Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bye-bye, novel

Once again, someone decides to spread stories of gloom and doom about the future of the written word. This time, it's Philip Roth, who despite thinking that 25 years down the line there won't be any more novels, insists on writing them. Roth suggests that screens will replace reading, no matter how hard eReaders try to spice it up.
The author believes that the concentration and focus required to read a novel is becoming less and less prevalent, as potential readers turn instead to computers or to television. "I was being optimistic about 25 years really. I think it's going to be cultic. I think always people will be reading them but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range,"
Okay, Mr Roth. Let's go through these sentiments and shoot them down one by one.

1. Film as a form of entertainment has existed for almost 100 years. In these 100 years, literacy rates have risen. Yes, obviously part of the reason they've risen is because education standards have gone up along with technological advancements, but with this rise has come the concept of the mass-market book. People didn't stop reading because they could go to the movies; why should that happen today? What's changed?

2. The computer as a popular form of entertainment has been around for about fifteen years. Now, this may seem like hardly any time but in today's culture, things change quickly and decisively. Look how long it took eReaders to become normal. If the computer was going to eliminate the novel, wouldn't it be showing significantly by now? If anything, the computer has helped many people learn about literature, access certain books, and has made book-buying a much simpler thing.

3. Behold. This is an online journal that talks about books (and only books). Including novels. This "cult" of readers is massive - there are hundreds (thousands?) of books bloggers currently active, tens of thousands of Facebook users join book/reading related groups, hundreds of thousands of people write reviews on sites like Amazon, Goodreads, and LibraryThing, and many more elsewhere. Are these large numbers just part of a "small group"? The number of people that read Latin poetry is... er... I have no idea. Maybe the reason people don't read Latin poetry is because nobody speaks Latin fluently. It's a dead language, remember? And how to define "a small group of people"? But let's assume for a moment that reading really is in decline. How in decline will it get? Do I, child of the internet, substitute reading literature with time spent on the computer? Absolutely not. Do I watch television for the same reasons I read? Even less so.

Mr Roth is basically saying (as others have before him) that the written word is dying and will be something so minute that it'll turn cult-like. I vehemently disagree. Literary phenomena like "Harry Potter", "Twilight", Dan Brown and others may incite his (and others) wrath (quality drop, blah blah) but there they are. Millions of people around the world continue to buy books. Millions of these will still be alive in 25 years. Still be reading novels. Still be teaching their children to love and appreciate the written word. There may be many things to be frightened of with the future of books, but that they won't exist globally in the coming years is not one of them. Is Roth simply concerned about his own name in history? Don't worry, sir, your novel legacy is good so far.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Quote of the week

Also known as translation failure of the week...
The salon they entered was large. It had three windows.

-p. 40, "The Family Moskat" - Isaac Bashevis Singer, translation by A.H. Gross
It's very nice that people translate books. Really. It makes life simpler for most of us. But it's pretty disappointing to find lines like these in the midst of a book that deserves better. I suspect the blame lies with the translator, as the quote sits awkwardly compared to the rest of the page. I may obviously be mistaken and it's Isaac Bashevis Singer's fault but the impression was that the translation flubbed. Thankfully, most of "The Family Moskat" is better written (and translated) than these two sentences. It would make for pretty uncomfortable reading if not...

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Flight stories

The following were seen on a flight going between the U.K. and the U.S.:
  • Two people (a man and a woman) in the same row (on opposite sides of the plane) were spotted reading "The Lost Symbol" by Dan Brown. The woman read through it most of the flight and made significant headway; the man read a few chapters and then set aside the book in favor of his newspaper and a good nap.
  • A different man in the same row showed off his Kindle 2 to his travel companions seated on either side of him as the plane boarded. He displayed the way the Kindle flips pages, the weight, and presumably some of the higher brow books he had on it. He then put the Kindle away for the entire flight and read from a print newspaper. Go figure.
  • Near the end of the flight, a woman one row ahead pulled out her iPhone and began to read from it. After a few moments, it became obvious (via her method of flipping pages and her level of concentration) that she was reading an eBook. Amazon wins again?
  • And meanwhile, this correspondent was reading from a silver Sony Reader.
Once I may have been surprised to see two people reading the same book. Or a strangely titled book (also spotted a few of those). Instead, now I was surprised by the prevalence of eReaders in these three back rows: one Kindle, one Reader, and one iPhone. Apparently, eReaders are becoming more and more common by the day... well then.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Enjoying 600 books (and how!)

Disclosure: I like my Sony PRS-600 Touch Edition.

The evening I bought it, I plugged it in, let it charge fully, installed Sony's incredibly convenient eBook Library, got my first book from GoogleBooks ("Fruitfulness", Emile Zola) and began to read. I was in a state of nervousness that perhaps I had made a bad choice buying the Reader and so I approached it more cautiously than I might have otherwise. Every negative comment I'd seen about it sprung to mind again, and I was certain that I'd be incredibly disappointed.

I wasn't. Two hours later, I was engrossed in my reading, taking notes in the "margins" (something I would never do in a physical copy, for fear of ruining it) and overall pleased with the device. The biggest point against the Reader was that the screen quality was poor but in all honesty, the glare was hardly noticeable. I suppose that for those eReader experts it might have been bothersome, but the screen didn't cause me eye strain, didn't bother at all, and served its purpose quite well in providing me with a book to read. The extra features are fun, easy and wonderfully convenient, like the dictionary and the ability to take notes in the margin (the stylus is extremely responsive and is fairly easy to use, just don't let your hand rest on the screen! A mess ensues...). Embarrassing side note about the dictionary: it is so useful that when I was reading from a print book the other day, I actually attempted to double-click on the word.

Another common complaint was that flipping pages was difficult and unintuitive. Quite the contrary. It took me a little while to get used to flipping the pages with my thumb across the touch screen, but once I figured out that a little bit of nail will help, it became quick and easy. Furthermore, the buttons are perfectly placed for how I hold a book, with my thumb resting at the bottom-centre and the rest of my hand supporting the book from the back. The movement is completely natural, as though I'm reaching for a page in the bottom right corner and I'm "dragging" it across to flip.

As for access to books, I was rather pleased. The idea of free library books sold me the device and I was happy to see that the process runs smoothly. Gutenberg, GoogleBooks, and various free eBooks filled up my library quickly and easily. My Reader now holds more than 50 books I downloaded and the grand total space used comes to... ~20 MB. ePub files are about 1 KB per page; PDF can take up to a few MB (e.g. a book with 640 pages is 2 MB). Some books have pictures in them and load a little slower but the images show up just fine in black and white. Some PDFs take longer to load the first time they are accessed (a slight downside to the Reader) and though they initially appear to be tiny, upping the font size on the PDFs will lead to readable texts (though the page formats will be a little funky - not a big deal, easy to get used to).

I have other qualms as well. Take, for instance, the occasional blips. GoogleBooks sometimes-to-too-often misreads/mistranslates the original documents, leading to strange mistakes. For instance, "j" may replace ";", "<" may replace a quotation mark, "111" may replace "ill", etc. It becomes easy to keep track of, but is still a definite drawback (although not exclusive to the Reader, as it is a GoogleBooks issue). The PDF issues listed above can also be frustrating at first but these became easy to manage once I getting into the book. It just means a bit more page flipping every once in a while. Formatting also tends to be an issue. Poems often are displayed weirdly, in such a way that indented lines start with a series of "?????". All in all mess-ups appear more often than one would like but don't do much more than irritate, in the same way an advanced reader's copy might annoy with silly goofs. Again, I note, in nearly all cases of formatting error, it is the fault of the source, not the Reader itself.

A lot of people may shy away from the lack of internet on this Reader, but as long as the internet provided remains 3G, somewhat limited, and not wi-fi, I'm okay without. The screen quality is quite good for those used to computers (I can't say about those upgrading from older Sony models) and reading from it is comfortable. Overall, the convenience far outshines the downsides and the device is both fun and useful.

The reader is obviously not right for everyone. There are many die-hard print supporters (though clearly this will not replace the printed book, they will coexist) but for those interested in technology and willing to dip their toes into this volatile market, I can say that Sony's product is certainly worthwhile. Here's to hoping the price will eventually drop, though. Perhaps soon enough that I'll get a refund as well...?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Some Sony

I've been to Sony stores around the world. I've handled the old 505s, the fairly poor quality 700s (sloppy original touch screen), and the newer models. I've had the opportunity to see just how the products work, read a couple of pages and figure out the pros. Other eReaders? Nothing. Blips on the radar. I've heard much about the Kindles, written tons about them, even seen them in the hands of random people or acquaintances... but Amazon never openly came and offered them to me for even a store run. I am a naturally suspicious consumer and Amazon did not make the situation easier for me. Sony did.

Months ago, when I realized I didn't want the Kindle 2, a friend who had handled a Sony PRS-505 suggested I check it out. After seeing the 505 and the 700, I was immediately drawn to the 505 (standard size, a series of buttons along the edge; a quintessential original-style eReader) but knew that a new model was sure to emerge soon. I waited patiently and out came the 600 and the PRS-300 Pocket Edition (immediately ruled out; too simple, too small). The 600 intrigued me: I enjoyed handling it, the screen quality was miles ahead of where the 700 had been (though I'll admit that it's still not quite as crisp as the 505 or the 300, though it's pretty good), and the touch quality made it comfortable and convenient. But this did not sell the product to me. Again, I'm a suspicious consumer and serving as a guinea pig for eReaders did not appeal to me unless the product went above and beyond.

So Sony went above and beyond. It offered me free books. Lots of them. One of the original points that bothered me with the Kindle was that it had no library offer (incidentally, the most viewed post on this blog, thanks to numerous Google searches). eBook prices are unjustly high and in addition to purchasing the machine, I have to buy the books as well for about as much as the paperback? No thank you. But Sony's library option took my terrible original idea and made it good. I take a U.S. (or U.K.) library card, plug it into the system, see if my library participates and can then check books out. I am lucky to have 4 active library cards of which 3 are participants in the program, and given time I'm sure the fourth will join too. I add a book to my cart, check it out, upload it to my Reader and two weeks later it just expires. Simple, to the point, and blissfully free. Coupled with the ability to take advantage of Gutenberg, GoogleBooks and any PDF eBook or document... that's a lot of convenient free material. And all of it open; no DRM. I bought the PRS-600 Touch Edition in silver.

This is not to say that Amazon's price cuts the day following my purchase didn't disconcert me. The fact that it was suddenly open round the world bothered me too (much of my time is spent abroad), because that point had initially disqualified the Kindles. But I quickly realized that it was silly to second guess. I had many initial doubts with the Kindle. I still do. I don't like Amazon's totalitarian take on things - closed format, buy all through Amazon, sneaky fingers in accounts, charging for certain free public domain books (at lower prices), etc. I don't like the lack of PDF compatibility. I don't like the placement of the flip page buttons (I don't hold books that way). I don't like the 3G (which for the abroad folks probably costs a lot more than Amazon is letting on). I don't like the giant keyboard, as convenient as it may be for taking notes. Sure, the Sony's touch keyboard is a bit slow at times but it gets the job done and doesn't add extra bulk to the device. Most of all, I don't like paying for eBooks. Amazon, as ruler of the online purchasers, has created the standard expensive eBook price (my complete rant will come another time) and leads all others to follow in their footsteps, not wanting to be outdone. I want my eReader for free books and so the Sony won out with its library, its comfortable GoogleBooks support and the various other options.

Why now? Now, when things are changing every ten minutes? One day the Kindle is priced the same as the Sony, the next the Sony is the more expensive of the two. One day Sony is king of eReader land, the next Amazon launches new products. Barnes & Nobles wants to join in, the iLiad gains attention, color eReaders seem on the horizon, wi-fi is expected (at some point, hopefully)... why would I buy what seems to be a sub-par eReader now, especially if it's unreasonably priced?

I've thought about it a lot. Nervous consumer and all that. Ultimately, the current market continues changing constantly. Even if new brands pop up, I'm not going to jump to them because a new product is typically less reliable than an established brand (Sony, in this case). I can't sit around waiting for the product to be perfect because that's never going to happen. If I want to experiment with a new device, I'll need to pick one at some point and go with it, just to see how it is. Maybe at some point I'll realize that I don't like my Sony and I'll get the newest Kindle. Or I'll decide that I don't like eReaders at all and will stick to my print books with religious love. For now, I took the plunge and made my decision. Let's see what comes of it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Winners and finalists

Last week, Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize for her novel "Wolf Hall". The surprise came in that Mantel was the expected win. Bookies and fans claimed her to be the favorite and indeed she won.

That Thursday, Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This Romanian-born German writer was received with a lot of criticism in the U.S. immediately, as many began to cry foul, claiming that the Nobels were far too Europe-centric. Müller, virtually unknown in the U.S. until her ascension as Nobel laureate, was seen as an obscure, bad pick by many, while others insisted that the problem was with the U.S. for not recognizing one of Germany's top authors, especially one who has been translated into English (nice list here). It's an interesting debate but is fairly pointless. Instead, let's congratulate Müller on her win and get reading her works.

Meanwhile, on U.S. soil, the National Book Award Finalists have been revealed. The picks emerge from over a thousand possibilities and will probably pinpoint a truly good book (going based on previous years' winners). Here is a prize with little controversy: there's not much in the finalist lists to complain about. In addition to the finalists, Gore Vidal and Dave Eggers received the awards for
Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and The Literarian Award, respectively.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Arabic, Israel and an optimistic Guardian

The Guardian's post from a couple of weeks ago, one that I think will go unnoticed by most, suggests that increased awareness might help the infamous conflict in the Middle East. How will this increased awareness be achieved? It raises the fact that for the first time ever, Egypt will see translations of works by Israeli authors and looks at the small Israeli publishers seeking to broaden their bases.
Israeli readers are spoilt for choice when it comes to tracking down international literature in Hebrew translation. [...] The literary curiosity of Hebrew readers seems to do something of a hop and a skip over their next-door neighbours before settling in further flung climes. [...] But there are attempts, small yet meaningful, to introduce Arabic literature to the Hebrew-reading public. One example is Tel Aviv-based Andalus Books. The publishing house takes its inspiration from the "golden era" of intellectual thought and activity in the Iberian peninsula[.]
A commenter below the post discusses the voracity of Israeli readers, boasting that Israeli bookstores have large English and Arabic sections, which is half true - Israeli bookstores have a fairly wide variety of English language books, Russian books and often various others, but its Arabic sections (in the major bookstores, at least) tend to be small or non-existent. Certain areas, I'm sure, can show off large Arabic-language sections (areas with prominent Arab communities, no doubt) but the vast majority of Israel's main-chain bookstores do not offer much in the way of Arabic.

The core question here is whether or not Andalus Books will be effective. The Guardian seems to think that the publishing of Arab books will lead to better days. That is unlikely. Andalus' publications will most likely go unnoticed in the country that, as the article itself mentions, is currently reading "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo". It's not even necessarily something against Andalus' attempt. Most Israelis, like the whole world, content themselves with the bestsellers recommended to them by booksellers. And it's particularly difficult in Israel, where bookstores are notoriously tiny (though common). So aside from the fact that it's difficult for Israelis to hear about the smaller, more random presses, there's the issue of whether or not the vast majority of Israelis will want to read Arabic books in translation.

Here is where some politics enters. The honest truth is that a large group of Israelis would yell at the idea immediately. But to be even more honest, these are often the same people that wouldn't read much in the first place (no offence, guys). It is true that Israel's left would be more willing to read these books and assuredly would appreciate and enjoy some of them (assuming these are good books; quality literature). It does mean, however, that the potential audience for these books is already small and getting smaller. Yes - Israeli culture does treat reading differently than American or British culture meaning a possible opening for Arabic books in translation. On the other hand, it'll be difficult to pass along these books and their possible positive messages to wide audiences. So the Guardian's enthusiasm should wait for reality to catch up.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

If not this way, how?

The Primo Parade marches on with the most recent Levi read: "If Not Now, When?". The title, which comes from a song the characters use as a sort of anthem, proves to be far more upbeat and optimistic than the brunt of the novel itself. But that's normal. The book is grim but hopeful; every character strives for the better life they might have, a character contemplating suicide presents it in a fairly negative fashion and ultimately there's always a happy ending, right?

Well, sort of. Primo Levi amazes me again and again. First, "The Periodic Table" managed to hook me onto his writing through a couple of sentences about hydrogen. Then, "If This is a Man" made me realize how much I'd been missing for years - the ultimate and original Auschwitz story, where Levi made me visit a familiar story with new eyes. The experience was quite fascinating (certainly not good or nice, but a curiously powerful sensation nonetheless). And now "If Not Now, When?". What to say?

Merely this: Every aspect that glowed in either of the previous books comes to life here. Yet in the same vein, the book is not flawless. It at times feels rushed - take, for instance, the way it is repeatedly mentioned that a certain group has 40+ members, yet only ten or so are ever named. Events only include these named characters, as though the others are only extras "to kill off" (not the case, by the way). The book also requires a flexible imagination. It is, after all, more an adventure tale than anything else and that's the core of it all. "If Not Now, When?" is a glorious novel, yet it acts like Levi's previous works. Here, too, emerge living, breathing men and women, though this time they aren't real. Here, made-up stories are carefully woven such that not a single thread remains loose. Here, the horrors of the Holocaust reveal and nauseate, reminding readers that the world is not always a grand and cheerful place.

Above all else, "If Not Now, When?" is Primo Levi's novel. 3rd person, full of adventure, love and drama, death and mayhem, fights and battles, good and evil. But Levi doesn't leave it at that. Often, main character Mendel finds himself wondering about death and killing - he wonders where the moral line must be drawn. Is it, he asks himself, legitimate to kill under any circumstances? He struggles with this train of thought throughout the whole book while others pick sides - some declare all killings unjustified and wrong, some say killing Nazis and S.S. soldiers doesn't count as murder. This question, along with other moral topics raised and masterfully handled, aims to present a full picture of life as a partisan in Poland and the Soviet Union. Primo Levi may not have lived this life, but "If Not Now, When?" proves that he was certainly an excellent enough writer to bring it to existence nonetheless.