You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier (Knopf, 1/10).
Let’s just get this out of the way: I really like this book. This book changed the way I think about the Internet and intellectual property, and I think could change a lot of minds, but only if a critical mass of people start reading it and talking about it. So this is my Queen’s Gambit. (I apologize in advance for not citing page numbers with quotes, but as I was reading a review copy, I have no idea what the actual page numbers will be.) This review is long, so if you are in a rush and have some faith in my book recommendations, just go out and buy it in January and meet me back here when you’re done.
Okay! There are too many ideas in this book that I underlined and starred and ?ed and yes!ed to count. I’m just going to touch on a few, and especially the ones that made me think of books and publishing.
Probably the most interesting idea in this book, especially for the book world, is how the Internet’s push towards the hive mind (also known as the noosphere, a word so creepy that I almost become a Luddite every time I read it) has already damaged and threatens to essentially destroy art as we now experience it. As Lanier puts it:
“The central mistake of recent digital culture is to chop up a network of individuals so finely that you end up with a mush.”
A thing, I’m sure we can all agree, that is not great for writing, which pretty much lives and dies by things like the strength and believability of an author’s individual voice.
A he writes, “Authorship—the very idea from the individual point of view—is not a priority of the new ideology.” Which is pretty well borne out by a quick glance at Wikipedia (an entity to which I am not opposed, by the way). The argument on behalf of the hive mind is that many many people working together will come up with a better answer, and faster, than individuals working alone. Lanier pretty conclusively demonstrates that this is not always the case, even for things to which humanity already knows the answer. And what about novels, of which there is no clear question, let alone a clear answer? Read more »
You’re on notice, authors. You are totally harshing my winter-is-here-curl-up-and-read-a-lot mellow and it has got to stop. How? I’m so glad you asked!
1. Please, for the love of Pete, STOP only mentioning the race of a character if that race is not white. I know you are trying to embrace diversity and create a more realistic world, but the fact of the matter is this. If I meet five characters (say, your main character, her mom, her sister, her best friend, and her other best friend) and you describe them but DON’T mention their race, and that is followed in the next few chapters by a black teacher, or a cute boy who’s Hispanic, that doesn’t prove to me that you embrace diversity. It proves to me that you assume all characters are white unless otherwise announced; that white is, in other words, the default race in your fictional world and by extension, the world in general.
More importantly, it annoys me so greatly that it yanks me right out of your book and then I spend five minutes reading the back cover again and wondering how much more time I really want to devote to your book, and frankly I am sick of wasting my time that way. From now on whenever it happens I’m just going to stop reading, period.
I’ve been thinking about writing this for awhile, especially ever since I read The Lost Symbol a few months ago (Dan Brown is so proud of his decision to include noble characters of color that it practically drips off the page into your lap), but it’s really come to a head recently, since this has happened in the last five books I have picked up. So, authors, quit it. Either create for me a completely colorblind world, or, create for me a world in which race is a noticeable detail because it’s a very basic physical descriptor of a human being, but in which ALL races are a noticeable detail. Otherwise it’s just uncomfortable and weird.
I feel like this problem could be really easily solved in almost every book I’ve ever read if authors would ask themselves these questions when they finish a manuscript:
- have I mentioned race in my book at any point? If so, then
- have I mentioned the race of my protagonist?
Make sure that if your answer to a. is yes, that your answer to b. is also yes.
2. This one is for YA authors in particular, and I am begging you, all of you, please, please, before I have to give up on YA as a genre because really I am on the verge of breaking a window with all the books I am flinging around my apartment sometimes:
QUIT IT WITH THE MAGICAL PIXIE AWESOME HAS SO MUCH SELF-ESTEEM TALL SPORTS-PLAYING FASHIONPLATE BEST FRIENDS. JUST QUIT IT ALREADY. PLEASE!
(And while you’re at it, STOP MAKING ALL BEST FRIENDS REDHEADS. Let me tell you something: if there was a secret cabal of awesomesauce adolescent redheads, I would have gotten wind of it at some point in the last decade. There is not. So stop using red hair to stand in for actual character development.)
To go a bit further: look, I know WHY you create these mythical best friends, these girls who wave their hands in the air like they just don’t care, who pair Converse with tutus, who play viola in the morning and varsity soccer at night. It’s because they make your protagonists seem normal and relatable. Of course we all think other people are cooler than us (especially when we’re 14) and of course this is a good way to impress upon your reader that your main character is “JUST LIKE YOU!”
But if you read as much YA fiction as I do, you must have started to wonder something: why don’t these jaw-dropping doyennes of girlhood ever get their own freakin’ books? They seem a lot more interesting than the seventy plain-Jane-hiding-I’m-just-me girls I’ve read about so far this year.
Let me answer my own question, actually. First, I know that a few of them DO have their own books, but man oh man is the balance ever out of whack. But the real reason is that most of these best friend characters are completely over-the-top and two-dimensional, and therefore could not support their own books without veering heavily into the realm of the melodramatic and unrealistic. And supporting character or not, that sort of flat character creation is going to bring a book down every time, which is what keeps happening in books I am picking up.
All I’m saying is, I’m starting to get to a lot of third chapters and wondering if maybe the author chose to write about the wrong character in the story. And I’m starting to get to a lot of seventh chapters and wondering if it is actually possible that there are this many people involved in the writing and editing of books who are painfully clueless about race. I wish that would stop happening. Authors, please make it so. I don’t like it when reading makes me this cranky.
Just quick post regarding this item in today’s Shelf Awareness:
“The French National Book Centre awarded more than 400 independent bookstores the new three-year quality label. Bookseller.com reported that booksellers ‘had to respond to a number of criteria to qualify for the LIR, or librairies indépendantes de référence. These included deriving at least half their turnover from the sale of books, proof of independence, diversity of stock, the quality of staff and services, and a strong programme of events.
‘In exchange, they are entitled to exoneration from the payroll tax, or taxe professionnelle (TP), that is levied by local authorities, starting from next year. The label, which was officially launched last April, was one of the proposals in the ‘Plan Livre’ that was adopted by the cabinet in November 2007 to bolster the book business.'”
Ever since someone told me that in Switzerland, booksellers are required to be certified, I’ve been thinking that US booksellers should hop on the bandwagon. (NB: I have no idea if that’s actually true about the certification, but it got the wheels turning anyway.)
Bookselling, in our culture and for the average person, is a retail job. A slightly more interesting retail job, and maybe even a cool one? Certainly. But it’s also a job you take while finishing your MFA. There is very little professional credibility in working full-time for a bookstore outside of the book industry.
Now, you and I and the lamppost know that this is ridiculous. Most people in bookselling are woefully over-educated, and in addition, have a strange skillset that makes them good at their job. We tend to know too much about a few select types of books (collections of 18th century love letters, Russian literature of the mid-1970s, books about the cultivation of oranges, etc). We also tend to know enough to get by while talking about almost any book, and enough to bullshit when talking about the rest. Some of this we learned while completing useless bachelor’s degrees, but the rest we obtained honestly, through hours and days and weeks of time logged behind the counter and on the floor, the way you learn any trade.
So I think we should have a certificate or something, I don’t know what. A school. A quality label. Whatever! Something that would make materially clear what we already know to be true. Would it be very hard to quantify what makes a good bookstore and a good bookseller? Probably. Would it lead to squabbling? Almost certainly. But it’d be worth it, I think.
This is all scrabble-dash, though. What do you think? Would people be reassured to see a pretty certificate in a frame when they walked in the shop? Could it lead to a greater awareness of the greatest asset of the indie bookseller—knowledge—which currently does not seem to resonate with the wider public? Discuss.
That’s right, this is extra credit, because I know that in a room of booksellers, at least half are the kid for whom the phrase “extra credit” sends a shiver up the spine.
As you’ll see in my latest Shelf Awareness column, I interviewed Fraser Kelton of Glue in order to write my article. Unfortunately, some of his thoughtful responses to my questions didn’t make the column; I ended up taking it in a different direction than I had anticipated. But I think they offer some interesting perspectives for indie booksellers to consider. This is a good guy to listen to—he’s smart about technology, he loves books, has been nothing but committed to helping indie stores out, and even has a favorite bookstore (Bryan Prince Books). If you live in NYC, I recommend checking out the Publishing Meets Tech Meetups that he organizes.
Bookavore: In what ways do you think independent booksellers could use technology to improve their business?
Fraser: I’m anything but an expert here, but I’ll toss out two ideas:
1) Use technology to create and nurture community. I bet that a major source of business is the offline community that an independent bookseller nurtures and grows. Technology enables independent booksellers to do this on a larger level online. The web is wonderfully efficient and effective for creating and maintaining relationships. These relationships could be with individuals who already frequent the bookstore (strengthening current connections) or they could be with someone hundreds of miles away (creating new connections). The past 5 years has seen an explosion in online social tools that enable one to tap into and join the conversation and it would be great to see independent booksellers embrace these tools.
2) Focus on providing the best experience possible for an individual. A single website will never be the sole resource for individuals interested in books. Even if the majority of people buy from a single online retailer we read reviews on other sites, check out what our friends are reading on various book social networks, etc. Our book experience online spans multiple sites and it’s naive to think that an independent bookseller will ever be THE site for books. With this in mind, I’d love to see independent booksellers embrace this idea and focus on providing the best experience for the individual. Link to other sites. Even competitors. Even Amazon. The better the experience provided, the more likely I am to return to the site. If I knew that an independent bookseller provided links to the best resources online for books I’d most likely continue to visit the site and with time I bet I’d start to transact through them as well.
B: What are the two or three things that you think all bookstores, indie or not, should be including on their websites?
F: 1) Answer the “What Book Should I Read Next?” question.
Offline, indie booksellers provide value by providing recommendations and curating content. By asking a few questions about previous books enjoyed they can provide a patron with personalized suggestions. An independent bookseller can use their relatively small online presence, when compared to Amazon, as a strategic advantage – they can provide these personalized suggestions online. Have a user fill out a quick form and then provide them with a short list of personalized suggestions within a stated period of time (say, 1 hour). This is a great way to build a permission marketing list and to engage directly with a broad base of potential customers. You should be so lucky that the service becomes so popular that you can barely keep up with requests.
2) Enable the community to curate and edit the book pages.
I want a single place that makes it easy to access the best resources online for a specific book. I want to read reviews from book bloggers, browse critic reviews, access summaries, browse inside the book, etc. There’s currently no aggregated page to easily access all of this information. An independent bookseller should publish book pages that are editable by their community. Imagine a blogger being able to add a direct link to their review, or an avid reader linking to a particularly insightful review from the local newspaper’s site. These actions would create a vibrant site and further strengthen the community. The indie bookseller would then become a go-to resource for all things book related. Google has become the dominant company on the web by directing people off of their site and landing them on information that’s most useful. I’d love to see an indie bookseller take this same approach to the book vertical.
What do you think?