Thursday, January 29, 2009

What The Hell Is A Cell Phone Novel?

Am I just being old-fashioned? A lot of my recent posts have revolved around the idea that book reading is a special kind of reading. Specifically, that it is a lot different from the kind of reading one does on the internet, that kind of reading being characterized by its brevity, its short attention span, its schizophrenia (reading an article about the war in Iraq six seconds after you finished catching up on Brangelina's latest adoption). I think I may have gone slightly too far, though. Every other article I read about books or publishing deals with how they are being made to fit into this impatient, disjointed mindset. For example, did you know that 86 percent of Japanese teens read cell phone novels? CELL PHONE NOVELS. Reading something like that I picture Dickens a la text "it ws the bst of tms it ws the wrst of tms LOL TTYL" and I can't help but conclude that if people accept this sort of thing as a novel, the novel will soon die off. This isn't reading! Flipping to a page of your e-book in between checking your email and playing cell phone games is not reading, I cry out instinctively. But it is. Upon checking my outrage and taking an honest look at myself I realize that I very rarely read in concentrated, studious bouts, but more often during commercials, while waiting for something to start, or as I carry out tedious office work and try to pay attention to my audiobook at the same time. I'm sure an earlier generation would have cried out at this just as much, but I know that I still get a lot out of reading. Admittedly it is impossible to read anything challenging this way, so some of the loftiest benefits of reading are out of the question; I probably won't have any philosophical relevations or blazing moments of intellectual clarity, or whatnot. But I am still doing something which is, in fact, quite different from everyday internet reading. Like dolphins and sharks, blurby book reading and normal internet browsing may have evolved similar characteristics to survive in today's tech sea, but they are fundamentally different. I maintain that book reading is special, but in more than one way. Many of its qualities can remain intact even as others are, in my opinion, being destroyed. Even if one reads in distracted bursts, there is an ongoing narrative or argument that requires sustained attention. It isn't like flitting from site to site. And the content is typically more profound than most internet browsing fare. So even I don't fully embrace these changes, I accept them as less than appocalyptic. And I know, in any case, that there's no use in insisting on some artificially inflated standard for readers to live up to. They'll either ignore you or be driven away. Is it better to adapt to what people want, at the possible expense of quality? Yes, I think it is. So I'm going to try to tone it down a bit.

Self-Publishing, -Destruction

The rise of the self-publishers is upon us already, apparently. It seems more sinister than it did when it was just a theoretical caveat to the future of publishing. I'm sure there is a positive way to construe this. In and of itself I guess there's nothing terrible in it--so far self-publishers aren't really in competition with traditional publishers. Even if they were, it wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. It would be a change--the good books would be harder to find with no pre-screening, and that would have to be dealt with somehow, maybe through a class of super-readers, as someone suggested, or maybe a resurgence of book review sections. As everyone keeps saying, music itself hasn't been ruined by the demise of the big labels, it may even be better, and that's what really matters here--the books, not the business. But I fear self-publishing is more pernicious than it seems, or at least its rise indicates some very disturbing book and reading trends. My worry is not for publishers, but for the books themselves.

A line in a Slate article about all this clarified some of my fear. "Books are the new blog," they say: everyone can have one, but most shouldn't. Maybe this is what worries me most about the rise self-publishers: what does it say about the people who use them? It seems to me that an appreciation for truely well crafted books is slipping lower than ever. The ease of printing one's own, the sense that this is a common and appropriate thing, both reflects and reinforces a very casual attitude, even a disrespect, for the medium. I really doubt that most of the people commissioning these books are real readers. They're like that lady on Real Housewives of Atlanta, perfectly convinced that she was a great singer and deserved a record deal, without having ever done the slightest study or even really listened to her own voice. You can't be so confident in your horrible prose if you're in the habit of reading actual books. Of course this doesn't apply to all who self-publish. I'm sure there are some genuinely unfairly neglected geniuses out there. But, as the Times article quotes one bookseller as saying, “'For every thousand titles that get self-published, maybe there’s two that should have been published,'”

Like I mentioned in my last post, I worry about internet reading affecting book reading. And this trend towards seeing books as just a sort of physical blog, a medium of the people and open to all, confirms that worry in a slightly tangential way. Mabye it doesn't say anything directly about how or whether internet media-drenched people read books, but it does show a drift away from respect for book-reading and writing as a sort of institution. The very fact that self-publishing is on the rise just as publishers are selling fewer books and people are reading fewer of them confirms this. It reminds me of newspaper publishing and how it has declined. People cite, rightly I'm sure, the rise of the internet as a reason. With so many blogs and other sources online, why get an old-fashioned paper? Why rely on someone else to assemble the information and trivial entertainment stories you want, when you can assemble them for yourself online? But I don't think there has been anything like a direct transfer from newspaper reading to online reading. Something has been lost in the way that people look at the news. This is why papers can't be just as successful by transfering themselves to the internet. People want something different now. It seems that books are headed the same way. Perhaps everything will stabalize at some point far in the future when a generic media form will at last be reached, a sort of blog with a narrative, but not requiring too much sustained attention or loyalty, with options for shorter or longer reads. I don't look forward to it. I'm all for self-expression, and I think internet media are great within their own sphere (I'm not oblivious to the fact that I am, at present, BLOGGING), but these two individually commendable things seem to be seeping a little to far into something I want kept sacred. And I don't like it.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Internet Reading

When the mildly encouraging NEA results came out a while ago there was of course some chatter about why the numbers had gone up. Annoyingly, the NEA failed to look into this much, but the chairman seemed to think online reading wasn't responsible for the rise. There was some righteous harumphing at Booksquare about how backwards this assertion is, and how online reading is probably an important factor in increased reading stats. I've heard this kind of philosophy elsewhere to, and it's always seemed off to me. Kind of an overzealous attempt to be modern and tolerant, like those libraries who have video game tournaments to get kids in the door, as if their mere presence is worth something. It's the sort of tolerance that's effectively the same as apathy, although I suppose one seems slightly cooler when actively espousing postmodern ideals. It's undeniable that people are taking in a whole lot of the written word on the internet, and this at least seems encouraging, since only a few years ago everyone was worried that movies and TV would kill literacy completely. It's nice that people read news articles and maybe the occasional short story, that they read period instead of just watching. But I think the rise of the internet has much less intellectual value than is supposed, and I think it does almost nothing to aid the cause of books. I've felt sort of uncomfortable articulating this, not wanting to seem backwards myself, but then I came across a quote in a random nineteenth century manual for "Brain Workers" which expresses my feelings exactly. "The reading of newspapers [substitute blogs, online mags, etc.]," it says, "has made most of us very careless and slovenly readers. We have grown into the habit of glancing and skimming over the pages of books..." Reading a book and reading the occasional short story [read: fanfiction] online are not the same thing. So as not to seem like a broken record, I will just refer back to this post and reiterate simply: books are special. Book reading is a special kind of reading. And the internet could just as well destroy this elevated kind of literacy as it could help it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

E-Book Love/Hate

I have been avoiding posting on e-books for a while. Strangely, reading article after article about them and how they are taking off and what the newest sales figures are and what new reader is coming out and how publishers are making more books available but how they've been around for ten years and haven't gone anywhere, and what possible obstacles there might be, and who likes then and who doesn't, has inspired more exhaustion than interest in the issue. This has been a strange kind of exhaustion, fueled, I suspect, by deep-seated conflicts within my reader's soul. Recently, though, I had a mini-epiphany about the subject, so I thought I'd try a post.

I was at the airport with my sister, looking for a last minute gift for her Irish boyfriend's parents. We went into a Brookstone-like store, maybe it was a Brookstone's, and I saw it. A Sony reader. Wuthering Heights was up on the screen, as if the express goal of this display was to draw someone like me in. And I liked it. A lot. I can say now that an e-reader, even for someone who loves books as objects as much as I do, is not out of the question for me. It didn't seem foreign or inconvenient in the least--it seemed like a perfectly natural way to read something, in fact it seemed like a great way to read something especially somewhere like the airport. In the spirit of this new openness to the technology, here is a list of reasons I think e-books are about to take off. In an honest nod to the drawbacks that still make me hesitant about the technolgy, and that probably inspire the sense of intertia and reluctance I have to talking about the topic, it is followed by a list of reasons why e-books and -readers still kind of suck.

Why I Love E-Books and Why They Will Take Over the Book World
1.Convenience: Having oodles of books at your command in one little book-shaped package can never be a bad thing. You can easily draw up a recent read to look at a particular passage, you can load enough books to have one ready no matter what mood you're in, you can amass a small library without cluttering up your house, you can buy "books" and have them in your possession instantaneously, and so on.
2.Tech Cred: Books are inherently old-fashioned, and they can never really be exactly in line with modern textual forms without completely losing their identity. A book is not an internet article is not a piece of fanfiction is not a series of text messages is not a blog. However, e-books are on a more level plane with these forms, and could make it easier for the tech-obsessed to cross over into the Wonderful World of Books. It seems a bit trivial, but this is probably the most important factor pushing e-books ahead. As people get used to consuming all of their other information in a certain way, it will only seem natural to bring books into the fold. As for what will help devoted techies develop the sort of attention span that books demand, I don't know.
3.Enriched Possibilities: Just because books are happy anacronisms doesn't mean they have to be completely walled off from technological development. They can retain their character while being enriched as e-books by such features as searchable text, hyperlinks, easy e-dictionary access, etc. The electronic medium, especially when combined with internet access, offers hosts of opportunites to make reading easier, deeper, more in touch. There is some danger here too--I can see excessive distractions interfering with the essentially private, concerted nature of book-reading, but there is good possibility.
4.Environmentally Friendly: I guess. As in no paper. And no planes and trains schlepping everything to bookstores. Though I'm not sure those batteries and microchips and such will be very landfill friendly.

As you might have noticed, I couldn't help myself from qualifying many of the positives above. In addition to those drawbacks, here are some sore points...

Why I Hate E-Books and Why They Will Never Succeed
1.Cost of Readers: During my little airport encounter I was probably equally struck by the insane price tag on the reader as I was by its loveliness. More, I guess, since the price tag overcame my appreciation for the object and caused me not to buy it. Readers are too expensive, period. I guess in theory it should be okay for them to cost about the same as an iPod, but somehow it's not. With the advent of e-reader apps for cell phones, this is becoming less of a problem, though. I have yet to see or be bowled over by an iPhone e-reader, but with the likes of Joe Wikert of Kindleville turning coat, and even though the iPhone is backlit, and isn't book-shaped or specifically designed to make e-book reading convenient, I think its a fair bet that such apps will solve the e-reader problem before we have to worry about Sony and Amazon slashing prices. Still, this might remain an obstacle to serious readers who'd prefer e-ink, features specially adapted to book reading, dedicated and safe hardrive space, etc. Combined with other book-lover qualms, this could sentence e-books to permanent casual-reading status. Which I guess is not a terrible thing.
2.Cost of Books: However, the cost of books will remain an issue. There's been a lot of talk about this at GalleyCat and TeleRead. I remember being offended when I learned that the average cost of an e-book was ten dollars, and just plain scornful when I saw that some publishers were trying to charge more than fifty. I don't care if it's a textbook! People are used to paying a dollar for an mp3. They are used to having a pretty physical book when they pay slightly more than ten dollars for it in a store. Ten dollars is not going to cut it. I don't know the reasoning behind this figure, and I don't really care. All I can think of is how you didn't have to pay to print and distribute the physical thing. Intuitively, this leads to a big price cut--whether or not you can come up with reasons why an ephemeral file is almost as expensive to get to me. My intuition tells me I don't like it. And I'm not going to buy your book.
3.It's Just a File: Like I said, it's ephemeral. I don't like the idea of paying solid money for something I can't touch. I don't have to pay for things I read on the internet. And while I won't have a physical book taking up space, I will have this digital one clogging my hardrive and likely bulking up my iPhone, so I will erase it soon, and then I'll have nothing. And I don't like that. Have you seen how big houses have become in this country? For a lot of people, eliminating book clutter is not a huge issue. And for many more, to lose it would be a sad thing. What could be better than a rich tapestry of book spines shelved on your wall? Pulling them down, loaning them to people, appreciating their feel while you read. I don't think this fetishism is an impenetrable barrier to e-books. I could see myself, as I toyed with the e-reader in the store, taking in my books this way while maintaining an appreciation for traditional books. On the other hand, I don't think the wish to elimiate book clutter is a big enough incentive to mass e-book acceptance as long as important drawbacks remain. Such as their dubious value over time and their troubling impermanence.
4.But My Books!: I'll just say it: they're not books! Strange as it seems to say, books are pretty amazing pieces of technology themselves. They're ideally sized, they couldn't be more intuitive to use, and they present their content in a highly efficient maner. And they're also pretty to look at and nice to hold. As I said before, books are old-fashioned. Maybe it's appropriate that they retain their old form, instead of trying pathetically to mimic the trappings of their flashy new cousins. You can read a book in short installments on the subway or while standing in line, but at bottom books aren't really meant to be consumed like the easily digestible blog posts and online articles that are more appropriate for such times. Books are special. They require commitment, perserverance, private reflection, and prolonged attention. These are valuable things to practice, and they could get lost if we try to make books fit in too well with modern media.

I have tried to make this list more than just a reactionary book person's cry for the past. I didn't succeed, entirely, but I doubt such objectivity is possible for me. I get all frazzled thinking about this, so I don't think I'll be saying much more about the topic, but this has been a good cathartic roundup of my various reactions to all those masses of articles I've read on the subject. I'm sure others will continue dissecting e-books, so I will leave them to it.

Monday, January 12, 2009


For once the NEA has some good reading-related news. Fiction reading is on the rise! Sort of! In a very limited way that may just be a statistical blip! And almost half the country apparently never reads at all. But hey. I don't know if I could have taken another gloom-and-doom report from them, on top of all the other hits books are taking these days, so I'll take this. (The cloud represents the masses of black news and bleak reports that made up 2008 In Books. The silver lining, though a very qualified lining, is the NEA's recent findings.)