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I have no desire to rehash arguments made by many others, in and out of publishing, or who have published with big or small press, about the good and the bad of e-books. Instead, I offer some observations from Teleread (e-books continue to show an increase in sales and that, as a form, books are undergoing changes – thank you, Chris Meadows and Paul Biba for the links) and The Digital Reader.

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Yesterday, I went to Porter Square Bookstore to attend a reading by Tom Perotta (The Leftovers). I am a fan of Perotta’s (I had some reviews from Goodreads that I haven’t yet reproduced here. I managed to repost my essay on Perotta’s Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher.) While self-contained (it was one about two men, one of whom reaches out to the other to provide comfort), it did not seem too compelling to me. Instead, I found the book jacket description to be more interesting: a lot of people vanish (Rapture style). How do the people who are left behind cope (in the absence of an explanation as to why the vanishing happened?)

There were not many questions about his books, per se. There were two involving the profit motive: one person asked if it was any easier to get a second book published. Another asked if he now writes with an eye to screen adaptations. For the latter, Perotta noted that, after Election, the movie, was released, Hollywood seemed excited by the prospects of his College Joe. The book disappointed that crowd in that it was not the slapstick, raunchy comedy people were expecting. As for Little Children, Perotta would have marked that as one of the least likely books to be adapted (an ensemble piece, with a plot about a child molester). The director, however, really wanted it made.

To tie it into this post: One woman asked Perotta how he thought about ebooks, whether he feels they provide an opportunity or if he sees it as a threat. Perotta, like in his books, seemed to give a fair answer. He acknowledged that there are opportunities for authors: new authors can be published, while established authors will never go out of print. His tone, posture, and rushed ending to that statement suggested to me that he understood the virtues of ebooks rationally, he did in fact feel threatened. He did not rail against ebooks. He realized that the medium is undergoing a transition; in the short term, he is satisfied that there is a place for books. His evidence? He gave his reading in a bookstore, which is acting as a forum for readers and authors to interact. More emphasis was given to the fact that he was comfortable in the publishing world. He grew up reading words on paper, and that’s his comfort level. It seems his point is that paper book readers have a culture, and that e-book readers will eventually form a different sort of culture from the one he has known.

I think our current conception of e-books is actually limited, to some extent, by the adoption of the Kindle. The Kindle is a translation of paper to screen. A number of features mimic what people can do with paper (marking pages, writing notes) while improving on others (such as whole book search, storing large collections of titles). But the e-ink technology (in the current black/white, slow screen refresh state) lends itself to be treated like a book.

With the iPad and NookColor, we are beginning to see reshaping of content to fit the color screen of a portable computer. The popularity of the Kindle may have stemmed from its familiarity to the printed word. Sooner or later, e-books will diverge from this current form (book like presentation), turning into slick interactive, multifaceted presentations (probably some hybrid wiki-page/HTML5/video/music extravaganza). We are already seeing that in the Dr. Suess books being converted to iPad and Android apps. It is ironic in that many have tried to expand on the book form (think Griffin and Sabine books, and the Dragonology series) only to bypass it altogether.

I think what is lost in attacks and defense of ebooks is the concept of technology creating culture. Neil Postman, Mark Helprin, and Nicholas Carr have made these points. Technology is neutral in the sense that humans can decide on its immediate use. We also have the ability to select among a great number of tools. However, the authors I cited here make compelling arguments that we are also shaped by our tools. We may not select the proper tool (if we are holding a hammer, it won’t help us with set-screws.) And tools can limit how we approach a task (hence the cliche of, when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.) They take the argument a step further; technologies that alter language can literally alter how we think.

I don’t think it is controversial to say that humans are generally intellectually adaptable. Postman et al. argue that we are much more malleable than assumed, and to our detriment. Online activity in the mobile age, googling, clicking links, video-centric delivery, and short texts (shorthand, abbreviations, two-sentence paragraphs) tend to promote shallow scanning. One might counter that, if a person is inclined, he will delve deeper. Postman et al. counter, no, they won’t. The nature of Internet presentation, they argue, will make it less likely for people to ruminate, to read deeply, and to think in the silence of their own heads. It is easier to follow the next link.

Of the three, I think Postman gave a framework for dealing with technology. In both Amusing Ourselves to Death and Conscientious Objections, he argues that new technology is here to stay (at the time, he was writing about the pervasiveness of television), and we need to be aware that all such communication altering technologies has the capacity to reshape the way we think. We must take care to exploit its virtues while limiting its disadvantages. In other words, control the technology lest it controls us. What was interesting is that he argued that TV isn’t bad because it provides salacious entertainment. TV is most pernicious when it aspires to teach and to serve as a forum public discourse.

Not just television, but effective television presentation, comes with visual excitement and change. This is the opposite of the arguments one can develop in excruciating detail in a book. One can compare a book (even better, read many books) on global warming to an Al Gore movie or to inane 5-minute segments in television news. Postman would simply prefer that we realize that a 5-minute segment is the worst way  of dealing with complex arguments. It simply isn’t enough, especially given the scientific literature on the subject matter. What TV is suited for, Postman notes, is an entertaining 5 minute segment. Something to make you laugh or cry and enjoy; something with impact, translatable into sensational imagery – sound is no longer enough. Instead, we are concluding that audio-visual presentations (whether on TV or in Youtube videos) comprise  the main solution, rather than a portion. It isn’t that we do not what the limits of technology are; we do not ask if we are using the right tool.

I agree with this assessment. Now, when I peruse textbooks that are written for college students (in neuroscience), I note all the missing pieces of information. Not just nuanced counterarguments, but  complete series of compelling experimental evidence that points to alternative theories. And that happens even in a 700-page textbook. Imagine how much can be lost by reduction into sound-bytes (not compressed, since it implies that the total information is there but reformed into a more efficient notation.) Television has shortened political debates into  short oral bursts (hopefully, with visuals), because its strength is in providing ever changing stimulation. The Internet will reshape reading on a screen, emphasizing scanning, clicking and instant look-up, not necessarily understanding or retention, since the information is always at hand. The new “smart” will be in constructing proper search terms.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, though. As Postman and Carr suggest: be aware of what is happening to you (although I am paraphrasing liberally; they devalue this type of intelligence. I am willing to redefine what intelligence ought to be in this brave new world of ours). Maybe, one can simply use the search engine to find the proper book.

As a final aside: here’s another take on what we can lose. Scintillating intellectual conversation. I was browsing through the stacks at Porter Square Books and saw that there is a new collection of essays from Christopher Hitchens. The book jacket blurb seemed to have a pertinent statement: Hitchens combines intelligence, wit, a huge store of knowledge, the ability to recall from this “offline” repository, and charm. That description does sound like someone who would make a wonderful dinner companion. I can certainly see how conversational flow can be ruined if all of us are googling into our phones. But I sense a hint of elitism in that; for my part, I have a (I hope relatively idiosyncratic) collection of stories about science, quantum mechanics, Richard Feynman, mathematical gambling analysis, gadgets, statistical analysis, novels, World War II, microscopy techniques, and 19th-century European history running in my head. And that’s just a thin slice of what I know. Whether I am good company depends on the people I am with, how well I present my thoughts, and how receptive they are to them. I think the point is that, simply, Hitchens and I (and others) have chosen to remember different things. Maybe the cultural gatekeepers are just annoyed so many people choose to remember something different than they do?

Is curation important? I think so, but only in the sense that it plays to our virtues. We are not indexing machines like Google’s data containers. What we do remember are things associated with great emotional impact. That helps us perform single-trial learning (to, if we are lucky, avoid in the future things that hurt or almost killed us), but in this age, it can help us identify meaningful cultural objects. It may be reflected in the fact that we prefer people tell us of formative events that shaped their lives, rather than a considered answer as to the sequence of life’s happenings that let their lives unfold the way it did.

All this is a way of saying that, I agree with Perotta that reading culture will change. Since I am so comfortable with both paper and digital screen, I do not feel the same loss that Perotta does. I know there are readers out there like me: those who feel comfortable in a library, a bookstore, or on bn.com/ebooks. I pack paper books and my NookColor for trips. I write marginalia in books I own, and I upload my notes to Evernote when I read e-books. But are we the most common sort of e-book readers? No idea; I am not sure what the dominant form of e-book reading culture will be.

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Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher are two complex, sympathetic works. These are the only two Perrotta books I have read, but it is clear to me that he is a generous author, who is able to detail the complex thought chains lying below each of his characters’ surfaces. This generosity turns symbols into living, breathing people, enabling them to transcend simple, thematic opposition and actually interact with one another. The key point is that he does not treat the opposition as punching bags.

Little Children is the lesser work of the two, if only because the plot seems so apparently stilted next to the personalities of the characters. The inclusion of a child-molester in this story seems to serve no purpose other than to enable some opportunities for Brad to get out of the house (as part of a neighborhood watch group) and to provide some tension near the end of novel. It is too clumsy, given that Perrotta’s skill is so evident in his descriptions of the molester, inspiring both repulsion and pity.

There is one misstep in characterization that occurs on the first page, when the women are introduced – except for our protagonist Sarah – as the mother of so-and-so child. It isn’t symbolism: it is a neon sign that states Sarah is the contrarian of the bunch, a lapsed feminist who longs to be defined by anything other than motherhood. For the most part, the other women, who serve more as the Harpies than a Greek chorus, are not fleshed out. There is one little vignette where the shrew’s (Mary Ann’s) unhappy home life is laid bare, but for the rest of the story they serve to remind Sarah of the destiny awaiting her. No conversation is more meaningful than where the offspring is going to preschool, what toys are being recalled, what TV shows one had watched through heavy-lidded eyes.

That alone would drive one to drink, but Sarah chooses adultery instead. She was and is a mousy girl, who wanted to but couldn’t date the popular jock in high-school or college; she achieves this juvenile ambition by eventually sleep with Brad, a househusband who should be studying for his third attempt at passing the bar exam. The affair has great power within the context of the trapped lives both Sarah and Brad feel they lead. The excitement isn’t so much in the illicit nature of sneaking behind their spouses but rather in the fact that they share a common appreciation of one another. Therein lies the trick in Perrotta humanizing the two; certainly, I felt badly for Richard and Kathy, the spurned spouses. But I felt more sadness than anger in Sarah and Brad finding their escape in each other.

The humanization comes because one can identify with the cause of the affair: the perception that one’s spouse doesn’t fully appreciate him as a partner. It is not a matter of reality; it is that one spouse feels put upon and felt the need to seek that appreciation elsewhere. Brad is the simple case: he is going through his mid-life crisis early. He has failed the bar exam twice, but he states he entered law school on a whim. He watches teenage boys skateboarding and longs to join; instead, he winds up with a bunch of cops and ex-cops in a football league. He is satisfied being a house husband, but of course his wife is expecting him to contribute financially. Her moral support of his attempting the bar exam has crossed from wishing him well into an expectation that he will fail and not pull his financial weight. Sarah’s case is just as simple: her husband isn’t interested in her. She wants to be significant. She is intelligent, but decides that the only way to distinguish herself from the pack of mothers is to flirt with Brad. The two hit it off.

It would have been cheap for Perrotta to distance the reader from Richard and Kathy. Instead, Perrotta turns them into people, each with flaws. Kathy is a harried woman, one reaching the limit of her patience with her husband. Fairly or not, she feels too put upon. She works and so doesn’t spend enough time with her son. Although she is following her dream of directing documentaries, it doesn’t pay well. She has been understanding and a cheerleader for her husband – despite his repeated failure. She is tired. Richard is more difficult to describe; he appreciated Sarah’s intelligence when they first met and now provides financial stability for their family. But in the end, he too is tired and desires something less ordinary.

That is what I like about Perrotta’s writing. Sure, he slings barbs at suburban life, but his characters are people like you or me. Under any number of circumstances, we could be Sarah, Richard, Kathy or Brad. Perrotta’s characters in an understandable manner, despite our disapproval. Recently, I had read Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which helped crystallized some ideas about human emotional and cultural baggage for me. Perrotta’s characters strike me as real because he describes the dissonance between basic desires driving action (i.e. nature) and professed desires (the sum of education, environment, and upbringing) so well.

One scene that illustrates this is when Brad notices that his son flat out ignores him as soon as Mom (Kathy) comes home. That scene bundles the flash of Brad’s jealousy of the bond between son and mother, the fact that the boy and mother essentially enter their own world and exclude him, and the fact that he might be feeling both unmanly (for being a house husband) and his efforts not being recognized by his son or appreciated by his wife. Everything about this scene rings of authenticity. Again, without declaring whether there is validity in the perception (although one will be either sympathetic to Brad or not), the sum of all these minor events build up the case that Perrotta is interested in explaining (and thus looking past one’s view of the adulterers), but not excusing , Brad’s and Sarah’s behaviors.

I would guess the moral of the story is that communication only goes so far. Perhaps that is what love means: that a partner thinks enough of the other person to continue talking. If so, then Perrotta must think the world a loveless place.

Note: Not cool. I have had part of my review for Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher in draft for a couple of weeks. My blog is titled “No Time to Read”, I have less time writing reviews. I wanted to avoid writing short posts, as I prefer reading and writing longer, more thoughtful pieces. One thing I want to do is to combine and find links among multiple works (and I try doing that, somewhat clumsily, in this review.) To hell with that, I suppose. I’ll post the review as written, and I will follow up with the review of TAT “shortly”. I’ve also linked the books to Porter Square Bookstore, rather than Amazon, as Amazon doesn’t need my help.

Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher are two complex, sympathetic works. These are the only two Perrotta books I have read, but it is clear to me that he is a generous author, who is able to detail the complex thought chains lying below each of his characters’ surfaces. This generosity turns symbols into living, breathing people, enabling them to transcend simple, thematic opposition and actually interact with one another. The key point is that he does not treat the opposition as punching bags.

Little Children is the lesser work of the two, if only because the plot seems stilted next to the personalities. The inclusion of a child-molester in this story seems to serve no purpose other than to enable some opportunities for Brad to get out of the house (as part of a neighborhood watch group) and to provide some dramatic tension near the end of novel.

There is one misstep in characterization that occurs on the first page, when the women are introduced – except for our protagonist Sarah – as the mother of so-and-so child. It isn’t symbolism: it is a neon  sign that states Sarah is the contrarian of the bunch, a lapsed feminist who longs to be defined by anything other than motherhood. For the most part, the other women, who serve more as the Harpies than a Greek chorus, are not fleshed out. There is one little vignette where the shrew’s (Mary Ann’s) unhappy home life is laid bare, but for the rest of the story they serve to remind Sarah of the destiny awaiting her. No conversation is more meaningful than where the offspring is going to preschool, what toys are being recalled, what TV shows one had watched through heavy-lidded eyes.

That alone would drive one to drink, but Sarah chooses adultery instead. She was and is a mousy girl, who wanted to but couldn’t date the popular jock in high-school or college; she achieves this juvenile ambition by eventually sleep with Brad, a househusband who should be studying for his third attempt at passing the bar exam. The affair has great power within the context of the trapped lives both Sarah and Brad feel they lead. The excitement isn’t so much in the illicit nature of sneaking behind their spouses but rather in the fact that they share a common appreciation of one another. Therein lies the trick in Perrotta humanizing the two; certainly, I felt badly for Richard and Kathy, the spurned spouses. But I felt more sadness than anger in Sarah and Brad finding their escape in each other.

The humanization comes because one can identify with the cause of the affair: the perception that one’s spouse doesn’t fully appreciate him as a partner. It is not a matter of reality; it is that one spouse feels put upon and felt the need to seek that appreciation elsewhere. Brad is the simple case: he is going through his mid-life crisis early. He has failed the bar exam twice, but he states he entered law school on a whim. He watches teenage boys skateboarding and longs to join; instead, he winds up with a bunch of cops and ex-cops in a football league. He is satisfied being a house husband, but of course his wife is expecting him to contribute financially. Her moral support of his attempting the bar exam has crossed from wishing him well into an expectation that he will fail and not pull his financial weight. Sarah’s case is just as simple: her husband isn’t interested in her. She wants to be significant. She is intelligent, but decides that the only way to distinguish herself from the pack of mothers is to flirt with Brad. The two hit it off.

It would have been  cheap for Perrotta to distance the reader from Richard and Kathy. Instead, Perrotta turns them into people, each with flaws. Kathy is a harried woman, one reaching the limit of her patience with her husband. Fairly or not, she feels too put upon. She works and so doesn’t spend enough time with her son. Although she is following her dream of directing documentaries, it doesn’t pay well. She has been understanding and a cheerleader for her husband – despite his repeated failure. She is tired. Richard is more difficult to describe; he appreciated Sarah’s intelligence when they first met and now provides financial stability for their family. But in the end, he too is tired and desires something less ordinary.

That is what I like about Perrotta’s writing. Sure, he slings barbs at suburban life, but his characters are people like you or me. Under any number of circumstances, we could be Sarah, Richard, Kathy or Brad. Perrotta’s characters in an understandable manner, despite our disapproval. Recently, I had read Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which helped crystallized some ideas about human emotional and cultural baggage for me. Perrotta’s characters strike me as real because he describes the dissonance between basic desires driving action (i.e. nature) and  professed desires (the sum of education, environment, and upbringing) so well.

One scene that illustrates this is when Brad notices that his son flat out ignores him as soon as Mom (Kathy) comes home. That scene bundles the flash of Brad’s jealousy of the bond between son and mother, the fact that the boy and mother essentially enter their own world and exclude him, and the fact that he might be feeling both unmanly (for being a house husband) and his efforts not being recognized by his son or appreciated by his wife. Everything about this scene rings of authenticity. Again, without declaring whether there is validity in the perception (although one will be either sympathetic to Brad or not), the sum of all these minor events build up the case that Perrotta is interested in explaining (and thus looking past one’s view of the adulterers), but not excusing , Brad’s and Sarah’s behaviors.

I would guess the moral of the story is that communication only goes so far. Perhaps that is what love means: that a partner thinks enough of the other person to continue talking. If so, then Perrotta must think the world a loveless place.

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