What I Read On My Holidays

by Terence Eden, aged 35 & ⅚ths.

I often wonder how much I read during the average day. A few thousand words of tweets, couple of hundred in Facebook posts, a dozen articles on blogs and news sites - and an unhealthy smattering of Reddit and other fora. All told, I am probably reading the equivalent of half a novel per day.

And yet... it doesn't feel like I'm doing proper reading. I don't get my teeth stuck into a single subject or story, it always feels like I'm flitting from one thing to the next without ever really examining it in detail. I don't know if this lack of focus has a detrimental effect on my ability to focus on a single task - but it seems unhealthy. Like mindlessly gobbling down a tube of Pringles, I often find myself reading my phone or laptop without any real comprehension of whether I'm enjoying the words I'm seeing.

So, for a week long holiday in the Bahamas, I went on a digital detox. No phone, no Internet, no news, blogs, tweets, or texts - just me and a Nook stuffed with books. Oh, I took my wife along too - well, I needed someone with whom I could discuss literature!

It was like slaking a thirst I never knew I had! I averaged around two books per day - I'd have got through more, but the early morning cocktails make it somewhat hard to concentrate on the written word. Herein you can find a brief synopsis of what I read, in the order I read them, and how enjoyable they were. I tend to alternate between fiction and non-fiction, with a bias to modern books and autobiographies.

You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) - Felicia Day

A gentle start - an almost perfect aeroplane read. That's not a criticism! Felicia Day's delightful clarity of style is particularly refreshing. She tells the somewhat unlikely tale of her rise to Internet Stardom - via the pain of growing up nerdy. For a celebrity autobiography, it's honest about the darker times in her life without every straying into the "Mommie Dearest" melodrama.

There are two, I felt, curious omissions. For someone who has worked with all sorts of interesting people - there are very few "behind the curtain" stories. I'm not talking about how Joss Whedon is an abusive megolomaniac, or how the actor playing Tinkerballa would only eat blue M&Ms - but just the sort of fun details about working on other hit shows. I'm aware that celeb biogs can often turn into "and then I worked with Larry, who is such a love!" - and I certainly don't begrudge her right to privacy - but it seemed like a curious omission. So too does the exclusion of how she met her partner. Again, this is her story and she gets to protect her personal life with as much vigour as she likes - but after several chapters of how she was a social outcast, it feels a little odd to just drop in her partner without even a good "and that's how we met" story.

Still, all that said, it's a cracking look at how web-scale products work, what it's like to be part of a runaway success, and the downside of meeting people AFK.

How to Be a Husband - Tim Downling

I really don't know what lead me to pick this one up - I've never read one of Tim's columns in The Guardian. Again, an excellent plane read. A light and witty look at (fairly) modern marriage is like.

I found the sequences talking about fatherhood a bit wearying, but I guess that's more of a reflection on my distaste of procreation rather than the author's talents.

It's slightly derivative of Mil Millington's Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About, but it was funny enough to away from the in-flight movies.

So You've Been Publicly Shamed - Jon Ronson

A fairly short work, but interesting nonetheless. It looks at the aftermath of Internet Hate Mobs - what happens when real people get caught in a scandal which ignites social media? It relies heavily on in-person interviews rather than rampant speculation. The cast of characters ranges from the sympathetic people caught up in a whirlwind, to the downright unrepentant who have heaped tragedy upon themselves.

It strikes me that there still is a need for mob justice. Our legal system cannot keep up with new social mores and often leaves people feeling inadequately served by the paltry justice it metes out. I'm not saying that it's right to launch a crusade against someone who thought they were making a private remark - but it is a natural consequence of our disenchantment with societal institutions.

One thing to note is that this book has been heavily trailed and syndicated in the media. I'd read several of the chapters before getting the book, which somewhat diminishes it.

News from the Clouds - Robert Llewellyn

The bloke who plays Kryten has written an epic sci-fi trilogy, all made possible through the Unbound Crowdfunding site for authors.

The series is designed to be a positive spin on the future. What if, instead of destroying the planet and filling it with killer robots, we make a better society? What starts off as a hippy-dippy look at the world slowly becomes darker and more engrossing.

The protagonist has a dispiriting tendency towards the obtuse, which helpfully allows the other charters a chance to engage in plot-hole-filling exposition - and to the self-critical, which makes him somewhat of an unsympathetic narrator. That said, it's a jolly good romp through the clouds, looking at the different directions in which society could develop. Well worth a read if you like your sci-fi meaningful and homespun.

Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference - William MacAskill

This book asks one very important questions - how can you best make a difference to the world? It looks at the effectiveness of charitable giving and whether it is sensible to devote one's life to working for good causes.

Much like books by Malcom Gladwell, Atul Gawande, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb - this is a very short book padded out with annecdata.

The two core ideas are fantastic:

  1. Check that the money you are donating is being used wisely.
  2. It may be worth donating your career rather than your earnings.

That's it! The book spends a bit too much time promoting 80,000 Hours - the charity the author has set up and too little time talking about how one can accurately assess which charities are worthwhile. Despite being a UK charity, the case studies seem biased towards American projects.

This is a vital and important book - and it has made me reassess which charities I support - I just wish it had a bit more substance to it.

Armada - Ernest Cline

Oh! But this book is ridiculously campy fun! After the success of Ready Player One, it's a shorter and simpler tale - less impressive in its majesty, but just as exciting.

The plot is... well... it's hard to call it unoriginal because it relies heavily on the reader understanding the homages to great (and terrible) sci-fis of yesteryear.

I'll admit that the plot didn't move in the direction I expected which, given the paper thin characters, reflects rather poorly on me!

This is a boys-own-adventure (two whole women!) of pure escapism. Given the upcoming film adaptation of his first novel, this reads like it has half an eye on a TV-series. No, scratch that, it kinda reads like the tie-in novelization of a show that Fox cancelled prematurely!

Fast, silly, fun.

A Book for Her - Bridget Christie

What is this "feminism" nonsense all the girls are going on about, eh? Is it just bra-burning and shouting at people on Twitter?

This is by turns a hilarious and depressing book. Part comedienne's autobiography, part tale of consciousness raising, part history of modern feminism. It's a delicious ramble through the thickets of a lady-comic's travails - "ramble" being the operative word as she employs the same "anti-comedy" repetition made popular by TV's Richard Herring and Stewart Lee. It works slightly better on stage with the helpless chuckling of a crowd surrounding you, but she genuinely caused me to guffaw into my daiquiri.

If you haven't seen Bridgit Christie on stage, you should check your privilege and rectify the situation immediately!

The Shepherd's Crown (Discworld Novels) - Terry Pratchett

The book I was dreading. I saved it until halfway through the holiday. Once read, that's it; no more Discworld. Wailey! Wailey!

Really, all that can be said is that this is an exemplary Discworld novel. The complicated side-plots so reminiscent of his middle-era are kept to a minimum, the wit is just as brutal, and the world-building mythos is superbly handled. This is the most emotionally complex of his works, utterly devastating and hilarious.

It starts with an emotional sucker-punch and gradually absorbed me back into a world I've known since childhood. Spat out at the other end, I felt rather relieved that it lived up to expectations. It gladly joins the others on my shelf.

Ayoade on Ayoade - Richard Ayoade
Malkovich malkovich malkovich malkovich, malkovich? Malkovich malkovich malkovich - malkovich-malkovich!

It's hard* to know how to assess** a book*** like this. It's far too clever for its own good - a frustrating and humorous look at... what? It's neither autobiography nor comic novel. An anti-novel**** which trudges the reader through a series of comic vignettes. It reminded me of some of Woody Allen's work. If you get the joke - you'll find it hilarious. Everyone else will just look on in bemusement.

Funny in places, bewildering throughout, and makes judicious use of footnotes with almost the same skill as Terry Pratchett*****.

*But not too hard
** If we can ever really assess anything
*** When all is said and done, what is a book? Merely a bagatelle of dreams in which we sometimes catch a reflection of our nightmares.
**** Or "antinovel" if you will
***** Indeed, Ayoade makes frequent reference to the Discworld in a pamphlet he published in 2004 entitled "Wither Soup"

The Martian - Andy Weir

I asked my friends for funny books to keep me entertained on holiday, Thayer recommended this one. Frankly, it all sounded a bit depressing - an astronaut is abandoned on Mars, left for dead he unexpectedly survives - but no one knows he is alive. Grim, right?

Not a bit of it! It is consistently funny, utterly tense, and a good smattering of real science and maths in there.

It also fails the Bechdel-Wallace Test in an interesting new way! While there are strong female characters all everyone talks about is this one guy 🙂

I can see why it has been made into a movie - I stayed up all night, fighting jetlag, just to finish it.

Robin Ince's Bad Book Club: One man's quest to uncover the books that taste forgot

Comedian Robin Ince has a problem. Like many readers, he can't walk past a charity shop without poking his nose in for a quick rummage. Sadly, Robin has become addicted to "bad" books. Not just poorly written, but badly conceived, and of rare ineptitude.

This is a series of delightfully snarky reviews of some of the dreadful genres of books (Christian Gynaecologist Romance! Killer Crabs! Faded Celebrity Autobiographies!) It never ventures into being mean-spirited, in fact it positively revels in the joy of finding new depths of crimes against literature.

Not a long book, but good for a holiday read.

The Three-Body Problem - Cixin Liu

This won the Hugo Award and deservedly so. The translator adds several footnotes to help readers unfamiliar to Chinese history understand the context of the novel. Particularly interesting is this, from the Translator's Postscript:

The best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English. The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture’s patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people’s gestures and movements.

Ken Liu

That's one of the aspects which make this such a compelling novel. The sci-fi is hard - space, aliens, gravity, maths - but much of the "other-worldliness" comes from (human) protagonists.

There's a little too much monologuing for my liking - with side characters taking the time to pontificate on the ramifications of the plot - but it all hangs together well. The pace drives along the action without every sacrificing the reader's understanding.

The first part of a trilogy - I'm impatient for the next two episodes!

Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse: And Other Lessons from Modern Life - David Mitchell

This is little more than a rehash of David's columns for The Guardian.

They're... fine, I guess. A lot of his humour works best as a spoken rant. Parts are genuinely funny - but the righteous indignation works best as an occasional treat. Reading page after page begins to feel like hard work.

One to dip into now and again - but a bit of a slog for a pool-side read.

China in Ten Words - Yu Hua

Back to China again! Acclaimed novelist Yu Hua writes a biography of himself and modern China.

A book such as this can only thinly penetrate the rise of the Middle Kingdom to global prominence. It's a moving story of an individual trying to navigate the aftermath of Mao's Cultural Revolution and find a position for themselves.

It occasionally feels like it trivialises the oppression and brutalisation which occurred in society - and it is surprisingly uncritical of the way in which China has developed, despite acknowledging its limitations.

It is a lyrical and poetic look at China - admittedly only through the eyes of one man - which vividly illustrates why and how it became such a force in the modern world.

The Blind Giant: How to Survive in the Digital Age - Nick Harkaway

Can you steal a book you were given for free? At some Google event I was given a promotional copy after seeing the author chair a panel. I didn't want to take the hardback in my suitcase, so I "procured" a eBook copy from a dodgy torrent site. Is that moral? Is it legal? Is it the normal way of doing things in the future?

The Blind Giant covers all these points and more. It is a guidebook to the future - if you've been digitally connected since childhood, there's a good chance parts of this book are redundant. That said, it's always good to be reminded of how others see and experience the new economy.

Although published in 2013 (an age in 'net time) it is still relevant. Most importantly, it challenges us to think about the future with an eye for social norms. We shouldn't wait until we have robot/brain interfaces, we need to start shaping society and laws to cope with them. In many ways, this is happening with "driverless" vehicles - laws are being drafted for their inevitable arrival and, hopefully, those employed as drivers are looking for ways to diversify.

The book is written in a fairly academic style - and isn't best suited for an 8 hour transatlantic flight - but it does an admirable job of stimulating thoughts about what challenges netizens will face in the coming years.

In the introduction, Nick points out the folly of predictions -

More generally: it is inevitable that I will be wrong about any number of predictions. No book which tries to see the present and anticipate the future can be both interesting and consistently right. I can only hope to be wrong in interesting ways.

He was more right than he knew! The book is resplendent with links to social objects:

Throughout The Blind Giant, you will find printed hypertext links ... If you click on these links or type them into your web browser, you will find yourself at the book’s website, where you can share a fragment of the text with friends ... Thoughts on paper are fixed, but the world moves on.

Sadly, many of the links are now dead. Sic transit gloria electricus!

And I'm done! 15 books in just over a week - I feel more relaxed than ever and grateful that I'm still able to read novels when I'm not distracted by Twitter. I can't wait for my next holiday!

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