E-Books, Change and the Reading Experience

Interesting conversation over at the NYT between Mohsin Hamid and Anna Holmes on How Do E-Books Change the Reading Experience?

Hamid basically argues that in a world dominated by technology it is important to push back and find ways to generate solitude:

In a world of intrusive technology, we must engage in a kind of struggle if we wish to sustain moments of solitude. E-reading opens the door to distraction. It invites connectivity and clicking and purchasing. The closed network of a printed book, on the other hand, seems to offer greater serenity. It harks back to a pre-jacked-in age. Cloth, paper, ink: For these read helmet, cuirass, shield. They afford a degree of protection and make possible a less intermediated, less fractured experience. They guard our aloneness. That is why I love them, and why I read printed books still.

I understand this sentiment, in fact, I share it. I too find it all too easy to be distracted by technology and lose the chance to dig deeper and find meaning and serenity.

But I find my Kindle solves that problem. Reading books on my iPad not only hurts my eyes but offers the kind of distractions Hamid is talking about.  Cell phones, tablets, computers all have that call to another app or quick check of the web.  The Kindle doesn’t. It is just a reader. (This applies to all stand along readers bu my experience is with the Kindle)

Sure, they are bringing more interactivity to the device with social sharing and built-in Goodreads updates, etc.  But this is not much different from taking notes or highlighting.

I find it very easy to get lost, to be immersed in the moment, with my Kindle because it is just me and the text.  When I read it in bed at night there is nothing but me and that faint glow; the rest of the world disappears.

Anna Holmes on the other hand offers a few complaints 1) you can’t browse an eBook like you can a physical book 2) the progress tracking on the Kindle annoys her 3) an eBook can’t be a social signal for the wider world.

Not much you can do about #1. If you like to flip through a book sampling pages there is no direct equivalent in the electronic version.  Although you can get a sample sent to you and you could browse the highlights of other readers online.

I find #2 actually enjoyable. I like to know how far I have to go in a book whether in terms of time reading or percentage of the book, etc.  And this seem rather silly as you can turn off the progress function so it is little more than some tiny dots on the bottom of the page. Not much different that glancing at how far you are in a book based on your bookmaker.

It is the third point that strikes me as rather bizarre.  Does Holmes really want to be able to see what everyone is reading in public so she can make judgments about what that says about the person?  She wants to be able to see what book you are reading so she can add that to the social status and personality clues given by your choices in clothes, hairstyle, etc.? Oh…Kay….

As I have noted before when discussing technology and books, there are plenty of books for which technology is not an equal substitute.  I love books that are well packaged and beautifully illustrated; books that are an aesthetic experience.

Art books, illustrated children’s books, chapter books and other books for young people all have elements that ereaders or tablets just can’t match (although the technology has improved greatly obviously).  I love these books and seek them out at the library and share them with my family (and buy them when I can).

But when the text is the primary focus (as it is for most of the books I read), I actually prefer my Kindle.  As Hamid notes, it is easier to read for those of us with tired eyes and spouses who don’t want bright lights at night.  It is thin and light and ultra-portable.  I can read for long periods of time and that is the best way to get lost in a book.

So the key for me is not technology but the tool you choose. I use a dedicated ereader so I can focus on reading. I love my iPad but it doesn’t replace my beloved Kindle.

New York Times on ‘My Bright Abyss,’ by Christian Wiman

‘My Bright Abyss,’ by Christian Wiman reviewed at the NYT:

This is a daring and urgent book, written after the author learned he had a rare, incurable and unpredictable cancer. But it is not a conventional memoir of illness and treatment. Beyond informing us that he received his dire news in a “curt voice mail message,” Christian Wiman says very little about his experience of the medical world. He is after bigger game. More than any other contemporary book I know, “My Bright Abyss” reveals what it can mean to experience St. Benedict’s admonition to keep death daily before your eyes.

New York Times on ‘My Bright Abyss,’ by Christian Wiman

‘My Bright Abyss,’ by Christian Wiman reviewed at the NYT:

This is a daring and urgent book, written after the author learned he had a rare, incurable and unpredictable cancer. But it is not a conventional memoir of illness and treatment. Beyond informing us that he received his dire news in a “curt voice mail message,” Christian Wiman says very little about his experience of the medical world. He is after bigger game. More than any other contemporary book I know, “My Bright Abyss” reveals what it can mean to experience St. Benedict’s admonition to keep death daily before your eyes.

Moby-Dick, Cain and Joan of Arc in the New York Times

Three iconic figures and three books I want to read covered in the New York Times:

Kathryn Harrison reviews Nathaniel Philbrick’s recently released Why Read Moby-Dick?

Philbrick, whose “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” recounted the real-life inspiration for Melville’s shipwreck, wears his erudition lightly. He broaches the novel in quirky thematic fashion, with gracefully written compact essays on topics like landlessness, chowder and sharks. His voice is that of a beloved professor lecturing with such infectious enthusiasm that one can almost, for a moment, believe in the possibility of a popular renaissance for Melville. But convincing and beguiling though his slender apologia is (the whole of it taking up less than a quarter of the space allotted to the Norton Critical Edition’s appendixes), Philbrick doesn’t have an audience held captive in a classroom.

Still, his Bible metaphor applies in that not only is “Moby-Dick” a big fat book about the wages of sin and the elusiveness of redemption, but also one to which zealots return even as potential admirers push it away, put off by its size and its longtime residence on literature courses’ reading lists.

Robert Pinsky tackles Jose Saramago’s Cain

In a grieving but marveling spirit, Saramago remakes, from Cain’s viewpoint, not only the story of Cain and his parents and his brother but also — with Cain entering each narrative as a time-traveling participant — the tales of Abraham and Isaac, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife, Lot and his daughters, Noah and his sons. The narrative veers drastically away from tradition and back toward it and then away again with radical aplomb. The effect is sometimes comic, but with a complex, outraged commitment far beyond parody. Comedy and boundless complexity: Saramago’s novels have been called parables, but they are not allegories.

Lastly, Sarah Towers explores Kimberly Cutter’s The Maid: A Novel of Joan of Arc

But, as Twain observed, pinning down the mysterious interior of this woman — imaginatively experiencing how she came to be — has confounded many a writer, including Twain. Far too often Cutter’s Joan (or “Jehanne,” as the novel has it) is flat, overexplained, fragmented: “She wept. Horrified. Weeping, furious at herself for weeping. Amazed how much the words hurt her. ‘How dare you?’ she screamed.” Many of the scenes are fragmented as well — in a novel of 287 pages there are 150 chapters, which boils down to less than two pages per chapter — so it feels as if Cutter, unsure how to embody Joan, is in a race to get to the end of the story.

To Cutter’s credit, it takes true Joan of Arc-ian boldness to attempt this oft-told story in the first place, and the reader certainly recognizes intellectually, if not viscerally, Cutter’s passion for her heroine. The ultimate problem is that Joan of Arc’s sublimity makes it incredibly difficult, like hitting a bull’s-eye from a great distance, to do her “divine soul” justice, to allow the fictional record to reflect the real woman with as much force and ingenuity as the historical one.

So there you have it. Three fascinating characters (whether that is Ahab or the whale in Moby-Dick) and three fascinating, at least to me, books. Have any of you read these book already? Do they seem as interesting to you as they do to me?

Moby-Dick, Cain and Joan of Arc in the New York Times

Three iconic figures and three books I want to read covered in the New York Times:

Kathryn Harrison reviews Nathaniel Philbrick’s recently released Why Read Moby-Dick?

Philbrick, whose “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” recounted the real-life inspiration for Melville’s shipwreck, wears his erudition lightly. He broaches the novel in quirky thematic fashion, with gracefully written compact essays on topics like landlessness, chowder and sharks. His voice is that of a beloved professor lecturing with such infectious enthusiasm that one can almost, for a moment, believe in the possibility of a popular renaissance for Melville. But convincing and beguiling though his slender apologia is (the whole of it taking up less than a quarter of the space allotted to the Norton Critical Edition’s appendixes), Philbrick doesn’t have an audience held captive in a classroom.

Still, his Bible metaphor applies in that not only is “Moby-Dick” a big fat book about the wages of sin and the elusiveness of redemption, but also one to which zealots return even as potential admirers push it away, put off by its size and its longtime residence on literature courses’ reading lists.

Robert Pinsky tackles Jose Saramago’s Cain

In a grieving but marveling spirit, Saramago remakes, from Cain’s viewpoint, not only the story of Cain and his parents and his brother but also — with Cain entering each narrative as a time-traveling participant — the tales of Abraham and Isaac, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife, Lot and his daughters, Noah and his sons. The narrative veers drastically away from tradition and back toward it and then away again with radical aplomb. The effect is sometimes comic, but with a complex, outraged commitment far beyond parody. Comedy and boundless complexity: Saramago’s novels have been called parables, but they are not allegories.

Lastly, Sarah Towers explores Kimberly Cutter’s The Maid: A Novel of Joan of Arc

But, as Twain observed, pinning down the mysterious interior of this woman — imaginatively experiencing how she came to be — has confounded many a writer, including Twain. Far too often Cutter’s Joan (or “Jehanne,” as the novel has it) is flat, overexplained, fragmented: “She wept. Horrified. Weeping, furious at herself for weeping. Amazed how much the words hurt her. ‘How dare you?’ she screamed.” Many of the scenes are fragmented as well — in a novel of 287 pages there are 150 chapters, which boils down to less than two pages per chapter — so it feels as if Cutter, unsure how to embody Joan, is in a race to get to the end of the story.

To Cutter’s credit, it takes true Joan of Arc-ian boldness to attempt this oft-told story in the first place, and the reader certainly recognizes intellectually, if not viscerally, Cutter’s passion for her heroine. The ultimate problem is that Joan of Arc’s sublimity makes it incredibly difficult, like hitting a bull’s-eye from a great distance, to do her “divine soul” justice, to allow the fictional record to reflect the real woman with as much force and ingenuity as the historical one.

So there you have it. Three fascinating characters (whether that is Ahab or the whale in Moby-Dick) and three fascinating, at least to me, books. Have any of you read these book already? Do they seem as interesting to you as they do to me?

New York Times on Toward You by Jim Krusoe

Following in my footsteps the NYT has a review of Toward You by Jim Krusoe.  Sam Munson doesn’t care much for the parts of the story not in the narrator’s voice buy appreciates Krusoe’s talent and the voice of Bob:

That voice is the most powerful component of “Toward You” — when Bob speaks, we listen. Krusoe’s skill both in evoking Bob’s claustrophobic loneliness (he will address any being, animate or not, as though it were capable of conversation) and in endowing him with a rich but never writerly language (he recalls Yvonne preparing to eat a bowl of pea soup “as a few croutons floated on its quiet, green surface”) ensure that he has our attention.

[…]

Krusoe’s sure and subtle imaginings of such characters — yearning, isolated and finally enigmatic — place him among the foremost creators of surreal ­Americana.

I can agree with that last sentence but the novel as a whole didn’t quite work for me:

Krusoe is clearly a talented wordsmith with a witty eye for the lives and relationships of the socially challenged. But for me it seems the combination of lead character, plot and other elements have to come together just right for it to “work.”

 

100 Notable Books of 2010

Cover of "Angelology: A Novel"
Cover of Angelology: A Novel

Wow, I have read exactly two of the 100 Notable Books of 2010 as determined by the New York Times.

Here are the two I have read:

  • ANGELOLOGY. By Danielle Trussoni. (Viking, $27.95.) With a smitten art historian at her side, the young nun at the center of this rousing first novel is drawn into an ancient struggle against the Nephilim, hybrid offspring of humans and heavenly beings. (My review here)
  • THE NEAREST EXIT. By Olen Steinhauer. (Minotaur, $25.99.) The C.I.A. spy in this thriller is sick of his trade’s duplicity, amorality and rootlessness. (My review here)

I guess I am not reading what the cool kids are these days …