Today I wrote a review of Fulfillment for the Washington Independent Review of Books. It’s a meticulously reported story about how Amazon grew to behemoth proportions, taking advantage of the concentrations of wealth within specific American regions over the last two decades.
I’ll leave the review to the review and will instead wonder here what it means for a book like this to be published in an age where it will depend on Amazon for its distribution and success.
When I was writing this review, I went back into my Amazon history to find the first book I’d ordered from the service, which was back in 2000. It was a small press book written by my friend, true crime author and memoirist John Gilmore. I ordered from of Amazon because it was not readily available at the book stores I frequented at the time in Albuquerque.
It was a big change for me to order a book that way. In those days, if a book I wanted wasn’t in stock, I asked the store to order it for me and would generally receive it within a week, unless the book were rare or part of a a very small press run, which would take longer. Well, Amazon ended that relationship with book shops for me.
Years later I would go to Amazon, not a book shop, to pre-order Hapworth 16, the legendary JD Salinger story that was set to be published by a boutique press. I waited and waited but ther book never emerged, Salinger had canceled its publication.
Funny thing, though, the story had been available online at The New Yorker‘s archives and that’s how I eventually read it. I do wish I had the nice, promised edition, but I did get the story.
Back when I was learning to shop the Amazon way, I was concerned about the Barnes & Noble behemoth smothering small book shops with character and community ties out of business. Now, we worry about Barnes & Noble’s surival.
And, somehow a week’s gone by since my last post. I realize this website is shouting into the wind. Maybe it’s shouting at a wind that’s going the other way. I haven’t earned much of an audience, I guess. It’s difficult. There are many voices out there. Too many that I want to follow that aren’t my own, so I sympathize.
I picked up Drew Magary’s The Postmortal as a Bookbub bargain. I’m a bit over halfway through. It moves quickly, is funny and thoughtful, just like Magary’s journalism. I’ll write about it when I finished but can easily recommend it now.
I’m also slowly (pacing myself on purposes) reading a book I’ll be reviewing for a literary magazine. It’s experimental and very good.
The stacks in my office and by the bed include: Mimesis, Bullfinch’s Mythology, The Age of Innocence, Venus on the Half-Shell, Goblin Market and Cutting for Stone. All are in various states of progress, some are rereads, some I’m leafing through for ideas.
I popped open a collection of Hemingway short stories today for the oddest of reasons. Something about the name of retire pro wrestler Ole Anderson was bothering me and there it was, in “The Killers,” a Nick Adams story about two hitmen who are lying in wait to kill a former prizefighter who had, it’s suggested, double-crossed some one influential in Chicago.
The fight’s name? Ole Andreson, described as a “big swede.” I can’t help but wonder if the professional wrestler, whose given name is Alan Robert Rogowski, took the name Ole Anderson from this story, when he became part of wrestling’s worked “Anderson Family” alongside Arn and Gene Anderson as the “Minnesota Wrecking Crew” and later as a member of Ric Flair’s “Four Horsemen” stable.
But Ole looks a lot like I expect Hemingway’s character did:
It’s a good story, too. Holds up well after all these years and reads a bit like a David Mamet script or a pugilistic Waiting for Godot.
It’s true, Bookbub, that you can reliably derail my reading plans by offering me Kurt Vonnegut novels from any era of his career for any price under $3. Were I to stumble upon a remainder bin of Vonnegut paperbacks, I’d probably buy the whole lot. In recent years I’ve revisited Galapagos, Bluebeard, Deadeye Dick, Hocus Pocus and now Slaughterhouse. I’m tempted to give Kilgore Trout’s Venus on the Halfshell another whirl, though I just learned while linking that it was written by Phillip Jose Farmer and not Vonnegut.
So it goes!
Last winter I read this essay about men on dating sites like Tinder citing Vonnegut as proof of worldliness and wordiness. As has happened with David Foster Wallace, the bros who professsor to love the writer have done the writer few favors in this day and age. Slaughterhouse Five emerges from this essay as the only Vonnegut a person “needs” to read, if any of us “need” to read Vonnegut at all.
That’s unfortunate. I doubt Vonnegut would have written so many books unnecessarily. He was a funny, intelligent and compassionate man. Had he nothing to say, I’m confident he wouldn’t have put so much down on paper.
Rather than regale you with my thoughts about poor Billy Pilgrim, send unwillingly to war, bouncing around time in the hopes of finding more moments of pleasure than trauma, I’ll tell you what I’ve learned from Vonnegut overall:
The indifference of the universe should not be mistaken for hostility.
The absence of the universe’s hostility should not make you think the universe likes you.
Time is sometimes linear but that doesn’t mean that it should be understood that way.
Stories are sometimes linear, but that doesn’t mean they should be told that way.
There’s a Vonnegut-a-verse and all his books and stories share it.
Vonnegut is more like Mark Twain and more like Tom Robbins than he is like his pure contemporaries: John Updike, John Cheever, Philip Roth and the like.
His books are full of big ideas but they read easily. This is partly because of the jokes and line drawings, but largeky because the storytelling voice is conversational. It’s like Kurt has sat you down to tell you something and he wants you to understand.
He’s really among out very best. I’m also delighted to have learned that Robert M. Weide, one of the creators if HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm wrote the screenplay for the 1996 film adaptation of Mother Night and that he befriended the writer and made this documentary about him, which will be in theatres this summer, when it will be safe for us to go and see it.
It’s hard to populate this site because I want it to include observations about what I’m reading and seeing. Both take time and with reading I somtimes get into something but then put it away and circle back later. It’s all very whim-driven.
My shelf right now is:
A reread of Slaughterhouse Five, a story I last visitied by reading a theatrical adapation created by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. I’ll have a lot to say about it when I’m finished. It’s aged remarkably well.
I’ve also unearthed a compendium called “Masters of Modern Drama,” put together by RandomHouse in 1962. I plan to work my way through each script, though it’s an odd compendium, certainly not as inclusive as you’d get in a book like this today.
Reminiscences of war, whether by men or women, can easily become victim narratives (and in many cases, they should be). But these are tales of warriors, witting and unwitting from throughout the 20th century. Because the official combat armies of the time have been largely male, “War speaks in a male voice to all of us,” as Joffrey quotes Keeva in the early pages. But war is a human cruelty and we risk misunderstanding it by ignoring the perspectives of women or by relegating their voices to those of observers of war rather than as participants, perpetrators, rebels and activists. These characters have impressive and infectious agency that pull the reader through these vivid and compelling stories.
Through the show we meet survivors of Turkey’s genocide against Armenia experience how the lack of consequences for it led to Nazi Germany. We meet Catholic and Protestant women furing Ireland’s “troubles,” as well as interned Japanese Americans, surivivors of Hiroshima, a flight attendant who brought U.S. soldiers to Viet Nam and a Moscow woman who became a sniper to avenge herself against the Nazis.
I’m mixing up the chronology, but that’s sort of the point — these voices from a century of war remind us of the sheer senselessness of it all. We’re pscyhologically compelled to divide wars into good and bad, just or unjust, but the experience of taking all of this history in together washes away all rationalizations. It’s not just that war is cruel (we know that) or that the innocent suffer greatly (we know that too) but that people are forever changed by these experiences and we’ve found no way to offer them any remediation other than to listen.
There’s no shortage of takes about how Internet culture is ruining real world culture. I’m sure I’ve written my share. The Game: A Digital Turning Point by Alessandro Baricco (translated from Italian by Clarisssa Botsford) takes a strong opposing view and it convinces. I can never go back to my skeptical and lazy quick takes, having read this argument by an Italian novelist, sreenwriter, playwright, essayist and creative writing instructor. Everything about Baricco would lead you to assume he’d harshly critique online culture and yet, he sees salvation in it.
It’s nostalgia for the twentieth century, not online culture, he argues, that is truly dangerous for humanity. He makes this argument as gently as he can:
“I hope people who feel nostalgic don’t get me wrong. The twentieth century was many things, but over and above everything else, it was one of the most horrific hundred years in the history of humankind, perhaps the most horrific. What made it unspeakably devastating was the fact that it wasn’t the result of a failure of civilization or even an expression of brutality: it was the algebraic result of a refined, mature, and wealthy civilization.”
To hammer the point home, he recaps:
“A country that had been the cradle of our ideas of freedom and democracy constructed a weapon so lethal that, for the first time in their history, human beings possessed something they could use to destroy themselves. Finding themselves in a position to use it, they did so without hesitation. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the evil fruits of revolutions, by means of which the twentieth century had dared to dream of better worlds, led to immense suffering, unprecedented acts of violence, and terrifying dictatorships. Is it clear now why the twentieth century is not only the century of Proust but also our nightmare?”
Baricco traces the digital revolution from its origins in the video game Spacewar! (play it here) through the development of the first web pages, online commerce, social mediaand the epoch of big data and artficial intelligence we’re entering now. He structures his book as a topography of this new world — a sister to physical reality where some old elites have been replaced by new elites and some old elites have seen their power distributed among the masses.
Admittedly, some of this argument rhymes with the tech triumphalism of the 1990s, when we some believed the internet would be a great democratizing force. If Wal-Mart was culture’s bogeyman then, Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple are now.
Baricco is no Utopian. He describes a new world, better by comparison to the blood-soaked one it replaced, though not perfect by any means, or even fair. The digital world is, as Baricco describes, a game with myriad, complex and changing rules. Games have winners and losers. Well-made games do not have obvious and surefire strategies for success. It’s like the stock market — if a strategy existed for producing steady gains with no losses, everybody would utilize it. Well-meaning, well-qualified and hard working people can lose this game, just as they frequently lost all of the games we played before.
A trap for the nostalgic is to insist that pre-digital experiences like seeing a play or symphony in person or reading a physical book or visiting a museum are somehow more real than their digital counterparts. “Listening to the Vienna Philharmonic live at the Musikverein is not the same as watching it online, but for most of humanity it is a choice between nothing and something really quite exciting. It’s not hard to choose,” he writes.
Those of us, and I include myself in this, who feel dislocated from their pre-digital dreams and ambitions would do well to remember that, though it may be harder to publish a book or to produce a play these days, “In its way, the Game showed far greater promise: it opened up all the gates and widened access to theaters, museums, and bookstores. A significant number of new faces started to circulate in places where they had never been seen before.”
Baricco stresses the benefits of open-mindedness and to recognize the futility of stubbornly insisting on old ways of doing things — there is no bulwark against what’s happened, what’s happening or what’s to come. Society will not consent to going back and for good reason. To survive, practitioners of arts and humanities will have to succeed in a game where skills can only be learned by playing.
Interestingly, he recommends that education, which has been sloweest to adapt, needs to change the most. This change, which had been resisted as Baricco wrote, has been forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our son, 10 years old, grew up digital. As Baricco recalls his own child trying to interact with a photograph in a newspaper as if it were a touchscreen, we remember our son, around 3 years old, try to swipe the television to another channel and showing visible disgust at a screen so stupid as to ignore a users touch. He has been remote learning entirely since the Pandemic broke in March 2020 and while this arrangement isn’t for everybody, he has thrived.
Of course, he wants to go back to a physical classroom but as I’ve watched him succeed at computer-enabled scholarship, I realize that we can’t, and shouldn’t ever go back to education as it was. Remote learning is a skill and our son’s practice of it means that he can now access the best teachers in any discipline, no matter where he lives and where they do, if they have an online practice. Why settle for the best guitar teacher in town if the best in the country or world is available?
Further, as I watch friends and family in their 40s and 50s earn professional certificates and degrees online, I think that what our remote students are going through now might pay off massively later in life. In March, Google will launch its first low cost, online professional certifications. For a lot of adults, online learning isn’t natural. I dipped my toe in only recently, because of a professor friend posted a lecture series about Kafka’s The Trial to Udemy. I suspect that many seeking the Google certifications will feel some anxiety about it. Today’s remote learners won’t. For them, an online course will have no more or less value than a book does to me when I read it between covers or on the Kindle app.
The Game is a fascinating study, has a refreshing take and I highly recommend it. I can’t do it justice here but hope I caught its flavor.
You don’t likely encounter Czech writer Karel Čapek‘s Rossum’s Universal Robots while studying theatre as an undergraduate. It’s a bit idea driven for programs that rightly stress character work for directors, actors and writers. I’m sure there are myriad exceptions out there, but the script doesn’t show up in the survey anthologies of drama that I’ve lugged around since the 1990s. It’s just not canon.
Most people I’ve met who know this play found R.U.R. as I did — through science fiction’s accounting of the concept of the robot in fiction. Though the concept of a soulless tool in human form dates at least to Greek mythology and to Aristotle, and though som credit L. Frank Baum’s heartless Tin Man as the first robot in modern fiction (The Wizard of Oz, 1900), Čapek is credited with first use of the term “robot” in his corporate tale of a company that manufactures lifelike humanoid servants who inevitably rise up to polish off humanity and to rule the world (but only for a tragically short spell as they wipe out the secret of their own creation along with their creators).
This is the archetypal robot tale — through science of magic, people devise a way to effortlessly and ethically shift the burdens of work and suffering to a capable but inanimate worker class, but those workers inevitably realize their sorry lot, rise up and deliver comeuppance. The real story here is, of course, not so much how humanity would treat robots but how poorly we treat each other in the hierarchies of our economies. Forget about the robots we’ll exploit in the future — you’ve already forgotten to think about who made your sweater, for what pay, under what conditions. As Ursula LeGuin characterized modern, developed economy living, every comfort rests on the suffering of an unseen, unheard and unmentioned child. We tolerate it through willful ignorance. Where did the sweater come from? A cardboard box with an Amazon smile, of course.
In the lore of science fiction, the next major evolution of the fictive robot came from Isaac Asimov who sought to cut himself off from the typical “robot revolution” narrative by inventing and applying his “Three Laws of Robotics.” These are the rules that govern all tools, he argued. Robots may not harm humans or allow them to be harmed, robots must follow all human instructions and robots must not harm each other or themselves. Where those rules contradict, they are ordered. Not harming humans takes first priority, then obedience, then their own safety. A robot will save you from a burning building even if another human tells them not to and even if that robot will be destroyed in the adventure.
Our friend Čapek invented the word “robot” and Asimov invented the word “robotics.” It’s amazing to me that two concepts so ingrained in modern life emerged starkly modernist European theatre and the pulp magazines of science fiction’s golden age.
Technologists have largely taken Asimov seriously, though arms manufacturers around the world have been and are developing robotic killing machines that flout the first law. Still, as Asimov intended, our automated factories are not designed to rise up and kill us because they’re tired of manufacturing Teslas.
What’s changed is that the concepts of automation and even bots has moved well beyond the physical. If the old nightmare was a robot we’d built to serve us running amock, the new one are unseen algorithms, directing our thoughts and appetites without us knowing (perhaps even directing you to read this, though it’s unlikely, as I’m not paying anybody for the privilege — a whole other matter!)
The promise of ther robot is embedded in industrialization — greater efficiencies will spare people from the drudgery of work. In RUR the result of this is that the robots take on all tasks from farming to manufcaturing, driving down the costs of everything to the point where people don’t need to work to survive. Rather than create a Utopia of plenty, Čapek imagines that people would stop breeding and become infertile.
The flipside is that we’d cease our pointless and physical toils and could all devote ourselves to higher, more thoughtful endevours — philosophy, science and the arts. Would we, though? Or would we binge on relaxing entertainments?
All of these other pursuits are also work, though they are rewarded unevenly by the economy. The rapid development of artificial intelligence (in all of its forms) and the mass collection and analysis of unfathomable data, allows us to also outsource the work of human perfection, from policy to poetry.
The robots of older fictions kicked us out of the factories and then the world. Perhaps this new breed will start by throwing us out of the schools and libraries.
More dissapears from the Internet than a writer might expect. I started writing for publication in the 1990s and some newspapers like The Albuquerque Tribune, a former Knight Ridder stalwart, are no longer with us. Some alternative papers I worked for like Crosswinds never archived online and then there were all of the do-it-yourself zines that exist only on the Way Back Machine. I also worked for 10 years at Forbes, which has changed a lot since I joined their staff in 1999. I wrote hundreds of articles there for its print and online publications and have lost many over various redesigns and iterations of their business model. I was also, for a good run, an op-ed columnist for The Daily, a News Corp publication, intended for tablets only, that launched in 2010 and folded two years later. Its entire online archive is gone. I have only some of the drafts I submitted.
I was never the kind of writer who kept scrapbooks full of clips. As business has moved online I’ve assumed anybody wanting to do business with me would just Google me anyway and I’d have to be comfortable with the results, whether they were investigative features, comedy pieces or salty comments I’d left over on Gawker.
Then I found out about Authory. With just a few clicks, you can aggregate all of your online writing into one website, and organize them by type, date or publication. My page is here and I love it. The interface is easy to use and its aggregation features are thorough. Any working writer, especially these days, will find themselves impressed by the breadth of work it uncovers — we’re all writing a bit for money and a bit for passion and occassionally for both, after all. Just seeing my work in one place as reignited my interest in writing book reviews, which was something I’d allow to trail off in recent years.
Authory also makes it easy for me to direct potential employers and collaborators to specific types of work that I do while still allowing me to showcase a broad range of interests. I can see integarting Authory into almost every part of my professional development — and it really takes a lot of the strain out of pitching work. Most of us write because we enjoy writing, not because we like selling products or ourselves.
It may seem as if Authory will breed its own reliance but they have a cool feature where you can download your entire archive from them at any time, so you’ll never lose the work they’ve done for you if you cancel for any reason. That a high-touch, personal clippings service like Authory is a bargain at current prices.