Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
The question of why a $249 iPod is more acceptable than a $249 Kindle is an interesting one. It lies, to some extent, in financial priorities and issues of time and pastime. It also may lie in the difference between a book and a record/CD, which are currently old technologies. In the old days, when you bought a record, a cassette or CD, you then needed a player, so we got used to that. With an iPod, you simply have another player. With a book, when you bought the book, you had the capacity for an immediate experience, with no intermediate need. With an eReader (Kindle, Sony Reader, etc.), you do. What Alexie is showing us, clearly and directly, is that intermediacy has its consequences.
Monday, June 1, 2009
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Now along comes the digital Evelyn Wood. Those of you under the age of 50 may not know that Evelyn Wood's speed-reading course was made popular in the early 1960s because John F. Kennedy, Jr. boasted of reading at 1,200 words a minute after taking the course. If memory serves, after Evelyn Wood training, one read down the middle of the page, accumulating an understanding of key words and phrases. The claim was that comprehension did not suffer. Woody Allen once said, "I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It involves Russia."
Researchers writing for the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) have developed a method of highlighting thematically in digital texts so that one can skim, since, they say, that is how people "read" now anyway, cherry-picking only the ripe key words and phrases. Click here for a link to the PARC reference and the abstract. The article, by the way, is "controlled", meaning that you either need to take out a membership or purchase it.
P.S. By the way, this year is the centennial of Evelyn Wood's birth.
Friday, May 22, 2009
Monday, May 4, 2009
Monday, April 27, 2009
--Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Illych
A few posts back I noted that I thought reading on a tablet reader would change the way immersive literature would be read, that traditional, plot-driven literature would miss the metaphor and illusion of “edge-to-interior, interior-to-edge” the printed book provides. As book-readers, we appreciate traditional books because we read them in their printed versions. But tablet-style readers will “flatten” our ability to immerse ourselves. On the one hand, this will open new ways of writing. In English, Beckett and Burroughs will most likely emerge as the godfathers of literary abstraction, Markson, Shields, and Danielewski its avatars.
But as they read in digital format, which emphasizes surface-tension, will the next generation of screen-readers understand the deeply running waters of previous literary generations? Will they be able to appreciate it unless they read in the delivery format for which it was intended? As I wandered through the Bonnard exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently, and stared at a Rothko painting in the Smith College Museum of Art yesterday, I was struck by how the former could rail against the frame and the latter ignore it. If you removed Bonnard’s late paintings from their frames, would they retain a strength built on the violence against the frame? If you add a baroque frame to Rothko, will he retain his surface tension? If you force Tolstoy into a different delivery method—an uncomfortable frame—will the reader understand what made past generations appreciate him? Will holding plastic by the fingertips provide the illusion that life is lived within the cover, which feign a natural environment full of transcendental emotion? As we approach the composition of new literature, “life lived within these covers” will not matter, because the literature itself will be abstract. The question is will the illusion of the past be unattainable in the delivery methods of the future?
The next generation of machines may have the ability to create illusion, as did the printed book, or enhance abstraction, the way the current ones do. Or perhaps accomplish both. That way they won’t kill Tolstoy for future generations, and it won’t really be the absolute end.
Friday, March 20, 2009
Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody. Penguin Press. Shirky became a Twitter darling last week during his apprearance at SXSW. I assume the title refers to Joyce's Finnegans Wake, but I don't remember a direct reference in the book itself. Maybe I missed it or maybe he purposely omitted it. The sections (not whole chapters) that refer to the post-Gutenberg years and the lessons learned for our own age are particularly interesting about the future of reading.
Cory Doctorow, Content. Tachyon Publications. The Zen-master of the e-reading revolution. His chapters on the e-book are fun and informative. He notes the differences between printed books and e-books from the point of view of marketing, sales, copyright, etc. but he falls short of a clear look at discussing in what ways the technological change might affect the reader and the writer. And the annoying way of simply printing the [references] to digital hotlinks I could do without.
Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur. Doubleday. I agree with very little of what he writes compared to the above two writers. Some of his "facts" (in fact) are not proveable. For example, he describes Wikipedia's content as "unreliable" and contrasts its amateur writers and editors to the "100 Nobel Prize winners and 4,000 expert contributors" to the Britannica's site. Full disclosure: I co-edited an encyclopedia a few years ago, and when it comes to encyclopedias and accuracy, I doubt Keen has ever edited one. He then quotes Lewis Mumford, completely out of context, to support his claims, when he should be sampling both encyclopedias (as Stacy Schiff did for her New Yorker article a couple of years ago). I can imagine that when he and Shirky get together they come to blows.
Thursday, March 5, 2009
And I lay down and finished the Five-Foot Shelf Einhorn had given me, the fire and water-spotted books I had kept in the original box. They had a somewhat choky smell. So if Ulysses went down to hell or there were conflagrations in Rome or London or men and women lusted as they did in St. Paul, I could breathe an odor that supplemented the reading.
Question: what does reading smell like? What does it feel like? What does it look like? What does it sound like?
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
The second is Chad Post’s Three Percent (named after the fraction of literary titles represented by translation, although Chad makes a good case that the number is actually much lower, and closer to about .5%). Chad gathers as many translated titles as he can on his web site and blog to try to get the word out to a broad audience. His recent awarding of a prize for the best translated book takes publicity one step further.
I was involved in a very small dust-up last fall with the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, which took place solely in digital news, after he said that it would be difficult for an American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature since Americans are too isolated and ignorant of world literatures. I don’t have to go into my reasons here for thinking that a stupid statement, but I would like to examine a bit why Americans (in general) do not read translated literary books.
First, let’s admit that Americans don’t read many literary books at all, translated or not. The New York Times bestseller list—the old one, which listed only 10 or 15 books—in the 1960s might have boasted several highly regarded literary authors, which is generally not the case today. Americans for the most part read for entertainment, and sometimes enchantment (to use Nabokov’s descriptor), but rarely for the erotic intensity of wordplay itself. The erotics of reading or, as novelist Christopher Sorrentino once described it to me, the ecstatic of reading, has never been widespread, but it seems to be even less so nowadays, particularly in the adult world. I can’t tell you how many adults I meet nowadays who tell me their favorite book is something I would classify as a young adult novel. The winner of the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature far outsells the Fiction winner. Cormac McCarthy’s “young adult novel”, as one literary blogger described The Road to me, far, far outsold any of his previous novels for adults.
In reading Martha Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity recently, her chapter on the narrative imagination focused for the most part on older novels as helpmeets for the cultivation of humanistic principles (Dickens, Ellison). Yet the novel of abstraction, such as Beckett’s trilogy, and refraction, such as those of Carole Maso or David Markson, finds only a tiny audience. Two million people a year will go to the Museum of Modern Art and view abstraction. Why does text suffer from the burden of verisimilitude?
I went to the New York Comic Convention a couple of weeks ago. I arrived mid-afternoon on Saturday, and had to cajole my way in because it was sold out. Sold out? My daughter, aged seventeen, went with me, dressed as Ragged Robin from Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. Lots of other people dressed as their favorite characters. The fantastic is in, especially among younger people who grew up with the fantastic and the commercial. Story is in, simplicity is in (obvious good versus obvious evil, even when the comic book characters are flawed), manic Manicheanism. The novel of meaning is so…yesterday.
The literary community needs more excitement. When was the last time you saw a novelist of the late night shows? Remember when Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Mary McCarthy would appear on The Tonight Show because they were witty and charming and intelligent and outrageous? Who are their counterparts now, and when will they bring us in from the cold? Americans need that in their authors. One part artist, one part philosopher, one part harlequin. Here’s my suggestion: I think Jonathan Franzen should marry Paris Hilton, the way Arthur Miller married Marilyn Monroe. It doesn’t have to last long, but it would give a few writers the opportunity to appear in photographs like the one with Monroe, Miller, Signoret, and Montand at dinner in the 1950s. Kiran Desai and Brad Pitt. Achy Obejas and Ellen Degeneres. Like Bernard-Henri Levy and Arielle Dombasle. I think I’m onto a new program here, something I could coordinate. I wonder if I can get a grant.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Our own era is witnessing a vast shift in power and influence in literary reading, and though we have often bantered and argued about who influences our reading habits and why, certainly those we considered primary influencers are trying desperately to “re-tool” in order to retain their influence as it slowly slips away.
For about two decades we have watched enrollment in college English courses deteriorate and the number of English majors decline (viz., Andrew Delbanco’s article The Decline and Fall of Literature in “The New York Review of Books”, November 14, 1999), done-in by a variety of forces, including a willful need for obscurantism and even irrelevance; the number of independent booksellers decrease by two-thirds, picked off one-by-one first by superstores and then by the internet; and newspaper book reviews have all but disappeared, killed by the interplay of digitization and cultural anarchy (the idealistic kind, not the chaotic kind).
Without flogging the trope that “as moveable type, blah, blah, blah”, the advent of digitization is changing the power structure of who reads what, in many, many ways, including everything from creation to consumption, and the new “players” include the great digitizing companies such as Google, Amazon, Apple, eInk, and a host of bit players who create apps, blogs, and other things that appeal to recently created patterns of consumption. But they are not the only power players. Corporate copyright fiefdoms are in the midst of creating the Celestial Jukebox. If libraries of the future have no right to lend information, the copyright-holders—often large corporate entities—will control what we read, and even re-read. Of course, the opposite may happen, and anarchy-oriented organizations may figure out a way to yippify the literary universe. Small presses linger on the margins, wondering if the new structure will bring them more influence. In any case, the old power structure is changing, and the American Republic of Letters is in the process of creating a new booky politic.
Monday, February 9, 2009
According to Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading, the physical layout of the book as we know it supposedly evolved around the time of Julius Caesar. In fact, Manguel attributes the folded nature of the book to Caesar himself, who found it difficult to carried rolled scrolls on his person as he was riding into battle with the Gauls. The opening of The Gallic Wars, Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres (All Gaul is divided into three parts) gave rise to the folding of a large page, or printer’s sheet, into four parts (which resulted in the quarto), eight parts (the ubiquitous octavo), and the mostly outmoded twelve parts (the duodecimo). This lasted about 2,000 years, until Sony and Amazon, “taking a page” out of Caesar’s book (where will that expression go, I wonder), decided that the most comfortable way to read would be on a tablet, as the middle-easterners did before the scroll, a single, smooth, untextured screen, a rectangle of limited size. (By the way, I’m kidding about Gaul being divided into three parts as having given Caesar the idea for the book).
One difference between the screen and the printed book is that the former has no depth while the latter has the illusion of depth. When you read an e-book, you read from edge to edge. When you read a printed book, you read from the edge to the interior, and then the interior to the edge, again and again and again, a metaphor of immersion (unlike edge to edge reading). And this is the case whether you read left to right or right to left (or even up and down, as do the Chinese, since the sequence of columns moves to the interior). The “frame of reference” becomes the center. The physical act focuses the reading experience.
Another difference is the lack of uniqueness for the book as an object. Even though you may be reading a Stephen King novel along with a million other people, the object in your hand is a unique item. Sure, your own Kindle is unique, but the cover to the book never changes, and again flattens the reading experience from a unique physical experience with unique content to the same physical experience with unique content.
Is this bad? Only to those of us who grew up with the metaphor of depth and immersion. I find it interesting that, as cinema explores the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional screen and virtual realities re-define artificial “reality”, the e-book is providing the means to move in the opposite direction, away from representation. It’s also interesting that, even though King today promoted the Kindle at the Amazon press conference, I believe that his story-based work will actually be less successful as a reading experience (aesthetically) in e-book format, simply because it is figurative and the e-book is not.
From time to time, I read books on my iTouch, and I find it most successful as an experience when I read material written for the screen, not things written for the printed book. Several posts back I suggested that Amazon give 100 Kindles to writers around the country and see what they come up with when they approach writing for the screen, writers of all different stripes, from Bruce Sterling to Nora Roberts to Mark Danielewski. Then we might see reading on the Kindle as a new aesthetic experience. Right now it's just a convenience.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
However, the number of authors and works from the retreating past for the most part decreases as the dates grow distant. Imagine a funnel turned on its side and seen in profile. Who reads Epictetus, for example (despite its importance to Philip Lopate’s recent novella “The Stoic’s Marriage” from Two Marriages), even though he was a schoolboy staple in the late nineteenth century? There is no room for him now that we have Bourdieu, Foucault, and Derrida. At the same time, the mandarins, oddballs and nerds keep re-discovering and printing, hoping against hope that even 1,000 people will read such wonderful works as The Gallery by John Horne Burns.
Perhaps this is where the famous—and now discredited—long tail will have an effect, where not only the famous, but the eccentric (e.g., James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner) will find a readership of a couple of hundred a year.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Change has come rapidly to the business of American literature in the past thirty years: conglomerization, new delivery methods, the declining influence of the literature professor, restrictive copyright laws, etc. Of course, literature has always experienced external control over who reads what and why. Government censorship, commercial cost, the exigencies of marketing, the outrage of parents, the clergy, and the community continue in various forms around the world.
This creates a panorama one could call the American Republic of Letters (not in the nineteenth century sense of an exchange of correspondence). Portals of access have disappeared, while others have developed. Newspaper reviewers are ignored. Literary critics are invisible. Graphic novels, which are 95% image, are taking an increasing segment of the traditional “book” market, especially among the next generation to come of age. The publication of literary works drifts from large to small presses, which have significantly less power to publicize and market, at least for now. The bookstore wars have ended (for the most part), at least between the large and small bricks-and-mortar stores. In ten short years, sales have shifted to a struggle between distant and local purchasing. Government is unable to keep books away from almost anyone with a credit card. Copyright is becoming permanent, leading to angry exchanges between publishers and scholars. There is a real question whether public lending libraries will survive, not because they are not needed, but because book-lending will no longer be needed by enough people to make them a community priority. DRM (digital rights management, a code that may allow a copyrighted work to open only on the device for which it was purchased or solely to the user who purchased it) threatens one of the great grass-roots traditions in reading: the enthusiastic passing of books from one reader to another.
All this will affect the whys and wherefores of literary reading in the United States. It always has. What has also endured is the political wrangling that created reading opportunities. The small press "movement" is one. A backlash against American arrogance and insularity manifested in the lack of literary translation in the United States is another. The NEA's "The Big Read" is a third. Ownership rights.