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Monday Miscellany

Actors Today Don’t Just Read for the Part. Reading IS the Part.

The digital revolution has contributed to the dramatic rise in audiobooks:

Once a small backwater of the publishing industry, in part because of the cumbersome nature of tapes, audiobooks are now flourishing. Sales have been rising by double digits annually in recent years. A recent survey by industry groups showed that audiobook revenue climbed 22 percent in 2012 compared with 2011.

And the increased popularity in audiobooks has, in turn, created a need for readers. Here’s the story of how actors are filling this need. Some even make this reading work their primary employment.

Can games change minds?

new research suggests that thinking about stereotypical and nonstereotypical trait pairings increases social identity complexity, a psychological construct linked to “tolerance of outgroup members.” In other words, the more often we are reminded that not all computer scientists are male, that an insurance underwriter can also be a legendary game designer, and that artists can also be tennis players, the more we internalize the degree to which people belong to multiple, nonconvergent social groups, and the closer we feel to those who are members of social groups that differ from our own.

This article describes how playing games can battle stereotypical thinking, but reading literature can produce the same effect.

Five science fiction novels for people who hate SF

Like any enduring cultural experiment, science fiction has evolved its own codes, its own logic. Some of the genre’s most intense and visionary work talks in a shared language of concepts that can be hard for the uninitiated to penetrate – works Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren or James Tiptree Jr’s Ten Thousand Light Years From Home, for instance, would be a forbidding place to start. But if you want to catch up with the literature of our shared future then where can you begin?

I didn’t grow up reading science fiction, as many people I know did. But recently I’ve realized that good science fiction isn’t really about the futuristic stuff, but rather about the state of contemporary culture. Nonetheless, learning to appreciate the background and tropes of this type of literature can be daunting.

Read why Damien Walter recommends these novels as good places to start:

  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  • Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin
  • The Player of Games by Iain M Banks
  • China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F McHugh

To  Walter’s list I’d add a couple of other books that illustrate how science fiction explores social and cultural issues:

  • Kindred by Octavia Butler
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Do you have others titles to add to this list?

What Makes a Work of Art Seem Dated?

Tom Vanderbilt turns to a science fiction movie in answering the following questions:

What actually makes a work of art—a film, a novel, architecture, fashion—seem “dated”? The Web site of Merriam-Webster defines dated as “outmoded, old-fashioned.” And yet, this lacks explanatory power; every historical artifact (not to mention some that are new and “already dated”) could fall under that rubric. Why do some things seamlessly slip from their temporal context? When does something cross from historically appropriate to “dated”? And is there a time window for datedness, a kind of reverse statute of limitations, beyond which things are doomed by their historical patina?

Vanderbilt says that after a recent viewing of the 1979 film Mad Max he found the movie “remarkably fresh,” as if it could have been made last week:

the movie is not moored to any time. It opens with the vague phrase “A few years from now,” and, rather than any trappings of the fetishized future, “Mad Max” looks backward. At the end of the day, with its lone frontier rider trying to preserve order, it is a Western, with muscle cars. The costumes, the soundtrack, the peculiar mutterings of the outlaws (“Joviality is a game of children”) are at once familiar and slightly out of joint.

Vanderbilt goes on to define datedness as “a sort of overdetermined reliance on the tropes, whether of subject or style, of the day—a kind of historical narcissism.”  He discusses how director Alfred Hitchcock went out of his way to avoid including things that would make his films seem dated; perhaps this is one reason why Hitchcock’s films remain so effective today.

And the best way for science fiction to avoid becoming dated? “As [writer William] Gibson has written, the best way to write about the future is to write about the present.”

Younger Americans’ Library Habits and Expectations

The Pew Research Center offers some encouraging findings about library use among younger Americans:

Younger Americans—those ages 16-29—exhibit a fascinating mix of habits and preferences when it comes to reading, libraries, and technology. Almost all Americans under age 30 are online, and they are more likely than older patrons to use libraries’ computer and internet connections; however, they are also still closely bound to print, as three-quarters (75%) of younger Americans say they have read at least one book in print in the past year, compared with 64% of adults ages 30 and older.

I was particularly interested in these statistics:

  • Younger Americans are also more likely than older adults to have read a printed book in the past year: 75% of younger Americans have done so, compared with 64% of older adults.
  • Younger adults are also more likely than their elders to use libraries as quiet study spaces. Moreover, they are just as likely as older adults to have visited libraries, borrowed printed books, and browsed the stacks of books.