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 »
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Dogen’s Shobogenzo is the most profound and perplexing work of the Zen canon. Written in the 13th century by the founder of the Soto school of Zen, the Shobogenzo is a collection of texts written over a long period of time that examine the concepts and practices of Zen.
This edition is a milestone, representing a complete English translation of the Shobogenzo, in an extremely attractive set of books. The two volumes are, while a bit expensive, very well produced. The paper is thick and opaque, the font is very readable, and the binding will last one or more lifetimes. Volume one has introductory matter about Dogen’s life and the composition of the Shobogenzo, and the first part of the texts (fascicles 1-47). (For a more thorough discussion of Dogen’s life and career, as well as an analysis of his thought, see Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, by Hee-Jin Kim.) The second volume contains the remainder of the texts (fascicles 48-95 plus a 96th fascicle not included in the original edition of the Shobogenzo), and an extensive glossary explaining the terms used in the books.
Some of the texts in this collection have been published previously, in Moon in a Dewdrop, Beyond Thinking, and Enlightenment Unfolds. In fact, many readers may find those there volumes sufficient in content, and more agreeable in overall price. (Another useful book is Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo, by Shohaku Okumura, which is a detailed, and very accessible commentary on this section of the Shobogenzo.)
This glossary in volume two is essential to the reading and study of this work. Readers will need to look up terms to get a better understanding of what they really mean. Often a single word, or a short phrase, may seem obscure when reading, but the glossary goes into detail to explain it better. In addition, the glossary serves as an index, with references to where the terms are used.
But the glossary is a bit problematic. At more than 200 pages, this is a big chunk of the text, and it is, of course, only available in the second volume. If you are reading the first volume, you still need to have this glossary handy, so you’ll need to have both books. I wish that Shambhala had included the glossary as a separate volume – perhaps a paperback – so it could be more easily consulted. Or, if they could provide an e-book version, popping it on an iPad would make reading and consulting it more practical.
This doesn’t detract from the overall work, which is, I must say, an amazing feat of translation that has taken decades. The text is beautifully rendered, and, while just one interpretation, it certainly has the weight of experience both of the translators as translators and as practitioners. This set is a monument to the work of Dogen.
Posted: 12/18/2011 by kirk | Filed under: books, Zen Tags: books, Dogen, Zen | 2 Comments »
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Update: Reposted in memory of Christopher Hitchens, who passed away yesterday, December 15, 2011. A fine way to remember Hitch would be to listen to the audio version of this book, which he read himself.
It is, of course, nothing more than chance that the day after I finish Christopher Hitchens’ memoir Hitch-22, I come across this statement on the Vanity Fair web site:
I have been advised by my physician that I must undergo a course of chemotherapy on my esophagus. This advice seems persuasive to me. I regret having had to cancel so many engagements at such short notice.
(The engagements he mentions refer to his book tour.)
Ah, Hitch, all that smoking and drinking is catching up to you. Let’s hope you win this battle.
But on to the book. If you don’t know Christopher Hitchens, he’s a polemicist, contrarian, journalist and defender of human rights. He’s been everywhere, from Cuba as a your revolutionary to Afghanistan as a reporter covering the recent war. He’s been to Iraq, both before and during the war, to India, covering the “case” of Mother Theresa, and to Bosnia as the hostilities started. He likes to claim that he’s the only writer to have been to all three countries that make up the “axis of evil”: Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.
This “memoir” is a loose collection of recollections and essays that give an overview of his life as a politically engaged journalist. Many people first heard about Hitchens a couple of years ago when his book God is Not Great was released. Hitchens went on a “crusade” to show how “religion poisons everything” and was involved in numerous debates (all polite and friendly) with religious figures around the US and UK. Unlike other “new atheists,” Hitchens is rather aggressive in both his beliefs (or lack thereof) and his argumentation. He pulls no punches, and this can be seen in most of his writing, and in this memoir.
Hitchens has been scorned by the left for undergoing many changes in his political beliefs over the years, starting out as a Troskyist, and ending up, as he says in the last chapter of Hitch-22, a “skeptic,” far more willing to look at multiple ideas than to accept the tenets of a party or group. This has led him to famously support the Bush war in Iraq, though, as he points out in the book, he was for the war long before it became a war. Together with a small group of human rights activists, after seeing what Saddam Hussein’s regime was doing to Iraqis, he fought for regime change in Washington. His literary friends include Martin Amis, Ian McEwen, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, James Fenton and many others.
Hitchens was born in the UK but became American after 9/11, having lived in the US since the early 1980s. He writes for a number of magazines, having run the gauntlet of left-leaning (and leftist periodicals), long writing for The Nation, and now a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and a regular contributor to The Atlantic, Slate and other publications.
What impresses me most about Hitchens is the quality of his writing. He has acerbic wit, and his sentences sparkle. His arguments are very convincing (even if you don’t always agree with him, which can be difficult), and he pulls no punches. This memoir is 100% Hitchens: from the descriptions of his days in school to the present, he tells it like it is (or was), with a style that glitters.
I listened to the audiobook version of this work, read by Hitchens himself. While I wouldn’t classify this as an excellent reading – Hitchens takes commas for periods, and this makes the reading a bit fragmented – hearing him tell his story in his own voice was worth the price of admission.
If you want an interesting read about politics, growing up, literary circles, and plain old contrarianism, Hitch-22 is a great book. You may not agree with all of Hitchens’ opinions, but at least he’s committed to them and presents them without waffling. Would that we had more political journalists willing to write like Hitch.
There’s a very moving interview about the book, but where Hitch also discusses his cancer, death and mortality, from the Charlie Rose Show.
You might also want to read Arguably, a huge collection of essays by Hitchens, published in 2011.
Posted: 12/16/2011 by kirk | Filed under: books Tags: books, Christopher Hitchens | 1 Comment »