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 Blurb.com,
"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.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Sign here

When I was in elementary school my family took a vacation to Orlando. At that age, Orlando was synonymous with Disney World. No matter the other attractions- Universal Studios, Parrot Jungle, our gorgeous hotel- Orland (really, Florida) meant the land of Disney. My parents bought me a puffy red rectangular autograph book and a chunky pen. Over the course of the week I filled each white page with a different character's signature: Mickey Mouse, Alice in Wonderland, Aladdin. I still have that book somewhere. And I still have that fascination with autographs.

I've touched before on the disappearance of practiced handwriting. One con I omitted was the depreciation of signatures. I've met celebrities before, but the only physical evidence I have of any of the encounters is a goggle-eyed picture with SNL's Maya Rudolph. In high school I had the Broadway cast of Rent sign my Playbill, and I have plenty of signatures of people I consider superstars (my high school drums teacher and Tina Turner's former drummer; preeminent Penn professors), but none eBay-worthy. Nonetheless I agree with Rhys Tranter on A Piece of Monologue literary blog:

"Writers' signatures hold a particular grip on me, not least for the romantic idea that they bring us closer to the personality of the writers themselves. If we feel close to an author's work, there are times when the printed word can feel like a barrier between us and the original manuscript. A signature offers a stamp of the writer's character and humanity; and in this sense, a signed book can feel like a personal validation of the work."

In our Google culture- it was named the word of the year by the American Dialect Society- authors need not rely on the pen for any writing, let alone their signature. Mobile book authoring, including writing, editing, and publishing on the go, is becoming a commonality more than an innovation. At my office, the publishers have all adopted electronic signatures to authenticate contracts and other financial documents.

Reliance on electronic writing has its obvious downsides: imperfect spell-check, for example, or "spell-Czech" as Wordnik titles its hilarious list of word processor spelling errors. But what about the downside, really the tragedy, of losing the magic of a favorite author's autograph? It may seem hard to fathom that snaking-out-the-door bookstore lines filled with neck-craning fans will ever become an anachronism. But isn't that what we once thought about cellphones, and laptops, and portable MP3 players? I would never have thought, as a fifth grader with tongue poked out, painstakingly forming my cursive letters on blue dotted lines, that by the time I was an official member of the adult workplace the most handwriting I would need would be to jot Post-It reminders for myself and occasionally address an envelope.

I don't want to relinquish the power of authors' signatures to the past. Like Tranter writes, they sparkle with the connection they forge between you and the signer, like no celebrity's Twitter feed can do. This is one area of the old/new publishing divide in which I'm not willing to compromise.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Mastering the art of 21st century cooking

I grew up on a diet largely composed of Velveeta, Hebrew National hot dogs, Ramen noodles, Shake&Bake Chicken, and family-original MacToeBeef (MacaroniTomatoBeef. Figure it out). Somehow I emerged from the nest with a love of cooking and baking, and one of the requirements in my apartment search post-Penn was a nicely furnished kitchen.

Cooking, I think, is an underexplored area with regard to the digital revolution's effect. How I approach my culinary efforts has changed dramatically over the past few years. For one thing, I've stopped buying hard copies of cookbooks. Recipes abound online: my go-to sources are Foodnetwork.com, Allrecipes.com, Cooks.com, and Sparkrecipes.com, supplemented by food blogs like 101 Cookbooks, Chocolate & Zucchini, Bakerella, Cooking Light, and others. Once every few months I'll consult the five cookbooks propped on my kitchen counter, but generally I hunt online or use my AllRecipes, SparkPeople and BettyCrocker iPhone apps to find a recipe, either print it or bookmark it on my phone or as a Google Doc on my computer, and then have a ready-made, portable list of ingredients to take to the grocery store. The browsing function of Internet recipe repositories lets me stumble upon fresh ideas I wouldn't otherwise think to look up in a cookbook's index- just the other night I was searching for a curry chicken recipe to make for a few friends and instead wound up making apricot chicken, a dish that wouldn't have occurred to me. I also like the creative collaboration born of food blogs, in that other home cooks' input can help a given recipe crystallize into a version specific to you (use olive instead of canola oil, add an extra cup of water, cut out the green peppers- ick). The infinite depths of cooking sites, too, promotes their use over the purchase of paper-and-glue cookbooks, which even if generalized à la The Joy of Cooking could never hold such endless content.

With this efficiency, convenience, and cross-pollination comes, however, the loss of the cookbook as a rich artform. Some people, like The Millions blogger Sarah McCoy, read cookbooks as any other book:

"The truth is, I read cookbooks like novels. Cover to cover, page by page, the dedication, the acknowledgments, the indexes: I devour everything. Like the literary works on my bookshelves, I can give you the plot, characters, themes and favorite scenes; however, ask me a recipe and I’d be hard-pressed to name one I’ve personally prepared."

McCoy is not alone in celebrating the aesthetics of food writing. The site RecipeLook.com encourages people to hand-illustrate and post their favorite recipes, rendering beautiful a list of ingredients and directions.

I've never felt the linguistic magic of cookbooks as McCoy has. When my house in college had living room shelves lined with them, when I'd bring one or two home over winter break to make dishes and desserts for my family, or when I'd browse my mom's mini-collection in envy, my appreciation was for the access to cuisine they would give me, not for the writing or even the sometimes stunning photography. So I can't relate to McCoy's cookbook-as-literature passion. But I can relate to the lamentation of the loss of a concrete compilation of recipes, in that my collection now consists of sauce-spattered print-outs, documents on my computer and saved screens on my cellphone. One 21st century option is a service like TasteBook that lets you upload your personalized recipes and photos to craft an individualized physical cookbook. But what happens when you find two more pasta recipes you want to add, or when you discover that an extra teaspoon of cocoa powder in your brownies makes their chocolatiness just right?

Perhaps this need for cohesion will find accommodation in the iPad, as GrubStreet blogger Helen Rosner posits. Hard copy recipe content could migrate on-screen more comfortably "with the possibility of iTunes-style individual recipe downloads and recipe-specific instructional videos".

Just as I'm saddened by the diminishing use of physical books in favor of Kindle downloads, I'm not praising the gradual devaluation of the cookbook publishing field. But I think the benefits of digital recipe adaptation are vast and, as always, my opinion is that mixing and matching tastes and samples from both the old world of publishing and the new is the safest and surest path to take. Kind of like cooking.