Marc Andreessen’s Library: Books still have power

September 15, 2016

Books still have power.  Did you know that the Silicon Valley venture capital company Andreessen Horowitz has a carefully curated library of 800 books in its waiting room?  A lot of people do now, because of this article in Wired magazine by Cade Metz. Each of the books has been selected and placed there by Marc Andreessen, the firm’s co-founder (and one of the original Internet browser inventors through Netscape).  The collection – focussing on Hollywood, Silicon Valley and computer programming – is so legendary that “as authors and publicists come through, many of them slot in their own books—sometimes in bulk”, Metz writes.  “Andreessen is the room. And the room still has the desired effect: It makes you want to talk to the people inside.”

According to the article and the photographs accompanying it, the library includes many of my favourites, including Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own:  How the Jews Invested Hollywood, David Thomson’s The Whole Equation:  A History of Hollywood and Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus.

andreessen-library-bookshelf

Advertisements

Rachel, the Jewish character in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

September 8, 2015

There is a beautiful “Jewish moment” in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” after Rachel Kushner (played by Olivia Cooke), the Jewish character, dies. People are “sitting Shiva” at her mother’s house after her funeral, and the scene starts off with a disembodied female voice chanting a perfectly accented Kaddish (mourner’s prayer). You never see who chants it, and there is no explanation as to what it is or why, for the uninitiated. It’s subtle, understated and effective, at least for those of us, the relatively small minority, who do understand the prayer.

This moment reflects the sort of care that “Me and Earl and Dying Girl” takes – mostly – with its story and its characters.  The Jewish stuff – such as it is – is handled with sensitivity and discretion.  But not all of the film has that approach.  In particular, as Richard Brody (writing for The New Yorker on 12 June 2015) and others point out, the character of Earl is badly written and badly placed in the story.

Perhaps I should not be so complimentary about Jewishness and this film.  Although I have not (yet) read the acclaimed original novel, in the original book, Greg – the main character – is Jewish (as is the original author, Jesse Andrews), and originally meets Rachel at Hebrew School.  So clearly, Andrews knows his “Jewish stuff”. Fascinating that he felt that (or was pressured into?) making his original story “less Jewish”.  It’s still a great story, Jesse (I loved the film), but I would have loved to see the screen version of the original novel.

Greg (played by Thomas Mann) and Rachel (Olivia Cooke) in a still from the film below.

Greg and Rachel in Me and Earl


Walking on screen

August 13, 2015

Bill Bryson’s visit this week to Australia to promote the film “A Walk in the Woods” – based on his 1998 hit book about walking the Appalachian Trail – brings renewed attention to that oldest of human past-times, walking (what did you think I was going to say?). The film stars Robert Redford as Bryson, and Nick Nolte, playing Bryson’s dissolute walking mate and childhood friend, Stephen Katz. Emma Thompson provides support as Bryson’s British wife. Now that’s cool: Bryson never imagined that Redford would play him on screen. The film opens in North America and Australia the first week of September, following its premiere at Redford’s Sundance Film Festival early this year.

There’s a problem with this casting, as ABC Radio presenter Michael Cathcart pointed out on ABC Radio National “Books and Arts” program (click here to listen to the delightful interview): Bryson was just 44 when he “walked the woods”, and Redford was 78 when the film was shot in 2014. That casting changed the theme from a “reconnecting with America” theme – Bryson’s ostensible reason to undertake the walk – to two ageing men battling infirmity in their trek. (Click here to watch the “7.30 Report” interview with Bryson.)

But no matter. I am a great fan of Bryson’s work (like me, he is an expatriate American who has spent the majority of his life living overseas – in his case, the United Kingdom) and of Robert Redford. So the pairing, for me at least, will be irresistible.

Unlike most Australians, I have actually walked short parts of the Appalachian Trail: some bits in North Carolina (the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; my friend Dave lived nearby in Knoxville while studying at the University of Tennessee) and some in New Hampshire and Vermont, near Hanover, New Hampshire when I attended Dartmouth College in my undergraduate university days. Not much, mind you, but just enough to claim some personal knowledge of the Trail. Local Knoxville newspaper “The Daily Times” reported this week that the Great Smoky Park is gearing up for another invasion of walkers, following the release of the movie in a few weeks’ time.

Tales of walking are popular on screen, and are some of my favourite recent films. In “Wild”, based on the best-selling book by Cheryl Strayed (love that name), Reese Witherspoon dramatises Strayed’s adventures walking the Pacific Crest Trail in western USA. “The Way” with Martin Sheen, follows a (fictional) pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago (the Catholic Way of St. James) in France and Spain. In “Tracks” (one of my favourite Australian films of 2014), based on Robyn Davidson’s memoir, Mia Wasikowska plays the main character’s solitary walk from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean in Western Australia.

Other books about walking – possibly less filmable – are on my “read soon” list: Rebecca Solnit’s essays in “Wanderlust: A History of Walking” and Martin Fletcher’s “Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation”, about walking the Mediterranean coast of Israel from Rosh Hanikra to the Gaza border.

(below an image of Bryon’s book)

A Walk in the Woods image


Bookstores now and then

June 17, 2015

For those of us who love physical bookshops, the last ten years have been a time of almost continual loss. This thought struck me as I read Adam Gopnik’s touching New Yorker tribute to the now-departed La Hune bookstore in Paris (“When a bookstore closes, an argument ends”, June 12, 2015).

Gopnik notes that the “forces that brought La Hune down are, sadly and predictably, the same forces that destroyed” other bookstores, “the ruthless depredations of the Internet … alongside the transformation upward (or is it downward?) of the inner cores of big cities into tar pits for a mono-culture of luxury.” And yes, a Dior now stands where La Hune once stood.

Gopnik describes his reaction to the bookstore’s closing as:

Something that it would be indecent to call grief but inadequate to call sadness. At a minor level, once a bookstore is gone we lose the particular opportunities for adjacency it offers, determined by something other than an algorithm. It is rarely the book you came to seek, but the book next to that book, which changes your mind and heart.

It is a deep sadness that I have shared too frequently.  To this day whenever I enter a bookshop – especially if it is filled with quality selections carefully displayed – I am filled with, while not quite pure joy, something much more than simple happiness.  Thus the loss of a favoured bookshop can be profound.

My first bookshop – the long-departed “Titles Unlimited”, located at 409 Raritan Avenue, Highland Park, New Jersey (near the Fourth Avenue intersection), opened in 1966 – a great year for me, as my book-buying habits were just starting. It was the first of a chain of six under that same name in New Jersey; the original Titles Unlimited had started in New York City’s Union Square in 1961 by the founders, the Keusches, who sold out in 1988.

I recall reading almost the whole of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road while standing in its aisles, and it became my favourite stopping-off place on my walk back from high school to home.

I have loved and lost many bookstores since then. I particularly mourn the passing of Cody’s Books in Berkeley, California. Shockingly, it had just closed when I visited Berkeley in October 2008 on my way back to Australia. Over the course of two days in Berkeley, I looked in vain for a quality bookshop. How could it be? How could one of the great universities of the world (where I had studied for two years) not have a good bookstore?

It has not been my only loss. My first visit to a Borders bookstore was in East Brunswick, New Jersey with my mother (who knew that I would like it), on one of my visits back to the USA. Thrillingly, Borders then came to Australia, building their large stores seemingly everywhere: I frequented Borders here in Sydney at the Pitt Street Mall store in downtown, the Hornsby Westfield shopping centre, the Chatswood Westfield shopping centre and the Macquarie shopping centre. The particular wonder of Borders was that it actually smelled like an American bookstore, possibly because they brought in so many US-published books (or perhaps they bottled it?). I didn’t think it would last: Borders had over-built, at least here in Australia, and had a haphazard stocking policy, with loads of books that I suspected that few people would purchase. They closed in Australia in July 2011, and two months later in the USA.

I didn’t mourn Borders in the same way, but I still miss it, particularly how it allowed me to pursue my two loves – books and movies – in the same shopping centre.

I have worked in two bookshops. For six months in the 1970s I worked in the B. Dalton on Boylston Street in downtown Boston, primarily in the receiving/shipping room. It was a generalist shop, with a staff of no-one over 24 except for the manager. Our biggest claim to fame was that John Updike, who lived not far away on Beacon Hill, occasionally came in to purchase mostly remainders. At its peak, the B. Dalton was the second largest chain in the USA, however almost all stores had closed by early 2010.

I later managed a bookshop in Adelaide, Australia, not long after my arrival – one that had been a famous “Becks” bookshop prior to falling on hard times. It also disappeared, and last I checked was a women’s clothing shop.

Despite the ongoing loss of bookshops, I still feel blessed, living here in Sydney. My favourite bookstore is “Books Kinokuniya”, the only Australian outpost of a small Japanese chain, one that bills itself as the largest bookstore in Australia. It has quality, quantity, a great location (right near Town Hall in downtown Sydney), a professional staff and moderate discounting. Not the best website, but a fabulous selection, including academic-style books. My close to “equal favourite” is Abbeys Books, located on York Street, not far away. By comparison with the mega-stores, it’s small, but maintains consistent quality, and an almost uncanny ability to have in stock what I am seeking. Good staff, easy ordering, a passable website and a real commitment to quality.

But these are not the only Sydney bookstores worth seeking out. Downtown also houses the venerable Dymocks main store on George Street, which has operated continuously in this location for a long time and has an excellent selection. It’s not nearly as intellectual or literary as Kinokuniya or Abbeys, but has a strong kids section (including good games) and – a guilty pleasure – a fabulous connected high-quality stationery store with unique items unavailable anywhere else. Also on my list are Gleebooks in Glebe – intellectual, quirky and endlessly stimulating; and Better Read Than Dead in Newtown, a place that I have only begun to discover and that reflects its hip, intellectual clientele.

Further afield, Sydney’s north shore, where I live, may not be a cultural mecca like south of the Harbour, but includes a number of places that have filled me with joy over the years: Constant Reader in Crows Nest, the Lindfield Bookshop (with its responsive ordering service) and The Book Review in St Ives. Also worthy of note – out of my weekly path, but enriching my book experience – are Gertrude and Alice in Bondi Beach, Ariel Books in Paddington and Berkelouw Books, which has expanded from its historic Southern Highlands used bookstore to Paddington and now to a number of other small suburban shops, filling in the gaps left by other closures.

And then there’s Amazon, worthy of an extended meditation in its own right. It has the best website bar none, although the recent decline in the Australian dollar and Amazon’s high shipping costs to Australia have reduced its competitiveness significantly. Oh yes, did I forget to mention? – Last I heard Amazon was still the biggest bookseller to Australians. The Book Depository is cheaper for us, but its website far inferior. Gopnik has a cute observation about Amazon:

Anyway (the more impatient counter argument goes on), a bookstore is only a platform for the purchase of literature, and platforms move and change with every new age, gathering and then shedding the moss of our memories as they roll on. Someday, someone will be writing a nostalgic account of one-click shopping on Amazon.

Perhaps.


My Ideal Bookshelf book review

May 12, 2015

Although I spend a large proportion of my life reading from (and writing on) screens, I am old enough to believe that books should have physical form. I delight in a well-printed book and have collected … well, let’s just say that I have somewhat more than I need but not nearly as many as I want.

One of the most charming books I have found in years is “My Ideal Bookshelf”, a coffee table book of paintings of “ideal books” selected by a mixed set of 100 cultural figures, from Hugh Acheson to Jonathan Zittrain.

“My Ideal Bookshelf” does everything a coffee table book should do: encourage you to pick it up and browse, as well as delight, entertain and stimulate. The paintings (book cover below) by artist Jane Mount are a special delight: clever, slightly quirky, colourful, friendly, warm, clear and inviting. The text – edits of interviews with the 100 contributors – by Thessaly La Force contains enough content to be interesting, but easy to read in a couple of minutes.

Contributor Malcolm Gladwell (page 75) captures my attitude towards books:

I’ve probably acquired 150 books just for this project. I haven’t read all of them, and I won’t. Some of them I’ll just look at. But that’s the fun part. It’s an excuse to go on Amazon. The problem is, of course, that eventually you have to stop yourself. Otherwise you’ll collect books forever. But these books are markers for ideas that I’m interested in. That’s why it’s so important to have physical books. When I see my bookshelf expanding, it gives me the illusion that my brain is expanding, too.

Like all good books, “My Ideal Bookshelf” also stimulates the reader to go further. I first jumped to my favourite authors and personalities to see what they placed on their bookshelves: film director Judd Apatow (Bellow’s “Seize The Day”, Wolff’s “This Boy’s Life”), writer Michael Chabon (“Dune” by Frank Herbert, “Gravity’s Rainbow”, along with works by Chandler, Cormac McCarthy, David Mitchell, Barthelme, Cheever, Joyce and Melville), Jennifer Egan (Doris Lessing’s “Golden Notebook” and works by Jane Austin, George Eliot, Emile Zola and Edith Wharton), James Franco (Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Williams, Albee, Melville, Faulkner, Nabakov, Kerouac, Steinbeck and Joyce), Malcolm Gladwell (a set of crime books, his current obsession), Lev Grossman (T.H. White, C.S. Lewis), Lawrence Lessig, Jonathan Lethem (Thurber, Calvino and Leonard Cohen), thriller writer James Patterson (a truly eclectic list), African-American author Ishmael Reed (who I once studied with), humourist David Sedaris (three by Tobias Wolff and two by Richard Yates) and Ayelet Waldman.

What a great set of insights as to what has shaped their thinking. What’s next for me? Tracking down many of their favourite books, of course.

“My Ideal Bookshelf” was published by Little Brown in November 2012, and is still in print. Artist Jane Mount also accepts commissions to paint your own “ideal bookshelf”, and sells a range of prints. Their website also lists all contributors and their books, with links to the Amazon pages: a lifetime of reading recommendations at your fingertips.

My Ideal Bookshelf cover high resBack in September 2014, I made a list of ten books that “impacted me”.  Perhaps not quite my “ideal bookshelf”, but a good start.  You can read the list here.


Summer reading for the Australian Prime Minister

December 30, 2014

Back in mid-December, The Grattan Institute – a Melbourne-based Australian “think tank” – launched it’s annual “Summer Reading List for the Prime Minister”, which for those of you unfamiliar with Australia is Tony Abbott.

It’s a cute concept, and is based on the rationale that:

Summer is a great time to relax with friends and family, to take a holiday, to reflect on the year past – and to read. During the year it can be hard to find time for reading. Our ministers and MPs have less free time than the rest of us…. The list contains books and articles that we believe the Prime Minister – or indeed any Australian – will find stimulating over the break. They’re all good reads that say something interesting about Australia, the world and the future.

This year’s list includes five books and one article:

Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, by Michael Ignatieff, Harvard political scientist and historian, and “failed” Canadian politician – a fascinating read for those of us who have ever entertained the thought of entering politics, with the pitfalls painfully detailed.
Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession, by James Brown, a defense analyst and former army officer who is critical of the ANZAC legend.
A Rightful Place: Race, Recognition and a More Complete Commonwealth, by Noel Pearson, national Indigenous leader.
The Golden Age, by Joan London, a love story set in a Perth polio clinic – a new novel.
The Wife Drought: Why Women Need Wives and Men Need Lives, by Annabel Crabb, one of Australia’s top political reporters and broadcasters, who has marked herself out as both incisive but and yet good-humoured.  The title pretty much says it all.
– “The Inequality Puzzle”, a short journal article by Lawrence H. Summers, former President of Harvard University, his review of Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, published in Democracy Journal; see full article here.

I am critical of this last choice, not because I disagree with Summers, but why not recommend the whole book?  If we are going to recommend essays for our Prime Minister to read, there are many better contemporary essays than this one.  I have described this concern with inequality as a “zeitgeist moment”, with lots of attention here in Australia.  Every couple of weeks there are additional analyses.  Not long ago, Bill Gates (Microsoft founder) wrote a review of the book.  In May, The Economist summarised Piketty’s thesis in a pithy (four paragraph) article.  Also in May, The Economist explained (“Le French Touch”) why Piketty’s book is more popular in the USA and places like Australian than in his native France:  some believe that it is not sufficiently left-wing to appeal to French intellectuals.  So the last is truly an odd and misleading choice.  Isn’t the whole idea of reading books during the summer (for those too busy during the year) actually to read the whole (or most of) the book?

Enough criticism.  What would you include on your list?  And what would you nominate for your national leader’s summer list, if you live in the USA, Canada, the UK, New Zealand or elsewhere?  (Okay, it’s only summer in New Zealand at the moment, but the idea is the same.)


Books that made an impact

September 13, 2014

Not long ago, I was “challenged” on Facebook (simultaneously from Israel and Washington, D.C.) to list ten books that have impacted me in some way, with the following rules: only take a few minutes to pick the books, they don’t need to be great works of literature, but books that have stayed with you. So here’s my book list. It’s not chronological, just the order that they came to me.

“A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway: I adored Hemingway when I was in high school. Spare, muscular prose, very “male”. But yet “A Farewell to Arms” is terribly romantic. I remember this as his best.

“The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand: Ayn Rand is, admittedly, one of the darling authors of the far libertarian right. This 1943 best-seller is about an architect, Howard Roark, and his striving to express his individualism. Dynamite stuff when you are 17.

“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt: Probably the best American college “campus” novel I have read. Neatly captures life at a school (Bennington in Vermont, where I visited once, so I could picture the setting), but adds an intellectual mystery thriller. Great prose, highly engaging, strong characters. I envy people who have not read it already: an experience awaits.

“The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs: I am one of many for whom Jane Jacobs is an icon. This 1961 polemic attacks the excesses of urban renewal, and voices the joys of mixed neighbourhoods such as New York City’s Greenwich Village. I read it in my first year of graduate urban planning study at UC Berkeley and will never forget it. Do you think Jane Jacobs is outdated? No way, There’s a fascinating current literature analysing her still.

“Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard is also a UC Berkeley revelation, assigned in a design social factors course by my then teacher and mentor Clare Cooper-Marcus, a landscape architecture professor of uncommon ability, insight and depth. I still have my original copy; it sits about two meters from where I write. What is this book? An poetic essay on nature or a spiritual autobiography? Both and more. The subtitle is “a mystical excursion into the natural world.” It is.

“Flicker” by Theodore Roszak is, genuinely, one of the creepiest books I have read. Roszak is a historian, sociologist and a philosopher who taught at Cal State Hayward. He is best-known for his “The Making of a Counterculture”, but he clearly loved film – thus this book. This mystery – loosely based on the life of film critic Pauline Kael – is, thrillingly, back in print. Unbeatable.

“Stop-Time” by Pat Conroy is one of those novels you read at age 19 and never forget. I did and I have not. It’s sitting on my bedside table for a re-read right now.

“Goodbye Columbus” by Philip Roth has influenced me in more ways than I can count. I am happy to say that I was an early predictor of Roth’s later success, based on this book. I adored “Goodbye Columbus”, and I equally adored the 1969 movie version starring Ali McGraw and Richard Benjamin. Who else has captured suburban American Jewish life better than Roth? Like Woody Allen in film, Roth has covered so much territory that almost every American-Jewish author since gets compared to him. This is his first book, and although possibly not his best, it is one of his most autobiographical.  Here’s more of what I have to say about Roth’s books and influence.

“An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood” by Neal Gabler: Some books set you on a twenty year quest. This one did for me. This is, in essence, a “group biography” of early Hollywood Jewish moguls who started film studios. I used Gabler’s thesis for years in my lectures on American Jewish film history, and it has underpinned my film reviewing for the “Australian Jewish News” for more than 25 years.

“The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference” by Malcolm Gladwell. The world falls into two categories of people: those who love Malcolm Gladwell, and those who are not yet aware of his work. The second category is getting smaller every day. I am part of the first. My copy of “The Tipping Point” is still heavily annotated. I used it for my PhD thesis; I have referred to it in almost every job I have done since it was first published in 2000. I even have a “Gladwell” category on this blog. Need I say more?

Four women and six men: not a bad gender breakdown. Five novels – although all of them published before 1993; one autobiography (Conroy), one impassioned essay on urbanism (Jacobs), one historical group biography (Gabler), one poetic meditation (Dillard) and one marketing/social psychology/”new age” business book (Gladwell).