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On diaries, ebooks, kindles, twitter, life, death, my friend Philip, Steve Jobs’ legacy and meeting Ralph Fiennes)

Posted on 25 January 2012 | 6:01am

I am trying my best to get used to this ebook thing, having ‘a book out’ but with nothing to give to friends, nothing to sign for people who ‘buy’ it, no physical product to point to as you talk about it.

So last night, when I was talking about diaries with fellow diarist and media sceptic Chris Mullin at an event organised by The Institute for Government, I sensed both of us felt more comfortable with these big slabs of book – seven volumes and several novels between us so far – sitting there on tables in the bar area.

Yet I was the one arguing for politicians to embrace the social media of the digital age – whilst staying alive to its downsides – as a way to let politicians and public shape a better debate than the one promoted by the mainstream media. A man from Twitter told me afterwards I ought to be on their payroll for the promotion I gave them — go on then!

And, as I sit here bashing this out before heading to Gatwick for a flight to Budapest, I am looking at the three books I’m planning to take with me, (the Steve Jobs biography, The Help and David Malouf’s ‘The Happy Life‘), and I’m thinking ‘that’s a lot of space, and a fair bit of weight for a man who never does hold luggage.’ So I find myself going online elsewhere, and getting them for my ipad kindle, if that is the correct terminology And while there I see other books I suddenly fancy, and I add them too. I started with 3 taking up a third of one compartment in my wheelie bag, and ended with 6 taking up a sliver of an ipad. I’ll only read one max two and finish neither, as I’m back tomorrow night.

Part of me is screaming ‘I like BOOKS, I like paper, I like the feel, I like typography, I like the coffee cup stains, I like to know how far through I am, I like Daunt Books bookmarks … I like to see what everyone else is reading on the train, the plane, in the airport lounges.’

But the more rational part is doing what my equally technophobic literary agent Ed Victor told me he did recently before a holiday – got the books he wanted to take, packed them, unpacked them, and then nervously downloaded the lot of them to his kindle.

In the States there were more than four million kindles sold as Christmas presents. Standing against this tide reminds me of the silent movie actor in The Artist who couldn’t adapt to the arrival of talkies. We gotta go with the flow.

So I am, I am, which is why I have barely mentioned last week’s paperback publication of volume 3 of my diaries, (annoying one part of Random House) whilst – as you may have noticed – banging on all over the online place about The Happy Depressive (to the delight of Digital Dan the man trying to get ebooks to take over the world).

The Guardian is the only paper to run a big chunk. The Times did an excellent editorial. The FT have run a piece and a couple of letters on what it says about mental health in the workplace. I’ve done a couple of radio and telly things. But all the promotion has been online, and the best promotion has been from people who have read it, tweeted they liked it or reviewed it on Amazon, or both, sufficient already for agent and publisher to be asking if I don’t have another mental health book in me.

So I confess to mild feeling of chuffed-ness on being told by Digital Dan that I was yesterday just one slot behind the Steve Jobs biography in the itunes biography and memoirs charts (of whose existence I was unaware until that moment). But there we were, Jobs’ stern face at Number 5, mine just below at Number 6, both a little way behind Confessions of a GP in top slot, and by this morning I was back at 9.

But it got me thinking, as writing the ebook did, about death and legacy. The chart itself is part of Jobs’ legacy. So was my looking at the chart, its instantaneousness, its responsiveness to real time change, its absorption of the views and behaviour of people all around the world.

I’ve only skimread Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography – it’s one of the reasons I was planning to put it in my bag for the flight to Budapest – but I have been fascinated by the coverage of the book, and of Jobs’ death more generally.

When he died weeping supporters created shrines to their demigod outside their temples, Apple Stores, all over the world. Many of the obituaries, overwhelmed by the twin words ‘grief’ and ‘genius’ on the rolling news channels, tended to avoid the less savoury or less successful chapters in his life story. Not so the Isaacson book which is far from an unqualified hagiography. A lot of the media comment sprung from his past experiments with LSD, his status as a hippy billionaire, contrasted with the often harsh treatment of his employees.

The products Apple create are sleek, must-have desirable, have helped define the modern era, and changed the way we live forever, but Jobs himself was very much a (flawed) human being. Apparently he was driven to the point of monomania and exerted an influence on his employees that sought them to explain their decisions through the prism of his own feelings and objectives: it seems good ideas were good because they conformed to his expectations, but bad ideas were often dismissed as ‘shit’ and the onus was on the originator of that idea to bring Steve around to the point that he believed he had come up with it.

He also made many mistakes along the way, survived many setbacks, shed many tears and yet he really did change the world we live in.

So I am left wondering – was Steve Jobs happy? Would he have summed up his own life as a happy one? Was he content with his achievements when he died? I’ve written here and in The Happy Depressive about my friend and colleague Philip Gould reaching a near blissful state of fulfillment when he reached ‘the death zone’ stage of his fight with cancer. As I hope The Guardian extract showed, he faced death with a force and a serenity that was for his friends a thing of solace and even beauty, however much we cried when finally he went. In Jobs’ famous Stanford Commencement address from 2005 he confided with the audience about his then recent recovery from the cancer that would return and kill him, stating that he hoped to live for a few more decades more and that ‘No-one wants to die’,  but –tellingly− he added, ‘Death is the destination we all share, and that’s how it should be, because death is likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent: it clears out the old to make way for the new.’ I think Philip would have agreed wholeheartedly with this. New Labour New Britain and all that. He rewrote his brilliant book, The Unfinished Revolution, as a ‘letter to the next generation,’ and his own account of his battle with cancer and eventual death will be told in the posthumous An Unfinished Life.’

If the pursuit of happiness is life’s journey, then death is its ultimate destination and, in many ways, its ultimate fulfilment. I can’t claim to have any great or privileged insight into the life of Steve Jobs, but what he helped create in his work at Apple and at Pixar has at least contributed to the happiness of millions, and that must have meant a lot to him when he passed away, as did perhaps even more so the knowledge that his work would impact on generations to come.

I’m guessing, but if Philip reached 8 on the death zone happiness meter (and that is as high as it can get in my worldview) I reckon Jobs would be a 6.5. I’m currently around 4 but as I say in the ebook, we don’t really know until we near the end, and we do our own reckoning about whether by our own criteria – mine are family, relationships which endure, fulfilment through achievement, and experiences which matter to us and to others and from which we learn – whether we have lived a happy life.

Forgive me for guessing about Jobs, but people guess about each other all the time. Like when I was having lunch with  Ed Victor yesterday, in walks Ralph Fiennes – Ed knows him, I don’t – and I start the lunch saying I thought he was a great actor but he didn’t seem my kind of guy, and after meeting him an hour later thought he was nothing like I expected and totally charming.

Maybe Steve Jobs would have had the same effect. I only met him once and it was as part of a frenetic and over-crowded meeting with lots of big egos and big ideas and I couldn’t really form an impression. So all I have to go on is other people’s words and memories, and a powerful legacy shaped by the words, memories and actions of millions and millions of people, many yet unborn.

Enough … At this rate I’ll miss the plane. Ta-ta. Memo to WHS — have any stock of the diaries ready, I’ll sign on the way through North Terminal. I’m not embracing this brave new world to the exclusion of the old one you know. Not yet.

  • Dominic Newbould

    Cars are more convenient than horse-drawn carriages, and we’ve learned to love them. As much? Maybe… Who knows…?
    But my shelves are full of great books, first editions and fine bindings, because I’m a bibliophile in a big way. But first, I’m a reader, so I’ve often got a little Sony eReader in my pocket.
    I don’t think paper books will ever be marginalised into mere collectors’ items. But ask me again in 100 years!

  • Liz

    I shared your worry about e-book reading for ages, then I had a Kindle slightly imposed on me last Christmas. I wrote a couple of blog posts about it which might be useful on what I download for it: http://libroediting.com/2011/02/01/on-e-book-readers/ and obviously this won’t resonate so much as you are OK waving your iPad around in public, but it was odd taking a Kindle on the bus for the first time http://libroediting.com/2011/04/29/using-my-kindle/

    By the way, reading your e-book has made me want to read your diaries, which I never quite fancied before somehow, so there is a value and real books will be sold or borrowed from the library on the back of it! I always say I’m not unique, I’m representative of a demographic, so hope that cheers a little!

  • Mike

    Read poems on short trips – DEATHZONE (in tribute to Philip Gould) http://wp.me/p1WvzO-h /via @wordpressdotcom 

  • Ehtch

    I think Steve Jobs just didn’t like natterers talking water cooler talk, and people coming up with ideas for coming up with ideas sake, as like those work for work sake types. He wanted honest ideas with substance that he saw he could sell. He no doubt scared the shit out of some of his employees who he judged as such.

    Hope I am making some sort of sense here. Just going on personal experience, usually of ones in a more senior position than me.

  • Anonymous

    I’m sure Alastair must be feeling like a bit of a guinea pig for this ebook thing. Would it not be better to let other people blaze the trail and see if it works, then use it if its proven to work.

    Like many people I hope that in future amazon will offer a deal where you get the book and the kindle version. I like all the good things about books that Alastair mentions, and all the good things about e-books. If I had both I could have the book in the house, then when travelling catch up with it on iphone kindle then return to the book again when I go home.

    The first couple of kindle books I bought were about £2-3 compared to about £7-8 for paperback version. Now it seems the prices are evened up for new books at around a tenner so we are not getting the advantages of the savings on printing, on logistics and so on, though maybe advertising and demand trumps this for new books. I would have thought it could settle to the point where the kindle version could be say £6 and the paperback £9, but get both for £10-11.

  • Libdem

    I’ve had to resort to buying real books on occasion as the kindle version has been more expensive than the paperback version. But, the kindle is a fab idea for when you’re travelling.

  • Kelly

    Can’t afford to buy books or kindles and only read AC’s diaries and other books when I ask for them as birthday presents, ah well at least we do still have some libraries.

  • Steve

    I have just finished his three Diaries and I thought they were superb.If I have one gripe it is that I felt he was far too nice to Clare Short and Frank Field,but you cant have everything.

  • Anonymous

    Off topic but to anyone who cares about Labour, I saw Tim Stanleys blog the other day where he talked about the leftie Harry Truman getting elected in America after he “pledged that government expenditure should never exceed income”.

    There is an open goal there for Ed if he wants it. The public doesn’t trust labout not to borrow us to oblivion again. He should make the same pledge with a constitutional gdp linked spending limit.

    Open goal Ed, open goal.

  • Carmel Hennessy

    Books are familiar and comfortable, the change to ebooks is the same as digital photos. It will be a loss to history. If a book comes out as only an ebook then as modern technology advances the ability to read an ebook from say 2012 will be limited with kindles etc as they will be too old fashioned. How many photos have been lost to us due to people digitally storing them and then breaking their PC for example.

    ebooks are cold, bad for ones eyes I imagine to be looking at a screen all the time and no personal touch with signing etc.

  • Anonymous

    Yep I’ve had to buy the cheaper paperback versions sometimes too, so annoying! This same thing will happen once we get ‘cheaper’ energy than petrol, mark my words!

    Like Alastair, I’m not sure if its the right term but I like kindle app on my iphone best for travelling as it fits in my pocket and kindles don’t. Rubbish battery life though. I think they need to make a folding kindle like the nintendo DS style, so it fits in the pocket but can fold open to book size – I’d definitely buy one then.

  • Ehtch

    Common and decent – does that exist anymore? Discuss.

  • Ehtch

    Why does the BBC present themselves as the like the Daily Mail in their online news, and at morning Breakfast telly mainly?
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/
    They are not out to make money, so why the fantastic yabba-dabba-do-dah headlines? Baffles me. They are subsidised non-profit, so why are they carrying on like the Tory party in the H of C. If I met Bill and Sian in the street, maybe i would give them a good slap, but I would certainly tell them to grow up.

    News at any level in the beeb in our country should be presented as staid – anything other suggests a tory nazi state is in action. THERE. I have said it. Diolch, and Sian can cnucho bant (trans welsh – fuck off).

  • Ehtch

    Sunspots seem to be affecting this site at the moment – keep rejecting my posts then finally accepting one, then posts them all. Modern technology? My arse, and I am a trained engineer, so yeh, wait for the big sunspot, and it will be crappo city in our world village, as per sign coming here,
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16701407
     
    And oh yes all, have a nice day.

  • Dave Simons

    Libraries are under major threat, internally and externally, just as they were in the early 1990s to 1997. If you like them, get ready for battle with the old enemy. They had a good run during the Labour years, but Tory philistines are back in the ascendancy.

  • ZintinW4

    I was at a writers workshop last Autumn and the view of publishing agents suggested that digital books were a fad. My own view is that digital publishing does for writing what the New Wave movement has done for music. The industry can no longer be run and controlled by a powerful elite. As with punk, at times, some of the quality may be poor, but the challenge to the publishing establishment is very real.

  • Ehtch

    Romania and Wales see, this is what the SE English tories can’t grasp. Anyway, many peoples would not like to give the SE english tories the light of day, ey, friend?
    http://www.scarlets.co.uk/eng/news/4609.php

    And Ukraine visiting Wales, as they have done for many decades, iron curtain up, or down, somehow,
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OEdv-jpSjkI

  • Primrose Hillbilly

    Al,
    you mention legacy.

    Waat do you think you willb e remembered for?

    Peter Oborne in the DT doesn’t appear to be in much doubt:

    “The rot started at the top. Much changed under the Blair government where, incredibly, it became normal for the prime minister’s official spokesman to lie on the record. Tony Blair himself repeatedly deceived Parliament, often on vital issues involving peace and war.

    I’m guessing that he’s referring to your goodself, unless he thinks you and TB are pretty much interchangeable, and so by and large the same person.

  • Michele

    Re Jobs  … it’s impossible to only ever make choices that inspire everyone and not disappoint some temporarily, not while teams have to compete and share research / production budgets.  Their fellow geniuses just have to  learn to roll with the punches, gulp!

    Apple customer service is unbelievable, any Apple or Mac product no matter how ancient or which retailer it was bought through qualifies for an appointment at their Genius Bar.  No waiting forever in a Customer Service Dept ….. make an appt, turn up and be seen on time by a trained specialist and if repairs are needed they can sometimes be done there and then by service depts on site.  They really do help to keep even vintage items going, my old iMac was thronged there a few months ago by kiddie staff members thrilled to see another example of the British designer’s giant jelly bean (which saved the company from the doldrums following Jobs’s sulking(?) absence).

    Their larger outlets have lecture theatre workshops giving free sessions in the use of all their software.

    It’s all very much like the spirit at JLP/Waitrose, dealing only in quality; I’ve never seen a bored-looking staff person at any.  Yes it all comes at a price but that’s the price of stafff being paid well and fairly.

    —-

    I reckon Nick Clegg is realising that upfront rudeness (even if it includes a shi1 or 2), when it’s couched in passionate earnestness, might actually be preferable to covert activity behind smarmy pseudery.  Why else is he having to go public today to try to get the public rallying to his support (after what must be months of getting nowhere in private discussions – albeit their doubtless being quiet and polite with Osbo)?

  • Michele

    Spending as investment is not the same as spending to fund tax cuts.

    If you can’t see the covert spending being performed at the moment that’s because you choose not to (or perhaps, like the UK’s majority, it’s not spending that is chinking or clanging or rustling in to your pocket).

    Investment:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-16738045   

    Cuts:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-16739311
    This won’t be down to redundancies and the noise they would cause, it will be down to not recruiting to replace leavers. 
    Let’s hope there are no more riots that can only be quelled by police numbers (which I prefer spending on any day rather than consider the possibility of ours being armed at all times).

  • ZintinW4

    I was at a writers workshop last Autumn and the view of publishing agents suggested that digital books were a fad. My own view is that digital publishing does for writing what the New Wave movement has done for music. The industry can no longer be run and controlled by a powerful elite. As with punk, at times, some of the quality may be poor, but the challenge to the publishing establishment is very real.

  • Michele

    Peter Oborne can write well and on occasions keep his head, he can also go all potty pantomime dame as he did on Any Qs last weekend.

    Will your fellow-lurker and EDL-type entourage be filing along as before, stroking your post’s base?

  • Anonymous

    Here is another one of my contrary ideas for people like Janiete who can’t work out if I’m left or right (presumably I can’t be both or neither.)

    Benedict Brogan asked in the telegraph today (not so fast, I read the guardian too lol) that:”is Mr Clegg saying that those at the top earning big bucks are less hard-working than those at the bottom?”

    Well if he isn’t, I am! Here is one of the issues closest to my heart. I have done manual factory work as well as professional or office work. I know the difficulty involved in jobs like software, engineering and finance, and have felt almost suicidal with stress at times.
    Nevertheless, those who have never done proper physical work, which is a large chunk of our population, and the vast majority of our commentators and certainly politicians, have NO business telling other people that they should do those jobs, because they have no idea how tough it is.

    So when the likes of Boris Johnson says people should go work in pret, or when people who have been office workers all their life slag off unemployed factory workers – it makes my blood BOIL!

    As much as I don’t like or rate the guy, the one person I have heard making any sort of argument in this direction is Andy Burnham.

  • Michele

    Peter Oborne often writes well and on occasions keep his head, he can also go all potty pantomime dame as he did on Any Qs last weekend.

    Will your fellow-lurker and EDL-type entourage be filing along as before, stroking your post’s base?

  • Michele

    Lurve the pic of Huhne apparently doing Swan Lake in the article you’ve C&Ped oh so (cough) selectively from :

    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/peteroborne/100132665/hester-and-huhne-are-symbols-of-a-country-in-moral-freefall/

  • Anonymous

    Yes spending is different than investment, and a lot of what Brown called investment was actually spending, thats correct.
    Truman knew there was a difference too don’t you think?

    But for this one, lets just lump them together as “expenditure”. I agree with Truman (and many others) that expenditure should not exceed income, except under two circumstances:
    1. War (major war)
    2. Current account surplus

    “If you can’t see the covert spending being performed at the moment that’s because you choose not to (or perhaps, like the UK’s majority, it’s not spending that is chinking or clanging or rustling in to your pocket).”
    You are joking right – I always complain about this governments overspending!

    As for your links, if it was up to me we’d have a lot more spending on the NHS and a lot more spending on police (and prisons.) I’d pay for it by disbanding all the at best useless and at worst damaging departments I used to work for/on. I’d also simplify all tax and benefit systems. And “renegotiate” our IT contracts.

    On police, here is an interesting blog. Made me have a rethink on elected commissioners:
    http://inspectorgadget.wordpress.com/

  • ZintinW4

    I was at a writers workshop last Autumn and the view of publishing agents suggested that digital books were a fad. My own view is that digital publishing does for writing what the New Wave movement has done for music. The industry can no longer be run and controlled by a powerful elite. As with punk, at times, some of the quality may be poor, but the challenge to the publishing establishment is very real.

  • ZintinW4

    I was at a writers workshop last Autumn and the view of publishing agents suggested that digital books were a fad. My own view is that digital publishing does for writing what the New Wave movement has done for music. The industry can no longer be run and controlled by a powerful elite. As with punk, at times, some of the quality may be poor, but the challenge to the publishing establishment is very real.

  • ZintinW4

    I was at a writers workshop last Autumn and the view of publishing agents suggested that digital books were a fad. My own view is that digital publishing does for writing what the New Wave movement has done for music. The industry can no longer be run and controlled by a powerful elite. As with punk, at times, some of the quality may be poor, but the challenge to the publishing establishment is very real.

  • Ehtch

    not many takers for my discussion it seems.

    You’re all not common and decent, oh yes. I am a dying species it looks like. : )

    leg pulling time

  • Michele

    Lots of people always blame others, you have made comment after comment about ex-colleagues’ and others’ job performance and ex-bosses’ explanations of lost contracts.  Give it a rest.

    You’ve also posted previously about your prescription re GDP, can’t be bothered to repeat my reply there.

  • Michele

    You seem to be having the same problem I do Zintin, where a post doesn’t seem to have gone through as the info re moderation doesn’t appear and the post is still sitting there in the box.

    I’m experimenting with refreshing before re-posting, it sometimes works and shows something did go through after all!
    It’s not an ISP glitch as I had it with my previous one too.

  • Anonymous

    I can’t remember that reply, can’t remember if you agreed with me or if you were wrong 🙂

    What do you think of Harry Truman though and the other Democrats and Labour chancellors who agreed with me and not Gordon Brown? I think Ed Miliband might have it in him yet to come to the dark side!

    Ok, now, as for me blaming everyone else, I can only think of two situations you might be referring to, remind me if I’ve left out any.

    1. The factory that closed due to minimum wage. This company operated in one of the poorest areas of the UK if thats any hint, made it quite clear that if it had to pay the wages people demand in south of england it couldn’t survive, and made it quite clear it would have to move production if the minimum wage was set nationally rather than regionally and set too high. That is what happened.

    As for me blaming other people, its not like I was the only one to suffer – the plant had 1500 workers and we all lost our job on the same day! So I’m not blaming the other 1499 and doubt if they blame me!

    I’ve said before that this is anecdotal and it is not the main reason I disagree with minimum wage – that is due to the economic logic and evidence, my £12 example that even Krugman and Baker do not dispute.

    2. My work for public sector and supplying public sector IT. I’ve made it quite clear that all of us who worked in those departments and who supply them should have lost our jobs! I was to blame as much as the next man and indeed more when contracting for a daft wage!

    And before someone (not you hopefully Michele) jumps in with the spectacularly stupid “but then those people would go onto unemployment and stop paying tax”. Government workers do not pay tax, they consume it. Giving them £200 and takng £40 back is the same as giving them £160 of our tax.

    I’d rather they were earning £60 dole and having a neutral effect on the economy than earning £300 and having a damaging effect by adding bureaucracy to the economy.

  • Anonymous

    Think we’re all getting that Michele? I posted something 4 times the other day. And not just Alastair’s site, getting it on other disqus ones too. I’ve found hitting “post” then just waiting till the error comes up (or it stops saying “loading” or “waiting”) then waiting the 4 hours or whatever till whoever mods it does so, and it comes up.

  • Ehtch

    Strange co-incidence with the bus driver excellent blog post today by Alastair.

    Yes, it does still exist, thankfully.

  • Ehtch

    Been looking at my bollocks that I have posted here past, in this arts slant, in my early days that you have allowed me to post here, and you donn’t mind not really minding me posting stuff in appreciation of our northern scandanavian mates, haven’t you? And if or if you have asked your daughter, she would do something like, that is quite kinda cool, maybe,
    http://www.alastaircampbell.org/blog/2011/10/19/a-very-long-essay-on-political-communications-french-style/

    Red Riding Hood is, yes, exacxtly. Marsheuax from Greece singing it as well. Anyway, my great grandad was a carrot head, so so what?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DASUZwQk_eM

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