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Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 17, 2017

George Saunders has written his first novel and it’s just as unusual as his short stories. Lincoln in the Bardo is historical fiction about Abraham Lincoln mourning the death of his son Willie, who is caught between lives.

February 1862. The Civil War is less than one year old. The fighting has begun in earnest, and the nation has begun to realize it is in for a long, bloody struggle. Meanwhile, President Lincoln’s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie, lies upstairs in the White House, gravely ill. In a matter of days, despite predictions of a recovery, Willie dies and is laid to rest in a Georgetown cemetery. “My poor boy, he was too good for this earth,” the president says at the time. “God has called him home.” Newspapers report that a grief-stricken Lincoln returns, alone, to the crypt several times to hold his boy’s body.

Buzzfeed has an excerpt of the novel, which takes the form of a collection of quotes.

The boy, frustrated at being denied the attention he felt he deserved, moved in and leaned against his father, as the father continued to hold and gently rock the—
the reverend everly thomas

Sick-form.
hans vollman

At one point, moved, I turned away from the scene and found we were not alone.
roger bevins iii

A crowd had gathered outside.
the reverend everly thomas

All were silent.
roger bevins iii

As the man continued to gently rock his child.
the reverend everly thomas

While his child, simultaneously, stood quietly leaning against him.
hans vollman

Then the gentleman began to speak.
roger bevins iii

Time to bust out the Google Cardboard: the NY Times VR team adapted a part of the novel into a 10-minute VR film.

Here’s a good interview with Saunders about the book and a review by Colson Whitehead. The book has been hovering near the top of the Amazon best sellers list since its release — it was #2 when I looked yesterday but is currently 6th, right after Orwell’s 19841 — and I’ve seen several people in my Instagram feed reading it…or at least socially signaling that they’re reading it. ;)

  1. The current #1 is a hardcover strategy guide for a new Legend of Zelda game that doesn’t come out until next month.

We Work Remotely

Philip Pullman’s new trilogy, The Book of Dust

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 15, 2017

Philip Pullman has announced a follow-up to his acclaimed His Dark Materials trilogy called The Book of Dust. The first volume, still untitled, will be out in October and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Philip Pullman offers these tantalizing details: “I’ve always wanted to tell the story of how Lyra came to be living at Jordan College, and in thinking about it, I discovered a long story that began when she was a baby and will end when she’s grown up. This volume and the next will cover two parts of Lyra’s life: starting at the beginning of her story and returning to her twenty years later. As for the third and final part, my lips are sealed.

“So, second: is it a prequel? Is it a sequel? It’s neither. In fact, The Book of Dust is… an equel. It doesn’t stand before or after His Dark Materials, but beside it. It’s a different story, but there are settings that readers of His Dark Materials will recognize, and characters they’ve met before. Also, of course, there are some characters who are new to us, including an ordinary boy (a boy we have glimpsed in an earlier part of Lyra’s story, if we were paying attention) who, with Lyra, is caught up in a terrifying adventure that takes him into a new world.

The Book of Circles

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 14, 2017

Book Of Circles

The Book of Circles is an upcoming book by Manuel Lima about the use of circles in information design.

In this follow-up to his hugely popular The Book of Trees and Visual Complexity, Manuel Lima takes us on a lively tour through millennia of circular information design. Three hundred detailed and colorful illustrations from around the world cover an encyclopedic array of subjects-architecture, urban planning, fine art, design, fashion, technology, religion, cartography, biology, astronomy, and physics, all based on the circle, the universal symbol of unity, wholeness, infinity, enlightenment, and perfection. Clay tokens used by ancient Sumerians as a system of recording trade are juxtaposed with logos of modern retailers like Target; Venn diagrams are discussed alongside the trefoil biohazard symbol, symbols of the Christian trinity, and the Olympic rings; and a diagram revealing the characteristics of ten thousand porn stars displays structural similarities to early celestial charts placing the earth at the center of the universe.

I have both of Lima’s previous books, The Book of Trees and Visual Complexity.

Hidden Figures

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 14, 2017

I finally got the chance to see Hidden Figures the other day. Recommended. It’s a science/space story in the vein of Apollo 13, but the twin engines of the film are the three excellent lead actresses — Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer & Janelle Monáe — and the persistent portrayal of the systemic biases of segregation and sexism. You watch this movie and think, how much higher could the human race have flown if women and people of color had always had the same opportunities as white men?1 How many Katherine Johnsons never got the chance to develop and use their skills in math, science, or technology because of their skin color or gender? Our society wastes so much energy and human lives telling people what they can’t do rather than empowering them to show everyone what they can do.

Hidden Figures was adopted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name. The film takes some dramatic license with the timing of certain events but overall is historically accurate.

The film primarily focuses on John Glenn’s 1962 trip around the globe and does add dramatic flourishes that are, well, Hollywood. However, most of the events in the movie are historically accurate. Johnson’s main job in the lead-up and during the mission was to double-check and reverse engineer the newly-installed IBM 7090s trajectory calculations. As it shows, there were very tense moments during the flight that forced the mission to end earlier than expected. And John Glenn did request that Johnson specifically check and confirm trajectories and entry points that the IBM spat out (albeit, perhaps, not at the exact moment that the movie depicts). As Shetterly wrote in her book and explained in a September NPR interview, Glenn did not completely trust the computer. So, he asked the head engineers to “get the girl to check the numbers… If she says the numbers are good… I’m ready to go.”

You can view Johnson’s published reports on NASA’s site, including her initial technical report from 1960 on the Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout for Placing a Satellite Over a Selected Earth Position.

  1. I’m using the past tense here, but I am definitely not saying that women and people of color now possess those same opportunities. Take a quick look at the current racial and gender wage gaps in the US and you’ll see that they still do not.

A reading list on fascism

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 10, 2017

Voracious reader Tyler Cowen has been reading about fascism recently and shares his thoughts on some specific books. It seems as though A History of Fascism, 1914-1945 and The Anatomy of Fascism are the two to start with.

Stanley G. Payne, A History of Fascism 1914-1945. One of the classics, readable and comprehensive and one of the best places to start. One thing I learned from this pile of books is how hard some of those leaders worked to have the mid-level bureaucracy on their side. The centralization often occurred at higher levels, for instance Mussolini had 72 cabinet meetings in 1933, but only 4 in 1936. The Italian Fascist party, by the way, was disproportionately Jewish, at least pre-1938.

Cowen’s conclusion after his reading? The US is not headed toward fascism:

Overall I did not conclude that we Americans are careening toward fascist outcomes. I do not think that notion is well-suited to the great complexity of contemporary bureaucracy, nor to our more feminized and also older societies. Furthermore, in America democracy has taken much deeper roots and the system of checks and balances, whatever its flaws, has stood for a few hundred years, contra either Italy or Germany in their fascist phases.

Looking over Umberto Eco’s 14 Features of Eternal Fascism, I might disagree with that. So far, the Trump administration has been working quickly to consolidate its power and the Republican-majority Congress has shown little interest in stopping them — e.g. the so-called confirmation hearings are little more than formalities when Republicans are voting as a bloc in most cases. The judicial branch has been more attentive thus far in making sure the Republicans are operating within the law (e.g. the rulings against Trump’s travel ban and the NC governor’s limitation of powers), providing the essential “checks and balances” Cowen speaks of. But the law…well, let’s just say that plenty of bad and immoral things are legal, particularly when powerful people and the governmental bodies responsible for making laws are concerned, and much depends on the intelligence and resourcefulness of the lawyers and political viewpoints of the judges involved. All it would take is a little more thoughtfulness1 on the part of Trump’s team in writing his executive orders and they can probably get much of what they want legally.

Anyway, on a broader authoritarian note, Brendan Nyham of Dartmouth College has compiled a reading list for understanding the authoritarian turn in US politics.

  1. I know, I know. LOL. Trump has been guided by many abilities in his life, but thought and thoughtfulness have never been among them.

Maybe there’s more that brings us together than you think

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 08, 2017

This lovely video from a television station in Denmark highlights the similarities we all share across seemingly impassable social, economic, racial, and religious boundaries.

It’s easy to put people in boxes. There’s us and there’s them. The high-earners and those just getting by. Those we trust and those we try to avoid. There’s the new Danes and those who’ve always been here. The people from the countryside and those who’ve never seen a cow. The religious and the self-confident. There are those we share something with and those we don’t share anything with.

And then suddenly, there’s us. We who believe in life after death, we who’ve seen UFOs, and all of us who love to dance. We who’ve been bullied and we who’ve bullied others.

Last week I started reading The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis’s book about the friendship and collaboration of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. This passage on Tversky’s work seems relevant to this video.

From Amos’s theory about the way people made judgments of similarity spilled all sorts of interesting insights. If the mind, when it compares two things, essentially counts up the features it notices in each of them, it might also judge those things to be at once more similar and more dissimilar to each other than some other pair of things. They might have both a lot in common and a lot not in common. Love and hate, and funny and sad, and serious and silly: Suddenly they could be seen — as they feel — as having more fluid relationships to each other. They weren’t simply opposites on a fixed mental continuum; they could be thought of as similar in some of their features and different in others. Amos’s theory also offered a fresh view into what might be happening when people violated transitivity and thus made seemingly irrational choices.

When people picked coffee over tea, and tea over hot chocolate, and then turned around and picked hot chocolate over coffee — they weren’t comparing two drinks in some holistic manner. Hot drinks didn’t exist as points on some mental map at fixed distances from some ideal. They were collections of features. Those features might become more or less noticeable; their prominence in the mind depended on the context in which they were perceived. And the choice created its own context: Different features might assume greater prominence in the mind when the coffee was being compared to tea (caffeine) than when it was being compared to hot chocolate (sugar). And what was true of drinks might also be true of people, and ideas, and emotions.

The idea was interesting: When people make decisions, they are also making judgments about similarity, between some object in the real world and what they ideally want. They make these judgments by, in effect, counting up the features they notice. And as the noticeability of features can be manipulated by the way they are highlighted, the sense of how similar two things are might also be manipulated. For instance, if you wanted two people to think of themselves as more similar to each other than they otherwise might, you might put them in a context that stressed the features they shared. Two American college students in the United States might look at each other and see a total stranger; the same two college students on their junior year abroad in Togo might find that they are surprisingly similar: They’re both Americans!

By changing the context in which two things are compared, you submerge certain features and force others to the surface. “It is generally assumed that classifications are determined by similarities among the objects,” wrote Amos, before offering up an opposing view: that “the similarity of objects is modified by the manner in which they are classified. Thus, similarity has two faces: causal and derivative. It serves as a basis for the classification of objects, but is also influenced by the adopted classification.” A banana and an apple seem more similar than they otherwise would because we’ve agreed to call them both fruit. Things are grouped together for a reason, but, once they are grouped, their grouping causes them to seem more like each other than they otherwise would. That is, the mere act of classification reinforces stereotypes. If you want to weaken some stereotype, eliminate the classification.

That’s what this video did so effectively…it switched up the contexts. Rabid soccer fans became dancers, bullies became lonely people, people of different faiths were united by their believe in an afterlife. An exercise for investors and entrepreneurs building media companies and social networks (as well as people running small independent sites….I’m staring hard at myself in the mirror here): how can you build tools and platforms that give people more ways to connect to each other, to switch up the contexts in which people are able to group themselves?

Black brilliance on the Appalachian trail

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 02, 2017

Rahawa Haile is an Eritrean-American writer who spent most of 2016 as one of a very small number of black women hiking the Appalachian trail. Trail hikers are thought to be between 66 and 75 percent male, and overwhelmingly white; there’s also a long history of formal and informal racial exclusion in national parks, wilderness areas, and other outdoor spaces, through statute, violence, and “soft” racism. And in Appalachia, many of the small towns along the trail where hikers stop to get food, mail, clean clothes, and other supplies are often unwelcome or hostile to black people.

Haile brought, photographed, and left behind books by black writers at points along the trail. She explains why in an interview with Atlas Obscura’s Sarah Laskow:

In 2015, I started a Twitter project called Short Story of the Day. This was a way to say, “This is the extent that I can participate in literature at this moment.” Diversity matters to me. Many of the most celebrated short story collections are by white men, so on Twitter I published one short story a day by underrepresented groups.

When I thought about 2016—how can I participate in literature this year?—I thought, I want to bring these books places no one likely has. I want to document where black brilliance belongs. There’s so much talk about where the black body belongs. Most of my hike was saying, this is a black body, and it belongs everywhere. These books were a way of me saying, black intellect belongs here, too. I was hoping that by carrying these books and taking them to these incredible vistas, fellow people of color might say, “If those books can go there, so can I.”

Good morning! bell and I climbed 3,326 feet to send you our encouragement from Cheoah Bald. #at2016

A photo posted by Rahawa Haile (@rahawahaile) on

In an essay for BuzzFeed, Haile lists a remarkable catalogue of the weights she carried on the trip. (Hiking, as I learned this year from Rahawa, is in large part about managing weight):

Pack: 40 ounces. Tent: 26. A pound to “love myself when I am laughing…and then again when I am looking mean and impressive.” Seven ounces of James Baldwin. Thirteen of Octavia Butler. Nine violent ounces of home, the from-from, “originally, I mean.” 7,628 feet: the elevation of Asmara, Eritrea. Rain jacket: 5.5 ounces. Options for ZZ Packer. Blues for Toni Morrison. Dragons for Langston Hughes. A river for Jamaica Kincaid. Nine ounces, eight ounces, ten ounces, six. Fifteen: the number of years I spent watching my African grandmother die in the flatness of Florida. Gloves: 1.3 ounces. Warsan Shire: 2.4. Keys to a place I call home: none. Colson Whitehead: 1 pound. Assets: zero. Resting mass of light: none. Headlamp: 3.9 ounces. Their names: endless. Trayvon, Renisha, Sandra, Tamir. Spork: 0.6 ounces. Water filter: 3 ounces. Down jacket: seven ounces. Fuel canister: four. Current atmospheric carbon dioxide levels: greater than 400 ppm. Average elevation above sea level in Miami: six feet. Therapists I can no longer afford: one. Kiese Laymon: 9.6 ounces. Amiri Baraka: 1.4 pounds. The amount black women earn for every white male dollar: 63 cents. Bandana: 1.12 ounces. Pack towel: 0.5 ounces. The number of times I’ve told myself to put a gun to my head between 2013 and 2016: 8,000-10,000. Bear bagging kit: 3 ounces. Aracelis Girmay: 6.4 ounces. Roxane Gay: 4.8. Emergency whistle: 0.14, orange, should I find myself in the midst of hunting season.

The trail, she writes, is “considered a great equalizer in most other respects” — everyone alike has to deal with rattlesnakes, rainstorms, and sore feet. “A thing I found myself repeatedly explaining to hikers who asked about my books and my experience,” she adds, “wasn’t that I feared them, but that there was no such thing as freedom from vulnerability for me anywhere in this land. That I might be tolerated in trail towns that didn’t expect to see a black hiker, but I’d rarely if ever feel at ease.” Nobody else walking the trail would have to carry the same weight.

E-book sales fall below hardcovers for first time since 2012

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 30, 2017

borders-closing (wide).jpg

Print book sales are increasing (slightly) while e-book sales continue to fall (sharply), says Nielsen’s Jonathan Stolper. Which means for the first time in more than four years, hardcover books are outselling e-books. Stolper lists a few factors driving the switch: the price of e-books has gone up, and fewer people are using dedicated e-readers. Even people buying and reading e-books are doing it on their phones and tablets, not Kindles or Nooks or what-have-you.

Whatever the causes for the decrease in e-book sales, the decline has resulted in something that many publishing experts thought would never happen—unit sales of hardcovers overtook unit sales of e-books. With hardcover units up 5% in 2016 over 2015, hardcover’s 188 million units sold topped that of e-books for the first time since Borders closed in 2012, Stolper said.

I have a pet theory about this, and it’s very simple: it’s about the stores. Here’s how it works.

  1. E-bookstores expand to country after country, publisher after publisher => sales of e-books go up.
  2. Borders and other chain bookstores shut down => sales of print books go down.
  3. Barnes & Noble and other e-bookstores shut down, leaving Amazon basically the only game in town => sales of e-books go down. (Also prices go up.)
  4. People stop using devices that are basically stores with readers attached, and use phones and tablets where it’s harder to buy => sales of e-books go down some more.

It’s the same boom-and-bust that we had when the new chain bookstores came through thirty years ago and gradually killed each other off! Lots of places to buy books, then hardly any places to buy books.

Meanwhile, indie bookstores are weathering the storm and big box stores are still pushing books at a discount, keeping print books afloat. Which is exactly what the publishers and a lot of other players in the market have always wanted: a high e-book prices, both to preserve a revenue floor and to keep the entire print market chain in business. And Amazon’s fine with it — they got the near-monopoly on e-retail they wanted.

Meanwhile, readers are paying more for books and have fewer places from which to buy them. As much as I like a good hardcover, that hardly feels like a win.

Buying a book is what they call a crime of opportunity. If there were more viable e-bookstores (and if DRM weren’t such a monster, there’s no reason every website couldn’t be an e-bookstore), we’d have better competition on price (collusion and market choices aside) and everyone would sell a whole lot more e-books.

Update: I screwed up the first draft of this and conflated hardcover units with total print sales. (I also forgot to include the link to the Publishers Weekly story I quoted.) To be clear, hardcovers are outselling e-books now, from the publishers covered in Nielsen’s survey. E-books have never outsold all print books — even rosy projections back in 2014, when e-book sales were about a third of the market, didn’t think they’d cross that 50/50 threshold until well into this decade. Thanks to Doug Gates who spotted the error.

Update 2: Dan Cohen pointed out a number of other factors tipping sales measurement in favor of print: “dark” but legal reading of e-books that doesn’t get counted (libraries, open e-books, DRM-free private sales by authors and indies), and increased sales of audiobooks, which eats away at the e-book market. E-readers, too, haven’t really improved much; neither have the aesthetics of the books themselves. Other readers pointed out that readers feel burned by stores and services failing.

In short, “cost” is probably the biggest factor, broadly defined — but what exactly that means and how it plays out in readers’ choices is a lot more complex than a binary choice between e-books and print.

The literary maps of our childhoods

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 26, 2017

Hobbit Map

At The Awl, Victoria Johnson fondly remembers the books of her youth that contained extra material. Like maps.

If I ruled the world, or at least a publishing company, all books would contain as much supplementary information as possible. Nonfiction, fiction — doesn’t matter. Every work would have an appendix filled with diagrams, background information, digressions and anecdata. And of course, maps. Lots and lots of maps.

The Hobbit, Winnie the Pooh, and The Wizard of Oz all included great maps that expanded the story in the mind of the reader. Near the end of the piece, Johnson notes that The Hunger Games didn’t include a map of Panem and links to this fan-drawn map (image here):

Panem Map

The Capitol is in Denver.

D12 is Appalachia.

D11 shares a border with D12, is one of the largest districts, is South of D12, and is primarily used for growing grain and produce.

D10 is primarily used for raising livestock. They do NOT process the livestock in D10. However, to feed an entire nation, D10 is likely another very large District.

D9 processes food for the Capitol and the tesserae; therefore, it likely shares borders with the food production Districts (D4, D10, D11).

D8 produces and treats textiles and is a factory District. It is POSSIBLE to reach D12 from D8 on foot over a course of weeks/months. Therefore, it does not cross a large body of water.

May the maps be ever in your books.

Five books to change conservative minds

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 25, 2017

Back in November, former Obama administration official Cass Sunstein came up with a list of five books that conservatives should read to in order to learn something about contemporary progressivism. On the list is Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy by Robert Frank:

In Frank’s view, we overstate the role of individual merit and underestimate the massive role of luck in producing individual success or failure — being born into the right family, finding oneself in the right place at the right time, having a good mentor. He makes “there but for the grace of God go I” into a rallying cry.

A month earlier, Sunstein offered a similar list of books liberals should read to learn something about conservatives, including Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind:

Do conservatives have moral commitments that progressives may not even recognize? Haidt says yes, and he identifies three: authority, loyalty and sanctity. If, for example, someone has betrayed a trust, or treated a boss or a parent disrespectfully, conservatives are far more likely to be outraged than progressives.

Haidt is not himself a conservative, but he offers a sympathetic explanation of why progressives often fail to understand their political adversaries. He also shows that the moral commitments that resonate among conservatives have deep roots in human history — and that it is a form of blindness not to acknowledge and respect those commitments.

Why Trump and his staff lie

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 24, 2017

Over at Bloomberg, Tyler Cowen provides an explanation as to why Donald Trump and his staff are lying.

By requiring subordinates to speak untruths, a leader can undercut their independent standing, including their standing with the public, with the media and with other members of the administration. That makes those individuals grow more dependent on the leader and less likely to mount independent rebellions against the structure of command. Promoting such chains of lies is a classic tactic when a leader distrusts his subordinates and expects to continue to distrust them in the future.

Another reason for promoting lying is what economists sometimes call loyalty filters. If you want to ascertain if someone is truly loyal to you, ask them to do something outrageous or stupid. If they balk, then you know right away they aren’t fully with you. That too is a sign of incipient mistrust within the ruling clique, and it is part of the same worldview that leads Trump to rely so heavily on family members.

This is interesting throughout, particularly the bit about “higher-status mistruths and lower-status mistruths”.

Note that these tactics do not require a strategic masterplan.1 We know Trump acts mostly on instinct, so all the lying is just how he’s found success doing business in the past. I’ve been listening to The Power Broker on audiobook for the past few months and the similarities between how Robert Moses operated (particularly in NYC at the height of his powers) and Trump’s tactics are downright eerie, right down to the outright lies, ignoring outside counsel, and favoring short-term results over deeper long-term consequences.2 Both men had so much power and (especially in Moses’ case) capability that they could have really helped people and made a difference in the lives of millions but instead used it mainly to get their own way.

  1. Deeeep breath. Ok. In a weird way, I feel like I understand this aspect of Trump…and it makes me uncomfortable to identify with him in this way. I don’t really make plans or set goals. My about page states “I don’t have a plan.” I approach life tactically, not strategically. And I think Trump does too. (Part of my discomfort here is the realization that a tactical approach to life may require privilege. Maybe Trump doesn’t have to think long-term because he was born two steps from home plate. I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about it…another privilege.) Of course, where I use knowledge to spread the power of good ideas around to the widest possible audience (I hope!), Trump uses lies to consolidate and wield his own personal power.

  2. Moses was brilliant and certainly capable of deep strategic thought, but according to Caro, as his responsibilities, power, and self-confidence increased, he relied on what had worked for him previously with little regard for the circumstances of particular situations. It was literally “we’re doing it my way or (no) highway”.

Every book Barack Obama recommended during his presidency

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 23, 2017

President Obama is a reader. NY Times book critic Michiko Kakutani interviewed Obama about his reading just before he left office.

Last Friday, seven days before his departure from the White House, Mr. Obama sat down in the Oval Office and talked about the indispensable role that books have played during his presidency and throughout his life — from his peripatetic and sometimes lonely boyhood, when “these worlds that were portable” provided companionship, to his youth when they helped him to figure out who he was, what he thought and what was important.

During his eight years in the White House — in a noisy era of information overload, extreme partisanship and knee-jerk reactions — books were a sustaining source of ideas and inspiration, and gave him a renewed appreciation for the complexities and ambiguities of the human condition.

During his tenure in office, the President publicly recommended 86 different books, compiled into one list by Entertainment Weekly. Here are several of them, some of which I have also read and recommended on this very site:

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Dr. Atul Gawande
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
Seveneves, Neal Stephenson
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari
The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert
Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, William Finnegan
The Power Broker, Robert A. Caro
Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
Working, Studs Terkel
Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow
The Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin
What Is the What, Dave Eggers

Our most widely read US President, for sure.

Update: I’m getting some pushback on my assertion that Obama was “our most widely read US President”. Since “widely read” seems to have multiple meanings, I should have been more explicit on what I meant. I didn’t mean that he had written the most books read by the most people (that is perhaps Teddy Roosevelt) or had read the most books (George W. Bush and Roosevelt were both voracious readers, as were Jefferson, Clinton, and Lincoln). I meant that compared to previous Presidents, Obama has read books from the widest spectrum of viewpoints and authors. Among the list of 86 (which are not the books he read in office but just the ones he publicly recommended) are books on politics (of course), science, economics, sports, and medicine, some classics, children’s books, plenty of fiction, and science fiction. Most importantly, the list includes many books written by women and persons of color. Judging by this (partial) George W. Bush reading list (which includes only two books written by women (one of whom is his daughter)), outside of Clinton and perhaps Carter, I would wager very few Presidents have read many books by women and no more than a token few books by black authors.

The Bloody Mary Book

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 19, 2017

The Bloody Mary

I’m happy and proud to announce that my pal Brian Bartels’ book The Bloody Mary will be out in a couple months.

The Bloody Mary is one of the most universally-loved drinks. Perfect for breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, and beyond, there simply isn’t a wrong time for a Bloody.

In The Bloody Mary, author Brian Bartels — beverage director for the beloved West Village restaurants Jeffrey’s Grocery, Joseph Leonard, Fedora, Perla, and Bar Sardine — delves into the fun history of this classic drink. (Did Hemingway create it, as legend suggests? Or was it an ornery Parisian bartender?)

More than 50 eclectic recipes, culled from top bartenders around the country, will have drinkers thinking outside the vodka box and taking garnishes to a whole new level.

Brian is probably the one person most responsible/culpable for introducing me, somewhat later in life than many, to the wonderful world of spirits and cocktails. I am not a particular fan of the Bloody Mary, but I’m buying this book because Brian has yet to steer me wrong when it comes to beverages.

The banned children’s books your kid should read

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 17, 2017

The American Library Association maintains a list of Frequently Challenged Children’s Books, books that people try to get banned from libraries due to their “inappropriate” content. The list includes Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, Dr. Seuss’s Hop On Pop (???), Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman, as well as the Harry Potter and His Dark Materials series. Perri Klass writes about what children can learn from these banned books.

“I think it happens in the U.S. more than in some other countries,” said Leonard Marcus, a children’s book historian and critic. “There’s a squeamishness in the U.S. about body parts I think that goes back to the Puritan tradition, and has never completely died out.” He pointed to the controversy around Maurice Sendak’s 1970 children’s book “In the Night Kitchen,” which centered on the illustrations showing the naked — and anatomically correct — little boy whose nocturnal adventures make up the story.

In the Night Kitchen? Seriously? Seriously?! That was one of my favorites as a kid and so we bought it for our kids. Come on, America…we’ve got worse things to worry about. Klass’s point here is exactly right:

When your children read books that have been challenged or banned, you have a double opportunity as a parent; you can discuss the books themselves, and the information they provide, and you can also talk about why people might find them troubling.

We’ve definitely had to do that with the Harry Potter books, the Little House books, and many other books we read together. Reading any book published before the 70s, for instance, is a great opportunity to discuss how the past and current roles of women in society.

What is the Great American Novel?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 10, 2017

Great American Novel

From Emily Temple at Literary Hub, a collection of contenders for the title of Great American Novel. The list includes everything from Moby-Dick, The Great Gatsby, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Beloved, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Infinite Jest.

Why cities are where they are

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 10, 2017

It makes sense that villages and towns would develop a short distance away from each other so that people living nearby wouldn’t have to travel far to sell their goods, bank, or go to school. But what about cities? Geography has a lot ot do with where cities are located.

If you enjoy this video but haven’t read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel yet, you probably should.

Disney’s multiplane camera, an innovation in illusion

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 05, 2017

In a short film shot in 1957, Walt Disney described the multiplane camera, one of the many inventions and innovations his company had developed in order to produce more realistic and affecting animations. Instead of shooting single cels of animation on a single movable background, the multiplane camera could shoot several independently moving backgrounds, creating a sense of depth and perspective. A 1938 article in Popular Mechanics explained how the camera works.

Disney wanted to increase the eye value of the many paintings making up a picture by achieving a soft-focus effect on the backgrounds, illuminating the various levels of each scene individually, and separating” background from foreground, thus keeping background objects to their proper relative size.

His production crew labored for three years to perfect the novel picture-taking device to achieve these results. It consists of four vertical steel posts, each carrying a rack along which as many as eight carriages may be shifted both horizontally and vertically. On each carriage rides a frame containing a sheet of celluloid, on which is painted part of the action or background.

Resembling a printing press, the camera stands eleven feet tall and is six feet square. Made with almost micrometer precision, it permits the photographing of foreground and background cels accurately, even when the first is held firmly in place two feet from the lens and the lowest rests in its frame nine feet away. Where the script calls for the camera to “truck up” for a close-up, the lens actually remains stationary, while the various cels are moved upward. By this means, houses, trees, the moon, and any other background features, retain their relative sizes.

After being deployed on a short film as a test, the multiplane camera was used to film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first feature-length animated film. In the chapter on “Illusion” in his newest book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, Steven Johnson writes that the use of the multiplane camera (along with other innovations in animation developed since the days of Steamboat Willie) had a profound effect on audiences.

All of these technical and procedural breakthroughs summed up to an artistic one: Snow White was the first animated film to feature both visual and emotional depth. It pulled at the heartstrings in a way that even live-action films had failed to do. This, more than anything, is why Snow White marks a milestone in the history of illusion. “No animated cartoon had ever looked like Snow White,” Disney’s biographer Neil Gabler writes, “and certainly none had packed its emotional wallop.” Before the film was shown to an audience, Disney and his team debated whether it might just be powerful enough to provoke tears — an implausible proposition given the shallow physical comedy that had governed every animated film to date. But when Snow White debuted at the Carthay Circle Theatre, near L.A.’s Hancock Park, on December 21, 1937, the celebrity audience was heard audibly sobbing during the final sequences where the dwarfs discover their poisoned princess and lay garlands of flowers on her. It was an experience that would be repeated a billion times over the decades to follow, but it happened there at the Carthay Circle first: a group of human beings gathered in a room and were moved to tears by hand-drawn static images flickering in the light.

In just nine years, Disney and his team had transformed a quaint illusion — the dancing mouse is whistling! — into an expressive form so vivid and realistic that it could bring people to tears. Disney and his team had created the ultimate illusion: fictional characters created by hand, etched onto celluloid, and projected at twenty-four frames per second, that were somehow so believably human that it was almost impossible not to feel empathy for them.

Interestingly, the multiplane camera also seems to be an instance of simultaneous invention (a concept also covered by Johnson in an earlier book, Where Good Ideas Come From). In addition to Disney’s multiplane camera, there were a few earlier earlier efforts and it’s unclear whether they were invented independently or how one inventor influenced another. But one thing is for certain: only Disney’s camera was deployed so skillfully and artfully that it changed cinema and our culture forever.1

  1. Without getting into it (too much), I can’t help thinking of Pixar’s push to make Toy Story. There’s always an emphasis on the technology with Pixar, but Lasseter and the rest of them were huge animation nerds…and Walt Disney nerds in particular. They were interested in telling stories and they believed, like Disney, that developing new technologies could help them do that more effectively. Toy Story was Pixar’s Snow White and their subsequent movies (Finding Nemo, Wall-E, Ratatouille) have shown how successful they were in telling affecting stories with 3D computer animation.

The seven stages of denial (that a robot will take your job)

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 04, 2017

From an excerpt of Kevin Kelly’s recent book, The Inevitable, a list of the Seven Stages of Robot Replacement:

1. A robot/computer cannot possibly do the tasks I do.

2. [Later.] OK, it can do a lot of those tasks, but it can’t do everything I do.

3. [Later.] OK, it can do everything I do, except it needs me when it breaks down, which is often.

4. [Later.] OK, it operates flawlessly on routine stuff, but I need to train it for new tasks.

5. [Later.] OK, OK, it can have my old boring job, because it’s obvious that was not a job that humans were meant to do.

6. [Later.] Wow, now that robots are doing my old job, my new job is much more interesting and pays more!

7. [Later.] I am so glad a robot/computer cannot possibly do what I do now.

[Repeat.]

I predict that getting to #6 will be challenging for many people.

National Geographic Infographics

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 04, 2017

National Geographic Infographics

National Geographic Infographics

National Geographic Infographics

National Geographic Infographics is an anthology published by Taschen of some of the best infographics featured by National Geographic in the past 128 years.

Through seven sections — History, The Planet, Being Human, Animal World, World of Plants, Science and Technology, and Space — we encounter the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the mysterious origins of the Easter Island statues, Cleopatra’s Alexandria and a history of Hawaiian surfboarding, all distilled in expert, accessible graphic form. We discover how our genetic patterns have been pieced together over the years or how hip-hop emerged as a cultural heavyweight; we get to grips with global warming, and explore our ever-expanding study of an ever-expanding universe.

The 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 22, 2016

From psychotherapist Amy Morin, who expanded this list into a book of the same name, a list of 13 ways mentally strong people avoid negative behaviors.

1. They Don’t Waste Time Feeling Sorry for Themselves
2. They Don’t Give Away Their Power
3. They Don’t Shy Away from Change
4. They Don’t Waste Energy on Things They Can’t Control
5. They Don’t Worry About Pleasing Everyone
6. They Don’t Fear Taking Calculated Risks
7. They Don’t Dwell on the Past
8. They Don’t Make the Same Mistakes Over and Over
9. They Don’t Resent Other People’s Success
10. They Don’t Give Up After the First Failure
11. They Don’t Fear Alone Time
12. They Don’t Feel the World Owes Them Anything
13. They Don’t Expect Immediate Results

That’s all fine and those are worthy goals — and the book probably gets into more detail about this — but do you become more mentally strong by not doing these things or do you already need mental strength? Some of this seems to come down to personality or temperament, things that are difficult to change under even the best circumstances. And self-help lists like this always make me think of Simpsons pitchman Troy McClure’s introduction to a self-help video he’s hosting:

Oh hi, I’m Troy McClure. You might remember me from such self-help videos as Smoke Yourself Thin and Get Confident, Stupid!

It’s simple, just get confident! Just draw the rest of the fucking owl!

Discovery of a pre-Columbian “Stonehenge” in Brazil

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 15, 2016

Research on an arrangement of massive granite blocks in the Brazilian Amazon has indicated that they were used as an astronomical observatory about 1000 years ago.

After conducting radiocarbon testing and carrying out measurements during the winter solstice, scholars in the field of archaeoastronomy determined that an indigenous culture arranged the megaliths into an astronomical observatory about 1,000 years ago, or five centuries before the European conquest of the Americas began.

Their findings, along with other archaeological discoveries in Brazil in recent years — including giant land carvings, remains of fortified settlements and even complex road networks — are upending earlier views of archaeologists who argued that the Amazon had been relatively untouched by humans except for small, nomadic tribes.

I still remember reading Charles Mann’s piece in 2002 about the mounting evidence against the idea of a largely wild and pristine pair of continents civilized and tamed by Europeans.

Erickson and Balée belong to a cohort of scholars that has radically challenged conventional notions of what the Western Hemisphere was like before Columbus. When I went to high school, in the 1970s, I was taught that Indians came to the Americas across the Bering Strait about 12,000 years ago, that they lived for the most part in small, isolated groups, and that they had so little impact on their environment that even after millennia of habitation it remained mostly wilderness. My son picked up the same ideas at his schools. One way to summarize the views of people like Erickson and Balée would be to say that in their opinion this picture of Indian life is wrong in almost every aspect. Indians were here far longer than previously thought, these researchers believe, and in much greater numbers. And they were so successful at imposing their will on the landscape that in 1492 Columbus set foot in a hemisphere thoroughly dominated by humankind.

That article turned into 1491, which remains one of my favorite books.

See also Ars Technica’s recent piece Finding North America’s lost medieval city.

Trailer for The Circle

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 07, 2016

The film adaptation of Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle is moving right along. The movie stars Tom Hanks and Emma Watson (as well as John Boyega from The Force Awakens) and the first trailer was released yesterday. Looks Black Mirror-ish…I think we’ll be getting a lot of that over the next four years.

The Dead Bookstore

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 05, 2016

Dead Bookstore

Dead Bookstore

Ben Pieratt, who you may recall as the cofounder of Svpply (and many other diverse projects), has a new project called Dead Bookstore, wherein full-sheet pages of old books become art prints for sale. But there’s a DIY component as well…Pieratt helps you track down the original texts and has posted instructions so you can make your own prints.

The best books of 2016

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2016

Best Books 2016

It’s just the beginning of December and the lists of the best books of the year are already starting to stack up like so many clichés about nightstand book piles. Here’s what book editors, voracious readers, and retailers have to say about the year’s top books.

Tyler Cowen almost never steers me wrong, so I’ll lead with his best fiction of 2016 and best non-fiction books of 2016 lists. Cowen seems more enthusiastic about the year’s non-fiction than fiction, recommending The Age of Em by Robin Hanson and Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History. He also recommends Atlas Obscura, which arrived in my book pile and was immediately commandeered by my 9-year-old who has read it straight through three or four times now.1

The NY Times somehow narrowed down the entire year’s output to The 10 Best Books of 2016. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad made this list and many others for good reason: it was an excellent and essential read. Also on the list is Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer.

From Buzzfeed, The 24 Best Fiction Books Of 2016. Includes The Vegetarian by Han Kang and The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan.

Amazon’s editors selected their top 100 picks for the year. Included are The Girls by Emma Cline, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, a book that came out very early in the year and was well-regarded but got lost in the shuffle a little as the year went on.

For their list of the best books of 2016 (part two), The Guardian asked writers what they had enjoyed reading during the year. Yuval Noah Harari (whose Sapiens I’ve been yapping about all year) recommends Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie picked Hisham Matar’s The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, and Taiye Selasi “adored” Swing Time by Zadie Smith. Oh and my fave Hilary Mantel (where’s that next Cromwell book?!) recommends Ian McGuire’s The North Water.

The Telegraph’s top 50 books of the year is a wider-ranging list than most, with picks ranging from the Man Booker prize-winning The Sellout by Paul Beatty to several books about sports, including an autobiography by FC Barcelona’s star midfielder Andrés Iniesta called The Artist.

On its list of the Top 20 Fiction Books of 2016 The What recommends Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett and The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie.

See also 2015’s best books. Ferrante and Ta-Nehisi Coates were the clear favorites last year. I haven’t read Between the World and Me yet, but the Neapolitan Novels were fantastic.

Update: Shane Parrish of Farnam Street offers 5 Noteable Nonfiction Books of 2016, including Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life.

Update: At the Washington Post, Carlos Lozada shares his picks for the most surprising, hopeful, and overrated books of 2016. Among them are Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It…Every Time and Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.

Update: Bill Gates just released his annual list of some of his favorite 2016 books. The first book on the list is David Foster Wallace’s String Theory, a collection of his writing about tennis — here’s his full review.

When it comes to books, it’s pretty rare that I get intimidated. I read all kinds of books, including ones that only the harshest college professors would assign. And yet I must admit that for many years I steered clear of anything by David Foster Wallace. I often heard super literate friends talking in glowing terms about his books and essays. I even put a copy of his tour de force Infinite Jest on my nightstand at one point, but I just never got around to reading it.

If you’re a long-time reader, I’m not sure if there’s anything more I can say to convince you to read Wallace’s tennis writing, but just give his piece on Roger Federer a try.

Update: They just keep coming! For their Year in Reading 2016, The Millions surveyed a number of contributors for their favorite books of the year — Annie Proulx highlights Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane. The Globe 100 Best Books of the Year list includes Nicholson Baker’s Substitute. NPR built a Book Concierge to help you find the perfect 2016 book — I found White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg by applying the Seriously Great Writing filter.

Update: From Maria Popova at Brain Pickings, The Greatest Science Books of 2016. On the list are Time Travel by James Gleick and Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game.

Update: The NY Times book critics selected their top books of 2016, including Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 by Volker Ullrich.

A bunch of New Yorker writers selected books they loved in 2016. Among the picks were Liz Moore’s The Unseen World and Works and Days by Bernadette Mayer.

Update: The WSJ asked some notable people what their favorite books of 2016 were. Stephen Curry read Dan Brown — calling him “a master at intertwining history and fantasy” — but also Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers — but failed to call him “a master at intertwining history and fantasy”.

The readers of Goodreads chose their favorite books of 2016, including Hamilton: The Revolution and Adulthood Is a Myth by Sarah Andersen.

Every year, the New York Public Library picks the Best Books for Kids and Teens. Their 2016 lists include Fiona Robinson’s Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer and Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings.

Update: The NY Times also asked many notable people what they read in 2016. Bryan Cranston read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Update: From Buzzfeed, The 18 Best Nonfiction Books Of 2016 including Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography.

  1. The other day he said to me, “Daddy, you should read this book. I think you’d really like it. There might be some interesting stuff in there for your website.”

The Atlas of Design

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 21, 2016

Denali Map

The North American Cartographic Information Society has published the third volume of The Atlas of Design, a book consisting of “beautiful and inspiring maps from around the world”.

National Geographic took a look at some of the maps included in the book.

The striking panorama above of Denali and the Alaska Range was created by draping satellite imagery over a three-dimensional model of the terrain. Brooke Marston, a cartographer at the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, was inspired by the Austrian artist Heinrich Berann, who is famed for his beautiful panoramas of mountain ranges.

While Berann took some artistic license with the precise location and positioning of mountains in his panoramas, Marston’s map is true to the geography. The oblique, bird’s-eye view emphasizes the sheer size of the mountains while maintaining a closeness with the viewer. “Good oblique mapping can transport the viewer straight into the landscape,” Elmer says. “This map makes me feel lost among the jagged, cold, majestic mountains just looking at it.”

A reading list for resistance

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 18, 2016

Over at Literary Hub, Emily Temple offers a “reading list for resistance”, a list of 25 Works of Fiction and Poetry for Anger and Action.

Included are The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood:

This is the book women will be whispering about to one another in Trump’s America-an all-too-real vision of our country under a totalitarian theocracy where women are stripped of their rights and kept around only as breeders or servants.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin:

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real.

And of course, George Orwell’s 1984:

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic…

1984 was my favorite book for a long time — I first read it when I was about 10 years old and reread it every year or two well into my 20s. I haven’t read it in more than 10 years…perhaps it’s time for another go.

The Aberdeen Bestiary, a gorgeous medieval illuminated manuscript

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 17, 2016

Aberdeen Bestiary

Aberdeen Bestiary

Aberdeen Bestiary

A bestiary was a type of book popular in the Middle Ages, featuring descriptions of animals accompanied by moral lessons. The Aberdeen Bestiary is a particularly fine example of a 12th century bestiary.

The Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen University Library MS 24) is considered to be one of the best examples of its type due to its lavish and costly illuminations. The manuscript, written and illuminated in England around 1200, is of added interest since it contains notes, sketches and other evidence of the way it was designed and executed.

Thanks to the work of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, where the book has been housed since the 1620s, a high-resolution copy of the book is available to browse online. The level of detail at full magnification is incredible. The text accompanying the top image of a panther is translated as:

There is an animal called the panther, multi-coloured, very beautiful and extremely gentle. Physiologus says of it, that it has only the dragon as an enemy. When it has fed and is full, it hides in its den and sleeps. After three days it awakes from its sleep and gives a great roar, and from its mouth comes a very sweet odour, as if it were a mixture of every perfume. When other animals hear its voice, they follow wherever it goes, because of the sweetness of its scent. Only the dragon, hearing its voice, is seized by fear and flees into the caves beneath the earth. There, unable to bear the scent, it grows numbed within itself and remains motionless, as if dead. Thus our Lord Jesus Christ, the true panther, descending from Heaven, snatched us from the power of the devil. And, through his incarnation, he united us to him as sons, taking everything, and ‘leading captivity captive, gave gifts to men’ (Ephesians, 4:8). The fact that the panther is a multi-coloured animal, signifies Christ, who is as Solomon said the wisdom of God the Father, an understanding spirit, a unique spirit, manifold, true, agreeable, fitting, compassionate, strong, steadfast, serene, all-powerful, all-seeing.

Jesus, the true panther. (via hyperallergic)

The importance of seeing yourself clearly

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 10, 2016

In a piece excerpted from his new book, Millennium: From Religion to Revolution: How Civilization Has Changed Over a Thousand Years, Ian Mortimer argues that the introduction of glass mirrors circa 1300 in Venice spurred the shift to an individualistic society because people were able to see themselves clearly for the first time.

Polished metal and obsidian mirrors have existed from ancient times, and because of this, historians have usually passed over the introduction of the glass mirror as if it was just another variation on an old theme. But the development of glass mirrors marks a crucial shift, for they allowed people to see themselves properly for the first time, with all their unique expressions and characteristics. Polished metal mirrors of copper or bronze were very inefficient by comparison, reflecting only about 20 percent of the light; and even silver mirrors had to be exceptionally smooth to give any meaningful reflection. These were also prohibitively expensive: most medieval people would only have glimpsed their faces darkly, reflected in a pool of water.

What an odd thing, to not actually know what your face looks like, and yet for most of human history, that was the case. Also interesting that the rise of glass mirrors led to an increase of commissioned painted portraits:

People’s ability to appreciate their unique appearance led to a huge rise in the number of portraits commissioned, especially in the Low Countries and Italy. While almost all the oil paintings that survive from the fourteenth century are of a religious nature, the few exceptions are portraits. This trend toward portraiture grew in the fifteenth century, and came to dominate nonreligious art. As important men increasingly commissioned artists to create their likenesses, the more those likenesses were viewed, encouraging other people to have their portraits painted.

Steven Johnson discussed glass mirrors in the opening chapter of his book How We Got To Now.

At the exact moment that the glass lens was allowing us to extend our vision to the stars or microscopic cells, glass mirrors were allowing us to see ourselves for the first time. It set in motion a reorientation of society that was more subtle, but no less transformative, than the reorientation of our place in the universe that the telescope engendered. “The most powerful prince in the world created a vast hall of mirrors, and the mirror spread from one room to another in the bourgeois household,” Lewis Mumford writes in his Technics and Civilization. “Self-consciousness, introspection, mirror-conversation developed with the new object itself.”

Social conventions as well as property rights and other legal customs began to revolve around the individual rather than the older, more collective units: the family, the tribe, the city, the kingdom. People began writing about their interior lives with far more scrutiny. Hamlet ruminated onstage; the novel emerged as a dominant form of storytelling, probing the inner mental lives of its characters with an unrivaled depth. Entering a novel, particularly a first-person narrative, was a kind of conceptual parlor trick: it let you swim through the consciousness, the thoughts and emotions, of other people more effectively than any aesthetic form yet invented. The psychological novel, in a sense, is the kind of story you start wanting to hear once you begin spending meaningful hours of your life staring at yourself in the mirror.

If glass mirrors helped bring about such a shift in society, I wonder how society is shifting with the ability, only over the past 10-15 years or so, for people to instantly share their inner thoughts and selfies with friends, family, and even strangers many times every day? Is this more “seeing ourselves clearly” (individualism) or is the ability to allow others to see us clearly so frequently steering us back toward collectivism? Or somewhere else entirely?

Dear Donald Trump, you should visit your hometown someday

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 04, 2016

In a short essay from Literary Hub titled New York is a Book Conservatives Should Read, Rebecca Solnit writes an open letter to Donald Trump urging him to take some lessons from the city in which he lives. Solnit argues that Trump’s wealth has insulated him from experiencing one of the true pleasures of American cities like New York: energetic and meaningful diversity.

You treat Muslims like dangerous outsiders but you seem ignorant of the fact that the town you claim to live in has about 285 mosques, and somewhere between 400,00 and 800,000 Muslims, according to New York’s wonderful religious scholar Tony Carnes. That means one out of ten or one out of twenty New Yorkers are practitioners of the Islamic faith. A handful of Muslims, including the Orlando mass murderer, who was born in Queens, have done bad things, but when you recognize how many Muslims there are, you can stop demonizing millions for the acts of a few.

NYC is only one-third white and is home to hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Jews and millions of blacks, Latinos, and Asians.

Speaking of African-Americans: have you ever been to Harlem or the Bronx? You keep talking about black people like you’ve never met any or visited any black neighborhoods. Seriously, during that last debate you said, “Our inner cities are a disaster. You get shot walking to the store. They have no education. They have no jobs. I will do more for African-Americans and Latinos than she can ever do in ten lifetimes. All she’s done is talk to the African-Americans and to the Latinos.” Dude, seriously? Did you get this sense of things from watching TV-in 1975?

Solnit wrote the piece after compiling her most recent book, Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas.

Bringing together the insights of dozens of experts — from linguists to music historians, ethnographers, urbanists, and environmental journalists — amplified by cartographers, artists, and photographers, it explores all five boroughs of New York City and parts of nearby New Jersey. We are invited to travel through Manhattan’s playgrounds, from polyglot Queens to many-faceted Brooklyn, and from the resilient Bronx to the mystical kung fu hip-hop mecca of Staten Island.

This NY Times piece on the political inclinations of rural areas vs cities is an interesting companion to Solnit’s letter.

“There is something really kind of strange and interesting about the connection between peoples’ preferences — what they view as the good life, where they want to live — and their partisanship,” said Jonathan Rodden, a political scientist at Stanford. His precinct-level maps of presidential election results show deep blue in the densest, central parts of metropolitan areas, where you’d find the Main Streets, city halls, row homes and apartment buildings. The farther you travel from there, the redder the precincts become. And this is true whether you look around New York City or Terre Haute, Ind.

Tales of the Unexpected

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 31, 2016

When I watch Black Mirror, particularly the newest Netflix season, I don’t think it’s primarily classic science fiction or about our relationship to technology.1 What I’m reminded of most strongly is The Twilight Zone and Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, both of which appear on the list of movies, books, and TV shows that influenced Charlie Brooker while making Black Mirror.

I read Tales of the Unexpected when I was a kid, having exhausted all of the other Roald Dahl books in our small town library and one day randomly discovering that he’d written this book of short stories for adults. His use of horror and black comedy are evident in the most celebrated story, Lamb to the Slaughter, in which a woman murders her husband by whacking him in the head with a frozen leg of lamb and then serves the lamb to the police detectives who come round to investigate the death.

Anyway, what I didn’t know was that Tales of the Unexpected was also adapted into a TV show hosted by Dahl himself. I’ve embedded the Lamb to the Slaughter episode above and there are many more of the full episodes available on YouTube.

  1. Or as Mallory Ortberg put it, “next on black mirror: what if phones but too much”.