Thursday, March 29, 2012

Should you finish every book you start?

A friend recently confided in me that he is "cautious" about opening new books, because, he said "I hate the idea of not liking the book, and then feeling guilty if I don't finish it."


Although this might strike some readers as mildly neurotic, I think that a lot people actually feel this way. It might be the generally high cost of books nowadays, or simply a Calvinistic impulse to "finish what one has started."


I generally try to finish all the non-fiction books I open, because they will at least provide me with information. However, I occasionally abandon novels midway through (or earlier), if the story doesn't grab me.


How many? you might ask. I haven't kept records, but I would say about 1 out of 20.


I would recommend starting more books, even if you end up abandoning a certain percentage of them. Unless you are truly frivolous about it, the net affect will still be that you read more books.


If you are concerned about the cost of books, then focus on lower price ebooks, books purchased in secondhand venues like Half-Priced books, or that old standby, the public library.

Monday, March 26, 2012

"No issue too small" (i.e. trivial) for evangelizing atheists

As I've noted before, I'm not a huge fan of people who seek to impose their personal interpretations of Scripture on others. Nor am I a fan of those who seek to parade their lack of religious beliefs in the public square, as if the mere fact of being an atheist makes one "special." 


Being an atheist does not automatically make one special, insightful, or wise...It merely makes one an atheist. 


Nor is it necessary for atheists to tell the rest of us, that we, too, can choose not to believe in God. (Most of us already know this option exists.) Nevertheless, a certain breed of militant atheist seems compelled to vocally remind Americans about what they (do not) believe. 


CNN reports that the American Atheists have recently taken their "movement" to Washington D.C., where they will present themselves as the proponents of "reason." The leader of the American Atheists, David Silverman, is capable of sharp witticisms like "In the beginning, God created chocolate." He talks a lot about "organizing;" but it isn't clear what Silverman is organizing--except a lot of noisy rallies and CNN photo ops. (More about Silverman's "issues" in a moment.)  


To me, evangelizing atheists have always been a bit like that group of kids back in high school who went out of their way to be different--for the mere sake of being different from everyone else. I have no problem with anyone who believes in Yahweh, the various Hindu deities, Allah, or no deity at all. All I ask is that you keep your religion (or lack thereof) to yourself.


America is no theocracy. We have recognized the Separation of Church and State since the beginning. Once in a while someone from the religious right will attempt to bring too much religiosity into the public square. We Americans have a habit of reminding such individuals that this is not our way. We don't need a militant atheist movement to ensure that our institutions remain secular. ("Secular", by the way, does not necessarily mean that individuals don't believe in God. It simply means that our public institutions remain free of overt religious influence.)

On that point, there is one legitimate issue that both religious and non-religious secularists can agree on: And that is the separation of church and state---which JFK affirmed in his 1960 speech before a group of Houston ministers who were skeptical of his intentions once elected. (The ministers, by the way, were not concerned about excess religiosity per se, they were concerned about the fact that Kennedy was a Catholic.) 


The American Atheists, however, aren't simply vigilant about the separation of church and state (which we already have). David Silverman is piqued about the Bibles in the hotel rooms at the Marriott where his group has rented rooms. He wants to have the offending Bibles donated or thrown away....noting that "no issue is too small." 


It doesn't take much insight to see that Silverman and his vanguards of "reason" are much like the aggressive Christian evangelists whom they claim to oppose. In fact, Silverman has more in common with those smarmy televangelists than he might recognize. The pushy preacher who rings your doorbell with Biblical tracts at dinnertime is convinced that you don't have the sense to figure the world out for yourself...You need his help. Likewise, Silverman is a pushy preacher of non-religion--and he and his movement are no less condescending or annoying.


Prior to the culture wars of the past few decades, we used to understand that America gives each person the right to embrace a religion of their choice--or to ignore religion completely. Religion (or the lack thereof) should be practiced and not preached. 


I therefore officially recognize the right of Silverman and his cohorts to ignore religion. Despite their delusions of persecution, no one is actually persecuting them. They can believe whatever they wish to believe. I only wish that they would practice their beliefs a bit more silently...as their particular "movement" really isn't as profound or original as they seem to think it is. We've seen this movie before.







Monday, March 12, 2012

What I'm reading: Jonathan Tropper's "The Book of Joe"

As I've noted before, men are not huge consumers of fiction (at least compared to women); and there are relatively few male novelists who specialize in delving into the nooks and crannies of the male psyche. (Most male-oriented novels tend to focus on catching spies or blowing things up. Killing mythical beasts is another of our favorite themes. Dragons, anyone?)


Tropper, though, is a novel-writing specialist of the male psyche. This makes Jonathan Tropper's novels interesting--whether you are a man, or a woman who would like to better relate to men. 


Suffice it to say that I didn't know who Jonathan Tropper was this time last year; now he is rapidly becoming one of my favorites. Over this past summer, I read Tropper's most recent work, This is Where I Leave You. I'm now enjoying The Book of Joe. Both are written from a distinctly male viewpoint. Unflinchingly honest, these books will provoke many "ah-hah" moments from male readers over the age of 30.


The Book of Joe is about an early middle-aged man who, after achieving success as a novelist and establishing himself in New York City, returns to his boyhood home to deal with the demons of his past. (That's the extremely short version, of course; you can read the Amazon.com synopsis for more.) 












What I like about Tropper's fiction:


  • He delivers insightful fictional analyses of relationships (husband-wife, sibling, father-son) from a testosterone-tinged perspective that is largely missing in contemporary fiction. 
  • He writes about the cultural trappings of the 1980s with firsthand authenticity. (Like me, Tropper--born in 1970--came of age during the Reagan era).
  • Tropper's novels contain a mix of insight brought on by tragedy, and the sort of ironic humor that Gen-Xers will uniquely appreciate. Tropper  skillfully blends the tragic and the ironic without diminishing either one. That is a difficult feat--and one that Tropper pulls off well.

Any dislikes?


Not really. I do, however, notice some similarities between the protagonists of the two Tropper novels that I have read so far. Like Hemingway, Tropper seems to draw on his own experiences when writing fiction. 


In Hemingway's work, this tendency produced numerous stories about melancholy WWI veterans and bullfighting. In Tropper, this tendency seems to produce multiple stories about upper middle-class suburban males who are struggling with issues of past girlfriends, conflicts with older brothers, and distant father figures. The protagonists in both books are well educated, Jewish, and from New England--a highly specific profile that would suggest more than a hint of autobiography at work here. 


Not that I would label Tropper a one-trick pony. Tropper's protagonists (and their problems) seem to mature with the author himself. His first book was about 30-year-olds; his later novels have explored the angsts and fears of the 35-ish set. 


Tropper does seem to follow the Hemingway edict of "write what you know." I suspect that a certain degree of repetition is an inevitable tradeoff for the degree of authenticity that he achieves. Tropper isn't Vince Flynn or Ken Follett. So far, his topical range is somewhat narrow and specialized. He has a niche--but it's a niche in which he has proven himself a master.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Amazon at war with publishers over ebook prices again









It seems that Amazon.com--the world's largest online retailer--is once again at war with publishers (and, by extension, some writers)--over ebook pricing. 


In the latest round, Amazon has removed about 4,000 ebooks distributed by IPG (their ebook prices were too high). The Science Fiction Writers Association (SFWA) has therefore removed some its links to Amazon's website.


I say the "latest round" because this is not the first time that Amazon has pulled ebooks, and publishers have cried foul. A similar high-profile battle occurred between Amazon and publishers in 2010.


Here are the competing principles at play in these ongoing publishers-vs.-Amazon contests:


Amazon:

  • Amazon.com has staked a significant part of its future on the Kindle.
  • To promote the sale of Kindles, Amazon wants publishers to price ebooks below $9.99.
  • If ebooks are more expensive than tree-based books, fewer readers will perceive an advantage in the purchase of a Kindle.





Publishers:

  • Publishers have staked most of their business models on tree-based books.
  • Publishers do not want ebooks priced below $9.99, because they will then cannibalize the sales of tree-based books (especially hardcovers).
  • Publishers would not mind if Amazon never sold another Kindle. Kindles (along with the entire "e-publishing revolution") are mostly disruptive to their business models.



My take:



  • Amazon is on the side of the future. For reading to survive as a form of entertainment, book prices need to decrease. $36 for a hardcover novel is absurd. (This is a real example, BTW. This was the price of Ken Follett's Fall of Giants (Dutton, 2010).
  • Publishers are mostly inefficient as economic entities, run by journalism and English literature majors rather than people with a real knowledge of business. If any industry needs more MBAs on staff, it's the publishing industry.
  • There is no economic reason why publishers shouldn't be able to sell every e-book at or below $9.99 (except to preserve the price point of $36 hardcover novels).

But....


All that having been said, Amazon needs to find a less ham-fisted way of negotiating with partners in its supply chain. Removing books en masse will only alienate readers, authors, and publishers over the long run. 


Amazon is generally regarded as one of the good guys in the business world. The company needs to adjust its tactics (but not necessarily its strategy) on ebook pricing in order to remain so.


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"Blood Flats" and the traditional Western novel