Influential books (on me, that is)

Econ (and generally interesting) blogger Tyler Cowen lists the 10 books that have most influenced him and invites other bloggers to do the same. Here’s mine, in the order I thought them up rather than importance:

1. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: I think many people find that their first “adult” books is a powerful influence, and I first read Lord of the Rings in late elementary or early middle school and reread it periodically: its commentary on power dynamics, the limits of knowledge, and the challenge of understanding still affect me. And it makes its way into a surprising amount of otherwise unrelated academic work. And the story. And, and, and…

2. Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time and the DragonLance series: Another early influence, this time mostly for the worst: the view of sexuality in both series is juvenile, the writing atrocious, and the mindless glorification of battle and power for its own sake is, from my current vantage, almost sickening. But they now show me what not to do as a writer and thinker and probably contributed to the lost, unhappy middle school years so many have.

3. Geoffrey Miller, The Mating Mind: Robin Hanson recommended this. Its ideas about the role of art and culture in sexuality and why the second half of Darwin’s theory—sexual, as opposed to natural, selection—both clarified a lot of my thinking, historically and otherwise. I still don’t think I’ve exhausted the book, which, although I don’t think perfect or gospel, will resonate for a long time yet. In addition, along with some of the books below, it pointed me toward a better understanding of how people signal and how people perceive, which I didn’t understand previously..

4. Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational: I’d read many critiques of our rationality, but before Predictably Irrational I probably would’ve argued that we should look solely at behavior to discern individual wants and that individuals are independent in an almost Ayn Rand way. Although Predictably Irrational isn’t solely responsible for this shift and others, it probably catalyzed them.

5. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: By most of the conventional tropes of creative writing classes, Heart of Darkness is terrible. But it reminded me of the power of the unknowable and of the limitations of what we know. The most famous scene is of course Kurtz’s “The horror! The horror!”, but what strikes me in rereadiang it is how little time Kurtz actually gets and how great Marlowe’s anticipation of Kurtz is. The novel is more about how Marlowe perceives (and thinks he will perceive) Kurtz than about Kurtz himself, which taught me the power of how perception shapes reality.

6. Paul Graham’s essays: Although not technically a book, some of Graham’s essays have been collected into Hackers and Painters. I pay special attention to the essays about social structure and the role of the individual in social structures. Some of the ones about school, especially high school, I assign to students.

7. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose: This is the kind of novel that I wish someone had demanded that I read earlier than I did. Claiming that something is the “greatest novel” strikes me as silly, but if I were forced to choose one, this would be in the running and seems like it contains the world as few novels do. Is this vague? That’s because trying to encompass it is beyond me.

8. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men: This book made politics work for me by making me more cynical and hopeful at the same time (which isn’t easily achieved). Its style isn’t baroque but tends toward long, beautiful sentences; Jack Burden’s understanding of what actually matters, which doesn’t really occur until the last chapter, is so authentic and wonderful that it seems truer to life than the darker (in my reading) ending of Gatsby.

9. James Wood, How Fiction Works: Wood asks a critic’s questions and gives a writer’s answers with such precision and beauty that this essentially defines the terms of the novel for me. The last two words of the preceding sentence are essential: the joy of the novel is the inability to define or encompass it.

10. Neil Strauss, The Game: I didn’t love this book for its endless stories about pickups that rely more on pure numbers than anything else so much as the one major thing I took from it: most conversations we have in most situations are boring and predictable. Solution: shake things up. Predictably can be boring. Chances are, no one wants to tell you where you’re from; ask them for an opinion that elicits their interpersonal beliefs instead.

Not all of these are books I’m proud of: The Wheel of Time is terrible, some seem like lightweight popularization, but all did their work. If I could pick an 11th I’d choose Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, which has several core insights that I try and often fail to apply: that money above something like the median individual income won’t make us happy; that our sex life matters more; and that our ability to predict what will make us happy is weak. Robertson Davies continues to be a favorite author because he has perspective in a complicated way I can’t easily define, but he combines much of the best of Victorian fiction with a modern sensibility and style that’s his and yet universal. In the His Dark Materials trilogy Philip Pullman shows how fantasy can be done not just right, but spectacularly well.

Another omission: I wish I could think of an individual book that convinced me dense cities are vital because of their networking effects, environmental improvements, the possibility (seldom achieved) of affordability, and the well-intentioned but wrong preservationist/anti-growth types. I’ve had several arguments with people who are a) pro-affordability, b) anti-sprawl and c) anti-height. You can’t consistently have all those things; a) is most often neglected. Newspaper articles in particular like to pretend these trade-offs don’t exist.

Many others have answered the call for books too, and I find their posts fascinating even though I don’t read most of the bloggers involved. But the books themselves (and the rationale for their influence) point to deeper ideas about how influence works and the serendipity of the right person finding the right book at the right time. Most of the answerers are political science- and/or economics-oriented, but a fair amount of fiction crops up.

At some point I’ll also post a list of books that I wish someone had shoved into my hands when I was younger with a demand that I read said books.

EDIT: Julian Sanchez has an interesting meta post about influence, in which he posits that people mean influence in two major ways: on a formal/substantive axis (does it show me how to do something?) and on a theoretical/practical axis (does it show me what I should think/believe?). The distinction seems useful. Most of my list is heavier towards the theoretical/practical level. One thing that I’ve noticed about meta lists is that they very seldom have examples of what not to do—in other words, books that one reacts strongly against.

Hey guys, read this

Referring to women or mixed-sex groups as “guys” or “you guys” apparently offends a fair number of people. This is interesting to me because I use the phrase a fair amount, especially in class—”Hey guys, now I want you to take out your papers and…”

The problem is that the phrase “you guys” is useful: what non-gendered term could replace it? “Ladies and gentlemen” is old-fashioned, verging on archaic, and “guys and girls” could be demeaning, and I can’t think of a good replacement. “People” or “hey people” is coarse. “You people” has historical/racial baggage of its own—almost enough to have a Coleman Silk problem.

Thoughts?

Life: Clarity edition

“Eventually I was admitted to the emergency rom, where doctors removed the gravel from my knees, x-rayed my arm, informed me that my elbow was broken, and outfitted me with a cast and sling. The bill came to $1,700. This experience caused me to take a cold, hard look at the direction my life was headed. What was I doing, running around this world—a place about which I clearly understood nothing—writing an endless novel about God knows what? A week later, the department head called and asked if I wanted to return to Stanford. I said yes.”

Okay, so it’s funnier in context (humor is the dominant trope in this book), but some of the flavor comes through (“a place about which I clearly understood nothing”), as does the author’s directness. I don’t remember where I read about Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, but I’m glad I took that unknown person’s advice.

How to request review copies or products if you're a blogger

A number of people have written to ask how/why Kinesis, Metadot Corporation (which makes the Das Keyboard), and others send review keyboards or books. The short answer is that I asked, had a reasonable purpose in trying to review keyboards or books, and have a significant enough forum to make it worthwhile. To do the same, bloggers need a number of key features: credibility, good writing, some connection to the topic, and manners.

Credibility

Don’t write to manufacturers two weeks after starting your blog when they can still see the “hello world” post. Anyone can register joeblow.wordpress.com and write a couple of posts, then start clamoring for “free stuff.” If you’re going to request review items, make sure your blog has enough history to make it plausible that you’re a) committed to writing and b) have enough readers. “Enough” is a bit slippery because a blog with the right 50 readers a day who come for a specialized subject might be more useful than a blog with 500 or even 5,000 readers—it’s probably easier to get 500 hits by posting pictures of scantily or unclad teenage girls than it is to get 50 writing about the art of the novel, but if you want to review fiction, the latter group is probably of greater interest to publishers.

Still, all things being equal, more popular blogs are often more popular because they’re better, which causes people to link to them, which causes more readers to find that blog, which causes more people to link, and so forth. You don’t need to be on the Technorati top 100 blogs, but make sure you’ve written enough for people to evaluate your writing skill and for some kind of audience to have found you. As a loose rule, I’d say that you should write at least one substantive post a week for about a year before you request review items.

Write a good review, not a positive review

In How to Get Free Books to Review on Your Blog, “Nick” says:

Note that I didn’t say [that you should write a] positive review. I said a good review. You should not feel inclined to write positive things about the book just because you received a free copy. If you write a fair, honest, and professional review, most publishers will respect your opinion.

He’s correct: you’ll lose credibility with readers if you’re nothing more than a shill, especially in an age when sophisticated readers have their bullshit detectors justifiably set on “maximum.” Bloggers are best when they’re honest, or as honest as they can be; that’s one reason why I include the disclaimer at the bottom of keyboard reviews if the keyboards come from the manufacturer, rather than bought by me: at least readers know the provenance of the items I’m looking at.

I don’t usually do this with books because it’s less important: the cost of a book, usually between $10 – $20, is lower, and publishers don’t expect or want review copies back. But when I write reviews, I make sure they’re meaty enough to justify my effort in producing them and the reader’s effort in reading them by citing as many specific characteristics as possible that justify whatever opinion I’m expressing or conclusion that I’m coming to.

Be (or become) a good writer

There’s nowhere to hide on the Internet and it’s easy to judge the quality of a blogger’s writing simply by reading their work. If the writer can’t explain what they like or dislike and why, they’re probably not a very good writer; many, many bloggers (and mainstream reviewers too) just write “this is awesome!” or “this sucks!” without much elaboration. That tendency towards shallowness is one reason I started writing in-depth keyboard reviews: because they didn’t exist or, if they did, they weren’t readily available. Some novelists have said they write novels that they would like to read but that no one else has written, which is how I often feel about my reviews (and much of my other work).

If you don’t know what good writing looks like, or dispute the very idea that there can be good writing (as some of my students do), you’re probably not a good writer. If you want to become one, there are many, many resources out there to help you, mostly in book form. A few that I like and that have helped me include William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, James Wood’s How Fiction Works, Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why, and the New York Times’ collections, Writers on Writing. In addition, one thing that separates good from bad writers is that good writers read a lot and write a lot.

One note: being a good writer doesn’t mean that your grammar has to be perfect or your blog typo-free, but your posts shouldn’t be riddled with typos and elementary grammar errors either. I’m sure many of my posts, especially the long ones, have typos, but they tend to be minor and easily overlooked; if readers send me notes or leave comments pointing out typos, I silently correct them.

Connection

If you’re writing a blog about, say, cats, and you request a hard drive review unit, you’re probably doing something wrong. If you write hard drive reviews and request a new kind of kitty litter, you’re also probably doing something wrong. Seek things that relate to your niche.

In my case, I started a blog about books and literature because I like to read and like to write; to me, most of the posts on this site are leisure, not work. The first time I got a free book (or “review copy” in industry jargon), a publicist contacted me regarding Lily Koppel’s The Red Leather Diary because I’d written a post about the New York Times article that led to the book. I was surprised: since when do publishers chase bloggers, rather than vice-versa?

I don’t know when the shift happened, but it did, which is why I now include my mailing address in the “About” section of The Story’s Story, and I take a look at everything that passes my desk even if I don’t always write about them. Sometimes I request books that pique my interest.

All this is to show that I have a) a narrowly focused blog and b) the things I request—books—fall into that narrow focus.

The keyboards are tangential to books but still related, and I stumbled into reviewing them by accident: I read about the famous IBM Model M keyboard on Slashdot, the geek tech site, and started doing some research into it and other quality keyboards, like the Apple Extended II. Most of the reviews and comments were not very helpful, especially for Mac users, but they pointed to Unicomp, which manufactures the Customizer Keyboard, and to Matias, which produces the Tactile Pro. I tried both and wrote extensively about my experience with them.

I’m interested in keyboards because I spend a lot of time writing professionally, both as a grad student in English literature and as a grant writer with Seliger + Associates. Writers and programmers are probably more likely to be interested in keyboards than most people because keyboards are a fundamental part of their toolset, and when you use a tool a lot, you want it to be right.

To understand literature, I think it helps at least somewhat to have an understanding of literary production: the publishing environment, the historical circumstances in which a work was/is produced, and so forth. Such factors can’t supersede the work itself, but they nonetheless matter. They also matter for practicing writers, and if a good keyboard means that a writer can or wants to go for an extra half hour or hour a day, that’s a tremendous difference over the course of a year, a decade, or a lifetime. Writing about the tools writers use, therefore, seems sufficiently related to writing and books that I think keyboard reviews are worth posting.

Use your real name

Penelope Trunk’s Guide to Blogging is useful, and one of her posts is on the subject of why you should blog under your real name, and ignore the harassment.

I agree. Your real name lends credibility and makes you seem like (slightly) more than another random Internet squawker; public relation or press people are more likely to want to send something to site run by Jake Seliger than they are to HoneyBunny or l33t48 or whatever. In looking through my RSS feed, I can see that most of the bloggers I read use their real names. Anonymity has its place in blogging, as it does in journalism, but if you’re going to review things you should have your name attached to that review. Some blogs demand anonymity, as Belle de Jour did until recently, but they should be the exception.

Manners

In the Internet age, we’re all supposedly turning into barbarians with the attention span of fruit flies. That’s the stereotype, anyway, and although it has some truth to it I think it largely wrong, at least among the better bloggers. Still, one way to catch people’s attention is to do the opposite of what bloggers represent in the popular imagination. I’ve already covered the importance of attention spans in the section about “good” versus “positive” reviews, but I’ll deal with the “barbarians” idea here.

When you make contact with a publisher or company, figure out how they want to be contacted. There’s usually a public relations, media, or press contact. You should write to that person with a short note that says, briefly, what you want, why, and who you are. Covering those shouldn’t take more than two or three paragraphs. Don’t include your life’s story and don’t be vague: the contact person will decide if they want to send a review model more based on your writing than based on your e-mail, and they’ll be used to dealing with people who are professionals or at least act like them.

In my case, that means sending keyboard makers a note saying that I’d like review their keyboard because I’ve reviewed a number of other keyboards, which causes people to write asking for comparisons, which causes me to seek review models. This bleeds into the “who am I” issue, where I state that I write The Story’s Story and contribute to Grant Writing Confidential, with links to both. From there, they can figure out as much or as little as they like.

If they send the keyboard, I say thanks, review it, and send it back, with another brief note that says “thanks, I appreciate you sending it.” I do that because it’s how I’d ideally like to be treated were our situations reversed, and also so that in the future, if I want to review a new model or whatever, they’ll be positively disposed towards me.

Don’t start a blog for free stuff

If I counted the number of hours I’d spent working on The Story’s Story versus the “pay” I’ve gotten in books or Amazon referral cash, I’m sure I’d be making well under a buck an hour. It’s probably closer to a cent an hour. If your purpose for starting a blog is to get free stuff, you’re doing something terribly wrong because you’re very unlikely to make real money as a blogger. Write because you want to, not because you expect direct monetary rewards. They definitely won’t come in the form of books or hardware; indeed, my bigger problem now is wading through and dealing with the books I don’t want, rather than cackling at the booty from the stuff I do want.

My new hero and The Hollywood Economist

“Paramount studio head Robert Evans has described [screenwriter Robert Towne] as ‘lethargic, scattered, perpetually late.’ “

Towne is my new hero.

The quote is from Edward Jay Epstein’s The Big Picture: Money and Power in Hollywood, which is fascinating throughout, though not as much as his newer The Hollywood Economist: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies, which shares much of the same DNA (by which I mean anecdotes and facts) and goes a long way towards explaining why so many movies are so awful. It also shows how Hollywood is about deals just as much as hedge funds are, how studios use those hedge funds, and how studios need to project an aura of profligacy while counting down to the last dollar. One thing of many that I didn’t know: how vital insurance companies are to making movies.

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