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Brainiac

Want to go on a blind date with Chapter 1?

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

It’s hard to find your way to new authors, even if you really want to branch out. The new website No Names, No Jackets, aims to solve the problem with a cool platform that allows readers to speed-date their way through a single chapter of a novel before potentially settling down with a whole book.

The site, created by freelance writer John Rickards, is actually more like blind speed-dating. Writers submit a single chapter of their novels. Readers come to the site and a randomizer presents them with the beginning of one of the submissions. If you like it, you can read the rest of the chapter and after that, if things are still going well, you can buy the whole book. If the prose doesn’t catch you, you just click through to the next submission.

Continue reading below

Some recent opening lines give a sense of the range that’s out there:

I see a man. He is feeble. His fingers elongated and dirty; nails growing in curls.

“I hoped you’d ask Mother to heal you,” Blondsun said. They were riding together to Xendaria, on their own again.

The sky above Portland held Liesl’s attention and her lunch date did not.

One of the key features of the site is that the fiction stands by itself, without any of the cues that normally help us choose among books: no dust jackets, no blurbs, no reader reviews (although you can choose a genre). In fact, you don’t even get the author’s name until you click through to Amazon.

It is an exciting way to experience fiction but daunting, too. We end up in content ruts in large part because we follow the kinds of cues that No Names, No Jackets strips away: We always read the same authors or take recommendations from the same small group of friends. But No Names, No Jackets forces you to reckon with the text directly, to decide if what you’re reading actually speaks to you—a judgment that can be difficult and maybe even a little scary to make completely on your own.

Build your audience the Roman way

What makes an idea catch on? These days we might not think immediately of the dedication page of a book. But in ancient Rome, an author’s dedication could go a long way toward determining how many people would end up reading the work, Tom Standage wrote on his personal blog last week.

Standage, who is digital editor at The Economist, is the author of the forthcoming book “Writing on the Wall,” about the long history of social media. In the blog post he draws from the book to talk about how the dedication page of a manuscript was one of the key ways ideas were amplified in ancient Rome. The ideal candidate for a dedication, Standage explains, was “famous, influential and somewhat vain,” with an “impressive library with plenty of traffic from visiting scholars and philosophers.” This person would have been sure to tout the book to his wide circle of friends and might even have had scribes create additional copies. It was one way, pre-printing press, pre-Internet, to get your writing into more hands.

The old Roman system of backscratching makes us a little queasy: We want ideas to circulate because they’re good, not because they gratify the right person. But it’s an exchange that’s still quite alive in the realm of social media. Powerful people and institutions have huge numbers of Facebook fans and Twitter followers—which means that content they like is much more likely to be read, and to end up in your newsfeed. For writers today, this kind of power sets up a dilemma that’s not altogether different from the one authors faced in Cicero’s time: The bigger the interests you please, the more likely your work is to be passed around.

A suburb vanishes

Wright has created a series of fleeting installations he calls "Master Plan."

Lynn Kloythanomsup

Wright has created a series of fleeting installations he calls "Master Plan."

Each summer, it seems, sand sculpture becomes an even more elaborate art form—so perhaps it was inevitable we’d get a minimalist version laced with social commentary. In a series of fleeting installations he calls “Master Plan,” designer Chad Wright of California uses a sand castle-like mold to build suburban-style houses on the beach and then waits as the incoming tide washes them away. Their impermanence is a pointed knock on the bland, hubristic, shoddily built tract homes of the suburbs. But there’s also something poignant at work. Wright’s sand homes wait, doomed, the way a captive might be staked to the beach to drown as the tide comes in.

Wright uses a sand castle-like mold to build suburban-style houses on the beach and then takes photographs as the incoming tide washes them away.

Lynn Kloythanomsup

Wright uses a sand castle-like mold to build suburban-style houses on the beach and then takes photographs as the incoming tide washes them away.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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