Adventures with E-Books

I just finished the first novel I have ever read entirely in e-format (A Discovery of Witches), on my new e-reader. Following the lead of Sybil Harrison, the head librarian at my college, I bought a Kobo, the e-reader associated with the Canadian bookstore chain Chapters/Indigo, rather than a Kindle. I love Amazon, and had originally intended to get a Kindle, but in Canada we are only able to purchase kindle books from the US site, in US dollars, and the Kobo also would allow me to borrow books from the local library.

I have to admit, that techie person that I am, early adopter of many things, blogger, twitterer, online teacher, I am still not 100% convinced by this little device, though it has many advantages.

One thing I love about it, and what will keep me using it, is being able to buy books still only available in hardcover (like A Discovery of Witches) for paperback prices. And getting them instantly via wireless delivery. That is very cool. I like being able to sit in my armchair with a mug of soup in one hand, a spoon or some bread in the other, and my book “open” and available to read easily. I am thrilled by its potential for travel – imagine being able to take as many books with you as you can actually read on a trip!

I like the idea of, although so far have not taken advantage of, the ability to synch whatever book I am reading on my various electronic devices. I suspect this works better in theory than in practice, as you would have to remember to synch things constantly in order to read on one device at breakfast, another on the bus and another on your laptop without losing your place.

I don’t like not being able easily to skim quickly or skip through a book or article. I am far more likely, in consequence, to use my Kobo to read novels than to use it for research. I am skeptical, therefore, about its uses for education. I wish there was a way to annotate with it.

So the jury is still out, or at least I can easily see it for me as one more device, something with particular uses, not something that is going to replace “real” books, any more than iPods have replaced stereo systems. I continue to await developments, though.

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Remembering Diana Wynne Jones

I spent what I count among the happiest three days of my life in Bristol, in early July 2009, attending and presenting a paper at the international conference on Diana Wynne Jones. Scholars, students, editors, and many who “just” read and enjoy Diana Wynne Jones’ novels came together, and spent an entire weekend discussing, enthusing, reminiscing, delighting in and celebrating her work, and rejoicing in the company of so many who shared a love and admiration for this not-well-enough known author for children and young adults. That time could only have been made more sublime (is it possible?) if DWJ herself had been able to attend, as she had planned. She could not, because she was ill with lung cancer.

And now she is gone.

That she was loved by many is attested to by the outpouring of tributes and expressions of grief all over the blogosphere and the internets. She even trended on Twitter yesterday (and would have been highly amused, I’m sure). No doubt, there will have been many on Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere scratching their heads, wondering “who the heck is Diana Wynne Jones”? She was not well enough known. Mention Howl’s Moving Castle and more will have seen Miyazaki’s movie than read the book. Mention a school for wizards, and everyone with think “Hogwarts,” though DWJ created Chrestomanci castle many years earlier. Those of us who love and admire her work gnash our teeth at the popularity of a certain JKR or the books about sparkly vampires, when DWJ has been writing richer, funnier, more literate and just plain better books for so long. It took the popularity of JKR to bring DWJ’s books back into print. But back into print they are, and she will live on in her words.

And what words they are. What books. So many! Not all equally great, but even her weakest books are worth reading. And her strongest are … oh, so good.

Everyone at the conference agreed that Diana Wynne Jones writes books for intelligent people. They challenge you. They make you think. They are inventive, and original and can be tricky. But they are exciting and often hilariously funny.

She writes about strong children and weak adults. She writes about how easy it can be to lose your identity and sense of self-worth when everyone around you is preoccupied with other business and no one cares about your feelings. She writes about the importance of independent thinking and self-reliance. She writes about reading, and writing and the power of the imagination and of words. She writes about power, and vanity, and getting things wrong, and making things right, and responsibility. She writes about girls and she writes about boys and she writes about wizards and griffins and a fire demon and a goon and dogs and cats, and every single one has more character in his or her or its little finger than many other author’s characters put together (JKR, I’m talking about you).

One of my favourite little moments in DWJ’s books comes in The Ogre Downstairs, an early domestic fantasy, already demonstrating how delightful and original her work could be. It’s about a newly blended family of children who hate each other, and the “ogre” who is stepfather to half of them, and who are brought together through misadventure with a magical chemistry set filled with mysterious (but entirely logical) ingredients that do things like give the power to fly and bring inanimate objects to life. One of the ingredients is labelled dens drac. (dragon’s teeth). Remember the myth of Jason and the Argonauts? And the dragon’s teeth that when scattered on the ground spring to life as fully armed soldiers? When the children drop these on the driveway of their house, a motor-cycle gang springs up, speaking Greek. Written in Greek. And if you happen to know Greek, there’s a wonderful inside joke, because it’s not Greek. It just looks like it. If you read it out loud they say things like “Let me at ‘im!” and “Full of spirit, aren’t they?” And it’s such a readerly joke, because the family hearing it doesn’t understand the “Greek” but we reading it (maybe) do. And the awful stepfather, who at this point in the book is becoming not-so-awful, saves the day by following the trick that Jason uses in the original myth. And it’s all metafictional and thoroughly delightful.

Ask me to name a favourite of her books, and I will unhesitatingly offer Fire and Hemlock, a lovely, rich, strange, complex, bewildering and truly wonderful riff on love and heroes and reading and enchantment and poetry. But, oh… there’s Howl’s Moving Castle with the vain but charming wizard Howl, and Sophie, who doesn’t know how powerful she is until she’s turned into an old woman, and the fire demon Calcifer who wants to be free but is loyal to them both. And there’s the debonaire and mysterious Chrestomanci. And Archer’s Goon. And The Homeward Bounders, whose final line “But you wouldn’t believe how lonely you get” never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

They are there now.

Thank you, Diana, from the bottom of my heart, for years and years of reading past and to come. Those bright characters and complex worlds will never die; they will be there always, ready to spring to life in the pages of your books.

A Reading Meme

Do you remember learning to read? How old were you?
I know it was before I started school, and I was four then. I do have a clear memory of being on a bus with my mother and suddenly realizing that I could piece together what some of the signs said.
What do you find most challenging to read?
I think the hardest thing is reading something I don’t want to read. Which for me, sadly, is often student papers… Or something very difficult, like the most obscure literary theory.
What are your library habits?
I mostly use the library to read things that I don’t want to buy. Since the advent of computers, I happily put my name on reserve lists for things and let the library do the work of keeping track.
Have your library habits changed since you were younger?
I have to confess that since I started earning a good living I tend to buy books without thinking much more often and I use the library rather less than I did.
How has blogging changed your reading life?
Not really all that much, to be honest, although it has led me to some discoveries that I might have missed otherwise.
How often do you read a book and not review it on your blog?
Quite frequently.
What are your reasons for not blogging about a book?
More time than anything else. It’s as much as I can do sometimes just to get through books without writing about them as well. But sometimes I won’t blog about a book that I don’t like by an author who I know follows my blog.
What percentage of your books do you get from new book stores, second hand books stores, the library, online exchange sites, online retailers, other? To be honest, probably about 90% from new books stores, although a certain percentage of that will be from Amazon or some such.
What are your pet peeves about the way people treat books?
Not respecting that a book belongs to someone else and not giving it back. Laying a book down flat with the spine broken. Writing in or otherwise disrespecting someone else’s book.
Do you ever read for pleasure at work?
Not as often as I’d like.
When you give people books as gifts, how do you decide what to give them?
I try to give people books that I think they would like, or that I know they would like. But I’m sure I’m guilty of the same thing others are towards me, which is giving them books I want them to read rather than thinking of what I know they would like.

Who Is Neil Gaiman?

I get that question a lot.

And my inner response is “you haven’t heard of Neil Gaiman? Where have you been for the past year or so?”

But then I realize that his rock-star status, his ubiquity, is almost entirely within a) the internet community, b) the sf-fantasy community, or c) the graphic-novel community, or d) geekdom. These realms intersect with each other but perhaps not with the “real” world all that much.

But if you’re a writer, or a reader, it’s hard to imagine that you haven’t heard of him. He’s won many major literary awards, he does promos for the American Library Association, he does endless readings and book signings. His face is on a lot of posters. He’s a rock star.

He’s also a good writer and has built a huge fanbase through strategic but curiously genuine-seeming use of social software. He has a lovely blog, where he writes about his dogs and his bees and his cats. And, oh, the series of posts he wrote when one of his cats was dying was beautiful. He’s also on Twitter: one of the top celebrity Twitterers. He has children whom he obviously adores. He is engaged to be married to the performance artist Amanda Palmer, and writes beautifully about her here. He seems like a really nice guy.

And in the world of graphic novels, he’s a god. Up there with Alan Moore as one of the most important and influential, with his series The Sandman and related works. He’s also written scripts and screenplays and been involved in many other creative undertakings. He’s a talented guy.

I wish more people I knew had heard of him.

Her Fearful Symmetry

Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger

I mostly loved this, even though it sagged a bit in the middle. Some people seem to hate it because it’s not The Time Traveller’s Wife. Well, it’s not. But it is a graceful, odd, faintly sad novel, populated by characters who are more subtle and have more complex motives than you might first suspect. It has the same kind of matter-of-fact fantasy; I’m not sure whether you’d call it magic realism, or a ghost story. One of the main characters is a ghost (and that’s not a spoiler – she dies in the first chapter). I loved the world Niffenegger creates: the old house on the edge of a cemetery, full of the lonely and the slightly odd. There’s something of the Moomins in characters like Martin, the obsessive/compulsive, trapped in his apartment, or the twins, Julia and Valentina, who when first we meet them sleep curled up together, dress exactly alike, seem to think each other’s thoughts and dream each other’s dreams. I haven’t decided yet what I think The Fearful Symmetry is about – different kinds of love, obsession, power. I’m going to want to reread it, and it’s one of those books that you immediately want to talk about with someone who has read it.

The “cosy” apocalypse

The Guardian recently commented on British/Canadian author Jo Walton’s article about what she called the “cosy catastrophe.” Her thesis is that certain middle class British authors wrote about the end of the world in response to a loss that they suffered after the 1st and 2nd world wars, which brought about the disintegration of their class structure and the world as they knew it.

These articles reminded me of a strange “children’s” book by author Mary Wesley: The Sixth Seal. A few people wake up one morning to discover that almost everyone else in the world has been evaporated, leaving only teeth and hair. It’s an eerie scenario, and a very effective one. The implication is that some scientific experiment has gone awry, but there are hints, from the cover, and from the opening pages, that there’s some genuine Biblical apocalypse happening, too. The survivors are a nice middle-class woman, her children, her dogs, and the precocious, tiresome boy, Henry, who may after all be the new leader of the world. I don’t know quite what to make of it, but it’s actually quite a compelling read, very untypical of others of Mary Wesley’s work.

Literate People Should Boycott Books

At least, according to this post that cites a Newser article by Michael Wolff arguing against what he calls the “vanity publishing” of books by the likes of Sarah Palin. He writes that such ghost written items devoid of real content are not “real” books and in fact are a con job by publishers.

Provocative ideas! What do you think?