Category Archives: Literature

Book reviews are listed under the amount of stars I give them (I’m not to be taken seriously on this) and the genre that I put them under (society isn’t to be taken seriously on that).

An Open Letter to Don Norman: The Era of the Smartphone

Hi Mr. Norman, (if you do end up seeing this after all),

I’m reading your book The Design of Everyday Things, and I came across a particularly lucid prediction that you must’ve wrote well before ’88, the year DOET was copyrighted:

“Would you like a pocket size device that reminded you of each appointment and daily event? I would. I am waiting for the day when portable computers become small enough that I can keep one with me at all times. (…) The technology I need is available today. It’s just that the full package had never been put together, partly because the cost in today’s world would be prohibitive. But it will exist in an imperfect firm in five years, possibly in perfect form in ten.”

Well, I don’t think you would call the smartphone quite what you’re looking for, at least not in its modern incarnation. It doesn’t have a typewriter keyboard, although I do like the HTC Sense input scheme (learned after watching my friend fiddle around with his phone for about twenty seconds – I think it’s the sort of software design you’d really like for that :). And your timeframe may have been a tad optimistic.

But better late than never. The age of the truly portable computer, the smartphone, is upon us – and personally, I rather like this little do-whatever-you-need gadget. For me, to date, it’s been a remote, an internet browser, a quick and dirty sound recorder for musical ideas, a time tracker, a gateway to internet-based commerce, a time keeper, a gaming device, and oh yeah, a phone every now and then.

Now the only thing I wish it has was a unified look and feel across all its apps. But I guess I can wait 5/10/25 years for that leap.

Best wishes, you wrote an inspiring book. -Andrew

P.S., guess what I wrote this on.

Posted from WordPress for Android

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Why Shakespeare?: A primer for confused high schoolers (and more!)

A little while back, I made some serendipitous purchases at my local library’s annual book sale. By far the two largest books I got (for $1.50 each – watch for these things!) are The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, The Cambridge Edition Text.

To give you an idea of what 1500 bound pages looks like, here’s a slightly tilted picture.

The opening pages and illustration of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, The Cambridge Edition Text, as edited by William Aldis Wright.

Who illustrated Justice? Can we hire them for the next edition?

Now, aside from English professors and those cute nerdy girls I like so much, I doubt most people are seeing this and licking their lips in excitement. On the other hand, Willie is widely hailed as one of, if not the greatest dramatist and writer of English to have ever lived.

Why is there this disconnect? Why do the so-called experts agree that this man is so great, and the rest of us would prefer to read A Song of Ice and Fire or, well, let’s be honest, anything first published in the past 50-100 years?

Hence, this primer. An attempt, by a recent high school graduate, to explain why Shakespeare is so important for other high school students.

I’m sure my advice won’t be heard out by everyone, but for those of you who do like it, feel free to leave your comments on it.

  1. Yes, Shakespeare’s language is difficult. Embrace the suck!
    I refuse to dress up the ugly truth. Shakespeare is not, in this day and age, immediately relevant or even comprehensible to anybody. You can look up a translation of Cicero and Ovid and those will be easier to read than the original, non-No Fear Shakespeare. I have never met somebody who can sit down, read a Shakespeare play cold, and just get it with all its hidden meanings like that.
    But think about what that means. It means that he has this immense reputation not because of, but despite this difficulty. People who do work through his stuff find it so mind-blowingly amazing that they’re reduced to tears, be it of sadness or laughter.
    Learning to read Shakespeare is like that boring part of first learning a language, where you’re mostly just memorizing basic semi-obvious facts. It’s only after that phase that things start to get really interesting – and with Shakespeare, oh boy, do they.
  2. Shakespeare was never a “classic;” he’s more like a TV writer.
    Believe me, after you get over the hurdle of his antiquated-but-beautiful language, this becomes a lot more obvious. In the book that I have, Macbeth takes up less than 40 pages of text in its entirety, and it’s one of the greatest tragedies ever written (not to mention I read Lady Macbeth in Marilyn Monroe’s voice – the sexiest insults ever¬†ensue).
    You don’t cover that much plot in that short a time by dragging things out. When it does look like things are being dragged out, it’s always for the purposes of characterization, or just plain epic lines.
    What does that sound like? The writing philosophy of Joss Whedon. Or Steven Moffat. Or any writer of excellent television, for that matter. If it’s not advancing things, it gets cut out – so everything has some importance.
    Incidentally, this is why you hear so many popular and “literary” authors alike praising Shakespeare. He’s the perfect person to model oneself on in the world of writing, because — as crazy as it sounds — his verse has just the right economy to it, every time.
  3. Shakespeare was never a classic-ist, either. That’s how he got his reputation.
    Because I love seeing famous dead people get one-upped by other famous dead people I picked up a copy of The Cult of Shakespeare at that book sale, too, and I’ve been reading it over the past 2 days with immense relish. It’s a constant gaggle of stupid things people have done over the centuries in Shakespeare’s memory (look up William Ireland and be prepared to facepalm hard).
    But literature and the history of its reception always shed light on one another, and it suddenly hit me halfway through why Shakespeare’s plays were so powerful. You see, back in ancient theatre, works had to be made according to strict rules. Have a happy ending. People should get their just desserts. Don’t kill off the good guys, and give the bad guys their due.
    Now, for a beginning writer who doesn’t really know what he’s doing yet, these are actually very nice principles to abide by. They let him churn out stories that aren’t exactly formulaic, but it’s hard to fuck up a story that doesn’t end with an insane ending like a father and all of his daughters dying in the middle of a foreign invasion that they themselves started because of a dumb family spat that you’d expect to be parodied in an episode of The Simpsons.
    Oh, wait, that’s King Lear. My favorite Shakespeare tragedy so far. That’s where Shakespeare took things in a different direction: He simply ignored the rules of classical drama.
    In doing so, his stories took on an altogether more organic form to them, and all their parts could work together to form an insurmountable whole of pathos and power. Why did this work? Because true artistic genius can’t be handcuffed like that, by rules of “unity” and “symmetry”. True genius can pull a Houdini on silly rules like that when the opportunity arises, and you’ll just sit there amazed.
  4. Shakespeare’s characters are so well-developed we don’t always know what’s going on with them.
    What? What the hell does that mean? Let me explain: There are some characters in fiction who are completely predictible. Usually, they show up in supporting roles, and if they don’t they’re a negative indicator of the quality of a work. Nobody wants to watch a show about the guy who sells Jerry Seinfeld et al. coffee at that shop, because he’s boring.
    Conversely, there are some character who are a complete mystery to us – they’re so hard to pin down, they might as well just get written out of the story, because there isn’t much going for them in terms of audience appeal in the first place. As much as I love James Joyce, this is how I feel about Stephen Daedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – granted, I was much younger when I read it, but it proves that too much ambiguity can be just as bad as too much predictability.
    Shakespeare, however, puts down enough detail in stone for us to love his characters, and omits enough to let us come up with our own interpretations.
    Let’s take a step back and admire that for a moment: Is Hamlet just indecisive, or does he already have everything planned out from the beginning and he’s just waiting for a chance to strike? Is Lady Macbeth a cold-hearted bitch who goes crazy as divine retribution, or did she want to be that cold-hearted bitch but wasn’t really, and when she tries to be then she goes crazy? And don’t even get me started on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
    The point here is that Shakespeare’s got a knack for hitting the ‘sweet spot’ of characterization in his works. That’s why from the beginning his plays transcended their lower comedy and proved to be something more gripping.

Okay, I’m sure you’re getting as tired of reading this article as I am, but let me just reiterate: Shakespeare rewards those who put the effort in immensely. Yes, he is hard, and there’s little getting around that. He’s also awesome at what he does [uh… did], and that’s why people go so rabid about him, especially people who make reading and writing their professions.

I really hope somebody reads this, I don’t want it to disappear in the vacuum of the blogosphere.

'The Comedy of Errors' by William Shakespeare

‘The Comedy of Errors’ by William Shakespeare (Photo credit: Huntington Theatre Company)

“To Engineer is Human”, by Henry Petroski

Cover of To Engineer is Human by Henry Petroski

There’s something deliciously cynical about seeing a bridge fall and saying, “History will vindicate me.”

The details, oh, the details. Why is it that we do not check them more carefully? For they can send innocent readers into the bowels of libraries, where madmen mug books, and they can send innocent citizens to their deaths in cracked airplanes and on shaky skywalks.

I’ll admit some bias in picking up this book; I’m entering college next year as an intended dual major in engineering and art, and a book subtitled “The Role of Failure in Successful Design” was just too good to pass up. I read To Engineer is Human with the intention of gleaning a few possibly life-saving lessons about the queer field I’m entering – and although Petroski’s pedigree is in civil engineering, many of his points are important across the board.

That being said, Petroski’s book may not be as suitable for the layman as he originally desired. There were several parts where I found myself saying, “I’d be lost if it weren’t for the fact that I know about all this stuff already.” The anecdotes are a bit hit-or-miss, the best one probably being the story of the Crystal Palace.

Although the effect is overall limited, the book falls into that all-too-familiar rut where the science outweighs the human effect on the reader. Petroski definitely relates his content all back eventually, but getting up to there is daunting.

(It doesn’t help that there’s one chapter basically ranting about how errors in computer design are going to be the bogeyman of the twenty-first century – like, why not call in some civil engineering experts to help design the system? Serious bro points lost with this Linux geek.)

A good and informative read for aspiring engineers (and maybe practising ones). Maybe a bit too intense for the average Joe.

But! For those of you who are in the civil engineering purview of interest, check out the related content links.

Slow week! — “Blink,” by Malcolm Gladwell

(Apologies are in order, reader! I slacked off a lot this week, due in no small part to having a lot of outside commitments, and the worst work day of my so-far-young life by far. Nobody who impressed business client at 15 should fall to doing door-to-door sales work at 18. I’ve learned my lesson! Onto the review.)

Cover of Malcolm Gladwell's

A smart guy? Yes. A prophetic researcher whose works change your life in under 400 pages? No. A writer who can point you on to the things that will? Definitely.

Rating: 4 / 5

I don’t make a secret of my minor obsession with books skirting the boundaries of psychology and self-help; in this regard, Robert Greene is my favorite author, and Malcolm Gladwell is pretty high up there.

That being said, anyone who opens Blink will do well to repeat this mantra to themselves:
“Gladwell’s a reporter, not a scientist,
May he no longer give cognitive bias.”

Blink is a great book, written in a fantastic style that betrays Gladwell’s long running position as a writer with the New Yorker. Beginning with the story of a falsified kouros statue that one expert just “knew” had to be fake, even after scientific testing appeared to prove that an impossibility, he builds up a fascinating series of anecdotes about the mind’s power to ‘thin-slice’ events and make snap judgments. There are a surprisingly large amount of events that we can do just as well if not better by suppressing our rational sides and acting on (trained, well-honed) animal instincts. Cool beans.

Apropos of his section on microexpressions and the work of the human lie detector and psychologist Paul Eckman is this great YouTube video I dug up. Even if you’re not interested in reading the book, this is an awesome watch:

So, Malcolm’s a great writer, and the stories he tells us are all great. Why doesn’t Blink get 5 stars?

Because chances are if you’re interested enough to read this review of it this far, you’re going to buy the damned book anyway. And you deserve to be warned that Gladwell is notorious for cherry-picking his accounts. Like I said: Gladwell is not a scientist. He oversimplifies issues.

But even a simplified version of an issue can be enchanting.

 

For seasoned Gladwell fans, the last link under “Related Articles” ought to give you a nice, if slightly deprecating laugh. ūüôā

“Snow Crash”, by Neal Stephenson

It would be about 2/3 as long without all the Sumerian mythology. But then it wouldn’t be Neal Stephenson.

Rating:  5 / 5

Let’s go through the opening of Snow Crash real quickly just to show you what it’s like.

We have this guy named Hiro. Hiro Protagonist. (Yes, that’s actually his name.) He was one of the original programmers of the Metaverse, which is like the Internet if the Internet forced you to freaking walk to every URL and website you visited, and the world’s greatest swordfighter. Go figure.

And he’s dead broke, working a pizza delivery job to earn enough scratch to live in a 600 sq. ft. storage unit with fuzz-grunge rock “star” Vitaly Chernobyl. His job title is “Deliverator.”

Do I see you shaking your head? No. You don’t understand. The Deliverator works for the Mafia, delivering pizzas in 30 minutes or less. If he fails, the don Uncle Enzo will show up personally and apologize – and the Deliverator will be sleeping with the environmentally-altered megafishes very shortly thereafter.

That all becomes clear in the first 5 pages or so, during my personal favourite opening literary action sequence of all time. Neal Stephenson’s novel won’t be everyone’s taste, but if you don’t mind slogging through his digressions on Sumerian mythology (or if you’re like me and actually enjoy that part of science fiction writing!) you’ll find this book chock full of humor, badassery, and absolute coolness. It only gets better from a guy who prefers his samurai swords to an electric minigun, people!

A final comment: Linguists, virologists and old *nix hands alike will find this book especially enjoyable because of how much they can relate to the ideas Stephenson presents that are critical to the central running of the plot. I fall a little bit uncertainly into the third category, which might explain why I was chuckling at his descriptions of the Metaverse and found the infospeak more interesting than grating. It is one of the reasons so many people get turned off of scifi in the first place, after all.

Below are some links the lovely people at WordPress have deemed ‘relevant’ to my content. They’re probably not entirely relevant, of course, but have fun reading through them.

May 30: “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning”, Chris Hedges

Book cover of

But that meaning certainly isn’t pretty.

Rating: 3 / 5

War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning has a title that confused me at first – generally speaking, ‘meaning’ has a positive connotation, and so I expected a pro-war account. Truth be told, it’s not one hundred percent clear what Hedges’ thoughts on war are in the end, and perhaps that’s the way it is meant to be: A confused mess, with lines of contradictory coherency in every chapter.

But a good 80 percent of the book is detailing the horrors of war, horrors that Chris Hedges encountered during his time as a wartime journalist – so we may believe him to be an addict of war, just as others are an addict of drugs. It is a comparison he himself makes several times in the book. Take a look at the end of the first chapter:

During a lull [in the gunfire] I dashed across an empty square and found shelter behind a house. My heart was racing. Adrenaline coursed through my bloodstream. I was safe. I made it back to the capital. And, like most war correspondents, I soon considered the experience a great cosmic joke. I drank away the fear and excitement in a seedy bar in downtown San Salvador. Most people after such an experience would learn to stay away. I was hooked.

A great example of the definitely journalistic slant of the writing style – punctual sentences, flowing vocabulary – although it doesn’t contain the many references to classic works of literature like Shakespeare and the Aeneid that the book should also be known for.

Hedges’ ideas on war are interesting, and in many places very insightful – I couldn’t help but think about Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 as he talked about the link between a wartime scenario and the ensuant rise in sexual perversion, both on the sides of the soldiers and their patriotic [like “meaning”, here that word does not have a positive connotation] citizens back at home.

The thing that keeps me from rating this book higher, however, is that the structuring is horrendous – maybe there’s some underlying pattern I’m not seeing here, but the book reads like a halting mess of personal recounts of torture and death, philosophical meanderings, and the occasional one-on-one verbal confrontations that reveal Hedges’ pedigree as a journalist, but impress less in the form of a book.

There is also the question of background knowledge on the events being talked about – for a national bestseller, Chris Hedges sure didn’t spend much time explaining the military and political fiascos he found himself in, and I doubt the layman has enough knowledge of the various genocides that took place in the Eastern European countries to fit everything into a solid historical framework without doing outside research. (It is now on my list to do that outside research later, of course.)

All in all: Great ideas, great content, and a strong, mostly anti-war message, but it relies on the reader knowing a lot about the history of international conflicts in the latter half of the twentieth century, and the structure is tangled to say the least. If you want to get the most out of this book, do some research on Israel and the Balkans first.

May 29: “Looking for Alaska”, by John Green

Cover of John Green's

I searched “Looking for Alaska” on Google and Google gave me an actual map of Alaska. Gotta love the Internet.

(I suppose this’ll set a trend for writing my reviews of the books I read the day after. Fine with me!)

Rating: 4 / 5

The first book that I read was Looking for Alaska, a title by the more literary of the two [in]famous VlogBrothers, John Green. (For those of you who don’t know who the VlogBrothers are, here’s their YouTube channel. The name pretty much sums it up!)

Clocking in at 230 pages, it took me 4 hours and 28 minutes to read yesterday (I’m not the fastest reader).

Looking for Alaska reminded me of the basic structure of Philip Roth’s book¬†Indignation¬†in certain ways – that one may have been a bit longer, but they both feature¬†1. a protagonist who leaves a nowhere town and only sporadically keeps his parents and¬†2. falls in love with a girl who isn’t entirely mentally stable. They differ in that¬†3. John Green isn’t nearly as gleefully sadistic as Philip Roth (a term of endearment, Philip!),¬†4. being a work of young adult fiction, protagonist Miles “Pudge” Halter actually sounds like, you know, a teenager, and¬†5. it ends on a strangely uplifting note.

What makes this book problematic to review is that events past halfway would definitely be construed as spoilers, at least for a first time reader. So I’ll do my best to give you an idea of the setup: Pudge is sent from Nowhere, USA to Culver Creek Preparatory High School, where he falls in very quickly with a group of kids both intellectual and reckless – Chip “the Colonel” Martin, Takumi Hikohito, and of course Alaska Young. I don’t know about you, but there’s something about a girl that reads Marquez and still parties like an animal makes me drool. They are of course in opposition to the teachers and authority figures, as well as to the Weekday Warriors – snobby rich kids who go back home every weekend. Shenanigans are had all around, some more mean spirited than others; Pudge actually gets hazed his first night on campus, which really sets the mood that although this is a young adult novel, it does carry some gravity with it.

What really makes the novel shine, however, is John Green’s eye for motifs. There are several phrases that are repeated over and over in the book (a #3 for Indignation similarities), most importantly the last words of Francois Rabeleis and Simon Bolivar. Pudge is obsessed with memorizing last words, and they guide him a lot through the book. He even describes his decision to leave home at the tender age of sixteen as going to “seek a Great Perhaps,” the meaning of which is just enigmatic enough to make it interesting.

I got the feeling reading through the book that there was a lot of foreshadowing in miniature going on that I wouldn’t catch on a first read. And as Bloom County put it: Foreshadowing: Your clue to quality literature!

An enjoyable read, overall. (Maybe the next review I do for a novel I’ll break it down into categories?)