How the Universe was Born
The Task of the Biographer
Fred Kaplan shares his thoughts about what it is to be a biographer. “They record the arc of a life. But they try to give it form and shape, the way we all as individuals try to give form and shape to our lives.” Courtesy of Open Road Integrated Media
A personal favorite of Kaplan’s books is his recently published Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer.
Mining Books to Map Emotions
British anthropologists have mined literature to find out how sad or happy we have been over the decades. Through word usage, the researchers were able to determine the emotional state of the culture over the past several decades. From the story in NPR:
“Several years ago, more or less on a lark, a group of researchers from England used a computer program to analyze the emotional content of books from every year of the 20th century — close to a billion words in millions of books. This effort began simply with lists of “emotion” words: 146 different words that connote anger; 92 words for fear; 224 for joy; 115 for sadness; 30 for disgust; and 41 words for surprise. All were from standardized word lists used in linguistic research.”
So do you believe them? The saddest year over the past century was 1941, according to the research.
"Values above zero indicate generally “happy” periods, and values below the zero indicate generally “sad” periods."
Le papier ne sera jamais mort
A cute video: Paper is not dead.
Who Owns the Future?
Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget examined some of the issues that have arisen in individuals’ lives now that web culture has become so pervasive. It’s a wonderful book that looks at how our digital lives are designed affects society in ways both good and bad. I highly recommend it. Lanier’s new book expands upon the theme: Who Owns the Future? Lanier is not anti-technolgy; he simply believes that we must look at how our digital worlds are designed, taking greater care in creating environments that are truly beneficial to our lives. I’m looking forward to reading it (out now in the UK; available in the United States in May). A brief description from the publisher:
“In the past, a revolution in production, such as the industrial revolution, generally increased the wealth and freedom of people. The digital revolution we are living through is different. Instead of leaving a greater number of us in excellent financial health, the effect of digital technologies - and the companies behind them - is to concentrate wealth, reduce growth, and challenge the livelihoods of an ever-increasing number of people. As the protections of the middle class disappear, washed away by crises in capitalism, what is being left in their place? And what else could replace them?
“Why is this happening, and what might we do about it? In Who Owns the Future? Jaron Lanier shows how the new power paradigm operates, how it is conceived and controlled, and why it is leading to a collapse in living standards. Arguing that the ‘information economy’ ruins markets, he reminds us that markets should reward more people, not fewer.”
The Spectator has published an interview with the author: “What will the future economy look like if technology keeps advancing the way it does and we do nothing?
“Well, identify almost any human role in our current society, and imagine that being aggregated into a software scheme in the future where the people don’t get directly paid anymore. We can already say that there are virtual editors of newspapers. In the future nearly every existing job will be gradually weakened because of cloud software. The only one left standing at some future date is the owner of the largest computer on the network. Whoever has the biggest computer wins in our current system.”
Best Places to Be if you Like Books
If you love books, here are 30 places that will surely make you happy (courtesy of Buzz Feed). One of the places highlighted in this list is the home of retired Johns Hopkins humanities Professor Richard Macksey, who has over the years amassed one of the largest private libraries that includes more than 70,000 volumes. What a wonderful person and home.
Barack Obama, Editor
This very interesting White House photo of edits made by the President before delivering his Inaugural Address (courtesy of James Fallows), gives the reader great insight into President Obama’s thinking, not to mention his editing abilities. As James Fallows points out, you can see how the president begins to work toward a reference to Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. “That line isn’t in this draft shown in the picture— at least not the part we can see. But Obama is working toward it with this handwritten insert at the top of the page:
Through blood and toil ____ we learned that no nation founded on these principles could survive half-slave and half-free.
Fallow writes, “He recognizes that “toil” is not right—“blood and toil” would be an allusion to Churchill, not Lincoln—but he also knows that for cadence he needs another word after “blood,” where he’s crossed out “toil” and left a ___ mark.”
Lincoln for our Time
The New York Times reviews Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism by John Burt in the upcoming Sunday Book Review. Of course, it being President’s Day weekend, not to mention the movie Lincoln being nominated for so many awards, our nation’s 16th president seems to be a popular subject for readers at the moment. The book examines Lincoln as a moral philosopher. Steven Smith cites Harry V. Jaffa’s “Crisis of the House Divided,” published in 1959.
“A student of the philosopher Leo Strauss, Jaffa argued that the issue between Lincoln and Douglas during the 1850s was the clash between Lincoln’s doctrine of natural right and Douglas’s doctrine of popular sovereignty. This was, as Jaffa declared, identical to the conflict between Socrates and Thrasymachus in Plato’s “Republic.” Douglas argued that whatever the people of a state or territory wanted made it right for them. For Lincoln, however, only a prior commitment to the moral law could make a free people.” Now, for the first time in half a century Jaffa’s book has a serious rival, writes Smith, a professor of philosophy at Yale. I’ve already downloaded a sample to my Kindle.
Today's Bookstore Business
Megan McCardle asks, “Why is Barnes and Noble getting out of the bookstore business?"
From her post at The Atlantic Wire: “But the sad fact is that Amazon is crushing the margins of physical retailers, including bookstores, in two ways. Fewer customers are coming to the stores, as people let their fingers do the walking instead. And Amazon’s low prices have forced retailers to cut their prices to stay competitive. As a result, many stores are unprofitable, borderline profitable, or experiencing declining revenue. It’s true that having a physical bookstore around probably means that more books get sold. But it doesn’t seem to be true that those extra book sales produce enough revenue to cover the cost of all that lovingly organized and curated real estate.”
Favorite from 2012: Why Does The World Exist?
If it’s not too late to pick my favorite reads from 2012, I offer Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story. It’s a wonderful look at some of the big questions about how we came to be, who we are, and what it all means. The book offers a mix of science and philosophy that sets your mind on a quest to answer some of life’s questions and read even more from the many authors whom he interviews and whose work he summarizes. Here’s a description from Barnes and Noble:
“While most of us have been doing our laundry or answering our mail, essayist Jim Holt has been pondering the Ultimate Big Question: Why does the world exist? To track down the most plausible answers, this apparently tireless investigator sought out maverick scientists, eccentric philosophers, Eastern religious sages, and even the venerable John Updike. The possibilities that he discovered are, depending on your temperament, either awe-inspiring or downright frightening: One of his interviewees suggests that God might be a renegade physicist hacker. A cerebrum-stimulating read.”
From Book Beast: