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June 18, 2012

The Famous NJ Turnpike Witch

Most fiction is crap. Often the plot is arbitrary or unsurprising. More often, the you can see the author’s plans behind the writing: The author needs a brainy nerd, a wisecracking minor character, a mysterious presence, someone with the key to the jalopy. Whatever. The characters, the plot, the entire mess feels constructed. Which is usually the opposite of art. (This is certainly true of my pathetic stabs at fiction.)

Then, of course, there are the magicians. John Updike could make you feel you were inhabiting a real person within a single paragraph. I’m reading Philip Roth’s Nemesis now, and while I often find Roth’s world unpleasant to live in, I find myself in that world without any sense of Roth standing between it and me.

So, meet Brad Abruzzi. Brad was a Berkman Fellow last year, and we hit it off. Brad was also a lawyer in Harvard’s Office of the General Counsel, and I got to know him in that capacity since he was a silent hero in the effort to negotiate the freedom of 12M+ bibliographic records from Harvard Library. He has since moved to MIT, which is too bad for Harvard. I like Brad a lot.

But I had no idea, none at all, that he is a fiction writer whose work is the opposite of crap. You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but the guy can write. Of course, I don’t know what I would expect a good fiction writer to look like, short of a beret and a thick coat of pretension.

I downloaded Brad’s novel New Jersey’s Famous Turnpike Witch with trepidation, figuring I’d have to say something nice to him about it while technically salvaging my integrity through some clever, noncommital choice of words. But NJFTPW is just wonderful. I’m only 70% through, and I’ll let you know how the whole thing goes, but I’m loving it so far. Brad has created a skewed world in which the NJ Turnpike is its own realm, with its own culture, sociology, and politics. The fulcrum of the story is Alice, a performance artist who — implausibly, until you realize that this is not the NJ Turnpike you’re used to driving — is beloved by the long lines of cars she ties up with her antics. The story is brimming with characters, none stock, most somewhat over-the-top, each richly imagined and each with her or his own unexpected history — funny short stories on their own. Brad, it turns out, is endlessly inventive. You would never ever read back from this book and figure it was probably written by a Harvard-MIT lawyer.

This is a really good book. Once you give into its absurd premises, it follows a logic that makes sense as it unfolds. It’s funny, satiric, frequently hilarious, and full of sentences you’ll re-read because they’re that enjoyable.

Holy cow, Brad! Holy holy cow.

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June 15, 2012

Interop: The podcast

My Radio Berkman interview of John Palfrey and Urs Gasser about their suprisingly wide-ranging book Interop is now up, as is the video of their Berkman book talk…

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April 1, 2012

Books by Friends: Write Hard, Die Free

Howard Weaver’s Write Hard, Die Free is a two-fisted memoir of how The Anchorage Daily News — a newspaper he helped found and then edited — went on to win two Pulitzer prizes and defeat the established major daily, which was, according to Howard, an oil industry mouthpiece. It’s an entertaining story of scoops, legwork, drinking, and camaraderie.

It’s also a reminder of an age that now seems as distant as the cowboys, although it was only a couple of decades ago. In part that’s because Alaska remains a frontier state, but it’s also because, while the future of newspapers is unknown, the days of brawlin’ reporters are over.

Write Hard, Die Free (I love the title) is, as they say, a good read, and a reminder of a time not as distant as it already seems.

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February 29, 2012

Apple blocking books that link to Amazon

Seth Godin reports that the Apple store is refusing to carry his new book:

I just found out that Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) is rejecting my new manifesto Stop Stealing Dreams and won’t carry it in their store because inside the manifesto are links to buy the books I mention in the bibliography.

Quoting here from their note to me, rejecting the book: “Multiple links to Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) store…

We’re heading to a world where there are just a handful of influential bookstores (Amazon, Apple, Nook…) and one by one, the principles of open access are disappearing. Apple, apparently, won’t carry an ebook that contains a link to buy a hardcover book from Amazon.

Seth is properly nervous about imposing demands on private companies about what they will or will not carry. But he finds what I think is the right argument in this case. first, the online marketplace for books simply as a matter of fact is dominated by three players: Apple, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. This dominance imposes particular responsibilities for keeping such a crucial enabler of our culture open. Second, the vertical integration of this market — the dominate sellers of ebook hardware are also the dominant sellers of ebooks — imposes a similar cultural obligation.

Seth concludes:

I think that Amazon and Apple and B&N need to take a deep breath and make a decision on principle: what’s inside the book shouldn’t be of concern to a bookstore with a substantial choke on the marketplace. If it’s legal, they ought to let people read it if they choose to.

(PS: It is genuinely irrelevant that the example of a book Seth was linking to is Too Big to Know. Although it pleases me to be linked to by Seth :)

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January 17, 2012

Elmore Leonard and Morgan Freeman

Meredith Sue Willis, novelist and teacher (and my sister-in-law), has a hunch about a “newish” Elmore Leonard novel:

I have a theory that Elmore Leonard came up with the idea for DJIBOUTI from a combination of headlines (piracy off the coast of east Africa) and a interview in which movie actor Morgan Freeman complained that he gets lots of work, but never gets to have sex in his movies. He has played Nelson Mandela, the corner man in MILLION DOLLAR BABY, not to mention God a couple of times- -all pretty much asexual. So my little scenario is that Leonard, who always has his eye on the movies, wrote the character of seventy-ish Xavier in DJIBOUTI for Freeman. Just a thought.

Nice!

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December 17, 2011

D is for Digital

D is for Digital

I’m enjoying a book by Brian Kernighan — yes, that Brian Kernighan — based on a course he’s been teaching at Princeton called “Computers in Our World.” D is for Digital is a clear, straightfoward, grownup introduction to computers: hardware and software, programming, and the Internet. [Disclosure: Brian wrote some of during his year as a fellow at the Berkman Center.]

D is for Digital is brief, but it drives its topics down to the nuts and bolts, which is a helpful reminder that all the magic on your screen is grounded in some very real wires and voltages. Likewise, Brian has a chapter on how to program, taking Javascript as his example. He does not back away from talking about libraries and APIs. He even explains public key encryption clearly enough that even I understand it. (Of course, I have frequently understood it for up to fifteen minutes at a time.) There are a few spots where the explanations are not quite complete enough — his comparison of programming languages doesn’t tell us enough about the differences — but they are rare indeed. Even so, I like that this book doesn’t pander to the reader.

D is for Digital would be a nice stocking stuffer with Blown to Bits by Harold Abelson, Ken Ledeen, Harry R. Lewis, which is an introduction to computers within the context of policy debates. Both are excellent. Together they are excellent squared.

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October 17, 2011

[2b2k] Bookbinding and the Digital Bible

Avi Solomon at BoingBoing has a terrific interview with Michael Greer about the appeal of bookbinding, and about Michael’s “Digital Bible.”

I love the photo:

Digital Bible: Book with ones and zeroes as text

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September 23, 2011

Tim Spalding on what libraries can learn from LibraryThing

I’m a huge admirer of LibraryThing for its innovative spirit, ability to scale social interactions, and its adding value to books. So, I was very happy to have a chance to interview Tim Spalding, its founder, for a Library Lab podcast, which is now posted.

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September 22, 2011

Two book notes

My podcast interview of Yochai Benkler about his excellent new book, The Penguin and the Leviathan has been posted. Yochai makes brilliantly (of course) a case that shouldn’t need making, but that in fact does very much need to be made: that we are collaborative, social, cooperative creatures. Your unselfish genes will thoroughly enjoy this book.

And, Joseph Reagle has promulgated the following email about his excellent, insightful book that explores the subtleties of the social structures that enable Wikipedia to accomplish its goal of being a great encyclopedia:

I’m pleased to announce that the Web/CC edition of *Good Faith Collaboration* is now available. In addition to all of the book’s complete content, hypertextual goodness, and fixed errata, there is a new preface discussing some of the particulars of this edition.

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September 15, 2011

Book notice

As Publishers Weekly puts it, in June ebooks jumped while print plunged:

  • $80.2MM e-books

  • $84.9MM hardcover

  • $48.4MM trade paperback

  • $47.4MM mass-market paperback

Adult paperbacks were down 64% in that month.

empty bookstore
Discussion at Reddit

Well before the last press has punched out its last paper book, we will have switched to thinking that p-books are print-outs of e-books. That’s when the switch will have been made, just as occurred when we switched from typewriters to word processors. That Day of the Modifier — when physical books need a modifier to specify them — is coming fast.

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