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Those early months when i was just beginning to read independently, those were heady days. After years of decoding the meaning of language, facial expressions, cartoon narratives on television, finally the written world was made visible to me and it was magic. In fact, I sometimes wonder if the reason children believe in magic is because they are still so close to the days when their literacy revealed itself as if through a secret portal.

Among the strong memories I have about those days was the summer Weekly Reader program. For some small fee that my parents paid through another of those childhood mysteries, the mystery of money, I received the occasional (I don’t think they were actually weekly) folded sheet of stories and puzzles that not only reinforced the magic of reading but added the gift of mail. These things simply came to our house with my name on them! Magic!

Then there were the books.

Oh, the books!

Once a month during the summer the Weekly Reader program sent an actual, real book to me in the mail! I later understood these to be similar to book club editions, hardbound with printed covers like a library edition only less expensive, with the Weekly Reader logo on the back. Every once in a while I see the Weekly Reader logo on the back of a used book, but one book truly stood out among them all: The Crows of Pearblossom by Aldous Huxley. I have already discussed this book twice, and even linked scans of the entirety of it to my flickr account for all to see. The recent rerelease doesn’t do the boo justice, but I digress.

Among days of swim lessons and water fights in the neighborhood, hanging out at the local park making lanyards and collecting returnable soda bottles for enough change to buy candy, the afternoons that seem most golden were those where I was sprawled on the living room floor reading the Weekly Reader over and over. It could not have taken me more than twenty minutes to read it but it felt like hours, and I would revisit each copy several times until the next one came.

In time came bigger books, and regular trips to the library to bring home a haul of books, and the Weekly Reader faded away. I was years out of college when I remembered those summers fondly and held idle thoughts about creating an adult version of the Weekly Reader. By then I’d assumed the Weekly Reader was a thing of the past, no longer around, and how sad for kids that they couldn’t have the same experience I had.

And then I got the news this week: the Weekly Reader had been alive the whole time, only now it was being shuttered by its new owners.

I don’t care how plugged in and tech savvy kids are these days, it’s still fun to get things sent in the mail, and a magazine dedicated to fiction and word fun… how is this a bad thing? Perhaps the Weekly Reader struggled in recent years because parents assumed (as I did) that it no longer existed, or that they didn’t feel their children would be satisfied with so meager an offering as few short pages of throwaway material. And if the program no longer offered Club Editions of books sent periodically to kids, perhaps that’s part of the problem.

They say that kids who grow up with books in the home – books that are theirs, that they own – do better in school than kids who don’t, and this has long been one of the problems I’ve had with the forced march of summer reading: kids check the books out of the library, and the lack of ownership makes that reading feel throwaway, an obstacle to overcome. I didn’t have many books at home growing up because we were sorta poor, but the ones I had I treasured and reread like crazy. I wish I knew what other books I received via the Weekly Reader summer program, but the fact that The Crows of Pearblossom stuck with me for over forty years is a pretty strong testament to the power of books on impressionable young minds.

While I may have been premature with my thinking some years back, the sentiment stands: how sad for kids today that they cannot have that same experience.

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Books don’t care who they’re seen with, only that they be seen for who they are, deep inside.
Strip them of their dust jackets to hide their contents and they don’t care, the reader is the one who is embarrassed and deceptive.

A book will be loyal and faithful in your possession, but think nothing of being sold, traded, abandoned, borrowed or lent.
Perhaps this is what bothers people about libraries and why they don’t like funding them.
Stacked with hundreds of thousands of faithless books, a brothel of the printed word, books are cheap and easy.

For children, books will endure scribbles, mauling, gumming, and whatever harsh abuse is meted out.
They understand that is a part of their purpose.
For adults, books hold their tongues for such behavior though they also hold grudges for a long time.
Some paper cuts are not accidents.

Books like to travel and aren’t fussy about their accommodations.
Packed in suitcases, in backpacks, stuffed into jacket pockets, it’s all the same to them.
Lucky are the books that open up to find themselves at the beach or poolside.
Every time they are opened they see the world anew, every page gets its own personal vista with a reader in the foreground.

Books are narcissists, they stare at their reflection in our eyes, but only because they know this is the only chance they get to see who they are.

Novels longingly dream of being textbooks, repeatedly used and referenced and pawed at by clumsy scholars; textbooks secretly wish for the novel’s life of luxury and lounging.
Auto repair and computer manuals outlive their purpose; dictionaries outlive their owners.

Though their content may be of any political stripe the physical book itself is a collectivist unit, each part pulling for the good of the whole.
Books do not mind this arrangement, their various pages and binding materials understand they serve a higher purpose than their individual parts.

They have no religion, but all books believe in some form of reincarnation.

Make no mistake, books can feel.
When a page is torn you will hear it hiss its disapproval, but a spine will crackle and snap with nervous excitement like knuckles bent-back before the piano recital.

In another time pages were bound by arranged marriages, lovers locked in an embrace that only a reader could separate through a surgical procedure along the outer edge.
Today we no longer insist on the marriage of a recto and verso or in deciding which is which – page numbers exist for our convenience, not the book’s.

For that matter, books make easy alliances with those they are shelved with.
Should they fail to yield their position or go peaceably alongside others in a new arrangement it will not be the fault of the book.
No book has refused the company of another book by choice.

Books keep their secrets.
They hide marginalia, preserve flowers, conceal money, hold recipes, adopt news clippings and bury love letters all without betrayal.

They do not like the weather too dry or the air too humid.
Books swell or become brittle with discomfort at either extreme, much like their owners.
That said, books adore inclimate weather, as it tends to cause their owners to seek them out.

For all these and many other reasons, books will continue as long as mankind does.

After all, they are made in our image.

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I’m not jumping the bandwagon here, I’m building it. Print books are gonna be HUGE in 10 to 15 years. There’s gonna be a renaissance of the printed book that’ll make all our current hand-wringing look like the motion picture industry wailing over the pending death of movies at the dawn of television back in the 1950s. And the best part about this pending book boom: books are going to be awesomer than they are now.

Kids coming up with these new digital ereaders, soon this is all they will know of books. Oh, sure, the unused library in their school will have their shelves of “research” material that hasn’t made the transition, those titles that have yet to be digitized, just like back in the beginning of the compact disc transition where people still owned tape players and turntables for their “oldies.”

Then one day an author with a name and some clout is going to open shop and start printing fine editions of their books. They’ll pick up some other authors and do the same. Dave Eggers may be their model, but they may look back at the names behind the major publishers and see how they started, as small imprints with a unique viewpoint to share with the world. The hipster kids, annoying but ever-present, will tout the latest new first editions they found and swap publishers and authors to check out with other “booksters.” New stores will open catering to the “lost” art of the non-ebook, the codex, the physical artifact.

College kids will sit in cafes obnoxiously reading from a book printed on environmentally friendly paper, showing off their dust jackets in defiance of all the anonymous backs of ereader screens like mini-monoliths in a tabletop Stonehenge. The movement won’t change the world overnight but will capture the people’s attentions as they realize what was traded-off in the name of convenience. As with the resurgence of vinyl recordings and film cameras with kids now, the book will return with a renewed desire to regain a certain hand-made spirit to the enterprise.

The glut of digital democracy will, ultimately, send people in search of quality “slow books.” When a publisher returns to an emphasis on the quality of the finished product they will be forced to reexamine how they allocate their resources. Digital has already made it too easy for everyone to be published, and the result is a din too noisy to know where to focus ones attention.

The print book renaissance will remind people that it isn’t just the words that matter, but that presentation counts.

The ramblings of a Luddite, a technophobe with a desire for things “the way they used to be?” Hardly. But as I made the switch with my music from vinyl to digital I have come to hear my music less. In fact, I don’t listen to it at all, I just play it as if it were part of the wallpaper. The ease with which I can call up a song and listen to it on demand, the way I can shuffle songs or make playlists on the fly, this ease has caused me to miss the greatest thing about music in the first place: the music itself. I’ve traded the fidelity of old technology for the compressed convenience of the new, and so have you. I traded away making a conscious effort to choose a particular album and make the deliberate effort to play it when it could be listened to, really listened to, consciously. That’s what I realize I’ve missed, I’ve traded listening to music for consuming it.

Ebooks and digital publishing, it’s that same ease of consuming over the conscious act of selecting and reading — truly reading, with absolute focus and deliberateness — that’s been whittled away.

But it’s coming back, to a future near you.

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The School Library Journal has a story about how a school library in Liberty, Missouri decided to entice more boy readers by building a “cave” space. There is a photo, but here is the description of The Cave from the article:

The space is outfitted with modest furnishings, including chairs made from milk crates and padding, designed by Rosheim, and a brand-new beanbag. Fabric is tacked to the ceiling to provide a cavelike aura. A life-sized Wimpy Kid poster, donated by Abrams Books, the series’ publisher, is personalized with a message that reads, “This Way To the Cave.” And, of course, there are books.

Fabric on the ceiling, milk crate seats, and a lone beanbag do not a cave make. Points for effort, and I can appreciate schools being tight on funds and all, but it misses the mark.

What makes a “cave” is that it has a feeling of isolation, a place where you can get away from outside world and hunker down. When grown men make their getaway caves they aren’t light, aerie spaces, they’re basements and garages, paneled in dark wood and full of comfortable furniture where the act of sitting can become a nap. They are permissive places, indulgent, and yes, a little clubby.

I’ve known teens to build their own rooms into caves: walls painted black or a dark color, furniture to a bare minimum, mattress on the floor, colorful print fabrics hanging like partitions against prying eyes and the outside world. It’s a claiming of space and a recognition of a need for sanctuary. Sometimes there are multiple media involved, a TV on while doing homework, or muted with music playing. Let the outside world criticize, but the space is user-created both as an experiment in and an expression of freedom.

In late 2007 author Sara Lewis Holmes posted something on her blog that generated a discussion about what the ideal space would be for teen readers. I wish I could find the original thread, but I remember clearly a number of us tossing around ideas and I threw in my two cents about a retail environment that was perhaps in a basement, with more floor space for lounging and reading, monitors showing movies of TV shows (sound muted), perhaps a cafe bar… basically a full-service cave. (I remember the discussion because out of it a number of us got together and created the review site Guys Lit Wire, dedicated to suggesting books for boys.) Since then I’ve seen stories like this one, of libraries actively looking to create spaces that are more inviting, less like a library. My own town library turned the periodical room into a teen room.

The problem isn’t necessarily that boys need to have their own space to entice them, it’s that the space needs to feel like something they can take ownership of, and by they I mean boys and girls. Input is great, but why stop there, why not let the kids design the space themselves? Build a scale model of the library and the furniture and have them push it all around until they have something they can all agree on. You do this with a committee of an equal number of boys and girls and I guarantee there will be not one but two and possibly many cave-like arrangements in the design. Just like on the playground where groups of kids will congregate on their own patch of territory, why not let them do the same in a library? Let there be five or six “cubicles” of space that different groups can claim (or sign up for, as they will become popular) and see if the library doesn’t start getting more use. They might even want to paint it black and hang Indian print fabric from the ceilings to create partitions that screen out the world. Do it.

But don’t perpetrate the hard gender classification of books. If a kid reads something they like they will go back to the well looking for more of the same. Diary of a Wimpy Kid isn’t a boy book, it’s an illustrated middle grade book (some would say a graphic novel, but I disagree) and should be shelved with similar books for browsing. I mean, really, are we going to start separating boy sci-fi from girl sci-fi? Who gets Harry Potter? Who gets The Hunger Games? When you start segregating the space in the library and organizing books by gender you reinforce the idea that “these books are good, those books aren’t” to the detriment of both reader and book.

But a cave, a cave is good for all. The more the better.

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I got into a bit of an argument with a teen girl about The Hunger Games. I know, I’m a grown man and should know better than to step between a teen girl and her beloved heroine. Especially so since it was my older daughter.

Having seen the movie this past weekend (twice for her, first at midnight on Thursday, then a little less bleary-eyed on Sunday) our conversation eventually wended its way toward the differences between the book and the movie. I should also note that the book was fresh in my mind after having read it a few days earlier. For the first time.

Yes, yes, I know, what’s wrong with me?

While we both ticked off changes made in the movie, no doubt for the sake of economy — “spoilers” will not be mentioned here — I finally decided that what bothered me most was how bland Katniss’ personality was in the movie. My daughter’s explanation: because the book was in first person there was no way you could hear what she was thinking without voiceover, and that would have ruined it.

I agree and disagree.

Voiceover would have ruined the film, bogged down the action and made it feel, well, unoriginal. The argument I tried to make was that while the movie was faithful to the plot there was absolutely no emotional development for Katniss, not on the screen at least. What I wanted, my daughter insisted, was impossible to do, which is where we disagreed. The solution is one known to many a writer of both books and screenplays which is why it was odd it wasn’t evident in the movie.

Show, don’t tell.

In the first-person the character can tell us much about what they are thinking in the moment, and in The Hunger Games everything we learn we get from Katniss. She knows the games, how they work, and she knows the risk she takes by putting her name in so many times for the Reaping just to keep her family alive. She knows Gale as a hunting buddy, a close ally, someone with whom she has complete trust if not a budding romantic fondness for. She knows Haymitch as not the town hero but the town drunk. She knows Peeta as a simple, kind boy but grows to suspect that he might have more cunning than she imagined. And throughout she knows what will happen to her once she reaches the Capitol — not the details but the gist of what she’s seen on TV for the 16 years she’s been alive. She knows sponsors are important to her survival, she knows she will be assigned a stylist to make her presentable for the ceremonies, and she is constantly thinking about what she has to do to survive so she can return home. Constantly.

In the film, Katniss comes off as a bit of a dolt, an innocent who’s never seen the games before. Her relationship with Gale is cursory at best, and Peeta is as genial as his brain is empty. She is put through her paces according to the plot but who she feels about the game before, during, and after makes for a rather flat emotional arc — call it an emotional plateau if you will. Sure, she get’s a moment here and there — with Rue, with Cinna — but they are reactive moments and not enough of a peg to hang a complete thought on.

How can you do it, how do you show what a character is thinking without voiceover?
You show it.

You know who got it right?
Peter Jackson when he adapted The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Am I suggesting The Hunger Games should have been a 3-plus hour-long movie?
Yes, yes, I am.

Let me narrow in on Katniss and Peeta from the moment they get on the train to the moment Peeta makes his confession during his interview before the game. During that time in the book Katniss goes from thinking Peeta is a simpleton, to pitying him for the inevitability of dying in the games, to resenting him for wanting to get separate advice from Haymitch, to feeling both dumbstruck and betrayed at the TV interviews. These shifting feelings are important because, though Katniss doesn’t feel he is a threat to her, she does feel she owes him for a kindness he performed earlier shortly after he father died. This conflict of emotion becomes compounded during the game when Peeta makes an alliance and helps lead them to Katniss to kill her. In the movie little of this comes through. Peeta seems resigned to his fate and blander than his character in the book, which is hard to believe. The separate training, the confession, these come off in the movie less like Peeta is a master of calculation and more a puppet doing what he was told to do.

Katniss’ reactions to these shifts in his character don’t make sense because we haven’t “seen” what she’s been thinking. The plot pushes them through the train ride, though training, with only the most necessary of information. This “economy” of storytelling also removes every semblance of character from the other tributes, making them easily expendable when their time come. We should care about every. single. child. up on that screen, because they have been put into an arena to fight to the death! For our, er, Panem’s entertainment!

Impossible! my daughter screams as she storms away, not upset with me so much as she doesn’t believe it can be done. She hasn’t seen the movies I’ve seen. She hasn’t seen the masters of the German and French New Wave, or the films of Fellini or Kurosawa, films where characters are front-and-center even through action. She hasn’t tired of the faster-faster mentality of Hollywood films enough to recognize or appreciate how much better the tension is when action scenes burst like dams from the built-up pressure of emotional weight behind them. And given that The Hunger Games is so clearly centered on The World According to Katniss it’s too bad the movie couldn’t show us that.

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When I first became a reader and was taken to the school library I had two thoughts: I can read as many books as I want, and I can read then for free? It seemed unfathomable to my young mind and I was determined to read everything available.  But as I got older the libraries changed.  The upper-grade library and resource center had more books than the lower-grade library, the junior high library was many times larger that my elementary school libraries, the high school library even larger.  Added to that my town had branch libraries with a few blocks from every school, if not literally on school property, which magnified the availability of books available. I cannot recall a time in my pre-adult life when I couldn’t find a book on any subject that interested me at the library.

But that was all some time ago.  Back before budget cuts attacked libraries, gutted schools of literacy programs and specialists, before educational “reforms” became more focused on measuring test scores than meeting needs. Before “redistricting” and “performance” became part of our dialog about education.

A few years ago I signed on with a group of other bloggers to help build Guys Lit Wire, a blog dedicated to recommending books of interest to teen boys.  Beyond the reviews, once a year Guys Lit Wire creates a virtual book fare for a community or organization in need and make a public appeal to help.  This year we’re helping a high school library that barely has a 1:1 ratio for each of its 1200 students, Ballou Senior High School in Washington DC.

Can I just point out how wrong it is that a school library in the nation’s capitol doesn’t come anywhere near the ALA recommended 11:1 ratio of books to students?  You would think that if politicians were serious about education they would lead by example and show the rest of the country how it’s done right, not wrong.

Politics aside, our appeal is to help whittle down Ballou High School’s wish list by asking everyone who can to purchase and donate books to help a library become an actual library full of books.  Everything is best explained at this Guys Lit Wire post and for some background on the school at this Washington Post article. I would encourage you at the very least to go to the Guys Lit Wire post and, without reading anything, watch the video that’s embedded there. Watch the camera pan the school library, and the pick up your jaw when it ends just as you think it’s going to continue to sweep around and show you the rest of the room.  There is no ‘rest of the room’ to show. This library has fewer shelves full of books then some homes. Is it possible a bookmobile has more books in it?  And this is for a high school of 1200 students?

Because the book fair is being run through Powell’s Bookstore online there is an option for used books to be part of the donation.  With some books listed at less than $3 it doesn’t seem impossible to imagine that we cannot whittle down this school’s 900-title wish list.

But it isn’t just a wish list, it’s a hope list.  And I know how hokey that sounds, and I don’t care. When a community is devastated by a flood or a tornado or a hurricane or some other external force and people from outside that community come and help those affected rebuild it gives them a renewed sense of hope that everything will be alright. These kids at Ballou Senior High School, they didn’t create their school’s economic problems any more than a national disaster victim creates their circumstance.  But we can show them that there are people out there who care about libraries, care about schools and education enough to support communities beyond their own.

All it takes is one book.  At least one book.  We can do that much.

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Yesterday I had a pair of separate incidents that jumbled together in my head and caused me great distress.  Or perhaps it was getting a crown fitted in my mouth.  Whatever the cause of the distress, the end result was me pondering the question/problem/future of books in the digital age.

It started as I was collecting some thoughts for a review of Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman for the blog Guys Lit Wire.  One of the a-ha moments of the book I remembered from my original reading many moons ago was how technology took a huge leap at the end of the 19th century that fundamentally changed how we communicate.

Essentially, one day we were taking time to carefully craft letters by hand, taking them to the post office, having them transported by train, and then hand delivered to our intendeds – a process that, depending on your service area and how quickly you wrote, moved at the speed of trains, roughly 35 mph.  So three to five days figure for a letter.  Then this Morse guy figures out a way to harness electricity and develops a coded language that would allow you to send messages down a wire within minutes to that same recipient.

Think about how monumental a jump that was, to go from a three-day letter to a three-minute telegram.

Letters, of course, persisted through the dawning of the telephone.  Electricity became not only lights but radios and television.  Satellites made it possible for us to witness live events half way around the world with only a three-second delay.  When we talk about a shrinking world, this is what we’re talking about, closing the time-space gap between our abilities to send information to other people on the planet.

So what’s with books?

Here we have a technology that’s been with us for hundreds or thousands of years (depending on how you want to define books) that has, for the last several hundred years, remained relatively unchanged. 20th century technology allowed us to shorten the time it takes to print, bind, and transport books but in the end you still had an end product that was both easily recognizable if it could be sent back in time 350 years and in a format that required no introduction.

Here’s were the second part of my ponderable entered.

I recently received as a gift a new iPad. I hadn’t been looking for or expecting it, but I like playing with new toys like many people.  One of the things I wanted to check out was how it worked as an ereader, but I wasn’t so dedicated to the idea as to actually purchase a book for the test run.  My thinking was that I didn’t want to come away with a sour impression of a book based on my interaction with its format. I had originally considered downloading a classic from public domain site like Project Guttenberg but I couldn’t settle on anything. Then I remembered that my local library does digital lending and that to me seemed like a better test. I eventually found a title I wanted to check out, something I knew nothing about and had no expectations of, and downloaded it to my tablet for reading.

Eventually.

Because first I had to download an app that supported an Adobe reader format. Then I had to enter the library’s digital database to see what was available for download. Then I had to save it to my cart. Then I had to download it to my tablet.  Then once on the tablet I had a brief wait while it loaded.  And once there I was able to finally have the ebook experience.

In time, I imagine the process of finding and up- and downloading books will become second-hand to me, but what caught me off guard was how my expectations of technology made me so impatient with the process in so short a period of time. The book experience itself is relatively pleasant so far, it’s the acquisition that seems like a hitch to me. So if I wanted to purchase this book in a digital format – say I wanted to spend more time than the limited 14 day download period or it was a reference book I wanted to be able to refer to – I would then have to locate the book for sale in an edition that worked with my device, or software, and go through the entire download process again.  If I had made notes for myself would the pagenation be identical that I could relocate the passages on my new copy for insertion into the text?  And what if it were a nonfiction title and the information within the book had changed recently (top nuclear accidents, number of planets in the solar system)? If all else but a few new paragraphs of information had changed, would it make sense in this digital age that I would have to pay for and download and entirely new edition of the book?

And so it was that while I previously never had an qualms about out-of-date texts and transferring notes between editions I suddenly find myself feeling like the current situation with digital publishing is off on the wrong foot.  The technology should enhance the experience, somehow transcend the problems of its analog chains. Where it was expensive to print new editions of books and get that information out to readers the flash if digital media should make upgrades and updates a built-in feature. To read a book from a digital lending library it shouldn’t take third and fourth party interfaces to make it accessible.

Basically, ebooks shouldn’t try to be books, they should be apps.

Let’s not call them books or apps at all, let’s give them a new name: Sheaves ©, and in the singular, a Sheaf ©.  Each sheaf should strive for something more than simply words on a digital page like a book.  The sheaf is a connection between a reader and a writer.  Sheaves can have whatever features a reader might want; a quarterly update from the author about future titles; hyperlinks within the text to web pages that provide background or supplemental materials to enhance the reading experience; what if a sheaf could include a soundtrack, an ambient background track that synced up with specific chapters or was comprised of a (copyright cleared, obviously) playlist that was assembled by the author?

Because, you see, the genie is out of the bottle. Books are now like another developing technology of the early 20th century, movies.  Originally there was a novelty phase where the idea of seeing photos coming to life was enough to satisfy. Then movie evolved to include overly dramatic pantomime to compensate for the lack of sound. Sound came along and brought theatrical dialog. Color came and dialog became more natural. What began as an old alignment of photography and serial printmaking evolved into a storytelling medium that took technology and ran with it. They weren’t content to present lantern slide shows with musical or narrative accompaniment, and books shouldn’t rely simply on the typographical representation of another era to carry the weight.

There will always be books – bound sheets of paper that contain stories and images to fire the imagination – just as we still have theatre in the age of instant-watch Hollywood movies on our LCD screen, and musicians playing and singing acoustically in a world of digital production, just as there are artists who still use canvas and paint where others have used machines and technology to create representational images. I just think that which we call a book is a square peg currently being fitted into a round technological hole.

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