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?"