Category Archives: audio

reading as collective enterprise

In this excerpt from an interview with Michael Silverblatt, the host of KCRW’s Bookworm, Junot Díaz, the author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao articulates an aspect of the communal nature of books that isn’t often brought up: he argues that we learn to read communally, and that this isn’t necessarily a mode of reading that we should move away from. Here’s the audio – there’s a fervor to Díaz’s argument that doesn’t come off in a straight transcription:

(This is an excerpt; the full version can be downloaded from the Bookworm web site.) For those who can’t listen, a quick synopsis: Silverblatt, looking at the way Díaz uses science fiction and diaspora culture in his novel, sees a similarity to how James Joyce uses Dublin in Ulysses, as a lens through which to scry the world; in Oscar Wao bits of sci-fi and pop culture become a “vast encyclopedia of the world”; the universe reveals itself in particular. Díaz then takes that idea and runs with it: as a reader, he sees his own book as a single part of an “enormous conversation of books”:

Nobody learns to read outside of a collective. We forget – because we read and we read alone – we forget that we learn to read collectively. We learn with our peers, and a teacher teaches us. . . . When you read a book – and especially like this book, where there’s gonna be Spanish, there’s gonna be historical references, there’s gonna be nerdish, as they say, forget the elvish, the nerdish, there’s gonna be fanboy stuff, there’s gonna be talk about Morgoth, about dark side, about John Brunner’s science fiction books, about Asimov, about Bova, about Andre Norton, about E. E. Doc Smith’s Lensman, you know all this weird esoteric stuff, amongst all these Dominican references, Caribbean references, urban black American references, all this nerd talk, all this kind of hip “we went to college” speak – the reason that’s all there in one place is the same reason that reading is a collective enterprise. When we did not know a word when we were young and learning, we would ask someone. We forgot – I think many of us forget – that praxis, that fundamental praxis. What I want is for people to read and remember that reading, while we may practice it alone, in solitude, it arose out of a collective learning and out of a collective exchange . . . .


when i was growing up they started issuing LP albums which played at 33 1/3 rpm, vastly increasing the amount of playing time on one side of a record. before the LP, audio was recorded and distributed on brittle discs made of shellac, running at 78rpm. 78s had a capacity of about 12 minutes; LPs upped that to about 30 minutes which made it possible for classical music fans to listen to an entire movement without changing discs and enabled longplayer lh.jpgthe development of the rock and roll album.
in 2,000 Jem Finer, a UK-based artist released Longplayer, a 1000-year musical composition that runs continuously and without repetition from its start on January 1, 2000 until its completion on December 31, 2999. Related conceptually to the Long Now project which seeks to build a ten-thousand year clock, Longplayer uses generative forms of music to make a piece that plays for ten to twelve human lifetimes. Longplayer challenges us to take a longer view which takes account of the generations that will come after us.
the longplayer also reminds me of an idea i’ve been intrigued by — the possiblity of (networked) books that never end because authors keep adding layers, tangents and new chapters.
Finer published a book about Longplayer which includes a vinyl disc (LP actually) with samples.

the poetry archive – nice but a bit mixed up

Last week U.K. Poet Laureate Andrew Motion and recording producer Richard Carrington rolled out The Poetry Archive, a free (sort of) web library that aims to be “the world’s premier online collection of recordings of poets reading their work” — “to help make poetry accessible, relevant and enjoyable to a wide audience.” poetryarchive.jpg The archive naturally focuses on British poets, but offers a significant selection of english-language writers from the U.S. and the British Commonwealth countries. Seamus Heaney is serving as president of the archive.
For each poet, a few streamable mp3s are available, including some rare historic recordings dating back to the earliest days of sound capture, from Robert Browning to Langston Hughes. The archive also curates a modest collection of children’s poetry, and invites teachers to use these and other recordings in the classroom, also providing tips for contacting poets so schools, booksellers and community organizations (again, this is focused on Great Britain) can arrange readings and workshops. While some of this advice seems useful, but it reads more like a public relations/ecudation services page on a publisher’s website. Is this a public archive or a poets’ guild?
The Poetry Archive is a nice resource as both historic repository and contemporary showcase, but the mission seems a bit muddled. They say they’re an archive, but it feels more like a CD store.
poetry archive 1.jpg
Throughout, the archive seems an odd mix of public service and professional leverage for contemporary poets. That’s all well and good, but it could stand a bit more of the former. Beyond the free audio offerings (which are quite skimpy), CDs are available for purchase that include a much larger selection of recordings. The archive is non-profit, and they seem to be counting in significant part on these sales to maintain operations. Still, I would add more free audio, and focus on selling individual recordings and playlists as downloads — the iTunes model. Having streaming teasers and for-sale CDs as the only distribution models seems wrong-headed, and a bit disingenuous if they are to call themselves an archive. It would also be smart to sell subscriptions to the entire archive, with institutional rates for schools. Podcasting would also be a good idea — a poem a day to take with you on your iPod, weaving poetry into daily life.
There’s a growing demand on the web for the spoken word, from audiobooks, podcasts, to performed poetry. The archive would probably do a lot better if they made more of their collection free, and at the same time provided a greater variety of ways to purchase recordings.

playaways hit the market

play.jpg Over the next few weeks, shoppers at Borders and Barnes and Noble will get a first look at a new form of audiobook, one that seems halfway between an ipod and those greeting cards that play a tune when opened. Playaways are digitized audio books that come embedded in their own playing device; they sell, for the most part, for only slightly more than audio books on cassette or CD. Each Playaway is also wrapped in a replica of the book jacket of the original printed volume: the idea is that users are supposed to walk around with these deck-of-card-sized players dangling around their necks advertising exactly what it is they’re listening to (If you’re the type who always tries to sneak a glance at the book jacket of the person who’s sitting next to you on the bus or subway, the Playaway will make your life much easier). Findaway has about 40 titles ready for release, including Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s American Colossus: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and language training in French, German, Spanish and Italian.
I’m a bit puzzled by the Playaways. I can understand why publishing industry executives would be excited about them, but I’m not so about consumers. The self-contained players are being marketed to an audience that wants an audiobook but doesn’t want to be bothered with CD or MP3 players. The happy customers pictured on the Playaway website are both young and middle aged, but I suspect the real audience for these players would be older Americans who have sworn off computer literacy, and I don’t know that these folks are listening to audio books through headphones.
Speaking of older Americans, if you go down into my parent’s basement, you’ll see a few big shopping bags of books-on-tape that they bought, listened to once, and then found too expensive to throw out yet impossible to give away. This seems clearly to be the future of the Playaways, which can be listened to repeatedly (if you keep changing the batteries) but can’t play anything else than the book they were intended to play. The throwaway nature of the Playaway (suggested, of course, by the very name of the device) is addressed on the company’s website, which provides helpful suggestions on how to get rid of the things once you don’t want ’em anymore. According to the website, you can even ask the Playaway people to send you a stamped envelope addressed to a charitable organization that would be happy to take your Playaway.
This begs the obvious question: what if that organization wants to get rid of the Playway? And so on?
How many times will Playaway shell out a stamp to keep their players out of the landfill?

podcast: discussing neil postman’s “building a bridge to the 18th century”

book_building_a_bridge.jpg (Annotated audio recordings of this discussion appear further down.)
On the dedication page of “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century,” Neil Postman quotes the poet Randall Jarrell:

Soon we shall know everything the 18th century didn’t know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us.

Though often failing to provide satisfying answers, Postman asks the kind of first-order questions one hears all too infrequently at a time when technology’s impact on our social, political and intellectual lives grows ever more profound. Postman has been accused of deep reactionism toward technology, and indeed, his hostility toward computers and telecommunications betrays an elitism that discredits some of his larger, and quite compelling observations.
In spite of this, Postman’s diagnosis is persuasive: that the idea of technological progress bequeathed by the Enlightenment has detached from reason and become a runaway train, that we are unquestioningly embracing new technologies that unleash massive change on our family and communal life, our democracy, and our capacity to think critically. We have stopped asking the single most important question that should be applied to all new technological innovations: does this technology solve a problem? If so, then at what cost? To whose benefit? And at whose expense?
Postman portrays the contemporary West as a culture without a narrative, littered with the shards of broken ideologies – depressed, unmotivated, and therefore uncritical of the new technologies that are foisted upon it by a rapacious capitalist system. The culprit, as he sees it, is postmodernism, which he lambasts (rather simplistically) as a corrosive intellectual trend, picking at the corpse of the Enlightenment, and instilling torpor and malaise at all levels of culture through its distrust of language and dogged refusal to accept one truth over another. This kind of thinking, Postman argues, is seductive, but it starves humans of their inspiration and sense of purpose.
To be saved, he goes on, and to build a better future, we would do well to look back to the philosophes of 18th century Europe, who, in the face of surging industrialization, defined a new idea of universal rational humanism – one that allowed for various interpretations within its fold, was rigorously suspicious of religious or any other kind of dogma, and yet gave the world a sense of moral uplift and progress. Postman does not suggest that we copy the 18th century, but rather give it careful study in order to draw inspiration for a new positive narrative, and for a reinvigoration of our critical outlook. This, Postman insists, offers us the best chance of surviving our future.
Postman’s note of alarm, if at times shrill, is nonetheless a refreshing antidote to the techno-optimism that pervades contemporary culture. And his recognition of our “crisis in narrative” – a formulation borrowed from Vaclav Havel – is dead on.
September 19: Bob, Dan, Kim, and Ben discuss Postman’s book at our new Brooklyn office (special prize if you pick out the sound of the ice cream truck passing by).
1. Bob’s preface – thoughts about how we do business at the institute (1:56) (download)

2. Ben’s first impressions – childhood under threat… Dan’s first impressions into discussion – a Clinton-era book, sets up a rather straw man caricature with the postmodernists, but society’s need for a narrative is compelling – why the Christian right has done so well… Postman seems to be assuming that progress is a law, that there is a directed narrative to history – problems with how he treats evolution. (6:43) (download)

3. Bob: Postman is much better at identifying problems than at coming up with solutions. Which is what makes him compelling. His stance is courageous. People assume with technology that just because something can be done it should be done. This is a tremendous problem – an affliction. If you could go back in time and be the inventor of the automobile, would you do it? People get angry at the responsibility this question imputes to them. How can we put these big questions at the center of our work? (13:34) (download)

4. Another big question… “An electronic community is only a simulation of a real community”? Flickr, Friendster, Howard Dean campaign? What is the vehicle for talking about this? What format is best for engaging these questions? Looking for new forms that illuminate or activate the questions. (15:43) (download)

5. Where/who are the public intellectuals today? [The ice cream truck passes by.] Strange bifurcation of the intellectual elite – many of the best-educated people most able to deal with abstraction make their living producing popular media that controls society. (10:07) (download)

6. Is capitalism the problem? Postman’s bias: written language will never be surpassed in its power to deal with abstract thought and cultivation of ideas. But we are arguably past the primacy of print. What is our attitude toward this? (9:39) (download)

7. What opportunities for reflection do different media afford? Films on DVD can be read and reread like a book – the viewer controls, rather than being controlled – a possibility for reflection not available in broadcast. What is the proper venue for discussing this? Capitalism is the 800 lb. gorilla in the room. How do we create, if not a mass agitation, then at least a mass discussion? Tie it to the larger pressing problems of the world and how they will be better addressed by certain forms of discourse and reflection. Averting ecological catastrophe as one possible narrative – an inspiring motivator that will get people moving. How do find our way back into history? (10:09) (download)

8. What should we read next as counterpoint/antidote to Postman? The Matrix – are we headed that way? (12:33) (download)

9. How do we organize new kinds of debates about technology and society? Other issues to be addressed – class, race and gender inequality. (11:26) (download)

the database of intentions

Interesting edition of Open Source last week on “Google Sociology” with David Weinberger and John Battelle, author of the just-published “The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture”. Listen here.
Weinberger has some interesting things to say about Google (and the other search engines) as “publishers.” I have some thoughts on that too. More to come later.
Battelle has done a great deal of thinking on search from a variety of angles: the technology of search, the economics of search, and the more esoteric dimensions of a “search” culture. He touches briefly on this last point, laying out a construct that is probably treated more extensively in his book: the “database of intentions.” By this he means the archive, or “artifact,” of the world’s search queries. A picture of the collective consciousness formed by the questions everyone is asking. Even now, when logged in to Google, a history of all your search query strings is kept – your own database of intentions. The potential value of this database is still being determined, but obvious uses are targeted advertising, and more relevant search results based on analysis of search histories.
As regards the collective database of intentions, Battelle speculates that future advances in artificial intelligence will likely draw on this enormous crop of information about how humans think and seek.