Monthly Archives: December 2010

To read, perhance to Kindle

At a recent dinner party I aired my impression that Kindle books weren’t much cheaper on Amazon than real books. Friends looked at me like I was crazy. I can see why now, if they go only to the Kindle store. On Christmas day, my own new

Great novel, not yet Kindled.

Kindle in hand, I priced Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel The Help in hardback: it’s listed at $24.95—while the Kindle version is only $12.99! But wait. Visiting the regular Amazon store on my laptop computer, I saw that the actual discounted Amazon price for the physical book was $12.84—a whole fifteen cents cheaper than the ebook. And as an “Amazon Prime” member, I get free shipping, so there’s no extra cost to get a hard copy.

All around, the electronic version of The Help would cost me more, especially since I can’t resell a digital book but could unload my used copy for a few bucks. Plus, The Help is in paperback for only $9.99, so the Kindle version costs three dollars more than what I actually would buy. (There appears to be a bigger spread on Amazon between some hardbacks and the Kindle price: Bruce Marchart’s stunning debut novel The Wake of Forgiveness, not in paperback yet, was $16.57, while the Kindle copy was $14.30.)

I’ll get beyond my common, kneejerk notion that ebooks ought to be much cheaper than physical ones. And in theory, more money will flow from digital sales to publishers and writers. In practice, I’ve read, a bigger cut is going to middlemen like Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Anyway, my main idea in having Kathy give me a Kindle wasn’t to save money but to stop amassing books. I’m not good about reselling or otherwise moving them along, truth be told. Our bookshelves and basement are jammed. Plus the Kindle seems great for travel, during which I often lug at least four books.

Shopping for my Kindle, I noticed, I paid more heed to Top Sellers. Stieg Larsson’s thrillers lured me more strongly, as did the crowd-pleasing (but reportedly also fine) The Help. The Kindle makes me want to get with it rather than seek out quirky masterpieces. But am I really a reader if, buried in thirty-year-old books, I miss one sensation after another? What about living, and reading, in one’s own time? Lately I’ve wanted to read more bestsellers anyway, partly to keep up with my friends who aren’t writers but are readers. They scarf the bestsellers, and the best of those books are pretty darn good. Hey, Laura Hillenbrand’s new nonfiction blockbuster, Unbroken, is sixth on the Kindle Top Sellers list!

And yet on Christmas day, trying to decide the first book I’d read on my Kindle, I defaulted to a classic American novel long on my list and again in the movie theaters: True Grit. Sorry: Charles Portis’s classic—forty-two years old—hasn’t been Kindled yet. Finally I downloaded Jonathan Franzen’s celebrated novel Freedom and J.H. Moehringer’s acclaimed memoir The Tender Bar. I dipped into each and quickly quit because the reading experience just didn’t feel the same. I’ve since realized what’s missing is, um, the humble physical page. We grow up with the convention of the 8.5 by 11-inch page, which publishers shrink and yet honor. We unconsciously gauge any publication in terms of its size in relation to that measure. The reason I can write happily on a computer with electronic words probably is because Microsoft gives me a mockup of the page upon which I bonded, so to speak, in grade school. Ereaders’ words are pureed from that highly evolved structure.

Then I realized at the gym how nicely my Kindle would have nested above the handlebars of the exercise bike I was laboring upon in acute boredom. And the other night in the car, Kathy driving, I whipped out my Kindle and, pulling a nifty nightlight antenna from my Kindle’s fragrant leather case, I read the first part of Freedom. I heard the narrator’s voice and was swept along by the story. Yet I realized what I really miss about the physical page is being able to dog-ear it. I understand there’s various ways to flag things digitally, but that’s not the same as my practice of immediately marking the pages at section breaks. I want to know how a writer structured the story, and I want to see and feel how many physical pages were allotted for each act. I enjoyed the first section of Freedom, but have no sense for how long it is in relation to the whole book. Reading as a writer, this bugs me. It may matter less for certain books, like collections of short stories or essays, because the Kindle would preserve their internal structures in the form of paragraphing and line breaks.

Maybe one can develop a sense for length in relation to the whole with ereaders, though I doubt it. Perhaps I’ll read mostly collections. My Kindle may be the ticket for reading Montaigne’s essays (albeit probably not in my favored translation). I’ve loved listening to audio books while driving, so maybe this is yet another issue of using each medium in its proper place. And I have to admit that I feel strangely suave and au courant when I gaze downward upon the sleek Kindle. Like I’m a model posed in some strangely compelling future. The device brings out in me a misplaced and curious vanity.

Novelist Nicholson Baker touches on this odd egotism, amusingly calling the Kindle the “Bowflex of books,” in his testy 2009 New Yorker essay about his ereading experience. He hates words on Kindle’s gray screen. And:

Photographs, charts, diagrams, foreign characters, and tables don’t fare so well [either]. Page numbers are gone, so indexes sometimes don’t work. Trailing endnotes are difficult to manage. If you want to quote from a book you’ve bought, you have to quote by location range—e.g., the phrase “She was on the verge of the mother of all orgasms” is to be found at location range 1596-1605 in Mari Carr’s erotic romance novel “Tequila Truth.”

He liked Sony’s e-reader more, and ultimately Apple’s iPod or iPhone with Kindle app (now, presumably the iPad, too). He favors their bright backlit screens, since he reads in bed when he awakes in the middle of the night, and says it’s sharpness of type that readers truly crave, not freedom from fatiguing glare. In this jibe, of course, he strikes at dedicated

Finally lovin' Franzen for Kindle.

ereaders’ proudest claim, that they’re not backlit, so they can be read in sunlight, or read longer, or something. Eventually, however, he loses himself in a novel on the Kindle. He never says a darn thing about the structural issue that irks me.

As my children noted without sympathy, I might have foreseen this obvious difference instead of getting all high and mighty about the fact that, although electronic images replaced paper and typewriters for me as a writer long ago, it appears impossible for ereaders to ape the way I maul physical books. Anyway, I’ve since gotten engrossed in Freedom. (The Kindle’s Location Bar, or whatever it’s called, says I’ve read “34%” of Freedom, a dispiriting and unhelpful factoid that only reminds me I’m flying blind through its structure.) I’m totally smitten with the novel—maybe I’ll buy the paperback when it’s issued and reread it. And maybe I’ll learn, or be told by better users—like those who bothered to read the owner’s manual—there’s a miraculous workaround for my own idiosyncratic objection.

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Filed under evolutionary psychology, fiction, MY LIFE, reading, structure

Obit for a copy desk

The Winston-Salem Journal was one of several fine newspapers in North Carolina. A friend who used to work there sent me a link to Tommy Tomlinson’s blog post that includes a video about the management of that newspaper deciding to kill its in-house copy desk. The video is moving and sad, the story unbelievable. For now, apparently, the pared-down copy desk has a sort of reprieve. Outsourcing still looms.

Two things once restrained media companies’ legendary greed: the competition, which forced investments and standards; and the fact that they made so much money they could afford to have professional standards, if not pride. They still make money, just not bucketfuls, but, with the collapse of other print organs, they can gut newspapering’s evolved support network almost without shame. I loved newspapers before I worked in them and cannot help but see these as dark days for our republic.

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Filed under editing, journalism

Noted: A moving essay on loss

The current New Yorker (December 13, 2010) includes an essay by Joyce Carol Oates, “A Widow’s Story,” subtitled “The last week of a long marriage,” about the unexpected swift decline and death of Oates’s husband of forty-seven years, the editor Raymond Smith, at age seventy-seven. “So much to say in a marriage, so much unsaid,” she writes simply of her regret. “You assume that there will be other times, other occasions. Years.”

Here’s an excerpt:

Ray read little of my fiction. He did read my essays and my reviews—he was an excellent editor, sharp-eyed and informed, as countless writers who were published in Ontario Review, the journal he edited, said. But he did not read most of my novels and short stories, and, in this sense, it might be argued that Ray didn’t know me entirely.

I regret, I think. Maybe I do.

For writing is a solitary occupation, and one of its hazards is loneliness. But an advantage of loneliness is privacy, autonomy, freedom.

In our marriage, it was our practice not to share anything that was upsetting, demoralizing, or tedious, unless it was unavoidable. Because so much in a writer’s life can be distressing—negative reviews; rejections; difficulties with editors, publishers, book designers; disappointment with one’s own work, on a daily or hourly basis—it seemed to me a good idea to shield Ray from this side of my life as much as I could. For what is the purpose of sharing your misery with another person, except to make that person miserable, too?

This passage shows, as well as any, what makes Oates’s essay remarkable: the plainspoken candor, the rhythmic variety of the flowing, balanced sentences, the hard-earned insights. Not that all her truths hit me comfortably: what she says about writing is compelling, but at first her comment about not sharing one’s daily “misery,” because its only purpose is to make one’s partner equally miserable, seemed rather sweeping.

But I believe Oates believes this subjective principle, that it helps her live with what she’s generalizing from: her husband wasn’t a reader of her life’s work! (Note to self: don’t feel guilty for not keeping up with Ms. Oates’s output.) While couples do commonly spare each other the details of more prosaic labor, writing, to a writer at least, seems different—so public a self performance. Maybe that explains her insight: spouses don’t love writers as writers, but as people. They love them apart from, or even despite, their vaunted work of words. As Oates says, she lived with Ray Smith as a wife, not as a writer, and she’s bereft as a widow, not as a writer.

Oates has distilled in her essay what others have, written entire books about—without necessarily saying more. The piece is illustrated by a full-page photograph, taken in 1972, eleven years into their marriage, when Smith was about forty-two and Oates about thirty-four. He’s slumped in the background on a couch, looking affable, and Oates, dressed in a thin cardigan and mini skirt, with pearl earrings dangling from her ears, perches on the edge. She gazes into the camera soulfully with dark, doe-like eyes, her pretty almond-shaped face unsmiling.

Oates’s years of writing practice show in “A Widow’s Story,” which grows in power and profundity because of its unwavering focus on a universal but mysterious human experience, how it feels to lose someone to death. Oates’s alchemy happens in the details, as always, which are carried here in prose that seems to flow directly to us from her “stunned, staring eyes,” as she describes her aspect when, having briefly left her husband’s beside to resume daily tasks, she encounters a harsh example of the world’s indifference. Inside the hospital, though she tries to avoid blundering into others’ sorrow, she cannot escape the “memory pools” in waiting rooms and intensive care units. She cannot escape, dwelling within a hospital’s “slow time,” the “melancholy that is the very center of memory.”

The essay’s ending, with Oates in the room with her dead husband, a week after she admitted him for treatment of pneumonia, hits you like a punch to the gut. You grasp not only her experience but also the unending nature of her loss.

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Filed under essay-narrative, flow, memoir, NOTED

With a song in our hearts

A misty December morning at the Summer Palace in Beijing

Touring mainland China with a college choir stirs the spirit.

The consciousness of divinity is divinity itself. The more we wake to holiness, the more of it we give birth to, the more we introduce, expand, and multiply it on earth, the more “God is on the field.”—Annie Dillard, For the Time Being (page 40; reviewed previously)

I’ve just returned from ten days in mainland China, touring with Otterbein University’s choir, which gave concerts in Beijing, Tianjin, and Xi’an. We got to see more of China, and a different side, than I imagine most western visitors experience. We toured a kung fu boarding school with 2,000 students, many of them orphans, some of whom performed for us, and we for them. Our fifty students sang two Chinese folk songs in their sets, and in each venue the crowd’s reaction was amazed delight. It was a joy to witness. As was hearing Chinese choirs reciprocate: a “medley of American folk songs” that included John Denver’s apparently immortal hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads”; the ever-lovely “Shenandoah”; and, inevitably, “Don’t Stop Believing.”

We all were charmed by one of our Chinese guides, adorable twenty-nine year old “Kathie”—just a Xi’an girl livin’ in a Beijing world—and she seemed smitten with our polite, talented, flirty choirboys and girls. She even spent a night singing with them in a karaoke bar, and on one of the buses taking us to the airport Friday she broke down, weeping, when she tried to say goodbye. “Don’t tell the other bus I cried,” she pleaded, “because I have many male concubines on that bus!” We were so touched by her, and I’ll never forget how we connected as humans, regardless of our nations’ political differences and difficulties.

All the same, it was a terrible time for me to be away from my desk. I’d just begun writing the last quarter of my memoir, fourth version, and facing issues (primarily of resolving narrative threads) I’d never imagined. The going was hard, but productive. Now I’ve returned jet-lagged, ill, and puzzled how to resume. Part of me wishes I hadn’t gone—I’ll pay dearly in time and suffering—and it’ll be a long time before I travel again. And yet the trip grew my spirit as it shrank the world.

China is astounding. It’s a vast, jarring country, and its sprawling cities, as rumored, do teem with people. Young adult Chinese speak good English, having begun learning the language at age twelve; now, kids are started at age three. New buildings erupt everywhere—built with America’s debt. What’s happening seems to be the rise of the world’s eventual sole economic and military superpower. It’s humbling to behold this boom. America must have seemed like this, a rawboned giant thrashing its legs, a hundred years ago. Empires wax and wane. How old is America, again? China was unified about 2,200 years ago by the warlord Qin Shi Huan, who started his peasants building the Great Wall, which I climbed with the choir members, who, gaining the rampart, broke into our school song, “The Otterbein Love Song.”

After the ruthless Qin (pronounced “Chin,” from which derives “China”) took power over one kingdom, he amassed 3,000 concubines and began building his tomb, really a palace for his afterlife, which is still unexcavated because of mercury contamination and concerns that air reaching it will destroy it. We gazed upon this flat-topped hummock, and saw nearby the “Eighth Wonder of the World” he also created, circa 210 BC: terra cotta soldiers, part of an estimated 8,000 somewhat larger-than-lifesized figures, plus gorgeous prancing clay horses and bronze chariots, all arrayed in battle formation in parallel trenches. An advisor had persuaded Qin to use models instead of entombing human soldiers, as was the custom. Some farmers digging a well in 1974 found his underground army. Annie Dillard, an early visitor to the dig, writes so well in For the Time Being about this archaeological treasure that, rereading it upon my return, I felt I was asleep by comparison. Her language, as always, is beautiful in its poetic precision:

That morning by the emperor’s tomb in Xi’an, that morning beyond the trenches where clay soldiers and horses seemed to swim from the dirt to the light, I stood elevated over the loess plain, alone. I saw to the south a man walking. He was breaking ground in perfect silence. He wore a harness and pulled a plow. His feet trod his figure’s blue shadow, and the plow cut a long blue shadow in the field. He turned back as if to check the furrow, or as if he heard a call.

We don’t know what call Qin heard, other than his own raging ego, or what he worshipped, other than the notion that he, as supreme ruler, would thereby rule in the afterlife. But after going through the trouble of conquering China, he died at forty-five, having presided only fifteen years. Despised by his subjects for his brutality and taxation, he may have been poisoned by a eunuch who wanted another man, Qin’s second son, to assume the throne. Instead, upon Qin’s death a peasant uprising carried away the entire dynasty.

With these matters in the foreground, what I brooded about in China—between helping send back video clips and other material for the university’s web page on the choir’s trip—was this: religions’ and believers’ general inability to include the Other under the umbrella of their God. It’s an old irony: soldiers from warring armies crouched in opposing trenches praying to God. That is, to be spared by their God and to be helped by Him to kill their godless foes. But if there is “a God,” how can this be? It can’t, unless there’s been, in fact or in effect, no transcendent God—just group-specific deities. Defining this God you believe in, or don’t, seems a lonely adult task, and it matters whether you place this entity outside of people or inside them. To me, God appears to be within, and growing, or evolving, as the human spirit itself enlarges.

Our Xi’an guide Kathie, in her Minnie dress

Just as I believe that China’s repressive government will fall, eventually, or gradually moderate, I believe that one day we and the Chinese will share one God. Both sides will realize we’re in it together on this green and blue mote of dust swirling through the black cosmos. This may sound sappy, or like New Age nonsense—perhance an overwrought symptom of jet lag—but look how long it took for white Americans to grant black Americans the same God. For starters, 200 years of wild-eyed abolitionists crying in the wilderness for a kinder world (Otterbein was founded by the United Brethren in 1847, with women on the faculty and women admitted as full students, though it would take more than a decade to hazard a black student); then came a bloody Civil War over slavery; after a hundred more years of tears, came the civil rights movement and legislation. We now have a black president, who has pledged to God—presumably still limited to America and its allies—to preserve this union.

Last Wednesday, Troy Burton, a black Otterbein senior from Louisville, Kentucky, led the choir in its final performance in China, on the stage of the Xi’an People’s Art Theater; our school’s gifted conductor, Gayle Walker, had been felled by illness. Troy wore an easy smile with his tux, but the singers knew he was nervous—an undergraduate conducting in China before a full house of 1,200. The choir rose, their eyes upon him, their voices soaring with uncommon strength and grace. When they left the stage, the audience applauded, wildly for China, and as that wave subsided, a Chinese woman called out to Troy from the darkness, “Obama!” We laughed, of course, but her shout was more than a joke. The Chinese people have seen something, and grown somehow closer to us, from afar.

The crowd that night, as always, loved the Chinese folk songs, the rollicking “Buffalo Gals,” and the Christmas carols, especially “Silent Night,” which caused them to whisper in recognition. But it was the Otterbein Concert Choir’s powerful performance of “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel” that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. This verse says it all:

He delivered Daniel
From the lion’s den,
And Jonah from the belly of the whale,
And the Hebrew children
From the fiery furnace,
Then why not every man?

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, evolutionary psychology, MY LIFE, narrative, politics, religion & spirituality