Monday, November 18, 2013

Audio Books

Due to the happy arrival of 2 grandbabies, I find myself on the road a lot: 1 hour (with luck) to visit baby Hannah, now 20 months old; and 7 hours (including pit stops) to visit baby Leo, now 18 months old.  Unless there’s terrible traffic, with the radio for company and the beautiful scenery outside my window, the 1 hour trip goes by in a flash; but the 7 hour trip can seem interminable:  the radio comes and goes, about half of the drive is exceedingly ugly, and there’s always traffic. 

I’d been urged to listen to Books on Tape for a very long time – back when they really were on tape! – and I tried it once.  On a 6 hour drive from Washington DC to New York City, I listened to I CLAUDIUS.   

And I hated it.

I took this trip often and I would gage my progress more by the time that passed than by the landscape:  three hours; half way there!

But while I CLAUDIUS, may have taken 6 hours of listening, it felt as though centuries had passed, with emperors coming and going, with innumerable battles won and lost, and with an astonishing number of poisonings and murder. As I’ve never been one to stop something I’ve started – I never walk out of the theater during a bad play, concert, film; never leave a book unfinished – I continued to pass the centuries with Claudius.

And vowed never to listen to a book on tape again.

But:  7 hours?  And annoying traffic despite being on a 12-lane highway?  And huge stretches of ugly shopping centers, one right after another?

With the advent of where you can easily download an entire book onto your mobile phone and never have to change a tape or CD, I decided to try again.

And I love it!

For one, I don’t feel as though I’m wasting my time during these 7 hours. And as I’ve learned to choose my books more wisely – to only listen to stories that stick to one lifetime; and to choose my Reader carefully – I find that listening to books makes the time go by quickly.  I confess that some [very few] times, I’ve even stayed in my car after I’d reached my destination, just so that I might pause the book at a more opportune moment.  (Don’t tell Leo!) 

The act of listening to a book instead of reading one is a completely different experience.  In a very real way, an audio book is a continuation of an oral tradition that is the beginning of all literature.  And for most of us, having stories read to us is one of the first ways in which we become familiar with language; it can bring you back to that happy time when books were read aloud, especially for you.  It’s also a way to preserve the sound of language as spoken today.  Wouldn’t it be grand if we could know how words sounded in Shakespeare’s day instead of making a guess at it?

Of course, when you listen to a book, its Reader makes choices for you that you might not yourself have made – for better or worse.  You also can’t catch all the nuances of language and style, as you can’t slow down the pace or re-read passages you particularly like or that need clarification.  I tried a few times to “bookmark” a particular page I liked, or to replay a passage or two that I found unclear, but that didn’t seem to help.  Besides, if the “medium is the message” then each one requires a different approach, and with audio books, it seems best to just let the words wash over you, to get into the mood and not into the details.

And this is why you must choose your book and Reader carefully.

A book I love but hadn’t read in a long time is William Faulkner’s LIGHT IN AUGUST, so I decided to listen to it.  This proved a poor choice, as the book includes lots of southern and other dialects and has a plot that goes forward and backward in time, both of which require a lot of concentration. So although the book had an excellent Reader, I found it difficult to grasp or appreciate enough of the novel while also paying attention to my driving.

Summerset Maugham’s OF HUMAN BONDAGE failed because the Reader (male), tried to approximate the voices of the women – which is not at all necessary! -- by giving them squeaking voices and mincing manners.  I hated the story, the characters, the entire experience:  and it was the Reader’s fault.  I will avoid him in future.

But I thoroughly enjoyed the historical novels of Hilary Mantel – WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES – as it brought to life Tudor England as told through the eyes of one of its major players, Thomas Cromwell.  They are quite detailed novels, but I already “knew” most of the major characters so that made it easy to follow.  I’m looking forward to the next volume in this series.

Of late, I’ve also listened to “celebrity” Readers – Colin Firth reading Graham Greene’s THE  END  OF  THE  AFFAIR (swoon!); and Jeremy Irons reading Vladimir Nabokov’s LOLITA.

Irons’ reading of LOLITA is a revelation; it is laugh-out-loud funny; it is poignant; it is tragic; it is beautiful.  His Humbert is clueless at the same time that he is defensive; he is pleased with himself at the same time that he is angry and embarrassed.  Beautiful language is used to tell a tragic and comic tale, and Irons manages this to perfection.  There are lots of descriptive “lists” in this book – of landscapes, of types of people, of the American systems of education, of law, of love, of passion – and they are as acutely read as they were written. Perhaps they’re even better, as in Irons' reading of them, they don’t feel like mere lists but are melodious and funny….  Listening to Irons makes the novel resonate and reminds us of its brilliance.

But one of the main problems with audio books -- no matter how wonderful! -- and why reading a book is usually better than listening to it, is that in the audio book, the Reader can replace the character as written.  Irons completely replaces Humbert.  Forever.  Despite Nabokov's physical and mental description of Humbert, I will no longer be able to imagine him for myself.  (I can’t even picture James Mason as Humbert any more!For me, Maurice Bendrix is Colin Firth; Humbert Humbert is Jeremy Irons – and not the other way around -- frozen that way forever:  goodbye imagination.

I’ll never listen to a “celebrity” Reader again; I’ll never listen to anyone I can “picture.” **

And no matter the Reader, as most of the books we listen to were written to be read, that's probably the best approach to the material, the best approach to this particular medium.  When you're doing the reading, the writer's words won’t just wash over you, but you’re free to slow down, to stop, to re-read, and to savor each and every one of them.  And when you're doing the reading, you collaborate with the writer in creating the characters, the settings, the emotions, the emphasis.  This is, of course, what the Readers of these audio books have done; but when you read rather than listen, you get to do it yourself: the story, the characters, the setting – the book is yours!

Still, I won’t stop listening.  (After all, 7 hours!)  But I only listen in the car, never at home:  home is reading space.

But when in the middle of a good listen, I can choose to go to the grocery store that’s 6 miles away rather than the one that’s just across the street.

What’s wrong with that? 
- - - - -
** Note:  My son-in-law, Robert Shapiro, is a [wonderful] reader for Random House and others.  You can download his books; and as you don’t know what he looks like, you can use your imagination to picture anyone you want when you listen!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The End of a Chapter

When I read a book I always take note of how many pages there are in the chapter I’m beginning and bookmark its last page.  I don’t know exactly why I do that; but as I rarely put a book down in the middle of a chapter, perhaps it’s that I like to know what I’m in for!  

A 3-page chapter? 5 pages? 40?  I can read several chapters like that at a sitting.   
140 pages? I think I’ll wait until morning….

As I read, I sometimes look ahead to see how many pages are left in the chapter and feel a sense of accomplishment when I reach it, as if it were a job well done.   Then I can close my book with satisfaction and move on to my next activity.

Of course, the best chapters don’t always cooperate.  They're the ones that raise questions that make one especially eager to start the next chapter.  In such cases I know that I won’t be able to sleep – or do anything else! – so I stay up and read the following chapter, however long it is, until I’ve finished it.  And so on and on….  As you can imagine, this results in many, many late nights for me!

In my recent post on The Willing Suspension of Disbelief, I wrote that I’d had an accident that resulted in a break to my left wrist.  After surgery and months of physical therapy I felt better;  I was back in the Berkshires and ready to reopen my book store for the summer season.

But that was not to be….

I had another accident that was far more serious than merely breaking my wrist (although I did that, too!).

So:  another surgery and more physical therapy…and my store remained closed.

During that time it occurred to me that perhaps this accident signaled “the end of a chapter” for me – I guess I'd missed that first signal back in June! – and I’ve decided to close my store.

This coming spring and summer I'm going to have a big sale of all the things in my store – books, artwork, library antiques, art, furniture.  Everything!  Watch for it.

The years at Farshaw’s have been happy ones for me, so it’s not without some sadness that I leave it now.  But the end of a chapter also signals the beginning of the next, and I'm looking forward to that. I don’t know exactly what my next chapter will be, but I have lots of ideas and am very excited about the new adventures -- the new chapters! -- that are ahead.  Stay tuned.

And until next time, I wish all of you very happy [bedtime] reading, however you choose to do it! 

Friday, August 31, 2012

"Reports of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated."

No:  not Mark Twain this time, but the Printed Book.

I’ve often written about how the media keeps reporting the death of the printed book; about how printed books are used as a medium for sculpture;  

about how many use them for purely “decorative” purposes; about how the printed book is not as “pure” an experience as is reading an eBook.  We book lovers – and booksellers! – can be moved to feelings of despair.
But despair not.

Negative reports about booksellers and books are a part of the printed book’s history from its birth.  Gutenberg’s introduction of movable type allowed large print runs rather than the calligraphed scrolls that required the laborious and skilled labor of scribes; but with the publication of the GUTENBERG BIBLE, the question of whether books should be made for ‘all’ to read was cause for worry – and even anger – by the church, as it wanted to be the only interpreter of the holy book. 

Gutenberg Bible at the Ransom Center, University of Texas
In a more recent diatribe, no less a philosopher than John Locke wrote this of books and booksellers in 1704:

by Edward Gorey for his agent, John Locke, the lineal descendant of philosopher Locke

So today’s preponderance of wishes for and reports of the “death of the printed book” is, perhaps, merely the most recent in a long history of debates on this topic.

And along with examples of [what I consider] the misuse and denigration of the printed book, I’ve had enthusiastic response to posts about the uniqueness of books as objects; of how people love rooms filled with books, love public and personal libraries of all kinds; how a room full of books can be descriptive of its owner’s character.  (Perhaps that’s why rooms meant to convey intelligence – as in the political interview show mentioned in an earlier post – often have as background a wall of overstuffed bookshelves.

People post videos and pictures of libraries on Facebook and elsewhere. 

Library in Paris

Exeter Library

One of my favorites.

They create imaginative bookshelves and "Little Libraries."

Little Free Library

Little Free Memorial Library

They go to book readings and have books signed by their authors.

Last week I went to a well-attended book reading of author Matthew Dicks’ new novel, MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND.  It’s a book about…well, it’s a book about a boy and his imaginary friend!  But it’s also a love story; a story of friendship, devotion and self-sacrifice; a story that celebrates and cherishes those who are “different” from most, and helps the reader to understand and cherish them too.

This is the author’s third book, and with each book, the audience for his readings grows.  Why?

Matt is a good and entertaining reader; is that why they drive long distances to see him?  Readers enjoyed his first two novels; is that why they come?

Of course, the answer is “yes” to both those questions.  But I believe that they also come to make a connection with the author and with other like-minded readers; they want to make a connection through a book.

And I mean a printed book.

After all, had they come just to hear him speak, they could have downloaded the book and had the eBook in a minute:  no need to stand in line to pay for it. 

But it was the printed book – a “real” book! – that made “real” communication between author and reader and other readers possible.

“To whom should I inscribe this,” asked the author?  

And there’s the opening:  who? why?  Discussions about this novel and his previous ones begin; what those novels meant to the reader; Matt even recommends books by other authors that he admires. 

And there on the half-title is the reader’s “collaboration” with the author on the words the author has inscribed there.  Real.  Tangible.

What’s his penmanship like?  Did he use marker or ballpoint? (Try to get ballpoint; have one with you just in case!)  You can feel the paper – a bit rough in this book – and the indentations made by the pen:  deep? shallow?  You can remember how you felt and how the author looked during this collaboration between you.  And you can bring the book home with you and revisit this page again and again.  It is not just words; it’s personal:  it’s your book and nobody else’s!

Read it; hold it, touch it, smell it.  Use your senses to enjoy the complete experience of reading.

Take the sense of smell, for example.  All books have a scent, as do the rooms that house them.  MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND smells a bit woody, which works well with the slight roughness of the paper and, coincidentally, can be imagined to reflect the plot and mood of the book:  lost (as if in a forest) and then found.  A stretch, I know, but such a stretch is possible for the reader to imagine with a printed book and is simply not possible with an eBook, not possible when presented with the words alone.

Old books have a particular scent of their own which, of course, has nothing to do with the their subject; the paper in books have a particular property that makes books smell so good, especially as they age:

old book smell
Did you know?

"Lignin, the stuff that prevents all trees from adopting
the weeping habit, is a polymer made up of units that are 
closely related to vanillin.  When made into paper and 
stored for years, it breaks down and smells good.  Which is
how divine providence has arranged for secondhand 
bookstores to smell like good quality vanilla absolute, 
subliminally stoking a hunger for knowledge in all of us."

- Perfumes:  The Guide

Go to a bookstore and take a whiff:  and then take a whiff home with you.

The printed book is not dead; and for me it remains a truism that, as Bell's Books' logo has it,

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Willing Suspension of Disbelief: But can you possibly believe this?

It's a given that when we watch theater or film, we must bring with us "the willing suspension of disbelief;" that is, we agree to believe that what we're seeing and hearing is "true."

It doesn't matter that the stage is often empty or that the sets are only a suggestive representation of a real place; it doesn't matter that those "cats" singing and writhing in front of us are actually dancers; or that a young man bitten by a radioactive spider develops web-making powers and the ability to "leap tall buildings in a single bound" and so becomes that altruistic defender of "good" known as Spiderman (with apologies to Superman).

But once viewers suspend their disbelief and accept the work's premise, behavior that is illogical for the world we agreed to accept is rarely tolerated by viewers and can lead to eye-rolling and even laughter.  Imagine if that "cat" on the stage were suddenly and without reason to begin flying and chirping like a bird! 

There are, of course, less abrupt ways in which the viewer's trust can be broken.

Because it begins with one absurdity after another, the new film, SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD, prepares the audience for a comedy.  

First, we watch people listen to an upbeat radio announcer say that "The final mission to save mankind has failed," and that an asteroid will hit and destroy the world in three weeks; the announcer continues (in a radio voice that we can all recognize) by saying that, "We'll be bringing you the countdown to the end of days along with all your classic rock favorites." This is funny!

Also funny are employers extending 'casual Fridays' to the entire week; people arranging blind dates; policemen giving speeding tickets; homeowners mowing lawns and having garage sales; and looters stealing TV's and such -- all in the context of three weeks left to live!

This is funny stuff!  Viewers agree to believe this premise and as expected, they laugh.

Then suddenly, the movie shifts -- almost completely! -- into sadness, tragedy, and the desperate need of people to connect and to find a meaning for their lives.  There are suicides; there is romance and new love; there are heartbreaking efforts to find closure for past hurts; there is longing to reunite with family and to reconcile with God....

Viewers are not prepared for this; they become silent; some even leave the theater:  we are no longer willing partners to the drama of this film.

Another common way in which the audiences trust can be broken is through a preponderance of unbelievable coincidences, some of which appear "just in time." This can definitely bring on the eye rolls, as we think, "Do you really expect me to believe that?" 

But perhaps were too harsh in thinking so, as there's that other commonly held belief that "truth is stranger than fiction." And often enough, it is:  it just happened to me.

I went to my son Adam's graduation ceremonies at Stanford on June 16th. 

After the ceremonies and celebrations, I fell and broke my wrist. Badly.  I was rushed to the ER where, of course, we spent many, many hours -- some of them with me in traction in a Chinese Finger Trap like the ones I played with as a child! 

Low tech for a change!

 Of course, I felt awful about spoiling his occasion, but Adam was nice enough to say that he'd been worried about how to entertain us for the rest of the day and that I'd solved that problem for him!

Me in my Stanford souvenir hospital gown.
Would you believe that my timing would be so good that my injury did not interfere with Adams graduation ceremonies?

My healing did not go well, and when I got back to Arizona, my friend Jo insisted on taking me to the ER.  I've had reason to go to the ER before (not for me) and always went to the Mayo Clinic -- might I have a thing for "brand" names? -- so I assumed that we'd be going there; but my friend preferred a new hospital in north Scottsdale, and as she was the driver, I agreed.

My splint was too tight and had to be redone.  Steve, my PA,  asked where I was from and did a double-take when I said the Berkshires.  "What's wrong?" Jo asked, whereupon he told us that he'd accepted a position at the Berkshire Medical Center and would be starting there at the end of July!

Would you believe that I would go to a hospital that I'd never have thought to go to, and there meet someone who will be a Berkshire neighbor?  Would you believe that Steve would happen to be on duty on that particular day; and that with the very many people working in the ER, he would be my doctor?

Steve said that he was looking for somewhere to live while he went house-hunting, and Jo said, Helen knows everybody in the Berkshires including all of the realtors." (This is not quite true, but close enough.) She also told him that I had a space adjacent to the bookstore that I was thinking of renting as a sort-of seasonal B&B -- make that a seasonal B:  get your own muffins! -- and that it would be the perfect place for him.  Steve agreed that it seemed a good solution.  Soon, people kept coming into my room -- the doctor, the receptionist, the admitting nurse, the splint-maker, and so on -- just to tell me how wonderful Steve is and how much I'd like having him as a tenant.

Would you believe that I first told Jo my thoughts about renting the space during our drive to the hospital?  Would you believe that I would have Jo -- my ultimate booster! -- with me when Steve came into the room?  Would you believe that I had a potential renter almost as soon as I had the thought of renting?  And would you believe that I, still a bit uncertain about renting space furnished with so many beautiful things that I love, would "bump into" a potential renter who came with such a bevy of enthusiastic recommendations?


I had wrist surgery yesterday and I won't be able to return to the Berkshires until the middle of the month; so, I'm hoping for one more happy coincidence:  that my customers and friends just happened to be 'away' or 'busy' during the beginning of July, and that they'll be ready and waiting to come to my bookstore upon my return.

And why can't that be true?  After all, "truth is stranger than fiction...!"

Thursday, May 24, 2012

FOOTNOTE: What Would You Do?


FOOTNOTE, the Israeli film which won the award for best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards, is a film which explores the complex and emotionally charged dynamics of families of every kind:  from three generations of a nuclear family to the “families” we create in our work place. 

Anyone who’s ever worked in a university anywhere in the world will recognize the claustrophobic and competitive environment of academic life, where departmental congeniality thinly masks the cut-throat rivalry, jealousy and betrayal in its family of coworkers.

In the 1988 film DOA (Dead On Arrival), the main character, Professor Dexter Cornell (played by Dennis Quaid) has been fatally poisoned, and spends the remaining 3 days of his life trying to find his killer; finally, he learns that he was murdered by a colleague who wanted his tenure!

FOOTNOTE is suspenseful, but not as heavy-handed as DOA — in fact, it’s highly satirical and sometimes, laugh-out-loud funny! — but nevertheless, it precisely captures that politically charged, egotistical world of academia.  Here, the Talmudic Studies department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem is the “family” of professors who carp at each other, who steal ideas from one another, who compete for fame and importance.  Even being mentioned as a “footnote” in a work by a respected scholar is cause for pride and is nurtured like a fetish.

The tightly woven, tension-laden world of the Talmudic scholars is mirrored in the background picture the film gives of modern day Israel, where so much of daily life is subject to interactions with security agents; where simply going into and out of a public building like a library requires patience and restraint — and ideally, a sense of humor!

Apart from those security details, the dilemmas faced in FOOTNOTE are familiar ones; the film is also a keenly observed portrait of both domestic and academic life.  And in this story, the two lives — the two families — are intricately intertwined. 

Father Eliezer Shkolnik and his son, Uriel, are both Talmudic scholars at Hebrew University.  But Eliezer is a self-righteous man, humorless and married to old methods and superseded studies.  He has isolated himself from most of his colleagues and from his family as well; and he’s locked into a bitter disappointment over lack of recognition by anything greater than one small “footnote” in another scholar’s work.

By contrast, his son Uriel is an academic star.  Charismatic and well-liked, he is a part of the world; he plays racket ball, goes to concerts, and wins the kinds of accolades and honors that have eluded his father.

Talk about a generation gap!  Uriel knows how to play the game of life — and the academic game! — while his father does not.

But Uriel feels some guilt about this, and over and over again, he tries to impress and please his father.  Of course, this is an almost impossible task, as his father disparages all those who are welcomed by the establishment that has ignored him.  That Uriel is welcomed into that world angers, disappoints and depresses his father further; he is jealous and anxious to belittle his son’s work. 

Eliezer is finally recognized by being awarded the most important academic prize in Israel.  This totally unexpected prize thrills his son and the rest of his family, and Eliezer is forced to welcome the accolades of those he’d previously scorned.

In a riveting comic but tense scene set in a tiny, crowded and almost suffocating room at the university, Uriel is informed by the members of the awards committee that the award was meant for him and mistakenly given to his father; moreover, it is left for Uriel to tell his father of that decision, to deliver that blow.

These are, indeed, ethical and personal dilemmas. 

What would you do? 

If you were the father, would you accept the award that was bestowed by those whom you do not respect and have criticized for years?  Would you disparage your son and his accomplishments?  Would you be angry that your son, and not you, received that prestigious award?  Or would you embrace your son and feel exalted by his success?

What would you do?

If you were the son, would you give up your prize for your father?  Would you sacrifice the truth for him despite his disloyalty to you?  Or would you claim the prize that was rightfully yours?  Would you be pleased to take your father’s joy from him?  Would you be happy to finally exact retribution for your father’s betrayal and lack of generosity toward you?

What would you do?

In this fine film, you sit on the edge of your seat waiting for the answers to these questions – if, indeed, there are clear-cut answers to be had.

And all the while, you wonder:

What would you do…?

Love, honor, trust, truth, loyalty, grace; and rivalry, anger, frustration, loathing, jealousy, betrayal:  all the stuff of family is portrayed here. Father and son are each tested; the academic and domestic families are tested:  and it is heartbreaking to see....

But regardless of what they do to one another, one thing remains a given throughout the film:  these two men are bound to each other.  Forever.
Whatever else we can say of them, families hold within them a link between the generations and a hope for the future.  And of course, nothing does that quite so well as the arrival of a new baby.  
Last month I wrote of the birth of  my first grand-baby, Hannah Selma.  Now I happily write of the newest edition to my family:  a beautiful and quite lovely little boy named Leo Nathan.
One child had a girl and the other a boy;  but I have both a girl and a boy:  how lucky is that?
My family is growing and we are moving into the future together....
Leo Nathan -- and I made this blanket, too!

Nana with Leo and Hannah

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Keep Calm And Carry On

It’s been over a month since my last post to this blog and I’ve many excuses; but mostly, I’ve been very, very busy—even a bit frantic! 

My busy-ness has been all good:  the wedding of an old friend of mine, newly reunited with a love she had 26 years ago; guests to take to places all around this breathtakingly beautiful state of Arizona; and best of all:  babies!

Another beautiful sunset over the mountain at the back of my house.

A few weeks ago, I had my first grand-baby—a beautiful girl named Hannah—and am expecting my second any day now.  It’s a lovely, joyous thing to have a new baby in the family; it’s fun and exciting to plan baby showers and go to doctors’ appointments and “birthing” classes!  It’s fun to help decorate a baby room and to find beautiful stuffed animals and baby clothes wherever you go. 
Guest-decorated bibs and onesies.


Ready to play.

Hannah & Nana - and I made the blanket!

And it's quite wonderful to hold a baby in my arms again. 

But all this requires that I be in the car and on the road much of the time:  wedding almost 3 hours away in Tucson; baby Hannah 1 hour away in Phoenix; expectant mother 6 hours away in Los Angeles….  It’s exhausting!  And when I’m home, I’m often frenzied as I try to catch-up with those many things left undone.

Then I remind myself to take to heart those words of wisdom from World War II:  “Keep Calm and Carry On.” 

For those not familiar with the phrase, these words were on a poster printed by the British government during the war.  It summed up with extraordinary simplicity what citizens needed to do during this time of upheaval and fear:  they needed to take care of the business at hand and go on with their lives….

The Original Poster

But the story of the poster does not end with the war; and the newer part of the story begins with a bookseller.  (Of course!)

Barter Books is one of the largest bookstores in England—and I’ll bet it’s one of the most beautiful, too!  It was built into a beautiful old Victorian railroad station; and it manages to be both large and cozy at the same time.


And it was here that an original of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster was found in a box of old books.  As they tell the story on their website,

“After being forgotten for more than half a century, a rare original of the now famous WWII poster was rediscovered in a box of old books bought at auction….

When the bookshop owners had the poster framed and put up in the shop, customer interest was so great that in 2001 the couple started producing facsimile copies for sale - copies which were soon copied and recopied to make of the Keep Calm poster one of the first truly iconic images of the 21st century.”
Isn’t that grand?

Here is a 3-minute video that tells the history of the creation of the original poster, with footage from the period; it also shows some fabulous scenes in the old railroad station and tantalizing bits of the store’s interior:

Barter Books has a gift shop and an on-line store from which, among other things, you can buy a facsimile of the poster—or even mugs and tee shirts and mouse pads and more—all with the iconic red and white sign on them.  Who can resist?

Beautiful as this shop is, there are many wonderful ways to display books. (See my posts on public, private, and “little” libraries.)  And as my blog has somewhat morphed into one that is concerned with the state of “real” books in this electronically focused world, readers have been sending me articles and photos and videos on the subject.  As I do want to write about other things, I plan to have a postscript from time to time with more news on the “real-books-are-wonderful-and-can’t-be-replaced” front.

Here is one such; can we call this an “exercise” library?  Whatever you call it, it can't be replaced by eBooks!

Exercise Wheel?  Little Library?  Perhaps both.

And wherever you read and wherever you exercise; and whenever you feel the stresses and strains of modern life, or the joy and excitement of new arrivals and happy celebrations:  remember not to be “frantic” and instead, think of the mantra:


Believe me, it works!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Here We Go Again

It can seem as though there’s a conspiracy in media outlets – both written and spoken – to report the coming “death” of printed books. The death is attributed to “villains” such as Amazon; so why is the tone of these reports usually comic at best, and gleeful at worst?

One reason is that the written media (like TIME, for example) enjoys “live streaming” in addition to the text that's in the printed edition, as new and more pointed ads are possible every few minutes rather than only once a week. 

I’ve tried reading those "feeds," and I don’t really understand how they serve me.  I go to TIME for a thoughtful presentation of the news of the week:  if I want on-the-spot news; if I want film snips like “The Funniest TV Clips of the Week;” if I want to instantly know “The Number-One Way to Get a Flight Attendant Angry” or that “Chess Championships Lose Sex Appeal with New No-Cleavage Rule” – all from TIME’S latest “feed” – I can go to Google or Yahoo or YouTube, or even to PEOPLE magazine and the numerous “gossip” sites on the net. 

And sometimes, I do:  but that’s not what I want from a [supposedly] sober round-up of the week’s news.

So:  not only do we have the Amazons against us, but printed material doesn’t get adequate support even where we most expect it.

I’ve already posted a funny (funny?) NEW YORKER cover depicting book stores without books; here are two more funny (funny?) covers:

Package from Amazon
Even Angels read eBooks
Then there’s their “joke” of books being obsolete, an “artifact” one recognizes no longer:

"Holy cow! What kind of crazy people used to live here anyway?"
The Internet is rife with jokes concerning life without printed books:
“We’ll need to buy real doorstops.
We’ll have to find another way to press and dry flowers.
Our bathrooms will no longer be cluttered.”
You get the picture.

And even when printed books are appreciated, it can be for reasons that make book lovers and sellers uncomfortable.  Here, an ad for a Prius tells us that although we have e-readers, we “need books for decoration.”

Would you buy a car to help you find books for home decor?
As noted in an earlier post, books are also being used not for their original function, but as a new “medium” for visual art. Here are examples from artist Brian Dettmer:

And a video of artist Su Blackwell's work:

Exquisite works, but why use books for these?  Why not just use paper and make bases of wood or leather?  And isn't this somewhat disrespectful to books?  (Or don't you think so?)

Libraries and librarians offer little help.  With the growth of ebooks and the advent of new laws requiring wider aisles for patrons in wheelchairs, many libraries have had to rethink their “mission” – as repositories of great books? as lending institutions meant to serve popular preferences? – and decide what to discard in order to create the required space.

The Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield MA is one of the oldest libraries in the United States; it's a lending library that was also a repository for fine and rare books.  When faced with the need for more space, they decided that their primary function was that of a lending library; to that end, they sent to auction all books that hadn't been “borrowed” for 50 years. 

Except for their extraordinary Melville and Berkshire collections which aren't part of the lending library, we – in our “Bibliofind Book Auction 'hat'” – auctioned off thousands of their books; 14 of them earned world record prices.

The main branch of the venerable New York Public Library had an even more arbitrary way of choosing what books they would discard.  In their wisdom, they decided to get rid of any book in which the page “broke” when its corner was folded!

Never taking into consideration the quality of the paper typical of the period; or the book’s value; or the importance of it as an artifact and historical document – the information was on microfilm, after all! -- among the things the library threw into the trash were thousands of early American pamphlets, including coveted ones from the time of the Revolutionary War. Thomas Payne, Benjamin Franklin, and the like:  all went into the trash.

Fortunately, a diligent bookseller was tipped off, and he rescued them before they could be carted to the dump.  Every year at Christmas, he sends a greeting card on the cover of which is a photo of one of these pamphlets along with the date it was discarded and its approximate value. (Often enough, in the thousands.)  Inside, a single line reads, “Your tax-payer dollars at work.”

And new libraries?  More and more, they contain row upon row of videos; row upon row of popular paperbacks like those of Danielle Steel; and they give classes in meditation and yoga and crafts.  I don’t have anything against a places like these, but what makes them “libraries” and not community centers? 

Where libraries treat videos and mass paperback fiction as equal to – or more important! – than other books, they do no service to the future of printed books.

Now, the latest blow:  Congress has accused Apple and some publishers for “price fixing” by charging between $9.99 and $12.99 for ebooks.  As a result, it's expected that ebooks will go down to $5.99 each.  What will that do to the market for printed books?

Full disclosure here:  I read ebooks.  I travel a lot and I can carry far more ebooks with me than I can printed books.  And I can always keep old favorites near me.

But it is a totally different reading experience.

My bookseller friend and guest-poster, Pamela Grath, had a recent post on her blog, Books in Northport, which I urge you to read.  There she tells of an opinion that ebooks are a “purer” form of reading in that one is not “distracted” by the object that is a printed book.  The writer she’s questioning also claims that “we’ll get used to it” just as people got used to going from reading hand calligraphed parchment scrolls to reading printed books. 

This is not quite true, as the experience of reading scrolls is very different from that of reading books: and it's the experience that makes the difference. 

I like to go back and forth when I read a book; I like to keep a finger on an earlier page so that I can jump around easily; I like to curl the page and read both sides of it seamlessly.  I like to hold the page between my fingers, the book in my hands.  

Hasn’t it been said that “the medium is the message?”  Well, it’s certainly a big part of it.

There’s nothing “pure” about the ebook experience of hyper-links and pop-out definitions, and the changing of fonts and of the brightness of the background; there’s nothing “pure” about glass-encased photos of beautiful hand-colored illustrations or photogravures. 

On the walls of Bill Gates’ home hang huge screens on which there are ever-changing full-size photos of many important paintings.  Is this pure?  More to the point:  are these art?

As I noted in an earlier post, one learns a lot about history and taste and materials when something’s read in its original form.  Scrolls, for instance.

The Torah consists of the five books of Moses.  You can read these five in a printed book – the first five chapters in the Bible – or you can read them in a scroll, as originally presented.  In synagogues throughout the world, heavy Torah scrolls are lifted, unrolled to that week's pertinent passages, and read.   

Torah Scroll 

Torah Scroll
You can hear the crackle of vellum, parchment, paper; you can see cracks in the ink from years of rolling and unrolling; you can physically appreciate that this is one story, one continuous history that rolls on and on like the scroll itself; you can feel a sense of awe as you are reminded that this is how the words have been read for centuries. 

It’s a different experience from reading these five books in a printed book, one page at a time.  Reading it as an ebook would be yet another and quite different experience.  But better?  Purer?  I think not….

Perhaps it’s just a matter of preference which of these experiences feels best to you, feels “purest.”  But I think it’s more than that; and I think that the “more” is what will keep printed books alive.  

In THE BOOKS IN MY LIFE, Henry Miller wrote,
“When you have possessed a book with mind and spirit, you are enriched.  But when you pass it on you are enriched threefold.” 
There’s a gratification that one gets from a printed book that cannot be duplicated, and the sharing that books make possible is part of that gratification, part of that experience.

Last week, NPR had a story about little libraries – sometimes only the size of a birdhouse! – which are popping up all over cities and towns; many even on front lawns. 
Put a little library on a short post like a mailbox, put it in your front yard and fill it up with books. Then people can help themselves for free.
A Little Library in the Suburbs

A Little Library in NYC

Take a book; leave a book.  And people love it.

"My kids will run over there.  I've run into friends of friends who I don't know well dropping off a book at the free library and finding, oh, this is just the right age and reading level for my daughter and taking it home.  I mean, there are all of these nice, little serendipitous connections that happen with your neighbors."
"One of the things that always just amazes me is how many people hug [us] when we actually put [books] in.  We constantly get emails that say 'I've met more people than I have in 20 years.'  People are always happy.  My favorite thing to do is sit on my porch and read a book and watch people open the library."
A NYC Little Library
The “Little Library” movement hopes to build more libraries than Andrew Carnegie had built, and to have them throughout the world: they have already sprung up in 17 different countries.  (We have one at our town dump!) 

No yoga classes in these...!

What other “object” engenders such devotion, affection?  What other “object” can bring so many diverse people together?  What other “object” inspires so many memories: memories that we share with others, even strangers?

Here is something that was given to Farshaw’s Books by a grateful customer; he – and we – are linked to its author through time and a common passion:

To which I say: "Amen."

Enjoy this 2-minute film; it communicates a love for printed books; and tells us in a pleasing way that books are forever: that there is nothing more “pure” than a “real” book.