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Lev Raphael recently wrote of an advantage possessed by paper books: marginalia can comprise both responses to what was read as well as a diary of sorts. It is a physical manifestation of memory, thought processes, and perhaps emotional state. Specifically, this piece was pitched as a counterpoint to the idea that books are simply containers, delivering the content within, with Stephen King making a recent comment to this effect.

I agree with both points and have this to offer.

I still think these lists of pros and cons of e-books or paper books miss the point. The main competitor to paper books isn’t e-books, but every other form of diversion and entertainment. I would say that shunting customers to some “container” is the least of the publishing industry’s worries. I see the e-book/paper book debate as pointless. A true reader wouldn’t care how he is reading, so long as he is reading.

Also, keep in mind that I love reading. I can’t get enough of it. I prefer to fill all my spare time reading. The most efficient way, at my disposal, is to use a software ebook reader installed on my Motorola Droid phone. Before that, I read on my iPod Touch, my Treo phone, my Palm Tungsten 5, my iPaq, a Handspring Prism (the color screen version) and a monochrome black-on-dark-green screen of the Handspring Visor. A tech geek will realize that there is a clear progression: I’ve listed in reverse order the quality of the screens of the machines. So I suffered through some god-awful visual experience, just because I was so enamored of carrying a huge library of books with me, and of reading these books at every opportunity.

And before I had a machine that can contain my bookshelf, I would pack multiple paper books for trips, long or short. This includes packing 2 or 3 books for a subway ride. I feared finishing a book and  not have another book to start. Sure, it’s neurotic; I read quickly, but not that quickly. I did not always divide my reading time among several books, so I agree it is doubly strange to always pack so many books. On long trips, I have been known to pack 8 books; now, when I fly, I can trim that to two so I can read during take-off and landing. It isn’t realistic for me to pack so many books, as I know I can’t read or finish them all. But I can’t help myself.  In my book bag that I take to lab, at this moment, I have 3 books.

My point is that I distinguish between reading and other activities, as opposed to reading on a machine versus reading on paper. I still head to the library (it’s the beautiful, recently renovated Cambridge Public Library) once every few weeks to load up on even more books. I peruse bookstores for fun; I eagerly await new releases from the bn.com/ebooks and FictionWise sites. I see it as a boon that I can add to my electronic bookshelf without my wife noting the amount of space it takes up in our condo.

Enough credentializing. My only point is to say that I have noticed that although the content is the same, I read differently depending on the technology I use. As Raphael noted, writing notes on the margins is easy to do in a book. Coming from a background in which  my work requires me to read science articles, I have not found a better way to annotate articles than to write all  over the paper. I have tried writing notes in a separate notebook, I have tried writing notes on a sheet of paper and stapling it to the article, I have tried downloading the PDF version of the article and making comments, and I have tried archiving the web version in Evernote and making annotations there.

I have also tried the analogous operations on books. Nothing is more convenient, to me, than to write on the document. Part of it is the immediacy, writing next to the passage is quick. It does get unwieldy, since I don’t underline but insist on writing down as complete thought as possible. Try holding onto a book and a Moleskin, and writing while exposing as much of the text as possible.

I would also point out that, some of us are fortunate enough to have some form of location awareness and tactile memory when reading an actual, physical document. For example, even if I cannot remember the precise text, I can generally remember where I found the words.

Another problem with e-book annotations is that not all e-book readers have a way to export the notes one makes. The readers I use won’t let me do that, and so I find myself suffering through an unwieldy software interface to access my notes, individually. It would be faster to go through notes made in the margins of text. So when I read an e-book, I write fewer, but longer notes. I take the risk of forgetting some points before I write the note; after all, one of my reasons in writing marginalia is to help me remember something in the first place.

What one does with the notes after writing them down is a separate matter. I see marginalia as placeholders until I can collect my thoughts elsewhere. Yes, that elsewhere has been on the computer (until recently, Evernote. Now I just write on this blog.) Despite the convenience of digital manipulations, I still find it easier  to thumb through a book and read a few notes or passages to gather my thoughts on a book. Until the notes-interface improves on my e-book readers, this is yet another advantage for paper books.

I think in dealing with technology, noting advantages and disadvantages is fine, but I don’t think these lists really help one decide on its worth. Given the list of pros and cons I made, I don’t see any one format winning out. That is good, because I think each has different things to offer a reader. I do not see myself ignoring paper books, nor do I envision myself reading off my phone or computer screen all the time. Not only is there a time and place for each, but economic and technological advances can limit or expand our options. There may come a time when I find that multimedia and ads have infected e-books to such an extent that I can no longer read them. Or that we may find that paper book costs increase due to demand for wood. Or that print is only reserved as luxury products. Rather than being wedded to one form of technology (whether it’s Gutenberg’s, or Bezos’s, or Jobs’s), it makes more sense to know that what works for you can change in the future.

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A book recommendation from Lev Raphael over at The Huffington Post. What is funny is that when I tried getting more information on him – Das Echolot: Barbarossa ’41: Ein kollektives Tagebuch looks interesting (Sonar: Barbaross ’41: A collective diary) – I also came across Es Liegt Mir Auf Der Zunge: Geschichten mit Geschmack (It Lies on My Tongue: Stories with Taste.)*

* Sorry if I didn’t do it justice; my translation. I am reasonably sure that I got the gist of the title, although I can’t be sure if it’s a book of food criticism/culture/history or if it’s a book of stories. Die Geschichte can mean  either history or story. I took German in college and took a year to study biochemistry at the then-called Technische Hochschule Darmstadt. Alas, I learned German the hard way, just by talking when I can. As I hear it, having a girlfriend whose first language is what you are interested in learning helps immensely.

Yes, we did read Guenter Grass (and Kafka, and Mann) in the German literature course I took. Even more so than my graduate thesis advisor, I looked upon my German professor as a mentor. I think he was relatively impressed with how quickly I took to the language. Sadly, this was at an engineering school; the non-engineering majors they offered were biochemistry and biotechnology. Just joking, but nearly true (mathematics and physics were also offered.) This is more information that suggests I should have gone into Literature or History.

Looking up more information about these books, I came upon a surprisingly amount of German erotica (Dann zerteilt meine Zunge deine wunderbare Pflaume und ich lecke dich tief und drängend.) Regardless, I can go to Schoenhof’s Foreign Books – but alas, the online catalog shows that they stock only Kempowski’s biography .

I came across a strange post from Lev Raphael, over at Huffingtonpost.com. He tried to correct something Jodi Picoult wrote in her dismissal of the New York Time book critics. Over Twitter and interviews, Picoult pointed out her feeling that the NYT critics are biased in whom they select for discussion. The most recent literary author deemed fit to print is Jonathan Franzen. [Picoult had also previously discussed this point with Jason Pinter and Jennifer Weiner at the Huffington Post .]

The controversy, such as it is, reflects the hardline stances and lack of nuance in media. It is a controversy made of nothing more than opinions that every side here is entitled to. Picoult admitted she never did a count of how often white, male writers from Brooklyn were reviewed and acclaimed. She was simply being snide. The NYT can publish on whomever they wish. And kibbitzers like Raphael and I can add our own bits.

The one tossaway line I wanted to focus on is Picoult’s line that book reviews ought to focus on popular literature, even more so than literary fiction.

The specific thing I wanted to write about is Raphael’s response to this statement. He noted that Jane Austen, for example, was not popular in her time. Readers gravitated to her and parted with money from their pocketbooks only after her death. Basically, Raphael was correcting the idea that Austen was “popular” during her life time.

I think Raphael misread this statement. Picoult wrote

… the books that have persevered in our culture and in our memories and our hearts were not the literary fiction of the day, but the popular fiction of the day. Think about Jane Austen. Think about Charles Dickens. Think about Shakespeare. They were popular authors. They were writing for the masses.

Picoult’s point is much simpler. The authors did not separate the idea of worthy, meaty big-L literature from writing something that was a smooth read, snappy, and contained plot. That is, there was no distinction made between novels targeted for the critics and for the masses. I have felt that this idea is missing in modern literature. I had always assumed that what we call the classics (and generally I place the fracturing of a consensus canon to post-Hemingway literature) grew organically from fiction of  the times. That is, critics could only select on what was published, and frankly, our forebears were extremely focused on what sells.  This seemed a happy middle ground, where the novels were written to appeal to the masses. Critics rode shotgun over this process, trying to cultivate some sense of sophistication in how readers were to receive and understand literature.

As B.R. Myers has noted, though, there has been a change in attitude among modern writers, codified by the elevation of the serious, difficult fiction above works that are written for the masses. Nevermind who decides this to begin with. I find it disjointed that we now look askance at books that are entertaining, as if somehow it cheapens the linguistic fireworks and ideas that might be contained (and Franzen makes the same point.)

To be clear, I am not writing that authors – both modern and past –  never gave a thought to their legacy. Of course they did, but above all, they wrote books that people (eventually) wanted to read. Everything else follows from that. There was no separation of purpose: they wrote for the sale, and if they had ego and pride, they wrote to last.

Even when Jonathan Franzen first made headlines with The Corrections, I found the discussion rather pretentious. Apparently, everyone was focused on how he was one of the first to capture a slice of society, in all its messy complexity. My first reaction was, did Wharton, Thackeray and Tolstoy not accomplish something similar? Upon reading it, after rolling my eyes at the requisite number of disjointed paragraphs and awkward phrasing, I thought the best thing about The Corrections was that Franzen wrote about a family of assholes, but that each person was an asshole in his or her own way. I thought Franzen’s technical mastery was in his characters*, since writing in distinct voices is hard.

*For an example of a less successful instance, see Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red (and just to be fair, the distinct voices may have suffered from translation, so I’ll spread the blame here to include Erdag Goknar, the translator.) My Turkish friend did feel the same way, although I need to ask if she read it in Turkish or the English translation. So Goknar may yet be taken off the hook!

The worse thing to happen to any field, let alone literature, is that things must be “difficult” to be worthwhile (and Franzen agrees!) The idea that modern physics is a mind-trip was mistakenly interpreted to mean presentation rather than the ideas being explained. Somehow, this type of thinking infected critics and writers alike. So we get difficult prose (something Myers expounded upon), obfuscating stories with barely a plot, poor character development, and less than imaginative ideas.

Using scientific papers, published in academic journal, is a poor method to show how difficult ideas can be conveyed simply. These papers  are short, and many scientists are poor in compressing complex information in a easily read manner. I would suggest anyone examine the books of Howard HughesRobert Sapolsky, Dave Berri, Brian Greene, Daniel Dennett, and Jared Diamond for examples of how complex ideas and details can be presented in a straight-forward way.  It bears repeating: the difficult reading in science has nothing to do with the writing but in the ideas themselves. Obfuscation is the enemy. To properly convey nuance and technically complex experiments, one needs to be extremely concise and clear so that others can focus on the data and conclusions.

To my mind, modern authors deemed to be of the literary type do the exact opposite. They dress up simple plots (boy meets girl, girl protects self, man-as-boy-then-grows up) in “difficult” language that a satirist would sooner write in that style than to write a mockery. There are only so many plots. What I would focus on is good writing and that kernel of observation that separates one book from another. I wish I were an editor or a book critic; as it stands, I read about 5 books every 2 weeks. Even reading so few books, I have a sense of what passes for good writing (Robert Bolano + translator: good; Don DeLillo: not so good). I can honestly say that although, there are books  I found “difficult” to get through, it wasn’t due to my lack of comprehension or inability to grasp metaphors. No,  I have read their language and found it wanting. So much so that I sometimes question the intellect of the writer.

Part of this disconnect I have with modern literature may stem from my wanting to write like Wharton and Thackeray. Modern authors like Mark Helpern also appeal to me. I much prefer to read a novel and not notice the language until the epiphany in the middle of the book, when I ask myself, how exactly did the author write this? Prose can be complex and difficult, but I have no problem following the authors’ thoughts. Of course, one can fail spectacularly in writing in this style: the writing would become so one dimensional that it leaves little room to the imagination. At this point, the novel would pass into the realm of an essay.

I admit that I am probably being a curmudgeon by my attitudes against modern writers and their scattershot writing style, hoping that words dropped onto a page somehow stick. Impressionism works as a visual art  form, not so much for prose (a point discussed in Myers’s book.)

I’ll just end by saying that, at its most basic, I object (and I echo Picoult here) to the divide that modern critics and so-called literary writers created in viewing mainstream books as a distinct creature from literary fiction. I much prefer to be surprised and awed by the writing in an entertaining book than to be disappointed by a “literary” novel that neither entertained nor stunned me with its language.

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