Network Externalities

I’ve been saving this link from the Globe for two weeks now trying to put together a piece in response. And there are two broad assumptions that I think I want to tackle.

Sure, it is a light fluff piece but the basis of it is that reading the Girl with a Dragon Tattoo books is something we all need to get around to at some point. The Globe and Mail thinks these books are a really big deal – they were yesterday’s feature piece in the Weekend Review again. (and this is part of the fun too; does the Globe put their book article in the niche Book section, the standard Review section, or the populist Life section? Only the ‘big deals’ move from Review into Life.) I feel like I could write a similar piece by now without ever having read the books, thank you Globe and Mail. Through no fault of my own I could tell you a whole lot about these books. But while I can claim to have been unable to avoid the endless references in a daily newspaper that comes to my apartment door every day, I must admit to having intentionally searched out this piece from the New Yorker out of curiosity. Is it a decent parody, is it even fair; I have no idea. But it gets the point across – I really don’t want to read these books.

Is this just my own quest for distinction – am I just carving out my unique cultural tastes by avoiding the new big thing? I don’t think so. Just because everyone else goes to see the new James Bond movie doesn’t deter me from going too – I really like big fantastic spy movies! I like old black and white spy movies and I also went to see Eagle Eye and Enemy of the State and The Bourne Identity even though everyone else did too. But I didn’t go to see Avatar, for instance, because it just didn’t sound very interesting to me. I don’t want to read the Stieg Larsson books because they don’t sound very interesting to me.

The point that they make in The Rebel Sell is one of ‘network externalities.’ Just as a fax machine is only useful if your friends all have fax machines too and you can fax each other stuff, the value of a cultural good is inextricably linked to its social context; the blockbuster effect, where “because so many people are talking about it, others feel obliged to [read] it, just so that they can participate (or because they want to know what everyone is talking about.)” And Dave McGinn is explicit about this is the Globe: “But for those of you who still haven’t read them, it’s almost worth doing so just to decide for yourself what all the hype is about. Considering how many conversation are going to be about the books this summer, you’ll want to weigh in.”

I could, and have, carried on conversations about the Twilight books without any compulsion to read them and I have no doubt that I could do the same by now with these books. It is precisely because they have crossed from the Review section to the Life section – from novels to cultural phenomena – that I don’t need to actually read them to keep up. To read them is almost beside the point.

The second assumption is that we read differently in the summer and this assumption is by no means limited to the Globe. The WordPress TagSurfer gives me the most recent posts tagged with ‘Books’ and ‘Reading’ and in June I read about everyone’s plans for ‘summertime reading.’ People had lists made up for their own reading; people had recommendations for other people’s lists; people were excited to finally start reading now that it was summertime; people had been saving books for the summer. The Globe got into it too – from the same article’s closing: “Remember, school is out. It’s summer. Save your trenchant literary analysis for the heavy books you’ll be reading come winter. What you need now is sex and intrigue and mystery. It’s time.”

Maybe I am being purposefully obtuse here but it is not clear to me why summer reading should be categorically different from spring reading or winter reading or the apparently doom-filled autumn reading season. Unless you are in grade school or taking the summer off from a university course load (which only 1/3 of SFU students do) or dealing with kids who are out of grade school for the summer I do not understand the distinction.

Now in August I am starting to see people post confessional pieces about how few of their summer reading books they’ve managed to actually read. As if these books will all disappear, or change, on Labour Day. As if they won’t be allowed to read any more. As if they’ve failed at a major task. People post these lists of excuses about why they haven’t read more over the summer and in reading these stories I feel as if I’m marking someone’s homework.



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9 responses to “Network Externalities

  1. jarrahpenguin

    Awesome post! I, for one, love Swedish mystery novels and found the feminist debate surrounding the Larsson books really interesting, but still couldn’t make it through the first half of the first novel. I like how you connected the Larsson books (and Twilight) to the idea of network externalities. Reading something I’m really not interested in just so I won’t be left out of a hypothetical future conversation I probably won’t really be interested in? Sounds like how I want to spend my summer vacation!

    • thanks JarrahPenguin! re. Swedish Mystery Novels, a friend on Facebook recommends Henning Mankell – do you concur?

      • jarrahpenguin

        Mankell is definitely my favourite but I also enjoy Ake Edwardson and Hakan Nesser.

      • Stacy Chappel

        Thanks Derrick, great post! i Enjoyed the Larsson books, but they’re not a “must read” in my opinion–just great page turners with a left leaning political bent–you can read and pass on without wanting it back. Borrow from a friend and take on a long boring flight where you need distraction.

        Henning Mankell is a different matter –definitely worth a read! I particularly I loved the White Lioness. The writing is much better than Larsson’s, they are political without being didactic. Felt a bit like I was in Larsson’s politics 101 class at some points.

        Agree with Jarrah about the feminist debates, I came away from Larsson feeling there was something essentially different from how North American’s would portray women’s sexuality, especially after abuse, in such a book. (And also that a female author would never have been so instructive about feminism without being accused of being patronizing).

        Larsson’s obsessive descriptions with Mac technology was over the top! haha. Do I really need to go to the Mac store and talk about gigs with the main character? Or the IKEA shopping for that matter… was that paid content??

  2. Fascinating and enjoyable post about three of my fav topix:
    1/the Mop and Pail
    2/who’s reading what and why
    3/about not following trends.
    I have not done my daily writing practice today so I hope you will accept this lengthier post in lieu.
    Funny thing, those Stieg L books. Husby’s read them and enjoyed them. We’ve seen both movies. I detested the first movie and enjoyed the second; the reverse of what most film critics seem to have said.
    I really want to enjoy the Dragon books. I like what the author “was up to.” Sure makes all those droning lectures from the floor of various political conventions about “Scandanavia (sp?) The Good” seem a bit absurd. Trouble is, the books, at least in the English translation, are horribly written. Generic plot, cardboard characters, tons of exposition shoved into convenient “set piece” monologues. On the sentence level, much like my writing here, sorry, terrible syntactical structure with almost no variety in noun to verb distance. App’rently some lit.reviewers claim this is a “Scandanavian (sp?) style” thing. Hmmm. Not sure.
    Smila’s Sense of Snow was a superior work. Have you read that one?
    and about summer reading – hope you will expand on this – is it about the relationship many of us have to “time and its dimensions,” (shamelss plug – a line from one of my poems, which itself is a riff on Robert Hass’ Time and Materials) about our ability/inability to concentrate, to let go of distractions (heh, such as blogging but especially email) long enough to settle into the rhythms of someone else’s imagination? Perhaps many people feel they don’t have enough of the kind of time they think they need, and so push off reading until an imagined block of “free space” will appear on the horizon of that icon, “summer.” When I was in law school, reading lots, but not fiction, I found it difficult to give my self permission to read non academic works; different parts of my brain needed to be activated to read “novels.” When I worked for government, same. Although I consumed mystery novels. As I developed my writing practice, I read in ways much different than before.
    In order to read Roberto Bolano’s 2666, I mentally prepared, cleared off a month (December, my month for really big novels), skirted around the work for about year (!), and then at the appointed time, began reading. Into Bolano, I read nothing else.
    Reading poetry, for me, is what I imagine it must be to inject heroin into one’s bloodstream – I can only read poetry at certain times of the day/night, and only for limited periods.

    • Thanks ReneeTheWriter!
      – ‘Mop and Pail’ v. ‘Grope and Flail’?

      – almost threw in a line about you (the only person who has asked me about the books) and APD (the only person I know who has read them.) Will you go see the US version starring Daniel Craig/James Bond? What did you think of the NY parody piece? I don’t think I have anything written by a Swede, come to think of it. Maybe a textbook?

      – Yes, summer reading re. time in the day/year but that gets back to the “I don’t have any time to read!” panic that everyone seems to suffer from. Strangely enough we spend more time waiting in lines than ever before but no one has time to read? Reading is easy: it is the first thing we learn to do in preschool and books are still the most conveniently transportable entertainment. I probably do have more to say about summer reading but I might wait until December to try and process – the benefit of hindsight.

      My reading changed when I left SFU and that was in part due to time pressures but it was also a conscious choice. It all gets back to the guilt/homework/confessional thing that seems to drive all modern discussions of books.

      -re. reading poetry, you should read ‘Gloria’ by Keith Maillard. Our heroine/protagonist is a student of modern (c. 1957) poetry and spends a lot of time on Spenser and Wyatt. Her ‘Britomart summer’ is a major point. I’m sorry to not have answered your earlier comment – I have a draft response sitting here and I have been puzzling about whether to turn it into a longer piece.

  3. I read this post and laughed throughout, mostly because I could see the expression on your face as I imagined you speaking it out-loud.

    “doom-filled autumn reading”. I hadn’t thought about the notion of summer reading until this post. For me, summer is exactly the right time for more “heavy reading”. The days are so much longer! There is so much more time! That said – I also make the distinction between academic required reading and just plain reading. Winter seems to demand reading books like TGWTDT, simply because my brain has little space for any more intelligent content.

    At the moment, I am working my way through Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. I read straight through 200 pages in a weekend, impressing myself with my own ability to read so much so quickly. I credit camping and the limited distractions that come with it.

  4. Sam B

    “To read them is almost beside the point.”
    What an excellent post. Agreeing with many things.

    However, as I’ve fallen into the trap of too-much-pressure to catch up on summer reading, I’m bringing Alberto Manguel’s compilation about the selfsame topic with me as penance on my camping trip. Sigh.

  5. Fisnik

    I understand what you mean. But the point is not in knowing about the books – it’s the enjoyment that you get from reading them. If you accept that as a standard then I’d say the three books are absolutely worth it. Then again, enjoyment is a matter of taste.

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