Why Book Stores Are Closing

[Photo from Oxford Daily Photo.]

This morning, I was horrified to see several large signs in my neighborhood:

BORDERS CLOSING SALE! EVERYTHING MUST GO!

What a HUGE mistake.

(Because now I won’t be able to walk down to the corner and see my new book on the shelf, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Really.)

I do know Borders had been planning this closure for a long time, but I was in denial. I noticed probably a year ago that they did a store-wide inventory — they even put a total dollar value on each shelf. Never a good sign.

But the businessmen behind Borders were wrong about one thing all along.

A book store is not about selling books. “That’s the simpleton’s view,” as Eman Laerton would say about other topics.

These aren’t just widgets we’re talking about here.

A bookstore is An Environment For Discovery. A Gallery of Written Ideas.

For those of us who have been disillusioned by formal education, book stores have offered an escape: a place to stumble onto new shit.

Since way back in high school, when I’ve needed creative juice, I’ve take a random stroll through a book store… to raise my awareness, study independently, and find inspiration in unexpected places. I’d sit down with 4 or 5 books at a time and dig through them. I’d usually go home with at least one.

I’ve purchased around 500 non-fiction books in my lifetime. I can’t put a price on how much I’ve learned from them. It’s millions of dollars worth of knowledge. And it wasn’t only the time I spent turning pages and moving my eyeballs. It was the time I spent staring into space, sitting on the floor of the book store, digesting alien ideas, wondering if this was the book that was going to reveal its secrets to me.

Say what you want about how “books are old media.” But there’s still something special about printing words on paper. It says “these words deserve to be here.” Anyone can make a PDF. It’s when you realize that even the copied words are worth killing a tree or squeezing an octopus.

But it’s not just the book, it’s the experience of being in the book store that matters. Instantly ordering and downloading exactly what you want with one click is not the same — and if you think it is, you’re one step closer to living in the fucking Matrix.

So long as people have physical bodies, GOING TO PLACES and DISCOVERING NEW THINGS THAT YOU CAN TOUCH will matter. That can’t happen when everything is linked and indexed and blurbed and reviewed and meta-tagged into sterility. 5,278,945 people Like this? Who cares?

Chaos must be involved. The element of surprise.

Me? I go to the book store to find what I’m NOT looking for. I want the book that I see out of the corner of my eye, just a few letters of the spine showing on the top shelf. Way up there, hiding from me. Probably in the wrong section, something I’ve never heard of. I don’t know who else has read it, and I don’t care. (Coincidentally, while writing this blog entry, I used some writing techniques I learned from The Art of Nonfiction by Ayn Rand — which I discovered during the above experience last weekend.)

If I only read books that I’m looking for, they’ll tell me what I already know. What good is that?

I admit… that was getting harder to experience, because there are too many published books to keep in one store. Only the cheesiest, pot-boiling easy-sellers were kept in stock. I’d see several square miles dedicated to a bullshit biography on Lady Gaga (or some other pseudo-celebrity that’s “famous for being famous”) while anything published more than a week ago was in Clearance. That is, unless it happened to be on a required reading list — and we know all those books are time-honored crap for conformists.

Sad.

Why not go to the library, then? Because their collection is made of whatever people decide to abandon, stuff they couldn’t even give away.

There must be a solution, right?

Boutique shops like Writers Store in Burbank have figured that one out. Nurture a community (give seminars, panel discussions), stock the best products and tools for a particular profession (writing), and most importantly — make people feel inspired. I always think, “Just by walking in here, I’m a real writer.” Makes me wanna go home and get to work, but not before I buy something to thank them.

I think Private Libraries are another fantastic business idea. Old books, new books, it doesn’t matter — as long as they’re personally-selected for a devoted audience. Instead of coffee shops, why not pay to hang out in a media library personally selected by the Coen Brothers or Kevin Smith? Go there and study all day. I think we’ll be seeing those popping up in the future. If I’m lucky.

Let’s hope that the businessmen behind book stores grow to understand what a book store is really about, and can turn this all around. I repeat: it’s not about selling widgets. I’d hate to see book stores go extinct because they can’t understand that simple premise.

R.I.P., my local Borders. It’s too bad you couldn’t make it work. You were a corporate whore, but I loved you.

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Hidden In Plain Sight

In Atlas Shrugged, the world’s most important invention was abandoned to rust in a factory. No one recognized what it was, so it sat there for years, invisible to everyone.

Thoreau said:

“The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them.”

Yesterday, I posted what I think was my most important blog entry. It wasn’t my own idea… it was something I read back in 2001 in a book called Good To Great by Jim Collins. The knowledge contained in that post could save people and companies incredible amounts of time, energy, and money.

I’ve gotten a stronger reaction out of Facebook updates about my low-class neighbors arguing. In almost 24 hours, my Jim Collins post received only one comment: “Good stuff.”

It’s been almost A DECADE since 100+ ex-military, scientists, and other government employees appeared at the National Press Club, willing to testify and share physical evidence in front of Congress that Extra-Terrestrials have been here, and that we have access to their technology.

If that happened, wouldn’t you want to know about it? I guess not.

Above my desk, I have a framed “blueprint” of an Alien Reproduction Vehicle, a hand-made copy of one of the pieces of evidence used in that presentation. No one even asks what it is.

Oh, and it’s been a year since Nano-Thermite was discovered in the dust of the WTC. Can you make it through 12 videos?

If you’re going to riot, at least make it about something more important than basketball.


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Quinolones: The Side-Effects Are Worse

I don’t talk about this often, but this is part of the reason I stopped playing an instrument.

Watch that above video about Levaquin, starting at 4:26. (And check out that mighty obelisk while you’re at it.)

Levaquin is an antibiotic that caused me massive pain in my hands back in — was it early 2002? I took one pill, looked up the side-effects, and unsuccessfully tried to puke it back up. What this woman describes is what happened to me on a small scale.

I had to wear braces on my wrists and could barely lift my arms for weeks. I lost the nuanced control of my hands, and to this day, I have not gotten it back. I still get sharp pains in my arms if I play guitar for more than a few minutes. They actually hurt right now, just thinking about it.

The pain was mysterious. I tried many types of doctors back then (even going to a witch doctor who burned a stick and chanted at my hands). I finally went to a good chiropractor / holistic doctor and his techniques seemed to help relieve the pain so I could work again. There never was a satisfactory conclusion about what happened to me, but I’ve always suspected it was the Levaquin.

A few years later, I went against my better judgment and took another Quinolone for an infection. I protested, but the doctor mocked me and assured me I would be fine. What came out of me for the next week was a toxic chemical that was incredibly unpleasant. My digestive system has not been the same since. There are not many things I can eat without getting sick. I am still paying hundreds of dollars a month for a hospital stay last year.

It doesn’t ruin my life. I just choose to live with it. I change my lifestyle and go on. Plenty of people experience worse. I don’t think I have enough evidence for legal action, but I can at least warn others.

So here it is: Quinolones are bad. I’d happily trade in the side-effects for those original infections, which would have been long gone by now.


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The Art of Hype

There is so much pushing and shoving, so many people trying to be interesting, so many ads and videos and self-marketers trying to control your eyeballs… that it’s impossible to even exist these days without Hype. (It may as well be illegal.)

By Hype, I mean Storytelling. And by Storytelling, I mean Strategic Headline Design.

It’s become more important than any other art form.

If you want people to care, you have to trim your message down to a few words that make them click click click. This is no place for a panorama. You’ve got to frame your facts… because people don’t want just the facts anymore.

For example… when someone asks you what you do for a living, you can answer in one of two ways:

1.) I utilize software to achieve measurable results by generating content and streamlined production deliverables according to niche industry standards.
2.) You know that bad dialogue in porno movies? I write that.

Are both statements true? Yes. Which one will lead to an interesting conversation?

News producers know this. They zoom their cameras in on one tiny detail, blowing it way out of proportion. They make the widow cry for the first time in years, because it’s no fun to watch her moving on and living her life. By cropping out everything else that doesn’t serve the conflict, they create a new context.

Suddenly, a flu is a pandemic. A few buildings falling down is a war. An oil spill is the single greatest environmental catastrophe in human history, and will end all life in the northern hemisphere.

Sometimes an event is just an event, without archetypal significance. Why so dramatic? Is this supposed to be a movie or a report?

Screenwriters learn to make the uninteresting interesting by starting scenes late, ending them early, and even cutting them out altogether. They count on the audience being drawn towards that imbalance and dissonance. The thing that’s missing gets all the attention.

The problem is that the storytelling chops get out of control. Once you learn them, you’re like a kid with his first BB gun. There’s nothing you won’t point it at.

Eventually, storytelling turns into plain-old lying.

We end up with sensational headlines and polarizing soundbites that have nothing to do with the original facts.

Do newspapers print intact speeches by Bin Laden? No, they select two or three sentences that will enrage the average American, surround it with bloated commentary, and use it to sell advertising. “Call us and tell us how angry you are.” Are readers not capable of critical thinking? Are we afraid of reading an open letter from our supposed enemy?

We’re smart enough to spot propaganda, aren’t we? (Aren’t we?)

Remember: Lie Responsibly.


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Drummer Saves The Gig… By Ruining It?

Had this not happened, I imagine the audience would have fallen asleep.

Why is this video hilarious?

  • In contrast to the cheesy MC / front-man who is trying really hard to entertain the crowd, this drummer is a mega-talented entertainer. There’s no doubt he can get thunderous applause, no matter where he goes or what song he plays. The other musicians, who may as well not even be anywhere near a stage without him, try to do their job in the midst of the hurricane — and only serve the purpose of the comedy straight-man.
  • Despite the absurdity of this drummer’s over-the-top stick-twirling and goofing around, he doesn’t make a single mistake in four minutes. I don’t know any drummer who wouldn’t drop a stick or click on a rim under the same circumstances, and I’ve kinda worked with some good ones.
  • He doesn’t break character or laugh at any point, and actually builds intensity throughout his performance, like a fireworks show. There’s an arc here! What will he do next?
  • His performance is completely unexpected, and as I watch it, I imagine how the audience must have felt in the moment. Is it a prank? Did he do it for revenge? Can you feel the tension in the room? The MC / front-man doesn’t even seem to be in on the joke (even though he is), which makes it even better.
  • I instantly hate the corporate vibe, with those jackets and lame cover songs. I’m rooting for the drummer the entire time. I feel his pain and want to see him win. How many times have I wanted to do this same thing? (On second thought, how many times have I done the same thing? This guy is automatically my friend, and I’ve never even met him.)

This video will outrun any legitimate music video with the same musical content. Was it contrived by a clever director? Probably. If it wasn’t, it should have been.

It tells a story. It’s full of conflict. It sells itself.

If you can make a video like this, you will have no need for reading trendy books full of clichés like “Going Viral” and spamming your friends and harassing your entire address book until they buy your widget and force-feeding your boring music to innocent people and wondering why it doesn’t work.

Figure this out, and there will be no need for active marketing of any kind… only creativity.


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Rob Wright: How Original Music Happens

Rob Wright is probably my favorite bassist in the world, and the reason I switched to playing bass back in 1995. He even inspired the first appearance of Dr. Zoltan Øbelisk‘s voice on “How To Sell The Whole F#@!ing Universe To Everybody… Once And For All!

In this video, Rob talks about being old, touring, and how original music happens.

“There’s a great deal of hope for [the music today], because if people keep downloading the way they are, perhaps we’ll put Sony and Polydor and EMI out of business. They’ll go back to making radios and car parts, and whatever else they make. They’re lousy at making music. If people can splinter away from that… and get back to people with Myspace sites, a studio in their basement… they put a video on Myspace and the next thing they know, they have a million hits… that’s the way music should happen. That’s the way original music happens. If that would happen, it would be better for musicians, and people who listen to music. For large corporations, it wouldn’t be good. But fuck them.”

I recommend you listen to his remarkable do-it-yourself rock band, NoMeansNo, who have been recording and touring non-stop for over 30 years.

Selections:

I’ve met Rob and seen him play a bunch of times, and he’s always an inspiration.


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First, You’ll Have To Learn How To Suck.

Hollywood is one step ahead.

Do you really believe, that with millions and millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars at their disposal, they’d make a mistake?

New Media is a tool to attract comments, arguments, votes, opinions, complaints, pseudo-experts, and trolls. Hollywood makes us all think we’re participating, empowering us with profiles and blogs and tweets, but we are nothing but living advertisements for their products.

“Comments” are the new applause.

Once upon a time, studios actually had to pay for hype. Now it’s free.

Here’s their dirty trick: They make you feel smarter than them.

In every movie, TV show, and hit song, they embed flaws. Everyone who watches will want to point them out. The creators have openly made it part of the game: “We had no idea what we were doing, from the very beginning.”

Oh, really?

Like a manipulative girlfriend, they keep it just good enough so you think it’s legit, but just bad enough so you’ll keep paying attention. When they green-light a show, they don’t ask if it’s good. They ask if people will argue whether it’s good.

Just try to “go viral” without sucking. It won’t happen.

We are living in a Culture of Critics. “Come on, all you wannabe filmmakers, musicians, and actors out there… attack us.”

If you complain, “I could have written a better finale than that,” they’ve Suckceeded.


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Is This Chord Ugly Enough For You?

“Shine” by “Final Placement” (Original Video) from F.P. Shine on Vimeo.

Every composition needs dissonance.

For ears that crave more adventure, tritones stopped doing their job a hundred years ago.

I-V-I is only one traditional form to express tension and resolution. Frank Zappa said, “You can’t always write a chord ugly enough to say what you want to say, so sometimes you have to rely on a giraffe filled with whipped cream.”

The above video is proof of this concept. Your mind goes from consonant to dissonant repeatedly, trying to decide if it’s a joke. (Unfortunately, they updated the song recently, making it more obviously bad, kinda ruining the fun. If you want to watch an expert, Andrew WK is my favorite in that genre of entertainment.)

Just like music, our lives need conflict. Maybe weekdays are the tension, weekends are the resolution. Is that OK? Up to you to decide. If 5 out of 7 meals I ordered were splashed with vomit, I’d try a new restaurant.

I say keep a healthy relationship with conflict. If you try to remove all conflict from your psyche, you’ll be like one of those Actors at a cattle call.

My working definition of an Actor: an person who acts like they’re not conflicted.

Ask those posers in Los Angeles how they’re doing, and the answer is always: “AMAZING! Life is easy, the pilot just got picked up, the record is coming out soon, I just had an incredible salad, none of my brilliant friends is struggling with anything!”

Tell the truth, and those people will call you Negative.

That’s because they’re not the storytellers. They’re just puppets, marketing their genetic superiority. They hide the scratches and dents, fart rainbows, and it pretty much guarantees they will be mid-level tools for the rest of their lives.

The real artists, at the top of the pyramid, are the ones who thrive on conflict. They live under a creative rain cloud of problems, obstacles, disasters. It’s welcome inspiration. Food for creative people.

90% of any good movie is beating up the hero. The greater the struggle, the greater the victory. That’s the ironic arc we pay to watch.

Being boring doesn’t work in show business, and it doesn’t work in real life.


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Why Ninja Assassin Failed

I know why the film Ninja Assassin failed.

It’s the name!

They should have consulted with me. I would have recommended Ninja Assassin Killer. (The dot com is still available, by the way.)

We know this: to sell tickets, every movie needs a good name… and a good website. Agreed?

Well, here is the embarrassing website they ended up with: www.ninjaassassin.com.

I’ve learned a lot while reading thesis scripts that come out of the L.A. Film School. One thing I’ll never forget is The Rule of Threes in Violence. An Assassin who hunts Ninjas = weak. A Killer who hunts Assassins who hunts Ninjas = solid Triple Threat. You set up the pattern with the first two, then you reinforce it with the third. Unstoppable.

You know I’m only here to help.

(Like Tim Ferriss, my creative fee has to have 5-7 zeroes to the left of the decimal point — but please remember to put them to the right of the other numbers. I’m not falling for that trick again.)


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Tim Ferriss On Trolls

Tim Ferriss keynote The Next Web Conference 2010 – Love the Haters from Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten on Vimeo.

Tim Ferriss is an easy target.

I, myself, have doubted whether his career would live beyond his one famous book. I can’t stand the “Poser Guru / Lifestyle Coach” phenomenon going on lately. The things I’ve loved and parodied in the past are becoming trendy, which scares me. But in my opinion, Tim Ferriss proves himself with this strong presentation. It seems he’s on a good, authentic path.

In addition to the text that accompanies the above video, you can read his most journal recent entries on Lifestyle Design.


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