In one of his early novels, a Robertson Davies character delivers a little speech that impressed me so much at the time that I've delightedly trotted it out whenever the subject of information management rears its tedious head.Read More
In late August, I had bought Timothy Pychyl's e-book The Procrastinator's Digest via Xlibris for use with Adobe Digital Editions. (I subscribe to Pychyl's iProcrastinate podcast.) However, trying to get Adobe Digital Editions set up and registered on my MacBook was a pain, and then my credit card number was stolen suspiciously close to the Xlibris purchase. Then, over the weekend (as I was procrastinating on my research project and, thus, decided that reading his e-book would be nourishing for me) I could not for the life of me find the file that I had downloaded.
I can't remember how I ran across Markson's novel This Is Not A Novel, but I found it so fascinating an experiment that I scooped up and read his other novels that followed the same disconnected yet mosaic-like form.
Colin Marshall has written an appreciation of Markson, who recently died, that takes in all of his novels, and the comments led me to this post on the author's death, written in the late-Markson style.
It's a potent style that's quite seductive to adopt. I adopted it when writing about Markson's last books for the school's in-house zine, The Galley, and which I've included below. (I had a stringent word-count to meet, hence its painful brevity.)
Suggested headline: This Is Not A Book Review
Commuting from the Park & Ride lot, I read these books, one by one. You can read 10 pages in a very short time.
Unusual they are, with sometimes awkward syntax. With about 14 one- or two-sentence blurbs to a page. Sometimes only fragments.
Every page filled by remembered passages of verse or prose, quotations, anecdotes, the detritus and gossip of artists’ sad lives. The “residue of a lifetime’s reading,” says the back-cover blurb.
A melancholy book. With one or two jokes thrown in.
You’re left to intuit what’s really happening at its center. Rather like contemplating the negative space in a painting. It’s weirdly fascinating and absorbing.
Markson claims that not one fact is repeated among all the books.
Reader’s Block and This Is Not A Novel are the first two books, and are the best. Markson has found a new, challenging, avant-garde form, and plays with this odd new toy.
But the third book, The Last Novel, feels too deliberate and planned.
Give them a try. They’re at Davis Library. But I bet you’ll read more than 10 pages at a time.
- Economic downturn hitting public libraries. Also, library fines.
- Another popularly focused article on the digital dark age; it proposes using open-source rather than proprietary file formats.
- The best suit for your body type.
- Proto-scholar learns the hard way to ask the right people for process advice. No one would blame her for feeling angry and bitter about this mess-up. Her dilemma reminds me of the importance of grad skool rulez #1 and #2.
- All sorts of reasons why British readers get reader's block.
- Narrative and novels as models for social relations and as simulations of economic approaches.
- First in a series of BBC4 radio programs on what the novelist's imagination can offer sociological research on place. Settings: the rural idyll, the city, and the suburb.
- "Once you've restricted yourself to information that turns up in Google searches, you begin having a very distorted view of the world...A book is not 150 successive blog entries, just like a novel isn't 150 character sketches, descriptions, and scraps of dialog. " A narrative, even in a computer book, helps to order experience. Computer book author Charles Petzold on the grim economics and reality of book authorship.
- Grim? Grim. Writer and editor Susie Bright explains why she's stopped editing the Best American Erotica Series, laments the collapse of the short-story market (no readers=no markets), and predicts what could happen next. (Her blog is NSFW, if you need to know that sort of thing.) One of many money quotes: "Book reading is not in vogue any longer, it's eccentric. No one would even bother to have an obscenity fight over text, because so few people would be in 'danger' of reading it."
First heard of the "Is Google Making Us Stupid/Killing Literature" foomfahrah via this Mark Hurst post and this follow-up. Kevin Kelly was quite a player in the debate also, here and here, and all the above links will let you read all sides to your heart's desire. Clay Shirky's post questioning the "cult of literature" really popped the cork. Both Kelly and Hurst agreed with Jeremy Hatch's post that it's not the medium that disturbs your reading focus so much as your inability to discipline your reading habits, whether online or off. I wish I had the rhetorical power and skill (and time) to write a blessay on the subject, but here are the rough notes I made today as I criss-crossed cyberspace reading, skimming, and frowning. They add different vegetables to an already spicy gumbo.
- Hatch and Kelly (and others) have no problem with reading on a computer screen. Hurst and Kelly both highlight this quote from Hatch's post: "...your ability to concentrate on a long text is not a function of the medium of delivery, but a function of your personal discipline and your aims in reading."I would say that that is probably true for Hatch, but not so true for me. I've had surgeries on both eyes for detached retinas and cataracts (and follow-up laser treatments to burn off lens plaque); reading online for long periods tires my eyes in a way reading paper-based materials do not. Perhaps this is because the light is being pushed to my eyes via my 20" Trinitron monitor rather than the light being reflected off the page; I don't know. My cataract doctor also urged me and every computer user I know to use wetting drops or lubricant eye drops at least hourly. He said he's observed computer and laptop users not blinking their eyes for nearly a minute, and this aggravates dryness and irritation of the eyeball.Kelly asked for some scientific studies of how reading online is materially or measurably different from reading books. In addition to scans of brain activity, why not also check eye movements, eye health, posture, etc.?
- Better equipment may also help. I did read a book or two on my Clie in years past and it was OK, but it's not an experience I sought out very much. (Also, reading on my Clie isn't the event that an evening spent reading a book is, for me.) My 13" MacBook has a great screen for reading, but most PDFs I get don't fit comfortably on that screen, so I often wind up changing zoom levels and scrolling around a lot. On my PC, running the monitor means running my big desktop PC with the loud fan, which is annoying. Also, the hummmm of the equipment impels me to do something--don't just read! My apparatus for online reading isn't as transparent as the typical book apparatus I'm used it. I do often print out the things I want to read and take them with me.
- Kelly, I think, points out the arguments of how word processors changed writing styles. Other commentators pointed out how every new technology changed how we created or consumed stories or (ugh) content. James Burke's series "The Day The Universe Changed" heavily makes the point that writing altered people's memories; it certainly had implications for the creation and performance of epic poems. I think it's safe to assume that the online experience will change reading habits, but we don't know how.
- I was fascinated by Hatch's post where he said he really hasn't known life without computers around. I'm part of the generation that bridged the computing divide; I didn't use computers for full-time work until 1989, when I started using a Mac II for writing and laying out a newsletter. And the Internet (in the form of Compuserve) and the Web weren't part of my life till about 5 years afterward. Before that, yep, it was books, typewriters, and lots of scratch paper.
- If people are having trouble reading books because they're reading online too much, it may be as Hatch says, more a matter of discipline or habit. But we're talking experienced readers and computer users here. It may be that the computer offers wonderful distractions. But it may be a generational thing, where us older readers are comforted by the handrails a book offers: pagination, tactile response, heft, the ability to open a book into 3 places at one time to check the TOC, endnotes, and a diagram. I find I miss the handrails when reading online: I have to use a little more cognitive juice to gauge how far I've come and how far I have to go in a book (though the scroll bar suffices), I have to think about how to set a bookmark if I want to go back and check something I've read before, I have to think about how to implement marginalia. I know all of these can be done online, but I have to think about how to do it; these tasks feel more "natural" (that is to say, "practiced" and "learned" and "I already know how to do it") with a book in hand.
- I remember a long-ago question to Marilyn vos Savant. A guy noticed he was having trouble concentrating. What was the one best thing he could do to regain his focus? Her answer: read a novel.
- "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Were we stupid before? Or are we letting ourselves get lazy? Is that the same thing?
- I'll probably change this answer after reading Carr's article, but: I think the simple answer would be to just shut the damn computer off and stop the input for a while.
- How much of our reading mechanisms are "natural"--that is to say, innate, inborn? Our brain's hardware hasn't really changed all that much for the last several thousands of years. How important is training and association, and simply what we're most comfortable with? Could we refer to these latter components as the "software" running on our wonderful hardware?
- Burke said in his series that, with a book, you could hold a man's mind in your hand, argue with him, learn from him--without having to go and see him. But books (and the publishing industry that grew up around them) eventually grew to serve as mediators and quality gates for centuries, becoming another effective barrier. If text (like music) is now flowing at us in a stream, it means that we're now again accepting unmediated information. Lots of that information may be worthless, but other mediators will arise (like the NY Times, Slate, Salon, Yahoo, and others), readers will choose which they prefer to use to sample the stream's myriad contents, and the mediation will continue, but in new forms.
- I suppose one test you could do to check the efficacy of online vs book reading would be to have book-reader James Wood and bits-reader Jeremy Hatch read the same book in their preferred formats and see how the discussion proceeds. Does the medium change what they notice or what they talk about? Methinks that the conversation we'd overhear (and I'd love to overhear it) would be two excellent readers discussing what impressed them about the book, the (ugh) content. Instead of references to "that scene on page 12" we might instead hear "that scene where she cuts the watermelon", but that's not a big deal.
- I do like Kelly's point about redefining what a book is, what are its boundaries. "Book" to me means a specific physical object. We need a new name, a new metaphor, a new image.
- But truthfully, and I think even the digital partisans would agree, some subjects just work better in a book or folio form. Large-format art books, for example. I have a great big book of illuminated journals and letters that I adore turning the pages of, and my Absolute Watchmen and Alice in Sunderland volumes are just exquisite pleasures to read, browse, linger over, and they're easy on my poor eyes. I get great joy from appreciating the craft of the book, its art. There's also something about the possession of a beautiful physical object I can hold in my hands that I don't feel with digital objects.
- Is the worry that we're becoming illiterate or aliterate? People may choose not to read because there are other things they're rather be doing. I'd say the latter is more precisely the issue some worry about. But haven't there always been fewer literate educated people in the world, than the reverse? (How many copies of a book do you need to sell to get on the NY Times Bestseller List? Compare that to the opening weekend attendance of the worst summer movie in the world. Which is larger? By what magnitude? There's no going back.)
- Reminds me of Gore Vidal's comment that, at the dawn of civilization, song and poetry were at the center of the culture. Then books occupied the center, and pushed poetry out to the edges. Then movies and radio occupied the center, pushed books and novels to the edges, pushing poetry even further out. Then television rose in the center, and so on and so on. While none of these earlier artforms have died out, they aren't at the center and their enthusiasts talk to each other more than they talk to the mass audience.
- I was struck by some commentators' replies that they loved their PDAs or iPhones to read books while standing in line, making use of downtime, etc. (A friend at work calls reading while on the toilet "parallel processing.") Not to be a prig, but -- is that really the best use of your time? Wouldn't your brain benefit from no input AT ALL for just a few minutes? When I'm in line at the grocery, I'll say a mantra to just pass the time and put me in a good mood. I'd hate to start reading something, get lost in it, and then have to hurriedly close it to push my cart forward. When I start reading, I want to stay in that world for a while. When I'm not reading, I want to stay in this world and be aware of what's around me or just mull things over.
- Kelly mentioned audiobooks as a medium that no one was talking about. I listen to mine in the car, so only ever hear them in snippets; it makes for a somewhat disjointed experience. In Steve Martin's memoir that I got through Audible.com, I lost the photos that appeared in the book but I got banjo interludes between chapters and him actually singing some of his songs. So that was a good trade-off.
Genre became an issue with Shirky's essay and Birkerts, too. Fiction vs non-fiction seemed to be the issue. Would the discussion change if we were talking about poetry rather than prose? Could you read a few lines of Shakespeare or Keats or the Iliad while waiting in the grocery line, and then could you say you really read it? And what do I mean by "really reading it"? Does the context of where and how you're reading affect how you read a specific genre? (Obligatory mention of Poetry Daily, which I do visit daily.)
- I'm surprised Wendell Berry hasn't weighed in by now (but then, someone would have to print out all the essays and send them to him). Wendell would add some more fun to the discussion.
Update: Talk about serendipity. Listened to a BBC Radio 3 discussion on the Future of the Book. In addition to talking about how a book, being self-contained, excludes other distractions, they mentioned the signaling aspects of book-readers, particularly subway or tube readers. Their choice of book signals to the other riders what kind of person they are; a "One Hundred Years of Solitude" reader might be advertising something about themselves quite different from a "Da Vinci Code" reader. One presumes a Kindle or iPhone reader are also advertising something about themselves to the people around them.
- Even a tech writer learns to use dashed lines for impromptu diagrams, but it takes a designer to delineate more of its uses. (I probably got this link from the essential xblog, which is a must-read in my RSS library.)
- Convenience and impermanence. But look at the size of that keyboard! And her happy smile! This is one of the issues that's ruefully discussed in some of my SILS classes, particularly the digital archiving and electronic records courses. It's become one of those burdens we've chosen to shoulder, I think, without really examining why we do it in the first place. Or rather, we propose lots of solutions as we try to understand the problem, which is likely not a technological one at all.
- I love homilies and rules of thumb, and this Zhurnaly page collects a great set from Physicist David Stearn. It traverses the small (write yourself notes and index them) to the large ("Being a physicist is a great privilege. Be worthy of it. Most of humanity spends its life doing boring repetitive tasks."). Here's a slightly different version by Stern from his web page.
- Desktop wallpaper-sized images of overstuffed bookshelves.
That's the title of today's post from Tyler Cowen both at his blog and as a guest blogger at Penguin. His point seems to be that the book you've read is likely not the best book you could be reading, and by passing it down the line (via donation or BookMooch or leaving it somewhere in public) your "gift" is preventing someone from reading something better. He says the calculations here are tricky; you could give the book to a friend, but if the friend is highly discriminating, then your standing in their eyes could suffer by proffering them a substandard book. Better to avoid those calculations and simply throw the book in the trash. The author has been paid, you've gotten what you want out of the book, and you've saved some poor schlub from having to make the calculations you made when you thought about buying the book in the first place.
His commenters are mainly book-lovers who beseech, implore, and adjure to donate the book to a library for its book sale, or a thrift store, or just leave it somewhere as a serendipitous gift for someone else. They also point out that Tyler may not know his friends as well as he thinks and that the second-bookstore or thrift shop would know better than he what value books have in their local market.
I go through periodic book purges. My usual method is to pile them up in a box (along with any CDs I've stopped listening to) and take them to BDFAR or Nice Price for trade. Whatever they don't take, I donate to the library for their book sale. And then the box goes back into the closet to collect more books, the making of which there is no ending.
I had a friend years ago who threw away an Anais Nin book because she thought it was so trashy she couldn't bear it anymore. I remember being astonished at the time (I was in my 20s) at the thought of throwing a book into the trash. Even for books I despised, I still would trade them for something better. Today, I'm still more likely than not to write in the margins and trade them if possible, even though I have less time today than ever to read books. My goal now is to either borrow them from the library or in some other way reduce the flow taking up room on my shelves, so that I reduce the time spent on purging them later.
- Penelope Trunk has an excellent post on how she got her current favorite mentor, to complement her other posts on the topic. As a forty-odder among twenty-somethings, I find that my mentors are not just the professors, but my peers who have longer experience of being a student, being at SILS, being connected to many other students who they think may be good for me to meet. I have a couple of trusted mentors -- including, of course, The Illimitable Cassidy -- both 20 years younger than me, who provide me with excellent advice and guidance. I hope to be of use to them one day, or to pay it forward in some way.
- I recall an author reading I went to years ago; she'd written a book about the Book of the Month club. Her opinion at that time was that literate book-culture was seeing its history growing smaller in a rearview mirror, hence the explosion of books about books, books about reading, books about bibliophiles. There's a strong flavor of sadness and melancholy in these books. I thought of this when reading the UK Guardian review of Alberto Manguel's "The Library at Night":
The traditional library was a citadel sacred to the notion of omniscience; the web, by contrast, is 'the emblem of our ambition of omnipresence', like a supermarket that boundlessly proliferates in space and deluges the planet with its tacky wares. 'The library that contained everything,' Manguel laments, 'has become the library that contains anything.'
- In junior high school, I got hooked on the Doc Savage novels with the James Bama covers. William Denton somehow located the author Lester Dent's Master Fiction Plot Formula for any 6000-word story. While you're there, check out William's library science pages. And I'll probably try his index card system for organizing my school work this fall. Update: I tried it for a while but it duplicated other systems for tracking work and reading that were more convenient, so I dropped it.
- Susie Bright is looking for odd book titles. (Susie's site is fun, but its ads could be classified as NSFW.)