Blogs at Amazon

Nonfiction

Photo Essay: How Did the Statue of Liberty Get Built?

LibertyElizabeth Mitchell's myth-busting Liberty’s Torch--a Best Book of the Month for July--is a hoot of a story packed with entertaining cameos by Victor Hugo, Ulysses Grant, Thomas Edison and more. At center stage is the maddeningly egotistical artiste, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, a snobbish boor who disliked America and her "subpar" people, yet, through persistence and will, found a home for his statue in New York Harbor.

In advance of Independence Day, we asked Mitchell to share a few photos and anecdotes from her rigorously researched tale of how a sculptor’s obsession became a nation's icon.

~

We take it for granted that the Statue of Liberty belongs in the New York harbor. But if it were not for one driven man, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, this globally recognizable symbol would never have seen sunrise over the city.

Bartholdi dreamed up the idea of the colossus, he pitched, pleaded, sweated, and schemed to get her built. My new book, Liberty’s Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty, tells this tale of one man battling obstacles and accidents to make his unusual vision a reality.

It helped that Bartholdi birthed this creation during an era when artist, inventors and engineers constantly tried to one-up each other. He had seen the colossal statuary in Egypt, the sphinxes and pyramids, and he wanted to also create something that would last for eternity. All he had to do was solve the mechanical feats, clear the fundraising hurdles, and keep everyone alive in the process.

3P1-5
1) Here is Bartholdi, looking like Dave Grohl. He was spunky, funny, emotional, and a huge egotist. He alone came up with the idea of the Statue of Liberty and set out to convince France and America to build it. He wasn’t so much in love with America as he was entranced by the idea of crafting a massive statue. He did appreciate that America had successfully created a democracy while his France struggled violently for the ideal.

G 16-2000.0.4
2) He originally designed the piece for Egypt, for the mouth of the Suez Canal, but the deal fell through so he went looking for other locations. At the time, America was showing new growth after the Civil War, taking on constructions like Central Park, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Brooklyn Bridge. The cross continental railroad had just been completed. The nation seemed a likely candidate to absorb the plan that had failed elsewhere.

Torch displ#8
3) Short on funds and public enthusiasm, Bartholdi built Liberty in pieces, exhibiting a bit at a time to raise money to create more. Here is the torch being shown at the World’s Fair in Philadelphia in 1876. At the bottom, Bartholdi set up a kiosk to sell souvenirs and tickets to the top.

3a53268u
4) Bartholdi showed the head at the Paris Exposition of 1878. It arrived on a wagon from the workshop where she was created, having wended her way through the streets of Paris. People waved and sang the Marseillaise as the massive head passed.

2P14-119 (E34)
5) To test the design, the statue was first put together in a neighborhood in Paris near the Parc Monceau. People could pay a ticket to climb up and look over the rooftops.

3a52740u
6) Liberty was inaugurated on October 28, 1886 in a heavy fog. Bartholdi himself tugged an enormous French flag from her face to reveal her to the world. A few weeks later, he ventured out in a nighttime rain to say goodbye to his creation. He told a reporter that he could no longer sense the immensity of her as he had when he was working on her in Paris. He said, “She is going away from me. She is going away from me.” She now belonged to America.

--Elizabeth Mitchell

The Wildest Books in America

Untamed Will Harlan’s new biography, Untamed, explores the remarkable and controversial life of Carol Ruckdeschel, a woman who eats road kill, stalks alligators, and lives in a ramshackle cabin on the wild Cumberland Island--the country's largest and most biologically diverse barrier island, off the Georgia coast--all in defense of sea turtles and the future of the park.

We asked Will for his perspective on environmental writing, as well as the books that inspired him to track down the story of the "wildest woman in America."

Untamed is an Amazon selection for 2014's Best Books of the Year So Far.


BEST VOICES OF ENVIRONMENTAL WRITING by Will Harlan

Nature writing can be pretty, and environmental books can be convincing, but I ultimately crave the raw emotion of fellow human beings struggling to find and protect their place in the world. The best environmental writing, I believe, is about people.

People are the problem and the solution. Good environmental writing reconnects people to nature—not through lectures, but through living, flesh-and-blood examples of courage and commitment. We feel the landscape through them.   

For years, I’ve tried to write about the tangled environmental politics of Cumberland Island. Finally, I realized that the best way to tell the island’s story was through the heartbreaking adventures of its most powerful personality. Carol’s experiences are more persuasive than any political argument.

Here are a few of my favorite environmental voices and books. Instead of preachy diatribes or flowery descriptions, they inspire me with gritty, gutsy characters—some legendary, some overlooked—who stand their ground and speak for the wild.

 

The Last American ManThe Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert


A modern-day pioneer living nearly self-sufficiently on a wild reserve in Appalachia, Eustace Conway embodies the ideals of American masculinity—ruggedness, courage, and independence. However, those hard-fought ideals have a price. Liz Gilbert shows us the tired, lonely man behind the bravado. A tough, buckskin-clad maverick hunts for the one thing missing from his mountain refuge: love.

 

 



Into the Wild Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer


Chris McCandless is either a stupid kid or self-reliant hero. As soon as he graduates college, he gives away all of his savings and wanders the wild, seeking adventure and an authentic relationship with the land—until he finds himself starving to death alone in the Alaskan wilderness. Barely able to lift a pen, he scribbles this final message, which continues to haunt and shape my own life: “Happiness only real when shared.”

 

 



Encounters with the Archdruid Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee


McPhee masterfully captures the nuances and complexities of the most influential modern environmentalist, David Brower, by shadowing him on close-combat crusades to protect America’s last wild places. But don’t expect classic confrontations with battle lines clearly drawn; Brower is far more kaleidoscopic. Like Brower himself, the book’s strength is in its subtlety, with finely drawn characters exquisitely presented in shades of gray.

 

 



Refuge Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams


Williams’ mother is dying from exposure to nearby nuclear testing, and wildlife is being wiped out by dams and development. In her unflinching memoir, Williams wrestles with life and death out in the wide-open Utah desert and seeks shelter where there is none.

 

 

 

 

Ecology of a Cracker ChildhoodEcology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray


Ray’s hardscrabble upbringing in a south Georgia junkyard is an unlikely start for an environmental luminary, but the rusted scrap heaps of her childhood are chock full of raw, resourceful characters—including an authoritarian father who locks his family in a closet and a snuff-dipping coon hunter who introduces her to the wild woods. Ray weaves her own story into the razed red-clay landscape and leads a rebellion to save the South’s last longleaf pine forests.

 

 



Desert Solitaire Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey


It’s definitely the most sermonizing selection of the bunch, but Abbey’s coarse, thunderous voice crying out for the wilderness still echoes across the desert he called home. Amid his nerve-tingling adventures as a park ranger, the monkey-wrenching anarchist unleashes forceful, full-blooded pleas for the last scraps of wildlands.

 

 

 



The Lost Grizzlies The Lost Grizzlies by Rick Bass


Grizzly bears had not been seen for 15 years in southern Colorado until a small group sets out to find them. Bass seeks more than bears, though; he is tracking his own wildness and the longings of the human heart, which only are revealed in the presence of something larger.


Brad Meltzer is Obsessed with "Ordinary People Changing the World"

RosaBrad Meltzer is a shape-shifter and, apparently, the guy doesn't sleep. Known mainly for the bestselling thrillers he's been writing since his twenties--starting with his 1997 debut, The Tenth Justice--he also writes comic books, screenplays, and hosts his own History Channel show, Brad Meltzer's Decoded.

More recently, he's shouldered the laudable task of inspiring kids--his, and ours. Meltzer's first such efforts--Heroes for my Daughter and Heroes for my Son--led to this year's Ordinary People Changing the World series, the latest of which is I Am Rosa Parks, on sale this week.

The "I Am..." books depict heroic Americans during their childhoods, as regular boys and girls. The first two, Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln, will be followed by Albert Einstein (September) and Jackie Robinson (January).

At BookExpo America in New York last month, we spoke with Meltzer about his own childhood heroes, his love of story, his paranoia, and his radical belief that "a reality TV show bimbo is not a hero." (And if you don't like my interview, check out one of the best book trailers I've seen, featuring Meltzer's family and friends trash-talking him.)

GOOOOOOL! Simon Kuper's Essential World Cup Reads

The World Cup is the largest sporting event in the world. Don't argue: the 2010 final featuring Spain and the Netherlands drew an estimated 700 million viewers worldwide. But for many Americans, the sport of soccer remains alien, inscrutable. No hands? Check. No time-outs (and corresponding beer runs/bathroom breaks)? Time your runs. "Nil-nil" scorelines? Sadly, but get over it. Soccer hairstyles? Absolutely. Unhinged announcers? GOOOOOOOL!

But the World Cup is upon us; Croatia face host and favorite Brazil in the first game*, kicking off the quadrennial tournament on June 12. For those who don't know their Zico from their Zlatan, we've asked Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper--himself the author of several excellent books on the subject--for his "Five Essential Books for Understanding the World Cup." (Fine manners precluded him from listing any of his own books, but Soccernomics, which has been described as soccer's answer to Moneyball for its sweeping empirical analysis of the world's game, would make any other list.)

Some of these are out of print, but can be found used through third-party sellers. They're worth the hunt.

* Even soccer-related subject-verb agreement can boggle New World minds like mine.


The Five Essential Books for Understanding the World Cup

By Simon Kuper

Here are the best nonfiction books in English to help you get a sense of what soccer is all about.

All Played Out All Played Out: The Full Story of Italia ‘90

by Pete Davies

First published in 1990

Davies was a little-known British novelist when Bobby Robson, England’s then soccer manager, weirdly invited him to spend the World Cup of 1990 as a sort of writer-in residence to the England team. Davies shared a hotel with the players, got them to trust him, and wrote the book that started the 1990s' wave of serious soccer writing.

 

 

Only a GameOnly A Game?

by Eamon Dunphy with Peter Ball

First published in 1976

What it’s really like to be a journeyman soccer professional? The answer: not much fun. This is the classic account.

 

 

 

 

Fever Pitch Fever Pitch

by Nick Hornby

First published in 1992

This completely original book was the first to examine the apparently unremarkable experience of being a soccer fan. It became the most influential soccer book ever written. Among other things it offers a hilarious but true social history of Britain from the 1960s through the early 1990s.

 

 

 

I Am Zlatan I Am Zlatan Ibrahimovic

by Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Lagercrantz (translated from the Swedish by Ruth Urbom)

First published in Swedish in 2011

The best player’s autobiography of recent years: honest, with close-up, warts-and-all portraits not just of the great Swede himself but also of men like Josep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho. In addition, it’s an immigrant’s tale surprisingly like Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.

 

 

 

Brilliant Orange Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer

by David Winner

First published in 2000

The Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano said, “Tell me how you play and I will tell you who you are.” Nobody has ever done that better for a country than Winner did for the Dutch. He’s also very funny.

 

 

 


Books by Simon Kuper

Soccernomics Soccer Against the Enemy Soccer Men Ajax, the Dutch, the War


See the full list.

Hillary's "Hard Choices" & More Big Political Memoirs

Hard-ChoicesFew windows into politics offer more revealing views than memoirs (despite their inevitable spin). This year has already brought a few blockbusters--most recently, Elizabeth Warren's A Fighting Chance has been a runaway best-seller with glowing reviews since it came out in April, and Timothy Geithner's Stress Test has elicited its own chorus of cheers (and boos).

Now, on June 10, the year's biggest political memoir, Hillary Rodham Clinton's Hard Choices, is being officially released. We all got a sneak peek at its most intriguing revelations via a much-publicized story originating with CBS News after some lucky staffer found it in a bookstore last Thursday--a week after Politico published the chapter on the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya. So we already know its big headlines and many of its most tantalizing quotes; some have even already dismissed the book as playing it too safe. A dearth of full-on bombshells is hardly a surprise from any politician gearing up for a potential presidential run, but Hard Choices plays it far less safe than her previous memoir, Living History, in which the biggest "revelation" was that Bill's betrayal (and his subsequent lies) were "the most devastating, shocking and hurtful experience of my life."

While Living History succeeded most soundly in humanizing Hillary, Hard Choices has to clear a higher bar: making the case that she will be the most capable, decisive, and globally experienced candidate in the 2016 presidential election.

If Hard Choices whets your appetite for memoirs on political life, keep an eye out for these potential blockbusters, coming this summer and fall. Coincidentally, most of these memoirs lean left, but Conservatives can look forward to two major memoirs in early 2015: Ross Perot: My Life and Bella's Gift by Rick and Karen Santorum.

 

PolMem-CuomoAll Things Possible: Setbacks and Success in Politics and Life by Andrew Cuomo (Coming August 19): New York governor Cuomo's memoir arrives amid growing rumors of a 2016 presidential bid. Key details have yet to be revealed, but an early Library Journal review reports that "this memoir will discuss not just politics but family and duty, setbacks and successes, as Cuomo considers what his zigzag trajectory has taught him." 

 

 

 

PolMem-DavisForgetting to Be Afraid by Wendy Davis (Coming September 2): Her 11-hour filibuster in the Texas Senate against abortion regulations made Wendy Davis a household name across the country--and a viable candidate in Texas's gubernatorial race, challenging Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott. Blue Rider Press describes her memoir as "A deeply personal memoir by one of the country’s brightest political stars,” while The Dallas Morning News speculates that it will give her and opportunity to "respond to disclosures about flaws in the original campaign version of her life story from teen-age mother to Harvard Law School grad." Releasing just weeks before the election, the book has the potential to sway some votes--though it will undoubtedly stay closely on-message.

 

PolMem-GilliOff the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World by Kirsten Gillibrand (Coming September 9): Kirsten Gillibrand was a young corporate lawyer when she heard Hillary Rodham Clinton deliver this tough-love message: “Decisions are being made every day in Washington, and if you are not part of those decisions, you might not like what they decide, and you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.” Fourteen years later, she succeeded Clinton as senator from New York. Off the Sidelines is her rallying cry to other women to make room in busy lives to help drive meaningful change. She shares her story of being a pregnant woman in Congress, making sacrifices as a working mother, and drawing on a strong support network. But it goes beyond the personal and offers a “a playbook for women who want to step up, whether in Congress or the boardroom or the local PTA.”

 

PolMem-PanettaWorthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace by Leon Panetta (Coming October 7): His 50-year career has spanned roles as Army intelligence officer, member of Congress, Clinton budget czar and White House chief of staff, and a period of “retirement” to establish the Panetta Institute before a return to political life in 2009 as director of the CIA. Credited with “moving it back to the vital center of America’s war against Al Quaeda” and overseeing the campaign that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden, Panetta went on to become U.S. Secretary of Defense. Worthy Fights is billed as “a testament to a lost kind of political leadership, which favors progress and duty to country over partisanship.” There will be much he can't reveal, but with no elections on the horizon, Panetta's memoir should be more candid than most. We predict it will be one of fall's biggest books.

 

PolMem-GnarrGnarr: How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World by Jón Gnarr (Coming September 1): When Iceland’s financial meltdown precipitated the world-wide economic collapse and ignited widespread protests, Icelandic comedian and radio host Jón Gnarr founded the satirical Best Party and ran a joke campaign for major of its capitol city, Reykjavík. When it won in a landslide, Gnarr proposed a coalition government (excluding anyone who hadn’t yet watched all five seasons of The Wire). His story of going from crank calling the White House to working with international leaders is a refreshingly funny break from politics as usual.

 

 

From the A-List: Getting to Know Celebrities Better through Books

From the A-ListEntertainment is an easy target. I mean, c'mon, in the scope of things how important is it really?

As a lifelong devotee of pop culture, I submit that it's among the defining aspects of who we are, as much a part of our collective identity as politics and technology are, at least.

Does everyone in entertainment make history the way, say, the Beatles did? Of course not. But whatever we're a fan of, whatever movie or sitcom or album or book has brought us to tears or helped us through a tough time or made us laugh out loud, we've got to admit that the people behind the art often become such a point of reference, such a regular part of our lives, that they can start to feel like distant friends. Yet there's often much more to them than the romanticized lives we imagine they have. And that just makes us fortunate that so many have chosen to share their stories with us.

It is in that spirit that we've gathered together the biographies and memoirs from some of the biggest names in entertainment--legends and cult icons, male and female, young and young at heart -- for our From the A-List feature. Check out our ten "must-read" books and see ten more on the horizon that we're really looking forward to. Then explore our genre lists for film, television, music, comedy, and culture.

Did we miss your favorite book by or about a celebrity? Let us know in the comments below!

John Waters, Resident Alien

John Waters is the quintessential American.

Not everyone will agree with that statement. After all, John Waters is the director of such trangressive epics as Hairspray, Female Trouble, Polyester, and Pink Flamingos, in which his star, Divine, eats dog feces. Real dog feces, people. He famously sports a pencil moustache and somehow looks 10 times more perverse than the next most unnerving sporter of the pencil moustache, Vincent Price. In fact, everything about him is a multiplier of alien mystique. Though he might live outside of what could be called "traditional American values," the self-proclaimed Pope of Trash has certainly flourished inside the actual American values of individuality and personal expression. Would he have been as successful elsewhere? Maybe France.

And now he's done the quintessentially American thing: the cross-country hitchhike. At age 66, Waters scrawled I'M SAFE! in black marker on a cardboard flap, hoisted his thumb to the heavens, and lit out on an unlikely westward journey from his Baltimore home to San Fransisco, California. Carsick chronicles his adventure and the highway angels he met along the way.

Would you give this man a ride?

Enjoy this selection of excerpts from Carsick, presented with signs from his trip. But be warned: these pieces contain mature themes and coarse language. Carsick will be available June 3, 2014.

 


Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America (excerpt)

by John Waters

 

I haven’t felt this excited or scared for a long time. Maybe ever. I just signed a book deal resulting from the shortest pitch ever. I, John Waters, will hitchhike alone from the front of my Baltimore house to my co-op apartment in San Francisco and see what happens. Simple, huh?

Am I fucking nuts? Brigid Berlin, Andy Warhol’s most dangerous and glamorous sixties superstar, recently said to me, "How can I be bad at seventy?" She’s got a point. I mean, yes, I’m "between pictures," as they say in Hollywood, but long ago I realized, as a so-called cult-film director, not only did I need a Plan B that was just as important to me as moviemaking, I needed a Plan C, D, and E. But Plan H, for "hitchhike"? I’m sixty-six years old, for chrissake.

"Why would a man who has worked so hard his whole life to reach the level of comfort you have, put yourself in such an uncomfortable position?" Marianne Boesky, my New York art dealer, asked me when I told her of my "undercover travel adventure," as the publishers were calling my new book in trade announcements. A onetime actor in my early films who had a recent homeless past was even more alarmed when I hinted that I might do a hitchhiking book. "You’ll never get a ride," he warned, telling me he had tried hitchhiking himself out of necessity in Florida last year. "No one picks up hitchhikers these days," he griped with disgust. "No one!"

Even successful hipsters seemed shocked when I confided my plans. "Nice knowing you," a California photographer buddy muttered with a laugh over dinner when he realized he wouldn't see me again until after my hobo-homo journey was scheduled to be completed. God, I wondered grandiosely, would I be like JFK on those recently released secret White House tapes, where he was heard planning his first day back from Dallas before anyone knew he'd be assassinated, commenting on what a "tough day" that would be. If he only knew.

 

70-W THROUGH KANSAS I'M SAFE!

Continue reading "John Waters, Resident Alien" »

May Spotlight: "No Place to Hide" by Glenn Greenwald

In May of 2013, Edward Snowden, a young systems administrator contracting for the National Security Agency, fled the United States for Hong Kong, carrying with him thousands of classified documents outlining the staggering capabilities of the NSA’s surveillance programs--including those designed to collect information within the U.S. There Snowden arranged a meeting with Guardian contributors Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewen MacAskill, and so began the most explosive leak of classified material since the Pentagon Papers over 40 years ago. Two new books recount the Snowden affair from the reporters' perspectives, and both are revelatory and vital.

No Place to Hide

No Place to Hide
by Glenn Greenwald

Hardcover | Kindle


David and Goliath

The Snowden Files
by Luke Harding

Paperback | Kindle

No Place to Hide --Amazon's Spotlight pick for the Best Books of May--opens with the tense account of Greenwald's initial encounters with Snowden in Hong Kong. He almost missed the story: Snowden contacted him anonymously via instant messenger, requesting that Greenwald install cryptographic software before he dropped a bombshell of a story in the reporter's lap. As the regular recipient of many similar messages (and not versed in privacy software), Greenwald procrastinated. It wasn't until award-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras confided in Greenwald that she was holding her own cache of sensitive material--also from Snowden--that he lit out for China with Poitras and the scoop of their lives. It's some serious cloak-and-dagger stuff: clandestine rendezvous, secret passphrases, and back-passage escapes from hotels as the media (and presumably the U.S government) closes around Snowden.

The book's core describes the NSA’s vast information-collection apparatus, including reproductions of some of the “Snowden files” themselves. Anyone who's read James Bamford's excellent books on the NSA will probably be unsurprised by their ambition (they've tapped telecoms and undersea cables for ages, well before the modern Internet), but seeing the scale of the operations--enabled through the compulsory participation of tech behemoths like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo!--one begins to understand that NSA director Keith Alexander's stated goal to "collect it all" might actually be achievable, if it isn't already. The alphabet soup of agencies and project code names can be confusing and alternately funny and ominous (BLACKPEARL, BLARNEY, and STORMBREW, to name three), but Greenwald succinctly explains the purpose and reach of each.(Observation: It's amusing to see that bad PowerPoint presentations--unfortunate font choices, banal jargon, scattershot logos and seals--are not limited to the corporate sphere.) Minds will, or should, be blown here.

In the third act, Greenwald tells you why it matters. Wherever you come down on the spectrum of national security vs. Constitutional freedoms, Snowden's breach has forced a reckoning, and Greenwald carries strong opinions. To those who argue that they have nothing to hide, he points out that everyone has something to hide: though you might not be cooking meth in your garden shed, you will act differently when you know you are watched than when you have a notion of privacy. This possibility of being observed--a modern application of Bentham's panopticon--creates a system of control, of behavior modification. To those who say "it's only metadata" (e.g. the information about a phone call, rather than the content of the conversation itself), Greenwald points out that it's simple to draw a picture of behavior based on who you're calling and when, and--if you had a choice--you might not be amenable to sharing that information. This might be effective in combating terrorism (there's debate about that), but "collect it all" means just what it says: everything on everybody, not just terrorists. And there is so much more: blanket government warrants rubber-stamped by secret courts, establishment media complicity. It goes on.

No Place to Hide will anger readers on both sides of the conversation--some for Snowden's transgression, some for its revelations about the government reach. A more straightforward narrative, The Snowden Files: This Inside Story of the World's Most Wanted Man--published in February--provides the play-by-play of the Snowden affair with a bit less opinion (Greenwald is a columnist, after all). Luke Harding, another Guardian correspondent, has amassed an incredible amount of detail and transformed it into 333 pages of gripping thriller. Harding has more perspective from the newspaper side: where Greenwald occasionally thought the Guardian resisted publishing his stories, Harding witnessed first-hand the intimidation at the hands of the Government Communications Headquarters, the NSA's British counterpart and collaborator. In one memorable scene, a pair of GCHQ agents oversee the destruction of Guardian computers as a compromise for not handing over the Snowden documents. "You've had your fun. Now we want the stuff back." It's as if Dickens had written The Trial. Both books are excellent, possibly essential, but The Snowden Files gives more of itself to the history of NSA and GCHQ surveillance, Snowden's backstory and possible future, and the intricacies of intelligence-sharing among the "Five Eyes" allies, who together cast a world-wide surveillance net.

This is far from over. Greenwald recently told GQ that he's been saving the biggest stories for last. Whether you consider Snowden a whistleblower crying foul on government overreach, or a self-aggrandizing traitor who put national security at risk, both books are taut and enlightening, marking a bellwether moment in a crucial debate.

 

Fake Proposals, Intriguing Propositions and the Unusual Poetry of Hedgehogs

Console-wars

I grew up battling my brother in just about every two-player videogame released in the '90s. But little did I know that while my sibling and I were duking it out on our TV, Japanese console manufacturers Sega and Nintendo were similarly engaged in a competition for videogame dominance. This business history is thoroughly detailed in Blake Harris's terrific Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation (one of our Best Books of May in both Business & Leadership and History. The book chronicles the ascension of videogames as a minor toy category to one of the biggest media industries in the world. Console Wars is also in production as two movies: a drama starring Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and a documentary.

Harris has been kind enough to share with us this essay all about proposals: book proposals, film proposals, and the biggest surprise proposal of all.


What Would Sonic the Hedgehog Do?

I can’t count the number of times that I asked myself this question while writing Console Wars. Whether I needed a burst of energy, a zap of inspiration, or the courage to pilfer golden rings out of the air, aspiring to be like Sega’s Blue Dude With Attitude often armed me with the craftiness I needed to track down 200+ former employees of Sega and Nintendo. But despite the many ways that thinking about Sonic helped make this book possible, there was an incident a couple years ago where asking myself this seemingly innocent question very nearly ruined my life.

It happened back in December 2011, when my girlfriend Katie and I were at my cousin midtown Manhattan apartment for a holiday party. My mom and dad were there, Grandma too, and even Uncle Bradley and Aunt Erica made the trek all the way from Long Island. In short, all my favorite people on earth were gathered together in one room, and that’s when I made the terrible mistake of asking myself WWSTHD?

Actually, I should amend that statement. My mistake was not so much in asking the question, but rather in not yet knowing Sonic well enough to answer it correctly. In the grand scheme of things, I would end up spending over three years researching and writing Console Wars, but this faux pas took place only one year after my brother had given me a Sega Genesis and inadvertently sent me on the adventure of a lifetime.

This was the console that we had played together as kids—the source of so many late nights, high-fives, and childhood skirmishes resulting from vague allegations of cheating—so naturally I expected that booting it for the first time in two decades would unearth all kinds of memories. And it did, unleashing a hurricane of pixels in my mind. But after the barrage of nostalgia came a bombardment of questions: What ever happened to Sega? Or, better yet, how were they even able to compete against mighty Nintendo in the first place? And ultimately: what the hell was going on behind the scenes all that time?

Continue reading "Fake Proposals, Intriguing Propositions and the Unusual Poetry of Hedgehogs" »

Malcolm Gladwell Thinks Like a Freak

Malcolm GladwellIn the year 2000, Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference sought to explain the origins and patterns of social phenomena--fashion trends, crime rates, drug use--through the concept of ideas as viruses and epidemics, spreading through carriers and producing sometimes surprising results. (Hush Puppies as a hipster staple? I'd like to read his take on the Brooklyn Longbeard.)

The Tipping Point was a huge best seller and (along with Gladwell's subsequent books) created a new genre: a kind of popular social science of unorthodox thinking, supported by (but not buried under) data. These books trade easy and accepted assuptions for the often unituitive, unseen motivators of real-world behavior, all while entertaining readers.* Foremost among these was Freakonomics by a pair of Steves: Levitt and Dubner, which took the Gladwell method and turned it around, working backwards from raw data--through the scientific filter of an economist--to surprising and occasionally contentious hypotheses. (It, too, was hugely popular, spawning a super sequel with even more audacious ideas.) Their latest, Think Like a Freak, opens up their process, giving the rest of us a practical lesson in thinking like Freaks and applying it to everyday experience. So who better than Malcolm Gladwell to talk about the new book?

Learn about more Gladwell's latest, David and Goliath, available in paperback on May 15.

 


Think Like a Freak

Think Like a Freak

by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Hardcover | Kindle


David and Goliath

David and Goliath

by Malcolm Gladwell

Paperback | Kindle

Malcolm Gladwell on Think Like a Freak

In one of the many wonderful moments in Think Like a Freak, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner ask the question: Who is easier to fool—kids or adults? The obvious answer, of course, is kids. The cliché is about taking candy from a baby, not a grown man. But instead of accepting conventional wisdom as fact, the two sit down with the magician Alex Stone—someone in the business of fooling people—and ask him what he thinks. And his answer? Adults.


Stone gave the example of the staple of magic tricks, the “double lift,” where two cards are presented as one. It’s how a magician can seemingly bury a card that you have selected at random and then miraculously retrieve it. Stone has done the double lift countless times in his career, and he says it is kids—overwhelmingly—who see through it. Why? The magician’s job is to present a series of cues—to guide the attention of his audience—and adults are really good at following cues and paying attention. Kids aren’t. Their gaze wanders. Adults have a set of expectations and assumptions about the way the world works, which makes them vulnerable to a profession that tries to exploit those expectations and assumptions. Kids don’t know enough to be exploited. Kids are more curious. They don’t overthink problems; they’re more likely to understand that the basis of the trick is something really, really simple. And most of all—and this is my favorite—kids are shorter than adults, so they quite literally see the trick from a different and more revealing angle.


Think Like a Freak is not a book about how to understand magic tricks. That’s what Dubner and Levitt’s first two books—Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics—were about. It’s about the attitude we need to take towards the tricks and the problems that the world throws at us. Dubner and Levitt have a set of prescriptions about what that attitude comes down to, but at its root it comes down to putting yourself in the mind of the child, gazing upwards at the double lift: free yourself from expectations, be prepared for a really really simple explanation, and let your attention wander from time to time.


The two briefly revisit their famous argument from their first book about the link between the surge in abortions in the 1970s and the fall in violent crime twenty years later. Their point is not to reargue that particular claim. It is to point out that we shouldn’t avoid arguments like that just because they leave us a bit squeamish. They also tell the story of the Australian doctor Barry Marshall, who overturned years of received wisdom when he proved that ulcers are caused by gastric bacteria, not spicy food and stress. That idea was more than heretical at first. It was absurd. It was the kind of random idea that only a child would have. But Dubner and Levitt’s point, in their utterly captivating new book, is that following your curiosity—even to the most heretical and absurd end—makes the world a better place. It is also a lot of fun.

—Malcolm Gladwell
   

 

* I also credit The Tipping Point for helping end the era of the "business fable": Who Moved My Cheese, fish-tossing as a model for behavior in life and business, etc. If nothing else, we owe him that.

Omnivoracious™ Contributors

August 2014

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30
31