Friday, July 31, 2009

Come On Baby, Kindle My Fire

I found myself close to St. Marks Bookshop recently, and it occurred to me to go in to see if there was a copy of Jesus' Son. There was, and as luck would have it, it was shelved right next to several books by Ha Jin, one of my favorite authors. Hmm, never got around to reading War Trash--should I get that, too? And look, what's this, Beijing Coma by Ma Jian, right next to the Ha Jin books--didn't I already put that on my goodreads list? Taking the alphabetization of Jian-Jin-Johnson as a sign, I decided I really needed to buy all three. On the way out, I passed a sales table, and spotted a hefty tome entitled Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike--only $9.98! I assumed the title referred to the 20th century. Then finally trying to get out alive, a tractor beam from a book on Banksy--Wall and Piece--grabbed me; I'd looked at it before but had somehow been able to resist. The end result? I bought all of them, in a moment of extreme weakness of will, but also extreme enjoyment. Going in for one book, and coming out with that one plus a few others I know I will enjoy very much--the ultimate (albeit expensive) experience in book shopping.

It seems that every day now I come across an article somewhere, or hear someone talking, about how new technologies are ruining the good old ways of doing things--Kindle means no more books, iPod means no more CDs, the Internet means no more newspapers. Most of these articles sound the death knell of culture as we know it, although usually with some humorous slant. How will we be able to judge the cultural aptitude of our dinner hosts, if the books they've read are stored on their Kindles or Sony Readers instead of their bookshelves? How will we be able to make snap judgments about the intellectual attractiveness of people riding the subway with us, if they're reading Kindles or e-books on their iPhones? Even worse, how will young males satisfy their need to gain encyclopedic knowledge about a certain musical genre, if all the obscure recordings can be found with a few keystrokes, instead of strenuous searches through dusty record bins in farflung spots?

Other perspectives are much more gloomy, intoning all manner of cultural snobbery and hand-wringing. Others verge on violence, as Sherman Alexie seemed to advocate, until he changed his mind. Still others are sober, realistic and based on actual knowledge of culture and publishing, such as this article from the Brooklyn Rail, which suggests a golden age of publishing may be at hand as publishers recalibrate themselves to put out only REALLY GOOD BOOKS. Nicholson Baker just wrote the most brilliant of all that I've read in The New Yorker; it almost made me stop trying to write this blog entry, since he seemed to say it all, in a manner more entertaining, incisive and encyclopedic, all at once, than I could ever achieve. His ear for the absurd if very finely tuned. Judging from the volume of this coverage, and the number of blogs and websites both critical and authorial, there certainly seems to be no lack of interest in the fate of books among the media-savvy, if not the general public.

Why then are newspapers are closing down their stand-alone book review sections at such a brisk rate, and even laying off book critics (read a poignant goodbye from one here)? The death of a newspaper section (or a whole newspaper) is of course an occasion for sadness. I still read the New York Times in its print incarnation, and plan to continue doing so as long as it is published. But in order to provide links for my blog, I use the online version; any newspaper that does not provide easy online access will not survive, because of digital culture. It's pure Darwinism--adaptation is a necessary constant of life. Maybe the "paper" part of newspaper is doomed, which is bad enough, but the real tragedy is the content itself ceasing to exist. Unfortunately, this is the case more and more often for crossword puzzles. The Atlantic recently decided to stop publishing its Puzzler online, causing great bewailing among crossworders. If only they would use the words of one stalwart puzzler as advertisement, they might renew public interest: Dunn Miller, a woman, said of doing the Puzzler, “You get the pleasure of solving each clue, so there’s that ‘aha’ moment over and over — it’s like having multiple orgasms.” Kinda makes you want to pick up a pencil, doesn't it? I have to hope that if it is such a great puzzle (I'm nowhere near the level of the Puzzler puzzlers, so I've never tried it for myself), it will become available somewhere else online or in print. Maybe I (and everyone else in the blogosphere) am out of touch with the general public's feeling about books, newspapers, etc.; maybe we're fighting a losing battle, and printed matter really is dying.

So what else will we lose if everything becomes digital? As James Wolcott pointed out in Vanity Fair, record collections like Shrevie's in "Diner" will fit in your pocket, so there's no danger of your musically ignorant wife mis-filing a James Brown disc in the jazz section. “Male record collectors seek mastery over a body of music, almost always as a way of establishing a masculine identity,” Krin Gabbard argues in his psychosocial study “Hipsters and Nerds" (quoted by Wolcott). We all know guys like this; some of us know many guys like this. What will the poor fellows do now? Well, they've already started doing it. Just one example of how: Searching out not just the best cuts of their favorite music, but the best live performances and videos, and posting them on social networking sites in an irritatingly pedantic fashion. (Sorry, guys; you know who you are.) Same impulse, different medium. On the other hand, some things may be gained in the digital future: The Google books project may be saving some books from extinction (oh no, my link for this reference has expired! the perils of blogging!)

But is an e-book really a book? Will the Kindle and its ilk bring about the end of the wonderful things we all love, plunging us into a dark, bleak, Matrix-y universe, sort of like "iCarly"? Having received a Kindle as a gift, I can speak from a very high moral ground, since I did not actually go out and buy one for myself, and yet I had to use it to avoid insulting the very thoughtful person who bought it for me (my husband, and no, I did not ask him to get it for me!). One main advantage of using a Kindle is its portability; you can take more books on vacation than you could ever possibly read, without weighing down your suitcase. (Perhaps this is the true reason he got it for me.) You can also subscribe to newspapers and magazines on the Kindle, thus saving paper. But its green quotient is brought down by the fact that it needs electricity to charge up. Also, the specter of running out of power or having a malfunction at an inopportune moment has haunted me--and has actually occurred. Books are extremely modest in their use of electricity on the reader's end; but how many resources are used in making a book? In making a Kindle? I will have to leave the answering of these questions to more scientific minds than my own; I hope one undertakes to do so soon.

As far as the experience of reading on a Kindle, I have a few quibbles. It's hard to tell how close to the end you are, so both books I've read seemed to end abruptly. This would especially be a problem with non-linear novels such as Olive Kitteredge. Also, I tend to remember pages of a book visually, so that if I'm looking for a detail that I want to re-read, I usually look back about the right number of pages on the top lefthand corner, for example. With a Kindle, that's not really possible since every page is the same (i.e. not lefthand or righthand), and you can't really tell how far back you're going. So it's a sort of disembodied experience, compared to reading a book, bringing new meaning to the expression "getting lost" in a book. But maybe, just maybe, it could result in the reader (OK, me) paying more attention to the writing itself, and not relying on the physical cues provided by the book.

The Kindle has a lot of issues; it seems every day there is a new problem to be worked out. For instance, everyone who had bought e-books by Orwell woke up the other day to find that they had been disappeared down the memory hole. This caused some major problems for a student who took notes on the Kindle as he read 1984, so major in fact that he is suing Amazon. Also, you can't give a book that you've bought to someone else, resell it, or donate it, making it less green and less friendly. What's more, there are problems with the audio rights. That's right, audio--the Kindle has a text-to-speech function; I tried it out while driving once. An automated voice reads the book, with no intonations or natural pauses. I could never tell when a new chapter was starting. The pronunciation is hit-or-miss; in one of the many articles I've read about the Kindle, the writer mentioned a certain Norwegian flavor to some of the pronunciation. I found that very funny, because the book to which I listened on my Kindle (The Night Gardener by George Pelicanos) made ample use of the word "motherfucker," which the robotic voice pronounced as a sort of Scandinavian-sounding surname--muTHEERfokkEEER. Authors usually have rights to audio versions of their work, but do not get paid when someone uses the text-to-speech function to listen to one of their books. Many other publishing questions are still to be worked out; they may sound obscure, but I believe they are quite important to the authors, who would like to be paid fairly for their work, after all. I don't think that's too much to ask. There have been many occasions for feeling Kindlenfreude, a word floating around the indie bookstore world, meaning joy of hearing bad news about the Kindle (properly, it should be Kindleschadenfreude, but let's not get picky.)

The really scary question, though, is whether Amazon will start putting ads on the Kindle. Before all the purists start ranting, there is a chance there would be different versions of a book on sale, a cheap one with ads and a more expensive, ad-free version. Of course we're used to getting our books with no ads, but almost every other medium is powered by ads already. I would never want to see ads while I'm reading a book . . . unless it's something really cheap that I'm reading just for fun and I don't feel like paying a lot for it.

What does the increasing digitization of our culture mean for books, literature and writing? For one thing, there is now blog-style writing, encouraged by the use of links; e.g., "To find out more about this, click here and here." It is now possible to say something without spelling it out, leaving it up to the reader to follow the trail or not. A link is a little like an endnote, except it leads somewhere outside the discrete work one is reading. It can lead to surprising discoveries, some pleasant, some not. It makes for a different reading experience--sometimes fun, sometimes confusing and distracting. As with other literary devices, it can be used or abused according to the skill of the writer. However it is used, we are all getting used to reading with links, and writers are getting used to writing with links. Will they be able to go back to writing books in which links are not possible? What does that mean for the future of books?

I consider myself a book person above all else; yet I own a Kindle and here I am writing a blog. In another context, Karl Lagerfeld said, "When you start to criticize the times you live in, your time is over." (Thanks to Christine Vachon for tweeting this quotation.) New technology is what we make it; we are the ones who allow it to exist in the first place, so there is no point in protesting it; we cannot blame others for foisting it upon us. If you don't like it, don't use it; but you may find yourself left behind. Go ahead and try to find a job through the newspaper, but it would behoove you to get online as well. If you don't like iTunes, don't buy an iPod; but you better go out and buy some CDs, or vinyl for your turntable ha ha. If you don't like getting your news online, it's time to renew those newspaper subscriptions. If you don't like e-readers, don't buy one; but you better go out and buy some books at your local independent bookstore, and check some out of your local library while you're at it. Better yet, write a fabulously popular book, and refuse to let it be released in a Kindle edition! I know plenty of Luddites and late adopters--some are clinging to the past because they believe the things of the past are really better, and some are just stubborn. Some are purists, such as audiophiles who really feel analog recordings capture something about music that digital recordings can't; all it takes is enough money and enough obsessiveness, and they can continue in their pursuit of vinyl. I realize I sound rather pitiless, and classist, too, since it takes money to go against the flow. Yet I do believe that it benefits no one to be left too far behind. Gertrude Stein, when interviewed by cub reporter Walter Cronkite (!) in 1935, said, “A writer isn’t anything but contemporary. The trouble is that the people are living Twentieth Century and thinking Nineteenth Century”--a century is a century is a century.

A book is an object to which we can become emotionally attached; in fact, it seems to inspire emotional attachment. We hold it in our hands for a long time as we read it; we turn its pages one at a time, with care. It has a smell, a texture. The cover can be beautiful; the type style can vary, to resonate with the individual sensibility of each work. A vinyl record, with its tight, tight spiral, unique cover and liner notes, also inspires this love. We have to treat it with care as we place the needle on it. A CD, on the other hand, is much tougher, although not indestructible, and it's hard to imagine how this shiny disc can unleash music into our ears. A Kindle does not change shape, color or size when we go from reading one book to the next. The font stays the same; the background stays the same sickly gray. We don't turn pages on a Kindle; we press a button. Does the emotional attachment to books, records, etc., come from the fact that we have used these things longer, and so have had longer to build up the associations, the memories that come up when we pull out an old record, or see our favorite book on a new acquaintance’s shelf? Or are we just analog creatures, and the digital format grates on us as something essentially alien?

Then again, many of us have become quite attached to our new-fangled gadgets. I for one would probably cry if I lost my iPhone. But it does retain an alien quality—made of strange metals, plastic, microtechnology that I cannot begin to fathom. A book—that I can grasp, literally and figuratively, although of course what is written in the book can still be beyond my intellectual grasp. It is made of recognizable, sometimes organic elements, and I can even picture in my mind how it was made—whether or not that process is realistically portrayed in my mind’s eye is beside the point. It is not mysterious, but comfortingly familiar. No matter how much time passes, not many of us will ever comprehend how an iPhone or Kindle actually works. That is part of its appeal—the wow factor one experiences when an entire book is downloaded within seconds via the “Whispernet,” or when something I enter on my iPhone is synced with my Macbook seemingly by magic. I am in awe, but not in love.

I suppose some would say they do love their electronic devices. I would venture that their love is more like a new infatuation with a mysterious lover than the warm affection given to, say, a grandmother. A grandmother who makes your favorite comfort food and knits you mittens. Maybe some day the new infatuation will mellow into a more familiar attachment, and we will realize that the old grandmother is just as necessary as the mystifying stranger. Of course, the Gutenberg bible seemed impossibly magical when it first appeared.

There will be a day when the Kindle is seen as a primitive ancestor of a technology that everyone accepts as part of daily life. Maybe it will look like one of the two mentioned here. I'm sure Amazon will make improvements according to users' complaints; I hope other devices continue to develop to compete against the Kindle, because I find Amazon's attempted monopolization of our world very troubling. There are already several applications that make it possible to read on an iPhone, iPod Touch or Blackberry (like Eucalyptus and Stanza). Nicholson Baker actually prefers to read on an iPhone, because it is not trying to be too much like a book; the Kindle, on the other hand, tries to be just like a book that just happens to be electronic. But real books will also continue to exist as long as people want them. The article in the Brooklyn Rail I mentioned earlier predicts an eventual bifurcation of publishing culture: One branch is the popular, interactive, fast-mass-produced stuff that you could hardly call books, and the other is the branch that values the reading experience only a book can give. According to Eric Obenauf , the author of this article, the fast-rising sales in e-books can be traced back to the fact that e-books are new, not to the imminent death of print: the e-book sector "is one of the only aspects of the industry where sales are actually increasing. Since large publishers affect the flow of the market by sheer mass, the media seem content to regurgitate this overly hyped sea-change in corporate mentality and declare the death of print. However, the reality of the situation is much less dramatic: there is space for print not only to exist in modern society, but to thrive, if undertaken on a realistic scale."

Maybe fewer crappy books will get published. Has anyone looked at the front fiction table at Barnes & Noble recently? It feels strange to me to be able to walk in there and not see a single book on the whole table that I would even consider reading. The Guernsey Potato Society? Mr. Darcy's Private Diary? Are you freaking kidding me? Something has got to give. There are many signs that the publishing world is already going through serious changes to accommodate the increase in digital sales, both at large houses and small, including start-ups. Richard Nash, formerly of Soft Skull Press, said in describing his new venture, Cursor, "We are going to have to find new ways to earn those [customers'] hours and dollars, and at the prices our readers—and writers—set." Obenauf put it this way: "The mission for book publishers and print media at large should be to create a product that is irreplaceable and indispensable." In other words, books have to continue to provide that “beautiful rich tactile experience,” as Dave Eggers called it, and not try to be like the Internet too much, because they will only fail at that. In the meantime, I will continue to try to support the book industry singlehandedly, much to my husband's chagrin. Not even the Kindle can stop me.

Would this mean that stores like Barnes & Noble would (gasp) cease to exist, unable to pay the rent on those big spaces with revenue from plain old good books? Wouldn't that be horrible? After all, as Steve Riggio recently asserted, "Barnes & Noble pioneered the concept of retail stores as community centers”--what a huge pile of BS. Can you believe the nerve of that guy? Now, I've bought my share of books at B&N, for myself and my kids (along with CDs, DVDs, magazines, gifts, games, tchotchkes, coffee, tea, snacks, chocolate bars, birthday cards, etc.). I also must admit that I think they have made an effort in the past few years to hire staff that actually know something about books. But if it had never existed, I would not feel that something were missing from the universe; I would if bookstores like St. Marks (or Kramerbooks in DC, the first I ever experienced) did not exist. To go into a space especially for books, where there is a mind behind the selection, where a book is given pride of place because someone who owns or works in the store deemed it worthy--not because a multinational conglomerate paid for the spot--and then to meet sales staff and other customers who share your obsessions--that is a bookstore as a "community center" and so much more. As for the Kindle, I will certainly use it, but it can never replace books for me.

The above quotation from Steve Riggio is from the press release in which he also announced that B&N would now provide free wi-fi access to its in-store customers; hypocritically, I'm using this service as I write this. Riggio went on to say, "By providing no-fee Wi-Fi access, we are not only meeting our customers' needs, but extending the sense of community that has always been in our stores. . . . This is a natural progression of our digital strategy to provide customers with more choices in how, when and where they want to read." When you go to a B&N store, you'll see little signs about the new wi-fi access, and at the bottom there is encouragement to download B&N's own free e-reader (which also exists as an iPhone app) and free e-books to get you started. So forget all that community crap--they're really just want to jump (belatedly) on the e-reader bandwagon and get you hooked. (Apple is also developing its own "Kindle-killer.") No matter how maddening the statements re community are, it all adds up to a salubrious reminder that whether it's a book retailer, a publisher or an e-reader maker, the main concern is making money. We as readers should watch how we spend our dollars in support of these various money-making ventures, because that's what will determine the future of books.

For fun, check out these videos pitting the Kindle against the book. Happy reading!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Another Summer Reading Fantasy

I was just going to post an entry about the "Reading Room" in Bryant Park, when I noticed The New York Times beat me to it! Damn them! What are they trying to do, report on what's going on or something? Anyway, it's very nice to see a section of the park set apart for readers--and there is reading material provided in case you forgot yours. There's nothing like reading in an shady spot outside on a summer day. Occasionally authors will appear to do readings; see the schedule at the parks department website.


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About Me

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New York, NY, United States
Overeducated mom, addled by constant interruptions due to demands of family and dog, trying to read books and write coherent sentences about them. Luckily, yoga keeps me centered. Sharing my love of yoga through teaching helps make sense of it all. I have a yoga blog at Since 2015, it has been my pleasure to serve as a reader for Epiphany, a literary journal publishing fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and art; on Twitter as @epiphanymag.


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