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