May 8, 2016

How Not to find Good Books

They say not to judge a book by its cover. But if we’re literally talking about books, what are the better options? This is a question that has tortured me forever, and for which I have no good answer. I’ve tried many options, yet somehow I still end up spending my very limited reading time on far too many books I regret reading. I recognize that many of these books do appeal to many people. But shouldn’t there be some signal I can use to work out if a book’s liable to appeal to me specifically?

Maybe so, but I haven’t found it yet. Here are a few straw men that are easy to knock down.

Read the first few pages, or skim a bit. I do like this option, because it’s easy. But some of the best books I’ve ever read start very, very slow. Many books have good hooks but go nowhere. Skimming has never told me anything much more helpful than whether or not the book is more exposition or dialogue.

Professional reviewers? I’ve made this mistake far too many times. Well known book reviewers in widely read publications tend to overflow with praise for terrible books. I’ve come to the conclusion that it can’t possibly have anything to do with what’s between the covers.

Online reviews? Online reviews are notoriously unreliable, although if a book has enough reviews, you can sometimes read between the lines a bit to work out which kinds of people felt which way about it. Still, it’s led me astray too many times.

Friends? I have few if any friends who admit to reading books, only one I occasionally discuss books with, and none who can produce well-informed advice about what I might like. I enjoy reading as a solitary activity, not a social one, so this isn’t likely to change, although it’s always remotely possible some new friend I haven’t met yet will turn out to have similar reading preferences.

Recommendation systems (e.g., what Amazon thinks you’ll like, based on your previous ratings)? Notwithstanding all the hand-waving I see about this, recommendation systems for books (and movies) are still terrible. When they recommend books (or movies) that they don’t know I’ve read or not, they’re mostly things I didn’t like.

Actually, yes, go by the cover. Blurbs are mostly useless, but the synopsis tells you something, and the cover itself probably has some clues about who the publisher thought the book would appeal to. Not a great option, but is it really any worse than the rest?

Books by authors you’ve enjoyed in the past. Sure, this can work out well. But you wouldn’t be in this predicament if you hadn’t already more or less exhausted that supply, or if you weren’t looking for find something new.

Am I missing something? I don’t have a good solution, other than doing the best I can with these noisy bits of information, and being prepared to drop them frequently.

The situation is possibly a little better for movies. I feel like with movies, there are far more cues about what kind of movie you’re getting yourself into. Maybe because movies are more stereotyped somehow? Because it’s much easier to get a sense of a movie from a few clips? Or possibly just because the relative popularity of movies means there are many more options for getting opinions of all kinds.

My Dream Gadget

I read an article about dream gadgets a while ago, and was struck by how little I wanted anything it described.

So I thought a bit about what I’d have to say about my dream gadget. And I realized that what I dream about mostly is a gadget works pretty much exactly like my smartphone today. But it gets enough battery life that I only have to plug it in every few weeks or so, if ever. And the screen is transflective with a beautiful flat matte finish, equally usable in complete darkness and bright sunlight. And it connects to this network or that network without telling me, but somehow always stays connected. And I never ever ever have to type a password on it, yet somehow still don’t have to worry about the security risk of losing it. And all the digital movies, tv shows, books, and music I’ve ever bought or have access to are accessible on this device, and I don’t have to remember which ones are in which app. And all of the notifications are relevant and interesting, sensitive to context in the same way I am. And it always knows exactly how loud an interruption I want for whatever it is.

The list goes on, but you get the idea. What’s so innovative about this device? Nothing. Maybe it’s just my lack of imagination, but I’m not dreaming about fabulous new things. I’m dreaming about the things I already have working well.

I Love Noisy Spaceships

People often complain about the noises spaceships make in movies like Star Wars – there’s no sound in space! But I have to go contrarian on this one. I love noisy spaceships.

Mainly, I’m just not committed to the view that the sounds you hear in the movie theater need to be the ones you’d hear if you were actually suspended out in space, watching the action (wearing a light jacket of course). I’m also okay with voice-overs, if done well. I don’t have a problem with music playing, as though from nowhere, during critical scenes in movies. I’m usually cool with that editing gimmick you sometimes see in movies, where the transition between two shots takes place first in the audio, and a moment or two later in the images (or vice versa). Or when you hear a loud, pounding heartbeat for a nervous character. Or when you hear voices from characters who are obviously only thinking, not talking. These are all filmic conventions that work well for me.

Not that I’m really committed to the idea that movies taking place in space have much grounding in reality in the first place. If you want to pick on Star Wars, a franchise I love, there are probably better targets than the sound. But even if I were, I’d be fine knowing there’s some connection between those sounds and the engine sounds of the Tie Fighters.

I realize we don’t necessarily pick our pet peeves, sometimes they pick us. This one has never bothered me. I actually like it.