Tag Archives: Books

Why libraries matter, cont’d: “Permanent, unlimited, free”

Ursula K. Le Guin. in a must-read post, makes the case for why libraries matter in the digital age:

Libraries are essential because they keep permanent collections — even of unpopular books, even of impermanent, seemingly valueless items — a samizdat from 1940, a newspaper from 1933. Ebooks, including self-published ebooks, would become part of permanent library collections, which could then join the worldwide network of electronic libraries.

The existence or disappearance of a library’s permanent collection isn’t a sexy issue. But it’s absolutely basic to access to information and to the continuity of human knowledge. […]

The goal of the public library has been to give anyone who needs or wants it permanent, unlimited, free access to books. All books.

The goal of the public library in the electronic age is what it always was: to give permanent, unlimited, free access to books — print books, ebooks, all books — to everyone.

She outlines the threat libraries face from stingy corporate publishers:

For a long time most Americans agreed on the importance of the free public library to the well-being of the community and the country. A publisher then would hesitate to be seen deliberately making things hard for libraries. But reactionary ideology has weakened the idea of community; muddy thinking has convinced people that information on the Internet is free; and libraries are being conveniently misrepresented as mere outmoded warehouses for print books. Readers may assume that libraries don’t and won’t buy and circulate ebooks.

In fact, despite the expense of constantly changing technologies, the non-support of voters bleating anti-tax mantras, and the aggressive tactics of corporate publishers, the great public libraries have kept abreast with the electronic age, and they very much want to buy and circulate free ebooks.

Since corporations don’t consider human rights or needs, only corporate profits, they feel free to use tactics that infringe, ignore, or flout the rights of readers. They are in fact practicing commercial censorship. They are keeping books from us.

If the part libraries play in distributing ebooks gets “frictioned” into insignificance, it will be easier for the corporations to take further control of what ebooks you personally can obtain, how long a book will stay on your reader before you have to pay for it again, and whatever else they want to control. If they see profit in doing any of this, they’ll do it. If small publishers try to sell the books they don’t sell, the big corporations will eliminate the small publishers.

And cross-file this under “Books are made of win”:

If ebooks largely replace printed books, and the public libraries are decimated or eliminated as a permanent resource open to everybody, we may be able to access books only through the corporations. It will not be easy to get a book the corporations have decided is unprofitable, outdated, unnecessary, or unpleasing; it may be very difficult to find out whether a text has been cut or tampered with; there may be no way to know that a book ever existed.

Much more here, and as always, worth reading.

(Video via Ebooks for Libraries)

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Ursula K. Le Guin: Beyond “literature” versus “genre”

Ursula K. Le Guin demolishes anti-genre snobbery:

Some things have to happen before there can be more intelligent discussion of what literature is. And some of them are in fact happening, at last. […] English departments have largely given up trying to defend their ivied or ivory towers by shooting down every space ship that approaches. Critics are ever more clearly aware that a lot of literature is happening outside the sacred groves of modernist realism. But still the opposition of literature and genre is maintained; and as long as it is, false categorical value judgment will cling to it, with the false dichotomy of virtuous pleasure and guilty pleasure.

To get out of this boring bind, I propose an hypothesis:

Literature is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.

The value judgment concealed in distinguishing one novel as literature and another as genre vanishes with the distinction.

Every readable novel can give true pleasure. Every novel read by choice is read because it gives true pleasure.

Literature consists of many genres, including mystery, science fiction, fantasy, naturalism, realism, magical realism, graphic, erotic, experimental, psychological, social, political, historical, bildungsroman, romance, western, army life, young adult, thriller, etc., etc…. and the proliferating cross-species and subgenres such as erotic Regency, noir police procedural, or historical thriller with zombies.

Some of these categories are descriptive, some are maintained largely as marketing devices. Some are old, some new, some ephemeral.

Genres exist, forms and types and kinds of fiction exist and need to be understood: but no genre is inherently, categorically superior or inferior.

This makes the Puritan snobbery of “higher” and “lower” pleasures irrelevant, and very hard to defend.

Of course every reader will prefer certain genres and be bored or repelled by others. But anybody who claims that one genre is categorically superior to all others must be ready and able to defend their prejudice. And that involves knowing what the “inferior” genres actually consist of, their nature and their forms of excellence. It involves reading them.

Yes, yes, yes.

Much more here, and as always with Le Guin, worth reading.

(Image via Shallowreader’s Blog)

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Ray Bradbury goes home

A video from an earlier post, reposted here in memory of the magnificent Ray Bradbury:

Love what you do and do what you love. Don’t listen to anyone else who tells you not to do it. You do what you want, what you love. Imagination should be the center of your life.


(I find it a little ironic to be writing this in a medium that Bradbury hated: he considered the Internet “a big distraction,” “meaningless,” and “not real. It’s in the air somewhere.” A surprisingly narrow-minded view of an entire medium of informational exchange, with enormous potential as well as pitfalls. Judging from all the online encomiums, however, it seems the Internet has no hard feelings.)

More quotes from Bradbury over at Brain Pickings, here and here. After losing this tremendously wise storyteller so soon after Maurice Sendak, all I can think is this: Ursula K. Le Guin, please stick around for a good while longer. We continue to need your voice, and the wings you lend your readers.

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Books are made of win, cont’d: “A momentary stay against confusion”

Clay Shirky says:

[A] book is a “momentary stay against confusion.” This is something quoted approvingly by Nick Carr, the great scholar of digital confusion. The reading experience is so much more valuable now than it was ten years ago because it’s rarer. I remember, as a child, being bored. I grew up in a particularly boring place and so I was bored pretty frequently. But when the Internet came along it was like, “That’s it for being bored! Thank God! You’re awake at four in the morning? So are thousands of other people!”

It was only later that I realized the value of being bored was actually pretty high. Being bored is a kind of diagnostic for the gap between what you might be interested in and your current environment. But now it is an act of significant discipline to say, “I’m going to stare out the window. I’m going to schedule some time to stare out the window.” The endless gratification offered up by our devices means that the experience of reading in particular now becomes something we have to choose to do.

The social piece of reading is a kind of penumbra. It’s something that forms around the text and after the fact. The feature of “highlight this passage and immediately see how many other people have highlighted it”? I mean, ZOMG, no. I want my own thoughts rendered as the most recent entry in the constant, long-running popularity contest that is the Internet – in real-time. Pick it up and do anything you like with it. Tell me later who else liked it. Show them to me, introduce them to me, whatever — not right now. Right now I’m reading.

Shirky writes more here — part of a fascinating series on the future of reading (for good or ill).

Nick Carr adds:

We don’t like being bored because boredom is the absence of engaging stimulus, but boredom is valuable because it requires us to fill that absence out of our own resources, which is process of discovery, of doors opening. The pain of boredom is a spur to action, but because it’s pain we’re happy to avoid it. Gadgetry means never having to feel that pain, or that spur. The web expands to fill all boredom. That’s dangerous for everyone, but particularly so for kids, who, without boredom’s spur, may never discover what in themselves or in their surroundings is most deeply engaging to them.

I’m sure neither author means to suggest that reading physical books is boring. But it does require a qualitatively different kind of attention than the restless browsing that typically happens on the Net, or the multitasking that our new devices make all too easy.

(h/t The Dish; image via CEN)
4/15 Update: I see The Dish has now put up a nearly identical post — ironic, considering a previous Dish link to Shirky’s piece (but emphasizing a different topic) inspired mine. Let the record show that I got to this one first. 🙂

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Books are made of win, cont’d: Chip Kidd gets skanky

…and gives a hilarious and enlightening talk on the creation of some of his iconic book covers:

My job was to ask this question: “What do the stories look like?” […] We bring stories to the public. The stories can be anything, and some of them are actually true. But they all have one thing in common: They all need to look like something. They all need a face. Why? To give you a first impression of what you are about to get into. […]

The book designer’s responsibility is threefold: to the reader, to the publisher and, most of all, to the author. I want you to look at the author’s book and say, “Wow! I need to read that.”

And just as I’m watching this and thinking “That’s another thing that’s lost in an e-book,” Kidd agrees: “Try experiencing that on a Kindle!”

Don’t get me started. Seriously. Much is to be gained by eBooks: ease, convenience, portability. But something is definitely lost: tradition, a sensual experience, the comfort of thingy-ness — a little bit of humanity.

Watch the video, though. It’s a lot funnier than the serious quotes I’ve pulled out.

More reasons why books are made of win here.

(via TED)

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Books are made of win, cont’d: Information needs hard copies

Jonathan Franzen makes the case for books over e-books:

My problem with e-book readers is that one minute I’m reading some trashy website, the next minute I’m reading Jane Austen — on the same screen. I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change. Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball. I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That things can be ‘whatever’, depending on the moment. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.


“The technology I like is the American paperback edition of [my novel] Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it’s pretty good technology. And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now. So no wonder the capitalists hate it. It’s a bad business model,” said Franzen, who famously cuts off all connection to the internet when he is writing. […]

“Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing — that’s reassuring.

“Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.”

Andrew Sullivan disagrees:

Of course, an eBook is likely to have a longer virtual shelf-life than a physical book that will eventually decay or fall apart. Hanging out in some iCloud somewhere, the eBook will be eternal. And also more accessible to readers. There will be no more “out of print”. You won’t have to look for hours in a second hand bookstore to find that obscure tome you really wanted to read (not that that isn’t one of life’s great pleasures – but it’s not Borders, is it?) The very old can be brand new again.

I have to side with Franzen here. Just because information exists in digital form doesn’t mean it’s permanent — in fact, quite the opposite, as many of Sullivan’s own readers point out. One brings up Orwell’s 1984 and Winston Smith’s job revising history to suit the politics of the day; if people relied exclusively on easily-altered digital information that resides somewhere in the virtual Cloud, Winston’s work would have been that much easier. Another makes the crucial point that, with e-books, you don’t actually own what you buy:

Many eBook formats, and e-reader platforms, are designed to permit publishers and vendors to exercise post-transaction control over content. Buy a Kindle and purchase ebooks from Amazon, and guess what? At a later date, Amazon (or the publisher of the material) might withdraw the book — and poof, it disappears from your device. Many of these devices also permit publishers to automatically update previously-sold works. And quite a few of these devices are designed to prevent you, the reader, from ever having effective possession of the underlying file. You can read it on the device, or even on many devices via cloud storage, but you are prevented from getting your hands on a copy of the file that you may archive and secure from subsequent revision or retraction. (And this goes beyond book publishing; Apple, for instance, is well-known for both refusing to publish apps for the iPhone/iPad/iPod ecosystem that offend its editorial sensibilities or are contrary to its own business goals, and revoking previously-published apps, effectively deleting them from customers’ devices).

Ursula K. Le Guin makes a similar argument:

As an author sharing responsibility for the state of my art, I fear control of availability (and of course content) by the corporations. Amazon’s offering only Amazon-owned books for their Kindle reader was an example. Books are not commodities, and readers are not consumers, but the corporations, cultureless, with no ethical guidelines, nothing but their own profit growth in view, will treat them as such so long as they are allowed to. A public kept in ignorance isn’t likely to even notice.

This, a thousand times this. And this ties into my argument — here and here — about the dangers of conducting the activities of the public square on privately-owned platforms. True, the contents of a book may be determined by the author and the publisher, and the dissemination of that content may be controlled by bookstores. But once you buy a book, it’s yours, to lend and copy and share as you please; and the information it contains will never change. Not so with an e-book, where information can be revised and removed for whatever reason, even after purchase.

This is dangerous. It’s true that digital media has made information much more easily accessible; but in some ways, and contrary to appearances, it has also left the user in less control of that information than ever before. Twitter has just shown that it can self-censor as the cost of doing business in multiple countries; moreover, it is perfectly within its rights to do so, and it’s under no constitutional obligation whatsoever to protect free speech, if it chooses not to. And what’s true for Twitter is ultimately true for all the electronic platforms on which we exchange and store information: FaceBook, YouTube, the Cloud, GoogleDocs.

And WordPress. They’re currently very nice people, with fair terms of service; but theoretically, there’s nothing preventing them from revising those terms to block posts or shut down sites that displease the powers that be. I’ve put a lot of time and effort into this blog, but I’m painfully aware that — if I didn’t have copies of all my posts saved on my hard drive — the words you’re reading now are ephemeral, and can easily be made to go away. By WordPress, or for that matter, by me — if I decide to edit or delete any posts, or shut down this blog entirely. You don’t own, and can’t keep, these words. There’s no guarantee that this post will stay exactly the same (or even exist at all) when you return to it tomorrow, or next month, or a decade from now. You’re reading these words at my whim, and at the whim of the company that lets me post them. Andrew Sullivan thinks this is permanent? Not a chance.

And I haven’t even really mentioned all the scenarios in which accidental loss of information can occur. If all your data resides online — or is otherwise in digital form — what happens when you spill water on your Kindle, or your Internet connection is shot, or the Cloud servers go down?

For ease of access, e-media is an undeniable boon (and one that’s obviously here to stay). But for permanence, for the preservation of history and of truth, and in order to ensure that control over data does not reside exclusively with corporations, information needs hard copies. That’s something we should never give up. And that’s why we should fight for books to survive.

Read the rest of Ursula K. Le Guin’s argument against e-books here. And more authors who feel the same way here.

(Image via VentureBeat)
1/31/13 Update: Did I mention that there’s no guarantee this post will stay exactly the same? Well, guess what — it’s not. I revisited it a few minutes ago only to discover that a video I’d linked to, showing Andrew Sullivan’s side of the argument, had inexplicably become — of all things — a compilation of scenes from zombie movies. I didn’t own that video content, and for whatever reason, it changed; I therefore removed the link, thus changing (and diminishing) the content of this post as well. So much for electronic content enduring for all eternity.

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Miscellany: Blume, Hitchens, Lamarr, Tyson; The West Wing as science fiction; groupthink and solitude; what e-books can’t do; and the end of SOPA (for now)

Time for another grab-bag of links that caught my eye:

1) An NPR interview with the incomparable Judy Blume, who talks about censorship, how to inspire kids to read (and how not to), the folly of labeling authors and books according to “audience age,” and how perseverance determines a writer’s success more than talent. (Note to self: time to get to work. Again.)

2) An interview with Richard Rhodes on the scientific career of actress Hedy Lamarr, “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Fascinating stuff, and one I’ve touched on before, in a post on stereotypes and women scientists.

3) A compilation of articles written for The Nation by the late, great Christopher Hitchens, spanning 28 years (1978-2006).

4) Over the past few months my wife and I have avidly watched all seven seasons of The West Wing. Graham Sleight explains why the show is, at its heart, science fiction in spirit and impulse: “I want to argue […] that it’s SF in a more profound sense […] It makes an argument, as SF does, about possibility, about what can be done, and it does so by presenting us with a world already showing a change from our own.” Highly worth reading if you’re a West Wing fan.

5) A provocative New York Times essay by Susan Cain on “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” about the folly of insisting on constant collaboration and “teamwork” at the expense of creative solitude. This is happening in schools as well, as Cain points out, a fact that I personally find a bit worrying. Learning to work with others is great, but are we failing to appreciate the virtues of aloneness, of introspection?

6) Why books are made of win: the Abe Books blog, via Matador, offers a list of things you can’t do with an e-book. Including leaving it on a beach towel, throwing it across the room, and using it to press flowers and fallen leaves.

7) Carl Zimmer’s excellent profile of Neil deGrasse Tyson.

8) And finally — victory! Talking Points Memo analyzes how Netizens killed SOPA and PIPA. No doubt the advocates of censorship will try again; but those who stand for freedom of speech will be ready and waiting.

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