C. A. Casey

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So What Makes a Good Book?

Posted by Casey on August 15, 2007

I was in the mood for a literary-with-a-snooty-capital-L fix today and visited my favorite fingertips library to find some classic prose . . .

What? Oh, Harry Potter . . . Well, I got to the part in the first book where I stopped reading several years ago and just kind of lost interest again. But don’t despair, I’m not giving up on trudging through the whole series.

. . . Anyway, I go to Project Gutenberg and see a page for a collection of Science Fiction. I’d visited that page before and kind of thumbed through it but I didn’t explore it in depth. Curiosity got the better of me today and I went to the page and went down the list of authors and books and came to Cory Doctorow and saw that his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom was there . . . available for free download. Now this book was published in 2003, not 1903, so it definitely isn’t the usual Public Domain works found on Project Gutenberg.


At the beginning of the book text, Doctorow explains why he’s releasing a book for free, while it’s still in print from Tor Books:

Why am I doing this thing? Well, it’s a long story, but to shorten it up: first-time novelists have a tough row to hoe. Our publishers don’t have a lot of promotional budget to throw at unknown factors like us. Mostly, we rise and fall based on word-of-mouth. I’m not bad at word-of-mouth. I have a blog, Boing Boing, where I do a *lot* of word-of-mouthing. I compulsively tell friends and strangers about things that I like. And telling people about stuff I like is *way*, *way* easier if I can just send it to ’em. Way easier.

He further clarifies on his Web site:

I believe that we live in an era where anything that can be expressed as bits will be. I believe that bits exist to be copied. Therefore, I believe that any business-model that depends on your bits not being copied is just dumb, and that lawmakers who try to prop these up are like governments that sink fortunes into protecting people who insist on living on the sides of active volcanoes. Me, I’m looking to find ways to use copying to make more money and it’s working: enlisting my readers as evangelists for my work and giving them free ebooks to distribute sells more books. As Tim O’Reilly says, my problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity. Best of all, giving away ebooks gives me lots of key insights into how to make money without restricting the copying of bits. It’s a win-win situation.

So I was just going to read the beginning of the book, to see if it was something I’d want to download to my PocketPC and read later. Well, a couple hours later, I realized I was still reading it and didn’t want to stop.

I can’t tell you why the book pulled me in and kept me there. I do know, for all the interesting future Doctorow has created and the fun idea of Disney World as the setting, it boiled down to wanting to know how the protagonist got out of the messes he kept getting himself into. The bottom line–books aren’t about setting or ideas or plot, they’re about characters and how they deal with what the writer hurls at them:

I debarked the Buggy and stalked quickly out of the exit queue, leaning heavily against the fence, staring blindly at the pet cemetery. My head swam: I was out of control, jumping at shadows. I was spooked.


And I had no reason to be. Sure, I’d been murdered, but what had it cost me? A few days of “unconsciousness” while they decanted my backup into my new body, a merciful gap in memory from my departure at the backup terminal up until my death. I wasn’t one of those nuts who took death seriously. It wasn’t like they’d done something permanent.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a page-turner (or a scroller–since I wasn’t actually turning pages) and a really entertaining read.


2 Responses to “So What Makes a Good Book?”

  1. Claudia said

    …”they decanted my backup into my new body”. Cool. Can you pick the age? appearance? Sign me up.

  2. casey said

    Uh, yeah. You can pick the age you want to be. As far as appearance, they have designer faces you can choose from.

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