Kindle links: Kindle Unlimited, reading experience

The new Kindle Unlimited campaign is smoking out new opinions on Amazon's strategy [1]. I liked this comparison of the Kindle to the iPod's early days, and the evolution from buying single songs to streaming music services (Songza is my favorite). The lack of privacy is of concern to the writer, though buying a Kindle or even having an Amazon account means you have opted for convenience over privacy. The local public library (funded by your tax dollars) may offer a little more in the way of privacy and choice (thanks to librarians, not the government) -- some observers are not all that excited by the books on offer via the Kindle lending library or Kindle Unlimited. Of course, paying with cash at your local new or used bookstore may circumvent privacy and choice concerns.

Austin Kleon (via his marvelous weekly mailing) pointed me to this critique of the Kindle by a new reader. Pierce makes some sharp observations about the Kindle, especially how the designers chose to glorify the device over the book you're reading. He also has reservations about the shared-passages feature of Kindle e-books; it's as if someone is reading over your shoulder and turns what has traditionally been a private experience into an unasked-for shared one.

And I also have the sense he describes of the Kindle separating me from the traditional reading experience. Many books on my shelves double as physical objects I formed a relationship with -- they're signed by the authors, I read this one during that long week in Anaheim, I read this one when I was unemployed and it led me to read these other books, etc.  The reading experience is different on a Kindle; my memories of a book will now be associated to a device rather than a book. Instead of forming a relationship to the book I'm devising a relationship to the device.

For example, if I'm going on a trip and I only have room to carry two books in my bag, then I'm making a commitment to give these books a chance. There are physical consequences of weight and comfort to consider, but I'm also promising myself that I will put in the time to read them. With the Kindle, though, I have maybe 50 or so books and collections I've downloaded. Which do I read first, which do I commit to? Does it really matter, since I can choose to flip in a moment from this essay collection to that novel to that e-book written by a friend? No one book will have my full committed attention unless I delete all the others from the device, because it's the device I've committed to, rather than the e-book.

Or such is my current improvised line of thinking on this sunny and beautiful Sunday afternoon, where I am skimming web pages and writing blog posts rather than sitting down to read a book.

[1] I do not plan to sign up for the service at this time. I already have more books than I can eat on my Kindle. And I have more movies in my Netflix queue than I could see if I had a week off. ^

Once upon a time, 12 years ago to be precise, David Bowie said something very perceptive. “Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity,” he told a New York Times reporter. “So it’s like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You’d better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left. It’s terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn’t matter if you think it’s exciting or not; it’s what’s going to happen.”

I’ve begun reading Kenny Moore’s biography Bowerman and the Men of Oregon and have repeatedly been struck by the activity — physical and mental — of Bill Bowerman, his family, and just about everybody else mentioned. People go canoeing; they work long hours to pay their tuition bills; they teach, raise kids, and build houses. When they go to a track meet, they shriek and cheer for the home team. In stark contrast to modern life, nobody seems to sit passively in front of a TV set.

It reminds me of an observation in David Mamet’s movie State and Main:

Everybody makes their own fun. If you don’t make it yourself, it isn’t fun. It’s entertainment.

Miss Marple

Before we left on our England trip, I loaded up the Kindle with a few hundredweight of e-books thinking, "Oho, eight hours on the flight over, eight hours on the flight back, three weeks of travel -- I'll certainly rip through more than a dozen books!" When I write up my lessons learned from the trip, we'll talk more about the grand foolishness of that master plan (and the foolishness of master plans in general).

Joan Hickson

But I did in fact read a couple of e-books, one of which gave me mild but very real pleasure -- namely, Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories, which Amazon helpfully priced at about $2 or $3 just before the trip. I remembered the old BBC series fondly and thought I'd give the old girl a whirl.

I am not up to date or even well read in the classic country-house English mystery genre. Christie's books, and the Marple stories and novels in particular, are referred to, I believe, as "cozies" -- an established set of characters who form the suspects and allies, a rather hermetic and contrived environment, and, my golly, lots of exposition and talking heads. No chasing bad guys through the bog or fisticuffs on a pitched roof. No, the primary action in a Miss Marple short story is of the women knitting or the men drinking and smoking cigars.

Nowadays, I expect an author would create a backstory for  Miss Jane Marple that would explain all: was she always solving mysteries? Had she ever been in love? What did she do during the wars? Does she navigate the thorny politics of planning church fêtes as easily as she does a murder investigation?

Part of a detective story's fun is that the detective is himself the central mystery: what is the alchemical mix that makes them who we see in the story? I found myself reading the Marple stories for clues to her character, since I found her easily the most fascinating and unsolved mystery in the entire book.

As I read the stories, I kept hearing Joan Hickson, who played Miss Marple in the 1980s-era BBC series that dramatized the novels. I watched them all on Netflix over the last month. As with the stories, the most interesting bits are where Miss Marple talks about the past and her memories, yet without giving away any personal details. There are tender moments in some of the episodes where she commiserates with other old ladies; the gravity and weight of their age, and their invisibility in this strange modern world, are brought to gnawing life by the elderly character actresses.

The antiqueness of the Marple plots and the settings was in cases matched by the slow pace and staid staging of the episodes. The series was praised in its time for hewing closely to the novels and not substantially changing them (a claim recent series based on the Marple mysteries cannot make, so I hear), and I believe the novels mostly consist of people being questioned.  Still, I couldn't quite believe how amateurishly filmed and staged was "A Murder is Announced," even though it has some of my favorite Marple dialogues and observations.

The acting is also variable, though one can catch a few young actors on their way up, such as Tom Wilkinson, who even in his younger days looked like an old member of the Establishment. Throughout though, is Hickson's busybodyish, soft-spoken, observant, and shrewd Miss Marple. There is a stillness to Hickson's Marple that arrests me; she is an old lady sitting in a chair by the fire, listening to the radio, her mind wandering who knows where, who will suddenly rouse herself to ask a pointed question that no one had thought to ask before. It's a dear and charming performance.

I thought the strongest stories of the series were "A Pocketful of Rye," "Sleeping Murder," and "Nemesis." And a wonderful little bonus for me: in "Nemesis," Chipping Campden serves as the setting for the village Miss Marple visits to investigate a case, with several scenes set in and around St. James Church, where we had been only a few weeks before.

I once made a TV show about an installation by the artist Spencer Tunick, who makes his work out of the naked flesh of human beings. Above the sparkling Tyne, 1,700 people stripped off at dusk and lay across the Millennium Bridge between Gateshead and Newcastle. It was a beautiful and affecting sight. Milling around before and after the installation took place, chatting to the participants, I learned two things: 1) Nudity is completely unsexy when you are surrounded by it; and 2) Never interview a man who is sitting bare-arsed on a bar stool live on television. His squashed-up devil’s bagpipes will be right in your eyeline and it will be terribly distracting.

On a good day, you look at yourself like, I’m preserving American history: I’m an archeologist. But the bottom line is that there’s seriously something wrong… I think it’s funny that you even call it art… I think it’s more of a disease. There has to be something really wrong with you to want to possess these objects in the first place. You have to have them, and it’s never enough, and you get that strange, tingly feeling when you get one. Anyone who collects anything is obsessive-compulsive and neurotic. The need to put things in order, to file by number, to alphabetize and label, to be constantly reassessing how you’ve ordered things-that’s neurotic behavior… I’ve never met [another 78 collector] who wasn’t like, ‘This is sick, we’re all sick’… When I finally gave in and started buying 78s, it was a conscious decision to embrace my sickness… there has to be something in your mind that says, ‘I give up.’

Any of the better anthologies of 78s – Revenant’s “American Primitive” volumes, Old Hat Records’ “Down in the Basement,” anything produced, compiled, or contributed to by Christopher King – serve as a stunning refutation of homogenized mass culture. “Authenticity” is the word that usually gets tossed around by everyone from casual fan to connoisseur, but in this case it’s true, and it is rare to find anyone not shaken by hearing recorded music free of technological manipulations and mass-market compromises. These are transmissions from a lost world, and the boundless range of idiosyncratic regional voices, heard through decades of accumulated crackle and hiss, often sounds like messages from American’s collective unconscious. Add to that the pathos of the records having barely survived a largely indifferent populace, poor storage and the savagery of worn Victrola needles…

“One thing I came to realize after college was that the search for purpose is really a search for a place, not an idea,’’ Gawande told the crowd of approximately 33,000 graduates, family and friends. “It is a search for a location in the world where you want to be part of making things better for others in our own small way.

“…If you find yourself in a place where you stop caring — where your greatest concern becomes only you — get out of there. You want to put yourself in a place that suits who you are, links you to others and gives you a purpose larger than yourself in some way.”

It is still the place where risks can be taken. When on Earth did the West End ever do a new play which hadn’t been developed somewhere else – usually at the National or the Royal Court or the regions? Commercial managements just don’t take that sort of risk. My West End producer used to say to me, ‘We’re in the giggle business, darling.’ And I’d sort of agree with him, but while I’m all for giggles, I’d also hope that some of what we do would be remembered for a little bit more than just that.

Stevereads on BookTube

Steve Donoghue at Stevereads writes about BookTube, a YouTube community devoted to booklovers. It's a fun survey of what he loves, dislikes, and questions about the community (why do so many of the vloggers tout Young Adult novels?). But his joy in the community is in their joy at sharing what they love, particularly the contents of their bookshelves and their bookhauls. Steve shares his own pile o' books from a single day's trawling and it's truly breathtaking. I adore his aside that he doesn't keep a TBR ("to be read") pile, because they will all get read.

His haul reminds me of my 20s and 30s when my friend Scott and I would do a book-crawl through all the used bookstores in Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. I would often trudge home with bags o' books, less than half of which I ever read, probably. For me, it was always the thrill of the hunt and the serendipitous discovery -- the actual sitting down and reading always seemed a little more dutiful and less fun. Which for a booklover and reader like myself is an odd thing to say, but kind of true. I had more time to read then, I think, but used it less.

In my defense, when my obsession for a particular author or subject took me over -- like Chekhov or Hazlitt or Kotzwinkle or Montaigne or Delacroix -- I would scarf down whatever I could till only crumbs were left.

Blogs I Like: Sitcom Geek

Since then, comedy has always flickered in the background. I've been interested in comedy as a performer (when I acted in college and community theatre, it tended to be in comedies), as a consumer (watching classic sitcoms via Netflix is quite relaxing ["Wings" is my current before-bedtime snack], "The Big Bang Theory" reruns are fun to watch while eating supper, and the Flying Karamazov Bros. are funny as hell), and as a writer/critic (what was Bill Hicks up to? what the hell is Dan Harmon doing with those bloody circles?  how does telling three mini-stories in a single Big Bang episode change the viewing experience compared to a 1977 Mary Tyler Moore episode that focused on only one story for 25 minutes?).

As you can tell from that last paragraph, I have a sort of engineering relationship with comedy. I love reading about what makes comedy work. (Disclaimer: I've never written any skits or humor pieces.) If you see me watching a sitcom or standup special, I may nod, smile, occasionally bark out a laugh. Thing is, what I'm mainly doing is studying the structure, trying to guess where the joke is going, and also kind of watching it like I'd listen to an orchestra -- keeping an ear out for the unique sound or the pattern that's holding everything together, while remaining open to be surprised and delighted.

Over the last few years, I've been reading about comedy and comedy writers (And Here's the Kicker is great place to start), listening to comedy writing podcasts, and particularly enjoying James Cary's blog, "Sitcom Geek."

Cary set his sights on being a comedy writer long ago, writing shows for the Fringe festival, radio skit programs, sitcoms for radio and TV, and more. I enjoy his take on the writer's life from the British comedy writer's point of view, which is not all that different from any other writer's point of view: work hard and you may be rewarded but it's more likely you won't be, so keep working, get better, and try again. And his views on what makes a sitcom work or not work, appraising classic shows and modern alike for what they do that's worth noticing.

My favorite kinds of posts are when he praises the work of those he admires: this tribute to Bob Larbey, who co-wrote on our favorite sitcoms, "The Good Life," was tremendous fun to read. (That photo of Larbey makes him look like a mashup of Jay Leno and Marty Feldman.)

My other favorite posts of his are when he talks about the business of sitcom (the state of the industry, the primacy of hard work and solving problems, incremental improvements, advice to young writers) and the structure of sitcom (characters, plot, theme, research, performance). As someone experienced in the business, he's great at pointing at a comedic success while saying, "Look, did you see how long it took them to devise that concept? How long it took them to write it?" He's also pretty frank about not holding on to sour apples or grapes: if the BBC passed on your script but accepted a script almost exactly like it, it doesn't pay to kick up a fuss. Maybe their script was better, cheaper, hit the accepting editor on a good day -- it doesn't pay to get too up in your head and resentful about this business. Get back to work, figure out your characters' motivations, bring the funny. In other words: Keep writing.

His post "Theoretically Funny" is a great example of the kind of post I just eat up. These aren't templates for writing stories; if anything, they may be more helpful as ways to diagnose why a particular kind of story is going wrong. But they show the bones, the structure, the logistics of a particular kind of storytelling that not only has to make an emotional impact on a viewer, but also deliver a laugh every 20 seconds.