The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13
Robin Sloan is one of the founders of Snarkmarket and the author of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. He lives in California. Follow him at

A book for winter

I believe that shout-it-to-the-rooftops book recommendations should be treated like super bombs in video games: rare commodities that must be husbanded closely, saved for special moments. 1

It’s because the investment is so asymmetrical, right? On the recommender’s side, a moment of enthusiasm; on the recommendee’s side, what? I already have ten books on my pile!

So here’s my great detonation for winter. You’ll hear not a peep from me until some future level, when my stock of super bombs has been replenished.



On the surface, Nicola Griffith’s book is not the kind I usually gravitate towards — which, maybe, ought to make the recommendation count for even more? Hild is set in 7th-century England, and it traces the life of its namesake, the woman known today as St. Hilda of Whitby. I got my hands on an advance copy earlier this year and found myself utterly absorbed. It’s been a long time since I was so happy reading a book this fat; a long time since I was so sad to see it end.

Full disclosure: Hild is published by FSG, and was edited by Sean McDonald there — so it’s the same team that brought you Penumbra. It is a very (!) different kind of book, and yet… Clay Jannon would like Hild. In fact, he’d love it. Early reviews have compared the book to George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, and it does push many of the same buttons — there is plenty of royal intrigue — but this story is also subtler and, I think, less cynical.

As I read, I found Hild’s way of thinking seeping into my brain. She is a scientist before science, a flâneuse before modernity. She is a watcher, a pattern-finder, a naturalist growing into a politician. In an email, I told Nicola that after I read her book, I found myself

paying more attention the natural world, & not just in passing, but with patience. I thought specifically of Hild the other afternoon when I was in my backyard & saw a giant spider on its web. I bent down close, inspected it, watched it for a while. It really does require patience, and a conviction that, you know, this is a totally legitimate way to spend your time.

This truly is a winter book — big and heavy, with a warm heart. It will look good wrapped in colorful paper. I bought three copies for that purpose. I don’t know what else to say. The power of the super bomb recommendation is that you don’t have to say it just right; all you have to do is press the button. You only get a couple of these. You should only use them when it counts. This books counts.


  1. As opposed to personalized book recommendations, which are totally different — more like boss weapons in Mega Man.

Ideas in the attic

Here’s a useful image from the latest installment of Jack Cheng’s email newsletter:

… Let go of ideas and metaphors and turns of phrase you’ve been saving for the right book or moment or person. Their source is abundant and grows more so with movement, and when you keep them locked away they turn into deflated soccer balls.

That’s exactly right. And is there anything sadder than a deflated soccer ball?

An essential subscription.


‘Maybe I’m a kid still’

This is the best book review (or: essay pegged, nominally, to a book or group of books) I’ve read all year. I could blockquote every other graf of Sarah Nicole Prickett’s here, but this one was particularly resonant; following a blockquote of her own, a bit where Donna Tartt describes Park Avenue, Sarah writes:

This is not how Park Avenue looks. Nor is it how Park Avenue feels, I bet, to most New Yorkers. It is how Park Avenue sounds if you have never been to New York and you whisper it to yourself and maybe I’m a kid still, but this is why I read novels — for the sense that all material is imagined.

Me too.


What can I say? It seemed cool at the time

We’re going to look back on this era of parallax scrolling web features with embarrassment — the kind you feel when you discover, say, an old picture of yourself in baggy jeans and a grungy plaid button-up. It’s not a bad thing; sometimes we have to go through these phases. But we shouldn’t mistake them for anything other than that: phases. Strange and fleeting fashions. Fads.

Vox Media has given us an opportunity to compare two treatments of the same subject, one in parallax plaid and the other in a classic white HTML-shirt:

As a reading (and thinking?) experience, I think the Verge’s low-key treatment is many times stronger. I’d be curious to know if you disagree.

I was just scrolling through this great NYT feature on the ramifications of long-term unemployment in Europe, exulting at the flat elegance of it. Make no mistake: this is a beautiful page, and it took hard work from a talented designer to make it so. But the result serves the text and images — not the other way around. This is the treatment we’ll carry forward into the future. This is the shirt we’ll keep.


The 90% solution

San Francisco has installed a whole fleet of those take-’em-one-place, leave-’em-another bikes, just like the ones that have been so successful in New York. (It’s the same company behind most of these.) Initially, I turned my nose up at them, and not for any good reason — just because they looked dorktastic. This is a city of cyclists, I sniffed, and they give us those clunkers? Heavy, dopey, swaddled in plastic…


But then I was downtown, with a need to get to North Beach, just a few blocks up, and something softened my grinchy heart and I decided to try one. You can see this coming: it was fabulous. The experience of snagging a bike, riding it for five minutes, then leaving it behind forever is magical. And the bike itself was, indeed, heavy and dopey, but it was also tough and stable and surprisingly zippy. It turns out that simply having a bike, any kind of bike, gets you 90% of the pleasure. You don’t need much; two wheels and a seat. Everything else — the weight, the paint, the sleek skinny tires — is gravy.

I suspect there’s a metaphor lurking here. In any case, I just purchased my annual pass — $90 for unlimited rides. What a world!


Still can’t do this with CSS

I am in feed acquisition mode again after years of pruning. Here are two current favorites that pair well.

First, there’s Erik Wakkel, a medieval book historian in the Netherlands. He tends to share delightful marginalia and scraps of illumination, like this dragon.


Or this sketch of Tolkien’s.


Second is Harvard’s Houghton Library, easily my favorite tumblr in the world. There’s something about this mode of presentation — a continuous feed, new images every day, rather than a static exhibition, a vast archive — that makes these very old books feel new again. Stock as flow.

I think this one is basically my typographic ideal for Snarkmarket:



Office life

I’m about to sign a lease for a small, Sam Spade-style office in a beautiful old building in San Francisco. This is a space intended initially and primarily for writing, but eventually it will be home to other projects as well — apps, digital stuff, etc. Maybe eventually I will solve some crimes.

I’ve never set up an office of my own, so I’m going to take this opportunity to shine the snarksignal into the sky. I want to hear about great workspace situations. Desks, chairs, plant companions, conceptual frameworks — what’s made spaces work for you, or people you know? Any standing desk devotees out there? What mistakes should I avoid? What Pinterest boards should I be browsing?

I get my key next week. One room, about 150 square feet, with a couple of large windows looking out over a bustling city street. Give me some advice and I promise I will put it to use.


Bug time

I was on a panel at the Wordstock festival in Portland recently, and one of the other panelists, a poet named Mike Young, provided a précis of an idea called “bug time.” You should see the pad of hotel stationary I was using to take notes that day: BUG TIME!!!, underlined multiply, letters gouged into the paper. Look up. Joy L. (?) McSweeney. Notre Dame poet. I was excited.

I am hungry for ideas—specifically, ways of thinking about media, about producing and consuming it—that are truly new, and truly suited to our times. We have all these crazy tools now, and more all the time, and these crazy ways of wiring things together, but we still mostly want to be “authors.” (You can just overlay quotation marks around any/all words in this post. It’s “that” “kind” of “post.”) I mean, of course we do! It’s fun. I love being an author. But at the same time, I have a nagging sense that traditional authorship (even a bloggy sort of traditional authorship) isn’t quite “forward-leaning” in the way that I value. (If you’re interested, I tried to describe that sensibility recently.)

You read about the history of books and you learn: it’s all invented. Not just the formats, but the roles and relationships—cultural, economic, and otherwise. Back in 1450, there was no such thing as a person who paid their rent by writing. It didn’t even make sense to call anyone a “writer,” at least not in the sense that we mean it today. Scribe, maybe; writer, no. Erasmus was (probably) the first, right around 1500, and today we’ve got writers all over the place. So, by extension, there must be some role—or more broadly, some way of being, of working—that will seem obvious and essential and maybe even romantic in the year 2600 that we have not yet imagined today.

What might it look like? What might it feel like? Where can we find some clues? Read more…


Don’t look under that rock

I just logged into Snarkmarket’s sadly-neglected WordPress dashboard here and found the customary two dozen spam comments waiting in the filter to be flushed. It reminded me of a story scrap I jotted down years ago, this idea of

a digital detective forced to boot up a very old PC in order to access some nearly-defunct online service that more modern machines can’t comprehend… but of course this is perilous, because the old PC does not possess the suite of filtering/blocking software that keeps modern machines so casually safe in the storm of viruses and malware that is the internet. So our detective knows it’s going to be a race against time. She boots up the machine and immediately it begins to die. Malware is bombarding it, finding no resistance, infesting, multiplying, calling its friends. This old PC, this funky beige tower, moment by moment, it’s getting slower, less responsive. Pop-ups are piling up by the hundred. Pop-ups inside pop-ups. Our detective only needs another moment, she just needs to get through to this one thing, but it’s like Zeno’s paradox, because with every moment that passes, each operation takes twice as long, requires 2X moments. The malware is accelerating but (or: therefore) she is moving in slow motion, forced to click… and… wait… as the processor cycles thickly under the load, cher-THUNK, and now the poor addled wreck is overheating, its fan is screaming, and the detective has the feeling of piloting a plane into the ground, etc.

It’s kinda awesome, right? We have built not just a network of cold machines but a real oozing ecosystem, complete with bugs and parasites and creepy-crawly worms. Don’t look under that rock. Or, wait: do!


The true web

I love the sentiment in this short post from Russell Davies. Okay, it’s not even a post; more of a wave from across the street, or a high-five in passing:

I love blogging without tweeting about it. I know who I’m talking to – you lot who still do RSS. You’re my people.

(Yep, that’s the whole post. There’s also a picture.)

Google Reader is going away in a couple of weeks, but I just keep clicking its little link in my toolbar like a dope. I’ll ride it all the way to the end of the line. I have my stuff loaded into Feedly and I’m sure the new app will seem normal and natural in just a few months’ time.

It will dip and diminish, but will RSS ever go away? Nah. One of RSS’s weaknesses in its early days—its chaotic decentralized weirdness—has become, in its dotage, a surprising strength. RSS doesn’t route through a single leviathan’s servers. It lacks a kill switch. I’ve got 72 feeds now in my Reader (my… Feedly?), down from a peak of three hundred, and many seem pretty derelict. But who knows? As long as the URL resolves, a feed can still surprise you. RSS is the true web: a loose net of dark filaments. These faint tendrils of connection are almost invisible when quiescent, but then out of nowhere—hello!—they light up again. I am happy to have them.