True Readers

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented… In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do. 

C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

Squire Trelawney

Squire Trelawney, Dr Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17-, and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn, and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, first took up his lodging under our roof.

Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson

Leap Years

There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail. The three extra days were for leap years.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Last Lines

Only when I am in bed, at dawn, listening to the cars down below in the streets of Paris, my memory betrays me; that summer returns to me with all its memories. Anne, Anne, I repeat over and over again softly in the darkness. Then something rises in me that I welcome by name, with closed eyes. Bonjour Tristesse!

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

The Literary Memoir

Non-fiction, and in particular the literary memoir, the stylised recollection of personal experience, is often as much about character and story and emotion as fiction is.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

It’s the End of the Web as We Know It

From The Wall Street Journal

The web is in crisis, and artificial intelligence is to blame.

For decades, seeking knowledge online has meant googling it and clicking on the links the search engine offered up. Search has so dominated our information-seeking behaviors that few of us ever think to question it anymore.

But AI is changing all of that, and fast. A new generation of AI-powered “answer engines” could make finding information easier, by simply giving us the answers to our questions rather than forcing us to wade through pages of links. Meanwhile, the web is filling up with AI-generated content of dubious quality. It’s polluting search results, and making traditional search less useful.

The implications of this shift could be big. Seeking information using a search engine could be almost completely replaced by this new generation of large language model-powered systems, says Ethan Mollick, an associate professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who has lately made a name for himself as an analyst of these AIs.

This could be good for consumers, but it could also completely upend the delicate balance of publishers, tech giants and advertisers on which the internet as we know it has long depended.

AI agents help cut through the clutter, but research is already suggesting they also eliminate any need for people to click through to the websites they rely on to produce their answers, says Mollick. Without traffic, the business model for many publishers—of providing useful, human-generated information on the web—could collapse.

Over the past week, I’ve been playing with a new, free, AI-powered search engine-slash-web browser on the iPhone, called Arc Search. When I type in a search query, it first identifies the best half-dozen websites with information on that topic, then uses AI to “read” and summarize them.

It’s like having an assistant who can instantly and concisely relate the results of a Google search to you. It’s such a timesaver that I’m betting that once most people try it, they’ll never be able to imagine going back to the old way of browsing the web.

While Arc Search is convenient, I feel a little guilty using it, because instead of clicking through to the websites it summarizes, I’m often satisfied with the answer it offers up. The maker of Arc is getting something for free—my attention, and I’m getting the information I want. But the people who created that information get nothing. The company behind Arc did not respond to requests for comment on what their browser might mean for the future of the web. The company’s chief executive has said in the past that he thinks their product may transform it, but he’s not sure how.

In December, the New York Times sued Microsoft and OpenAI for alleged copyright infringement over these exact issues. The Times alleges that the technology companies exploited its content without permission to create their artificial-intelligence products. In its complaint, the Times says these AI tools divert traffic that would otherwise go to the Times’ web properties, depriving the company of advertising, licensing and subscription revenue.

OpenAI has said it is committed to working with content creators to ensure they benefit from AI technology and new revenue models. Already, publishers are in negotiations with OpenAI to license content for use in its large language models. Among the publishers is Dow Jones, parent company of The Wall Street Journal.

Activity on coding answer site Stack Overflow has dropped in the face of competition from these AI agents. The company disclosed in August that its traffic dropped 14% in April, the month after the launch of OpenAI’s GPT-4, which can be used to write code that developers otherwise would look up on sites like Stack Overflow. In October, the company announced it was laying off 28% of its workforce.

“Stack Overflow’s traffic, along with traffic to many other sites, has been impacted by the surge of interest in GenAI tools over the last year especially as it relates to simple questions,” says Matt Trocchio, director of communications for the company. But, he adds, those large language models have to get their data from somewhere—and that somewhere is places like Stack Overflow. And the company has responded to this fresh wave of competition by releasing its own AI-powered coding assistant, OverflowAI.

Traffic to sites like Reddit, which is full of answers from real people, could be next, says Mollick. A spokesman for Reddit said that the one thing a large language model can never replace is Reddit’s “genuine community and human connection,” and that its “community-first model imparts trust because it’s real people sharing and conversing around passions and lived experiences.” Reddit is set to go public in March.

Liz Reid, general manager of search at Google, has said that the company doesn’t anticipate that people will suddenly switch over to AI chat-based search all at once. Still, it’s clear that Google is taking the threat of AI-powered search very seriously. The company has gone into overdrive on this front, reallocating people and resources to address the threat and opportunity of AI, and is now rolling out new AI-powered products at a rapid clip.

Those products include Google’s “search generative experience,” which pairs an AI-created summary with traditional search results. “Users are not only looking for AI summaries or AI answers, they really care about the richness and the diversity that exists on the web,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a recent CNBC interview. “They want to explore too. Our approach really prioritizes that balance, and the data we see shows that people value that experience.”

This moment also means there is opportunity for challengers. For the first time in years, scrappy startups can credibly claim that they could challenge Google in search, where the company has above a 90% market share in the U.S.

Eric Olson is CEO of Consensus, a search startup that uses large language models to offer up detailed summaries of research papers, and to offer insights about the scientific consensus on various topics. He believes that AI-powered search startups like his can offer an experience superior to Google’s on specific topics, in a way that will carve off chunks of Google’s search business one piece at a time.

Asking Consensus whether social media is bad for teen mental health provides an instructive example: Consensus uses AI to summarize the top 10 papers on the subject, and then offers a longer breakdown of the diversity of findings on the issue, in which every paper cited is individually summarized.

It’s an impressive feat, one that would take a non-expert human many hours of effort to accomplish on their own. (I’ll save you even more time. The short answer is yes.)

This kind of AI-powered search is also better than simply asking the same question of a large language model like ChatGPT, which is famously lax when it comes to answering such questions, often making up studies that don’t exist, or misattributing information. This is known as the “hallucination” problem, and forcing an AI to draw only from a prescribed set of inputs—like scientific papers—can help solve it, says Olson.

This doesn’t mean that the problem of hallucination can be eradicated completely, says Mollick. This could put Google at a disadvantage, because if the world’s largest search engine gets one out of 10 queries to its AI wrong, that’s a problem, but if a startup with an experimental offering has the same performance, it can look like a triumph.

. . . .

Despite these issues, users may move toward AI-based answer engines for the simple reason that AI-generated content threatens to make the web, and existing search, less and less usable. AI is already being used to write fake reviews, synthesize fake videos of politicians, and write completely made-up news articles—all in hopes of snatching dollars, votes and eyeballs on the cheap.

“The recent surge in low-quality AI-generated content poses significant challenges for Google’s search quality, with spammers leveraging generative AI tools, like ChatGPT, to produce content that — usually temporarily — ranks well in Google Search,” search-engine optimization expert Lily Ray told me.

The problem isn’t just with Google’s search results. AI-generated content has also been spotted in listings within Google Maps, the summaries that appear above and alongside search results known as “featured snippets,” within Google’s shopping listings, and in the news items the company features in its “top stories,” news and “discover” features, she adds.

It’s important to note that Google has for decades battled those who would manipulate its search algorithms, and it continually updates its systems to sweep away spammy content, whatever the source. Its guidelines on AI-generated content, last updated in February, re-iterate that the company is fine with using AI to help generate content—but only if it serves the people consuming it.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Were it left to me to decide

Were it left to me to decide if we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

Thomas Jefferson

One of the penalties

One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.

Plato

To write

To write is human, to edit is divine.

Stephen King

If this was a normal cover

If this was a normal cover for a normal book, I would tell it’s FANTASTIC!GRIPPING! (according to all book covers they’re fantastic and gripping)

Pseudonymous Bosch

A Fundamental Humility

What you need is a fundamental humility – the belief that you can learn from anyone.

Clayton Christensen

I like being present in spaces

I like being present in spaces where I am not welcome because you do not deserve to feel comfortable just because you’re racist or sexist or small-minded.

Scaachi Kou

Dysphemism

Nowhere are they more common than in the argot of the greasy spoon (a dysphemism for the word “diner”), immortalized in the 1941 book by Jack Smiley, “Hash House Lingo”. Toast was called a board or a shingle; tea was boiled leaves and coffee was mud; bullets were baked beans, and a steak, well-done, was a burned steer.

Merriam-Webster

I do write by hand

I do write by hand. I just think – I don’t know, it’s a physical thing for me. It’s a bodily thing. It literally has to earn its way through my hand.

Elizabeth Strout

But wherever they go

But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.

The House At Pooh Corner, A.A. Milne

The House At Pooh Corner, A.A. Milne

We fall out of bed

We fall out of bed and into our rags, still crusted with the grime of yesterday.

Eating Dirt by Charlotte Gill

Great Last Lines in Books

In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

The Road

Great Last Lines in Books

I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Any time four New Yorkers

Any time four New Yorkers get into a cab together without arguing, a bank robbery has just taken place.

Johnny Carson

Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day.

Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day.

A blazing sun upon a fierce August day was no greater rarity in southern France then, than at any other time, before or since. Every thing in Marseilles, and about Marseilles, had stared at the fervid sky, and been stared at in return, until a staring habit had become universal there. Strangers were stared out of countenance by staring white houses, staring white walls, staring white streets, staring tracts of arid road, staring hills from which verdure was burnt away. The only things to be seen not fixedly staring and glaring were the vines drooping under their loads of grapes. These did occasionally wink a little, as the hot air barely moved their faint leaves.

Opening lines from Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

We must be careful to make a distinction

We must be careful to make a distinction between the intellectual and the person of intellectual achievement. They two are very, very different animals. There are people of intellectual achievement who increase the sum of human knowledge, the powers of human insight, and analysis. And then there are the intellectuals. An intellectual is a person knowledgeable in one field who speaks out only in others.

Tom Wolfe

Who will consider that no dictionary of a living tongue ever can be perfect

Who will consider that no dictionary of a living tongue ever can be perfect, since, while it is hastening to publication, some words are budding, and some falling away; that a whole life cannot be spent upon syntax and etymology, and that even a whole life would not be sufficient; that he, whose design includes whatever language can express, must often speak of what he does not understand.

Samuel Johnson

I don’t believe any of you have ever read Paradise Lost

I don’t believe any of you have ever read Paradise Lost, and you don’t want to. That’s something that you just want to take on trust. It’s a classic … something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.

Mark Twain

There is a theory

There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.

Douglas Adams, first line from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

No one would have believed

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

H. G. Wells, first lines of The War of the Worlds

That is part of the beauty of all literature

That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

There’s no way round it

There’s no way round it, I’m finding it very hard to be a widow, I told Grief, the counsellor woman, that Tuesday morning.

Malarky by Anakana Schofield

Separately, suddenly

Separately, suddenly, Clive and Viv remember the smell of pine trees.

Love and the Mess We’re In by Stephen Marche

Air this thin

Air this thin turns anyone into a mystic.

Every Lost Country by Steven Heighton

New York City

Chapter 1.
He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion…no, make that: he – he romanticized it all out of proportion. Yeah. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.’

Uh, no let me start this over.

Chapter 1.
He was too romantic about Manhattan, as he was about everything else. He thrived on the hustle bustle of the crowds and the traffic. To him, New York meant beautiful women and street-smart guys who seemed to know all the angles…’.

Ah, corny, too corny for my taste. Can we … can we try and make it more profound?

Chapter 1.
He adored New York City. For him, it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. The same lack of individual integrity that caused so many people to take the easy way out was rapidly turning the town of his dreams in…’

No, that’s going to be too preachy. I mean, you know, let’s face it, I want to sell some books here.

Chapter 1.
He adored New York City, although to him it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. How hard it was to exist in a society desensitized by drugs, loud music, television, crime, garbage…’

Too angry, I don’t want to be angry.

Chapter 1.
He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat.’

I love this.

‘New York was his town, and it always would be.”

Woody Allen

The self-addressed stamped envelope

The self-addressed stamped envelope. The representation of everything that was wrong with the old publishing industry.

Alexei Maxim Russell

A green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.

“If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay,” said Gatsby. “You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.”

Daisy put her arm through his abruptly but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Helpful Writing Advice from the Pros

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” — Somerset Maugham

“Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.” — Truman Capote

“There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be.” — Doris Lessing

. . . .

“A bad review may spoil your breakfast, but you shouldn’t allow it to spoil your lunch.”— Kingsley Amis

. . . .

“Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” — Ray Bradbury

. . . .

“The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.” — E. M. Forster

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

Enjoying success

Enjoying success requires the ability to adapt. Only by being open to change will you have a true opportunity to get the most from your talent.

Nolan Ryan

Education is not confined to books

Education is not confined to books, and the finest characters often graduate from no college, but make experience their master, and life their book. [Some care] only for the mental culture, and [are] in danger of over-studying, under the delusion . . . that learning must be had at all costs, forgetting that health and real wisdom are better.

Louisa May Alcott

Typography

90 percent of design is typography. And the other 90 percent is whitespace.

Jeffrey Zeldman


I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so

I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

Anne Lamott