Bel Canto

Fifteen international world-travelers attend a gala party in the presidential palace of a  South American country to hear a famous American opera singer perform. The palace is stormed by armed terrorists who hold the party-goers hostage while they negotiate with the government over four months. During that time of confinement, relationships develop.

The characters and their relationships are cartoony, the way they are in opera, where plot is vehicle for the music. Operatic plots are often stereotypical stories of impossible love, palace intrigue, betrayal and unjust death. One of Patchett’s hostages learns to play chess rather well simply by watching a few games, so he can go on to play against one of the terrorist generals: convenient for the story but not the least bit believable.  In many improbable, unmotivated turns of events we must allow operatic license.

Yet where is the music for the story?  Supposedly, it is Patchett’s lyrical writing, and that analogy almost works.  Some of her descriptions and some characters’ thoughts and observations are insightful and beautifully rendered. But not consistently over three hundred pages. This book is not prose poetry. The music goes quiet for hundreds of pages at a time and absolutely nothing happens. The micro-movements of the characters’ thoughts and feelings cannot be interesting if they are not motivated by anything. That is the definition of arbitrariness.

We get endless description of characters’ thoughts, hopes, anxieties, memories, desires, and idle speculations. These I found extremely boring but judging from reviews, some readers were enraptured by them, so that’s who should read this book: people who have little insight into human psychology so are fascinated by Patchett’s ersatz intimacy with their thoughts.

It might have worked if the characters were distinguishable on the inside but they were all the same: bland and banal. On the outside, they all spoke different languages so communication was difficult without the single translator, and the music. So there is a tiny paradox there between what keeps us apart despite being all the same.

On the plus side, I liked the way the narrator flitted from head to head, something we are never supposed to do as writers, but which she does successfully and without confusion.  That’s an accomplishment no opera, indeed no theatrical performance, can do, so Patchett did exploit the unique capabilities of her medium with high skill.

Her descriptions of opera and the music were superficial, so despite the operatic  theme of the book, you won’t learn anything except maybe the titles of some of the more famous arias in some of the more famous operas. As a fan of Italian opera myself, I know there are shelves of books describing the great operas with insightful detail, both the plots and the music. None of that is in Bel Canto (=“beautiful song,” an operatic term for a lyrical style of singing).

The appalling epilog, clearly tacked on as an afterthought, was probably demanded by the publisher, a tribute to the tyranny of book marketing.

I enjoyed this book a lot more when I read it fifteen years ago when I had not yet started writing fiction and was swimming in Puccini and Verde. I wish I had written a review of it then.  That me is gone now.

Rumor has it that a movie is in the works with Rene Fleming as the opera star. I’ll see it, but if the movie hews closely to the book, there won’t be much singing in it. It will most likely be a sentimental costume drama. A lot of people like those.

Patchett, Ann (2001) Bel Canto. New York: Harper Perennial. (318 pp.)

Degrees of Invisibility

The first-person Invisible Man is an unnamed young black man in the 1950s who recounts his journey from the fog of unknowing to self-awareness. The story is framed in opening and closing scenes by the mature narrator, who lives in an abandoned coal cellar in New York. “I am an invisible man,” he says in the opening line, and the rest of the novel explains how that came to be.

His journey took him from a black college in Georgia to a paint factory in New York, and then to a socialist political organization, and finally to his cellar. Along the way he becomes aware of the different aspects of his invisibility, which are many.

The most obvious sense of his invisibility arises from his blackness. White people do not see black people, or don’t want to, or if they do see them, avert their eyes, or if they must interact with them, do so as master to servant. That is apparent to the young narrator even in his early college days and emphasized to the reader by having him be anonymous throughout the novel.

Yet is it so obvious?  In early scenes, the narrator is a driver for a rich white man, a perfect role for invisibility. But the white man is a college benefactor who wants to “do good for your people.”  He sees black people. But after the narrator drives the benefactor into the country and accidentally exposes him to impoverished and ignorant blacks, the president of the college expels him for having “exposed” the benefactor to the seamy side of black life, tearing open the cloak of respectable black invisibility.

The narrator leaves school and migrates to New York to seek his fortune but he is ignored by potential employers. As an educated black man he is uniquely invisible, neither an ignorant laborer nor an accomplished businessman, yet still black. He is misperceived on both ends of the spectrum and is located nowhere. Again though, it’s not a simple invisibility, and his letters of recommendation are not what he thought, either.

In the throngs of New York, there are so many people that the narrator feels anonymous and invisible as he roams the streets. Things are more complicated than they seem though. He rents a room from an older black woman who treats him kindly even though he’s behind on the rent. Why would she do that when she doesn’t even know him? Is he invisible to her?

When he gets a job working with a socialist political organization, he is thrilled to be doing something positive to uplift his people. Yet he soon discovers secret political machinations that have nothing to do with his grand speechifying and suddenly he realizes that anyone who works behind the scenes is invisible. Yet the highly visible activist who calls for violence on the streets is later revealed to be just a pawn in a political chess game, actually not as visible as he seems.

At the same time, the narrator discovers a flamboyant preacher, reverend Rinehart, who is highly visible and well-loved by his people, but who is also secretly a pimp and a gambler.  He’s visible in each context he operates in but nobody (except the narrator) knows his public personas. The real Rinehart is invisible.

There are many other examples of how the theme of “the invisible man” play out, including the framing pieces describing an anonymous black man living in an abandoned coal cellar. Near the end, the narrator makes the case that invisibility is what everyone desires, even white people, who strive to become invisible through conformity.

Yet paradoxically, and brilliantly, the narrator of the novel is extremely detailed in describing every movement of his soul, every fluttering of his heart, every spasm of his thoughts. From the reader’s perspective, this man is anything but invisible. We occupy the inside of his head for 600 pages, the full landscape of his interiority exposed to us as he describes his “invisibility.”

Many other layers of meaning can be, and have been, mined from this book, from the themes of social history, black identity, economics, politics, symbolism, humor.  It’s a complex and moving tale that wears well even after the better part of a century.

Ellison, Ralph (1952/1995). Invisible Man. New York: Vintage/Random (581 pp).

Snowdrops in Gorky Park

SNOW DROPS

This short novel is written by the former Moscow correspondent of the Economist newspaper, which is how I learned of it. It wants to be Gorky Park, but isn’t. Protagonist Nick is a U.K. lawyer working real estate deals in Moscow right after the fall of the Soviet Union. He meets a couple of beautiful and seductive sisters who end up scamming him. That would be a spoiler, except anybody could see it coming in the first quarter of the novel. The rest of the story unfolds slowly, the only suspense being the details of the scam. Nobody in their right mind, especially a lawyer, would behave as Nick does, so the character isn’t interesting and the plot is given away too early.

There are some good and even haunting descriptions of Moscow during that time period, especially the winters and the way people ate, lived, dressed, and so on, but it’s not enough to be compelling (the way Flaubert’s description of 1850’s France was, for example, in Madame Bovary).

Structurally, the whole novel is supposed to be a confessional, a letter Nick writes to his fiancée, who never appears.  That technique can be useful when there is some artistic reason for it, but in this case, a confessional only succeeds in distancing the main character from the reader. Unaccountably, the book was shortlisted for the 2011 Man-Booker.

Miller, A.D. (2011). Snowdrops. New York: Doubleday (262 pp.)

Vietnam Era Shows its Age

This novel about America after the Vietnam War must have seemed more profound and insightful in the late 70’s. Now it seems worn and clichéd. Converse, a hard-bitten foreign reporter in Saigon buys three keys of heroin and attempts to smuggle it back to the U.S. and that’s his retirement plan.

The opening scenes are pretty good, lots of humid sweating, dank concrete rooms, incessant smoking and surrounding paranoia.  I could feel for the character, thinking that while Vietnam was a stinking hellhole, there was opportunity: drugs were ridiculously cheap, so for a man without a moral compass or even a rational strategy for living, his scheme might have seemed like a kind of salvation.

But the plan, and the story go down the tubes when he recruits a partner, Hicks, a tough, know-it-all merchant marine sailor (whatever that is). The partner will actually transport the dope home. But when he gets to Converse’s wife, Marge, who is supposed to pay him for the drugs, he is almost captured by the law and narrowly escapes with Marge. Was he double-crossed by Converse?

After that, the story is a long chase, as Hicks and Marge are pursued by law enforcement and by Converse. Along the way the reader is treated to a dark view of post-Vietnam culture in the so-called hippie counterculture, full of drugs, sleaze, filth, addiction, and crime.

The story was made into a movie starring Nick Nolte, Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978), which was not a bad movie, way better than the novel. The movie cut the long, moralizing reflections of the narrator,  mouthed by Converse, about how America has gone to hell. I was on the margins of the counterculture during that time (not the hard drug culture, but the politically engaged hippies), and that’s not how I remember it. The whole point of hippie culture was to express certain values, of individual freedom, anti-industrialization, anti-government, and especially anti-plutocratic capitalism.  We were not all Charles Mansons.

Maybe it was different in the hard drug world, how would I know, but then that’s the story stone should have stuck to and kept his moral agenda to himself. He does not actually address the serious social changes that were under way in the country, but only whines about them. I did have a little sympathy for Converse, trying to make sense out of a country he didn’t recognize anymore. The changes were many, and fast (Nixon quit the presidency in 1974).

In the last half of the book even the chase becomes boring and predictable, so it doesn’t even succeed as a kinetic thriller. Nevertheless, it managed to win the National Book Award in 1975, so the logical conclusion is that its characters and its tale have not aged well.

Stone, Robert (1973). Dog Soldiers. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. (342 pp.)

Astrophysics in a Nutshell

Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s short (222 page) book on astrophysics is attractive in a 4.5 x 7.5- inch format (hardbound). Just looking at it you get the impression it would be easy and fun to read. If you have some science education and are familiar with modern cosmology and general relativity (and you should be if you count yourself as an educated person), the book is a breeze, written with style and wit.

Tyson starts at the beginning, with the Big Bang, and moves briskly on to the formation of stars and planets, and our solar system.  He talks about the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, then tours through the periodic table of the elements, picking arbitrary favorites to comment on. Then he presents a history of astronomy, from the first visible light telescopes to spectroscopy and radio telescopes.  He describes the search for extra-solar earthlike planets, and then, looking from the outside-in, what aliens would see if they were searching the heavens for Earth. Would they find us?

If you saw Tyson’s television show, “Cosmos,” modeled after Carl Sagan’s 1980’s show of that name, you’ll recognize this tour. To cover the entire cosmos in a couple hundred pages and make it roughly hang together is a remarkable exercise in editing, all the more so because there is no math. It really is a good basic education in cosmology for someone who only has a few hours to give.

The content would be too much for a beginner new to these ideas,  nor will the book satisfy someone already familiar with modern astronomy and cosmology.  So who is it for?  I imagine it will appeal to those who read the science and technology sections in the popular press like the New York Times and The Economist, and someone who reads Science News and watches ‘Nova’ on PBS.  The book is indexed lightly for quick look-ups.

I do have some complaints. The content seems to be almost entirely excerpted from earlier Tyson books, especially Death by Black Hole, and Origins. If you’ve read those, there’s nothing new here. More seriously, the first chapter on the Big Bang is a meaningless word salad. For example, the very early universe, pinpoint small, ‘expanded’ rapidly. Well, what can ‘expanded’ possibly mean if gravity and therefore space and time had not yet been formed?  Nothing. It’s pure word soup.

Mathematically you can say that at T2, V2 was greater than V1 at T1. Those are variable names and they have numerical values and the equations they’re used in are internally consistent but they convey no commonsense meaning in ordinary language. Despite that, physicists of all stripes, from string theorists to quantum theorists and cosmologists seem immune to their own jabberwocky. I’d advise a naïve reader to skip the first chapter for that reason. It would take a lot more words than what Tyson offers here to make a coherent natural-language presentation of the Big Bang.

In the section on the development of astronomy, Tyson quickly (everything is quick in this book) moves from early visual observations to today’s large-scale radio telescopes, but though the book has a 2017 copyright, there is no mention of the new LIGO telescope that detects gravity waves and promises to open a new world of exploration.

When discussing what hypothetical aliens would have to do if they were to detect intelligent life on Earth, Tyson describes how well-hidden our planet is in the bright glare of our huge sun, and suggests that we would never be seen, but could be discovered in the radio spectrum because we give off a lot of radio waves. It’s an interesting section of the book but he fails to take into account the timescale. In cosmological time, humans have been capable of generating radio waves only for an immeasurably short flicker of an instant. Even if aliens had their scopes trained right on the planet, they would surely miss our shout.

Finally, the book ends with a longish reflection on the meaning of the cosmological observations discussed.  Many other reviewers seem to like that section, but I found it strained with manufactured sentimentality. Yes, space is big and we are small. Got that. But small as we are, we are ‘precious.’  What?  Precious to whom?  To ourselves, I guess.  Readers might skip the last chapter’s nonsense along with the first.

Despite some flaws, the book is excellent for the right reader.  It would make a perfect gift for any scientifically curious person, perhaps a special high-school or college student.

Tyson, Neil De Grasse (20117). Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. New York: W.W. Norton. 222 pp.

Shadowy Characters

This little time-burner involves a young college grad in San Francisco who gets a job at an all-night bookstore that seems to have more books and shelves than New York’s Strand. Certain preferred and important customers use the store like lending library, bringing and taking “special” books. All transactions must be logged in a secret and sacred journal that goes back years.

The MC, “Clay,” writes a program that maps all the shelves and all the books (with a 3D visualization program no less – he’s a whiz), and discerns a mysterious pattern. I can’t remember now what it was, but it’s mysterious.  Consulting the log book in conjunction with his map, he finds a grand puzzle that he must solve. Why? Because he must.

He recruits the help of a cute female executive from nearby Google and she helps him use their supercomputing capacity to crack the mystery code, which is supposed to reveal the secret of eternal life or some such. Together, they go on the hunt for that secret, and if I recall, they find it, but for the life of me, I can’t recall what it was all about, so it must not have made much of an impression.

The characters are cartoon vehicles for the ideas, which are mildly interesting. The writing is good, with often unexpected details, and the mood is convincing, the dusty old bookstore, especially.  But in the end, without compelling characters, no defined antagonist and basically a silly story, it adds up  to forgettable fluff — just what you might need on an airplane trip.

Sloan, Robin (2013). Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. London: Atlantic Books.

Holden Caulfield’s Evil Twin

Charles Bukowski is a name that often comes up in conversations among and about writers, so I decided to sample him. Ham on Rye is his quasi-autobiographical tale of a young man in Los Angeles, from abusive childhood to alienated adult in the years before WWII. The 58 chapters are small, 3-7 page vignettes, scenes from his life, most involving getting whipped by his father, fistfights, drinking, trying to get laid, or some combination of those. The only thing that unites the scenes is the first-person voice of the narrator.

The book has no plot, no significant character development, and nothing of any import happens, so what do we have?

Mainly voice. The character of Chinaski, the narrator, is a self-loathing, defeated, taciturn outsider and, from a very young age, a violent alcoholic. He manages to get a partial education and a few odd jobs but never does amount to much, nor does he want to. Despite all the fistfighting and drinking, he’s an uninteresting, unlikable, and irredeemable character, but his hard voice is full of attitude and that’s the fun part of the novel.

Chinaski is the tough-guy Holden Caulfield, and maybe that explains the book’s title and some of Bukowski’s motivation for writing it. It would be going too far to say that the whole novel is a parody of Catcher in the Rye though. Ham on Rye seems genuine and heartfelt, not merely a sendup.

Another interesting aspect is the setting, LA in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s. It’s presented as any gritty depression-era city. It could have been Chicago or Memphis. No glimpse is offered of the movie industry, the freeway networks, smog, technology, Disney, or surfers, and omission of those stereotypes was refreshing, although on the downside, it didn’t feel like Los Angeles, either.

Some of the scenes are poignant, a few funny, all well-written, but I got tired of fistfights and alcoholic binges and hangovers that weren’t interesting either the first or the fifteenth time. The writing is terse, “muscular” as we say, meaning descriptive with plenty of action verbs, but it’s not lyrical or memorable. Lots of cursing.

Unlike Holden Caulfield, Chinaski didn’t ring true for me. Granted, that could be because of my sheltered middle-class life, but I don’t think any young man who isn’t brain-damaged or mentally abnormal would have zero interests, no aspiration or hope at all over a whole lifetime, and such unrelenting self-loathing. Even the most damaged, victimized youths are interested in something and good at at least one thing. That doesn’t mean my experience is more valid than Bukowski’s, but for whatever reason, I didn’t connect with his character’s personality. And yet unlike Camus’ Mersault, Chinaski doesn’t convey that existential ennui that characterizes so much WWII-era writing. Chinaski is just angry, confused, and dull-witted. A portrait of a relatively uninteresting person is uninteresting.

Bukowski, Charles (1982). Ham on Rye. New York: Harper Collins (283 pp).

On Being Open

I read this book because I thought it might help me create better characters in my novels. As an author, I struggle to create characters who don’t sound and act just like me. I’ve often chosen females as my first-person narrator just to force me out of my own head. I’ve tried black people, immigrants, aliens (I mean space-aliens) for the same reason. It’s a struggle because I’m me and not anybody else. How do actors do it?  They can be anybody.

I did learn some interesting lessons about acting from this book. Actors simply gush over it, judging from reviews. I’m mystified by that.

Esper co-taught with legendary acting coach Sanford Meisner for nearly two decades and apparently wears the mantle now.  I’m no actor so I cannot fairly describe what the “Meisner method” is, but this book purports to transmit at least the flavor of it.

The chapters and scenes describe a series of workshops conducted by Esper with a group of eight actors with various levels of experience.  Esper gives instructions on how to execute a certain scenario, such as walking into a room, interrupting someone, then each student tries it, followed by extensive feedback discussion.

I’d say the main lesson conveyed is to be a good listener, which means don’t worry about your lines and how you’re going to deliver them but be open and receptive to the other actor(s) and let yourself react “naturally” to that person and the situation. Of course you will react with your memorized lines, not your own speech, but beyond that, your “acting” must be your genuine reactions. In other words, be extremely open to experience.

Some people are naturally open to experience (their own and others’) and some are not. It’s supposedly a fixed, or inborn personality trait, measured on the “Big Five” inventory (many versions online). Some people live with openness to experience and some don’t.  If you are not accustomed to feeling the presence of the other and to being open to your own feelings, then this book might be a revelation.  Otherwise it might seem like a compilation of incredibly mundane observations masquerading as pseudo-wisdom.

It’s certainly not well-written. The co-author, DiMarco, is an MFA actor, although he has written other books, but his attempts to introduce drama into scenes that have none are cringeworthy, as are his attempts at elevated description.  On the other hand, it seems like he did understand and convey the Esper acting lessons, which was the main task.

Did I get what I wanted, insight on how to write better characters? Yes and no. I didn’t learn anything new, but my attention was shifted to the idea of openness.  I decided I could improve my characters by being more open to their presence (which presence I have to create first, of course – no small feat).  I think that will improve my work.

As for dialog between characters, I decided that I am pretty good at having characters be open to each other, so that was satisfying. So I didn’t pick up any new writing technique but I did shift my attention a little in a way that I think will be helpful.

I still don’t understand the acting magic, which I appreciate, but don’t see revealed in this book. This openness technique would be very practical for improv, it seems, but for a scripted, directed part – I don’t really see how it would help much. But I’m not an actor, so…

Esper, William, & DiMarco, Damon (2008). The Actor’s Art and Craft: William Esper teaches the Meisner Technique.  New York: Random/Anchor (286 pp).

Ten Things That Don’t Work

These products and processes don’t really work, at least not as they should.

  1. Cell phones

Amazingly, after a quarter-century, cell phones still do not work reliably for making simple voice calls.  I still have to move to the south side of my house to keep a call from breaking up into unintelligibility. “Can you hear me now?” is no joke. And I live in a major American city, on a hill, not in some undeveloped rural backwater. Sure, voice calls work adequately most of the time, but why not all the time? Why is it still a challenge to make a phone call?

  1. Ice dispensers in refrigerator doors

The old-time aluminum trays with a lever that had to be yanked vigorously and multiple times to release broken ice cubes while the tray itself stuck to your hands – those were no fun, but since the 1970’s, small, colorful plastic trays have been around that release the ice cleanly with a twist. I never had any trouble keeping a plastic bin of ice in the freezer and I scoffed at my first refrigerator with in-door ice cube dispenser. Well, I admit I like the convenience, when it works, but that’s only 75% of the time. Often the dispenser either grinds and grinds with no output, or jams and beeps, or spews ice all over the floor. It’s just not a reliable technology. How hard can it be?

  1. Wireless printers

A wireless printer should be a no-brainer. The computer is on Wi-Fi and has no trouble staying connected and sharing on the home network, but the printer!  For some reason it can’t seem to stay online. Quite often the computer tells me the printer is “offline,” and I feel that there ought to be a button labeled, “Well put it back on line, then.”  But instead I have to go into the control panel and find and select the printer and click it back online. Sometimes I have to recycle the power on the printer. Ironically, the printer is only two feet from the computer and a short piece of cable would make it 100% reliable, though not shareable. It’s inexplicable.

  1. Gift cards

Judging from the kiosks holding ten thousand of them in supermarkets, gift cards are extremely popular.  Sometimes, it’s just the right thing as a “Thank you” token, so I’ve chosen from the multi-colored display, and that’s where the trouble begins. First, it’s unclear what they cost. I presume the cost will be face value plus some fee which represents the seller’s costs and profit margin but that fee is not known until after you’ve bought it. It’s a crap shoot. The fee can run as high as 25%. Plus, the card has to be “activated” by the seller, but I have purchased gift cards and paid the fee, and later heard from the recipient that at the time of use, the card was not “activated” and the fee had to be paid a second time. Surely that was an error, but it is impossible to know anything about your gift card’s status until the recipient tries to use it. Even then, how much value remains on a gift card is a guess. Some receipts will say what it is but most don’t. When the purchase price is more than the remaining value on the card – good luck at the chip-only card reader at the checkout stand. How can such a non-transparent and hard-to-use product be a success in the market? It’s a mystery.

  1. Car batteries

Have you ever noticed that your car battery goes dead just at the moment when you need it to start the engine?  Does it go dead in the middle of the night when nobody cares then send you an email alert? No. You find out at 4:30 am when you’ve got 40 minutes to make it to the airport. Is that really the best we can do?  I vaguely remember, back in the 1960’s, cars had a gauge with a red needle that told you the status of your electrical system. What happened to those?  Now the day your car battery will die is as unpredictable as your own death. You know it has to happen, but you also know it will be a surprise.

  1. Postal Address

What is my “postal address?” Is it the place where I sleep most of the time? Where my refrigerator is? Where I park my car? My postal address should be an arbitrary identifier, like my email address, designating  a point in space where I want my mail delivered.  But if you change your address, even for 6 months while you’re away on assignment or vacation, or in the hospital, or for any reason, watch out! Suddenly your tax obligations change, your school tuition doubles, your insurance may be cancelled, and your employment status may be jeopardized.  Merely “forwarding” your mail to a new location is not a viable workaround. The postal service calls that a “temporary change of address,” with all the consequences any change of address brings with it. The idea that a person is located at a postal address is wrong, a holdover from another era. My postal address should be where I want my mail delivered and nothing else. It should not presume to indicate “where I live.” Alas, I don’t see this confusion being cleared up soon.

  1. Home Alarm Systems

A home alarm system is supposed to protect your home from burglary, but does it?  My research into such systems revealed that 99% of alarm events are false alarms. My friends who have systems confirm this. In many cities (including mine) the police charge you $200 every time they respond to a false alarm, so these systems can get expensive. In addition, when the alarm is triggered, the dispatch company only responds about half the time, according to online reviews, and when they do respond, it is usually one to three hours after the event. I once had an alarm system that notified me directly by email and text when my alarm was triggered, supposedly an “advanced feature.” But I discovered that the alerts were often more than 24 hours after the fact.  You get an alarm alert, you take time off work (if you can), rush home to find everything is normal. It was just a pet, or the wind, or a brown-out or something forever inexplicable. And if there really were a burglary, and you and the police were dispatched say within a half hour, what good would that do?  A house burglary will be over in five minutes. A home alarm system is not a viable commercial product, but people buy them.

  1. Computer Tablets

It took me a long time to understand why anyone would ever want an iPad or its Android equivalent but finally the price was low enough that I thought I’d get one for taking notes at a seminar I would attend.  It was easy enough to learn and to my surprise, the handwriting translation to text was remarkably good.  But when I tried to actually use it in class, I found out why a tablet is not a good product for this use. The fatal flaw is that you can only have one application open at a time. Oh, they advertise otherwise, sure they do. “Use multiple apps at once!” Turns out though, it that’s only for certain apps, ones which they choose, not the ones you would like. So you can have a mapping program open while your email is open. I guess that’s something. But for taking notes in a class, I need to have, at a minimum, several reference documents open, including reading notes I already made, a browser with multiple tabs, and the note-taking app itself.  I’m not there to record what the speaker says, like a stenographer. I’m there to understand, to process, to learn, and for that I need reference material. So I went back to taking notes on paper and using the tablet to look up references, but again, only one reference at a time, a very slow process. I finally gave it up as more trouble than it was worth and concluded that tablets are designed for consuming information, like shopping online and movies (though not both at once), but they are no good for producing information, which requires multiple streams of data.  And I wonder, what kind of a weird limitation is that? Why is it necessary?  Memory is cheap. CPU is cheap. What is the hold up? Nobody knows.

  1. Fruits and Vegetables

The problem with “produce” (odd term) is that fruits and vegetables no longer have any taste. They’ve been engineered to survive shipping and storage, with thick skins and permanent color, to maximize the seller’s opportunity to buy in bulk and sell them to you before they go rotten, at least, visibly rotten. They look good even when they’re old. As a vegetarian, I care about how my food tastes, but even when I buy at farmers’ markets, nothing tastes like anything. Tomatoes? They have texture and a little bit of aroma left, but that’s about all. Potatoes, the same. Spinach? Nothing. I could go on and on. I’ve had avocadoes in my kitchen that don’t ripen at all after weeks on the counter, and others that look and feel perfect but are completely rotten on the inside. You can’t tell by looking any more. And today’s food is flavorless. Except for fruits, which have been managed into dense sugar blasts. Most apples are now so sweet, I find them inedible. A pineapple will send me into a coma. Strawberries do not taste like strawberries; they taste only like sugar. Grapes? Never mind. I’ve learned to buy only more obscure fruits and vegetables that are apparently not worth the engineering time and money to have been messed up yet.  I dare not name them.

  1. Self-publishing

Self-publishing is easy and cheap to do. I’ve done it. The problem is that nobody will find or read your book. Getting published is not a problem anymore. Anybody can make books available for sale online as e-books, and, for a very reasonable price, have handsome physical paperback (or hardback) books printed “on demand” and for sale as well. But very few people will ever read your material. Five thousand new ebooks are published every day (every day!)  and at least ten times that many printed books are published every year by the major publishers for bookstores. That’s a lot of books. Why would yours attract any attention? Of course, your five friends and your mother will buy your book, but is that enough? For some people it might be. If you’re trying to reach an audience, it’s not. If you have a captive audience already, you’re home free. For example, you have ten thousand twitter followers, or you’re a public figure or head of a large organization. Then you have an audience, though a narrow one. Yes, there are a dozen examples of books that have been “discovered” from the self-publishing domain and become popular hits. Somebody always wins the lottery too. That’s not a meaningful fact for a writer who wants to find an audience.  So when people say they are “a published author,” it means little. Publishing is not the trick. Finding readers is the trick. Self-publishing can be done, but that doesn’t mean it’s a process that works.

Words and Spear Points

The destiny of reading and writing is extinction, like the skills of operating a spinning wheel, cutting a quill pen, and knapping flint tools. Reading and writing will fall into increasing disuse until they are known and practiced only by specialists and hobbyists, the way some people still use Morse code or know how to read Old English.

Replacing reading and writing will be talking and listening mediated by video and music. Photographs too, but video, movies, and then holograms or VR presentations, whatever is the next thing,  it will be visual and or musical or both, in quality. We’ll still talk to each other in face-to-face conversations, although those will become increasingly rare even inside the home.

It’s already happening, as anyone can see by examining the state of communications technology. I had thought until recently that the trends to music and video were merely preferences enabled by cheap, available technology, not that these trends would utterly displace reading and writing.

Geological Time

I was doing research for a book I’m writing, research that immersed me into evolutionary and geologic scales of time. I became aware again of how recent modern human culture is. Imagine a timeline of history on earth, stretching from the ground to the height of the Empire State building, homo sapiens represented by the thickness of a postage stamp at the top of the building, and modern culture since the last ice age as the thickness of the adhesive on that stamp. On that scale, the duration of literacy doesn’t even show up. It’s a blip.

I am an avid reader and writer, always have been, but it struck me that the practice of visually scanning and interpreting tens of thousands of words in one long serial order and then making sense of the whole, is absurd on the face of it. That doesn’t even sound like a viable methodology. If somebody proposed it, you’d laugh.

Clovis point

Reading and writing have been highly valued skills in society during my whole life. They certainly have paid my rent. They are skills like being able make good stone spear points, difficult to learn but very useful and highly valued by the society – in their time. Yet I always assumed reading and writing were forever. They are the very definition of civilization. Fifty thousand printed books are published every year, with ten or twenty times as many new ebooks. The very foundation of society seems set in the written word – history, literature, law, science.

The culture of making stone spear points must have seemed just as important, vibrant, all-encompassing and never-ending in its time. What could ever replace a good spear point? People will always have to eat.

The records of civilization are increasingly kept in video format. Movies are the new literature. History is conveyed in documentaries and popular songs. Science reporting now emphasizes ‘data visualization.’ Students don’t read textbooks, they watch YouTube instructions. And fewer people are reading all those printed books that come out every year. Bookstores are disappearing, as are newspapers and professional journals. I doubt if anybody is reading a million new ebooks each year. Reading and writing are technologies that have peaked.

Why am I still committed to reading and writing? Looking with a cold eye, it’s only what I’m used to, what I’ve always done. Reading and writing have  been successful for me, but they’re obsolete. I need to get with the future.

I estimate reading and writing will last longer than I will. They probably have another hundred years to run but extinction is their destiny. Hard-won skills though they are, they just won’t be needed in the future except in niche applications.

So I’ve decided. When I finish writing my current novel, it will be my last. Henceforth I will turn my attention to video communication. I don’t know how, but I’ll figure it out. Maybe there’s an instructional book I can read.