This piece was bought by a major publication back in January, but they were too scared to run it. So I decided to take it back and just run it myself unedited.
How Amazon Users Steal Books
The arrest of German-Finnish superhacker (and future Mike-Myers-in-makeup-and-a-fat-suit movie character) Kim Dotcom and the seizure of his website Megaupload has left college kids fuming and me concerned about one very important issue:
How will people continue stealing my books?
Back in 1970 Abbie Hoffman encouraged people to steal his book with a titular directive, but that old-fashioned way of illegally torrenting is not really practical any more. Mainly because you don’t see bookstores around and even if you do they’re now places for the homeless to hit the loo and wash up. Ditto with libraries, now mainly for the homeless to check their e-mail and look at porn. The death of paper is clearly going to have an apocalyptic effect on the homeless lifestyle more than the publishing industry.
Still, there are other ways to get books for free.
Some are legal like BookLending.com, Kindle’s own Lending Library (though you’ll need a $79/year Prime membership), and e-mailing authors with a sob story about how you love reading but can’t scrounge together a few bucks since you were an English major in college and now can’t get a job in this economy and therefore have to shamelessly beg for a free PDF.
Most others are illegal--depending who you ask!--with countless disreputable sites like Pirates Bay, Iso Hunt, and Torrent Room still yet to be shuttered by the U.S. Department of Justice. Have at it and I hope you (don’t) find the FBI knocking on your door while you’re in flagrante torrenting.
If stealing isn’t your thing yet you still have a total disinterest in spending even a nickle on reading material, you’ll need a little ingenuity and a lot of free time, but you can read entire books on your computer via Amazon’s “Search inside” or Google Books look-through functions. As a recent Emory grad who brought this method to my attention told me, “No one in college pays for books any more. We always figure out a way to read stuff for free.”
You say, but doesn’t “Search inside” only allow you to see a few sample pages? In theory but not function. When you begin a search, you will typically be allowed to view the cover, copyright info (ha!), table of contents, and a few introductory pages before the pages quit going in numerical order and start randomly jumping ahead. For my book How to Fail, that jump-ahead occurs after page five, sending you to page nine, and that’s fairly similar to other books.
At this point, you begin typing keyword guesses into the “Search Inside this Book” box on the left sidebar until you locate either the next page sequentially or one close to it. You have some wiggle room because every time you land on a new page via a keyword search you are afforded the ability to flip back and forth several pages from where you landed.
The key is figuring out words likely to appear on every single page. Amazon doesn’t index commonplace words like “a” or "the”--though it does allow “this,” “you,” and “I”--so you’ll have to focus on words commonplace to what you’re reading. A Harry Potter book and you might guess “Hogwarts.” The Steve Jobs biography and “Apple” or “asshole” might be good. My book and “failure” should get you all the pages you lack initially. With a +/- of a few pages granted for each search, for most books you’ll only need one or two keywords to read every single page. Stealing, sure, but at least you have to think up an “Open sesame!”-like password to gain access. Though I agree with poker player and author Rafe Furst, who has used this method since 2007, but notes, “Personally, I find it tedious and not that satisfying to read a book (via “Search Inside”) and end up buying the book if I'm at all interested.”
Still, there’s an even more ethically murky way Amazon users steal books that tops all the above. I discovered it recently when looking at back-end sales totals for Kindle copies of my books, noticing a column marked “Units Refunded.”
I was baffled at first, “Who would possibly return an ebook?!” Especially ones like mine usually priced less than $5. But, month after month, around 4.5% of buyers return my books for a refund. I asked other authors if they were encountering similar numbers. Ben Nesvig, author of First World Problems: 101 Reasons Why the Terrorists Hate Us, told me he averages about 5% returns for his book. Another friend, a popular technologies writer, told me likewise, as did nearly all authors I surveyed. I put a call into Amazon and though they wouldn’t give me any exact data, I’m guessing it would indeed hover at around 5%.
Now a normal person might assume these refunds were from people that accidentally bought a book, then returned it seconds later, like when you forget to ask for extra naan on a SeamlessWeb order and have to quickly edit it before the restaurant has begun fulfillment. But, I’m no normal person, I’m a money-grubbing author that never wants to have another day job. So I dug deeper and discovered something shocking:
(To return and refund, go to Manage Your Kindle, click the actions tab for the title you’d like to return, and select “Return for Refund.”)
Seven days? Who can’t read a book in seven days?!
There are people buying ebooks, reading them quickly, then returning them for a full refund, like stay-at-home mom Elisabeth Gilbert who told me, “I have literally never spent money on an ebook since getting an iPad.” Numerous other readers told me likewise. Though I didn’t ask, I’m sure they also tuck the tags when they buy new clothes for a date, then take them back to Banana Republic in the morning.
“Those are their rules,” explains Jon, a legal professional. “I don’t feel like I’m stealing anything since Amazon allows this.”
Maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe Amazon should only allot 24 hours to make a return. Or not allow a return once you’ve read past page 20 or so, something they have the ability to monitor.
It’s not like this is completely a modern technology problem, though modern technology makes it much easier to beat the system, and makes system-beaters far less guilt-ridden, especially during these tough economic times. “Why should I feel bad? I’m not stealing anything real,” is the thought common to serial refunders like a Seton Hall student I spoke to. There’s always been people who bought hardback books, quickly read them, then returned them, capitalizing on lax 30-day refund policies at most chains. Barnes & Noble even lowered their return time to 14-days back in 2008, sick of being used as a library. Bookstores average around a 1% return rate on paper books, but who knows how many of those were people just bummed out they were given Tom Brokaw’s new tome as a Hanukkah present. (Interestingly, bookstores themselves return anywhere from 25%-50% of unsold books back to the publishers for a full refund.)
Ebooks are returned at five times the rate of physical books, because returning physical books is simply tougher. A physical book has to stay crisp and clean and it’s a physical object you literally have to drive back to a physical location. Ebooks are frivolous possession-wise: a scroll of the mouse, a click of a button, zapped to your Kindle or iPad or iPhone in a matter of seconds, then returned six days later by reversing the steps. Stealing one isn’t even zero-sum, literally an infinite number exist.
Seth Godin once told me, for a young author like myself, I shouldn’t be worried about sales or even making money, I should be worried about building a “tribe” of fans, not coincidentally also the title of one of his best-selling (selling!) books. Likewise, Paolo Coehlo is a firm believer in simply getting his books out there electronically, going so far as to pirate his own work, which he feels has greatly contributed to the 65 million sales of The Alchemist alone. And, Cory Doctorow has famously said: “For pretty much every writer, the problem isn't piracy, it's obscurity.”
So I suppose I should be thankful I’m building a tribe and becoming a little less obscure through electronic theft.
Having said that, if you truly want to get an author’s book for free, there’s a better way. Derek Jeter can’t be the only person who gives his paramours personalized parting gifts.
I watched the final Oprah show and she spent the entire hour spewing platitudes like:
"To live from the heart of yourself...You also have to know what sparks the light in you so that you, in your own way, can illuminate the world."
Gag. At least she's rich and friends with Will Smith, so I'll somewhat respect the ambiguously dull things she says. But these other people out there?!
Self-help gurus have always existed--it's one reason I wanted to bash the concept via HOW TO FAIL--but today's world is filled with some even worse breeds. Self-help gurus for the bulk of time have had to at least write a trite book, at least give a few hackneyed speeches, at least prepare a snoozerific church sermon every Sunday while the rest of us were watching football...but not any more.
Now, with the internet, this new breed of self-helpers simply needs to have a WordPress blog and a Twitter account. (And know a shit ton of buzz words.)
Here are a few of this new breed I'm detesting at the moment:
1. People Whose Dream in Life is to Talk about Their Dream in Life
"You're not rich, famous, successful yet? Well you could be--if you just did a better job of dreaming about it. You ask why I'm not rich, famous, and successful myself? Because I don't want to be. My dream in life is to talk about my dreams in life. And to help you realize your dreams in life...."
"Let me help you, become YOU..."
You're missing purpose.
You need to define your core values.
You need to develop a personal mission statement
You need some clarity.
Coaches are essentially saying, "Look, you're a lazy, unfocused, unsuccessful piece of shit. You know it. And now I know it."
We need some "sessions"--buzz word for the hour we drink coffee together that costs you $500, or worse, the thirty minutes we Skype together during which I wear pajamas and which costs you $250--at least once a week, to help you become YOU.
Of course, most of your success comes from you (I mean, YOU), when you're without me, so while I do promise I will help you dream...I don't promise you will actually accomplish these stupid, stupid dreams.
4. Productivity Gurus
"OK, here's what you need to do to start getting some work done..."
Quit looking at e-mail, checking Twitter and Facebook every five seconds, monitoring your Amazon ranking, watching reality TV, eating snacks, masturbating, having friends, going outside....
You don't say.
It gets to the point where you start to go, "Hey wait a second, if the entire world consisted of these kinds of people, then we would have no novels, no movies, no pop music, and no art.
We would just have a mass of people telling people to seize the day and live their dreams and shoot for the stars and quit their day jobs.
I was talking to James Altucher about this concept and why the internet is flooded with these kinds of charlatans and he had one simple explanation:
"Because they haven't done anything in life."
Just do something in life. That's the only advice you need. You don't need coaches or experts to tell you that. Spoiler alert: You don't even need to dream about it.
You just need to do something.
(Now give me $500 for that hour of my time.)
I met my girlfriend at a bar.
This is considered weird nowadays.
You don't meet people at bars. You meet them online.
Just ten years ago people would gloss over the fact they had met their current partner on JDate or Match or Ashley Madison. That was weird. But not any more. Now it's weird to have met someone at a bar, like in the "olden days."
Survey your friends. I guarantee the majority of them met their current partner at:
But not at a bar.
The 140 Character Conference was last week. It's yet another social media conference. Seems like there's one every single week. Just an excuse for social media types to get to skip work yet again to watch more important social media types speak about stuff everyone already kinda knows while they sit in the audience tweeting everything that is being said as if it's pure brilliance (while adding the conference hashtag).
My Tweetdeck feed was clogged all week with reports from #140conf. (Yes, ironic that I too follow countless social media types).
One thing that kept appearing in my feed was people saying things like:
"The future is about making connections!"
I don't know how many fucking times I've heard that in the last few years but especially the last few days. Like it's revelatory.
The past was about making connections too. You were just too chickenshit to make them without the protection of your computer.
It's ALWAYS been about making connections.
Due to my minor minor minor modicum of fame, I occasionally get invited to events that are attended by people I only know online. Some of these folks I would even call "friends." You spend years Tweeting with and e-mailing with and exchanging links with someone, and it starts to not matter whether you've ever even been in a room with them.
I have so many people I know only online, yet who I talk to every single day. Likewise, my "IRL" friends, I might see once a month. Who is the better friend? It's hard to say nowadays.
One such event I got invited to last year I was so stoked to attend. There was going to be a few dozen longtime e-friends attending and I was excited to finally put faces with names, hear their voices.
And then I arrived and met a group of dweebs too scared to look me in the eye, too nervous to even speak to me.
You think I'm being harsh, but I'm not.
These people couldn't live offline.
At first I thought they were disappointed in me. "That's him?!" But, later, I realized they were just scared of real, in-person social interaction. Because, the second we parted ways, my e-friends went back to being chatterboxes (online chatterboxes that is), emailing me, and posting stuff, and Tweeting about the great time they had with @aarongoldfarb.
It was a bit of a revelation.
Some relationships nowadays can only be e-relationships. Should only be online relationships.
And there's nothing wrong with that.
(Then again, I also have friends I ONLY want to deal with in person. (Too many emoticons online))
So, this is a long-winded way of saying:
However you make connections, it matters. It's important.
The ability to make connections from the protection of a computer has just given more nerdy chickenshits a voice.
And, I can't believe I'm saying this:
But that's a good thing.
I'm an egomaniac so I have a Google Alert set-up for "Aaron Goldfarb." Sometimes I try to convince myself that it's not because I'm an egomaniac, that I actually need to monitor online discussions about me just to make sure my brand is well-liked, but that's bullshit. I just like to see what people are saying about me. That's why, it's the worst when I get a Google Alert about some Aaron Goldfarb who isn't me. Like I got this morning.
Back in the late-1990s, before there was Google and Facebook and Twitter, and before even your grandma had an online presence, there was something called the Online White Pages, essentially a massive online phone book. I entered "Aaron Goldfarb" into it one day while sitting in my sophomore dorm room and got back six entries for six different Aaron Goldfarbs across America. Being that I wasn't even one of those, I assumed there were others not listed and there might be, say, 12-20 Aaron Goldfarbs in all of America.
I figured I should at least try to be the best, most famous Aaron Goldfarb of those few dozen.
In the early 2000s I bought the domain aarongoldfarb.com because I'm so arrogant that I assumed I would need it one day.
With nothing significant going on in my life, though, a functioning aarongoldfarb.com was not necessary for the first few years I owned it. So, yes, I was squatting on my own name. I needed money at the time too so if another Aaron Goldfarb quickly got famous I would have probably sold him the domain for the right price.
The first Aaron Goldfarb to become famous, or infamous, actually happened in 1999. Some Maryland fifteen-year-old named, unfortunately, Aaron Goldfarb murdered some fellow teens. He instantly became the #1 Google listed "Aaron Goldfarb" from that point forward. That was really a blow to my name brand and I fretted for weeks that this story would develop some legs. It never did, only once did a person even bring him up to me, though that Aaron Goldfarb did stay at #1 on a Google search of my name for the next decade.*
For the rest of the 2000s, there were other Aaron Goldfarbs online doing cooler stuff than me and appearing higher in Google searches than me:
*An emergency medicine doctor from California.
*Another doctor, this one a pathologist from Michigan. (You're probably not surprised that Aaron Goldfarb is a doctor-y name.)
*A guy who fronts a rock band out of Austin, Aaron and the Polynomials. (It was he who appeared in my Google alert this morning--he seems pretty cool.)
But, since late last year, ever since "How to Fail" came out, I've dominated the Google front page for my...our...name.
I wonder if these other Aaron Goldfarbs ever Google me? I wonder if they've read my book? I wonder if they're angry about me stealing their search engine thunder? I wonder if they've turned off their Google Alerts for "Aaron Goldfarb"?
I wonder if they'd send me an e-mail if I ask them too?
(Speaking of, since I own aarongoldfarb.com, if any other Aaron Goldfarbs e-mail me, I'll gladly issue you a [name]@aarongoldfarb.com e-mail address. Of course, you can't be aaron or aarongoldfarb @aarongoldfarb.com, so I guess you probably wouldn't want one. But, I could probably hook you up with firstname.lastname@example.org or something, which is really lame come to think of it.)
In December of 2010 I finally jumped ahead of the child murderer to hit #1, where I remain on top at the present.
Hopefully another Aaron Goldfarb doesn't ever again do something famous or infamous. Hopefully one of these other Aaron Goldfarbs doesn't try to murder me.
That would surely light up the Aaron Goldfarb search returns.
How about you? Does any one "have" your name?
*UPDATE!: Ha, I shot myself in the foot. By linking to the Aaron Goldfarb murderer, I shot him back to #1 in the Google search. Thus, like a little bitch, I removed the link. How to Fail. Truly.
"...for he who does not postpone his life, but lives already."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance"
And if you wait until your older
A sad resentment will smolder one day
And Then that summer feeling is gonna haunt you
And that summer feeling's gonna taunt you
And then that summer feeling is gonna hurt you
One day in your life.
-Jonathan Richman, "That Summer Feeling"
I'm tired of people talking about things they want to do before they die.
It's almost become de rigeuer for any one with a website or blog or Tumblr or Facebook page--so, like everyone you know--to one day post their master bucket list (typically written when they're bored at the office and have a spare 5 minutes).
Such trite selections, always the same as everyone else's, quickly jotted off in haphazard fashion.
Does everyone in America really want to climb a mountain in every continent, or do they just think they should want to?!
Does everyone really have that aching of need to dip a toe in every ocean on planet earth or does that just sound like...way vagabond-y, man?
Do you really have any reason for visiting Antarctica or does that just sound cool to you?
Why would you possibly dream of sharing a tea with Kate Middleton or a coffee with Michelle Obama or a beer with George Clooney? Who gives a shit?
If everyone actually accomplished their bucket lists then it would seem by 2050 we'd have a world where everyone had: run a marathon, learned to speak Italian, swam with the dolphins, and fucked Brooklyn Decker.
I really don't want to do any of that shit.
How about, instead of rotely going about life checking off an arbitrary bucket list...
How about figuring out the shit you need to get out of the way before you're finally able to live?
Do you need to quit that shitty job?
Do you need to move to a more productive city?
Do you need to dump that bitch girlfriend?
Do you need to simply start writing that novel???
Time is the only commodity you can't create more of.
Why are you so concerned with trying to accomplish these insignificant things? Just to say you did?
Why are you more concerned with figuring out what you'd like to check off in the next 40, 50, or 60 years, when you "get around to it," before you die?
Why not figure out what you need to do in the next minute, hour, week, or month before you can start living the life you want to live?
Even if that is swimming with stupid dolphins...
You've probably noticed these people. They don't write blog posts that are particularly interesting yet each one gets 50 comments. They don't Tweet anything particularly witty yet they get 25 Retweets. They don't post particularly worthwhile status updates yet get 65 "LIKES." They have 10,000 or 20,000 or sometimes even 100,000 "followers" but they aren't famous in any sense of the word. How can that be?
Then, you start to notice that these people have the exact same people commenting on all their posts and Retweeting all their crap and LIKING all their shit. So you check those people out: they too have boring blogs, they too don't Tweet anything particularly witty yet get 25 Retweets, they too don't post particularly worthwhile status updates yet get 65 "LIKES," they too have 10,000 or 20,000 or sometimes even 100,000 followers but aren't famous at all.
And so on and so on and so on. Non-famous, non-interesting, non-relevant people forming an online circle jerk continually regurgitating each other's content and letting it bounce around like a racquetball trapped inside the court.
You get enough people in the circle, enough participants, and it makes it seem like all of the participants are actually creating something worthwhile.
I mean, they have to be, right? If that many people are interested?
Yet, they never create anything that actually escapes from the circle, that any one on planet earth outside of the circle cares about. They don't seem to offer much to the world.
This isn't Tribe-building, this is a tacit gaming of the system.
I'm almost surprised there isn't a web 2.0 company called Circle Jerk (though it would probably be called Crcl Jrk--vowels just aren't sexy on the web) to help place people into certain sized groups with others. They would all make each other seem like they all had something going on.
Maybe there already is this service.
Just please don't Google "circle jerk" to find out.
I was talking to a good friend yesterday. We're real friends but we're also Facebook friends, and she "LIKES" my celebrity (or whatever you're supposed to humbly call it) Facebook page, and I think she might even follow me on Twitter, and she's certainly on my Mail Chimp mailing list and perhaps even subscribes to my blog's RSS feed. Oh, she also happens to date my manager.
Any way, we were e-mailing--I told you we're friends--and she asked when the winning film from The Cheat Sheet Film Festival would be posted online for her to see.
I was stupefied.
Why? Let's see:
*I'd twice written blog posts about it.
*I'd posted a link to the Vimeo upload of it on my Facebook page and posted additional links every time I'd written further blog posts about it.
*I'd done likewise on my celebrity Facebook page.
*And, I'd Tweeted about it ad nauseum.
I don't bring this up to slam her. She did nothing wrong. I did. I am apparently doing something quite wrong.
How does an artist make the unaware aware?
This isn't an isolated incident. It happens quite a bit. People that want to hear about me, desire to hear from me, are curious to hear what I'm doing, have given permission to me to market to them, oh, and are actively looking for and anxiously waiting for my newest shit...MISS IT. People that spend a lot of their lives online as well.
What am I doing wrong?
Why is my stuff getting lost in the online ether?
What can I do to fix it?
It's scary that I'm not even batting 1.000 with the people that crave my content.
Would more people read my blog if it had a red and blue color scheme?
Would more people Like my Facebook page if I added a Like-gate?
Would more people RT my tweets if I tweeted more often?
Would more people subscribe to my mailing list if I offered special newsletter-only content on a monthly basis?
How often should I be using my Mail Chimp?
Should I only be showing a portion of my blog posts? Only the titles?
Should I be only posting things online at certain optimal-impression hours?
Should I worry about SEO?
How often do I need to be blogging?
Do I need more evergreen content?
Am I annoying my fans? Or not offering them enough content?!
These are the kind of thoughts that stupidly haunt me sometimes. That make me obsessed. They're hard to avoid. But, it's really just mental masturbation. How to masturbate at work: worry more about the tiny insignificant facades of "work" than actually doing the work.
Oh, and they are insignificant concerns. Excuses for why your book isn't selling as well as you think it should. Excuses for why you don't have as many Facebook fans, don't get RT'ed as much, don't have a massive opted-in mailing list.
It's hard not to find yourself fooling around on the internet and finding blogs and Facebook fan pages and Twitter feeds that are getting the results you want--but don't have--which make you think:
"Should I be doing what that guy's doing?"
You should only be worried about creating great work. Great unique work. Completely different from everyone else's work.
Like a pithy blog post with links to everything I've ever worried about.
Which I hope people will now click on.
Back in the day, every so often I'd get bored with my real (and unsuccessful) writing career and think:
It's time to create one of those high concept blogs that quickly goes viral, gets tons of ads and a book deal, makes me rich, and finally allows me to live the good life.
Here were two notable attempts.
December 2005-March 2006
Why I Started it: I'd always see Cosmopolitan magazines (and women's magazines of the ilk) sitting around my sister's place and think, "Jesus, do these people know anything about sex?"
How it Succeeded: A lot of people apparently liked to see these dumbass magazines and their dumbass advice getting ripped on and, very quickly, IAACGL was featured everywhere: Gawker, Nerve, even MSNBC. I was getting tens of thousands of readers per day, sometimes even hundreds of thousands. I was arrogant (and stupid) though so I didn't realize that was pretty good. I was also getting solicited for tons of dates. Writing anonymously--I'm not so sure why I cared about my anonymity back then, I suppose I just thought it was what bloggers were "supposed to" do--I'd have assumed most people would think a lady or homosexual was the one penning a Cosmo snark blog, but, no, everyone knew it was a heterosexual man. I went on a few of these dates, one with a woman who actually wrote the sex column for Cosmo, but nothing ever materialized.
Why I Hated it: Back then, in the early days of blogging, you had to know basic HTML to do anything online so every time I wanted to post something with any formatting or images, I had to have my coding-knowledgeable sister do it for me. That got annoying. Almost as annoying as scouring women's magazines every night for material.
How I Know I Was Onto Something: Even to this day, I still get comments on half-decade old posts and emails to the website. And, I still think it's a pretty good idea for a snark site, an idea that no one is still doing successfully (unless I'm unaware, which I'd probably am because snarking on women's mags really does not interest me).
November 2008-March 2009
Why I Started it: Living and working in midtown New York, passing through Times Square and Rock Center every single day, I got so goddamn sick of bumbling crowds of tourists. One such day, when I got home, I registered a blog on WordPress, and quickly wrote: "Give me your tired, your poor, your disgustingly fat retarded sloths that get in my fucking way every time I try to negotiate midtown…"
How it Succeeded: It was featured in even more places than the Cosmo blog. In all of the NYC local blogs but most notably, in a feature on Gothamist where they absolutely hammered me for being so mean-spirited and not respecting the New York "melting pot." I may have been hammered, but any press is good press when you're ripping on tourists because countless fellow New Yorkers agreed with me and started emailing me and commenting on my blog. I was amazingly so busy from all the press, I did nothing for several days but work on NYC Tourists.
Why I Hated it: Gothamist was actually...kinda right. I started feeling bad about mocking these kindly, defenseless slobs from middle America. And I really fucking hated now walking around at all times with my camera shutter ready to take absurd pictures. I wanted to just live. I also didn't want to do the work it took to keep producing content. I still liked the idea of the blog, in theory, and it was certainly one I'd have liked to read every day, I just didn't want to be the one creating it. I wanted the site to quickly grow into a site (or sites, one unrelated site sprung up in DC based on my tourist-hating inspiration) solely run by contributors, walking around taking their own pictures and uploading them with their own captions while I sat back cashing the checks.
How I Know I Was Onto Something: Within months of me folding up shop, other snarky photo websites such as People of Wal-Mart and Look at This Fucking Hipster sprung up, getting tons of readers and contributors, book deals and earnings. I was clearly *that* close.
Now, I like my beer blog and certainly this personal blog a ton more than these previous attempts. But, they also get a ton less readers, comments, and everything else. Such is life I suppose. Maybe this piece will get reblogged and retweeted and I'll soon hate this blog too.
I always told myself I wasn't goofing around. But a part of me thought I was just kidding myself.
I always told myself I wasn't just ignoring real work in favor of mindlessness. But I wasn't sure.
I always told myself there was a point to all this information gathering. But was there?
I've always been obsessed with information. Back when I was a kid there was no internet, so I had to serve my addiction by multi-tasking. Reading books while watching TV while scanning newspapers and magazines while devouring movies. The introduction of the internet was like switching to freebase.
You say, we are all obsessed with information. Yes, we all are obsessed with the truly important things: knowing how the U.S. economy is doing and what's happening in Libya and who is going to win the Eastern Conference and who Jennifer Aniston is currently fucking. But, I've also always been obsessed with the minor minor curios of the world.
Who harbored John Wilkes Booth while he was on the lam? Dr. Samuel Mudd.
Who witnessed the eruption of Vesuvius? Pliny the Younger.
What's the name of the minor league hockey team in Macon, Georgia? Why the Macon Whoopee of course.
I like knowing this stuff. I like stuffing my brain. I like reading random Wikipedia entries for fun. I like being the guy that can dominate Trivial Pursuit, impress his friends when "Jeopardy!" comes on, and be a show-off at parties. I like when someone shouts: "Why do you know that?!"
I sometimes did wonder why I knew that. Why I needed to know that. Was I just a jack of all worthlessness? My manager Craig pointed out otherwise.
We were in Atlantic City on the book tour at a great 24/7 bar called The Irish Pub. There we met a great group of young Air Force airmen about to ship off to Pakistan. We were drinking beers and shooting the shit, when I questioned a shy kid with a thick drawl as to his hometown.
"Ah, you've prolly never heard where I'm from."
"It's a small town in Georgia that ain't got nothing going on: Macon."
"Macon? Sure I've heard of Macon. The Macon Whoopee still play there?"
You should have seen his eyes light up and the smile that appeared across his face. He had an immediate connection with me. After staring at the ground for our entire conversation he finally looked me in the eye. I was now his friend. We went and got some beers. He was soon a book purchaser. And Craig, and the other people around us, still had no fucking idea what the Macon Whoopee is. Or was.
Later, on the car ride to our next tour stop, as I explained to Craig what had happened, how I had referenced an obscure sports team that only a local would know about (or should know about!), Craig explained to me who I was:
A guy who had been spending his entire life learning stuff in order to make the world smaller. To have something to talk about. To make instant connections. To turn strangers into friends. And, now we were learning, strangers into book buyers. It was actually an incredibly useful skill I had been wasting my time acquiring.
And my life flashed before me. All the people I'd ingratiated myself to through my information obsession.
How knowing strange baseball statistics had helped me get friends.
How knowing about education politics had helped me get a girlfriend.
How knowing oddball movies had led to Craig wanting to be my manager.
How knowing obscure Scotches had charmed my publisher.
And on and on and on.
So, perhaps I don't need to know about the Macon Whoopee, but I'm glad I do.
And read HOW TO FAIL to see everything I've ever learned in 32 years crammed into a novel.