Mary MacLane

I stumbled across Mary MacLane’s first book on the Melville House Publishing website where it features as part of their Neversink Library series. Instead of picking that up, I discovered Human Days: A Mary MacLane Reader and bought it with the hope that it would give me all three of her books as well as historical context and commentary.

MacLane has been called ‘the first blogger’ and I think that this is a fitting description. Her first book, The Story of Mary MacLane (also known as I Await The Devil’s Coming) reads like an introspective LiveJournal, all meandering thoughts, feelings and rumination on her place in the world. Completely fascinating.

Whenever I pick up an old book I am regularly jarred by the contrast between my automatic assumption that it will be a difficult text and the reality of how readable and modern the thoughts and feelings of the author can be. When you look at pictures of MacLane it seems that she belongs to another world but upon reading her it feels as though she would not have been out of place whatsoever on an early blogging platform 100 years later.

The book is in equal parts compelling and frustrating. In retrospect, reading a ‘complete works’ in one go was probably the wrong thing to do. My initial excitement about her writing wore off somewhat when I read the articles she had published once her first book was a success. Her second book, My Friend Annabel Lee was much less enjoyable and felt more contrived — as I read it I could feel that this was someone who knowingly had an audience and was now performing in public.

I would have loved to have had more context and commentary about MacLane the person and her works, particularly at this point, but the text that had been added was very brief and devoid of detail. I appreciate that this addition could have added massively to the length of the book but I felt that as presented there was little advantage to buying all of the books together, unless you wanted to read all of her non-book articles as well.

By the time we got to her third book, I, Mary MacLane, it had started to feel like a bit of a slog. I was reading so much of her thoughts but felt I was learning so little; perhaps that was her intent. A couple of times I thought about stopping but as soon as I did so I would get hit by a brilliant chapter and be compelled to keep going. Highlights for me at this point were the following chapters, which are worth reading by anyone:

I regularly found myself going off to look up some of the names that she mentions, for example Theda Bara, a famous actress of her time but now tragically unwatched due to her films being largely lost in a 1937 fire. There are many of these rabbit holes to disappear down. At the end of the book I discovered an extensive notes section which I only wish was hyperlinked in the eBook so that I could have read them in real time — going back to notes on a chapter some 600 pages before was not that useful.

So, overall this is well worth picking up but be warned — for me this was like diving into the ‘director’s cut extended special edition’ when I wasn’t even sure if I was going to like the main feature in the first place.

Building an eBook library at minimal cost

Quote from 'A Life With Books' by Julian Barnes

Quote from 'A Life With Books' by Julian Barnes

I highlighted this sentence while reading Julian Barnes’ ‘A Life With Books’ as it really resonated with me. Among my many faults I am a book kleptomaniac and find it very hard to resist when someone recommends something to read. This isn’t something I want to change — I love having a large library looking back at me every time I want to quickly pick up something a new book — but it can be expensive.

A few years ago I developed a workflow which has allowed me to slowly build a big library at minimal cost. Here’s how it works.

If I get a book recommendation from somewhere and think that it sounds like it is of interest to me I will search for the Kindle version on Amazon and add it to my wish list:

Add to list

Add to list

I’m pretty liberal with what goes on there. I harvest book recommendations from friends, newspaper articles, blog posts, podcasts etc. and as a result I have hundreds of eBooks on my list. Putting Kindle books on there is only really useful as a reminder to yourself as for some reason we are still not able to buy eBooks for other people from their wish lists.

Once you have a number of books on there, the next thing to do is to navigate to your list page:

Navigate to your wish list page

Navigate to your wish list page

You can use the filtering and ordering options to show only ‘items with price drops’, sorted by ‘price (low to high)’:

Select ‘Filter & Sort’

Select ‘Filter & Sort’

Choose the correct filter and sort options

Choose the correct filter and sort options

You will now see anything on your wish list that has dropped in price since you added it, with the cheapest item at the top. At this point it is a good idea to either bookmark this URL or save it somewhere so that you can come back to it.

Amazon Kindle books change their prices all the time so you need to check the page frequently. I have a personal rule that if a book on my wish list drops below £1.99 I will buy it, as this is around the same minimum price that you would have to pay for someone to send you a physical second-hand copy.

For a long time I regularly visited this bookmarked page to see if anything had dropped in price. This was a pain to have to remember to do, especially as most of the time it resulted in discovering that nothing had changed. Then I discovered VisualPing.

The VisualPing homepage

The VisualPing homepage

VisualPing is a webpage monitoring service. On the homepage, you give it a URL to monitor. VisualPing will retrieve a copy of the webpage as it is right now and display it for you. You then need to select the area that you want to monitor; for my Amazon wish-list page (filtered for items with price-drops and ordered from low price to high) I have found that just monitoring the top few items gives the best results:

Selecting the area that you want visualping to monitor

Selecting the area that you want visualping to monitor

The VisualPing service will check the webpage on a regular basis and if there is a difference found it will send you an email alert, complete with screenshots showing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ views. You can then navigate to the page and buy the new cheapest items that have made it to the top of the list.

VisualPing will allow you to monitor your wish list with a daily check every day, free, forever. This will catch all of the major price movements at the top of your list which usually occur on the start of the month. However, I have occasionally found that some books are dropped in price late in the evening UK time and don’t stay cheap for very long. It is therefore worth considering upgrading to a paid account so that you can check the page more frequently. I have mine set to check every six hours which seems to be about right:

Now, if only there was a workflow for sitting down and spending more time reading the books…

Britsoft

Beautifully and immaculately presented, this book was a delight from the moment it landed on my doorstep to when I finished the last page. It documents the history of the UK home computer and gaming industry through a variety of first-hand accounts from people who played key roles at the time.
At the age of nine I was given my first home computer, an Acorn Electron, and it changed my life. Looking back and reading this book, I think I was probably just a few years too young to be hit by the first wave of computers such as the Acorn Atom, ZX80, ZX81 etc. when they came out. By the time I started programming in 1986 the games industry was already well-established.

My dad worked at an airport cargo terminal and used to be given sample copies of magazines that were being imported or exported — he used to bring the computer titles home for me to read, which I did so avidly, even when I didn’t have any experience whatsoever of the machines they were covering. Despite being an Acorn owner, I have so many fond memories of reading both Zzap! 64 and Your Sinclair, magazines that had a lot of personality and humour running through them. Magazines were a massive part of UK computing culture in the 1980s and Britsoft brought it all back.

The first couple of sections of the book gave me itchy fingers. Although I have a technical Computer Science background my work has taken me in a different direction and I haven’t coded in a very long time. Stories of starting off with a BBC BASIC program and slowly refactoring parts of the code into assembly language (in-line with the BASIC) made me want to go and explore again. I never learned much assembly the first time around; in our age of massive computing power it doesn’t feel as relevant anymore but there would still be some joy and satisfaction in it.

It is very interesting to look at the industry arc of hundreds of one-person bedroom developers in the early 1980s turning into smaller numbers of ever larger teams, which were eventually culled when the consoles came along at the turn of the 1990s. It hadn’t occurred to me that the rise of mass mobile platforms such as Android and iOS coupled with Internet distribution means that we once again have a large number of single-person developers who are able to get their games and applications out there. We’ve come full circle.

If you have any interest in the history of computer games or home computing in the UK then I strongly recommend this book.

On Christmas

Yes, I know it’s not quite even mid-November yet. I just started reading the Vintage Classics book ‘Dickens at Christmas’ (I need a good run at it and don’t want to still be reading it in February) and think that the preface is splendid:

“Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused by the recurrence of Christmas. There are people who will tell you that Christmas is not to them what it used to be; that each succeeding Christmas has found some cherished hope dimmed or passed away. Never heed such dismal reminiscences. Do not select the merriest of the three hundred and sixty-five for your doleful recollections, but draw your chair nearer the blazing fire – fill the glass and send round the song – and if your glass be filled with reeking punch, instead of sparkling wine, put a good face on the matter, and empty it off-hand, and fill another, and thank God it’s no worse.” — Charles Dickens

Makes me determined to make it a good one this year.

Plunging into ABBA

Me on stage with ABBA, Stockholm, 2014For a very long time the extent of my relationship with ABBA has been to get annoyed at ‘Dancing Queen’ being played at parties, right at the point where lots of people have been dancing and enjoying themselves. The song has always sounded so downbeat and melancholy to me and although it was a classic I never understood why people would think it fitted in with people partying and having a good time. It always killed the mood for me.

I went to Stockholm for my wedding anniversary this year. We didn’t plan much into our schedule, preferring to walk around, eating (a lot), drinking (what we could afford) and taking in the sights. On one of the days we decided to go for a walk from our hotel in Södermalm to the island of Djurgården with the vague intention of visiting the Vasamuseet, apparently Stockholm’s top tourist attraction. However, when we got there we were dismayed to see a queue of top-tourist-attraction proportions. Not wishing to spend a significant chunk of our holiday waiting in line for something we only vaguely wanted to see we decided to wander on. This is when we stumbled across the ABBA The Museum and the Swedish Music Hall of Fame, conveniently located in the same building.

My first thought was something along the lines of “Really?” Of course, I knew a lot of ABBAs hits—just from having turned on a radio over the course of the past few decades—and had to concede that they had some good tunes but my thoughts immediately went back to ‘Dancing Queen’. After a bit of debate and not having concrete plans of what else we should do (plus my hope that there may be one or two items about Roxette in the ‘Swedish Music Hall of Fame’ bit) we decided to go in.

It was such a pleasant surprise. I’ve always been a big music fan ever since I was a young boy and used to spend lots of my pocket money on music magazines such as Vox, Mojo, NME and later Uncut, reading detailed articles even about bands whose sounds and songs I had never heard. Wandering around the museum for two or three hours with no children in tow, being allowed to absorb the story of a very famous pop band about whom I knew very little beyond their biggest hits took me right back to those days where I pored over those magazines.

We both paid for the portable audio guide and were treated to Björn, Benny, Anni-Frid and Agnetha talking about the things we were seeing and hearing as we wandered around. I wasn’t familiar with a lot of their lesser-known songs and particularly their earlier work (‘People Need Love’ and ‘Ring Ring’, anyone?) nor about how they came to be, the boys being massively famous in the bands The Hep Stars and The Hootenanny Singers (yes, really) and the girls starting off as solo artists. We had a lot of fun in there and the verdict was that it was very well put-together and worth it even if you aren’t the world’s biggest ABBA fan.

I have a bit of an obsessive personality and when I get into something I really want to learn all I can about it and absorb myself in it. ABBA The Museum lit a spark for me. I started in the obvious place, listening to all of their back catalogue through Spotify and reading the Allmusic album guides as I went along. (You can find a playlist of tracks I found interesting that I wanted to go back to here if you want to hear them yourself—a particular highlight is Björn singing in an imitation Noddy Holder voice on ‘Rock Me’!) I also looked around for a good biography of the group and came across Carl Magnus Palm’s ‘Bright Lights, Dark Shadows’ which seemed to be the definitive work. On a hunch I picked up an audiobook copy, £7.99 from Audible.co.uk with a monthly subscription, and I’m very glad I did. At just over 26 hours in length it is a bit of a commitment but it is well worth it—listening to the book felt just like an extension of the audio tour that we took around the museum which is exactly what I was after. The story is very interesting and goes far beyond just a chronological sequence of events in the lives of the group. There are touchpoints with Swedish and European cultural history such as in the ‘schlager’ song traditions that they started out with and which where intertwined with the Eurovision Song Contest. Their tale is closely woven with Polar Music and in particular their manager and early songwriting partner Stig Anderson, someone who had such an impact on Sweden that he was given a televised funeral which is traditionally something reserved for “distinguished statesmen or royalty”. The story reflects the decades in which it takes place, for example the focus on songwriting and music publishing in the 1960s and 1970s and how this changes as we moved into the 1980s and beyond as well as the ABBA revival in the 1990s that was kicked off by Erasure and the multitude of tribute acts. I finished the book on the way home from work this evening and like any good story I’m sad to finish it. If you’ve an interest in popular culture, pop music or just like long and detailed biographies then it is well worth the time.

The joy of Readmill

It has been over six months since I stopped using Readmill and I still think about it regularly. If you are not aware, Readmill was a social reading platform that let you track and log your reading, make highlights in ebooks (or if you were really enthusiastic type them in manually from physical books), ‘follow’ other readers, and have conversations about each other’s readings and highlights. They also made a simply beautiful ebook reader for iOS and Android. When they announced that they had sold the company to Dropbox and would be shutting it down I was heartbroken, an emotion that I don’t think I had ever experienced with a service on the web. They admitted that they had failed to create a sustainable platform and even if their (generally enthusiastic) users started to pay for the service they would not be able to make it viable. All of their work had a touch of class to it and this included the point where they left us—each reader was given the ability to download a beautiful Readmill ‘story’ containing details of all of the books they have read and highlights they have made and ‘liked’. I still go back to mine frequently when I want to refer to a particular quote.

For me, the joy of Readmill came from the conversations that a simple highlight could spark. I followed a large number of users, almost all of whom I didn’t know before I started using the service. The resulting activity feed showing all of the books they were reading and the highlights they were making was always worth scrolling through and I spent many hours browsing these as well as contributing my own as I went along.

Up until the point that I found Readmill I had always considered myself to be a reader but in truth I spent many more hours in front of Twitter or Instapaper than I did with books. Readmill changed all that for me and soon became my favourite activity. It got me reading books again—a lot of books—which is probably the highest praise I can give it.

Since Readmill disappeared I’ve been searching for a replacement with limited success. The Marvin iOS app was the obvious place to go to read my large backlog of ePub books; it’s a brilliant reading app but it completely lacks the social features and website that made Readmill so great. Glose looks interesting and is one to keep an eye on—it has social features and looks very similar to Readmill but at the moment you can only read books available on their store and not upload your own. I’ve also been trying out The Pigeonhole which takes things in a slightly different direction—you sign up to a book which is then delivered to you over a number of weeks in the form of ‘staves’ along with additional related content such as videos, author insights etc. and the ability to discuss the staves with other readers. Publishing books as a series is very reminiscent of how Charles Dickens’ works were originally released in periodicals and indeed they are making Great Expectations available in this format for free so you can try them out.

The folks at Readmill had really made something special and it was such a shame it didn’t work out. Six months later I am still in contact with a few of the ex-users as we stumble across new reading services and platforms—it’s as if we’re all trying to find a new place to live. Sadly, we haven’t found anywhere quite as nice just yet.

Ten books that have stayed with me

When I recently saw people participating in the Facebook meme ‘ten books that have stayed with me’ I started thinking about what mine would be. I posted this up in response to a friend tagging me in and it felt like a shame to leave it to rot as a status update so I have reproduced it here.

Here goes:

  1. Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig: Possibly the best novel I have ever read. I literally could not put this down and every day wanted to stop whatever I was doing and read some more. The whole story is so perfect and such a rollercoaster—it leaps from comedy to thriller to tragedy and often multiple times within a few pages. An almost perfect book.
  2. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: I read this in December one year and it was so good I even avoided drinking at my work Christmas bash so that I could enjoy more of it on the train ride home. I’m not sure that the book intends to be amusing but there were parts of it that I found very funny. All of the characters seem to ham it up and be over dramatic and some of them (Zossimov, anyone?) add some light relief to the goings-on. Super important to get a good translation (I love a footnote!) Was my favourite until Beware of Pity knocked it off the top spot.
  3. The Principles of Product Development Flow by Donald Reinertsen: I think this book contains the secret sauce for the best way to go about ‘product development’ work such as building and maintaining IT systems or anything else that is bespoke and intangible. Unfortunately the book is so dense that I think it requires multiple readings to really absorb its points and to think about how to apply them at work. I need to go back and start my second reading soon.
  4. The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste by Rose George: Gives you so much to think about in terms of how most of the world live (without sanitation) and how lucky we are to have the things we take for granted. Soon after I read this I was in South Africa and heard a news story about a young schoolboy who died after he fell into an open pit latrine and couldn’t get out. Explores such questions as ‘why do we use dry toilet paper?’ which I had never given a second thought.
  5. Estates: An Intimate History by Lynsey Hanley: Raised lots of interesting questions for me. In the UK we are so proud of our social healthcare system but the complete opposite is true of social housing. Going to the NHS has no stigma but coming from a council estate does. Again, challenged some things I took for granted. Very interestingly goes into the author’s own experience and how she got out of the ‘council estate mindset’ and realised that there were things that she could do with her life that everybody (teachers, society) assumed and said that she couldn’t.
  6. What It Is Like To Go To War by Karl Marlantes: Recommended by Dan Carlin on his Hardcore History podcast. This is a book written by someone who has been at war and explains the psychology and myriad of emotions surrounding being involved in a conflict on the ground. So many good points and completely challenged my ideas of being a pacifist; I’m not sure I am anymore.
  7. Moonshot by Dan Parry: Written by a guy who lives a few doors from me. Absolutely brilliant and brings home just how amazing the first moon landings were. Very well-written and had me scurrying off to Wikipedia multiple times to look stuff up (such as Neil Armstrong’s career of flying X-series rocket jets for the Air Force which are still the fastest things to have ever flown!)
  8. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg: Every bit as good as its title. You can download this for free as it was written in 1824 and is well out of copyright. I was amazed at how readable this was. Scary and macabre,a good one to pick up as we go into winter.
  9. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: My uncle Pete got me into John Steinbeck by buying me a copy of East of Eden when I was a teenager. I was hooked straightaway and even more so when we studied Of Mice and Men at school. I think there are only a couple of books that he wrote that I haven’t read and I have also ploughed through a 1,000-page biography as well as his Life in Letters. Grapes is for me his best book—not only is the writing amazing and the story excellent but it also had such a big influence on American politics that reverberated for years.
  10. Room at the Top by John Braine: Another book given to me by uncle Pete when I was a teenager. I’ve read this a few times over the years and each time have got something different from the book. When I was young I wanted to be the main character and then as I got a little bit older I started to look at him with pity and realise the tragedy of it all.

I have other ‘notable mentions that didn’t quite fit’ but I’ll leave it there as I’ve already written too much.

 

Anna Karenina

I finally managed to finish Anna Karenina last week after about four months of reading. It takes me so long to read a book as the only time I seem to get (or, rather, make for myself) to read is my daily commute on the tube. However, that didn’t put me off tackling something the size of Anna Karenina and I’m very glad – the book is an absolute delight.
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