Two books that have had a great influence on my productivity over the last six months have been The 12 Week Year and Deep Work.
One of my resolutions last year was to read more, and in March I set out to read all of Douglas Coupland’s novels in chronological order. I seem to remember reading an interview with him where he said he’d love to be able to read his novels afresh in the order they were published, something he can’t do as he’s too close to them. That seemed like a good enough challenge for me.
I have been saying to myself for too long that I need to step away from my PC more often and read more books. So, this year I decided to start by reading all of Douglas Coupland’s novels, in chronological order, in the order he wrote them; I have all his novels up to Gum Thief (2007). That’s 12, including Life after God (1994) which is a collection of short stories. I’ll see how many get through in 2017.
Generation X: tales for an accelerated culture
This is, at least, the third time that I’ve started to read Generation X by Douglas Coupland, but it’s the first time that I’ve actually finished it.
I don’t know whether it’s because I’ve grown older, or because I know myself better now, or whether my own life circumstances have changed dramatically over the last two years but I connected with the book more this read through than in the past. It resonated with me more than before.
While I connected with the book, I didn’t connect with the characters. Andy, Dag, Claire, and Tyler and Tobias. I found them too aloof, too fickle, too disconnected to begin to care about them too deeply. Despite all the conversation and the frantic activity, the novel felt like a study in loneliness. Maybe that’s the point being made about my generation.
“Time to escape. I want my real life back with all of its funny smells, pockets of loneliness, and long, clear car rides.” (p.172)
Throughout the novel, Andy, Dag and Claire tell stories: searching for meaning in their lives. Creating their own metanarratives in a post-modern world without one.
This, Coupland’s first novel, contains moments of genius. Simple sentences that capture what it means to be living now, recording the culture, portable insights into the minutiae of life towards the end of the 20th century.
In was in paragraphs like this that I was able to connect most with the novel:
“I must have been asleep for hours. When I woke it was dark out and the temperature had gone down. There was an Arapaho blanket on top of me and the glass table was covered with junk that wasn’t there before: potato chips, bags, magazines… But none of it made any sense to me. You know how sometimes after an afternoon nap you wake up with the shakes or anxiety? That’s what happened to me. I couldn’t remember who I was or where I was or what time of year it was or anything. All I knew was that I was. I felt so wide open, so vulnerable, like a great big field that’s just been harvested.” (p.183)
Or the chapter about celebrating Christmas with the family, and for a moment being transported away from the humdrum of everyday life into something mysterious and magical.
But there is a problem.
Later on life reverts to normal. The candles slowly snuff themselves out and normal morning life resumes. Mom goes to fetch a pot of coffee […]
But I get this feeling—
It is a feeling that our emotions, while wonderful, are transpiring in a vacuum, and I think it boils down to the fact that we’re middle class. (p.171)
Or moments, like in the final chapter, where the characters find meaning or insights into their own lives through their interactions with passers-by. Not deep insights, but touch-points with their own humanity, recognising their own significance, and perhaps that there is also a reality beyond that which they normally live.
Then there are a few chapters that really touched me, that left me feeling like the world was a different place afterwards.
The final chapter in part one, about being caught in a nuclear explosion. While shopping.
Chapter 22 Leave your body about “this poor little rich girl named Linda” who meditates for seven years. That chapter is one of the most beautiful of any that I’ve ever read in a novel.
When I’ve mentioned to people that I had started reading this novel again, after abandoning it twice, they invariably asked why, and said that life was too short to tackling books that I didn’t enjoy. But I’m glad that I did persevere. Because it was for those beautiful insights, those snippets of exquisitely crafted words, amidst the mundane chatter and mind-games of the central characters that I did it. I feel enriched by having read this book.
Review score: 7/10
Next book to read: Shampoo Planet (1992).
Amazon UK has just sent me an email wondering if I might be interested in the following bizarre collection of books:
- Collectible Spoons of the 3rd Reich
- Bombproof Your Horse: Teach Your Horse to be Confident, Obedient and Safe No Matter What You Encounter
- A General History of the Pyrates
- Bicarbonate of Soda: Hundred (sic) of Everyday Uses: Cleaning, Laundry, Personal Care, Food
On Tuesday my Amazon Kindle 3G + Wi-Fi arrived. And there was much rejoicing.
Why I bought a Kindle
For a few years now I’ve wanted an eBook reader to make my growing collection of geeky books in PDF more portable.
I have a laptop, but it’s not terribly practical with its brightly glowing screen and its fan-assisted knee warmer. And as any reader of Jakob Nielsen will be able to tell you: reading on computer screens is tiring and about 25% slower than reading from paper.
My Psion Series 5mx has a PDF reader but it’s not being developed now and so doesn’t support the latest version of PDF files. My Windows Mobile phone does support the latest formats, but the screen is so small that it makes reading PDFs cumbersome with all the scrolling that’s required.
So I wanted something in between a laptop and a PDA, that would support PDFs and wouldn’t put too big a dent in my wallet. The new Amazon Kindle 3G + Wi-Fi seemed to promise all of that, so I pre-ordered one. It arrived two days ago.
When I unpacked the Kindle I tried to peel away the cellophane instruction that was telling me what I should do next (plug it in!), until I discovered that it wasn’t a stick-on film it was the screen itself.
Of course! The Kindle doesn’t need power to maintain an image on the screen, it just needs power to change the image. Genius! and a perfect introduction to the quality of the E Ink technology.
The first thing I did was fix it into the chocolate brown Kindle leather cover that I also bought. I decided not to pay £20 extra for the one with the built-in light as I rarely have to read in the dark, what with us having electric lighting in the house and everything.
The Kindle feels great in your hands; the slightly rubberised feel to its casing makes you feel confident that you’re not going to drop it easily. Once the Kindle is secured into the case it just feels great, like you’re reading a classic, leather-bound book. It’s a very tactile experience.
I plugged it in, switched it on and very quickly got to grips with the basic functionality: selecting a book and navigating through the pages.
It feels quite intuitive and I love the feel of the qwerty keyboard: the keys are quite rough like very fine sandpaper which I guess makes them easier to use than similar-sized smooth keys on which your fingers might more easily slide off.
I can’t compare the Kindle 3 with earlier models to judge whether it does offer “50% better contrast than any other e-reader” or “crisper, darker fonts”. But what I can say is that it just looks great. And everyone I’ve shown it to today has commented on both the clarity of the text and how easy it is to read, even when held at strange angles and from a distance.
Connection to PC
Of course, what I really wanted to do was check out how my PDFs would render on the Kindle.
The power cable comprises a USB cable (it looks like USB A to Micro-B) that plugs into a … well, a plug. Unhook the plug and you have yourself a USB cable. It took seconds for Windows 7 to recognise the Kindle as an external drive.
The Kindle contains four directories:
I dragged and dropped about 300 MB of PDF files into the \documents directory, ejected the Kindle from Windows and lo-and-behold! there they were.
eBooks can be organised into what the Kindle calls collections, which is like organising your files into folders or directories on your PC; books can be assigned to more than one collection. This makes it easier to find your books, and cuts down the clutter on the home screen.
Once organised into collections you can still view a list of all your books by title, author or most recent.
While most of my books are in PDF, I have a few eBooks in either .Mobipocket or Amazon’s proprietary .AZW format (which is based on the Mobipocket standard) which allows the text to be resized. There are eight possible sizes ranging from tiny (30 lines per page) to enormous (5 lines per page).
With eBooks the typeface (regular serif, condensed serif or sans-serif), line spacing (small, medium large) and words per line (fewest, fewer, default) can be adjusted, and text-to-speech can be turned on enabling the Kindle to read out loud the text on the page, either through the built-in speakers or via the headphone socket.
I spent about 30-45 minutes sitting reading an eBook the other day and it felt really natural. It really is the quality of the screen that makes all the difference: it really does look like ink printed on light grey paper.
Navigation through the pages is via the forward and back arrows on both the left- and right-hand side of the Kindle; although once secured into the leather cover left-handed users I imagine would have to bend the cover back on itself (the kind of action that is drilled into you from an early age that you should never do with a paperback), or remove it from the cover altogether … or, I guess, use the buttons on the right-hand side of the Kindle.
Thankfully reading PDFs was just as easy as reading standard eBooks.
Of course, the whole point of PDFs is that the author can determine how they look and that they will retain their design regardless of the device they are being viewed on. This means that the viewing options are reduced to just zoom, screen contrast and screen rotation.
Depending on the size of the text I’ve found that reading some books with the fit-to-screen option and a 90° rotation is best. Depending on the size of the original page, the navigation keys will then shift your view from the top to the bottom of the page before moving on to the next page. It really is very impressive.
I just wish that there was a keyboard shortcut for rotating the screen. On the Kindle 1, I’ve read, it is Alt + R, but on the Kindle 3 this inserts a number ‘4’ into the search box.
No support for PDF bookmarks
Here’s my biggest niggle with the Kindle, though, when using it to read PDF documents: it doesn’t appear to have support for PDF bookmarks. This seems to me to be a huge failing, as it is often the way that I navigate around large PDF documents when viewing them on my PC.
I hope that Amazon address this in a future update.
And speaking of failings: my Kindle has crashed about 5 or 6 times since I received it, and it has rebooted itself once. I’m hoping that the latter was a software update, I’m currently on version 3.0 (515460094).wrote about the freezes and crashes yesterday. Mine have happened while browsing the Web and viewing long, complicated PDF documents.
[Update: I upgraded to the latest OS and that solved the crash problem.]
I do wish manufacturers would include instructions on how to soft- and hard-reset their devices. On the Kindle 3 you hold in the power switch for 7 seconds to reboot it, and for 15 seconds to reboot (soft reset) it.
For a hard reset you need to hold the power switch for 20 seconds, release it and then hold the Home button while the Kindle is rebooting. A screen appears asking you to type “RESET” into an input box which starts the factory reset.
It’s inconvenient, but it’s not enough to put me off using it.
A few shortcut keys I’ve found useful:
- Alt + Shift + G
Takes a screenshot (think of ‘g’ for ‘grab screenshot’)
- Alt + Shift + M
Play Minesweeper (press G within the game to play GoMoku)
- Alt + Home
Open the Amazon Kindle Store
- Alt + Q, Alt + W, Alt + E, etc.
Pressing Alt and the top row of keys will produce numbers 1-9 and then 0.
- Alt + G
- Alt + B
While reading a book you can toggle user-created bookmarks
Pressing Menu on the Home screen will show you both the time and available memory.