Monday, June 26, 2006

Future of the book, redux!

"Authors, if I understand present trends, will soon be like surrogate birth mothers, rented wombs in which a seed implanted by high-powered consultants is allowed to ripen and, after nine months, be dropped squalling into the marketplace."

The NYT Book Review reprinted a modified version of John Updike's address at the Book Expo, a bit of which I've quoted above. In this case, he is addressing an article by Wired's Kevin Kelley. It seems that what he said is "controversial" amongst people paying attention to such discussions (that probably runs into the hundreds!), and he'll probably be painted as some doddering old white dude writer who is scared of computers, and progress, and the godforsaken Internet. That, of course, is not his point. His point is much closer to the one I made earlier, only better articulated. Apparently some people don't get why us old curmudgeons are so appalled by Brave New World predictions of "universal books" and "link snippets." The problem isn't technology. I'm not going to cancel my Internet access, or forsake the convenience that comes with an online world--and neither is that old codger, Updike.

Refusal to join in such transports of delight over the wonders of hypertext is much more about our fear of being inundated by great waves of utter crap, which is precisely what one is likely to get from breaking down all the "barriers" of authorship, accountability, and that elusive thing--creative artistry. By having all "the great books" available in chunks and searchable, people will be much more able (and likely) to neglect the essential parts of those books, wrench words out of their proper context or-- most dangerously--ignore everything that doesn't fit with one's own narrow views and prejudices. (On the up side, middle schoolers can just skip to all the naughty parts by searching for "breasts" and "naked" without all the bother of randomly flipping pages, and perhaps, even mistakenly reading paragraphs not germane.)

So that's all we're saying. We don't want your bite-size, bowdlerized classics; your undigested chat-room commentary on Anna Karenina from Ted in Duluth who thinks the train represents the alien invasion of 19th century Russia; your multi-authored epics; or your Big Bang of hyperlinks. We're not afraid of the digital future, we just think it sucks.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Marah and Jackie Greene goodness

I've been able to see some great live music recently. I had never heard of Jackie Greene, but I saw him open up for Marah and was really impressed. He and his band are some seriously cool dudes, offering a blend of blues and rock. Greene is quite a youngster, but he definitely has the feel for blues. He's been compared to Dylan (I guess anyone who is a mark above the average will get compared to Dylan these days) and even Sprinsteen (ditto). He put me a little more in mind of Clapton, musically, but I think the main reason he gets those comparisons is simply because he has such a compelling presence on stage. He's obviously talented--good voice, moves easily between keys and guitar--but there is also a soulfulness about him that belies his youth. I'm glad I stumbled into hearing him on my way to Marah, anyway.

I was really looking forward to seeing one of my favorite bands, and I had the usual disappointments in my particular venue. I thought the guitars drowned out too much of the vocals (just like the Jayhawks), which is really a shame. I love the lyrics and I think Dave and Serge have great voices that really interpret the songs beautifully. I have to admit that not having seen them live before, I'm not sure how much of the vibe I was getting was their usual down-and-out, hard-luck, band-of-the people routine, or if they really were a band that wanted to drive the "fucking van into the river." Hmmm. Maybe I'm just too much of a softie for rock-and-roll. I was consumed with that confused maternal instinct that wanted to wash their clothes, make them dinner, and give them gas money for the road! And the encore was a U2 cover? Ooookay. I would rather hear any honest-to-God Marah song than the best cover of U2. What's up with that? Well, having said all that, I was still happy, happy to see them in person, and will probably go see them again if they survive this tour. BTW: the image above is courtesy of the ShinyGun, which has this cool interview with Serge. It's funny that he mentions being such a big fan of Dickens, because I was just saying that Dave, with his motley get-up, on stage reminds me of Fagin!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Future of the Book

I've been hearing more and more about the "future of the book," which I gather is a debate about how to use technology to enhance the way we produce and consume information. Well, that's what it means to me, and I'm admittedly a little fuzzy, even after having a look at some of the sites dedicated to this study and various media stories, blogs, etc. I find the topic to be irritating from the get-go, because I tend toward fuddy-duddyism as I get older, and silly headlines that scream, "The book is dead!" just make me want to poke someone in the eye. I have no problem with the Internet, with technology in general, and what use we may make of it to convey information to greater numbers of people. The "future of the book" groups out there are indeed exploring (fruitfully, I hope) the future of something--it's just not the "book." There needs to be some newly-coined word for it, but I suspect--as no one knows where they are going to end up--it's hard to name it.

A book is not an e-book; it's not a Web site; and it's not even an electronic version of the exact printed text of Moby Dick. Neither is it an audio recording or a film version. A book is a physical object with its own peculiar uses and associations that may have little or nothing to do with the text printed on its pages, which is precisely what makes it irreplaceable, ephemeral, and valuable in its own right. People use books to decorate their houses, to stop a door, to create architectural interest, and set their coffee cup on. They scatter books around them--whether read or unread--to reflect something they think about themselves, or want other people to think about them. They use books to shield themselves from loneliness in a crowded restaurant or chattering neighbors on an airplane. They may even decide to bop someone on the head with one (and if it's a Bible, it adds a moral exclamation point). So these are obviously the purely utilitarian aspects of books--important, but there exist perfectly acceptable substitutions.

For me, it is the purely personal association that books have that make them valuable. And I suspect it is the reason that otherwise reasonable people who happen to love books and reading often react like wild-eyed Luddites to "the book is dead" rhetoric. This is what I mean: I love Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, not just because it's a great novel, but it is a book that my mother read aloud to us, when people in this country still did such things. I have a soft spot in my heart for Julius Caesar because my brothers and I giggled over our uninformed recitations from the battered two-volume set that was a fixture in the house. No one told us to read Shakespeare--we were just entertaining ourselves. (We thought at the time that calling someone a "senator" in JC was quite an insult--as well it should be.)

I still own the worn, hardcover copies of Little Women and Little Men that I loved and reread, outside in the yard, up in the maple tree, and very likely by candlelight sometimes because the power was always going out in summer storms. I remember very well the copy of Jane Eyre that I read at home as a youngster--a cheap trade paperback, beige with a sketch of a young girl on the cover. It wasn't a terribly attractive book, but one I wish I still had. I remember that book and the sympathy I felt for the child Jane--terror-stricken and locked in a room as punishment, with no friend in the house. That scene in that particular book lives in my memory as it does not from subsequent readings in graduate school. I don't recall that edition at all.

I own books that were gifts and remind me of people I'll never meet again. I have, somewhere, my great grandfather's pocket-size New Testament; also a cheesy book of poems about Friendship that I keep only because it was my grandmother's.

All of this--and much more that I am leaving out--is to say that a book is a thing in itself--and not to be confused with a labyrinth of hyperlinks, which if lost, no one is likely to mourn. (They'll just harangue their tech support.) Its future is not so much in question, because it has a past for anyone who still cares about it. Books form part of our intimate histories and connect us to people, places, and avenues of thought that defy listing. That is a level of interaction that even our most advanced technologies will ever be likely to claim.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Joe Ely Solo Acoustic

I feel very lucky to have seen Joe Ely live in an intimate setting. It was so much fun to see a legend of American roots music on his own, doing a long set. He played my favorites from Letter to Laredo, including "Gallo del Cielo,"and "Me and Billy the Kid" was also a standout. Well, really, everything was good--it's hard to name favorites. I love the Tex-Mex sound, and I always think of a Joe Ely soundtrack when I read Cormac McCarthy. I tend to think of them together because I "discovered" them both at about the same time. I saw from his Web site that he will be touring later with John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett. Now that will be a completely different kind of experience, but sounds like a great show. I hope I get to catch it.

It's hard to beat those Austin-based musicians--as mentioned before, I'm a big fan of Alejandro Escovedo and Kelly Willis, but I've never seen Kelly in a live show. She hasn't toured much lately, and I haven't planned any trips to Texas.