Other Narrative Forms

I haven’t read any books yet this year. Don’t worry. I am okay. I haven’t torched my To Be Read piles. I have been reading other forms of narrative. I didn’t mean to set about on the experiment but now that I find myself a month into it, I find myself interested.

Sometime late 2020, I switched my digital subscriptions for both The Atlantic and Wired over to print. They now arrive in the mail which I find tremendously exciting. I adore the writing, ideas and design of both publications but realized that something important was missing from the experience of reading them on the iPad. I enjoyed the magical convenience of reading on the iPad, but finally conceded reading that way had become a sterile experience, a sacrifice of the senses in exchange for digital gluttony. Reading magazines on screen, I gorged myself on the lines of words, all laid out in digital rows of neatly flowable text, but never really tasting any of it. When I introduced the habit of commonplacing, the situation was made worse by the need to copy and paste passages from one digital document into another. Now, I am reading gorgeous, interesting, varied essays with both page and pen in hand. I directly mark the text to flag passages for rescue into my commonplace keeper and when I am done I type out the passages or notes and then recycle the magazine. I bend, fold and flag the pages and when I am done I drop the issue into recycle, an act of grateful finality akin to wiping one’s face with a nice cloth napkin.

My reading of print magazines brought something important back into my reading life. Also, print magazines do not hide. They make themselves seen. They are a house guest that insist on hospitality. They do not disappear when the iPad light goes off. They demand active reading or active ignoring. Like bratty, delightful children.

And so, late last year I found myself splitting time between the reading of books and the reading of magazine articles. In December, I discovered my local public library offers a digital reading app called Hoopla. Having just extolled the pleasures of reading my magazines in print, you may wonder why a new digital reading app would pull me off the bookly path. Hoopla is a platform offering together eBooks, eAudiobooks, and also graphic novels.

I started listening to audiobooks. At first, it was Esther Perel soon followed by similar authors who write on topics of deep interest but for which I do not necessarily want to be seen carrying around the titles in hard cover. Also, audiobooks fit into my ears which mean they fit into the uncrowded spaces of my life — while driving, walking, working out. Listening to books is a different way of engagement. With the right narrator (Esther Perel reads her own) listening is its own kind of bookish intimacy. And so down the audiobook rabbit hole, I go.

But the main draw of Hoopla for me is the availability of graphic novels. Many thousands of them, entire series, lushly illustrated and easy to carry and read on iPad. Being a nerd with mostly nerd friends, you might have assumed I have been reading graphic novels since I was a kid. Not so. I could never allow myself to explore them because of the cost. Comics and graphic novels are expensive. When you fall into love with a series, you are trapped. There is no escaping. When this happens as a kid, you just accept that all your discretionary income belongs to Marvel and DC and Vertigo and Dark Horse. When you are an adult, giving them your money means you might not eat or wear clothes. You are likely to get wet when it rains.

With the discovery of Hoopla, I have become a 47 year old catching up on a lifetime of missed stories. There is no end to the paths I may wander.

And so, last week I realized what’s actually happening for me isn’t really about print versus digital. It is about variety of narrative form. There are many ways to tell a story. Book length stories are only one.

This isn’t about attention span. I still adore book length stories but I wonder how that mode of reading became my sole focus. As I try to make my way back into the habits of writing, I find myself unclear how to write a short story. This is likely because I read so few short stories.

Thus, the realization that the ability to write widely comes from the experience of reading widely. And so, I find myself curious about the many forms narrative takes and how each allows something different from the other forms. I find myself curious to know if my stuckness has been an actual stuckness of ideas or if, instead, it has been self-imposed limits on what I assume to be the shape of narrative.

I have decided to lean into this experience a bit, make an experiment of it. Not necessarily stopping to read the book length stories. That thought makes me sad. But to mix in a heavy amount of articles, essays, audio, graphic novel and short story. Let it all mix in a pastiche. See where it takes me.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Pexels.com

Not Now. Daddy’s Reading.

I had a good Thanksgiving. One of the major pleasures of the long holiday weekend was the opportunity to read for several hours at one sitting on Saturday morning. That doesn’t happen too often. Between work, house and family, I usually read in short gasps these days. When I do read, I often find myself reaching for the kinds of things you read when your attention is frayed — blog posts, Twitter links, short articles. Nothing too taxing. The hard, long-form stuff gets pushed into my Instapaper account for later. Later never comes.

I am reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, a 900+ page wrist-bender of a book. This is the kind of book the Kindle was made for – light weight, easy page turning, no book mark to misplace.

Still, as I was reading, a part of my mind was busy wondering what my daughter thinks I am doing when I read the Kindle. I grew up loving books because my parents love reading. My dad read books and newspaper. My mom read magazines. I saw them reading. I saw the book in my dad”s hands. I watched him work his way through the pages. When he finished, the book changed. I could keep track of how fast he read, how quickly he moved through the pages.

My daughter can’t do that. She loves to read, but I wonder if, somehow, the experience of seeing me read on a Kindle or an iPad or an iPhone deprives her of some essential element that seals that love for reading. The outside of the book never changes.

Worse, when reading on the iPad, how does she know I am reading a book and not watching a video or playing a game or surfing the web?

It comes down to gestures and demeanor, I suppose. The act of reading is essentially a meditative act. The outward signs of the internal activity are steady, intent focus. I’m sure she can tell the difference from when I am reading and when I am doing something else. I wonder if seeing me read on a multipurpose device, like the iPad, diminishes for her that sacred sense I picked up watching my dad read. Or, if there is a sacred sense, if the positive feelings around that act will transfer to the device in general more than to the hidden object of my actual attention.

It is a bit maddening to consider.

I don’t worry so much about my daughter. She already loves books, both paper and virtual. I read in both formats often, so she knows books as objects are important to me. Still, I wonder in how many households will the love of reading become confused or conflated with the love of a specific device. In other words, will the tablet or eReader become fetishized in the same way that books are fetishized?

I had a terrific morning reading last Saturday. I read for a few hours, then played with my daughter, then read some more. Back and forth. Several times, she asked if I was ready to play.

“Not now. Daddy’s reading.” These aren’t words I say very often. Maybe I should say them more often. They are significant words which I think she will remember.

No worries. She didn’t feel neglected. “Okay,” she told me. “I’ll just grab a book and we can read together in our minds.” This was her way of saying we could each read our own books together in silence. I do believe this remains one of the main joys of human experience — the feeling that comes from sitting together in silence, enjoying one another’s company while swallowed up in the delicious isolation of your own books. It is a part of what makes libraries so comforting.

We spent the best part of our Saturday morning this way, she and I. I was reading my Kindle. She was reading a print book. We were reading together in our minds. I’m pretty sure everything is going to be okay.


What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (a mid-book review)

I am halfway through Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Carr is the guy who wrote the excellent Atlantic essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” several years ago in which he documented his personal sense that reading online was somehow ruining his familiar mental habits — namely, concentration and focus. “Ruining”, I thought at the time, was an unfairly harsh term. He takes a more nuanced, thoughtful approach to his own experience of reading in the book-length study.

Page 125 of a 224 page book is not the ideal place from which to write a review. That said, I am ready to recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand what is probably happening to us in the age of ubiquitous internet access. Carr’s argument expands on the theme established in his Atlantic essay: the internet is destroying our ability to read deeply and engage with text-based narrative in a linear, hierarchical, rational fashion. Hypertext and multimedia “enhanced” text is changing the experience of reading and rewiring the way our minds are able to read.

The Atlantic essay struck me as alarmist, reactionary even. The Shallows places the new ways of thinking engendered by the internet into the context of other mind-altering technologies that actually changed the way our brains worked: the alphabet, numbers, the map, the clock, the codex. Carr examines how these new technologies of intellect have made entirely new thought processes possible and, thus, altered physical structures in the human mind. These changes play out over the course of millennia but they also play out in the course of a human lifetime. In the case of the internet, these changes may play out in a matter of days or weeks.

There’s a lot of strong scholarship in this book. I will come back for a better review 100 pages from now. For now, I just want to share how impressed I am with Carr’s ability to summarize the history of technological innovation, describe how it works and create a meaningful context that is value-neutral and does not necessarily crown contemporary humans as the apotheosis of what we will become. We are not necessarily destined to remain as we are. We are most likely destined to continue our process of becoming something else. This has happened before. It is going to happen again.

Carr says it better. Here’s a great passage from his chapter on the history of reading aloud vs. reading alone:

Like our forebears during the later years of the Middle Ages, we find ourselves today between two technological worlds. After 550 years, the printing press and its products are being pushed from the center of our intellectual life to its edges. The shift began during the middle years of the twentieth century, when we started devoting more and more of our time and attention to the cheap, copious, and endlessly entertaining products of the first wave of electric and electronic media: radio, cinema, phonograph, television. But those technologies were always limited by their inability to transmit the written word. They could displace but not replace the book. Culture’s mainstream still ran through the printing press.

Now the mainstream is being diverted, quickly and decisively, into a new channel. The electronic revolution is approaching its culmination as the computer — desktop, laptop, handheld — becomes our constant companion and the Internet becomes our medium of choice for storing, processing, and sharing information in all forms, including text. The new world will remain, of course, a literate world, packed with the familiar symbols of the alphabet. We cannot go back to the lost oral world, any more than we can turn the clock back to a time before the clock existed. “Writing and printing and the computer,” writes Walter Ong, “are all ways of technologizing the word”; and once technologized, the word cannot be de-technologized. But the world of the screen, as we’re already coming to understand, is a much different place from the world of the page. A new intellectual ethic is taking hold. The pathways in our brains are once again being rerouted. (77)

This is a very enjoyable, well-researched, well-built study. I just hope there are still people out there able to sit still long enough to enjoy it.

Reading is fun again. Thanks, Kindle.

Just finished reading George Martin’s Game of Thrones. A truly great read. I enjoyed this book more than anything I have read in recent memory. Someday soon, I may write a fuller review. Not now.

For now, I’m just struck by how much fun it is to read. For the past year or so, I’ve been reading fairly serious stuff and thinking a lot about the mechanics of reading on an eReader. I have extolled the virtues of reading on the iPad and I stand by those comments. But reading on the dedicated Kindle reader is more fulfilling in some ways.

Reading on the iPad has a bit of artificiality to it. The iPad is great for my technical and professional reading. I can cover much more ground and gather news from a variety of sources. But the reading I do on the iPad is primarily for information, for learning, discovering and understanding. My iPad keeps me well-informed.

Somehow in all of this, I had forgotten how healthful it is for me to read for escape, to immerse myself in the details of a time/place that does not exist. I love print books because they are single-function devices. A good fiction book is an escape pod. You get in, pull the cord and go where it takes you. You don’t strictly get to decide where you are going. You are just going somewhere that isn’t here.

But, let’s be honest, print books are sometimes a bit of a drag. You’ve got to carry them around, keep up with them, remember to stick them in your work bag for lunch break, and you never seem to have them handy when you find yourself with an unexpected 15 minutes to read.

The Kindle, like a print book, is a totem. It is a magical object that does that same one thing. Except I can carry it everywhere because I can read on my eReader, my iPad app and my iPhone. Being able to pick up the story when and where I want is a liberating experience. It makes reading fun again.

Having written all this, I’m not sure if this post is about the Kindle making reading fun or simple my own rediscovery that fiction is fun and helpful to my overall well-being.

Either way, I love to read. Reading is fun again. I am grateful, at least in part, to Kindle for helping me rediscover that.

Open community access to wireless is no longer optional for quality library service

I had a peculiar experience today. A community patron called, asking if they could come to the Roane State Community College library to use our wireless to buy books for her 9 year old granddaughter’s Nook. She bought the Nook for her granddaughter because she loves to read, but the grandmother lacks the home internet access required to download eBooks.

She contacted a local public library and was informed that current policies do not allow community guests to access their wireless network with personally owned devices.

The grandmother contacted us to ask if we had freely available wireless access for guests. We do. I told her we would be glad to help her connect and purchase eBooks for her Nook. However, if she just needed free wireless access, she might consider McDonald’s as another convenient option.

She’s coming to visit us, and I am glad. It was a peculiar feeling to suggest that the local McDonald’s might be more conducive place to obtain eBooks than her local public library.

This is not a criticism of our local public libraries. They are doing the best they can with the resources at hand. Just a bit disorienting to ponder this one as a hint of what 21st century librarianship has become.

Open access to wireless internet is no longer an optional add-on for quality library service. Easy, reliable wireless access has become the backbone of everything we do.


Note: This entry is cross-posted at TBR Mobile Libraries, a new blogging project I am sharing with other Tennessee Board of Regents librarians. That blog is focused primarily on TBR efforts to establish mobile-friendly library collections and services. Occassionally, posts there intersect with concerns of  Ubiquitous. Quotidian., which remains my own personal blog-child.

My latest training fail!

People who love new technologies need to be careful when teaching others how to use them. We need to remember that technologies should solve problems, not create them.

I get excited and lose sight of this basic idea sometimes. I get my reminders several times a day. The reminder is always painful.

My most recent reminder came when doing the first staff training session for downloading eBooks to eReaders.

The problem we face is pretty complex: getting library books distributed easily and immediately to our students, staff and faculty at 8 teaching locations plus online. eBooks are the technological answer.

The problem is eBook downloads are, by design, not easy. Here’s the nutshell: two product platforms; a proliferation of eReaders which use different file types, three different passwords (library authentication for off-campus use, product login for download, Adobe ID for DRM authentication) and a separate download of Adobe Content Manager to drag the book through to receive its DRM christening. For tablet users, don’t forget the need to download the app and the app store password you will need to get the app if not already loaded. BTW, if you have Kindle Fire and are wanting a non-Kindle compliant title, you will need an entirely different set of instructions to go outside the normal Kindle app process, modify your device settings and then download the reading app while ignoring your devices warnings that the app you are downloading may not be safe.

Sounds bad, yes? It is. At least, the set up is. Once past the initial set up, downloading eBooks works great and solves a pretty significant problem: how to get library books where I want them, when I want them.

Here’s how to train staff on this process: give them step by step written instructions, give them laptops that have not yet been associated with ACM software and have them walk through the proccess step by step for themselves and then discuss what and why.

Here’s what I did: explain the difference between “dumb” eReaders (non-cloud based) vs. “smart” tablet eReaders; touch on why authentication is required and, if possible, a bit about how that works; describe what DRM does and why publishers want to ruin their own products with it; gush about all the technical things going on behind the scenes that make eBooks possible. Then, do a demo and then have them do one on the device of their own choice.

FAIL! We all came away a bit dispirited and thinking that maybe eBooks cause more problems than they solve. That isn’t true, of course. eBooks are a useful, practical solution to a real and significant problem: getting library books to patrons where they need them, when they want them. The process isn’t as elegant as it needs to be, yet, but is still a real improvement over the need for patrons to search the catalog, request a book and then wait one or two days for the book to be sent to a campus they will physically visit to receive the item.

eBooks are great. They work and will help our students, staff and faculty. That isn’t what I taught my team on Friday.

It wasn’t a total loss. Any time I can get reminded to make training simple, direct and practical, the better I become at training. I should be a training superhero pretty soon!

The takeaway:

When teaching others how to use new technologies, the focus has to be directly centered on what the particular tool at hand can do for them. Presumably, the use of appropriate tools makes part of our work easier so we can focus on more complex matters at hand and achieve bigger things. Forget this and you’ve got a recipe for failure.

The Kindle is magic (too)

I got a Kindle for Christmas. Not the Kindle Fire. The other one. The one that people get when they actually want to read on it.

For those keeping score, yes, you are correct. I got an iPad last Christmas. There are certainly more important things to honor and celebrate at Christmas than the acquisition of new technologies. This blog isn’t about those things. Still with me? Read on.

For the past year, I have been loving the iPad as an eReader. I have mostly used the BlueFire app and only occasionally the Kindle app. The Blue Fire app is quite versatile and allows easy import of ePub and PDF titles. BlueFire works brilliantly with our library’s eBrary eBook collection allowing the reader to leapfrog over the need to download Adobe Content Server to the personal computer. All that’s needed is a college issued account to access the eBrary database, a personal eBrary account to register your checkouts and an Adobe account to manager the DRM. Headache, right? Much easier than it sounds once you’ve done it a time or two.

My major complaint with Blue Fire is the inability to organize your library. Books all land in one tank and stay that way until you delete them. Also, you can’t easily rename files dropped into your Blue Fire tank. So if the PDF article comes over with a crazy title like ASDAFASDFLKWJERJWERFSADFSDF124244545.PDF, you are pretty much stuck with having to remember what that is. Not cool. Still, I have enjoyed the iPad eReading experience very much.

Reading on the iPad is very easy and enjoyable. I like the size and shape of the “book” in my hand. My major problem has been that I can’t seem to find time to read because every time I pull the tablet out during the day, my daughter wants to grab it from me to play games. Every parent knows, the only time you get to read during the day is when your child is sufficiently distracted doing something else.

Enter Kindle.

Several of my friends have been Kindle readers as long as I’ve been an iPad reader. Setting aside the whole iOS vs. Android thing, most of my Kindle pals say that the iPad is a fine and magical thing but that reading on a tablet isn’t really the same thing as a reading on a dedicated eReading device. General impressions hold that reading on a tablet is more distracting, nerve-racking or just somehow more awkward. I didn’t get it. I thought this was a silly distinction. That reading was reading and it didn’t really matter if it was on a color, touch screen tablet, a gray scale e-ink device or paper.

I was wrong. The iPad still has heavy magic, but the Kindle has a simple, totemic kind of magic that gets closer to what I really love about books. The basic Kindle does one thing and does it really, really well — it gets you reading. There aren’t many whistles or bells. That’s wrong actually. There are millions of whistles and bells. They are just all hidden under the hood. They are built into the framework where you don’t have to see them if you don’t want to. The magic:

  • I register my Kindle to my Amazon account and every eBook I have ever purchased is immediately available.
  • My books follow my progress across every device. I can read on my Kindle, my iPhone and iPad without every losing my place.
  • Not only can I highlight passages and make notes. I can share my notes and quotes through Facebook and Twitter. This is the kind of social reading I keep expecting to find from GoodReads.
  • I haven’t tried the public notes yet, but the idea of crowdsourced text glossing is pretty interesting, yes?
  • The Kindle fits in my jacket pocket.
  • My daughter doesn’t want to grab the Kindle away from me because it is just words on a screen. Nothing special to see here. This device doesn’t play Angry Birds.

I’ve been reading with the Kindle for less than 12 hours now, so there will be more to say on this. For now, I just want to tell my Kindle loving friends: “You were right and I was (a little bit) wrong.”

Are eBooks for kids?

Are eBooks good for kids who are learning how to read? Said another way, are eBooks as good as print books for kids who are learning how to read?

This NY Times article has some thoughts from eReading parents on the matter. I sense a bit of ambivalence about eText in their answers. There is a sense that eBooks are great for established readers but may somehow diminish the reading experience for younger kids.

My daughter is four and a half. She is starting to read. I kind of expected this to happen sooner rather than later. Of greater surprise to me, she is also starting to exhibit a writing mania. She sits at the table for long stretches of time, sometimes an hour or so, copying words from objects near her on the table.

Today I got a drawing entitled “The Power Dad”. Yesterday’s picture was Yoplait-themed. Saturday’s was “Pink Panther Cartoon Classics”. You get the idea.

As a parent, my job is to worry about stuff I have no control over. My daughter loves books, but occasionally I worry that she isn’t spending as much time with paper books as I did when I was a kid. She reads paper books a lot but also spends a good deal of time playing iPad, watching PBS kids’ shows and playing Wii. This is in addition to hours of unstructured high imagination time. I don’t specifically worry that she isn’t loving books enough. She loves books. She treats books well and handles them as important possessions. The interesting thing is that she reads on the iPad nearly as often as she reads on the page. And the iPad apps are interactive, encouraging letter tracing, word sounds and pattern recognition.

Anecdotally, I’d say her iPad reading has contributed greatly to her early reading success and has fostered a early fondness for constructing words as well. So, no worries about eBooks or other eText experiences somehow ruining her mind. She will learn to read soon and well because her home life is supportive of reading.

And that gets me to my more specific concern. I have read studies (need to cite here…) which indicate that the greatest predictor of future academic ability is the presence of books in the home. Does that include invisible eBooks or print only?

My guess is that a home where print books are ubiquitous is more likely to be a home where reading is commonplace. Reading is in the water and gets into the DNA at an early age. This probably comes from seeing parents read. I remember growing up and watching my dad read books. I remember enjoying reading my own books while he was reading his. So here’s the thing: if most of my reading is done on the iPad or other eReading device, how can my daughter differentiate the times I am reading a novel  from the times I am reading the “news” (for me, RSS feeds) from the times I am playing Word Dash, Traffic Rush or some other frivolous thing?

Reading is a personal thing, but the image of someone reading is very public. That changes with eReaders. Wonder what the impact will be and how much that will matter?



Amazon’s eBook lending library is not the library apocalypse

A few days ago, Amazon announced its free eBook lending service to Amazon Prime members. I read this program summary from AppAdvice and thought, “Uh oh. Here it is. The library apocalypse.”

I didn’t rush to blog about this, which actually worked out in my favor. Cooler heads prevail. Bobbi Newman of Librarian By Day has this very succinct, reasonable assessment.

In short, there isn’t enough content freely available at Amazon’s lending library to compete with the sheer volume of free content available in public libraries. The one free eBook per month (with restrictions) cannot compete with the free access to multiple books (ie. “all you can read”) available through public libraries.

Also noteworthy: this service only works for actual Kindle users. This service is intentionally built not to work with iOS Kindle apps. This is mostly about an incentive to give people one more reason to buy a very moderately priced Kindle eReader or the new Kindle Fire. Great PR move.

Amazon Prime is a good deal and this free lending service looks pretty interesting. I see a few titles in the list that I want to read myself. A bit tempting to try. Amazon is trying to lure heavy readers into buying their eBooks from Amazon. That’s fine, but most serious readers I know use both the public library and Amazon.

What do you think? Can Amazon lure you away from your local public library for the price of one free borrowed eBook every month? Or, might the reading tent be big enough to accommodate more than one option for getting free stuff to read when you want to read it?

First World Problems?

While I’ve been busy blogging about my frustrations with upgrading to iOS5, Sarah Houghton (Librarian in Black) has been busy telling the world how librarians got screwed by the recent deal between Overdrive and Amazon. Basically, Amazon has agreed to make Overdrive eBooks super simple for registered library patrons. In exchange, library patrons’ reading histories and other personal data will become property of Amazon. Amazon users should already be familiar with this practice as it is a standard aspect of the Amazon EULA (you do read those, right?).

Library patrons will also have the chance to purchase the borrowed books they especially enjoy.

Nothing sinister on the surface, perhaps. I like getting book recommendations from Amazon based on what I bought that others bought.

But LiB is correct in her righteous fuming to chastise us librarians for being so willing to turn a blind eye to the privacy concerns so quickly in order to catch the eContent we need to satisfy demand. We need to have a conversation about this, even if, at the end of the day, we sign on to the deal anyway.

Watch the video and let me know what you think of her arguments. BTW, parts of her rant are NSFW.

More than a few comments suggest that privacy is such a 20th century idea. At least one person calls Sarah’s privacy concerns a “First World problem”. Having to get more memory so I can upgrade to iOS5 is the very definition of a First World Problem. Not wanting to easily surrender the idea that “free people read freely” and privately may be a First World problem of sorts. If so, it is the underpinnings of our First World way of life.