Category Archives: TeleRead posts

How I learned to concentrate (again)

Over at TeleRead, Chris Meadows recently wrote on the sapping of our attention spans. In between clicks away to gmail, Facebook, and Chris’s own links, I was just able to read through to the end, and the comments after.

Now perhaps I am merely mentally lazy and weak, as Steve Jordan suggests, but I don’t think reclaiming your attention span is strictly a matter of willpower, of just clicking things off. The networked world is more insidious than that. Mere willpower isn’t enough for me. I couldn’t just “turn stuff off”. But if I wanted to get some serious writing done, or even spend more time with my daughter, I had to.

I don’t even have a smartphone and almost never turn on the wireless function of my Kindle, but when I got a new super-duper fast laptop with wireless on it after arriving back in the States last year, the effect was very much like a sudden crack addiction. Mind you, on account of living in the Third World for some years, I hadn’t been exposed to a gradual build-up of all-the-time media. I just jumped straight into the pool. Before I knew it, I couldn’t even get through a meal without glancing at the laptop for some all-important update, 99.8% of which I couldn’t remember a day later. My attention span suffered. My writing suffered. My daughter learned to ratchet up the squeal volume to compete with the glowing screen.

It took me some months of grappling with the supercharged information monster before realizing that simple behavioral changes were required. I do some writing longhand, but most of the heavy-duty editing work occurs on the computer screen. Going analog was not an option. So, I resurrected and rejigged my old laptop, synced with the endlessly useful Dropbox, and now use it exclusively for writing. The reason: it’s painfully, painfully slow. With a 128k processor it takes a good two minutes to boot up even the google homepage with Chrome and it lacks wireless – you actually have to plug it into a wire to get online (which I do strictly to sync the docs I’m working on with Dropbox) which keeps my behind in the writing chair. It is an exercise in ritual self-humiliation to break away to Facebook or gmail or RSS feeds or whatever. This is enough to cause you to reflect and stop yourself. As opposed to my other laptop, where the time-wasting temptations of the internet are always only one, swift click away. I couldn’t will myself into stopping the online skipping around. But I can sure frustrate myself into it.

The other thing I did which has proved enormously helpful in improving my concentration was winnow down my RSS feeds. In a pure exercise of Darwinian survival of the fittest, I cut these down to the absolute essentials – the NY Times, A Hank Williams Journal, a few blogs of friends and writers, TeleRead. I used to spend hours chasing around interesting links on BookForum and The Awl and Ars Technica and etc. But now I quickly come to the end of the linkage, at which point boredom sets in … at which point I can return to work, satisfied at having taken a good survey of a select few of the world’s happenings, without drowning in a ceaseless sea of updates.

Also, while I don’t dispute that immense value of Twitter, I’ve so far avoided both using it and following folks. This is because I know myself: I’d be right back on the crack, and it might be days before my daughter got fed again.

Somewhat ironically: thusly unplugging myself from the matrix has freed up a lot of time for one its primary benefits: ebooks. With a good chunk of my time no longer sucked into the linky rabbithole, I’m reading a lot more. My Kindle has a large backlog of books acquired willy-nilly when I was downloading everything in sight. Although this backlog has to compete with a stack of paper books, I do plan on getting through some of them relatively soon. I’ll post on them here as I do.

Note: This originally appeared at TeleRead.

Book Review: Unnatural States (Or, If this is the future of the novel, the novel is finished)

We’re into pondering the future of literature around here.  Recent entries include e-book chapter mashups and twit lit and Harvard Press on Scribd.  Today’s comes from Nicola Furlong, self-identified shameless self-promoter and Canadian writer of mysteries.

Furlong has produced a multimedia novel entitled Unnatural States.  It is certainly multimedia.  Whether it is a novel is debatable.  More on that later.  Navigating the simple site, you are immediately confronted with a “Trailer / Intro”, which features an buzzcut older woman in sunglasses performing YouTube-esque antics in lieu of of a book jacket.  It had me clicking desperately for the next page.  Readers, it went downhill from there. unnatural states

Unnatural States is a linear progression of linked webpages filled with text, pictures, sound effects and more video clips.  These are all meant to serve as the stuff of this “novel,” which apparently is a mystery about some latter-day John the Apostle and a terrier-like reporter named Virginia hot on his trail.  Or something.  It was hard to tell, what with all the noise and bad sentences.

If it’s possible for a website to be claustrophobic, this one is.  When I’m reading, I like to know where I’m going.  How many pages the books has (or dots at the bottom of the screen, in the case of the Kindle), how far along I am, what chapter I’m on, and so forth.  Unnatural States gives you none of these.  You don’t how far you’ve come, or how far you’ve got to go.  There are no chapters.  No organization at all that I could detect, other than the arrows at the bottom of your screen.  If you want to understand what’s going on, you can’t skip the video clips.  You have to watch them.  It’s like taking orders from the author.  It’s annoying as hell.

I mean, I like movies and video as much as anyone.  But I watch them as video.  Clips as stand-ins for the written word are horribly inefficient.  They just take so long.  What would constitute a few paragraphs of dialogue takes three minutes of video.  It’s the same reason I prefer to get my news off the web rather than TV: in the time it takes a talking head to get to the gist, I can have read a whole page of analysis, and be on to the next thing, rather than passively waiting for the talking head to tell me what’s next.

Now, a novel just is a passive experience.  Which is why I can’t stand to read bad ones.  If I’m going to hand my conscious working mind over to a writer, he / she better do good things with it.  Inserting video clips as stand-ins for words just doesn’t cut it.  I don’t pick up a novel to be a part-time watcher.  I pick it up to be a reader.

Normally I’m all for innovation.  But this is the kind of thing that’s going to make a raging literary reactionary out of me.  There have to be some parameters.  A novel can be spoken, a novel can be filmed.  But, as yet, a novel cannot be turned into a multimedia showcase.  Not without ceasing to become a novel and becoming something else.  A dreary mess, in this case.

Take the video sequences, for instance.  Yes, they are painfully amateur productions.  But that’s not the problem.  Slick scenes directed by Quentin Tarantino would not improve the situation.  That’s because video clips are not writing; they are fundamentally something else.  This is the reason you don’t attend a movie screening of your favorite novel book in hand, nor read a book with a DVD remote, watching the scenes as you read them.  I suppose it’s possible to imagine a future when the multitasking hordes both read and watch video at the same time, but that won’t be reading (or watching, for that matter).  It will be something else.  For now the barrier between the two is impermeable.  Unnatural States is a demonstration of why.  If this is the future of the novel, the novel is finished.

Is it fair to review a “novel” that I haven’t actually finished?  Normally I’d say no.  But in this case I think it is justified.  I couldn’t possibly drudge through to end of this exercise in digital tedium.  Furlong has managed to construct a galactic failure of tinny sound effects, 80s-arcade music, painfully turgid video scenes, and woefully uninteresting writing.  An actual novel, the kind that consists of mere words, is incapable of such a massive falling down.  So I guess this makes Furlong something of an innovator, after all.

Judge for yourself here:  Unnatural States, by Nicola Furlong

UPDATE: Normally I contact the author of a book or piece I review, and invite them to comment.  But I haven’t been able to locate Furlong’s contact information.  If anybody has it, please feel free to forward it to me.

Also posted at TeleRead.

Birdfeeders and other things you can’t make out of e-books

book birdfeeder“Look at those beautiful examples of what can be done from a paper book. It’s just amazing… but on the other hand it’s good, that e-books are intangible. You can’t do things like that to them. As a writer I would love my book to be part of a heritage, not a birdhouse.” – Piotr Kowalczyk, author of Password Incorrect.

I’d not thought of e-books this way, but the man is right on.

Birdfeeders and other things you can't make out of e-books

book birdfeeder“Look at those beautiful examples of what can be done from a paper book. It’s just amazing… but on the other hand it’s good, that e-books are intangible. You can’t do things like that to them. As a writer I would love my book to be part of a heritage, not a birdhouse.” – Piotr Kowalczyk, author of Password Incorrect.

I’d not thought of e-books this way, but the man is right on.

Snark is not enough: Green Apple Books takes on the Kindle

Planning an overnight layover in San Francisco a few years back, I asked a friend from the Bay Area what the best used bookstore in town was.

Without hesitation, he said, “Green Apple Books.”

Green Apple logSo I went there.  It’s just what you’d expect: the slightly standoffish clerks, the vast selection of Buddhist-themed tomes, the glowing Sherman Alexie recommendations.

I surrendered to that wonderful vertigo every avid reader experiences when there are too many good books to count, not enough time, and not enough money.  I walked out exhilarated with two bulging bags of used paperbacks.

So I was intrigued to see that Green Apple is mounting an anti-Kindle campaign via YouTube.

Their point, evidently, is that a Kindle will get you nowhere in a used bookstore.  Fair enough, and amusingly presented.  (Irony #1: Green Apple using electronic technology to refute the value of e-books.  Irony #2  the Kindle transforming hipster Left Coasters into the fuddy-duddy conservatives of the book world.)

Of course, Green Apple doesn’t mention that the Kindle and other e-readers have the potential to make places such as Green Apple obsolete, the recent brouhaha surrounding Amazon’s 1984-like silent zapping of 1984 notwithstanding.

E-readers have all kinds of issues to work out before that ever happens, needless to say.  But traditional bookstores can’t just void their existence with dollops of meta-snarkasm.  I, for one, hope that Green Apple and others like it find a way to adapt and survive.  But they’re going to have to do it in a world of e-readers.  I don’t know that trading on their hipster appeal is going to be enough to keep them afloat.

The videos here are Parts One and Two a planned series of ten. Stayed tuned to Green Apple’s YouTube channel and their blog for updates.

(Note: this post also appeared at TeleRead.)

Snarkmarket's strategy

snarkmarketMore innovation in publishing: Snarkmarket sold 200 hardcover copies of its book New Liberal Arts at $8.99 a pop, after which it put a free Creative Commons-licensed PDF up for anyone and everyone. So Snarkmarket make itself a cool $1,800 (less production costs, of course) before releasing the book into infinity.

Aside from the PDF’s inherent weaknesses as e-book format, this is a pretty cool idea. The tiny press run gives value to the hardcover, certainly pays for the free PDF giveaway, and gets the interest up for the next book to be thusly released. I agree with Kevin Kelly that the content seems a little thin, but it wouldn’t have to be. Kelly adds, “I’m impressed enough with the experiment to use this model on my next self-published book.” Not bad props (though I’m a little surprised that the Editor of Wired would need to self-publish).

In any case, given that it took only eight hours for New Liberal Arts to sell out, the Snarkmarketers might want to think of printing more next time.

Anybody out there think this is a viable publishing model? If so, for what genres?

Me, I’m still looking for the perfect model for a literary novel with various pretensions, er, ambitions.

Note: This post originally appeared at TeleRead.

Snarkmarket’s strategy

snarkmarketMore innovation in publishing: Snarkmarket sold 200 hardcover copies of its book New Liberal Arts at $8.99 a pop, after which it put a free Creative Commons-licensed PDF up for anyone and everyone. So Snarkmarket make itself a cool $1,800 (less production costs, of course) before releasing the book into infinity.

Aside from the PDF’s inherent weaknesses as e-book format, this is a pretty cool idea. The tiny press run gives value to the hardcover, certainly pays for the free PDF giveaway, and gets the interest up for the next book to be thusly released. I agree with Kevin Kelly that the content seems a little thin, but it wouldn’t have to be. Kelly adds, “I’m impressed enough with the experiment to use this model on my next self-published book.” Not bad props (though I’m a little surprised that the Editor of Wired would need to self-publish).

In any case, given that it took only eight hours for New Liberal Arts to sell out, the Snarkmarketers might want to think of printing more next time.

Anybody out there think this is a viable publishing model? If so, for what genres?

Me, I’m still looking for the perfect model for a literary novel with various pretensions, er, ambitions.

Note: This post originally appeared at TeleRead.