What It Is: 8/30/10

What I’m reading: The Iliad.

What I’m listening to: Sir Lucious Left Foot, The Singular Adventures of the Style Council, Simple Things and Blood Like Lemonade

What I’m watching: Nothing much. We watched 3 hours of Spike Lee’s new New Orleans documentary, but eh.

What I’m drinking: Luchador Tremblor shiraz. I’m out of Q-Tonic, as is one of my hook-ups.

What Rufus & Otis are up to: Sadly, getting diagnosed with mange of some kind. They’ve been scratching like crazy the last few weeks, keeping us up in the middle of the night, so I took them down to the vets’ offices to see what was what, hoping it was just allergies. They figure it’s mange (not sure what variety), so the boys are on antibiotics and Benadryl. Rufus is okay about taking capsules with yogurt or Barney Butter, but Otis is much pickier, so that’s been a bit of a trial. We kept them home from this week’s grey-hike for that reason, not wanting to risk getting the other dogs mangenated.

Where I’m going: Harlem! Amy & I are going to the Apollo tonight to see a performance of Louis. It’s a (new) silent movie, with accompaniment by Wynton Marsalis and a bunch of other jazz musicians. Just watch the trailer and you’ll understand why we’re making the hike out to 125th St. for this one-night show. (The last silent movie I saw was Silent Movie.)

What I’m happy about: Selling off my 2nd generation Kindle for enough money to upgrade to a 3rd gen model pretty cheaply. And since I’ll be reading my print edition of The Iliad (Lattimore’s translation isn’t available as an e-book), that’ll tide me over until the new model arrives. Also, we took a nice hike on Sunday (sans doggies, since I think they contracted this mange by hanging out in the brackish water of Ramapo Lake a month back), which will likely be better in autumn. Oh, and on a little pre-pick-up-Amy-at-the-train-stop shopping expedition on Friday, I was mistaken for a J.Crew employee and had my shoes complimented by young Club Monaco salesman in the span of 10 minutes. I think that’s a little more flattering than last week’s experience at the hiking store.

What I’m sad about: This mange thing makes me look like a crappy dog-father (and my dogs are itchy and irritable/ticklish).

What I’m worried about: Nothing significant. I finished our September issue on time, and my big annual conference is looking pretty good, as far as attendee count and speaker/panelist anxiety goes.

What I’m pondering: How many R-rated movies I saw before I turned 10. I saw at least three in the theater: Caddyshack, History of the World, Part I, and The Jerk. I’m pretty sure I saw Animal House and Blazing Saddles at home (decoder box) before my 10th birthday, too.

Kindleicious

To celebrate the arrival of my new Kindle (I sold my first-gen model for $270 on Amazon last week), here are a bunch of articles about e-book pricing and why publishers are scared crapless by the example of Apple and iTunes:

  1. Kassia Kroszer, who writes wonderfully about this stuff on her blog, argues that $9.99 is tops for what consumers will pay. I agree, as there are a number of Kindle books that I’ve blown off because they’re priced above that, including the new translation of War & Peace (which I finally bought a minute ago after the price dropped from $22+ to $8.96).
  2. Here’s an interview with Ms. Kroszer!
  3. Here’s a publisher at HarpersStudio explaining why paper, printing and binding (PPB) only account for about $2.00 of a book’s price, and therefore why Kindle books need to cost a lot more than $10. It looks like he doesn’t account for bookstore returns in that estimate; overprinting and getting stuck with tons of unsold copies doesn’t occur with an e-verison, of course. And he may be lying.
  4. This guy disagrees with that guy.
  5. Jason Epstein still wants a high-speed machine that will make print copies of books on demand. No, seriously. Oh, and good books will be written by demented shut-ins “highly specialized individuals struggling at their desks in deep seclusion and not by linked communities of interest.”

I’m gonna go read something now.

Payback!

Evidently, if you click through this

us_banner_kindle_468x60_04_08_115

and order a Kindle 2 from Amazon, I’ll get a 10% kickback!

I really like my v.1 Kindle, and the improvements in v.2 aren’t significant enough for me to upgrade, but if you’re on the fence about whether to get one, you can read my rambles about the device in general here, here, and here.

My biggest complaint remains that the store doesn’t have all the semi-obscure (read: less commercial) stuff that I read, esp. that Everyman’s edition of Montaigne.

Can’t start a fire

I meandered around a Borders store for the second time in a week! This time, my wife was getting her hair cut on Saturday afternoon, and I figured I could spend a little time among the books to feel guiltier about not participating in National Novel-Writing Month. (I really meant to, but my paralyzing neuroses reminded me that I needed to clean the garage last weekend. . .)

While I looked at some of the recent releases, a woman walked up to me and asked, “May I show you the Sony eBook Reader?” She held the device between us.

I got over my momentary puzzlement — I thought I’d turned my “mood of revulsion” force field on — and said to her, “Actually, I already have an Amazon Kindle.”

“Oh,” she said. “That’s our competition.”

“I know. I love the design of the Sony, but the Kindle’s wireless access to Amazon’s store and the book-samples sealed the deal for me,” I told her.

We thanked each other and as she walked away I noticed that there was a Sony eBook Reader kiosk nearby. Since it appeared that Sony & Borders were collaborating, I thought that a great way for them to combat Amazon’s superiority in online retail would be to have e-kiosks in Borders stores, where people could plug in their Sony eBooks and buy/download titles while in the store. Of course, the kiosks here were just holding a couple of eBook Readers.

At home that evening, I checked out Sony’s eBook online store, to see how it measured up to the Kindle store (which is integrated with Amazon). I scrolled down the Sony storefront, I noticed this banner for some available books:

Just to make the obvious and crude joke: Deepak Chopra’s Jesus is caught between the Decadent Duke and Swallowing Darkness.

Well, who am I not to click through Swallowing Darkness (uh-huh-huh-huh . . .), I thought?

That’s when I discovered that you can’t actually buy a title for the Sony eBook through the eBook store website; you need to have the eBook Library Software installed on your computer. And that software? It’s not available for the Mac, so Mac users can only load PDFs and public domain books on it.

Just so that’s clear: Sony’s biggest advantage over the Kindle is elegance of design, but Mac users — who tend to put a premium on elegance of design — aren’t able to buy books for it.

Bang-up job there, Sony.

BONUS: And that Sony/Borders partnership? It yields this great and useless website, which only has two active links: one for that library software and one for a promo to get 100 free “classic” titles, with purchase of an eBook Reader . . . by Sept. 30.

I’ll sit facing the corner in a funny hat

This weekend, I read Benjamin Schwarz’s review in the Atlantic of “Have You Seen . . . ?” A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, David Thomson’s follow-up to his Biographical Dictionary of Film. I’ve never read that earlier book, but I’ve seen enough references to it to figure that it’s kinda canonical in film criticism and bathroom reading. The new book sounded like an entertaining read, with its one-page writeups of a thousand movies (including a couple of TV shows like The Singing Detective and The Sopranos). Wrote Schwarz:

It’s impossible to read this book from cover to cover without being convinced that Hollywood’s greatest achievements are not the monotonously important dramas that so often sucker in Academy voters but the stylish, highly polished entertainments, largely comedies, that endure even though they weren’t made to be lasting. Above all, Thomson prizes wit, charm, and good-natured ease. He’s reached an age, he notes in his appraisal of North by Northwest, when he’d “rather have a great screwball comedy than a profound tragedy. After all, tragedy is all around us and screwball is something only the movies can do.”

On Tuesday, I meandered around the nearby Borders during my lunch-hour, and noticed Mr. Thomson’s book on the new non-fiction table. It’s organized alphabetically by movie title, so I turned to Miller’s Crossing to see what he thought of it. I couldn’t help it, Tom! It’s my nature!

I was gratified to find that he loves the movie, and that several of his comments were in sync with mine. I began skimming through the book to see if he commented on any other of my idiosyncratic faves and fascinators. Sadly, no entries for Another Woman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Shallow Grave, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, or Three Kings. Still, I thought, this would be a great book to have on hand, one to dip into every so often and read his ideas on movies I liked, didn’t like, or never saw. Exactly the sort of thing I would pick up occasionally and read for an hour at a time.

Of course, we live in the future, so I couldn’t just buy it there. After all, its list price is $40, and I figured Amazon would have it for 30-40% cheaper. I looked it up that evening and saw that Amazon was selling it for $26.37 (34% off). I was about to add it to my wishlist when I noticed two things:

  1. it weighs 3.4 lbs. and is almost 2.5″ thick, and
  2. it’s also available for the Kindle.

Sure, I was a little irked that the Kindle edition sells for $23 — most Kindle books are $10 or cheaper — but it’s got criticism of a thousand flicks, the e-book is searchable by word, and I’ll have it with me wherever I travel. Frankly, that’s worth $23 in my world. It looks like the twin forces of new technology and my desire not to carry lots of stuff around sure has messed with my book-buying habits.

(I just wish Cultural Amnesia — Clive James’ 800-page collection of short biographical essays on 20th century literary, political and artistic personae — had gotten en-Kindle-ized. It would’ve been a good fit for the exact reasons as “Have You Seen . . . ?”, but I gave up waiting last week and bought the paperback for $10.77. Grr.)

Anyway, here’s Mr. Thomson’s review of Miller’s Crossing (I figured out how to copy-and-paste off the Kindle, sorta):

I am not a steadfast enthusiast of the Coen Brothers, and I have given up trying to explain the haphazard movements of their career. But the thing that nags me about their record is Miller’s Crossing, a superb, languid fantasia on the theme of the gangster film that repays endless viewing. It is derived quite plainly from Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, although the script was done by the Coens themselves.

At the heart of the film’s assurance are the dour, glum rhythms of Gabriel Byrne as the “hero” figure who happens to be fucking his friend’s girl. The girl is Marcia Gay Harden, never better and so sexy that you understand why Byrne did not bother to debate the temptation. The friend is Albert Finney, charged with energy and booze in equal parts as the thick-headed crime boss who can’t see a con if it’s a cat curled up on his lap. This broken bond between Byrne and Finney is a good version of the relationship between Ned Beaumont and Paul Madvig in Hammett’s novel. And it’s a shared virtue of both works that they convey the disgust and disbelief in tough men that sees how they can betray each other over a piece of ass. Of course, it is a testament to Harden’s ass that we never question the imperative of the ruinous equation.

The next thing to remark on is the way Canadian studios and locations give such a rich, satisfying air of period and place. We never know, or need to know, the city, but there is nothing shabby or secondhand in the décor, and there’s an eagerness in the look of the film that speaks to a real love of space, furniture, light, and mood. The same pleasure vibrates in the very intricate story structure. There are some who find Miller’s Crossing too clever by half, but I think that misses how far the Gabriel Byrne character recognizes the curse of intelligence that hangs over him and the duty it imposes — of always being driven to nose out the cons of others, while hoping that his own subterfuges are going unnoticed. It’s kill or be killed and the air of life is smartness. Take it or leave it.

There’s more, much more, and I think it centers on the “Schmatta” as played by John Turturro — queer as a coot, a dandy, a coward, and as brave as any coward who takes terrible risks. This could be the finest work of one of our best supporting actors. And don’t forget that he stands out in a movie that includes the adorable Jon Polito and the very frightening Eddie the Dane (J. E. Freeman), not to forget a passing secretary, who is Frances McDormand flashing the camera a quick greedy eye as she minces by.

All of that said, after learning to love the crammed texture and its nearly constant inventiveness, it is the more baffling and disconcerting that the Coens seem so often prepared to deliver films that are enervated and without a single good reason for being made. Do they wake up at night wondering if they were ever really this good, or do they refuse to look at the film again?

Now I wonder if he thought any better of Casino than I did . . . ?

UPDATE: I do have a significant complaint about the Kindle edition of this book. There should be a table of contents with hyperlinks to each movie. Grr.

Me and e

Virginia Heffernan has a nice piece in the NYT Magazine about Amazon’s Kindle e-reader. The biggest complaints I hear about the Kindle from tech geeks is that it needs to have an color touchscreen with a high-powered browser, cellphone service and maybe a camera. Which is to say, they miss the point. It’s an e-reader, not an e-everything. I agree with them, of course, when they say it’s a butt-ugly piece of design.

Ms. Heffernan does a good job of explaining how the Kindle’s “limitations” are what define it as a great device for . . . reading books. Which I do a lot of.

In short, you get absorbed when reading on the Kindle. You lose hours to reading novels in one sitting. You sit up straighter, energized by new ideas and new universes. You nod off, periodically, infatuated or entranced or spent. And yet the slight connection to the Web still permits the (false, probably, but nonetheless reassuring) sense that if the apocalypse came while you were shut away somewhere reading, the machine would get the news from Amazon.com and find a way to let you know. Anything short of that, though, the Kindle leaves you alone.

And alone is where I want to be, for now. It’s bliss. Emerge from the subway or alight from a flight, and the Kindle has no news for you. No missed calls. It’s ready only to be read. It’s like a good exercise machine that mysteriously incentivizes the pursuit of muscle pain while still making you feel cared for. The Kindle makes you want to read, and read hard, and read prolifically. It eventually makes me aware that, compared with reading a lush, inky book, checking e-mail is boring, workaday and lame.

The only thing she doesn’t touch upon is what I consider the Kindle’s game-changing aspect: the ability to download free samples of e-books rather than having to buy the whole thing. There are a number of books that I’ve decided not to buy after checking out their first 30 or so pages on the Kindle. In some cases, I decided I simply didn’t like the book enough to buy it; in others, I’ve passed because the formatting of that particular book hasn’t looked good on the device, or because a translation isn’t the one I wanted (Amazon’s Kindle store is a little hinky when it comes to books in translation).

Give it a read.

Catch a fire

I don’t agree with all of this guy’s points about the future of digital books vis a vis the success of the Kindle. I’m optimistic that the presence of the Kindle and other e-readers will help drag book publishing out of the horrifically dysfunctional returnable bookstore model that it’s currently in.

But I don’t think that book publishing can be directly compared to the recording industry, and I really don’t think it’s advisable to tell publishers, “If you’ll just embrace this DRM-free, digital model, you can get your sales demolished just like the recording industry did. What are you waiting for?”

I also think Steve Jobs was full of crap when he said that Apple wouldn’t develop an e-reader because  “Americans don’t read.” I think he recognized that Amazon was already in position as the store of choice, and that meant Apple wouldn’t be able to create an iTunes store for books. No store, no device.

I’m still enjoying the heck out of my Kindle, but I’m also bummed that the new Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of War & Peace is selling for $20, rather than the $9.99 that they usually price new hardcovers. Grr.

F*** You, You Whining F***: 8/5/08

Why are newspapers falling to pieces? There’s a perfect storm of reasons, including the destruction of the diurnal newscycle, the obliteration of their local classified ad market by Craiglist and its ilk, and increases in paper and distribution costs.

Then there’s the fact that they publish crappy, irrelevant opinion articles. Case in point: today’s Whining F***, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post. A few weeks ago, Cohen wrote an Andy Rooneyesque rant about kids today and their crazy tattoos. Today? He complains that Amazon is destroying The Book by trying to “digitize everything in sight” and make us all buy Kindles.

See, Amazon is “inadvertently thinking of ways to make the world worse for children and for the grown-ups who love them to pieces” by, um, offering people options for how they buy and read books (and not trying to end world hunger and/or take Rush Limbaugh off the air: seriously). I support independent bookstores over chain stores; I love the serendipity factor of walking among the shelves of a well-stocked used bookstore.

That said, I really love Amazon’s ability to find virtually any book that I’m looking for, and I love the Kindle’s ability to get me a book within moments of my ordering it, like it did last evening after I read a sample of Jimmy Breslin’s new book, The Good Rat.

Here’s my favorite — by which I mean, “most befuddling” — passage from Mr. Cohen’s cranky rant regular column, which was published in one of the largest newspapers in the country:

I used to frequent one in New York — Books and Co., now closed — that recommended certain kinds of books. It led me to Joseph Roth, the great central European writer of the interwar period, and Thomas Bernhard, the eccentric Austrian who so hated his country he wouldn’t permit his plays to be staged there. I read all of Bernhard and all of Roth. What joy — although Bernhard, to tell the truth, was sometimes a bit of a slog.

Can Amazon do anything like that? Does Kessel — “We wake up every day thinking about digital,” he once told the New York Times — even know who Roth was? Roth killed himself in Paris. At least he never knew that one day he might be digitized.

So, while we weren’t looking, Amazon must have updated its store and removed all “you might be interested in” suggestions as well as the reader reviews that offer up just these sorts of associations. Or Richard Cohen is a Whining F***.

Any suggestions for his next column topic?

Kindle, part 1

Ahoy, dear readers! I’m awfully busy at the BIO show in San Diego. But rather than leave you without your daily dose of my ramblings, I thought I’d post this e-mail I wrote a pal in response to his query of, “How do you like your Kindle?” I have more in-depth/conceptual points to make about the e-reader and its place in the market, but I figure this is a good starting point for that conversation. Enjoy:

I like the Kindle, but I’m a strange person. The screen is just fine for reading, and battery life hasn’t been an issue. Some people may have issues with the fact that all books are in the same typeface, or that they can’t tell how long a book is (there’s a row of dots on the bottom of the screen that show your progress in the book/article). I experienced that with Lord Jim, which I thought was a brief novel (Heart of Darkness length), but which I eventually realized was around 300 pages long.

The great advance is the Kindle store, which lets you buy books on the fly. On Sunday, at 5:30am, waiting at the gate in the Louis Armstrong Airport in Louisiana, I decided I’d like to read Netherland, the new novel by Joseph O’Neill. I looked it up on the store, bought it, and had it on the device within a minute. The store selection isn’t good enough for my oddball tastes (they have very few of the Pevear & Volokhonsky Russian translations, for example, sticking instead to the old Garnett or Maude ones), but for new(ish) books, it’s perfect.

Even better is the “try a sample” function, which sends the first chapter (approx.) of any book in the store to your Kindle. You can access the store either from the Kindle itself (kinda clunky, but fine when you’re not around your computer) or through your computer, since the Kindle is synched to your Amazon account. I can’t say enough about this sampling function. It’s similar to the 30-second samples you’d find on iTunes, but 30 pages is so much more worthwhile in figuring out whether a particular book is up your alley. Plus, the sample remains on your device; that is, it’s not a streaming, time-limited sample.

Pricing for new books is generally $9.99, with older ones much cheaper. There’s also a huge selection of public domain books at manybooks.net, formatted for Kindle. You can download those to your computer free (they accept donations), and then put them on the Kindle via USB. I picked up a bunch of classics that way, so I’ll never get trapped in a foreign country with nothing to read (you can’t access the Kindle store outside the U.S.). Last year in Milan, I got caught bookless after finishing books by William Gibson and Tom Stoppard, and the only bookstore I had time to get to had a minuscule English-language section, mainly of Penguin Classics. The upshot was that I finally read Middlemarch. Now, I’ll have a ton of choices waiting on the Kindle.

I don’t have to travel as much this year as I have in recent ones, but I’m still quite happy that I won’t have to lug multiple books in my carry-on anymore.

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