Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Banned Books Week statistics

I'm a little late to Banned Books Week but it's definitely something that deserves mention. I've been going through various lists of banned/challenged books and I'm amazed again and again by the reasons books are banned, which books are banned, and how often. But lists never capture the pure essence of these stats as much as the stats themselves, so with a respectful tip of my hat to the ALA, these are the charts and graphs (originally here).

As we can see from the Challenges by Year bar graph above, the trend is overall a downward one but the spike every other year is slightly disconcerting. Numbers in their raw form and they don't tell a happy tale.

In the Challenges by Reason chart, the chunk that perhaps frustrates me most is the "Unsuited to Age", which is surprisingly large. How exactly does one go about defining what is suited to what ages, particularly when the age in question is high school ages (14-18)? There's a lot more to complain about this specific slice of the chart, which will be dealt with another time.
The funniest sliver has to be that of "nudity". I have to wonder what types of books these were to be banned for... nudity, which is typically something one sees, not something one reads. Or do some people find the words "naked" and "nude" to be offensive? Not fully clear on this one. And the most singularly curious piece of the pie is the "inaccurate" one. A lot to ponder over with that one...

The Challenges by Institution chart is perhaps the least interesting to me - going over the lists makes it quite obvious that the vast majority of challenged books are from libraries, school or otherwise. It's a disappointing list, obviously (seeing as libraries are meant to house knowledge), but not particularly insightful or surprising. Still, it's interesting to see how small the "Prison" slice is. I guess even museums are more likely to ban books than prisons. I wonder why that is...

The final chart, that of Challenges by Initiator, is perhaps the most interesting one of the four. First of all, the immediate stat is obvious - about 60% of all challenged books come from parents. Now, I obviously don't know the circumstances surrounding all the challenges but I've read through a number of these lists and the pattern that emerges is that parents dislike the messages certain books send to their kids. Sometimes these are ideas based in religion but not always. Refer again to the first pie chart - it seems that parents complained quite a bit about "appropriateness", language, explicit books (and how does one define this? More questions for a later time) and then, in smaller slivers, a number of questionable themes. Parents, it would appear, want to keep their children (their high school aged "children") away from themes often relevant to their age group.

Another important and interesting aspect to this final chart is that the teacher chunk isn't as thin as one might expect. I'll have to read through the lists more carefully to spot these cases, but I just can't understand what might lead a teacher to challenge a book. All the lists and statistics require a lot more time and mulling over than one single post can give so I recommend everyone head over to the ALA's Banned Books Week page and read up a little. There's a lot more to be said on the matter but for now, let the stats speak for themselves.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Quotes out of Africa

The ideas of flights and pursuit are recurrent in dreams and are equally enrapturing. Excellent witty things are said by everybody. It is true that if remembered in the daytime they will fade and lose their sense, because they belong to a different plane, but as soon as the one who dreams lies down at night, the current is again closed and he remember their excellence. All the time the feeling of immense freedom is surrounding him and running through him like air and light, an unearthly bliss.

-p. 83, Out of Africa - Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen)
Above, dreams. Below, the chapter "The Elite of Bournemouth".
I had as neighbour a settler who had been a doctor at home. Once, when the wife of one of my houseboys was about to die in childbirth, and I could not get into Nairobi, because the long rains had ruined the roads, I wrote to my neighbour and asked him to do me the great service of coming over and helping her. He very kindly came, in the midst of a terrible thunderstorm and torrents of tropical rain, and, at the last moment, by his skill, he saved the life of the woman and the child.

Afterwards he wrote me a letter to say that although he had for once, on my appeal, treated a Native, I must understand that he could not let that sort of thing occur again. I myself would fully realize the fact, he felt convinced, when he informed me that he had before now, practised to the elite of Bournemouth

-p.223, "Out of Africa"
The book is (to an extent) summarized by these two passages. The first goes to show the elegance and beauty to Blixen's writing and how she manages to vividly describe everything she mentions. The second displays the culture gaps, humanity and ordinary life she constantly seeks to explain. The book manages to juggle these two styles fairly well though had it been more tightly written (and perhaps better edited) it might have been an easier, better read. Still, passages like those above redeem the book to an extent. It is difficult to fault a book that pinpoints the essence of dreams in the best description I've ever read.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Monday, September 21, 2009

Books - rollercoaster rides

Everyone has heard by now about the Harry Potter theme park (warning: website has looping music and no mute button). It's an intriguing notion (for some; a pointless gimmick for others). At the Guardian, Alison Flood took the optimistic view, offering readers to come up with a few more book-based theme parks (forgetting for a moment that Harry Potter has moved far beyond "mere books" and is massively popular as products of all kinds...). Pondering the goings-on of the "Potterland", Flood suggested that perhaps it would be better to plan theme parks based only on children's books, saying, "[T]he thought of cockroaches parading around in Kafkaland, or the car crash experience at Ballard World, is giving me shivers." Flood's immediate idea is the perfectly plausible "Alice in Wonderland"-land. But must they all be from books geared for children? Absolutely not. Some other theme parks built around fun for the whole family:

* Monte Cristo - escape from prison, fencing lessons, a large playpen full of foam balls and a few buried treasures, and villain laser tag.

* The Odyssey Experience - a frenzied boat ride through Poseidon-infested waters, souvenir shops that sell "I destroyed Troy! ...but lost my way home..." merchandise, and Odysseus vs. suitors teamed laser tag.

* Enderland - do battle with buggers, maybe have a few internal conflicts about it, fly around in a giant space station. And laser tag.

Just about any fantasy, science fiction, or adventure story can be transformed into a fun, exciting theme park. We should expect to see others like this very soon. All you need is time, good planning, publicity, and a whole lot of money... oh.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Points of view

"Provocative novels with strong themes and even stronger writing" - that's the tagline for "Point of View", Penguin's new site for promoting particularly "important" books for young adults (via Publishers Weekly):
Five backlist novels and two new titles are featured in Point of View, a fall marketing initiative from Penguin Young Readers Group. The campaign, which focuses on literary books with strong, somewhat challenging themes, entails consumer and trade components and aims to connect readers who embraced such novels as Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher and Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson to new books with a similar appeal. [...] Having a vehicle to promote books with edgy, real-life themes and high-quality writing is rewarding to Peskin as an editor. [...] “Reading books about challenging subjects can help a teen make a decision that could be life-saving. This is a great opportunity to promote novels that will encourage teens to reach out to each other and to help friends get through difficult times.”
Having read 3 of the currently displayed books (2 are excellent, one less so), I can vouch that these are indeed interesting, thought provoking picks. And for the most part good, seeing as even the one I disliked was well-written and just didn't suit my personal taste. What I particularly like about this story is how right the analysis is. Editor Joy Peskin learns from how teens reacted to "Thirteen Reasons Why" (recommended here) and from the incredible success of "Speak" (an excellent novel as well), recognizing that fiction of this kind is important not simply for its literary value but also for the topics it raises.

In the meantime, the site is fairly straight-forward - a synopsis for each book, an excerpt, reviews and the official site, alongside "book trailers". The design is attractive and friendly (though the button for returning to the main menu is slightly... tiny) but there's no "about the site" page. It's all very nice for those who have already read and appreciated one or more of the listed books but I have a feeling it'll have a tough time luring new readers unless it spruces up just a little. Or promotes its promotions. In the meantime, though, I commend the site's point and (so far) its execution. And as an added bonus, I am now curious to read the remaining titles...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Bibliobules, the lot

This nice little list by Nigel Beale regarding the root "biblio" includes a few well-known hits and a sample of the stranger book-related words out there. And for those who can't find the word that fits them just right, they can always make one up.

Monday, September 7, 2009

eReader updates

Delayed eBook related news:

Two new Sony Readers
were released with surprisingly "little" fanfare, considering the amount of press the Kindle 2 received back in the day. Most articles dealing with the Sonys focused on how it fared against the Kindle, seeing Amazon's device as the standard and Sony's as the attempted competition. The PRS-300 is the pocket "budget" Reader, compact and limited in terms of functions (no music) and space (no additional memory) while the PRS-600 is the updated touch-screen version of the PRS-700. Little has emerged about the quality of the PRS-600's screen to counter complaints that the 700's screen was not very comfortable for reading. The 300 is comparatively cheap at $199, the 600 matching the Kindle at $299. Sony continues to battle Amazon by offering its Readers across the globe, hoping to establish itself in the U.K. as the standard eReader.

The same day the new Readers were released, Sony announced an even newer model, the "Daily Edition" which is meant to counter Amazon's DX. Here Sony went for the kill, offering a large touch-screen (take that, Kindle!) in addition to wireless access (seemingly U.S. only, disappointingly), thus "getting rid" of the two main eReader complaints. While this PRS-2121 sounds ideal for many, the actual specifications are still unknown and with a release date around December, it is unlikely more will be said of the matter for some time. Its price aims to once again undercut Amazon's $489 DX at $399. Not cheap, but it looks fairly impressive in the meantime.

Meanwhile, a report has found that even Sony's price cutting isn't enough for most people.

For its report, Forrester surveyed more than 4,700 online consumers, who reported that the average amount they would be willing to spend on an e-reader was $91. The average price at which these consumers said they would not consider buying such a device was $151.

Indeed. Those who feel that eReaders are too expensive are not alone, particularly when one takes into account the price of eBooks. The report goes on to suggest that prices will slowly fall (as was the case with Apple's iPhone) until they reach a stable point. For my part, I certainly hope so.

And as if to add more to the discussion, a study by Cleantech suggested that eReaders are the environmental way to go. (hat tip BookFinder)

The report indicates that, on average, the carbon emitted in the lifecycle of a Kindle is fully offset after the first year of use. The report, authored by Emma Ritch, states: "Any additional years of use result in net carbon savings, equivalent to an average of 168 kg of CO2 per year (the emissions produced in the manufacture and distribution of 22.5 books)."

The report says what some have felt for some time: it is better for avid readers who care about the environment to splurge once and save millions of trees. It's a convincing argument in favor of eReaders, particularly for environmentalists. A device (though plastic with a fairly short lifespan) capable of preventing needless paper waste and reducing use of the quite polluting process of paper-making... sounds good.

But that's not how everyone sees it. Alex Salkever of the DailyFinance says no, eReaders aren't actually that green. Not only do most readers not actually read the "recommended" 22 books a year to counter the production, but the average lifespan of an eReader is much shorter than the report's assumption of 4 years. Salkever estimates that most people switch devices like iPods and eReaders once every 2 years, thus weakening Cleantech's argument. Points on Salkever's end can be argued as well: lots of consumers getting eReaders are getting them because they do buy lots of books per year. Or perhaps not everyone shelling out $300 for a device won't just replace it two years later because a newer one has come out. Lots to think about.

Finally, a new standard price for eBooks has emerged and I'm not liking it very much. Who else feels $9.99 for an eBook is a bit much, particularly when I can't access it without the device that reads it? I've often thought that $9.99 for a paperback is normal; this seems to me a good excuse to push paperback prices higher and hardback costs through the roof. Yet publishers complain that these prices will kill them...

Much to see and discuss on all fronts. eBook/eReader questions are popping up again and again, proving that there's still a lot to learn and figure out.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Gloomy rainbows

A little teaspoon of gloom, Reading Rainbow is officially going off the air (hat tip Read Street). To put it frankly, this is pretty depressing news even if the show's main audience is quite grown now.

Research has directed programming toward phonics and reading fundamentals as the front line of the literacy fight. Reading Rainbow occupied a more luxurious space — the show operated on the assumption that kids already had basic reading skills and instead focused on fostering a love of books.

It's disappointing that public television keeps aiming for younger and younger ages as opposed to funding appropriate shows for slightly older children as well, particularly a show that aims to instill in kids an appreciation for reading and books. The end of the show would be less bittersweet if only the reasons for its closing were slightly... better. I hope (and would like to think) funding will eventually return to a show like this.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


I somehow stumbled across the very strange and interesting OnFiction and found this particularly fascinating article:
Those who had an imaginary friend tended to provide a richer narrative when asked to retell a story compared to those who did not. Specifically, their stories tended to include more descriptors, dialogue, character names, temporal-locative-causal details, and more verbatim recall. Interestingly enough, these two groups did not differ in their vocabulary ability, nor did they differ in their ability to comprehend stories.
Indeed. Little to add, only that OnFiction is rich with articles that look at reading from another angle (and not only reading and books), information on research (such as the above) and little psychology related stories.