March, 2009

Mar 09

Use of Weapons, by Iain M. Banks

Got this sci-fi recommendation from several friends — took me a long time to read & get into, though. Finally finished it this weekend, and liked it enough to read more of his books, although not right away. This book is in an interesting context, with an unusual narrative structure that’s pretty disorienting to start with, but in hindsight makes a ton of sense. Banks’ work is mostly set in the same context — they’re all called “A Culture Novel,” where the Culture is a group of, you know, thingys. So not my favorite ever, but I enjoyed this one well enough to try to understand Banks a little bit more.

Mar 09

Kindle & Kindle-on-iPhone

I was pretty sure that the iPhone Kindle app would be sort of neat, but not ultimately very useful. After a week with it, I will say this: I was wrong. It’s important, and is already changing my relationship with the books that I read.

To start with, a few pieces of context. I’ve had the first generation Kindle since it came out; got the 2nd generation Kindle (verdict: betterish) when it came out — so now my wife & I are each reading on a Kindle. And we use 1st & 2nd generation iPhones as well. We have a lot of screens. It’s a little ridiculous.

Anyway, I’ve read maybe 50 books on Kindles now — I probably do about half of my book reading on the Kindle. (And none of my newsreading, which is 100% web; and very little of my magazine reading — but The New Yorker on Kindle is growing on me quickly now — suspect The Atlantic won’t be far behind.)

And so the first thing you need to know about all the various Kindle reviews on the web is this: throw them all out. People read differently — everyone is unique in their relationship to (especially) long form writing — what we usually call books. Many, many reviewers on the web have been reviewing the Kindle like they’d review a new laptop or a new cell phone — pick it up, play with the features, make some conclusions & write them up. But I’d wager that a very high percentage of these reviewers don’t read that many long form books, and wrote their reviews, in order to be timely, before they’d really spent much reading time, let alone notetaking, highlighting, etc. That makes a real difference, and I think makes most reviews very very suspect.

When you get time with the Kindle to read longer books, you realize the reflective nature of the eInk page, while far from perfect, is much better for reading lots of pages than an LCD screen is — way easier on your eyes, much more natural feeling. And while everyone wants to touch the text, I think a touch screen is not actually ideal for reading — smudges will be brutal — especially for a non-backlit screen.

So while I was early to try the iPhone app, I was pretty dismissive of it — didn’t think I would use it at all.

But I have, a lot, and it’s changing the way I think about my books. I’ve found myself reading more when out & about — while waiting for my oil change the other day, in between meetings while traveling, etc — all on the iPhone. Because my books are synced — so I have my content with me all the time, and know what page I’m on all the time — it’s easier to read them because I’m more likely to have them with me, in one form or another. Which means that I’ve been keeping the threads of each book more present in my head, which tends to reinforce my desire to read more, as opposed to alternative timewasting activities (especially when traveling) like news reading, video watching, or iPhone Yahtzee playing (I’m addicted, a little, but I could totally stop any time I wanted to.)

So this is sort of a shocking development for me: the iPhone Kindle + physical Kindle + library of books in the cloud is actually extending my attention span and increasing my reading, which has been on the decline for the past few years. It’s making me want all my books to be cloud-accessible and sharable with Kathy’s Kindle, too (not to mention others in my friends & family circles). The ability to view notes on the iPhone means that I can blog books with quotes even without the Kindle, which was a challenge before.

And so it makes me want to have my long form reading content + notes available & searchable on my laptop as well, naturally.

So you can see where things are heading: the utility of having ubiquitous access to content will ultimately trump the old forms. There’s no going back. I said it when I first got my Kindle, and it remains truer than ever: I thought that it was books that I really loved — but I was wrong — it’s reading longer form articles & stories & novels & histories — it’s the words and ideas and flow that I really love.

Happily, the Kindle ecosystem reinforces that feeling a ton — surprised & pleased.

[and yes, the DRM is killing me. it really gets in the way of legitimate book-type sharing. i really don’t like the closed nature of the system. but i think, like music, that this will fall over time.]

Mar 09

Obama’s Challenge, by Robert Kuttner

Not sure why I picked this up — have been thinking a bunch about what it means to lead, how to do it, what responsibilities are. This is an interesting & useful book — I got a lot out of reading it.

[As a first disclaimer: obviously, a lot is happening now with both the stimulus package and Obama’s proposed budget. I don’t pretend to understand most of it. The stimulus seems, to me, to be the right thing to do given the current recession. The budget is more complicated and has farther reaching implications. I’m generally in favor of universal health care, don’t mind paying higher taxes, and think the overall focus on energy, education & health is right on. But the size of the deficits and the accumulated debt do worry me a lot.]

Anyway, what I liked about this book, written before Obama was actually elected, is that Kuttner goes through some presidents that didn’t just triangulate public opinion, but changed the nature of the US, the way we talked and thought about our obligations. Here are a few good quotes:

“As Doris Kearns Goodwin observes, all of the great presidents used their leadership first to transform the public understanding of national challenges and then to break through impasses made up of congressional blockage, interest-group power, voter cynicism or passivity, and conventional wisdom. In different ways, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson found allies, respectively, in the abolitionist movement, the labor movement, and the civil rights movement, as well as the press and the general public. Each president grew immensely in office. Each changed the national mood, then the direction of national policy.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the challenge for Obama. Said another way:

“Obama will need to be a more radical president than he was a presidential candidate. Radical does not mean outside the mainstream. It means perceiving, as a leader, that radical change is necessary, discerning tacit aspirations and unmet needs in the people, and then making that radical change the mainstream view for which people clamor.”

There will be lots of debate, questioning, and argument about where the US should go — that’s good & right, and should happen. That it happen in a transparent & open way is crucial, and I think that that’s happening, irrespective of any particular policies in the first 60 days.

But a long way to go, so we’ll see what happens — in any event, this book helped me think through the challenge of leading from the Oval Office, and the opportunity as well.

Mar 09

Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder

Many, many people have recommended this book to me — a story about a great human (Paul Farmer), written by an author I really like (Tracy Kidder). But for whatever reason, I’ve had a hard time getting through it. I didn’t find the subject matter as personally compelling as Kidder’s seminal work, The Soul of a New Machine (which I’ve read several times and is a very important book — sort of a proto-Microserfs :-)).

I think I found the writing on this one a little flat, and the story a little repetitious.

But I have to say that the man, Paul Farmer, is incredible and inspirational and amazing. Obviously a hero of the highest order, and someone who decided to change the world and did, in a very positive way. His work has centered in (especially) Haiti, Peru & Russia — work dedicated to improving the health of the poor — in particular tuberculosis and AIDS. He’s done great, thoughtful indefatigable work, and this is a story that everyone should know and cheer.

Mar 09

The Girl Who Played With Fire, by Stieg Larsson

I really liked the first book in this posthumously-published trilogy by Stieg Larsson — it was a fun locked room mystery. So I was a little disappointed that this, the 2nd book, wouldn’t be published here in the US until summer of this year.

But happily, the UK edition came out in January, and I happened to be going through Heathrow, so picked it up. (And proceeded to carry the 600 page giant airport edition bookstop through 4 countries before getting it home. 🙂

The verdict, for me, is that this is a solid offering that gives a ton of backstory into the protagonists, but isn’t nearly as fun as the first book, which was much tighter, although really slow at the end. This book, by contrast, was sort of all over the place for the first 200 pages or so, then turned into a well-paced thriller for the last 400, but not as fun a mystery, really (and not that hard to figure out).

But worth reading, and I’ll pick up the 3rd book when the English-language translation comes out in a year or so.

(Let me know if anyone in the States wants to borrow my UK copy!)