Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘Books

More on distortion of literary works

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After my texts on the distortions of the books of Roald Dahl ([1]) and the semi-cancellation of Scott Adams, I ran into a great number of texts on related topics. To look briefly at some of them:

The vandalism of Dahl’s books is made the worse by Dahl’s strong objections (long before the fact, of course):

*Here and elsewhere with reservations for e.g. formatting.

He told [friend Francis] Bacon: “I’ve warned my publishers that if they later on so much as change a single comma in one of my books, they will never see another word from me. Never! Ever!”

In the recording, the writer, who had Norwegian roots, added: “When I am gone, if that happens, then I’ll wish mighty Thor knocks very hard on their heads with his Mjolnir. Or I will send along the Enormous Crocodile to gobble them up.”

(For my part, I can only second this opinion: I absolutely and categorically forbid such vandalism of any and all of my writings and other works, be they current, past, or present.)

In stark contrast to the vandalizing Brits, the French and the Dutch are saner, distance themselves from such acts, and seem set on keeping the existing translations*.

*Of course, the fact that the translations are translations automatically implies some level of distortion, and those capable of reading a book in its original language should try to do so, but this is a distortion of a different kind and, when done with sufficient competence and professionalism, a distortion that is not grossly unethical and destructive. (Unlike e.g. some absolutely atrocious German translations, e.g. of works by Terry Pratchett.)

However, as expected, Dahl is not the only victim. After the many failures of Blofeld and SPECTRE, James Bond finally takes a hit. The problem is similar to the one with Dahl—use of “sensitivity readers”* to determine what is and is not acceptable to real readers, while leaving the will of both the real readers and the author out of the picture. Who is next? Paddington Bear for stereotyping foreigners or for being offensive to abandoned children? And why has no-one taken down Jane Austen yet? Is not her books filled with stereotypical and offensive depictions of men and women in those horrifying, outdated, and sexist traditional gender roles?

*Also see below for some info on such “sensitivity readers”.

Then we have a case of defacement. This article deals with an (unsurprisingly, both female and deranged seeming) bookbinder who rebinds “Harry Potter” books in order to remove references* to their author and “create a ’safe space’ for fans who struggle to align themselves with the writer’s views”.** This is idiotic, as removing a name does not change the authorship or history of the books; and anyone who actually wishes to own and read the books, while being “triggered” by the mere name of the author on the cover, shows both a wish to have-one’s-cake-and-eat-it-too and an inability to understand what is important.*** It is, however, yet another interesting example of a Leftist tendency to believe in “word magic”. I am also reminded of the very common Leftist (implicit or explicit) view that individuals only exist to serve the collective or some party/cause/whatnot—produce all you want, but expect no recognition or reward.

*Including, apparently, replacing the copyright pages with “alternative versions”, which could raise very serious questions about the legality of the operation. (Note that she is not performing an on-demand modification of books already purchased by a long-term owner. She, herself, “seeks out second-hand copies of the series” and sells the modified versions at exorbitant prices.)

**The quoted statement, in my eyes, means something different from what is obviously intended. (And is very awkwardly formulated, even aside from the issue of meaning.)

***In contrast, a “I will never buy Rowling again!!!” would at least be somewhat understandable. It would, from what I have seen until now, be based on a faulty premise of Rowling as some hateful and evil individual, out to oppress and “discriminate” transsexuals, but, given that someone holds the premise to be true, it might not be unreasonable.

Another article from the same source deals with imagining “Harry Potter” without Rowling. In light of this, it is not inconceivable that we will see a long-term trend of detaching authors from their works, in order to deny any sign of accomplishment to those deemed heretics and to allow the True Believers to enjoy these works without themselves being viewed as heretics and/or falling victim to the “guilt by association” tactic so popular on the Left. Indeed, looking at [1] and the removal of references to Kipling in favor of Austen, would it not be expedient to just credit the one “approved” author with the works of someone not “approved”? If, say, a book mentions a character reading “The Jungle Book”, why not just proclaim it a work by Austen? (Or some other, preferably female, author who is a better chronological fit.) This would not just solve the PC problem of having the “wrong” authors show up, it would also remedy the “under-representation” of this-and-that and ensure that at least half of all important works were seen-as-written by women, that various minorities are credited with works in proportion to their numbers, etc.

Steve Sailer links to a National Review piece on the “sensitivity readers” behind the vandalism of Dahl’s works. Unfortunately, the latter page does not display for me, but Sailer has some quotes (and the comment section contains more than a few comments of interest).

Of the “sensitivity readers” mentioned in the text, at least four out of six are women*, the fifth a “transgender male poet”,** and the sixth a “queer, trans, and intersex individual” (my emphasis). Of the four official women, they are all at least one of LGBT-etc.-etc., Black, “neurodiverse”,*** and Muslim.

*Or, at any rate, have traditionally female names and/or are referred to with traditionally female pronouns. In the particular context at hand, this might not mean anything at all.

**Which likely implies “transgender female poet”, as abuse words is very common in these contexts. A woman who wants be a man is a transgender female resp. transgender woman, but is usually mislabeled as “transgender male” resp. “transgender man”.

***As a likely Aspie, I am puzzled by how many allegedly “neurodiverse” group with the Left. Stereotypical traits among the “neurodiverse” include a high degree of rationality, which is incompatible with the Left and many or most of their claims and behaviors. Whether such stereotypical traits match reality is often unclear, but I cannot suppress the suspicion that many of them are actually just “NTs” looking for another label to make themselves even more “intersectional” (note how often such individuals report with a handful of labels) or otherwise engage in mislabeling or misinterpretation. (Also note several comments following Sailer’s text.) It might even be argued that the “-diverse” part is a sign of a politically or ideologically driven identification, as opposed to actually being an Aspie, HFA, or whatnot.

This is a group that skews very heavily and very heavily into “demographics” with a strong tendency to support (and be manipulated by) the New Left, it is a group that is unlikely to be representative of mainstream readers, it is a group unlikely to be high in rational thinking, it is a group disproportionally likely to contain mental ill individuals, and it is a group that seems preselected to achieve a certain outcome. Even if (!!!) the idea of such rewrites had been legitimate, this would not be the way to go about it.

As an aside, if such skews are common, which seems plausible, it would go a long way to explain the excesses of e.g. many media franchises and how out of touch they can be with the actual audience.

In a similar direction, the British Prevent Scheme appears to deem an absurd amount of works normally considered harmless or beneficial as causing far-Right radicalization. A particularly interesting re-quote:

Historian and broadcaster Andrew Roberts said: ‘This is truly extraordinary. This is the reading list of anyone who wants a civilised, liberal, cultured education.[’]

‘It includes some of the greatest works in the Western canon and in some cases — such as Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent — powerful critiques of terrorism. Burke, Huxley, Orwell and Tolkien were all anti-totalitarian writers.’

To this, I note that some of the key differences between the Left and (at least portions of) the non-Left is their relative prioritization of conformance in opinion vs. critical/own thinking, the collective vs. the individual, big government vs. small government, and similar. Taking things to their natural conclusion, it is not really unexpected for someone on the Left to consider those who want to think for themselves and make decisions for themselves to be e.g. far Right, as their ideas/wishes/whatnot are antithetical to the Leftist ideal. Ditto to consider books “evil” that oppose government control of the people or do not indoctrinate into Leftist ideas but present ideas to be judged on their own merits or, worse, present ideas that contradict the Leftist dogmas. Etc.


Written by michaeleriksson

March 4, 2023 at 6:43 pm

Further reading tips: Facing Reality

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Since beginning my series of further reading tips a few months ago, I have not managed to add one single entry. (Also see excursion.) Time for a change:

Yesterday, I discovered a 2021 book by Charles Murray, “Facing Reality”, which had flown under my radar and which I highly recommend to those naive* on topics like “systemic racism” and U.S. demographics, or, more generally, naive on how much of the various “narratives” is out of touch with reality, with the actual facts and statistics at hand, with what actual science says, etc.

*My recurring readers are unlikely to find much new in terms of the big picture and the main ideas, but might find something new in detail. They might certainly still benefit from the data sets and additional references. (Points where I tend to be very weak for reasons of time and motivation.) Similarly, those familiar with Murray’s other works and/or works by similar authors might recognize the big picture and the main ideas.

It is a short but valuable read, gives considerable data (e.g. on crime) and analysis of data showing that claims about e.g. (pro-White/anti-Black) “systemic racism” are quite incorrect, and contains discussions about e.g. why “identity politics” and “intersectionality” are fundamentally flawed ideas (view individuals as individuals—do not define them by what groups they belong to). A key observation is that disparities in treatment and outcomes arise mainly from differences in behavior—not racism or racial discrimination. (No, you were not arrested because that cop was a racist pig. You were arrested because you robbed someone.) Often, the disparities arise despite pro-Black racial discrimination, notably with regard to college admissions.

The data is repeatedly combined with information on incorrect perceptions, e.g. that many overestimate the proportion of Blacks and Latinos* in the population very considerably, which gives a flawed baseline for any further thought on the matter. (Also note e.g. parts of [1], where I discuss some potential consequences of such incorrect perceptions, and an analogous situation for exaggerated COVID beliefs.) Generally, the issue of comparing against the right baseline is important, not just in the sense of knowing the right values but of actually picking the right one, for example, in that local rates must be measured against local circumstances, like local demographics, not the national ones. (My own go-to example is to compare e.g. arrest rates with what proportions of criminals belong to what group, not what proportions of the overall population.)

*Presumably, used in the same or almost the same sense as “Hispanics” in e.g. “The Bell Curve”. Note that he later switches to non-standard labels for various groups, including a plain “Latin” for Latinos/Hispanics.

Other contents include discussions of IQ, differences in IQ distributions between groups,* and disparities between common prejudice about IQ and what science says on the topic; how Blacks are admitted to college based on laxer criteria than Whites and Asians, and the negative consequences thereof; how job performance can differ between groups and must be factored in when we look at e.g. career success; the damage done to science and journalism by the restrictions that the current anti-intellectual far-Left climate imposes; and the potential harm from the many blanket accusations of racism. The latter includes a “Damned if you do; damned if you don’t” situation for retailers, who might have the choice between not servicing some neighborhoods (“Racist!”), hiking up prices to compensate for the greater rate of shop-lifting (“Racist!”), and taking a loss.

*As usual, any such references to groups refer to distributions, averages, and whatnot—not individuals.

The extensive notes include some interesting things too, apart from significant data and references, e.g. that “stereotype threat” would be more-or-less debunked by now. (Entirely unsurprising to me, seeing that this is how it tends to go with Leftist and/or social-science miracle explanations, but I had not hitherto heard of the debunking.)

A few important big-picture quotes:*

*Note that an ePub-to-text translation and later integration in my text might have led to e.g. formatting changes.

I DECIDED TO WRITE this book in the summer of 2020 because of my dismay at the disconnect between the rhetoric about “systemic racism” and the facts. The uncritical acceptance of that narrative by the nation’s elite news media amounted to an unwillingness to face reality.

By facts, I mean what Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan meant: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.” By reality, I mean what the science fiction novelist Philip Dick meant: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

At the heart of identity politics is the truth that “who we are” as individuals is importantly shaped by our race and sex. I’ve been aware of that truth as I wrote this book — my perspective as a straight White male has affected the text, sometimes consciously and sometimes inadvertently. But identity politics does not limit itself to acknowledging the importance of race and sex to our personae. The core premise of identity politics is that individuals are inescapably defined by the groups into which they were born — principally (but not exclusively) by race and sex — and that this understanding must shape our politics.

I am also aware of a paradox: I want America to return to the ideal of treating people as individuals, so I have to write a book that treats Americans as groups. But there’s no way around it. Those of us who want to defend the American creed have been unwilling to say openly that races have significant group differences. Since we have been unwilling to say that, we have been defenseless against claims that racism is to blame for unequal outcomes. What else could it be? We have been afraid to answer candidly.

Over the last decade, on many campuses, the idea that a scholar’s obligation is to search for the truth has become disreputable — seen as only a cover for scholarship that is racist, sexist, or heteronormative. Scholars are criticized not for the quality of their work but for its failure to advance the cause of social justice. Work seen as hostile to that cause is met with calls for the scholar’s dismissal.

On the downside, Murray is still either too cowardly, too naive, or too conciliatory towards Leftist readers to get the full point out. For instance, he repeatedly writes as if there were a problem with extremism on the “Right”* of a similar size to that on the Left, which is utter bullshit. In as far as there are problems on the “Right”, they (a) are far smaller than the problems on the Left, (b) are often caused by the behavior of the Left (note a number of earlier texts, e.g. [2]), (c) tendentially concern groups with very little in common with the rest of the “Right” (cf. footnote*). Similarly, he repeatedly mentions existing (but non-systemic) racism, without proof of a non-trivial presence and without acknowledging that any such racism in today’s U.S. seems to tilt strongly anti-White, anti-Asian (by Blacks—not Whites), and/or pro-Black. Similarly, he takes an attitude that amounts to “it is a problem that people jump to conclusions about individuals based on crime rates”, where the far better attitude would be “it is a problem that people deny differences between groups in light of non-negative experiences with individuals”—or, for that matter, “it is a problem that those who are aware of crime rates are maligned for taking sensible precautions”.** Then there is his old and ignorant chestnut that “If Whites Adopt Identity Politics, Disaster Follows” (actual heading), for which he has yet to deliver any good arguments, where he fails to recognize that this, or rather a pro-White attitude,*** might become a necessity of self-defense if current trends continue, and where he ignores the importance of Whites to carry current U.S. society. Moreover, it repeats the Leftist fallacy that the kid who does get mad after being exposed to “Not touching! Can’t get mad!” would be at fault. Generally, he seems to be extremely naive and/or ignorant of the actual “Right” and, in parts, seems hooked on a Leftist narrative about the “Right” in a manner that he has warned others against in other areas.

*I re-iterate my observations that (a) the “Right”, unlike the Left, is too heterogeneous to be a meaningful grouping, (b) the “far Right” is not a more extreme version of the rest of the “Right”, unlike the far Left relative the Left.

**He partially re-addresses this theme in a more intelligent manner later in the book, and makes up for some of this misstep.

***The phrase “identity politics” has much farther-going connotations and involves other aspects than race, e.g. sex and sexual orientation.

Excursion on other reading tips:
As a part of my general backlog problem, I never seem to get around to the reading tips, and the problem is made the worse by a fading memory that would often necessitate a re-read before the actual writing. I will attempt a policy of making write-ups of “new” books immediately, and will address “old” books, even if more valuable, only if and when I have sufficient time and energy.

Excursion on Wikipedia:
To my surprise, I did not find any link to this book on Wikipedia.* However, I did visit the article about Murray, and found it in an inexcusable state, giving further support to my wish to avoid (English) Wikipedia. Most notably, right in the lede, it has the audacity to claim, in the context of “The Bell Curve”, that belief in genetic influence on group difference in IQ is “a view that is now considered discredited by mainstream science.”—which is extremely contrafactual. Among the sparse sources for this claim we find e.g. an article in the Guardian… This claim is the more problematic as (a) it is irrelevant to the main points of “The Bell Curve”, (b) its otherwise pointless inclusion in the lede indicates an attempt to discredit/defame Murray and/or “The Bell Curve” at an early stage,** (c) it could be interpreted by many readers to imply that IQ is not heritable (in general), which would be outrageously wrong. Wikipedia, plainly and simply, has turned into a hell-hole of far-Left reality distortion and propaganda—paralleling the issues with academia.

*Nor my current replacement, Infogalactic, which would follow naturally from its datedness problem. I have yet to make a thorough search for other potential Wikipedia replacements.

**Of which the Left has a long history, making book and author, themselves, an area where the uninformed masses have a radically wrong impression, in a manner similar to how the masses often have a radically wrong impression of “systemic racism”.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 31, 2023 at 10:54 pm

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Further reading tips: Introduction

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A while back, I wrote a text titled Reading tips for the prospective voter ([1]) (with self-explanatory contents). I will complement [1] with a text series of further tips, usually dealing with one work or author at a time.

For this text series, I will (at least to begin with!) be guided by some principles discussed in [1]:*

*[1] also contains more information of my intents with that text. Note that those intents do not necessarily extend to later reading tips.

[…]it is my intention to give books sufficiently short and sufficiently easy to read that they can be considered conscionable in terms of effort even for weaker readers and thinkers, but simultaneously sufficiently interesting and informative as to bring value even to the stronger.

In addition, I re-iterate that:

I do not ask that the reader/voter agree with these books. (Indeed, while I am, myself, mostly in agreement with my own recommendations,* I do not necessarily agree with them on any given individual point.) The important part is to think and to think hard, to understand the books, and to gain new or more nuanced insights, even should these insights not match what the author and/or I might have intended.

*This held for the recommendations given at the time. While it will likely hold for most future recommendations too, exceptions may well occur. It might even be that I, at some point, recommend some work that I strongly disagree with, if there is enough food for thought, a sufficient know-your-enemy aspect, or similar.

Generally, it does not matter how many books we read, but how much thinking we put in. Reading more is ultimately just a way to get more food-for-thought into the mental digestive system, and those who just spew back out, undigested, what they have read, may well remain as mentally undernourished as the bulimic, who does the same with food, is physically undernourished. Similarly, reading more “intellectual” material brings no improvement unless accompanied by actual thought in the reader. (It is amazing how many get this wrong, even among those nominally highly educated and those having intellectual aspirations.)

Note on background:
Between the publishing of [1] and of the current text, I sought out or accidentally encountered a number of other books that were worthy candidates, which I intended to include in a single second text with reading tips.

However: (a) my large backlog has delayed the writing of this second text; (b) I always seem to have some new book that I would like to include (implying that I might already need a third or even a fourth text to cover them all); and (c) I have by now forgotten so much of the details* of the early books that I might need to at least skim them again in order to write something sensible.

*Note again the importance of thinking: read to understand the ideas and the argumentation around them, to form your own opinion of them, to remember them, to have inspiration for own thought, and to improve your overall understanding of the topic of hand—not to memorize what idea or argument originated where. Once you understand something, it rarely matters when and where you read it. (Unfortunately, giving reading tips is one of the exceptions.)

Correspondingly, I decided to take a different approach by writing an individual text for each individual “worthy” entry (not necessarily book) that I encounter from here on out, as well as trying to, over time, work through the backlog of already encountered books. (And maybe to include some further books from past knowledge, if time and motivation allows it.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 2, 2022 at 9:54 pm

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Issues with downloading and publishing books / Follow-up: Problems with books in the public domain

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As I noted a few years ago ([1]):

We live in a world where great amounts of text, including by many great past authors, are in the public domain and also actually available on the Internet.

I still find myself constantly frustrated. Part of the benefit is removed by (often entirely unnecessary or arbitrary) artificial restrictions. Sometimes, all of it is removed.

A few additional words, both as a reader and as an author:

  1. When possible, I strongly prefer to read e-books on my computer—not on e.g. a separate e-book reader or on a smartphone. For these purposes, I prefer PDF, as PDF (when done correctly!) preserves the original formatting of a printed book better than other formats and gives a more pleasant reading experience (less strain on the eyes, better readability, whatnot) than other popular formats.*

    *A secondary reason is that Linux is weak in support of other formats, which can lead to suboptimal display, the need to convert between formats, or, in extreme cases, files that are not readable at all. To avoid such issues, I stick to PDF, ePub, HTML, plain text, and, in rare exceptions, DjVu. (With reservations for the correct capitalization, here and elsewhere.)

    However, ever and ever again, I find that I have downloaded a PDF file that has none of the advantages of PDF through some crude conversion, effectively combining the disadvantages of two formats with the advantages of neither.* This typically in that someone has taken a plain-text file and run it through enscript (or some similar tool) to create something that looks like the original text file, fixed-width font included, or that someone has converted a web page into PDF through a print command (or some similar approach)—often with artificial headers indicating the file name, date of printing, or similar on each and every page.

    *All formats have advantages and disadvantages. For instance, plain text has (among others) the advantages of small files and of extreme flexibility, including that it can be viewed in, investigated with, and/or manipulated by tools such as less, grep, and vim. PDF, in contrast, shines with great formatting and the ability to print a hard-copy in a true-to-the-original manner.

    In both cases, I would have been much better off with the original file, keeping the advantages of the respective formats and foregoing the disadvantages of PDF. If, for some perverse reason, I needed a PDF, I could create it myself from the original file—and typically with a better result.

    To boot, despite a wide variety of free (both senses) software being available for local use, the conversion or editing has often been done with some type of online tool—which promptly adds further disadvantages through branding or advertising messages. In an extreme example, I once downloaded a PDF file where each and every page had a large and intrusive sun-like image in both margins. This rendered the file so unreadable, through the sheer annoyance, that I actually converted the PDF into plain text…

  2. Many books in both PDF and ePub follow “bad practices” that are intended for a strict optimization for standalone e-readers, especially those sold by Amazon—and that, frankly, often are dubious even there. This includes artificial removal of margins, leaving the text immediately adjacent to the “physical” page borders (does not just look ugly, but hurts the eyes); artificial changes to interline distances, font size, or similar (ditto);* artificial removal of page numbers (due to front/back matter and similar, the indicator in the reader is not always enough); artificial removal of an original table of contents in favor of an automatically generated one (especially for non-fiction, the authors or editors have typically put in a lot of thought in the TOCs, which is now wasted—to the detriment of the readers); artificial removal of page numbers/references in TOCs (I often visit the TOC for purposes like finding out how long the current or the following chapter is, which is easy with page numbers, but not without them).

    *The exact manipulations vary, because different manipulators appear to have different goals. Notably, some appear to want to cram as much text as physically possible onto a single page, while some appear to want very large letters. In both cases, this likely reflects their personal habits, eye strength, whatnot on a standalone e-reader (maybe even the single, specific one that the individual manipulator uses)—and this is now forced onto the rest of the world, even on those who use computers.

    Note that, in doubt, content/formatting left in can always be removed later; content/formatting removed is usually gone for good. This is not the difference between, say, drinkers of red and white wine in a restaurant—it is the difference between drinkers of red wine and those who smash all the red-wine bottles to make room for more white wine.

  3. Many books in both PDF and ePub have been shorn of images—without any warning to the prospective downloader. Now, sometimes the removal of images as an option is justifiable through the resulting size reduction; however, especially for non-fiction, the result can be highly detrimental and the choice should be left to the reader/downloader.
  4. Some sites, notably Amazon, outright recommend or even demand “bad practices” like those mentioned above, with no consideration for other reading habits than standalone e-readers—not even with different versions for different formats, e.g. PDF for computers and ePub for standalone e-readers.
  5. Format requirements for sale/upload are often too restrictive. For instance, a reason why my own first books are yet unpublished is that I went through the effort of giving them a nice formatting in LaTeX (from which PDF was generated), even doing some reading on topics like typography and book design in the process—only to find that sites likes Amazon screech like harpies when someone tries to deliver quality. At the time of my research,* Amazon did not even allow the upload of PDF, and instead presumed to take some other uploaded format** and convert that into PDF, should a customer wish to buy in PDF. Not only does the author lose in creative control, but he also has to take the potential hit from a poor conversion…

    *I have honestly lost track, but it was likely more than a year ago. I make no guarantees for the current situation (August 2022).

    **Likely, AZW; maybe, ePub or some other format, too.

    Worse, to my recollection, Amazon even presumes to include data like information about the author automatically and based on data stored with Amazon, reducing the author’s control further.

    Of course, all this fiddling, and the great risk that different sites use different rules, implies that the author will either be stuck on a single platform or be forced to adapt his book repeatedly for different platforms. (And woe to those who use a meta-platform, which distributes the same book, in the same version, to several different sales platforms.)

  6. Of course, some sites have lost all contact with reality and demand, as sole upload, a Word-document… In other words, either the author has to write his books in Word to begin with, or he has to spend a horrendous amount of time (almost necessarily) manually converting from a more sensible format to Word.

    I am* a professional author. Products like Word should not be an option for a professional author.** I have more respect for someone who uses a pen, pencil, or typewriter, than for a Word user—pens and the like have a different set of advantages and disadvantages (a recurring theme) than LaTeX. Word is just bullshit.

    *Or was. Considering how little I have written since last summer, between construction noise, frustration with COVID countermeasures, demotivation from restrictive publishing options, and whatnot, my status might be under dispute.

    **That so many still limit themselves is scary. It is as if a professional carpenter would go to work using a kid’s toolbox. A central part of being a professional is to find and learn how to use a sufficiently powerful set of tools for the profession at hand. Those who do not, even should they earn a living in the field, scarcely deserve the title “professional”.

Excursion on how to do uploads better:
If Amazon was serious about both quality and genericness, it could and should provide a simple LaTeX template and/or LaTeX package (or some equivalent technology) with which the author could set up his book with a known-in-advance set of abilities and limitations. Afterwards, Amazon could simply generate the right formats from the corresponding LaTeX document.

Barring that, the best option would be to allow the authors to upload the formats that they want to support in the form that they want to support them, while the customers may either choose between the formats as uploaded or accept an automatic conversion with the explicit warning that the result might be poor.

Excursion on who-does-what:
A particular annoyance is that authors, both in modern “conventional” publishing* and in self-publishing are increasingly forced to do tasks that are unnatural matches with their likely skill profiles and interests, notably marketing, while those tasks that are more creative, short of the actual writing, are removed, including matters of book design and typography. If (!) the argument was that “authors know writing; we, the publishers, know typography, design, and marketing”, this might be acceptable.** In reality, the argument is “we, the publishers, make the creative decisions; you, the authors, do the boring leg-work”.

*One of several reasons why I ended up not even attempting the conventional route. (Other reasons include an apparently increasing shift in who earns what portion of the money, similar to the record industry, the need to be more “commercial” than I am, and the strong PC angle of the industry.)

**And, in my impression, this is how it used to be.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 6, 2022 at 1:57 pm

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A few thoughts on Nabokov’s “Laughter in the Dark”

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During my recent escape to Düsseldorf, I picked up a copy of Nabokov’s “Laughter in the Dark”.* While I enjoyed reading it and saw a few points to improve my own writing, I found it interesting primarily as a counterpart to “Lolita”, with strong parallels in behavior and situation between the respective male protagonist (Albert** Albinus resp. Humbert Humbert) and female temptation (Margot resp. the eponymous Lolita): in both books, an older man falls for a younger woman, makes himself a fool and ruins himself as a result, with an end involving a confrontation with a gun and death*** for the protagonist. Indeed, the similarities are large enough that the one might amount to a reworking of the other by a more mature author, as “Lolita” is considerably longer and later.

*Apparently, originally published in Russian as “Kamera Obscura”, and subsequently translated by the author into English. Even with a translation by the author, it cannot be ruled out that the original differed in some respects, e.g. prose quality. Oddly, the two main characters are from Berlin, where much of the book plays.

**This name is used, but sufficiently rarely that I am not certain whether it is his actual given name or some type of joke/pet/whatnot name or even an error. I cannot (without re-reading) rule out that the given name, too, is “Albinus” (paralleling “Humbert Humbert”), or that the given name is “Albinus” and that the family name goes unmentioned.

***Albeit postponed and, possibly, unrelated in “Lolita”, as Humbert died of natural causes while awaiting trial. (I.e. it is not a given that he would have lived if not imprisoned.)

In particular, in a footnote to an older text, I once wrote:

As an aside, one of the other books that I picked up was Nabokov’s “Lolita”, which I am currently reading. While a very different type of book, it does take the daughter–father version of wife–husband to an extreme. Still, the eponymous Lolita appears to have a stronger will and more to say in the relationship, while barely straddling the border between childhood and womanhood, than the thirty-something heroine of [“A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness]. I might also consider Lolita and Rebecca [of the book “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier] something of kindred spirits.

This goes together with larger doubts as to who predated on whom in “Lolita”, which fits the stereotypical adult-male-abusing-an-innocent-child poorly, with manipulations and machinations by Lolita that often leave Humbert the lesser villain and the more sympathetic character. When we turn to “Laughter in the Dark”, the situation is crystal clear: Margot (young, but adult) is the predator from the first step to the end of the book. Examples include deliberate attempts to sabotage Albinus’s marriage, the (secret) intent to marry him unless her paid-by-him movie career takes off, and outright defrauding in favor of a secret lover (Axel Rex) after Albinus goes blind (literally—not “with love”; although, a deliberate symbolism might be intended).

While an interpretation from one book to another is risky, I do see my impressions of Lolita and Humbert strengthened. (But Lolita comes of as a better person than Margot and Humbert as a worse one than Albinus.)

However, there were two other works that popped up in my mind again and again while reading: Kipling’s “The Light that Failed” and the movie* “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. In the first case, the protagonist sees an unending stream of misfortunes, including the loss of his sight, his love interest, and his life. In the second, a perfidious wife and her lover take advantage of an older husband with car crashes** playing a key role.

*The original 1940s movie. I have not seen the remake or read the original novel.

**Albinus loses his sight in one, while there likely are two in “The Postman Always Rings Twice”: one staged to murder the husband, one truly accidental to kill the wife and send the lover to prison (the respective second “ring” for them). Unfortunately, Margot was still alive and at large at the end of “Laughter in the Dark”. (But I have some hopes that the overall circumstances will lead to her demise at some point after the end.)

The first two paragraphs of the book are interesting with an eye on my own doubts as to when more and when less detail is appropriate: the first summarizes the book in a very bare-bones manner; the second gives a motivation for why the book, beyond that first paragraph, might still have a value as a (much) more detailed way of saying the same. From another point of view, comparing that first paragraph with the overall book gives quite a few pointers as to why and when detail is important, e.g. what motivations different characters had and why events played out as they did. (This, in turn, but off topic, shows why it is risky to take even factually-true journalists at face value—let alone those who distort events and interpretations to their own preference. Cf. a number of earlier texts.)

The blurb at the back of the book is worthy of some remarks of its own:

An aspiring young Berlin actress turns the tables on her lustful middle-aged admirer, in Nabokov’s deadpan, deliciously cruel story of hopeless infatuation and horribly inventive revenge.

(With reservations for transcription errors.)

Apart from the extremely poor writing, this matches the contents of the book very poorly. I strongly suspect that the writer of this blurb either fell for prejudice about typical male and female behavior* or that a catering to a certain type of female reader (think “dragon tattoo”) was intended. From this blurb, the impression arises that he used and/or abused her, and that she took revenge on him, which turns the story on its head in an inexcusable manner. The only instance of “table turning” (that I can recall) is when Margot, at the end of the book, literally manages to turn Albinus’s gun at him, when his (justified) feelings of betrayal and atrocious mistreatment cause him to try to take revenge—despite being blind. Any revenge involved was neither horrible nor inventive—and certainly not successful. There were many horribly and inventive acts, by Margot, but the only way to consider them revenge were if she took out her feelings for others on Albinus.

*E.g. typical Feminist propaganda that men use women for their own ends.

Indeed, if Albinus did someone wrong, it was his wife (and, possibly, daughter), and much of that damage was only partially* his fault. Despite this, the wife took care of Albinus in the later stages of the book, while Margot only used and abused him. Similarly, if anyone did Margot wrong, it was not Albinus. A much better case can be made for Axel Miller, who briefly “kept” and then abandoned her when she was sixteen—and who resurfaced in her life as the aforementioned Axel Rex. But Axel Rex she treated well …

*Yes, he did have an affair and he did spend considerable money on his mistress (i.e. Margot), which should not be excused, but she only found out through Margot’s malicious intervention, and the marriage, based on later events, might very well have been salvageable, had the wife taken the fight instead of running away. (To avoid misunderstandings, I do not blame her from an ethical perspective for doing so, but my impression is that she wanted a continuation, which makes her actions pragmatically ill-advised.) He also seemed to have had enough money that the practical impact on the wife, pre-flight, would have been limited. To boot, the affair might never have gone beyond an unrequited infatuation or a guilty flirt, had not Margot pushed very hard for things to happen and move forward.

The aforementioned first (alone) or first two (together) paragraphs would have made a much better blurb, giving the serious reader both a better idea of the contents and a greater wish to read the book. (In my case, I bought it based on my very positive impression of “Lolita” and Nabokov’s generally high reputation. If I read the blurb pre-purchase, I do not even remember it, and if it would have had any effect, at all, then a deterring one.)

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July 23, 2020 at 5:55 pm

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The struggling author VI

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Unfortunately, the nine* days since the previous installment have brought no improvement in the construction work. It has, mostly, not been as bad as last summer, but it is still bad enough, with a lot of hammering, drilling, various machine noises, … Two weeks for now, and no sign of an end.

*Eight, counting yesterday. As will be clear, I cannot speak with certainty for today, but going by the odds …

The situation is made the worse by the behavior of one or several parties of neighbors. Notably, this Saturday and Sunday (11th/12th) were a horror, including wild stomping* and other unacceptable noises for minutes on end, even past midnight.

*To new readers: beware that I am not speaking of someone just walking in shoes in an apartment or running down the stairs, but of outright stomping, a manner that can serve no legitimate purpose, and (often) times of day and night where even noises with a legitimate purpose would remain unacceptable.

Not only is my quality of life severely reduced, but it is next to impossible to work productively, especially as the mental stress continues even between disturbances, and factors like a lack of sleep and the aforementioned stress damage my health.

Yesterday, around noon, I had had all that I could take and am now in a hotel room in Düsseldorf—and to think that I bought an apartment to live cheaply …

As to what will happen after these few days, I will have to see, but, at this juncture, hiring a lawyer seems almost unavoidable.

Looking at my claim that my book is almost finished “in that 99%-there-but-the-last-percent-will-take-time sense”, the question is how much time—even construction work aside: I have recently started on Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”, and I have another “feeling like a rank amateur” period (cf. the previous installment and Conrad). The mixture of fluid prose and how seemingly unimportant detail give color to the text is quite impressive. The style of writing would likely not work very well with my book (and, generally, books with different purposes do not necessarily benefit from the same methods), but there is still a lot for me to learn and applying at least some of it could make my book better.

As a counter-point, I did not set out to make my first book a master piece that would instantly ensure my place in the halls of history’s greatest authors. (And I would have been a fool indeed, if I had.) The point was rather to learn the craft sufficiently well that the next book would be of quality. (Which is still a far step from the great masters.) Indeed, the early works of even great masters have often been far below their later level, as exemplified by e.g. Cup of Gold, the quite poor first novel of John Steinbeck, a later Nobel Prize winner. Rome was not built in a day and an attempt to reach perfection with this, my first, book would put completion years into the future. Indeed, with a continual improvement of ability to judge quality, I might never finish.

To boot, different authors have different strengths and (like their works) different purposes. J. K. Rowling* and Terry Pratchett, e.g., have** strengths in areas like a great imagination and the ability to build fantastic and fascinating worlds, but they fall well short of Waugh in terms of prose and style. In my own, subjective and partial, assessment, I too am ahead (in this area). In terms of e.g. “higher values”, I should be past at least Rowling, who is fairly superficial—-while she is likely ahead at writing books that sell by a very considerable distance.

*Disclaimer: I have to date only read the “Harry Potter” books, and her later works might be different. Even if they are, however, her early works are a more interesting comparison at the moment.

**The present tense is inappropriate for the late Pratchett, but I will stick to it for ease of formulation.

In the overlap between the details of Waugh, the worlds of Rowling and Pratchett, and my own book (which does fall in the fantasy genre), there is the question of how much detail is to be spent at different worlds, cultures, whatnot, both with regard to invention and to narration. Hogwarts is essentially a British boarding school with magic, Pratchett draws heavily on Earth (the UK in particular), most “high fantasy” seems to land in broadly “medieval Europe” settings, etc. In reality, if someone were to step into a foreign world through a magic cupboard, the variations might be similar to e.g. those between medieval Europe and medieval Japan, with corresponding differences in e.g. religion, morals, approach to art, ways to dress, writing systems, … (Or e.g. between current Europe and Paleolithic Europe.) In the case of non-human civilizations, the differences might be enormously larger yet.* Then, with an eye at realism, effort needed, effect on the reader, risk of inconsistency**, etc., where should the line be drawn? This point of struggle will likely not have any further impact on my current book (where I have kept things comparatively simple), but it might well do so on future works.

*Yet, here they are often almost ignored, especially in bad sci-fi. Of course, in some cases, there might be a deliberate element, e.g. in that C. S. Lewis might have used dwarfs, fauns, talking beavers, whatnot partially to illustrate aspects of humanity or human behavior. This is certainly the case with some animal fables.

**E.g. in that the author forgets his own fictional premises in favor “the real world” or that the intended consequences of something turn out to be unrealistic.

Excursion on judging quality:
While there is Sisyphean aspect to my continually shifting standard and to negative comparisons like the prose of Waugh vs. my own, this is actually a good thing. It might be frustrating in the moment, but it simultaneously points to a prior improvement in ability and opens the door to future improvements, as I now have a better idea of what I should work on, might experiment with, etc.

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July 14, 2020 at 8:55 pm

The struggling author V

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The prior installment of my “struggling author” series, appears to have been published last November. Time for an update:

I have almost finished the book, in that 99%-there-but-the-last-percent-will-take-time sense: most of what remains is polishing and tuning, fixing up details, improving the language, whatnot. In this, there is obviously a risk of pushing things too far, as there is always something left to improve. There will be at least several weeks before this becomes a concern, but it does lead me to my current main struggle:

With time, I have become better and better, gained a better and better eye for what works, is good literature, whatnot, and grown less and less satisfied with prior works. As a consequence, my satisfaction with the book has not improved as much as its actual quality, leaving me with the paradoxical situation that it is much better* than I would have hoped for this time last year, but that I am still unsatisfied. Similarly, every now and then, I see some pages by someone else that make me revise my standards and give me an impulse to improve something—as with Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”: the early descriptive sections left me feeling like a rank amateur. I deliberately have not used much description, Conrad is a high bar indeed, and the rest of his book appears** less ambitious in this regard, but I still have the urge both to revise the descriptive scenes that I do have and add some more. (Whether I will, I leave unstated. If not, the impulse might affect my next book instead.)

*As in “I like it”. I make no statement about what publishers, readers, and critics will think, but no matter their reactions, I will have the knowledge that I went well beyond my own expectations for my first work, I will consider the time taken well spent, and I strongly suspect that I will love reading it, myself, ten years from now, when my memory has faded. But: if I stop revision today, I will fall short of what I could have accomplished.

**I read a chunk as I escaped construction noise this Friday, and have postponed the remainder with an eye on what might happen on Monday (i.e. tomorrow). I also read it once as a teenager, but my memory is very vague and I was less discerning at the time.

Looking at large stretches of my early efforts, just putting words on the page has been a major obstacle, to come up with something that makes sense plot-wise, to overcome my natural tendency to describe a running dog named Spot with “Spot runs”, etc. During the spring, this changed, likely, for two reasons: Firstly, I had reached some level of critical mass. Secondly, I learned to adapt my work to my strengths, including what is often a weakness when blogging: when my mind is occupied with something, ideas tend to sprout off that something*, and then new ideas off those ideas, etc. Similarly, when I see something, I tend to see things that could be improved, even though I might not have been able to spot the improvements during the planning stage. So then: “Spot runs” might be shitty text, but it is a text, and once I have “Spot runs”, I can improve it from there.

*Which explains e.g. the many “excursions” of my (blog) texts and, partially, the footnotes.

Of course, “Spot runs” is a metaphorical example, but the general idea holds true. For instance, once I have my characters in a certain situation, I might (at that point or two days later) see how something that they say or do in that situation would improve characterization or lead somewhere else, which in turn leads to some other improvement, and so on. Similarly, putting them in one situation might ring a bell regarding some accidental* detail in another situation, which causes me to add a plot development connecting the two, which in turn might add something to a third scene or give the inspiration for an entirely new scene. In one case, I had a chapter with a good idea, which seemed both thin and lifeless when written. To boot, it had the flaw that an intended plot-twist did not work, being (in my eyes, at least) too obvious. I tried to remedy the latter through adding a “guest character” (a virtual Spot) to serve as a decoy, and another character for symmetry. A day later, the chapter was twice as long and alive, as the amount of interaction between characters increased and a few sub-plots appeared—both in a manner that I had not at all foreseen as I added the new characters.

*The amount of things that have so far arisen more-or-less accidentally is enormous. In many ways, it is as were the book a river that I am merely navigating—not a canal that I am building. (As an example, above I mentioned “Heart of Darkness”. Here I coincidentally spoke of “river”. This is something that I might have been able to spin out.)

When I revise, the text tends to become longer. This is a further reason to watch the perfectionism, as too long can be worse than too short, and as the accepted wisdom is that revision should cut the old more often than add something new. So far, knock on wood, it has worked well, however, as I start from a comparatively “thin” position and as every revision tends to also improve quality. (There is at least one scene which is much too long, a “cut scene” (in movie parlance) waiting to happen; and one or two chapters that feel too much like have-a-nap-while-we-wait-for-the-real-story. They will be improved or cut, however.)

Incidentally, this way of working parallels what I often did as a software developer, and writing software and writing novels does have a thing or two in common. The former is not the perfect training for the latter, but it is not bad as a component of the training. My particular approach, which is not the only one, particularly resembles refactoring and test-driven development.

The last few weeks, I have been a little troubled to get work done again. This in part, because I needed a breather; in part, due to the current “interesting times” (note my increased blogging); in part, because the construction work is here again.

As to the last, I still do not know for how long. Friday’s disturbances were short and, unlike large portions of last year, there was no work on Saturday.* This might mean that everything was done by Friday afternoon—or just that someone was lazy and that things will start up again on Monday, to continue for months on end. If it is the latter, frankly, I do not know what I will do. Somehow, I will have to move out, or I will never be able to finish, my health will be ruined, and I will be driven to the edge of a nervous break-down. Note that around six months of construction work last year wreaked havoc on my writing (not to mention mood and health), and that the (non-construction) disturbances of someone stomping around for hours a day during the COVID-19 lock-down did a lot of damage on top of that. It is a wonder that I have managed to get as far as I have.

*Sundays are work-free by German law, but then there is usually some idiot neighbor who sees Sunday as a day to make a ruckus, again and again—better than construction, but annoying enough. This especially when the preceding week would have made peace and quiet the more important. (And, yes, I suspect that it is the same idiot who ruined the COVID-19 lock-downs. It is rarely as bad, however.)

To finally revisit the Künstlersozialkasse: These idiots are still making trouble, costing me a few hundred a month. As it appears now, they refuse to admit me, because they do not believe that I am actually serious about writing. Their pseudo-arguments include that, as I have not taken a formal course in literature or writing, there are no signs that I would have a serious interest—never mind the fact that I have spent an enormous amount of time on this book, have it completed to the point of just-needs-polishing, and that I have foregone having a regular job in the interim … (To this, note that the formal, legal criteria for admittance are comparatively low, and that the Künstlersozialkasse appears to invent its own, illegal or extra-legal, criteria to artificially keep writers out. A formal requirement that someone needs to have taken a course does not exist, neither in the law, nor in their own official information. It is excuse making—nothing more, nothing less.)

Excursion on noise and health:
(What would one of my texts be without even just one, short, excursion?) The type of health damage that can occur through e.g. months of construction or the COVID-19 lock-downs should not be underestimated. Someone might seem to bounce back fine in the short term, but what about the long-term? Possibly, something like this can make the difference between having a fatal and a near-fatal heart-attack at 75, cutting of ten years of life? I have genuine concerns that my life is being cut down at the far end through the behavior of others. Health damage often becomes obvious only when the reserves run low, e.g. with old age or when a major disease strikes. (Something, incidentally, demonstrated by the much larger effects of COVID-19 on the elderly.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 5, 2020 at 7:34 pm

Some follow-ups based on receipts (and some thoughts on VAT)

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Sorting my private and business receipts for the past quarter for my VAT declaration, I found two that have some impact on past texts:

My receipt from the the Swedish book sale:

As I see from the receipt, the VAT on books (and in general) in Sweden is an absurd 25 %. The German rate is a more civilized rebated 7 % (to a standard rate on most products of 19 %—already very hard to defend).

This is something that I failed to consider when complaining about prices, and it does explain a portion of the price disparity. Say, for easy numbers, that the pre-VAT price of a book is 10 Euro (or its equivalent in SEK). Then the post-VAT price is respectively 10.70 and 12.50. At least for cheaper books, this might explain most of the difference in price. For more expensive, unfortunately, the lion’s part remains.

(A completely fair comparison would also consider factors like purchasing power, but that would require too much research. However, for the record, the purchasing power of low earners tends to be higher in Sweden, but that of high earners lower, relative Germany.)

My receipt from the post-flight meal from my Finnair fiasco:

In the text, I write that “We hit the ground again at 18:48; the time until official landing was obviously longer, and likely left us still about an hour late (scheduled landing was 17:55).” and “At this point, I had no eye on the time anymore, but I was likely done [with the meal] shortly before eight.”.

The receipt claims that my “tab” was opened 19:09 and closed 19:47. Add a few minutes before and after, and this would be a good estimate of my stay. The “shortly before eight” is verified, and the “about an hour late” seems plausible, as I had no checked luggage and could move fairly directly to the restaurant.

Excursion on VAT:
The above is a good illustration of one of my own pet theories: Governments like VAT, because the enormous amount of money diverted to the government usually flies under the radar.

With income tax, the earner knows that he has earned amount X*, but for some reason only received amount Y. Why? The government. With VAT, he sees the price tag including** VAT to begin with and if the price is too high, who is to blame? The store. (Or the manufacturer, capitalist greed, whatnot.) That the government might well be the single party earning the most money on the purchase, and might well be responsible for the lion’s share of the difference between end-price and accumulated costs, that does not register with most people.*** (And, cf. above, even those who are aware of it, might fail to consider it in all circumstances.) Assume, in contrast, that customers saw the pre-VAT price of products cited and, again and again, had to shell out that Swedish 25 % extra at the cashier’s. The acceptability of VAT, I suspect, would drop very considerably.

*However, this amount is also often distorted, if not so blatantly as with VAT. Consider e.g. the Swedish “arbetsgivaravgifter” or the portion of social-security and health-insurance the German employers pay on behalf of their employees. In both cases, the increase of employment costs push the nominal salary down by a similar amount, implying hat they are actually paid by the employee, but in such an indirect manner that many are unaware of it.

**At least in every country that I have made purchases in. From fiction, I have the impression that this is different in at least some parts of the U.S.

***This will depend on factors like the overall markup on an item and what business has charged what business what amount during production. Note hat Value Added Tax is fairly agnostic on how the value has been added, and treats hard work by employees no better than a luxury markup. (Of course, this is just looking at VAT, without factoring in e.g. the income tax on salaries and taxation of company profits. Overall, the government is almost always the main earner in e.g. Germany.)

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April 13, 2020 at 5:59 am

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Re-visiting the yearly Swedish book sale

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My very first post through WordPress, almost exactly ten years ago, was on the yearly Swedish book sale. A few days ago, in Sweden to renew my passport, I visited it again for the first time since (probably) 1997.

I left highly disappointed, managing to pick up only three books from one of Sweden’s largest bookstores*:

*The Akademibokhandel in central Stockholm. During a longer stay, I might or might not have tried some other bookstore.

  1. Most of the books for sale were uninteresting junk and/or targeted strictly to the mass-market. Among the exceptions, there was a considerable portion of “public domain” works that are available for free from online sources, e.g. works by Strindberg.
  2. The books on sale were mostly hardcover, giving a rebate on the heavily marked-up hardcover price, leaving the remaining price no better* than I would expect from a (non-rebated) pocket book. To this I note that pocket books are usually the superior format to begin with (and the more so in my current case, as I was trying to save weight for my flight). Indeed, there were several books that I at least would have investigated further, had they, even at the same price, been in pocket. (But also a few that were too large to be suitable for the pocket format and which I might have been interested in, had I not had the airplane to worry about.)

    *I have, obviously, not made an in-depth comparison and the individual book might have rated higher, lower, or roughly the same. The point is that by just buying pocket books, I would have had roughly the same price, even without the benefit of a sale.

  3. There were plenty of pocket books, but they were almost all in English and not part of the sale. (My focus was on Swedish books, for obvious reasons; however, in all fairness, the English sections were excellent by a German standard.)
  4. Among books not on sale, I was astounded by the price level, with prices far higher than in Germany or the U.S. Extremes included a one-volume dictionary for well over 500 SEK and a book of possibly eighty pages for more than 300 SEK.* Even outside the extremes, however, I again and again looked at a potentially interesting book, turned to the price, and decided that I was not going to buy it at 10-or-more Euro above what a comparable book would have cost in Germany. As I later understood my father, this high price level is not restricted to Akademibokhandeln but reflects industry practices in Sweden. (Also cf. my original post.)

    *As a rough rule-of-thumb Euro, Dollar, and (with a larger error) Pound equivalents can be reached by dividing by 10.

  5. While the non-fiction portions of the bookstore were considerably better than in the Wuppertal bookstores, they were not truly strong for what is supposed to be one of the largest bookstores in Sweden—and from a chain originally targeted at academia, at that. The large* Mayersche in near-Wuppertal Düsseldorf, e.g., is considerably stronger (even for fiction); compared to the Berlin Dussmann, a truly good bookstore, Akademibokhandeln is a complete joke.

    *Beware that the chain Mayersche has several stores in Düsseldorf alone, and that the rest are crap.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 29, 2020 at 12:34 pm

A few thoughts on “The Dark is Rising”

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Among my many recent re-readings we have Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” series—which was a great favorite of mine as a child*. This especially the eponymous second book, which introduced Will Stanton, who to me was (what I imagine that) Harry Potter became to a later generation.**

*I do not remember the exact ages when I read this series in the past, but my first reading was well before I turned 11 (cf. **) myself and, excepting a nostalgia reading some ten years ago, I doubt that I read them past “Mellanstadiet” (years 4–6 in the Swedish school system). The childhood readings were, obviously, of a Swedish translation; the adult in English.

**Indeed, I strongly suspect that Rowling borrowed a fair bit from Cooper, including a British boy whose magic powers are revealed when he turns 11. Generally, Rowling used a great many ideas from the works of others for the “Harry Potter” series (unless she independently came up with the same ideas).

By and large, at age 44, I find the books disappointing. “Over Sea, Under Stone” was boring to me even as a child; and the too long, too haphazard, too pointless, too nightmarish* “The Lost Land” sequence in “Silver on the Tree” leaves me with just the same feeling as back then (as, to a lesser degree, do some other sequences from that book). However, the stronger books (in my recollection) now leave me a lot colder, and I see some outright deficiencies. The most notable among these is the very black-and-white approach to good and evil, including the apparent evil-for-the-sake-of-evil, which poorly matches real evil, and the common description of sensing almost tangible evil, malice, whatnot, again much unlike real evil.** This is possibly not that unusual in literature for children, but others have done it better—even Voldemort was more nuanced, including an unhappy childhood and a wish for power; and he was a real person, not some abstract force of evil. Other deficiencies include how Will jumps into the camp of the good guys more-or-less based on their own word that they are the good guys (well, apart from that almost tangible feeling of evil emanating from the other camp …), how problems often come close to solving themselves (instead of being solved by the heroes) or how just following a near-trivial instruction resolves the problem, how confrontations between the camps often amount to nothing but abstract forces clashing like two weather fronts, and how the behavior of the camps often does not make sense***.

*As in having that weird, distorted, “wrong” quality that nightmares often have—not in the “is scary” sense.

**This deficiency is what tipped the scales when I contemplated whether this text was worth the trouble. Note a few earlier texts dealing with the nature of evil, including the quite recent [1] and [2].

***Possibly, there are hidden rules, the revelation of which would change this impression. If so, however, too much of the rules are hidden, leaving the reader in a sea of arbitrariness. How, by analogy, is someone supposed to truly appreciate a football game without understanding the rules and without being able to interpret what happens (or does not happen) why? Similarly, would he not enjoy a game with rules that make more sense, e.g a game of Quidditch that does not boil down to just catching the golden snitch?

Two of the greatest strengths of “The Dark is Rising” (the book) in my child’s eye were the atmosphere and situations created (a) around the family of Will and in the family house, and (b) the scenes in the snowed-in mansion. These had a much smaller effect on me today, which could give me some pointers on how different people might experience the same scenes differently.

Looking at (a), Will was the opposite of Harry Potter, having an unusually large*, loving, and (relatively speaking) harmonious family. My own family, at the time, had been cut by divorce and was anything but harmonious—me, my mother, and a sister that I could not stand. Brothers there were none and the family dog was dead. Despite my introversion and comparatively low interest in socializing, his situation seemed so much better. Today, my interest is even lower and I suspect that I would have gone bonkers had I had his family—“Too many [children]!”, to quote the very first words of the book. Here there was, I suspect, a strong “the grass is always greener” effect in play.

*I could not find the exact number during a quick look at the book, but Will was a seventh (and youngest) son and there were sisters, two parents, and a few animals to boot.

Looking a (b), I have long held a fascination with being snowed in, fighting the cold and dark, and similar, likely partially as a side-effect of my life in Sweden, but somehow the scenes did not click this time around. This possibly partially because there were, again, very many people involved, both as a plus back then and a minus now; however, too haphazard writing and a too short duration might also have something to do with it.*

*Generally, thinking back on my recent re-reading, I have the feeling that there were quite a few crises and periods of suspense that loomed large for a short time and then were gone, almost anticlimactically, where a longer duration might have been more realistic and/or more captivating. What if they had jumped straight to the duel in “High Noon”?

Compared to works by some other authors, there is also quite little going on under the surface. The Narnia books definitely had more depth, as (going by vague memory) did the Prydain books.* To some degree, Cooper’s books are quite simplistic, as with the treatment of evil (cf. above) or the caricatured or cartoony bad guys—more Blyton than C. S. Lewis. Even Rowling, against whom I would raise a similar criticism, is ahead of Cooper.** Off the top of my head, there is only one major exception (and a few minor): the sub-story of Hawkin in “The Dark is Rising” (book), which is thought-worthy, tragic, and almost paradoxical—and the largest reason why I still rank “The Dark is Rising” as number one among the books (cf. excursion).

*These were, together with the-for-an-older-audience Tolkien and “The Dark is Rising”, the big book series of that period of my life, all with multiple readings.

**In some earlier text, I noted that books for women often had similar problems, while books by women gave me no reason to complain. “The Dark is Rising” series is written by a woman for, likely, mostly boys; while “Harry Potter” is by a woman and at least slightly tilted towards boys. With a few similar examples, I might have been too optimistic with the “books by women” part, and I begin to suspect that male authors are more likely to produce “depth” than female ones. (But my sample might be too small. Certainly, there are individual women, even in fantasy, e.g. Le Guin, who do better, and plenty of men who are as bad.)

The question of length is interesting with an eye on child-me vs. adult-me (also note an earlier footnote): children tend to read slower and have a shorter attention span, and what might seem short or too short to an adult might not be so for a child. (Generally, I do realize that viewing a children’s book from an adult’s perspective might not be entirely fair.) However, Cooper can be quite long-winded in other regards, and I had repeated occasions when I found my self skipping half a paragraph just to avoid boring dead-weight, often of a descriptive kind. If she had cut material where it served little purpose and inserted more material where it would have, then the books could have been improved.

On the upside, Cooper has a quality of language that is considerably higher than some modern authors, including Rowling (which seems to be part of a more general trend of less and less attention being paid to grammar and style as time passes).

Excursion on ranking:
My personal ranking of the books, now as then, would be “The Dark is Rising” (chronologically 2), “The Grey King” (c. 4), “Silver on the Tree” (c. 5), “Green-Witch” (c. 3), and “Over Sea, Under Stone” (c. 1). This is interesting in two regards: (a) The books with the Drew children do not fare well, and the fact that I clicked less with them as characters than with Will (and Bran) might play in.* (b) “Silver on the Tree” appears to be the most lauded by others, but is in the middle of the pack for me. I grant that this is the most ambitious of the books and likely (at least attempted as) a bit deeper than the others, but there is too much in it that does not work well as written, including (cf. above) the “The Lost Land” scenes (good ideas, poor execution). As a child, I also reacted very negatively to the revelation of Blodwen as a “double agent”; today, however, I see it as one of the few points where something thought-worthy is introduced, and evil actually has the guise of good, instead of being too obviously evil.

*But it should be noted that the order might be distorted by “Over Sea, Under Stone” being written considerably earlier than the other books, implying that Cooper might simply have been a less accomplished author at the time and that the other books might have benefited from ideas for the series gathered over the years. Moreover, “Green-Witch” is quite short, which might have had a negative effect on its ranking.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 17, 2019 at 2:03 am