Wednesday, August 20, 2008

taKing On the System

Taking on the System
by Markos Moulitsas Zuniga
Celebra, August 2008
pp 288
Buy Me!

Convergence is a frequent topic in regards to technology: in practice, we have cell-phones with internet and music-playing ability; in economics, we have telecoms offering a broad spectrum of services; in theory, Vinge and Kurzweil write of the "singularity", a convergence of technology and biology.

Likewise, books on the technologies of social networking, blogs, collaboration and the like seem to be contained in their own version of convergence. As a data set, my most recent reads on this subject contain many of the same anecdotes: Trent Lott, the Orange Revolution, Howard Dean's Presidential campaign, and Jim Webb. While this overlap can be excused as a result of the relative infancy of the medium, another, more unfortunate exclusion in these books is the bordering-on-Utopian regard for the internet as the epitome of democratic, equal access for everyone.

In this respect, Moulitsas is as guilty as, say Clay Shirky, David Weinberger, Lawrence Lessig and Yochai Benkler.

We are living in a time when technology is breaking down barriers, empowering the isolated, arming the powerless, and educating the ignorant. The tools and tactics to enact social change have evolved dramatically in even the last short decade. We're entering an era of dramatic democratization. (8)

Most of this is likely accurate - for those who have access to technology. There are still many who do not, though, usually breaking down upon socioeconomic lines. So, while the internet does offer an expansion of democratization for many, it never hurts to acknowledge that the benefits are not universal and that many of the intrinsic faults and layers of privilege found in the structure of American society (race, gender, religion, wealth and opportunity) are both mimicked and perpetuated in networked technology.

For Moulitsas' book, though, this is much less of an issue. He does not pretend to write a treatise on the vast potential of the internet and how it can change the world; rather, he has written a concise, practical and nuanced guide on how to change the world by means of the internet.

Some of the time is spent recounting and analyzing past successes and failures, from Jim Webb to Cindy Sheehan. Each of these forrays into deconstruction and theory is accompanied by advice - or "rules", in keeping with Moulitsas' channeling of Saul Alinsky - for the digital citizen/activist. And, through the more accessible medium of internet publishing, citizen/activist is an appropriate hybrid term; breaking the binary of creator/consumer or writer/reader is the ultimate goal of his brand of activism. It is this embrasure of post-Enlightenment, post-rational antiprofessionalism that truly inspired this reader. Moulitsas provides a convincing argument and useful methodology for taking back the ground that has long been ceded to "journalists", the lone guardians of reporting the "truth" to the "public". (At times, I am reminded of Hannah Arendt's great essay "Truth and Politics" and the difference between rhetorical and factual truth.)

Taking on the System succeeds in other manners, besides the useful advice for crafting a narrative from inception to deployment to manitainence, which I will not elicit here (buy the book! and read Al Giordano's fine review - and check out his work at NarcoNews for writing without the "middleman" - and check out his great POTUS 08 blog, The Field, which is essential reading, in my opinion). The book is a joy to read, especially for a fan of lefty blogs, or anyone who doesn't think "liberal" is a dirty word, or who believes that the American political institution is broken.

Moreover, this book offers a small, affective glimpse into the personal world of "the founder of America's most influential political blog" (from cover copy) through its voice. In admitting his unease over the impending fallout from one famously controversial post on the death of Blackwater mercenaries in Fallujah, you see the human through the text - which is arguably what make the DailyKos such a popular destination. Moulitsas' personality is a surprising and effective tool for driving home the most important and cogent aspect of Taking on the System: the powerful and clear step-by-step tutorial on how to tear down the walls of the establishment, corporate media and their conventional wisdom.

Of course, the total picture isn't without flaws: Taking on the System is published by an imprint of Penguin (and it seems most websites exclusively link to Amazon, which is the biggest single reason your local independent community bookseller is going/has gone out of business - perhaps, you might by the book from us). And it is hard to rectify the recommended incrementalism in activist approach with Kos' own hand-wringing and pledge to withhold funds from the Democratic nominee over a FISA vote, itself a clear exercise in legislative incrementalism. Conversely, the inclusion of many of the early battles of the 2008 primary election cycle makes for a very interesting current within the overarching narrative.

Despite these small hiccups, Taking on the System remains a nuanced and practical primer for internet activism that I recommend to anyone interested in changing the world from the pseudo-privacy of home.

Cross-posted at DailyKos *** Join the conversation *** Buy the book

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Better Angel - Chris Adrian

Let’s face facts, people. I, your humble typist, am not even close to being cool*. I’m not on top of the latest music, the hippest fashion, or the coolest drugs*2. The only arena (save for comics) that I can pretend to know about is books. As a bookseller in various capacities for the last 7+ years I’ve seen thousands of titles pass my way. I’ve even read some of them*3. However, even when it comes to books, I still fall a bit short of ‘guy you want at your ‘altbook goth poetry slam and appletini mixer’*4.

I’ve gotten weary over the years, especially of hype and marketing. It’s engendered in me no small amount of Bestseller Backlash*5. This extends to lesser-known authors in a ‘coolness mutation’ of the disease (which explains why I’m so McSweeney’s/New Directions/SoHo Press deficient). This mutation kept me from reading a book called The Children’s Hospital, written by Chris Adrian. It sounded good, I wanted to read it, and then at least four co-workers had to tell me just how good it was. This sort of thing has kept me from Murakami, Marias, Marquez*6 and other ‘M’ name authors.

Time went by, The Children’s Hospital stared at me accusingly each time I unpacked it from a Perseus Distribution box, and I got on with life. Then, as if by magic (or the weekly galley box sent to each Schwartz store from the home office), I saw a book by Chris Adrian with my name on it.

Did I dare? Well, yeah, or I wouldn’t be writing about it. I tore through Adrian’s collection of stories, A Better Angel, and soon after felt like the last guy to insist that the Earth was flat*7. From the first story on it’s evident that Adrian has an envious amount of creativity and an admirable grasp of his characters’ motivations and viewpoints.

Make no mistake; these aren’t quirky slices of life or faith-affirming meditations on mankind’s foibles. What’s in this book, in every story without exception, is sadness, nearly incommunicable rage, twisted pathos and the ever-present specter of death. Having never read Adrian before, I was surprised to say the least. There are elements of the fantastic and the supernatural in many cases, but they serve as a means to explore a reality that’s been turned upside down.

The central question in so many of the stories in A Better Angel is “How does a person deal with death?” The death of loved ones, the death of innocence, the death of spirit in the face of atrocity. The answers proffered won’t help you sleep better at night, but they will make you think hard about your own response to tragedy. This book is not a positive coping mechanism; quite the opposite, it is a rage-filled howl against the inadequacy of emotion and the way in which terrible events weigh down everyday lives.

A Better Angel is definitely not for the faint of heart; it is for the questioners and the seekers who are open to plumbing the depths of anguish and living in the chilly recesses of tortured minds for the space of a story now and then.

*I’m not fishing for compliments here. It’s a simple statement of fact. Let it be.

*2 No “meth-mouth” for me, thanks. Drugs are bad. You heard it here first.

*3 Not many classics, too much genre trash, and a fair amount worth recommending here.

*4 Catch the next mixer at Recreational Sherpa’s; Milwaukee’s newest indoor rock climbing center and pub house! Located in the basement of the third crack house on Cambridge, just off the corner of Brady and Farwell. $5 cover, Tuesday night rails are only $2 until 10pm. Can’t relate to having a street with at least three crack houses in your city or town? Good for you.

*5 A particularly virulent book-borne form of elitism that causes sufferers to recoil from any book that comes highly recommended by any print or online publication (except The Inside Flap), or sells a lot of copies.

*6 “It’s Garcia Marquez, jerk!” I’m aware, but go into any bookstore and you’ll find him shelved in both ways. I don’t make the rules, I just bend them to make weak alphabet jokes.

*7 I know; I seem to start a fair amount of my book recommendations by saying that I held off on reading a book and found I was wrong to do so. What can I say? I spend a lot of time being stubborn and wrong. I could have just come out and said as much, but who am I; Georgia’s senior Senator, Saxby Chambliss*8?

“I don’t know what I’m doing here either. While I’ve got your attention; don’t vote for that Barack Hussein Obama feller. He’s a ‘risky’ choice. I hope you take my Southern Strategy meaning when I say ‘risky’.”

*8 I actually know next to nothing about Saxby Chambliss or his reading habits, save for that he’s a Republican and therefore alternates The Bible and Ann Coulter and is most likely evil. Plus, he’s got an ‘old money’, funny-sounding name worthy of mockery.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Rules for Radical Readers

As someone who is more frequently exploring the interweaving of social networking and bookselling, I can't say that I've ever found a sentence more exciting than this:

In one heavily trafficked thread entitled “Unhappy with Breaking Dawn? Don’t burn it—RETURN it!,” commenters debated whether returning the book was a valid way to express unhappiness with the book. <PW Daily, 7 Aug 08>

The above is referring to the less-than-enthusiastic reception of Stephanie Meyer's Breaking Dawn, the fourth book in the hottest YA series since that wizard kid (read Sarah's thoughts here). I can't honestly write that I've seen anyone return a copy to us this week - and if you're thinking of it, I recommend returning it to a megastore, instead.

Back to my interest in this story, though. I've recently finished Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody, a book on sharing, collaboration and collective actions through online social networking. It's a good intro to the rise of netroots actions across the spectrum - politics, business, creativity to name a few broad arenas - if less than critical. Still, I recommend.

In Shirky's world, collective action is the endpoint of successful online social groupings. As the chief advocate for our Ning network of book readers, I tend to concentrate on how the internets can facilitate sharing and collaboration - in essence, I'm hoping to initiate a conversation on books, etc. This blog, too, is an exercise in collaboration. Ideally, the collective action part of the equation is the translation from joining the network to helping independent booksellers keep their doors open by buying books from us (which you can do by clicking on a title or book cover).

In the 4 Aug 08 print edition of Publishers Weekly, (lo-and-behold!) Clay Shirky has a little piece on digital publishing, "Mattering to Readers", in which he predominantly argues for a more accessible publishing world to listen to and reach out to their readers, in order to form more personal relationships, or "to matter" to them. Shirky holds up Big Music as what not to do: don't become faceless, homogenized blobs, or folks won't have a problem digitally reproducing and redistributing your products without giving a damn about your coin purse.

The publishing industry has an advantage, maybe two: books are still not digitally-distributed to the extent that they can be "pirated". The second might be that mega-publishers haven't become blobs of homogenization, yet. I think there are more than a few arguments against that, though. Regardless, Shirky's claim only requires the first condition: folks can't rip off the publishers yet without the digital media; thus, the publishers still have time to become relevant to their readers. They'd better hurry, as some small publishers already are relevant to many readers.

What does this have to do with online social networking, besides the preferred method of distribution of digital media, you might ask? Two things: the writing process and the bi-directionality of networks.

Shirky writes that he wanted to write a book "to work with a publisher", rather than, say, make some money, share some knowledge, etc. Those things, I assume he knows, he can do - and foes - online. He goes for print due to a books ability to share and collaborate ("focus a conversation, creating social capital" are his exact words) across large scales and longer periods of time. (It talks longer to read and share a physical book, than forward an email, online story or blogpost.)

The conversation we want is one of sharing ideas, collaborating and collective action. Shirky, as a writer and communications theorist, understands the collaborative process inherent in bringing a finished book to the shelf - and how this is similar to what online communities can sometimes achieve. Here Comes Everybody, though, is published by one of the largest conglomerates in the publishing world - Penguin. (One can understand why he might not be interested in declaring that big publishing houses *are* exactly the same as their nameless, faceless music industry anaologs.) I can also understand why explicitly writing about the potential consequences of this conversation didn't make it into this article.

As Breaking Dawn is showing us, hosting that conversation can result in your readers trashing your products, for all to read, for some (if not most) to participate in, all at your hosting expense and their time. While there willingness to spend their free time is a strong sign of the readers' committment to the series, what I find more interesting is the power that the readers have wrested from the publishers, utilizing the tools the publisher has provided to organize a campaign to return the books. While I'm sure Little, Brown/Hachette was counting on kids flosking to their site to talk about Meyer's saga, I bet they weren't counting on losing their monopolistic power structure in the process.

And, to me, that is the power of the reader who is connected to other readers. The temporal and physical structures of our society may keep us divided - suburban sprawl, homogenization of commerce, lack of mass transit, ad inifinitum - but we can build social capital in spaces that are more resiliant to these pressures.

Join the conversation.

(And, if you're in SE Wisco, you can join our siblings at 800-CEO-READ for their second Pecha Kucha night on 26 Aug 08.)

Saturday, August 2, 2008

long post about a book you cant buy...yet

In the fall of 2007, I unearthed a chapbook at Milwaukee’s Renaissance Books. The author, Mike Balisle, a great son of the upper Midwest, channels similarly to BH Fairchild, Ander Monson and Richard Hugo, with stark observation and desperate longing to understand his own place among the “white axes of winter”, middle-of-nowhere taverns and menial labor jobs. His poetry and prose disappeared for twenty-five years and come again, for me, so recently. After I posted the blog in which I publicly lost my mind in adoration, a friend of his, from way back when, from Balisle’s days traveling the Carolinas emailed me:

I read your post on Mike Balisle's Bonesteel with interest and fascination. I knew Mike back in the early 70's in Columbia, South Carolina. We used to hang out together and go fishing while he was studying at University of South Carolina. He moved with his family to Madison Wis. and went to University of Wisconsin, Whitewater to major in forestry. During the summer of 1972 (I think) we traveled together across Canada to the parks above Banf and then down into Montana and Wyoming. We visited his grandparents in Daniel, Wyoming, then looped back to Madison. I don't know any more about what became of him after that, but you might be able to track him through his sister. He is a unique personality.

This person, who may or may not be old man Lebowski (the friend and the actor have the same name), really inspired, what before had been, an unrealistic desire to collect the writings of Mr. Balisle. After months grappling with an acceptable format for an email to the sister, I went ahead:

Hello, Ms. Balisle. I am a student at the University of Wisconsin:Milwaukee and bookseller at Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops. I am emailing for what may, to you, be a peculiar reason. Last fall I was rummaging through a box at a local used bookstore and stumbled upon a copy of your brother, Mike Balisle's chapbook, Bonesteel. It quickly became a favorite and I wrote a glowing review of it on our bookstore blog. A strange turn of events came when I recieved an e-mail from a David Huddleston in South Carolina, a man who knew Mike back in the seventies. He had somehow come upon our bookblog. He forwarded me your website and now here I am, sending you this message. Basically, I hope to get in to touch with Mike, so as to inquire about the existence of any other books or writings he may have out there. Thank you for taking the time to read this.

A speedy response:

You have made my day and I hope my brother's. He is alive and well after many years of strife and doing good, and is a substitute teacher. He has many other works, some self published, some published in outdoor magazines, some plagiarized by others along the way. He used to give quite a few readings at various places, and often paid for meals and rides on the road with his poetry books or poem reading. You may not know this but Mike got a Master's Degree in Creative Writing at UW Milwaukee in the late seventies. He graduated from undergrad at UW Steven's Point. I think Bonesteel was related to getting his Master's degree but he could tell you more about that. Right now we are focused on our mother. I am there now, but I'm sure Mike will want to get in touch with you. Thank you for putting this out there and tracking me down. It's good to hear that Dave Huddleston is alive and kicking. He was a good friend to Mike when we lived in South Carolina. Good luck in your work as well.

I really couldn’t believe that these wheels were still turning. I felt I was traveling along “lake-tossed highways” right with Balisle. Come June, my fiancé, the esteemed Dr. Godsave, pulls out of his backpack one of the first issues of the Cream City Review, which he reveals to me contains a poem by Balisle.

Fast forward to July 10th. Sarah Marine strolls into work, prepared for some speed-shelving and picking on Jordan…it really was going to be a great day. Approaching the register, a grinning Carl Hoffman points to a package resting against the counter. Excuse my generic response: OMG. There it is, a large envelope addressed to me, from Mike Balisle. Fan Girl City, my friends. Some squeeling and fast walking to the office and I’m ripping open the package and inside: a small chapbook- “In the Least Populated County of Wyoming”, a photocopied poem “Recycling Tragedy” from Alaska Fisherman’s Journal and charming correspondence between Mike and Gary Snyder, whom he counted among his great influences. Finally, the inscription in the chapbook, a perfect representation of my idea of the man:


Thanks for the kind words upon that there internet…if’n ye boost my literary self-esteem too much I might be dangerous----up until now I reckon I’ve been avoiding “papyrus-razzi”---

Mike Balisle

Friday, August 1, 2008

Homogenization, now available second hand

From Publishers Weekly:

Amazon has reached an agreement to acquire AbeBooks, the British Columbia-based online marketplace that has over 110 million titles for sale through its bookseller network. The purchase, which is expected to close in the fourth quarter, will strengthen Amazon's already dominate position in the used book field. Terms weren't disclosed.

I'm generally not a fan of consolidation of power in any form; as a second hand book buyer, who reluctantly lists some books at the big A, this news is particularly sad. While it's a marketplace expansion issue (the same reason I list a few), it still homogenizes the way online consumers will view and purchase books. And, it seems, Abe Books (or the executives at Abe Books) is one bookseller who will benefit financially. I doubt that other, similar services will get the same (or any offers) from Amazon. Likely, they'll wither. Now, we'll exclusively send folks to Alibris, I suppose.

This isn't an online v. "real" world divide for me, as I don't necessarily believe that those spaces are separate for most people. That's why I blog. About books. And, more and more, about online community. That's why we Ning. The thought is that we can build social capital together, exchange thoughts on books. If you're in Milwaukee, you might stop into the shop on Downer to talk with us. If not in SE Wisco, you might leave a comment on the blog, join the Ning, follow our twitter and even buy a book from us online. Or, you might have cause to stop into your local independent bookseller to start a conversation there.

Rather, this is Amazon gobbling up competitors and consolidating the marketplace, which will only allow them to further dictate how (and which!) books are sold. Or, as smaller networks and brick-and-mortar shops disappear from your neighborhood, they will be able to control the flow of information in printed form, as they see fit.

Sure, pure free markets reward the most efficient, but we don't live in a pure free market (regardless of anyone's thoughts on the merits of capitalism). We can vote with our dollars, choose to support our friends and neighbors and form social connections, rather than exchange goods and services in bland transactions. In short, we can be a community: of geography, of interests, of taste, whatever.

Thanks for reading.

Hang out and build some social capital with us.