That Old-Time Evil Ink

11 January 2009

One Hidden Peril of the Printed Word

Clarity, by Jon Wiley, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)Dilemmas are easily encountered but rarely mastered – they just hang on in there, teasing with possible solutions just out of reach. They’re usually laden with a little irony, a little out-of-placeness, which suggests that perhaps you’ve somehow taken the wrong path, erred once too often, that the untenable situation is somehow your fault alone. ‘Choose a Path!’ they cry, but you can’t. Trust me, I know. In an age of new media and the electronic page, I live in a house of books. So far, no dilemma, and not entirely surprising for someone who reads, edits and writes for a living. But the printed word sometimes makes me sick. A quandary, yes?

Not, I should add, that I’m a moralist. I’m not perturbed by what I read. It’s just that the words can make me sick. Or, rather, the ink with which they’re printed. Our local newspaper, such that it is, makes me sneeze. I don’t mean a delicate little kerchew. No, no – it’s an Oh-My-God-He’s-Gonna-Die trumpet. Every day. So I’ve taken out a Web subscription and my wife reads the print version, kind of surreptitiously at the end of the lounge room, almost out of sight. We have strange reading habits.

Still no dilemma, but you would have to admit an amount of inconvenience.

So consider this, which is more to the point – I recently missed a book launch due to illness and the author kindly sent me a copy of the volume in the mail. I very much want to read it again (I edited it twice, so nothing of it is really new to me) because it outlines the sort of design philosophy that I think will be useful in running an editing department. This might sound like a long shot, but after you’ve exhausted all the sure things to get to a certain level, a few chances taken never go astray. Yet, and almost inevitably now, the book makes me sneeze. It also makes breathing difficult when I have it open.

What sort of ink do local printers use?

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The Presumptions of Experience

17 June 2008

Reading as Antidote

The Pattaya Experience, by Davis80, with Creative Commons LicenceExperience is often considered the ultimate form of learning, the ne plus ultra of education. What we do and how we act is taken as the full measure of what we know, and what we might yet know. The past is at a premium, with knowledge as a synonym for memory carrying with it the presumption that we don’t forget, misunderstand or misinterpret. Also implied is that experience can be transferred between people, regardless of background, inclination and aptitude. So we speak of ‘experience sharing’, as though actions can be lifted out of context and passed around, instantly relevant to anyone who grasps at them.

The problem with this somewhat stylised scenario is that it tends towards the non-literary. There are many situations in which practical, hands-on learning combines very well with reading and more interpretive activities. The current trend towards service-learning in universities is a perfect example of that. Students are given the chance to apply what they’ve learned – through instruction and their own reading – to community service projects that they organise and manage with minimal oversight from lecturers.

But what about community organisations themselves? Moving away from established, funded NGOs, many grass-roots groups draw together volunteers from lower socio-economic backgrounds who work too long or too hard every day to have much of a chance to read. In situations like these, learning from other people’s experience becomes an attractive, easy option.

I recently attended a meeting that began the long process of organising a self-help society for migrant workers in Discovery Bay, Hong Kong. These people, mainly women, are extremely hard working for very low wages. The idea behind the group is to help domestic helpers in times of crisis, and to educate members about educating themselves. The sorts of areas we’re dealing with range from the more obvious need for familiarity with legal rights – both in the workplace and within society at large – to less obvious lack of information about where and when to seek medical help for potentially embarrassing conditions.

As the meeting progressed a friend mentioned that one of the primary measures of self-education should always be to read, and to read as often as possible. Given that many of these people work up to 18 hours a day, that could be a very limited exposure to the written word, but it seemed important nevertheless.

Reading Well, by Moriza, with Creative Commons licenceUnfortunately, the reaction was negative – not from the main group members, but from the seasoned and unusually insightful people who were coordinating the meeting. One said that she would fall asleep if she had to read a book, and the other spoke at length of networking and the difference between book learning and ‘relevant’ experience as the basis of transferring important information.

Until that moment I’d though of reading as a supplement to experience, but now I realise it could well be an antidote.

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The Sneaky Art of Storytelling

28 March 2008

John Irving, J.G. Ballard and the Best of Genre Fiction

farenheit burn, by mrtwism, with Creative Commons licenceStories rarely do what we expect of them. Somewhere, in between the words, fiction becomes a little too much, detail doesn’t seem quite right. Few people ever read a story and think yes, that’s exactly how it should be, or was, or will be. And that’s surprising, because we search for structure, for shape and form, even as we lead unstructured lives.

Pity the poor storyteller. John Irving got in right in his autobiographical Trying to Save Piggy Sneed when he wrote that ‘real life’, or what we expect of it at least, is just not believable in fiction. “When the father drops dead with an apple in his mouth while urinating on the front fender of his mother-in-law’s car . . . uh, well, I just had trouble seeing it”. But it happened, and one of Irving’s students wrote it down.

There are, of course, ways of dealing with improbabilities on the page, or genre fiction would also be dead. Imagine that – no detective noir, no science fiction, no fantasy, no tragicomedy. The best case in point is Irving himself. It seems unlikely that someone’s mother would accidentally bite off her lover’s penis while giving him a blowjob in his car when her husband coasts down the driveway in the family station wagon with the headlights off to thrill the kids and – again accidentally – rams them. But I read that in Irving’s World According to Garp as a kid and I believed it.

two sides to every story, by Norma Desmond, with Creative Commons licenceWhy? Because it carried with it equal measures of fear and titillation for the boy that never fade in the man, because emotion dictates what I should believe, if only in one instance. That’s the first thing about this art called storytelling – we’re forever at the mercy of the scribe, always willing to shift perceptions just a little bit, to say yes, alright, just this once. But maybe not again.

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Technotes 1.0

22 March 2008

Microreviews from the Realm of Technology

Screen Technology, by rutty, with Creative Commons licenceOne of the more intriguing things about what we vaguely call technology is not what it can achieve, but how we perceive it in many and varied ways. We can embrace change and its sometimes dubious ramifications, take up the new tools of our times, or we can stand back and watch as our expectations shift. We can also shout angrily at the mute gods of permanence, demanding that they bring back what we knew and loved.

Constantly we stand on the daunting threshold of the new.

In that spirit of change I’ve banished last week’s microreviews to the dedicated page. Their counterparts this week, now in the sidebar, were inspired by a range of reactions to technology – my own, of course, and those of people around me. In a follow up to my earlier post on the limits of copyright, I’ve also been reading the emotionally charged work of Andrew Keen, the Cassandra’s Cassandra when it comes to all things participatory on the Internet. In 2006, Keen grouped Larry Lessig, the Stanford law professor who sits on the board of Creative Commons, with those he labelled “intellectual property communists”.

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History Matters

16 March 2008

Microreviews with an Eye on the Past

“And Art Alive Still”, by dhammza, with Creative Commons licenceA little change can do a lot of good. My recent foray into possible futures has taken me into realms I hardly expected to traverse. It’s certainly an adage worth remembering that the map does not precede the territory, that expectations aren’t previews of experience. So I began compiling this week’s microreviews with a good deal of trepidation because they took me back to a milieu of which I can claim some sort of mastery, at least in some areas – history.

The new efforts are now in the sidebar, with last week’s microreviews shuffled off to the dedicated page. It’s worth mentioning in passing that the microreview page is receiving quite a few visits – thanks to everyone who has spent their time pondering my brevities!

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What Future the Book?

15 March 2008

We May Not Have the Eyes to See the Electronic Page

Book of Secrets, by Damgaard, with Creative Commons LicenceAs our expectations shift and shift again, the future of the book changes apace. Pages move to cyberspace, bookmarks tag ephemera, jackets become jpegs. Everything seems to point now at the screen. But are days to come arriving early, or is this just a techno-dream?

Reading through the front matter of Cory Doctorow’s Eastern Standard Tribe in PDF form recently, I was struck by his enthusiasm for changing the way in which books are offered to their readers. Part of his career depends on it, on dragging new readers in with electronic forms of his published work, at no charge. It worked for me, and I’m very thankful for it.

The book, Doctorow writes, is not what it once was: paper is now merely one expression of the form. As increasingly more people read books on screens, “fewer people are reading words off of fewer pages than ever before”.

Now, I’m a little skeptical about this. I’ve lived just long enough to have read the printed book’s epitaph, to have rejoiced at its revival and to have wondered at what next prediction would pronounce its indubitable fate. But I’m with Doctorow on one thing – electronic books have the potential to increase the reading public. And they’re not likely to be accumulated by people who won’t actually read them. Traditional paper books are sometimes little more than middle-class wallpaper, the pretentiousness of something never read.

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Literature in Short

9 March 2008

Microreviews and Other Brevities

(Day 33), by JspadI’ve just posted my latest microreviews in the sidebar, with last week’s efforts now resting in peace on the dedicated page. This week, purely by coincidence, I’ve focused mainly on shorter volumes. At 276 pages, Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans is the granddaddy of them all.

But it’s an interesting point that – good, bad or indifferent – shorter writing is just as capable of eliciting responses as thousand-page epics. Sometimes it can even do a little better.

To give an example from a brief survey of my shelves, Kurt Vonnegut’s final, autobiographical collect of essays, A Man Without A Country, speaks more to the complexities of life and the ethics of living in its 145 pages than does E.P. Thompson’s 958-page Making of the English Working Class, which covers much the same ground in historical context.

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When Words Collide

4 March 2008

Beyond the Limits of the Online Book Review

The Collision, by ashley.adcox, with Creative Commons licenceCollisions release energy in unexpected directions, sending us off to places we might never have fully explored. When I wrote my post banging against the limits of the contemporary book review last week I mentioned online efforts as a matter of course, not expecting to think more about them as a special case. But I now realise they are – they not only capture impressions of literature, but also mark the spot where attention and interest separate.

Not long after I completed the post I noticed that John Quiggin had commented on the Prospect article by William Skidelsky that inspired my own ruminations, picking out its two passing references to blogs. Fair enough; Skidelsky takes an unsubstantiated potshot at blogs that dare to review books, and in doing so becomes the sort of snobbish critic he otherwise derides. But Quiggin made no other attempt to engage the article, and the comment thread on his post suggests that no-one else in the discussion had bothered to read Skidelsky’s piece at all.

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body, by dhammza, with creative commons licenceThis reinforces the point I made yesterday – in the Cyber Age impatience breeds contempt. We are quick to comment but slow to check, or maybe don’t even check at all. Responding to my post in a more thoughtful manner, Cliff Burns from Beautiful Desolation observed that although the ‘thumbs up’ culture prevails in online reviews, a couple of sites are worthy of note: Popmatters and Book Forum, the online presence of a review magazine. And to that I should add Cliff’s blog itself.

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To See Again

27 February 2008

The Forgotten Art of Reviewing

On the Platform Reading, by MorizaIn lives often lived five minutes at a time, with attention focused just barely ahead, we tend to leave behind the little, but vital, spaces for contemplation. Book reviews are one of the devices that have traditionally taken us to those spaces, but their power is fading.

Writing in the latest issue of Prospect magazine, William Skidelsky pronounces the book review in near terminal decline, squeezed dry by aloof critics, picked over by second-rate journalists and struggling for anything close to depth online. I think he overstates the case, but there’s always room for agreement alongside disparity.

Smug critics are certainly out there in force. A recent exemplar is Adam Gopnik, reviewing the life and writing of Philip K. Dick in the New Yorker. Hitting back at claims that Dick was an underappreciated science-fiction genius during his lifetime, Gopnick assures us that we will “end up admiring every one of his conceits and not a single one of his sentences.” Who do you trust, he seems to be saying, the man with clever ideas or the man who crushes the pot-boiler prose?

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