Friday, April 01, 2016

Book 23: I am not sure that everyone in my family would appreciate being compared to a smart bear but I mean it as a compliment.

The good news is, if I read 10 more books in April I'll be only slightly behind schedule.

After I finished The Hotel New Hampshire today -- this being the second time in my life I'd read it-- I started thinking about what I call the My Aunt's Dog Theorem.  This is my theory that if you take some abstract painting, just blobs and swishes and swirls and stuff, and hang it in a museum, someone will come along, look at it, and say That looks like my aunt's dog.

It means, this theory of mine, that we all interpret books, songs, art, through our own experiences; it's part of why I distrust any exegesis of a work of art that wasn't done by the creator him- or herself, and it's part of why I don't even trust the interpretation of a work when it's done by the person who made it, either.  Every person is going to approach a given piece of art a different way: with different emotions and different histories and different likes and dislikes; this means that even the best-intentioned symbols and metaphors in a work might be wildly miscast.

It's not that artists can't intend their work to mean a particular thing. It's that whether it means that thing to a particular person is beyond your control.

The first time I read The Hotel New Hampshire would have been in the early 90s, when I was 23 or 24. I can't narrow it down more than that because I don't actually recall reading it. I know that I did, and I remembered certain things about it (like the character named "Egg" and keep passing open windows, a saying in the book) but beyond that I had no real memory of it at all. The only impact it made on 23-year-old me was well that was a pretty interesting book.

Today, though, when I finished up the last few pages, I got a bit of a lump in my throat and felt sentimental. I also felt like I understood what the book was about -- although it might only be about that to me.

The book meant more to me, as a 47-year-old, than it ever did as a 23 or 24 year old; the entire book took on a whole new weight with me.

I thought Avenue Of Dreams was about fate, and A Prayer For Owen Meany was about whether things happen for a reason -- another kind of fate, I suppose-- and I think, now, that The Hotel New Hampshire is about finding one's place in the world, and whether you can be happy if you don't find where you should be.

The Hotel New Hampshire is a sprawling novel, like The World According to Garp or The Cider-House Rules, one of the great vast Irving books that feels like a whole world, full of the most interesting (if not always the nicest) people you'll ever meet.  Irving does have (or at least had, as his later books lack some of this quality) a knack for breathing life into even the most minor of characters in a book.

The story focuses on the Berry family: Win Berry meets his wife when they both work a summer at a resort in Maine, and they fall in love, and Win Berry also buys a bear from a traveling showman named Freud.  From there, Win and his wife have kids: Frank, Franny, John, Lily, and Egg.  The family starts a hotel, The Hotel New Hampshire, in their town, rehabbing an old girls' boarding school into a strange hotel that only ever has a few guests before they sell it to a traveling circus and go to Vienna for a few years.

They go to Vienna because Freud, the showman, is running a hotel there and needs help. The family moves into the second Hotel New Hampshire, the primary residents of which are a group of radicals with a plan to overthrow society, and a group of prostitutes who hang around the third floor.  And another bear, this one Susie the bear. Susie is a woman in a bear suit.

The events in Vienna, which I won't lay out here because it's a book that should be read, and there are lots of surprises, then lead the family back to America, where Lily becomes a famous author.

That's the general track of the book, but there's a whole lot more packed into it: legends of Vienna like "The King Of Mice," a street entertainer who threw himself out a window because he was tired of life (hence the saying the Berrys adopt: keep passing open windows), the strange man in the white dinner jacket who seems almost not to be real, Iowa Bob, Win Berry's football coaching dad, histories of operas and thoughts on politics and literature: I think this is, more than Garp or any other book, the platonic ideal of a John Irving book.

The book toys with a lot of ideas ranging from psychology to politics to family identity to sex, but it seemed to me as I read it this time that the main thing the book was talking about was whether everyone has a place to be, in this world; a role to fill, an identity that suits them and which, once they find it, they will be content to inhabit -- being restless and unfulfilled until then.

This morning, at about 2 a.m., Mr F woke up and I sat up with him while he played piano and then tried to fall back to sleep, ultimately taking him for a ride around his course at 3 a.m. On that ride, I started sort of daydreaming about going on vacation in a year or two, once things settle down and I've got my new job more settled. I was considering how much we might have to save and where we might go, because I really like road trips and vacations and thinking about them is fun for me.

Midway through deciding that it would probably be New York City, I thought about Mr F's old swing in our living room, the one we had to take down because the beams weren't strong enough to hold him up when he swung and he was going to break our ceiling. I thought about how Mr F still sleeps in his little closet, now his feet sticking out kitty-corner a bit, because he likes (we think, he doesn't tell us) to feel the safety of three walls around him.  I decided that rather than saving up to go to New York I'd rather save up to do some remodeling and put in a swing and a bigger alcove for Mr F so that he'd have something he liked.

In The Hotel New Hampshire, Frank, the oldest brother, doesn't really come into his own or fit in until all the kids are grown-ups, after which Frank is the one who is most competent.  Franny never seems at ease, and John, either -- along with their dad, and plenty of others in the book, who are wistful or looking forward to the next thing or frightened or depressed about what they are doing. The happy characters in the book are those who have found what they ought to be: Iowa Bob, the old football coach, is supremely happy coaching football at a prep school but restive once he retires, and ultimately is done in by Sorrow (when you read the book you'll understand the capital S.)  Susie the bear drifts around, sometimes a bear, sometimes not, until she finds a place she is needed and then she is happy -- although she's so insecure she still needs some convincing.

Win Berry is the most dramatic of all: he's repeatedly described as a dreamer, as being not quite there. He feels, as a character, a bit like a dream himself, fading in and out of the story. It's not until Win takes charge of his life that he ends up where he always wanted to be.  In Win's case, it turns out that where he always wanted to be is a place that exists only in his mind, but that doesn't keep it from being real.

When I was 23 or 24, I thought I'd go into politics, maybe the foreign service. I wanted to travel, back then. I'd only gone out of Wisconsin a few times, on vacations, but I wanted to see more. That was part of why I went to study in Washington and Morocco for most of 1994. I wanted to get out and see the world. Back then I wanted to be a writer, a politician, in the foreign service, a teacher, sometimes an astronomer, and ultimately a lawyer -- although even after I'd settled loosely on lawyer I went through phases of wanting to be a prosecutor, a defense attorney, a divorce lawyer, a guardian ad litem, a personal injury lawyer, a judge, all to end up where I am today: a partner in a firm doing almost exclusively consumer protection law.

I'm happy about that. I love my job. I love my family, my house -- as rundown as it's getting sometimes and as out-of-control as our yard it -- I love the city I live in. I love going to the free zoo and driving Mr F's route through the industrial park. I love wading in the river with the boys in the summer and having the older kids over for movies on Xmas Eve.

For the first 28 years of my life or so, I bounced around and tried things out and frittered around, as I say Mr F does sometimes: dithering between the kitchen and the living room, or the downstairs and the upstairs, wandering aimlessly, until he picks what it is he's going to do.

Does everyone have a place, a thing, a role, that they're meant to do? I tend to say to people, when I talk about it at all, that I made a pretty bad teenager, a less-than-great twentysomething, but as a forty-seven-year old I think I've hit my stride. I still kind of feel like the same person, but all the things I loved to do all those years fit better on a guy who's nearing fifty than they did on a guy who was 16. If you want to sit at home on your day off and read John Irving and then spend Friday night at the library before coming home and blogging about books, it's easier to do that as a 47 year old than a 16 year old.

It kind of feels to me like I was meant to be the person I am now, that I'm at my most comfortable and happiest these days. I didn't exactly set out to be this person at this time in this place. There was a lot of chance involved: If I'd never gotten hit by a drunk driver, I wouldn't have had a lawyer who I thought seemed like an interesting guy with an interesting job. If I'd had more money as a student I might have gone to Marquette or the University of Maine law schools, instead of Wisconsin's, but Wisconsin's was cheaper. If my 6-month position at the Department of Revenue hadn't expired when it did, I might not have applied for the job at the firm where I met Sweetie, and so I might never have settled down in Middleton and had these kids and now grandkids.

It wasn't part of any grand design; if you'd asked me at any stage of my life whether I thought this was where I'd end up, I'd have said probably not, but these days are about the happiest and most content that I've ever been.

That's how it works for the Berrys in The Hotel New Hampshire, too: they don't really have a plan, beyond Win Berry's only-somewhat-explicable desire to run a first-class hotel (the sort of hotel where he spent a magical summer with his wife-to-be and a bear called State O' Maine), and they get caught up in events beyond their control that end up helping shape their course through their lives -- but it's only once they decide to take control of their own existence that they end up satisfied and happy; up until then, they are struggling, depressed, frightened, too.

It's interesting to see the progression of Irving's thoughts, at least as I interpret them. The Hotel New Hampshire seems to say that we need to make efforts to shape our lives, push them until we are where we would like to be, that we won't be happy just being carried along to where we end up.  A Prayer For Owen Meany, a much later book, seems to be saying that everything we do is fated and that our attempts to change the outcome of our lives are futile.  Avenue of Mysteries moves back to the middle road: people are shaped by both obvious and mysterious forces, with at least some control over their destiny.

Or maybe that's how I'm reading them, in light of now nearly five decades of experience. Maybe the events of the past 2+ years, leaving my old firm and building a new one, or, going back more, the challenges of raising Mr F and Mr Bunches, have caused me to reassess what it takes to be happy in the world. The younger me might have been content to be pushed around by the world, to go where he was taken and see what that led to; the older me knows that books are what we read into them just as the world is what we make of it, and that while we may not entirely control our own destinies, what with all the forces at work on us at any given minute, we have to try to get to the place we want to be if we want a chance at happiness.

In The Hotel New Hampshire, the Berry children re-read The Great Gatsby over and over. Lily, the writer, wants especially to come up with an ending that's the equal of the ending of that book; the others don't seem to obsess over the ending as much -- which might be just as well, given that The Great Gatsby was not a happy ending.

In the end of The Hotel New Hampshire, Irving plays on The Great Gatsby's ending:

“So we dream on. Thus we invent our lives. We give ourselves a sainted mother, we make our father a hero; and someone’s older brother and someone’s older sister – they become our heroes too. We invent what we love and what we fear. There is always a brave lost brother – and a little lost sister, too. We dream on and on: the best hotel, the perfect family, the resort life. And our dreams escape us almost as vividly as we can imagine them… That’s what happens, like it or not. And because that’s what happens, this is what we need: we need a good, smart bear… Coach Bob knew it all along: you’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed. You have to keep passing the open windows.” 

It's an ending that begins by suggesting that we make our lives better first in our dreams -- we invent what we love and what we fear-- but our dreams escape us, and so to survive we've got to get ourselves a smart bear (State O' Maine helped Win Berry through college; Susie the bear helped the Berrys in a variety of ways) and get obsessed with what it is we want to do, so that we don't give up.

The people in The Hotel New Hampshire who keep passing open windows did what the second half of that paragraph suggests: they stopped inventing a life and started getting one, and so they ended up where they were most content and happy.

So what did I get obsessed with, that led me here? When I was younger, I was a terrible employee, a terrible student: I got marked down in an English class because the teacher could tell I was phoning it in, that I was doing the minimum I needed to get by. I never worked very hard at jobs, and when they go unpleasant I'd just quit. I kept to myself and didn't have many friends, and didn't really try all that hard.

Around 1995 that changed. When I came up to Madison to enroll in law school, I stood at the bottom of Bascom Hill and thought about how, 8 years earlier, I'd come here for a semester and had to drop out. I hadn't taken my freshman year of college very seriously, and that led to many years of just frittering around. But that day, as I looked up the hill at the faraway statute of Lincoln, with the state capitol a half-mile behind me, I decided that I'd better take this part of my life seriously.  I studied and worked at law school like I'd never done before. I took extra classes and read ahead and asked questions and did all my homework. I took my jobs seriously, showing up early, working hard at them. I started my own practice and then built a substantial law practice from scratch: at my old firm, when I started, I was in a back office sharing a half-time paralegal with three other lawyers. By the time I left there the firm had grown from 12 people to 37, much of it due to my innovations and ideas.

I met Sweetie and I got serious, too: she was the only woman I ever thought of marrying, and I would have and will do anything for her.

From 1995 on, I got obsessed and stayed obsessed, and it's why, even when things have gotten tough at times, even when they were at their most stressful, I was able to focus on the important stuff: on wrestling Mr F and drawing alphabets with Mr Bunches, on going to movies with Sweetie and teaching Oldest, Middle, and The Boy to play golf. On meeting my first-ever grandson. I was surrounded by smart bears and because of that was able to channel my obsessions to the point where I don't think I'll ever stop walking by open windows.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Book 22: Xanth > Harry Potter

Piers Anthony's books hold a strange appeal for me. They have a strange sort of inartfulness, a juvenile feel to them that nonetheless hides a fair share of headier intellectual stuff.

It's not that Anthony's a great writer; he has some really very good ideas -- the Apprentice Adept series remain a high point of fantasy/scifi -- but they're presented in a kind of clunky writing style that's reminiscent of 9th grade literary efforts.

Take Heaven Cent. The protagonist is Dolph, a 9 year old shape-changing magician that goes on a quest to find the missing Magician Humfrey. Dolph, at 9, is virtually indistinguishable from some other lead characters in other Xanth books, both in terms of his personality and in terms of his actually seeming to be 9.  Dolph is basically the same as his father, Dor, who had his own turns starring in two books, and Dor was basically his father, Bink, also the star of two books. It's nearly impossible to come up with a difference between the three characters.

That's the way most of Anthony's Xanth characters are, though: they're more like archetypes than characters: the kid; the uneducated man, the shrewd woman, the aged magician, the noble king; if it weren't that each of these characters has a singular magic talent, they'd be indistinguishable. The men are all good-hearted if slightly slow-witted amiable fellows; the women are all calculating shrewishness on the surface but underneath full of wisdom and love.

Children, in the Xanth books, are especially poorly written. The reader is constantly reminded that Dolph is 9, and that's necessary because Dolph thinks and acts and speaks like a much older person, except when the story requires him to act or speak like a 9 year old -- such as a the end of a dream-sequence courtroom scene when, having acted like a pretty decent defense attorney for most of the chapter, Dolph suddenly can't think or speak a coherent sentence.

Anthony's writing is about 9th grade level, too; he tells more than he shows, and his characters have long ruminating passages where they over explain things and recap what has happened just chapters earlier. The scenes that vaguely relate to anything sexual are dropped a few grades lower (even in the books where all the characters are adults), and the books would easily earn a PG rating.

The plots, too, tend to be simplistic in nature: a character sets out to do something, runs into several distractions along the way, and ultimately realizes that the distractions have helped him/her realize something fundamental about himself, or herself, or Xanth, that then makes it possible to finish the quest.

So with all those flaws, you'd think I'd dislike the Xanth books, dislike them enough that even nostaligia and a need to take a break from heady, depressing, frightening books like the last few. But I don't.  I enjoy them. I've read two already this year and even though this one, like Vale of the Vole, was one I'd read before (albeit one I'd forgotten almost entirely), I still found it entertaining enough, and more entertaining than, say, Armada or The Wall Of The Sky, The Wall Of The Eye, to name two.

I think this is because the books themselves are so innocent. Mr Bunches occasionally writes stories at school, and his stories remind me in a way of the Xanth stories.  Not only does nothing too terrible ever happen in Xanth -- I can't think of a time when a monster or character was killed, and even the bad guys aren't really all that bad-- but the stories themselves have a childlike quality to them: there are pillow bushes and raspberry pie trees and people walk on clouds and nightmares bring bad dreams and ogres make milk curdle by looking at it.  It's like all the really fun interesting parts of fairy tales but put together in a way that you could tell your kids the stories and they wouldn't have nightmares.  It's fantasy without the bloodshed, fantasy run through a 1980s sitcom 'special episode' where everyone is friends at the end and they all Learned Something.

But even with that, the Xanth books cover some heady intellectual territory. One book featured characters working through the prisoners' dilemma, which was actually my first exposure to game theory.  This book had Dolph, at the end, consider the question of whether the ends justifies the means: he and another character were facing trial in the world of nightmares because the other character had interfered with a bad dream. In Xanth, bad dreams are crafted by nightmare creatures living inside a hypnogourd. One of the creatures, a skeleton, had been set to act in a bad dream sent to a troll: the troll had let a human kid go rather than share it with his village, which was starving, and so was supposed to suffer a bad dream, but the skeleton in the dream whispered that she thought he'd done the right thing, and so muted the impact of the dream.

(See what I mean about creativity? There's like four great ideas in that paragraph.)

The skeleton is to stand trial and Dolph is her lawyer, and before they stand trial they need to go through a series of doors to make them think about their stance. The doors pose questions like Would you let a troll die to save a human village?  And then Would you let a human die to save a troll village?   And so on to things like Would you kill a human baby to save a troll village?

These are actually pretty important philosophical questions, along the lines of the trolley problem (in which you witness a trolley, out of control, speeding towards five people on the track. You can pull a lever to divert the trolley but doing so will kill one person on the other track: what do you do?)

Each Xanth book features one or more issues like this, intellectual concepts presented amidst silly fantasy stories, and I think that's the real saving grace for these books, and why I can still read them when I can't really get into Harry Potter anymore. A while back I thought I'd listen to Potter on audiobook but I got bored a chapter in and gave it up.  The Harry Potter books as good as they are, don't present the same kind of intellectual or philosophical underpinning. They're far better written and more consistent and have better characterizations, but in the end they're just... stories.

Some of my favorite books from when I was younger are books that make you think about something other than the story.  The Narnia books, The Phantom Tollbooth, Bridge To Terabithia, The Last Of The Really Great Whangdoodles, and the Xanth books are all books like that: just under the surface of a simple story are some more intriguing concepts to mull over, and it's that which makes books like Heaven Cent have some staying power with me.  I know they're mostly silly books; there's nothing wrong with silly.  But for a silly book to still have a bit of resonance with an adult, it has to make you think a bit, too.

Speaking of philosophical questions, this never fails to crack me up:

"No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."-- Thomas Hobbes

"The pizza samples had broccoli on them."

-- Me

Monday, March 28, 2016

Always has to get the last word in

Mr Bunches wanted me to draw planets with him. He handed me a brown marker for Mercury and I said Isn't Mercury red?

He yelled MERCURY IS BROWN, so as punishment for yelling I told him to take a piece of paper and write I will not yell.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

You'll find that life is still worthwhile

Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it's breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you'll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You'll see the sun come shining through for you
Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near
That's the time you must keep on trying
Smile, what's the use of crying?
You'll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile
That's the time you must keep on trying
Smile, what's the use of crying?
You'll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile

Book 21: There ain't no such thing as a free lunch, and there's also very little in here about this book.

Here's a thought I had that I figured I'd discuss because I only have a little to say, actually, about Stephen Colbert's book, and that little amounts to (1) has anyone seen Stephen Colbert lately? and (2) a little Colbert goes a long way.

Before I get to those, though, here's the thought I had: Do you suppose that there ever really will be a "Netflix of Books?" I have subscriptions to Netflix and Hulu, the cheapest version of each, and I haven't watched cable or network tv in probably two years. Lately I've been watching The Flash (Netflix), 1978's Battlestar Galactica (Hulu) and The Magicians, online through Syfy, although to be fair I only get that because we do have DirecTV (Sweetie likes it; we have the cheapest version of that, too.)

So for $16 a month I get all my TV shows/movies fulfilled, as many as I want, rewatching them if I want.

But books? Books we pay through the nose for, or would if I didn't get them from the library. This is book 21, and the cheapest version of it would cost me $11.18 on Amazon. That's more than Sweetie and I paid to rent Creed from Amazon last week (awful movie, boring, don't bother), and about 1/2 of what we paid to see Batman v Superman in the theater. (Great movie, no matter what people are saying).

Out of curiosity I went back and added up how much I would've spent on books so far to get through 21, using the cheapest alternative on Amazon.  The total? $192.69. And that's with one book free (The Book of Bar Arguments) and one (Owen Meany) at $1.99 on Kindle.

That would mean I would spend a hypothetical $917.57 to read 100 books this year, at the average cost per book right now. That would make books if I paid for them my biggest indulgence by far: Sweetie and I rarely go out to eat, and we see 5-6 movies a year. Possibly Mr Bunches' toy budget (he is allowed one new toy per month) might equal the book tab, but if so it'd be close.

That raises the question: why are books so high-priced, at all?  And why is there no way to have books streaming? I get free music by giving Pandora control and allowing ads, or by going to Youtube and listening to whatever I want whenever I want. My movies and TV are essentially free: I watch enough episodes (and have them on in the background while I work) to make the cost of each episode of a show or a movie I watch be about 25 cents. But books stubbornly stay up there at $10 for each.

Every other popular art form has a free or low-cost version of it: you may have to wait a while to get it, or you may have to accept commercials, but either way: you can get the entertainment for free.

There have been attempts to do a Netlflix of books. The most recent was "Oyster," which actually billed itself as the Netflix of Books. It announced last September it was shutting down, as the founders were going to work for Google.  Google apparently is making a push into entertainment, because you can buy books from them and they've started advertising Google Play's music, too. That same article I linked to said Scribd, which also moved into the ebook subscription field, was pulling romance books because people got too many of them, causing Wired to speculate that ebook subscriptions work like gym memberships: they don't really want you to use them.

Back when subscription music services started, I figured they'd never catch on; people, I figured (based solely on me) wanted to own their music, not rent it. But I didn't anticipate how my music listening would change, especially after my asthma made it a near-death-experience to try to work out. Now I mostly listen to music while working, or driving in the car, and in small bursts -- so I'm happy to have my music be owned by someone else.

Ebook subscription services mostly don't have new books, which critics say holds them back: but Netflix rarely has the hottest new movies, which have to go to the theater, then pay-per-view and DVDs, then finally cable or online. So that wouldn't hold back many readers.

Some of it may be demand, both good and bad: 30% of Americans didn't even read a single book in 2014. The median number of books read by Americans that year was four, which is kind of startling to someone who loves books. Half of America read 4 or fewer books in 2014. If most people are reading 4 or fewer books per year, there won't be much of a demand for an unlimited supply of books.

On the other hand of the supply-and-demand relationship are avid book lovers like me: books aren't really able to be substituted easily for other entertainment. TV and movies are relatively interchangeable; they compete for eyeballs. Music can be produced by many sources: live, CD, online, etc. But books, regardless of if they come in print or e-versions, are books. When there are a relatively few people demanding a form of entertainment that cannot be easily copied or created by someone else, the price will remain high. Think ballet, or live sporting events.

Here's another thing that makes subscription book services less likely: the time it takes to use a book (by reading it). I can watch a television show a day during the workweek during lunch, watch a movie on Friday night with the boys, watch one on Saturday with Sweetie and then catch up on episodes of The Flash on Sundays, while still working and going outside and etc etc. That's a lot of different movies in a single week. But even trying really hard to read as many books as possible, I'm averaging a book every 4.1 days -- or less than 2 a week. And that's while trying hard to do that, skipping other kinds of entertainment. (For example, I eschew podcasts while driving now, and listen to books instead.) If I really worked at it I could get 3 books a week, but that's a tiring pace I'm unlikely to keep up with forever. Last year, I read 2-3 books a month. At an average cost of $9-10 per month, most subscription services would be more or less break-even for me, or at least only somewhat cost effective.

If, on the other hand, I wanted to purchase every season of The Flash for download if would cost me about $40 bucks a season, or roughly $2/episode. This month I've watched six episodes using my Netflix subscription, so I'm ahead of the game. Subscription services, like gym memberships, give you the biggest bang for the buck if you use more than average. That's really hard to do with books.

There've been a few innovative attempts at book-selling to make it more affordable. There's a place that will ship you audiobooks or actual paper books like Netflix does with DVDs. Plans start at $8.99 per month for 2 books a month. But I have a harder time reading actual books: I have to wear glasses to read them now, and I need a light source -- so if I'm sitting in Mr F's room until he falls asleep, it's harder to read them, especially because a flashlight keeps him awake but a computer screen doesn't.

Cory Doctorow lets you download his books as a pdf for free; I once printed a paper copy of Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom and took it with me on a trip to Washington. It wasn't too bad keeping the papers straight, and if you're tech savvy you can read those on your Kindle with a bit of work.

It looks like it'll be hard for subscription books to work because not enough people like me will sign up for them, leaving them to really avid readers.  I mentioned the "gym model" above: gyms make money when people don't use them. They don't have enough facilities to have everyone who signs up for them use them on a daily or weekly basis, so they want you to sign up and use it just enough that you keep signing up.  Book subscriptions almost certainly work like that, and like insurance: heavy users need to be subsidized by people that don't use the service at all, or very little. It'd be hard to do that with books, which might be why Amazon tried Amazon Prime along with Kindle Unlimited. We briefly looked into Prime last year. It lets you get 1 book per month, borrowed, for a $9.99 monthly charge. That's nowhere near worth it to me, since I wouldn't probably buy $9 worth of books in a given month. So Amazon threw in free 2-day shipping and some other discounts. I assume the intent is that people will get a free book every month and then maybe buy one, or buy other stuff to offset the price of the books, but the model is the same: they don't really want you getting free books.

Another possibility is the Pandora model: Pandora lets you stream music for free, but there's ads every so often, and you can't choose the songs: you pick a genre or artist or song and it provides songs like that one. (If you go by song, the song you put in is never the first one played but it'll show up eventually; Pandora has legal reasons for that rule.0

I'd subscribe to a book service that gave me free books in exchange for sitting through ads. I have the cheap version of Hulu that's chock full of ads, and I don't mind them that much. If I could, say, download a book and read it for free but had to sit through a 1 minute advertisement each time I opened it up, I'd do that in a heartbeat.  (I even once planned on selling adspace in my own books, but they sell so little it was a nonstarter).

But ads-for-books seems to be something no book lover really wants. Amazon introduced an ad-supported Kindle Fire 5 years ago.  You paid $20 less than list price for the Kindle, and in exchange your Kindle screen-saver was an ad from Amazon, which disappeared when you swiped it on.  Apparently they're still selling it, but I've never heard about it until searching around today. That's not quite what I envisioned, though: while I'd still get the ad-supported Kindle and save $20 (that's two books!) I'd rather have free or cheaper books.

There have been ads in books going all the way back to Charles Dickens' serials, and 1970s paperbacks used to have ads in them for things like Q-tips. The ads-in-books were driven in the 70s by cigarette manufacturers, who had just lost the privilege to advertise on TV and radio. By the 1980s author contracts were forbidding it.

Would that really be such a bad thing? There are ads all through magazines, and on TV, and we deal with them. Ads in books are especially easy to get by: you can turn the page without bothering to read it.  And unlike TV or movies, ads in books don't necessarily alter the mood. I remember a time I sat down to watch The Exorcist late at night on TV.  It hit one of the really scary spots and then broke away for a bright-and-sunny detergent ad. Not quite what you want in a horror movie. But if there'd been a color page-long ad for detergent in Slade House I don't think it would have changed the mood much. After all, reading is interrupted all the time. I read (listened to) Colbert's book in brief spurts over three days, and in between saw movies and went to a family get together and cooked dinner, etc., never losing the mood.

In the end, reducing the price of books means getting someone else to pay for them: either publishers and authors provide them for free (or at greatly reduced profits), or other subscribers/members don't use their benefits so I can use mine, or advertisers pay for the book and I get to use it in exchange for watching those ads. Or I use your tax dollars and keep getting them from the library, which is, after all, another subscription service: all the taxpayers join, but only a few use it.

Anyway, quickly about the book: If you like Stephen Colbert, you'll like the book, but I'd recommend breaking it into smaller segments over a longer time. I listened to the book in only a few days and by the end it was losing steam. Stephen Colbert's "Colbert Report" was funniest in small doses, and when it was taking on real news issues that were topical. The book is a lot of Stephen Colbert, and doesn't deal with any specific issue. As a parody of conservative political books, it does a fine job but parodies wear thin after a while, and this one does.

On that note, what ever happened to Stephen Colbert? For a while there it was like he was the biggest thing around: he was influencing the Amazon-versus-publishers fight, getting parts of the space station named after him, holding rallies. He took over the world there, for a while. Then he went to what, The Tonight Show or something? I'm not even sure. I can't tell you when I last heard Stephen Colbert mentioned in relation to anything. It's like he retired, even though I'm pretty sure he's doing something.

I think it's because he had to lose his edge. Like McDonald's cheeseburgers, or pop songs, any time you try to appeal to nearly everybody you have to take so many steps to not offend anyone that you end up being inoffensive -- and inoffensive people or things rarely get attention, positive or negative. I'm sure Stephen Colbert is out there somewhere being funny in a bland, Leno-esque kind of way, but it was a sad day for humor and politics when he decided not to be "Stephen Colbert" anymore. I always thought that things like his show and The Daily Show were incredible because they made people want to pay attention to otherwise-boring-seeming subjects. I feel less informed since he's gone to do other things. This book just reminded me of how funny and sharp he could be; it didn't rise up to the level of his show, but since the show's gone it's at least a dim reminder of what we're missing out on now.