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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 15, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Carts, Dumb Shuffle, Outliers, Narrators

Coolest new humor book: The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification, by Julian Montague.

It is exactly what it says: Photographs of stray shopping carts in various habitats. With ironic sincerity, Montague discusses the different shopping carts, classifying them by their physical condition, how they're being used, how many are clustered together, and many other categories.

Now, I admit that I'm a shopping cart fanatic -- when I find strays, I bring them home to the store. That can range from walking a few extra yards from my car to pick up a cart that's blocking a parking place, to gathering stray carts and pushing them for a mile to the store when I'm out on a walk.

So I already have a sharp eye for shopping carts, and this book seems to have been created just for me. But it's so whimsical and funny that it might be for you, too.

After a few dozen pages, the carts begin to have souls. You see one that has been particularly badly treated, and you start to grieve for it.

To me, it was worth the eighteen bucks to own this book.

*

Dumbest idea of the week: Apple's new 4gig iPod Shuffle.

I love my nearly-square generation 2 Shuffle because it clips so easily and lightly to my clothing. The only thing I wished for was some way of knowing what I was listening to.

When I'm sampling several new singers, I sometimes don't know which one I'm either hating or loving at the moment. So the new Shuffle, instead of putting in a screen and bulking the thing up, now has a mechanical voiceover read out the name of the artist and the title of the track.

What's not to love about that -- with 4 gigs of space to boot?

Here's what's not to love: They've made it even smaller (which I didn't need at all -- it really is small enough), but they did it by removing the controls from the Shuffle and putting them on the earphone cord.

That's right -- on their crappy, cheesy earphones, which I can never use because they fall out of my ears about three steps into a run.

Instead, I've been using Sony's clip-over earphones, which stay in place just fine when I'm exercising. But my Sonys won't have those controls, so ... the new Shuffle will be completely useless to me.

I mean, if I have to use their earphones in order to control the Shuffle, and I can't keep them in my ears, then who am I playing the songs for, passing insects?

Isn't this how things always go? They get a goal in mind ("Smaller! No, smaller than that!") and they lose track of the possibility that they might have already achieved the goal and that to go farther will be destructive.

It's as if they were trying to build the world's smallest car, and they did it, but then they kept on going and now the car is so small that you can't actually fit the steering wheel or pedals inside -- or a person, either, for that matter -- so now you have to stand on the rear bumper and control it with a remote.

So you haven't invented the world's smallest car, you've invented the world's most cumbersome scooter.

Likewise, the new iPod Shuffle isn't the world's smallest mp3 player, it's the world's most overdesigned 4gig flash drive, because that's all it's good for. Unless you have prehensile ears that can grip the earbuds and hold them in place.

*

So the best-chair-I-ever-owned-in-my-life has a part break, and while I'm waiting to get it repaired, I have to sit on something.

The spare chair I pressed into service was awful -- I was getting backaches from sitting on it for hours while writing (or pretending that I was about to write).

I was fed up. So I stopped in at the Office Depot on Battleground at seven p.m. on a Tuesday and became the most demanding shopper of the day.

Guess what? These guys took me seriously, and manager Kevin got me exactly the chair I needed. I took it home and I could work again.

You have no idea how much trouble I can cause. I don't mean to. I just assume that because what I want is possible, I should have it.

Every now and then, I run into people who think their job is, not to keep me from getting my way, but to help me get it.

And here's the cool thing about these people -- like Kevin the Office Depot manager: When they help me get what I want, then I pay for it, and the store makes that much more money, and people keep their jobs, and on and on.

You'd think the other type of person would realize this. But no. They seem to derive their pleasure in life from preventing people from getting what they want. Apparently they get paid, too. What a screwed-up system, n'est-ce pas?

*

Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success is fascinating. His premise is that after you reach a certain threshold, IQ -- or any other native talent -- is no longer the determining factor of success.

That is, once you're smart enough, or talented enough, or skilled enough, or tall enough, or whatever, then other factors become more important.

So once you're a couple of inches taller than me, you're tall enough to play professional basketball -- and now other things than height determine whether you'll be good or great, adequate or brilliant.

He looks at a longitudinal study of IQ conducted by Lewis Terman, sorting through a quarter of a million elementary and high school students till he had selected 1,470 children whose IQ scores averaged over 140. Some reached as high as 200.

He expected to find that the higher the IQ, the more the child would grow up to achieve.

But here's what actually turned out to be the truth about IQ: "Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn't seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage" (p. 79).

It's about thresholds. Once you cross over the threshold into "really smart" then you can compete in real-world affairs with anybody else over that threshold, and the outcome will depend on something besides IQ.

Once you cross over the threshold into "really tall" then you can compete with all the other really-tall basketball players, and your career will depend on other things.

What things?

How about opportunity? The great geniuses of the home computer revolution all seemed to be born at around the same time -- three or four years after me. (Which is fine -- I wouldn't have been in the running because I didn't care enough.)

What was so magical about 1954 and 1955? Because these kids were coming of age at precisely the time when computers transitioned from punch cards to terminals with screens. Instead of carrying your computer program in a shoebox, it was stored electronically, and you could change it on a screen.

So if you were just as smart, and just as in love with computers, but were already out of college as a punch-card computer programmer, the revolution took place under your nose -- but you weren't really part of it. And if you were just as smart, etc., but were born three years later, when you got to the party the punch was already gone.

But it's more than talent, and more than luck. How about 10,000 hours?

The number is approximate, but that's about how much practice and work the "geniuses" put into their careers to take them over the threshold into the big leagues.

Sure, there's some natural talent or aptitude. But then comes decision time -- are you going to really do this, or just continue plinking around at it?

Musicians. Painters. Writers. Mathematicians. Computer programmers. Game designers. Actors. Singers. They don't sit around feeling good about themselves and building up their self-esteem. They do the work. They put in the time.

I didn't even know I was going to be a writer. I was in drama, not writing. But I sat there, hour after hour, filling notebooks with play scripts or short stories or essays. I was a writer, whether I thought of that as my career or not.

And I put in my ten thousand hours.

It's like I tell novice writers. You learn more from writing a 100,000-word novel than from any number of classes. (Except, of course, the ones I teach.) (OK, I was including them as well.)

I also tell my students that every writer has to produce ten thousand pages of pure drivel. Some people have to write all ten thousand pages before they produce anything good. Some of us are luckier and get to have our lousy pages spread out over our whole career, so we can be earning money along the way.

Talent? Sure -- any amount of it above a certain threshold.

Opportunity? Absolutely -- grab it when you see it.

Hard work? Essential. As Gladwell makes clear, nobody gets to the top of any creative field without working at it until they simply know things that other people can't even guess at.

But there's yet another factor: Culture.

That's right. It matters where you live.

If you grow up in an illiterate tribe somewhere, you might tell good stories around the campfire, but you're not going to win the Nobel Prize for literature. (I write science fiction and fantasy and other "genre" fiction, so when it comes to the Nobel Prize, I might as well be in that tribe, too.)

You can be tall, agile, and talented, but if you never see a basketball hoop you're never going to acquire the skills to play in the NBA.

Shakespeare was the greatest writer who ever lived. But he also happened to live in a time when theatre was being invented along completely new lines, with an eager audience that would pay companies for producing play after play after play. Without that audience, without that ability to make his living doing nothing but playwriting, is there any way Shakespeare could have achieved what he did?

(This is why claims that Shakespeare didn't actually write his plays, some fancy-dancy lordling or overblown clerk did, are so obviously stupid on their face: If you weren't in the theatre, working constantly on writing and then performing the plays, you don't produce anything like what Shakespeare created.)

I happen not to live in a culture that rewards really fine eating. I just have to do it for its own sake, even after putting in my 10,000 hours at the table (or fast-food bag), because nobody will pay me to eat. Bummer, huh?

So what part of this can you control?

You can be realistic (unlike most American Idol entrants) about whether you have reached the threshold.

You can put in the 10,000 hours (or so) and make them count, constantly searching for ways to improve, for new things to understand and apply.

You can put yourself into the way of opportunity -- hermits don't get to be great recording or sports or film stars. (Hermits do fine at computer programming and poetry and novel-writing, though -- but they still have to push their product out into the world before anyone can notice it.)

And that's it. Either the public/market/audience loves your work or it doesn't. You can learn to be satisfied without the Nobel Prize and simply enjoy the work you do.

Because that's what the 10,000 hours are really about. These people love what they're doing. They rack up the hours without realizing it, because they can't stop.

So here's my own idea. What if you put in 10,000 hours on making your marriage partner happy? On raising your kids? On treating your coworkers like a mensch? On helping your friends get through their lives?

My guess? You'll be a lot happier than even the genius musicians or programmers or athletes or writers.

Where your 10,000 hours are, that's your home. It took me 10,000 hours to become a successful writer. It takes just as long to get over it and rejoin the real world and have a decent life.

*

Not all narrators of recorded books are equally good, by the way. Nor is a famous name as narrator any guarantee of quality. I remember years ago getting H. Rider Haggard's She on tape. They were so proud of having Kathleen Turner reading all the dialogue of She-who-must-be-obeyed.

But it was actually a disaster. On screen, you hardly notice Turner's speech impediment. In fact, it's rather endearing. But when you can't see her face, that lisp can really interfere with understanding.

John Cleese's reading of The Screwtape Letters is wonderful -- unless you're in a car that isn't whisper-quiet. Then his deep bass voice rumbles all the consonants into oblivion. We had to turn the treble all the way up, the bass all the way down, and the volume as loud as we could stand it in order to listen in the non-luxury car we were driving at the time.

More recently, I've run into a truly maddening -- and unnecessary -- problem. In two separate books -- Dean Koontz's Your Heart Belongs to Me and an abridgment of Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen -- the narrators had a terrible habit of fading out at the ends of sentences.

This is the sort of thing that the director or producer of the audio recording is supposed to catch immediately. Sure, it was the great actress Julie Christie reading Sense and Sensibility, but she's a pro. If the director says, "Ms. Christie, on audio we have to keep the audio level quite constant, so you can't go soft at the ends of lines," she'll take it and do better.

Or if the reader is prickly and won't take direction, fire him and get somebody who will!

Because you simply can't set your volume in a car -- the most common place for hearing audiobooks -- to a level that allows a wide variety in volume. If you set it high enough to hear the soft bits, you'll get a headache or go deaf from the loudness the rest of the time.

In both cases, the readers apparently were corrected eventually -- after about halfway through both books, the fadeouts ended and they maintained a constant level.

Meanwhile, though, it was maddening to have key phrases simply vanish because they were read so softly. Especially because few cd players in cars allow you to back up a few seconds to rehear something. Usually, you can only go back to the beginning of the current track, or of the previous one.

If the producer was thoughtful, that will only be three minutes or so -- often, though, it's five or six or seven minutes. It's just not worth it. So you forge ahead without knowing what was said. And that makes you feel cheated.

Why shouldn't it? You were cheated! It's an easily prevented error. Julie Christie couldn't be expected to know better -- she's an actress, not a narrator. But Malcolm Hillgartner, who read the Koontz novel, has narrated a lot of audiobooks and should have known better.

The abridgment of Sense and Sensibility, volume problems aside, was quite enjoyable, and the abridgment was done skillfully enough that I was only occasionally aware of what had been left out.

Dean Koontz's novel Your Heart Belongs to Me, however, had problems far deeper than the narration.

This is painful for me to say, because I like Koontz's stories and am very much in sympathy with the moral universe he creates in his fiction. I also owe Koontz a lot, because it was his book on writing from the 1970s that taught me the great principle that you never, never write "first drafts" of anything. You always write your novel as if this were the only draft. You get it right the first time.

I've followed that rule and it has eliminated a lot of sloppiness -- and a lot of needless rewriting -- which gives me more time to watch movies and television and write review columns.

But in this novel, Koontz indulges his worst habits as a writer. He apparently absorbed from undereducated English teachers a wrong-headed idea of what "good writing" is. Most of us call it "purple prose."

Whenever he's not doing "good writing," he's actually very good -- clear, energetic language tells a compelling story and tells it well.

But the older he gets, the more time he wastes on "poetic" writing -- lots of alliteration, lots of pointless imagery, and way, way too much "emotional" writing.

The goal is to make the reader feel emotions, and that isn't done by giving tedious details of how the characters experience their emotions. It's done by getting us to care about the characters and then having stuff happen to them that makes us feel emotions for them.

Koontz actually knows this and does it quite well. But he also tacks on endless passages of "emotional" writing as if this were a duty that he simply can't avoid.

I wish he would simplify. His stories are strong and good and, yes, Good, in a profoundly moral sense. The ending of Your Heart Belongs to Me is completely satisfying.

But along the way, he mars his work with passages of florid writing that simply don't contribute to the story or to Koontz's reputation as a writer. And that's an increasing frustration to those of us who really do love his work.


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