A Rotten Tomatoes for Books?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Every month thousands of books are published but few find readers, even on a planet of seven billion people. The sad fact is most hardbacks are 1st editions, and never get another. Millions of writers have struggled to create their masterpiece, only to have them disappear to indifference. Books go begging to be reviewed, so I find any effort to promote books a good thing.

Book Marks

Literary Hub, a site previously unknown to me, began a feature called Book Marks, which rates books by collecting book reviews and statistically processing the total. This immediately brings to mind Rotten Tomatoes for movies. Book Marks gives books a letter grade, and the few books they now list, have mostly high grades. I don’t know if this grade inflation is due to starting their business with buzz-worthy books, or if most books today actually get good reviews. Personally, I hate to review books by giving them a rating because I feel bad telling writers they have ugly babies, so I can imagine the later being the case.

I wish Book Marks followed Rotten Tomatoes and gave a percentage rating based on total positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes claim they judge the overall slant of a review to decide. However, most of these books have very few reviews, so one with two positive and one negative would receive a 66% rating in a percentage system, and that would be deceptive. At Rotten Tomatoes they generally have over a hundred reviews for most popular movies. One way to solve this problem would be to require only books that have at least ten reviews to get listed. But that causes other problems.

Publishing tends to be a winner take all enterprise. In other words, a few books succeed while most don’t. Book Marks is starting off by promoting books that are already getting major promotion. Their system is inherently biased against those books that are getting the least attention. But I can’t criticize Book Marks for their efforts. Like I said, any book promotion is a good thing.

This however makes me wonder how to create a better system? I feel sorry for authors who can’t find readers for their books, especially after a great self-promotion effort, or even writing an unrecognized masterpiece. Let’s be honest. All us bookworms have too much to read. We have more A+ novels on our TBR piles than we can finish in a decade. So why consider an A- book, or for some insane reason, a C+? See where the school grade system breaks down?

Readers don’t have a problem finding great books – our problem is finding more time to read. The problem at hand is writers finding readers. One solution: create more bookworms! But with PlayStations and VR that’s not likely. Efforts like Book Marks will actually further promote winners over losers. Statistical efforts to improve book reviewing will help the limited pool of readers find the most popular books, causing a larger percentage of books to be ostracized. Book Marks is only making the process more efficient. That sounds harsh, even cruel, but then does every book written deserve to be read?

I assume there’s a large percentage of books published that are well worth reading if only they could find the right reader. And since falling in love with a book is so subjective, I’m not sure any rating system is valid. What we need are systems where readers can fill out a profile, like a dating service, of what they are in the mood to read, and that system locate all the books that fit that mood. That could alleviate the problem of everyone wanting to read the most popular books, and spread readers out, giving more books a chance to succeed.

Such a system would have a side-effect that some authors might not want. More books would become moderately successful at the cost of other books being huge bestsellers. For example, a million readers who would have all bought a blockbuster would instead buy one hundred different books selling ten thousand copies each.

Currently, bloggers spend huge amounts of time reviewing, listing and writing about books. This is the new digital word-of-mouth. Many of us consciously choose to write about books that haven’t gotten attention, and that helps more books get noticed. But we also end up writing about the same popular books. It’s just natural to want to read and discuss books that everyone is reading. One way to promote books that aren’t getting attention is to mention them when reviewing bestsellers. Let the unknown titles draft on the success of hits.

And I think that’s what Book Marks needs to do to improve their service. Mix in more books and find ways to group them into themes. Personally, I don’t like the grading system, but I bet their readers do. I would recommend not grading a book until it’s gotten ten reviews to be statistically valid. Since Book Marks are copying Rotten Tomatoes they should work quickly to up the number of sites they monitor for reviews, and aim to get close to twenty reviews. Books will never be reviewed like movies and get hundreds of reviews, but if Book Marks wants to use such a comparison system, the more reviews the better. Plus, if they used more review sites, it will promote those sites, and thus promote book reviewing in general.

7 Uses for Goodreads Other than Reviews and Ratings

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, June 1, 2016

I struggle to manage my always growing, ever changing, collection of books, and my constant craving to read more. And I don’t have a vast library, like some of my bookworm friends. Counting physical books, ebooks and audio books, I have around two thousand titles. Enough to be unsure of what I own. Enough to make them a problem to find. And I own more unread books than I have time to read during the rest of my life. That should condition me to stop buying books, but it won’t.

I’ve been testing various book databases for years, but never committing to any. I tried Goodreads’ book database system a couple of times, but always disliked it. However, I’ve now decided it’s the best compromise for my needs.

goodreads 

Most people zip over to Goodreads to read reviews and ratings. Do they know it’s a free database for managing book collections? Goodreads represents the wisdom of crowds, with some books actually having millions of ratings. Because of this group knowledge, Goodreads is essential to bookworms. The fact that it’s own by Amazon, where I buy most of my books, including paper, ebook and audio, makes it’s hard to ignore.

I’m going to skip reviewing all those social aspects of Goodreads, and focus on tools for organizing books into useful collections. This can range from cataloging your personal library, keeping track of books you want to buy, or even tracking all the books on your favorite subject. Goodreads is a general purpose tool that has to be customized for specific uses, yet it’s not always obvious how. My recommendation is to just stick with Goodreads until it starts working for you. Everyone customizes it differently. Take each task you normally do on paper or program, and do it on Goodreads. Eventually, you’ll see the magic in its madness.

By thinking about all the ways I make lists of books, I’ve been able to adapt Goodreads for my needs. It’s not always a perfect fit, but I assume Amazon will keep refining Goodreads, and the bumps I stumble over will be fixed, and the features I desire will show up. I have to trust Amazon because it houses my digital library. This means hoping it will stay in business until I die.

Lifetime Reading Lists

I wish I had kept a list of every book I’ve ever read since I read Up Periscope during the summer before 4th grade. Beginning in 1983 I did start logging everything I’ve read, and it’s been great – well worth the effort. Goodreads is a good tool for this. However, if you reread books, and like to track each reading by date, Goodreads won’t do that smoothly. The clunky solution is to add a different edition of a book for each reading, but that messes with your total read numbers. I currently list books I read in both Google Sheets and Goodreads, to get all the functionality I want. It would be more efficient if Goodreads was my only tool, but I can’t replicate all the functions I now get from the spreadsheet.

The core functionality of Goodreads database is to track books you’ve read, are reading, or want to read. Goodreads even offers a nice stats feature to track your reading productivity. If you don’t want to use Goodreads to track the books you own, its basic features are very nice and straight forward. If you do use it as a personal card catalog, you have to understand it also tracks books you don’t own (unless you’ve keep every book you’ve ever read and bought every book you plan to read).

This can be confusing. Think of Goodreads as a system for tracking books you want to remember, whether that’s to remember what you’ve read, what you own, what you hope to own, what you’ve studied, and so on. You enter in all the titles you want, and then tag them accordingly. One tag is ownership. Another tag is read. You can make up your own tags – such as beautiful-covers.

You never want to delete a book you’ve read, even if you’ve given it away. You need the entry to remember you’ve read the book. And you’ve got to add a book if you plan to read it, even if you don’t own a copy.

Books Database

Over the decades I’ve tried many programs for listing the books I’ve own, but none of them worked the way I wanted. I’ve even tried writing my own program. Because of smartphones, it’s obvious that on-the-go viewing is a must feature, and that’s beyond my programming skills. Goodreads practically invalidates all other efforts because of this. It’s possible to keep my books in Excel, Access or commercial book database programs, and then export listings to Dropbox, to check on my phone while book shopping, but the Goodreads app is always up-to-date. That feature alone makes it a winner.

That’s not to say Goodreads is the perfect books database. How it looks, how it’s organized and how it creates reports is not how I would have designed them. But it does most things I want, and getting the job done without dedicating my life to Python programming sealed the deal. Plus, I can export .csv files to programs that can create fancy reports if I want.

Goodreads has two kinds of “bookshelves” – their term for categorizing your books. The first is exclusive, which means all books have to be tagged in one, and only one, of those shelves. Goodreads start you off with read, currently-reading, to-read. I added discard (so I can track books I once owned but didn’t read) and reference (for books I don’t plan to ever read). Any book I add to the system has to be read, currently-reading, to-read, reference or discard. Then Goodreads allows as many non-exclusive shelves readers want to create. Books can be shelved in multiple non-exclusive shelves. For example you could create shelves called fiction, science-fiction, anthologies – and put The Science Fiction Hall of Fame on all three.

The best thing about Goodreads is the barcode scanner built into its iOS/Android apps. It’s an extremely fast way to enter books, as long as the books have a visible bar code. For some damn reason, used book dealers have an annoying habit of pasting their tracking label over the ISBN barcode. You can also enter books manually with the ISBN number, or by title. Those are quick too, but nowhere near as fast as the barcode reader. I can do 40 books in two minutes – that’s their batch limit. You hit upload, clear the batch, and do 40 more.

Most books are already in the system, so you’re actually just linking to existing records. You only have to create a new record for rare out-of-print titles not in the Goodreads system. That’s more work, especially if you want to upload a scan of the cover. Which I do. I’m fanatical about cover images. One of the annoying restrictions of Goodreads is I can’t upload better images for books added to the system by other members.

Goodreads has a feature to let you tag books you’ve purchased from Amazon. I wish they also offer that feature for books I bought at Audible and ABEBooks, companies Amazon also owns. I’ve been hoping Amazon would mass add records for Audible editions, because now I link to CD editions of the same book. Who owns CDs anymore? I dread linking over 800 titles by title searches.

Collector’s Database

Book collectors want to track exact editions, and Goodreads does this. This is both good and bad. Probably most bookworms don’t care about such exacting details. They just want to know they have a copy of Pride and Prejudice, and whether or not they’ve read it. I wish Goodreads allowed for a generic title entry. I’d probably use one for most books. I don’t usually care if I “own” a 1st edition hardback or the 7th paperback edition, but I am picky about what cover I see. I want the cover I remember, or the cover I love best, and that means picking the edition with the right cover. What’s annoying, is the right edition will have no cover, a bad scan, or the wrong cover. Even when I own the right cover, I’m not allowed to alter other people’s cataloging. And Goodreads fights you if you try to create another edition with similar publishing details.

The cataloging features for Goodreads is probably good enough for most book collectors, but not good enough for serious book collectors. That should improve over time as more exacting users join the system. I wish Goodreads could tie into the Internet Science Fiction Database, which has great edition information. I also wished Goodreads would link to Wikipedia, because as I study my collection, or catalog books, I often want to know more about the book. Such synergy of two great tools would be fantastic.

Want Lists

Most bookworms make lists of books they want to read, and have various methods of keeping track of those books. Because Goodreads doesn’t assume the books you add are ones you own, it’s perfectly adaptable as a Books Wanted list manager. Because it’s tied to the social and database features at Goodreads, it’s the most elaborate Want List ever. You can add library books, or even books you see at bookstores, with the scanner feature. Although my local independent bookstore will chase patrons out if they think they’re checking Amazon for prices.

It’s quite easy to fill up your Goodreads database with books you want to read because one of the exclusive fields is “to read.” If you want to use Goodreads to track the books you own, you have to check the “owned books” check-box.

Card Catalog

Some bookworms own enough books that they wish they had a Dewey Decimal system to help them find books. You can create non-exclusive shelves to track book location, even if they are stored in boxes. Just label each of the shelves on your real-world bookshelf, say shelf-01 through shelf-24, and then create a virtual shelf for each in Goodreads. Then tag each book by the shelf they are on. Or shelve books by subject on your actual bookcases, and then create subject shelves in Goodreads. You can also create box-001, box-002, …, if you have zillions of books in the attic.

This takes work and discipline. The more you use Goodreads, the more anal attentiveness becomes part of your personality. And you can use Goodreads as little, or as much as you want. At first Goodreads seems like a very disorganized mess, but eventually you realize it’s looseness offers great flexibility.

Scholarship

Because Goodreads is not just a database for books you own, it’s very useful for organizing books in a variety of ways. Let’s say you’re getting your master’s degree, you can use Goodreads to organize all the books you need to know to pass your comps. It doesn’t matter if you if you don’t own them, or even borrowed them from a library. You can create an exclusive shelf called “research” and tag all the books there. You can even use non-exclusive shelves to organize them into categories, like 19th-century-America, 20th-century-America, 18th-century-Britain, 19th-century-France.

Reading Challenge

I want to read all the books on the Modern Library Association 100 Best Novel list. I created a non-exclusive shelf and added all one-hundred books. Then I marked those books read, to-read, currently-reading. By using the “select multiple” button,  clicking on the plus next to “read” and “modern-library-100” – I can see how many of the 100 I’ve read – 39.

This last trick reveals a flaw in Goodreads. Often I want to reread books. If I mark a book “to-read” it’s removed from the “read” shelf. But that ruins things for tracking books read. And I can tag a book “currently-reading” that I’ve read many times before. I wish Goodreads had a tracking system for remembering each time I’ve read a book, when, and what format. In my spreadsheet I track author, title, date published, date finished, format. Format includes hardback, paperback, ebook, library hardback, audio book, etc.

I don’t know of any alternative to Goodreads that does as much, so I’m going to stick with it for now. I assume the momentum behind it will make it even more useful in the future. It’s a shame that Amazon monopolizes my book world, but the practicality of why is too overwhelming.

JWH

Being Old and Observing the Young

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The older I get, the further away I get from the young. It’s not intentional on my part. They’re just leaving me behind.

When Audible.com has a sale, I buy audiobooks about unfamiliar subjects and subcultures to check out. Recently I bought I, Justine: An Analog Memoir by Justine Ezarik. Ezarik is a young woman who goes by the name iJustine, and is supposedly well known on the Internet, but completely unknown to me. Her book turned out to be well worth the $4.95 sale price, because of its many insights of growing up in a unique subculture. I love books about computer history, so this volume was more than a web celebrity’s personal story. The times, they keep a changing—I’m reading more books about people born in the 1980s, growing up in the 1990s. I think I first took note of this generation with Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.

I Justine

iJustine makes her living doing what she loves. Totally geeking out on with Apple computers, gadgets and gaming, establishing a career by making her fan-girl life public, especially on YouTube. She even live-streamed herself for a while, which I found bizarre, and still spends most of her time making videos about her daily life, friends and digital life. I, Justine chronicles how she developed her internet celebrity business. iJustine, born in 1984, and now 32, is a Millennial.

iJustine is young, but not that young, because she also reports on the generation coming up behind her, which aren’t always her fans. iJustine describes a lot of nasty animosity in her world, which I occasionally encounter online. I find that very hard to understand. iJustine is an attractive young woman, who I would think guys would want to flirt with, instead some guys hate her, sending her the social media equivalents of hate mail, death threats, and even calling the police on her (swatting). There’s a lot of Gamergate type misogyny around her online world. I assume most of her time is spent having fun, being friends with nice people, and I just remember the bad stuff from her book.

I find the hateful incidents in her story disturbing, in the same way I find Donald Trump scary. iJustine herself is wholesome, polite, upbeat, and leans towards the silly side. She’s an extreme fan of Apple, working in a subculture that’s beyond my comprehension. I’m old, and only see digital life as an outsider. Reading I, Justine made me realize just how far away I am from being young. Although, my peers think I’m up-to-date because I know about computers and they don’t, being tech-savvy isn’t the whole story. I also wonder about how iJustine feels about aging. She says her target audience is preteen and teen girls. She’s half my age, and her audience is now half her age. At what age does a young woman start to appear too old to that audience? I wonder when she gets to be 64, will iJustine have trouble relating to the very young growing up in the 2020s? And can our culture keep mutating so frequently?

Since I don’t play video games, and don’t own a gaming console, that puts me on the other side of a huge generation divide. I was about to buy a new iPad so I could read my digital magazines better, but I’m now wondering if I shouldn’t buy an Xbox instead, just to see if I can get into video gaming. iJustine got her granny to play Call of Duty , and I assume she must be older than I am. I must be iJustine’s parents age. Maybe if Susan and I had had kids we’d have grown up with a succession of video gaming consoles too.

Now there’s growing excitement about VR. Virtual reality has zero appeal to me. I suppose this will put me two degrees away from the young. Or two-and-half since I’m a half-ass user of social media. I’m not quite Amish, but it seems I exist halfway between the Pennsylvania Dutch and hip hop America. What’s beyond VR life? Jacked in cyborgs?

Most of my friends live on the edge of the Internet. We all have smartphones. Most of us are now cord-cutters, watching TV off of Roku. I read ebooks and audiobooks, I listen to music via Spotify and Pandora. Half of my friends even use Facebook. We have adapted. But I, Justine showed me how far away I’m still from the digital norm. Like I said, I live on the shallow end of the net, while the young thrive in the deep end. There’s a big difference. I don’t comprehend the pithy (and often nasty) world of Twitter. And there’s a whole host of social media apps that I can’t even name, much less understand what they do.

That’s not saying I won’t catch up. Quite often subcultures become dominant. I’ve read many essays written at the dawn of the television age, resisting that change, and TV watching became universal. Yet, I can’t imagine wearing a VR headset. Will people start tuning out of reality for longer and longer periods of time? That seems no more practical than LSD back in the 1960s.

I support David Brooks notions about character and manners. All too often, iJustine reported having to deal with people who are rude and uncivilized. Is that becoming the new social norm? I’ve had to deal with some of those people blogging, and it’s stressful. I worry the more we interconnect through social media, the more we drop self-controls, letting raw emotions hang out. That can’t be good. At least not for dwelling in the Hive Mind.

I’ve had two friends my age whose bosses asked them if they had ADD. And other friends who said young coworkers would push them aside to do a task, not in an unfriendly way, just impatient to see the task finished quicker. Which makes me wonder if young people see us as moving too slow, or think we can’t comprehend. More than once I’ve been dismissed as just an old white guy. That doesn’t hurt my feelings, but it makes me wonder if there’s a cognitive gap.

By the way, my wife and women friends tell me to stop writing about my age, and hide that I’m old. My guy friends are like me, unconcerned about age. My lady friends warn me young people don’t want to read about old folks. Of course those women want to think they are still young. My wife plays video games, loves Facebook, and her and her friends are always texting and sending selfies.

There was a scene in I, Justine that was kind of sad. iJustine worshipped Steve Jobs, and the one time she got near him, Steve probably recognized her, and ran away. Maybe Steve was feeling too old to deal with a crazy young fan. I’m sure iJustine is a nice young normal woman, but her world does seems a bit hectic, sometimes mean spirited, fast changing, often silly, and way too videoized. Yet, if you just look at her videos, iJustine seems quite normal, if a bit goofy, and so maybe all the problems are with how the young communicate with each other—the snarky Tweets, the extreme expressions of emotion, the black hat hacking, doxing, swatting, phishing, misogyny, death threats, and all the endless ways they treat each other like they didn’t understand the person on the other end is a real person, and not some video game character to destroy.

JWH

How To Review Science Fiction?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, March 12, 2016

I’ve been reading science fiction for over fifty years—mainly for fun and entertainment—but also to speculate about reality in a way that science and philosophy do not. Now that I’ve written a book review for SF Signal, and working on another one, I’m wondering about how to approach book reviewing. I’m not interested in describing new books and then judging them by a rating scale. Any book I take the time to write about will be one I’m recommending. What fascinates me is why a book grabs me in the first place. After reading a couple thousand science fiction novels, I would think science fiction has nothing new to say to me, but it does.

No matter how many times an old idea is used in a new novel, some writers find new angles to examine. To be perfectly honest though, most writers don’t. Most new novels bought by publishers (as oppose to self-published novels) are pretty good at telling their story, and should find readers to admire them if they get the right promotion. What I look for is a book where the writer uses their story to express a philosophy about literature or science, or both.

How you tell a story conveys your philosophy about storytelling. If you bring attention to how the story is told, you’re making a statement, if you write solid prose that enchants the reader without drawing attention, you aren’t. The approach to science fiction takes two paths also. The first is to take a tried and true science fictional concept that readers love and work it into an appealing new story. The second, which is much harder, is to invent a new concept, or find a novel way to look at an old concept.

And Again by Jessica Chiarella

The novel I just finished, And Again by Jessica Chiarella, takes a standard literary device of telling four 1st person accounts in a round robin fashion. These people have new cloned bodies, which is her science fictional idea. Cloning is not a new concept. What Chiarella does new is make their stories very personal. There’s no plot. No heroes. The world doesn’t need saving. There’s no war between the normal folk and the clone folk. All Chiarella does is to ask: If you had a new body because you wore out your old one, how would it feel to start life over again. I found her four characters engaging, realistic and revealing. A novel worthy of recommending. But how do I review And Again to prove that it is interesting to would-be book buyers? Is my word good enough? I wouldn’t think so. What details could I offer as evidence? And would giving those details spoil the story?

I wrote a piece for SF Signal called “The Cutting Edge of Science Fiction” that was about how ideas are the cutting edge of science fiction. I believe there’s a period after science makes a discovery when science fiction writers can speculate about the possibilities of that discovery before further scientific research kills off or validates those ideas. I called that the cutting edge of science fiction. Unfortunately, the readers thought I meant the cutting edge of science fiction were specific books, and missed my idea. (By the way, the lesson I learned from this is don’t list books if they aren’t meant to be a best-of list. Because people ignore the narrative and see only the list, and think it’s a list of great books. My list had some stinker novels, but I was only listing them for their ideas though.)

Where I believe Chiarella was being an innovative science fiction writer (and I’m not sure her publisher is promoting her as such) is by her take on the clone story. Generally cloning is used in science fiction to explore the big ideas of serial immortality, brain downloading, new forms of humanity and rejuvenation. Clone stories often make for complicated SF murder mysteries or intricate mysteries of lost identities. Chiarella takes a rather mundane approach. It appears her characters had portions of their brain transplanted in a accelerated grown clone body. That side-stepped a bunch of philosophical issues. (Did the person die in the transfer, how can we download a mind, etc.)

This puts Chiarella in that zone I call the cutting edge—after the science of cloning, but before we know the limits of brain transplants. Until science proves that brains can’t be transplanted, it’s a viable science fictional concept. However, her setting is contemporary Chicago. Her characters’ stories are ordinary as New Yorker short stories. Other than how they got their new bodies, there’s no science fiction. So is the story science fiction? I think it is. How do I prove that in a review?

What I’d like to prove is my theory about science fiction. I think a story should be labeled science fiction if the storytelling is in the style of science fiction, or if it explores a science fictional idea. I don’t think And Again uses science fictional storytelling techniques, but I’m not sure how to prove that. It’s completely literary. However, her story is based on a science fictional concept.

I’m not sure if readers of SF Signal want to hear all of this in a book review. I often write long-winded pieces, that fairly often toss off comments that annoy people, like “Can Science Fiction Save Us?” Such extended wool-gathering bores the average site visitor hoping to discover a new book they want to read. Most review readers want something short, to the point, and convincing. Which makes me think I need to learn how to say what I have to say in many fewer words. But I’ve got to write more than, “Hey this book is great, read it.”

For my blog I can write anything I feel like. But now that I’m teaching myself how to review science fiction books I’ve been studying various websites and magazines, and have noticed that they each present a certain style in their reviews. Print magazines are confined by space. Web pages are scanned by hyper-readers in 20-second visits. I wish I had both the writing ability, and the scholarly knowledge to write book reviews like I read in The New York Review of Books. Their reviews are so educational that just reading a couple of columns overwhelms my brain with new knowledge.

I’m playing a game at SF Signal. For decades I’ve concentrated on classic science fiction. This year I’m trying to discover new novels that are published in 2016 that I think will be on reviewers “Best SF of 2016” lists in December. I think And Again has a chance, if SF reviewers consider it science fiction.

[This took 11 paragraphs. Could I have said it in 4?]

JWH

Why Doesn’t Google Fix Its Obvious Flaw?

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, February 5, 2016

Yesterday I searched Google for a book review of All the Birds in the Sky  by Charlie Jane Anders. I carefully created a search request that would give me exactly what I wanted.

           “all the birds in the sky” review anders

Yesterday it returned 37,500 links. Today it returns 38,900. If I take out the quotes around the book’s title it returns 461,000. If I add “book” to the search request and keep the quotes it returns 41,100. This is absolutely ridiculous.

Google_-G-_Logo.svg

If Google was as smart as it should be, the returns should be something like 78 or 123, or if there’s really a lot of book reviewers in this world, maybe 478. I can’t imagine that a book released two weeks ago should have garnered that many significant reviews, even counting bloggers, and I was wanting good blog reviews.

I’m reading All the Birds in the Sky and wanted to know what other people thought of it. I wanted significant reviews where readers pondered the implications of the story. Some of the returns on the first pages gave me what I wanted, but even those pages were cluttered with links to sites that weren’t book reviews. And I discovered that some review sites only give a minimum description of the book, as if the book hadn’t been read, but merely summarized by an overworked journalist, or composed by one of those new AI content creators that can crank out narrative that looks like it was written by a human.

Many of the returns were like this one “Babe of the Day – Penelope Cruz…” that had no information about the book. But there is a mention of the book in this guy’s blog links column.

Google’s AI should have been smart enough to know this site wasn’t a book review. Google’s AI should be smart enough to know that most of those 38,900 links aren’t book reviews either. Hell, I gave it a helpful hint by putting in the world “review” in the search query. Any half-ass AI should know that the words in the quotes is a book title, and the last word is the author’s last name.

I have to assume that offering me 38,850 links I don’t need helps Google make money. Google, the reason I gave up cable TV is because it made me pay for hundreds of channels I never watched. I don’t think I can cut the cord with Google. Bing gave me 5,600,000 results on the same query. Duck Duck Go doesn’t tell me how many returns it finds, but it does check mark some of its returns, as if “hint hint” these are the ones you really want. Their results come in a continuous scroll, so there’s no telling how many results there are.

Here is the search query I’d like to use with Google:

       “all the birds in the sky” review anders words>600 –notbuying

Google would know I wanted book reviews containing more than 600 words. Also, it would know I didn’t want to see any sites selling the book, so don’t bother sending me sites trying to sell the book. Of course if their AI was really sharp, I should be able to ask for:

       Give me significant reviews of All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders.

And it would.

JWH

Autistic Characters in Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 3, 2016

I started reading The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion yesterday, and realized I was enjoying yet another book with an autistic first person character. This got me to thinking, just how many books have I read with an autistic character, and then wondered, just how often autistic characters show up in fiction. So far my list includes:

GoodReads lists 65 books on their Autism in Fiction list, some of which I find quite surprising, like To Kill a Mockingbird. And it turns out I have another book on my to-be-read pile, The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon that features an autistic character. It appears listing autistics in fiction is quite popular, and Wikipedia even has a list of fictional characters in books, movies, television and comics that are on the autistic spectrum. If you search Google for “autism in fiction” you’ll find a lot to read.

the-rosie-project-graeme-simsion

Most of the books have been from the last twenty-five years. Didn’t autistic people exist in the time of The Bible, Shakespeare or Charles Dickens? I do know that Confessions of a Crap Artist, written by Philip K. Dick in 1959 has a very autistic-ish narrator. And strangely, isn’t Mr. Spock from Star Trek very autistic like? There is a danger to retroactively diagnosing characters from the past with autism, just read “Sherlock does not have Asperger’s or Autism, Thanks – From 4 Psychiatrists” or “We Shouldn’t View Sherlock as an Autistic Savant.”

Many people do not consider Oskar Schell in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to be autistic, but I do, because he has some autistic like traits. And I think that’s what’s interesting about these books, they don’t all define their characters as autistic or having Asperger’s syndrome, a diagnosis that’s been replaced with the term autism spectrum disorder. That’s because it’s very difficult to pigeonhole people into precise mental categories. I’ve written about this before, “Don’t We All Have Personality Traits in the Autism Spectrum?” and “Reading Novels To View Reality From a Diversity of Mental Spectrums.”

I think is extremely fascinating we all want to clearly define people into categories, but our own unique traits are usually invisible to ourselves. Just like Don Tillman in The Rosie Project, who is unaware of his Asperger’s symptoms, we can’t see our own quirkiness. Think how often you have heard your voice on a recorder and found it shocking. Or how disturbing it can be to see photographs or videos of ourselves. Our inner self-image seldom matches outer evidence. So it’s easy to understand that other people see you far different from how you see yourself.

In the The Rosie Project, Don decides it’s time to get married and goes about finding a wife in a very systematic way. The whole time I was reading this story I couldn’t stop picturing Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. But doesn’t everyone fumble around trying to find their soul mate? And if we’re honest, aren’t we all clueless about finding compatibility?

People wonder why there’s been an explosion of autism in the general population. Some wonder if we always had autistic people and are just getting around the labeling them. Can you remember an old relative with autism spectrum traits? Others think the increase is from an environmental cause, and a few people have suggested the increase in autism comes from more super-intelligent people mating with each other. I have no idea, but I do find that characters in fiction with moderate amounts of traits from the autism spectrum appealing. (Although severe amounts are horrifying and tragic.) And I think that’s so because we can identify with their problems and admire their eccentric skills. Don’t we all have some kind of communication problem, or compulsive behavior? My friends consider me very good at communication, yet I’ve always felt a slight sense of agoraphobia when it comes to socializing. And I certainly wish I had the organizational skills of Sheldon and Don. I do know I pass all the tests for introversion with flying colors.

And how often do you feel that your friends are clueless to seeing the real you? Aren’t we all on a social awareness spectrum? If we fall into a certain range, does that put us on the autism spectrum? I have long ago given up on the idea of “normal” people. I assume we all exist on a hundred different spectrums – picture a mixing board in a sound recording studio. I doubt anyone has sliders position in the center all across the board. And I expect what we now call autism spectrum disorder will be broken up into several spectrums in the future.

Finally, I wonder if we were all characters in a book like Don Tillman, and readers got to see just how we think, wouldn’t our logic for doing things and making decisions seem peculiar to others? Aren’t we all strange little birds?

JWH

All the Time in the World is Still Not Enough

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 7, 2016

All during my work years, while I toiled away at my 8:30-5:00 grind, I endlessly ached to be free. I just wanted time to write. Now that I’m retired, and have all the time in the world, it’s still not enough. I’m writing regularly, devoting hours a day to my task, but I’m not keeping up with all the ideas that beg me to give them birth. Recently I found Big Magic at the library, a lovely new book on creativity by Elizabeth Gilbert. I highly recommend this book to those who struggles to be creative, whether at writing, music, art, dance, acting, or even robot design, while holding down a fulltime job and believing they don’t have enough time. Gilbert provides 276 pages of inspiration and advice that’s backed by the wisdom of her success. I know many people who are prejudiced against Elizabeth Gilbert for that same success, but I’m not one of them. Her advice resonated easily with my experiences.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Gilbert carefully illustrates that we all have enough time to be creative, no matter how busy our life, or how much free time we can find. She goes on to prove it’s the kind of shit sandwich you’re willing to eat that determines creative productivity. Gilbert explains that creativity always comes at a cost. It’s not about finding time, but paying the price. Writing every day is one of the costs. Whatever shit you have to eat to make yourself write is the cost. People give up on their dreams because they won’t suffer the shit that it takes. Her metaphor is crude, but makes a lot of sense if this is your kind of struggle.

I have all the time in the world, and it’s still not enough. What I’ve been learning the hard way, it’s not about time, it’s about work. There will always be an endless list of ideas I can write about. There will always be a limited amount of time. What determines my creative output is effort, not time. Everything Gilbert writes about I’ve been learning since I’ve retired. Time and again as I read this book, her advice clarified what I’ve been learning on my own without conscious clarity.

It really comes down to sticking to a project until it’s finished. It doesn’t matter how important the art, or how ambitious the scope, or whether it will make money or not. All that matters is getting into the zone and working. You work at what you like, and you don’t worry if anyone else will like it, buy it or judge it. Time isn’t an issue. It’s not about what I’ve done, or hope to do, it’s only about the project I’m working on at the moment. And at this moment, I’m reviewing this book.

Essay #995