Saturday, November 27, 2010

Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia
by Joseph Michael Reagle Jr.
The MIT Press

A book and especially a fictionalized feature film on the founding of Facebook got a lot of buzz recently, predictably because for all its innovation and surprising success, it’s just the same old story of the fight for love and glory and money. The Internet is increasingly an advertising medium, clotted and cratered with the frenzy for profits. The true exception is the innovative success of a collaborative effort that has become as indispensable a feature of the Internet as Googling or YouTube: the prime online reference work called Wikipedia.

This book is not meant to be biography or reportage, but contemporary ethnography or study of a culture. But the story it tells is compelling anyway: in an Internet culture more and more dominated by “fractious narcissism,” “ Wikipedia culture encourages contributors to treat and think of others well.” Yeah, that’ll work. But mostly it does.

Founder Jimmy Wales gets a chapter (“The Benevolent Dictator”) but only after Reagle starts honing in on the nub: ”The Challenges of Consensus.” Reagle approaches it all in a large context, going back for example to historical dreams of collaborative knowledge bases, like H.G. Wells’ World Brain, as well as ethics and methods of collaboration of the Quakers, for instance. But mostly it’s an Internet historical context, from the early days when the idea of free information resulted in such institutions as open source code and the Creative Commons.

Wikipedia has its critics, including the transparently political who demonize anything that doesn’t play predatory capitalism. Reagle describes ongoing debates over the accuracy of user-supplied information, trying to separate it out from professional sour grapes. So he gets at both of the interesting questions: how can this possibly work? And, is it any good really? He begins and ends the book considering conflict (which sooner or later results in people calling each other Nazis.) He concludes that while not immune to “pettiness, idiocy and vulgarity,” “What Wikipedia collaborative culture call upon the better angels of our nature,” through emphasizing and reinforcing good faith ethics, and improvising institutional methods for encouraging them, as well as insuring the integrity of what’s published online.

Reagle writes without much jargon, and although it requires more than casual interest in Internet or hacker culture, it’s clear enough for open access. What this book does well is describe how Wikipedia works and what issues have arisen. It’s short on drama and personality, and so it’s probably destined to be a source document if a publisher is ever convinced that Wikipedia is sexy enough to merit a more narrative-driven treatment. Since that seems unlikely, this may remain the best opportunity for learning about this remarkable project.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Gift Books 2010First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process
by Robert D. Richardson
University of Iowa Press

There are basically two kinds of books on how to write: those by writers who are better known for their books on writing than for their writing, and those by famous writers that tell you how to write just like them.

Maybe that’s why Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most famous, oracular and inimitable American essayist, never wrote an essay on writing. Still, Emerson biographer Robert D. Richardson extracted ideas and advice from Emerson’s journals, letters, essays and lectures (as well as his big biography, Emerson: The Mind on Fire) in this comfortably brief but inspiring book.

Each chapter covers a topic of active interest to writers: from “Keeping a Journal” (Emerson is a prodigious and practical if perhaps unique model) to words and sentences, metaphor, practical hints and relationships to nature, art and audience.

Writing was Emerson’s passion and faith. “All that can be thought can be written.” He championed original accounts, personal experience and the individual view. Yet writing is a skill and a continuum, and both require reading. “There is creative reading as well as creative writing...First we read, then we write.”

Emerson’s comments can be lofty (“ Life is our dictionary”) and sardonically practical (“The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say.”) Some advice especially reflects his own work, yet is applicable to others: “Three or four stubborn necessary words are the pith and fate of the business...the rest is circumstance, satellite, and flourish.”

He knew writing is hard, but he thought of it as heroic. “We need the power to write, but that is only the beginning. We also need the resilience to rebound from our setbacks, the willingness to finish what we start, and the strength to hold out for performance over intention.”

The truth is that almost any writing book can be valuable, though it’s often in oblique and personal ways, depending on when a practicing writer happens upon it. But Emerson speaks in particular to a feature of this age.

Why, we may wonder, are there so many university writing courses and writing workshops even outside academia in an era of dwindling opportunities for writing careers, and apparently rampant illiteracy? Perhaps because as Emerson knew, there is unpredictable personal value to self-discoveries made in the process of writing, and ways of being in the world (and staying sane) made possible by the act of writing.

Yet writing is not meant to end in the self, even if the audience is illusory or uncertain. “Happy is he,” says Emerson, “who always writes to an unknown friend.”

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Gift Books 2010
Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau
by Brian Walker

This is a beautifully assembled book, and easily the gift book of the year for folks who've been sentient over the past 40 years. It's a particular delight for me just to page through it, since I was one of Doonesbury's first fans in the early 70s when I lived in Cambridge, and the Boston Globe ran it. It seemed to be about people I knew, by a very talented one-of-us. (In fact, a character was reputedly based on one of my colleagues at the Boston Phoenix, and if Rick Redfern wasn't based on Tom Redburn--a colleague at Washington Newsworks who went on to the New York Times--then he should have been.)

This book covers the entire Doonesbury career, from the early strips for the Yale student paper to a few panels set in the Obama White House. There's reportage as well, a factual, historical essay spread throughout the book, covering in words and images the development of the basic cartoon strip as well as Trudeau's related activities, from the Doonesbury musical to various causes. I was particularly curious about the background to the storyline of recent years concerning B.D.'s recovery from an amputation and traumatic stress resulting from combat in Iraq. Trudeau got information volunteered by soldiers and the Defense Department, not something you would have predicted in the Vietnam era. But he'd previously taken a military helicopter tour of areas where the Gulf War was fought, and the irony of support from the military wasn't lost on him. Still, while Trudeau's stardom and the success of Doonesbury put him in a different league, this development I think mirrored a larger one. A lot of us who remain opposed to needless wars did start looking in a deeper and more nuanced way at the realities of war and warriors.

Doonesbury was such an important part of my generation's daily life for a long time--I remember how bereft we all were when Trudeau took a break for almost two years in the early 80s. In the 90s, his creation of Mr. Butts was a morale boost when I was making my own critiques of the tobacco industry and its campaigns to hook the young, which eventually cost me my newspaper column in Pittsburgh. But through all the counterculture and politics, Trudeau created a family of characters that took on lives of their own, and begat another generation or two.

This ongoing multigenerational storytelling is generously presented in this large, coffee-table size volume, including many color illustrations and some big, breathtaking panels. The evolution of Trudeau's artwork is made delightfully clear. I don't know how I feel about some of the commercialization of the characters, but I suppose I shouldn't have believed I could get through this review without using the word "iconic."

The text ends with some worries about the future of Doonesbury, tied so closely to the fading fate of daily newspapers. But some final words from Trudeau are especially welcome today, the official date of the book's publication, which is also an election day expected to be not much short of apocalyptic. "I'm the opposite of a cynic," Trudeau says with a smile. "I have a child-like faith in our better angels, and that sense of optimism informs the strip in every way. I really do believe we can get it right."

Still, stick around at least until 2012, G.B. I think we're going to need you.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Holiday Gift Books 2010
Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt
by Robert Gottlieb


This is the first in a Yale series on Jewish Lives. It's the first new biography in English of Sarah Bernhardt in awhile apparently, and the author is the former editor in chief of several publishing houses as well as the New Yorker. He currently writes for the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, where a detailed appreciation of this and other books on Bernhardt can be found.

Gottlieb reputedly casts a skeptical eye on some of the more outrageous stories Bernhardt told about herself, though this book records a lot of highs and lows--and excesses. My own interest was learning about her as an actress, but that's not this book apparently. Personally I wasn't drawn to her as a character, and I couldn't get beyond the writing, which is too florid for me. It is however a well-published book: handsome to the eye and to the hand, with sharp illustrations integrated throughout the text. So if there are people on your holiday shopping list who are interested in the Divine Sarah, this is an appropriate gift book.