February 23, 2008

A Confession

I love books. I don't mean just that I love to read books, although I do. But I love books. It's true.

Books, to me, are much more than containers for texts. You can't separate a text from its physical encasement, from its book-body. Case in point: my favourite novel is, unquestionably, Pride and Prejudice. But I love it the most in one particular edition: a small hardback from Oxford World's Classics published in 1985 (ISBN 1851520074). The words are small, black, and dense, and there are no illustrations. The whole thing fits in my coat pocket or my purse. I own other versions, but none of them can compete with my favourite. It is my own definitive edition, the format in which Pride and Prejudice means the most.

It's all completely personal, of course. It's a physical infatuation. If books were dudes, I'd be constantly throwing myself at them -- but for they bodies, not their brains. I'm always somewhat boggled by people who read (and even champion) eBooks and the like. I know that they're generally less expensive than book-books -- but does that really justify it? How can people stand to just sit there and poke buttons, staring at a tiny backlit screen?

Books are sensual. The physicalness of a book is part of the whole reading experience. Think of it: the whisper of pages as you turn them. Think of the comforting weight of a book in your hands. Think of the reassuring presence of a book in pocket bag.  Remember your favourite covers.

The publishing industry knows that the physicality of books is important. Would there ever be a need for new editions, otherwise? Some re-published books contain new information, true: updates to technical matters, or new scholarly introductions. But the vast bulk, I think, are just the same except for their physical details. Perhaps new editions have new cover art, or a better typeface. Perhaps they just feel better, with silkier pages or a different thickness/height ratio. How they're different isn't as important as why they're different: because books are amazing.

I love having books, too, but perhaps that is a different matter.

February 22, 2008

Lovely, lovely links

Awesome-sauce stuff of the moment:

Hot, Hot Library Smut on the nonist. Do try not to drool on your keyboard. Trinity College Library (Dublin) is particularly delectable.

Book staircase! A practical must for any house.

A list of banned & challenged books. There are some there I definitely wouldn't have expected to find on that particular list. The Diary of Anne Frank, for example, which was challenged on account of being "a downer." You know, like the Holocaust. A Downer. Farenheit 451 also made the list, for using the words "hell" and "damn"--with obvious bonus points for irony.

March of the Librarians. Awww.

It is partly the fault of Unshelved (formerly known as Overdue) that I want to be a librarian when I grow up. I don't know that there would be anywhere on earth as interesting to work than in a library.

A house built for books. 'Nuff said.

February 21, 2008

Review: Letter Perfect, by David Sacks

Title: Letter Perfect
Author: David Sacks
ISBN: 0676974880
First published: 2003
This edition: 2004

I am reading this most wonderful book.

Letter Perfect ("The A-to-Z History of Our Alphabet") was written by David Sacks and previously published under the name Language Visible, and even more previously published as a series of columns for the Ottawa Citizen. The book begins with a broad introduction to the history of the alphabet, and then profiles each letter on its own. The history of each letter is traced from the time it was first written to present usage with explanations of significant uses (like "A-okay" or "B-list").

I haven't finished this book yet -- I'm only up to H -- but I can say with confidence that it's one of the best, and most fascinating, books I've read in the past year. Sacks' scholarship is obviously quite thorough, but he manages to pack the information in without becoming repetitive or pedantic. He draws in sources from all over the world and all throughout history: everything from text on ancient ruins to modern grammatical debates. There are some beautiful illustrations, as well, including those giant manuscript letters one might not otherwise get to see. And it's all so interesting! I feel like I've learned something with each sentence that I've read.

My only quibble with Letter Perfect is a small issue of layout. There are many magazine-style digressions: that is, supplementary bits of information in their own boxes, alongside the more regular text. This is not a problem in itself; indeed, it's quite useful, and definitely helps to keep the narrative focussed. The problem is that these digressions are sometimes very strangely spaced in relation to the narrative proper.

One example of this: the text from page 28 is continued on page 41. In between that there's a long digression which runs from page 29 to page 40 -- except not really, because it in turn is interrupted by another digression which takes over pages 38 & 39. It's not a hugely horrific situation, but it could stand being fixed in future editions.

That being said, I would highly and heartily recommend this text for anyone who loves letters and language--and even for those who don't, because they just might after coming in contact with Sacks's work.

February 12, 2008

Stumbled: ReadPrint.Com

I just stumbled upon an excellent online library at www.readprint.com. They've uploaded what looks like hundreds & hundreds of free texts: novels, poetry, drama, non-fiction, etc.

Now I can re-read Jo's Boys, which I don't think I own even though it was my favourite of the series.

And I won't have to buy a copy of Cymbeline later this term.


February 4, 2008

Review: Firefly Lane, by Kristin Hannah

Title: Firefly Lane
Author: Kristin Hannah
ISBN: 0312364083 / 9780312364083
First published: 2008
This edition: 2008 (ARC)

Do you know how much I love LibraryThing? A very lot. Not only can you catalogue things, and find similar libraries to your own, and rate and review books, but you can also sign up to receive occasional advance copies of books in the mail, yours for a review. This past month I received a copy of Kristin Hannah's soon-to-be-released novel, Firefly Lane. It's officially being released tomorrow (Feb 5 2008).

Since I wrote a review on LibraryThing already, I am reposting it here. If you don't want to read the whole book, here is a summary of the review: this book is no good. As for the details, here is my complete review:

This book will probably become a best-seller, which is unfortunate because it isn't very good. I received an advance copy from the LibraryThing Early Reviews, and that is probably the only reason I was able to finish it. I would not recommend this book to anyone. There are much better works in this genre: don't waste your time here.

The writing was contrived and amateurish. The author threw in an extreme number of gratuitous brand names and other irrelevant details, perhaps to thoroughly establish the narrative in the appropriate timeline. This was more irritating than effective. The author also shows a great penchant for semi-colons, which would have been annoying enough even if they were used correctly.

The two main characters, Kate and Tully, are followed by the narrative from their early teenagehood in the 1970s up until the present day. Although their ages and circumstances change, both characters are written as if they are perpetual fourteen-year-olds: petulant, immature, overly-dramatic, and not really the "best friends" they're supposed to be. I had a distinctly hard time liking either of them.

The ending of this book is contrived, manipulative, hackneyed, and cliché. To save you from needing to read to the end, here is the point of the book: ladies, any change in your breasts should be reported to your doctor, because you might have cancer even if you don't have lumps. Also: best friends, good times, bad times, blah blah blah. It's not really worth the effort.

Are there good things about this book? Well, it's a quick read for almost 500 pages. And the cover is nice. But other than that, I can't think of much.

Near the end of the novel, Kate is attempting to write a book. The narrator comments that "she tried to come up with a better way to say it, but only more clichés came to her." (p. 386). Perhaps this was the author's problem as well.

Review: The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

Title: The Difference Engine
Authors: William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (collaborative)
ISBN: 055329461X
First published: 1991
This edition: 1992 Spectra reprint

This collaborative, speculative novel is set in an alternate-England during the industrial revolution. Charles Babbage has perfected the steam-powered, gear-driven "analytical engine," a mechanical computer programmed with punch cards. In grimy 1850s-era London, three characters' lives intertwine in the race to find a box of punch cards which will somehow change the very fabric of their society . . . although nobody knows what information those punch cards contain.

I was ready for this book to be extremely enjoyable. It has lots of attractions: riots, dinosaurs, intrigue, alternate histories of famous Victorian personages, a love story of sorts, prostitutes, MPs, and the question of what would have happened if the computer age had arrived ahead of its time. All of the pieces were in order, but the execution fell flat. This book just isn't very interesting.

It seems that the biggest problems may have come with having two authors pen one novel. The character initially set up as the protagonist disappears after page 71 and isn't seen again until a brief appearance on pages 423-6. The three main stories are not interwoven until the last section of the book, and when they do come together the effect is clumsy. The transitions between sections (there are four) are abrupt and somewhat jarring. Because the main stories don't intersect, it is difficult to keep track of when each part takes place. I believe that the first three sections take place more or less at the same time, but I'm still not sure about that.

The Difference Engine could have been very good, and more's the pity that it isn't. The concept is certainly fascinating. The throwaway line about someone inventing transistors and capacitors and being dismissed as a kook is worth a small chuckle. In fact, the first section of the book, the one with the magically disappearing protagonist, Sybil Jones/Gerard, was quite good. It just sort of fell apart across the next three-hundred or so pages.

The ending -- without giving anything away -- was both confusing and inconclusive. It leaves room for a sequel that has never appeared and perhaps should remain unwritten.

Would I recommend The Difference Engine? Yes, albeit with the above qualifications. This alternate history is fascinating not in terms of its story, but in the world in which it is set. The plot is fairly dull, and clumsily executed. The created world of the novel is highly imaginative, and could easily handle multiple novels.