Category Archives: reading

“The Arab of the Future”

Just bought Riad Sattouf’s new book (it’s just been released in English). I’m looking forward to it.

There’s an interesting profile on Sattouf by Adam Shatz in The New Yorker:

Sattouf himself seemed to want people to read as little into his work as possible and insisted that his project was to write about his childhood in a remote village, not about Syria, much less about the Arab world. “If I had written a book about a village in southern Italy or Norway, would I be asked about my vision of the European world?” he said. “This idea of the Arab world is a mirage, really.” Perhaps it is. Yet that mirage, which Sattouf’s father mistook for the future, is the subject of the memoir. And Sattouf didn’t call the book “The Boy from Ter Maaleh”; he called it “The Arab of the Future.”

The excerpt from the book in the article sold me on it.

The Everything Store

I read The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon on the way home from San Jose, and really enjoyed it.

I was a bit skeptical about this book, as there have been accusations from MacKenzie Bezos (Jeff’s wife) and others that the book contains numerous factual inaccuracies. The edition I read appears to have corrected some of these inaccuracies (e.g., MacKenzie objected to the assertion that Bezos read Remains of the Day before deciding to leave D.E. Shaw to start Amazon in order to minimize regret because Bezos didn’t actually read the novel until a year after starting Amazon; in the edition I read, this assertion was deleted), though I suspect that such changes were minimal.

I can’t say if the book is factually accurate — like most works of nonfiction and journalism, there are no doubt numerous points of fact on which the participants disagree and which the writer might have gotten wrong. It is also true that Stone is trying to tell a story about Amazon, and the narrative fallacy is something all readers must keep in mind. To Stone’s credit, he explicitly notes that Bezos highlighted the narrative fallacy, and Stone acknowledges the danger and suggests that writers must nonetheless do the best they can to tell a story. Our species is wired for narratives, readers and writers and subjects alike, and I don’t know if we can ever be free from their distorting effects.

On the whole, I came away with the impression that the book is sympathetic to Amazon and Bezos and tells a story that feels true in light of the evidence. Bezos is driven, smart, and like some hero out of an Ayn Rand novel, holds an abiding faith in creating value for customers, eliminating inefficiencies, and rewriting established rules to accomplish worthy goals. The story of the rise of Amazon is a good one: the dream of a retailer that sells everything the customer might want survived the dot com crash, the exodus of engineers and executive for “cooler” companies, the financial crisis, and Amazon emerged as one of the most powerful technology platform companies in the world (think AWS and all the companies that rely on it) as well as one of the greatest retailers in the world. Brad Stone argues that Amazon is an extension of Bezos the way Apple was/is an extension of Jobs, and Bezos is a missionary as well as a mercenary. When he talks about being customer-focused, he is 100% sincere. This assessment seems fair.

There were many things that I found fascinating about the Amazon Way as explained by Stone. One of the key factors in Amazon’s success is Bezos’s belief in the “flywheel” — drawn from Jim Collins’s Good to Great — in which a virtuous cycle allows growth to beget more growth: lower prices led to more customer visits; more customers led to higher sales volume and more commission-paying third-party vendors selling on the site; Amazon then got more leverage out of its infrastructure and fixed costs (fulfillment centers, AWS) and could apply more pressure on suppliers to lower prices, so that it could lower prices further.

Amazon’s self-interest and missionary zeal are aligned in offering the customer a bigger selection and lower prices — these are the inputs to accelerate the flywheel. Keeping this principle in mind explains practically everything the company does. It is ruthless in its dealings with partners and suppliers and employees because only by squeezing them can Amazon offer lower prices to its customers and a better customer experience. In at least this sense, Amazon really is customer-centric: it believes that customers always want lower prices and greater selection, and whoever gets in the way of Amazon accomplishing these goals for its customers should be rightfully crushed.

In one key passage, Stone notes that the idea that in a business negotiation both sides should emerge happy is deeply “un-Amazon.” Amazon does not care about its business partners and suppliers and it must emerge as the winner in any negotiation because only by winning can it pass on the savings to customers in the form of lower prices. Amazon is not interested in helping its suppliers and partners succeed but in squeezing them and eliminating their inefficiencies so that customers can pay less. If this means Amazon must hide key deal terms from the suppliers (e.g., Amazon’s intent to lose money on ebooks by pricing them low so as to drive down customer expectations and apply pressure on the publishers) or break the ethical norms of business negotiations (e.g., reopening negotiations after key terms have been completed to extract more concessions), then so be it.

The book publishers — a group I’m sympathetic to, not the least because I’m publishing through a traditional publisher and I like the people I work with, who really are in business because they love books — were blindsided by Amazon because that is just not how they think. You can view publishers as inefficient or naïve — plenty of ink and pixels have been spilled on the subject of how the book business does not serve the reading public or authors well — but it is certainly true that Amazon plays by a different set of rules.

Amazon’s belief that it is acting in the best interest of the customer is sincere but disputed. Disruption is always going to create some new winners and losers. Take the book business: does the customer only want lower prices and greater selection? The publishers, in exercising their gatekeeping function and editorial role, keep prices high and the selection limited, which benefit some authors (authors who don’t earn out their advance) at the expense of others (bestselling authors and authors who don’t get published), help some individuals and businesses survive (especially employees of publishers and bookstores) at the expense of others, and make some customers happy (customers who like the editorial taste of the publisher, especially less popular books) at the expense of others (customers who can’t find what they like to read).

Amazon’s relentless push to lower ebook prices and to bypass the publishers so that authors can directly reach readers through Amazon will not benefit every customer (and will certainly not benefit every author), but it will certainly benefit Amazon and some authors and some (perhaps most?) customers. People do vote with their dollars, and if Amazon wins, ultimately it’s because the customers — as a whole — have spoken.

Award Nomination Season

It’s time to nominate for awards for fiction published in the past year. I’ve started to post my thoughts on stories I liked here, along with a short list of stories by me that are eligible for nominations. I’ll be adding to this list over time as I’m just getting underway to read seriously for award nominations.

Read! Singapore

I’ll be going to Singapore from 9/1 to 9/9 as part of the National Library Board of Singapore’s Read! Singapore initiative to encourage community reading and discussions on a selected story.

I’m incredibly honored that “The Paper Menagerie” has been chosen for this initiative.

You can see a full listing of my appearances in Singapore here. There will be other talks and interviews as well: I’m scheduled pretty tight :)

Although Lisa is from Singapore, I’ve never been there, so this is a very exciting opportunity. I can’t wait to experience the city and meet readers and writers there — some of whom I’ve only known through Twitter and Facebook.

But I will have to miss WorldCon as a result. So let me congratulate all the Hugo nominees and winners in advance. You’re all amazing, and I wish I can be there to cheer you on.

Two Really, Really Awesome Stories

I don’t understand the process by which a reader connects with a story. As far as I can tell, some kind of secret frequency has to be matched between the story and the reader, and they resonate.

When it happens to me, I feel like a gong being struck, and I vibrate and vibrate and vibrate until the world looks slightly askew. It’s the kind of experience that makes reading fiction worthwhile — one hit like that makes up for reading twenty duds.

It’s not plot — I’ve liked stories with no plot and stories with totally cliched plots. It’s not theme — I’ve liked stories with really grand and deep themes and stories that don’t even try. It’s not “the writing” — I’ve liked stories that are very poetic, ornate, and twist and dance with every sentence, and stories that rely on transparent prose. It’s not editorial judgment — in a good anthology or issue of a major magazine, I usually come away with only one or two stories that hit me that way. It’s not even the author — I can’t say there’s a single author whose every work I’ve loved.

I like the unpredictability. I like the magic.

(But my reading experience sometimes really depresses me as a writer — I can’t even articulate why the magic works for me as a reader, so how am I supposed to replicate it as a writer? It’s also why I kind of scoff at any writing “advice” — the stories that work so well for me almost always break some so-called “rules.”)

Anyway, back on topic. This month, I read two stories that made me vibrate, a REALLY good month. The stories are “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky and “In Light of Recent Events I Have Reconsidered The Wisdom of Your Space Elevator” by Helena Bell. My discussion won’t be spoiler-y, but you might still want to go read the stories before coming back to my thoughts after the fold.

Continue reading Two Really, Really Awesome Stories

The Chronicles of European Heroes

Oh my God. I am reading the coolest book ever.

Ma Boyong, one of my favorite Chinese authors, has written a wuxia novel featuring European elements: The Chronicles of European Heroes (《欧罗巴英雄记》). Yes, this is a wuxia novel in which heroes use the “Templar Crucifix Sword Fighting Technique” and Christian monks heal people by balancing aqueous and igneous humors, a novel with xiake and magic and wandering poets and quotes from books by ancient sages like Hippocrates.

I never would have thought such a thing possible. But here I am, reading it. I feel like a kid on Christmas with a smile on my face the whole time.

This is the most creative thing I’ve ever seen. I wish I had even a little bit of Ma’s brilliance.

Craig Mod on the Digital and the Physical

Craig Mod, who has written some very insightful things about the future of books, has put up a new essay on the importance of edges to our sense of the scale of the act of creation.

Mod is one of the creators of Flipboard for the iPhone. He turned the digital record behind the first release of this app — git commit messages, design mockups, launch party photos — into a physical book, giving the intangible bits that form the trail of modern creative efforts tangible form.

This is a way to combat what Mod calls the “feeling of thinness” in modern digital life:

Put in more concrete terms: a folder with one item looks just like a folder with a billion items. Feels just like a folder with a billion items. And even then, when open, with most of our current interfaces, we see at best only a screenful of information, a handful of items at a time.

The whole essay is chock full of great insights like this. I’m particularly enamored of this bit, on the ways that the digital creative process will give us new ways to appreciate art as a performance:

Perhaps the next Carver’s manuscript will contain the entire typing history of the document including GPS data of where he was when he wrote it. We will be able to replay the entire composition process. Shadow, if you so desire, a particular Hemingway through a certain Spain as he writes a new The Sun Also Rises.

Now that’s an truly SFnal idea. I love it.

Do give the essay a read. You’ll thank me.

Arkfall

“Arkfall,” by Carolyn Ives Gilman, was a Nebula nominee for 2009. It’s good, really good.

One thing that annoys me is a belief by some that stories are only interesting if they have “active” heroes who change the world. Passive heroes who let things happen to them and are then forced to change themselves are just as interesting to me. We have to do both in life. Why should fiction be different?

“Arkfall” takes place in the seas of an ice-covered planet. It involves a technology culture that is largely based on biology, a social culture centered on conflict-avoidance, a hero tied down with family obligations, and vehicles that follow the current and cannot be steered. It is richly imagined and realistic in the best sense of that word. And the theme of balance between active and passive modes of engagement with the world is very much at its center. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Rachel Swirsky for recommending this to me.

The Axiom of Choice

“The Axiom of Choice,” by David W. Goldman (New Haven Review, Winter 2011).

What a great way to end my Nebula reading.

I have a weakness for second-person narratives. (And I love adventure games).

This story begins as a literary version of a choose-you-own-adventure book, but soon turns into something else. I can’t tell you what. You have to go read it. Have to.

I stood on the train platform to finish this story just so I wouldn’t have to stop. It was that good.