I guess it had to happen. There should be a new rule: If content providers can collect analytic data about anything, then they will. Or, to put it more crudely, If they can watch you, they will. Welcome to the digital panopticon.
An article in the Wall Street Journal explains how Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble collect analytic data when you read ebooks. How far you get in a book, how fast you read it, whether you buy a sequel, and which search terms or highlights you use when reading a book.
Analytics is a technique that is used on the web, and with some software – notably that on mobile devices – to track what users do. You can see how long users stay on a web site, which links they click, where they come from and more. But for books? Do publishers really need to know how fast people read books? Or whether you read them straight through or flip back and forth between books?
Two things worry me here. First, that this data is collected without users being aware of it. It is said that this data is anonymous, but we know that this anonymity is not something we can take for granted. I checked on my iPad and my Kindle and saw no options to turn off this data collection. While I expect Amazon to follow my purchases in order to recommend other books or CDs, I find it annoying that they may be checking on how I read ebooks.
The second issue is more fundamental. Once you have analytic data, you want to do something with it. In order to justify the cost of crunching this data, and paying for people to analyze it, you need to have an objective. You need to be able to translate this data into actionable tasks. And what could the goals be? To go back to writers and tell them to write differently? Granted, for some mass-consumed books and genres, writers might be willing to adjust their styles, or the length of their books if they think they’ll sell more. But I think this is a red herring. Good books sell; bad books don’t. If a book is good, whether it is long or short, people will tell others about it. Gone With the Wind is a huge book, nearly 1,500 pages in the mass-market paperback edition. Should an author be prevented from telling the story they want because some metrics geek thinks it’s too long?
I think this is none of their business. The way I read should be private. I can’t see how this information will help me as a reader, or me as a writer. If this metrics collection is going to continue, readers should at least have an option to opt out.
Posted: 7/4/2012 by kirk | Filed under: books, iPad, Miscellanea Tags: books, ebooks, iPad, Kindle | 1 Comment »
Time was, you could search for obscure books on Amazon and find them easily. Back in the day, before eBooks and print-on-demand (PoD) books, the number of search results was more limited, and it was easier to find what you’re looking for. In recent times, however, Amazon has ruined their book search results by trying to give too much.
This isn’t a problem if you’re looking for, say Stephen King. This search helps you find his latest novel pretty quickly.
But if you’re looking for more obscure books – especially books in the public domain – you are presented with a confusing list of hundreds, even thousands of books, and it’s very hard to sort them.
Look at this search for Ralph Waldo Emerson. The first book that displays is a PoD book. Next comes a link to a page about the author, followed by a Kindle edition of Nature. (Your search results may vary, and Amazon searches change regularly according to what is sold.)
Scrolling down, only a handful of print books – real print books, not PoD books at exorbitant prices display. Now, it’s easy to choose to only view, say, paperbacks, by clicking in the Format menu in the left sidebar. But you can only choose one format; you can’t choose to look at, say, paperbacks and hardcovers. In addition, you can’t filter out PoD books. No matter how you search, they will pollute your results. Of course, since Amazon owns CreateSpace – a PoD production company – it’s in their interest to tout these books.
For some subjects, languages can get in the way. Amazon.com sells books in many languages – though they seem to have more in the major Romance languages – and you’ll find them in your search results. You can, at least, choose a specific language for your search, again in the sidebar.
Add to this confusion the fact that Amazon applies reader reviews to any edition of a specific book. So, Emerson’s Essays: First Series, which shows at the top of the list in my search, includes reviews that are not necessarily written about the specific edition you are looking at.
Amazon is very efficient at selling multiple versions of public domain books, but they sell so many now that readers can be flustered when searching for them. Since the search results don’t take into account the actual worth of the books – editions from reputable publisher, for example – the dreck floats to the top of the list. It’s time for Amazon to improve searching, so users can filter out all of that, and find the books worth buying. And they need to stop favoring their own CreateSpace books, which is an anti-competitive practice.
Posted: 6/25/2012 by kirk | Filed under: books Tags: Amazon, books, Emerson | 5 Comments »
Once again it’s Bloomsday, the 16th of June, the day on which James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place. If you aren’t familiar with this great work of the early twentieth century, it tells the tale of a modern-day Ulysses (Leopold Bloom) as he wanders the streets of Dublin on June 16, 1904. Closely modeled on the Odyssey, Ulysses is a landmark in modernist literature.
Every year on this day, around the world, people read Ulysses alone or in groups, to themselves or out loud, in performance or simply in sitting on a couch. For this year’s Bloomsday, allow me to recommend a novel way to experience the book. The recently released unabridged audiobook of Ulysses, from Naxos, is a gem. With musical interludes and sound effects, and excellent reading by Jim Norton (and Marcella Riordan for the final chapter, the soliloquy by Molly Bloom), this reading brings the work to life in unexpected ways. At over 27 hours, you won’t be able to listen to the entire book in one day (the novel takes place over a period of “only” 18 hours), but you’ll be drawn into the story in ways you did not expect.For those interested in penetrating this work more deeply, Ulysses Annotated gives you detailed information on the pullulating allusions that fill the novel. And The New Bloomsday Book gives a plot summary that can help you follow some of the more intricate chapters of the work. Hugh Kenner’s Ulysses gives a critical view of the book, and allows you to approach it with greater understanding of the broader scope of Joyce’s vision. Finally, Richard Ellman’s biography of Joyce sets the standard for literary biography. You’ll learn more from reading this book than from any book about Ulysses itself. A recent biography by Gordon Bowker also looks at Joyce’s life through documents that Ellman did not have access to.
But most readers can eschew all the extra layers of complexity that such critical approaches add to the novel. The best way to experience Ulysses is to hear it read out loud. If you can, get the audiobook; if not, read the book. It’s long, it’s not beach reading, but it’s one of the greatest novels written in English.
Posted: 6/16/2012 by kirk | Filed under: books Tags: books, James Joyce | 2 Comments »
We all know it happens; companies and authors post bogus reviews of their products and books on Amazon. Generally, this is not a big deal, but there are times when it’s obvious that a concerted effort has been made to submit a number of 5-star reviews to make an item look better than it is, or at least to get more attention.
It started with last night’s Daily SHow, where the guest was one Edward Conard, former partner at Bain Capital, and author of Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong. As is sometimes the case with wonky subjects, Jon Stewart had the interview continue after the show, and the entire interview is available on the web; some 40 minutes. I found Conard interesting; while I don’t agree with a lot of what he said, at least he was trying to explain some of his opinions on the economy from the point of view of a member of the 1%.
So I went to Amazon to look at the book, and saw there were many 5-star reviews. When I read them, however, they all had the same vapid, vague contents, that said the book was good, but without saying very much. If you run a blog, you certainly see this type of comment spam; comments that are designed just to create user accounts, while saying nothing of substance, but being vague enough so that you might think they are real. These reviews were similar. Here’s one example:
You can’t always believe what you hear on the news. Unintended Consequences confirms this by supplying the type of wisdom needed when it comes to the economy. It is a remarkable view of what has happened to get us to this point, and where we go from here.
I found Unintended Consequences to be a challenging look at the current opinion of America’s financial crisis. There are some very interesting views on how we arrived at this point, and they are bound cause a stir. Whether you agree with these view or not, they are going to get people talking!
These reviews could be blurbs on the book’s jacket. They say nothing substantial, and are clearly just fluff.
Looking further – clicking the “See all my reviews” links for some of the authors – I saw how all of these people had only ever written one or two reviews, all equally vague, and all around the same date.
So for this book, the publisher – Portfolio Books, an imprint of Penguin – didn’t want to let the market do its thing. No, they wanted to game the system, just like this author probably did in has work with Bain Capital. I certainly hope that Amazon will do something about these reviews.
As it turns out, Mr. Conard lives up to his name. (At least, what that name means in French, with a double n. I’ll let my readers look that up.)
Posted: 6/8/2012 by kirk | Filed under: books, Miscellanea Tags: Amazon, books | 3 Comments »
When reading any text from the 19th century, it is hard to put oneself in the appropriate context, making it difficult to fully appreciate or even understand what the author is saying. When reading fiction, this lack of context means that, for example, imagining two people sitting in a parlor talking, the reader may not realize that, at the time, this could mean that they were cold (if it were winter), or very hot (if it were summer). That women were very uncomfortable in their corsets, and men in their stiff collars. Or that there were social issues that regulated how members of the opposite sex could meet and converse, and that these subtle contextual elements had a subconscious presence in the minds of contemporary readers.
With non-fiction – a term not used at the time – such as Emerson’s essays, the context covers a very broad political, social and religious spectrum. Words have meanings beyond their simple dictionary definitions (their connotations), and we readers, more than 150 years after the fact, are unaware of these.
On an extreme level, you can look back at Shakespeare’s works. Very few readers of Hamlet, King Lear or Much Ado about Nothing (do you know what “nothing” meant in Elizabethan slang?) would approach these texts without notes, and even those notes and annotations – along with definitions of words whose meanings were different at the time – cannot fully put the reader in the context of these works.
Scholar Jeffrey Cramer has published several volumes of Henry David Thoreau’s works annotated (such as this Walden), and I had long wondered why no one had done the same for Emerson.
Well, now we have such a volume, The Annotated Emerson, by David Mikics. This large book – 9.7 x 9.3 inches, on heavy paper – takes a selection of Emerson’s works and adds notes. Some of these notes merely define words, or explain their usage in Emerson’s time; some explain who certain people mentioned in Emerson’s essays are; and others make links with different works by Emerson, either essays, lectures, or even journal entries.
This is not an exhaustive work; it does not annotate all of Emerson’s essays, nor even a specific collection of them. Rather it chooses some of his most famous works, the ones people will be most likely to read. These include Nature, The American Scholar, The Divinity School Address, Self-Reliance, Circles, The Poet, Experience and New England Reformers. Two of his essays from Representative Men – those on Montaigne and Shakespeare, perhaps the two writers that Emerson most appreciated – are included. But there are also political writings: Emerson’s letter to president Martin van Buren about the plight of the Cherokees and his essay on John Brown from 1860, after Brown’s failed raid on Harper’s Ferry. Emerson’s laudatory essay on his friend Henry David Thoreau is included, as are a number of poems. In more than 500 pages, this collection is a fine overview of Emerson’s varied writings, though it contains nothing from his journals.
In addition to the textual notes – it’s worth pointing out the excellent layout, with the notes in the outside margins of the pages – there are dozens of illustrations, many in color, giving more contextual background, and also showing some of the people mentioned in the writings, as well as Emerson himself.
In addition to being a fine text, this is also an attractive book, and its size is more that of a coffee-table book than a collection of essays. (This does make it a trifle harder to read, of course, as it is fairly heavy.)
I can think of no better book for those interested in Emerson to understand more about his writings and his times. Learning more about what Emerson was referring to gives a much richer picture of the extent of his writing, and a better feeling of where he came from.
Posted: 2/17/2012 by kirk | Filed under: books Tags: books, Emerson | No Comments »
As regular readers of Kirkville probably know, I’m a fan of Marcel Proust. I recently started re-reading A la recherche du temps perdu, but was sidetracked by moving house. Some time ago, I listened to the entire work, on a French audio recording. But not all Proustians are French speakers. Proust actually has quite a following in the US and England, and his popularity is such that Naxos Audiobooks has recently released the first part of a complete, unabridged recording of Remembrance of Things Past (also know as In Search of Lost Time).
The narrator, Neville Jason, has one of those smooth, soft English accents that lulls and entrances you. His reading is leisurely and relaxed. He takes his time, allowing you to absorb the work comfortably, without speaking too slowly, as is sometimes the case on older audiobook readings. Jason’s reading is a performance, but it also sounds like he’s sitting by your side, reading from the book, like a friend. In addition, his French accent is quite good, and when he speaks the names of French people or towns, it sounds as it should.
Swann’s Way is more than 21 hours long, and is only the first of seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past. Naxos will be releasing each volume individually, and will most likely offer a box set with the entire text – which will be more than 120 hours – when all the titles have been released.
If you want to listen to Proust, and don’t speak French, Neville Jason’s recordings are excellent. For now, this is the only complete recording in the works. Simon Vance, who is also another wonderful narrator, has recorded Swann’s Way, but it doesn’t look like this will be a complete recording of all seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past, as this recording was released in September, 2010, and no follow-up has yet been released.
Buy Swann’s Way on Amazon.com or Amazon UK.
Here’s a sample of Neville Jason reading the famous “madeleine” scene:
Posted: 2/4/2012 by kirk | Filed under: books Tags: audiobooks, books, Marcel Proust | 5 Comments »
It is not often my wont to criticize what other journalists and bloggers write, but I came across a review of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs on the elitist New York Review of Books web site (the same one which, a couple of weeks ago, a conspiracy-theory fueled article about the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair). I’ve subscribed to the NYRB off and on over the years, but the type of attack articles they’ve taken to publishing pretty much ensures that I won’t do so again.
I read the Steve Jobs biography, which is certainly no surprise, since I write about Apple products. (If you haven’t read it yet, it’s about half-price on Amazon.com.) Fittingly, I read it on my iPad. I have to admit that I found it painful to read. I had long heard stories about Jobs’ mercurial personality, but reading it in such harsh detail was brutal and shocking. I think it’s fair to write about the biography, and about Jobs, and point out strengths and weaknesses in books, but the NRYB’s approach is to tell the entire story of a book in a “review,” which is especially problematic for a novel. Do you really want to know most of what happens in a novel before you read it? Over the years, I managed to avoid such reviews, unless I had already read the novels in question.
In this “review,” then, the author, Sue Halpern, tells the story of Steve Jobs. She is harshly critical of Jobs, and of Apple in general. Of Jobs himself, she says:
Steve Jobs cried a lot. This is one of the salient facts about his subject that Isaacson reveals, and it is salient not because it shows Jobs’s emotional depth, but because it is an example of his stunted character. Steve Jobs cried when he didn’t get his own way. He was a bully, a dissembler, a cheapskate, a deadbeat dad, a manipulator, and sometimes he was very nice. Isaacson does not shy away from any of this, and the trouble is that Jobs comes across as such a repellent man, cruel even to his best friend Steve Wozniak, derisive of almost everyone, ruthless to people who thought they were his friends, indifferent to his daughters, that the book is often hard to read.
I have to agree with part of the above. While I wouldn’t use some of the adjectives that Halpern uses, I did find the book painful to read, and ended up skipping over parts of it.
But where Ms. Halpern goes wrong is in blaming Apple for the woes of the world:
The day before Jobs died, Apple launched the fifth iteration of the iPhone, the 4S, and four million were sold in the first few days. Next year will bring the iPhone 5, and a new MacBook, and more iPods and iMacs. What this means is that somewhere in the third world, poor people are picking through heaps of electronic waste in an effort to recover bits of gold and other metals and maybe make a dollar or two. Piled high and toxic, it is leaking poisons and carcinogens like lead, cadmium, and mercury that leach into their skin, the ground, the air, the water. Such may be the longest-lasting legacy of Steve Jobs’s art.
Ms. Halpern seems to think that Apple is, if not the only manufacturer of computers and cellphones, most likely the largest and most responsible for their impact. In fact, Apple’s market share for computers is in the single digits, and while iPhones sell well, Apple’s market share is slipping in that sector. (Apple actually only sells fewer than 5% of all cellphones in the world.)
It’s convenient to attack Apple as a poster child for the computer industry, as was common with Microsoft a decade ago. But it’s not hard to look up statistics to back up the claim quoted above, which is the final paragraph of Ms. Halpern’s review. I’ll accept her judgement of the book, but her knowledge of the computer and cellphone industry is seriously lacking. The New York Review of Books could use some fact-checkers to avoid such a blatant personally-motivated attack.
Posted: 12/26/2011 by kirk | Filed under: Apple & Mac OS X, books | 22 Comments »
Buy from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR
Note: This article is originally from 2006. I repost this article from time to time, because these recordings are so enjoyable that anyone interested in Shakespeare should own them.
“We might be better off with public readings of Shakespeare,” says Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. “Ideally, of course, Shakespeare should be acted, but since he is now almost invariably poorly directed and inadequately played, it might be better to hear him well than see him badly.” Not being as qualified to judge the quality of current Shakespearean performances as the erudite Bloom, I suffer from a dearth of Shakespeare here in the French countryside.
While we cannot always find such public readings, we can listen to recorded, dramatized versions of the plays, as with this set of Shakespeare’s 38 plays. With a cast of hundreds, most actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company, these works come alive through a skillful combination of reading, sound effects and music. As radio used to do when dramatizing works, the Arkangel set gives you the acting and the atmosphere. While one may be a bit irked by the “original” music, a sort of Coltrane-inspired Elizabethan music–why didn’t they use actual music of the period, including that composed for Shakespeare’s plays?–the overall production quality is about as good as it gets. Each play comes in a single CD jewel case containing two or three discs, with an insert containing a synopsis and cast information, and the discs are tracked by act and scene (with a handful of scenes that are split at the end of one CD and the beginning of the next one). When I imported a few of these discs to iTunes, the Gracenote CD Database, which iTunes uses to display track information, showed precise tags for each track, including, in the case of scenes that were split, the precise line numbers for the ends and beginnings.
The quality of these performances is excellent. While the occasional actor or actress sounds less convincing that they should–which may be because these actors are trained for working on the stage, not recording in studios–most of them are top-notch. One is quickly enveloped by the atmosphere, both textual and sonorous, and the plays roll on with astounding energy and verve. The tone is that of radio: not the radio of today, of course, but the time when radio was a source of performance and drama. But there is now “old-time” sound in these productions–they are modern and vibrant.
The recordings use the text of the Complete Pelican Shakespeare, an excellent and very readable edition of the plays. (This edition has thick enough paper to make reading easy, unlike some others, and the texts of the plays are in two columns with notes at the bottom of each page.) While there are some minor changes in the text (listening to King John, I noticed that “God” was replaced by “Heaven” throughout), reading the plays while listening is an enlightening experience. You get the advantage of clearly knowing which character is talking (which can be difficult at times when simply listening), you can see the spelling of unfamiliar words (and check the notes), and you get the emotion and intonation that you miss when only reading. Together, the recordings and printed text provide much more immediate understanding of the works.
At just under $400, this set is expensive, for sure. However, that comes to about $10 per play, and how can you put a value on Shakespeare? For fans of the Bard, or for those interested in discovering his work more deeply, this is a worthy investment. You may want to check and see if your library has this set, at least to sample one play before purchasing, but you really can’t go wrong with actors of this caliber, impeccable production, and a huge, heavy box that will impress your friends.
(Note that there is also a very good set of the plays from the BBC on DVD.)
Posted: 12/20/2011 by kirk | Filed under: books Tags: audiobooks, Shakespeare | No Comments »