Steve Jobs' prescient comment

“The desktop computer industry is dead. Innovation has virtually ceased. Microsoft dominates with very little innovation. That’s over. Apple lost. The desktop market has entered the dark ages, and it’s going to be in the dark ages for the next 10 years, or certainly for the rest of this decade.”

(Emphasis added.)

—That’s from a 1996 interview with Jobs, and he was completely right: little of interest happened to the desktop interface virtually everyone uses until around 2003 or 2004, when OS X 10.3 was released. The first major useful change in desktops that I recall during the period was Spotlight in OS X 10.4, which was, not coincidentally, around the time I got a PowerBook.

Steve Jobs’ prescient comment

“The desktop computer industry is dead. Innovation has virtually ceased. Microsoft dominates with very little innovation. That’s over. Apple lost. The desktop market has entered the dark ages, and it’s going to be in the dark ages for the next 10 years, or certainly for the rest of this decade.”

(Emphasis added.)

—That’s from a 1996 interview with Jobs, and he was completely right: little of interest happened to the desktop interface virtually everyone uses until around 2003 or 2004, when OS X 10.3 was released. The first major useful change in desktops that I recall during the period was Spotlight in OS X 10.4, which was, not coincidentally, around the time I got a PowerBook.

Life and The Possessed

“The title of this book is borrowed from Dostoevsky’s weirdest novel, The Demons, formerly translated as The Possessed, which narrates the descent into madness of a circle of intellectuals in a remote Russian province: a situation analogous, in certain ways to my own experiences in graduate school.”

—Elif Batuman, The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.

If you haven’t read this book, which is a hybrid sort of essay collection / memoir / how-not-to, you need to. It’s almost impossible to describe what makes it so wonderful because its humor is cumulative: quotes out of context don’t work and make it sound less funny than it is.

Michael Silverblatt’s interview with Batuman is also characteristically good.

Harold Bloom's hero-poets

For reasons not obvious to me I’ve been reading and re-reading a lot of Harold Bloom’s work lately, and in The Anxiety of Influence I came across this passage:

But poets, or at least the strongest among them, do not read necessarily as even the strongest of critics read. Poets are neither ideal nor common readers, neither Arnoldian nor Johnsonian. They tend not to think, as they read: “This is dead, this is living, this is the poetry of X.” Poets, by the time they have grown strong, do not read the poetry of X, for really strong poets can read only themselves. For them, to be judicious is to be weak, and to compare, exactly and fairly, is to be not elect.

There’s something pleasing and ridiculous about the “strongest” poets being described in the same language one would use for a discus hurler or hockey player. Instead of being writers trying to put words on the page, the poet is made into a Blakean figure who strides the landscape of the mind. If you misread this passage, you might skim and find that poets “tend not to think, as they read,” which would be a challenge, since reading seems to be by definition a form of reading.

But if poets aren’t reading other poets since they can only read themselves, what are they reading when they read, say, Shakespeare? Themselves into Shakespeare? If so, I would guess that either everyone or no one does this, and I can’t say which is more likely.

And what does that odd phrase, “to be not elect” mean? Apparently there are at least three classes: the elect, who the strong poets are, the plebeians somewhere down below, and maybe some people pressing their faces against the glass face of the elect. I would guess myself to be way down there, relative to poets, assuming one buys this model of the poetic universe, which I’m not sure I do.

Anyway, one sees the ranking technique, the knowing allusions (“neither Arnoldian nor Johnsonian”) and the mystical throughout the Bloom I’ve read. In Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, Bloom argues that Shakespeare invented the way we feel, think about feeling, and be. I can mostly respond: maybe. The book is overly pervasive, as I find it hard to believe that we wouldn’t have developed modern consciousness without Shakespeare, which is reading against Bloom, but I like the ideas nonetheless. I feel like I’m playing again, instead of working, and that I should have a glass of wine or maybe sherry while I’m reading Bloom. It’s also fun to find a modern critic who isn’t afraid to say something, to make judgments, to acknowledge that some writers are better than others, and not to apologize for it, even when Bloom effectively parodies himself by saying things like “to be judicious is to be weak.” In that case, count me among the weak, or among those who would ask, “what do you mean by judicious?” and then launch into a Wittgensteinian argument.

Harold Bloom’s hero-poets

For reasons not obvious to me I’ve been reading and re-reading a lot of Harold Bloom’s work lately, and in The Anxiety of Influence I came across this passage:

But poets, or at least the strongest among them, do not read necessarily as even the strongest of critics read. Poets are neither ideal nor common readers, neither Arnoldian nor Johnsonian. They tend not to think, as they read: “This is dead, this is living, this is the poetry of X.” Poets, by the time they have grown strong, do not read the poetry of X, for really strong poets can read only themselves. For them, to be judicious is to be weak, and to compare, exactly and fairly, is to be not elect.

There’s something pleasing and ridiculous about the “strongest” poets being described in the same language one would use for a discus hurler or hockey player. Instead of being writers trying to put words on the page, the poet is made into a Blakean figure who strides the landscape of the mind. If you misread this passage, you might skim and find that poets “tend not to think, as they read,” which would be a challenge, since reading seems to be by definition a form of reading.

But if poets aren’t reading other poets since they can only read themselves, what are they reading when they read, say, Shakespeare? Themselves into Shakespeare? If so, I would guess that either everyone or no one does this, and I can’t say which is more likely.

And what does that odd phrase, “to be not elect” mean? Apparently there are at least three classes: the elect, who the strong poets are, the plebeians somewhere down below, and maybe some people pressing their faces against the glass face of the elect. I would guess myself to be way down there, relative to poets, assuming one buys this model of the poetic universe, which I’m not sure I do.

Anyway, one sees the ranking technique, the knowing allusions (“neither Arnoldian nor Johnsonian”) and the mystical throughout the Bloom I’ve read. In Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, Bloom argues that Shakespeare invented the way we feel, think about feeling, and be. I can mostly respond: maybe. The book is overly pervasive, as I find it hard to believe that we wouldn’t have developed modern consciousness without Shakespeare, which is reading against Bloom, but I like the ideas nonetheless. I feel like I’m playing again, instead of working, and that I should have a glass of wine or maybe sherry while I’m reading Bloom. It’s also fun to find a modern critic who isn’t afraid to say something, to make judgments, to acknowledge that some writers are better than others, and not to apologize for it, even when Bloom effectively parodies himself by saying things like “to be judicious is to be weak.” In that case, count me among the weak, or among those who would ask, “what do you mean by judicious?” and then launch into a Wittgensteinian argument.

How to find books

Apropos of this post on influential books, a reader e-mailed me to ask how to find interesting books. My answer: look for books that are important to people who are smart, and ideally smarter than you. That’s one reason I like the “top ten influential books” meme that’s been going around: it introduced a lot of books I probably wouldn’t have found otherwise.

Other (obvious to me) places: The New Yorker; professors or highly literate friends; the better book/arts blogs, like About Last Night; and author interviews, in which novelists or other writers mention important/influential books. The last one is probably among the most useful because writers, in order to work effectively, have to read a lot. As a result, the top few books of the many thousands they’ve read are probably better than the top few of the dozens or hundreds random friends have read.

The problem with books is that you can’t really say whether they’re right for you until you read them, and what’s right for you depends on how much you already know about the subject, taste, what else you’ve read, development, background, and more. So book recommendations are by their nature hard, especially for someone like you, who I (probably) don’t know. I have a few go-to recommendations that many people seem to like—Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind; Alain de Botton’s On Love; Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose; Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-Body Problem; and Robertson Davies’ The Deptford Trilogy are high on that list.

This discussion reminds me of So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance, which discusses how hard the sifting process becomes as more books pile up while time to read remains constant. One can view this as depressing, because you’ll never get to read everything worth reading (unless, apparently, you’re Harold Bloom), or freeing, because you can simply read whatever comes to hand and abandon it at will.

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