Monthly Archives: July 2009

the book of the future

this film loads very very slowly but i think it’s the most exciting vision of the book of the future since Apple’s Knowledge Navigator in 1987.
interestingly, the film also includes an elegant solution to the question of how (at least during this transitional period) bookstores might participate in the sales of ebooks. note this idea is more practical in Europe where Amazon and other online retailers are not allowed to compete on price.
and for history’s sake here’s a link to the Knowledge Navigator video and Wikipedia entry

The Almighty Word

A few years ago, I found myself on a blind date with an English professor. At some point after the second drink, one of us mentioned a feature in the Times that day about a recent slew of steamy, pulpy young adult novels whose sudden popularity had incurred the wrath of both protective mothers and knuckle-rapping critics.
“But at least the kids are reading,” said my date, raising her glass. “That’s got to count for something.”
Does it?
The gut says yes, the brain isn’t so sure. Both make a compelling case. On the one hand, there’s the cumulative experience of reading, a lifetime of plunging into novels, skimming newspaper articles, browsing wall captions, identifying road signs, and the rest of it; on the other, there’s the temptation to brush all that aside and feign a sort of semiotic relativism: “who are we to say whether certain systems of codification are intrinsically ‘good?'” It’s hard to know which to trust.
I should mention that no one was arguing on behalf of the Y/A books’ literary merit–and let’s assume for the sake of argument they were as crude and morally sketchy as the parents attested–but there was indeed a rallying-cry among the literati for reading as an end in-itself, as though the activity alone possessed some indefinable, self-justifying virtue.
It’s not an absurd claim. Reading does engage and exercise lexical circuits in the brain, and probably improves certain cognitive faculties, however superfluous the content. (When kids stop reading, their IQ scores drop.) Of course, the same argument has been made for video games, that they strengthen hand-to-eye coordination and strategic reasoning, and therefore carry just as much “inherent” value as reading.
The crux of the issue has to do with as “passive” versus “active” stimulation, or at least what is perceived as such.
Many have pointed out, however, that in actuality, there is no such thing as “passive” engagement of any kind. Even perception itself, the neurologists tell us–the apparently simple act of looking or listening–involves an unceasing, multivalent interplay between the sensory information we receive and the cortical nodes that unpack it. On the most basic level, to perceive is to decrypt, and all media–text, images, numbers, sounds–deliver information in coded packages. The question, then, is why value one type of package over another?
Probably the best way out of this numbing debate is to stop justifying our beloved activities and pastimes on the basis of what they supposedly “do for us” and start recognizing why we find them valuable in the first place.
I once attended a lecture given by Don Campbell, author of The Mozart Effect, a popular book which sought to advance the fashionable theory that listening to classical music at a young age improves test scores later in life. I didn’t have much stake in the hypothesis one way or another. (For the record, I’m inclined to think that there probably is a correlation–though not a causal one; a household that happens to value sophisticated music is more likely to provide a cognitively enriched environment for a child to grow up in in the first place.) But what irked me about Campbell’s approach was the idea of prescribing music as a tool of social advancement, as if its sole value lay in how effectively it influenced other, more measurable factors like short-term recall and conceptual organization.
It’s a bit like encouraging your child to play a sport because it ups his chances of getting a scholarship ten years down the line. It certainly could, but far more valuable is the joy the child will have simply playing the sport today.
Yes, music may nudge our “pattern recognition” capacity up by some nominal degree, just as books might enhance our verbal aptitude and sports, our spatial orientation skills, but these are not and should not be the chief reasons why we engage with them. Like so many things that resist quantification–friendship, compassion, beauty–to validate them on the basis of how they affect future performance is to miss the point.
Indeed, each delivery system presents its own suite of rewards, and each are limited by what they alone can offer. Robinson Crusoe cannot compete with “Guitar Hero” on its ground, nor should we expect it to. (Writes Annie Dillard: “The people who read are the people that like literature… I cannot imagine a sorrier pursuit than struggling for years to write a book that attempts to appeal to people who do not read in the first place.”)
The only conceivable value of trashy books is the dubious but not unthinkable possibility that they might go some of the way towards engendering in young people a love of reading as an end in-itself, which in turn might whet the appetite for better books. For many, that’s the only way in. They’ll read Sweet Valley High or Twilight at thirteen, lose their taste for it by fourteen and demand something richer and more challenging at sixteen. Or so the thinking goes.
If the argument applies to one form of entertainment, though, it should apply to all. Why is it that when kids become enraptured by some idiotic program, no one says, “well, at least they’re watching TV?”
The answer is obvious: we don’t expect much from television. Call to mind the act of channel-surfing across a virtual sea of mediocrity–the officious network anchors, the blaring car commercials, the interminable daytime talk shows. It’s no wonder HBO established its high-brow reputation by defining itself in opposition to its own medium.
But is the literary marketplace really all that different? Step into a Barnes & Noble, with its endless shelves of celebrity hagiographies, its window full of diet books by suspiciously photogenic doctors, its rack of movie novelizations, and ask yourself if publishing is a classy industry.
It may be that the reason we’re so quick to defend the Written Word, to pedestalize its power and grandiosity to the detriment of all other media, is that it’s been here the longest. We can chart its evolution from primitive iconography, to ideograms and glyphs, to alphabets and punctuation, up through epic poetry and drama and novels. It’s earned its place as civilization’s posterboy. Where were the Sopranos when Homer, Cicero and Shakespeare were shaping the Western Canon?
This is a prejudice, though. It’s the default position of literary folk to stand by their heritage, even if The Da Vinci Code is its progeny. Like true believers, we’ll come up with ingenious justifications for the innate merit of typographic symbology before accepting that text is just one more delivery system. Which, at the end of the day, it is.
A word about bias. I was brought up to believe there was something wholesome and virtuous about looking things up. Usually when I asked my father, a writer, to define a word I didn’t understand, he’d nod to the American Heritage Dictionary with a slightly punishing look, as if I’d committed a minor sin by not consulting the printed object first. Perhaps he was trying to instill in me a respect for the written language, or maybe he just didn’t want me pestering him, but as a result I’ve carried this heavy-handed association with dictionaries all these years. To this day, I feel just a little bit guilty every time I dial up a word on my desktop widget instead of getting out of my chair and flipping through the hefty tome on the other side of the room. Is there really some secret value to be found in manually turning pages and scanning for particular words? Other than sharpening your ability to recall the letters of the alphabet, there isn’t much to be said for it as an activity. (Though the expert dictionary reader, Ammon Shea, might disagree.) And yet two decades later I can still sense the weight of tradition in the memory of my dad’s disapproving glance.
This is what I mean by “prejudice.” For better or worse, we all have our hard-wired associations–some of us capitulate to them and others rebel against them–but there they are. For a lot of people, the appearance of black & white film alone might signify sophistication. Something about the scratchy, silvery tint, its time-capsuled resistance to contemporary fashions, prompts an automatic sense of reverence, regardless of how many cinematic duds the studios churned out before Technicolor.
Do we do the same for the Written Word? Do we grant it Goldmember status out of respect for its breadth and longevity?
The truth is that, while all delivery systems have particular histories and particular limitations, they are equally capable of delivering meaningful content, just as all cuisine has its delicacies and its slop, its caviar and its gruel, each bound to their own range of flavors and textures. Snobbery, after all, is not measured by a “well-cultivated” palette or a table-pounding demand for “quality,” but by a deliberate unwillingness to consider that quality takes many forms and often abides unfamiliar standards.
What kids actually need, what we all need, are higher standards across the board. Not more books but better books; not fewer movies or comics or pop songs, but fewer bad ones. This worthier goal won’t be achieved by blandly extolling the virtues of one medium or lambasting another, but by developing a stronger, richer, more vibrant culture all around.
That I’ll drink to.

Alex Rose is a co-founding editor of Hotel St. George Press and the author of The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales. His work has appeared, most recently, in The New York Times, Ploughshares and Fantasy Magazine. His story, “Ostracon,” will be included in the 2009 edition of Best American Short Stories.

saving scholarly publishing and saving civilization

Michael Jensen, the always-ahead-of-the-curve Director of the National Academies Press gave a stunningly original speech at the recent AAUP (American Association of University Presses) which, in his words, “allowed me to talk about the two issues that matter most to me: saving scholarly publishing, and saving civilization. In 16 minutes.”
Part 1

Part 2