Entries from July 2011

Nook: So far, so good

A couple of days ago, my wife gave me a Nook for my birthday. It is the first e-reader I have owned, and so far I have been very impressed.

Until now, I have not been willing to make the switch to ebooks. The first-generation e-ink screens always looked murky, and the machines themselves — the early Kindles especially — were just plain ugly.

But the new Nook, which B&N has saddled with the dreary name Nook Simple Touch Reader, has been a revelation. The 6-inch e-ink screen is very clear and bright. The case has an elegant, simple design. Clearly B&N has studied the uncluttered look of touch-screen iPods. They’ve stripped away virtually everything but the screen itself and a comfortable, thick, grippy, rubbery bezel to hold it by. No more dual screens or physical keypads. There are still a few well-disguised buttons on the case (on the front, a home key and page-forward and page-back buttons, plus a power button on the back), but the Nook is primarily controlled by its touch screen.

About that touch screen: All e-ink displays rely on some secondary technology to make them touch-sensitive. Early e-readers used a physical layer overlaid on the e-ink display, but the result was to make the screen hazy and dull. The new Nook’s touch screen uses infrared sensors rather than physical pressure to determine where your finger is. The sensors are arrayed unobtrusively around the edge of the screen. So it is not a true touch screen. In fact, I have found you can turn the page without quite making contact with the surface of the screen, so long as your finger comes close enough to trip the sensors. The end result is not as good as back-lit displays like the iPad. The Nook’s touch screen is less responsive, less precise. But you get used to it quickly. I have found typing and swiping on the Nook very comfortable. And the tradeoff is well worth it for the benefits of e-ink: a very sharp display without the eye fatigue caused by back-lighting, plus very, very long battery life (two months for the Nook, according to B&N). The only concern with the Nook’s touch-screen system is that over time the screen is likely to get dirty and smudged from my oily fingertips, and of course an e-ink screen can’t be cleaned with Windex.

Enough about the hardware. What about the experience?

I have found reading on the Nook absolutely exhilarating. Halfway through my first ebook, Colm Toibin’s wonderful The Master, I actually prefer it to physical books. Until now I have sympathized with the traditionalists who cherish the tactile experience of a “real” book. But the Nook has changed my mind. It is so much lighter and easier to hold than a 400-page book. To hold a big book effortlessly with one hand is a completely new experience. The ability to adjust the font, type size, and line spacing is also wonderful, since viewing conditions change throughout the day.

Yes, an ebook is less beautiful than a traditional book. Yes, something is lost when we stop thinking of “books” as physical objects. But I’d underestimated the benefits of going digital. So, to the traditionalists: It is not about which format is “better.” It is about adding a new format for books, not replacing the old format with a new one.

My sunny response to the Nook may be affected by the fact I am a writer. To me, my own novels have never been the paper-and-ink objects that readers buy; those are just the containers in which the novels are shipped. And for the most part the packaging is not my own work. What I create is just the string of words inside the covers, the text. All the rest — the cover art, the jacket copy, the typeface, the page layout — is all done by the publisher. To see all that stripped away, leaving just the text itself, returns the book to the essential thing that the writer himself made. Anyway, every writer is used to seeing books this way, as unadorned text on a screen — that is how they look as they are being written.

Reading on my Nook, I feel surprisingly encouraged about the future of publishing. The device itself generates excitement about books. Even now, I can’t wait to pick up the Nook and get back to The Master. I can’t wait to buy more ebooks, too. After so many years of reading, it is exciting to experience books in this new way. I suspect I will end up reading more than I have before. During those evening hours after the kids go to sleep, when I might have turned on the laptop and drifted off in a web trance, now I am likely to turn on the Nook instead for a quieter, more focused, less distracted reading experience. (Caveat: when I’m really writing well, I can’t read anything at all, so we’ll have to wait and see whether I actually wind up reading more books.) Surely I’m not alone in reacting this way. I can easily imagine the inexorable adoption of ebooks triggering more reading, not less, hardly the end-of-days scenario the doomsayers have been going on about.

Ebooks are a different way to experience a novel. In some ways better, purer. Just you and the text. There is complete privacy — no signaling to others about what you are reading, no book cover to invite them into the experience, to trigger a conversation. And no book designer to frame the experience for you, to color your perception of the book with an “important” cover or deckle-edged pages or heavy paper. Just the words, the happy dream of the story itself. I like it.

I’ll let you know whether I still like the ebook experiment after a while, when the novelty has worn off. But so far, so good.

Categories: Books    Tags: · ·

Amy Winehouse: “Teach Me Tonight” (2004)

Categories: Music    Tags: ·

Quote of the Day

Summer is a discouraging time to work — you don’t feel death coming on the way it does in the fall when the boys really put pen to paper.

Ernest Hemingway in a letter to Fitzgerald, from Hemingway: The 1930s (via wwnorton)

Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

Hemingway, 1916

Hemingway fishing, 1916

Ernest Hemingway, age 17, fishing at Walloon Lake, Michigan (1916). Below, another photo of Hemingway apparently from the same trip. Today is Hemingway’s 112th birthday. (Sources: Wikimedia Commons, JFK Library.)

Hemingway 1916

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Billy Preston and Ray Charles: Agent Double-O Soul

Oh my! (Via Soul Sides.)

Categories: Music    Tags: · · ·

The Whitey Bulger book I’d like to read

So Whitey Bulger has been caught, and Boston’s greatest crime story will finally have its denouement. Not climax; we’re long past that. But we’re into the last few pages: a few courtroom scenes, a few loose ends to tie up, then we can close the book. (If you need a crash course on the case, start with these articles by George V. Higgins and Alan Dershowitz.)

But why wait for the ending? Already we seem to have decided how the story will be told: Whitey Bulger will go down as an arch gangster, and his signature achievement will be playing the FBI for fools. That was the story told memorably in Black Mass, the nonfiction account by reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. The theme of informants-run-amok was revisited in “The Departed,” where Jack Nicholson played a gangster “inspired by” Whitey, though Nicholson’s performance was so ridiculous, the rest of the country must have wondered what the hell we Bostonians were so scared of. A second movie is already in the works, this time about Bulger’s murderous Winter Hill Gang, based on a book by its chief thug, John Martorano. We’ll have to wait and see of course, but I’m guessing it’ll be more hard-boiled mobster stuff. John Martorano isn’t exactly the man to write a sensitive, nuanced portrait of his old boss.

I don’t object to any of this. Reducing the story to the familiar shape of a gangster flick is fine, as far as it goes. I love gangster stories as much as anyone. I do have reservations about mythologizing a killer like Whitey, who was exceptionally sadistic even by the standards of his profession. But then, vicious mobsters have inspired great fiction before. Al Capone gave us “Scarface” and “The Untouchables.” Dutch Schultz begat E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate, one of the best “literary” crime novels I’ve ever read. New York’s Five Families provided the raw material for The Godfather. These are romanticized versions of the truth, of course, and Whitey will have to be romanticized too, for dramatic reasons. But no one is naive enough to believe that these fictions are intended as accurate portraits. So if writers want to retell Whitey’s story as if it was just another gangster movie — “Scarface” or “Goodfellas” with a Boston accent — I say, more power to ’em. Lord knows, I’ve written similar stuff.

But I hope someone will also step forward to write the real story of Whitey Bulger in the full context of his time and place. Which is to say, I hope someone will write the truth. The story is much more complex than Bulger’s manipulation of his FBI handlers. It sprawls over the whole city of Boston. The Bulger book I want to read might be “literary true crime,” like In Cold Blood or The Executioner’s Song, or it may be straight literary historical fiction like Doctorow’s Ragtime or Billy Bathgate. Best of all, perhaps it would be a fictionalized biography, like Colum McCann’s wonderful Dancer or Colm Toibin’s The Master, the sort of book that brings the real man to life. Whatever the style, the book would be big and baggy and discursive enough to tell the whole story.

Continue reading →

Categories: Boston · Crime    Tags: · ·

Bill Russell, 1961

Bill Russell 1961


Categories: Sports    Tags: · · ·

The lost Vermeer

Vermeer - The Concert

The Concert is a painting of c. 1664 by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. It was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in March 1990. It is considered the most valuable painting currently stolen. Its value has been estimated at over $200,000,000. It remains missing to this day.” — Wikipedia

Categories: Art · Boston · Crime    Tags: ·

Every writer is a thief

Every writer is a thief, though some of us are more clever than others at disguising our robberies. The reason writers are such slow readers is that we are ceaselessly searching for things we can steal and then pass off as our own…

Joseph Epstein (via austinkleon)

Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

Whitey Bulger, age 23

Whitey Bulger

Categories: Boston · Crime    Tags: ·

Promoting Jacob

The publicity onslaught continues! Random House has printed a second round of advance editions, this one for independent booksellers, and again it’s a doozy. The cover is below.

Obviously this is incredibly flattering. It is not every day that the publisher herself personally goes to the mat for any novel, let alone endorsing one in such glowing terms. I am deeply grateful. Thank you, Libby!

Defending Jacob - ARC 2d edition

It is odd to read such enthusiastic praise while I am in the early, floundering, confidence-crushing stages of my new book. Even now, with three decent novels under my belt, I feel like an absolute beginner every time I start a new one. I think that will always be true for me. Novel-writing will always be an uphill struggle. It can’t be mastered. That is especially clear now, at the start, when the story hasn’t revealed itself yet. Everything I learned writing the last book does not help much when I sit down to write the next one. So this endorsement comes at a welcome moment. After all, Defending Jacob was a struggle, too. It is helpful to remember that.

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