Saturday, January 26, 2008

Books: not dead yet!

The New York Times can't get enough of quoting--and refuting--Steve Jobs on the Kindle and the death of the book. In case you've been under a rock and haven't seen the Jobs quotation, here it is:
"It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is; the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.”

The latest response is by Randall Strauss, a professor of business at San Jose State. After the inevitable "we do too read, so there!" statistics, he says something interesting:
The book world has always had an invisible asset that makes up for what it lacks in outsize revenue and profits: the passionate attachment that its authors, editors and most frequent customers have to books themselves. Indeed, in this respect, avid book readers resemble avid Mac users.

The object we are accustomed to calling a book is undergoing a profound modification as it is stripped of its physical shell.

It seems to me that Strauss has two kinds of "books" in mind here: the physical, dead-tree object that people are as passionate about as Mac users are about Macs, and the "object we are accustomed to calling a book," which exists somewhere between cyberspace and the reader's eye. What this separation does is raise more questions than answers about Steve Jobs's comment:
  • A lot of us are passionate about books, the dead-tree physical object that makes us as obsessed as Mac owners. Is it this kind of readership/ownership that Jobs is talking about when he says that people don't read books any more?
  • Does the second kind, the book "stripped of its physical shell," count for anything? Does Steve Jobs mean that, say, an online version of Jane Eyre doesn't count as a book? For that matter, if I listen to it on my iPod, as I listen to a lot of books, it's still a book, isn't it?
  • And does reading necessarily mean reading a book? That's important for the Kindle with its downloading-on-the-fly capabilities, but is the Internet maybe also a book?
  • How are we defining a book, anyway? I'd be willing to bet that more people are voluntarily writing--if not reading--now than they used to 25 years ago, if only so they can weigh in on fanboy sites and opine about the latest troubles of Britney Spears. I don't say it's good writing, but it is writing, and I'm about the thousandth person to observe that more people have a voice and a larger audience for that voice than ever before because of blogs, fan sites, newsgroups, and the rest.

    For the record, I like my books served up dead-tree style, with a side order of interesting -looking covers and decent fonts, so that I can mark them up and find things. (No SEARCH function on a Kindle can be as fast as my blizzard of Post-It notes stuck to pages.) But I'm willing to recognize that that's an old-school, increasingly esoteric notion, as evidenced by the few students I've had who bring laptops with the texts online instead.

    Maybe what Steve Jobs is really saying is that a taste for reading books on paper is what's passé and that those of us who like them are going the way of eccentric button collectors in an age of zippers.
  • Tuesday, January 22, 2008

    The calm within the storm

    As I mentioned, being sick put me behind on a number of deadlines, and though I tried, I couldn't ignore Outlook forever. The messages from patient editors and collaborators came in over the course of a few days: "Could you let me know when . . . ?" If not a perfect storm, it is indeed a storm of deadlines.

    The answer, I found, was to get up earlier and get to work earlier. I've always been an early riser, but I've usually used that time to read blogs, read the newspapers. After all, the world doesn't start work at 7, right? That makes it all right to read the Chronicle and the New York Times until a decent hour, like 9 or 10, doesn't it?

    Not if you have a storm of deadlines. Instead of reading the news online until 10 or so, I started work at 7. This seems like a no-brainer, and yet I hadn't been able to do it before.

    The results surprised me.

    1. By starting right away, I didn't feel the need to check news or blog sites. I didn't even need to turn off the internet connection.
    2. When I began, I'd start working on Project A but think, "Why aren't you working on Project B?" When I switched to Project B, I'd think, "Why aren't you working on Project A?" What I realized is that this was the lazy part of the brain trying to take over again by interfering with concentration. Eventually this voice quieted down.
    3. I was looking forward to passing all the little mileposts I'd set up: number of words written before noon, etc.
    4. I felt calm.

    The last one was a surprise. How can you feel calm when you also feel incredibly stressed out? But even though the work isn't yet done, I went to bed the other day feeling the truth of this statement by Emerson as I hadn't felt it before:

    "Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense."

    Sunday, January 20, 2008

    Raise your hand if

    . . . you would be willing to throw money at Google Books and university presses IF they would let you have access right away, immediately, now (not days later through Amazon) to the books you see through limited preview.

    Anyone? Anyone?

    Would you pay, say, $15 to download the book without getting a paper copy?

    Would you be willing to pay, say, $7.50 for a week's or a month's access to it?

    I would.

    Think about it. Why do academic authors write? They work for royalties, of course, but those don't amount to much unless you have a crossover popular title. But what academic authors really want is citations in the work of others, and wouldn't we be able to cite more this way?

    They say academics aren't creatures of impulse, but whoever does this first is going to have more of my bank account than I care to contemplate.

    Tuesday, January 15, 2008

    Random bullets of "there went the weekend"

    The bad:

  • I've been sick with a cold and have had the usual experience of more or less total brain freeze: I can read the words in a book, but that's no guarantee that they've made an impression on my brain.
  • As a consequence of that, I'm behind on everything I was supposed to do.
  • As a consequence of that, I am dodging my email as though it has eyes to accuse me of massive slackerdom. I have muttered "leave me alone" to Outlook no fewer than three times today.
  • I am also wondering why, when everything has turned to ice, the road crews spread the sand around about as liberally as though they were scattering individual pieces of Godiva chocolate on the road and were paying for them out of their own pockets.

    The good:
  • The nice thing about teaching for a long time is that that there are apparently teaching muscles that spring into action even if springing into action is the last thing you feel like doing.
  • The other nice thing is the students: they energize you, you energize them, and you come away from the class feeling better than you did before--oh, and they learned something, too.
  • Friday, January 11, 2008

    Class dodgeball

    Bringing up class a few posts ago reminded me of another subject. At Profecero's a few weeks back and now at Whatever , as Dance pointed out, there was a discussion about an exercise in class privilege wherein students have to stand up and move forward or backward depending on whether they had SAT prep courses, television sets in their rooms, trips to Europe, etc.

    A lot of people responded by saying, "Well, I had X but I worked for it myself" or "I didn't have a television set but I had books" or "This test is measuring the wrong things." There are lots of good points on all sides, so read the comments, too, at both places, which like the posts are excellent.

    I think that what the exercise is trying to do--reveal the existence of class privilege to students in a real way--is important, but one thing was troubling: if you were a student, and especially if you had been bullied in the past for being different in some way, how would you feel about being forced to do this exercise in class? The teachers who chimed in on the comments all said versions of "oh, we don't make it mandatory; they can sit it out if they want to." Some said that they just had students write the answers on a piece of paper and turn it in.

    Right. Would you sit it out, if you were 17 years old and your grade was on the line? Would you sit it out if you could see that your instructor thought this was a crucial part of the class and was clearly enthusiastic about the exercise? Would you write nothing or refuse to turn in the paper, again, if you believed that you'd be losing the good will of your instructor--and a grade--for doing so?

    Since the admitted object of the exercise is to make students aware of and uncomfortable (in a good way, the authors imply) about their class privilege, most students would probably learn from it and shrug it off. Some are probably going to have their every statement greeted with eye-rolling about class privilege from then on, as I've witnessed when students in my classes volunteer information about trips to Europe or other markers of privilege.

    But for a few, those who have been singled out and bullied for having the wrong haircut or being too smart or wearing the wrong clothes or being the nondominant race, it's going to make them feel like dodgeball targets all over again. Remember dodgeball, where some were out there flinging balls at the opposite team and aiming for those cowering in the corner, the ones you knew couldn't catch the ball on a bet, the dodgeball targets?

    What's your take on this?

    [Edited to add: I can see this as a class discussion, since students often love to share their experiences--as, indeed, do commenters; look at all those testimonies in the comments at the sites linked above. It's the forced marching around that is a problem for me. On the other hand, those who use this would probably say that a simple discussion wouldn't make the point strongly enough.]

    [Edited to add: I couldn't find this post at chaser's when I first posted this, but check out her additions to the list:]

    Tuesday, January 08, 2008

    On not stopping by woods on a snowy evening

    with apologies to Robert Frost

    White snow driving across a winding road
    and piled deep on the road
    unsanded and unplowed.
    White knuckle driving.

    An SUV roars up behind
    flashes its lights,
    wants me to pull off the road
    and let it pass.

    Where exactly do you want me to go, genius?
    Off to the woods, lovely, dark, and deep
    where the granite boulders would make short work of my car's front end?

    Or onto the shoulder, where driving one foot too far to the right
    sends me over a cliff
    unmarked by reflectors
    unguarded by guardrails?

    He surges past
    splattering slush on my windshield,
    blinding me.

    I keep my pace, for I have miles to go before I sleep.

    Sunday, January 06, 2008

    Teaching literature

    Dr. Crazy recently wrote an interesting post on her reasons for teaching literature,. Unlike those of the panelists, her working-class students don't necessarily assume that reading is a pleasurable act(a given for the panelists), and, in addition to teaching reasoning and reading skills, she sees one part of her mission as giving them the tools for upward class mobility.

    Another response to the MLA panel on "Professing Literature" is the one in the Chronicle:
    “The scholar-driven professional model is becoming obsolete,” [Elizabeth Renker] said, giving way to “a bottom-up model in which the power resides with the students,” much the way sites like Wikipedia and citizen-journalism have democratized the publishing of scholarship and information. “Student desires will preside,” she said. “The question for us is whether we decide to treat them as invisible.”

    These two approaches aren't antithetical, but they do propose some different directions. We do need to take student desires into account, as Renker says, but to ignore that the "power," however invisibly wielded, resides with an elite with a set of rules of its own is to do a disservice to students, as Dr. Crazy points out. Class exists in this country, and Larry the Cable guy or his academic equivalent, however brilliant he or she may be, is never going to be president of Harvard.

    There's a problem in saying that people can simply follow their own "bottom-up," Wikipedia-model tastes: such a standard sets its own invisible test, wherein if you share the values of Henry James (or his modern equivalent) you're assumed to have good taste, but if not, you fail the test. "Natural" good taste or critical judgment is something of a fiction. People may have a greater or lesser degree of critical discernment, but it's an artifact of learning, of the person's perceptiveness, rather than a "natural" attribute. In a way, learning about literature is like learning about wine. You can say all you want about individuals having their own "taste," but if you say you like Boone's Farm or Mad Dog 20/20 better than Pétrus, people are going to form their own opinion about your ability to judge quality. This makes us wine stewards, in a way: in addition to opening their eyes to the beauties of literature and all that, we're educating literary palates so that students can choose intelligently on their own.

    I think we're mistaken if we don't think they understand this. Over the break, when hanging out with family members I got roped into watching a couple of episodes each of shows that I don't usually see, America's Next Top Model and Project Runway. What struck me, besides the direct, even brutal, quality of the criticism given, was that the young designers/models understood very well how the whole judgment of taste worked. They knew that the people judging them had expertise in the field they hoped to enter, and that the critiques were designed to open their eyes to standards that they (the aspiring models or designers) weren't aware existed. They knew that despite their "I've got to be me" individuality, they'd have to meet challenges and standards if they wanted to succeed. In short, they understood that they didn't know all the rules but could see the benefit of being taught what those rules were, because ultimately that knowledge would benefit them later as they progressed in their profession. That seems to me as good an explanation as any for what we'd like our students to understand about what we're doing, and what they're doing, when we meet in the classroom.

    Thursday, January 03, 2008

    The optimism of editors, or Edith at the bat

    Imagine that you are an editor. Now imagine that you're writing to one of the most famous (and famously formidable, aristocratic, icy, and rich) women writers in the world, Edith Wharton. Would you write this? This anecdote from Hermione Lee's Edith Wharton made me laugh out loud.

    She [Wharton] kept a collection of what she considered her most absurd fan-letters and editors' requests from America, sometimes marking them "funny," like the letter to "Miss Wharton" from the Globe in Minnesota, offering her one cent a word for an article with a "light touch" and "local colour," which "should not shrink at portraying the little quirks of human nature," and should be "true (authentic, authoritative, believable, etc.)." "We hope you will go in to bat for us," the letter concluded. "The deadline was yesterday."

    Ah, those "yesterday" deadlines! Lee doesn't say whether Wharton wrote the piece, but I'm guessing a big NO. And the idea of Edith Wharton, like Casey, being at the bat, metaphorically or otherwise, is just too good.

    Tuesday, January 01, 2008


  • If you're reading and your attention is wandering, a cup of tea will revive you even better than a square of Dove chocolate. Sadly, this is true.
  • If the tea doesn't work, a walk does, even if it's 20 degrees and the sun is just a faint white memory behind the bank of dense clouds that's passing for a sky these days.
  • Snow at this temperature looks and crumbles like pie crust, if you're walking in the road. You feel that you are walking on the edge of a pie.
  • A reward for the day: trying to catch one of the classic Twilight Zone episodes on the SciFi marathon, a New Year's tradition.