With the turning of the New Year I hadn’t noticed that The Wheel of Time is finally over, as Brandon Sanderson’s A Memory of Light was published. Is it a spoiler to divulge that apparently “the Good Guys” won? You can read a fun review at io9. Like many people I lost interest in the books back in the mid-1990s, but I’ve kept track of the series as a cultural phenomenon. In case you don’t get why this is interesting or of note, this enormous fantasy series spanned 14 books. The original author, Robert Jordan, died in 2007, leaving the series unfinished. A younger author, Brandon Sanderson, was commissioned to complete it. At that point it was a total narrative disaster area, so it was almost more interesting to see if Sanderson could revive the series from its somnolence. From the reviews it seems he did, though he could never rewind it back to to the verve of its early books. I feel that the reality that many people kept slogging through the series despite the fact that came to detest the characters (especially the “braid-tugging” ones) and become exhausted by the lack of plot development a classic illustration of a sunk cost fallacy.
Nicholas G. Carr, purveyor of high-brow neo-ludditism and archeo-utopianism, has a piece out in The Wall Street Journal, Don’t Burn Your Books—Print Is Here to Stay. The subtitle is “The e-book had its moment, but sales are slowing. Readers still want to turn those crisp, bound pages.” Here are some of his rancid chestnuts of un-wisdom:
… Hardcover books are displaying surprising resiliency. The growth in e-book sales is slowing markedly. And purchases of e-readers are actually shrinking, as consumers opt instead for multipurpose tablets. It may be that e-books, rather than replacing printed books, will ultimately serve a role more like that of audio books—a complement to traditional reading, not a substitute.
What’s more, the Association of American Publishers reported that the annual growth rate for e-book sales fell abruptly during 2012, to about 34%. That’s still a healthy clip, but it is a sharp decline from the triple-digit growth rates of the preceding four years.
The initial e-book explosion is starting to look like an aberration… 2012 survey by Bowker Market Research revealed that just 16% of Americans have actually purchased an e-book and that a whopping 59% say they have “no interest” in buying one.
From the start, e-book purchases have skewed disproportionately toward fiction, with novels representing close to two-thirds of sales…Screen reading seems particularly well-suited to the kind of light entertainments that have traditionally been sold in supermarkets and airports as mass-market paperbacks.
Readers of weightier fare, including literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, have been less inclined to go digital. They seem to prefer the heft and durability, the tactile pleasures, of what we still call “real books”—the kind you can set on a shelf.
…In fact, according to Pew, nearly 90% of e-book readers continue to read physical volumes. The two forms seem to serve different purposes.
Having survived 500 years of technological upheaval, Gutenberg’s invention may withstand the digital onslaught as well. There’s something about a crisply printed, tightly bound book that we don’t seem eager to let go of.
Christmas is a time when I accelerate my reading, and catch-up for lost time. Here’s my three books I plan to get through:
The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. I’ve read this twice already. This short book has been one of the most influential works in my own personal thinking. Even if you don’t agree with the thrust of Bryan Ward-Perkins’ thesis, it will clarify your own position.
Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. The author, Peter Brown, is the modern day eminence on ‘Late Antiquity’. I’ve read many of his earlier works, and always found his exposition enjoyable. But I’m re-reading The Fall of Rome in part to have a good counterpoint in my head to Brown’s arguments, which are subtle and difficult to box in (for what it’s worth, I think Brown makes a bit too much of Late Antiquity, but to some extent this is a normative judgement).
The Founders of Evolutionary Genetics: A Centenary Reappraisal. This is an exciting time to be interested in evolution and genetics (see Haldane’s Sieve and prepare to be overwhelmed!). But I also think it is useful to have some historical perspective. Science is a human enterprise, and it is critical to step outside of the flowing river, and observe the parameters which shaped its past course and trajectory, and therefore where it may be going.
With that, an “open thread” for what you are reading, and why.
Note: The comments systems should be improved in the near future. Or so I’m told.
Gore Vidal has died. As a younger man I found his heterodox views bracing, but I would commend to readers two books Vidal wrote which I feel often get forgotten in the shadow of his American historical novels, Creation and Julian. As a polemicist one must always view Vidal’s claims of fact with some suspicion (granted, I suspect I’m in more sympathy with some of his interpretations of history than most), but his historical fiction can rise above such a critique.
With some leisure, I plan to read a bit. Here is my tentative “stack”:
I also plan on browsing more of Brian and Deborah Charlesworth’s magisterial Elements of Evolutionary Genetics , and my friend Joel Grus’ Thinking Spreadsheet. I’m skeptical that I would prioritize fiction, but if I manage to read some, I’ll try and finish The Sacred Band, the last in David Anthony Durham’s Acacia trilogy.
What are you reading for the holidays? (and if you aren’t reading for the holidays, why are you spending your marginal time reading this blog!)
That’s what Ann Patchett is claiming. More specifically, there are no bricks & mortar institutions which specialize in selling new books. There are places you can get used books in the city of Nashville. To remedy the situation Patchett is opening up a bookstore herself. She asserts that “…we’ve got to get back to a 3000-square-foot store and not 30,000. Amazon is always going to have everything – you can’t compete with that. But there is, I believe, still a place for a store where people read books.”
I recall going to a Barnes & Noble when I was in Nashville in the summer of 2004. Here’s some demographic data: “As of the 2010 census, the balance population was 601,222. The 2000 population was 545,524.” The details here are a bit muddy because parts of Davidson county are included with the Nashville total, but you get a general sense of how substantial the population of this city is. As a point of comparison Eugene, OR, has a population of 156,185, and 29 Yelp hits for bookstores. Nashville has 46 results.
Back to Patchett’s claim, I think there is something there. I don’t know how it’s going to shake out in the details. But consider the fact that it is far cheaper to brew your own coffee at home, but more and more people are frequenting shops which sell coffee at a much higher per unit cost. Obviously people are going for the experience. The main issue with bookstores is that the per unit cost of a book is higher than even a fancy drink at most coffee shops.
On occasion I browse through books on Amazon with an eye for really good negative reviews. The other day I stumbled upon a really strange positive review of the awful fantasist David Bilsborough. It was confusing to me to see 4 out of 5 stars for this author, but the “review” was even more perplexing:
In the tunnels under the mountains of Eotunlandt, Nibulus leads the Questor survivors of the battles as they struggle to reach the surface where they expect their enemies the Thieves will attack them en masse. Instead when they finally reach the outside, no one eerily awaits to ambush them.
This is a direct sequel to The Wanderer’s Tale that takes time to get started as the various key players and their allies are established for new readers. Once the action accelerates there is no slowing down as this military fantasy goes into hyperspeed with confrontations seemingly everywhere. With all the various armies at war and new leaders and heroes emerging, A FIRE IN THE NORTH still pares down to the destined Wanderer. He remains the only one who can save an apathetic prosperous world from the malevolent Drauglir and the wicked necromancer Scathur as The Annals of Lindormyn move forward.
This wasn’t really a review, but more like a repackaging of what you might be able to glean from the jacket. It reminded me of the kind of prose that content-mills produce! Then I recalled this profile in Time from 2006 of the Amazon reviewer, Harriet Klausner: