Writing on Books

Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World by Kevin Kelly

Reading this for the first time, ten years after publication, it's a mix of comfortingly out-of-date technologies and amazingly ahead-of-their-time thoughts (eg, peer-to-peer file sharing among private groups). Covers a vast amount of ground, from ecosystems to 3D graphics to evolution. I so wish I'd read it in 1994.

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In Books on 28 March 2004. Permalink

Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web by David Weinberger

I never expect much from net-related books, assuming I'll have heard it all before elsewhere. But I was pleasantly surprised: packed full of interesting thoughts that have made even jaded me look at things differently.

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In Books on 7 April 2004. Permalink

The Balkans by Mark Mazower

The fact that the recent troubles in the area only get a couple of the 135 pages shows what a complicated history it is. It's almost a shame then that it's crammed into such a short book. A real whizz through a fascinating region.

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In Books on 16 April 2004. 3 comments. Permalink

The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo by Saskia Sassen

While the book is undoubtedly oriented around cities, very little of it is about the structure or sociology of urban places. The bulk of the book is about the global financial markets' relationship to these cities and it's packed with statistics -- not the most fun read ever. There is some discussion on "softer" topics that were more interesting to me, such as growing inequality due to the change in nature of the financial markets, and, briefly, the effect on urban structure (eg, gentrification). But, while it has interesting points, the weight of the economic stats meant it took me two months to get round to finishing the thing.

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In Books on 1 July 2004. 1 comment. Permalink

The Art of Fiction by David Lodge

I read this when it was a series of columns in the Independent on Sunday. Nice to read it again. Short, manageable chunks of stuff that makes me want to read lots of classic novels, which can't be bad.

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In Books on 29 July 2004. Permalink

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

To be honest I was a little disappointed by Amusing Ourselves to Death, although this may have been due to high hopes raised by having heard the book mentioned a lot. Much of it seemed either blindingly obvious, or like the moanings of a killjoy who can't bear that TV is entertaining and that people don't listen to long speeches any more. However, it's still very much worth a read for its main point: TV is good at entertainment and anything that tries to rise about that level will fail and be worse than useless. Serious TV is thinly disguised entertainment and there is little need for authorities to censor the media when we so willingly take in the froth that's fed us. Given that this was written pre-internet, many of its ideas could do with updating to critique a whole new media -- it sounds strangely quaint the few times it mentions "computers". Postman's How to Watch TV News (UK, US) is probably a good read too.

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In Books, Television on 26 September 2004. 29 comments. Permalink

How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand

It's taken me years to get round to buying and reading this book (and months to type the notes up), but it was worth the wait. It made me look at buildings and the building process differently, and I've had to re-evaluate what I think of as good design when it comes to architecture. The pictures (one or more on almost every page) are invaluable. Go read it.

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In Books on 24 October 2004. 9 comments. Permalink

Barbican: Penthouse Over the City by David Heathcote

Most of the book is a detailed look at the various stages of planning the Barbican went through -- a lot of local politics, which can get tedious if you're more interested in the buildings themselves. But this is all good background info, and while I'd have liked more details about the finished estate, buildings, flats, fittings and culture it's recommended if you happen to be fascinated by the peculiar place that is the Barbican.

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In Books on 2 January 2005. 3 comments. Permalink

Getting Things Done by David Allen

Toward the end of last year I felt the need to take stock of everything I was doing (or, more likely, supposed to be doing) and get on top of things. Given that half the people I read online these days were raving about Getting Things Done (not least 43 Folders of course) I thought I'd give it a go. On the downside, it would be hard to write any kind of American, self-help, business-oriented book without coming across as a bit of a jargon-crazed maniac. But Allen doesn't do too badly; despite the occasional lapses I was surprised how practical and pragmatic about his ideas he was. Along the lines of "some of this will work for you, but some of it won't."

You could sum the book up in two words as "be organised", which isn't much help: Anyone would feel more organised if they set some time aside every week to get on top of things (the Weekly Review) or were as punctilious about recording their actions as GTD (as it's known) requires one to be. I'm not convinced this or any other system will help the perpetually scatterbrained and illogical.

Some of the specifics get a bit blurred for me among the complex arrangements of lists, folders, calendars, etc: I still don't understand what one should do with all the Actions that make up a Project, or when/if they should be transferred to the "Next Actions" list. Seeing examples of how others manage their lives using GTD would help greatly.

But it's definitely inspiring, and it does contain enough tricks and tips to make me think it'll make a difference. Hopefully I can keep some of this going and I'll definitely be returning to the book in a few months to see what I've forgotten, looking for more tips.

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In Books on 3 January 2005. 15 comments. Permalink

Mind Hacks by Tom Stafford and Matt Webb

Finally got round to reading it and wasn't disappointed. Very dense with interesting nuggets. The notes aren't a summary of the whole book; more the bits that I found most interesting or that were most new to me.

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In Books on 15 April 2005. Permalink

Piano Notes by Charles Rosen

Fascinating insight into the world of professional piano-playing. I think you'd get even more out of it if you either play the piano (something I haven't done for years) or have been to a lot of concerts. Made me realise how far away I am from really understanding and knowing the few works I'm vaguely familiar with.

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In Books, Music on 15 April 2005. 2 comments. Permalink

Lorca: A Dream of Life by Leslie Stanton

I scanned a couple of biographies of Federico Garcia Lorca to look for information about Blood Wedding, and specifically anything that might relate to the part of Bridegroom, which I'm currenly trying to get the hang of. If I had more time I should probably read the whole biography...

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In Books, City Lit on 20 May 2005. 2 comments. Permalink

‘An Actor Prepares’ by Constantin Stanislavski

Because I'm usually immersed in web stuff, it's interesting to read a text whose ideas are still relevant to its target profession 70 years on. It was mostly a more enjoyable read than I expected -- it's written as if by a student of acting, reporting on a year of training. It makes clear how much more there can be to acting than just "pretending to be someone else". Unfortunately I kind of lost it around two-thirds of the way through, when he starts talking about transmitting "rays" to each other, and things get a bit hazy and repetitive. Maybe that stuff makes more sense when the preceding chapters have been properly absorbed and used. (Also see my notes on Sanford Meisner on Acting and Uta Hagen's Respect for Acting.)

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In Acting books, Books on 27 May 2005. 101 comments. Permalink

‘Respect for Acting’ by Uta Hagen

I made these notes last summer, but it's taken me nine months to get round to typing them up. My notes on Stanislavski's An Actor Prepares seem to be useful to plenty of people, so maybe these will too. Hagen's book was the only required read for my Foundation acting course at the City Lit, and we've had to do some of the solo exercises she describes.

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In Acting books, Books on 8 May 2006. 13 comments. Permalink

‘Sanford Meisner on Acting’

We did a bit of Meisner in my acting classes but it wasn't doing much for me. I'd heard it could be very effective so I read the book to find out what wasn't working. It's a good read. Like Stanislavski's An Actor Prepares it describes Meisner teaching students, which is an effective and enjoyable way to deliver ideas (the only difference being Stanislavski's was narrated by a student, while Meisner's is described by a neutral observer). Meisner is all about being truthful -- stop acting, stop being polite, and start doing what feels honest. Inspiring stuff, but I need to do it rather than just reading about it for it to sink in...

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In Acting books, Books on 9 May 2006. 5 comments. Permalink

‘True and False’ by David Mamet

This was a blast after reading drier, technique-based books on acting. It's a rant, as if Mamet got back from a bad rehearsal with amateurs, got pissed, and hammered away for 120 pages. His view of an actor is largely from the author's point of view; if an author does his job, the actor doesn't have to do much at all. A one paragraph summary would be:

You'll learn more by going on stage than you will by studying. Most acting teachers are frauds. The Method's techniques are worthless tools for amateurs. An actor must simply deliver the lines given by the author. And be brave.

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In Acting books, Books on 28 June 2006. 2 comments. Permalink

Paul Morley’s ‘Words and Music’

Nearly three years after a Pepys reader kindly gave me a copy, I’ve finally got round to reading Paul Morley’s Words and Music. I enjoy seeing Morley on TV clip shows (I Love the Third Week of 1978, Top 100 Singles with ‘B’ in their Name, etc) where he’s one of the few to say something that has been thought about, even if it doesn’t make sense. I found 300 pages of that tough going at times though — when he’s writing about music, or writing about writing about music, it’s good stuff, but when it’s page after page describing how shiny Kylie Minogue is as she drives a car toward a city made out of music I end up skimming, looking for something interesting.

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In Books, Music on 28 November 2006. Permalink

‘Literary Theory: An Introduction’ by Terry Eagleton

It took me forever to read this, but mainly because I was taking fairly detailed notes; it’s not too tricky a read really. I took notes because I knew I’d forget so much of it straight away, but I’d like some of it to stick, or at least be ready to hand for when I forget. It was a good grounding for someone like me whose English Literature study stopped at sixteen.

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In Books on 7 May 2007. 18 comments. Permalink

‘A Whore’s Profession’ by David Mamet

This is a collection of other collections of essays on a variety of subjects. There is quite a lot of stuff early on in which Mamet recalls his childhood and early career in Chicago and New York. But the essays on acting, writing and directing interested me most, and these are what I took occasional notes on. Although, as he says, his thoughts on directing came after directing only two movies, at which point he thought he knew it all, but didn’t know how much he didn’t know.

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In Acting books, Books on 10 May 2007. Permalink

The first life logger

The moment a journalist calls Samuel Pepys “the world’s first blogger” is about the first moment I roll my eyes. But in the same vein of shallow scrabbling for a glittering phrase maybe Gerolamo Cardano was the world’s first life logger.

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In Books on 2 September 2008. Permalink

‘Cognitive Surplus’ by Clay Shirky

I just read Clay Shirky’s latest book Cognitive Surplus. Here are the bits that jumped out at me — either made me think about something differently, put something vague into words, or seemed otherwise worth remembering. It’s not a summary of the entire book, and I haven’t added my thoughts. The book’s worth a read.

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In Books on 16 July 2010. Permalink

‘On Photography’ by Susan Sontag

Published in 1973, On Photography (Amazon UK and US) is a collection of essays by Susan Sontag, most/all of which appeared in the New York Review of Books. When I started college in 1990, roughly half the age of the book ago, we were assigned the first chapter to read. As I’ve been thinking about photography a little over the past few months I thought it was time I read the whole thing. It’s all good, but that first chapter, which you might be able to cough find online, was the most interesting to me. I think this book, or something like it, is well worth a read if you feel your photography habit is caught up in the purely technical, buying bits of kit, angle. Here are the bits from the whole book that jumped out at me while reading…

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In Books on 23 August 2010. Permalink

‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ by Steven Johnson

My notes from the book (Amazon UK, US), which was a good, easy read. Like many similar books (Shirky, Weinberger, et al) it brings together lots of ideas that in retrospect seem blindingly obvious, but which you would never have put into words before reading.

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In Books on 14 November 2010. Permalink

A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich

I recently read A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich (Amazon UK, US). It’s a great read, designed for, I guess, “young adults” but nicely written and really good as an overview of how lots of things fit together. I can imagine re-reading it every so often, as it’s a great foundational structure on which to build other learning.

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In Books on 14 January 2011. Permalink

Whoops! by John Lanchester

Whoops! is very good indeed. It explains the recent financial crash in clear and entertaining terms, and puts the size of the problem in perspective. An easy but very interesting read. Recommended. The bits below are mostly tangential to the details of the crash itself, but are the bits that I’d have turned page corners down for if I wasn’t unduly precious about my books.

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In Books on 7 February 2011. Permalink

‘Always Magic in the Air’ by Ken Emerson

I recently read Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era by Ken Emerson (Amazon US, UK) which was very good and very recommended if you’re at all interested in the music churned out by those around New York’s Brill Building in the 1950s and 60s.

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In Books, Music on 9 May 2011. 2 comments. Permalink

Postwar by Tony Judt

There aren’t many 800 page books that I want to read again as soon as I’ve finished, but Postwar is one. An amazingly comprehensive, readable and (eventually) broadly optimistic account of Europe’s countries, peoples, politics and culture since World War II. Highly recommended.

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In Books on 31 August 2011. 1 comment. Permalink

‘Measuring America’ by Andro Linklater

I recently read the 2003 book Measuring America by Andro Linklater (Amazon UK, US). The subtitle, “How the United States Was Shaped By the Greatest Land Sale in History” is too flippantly dramatic to do the book justice. It’s a fascinating read, all about how and why the United States was mapped, starting in the east, working westwards, using nothing more than poles, chains and ever more elaborate brass instruments. Imagine measuring a continent, on foot, using long chains, hacking through the wilderness to get a clear line of sight from one position to the next.

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In Books on 1 September 2013. Permalink