A new future for reading?

April 28, 2010

By Tina Hovekamp, Library

Last week I attended a webinar on new technology gadgets.  The main emphasis of the talk was on the new iPad (of course!) and secondarily on other tablets or e-readers available out there.  As a matter of fact, it looks like the whole web has been consumed with discussion about the iPad device since its launching a few weeks ago.  People every day now have been arguing on the plus and minuses of this new gadget and how it compares to other tablets/e-readers or even traditional books.  The jury is still out for me as I tend to be more skeptical about every new piece of electronic device that seems to pop up daily and asks for attention from our pocket.  Still, I have to admit, this time I was the first to propose that we buy one of these babies for the library so I can finally get the e-reader experience I have been avoiding since Kindle’s last splash (our iPad is arriving in the beginning of May and I can’t wait to play with it!).  Are you interested in a quick read of the pros and cons people are arguing about in relation to the iPad? Click here  for a summary page a colleague recommended.

Looking at the world of digitization and electronic repackaging, books seem to be the ones most resilient to change so far. Despite the Kindles, iPhones, Sony Readers, and even the growing power of Google’s Book Search engine, people for the time being seem to still like to curl up with a book rather than a machine when it comes to real reading. Yet, the e-book business is growing impatient with its market, pushing harder and harder every year to expand its reach, currently putting most of its bets mainly on the younger generation of ‘screenagers’ to replace today’s book core buyers (middle-aged women…).  Well, perhaps they know something.  Statistics published by the International Digital Publishing Forum show that the U.S. trade retail eBook sales are going steadily up especially within the last few years despite a recession that continues to rage.  True, that’s just a tiny slice of the billions in overall book sales (barely 1 percent of books sold in the United States are electronic), but still impressive given the bad economy, which hit especially hard the publishing industry.

But do these trends also reflect changes in our reading habits, too?  In January 2009 a new study from NEA reported:

“For the first time in more than 25 years, American adults are reading more literature, according to a new study by the National Endowment for the Arts. Reading on the Rise documents a definitive increase in rates and numbers of American adults who read literature, with the biggest increases among young adults, ages 18-24. This new growth reverses two decades of downward trends cited previously in NEA reports such as Reading at Risk and To Read or Not To Read.”

Is this a surprise to you?  Read on…

  • Fiction (novels and short stories) accounts for the new growth in adult literary readers.
  • Reading poetry and drama continues to decline, especially poetry-reading among women.
  • Online readers also report reading books. Eighty-four percent of adults who read literature (fiction, poetry, or drama) on or downloaded from the Internet also read books, whether print or online.
  • Nearly 15 percent of all U.S. adults read literature online in 2008.

Click here to see the complete report of this study.

So, what does this say for the future of books and reading habits?  Beyond the debate about the advantages or disadvantages of yet another new device, one thing may be certain; technology is already changing the way people read, especially the way those young adults, ages 18-24, read.  In his post, Bob Stein of the Institute for the Future of the Book contemplates the possibility of yet another future in which novels will no longer be the dominant form of fiction but will be replaced by something that looks more like the multiplayer online game “World of Warcraft”:

“It’s not a big leap to think of the person who developed the game as an author whose art is conceiving, designing and building a virtual world in which players (readers) don’t merely watch or read the narrative [but actually contribute to it]”.

In other words, according to Stein’s vision, digital fiction will be a completely different media which could include video, sound, and readers’ comments.  Hmmm…how do you like that?  Too futuristic?  Or, maybe you better start thinking about your next gadget….


Poetry: More than pretty words

April 14, 2010

By Michele Desilva, Library

April, with its celebration of National Poetry Month, Earth Day (April 22, 2010) and Arbor Day (April 30, 2010) is one of my favorite months, in spite of T.S. Eliot’s famous dictum, “April is the cruelest month.” In September, I was browsing the shelves of a bookstore when the title of an otherwise unassuming book jumped out at me: Can Poetry Save the Earth? For some reason, I didn’t pick up the book to look at it, but the question posed by the title has stuck with me and seems to be worthy of some thoughtful consideration.

At a surface level, the question is a little ridiculous. My cynical side wonders if anything can save the earth at this point. My realistic, practical side knows that if anything can save the earth, it’s going to have to be people and it’s going to take considerable effort. But, people need tools of one sort or another to do anything, so poetry might as well be considered for inclusion in our toolbox.

At the collective, societal level, we seem to have placed our bet on science and technology. On the evening news, it’s solar energy, more efficient cars, and pollution-eating bacteria that are hailed as our saviors, not a finely tuned phrase or a well wrought metaphor. However, there is a historical precedent for works of literature – including poetry – deeply influencing our perceptions of both the natural and the manmade elements of the earth. Even before written language, oral cultures used stories to explain natural phenomena and affected how people thought about various seasons and natural occurrences. Closer to our own time, books like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring have been significant in creating change around the way we farm, eat, and treat the earth. In the West, John Muir, Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder, and Terry Tempest Williams are all authors whose works have affected both how we think about and how we treat the earth.

While pointing to nature writers and their products is one way to demonstrate how poetry might save the earth, I think poetry is equally important for the very way in which it transmits information and for the way in which it encourages us to think about the world around us. News articles, for example, give us facts and declarative sentences. Scientific articles, for the most part, give us research and results produced by observation and adherence to a specific method of production – the scientific process. Both of these are wonderful and indispensible in their own right but they are lacking what poetry provides, which is an emotional connection to a subject and the license to explore an issue or phenomena subjectively.

To see this principle in action, look out the window.  No matter where you are, you’ll likely see some grass. Now, science tells us that grasses are, “monocotyledonous plants in the family Poaceae…annual plants or are herbaceous perennials that die back to the ground surface at the end of the growing season and then regenerate the next season by shoots developing from underground rhizome or root systems” (Gale Encyclopedia of Science, 2008, p. 1991).

That’s a fine definition. Now, consider grass from a poetic point of view, via an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s, “A child said, What is grass?” Here is Whitman’s answer:

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful 
                     green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
                    may see and remark, and say Whose?

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
                    and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
                    taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
                    at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared. 

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and

That’s quite a different “definition” of grasses than we would find in an encyclopedia of science. Whitman creates all of these possibilities of being and meaning for a mundane thing. This is the power of poetry: it can shift the level of attention with which we view the everyday earth. This shift in attention can result in changed actions, with real consequences.

Growing up, I often visited the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, a relatively small but remarkable part of the Nantahala National Forest. It is remarkable because it is an example of cove hardwood forest that has never been logged – a real rarity in the southeastern US.

A stand of trees is a fitting memorial because Kilmer is the author of the much-beloved poem, “Trees”:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree…

 In this case, then, we might say that poetry managed to save a bit of the earth – an encouraging example.

Can poetry really save the earth? Not by itself. But neither can science or technology alone, either. It’s a symbiotic relationship and we need to give both kinds of thinking and action equal precedence. If there’s one thing we should have learned about the earth by now, it’s that things are far more interconnected than they sometimes appear on the surface.

Putting Annie to the Oreo Test

April 7, 2010

 By Sean “What do you Mean Oreos are Bad for You?” Rule, Math

In the March 3, 2010 ConXn blog, Tina Hovekamp shared a little video, The Story of Stuff, where the narrator, Annie Leonard, walks us through the life (and death) cycle of…well, stuff.  Amazingly enough, I was able to watch the full 20 or so minutes of it by taking in 3 minutes at a time while changing for the ride home (sorry, IT guys and gals, for eating bandwidth).  I haven’t fact – checked a thing in the video, and it really doesn’t matter; after watching Food, Inc. and reading Fast Food Nation, my mind is becoming numb to campaigns like this. 

However, in one segment of the film, Annie talks about how little a radio cost ($4.99) at Radio Shack.  I’ve often been amazed by this as well; for example, for safe night commuting, I used to use drop bar red blinking lights, similar to the ones shown at left.  They’re rad!  They pop into the ends of your road bike handlebars, point straight back so cars can see them, and their blinking pattern is visible for thousands of feet.  However, they use button cell batteries, and, when the time came to replace the batteries, I found the cost of replacing the 4 batteries exceeded the cost of the lights….and the lights had come with the batteries!  How is this possible?

Annie gives an explanation, and I’ll let you check out the video if you want to hear it.  However, last week before Rachel Knox’s awesome morning yoga class, the conversation turned to Oreos.  And, because I had just watched Annie’s video, I was thinking to myself, as I struggled not to puke in Dolphin pose, “How is it that Oreos can be so cheap?”  I mean, you can get 18 ounces of them (about 40 cookies) for under $4.  I thought to myself, “Surely, the ingredients would cost more than that…not to mention labor!  I wonder how much it would cost for me to make my own…”    

I know, I know, I know…to all of you slightly pessimistic realists out there, you know the answer already, don’t you?  “You’re wasting your time, Rule!  You can’t beat Nabisco.  They’ve got a system.  They’re like the Henry Ford of cookies!”  Well, maybe you weren’t thinking that…but maybe you were thinking something similar.  Regardless, I collected the ingredients I needed, and dove into a little recipe I found online.  During Max’s nap on Sunday, I was able to bust ‘em out…here’s a blow – by – blow comparison:

 Goliath    David
“America’s Favorite Cookie” slogan “Made During Max’s Naptime!”
 (from nabiscoworld.com)Enriched Flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), folic acid), high oleic canola oil and/or palm oil and/or canola oil, dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, salt, cornstarch, baking soda, natural and artificial flavors, soy lecithin.(is anyone besides me amazed that some sort of “chocolate” isn’t on this list?) ingredients Bob’s Red Mill organic flour, baking soda, baking powder, organic cane sugar, organic powdered sugar, sea salt, organic butter, organic free – range eggs, vanilla extract
Who knows?  Where’s the nearest Oreo factory?  I emailed their customer service, but haven’t heard back yet. distance traveled (miles), ingredients Well, the eggs traveled from across the street (our neighbor’s hens), and Bob’s flour has been made since 1978 in Milwaukie, Oregon.  Alas, the sugar (even though organic and free – trade certified) is from Paraguay…maybe next time I can use an American – made, brown rice syrup, instead.  Additionally, I’ll use applesauce to replace the butter. 
Still waiting to hear…and I’m sure I won’t get an answer.  Although I’m tempted to believe the HFCS comes from America. distance traveled (miles), finished product None.  Made ‘em in the kitchen, and there they stay (until I remember to bike them up here for the yogis to enjoy).
<$4 Cost (per 40) Here’s the kicker…organic ingredients are pricy.  Although the eggs were free, the bags of sugar had a combined cost of $45.  I didn’t use the entire bag of either, mind you…but I sure used more than $4 worth of it (about $10 for the powdered, and about $3 for the cane) .  Add about $1.50 for the flour and $3 or so for the butter…well, you get the idea.  The other ingredients were negligible, as very little was used…but you can easily see that my cookies, less labor and operating costs, cost way more than Oreos.

 What did I learn?  Nothing I wasn’t expecting.  However, it just make me think: how often are we turned off by a product due to price?  Why?  Viewed that way, no one would ever, say, make bread…using the same Oreo argument, it doesn’t make any financial sense.  But take a look at those loaves at left; they were rising using the heat from the oven that was baking the Oreos.  They’re my weekly sandwich bread.  From the time I begin (the night before) to the time the loaves come out the oven the next day, I’ve probably invested 1.5 hours into each loaf.  Sure, it’d be easier to pick up some Franz’s Food For Less…but the kitchen wouldn’t smell nearly as good (and you can’t tell me store bought bread warms the heart like homemade.  Well, you can tell me, but I don’t believe you).  Plus, you get that earthy, wonderful knowledge that you created the food that’s now sustaining you.  That’s pretty rad.

 Yup, we’re used to things being cheap.  But, as Annie points out, someone has to pay for that cost.  I wonder who it is…