Refundable Pop Culture?

Would you spend more on pop culture consumables if your satisfaction were somehow guaranteed? On my Twitter feed this morning, I saw this series of proclamations from a publisher that believes so strongly in its product that it is willing to refund you your money if you don’t agree. (As always with tweets, read from the bottom up.)

Here’s more information about the book itself, which looks like a loving satire/send-up of undergraduate education in England. If you take this Melville House challenge, let us know how it goes!

How Do You Decide Which Books To Buy?

The Millions this morning came out with a list of the most anticipated books of 2014: Part II, and it is exciting and painful in equal measure. Billfold pal Dustin Kurtz captured the feeling well on Twitter. (See left.)

To make matters worse, Book Riot also this morning came out with its list of the Best Books of 2014: Part I. Every one of these volumes would bring a person closer to God. What does one do when faced with the kind of bounty that occasions both greed & despair? Unless one is a billionaire — in which case, according to James Surowiecki, one is too busy grousing about how no one likes you and making ill-advised comparisons to Nazi Germany to buy books — one must triage. But how?

Because of various constraints related to not being a billionaire, my method is to be supremely practical. I get books from the library first; then when I fall hard for one, so hard that I find myself babbling about it at parties and in even less appropriate situations, and I know that I will want to both a) read it again, and b) lend it out to people I love so that they too can experience communion with the spiritual realm, I will pay money for it, usually once it has been released in paperback. Bonus points if the author is a female debut novelist, because karma. I have to be stern with myself, though, because small New York apartments only have so much space and thin freelancer wallets only have so many dollars.

My other hack is to review books for places like Barnes & Noble, because they send me novels for free, and the only catch is that, in exchange, I have to say nice things about them. (The books, not the store.) (Though I also like the store! Wandering around it, I feel like Corduroy: “This looked like a palace. Corduroy guessed he had always wanted to live in a palace.”) How do you feed your book habit? Are you library-only, or e-reader only, or audiobook only, or merely dreaming of the day when you once again have time to read for pleasure at all?

What It Costs to DIY A First Book Tour

People take you seriously in the business world only when you take yourself seriously. By pouring my money and my life into this book tour, I was merely being my own best boss.

The Female Sociopath: Myth or Monster? Mythic Monster?

Recent Billfold chatter Merve Emre has a new piece up on Digg about the explosion of female sociopaths in pop culture, from books (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl) to TV (House of Cards, Damages) and beyond.

And so we lean in to the cultural logic of the female sociopath, for she is the apotheosis of the cool girl power that go-getter “feminists” have peddled to frustrated women over the last half-decade. The female sociopath doesn’t want to upend systems of gender inequality, that vast and irreducible constellation of institutions and beliefs that lead successful women like Gillian Flynn to decree that certain women, who feel or behave in certain ways, are “dismissible.” The female sociopath wants to dominate these systems from within, as the most streamlined product of a world in which well-intentioned people blithely invoke words like arbitrage, leverage, capital, and currency to appraise how successfully we inhabit our bodies, our selves.

Emre’s using language very deliberately here: she starts a paragraph about feminism with Sheryl Sandberg’s motto “lean in” and ends with a nod to that hippie empowerment classic “our bodies, ourselves.” Even though she says here that “the female sociopath doesn’t want to upend systems of gender inequality,” later, she goes on to explore the idea that “as female sociopaths, these women are winning battles that benefit all women, everywhere, in their fight for equality.” In other words, sociopathy = feminism, taken to a logical extreme! Women become sociopaths to succeed, and even if they’re not doing it FOR feminism, it benefits feminism. I’m … not sure about that?

The Ethics of Taking Free Stuff

It's not the best use of philanthropic funds to give people like me free books. Is it an acceptable use?

Obit for Modern-Day Medici Who Made “Mockingbird” Possible

Somewhere in literary heaven, there’s a nine-gun salute happening in honor of Michael Brown, who has died at age 93. His entire obit is a delightful read. A cryptographer and Cabaret songster, he made his money writing cheeky, clever industrial musicals, which was an actual job some people had in midcentury America:

Industrial musicals boasted professional casts — Florence Henderson and Dorothy Loudon are alumnae — and opulent production values. In an era when a Broadway musical might cost $500,000, its industrial counterpart could cost as much as $3 million. They also had high-level composers and lyricists, including Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, known widely for “Fiddler on the Roof” and less widely for “Ford-i-fy Your Future,” the Ford Tractor show of 1959.

For DuPont, Mr. Brown created ‘Wonderful World of Chemistry,’ a show that in all likelihood has had the greatest number of performances of any musical in history. … Presented in the DuPont pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, it was a rare example of an industrial musical open to the public. The show, written, produced and directed by Mr. Brown, was performed at least 40 times a day, by at least eight companies, for months on end. Seen by an estimated five million people, the show, 24 minutes long, played some 17,000 performances. Broadway’s longest-running musical, “Phantom of the Opera,” by contrast, has had about 11,000 performances since opening in 1988.

But the best part of the obit tells the story of when he sent a letter to his friend, the struggling writer Harper Lee, and changed her life.

Empathetic Personal Robots! $2000, Available Soon

The future is today. Okay, more precisely, the future is two years from now, when the first empathetic humanoid robots go on sale, and they’re kind of a bargain:

robots that can recognize human emotion will change the way we live and communicate — and this is a big step towards getting bots into daily lives, at least if you live in Japan. The robots will debut at two stores tomorrow in their customer service capacity, but Softbank is planning to put them on sale to the public next year, priced just shy of $2,000.

The adorable little tyke’s name is Pepper, which is pleasantly gender-neutral, yet spunky. This calls for a top-ten list of fictional robots:

10. Small Wonder (“Small Wonder”)

9. Data (“Star Trek”)

8. R2D2 and C3PO (Star Wars)

7. The Terminator (Terminator 2: Judgment Day)

6. The Buffy Bot

5. Johnny 5 (Short Circuit)

4. HAL (2001: A Space Odyssey)

3. Marvin the Paranoid Android (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

2. Maria (Metropolis)

1. WALL-E (WALL-E)

Runners up: Rosie from “The Jetsons,” that creepy kid from A.I., Optimus Prime, the Iron Giant, all of the Replicants from Blade Runner

How David Shapiro, Creator of Pitchfork Reviews Reviews, Does Money

David Shapiro is the pen name of a writer who created a Tumblr blog called Pitchfork Reviews Reviews. He then wrote a novel (You’re Not Much Use to Anyone, out now) about a character named David who created a Tumblr blog called Pitchfork Reviews Reviews. We talked about his career and his money.

What do you do?

I work as a summer associate at a white-shoe law firm. I hope to get an offer to come back to my firm after I graduate law school next year, meaning I would start full-time around September, 2015. I also write a little bit at The Wall Street Journal (in the paper) and The New Yorker (online). And I also wrote this book, obviously, the reason we’re here.

What does white-shoe mean?

It generally refers to old, large, well-respected law firms. Like, my firm has about 1,000 lawyers. It’s peculiar—in America, in general, the biggest corporations are the best at one particular thing. ExxonMobil is the biggest/best at producing oil and gas. Pfizer is the biggest/best at making pharmaceuticals. In other parts of the world, it’s different—Samsung, the biggest/best corporation in South Korea, makes toilet seats, phones, coffee machines, cars. They own an amusement park. In May, when the CEO of Samsung had a heart attack, they took him to Samsung Hospital. But law firms in America, the biggest ones (which are generally the best ones), can provide any kind of legal service that you need—much closer to the Samsung model than the Pfizer model.

So that’s what I do, this summer. I work in the private equity group.

Is your real name David Shapiro?

No. My legal name isn’t David Shapiro. I’m a lawyer and law student under my legal name, and I write under the name David Shapiro. I picked it because it’s like the John Smith of Jewish names. It’s hard to Google. I wanted to separate my writing life from my legal life because when I was 22, me and my friend wrote a Village Voice story about heroin dealer/addicts and I thought no employer would ever hire me if they knew I had spent time with heroin addicts. That seems naive now (I didn’t actually do the heroin with them), but I felt paranoid about it then.

But being David Shapiro has some definite upsides—someone on Tumblr the other day reblogged my post announcing my book, and he said, “I’m so psyched about this book, I loved his scholarship on the Shakespeare author debate, I’m definitely going to order this,” and I was like, “Sick!” There is David Shapiro the poet, David Shapiro the party photographer, there was a David Shapiro in the index of my constitutional law textbook.

My publisher was not excited that I had chosen this name because it does indeed make my work very difficult to find through Google, which makes the marketing department’s job harder. I used David Shapiro, Jr. for a while, which is the opposite of David Shapiro, because among Jews, it’s untoward to name someone after a living person, so there are almost no David Shapiro’s, Jr. There is one, actually—I think he is about 14 and he may or may not have frosted tips [in his hair]. But then I switched back because it sounded really stupid. So now I’m David Shapiro again.

CEO Wins Chance to get Killed By George RR Martin

In a perfect confluence of events, a wolf-loving Michigan CEO has won the right to be killed off by renowned wolf-aggrandizing author George R.R. Martin. Responding to a competitive fundraising call, Dr. Dave Cotton’s family made a $20,000 donation to a wolf-related charity in his honor — for father’s day. (Aww!)

Mike Cotton, chief operating officer of Meridian Health Plan and one of Dr. Cotton’s three sons, said his father had an affinity for wolves before he started reading Martin’s fantasy series, “A Song of Fire and Ice,” which was first published in 1996.

“We saw this crowdfunding come up online and we thought it would be perfect for his love of wolves,” Mike Cotton told ABC News. Mike’s brother, Sean, who is an administrative officer at the family-operated company, said their father loves the books and watches the HBO series “avidly.”

“He’s always referred to himself as a lone wolf,” he said of his father.

My Quest for an Introductory Understanding of Modern Economic Theory

On March 26th of this year I ran a search on Amazon for capitalism and my first result was Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which had come out just two weeks before. It sounded exciting (and infuriating and impenetrable) but since I couldn’t find a copy in Austin’s public library system, I wrote it off for the time and started clicking through the recommended also-boughts. I compiled a list of similar Serious titles that were available and left for my day job. Two hours later, on a break, I opened Twitter, and the top item was a headline from The New Yorker: "Piketty’s Inequality Story in Six Charts." Was I baader-meinhoffing, or was something serious at work?