Inventing the Future

Following links from this week’s issue of American Libraries Direct, I found two excellent, thoughtful articles about the current (and probably future) state of the publishing business, including background on Amazon and the ongoing Department of Justice case against Apple and the major publishers. The articles are so well-written and clear that I don’t have much to add, but I highly recommend reading them if you’re at all interested in ebooks – as a consumer, author, publisher, or librarian.

The first piece, “Why everyone is probably wrong about the DoJ ebooks case” by librarian Hugh Rundle, outlines both sides of the conversation taking place about ebooks: the confusion over what the DoJ case is actually about (investigating collusion to keep consumer prices high), and the short- and long-term implications of Amazon’s pricing (and effective monopoly) of ebooks. Rundle argues that the major publishers handed Amazon its current de facto monopoly on ebooks by insisting on DRM (Digital Rights Management). He concludes that “the future of books is not the present of books,” and that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

Rundle linked to Charlie Stross’s piece, “What Amazon’s ebook strategy means.” Here is a fantastic article that includes Amazon’s history from its founding in 1994, as well as some important definitions (disintermediation, monopoly, and monopsony). Stross, too, argues that DRM is dead, or should be: “By foolishly insisting on DRM, and then selling to Amazon on a wholesale basis, the publishers handed Amazon a monopoly on their customers—and thereby empowered a predatory monopsony.”

Rundle also linked to a post on David Pakman’s blog, “Why should ebooks cost $15?” In this piece, Pakman writes, “Absent from most of this [ebook] coverage are two main questions: a) what is the right price for eBooks and who gets to set it, and b) why are eBooks not interoperable on different devices?” Leaving aside the first question for the moment, his second question is one of the main reasons I still don’t have – or want – an ereader. Imagine how much more appealing buying and reading ebooks would be if all ebooks were DRM-free and could be read on all devices – Kindles, nooks, iPads, Sony eReaders. As it is, however, if you buy a Kindle and some Kindle books, but then decide you want to switch to a nook…well, too bad, you can’t take your books with you, because you can’t read Kindle books on a nook.

Given all this, we can hope that ebooks will be DRM-free sooner rather than later. Increased interoperability would certainly be good for consumers, and maybe for publishers and retailers too.

Recommended Recommenders

A recent blog post on the Boston Globe site highlights seven “book recommendation websites” people can turn to for reading suggestions. I was already familiar with four of the seven, but decided to explore the rest for comparison’s sake. If I’ve made a mistake, feel free to correct me in the comments; conversely, if you are a devoted member of one of these sites and want to sing its praises, please feel free to do that as well!

This is a site I use every day; I’ve been a member since 2007, and have over a thousand books on my “shelves.” Goodreads offers a great way to keep track of what you’ve read (including when you read it, what you thought about it, your rating – out of five stars – and who recommended it to you), what you’re currently reading, and what’s on your to-read list for the future. You can create more shelves in addition to these three – historical fiction, for example, or biography – and you can see what your friends have read. Goodreads will recommend books for you based on your shelves, and you can see others’ lists, take quizzes, and sign up for giveaways. There are also many “Goodreads authors,” published authors who participate as members. One of my favorite features of the site is that it combines personal recommendations with crowd-sourced ones, so I can see what my friends thought of a book as well as what everyone else of Goodreads thought of it. Great usability, too – the interface is pleasant and intuitive, you can sort your lists by author, title, date read, date added, rating, etc., and you can get some nice descriptive statistics too.

LT is similar to Goodreads in many ways: you can create your own shelves and tags, see your friends’ books, create a profile, get recommendations, and participate in giveaways. LT offers richer metadata, including Dewey Decimal Classification and Library of Congress Classification (DDC and LCC). The interface isn’t quite as user-friendly, but it’s a robust site, and if Goodreads didn’t exist, I’d happily use LT as my primary books-and-reading website.

Shelfari is powered by Amazon, which means two things: (1) it is designed to get you to buy books, preferably from Amazon, and (2) the design is beautiful and the user experience (UX) is fantastic. I remember an earlier version of the site, which was kind of clunky – maybe why I chose Goodreads instead of Shelfari five years ago – but it’s clean and colorful now. Shelfari rates high on content and interactivity; like Goodreads and LibraryThing, it’s a social networking site for readers (or in their words, “a community-powered encyclopedia for book lovers”). The front page pushes books that are already popular, including New York Times bestsellers and Amazon bestsellers, but if you dig deeper into the site, you can narrow by category or subject. One of the most useful features I discovered was the Series tab, where you can see all the books in an author’s series, in the correct order – definitely helpful at the reference desk.

I’ve already written about Whichbook; I like it very much. It isn’t nearly as robust as Goodreads, LT, or Shelfari, but it isn’t meant to be; it’s less a social networking site for bookworms and more of a reader’s advisory site. It’s whimsical, with its sliding scales (optimistic to bleak, funny to serious, safe to disturbing) instead of a traditional search box, and it does a good job suggesting off-the-beaten-path books rather than the most popular books. There are lists as well, in categories such as “Bad Luck and Trouble” and “Weird and Wonderful,” and you can also create your own lists. Whichbook promotes libraries over Amazon: the “borrow” button is ahead of the “buy” button.

What Should I Read Next?
WSIRN, as it’s called, is one of the most basic sites in this collection. You can create two lists: like and dislike. You can get recommendations based on any title on your list; however, these recommendations are based “purely on collective taste.” That is, books on the same list become associated with each other. This might work fine if everyone liked only one genre, so all mysteries were associated with each other, all romances associated with each other, etc., or if users were able to create and name multiple lists (e.g. “favorite biographies”), but that’s not the case. I have read and loved many books that were wildly different from each other, and the only thing they had in common was that I liked them; I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them both to the same person. That said, WSIRN is a simple, quick tool, and the developers may add functionalities in the future.

The Staff Recommends
The Staff Recommends is, as far as I can tell, McSweeney’s editor-at-large John Warner. (Supposedly also his “team of readers,” but all the reviews I read on the site were written by John.) TSR calls itself “an advertorial publication,” meaning they do get paid for recommending books, but they only recommend books they like; furthermore, proceeds are donated to a nonprofit, so I feel confident that the recommendations are honest. So, if you happen to have the same taste as John and his “team of readers,” you’re in luck! Whether you agree with him or not, the reviews are thoughtful and well-written. As of today, there are eight current selections and a few lists (e.g. crime novels) consisting of shorter reviews of more titles. TSR offers fewer points of view and less content than most of the other sites in the article, but it’s worth bookmarking nonetheless.

The main appeal of this site is the “literature map” that it creates when you type in the name of an author. However, there’s no information as to how the relationships between authors are determined. I want to know why Author A and Author B are considered similar: is it the subjects they write about? Their writing style? Hard to say. You can also get recommendations based on authors you like (I tried it; results were pretty accurate, but there were only three). I probably won’t use this regularly, but I do like that it’s author-centric rather than book-centric.

Treasure Hunt

Professor Greg Downey at the University of Wisconsin-Madison created an amazing assignment for his digital native students: find information that’s not online. And where did most of them turn for help? Libraries!

In the User Instruction course I took last fall, we spent a lot of time discussing “one-shot” instruction: those 45-minute or hour-long sessions an instruction librarian might get with a freshman class to teach them everything they need to know about the library (hint: impossible. Remember, some people get Master’s degrees for this). Usually, librarians concentrate on the online catalog and one or two major databases, and that’s all they have time for.

Downey, however, clearly recognizes the importance of research, online and off, as well as all that libraries have to offer, in terms of physical materials as well as online databases and additional software and technology. This assignment reflects that recognition and respect for libraries and research; it’s also a great reminder that not everything is available on the Internet.

I’ve heard that “librarians like to seek; everyone else likes to find.” Finding is certainly satisfying, but it seems like Downey’s students got into the seeking aspect as well, and that’s what good research is about. Great assignment!

Decisions, Making

Two seemingly unrelated bits of news/opinion in this post, but both have to do with decision-making on some level. To start, one of the first articles I read this morning was Ann Patchett’s op-ed in the New York Times about the Pulitzer Prize Board’s failure to select a fiction winner from the three finalists. As Patchett points out, this is not only disappointing for the authors (“It’s fine to lose to someone, and galling to lose to no one”), it’s also a letdown for readers and for booksellers. Here are the past winners.

Another article I read today is from ASIS&T: Thom Haller wrote on the topic “What happens when architectural questions are not asked?” (architecture, here, is information architecture, or IA). He used Facebook as an example, and it’s a good one: who hasn’t been confused by Facebook’s changing structure, or its hierarchy and organizing principles (or lack thereof), not to mention its always-in-flux privacy policies? The problem Haller discussed was that of labels (or lack of labels) for “content clusters,” and it’s something that would probably come up in a basic usability test; right now, it’s not really clear what the difference between “public” and “all” is, unless there is a label for each group of options (there isn’t).

For such a huge site, there are some surprising difficulties in terms of navigation and settings. I almost have to assume that these difficulties are planned, or at least unresolved, on purpose; it seems like Facebook wants certain actions (privacy settings, unfriending) to be difficult.

So as not to end on a negative note, please enjoy this list of fake Massachusetts town names from McSweeney’s. And may I also recommend Jenny Lawson’s (a.k.a. The Bloggess) just-published memoir, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened? Read a snippet here. (Unless you’re at work, because most people’s work doesn’t usually provoke hysterical laughter, and this might. You’ve been warned.)

YA for Grown-ups

You know that xkcd comic, “Someone is WRONG on the internet”? I actually don’t feel that way too often. Not because there isn’t plenty of misinformation on the internet, or a lack of opinions out there with which I disagree, but because I don’t spend most of my time looking around for things to argue with and get all bent out of shape about.

However, I followed a link from this new “Y.A. for Grownups” column, and wouldn’t you know it, SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET. Joel Stein, columnist for Time magazine, believes that “Adults Should Read Adult Books.” And ONLY adult books. And here is something that gets me bent out of all recognizable shape: someone telling me what I can’t (or shouldn’t) read. (Remember “no one ever told me no”? Or the simple fact that telling a kid – or anyone, really – s/he can’t read/do/have something is a surefire way to get them to want to read/do/have that thing with every fiber of their being?)

Maybe I’m just contrary. However, I believe there is value in YA literature for adults as well as teens. First of all, remember, most adults reading fiction are reading fiction for pleasure and entertainment, so who’s to tell them (us!) what to read or not read? Second, Stein admits he hasn’t read any of the major YA books out there now: not The Hunger Games, not Twilight, not Harry Potter. So right off the bat there’s the issue of passing judgment on something he isn’t familiar with, and only citing the biggest blockbuster names out there. Yeah, okay, he happens to be right that Twilight is not literary, but neither is Nicholas Sparks (yes, it’s pick-on-Nicholas-Sparks week here), and Stein isn’t bashing adults who read The Notebook.

But Joel Stein, I dare you, I dare you, to read Jennifer Donnelly’s A Northern Light and write it off in the same fashion. Read it and say it has no value and that adults should only read “adult” books. That we should read only the books – literary or not – aimed at our age group. (Speaking of age groups, “YA” is just the publishers’ designation for marketing purposes. There’s no strict definition, but usually the main character is a child or teenager, the book is from their point of view – first person or third limited – and it takes place in the present or recent past.)

You know what? Whatever Joel Stein thinks, I’m not embarrassed to read YA books in public. Maybe I feel like re-reading The Giver or Bridge to Terabithia or The Boggart or The Golden Compass, or maybe I feel like keeping abreast with newer YA books, like The Hunger Games or Uglies or A Fault in Our Stars – wait, how did I even get to this point in this tirade without mentioning John Green? Joel Stein, I dare you to read A Fault in Our Stars as soon as you’re done with A Northern Light.

Anyway, the point is, look: I was in middle school once, so while I won’t say I’m 100% immune to embarrassment, I am most emphatically NOT embarrassed to read YA books in public, and I’m years beyond caring what anyone else on the train thinks about it. What books make me cringe? None.*

*Fine, one: I had to read Pretty Little Liars for a YA Lit class and it was awful. I did not want to read it in public. You can have that one, Joel.

In the Beginning

What makes you decide to read a certain book? Is it the cover (whether or not you should judge a book by its cover, many do), the flap copy, a friend’s recommendation, familiarity with the author? Something else?

Friends’ recommendations are important to me, and sometimes I’ll look at reviews as well. I always read the flap copy (on the back of a paperback or the inside front flap of a hardcover), but often what clinches it is the first sentence. Am I hooked after the first sentence? After the first page? I figure the author must put as much or equal thought and effort into the first sentence as any other in the book, the first sentence being the equivalent of a first impression.

Here are a few memorable first sentences:

“Leon Trotsky is trying to kill me.” –The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin: A Novel, Richard Lourie

“I had this friend, you see, that everyone loved.
(My name is Sid Halley.)
I had this friend that everyone loved, and I put him on trial.” –Come to Grief, Dick Francis

“It was a dark and stormy night.” –A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle

“Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.” –The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman

“If you are not here, then why are you everywhere?” –Love Begins in Winter, Simon Van Booy (epigraph)

What are your favorite beginnings, most memorable first sentences?

What You Read When You Don’t Have To

Someone I know is leaving soon to take a job in a foreign country. He will be away for a long time, and wanted to stock up on books (ebooks, actually, on his Kindle) before leaving. I did a little reader’s advisory interview, and he said he had read and enjoyed fantasy and sci-fi in the past but wasn’t much of a reader otherwise and was looking to expand. Here’s what I recommended, with occasional genre/subject/additional works notes in parentheses (forgive me for not putting each title into italics):

Classic dystopia
1984, George Orwell
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
Anthem, Ayn Rand
The Giver, Lois Lowry (and sequels Gathering Blue and Messenger; YA)
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood

Classic fantasy/sci-fi
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
His Dark Materials (trilogy: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass), Philip Pullman (YA)
A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle (also: A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters; YA)
Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman (fantasy)

Contemporary Literary Fiction
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (comic books, history; Pulitzer Prize)
High Fidelity, Nick Hornby (music)
The Prince of Tides (and/or The Lords of Discipline), Pat Conroy (the South, violence, families)
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski (dogs)
The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver (missionary family in Africa)
The Brothers K, David James Duncan (brothers, baseball)
Faithful Place, Tana French (mystery/suspense)
This Is Where I Leave You, Jonathan Tropper (crazy families, funny)
A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan)
Edited to add (4/13/12): Life of Pi, Yann Martel
Edited to add (4/13/12): The Septembers of Shiraz, Dalia Sofer (Iran)

Classic American Literature
East of Eden, John Steinbeck
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (though English was the author’s third language)
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
Ordinary People, Judith Guest

The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson
The World Without Us, Alan Weisman
A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan

The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester
Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer (also Into the Wild and Into Thin Air)
Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand (also Seabiscuit)
In Cold Blood, Truman Capote (true crime)
How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill
The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell (Massachusetts Bay Colony)
In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson (American family in Germany, pre-WWII)

Popular Psychology
The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell
How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer

The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami
On Writing, Stephen King
Charles & Emma, Deborah Heiligman (YA)

Manhood for Amateurs, Michael Chabon
How To Be Alone, Jonathan Franzen
The Polysyllabic Spree, Nick Hornby (books/music)
-anything you can find by Ann Patchett, including The Getaway Car and This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

The title of this post borrows from an Oscar Wilde quote, “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” Feel free to add additional recommendations in the comments.

Sticklers Unite!

I just finished reading Lynn Truss’ excellent book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. “Bestselling grammar book” is not a phrase you hear often, but this one is, and for a reason: in an impassioned, intellectual, and often quite humorous way, Truss makes her case for the importance of grammar and punctuation. The title comes from a joke whose punchline highlights the difference between “eats, shoots and leaves” (not a dinner guest you want in your house) and “eats shoots and leaves” (a panda).

Lynn Truss is probably at the forefront of the small subset of society that cares deeply and perhaps disproportionately about correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling. I too am part of this subset, and nodded along in complete agreement when I read, “To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as “Thank God its Friday” (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence.”

Perhaps the best argument Truss makes for punctuation is that its function in written communication and in literature is crucial; see the above example about the panda. One comma changes the meaning of the sentence entirely. Likewise, “You’re home” and “Your home” also have completely different meanings (in the former, you are at home; in the latter, the home in question belongs to you).

Those who rely on spellcheck to catch these errors are sunk; as this Slate article points out, spellcheck software is great at catching “nonword” errors, like “hte” instead of “the”; however, it doesn’t understand context, so it won’t stop you from using “complement” when you mean “compliment.” Web browsers, for the moment, have surpassed some spellcheck software; in the past five years, according to the Slate article, “Web browsers have become better at spelling than most humans.” What a thought: maybe the next Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? will be Are You Smarter Than Your Browser? Someone call Ken Jennings.

Happy National Library Week!

April 8-14 is National Library Week! Show your support for your library by visiting in person, commenting on or “liking” your library’s social media pages (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) if it has them, participating in Library Snapshot Day on Thursday, volunteering, writing to your library director, or calling or writing to your local government representatives to let them know what libraries mean to you.

One of my favorite library statistics is that on average, a person will pay about $40 per year in taxes to support the library. That is less than the cost of two hardcover books – and libraries aren’t just for books (though they do usually have plenty of hardcovers, paperbacks, ebooks, and audiobooks). They also offer DVDs, public internet access, and programs – from storytime and crafts for kids, to movie screenings, to computer and technology workshops, and much more. What do you love about libraries? Leave a comment!

Let Us Now Praise Libraries, Librarians

An article in the Boston Sunday Globe caught my eye this morning, with the headline “Let Us Now Praise Libraries, Librarians.” (A true librarian would have titled it “Let Us Now Praise Librar*”; hats off to you if you get the joke.) The article’s author, Anthony Doerr, writes about his childhood reading, “Here’s what I think about now: No one ever told me no. Not Mom, not the prim librarians stamping return dates onto slip after slip. No one ever said: This book is outside your age range; this book is too complicated.”

I had a similar childhood experience, reading far ahead of my “age appropriate reading level” and not coming to any harm. I’ve thought about this topic before (see the last three paragraphs of the post “Whose Common Sense?“), and I’m glad to see a similar attitude in print. Doerr writes, “…I worry that we are presenting reading to our kids as a labor to suffer through for which a reward can be earned at the end….The message to young people is obvious: Books are good for you. What’s missing, however, is the idea that sustained reading is magic, a kind of magic that can be wildly addictive, even dangerous.”

He then goes on to create a fantastic analogy, based on the fact that when the brain is stimulated (“when a person is thinking imaginatively and creatively”), it produces endorphins: “Great books are like drugs, readers [are] like junkies, and, yes, to stretch the analogy into absurdity, good librarians [are] like drug dealers.” He finishes, “So, to all you beautiful librarians out there, with National Library Week in the offing….Keep on putting books in the hands of readers, because as every good dealer knows, all it takes is one fix and your patrons are hooked.”

One of the most magical, engaging, imaginative, creative books I can think of is Nick Bantock’s Griffin & Sabine, which is the first of six books (all equally magical) detailing the correspondence between Griffin and Sabine. It’s not your typical epistolary novel (see The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, also an excellent book), because each postcard and letter Griffin and Sabine exchange is rendered with “their” artwork and handwriting; the reader pulls actual letters out of actual envelopes. (For this reason, my first encounter with the books was in Special Collections at the Mount Holyoke College library.) If you can find these, I highly recommend them; you will find yourself immersed and filled with wonder. “Sustained reading is magic,” indeed.