Kindle, etc.: Third time’s a charm

23 Oct

Starting at only $139, the recently-released Amazon Kindle 3G joins the ranks of affordable electronic devices. No longer a hefty investment, this controversial reader is bound to eventually become as common a purchase as the iPod. Amazon boasted record sales of the device in the weeks following its release last July, and that same month the company announced that, for the first time, e-book sales had surpassed those of hardcover books.

Meanwhile, the Barnes and Noble Nook has come down to a competitive starting price of $149. Although less popular than the Kindle, the Nook allows public library rentals, an attractive option that the Kindle does not offer. This feature is yet another indication that e-readers are moving closer toward becoming a widely accessible option for readers from a large swath of the economic spectrum.

Some tech pundits such as Nicholas Negroponte predict that the physical book will be obsolete by 2015. While many critics agree that these predictions are premature and exaggerated, one cannot deny that e-readers are slowly becoming a medium of choice for reading.

For those bibliophiles who remain steadfast in their decision to only read physical books, this transition is unsettling. I myself continue to remain in denial that e-books will become the default medium of books in the near future. I’m one of those people who simply can’t entertain the idea of using a single, generic graphite device to read and store my entire book collection. For me, the feeling of holding a book in my hands, admiring its binding and cover, and flipping its pages not with a button, but with my hands, is central to the experience of reading. I love just being around books. I love my book-filled office and the heartily-stocked bookshelf in my sparsely furnished apartment which will soon reach its capacity. After all, our culture has long drawn a deep and inextricable connection between the physical presence of books and the figurative presence of creativity, intellect and learning.

But is it possible I’m just an old fogey, too young to rent a car, but yet somehow too old to be swayed in my beliefs about how books should be consumed? I ask this because recently, my father raised a very interesting point: quite a few people in the generation before me – himself included – felt the same way about music. Heck, my dad still asks how to get to Newbury Comics and (the now closed) Looney Tunes every time we’re in Harvard Square. My father does not own an iPod, nor do I think he ever will, and he’s made me realize I may have been just young enough to get swept into iTunes camp. Our conversation went something like this:

My father, in disbelief: “So you don’t buy physical CDs anymore?”

Me, nonchalantly. “Nope.”

“And that doesn’t bother you? You don’t care owning the album, enjoying its art?”

“Well, I can download an icon of the album cover on iTunes.”

A disconnect here? I think so. My father still cannot separate the physical aspects of an album from the experience of listening to music. I, meanwhile, am able to accept digitized versions of these as sufficient. I owned some CDs as a teenager and did always enjoy the feeling of purchasing a favorite band’s new album, admiring the details of its jacket and filing it away in my CD case, but then MP3s came along and suckered my impressionable teenage self in. My listening preferences, not having been cemented yet, were still malleable enough at this point to embrace digital music.

What make books different than music in this case? Sadly, not much. I’m well-aware I may have a similar conversation with my own children someday. They’ll view my love of physical books as quaint and impractical, trying to convince me that e-books remove nothing essential from the experience of reading. I’ll continue to object, making them drag me to the one or two indie bookstores still remaining in our neighborhood.

But I’m hopeful. Music albums do still sell – their sales have simply gone down and their popularity underground. But true music lovers of all ages still seek them out and will continue to do so. I suspect it may remain the same for books. 20 years from now, most of us may own e-readers and use them for the majority of our reading. But a few, even among those who use e-readers for some of their reading, will continue to purchase physical copies of our contemporary favorites and timeless classics and beautiful anthologies. The book won’t die entirely – at least not anytime remotely soon. So in the meantime, let’s gather our hardcovers while we may and not waste too much precious reading time worrying about a future we can never fully predict.

Who is publishing our public schools’ textbooks?

20 Oct

You’ve probably heard by now about the infamous textbook distributed to fourth graders in Virginia. The history book, written by Joy Masoff, states a highly controversial claim — that thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War — as hard fact.

She said she used the Internet to do her research, relying on biased sites such as that of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group that has been propagating this untruth for years.

If the revelation of her sources isn’t disturbing enough, taking a look at at the textbook’s publisher, Five Ponds Press, should settle any last doubts about the legitimacy of the book. The publisher’s scant Web site reveals that it in fact only publishes history and social science textbooks for Virginia schools.

Why does this company, located in Connecticut, publish only textbooks for Virginia? Is it naive or elitist of me to think that our nation’s textbooks should be published by legitimate, nationally-recognized publishing houses with standards for quality — both of the research and of the author conducting it? And is it not unreasonable to think that publishers focusing on only one state lack the resources for comparison and cross-checking that come when publishing houses engage a broader base of research and ideas in order to produce a wider range of content?

But then again, is broader, peer-reviewed research what many state governments want in their school systems?

I know it’s not what FOX News wants; when I interned in the history division of an evidently “liberal” textbook publisher, they frequently called querying which states constituted our largest sales.

It’s one thing to wage culture wars, but when children’s minds are captured like POWs by one side or another, something has clearly gone deeply awry.

Getting personal with Nicole Krauss

19 Oct

Ever have one of those moments when you don’t bother to write a down quote because you’re positive its salience will make it impossible to forget, only to find that a few hours later that it’s escaped your memory?

I wish I had whipped out my moleskine in time (yes, I admit it, my moleskine. I’m one of them.) to catch Nicole Krauss‘ spunky line on the use of autobiography in fiction during her lovely reading hosted by the Harvard Book Store at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square this evening.

Left only with the power of paraphrase, I’ll say it went something like this: “The thought of autobiographical fiction sends a chill up my spine” or “The thought of writing autobiographically makes my blood boil.”

You get the idea. Krauss, who delivered a reading from her latest novel and National Book Award nominee Great House, is not a fan of autobiographical fiction nor the ever-so-present non-fiction account masquerading as fiction, nor, as she stated in an interview with BlackBook yesterday, the enormously popular memoir.

She commented that she finds writing directly about one’s own experiences in fiction constricting, precisely the opposite of the liberating feeling that comes with the creation and development of unexplored characters and situations. Though I myself admittedly lapse into the murky realms of quasi autobiographical fiction at times, I would have to say that based on those precious moments when I transcend those lapses, I personally couldn’t agree more with Krauss. The ability to escape one’s self and enter the universes of others whom you’ve created can be one of the most rewarding aspects of writing creatively.

But Krauss made an important distinction that anyone who struggles with escaping the autobiographical should keep in mind. A difference exists, she noted, between “the autobiographical” and “the personal.” Escaping the former doesn’t and shouldn’t mean throwing out the latter along with it. According to Krauss, the personal should absolutely be employed in fiction — it’s the personal, she believes, that gives fiction its heart and soul.

Of course, “the personal” is something far harder than direct autobiography to extract from one’s existence and weave into one’s writing effectively. Separating the deeper emotional undercurrent of, say, a falling out with a close friend, or repurposing one’s feelings of loss after a career relocation for, let’s say, a novel about nineteenth century immigration, takes a talent few have.

Krauss’ distinction is an important one that is almost always at work in well-crafted literary fiction, but that few ever call out or make note of explicitly. Krauss is not only a magnificent writer, but she has a tremendous level of self-awareness when it comes to her own writing process and can discuss it with panache.

And did you know she read the first 600 pages of the Odyssey to her four- and one-year-old sons last summer, only stopping when her older son began having nightmares? Now there are some future writers in the making. But with both Krauss and Foer running through your veins, what else you could ever be?

Do artists have an obligation to avoid realism in a (post)modern world?

18 Oct

Gabriel Josipovici’s new book, What Ever Happened to Modernism, offers a harsh critique of realism in contemporary fiction, arguing that to produce a realist work in the modern world is produce a work that obscures the, for lack of a better word, reality of that world. The job of the modernist novel (or painting, or musical piece, etc.), according to Josipovici, is to recognize and reflect the fact that traditional artistic conventions, ones based on a hierarchical and religious society, simply no longer work in a secularized, decentralized and overwhelmingly fragmented industrialized world.

Nothing new here. Any English major will have studied the transition from realism to modernism in literature and the resulting disruption and fragmentation of the traditional linear narrative. But Josipovici’s main concern is how well this form of pure modernism has survived in literature. For Josipovici, Morrison, Roth, and Rushdie, among others, fail to carry on this morally necessary movement, falling instead backward into unreality and sheer fantasy. In doing so, he believes they do a disservice to their craft, and one not merely of artistic but of ethical proportions.

I’ve yet to read the book myself, but some insightful reviews in The Millions and The Wall Street Journal brought to mind longheld anxieties about the ways in which modernism and its demands constrict the ways in which an artist is allowed to produce. Ben Hamilton at The Millions articulates my concern excellently when he summarizes Josipovici: “Contrary to the more comfortable notion of progress through the ages, Josipovici’s argument states that since the sixteenth century, secularism and revolution have eroded authority and undermined tradition, so that the artist is left only with his or her imagination and individuality to fall back on.”

Josipovici laments the shattering of order and belief that accompanied modernity, arguing, as Eric Ormsby of The Wall Street Journal puts it, that “[f]or the Modernist sensibility… serenity is no longer possible; truth, if it can be glimpsed at all, is invariably agitated.” As such, he believes attempts at producing this serenity through fiction must be abandoned altogether.

I don’t disagree that the development of modernism was an important and necessary one, that our society and ourselves needed more complex artistic structures through which to accurately express itself. But I am uneasy about the assertion that any instance whatsoever of what Josipovici terms “realism,” or “tradition,” or, I suppose one could say, attempting to recreate a truthful and realistic world through art, is somehow ethically abhorrent.

In a world as atomized and banal as ours, we have little fodder or material from which to draw. Modernism, in a way, is almost solipsism. When we each exist in our own little individualized worlds, detached from notions of patriotism, nationalism, religion, or even ancestry, what’s left? If we can’t draw upon the past at all, our only option is to continue to deconstruct ourselves into oblivion. Modernism’s old hat now; postmodernism is heading in that direction fast. We’re only continuing down the road paved with the arrival of modernity. If we continue this practice of deeming all past practices as entirely unacceptable, we will ultimately be left with nothing at all.

I often feel my desire to write fiction extinguished by a poverty of material, and approaches, from which to work. Everything I can manage to come up feels used, cliche, or contrived. And that includes modernist approaches to modernist content. I don’t need Josipovici to tell me it’s an artistic sin to sometimes move “backward” in my craft — this attitude is one deeply woven into contemporary literary culture. But I’m starting to question that attitude more than ever.

What if, sometimes, the most aesthetically pleasing presentation of material is a realist one? What if, in a given instance, a linear narrative serves a plot best? Of course, this opens up a whole other Keatsian argument about whether the purpose of art is to produce beauty or truth and if and whether those two things are in fact each other or related to each other etc. etc. etc. I don’t know want to go there right now, but I do want to quote Ormsby again: “Mr. Josipovici is harsh on realism in fiction—he thinks it a dangerous illusion—and yet we still respond to fictional replications of the world, not only in its inmost contradictions but in the sheer sensual beauty of its surfaces. We still take pleasure in make-believe and in the telling of tales, even tall ones, if only because they tell us something true about ourselves, a truth that perhaps we can grasp through no other medium.”

And hey, why not drop into the past to produce artistically here and then? After all, isn’t modernism supposed to be all about the breaking down of linear time to begin with?

Accessibility no guarantee of diversity, Book Festival proves

17 Oct

The second annual Boston Book Festival, held yesterday in Copley Square, attracted an impressive crowd even in spite of Obama’s appearance at the nearby Hynes Convention Center. My initial reaction to the bustling square and long queues for author talks was one of pride and enthusiasm — Boston may be a tiny city, but the turnout proved that it is a fiercely literary one nonetheless.

Yet looking around as I waited for Tom Perrotta (author of Election, Little Children) and Dennis Lehane (author of Shutter Island, Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone) to discuss the experience of having one’s novels turned into films, I began to feel uneasy. The crowd packing the enormous John Hancock Hall was remarkably homogenous, most akin, I would say, to that at a broadway show. But in contrast to such middle-to-high-brow events, all of the festival’s programs were free. Why was such a small (and sadly predictable) pocket of Greater Boston the only one present?

I certainly don’t blame the Boston Book Festival for the make-up of its attendees. Their ability to put together such an impressive and extensive day of events and activities at no charge whatsoever should be applauded. Presenting Joyce Carol Oates and other eminent writers to an audience for free is no small feat, and my thanks extends to all those who donated their time and money to make it possible. But most of those in attendance looked as though they could have pulled together the money for a ticket, anyway. Clearly, offering an arts event for free isn’t enough to draw the diverse crowd it should.

What, if anything, can be done to change this reality? How can we make reading, something accessible to all via not only public libraries, but events such as these (not to mention the plethora of free author talks held regularly throughout the area), something that everyone actually accesses?

Much ado about Franzen

16 Oct

It is all but inevitable that the inaugural post of a literary blog launched in the fall of 2010 make some mention of the Franzen frenzy currently sweeping the nation’s book scene. Given that I’ve just completed Freedom myself and have had few other finishers to discuss its merits with, all kinds of thoughts and criticisms regarding this purported Great American Novel have been swimming free form through my head. So while I hope future posts to be far more focused and pithy, please excuse me while I unleash the buildup of Franzenfreude (to borrow Jennifer Weiner’s term) that has been cluttering my mind.

Recent articles in The Boston Globe and NPR, among others, have made note of Franzen’s surprising absence from the list of fiction finalists for The National Book Award, announced on Oct. 12th. Both of the aforementioned articles are notably terse, perhaps seeking to evade the appearance of bias regarding the National Book Foundation’s decision while still making note of the controversy surrounding it. Indeed, so rarely in recent history has a novel unleashed so much debate. But then again, when TIME places Franzen on their front cover, an honor bestowed among a choice few that includes Joyce and Salinger, they are asking, even inviting, a level of skepticism. Before our collective consciousness hails this man as belonging to the company of Updike and Morrison, we must allow the necessary criticism and vetting to play out.

And play out it has, most virulently in the damning tweets of Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, both of whom  in so many words (140 or less, to be precise) condemned Franzen as a “white male literary darling” of  the likes of The New York Times. These comments provoked a long and fascinating argument about why, in our ostensibly post-feminist world, works written by men are often still taken more seriously by the literary establishment than works written by women. To put it succinctly: if Franzen writes an undeniably domestic novel about the struggles and tensions of a family, the powers that be can term it that respectable but elusive word, “literature.” But if a woman writes about these same topics, the novel is branded and marketed as “women’s fiction,” “chick lit,” or some other gender-based (not to mention pejorative) genre that, by definition is not “literature.”

Does Franzen get a free pass at this branding because of his gender? Following all of the hype surrounding its release, and never having read his previous novel The Corrections (which did win the National Book Award in 2001) nor his essay collections, I was curious to check out Freedom. Rarely willing to fork over $30 for a hardcover of a book I’ve never read before, I put myself around #343 on the Boston Public Library waiting list and figured I’d read the novel at a later date, until one day it essentially fell into my lap for free (ah, the perks of working in publishing!). I’ve come away with mixed feelings and a sense of uneasiness regarding the originality of those feelings when so much opinion was thrown at me before I even opened it up. When one is forced to bring so many preconceptions with them to a text, how objectively can he or she truly read it?

Franzen does accomplish with mastery the crafting of a text both microscopic and macroscopic in focus that actually works. The Berglunds, if unlikeable, are well-developed and remain at the heart of the story in a way few characters do in social critiques. I’m thinking Don DeLillo here –while Jack Gladney and his family are more than just archetypes in White Noise, they nonetheless serve as means to DeLillo’s greater end of critiquing postmodern society. When we feel for them, if we do at all, we feel for them in the sense that we feel for what they stand for. We all know these same Hitler studies professors and naive happiness-drug experimenters in our own lives and see their likenesses everywhere. And that is DeLillo’s intention. The Berglunds, by contrast, are real people, individuals in their own right who may carry with them certain stereotypes, but who are first and foremost themselves. Franzen’s ability to maintain these individuals while tackling greater social issues such as 9/11, the environment, and class warfare is laudable.

But when one considers the actual language Franzen uses to convey both levels of the text, problems arise. The dialogue feels forced and affected in spots, its interior monologues sometimes cliche, and its metaphors simply absurd. His repeated references to Katz’ “prophetic dick” underscore the extent to which Franzen’s language comes across as both amateur and alienating. Sentences like the following flood its pages: “A navigational beacon in Katz’ black Levi’s, a long-dormant transmitter buried by a more advanced civilization, was was sparking back to life.” Really? Being the remarkably inexperienced writer that I am, it is rare I feel the urge, while reading a text published by an eminent trade publisher like Farrar, Straus & Giroux, to grab a red pen and start crossing out and fixing sentences. Yet Franzen’s writing felt hastily produced and in serious need of some tightening. Literary fiction? No. Freedom read far more like Dan Brown-esque commercial fiction.

And what of the assertions that Franzen’s novel is Gatsbysian in its proportions? The term “Great American Novel” carries with it implications of broadness of content; if the novel is truly “American,” it must contain within it the voices of a cross-section of our diverse nation. Franzen’s novel does move about several major cities and the Minnesotan countryside, but does so with a troupe of champagne socialists with an interest base best described by Stuff White People Like. Their few foils are their trashy Republican neighbors in St. Paul and Walter’s brutish, gun-loving relatives. The novel pits the upper middle class white urban self against the conservative, God-and-guns other. I’m not trying to pull a Glenn Beck here, but I do think we should call some attention to the fact that Franzen’s main characters represent only one subset of American culture. Sure, Joey may become a Republican, but he becomes the “right” kind of conservative — a fiscal one. Most Americans have never heard of Macalester or Swarthmore or that little school in Maine with the horrible football team than Patty’s grandfather attended, and which I’m almost positive is my alma mater. Why no mention by name of this wonderful little college, Jon? Minorities are also conspicuously absent from the text, save Lalitha, by far one of its weakest and most poorly developed characters. It’s perfectly fine to write about arugula-eating Obama lovers, but one cannot focus on such a subgroup if he or she is to truly produce a “Great American Novel.”

Setting this label aside and assessing the text for what it is, Freedom does poignantly capture the essence of the Bush years and a privileged but troubled family attempting to navigate them. Had his prose been less overtly self-aware, haughty, and overwhelmingly phallocentric (in the most literal sense of the term. Perhaps we should create a new category called “dick lit”) his tale could have been delivered in a fashion remarkably more heartwarming and genuine. But those are “chick” words, aren’t they? I suppose that’s why Nicole Krauss, Jaimy Gordon, and Karen Tei Yamashita were all selected as National Book Award finalists.