing the Town Council, and wreaking havoc with the local high school.

The reader quickly learns that Barry was the best person in Pagford. He was a drab saint that the town is not ready to do without.  This much is obvious 50 pages in, and by 160 – where I am now – Rowling’s deft ability to jump deep inside a character’s pain has me hooked.  Unlike seven books in Harry’s head, we flit from character to character in free indirect discourse that is compelling and alarming. I don’t know where this is going, and I’m not sure that the sturm und drang about Barry’s open council seat will be enough of a spine for the book, but I’ll see it through.

But it’s hard to like any of these characters, as it was hard to like Harry in the fifth book, “The Order of the Phoenix” when he spent the entire 870 page book in an adolescent snit.

It’s almost as if “A Casual Vacancy” were a novelistic equivalent of those intolerably cruel yet can’t-stop-watching British television comedies like “Peep Show” or the original versions of “The Office” or “Shameless.” The closest American equivalent is “Arrested Development,” where there is nobody to root for.

The difference between a novel and a TV show, though, is that actors are charming. The charm of the performers in those shows cuts the cruelty like baby powder cutting cocaine.  “Rain Man” was another famous example: director Steven Spielberg convinced screenwriter Ron Bass to make Raymond autistic instead of retarded because Dustin Hoffman was so charming that the audience wouldn’t be able to stop themselves from loving him, but if he’d been retarded there would have been no conflict.

In “A Casual Vacancy” we mainline the meanness as we read.  There is no cushion of humanity.

The writer that “A Casual Vacancy” most reminds me of isn’t the Rowling of Harry Potter.  It’s Graham Greene, the master of quietly embarrassing detail, pasty human skin layered on squishy human bodies, small worlds from which escape isn’t so much impossible as unthinkable.

In “Romeo and Juliet” a banished Romeo says with horror, “there is no world without Verona walls, but purgatory, torture, hell itself. Hence, banished is banished from the world, and world’s exile is death.”

That’s Pagford.

“A Casual Vacancy” is compelling, dirty, middle-aged and painful.  But so far it’s worth it.

Postscript: A fine account of the Rain Man story can be found here.

 

Simile Search: Please Help This Writer!


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I’m looking for evocative comparisons that talk about how one thing so automatically comes with another that we take the pairing for granted. Like, “the juice comes with the meat” (except it often doesn’t) or “the warmth that comes with the fire” but preferably less flabby.  Something taste or smell related (for its Proustian oomph) would be ideal.  If you can think of any, please share in comments.

Here’s why I’m asking:

My new book length project (now that Redcrosse is here) is called “The Shakespeare Strategy” and is all about why Shakespeare’s working context helped to constitute his immense business and cultural success, and that leads to an argument about how we don’t pay enough attention to context — including physiological and psychological context — nowadays.  For frequent readers you’ll recognize some of this in my longtime fascination with eventness.

I’m still working on the elevator pitch, but you can see the seed of the thinking here:

 
Before we had VCRs, DVRs, DVDs, streaming video, individual songs on iTunes and, newly, individual articles sold independently of their magazines context came automatically with our experience of music, TV, movies, newspaper and magazine articles.  Even books came in context because we found them in bookstores, libraries or catalogs.

We now lack much of that formerly automatic context, which is why books like Steve Rosenbaum’s Curation Nation are so interesting and relevant.

So I’m looking for comparisons that convey automatic pairings… as well as comparisons showing formerly automatic pairing that — once detached — reveal how accidental and contingent the link between the two things really was. That is, “the commercials that come with the TV show” (before DVRs) or “the sting that comes with the angry bee” (except more positive).

Any ideas? Please help!

Short Post: There’s More to the Amazon story than Fast Company conveys


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Kit Eaton over at Fast Company (a must read in general) blogged today about Amazon’s announcement that it now sells more e-Books than physical books.  Here’s a relevant snippet including a link to the Amazon press release:

Since April the first, for every 100 print-and-paper books Amazon has sold, it’s also sold 105 e-books, according to a fresh Amazon announcement.

Kindle e-readers arrived, along with a small but fast-growing digital bookstore, in November 2007–by July 2010, Amazon notes, Kindle book sales had surpassed hardcover book sales, and then six months later beat the paperback books sales rate. Now Amazon’s customers are “choosing Kindle books more often than print books. We had high hopes this would happen eventually, but we never imagined it would happen this quickly,” says CEO Jeff Bezos, comparing Amazon’s 15-year heritage of selling physical books to just four years of e-book sales.

What’s missing from this story are the economics. Sure, Amazon sells more e-books than physical books, but that’s because the electronic editions are generally cheaper than the physcial ones.  Moreover, when the book isn’t published by a major house with discount deals at Wal-Mart, CostCo, Barnes & Noble, et cetera, then the gap between physical and electronic can be huge.

What I want to know is this: how do the titles on the 105 e-books compare to the physical books? What is the intersection on the Venn diagram of those two lists, and what is the total list price differential between them?

Amazon is an exciting new frontier for small publishing houses or author-published books in both fiction and non-fiction — the Romance genre alone is changing fast because of the Kindle publishing platform.  As meat-space bookstores die — and this happens increasingly — Amazon will become only more important for both physical and e-Books.

But this 105 v 100 press release is a non-story without significant context.

 

 

 

The Shakespeare Brand: Yesterday’s iMedia Talk now UP on YouTube


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UPDATE: More of the talk now embedded below.

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of speaking at the iMedia Brand Summit– an event that I’ve been intimately associated with for years but at which I’ve rarely presented while wearing my research hat.  This talk is the seed of my next book length project, and I was delighted to see that most of it is already on YouTube this morning:

 

Here’s the handbook description:

On February 11, 2011 Disney released a new kids movie called “Gnomeo & Juliet” based on William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Why? What made Disney think that an animated love story about lawn gnomes would somehow be better – or, at least, more marketable — with a connection to a play first performed in London in 1595? The answer is simple: Shakespeare created one of history’s most powerful brands. Allusions to and adaptations of his plays permeate our culture, and not just in movies and TV. In Corpus Christi in 1845, while serving in the infantry, bored and waiting for the Mexican War to start, future President Ulysses S. Grant killed time playing the role of Desdemona– the female lead in “Othello.” Imagine George W. Bush or Barack Obama doing that! We don’t typically think of Shakespeare as a successful brand story, but we should because the way Shakespeare created, bonded with and nurtured his customer base has actionable lessons for marketers today. Don’t get distracted by the tights, skulls, swords and iambic pentameter: what really distinguished Shakespeare was his longitudinal and economic relationship with his customers. In today’s insight address, iMedia’s own Chief Content Officer (and a bona fide Shakespearean) will unpack this economic relationship and explore how deploying the Shakespeare Strategy can empower marketing in today’s digital media landscape.

I’ll post when Part II comes live or repost the whole thing to YouTube once I get the files.

Please let me know what you think!

 

Book Review: “Scrawl,” a terrific YA novel by Mark Shulman


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Here’s the executive summary of this post: “Scrawl” reveals the inner life of a junior high school bully, a huge, violent, lower class, shambling boy named Tod Munn who is secretly brilliant but plays being an oaf to conceal his intelligence and retain his hidden-in-plain-sight status in the complex social economy of his school. We have so many books about the inner lives of girls or super-powered boys or just good-looking, well-intentioned kids who wind up in bad situations that it’s refreshing to read a novel that plumbs the personality of somebody who is trapped and has given up on himself and everyone around him. Shulman writes beautifully and keeps the book from turning into an ABC After School Special (they don’t even make those anymore, do they?) exercise in sentimentality. This is a terrific read for anybody, particularly if you like Young Adult (YA) fiction, from a small press with a small marketing budget. You’re only likely to hear about it by word of mouth, and my mouth is telling you to go buy it on Amazon or order it from your local bookstore.

The longer version: If you’re a Calvin & Hobbes fan like I am, then you might share my mental picture of Tod, which is Moe the elementary school bully.

A few years older and infinitely smarter than Moe, Tod lives with his mom, a seamstress at a down market dry cleaner, and his stepfather Dick, a gardener, who thinks as little of Tod as he has to say to him, which is mostly “keep it down in there.” Tod’s dad walked out of his life when he was a kid, leaving behind only an apology letter that Tod hides in a suitcase under his bed. Poor, sleeping in an under-heated room in a rough-Manhattan-neighborhood apartment with paper thin walls and so little food that he eats both breakfast and lunch at the school cafeteria, Tod is a loser and knows it. He has two companions — not exactly friends, so he calls them his “droogs” — named Rob and Rex, as well as a younger friend who he looks after on the sly named Bernie. Just about everybody is taken in by Tod’s tough guy persona — even the teachers who can’t reconcile his appearance and manner with his high grades — with the possible exception of Stu, a classmate of Tod’s who is blind.

The engine for the novel: Tod is in detention, having been caught doing something we don’t learn about until later and sentenced to a month with Mrs. Woodrow, the school guidance counselor, who makes him keep a journal after school every day while Rex and Rod, Tod’s co-conspirators, clean the school grounds in the freezing cold as their punishment. Being forced to write uncorks something in Tod, and despite his desire to remain invisible he finds himself describing the school, his home, his life and his lack of options all in arresting detail. From time to time, Mrs. Woodrow writes back to Tod, and it feels like the voice of God when that adult voice writing in italics interjects. As his perspective shifts due to his journaling, Tod’s school and home life also begin to open up, although there are no scholarships to private school for this kid.

Shulman writes first person in Tod’s voice, and for the literary-critically minded of you the book is an exercise is “the skaz,” a Russian Formalist term that describes when a tale is told convincingly and unerringly from a character’s unusual perspective. The most famous American example of the skaz is Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.”  Just about the only challenge of reading this delightful book is reconciling Tod’s appearance with his vocabulary and intelligence, and that’s a neat trick on Shulman’s part since we only have Tod’s own narrative to convince us of his appearance.

Here’s the opening paragraph from “Scrawl”:

Think about a pair of glasses for a second. You see them every day but you really don’t think about them, I bet. They’re just glass and metal, or glass and plastic. Little pieces of glass stuck on your face that mean everything. Maybe they mean you’re smart. Maybe they mean you’re rich. But definitely they mean you can’t see without them. Grind the glass this way, put in a slight curve, and you can see far. Change that curve a hair, just a tiny, minuscule difference, and you can see near. Grab the two lenses between your big hands and twist your wrist — just snap the part over the nose — now you can’t see anything for the rest of the day. That’s how it went for fat Ricardo Manzana.

What I like so much about that paragraph is that it starts with a typical writerly observation and then stomps right into Tod’s hulk persona. Shulman stops the reader from seeing through the lenses and makes us feel with Tod’s hands. That’s a neat trick.

Most teenagers feel isolated, misunderstood and powerless. The few that don’t are those kids who tragically peak in high school and get to be disappointed with the next sixty or eighty years of life. Tod Munn is isolated, misunderstood and — despite his physical strength and intelligence– powerless.  His story is well worth reading.

Personal Note: I met Mark Shulman on my last trip to New York, but despite spending all of Halloween together on a trick-or-treating playdate with our families he somehow never mentioned that his novel had been published just the previous month. That’s the kind of guy he is, which shocked this Los Angeleno who grew up with every waiter having a screenplay peeking out of his apron.  In fact, it wasn’t until a second Shulman visit when the truth came out, and Mark told Kathi, my wife about “Scrawl,” whereupon she happily bought a copy at The Strand.  Kathi read it first, and I picked it up a few days ago. My impetus for reading the book was personal, but I forgot that I know Mark within a few pages of the start because I was hooked– so hooked that I woke up at 4:00am today to finish the book and then marched right to my home office to write this.

You’ll like it too.