NELA 2014: Consent of the Networked

Cross-posted on the NELA conference blog.

Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) Keynote: Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, Rebecca MacKinnon (Monday, 8:30am)

MacKinnon pointed to many excellent resources during her presentation (see links below), but I’ll try to summarize a few of her key points. MacKinnon observed that “technology doesn’t obey borders.” Google and Facebook are the two most popular sites in the world, not just in the U.S., and technology companies affect citizen relationships with their governments. While technology may be a liberating force (as envisioned in Apple’s 1984 Superbowl commercial), companies also can and do censor content, and governments around the world are abusing their access to data.

“There are a lot of questions that people need to know to ask and they don’t automatically know to ask.”

MacKinnon noted that our assumption is that of a trend toward democracy, but in fact, some democracies may be sliding back toward authoritarianism: “If we’re not careful, our freedom can be eroded.” We need a global movement for digital rights, the way we need a global movement to act on climate change. If change is going to happen, it must be through an alliance of civil society (citizens, activists), companies, and politicians and policymakers. Why should companies care about digital rights? “They are afraid of becoming the next Friendster.” The work of a generation, MacKinnon said, is this: legislation, accountability, transparency, and building technology that is compatible with human rights.

It sounds overwhelming, but “everybody can start where they are.” To increase your awareness, check out a few of these links:

 

 

NELA 2014

NELA2014On Monday, October 20, I’ll be at the New England Library Association (NELA) Conference. I’m looking forward to seeing several librarian friends, meeting some new people, and attending some excellent programs; I’m especially looking forward to Rebecca MacKinnon’s keynote (despite its much-too-early time slot – 8:30am?!). I’ll probably be on Twitter throughout the day (@itsokihaveabook, #NELA2014) and may do some blogging for the conference blog, http://conference.nelib.org. If you’re a New England librarian, I hope to see you there.

(Failing to) Protect Patron Privacy

Twitter_Overdrive_Adobe

On October 6, Nate Hoffelder wrote a post on The Digital Reader: “Adobe is Spying on Users, Collecting Data on Their eBook Libraries.” (He has updated the post over the past couple days.) Why is this privacy-violating spying story any more deserving of attention than the multitude of others? For librarians and library users, it’s important because Adobe Digital Editions is the software that readers who borrow e-books from the library through Overdrive (as well as other platforms) are using. This software “authenticates” users, and this is necessary because the publishers require DRM (Digital Rights Management) to ensure that the one copy/one user model is in effect. (Essentially, DRM allows publishers to mimic the physical restrictions of print books – i.e. one person can read a book at a time – on e-books, which could technically be read simultaneously by any number of people. To learn more about DRM and e-books, see Cory Doctorow’s article “A Whip to Beat Us With” in Publishers Weekly; though now more than two years old, it is still accurate and relevant.)

So how did authentication become spying? Well, it turns out Adobe was collecting more information than was strictly necessary, and was sending this information back to its servers in clear text – that is, unencrypted. Sean Gallagher has been following this issue and documenting it in Ars Technica (“Adobe’s e-book reader sends your reading logs back to Adobe – in plain text“). According to that piece, the information Adobe says it collects includes the following: user ID, device ID, certified app ID, device IP address, duration for which the book was read, and percentage of the book that was read. Even if this is all they collect, it’s still plenty of information, and transmitted in plain text, it’s vulnerable to any other spying group that might be interested.

The plain text is really just the icing on this horrible, horrible cake. The core issue goes back much further and much deeper: as Andromeda Yelton wrote in an eloquent post on the matter, “about how we default to choosing access over privacy.” She points out that the ALA Code of Ethics states, “We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted,” and yet we have compromised this principle so that we are no longer technically able to uphold it.

Jason Griffey responded to Yelton’s piece, and part of his response is worth quoting in full:

“We need to decide whether we are angry at Adobe for failing technically (for not encrypting the information or otherwise anonymizing the data) or for failing ethically (for the collection of data about what someone is reading)….

…We need to insist that the providers of our digital information act in a way that upholds the ethical beliefs of our profession. It is possible, technically, to provide these services (digital downloads to multiple devices with reading position syncing) without sacrificing the privacy of the reader.”

Griffey linked to Galen Charlton’s post (“Verifying our tools; a role for ALA?“), which suggested several steps to take to tackle these issues in the short term and the long term. “We need to stop blindly trusting our tools,” he wrote, and start testing them. “Librarians…have a professional responsibility to protect our user’s reading history,” and the American Library Association could take the lead by testing library software, and providing institutional and legal support to others who do so.

Charlton, too, pointed back to DRM as the root of these troubles, and highlighted the tension between access and privacy that Yelton mentioned. “Accepting DRM has been a terrible dilemma for libraries – enabling and supporting, no matter how passively, tools for limiting access to information flies against our professional values.  On the other hand, without some degree of acquiescence to it, libraries would be even more limited in their ability to offer current books to their patrons.”

It’s a lousy situation. We shouldn’t have to trade privacy for access; people do too much of that already, giving personal information to private companies (remember, “if you’re not paying for a product, you are the product“), which in turn give or sell it to other companies, or turn it over to the government (or the government just scoops it up). In libraries, we still believe in privacy, and we should, as Griffey put it, “insist that the providers of our digital information act in a way that upholds the ethical beliefs of our profession.” It is possible.

10/12/14: The Swiss Army Librarian linked to another piece on this topic from Agnostic, Maybe, which is worth a read: “Say Yes No Maybe So to Privacy.”

10/14/14: The Waltham Public Library (MA) posted an excellent, clear Q&A about the implications for patrons, “Privacy Concerns About E-book Borrowing.” The Librarian in Black (a.k.a. Sarah Houghton, Director of the San Rafael Public Library in California), also wrote a piece: “Adobe Spies on eBook Readers, including Library Users.” The ALA response (and Adobe’s response to the ALA) can be found here: “Adobe Responds to ALA on egregious data breach,” and that links to LITA’s post “ADE in the Library Ebook Data Lifecycle.”

10/16/14: “Adobe Responds to ALA Concerns Over E-Book Privacy” in Publishers Weekly; Overdrive’s statement about adobe Digital Editions privacy concerns. On a semi-related note, Glenn Greenwald’s TED talk, “Why Privacy Matters,” is worth 20 minutes of your time.

 

 

Reading roundup: Fall books

I’m absurdly fond of Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column in The Believer. His reading taste is so wide-ranging that I forgive the lack of transitions between paragraphs; the books aren’t related, so why bother contriving a connection? Better to use the limited word count to talk about more books.

My taste runs a bit more narrowly to literary fiction (though Nick might like Against Football by Steve Almond), and I’ve read enough new fiction in the past couple months to justify a roundup. Without further ado:

hundredyearhouseMy friend and fellow librarian Brita recommended The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai. Brita has impeccable taste and I’d read Makkai’s first novel, The Borrower, not long ago, so it didn’t take too much of a push for me to pick this one up, and I’m so glad I did. The story is set in and around a house called Laurelfield – a private residence or arts colony, depending on the year – and told backward, starting in 1999, skipping back to 1955, then to 1929, then a “prologue” in 1900. This structure lends a puzzle-like feel to the book, as readers must hold details in their heads as the story moves backward, picking up additional pieces and fitting them in. In addition to compelling characters and a plot filled with secrets and twists, Makkai employs a number of familiar elements – a locked attic, an archive, blackmail, a hidden painting, false identities, buried bodies, a haunted house – and weaves them into a delightful, satisfying story that feels entirely unique.

payingguestsThe Paying Guests by Sarah Waters is a long, tense read. It’s set in London after the first World War. Frances has lost her brothers in the war, and her father has died; she and her mother are forced to take in a couple of lodgers (“paying guests”) to make ends meet. Despite class differences, Frances becomes friends, and then more, with one of the lodgers. They plan to run away together, but are interrupted and surprised one night. A moment of violence shatters their plans and puts their future in jeopardy. The Paying Guests is full of period detail and suspense. I enjoyed it, but I’ve been told I really need to read Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet to get the classic Sarah Waters experience.

miniaturist I picked up a galley of The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton at BEA in May, attracted by the editor’s description and the gorgeous cover. Set in Amsterdam in the 1700s, it’s the story of Nella, who comes from the country to marry a wealthy merchant. Prepared to be a wife, she is instead ignored; Johannes buys her an expensive dollhouse, a replica of the real house, and leaves her alone with his sister, Marin, and two servants. “It is not a man she has married,” Nella observes, “but a world.” Obviously something is not quite right, but it is a little while before Nella discovers precisely what. In the meantime, Nella writes to a miniaturist to begin filling the dollhouse with figurines, but the mysterious miniaturist sends more than Nella asked for, and seems to know more about the family than should be possible – even more than Nella knows. Burton brings Amsterdam to life in this slow-burning story, and though the truth about the miniaturist is never fully revealed, I found the story satisfying regardless.

italianwifeAn Italian Wife by Ann Hood was another BEA galley. I hadn’t read Ann Hood before, and I enjoyed The Italian Wife, the story of an Italian immigrant, Josephine, and her large family. The title refers to Josephine, but there are many Italian wives in the book, and most of them, to some extent, follow the same pattern: their husbands and boyfriends call the shots, sex is a chore (or worse), life consists of housework and child care and little else. Though the larger world changes around them, their small Italian-American community stays remarkably the same, and even the ones who leave don’t break free of the entrenched gender roles, until, perhaps, Josephine’s great-granddaughter Aida. Hood writes about selected members of the family, so the book is almost like a collection of linked stories, but it comes back around to Josephine in the end.

everythinginevertoldyouA co-worker had a galley of Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, and then I read an interview with the author in Shelf Awareness. Those two things together convinced me to read the book, and I’m so glad I did. At the outset it reminded me of Hannah Pittard’s The Fates Will Find Their Way, but other than the disappeared-girl aspect, the novels aren’t that similar. Everything I Never Told You is the story of the Chinese-American Lee family: parents James and Marilyn, and children Nath, Lydia, and Hannah. When Lydia disappears, the family is stunned, and the reader is puzzled, but as more is revealed about each character, it begins to make sense. The whole family is under the pressure of racial discrimination – sometimes subtle, sometimes less so – but Lydia is under the additional pressure of her mother’s expectations: that she will fulfill Marilyn’s own thwarted dream of a medical career. This is one of those books that makes you ache for a family in which communication of the important truths seems impossible, despite the love they have for one another.

magicianslandI read The Magicians and The Magician King, books one and two in Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, back in 2011, and I wasn’t sure if I’d remember them well enough to enjoy The Magician’s Land, but it got such glowing reviews (such as the one from Edan Lepucki in the Sunday Book Review) that I went ahead…and it was fantastic. Quentin Coldwater at thirty is incalculably more fun to spend 400 pages with than Quentin at eighteen: still clever but less egotistical, more sure of his place in the world and less whiny. Having been ejected from Brakebills and Fillory, he embarks on a heist to steal a suitcase with unknown contents; Plum, an ex-Brakebills student and a Chatwin descendant, is in on the heist as well. When it goes awry, the two of them hide out in Plum’s apartment in Manhattan, where Quentin turns his attention to a new spell: a spell to make a land. When that, too, goes awry, but brings back niffin-Alice, Quentin focuses on getting her back into her human form. At this point, Eliot shows up to announce that Fillory is dying, and Quentin returns to see if he can avert the apocalypse.

The Magician’s Land is funny and clever; it’s a victory tour through familiar landmarks, a denouement for all the characters readers got to know in the first two books. Because the characters inhabit the real world as well as the magical one, it’s full of pop culture fantasy and sci-fi references (Harry Potter, Narnia, Doctor Who, etc.). I had mixed feelings about The Magicians, but now I think I’ll go back and re-read it, the better to appreciate The Magician’s Land.

againstfootballLast but not least, some new nonfiction: I first heard of Steve Almond’s book Against Football at BEA, and I knew I had to read the book when he agreed to be the featured speaker at our library’s first book festival this November. I got a galley from the publisher and zipped through it in a day. It turns out that, like being a vegetarian, there are a good number of valid reasons to be against football: social, cultural, economic, and political reasons, any one of which should be enough to turn public opinion against the sport, or at least the sport as it is played, funded, and televised today. Realistically, we probably can’t hope for much except for a few reforms, but at least those will be a step in the right direction. Almond’s writing is passionate and easy to follow, even for someone who isn’t familiar with the details of the game. And if you’re local, you can come see him speak at the Robbins Library on November 1!

That’s it for me for now. Have any of these titles piqued your interest? What else have you been reading lately?

 

 

 

Audiobook recommendations for a friend

At a recent book club meeting, a friend asked the rest of the group for audiobook recommendations. She’d just gotten a new job (yay!) with a much longer commute (yuck), and she was looking for audiobooks to make the commute more enjoyable. I’m afraid many of us audiobook fans fired recommendations at her faster than she could write them down, so I ended up typing mine up for her afterward, and figured I’d share them here as well.

I’ve already mentioned specific books and narrators before, including Rebecca Lowman, Jim Dale, Morven Christie, and Kate Rudd, but here’s a slightly longer list, reflecting another half-year of reading/listening. Young Adult fiction is overrepresented here, because I usually choose shorter books for my relatively short commute.

Talented narrators matched with great books

  • nightcircus_audioThe incomparable Jim Dale reads the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling, as well as The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. All are magical.
  • Rebecca Lowman reads everything by Rainbow Rowell (Eleanor & Park, Fangirl, Landline) and Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. It occurs to me that I am bad at describing voices and can’t properly convey why Rebecca Lowman is so incredible, but trust me on this one.
  • Morven Christie performs upper-class Scottish “Queenie’s” half of Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, and narrates Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, which is set in Iceland.
  • David Tennant – you might know him as the Tenth Doctor, or the star of British miniseries Broadchurch – performs My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher. If Scottish accents (and heartbreakingly good realistic YA fiction) are your thing, don’t miss this one.
  • Alex McKenna reads Every Day by David Levithan. This unique story requires a special narrator: the main character, A, wakes up every day in a different body, and doesn’t identify as one gender or another. McKenna’s grainy voice is perfect.
  • If I Stay and Where She Went, a pair of novels by Gayle Forman, have two different narrators; Kirsten Potter is Mia in the first book, and Dan Bittner is Adam in the latter. The narrators are well suited to the stories.
  • instructionsheatwaveI’m a sucker for British accents (and Scottish ones, obviously), and John R. Lee does a fantastic performance of Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave. This was the first O’Farrell book I read/listened to, and I was a little disappointed that Lee didn’t read her other titles as well. (Anne Flosnik reads The Hand That First Held Mine and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. She does a fine job, and I’m a huge Maggie O’Farrell fan, so I recommend these as well, but Heatwave was exceptional.)
  • As I’ve mentioned before, Kate Rudd reads The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Here is a case where the book is incredible on its own, but the audio version somehow manages to add even more depth, emotion, and humor.
  • I’ve encountered A.S. King almost exclusively in audio, and all of the readers do justice to her brilliant, slightly surreal yet grounded young adult fiction. Lynde Houck reads Please Ignore Vera Dietz, Kirby Heyborne reads Everybody Sees the Ants, Michael Stellman reads Reality Boy, and Devon Sorvari reads Ask the Passengers.

Authors who read their own books

  • sweetheartsYoung adult author Sara Zarr reads several of her own books, including Sweethearts, Story of a Girl, Once Was Lost, and The Lucy Variations. Don’t judge these books by their covers – full of realistic and intense teen problems, they’re far from fluff.
  • Genre-defying Neil Gaiman performs most (all?) of his own books, and his voice is perfectly suited to his stories. Coraline, The Graveyard Book, Neverwhere, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Stardust…
  • Philip Pullman and a full cast read Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass/The Subtle Knife/The Amber Spyglass). I don’t want to say they bring the book to life, because it lives and breathes spectacularly on the page, but they bring the book into the dimension of sound such that each character’s voice is exactly the way I heard it in my head while I was reading.
  • I wasn’t sure if I was going to like Cheryl Strayed’s collected advice columns, but I was utterly hooked after Steve Almond’s introduction. Strayed reads Tiny Beautiful Things: advice on love and life from Dear Sugar, and because many of her stories and anecdotes are personal, it feels like she’s speaking directly to you.
  • Sarah Vowell reads all her own books, including The Wordy Shipmates, Unfamiliar Fishes, Assassination Vacation, and The Partly Cloudy Patriot. Vowell – the voice of Violet Incredible – tends to polarize listeners; some love her voice, some really dislike it. Her audiobooks usually feature cameo performances from other voice actors, including Stephen Colbert and Seth Green.
  • happymarriageThough she doesn’t narrate her novels, Ann Patchett reads her nonfiction, including What Now? (based on her commencement address) and her recent book of essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Ann is the writer to whom I wish I was related, or at least the one I’d most want for a next-door neighbor, and her writing is pure wisdom and humor and craft.
  • Perhaps most popular of all in the author-reads-own-book category, Tina Fey performs Bossypants. I haven’t listened to this myself, but I’ve listened to enough friends rave about it that I feel I can recommend it.

So those are some of my favorites. What audiobooks do you like? Leave suggestions in the comments.

 

David Mitchell and Joe Hill talk writing

And Stephen King was there. (He’s Joe Hill’s dad, though he’s probably more often described as the author of The Shining, Carrie, The Stand, Under the Dome, Joyland, Mr. Mercedes…)

boneclocksJoe Hill started off with a short but sweet introduction, comparing The Bone Clocks to the Escher-esque Way of Stones in its fifth part: “a dizzying climb.” David Mitchell protested that his head had become so enormous after this intro that he’d need a second plane ticket for the way home, then he launched into reading from the third section of the book, set in 2004, narrated by war reporter Ed Brubeck. Mitchell interrupted himself frequently to “translate” from British to American, apologize for his Yorkshire accent, accuse anyone who recognized the word “Silurian” of watching too much Doctor Who, and make other self-deprecating remarks, and he concluded the reading with a teaser: “If you want to know if they find Aoife [Ed’s daughter] or not, you’ll have to go to your independent bookstore…”

Hill began the Q&A by asking about genre. Mitchell views genre as “a set of preexisting formulae” that writers can tweak, change, invert, and conjoin. “Genre is dangerous to deploy,” he said, and one of the dangers is reviewers who have negative attitudes toward genres (“I don’t do elves”). However, he said, he doesn’t write for reviewers. “People can tell when books are riskless…and haven’t caused the author psychic pain.” His ideal bookstore wouldn’t have genre signs in it at all; “I don’t like these divisions,” he said. “Surely the only question that matters is Is it any good or not?

cloud_atlasHill’s next question had a geology metaphor; not “where do your ideas come from?,” but “if you drill down through your novel, what’s at the bottom?” Mitchell listed five elements of the novel: plot, character, style, ideas/themes, and structure. Plot and character are propulsive; style and ideas are…”What’s the opposite of propulsive?” (The audience shouted out ideas. Mitchell suggested this would be a fun game show. “What’s the opposite of a peacock?”) Structure is neither propulsive nor its opposite, but the neutral vehicle itself.

“Novels need ideas like bread needs yeast” – a little bit makes the whole thing rise up.

blackswangreenStructure, for Mitchell, is key: “When I find that key, the doors open in relatively rapid succession.” But you can’t impose a structure just for the sake of it; the structure must harmonize with the ideas in the novel. Cloud Atlas‘ Russian nesting doll structure suited its ideas perfectly, and may be part of the reason the book is Mitchell’s best-selling one. (“Cloud Atlas will probably be on my tombstone. It will probably pay for my tombstone.”) Black Swan Green‘s structure may be the most conventional of all Mitchell’s novels, with thirteen sections, one per month, January to January. (Hill to Mitchell: “There’s twelve months in a year, but you were close.”) Why such a radically different structure for each new book? “I’m vain enough to want to be original. Or maybe it’s not vanity…I wish to avoid cliche.” Hill commented that Mitchell’s structures make his books architectural, which chimes nicely with my own idea of each of Mitchell’s novels being like a room in a house, with characters wandering our of one and into another.

Next came the “speed round,” a series of short answer questions. “Why don’t you Internet?” Hill asked. “I do Internet. I don’t do social media,” Mitchell replied. “I don’t have time.” (If you’re going to crank out a 500+ page book every World Cup and raise children while doing it, this is probably true. Think what the rest of us could get done without Facebook and Twitter!) (Probably none of us could write The Bone Clocks, but we could do something better than “liking” pictures of friends’ cats, no?)

Hill asked if Mitchell wrote on a computer or on paper; Mitchell answered that mostly he typed, but he started new novels on paper. “I can doodle my way” into a novel on paper, but not on the screen, often starting with sketches of characters’ faces, he said.

A couple more “speed round” questions: What’s the first book you remember reading and loving? A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. Recent favorite book? The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. (Mitchell didn’t list any other contemporary titles, but added that the book he would “run into a burning building to save the last extant copy of” is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.)

Hill then turned the mic over to the audience for a few questions.

What’s your advice for writers whose characters are very different from them? Get your characters to write you letters. Consider what they have to say about money, class, prejudices, sexuality, work, religion, the state, society, early childhood experiences, health, fear of death. “People give themselves away in language all the time.” (This letter-writing advice is almost word-for-word the same as that which Crispin Hershey gives his students in section four of The Bone Clocks.)

thousandautumnsWhen you wrote The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, did you already have the whole concept of the Horologists and the Anchorites? Did you know Marinus was a Horologist? “I knew Marinus had a flexible contract with mortality,” Mitchell answered, but he hadn’t invented the whole cosmology yet. (Marinus, along with Timothy Cavendish, is one of Mitchell’s favorite characters, and one we may not have seen the last of.)

Do your beliefs inform your writing, or does your writing inform your beliefs? If he’s anything, Mitchell said, he’s a Buddhist. “It’s a thing you work at all your life really,” he said. “We need a healthier relationship with mortality.” We’re a “youth-adoring” culture, and that doesn’t serve us well. (The 49 days between the Horologists’ deaths and reincarnations is a number from Japanese Buddhism.)

Timothy Cavendish (from Cloud Atlas) appeared in the Advanced Readers Copy (ARC) of The Bone Clocks, but was edited out of the final version. Does this really have to do with entertainment lawyers? Partially yes, but he’s been replaced by a character who is featured in Mitchell’s next “significant” book, set in SoHo and Greenwich Village in London in the ’60s. (I assume he meant the 1960s, but one can never be sure. Also: will there be an “insignificant” book in between? Or is he just preparing us for a high page count?)

number9dreamThe Bone Clocks wasn’t on the Booker Prize shortlist. (Not really a question.) Mitchell quoted Julian Barnes, who’d said, “The Booker Prize is posh bingo.” Mitchell then noted that Barnes said that before he won (for The Sense of an Ending in 2011), and might not say the same now. Mitchell did mention that his books had been on the list in previous years (The Thousand Autumns longlisted in 2010, Black Swan Green in 2006; Cloud Atlas shortlisted in 2004, Number9Dream in 2001), and didn’t appear bitter that The Bone Clocks didn’t appear on this year’s list.

“If I were the Beatles, Number9Dream would be the White Album.”

His goal, he said, was that if his name were removed from his books, that no reader would be able to tell it was the same author who had written them. (Although some of the character names would be dead giveaways.) He’s always trying something different, which he allows can be trying for his publishers. But the roomful of readers in Cambridge tonight wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thanks: to LibraryThing for an ARC of The Bone Clocks; to Porter Square Books for setting up the event; to Joe Hill for sharing his thoughts on Doctor Who; to the nice people in line; to David Mitchell for signing two books; to David Ebershoff for a few minutes of nice conversation after the signing.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

For a short summary and review, please see my review for the Robbins Library on Goodreads.

For a more complete summary (spoilers included) and quotes, please see my review on LibraryThing.

boneclocks

“You only value something if you know it’ll end.”

I did not read any reviews before reading The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: I wanted to come to it fresh, unbiased, with no preconceived notions or other people’s opinions clouding my view or telling me what to look for. I devoured its 620 pages in four days, and then I looked at what reviewers had said about it. I started, perhaps unwisely, with James Wood’s review in The New Yorker (about which more below); the most understanding thing I can say about it is that, with his obvious contempt for the science fiction and fantasy genres, perhaps he was not the best reviewer for this book. (“Every book its reader; every reader his/her book.“)

I thought Ursula K. Le Guin’s review for The Guardian might be more sympathetic, but she calls Mitchell’s writing “anxious” and self-conscious. She wrote – surprisingly for a fantasy/sci-fi author – “I find these radical shifts of time and person difficult, and, though willing to suspend disbelief, am uncertain when to do so. Am I to believe in the hocus-pocus of the secret cult of the Blind Cathar in the same way I am to believe in the realistic portrayal of the death agonies of corporate capitalism – or should I believe in them in different ways? How many novels is it? If it is one, I just don’t see how it hangs together. Or maybe its not hanging together is the point, and I’m not getting it.” Le Guin also probes, not unjustly, at Mitchell’s choice to narrate in the present tense. I know some readers who are particularly sensitive to present-tense narration, but in this case at least, I didn’t find it troublesome. Rather the opposite: by using the present tense, Mitchell anchors the reader in each of six presents.

Joanna Kavenna, in the Telegraph (UK), is generally positive, though she doesn’t sound entirely pleased for David Mitchell that he has entered that “lit-fic kingdom of heaven” where one is both “critically acclaimed” and “wildly popular.” Michiko Kakutani, for The New York Times, provides more of a summary than any other reviewer; her review is mixed, praising the realistic parts of the novel and dismissing the “silly mumbo-jumbo” of the more fantasy-heavy sections. I found the “mumbo-jumbo” fairly easy to decode, but I could see how readers might have trouble with the denser paragraphs of it. Considered individually, the words Mitchell makes up or repurposes are all logical, even if he does sometimes use a noun as a verb (e.g. hiatus).

Pico Iyer’s take in the Sunday Book Review aligns most closely with my own, though he puts everything better. Unlike Le Guin (“How many novels is it?”), Iyer writes, “with Mitchell it’s the whole, the way he stitches the pieces together to make something greater than their sum, that makes the work unique.” He admits that the fifth section strays too far into “Marvel Comicsdom” for his tastes, adding generously, “[Mitchell’s] take on everyday life is so alive and so much his own that it seems a waste when he starts inventing realities, as so many other writers do.” In his final paragraph, Iyer concludes, “Other writers may be more moving, and some may push deeper, but very few excite the reader about both the visceral world and the visionary one as Mitchell does.”

Back to James Wood’s review in The New Yorker, in which he displays his condescension for fantasy and science fiction. He gives a head-nod to Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series and Mark Haddon’s Boom! (“a terrific little book I enjoyed reading to my son a few years ago, but which I didn’t bother to treat as more than a nice bedtime game”), but clearly he believes that fantasy and sci-fi are for children (who, apparently, only read or are read to for diversion, not to set their imaginations on fire and develop worldviews).

Undoubtedly, The Bone Clocks has elements of both science fiction and fantasy, and no reviewer who scorns these genres as less serious than “literary fiction” can review it fairly. (Besides, as Holly’s father points out to her partner, Ed: “Life’s more science-fictiony by the day.”) Wood’s lack of interest in these aspects of the novel led to his misunderstanding in at least one case: there wasn’t a “schism” between the Horologists and the Anchorites; they are fundamentally different creatures. The Horologists are reincarnated; the Anchorites practice animacide (not “animicide,” as it was printed in The New Yorker. Anima = soul).

cloud_atlasFurthermore, Wood seems to disparage storytelling itself. In the opening paragraph of his review, he writes, “As the novel’s cultural centrality dims, so storytelling…flies up and fills the air. Meaning is a bit of a bore, but storytelling is alive.” I would argue that storytelling is central to the human experience, and good stories – the stories we remember and retell – do have meaning. Mitchell’s novels, particularly Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, have more meaning than most of the other contemporary novels I’ve read. Wood barely addresses the sixth and final section of the novel, wherein Mitchell imagines a realistically grim version of 2043.

Some of Wood’s criticisms are fair; he writes that “[Mitchell’s] characters, whether fifteen-year-old girls or middle-aged male English novelists, sound too alike.” It’s true that Holly Sykes (at all ages), Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, Crispin Hershey, and Dr. Iris Fenby (a.k.a. Marinus) are all clever, witty, insightful, and observant, but their dialogue and their thoughts are unique enough to be distinct. (Mitchell has already proved, in Cloud Atlas, that he’s capable of writing in many different voices and dialects.) And it’s not as if character was sacrificed for the sake of storytelling, either; Kakutani calls Holly “a thoroughly captivating character,” and I’m inclined to agree.

blackswangreenThough it is by no means easy reading, I love spending time in the Mitchell universe, where every novel belongs to one “‘Uber-book,’ in which themes and characters recur and overlap.” Seeing these characters reappear is like running into an old lost friend at a Christmas party: unexpected recognition, a delighted sense of “oh, it’s you!” In The Bone Clocks, nearly everyone makes an appearance: there are cameos from Jason and Julia, Alan Wall, and Nurse Noakes (Black Swan Green), Timothy Cavendish (Cloud Atlas), and the omnipresent moon-grey cat; there is a larger but behind-the-scenes role for Luisa Rey (Cloud Atlas); and Marinus (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) and Hugo Lamb (Black Swan Green) play significant roles.

So, what is The Bone Clocks about? It is about the life of Holly Sykes, fifteen when we first encounter her in 1984 and seventy-four when we last see her in 2043. It is about the war between the Horologists and the Anchorites, which is really a war about the value of life; the Horologists’ aim is to prevent the Anchorites from committing animacide (killing) in order to preserve their own youth. Mitchell has called The Bone Clocks his midlife crisis novel, and one can’t read it without considering aging and death on the ordinary human scale as well as the “Atemporal” one; as Nurse Noakes says to Hugo, “You’d think old age was a criminal offence, not a destination we’re all heading to.”

According to David Mitchell himselfThe Bone Clocks is about survival. And it is about the future we are all headed for if we don’t begin making drastic changes now: a scarcity of resources and a consolidation of power, lawless zones and fear, a time when we’ll remember clean water and electricity as luxuries. Of course, both survival and life can be considered on more than one scale: in The Bone Clocks, there is the individual, the species, and the Atemporals. The Horologists and the Anchorites may be pure fiction, but we still have to worry about the rest. Will 2043 look like it does in Mitchell’s vision?

11/7/14 Edited to add: Stephen King makes a similar point about literary critics and genre fiction, specifically citing The Bone Clocks, in this Rolling Stone interview. He says, “Michiko Kakutani, who writes reviews for The New York Times, is the same way. She’ll review a book like David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, which is one of the best novels of the year. It’s as good as Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, has the same kind of deep literary resonance. But because it has elements of fantasy and science fiction, Kakutani doesn’t want to understand it. In that sense, [Harold] Bloom and Kakutani and a number of gray eminences in literary criticism are like children who say, “I can’t possibly eat this meal because the different kinds of food are touching on the plate!”