The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin comes out today, and you should buy it right now.

coverI’m kinda tempted to just leave it at that, really. I went into this book almost entirely blind – I knew I loved Jemisin’s work, so of course I was going to read this one, and you bet I was going to stalk Orbit until they started giving away review copies. (Damn but I love being a librarian.) I heard her read the first chapter at WisCon, and I was floored. But I didn’t read anything else about it until I had it in my hands.

In case you require more convincing, here’s the idea: Our story takes place on a world not very much like our own, one with a whole hell of a lot of tectonic activity. Volcanoes, earthquakes, the works. The “fifth season” that the title refers to is what happens when one of those world-changing events gets big enough to actually change the world. Maybe it’s ashfall that plunges the environment into a five-year-long winter. Maybe it’s a massive earthquake that shatters the centers of civilization. Sooner or later, everyone knows, it’s going to happen. It’s only a matter of time.

Humans on this world have one small line of defense against Father Earth (who, according to legend, hates them so much he’s trying to wipe them out): orogenes, people with a supernatural power over the earth’s movements. Orogenes are highly valuable to the Fulcrum, the wealthy, core-cultural region where most of government happens, but they’re also feared and despised. After all, an angry orogene could wipe out your entire city – hell, your entire region, if they felt like it. Obviously they’re dangerous and need to be controlled. Obviously they need to be manipulated, groomed, subdued, or – failing all that – killed.

Every one of our main characters is an orogene. There’s Essun, who came home three days ago to find her three-year-old son beaten to death by her husband. There’s Damaya, a little girl who just barely escapes being murdered by her own family. There’s Syenite, a young woman and a trained orogene just discovering the true extent of the limits she’s been living under all her life. And there’s all the people who fall in around them: the transwoman who’s studying orogeny in the outlying districts, the orogene so powerful his primary use to the powers that be is being put out to stud, the coastal city governor who can’t or won’t see the danger she’s in, the Guardians who watch the orogenes, the unusual little boy who appears at the end of the world.

This is a book full of people. It’s got great worldbuilding, it’s got great magic, it’s got great politics and a truly outstanding plot woven with incredible skill and fantastic prose – but oh my god, the people. I don’t cry at books often. It usually takes a visual cue to bring real tears to my eyes. I cried reading The Fifth Season. I was at work. I care so, so much about these people, about Damaya and Syenite and Essun, and I hurt for them, and I wanted them to be okay.

They are not okay. This is a hard book to read – I mean, there’s that opening scene, with Essun and her son’s body. You can’t say you weren’t warned. I don’t really think it gets worse from there, but it doesn’t get much better. This is a novel from the point of view of an oppressed minority, and it’s there in every realistic detail, from the broad strokes of the culture at large to the microaggressions of everyday interaction. I don’t think I’ve ever seen oppression rendered so well in fantasy. This is a book with teeth.

Some people are going to be put off by the fact that Essun’s story is told in second person. Yes, it’s stunt writing. Yes, it’s tremendously effective and entirely worth the time it will take you to get into the story and forget about the pronouns. (It took me two pages.) Look, stunt writing is only bad if you can’t pull it off, and Jemisin? Well, I’m starting to believe that she can do anything.

I read this book two months ago, starting the second I got the download from the publisher. I’m going to my local indie to buy a paper copy this weekend, and I’m going to read it again. Just writing this post made me long to go back to it, to the people I care about, to the deep, wide, wonderful, terrifying world they live in. The Fifth Season is the first book in the Broken Earth trilogy, which means there will be more of this world yet to come.

I can’t wait.

WisCon39 Reading

As I prepare to head out to WisCon39, a quick round-up of the WisCon-related reading I’ve been doing lately.

Tiptree Winners

It’s not uncommon for the Tiptree committee to be too torn to give an award to just one book. This year there were two winners.

My Real Children by Jo Walton
All right, I didn’t read this recently – I read it as soon as it came out, because Jo Walton. My Real Children is the story of Patricia Cowen, an old woman in a nursing home, who can’t remember her life. Or rather, she can remember two lives, one where she married her college sweetheart and had five children and divorced him, and another one, where she moved to Florence and became a travel writer and fell in love with someone else entirely. As science fiction goes, it’s a very light touch, but that’s one of the things that makes it work so well – at it’s heart, this is a book about the choices we make and how much they can impact our lives. And, the implication exists, the lives of everyone else in the world as well. Walton read the first chapter of this at WisCon in 2013, and I read it the instant it came out.

The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne
This one I did read because it won the Tiptree, and I could not be happier to have it brought to my attention. When she wakes up with snakebites on her chest, Meena flees her life in India and winds up walking the Trail, an energy-harvesting bridge that runs all the way to Ethiopia, across the Arabian Sea. It’s illegal to walk the Trail, not to mention incredibly difficult, but Meena sees no other way out of her life. Her story interweaves with Mariama’s, an escaped slave girl in Africa who seeks a new life in Addis Abba. The ending of this book blew me away; I couldn’t read anything else for days.

Guests of Honor

For the first time, this year I hadn’t read anything by either of WisCon’s guests of honor, so I set out to remedy that…much later than I should have. (They make the announcement on Sunday night of the con for next year! I could have been reading these books for a year! Alas, I procrastinate.)

Alaya Dawn Johnson – The Summer Prince
When I went to review this book for work, I was surprised to see how many people on Goodreads disliked it so strongly, because I absolutely adored it. June Costa and her best friend Gil are wakas – under 30 years old, and therefore almost completely powerless in a society of people who regularly live to two hundred years old and more. And it’s an important year for wakas, because it’s the time in the five-year political cycle when the Summer King is elected. For a year he’ll serve at the side of the Queen, and at the end of his term he’ll die, choosing the new Queen with his last breath. Of course, the game is rigged – it’s not time for a new Queen, so he’ll get to choose from only one candidate. The worldbuilding alone was gorgeous, an incredible futuristic Brazil, but the characters – June and Gil and the Summer King, Enki – were marvellous. I’ve checked out her Spirit Binders duology and I only wish I’d had time to read it before the con.

Kim Stanley Robinson – Red Mars
I’ve been meaning to read this for years, as part of my “catch up on sci-fi classics” project, so this seemed like the perfect excuse. Most of the summaries I’ve seen focus on the terraforming of Mars, which is in fact the plot, but what I’m really enjoying is the way each section is written from the point of view of a different character. In the hands of a lesser writer this would be tedious or repetitive, but Robinson gives you people of such different perspectives, and writes them so well, that what you get instead is behavior that looks insane from one point of view seeming perfectly reasonable from another, and vice versa. Plus politics and terraforming and interesting problem-solving. I admit I haven’t finished it yet, but I’ve got the ebooks for the whole trilogy loaded up on my tablet to bring with me this weekend.

Failure States of Horror Fiction

I have a somewhat contentious relationship with horror fiction. I want to like it.  I’ve read very few truly excellent horror novels – The Haunting of Hill House comes to mind – but I’m becoming something of a connoisseur of the failure states of horror.

(Spoilers follow, for Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, Dave Zeltserman’s The Caretaker of Lorne Field, and Christopher Buehlman’s Those Across the Water.)

PLEASE JUST STOP

So I finally got around to reading Pet Sematary. I know, I know. But here’s the thing: Pet Sematary is a damn good book. Stephen King is at his best when his horrors are at their subtlest, very nearly nothing more than ordinary human disasters. Pet Sematary is built around every parent’s worst nightmare: the death of a child. King doesn’t pull any punches, either – it’s pretty much the most horrific death you could imagine. Everything that could possibly make it worse does make it worse. And although it happens about halfway through the book, and the bad decision the father makes doesn’t happen until very near the end, you know exactly what’s going to happen. Hell, you knew what was going to happen from the moment the premise is introduced: there’s a burial ground where the dead things that have been buried there come back to life. Of course the kid is going to die, and of course the father is going to bring the kid back, and of course that’s going to go horribly wrong. In case you weren’t picking up on all the other signals, one of the epigraphs is from “The Monkey’s Paw.” You not only know what’s going to happen, you’re supposed to know.

Because, see, Pet Sematary isn’t really a horror novel. It’s a tragedy. Tragedy is what happens when you can see all the consequences barreling down toward the main character at a million miles an hour and you know they can save themselves if they don’t do the thing and they do the thing anyway. Which you knew they were going to do. What kind of a story would it be if they didn’t do the thing? And as a tragedy, Pet Sematary works really well. The main character (I’m sorry I can’t remember his name, but it doesn’t really matter, he’s really just Stephen King in a horrific alternate universe) starts out with a pretty good life and then bad things happen but he’s okay and then bad things happen and he makes bad choices and then really, really bad things happen. It’s a tragedy. With an undead cat.

Which is why the ending falls flat on its face. It goes on too long. “The Monkey’s Paw” ends at just the right moment: before the door opens, before the dead son returns to his parents, when your imagination is still churning over all the various ways this could be bad. King is working on showing you exactly how bad it is, which is fine as far as it goes, except that he’s spent the whole novel implying things with that damned undead cat and the entity that comes back in the body of the narrator’s son doesn’t actually seem to have anything to do with the things he’d been implying. He ends up having to repeat himself, in the end, to actually end at pretty much the same place “The Monkey’s Paw” knew to stop with in the first place.

So that’s one complete failure: the inability to know where to stop. King does that a lot, actually – he loads up on atmospheric horror and then just keeps going. Which is fine up to a point, but there’s a line beyond which something isn’t scary, it’s just ridiculous, and the end of Pet Sematary just stomps all over that one.

I HOPE YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU JUST IMPLIED

I don’t know why I kept reading The Caretaker of Lorne Field. Usually when a book presents me with a self-righteous middle-aged white dude and his stereotype of a nagging wife, I give up right there. But I kept going, for whatever reason. Maybe because the book had been strongly recommended to me. Maybe just because it was a hot day and I was bored and didn’t have anything better to do. I wish I could tell you it got better. It didn’t. The main character remained a self-righteous middle-aged white dude, battling against the forces of rationality to maintain the ancient family tradition of pulling weeds out of a field on the outskirts of town. His nagging wife remains a painful stereotype of someone who doesn’t understand thing one about what they’re complaining about but won’t stop complaining anyway. And really, you can see how this is going to go, from the very first page: the poor, embittered guy everyone thinks is delusional really is saving the world from monsters, and sooner or later everyone else is going to regret mocking him for it.

And then it doesn’t. Or it almost doesn’t. Factually speaking, that is exactly what happens. But perceptually speaking, the narrator begins to change his mind. In prison for murder – all done in defense of his sacred duty to the field, of course – he sees a psychiatrist, and begins to doubt his own belief. Maybe he really hasn’t been saving the world. Maybe he did maim his eldest son and kill the sheriff in order to support his own delusional beliefs. Maybe the monsters really aren’t attacking the courthouse right now, and the world is not about to end, and all this is his own mind playing tricks on him. Wouldn’t that be great? The final page of the novel walks a fine line between being condescending about that idea and actually taking it seriously, and if it doesn’t always manage to stay on the right side of that divide, at least it’s the best concept for an ending for a story of its type that I’ve seen in a long time. It was an ending that worked – but stuck on the end of a book that just didn’t, to the point where I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, even on the strength of the ending.

I mean, horror is an id thing, I get it – you don’t get to choose what scares you, and what scares you is not always going to be politically correct. But oh my god does it get awkward when you’re reading a horror novel and all the sudden the Unfortunate Implications are coming out of the woodwork. This was my biggest problem with Christopher Buehlman’s Those Across the River, which would have been a perfectly excellent werewolf novel if not for the backstory: a bunch of slaves rose up and murdered the plantation owner and then became werewolves because I don’t know why. Because they’re slavering monsters? You see what I mean about unfortunate implications.

(The truly grotesque example I always think of is a short story I read in a classic sci-fi anthology years ago about a guy who comes home to find this horrible alien monster living in his house, bossing him around, running things in his absence, and the punchline is that it’s his wife. It makes my skin crawl just thinking of it, and not in the way the author intended.)

Casual racism and sexism have ruined a lot of horror for me. Maybe this is where I find Victorian horror more forgivable – it is, after all, Victorian, and we don’t expect them to know better.

I think Unfortunate Implications are easy in horror because when your goal is to scare the crap out of your readers you’re thinking about what they’re scared of, not about whether it’s unkind to label any particular person or category of people as scary. This isn’t an excuse, just an explanation. I think that an examination of the difference between what’s genuinely scary and what we’re scared of for no reason is a fruitful avenue for horror fiction, but that’s not what generally happens. Stereotypes are easy, and Sturgeon’s Law always applies.

 

Of course there are plenty of other ways horror fiction fails, but as I was coming up with a list I was finding that most of them were just general writing failures. Characters you don’t care about. Plots that drag. These are the two that drive me up the wall with horror particularly: the ending that destroys the suspense, and the stereotypes that make you wish you’d never started.

I’ve found a few standout exceptions. The Haunting of Hill House is a classic for a reason; it’s a really, really good atmospheric horror novel, and it has a perfect ending. If it has any Unfortunate Implications, it’s easy to shrug those off as an artifact of a writer from an earlier time. Tananrive Due and Cherie Priest both write horror that is the exact opposite of Unfortunate Implications. Sarah Monette writes a series of short stories in a Lovecraftian mode but with more modern (and way less racist) sensibilities which are also terrifyingly scary – but then again, horror as a short story and horror as a novel are two different beasts, I think, and maybe I should save that for another post.

I bought my very first Worldcon supporting membership today.

I’ve never thought of myself as a Worldcon person. Even when I first found out about it, I was more terrified than excited. All those people, in one space, all weekend? That would be my idea of hell, even if all of those people were talking about things I liked. So when I found out, many years later, that you could buy a supporting membership to Worldcon and vote on the Hugo Awards (which for a long time have been a valuable source of new reading material for me), it never occurred to me to actually do it.

I thought about it last year, when the utterly toxic Vox Day and his preferred slate of nominees made it on the ballot. I raged about it to my friends. I cried at N.K. Jemisin’s speech at WisCon. But I thought there was no way they would win the award, faced with the whole voting population of Worldcon, and I was right. I’d forgotten what people like that will do when faced with a defeat.

Let me be perfectly clear, my opposition to this year’s Sad Puppies 3 and Rabid Puppies slates (you may google them if you so choose; I will not do so again) is twofold. First is the procedural reason: I do not like slate-based voting. I do not like it in governmental elections, where it is at least sometimes a necessary evil; I despise it in a voluntary merit-based award. Although I have not been a voting member, I have been aware of the lengths the Worldcon and Hugo committees have been going to to increase the representation of short-form fiction, and to see all that undone in a single slate is heartbreaking. More to the point, slate-based voting turns the Hugo Awards into an “us-vs-them” contest, which they have never, ever been, and which I do not want them to be.

But I’m not going to pretend I’m only angry for cold-blooded technical reasons. I’m angry because someone like Vox Day thinks he has the right to deny other people a place at the table. I’m angry because the SP folks have reached out to some of the most toxic bile on the Internet in an attempt to “show them” (where “them” is actually me and people like me). I’m angry because they are demonstrably here just to break shit.

And I didn’t think I was part of this community, but you know what, the Hugos are and have been important to me, and it turns out I am not willing to sit here and watch somebody else try to burn it down.

ETA, 4/6/15: In the cold light of morning, I apologize to my non-fen readers (if I have any) for what must look like so much insider baseball. If you are confused by this and you consider yourself a fan of science fiction and fantasy, or if you have ever enjoyed the Hugo shortlist, I encourage you to seek out some more coherent writeups of the situation (io9 has a decent start) and do as you feel is right. If you aren’t and you don’t – well, it’s probably enough to know that there is nowhere the culture wars won’t go, and science fiction does sometimes have some very nasty insider baseball.

Fame, Infamy, Failure States: true crime and Popular Crime by Bill James

The only real exploration of the appeal of true crime stories I’ve ever found is Popular Crime by Bill James, a rambling journey through major crime stories of American history, with a healthy dose of social critique and analysis. There’s no real thesis, unless it’s that true crime is useful for something other than prurient interest, but it’s interesting nonetheless. The author’s habit of stringing together a long list of vaguely similar cases from vaguely similar times gives the impression of patterns, but his regular admission that he’s not really a historian makes me suspicious of actually trusting these patterns.Popular Crime

He’s so invested in proving that true crime stories have worth, though, that he doesn’t pay any attention to true crime done wrong. And let’s be real – there’s an awful lot of that going around. The ones that drive me up the wall are the ones (frequently serial killer stories) that imply that the victims had it coming. This happens a lot when the victims are prostitutes, slightly less often when the victims are working-class women, and almost never when the victims are well-off white women. (Men are rarely the victims in true crime stories, which is a different analysis all its own.) I still look back with irritation on Murder in the Heartland, a book about a really psychologically interesting crime that ultimately comes to the conclusion, “Bitches be crazy.”

Not only is this insulting, it’s unhelpful. I mean, the insulting is bad enough, but I’m willing to accept uncomfortable truths for the sake of learning something. Thing is, uncomfortable truths are usually not insulting, because insulting is generalizing from biases and it’s really hard to get truths out of that. You have to go out another level, look at the generalizations instead of the thing you’re generalizing about. For instance, from reading Murder in the Heartland, I can’t tell a lot about the crime itself (a woman with delusional pregnancy murders a woman with a physical pregnancy to steal her baby) but you can tell that it comes out of a society that already tends to treat women as irrational creatures and pregnancy as a weird special condition that creates a special moral zone in which everything becomes that much more important. Of course, we already knew that.

Helpful true crime, to me, would be true crime stories that tell you something about why somebody does something awful and what can be done about it. This kind of thing happens most often in historical true crime, which I guess makes sense because then we have enough distance from both the crime itself and the culture to draw connections that make sense. It’s much easier to talk about what made Leopold and Loeb killers than it is to say what made Robert Durst who he is. Not that that means we’re right about Leopold and Loeb – just that we’re more comfortable talking about it.

And maybe you can only get that kind of helpful out of patterns. (That’s how science works, after all. In patterns.) James takes a good stab at it in his book, and even if I’m not entirely sure about all of his analysis, it is kind of interesting that kidnapping was the crime of choice in the 1920s and domestic murder in the 1990s. Whether that’s because one type of crime was considered more newsworthy or because it really did happen more I don’t know, but the pattern has to mean something. (Likewise the rash of women breaking windows in Wisconsin in the 1890s, as chronicled in Wisconsin Death Trip. I don’t know what it means but it was a thing, you know? It was a thing that people did, and I don’t know why.)

All of which is a really roundabout way of saying: I really like reading true crime. Yes, sometimes it feels like a guilty pleasure. Yes, a lot of it is exploitative and that’s gross. But there is something there, something about humanity. In order to understand how something works you have to understand the way it fails.

Why I read bad books

Over my Christmas vacation this year, I read a novel that had gotten a lot of buzz in the months before it came out in an English translation: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker. It was a hefty book – around six hundred pages – and probably the worst novel I’ve read in years. But I read the whole damn thing, and I’m still trying to figure out why.

I honestly don’t know why I keep reading books I don’t like. Once upon a time I believed that it was my solemn duty to finish anything I started, but I got over that a few years ago when I realized that my reading list had already exceeded life expectancy and also people kept writing new books, so that’s not it. I frequently give up on books when I realize that I simply can’t be bothered to turn the next page.

Sometimes I give up when I realize I know everything that’s going to happen in the rest of the book. This happens most often with fantasy or with young adult fiction (and fairly frequently with young adult fantasy), which are, let’s face it, both genres with a pretty high level of predictability. It’s possible I’ve missed out on some good books this way, but I doubt it. Good writing will carry me through a predictable plot, and poor writing is not a good indicator of interesting plot-twists.

Speaking of YA, I frequently give up on something when I realize the author is setting up an obvious and uninteresting love triangle. My response to love triangles is usually “why don’t all three of them get married and work it out?” so I really could not care less about this particular method of building tension. Someday it will go out of fashion again, but in the meantime, I’m sure I’ve missed out on some otherwise good books just because I don’t have the patience for yet another “Team Edward/Team Jacob” pile of nonsense.

I do not, on the other hand, immediately give up just because a character has done something implausible, improbable, or outrageously stupid. The sort of thing that would be called “out of character” in fanfiction but you can’t call it out of character when it’s in the original story, even though you can tell it’s a poor writing choice. I don’t like it, obviously, but it’s not an immediate drop. Neither is a bad plot twist – when something goes unexpectedly wrong, not in the story but in the way you can tell the writer just lost track of what they were doing, I can’t wait to see how it all falls apart next.

So there is a certain trainwreck appeal to reading a really bad book. Some books, after all, are bad, in the same way some movies are bad, not intentionally but with a degree of fascination. This, I think, was part of what kept me going through The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair: the plot revolves around a love affair between a man in his thirties and a sixteen-year-old girl. Everyone’s immediate reaction is disgust, but as soon as he defends himself with “but I really loved her! And she really loved me!” the sympathetic characters agree that everything must be okay and you can tell the unsympathetic characters by their continued insistence that the guy has a serious problem. This is beyond the usual level of bad writing, it’s just bizarre. I kept reading to find out what kind of weird alternate universe the novel was set in. (Turns out it’s also the kind of weird alternate universe where authors receive $3 million advances, date models, and get accosted on the street by admirers, after having written only one breakout bestseller. I should have known.)

I suppose the answer is, I’ll keep reading if something’s interestingly bad. Like anything else, boringness is the death of entertainment, but something that’s so dramatically mis-handled as to catch my attention is bound to keep me going, even if it’s just so I can complain to everyone else about the godawful thing I just read.

Unless, of course, we’re talking about punctuation. Punctuation should never be interesting.

I stayed up until 2AM reading a book about math: How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg

How Not To Be WrongOkay, it’s true, I did request this book from the library, I did check it out and sit down to read it. But I really had absolutely no idea how much I would enjoy it, and I definitely did not expect to stay up all night because I just didn’t want to put it down.

Jordan Ellenberg, professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (home of my graduate school, for full disclosure) has written a book about math: not how you learned it in high school, but how it really is, both for professional mathematicians and in the day-to-day world where mathematical thinking is useful. If someone had taught me math like this when I was a kid, I’d be making a whole lot more money than I am right now.

We’re not talking about addition and subtraction here, or even algebra or calculus. Well, a little calculus. And some geometry. But stop, don’t run away, it’s really not that scary. Because mostly what we’re talking about – what Ellenberg is talking about in this book – is the way math works, the way that math shapes the world, and the way we can use math to change the way we interact with the world.

He uses the story of Abraham Wald in the introduction, to suck you in to his way of thinking. Wald was a mathematician working for the military during the Second World War when they came to him with a problem. Here are the planes that come back covered in bullet holes, the generals said. We need you to tell us where to put the armor. The generals were figuring somewhere on the wings, which was where there were more bullet holes than anywhere else. But Wald said, no, you put the armor on the engines. Why? Because the planes with bullet holes in the wings came back. The ones with bullets in the engines? They weren’t flying home at all.

That kind of logic is at the core of what Ellenberg is teaching with this book. And I gotta say, it’s pretty effective. By the end of the book, I understood for the first time the point of purely theoretical math.* Also, I kind of want to play with non-Euclidean geometry. And not in a Lovecraftian way, for once.

As a bonus, Ellenberg is pretty damn entertaining while he’s teaching. Examples range from baseball statistics to politics to con artists, and the book is liberally scattered with amusing footnotes. For example, from a description of how not to add percentages, using the Florida 2000 election as an illustration:

Yes, I, too, know that one guy who thought both Gore and Bush were tools of the capitalist overlords and it didn’t make a difference who won. I am not talking about that guy.

He also uses an XKCD cartoon as an example. So he’s obviously a man of refined and distinguished tastes.

I could get all dramatic and say that this is an important book and everyone should read it because it will help them – to paraphrase the title – be less wrong all the time, but that would sound preachy, and I hate that. Instead I shall say that this is a massively enlightening and entertaining book, and if you like having your mind blown but always suffered through trig by looking things up in the back of the book and praying you’d remember the formulas long enough to get through the test, you might enjoy How Not To Be Wrong more than you might think.

*It’s because math is based on a very few basic principles, out of which you can create complex structures, but because there are so few building blocks those complex structures tend to generalize well. So you do some math to describe one thing, and then you elaborate on that math in a purely theoretical way, and then it turns out that the same math describes a completely different thing. Which is kind of mind-blowing, really.

Reading, reading, reading.

Oh my god, I haven’t written a blog post in almost a year.

I haven’t stopped reading, though. (Pause here for hysterical laughter at the very thought of such a thing.)

This year I joined the Read Our Own Tomes group on LibraryThing, a group dedicated to reading books that you, y’know, actually own. The Shelf has only gotten larger over the years, and last summer I had to move it. It’s not really a Shelf any more. It’s more…an entire bookcase. And I knew I’d probably be moving again this summer, so I thought to myself – it’s time to get to work on this.

I have no idea how many books were on it when I started. I didn’t keep track, and anyway, I added my ebook collection after the first of the year, so numbers are a little skewed. (Turns out I’d been stockpiling a lot of ebooks.) But as of right now, June 26, 2014, LibraryThing tells me that I have 307 books that I own and have not yet read, and since the beginning of the year, I’ve read 70. Not too shabby, even if most of those books were on the short side, and it’s the massive hardcovers that are really a pain to move.

Still, progress is progress. And besides, when I noticed in February that I was averaging better than a book a day, I resurrected an old goal of mine: to read 300 books in a year.

Does anyone else remember those book quizzes that came on five-inch floppies? We had them in middle school, and we had to take quizzes amounting to so many points in order to pass the year. I actually ended up with twice the minimum number of points, and my teacher printed out a list (on the dot-matrix printer) of all the books I’d read that year. It was more than 300. I can’t find the list any more, so I couldn’t tell you how many more, but still. I was pretty damn proud of myself.

Of course, I was reading shorter books then (I could get through four or five Babysitter’s Club books in a day), and I didn’t have to work, which makes a big difference. But I keep thinking to myself – I’ve done it before. I could do it again.

I’m well on track at the moment: 148 books and counting. And yes, for at least two months, I’ve averaged better than a book a day. I couldn’t review all these if I tried, but it turns out I miss reviewing, and I do want to write about some of them. So look forward, in the next few days, to new reviews at last. And in the meantime, here’s a graph.

reading graph

Aw yeah.

Squee! To Die for Moonlight by Sarah Monette

A short post, entirely to mention something I apparently missed when it was released: There’s a new Kyle Murchison Booth story! To Die for Moonlight, published by the wonderful folks at Apex Magazine.

If you haven’t read any Booth before, you’re in for a treat. I reviewed “White Charles” last year (still my favorite of the Booth stories) but I really don’t think you can go wrong with this, not at all.

And now, I’ll be off to read it. Good night, good night, and happy hauntings.

Make ‘Em Want What You Give ‘Em: libraries, collection philosophy, and culture

This isn’t a book review, but it is a post spun off of a book. It’s also a post about libraries, which is one of those things I keep meaning to write about more, so there.

A few weeks ago I read The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser, a book about the dangers of the personalized web that we’ve all been opted in to without our consent. Pariser lays out the economic models of the free services we all use online every day – primarily Google and Facebook – and describes the ways that these companies’ efforts to put click-worthy links in front of us turn our lives into smaller, less diverse places. This is a huge, fascinating subject, but one example in particular caught my eye.

At one point, Pariser compares the modus operandi of two editorial boards: that of the New York Times, the venerable institution of newsworthiness, and that of Gawker, the online media network that brings you Lifehacker, Gizmodo, and Jezebel. At the New York Times, they don’t track statistics on individual articles, because the assumption is that the editor assigned that article for a reason and if the editor thinks people ought to read about it, the paper’s staff will write about it. At Gawker, they track the popularity of current articles on a big flat-screen TV in the office and if you don’t write enough articles that make it onto the Big Board, you’ll be looking for work elsewhere. The “give ’em what they want” philosophy of Gawker, Pariser argues, is disastrous when applied on a big scale, because people tend to ignore things they know they “should” read in favor of something easy and fun right now. If you skim the paper to get to the sports section, you still see the headlines, he points out, but the chances you’ll see something of serious importance while clicking through a Gawker site are pretty slim.

Leaving aside the relative intellectual merits of Gawker and the NYT for a moment, the phrase “give ’em what they want” grabbed my attention for a different reason – it’s the predominant philosophy in library collections at the moment, particularly public library collections.

There are good historical reasons for this. Back in the day, you had to check out two nonfiction books for every fiction book the librarian would let you have. Heck, back in the day, there were arguments over whether or not libraries should even carry fiction, because it was clearly just salacious nonsense. Patrons ought to be bettering themselves, after all. Eventually libraries became embarrassed by this attitude, and in the early 90s, the Baltimore County Public Library published about their “Give ‘Em What They Want” philosophy of acquisition: if people want romance novels and DVDs, give it to them! Library patrons are the people who vote us our salaries, after all.

It’s gotten to the point where, when the Douglas County Libraries in Colorado decided that since they were getting screwed so hard by the Big Six publishers over ebooks that they’d just buy a batch from Smashwords instead, they were accused of violating good practice by failing to give people what they want. (No, I don’t understand the argument, either. But they did have to rebut it in an interview in Library Journal.)

Look, I’m not saying that romance novels and DVDs and ebooks aren’t great. Of course they are. I get a lot of less-than-100%-necessary things from my library. But if we spend all our money on romance novels and DVDs and ebooks, where do the books about political engagement and green living and social change come from? Suppose that my library shows low circulation for books on women’s history and civil rights. Does that mean we shouldn’t bother with those topics at all?

I’m not saying we should go back to telling people what they should read, or even what they should enjoy. But another point Pariser made got me thinking. Pariser quotes a study finding that a lot of people will put movies they feel they “should” see, like Citizen Kane and Schindler’s List, on their Netflix queues, but keep bumping movies like The Hangover and Scary Movie 3 up to the top. Now, I haven’t seen Citizen Kane. But I straight-up love Orson Welles. Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil are up there at the top of the list of movies I watched on my film noir binge (so rudely interrupted two years ago when I had to move away from my film history library). I don’t feel like I “should” see Citizen Kane, I want to see it. I’m pretty sure I’m going to enjoy it. And I’m sure I’m not the only one.

And books? My god, I can recommend classics with the best of them. Jane Austen is almost a cliché at this point, but there’s always Dickens (any reader who loved The Sopranos needs to read Dickens), and Elizabeth Gaskell for all those Downton Abbey fans, Charles Maturin for horror geeks, and anyone who hasn’t read Shakespeare since high school really needs to give him another try. (I cannot wait for The Hollow Crown to come out on DVD here in the US, so I can start shoving 1 Henry IV at people. And Ralph Finnes’s Coriolanus has been surprisingly popular.)

I’m not pushing these things on people because I think they “should” read classics, although I do think that a firm grounding in the history of literature makes for a more rewarding reading experience all around. And I don’t think anyone should read classics out of a sense of obligation; I think that’s one of the things that destroys a love of reading. But I love Bleak House and North and South and Persuasion and Melmoth the Wanderer and Titus Andronicus, and if you like the kinds of things that make me like those books, you just might love them too. As librarians, especially those of us who do reader’s advisory, we spend a lot of time keeping up with new books so we can give our patrons the new big thing. But there are old big things that are great, too. Sure, Dickens is a harder sell than Robert Galbrath. Doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.