Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Check out the new paperclipsnpostitnotes at

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Facebook About-Face

When old and new media work together to promote literacy, all is well in the world. One such example is the Local Books iPhone app I've swooned over before. Another is the facilitation of reading by Facebook, the very nexus of the modern media trend that threatens to destroy traditional reading.

In December '09, compiled an impressive list of "Awesome Facebook Apps for Serious Bookworms". The oxymoron is plain; but, thus, encouraging! Here are some highlights:

Visual Bookshelf: lets you recommend books and catalogue your own list

aNobii Books: connects you with like-minded readers based on your reading list

Comic Books: provides information on new releases, discussion boards, reviews, and screencasts

Books Geek: publishes your friends' comments about the books you’re reading

World Books: challenges you to read one book from every country

Sell Used Books: a book swap app, with free shipping

Random Reads: lets you search for, recommend and organize books from Random House

Recommend-A-Book: search books by keyword, title, author or ISBN number and recommend them to other users

Collaboration between the print and online publishing worlds is win-win. Rather than fretting over pricing models, statistics over how many eBooks are sold for every hardcover, and battles between independent bookshops and behemoth retailers like Amazon, publishers should be focusing on the simplest ways to mix the best of old (quality content) and new (ease of dissemination and collaboration). Now go make a Shelfari profile.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by brevity, over-connectedness, emotionally starving for attention, dragging themselves through virtual communities at 3 am....  burning for shared and skeptical approval from the holographic projected dynamo in the technology of the era, who weak connections and recession wounded and directionless, sat up, micro-conversing in the supernatural darkness of Wi-Fi-enabled cafes....  who bound themselves to wireless devices for an endless ride of opiated information from and Google on sugary highs until the noise of modems and fax machines brought them down shuddering, with limited and vulgar verbiage to comment threads, battered bleak of shared brain devoid of brilliance in the drear light of a monitor....who texted continuously 140 characters at a time from park to pond to bar to MOMA to Brooklyn Bridge lost battalion of platonic laconic self proclaimed journalists committed to a revolution of information, whole intellects underscored and wiped clean in the total recall 24/7 365 assault all under the gaze of once brilliant eyes."

-from Tweet by Oyl Miller, McSweeney's

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Pass the peace pipe: An armistice

Of late, I've resigned myself to the fact that eBooks are poised to edge out their paper counterparts. According to Wired, Amazon officially sold 143 eBooks for every 100 hardcovers over the course of the second quarter of 2010. The very infrastructure of the publishing company I work for is built on shifting material online. Fisher-Price is buzzing about the tablet-style touch screen iXL Learning System, to be released this holiday season, "hailed as the iPad for the fresh-out-of-diapers set." Bibliophile or no, I'm not blind to the book digitization trend, its inevitability, nor its copious advantages:
  • lower production and distribution costs
  • facilitation of interpersonal engagement, through multimedia content and connection to social media
  • potential for enriched learning
  • portability
My yielding to the technological and commercial reality, however, does not concurrently relegate physical books to some cobwebbed attic. Quite the contrary. I think books will become objects of beauty, the province of connoisseurs (I will be one of them). Max Magee of The Millions wrote,
"In a sleek, shiny, distant future, books may feel old and impossibly large, with too much physical mass and all these fussy pages put to use for the simple task of storing a tiny amount of data, data that is not searchable or copy and pasteable or malleable and interactive in the ways we expect of our data....  And yet there is and will always be some beauty in books. And there will always be people who appreciate that beauty....  [Books] are something like snowflakes or at least stamps, so many and so few alike."
Magee predicts that features like deckle-edge pages, embossed lettering and archaic monograms, aesthetic details that celebrate the art of book production, will become more prevalent and elaborate.

Jan Swafford, in a Slate article titled "Why e-books will never replace real books," takes the same stance. He cedes the many benefits of electronic books, even announcing that his next book, on Beethoven, will be "three-dimensional," accompanied by a website with links to music, background content, and a blog. He concludes,
"So real books and e-books will coexist. That has happened time and again with other new technologies that were prophesied to kill off old ones. Autos didn't wipe out horses. Movies didn't finish theater. TV didn't destroy movies. E-books won't destroy paper and ink. The Internet and e-books may set back print media for a while, and they may claim a larger audience in the end. But a lot of people who care about reading will want the feel, the smell, the warmth, the deeper intellectual, emotional, and spiritual involvement of print."
I am comforted by these writers' support of the notion that physical books will never be just relics. We can celebrate the beauty of books without relocating them to behind museum glass. We can own an iPad and a bookshelf in tandem. Or in my case, multiple sagging-near-to-collapse bookshelves.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Waffle Brains

Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, is concerned. Though her research as director of the Center for Reading and Language Research has not yet been conclusive, many signs point to a disturbing verdict: digital reading, as opposed to its paper-based counterpart, may actually short-circuit our brains. Wolf writes,
"We need to understand the value of what we may be losing when we skim text so rapidly that we skip the precious milliseconds of deep reading processes. For it is within these moments—and these processes in our brains—that we might reach our own important insights and breakthroughs. They might not happen if we’ve skipped on to the next text bite."

According to Wolf, the formation and development of complex brain pathways by reading takes years. She states that "there is no genetic guarantee that any individual novice reader will ever form the expert reading brain circuitry that most of us form." Thus, the brain of a reader who uses only a fraction of their available cognitive resources is less maturely developed than that of a reader who expends intellectual effort in proving multiple layers of meaning. And, just like a muscle, lack of exercise leads to atrophy. Our societal glut of immediate information, coupled with the effort to reduce that information to its tiniest magnitude, could have measurable physical effects.

Playwright Richard Foreman asks, in contemplation of the question, "How is the Internet changing the way you think," asks,
"Are we becoming Pancake People — spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button?"
Maybe as Pancake People we're also developing Waffle Brains- little nutritional value, light as air, perforated by empty space.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


"Featuring a book on your bookshelf is akin to displaying a trophy. You’ve accomplished something in reading a book; it feels like a victory. The opportunity to display your literary conquests in unique or unexpected ways is something I will greatly miss with e-readers."
-The Book Bench

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


"The digital evolution, or revolution, or whatever it is, we're in the middle of it right now. Everyone wants to know where it ends up. But it's hard to know where it ends up when you're in the middle of it." 
-Jeff Zucker, NBC Universal

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Cover Up

One fundamental difference between print and online periodicals: the concept of a front page. Magazine covers have no digital counterpart: the homepage of a magazine's website contains images, links, lists, ads, all competing for your attention. But a magazine on a newsstand makes one singular bold effort to magnetize:

99% of the time I decide what magazine to buy based on its cover. Do I like the featured celebrity? Do the headlines intrigue me? Sometimes I'll pull it off the shelf and flip through it, but more often than not my decision is made based on that initial visual contact. Much thought and muscle go into the design of an issue cover; and when the market receives it successfully the payoff is huge. No one will forget the Rolling Stone cover of Yoko and John:

or the LIFE moon landing chronicle:

Striking cover images can live in infamy unlike the nebulous homepage of a magazine's website, constantly shifting and changing and being updated and scrolled through and commented on and retweeted (I still don't know what that means). The American Society of Magazine Editors put together a "10 years in 2 minutes with 92 covers" video re-telling of the past decade.

With the migration of journalism from print to online, I consider the loss of magazine covers a considerable one. Editorial content is the heft of a publication's value, yes, but how memorable is a list of links accompanied by thumbnails on an iPhone or Kindle? Even print pubs are taking a cue from their digital cousins and offering readers cover customization: Wallpaper* Magazine is hawking the chance to "play art director for the day" and Graphic Arts Monthly offered five different covers for its January issue based on a survey of its 70,000 subscribers, each reader receiving the copy whose cover story pertained most specifically to them. The magazine industry has had flames licking at its edges for some time now- evidenced by Out of Print titles and magazine graveyards, plus magazine aggregate sites like Maggwire. But I'm fighting the trend tooth and nail- editors, and your design teams, you can still have my dollars!

Monday, June 21, 2010


“As far as I’m concerned, I don’t care if it’s a hardback, paperback, e-book or library book. Read.”

-John Grisham, addressing the graduates of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Middle school, for me, meant many things. Brown bag lunches with triangled tuna sandwiches and bags of Fritos; my own locker- bedecked with magnets and a plastic purple mirror; "exams" rather than tests; gym class- and a gym uniform. And note-passing.

The ideal supplies were wide-ruled notebook paper shorn of its curlicued frill, and neon highlighters. But one could make do with computer paper and pencil. We'd pick a friend- the addressee- and set to work composing a note. The real work then ensued. There were several complex ways to tuck and pleat your way to note-passer repute. The faux-envelope:

The fancy faux-envelope:

The knot:

But what mattered wasn't what the note said, or with what intricacy it was folded, but the connection between two students. It was bonding to form a devious liaison.  Even more so because there was actual effort behind the minor rebellion; the same can't be said about text messages, apparently the note-passing du jour. Just like my parents always gushed over handmade beglittered construction paper birthday cards, physical pen-and-paper notes express more than a few lines on a mobile screen. Mama Tulip blogger reminisces about her
"notes written and passed back and forth during class, notes I penned while sprawled on my daybed, listening to The Cure. Notes sent to boyfriends and best friends, a paper trail of my becoming that I kept in a shoe box under my bed....  I thought about that box and about all the notes I wrote, folded up and passed in my lifetime… and then it occurred to me that passing notes is something my kids probably won't do. I mean, in this day and age, passing notes is practically archaic. The thought makes me feel weepy. Also, old."
I've lamented the increasingly widespread abandonment of paper, from the Open Siddur Project to the superfluousness of bookmarks for eReader users. I've even waxed poetic about my love for paper itself. So even in this more recreational domain, note-passing, I feel a sense of nostalgia, plus a sadness for the generations to come whose computerized goofing-off will never be as fulfilling. It's more of a feat to hold an arts and crafts session on your desk then wait, hovering, until the perfectly timed moment to stick your hand across the aisle, than it is to punch some buttons and press send. I can only hope the middle-schoolers of today and tomorrow will set the phones down, and haul out the glue sticks and magic markers  for their parents' birthdays.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


A case study...

"I have been using the Kindle since October, the iPad for one month, and I still buy books, lots and lots of them.

It’s a paradox of choice. In the evenings, after work, trying to figure out what suits my mood, I sit with all three of them. I am reading Nabokov’s “Despair” (the dead-tree version), trying out a free sample on the iPad (trying out samples is simpler on the iPad), and am midway through “To Kill a Mockingbird” on the Kindle. I still prefer the Kindle to the iPad for reading books, because with the iPad there is always so much more to do. I use it primarily to follow blogs like yours.
But, believe me, books (the hard copies) are not going anywhere. They rule."

-Anuradha Raja

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


I don't like audiobooks. I never have. Reading, for me, is as much about the texture of the pages and the smell of the binding and the annotative margin scribbling as it is about the consumption of content. Listening passively to one person's interpretation of a text saps, for me, the individualized magic out of a book. What if I had imagined a character had a lower, or whinier, or more nasal voice? What if the inflections with which the narrator reads don't match up with how I had interpreted a passage? "Oh, I see" can become:
  • "Ohhh... I see..."
  • "OH, I see!"
  • "OhIsee".
And so on. But I am one of those unfortunate motion-sickness-plagued bibliophiles who torturously suffer through long car and bus rides without the alleviation of a book. So when I was younger I'd suffer, instead, through an audiobook or two, making a tradeoff between two types of suffocating boredom.

Many, however, greatly enjoy listening to audiobooks. My uncle likes to listen on his commute to work; my mom and her friends, who by virtue of living in the suburbs spend more time than average behind the wheel, aren't opposed to the idea either. And they may be onto something. In a March Vanity Fair article, Christopher Hitchens writes,

"The concept of “books on tape” is entering a period of high attainment. Whatever may be said about “the decline of print,” about which I’ve been hearing glum predictions for dec­ades, a whole new world of bibliophilia is being created around us, not on paper but in the ether. Book clubs are formed in which members gather to listen. Internet reviews are circulating, comparing various readers of different classics. I recently had a conversation with a scholar of Henry James, who was gravely revolving the merits of David Case versus those of John Rowe as the best (or should I say most “sound”?) renderer of Marcel Proust. Fresh audio-literary stars are beginning to be born."
Hitchens's observance of the growing popularity of audiobooks doesn't encourage me to purchase one rather than its textual progenitor, but it does reassure me that wind exists yet in the sails of the traditional publishing world, albeit in an alternate form. I'd so much rather see audiobooks on shelves than vooks or blooks. Especially if they're performed by the authors themselves. And technology is (terrifyingly) moving in the direction of gauging accent and timbre and even sarcasm so that future interpretations of texts even by computers may be closer to what the author intended. The trouble, of course, is that writers sometimes do not wish for a singular translation unto their readers; as Hitchens quotes Emily Dickinson: "A Pen has so many inflections, and a Voice but one."

Despite his reluctant praise of Martin Jarvis's readings, Hitchens concludes, "To slide in a tape or a CD rather than cracking a hefty volume and making marginal notes? Mere hedonism!" Couldn't agree more.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Email Vacation

Amy E. Martin, a recent graduate from the MFA Design program at the CCA in San Francisco, wants you to take a week-long vacation from email. I happen to be doing just that, starting tomorrow: I'm off to Paris for 7 days! Martin, a graphic designer and web developer, describes her thesis work as "generating explorative studies of potential futures for email". One manifestation of the project, a result of her one-week email sabbatical, is inbox Magazine:

Martin writes,
"Coming back from my week-long email vacation last year, I realized I had not missed anything important and that checking my email once a week would probably suffice. To that end, I started thinking about email as a weekly publication instead of an always on application. I took all of my emails from that week of December 1, 2009 through December 7, 2009, organized them and laid them out as a set of magazines."
I think Martin's onto something. Her eschewal of the modern concept of constant technological engagement is refreshing in its mental emancipation, but also in its potential for revival of traditional print. She has reincarnated new media's version of written communication (emails, text messages, Tweets) into a print format. Martin's magazines fuse old and new publishing trends in a creative, intellectually sophisticated way. Reading them requires us to reexamine how we view writing, and reading. She clarifies,
"This prototype demonstrates email in a completely different, more readable, less urgent context and although it’s not practical for mass consumption, it does highlight the one-directional, informational nature of many email messages."

I like the idea of acknowledging the ubiquity of modern modes of composition, but transforming them into print-friendly configurations; the caveat is avoiding the sacrifice of quality writing, which Twitter novels and cellphone books and the like fail to heed.

Martin's email vacation idea, the motivator behind her creation of the magazines, could stand everyone in good stead. She asks, in her website challenge to sign up so she can track your progress and you can trigger an autoresponder to people who email you in your absence,
"Email bankruptcy, overload, overflowing inboxes, obsessive checking, rechecking and endless spam... By 2011, there will be 3.2 billion email users. Email's in charge of our days and our nights. It has taken over. Why? What is so compelling about email?"
Martin's reimagining of electronic text into print text is her response to this conundrum. Mine? I'll put down the mouse and pick up a book. Signing off for a full week.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

University of Nevada study: Books in the home

On a recent visit to my parents, my dad and I walked over to the public library. While he went in search of the titles on his list, I wandered to the nearest shelf and scanned the rows of books for a volume thin enough to be read in entirety while I waited. My fingers found Anna Quindlen's memoir How Reading Changed My Life. I settled into a rocking chair, and read it through. I found many lines poignant enough to jot down in Notes on my iPhone to be transferred to my Moleskine of quotes; the measure of a worthy read. One such line that has stuck with me:
"I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves."

I've written before on the indispensability of books in my living space, but always from the standpoint of aesthetics, and maybe comfort. But a new 20-year study led by Mariah Evans, a University of Nevada associate professor of sociology and resource economics, declares that books in a family's home in fact correlate with more and better schooling for children. Some key findings, via Nevada News:
  • "Having books in the home is twice as important as the father’s education level."
  • "The difference between being raised in a bookless home compared to being raised in a home with a 500-book library has as great an effect on the level of education a child will attain as having parents who are barely literate (3 years of education) compared to having parents who have a university education (15 or 16 years of education)."
  • "Having as few as 20 books in the home still has a significant impact on propelling a child to a higher level of education, and the more books you add, the greater the benefit."
I am fortunate enough to have been raised in a bibliophilic family, with parents and aunts and uncles and cousins who love reading. My childhood home has bookshelves in multiple rooms stocked with volumes of every stripe, from beach-worthy creased paperbacks to a tired encyclopedia collection to a Shakespeare tome to dense non-fiction hardbacks whose very jacket descriptions are a mental strain. Visits to the library were regular, trips to the bookstore were standard. To this day one of the first questions I ask my dad, to catch up: "What are you reading?"

This study, entitled "Family scholarly culture and educational success", implies that my book-soaked environment would have been sufficient to fuel me for 17 years of academic success even if I weren't also so lucky as to have two college-educated parents whose intelligence motivated me to reach for the A. I would always wonder, "How do they know all these things?" whether it be how to flute a pie crust (okay, that was a recent one) or how to sew a button or what 'encomium' means or how airplanes fly. My parents are naturally smart, yes, but their affinity for reading was also a key factor in my awed perception of their intellect.

Edan Lepucki, blogger on The Millions, has the same notion of books-on-display connoting something meaningful about their owner:
"If a stranger came over to our apartment, and there weren’t books, or–oh no!–not enough books, what would that say about me and Patrick? If my copy of Handmaid’s Tale or his copy of The Power Broker weren’t on display, how would anyone understand us? Some people have a cross in their home, or a mezuzah on their doorjamb. I’ve got nine books by Vladimir Nabokov."
Evans's data are from 70,000 cases from 27 nations. Her conclusions are wide-reaching geographically, but also metaphorically in the examination of the current state of the book world. I don't imagine that the breadth of a parent's eReader library would have the same impact on a child as a visible, touchable 500-book library. I would have had no idea whether my parents were reading email, or browsing The New York Times, or scrolling through New Yorker cartoons, or reading a digital version of Paradise Lost.

The takeaway? Go buy a book. And put it on a shelf.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Local Books iPhone App

When modern technology and traditional publishing work in tandem, wondrous things can happen. The Local Books iPhone app gives me hope that cross-pollination between the old and new media worlds exists.

Launched this past January by LibraryThing, a major social-networking-through-books website, Local Books is free and lists bookstores, libraries and book-related events based on your zipcode. The venues are wide-ranging, from public and academic libraries to chain bookstores and indie bookshops. The events include author signings, speaking engagements, kids' storytime, and book discussions. The app allows you to search and sort by date, distance, and name of location, plus add results to a list of stored Favorites. You can also adjust the search range mileage and the time frame. Sounds like a bibliophile's dream.

But Carolyn Kellogg's review in the L.A. Times is hesitant. She writes,
"As good as the venue listings are, the search function seems, in this iteration, a little creaky. Searching for "skylight" and "skylight books" turned up venues more than 999 miles away, but never delivered the Skylight Books in nearby Los Feliz."
But ultimately Kellogg concludes that Local Books has the potential to serve as a literary Urban Spoon- that is, without the nifty slot-machine-like spinning feature. Local Books' potential relies partially on users' supply of "delicious info," as Kellogg continues the restaurant database metaphor. That is, LibraryThing subscribers can submit the information that feeds the Local Books app, forming a direct engagement between the old and new worlds of publishing. I like the idea that the literary community is fueling this service, a fact that becomes clear in the mishmosh of listings: Barnes&Noble juxtaposed with the Free Library of Philadelphia with Joseph Fox Books. I also like the idea that I can use a mobile device to access a hard copy book. That's what modern publishing should be aimed at; leveraging its technological capacity to benefit its traditional cousin. Finally we're playing nice.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Blogging: Not In My Backyard?

"Riveted" is the only word with which I can describe the way I read, clicking from page 1 through to page 10, Emily Gould's tell-all article "Exposed" from the May 25, 2008 issue of the New York Times Magazine. I don't even remember the waves of web browsing I rode to get there- maybe a link from PopSugar, via Entertainment Weekly, via 815 Sentences About Lost? I lost track. It was the cover story, but somehow I missed it when it published these (almost exactly) two years ago. Gould is undeniably a talented writer, and her ruthlessly honest recounting of the personal and professional turmoil she experienced in her tumble down from faux-stardom as Gawker gossip blogger was magnetizing: in dishing brashly on her and others' lives, Gould wrote often vicious aspersions of vulnerable media figures while simultaneously assuming she deserved shielding from the online voyeurs she catered to.

But those reasons aren't what really propelled me to read the piece from first sentence- "Back in 2006, when I was 24, my life was cozy and safe."- to last- "I still think about closing the door to my online life and locking [the negative comments] out, but then I think of everything else I’d be locking out, and I leave [my blog] open." I think Gould's frank examination of modern society's absorption of technology like a dishrag mopping up spilled milk touches on a key concept too often overlooked: the eradication of writers' privacy.

Privacy issues borne by the Internet's highly-connective nature have centered on Facebook and other social media tools. But what about the destruction of the protective barrier between writer and reader? Anyone writing on a digital platform arguably exposes themselves to the judgement of a vast, unknown audience. I have no way of taking a name-tagged head count of who even reads these posts, just as the physicians who compose research articles for the journal websites published by the company I work for have no control over the medical community's response to their work. Gossip bloggers like Emily Gould, and her manifold counterparts on Gawker-kindred sites from Jezebel to Philebrity to TMZ- subject themselves to the brutality of the public's backlash, as Gould experienced and admitted was justified.

But what about bloggers, and online journalists, and authors maintaining homepages, who are just trying to adapt their craft to the new medium? These people haven't sacrified integrity, as Gould and other bloggers at times have, for page hits. Yet appraisal comes with the territory of writing online, doesn't it? From the aggravation of a flooded inbox- which New York Times essayist Ben Yagoda writes about in The Perils of 'Contact Me'- to nasty comments on blog posts- scrapbook hobbyist and mom Jillian Deiling Cassity responded directly on her blog Scrappy Jilly to one such antagonizer- perils abound for even the most innocent of online writers.

To be heard, writers in 2010 need to migrate to an online platform. But that means the danger of encountering the dark underside of the Internet, even when such animosity is unprompted. One commenter on Gould's article wrote:
"I ask myself why, in a world where we are so aware of the greater picture around us, a certain small-minded blog culture is so thriving? Is it just a need for entertainment? For connectedness? In part, I see it as a need to create a small and manageable focus in a world where there are such incomprehensible and insensible happenings occurring."

I agree. And I also think the potential for anonymity on the Internet emboldens both the bloggers and the responders who slander, whereas the honorable, ethical writers trying to carve a path for themselves through the brambles of the current state of publishing are doing just the opposite: highlighting their bylines in hopes of discovery. The paradox is when these phenomena overlap, and the good guys get hurt.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Why I'm Afraid of Twitter

In a January 1 New York Times editorial entitled "Why Twitter Will Endure", David Carr wrote,
"Some time soon, the company won’t say when, the 100-millionth person will have signed on to Twitter to follow and be followed by friends and strangers. That may sound like a MySpace waiting to happen — remember MySpace? — but I’m convinced Twitter is here to stay."
He backs up this bold statement with several articulate arguments:
  1. It's a source of "incredibly vital, timely information... from really bright people in their respective fields".
  2. It's a means by which we can glean succinct, pithy information in lieu of spouting-off, because of the 140-character confines and tools like the hashtag (which collects comments by topic).
  3. It's a source of "algorithmic authority", in his words, "meaning that if all kinds of people are pointing at the same thing at the same instant, it must be a pretty big deal."
Okay. Fine. I cede those points. It's an effective, efficient mode of communication in an information-inundated technological climate. But in the milieu of writing, it is also a loss of voice. And what do writers have if they don't have their voice? Every writing instructor and magazine editor has imparted the fact that cutthroat editing, writing short and sweet, is a greater challenge than writing lengthily with eloquence. So I'm not implying that the Twitter platform is fundamentally opposed to strong writing. But the users, as a vast whole, are.

I support the use of social media products like Facebook and Twitter for just that- social media. But the threat of corrosion of quality news media and literary craft is undeniably due, in part, to the spreading-like-a-virus use of these communicative tools. Why painstakingly construct a well-reported and -composed piece of narrative writing to spark debate when an economical 140-character message blasted into the digital cosmos will accomplish the same? I'm not claiming that award-worthy writing is dead, or dying. I'm just worried that the overlap in usage- social and professional- in a creative product like Twitter is working toward a level medium in which we'll forget there was ever a difference between the two.

Perhaps the most worrisome: Carr wrote his editorial January 1, the first day of a new decade. A coincidence? Or is his message, then, harbinger of our publishing future?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Edible Book Festival 2010

Sometimes it seems like there's no end to the reimagination of traditional publishing. Cell phone novels? Poetry television? Movie trailers for books? We're on the cusp of a new epoch, and it's anyone's guess as to what the landscape will look like in even five years. Some of these ventures I disparage for their corrosion of valuable writing; some for their utter ridiculousness. But there's nothing wrong with a dose of whimsy.

And so I applaud the efforts of the Topeka, Kansas library's fourth annual Edible Book Festival 2010. Organizer Brea Black called the caliber of the entries "amazing". That's a combination of "witty", "mouth-watering" and "literarily sophisticated."

Cooking and booking: two passions of mine, and many others. Thinking creatively about moving publishing into the future has no downside; especially when it leads to edible solutions!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Stalking the Stock

"Birds of a feather flock together," the saying goes. Translation: you can judge people by the company they keep. I've taken this a step further: I cop to judging people by the literary company they keep.

The first thing I'm drawn to in someone's apartment, or house, or office, is their book collection. I can't help but pass some light judgement based on their reading material. The New York Times' Book Bench blog has a feature called The Subconscious Shelf wherein readers submit snapshots of their bookshelves for analysis.

The "Subconscious Shelf" bolsters my view that you can judge people by their (book) covers. You can glean what genres and time periods and authors interest them most, yes, but you can also gauge their personality: a Dave Barry collection amid the great classics suggests a sparkle of wit in an otherwise serious academic; a Dan Brown novel among contemporary Pulitzer- and PEN/Faulkner- winners conveys a desire to treat the modern literary landscape democratically, politics-driven award committees be damned. The way a reader organizes their shelf also speaks volumes: are they scatter-brained-professor disheveled, fastidiously color-coded neat, architecturally inclined?

Stacked Up TV Productions is another initiative in highlighting readers', in this case specifically writers', shelves. The company's blog explains,

"A mashup of MTV’s Cribs, Oprah’s Book Club and The Paris Review, each five-minute Stacked Up episode features one of your favorite writers giving an insider’s tour of his or her library. We’ve found the best way to know writers is by the books they keep."
Readers beget writers, so what better tool of analysis of a writer than to "read"- evaluate- their collection of books? Of course, this appraisal is lost with the advent of eReaders. With covers masked and physical book collections dwindling in favor of Kindle- and Nook-loadable texts, the opportunity to uncover even a tidbit of insider information about a reader is dissolving. That is, unless we can outpace technology's seam-ripping of the integrated reading community and simply ask someone, "What do you like to read?"

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


"Never before in the history of the known universe has there been so much information available to us humans. And never before has it been so difficult to process all the information we receive. Some consultant recently told me that the average American is bombarded with 4000 messages a day (fact-checkers, back me up on this.) Those of us who are informationalists—people who work with information professionally—must be assaulted more often. The toughest challenge, I find, is wading out of the cresting information river to experience media for frivolity’s sake or simply escaping the churning waters altogether for a few moments. If I manage to do either, it's usually after tending to the dishes in the kitchen late at night. Then I head to bed, look at that stack of books, feel a pang of guilt, and shut out the light. I do miss reading. Nowadays, we absorb."

-Mother Jones Washington bureau chief and Politics Daily columnist David Corn

Monday, April 19, 2010


"I love the typefaces and the bindings and the feel of well-made paper. But what I really love is their inertness. No matter how I shake 'Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,' mushrooms don’t tumble out of the upper margin, unlike the 'Alice' for the iPad. I never have the lingering sense that there is another window open behind page 133 of 'the lives and times of archy and mehitabel.' I can tell the weather from these books only by the way their pages curl when it’s hot and humid.

And more. There is never a software glitch, like the one that keeps me from turning the page in ebrary. And there’s nothing meta about the metadata of real books. You can’t strip away details about the printing of the book — copyright information, place and date of publication — without actually tearing off the binding, title page, half-title and colophon. The book is the book, whereas, in electronic formats, the book often seems to be merely the text."

Verlyn Klinkenborg, "Some Thoughts About E-Reading"

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Happy National Library Week 2010

The American Library Association's theme for the 2010 National Library Week, April 11-17: "Communities thrive @ your library." Hokey? Yes. True? Yes. Underemphasized? Oh, yes.

I wrote my college thesis on the Free Library of Philadelphia, a documentary for which I spent the whole of second semester senior year hanging out at the West Philly branch trying to sew myself into the seams of the place. I made friends with the librarians, the part-time shelvers, a few regulars like homeless Lionel Smith who I took to McDonalds across the street for a Filet-o-Fish. I've always been a bookworm and, more relevant, a library lover. I got a blue and white plastic library card in elementary school and actually used it. Even at my grandmother's beach house in Delaware my parents would take me to the local library to check out books. There's a beautiful rawness to used books, a rich backlog of other pairs of hands that have touched the same pages you're touching. Like tire tracks on a dirt road. I keep an envelope of objects I find in library books: a bandaid in its creased wrapper, a mini yellow Post-It scrawled with a phone number, a quarter-sheet cardstock flyer for a long-ago concert. (There's a Flickr feed "Library Finds" with the same objective.) I miss the days when the inside of library books' back covers bore the date stamps of past readers, a haphazard spooling column of blue ink recording in permanence each temporary possession of the volume.

But although today's libraries have hitched themselves to the technology bandwagon alongside every other sector of the book industry (Skokie, Illinois librarian Toby Greenwalt writes in the Huffington Post of libraries' downloadable collections, text message librarian correspondence, and mobile-optimized sites) the charm and merit and, most importantly, necessity of these institutions has not lessened. The architectural beauty of libraries symbolizes their magnitude (see the Huffington Post's slideshow of "America's Most Amazing Libraries" in honor of National Library Week, and the below video of Louis Kahn's New Hampshire library):

Source: Alex Roman on Vimeo.

Of course, aesthetics aside, libraries offer a social nerve center for a community just as the ALA's motto insists. Some character sketches from my time spent at the Walnut West branch illustrate libraries' role as neighborhood concourse. I met kids like 17-year-old Ryan Baginski, in his cocked white ball cap and struggling fuzz of upper lip hair, who goes to Walnut West three times a week to do schoolwork like his Martin Luther King, Jr. research project; the high school library closes when classes let out, and Ryan's family can't afford a computer or encyclopedia set. The flyers in the library lobby- “Talk About It: Youth Violence”- indicate the significance of providing a safe space for potentially troubled youth like Ryan. I met strapped-for-cash hobbyists like construction worker and SAT tutor 26-year-old Zac Brooks, trying to indulge his passion for graphic design when he can't afford lavish coffee table art books from Barnes & Noble. I met foreigners trying to cobble together some self-taught English so they can apply for jobs. I met toddlers giggling and bouncing like popcorn during the daily story hour, the only reading time they'll get with their parents- or single parent- working triple shifts.

The positive influence Philadelphia's library system fosters is obvious, but so can libraries hold such power in areas that aren't downtrodden. They provide boundless archives of photographs (see the New York Public Library's photostream on Flickr), an invaluable human resource that shatters the bun-and-glasses stereotype (see Flavorwire's list of the 10 Best Songs About Libraries and Librarians and, on a more serious note, The New Yorker's and Slate's interviews with Marilyn Johnson, author of the librarian-centric This Book Is Overdue!), and a wellspring of reading material that is cost-free.

Jamie LaRue outlines on MyLiblog seven arguments for building new libaries, in an age when cities short on funding are shutting them down. His Argument #1 reads, "We are the business that (at least in most communities) never goes out of business." Here's hoping.

"Leaves spin up into coilings and subside.
This windy much-ado, arising
The desert could well serve as epitaph
For Alexandria, Rome,
Pergamum --

For all the ancient libaries whose collections
vanished in a mammoth wordless void.
And though I have the evening clouds'
Thoughts of the art and science thus destroyed
Leave me a
little empty and unnerved.
The consolation? Some things were preserved,
Technology now limits what is lost,
And learning, as it's presently
Is safe from any partial holocaust."

-from Timothy Steele's "The Library"

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Book trailers

I rarely watch TV commercials anymore, thanks to my DVR. I find previews more annoying than enticing in a movie theater. My mouse is primed to click CLOSE on online ads the moment they pop up. So you'd think, also given my resistance to vooks and blooks, I'd deride book trailers. But it's not that simple.

Troy Patterson, in a Slate article late last year, discussed several book trailers (like Jonathan Safran Foer's short web video for Eating Animals, below) and contended that "such clips can reveal the hopes and fantasies of readers, writers, and publishers alike".

Patterson criticizes the "Hollywood glamour" in some of these video projects that distracts from the literary merit of a given work, but in general takes a resignedly accepting stance towards the new media. I agree with his evaluation. I view book trailers as adapting to modern publishing, as the print ads of 2010- and whoever took issue with The New Yorker's sidebar promotion of new books, for example? In fact, many of the trailers, rapidly becoming stickier throughout publishing, are artistically sophisticated. One example is Jamieson Fry's piece for T.C. Boyle's The Women:

In a technological climate pushing physical books to the margins- The Millions cited in January that Laredo, Texas, population 250,000, is now literally bookstore-less- any effort to get books into readers' hands is commendable. Granted, book trailers can promote eBooks just as much as bound books, but for readers hesitant to convert to the Kindle just yet these marketing campaigns will fuel a purchase. Like Patterson, I think the trailers can be hokey, contrived, artificial. But so, too, can they be aesthetically pleasing, cinematically impressive, and, most importantly, commercially successful.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Speaking of matzah...

It being Passover and all, a certain Jewish website piqued my interest with particular acuteness this week: The Open Siddur Project. It's "an online workshop for crafting, publishing, and printing Jewish prayer books (siddurim)." Like the Xbox Bible, this collaborative site aims to broaden access to religious texts and enable readers to customize their study material. The idea is that people can tailor their liturgical text to accommodate their specific prayer tradition- so vastly varied in Judaism- and derive comfort and an enhanced connection to their religion with a completely personalized siddur. The software enables production of digital and paper siddurim- a marked difference from the computerized-only Xbox Bible Reader.

As with every example of paper-to-digital publishing conversion, I fear the signal of an eventual diminishment of the physically bound book's value. This hesitancy is especially relevant when it comes to spiritual texts. Is navigating through Scriptures with a joy-stick, or scroll-wheeling down the page of a Jewish prayerbook, really as contemplative an experience as holding the weight of a holy text in your hands, feeling its pages, tracing a forefinger over its words?
I respect the goal to "preserve the diversity of Jewish traditions worldwide, [and] encourage creative engagement and understanding in Jewish spiritual practice", and I suspect that the ability to access religious texts online will have great appeal for a younger audience wandering away from religion for its lack of modern-day efficiency. But, says the girl who'd need a Mack truck to transport from her apartment all the books she owns, print it is for me.

"Give them away or pass them on – but don't let go of printed books," writes Suzanne Munshower on The Guardian's Books Blog. Amen.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


"When I pass a bookshelf, I like to pick out a book from it and thumb through it. When I see a newspaper on the couch, I like to sit down with it. When the mail arrives, I like to rip it open. Reading is one of the main things I do. Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I've accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it's a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it's a way of making contact with someone else's imagination after a day that's all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss."

-Nora Ephron, I Feel Bad About My Neck

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Here's blooking at you, kid

Yesterday's Paper Cuts post on Nobel-laureate Portuguese writer José Saramago's blog-turned-book poses an interesting question: can blogs become literature? Saramago's collection of blog posts, entitled "The Notebook", renders his online journal entries as essays. Yet in his review Gregory Cowles deems the vignettes "too topical and too fleeting to count as literature", albeit smartly and compellingly composed. For Cowles there is a marked difference between writing done in an Internet framework, and more traditional composition. Apparently Saramago agrees, because as Cowles notes, the author's last post reads,

“Until another day? I sincerely think not. I have begun another book and wish to dedicate all my time to it. You will see why, if it all goes well.”
I have to say I disagree with both men.

Saramagos' litblogging effort has antecedents; according to Wikipedia, "blooks" have existed for a number of years, a trend with enough traction to institute the Lulu Blooker Prize in 2005. Tucker Max, famed chronicler of drunken encounters, published New York Times bestseller I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell in 2006, writing in a genre he calls "fratire". The book based on Julie Powell's cooking blog "The Julie/Julia Project" was made into the film Julie & Julia in 2009. Colby Buzzell, a U.S. Army machine-gunner who spent a year in Iraq, turned his 2004 blog into a captivating and acclaimed memoir, My War: Killing Time in Iraq.

The breadth of these examples suggests the wide range of possibilities for transforming blogs into respectable- or, at least, commercially successful- prose. A Business Week article titled "'Blooks' are in Bloom" quotes Eileen Gittins, CEO of online publisher,
"We believe there's a market [for book-publishing services] for every single blogger out there. Charles Dickens originally serialized his novels in magazines. We are seeing much the same thing happening today, with blogs."

The blogosphere is rife with well-written material, and writers that prioritize literary craft. The tempest of new media is all about breaking down walls, between interface and user, writer and reader, professional and layman, traditional publishing and cutting-edge; why can't we discard the boundary, too, between blogging and "real" writing? I'll concede that the extension of electronic writing into the formalized publishing realm has its limits: 19-year-old U Chicago undergrads Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin's recent book Twitterature, a compilation of reimagined classic works in 20-character-tweet form, makes me gag (the Huffington Post writes that it "kicked all that is sacred about the written word in its proverbial scrotum"). But Twitter, like the blogosphere, does house the literary-minded among the rabble. An informal GalleyCat poll at the end of last year found "1,790 novelists, 9,139 poets, 19,490 journalists, 28,529 authors, and a staggering 99,082 writers on Twitter."

Basically I respect the fact that Saramago and Cowles are pigeonholing blogging and publishable writing, because I share readers' and authors' fear that cultivated writing will perish without its own limelight. But I also think there's room for blogs- earnest, finely written, ones especially- to evolve off the screen in their own right, not as a replacement for traditional books. So, I'd answer Saramago's ultimate question, "Until another day?" with a frank "Yes."

Monday, March 29, 2010

Journalist: What's in a Name?

"Repeat after me:
Short is better than long.
Simple is good.
Long Latin nouns are the enemy.
Anglo-Saxon active verbs are your best friend.
One thought per sentence."
Such were William Zinsser's words on August 11, 2009 to the incoming international students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. His talk centered on the technology era's diminishment of the sense of journalistic writing as craft. The overarching question he posed was why, in a digital age, should reporters be concerned with the art of writing when the focus is on the electronic: quick, mobile-friendly blog entries accompanied by video clips, podcasts, high resolution images. His answer:
"You’ll be making and editing videos and photographs and audio recordings to accompany your articles. Somebody—that’s you—will still have to write [my emphasis] all those video scripts and audio scripts."

In my journalism classes at Penn, professors touched on the importance of gaining familiarity with new media, in that if modern news writers don't stay abreast of the direction the field is taking, they have no hope of success. But they never suggested that journalists sacrifice the quality of their craft for the sake of satisfying digital trends. At my two magazine jobs, editors encouraged us to hone our writing skills even while it was important to compose succinct pieces befitting blog posts or newsletter blasts.

But when Wikipedia serves as a legitimate source for The New York Times, the vocabulary of printmaking is steadily dissolving into obsoleteness, elimination of copy editors' from publications' staff lessens the sense of professionalism (The Baltimore Sun's front page subhead on January 21, 2010: "Rawlings-Blake says her bill will seek to heighte public trus' "), cellphone novelists are scoring book deals, and LG has unveiled a bendable eBook Reader as a newspaper replacement, the message bull-horned to budding journalists is that eschewal of honed writing is acceptable in favor of catering to the format of modern media.

I realize that there is a vast audience for poorly written yet informationally rich writing, even sometimes including me. For example, my daily Slate e-newsletter often has typos but still provides a succinct global news roundup. In general, however, enviably fine writing such as in Vanity Fair, New York Magazine, The Guardian, and lit blog The Millions, can communicate the same valuable information but infinitely more palatably. The only difference between career journalists and citizen journalists is this allegiance to the art of writing; flagging in such integrity makes titling oneself a professional journalist meaningless.

I haven't settled on a writing path but I have always been drawn to the article form; so the debate over the metamorphosis of journalism has personal relevance. I understand the need to mold writing to the requisites of modern publishing. But I also will stubbornly defend the now-old-line mentality of journalists like Zinsser, my writing professors and former magazine editors. Superior writing is never outmoded.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Mark My Words

I'm a bookmark rotater. Every time I start a new book, I slip in a different page-saver. I think of reading as an experience: each book has its own feel, smell, appearance and thus merits its own bookmark.

I have stacks of them in various drawers throughout my apartment. Creased and folded thin paper ones from Borders, sturdy laminated ones from elementary school art class, glossy cardboard American Girl Dolls ones, elegantly artistic ones straight from the check-out line at Barnes & Noble, or some stamped with readerly quips ("Ssh! I'm reading"). Some of my bookmarks aren't bookmarks at all: Phillies tickets, a swatch of red-hearts-patterned stationery paper that caught my eye. If I start a book somewhere away from my stash, I'll use a PostIt or a receipt or even a tissue. But it's always different, a marker linked to that particular text. Of course I reuse my bookmarks- their recycling is what infuses them with that treasured lived-in quality- but from one reading to the next, each deserves a breather.

It's been a while since I bought a new bookmark, but not for lack of temptation. I love these from swissmiss:

Obviously the migration of reading to a digital platform eradicates bookmarks. Saving your place becomes automated, and dog-earing a random page becomes a computerized mimicry:
"On any content page, use the scroll wheel to select the small triangle in the upper right hand corner of the screen. Click the scroll wheel and you’ll see the small triangle now looks like it was folded down."
What about my Phillies tickets? What about those American Girl Dolls bookmarks I've saved for over a decade? What about the comfort and familiarity of seeing a book sitting on your nightstand with a marker sticking out as a symbol of those hard-earned pages gone by, and the reward that is the rest of those pages to come?

Computerized bookmarking in general is a useful tool: flagging websites for future reference, highlighting or recording a note in Word to track your reading progress. But electronically bookmarking for-pleasure reading is just one more depersonalization of the reading experience. I'll take the frustration of bookmarks slipping out into the bottom of my purse over scroll-wheel-clicking any day.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


"In the end, whether books come on clay or wrapped in vellum, whether they are as ornately illustrated as “The Book of Kells,” or as plain as a city directory, I have to place my trust in readers. Tactile readers, e-readers: Save us all! Never give up on the power of the written word, no matter the form, and hold its gatekeepers accountable."

-Timothy Egan, The New York Times Opinionator blog

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A thorn in the flesh?

The extent of my experience with video games: playing Crash Bandicoot and Jeopardy with my sister and friends on our PS2 in high school, plus a game or two of Rock Band at a frat house in college. Add to that many a couch-side observation of frantic, near-foaming male friends' tooth-and-nail battles on the faux-football field or -race car track, and that about does it.

But the recent trend of video game adapatation of literature may force me to acquaint myself more familiarly with the console. This past November, MediaBistro blog GalleyCat cited the B&H Publishing Group's creation of Bible Navigator X, a Bible Reader for Xbox 360. Yes, you read that right. According to Aaron Linne, B&H Publishing Group's executive producer of digital marketing:

"The Xbox isn't just secular entertainment anymore. We can use technology that other people developed to study Scriptures through a new medium. Some people are just more comfortable with a controller in their hands than a book."

The application is available for $5 or 400 Microsoft Points, the currency of the Xbox Live marketplace. Bible Reader users can search, bookmark and adjust settings for big screen readings or customized reading themes.

My initial reaction was skepticism at the sacriligious undertones of manipulating the Bible with technology normally reserved for gory car theft games and virtual wrestling matches. But, really, how different is this venture from the Kindle's digitization of texts, or "cellphone novels" written with and read on mobile phones? (Among best selling novels of the last 3 years, 4 of the top 10 novels in Japan were written with cellphones, like the entire bookcase's contents below.)

The video game lit genre is here to stay: Electronic Arts and Random House recently teamed to release a video game version of Dante's Inferno, in which players can explore the circles of hell interactively in addition to on the page. Much like the vook, these video games meld literary quality and enhanced new media features with the aim of providing a rich, multi-faceted experience of a text. But unlike the vook, games allow readers to physically participate, justifying the hijacking of literature as raw material. Furthermore, the games aren't trying to edge out books from the publishing world, but rather supplement them.

Here's my video game aficionado friend Billy on yet another benefit of video game adapation of books:

"Ask a middle schooler or high-schooler if they remember anything about The Crucible, The Things They Carried, To Kill A Mockingbird, 1984, etc, and they won't be able to recount it with either the vividness or enthusiasm they'll be able to tell the story of Link and the Triforce (Legend of Zelda), the moment Sephiroth killed Aeris in front of Cloud (Final Fantasy 7), minute details about the T-Virus (Resident Evil), etc etc. All of these have intricate plots with the same kind of research, details, development, and copious amounts of dialogue one expects from either a book or movie. But you are far more invested."

Just as with every other new age form of literature I've addressed, these intellectualized video games will never replace tangible paperbacks for me. But I'm willing to cede their beneficially immersive treatment of text. I'll consider them less a thorn in the flesh of the publishing industry, and more an aggravatingly itchy tag in the back of my shirt.