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Category: reading

Microsoft's Bill Gates turns to book reviewing

Bill Gates has put his talents to book reviewing
Billionaire Bill Gates, who remains chairman and chief software architect of his company, Microsoft, has put his talents to book reviewing. On Wednesday, he posted his review of "Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines" by Vaclac Smil (MIT University Press) on his personal website, Gates Notes:

As a history buff, I appreciate books that give you a sense of the people behind important inventions and the sweeping impact they have had on society. Often -– as in the case of the diesel engine and the gas turbine -– incremental advances obscure the profound impact of technology. In Prime Movers, Smil focuses in on a slice of 20th century technological innovation and shows the phenomenal impact it has had on international trade and travel.

To put the significance of the diesel engine and the gas turbine in perspective, Smil points out that until coal-powered steam engines came along a few hundred years ago, animals and human muscle were the “prime movers” of manufacturing, and wind and sails the prime movers of international travel and trade. The steam engine was an important underpinning of the industrial revolution. But its impact pales in comparison to the diesel engine and the gas turbine. ...

There are a lot of fascinating historical points and statistics in Smil’s book that make it an interesting read, but what most fascinated me was learning about the incredible impact these two innovations have had on so many aspects of our lives.

It turns out that Gates has been reviewing books on the site every few weeks since March. His recent reads include "Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools" by Steven Brill, "Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding" by Charles Kenny, and "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation" by Steven Johnson.

His first posted book review was back in February 2010, of Steven Levitt's and Stephen Dubner's "SuperFreakonomics"; frankly, it wasn't much. "I had a chance to read a prepublication copy of SuperFreakonomics before it was officially released," it began. "I really liked Freakonomics and I think SuperFreakonomics is even better." If one of my freshman writing students had turned that in, it wouldn't have gotten a B-minus.

Since then, Gates has much improved as a book reviewer. He often uses a personal take, explaining why he's interested in this topic, and sometimes comes with a critical eye. He picked up Johnson's book "with a little bit of skepticism," he wrote. "Lots of books have been written about innovation -– what it is, the most innovative companies, how you measure it. The subject can seem a little faddish," he said, but he found Johnson's book to be a cut above.

Most of the books Gates writes about fall into the line with his philanthropic pursuits with the Gates Foundation: education, healthcare, technology and the underlying processes affecting those systems. It makes sense that he's reading about them -- but few billionaires take the time to write up their thoughts and share them as a book reviews.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Bill Gates, left, with Warren Buffett in 2007. Credit: Nati Harnik / Associated Press

Happy banned books week!

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Banned Books Week officially starts today, ending Oct. 1; it will feature a number of events in libraries nationwide that point out how wrongheaded it is to ban books. Look for the latest most-challenged books list, which in recent years has been topped by the award-wining picture book "And Tango Makes Three," based on the story of two same-sex penguins who raised an adopted chick together. Also frequently challenged are books from two supernatural series for young adults, Twilight and Harry Potter.

 

Attempts to keep "undesirable" books out of the hands of young readers, as silly as it seems to some, haven't  stopped. This year, the Sherlock Holmes mystery "A Study In Scarlet" was removed from a Virginia reading list for its portrayal of Mormonism. In 2010, Laurie Halse Anderson's "Speak," which deals with sexual abuse and rape, was targeted in Missouri for being "soft porn." And Sherman Alexie's young adult novel, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," has been challenged for its language, explicit sexuality and racism -- despite having won the National Book Award in 2007.

Other banned books come with literary pedigrees. James Joyce's "Ulysses," parts of which were published in the U.S. in The Little Review from 1918-1920, was banned in this country until a trial stemming from a 1933 import, in which a judge ruled it was not obscene. Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer," published in France in 1934, spurred an obscenity lawsuit after it was finally published in the U.S. by Grove in 1961. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested and tried in 1957 for publishing Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl."

As a reader, it's easy to see how our literature and libraries are made better by the inclusion of all these works. But what about "Mein Kampf"? Do we have to stand up for it during Banned Books Week? In an essay for the Times in 2008, David L. Ulin wrote:

Banned Books Week offers up the sort of toothless, feel-good spectacle that makes us less likely to consider the actual ramifications of free expression.

The basic message here is one of astonishment: Why would anyone ban books when literature is such a positive and ennobling force? Yet while I agree with that, I also believe that some books truly are dangerous, and to ignore that is simply disingenuous.

Lest this make me seem an apologist for the book banners, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I'm against restricting anything other than material that graphically portrays certain illegal acts.

Yet it's foolish, self-defeating even, to pretend that books are innocuous, that we don't need to concern ourselves with what they say. If that's the case, then it doesn't really matter if we ban them, because we have already stripped them of their power.

Books do change things: Just think of "Common Sense," which lighted the fuse of the American Revolution, or "Mein Kampf," which laid out the blueprint for Hitler's Germany.

These are very different books -- one a work of hope and human decency, the other as venal a piece of writing as I've ever read -- but what they have in common is a kind of historical imperative, the sense that, at the right place and time, a book can be a galvanizing factor, for good or ill.

"Mein Kampf" is a title you don't hear a lot during Banned Books Week; the focus is more on classics such as "Song of Solomon" or "The Catcher in the Rye" that have been challenged in libraries and schools.

That's understandable, but again, it reduces the territory of censorship and free expression to something neatly clarified, rather than the ambiguous morass it is. What happens when our ideals require us to defend a piece of writing that is reprehensible, that stands against everything we stand for?

Feel like celebrating the banned book? Playboy and PEN Center USA are holding a celebration of banned erotica Sept. 30 with writer Jerry Stahl, burlesque from La Cholita, Kitten Natividad and Penny Starr, Jr., "The Story of O," "Madame Bovary" and more are on the bill.

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Why do gay penguins make people so mad? "And Tango Makes Three" tops banned books list -- again.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: J.K. Rowling, in green, with the cast of "Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows - Part 2" at its world premiere in London in July. Credit: Ian Gavan/Getty Images

 

Charles Simic's reunion with boredom

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When flooding caused by Hurricane Irene left Charles Simic, who lives in New Hampshire, isolated and without power, he was forced to revist a pre-technology boredom. With no television, no computers, no smartphones, the former poet laureate remembered what it was like, years ago, to be isolated -- and bored. He writes about it on the N.Y. Review of Books blog.

Being without lights and water is a fairly common experience for those of us who live in rural areas on roads lined with old trees. Every major rainstorm or snowstorm is almost certain to bring down the lines, which, because of the relative scarcity of population, are a low priority for the power company to fix. We use oil lamps and most often candles, so our evenings around the dining room table resemble séances. We sit with our heads bowed as if trying to summon spirits, while in truth struggling to see what’s on our dinner plates. Being temporarily unable to use the technology we’ve grown dependent on to inform ourselves about the rest of the world, communicate with others, and pass the time, is a reminder of our alarming dependence on them. “Nights are so boring!” my neighbors kept repeating. Our days were not much better, with overcast skies that made it even difficult to read indoors. All of this reminded me of the days of my youth when my family, like so many others, lived in a monastic solitude when the weather was bad, since we had no television. It wasn’t in church, but on dark autumn days and winter nights that I had an inkling of what they meant when they spoke about eternity. Everyone read in order to escape boredom....

Although Simic sees a destructive force in that boredom, he also says he owes something to it. "Drowning in it, I came face to face with myself as if in a mirror," he writes, "I became a spectator of my own existence, which by turns struck me as being either too real or totally unreal."

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The Reading Life: Notes from the underground

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Kevin Tole, a concerned citizen, looks out over the flooded Quechee Main Street in Lebanon, N.H., on Aug. 28. Credit: Polina Yamshchikov / Associated Press

Get ready for Small Demons

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Recently I was given a chance to look at Small Demons, a buzzy startup. Techcrunch writes that it's "a stealth L.A.-based startup founded by former Yahoo Product VPs Valla Vakili and Tony Amidei" that "just raised $3 million in Series A funding, according to an SEC form.... the company is rounded out by former Myspace Data Architect Christa Stelzmuller and former Myspace VP of Data Hala Al-Adwan."

What might all that have to do with books? I was assured that it would, and made space in the schedule to see what exactly was up.

It was bookish. It will work on a computer and a tablet. It is also fascinating and fun, and tickled the obsessive-compulsive part of my brain.

And then I was sworn to secrecy.

For the moment, I can say that if you're bookish and curious and have an obsessive-compulsive part of your brain, and like the idea of signing up for the next neat thing when invites will be available, there's Small Demons. In case you hadn't heard.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

For those who don't hate reading [video]

For every Internet meme, there may be an equal and opposite Internet meme. Take, for example, the "I Hate Reading" Facebook page.

"I Hate Reading" was spotted last week by Reddit and Galleycat. By that time, it had already collected more than 400,000 likes. That's a lot, but book lovers can be slightly reassured: as of this writing, it's still in the below-half-million range, with 442,566 likes.

Today, Abe Books, the Canada-based online used bookseller, launched its counterattack. "We hate the 'I Hate Reading' Facebook page, the company wrote on its blog, where it posted the above video. (The New Yorker's Book Bench blog pointed the way). The video is (perhaps Canadianly) entirely polite, and  lauds books for being many things. Books are social, useful, old, strong and smart, the video reminds us. The one thing they're not -- at least in this video -- is hated.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

 

The Reading Life: Notes from underground

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This is part of the occasional series The Reading Life by book critic David L. Ulin.

I don't have much use for driving. Growing up in Manhattan, I wasn't raised with it, and even after 20 years in Southern California, I view it as a necessary evil, one of the compromises I've had to make with where I live. It's not that I'm uncomfortable behind the wheel; in fact, I tend to be more uncomfortable when someone else is behind the wheel. No, for me, the issue is that I have to pay attention, which (paradoxically, I suppose) feels like a distraction, pulling me away from things I'd rather do, like read.

I've been thinking about that this week since I've been in New York, where I travel everywhere with a book. It's like a dream: Get on the 4 or 6 or E train and read for half an hour, and then (miraculously) you are there. Such an experience is available in L.A. also -- but I don't commute by Metrolink, and the Metro doesn't extend to where I live. For me, then, the art of subway reading remains particular to the first city I ever lived in, and when I'm here, I re-experience it with a mixture of nostalgia and glee.

This week, I was reading a book about New York in the 1970s. Its touchstones were scenes that resonated for me -- the fiscal crisis, the early punk days, the sense of the city as a broken landscape, not so much apocalyptic as shattered, to borrow an image from the Rolling Stones song ("bite the Big Apple / don't mind the maggots") of the same name.

Thirty-plus years later, New York is very different, an urban theme park, Times Square like the Grove on steroids -- although, as of this spring anyway, there were still bedbugs uptown. But reading this book as I subwayed back and forth beneath Manhattan's pavement brought back my earliest experience of the city as public space, with a force that I can only describe as visceral.

Continue reading »

The creepy Nathaniel Hawthorne story Edgar Allan Poe loved

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Nathaniel Hawthorne is best remembered today for his moralistic novel "The Scarlet Letter." In his day, however, he was a well-known writer and essayist whose new work was lauded with a feverish attention. It was that hubbub that led a skeptical Edgar Allan Poe to write, "We had supposed, with good reason for supposing, that he had been thrust into his present position by one of the impudent cliques which beset our literature." Poe added, with an element of surprise, "we have been most agreeably mistaken."

That tale is told today by the Library of America, which as you might guess republishes classic works by American authors, from Herman Melville to Philip K. Dick. The work in question is Hawthorne's "Twice-Told Tales," a collection of short stories, which Poe reviewed five years after its publication in 1837. (Contemporary book reviewers will envy the generous deadline.) Poe singled out one story, "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," as being "exceedingly well imagined and executed with surpassing ability. The artist breathes in every line of it."

Though contemporary readers might think the story has something to do with the famed German philosopher, it was written more than 50 years before he was born. Instead, it is an unsettling story of magic and manipulation, just the kind of thing that might put a smile on Edgar Allan Poe's grim face.

As we've mentioned before on Jacket Copy, every week the Library of America posts a free PDF on its site from its collection, usually a short story but sometimes an excerpt or nonfiction. It's called the Story of the Week, and anyone can sign up to receive notice of the latest. The Story of the Week blog also provides context, dropping in tidbits like Edgar Allan Poe's review. 

The Library of America's Story of the Week is "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg
twitter.com/paperhaus

Photo: A rose, a flower that has a central role in "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment." Credit: SnowBunny_01 via Flickr

Pottermore: It's an interactive reading experience. But it's not online yet.

Pottermore launched at noon Thursday in England, and fans of Harry Potter swiftly crashed the site's email sign-up.  The buzzed-about website appeared suddenly last week, promising a new and exciting announcement from J.K. Rowling; Thursday, she appears in a video explaining what's in store.

"I'm thrilled to say I am now in a position to give you something unique, an online reading experience unlike any other," J.K. Rowling says to her readers in the video announcing Pottermore. "It's the same story, with a few crucial additions. The most important one is you."

The site, which will be free, will be open to all in October. Fans will be able to read online and help expand and build the Harry Potter world.

"Just as the experience of reading requires that the imaginations of the author and reader work together to create the story, so Pottermore will be built, in part, by you, the reader," Rowling said.

The site will also be the first -- and, for now, only -- place to buy Harry Potter ebooks.

Select readers will be able to enter the site early to get Pottermore up and going. Interested readers are encouraged to return on July 3 to learn more and to leave their email address to be notified when registration opens. (As of 4:30 a.m. Pacific time, the email option was still not functioning.)

As much fun as it may be for fans to join forces in writing about Harry Potter, there have been similar activities happening on fan sites for years. In this case, however, there seems to be some significant things to look forward to: deepened interactivity with lush production values, it appears, and participation from J.K. Rowling herself. She says that, in Pottermore, she'll be sharing information she's "been hoarding for years" about the world of Harry Potter.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

 

Another silly lawsuit against Greg Mortenson over 'Three Cups of Tea'

Threecupsoftea Greg Mortenson wrote two books about his efforts to build schools in remote parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many people read the books, both bestsellers; some were moved by them. Were these people duped?

That's what a Chicago judge will have to decide.

On Wednesday, personal injury lawyers filed suit, described by the Daily Beast: it "names Mortenson, his coauthor, David Oliver Relin, and Penguin, publisher of the book. The suit claims that Mortenson 'captured the hearts and minds of Plaintiff and book lovers nationwide, duping them into buying 'Three Cups of Tea.'"

This is not the first lawsuit over Mortenson's books to surface since revelations were made in April about elements of his story.

It all started when "60 Minutes" broadcast a show that raised questions about Mortenson's charity, the Central Asia Institute, in which one expert said it spent less money building international schools than to promotional efforts for Mortenson and his books. That was immediately followed by a long expose by writer John Krakauer, "Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way," which included interviews with people who knew Mortenson and who said his written accounts were inaccurate. 

Without a doubt, the questions raised by these investigations are significant. Mortenson has been a very successful philanthropist, raising money for his work abroad; questions about how that money has been spent are serious.

But when it comes to reading, the claims seem, well, silly. Enticing readers to purchase a book is something all publishers do all the time. Book covers make all kinds of titillating pronouncements, such as "Immensely powerful, beautiful, addictive, and yes, incredibly thrilling..." ("The Wave" by Susan Casey"); "If publishers could figure out a way to turn crack into a book, it'd read a lot like this" ("Anthropology of an American Girl" by Hilary Thayer Hamann). Did the readers of these books file lawsuits if they were not addicted to Casey's book, or find themselves drawn to Hamann's like crack fiends?

Of course not.

Valid questions about Mortenson's charitable work should not be conflated with personal injury lawsuits. Readers who were disappointed in "Three Cups of Tea" will likely find themselves like any other disappointed reader -- learning that you can't judge a book by its cover.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Summer reading: The big list

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What is there to read this summer? L.A. Times book editors have selected no less than 203 new books that might be just the thing to bring to the beach. The list is made up of 38 page turners, 18 books on travel and the outdoors, 34 books of fiction and poetry, 30 books on current events, 15 quirky books, 23 biographies and memoirs, 16 history books, nine audio books and 20 books for children. Read the complete list.

Not all good books are new books, of course. We asked a few authors to tell us what they'd be reading after Memorial Day: See the variety of books Laura Lippman, Mark Kurlansky, Tayari Jones and Yunte Huang are planning on getting to this summer.

Also in Sunday's pages, book critic David L. Ulin remembers his summer reading: Jack Kerouac, Albert Camus, Joan Didion and Kurt Vonnegut. And Jessica Gelt weighs in with a summer reading memory of her own: Virginia Woolf.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Reading in South Carolina, May 2011. Credit: Chris Miller via Flickr

 

 

 

 

 

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