Friday, January 9

When is a book club not a book club?

 Apparently Mark Zuckerberg may or may not have started a book club. If you read the information on his Facebook page, Zuckerberg says he decided he would try to read a book every two weeks. He invites people to follow his progress and created a Facebook page, A Year of Books, for that purpose. And then he invites people to discuss the books with him and others, provided, of course, they've read the books. Let the sniping and commentary begin.

One quick note is that I think reading a book every two weeks is ambitious for many people. I'm a fast reader and could easily read a book every two weeks. . .provided my schedule and other obligations permit. Zuckerberg will figure out his capacity and maybe he'll continue to try to read a book every two weeks and maybe that will change. But it's his resolution.

On the A Year of Books page, the information makes it sound like a book club as he says
We will read a new book every two weeks and discuss it here. Our books will emphasize learning about new cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies. Suggestions for new books to read are always welcome. We ask that everyone who participates read the books and we will moderate the discussions and group membership to keep us on topic.
But maybe by "we" he means his wife and him. They''ll be reading a new book every two weeks and they're inviting people to read and discuss with them.

So it's kind of a book club, but not really.

What's amusing, and a tiny bit irritating to me, is the commentary on Zuckerberg's resolution. As a public figure, he didn't have to share this resolution with anyone. And it's his resolution. He wants to read books that "emphasize learning about new cultures, beliefs, histories, and technologies." Good for him. Reading is learning and learning is growing.

Charlotte Wilder of Boston.com takes exception to his resolution, calling it problematic and wondering who Zuckerberg is to decide what is "new." Well, maybe they're new to him. Sheesh. Wilder goes on a short rant that Zuckerberg should have been more specific rather than giving him some latitude about his intent. But mostly, methinks, she wants the attention because of the provocative title of her post, which reads: "Here's the Problem With Mark Zuckerberg's New Year's Resolution" and we could get into all kinds of trouble with that.

James Walton of The Telegraph chimes in with an opinion that Zuckerberg is making reading a chore because the first book he listed is not a novel. But Walton also makes an interesting point about reading and why we choose which books to read. Entertainment? Relevance? Nifty cover? Interesting random passages? Familiar author? Unfamiliar author? Cool title? Well, the answer is that some or all of the above are often true.

Walton mentions that Nick Hornby created a bit of controversy when he stated that people should ditch the books they aren't enjoying or that are difficult. I remember reading a column by Mary Schmich some time ago in which she discussed the point at which one might reasonably abandon a book. For readers, abandoning a book can be difficult. We persevere less out of a sense of duty, as Hornby suggests, and more out of a hope the thing will get better. Then, at some point, determined only by the reader and the book, we decide to gut it out because we want to know how the writer resolves the story or the conclusions at which the writer arrives. I'd wager there is considerable skimming between that point and the end; there is for me.

Walton also observes that if we read only books that may be relevant or a means of self-improvement, we may be missing the point of reading. Come again? I think the point of reading is often self-improvement, even if indirectly. When I read novels, I inevitably have the opportunity to learn something about myself. Sometimes I do read pure "brain candy" and probably don't learn much of anything about anything except whether or not I like that writer, and that's no small thing.

Stephen Poole of The Guardian asks about Zuckerberg's first choice and pontificates most elegantly on that question. Oh who cares why he chose that book? He chose it for his own reasons, whether or not you like them and whether or not you want to read the book or have read it. What's more interesting to me are his comments about Oprah and those pondering the practicality of trying to moderate a book group of such large numbers.

I have to address the Oprah thing because I find that too amusing. When Oprah started her book club, she did so with the usual Oprah fanfare and libraries around the world took advantage of her choices to try to have in-person discussions about those books. Oprah got people buying books and going to libraries to talk about books. Not a bad thing. Zuckerberg isn't trying to do that. He's reading books and inviting you to know what books he's reading and to offer up a discussion about that books. I am willing to bet he's also learning more than we can imagine about what people want and how they might use Facebook in the process. Pretty smart of him.

As for moderating the book group, he's not going to do that. Maybe he'll hire someone to moderate the book discussion but he's not really creating a MOOC-like book club on Facebook. Not yet anyway. That will come after he's learned more about user participation and expectations, and the limitations and possibilities of Facebook.

So here's the deal from my perspective:
  • Mark Zuckerberg has decided to try to read a book every two weeks
  • He created a Facebook page so the world will know what books he's reading and can offer insightful or inane comments
  • From this experience, he will learn whatever he chooses to learn from the books he chooses to read whether we agree or not
  • From this experience, he will learn even more about Facebook users and about the limitations and possibilities of Facebook
  • He may learn to be more specific in what he states about his intentions, and even if he does, plenty of people will be waiting in the wings to pass judgement on what he has to say and to speculate on why he has said it.
And, most importantly, more people may read more books and may themselves learn more about themselves and the world in which they live.

Read on.

Thursday, January 8

Man proposes, God disposes redux. . .and real life intervenes

So just after the first of the year, in an attempt to be somewhat philosophical because I don't do the New Year's resolution thing, I wrote this.

And then, on January 4, I had to get on a plane to travel for business. January 4, in the Midwest and the Northeast, was a character-building travel day. After a relatively balmy December, the snow began falling. And kept falling, except where it wasn't quite cold enough to be snow in which case the precipitation was rain and freezing rain. And that means ice. Potentially ice under a layer of snow.

Now my flight out of Chicago could have been on time, which means that I would have made my connection in Newark, which means that I would have gotten to Montreal as planned. But nooooooo. My flight out of Chicago was delayed for nearly an hour as we waited for someone to get the load report to the pilot. The load report is important for taking off, figuring out fuel consumption, and, eventually, for landing. I get that it's needed. What I don't understand is why it took someone nearly an hour to get that report to the pilot who, I might add, sounded at least as exasperated as some of the passengers.

As those minutes ticked by, so did the chances of making my connection. But I knew my carrier, United, would rebook me on the next available flight. What I did not know was that travel drama was unfolding across the northeast because of weather.

I arrived in Newark suitably ignorant of the overall situation, but checking my United app nonetheless, looking for a rebooking. My connecting flight was delayed and if I could dash from C terminal to A terminal in 10 minutes or less. . . . well, if you've been in Newark, you know that's really hard to do. And I could not get to A terminal before the board changed to DEPARTED. Bother. And so, to the United Club where the people were not very gracious but soon thawed when I was polite--the weather is not their fault and someone else's incompetence or lack of responsibility or whatever in Chicago was also not their fault. I was booked on the next available flight and had a few hours to kill in Newark.

And that was fine because that meant I had time to review my content for my presentation which was good since I wasn't going to be getting to Montreal as early as I'd planned, so no worries. Then I got the first delay notification followed far too quickly by the second delay notification followed maybe an hour later by the cancellation notification. Back to the United Club counter and I was just ahead of the deluge of people on that same flight who were looking for rebooking. I overheard one woman comment on the hundreds of people in customer service lines at the desks and could only imagine the tension and the tempers.

I was booked standby on the last flight out of Newark for Montreal. I had another few hours to kill. By then, I was no longer interested in reviewing content further but I had plenty of other stuff I could do so I kept myself entertained and occupied for a while. I also texted my customer to let her know the fundamentals of this travel adventure and we figured out the options for our work on Monday, so that was one less thing about which to worry.

The time approached to leave the relative comfort of the United Club to go to Terminal A. As I boarded the bus, I got notification that the flight to Montreal was delayed. Now Terminal A is an old terminal in Newark. And it was crowded and hot. I do mean hot. Like this was only place at the Newark Airport getting all of the heat for the entire airport hot. Sweltering. And did I mention crowded?

The terminal restaurants were doing great business. Kids were making friends and creating games. Adults were being indulgent because the small people were laughing rather than crying and shrieking. It was fine. As fine as it can be as people are trying to wait patiently and watching the departure board with tired, hooded eyes hoping the time does not change yet again.

Then suddenly, the last flight from Newark to Montreal was boarding. Those of us on standby lingered anxiously by the agent's desk. The agent made the final call announcement three times. We counted down the number of people not yet on board against the number of people scurrying to get to the plane. (As an aside, it's easy to find the people who don't travel much because they don't realize the importance of staying near the gate in case that departure time gets moved up which, on rare occasions, it does and which was the situation for this Montreal flight).

Now we waited breathlessly to learn if we're going or staying. One clearly irritated woman, who was also one of a party of four or five, made some snarky remark about whether or not those who'd been waiting longest had any priority status. I winced. I know it doesn't work that way.

When I'd checked my app earlier, I was fourth on the list and held out the tiniest of hopes I'd make it. As the gate agents were consulting and squinting at their monitors, I checked the app again. I tried not to get too excited because the small crowd was getting restlessly impatient and I could feel the tension increasing. But when I checked my app, I'd moved up to second and there was a little green check next to my name which meant I was getting on the plane. Inside I was jumping up and down and shouting with joy.

At last the gate agent called my name. In my controlled haste, I still managed to smack someone with my backpack. She made a snide remark and I belatedly apologized even as I grabbed the boarding pass and headed for the jetway.

On board things were a bit chaotic as a few people were in the wrong seats. Small plane. Inexperienced fliers. A physical second row was actually the fourth row and people don't know where to look for the row numbers. Fine. The flight attendant got us seated. The young man who boarded behind me exhaled loudly in relief and said, "I've never been so happy to be on a plane." Hear, hear!

And so I sat on the last flight out of Newark, hours after my scheduled departure. But still the door was not closed. The gate agent made two trips on the plane to check and then double-check that all seats were filled. Still the door was not closed.

Then the pilot made an announcement about another delay because of backups in Montreal. The minutes ticked by. I napped.

Another announcement that we were going to push back and wait on the tarmac, get a little de-icing and hope to take off as soon as possible.

I napped again as we idled on the tarmac, and then I heard the engines rev and then we started to move. And then, at long last, a mere 11 hours after my scheduled departure, we were airborne. And all of this because one person didn't get one task done in a timely fashion.

I won't get into the challenges of customs, immigration, and car rental. At that point, anything else that happened was laughable due to exhaustion hysteria. But I got to my destination around 2A and managed to get some sleep. The trip home? A few challenges, but nothing to compared to the outbound trip.

You've probably seen one of those amazing displays of the domino effect. Some of them very complex. You know that the each domino has to be placed carefully and at a precise distance from its neighbors for everything to work as planned. In real life, we can place as carefully as possible but we cannot plan for all of the possible choices and actions of others.

So my trip on January 4 was a powerful remind that plans are mostly guidelines and that it takes only one event, however small or seemingly mundane, to shatter the tidy domino effect one might have hoped for and make your day look and feel like pick-up sticks, a game of dexterity, coordination, and patience. . . some of the finer qualities in life.  And so it goes.

Sunday, January 4

Man proposes, God disposes; or when plans go awry

This phrase--"Man proposes, God disposes"--was careening around in my head for a few days, trading places of prominence with songs from Into the Woods then Lorde's "Yellow Flicker Beat" from Mockingjay and then, just because it is soooo hard to get rid of, "Let It Go." Now you know what movies I've seen recently and, for the record, enjoyed Mockingjay as much the second time as the first and truly enjoyed Into the Woods.

But "Let It Go" was quite appropriate as I was thinking about carefully made plans that are scattered like pick-up sticks. And that made me think of the phrase "the best laid plans of mice and men" which meant I needed to look up the poem "To a Mouse" by Robert Burns to see the original context of the phrase. Phew. (And should ye, you, want to listen to the poem with the full Scottish brogue, herewith.)

'Tis truth that our plans often go awry. There is only so much we can hope to know or hope to control in any given situation. And that means our best bet, I think, is to make our plans and be flexible.

Then I find myself thinking about Robert Frost's well-known poem "The Road Not Taken." It has become an inspirational poem, encouraging young and old alike to take the path less worn by others: to find one's own way and all that. But those who have read any criticism about this work know that Frost had a specific intent for the work. Many of us have chosen a path and wondered what would have happened had we gone the other way, well-trod path or not. This reminds me that all of our choices have consequences. It's not that we can't change our minds, but it is impossible to return to a fork or juncture in the same exact context. If we return, we will be different as will the situation so whether we choose the same path or a different one, there will be unexpected outcomes and consequences.

It's fascinating to me how much has been written about the past, the present, and the future. We live in the present. We can only imagine the future. Every second that passes contributes to our pasts. It's a wonder we worry so much about the future and how we spend time. After all, does anyone really know what time it is?

I'm not going to stop making plans. I know that. But I hope that this year I will be more flexible about my plans and about the way things unfold as my plans collide and intersect with the plans of others, as we find ourselves on expected and unexpected paths, perhaps well-paved roads or rough and rutted gravel road. In fact, I hope I will enjoy the journey and that I'm not always quite so focused on the final destination because there's so much serendipitous wonder to experience and discover along the way.