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Some Books I Didn’t Finish Reading: The Debutante Divorcée by Plum Sykes

I really enjoyed Plum Sykes’ first novel, Bergdorf Blondes. I realize that it’s not Crime and Punishment, it’s not Ulysses, it’s not even Outlander, but I feel that it succeeds on its own terms. I cannot say the same about the Vogue editor’s sophomore effort.

The Debutante DivorcéeIf The Debutante Divorcée accomplishes anything, it makes it easier to quantify what was good about Bergdorf Blondes. For example, the new novel’s heroine, Sylvie Mortimer, is a sort of Everygirl who just happens to have some exceedingly wealthy and slightly wacky friends. She dishes the dirt, but there’s nothing particularly dishy about her reportage: It lacks edge and insight, and Sylvie herself is so consistently uninteresting that one longs for the screwball antics of Bergdorf Blondes’ Moi. And, while Moi’s experiences were over-the-top but altogether plausible, the scenes that Sylvie describes—a divorce honeymoon, a divorce shower—seem contrived.

Indeed, the whole premise of the novel—“Married girls in New York these days put almost as much effort into losing husbands as they once did into finding them”—seems contrived. This, I think, is the novel’s biggest problem. Bergdorf Blondes may not be a brilliant work of art, but it’s a real novel. That is, I believe that the book was born when Sykes had an honest-to-goodness idea for a story and set about turning that idea into a complete narrative. The Debutante Divorcée, on the other hand, reads like it was written to fulfill an assignment, the assignment being to write another bestseller.

I stopped reading after 150 pages or thereabouts. I stopped reading when I realized that I was so bored I was skimming, and that I was skimming past whole pages at a time. I could have finished it in an hour or two (Miramax should be ashamed of charging $23.95 for 256 pages of huge type packed into a teeny, tiny trim size), but I just didn’t care enough about any of the characters or situations to bother.


May 30, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Like the Sun Going Down on Me

There are a lot of reasons why I’ve never watched American Idol, my dangerously low tolerance for execrable pop ballads being the main one. Watching this clip from the season finale made me simultaneously wish that I could watch the show and confirmed my assumption that I simply cannot. On the one hand, it’s an unparalleled opportunity for rubbernecking. On the other hand, this so filled me with plaatsvervangende schaamte that I was not just cringing, but actually squirming.

Now, Paris Hilton humiliating herself: That I can watch all day.


May 26, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Bitch: The Style and Substance Issue

BitchIssue #32 of Bitch Magazine is now available at this nation’s better newsstands. In it you will find an analysis of the fashion strategies of Madonna and Dolly Parton, a very thoughtful look at the work of style writers, and my review of Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction.

Bitch has also just launched a snazzy new website, complete with blog.

May 24, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

McKellan went on to say he found the Bible “somewhat preachy” and called the ending “a bit of a downer.”

I just became aware of Us Weekly’s blog today (how is that possible?) and I’m luving it!. My absolute favorite headline is “Ian McKellen Unable to Suspend Disbelief While Reading the Bible”. The story itself is a treat—when asked by Matt Lauer if The Da Vinci Code should have had a disclaimer at the beginning announcing that it’s fiction, Sir Ian replied that the Bible should have a disclaimer at the beginning announcing that it’s fiction—but the comment thread is utterly priceless. Tweet from North Carolina writes:

Well US be sure to let Mckellen atheist-self he has losta legion of fans b/c whether you are born-again or not you should still believe in GOD!!!
What is he talkin bout “walk on water” Jesus is GOD”S SON DUH!!! I don’t understand him but if you don’t want to lose 99.999% of your readership please don’t feature this man any more on website or in mag I don’t wanna read about non-believers EVEN Scientologists believe in a higher being, this man is clearly an atheist.

I had no idea that militantly fundamentalist Christians are so uniformly interested in the Denise Richardson-Richie Sambora-Heather Locklear love triangle that they make up 99.999% of Us Weekly’s readership. I would talk to Christians a lot more if I knew we could be talking about Lindsay, Paris, Nicole, Jessica, Britney, and Katie instead of, you know, abortion and gay marriage and abstinence-only sex education and stuff.

May 19, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Several Problems with Kevin Kelly’s “Scan This Book!”

Allow me to begin by saying that I am not against digitized books. When I was teaching, I used online versions of classic works all the time because the search function makes textual analysis so easy: Every book becomes its own concordance. But I never actually read the online version of any of the books I was teaching. I read those very portable, totally stable, magnificently user-friendly paper-and-ink objects known as books.

And I love the idea of being able to browse cookbooks, say, and put together my own recipe collection from a variety of sources. On the other hand, I do wonder how such copy-and-paste publishing will pay for itself. Will recipes become like songs on iTunes? Will cookbooks as such become obsolete? Will all art and knowledge be divided into 99¢ chunks, divorced from any context other than the one assigned by the buyer?

Finally, of course I’m in favor of getting books into the hands of the underbooked, and I can see how digitized books might be easier to deliver to the furthest reaches of the Third World than millions of pounds of paper, but I would really like to know how people without electricity are going to access the universal library of the not-too-distant future. The problem of delivery seems not inconsequential to me.

This is to say that I found Kevin Kelly’s “manifesto” in the New York Times Magazine to be more than a little annoying. What follows are a few excerpts and my catalog of grievances.

Once a book has been integrated into the new expanded library by means of this linking, its text will no longer be separate from the text in other books. For instance, today a serious nonfiction book will usually have a bibliography and some kind of footnotes. When books are deeply linked, you'll be able to click on the title in any bibliography or any footnote and find the actual book referred to in the footnote. The books referenced in that book's bibliography will themselves be available, and so you can hop through the library in the same way we hop through Web links, traveling from footnote to footnote to footnote until you reach the bottom of things.
Next come the words. Just as a Web article on, say, aquariums, can have some of its words linked to definitions of fish terms, any and all words in a digitized book can be hyperlinked to other parts of other books. Books, including fiction, will become a web of names and a community of ideas.

Like many a contemporary futurist, Kelly gets very excited about the idea of “community.” Personally, I’m a little less enthusiastic. The problem with community is that it is made up of other people, and other people are often assholes and idiots.

Even when they’re innocuous, other people are not always helpful. When Kelly suggests a world in which any reader can add links and tags to any book, I shudder. Think about it: Surely you have had the experience of using a library book that a previous borrower has marked up with underlinings and exclamation points and little notes. How often have these additions to the text been useful or illuminating? How often have they been an annoying intrusion?

Yet the common vision of the library's future (even the e-book future) assumes that books will remain isolated items, independent from one another, just as they are on shelves in your public library. There, each book is pretty much unaware of the ones next to it. When an author completes a work, it is fixed and finished. Its only movement comes when a reader picks it up to animate it with his or her imagination….
Turning inked letters into electronic dots that can be read on a screen is simply the first essential step in creating this new library. The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture than ever before. In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.

Yes, the book itself—the dumb object—is unaware of the other books on the shelf, but the book’s author is not, and Kelly rather downplays the role of the reader as a conduit between books and other books, books and other ideas, books and the world outside books.

“[E]very page reads all the other pages”: No, it doesn’t. When a book is digitized, the dumb object we call the “page” becomes the dumb energy we call “code”. Some form of intelligence—whether it’s an actual human or another bit of code written by a human—will still be making the connections. Kelly anthropomorphizes his digitized page to make it all sexy and new, but the dynamic he describes is not qualitatively different from the function that writers and readers have always performed.

So what happens when all the books in the world become a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas?... [T]he universal library of all books will cultivate a new sense of authority. If you can truly incorporate all texts — past and present, multilingual — on a particular subject, then you can have a clearer sense of what we as a civilization, a species, do know and don't know. The white spaces of our collective ignorance are highlighted, while the golden peaks of our knowledge are drawn with completeness. This degree of authority is only rarely achieved in scholarship today, but it will become routine.

I’ve read this a couple of times now, and I’m not really sure what it means, but the very word “authority” does make me pause to consider another problem I have with Kelly’s utopian vision. Once again, the problem is that other people are often assholes and idiots.

Once all books are digitized and housed on the web, the meaning of “book” changes. At this point, it seems to me, anyone with a bit of bandwidth can write a book. The barriers to entry at this universal library become as low as the barriers to entry to the web.

The web is super, but it also, as we all know, full of shit. Even laudable projects like Wikipedia—which Kelly praises as a model for the library of the future—have considerable weaknesses, weaknesses that are inherent in having a supposed source of knowledge that’s generated by enthusiastic amateurs and contributors with nefarious agendas, and it’s often difficult for the non-expert to tell the difference between information and misinformation.

The exclusivity of libraries is a feature, not a bug. A book has to pass several hurdles before it ends up on a library shelf. A librarian has to have deemed it worthy of purchase. A publishing house has to have considered it worth publishing. And, if it’s a scholarly book, parts of the book—if not the whole thing—have almost certainly undergone peer review. All of these facts give me some confidence in the book.

Now, I’m not suggesting that every book in print is brilliant—Lord, no. But, as an informed reader, I have the tools I need to be discerning. I know enough, for example, to evaluate books published by Oxford University Press differently from books published by Regnery. How will I judge the books housed in the virtual library Kelly imagines? Will the “universal library of all human knowledge” be an intellectual paradise, or a garbage dump?

May 16, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Pena ajena, plaatsvervangende schaamte: However you say it, I feel it when I watch Tom Cruise “dancing” on BET.

Tom Cruise 'dances' on BET

Back when I posted an entry on Ashlee Simpson’s SNL appearance, I said that it made me feel embarrassed to be human, and that I knew that there was a Spanish phrase that meant something like “alien embarrassment”, but that I didn’t know what that phrase was.

A helpful reader named Manuel informed me that the phrase I sought was pena ajena, which apparently means “mortification on behalf of another”. A fellow named David chimed in with plaatsvervangende schaamte: Dutch for “shame in another’s place.”

Anyhoo, both are pretty good descriptions of the feeling I get watching Tom Cruise do his little motorcycle stomp on BET.


May 5, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack