Adapting to ebooks

When I graduated high school, one of my classmates received a gift from his parents: a trip anywhere he wanted.

"Gosh," I thought; "Where would I go, if I could go anywhere?"

The answer: Australia.

Three years later, I spent a semester there.

Unfortunately, I was not the independent traveler in 2000 that I am in 2020. I knew almost none of the classmates I traveled with, and I wasn't as interested as they were in taking advantage of the lower drinking age. Rather than strike out on my own, I mostly kept to myself.

I'd brought a few books to sustain me on the long flight to Melbourne, and a few other books for the flight home. But midway through my ten weeks in Oz, I'd already finished everything I brought.

"Send more books!" I emailed my parents. And so they infiltrated my bedroom and plundered my generous shelves of unread novels — a consequence of a previous summer spent working at WaldenBooks. They boxed them up and shipped them to me, 10,480 miles away, providing me an oasis in a lonely time.

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How to review non-fiction

Many of us learned how to write book reports in primary school. Given the rote nature of much of America's early education, the grade we received was largely based on demonstrating we had read and comprehended the book.

But sometimes, these reports may have also been the first time we were asked our opinion about something we'd read. These books were often fiction, giving us plenty to respond to: the plot, the characters, the dialogue. Did they pull us in? Did we find them believable? How did they make us feel?

So much of what we consume as adults — not just books, but also movies and video games — is also fiction, and those early analytical skills we developed as students now help us to identify what we like and to recommend it to other people. But when confronted with non-fiction, we often resort to that rote education, as if our critical eye no longer applies.

In my job as editor of a retrocomputing magazine, I assign and receive reviews. Since there aren't many works of fiction about retrocomputing, the book reviews I publish are generally of non-fiction. The first draft of those reviews often read something like this:

In the first chapter, the author covers this period of retrocomputing. In the second chapter, she moves on to these other topics. The third chapter, which I found brief, is about this particular era…

That's not a review; that's a summary, able to be recited by almost anyone who read the book. A review, by contrast, is a personal, opinionated critique of the work. The challenge is what to critique when the work lacks the narrative thread and framework of fiction.

The wonderful 2006 book Rewriting: How To Do Things With Text by Joseph Harris offers a rigorous proposal for how to respond to factual texts works with your own. In addition, I recommend these popular prompts that apply to reviews of non-fiction:

  • What, if anything, makes this an important work?
  • What does the reader stand to gain by reading this book?
  • What surprised you? Did you ever have an ah-ha moment while reading the book?
  • What is the mood or tone of the book? Optimistic, critical, playful, promotional?
  • Who is the target audience for the book?
  • Was it easy or difficult to read? Fun and rewarding to read?
  • Does the book deliver on its promise?
  • How is the print quality? Is the book too small or too big? Do the pages feel flimsy?
  • Is the book a good value?
  • What is missing?

While describing the contents of a book is necessary, it should not constitute the majority of the review. By answering the above questions, your response to the original text will prove that you read it and will offer an informed recommendation to your reader.

Watership Down author Richard Adams passes away

Richard Adams, the author of the 1972 book Watership Down and its 1996 sequel Tales from Watership Down, has passed away. He was 96.

I first encountered Adams' story in the form of its 1978 animated adaptation. I couldn't've been more than four years old, at which age the film's dark themes and imagery were entirely inappropriate. Likely my mother thought "Oh, a cartoon about talking bunnies! Kenny will love it," and taped it off TV for me. She couldn't've known it would probably scare me — and yet it didn't. At that age, I was drawn to dark, gothic stories. Every night before going to bed, I would watch Tom Baker as Dr. Who, which featured stories that I rightly should've found scary. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, these stories' creepy tones, I found myself watching them over and over.

Although my geek nature was becoming obvious, I was too young to have the social context in which to feel like an outsider. Yet Fiver's character nonetheless resonated with me. Unlike his bunny brethren, he was scrawny and needed help — but he had his own unusual strengths and contributions to offer. Hazel didn't always understand his brother, but he stood up for him. Ultimately, the band of rabbits never would've found their way to Watership Down without the two of them working together. As the youngest of four brothers, I hoped I would enjoy such support and success with my own family.

In 2001, I visited Ireland and bought a used copy of Watership Down. I'd never read the book, but I was drawn to the silhouette of a pained rabbit on its cover, using art taken from the movie. I began collecting all editions I could find of Watership Down — hardcover and softcover, printed and audio, foreign and domestic. The below photo is only a sample of my current collection.

Ten versions of Watership Down.

A sampling of the various book and audio editions I've purchased.

It was while searching my local bookstore for additional editions that I discovered Adams had written a sequel: the anthology Tales from Watership Down. I immediately purchased and read it, complementing the movie I'd grown up with. And yet I still hadn't read the original novel; I was afraid that doing so would somehow change my experience with the film. I'd heard that the book was used as a text in some political science courses, and I didn't want this adventurous tale to be dragged down by academic analysis.

But I did eventually read the book — an aged, yellowed copy that was older than me. It was a surreal experience to read a book for the first time and yet already know what was going to happen, sometimes down to the exact lines of dialogue — the film I'd been watching for twenty years proved an excellent adaptation. My memories of the movie are still stronger, but both versions captured all the tension, drama, and emotion of Adams' tale.

When I later became a high school teacher, I wanted to share the Watership Down experience with my 11th-grade film studies students — violating the exact principle that had led me to avoid the book for so long. But, motivated more by personal connection than academic value, I showed them the movie — and was shocked that they found it disturbing! Of course, it is disturbing, but I thought 17-year-olds would've seen worse. For them, there was a disconnect between the medium and the content: like my mother, they expected animated movies to be cartoonish, and they were horrified to instead be presented with frothing dogs and rabbits bloodily tearing each other's throats out. Although it was unfair of them to pigeonhole animated movies as being suitable for children, I nonetheless omitted the movie from my next syllabus.

My greatest experience with the story of Watership Down was still to come. Ten years ago, in 2006, I went on a three-day trip to London. Two of the days were already planned, and it wasn't until I was there that I thought how to spend the third day. Looking at a map, I realized I was only a day trip away from the real Watership Down. Although the story is fiction, all its settings are real — and I had an unprecedented opportunity to see them for myself.

My friend Laura and I got in her car and started driving. We knew we were getting close when we found an inn named after Watership Down, whose décor featured that exact same Irish book cover, blown up and framed as a poster. Nuthanger Farm, the iron road, and more were nearby … but the Down itself was my destination. It proved to be on private property, which I didn't hesitate to trespass. The proprietors spotted and confronted me but did not begrudge me when I explained, in my American accent, that it was a lifelong dream of mine to visit the Down and that I had no ill intent. They explained that I was in fact climbing the wrong down.

When I returned home, I shared my photos from the trip with Chris Boyce, whose website had been instrumental in helping me identify the Down. His response to my question of whether I was in the right place was lengthy and informative:

Have you photographed Watership Down? Yes!… and no… Your photos 1–5 are certainly Watership :-) Watership proper is the hilly bit on the left of these photos. The saddle of trees covers the road over the downs, to the right in these photos is Hare Warren Down. The downs being the hilly bits obviously. The two pylons are not the one featured in the book but the ones by the raod and to the east on Hare Warren Down. The one in the book stands in the field to the north of Watership, not right at the base by the road or, on the slope of the (a) down. So, I think your guy was right-ish — at that point you were not on Watership, or maybe you were, but only just. Your picture #10 entitled 'the pylon', was taken from on Watership looking down, but THE pylon is to the right of the photo. However, from what I can see your pictures from the top of a down, do indeed appear to be from Watership, though not from right on top. You have correctly located Nuthanger — that's it all right :-) and can be seen in your picture #7, well, the track to it can be seen on the far right of that picture! Even on that the pylon is off to the right.

I think that had you explored on top of the down, and gone further you would indeed have found the beech hanger. Yes, you were standing on Watership Down, though not part of the down specifically mentioned in 'Watership Down' if you see what I mean :-) Watership Down is about a mile long, and you maybe got only 1/8 of a mile onto it when you needed to be 1/3 of mile on to it to find the hanger.

I like the film quad — I presume it was in the pub. The photos of the Nuthanger outbuildings are atmospheric, its a pity the English weather was not more Watership Down-like (the book that is!). I hope it didn;t spoil your trip.

Even if I didn't see the beech tree or even climbed the right down, to know that I trod the same ground as the Saddleford rabbits was a dream come true, and one I'll always cherish.

Shortly after I got back from London was my birthday. I thought my book collection of Watership Down was complete, but my friend Erica surprised me when she sent me The Watership Down Film Picture Book, retelling the rabbits' tale using frames from the movie. I'd never known this 1978 book even existed, or that anyone knew me well enough to surprise me with it. It's rare that a gift brings me to tears, but this was such an occasion.

Four years later, in 2010, Erica invited me to join her at the Fryeburg Fair, a county fair filled with food, amusements, and livestock. Knowing my fascination with Watership Down and being a rabbit-owner herself, Erica was unsurprised that my camera got its most use once I spotted the rabbit hutches.

I've never owned a rabbit myself, and I don't think it's something I'd explore. But my neighborhood is rampant with the critters, and I often consider it a good day when I spot one on my walk to or from work.

My relationship with Watership Down continues to this day. I still have the VHS tape my mom originally recorded the movie on, 1983 commercials and all. For preservation and redundancy, I've also bought Watership Down on DVD and then on Blu-Ray, as well as the three-season animated series — which, unsurprisingly, I've never watched. Maybe some day I will. But even if I don't, I'll likely watch the movie again and revisit the books. I may've been to Watership Down only once, but it's been a part of me as long as I can remember — and for that, I thank Richard Adams.

From the official announcement of Adams' passing comes this passage from his book:

It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.

"You needn't worry about them," said his companion. "They'll be alright — and thousands like them."

My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today.

Weird Al's Word Crimes

I was a latecomer to Weird Al Yankovic; fellow geeks at KansasFest 1999 spoke highly of his Running With Scissors tour, but that high a recommendation didn't prompt me to seek out his work. It wasn't until July 24, 2006, when I got his Poodle Hat and Bad Hair Day albums in a bundle deal with the stuff I actually wanted, that I came to appreciate his parodies and weird sense of humor. (His collaboration with RiffTrax on Jurassic Park certainly didn't hurt.)

Al's latest album, Mandatory Fun, released today and is being promoted with a new music video every day of the week. The first is "Word Crimes", which crams into less than four minutes some of the most annoying, grating, and prevalent abuses of the English language.

I doubt this video will be effective in correcting these common misuses, leaving me to wonder: is Weird Al parodying English abusers… or grammar nazis?

(Hat tip to Javier Moreno via Zach Giordano and Donna Sussman)

Review: Machine of Death

Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die (Machine of Death #1)Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die, edited by Ryan North

A machine that tells you how you die, in vague yet accurate terms. It is never wrong, and your fate cannot be avoided. This anthology collects individual stories of people who encounter this machine. Although all the tales have the machine's functionality in common, there is no one persistent world: sometimes the machine is dismissed as a novelty; other times, an entire society will remodel itself around the predictions. For one couple, the machine means doom; for another, it brings hope.

I loved the variety of these 33 stories, each starting with an illustration and a prediction that somehow relates to the story, serving as its title. My favorite was "Almond", followed by:

  • Torn Apart and Devoured by Lion
  • Despair
  • Suicide
  • Aneurysm
  • Nothing
  • Miscarriage

and, of course, "HIV Infection from Machine of Death Needle".

There was honestly not a bad story in the lot, but my least favorites were "Not Waving but Drowning", "Improperly Prepared Blowfish", "Love Ad Nauseum", and "Drowning".

Each story left me a degree of chilled. What would I do if faced with such an opportunity? Would I learn of my fate, or leave it unknown? How would I react to knowing how I'd die? Would my actions to avoid the prophecy serve only to fulfill it? Would I take up arms in protest of the machine? I hope I never need to know. I've already picked up from the library the sequel, This Is How You Die, and look forward to absorbing more macabre tales.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Review: Still Foolin' 'Em

Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My KeysStill Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys by Billy Crystal

Billy Crystal seems to be one of the few upright, sincere, and trustworthy celebrities in Hollywood. He had led an incredible life without being sensationalist, as we learn in this biography, from his time on the stand-up comedy circuit to his break into TV and movies and his unlikely friendships with childhood heroes Mickey Mantle and Muhammad Ali. Interspersed are some opinionated tangents on social, political, philosophical, and familial topics, which break up the narrative neatly.

Few books make me literally laugh out loud; Crystal's book did it four times in the first ten pages. Although not every chapter was that concentrated with funny, it was still an enjoyable read that drove me to seek out some of his film works that I've previously missed, like Running Scared and 61*.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review: The Night Sessions

The Night SessionsThe Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

I can't remember the last time I bothered finishing a book I liked this little.

Much of my dislike comes from too many or too few details. There were a lot of threads interwoven throughout this police procedural, and although the author tied them all together, the crimes feel more spread out than necessary; it didn't follow that the perpetrator would go from Crime A and Crime B to Crime Z. Other unexplained details include the space elevators and soletas, which cast a shadow over the entire novel, but their function and value are never adequately represented. The religious aspects are adequately explained, but I feel like it requires some significant background knowledge to appreciate them.

Finally, I found it incredibly disruptive that changes in scenes flowed right from one paragraph to the next. There was no break between a character in a bar and another in a police station; or a character suddenly talking to someone who wasn't there a moment ago. I assumed this was a printing error, as what author would be this hostile to his readers? But other reviewers' similar comments on other editions of this book suggest it was in fact intentional.

I'm not a fan of procedurals in general but hoped the sci-fi elements of this book would be enough for me to enjoy it. They weren't.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Review: The Gettysburg Address

The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic AdaptationThe Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation by Jonathan Hennessey & Aaron McConnell

I found this book revelational. Broken down into chapters named after passages of the Gettysburg Address, the book covers much more than the titular speech, from the founding of our country to the motivations and consequences of the Civil War. My education in American history is sorely lacking, and The Gettysburg Address taught me many things that I'd never spent much time thinking about: the discrepancies between the Declaration and the Constitution; why slavery abounded in the South but not the North; how the Battle of Gettysburg was won; how Lincoln's assassination negatively affected the post-war reconciliation between the states. I lack the knowledge to be a critical reader of history and so cannot confidently identify where this book falls short. But I do recommend this graphic novel as an easy and enjoyable way to learn more than what an elementary education taught us.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars