Saturday, December 27, 2008

Literacy - more than a pivotal Civ II advancement

Turns out the U.S. is ranked no. 20 in world literacy (and is among 30 countries ranked as such), with a 99% literacy rate.

We should be happy, but then I realized North Korea is also at 20, with Russia beating the U.S., Canada, Britain, Germany, and much of the "western" world. I suddenly wondered if a Cold War ought to be declared just to improve that ranking. Look what it did for other things.

Then again, almost every country is beating Afghanistan... And everyone is better than Mali, it appears. Take a look at the map. It's sadly revealing.

Goal for 2009: improve literacy and reading rates.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Neverland, pt. 2

So sure, exaggerations are abound on all sides. Obviously not all not-readers are anti-books, or even anti-reading as an idea. But let's look at some reading stats. In Britain, the following was found in a survey done by the National Literacy Trust:

Other results included the top reasons for not reading: too tired (48%); watch TV instead (46%); play computer games (26%); work late (21%).
That's kind of interesting. Let's set aside the obvious 48% who were too tired and the 21% who work too late. These excuses are still weak[ish] but are on a separate plane of existence in regards to the other two. 46% of Britons watch TV instead of ever reading... that's an odd statistic, don't you think? We turn to the U.S. with's stats:

1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
57 percent of new books are not read to completion.
The first two seem shocking in their vulgarity. You start counting on your fingers... no, it can't be true that almost half of college grads don't read! Except it maybe makes a bit of sense. In the sad sort of way. The next two stats are equally bizarre, if only because nowadays bookstores are also music stores. Perhaps these stats are outdated (2003)? And then finally, the one that I think speaks the most. I'll leave that for later.

Sweden brings us a number of interesting stats as well, ones that deal with exactly our question: It turns out that in 2003 almost half the male population "never [read] books". The number has gone down a bit since then, but it's still up there in 45% land.

So those friends who don't read and we don't believe that proudly stated line: maybe [let's hope not] they aren't lying. Perhaps, indeed, many more people live in Neverland than we thought. The grossly generalized/simplistic principle is that of time. The Britain stats showed that people would rather do other things. A small minority within this larger group, however, view reading as something used and old. They will march proudly on.

Yet the remaining majority exists. About half the population (give or take, depending obviously on the country and region you live in) appears to not read. Encouraging reading among those who don't read for lack of interest (not out of silly ideological hate...) or time should be a top priority for those who do read. There will always be that struggle between devoted readers and the casually dismissive. Let's try to narrow the gap between the two groups, though.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Neverland, pt. 1

Everyone knows one.

Sometimes I'll be reading a book and these people (type of person) will come up and say, proudly, that they've never completed a book in their lives. It's an announcement that must be made. Readers, beware! Your enemy approaches.

Okay, an exaggeration, maybe, but fact is anti-readers somehow exist. With time they're becoming more "anti-books". But the question is, can they make their case against books? We begin with possible claims:

1. The internet has made books obsolete.
2. Waste of time.
3. I'll just go see the movie.
4. What can it possibly teach me that I don't already know?
5. Repetitive. Repetitive. Repetitive.

This group is obviously a minority among the greater population, but everyone knows one. These aren't those who don't get around to reading. They don't read because it's a matter of principle. What are those principles?

Mull it over. Continuation on its way.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Down and Out in Paris and London - George Orwell

First of all, I'm really happy I told myself to look for more Orwell books once I'd exhausted "1984" and "Animal Farm". Coming out of "1984" slightly disappointed (as compared to the superb "Animal Farm"), I picked this thin, tightly printed novel up. A few hours later, I set it down and leaned my head back to think.

First off, a slight shake of my head at Mr. Orwell. It cannot possibly be that every single Jewish person in the world is a sneaky, cunning, manipulative crook. The book isn't anti-Semitic, exactly, but it certainly shows the culture-deep dislike of Jews. It got a bit frustrating, that the two or three Jews mentioned were all fairly... evil. So seriously.

Other than that, basically, the book is pretty great. "Down and Out in Paris and London" reminded me a bit of Somerset Maugham's great "Of Human Bondage" (but with a better name) in that I felt like I was being told an honest, true story about the at times crappiness that a young poor man in these cities faces. There are clear differences between the two - very different styles, different time periods, different points, different messages - but I left both books with the similar feeling that I had just learned something very important about this world.

Orwell describes in a manner that is impeccable and frighteningly honest what it meant to be poor - down and out - in the two great cities of Europe. One can imagine the wealthy all they want. Orwell gives us the lowest possible scenario, the starvation, the humiliation, the difficulties (mentally and physically), and does so clearly. Anyone else coming from "Animal Farm" will find a similarly readable style that makes this an easy book to read in one, albeit long, sitting. It's honestly two books and can even be read as such - the Paris part (totally awesome) and the completely different, slightly less interesting but still fascinating London part. Together, however, "Down and Out" paints a bleak picture of the working world. It's not pleasant to think of.

Other than just making you reflect on your own life (how pleasant it is, that is), "Down and Out" will present you with a new way to look at things. I don't think I've ever quite thought of bums (tramps) the same way. I similarly gained a whole new level of respect for anyone forced to work in devastating conditions for minimal pay (Orwell's description of a Paris kitchen). Clearly portraying the difficulties and problems of the lowest social class in two large, great cities, Orwell once again created a novel (semi-autobiographical, perhaps, but novel-like nonetheless) that is at once enjoyable, engrossing, enlightening and thought-provoking.

Statements such as these are not outdated even today, provide readers with perspective, relevant observations, and important ideas. There are amusing edits, meant, I assume, to maintain the original feel, but it's a bit silly to see lines instead of swears... All in all, "Down and Out in Paris in London" rose above and beyond my standards. Very different yet so similar to numerous other books out there (Orwell's own "1984" and "Animal Farm", "Of Human Bondage", some Zola novels as well...), "Down and Out" stands firm as an excellent book that just about everyone should read.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Pamuk and Amazon

We enter a to-be common realm: Amazon reviewers.

A few months ago, I read "The Black Book" by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. It was favorably reviewed on Amazon and I checked it out from the library, thinking, "I'm interested in Turkey. I like stories. What can go wrong?" Well, "The Black Book" proved to be a disappointment. While filled to the brim with stories, the main plot wasn't so hot, the end was kind of random, and the entire story dragged on for about 300 pages too long. It could have served great as a short story (well written, interesting idea...), but as a novel, there were too many stories within stories within... You catch my drift.

But I like giving second chances. I do. So when I saw novel "Snow" on sale for cheap, I bought it. I read it. I liked it. The story too had slow moments, was at times awkwardly pretentious (probably the translation, though), but in the end managed to excite me, delight me, and keep me reading, a grand improvement over "The Black Book". I finished reading it, pleased that I had given Pamuk a second chance.

And yet Amazon seems to disagree with me. Again. Fellow reviewers bash the book as "drawn straight from the headlines", as though writing about relevant subjects is suddenly a bad thing. Quite a few feel that the book is boring. Their right, I suppose, even if I don't agree. Some say the writing style isn't for them. Also understandable. But then this:

Did they like it because they're supposed to like it?
Excuse me? Did I read that correctly? Another wrote:
...his acclaim and yes, even his Nobel prize, have more to do with his subject matter than with the quality of his writing...
At this point I nearly gave up. Because who are we, pathetic amateur reviewers, to say if a person should have won a Nobel Prize, to say casually dismiss a writer and readers who enjoy his novels as liking it "because [we're] supposed to"? Yes, I will not mask the fact that there are probably readers out there who, in order to make themselves appear educated, say they like books they don't, and no, I will also not pretend that I wasn't originally interested in Pamuk because of the little circle on the cover, but that claim, which I have seen in many places and warrants its own official complaint, is completely wrong and unfair to readers who like it simply, perhaps, because the story is interesting (yeah, the subject is cool!) or because the writing style is kind of neat.

Mr. Pamuk has clearly split readers pretty evenly. He's got those who find his writing tedious, pretentious, long, and all-in-all terrible and he has those who find his writing to be fascinating accounts of Turkey, eye-opening, lyrical, and all-in-all wonderful. And then he has me, who seems to be at odds with the greater community no matter what.

Oh, literature. No subject rivals you.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Amazon, Gutenberg, and a Kindle

“The written word is dead.”

Too often have these idiotic words been stated. It’s simple, really. New generations bring new inventions. Radio was once the “fresh” way to tell stories – now it’s what you hear when you’re driving and nothing else. Then came television. Then came the internet.

We start with, the modern ubiquitous source for book-buying. That’s not to say Amazon is the only source; AbeBooks, Borders, Barnes & Nobles, others, and various publishers all offer books online, but none do so quite as comfortably and conveniently as Amazon. Amazon, in a sense brought reading to the 21st century, making books easily available from everywhere in an Ebay style source, minus the bargaining. Fun.

Then came eBooks. The Gutenberg project, bringing to light thousands of classics and books so old they’ve been part of the public domain since Columbus, is a major source. You run through their stacks and there's this amazing phenomenon unheard of on the internet - you can smell the dust.

That minor quip aside, the revolutionizing of books through the internet proved to be kind of... lame. It's taken a while to catch on. It's hard to concentrate on a computer screen for too long and definitely harder still to read difficult literature through it. Plus... blasphemy!

An exaggeration? I think not. Gutenberg's dust exception aside, eBooks have no heart or soul to them. They aren't tangible. Who wants to read something in the same form they read blogs in? Where is the smell of the book; where is the texture? Maybe that's the reason the eBook hasn't caught on. Readers simply don't want to give up their last ties to the old worlds, where young ladies donned pretty dresses and went out with their parasol and their Austen. What a lovely (if inaccurate) image.

And then. Like the iPod, comes this shiny white toy for us to play with. The Kindle. Amazon's latest, greatest... and here's the part where the correspondent must admit a complete lack of knowledge when it comes to the Kindle, other than the descriptions. But here's the catch: it doesn't matter. The product itself is out there, a newer, fresher take on the already existent eReaders. Only problem? Amazon needs to fix the kinks. Make it cheaper, make it friendlier. Maybe then this correspondent will consider purchasing it. It may be blasphemy, but it sure saves a lot of trees.

And here we have it: the Internet generation of books. See? Who said we don't read?