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 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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Fashion versus Clothes (and Apple, of course)

Image: Flickr user JBlaze B

It’s always interesting to look at the choices a successful business makes, particularly, choices that are conscious limitations. So-and-so inc expanding into a new area or launching a new copycat product is fairly dull. Looking for new markets, consumers and money is a given in a modern economy. In contrast, a company opting to depart from received wisdom by not doing certain things, skipping certain processes, provided it’s not doing it for cost-cutting measures, is fascinating.

I’ve found myself reading a couple of articles about clothes retailers in the last 24 hours. One is about a place where I buy 90% of the stuff I wear, the other is a shop I can’t stand. Respectively, these shops are Uniqlo and Abercrombie & Fitch. Both are the centre of articles that have much to say about branding, management and choices.

A cursory sweep through the two pieces reveals both Unqilo and A&F have a founder/CEO who exerts strong control over the company:

“Tadashi Yanai, the founder and owner of Uniqlo, is the richest man in Japan, worth over $9 billion… [he is] clearly obsessed with control, [but] is also a deeply pragmatic manager, and fascinated by failure. In 2005, he announced a reversal of strategy for international expansion… Uniqlo works quickly, and the transformation was surprisingly fast. Uniqlo designed and built the Soho store in about eight months, with 150 workers working twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week.”

“Mike Jeffries, the 61-year-old CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, says “dude” a lot… I got a firsthand look at his perfectionism in action when he invited me along for the final walk-through for the Christmas setup of his stores… Jeffries paused in front of two mannequins and shook his head… He stared at the jeans on the female mannequin. “The jeans are too high. I think she has to be lower.” A guy named Josh got down on his knees and started fidgeting with the jeans, trying to pull them down so they hung to the ground.”

However, differences in their approaches are soon apparent. A&F is a typical fashion retailer; it sells a very specific look, and builds up the emotional pull of that look via heavy, distinctive branding that appropriates a series of familiar ideas, images and style cues from the past. Uniqlo is quite unusual; unlike other fast fashion stores, customers expect to wear the clothes until they’re worn out and instead of building stores that are like sets for the movie of the brand, they focus on the way the clothes should be folded and the customer’s credit card is handed back to them. While both A&F and Uniqlo strictly enforce a personality, A&F seeks to sell a certain, specific fashion and style, whereas Uniqlo sells… well, it seems glib to say ‘clothes’, but that doesn’t seem far off:

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David Mitchell on ideas and characters in his new book

Just been to see David Mitchell read from his new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet at Shoreditch House.

Readings are always a little weird, bits of text disenfranchised from their home-novel, and the author never seems to know whether to show literary firepower with big bits of description or to create motion with some dialogue; whether to play it all for laughs or not, if they should commentate as they go along.

But these are difficulties inherent to the form and it doesn’t stop readings from being enjoyable, particularly as in this case, I’m a big fan, Mitchell’s a great writer and Deijima is a great setting.

Couple of interesting points from the Q&A afterwards:

On why he’s going back to Japan now:

Mitchell stumbled upon a Dejima museum in Nagasaki in 1996 because he “couldn’t read the street signs.” Writers he said, in a lovely similie, have a “Geiger counter built in that goes off when you’re around good material.”

Interesting settings and ideas are saved; they “circle like planes waiting to land at Heathrow… [and] it was time to bring this one in to land.”

Great image, no wonder people were applauding.

On the way characters from his previous books appear in later ones:

“I think of it like the dole, the DSS. There’s this room where the old characters wait, looking for work… So I go in there and see if there’s anyone who can do the job.”

So well put. He also revealed the next novel he’s writing is set in the present day and features, in some way, a character from Thousand Autumns.

Can’t wait for the book itself – it’s out in May.

(Bear in mind I was there for fun, not taking proper notes, so the above is paraphrased).

Added to the wishlist: The Cello Suites

[Book] Via the indomitable Tyler Cowen’s short but sweet Books of the Year post:

“A very good gift book is Eric Siblin’s new The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece.  It signals the sophistication of both the giver and receiver and yet it is short and entertaining enough to actually read. Package it with the recent Queyras recording of the Suites, if need be.”

Now that is how you write a book recommendation. I would like to know more about classical music. And of course, one is not averse to signalling one’s own sophistication.

Added to the wishlist: A Crisis of Brilliance

[Book] A Crisis of Brilliance, by David Haycock, courtesy of a review in the Guardian:

“The particular cauldron of intensity into which Haycock plunges is the Slade School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture…  and the students who experience this ‘crisis of brilliance’ – a phrase coined by their bristly, austere professor of drawing, Henry Tonks – are Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, CRW Nevinson, Paul Nash and Dora Carrington. All studied at the Slade between 1908 and 1912. Their fate was also decreed by a trial of fire, the first world war, that would define their art for the rest of their lives.

“As their names became known, so the artists were swept into the orbit of avant-garde movements such as Wyndham Lewis’s vorticists, the craft work of Fry’s Omega Gallery, and the ‘Georgian painters’ patronised by the stylish, monocled civil servant and collector Eddie Marsh.

“The war smashed into their lives as well as the old order. Haycock follows the hostilities with powerful economy, while tracing the artists’ own splintered trajectories… Haycock’s narrative of this entangled, war-defined group is so strong that it often has the force of a novel, hard to put down.”

Update: You can download the preface and first chapter [PDF] from the author’s website.