Noah (angelbob) wrote,

Jay McInerny wrote a book called "Bright Lights, Big City". It's about NYC and the decadent, nihilistic culture of night-clubbing youth in the 80's. It's written in the second person, and is a sort of pseudobiography. I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to.

What I like about it most is the trick of using the second person, but very specifically and very obviously referring to somebody who is unlikely to be much like the reader. It's a way of making observations about human nature generally and letting them strike home by aiming them at the character. Good trick. Really it's a trick of pseudobiography generally. I'm not nearly as big on The Catcher in the Rye as most people are but it does something akin to the same trick and does it tolerably.

I've been thinking a bit about that just lately, and about the phrase "do what only you can do.*" It carries the excellent suggestion not only that you should work to be unique (how else can there be anything that only you can do?), but that you should examine yourself for particularly uncommon facets, and use them appropriately. It's lovely, among other reasons, because it's a strategy that builds nicely on itself. By doing what only you can do, you become the only one in the world experienced at what you've just done -- so you're now, by an even wider margin, the best at what only you can do. No two great writers are interchangeable. In fact, no two great anything are interchangeable in my experience, when it comes to human activities.

I've been thinking about that as regards writing. I don't know if I'd want to write a book, though they say that everyone has a book in them. But I'd want to write something, preferably something that lasts a little, or is passed around a little. I was thinking about my MUDLib when I started this train of thought -- it's what only I could do, and people actually use it now. But it's esoteric in the extreme. What could I do that wouldn't be?

I like the thought of writing, perhaps because I like to read. I wonder that there isn't more codified knowledge in the world when so many people are so keen to give advice. I mean, there's how-to books, but there aren't how-to books on a surprising variety of daily activities, and there's certainly no "meta how-to book" that usefully plugs almost any of them into a heirarchy. Granted, coming up with a heirarchy for all of human knowledge is a daunting task that would require a genius renaissance man with the soul of an accountant.

I suppose commercial constraints work against that. A chunk of knowledge so complete and dense as to describe all of housepainting usefully would cost (and weigh) far more than even a professional housepainter would care to buy. More complex disciplines have more of that sort of thing, but that's because even small chunks of the larger and more complex discipline are larger and more complex. You can buy a complete set of all the service manuals for all automobiles you're ever likely to see, and it's huge and astonishingly expensive, and it's still not the be-all and end-all of car repair, nor anything close.

I guess I could ponder the business possibilities along these lines, making a library of incredible size and density available for "by the page" rental over the net. Of course, if I could come up with a good interface for something like that then I could make more money skipping the library and selling the interface design. Sorry. Random digression.

I suppose really I've just answered my question of why this hasn't happened sooner. It doesn't make enough financial sense to support itself, either by selling copies (as does an individual book) or by public utility (as with a park or library). The public utility of such a paper monstrosity is limited by how many could use it at once. To make it useful you'd need to update large sections of it constantly, an unending work of authorship, which just wasn't practical before the web.

There are even sites aiming in vaguely these directions, usually on restricted topics -- Livejournal does a bit of this, Everything Squared does a bit more, and really the web itself is a relatively unstructured attempt in the same direction.

Anyway, that's plenty for now.

* A quick web search suggests that the quote (by Sir John Harvey Jones) is "Only do what only you can do." It's slightly cleverer that way, but I don't like it quite so much.

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