Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Great Debate: Electronic vs. Dead Tree Books

Which are better - eBooks or print ones?

In today's digital world people are increasingly looking online for their entertainment. But is there anything that will get people to read books again? While eBooks and audio books are helping, is that enough?

Is anybody reading anymore?

I may be wrong but it seems to me that the younger generations today aren't reading much in the way of books these days. These youngsters have long had other things to distract them. They've grown up in a digital age, and most are so used to being connected, they wouldn't even know what dial-up modem is, let alone recognize it by its distinctive sound. It's as if they've been online since the doctors cut their umbilical cords (and maybe even before).

It could be that their parents tried to encourage them to read. They might still have the Seuss, Silverstein, Dahl, Milne or Potter that they would slip off the shelf before bedtime. But despite Rowling's Harry Potter books and the occasional blips like the Twilight rage, as they reach adulthood, how many of these kids are actually making a habit reading as adults?  If they aren't reading themselves, how will they ever encourage their children to read? Sure, it is possible that when they have children, they'll read to them like their parents did. But it is far more likely that future bedtime rituals will include watching a DVD or downloaded video on a smart phone, and not the cracking open of a book.

We all know that physical bookstores have been on a steady decline since the advent of Amazon. But even these online shops found out they had to diversify to keep sales up, and sales of eBooks and audio books are gaining in popularity. So although it doesn't feel like it, the advent of various electronic reading devices and apps for tablets and smart phones are actually helping the publishing world hold its own. Still, one wonders how this will translate to the next generation.

The case for modernity

On the one hand, I do get it. Remember, I live in a country whose primary language isn't my mother tongue, and my dyslexia prevents me from reading large texts in Hebrew. Although we're called "the people of the book," I can assure you this doesn't have a positive impact on every case. The terribly limited number of titles that bookshops here sell is disconcerting. Even more disheartening has been the slow but sure demise of any good English language lending libraries here. Although we get to the UK fairly often, you should include the travel costs in the price of the books you buy there. Furthermore, shipping charges from almost any internet site can be prohibitive (the sole exception being Book Depository, whose prices aren't always cheap).  That one can download an eBook at less than the cost of a printed one is a huge advantage for someone in my situation.

Also, I actually can imagine parents finding that pulling out their tablet to find a book to read to their kids at bedtime is more convenient for them. And you must admit that eReaders are more space efficient than your typical print books. Students are certainly a market that will find eBooks more attractive. And with airlines cracking down on free luggage space, having bunches of books for your vacation reading on one device and not weighing down your suitcase is a big plus.

On the other hand …

The thing is there is something special about holding a printed book. The rustle of the paper as you turn the page, the feel of its weight between your fingers, have an appeal that pressing a button or swiping a screen just don't have. Sure, they're not completely environmentally friendly, but how dull would your home look with a bookshelf that has nothing but your Nook, Kindle or iPad on the shelves? There is also something to seeing a beloved book sitting there that makes you remember why it's on display. Plus, when friends come by, letting them peruse your collection is a way to keep them occupied while you get the coffee ready. With people you don't know as well, they can become a topic of conversation. That's just not going to happen with an eBook collection. Well, not in real-life meetings. And finally, until they let you keep your reader on during take-offs and landings, you're still going to need something on paper to read for those parts of your trips (and don't tell me to read the in-flight magazine. Even I'm through with those before the seatbelt lights go out).

So I'm sorry, but you'll have to call me old fashioned. I'm glad I have my Nook. It helps me get reasonably priced eBooks, and it is great for getting advance readers' copies of books. But I'm afraid I don't think I'll ever be able to give up reading off dead trees. 

Go on - try to convince me otherwise!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The subtlety of words

Recently, a friend of mine put the following up on Facebook:

Advice both elegant and succinct on how to distinguish between the words "elusive" and "illusory," from "Fowler's Modern English Usage," 2/e: "The elusive mocks its pursuer, the illusory its possessor."

One of the comments on the thread noted that the person had never used the word illusory, but that this might encourage them to do so. While I too don't recall ever using the word illusory, this type of thing always has me rushing off to my trusty thesaurus.

When I looked at the entries for these two words, I found that "elusive" is: indefinable, subtle, intangible, vague, or obscure. On the other hand "illusory" is: deceptive, false, misleading or erroneous. Both of these words are beautiful, as are all of those that could easily be used as their substitutes. So why use elusive when you can use obscure; why use illusory when you can say misleading?

The secret, of course, is in their subtle differences. The differences we feel in them when we read or say them. And it is these nuances that make the difference between extraordinary and mundane writing.  But don't get me wrong. Choosing a beautifully unusual word instead of one that seems simple isn't what does the trick. No, it has to be organic and come from within. And you can feel it automatically if the writer has been letting the words flow or if they've been trolling for synonyms. The latter is what you'll find in the bargain bins, selling for less than the price of the pulp itself. The former will inspire and thrill you and become a treasure on your shelves.

Yes a good novel needs characters you can identify with and an interesting story to tell. But without the language to set the tone, even the most fascinating people and most amazing story would still end up falling flat. In this, writing fiction isn't all that different than writing poetry.

Yes, poetry. And no, I don't mean the stuff that sounds like an attempt at what gets put on the inside of Hallmark card. (Don't get me started. I can't tell you how often have tried to be polite when someone shows me a poem that sounds like the writer has been regurgitating a rhyming dictionary! Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with poems that rhyme, but if they're going to use it, then at least use a consistent meter as well. Rant over.)

I'm not saying that writers should avoid using their reference library from time to time. I'm only saying that - as with everything else in life (and if the cliché fits… ) - All things in moderation.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Magical Realism In Literature - Does it Work?

When and how should authors ask us to suspend disbelief?

Not long ago, I read the book Jacob's Folly by Rebecca Miller. About half of the story takes place in 21st century New York. The other half takes place in 18th century France. Bringing this all together is the narrator, who is a fly. But he is no ordinary fly. He lived as a man in France and now his soul has been brought back and into the lives of two, modern-day people.  

Yes, I know. You're already thinking "oy vey!" But I assure you, this isn't as "oy vey" as you might think, however much it should be.

Usually, when I read books like this, I recalled the incident of the creative writing class described in author John Irving's Trying to Save Piggy Sneed. The class assignment was to write about a meal. One student writes his story from the viewpoint of the spoon. Only Irving and one other student don't like this. When Irving asks that student why, he says "I am not a spoon." No, we are not spoons, and it seems absurd to think that readers can connect with a narrator that is so disconnected to our reality.

This was the same criticism I had for Joanne Harris' book Blackberry Wine, in which she has a bottle of 1962 Fleurie talking to us in the opening chapter.  Thankfully, she seldom came back to the wine narration after that first chapter. Mainly, she inserted this as a way to justify using the first person omnipresent POV (or in this case, first insect omnipresent).

Of course, both spoons and bottles of wine are inanimate objects. On the other hand, a fly is a living thing, albeit an insect. And there are many books (including ones not written for children) that use non-humans as their narrators. The two that immediately come to mind are Watership Down and Animal Farm. These are both worthy literary precedents for what Miller is trying to achieve here.

Ah, but there is a difference. In both those these classic cases, all of the characters were animals. Here we have a fly mixing with homo-sapiens. And what makes this all the more unusual is that this fly was once a human. This brings us to the concepts of reincarnation and transmigration of souls, which are even more difficult things to include in a novel.

This notion of taking the impossible (or improbable) and weaving it with stark reality is what the genre of 'magical realism' is all about. We have come to accept this in famous authors such as Franz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison and Joanne Harris. Why then, should we discount this in an author who is less famous?

The point is, Miller takes us to the edge of reality and asks us to use things we probably cannot (or are even unwilling to) believe in to keep us from falling into the abyss of total disbelief. And she does it all for the sake of literally writing as a "fly on the wall." That may seem to you to be a mechanic that's been used just to be clever, but I actually liked it.

(Only after reading this book did I find out that Rebecca Miller is the daughter of the playwright Arthur Miller and is also married to actor Daniel Day-Lewis.)

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