Ho-Hum High

[12 Dec 02] Following up my earlier post on Ben Elton, I've now borrowed and read High Society, which is something of a return to form—and something of a disappointment. Too often it descends into preachiness, which is off-putting in any novel no matter how worthy the sermon. The plot, intertwining a politician campaigning for the legalization of drugs, a rock star totally addicted to them, and a 17-year-old junkie trapped by addiction in prostitution and slavery, is up to his usual page-turning standard, but the only truly likeable character is the one in the most awful situation, and the resolution of her storyline is a nice dream but not too convincing. The rest is just depressing. Dead Famous and Blast From the Past were both more enjoyable.


That Was The Year That Was

[11 Dec 02] The end of year has always been best-of-lists time around these parts, where 'always' equals 2000 and 2001. Since skipping a year would require messy surgery on the space-time continuum to remove 2002 from the collective consciousness, it seems a lot easier just to continue the tradition with the latest instalment. Guaranteed to be at least as pointless and arbitrary as whatever your local paper printed last weekend, and a lot less wasteful of trees.


The Big Yin

[ 5 Dec 02] Finished reading Pamela Stephenson's biography of her hairy husband a couple of days ago, which a year after publication is still one of the bestselling books in the land. That's hardly surprising—Billy Connolly is a funny man—but I wonder whether Billy is everything its half a million purchasers hoped it would be.

A book written by his spouse, and an ex-comedian spouse at that, promises a rare insight into the man and his muse—even more so when we learn that nowadays she works as a shrink. But although there's plenty of insight here, and an obvious affection and sympathy for her subject, there's also something missing.

The book is strong on Connolly's Glasgow childhood; it's heartbreaking to read of his abandonment by his mother, abuse by his father, hectoring by his aunts and teachers, and impoverished surroundings. It's also strong on his early working life in the shipyards and the territorial army, where he gained in confidence and independence of spirit. Stephenson's account of these formative experiences certainly benefits from her position as partner of twenty years' standing and as a trained psychologist, even if the occasional slip into shrink-speak does seem out-of-place in a showbiz biography. The prose is too pedestrian in places, but Billy's story is compelling enough to overcome that.

The book is strong enough, too, on the past twenty-odd years, the years when Stephenson has known and lived with Connolly. Since he was already one of Britain's most successful comedians when they met, this is standard career-highlights fare, full of tours, TV work, and movie roles—the work of an assured performer who has grown comfortable with success and come to terms with his demons.

The problem is the decade or so in-between: the late 1960s through 1970s, when Connolly went from banjo-playing with folk bands in small Scottish clubs to selling out nationwide tours as a comedian. The essential outline is there, but what's missing is the how—how did this mad-looking Scot grab Britain by the lapels and shake it up so much with laughter that it couldn't breathe? How did he take off? What was so funny about Billy Connolly?

For a book about a comedian by a comedian, there's surprisingly few laughs in Billy. Hardly any of his actual material is present. When we do read his words, they're earnest early-1980s diary entries about his efforts to kick the booze. Apart from a few passing references to famous Connolly subjects—diced carrots, for example—it's almost impossible to learn from the pages of Billy what his comedy is about. All we learn about is the overall trajectory of his success.

For most readers, I guess, that will be enough. They'll already own his records and videos; they'll already know just how funny he is. Even though I don't own any Connolly product, I too can remember listening to a friend's tape of the 'pink milk' routine again and again on teenage camping trips (which often involved beverages just as bad), and laughing so hard at a routine about incontinence pants on TV one New Year's Eve that I thought I would suffocate.

But it's surely a missed opportunity to have next to none of that in what is, after all, a lasting record of the man. And by not showing us just how funny he is, Stephenson doesn't fully explain how he rose to fame—which is usually the most interesting aspect of any showbiz biography. Yes, he had a terrible childhood, and some of his enormous drive to perform must have been a drive to overcome it—but so did many other people, and they're not famous comedians.

Stephenson's own background and unique relationship with her subject, which elsewhere in the biography are strengths, may here be the problem. She met Connolly on the set of Not the Nine O'Clock News, the series that had turned her, a recent immigrant from Australia, into British television's latest comedy sensation. As one who has herself experienced sudden fame, she may not have felt the urge to explain her husband's own that an 'ordinary' biographer would have. (The constant name-dropping in the latter part of the book suggests that her own sense of the ordinary has been skewed by two decades of success.) And, as one who didn't live in the UK when his rapid rise occurred, she doesn't have personal experience of having watched it happen—of having been part of a national audience whose preconceptions about regional comedians were being so comprehensively overturned by this man. Neither do I—which was why I wanted to read Billy.

It's understandable that a psychologist would focus on her subject's childhood, and that a second wife might not want to dwell for too long on the years when he was married to his first. But the result is that, even though it's readable and entertaining enough, Billy isn't everything it could have been—which you certainly couldn't say about the man himself.


The Reading Festival

[24 Nov 02] Been reading a lot of non-fiction lately, most of it good. Here's a few thumbnail reviews.

1. Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy. Eminently readable account of six major philosophers and their advice on living, perfect for dilettantes like yours truly who never read philosophy at uni. (It clashed with first year calc. Now there's a choice I'd make differently today.) It's reassuring to measure your own personal philosophy against the likes of Socrates, Epicurus and Montaigne and not come up too badly. Seneca, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche did less for me, but de Botton's account of their tortured lives and often egomaniac thoughts is always entertaining.

2. Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation. If it hadn't been two years since my last fast-food-chain burger I might not have made it through this. The main reason for that personal defacto boycott was that the last one I ate tasted like crap; after reading Schlosser, I'm now wondering if that was literally true. Before he gets to the health risks of contaminated ground beef, though, Schlosser gives plenty of equally disturbing reasons to reject the burger culture: the union-busting ways of fast-food chains; the marginalization of the traditional cattle-farmer; the horrific risks of working in the meat-packing industry. E. coli-infested all-beef patties are almost the least of it.

3. Naomi Klein, No Logo. Catching up with the zeitgeist two years late. After an abortive start on this earlier in the year, I finally made it past the dry introduction and into the book proper, which turned out to be fine, if not as readable as Schlosser's. Given the cynical reaction No Logo has drawn in some quarters, I half-expected a Socialist Worker's Party rant, but it turns out to be measured, thorough, subtle, and free of hypocrisy and cant, even if its arguments won't win it friends in the big end of town. A year after 'the day that changed everything', Klein's objections to the extremes of logo-driven global culture remain depressingly relevant. Worth reading in conjunction with Paul Krugman's article For Richer for added sense of corporate oppression.

4. Richard E. Grant, With Nails. Hollywood is, of course, at the vanguard of globalization, and the success of the Swazi-born Grant is in a small way a sign of that. Grant's show-business diaries are infectiously enthusiastic, and their behind-the-scenes glimpses of the movies revealing and intriguing. In the course of his book Grant moves from wide-eyed penniless actor unable to believe his luck, to a more worldly, successful actor unable to believe his luck. His sharp wit and self-deprecating charm make him an ideal guide to the studio world, as does his presence on what seems like almost every film of note made between 1985 and 1995. But for all of its UK film industry and Hollywood gossip, the most affecting part of the book is the tale of his father's funeral in Swaziland.

5. Nicholas Craig, I, An Actor. Lavishly illustrated and lovingly prepared, this 2001 revision of Craig's 1988 memoirs remains the essential account of life on the English stage, desperately thrilling and brutally frank in its portrayal of the titanic struggles every truly dedicated thespian must undertake in order to succeed. Craig, best known for his portrayal of Lord Foppishness in the under-appreciated School for Fops, is quite possibly the finest actor never to become a household name, perhaps because of an uncanny resemblance to former Young Ones star Nigel Planer (who, by coincidence, was also involved in the preparation of this volume). Indeed, so impressive are his achievements, so wise his advice, and so superhuman his sense of taste and restraint, that if it wasn't for his name on the title page you'd almost think this was a work of fiction.


The United Colours of Ben Elton

[10 Nov 02] The last thing I'd planned to do this week was read not one but two novels by Ben Elton, but after spotting Dead Famous in the library and devouring it within 24 hours, I pulled my unread copy of Blast from the Past off the shelf and knocked that over in a day or two as well. Both were very good, tight and topical thrillers—like most of his early novels, really, but somehow memories of The Thin Blue Line had put me off the whole Elton oeuvre.

He's long since moved on from the eco-thriller setting of Stark and Gridlock, after squeezing the life out of it with This Other Eden. The Tarantino spoof of Popcorn was a better indication of what lay ahead: Blast from the Past features an '80s peacenik, a stalking nutter, and a four-star general in the US Army, while Dead Famous is a murder mystery set in a Big Brother-style house. Neither is particularly comic; the occasional laughs, good though they are, are definitely secondary to the themes of murder and menace. But they're both genuine page turners, effectively concealing their secrets until the end. (Okay, I'd half-guessed Dead Famous, but couldn't be sure.)

It's enough to make me want to read his new one, High Society, and to track down a copy of Inconceivable, even if a novel about IVF probably doesn't involve any actual murders. But I draw the thin blue line at his Queen musical—for now, anyway.


Cascading Stylishly

[26 Oct 02] As the days continue their wintry slide into darkness and the year draws to a close, a young site's fancy turns to thoughts of redesign. Or something like that. I've been toying lately with ideas for tweaks and improvements to the 'snail, and in the process have finally got around to reading the new book on Cascading Style Sheets by Owen Briggs and co. About time I did, because it's very good indeed. Even those who know and use CSS already will find plenty of interest in it, and those who are still thinking about taking the plunge will find as good a case for doing so here as anywhere.

Early chapters by Steve Champeon and Eric Costello outline the background and basics of CSS and structural mark-up, while Matt Patterson goes into the finer points of typography and Owen tackles CSS layout with his usual aplomb. It all hangs together well, hits the right notes throughout, and doesn't overburden the reader with finicky details that would be out-of-date next release of IE or Mozilla.

The only sorry note comes towards the end, where the harsh realities of implementing CSS in existing browsers are brought home. After having the basic principles explained so clearly in earlier chapters, the browser-makers' failure to get it right seems even more annoying. Owen gives solutions to the most significant problems, but rather than outlining every specific issue he's found (which would take another whole volume) instead offers some sound strategies for testing and trouble-shooting CSS-based designs.

Even having followed Owen's progress in getting to grips with CSS quirks over the past two years, I still got plenty out of the book. The refreshingly modest page-count of a few hundred rather than several hundred means that it isn't an exhaustively complete CSS bible, but as a guide to fundamentals it's hard to beat.


Come to Sunny Sarawak

[ 1 Oct 02] Blurbs can be tiresomely hyperbolic, but for once they seem accurate enough. I'm not sure if Redmond O'Hanlon's Into the Heart of Borneo is the "funniest travel book I have ever read" [Eric Newby], but it's certainly one of them. His tale of travelling up-river with the poet James Fenton and three Iban men in search of the fearsome Ukit tribe and the rare Borneo rhinoceros is too good to spoil with a summary, but a few quotes give its flavour:

Leon fitted our army batteries into the cassette player and the machine came horribly to life. The tape of pop music sounded over-excited about some small domestic problem in the usual kind of way.

Slinging my soaking clothes from a tree with parachute cord, I rubbed myself down with a wet towel and, naked, opened my Bergen to pull out my set of dry kit for the night. Every nook and cranny in the bag was alive with inch-long ants. Deciding that anything so huge must be the Elephant ant, and not the Fire ant, which packs a sting like a wasp, I brushed the first wave off my y-fronts. Glancing up, I was astonished to see my wet clothes swarming with ants, too; a procession of dark ants poured down one side of the rope and up the other, and, all over my wet trousers, hundreds of different moths were feeding.

I edged forward across the shingle until I crouched behind the rock and then, with what I imagined to be an Ukit-cum-Clouded leopard assassination howl, I lightly touched his neck. The Iban yodelled a particularly horrible battle cry. I can't say that James's hair stood on end, because the sample is not statistically significant, and he only emitted a smallish scream; but his legs went convulsively stiff and shot up in the air, and he threw his arms wildly over his head. ... His countenance, when he rolled, very fast, on to his stomach, conformed, in several respects, to Darwin's description in The Expression of the Emotions (1872) under the heading "Fear".


[25 Aug 02] Stayed up until 3 a.m. finishing Atonement in one long compulsive gulp. What a book. Truly amazing.


[23 Aug 02] I've read two great works this year about the moment that childhood becomes adulthood: Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, and now Ian McEwan's Atonement. Or partly read, because I'm halfway through the latter, sitting at the end of Part One. The first half of the book is so perfect and complete in itself that it could have ended there and still been satisfying, so I can't wait to read the second. Unlike Pullman's exhilarating account of the end of childhood, though, McEwan's fills the reader with an extraordinary dread: not out of concern for the children in it, but out of horror at the consequences of their naivete. To evoke such emotion with a tale of a lazy summer day in a between-the-wars English stately home is an impressive literary achievement. And there's still 180 pages to go.


Pages, Stages and Images

[19 Aug 02] Another weekend of festival-packed fun. On Friday night we went along to one of the £5 concerts being held as part of the Festival proper at Edinburgh's Usher Hall. The seats were way up in the gods, but the acoustics were perfect for hearing Angela Hewitt's fine performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations (not so good for seeing her individual finger-movements, but you can't have it all). Wonderful music, too; I've never been a big Bach fan, but this could make a convert of me.

Saturday was a profusion of riches: all-too-rare warm weather, the streets packed with visitors, and the festivals in full swing. Started the day by hearing Neil Gaiman talk about his new book, Coraline, at the Edinburgh Book Festival. From the readings he gave us, it sounds like an excellent dark little fairy-tale. The questions from the audience were also thoughtful and interesting, prompting explanations of Gaiman's childhood fascinations, his wanderings across genres, the differences between the British and American publishing industries, and how Good Omens came to be one of the funniest books ever written (both Gaiman and Pratchett were racing against each other to get to the next "good bit" in their tag-team collaboration).

In the evening it was Fringe time, with Club Seals at the Pleasance Dome doing a terrific set of sketches about 'The Museum of Everything'. Well-observed and performed, with great use of props and video segments: the animatronic Merlin talking about the History of Wicker while perched on a skateboard; shrunken heads bitching about the New Acquisition; a talking whale and a reggae-loving octopus; an audio guide that compares every exhibit to 'your mum'; and the mystery of Jack the Wippah revealed. Good stuff.

Rounded out the evening with another Festival concert, Schubert's song cycle Die schöne Müllerin (The Miller's Beautiful Daughter) performed by Jonas Kaufmann (tenor) and Helmut Deutsch (piano). A revelation; I'd never heard classical song in concert before, only ever on record or TV. It's amazing to hear a single human voice fill a huge hall without the aid of speakers and amps; rock concerts suddenly seem amateurish by comparison. And Kaufmann—who looked the part, with his big Beethoven hair—was a marvel, conveying every emotion of the songs even when every word was in German. Beautiful music; the hall wasn't as packed as Friday night, but I enjoyed this concert even more.

We finished the weekend at the Edinburgh Film Festival screening of Philip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence. Noyce himself was there, as were the lead actress and the writers of the screenplay and the original book. The film is not without flaws—the social and historical context could be fleshed out a little better, especially for the benefit of international audiences—but it has an undeniable emotional impact. Ultimately, its greatest importance is as testament against the lie that white Australia and its current government have no need to apologise for the wrongs done to the Stolen Generation.

Here's an idea. Let's take any member of federal Parliament who refuses to apologise on behalf of white Australia to aboriginal Australia—let's call him 'John H.'—and fly him to Edinburgh to watch Rabbit-Proof Fence among an audience of intelligent fair-minded Scots. Then let's see if he can make it all the way to the end without feeling a deep sense of shame on behalf of his country and its majority culture, and an overwhelming desire not to say a word until he's well away from the cinema in case anyone hears his Australian accent. Hey, it worked for me.

(Coincidentally, a thread on MetaFilter prompted a few more words along related lines today.)


[ 2 Aug 02] Stephen Fry on the questions put to writers [via provenance: unknown]

It is almost as if some people feel that they were off sick or at the dentist's the day the rest of the class was told how to write a book, and that it isn't fair of authors to keep the mystery to themselves.



[29 Jul 02] I'm working my way through W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz after those comments from Bill and Ed on a recent post, and only realised after 82 pages that the entire book is one long paragraph stretching over 400 pages, with no convenient place to pause at the end of the night or the bus journey, and what's worse he doesn't use quotation marks to mark off the comments by Austerlitz relayed by the narrator, which leads to some confusion, almost as much as a single long sentence with no breaks and lots of clauses, and while I find the book interesting so far it does get rather exhausting with its constant digressions, unlike the last book I read, James Hawes's Rancid Aluminium, which is flagged on the cover as a spleen-bursting bundle of hilarity but is, in fact, rather serious in intent, like his more recent Dead Long Enough, and apart from its joking matey middle-English narration really has very little in the way of hilariousness, spleen-bursting or otherwise, as opposed to Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary, also read recently and really quite amusing in several places, that being the most I expect from a comic novel (if a novel is what it is), but which meant my expectations were exceeded by David Lodge's Changing Places, started and finished last week, a finely judged tale of transatlantic academe in the late 1960s with several genuinely laugh-out-loud moments, much funnier than 1984 by George Orwell, which after many years I finally got around to reading (spurred on by that list of 100 Greatest Books that the Guardian publicised a few months ago), the strange thing being that I read all of his long non-fiction and most of his essays at the age of 21 in preparation for reading Animal Farm and then this, then somehow stopped before the last hurdle, but reading his reportage first certainly made 1984 more enjoyable, even if it's a grim little tale (though not as grim as I anticipate Gitta Sereny's Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth will be, having made it part-way through its several hundred pages), and I'm inspired by it to read more on that list of greats, but also somewhat reluctant after getting halfway through Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, which while it has many poetic turns of phrase is actually written as one long stream-of-consciousness narrative (though not, fortunately, one long paragraph or, heaven forbid, sentence), which is really quite exhausting, and I think I'll give it a rest.


Tip of the Day

[19 Jun 02] Finished Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point last night, that perennial bloggers' favourite (right up there with Dave Eggers), but I'll spare you most of the wondering aloud about how it applies to blogging or myself (I am not a Connector, I am a free man!). The section about context and character seemed particularly relevant to the issue of personal sites, though, in light of last week's debates on identity. Gladwell writes that:

Character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together and dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context. The reason that most of us seem to have a consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment. [p.163]

In other words, the person you are at home is different from the person you are at work. Straightforward enough. But it's impossible to know who's in your audience on the web, and thus impossible to 'control the environment' surrounding any particular comments you make on it. So, (a) it's harder to maintain consistency of character online, and (b) it's easier to take online comments out of context, because they're only ever a link or a Google search away from anywhere else. Which in turn can make people wary of what they say, or encourage them to wear multiple hats (pseudonyms) in different places around the web. Perhaps that's a better way to think of pseudonyms: as an attempt to control context rather than to maintain absolute anonymity or avoid responsibility for one's comments.

Meanwhile, I can report that The Tipping Point hasn't tipped at Edinburgh University Library. Before my Return By stamp of 29 AUG 2002, the last and only stamp in the book is 03 DEC 2000.


[16 May 02] Finished reading Neal Stephenson's 'eco-thriller' Zodiac on the bus this morning, and was thinking how timely it seemed for a book published in 1988, what with all this talk nowadays of biological warfare, toxic chemicals, collapsing Antarctic ice shelves, and so on. Then I remembered that none of those are about to go out of fashion anytime soon.

It's a good read; don't know why I let it sit on my shelf for five years. (Yes I do: because I own about five hundred other unread and half-read books. Fortunately, four hundred of those are sitting in a storage shed in Australia, which absolves me of eighty percent of all feelings of literary guilt!)


Northern Lights

[ 9 Apr 02] Jerry Kindall's link to a beautiful page of Northern Lights photographs reminds me that I never did get around to posting some links to various aurora photos that a friend sent a while back. I saw the southern lights in Tasmania once, but they were pale and indistinct, and there were no erupting volcanoes nearby—just our Hill's Hoist.

The subject of Northern Lights captures my attention because I recently finished Philip Pullman's book of the same name, being in a nostalgic mood to read a fantasy trilogy again. At first it was a jolt to read a work of children's fiction after all these years, but the story soon made its genre irrelevant. By the time it became clear that this wasn't fantasy but an example of one of my favourite genres—parallel-worlds science fiction—I was already hooked. Pullman's characters, children and adult, are masterly and memorable, archetypes rather than stereotypes, and his plots could hardly be improved. As for the gradually-unfolding theme, it's a true original, more provocative than an armful of 'literary' novels. After finishing Northern Lights over a couple of weeks I ploughed through The Subtle Knife in a weekend, left reeling by its dramatic ending. Now I'm afraid to finish The Amber Spyglass too quickly and leave Pullman's world behind.

It's intriguing to wonder how his work will shape the outlook of its child readers, who bombard the writer with questions at every opportunity. But the plaudits are no surprise: His Dark Materials really is that good. [Pullman links via LinkMachineGo, which probably did the most to convince me to read the books; thanks, Darren.]


Double Crossed

[28 Mar 02] I was thinking the other day that it had been a while since I'd read a real landmark of a book, the kind that has shaken me to my core. Well, as they say, be careful what you wish for, because over the past week I just have: Nicholson Baker's Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper.

It's hard to describe exactly how this book affected me, but even after finishing it I can't shake the sick feeling I had for the five days I was reading it. For a lover of books, for someone who grew up surrounded by them, who's owned thousands of them, who cannot imagine what sort of person he would be without them, its message is deeply distressing. For someone who's all of those things and also the son of a librarian, it hits even closer to home.

Baker establishes, beyond a shadow of a doubt in my mind, that the long-held belief that the acidic papers used by publishers from the late 19th century onwards would quickly disintegrate to the point where newspapers and books would (so it was claimed) turn to dust on library shelves was an unsubstantiated myth totally unsupported by hard evidence and the test of time. Yet since the 1930s and 1940s this myth has been promoted by influential technophiles in the library world to promote the widespread microfilming of newspapers and, more recently, books. In itself that's relatively unobjectionable (although arguably a misdirection of scarce resources; libraries never have enough money), except that this decades-long push for microfilming has led to the widespread destruction and disposal of originals, to the point that original copies of many major American newspapers of the past one and a half centuries no longer exist anywhere. Since the charge was led by the Library of Congress, which should be the last refuge for originals, the disappearance of many titles in their original form—too, too many titles—has been total.

As a social science researcher, I've had plenty of acquaintance with microfilm. When using it to track down old stories in newspapers and magazines I've always been aware of its inferiority to reading from actual paper: the machines are awkward to use, the microfilming is often erratic, and the aesthetic result is pretty awful. As a cartoonist, I've also noticed how badly colour or even greyscale cartoons turn out on high-contrast black-and-white microfilm. But I'd always thought that this was okay, given that the microfilm was just a back-up copy; the originals would be safely stored somewhere in a national library if anyone needed them. Now I see that I was kidding myself. If the National Library of Australia has followed the lead of the U.S., and every other Australian library has followed the lead of the NLA—and I fear they have (but hope and pray that I'm wrong)—then there are no physical copies of the entire run of the Bulletin anywhere; no physical copies of the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, or any number of lesser papers. And, frankly, that thought appalls me.

But even if, miraculously, Australia hasn't followed America's lead, America has still destroyed its newspaper heritage, throwing the printed record of its greatest years into land-fill. And since America is the leading nation of the English-speaking world, that effects more than just Americans.

Worse, now that most American newspapers are history, and history has lost those newspapers in exchange for crappy microfilm or fiche substitutes that themselves are subject to deterioration over time—worse deterioration, often, than paper of the same age—many American libraries have turned to microfilming books. Books. It's bad enough reading a thousand-word article on microfilm, but an entire book? The intellectual content may still exist (although often in an incomplete form, because mistakes happen in microfilming as in anything), but it's now effectively dead.

Baker gives copious examples of the treasures that have been lost to the public in this way, and the cumulative effect is devastating. The legacy of generations of writers, editors, artists, publishers and printers has been debased, and all because—as Baker convincingly demonstrates—certain zealous administrators have spent millions on microfilming and deacidification rather than on basic conservation techniques (storing books in a cool, dry place and, if they're fragile, in a box) and on extra warehouses to shelve original works on paper.

They often did so with good intentions, of course, and because they were under budgetary pressure and wanted to save on storage costs. A good deal of blame has to rest with politicians, who determine much of the fate of public libraries. But as Baker establishes, certain librarians have to share in that blame: when they should have been lobbying for more boring ol' shelf space and increased staff, they instead lobbied for millions of dollars to be spent on fruitless schemes like deacidification. After all, it's easier to argue for a brand new technological solution than more of the same. Frighteningly, the cycle is starting all over again, with the push to digitize what remains of America's print heritage by cutting up old books and feeding them through a scanner (funnily enough, crappy old microfilm doesn't digitize very well).

As a writer and reader, I'm left feeling that until the tide turns I won't consider the existence of our major national libraries a guarantee of the continued physical existence of anything I publish on paper, or even anything I own on paper. And for the son of a librarian—for someone who has donated runs of rare newspapers to the NLA to fill gaps in their collection (I hope they're still there; I now fear that they're not)—that's a momentous and awful feeling.

If you care about the world's intellectual heritage, you won't regret reading Double Fold. The problems associated with preserving the growing digital corpus are bad enough, but they seem as nothing compared to this. You'll certainly come away with renewed respect for those yellowing paperbacks on your shelf.


[19 Mar 02] Just finished James Gleick's Faster after a few weeks of neglect, and found that its closing chapters have echoes of the things I was saying yesterday, though from a different angle—that of our increasing rush to know and do more and more. It's a good read; probably even required reading for anyone looking at this page, assuming that someone who barely uses the web won't have stumbled into this out-of-the-way corner of it.


There Was a Slack Critic of Books

[11 Feb 02] I should have put in one of those 'current reading' sidebars that webloggers have these days. As it is, I'm forced to write actual reviews, and the longer I leave it the bigger the back-log gets. So here they are.

In limerick form.

Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters ***

Fight Club's Palahniuk
Wrote of someone who failed to duck
When a gun shot her face
Leaving it a disgrace
And prompting her to run amok

Kirsten Bakis, Lives of the Monster Dogs ****

A tale of dogs who could walk
On two legs, in fine suits, and talk
Who fled their birth-place
And saw the end of their race
In twenty-first century New York

Stephen Fry, The Stars' Tennis Balls ***1/2

A young man who knows too much
Gets trapped in a mad doctor's clutch
Contrives to break free
Then goes on a spree
Of murder, revenges and such

Ben Hatch, The International Gooseberry ****

While driving across the US
Kit analyses life's mess;
One cause is his brother
His girlfriend's another
But he likes who he's with even less

Nick Hornby, How to Be Good ****

What if, suddenly, asks Nick,
You helped all the homeless and sick?
Would you be good?
Would you feel as you should?
Or would you be some sort of prick?

Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth ****

A meticulous graphical tale
Of ridiculous hysterical male
Who meets estranged Dad
And almost goes mad
In the presence of any female

Kingsley Amis, The King's English ***

A moderately tempered curmudgeon
Wrote this in tones of high dudgeon
About those who misuse
The words that they choose
And others who(m) he'd like to bludgeon

Derek Powazek, Design for Community ****

The affable founder of Fray
Says to designers today:
Your sites will be better
If you follow his letter
And find out what your readers say

Star ratings are out of five.


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