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  • Mark 9:32 am on December 28, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , books, , ,   

    The proliferation of books 

    From Merchants of Culture, by John Thompson, pg 238. In the United States:

    The number of new books published in the US each year prior to 1980 was probably under 50,000. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the number of new books published greatly increased, reaching nearly 200,000 by 1998. By 2004 the number had risen to over 275,000 (see table 9 ). 2 After falling off in 2005, the total climbed to over 284,000 in 2007 and continued to rise in the following years, reaching an estimated 316,000 by 2010.

    And this has been supplemented greatly by non-traditional outputs. From pg 239-241:

    The data from Bowker suggest that the number of non-traditional outputs rose from 21,936 in 2006 to a staggering 2,776,260 in 2010, which, if added to the traditional books published in 2010, would give a total output of more than 3 million titles. The non-traditional outputs include books released by companies specializing in self-publishing, like Lulu and Xlibris, but the vast majority of these non-traditional outputs are scanned versions of public domain works that are being marketed on the web and made available through print-on-demand vendors. 

    A similar pattern can be seen in the UK. From pg 241:

    Prior to 1980 there were probably fewer than 50,000 new books published each year in the UK. By 1995 this number had doubled to more than 100,000, and by 2003 it had increased to nearly 130,000.The total number fell off slightly after that, though by 2009 the number of new books that were published in the UK had risen to more than 157,000 (see table 10 ), spurred on by the growth of print-on-demand, digital and self-publishing.

  • Mark 10:30 am on July 21, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , books, ,   

    things I’ve been reading recently #10 

    • Blogging – Jill Rettberg
    • The Internet Is Not The Answer – Andrew Keen [astonishingly he had a whole team of research assistants for this yet used few, if any, sources which weren’t from the internet]
    • Homeland – Cory Doctorow
    • Status Update – Alice Marwick [brilliant!]

    Graphic Novels: 

    • Ex Machina [best thing Brian Vaughan has ever written]
    • Phantom Jack
    • Guardians of the Galaxy: Guardians Disassembled
    • Men of Wrath
    • Trees volume 1 [stunning]
    • The Massive: Ragnarok [crap ending to a stunning series]
    • Caliban [garth ennis can do horror!]
    • Death of Wolverine: The Logan Legacy [meh]
    • Guardians of the Galaxy 3000 [meh]
    • Captain America and the Mighty Avengers: Open for Business [better than the former two but I’m really only reading Marvel out of longstanding habit and should stop]
    • Sons of Anarchy volume 3
  • Mark 1:25 pm on April 10, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , books,   

    Things I’ve been reading recently #6 

    After five of these posts I’m getting slightly bored with the exercise of describing each book. But I’ll continue with the posts as a whole because blogging a list of the books that I’ve finished does seem to be helping with my prior tendency to so rarely finish a book I’d started.


    The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy by David Graeber is one of the most original and thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time. I can’t recommend this highly enough, even if it does say “calls to mind Slavoj Zizek at his most accessible” on the blurb.

    Honourable Friends? Parliament and the Fight for Change by Caroline Lucas has cemented my embrace of the Green Party that was initially driven by contempt for Labour (or rather a reaction to their seeming contempt for people like me). She’s genuinely inspiring and I’d so rarely say anything close to that about a politician. I doubt I would have agreed to stand for the Greens as a (paper) candidate in the upcoming elections if I hadn’t read this book.

    Blair Inc: The Man Behind the Mask by Francis Beckett, David Hencke and Nick Kochan reveals that Tony Blair is actually a lot worse than I thought he was and I already thought he was pretty fucking despicable.

    Casino Royale by Ian Fleming is a fabulous read, albeit with occasional interludes of vitriolic misogyny. I can’t believe it took me until close to my 30th birthday to read a James Bond novel.

    Graphic Novels:

    Avengers: Rage of Ultron by Rick Remender and Jerome Opena (the former redeeming himself after the awe-inspiringly awful AXIS and I’m increasingly convinced the latter is a genius)

    • Simon 1:46 pm on April 10, 2015 Permalink

      Interesting your comment about Blair being worse than you thought – likewise. It’s one of those books that interest me but as it’s Blair for me the less contact the better 🙂

    • Mark 1:47 pm on April 10, 2015 Permalink

      it’s very interesting to see how quickly and shamelessly he’s elevated himself into the ranks of the global 0.1% though!

  • Mark 6:44 am on March 26, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: 24/7, , books, , late fragments, , shutting out the sun, spiderman   

    Things I’ve been reading recently #5 

    Shutting Out The Sun is a journalistic exploration of Japan’s ‘lost generation’ that gives much social scientific work a run for its money in terms of breadth and insight. I read it because of a long-standing interest in the hikikomori: Japanese youth who isolate themselves, often refusing to leave the bedrooms in their parental homes for years at a time. Michael Zielenziger’s thoughtful book offers a detailed account of the lives of hikikomori. To his immense credit, through great persistence he manages to solicit interviews with hikikomori, as well as with the diverse range of advocates who are seeking to help them through very different strategies. The book has left me with the conviction that I would like to study this issue properly one day but also an awareness of how difficult this would be, even if I spoke fluent Japanese and had lived in the country for as long as Zielenziger. Crudely, his thesis is that hikikomori fail to develop a capacity for defensive self-presentation: they can’t dissimulate to fit in and the continuing conformity of Japanese society makes it impossible for them function without this capacity. They don’t develop character armour and they don’t develop social identities. Whereas they might be able to find a place as unusual people in much of Western Europe or North America, their idiosyncrasies prove crippling in this social context. The world becomes ever more scary, inviting retreat into a place of safety. In my terms, I’m left with the thought that what Zielenziger is describing is meta-reflexivity: the mode of reflexivity that emerges en masse when there’s substantial contextual incongruity but whereas other social environments work to foster this, if not outright encouraging it, Japan is rather hostile. Reading this book left me aware of how little I knew about Japanese society or about Japanese politics. Zielenziger convincingly situates the growth of the hikikomori in terms of broader trajectories within post-war Japanese society. At times, he lapses into end of history triumphalism. The book was written in the early 20th century and it would be interesting to see if he would revise some of his praise of American capitalism vis-a-vis Japanese capitalism in light of the financial crisis. His analysis of the sclerotic tendencies in the latter are convincing but his praise of the flexibility of the former really isn’t.

    24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep is a book I bought some time ago but read quickly this week in preparation for the Time Without Time symposium I’m taking part in. It’s a short book which uses the transformation of sleep to explore a broader trend towards social acceleration. It has the familiar tendency of critical theory to ascribe agency to abstractions (i.e. talking about ‘neoliberalism’ doing things rather than using neoliberalism as a concept to make sense of why people, individually and collectively, do the things they do) that frustrates me. I often agree with the claims being made but I think that at best this is a form of short hand: it needs to be unpacked in terms of groups and you’ve not explained the phenomenon in question until you do so. It also has the familiar tendency within the acceleration literature to treat agency as a dependent variable, passively moulded into new forms by digital technology and neoliberalism. I think people are changed by technology and social systems. I just don’t think you can adequately identify these by talking about inexorable structural trends that change all agents in the same way. Not least of all because it obscures the possible points of resistance to these trends, as well as the variability with which their influence is felt amongst different groups. Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable book that I got a lot out of despite reading it far too quickly. I’m aware of the irony that I speed read a book about social acceleration… it seemed impressionistic to me but that might be a consequence of how I read it. It was full of interesting ideas and interesting insights though. Most usefully, it suggested to me how I might incorporate sleep into my account of cognitive triage. Are those moments when we ruminate and struggle to sleep often important to our reflexivity? The pathologisation of difficulty sleeping could then be seen as within the sphere of activities that generate cognitive triage.

    Late Fragments by Kate Gross is a moving little book written by a 35 year old woman with terminal cancer, detailing the final months of her life before she left behind a husband and two young boys. The fact she died 2 minutes before they woke up on Christmas Day has to be one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard. I’m not quite sure why I picked it up in the bookshop and decided to buy it though. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die was a cancer memoir of sorts and I loved that. But it used her experiences as a basis to inquire into the ‘cult of positive thinking’ taking over America. I’d be curious to know what Ehrenreich made of this book by Kate Gross. It wasn’t a hymn to positive thinking but it came close at points, detailing the self-discovery that cancer facilitated. I think I’d been curious about Gross herself. She was parliamentary private secretary to Tony Blair early in his premiership and had been chosen to run his African Governance Initiative. The book reflects on her career as a self-defined ‘ambitious’ person and the self-discovery facilitated by her cancer amounted to rediscovery of the cultural interests she was forced to forego as a result of her career aspirations. It’s very sad and I’m still not sure what I thought of it. I’ve written a little about it here.

    Graphic Novels I’ve read recently:

    • The Edge of the Spiderverse is an epic story involved various Spidermen from parallel universes coming together to fight a common threat. It’s funny & engaging in a way I rarely find Marvel comics to be these days.
    • Southern Bastards is a stunning book by Jason Aaron detailing a criminal conspiracy in a small Alabama town. It’s very funny.
  • Mark 8:27 pm on January 31, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , books, ,   

    Things I’ve been reading recently #1 

    At the end of 2014 I tried to choose the favourite books I’d read during the year. I discovered two things. Firstly, it was a real struggle to remember what I had actually read. Secondly, I had started and failed to finish far more books than I had completed. So this year I’m planning to do periodic blog posts about things I’ve read in full with the intention of ensuring that I don’t forget things and that I avoid my tendency to get distracted half way though a book and not come back to it.


    The Irregular Army is a slightly disturbing book about how recruitment standards in the U.S. Military have been lowered dramatically in the last decade as a response to increasing difficulties in attracting and retaining military personnel. To put it bluntly, the U.S. Military is increasingly full of alcoholics, drug users, gang members and neo-nazis to a degree that would have formerly been unthinkable. Those who would have previously been deemed too old, too young, too overweight or too traumatised are now actively recruited. Furthermore, the underlying  difficulties are leading to ever increasing pressure on personnel who don’t fit into these categories to serve longer tours and to reenlist (including reservists who probably never had any expectation they would find themselves in a combat zone) leaving them with yet more  time in stressful and increasingly chaotic conditions. The author makes a convincing case that many of the reported atrocities committed can be explained by this toxic mix and convincingly suggests that many other atrocities may have gone unreported.

    The Dark Net is an immensely readable book by Demos researcher Jamie Bartlett collecting a number of case studies on various controversial aspects of the contemporary internet: including suicide and self-harm forums, far-right organisations, trolling, child pornography and online drugs marketplaces. With the exception of some of the material on the history of trolling, I don’t think I learnt anything new from the book but I enjoyed reading it.

    Little Brother by Corey Doctorow is a young adult novel about the creeping authoritarianism which follows a terrorist attack in San Francisco. The young protagonist is caught up in the attack and its aftermath, with the story following his radicalisation and increasingly outright confrontation with a Department for Homeland Security that is quasi-fascist by the culmination of the story. It’s a gripping read, with the partial exception of a cringe-worthy sex scene and dialogue which fell flat at many points. The author’s preachiness also bugged me at points, though if I’d read this fifteen years ago I might have been more receptive to this aspect of the book (including the list of books he wants his young audience to read included at the end).

    Edited to add:  Buying Time by Wolfgang Streeck is something I read which I forgot to include when I wrote this post. Perhaps it was a deliberate forgetting because the book is so egregiously depressing. Utterly plausible throughout, Streeck makes the argument that we are potentially seeing the twilight of liberal democracy in the current struggles over austerity within Europe. We risk the emergence of a Hayekian market dictatorship, one in which the state’s fiscal obligations to the markets wins out over its democratic obligations to its citizens after a decades long struggle, with the full gamut of repressive strategies potentially being brought to bear against those who have not already internalised the imperatives of the market (and thus ceased to make the democratic demands which the states of Europe are now reneging on). It’s a depressing book but it’s not one which paints these outcomes as inexorable. Streeck’s Europe includes agents as well as institutions – it’s just that the balance of forces mean successful resistance to these trends appears disturbingly unlikely.  Incidentally, there’s actually a good overview of Hayek’s inclinations towards dictatorship (as both a transitional social form and as a ‘liberal dictatorship’ preferable to a ‘democratic government devoid of liberalism’) on his wikipedia page. His argument reminds me of that made by Chantall Mouffe but at a much lesser degree of abstraction and it is all the more powerful for that. Mouffe’s notion of the democratic paradox intends to illustrate how the articulation of liberalism and democracy is a precarious historical outcome rather than anything intrinsic to either element: the constitutive tension arises because there’s no guarantee that democratic procedures won’t lead to illiberal outcomes (and this is rather Hayek’s point I guess). Streeck’s book makes a much more concrete case, situating the present crisis in terms of a much longer term crumbling of the state – the present debt crisis has its roots in a strategic response to the crisis of the 1970s, relying on sovereign debt to fuel social spending and build consent for governance, in turn empowering the financial markets because of the state’s growing reliance upon them. That at least is how I remember the gist of the argument: I should maybe writing something more extensive at a later point because I think this book is very important and I want to be clear about my understanding of it. At its heart, it was an argument about second-order institutional relationships i.e. the relations between relations: (state <–> public) —- (state <–> market). To put it crudely, we see capital’s end game in the institutionalisation of technocratic governance under the guise of austerity (and through mechanisms like constitutional commitments to budget surpluses) such that the first set of relations looks set to collapse under the weight of the second. He also has some very astute observations about the political discourse emerging around international relations under these conditions and the manner in which national populations are understood to be culpable for the putative failings of their governments.

    Graphic novels:

    I haven’t read as much as I usually do this month because I’ve been obsessively working my way through two sets of graphic novels:

    Y, The Last Man tells the story of Yorick Brown, the survivor of a ‘gendercide’ that kills all the men on earth. It’s a bizarre dystopian fiction which is also very funny. I’m not sure I can do justice to its scope and depth so I won’t try. It’s by Brian K. Vaughan who is more recently known for Saga which didn’t quite work for me in the way it seemingly did for other people. I was really impressed by The Last Man and I think there’s a PhD thesis waiting to be written on the representation of gender within it.

    – I’ve also been working my way through everything that Jonathan Hickman has done for Marvel that I hadn’t already read because I’m so utterly engrossed by his Times Run Outs story arc. Secret Warriors didn’t quite live up to expectations, though it probably didn’t help that I read it in reverse order because the graphic novels arrived that way and I lack self control. Shield is magnificently weird though slightly too overblown for my taste in this sort of story telling (only slightly) with Hickman’s epic ambitions distracting him from more mundane tasks like characterisation.

    • jeff vass 9:41 am on February 1, 2015 Permalink

      Good to get the heads up on some interesting graphic novels. Would be good to look at some new ones (to offset my inclination to read back issues of 2000AD). The Dark Net would make a good graphic docunovel

    • Mark 9:43 am on February 2, 2015 Permalink

      Take a look at something called The Massive!

  • Mark 1:40 pm on December 11, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: books, ,   

    My 25 favourite books (and graphic novels) of 2014 

    • How We Are – Vincent Deary
    • The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P – Adelie Waldman
    • The Circle – Dave Eggers
    • Locke & Key (vol 1 to vol 5) – Joe Hill
    • The Importance of Disappointment – Ian Craib
    • The Massive (vol 1 to vol 4) – Brian Wood
    • Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt – Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco
    • Race of a Lifetime – John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
    • Double Down – John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
    • Zeitoun – Dave Eggars
    • Revival (vol 1 to vol 3) – Mark Englert
    • Lazarus (vol 1 and vol 2) – Greg Rucka
    • The Courtier and the Heretic – Matthew Stewart
    • Ecce Homo – Friedrich Nietzsche
    • The Antidote – Oliver Burkeman
    • Acceleration – Harmut Rosa
    • Cat Cultures – Janet M. Alger and Steven F. Alger
    • Young Money – Kevin Roose
    • How To Live: A Life of Montaigne – Sarah Bakewell
    • Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness – Ray Monk
    • A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine – Tony Benn
    • Ordinary Thunderstorms – William Boyd
    • Webcam – Daniel Miller and Jolynna Sinanan
    • Tales from Facebook – Daniel Miller
    • The Fall of the Faculty – Benjamin Ginsberg

    I’ve always liked the idea of doing these lists but I’ve never got round to it before. However I really struggled to remember what I’d actually read all year – I ended up with an initial list of about 55, with another 10-20 I excluded because they were disappointments, but I’m certain there were more than this. Perhaps this fuzzy recall is why the lists appeal to me so much? I was also disturbed by quite how many books I had started and not finished. I have upwards of 40 books which I am, in theory, in the process of reading (and far more still on my Kindle). But in most cases, I’ve not touched them for months and it’s therefore slightly absurd to keep them lying around. I’d like to read more mindfully in 2015 and I think more regularly blogging about what I’ve read might help this process.

  • Mark 7:23 pm on September 27, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Bond, books, , ,   

    The internal conversation of James Bond 

    Earlier this week I read Solo by William Boyd. The idea of a new James Bond novel wouldn’t have appealed to me if it had been written by anyone other than Boyd and it lived up to my expectations. One curious aspect of it which I wasn’t expecting was the prominence of James Bond’s internal conversation in the narrative:

    Bond lay in bed thinking about the plans for the following night – the crossing of the lagoon and trusting this man, Kojo, to deliver him safely. And what then? He supposed he would make his way to Port Dunbar and introduce himself as a friendly journalist, provide himself with new accreditation, and say he was keen to report the war from the Dahumian side – show the world the rebels’ perspective on events. Again, it all seemed very improvised and ad hoc. (pg 84)

    Bond forced himself to think about his options for a while, kicking at bits of the shattered road surface. (pg 99)

    To be honest, Bond had to admit that he hadn’t thought much about what he was doing once the urgency of the situation was apparent and the beautiful clarity of his plan had seized him. All that had concerned him was how best to execute it. (pg 146)

    Bond paced slowly to and fro, affecting unconcern, but his mind was hyperactive. Something must have gone very wrong – but what? No clever strategy suggested itself. (pg 173)

    He stopped. It had come to him like a revelation. All you had to do was give your brain enough time to work. A solution always presented itself. (pg 200)

    There was nothing so invigorating as clear and absolute purpose. There was only one objective now. James Bond would kill Kobus Breed. (pg 272)

    Bond’s mind was working fast – sensing opportunities, weighing up options, minimising risk. (pg 282)

    Bond turned the Interceptor on to the London road and put his foot on the accelerator, concentrating on the pleasures of driving a powerful car like this, trying not to think of Bryce and whatever dangers had been lurking out there in the darkness of her garden. (pg 321)

    I use the phrase ‘internal conversation’ because I think Boyd is doing something more here than simply describing the contents of Bond’s mind. These ‘contents’ enter into the narrative because they represent the basis for action rather than solely being a subjective response to the protagonist’s circumstances.

  • Mark 11:54 am on July 27, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , books, , , ,   

    Time is always running out 

    I got briefly obsessed last year by the observation that at a rate of one book a week between the ages of 5 and 80, it will only be possible to read 3,900 books in a lifetime. This is a little over one tenth of one percent of all the books currently in print – obviously an overall figure that continues to grow at an astonishing rate. Around the same time, I came across this odd little insight into the understanding AC Grayling has of the finitude of his own life:

    As a shake-up, the philosopher AC Grayling is fond of reminding people that the average span of human life is less than 1,000 months. “If a third of them you are asleep and a third you’re in Tesco’s,” he says, “the other third, about 25 years, is left to you to live well.”


    Much as I despise the man, it’s an orientation towards life which resonates with me. The reason that quantifying the number of books it will likely be possible to read in a lifetime struck such a chord with me (apart from the fact that I don’t naturally tend to think quantitatively and it just hadn’t occurred to me to place a number on it) was because I’d long noticed that my ‘to read’ list was becoming ever more problematic. At first it was a list. Then it was a stack. Now it’s a heap. This is a photo I took around last Christmas:


    Six months on and the heap is twice the size. Or perhaps it’s two heaps – I’m foregoing the impulse to make a geeky philosophers joke about the sorites paradox… my point is that it keeps growing and that this invites explanation. It may just be that I have a ‘book problem’. In some ways I clearly do, both in terms of my continuing to acquire them at a rate faster than I can read them and the problem of determining the ‘right’ thing to be reading when there’s so much from which to choose e.g. I recently found myself obsessively reading a 600 page biography unrelated to any research work at a point where I was in the final stages of writing a paper and should have been focusing my reading upon that task. Prioritisation is hard and so too is committing to reading a particular book when there’s always a further pile waiting for me that I’ve already selected  from a much broader pool of cultural variety.

    However I think this example from my own life reflects a broader process. As soon as I try and write about my ‘book problem’ seriously I inevitably start using words like ‘prioritisation’, ‘commitment’, ‘selection’ and ‘variety’ – invoking social theoretical concepts that have been integral to my PhD research. Part of the problem is that my capacity to identify potential reading material and my inclination to select it both tend to increase with my reading and associated practices. I become more attuned to following references. As I read more, I read more literary publications (like the LRB and the culture bit of the New Statesman which I tended to skip in my early 20s) and identify more books to read, in turn inclining me to attend further to these sources of information about new books to read. The frame of reference I bring to books expands and so too does the range of what I extract from the books I read, broadening the range of things I might read in future and what I might take from them.

    This is all taking place against the background of a necessarily finite lifespan. Time is literally running out. However our awareness of this finitude is always conceptually and culturally mediated. This might be a statement of the obvious but I think it’s very interesting to consider the implications of this for the variable ways in which we understand that finitude at different points in our life. One interesting way of looking at this is to consider ways in which it can be represented. This illustration from Wait But Why represents this in a way I find very powerful:

    Weeks (1)


    My point is that there is an existential challenge objectively encountered in the finitude of the human lifespan but that philosophical approaches to understanding this can often be insufficiently sensitive to the social and cultural factors shaping the ways in which people within a given social setting actually attempt to elude or build upon these inherent constraints. I think the mundane challenges of ‘time running out’ offer a very interesting way in which we can connect the everyday dimension to temporal finitude to the biographical dimension inherent in the limitation of the lifespan. I’ve talked about my ‘books problem’ simply because it’s familiar to me rather than it necessarily being a particularly typical or interesting example of what I’m suggesting is a broader trend.

    However the lifespan itself is not fixed. Beyond the social and cultural factors shaping how it is understood, we have the similarly social and cultural factors shaping its temporal extension. Social institutions, relations, practices and ideas all contribute to conditioning the extent of the lifespan in complex and interconnected ways. So too does technology, though I’d suggest never in a way that can be abstracted from the relational framework within which technological interventions are enacted (the closest I can think of in relation to this is a nuclear destruction launched by one person accidentally pressing a button).

    The social theorist Harmut Rosa distinguishes between the time structures of everyday lifelife time and that of the epoch in which they life. He argues that all persons continually struggle towards a degree of synchrony between these three dimensions to temporal experience. I think this is a really helpful perspective through which to address these issues. It’s from this perspective that I find the analysis of things like my ‘book problem’ so interesting – in identifying the mechanisms which lead to the intensification of the problem rather than its abatement, we get a fine-grained perspective on the temporal dynamics of the broader social system.

    It also helps us understand what goes on in people’s lives when the struggle for synchrony backfires. A sudden awareness of mortality at the biographical level inculcates hedonism (live faster, live more) that proves destabilising at the level of everyday life. Or a concern to do work that matters leads to a day-to-day routines deprived of pleasures and so proves unsustainable. The strategies people adopt in the face of this central question (“my life is short, how do I make the most of it?”) necessarily play out in the three dimensions that Rosa delineates even if the person themselves does not recognise them. In fact many of the interesting unintended consequences emerge from the frequent disjuncture between the objectivity of these temporal dimensions and their subjective (mis)recognition. Things like productivity culture and self-help books can also be analysed in relation to a struggle for synchrony, as can their many failings. So too can religious practices which regiment time and social institutions which provide temporal structures that negate the existential pangs provoked by the absence of synchrony. Our attempts to get out of the mess of life are more temporally complex than we tend to realise.

  • Mark 4:59 pm on March 27, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: books, , ebooks, kindle, , ,   

    The dangers of the Kindle: attentive reading vs mining for ideas 

    I love the Kindle app on the iPad. Or at least I want to love it. I’ve been using it intermittently for well over a year now and I’ve gradually realised how difficult I find it to read attentively when using it. I’m a compulsive underliner, margin scribbler and corner folder of books. I sometimes feel slightly embarrassed when a friend asks to borrow a book and, upon handing them an utterly mangled text, find myself wondering if they still want it or they’re just being polite.

    Much of the appeal of Kindle for me was the neatness with which it is possible to annotate the text, as well as the ease with which those highlighted sections and annotations can be retrieved. But it’s too easy. I far too often find myself skim reading a text, effectively mining for insights in a way that filters out the overarching coherency of the text. I’m often effectively sorting the text rather than attending to it.

    I find using a pen rather frustrating these days. I’ve been touch typing since before I was a teenager and I’m used to being able to articulate myself electronically in a way that keeps up with the flow of thought. Whereas using a pen frustrates me because I perpetually feel as if I can’t write fast enough. But there’s a discipline to this, albeit of a sort I too rarely recognise the value in. It forces me to slow down. It forces me to read attentively. It encourages me to treat the text as a whole.

    My claim here isn’t deterministic. I sometimes find myself doing this with books as well. But it’s much less frequent and much less pronounced. Things like eBooks don’t create my tendency to rush but they do amplify it.

    • ZoeyDuncan 5:49 pm on March 27, 2014 Permalink

      I like your approach to reading attentively! It’s something I’ve yet to master, and as I turn more and more to e-books, it seems like it might never be part of my routine.

      Maybe as the medium evolves we’ll see the kind of ways to digest a book evolve too?

    • Mark 6:17 pm on March 27, 2014 Permalink

      hopefully! I think I’m going to stick to paper books where possible though, as I just don’t think I can treat eBooks in the same way….

    • Mark Wallace 6:51 pm on March 27, 2014 Permalink

      I’m a compulsive annotater, too, but I find it less effective on a Kindle, as the notes just sit in a big, incoherent pile I never look through, whereas in a physical book I can re-open it at any point and allow my own notes and underlinings to inform a re-reading.

      I still think the kindle is great for other things, though, such as search for use of particular words in a work, and great saving on space. All the free out-of-copyright stuff is great, too – think of a classic, and be reading it in seconds. I couldn’t do without kindle OR print books.

    • Mark 7:03 pm on March 27, 2014 Permalink

      But you can get to them easily, no? I make a lot of use of the amazon kindle web page for getting quotes etc when writing

    • Mark Wallace 7:09 pm on March 27, 2014 Permalink

      Sounds like an idea! I haven’t used the webpage for that at all.

    • Mark 7:17 pm on March 27, 2014 Permalink

      I’m way too quote heavy in my writing (both blogging and formal stuff) so it’s been a life saver in that respect…

  • Mark 11:43 am on February 28, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: books, , ,   

    The ontology of books 

    I read a book a decade ago and struggle with it. I read it again now and find it astonishingly thought-provoking. How do you explain this? It seems I bring something different to the book on the second reading: concepts, experiences and knowledge which I lacked at the time of the first reading. But what role does the book play? It seems obvious to me that this can only be explained in terms of the interaction of two sets of properties and powers: mine and those of the book itself. I have changed in the aforementioned decade but the book has not. The causal role of the latter is not trivial and understanding it opens up really interesting questions about the ontology of books. Books can change us but, as we change, so too does what we bring to books as we engage with them.


  • Mark 9:31 am on August 26, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: books,   

    The books I’m currently reading (#1) 

    It occurred to me recently how much I like the ‘books received’ feature on Stuart Elden’s blog and that I might like to do something similar. Unfortunately he seems to get lots of books sent to him, whereas I get comparatively few.  In retrospect I really didn’t take advantage of working in the same office as the LSE Review of Books for six months. So instead I’m planning to do a short post once a month or so about the books I’m currently reading

    I’ve been ‘currently reading’ The Constitution of Society and Modernity and Self-Identity for a couple of months now. The first chapter of my PhD thesis is an extended critique of Giddens and the latent structurationism which lurk beneath the surface of his late modernity books. In essence I argue that he ties himself in knots partly because the deficiencies of structurationist theory become much more pronounced when an attempt is made to conceptualise reflexive responses to social change – too much of agency is incorporated into structure and it leaves Giddens vacillating wildly between depth psychology and a view of subjectivity (at ‘fateful moments’) which comes weirdly close to rational choice theory in its view of risk calculation and life-planning. I’ve read Modernity and Self-Identity twice before and I’ve engaged quite a lot with the Constitution of Society but had never read it cover to cover. Having become rather infuriated with Will Atkinson’s facile and lazy reading of Margaret Archer in his last book I suddenly found myself wondering if I might have inadvertently done the same thing with Giddens. I’m fairly confident I haven’t but still feel I must finish the two books before I submit my thesis. Plus perhaps finish off Central Problems in Social Theory which I was actually quite enjoying but keep giving up on simply because it’s simultaneously much less relevant and much more difficult a read.

    I’m reading The Formation of Critical Realism out of sheer curiosity about Roy Bhaskar as a person.  It’s a book of interviews conducted by Mervyn Hertwig (editor of the Journal for Critical Realism) and it’s definitely worth looking at for anyone interested in critical realism. I’m finding it hard not to draw connections between the ‘spiritual turn’, ageing and his theosophist parents but whatever you think about his later work (I am, putting it mildly, sceptical) it’s hard to deny his stature as a thinker if you’ve engaged even marginally with his work. He’s also one of those writers who seems to have become progressively less lucid over time so this book can provide an accessible introduction to his ideas, given that he’s able to speak about them with a refreshing clarity. There’s much more to dialectical critical realism than I’d realised but also, I’m finding it difficult to avoid concluding, much less to the spiritual turn (written as somehow who was far from complementary at the outset).

    Using Social Media in the Classroom is a book I’m reading as a spur to a proposal I’m currently in the process of putting together. It’s very good! But I don’t feel able to explain how and why I think this is the case without inadvertently talking about my planned book.

    Approaches to the Individual is an extremely interesting book written by a former PhD student of Margaret Archer which explores the interface between internal conversation and external speech. It’s framed in terms of ‘approaches to the individual’ within sociological theory but I’ve seen much less of this in any substantive sense than I expected given the book’s title. I disagree with large aspects of her approach (Tom Brock and I are in the process of writing a paper critiquing its application to the empirical analysis of political resistance) but it’s certainly worth reading for anyone with an interest in internal conversation. I’ve found the sections on Goffman particularly illuminating and they point to an aspect of his work which I had no idea existed.

    Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life is the book attached to the current Tate exhibition. I was bought it as a birthday present but I’m going to avoid reading it until I go to the Tate show next week. I saw the exhibition of unseen work at the Lowry Centre in Manchester last week and I can’t wait for the Tate. I’ve got some other stuff on Lowry which I’ve yet to fully read (including a really fascinating biography). I’ve had the idea rattling around in my head for ages that it’s possible to identify a sophisticated sociological sensibility incipient within Lowry’s work which (usefully) seems to be periodised – thus allowing its emergence in his work to be framed by his biography (and its historical context). After I’ve been to the Tate I’m going to start trying to write this up as a paper or perhaps a series of blog posts if I don’t think there’s enough to the idea once I started trying to develop it.

    Militant Modernism is the Zero Book I was astonished to realise recently that I’ve had on my shelf for years and haven’t read. I love Owen Hatherley – I’ve read his other books, much of what he’s written online and I’m bemused that it’s taken me this long to get round to reading his first book. He’s transformed my experience of the built environment, helped me articulate what had felt like a weird and irrational fascination with brutalist architecture which emerged while I lived near the Brunswick Centre (before they ruined it) and has amongst my favourite prose styles of any living writer. The other person who’s transformed my experience of the built environment is David Harvey whose Rebel Cities is, unsurprisingly, fantastic. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard him discuss the contents of the first two chapters on a number of occasions but it doesn’t really bother me. Typically lucid, insightful and provocative – casually and softly polemic in the most enticing way possible, with an unerring capacity to make radical judgements sound like common sense reactions to the social world.

    • John Green 9:48 am on August 26, 2013 Permalink

      More like this please! 🙂

      I’ve been dipping my toe into CR for years. When I first started reading Radical Philosophy in the early 80s it seemed to be all about Bhaskar and I was stumped by much of the terminology. I found the Andrew Collier introductory text too daunting, but Formation of Critical Realism helped me get a handle on it even if there isn’t a great deal of theory. The spiritual turn comes as a bit of a let-down, obviously, and one can’t help but think there was a bit of wishful thinking behind it, but the book does help narrow down for neophytes the arguments that are worth taking seriously.

      Giddens’s Modernity and self-Identity keeps staring me out from the bookshelf in my living room. I’ve flicked through it a few times but always felt the need to read around it first. May now drum up the courage to attempt it given you’e already managed it twice and aren’t dissuaded from a third go.

      Thanks for this blog post. As an enthusiastic layperson, I find such advice invaluable.

    • Mark 11:03 am on August 26, 2013 Permalink

      It was fun to write! Will definitely do this again – I’m really sceptical about the Spiritual turn. I used to read a lot of Krishnamurti when I was younger and Bhaskar seems to be essentially regurgitating K’s ideas (there’s an indirect family connection which is interesting) in the language of a not particularly clear philosopher.

      Do read M&SI – it’s a very flawed but very interesting book!

  • Mark 5:23 am on June 6, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: books, ,   

    In defence of the book 

    To me a book is not just a particular file. It’s connected with personhood. Books are really, really hard to write. They represent a kind of a summit of grappling with what one really has to say. And what I’m concerned with is when Silicon Valley looks at books, they often think of them as really differently as just data points that you can mush together. They’re divorcing books from their role in personhood.

    I’m quite concerned that in the future someone might not know what author they’re reading. You see that with music. You would think in the information age it would be the easiest thing to know what you’re listening to. That you could look up instantly the music upon hearing it so you know what you’re listening to, but in truth it’s hard to get to those services.

    – Jaron Lanier 

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