Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Exclamation mark inflation

Yet another example of how digital technology is changing culture and language:

"Studies…repeatedly show that girls and young women in a variety of countries use their phones for strengthening social connections more often than boys do. Girls also use more exclamation points and emoticons. In interviews, Baron said, teenage girls have complained that the texts they received from boys didn’t express enough emotion."

Now that you mention it, I have always thought that the more-than-occasional use of emoticons isn't quite appropriate for an adult heterosexual male. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sunday book recommendation: "Charles Dickens: A Life", by Claire Tomalin

Once popular Victorian writers like Wilkie Collins and Anthony Trollope have been mostly forgotten by modern readers. Charles Dickens has remained uniquely popular for years for a reason: His stories resonate across the century and a half that has passed since he did most of his best work. If you haven't read Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, and David Copperfield, I recommend that you do so now.

Then you should read Claire Tomalin's fine biography of Charles Dickens.

Charles Dickens was a brilliant artist, but a complex man. He could be alternately warm to his acquaintances and cold to longtime friends and close family members. He never got over his childhood experiences of poverty. 

By the standards of his time, Dickens had an expansive social conscience. But here again, there were contradictions. Dickens actively supported the rescue of "fallen women" (prostitution was rampant in the London of Dickens' era). However, he left his wife in late middle age to pursue an affair with a woman young enough to be his daughter.

Dickens would be interesting in the hands of any reasonably skilled biographer, but he is especially so in the hands of Claire Tomalin. Biographies of historical figures are sometimes skewed to one narrow aspect of the subject's life. Tomalin achieves a balance that makes Charles Dickens compelling to read: Here we have an in-depth study of a writer, a very human man, and an era. (Tomalin has done her research on 19th century England, and you'll learn a lot of historical facts as well.)

This is an excellent biography of Charles Dickens. Enjoy.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Reading multiple books simultaneously (mailbag)

A reader writes:

"Dear Ed:  

Do you read multiple books at once, or are you one of those readers who only reads a single book at a time, and reads it straight through?"

An interesting question: I've talked to a lot of people who have an almost pathological fear of reading more than a single book at a time. 

Some of them seem to fear that if they read more than one book at a time, they won't be able to finish them both (or them all). This might be a concern if you read only library books that are the 7-day borrowing list. If you own the books, though, this shouldn't be too much of a problem.

Others express concern about the plot lines (or the subject matter, in the case of nonfiction) running together. 

I don't understand this one, either. Almost no one says, "Hey, I'm watching The Walking Dead this season, so I refuse to watch Justified, Mad Men, Dallas, or Grey's Anatomy. I don't want the story lines running together!"

From my perspective, reading multiple books at a time is really no more problematic than tuning into multiple television shows at a time. Speaking of which--I don't watch much television; so I usually have multiple books open.

My average number of "open books" has grown in the past few years, as I've begun reading books on Kindle, and listening to books on my two iPods. I also usually have an audiobook in my car's CD player. 

This doesn't mean that there are no limits here--although the exact limits can vary according to the profundity of the books I'm reading, and my other time commitments. 

I generally avoid reading books that overlap in obvious ways. For example, if I'm reading Nicholas Nicholby, I probably won't be reading Middlemarch at the same time. Yes, I know that Dickens wrote the first book, and George Eliot wrote the second; but both are thick, nineteenth-century English novels that might take me several months to work through while I'm also reading lighter fare.

On that topic, for me there are books that are "fast reads" and others that are "slow reads". I can read an entire John Grisham novel within a day or two. On the other hand, older novels, and more "serious" books can take me much longer. 

To cite one example on the long side: It took me almost two years to complete Edward Rutherford's The Princes of Ireland. To begin with, this book is 800 pages in length. It is also slow-moving, even for a historical novel. 

Nevertheless, I didn't want to abandon it; so I read it in short segments, when I was "in the mood" for a story that moved a bit more slowly. I no doubt finished several dozen books while I worked my way through The Princes of Ireland.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

C.S. Lewis on supernatural evil

I received a number of emails from you following yesterday's post about the book/film The Exorcist. 

Several of you sent me this link about people experiencing strange occurrences after watching the more recent horror movie, The Conjuring.

My attitude on such things can be more or less summed up by one of C.S. Lewis's introductory statements in The Screwtape Letters:

"There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight."

The Conjuring contained some creepy scenes, and most people left the movie in a heightened state of suggestibility. 

I would estimate that 99% of all supposedly supernatural occurrences do have a "logical explanation." 

This is a point that the Ed Warren character goes out of his way to make in the movie. 

Once one accepts a fundamental belief in the the supernatural, there is a temptation among some people to see ghosts and demons in every corner of life. 

This is almost always not the case.

If you find yourself straying too far into the realm of suggestibility, you might reread the above quote by C.S. Lewis. 

Even within the framework of spiritual beliefs, there is a place for the counterbalance of skepticism. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Our extraordinary fear of "The Exorcist"

Novelist Chuck Palahniuk discusses some of his fears regarding The Exorcist. Pay attention, folks: This is interesting:

"Perhaps my telling you that I kept my copy of The Exorcist separate from all the rest of my books, in a drawer of art materials, will serve. This eventually would not do and the book was exiled to a drawer in a tool chest in the back of the house. 
This is not logical, and I can't explain it, but I truly felt that the book was evil. It is not rational thinking that keeps me rooted to this earth. The demon was given so much more of a specific personality that it felt, well, real. This goes back to the believabilty. The more time spent with Pazuzu, the more distinct the voice became; repulsive, malicious, unnerving, diabolical, and most believable in the book, which was enough for me... 
It must be mentioned, reader, that I am not alone: a strange phenomenon surrounds the book. Many copies have been excommunicated from book collections and libraries, relegated to "safe" distances like linen closets and spare bedroom closets.."
I have to admit, this makes a little chill go up my spine. It reminds me of that Japanese horror film The Ring--in which a cursed videotape has the power to reach out and kill people. (The Exorcist, like the 1983 horror film Poltergeist, is believed by some people to be "cursed".)

My experience is a bit like Palahniuk's in only one regard: For years, The Exorcist was the one movie that I was almost afraid to see, having heard stories about it for practically my entire life. 

The movie came out in 1973. I was alive then, but much too young for that sort of fare. Throughout my youth, I had spoken to a lot of older adults who reported weeks of sleeplessness after watching The Exorcist in theaters. 

I finally got around to watching the movie about ten years ago. (Although I write a considerable amount of horror fiction, I generally don't watch a lot of horror films, for reasons I'll perhaps explain another time. The principal reason is that most contemporary horror films are just plain bad.)

My verdict: Yes, the film is intense. However, it didn't cause me any significant amount of sleeplessness.  

I think that for me the impact of The Exorcist was diluted, because so many of the film's elements had been copied by other filmmakers after 1973. (To cite just one example: Watch the 1982 movie Amityville II: The Possession--which was made less than 10 years after The Exorcist was in theaters.)

Still, I'm intrigued by the idea that a piece of art could be so horrible that its mere physical artifact (like a copy of the book) could have a talismanically evil power. 

For me, works of art are completely safe. No horror movie has ever truly frightened me--to the point of keeping me awake at night. I am always able to remember that at the end of the day, the film/novel is the product of someone's imagination. 

However, this doesn't mean that I am completely immune from vicarious forms of fear: I have been "creeped out" on occasion by so-called "real ghost stories". (Read my earlier post about Clermont County, Ohio's Dead Man's Curve, which is within a few miles of my house.) And there are certain items that I would not keep in my home--such as anything related to the practice of the occult. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Commercial interlude: Eleven Miles of Night


Jason Kelley is a young, struggling filmmaker looking for his first big break. When the semi-famous cable television ghost hunter Simon Rose approaches him about a freelance project, Jason is understandably thrilled.

He isn’t fazed by the fact that his assignment is a walk down the Shaman’s Highway, an eleven-mile stretch of rural Ohio roadway that is reputed to be haunted by malevolent spirits, hellhounds, and demonic forces. Jason is an agnostic in regard to the supernatural.

He isn’t prepared for the reality that awaits him on his walk through eleven miles of night—nor the more human violence and heartbreak that he will face along the way.

Read the first seven chapters (Gratis! No sign up! No strings attached!)

Watch the Eleven Miles of Night trailer:

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Comments threads open again

I had shut off the comment threads for a while, due to my taking a hiatus from the blog.

As I am now back, more or less full time, the comment threads are open again. So feel free to comment away.

I prefer to take a light hand toward comment moderation--but I make exceptions for  spam (obviously) and deliberate trolling. I am also not a big fan of profanity, ad hominem attacks, or unsupported assertions. (Tell me I'm wrong, by all means, but back up your case with facts and/or a logical argument.)

I'll come out later with an official comments policy. In lieu of that, please be polite (both to me and to others), and use your common sense. 

*    *   *

One administrative note: To facilitate commenting, there is no automatic comment moderation for recent posts. Comments on posts more than one week old will go into the moderation queue, however, in order to discourage spammers. (This seems like a reasonable compromise.)

Monday, March 10, 2014

Get "The Maze" free on Kindle March 11 & 12

You'll like The Maze if :

- You enjoy novels with fantasy elements that are also grounded in the real world.
- You seek a fast-moving story with strong, memorable characters.

The Maze is a fantasy novel, but not the usual sort of "dungeons and dragons" story that is so common. 

Get The Maze free on Amazon Kindle March 11 & March 12!

Amazon.com promotional blurb:


Amanda Kearns is a hard-driving executive with a broken heart. Her male subordinates think she is a “machine”; they have no idea of the real, hidden Amanda.

Hugh Jackson is a software salesman with a defective heart—a condition that will kill him in a matter of months or years.

Evan Daley is a young college graduate adrift in a career for which he is ill-suited; he struggles with the scars of a barren, loveless childhood.

Amanda, Hugh, and Evan were expecting another routine day on the job at the Lakeview Towers office complex just outside Columbus, Ohio. But this massive structure hides a secret—a hidden passageway that plunges the unwary into a labyrinthine network of endless, twisting hallways: the Maze.

Trapped inside the Maze, Amanda, Hugh, and Evan must battle their way through perilous corridors filled with half-man, half-wolf beasts called “manwolves”, killer robots, and demonic wraiths known as “watchers”.

But they face their greatest challenge in the snowy, earth-like wilderness on the other side of the Maze. Here a group of ragtag rebels and settlers struggle against a tyrannical demigod known as the Director. The Director is determined to enslave or annihilate everyone within his reach, using a combination of worldly and unworldly weapons.

Amanda, Hugh, and Evan each find love and momentary comfort on the other side of the Maze. But they cannot escape the ultimate battle with the Director. The three Ohioans find themselves forced to choose—between the draw of love and loyalty, and the instinct for self-preservation.

A riveting emotional tale wrapped within a fantasy adventure, THE MAZE is sure to appeal to adult readers who fondly recall childhood “parallel universe” stories like “Through the Looking Glass” and “The Chronicles of Narnia”. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Are liberal arts majors doomed to starvation?

A new study suggests that this is not the case. This rather dense collection of data is further broken down by Bloomberg Businessweek.

The good news here is that during the "peak earning years", an English literature major might be making as much money as a engineering grad. 

But for those of you in the 18-24 year-old age range, some important caveats:

1.) Your potential income at your "peak earning years" say little about your employability on graduation day. English lit majors still receive far fewer offers than newly minted chemical engineering graduates. (And that is unlikely to change, even if the economy improves.)

2.) The report apparent classifies the humanities (ex: English lit) and the social sciences (ex: psychology) in the same category as math, and the physical and natural sciences.

This is fine and good from an academic perspective. A mathematics degree is not an engineering degree. At many universities, all of these courses are housed in a "college of arts and sciences." This was the case at the University of Cincinnati, which I attended in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

However, a potential hiring officer is going to view the math major and the English lit major as very different commodities. And I don't need to tell you which one she is going to favor.

Now--the most important thing you need to know:

3.) Evaluating people's income at their "peak earning years" according to college academic major is inherently misleading. This is because many people (perhaps as many as 30% to 40%) change careers and focuses several times during their working lives.

For example. (These are real, not made up.)

One of my college friends, (I'll call her "Donna") majored in psychology--one of the most unmarketable degrees at the 4-year level. However, Donna has since retrained, and she now works as an IT consultant. 

Donna is now my age, more or less (44). She earns a good income. But this has little connection to the psychology degree she was awarded back in 1990.

Another one of my friends (I'll call him Russ) earned an engineering degree. That's a competitive major, by everyone's estimate. 

But Russ hated the nuts-and-bolts of engineering work. He went into sales. He earns a good income, too, as chance would have it; but Russ has never been a practicing engineer. 

And what about me? I majored in economics. At various times since I received my degree in 1991, I've been a salesperson, purchasing agent, translator, and IT project manager. 

I've never been an economist, though. And the first company that hired me, in 1991, had no interest in my economics degree. They hired me because I could speak and read Japanese--a skill which I mostly taught myself while finishing up my university degree.

So go figure...

The end of anonymity on Amazon?

A new petition at Change.org calls for an end to reviewer anonymity at Amazon.com:

"…there is an incredible amount of bullying and harassment of some of these self publishing authors taking place on the Amazon platform/system. 

 I believe, as do countless others—many who will have signed this petition—that the reason this bullying and harassment is able to take place is because of the allowance of anonymity on Amazon. People have found ways to exploit this flaw in the system and are using it to bully, harass, and generally make life miserable for certain authors on Amazon. These people are able to create multiple accounts and then use those accounts to viciously attack and go after any author or person that they feel doesn't belong on Amazon or who shouldn't have published a book, made a comment on a forum post, etc. With the current system, if one anonymous account gets deactivated because it was reported for these things, it is easy for the bully or harasser to simply create another anonymous account and continue on with their shenanigans. 
 What I—we—would like to see happen is for Amazon to revise their policies regarding anonymity when it comes to writing product/book reviews and for participation in the forums. Reviewers and forum participants should not be anonymous. By removing their anonymity and forcing them to display their real, verified identities, I believe that much of the harassment and bullying will cease. It may continue elsewhere on the web, but not on Amazon, the largest online retail marketplace in the world, where it really counts. Buyers of products on Amazon must have their identities verified, so it should be an easy transition to implement a policy whereby reviewers and forum participants must also have their identities verified."

From my perspective, the end of anonymity on Amazon would be a positive move. However, I don't particularly see this as a vast conspiracy against independently published authors. Anonymity, rather, is a conspiracy against readers, who attempt to use Amazon's now questionable rating system to make purchase decisions. 

There are numerous "fake" reviews on Amazon. Some of these are shill reviews designed to raise a book's average rating.  

Others are ideologically motivated, negative reviews that target a controversial author. These reviews are usually not "reviews" at all, but merely ad hominem attacks in which an ideologue tells the world that he doesn't like a particular author, and therefore doesn't like his/her books, either. (Read some of the reviews for the latest Bill O'Reilly book, and you'll see what I mean.) 

If I want to evaluate a book, it doesn't help me to read twenty five-star reviews that are obviously written by an author's friends, relatives, or diehard blog cronies. Nor does it help me to know that a particular reviewer regards Bill O'Reilly as a fascist. 

Anonymity encourages irresponsible behavior. There are unique situations in which the desire for anonymity is perfectly understandable. (For example: a forum dedicated to the discussion of sexual dysfunction, mental illness, or substance abuse.) But if you're simply reviewing the latest Dan Brown novel on Amazon, why the heck wouldn't you post using your real name? 

Yes, I'm old school on this one--as I'm old school in regard to a lot of things. Online freedom of speech should be balanced by accountability. And accountability begins with posting under your real name.