Year in reading, 2013

There was no pace to this year’s reading; usually I’m consistent, taking a couple of weeks for each book, working my way through them slowly on a commute that hasn’t changed much in six years. This year some of the books dragged, others I dispatched in a day or two, reflecting the fact my time itself came less evenly to me this year. Fewer than usual, too, and a couple of notable DNFs, including the dreadful Tropic of Cancer – unforgivably bad, it might have been a landmark in its day, but there’s no value in it unless you’re a cultural historian – and Conrad’s Nostromo, too, which is a slow book that I hit at a fast time. Maybe I’ll come back to it.

Best non-fiction was probably Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter. It’s not good in the same way Pulphead was last year, the words themselves aren’t thrilling and there’s not much pattern or structure to the writing… but it’s such a great story , with terrific access that even – especially – when so plainly told, it’s fascinating. I liked it particularly because it runs counter to the dominant business myth of our time: that of the single genius CEO. It’s often argued that the best way for a Jobs, Zuckerberg to succeed is for them to have total control to execute their conceived vision. Twitter is the opposite; a group of founders each with their own perspective and pull, none of whom can really agree what they’re working on is, and so Twitter, this genuinely new thing, arises not from consensus and singularity but from tension and debate. It’s all the funnier that this happens while one of the group attempts to sell the press a Jobs-like narrative about how Twitter came to be. Hatching Twitter reminded me of band autobiographies, particularly the tension of classic songwriting partnerships like Lennon and McCartney.

Anyway, I’d take the pace and verbatim insight of Hatching Twitter over the worthier George Packer take on America’s unwinding or the grim reading of Putin’s Russia provided by Ben Judah; the latter has plenty to recommend it though, particularly if you’re interested in Russia. Be prepared for bleakness, particularly in the second half where the author travels through the country and meets ‘werewolves in uniform’, villages sinking in the mud and corruption on a epic scale.

Two great novels this year; Zadie Smith’s NW and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. The Goldfinch, Victorian in size, scope and its tale of an orphan finding his way in the world with a stolen painting, is more enjoyable – the writing as sharp and purely beautiful as polar icicles, but at the end it all melts away. It seems impossible to comprehend but after 900 pages, there’s nothing left. It’s a magic trick of a book, impossibly deft and involving while it’s going on, but so thoroughly resolved by the end that you can close the last page and walk right away from it. It ends, and it ends. There is no echo. No danger of that with NW; it reminded me of In Utero, that sense you have that you’re seeing a creator flaying themselves, asking what the art, the fame, the platform of creativity is for. But it’s just so beautifully done, economical, lean, wise and really compelling. Feels true and substantial, like it really catches people and makes you interested in them.

A final recommendation, some poetry; Alice Oswald’s Memorial. Staggering and savage, it’s a retelling of The Iliad where she goes through the death of every man the original mentions, telling the story. It is as sombre as it sounds, but the power of the words takes as firm a hold of grief and sorrow as anything I have ever read:

Then Socus who was running by now
Felt the rude punch of a spear in his back
Push through his heart and out the other side poor Socus
Trying to get away from his own ending
Ran out his last moments in fear of the next ones

Like winter rivers pouring off the mountains
The thud of water losing consciousness
When it falls down from the high places
Mixing its streams in the havoc of a valley
And far away a shepherd hears it

Full list of books below.

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Maybe it just fades away

“It’s not going to last forever, but the best thing you can do is pack [your time] full of so much weirdness and ideas that when you look at the wall of memories… we’re not feeling sadness for what once was, we’re just overwhelmed at everything we got to accomplish.”

Great talk by Cabel Sasser from Panic – it’s mostly about anxiety, of both the short term and the long term type. It reminds me of this Steve Jobs video, where he talks about the way digital work becomes obsolete very, very quickly – and in that case, what does it mean to really care about it? What persists?

On ten years of Custom PC

I’d like to do a post of great social and political import.

Ten years ago, I helped start a magazine. It’s still going, and the people running it now asked me to write a little bit about it. I was a staff writer on issue 1 of Custom PC and by issue 60-something, after five years, I’d become editor. I left two years after that, in 2010, so it’s been a while since I thought about CPC. But I got issue 1 down from the shelf and was reminded of the things we did I’d definitely do again, and of course, the many things I’d avoid if possible.
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On Snowfallen, and pollen for readers

Bobbie Johnson wrote a good critique of Snowfall, and I wrote a riposte on the work blog:

“Johnson assumes there’s one type of reader, the dedicated long-hauler who will diligently read 8,000 words about your topic. There are indeed some of these people. But there are many other types of readers, many skimmers, who will likely not be that entranced by your topic, or your opening line.

It is for these types of people that “magazine-style design” (for want of a better term), where you have a core story of flowing text surrounded by many box-outs, pull-quotes, maps and sidebars developed. These act like pollen to bees: they’re attractive, interesting and sticky. They provide a different take on the topic the article is addressing, and different entry points.”

 

Search is a local maximum

The local maximum is one of the most interesting and frightening[1] ideas in UX and product management:

“The local maximum is a point in which you’ve hit the limit of the current design… Even if you make 100 tweaks you can only get so much improvement; [the design] is as effective as it’s ever going to be on its current structural foundation.”

For many tasks and activities targeted by digital services, Google search, and everything that follows (SEO, “How to do X” titles for posts, prioritisation of the freshest content etc) – represents a local maximum: a reasonable but ultimately sub-optimal approach.

Search’s influence is extremely deep. It’s what the web has been built around for the last ten years: it’s where journeys start and it’s how many commercial sites make money. It’s why content is created as it is, why sites are designed just so and its business model is what we look to. If you’ve grown up with the web and are now thinking about digital products, it’s practically in your bones. You can minimise the importance of search – Buzzfeed is one such example – but that tends to mean focussing on Social. Yet even Facebook, which is regularly touted as ushering in a post-Google world, has just deliberately moved back towards search, as though it’s a mountain it needs to conquer.

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Print is dying, but it’s not black and white

Tomorrow, the ABC figures for UK magazines will be released, and for many titles, these will show big drops in circulation. You’ll see a lot of tweets, posts and commentary about how the dead tree media is dying, and how traditional publishers are failing to deal with the hand digital is dealing them.

There is some truth to this, but of course the story is more complex than that.

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On Quora, empathy and editorial value

One of the things I wanted to do more of this year was write about digital products. I’m going to start with Quora, because it’s a site I keep coming back to you, and yet I don’t think they know what they’re doing.

Their announcement of a blogging platform this week is a good illustration of how lost they are. Quora hasn’t given a compelling reason for it to exist, so it looks like the main motivation was the momentum behind Medium and Branch. It’s a shame Quora feels so lost, because part of what has been created there – by both the team and community – is brilliant. I also think Quora is worth studying because it exemplifies both the thinness and the brilliance of many shoot-for-the-moon start-ups with digital products.

“Quora connects you to everything you want to know about,” says the site’s About page (though they just changed it to “Quora is your best source of knowledge”).

Lofty. That’s shooting for the moon. And of course, a terrible curse to place on your product.

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The best books I read in 2012

A walk, a train ride and another walk; the office to home, the home to the office. It’s a thin but strong thread, past hotels and theatres, schools and council houses. This evening, past a Japanese couple, silk and suit, flowing seamlessly from a Mercedes to the Opera House, and a bundle of sleeping bags in a Post Office doorway and an EMT huddled against the window of an ambulance, waiting with coffee and paper in hand. I only notice these few, because I have a train to catch and only 19 minutes to get desk to platform, and 10 minutes the other side, platform to kitchen.

Every now and then in London, you catch yourself, suddenly aware of the volume of people. All sense of it: noise and mass, an endless surge. You can stand back from the tube platform and watch train after train sweep people in and sweep people out, and endless flow. They are almost never empty. If you’ve ever got on the tube and wondered who are these people, where do they come from and why they’re wearing their expressions, then Craig Taylor’s book Londoners is perfect – it feels like you’re peeking inside the millions who pass you every day, as it’s a series of interviews with a wide range of people linked to the city, brilliantly paced, arranged and edited. It starts and ends with a pilot, talking about the descent and ascent from Heathrow, and in between are, it seems, all the multitudes who share the streets, all talking about who they are.

It’s a testament to how good a year in reading 2012 was that such a great book wasn’t the best thing I read. In short, 2012 was probably my best year in books since I started tracking what I was reading on this blog in 2007: I gave seven of this year’s choices five stars. Of course, I don’t really write full reviews and scoring books seems pointless, so really five stars is just a shorthand for “books I will buy over and over as presents, apologies, reminders and inspiration.”

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Year in Reading, 2012 (second half)

Thanks to work, I spent the second half of the year with even more and ever better reading devices than ever before – iPhone 5, retina iPad, Kindles of many stripe – but the list of books read is as slender as it’s been since I started tracking it. While I’ve been really enjoying saving stuff from the web to Pocket and reading them at my leisure, the real cause in the drop was a conscious effort to learn more for work. I spent a lot of time in the autumn reading business tomes, product management manifestos and UX volumes, often picking chapters, so it just didn’t seem right recording them here. Below, then, is just the fun stuff.

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