My Latest Reading

Early December through early January is traditionally a slow month for me – clients are winding things up, people go on holidays, the accounting departments suddenly have a lot to do. So I find myself using that time to catch up on articles I’ve bookmarked or white papers I’ve saved ‘to be read’ later.  Here’s a small sample of what I’ve perused while taking down decorations, sipping mulled wine and generally eating too much.

In other news across the Modern Parlance landscape:

2017 promises to be another year of interesting projects, ebooks and more radio appearances (doing a regular stint on the local food and travel show – more on that later). If you’ve got any must read articles or big news, let us know!

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Mid-Holidays Drive By Update

Busy busy – always with the busy. And yet, better busy than bored I say so I won’t apologize for the busy. I can only say that I am hoping to be better in 2014 at finding time to blog.

Been doing a lot of interesting freelance work, including

  • editing a super novel (which though not my particular genre of choice) was nonetheless utterly engaging and enjoyable and I cannot wait to visit the alternate version of New York created as the backdrop for the stories.
  • several stints working on food and lifestyle websites of a major supermarket chain for London content marketing agency. A week in London here and there is always fun. Also useful from a shopping point of view. Also enjoyed seeing some of the “behind the scenes” logistics of these types of sites nowadays. Things haven’t changed much since earlier my web management days. In some cases that’s good – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But in some ways … well, suffice to say that the relationship between techies and client management remains as it largely always has been.

Doing a lot of reading and yet, the “to be read” (TBR) pile grows and grows. I am currently reading “Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat” by Bee Wilson. VERY interesting and well written. Much food for thought (it was an obvious line – you would have taken it too) about everything from gadgets to forks, cooking methods and containers. The culinary list (one of the more robust sections of the TBR pile) contains:

  • A History of English Food by Clarissa Dickson Wright (who isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and sometimes, if I am honest, isn’t mine but she has a VIEW and I’m interested in finding out more about it)
  • Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking by Kate Colquhoun which was recommended to me, not by a foodie reader, but by a lover of language who said it was worth it just to delve into the impact of food on language. The word nerd in me snapped it up.
  • Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky – between this and Spice, I’ve got the spice cupboard covered 🙂 But having THOROUGHLY enjoyed Kurlansky’s Food of a Younger Land (winner of the longest subtitle in history *), I had to grab this when I saw it.

I’ve got a non-culinary TBR pile as well – full of mostly memoirs at the moment. I go through phases and looking at things via the lives of notable individuals is one that crops up from time to time.
And finally – a bit of site seeing. As you know, I like to share links of interest when I find them and as I have been SO remiss in keeping you updated, I have quite a few this time.

  • 38 Wonderful Foreign Words We Could Use in English – via mental_floss, one of the great sources for my word nerding needs. I mean, they also provided the very interesting 7 Common Words With Little-Known Relatives
  • Came across a description for Write-A-House, a different kind of writer’s residency program – and of course, popped over to the Write House site to see what it was all about. Not that I am planning a move to Detroit. After the last move, I’m moving NO WHERE anytime soon. But it’s an idea with scope, I’ll give them that. Be interesting to see how it evolves long term. Basic idea? Help fix up a house and live there rent free so that you can work on writing. The house will be 80 percent habitable and the writer-in-residence will be required to fix up the rest.”
  • Everyone seemed to be taking the “How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk” quiz at some point – and I did as well. But I think I broke it. The truth is, my speech pattern is all over the board – not because we moved all over the place but because I grew up speech pattern, was raised in that place by two people with speech patterns from somewhere else and was surrounded by people all the time with patterns from even more places. Rubber ear and brain engaged and the result is – I use regionalisms of all kinds with no rhyme or reason.
  • I saw this and I knew I had to have it. The Book Map

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*The Food of a Younger Land: A portrait of American food – before the national highway system, before chain restaurants, and before frozen food, when the nation’s food was seasonal, regional and traditional – from the lost WPA files

Is Content King Or Isn’t It?

When you work in marketing (or if you work with marketers) these days, you hear the phrase “Content is King” all the time. You also hear that it isn’t or that is due to be deposed any second by something else. But do you know where that phrase comes from and what it actually means? Does it still mean what it originally meant? Finally, is it true or isn’t it?

The phrase “Content is King” was coined by Sumner Redstone in the mid-90s and if anyone knows content, it’s the man who’s been sitting on a MOUNTAIN of content for decades. The phrase then crops up in 1996, used by Bill Gates as both the title and topic of an essay he wrote describing how he saw the internet and the monetization of the internet evolving. Both men were making the point that the way people engage with content changes and that drives change in the content itself but the need for content itself is a constant. Movie studios and theatres, DVD players, streaming video, publishers, newspapers, magazine, bookstores, television programs, broadcasting companies – they come, they go, they change, but the appetite for the content they put out remains high.

Well, 16 years later, looks like they were right about that whole ‘plus ça change plus c’est la même chose‘ thing.

Is print dying? I don’t know. Frankly neither does anyone else, not really. But what I do know is that books and newspapers used to be the primary vehicles for delivering reading material to the masses and now they are just one of many methods. These days people get reading materials from books, newspapers, on their e-readers, on their phones, through their headphones, on their computer. Has the amount of reading material produced gone down? Are you kidding? We’re DROWNING in the stuff. Has the demand for reading material gone down? No, again.  Thanks to the greater number of access points and the tidal wave of content being produced to fill that ever expanding space, people can pick and choose like never before.

Let’s look at this by segment.

News: In regards to news consumption, the increased choice of delivery vehicle and amount of content being delivered is undeniable. We’ve got:

  • newspapers (not dead yet),
  • news magazines (also not dead and showing signs of evolving),
  • 24 hour news channels,
  • niche channels,
  • the expansion of what is defined as news,
  • the explosion of the news-fed blogosphere.

I can’t say that I feel the explosion in availability of information has done a lot for the quality of that information or the discourse around it but it’s certainly ratcheted up the quantity. So, regardless of whether newspapers are dying or not, news production and news consumption are alive, more than well and kicking.

Books: Books used to be the only long form game in town and the path from author to reader was pretty well defined. A book was written, picked up by an agent and sold to a publisher (usually one of a limited number of publishers). The publisher produced the book and sold it to the distributors who then sold it to the bookseller and the bookseller sold it to the reader. Yes, there were smaller publishers but back in the day they had real problems getting access to bookshelf space in retail outlets or even catching the distributor’s eye.

These days, you might:

  • curl up with a book, turning actual paper pages as you go.
  • curl up with your Kindle, NOOK or iPad, clicking your way through the story
  • don headphones to listen to the works of Charles Dickens during commute to work.
  • have bought your reading material at a bricks & mortar store or from an online retailer.
  • get your book “serialized” into your inbox once a week or downloaded from the library.
  • be enjoying a read produced by a mainstream publishers, a small publisher, an established author or your next door neighbor’s teenage daughter.

As for the amount of content itself – well, with so many more options for producing and delivering this content, the scope of that content has gone similarly through the roof. An argument is often made that all this easier production process and multiplicity of delivery platforms hasn’t done much for the standards of consumer fiction (or non-fiction come to that) but I don’t think the it’s the only thing at play here.

Yes, the ever-simplified path to production and the rush to cash in means there is quite a lot of slap-dash stuff out there and stuff that wouldn’t, in earlier eras, would have never seen the light of day. But you know, publishers de-prioritized proofreading LONG before the internet and I’ve got the typo-filled books to prove it. Not to mention, quality standards when it came to deciding what to publish were always – let’s say – flexible and usually driven by the bottom line more than anything else. You can’t lay the whole history of dodgy topics, poor writing and crap story-telling at the door of self-publishing. Publishing needs to take a big girl pill and face their questionable output as well.

Music: Let me ask you a question – when was the last time you went into a record store? Do they even call them record stores anymore? Of all areas of content, the market for music has undergone the most comprehensive change of all.

Film: Movies have gone through a similar evolution to books as far as production process and access points. Back in the day it went like this: Movie studios made movies (based on some economically proven story structures) and distributed them to the movie theatres who then showed the movies to the audience. It was a single, stream-lined path from movie makers to the mainstream movie-going audience. Today? Movies and movie-watching has become a many-headed hydra.

Anyone can make a movie.

  • The Big Studios: who make only a few types because movie making on their scale is expensive and they are answerable to stockholders these days.
  • The Independents: Still banging on a certain number of doors but finding it much easier to be seen and heard than ever before.
  • You: Though whether the world is ready for your three part documentary on traditional thanksgiving turkey recipes is another question.
  • The Barista at the Coffee Shop on the Corner: who wrote a screenplay but doesn’t know any of the right people and instead knows a lot of folks willing to pitch in and help out.

Considering how much content is being produced by all these channels (few of them with output dictated by economics to the same extent as the big studios), we may never run out of things to watch despite having so many options of where, when and how to watch – in the theatre, at home, on the phone, via YouTube, streamed from Netflix, etc.

So – now we know where the phrase “Content Is King” came from, what was meant by it and how it has apparently played out. Is it still true?  Is Content King? I don’t think so. And what’s more, I don’t think it ever was.

Content is important, no doubt about it. It is absolutely key. It is the content that people want and will pay for pay for. Is the vast array of delivery mechanisms now more important than what is being delivered? I don’t think that either. Delivery is as important at the content itself. Why produce product if you can’t distribute it? How will you reap the rewards of your content efforts if you can’t get that content to those who want or need it.

So, content and delivery of that content are both central. But let’s face facts – you can produce all the content you want, have all the delivery systems you can dream up, delivering as much product as they can all hold – and none of it means anything without the consumer.

  • If you want to sell – you must have something the consumer wants.
  • If you want them to buy, you have to make it available when and where they want.

There was a lot that people got right when they predicted how the internet would change commerce and content consumption. But the empowerment of the consumer, the increasing importance of the audience in the equation seems to have snuck past and taken people by surprise.

Content and platform are now mere consorts to the real power on the throne – the consumer.

The King is dead. Long live the king.

Highly Recommended Reading on Writing

I cannot recommend this piece – The Writing Revolution by Peg Tyre – highly enough.

“Students’ inability to translate thoughts into coherent, well-argued sentences, paragraphs, and essays was severely impeding intellectual growth in many subjects.”

Yes, damn it – writing! It doesn’t have to be art but it must be correct and clear. Grammar, spelling – if you don’t have the foundation, you can’t build the house. A long but very much worth it read.

Books, Books, Everywhere

For some, books are a necessity. Oh sure – they aren’t quite as critical as air, water and basic sustenance. But one step up from the ACTUAL necessities, you will find books. You will also find coffee, chocolate and cheese but that’s another topic for another blog.

Books are all over Transatlantic Towers despite our having just done a major cull of duplicates (the result of two households becoming one) and titles we’d long forgotten we owned (the result of having moved for the first time in 21 years and “discovering” two containers of books long forgotten under the beds) .  Even with that clear out, we’ve filled a run of shelves in the living room, another run in my office, the shelves in the entry hall as well as most of the shelves in Dungeekin’s office and the upstairs hall.

But don’t worry – I’m not going to bore you with a recitation of “books I have known, loved and have on the shelves.” That’s too similar to subjected to friends’ holiday snaps, a particular horror much easier to avoid on these days of social media since we can just choose NOT to click. I just mention the books as a whole as a transition to the books about books – one of my favorite topics and which seems to have taken over my holiday wish list once again this year. If you or someone you know are into books – not just reading them but owning them and having them to hand – chances you will find some of these books about books among the shelves.

  • overdueThis Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All: My love of libraries is closely related to my love of books but I also know that a library is so much more than the sum of its books. Libraries foster communities, provide opportunities. They are places to both learn and to have fun. The best libraries are made so by their librarians. Libraries and librarians have been around a long time – collecting, curating, producing and serving up information. The only thing that has changed is the platform. Their skills and insight are as necessary as ever. It was good to read about so many of the librarians who are forging this new and yet well-trodden path
  • The Professor and the Madman / The Meaning of Everything:  Few days have ever topped the day my Oxford English Dictionary arrived. All 20 volumes. I cancelled all my plans for the weekend and started re-arranging shelves immediately so I could find a new home for this prized possession. I love dictionaries. I admit it. I’m a geek. So what. And so I love reading about them as well. Years ago, while I was working at Cambridge University Press – we put out a book called The Story of Webster’s Third by a man named Andrew Morton. He was a delightful man and the book – following the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the publication of that particular edition of Webster’s – was a treat to work with. So when I saw these, I had to get them. The story behind my favorite of all dictionaries? They did not disappoint. Quite apart from the tale of two men so critical to the creation of the volumes we know today, they touche upon the key issues that the compilers of dictionaries have debated for so long – what is the goal? To reflect how society uses the language or to show how society should use the language.
  • Sixpence House: I dare book lovers to read it and not want to go to Hay-on-Wye. I want to – only I specifically want to go when the festival is NOT in progress. The very idea of trying to make my way through crowds like that makes me slightly claustrophobic just thinking about it.
  • Bachelor Brothers’ Bed and Breakfast:  one of those perfect “read a little, put it down, read a little put it down” books to fill those spare moments, about bookloving brothers who run a B&B geared toward people with reading on their mind and in their plans.
  • Book Row : An Anecdotal and Pictorial History of the Antiquarian Book Trade: I love NYC history and I love books so this book – about the thriving book trade down on Fourth was bound to catch my eye.

Some of these new books about books – having just hit or soon to hit the shelves – have already been added to my wish lists.

  • Books to Die For: The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on the World’s Greatest Mystery Novels: Yup, this is on my list and I will put right next to the Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, the PD James and Lockridge books. If you don’t know the Pam and Jerry Norths from the Lockridge books, go find them. They are deleightful in a “period piece” way, their period being the 40s and 50s. They are also a bit meta from a books about books perspective since Jerry is a publisher. Well, when not being dragged into the murder investigations his wife Pam keeps getting them involved in.
  • Read This!: Handpicked Favorites from America’s Indie Bookstores:  When I saw this, I knew I had to add it to my list. Booksellers are an awesome source when you want to know what to read next. Some of the best book recommendations I’ve ever gotten was the result of chatting with the folks working in amazing independent bookstores like Endicotts, Muder Ink and Partners & Crime  in NYC (these, VERY sadly, are no longer with us), other New York bright lights in the bookverse like McNally Jackson, Housing  Works bookstore. But part of traveling for me is also checking out local bookstores – so I’ve made great finds with the assistance of staff at places like Elliott Bay in Seattle, Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Politics & Prose in DC. I could go on and on  – and possibly I will in a separate post. It’s certainly a topic worthy of further discussion.
  • The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published: Years ago, back in my academic publishing days, I worked on the marketing for The Story of Webster’s Third. Fantastically interesting (to me anyway) look at what became a monumental moment in the creation, use and definition of dictionaries. Well, imagine my surprise to see the same topic still attracting attention. I’m definitely picking this up.

Of course, the book buying spree necessary to acquire all these will not prevent the book buying spree based on my wish list of books about the other necessities: coffee, chocolate and cheese.

Making a List. Checking it Twice

Some time ago, the BBC showed a program called 12 Books that Changed the World. It was hosted (and I believe put together) by Melvyn Bragg and as soon as I heard about it, I wanted to see it. Sadly, I do not live in the UK and this kind of program either takes forever to reach our shores or never reaches them at all. But through the good graces of a friend, I have now seen it.

bragg_origins

Even before they got to the books, they’ve made their position clear. The intro music alone is quite stirring enough to makes one think that “By thunder, if they haven’t changed the world – by the end of this 50 minutes, they’ll have changed something.”

The show is described as, “12 of the most exciting and powerful books ever written in the English language, all penned by British authors, without which the world would be a very different place.” so it’s not claiming that these are the top 12 in any time place and throughout the world – the beginning, middle or end as it were. Just that if these British titles hadn’t come into being – things would be different. The 12 books he includes are:

  • Darwin – The Origin of Species (1859)
  • The First Rule Book of the Football Association (1863)
  • William Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623)
  • Newton – Principia Mathematica (1687)
  • Adam Smith – The Wealth of Nations (1776)
  • William Wilberforce – Speech to the House of Commons (May 12 1789)
  • The King James Bible (1611)
  • Patent Specification for Arkwright’s Spinning Machine (1769)
  • Mary Wollstonecraft – A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)
  • Michael Faraday – Experimental Research in Electricity (1855)
  • Marie Stopes – Married Love (1918)
  • Magna Carta (1215)

There was a lot of reaction to the list when it first came out and the not unexpected squealing about “What about this title?” and “How could you leave out that one?”

But almost all of this wailing and gnashing of teeth failed to comply to the basic principle of the list which was that in addition to criteria centering on their enduring, global influence and significance at key times, all of them were British. Does that make the list flawed form the start? No, not if that was his goal in the first place – to find “12 British Books that Changed the World.” It certainly makes the list flawed if his goal was to find “12 Books that Changed the World regardless of author’s origin or citizenship.” Perhaps he should have rename the show and the accompanying book so it’s obvious to all just what his starting point is and we can compare apples to apples.

But he didn’t so if the list itself is to be argued, let’s give in and play in Bragg’s sandbox. The titles must all be British. Fine. But even given that – it seems a list designed to provoke disagreement (call it ‘debate’ if you prefer but people get awfully huffy about books – and quite right too – so I imagine ‘disagreement’ is a more accurate description).

So without expanding the restrictions on scope (which would open floodgates impossible to close but which I would be glad to discuss if anyone wants in a discussion distinct from this one), I ponder some titles MIA from Bragg’s list of British titles that have endured, have had global influence and significance at key times and my question is:

  • I’ll give you Shakespeare but where are Wodehouse and Dickens?

dickens

  • The King James Bible? If the list were worldwide and time-wide in scope than yes – the Bible certainly (the Koran as well) but why is the King James Bible on this much more narrow list? How did this edition change the world more than other editions? Simply because it is British? It’s use of the language? Why? I haven’t gotten to that point in the program. Perhaps he will convince me but he’ll have to work hard. Don’t get me wrong – I am very willing to put the Bible up among the most influential works ever. But if I am asked to pick and edition or version that made the most impact – I’m going outside the sandbox and declaring Guttenberg’s as the Impact Kahuna. More than a mere translation – it’s very creation, it’s existence has had a bigger, more wide reaching effect than any book in history. But – that’s a discussion for another time. Back in the ‘British titles’ sandbox I go.
  • Where is the Oxford English Dictionary? What madness is this?

oxford-english-dictionary

  • If the Magna Carta counts as a book, what about the Domesday Book – template for tax collections evermore. Don’t tell me THAT hasn’t changed the world. Which reminds me, wherefore is The Venerable Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum?
  • Where are Pepys’ Diaries or Boswell’s Life of Johnson
  • Did Bragg mislay his copies of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Macaulay’s History of England

Wow, that extra cup of coffee really jolted me awake this morning, didn’t it? I don’t want anyone to think I am not enjoying the program. I am! But “List shows” – whether counting down books, films, songs, etc. always get me going.