Tag Archives: books

I Need the Stupid Things

Just read this essay from Luc Sante in The Wall Street Journal about his book collection. If you read my blog, you’ll understand why it resonated with me. Here’s a taste:

Many books are screwy, a great many are dull, some are irredeemable, and there are way too many of them, probably, in the world. I hate all the fetishistic twaddle about books promoted by the chain stores and the book clubs, which make books seem as cozy and unthreatening as teacups, instead of the often disputatious and sometimes frightening things they are. I recognize that we now have many ways to convey, store, and reproduce the sorts of matter that formerly were monopolized by books. I like to think that I’m no bookworm, egghead, four-eyed paleface library rat. I often engage in activities that have no reference to the printed words. I realize that books are not the entire world, even if they sometimes seem to contain it. But I need the stupid things.

I keep telling my husband I’m not buying any more books. Well, except for a few from Island Bookstore, a great independent bookstore at the Outer Banks (it is a moral imperative to support indie booksellers) and then some from the Book Exchange, which I didn’t really buy since I have credit there.

Thinking More About Books and Reading

I think I may be one of the book-loving technophiles that John Hendron wrote about in this post. In fact, I spent most of yesterday morning culling and organizing my books. There are two boxes of hard backs to go to the library and two boxes of paperbacks to go to my exchange store. I’ve been thinking about some of the issues that John brings up as I’ve begun integrating my Kindle into my reading habits.

I love reading books on my Kindle because I can easily navigate and annotate. In addition, it slides right into whatever bag I am carrying and holds not just books but my subscriptions to The Washington Post and The Atlantic. For me, rather than books, the paper-based publications that could go away without my missing them would be the newspaper and most print-based magazines. I never got into the habit of reading the print paper and I have reduced my magazine subscriptions to just a few because I hate all that paper laying around demanding that I either store or recycle. In addition, other than ripping out articles, the print-based publications are nearly impossible to archive productively. Why tear out all those recipes from Southern Living when I can just log into the site and locate a recipe when I’m ready for it?

I wonder, though, if John’s colleague who was concerned about the loss of books was really referring to reading? Are we confusing the technology (the book) with the practice (reading)? I love books–the way they look on the shelf, the way they beckon me into new worlds, the way they encourage me to dialog with the author’s argument. But if a suitable alternative came along–and the Kindle is close–I believe I could make the move from print to digital without too much of a sense of loss.

My love affair with books is really a love affair with reading. And, I think I mean more than news articles or blog entries here, both of which I read exclusively in digital format. When I use the word “book,” it refers to something more substantial: a lengthy, researched treatise that goes beyond a more cursory look at something. It’s the difference between reading Tom Friedman’s columns and his books. The latter arose from the former but in the book, Friedman has time to tease out arguments. In terms of fiction, I can use the example of the book I just finished, Falls the Shadow, by Sharon Kay Penman. It is essentially a biography of Simon de Montfort, a 13th century noble who fought against Henry III to establish greater civil rights for the English. Certainly, I can learn about de Montfort at Wikipedia and follow the links to expand my general knowledge of that time period. But, when I sink into Penman’s prose, I am moving beyond just learning the fact of English history to get a sense of the people behind the history. Yes, I am aware that Penman has turned historical figures into fictional characters, but she has stuck within the essential historical elements and her books help those of us mired in the 21st century see our connections to them.

Does it matter if I read Penman in a book format, or on my Kindle, or on my laptop? No. It is a matter of determining the affordances and constraints of the technology. For me, trying to read anything of multi-page length is difficult on the computer screen. It is not a suitable substitute for the book. The book and the Kindle, on the other hand, are pretty close: portable and easy to stow. The book doesn’t require electricity so it may trump the Kindle if I’m heading someplace where I can’t easily charge the Kindle battery.  And, as I mentioned earlier, the Kindle has some great affordances that certainly trump the book.

While I cleaned off my bookshelves, I took advantage of another technological approach to books. I listened to an audio book on my iPod. I won’t even start writing about how I could almost jettison the radio and television. I think the important point here is that rather than lament the loss of older technologies, we celebrate the widening choices available to use when we do find the time to read.

Including Punctuation?

Just got a notice from Amazon that because I purchased other books in the technology and society category, I might be interested in Mark Bauerlein’s new book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. Here’s the product description: “This shocking, lively exposure of the intellectual vacuity of todays under thirty set reveals the disturbing and, ultimately, incontrovertible truth: cyberculture is turning us into a nation of know-nothings.”

So, the old English teacher that lives inside me cringed. Is it possible that you could use big words like “vacuity” and “incontrovertible” and still miss the apostrophe in “todays”? I reminded her (the old English teacher) that not everyone was so uptight about grammar and punctuation and maybe, through the disuse of the apostrophe, we were just watching a natural evolution of the language, like standardized spelling in earlier centuries. She suggested that it was simply another example of the intellectual vacuity that this book describes. It goes right along with Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, a book which explores a similar theme of the anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism rampant in our culture.

It’s too nice outside to ponder this much more but it’s a question that haunts me sometimes and leads to these psychophrenic conversations with my inner English teacher. Is that missing apostrophe simply a sign of a sloppy copy editor? Or, is it a more ominous trend towards utter disregard for the rules that have governed our language, a disregard that I think Bauerlein and Jacoby believe is widespread. That apostrophe is just the tip of the “smart is bad” iceberg, the kind of thing that leads to those “my kid can beat up your honor student” bumper stickers.