Accidentally reading about reptiles…

srpsnakeI realized with the first two reads of the year, I have an accidental theme going on: reptiles in my fiction! With Swamplandia! it was alligators; then there is a snake in The Burn Palace. Our upcoming book club read is set in Texas, so I wonder if a lizard will figure into the plot.

That got me wondering how many of my past reads featured reptiles, so I did a quick search. Snakes are by far the most common reptiles to show up in my book reviews and summaries. Going back in time, I see there were significant snake scenes in:

As for alligators and crocodiles, there is only Swamplandia! that I can recall. There may have been a crocodile in The Poisonwood Bible.

There are quite significant cosmic turtles in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, from which I’ve read Small Gods, and in It and The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. As for actual turtles, they don’t seem as common, although the Mock Turtle in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland certainly comes to mind.

I also can’t seem to find any books I’ve read with lizards in them, although there are dinosaurs of course in Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton and The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Would you be more or less likely to read a book with a snake in it? I’d rather meet one in fiction than in real life, that’s for sure!

Here’s a list of fictional reptiles from Wikipedia and a list of Reptiles in Fiction on LibraryThing, if you’d like to seek out even more reptiles in your fiction.

What I’m working on…

Just in case you’ve been wondering what I do all day, I’ve been consulting for this project: iHRIS: Open Source Health Workforce Information Solutions. It’s an open source software development project, run by a nonprofit, to create human resources information systems for managing health workforces in low-resource settings. Not terribly sexy work, perhaps, but useful work.

I mostly take care of the website and write content for the blog and social networks. I’m also putting together a toolkit of the most useful tools and documentation to help implement the software. That’s a long-term project that should be finished in June.

Vintage vs. Penguin: On being seduced by book covers…

Who cares what it's about? It is a very pretty book.

Who cares what it’s about? It is a very pretty book.

I have been rearranging my books, necessitated by a large Christmas haul of mostly beloved classics. I hate to admit it, but I mostly organize my bookshelves based on aesthetics– books all the same height together, for instance, or a publisher’s similar designs together. In this latest rearranging, I noticed how many black and white and silver books I had, and how nicely they go together on the shelf. Then I went through my husband’s books and picked out some of his b&w books that looked interesting. If I read them and like them, I may steal them to fill out my shelf.

I’ve always really been attracted to Penguins, especially from the Penguin Classics line with their black covers. Now I’m starting to notice that Vintage has some very attractive books, also mostly in muted or neutral colors. I have no trouble passing on books once they’ve been read, but those pretty books, they earn their place on my limited shelf space.

I do most of my reading on Kindle, but I still love print books, mostly just love looking at them and browsing through them. I especially love minimalist covers or anything that looks pulpy and vintage. What do you look for in a book cover?

Book cover: Nocturnes | Knopf Doubleday.

Reading night…

Last night, my husband and I instituted reading night. We didn’t turn on the TV, and instead read and listened to music during that time. I was worried I would be tired or sleepy to spend the entire evening reading, but I actually enjoyed it. I went to bed relaxed, and I made a good dent in the book I’m reading. It’s easy to get in a rut and just turn on the TV every night. I hope we’re able to keep up reading night, and maybe we’ll also add a game night to the week.

Reading is super.

On privacy…

SHARING IS CARING.

SECRETS ARE LIES.

PRIVACY IS THEFT.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

One of the ideas explored in Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle is the loss, and even voluntary relinquishing, of privacy in a world where everything is filmed and nothing is ever deleted. Considering the revelations this year about the NSA’s electronic snooping, and the knowledge that big companies like Facebook and Google are monetizing our personal information, we should be asking whether privacy is dying or dead. And if it’s not, how can we protect it?

Given the advances in technologies like information storage and retrieval and facial recognition, it almost seems inevitable that anonymity will go away. Rather than struggle against this reality, it might make more sense to figure out how we can best live within it. David Brin suggests that total transparency is the best way to do this–no more secrets for anybody, including corporations and governments. The emerging dystopia portrayed in The Circle also advocated this, except of course, there were ways to circumvent even total transparency, if someone was powerful enough.

In The Circle, most people opted in to the emerging system. They willingly went transparent in exchange for the benefits they were offered: convenience, simplicity, security, popularity. In this dystopia and similar ones like Feed by M.T. Anderson, it is easy enough to see that privacy may become an anachronism, something the young folks shrug off as “not such a big deal.”

In order to remain truly anonymous, you must turn into something of an electronic hermit, or even a literal one. But with face recognition software, cameras installed in every convenience store and stoplight, and private drones manning the skies — all technologies that are either here or coming soon — even that might not be enough.

I think the issue is more about control over our own information. People always have, and always will, demand agency over their own lives. Who has the control now: corporations and governments, or individuals? Right now, the balance is tipping toward the former. But this is a fight we could wage, and quite possibly win. It’s not a question of never posting anything to Facebook or Google or a blog ever again, although if that is your choice, it’s a valid one. But we should still be able to participate in the positive aspects of these new technologies without sacrificing our agency over our own lives in return.

For further reading: David Brin on the transparent society; A World Without Privacy (NYT opinion piece on The Circle); or just Google “is privacy dead” for about a million opinions on the subject.

Thoughts on The Circle…

The Circle coverThe last book I finished reading in 2013 was The Circle by Dave Eggers. The title refers to a fictional company that is quite obviously an amalgam of Google and Facebook. The book is a dystopian view of a near-future, a nightmarish outcome of current trends like living our lives via social networks, and the resulting monetization of our every share, the loss of privacy, and ultimately, loss of freedom.

While Eggers’ symbolism becomes quite heavy-handed, this is a chilling, sinister book that made me immediately want to disconnect my Facebook account. It was also an exciting book to read, because it depicts the world we are living in right now. This book may quickly become dated, but right now, it feels very current. The issues that it raises are issues we should all be thinking about and debating, and the point The Circle makes is that people have a tendency to accept what is new and exciting and convenient without really questioning the unintended consequences.

At its essence, I think The Circle is about indoctrination into a cult, how people can easily be persuaded that giving up fundamental freedoms is actually a good and necessary thing. Except in this case, the cult is global.

I’m not going to call The Circle great literature. But I think it is a thought-provoking read.

Here’s an excerpt from the book published in the New York Times Magazine.