Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Posts tagged ‘reading’

Reading is a Technology that is still Changing

When Greeks began to write, Plato lamented this new technology, claiming it would ruin learning and memory. Instead of having to memorize everything, people could store knowledge externally in print and in text form. If you have some time to read more about how writing is a technology, check out this article (warning: it’s long and dense). In the long run, people still retained knowledge and added to our knowledge base over the millennia in art, science, math, literature, and so on. We live in an age where one newspaper may contain more information than the average citizen might come across in a lifetime just a few centuries ago. But how well are we remember these days in a new era? Nick Carr explores how we treat memory and attention span differently know that we are constantly on the Internet and can store vast amounts of information in cyberspace. Why remember when Marie Antoinette was beheaded when you can look it up in seconds on Wikipedia? Why memorize your friends’ phone numbers when they’re stored on a mobile device?

Out With the Old, In With the New 

I’m getting off topic, but what I mean is that whenever we develop a new way to store and disseminate information, we evaluate if this new technology will affect our way of thinking, analyzing, and remembering. And it usually does, although we cannot fully analyze the long term effects for decades. Along with multitasking and web surfing affecting our train of thought and ability to concentrate  we’re changing the way we read because of the e-book. I read an article that explores this topic. I’ve already talked about how e-books change reading comprehension for people who’ve grown up on print books (though not children). I’ve also talked a little bit about how some publishers and retailers like Amazon want to make reading social with shared underlinings and annotations (Amazon, stop sharing my notes! It’s creepy); some applications like Riffle try to make reading and recommendations a social media experience.

But apart from sharing our highlights and notes, e-readers gather information about our reading habits–how quickly we read, where we stop and start reading, how often we read, etc. What you read and how you read it is no longer your private information. This is obvious when we get book recommendations from retailers, but publishers might use this gathered information to encourage readers to edit. For example, if readers on average stop around page 50, the publisher might recommend that the writer shorten the exposition. What if a book you buy is automatically tailored to your tastes via algorithms that know your buying habits and your preferences? What if readers have the option to group edit a text? Of course, publishers have been coming out with new editions of books for years, but usually a new edition takes a while to write and is widely publicized.  What if the edition is specific to you, or you never know that what you’re reading isn’t what came out originally? What if the accessibility of a book is dependent on other readers? All of a sudden, that quiet, private afternoon curled up with a book seems way more disturbing and intrusive.

Is Sharing Caring? 

Mikhail Bakhtin theorized about the relationship between writer, audience, and genre. From what I can remember, a writer writes a book and publishes it, but its reception and genre is dependent on audience. For example, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was intended as an adult novel, but now it is widely considered YA fiction, though much of the content is memoir. Now, that relationship might books more malleable and changeable than ever before: writer publishes book, audience reads book on an e-reader, publisher gathers information and edits the book, and the book comes out again in a new, revised form based on the reader’s preferences and tastes.

I have no idea if this is a good or bad thing. If publishers really do start changing books to appeal to the audience preference’s, both the author’s autonomy and the reader’s choice will be limited. However, as long as the original print version is still available, I guess I’ll just switch back to print instead of risking reading a book that is not what the author intended. I would like to interpret and make reading decisions for myself, thanks very much.

A Tiny Corner of the World

One of the unintended benefits of unemployment following graduation is that I have an abundant amount of free time and no alarm set for the morning. Apart from applying to jobs left, right, and center, I’m also trying to publicize this blog more and update it more frequently. I’ve now linked my accounts to my Facebook and to my Twitter (follow me! @rachelkspurrier). Consequently, I’m trolling for subject matter. I’m looking a little closer at my PW Daily e-mails than I used to, unlike in college when I would check my e-mail on my way to class, skim through the updates, and forget all about the headlines once the professor began talking. Fortunately, learning more about the publishing industry is only a good thing when you’re trying to break into the business, but I usually look more at the Roundup Section with articles from across the Internet (by the way, the PW Daily e-mail is delightfully free, so you can sign up and get the latest industry news without paying the high subscription price).

I found an article about a writer’s New Year’s resolution to read fewer books, and before I dive in on my thoughts, I’d like to inclue a brief excerpt from one of my favorite books, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. An excellent crossover book that is semi-autobiographical, Alexie’s book provides some nice little truth bombs throughout the text. The following is one, where the main character is talking to his new friend Gordy at his new high school:

We ran into the Reardan High School Library.

“Look at all these books,” he said.

“There aren’t that many.” It was a small library in a small high school in a small town.

“There are three thousand four hundred and twelve books here,” Gordy said. “I know that because I counted them.”

“Okay, now you’re officially a freak,” I said.

“Yes, it’s a small library. It’s a tiny one. But if you read one of these books a day, it would still take you almost ten years to finish.”

“What’s your point?”

“The world, even the smallest parts of it, is filled with things you don’t know.”

Wow. That was a huge idea. 

I immediately thought of this little snippet while reading Michael Bourne’s article, because his New Year’s Resolution is to read fewer books. He writes that he has read 776 books in the past twelve years, at an average of 60 books per year. I’m not a math genius, so I hadn’t really put the pieces together like that. In the past twelve years, I’ve probably read at least ten books a year, give or take (I’ve read fewer in the past few years, a byproduct of working and going to school). That’s only 120 books out of the hundreds of thousands of titles that have come out in the past decade. I’ve already written about the sheer vastness of the writing world, but I’d never really realized how minuscule the number of books I’ve read compares to the number of books published. Apart from being humbling, that realization both motivates me and exhausts me. Of course reading that article made me think of how little I know and how much I have yet to learn and experience, but mostly the realization of how little I’ve read is daunting. Yes, I want to read more and more often, but if my goal is to read everything, then I’ll never catch up. Covering the whole scope of everything written each year on top of everything that’s ever been published would be impossible, of course. And I have no intention of trying. Obviously not every book on the shelves is suited to my tastes or interests, and a good number of them get picked off the pile simply for literary quality or lack thereof (Danielle Steele, anyone?)

But I’ve still got to make the effort to read more. My little corner of the world of DFW has exposed me to literature, culture, the arts, but books are a whole other avenue for world exploration. Mr. Bourne has many more titles under his belt and much more literary experience (not to mention life experience), so I think he’s earned the right to pressure himself a little less on reading a book a week. He mentioned he’s the primary caregiver for his six-year-old daughter, so he probably could use a break. But as for me, I’m young, unmarried, childless, unencumbered by a strict schedule or responsibilities. I should be reading more, but I’m not. I guess I’m doing better than the average American; according to a Washington Post article, 25% of Americans did not read one book in 2006. Yet, as a writer and a lover of literature, I should probably be putting in a little more initiative to read more often. Perhaps the fact that I just found out the full series of The West Wing is now on Netflix instant watch is preventing me from putting more of my energy into book reading. Yes, instant watch is one of my greatest downfalls: for Lent last year, I chose to cut out instant watch. I saved a ridiculous amount of time, but I quickly returned to my bad habit after Easter.

Just like Lent is a time for reevaluating life choices, New Year’s is another opportunity to reflect and resolve to do better. My New Year’s resolutions are fairly basic: be kinder to everyone, smile more often, exercise more frequently, be more organized, get a job, etc. Standard stuff, really. But I should add on the list to read more books. Until I’ve reached Bourne’s 776 count, I’m still a literary novice and a writing rube. I will note, however, that Bourne admits himself that his need to make lists of all the books he’d read was a tad bit obsessive. I assume that he, like me, has a type-A personality, so I’ll try to avoid the pitfalls of my perfectionism and just go with the flow on which books I read. And I need to set a realistic goal. When I was trying to finish up my thesis, I made the decision to write three pages a day, which was a lot less terrifying than writing ten a day for three days. I finished with more ease and less stress, and I think this whole book goal should be the same. Instead of viewing it as a challenge, I see it as an opportunity to hunker down with a good book with a mug of hot chocolate and get immersed in new knowledge and new worlds.

Finding Solace in Books

I’ll be a little bit confessional here, and I’ll try not to get too self-pitying or melodramatic. I was bullied as a kid. Socially awkward and a bit of a know-it-all, I didn’t really understand my peers, and they didn’t really understand me. Add in anxiety problems, insomnia, and severe depression, and you get a kid who has a really hard time fitting in. I got called ugly, weird, and a whole host of other words about nerdy, geeky kids who don’t really know how to relate or connect to kids of the same age. It didn’t help either that I was still growing into my features, and my growth spurts left me gawky and clumsy. I got along better with adults than I did with most of my classmates and struggled to make friends. I was often pretty lonely and found solace in books. I read the Harry Potter series incessantly and used the books as an escape and calming influence for my anxiety. Without sounding too pathetic, Harry, Ron, and Hermione were my friends when I felt friendless and alone. When I had episodes of anxiety or insomnia, I would read those books until I calmed down and/or began to finally feel tired. Today, I have small tattoos of the three stars that appear in the upper corners of each page on my shoulder blades as a reminder of how far I’ve come since those elementary school days.

In middle school, I got introduced to cyberbullying, and some of my classmates used instant messaging as a platform to tell me that I dressed badly, I needed to fix my eyebrows, and that I was weird with my obsession with reading, history, and school. I’d get online and half an hour later end up crying in my bedroom because of something some girl said to me. Fortunately, I got older, found a group of friends with whom I fit in pretty well, got some self-confidence, and left the days of being bullied behind me. Sometimes the memories still sting a little, but I lead a relatively happy, productive, normal, and successful life these days, and those memories feel distant and foreign.

I wasn’t alone, of course. Two girls I knew played tricks online: girl A would get girl B to talk badly about girl C online. Girl A would then copy and paste the conversation of what girl B said about girl C, and then girl A would send the conversation to girl C so she could see what girl B said about her. Insane? Yes. And with the advent of myspace and facebook, bullying online is public and 24/7. A family friend of mine who is in high school found out the unfortunate consequences of Facebook bullying. She broke up with her boyfriend over the phone before her mom drove her home from an after school activity. The ex-boyfriend posted a status immediately afterward about their breakup, unfairly accusing her of being mean and heartless. During the drive home, a bunch of friends started posting on the status, saying mean and rude things about my friend, and when she did get online an hour later, she was greeted with over a dozen comments about what a horrible, mean person she was.

Bullying is in the public spotlight now more than ever before after the Columbine shootings and teen suicides as a result of bullying. Various state legislatures have tried to pass legislation against bullying with mixed results, and the battle to fight bullying and its negative effects is raging on. Publishers have joined in the effort with books targeted to help both bullies and the bullied cope. 35% of teens turn to books to cope with bullying. This article (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/54458-a-call-to-action-bullying-and-books.html) outlines some of the actions publishers have taken to combat bullying.

As Shannon Maughan explains, many books and resources are available:

There are picture books and early readers featuring characters playing together peacefully and making each other feel welcome and included in a peer group. Nonfiction books for elementary-age students help identify different forms of bullying and spell out an action plan for kids who are dealing with the problem. Several middle-grade novels use humor in stories of kids coming to grips with being bullied (or perhaps being a perpetrator). And not surprisingly, the books for teens include powerful novels about suicide and other devastating fallout from bullying behavior, as well as titles designed to boost self-esteem or to offer hope for those enduring the pain of bullying. Additionally, there are some new guides for parents and educators on the topic. Authors and publishers alike have been inspired to work on projects with an anti-bullying theme and have increasingly developed effective ways to get the word out about their books. 

Check out the article to find examples of publishers like Random House and DK launching campaigns and publishing books to help fight bullying and its negative effects.

I want to highlight here how books serve as a resource for comfort and for education. Bullying has become a national epidemic with 13 million students bullied each year. Books are an escape as well as a tool. My parents, ever supportive and loving, bought books about how to help me to fit in and manage the bullying, and the books I read provided a much-needed escape and outlet for the panic attacks and depression. Books gave our family a way to handle the situation and move forward. Without books, I’m not sure how I would have gotten through some of the things that happened. I also was fortunate enough to discover the transformative power of the written word. In the fourth grade, at least when I was fourth grade, students had to learn how to write a two-page paper for the annual standardized. After I turned in my first practice paper, my teacher called me up to her desk, set down my paper, and smiled at me. She told me I had a gift, a special ability, something I should nurture and foster. She showed my papers to other teachers, pointing out my sensory detail and vocabulary. I began to write as an outlet for the difficult emotions I was experiencing, and writing gave me a chance to express everything that was in my head that I couldn’t get out otherwise. The transformative power of the written word had changed me.

I’m so glad that publishers are making a concerted effort to educate, inform, and help both bullies and the bullied. Knowledge is power, as clichéd as that saying is, and the more students, educators, and parents know about bullying and how to cope/handle, the better they will manage the consequences of bullying. Hopefully anyone affected by bullying will find comfort and safety in the written word.

Am I Killing Literature?

My purview is not reviewing books. As far as I know, I haven’t reviewed any books on my blog as of yet. For one thing, it’s not really my area of expertise, and  when I read for pleasure I’m not really evaluating a book for its literary quality. I do enough reading and evaluating of writing at my work and in my courses. When I do get time to read a book, I’m not spending time reading it as a writer; I’m reading it as a reader. If that doesn’t make any sense, I’ll try to explain the difference between reading as a reader and reading as a writer. When approaching a text, I’m of the opinion that you can read it through several different lenses. The main two for me are as a reader and as a creative writer (I also read as a copyeditor and as a peer tutor, but those are nitpicky subsets that aren’t really at issue right now). Reading as a reader is what we all learn in high school: looking for symbolism, reading for themes and motifs, identifying figurative language and other literary goodies. Reading as a reader is what most undergraduate lit students focus on: evaluating the text merely from the end product, not the process of producing it. Writing majors look down on lit students sometimes, because we snobbishly think, “That’s not that difficult. I learned how to do that as a freshman in high school. Big deal.” Of course, reading literature as a reader well and truly analyzing it at a high level is incredibly difficult, so I do not mean to discredit the work of literary scholars. But writing majors get stuck up because reading as a writer takes a whole different skill set, and usually when reading a piece, you have to read it as a reader and as a writer, which is usually why when I’m reading a piece for a creative writing workshop, I read it twice. First, I read as a reader to get comprehension and get that out of the way. Then I read it again as a writer, looking for how the writer crafted the piece and how well he or she did it. I usually ask myself, “What is the writer trying to do, and how well is he or she doing it?” I look for how well they structured the piece, how well the language works, if the rhetoric fits, if the diction works, and so on. Reading as a writer takes a certain level of maturity, because you can’t evaluate a text on whether or not you personally like it, but whether or not it’s written well.

When I was an editor for eleven40seven, the acquisitions staff often hit these snags about personal opinion versus literary evaluation. One of the editors on staff was quite opinionated, but she could not back up her opinions with, “Well the literary allusions he/she employs are trite and cliché” or “The structure of the piece is too confusing and convoluted to effectively tell the story.” She simply would stubbornly put down her foot and say, “I hate this piece. We are not publishing this if I have anything to say about it.” The result was that the whole acquisitions process was like pulling teeth, and we all ended up hating each other. That’s besides the point. The main issue became persuading this editor that we didn’t give a damn whether or not she personally liked it; she needed to support her opinions with commentary and how well the piece was written. I recognized that some of the pieces I really enjoyed were actually not all that good–I merely identified with the subject matter or was in a good mood when I originally read it, so I backed off when no one else liked it.

Wow, that was quite a tangent. Anyway, if I’m going to review a book, I’d review it as a writer, not a reader, and that takes more time and brain power than I’m willing to give. I just finished Broken Harbor by Tana French, and I loved it. It was a whodunit where my jaw literally dropped when I realized who had committed the murders. I think I might have actually said under my breath, “Oh. My. God.” while eating dinner at my kitchen table. But I’m not going to review it, because I read through it at lightning speed because I couldn’t put it down. I’m not going to be able to give a well-reasoned argument on why it was good. I loved it as a reader, but I couldn’t tell you if the book had merit from a writer’s perspective.

So, I’m not a reviewer of books, but I’m a blogger. I don’t have great credentials just yet. I’ve been published, and I’m just a couple months away from receiving a BA in Writing from Texas Christian University, but apart from that, I can’t provide any solid reasons why anyone should listen to what I have to say about literature apart from the fact that I love to read and that I’ve spent the past three years honing my craft and reading works from a literary standpoint, from a writer’s standpoint, from an acquisition editor’s standpoint, from a copyeditor’s standpoint, and from a writing tutor’s standpoint. That’s a lot of perspectives, but I don’t work at a publishing house, and the only awards I’ve gotten for my writing have come from TCU. I don’t have ethos, as a rhetorician might say.

However, I still took offense when reading this article about how book bloggers are harming literature: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/sep/25/books-bloggers-literature-booker-prize-stothard. Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement and a book blogger himself, is of the opinion that the mass of online opinion about books is damaging to the literary world. Stothard claimed, “If the mass of unargued opinion chokes off literary critics…then literature will be the lesser for it. There is a great deal of opinion online, and it’s probably reasonable opinion, but there is much less reasoned opinion….If we make the main criteria good page-turning stories – if we prioritise unargued opinion over criticism – then I think literature will be harmed. Someone has to stand up for the role and the art of the critic, otherwise it will just be drowned – overwhelmed. And literature will be worse off.”

Apparently, there are snobs toward the snobs such as myself. If I go ahead and start reviewing books, I’ll just be white noise in the buzz of literary criticism,  and I realize that, which is part of the reason I abstain. But I think there is a lot to be said for people going online and saying what the they think about books, even if they are not credentialed reviewers. For one thing, literary critics may have the literary background to give sound, well-argued opinions, but I like to hear what “regular people” are saying about books. If I find many favorable reviews online, I’ll probably discount a few as paid for by the author, but I have to believe that at least one or two are the real deal. And I like knowing that real, live people, not just regular reviewers, are liking and reading the book I’m considering sinking my teeth into. Although I’m a bit of a snob of people being able to read like writers, I think that anyone who reads a lot can get a feel for whether a book is worth reading or not, even if they can’t clearly articulate why.

I think that the practice of online book blogging should be encouraged and definitely should continue. If there are people out there who are still passionate about reading and recommending books, then we should celebrate that. Simon Savidge fortunately disagreed with Stothard, saying, “All the blogs I follow are written for free by people who have a passion for books, many of whom are currently reading some of the Man Booker shortlisted novels, and recommending the books that excite them. I think anyone who reads a lot, just by reading, has the ability to critique anything they read … reading and the reaction is a personal experience based on life experience. Interestingly, you don’t find bloggers scathing review pages; you find them reading them between books, along with other blogs, because we are all united on the love of literature in all its forms and genres.” We should want people being so moved or annoyed by what they read to share it from the world or shout it from the mountaintops.

I’m going to keep blogging, because I love to read, and I love to write. If anything, bloggers are keeping the literary world alive and continuing to practice of loving literature.

 

Also, Banned Books Week is coming up! I’ll be having a post on whether or not YA books should have rating systems. Happy Banned Books Week in advance!!

YA–For Old or For the Young?

There’s a certain demographic out there of people who are the backbone of the publishing industry, its bread and butter, the reason for its continued existence. Without this group of people, the publishing industry might be faring far worse than it is now. This group of people is willing to go out and buy the hardback book the day it hits the shelves, buy the print book over the e-book, stay loyal to an author. This audience is mostly adult women, who buy books for their children and who go in with a list of titles and buy them all without necessarily looking at the price tag. My mother is in this category, although she reads more on her e-reader these days than she used to. I probably will be one day, assuming brick-and-mortar bookstores are still around.

And there’s a certain kind of book that attracts these adult readers (male and female alike): the young adult crossover. Young adult crossover books are those that are written/marketed for young adults but are successfully with adults as well. Some big examples of course would be The Hunger Games series, Harry Potter series, and alas, The Twilight series (or do we call it “saga” these days?) Smaller examples would be Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. These books appeal to ages 10-60, or possibly older depending on the person. A new study (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/53937-new-study-55-of-ya-books-bought-by-adults.html) found that 55% of YA sales are bought and read by adults. And those 55% fall into my category above of the coveted reader demographic. The article says:

The trend is good news for publishers, as these adult consumers of YA books are among the most coveted demographic of book consumers overall. Additional insights from the Bowker study show these readers are:
  • Early adopters: More than 40% read e-books, equivalent to the highest adoption rates of adult genres of mystery and romance
  • Committed: 71% say that if an e-book of their desired title was unavailable, they would buy the print book instead
  • Loyal: Enjoying the author’s previous books has a moderate or major influence over the book choice for more than two-thirds of the respondents
  • Socially active: Although more than half of respondents reported having “no interest” in participating in a reading group, these readers are very active in social networks and often get recommendations from friends.

The popularity of YA can even be seen in how publishers are packaging their books. A few months back I saw an article on the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/28/business/media/to-lure-twilight-fans-classic-books-get-bold-looks.html?pagewanted=all) that said that publishers are putting young-adult-style covers on old-school classics to lure in those who buy YA books. Publishers realize how important YA is, and they have devoted a lot of energy and resources into publishing more and more YA titles each year, and bookstores have taken the hint. I’m sure we’ve all seen the unfortunate “Teen Paranormal Romance” sections at your local Barnes and Noble.

Publishers realize that those stuffy covers featuring depressed-looking young women in Georgian/Victorian/Edwardian clothing standing in English gardens are not attracting anybody except those who already like the classics. And although these booksellers are appealing to the Twilight teen, it’s possible that adults will buy these books as well, considering how they are already drawn to YA books. And hopefully a teenager might just pick up a classic or two.

I abhor classics worship–classics endure because of how their stories mesh into the overarching human story we are all a part of, not because the writing is flawless. I grit my teeth every time I hear a high school English teacher waxing nostalgic about how amazing every singe word in The Scarlet Letter is. Nathaniel Hawthorne isn’t perfect, either. Just because it’s published and it’s endured doesn’t mean it’s infallible. Anyway. Now that I’ve got that off my chest. But I do think classics are important as part of our cultural and literary heritage, so I think we should probably keep them around. I hope both teens and adults alike keep reading, and I certainly pray that we all keep valuing the transformative power of the written word. 

 

 

The Title Tidal Wave

I am an odd mixture of idealist and cynic. I tend to think the best of people and believe them at face value (read: gullible) except for politicians, corporate executives, and celebrity gossipers. So imagine my surprise and horror at reading “Social Media Scamsters” by Laura Miller (full article can be found here: http://www.salon.com/2012/08/09/social_media_scamsters/). Apparently–and this never occurred to me for some inexplicable reason, authors will hire companies to write fake reviews: “In addition to services that will churn out fake five-star Amazon ‘reader’ reviews for a fee, an author can hire a company to produce his Twitter feed, faking a relationship with his fans (if he has any to begin with) in a medium that once promised a form of direct contact.” I was disillusioned. Why? Because I trust reader reviews and use them as a way to find new books to read. As Laura Miller’s friends agreed together, “‘You always have to read the reader reviews first, before you buy anything…'” Unfortunately, this was my approach, too. I would see a title in a magazine or a bookstore and then look it up online to see what other readers were saying. I don’t necessarily go to traditional reviewers from newspapers, because I’m at the whim of the personal opinions of the reviewer. I went for breadth rather than depth, quantity rather than quality, for my reviews. Browse through the reviews, see what they say, buy or not buy. A fairly simple process. Now I’m not so sure who I can trust.

Part of the problem is that I struggle enough as is just narrowing down the huge flood of books that come out every week. Yes, we always have obvious frontrunners appearing at the big display when we walk into the bookstore (but is based on the actual quality of the book or the size of the marketing budget?), and the New York Times bestseller list can give us a few suggestions. But the sheer volume of publication is staggering–not only do we have the titles from the dozens (if not hundreds) of publishers pouring out on every subject in every style, we also face the river rapids of self-published works. I don’t even know where to turn anymore or where to begin. I walk into a bookstore and feel almost paralyzed by the options. And online retailers are no longer very helpful. Unless you know the exact title and author of the book you’re searching for, online booksellers are fairly useless. For one thing, Amazon sells much more than books, so their welcome page is cluttered with ads for other items based on the cookies that your computer has accumulated. And believe you me, these cookies can be wildly inaccurate. I recently looked up what Google guessed about my interests, gender, and personality based on what I had browsed on the Internet, and apparently I’m a 65-year-old woman who enjoys hip-hop and the urban music scene.

Another problem with these recommendations is that they’re based on subject matter, not style. And Amazon also gives recommendations based just on what you’ve searched, not what you’ve actually bought. For example, I looked up a bunch of Western philosophy books for market research for a book I’m content editing, and now I have a bunch of recommendations for philosophy and metaphysics. Rather than giving me similar titles based on style, syntax, or author, I end up with a list that isn’t tailored to my taste, just my interests. Amazon lacks the sophisticated tools of recommendations in other media: Pandora, the online music radio, has devised a music “genome” so that the music it generates for you is based on over 2,000 focus traits such as syncopation, key, harmonies, etc. Amazon doesn’t provide suggestions based on the underlying features and architecture of the writing, just the superficial traits and characteristics.

Now I can’t even trust reviews. Stephen Leather, a British author, admitted, “‘As soon as my book is out I’m on Facebook and Twitter several times a day talking about it. I’ll go on to several forums, the well-known forums, and post there under my name and under various other names and various other characters. You build up this whole network of characters who talk about your books and sometimes have conversations with yourself.'” Of course, you can sift through the many reviews from Publishers Weekly an mainstream newspapers, and a simple search of the book title plus “review” can yield some helpful search results.

I was talking to my boyfriend about this problem I have in finding new stuff to read. I feel so overwhelmed by the vast number of titles appearing weekly that I don’t know where to begin. As he has a BFA in film, I asked him why it seems so much easier to find movies you might like over books you might like. First, I mentioned that there’s no one reliable site for books like Rotten Tomatoes for movies. Yes, you can read the NY Times review, but again, that’s only one reviewer. Rotten Tomatoes is the consensus of hundreds or thousands of reviews. Yes, of course, some people could generate false reviews, but the number of people reviewing a movie far outweighs the number of people appearing on forums and reviewing books. You get a better picture of the quality of the movie because you have more input that might drown out the false reviews.

Second, the number of movies that are readily available to the public is much fewer than books. Yes, hundreds of movies come out a year, but the ones that appear in most movie theaters are limited. There’s a smaller selection, whereas books come out in the dozens from large publishers all yelling into the foray, creating white noise where reviews and recommendations once lived. This leads me to my third point that finding a possible movie to watch takes less time than checking out a book. Serious book browsers have to take the time to open the book, read the inside flap, then the first few pages to see if they like the subject and style. This process can take anywhere from 1 to 20 minutes. By contrast, movies come out in clips and trailers that usually last no longer than 2.5 minutes and require less brain activity to process. Also, these trailers are ubiquitous: on YouTube, on TV, in movie theaters. Books don’t receive the same level of advertising.

There are of course some similarities between the two media. Books are often sold based on author, just as movies are advertised based on director and/or the actors featured in the film. Yet, there are relatively few authors who have attained this household-name celebrity status–the first few that come off the top of my head are Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and so on. And these authors primarily write fiction. Try to think of three tremendously popular nonfiction writers. Can’t think of any? Me neither. Instead, books come out in mass quantities by lesser-known or new authors just trying to get a shout into the din.

When I walk into a bookstore or library, I’m at a loss. I don’t know which way to turn. I can trust the recommendation of a friend, check out what books are recommended by the staff, look at the featured titles on the display tables. But how am I going to know which book I will truly enjoy? At this point, I’ve decided that the best method is one of the oldest methods: guess and check. Pick a book up, read a few pages, then make a best estimate based on what I’ve read so far. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s what I have. I’m currently hoping for an invitation from the new site Riffle (more info at http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/retailing/article/52628-could-riffle-be-the-pinterest-of-book-discovery-.html) which seeks to whittle down the amount of people writing reviews for a more streamlined recommendation system. However, the site only admits users on invitation, so for now I’m out of luck.

No matter what method I use, I’m still an avid reader. I’ll never read everything. After all, there’s only so much you can consume. But perhaps it’s the journey of finding great books that makes the trip so worthwhile. You read good books, okay books, mediocre books, bad books until you find one that truly touches your heart and engages your mind. It gets a special place on your bookshelf and/or in your memory, because you have to read a few bad books to appreciate a truly spectacular one.

The Reading Renaissance?

Before I get down to business, I have some news to share. I recently got published in the Sagebrush Review, Volume 7. I’m pretty excited that I’m in a book that’s on Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Sagebrush-Review-Volume-Brooke-Wallace/dp/098234533X/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1344608988&sr=8-2&keywords=sagebrush+review) and that has an ISBN number. If you the extra funds and are so inclined, it’s definitely worth spending the fifteen dollars.

Now that I have unabashedly and shamelessly promoted myself, I can get on with it. I recently read an article from the Guardian about how publishing really is still going strong (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/08/publishing-fifty-shades-books-important). Even though the publishing world is having some major setbacks (DoJ lawsuit, anyone?), people are still buying books. In fact, “Kindle readers buy four times the number of books they did prior to owning a Kindle.” Although we might hate Amazon for its relentless and crushing rise to the top, at least we have evidence that people are continuing to buy and read books, albeit from the evil empire. Self-publishers (apparently they’re now called indie authors, which I think is a more appealing if more hipster-ish title) are still churning out books like there’s no tomorrow, some of which are even better selling than traditionally published works. Penguin just invested $100m on a company that sells DIY services to aspiring self-publishers.

I prefer to think that publishing isn’t a dying industry, just one that’s undergoing some serious growing pains and enduring massive upheaval as the industry enters the electronic age. I was at a dinner with a family friend of my boyfriend, and he asked me what I was planning to do after my graduation. I told him I hoped to enter the publishing industry and eventually become an acquisitions editor. His first question: “Isn’t that a dying industry?” Like I said, I don’t think publishing is on a slow and inevitable decline. I told him, as patiently as I could, that publishing is trying to adjust to a new era of e-readers and tablets, indie authors, and growing competition from online booksellers. Yes, publishers are reporting losses (partially because of legal fees from the DoJ lawsuit, an ill-informed lawsuit from a government that doesn’t understand the ins and outs of a complicated industry), and university presses are shutting down. But I think it’s partially a matter of time while publishers re-calibrate their methods to suit a new era where books are interactive and recommendations and reviews appear anywhere from an established magazine to a blog (such as this one). New material is pouring out as both publishers and indie authors continue to put their work on the market. On a side note, I find this inundation of material a tad bit overwhelming. I walk into a library or bookstore and can’t figure out where to begin or what to read. But that’s another post for another day–where we should turn to find new titles.

But I did take issue with one of this article’s points–that of the massive success of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy and how that’s evidence of the publishing industry’s continued power and prowess. Phillip Jones writes, “Every half-decade the book business comes up with a title that crystallises what it means to put an author in touch with a reader: a relationship that can be both bountiful and long-lasting.” Despite the trilogy’s success, I don’t think it deserves a special place in publishing history. For one thing, its writing is almost as bad as the Twilight Saga, if not worse (to check out what I mean by bad writing, look at reasoningwithvampires.tumblr.com). Also, it appeals to a fairly narrow audience: adult women who finally get an excuse to read “acceptable” erotica. In my opinion, if you want to read respectable erotica, just open Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I’d have to argue that other series and books are much better proof of the enduring power of books, ones that are much more far-reaching and teach much better lessons than how to have kinky sex. The obvious example is the Harry Potter series, a series that made reading cool again and introduced an entire generation to the magic of the written word. The series’ success far outstrips the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey. For one thing, HP a coming-of-age saga about good versus evil and the amazing power of love–familial, platonic, and romantic. Twilight, by comparison, is mostly about how important it is to have a boyfriend. And also, the book that (I hope) will define this half-decade is not soft-core porn but a book about courage, bravery, and honor: the Hunger Games series. By no means high literature, this series is inspiring a generation of young readers to value strength, whether it be mental, emotional, or physical. Despite the fact that I take issue with the amount of violence it reveals to kids, The Hunger Games is a cross-over series that means a lot more than a sex contract given to an insecure young women by an older man with odd sexual tastes. Evidence of publishing success does not lie with E. L. James but with Suzanne Collins and J.K. Rowling, not to mention Stephen King or Barbara Kingsolver. 

Whether or not we are in the middle of a reading renaissance remains to be seen. Part of this reading renaissance depends on the kind of writing we are consuming. When I told my father I wanted to study contemporary American literature in graduate school, he asked me whether or not I thought any of it was worth studying or reading. He asked if there were any modern masterpieces in the works, if any of them could hold a candle to F. Scott Fitzgerald or John Steinbeck. He seemed to believe that the golden age of American literature had since passed. It’s true that classic authors are influencing contemporary authors less and less (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2012/may/14/writers-no-longer-influenced-by-classics), but that by no means indicates that current writing fails to set a new standard or are classics in the making. Yes, our postmodern (or post-post modern) writing may diverge from the established norms, but today’s writers demonstrate their own style. One can look at the emergence of the prose poem, the lyric essay, flash fiction, and the abundance of free verse and realize that literature with a capital L is still out there, still being written on a daily basis.

I have no facts or figures on how many books are being bought every day and by whom, and I have no clear understanding if losses in publishing houses indicate a decline of reading. However, every day I find more people online who share a passion for reading and writing. Go on twitter and you’ll find thousands upon thousands of people who describe themselves as writers and readers, who tweet about books they’re reading and articles they liked. WordPress features hundreds of blogs dedicated to creative writing, publishing, and books. This core group of people whose love of the written word has not diminished comprise the base of people who are unwilling to let publishing desiccate quietly in a desert of lameness. We are proof that millions of people still read and recommend books to friends. We are evidence that publishing isn’t on the decline but really on the upswing, if only those at the top can find a way to adjust to the electronic age.

Beach books and summer indulgences

For four years, my beach books were not so much fun literary treats as vitamins assigned by my teachers. In order to study Pre-AP or AP English, students had to do a summer reading assignment along with a project or essay as an attempt to weed out students who weren’t willing to do extra work. I did my own reading on the side of course, but my summers were dominated by books like Pride and Prejudice and The Merchant of Venice. (Disturbingly, The Merchant of Venice inspired some vehement anti-Semitic rants among my classmates during class discussion. Then again, I went to school in a conservative Southern town, so maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised.) Not all the titles were bad: The House on Mango Street made me fall in love with Sandra Cisneros and How to Read Literature Like a Professor  introduced me to the idea of intertextuality. All in all, these assignments were burdensome and often boring, such as slogging through Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. Go into any major bookstore during summertime, and you will find a table labeled “Summer Reading” laden with classic titles that teachers have assigned to their students. If you find the table labeled “Summer Favorites,” you’ll get a dose of those titles publishers roll out just in time for beach season. Although I understood the reasoning for giving summer assignments (separating the wheat from the chaff, getting a head start on assignments since there’s so little time to cram everything in, etc.), I disagreed with this approach because it turned reading into a chore. It made students even more resentful toward reading and literature, because they saw the assignments as an infringement on their summer vacation. We don’t need to give high school students any more excuses than they already have for disliking reading literature.

But fortunately I finished high school, and when summer arrived after my high school graduation, I was free to read whatever I liked–a liberty that felt surprisingly strong and exciting. Rather than having to annotate Sophie’s World hanging over my head for two and a half months, I could read as many murder mysteries as I liked and as much pop culture fiction as I wanted. Granted, I had one small assignment for summer reading for TCU, but it was a tiny booklet with writings on the second amendment that required an accompanying 1,000-word or so essay. And without sounding vain, that was child’s play to me.

The beach book is a big market for those of us not laboring under summer reading assignments. Publishers lay out dozens of summer titles, and magazines and talk shows highlight their favorite choices for summer–fluffy books that require little mental strain while delivering maximum entertainment. These titles are opposed to James Joyce–you can find some other challenging titles at Publisher’s Weekly “The Top 10 Most Difficult Books,” none of which I have read or attempted to read (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/book-news/tip-sheet/article/53409-the-top-10-most-difficult-books.html). Pick up this book, head to the beach, and relax listening to the waves while reading. But as Amanda Katz points out in her article “You Call That A Beach Book? Really?” (http://www.npr.org/2012/08/08/158220698/you-call-that-a-beach-book-really?), more and more we see less books that are literary candy in the hands of readers on beach towels. Why?

Part of me feels a pressure to read more serious books. When a friend and I were waiting in line to be announced as new Phi Beta Kappa members, I told him sheepishly that I had read The Hunger Games over spring break. He gave me a withering look. Since then, among my English and writing peers and professors, I only admit to reading things like The Fate of the Romanovs and poetry by obscure Polish writers. But that hasn’t diminished my desire to read books like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which I’m sure has been ostracized from the high literature pantheon since being handpicked by Oprah, or Tana French’s Broken Harbor, even though Tana French should get some merit for having one the Edgar Allan Poe award for her outstanding first novel, In The Woods.

But enough of me and my secret guilty pleasures of mass market fiction. Maybe we should admire these people who eschew the overwhelming beach book trend and actually read those one or two books they’ve been saving all year. Much as I hate to admit it, I often put aside reading when I want to read because I’m just so busy and overwhelmed. Because my work involves reading and critiquing student writing, and my major is all about reading at least a book a week and writing at least 8-10 pages a week, when I have free time, my brain can’t seem to find reading a pleasurable pastime or escape. So when summer comes, people with normally hectic lives take some time off to finally get around to that pile of books that’s steadily grown over the year or start ticking off some titles on that to-read list that’s only gotten longer. Yes, we all merge on the bestseller list, but there’s nothing wrong with reading those niche books that get shunted to the side for not being in the lowest common denominator. For example, once I get my hands on it, I’ll be reading Coming of Age on Zoloft by Katherine Sharpe then moving on to Alain De Botton’s The Art of Travel.

Unfortunately, before that I’ll have to read some books (13) for my honors thesis such as A Concise History of the French Revolution by Sylvia Neely, The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter, and The Language of Genes by Steve Jones. There’s a good chance I won’t get to Sharpe or Botton until I graduate in December. Who says I have to read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or The Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy? I think we’re all just fine reading what we enjoy. Our lives are filled with reading reports for work and squeezing in that extra hour to catch up on e-mail. When we finally take time to ourselves, we should read those books that interest us and engage us, no matter what books are put before us. Good reading is determined by the individual, not the masses. Reading taste as individualized and varied as musical taste; we should feel free to read what we enjoy, not what’s in vogue.

 

 

Rediscovering the Library

I have a friend who theorizes that you can learn everything you need to know about a person by going through his or her wallet. My wallet needs to be cleaned out, so I think there’s a fairly accurate picture of my life in the folds of my wallet–insurance cards (both health and car), appointment cards for the doctor, punch reward card for that frozen yogurt place by TCU’s campus, old metro card from my last trip to NYC, and two library cards for the Flower Mound and Lewisville Public Libraries. I have had these library cards since before I actually knew how to read at age 4. If you look on the back for the signature, you will find my four-year-old handwriting scribbling out my first name in sprawling letters, with my mother’s neat hand writing out my name underneath.

My family and I have been involved in libraries for as long as I can remember. My mom has volunteered regular at the local library for years, and my brother and I went to reading and story time from the time we could sit still and listen. My childhood memories are filled with snippets of plays, activities, and summer reading challenges. It was in the library that I began to appreciate the power of books, the smell of the pages, the crinkle of the dust covers. My parents bought my brother and I bricks to help pay for the new library when we expanded. I still smile when I stand in front of the library and see my name on a brick almost 15 years old. When I was in high school and active in National Honor Society, I fulfilled my volunteer requirements by helping out with the summer reading program–handing out prizes and dutifully receiving burns from the popcorn machine as I popped popcorn for movie night while filling Dixie cups with lukewarm instant lemonade. I shelved during the school year, cracking my knees as I bent down to straighten the children’s books. I loved these evenings at the library, remembering a favorite book as I sorted the returns on the shelves.

But somehow, for some reason, I have forgotten the library since my high school graduation. I’ve spent most of my book discovery either online or in brick-and-mortar bookstores, agonizing over spending my part-time pay on that paperback that looked so enticing. My thoughts would often go, “It would take three hours of work to pay for this book–is it worth it?” The usual answer was a resounding, “Yes.” But as I’ve decided to move to New York after my graduation in December, I realized I couldn’t keep acquiring books. I needed to save money and space. I’ve sold a large portion of my collection, only keeping those books that have deep sentimental value, are my very favorites, or are gifts from close family and friends, notes inside the covers and on title pages that I can’t bear to part with. Now I realize I can’t buy any new books, not if I want to get to New York without bringing a miniature library with me. But I still have an insatiable desire to read. So where do I go and what do I do? I go to the library.

Yes, the library has its drawbacks. I try not to think about the number of hands and germs that have touched the pages, and I try not to get frustrated when that book I’ve really had my eye on has three hold requests and won’t be available until probably November. But for all the “inconveniences” (read: first-world problems), I was delighted after my first trip to the library this past weekend. I checked out four of my old favorite murder mysteries that I’ve had to sell to create shelf space, and I found four promising nonfiction reads. I’ve already read two and enjoyed them immensely–The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson and Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy Frost and Gail Steketee. I also went to the TCU library to check out some books for research for my honors thesis–13 books checked out until November. Since I have graduate student status, I could have checked out up to 100 at once if I’d wanted to, a shocking number that I couldn’t really fathom. The fact that over 1 million titles and articles are available at the TCU library is both overwhelming and exciting.

The library is an incredible resource–I can read as many books as I want without paying a dime and without my shelf becoming cluttered and crowded. I’m grateful and blessed that my community has two amazing libraries close by, and the TCU library is so well cared for and so friendly, even if learning the LIbrary of Congress sorting system freaked me out a little my freshman year. Thanks to the library, I can enable my reading habit without going broke and without piles of books on the floor because my shelf space ran out. Library shelves are just as full of promise and excitement as bookstore shelves, and we can all benefit from a trip to our local library.

The Book as Social Media?

I recently read an article I found on my PW Daily e-mail about if books will become more social over time like the newspaper and other media (for the full article: http://gigaom.com/2012/04/02/is-making-books-social-a-good-thing-or-a-bad-thing/). Apparently technophile Clive Thompson believes that the book, which has stubbornly resisted the trend to become social, as a solitary activity will disappear, replaced by the social book. I have severe reservations about this claim. Thompson thinks that books online and on e-readers will feature more commentary and conversation embedded within the book as you read. I am not sure that this feature will appeal to readers. I’m usually already annoyed when my e-book on the Kindle shows how many other people have highlighted a particular section, like they’re imposing on me what I should find important or poignant just because everybody else did. Add on inserted conversations embedded in the text, and I will begin a literary uprising. Bibliophiles read because they like the solitary nature of reading a book: curling up on the couch with a blanket, a cup of coffee, and a book is a relaxing past time for many people who enjoy taking time out of their day to be alone and in their heads while reading a book. Books allow our imagination to roam freely precisely because we are the only ones projecting the mental image in our heads, the only ones adding interpretation as we go along. We don’t want influence from others unless we discuss it (either forcibly for class or willingly for a book club).

Speaking of which, we already treat books in a social light. We go to book readings and signings; we join book clubs; we participate in online forums about book; we loan our books to our friends. This system seems to work–we seek out the social capacity of books when it suits us, and when reading alone strikes our fancy, we don’t have the internet blogosphere and twitterverse chattering in the background. The joy of reading, at least in my opinion, is the love of doing something on your own, that for that time is your own, your own experience. There is a reason that book lovers have a stereotype for being shy and introverted: many of them are, which is precisely why they like to be alone, in their own heads, reading a book.

Here’s a quote from Thompson about how much books will enormously benefit from a social aspect: “Books are going to provoke the best conversations because people think really deeply about them. And people bring a certain level of intellectual seriousness to them that they don’t even necessarily bring to newspapers. I am absolutely convinced that being able to see what other people have said about a book and to talk about it and respond to it is going to be a freakishly huge boon for books.” Like I said above, we already do this. It’s called the book club. If I want to talk about a book, I’ll seek out other people who have similar literary tastes, and we’ll eat pastries and drink frothy, foamy drinks in little cups and discuss man’s inhumanity to man in the book. We already post reviews of books on Amazon or comment on others’ reviews through the various websites that post commentary on books for potential readers. I am not sure how Thompson proposes we integrate the conversation further into books, and if he’s proposing adding in comment features onto e-readers automatically, there better be an option to turn that stuff off. I’d say, “Get your comments out of my reading experience and your annotations off my e-pages. Get that highlighting off my electronic ink.”

Apparently, young people don’t like e-readers because they aren’t social. If this is the case, I’m deeply worried about our youth who appear unable to spend time alone, so desperate for artificial connection that they spend hours on facebook and twitter without ever picking up the phone. Through social media, are we training kids to rely on constant external stimulation and validation? Are we giving them the tools to never be disconnected and fear that disconnection, fear of being alone? Being alone is important, for solitude allows us to recuperate, to repair, to relax, and if we are afraid of being alone, ever, then we are afraid of being human. Sherry Turkle discusses this phenomenon in her Ted Talk, alone together, which can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtLVCpZIiNs

Perhaps it’s time we ask ourselves why newspapers, books, movies, etc, must become social activities. Perhaps this impulse to constantly share and connect is a negative rather than a positive. Maybe it’s time we find time to be alone and live, just for a little while, within the pages of a book.

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