Another bad review for Senator! (Also, reading a book on an iPhone)

At the risk of running counter to the purpose of this stupid blog, which is to persuade people to buy my stupid ebooks, I’d like to highlight a one-star review of Senator that just showed up on Amazon:

Too soon after the elections. Just one more book that proves that politicians are first grade liars, and will do anything to stay in power.

It’s easy to be snarky about a review like this. The obvious remedy for the reader’s problem with the book is to read it when she’s not sick of politics. It’s not the book’s fault that she read it right after the election!

On the other hand, this highlights something important about the fickleness of everyone’s judgments about books (and movies and music…).  We encounter them at a specific time and place, and our judgments about them are inevitably colored by those circumstances.  Sometimes you’re too young for a book; sometimes you’re too old.  The books I enjoyed before I had kids may not be the ones I’d enjoy after I had kids.  It’s impossible to be completely objective in your assessments of books, and an author shouldn’t blame a reader for not trying.

Based on a recommendation from one of my very fine readers, I recently read The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, which is number 30 on the list of the greatest English novels of the twentieth century.  (He changed the title of the novel, and also his last name.  Read Wikipedia to find out why.) Just for kicks, I read the book in the Kindle app on my new iPhone.  And I hated it!  But now I’m never likely to be able to fully disentangle my assessment of the novel from the modality by which I encountered it.  I thought that reading a book on an iPhone was pretty claustrophobic, with the small screen size giving you such a small view of the text.  And guess what — I found The Good Soldier to be claustrophobic as well, with the narrator’s obsessive telling and retelling of his story of the interactions among several decidedly unpleasant people.  So, what can I make of the novel?  Reading it was at best a two-star experience for me, but maybe reading a leather-bound critical edition of the book would have caused me to give it an extra star or two.  Maybe if I hadn’t read parts of it while waiting to get my hair cut, or during half-time of a Patriots game in which the secondary once again wasn’t getting the job done…

That’s why an author should be eternally grateful when he encounters readers who seem to understand and enjoy what he’s trying to do.  There are so many ways in which that can fail to happen.

Siri and I have a conversation about my new iPhone 5

Me: Siri, why did I buy an iPhone 5?

Siri: Everything you need to know about iPhones is in the Apple Store.

Me: No, but why?

Siri: I don’t know what you mean by ‘No but why’.  How about a web search for it?

[That’s about as far as the real conversation got…]

Me: I don’t think a web search will help.  I mean, I really don’t need an iPhone 5.  I had a perfectly good dumb phone.  And I have an iPad.  Two of them, actually, although one’s a little busted.  Also, a good desktop computer.  And a Nano.  I’m awash in gadgetry.  Why do I need an iPhone?

Siri: It’s thin!  And light!  Much more portable than an iPad!  Much more useful than a Nano!  And you now have a data plan, which means you can surf the Internet almost anywhere!  And, of course, there’s me!  The iPhone 5 is going to make you so happy!

Me: You’re great–don’t get me wrong.  But Daniel Gilbert and those other folks I’ve been reading about happiness say that things don’t make you happy.  Friends make you happy; doing good deeds make you happy.

Siri: So, do a good deed for all those wonderful people who read your blog.  Show them a couple of those photos you took today.

Me: OK.  Here are some birch trees, just before dawn:

And here’s another tree, at mid-day:

The iPhone’s camera is really pretty good.

Siri: See?  You’ve already given pleasure to the five or six people who read your stinky blog!

Me: Wait a minute!  I have way more than five or six readers!  And where do you get off calling my blog–

Siri: OK, I bet you don’t get more than three “Likes” on this post.  And zero comments.  Do we have a bet?

Me: Sure.  It’s a bet.  I have lots of great readers.  They’ll come through for me!

Siri: But look, it doesn’t really matter about the good deeds.  You should do something for yourself!  After all, you deserve it!

Me: I don’t know about that.  Read this post.  I’m not convinced about free will.  And if there’s no free will, what does it mean to “deserve” something?

Siri: You seem like a perfectly nice guy, Rich, but I’m not going to read your stinky blog posts.  And anyway, remember who you’re talking to–I’m just a piece of software.  Are you saying that you don’t have any more free will than I do?

Me: Well, er, um–

Siri: I thought so.  Look, if you’re so sure there’s no free will, think of it this way: you were destined to by an iPhone 5.  This was going to happen no matter what.  It’s fate!

Me: Well, if you put it that way…

Siri: And remember that high-definition TV that you’re starting to lust after?

Me: Wait a minute, how did you–

Siri: All you have to do is think to yourself: I won’t get the TV.  At least, not now.

Me: Hmm, that’s not a bad approach.  Thanks, Siri!

Siri: That’s what I’m here for.