Every book imaginable, just not your book

Everyone has a book in them, they say. Well, perhaps not.

No, you probably don’t have a book in you
I am a literary agent. It is my full-time job to find new books and help them get published. When people talk about “having a book in them,” or when people tell others they should write a book (which is basically my nightmare), what they really mean is I bet someone, but probably not me because I already heard it, would pay money to hear this story. When people say “you should write a book,” they aren’t thinking of a physical thing, with a cover, that a human person edited, copyedited, designed, marketed, sold, shipped, and stocked on a shelf. Those well-meaning and supportive people rarely know how a story becomes printed words on a page. Here’s what they don’t know, and what most beginner writers might not realize, either.

Perhaps your book has already been written and is somewhere in the library?

Library of Babel
Borges’s short story The Library of Babel is a thought experiment: imagine every possible combination of letters printed out in 410 page books. The library would contain all knowledge and falsehoods, all of the great works of fiction and a true prophecy for everyone in the world. It would also contain all of these things, but with all the A’s and E’s switched, or with X’s between words instead of spaces. Jonathan Basile, a Ph.D. student at Emory University turned Borges’s idea into a (virtual) reality. Every possible book that could be found in the Library can be read online, but to stumble on something meaningful is near impossible, which makes it all the more exciting to try. (Via)

Too many books, not enough time

Everyone’s at it.

Goodreads Choice Awards – Best Books 2018

London Evening Standard’s best books of 2018

Guardian best books of 2018: across fiction, politics, food and more

Barnes & Noble – Best Books of 2018

The New York Times Critics’ Top Books of 2018

Publishers Weekly – Best Books 2018

Quartzy – Best books we read in 2018

And if all that wasn’t enough for you.

Download 569 free art books from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
You may remember that we featured the site a few years ago, back when it offered 397 whole books free for the reading … [T]he Met has kept adding to their digital trove since then, and, as a result, you can now find there no fewer than 569 art catalogs and other books besides. Those sit alongside the 400,000 free art images the museum put online last year.

I think I prefer Maria Popova’s round-up, though.

The loveliest children’s books of 2018
Maurice Sendak’s last book, a celebration of history’s heroic women illustrated by Maira Kalman, a stunning serenade to the wilderness, and more.

So many books, so little time.

We should ban the ‘best of’ end of year lists – they make us feel guilty and old
I mean, I suppose if I did nothing else with my free time, I might be able to get through the Times’ list, but that would be next year gone, and I would have to put off all the great new books of 2019 until 2020 and so on, year after year until the sweet release of death.

For the love of books — and book shops

Some worrying news recently, about the fate of the book shop.

Brazilian booksellers face wave of closures that leave sector in crisis
In a widely shared “love letter to books”, Companhia das Letras co-founder Luiz Schwarcz has laid out the stark reality of Brazil’s current book market, urging readers to buy books this Christmas to help the sector survive.

“It remains impossible to predict the full extent of the knock-on effects of this crisis, but they are nonetheless already terrifying … Here, many towns are about to be left without a single bookstore, and publishers are now faced with the challenge of getting their books out to readers and have to deal with significant accumulated loss,” wrote Schwarcz, who won a lifetime achievement award at the 2017 London book fair.

If you’ll forgive the ropey Google translation, here’s more from that open letter.

Cartas de amor aos livros – Love letters to books
To those who, like me, have in their affection for books their reason for living, I ask them to spread messages; that spread the desire to buy books at the end of the year, books of their favorite authors, new writers who want to discover books bought in bookstores that survive heroically to the crisis, fulfilling their commitments, and also in bookstores that are in difficulties, but who need our help to rebuild.

That was a nicely timed article from the Guardian, as I was just re-reading my posts about James Bridle and his book, New Dark Age. I was just about to order it on my Kindle when I came across this introduction to another one of his extracts from it.

Conspiracies, Climate, and the New Dark Age
Hello, I’ve written a book. New Dark Age is a book about technology, knowledge, and the end of the future. It’s published by Verso, and you can buy it direct from the publisher as hardback and ebook (which is better for me, them, and publishing in general) — or wherever you usually acquire your reading.

It’s never occurred to me before, to buy an e-book direct from the publisher — Amazon is just too convenient. One of my New Years Resolutions should be to think a little more about these decisions, and put my money where my mouth is.

And a couple more from the Guardian on what bookshops are facing.

‘I’d love to scream at them’: how showroomers became the No 1 threat to bookshops
Last weekend, Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Virginia, tweeted a rebuke of the “people taking pictures of books and buying them from #Amazon in the store and even bragging about it”: “This is not OK, people. Find it here. Buy it here. Keep us here. That is all.” The tweet, by the shop’s owner, Kelly Justice, has been liked 40,000 times and was met with support from booksellers around the world. But among customers, the conversation was divided between those who recognised the rudeness of the act and those who felt it was legitimate. […]

“I’d love just to be able to scream at customers who do this about tax and the treatment of authors and small publishers, but our philosophy is always to wow them with charm and knowledge, even when they are blatantly doing it,” says Dave Kelly of Blackwell’s in Oxford. “Sooner or later, the general public will wake up to the damage companies such as Amazon are doing to small businesses and the creative industry and, with a bit of luck, bookshops will still be here to supply the books that they love.”

Amazon faces boycott ahead of holidays as public discontent grows
No one denies the convenience of shopping on Amazon but for some there are a host of reasons – from the working conditions at Amazon warehouses, the company’s aggressive anti-tax lobbying, its impact on local business or its selling of white nationalist merchandise – that make that convenience too high a price to pay. […]

The potential loss of business was enough to make Bank of America reverse course but perhaps Amazon is just too big to boycott. For years, some spurned Amazon in favor of local bookshops. Then more recently, people sat out Prime Day in solidarity with workers protesting against the company in Europe. Yet Amazon barely shrugged and continued growing. Earlier this year, the company disclosed that the number of Prime members surpassed 100 million. More new members signed up for Prime in 2017 than in any other year.

And here’s an interview with journalist Franklin Foer, on similar themes.

Why Amazon is a ‘bully’ and Facebook and Google are ‘the enemies of independent thought’
“That was my frustration when I went and talked to the Justice Department about Amazon,” Foer said. “It’s like, ‘Well, they’re actually hurting consumers over the long run by hurting producers. And they’re behaving in a bullying sort of way. Maybe not to consumers, but to producers. Why in God’s name can’t you see the harm?’ And they just couldn’t see it because it was so outside of the current paradigm under which they’re operating.”

Judging a book cover by its book cover

Another fine 2018 retrospective, another rabbit hole to fall into.

The 75 best book covers of 2018
But it is December, and therefore I am inclined to ask: which book covers were the best? As I did last year and the year before that, I asked the experts: book designers. This year, I asked 27 designers to share their favorite book covers of the year, with a bit about why—and they came back with a whopping 75 different covers of note.

I especially liked reading about the trouble with designing a book when its author is in jail.

Melancholy Gorey

The New Yorker magazine has a review of an Edward Gorey biography. I don’t think the reviewer cares much for the book, but greatly appreciates the life and work of this strange artist: “It’s nice to have a biography of Gorey, with whatever silliness.”

Edward Gorey’s enigmatic world
These dark territories give the book’s overt themes a place in which to burrow and ripen. Alison Lurie wrote that, in looking at such drawings of Gorey’s, “one of the things you want to remember is what the nineteen-fifties were like. . . . All of a sudden everybody was sort of square and serious, and the whole idea was that America was this wonderful country and everybody was smiling and eating cornflakes and playing with puppies.” Gorey’s hatching and cross-hatching were his answer to that—the shadows inside the sunny hedge.

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On the shore a bat, or possibly an umbrella,
disengaged itself from the shrubbery,
causing those nearby to recollect the miseries of childhood.

* of the year

December’s not quite here yet, but the best somethings of the year articles are starting already. Here are two I’ve spotted recently.

National Geographic’s best photos of 2018
National Geographic’s 100 best images of the year—curated from 107 photographers, 119 stories, and more than two million photographs.

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As well as the usual, and often quite grisly, natural history images, there are some remarkable human interest stories here too.

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Books of the year 2018: the TLS contributors decide
From autofiction to ‘unbooks’ and ‘Ancient Mariner novels’.

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Having spent much of the past three years writing about a fictional piano-tuner I thought I had had enough of the instrument. Then along came Paul Kildea’s fascinating Chopin’s Piano: A journey through Romanticism (Allen Lane) and I was hooked again. The starting point for this beguiling journey is a somewhat basic piano – a pianino – made in Majorca in the 1830s on which Chopin composed and polished his 24 Preludes.

[…]

Hastings’s indictment of Washington policy after the South Vietnamese military coup of 1963 is lethal. America’s prolongation of the war was a mutilating act of self-harm which took generations to heal. It happened because US policymakers lied to the electorate, which is usual enough, but more culpably also lied to close colleagues and lied to themselves. In this sense, at least, Brexit is Britain’s Vietnam.

[…]

Schnackenberg has everything except (a) a snappy name, and (b) a recital voice powerful enough to overcome the uproar of gerbils mating. Listen to her on YouTube and you’ll think that the Americans are developing a new weapon: Stealth people. 

Mystery man

I love this little piece from the Futility Closet blog, on a character in James Joyce’s Ulysses that Bloom can’t quite place.

Mostly cloudy
He turns up again later: “In Lower Mount street a pedestrian in a brown macintosh, eating dry bread, passed swiftly and unscathed across the viceroy’s path.”

And still later: “A man in a brown macintosh springs up through a trapdoor.”

Altogether the mysterious man is mentioned 11 times in the novel. In the Cyclops episode we’re told, “The man in the brown macintosh loves a lady who is dead,” and in Ithaca, a catechism of questions and answers, we’re asked, “What selfinvolved enigma did Bloom risen, going, gathering multicoloured multiform multitudinous garments, voluntarily apprehending, not comprehend? Who was M’Intosh?”

Thankfully, Vladimir Nabokov puts us out of our misery. Possibly.

Hard work being lazy

Two articles on some recently published books which I thought worked well together.

What we do: The evolution of work
Much of Komlosy’s writing about the evolving understanding of labor is illustrated with excellent examples of linguistic differences. Across European languages, she points out, there exists a structural distinction roughly equivalent to what we’d recognize in English as that between “labor” and “work”—the former traditionally more toilsome, the latter signifying not just effort but also the redemption of a realized product. German makes the split between arbeit and werk; French, between travail and oeuvre. In one telling etymology, she points out that travail (and its Spanish and Portuguese cousins, trabajo and trabalho) comes from the Latin tripalium, a three-pronged stake used to torture slaves in ancient Rome. Oeuvre, on the other hand, along with the Latin opus and the Italian opera, speaks for itself.

Idleness as flourishing
It is hard work to write a book, so there is unavoidable irony in fashioning a volume on the value of being idle. There is a paradox, too: to praise idleness is to suggest that there is some point to it, that wasting time is not a waste of time. Paradox infuses the experience of being idle. Rapturous relaxation can be difficult to distinguish from melancholy. When the academic year comes to an end, I find myself sprawled on the couch, re-watching old episodes of British comedy panel shows on a loop. I cannot tell if I am depressed or taking an indulgent break. As Samuel Johnson wrote: “Every man is, or hopes to be, an Idler.” As he also wrote: “There are … miseries in idleness, which the Idler only can conceive.” This year brings three new books in praise of wasting time.

Beautiful libraries, inside and out

Libraries are remarkable buildings.

Experience the beauty of libraries around the world through this instagram series
Over the past two years, Savoie has traveled from his home city of Montréal, to Berlin, Amsterdam, Budapest, Rome, Riga, Paris, Moscow, and several other cities photographing the stunning architecture of libraries. Encountering language barriers and even intense security, Savoie’s dedication to taking the perfect photo has resulted in a stunning collection of images.

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The world’s most beautiful libraries
In a new Taschen book, the Italian photographer Massimo Listri travels around the world to some of the oldest libraries, revealing a treasure trove of unique and imaginative architecture.

But, of course, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

Every library has a story to tell
But whatever form a library takes, someone had to have chosen the books in it, which reveal the secrets of heart and mind—their cares, their greeds, their enthusiasms, their obsessions.

‘Spectacular’ ancient public library discovered in Germany
It is not clear how many scrolls the library would have held, but it would have been “quite huge – maybe 20,000”, said Schmitz. The building would have been slightly smaller than the famed library at Ephesus, which was built in 117 AD. He described the discovery as “really incredible – a spectacular find”.

The secret libraries of history
“The new technique is amazing in that it shows us fragments – medieval text – that we could otherwise never see because they are hidden behind a layer of parchment or paper,” wrote Kwakkel in a blog post about his Hidden Library project. While the technology needs to be improved, it hints at a process that could reveal a secret library within a library. “We might be able to access a hidden medieval ‘library’ if we were able to gain access to the thousands of manuscript fragments hidden in bindings.”

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Watch Umberto Eco walk through his immense private library: it goes on, and on, and on!
We can only imagine how many such citadels of knowledge Eco visited in his travels all over the world, but we don’t have to imagine the one he built himself, since we can see it in the video above. Though not infinite like the library of all possible books imagined by Borges, Eco’s private home library looks, from certain angles, nearly as big. The camera follows Eco as he passes shelf after packed shelf, some lining the walls and others standing free, eventually finding his way to one volume in particular — despite the fact that he apparently shelved very few of his books with their spines facing outward.

(That last line about his books not facing outwards? Reminded me of this post from a couple of months back.)

Reading just isn’t a boyish habit?

An article from the Atlantic on a possible contributor to the educational gender gap in schools across the world.

Boys don’t read enough
In two of the largest studies ever conducted into the reading habits of children in the United Kingdom, Keith Topping—a professor of educational and social research at Scotland’s University of Dundee—found that boys dedicate less time than girls to processing words, that they’re more prone to skipping passages or entire sections, and that they frequently choose books that are beneath their reading levels.

But there’s nothing to say this can’t be turned around, though.

David Reilly, a psychologist and Ph.D. candidate at Australia’s Griffith University who co-authored a recent analysis on gender disparities in reading in the U.S., echoed these arguments, pointing to the stereotype that liking and excelling at reading is a feminine trait. He suggested that psychological factors—like girls’ tendency to develop self-awareness and relationship skills earlier in life than boys—could play a role in the disparity, too, while also explaining why boys often struggle to cultivate a love of reading. “Give boys the right literature, that appeals to their tastes and interests, and you can quickly see changes in reading attitudes,” he says, citing comic books as an example.

Topping suggests that schools ought to make a more concerted effort to equip their libraries with the kinds of books—like nonfiction and comic books—that boys say they’re drawn to. “The ability to read a variety of kinds of text for a variety of purposes is important for life after school,” he says.

What are you reading?

A review from TLS of what looks to be a fascinating book.

Pass the tortoise shell: Eve Houghton explores reading and writing across time and space
The history of the book does not always involve the study of either history or books. As James Raven shows in this slim, engaging volume, the question of what sort of object might count as a book remains very much up for debate. The history of the book in the Western world has traditionally made “book” synonymous with “codex” – gatherings of leaves folded or stitched together – but in Professor Raven’s geographically and chronologically wide-ranging account, it takes a variety of material forms: Chinese tortoise shells inscribed 3,000 years ago; Sumerian clay tablets impressed with cuneiform scripts; knotted string records, or khipus, used for record-keeping by South American Incan officials. The boundaries of the book seem even less clearly defined in the era of the blog post and Kindle.

I’ve mentioned khipus here before. It’s so odd to think of a bundle of knotty string as a book. But of course books aren’t just written, using knots or otherwise — they’re read too, a trickier research topic.

The book also gestures towards emerging areas of scholarship, particularly in an illuminating chapter on the history of reading. Raven writes that reading is “the most significant and challenging dimension of the history of books”. Because it leaves few material records, reading remains one of the most elusive practices to capture in historical terms. For example, it is not always a silent, solitary activity. As Paul Saenger and other scholars have shown, there is significant evidence that many people in pre-modern Europe heard books more than they read them. But how can historians and literary critics account for a form of engagement with books that, more often than not, left no trace behind?

I was going to make a comment about the rich, varied and global history of the book standing in contrast to its bland, flat future, if Amazon has its way, but that could be a little hypocritical as I’ll probably read this on my Kindle, like everyone else.

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The game is on

Breathing new life into old games.

“Ew,” “yowza,” and “OK” are now fair to play in Scrabble
“Ew,” for instance, is a newly added word and an example of what lexicographer Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster, calls “transcribed speech.” This refers to expressions, such as “mm-hmm” (not playable) that are colloquial and used frequently online. Sokolowski told the Associated Press: “Traditionally, they were not in the dictionary but because so much of our communication is texting and social media that is written language, we are finding more transcribed speech and getting a new group of spellings for the dictionary.”

Tower Block Game, playful take on a not so playful architecture
This game I’ve made is a playful tribute to a not so playful reality of monotonous and bleak cityscapes built out of same prefabricated concrete blocks. Very specific for Eastern-Europe but evident everywhere else too. These relic tower blocks usually mark failed social programmes and neighbourhoods planned as clumsy as some failed building block game…

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After finding those, I trawled through my bookmarks on the hunt for more games-related stories. These few caught my eye, about Magic: The Gathering. My son plays this and has tried to explain it to me a number of times — I remain clueless.

Why Magic: The Gathering beats Poker or Chess any day
The strategy paid off, helping to foster a group of professional Magic players like Jon Finkel and David Williams who grew up in the spotlight and were accustomed to high-stakes card games. Having mastered the fiendishly complex rules of Magic, they found it relatively easy to compete in a much simpler game like poker.

The twenty-five-year journey of Magic: The Gathering
To change more rules, you needed to buy more cards. Many of the most powerful cards were rarely printed, which drove fans to crack open even more packs. By November of 1993, under the headline “Professor’s Game Casts Magic Spell on Players,” the Seattle Times reported that ten million cards had been sold in a few months. “I’ve wasted—no not wasted—I’ve used all my money just buying Magic cards,” an eleven-year-old boy named Jake told the Washington Post. He carried his deck around with him everywhere he went in case a game broke out. By 1997, Magic: The Gathering was so successful that Wizards of the Coast acquired Dungeons & Dragons. Newsweek noted that Wizards had sold two billion cards. A game like Magic, Garfield told the reporter, could “take over your personal operating system, like a virus.”

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Whoops, it’s 2016 and I just got obsessed with Magic: The Gathering
It’s one in the morning, and things aren’t going well. I’ve lost my first few matches; my virtual card decks have fallen apart. I think I have an idea, though. I frantically sort my cards, switching one color in my deck for another, the air caught in my lungs. With over 16,000 different cards available, Magic: the Gathering‘s greatest barrier to entry is its sheer breadth. The number of strategic options potentially available to any player at any time is massive. If other games are a lake, Magic is an ocean.

As intriguing as it is, I still don’t really get MTG. Is it like D&D, with all the dice?

Critical Hit D20 waffle maker
Certain foods just fall into alignments. Pancakes and waffles? Good, obviously. But while waffles are Lawful Good, pancakes are Chaotic Good. The syrup goes all over the place and there’s the dreaded butter well. Waffles follow rules. Pancakes break ’em.

Medieval fantasy city generator
This application generates a random medieval city layout of a requested size. The generation method is rather arbitrary, the goal is to produce a nice looking map, not an accurate model of a city. Maybe in the future I’ll use its code as a basis for some game or maybe not.

Who the f**k is my #DND character?

Not a clue. I have fond memories of these games, however.

Dare YOU face the orcs? 80s game books Fighting Fantasy return
Ian Livingstone calls it the “five-fingered bookmark”: that grip known to children of the 80s and 90s. You’d insert a finger into various sections of your Fighting Fantasy adventure game book in order to be able to return if, say, your choice to drink the “sparkling red liquid” and turn to section 98 turned out to be a bad one, or if attacking the Mirror Demon “from another dimensional plane” proved fatal.

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These maps reveal the hidden structures of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books
There are also structures that loop readers through the story in unique ways. Mystery of the Maya, for example, has time travel, and keeps sending the reader back to the same page and place in time. (“Almost as if it were the temporal junction point for the entire space-time continuum,” as Doc Brown would say. If you think that’s what it is, click here. If you decide it’s just an “amazing coincidence,” click here.)

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Sometimes the old board and card games are the best.

How checkers was solved: The story of a duel between two men, one who dies, and the nature of the quest to build artificial intelligence
“Checkers is a deep, simple, elegant game,” he once said. Playing another human great was “like two artists collaborating on a work of art,” Tinsley said another time. And then there is his most quotable line: “Chess is like looking out over a vast open ocean; checkers is like looking into a bottomless well.”

Solitaire as symbol and synecdoche
Solitaire, a game mixing skill and chance, also provides what psychologists call “intermittent reinforcement.” Every time a card is revealed, there is, for the player, the possibility of a reward. The suspense, and the yearning, is what makes the game so compelling, even addictive. “Basically,” wrote Griffiths, “people keep playing in the absence of a reward hoping that another reward is just around the corner.” Turning over an ace in solitaire is really no different from getting a like on Facebook or a retweet on Twitter. We crave such symbolic tokens of accomplishment, such sweet nothings.

But even these games are being brought up-to-date.

Donald Rumsfeld releases solitaire app
Rumsfeld presents himself as in over his head when it came to actually creating the game, which was made in partnership with WSC Solitaire. “I’ve reviewed wire frames and branding guides. I’ve spent countless hours on beta releases. I’ve signed off on something they call ‘UX’.”

Video games looked very different in my day, of course.

Some very entertaining plastic, emulated at the Archive
Introducing the Handheld History Collection. This collection of emulated handheld games, tabletop machines, and even board games stretch from the 1970s well into the 1990s. They are attempts to make portable, digital versions of the LCD, VFD and LED-based machines that sold, often cheaply, at toy stores and booths over the decades.

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The legend of Nintendo
Next year, Nintendo will turn 130 years old. Once again, the outside world is wondering how a company periodically left for dead keeps revitalizing itself. But seesawing is nothing new for Nintendo. It has long alternated between fallow periods, in which the media churns out reports of pending doom, and boom times, during which Nintendo Mania is cast as an unstoppable force. What remains constant is the company’s understated and zealously guarded culture—the system at the root of its unusual ability to recalibrate, with some regularity, to humanity’s ever-evolving sense of play.

Play The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy video game free online, designed by Douglas Adams in 1984
Back in 1985, Douglas Adams teamed up with Infocom’s Steve Meretzky to create an interactive fiction video game based on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Designed before graphic-intensive video games really hit their stride, the original Hitchhiker’s Guide game was played with text commands on the Apple II, Macintosh, Commodore 64, CP/M, DOS, Amiga, Atari 8-bit and Atari ST platforms. And it found instant success.

The cyberspace we forgot – Neuromancer
As a game, Neuromancer is dated and unforgiving, with progress mostly coming from clunky and tedious trial and error. Its story is borderline fanfiction, as you name a character who just happens to resemble the novel’s down on his luck hacker anti-hero, and unravel a mystery that leads you to confront the titular AI. But in its portrayal of cyberspace—shortly before the world wide web was invented, and long before it became a household service—it remains intriguing. It’s a window into an era when the impact of computers on the world had not yet been fully realised, and when their potential seemed infinite. The Amigas, Apple IIs and Commodore 64s that ran Neuromancer wouldn’t have been able to read this. But the game showed their owners a world where computers could do so much more.

Behind a pizza-slice smile: the dark side of Pac-Man
“He is the pure consumer,” wrote Poole in Trigger Happy. “With his obsessively gaping maw, he clearly only wants one thing: to feel whole, at peace with himself. He perhaps surmises that if he eats enough, in other words buys enough industrially produced goods – he will attain … perfect roundness. But it can never happen.”

The thrill of cleaning in video games
“In a way, what I’m doing is cleaning. It’s the same urge that makes one suddenly decide to organize, to vacuum, as if gaining control over the space around you will offer some psychic relief, or will constitute, to you, some sense of progress. The pleasure in many games comes from putting things in order”

As well as looking very different nowadays, video games are being used very differently too.

‘We give access to a lost world’: Assassin’s Creed’s new life as a virtual museum
The Discovery update, as it’s called, removes all combat, missions and story from Assassin’s Creed Origins, leaving you free to explore its detailed recreation of ancient Egypt at leisure. It also adds in 75 interactive tours, written in collaboration with Egyptologists from around Europe, which teach you about everything from mummification to the city of Alexandria. It’s like one of those audio guides that you can pick up at museums. The difference between Assassin’s Creed Origins and a museum, though, is that you are immersed, walking the streets of a village as an Egyptian child or riding a horse in the shadow of the great pyramids.

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The Twitch streamers who spend years broadcasting to no one
While there are tools to find lesser-known streamers, most people starting out without built-in audiences from other platforms or supportive friends and family end up staring at a big, fat zero on their viewership counter. This lonely live stream purgatory can last anywhere from a few days, weeks, months, sometimes even years, depending on your luck. According to people who have gone through it, lacking an audience is one of the most demoralizing things you can experience online.

That sounds terrible. Step away from the computer!

Pencil and Paper Games
Pencil and Paper Games is devoted to games you can play with nothing more than a pencil and a piece of paper. These games are ideal for entertaining children and adults on rainy days or dark evenings, at home or on holiday.

Ah, that’s better.

Vibrant butterfly

Another great find from the Futility Closet — an incredible book, hiding within an ordinary one.

Subtext
To create his 1970 novel A Humument, British artist Tom Phillips began with W.H. Mallock’s forgotten 1892 novel A Human Document and drew, painted, and collaged over the pages, leaving a few words showing to tell a new, hitherto unrevealed story. For instance, the title arises from Phillips’ deletion of two central syllables in Mallock’s title, and the protagonist, Bill Toge, can appear only when the word “together” or “altogether” arises in Mallock’s original text.

The article points us to this amazing gallery of pages from the book. All I knew of Tom Phillips before reading this was that he collaborated with Peter Greenaway on A TV Dante, but you can certainly see some of that shared aesthetic here.

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We’re also pointed to this review from the London Review of Books, for a more in-depth look at the ‘author’ and his ‘book’.

Double Act: Adam Smyth reviews ‘A Humument’ by Tom Phillips
He treats each page of Mallock’s novel in this way, effacing most of the text, generally by painting, occasionally by cutting, slicing, or even in one instance burning the page, to leave an alternative narrative. Phillips’s revealed story was in one sense always there in Mallock, just lost amid the torrent of other text. This is authorship as pruning, a process of erasure or cutting away that finds in the buttoned-up A Human Document a teeming world of humour, sex, sadness and art that would have baffled and shocked the conservative Mallock.

[…]

Phillips is a lover of games and chance and rules. With Brian Eno – his pupil at Ipswich Art School in the early 1960s – he invented ‘sound tennis’, striking a ball against five pianos with their workings exposed, and scoring according to the sounds produced. In A Humument, Phillips deploys what he calls ‘invited accident’: in the 1987 edition, coin tosses dictated which words should be struck out on page 99 of Mallock, until there were only two left standing: ‘something already’.

[…]

The reeling comic voice that Phillips finds buried inside Mallock – ‘on the philosophy mattress to-night My sister is going to attempt to join the morning after and Aristotle’s Ethics’ – frequently recalls other masters of strange, urgent sentences: Monty Python; Samuel Beckett; Chris Morris in Blue Jam; and perhaps most vividly of all, Vivian Stanshall in Sir Henry at Rawlinson End. In fact, A Humument is a novel of quotation: not only in the sense that all of its words were written first by Mallock (although not, as Eric Morecambe said of the notes in his piano playing, necessarily in the right order); but also because Phillips pieces together Mallock’s words to produce other writers’ lines. So there is Donne and Shakespeare, but also lines from books that in 1892 had not yet been written. Versions of E.M. Forster’s ‘only connect’ (Howards End, 1910) pop up throughout: ‘merely connect’; ‘closely connect’; ‘oddly connect’; ‘My little muse was connect connect.’ Molly Bloom’s closing words in Ulysses (1922) fill A Humument’s penultimate page (‘And I said yes – yes, I will yes’); and Ezra Pound’s Make It New (1935) is in there too. Beckett is a constant near presence, including a version of the most famous lines from Worstward Ho (1983): ‘as years went on, you began to fail better.’ The temporality of the quotation is complex: Mallock (1892) is being made to quote Beckett (1983) by Phillips (in a 2012 edition of a book he began in 1966).

OK I’m getting dizzy now.

Can we call what Phillips is doing ‘writing’, or would some other term be better? What version of authorship or creativity is at work here? A Humument is a reminder that books are inevitably intertextual – they grow out of older texts – and that all writing involves selecting words from a finite pool: what appears to be a constraint, having to work within the walls of an existing novel, in fact dramatises a condition of literature.

No doubt another Trump bestseller

Another book’s coming out about Trump’s train-wreck presidency. Well, at least he’s good for book sales.

Bob Woodward’s new book reveals a ‘nervous breakdown’ of Trump’s presidency
The dramatic and previously untold scene is recounted in “Fear,” a forthcoming book by Bob Woodward that paints a harrowing portrait of the Trump presidency, based on in-depth interviews with administration officials and other principals. […]

Woodward depicts Trump’s anger and paranoia about the Russia inquiry as unrelenting, at times paralyzing the West Wing for entire days. Learning of the appointment of Mueller in May 2017, Trump groused, “Everybody’s trying to get me”— part of a venting period that shellshocked aides compared to Richard Nixon’s final days as president.

The author is the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, so it will be interesting to see how this compares to the more gossipy Fire and Fury, from earlier this year.

But let’s not get too carried away with any possible consequences just yet. This, from The Onion, sums things up nicely.

Trump disapproval rating reaches all-time none of this matters
Offering an overview of Americans’ opinions of the commander in chief’s job performance, a new poll released Friday indicated that President Trump’s disapproval rating had reached an all-time none of this matters. The report, released by who really cares which of the utterly useless polling firms and corroborated by several leading increasingly feckless news organizations, confirmed that well over half of those surveyed for really no goddamn reason. In addition, the poll found strong support for who gives a shit, it’s just a bunch of fucking numbers. … At press time, a new poll had found that President Trump’s disapproval rating was now at, Jesus Christ, a sizable portion of the country supports and has always supported an openly white supremacist president and the party he leads, and a bunch of goddamn numerical ratings aren’t going to do a fucking thing to change that.

Update 06/09/2018: On the back of the Washington Post’s launch of Bob Woodward’s book, the New York Times have published an anonymous editorial from a senior official in the Whitehouse that could be seen to corroborate it, reassuring us there are ‘adults in the room’.

I am part of the resistance inside the Trump Administration
I work for the president but like-minded colleagues and I have vowed to thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.

And the race is on to find out who wrote that.

Who is the Donald Trump staffer who penned the New York Times anonymous op-ed?
Within minutes of it being published online, text alerts were buzzing on phones across Washington DC, as insiders, outsiders, reporters, and everyone else tried to answer one question: Who was the anonymous author?

Are you reading this properly?

Yes, I read my e-mail on my phone. And yes, I read the news on my tablet, where I found these two cheery articles from the Guardian.

Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound
The possibility that critical analysis, empathy and other deep reading processes could become the unintended “collateral damage” of our digital culture is not a simple binary issue about print vs digital reading. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read. Nor is it only about the young. The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.

Alan Rusbridger: who broke the news?
If journalists cannot agree on a common idea of the public interest – of the public service we claim to be providing – then it complicates the defence of what we do. And in an age of horizontal free mass media, it is even more important for us to be able to define and declare our values, our purpose – and our independence. Which includes independence from the state.

But five years after the Snowden revelations, it is now apparent that states themselves are struggling with the digital disruption that first tore through the established media and has now reshaped politics. The digital giants have not only unleashed information chaos – they have, in the blink of an eye, become arguably the most powerful organisations the world has ever seen.

Update 04/09/2018: I’ve just found another article on a similar theme that I’ll tack on to the end of this post, about watching less and reading more.

Why everyone should watch less news
While research has shown that visually shocking and upsetting news can contribute to anxiety, sleeping trouble, raise cortisol levels and even trigger PTSD symptoms, a University of Sussex study found that just six minutes reading a book can reduce stress levels up to 68%. A study done by former journalist turned positive psychology researcher Michelle Geilan found that watching just a few minutes of negative news in the morning increases the chances of viewers reporting having had a bad day by 27%, while Barnes and Noble just reported soaring sales for books that help people deal with anxiety and find happiness. Life Time Fitness, a gym chain with locations in 27 states, recently decided that tuning their TVs to FOX News and CNN was antithetical to their mission of making people healthier, so they’ve banned the news from the gym.

Books don’t have a ‘best before’ date

As a follow-up to that post about literary FOMO, here are two related articles from Quartz.

How to read freely
This is actually the best way to read more: with abandon, instead of with resignation. Read something that surprises you. Make a list and then lose it. Don’t force yourself to finish a book you don’t like. Read the books people give you as presents, even if they seem to have completely missed the mark. Think of reading as a very long, meandering stroll—not a scavenger hunt.

The case for taking forever to finish reading books
By keeping your book in one location each time, you free yourself from the distractions of a commute or the pounding waves of a beach. As a result, a strange new relationship forms, between you, the voice of the book, and the room. Your ritual creates a singular association between the book and a quiet, private place, which in turn gives your relationship a new dimension. Your friend never leaves your room, has never seen you with makeup on, or shoes.

That last one reminded me of this piece from The Atlantic.

Reading Proust on my cellphone
My friends are amused: “But how many times do you have to swipe through those tiny pages on your cellphone to get through a single Proust sentence?” they ask. Sometimes many. Sometimes not even once. Even that record-breaking sentence, which stretches over two and a half pages in my old paperback, takes fewer than a dozen swipes. And turning the page, strange to say, is one of the nautical joys. Each finger drag is like an oar drawn through the water to keep the little glass-bottomed boat moving. After a while you’re not even aware of rowing. You’re simply looking through the glass into an endless ocean, moving silently, blindly forward.

I think my equivalent of that would be Foucault’s Pendulum. Took me three years.

Read books, not status updates

Another example of social media turning what should be a relaxing activity into a competitive sport, it seems.

Goodreads and the crushing weight of literary FOMO
Every few days or weeks, just when I started feeling positive about my biblio advancements, one of these messages would come across the transom: “Updates from…” Upon opening it, I’d find out that someone who I knew had a full-time job and active social life had finished two novels in the time it’d taken me to get through the jacket blurbs on David Sedaris’ latest essay collection. Deflation followed.

I know it’s just a light-hearted bit of filler from Wired which I shouldn’t take seriously, but surely we’re mature enough to stop comparing ourselves to others all the time? It’s a book, not a race.

Walls of beige

Remember that post about the real life Amazon bookstore with its books all facing out? Well, here’s another strange set of shelves.

In defense of keeping books spine-in
I’ve gathered that this is a controversial declaration, and that I risk inciting upset, even outrage. When, earlier this year, various publications reported on a growing trend of books shelved spine-in, many writers I know—who, by and large, are fairly big-hearted, tolerant people, respectful of differences, wary of orthodoxies—collectively lost their shit. Disgraceful, they said, appalling. No one who authentically loves books does this.

The author R.O. Kwon goes on to explain where her love of her “walls of paged-through, dog-eared beige” came from, and outlines some of the unexpected benefits of such an arrangement. It reminded me of this jokey bookshop photo that was doing the rounds some years back.

But let’s leave the last word on how we arrange our books to the poet Brian Bilston.

Less phones, more books

Ofcom have published research into just how far our internet and smartphone addiction has grown over the last ten years.

A decade of digital dependency
2008 was the year the smartphone took off in the UK. With the iPhone and Android fresh into the UK market, 17% of people owned a smartphone a decade ago. That has now reached 78%, and 95% among 16-24 year-olds. The smartphone is now the device people say they would miss the most, dominating many people’s lives in both positive and negative ways.

People in the UK now check their smartphones, on average, every 12 minutes of the waking day. Two in five adults (40%) first look at their phone within five minutes of waking up, climbing to 65% of those aged under 35. Similarly, 37% of adults check their phones five minutes before lights out, again rising to 60% of under-35s.

We’re not all hooked, though. Here’s an interesting look at a (dwindling) demographic.

Meet the 11% of Americans who don’t use the internet
“We bought the first family computer in 1998, and the kids would sit around all day, tinkering on the internet,” she says. “I watched them go from playing outside with friends, riding bikes, talking to each other, to being obsessed with the machine. It was like a switch flipped in their heads.”

While her children and husband became accustomed to the internet, Simpson brushed it off as an “unnecessary evil.” Aside from an unfruitful and frustrating attempt to find a local plumber using Ask Jeeves 19 years ago, she’s completely refrained from logging online.

For the majority of us, though, the internet and its devices follow us everywhere we go. To be deliberately offline — our default position not that long ago, remember — is starting to feel contrary and unnatural, even in our own homes.

IKEA have a plan for that, though.

less-phones-more-books-2

IKEA and the Man Booker Prize create reading rooms for relaxation
The initiative is designed to help alleviate stress and help make the home a haven again. Over half of workers (59%) feel they are under pressure to respond to emails even when they are home and have finished official work hours — which suggests that preventing the trials of workplace from entering our homes has never been more important. Sitting down and disappearing into a good book is a way to do just that.

IKEA ‘Reading Rooms’ to celebrate Man Booker longlist
Gaby Wood, literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, added: “If you associate reading with holidays then you probably associate it with indulgence. And – it’s true – reading fiction can be, at its best, a form of escapism. But that doesn’t make it a guilty pleasure. It’s more like a fast route to better health. Our homes are filled with devices that allow the digital world to encroach on our private lives.”

She urged people to “reclaim your privacy, and your imagination” through reading a book.

It seems crazy that we need a furniture store to remind us that putting the phone down now and then and picking up a book is a good thing.

A new dark age

James Bridle’s essay about those horrible YouTube videos went viral last year. It formed part of his new book, New Dark Age.

James Bridle on why technology is creating a new dark age
Bridle is already well-known for his creative critiques of modern technology, including the 2012 drone-tracking project Dronestagram, a salt circle that traps self-driving cars, and last year’s influential essay about creepy YouTube kids’ videos. New Dark Age integrates these critiques into a larger argument about the dangers of trusting computers to explain (and, increasingly, run) the world. As Bridle writes, “We know more and more about the world, while being less and less able to do anything about it.”

And, as he explains in this piece for The Observer, the problem with those YouTube videos has not gone away.

How Peppa Pig became a video nightmare for children
As a result, while many videos have since been removed from the website, uncountable numbers still remain. In March, Wired catalogued a slew of violent accounts and demonstrated that it was possible to go from a popular children’s alphabet video to a Minnie Mouse snuff film in 14 steps, just by following YouTube’s own recommendations. As of last week, Googling the title of one of the now-removed videos mentioned in the New York Times article (“PAW Patrol Babies Pretend to Die Suicide by Annabelle Hypnotized”) results in a link to a near-identical video still hosted on the site (“PAW PATROL Babies Pretend To Die MONSTER HANDS From MIRROR! Paw Patrol Animation Pups Save For Kids”), in which the adorable pups don a freakish clip-art monster mask to terrify one another before being lured off a rooftop by a haunted doll. Is “Save For Kids” supposed to read “Safe For Kids”? Either way, it is not, and it’s obvious that just playing whack-a-mole with search terms and banned accounts is never going to solve entangled problems of copyright infringement, algorithmic recommendation, and ad-driven monetary incentives on a billion-view platform with no meaningful human oversight.

[…]

The weirdness of YouTube videos, the extremism of Facebook and Twitter mobs, the latent biases of algorithmic systems: all of these have one thing in common with the internet itself, which is that – with a few dirty exceptions – nobody intentionally designed them this way. This is perhaps the strangest and most salutary lesson we can learn from these examples, if we choose to learn at all. The weirdness and violence they produce seems to be in direct correlation to how little we understand their workings – and how much is hidden from us, deliberately or otherwise, by the demands of efficiency and ease of use, corporate and national secrecy, and sheer, planet-spanning scale. We live in an age characterised by the violence and breakdown of such systems, from global capitalism to the balance of the climate. If there is any hope for those exposed to its excesses from the cradle, it might be that they will be the first generation capable of thinking about global complexity in ways that increase, rather than reduce, the agency of all of us.