So many books

When we can, we should read for quality’s sake: savoring every book, re-reading the ones that enchant us most. Yet at the same time, not every essential read is worth savoring. Speed reading is useful for the accumulation of necessary knowledge. Slow reading is essential for the appreciation of written beauty. Perhaps our best reading choices lie at the junction of quality and quantity: we can speed read tedious or secondary works, then slowly absorb the masterpieces worth relishing.

via George Vanderbilt & The Reading of Many Books | The American Conservative.

Friday Special: The FBI Investigation Manual

English: The Seal of the United States Federal...

English: The Seal of the FBI. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Manual of Investigative Operations and Guidelines (MIOG)

I’m on a plane somewhere over the Pacific at the moment, but thought I would share this.

From the wonderful people over at the Black Vault, without question one of the world’s top two sources of documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, the complete Manual of Investigative Operations and Guidelines used as the core textbook by the FBI.

Hold onto your hats if you decide to start downloading – the manual is some 3,700 pages long and will comfortably occupy a little over 180mb of storage. But if you are a serious otaku or just really curious, this is a little treasure.

Insights on E-Books in China

A Picture of a eBook Español: Foto de eBook Бе...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of us English speakers here in China focus on the debate over e-books and the future of publishing as it applies in a global context, but what is interesting is how the matter is unfolding here in China

Reading through an old article from the Beijing Review (not to be confused with this site, and whose website seems to be unresponsive now), I made notes on three insights that caught my eye.

Ebooks are just alright with me

First, that except for the most partisan ebook advocates, most of the folks in the publishing business are taking things rather calmly.

Print publishing’s dominance is set to wane, but is unlikely to perish. Chances are e-books will coexist with paper books in the very long term, and each form will enjoy comparable market shares. But the influence of e-books will grow and they will eventually play a dominant role.

This might have something to do with the rather parlous state of the publishing industry in China (it is something less than an industry but something more than a bunch of government printing houses where nobody is making very much money,) but it is a much more even-handed approach than some of the denial, anger, and resistance we often hear from voices in the western industry (take Jonathan Franzen‘s reactionary luddite screed as one extreme example).

The Bureaucrats will be the tough nuts

If there is one country that cannot afford to kill all of the trees necessary to put books in the hands of its people, it would be China. Yet perhaps the most conservative part of the Chinese government is the biggest gatekeeper to the widespread adoption of ebooks: the Ministry of Education. Tens of millions of students need textbooks each year, and rather than start distributing them on everything from tablets to phones, the government is standing in the way. According to one industry spokesman quoted in the article:

Technically, we will need five to 10 years to address security and stability concerns over e-books, in order to convince the Ministry of Education that e-books are right for students.

I suspect the Ministry will find itself left in the dust as its students adopt e-books with great speed. Eventually, they’ll be playing catch-up. On the other hand, the MOE’s first concern is ideological correctness of the population. Educating the masses remains secondary.

Books are Too Long

The last insight is particularly amusing. Apparently not realizing that its audience is both literate and (while young) getting older by the minute, publishers are operating under the impression that they’re going to have to change formats to get people to read e-books.

Readers of e-books are much younger than those of print publications, particularly in literature. As a result, we have first to address the age differences when working on e-editions, otherwise, the chances for success will be slim. For example, we can cut full-length novels into short stories, which are easier to read.

That’s it! To get more people reading e-books, we simply slice them into small edible bits! Except that a) readers are already taking the full books, b) many will see the slicing and dicing as a way to get more money for the same book, and c) they should be encouraging more short stories rather than slashing the length of novels.

Cutting novels down to fit a format reminds me of that great line in the movie Amadeus when Emperor Joseph II tells Mozart that his work has “too many notes.”

Takeaway: publishers don’t get what makes e-books work any more than the Ministry of Education. They still have much to learn.

Editorial: Letters Ex Manhattan

One of the great blessings of American literature is that, unlike that of many less diverse nations and cultures, ours benefits from the inspiration offered in the geographic diversity of the land. It is sad, therefore, that so many intelligent champions of American letters would prefer that we have but a single literary Mecca. A nation can only have one intellectual capital. As France has Paris, so must America have New York. To defend such a proposition, and perhaps to justify living in a city that is as likely to brutalize an author as it is to celebrate him or her, some of New York’s most ardent boosters go to great pains to make the case that for the writer or the book-minded, there is no place to be but New York City.

In an article entitled “City Lights,” writer and biographer Stefan Kanfer offers us a notable example of such Metropolitan hyperbole. To support his point, he gives endless examples of writers from Washington Irving to Jonathan Franzen who have made New York their home.

Kanfer is most loquacious when answering the infidel literati who rejected the Big Apple:

Ernest Hemingway found the literary city repulsive; in Green Hills of Africa, he called New York writers “angleworms in a bottle.” And H. L. Mencken demanded, “Have you ever noticed that no American writer of any consequence lives in Manhattan? Dreiser tried it (after many years in the Bronx), but finally fled to California.”

Mencken, notorious for his contrarian screeds, was wrong. So was Hemingway. In addition to Singer, five recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature have found New York’s attractions too powerful to resist: Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, and Toni Morrison. Philip Roth and John Updike took apartments there; Norman Mailer never left town. Along the way, The New Yorker stopped being quite so closed and began to publish the likes of J. D. Salinger, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alice Munro, and Vladimir Nabokov.


This is exactly the kind of defensive self-justification cum effusive self-congratulation for which New York must own the patent given its frequent use by the city’s fanboyim. A steady flow of this tiresome spew has poured from the pens, typewriters, and laptops of Gotham for over a century, and the sole effect outside of New Amsterdam’s legion of besotted admirers has been a roll of the eyes and a turn of the page.

I submit that there are far simpler and less mystical reasons for New York’s role as a literary gravity-well than Mr. Kanfer’s pean would seem to suggest. Those include:

  • New York is where the publishers are, and most writers find it convenient to be near the largest critical mass of markets for their work, whether they want to be there or not. One of Kanfer’s Nobel Laureates, Toni Morrison, came to New York to be an editor in a publishing house, not because of some mystic magnet.
  • Writing is a lonely profession, and the proximity of a sympathetic support group of peers, both more and less talented, is a comfort to all, especially the struggling and the poseurs, (the latter whom find it much easier to justify their unpublished status to their loved ones and themselves because at least they are in the center of the action.)
  • New York is home to an overlarge community of grossly wealthy idle and nouveau riche, especially from among the financial community, who patronize the belles letters as a means of embellishing their unearned or under earned lucre with a patina of culture.
  • Writers are celebrated, tolerated, and venerated in New York like nowhere else on the planet. Such ego infusions are heady, addictive stuff.

Hardly the stuff of impassioned tributes, I know, but without doubt more reflective of some basic truths that reflect the uglier side of the vocation of letters.

As for me, I side with Mencken, Hemingway, Drieser, Hunter Thompson, Raymond Chandler, and all of the others who had the fortitude and dignity to ply their craft far from the shores of the Hudson. How much greater the triumph of a writer laboring without the support of editors, agents, patrons, and fellows in close proximity.

And, for the record, New York has no especial claim on Nobel Laureates in Literature: Steinbeck did his best work in California, Lewis in Washington, DC, Bellow in the Midwest and Boston; Hemingway, Pearl Buck and Joseph Brodsky avoided the place.

The truth is, America is blessed to have a geographically diverse literary tradition, so much so that one could almost make a lifetime study of the literature of New England (less New York City), of the South, of the West, and California.

Dismount your horses, Tribunes of Gotham. You are all wonderful and do great work. To pretend that literature begins and ends in your precincts does an injustice to literature and an injustice to New York.

The “Why” of Personal Archives

Last week a friend and I were debating whether I had lost my mind, archiving articles I had read and enjoyed either in Evernote or as PDFs on my hard drive. His point was simple, and one I have heard made often. “Why should I archive stuff on my hard drive,” he asked. “If I ever want it again, it will be there for me with a quick search on Google.”

His words struck me today as I was going back through a folder of articles about writing that I had culled from the Internet. I wanted to move those onto Instapaper so I could read them en masse in advance of jumping into my first book project, after which I would archive the articles to Evernote and toss the PDFs

So I input the links conveniently saved at the bottom of each pdf page, expecting to call up these articles on the web, just as I had found them originally.

No such luck. Fully half of the articles were either gone, behind paywalls, or only available through a paid archiving service.

Was I surprised? Yes.

See, what really got me started on info-hoarding was my desire to be able to refer to a library of electronic resources even if the Chinese government should pull the plug on access to my preferred sites. Paranoid? Perhaps. But I have lived in China long enough to remember the days when The New York Times, The Washington Post, and dozens of other publications of record were blocked and there was no consistent means around the blockage. The bad old days may be gone, but nobody who understands China is betting that they are gone forever.

I had never really conceived that the information would go away courtesy of the nice people who created it. But it has. Some I have lost because I no longer pay the freight of subscriptions (FT wants $260 per year, Economist $130), some have firewalls (many Department of Defense websites do not seem to like Chinese IP addresses), some have moved (like my International Herald Tribune links) and some are really just gone.

The point of all of this is simple: we provide a lot of links to some interesting (and, for the moment, free) books and book-length works. Take advantage of the price and availability while you can: there is no guarantee, in this age where The Great Internet Enclosure Movement meets the Digital Commons, that any of it will be free for long.