The curatorial twitch

One of George Bowbrick's books - full of newspaper and magazine cuttings

My dad was book mad. He owned a couple of thousand books, mostly non-fiction. He was an old-school, working class, self-taught polymath, a bus conductor-know-all (I’ve written about his dictionaries before). And he had this habit. He would snip cuttings from newspapers and magazines. Almost daily he’d snip a story of some import and file it away inside one of his many books.

And there was method in this compulsive snipping and filing. The cutting always went inside a book of some relevance to the story – cuttings about Kennedy and Nixon inside an American history, cuttings about captured Nazis inside a book about the war. An Alan Coren column in a Thurber collection. Some books were bulging – mum and I used to laugh as we pulled a book down from a shelf and a confetti of cuttings fell out.

But this carefully-assembled distributed scrapbook was pointless – an essentially write-only collection that was destined never to to be seen (the fact that the whole lot was destroyed in a flood at Christmas is just a melancholy full stop to the story). No one was ever going to read or reflect on these cuttings. And there’s an exact parallel with my dad’s manic clipping and saving in the universal curatorial reflex of the social networks. The three-stage process: see something interesting, read it and then – click – it’s shared. It’s a kind of twitch, already so natural that we’ve forgotten how we got started and when.

Sharing is now so part of the process that it influences the kind of content we absorb. I’d love the paywalls to work but I suspect they’ll fail because they short-circuit this curatorial reflex. I cancelled my Times subscription when I realised that being unable to share the marvellous stuff in there – Aaronovitch, Moran, Finkelstein – made it less valuable. I enjoyed it less because I couldn’t share it with my friends. The big publishers can’t ignore the curatorial habit – they’ll have to adjust their offerings to accommodate the twitch.

I clip and save obsessively too (is it a heritable trait?). Since we closed I’ve been posting things at and at /Reading. Audiolibre’s a bit like Speechification but I’m sticking to sound recordings that are free to republish. Public domain, creative commons, out-of-copyright stuff that’s explicitly shared by its owners (like the RTE programme that’s at the top now). And there’s plenty of this stuff out there too but it’s a bit of an adventure and I’m looking for new sources (send me your favourites).

And /Reading is a straight copy of James Bridle’s Mattins. He’s been reading bits of books he loves into his phone for a while now (although he’s evidently on a break right now). This is a twist on the trusted guide thing. I trust James to switch me onto writing I wouldn’t have met otherwise and the excerpt he reads makes the whole thing more vivid – and I can listen on the way to work. He’s been reading mainly fiction and poetry but I’m focused (like my old man) on non-fiction – and I’m trying to dig up stuff you won’t find on the non-fiction table at Waterstones. Like this out-of-print anthology of writing about the industrial revolution collected by Mass Observation founder Humphrey Jennings.

/Reading is more of an experiment – should I publish my reading with no commentary or should I add a short review or some context? Will people find my selections useful or are they just bleeding chunks too short to inform a decision? Is this legitimate recommendation or self-indulgence? Will publishers be OK with these short readings? /Reading uses Audioboo because it’s just so accessible (and because it’s easy to lift and embed the audio). For Audiolibre I’ve used an HTML 5 player which means it’ll work on an iPhone or an iPad. Both are available as podcasts and that seems like the right way to package this stuff.

I’ll keep collecting and sharing (because I can’t help it) and I’ll see what happens – tell me what you think and suggest new audio sources and books too.

“My wife wants a Kindle. She’s dead to me now…”

I’m feeling a bit guilty about yesterday’s Kindle post, which was sarcastic. But since then I’ve been tracking ‘Kindle’ on twitter and I’ve seen no more than two or three positive opinions of the gadget amongst hundreds and hundreds of Kindle-related tweets (my favourite: “my wife wants a Kindle. She’s dead to me now”). And opinions are like arseholes, aren’t they?

Anyway, thinking about it, I’m still full of reservations and questions: why not pre-load it with loads of great books from happy publishers? Why the frankly clumsy pay-to-read model for blogs and newspapers: wouldn’t publishers have jumped at the potential for a really big audience and a rev share on advertising? Why not aim for ubiquity by allowing the thing to read the millions of PDF eBooks that are already out there? Why no social features: share this book, message my friends… Why no special Harry Potter or Dan Brown launch editions? Why nothing to really get your teeth into?

The Kindle – which I really wanted to be a thing of beauty, a lovely package – has made it into the world loaded with compromises and hard-to-grasp niggly bits instead of mind-blowing content and really persuasive ideas.

Its reception – at least from the vocal geeks I’ve been reading – has been almost universally negative and, returning just for a second to my Segway comparison from yesterday, Bezos has some experience of a brand that never recovered from the kicking it got from the early adopters who should have loved it but laughed instead.

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Kindle. Segway for books?

Jeff Bezos on a Segway. Pic by Esther Dyson

Some people are calling Amazon’s Kindle ‘iTunes for books’. I’m calling it ‘Segway for books’. Not because it’s got two wheels and a giro-stabiliser but because it’s got Jeff Bezos on it. Jeff is a fascinating and clever man (I’d like to meet him one day. I tried to once but a bizarre canapé-related incident caused me to miss him as he went by. Always felt I could have nipped the whole messy Segway episode in the bud if it weren’t for that shrimp on a stick).

Anyway, Segway I mean Kindle. Over-complex (just look at this lot), over-priced and over… er… there. I can’t help thinking there must have been some Segway engineers on the committee that decided you could email documents to Amazon for conversion to Kindle format and then wait while they email them back to you so you can transfer them via USB to the device…

What worries me is that in a year or two we’ll all be sitting round asking: “why didn’t they just do a really simple implementation of the obviously awesome electronic-paper and sell it cheap to seed take-up of the book format?” or “why didn’t they get Apple to do it?”. Having said that, I would like one (Amazon PR people looking for UK bloggers to try it out might be reading this).

And while we’re talking about Amazon and Apple, have you seen this quite brilliant and painstaking bit of brand demolition using an Amazon list? Someone explain to me the peculiar network dynamic that makes an Amazon list the right weapon for this whinge.

Pic from Esther Dyson’s photostream.

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Xmas presents we liked 1: Carl Hiaasen’s Flush

The front cover from the hardback edtion of Carl Hiaasen's excellent Flush
Flush, by Carl Hiaasen

Easing myself back into blogging in ’07 with some reviews of the best Xmas toys and books and stuff (maybe some of the total rubbish too – one of my most popular entries ever is this Rainbow Art slating from a couple of years ago).

Hiaasen is a slick, funny thriller writer – one of the elite of sophisticated American thriller writers who get good reviews in the broadsheets and sell by the wheelbarrow-load in supermarkets too. His kids’ books (this is his second) are brilliant. Now that it’s OK for serious writers to knock out children’s books (see Elmore Leonard’s equally great Coyote’s In The House – the Harry Potter effect, I guess) we’re going to see lots more of these crossover works from established adult auhors.

This one is a fast and funny crime thriller with a green theme (sewage, greed, the everglades) and has the usual mix of Hiaasen types: the stoical hero, the wise rogue, the venal capitalist and assorted meatheads, innocents and sidekicks. The principal characters here, though, are kids and the environmental theme is one they easily connect with. I’m reading Flush to my seven year-old girl and eight year-old boy and it’s a real pleasure to read something that’s sharp and grown-up while still within their range.

I usually stop at one chapter per night but the kids are finding it easy to push me to read another with this one. It’s also really interesting to learn that a writer can paint a very convincing, quite dark and urban canvas without the usual cast of prostitutes, drug dealers and rapists. The wild side, here, is limited to booze and tattoos and I haven’t found myself explaining any dubious practices to the kids. The best book we’ve read together since, well, probably since the last Hiaasen: Hoot (which also has a green theme – endangered owls and greedy property developers).

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Things I love…

Dover Press jungle animals stickers

The Dover Press free samples. Always something useful, always something bonkers. Next time you’re in the West End go into the Dover shop in Earlham Street – a proper goldmine of graphic ephemera (including all those fantastic woodcut creatures from the O’Reilly books).

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A new book from Adam Wishart

My friend Adam has written a book. It’s about cancer and he weaves together the story of his own father’s death from cancer with a history of the disease. The reviews are in and they are spectacularly good.

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Books and bombs

Will books be replaced (or even substantially substituted) by ebooks and hand-held readers? Robert McCrumb in The Observer thinks so. Maybe he’s right. A better question – do they need to replaced – is rarely asked. Instead, we line up around our entrenched positions – apocalyptic-Luddite or euphoric-futurist – both conveniently informed by the same brittle, reductive view of technology that says: “It is possible therefore it will happen”.

Arguing from the potential of a new technology is almost always a mug’s game. A technology’s potential – positive, negative or indifferent – is always and necessarily hedged around by its alarmingly complicated context: social, economic, political.

This context invariably derails new technologies, sending them down various dead-ends or permanently mitigating their scary/exciting (delete where applicable) potential.

A crass but real example: nuclear weapons. Arguing solely from the death-dealing potential of the hydrogen bomb would leave one wondering what the hell we’re still doing here. The planet should, by now, have been laid waste a thousand times over.

We’re still here not because the bombs are crap but because the context – the whole, spinning galaxy of stuff that provides friction for events – didn’t let it. Likewise, books will persist and they’ll do so mostly because the massive economic friction provided by the culture and the market will hold back the alternatives. Books have five hundred years of resistance to annihilation to call on. They’re tough. They’ll survive.

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Sophisticated kids’ fiction

The front cover of Carl Hiaasen's kids' novel HootThe front cover from Elmore Leonard's kids novel A Coyote's in The House
Elmore Leonard, A Coyote’s in the House
Carl Hiaasen, Hoot

Under the seedy glamour and wise-cracking cynicism of your classic American crime novel there’s usually a pretty basic story with all the ingredients for a great kids’ book – a hero, a journey, a challenge, a resolution blah blah. I don’t know why nobody thought of this before but Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard, two of the best living crime writers, have both recently had a go at this new sub-genre (what shall we call it? Kids’ Crime? Kid Noir?) and with great success. I think the Hiaasen is my favourite but it’s close.

Both feature classic crime fiction heros: brave, laconic, drily funny (although Leonard’s happens to be a dog and Hiaasen’s a thirteen year-old boy) and both stick to the well-trodden landscape of modern crime noir: Hiaasen’s suburban Florida and Leonard’s Hollywood. I guess these books are aimed at young teens but my 5 and 7 year-olds have been laughing like drains at Hiaasen’s Hoot at bedtime over the last few nights. It’s such a good read that we’ve wound up reading two chapters instead of the usual one on several occasions. A real pleasure.

The Hiaasen features a bunch of endangered Burrowing Owls which, it turns out, are a cause celebre in real-life Florida and the Leonard is illustrated by Lauren Child, which is a bonus.

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Will Self in The Wood Between The Worlds

I’m reading the kids the first three books from The Chronicles of Narnia at the moment and very very brilliant and engrossing they are too (never read them before). From his Independent column I learn that Will Self’s a C.S.Lewis fan. The good thing about the paper’s otherwise-annoying paid-for service is that the free taster is just long enough to include the punchline of a very good coincidence gag (but not the part where he talks about Narnia and The Wood Between The Worlds, which sort of makes this whole entry pointless, I suppose. Sorry).

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