Books

What was Barack Obama reading during the campaign? “Be Quiet, Be Heard”

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According to New Yorker photographer Platon, President Obama had the book Be Quiet, Be Heard: The Paradox of Persuasion by Susan and Peter Glaser on his desk during the campaign last year when Platon shot Obama for the magazine.

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Platon delivered this nugget during his talk at the New Yorker Festival this afternoon. Of course, there were several others, as well. When he shot Bill Clinton for Esquire towards the end of Clinton’s Presidency, Platon told Clinton, “Show me the love!” Clinton’s advisers frantically attempted to tell him to not show Platon anything. The President responded, “Shut up. Shut up. I know what he’s talking about,” before delivering the pose that landed on the cover of Esquire. When P.Diddy arrived at Platon’s studio, he told him to cut the Miles Davis record that Platon had on the stereo and put in one of Diddy’s own records. Vladimir Putin is a huge Beatles fan. The three things that Michael Bloomberg said he could not do without on a desert island are “Salma Hayek. Salma Hayek. And Salma Hayek.” One of Platon’s photos helped compel Colin Powell to endorse Obama for President.

MP3 of Platon on snooping through Obama’s desk

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Listen to Bon Iver at the New Yorker Festival, or how bad is the iPhone’s microphone?


I saw Sasha Frere-Jones interview Justin Vernon of Bon Iver as part of the New Yorker Festival last night. After the interview, Vernon played a brief solo set of the following songs. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my MiniDisc recorder with me, and I have yet to acquire a Tascam DR-1. So, I recorded the set with my iPhone, which sounds just about as awful as you would expect. Listen via the player below or download his set here. I’m not sure I got the title of the second song correct, and I couldn’t fine the lyrics online anywhere.

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  1. Hazelton
  2. Miss You Can’t (Real title? YouTube)
  3. Flume
  4. Hayward

I have to admit that I wasn’t as taken by Bon Iver’s album as most people I know were. However, I’ll certainly give it another chance after hearing him live. What I found fascinating was how Vernon talked about moving back to Wisconsin and doesn’t really have any interest in living anywhere else. Even after making several declarations of allegiance to the place that I’m from, I’ve left it three times this decade. And even though I intended to return each time, I still always left hoping that I would come back and never leave again. Vernon’s comments about place aren’t anything new, but given my personal history and my recent reading of Wendell Berry’s essay “A Native Hill,” hearing someone consciously commit himself to the place where he’s from, even as his work is expanding the possibility to be elsewhere, was valuable. Berry returned to Kentucky after studying at Stanford and moving to Manhattan, and he writes about his home, “Before, it had been mine by coincidence or accident; now it was mine by choice.”

It’s often bothered me than I don’t know many people who lived away from their hometowns after college and then returned to them. And I think Berry and Vernon are getting at something that I haven’t heard much among the young professional set—the value in having your geography be a set place that you serve rather than a place that simply serves your ambition. For Vernon, returning home to write the Bon Iver record For Emma, Forever Ago made geography almost invisible; place became a given, not a distraction. The artistic freedom that allowed Vernon to write a record unlike any other could only come from geographic restriction. And you can really only limit yourself to a place and know you’re not leaving if you love it, if you commit to and are responsible for it. Back to Berry: “…I never doubted that the world was more important to me than [New York]; and the world would always be most fully and clearly present to me in the place I was fated by birth to know better than any other.”

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The Management Myth reviewed in the Journal

Philip Delves Broughton, whose book on HBS I wrote about last fall, reviewed Matthew Stewart’s The Management Myth in the Wall Street Journal a couple months back. I’m currently enjoying Stewart’s skewering of business theory after having read his Atlantic article that spawned the book a few months ago. His thesis—that management theory is a false science—should be studied by anyone who has ever thought of employing SWOT, Five Forces, the BCG matrix, or any other fallacious framework.

PW reviews Nabokov’s The Original of Laura

Publisher’s Weekly has the first review of Valdimir Nabokov’s last book, The Original of Laura. The magazine calls the book a “very unfinished work [that] reads largely like an outline.” What’s most interesting and exciting is how the book will look:

Knopf is publishing the book in an intriguing form: Nabokov’s handwritten index cards are reproduced with a transcription below of each card’s contents, generally less than a paragraph. The scanned index cards (perforated so they can be removed from the book) are what make this book an amazing document; they reveal Nabokov’s neat handwriting (a mix of cursive and print) and his own edits to the text: some lines are blacked out with scribbles, others simply crossed out. Words are inserted, typesetting notes (“no quotes”) and copyedit symbols pepper the writing, and the reverse of many cards bears a wobbly X. Depending on the reader’s eye, the final card in the book is either haunting or the great writer’s final sly wink: it’s a list of synonyms for “efface”—expunge, erase, delete, rub out, wipe out and, finally, obliterate.

The NewsHour on the future of publishing

Yesterday on the NewsHour Ray Suarez discussed the future of the book publishing business and its handling of e-books with Jonathan Karp of Hachette’s Twelve, one of my favorite imprints. Karp likens the publishing business to gambling, but what business isn’t like gambling? I found his analogy between the Kindle and the Walkman to be a little misleading, however. Sony, though it had a music library when the Walkman came out, didn’t have the same retail relationship with customers. The comparison would be more apt if Karp’s employer, Hachette, was the one behind the Kindle and not Amazon.

Suarez prefaces the conversation with a brief segment about the book business as a whole, including a story about layoffs at Tattered Cover in Denver and a customer’s book buying binge of a response. More →

How to read large PDFs—books, articles, etc.—on your iPhone

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In the past, I’ve tried emailing large PDFs to myself to read using the iPhone’s native PDF viewer. Unfortunately, it’s extremely slow with any sort of large file, so reading books is out of the question. I also tried importing PDFs of books into Stanza. However, the files tend to lose all formatting and line breaks, giving you large continuous paragraphs of text with page numbers and headers embedded in the text of the work itself. One of the reasons why I would like a Kindle DX is to read PDFs of books and journal/magazine articles. However, there are also several reasons why I don’t want a Kindle. More →

Why health care is so expensive

A couple weeks ago I finally got around to reading Atul Gawande’s excellent New Yorker essay on why health care costs vary so wildly throughout the country. His conclusion—that this variance results from whether doctors approach their profession as a business or as a commitment to caring for patients—is so simple that many seem to have a difficult time accepting it. His article and follow-up are must reads for anyone who cares about health care in America.

Habitats – For a Writer, a Home With a Hideout – NYTimes.com

Today’s New York Times profiles novelist Roxana Robinson. I can’t agree more about the need to have times and spaces where you know you won’t be interrupted.

Ms. Robinson, whose works include an acclaimed biography of the painter Georgia O’Keeffe and most recently the novel “Cost,” realizes that in choosing the unprepossessing small room over the more generously decorated bigger one, she has rejected a space most writers would kill for.

She can explain.

“I did everything but write in that room,” Ms. Robinson said. “I paid bills. I printed things out. I sent faxes. I was connected to the Internet.

“The assumption is that writers can write wherever they can sit down,” she added. “But the main thing you need as a writer is a sense of certainty that you won’t be interrupted.”

Distance from the Internet is part of the issue, but so is having a space that offers minimal distraction. For a writer living in New York, distraction can be the unwelcome flip side of inspiration.

My favorite iPhone and iPod Touch apps

I’ve been playing around with these devices for most of the year and have come to some conclusions about my favorite applications. Because Apple’s App Store is a bit of a mess, I’ve picked up most of my recommendations from other blogs and forums. So, here’s the list of apps that I wish I hadn’t had to spend time discovering because my iPod is better with them than without them, in no particular order:

  • The New York Times – I previously posted about this application and how I would be willing to pay a fair amount for it. The only things I can fault this application for are that it’s not always clear when it’s finished downloading the day’s paper and it runs sluggishly on the iPhone 2g. Otherwise, the ability to save and email articles is great, and the interface makes browsing the paper easy. This is probably my favorite app, in part because it downloads the paper for offline reading and because I love the New York Times.
  • MLB At Bat 2009 – This app costs $9.99, but it’s awesome. You can watch two live games a day and listen to any broadcast of any game live. I remember when I was a kid, I could barely get reception on the AM radio at night to listen to Vin Scully call the LA Dodgers games. Now I can listen to the Dodgers and the Yankees and the Red Sox and the Giants whenever I want. This app also features in-game video highlights from almost all games, which are nice, but the key feature is being able to listen to live broadcasts. More →

Samantha Power’s commencement address at Pitzer College

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I recently discovered and immensely enjoyed the above commencement address that Samantha Power gave to Pitzer’s graduating class last year. Two topics it covers that I think are wildly overlooked by not just college graduates but by high-achieving people in general are a) the importance of whom you choose as your friends to your future success (above where you go to school or where you choose to work) and b) the importance of resilience and following your nose rather than your head. Confused about what that means? Well, turn up the volume on your computer and watch the speech.

The Kindle DX is great, except that it’s a rip-off

Amazon Kindle DX

I eagerly read the news this morning about Amazon’s new, larger Kindle DX. The larger screen and the PDF capability seem to make it an ideal reader for not only newspapers and magazines, but also for books and and Word files and, well, nearly everything. The thought of 200-page books becoming 500-page books on the Kindle 2 never sat well with me, but it looks like the Kindle DX could preserve the original page dimensions for most books, which is great news. 

However, the problem I have with the Kindle is that it simply doesn’t make economic sense as a replacement for the publications I read. I subscribe to two magazines that are available on the Kindle—the New Yorker and the Atlantic—and sometimes subscribe to several others that aren’t, including the New York Review of Books, Elysian Fields Quarterly, the Believer, McSweeney’s, n+1, the Paris Review, I.D., and Open City. I also read the New York Times on a daily basis and am often a print subscriber. 

So, let’s see how switching to reading my subscriptions on the Kindle DX would work out. The initial cost of the Kindle is $489. I would also probably purchase the extended two-year warranty for an additional $109 because I’m a sucker for those things. I would probably purchase some sort of case for the device, but won’t include that cost here. Throw in sales tax of 8.25%, and you have an initial Kindle cost of $647.33. That’s a lot of money for a reader, but is it worth it? 

Well, let’s see. Subscribing to the New Yorker on the Kindle costs $2.99/month, the Atlantic $1.25/month, and the New York Times $13.99/month. I currently pay $29.99/year for the New Yorker, so I’ll just assume that there’s no cost savings at all for that magazine. I pay $24.90/year for the Atlantic, which works out to a savings of $0.79/month. Now, I’m aware that it’s not entirely fair to compare cash flows for a yearly magazine subscription paid all at once and the monthly Kindle costs, but it doesn’t make much difference in this example. Finally, let’s assume a print subscription cost of $30/month for the New York Times. Given the Times’ frequent promotional offers and my tendency to alternate between seven-day, Sunday-only, and weekend-only subscriptions, I think that value is fair enough for these purposes. Switching to the Kindle edition of the Times produces a monthly savings of $16.

Now, let’s assume an annual discount rate of 6% in better economic times. With a monthly savings of $16.79, it would take nearly four years before you broke even on the original cost of the Kindle. Four years from now, your extended warranty will be expired and your battery shot. It doesn’t seem like a very good deal.

Let’s include books in the mix and say that I purchase one new Kindle book each month, saving $6/book over Amazon’s existing hardcover prices. Even then it’ll take me two years to break even on the purchase price, by which time my Kindle DX will be obsolete. So, the Kindle never really generates any sort of sustained savings over its traditional media equivalents, at least for me. 

I’m aware that I’m not considering the value that users might put on the Kindle’s convenience and other features. Likewise, I’m not considering the premium that readers might put on traditional books—and the ownership rights, longevity, portability, and tangibility that come with them—either. Are any of those enough to make up for the shortfall? Or do they only swing the pendulum further against the Kindle? 

I have no problem with paying for digital content and the convenience that comes with it. In fact, I would probably prefer a less expensive device and more expensive content. At its current price-point, the Kindle DX is only going to attract early adopters and is far from becoming a product for the masses.

Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude mix CD

Apparently, Jonathan Lethem handed out CDs containing his own personal soundtrack to The Fortress of Solitude after the novel came out back in 2003. The Millions was able to unearth the track listings on the Internet Archive, but the Archive’s page is now down. So, I’m posting the track listings here in the hope of preserving them a while longer.

    Disc One

    1. David Ruffin — No Matter Where
    2. Four Tops — Ain’t No Woman
    3. Bill Withers — World Keeps Goin Round (live)
    4. Randy Newman — Short People
    5. Syl Johnson — Anyone But You
    6. The Spinners — One of a Kind Love Affair
    7. Marvin Gaye — I’m Goin’ Home
    8. The Prisonaires — Just Walkin’ in the Rain
    9. Hot Chocolate — Brother Louie
    10. Manhattans — Shining Star
    11. Gillian Welch — My First Lover
    12. Marvin Gaye — Time to Get it Together
    13. Phil Ochs — City Boy
    14. Billy Paul — Let Em In
    15. Howard Tate — Get it While You Can
    16. The Spinners — Sadie
    17. Pete Wingfield — 18 With A Bullet
    18. Marvin Gaye — You The Man
    19. The Last Poets — Two Little Boys
    20. Maxine Nightingale — Right Back Where We Started From
    More →

Neuroenhancers and the key to productivity

Margaret Talbot published an excellent piece about neuroenhancers in last week’s New Yorker. One of the drugs that Talbot cites and whose use has spread this decade is Modafinil, which I wrote about back in 2002. I said, “The existence of a wonder drug that could abolish a person’s need for sleep … should be just as impossible as it sounds.” As I feared, off-label use of the drug has only increased since I wrote that. And even neuroethicists have moved towards endorsing cognitive enhancement.

Talbot writes:

Every era, it seems, has its own defining drug. Neuroenhancers are perfectly suited for the anxiety of white-collar competition in a floundering economy. And they have a synergistic relationship with our multiplying digital technologies: the more gadgets we own, the more distracted we become, and the more we need help in order to focus. The experience that neuroenhancement offers is not, for the most part, about opening the doors of perception, or about breaking the bonds of the self, or about experiencing a surge of genius. It’s about squeezing out an extra few hours to finish those sales figures when you’d really rather collapse into bed; getting a B instead of a B-minus on the final exam in a lecture class where you spent half your time texting; cramming for the G.R.E.s at night, because the information-industry job you got after college turned out to be deadening. Neuroenhancers don’t offer freedom. Rather, they facilitate a pinched, unromantic, grindingly efficient form of productivity.

There’s a much cheaper way to achieve productivity that we inexplicably gave up in the name of progress. It may be painful, but it’s worth a shot: Turn off your cell phone, unplug your wireless router—I know it feels strange, but vaguely familiar like how things used to be—sit down at your desk, and get to work.

Zadie Smith: The Internet is an absolute disaster for writers

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I first met Zadie Smith in the summer of 2001 at a book signing in San Francisco. I waited in line with a friend for her to sign my first (American) edition of White Teeth. After she did, my friend, who didn’t have a book, approached her, and she signed his right arm. She also drew a dotted line around it and wrote “Cut Here.” I love her work for that very sensibility and humor.

Last night Jonathan Safran Foer interviewed Smith at NYU. (She has a collection of essays, Changing My Mind, coming out later this year.) I’ve read several polemical essays and books written in opposition to Internet culture. And I read them because I have the sense that life used to be different ten years ago, and, in many ways, it was better. Even four years ago, I was better able to concentrate on long projects than I am able to now; in short, the current iteration of the Internet has killed productivity—productivity at the things that actually matter. I think Malcolm Gladwell was right, in many ways, when he called Google “the answer to a problem we didn’t have.” But I don’t think I’ve heard anyone convey the problem as powerfully as Smith does in the snippet of last night’s interview that you can watch above. She calls the Internet “an absolute disaster for writers” because she spends too much time on Facebook and Google, and she imagines a generation of children who won’t know how to concentrate because they grew up with this Internet. And what will you get when everyone grows up with the web? Rebels who reject it! It’s powerful because Smith critiques with a seriousness that is funny rather than earnest, engaging rather than alienating. “Cut here,” she seems to say, “I dare you.”

Why independent bookstores lose to Barnes & Noble

One reason why independently owned bookstores have a tough time competing with BN is that they have a higher cost of equity. In this lecture, Aswath Damodaran of NYU estimates the cost of equity for a New York indie bookstore to be around 14%, while it’s only 8% for BN. This analysis makes the manner in which Kepler’s raised money from 20+ investors in 2005 look smart. The investors provide the diversification that Kepler’s can’t get from the public market like BN does. If you want more reading on the subject, click here, though I recommend the watching the lecture over reading the linked chapter.

Listen to the Festival of New French Writing: E.L. Doctorow and Olivier Rolin

The Festival of New French Writing is happening at NYU’s law school this weekend. On Thursday  E.L. Doctorow and Olivier Rolin were in a conversation moderated by Benjamin Anastas. Anastas was filling in for Sam Tanenhaus, who no-showed the event. And though he tried to control the discussion, he couldn’t do much as an unprepared replacement to adapt to Doctorow’s palpable disgust with the topic of politics in writing. Rolin took his questions with good humor, but it would have been best if he could have redirected the discussion. Unfortunately, for the audience, he didn’t.