Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The book is dead, long live the book

For several years now, the tech world has been predicting the eventual death of the book, what with the Google digitising campaign, the Kindle, the Sony reader and even the iPhone. Now, all of a sudden, and are both heralding a new age of the book! Over the last seven years, Google has scanned millions of tomes from leading libraries around the world, and turned them into searchable documents available on the internet. Now, Google Book Search, in partnership with On Demand Books -- the makers of Espresso Book Machines -- are expected to announce a project in early October that will allow readers to buy paper copies of those, individually printed by bookstores around the world. The catch, the Espresso Machines cost USD100,000.00 a pop. (But I am not unduly worried, others will get into the business and soon we will see cheap book Machines from China.)

Still, this is good news. Google has scanned some 2 million books that are currently in public domain, and they will now be made available almost immediately from some 90 bookshops around the world that have these machines, so smelling paper and turning pages will last for a while longer. The books are expected to cost USD8.00 each. Not bad. Now, Penguin will have to re-examine their absurd pricing of some of their classics. (Of course, they will have to come up with better cover designs, but that should be in the pipeline.)

What this can do, if it does take off, is completely change the book retail industry, and give something to worry about. Imagine hundreds of bookstores around the world with access to millions of titles, which they can print, bind and deliver within minutes. This is, of course, currently, mostly about the long tail of books. But that can change. Many authors will not even mind letting Google handle the distribution of even their new books using this technology if it breaks the Amazon hegemony (and their absurd discount demands).

Yes, I love it. This is a revolution in book distribution and retail.

The other issue that needs to be addressed now is copyright. Copyright in the US now extends to the life of an author plus 70 years for newly created works -- but copyright laws vary from country to country. Life plus seventy years: now how absurd is that? It guarantees the death of most books. Few books in copyright have enough demand to warrant a reprint. (No publisher is going to publish 1000 copies when there is a demand for only fifty.) Yet they will have an undeniable cultural and historical value, and need to be read by people who matter.

Nick Harkaway writes in the Guardian Blog: "We lose stories every day because they drift out of use and into the vast limbo of in-copyright, out-of-print books whose ownership is unclear. At the same time, existing copyright law is woefully unable to get to grips with digital copying and display, and with the international quality of the internet ..."


"... we need, for example, a system where copyright must be re-registered every ten years to retain exclusivity, possibly with a safety net allowing someone who slips up to regain copyright."

I see where he is coming from, but not necessarily agree with his methods. Firstly, we have to add to the first category important books by living authors that, maybe, only researchers and specialists will want. The Print on Demand project by Google could address that if there is a path for authors to participate directly. As for the 10-year renewal system, it is cumbersome and does not address the absurd issues like the recent blocking of The Catcher in the Rye "sequel" by JD Salinger. Once a book is published it enters the public consciousness. It becomes part of the culture and, in many cases, a relevant version of history. The current copyright laws only address the commercial aspects. But, I agree, we need a new system.

In the meantime, has it that President Obama has appointed scholar, Victoria A. Espinel, as USA's first copyright czar. Good luck.

Free to Read (by The Dram Project and SIS)

Twenty-sixth September saw the start of Banned Books Week in the the US. Held during the last week of September, Banned Books Week highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States.

Here in Malaysia, more than 1500 books have been banned between 1971 and 2009. In terms of children's literature, these include books in the Spongebob Squarepants series, Dora’s Fiesta Adventure ActivePoint Book, Poems & Prayers for Children and Read-Aloud Children’s Classics.

The Dram Projects believes in the freedom to read. We also believe in the right to make informed choices when selecting reading material.

TDP will be participating in the Right to Read Festival, presented by Sisters in Islam and The Centre for Independent Journalism.

Artist/photographer Wei Meng Foo and Daphne Lee (of TDP) will conduct Free2READ, a workshop that introduces children (9-12) to their rights as readers; celebrates the joy and thrill of discovering the different worlds and experiences that lie between the covers of books; and examines the problems and challenges children might encounter in their reading journeys.

The workshop participants will be encouraged to discuss and debate the concept of book-banning; invited to question book-banning and challenging policies; and explore their own feelings and thoughts regarding the practice of restricting children's reading material.

This will be followed by a bookcover art session with artist/photographer Wei Meng Foo. During this session participants will be invited to exercise their imaginations and creatiivity to produce book covers that celebrate their rights as readers.

Date: 10th October, 2009. Time: 10am-1pm. Venue: The Annexe, Central Market, Kuala Lumpur. Admission: Free.

Registration: Call Nazreen at 03-7785 6121

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"Middle way" in literature

WoeserReport from The Kalon Tripa, Prof Samdhong Rinpoche, the Prime Minister of Tibetan exile government, speaking as the chief guest at a literary conference recently organised by the Tibetan PEN in Dharamsala, advised Tibetan writers, poets and editors to adopt a middle way in their writing practices. Huh? That's a new one. Don't we have enough 'middle road' in literature, what with all the self-censorship, selling out and commercial interests? I, for one, would be grateful for a little less 'air bandung', and a little more truth. Or, was he talking about a balance between tradition and creativity in literature. Still does not make sense. Anyway, that's what happens when you get a politician to speak at a literary conference.

Anyway, for the record, several writers, poets, editors and readers met at this annual affair by Tibetan PEN. The main topic of debate was the usual one: can writings in non-Tibetan languages be considered Tibetan? To many of us, we have debated that one to death already in this country. But, many others argue that the issue is still very much alive. According to the sole Tibetan writer in English at the conference, Tenzin Tsundue, "if a writer is Tibetan and if the content is also Tibetan then it must be considered as Tibetan literature ..."

(Picture: Tibetan writer Woeser)

Did the plot ever really die?

UlyssesReading Lev Grossman's story Good Books Don't Have to Be Hard in the Wall Street Journal, one will be entitles to be afraid. Be very afraid. The plot is coming back to the novel! Of course, many will go ... er ... did it ever die ... when? According to Grossman it was with Ulysses and Lady Chatterley's Lover, amongst other's. (So that's why they wanted to ban the books, they couldn't understand them!)

He writes: "A good story is a dirty secret that we all share. It's what makes guilty pleasures so pleasurable, but it's also what makes them so guilty. A juicy tale reeks of crass commercialism and cheap thrills. We crave such entertainments, but we despise them. Plot makes perverts of us all."

Really?! Hmm. I have to confess, I have always liked some plot in my novels, but not at the expense of good writing and good characters. I guess there was a time when I would plough through a hard book because it was supposed to be good. Strangely, this appears to be an affectation of 20th century Anglophone literature. The Europeans and the South Americans appear to have gotten over it after Kafka, that is, and seem to know how to combine good story-telling with good writing. (They are really not mutually exclusive, you know.)

Lev Grossman says, "All of this is changing. The revolution is under way. The novel is getting entertaining again. Writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, Kelly Link, Audrey Niffenegger, Richard Price, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke, to name just a few, are busily grafting the sophisticated, intensely aware literary language of Modernism onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction ..." Or, you could read Carlos Ruis Zafon, Saramago, Arturo Perez-Reverte, or any of the South Americans -- they still have the plot.

Wall Street Journal

Reading in class

ReadingA Yorkshire Post posting says that, "One-in-eight teachers has never read a book to their class ..." according to a research. (From some of the horror stories I hear of Malaysian schools, a local research might indicate that only one-in-eight teacher actually read.) The gripe is that "almost 600,000 children could be missing out on great stories and failing to develop a love of reading because of the use of 'extracts' in the classroom ..." highlighting fears amongst teachers and parents that this is affecting pupil's academic performance. I guess we have no such worries -- most of our parents and teachers will be quite happy if their children didn't read anything as long as they score 21 As.

Not surprisingly, this has spawned a major debate. One favourite view is: "If computers/playstations/DS etc, etc, didn't exist, children would spend more time reading. This generation has much more distractions than we had as kids - there was nothing much on the tv when I was little ..." Of course, it is fashionable to blame it all on the techno distractions of the day. When I was a kid, we had none of those either -- we did all our gaming outdoors. But that didn't stop teachers from reading to us, or for us to read on our own.

Basically, what we are looking at is the failure of the education system (despite, or because of, new fangled ideas) and teachers. (Actually, we had very few good teachers in those days either -- however much we like to romanticise the past. So, basically, nothing much has changed.)

The study was commissioned Heinemann.

Yorkshire Post