Ignore Hugh MacLeod

When I was at university, one of the topics that fascinated me was that of long-term business cycles. I was held in thrall by the theories of people like Kitchin, Juglar and Kondratieff. Particularly Kondratieff, whose Halley’s Comet-like long business cycles mystified and haunted me.

In turn, that passion for Kondratieff led to my spending some time reading the works of Joseph Schumpeter; I was introduced to the concept of creative destruction and, almost as a corollary, to the essays of Ronald Coase and his views on transaction costs. All of which really formed the foundation of my views on the theory of the firm, a lifelong passion of mine.

Many years later, it was with that perspective that I read Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma, and found similar themes playing out: the impossibility and yet the inevitability of creative destruction in the face of the established, the status quo.The idea wasn’t new, but the treatment was.

Some time before Schumpeter, Albert Einstein is reputed to have said “If at first an idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it”. A fine sentiment, serving to encourage many entering, with trepidation, their personal infernos of creativity, striving not to abandon hope.

This notion of creativity as lonely and transient absurdity is at the heart of Hugh MacLeod’s latest book, Ignore Everybody, due out later this week.

It’s a punchy, concise book, containing 40 simple lessons, expertly articulated and deftly illustrated by Hugh’s trademark back-of-business-card cartoons. I’m loath to quote too much from it, I don’t want to spoil it for you. But here are some tasters:

“`Of course it was stupid. Of course it was not commercial. Of course it wasn’t going to go anywhere. Of course it was a complete waste of time. But in retrospect, it was this built-in futility that gave it its edge.”

“Your business card format is very simple. Aren’t you worried about somebody ripping it off?” “Only if they can draw more of them than me, better than me”.

“Your wee voice doesn’t want you to sell something. Your wee voice wants you to make something. Your wee voice doesn’t give a damn about publishers, venture capitalists or Hollywood producers. Go ahead and make something.”

There are a host of other gems: the warning that corporations attract “nonautonomous thinkers” who wander around in infinite loops of what-do-you-think, Baldrick-like in their lack of originality, their family brain cell paucity; the futility of trying to stand out in a crowd, the preference to avoid crowds altogether, evoking memories of Yogi Berra’s “Nobody goes there any more, it’s too crowded”.

And the powerful, powerful exhortation towards the end: “There is no silver bullet. There is only the love God gave you”.

Hooked? It’s a great little book, covering a lot of ground in a short space, applicable to a whole slew of professions: artist, writer, software developer, filmmaker, photographer….. and cubicle warrior. As long as there’s a creative urge in you, there’s good advice to be found in the book. A lovely little read, easy to absorb all the way through in a single sitting, yet suitable for delving into for little tidbits later.

So go ahead and buy the book, it’s due out Thursday.

And ignore Hugh Macleod. At your peril.

[Disclosure: I’ve known Hugh for a long time, I’m delighted to count him as a friend, and I am completely unashamed at giving the book such a glowing review. The book deserves it. Hugh deserves it.]

Musing about books and covers and “judging” and reading

I read a lot of books. For decades I used to average ten books a week, but nowadays it’s probably closer to two or three. Nevertheless, I read a lot. And I’ve been reading a lot for over forty years.

When it comes to choosing what I read, I have a variety of techniques:

1. Past-predicts-future: This is by far my most common technique. When I read someone for the first time, and I really like the book, the author goes into my unmemorised unwritten “look-out-for” list. Then, whenever I go to a bookshop and browse around, that author’s name is stuck in my head as I traverse the aisles, and if I see something new by that author, I pick it up. Both aisle-traversal as well as pick-newer are themselves techniques which I describe later. Past-predicts-future is an unordered list of authors I like whom I then look out for when wandering past any collection of books.

2. Aisle-traversal: Whenever I go to a physical bookshop (and here I mean a real bookshop, not a newsagent masquerading as one), I have a simple plan. I go through new releases, shop recommendations, signed books. Then, if time permits, I wander across to mystery/thriller/crime/detection. Once that’s done, if I still have time, I shuffle past the literature section. And then it’s science/nature/mathematics/physics. Which tends to lead me towards computing, and then I settle for a while in business/management. If I still have time on my hands, I get to biographies, then poetry, then art and history, finally humour. Aisle-traversal is an ordered list that defines my journey within a physical bookshop, very sensitive to the time I have available.

3. Pick-newer, pick-older and its variants. Quite often, the first book I read by an author is somewhere in the middle of that person’s oeuvre. If I like that book, then I move into the past-predicts-future technique, but only picking newer books, chronological-forward. If I like the second book as well, then, depending on how much I like the two books, I go into different overdrives. The commonest overdrive is pick-older-from-the-start: I start reading everything that author has written, in chronological order. Sometimes that develops into get-whole-collection-signed-first-edition. Occasionally I don’t wait, I try and acquire the complete works signed straight after book two. This technique is really about extending the reach of an author already on my to-read list.

4. Trusted-friend: The first three techniques are all about authors who are already on my to-read list. So how does someone or something enter the list in the first place? Here I have four subcategories. The first is written reviews: I am a big fan of Kirkus Reviews: a starred Kirkus review is pretty much an order for me to go out and buy the book. I also read both New York Review of Books as well as London Review of Books, and occasionally the Times Literary Supplement as well. The Economist and the Financial Times are probably the only other “reviews” that make this cut. The second subcategory is the human trusted friend, someone I know whose reading taste I respect. I have a small number of such friends; there is a variant to this subcategory, where the friend is an author. In third place is the social web, the chatter from twitter and facebook and the blogosphere. And finally there’s the Amazon recommendation. These are my primary techniques of introducing someone new into the mix.

5. Pre-publication reviews: There are some publishers I trust enough to go looking into what they’ve come out with. I’m always relaxed about buying Dover for maths and physics and logic and number theory; I like the kind of stuff that Nicholas Brealey puts out, so I look out for the imprint; similarly I have time for O’Reilly and Penguin and Pearson for technology and management, for No Exit Press and Mysterious Press and Hard Case Crime. My sister’s a publisher, so sometimes I find out about authors from her. You get my drift. Sometimes I inject fresh blood into my reading stream as a result of the publisher’s reputation. It’s really an upstream review, when you think about it. A commissioning editor is a bit like a reviewer, only pre-publication.

6. Things-that-go-bump-into-me: This is the serendipity technique, the random element. How I discover authors I’ve never heard of, authors who don’t come recommended. Three subtypes. First, because I am known to read, I get given books as presents for all kinds of things and in all sorts of ways. Second, because I am at an airport or similar, in a hurry, with a long trip ahead, and I haven’t had the time to load up with fiction. [I have the Bible and a bunch of business/management articles always to hand]. In such cases I look at the endorsements on the cover and back of the book. Occasionally there’s a third route, a variant of the endorsement. I check out the reviews inside the book, but this is rare for two reasons: they’re not there, or I haven’t the time.

Which brings me to the point of this post. I’ve just finished reading Daniel Suarez’s Daemon. A book I bought really as an airport read, one of those “exclusive airport only editions”, bought because I’d already picked something else up and I was looking for a “2 for £20” companion.

The front cover looked vaguely infotech, so I started browsing. The tagline “Michael Crichton for the Information Age” didn’t do much for me. The back cover did have some endorsements: someone from Google, someone from the White House, someone from Time Magazine. Not quite Yawn. But close.

So I flipped to the back of the book. Two sections of interest there. One, “Further Reading”. A list of books that included Neil Gershenfeld’s Fab, Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex, Jared Diamond’s Collapse, Kevin Phillips’ Wealth and Democracy, the McClure/Scambray/Kurtz Hacking Exposed and Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins. Oh-kaay. Mr Suarez had my attention now. Anyone who recommends books like that for further reading was someone I was interested in reading.

Then I flipped back a little. Acknowledgments. The people the author wanted to thank. And there I found Stewart Brand, Don Donzal, Craig Newmark, John Robb, along with the authors of the Further Reading list.

I was hooked.

I finished the book last night.

It was excellent. Well written, consistent, different, exciting. [Thank you Daniel Suarez. I shall be looking out for more from you.]

You know something? All this made me think. Maybe it’s time for authors to put the names of their influences and mentors on some easily accessible part of their books. A bit like a blogroll, it’s one way of figuring out what the author’s about. I think this will become more important as things like the Kindle take off worldwide.

Views? Has this been helpful? Should I continue to share stuff like this. Comments welcome.

Donald E Westlake 1933-2008

Donald E Westlake, my all-time favourite mystery/thriller writer, died on 31st December 2008. A sad day for mystery fans everywhere.

Westlake was that rare beast, an author who was comfortable in multiple subgenres, each one completely different from the rest. He wrote true hardboiled mysteries under the name of Richard Stark, giving us the Parker series. He wrote wonderful traditional thrillers taking serious social issues and giving them the mystery treatment, books such as the Ax stand out in this context. He also turned out a number of screenplays, the most famous of which is “The Grifters”. He published over a hundred books under a dozen or so names. In the process he collected a whole pile of awards, winning Edgars in three different categories.

I’ve read every one of his books published so far (there is at least one more in the works, due this April), and have a number of his books signed by him. While I liked all of them, my true favourites were his caper novels, normally referred to as his Dortmunder series.

Just what is a caper novel? Let me try and explain.

Most crime novels are whodunits, where the storyline follows the discovery of crime(s) and then seeks to identify the perpetrator(s). Where the focus is on the general environment in which the crime took place, it’s a classic “mystery/thriller”, the main genre itself. Where the focus is on the process of “solving” the crime as if it were a puzzle, you could describe it as the subgenre of “detective fiction”, a la Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe or Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Where this solving process is described from the perspective of the forces of law and order, a la Ed McBain or Joseph Wambaugh, the book gets called a “police procedural”. If it is in the vein of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason through to the John Grishams of today, it would be called a “legal drama”. Sometimes the book is written in the first person by the criminal,  in a gritty and down-to-earth “authentic” style, as in the case of the classic Jim Thompson books or even Westlake’s own Richard Stark series: these tend to be called “hardboiled”. Much of what we call pulp fiction is hardboiled crime, and I’m delighted to see what Hard Case Crime has been doing to further this cause.

In all these cases, the crime itself tends to be committed opaquely, intransparently, and the plot revolves around finding out who did it.

The caper novel, on the other hand, is something else altogether. For one thing, it is written from the viewpoint of the criminal, the person or persons committing the crime. The crime itself is carried out in the open, completely transparently, there is no mystery about the perpetrator. The perpetrators tend to be less than perfect in their skill and in their execution, but this gets balanced off as a result of all other parties involved being similarly less than perfect: the victims, the forces of law and order, even the bystanders come with human failings and flaws.

Westlake’s John Dortmunder is the undisputed king of the caper novel.

I remember nearly doing myself an injury reading Bank Shot, one of Westlake’s early caper novels, while in my teens. The plot was simple, yet absurd. It was about a bank robbery. With a big but. Instead of robbing a bank, as you would normally expect, Westlake’s protagonists steal a bank, kit and caboodle. Now of course that meant they needed to find a bank that was housed temporarily in a portacabin, but that’s what literary licence is about, creating such an eventuality. Anyway, the police give chase while the criminals desperately try and break into the bank’s safe while careering down the motorway.

At the other extreme, more recently, I found the Ax gripping and sobering. Fortysomething manager of print operation gets made redundant, then proceeds to deal with the problem his way. Startling. Challenging. Different.

Donald Westlake gave me many many hours of unbridled joy with his writing, joy in many forms, but joy nevertheless. May his soul rest in peace.


Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief:

Polonius, Hamlet, Act II Scene II

I had the good fortune to see the recent RSC production of Hamlet last night. And I really enjoyed it. When I looked around the theatre, there were many youngsters about, including a few of my own. I could not help noticing how bored many of them looked. Bored because they didn’t understand what was going on, bored because they’d never been exposed to the plot.

I guess this was somewhere at the back of my mind this morning, when I took a break from preparing my preach for tomorrow. Whatever the reason, I decided to try and summarise Hamlet in 140 characters, see if I could encapsulate the play in a single tweet:

That was my first attempt. So if you’re feeling bored or creative or mischievous or whatever sometime over the next few weeks, see what you can come up with. Then tweet it, using the hashtag #TwitBard

This isn’t meant to be a literary exercise, there’s nothing serious about it. Just a bit of fun if you feel like it.

Of strange women and grandfather clocks

I do strange things sometimes. I guess you know that by now. This evening, for example. My eldest daughter’s out at a church meeting; my son’s listening to the music I listened to when I was his age; my youngest is asleep, having done her homework; and my wife’s settled down to watch something she recorded, something I wasn’t particularly interested in. It happens sometimes; we’ve been married over 24 years, long enough to be able to enjoy companionable silences. It’s a good feeling.

I felt whimsical, wanting to do something different, something that I hadn’t done for a while. So, for the last half an hour or so, I’ve been reading the poems of Ogden Nash.

He’s one of my favourite poets, I have everything he’s ever written, I even have a book signed by him. There I was, quietly reading, and I realised that a reasonable proportion of my readers may not have had the sheer joy of being exposed to Ogden Nashery. Which brings me to how I got started with Mr Nash.

I must have been twelve or so. I was visiting some of my neighbours, the Merchants; I think his initials were TB; they lived three floors down from me, in flat 4, opposite what was to become the Kapoors’ flat. The Merchants had the most wonderful collection of Scarlet Pimpernel and Saint and E Phillips Oppenheim books, (in hardback, with the original jackets, mostly in yellow, I think they were published by Hodder), and a pretty good set of early PG Wodehouses as well. TB, a delightfully friendly man, had invited me to come over and borrow whatever I wanted, he’d seen me wandering around looking somewhat bored. So I did, and when let into his Aladdin’s cave, couldn’t help but scan all the titles of all the books they had, a habit I have had to really work on. And stuck there, in the middle of everything else, was this book. The Golden Trashery of Ogden Nashery. Which was really a book called The Face is Familiar, but lovingly rebound by hand.

Now I’d been brought up in a house with many books, brought up on a rich diet of reading. I’d read enough by then to understand and appreciate not just good writing, but more specifically writers who created words as they went along, neologists without borders. Shakespeare was probably the most prolific I’d come across by then in that respect. I’d done my time with Carroll and Lear and Wodehouse as well, so I was aware of what could be done in comic poetry.

But nothing, nothing really prepared me for what was to come from Nash. He had no rules, he thought it was nawmill to make normal rhyme with sawmill. He had that glint in his eye, the spark that let him describe a lift as “ris[ing] with groans and sighs, like a duchess for the waltz“. Word endings were but grist to his mill, tortured and mutated beyond belief, as sniffle was cheerfully paired with chiffle, and snuffle was awfully paired with uffle.

Only Nash could make SHRDLU QWERTYOP into a question, and then answer it with Why SHRDNTLU QWERTYOP?

I have many favourite Nash poems, both short and long. Here are a few short ones:

Looking at those poems, you may get the impression that Nash was always comical, always on the threshold of genius and madness. That’s not really true. I remember being very moved by this poem when I was about 15:

My thanks to the copyright-holders, Linell Nash Smith and Isabel Nash Eberstadt. Their ancestor gave me untold uncountable hours of pleasure, and continues to do so. In a world where so much is grey and normal and uniform, Ogden Nash stood out. Thank you Ogden Nash.

By the way, there is an excellent Nash blog. It is only fitting that it should be called Blogden Nash.

So go on, make someone’s day. Introduce them to Ogden Nash. And pardon me while I pass my declining years saluting strange women and grandfather clocks.

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