Monday Miscellany

The fiction of literary friendship

Writing in the Guardian, Wayne Gooderham concludes: “Judging by the stories that have been written about it, writers do not make the best of friends.”

10 Most Reclusive Literary Geniuses in History

The world’s greatest writers use their literary genius to illustrate and comment on the human condition. And yet, those who could be considered to have the best understanding of human feelings often choose to hide themselves away from the public eye. The stereotype of the reclusive author is not always true, but for these literary greats, a life of solitude had more appeal than the draws of fame and awards.

Novelist Fights the Tide by Opening a Bookstore

NASHVILLE — After a beloved local bookstore closed here last December and another store was lost to the Borders bankruptcy, this city once known as the Athens of the South, rich in cultural tradition and home to Vanderbilt University, became nearly barren of bookstores.

A collective panic set in among Nashville’s reading faithful. But they have found a savior in Ann Patchett, the best-selling novelist who grew up here. On Wednesday, Ms. Patchett, the acclaimed author of “Bel Canto” and “Truth and Beauty,” will open Parnassus Books, an independent bookstore that is the product of six months of breakneck planning and a healthy infusion of cash from its owner.

Neal Stephenson, Digital Publishing, and Why Books Will Survive

Hefting Neal Stephenson’s latest 1000+-page tome, Reamde, prompts science and technology writer David DiSalvo to consider the contrast between traditionally published books and books on an ereader. He admits to participating in the ereader culture:

I own a Kindle and like it quite a lot, especially for travel, and I’m sure the latest volley of tablets arriving on the market all have something to offer—but none of these devices can offer the sense of achievement one gets from working through the pages, seeing them amass one after another behind a thumb pressing down against the satisfying weight of quality stock.

But, he adds:

Books are much more than words on a page or screen, though what that “more” is seems to irrationally persist against every notion of progress a digital economy trumpets.

I’m not sure what his notion of that “more” is, but my notion of it is the transactional building of a textual world that occurs when an individual reader interacts with a written text to create the poem, as described by Louise Rosenblatt in The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. In Rosenblatt’s terms, the text is the words the author wrote, while the poem is the imaginal world that the reader builds while interacting with the author’s text. And I don’t see how it makes any difference whether the text is printed on paper or appears on an electronic device. Yes, “Books are much more than words on a page or screen,” but that “more” is created in the reader’s mind, regardless of which form the presentation of the text takes.

DiSalvo continues:

The poet John Ashbery, speaking at the 2011 National Book Awards this week, said “Reading is difficult…[it is] pleasurable and painful…it can change a person.”  And that is precisely why I will keep buying books like Reamde as true to form books and not digital uploads to my Kindle. I want the difficult experience of reading a challenging book to resonate beyond my eyes. I want the entire experience, and I want to feel the sense of accomplishment from embracing the challenge.

All right. But, for my money, he’s begging the question. How does using an ereader prevent him from having “the entire experience” of engaging with the text? What is it about the inherent nature of ink on paper that makes a printed book essentially different from an ebook? Begging the question means assuming that something is true, then asserting that assumption as “proof” of the fact in question, and that is exactly what DiSalvo does here.

He also writes:

If we attempt to relegate reading entirely to a one-dimensional form, no matter how stylized or convenient, I think we are mystified by an illusion of progress masking regress. Maybe the loss from doing so can’t be quantified, but it’s real nonetheless, in the same way that watching the world through a TV screen instead of imbibing it through experience is a profound negation of what it means to be human.  There will never be a digital prosthetic capable of replacing what’s lost when we trade fullness for immediacy.

A “one-dimensional form”? An ereader is just as three-dimensional as a printed book; it’s just that one of those dimensions, thickness, is a lot smaller than the book’s, particularly in the case of Reamde. And his comparison of reading to “watching the world through a TV screen instead of imbibing it through experience” is simply not apt in this context. There IS a real world outside, and watching it on TV is not the same as experiencing it. But the world produced by reading a book–the poem, in Rosenblatt’s terms–does not have an objective existence; it only comes into existence when a reader creates it by interacting with a text. So this argument, too, begs the question.

In the end, the entire ebook vs. printed book argument comes down to personal preference. Some people will prefer one over the other all the time; other people may prefer one over the other depending on circumstances (an ereader is much easier to lug on vacation than a stack of books, after all). And it’s certainly all right to express one’s personal preference. Just admit that that’s what it is.