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December 2000

Summer's here, Christmas is close, we're re- organising the house: it's time for books I know so well that two words every 20 lines are enough to recall the whole. So I'm pulling out C.S. Forester's Hornblower novels, for a bluster of sea air and a series of ripping yarns. Hornblower came to top of mind because the ITV television series has just finished its first local run. The episodes we saw here are all based (sometimes very loosely) on Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, but I'm sure I'll visit the whole series before the new year. For more intellectually active moments, I've finally got around to The Rhetoric of Fiction (Wayne C. Booth). I bought this book years ago at a second-hand bookshop, not knowing that it's a minor classic of its discipline. Its name has emerged several times since, most recently when I returned to The Fiction Editor (Thomas McCormack) for a refresher.

For details, see the Connectives booklist entries:

The Fiction Editor
The Rhetoric of Fiction

November 2000

Software greybeard Richard P. Gabriel's Patterns of Software first caught my eye for its association with the work of Christopher Alexander (The Timeless Way of Building, A Pattern Language). Now that I have the book, I'm delighted to find that Gabriel's model is Samuel Johnson, the irascible lexicographer, critic, philosopher, and very fine writer. Like Johnson, Gabriel tells us how he sees the job of the critic:

A critic, at his best, aims at raising questions that otherwise might remain hidden. The role of a critic is to look at things in new ways, to present a perspective that other with less time on their hands can use as the basis for real progress, to ask the question that turns the course of inquiry from a backwater whirlpool towards rapids of exciting new work.

Sounds good to me.

The Dummies series of "References for the Rest of Us" doesn't appeal to everyone, but I've always found that they provide seriously useful information that can take me well past beginner-level with little fuss. I'm not a beginner at opera, but I'm finding the plot summaries and the potted history in Opera for Dummies useful, and it has some great jokes.

For details, see the Connectives booklist entries:

Patterns of Software
The Timeless Way of Building
A Pattern Language
Opera for Dummies

July 2000

Romola. Back to George Eliot, this time to a world as intricately imagined as The Lord of the Rings, but where all the variety of characters is within the human species. Eliot's writing doesn't have the fluency and single direction of late twentieth century stylists. It moves on many tracks, and Eliot moves gently between them to allow many perspectives on the world within her pen. A restful change of pace, in good company.

I've turned to Romola at the moment because I need a sense of early Renaissance Florence, and that's a good enough excuse to read Eliot, even though Romola is fiction, 150 years old itself, and set 200 years later than the period that directly concerns me. However, I'm also wandering through Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy 1300-1600, by Richard A. Goldthwaite. I picked this up as one of the two books on the shelves at a local bookstore that looked vaguely relevant, and the 35 pages I've read are 35 pages more than I've read before about the economic history of Italy.

From the introduction, the argument of the book seems to be that Renaissance Italy showed the first stirrings of the social behaviour that has developed into consumerism: " enlargement of Jacob Burckhardt's classic - and much debated - vision of Renaissance Italy as the birthplace of the modern world; to his formulation about the Italians' discovery of antiquity, nature, man, and the individual is here added their discovery also of things."

Also related to the needs of the moment is Respect for Acting, Uta Hagen with Haskel Frankel. Hagen is (or was; this book was published in 1973) an actor and a teacher of acting based for most of her career in New York. My singing teacher lent me this book, saying that it had helped her, and several of her students. I'm reading it during the rehearsal period for the biggest part I've sung so far, and my interest is utilitarian: I'm skimming for ideas I can experiment with now, and I'll worry later about how the author fits them together. I've found plenty.

Finally, a confession: I've recently read the first three Harry Potter books. I enjoyed them, but they didn't bowl me over as they seem to have bowled half the English-reading world. It's no effort to wait for the paperback edition of Goblet of Fire.

Connectives booklist entries:

Wealth and the Demand for Art in Italy 1300 - 1600
Respect for Acting
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Book 1)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Book 2)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Book 3)

31 May 2000

The Inmates are Running the Asylum : Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity. Alan Cooper describes with painful accuracy how talent, effort, ego, and good intentions (yep, mine too) eventually produce dimwitted, overfeatured stuff, that daily infuriates hundreds of thousands of people (yep, me too). This book is funny, partly for its straight-faced descriptions of bone-headed software behaviour, and partly for its sympathetic, but complete, demolition of the geekish and hype-tech attitudes who've forgotten that there's a problem.

Oooops. That's me too that he's demolishing.

Cooper's discussions of software teams and companies recall the phony teams and misguided motivation-building that I talked about in Many Minds; What Work?, so it's not surprising that Cooper refers to some of the same books. Among them is Fred Moody's I Sing the Body Electronic. This fly-on-the wall account of a multimedia development project at Microsoft provides Cooper with a spectacular example of how a programmer culture not only fails, but fails to recognise its failures. The project was successful, but the product was crippled.

Cooper does have some suggestions for a way forward. For him, the guide will be a discipline he calls interaction design. You get some feel for interaction design in this book, and also from Cooper's company website (Cooper Interaction Design). If you're interested in how high-tech might be better, or in what the digital world might be like, I warmly recommend both.

A book that I think points more clearly to the future is Visual Language : Global Communication for the 21st Century, by Robert E. Horn. Horn has used visual language for the book, which makes discussing the book purely in text like writing about music or painting: the thing itself is a communication medium, and words alone can't carry the same message. But the short version seems to be that a new language is emerging that integrates words, images and shapes; Horn's book attempts to tease out the vocabulary, grammar, and semantics of this new language.

Does that sound enticing? I hope so, because my first impression is that this will prove to be a seminal book.

Among technical communicators, Horn is well-known as the inventor of Information Mapping ™. In its day, Information Mapping was probably revolutionary and weird; now its principles seem like common wisdom, even though they're applied less than they're talked about. I think Visual Language might follow a similar path.

Connectives booklist entries:

The Inmates are Running the Asylum
Visual Language

26 March 2000

Kant and the Platypus. I have to admit that I bought this book on its cover; didn't even open it in the shop. One reason is the author. I met Umberto Eco through his novels, Foucault's Pendulum and The Name of the Rose (I haven't yet read The Island of the Day Before).

Foucault's Pendulum felt rather like a John LeCarre novel: unobtrusively pulls you into its world until all of a sudden you realise you're two pages from the end and the weekend has disappeared. And The Name of the Rose? It's a great tragic romance of bibliophily, and the connection to Sean Connery doesn't hurt either.

Kant and the Platypus is a book of essays, not a novel. Eco's research field is semiotics, and according to the introduction these essays are a follow-up, though not an updating, of his 1976 book, A Theory of Semiotics. I know nothing about semiotics except that it's a word that I've treated with suspicion for a long time. However, this book seems to be dealing with questions about the structure of information and knowledge that resonate with practical issues writers and information designers face all the time. If this impression is right, this book's relationship to the popular books of Stephen Pinker (The Language Instinct, How The Mind Works, and Words and Rules) should prove fascinating.

For purchase information about these books:
Kant and the Platypus
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose
A Theory of Semiotics

9 March 2000

Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms
Stephen Jay Gould    Edition: Vintage 1999 ISBN: 0099289245

I like reading essays and I like reading Stephen Jay Gould, so this book is a double treat. In this collection, Gould concentrates on how naturalists, thinkers, and scientists of the past thought about the world and developed explanations for its workings. From the introduction:

...I prefer to emphasize the interaction of this outside world with something unique in the history of life on Earth - the struggle of a conscious and questioning agent to understand the whys and wherefores, and to integrate this knowledge with the meaning of its own existence.

For purchase information...

Type in Use
Alex W. White     Edition: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1999

For years I've flirted with typography, avoiding a serious relationship because I knew it could become all-consuming. I think it's fated though. As I get more involved with the Web and with online reading in general, I find the ways fonts and layout work together to affect reader's comfort and effectiveness more intriguing and difficult to predict. Nobody really knows much about good online design: the rules and heuristics developed over 500 years of designing for print don't seem to transfer well to a medium where readers can change things at will.

This book is sub-titled "Effective Typography for Electronic Publishing". Like many of the books about graphic design that I've seen, it has a chapter on web page design but it's mostly about typography for printed publications prepared with computerised tools. It's also fascinating. I've spent a couple of hours just on the timeline in the last chapter. A book to pick up many times.

For purchase information...

November 1999

Weaving the Web
Tim Berners-Lee    Edition: HarperCollins, 1999 ISBN 062515861

The story of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented it. Nothing beats a first-hand story, even if this first-hand story-teller does have the assistance of two other authors. At a time when commentators and practitioners seem unable to see the Web for the virtual shopping-mall, this particular first-hand story seems critically important.

For purchase information...

Timeless Way of Building
Christopher Alexander    Edition: Oxford University Press; ISBN: 0195024028

I've been seeing references to this book for years in books about software design. Now I'll find out why.

For purchase information...

The Portrait of a Lady
Henry James    Edition: Penguin Books, 1968

I find nineteenth century style, with its loooong sentences and discursive paragraphs, a soothing change from the pace of most of the reading I do during the day, and Henry James is about as loooong and discursive as they come. This book is an old friend, which I've been re-reading slowly over several weeks; I'll be sorry to reach the end.

For purchase information...

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