Archive for November, 2009


Don't try this with KindleMany people suffer from the misconception that books are just an old fashioned way to share ideas, knowledge, and experience. Books are good for that sort of thing, yes, but before you ditch them for a shiny new Kindle, remember that there are functions printed books perform for us that a Kindle simply cannot duplicate. Consider three of the most important ways a book can be used:

  • To Show Off
  • To Fend Off
  • To Piss Off

A Kindle doesn’t show people how smart you really are.
Imagine what it would be like to have offices without bookshelves radiating intelligence and expertise. A lawyer without law books, an editor without a fat orange Chicago Manual of Style, a marketer without something by Seth Godin. How would you know these people were not rank amateurs? I recently worked with a group of marketers who were keenly interested in taking advantage of Twitter, but they couldn’t be bothered to set up Twitter accounts and talk to actual people. So instead, they obtained free copies of Joel Comm’s book Twitter Power and displayed them on their office shelves like diplomas. That way, people visiting their offices saw the book and assumed they were experts in social media. Brilliant!

It’s hard to fend off strangers with your Kindle.
Surely protection is one of the most important, if unappreciated, functions that books perform for us. When you put a book cover between your face and the people around you, you are showing them why it is better not to disturb you. A good friend of mine brought the following book to his daughter’s soccer practices this year: Richard H. Timberlake’s Monetary Policy in the United States: An Intellectual and Institutional History. The title alone told the other parents that he was morose, aloof, and not even remotely interested in discussing the latest scandal about bikini-clad baristas. I used a similar tactic when I rode the Tube every day as a student back in 1989, in this case wielding Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. This book was doubly effective at keeping strangers away by telling them I was dull and pedantic while reminding them that every breath from every other subway rider could spread disease.

You can’t offend people by destroying your Kindle.
The most grievous of sacrileges in Western Civilization, next to banning books, is burning them. Fahrenheit 451 horrifies us because we equate the burning of books with the annihilation of ideas. If you disagree with an author, nobody cares. But burning a book, now that will get you some attention. The trouble with Kindle is, if the content angers you, you just delete it. If you want to destroy your Kindle, you have to recycle it because it won’t burn. And then instead of offending others, you just look like a good earth-friendly citizen.

Oh yes, and there is one more important way a printed book is superior to any electronic format. Most of us first learned to love books by tearing them apart. I’m talking, of course, about the pop-up book. Long before we learned how to read text, we learned that books sometimes contained pictures that would unfold magically before our eyes when we tugged at the pages. The harder we pulled, the faster the picture jumped up. Until we pulled too hard. And that was when we began to learn about how to be respectful of books and the ideas they contained. You could tug at them a little, fold the corners over if you didn’t have a bookmark handy, maybe write a few notes in the margins. But you were not to tear them, or throw them, or burn them except under extreme circumstances (say, for a blog photo).  You might take care of a Kindle because it is expensive to replace, but not because of the ideas it stands for. After all, the Kindle is as much about deleting old ideas as conveying new ones, so in the end the only idea it really stands for is convenience. And no school or library or despotic little country ever found convenience unsettling enough to ban.

That’s why I’m sticking to books where solid ideas are permanently inked onto fragile paper. Books I can use to keep strangers from talking to me. Books I can use to say, “My Dostoyevsky is smarter than your Dan Brown.” And if a funny picture unfolds when I open the pages or pull a secret lever, so much the better.

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Sometimes while mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest, you’ll fight hours of  underbrush, punch through half-frozen rivers, and slip your way up maddening scree under sleet and fog. And just when you are the most lost, the most exhausted, you emerge from the clouds and stumble upon other climbers. They are lost too. They are tired. And they are cursing Becky.

Becky guide from 1949, with cramponsThat would be Fred Becky. The man who almost single-handedly defined climbing in the Northwest, who made more first ascents than anyone in recorded history, who will scale a cliff with thousands of feet of exposure more easily than most of us can cross the living room.

When climbers talk about a “Becky Route,” they often mean the hypothetical route which is documented in climbing guides, but seems not to be possible. When they talk about “Becky Time,” they are referring to the mythical  Becky pace that will take you from trailhead to summit to bar in one day. You complain about this pace in the late afternoon when you are still trying to reach the summit, and the nearest bar seems continents away.

Like most legends, Fred Becky has his fair share of detractors and acolytes, but he is still a legend. So when we heard he would be speaking at Edgeworks Climbing in Tacoma, we were in.

For autographing, I brought along his groundbreaking guidebook from 1949, which the Mountaineers had refused to publish. Long before I was born, my uncle kept notes in this very book as he trained to climb Mount Rainier in 1951-52. By the time I climbed the same peaks, half a century later, avalanches and rockfall had transformed the physical landscape. But the Becky routes remained in print, viable or not.

So I made the pilgrimage to Edgeworks to see Becky’s photographs and hear his wisdom. As it turns out, Becky isn’t so much interested in wisdom. If you invite him to speak at your climbing gym, he’ll tell everyone there to get out of the gym and climb in the “real world.” He will show you peaks from Alaska to Mexico, with photos from climbs in 2008 alongside climbs in 1956. But he will  not comment on the out-of-date equipment you see, or the age of the young spry Becky in many of the photos. He is really only interested in the ageless peaks themselves, and the challenge they represent.

After the presentation, I brought him my uncle’s old book to autograph. A book so old it says nailed boots are basic equipment for every climb. But also a book that opens with a statement just as true today as 60 years ago: “Since climbing in Washington is seldom done with guides, self reliance, keen judgment, and the technical competence to climb on steep alpine terrain are  prerequisites.”

I presented this old, first edition book from Becky’s youth to him for an autograph. He seemed not to recognize it. And then a 20-year-old behind me pushed forward and said, “You had a John Muir quote at the beginning of your presentation. Can you tell me how Muir inspired you?” And the 86-year-old climbing legend paused and looked tired for the first time in his life. “I never thought about  it,” he said.

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Somebody at Dictionary.com goofed up this week, and it was wonderful. Tuesday’s word of the week was sommelier, which of course is a person who knows how to match the right Malbec with your roast lamb. The correct definition for sommelier was posted online (check 1), and also sent out through Twitter (check 2). But Dictionary.com’s original email notification contained not only the wrong definition, but mixed up the quotations illustrating usage as well (uh oh). To be fair, they caught most of the mistakes and sent out a corrected email later, but the damage was already done. I could not shake this misquotation from my mind:


When you read the above misquote, three things jump to mind immediately. First, Hemingway will have a hard time going online to check a menu if he dies in Ketchum, Idaho in 1961, long before the advent of Netscape and the first PC. Second, Hemingway is spelled with only one m. And third, he never wrote like this. Never ever.

And it is this last point that is most interesting to me. As soon as I read the misquote on Tuesday, I started thinking about what it would be like if Hemingway and other writers we hold dear had lived in the age of Facebook and Ning and Twitterific. Would they have a Twitter profile?  Henry James and Virginia Woolf, for example, could not condense the striking of a match into a single sentence, much less 140 characters. Hemingway at least is famous for short, simple sentences, such as, “He liked to open cans.” And you could tweet that easily enough. But out of context, it is essentially meaningless, like a keystone which by itself is a crooked rock lying on the ground, but supported stone by stone from each side is capable of supporting the entrance to a whole cathedral.

Social media applications are great for building connections with other people, but not so great for sharing unfamiliar ideas, especially complicated ideas that cannot be grasped in 60 seconds of video or 140 characters. Some things just require more time, more development, more contemplation. You’ll find a lot of funny jokes and recycled wit in social media. You’ll meet people from around the world who will help you when you least expect it.  But you won’t find many Charles Ives ringtones.

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