“In the last few hundred years, we thought of reading as something you do by yourself. What we’re discovering now is that all media consumption — whether movies, games, or reading — is going social. And it’s going to be completely different.” –Bob Stein
What do you get when you synthesize Marx & McLuhan? Ask Bob Stein! Bob’s the rare person for whom the term “visionary” isn’t an overstatement (seriously: check out his bio below). He’s been at the forefront of digital publishing for decades, and has plenty to say about how technology is transforming human experience, from LaserDisc to Oculus Rift. We talk about the importance of failure and the era of Good Enough, how his Maoist background may or may not influence his long-term vision for humanity, the directions that future media creation and consumption may take, Silicon Valley’s twisted obsession with immortality and machine intelligence, living comfortably in the virtual world, his hopes for a VR revolution, and more! Give it a listen!
“Should my goal be to remain what I was when I was 20? What kind of insane, self-corrosive goal would that be?” –Ashton Applewhite
Then Bob’s partner, Ashton Applewhite, joins us to talk about the publication of her new book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism! We discuss the societal bias against aging, what she learned by dyeing her hair gray, the decision to “self”-publish This Chair Rocks, why she doesn’t want to think about writing another book for at least a decade, the potentials of an all-age-friendly world, and more! Go listen and then order a copy of This Chair Rocks!
“The real book of the future is going to connect everyone.” –Bob Stein
Also, if you want to find out who Bob & Ashton are reading nowadays and get a list of the books we talked about in this episode, join our Patreon and become a monthly contributor to The Virtual Memories Show! At the end of March, the new episode of our patron-only podcast, Fear of a Square Planet, will go up with a bonus segment about who he’s reading and why.
About our Guests
Bob Stein writes, “I got bit by the electronic publishing bug in 1979 and haven’t looked back since. I spent the first 15 years expanding the notion of the page to include rich media. the two companies i founded, Criterion and Voyager, managed a lot of firsts — the first films with commentary tracks and supplementary sections; what is widely regarded as the first commercially viable CD-rom, The CD Companion to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, referenced in Edward Tufte’s Visual Explanations and referred to by Alan Kay as “the first piece of digital “content” worth criticizing”; and the first electronic books — Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Trilogy and Martin Gardner’s Annotated Alice in 1992. After that there were a bunch of years spent on tool-making and in 2004 the Macarthur Foundation gave me a huge five-year grant to explore the question of what might happen to publishing in the internet era. with that grant I started the Institute for the Future of the Book where my colleagues and I conducted a bunch of exciting experiments around the question of what happens when you locate a text in a browser with a live dynamic margin. The upshot of this work was a new company SocialBook aimed at building the first truly post-print publishing platform. we’ve been developing the underlying principles for almost ten years and actual code writing for more than three. SocialBook is browser-based and it works.”
Ashton Applewhite writes, “I didn’t set out to become a writer. I went into publishing because I loved to read and didn’t have any better ideas. I had a weakness for the kind of jokes that make you cringe and guffaw at the same time, my boss kept telling me to write them down, and the collection turned into the best-selling paperback of 1982. I was a clue on Jeopardy (“Who is the author of Truly Tasteless Jokes?”; Answer: “Blanche Knott”), and as Blanche, I made publishing history by occupying four of the fifteen spots on the New York Times bestseller list. My first serious book, Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well, was published by HarperCollins in 1997. Ms. magazine called it “rocket fuel for launching new lives,” and it landed me on Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum enemies list. It also got me invited to join the board of the nascent Council on Contemporary Families, a group of distinguished family scholars. I belonged to the Artist’s Network of Refuse & Resist group that originated the anti-Iraq-invasion slogan and performance pieces titled “Our Grief is Not a Cry for War.” As a contributing editor of IEEE Spectrum magazine, I went to Laos to cover a village getting internet access via a bicycle-powered computer. Since 2000 I’ve been on staff at the American Museum of Natural History, where I write about everything under the Sun. The catalyst for Cutting Loose was puzzlement: why was our notion of women’s lives after divorce (visualize depressed dame on barstool) so different from the happy and energized reality? A similar question gave rise to my new book, This Chair Rocks: why is our view of late life so unrelievedly grim when the lived reality is so different? I began blogging about aging and ageism in 2007 and started speaking on the subject in July, 2012, which is also when I started the Yo, Is This Ageist? blog. Since then I’ve been recognized by the New York Times, National Public Radio and the American Society on Aging as an expert on ageism and been published in Harper’s and Playboy. In 2015 I was included in a list of 100 inspiring women–along with Arundhati Roy, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, Germaine Greer, Naomi Klein, Pussy Riot, and other remarkable activists–who are committed to social change.” This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism (Networked Books) was published in March 2016.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded at the Roosevelt hotel on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on the same setup. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photos of Bob & Ashton by me.
“I enjoy going back to Lorain, Ohio because I’m reminded that the world of Washington and the East Coast literary establishment is a very narrow, special one that’s parochial in its own way. The rest of the world has other concerns: family, job and life in general. Whereas we get all up in arms about very minor things.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning book reviewer Michael Dirda rejoins the show to talk about his new collection, Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books (Pegasus Books). We discuss the importance of reading for pleasure, the difference between book-collecting and shopping, the role of the book reviewer (and how it differs from that of the critic), a recent negative review he didn’t want to write, why he doesn’t read reviews of his work, what his mother said when he won the Pulitzer Prize, and more! Give it a listen!
“The books that you don’t grasp immediately, the ones that leave you off-kilter . . . those are often the books that really last, and matter.”
Our first three-time guest also talks about the democratization of book reviewing, the problems of storing books in his basement, what he wants an author to think upon reading his book review of a book, his affinity for Clive James’ work, whether his reviews have a coded autobiographical element to them, how the limitations of the book review form shaped his style, why he disagrees with John Clute’s philosophy on spoilers, and more!
We talk about a lot of books in this episode. Here’s a list of ’em (Note: if I ever go to a Patreon crowdfunding model for the show, this is the first thing that goes subscriber-only):
- Little Big Man – Thomas Berger
- Suspects – Thomas Berger
- The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination – Daniel Boorstin
- The Discoverers – Daniel Boorstin
- Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
- The Unquiet Grave: A Word Cycle by Palinurus – Cyril Connolly
- The Moving Toyshop – Edmund Crispin
- Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books – Michael Dirda
- Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments – Michael Dirda
- On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling – Michael Dirda
- The Robe – Lloyd C. Douglas
- The New Lifetime Reading Plan: The Classical Guide to World Literature, Revised and Expanded – Clifton Fadiman
- Party of One – Clifton Fadiman
- Enter Conversing – Clifton Fadiman
- The Recognitions – William Gaddis
- Muse: A novel – Jonathan Galassi
- The Green Carnation – Robert Hichens
- The Odyssey – Homer
- Appleby’s End – Michael Innes
- Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts – Clive James
- Kim – Rudyard Kipling
- Zorba the Greek – Nikos Kazantzakis
- Dazzle – Judith Krantz
- V R Lang: Poems & Plays with a Memoir – Alison Lurie
- Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds – Charles Mackay
- Bright Lights, Big City – Jay McInerney
- The Scarlet Pimpernel – Baroness Orczy
- Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
- Burning the Days: Recollection – James Salter
- Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps
- Anathem – Neal Stephenson
- Walden – Thoreau
- Stoner – John Williams
- On Writing Well – William Zinsser
About our Guest
Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post, and he received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of the memoir, An Open Book: Chapters fom a Reader’s Life, and of four previous collections of essays: Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments, Bound to Please, Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life, and Classics for Pleasure, in addition to his newest collection, Browsings. His previous book, On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling, received a 2012 Edgar Award for best critical/biographical work of the year. Michael Dirda graduated with Highest Honors in English from Oberlin College and earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature (medieval studies and European romanticism) from Cornell University. He is a contributor to The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, the online Barnes & Noble Review, The American Spectator, and several other periodicals, as well as a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.
Credits: This episode’s music is Ah, Putrefaction by Jaristo, from Hans Zimmer’s film music for Sherlock Holmes. The conversation was recorded at the Boston Marriott Burlington on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photo of Mr. Dirda by me.
The July episode of The Virtual Memories Show is ready to go! This time around, you get two interviews for the price of one!
During my June trip to Boston for the BIO annual meeting, I recorded conversations with Diana Renn, a writer who just published her first book, a YA novel called Tokyo Heist, and Paul Di Filippo, a science fiction writer and critic who’s celebrating his 30th year as a freelance writer.
I thought of posting them as two separate podcasts, but it made more sense to have the perspectives of the first-time novelist and the life-time writer in a single episode. Diana has lots to say about working through the novel-writing process and how her history with comic books informs her, while Paul has a ton to say about the current state of science fiction, how he carved out a role in it, what it’s like to be the “King of Steampunk,” the allure of Providence, RI, and whether he’d have taken an assignment for the Before Watchmen series.
Credits: This episode’s music is Rewrite from Paul Simon’s recent record So Beautiful or So What? I recorded the intro on a Blue Yeti mic into Audacity, and the conversation with was recorded on a pair of Blue Encore 100 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4N recorder.
With Of the resemblance of children to fathers (pp. 696-725), Montaigne closes out Book Two of the essays by ranting against medicine and the doctors who practice it. M. uses his standard practice of springboarding from his own experience into the wisdom and anecdotes of the ages. That portion of the essay takes up a full 20 pages, which I found way too long. I mean, as a man in my mid-to-late-30s, I can understand reticence about going to a doctor, but I don’t ramble on about the topic.
If the body of the essay was a bit tiresome, its introduction managed to catch my attention. M. starts out the piece by discussing his process of writing his essays. I quoted one bit a few weeks ago:
This bundle of so many disparate pieces is being composed in this manner: I set my hand to it only when pressed by too unnerving an idleness, and nowhere but at home. Thus it has built itself up with diverse interruptions and intervals, as occasions sometimes detain me elsewhere for several months.
In the seven or eight years since beginning the project, he tells us, he has made a “new acquisition”:
I have in that time become acquainted with the kidney stone through the liberality of the years. Familiarity and long acquaintance with them do not readily pass without some such fruit. I could wish that, out of many other presents that they reserve for those who frequent them long, they had chosen one that would have been more acceptable to me. For they could not have given me one that I had had in greater horror since my childhood.
M. tries to find an upside to his experience with the stone:
I have at least this profit from the stone, that it will complete what I have still not been able to accomplish in myself and reconcile and familiarize me completely with death: for the more my illness oppresses and bothers me, the less will death be something for me to fear.
That is, it’s not that he craves death to escape the pain; rather, the pain helps him lessen his fear of the end. He writes about other sufferers through history and their willingness to cling to life no matter how horrible their afflictions. It’s as if the immediacy of the body solves the questions of philosophy. Or, as Mike Tyson put it, “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.”
This “news” of M.’s kidney stone put me in mind of the close of Quicksilver, the first book of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. After a lavish and drunken party, Daniel Waterhouse awakes to find himself strapped into an operating table in Bedlam hospital, about to be “cut for the stone.” This being the late 17th century, there’s no anesthesia for the procedure. His friend Robert Hooke prepares him for the surgery, calmly telling Daniel, “Please do not go insane.”
M. contends that the pain doesn’t exactly unman him, that his years of studying and thinking have left his mind “in a considerably better condition of life than a thousand others, who have no fever or illness but what they give themselves by the fault of their reasoning.”
This brings M. to the ostensible topic of his essay. See, M.’s dad also suffered from the stone, although he didn’t develop it until he was 67, more than 25 years after M.’s birth. And so, M. asks:
Where was the propensity to this infirmity hatching all this time? And when he was so far from the ailment, how did this slight bit of his substance, with which he made me, bear so great an impression of it for its share? . . . [H]ow did it remain so concealed that I began to feel it forty-five years later, the only one to this hour out of so many brothers and sisters, and all of the same mother?
His father’s legacies play out in other essays — in fact, it was at his father’s behest that he translated Raymond Sebond’s work, which led to my least favorite portion of the Essays — but this is the first time that he explores this aspect of parents and children. Sadly, he doesn’t stick with the subject, soon launching into his 20-page diatribe against medicine.
On to Book Three! Let’s hope he doesn’t end it with Of airplane food.