The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Sunday, January 31, 2010

When I was home in Seattle a few months ago I took a trip to my favorite book store, The Elliott Bay Book Company, in Pioneer Square - the city's most historic neighborhood. Unfortunately, it was most likely my last visit at its current location. The bookstore is preparing to move to another part of the city. Considering the fate of many independent bookstores, this outcome is far from terrible. And reflecting on it objectively, I should actually be happy.

For those of you unfamiliar with Seattle, Pioneer Square captures perhaps the last glimpse into the origins of our modern city. While I have a hard time believing the commercial- residential buildings constructed in the last decade that include a Quizno's Subs and tanning salon on the ground floor will withstand the tests of time from an architectural standpoint, Pioneer Square with its brownstone edifices offered something different. This "difference" also included the aroma of stale beer and urine on the vast majority of its sidewalks. Yes, Pioneer Square is truly dying and with the loss of Elliot Bay it's destined to become an urban carcass of its former self. Notwithstanding the verbal assault by numerous panhandlers and con artists, I thoroughly enjoyed the trips into Pioneer Square to visit the bookstore. There is a certain sense of loss. Yet as I already said, the move will actually benefit me because Elliot Bay will now be located in an area I actually do frequent for its nightlife.

It was exactly for this reason that Elliot Bay was forced to move locations after a very difficult last 12 months in terms of sales. An independent bookstore relies on foot traffic, especially in the evening. And you can trust me that those going out in Pioneer Square after dark were not the same market segment likely to pop into the reading room to hear an author present her latest work.

I respect Elliot Bay's store as well as its business model and wish it the best of success! We should all be cheering it on as the outcome "post-move" will tell us a lot about what businesses will work and which will fail in the future. One mantra of business strategy is based around the belief that a company must either focus on being a cost leader or a high value-add specialist. Finding yourself in the middle is a recipe for disaster due to the competition you will face from both sides.

Elliot Bay Bookstore does not discount its books. In the days of Amazon, I know it is a hard concept to grasp that a bookstore may actually sell its goods at the list price found in small print on the back of the cover. But it is the case. They do this because they clearly recognize that a war based on price cannot be won against the likes of online retailers or massive chain stores. What they do offer is exceptional staff who know what they are talking about. My favorite thing to do there (and what can also be done in an excellent music or wine shop) is to go in with a set amount you want to spend, say $100, and let them recommend different books for you based on your interest. It is a great way to get guidance in new directions you may have not normally ventured and it is not something Amazon can offer you - even though they try.

However, as this move is eluding to, the specialization they are offering may still not be enough. It is my belief that our ever enduring quest for low prices is devastating large aspects of value and we are not fully aware of it. This value is what lies between a normal versus a basement bottom price. Before parting on too extreme of a tangent, I will just say that the subject of pricing will be further addressed in an upcoming post.

And how is this connected to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? I was in Madrid last July. It was a balmy afternoon and we had made an appointment to meet a friend who was getting off work for her lunch hour. She arrived toting the huge, hardback copy of this book. She was in full addiction mode and was unwilling to part with it even on her lunch break.

During my discussion with a salesperson at Elliot Bay a few months back, I noticed my basket of books becoming disproportionately overrepresented with non-fiction and I therefore asked him for a good piece of 2009 fiction. He pointed me towards this book and thinking back on my friend in Madrid, I grabbed it without hesitating.

It is certainly an engrossing story which combines mystery, sex, violence and Sweden. I consumed it in a couple of days much in the same way I would plow through a good TV series if I had the whole thing on DVD. It is entertainment above all else.


Straw Dogs by John Gray

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Subtitle: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

I have confessed in other postings that my background in philosophy is far from profound. However, it is a subject (in a very broad definition) that is calling out to me with greater regularity. I have read few of the great works and each attempt to do so thus far has been a struggle. On the other hand, I am always in search of modern day thinkers from whatever academic discipline who are writing about society in a more robust, and shall we say, philosophical context. It is very difficult to do so without tying in the arguments of some of history's great minds and therefore provides me a way to slowly develop a better understanding of some of their principle theses. Wrapped in the discussion of modern society makes it a much less abrupt approach.

One of my favorite current writers is Nassim Taleb, renown author of Fooled By Randomness and later The Black Swan. In an interview I saw of him he recommended two modern scholars - Karen Armstrong and John Gray - for their intellectual excellence in their respective fields. Gray is the former professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics and author of several books. He has written on globalization, religion and philosophy. As is often the case, shorty after being introduced to him and his works, I came across several articles reviewing a recently published book of his.

Straw Dogs was published in 2002. It is a collection of musings stitched together by Gray's underlying belief that humans, in their rather modern distortion of humanist thought, have essentially created a new faith but fails to recognize it as such. This form of humanity, grounded in its roots of Christianity, is based on progress and mankind's ability through such progress to create a better world. Gray argues that "to believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given to us by growing scientific knowledge humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals."T his humanistic vision of progress, outside of science, is a myth fabricated only recently in Western society. It was not long ago when humans thought of themselves as equal to other animals. In many cultures they were even worshiped by humans.

Gray recognizes that humans are a highly developed, and incredibly destructive species. Since our arrival in the New World 12,000 years ago, approximately 70% of the world's species have been eliminated which is quickly approaching the same number caused by whatever event, most likely a meteor, wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

At the same time, our destructive species is raging on in fierce debate about how - through science - we can save the earth from the overheating caused by greenhouse gases. Perhaps it is Earth's means of ridding itself us?

Ironic to me is how many of the central responses to climate change revolve around the use of elaborately developed technological tools to save us from such overheating. Humans have never been farther removed from nature as they are now. It is through the abandonment of certain forms of technology that we will make the easiest and fastest gains in this battle. Changing the way we eat based on a diet of local vegetables and occasional meat consumption and distancing ourselves from the meat industry would make enormous gains. Walking or bicycling as opposed to the frequent use of the automobile is a very simple concept that proves incredibly difficult to grasp. In a later chapter Gray reminds us that the average American puts in 1600 hours in the car to get 7500 miles: less than five miles per hour. Not much more than what someone would walk in the same time. It is obvious the automobile represents more to us than a form of transportation.

Straw Dogs is not a book on environmentalism, however the example demonstrates a certain fallacy in human thought based on scientific progress. Many other such anecdotes make up the remainder of the book though I found they begin to stray more and more from his central thesis along the way. Nonetheless, they are fascinating and provocative. It is a book that does not need to be read from start to end but can be "dipped into at will" as well. Either way, it will get you thinking.


The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

After three rather arduous non-fiction reads, I was more than eager for a quick injection of crime mystery, one of my favorite fictional genres. Hammett, most famous for The Maltese Falcon, is certainly one of the most well-regarded American mystery writers. And it was a late night viewing of The Maltese Falcon with its solid performance from Bogart and a quirky and devilish Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo that prompted me to dive further into the works of Hammett.

It is clear that Hammett knows what he is writing about after having been a private investigator for many years. His writing style is tight, direct with no superfluous words. In both The Maltese Falcon and The Dain Curse the stories move at a breakneck speed. To be honest, some time the speed and number of characters in the latter was too much for me. I often had to flip back a few chapters to remind myself who was who and what had they done. The book does not disappointment but it did not leave me floored either.

What crime/mystery writers do you like?


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