Down the TBR Hole, #3

Time for another round! This is a meme started by Lia, and it goes as follows: set your to-read list on Goodreads to “date added” in ascending order, then go through five to ten books in chronological order to decide which ones are keepers and which ones you’re really, for whatever reason, never going to read.

(My Goodreads TBR, by the way, isn’t like a real-world TBR. It only represents books I’d like to read—they’re not necessarily books I already have. It does, however, often guide my purchasing decisions.)

4193ii6whql-_sx327_bo1204203200_Book #21: Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas Hofstadter

Why is it on my TBR? It looked like cool, reasonably accessible writing about maths and music and pattern. Sold.

Do I already own it? No, although I have Hofstadter’s (massive) book on translation, Le ton beau de Marot.

Verdict? Keep, or at least keep to try. Ton beau is written—at least to begin with—in a half-rhyming, almost spoken-word style; if GEB is the same I may have a hard time with it, since I need maths writing to be a bit more straightforward.

Book #22: English Food, by Jane Grigson41fmma0p1nl-_sx320_bo1204203200_

Why is it on my TBR? Quite superficially, because I liked the look of it in a shop.

Do I already own it? I did. I’ve already gotten rid of it, because…

Verdict? …if I’m ever going to have the time, energy and technique to prepare dishes like devilled hare’s kidney in marmalade (only a little bit exaggerating), it will be very far into the future.

23999630Book #23: A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Why is it on my TBR? Read a good review of it while trawling through the archives of a books blog I’d just discovered and really adored, I think. Can’t recall which one—perhaps Eve’s Alexandria.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: Keep. It’s a classic of speculative fiction and I’m fascinated by the idea of monks preserving civilisation post-apocalypse, like late antiquity all over again. (Plus, the title is terrific for charades.)

Book #24: Blue Highways, by William Least Heat-Moon71gmzprxvgl

Why is it on my TBR? Americana. Nostalgia. Travels on the forgotten byways of the continent. (A weakness for road-trippery.)

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: I have heard not-so-good things about this one, in the interim. I might not bother.

386187Book #25: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt

Why is it on my TBR? Southern Gothic nonfiction. Eccentricity and Spanish moss and heat. Duh. Also, my cousin bought it for me for about $4 at a secondhand bookshop when I was seventeen; you remember things like that.

Do I already own it? Yes!

Verdict: Keep. So obviously.

Book #26: Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, by Andrew Solomon81cbrobjzrl

Why is it on my TBR? I was bought it by a dear friend who thought I should read it.

Do I already own it? Yes. But I lent it to another dear friend who seemed in need of it, and then she moved a long way away, and long story short, I think she might still have it but I don’t know where.

Verdict: Keep, if I can ever find the damn thing again.

9780060885618_custom-1f0040cfdade67159cc9ebfe336dcbabaf73206c-s6-c30Book #27: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

Why is it on my TBR? Not sure. After I added it, though, it was made into a film, which is apparently amazing and surreal, and I would really like to read the book first.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: Keep, I think.

Book #28: The Common Stream: Two Thousand Years of the FrontCoverMockTemplateEnglish Village, by Rowland Parker

Why is it on my TBR? Piqued an interest in English social history, especially over centuries. I might have just finished Ulverton by Adam Thorpe when I added it.

Do I already own it? Nope, but there’s a very attractive Eland edition in the bookshop.

Verdict: Keep. I’ve just read a Thomas Hardy and remembered why I like rusticity.

bio_2000_sp_unabridged_journals_web Book #29: The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

Why is it on my TBR? Read Plath’s Collected Poems, thought they were amazing, had a shufti at some of her journaling and found it as compelling and personal as Woolf’s.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: Keep.

Book #30: All Change, by Elizabeth Jane Howardpage-51-all

Why is it on my TBR? I read the first four Cazalet Chronicles books and really, really loved them. All Change is set ten(?) years after the last one.

Do I already own it? Nope.

Verdict: Actually, discard. I loved the Cazalets so much because of the way that the children interacted with one another, and with the adults; now that the children are young adults in their own right, I don’t feel quite as compelled by it.

Conclusions: Three books out of ten discarded, each for a good reason, I think. Going through these books is, if nothing else, reminding me of how much I’ve been “wanting to get to” for a long time, and how silly it is to put off reading interesting things you’ve been aware of for a while in favour of titles that you’ve seen more recently.

What do you think—is William Least Heat-Moon actually a genius whom I should read immediately? Is Sylvia Plath not worth it? How difficult is Douglas Hofstadter’s mathematical writing?! Comments much encouraged, as always.

Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

Like a pipe organ, a Digital Computer is not so much a machine as a meta-machine that can be made into any number of different machines…

As an eight-year-old, I suffered the indignity of having my parents rung up by my math teacher. This was not the last time my parents were rung up to discuss my behaviour—there was the time when I wrote rude notes about a teacher in my notebook, and the time when I hit a boy in the hallway and was recommended for child psychotherapy; I was a bit of a trial as a kid—but it was, in retrospect, the most depressing. My peccadillo, it turned out, was to have written, in darkly pressed graphite capitals, I HATE MATH in the top margin of every page of my math workbook. Every single one.

Things didn’t get any better after that. At nine, I memorized multiplication tables, but, oddly, didn’t learn long division. At ten, I went to middle school and was immediately placed into the bottom set for maths. At twelve, I was taught for a year by the redoubtable Amy Brudin, in whose classes I tried to read novels under the table. At fourteen, I went into freshman geometry, where I set the pace for the rest of my high school maths career by sitting silently near the back of the classroom, copying the answers out of the back of the textbook and being hit by intermittent waves of despair. At seventeen, I got into Oxford and told my AP Statistics teacher, as politely as I could, that her class was going to be the bottom of my priority list until I sat my AP English exam. She nodded, appeared to understand, and gave me full marks for the end-of-year project, which I’m fairly certain I didn’t even turn in.

This is all a very roundabout way of saying that if you had told me, fifteen or ten or five or even two years ago, that I would one day spend a good portion of my morning commute engrossed by a multi-page breakdown of modular arithmetic, and come out of the experience possessed of significant understanding, I would have laughed in your face. But this is exactly what happened in the course of reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, a book so erudite, so fascinating and so unexpectedly funny that I really think Stephenson could write about nearly anything and achieve much the same results.

There are three main plot strands, set in two different time periods. Beginning in the Second World War, we’re introduced to Bobby Shaftoe, a US Marine stationed in the Pacific whose raw intelligence is channeled into being an exceptional soldier and tactician, and Lawrence Waterhouse, whose mathematical genius is apparent from a very young age. Waterhouse spends a year of his university career at Princeton, where he meets Alan Turing, with whom he is friends for the rest of his life (one of the great joys of the book is the dialogue that Stephenson gives these two). He finishes university and joins the US Navy, and is in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese bomb it and the war, for the Americans, begins. Sixty years into the future, Waterhouse’s grandson Randy gets involved in a company that wants to establish a data haven in a small Southeast Asian country, and needs the help of Shaftoe’s descendants to do it. Throw a pile of Nazi war gold into the mix, and we’re deep in techno-thriller territory.

Stephenson’s virtues as a novelist are essentially twofold. The first of these is his ability to explain mathematical and computing concepts thoroughly, comprehensibly, and without being patronizing. This is an unspeakably difficult combination, but if you want the very definition of “writing for the intelligent layperson”, that’s what he does. The narrative voice at these points is patient, methodical, reasoned, and conversational. Here, for instance, is the beginning of a three-page exposition on a technique known as Van Eck phreaking:

The way that the computer talks to you is not by controlling the screen directly but rather by manipulating the bits contained in the buffer, secure in the knowledge that other subsystems inside the machine handle the drudge work of pipelining that information onto the actual, physical screen. Sixty to eighty times a second, the video system says shit! time to refresh the screen again, and goes to the beginning of the screen buffer—which is just a particular hunk of memory, remember—and it reads the first few bytes, which dictate what color the pixel in the upper left-hand corner is supposed to be. This information is sent on down the line to whatever is actually refreshing the screen, whether it’s a scanning electron beam or some laptop-style system for directly controlling the pixels. Then the next few bytes are read, typically for the pixel just to the right of that first one, and so on all the way to the right edge of the screen.

It’s impossible to read this and not be nodding your head, going, “Uh huh, okay, that all makes sense,” and then before you know it the man has gotten onto square waves and you’re like “Gosh, this makes sense too!” Ordinarily I am deeply anti-info-dumping in novels,  but I loved it in Cryptonomicon; the book sounds like this because a lot of its characters do, too, or at least you get the impression that they would, if you asked them to sit down and explain these things.

Stephenson’s other major novelistic gift, which you may have gathered a bit of from the above passage, is that he is very funny. It’s a dry, witty sort of humour, but it’s constant, and it makes the act of reading the book a continual pleasure. It’s about serious things and clever people, and part of the delight of that is recognizing how much of cleverness is the ability to play, to pretend, to be un-serious. The narration also maintains a lightly knowing touch on the way that nerds relate to each other: their emotional peculiarities and their ability to focus intensely. Here, for instance, Turing and Waterhouse in the early days of their friendship:

One day a couple of weeks later, as the two of them sat by a running stream in the woods above the Delaware Gap, Alan made some kind of an outlandish proposal to Lawrence involving penises. It required a great deal of methodical explanation, which Alan delivered with lots of blushing and stuttering. He was ever so polite, and several times emphasized that he was acutely aware that not everyone in the world was interested in this sort of thing.

Lawrence decided that he was probably one of those people.

Alan seemed vastly impressed that Lawrence had paused to think about it at all and apologized for putting him out. They went directly back to a discussion of computing machines, and their friendship continued unchanged.

Or, for another fine example of nerdy objectivism made humorous simply by being observed:

Later, he was to decide that Andrew’s life had been fractally weird. That is, you could take any small piece of it and examine it in detail and it, in and of itself, would turn out to be just as complicated and weird as the whole thing in its entirety.

“Fractally weird”! Who doesn’t know someone who is fractally weird, eh? What a brilliant idea, and what a way of expressing it.

It’s not all fun and games, however. Bobby Shaftoe’s plotline, in particular, becomes more and more fraught with violence and horror; he’s a Marine in the South Pacific just as the war with Germany ends and the war with Japan steps up. General MacArthur makes an appearance, and is sketched with more nuance than you might think; he’s clearly a lunatic, but a lunatic whose own internal logic is coherent. The sack of Manila, on the other hand, is unrelentingly horrible, and reading descriptions of it was sickening. Stephenson is to be commended for his clear-eyedness; just because he’s writing a novel that, in some sections, qualifies as picaresque, doesn’t mean he’s flippant about the horror or the trauma of war.

At over nine hundred pages, there are inevitable lapses in control; particularly near the end, it was difficult to keep all of the connections across the decades clear in my head, and some of the coincidences involved in connecting characters do seem a bit…well…strained, if you think about them too hard. But you don’t, because the book is galloping ahead at full speed the entire time, throwing off quips and asides, and you’re too busy having fun gathering those. After Cryptonomicon, Stephenson wrote three books which are collectively known as the Baroque Cycle and which feature Shaftoes and Waterhouses of yore, in the feverish atmosphere of political and technological acceleration which characterized eighteenth-century Europe. This happens to be my literary period of choice, so I am definitely going to find and read them; I’d read Stephenson’s shopping list, if I knew that it would give me another fix of that warm, ironic, sharply observant, utterly humane voice.

Of Games and Books: Now Play This at Somerset House

I don’t generally write about things that aren’t books, or book-related, here. That is, after all, my wheelhouse, and this has been an explicitly book-review-and-literary-chat site since the spring. Surprising as it may seem, however, I do other things too, and quite often they relate back in some form to literary concerns: narrative, story structure, style and elegance, determining the truth of a situation.

One of the things I have started to do is try and learn how to code, which can be deeply frustrating, but also deeply rewarding. Oddly, although my brain was engaged throughout my three-year degree, it was not engaged in at all the same way as coding forces it to engage. I wasn’t not thinking as an undergraduate, but I was not thinking like this. This kind of thinking is something I can almost feel. You know when people talk about being able to see the cogs turning in someone’s head? I expect if you looked at me while I was working through the basics of binary, or while I was trying to get the syntax of a regular expression right, that’s sort of what you’d see.

Relevant to coding, amongst other things, is the whole idea of games, playing, exploration. The beauty of games is that you don’t need to have spent a childhood glued to an Xbox, or even a particularly deep knowledge of mathematics or logic, to be able to appreciate them and to get some idea of the systems behind them. This weekend, Somerset House  was hosting a three-day exhibition called Now Play This, which was entirely devoted to games of all descriptions. The Chaos and I got a half-day pass (in actuality we spent about an hour and a half there, but at £5 I would say it was entirely worth it) and, on Saturday, went.

As far as I can tell, there are basically two types of games: the type where you can win, and want to, and the type where winning is incidental, if not impossible. Traditional board games fall into the former category—Monopoly, for instance, and chess, and so on—as do parlour games like Charades. (I would also argue that a subset I like to call Teenage Party Games—Spin the Bottle, Truth or Dare, Never Have I Ever—falls into this category, although in some of these, winning is losing.) There were plenty of traditional, winnable games on offer at Now Play This: a whole room was devoted to board games, while in another there was an enormous table maze and a set-up involving a strip of LED lights and a control toggle, which you could bounce back and forth in order to advance your little green light and defeat the oncoming enemy red lights. There were also a couple of traditional, winnable video games, including one called Sagittarius which involved trying to use the gravitational pull exerted by planets to propel your weapon and shoot your opponent. If we’re honest, though, I’ve always had a bit of an uneasy relationship with traditional games. This is partly because I’m both very competitive and very impatient. I wish I were a natural chess player, but I can’t think five moves ahead. I want to just win already. The only game I ever really enjoy, come Christmas time, is Charades, and mostly that’s because I’m good at guessing. (Being forced to act in Charades, by contrast, is hellish.)

What’s really fascinating, then, is the second type of game, the type that you’re not necessarily trying to win, and where winning might not be the purpose of the exercise at all. Now Play This excelled in demonstrating these sorts of games. Many of them are designed in order to force you (or rather, encourage you) to explore an environment, whether it be the one you’re currently in or the one that the game places you in. In the first room we entered, for instance, there was a set of headphones and a small Nintendo handheld control. Depending on how you moved the control—speed, direction, and so on—different soundscapes would emanate from the headphones. The game itself, I think, was flawed in its implementation: the sounds weren’t easily differentiable, there didn’t seem to be very many of them, and the connection between your movements and the sounds being produced was unclear in practice. In theory, though, it’s obviously fascinating: you get to explore the geography of a place that doesn’t exist in the realm of the visual. It’s a completely different take on how we occupy space.

In another room, there was a two-person tent, with a projector inside that was throwing lights onto the tent’s ceiling. We crawled in, after waiting for the two people currently occupying it to crawl out, and found a MIDI controller. Using its sliders and buttons, it transpired, changed the pattern, orientation, and speed of the light designs being projected onto the ceiling. It’s a terribly simple idea, but it has almost infinite possibilities in terms of variation. It doesn’t look like a game in the traditional sense of the word, but what it does is get you to learn some basic behaviours—slide this slider up and the colour changes; slide this one down and you alter the design—and then use that creatively to alter your environment. You have the potential to alter your environment radically, if you choose. I didn’t realize this fully until a young man with a lip ring crawled into the tent between us, apparently undeterred by the limited space (this is one of the other great things about Now Play This: you make quite a few temporary friends). While I had been content with the sliders, assuming that the other buttons would have been disabled, he hit the controller’s Record button, then Pause, then begin twirling a few dials. Instantly, more interesting things began to happen. You learn as you play, then, not to assume that you know the parameters of a game before you’ve tried them.

One of the best aspects of the exhibition was a room with small index cards, on which was printed the challenge “Can you design a game that you can explain in 128 characters?”* There were pens scattered about the table. People had taken up the challenge with alacrity, both in person and online; there were printouts of tweeted responses to this question pinned to the wall. Games, I discovered while looking at them, don’t have to be complicated. It seems as though the opposite is primarily true: the simpler something is, at least to begin with, the more you can do with it. (The best instance of this is the glorious invention of Calvinball, from the late and lamented comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. Calvinball is distinguished by having no rules, or rather, by having rules which you make up on the spot and alter at will. There is a ball involved; other than that, anything goes.) It is also evident that games are sometimes not easily distinguishable from behaviours more readily associated with pathological instability. One of the suggested games, for instance, involved determining which cardinal direction—north, south, east, or west—was the most dangerous, and then spending an entire day endeavouring to keep at least one object between you and your chosen horizon. “A window doesn’t count,” the designer noted. I spent a moment imagining this game, and concluded that, for the right player, it could quickly become an all-out obsession.

11947862_10204876154039610_5556384717864210513_oThis explains, I suppose, why people who think about maths and infinity and game environments do often become a little unhinged. (Either that, or they already are.) Games can be a kind of controlled experiment in altering your state of mind; a mental illness, in some senses, is a game that you can’t stop playing. I am thinking in particular of what happened to me when I lived alone for two months in Oxford; in order to keep some level of structure, I began to obsessively plan out a daily schedule, including strict times of day at which I was permitted to eat, read, shower, and go to sleep. If I deviated from this schedule by more than about five minutes at a time, I became anxious and stressed. To begin with, it looked very much like a game; by the end, it was driving me mad.

Since I am still, of course, a book person, my immediate response to this has been to read around it. I already have James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games; I’d also like to read more around Alan Turing, one of whose major papers I read a few months ago (understood about 30% of it, which means there’s nowhere to go but up), and while we’re on the subject of play, codes, and code breaking, I bought Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon today. (I was in Hatchards. I was, sadly, escorted out before I could throw all of my money over the counter.)

Oh, and I’ll keep you all up to date on the progress of my quest to code. You may be pleased to know that I sorted out the regular expression, in the end.

*The Chaos, in grand style, responded to this by writing, “Can you design a game that you can implement in 128 characters?”