Why I won’t be buying a Kindle this Christmas

 

Not just this Christmas. Any Christmas.

Not just a Kindle either. I have nothing against Amazon, been buying books from them for decades.

Books.

They’re the reason I won’t be buying a Kindle.

People think books are about reading. And they’re right.

But it doesn’t stop there. Books are about a lot more than reading.

I’ve had a love affair with books ever since I can remember. If you’ve seen my TED talk Information Is Food you’d know that already.

You know when you fall in love with someone, it’s the beginning of a journey where you learn to appreciate more and more things about that someone. Little things that make them unique, their foibles, their idiosyncrasies. Their background and upbringing, the environment they grew up in; their family, their friends; the way they look when the light catches them from a particular angle. Everything.

When you fall in love with books, it’s a little bit like that.

I’ve been a passionate amateur collector of books now for over thirty years, and every year I learn something new, something about books that amazes me and delights me.

The book

To begin with it was all about the book. The plot. The characters. The journey the author took you on. Sometimes the book was part of a series, and you began to appreciate the characters and the settings more deeply, as the fondness of familiarity set in.

The binding

After a while I began to appreciate the way the book felt in my hands. How it was made. How it smelt. The paper used. The inks used. The fonts. The way the book was bound. The feel of the leather covering a well-bound, well-thumbed book. The way the pages were cut. I found myself drawn deeper and deeper into bookbinding, the tools used, the raw materials, the processes. There was a time when bookbinders actually signed their books, they took their craft that seriously. I still pay above the odds for a Bayntun Riviere bound book, and count a delightful Heath Robinson illustrated Don Quixote as one of that number.

The illustrations

Which brings me on to my next point. I have over two hundred and fifty different editions of Don Quixote. Not for the story, though it’s my all-time favourite. Not for the bindings, though some of them are works of art. But for the illustrations. If you’re interested in knowing more about Don Quixote illustrators, here’s a good resource.

Autographed and inscribed copies

I’ve had jobs that have allowed me quite a bit of international travel over the years, and wherever I’ve gone, I’ve tended to investigate two things. Two off-the-beaten-track things. Restaurants. Bookshops. Not the most famous ones, nor the most exclusive ones; the ones that had something different, something special, about them. Going to such bookstores has sometimes meant dropping in unexpectedly on a talk given by an author, often giving me the chance to get a personally autographed copy of their latest book.

With the advent of the internet, I could plan more, and that meant I could take my own copies along, or buy whole sets for signature. Decades of doing that has meant I now have a few thousand signed copies, many with their own tales to tell, where I met the author, where we went for dinner (that’s happened a few times!), what the talk was about. A whole story, encompassed in a signature.

Association copies

Books don’t just contain stories. Each individual book is also a story. Particularly when you’re dealing with books that have been around for some time, the provenance of the book can get interesting. The journey taken by each and every copy , who bought it, who read it, who sold it, where and when. So, over the years, I found myself gathering stories about the books rather than just buying the books. I wanted to buy books where I found the story of the book interesting. It was no longer enough to get an autographed copy, I wanted to get copies where the inscription meant something.

I’m a big fan of “Road” books, not just On The Road but Don Quixote, Baron Munchhausen, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Gulliver’s Travels, even the Bhagavad Gita. So, once I was bitten by the association copy bug, it was not enough to have a signed Pirsig. I managed to get my hands on Pirsig’s copies of Kerouac and of Baron Munchhausen. Later I managed to acquire Kerouac’s copy of Gulliver. Now if only I could get hold of Swift’s copy of the Ingenious Gentleman…..

It’s not just about the authors and the famous. I have a number of different copies of The Imitation of Christ going back over the years, even though I’ve given a few away. They’re all secondhand, well-thumbed, beautifully worn. Each has its story to tell, even if it’s all in your imagination.

 

Miniature books

A decade or so into collecting, I found my first miniature book. Not a pretend-book for a doll’s house. A proper working book, every word as in the original, set, printed, bound and sold just like any other book you would buy. But an inch tall with other proportions in keeping with that.

I was in heaven. Transported. Imagining what love went into making the book. Tears in my eyes. And soon I found myself drawn deep into the world of miniature books, the printers, the binders, the markets, the collectors.

Marginalia

I used to read a lot of comics and magazines when I was young, something I’ve written about before. The original Mad Magazine, the US edition, was one I enjoyed tremendously. One of the reasons I enjoyed it was the “Marginal Thinking Department” section, a set of tiny drawings by Sergio Aragones that were squeezed into the margins of the rest of the magazine.

So marginal notes were something I began to be interested. And then came Fermat’s Last Theorem and marginal jottings in books about Diophantine equations.

Yup, you guessed it. Soon I was collecting books about marginalia.

No Kindle for me

There are books about everything I’ve written about, and more. Books about bookbinders and bookbinding, about presses, about the paper used. Books about association copies. Books about illustrators and illustrations. Books about miniature books. Books about book collectors. Books about marginalia. Books about libraries.

Books about books. And the stories about the books.

And it’s not just books. Over the years I’ve gone off on all kinds of tangents, where I have squirrelled away statues and figurines to do with literary characters (mainly Don Quixote and Sancho Panza). I have paintings, illustrations, triptychs, tables, jewellery, wine bottles, toys. Merchandising from times when there were no videos or T-shirts. Letters, postcards, sketches, photographs.

The social objects that in themselves are stories about the books, the people who wrote them, the people who printed them, the people who bound them, the people who sold them, the people who bought them, the people who collected them, the people who read them.

Books.

They’re not just for reading.

They’re a world unto themselves.

They’re lovesome things, God wot. They’re things of beauty, joys forever.

How do I love books? Let me count the ways.

 

 

Smells like teen spirit? No, more like “smells of of teen spirit”

Smells. Sounds. Colours. The time of day. Where you were at the time. Who you were with. What you were wearing. What you were eating at the time.

The metadata of memories.

[Fine, I’ll admit that not everyone thinks of what s/he was eating at the time. My memories are laced with the tastes and smells of the food of my youth. Grant me my foibles.]

Yesterday was a classic fireworks day. Some celebrated Divali or Deepavali. Some prepared for Guy Fawkes Night early. Some just called it Bonfire night, any excuse. And many didn’t need an excuse. Fireworks were the order of the day.

It took me back years. To a time I must have been 10 or 11. October or November 1968. Standing on the pavement in front of Anil Shah’s house near Lake Road. Lighting a firework with a sparkler. It was one of those that looked like an orange or a large tomato, but dark chocolate brown in colour. You had to pierce the top with the sparkler, hold it until you saw the fizz of the fuse catching. And then you had to run.

All of which I did. But my squib was the proverbial one. Damp. Fizz. Fizz. And then nothing.

So. I did what every self-respecting brought-up-on-William-Brown kid would do, what every self-respecting parent said you shouldn’t do.

I went back to the squib. And poked around in frustration. A curse on all damp squibs.

And then whoosh. A wonderful fountain of light and heat. Four feet high.

With my hand in the way. Oops. Hurts like hell. Try not to cry, there are people watching. Look at the size of that blister. That’s going to hurt. A lot.

This was Calcutta. So there were lots of people around. And Anil and his sister Aandhi made sure I was looked after. The hand was slathered in oil. Dried. And then Burnol-ed to distraction.

That’s what actually happened. But when I recalled all this yesterday, forty-seven years later, it wasn’t quite what I remembered.

I remembered the whoosh and the Burnol.

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Memory says it was an oily, creamy unguent with its own distinctive smell, mustard-yellow meets orange in colour. But memory was a long time ago, I could be wrong.

What that memory did was to unleash a whole slew of other memories, of the “medical” smells of my youth. And it made me think, that was me in Calcutta in the 1960s, what’s the equivalent today? What are the youth-medical smells of today, and how do they differ by culture and geography?

Every time I cut or grazed myself “lightly”, it was mercurochrome time. Red, astringent, peculiarly clean. I was even given it in swabs to hold in my mouth when the damage was in or around there.

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If the damage was somewhat greater, if it wasn’t a simple doctor’s clinic job, then mercurochrome was replaced by something altogether more serious. Tincture of iodine. Dark angry orangey-brown stuff. It even smelt angry.

Tincture_Iodine

When you saw a fellow pupil with tincture-of-iodine markings on his forehead, with what looked like residue of cottonwool in strips, you knew he’d been in the wars. Iodine and stitches. Horse and carriage.

In other related news, this morning I was preparing potatoes for roasting. And that made me think of starch and of starched shirts to school. Shirts crisp enough to cut you if you weren’t careful.

Starched crisp and white. Crisp, yes. Sometimes. White, no. Never.

The white was something not quite white. It was a blue we got used to calling starch blue. I think the starch brand in Calcutta in those days was called “robin”, so the colour was “robin blue”. I’d never seen a robin then, so they could have called it anything they liked. As long as it was a white that was actually blue, and it had the smell that only freshly-laundered clothes can exude.

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The smells of youth. I guess many of the smells of my youth continue to exist today, I just don’t experience them. Even with three grown children, these were not the smells of their youth.

Which leaves my with my final smell of youth.

An airconditioned room. One in which fine cigars had been smoked. One in which serious “foreign liquors” had been consumed.

One in which my father had spent time.

Today those smells are rare. Places where the air is conditioned are not places where cigars are smoked.

And they’re not places where my father has been.

For some years, I would walk into such places and remember him. Now, when I remember him, that memory calls forth all the others. The smells, the sounds, the people present, the colours and shapes, the environment.

The metadata of memory.

Thinking Twice: Part 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In The Salmon Of Doubt,  Douglas Adams wrote out a set of rules to describe how people react to new technologies. These have been enjoying some sort of rebirth recently, I keep coming across references to them. They seemed apposite for what I wanted to write about tonight:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

When I read it for the first time, it made me laugh, secure in the certainty that I wasn’t one of those people who felt that way. And then I remembered one of my favourite quotations, one from slightly before my time on earth:

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.

So, armed with the Francis Bacon quote above, I made sure I kept asking myself if there was anything that emerged after my thirty-fifth birthday  that I considered to be “against the natural order of things”.

And I found at least one.

Horizontal drilling, when carried out in combination with hydraulic fracturing, in shales.

Loosely referred to as fracking. I’ve thought about it, I’ve thought twice about it, I continue to think about it, but I am not comfortable with the precise combination above.

First of all, I have an instinctive reaction against it. Someone drills down, drills deep down, then turns left and drills under my house. Then proceeds to blast high-pressure fluids through rocky formations in order to extract stuff that couldn’t be extracted before. Then proceeds to get rid of the fluids somewhere where no one will notice. [Reminds me of Jamie Oliver’s Pink Slime nightmares]. Surely that’s going to undermine my house?

Relying on instinct is good; it’s better still there is some good reason for the instinct to be reliable. Evolutionary response. Muscle memory. Decades of learning and practice. That sort of thing. Schoolboy knowledge of geology notwithstanding, I didn’t feel I had the expertise to make a call. But that made me want to look into the evidence. US Government says drilling causes earthquakes.  Coping with earthquakes induced by fluid injection.

Okay, there’s some evidence that all is not well.

Secondly, that instinctive reaction gets turned right up when I see anything that looks like unseemly haste in driving decisions. Call it the Blair-WMD syndrome. I twitch in the presence of bluster in one direction when evidence points in another. Government will step in if councils don’t fast-track fracking applications. Oil and gas execs “pressured” Oklahoma geologists not to reveal fracking-quakes link. Hmmm.

But then, as Einstein is reputed to have said, if at first an idea is not absurd then there is no hope for it. So I decided to look at other angles to see if the whole thing made sense. I went and tried to make sense of the financials. And that led me to Greenlight Capital’s Sohn Conference and David Einhorn’s The Mother Frackers presentation.

Odd. So this whole thing wasn’t making money either, and it wasn’t a slam-dunk that it would ever make any money. So how come so much money was being invested? Where was the money coming from? Which led me to articles like this one: Debt levels in Energy Sector Warn Investors of Looming Bust. An unintended consequence of quantitative easing? Perhaps. It’s happened before.

Thirdly, if it doesn’t even make economic sense, then I start thinking twice. Maybe the instinct is not that far off. Maybe the truth is just what the evidence suggests it is.

So it looks like I am a Douglas-Adams-style Luddite. I’m nervous about hydraulic fracturing in conjunction with horizontal drilling. Unseemly haste by some market participants makes my nervousness increase. And the paucity of economic value suggested by people like Einhorn makes me twitch all over.

I shall keep thinking twice about it. Not convinced. Not convinced at all.

Thinking twice: Part 1

 

 

 

 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how hard I found the exercise of choosing my fifty favourite Beatles songs. And as I signalled then, there are/were very few modern artists that present similar challenges.

Bob Dylan is one of them. So I spent some time musing about my top 50 Dylan songs, then went down a rabbit hole. I sort of wasted my precious time looking into the cover versions of just one song: Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.

Here’s a collection of some of my favourite cover versions of the song, set into context by the original. This is by no means a comprehensive list, that was never my intention. While there are many songs that have been covered hundreds, sometimes thousands of times, what intrigues me is when there is great variety in the treatment. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right just happens to be a classic example. By the way, I’ve linked twice in this post to the “official” Bob Dylan site. Worth a visit if you haven’t been there before.

Here’s the original Dylan version. All the way back to 1962/63. All the way back to his time with his first girlfriend, Suze Rotolo,  a mentor of sorts, someone who helped make the album cover iconic, not just the album. Sadly Suze passed away a few years ago.

Then here’s Messrs Travers, Stookey and Yarrow (the surnames of Mary, Paul and Peter as in Peter, Paul and Mary) singing the song “live” a few years later. Mesmerising. Completely different treatment.

Soon after Dylan had written the song, PP&M actually helped the song get to prominence by covering it on their incredible album In The Wind. They may even have helped get Dylan himself to prominence by covering Blowin’ In The Wind on that album and even naming the album after that song. It behooves me to include their album version here as well, a faster, more frenetic, staccato approach.

I’ve heard many people swear by John Mayer’s rendition. I hadn’t appreciated it enough to begin with, but over the years it’s grown on me. I was probably biased against him: after all, he was born twenty-five years after the song was written and aired. But I found this 2011 version on the web, and quite liked it.

While wandering around YouTube looking for covers I hadn’t heard (and there were many), this one, by Camille Schorderet, caught my attention. And no, I didn’t include it just to pretend not to be ageist. I actually liked the treatment. Something striking about the juxtaposition of streetwise and hardened lyrics delivered in softly innocent strides.

Staying with the somewhat younger, here’s the Marcus Mumford/Justin Hayward-Young version. They were both born after my first child, so there. There’s something fascinating about hearing the same song sung solo, in duet and as a triplet. With video you sometimes get facial expressions and nuances that help augment the experience too.

Just making sure you don’t think I’ve gone soft and moved away from my Sixties and early Seventies focus, and to get properly this side of the Atlantic — (yes, both Mumford and Hayward-Young are British, but Mumford was actually born in the US) — here’s Davey Graham’s bluesy version.

Venturing a little further north of Davey, time for a little John Martyn. I could listen to John singing the Shipping Forecast, the Weather Forecast or even the football scores. His characteristic alterations of the phrasing makes it an altogether more plaintive lament, and somehow more vulnerable and personal as well.

Still with the small island. Still bluesy, but heavier on the electric. Here’s one of my favourite Slowhand versions.

Now before you start thinking I only listen to male singers, here’s a lovely three-person female version. The Indigo Girls. They had me at Closer to Fine and I’ve not really strayed away. Here they’re with Joan Baez, fittingly. I’ve heard the one they do with Brandi Carlile, which is pretty good, but I prefer this. Again a different tempo, a three-voice monologue if such a thing is possible.

Now for some classic Elvis treatment, a bit bluegrassy but all the way silver-tongued and hip-slinking Presley.

Change of scene. What happens when a prog-rocker who just happens to play a welter of stringed instruments sublimely gets going on a Dylan classic? Here’s Steve of Yes to show you Howe.

 

Joan Baez was such an incredible influence on Dylan that it wouldn’t be right to leave out her own interpretation of Bob’s classic. So here it is. Unvarnished brilliance. No further comment needed.

 

Staying with the gentler sex, here’s Melanie. No she’s not singing in a brand new key, but it’s a whole lot slower than most other version. Velvet melancholy.

The late 1960s had some amazing talent in the folk-rock space, and one of my favourites was Jose Feliciano. So here he is giving us his version. I can’t believe he turned 70 a couple of weeks ago.

Not everyone who reads this will know who Judith Durham is. Or who the Seekers were. They made sure my carnival is never over, even when I finish turning vegetarian. Here’s their effort.

 

I guess even fewer people today listen to Maggie Bell and Stone The Crows. If Janis Joplin needed a Glaswegian doppelgänger she wouldn’t have needed to look for long. Here’s a superb Kozmic Blues version from Maggie and band.

There’s always space in my heart for a rocker-turned-crooner version, so here’s Bryan Ferry doing his thing, suitably soft-spoken, embellished with harmonica as needed.

On to Nashville style. Chet Atkins and his ensemble. A different era, yet hauntingly similar to the rest.

Time for a rabbit hole. Here’s Jerry Garcia and friends doing their bit. Don’t Think Twice is at 2:37:16 in the video below. In preparing for this post I found myself listening to the whole tape. Amazing.

Just in case my hippie roots were showing too strongly, back to more modern interpretations. Here’s Metric, well half of Metric anyway, showing how they do it.

For those more inclined to country and western, here’s the nearest I can get to it. Randy Travis.

Finally, here’s the version that made Bob Dylan say “I relinquish it to you”. Rambling’ Jack Elliott. First hear the 1960s version, to give you the baseline. And then make sure you listen to the one below, where you’ll find out why Ramblin’ Jack got his name, amongst other things.

Now you know why I love the music of the 1960s and early 1970s. I could spend all day just listening to one band; or one album; or even one song.

Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.

Permission espionage and peer-to-peer spying

When I came to England in 1980, I spent some time in Blundellsands, near Liverpool, before coming down to London and starting work some months later. In those early weeks, I started exploring the area gingerly, first going to watch Marine FC play nearby, before finally heading to Stanley Park to watch my first-ever First Division match. Even the Calcuttan in me had heard of Keegan and Dalglish, of Bob Paisley, of Bill Shankly.

Which meant I chose the Red side of Stanley Park, and I’ve been a Liverpool supporter ever since. Some great years, some good years, for the last twenty years mainly not-so-good years. I was brought up to support teams regardless of whether they won or lost, so it hasn’t mattered. If, like me, you were an Indian cricket supporter in the 1960s and 1970s, you’d know something about supporting teams that lose.

It was January 1981 when I had my first experience of being in the Kop when it was time to sing You’ll Never Walk Alone. You have to be there to know what it feels like. Nearly twenty-five years later, I was at the Ataturk stadium in May 2005, there with my son to watch Liverpool in the Champions League final. 3-0 down at half-time. You had to have been there to to know what it felt like, hearing the stadium in full voice a few minutes later. Incredible. The rest is legend.

You’ll Never Walk Alone. There is immense comfort to be drawn in being together with people who you share something with. That comfort means even more when you’re up against it, when times are hard, when you’re at your most vulnerable. You draw strength just from the knowledge of someone else caring about you.

These were my thoughts when I came across Companion last week. As the tagline says, Never Walk Home Alone. A mobile app that lets you share your route and destination with friends, so that they can monitor progress. An app that even lets you express your doubts and fears as you travel, useful for journeys where you feel exposed because of the time or the context. An app that even lets you contact the police if needed.

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We have ways of tracking devices, of the Find My iPhone variety. We have ways of tracking luggage, of the Trakdot variety. Companion is just one of a long line of services that allows people and/or things to be tracked or kept in contact. An unusual example is the Good Night Lamp, launched by a friend of mine, something that will appeal to parents with young children.

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I enjoy my privacy: I detest the idea that others can decide on my behalf to trade my privacy for their perception of security, something that many governments are wont to do.

As Benjamin Franklin is reputed to have said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

What I like about the Companion or Find My Device or TrakDot style of offer is that the choice is left to the individual, not just the choice of being tracked, but by whom.

Permission espionage. Peer to peer spying. With an accent on the permission.

Track me, but only when I ask to be tracked. If something I do will mean I am going to be tracked, tell me in advance of my being tracked. If you intend to share my track with anyone, then do so only when you have my explicit permission.

It’s not just marketing that needs to be about permission. Being spied upon should require the same permission.