KQED, the Bay Area's principal public radio station, also has a signal in "North Highlands - Sacramento." What I used to hear on 88.5 FM is now conveniently available at 89.3 instead.
This morning KQED ran the latest of its "Perspectives" series, in which members of the community share their insights about current affairs or cultural developments. Terence Krista, a school librarian in San Francisco, offered his views about the continuing value of print books for young readers. He bases this upon his experience observing children at a recent book fair hosted by his school.
I agree with much of Krista's commentary, both because it reflects his experience as a school librarian and because friends of ours with young children also talk about how much their kids love print books. In Krista's own words: "Children are such tactile beings, still discovering their world by touch. How pleasurable it must be to hold this container that so beautifully enfolds the stories they treasure."
Hear hear! Krista clearly loves his job as well as the children he reaches. And given the typical cognitive development of children, I believe that print books are more age and stage appropriate than electronic books.
This does not mean this is true for everyone at all stages of their lives. Unfortunately, though, Krista goes there. He pits print books against ebooks in a binary way, with zero sum observations like these: "If the [book] fair was selling books downloaded to some electronic reading device, would the longing and excitement have been the same?" "Recent reports have sales of ebooks down by 10%, while sales of paperbacks are up by 13...Maybe we are all weary of the tyranny of our electronic screens."
Ahem. Fluctuations in sales figures for what is still a very new technology are not indicative that this new technology is doomed. It may well be that ebooks never catch on, but we could also just be in a lull as the next generation of ereader technologies evolves. Print books, which now feel eternal, took decades to become commonplace after the invention of the printing press.
As an adult reader I value both print books (for the reasons Krista describes) as well as e-books. With an e-reader I can look up an unfamiliar word in context, highlight key passages in different colors that form an annotated code, take searchable notes, and insert multiple bookmarks. And, obviously, it is possible to carry around hundreds of books on a lightweight device in a way that is not possible with print. This is why public libraries now allow for the download of ebooks as well as the loaning of print.
There is no right or wrong here. These are just two different dissemination methods, each with their own strengths.
Absolutely -- let children discover the joy of print when they are young with minds wide open. But don't deny them the pleasures of an ebook as they get older and seek to sharpen those very same minds.
My most valuable course at Northwestern, in fall quarter junior year, was about the novels of Virginia Woolf. In addition to offering an immersion into the mind of one of the greatest ever writers, this course honed my writing skills. The challenge of drafting brief papers to describe momentous themes sharpened my ability to hone in on the essence of the matter.
To the Lighthouse was a particular challenge to understand. I was too young to understand this modernist work that was (virtually) no plot and all perception. Family ties are frayed, love endures through struggle, eventually there is a successful voyage to the aforementioned lighthouse. C'est la vie, I 'spose, but who cares?
I do now, after re-reading the novel 18 years later. These days a novel that is composed of interior dialogues and shifting perspectives is full of drama. Legitimate drama too -- not the flash of an everyday page turner. Here's an original work, constructing incisive work.
To wit: "Where to begin?--that was the question at what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her [Lily Briscoe] to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions. All that in idea seemed simple became in practice immediately complex." It has ever been so, but usually such insights do not arrive in a blinding flash of brilliance.
Like many others, in high school I read Herman Melville's inscrutable short story "Bartleby, the Scrivener." This tale, of the law clerk who inexplicably refuses to complete standard tasks, was mysterious and impenetrable.
Bartleby's immortal line is "I would prefer not to." This is what he frequently says to the attorney (never named) who is his ostensible superior. This attorney never fires Bartleby, whose refusal to complete his assigned tasks causes more work for his resentful colleagues.
I had not pondered Bartleby's firm refusals for many years. For me this was just an odd little story assigned in high school.
This has now changed, thanks to Andrew Kahn's brilliant annotation of "Bartleby" for Slate. Accompanied by Garbriel Roth's excellent audio-reading of "Bartleby" for Slate Plus members, I now appreciate "Bartleby" for the brilliant work of literature it has long been.
Whether Bartleby's refusal is an act of political resistance or an expression of enlightened detachment from everyday cares, his example is worth pondering.
Although Kahn is modest about the scope of his outstanding annotations, his work does chart a course for understanding the strands of interpretation that have attached to "Bartleby" since its appearance in 1853. He lights the interpretative paths, and we can choose which of those to follow.
Meanwhile Roth's vivid reading highlights the musicality and verve of Melville's prose. I smiled frequently and chuckled often -- particularly in its early passages, "Bartleby" is hilarious. As the conflict deepens between Bartleby and the attorney, the attorney makes a genuine -- if pompous -- attempt to discern Bartleby's motivations. Here the language becomes more reflective and searching. As Bartleby is forcibly removed from the law offices (where he had been living without authorization) the tone becomes mournful. All of these transitions are effortless, perfectly cadenced, and a reminder of how good writing can be.
Melville was a virtuoso, of course, the author of one the most essential books of American literature in Moby Dick. But even though I could not see it in high school, he also brought all his skills to bear in this masterpiece of a short story. Although you might prefer not to re-read "Bartleby," you are henceforth advised to do so.
Despite what is now a decade's worth of efforts by author's and publisher's groups to tarnish Google Books as a copyright infringing bogeyman, no court has ever seen it this way. It will take a Supreme Court ruling to finally put this issue to rest.
Bring it on. To date, our judicial branch has been more progressive than our creative class on this front. The author/publisher arguments boil down to the claim that Google needs to obtain explicit permission for each and every book scan of the millions it has made for Google Books. This is impractical, even for a company of Google's size and reach. It is also impossible, as many of the authors who would need to grant such permission are either dead or unreachable.
These proposed remedies are disingenuous at best, cynical and misleading at worst. What the authors and publishers are seeking to do is to destroy the concept of fair use, under the guise of sticking up for the little guy.
But here we are. The legal issues must remain separable from the fact that Google is leading this effort. The Circuit Court agrees: "Google's profit motivation does not in these circumstances justify denial of fair use" (Page 4 of ruling).
Brian Koppelman's recent interview with Bryan Garner, the author of Modern American Usage, resurfaced the unresolved tension in linguistic circles between prescriptivists and descriptivists. Garner is an unapologetic prescriptivist, willing to issue judgment about both correct and felicitous word usage. Linguists such as John McWhorter and Steven Pinker are descriptivists, suspicious of bright line edicts and preferring instead to observe how people speak without judging the correctness of what they say.
Garner is an attorney with a long career in guiding lawyers in how to write more clearly. He came to general awareness in 2001, with the publication of David Foster Wallace's essay "Tense Present" in Harper's. (Wallace later republished this essay in Consider the Lobster.) I re-read this piece last evening, and it is as fresh and brilliant as ever. In what is at first blush a review of Garner's erudite tome Modern American Usage, Wallace lays bare the ideological and human stakes underlying the debate between presciptivism and descriptivism. It's well worth reading, including the digressions which Wallace advises readers to skip.
At root, prescriptivism in normative. You don't say "I ain't going." You do say, "I do not plan to attend." You don't observe, "He be trippin'," rather you proclaim, "That gentleman is momentarily indisposed due to the ingestion of a mind-altering substance." And so forth.
We all know this. And we all know that how people speak influences how others think of them. This may not be fair, but it has ever been so. The entire premise of My Fair Lady is about teaching a poor woman to speak differently, so that she may become a lady.
But who makes these rules and why should anyone obey them? They weren't passed by any legislature, and looking down one's nose at others about how they speak seems like a particularly tragic use of a fine education. Furthermore, standard English is not always elegant or concise. Sometimes it's just stuffy.
Garner's in on this racket, say the descriptivists. From his fancy perch he issues edicts and disrespects the vernacular language of marginalized people.
Hold on! says Wallace (defending Garner). All language is normative, and there is no way around it. There is always a dominant form--think of China, where Mandarin is the official language even though there are countless regional dialects. There has to be a base, there has to be a standard. So if Garner's brand of English usage fades away, another dominant approach will arise in its place.
Indeed it is true that dominant linguistic standards are enforced by privileged people, but this does not mean it is unwise to learn them. The way to get ahead is to learn the speak that privileged language, which means that descriptivists are actually harming the people they claim to support.
Both in his recent interview and in his 2004 essay "Making Peace in the Language Wars," Garner shies away from the sensation of disrespect that his brand of prescriptivism engenders. It lands as one more tool of oppression, even though what Garner suggests regarding proper word usage could be the key to a changed life.
We can be respectful of people's sensitivities without arguing that prescriptivism has no value. That's not true. Wallace notes that those who seek to make change, such as Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, always speak the language of people with power. It's the only way to get them to listen.
For the last several months I've been reading George Eliot's masterpiece Middlemarch, as part of the year long "Mission Impossible" project sponsored by the Evanston Public Library. I wrote about Middlemarch last fall, and since then have almost finished but not quite yet. It is so engrossing that I am no longer sticking to the assigned readings, as it is more rewarding to race ahead.
One author I've always meant to read but never have is Anthony Trollope. That finally changed after absorbing Adam Gopnik's tribute to Trollope a few weeks ago. Gopnik's enthusiasm prompted the purchase of Trollope's Phineas Finn, the coming-of-age story of a rural young man who assumes a seat in Parliament. (A purchase which occurred at the Seminary Coop, one of the most glorious of Chicago's bookstores.)
This particular Gopnik sentence sings: "What makes Trollope a novelist rather than a polemicist is that, although he is on the side of reform, he is capable of empathetic engagement with its victims." Trollope's quest for reform is very specific to the political conditions of Britain in his lifetime. But the writer's imperative for empathy is universal.
The novel is the art form best suited to plumbing the depths of the human psyche, as it allows for a degree of interiority and exposition that is harder to achieve in other art forms. We are indeed living in a golden age of television, and I will miss Mad Men greatly. Nonetheless we will always need novels.
This blog began ten years ago today, with a short post about how living in New York City had spurred too many visits to the movies. Ten years later, less frequently but still at least once a week, I'm still at it.
Here are some reflections on ten years of blogging.
1. The Original Motivation
In 2004 blogs became central to political discourse, during the Bush vs. Kerry election. This was before the birth of Twitter and when Facebook was in its infancy. "Social media" had not begun its ascendancy, and the smart phones that enabled rapid posting to social media sites did not yet exist. But blogs did exist, and they were hot. This anointing occured in the New York Times Magazine in Sep. 2004, with a feature story about the rise of political blogs. I read that piece intensively. Since I enjoyed writing, blogs (I was always fine with calling them "blogs," preferring that to the fussiness of "web logs") seemed like a natural outlet.
As the second Bush administration was taking shape I decided the least I could do was blog to express my dismay. I landed on Typepad because this is what Scott was already using. And so the blog began.
2. The Early Years
Given the political origin of my blog, at first I aimed to frequently inject my views onto the political scene. This led to some cringeworthy posts, such as my take on the efforts to resuscitate Terri Schiavo (remember her?) from a vegetative state. Today I avoid writing about the meshugas of the moment, but back then I loved to dive in.
This is because the blog, in my eyes, was a new type of newspaper column. At this time there was much fervor about how blogs would end the tyranny of the "mainstream media" (or MSM). With the power of the Web at anyone's fingertips, the news would be democratized. Today I am less current on the state of traditional journalism vis-a-vis newer platforms than I used to be. For a long time I followed this closely, and offered posts about blogs and the future of news (from Oct 2005) and the state of journalism (from Sep 2008).
Slices of life pieces--about New York at first, then the Bay Area, and now Chicagoland--were interspersed with the political screeds and journalistic think pieces. These could be movie or book reviews, or perhaps an account of an interesting day on the town. The other major category was posts about librarianship, which I'll cover in a later section. By now, ten years on, the slices of life are the bread and butter of this blog.
2. Audience Engagement and Comments
The early years--again, before Facebook and Twitter--featured several posts that generated extensive comment and debate. Here is one example. Once Facebook became a distribution platform, the blog posts would feed into Facebook as notes and sometimes generated comments there. Once Facebook added the like feature, and Twitter introduced the concept of tweeting or microblogging, the comments basically dried up. I used to feature the most recent comments in the right panel of the blog, but at this point there are less than 10 comments per year. The blog has become a labor of love more than a spark of conversation.
One thread that has remained constant is a concern with the future of librarianship. This has risen and fallen over the years, but has always been present. I was determined not to make this a library-focused blog. But I've periodically contributed to the conversation, and these posts are collected in the "Librarianship" category. Most recently I've expressed my strong support for the Association of College and Research Libraries's new Information Literacy Framework, in a rare contemporary instance of taking sides.
For a while I was very interested in whether blogs could supplant professional journals as the library literature. To wit, I wrote "Why Professional Librarian Journals Should Evolve into Blogs" in Feb 2008. I still agree with these arguments-that blogs would allow faster dissemination of ideas and immediate engagement. But unless there are strong vetting mechanisms within a blog it might become hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. This does not mean that our current peer review practices are perfect. Far from it--they can be bureaucratic and overly conservative. But these implementation defects do not sully peer review as a concept, which is to offer a signal of "what's worth reading" for busy readers. I now think that librarianship-oriented blogs will be continue to supplement the formal literature, but will not replace that literature. After all, something similar has happened with news. Far from watching the MSM tumble, these days very established brands like the Times offer some of the best blogs going.
4. The Sarah Lacy Controversy
In spring 2008, a few months after arguing that librarian journals should evolve into blogs, the one and only controversy to ever erupt on this blog occurred. I published a review of Sarah Lacy's "Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good" in the San Francisco Chronicle. Lacy deemed the review snarky and sexist, leading to these responses: mine, Lacy's.
It was the kind of thing that felt momentous at the time, and for a while afterwards. Now it feels like ancient history, but if nothing else the blog did get its moment in the spotlight.
5. 2009: Divorce Year
In 2009 Helen and I filed for divorce, something I chronicled extensively here. The blog was my lifeline that year, the venue for personal essays about the most tumultuous time in my life. A central part of my healing process was writing it all out.
6. 2010-Present: Looking Outward
Pi Wen and I met in early 2010, when the divorce was still new but the most intense feelings had passed. We met on Valentine's weekend and immediately learned of how much we had in common. One thing in common was that we had both lived in Evanston, the town we now call home once again. We've made, and are making, a new life together.
The blog no longer serves as a record for all of that. Today you'll see a more mellow person's periodic musings. It's still important to contribute to professional debates, but I'll do that in professional association work or (indeed) in journal articles. As to the political discourse which this blog once aspired to join, I am glad not to take any part in it.
7. The Purpose of the Blog Today
So what's the point now? Perhaps my blog would get more comments if I jazzed it up with videos or used the recommended links that Typepad provides. One of my former colleagues at Samuel Merritt landed a new job by skillfully using his blog in just this way. Meanwhile I march along as though nothing has changed in online norms, relying on my words and very few images.
Clearly, then, my blog is mostly for me--an ongoing diary which I hope others find interesting. This would not have been such a bad motivation from the start.
My first exposure to Swedish novelist Henning Mankell was his mystery Firewall, which features the indelible detective Kurt Wallander. Unbeknownst to me at that time, Wallander is so famous that he's been featured on TV and in film.
Better late than never. Now I can't get enough Wallander. He's brooding, often grumpy, and has terrible dietary habits and sleep patterns. His marriage dissolves but he loves his daughter from that marriage deeply. His father is a cranky artist who always paints the same scene. And Wallander--despite his gruff front--cares about his colleagues and mentors, a group that works together over many years to solve shocking crimes.
These are more than hard-boiled mysteries, as the psychological nuances of Wallander evolve throughout the novels. But they are page-turners nonetheless. Yesterday I held all calls to complete the long novella that concludes The Pyramid. Ostensibly the day's tasks were to include laundry, but this became a task deferred. Blame Wallander, not me. And anyway, the laundry is done by now.
To be sure, there is more richness and complexity in the works of George Eliot and Virginia Woolf than in those of Henning Mankell. Middlemarch and To the Lighthouse are classics of world literature, and as much as I love Wallander I can't put him in that pantheon. That's ok though--the effort to reward ratio for Mankell is quite attractive, and sometimes that's all that matters.
During our current trip to Malaysia and Singapore I read How It All Began, one of many novels by the Brit Penelope Lively. This is the first novel of hers I have read, but it shan't be the last.
In this novel Lively relates the rippling consequences of a a single event. That event is the mugging of retired teacher Charlotte Rainsford, 77 years old. Charlotte's hip is injured, requiring her to live with her daughter and son-in-law for several months. This means her daughter has to work less, especially at first, causing ripples in the extended family of her employer too.
On it goes, like a series of concentric circles or Matryoshka dolls. No spoilers here, because you should read the book.
While some critics find some links in the chain to be implausible, for me every connection is fully believeable and realized. Even lively, you might say.