Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Meaning of Reading in an Internet Age

If I were more on the ball, I would have linked to this Motoko Rich article, "Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?," from the New York Times earlier in the week. The good news is that this is apparently "the first in a series of articles that will look at how the Internet and other technological and social forces are changing the way people read." So more to come!

It's an interesting enough article that does a fine job providing the kind of surface of this debate, which they are framing as "digital versus print." The parents want the kids to read books, the kids want to spend all their time online. I appreciated the point that some kids, and even some adults, saw books as boring when you know there is a more interactive alternative, but as ever, I was troubled by the lack of control of online content.

“It takes a long time to read a 400-page book,” said Mr. Spiro of Michigan State. “In a tenth of the time,” he said, the Internet allows a reader to “cover a lot more of the topic from different points of view.”

Zachary Sims, the Old Greenwich, Conn., teenager, often stays awake until 2 or 3 in the morning reading articles about technology or politics — his current passions — on up to 100 Web sites.

“On the Internet, you can hear from a bunch of people,” said Zachary, who will attend Columbia University this fall. “They may not be pedigreed academics. They may be someone in their shed with a conspiracy theory. But you would weigh that.”

The difference between that 400 page book and a variety of websites, though, is that the book can be checked for accuracy, both in its content and in its presentation. I worry that this kid is giving equally weight to "someone in their shed" and experts. Are we really ready to dismiss credentials that easily?

Later, another teenager's habits are discussed:
When researching the 19th-century Chief Justice Roger B. Taney for one class, he typed Taney’s name into Google and scanned the Wikipedia entry and other biographical sites. Instead of reading an entire page, he would type in a search word like “college” to find Taney’s alma mater, assembling his information nugget by nugget.
Again, Wikipedia information is not always accurate. I'm not going to get too upset about the idea of piecing together information because this happened long before the internet, when people would do the same with books, but the sources are questionable, even unreliable, so the information is cheapened.

And I suppose this is what it comes down to: how much respect do people have for information if it's so readily available? It seems the value of this currency drops when it's provided by so many, some of whom may be putting out false information. Using a currency analogy also allows us to bring up the elitism of this view: am I suggesting only a privileged few should have access to and be able to provide information, to keep it's value high? I think everyone should have access, but not everyone should necessarily be providing information, or rather, we shouldn't trust anyone with information. If we don't continue to value education that turns people into experts, then we're heading into some fairly frightening uncertain times.

This article discusses testing internet navigation skills, and I can see some value in this. Kids are using it so often, why not test the skills so they do not waste time and trust bad sources of information? The Educational Testing Service developed an exam called iSkills, and of the 20,000 students who have taken it since 2006, "only 39% of four-year college freshmen achieved a score that represented 'core functional levels' in Internet literacy."

There's plenty of good crap to read online, but let's face it: 80% is personal opinion dressed as fact, or pornography. And I have no problem with opinionated writing or, for that matter, porn, but both should be enjoyed only when one knows enough to navigate them skillfully.

(I'm not sure how porn got tangled up in this point, but maybe it'll get the site more hits.)

PS - I just noticed a letter to the editor on from Mark Hussey, a professor of English from Pace University (whose name again calls to mind pornography), who makes this sound point:

As more and more people fail to “read,” it becomes easier for the powerful to hoodwink them because extended narratives disappear, to be replaced by the quick conclusions available in a Google search. We no longer see that we are repeating old narratives, no longer see how we got to where we are.

To engage with democratic processes — to participate in making difficult decisions or answering challenging questions (shall we go to war? whose fault is poverty?) — requires the ability to examine multiple perspectives, to hold conflicting ideas simultaneously in the mind.

That's in part what I meant to say... thanks!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Another Bullshit review

Sorry to have one on top of another, but here's my 4 sentence review of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn.

I tried this book a couple of years ago and ended up selling my copy after reading about 40 pages, but after meeting someone who worked with the author at Pine Street Inn, I gave it another shot. I'm glad I did, but Christopher rightly said that he found the narrator unreliable, and I'm afraid I found this as well. I was fascinated by the story of the author's father and his life, and I was horrified by the tragic early life of the author, but I found the author's clever asides and parenthetical allusions and occasional attempts at literary style (including a chapter in dialogue format, which I just had to skip) frustrating. He has his moments, and I particularly appreciated his handling of the inevitability of inheritance, as he comes to grip with his estranged father's delusions of being a writer as a writer himself, and it was an easy read, but it could have used perhaps one or two more edits to tighten it up, focus it, and really have it deliver, without MFA pretensions.

Outside of my 4-sentence review, let me just say how much I love the title and packaging. Fantastic!

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu

My 4-sentence review

This novel started out a bit rocky: I was concerned the author wasn't being consistent with facts, and I thought descriptions were uneven or thin. Two things allow me to forgive this rockiness to an extent: 1) it's his first novel, and 2) the fragments come together, the slow pace evolves into a sweet story that, in fact, parallels the kind, tragic character of Sepha Stephanos, an Ethiopian refugee running a bodega in DC with little to no passion for life, a broken man, a man watching gentrification occur around him as an outsider, who lets things wash over him and convinces himself they don't impact him, and he can't impact them. This story is very current, and quiet, and gentle. I wouldn't heartily recommend it, but it is sweet, simple enough for any modern reader (16 and up maybe?) but slow enough to not please anyone looking for a fast delivery, and urban in a way you don't see as much, insofar as it's very much based in the city, the city as character, without being frenetic or fearful, without feeling the need to keep up with the pace, but just being in the moment as pieces of the past, of the terror inflicted on the character's family during the revolution (not entirely sure of the politics of all this...), of the desperation of professionals and the poor surround this man, not a hero but not a case to pity either.

Monday, July 21, 2008

4 Sentence Review of The European Union by John Pinder

A spectre is haunting Europe...again...the spectre of the European Union. In this handy, newly revised primer we non-EU folks (in the parlance of our president) can learn about the terrifying new economic behemoth of approximately 500 million people taking shape across the Atlantic. From Winston Churchill's first mention of "A United States of Europe" in 1945 through to last month's Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, Pinder clearly illuminates the long winding road toward "singular nationhood" that Europeans have been on since the end of World War Two. With very little fuss, Pinder provides a basic historical outline of the EU, showing how its political, environmental, and economic institutions work, the story and success of the euro, the structure of its military defense force (Yea! I know, the Europeans have a military?!?), and what the future holds for the largest economic entity in the world. A MUST READ!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Don't believe the hype

I wish this chair were cooler than it is:

When I saw it referenced, I had high hopes, but it looks terribly uncomfortable, no?

I had thought of posting today about how this WSJ article by Rebecca Smith proves capitalism's a failure (how electricity deregulation in TX, signed in by Bush as governor there, has failed miserably) and somehow relate that to publishing and books, but alas, it never happened.

So... just... gaze at this chair instead.

Soon, Christopher and I will start 4-sentence reviews of our books, as we remove them from the "Now Reading" sidebar item. I guess I'll come up with reaction to Dinaw Mengestu's The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears soon. So there's that to look forward to.

Until then, go find a book. Happy reading!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Further proof the Cape is just that much closer to heaven

I cannot wait, cannot wait, cannot wait to go here next month: it's The Bookstore & Restaurant in Wellfleet, MA, on Cape Cod, and it looks so cool I cannot stand it. It's just what it sounds like, selling used books and breakfast, lunch, AND dinner. They also have "jazz & blues that swings!" No cover - no minimum.

I can't believe we didn't go when we were on the Cape this last weekend.

I hope this ol' codger is still there!

Did I mention that the "late night tavern" is a bomb shelter? I know, I KNOW.

And yes, that is a foosball table. Bring it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Books in newspapers 2.0 or something?

I'm a bit behind on this, but David Mehegan of the Boston Globe posted this blog entry about Lee Abram's memo regarding books sections in newspapers. It seems Senor Abrams is formerly of XM Satellite Radio and now the "chief innovation officer" of Sam Zell's Tribune Co. Mehegan quotes the memo's section on newspaper coverage of books, so I'll copy and paste:

"Books: Heard a conversation about how Book reporting doesn't generate revenue and may have to go away. WAIT! Maybe Book reviews and coverage are one of those things that don't generate revenue right now, BUT--are trademarks for newspapers and elicit high passion from readers. At XM, we had Opera channels. Low listenership...HIGH passion...AND--it was one of those things that even if people didn't listen or even like Opera, it was one of those things you had to have for completeness. Maybe Book sections in newspapers are just dated. Not the idea...but the look and feel. Maybe they're modeled after a book store in 1967 whereas we're in the Borders, Amazon, B&N era. Maybe they are too scholarly. Maybe they avoid genres like Christian books, Celebrity books and Popular novels, opting instead for reviews of the Philippine Socialist Movement in the 1800's. The point here is maybe Book sections need to be as dramatically re-thought as Borders re-thought retail. Not dumbing down--but getting in sync with the 21st Century mainstream book reader."

Mehegan kinda dismisses this quote, but I'm not ready to entirely. It's not written by someone who reads a whole lot, obviously, but there is some idea(s) to salvage perhaps. Mehegan's right, it's not a problem of newspapers reviewing obscure books per se. But first, I like the thinking that we should retain the sections even if they're not the most popular, a la the opera stations. And book folks like us are passionate and demanding when it comes to books. And they could use a revamp oft times to be punchier and livelier and engaged. Show covers, mention publishers, and provide a short column with some insider news, why don't you, newspapers? Make it cool to like books and want to know about authors. Make authors cool.

Mehegan is right about one thing: the Borders analogy wasn't the way to go. Sorry, Abrams, but that was the wrong direction. Instead, why not think of independent bookstores that are thriving by being active, different, and knowing their local customer base? Why use nasty, oversized, underfed Borders?

Again, the main clearly doesn't read much, but maybe we could use this quote to start a more promising conversation about mainstream culture's coverage of books and publishing. Maybe.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Lazy publishing days of summer

Ain't a whole lot happening in publishing these days, except vacations. So, in lieu of me actually thinking up some idea or concept and babbling about it, please enjoy this more intelligent post over at the Reading Experience, about why experimental novels are cool and people that complain about them are maybe a little bit lame.

Happy Bastille Day!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Not revolutionary, but working in ag

By now, most of us know all about CSAs - community supported agriculture. This NY Times piece by Susan Saulny doesn't exactly provide shocking new info, but it's a nice reminder of how well CSAs are doing, how nicely they've caught on. As she reports, "There were fewer than 100 such farms in the early 1990s, but in the last several years the numbers have grown to close to 1,500, according to academic experts who have followed the trend."

Once again, though, as I read this latest report on successful CSAs, I wonder about something similar working for bookselling. There are "often prohibitive costs" associated with independent bookstores and publishers, just as there are with small farms, so couldn't this solution be brought in? And it has been, as reported on this blog and everywhere else, with subscriptions like McSweeney's Book Release Club , CSP at South End Press, and the arrangement with investors in Houston, at the Brazos Bookstore.

But has there been a successful collective bookstore that is not a radical lefty, kinda ratty, possibly scary bookstore, that is clean and well lighted and thriving? (Sorry Lucy Parsons, I still patronize you when I can!) With Boston real estate, it's unrealistic to expect in the city, but maybe in an outpost. I don't know if it can work, but it seems there could be a whole in the independent literary community that includes authors, publishers, booksellers, etc...

CSAs took some time but are really catching on, so there's some hope. If farmers can do it...

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Reading Culture, Africa-style

There are a few reasons I like this story by Wanjiru Waithaka from Africa Business Daily - not a paper I read regularly, admittedly, so I'll just admit I went through a Shelf Awareness link.

First, the writing is quite straight forward and unflashy, even a bit informal in spots: "Often, the four bookshop employees had to climb a ladder in order to access books in the confined space. Forget that now. " And also, it's good and interesting news coming out of Africa that is not about political corruption, poverty, disease, etc... I know all that is real and urgent, but I also know Africa is a fascinating, exciting continent full of thriving and even prosperous cultures, so here we have a story about this private rental book library in Nairobi. (I also have become increasingly interested in Nairobi in particular due to my friend Lynsey's research and blog.)

So there's all that, but there's also the actual business itself, this Book Villa.

It's a private library, where you buy a subscription. They have different levels in which you pay more to be able to take out more books at a time - a bit like Netflix. But wait, there's more! You can also then buy a book that you love for a discount, and sell novels (fiction only it seems) back to the store. AND they serve food and have lounge areas to eat and relax and read - something I've decided will never happen in Boston except in chain stores. Thanks, real estate market.

I'm conflicted because I don't want to see libraries privatized. I love libraries, I love going to the BPL, even with all the homeless people there. I've always loved them, even the crappy one in my Texas town growing up. But I like the idea of a collective "store," where you can borrow and buy and sell, a bit like Zipcar in a way - though that place ain't without its problems, with ongoing customer service issues and, as it turns out, a growth strategy that involves overpowering smaller car-sharing services across the country, from Oakland to Philly. All the same, I think I'll read this article about Robin Chase, the founder of Zipcar, on "the economy of sharing." For a sample: Owning assets in their entirety, like an entire car or swimming pool is an excessive way to spend money. "We feel ourselves in a state of scarcity because we feel we have to own the whole asset, and 'we just want a little piece of the benefits.'"

So my curiosity is piqued by this Book Villa, as I think through ways to support books and reading in a non-profit but sustainable way. And apparently, I'm not the only one who found this story interesting...

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Coming alive for literature

My apologies for not posting in nearly a month. Okay, it hasn't been *quite* that long, but it's been too long. With a new job and other personal stresses, I just haven't been able to post.

But let's move on. I wanted to link up to this Washington Post article by famed publisher Jonathan Karp, which is one of these inside-baseball publishing rants. (Hopefully you don't have to be registered to read it, though I am registered with the Post, for free, so it may be the case.) It's a good consideration of the current state of publishing, and worth a read. He's talking about all the cheap, disposable books out there - neither of those adjectives being literal. He means the celebrity bios and quickie politco books, these books that will be sitting dusty in used bookstores in about a year, marked down to a dollar. And it's not just the books that bother him, but "the underlying cynicism of the people acquiring, publishing and selling them."

But his later point really hit me. Working at a small non-profit press, I assumed we couldn't pay enough, but I hoped others were. Then I read this:
I talk to literary agents and fellow publishers, they acknowledge an unarticulated truth about our business: Fewer authors are devoting more than two years to their projects. The system demands more, faster. Conventional wisdom holds that popular novelists should deliver one or two books per year. Nonfiction authors often aren't paid enough to work full-time on a book for more than a year or two.
So no one's paying more, really, or if they are, it's only with the understanding that the author will be hyperproductive. This isn't good for the author or the reader, of course, but reading Karp's words I realized that of course it was true.

Now Karp takes the optimistic approach, envisioning a sea change in which online access helps knock the big boys in publishing down. Indie presses will have access to readers as readily as giant corporate publishers, and a lot of the old standbys, like reference, will move online, so they will be taken out of the equation. This hyper competition will raise the bar so only publishers that can deliver the very best quality literature will survive, which will push dollars back into "research and development" - which in this case, he's interpreting as money for authors to work.

Once again, though, ain't this just falling back on the ol' virtues of capitalism? Aren't we hoping a free market will lead to the best for everyone, and hasn't that failed miserably over and over, as seen in the latest mortgage crash? I don't trust the internet to be the great equalizer. And I don't trust this notion of quality literature, as if no one defines it, it's just something readers know. Karp announces with what seems to me great confidence: "The novelists who are truly novel will thrive; the rest will struggle." Spoken like one incredible editor, I suppose.

I'd rather see brand loyalty, but maybe that's my own pipe dream. I'd like to see people seek out publishers they trust, rather than getting online and saying to the market, "okay, what do you got? C'mon, publish exactly what I want and I'll throw you some pennies." (Here's where I admit my unfortunate dissatisfaction with McSweeney's Book Release Club. I mean what the f(#$ is this?!!? I hate it and don't want it in my home, so my brand enthusiasm is currently, for them, at a low.)

So yes, despite that parenthetical, I'd like to see more strategic, considerate consuming of books, not this may-the-best-man-win mentality. Because what's to stop the crap Karp complains about from being just the thing that rises to the top and drowns out the wonderful independents he praises? Why does he assume these most novel novelists will be given the credit they deserve, just because of the internet?

We need more change than that. I would have liked to see him mention independent bookstores and librarians as another level of gatekeepers, invaluable for how they steer reading. I trust these folks more than the internet machine, don't you?