Friday, January 29, 2010

Slow and steady wins the race

While I was home in Maryland, my three younger cousins gigglingly shared with me a YouTube clip of MADTV's Anjelah Johnson parodying a Vietnamese manicurist, and one of Anjelah as "Bon Qui Qui", a cheeky King Burger cashier. They showed me a free cell phone ring website packed with sound clips ranging from bizarre to hilarious, and Facebook photo after Facebook photo.

Rewind to when I was a preteen: I was just registering for an AOL account, to the then-ubiquitous, now-farcical greeting of "You've Got Mail". Email, and IM, were phenomena- I remember sitting cemented to my computer chair emailing short messages back and forth with my friend real-time, before I had downloaded AIM, unaware that even more instantaneous communication was possible.

My cousins and their peers are growing up with technology a given. There's even a name for them, cited by Schott's vocab blog: Generation XD. They've never known Internet-less life. A great majority has cell phones, not to mention YouTube accounts, X-boxes, and robotic toys like the Zhu Zhu hamsters (what happened to American Girl dolls and Beanie Babies?) Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, sums up my at-a-loss sentiment: “People two, three or four years apart are having completely different experiences with technology."

But even people in their 20's, my fellow Millennials, have sewn tech into the seams of our lives. A Salon article cites The Harris Poll's finding that "Americans 18 and older spent an average of 13 hours a week online, excluding time spent checking e-mail.... -- nearly double the time spent online a decade ago. [And] people from ages 25 to 49 spent the most amount of time on the Internet (17-18 hours a week)."

So, the question is: when will we reach the point of saturation? When will the ever-quickening pace of digitization throw us off the tracks? In simpler terms, Jocelyn Noveck asks on Salon, "When is one more gadget just too many?"

In the face of innovations like Apple's iPad and its many mobile predecessors, some writers like Trevor Butterworth of Forbes have called for a "Slow-Word Movement," after the fashion of Carlo Petrini's "Slow Food Movement." Both call for counteracting the "relentless, endless free diet" of either fast media, or fast food. We should be savoring, sustaining, taking pleasure in the media we consume, much as we should be doing with high-quality, healthy, lip-smacking food. Butterworth hails Dave Eggers as the movement's pioneer, given Eggers' San Francisco Panorama newspaper, a stunning full-color print publication furnished with original feature contributions from headliners like Michael Chabon and Stephen King, traditional "hard-hitting" investigative reporting, and a 96-page books section, those two lattermost quickly becoming journalistic relics. Eggers' work reinflates quashed hopes of surival for literary publications like The Virginia Quarterly Review and New England Review. A Mother Jones article on "The Death of Fiction" cites the "tailspin" of the novelists' and short story writers' market, declaring magazines like the above to be on their death beds.

Another Slow Media Movement, as The Boston Globe's Brainiac blog calls it, paragon is the independent Mark Batty Publisher, dedicated to the art of crafting books, and to the gratifying experience of holding and admiring a book as a physical object.

I agree with Butterworth: we've traded aesthetics for abundance. We've prioritized rapidity of ingestion over quality of content. I think the ability to glance through news bytes or scan 140-character Tweets is valuable; we can't apply the slow-and-steady approach to all media. But we can return to the artisanal at least in part. We'll save money, save the time invested in setting up and growing familiar with using a new device, and (help) save the publishing industry.

Each of the 250+ medical journals published by the company I work for contains painstakingly researched, written, reviewed and assembled articles. The journals' websites aim to deliver efficient and user-friendly content to the physicians and students who log on, but never at the sacrifice of quality.

To quote again the Salon article: are we at "a cultural tipping point, a sense of general gadget overload"? In my case, my budget and my love of the literary and artistic say yes. In others'? Whether the iPad is successful or not may be indicative.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

iThink, therefore iPad

There are mattress pads to keep your mattress clean. There are brake pads to protect your car. There are paper pads, bound by glue, for notes and memos and doodles. There are that-time-of-the-month pads, crash pads, bachelor pads, lily pads, launch pads.

What about a pad that serves all those functions and has all those characteristics?

Steve Jobs has unveiled the iPad, announcing it “Our most advanced technology in a magical and revolutionary device at an unbelievable price.”

Gizmodo declares it, after a hands-on examination, "substantial but surprisingly light. Easy to grip. Beautiful. Rigid. Starkly designed. The glass is a little rubbery but it could be my sweaty hands. And it's fasssstttt."

The new device, according to Apple's website, starts at $499 and the first models will ship in late March. It's basically a laptop-cum-iPhone, merging email, photos, movies, the App store, and digital magazine/newspaper/book reading into one. With specific regard for that lattermost, Jobs unveiled the free iBooks app, which grants access to the built-in iBookstore. According to the New York Times' Bits blog, "Five of the largest publishers — Penguin, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan and Hachette — are supporting the app." Advantages above ubiquitous eReaders like the Kindle are display aesthetics, as well as expedited availability of titles.

The iPad's touch screen and crisp display will supposedly maximize the user's experience, culling the most desirable aspects of various gadgets (Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, iTouch, BlackBerry, Android). It's the iPod's cousin: a product that is guaranteed to shake up the publishing industry in a parallel to the iPod's revolutionization of the music industry.

I've incorporated my iPhone into many corners of my life (excluding books, so far), from reading blogs and newspapers and magazines to watching YouTube videos to writing and receiving emails to managing my calendar and contacts. Same goes with my MacBook. My family has been a Mac family since before I was born, and I love the user-friendliness, sleekness and efficiency of the company's products. Maybe I'm being rewarded for holding out on buying a Kindle: I could realistically envision investing in the iPad once I cave- inevitably- on at least partially succumbing to the digital book craze.

For now, I'll put that $499 towards my rent check.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Update: Graham Greene

More evidence that fate played a hand in reconnecting me with my grandmother's copy of Graham Greene's The Comedians: a Chicago Tribune article describes the 1966 novel as "a book that seems, sadly, all too up-to-date in light of last week's earthquake" in Haiti. In the reporter Julia Keller's words:

"There can be an air of unreality about real-life tragedies on a mass scale, mediated as they often are by frowning TV anchorpeople in designer khakis. Fiction, paradoxically, returns a sense of reality to these implausible disasters. The Haiti of "The Comedians" is grainy, visceral, forthright and true."

A bookshelf's original edition hardcover, and the Internet's digital newspaper article: sometimes traditional and digital media can indeed find equanimity.

Mightier Than the Sword

"My two fingers on a typewriter have never connected with my brain. My hand on a pen does. A fountain pen, of course. Ball-point pens are only good for filling out forms on a plane."
Graham Greene

Ten minutes into a three hour work meeting last week, my pen gave out. I was taking punctilious notes, delineated by headings and organized by bullet points, in my Christmas tree green spiral notebook. I like taking notes. The physical connection between my brain and the information helps lock it into memory. It's also nostalgic, a wistful reminder of my days as a diligent student.

It was a black, medium point, retractable EasyTouch Pilot pen. Reliable until this sudden demise. I could have brought my laptop with me, as most of my coworkers do. But, as I said, I appreciate the organic work of taking notes by hand. I like the smoothness- no clicking or clacking. (Once, when I was a magazine intern making a cold call, my interviewee asked me if I was popping popcorn in the background.) The permanence of ink also exudes a sort of confidence- Wite-Out really just calls attention to your errors- and even fearlessness: those who do crossword puzzles in pen categorically intimidate me.

I knew several people in my English classes at Penn who always began essay drafts in pen, only later transcribing them into Word. Writing, creative or academic or administrative, necessitates an attention to detail and union with the craft that blurs with the distance between typist and computer screen.

Pens also make elegant gifts. In fact, I have several engraved Tiffany pens locked in a file drawer at my desk, as-needed gratuities for my boss's clients. So, too, do handwritten missives, like the Irish artists Lenka Clayton and Michael Crowe's April 2009 project to send personal letters to all 467 households in their town.

Each postcard, piece of notebook paper, folder, tag, or Post-it note was composed in pen. The motive was the recognition of the personalized penned note as an artform, one that is steadily waning in our digital age. While learning cursive constituted an entire class period throughout elementary school for me, scholars like Oberlin professor Anne Trubek have heralded the end of handwriting. She writes in Miller-McCune,

"When people hear I am writing about the possible end of handwriting, many come up with examples of things we will always need handwriting for: endorsing checks (no longer needed at an ATM), grocery lists (smartphones have note-taking functions), signatures (not even needed to file taxes anymore). These will not be what we would lose. We may, however, forsake some neurological memory. I imagine some pathways in our brains will atrophy. Then again, I imagine my brain is developing new cognitive pathways each time I hit control C or double click Firefox. That I can touch-type, my fingers magically dancing on my keyboard, free of any conscious effort (much as you are looking at letters and making meaning in your head right now as you read), amazes me.... Handwriting is not going anywhere soon. But it is going."

It's like unwrapping a gift every time I find a sample of my loopy, lumbering childhood writing, be it a diary (truncated after five entries), class essay, or construction paper birthday card for my mom. When I imagine a typical school classroom, I see a laminated alphabet script banner above the blackboard, a dotted line bisecting it to form a ceiling for the lowercase letters. Luckily, respect for penmanship remains strong, not just with experiments like the Irish artists' but also in celebrations like National Handwriting Day (John Hancock's birthday, January 23) and websites like the imaginative Firmuhment, entirely handwritten and beautiful. Seriously, click on the link.

It goes without saying that typing and word processing are integral to my work day, and my personal life. I use the iPhone Listmaker app in lieu of a paper grocery list, just as Trubek predicts; I keep in touch via email; at work I use Word and Excel and PowerPoint to track the proceedings of each of the journals my team publishes. But I also write To Do post-its for myself, annotate my books by hand, mail thank you notes, and, yes, even sometimes scribble a quote or a thought or a descriptive line by hand like my classmates.

As with many aspects of the old-new media conflict I have covered, and will cover, I advocate a marriage that accommodates both. I think we would suffer intellectually and creatively without penmanship, but also without technological composition. The latter goes without saying: when my pen died and I was computerless at that work meeting, I was out of luck. Until a coworker across the table handed me a pen.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A word on the sentimentality of books

My grandmother passed away this past Thursday. She was a writer, and a reader, and an editor, and an English teacher, and a crossword puzzler, and a Scrabble player. She was my long-time pen pal, writing me weekly letters throughout my three summers at sleepaway camp and four years at Penn. She taught me, long before we learned the Hamburger Model in elementary school, how to construct a cogent essay. She expanded my vocabulary with Boggle games, forming words I had never heard of with the letter cubes. She got me hooked on The New Yorker.

I'll never forgive myself for not keeping her letters. I looked forward to each one. But what I would give to have thought to collect them, as a physical token of our relationship, as a trace of her, as a comfort now that there is a hole to fill.

Fortunately, as I was packing my bags to return to Philly, I came upon a musty olive green hardcover book on my shelf. Its paper dust jacket was a little ragged at the edges. Its pages were yellowed. Graham Greene- The Comedians, the time-bleached cover read. Penned on the title page: "Sarra Chernick, 1966". It was one of her favorite books, according to my mom. I remember my grandmother gifting me several dear volumes when I was much younger, knowing I had inherited her bookworm tendency, with the caveat that the books may be reading for a later date. So they remained in safekeeping on my shelf, until I discovered this one in particular.

I don't know if I believe in fate; but the truth is that I had been hearing the name Graham Greene referenced in literary conversation, and read of him in many book blog posts, over the past few months. I had added him to my list of authors to check out. This name recognition is why I slid the green volume out from between its neighbors in the first place. Fate or not, how fortuitous! The capricious browsing lent to readers by bookshelves, rather than virtual libraries, led me by happenstance to a connection with my grandmother when she is no longer here to hand me a book.

I may not have her letters; the crossword puzzles we solved together may have been long ago crumpled into the trashcan, the Scrabble tiles and Boggle cubes jumbled back into the box. But I have this book. I can hold it, and smell it, and know that her pen was poised, fingers pressed precisely (she also taught me correct penmanship) at this very spot one moment many years ago. It's ludicrous to even consider that retaining a deceased relative's Kindle, or Nook, or Tablet, or iPhone Stanza app, would be so resonant. I will keep this book forever. It's not sappy to say that I will cherish it, too, forever. And so will I keep and cherish the serendipity of physical books, aligned on bookshelves, subscribed by hand, some once held by my grandmother, who I will miss very, very much.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cafetaria: Book-related brain snacks

Rock Paper Scissors

Designer Brian Dettmer creates visual art out of literary art with his intricate paper sculptures. He peels layers away from old books and adds color and image collages, using surgical tools to craft three dimensional compositions. I think Dettmer's work pays homage to the beauty and communicative capacity of books, despite its seemingly destructive usage of them as raw material. In fact, his art depends on bound books' existence, making him an ironic ally of traditional publishing.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Cafetaria: Book-related brain snacks

Bonnier and BERG have teamed up to imagine the magazine of the future in an age when the future is actually today.

From their pitch:

"The concept uses the power of digital media to create a rich and meaningful experience, while maintaining the relaxed and curated features of printed magazines. It has been designed for a world in which interactivity, abundant information and unlimited options could be perceived as intrusive and overwhelming."

The design seems a little Space Agey, but in an intriguing rather than intimidating way. I like the fluidity of navigation, aided by the touchscreen that connects hand to text much as with a print magazine. The Mag+ may seem a far cry from even the most advanced devices in use today, but our predictions on the digitization of media seem to be more often wrong than not.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

To reread or not to reread?

“A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.”
-Robertson Davies

One difference between literature and film, for consumers, is the concept of revisiting. Most often we only buy a movie (unless it's a gift for someone) if we are likely to view it more than once. Otherwise, thanks to 21st century technology we can resort easily and cost-efficiently to rental services like Netflix, Blockbuster and iTunes. I bought Slumdog Millionaire because it was an Oscar-winner, and because the first time I saw it I was concentrating on reading the subtitles. I bought Knocked Up because I love Seth Rogen, and who doesn't sometimes need a dose of humor therapy?

Conversely, many readers purchase rather than borrow, regardless. Libraries don't have the same glitz as video stores and movie-rental websites, and they don't deliver to your mailbox. There are book rental services like, but the prices are higher and the selection is more sparse than with movie outfits. From my perspective, the prospect of one day building a chestnut-walled, rolling-ladder-equipped study lined with abundantly stocked bookshelves is motivation enough to spend my Barnes & Noble gift certificates solely on books rather than the “buy one DVD, get one half-off” sale, and to hold onto all my college coursebooks, which after four years range from Thomas Paine pamphlets to doorstop science textbooks (one-time harbingers of my medical career) to the entire Jane Austen collection to the Oxford History of Western Art to Susan Sontag essay collections to translated Greek tragedies.

Needless to say, even when I add a book to my ever-flowering collection, I don’t necessarily intend to reread it. Sometimes it's the New York Times bestseller I didn't want to wait on the library queue for, or the classic I imagined with my name penciled in its cover, even knowing I'd devote only one read-through to it. In his 1922 article "The Buying of Books" in The Atlantic, Carl S. Patton writes,

"I have always felt that one should buy as many books as possible. They are not like food, of which one should buy only as much as one can consume at the moment. Nor like clothes, of which a wise man will buy as few and as cheap as he can get by with. But of books he should buy all he can."

On a similar note, Patrick Kurp records the last stanza of Timothy Steele's poem "The Library" and writes on his blog Anecdotal Evidence, "

'Winding, as though along a corkscrew's thread,
A squirrel has circled down a sycamore.
The frail must, in fair times, collect and store,
And so, amid swirled papery debris,
The squirrel creeps, nosing round, compelled to hoard
By instinct, habit, and necessity

Like the squirrel, we hoard – acorns, books."

Then what does make a book, plucked from its crowded neighborhood, re-readable? What books do we return to, how often, and why?

Off the top of my head, I can count on one hand books that I have read more than once outside the classroom, excluding children's picture books or poetry/nursery rhyme collections. Here’s a list of these five:

-Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
-The Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
-The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
-Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling
-Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

It seems these five have a commonality: authenticating the existence of true literary craft across times and places. A reread of each book always revealed to me something fresh, both internally to the material and externally. It's inspiring to be reminded of the power of hand-to-heart writing, especially amid some of the dreariness of modern life. But it takes a lot longer on average to read a book than to watch a movie. And I keep lists that span pages and pages sorting gads of books I hope to have time to read: one on my iPhone, several in each of the Moleskines I keep in my bags, one on my computer, one in a Google doc. One exists in the animate form of my mother, whose book recommendations culled from her book group and reader friends have proven trusty. So what made it seem worthwhile to go back, to thumb through the pages of these books and make the conscious decision to turn anew to their Page One?

Each of the five is a transporting piece, one that sends the reader soaring into an elsewhere, be it historical or fantastical. But doesn’t all literature serve this purpose of escape, if not quite as manifestly as the lattermost three on the list? If we reread only to savor that fade-out of reality, we might as well read a new book altogether, for an even more salient travel experience.

Perhaps each of the works also harbors several layers of significance, bringing fresh fodder for thought to each reading depending on age and circumstances, just as Robertson Davies attests to above. I might not have picked up on Swift’s deeply satirical and allegorical commentary on British and French enmity if I hadn’t yet been exposed to the historical background. I might not, the first or second time around, have really felt a profound appreciation for the masterful artworks in Tracy Chevalier’s diamond of a novel without the art history courses in whose vast riches of knowledge I’ve now been steeped for the past few years. On the books blog "The Millions", Samantha Peale writes in a post on her year in reading,

"The novels I reread over the years take on different meanings, they change and deepen, my favorite sections shift. Sometimes a book that once held great meaning doesn’t quite reach me anymore and instead I’m reminded of other stories, themes or styles that are of more present interest. "

What about, on a related note, books we read at too young an age to understand at all? In my 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, I've checked off every one I've "read" cover to cover. Some I've actually mined the depths of- writing essays, holding discussions, scribbling margin notes, sharing passages with friends or family, just ruminating on my own time- like Frankenstein, The Count of Monte Cristo, Wuthering Heights, 1984, Beloved. But some I read nominally, like for a high school class or just to be able to cross it off the list, before I grew into a fundamental love of literature: The Sun Also Rises, Brave New World, As You Like It, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I have at best a hazy memory of books like these. Rereading prose that falls into this category would actually be like an inaugural reading, rather than like wiggling fingers into a familiarly soft old glove.

Or what about books we read at a young age whose comfort we return to for that very fact? Blogging on "Lit Drift", Toby Shuster ruminates on the advantages and disadvantages of rereading childhood literary classics like Little House on the Prairie, but ultimately concludes,

"The fond memories I have of the Little House book remain, no matter how maligned. And maybe Wilder’s simplistic narration of an era so far removed allows us to better comprehend the monotony in our own day-to-day routines. Because sitting in a cubicle isn’t nearly as arduous as churning butter."

Whatever the reason, whatever the effect, I like the fact that this issue is one free of influence from the digitization of publishing, other than maybe the ease of obtaining books to be reread. For now, without a firm grasp on the mental process behind rereading great books, I’ll stick to DVRing movies and saving enough money to build those wraparound bookshelves that sparkle somewhere. And, after all, when it comes down to it,

"The real secret of re-reading is simply this: It is impossible. The characters remain the same, and the words never change, but the reader always does. Pip is always there to be revisited, but you, the reader, are a little like the convict who surprises him in the graveyard — always a stranger."

Monday, January 11, 2010

Vook Voodoo

Ever heard of a (shudder) Vook?

It's a video-book hybrid that melds narrative with videos and Web links, to be read online or on a mobile device. Journalist Monica Hesse points to the "bells and whistles" of these multimedia books, from Wikipedia links explaining old-fashioned references to video clips of historians' input, and asks the essential question: "Would these [features] represent the sort of enhanced involvement that book lovers have always dreamed of? Or would they tamper with our imaginations?"

My answer to her first question: no. And her second: of course.

These products are packages, like shrink-wrapped plastic toys. You can't get inside them, although they promise to do just that: lead you deep into the book's world with 3-D glasses, making your experience visual and aural. But such interference destroys the very magic of reading. In a previous post, I wrote about the unique images readers hold for poignant literary moments, like Dantès' escape in The Count of Monte Cristo, and the soldiers' torture of the water buffalo in The Things They Carried. The Vook medium renders each image exactly the same for each reader. How boring.

Hesse apparently agrees:

"The pleasure of reading has always been its uniquely transporting experience: the way a literary world might look completely different to two readers. But when the “true” representation... is immediately provided to the reader, imaginary worlds could be squelched before they can be born."

This kind of reading, aside from fraying the nerve endings responsible for dreaming our way through a story, also makes us lazy. Evan Maloney maligns speed-reading in The Guardian's Books Blog, asserting that skimming "reminds [him] of liposuction: you're putting on intellectual weight without acquiring the mental health benefits". Whether flipping hastily through a great work, or in using a Vook bypassing the contemplative act of real reading, this nonchalance with regard to the narrative text is just empty.

The type of reading required by a Vook also dulls our brains. Reading should be active. Your brain should be working on full speed to navigate its way through unfamiliar territory. In a Christian Science Monitor article on the potential mental hazard of reading eBooks, Tufts child development professor Maryanne Wolf writes, "My concern is that we will develop within the next generation a shorter, less-enriched [brain] circuitry for reading." My point exactly. A Vook force-feeds you. In fact, I would argue that engaging in a Vook is not reading at all.

Now, the catch is that if you treat Vooks not as true books, but as "a new genre that has been dubbed v-books, digi-books, multimedia books and Cydecks," as Hesse writes, I think there can be advantages like attracting book-averse children (or certain filmmakers; Martin Scorsese: "I really enjoy reading the papers, as best as I can, but turning those pages are a problem"), and stitching edification into the thread of a piece of writing. Literature they are not. Books they are not. But inventive products trying to adapt writing to new media? Sure.

Some Vooks aren't masquerading as literature at all, and therefore I think do offer a beneficially multi-layered reading experience. Motoko Rich reviews some for the New York Times:

"In one of the Simon & Schuster vooks, a fitness and diet title, readers can click on videos that show them how to perform the exercises. A beauty book contains videos that demonstrate how to make homemade skin-care potions."

Again, I ask, as I did in that earlier post: Which art form, words or images, is more richly communicative? Is there dilution when we mix the two?

And, again, I answer... there is no answer. But both images and words today, as always, help us to think and connect and create- whatever the form they make take.

Read more:

Friday, January 8, 2010

Cafetaria: Book-related brain snacks

The BookBox™Company

In 1992, thieves broke into a Canadian home and swiped all the jewelry and cash stowed in the underwear drawer. The distraught family, operators of a woodworking business, came to the only logical conclusion: they'd use their adze-wielding skills to hollow out books as secure hiding places.

The BookBox™Company is a family business based in Vancouver. They acquire used books- classic lit to law tomes to cookbooks- from charities, recycling operations and publishers and carve them out to be used as storage devices. Besides the fact that they refer to their raw material, books, as "former waste," their suggestions for what to keep in the BookBoxes are just bizarre. My favorites, besides the cigar above: beanie babies, popcorn, jewels and your cell phone.

I guess one benefit of a project like this is its provision of a handy metaphor for what modern technology is doing to traditional publishing.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

1,000 Words

On September 20, 1943, LIFE magazine published a photograph of dead American soldiers on a Papua New Guinea beach. With it they ran an editorial that asked, “Why print this picture, anyway, of three American boys dead upon an alien shore?” One reason given: “Words are never enough . . . words do not exist to make us see, or know, or feel what it is like, what actually happens.”

Is that true? Do photographs speak more volumes than words? Does the writer exist in a glass box inside which she can feel the power spewing forth from her pen but knows that in reality her thoughts and imaginings and voices can never be actually, authentically transmitted to the reader? What about before the camera, or the video, or the lithograph even existed? Were words enough then?

I think words, in fact, have the capability of communicating more than pictures or photographs or footage. Words give each reader an individual identity, so that the same text holds entirely different meaning for two different people. We read through the lens of ourselves. That is, “reading between the lines” means just that- inferring what one will, breathing individualized meaning into what just one person originally formulated into words. A picture, too, can be interpreted as a viewer wishes- but it stands that there is just one image for all audience members alike, just one icon to behold. Words, conversely, can take on a life of their own and conjure a whole mixed bag of visual thoughts. The way Alexandre Dumas describes Edmond Dantès' breath-taking escape from the Château d'If in The Count of Monte Cristo plays out one way in my mind, but with infinite variety in others' minds. I imagine the savage mutilation of the baby water buffalo in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried unlike any other reader imagines it.

But everyone sees the same, singular LIFE image of American war casualties: the same tropical treeline and the same number of bodies strewn like rag dolls over the same damp packed sand. What we choose to take away from the photograph will be quite divergent, yes- and I am a full believer in the awesome power of photography- but words bypass this initial maintenance of a common denominator and skyrocket the reader into a personal imaginative plain right from the get-go.

Where does the digital media revolution come into play with the expressive capabilities of photos vs. words? I don't have any technical familiarity with digital photography, but I do know that modern-day advances have exponentially increased photographers' abilities to manipulate images. In some cases, techniques like High Dynamic Range imaging produce mind-blowing photographs: John Tierney cites one in his TierneyLab blog. As Tierney himself points out, "Some of the images seem otherworldly, but others strike me as more natural than the alternative made by conventional means." So high-tech photography can both expand and warp the power of the framed image to communicate.

But so, I think, does high-tech writing. 21st century writing sledgehammers the quill-and-ink-stand purity of the written word. Outlets like blogs, discussion forums, tweets, Facebook status updates, online dating profiles, text messages- these, and their infinite cousins, change how we interpret writing. "Reading between the lines", to repeat myself, often becomes a moot point with 140-character thought balloons, or one-line status updates, or users' article comments, or Google Reader notes. But that same phrase "reading between the lines" can also ironically become even more relevant with confusing, variously-interpretable text messages, or with adjustable statements on politicians' websites, or with Podcasts that render audible a piece of writing that may not use the same tone or inflection the author intended.

Progress in applying new media to both photographs and writing has also been manifested in the form of text-accompanied slideshows, like this one of Obama visiting New Orleans this past October. We need the fluidity of flipping through the whole selection, and reading the text, to get a grasp of the material. Then is it the captions or the images that feed our brains? Do we need both? Which artform speaks more volumes?

There hasn't ever been a definitive answer, and with the complicating factors of today's technology, there's little hope for one.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Is Serialization a Serial Killer?

Max Barry is an Australian novelist. He's published three books: Syrup, Jennifer Government, and Company. He has a wife, a daughter, and used to work as a marketer for Hewlett-Packard. He also may be contributing to the destruction of what our culture has come to recognize as the novel.

His latest project is a "real-time serial novel" entitled Machine Man. If you're confused as to what that means exactly, you're in good company. Basically, Barry wrote 185 pages on a one-page-per-day regimen, posting each in turn onto his website. Every day, he'd use reader feedback from the previous post to inform the next page of the story. The goal was to use the Internet to "successfully deliver fiction" in what he calls a "drip-feed" format. The content is free up to page 43, then you can buy your own feed to access the entire story for $6.95. Since the work is complete as of December 1st, you can choose to read it in the paginated way Barry wrote it, or else read it in full.

Incidentally, the story is about a man who loses his leg in an industrial accident and decides to build a new one. I can't help but notice the bearing this plot has on Barry's project's effect on the publishing industry at large. Isn't he trying to forge a replacement for an appendage (the book arm of traditional publishing) lost to technology? He defends his idea:

"I think there are a lot of gimmicky attempts to mash fiction and the web together, regardless of how well they fit. They are promotions for a print novel, essentially, rather than genuine attempts to engage the medium and work to its strengths and weaknesses. I wanted to write something that fit."

I like his forthright effort to cross swords with new media rather than admit defeat. Other ventures, like Dahlia Lithwick's serialized chick-lit novel and the Protagonize site where members "create Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style fiction and build interactive stories", are making similar stabs at digitizing fiction. So maybe, with regard to my opening statement, the destruction of the novel that Barry is contributing to isn't a bad thing, but rather a creative solution. However, as Barry says himself ("I don't think the web is a great medium for novels, because novels are supposed to be immersive: you need to sit down and disappear into them."), adapting the novel to the Internet may be virtually impossible; digital serialization might just be incompatible with the form.

But what about vintage serialization, à la Dickens? Author Nicholas Rombes is publishing his new detective novel Nightmare Trails at Knifepoint via the U.S. Postal Service. The subscription period runs, for $18, from January 2010 to January 2011. The Rumpus blog writes that Rombes is publishing the book "stuffed into small manila envelopes, addressed by hand, with personal messages typed out on old hotel stationary and delivered right to your doorstep." This format harkens back to the days of installments shipped across the Atlantic, tossed in twine-bound parcels at the feet of hungry readers. Maybe, in contrast to Barry's project, regression is the appropriate defense mechanism in lieu of almost assuredly suicidal exploration into dangerous territory.

MediaBistro's GalleyCat blog asks, in a post on writer Helen DeWitt's inability to make any headway on new books given the distraction of the Internet, "Will the Internet Spoil the Next Great American Novel?" There are programs to explicitly block out the incessant stream of IMs, emails, texts, and BBMs, like DarkRoom and Writer, which may be enough for some authors. But workflow interruption aside, the very use of that word- "author"- may become an anachronism in a society inundated with writers upon writers who pay no heed to forms of yore, like the novel.