March 25, 2008

The Whole Book Experience

I've been pondering something lately, something vague about books and e-books and libraries and hardcovers and paperbacks... and something I like to call the Whole Book Experience. I wrote a little about this before, and it's still weighing on my mind a bit. I think it's important.

Here are some things that I think are important to the WBE:

  • text (what the words say)

  • font (how easy it is to read)

  • the book's physicality (size, weight, hard- or soft-cover, etc)

  • illustrations (or lack thereof)

  • pages (how they feel to the fingers)

  • cover art (gorgeous, good, neutral, bad, or awful)

  • indexes and extras (glossary, author biography, recommended reading, bibliography, and, especially for non-fiction, a good index)

  • publication info (I write a lot of essays and therefore a lot of Works Cited pages -- you'd be surprised at how many books don't include information like the city of publication)

  • where, when, how, and why the book was read

The biggest part of how much a book is liked has to do with its text. Stellar prose can overcome a lot of problems with the book itself, like bad/distracting illustrations, strange typesetting, or a poor index. If you think of a book as a person, then the text is the soul; the extra bits are just body.

Right now I'm reading a Tom Clancy novel, Red Rabbit, and the only thing on the back cover is a big ol' picture of Tom Clancy. That drives me crazy. I don't care how famous you are and how many people will buy the book just because you wrote it, the back cover still needs to have more on it than your face. The book survives in my esteem because the text -- the soul -- is good.

The body, however, is also important. I don't like fiction to be illustrated, unless it's something like a children's book. I find it interferes with my conception of the characters, and distracts in a negative way. The distraction of the illustrations will have an impact on my impression of a book. So, too, the other factors mentioned.

Something I've been thinking a lot is the last bullet point: where, when, how, and why the book was read. Are you reading it because you're bored? Because it's on a required reading list? Because you've always wanted to read it? Because a friend gave it to you and so you feel as if you have to read it? Because it was the first thing you grabbed in the morning? These things matter. They will affect your reading experience.

Where are you reading? In bed? On the train? In the library? On the couch? On the john? At work? In the tub? Do you read by sunlight, lamp-light, or candlelight? Do you have a special reading corner?

When are you reading? Is it night or day? Are you reading for long periods at a time, or snatching the odd paragraph when you can? Do you have specific times set aside for reading? Do you read as soon as you get up, or right before you go to bed? These also make a difference.

How have you read this book? Quickly or slowly? Furtively or brazenly? Interestedly or indifferently? Analytically or absentmindedly? Angrily or joyfully?

Right now I am also reading Nabokov's Lolita. I read it on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 3:10 and 4:00 pm, in a small non-loaning library on campus. The room is almost exactly what I want in a library: cozy, with book-lined shelves built into the stone walls, large windows, leather couches and chairs, a fireplace, and near-complete silence. I sit either in one of the window chairs with my feet up on the ledge, or on a couch, most likely curled in the corner. Sometimes I nap a bit as well as read. When I come in, I retrieve Lolita from its accustomed spot on the shelf; when I go out, I leave it behind on a table or chair as requested by library staff (who, it seems, are universally opposed to the idea of patrons shelving material).

I'm sure that the setting and the time restriction will have an affect on how I read and process this book. It's an utterly peaceful environment, perhaps the better for a not-always-peaceful book. My time with the book is limited to my hour-break between classes -- it's enough for a few chapters at a time, certainly, but days go by between readings and it will take me weeks to finish. Surely I will relate to the novel differently than if I read it all in one go, or even over a few days instead of a few weeks.

This all is part of why I am extremely dubious about eBooks and appliances like the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader. Regardless of the legal issues as to whether or not you own the electronic texts you buy -- click here to read more about that, it's fascinating -- I can't comprehend the appeal of books read only as naked texts. Whatever their other merits, eBooks all look and feel the same. What about the inherent tactile experience of reading a book? Haven't books always been about more than just the text they contain?

An electronic copy of a text is like a soul with no body. Around here, that's what we would call a ghost.

March 22, 2008

Links of the Whenever

Match It for Pratchett. A few months ago, Terry Pratchett announced that he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He also announced that -- given that Alzheimer's is a very common disease but only gets 3% of the research money that cancer does -- he has donated half a million pounds (about $1 million USD) to Alzheimer's research. "Match It for Pratchett" is a campaign being organised by his fans to match that donation amount. You can read Pratchett's speech announcing his diagnosis here (as it's a transcript it's not very well punctuated, but I'm sure you lovely people won't let that get you down).

Why LibraryThing is amazing. You know, in case I haven't said it enough already.

Book Sculpture! It's crazy. Crazy good, I mean.

Star Wars Asciimation. Ever see A New Hope done entirely in ASCII art? Well, now you can.

Wondermark. Yaaaaaaaay.

March 21, 2008

Review: Women Astronomers: Reaching for the Stars

Title: Women Astronomers: Reaching for the Stars
Author: Mabel Armstrong
ISBN: 0972892958
First published: 2008
This edition: 2008 (ARC)

This is another ARC I've managed to snag from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers Program. This moderately-sized book has a hideous, hideous cover---but, I think, excellent content.

This is actually the first book in a planned "Discovering Women in Science" series by Armstrong, who will be writing about women chemists next (her own field being chemistry). It's targeted towards girls in high school, perhaps specifically those studying the sciences. I'm older than those in the target demographic, but I still found it to be an enjoyable and informative read.

The format is simple. Female astronomers are profiled more or less chronologically, with a biography and highlights of important discoveries. Some are treated at greater length than others, in proportion to their discoveries and/or how much information is available. There are plenty of magazine-style inserts alongside the text talking about various astronomical terms, instruments, etc.

I was especially interested in this book because I am actually taking an astronomy course this year, in order to fulfil one of my degree requirements. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I'm really enjoying it. It's a fascinating field, and I also appreciate that we're dealing with little math but lots of pictures!

That being said, I was very impressed with the way astronomical terms, concepts, and discoveries are explained in this text. These inserts (usually relevant to the work/life of the astronomer being profiled) are clear, concise, and easy to grasp. These concepts are also well indexed--indexes being highly important in non-fiction texts! I also quite liked the timeline running at the bottom of the pages, which helped to put various lives/discoveries in historical context.

It should be noted that the ARC I read contained a number of unfortunate copy-editing goofs. I am confident, however, that they will have been found and corrected before publication.

This book is an excellent resource for those interested in astronomy, those interested in women scientists, and those interested in the history of scientific discoveries. I would highly recommend it.

March 12, 2008

Review: Swimming Pool Sunday, by Madeleine Wickham


Title: Swimming Pool Sunday
Author: Madeleine Wickham, aka Sophie Kinsella (S.K. being the pseudonym)
ISBN: 0552996424
First published: 1997
This edition: 1997

This little gem is Madeleine Wickham's third novel, written before she started writing as Sophie Kinsella. I had previously read her debut novel, The Tennis Party, which was a little weak. Swimming Pool Sunday is a much better novel and I can see little bits and bobs I'd associate with "Sophie Kinsella" starting to emerge.

The novel begins thusly: Louise and Barnaby are a recently-estranged couple juggling custody of their young daughters, Amelia and Katie. One summer morning they end up at a village swimming party, where one daughter is seriously injured in a diving accident. The narrative follows the adults affected by the accident through the ensuing months, as tension rips through the otherwise sleepy English village.

The real strength of this novel lies in its characterization. Although I'd be hard-pressed to identify a protagonist, several characters are given very full treatment. The narration gets inside almost everyone's head, and several characters are very well realized.

This is most obvious in the case of Cassian, who is the definite villain of the piece. He's completely odious, and utterly believable as a "bad guy." By the middle of the book, I was fighting the temptation to scream in frustration every time he had a line.  At one point, another character snaps at him: "Oh, ---- off, you little toad," which expresses my sentiments exactly (p. 156). He is a wonderful example of a character you can love to hate, and exceedingly well written. Well, for a little toad!

Swimming Pool Sunday is well-paced and a quick read, and worth the read for far more people than just Kinsella fans.

March 8, 2008

Something’s Missing

I went to my local public library today, a place I hadn't been for probably seven years. That sounds a little strange, maybe, but it makes sense. In highschool I would generally just use the school library, and now in university -- well, if you can't find it in the university catalogue, you'll have a hard time finding it anywhere. And so I haven't been to the community library in a long, long time.

I was pretty excited to go today. Since I've been gone, the library has undergone a massive renovation. It's quite incredible, really; the place is almost unrecognizable. For the most part, I think, it's also for the better. The library's previous look was very dark and dim. Now everywhere is airy and full of light (two full walls are windows). The layout is good, too: more workspace, lots of little nooks with chairs for reading, better computers, well-spaced aisles, etc.

It's nice. It's really nice.

It's strange, too, not just in terms of its difference from the old format (whence the children's area I remember?). It has been a couple of years, and there is the possibility that I'm mis-remembering, but it seems to me that there are also distinctly fewer books than there used to be. The science fiction section seems to have been gutted. The shelves aren't full the way they used to be. And the more workspaces and wider aisles seem to mean that there are also fewer shelves.

Fewer shelves . . . fewer books . . . do you think that they've maybe missed the point of being a library? Not to knock the reno too much, because the building is much nicer than it used to be. But where have the books gone?

March 5, 2008

Review: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

Title: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Author: R. L. Stevenson
ISBN: 055321277X
First published: 1886
This edition: 1985

I have finally read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I don't mean "finally" in the sense that I have been pining to read this book. Rather, this short novel was a huge cultural phenomenon in its time and, to a lesser extent, remains so today -- and so I think it fitting that I've now read the darn thing. I was familiar with the Jekyll/Hyde theme because it is still used and recognizable in entertainment: in everything from parodies in Bugs Bunny, to Petra's album "Jekyll & Hyde," to appearances in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. (The latter is a movie which I recommend wholly on its extraordinary badness). Now I have the opportunity to compare those with the original . . . if I'd want to, anyway. I'm lazy, so you never know.

I digress. Back to the book.

The first thing I noticed when I picked this book up, way back in September,* was "hey, this only costs a dollar!" It was one of those beautiful moments where a reading list and a bargain-basement bookstore collide. It's a second-hand copy, so it was dead cheap on that account -- but also, I think, because it's a little book. A really little book. This edition clocks in at 114 pages, not including biographical material and the like. It probably took less than an hour to read straight through, although I didn't time it. It's a shorty.

It's also . . . um . . . shall I say that it's an obvious choice for parody? For one thing, it's gothic in setting to the point of ludicrousness. Apparently, it is always night in London. Moreover, it is always that quiet kind of night where Horrible Things Happen. And the streets are always abandoned, the further to accommodate the Horrible Happening Things. I realise that this novel was written during the resurgence of romanticism after George Eliot's death, when the gothic form moved from the country to the city, but it is a little jarring.

Then there's the matter of form. It's perhaps a little wrong of me to ding the book on the way the plot is layed out -- after all, I already basically knew what would happen just through geeral pop culture -- but it is rather peculiar. The action unfolds incredibly slowly in book-time: I believe that at least a year passes within the hundred or so pages of text. During that time, Utterson mostly stumbles around being dim. Dim as a post. I know that it can increase the dramatic irony when everyone but the protagonist has figured things out . . . perhaps that's what Stevenson was going for?

I dunno. Obviously this book has had a huge influence over readers and culture. But I just don't think it was really that good. I'm sorry. I don't. I'm glad to have read it, but I don't know if I ever would again.

3 stars / 5.

*I bought this in September as it was on the syllabus for a Victorian Fiction course I'm taking. We've not read it in class until now, and so neither had I.