Insubstantial Reading

Because of the shortness of time, I recently bought an ebook so that I could get it done under deadline.  Although the coronavirus still has book delivery slowed down, things are much improved.  There was a book, however, I absolutely needed to read for my current research that is available only in ebook form.  Sighing, but emboldened by my recent experience, I began reading it electronically.  Shortly after I started my critical faculties kicked in and I began wondering whether the book was fact or fiction.  The author has an internet presence but is seldom addressed by scholars.  I found myself thinking, “if this was a real book, I’d stop right about now and examine my physical copy for clues.”  I’ve done that more than once when it comes to questionable material.  Books, you see, come with built-in indicators of their trustworthiness.

The ebook, however, gives you scant information.  For example, this one has no copyright page.  I may be a publishing geek, but a copyright page is essential for determining what kind of book you’re reading.  Then I would, if this were an actual book, close it and look at the back cover.  There in the upper left I would look for the BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) code.  These are the words that classify the genre and subject of the book for you.  It is often a publishing professional, such as the book’s editor, who assigns the BISAC code, so depending on who the publisher is, you have an accurate description.  This ebook on my Kindle software has no BISAC code.  The publisher itself often tells you something about a volume, but this is a small press without much online information available.

I’m walking you through this because of our current crisis of critical thinking.  With a president unwilling to stick to facts and crying out “fake news” when empirically proven realities don’t match his liking, being able to assess our sources is essential.  Ebooks have eroded the possibilities.  I read esoteric stuff, I admit.  The authors had to have convinced a publisher (and don’t get me started on self-published books!) that their project was viable.  The book in my hands has a number of ways to assess whether it is accurate or not.  The ebook on my lap does not.  I’m working on a longer article on this topic.  Our ability to think critically includes the necessity of assessing the clues as to the nature of our reading material.  Right now I’m reading an ebook stripped of the helpful clues of the print book and fact-checking is limited to Google.  The truth may be out there, but if this were a printed book chances are it would be right in my hands.

 

Is It Real?

I’ve been reading an ebook and I feel lost.  I resorted to the ebook because I was invited to join an informal virtual bookclub.  Book discussion group may be a more accurate description.  Since I don’t see many people this seemed like a good idea.  Although I often take recommendations, reading a book someone else chose is kind of an infringement on my already crowded “to read” list, but connection is connection.  The problem was I couldn’t get a physical copy of the book delivered before the first meeting.  I struggled with whether or not to buy the ebook for hours.  I just can’t get over the feeling that I’m paying for something that can disappear at the next upgrade and all my effort in reading it will have been lost.  I’m a book keeper.  (Not a bookkeeper.)

After a morning of angst, I finally clicked on “buy.”  I’ve been reading the book but I’m finding it disorienting.  When I read an actual book, I quite often take a look at the physical object and assess it as I’m reading.  Appraise it.  Who is the author again?  Who published it?  When?  In the ebook world that information is obviously available, but it’s not where I expect to find it.  And there’s the matter of pages.  I measure my progress of book reading by the location of my physical bookmarks.  I can tell at a glance to the top of the book how my progress is.  A slider bar just doesn’t do it.  I click out of it and check on Amazon.  How many pages does this book actually have?  Why does my e-version have a different number?  Won’t that confuse the discussion?

I don’t feel so guilty about marking up an ebook, I’m finding.  Highlighting in a print book always annoys me—I don’t want some previous owner telling me what I should remember.  This ebook won’t get passed on to anyone else (that’s the genius of the business model—the ebook isn’t available for resale, which more durable, actual books are).  As I’m doing this I recollect that I’ve only ever read two ebooks before, both fiction.  They didn’t make much of an impact because it was only in writing this post that I remembered them at all.  The world of the coronavirus has taken its toll, I guess.  I’m reading an ebook and I can’t wait to finish so I can get my hands on the real thing again.

Paper or Electronic?

Publishers are scrambling (and who can blame them?) to get ebooks out.  Since bookstores have been closed (I’d classify them as essential businesses, in an ideal world), they need to get “product” to customers.  Still, I’m thinking back to my recent interview with an undergraduate about Holy Horror.  She told me the cover really generated interest as she walked around school with it.  (This was before the pandemic.)  That’s old school book advertising.  Although I do learn about lots of books online, I very, very seldom buy ebooks.  It seems like buying air to me, and I wonder if publishers are missing out on the free advertising of the person carrying an interesting book around.

Back before the pandemic I’d noticed how just about everybody was walking around with that awkwardly proud “I’ve got a cup of Starbucks in my hand” look.  It was everywhere.  No matter where I went, for there was free travel in those days, people had only one hand free, showing the world their craft coffee.  If only it were so cool to be seen carrying books!  I stopped commuting about two years ago, for all practical purposes.  When I did get on a bus, however, I always had a book in my hand.  Did publishers see any bumps from curious New Jerseyans who saw the strange cover of the weird book I happened to be reading at the time?  You never got a seat to yourself on New Jersey Transit, and I know I was always curious about other readers (there weren’t many).  I hardly have the profile to define “cool” and “some guy on the bus” probably doesn’t cut it for many people, but still, the thought of someone curious about a book because of the cover is very compelling.

Book covers are artworks.  At least some of them are.  I recall the ennui I felt approaching some academic books with just words on cloth for the cover.  (I later found out the cloth is usually paper made to look like cloth—there are layers in everything.)  It was difficult to muster the energy to open the book because you knew there would likely be hard slogging ahead.  That’s why I decided to stop writing academic books.  The next trick is to find nonacademic publishers so that prices in the range of real readers might be offered.  If people opt for the ebook version, how will others see it?  And viruses only last on paper for about a day.  That’s a quarantine I can live with.

See Index Saw

Too much of my life is taken up with indexes.  If life with technology is a teeter-totter, then my generation stands just above the fulcrum.  There are guys with whom I attended college who maintain no internet presence at all.  I’ve repeatedly searched for college buddies and come up blank.  Those in the decade following mine, if they want to work, have pretty much resigned themselves to tech.  Those in the decade before, not so much.  What does this have to do with indices?  Plenty!  You see, in academic publishing, and its consequent research, you need to look stuff up.  If you read multiple books on the same topic you’re not likely to be able to pinpoint a page number without an index.  You remember you read it here (you think) and so you stick a finger in the back and begin checking out the pages referenced until you (hopefully) find it.  That’s the old school way.

I’ve typed my fingers down to the marrow trying to explain to guys my age and older that the average academic no longer uses a print index.  Just about everything has been digitized.  Although I’m no fan of ebooks (I very seldom read them) looking things up is sure much easier with a searchable PDF.  Type in your search term and voila—an easy list of references appears that can be quickly clicked through and checked.  And yes, my colleagues, that’s what people are doing these days.  I lament the decline in print books.  When I set out to write a book I have a physical object in mind.  It has pages and a cover.  A spine.  I am writing a book, not “content” to be “exploited” in “multiple formats.”  And yet, the index is really no longer necessary.

The typical academic author whose book is at the production stage fusses greatly over the index.  Calmly I explain that indexes are very rarely used.  They must have detailed indices, they insist.  The thing about teeter-totters is that they move.  I have an inner-ear problem.  As a child this prevented me from doing the usual playground things like swinging and seesawing and spinning, to different degrees.  I still can do none of those things well.  My wife and I bought a gliding rocker early in our marriage, that seats two.  We quickly learned that I couldn’t rock with her.  Indexes, you see, are on one side of that long board.  It’s the side on which the heavy weight of time rests.  So ponderous is it that the kids on the other side just can’t get it off the ground.  And I spend my days over the fulcrum trying to get the two sides to play nice together.  Without rocking the thing too much.

Photo credit: Chicago Daily News, via WikiMedia Commons

Fueling Fires

Paying attention to world affairs can take all your time.  In fact, for those who study foreign affairs, it practically does.  I’ve been struggling with the fact that you can’t be lazy in a democracy.  I know that’s true—we must constantly be vigilant of governments turning evil (with a wink)—and yet we each have our own lives to look after.  Trying to balance this teeter-totter, I noticed a Washington Post story lately about library officials in China burning books.  Said books challenge government ideology and are being destroyed.  We’ve seen this before.  Nazis burned books, and Republicans would certainly like to.  Even further back in history Medieval thinking led to the destruction of what would now likely be invaluable tomes.  There is biblical precedent, of course.  Read Acts 19 if you need a refresher.

Book burners now do their deed for its symbolic value.  We live in an age of Kindles and Nooks and books online.  Not as many are printed as there used to be, but the smell of burning plastic doesn’t convey the same pathos.  Besides, you can just whip out your synced phone and continue  reading.  Those of us who’ve committed our lives to reading find this symbolic gesture heinous.  Yes, there are books that offend us.  I’ve read more than one that I wish I hadn’t.  I have, however, no inkling to burn them.  Books represent our attempts to increase knowledge.  Fiction or non matters not.  Those who write have something to say, and surveys reveal that many adults really would like to write a book.  As a symbol, there’s nothing like it.  I suspect that’s why burning them makes such an impact.

The western world is struggling to understand China.  One of the largest investors in both Africa and South America, China is building foreign relations just as the Trump administration is jettisoning them.  Many well-informed Americans don’t realize just how long and how well China has been making connections through financial investment.  Sounds like a very capitalist thing to do.  That librarians should burn books seems an odd form of theater in such a scenario.  Governments that can’t take criticism are autocracies.  I know few donkeys that would state any one of their party is really a saint.  That’s GOP territory.  At least we haven’t started book burnings on the White House lawn.  As we turn our gaze to the east, or, depending on your perspective, to the west, we do have to wonder just how long it will be before we do.

Wag the Book

I was pulling together a bibliography, you know, like one does, when I realized just how outdated the usual formats are.  Particularly the trinity invoked at the end of Chicago/Turabian—city: publisher, date.  Now, to their credit a number of more recent formats have dispensed with the “city” part.  Most presses have multiple offices and even those of us in the biz can’t always tell which one produced the book, which was, in all probability, printed elsewhere anyway.  Why list the city?  In this internet age, no physical copy of the book may have even been in the office.  The real problem, however, is the date.  Scholars want to know when something was published.  Publishers want to prolong the copyright (seventy years after an author’s death apparently isn’t long enough).  They can do this by using the next year as the copyright, as long as a book’s published in the latter half of the year.

Maybe you’ve had this happen too.  You put a book in your bibliography which, at the time, has a date a year later than it is in real-time.  You’re writing the future, apparently.  Or maybe publishers are just optimistic.  The fact is it’s a fiction.  Citations were invented so that you could find where an idea originated.  Dates can be important for a book that’s gone into multiple editions and you want to be sure to look in the correct one.  I had any illusions about permanency shattered when I realized that publishers routinely fix errors in books with no indication that they’ve done so.  It used to be that, if you knew how to read the printer’s key on the copyright page you could even figure out which printing of a book you held.  All of this fun disappears when we go electronic.

This sense of temporariness is problematic.  People ask me “Why don’t you get a Kindle?”  Books are an investment.  Consider iTunes.  How many times have you had to “rebuy” a song because you changed devices?  Or has your battery died right in the middle of something?  Have you tried to sell an MP3 you no longer listen to in a yard sale?  Books are physical objects—more than the words they contain.  They may be dated before they’re published, but they do have staying power.  Besides, citing an electronic source, what with broken links and all, is a tenuous business.  Those who write books want some indication that what they labor over for so long has a real presence in the world.  Even if you can’t say, precisely, when or where it was published.

In the Inn

One of those things that really bothers me is the concept of being forced out of a home.  It’s never happened to me personally, but that doesn’t mean I can’t fear it.  That idea works its way into more theoretical applications as well.  Lately both my phone and my laptop computer have sent me messages saying there’s no more room in the inn.  Now, dear reader, you may understand technology better than I (you almost certainly do), but I wonder just how much these weightless thoughts I store here can possibly tip the scale.  I back up my hard disc weekly—there’s no telling who’s going to get kicked out when all the room is finally gone!—but when I open my space manager I find all kinds of things I can’t identify.  Software that I’m not sure it’s safe to remove.  I have no idea what the function of many apps might be.  So I just start deleting.

No room for your data here!

And I keep deleting.  I won’t touch my writing, however.  It’s backed up on a high-capacity drive, but such drives fail.  I want to keep a copy here on my laptop where I can reach it.  The real problem is that this massive sorting exercise keeps me from doing the things that I’d rather spend my time on—writing blog posts, for example.  How can I relax to do that, though, knowing that there’s no room to store them when I’m done?  Why does iTunes take up so much space anyway?  I feel guilty deleting anything from it because of all those warning dialogue boxes with their dire notes that this action can’t be undone.  Occam’s erasure has its consequences, I guess.

I suppose this is related to my recent observations on how tech demands time.  I’ve got some big projects going.  One is to sort out and file all my browser bookmarks.  They are embarrassingly plentiful.  Then there’s the sorting of thousands and thousands of electronic photos into files.  When I first starting using devices there weren’t enough pictures or bookmarks to worry about.  Now each of these projects has been ongoing for months and neither is nearing the end.  I’m old enough to recall when office supply stores sent catalogues (print catalogues, no less!) to my employers stating things like, “We’re in the  midst of an information explosion.  You should buy folders in bulk.”  They meant manilla folders.  Were we ever so naive?  Now what about these ebooks that I also have in hard copy?  Which should I get rid of?  That choice, at least, is easy.  Even my manger has room for books.

Writers Reading

A lot of misconceptions about books abound out there.  One of those misconceptions that has become clear to me is that authors write books to teach.  (Or to make money.  Ha!)  That may well be part of the motivation, but for me, the larger part has been writing books to learn.  You see, the frontiers of human knowledge cannot be reached without stretching.  Writing a book is a way of learning.  Long gone are the days when a person could read every known published work.  Indeed, there aren’t enough hours on the clock for anyone even to read all published books on the Bible, let alone the far bigger topics these days.  And so writing a book that deals with a biblical topic—let’s say demons—is the ultimate learning exercise.  It’s a very humbling one.

I recently read an article where book pirates (yes, there is such a thing!  I should explain: there are those who believe authors are ripping off society by getting royalties for their books.  These pirates, like those of galleys of yore, take ebooks and make them available for free on the internet.) call authors “elitists” for wanting to earn something from their labors.  These folks, I’d humbly suggest, have never written a book.  Most books (and I’m mainly familiar with non-fiction publishing here, but the same applies to the other kind) take years to write.  Authors read incessantly, and if they have day jobs (which many do) it is their “free time” that goes into reading and writing.  They do it for many reasons, but in my case, I do it to learn.

The doctoral dissertation is accomplished by reading as much as possible beforehand and writing up the results quick, before someone else takes your thesis.  It is the practice I also used for my second book as well, Weathering the Psalms.  The third book, Holy Horror, was a little bit different.  Yes, I read beforehand, but much of the research went on after the body of the book had largely taken form.  I had to test my assumptions, which are on ground most academics, needing and fearing tenure, tremble to tread.  I read books academic and popular, and having been classically trained, often went back and read the books that led to the first books I read.  It is a never-ending journey.  I could easily spend a lifetime writing because I’d be learning.  But like other misconceptions, those who write books don’t lead lives of luxury.  They work for a living, but they live for the chance to learn.  And that’s worth more than royalties.  Besides, the nine-to-five demands constant attention.

Paper or Plastic?

Perhaps the most frequent topic on this blog is books. I don’t discuss every book I read, but most end up here. I can’t help but be pleased then, that recent polls show the number of people reading books is rising. Not only that, but that paper is back. We all appreciate new things. In fact, our economy would grind to a dead stop if it weren’t for new things that keep us buying. Ebooks were a new thing. Sometimes they’re even convenient things. If you’re going on a trip and you tend to travel with lots of books, like I do (who knows what mood you’ll be in when you get there? You’ve got to be prepared!) then an ebook reader can save stress on your back and luggage capacity. But I still prefer to zip open my bag and see four or five books smiling up at me. Visitors (rare, but not completely fictional) sometimes ask why I keep them all. I must restrain myself from retorting “why do you keep all your children?”

img_2945

Books—print books—represent so many things. Yes, they often contain knowledge. But they also contain memories. The contain emotions too. I remember that book that I saw in the library window at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh book sale display. I was only at Oshkosh one year, but I recall seeing the book that my advisor had recommended a decade and a half earlier. I was so excited I called the librarian to ask if it could be put on hold. He allowed as it couldn’t but if I were to pay in advance perhaps another book could be substituted in the display. I remember having my worldview torn open by books—that January that I read three books that changed my outlook on life almost completely over Christmas break. How can I bear to let any of them go?

I suspect ebooks were a fad. They are still useful and they still sell. But is there any feeling like taking a book, closing the back cover, setting it on your lap, and thinking about what you’ve just seen? I know nothing like it. Of the many books I’ve written, only two have been published. In some sense, those two are the only two I’ve done. I keep trying with the others, but meanwhile out there in a few select libraries people can find bricks of paper with my name on the outside. It wouldn’t been the same if the publishers had said, “it will only be an ebook.” I know that it shouldn’t make a difference if its paper or plastic, but it does. It makes all the difference in the world. No matter if it means having to build more bookshelves. They make excellent insulation.

Nobody’s Business

Working in academic publishing some insights are available that academics typically miss. For example, it isn’t unusual for a professor to ask why royalties aren’t higher on ebooks because “they don’t cost the press anything.” Ah, my poor, simple academics! If only life were so kind. Ebooks don’t require any ink, paper, or binding. They require a whole lot more than that. Ebooks require publishers to hire entire new divisions to oversee the complicated, technical, and swiftly-changing business of having ebooks in the format that they can be accessed by various reader platforms. Think of it this way: instead of buying materials, publishers have to enter an entirely new business area to sell what they always sold without it before. Now let’s twist the letter-opener just a bit more. Ebooks have exploded exponentially. Anyone with an Amazon account can be an author. Who buys academic books? University libraries. How to libraries decide what to buy? Well, let’s just say “it’s complicated.”

Now let’s go a bit deeper. Have you noticed that instead of fewer presses there are more and more of them? Stop and think about this. Universities have been churning out more and more doctorates for a system that has had a shrinking number of positions for at least the last three decades. Yes, someone’s entire academic career could have been spent in a vanishing profession and they never noticed. There are no jobs out there, my dear professors. Why do you continue to churn out graduate students? The student knows that s/he will be expected to publish. A lot. Librarians, whose jobs have gotten a whole lot more complicated, face budgets that have been simplified. That is to say, administrators say “Ebooks cost less, so libraries need less money. Besides, there’s Wikipedia.” A doctoral dissertation on a single word in a single verse on a single book in the Bible is not likely to get noticed in such a situation.

The fact is society is hungry for new knowledge. It just doesn’t want to pay for it. That’s the illusion cast by the internet: knowledge should be free. Tenured professors, however, don’t come cheap. Just ask the professional adjunct living out of his car and eating Ramen noodles heated up with the cigarette lighter. We don’t think about her, however, because she’s not writing books. Society wants an alternative to consumer capitalism. It just doesn’t want to pay for it. Presses start up because there is plenty of content out there—all those dissertations you direct—and anybody can make an ebook cheaply. Print-on-demand alone can keep a press in business. The knowledge pours out the facet, goes over the hands and down the drain. Professors, comfortable in their paneled offices, will never complain. You’ve beat the system—congratulations! But I just can’t help you with those ebook royalties. If you’ll excuse me, my noodles are getting cold.

img_2401

The Lure of the Dark Side

I have to confess that the easy self-publishing of ebooks is a real temptation sometimes. Perhaps it’s one of those inexplicable side-effects of earning a Ph.D., but sometimes you have the impression you have something to say and traditional publishers just don’t agree. In my work life I see many clever ideas that, well, let’s be frank, just won’t sell. Publishers do have to keep an eye on whether a book can earn back the money put into it, and sometimes a good idea leads to no cash payout. So when you can easily sign up online—you don’t even have to talk to anyone—and post your unedited words right on Amazon and call it a book, well, anyone can be an author. So I was looking up books with the terms “Bible” and “America” on Amazon when I came up with Donald Trump in the Bible Code. I found the self-designed cover frightening, and the sentiments expressed in the description grounds for terror. Then I noticed it was only 15 pages long. I’ve written student evaluations that were longer than that.

Trump

At three bucks, that’s—wait while I get my calculator—twenty cents a page. Now anyone who’s been able to read the original Bible Code and not cover a snicker or two will possibly find such a jeremiad palatable. After all, it’s a book! Somebody published it. Well, actually, all you need for self-publishing is an internet connection and at least one finger to type and click. Or a toe. You too can become an expert! No education required. Publishing fiction in such a format is one thing, but when people can’t tell a prestige publisher from a vanity press when it comes to factual material, we’re all in trouble.

There’s an old saying: “those who can’t do, teach.” I think I first came across this wisdom in a Peanuts cartoon, with all the gravitas that such implies. Editors, it seems, are not required for publishing. In fact, some of us who live by the word seem destined to die by the word. Even with connections I have trouble getting my ideas published. More than once I’ve lingered on Amazon’s CreateSpace page with my finger hovering over the mouse. Publication is one click away and some people make six digits a year publishing only on Amazon. Since I produce about 145,000 words a year on this blog alone (apart from my other writing), the urge is very strong at times. Then I look at that cover and I stay my finger as it hovers. I’ll wait a little longer. At least until November.

What I Meant to Say

XML. CSS.  Abstracting.  Separating content and meaning.  Sounds kind of scary to me.  As a would-be writer, plodding my way through what used to be the humanities, I’m sometimes frightened when I hear techies talk about where publishing “has to go” to remain “competitive.”  Since technology drives industry these days, we all need to bow before the image with a head of gold.  What you write on the page has to be edited to make it say what you meant it to say.  Then the meaning has to be excised and converted into XML, because that’s the way ebooks like it.  Page numbers are an artifact, and if your device can’t find the phrase you half remember, don’t go looking for an index.  You see, XML files don’t have pages—they’re just an illusion caused by the limited size of paper.  The meaning lies in the stripped, naked, and shivering content.  Or meaning.  Or something.
 
So goes the brave new world of publishing.  We live in the days of inferred information and bowdlerization in inscrutable acrostics.  I’ve actually heard techies say, “we need to teach authors to produce what we need.”  Have you ever seen a dog wag so fast?  Or a tale hold so perfectly still?  What do I mean?  Ask an expert.
 
IMG_2359

The blank page of actual paper used to terrorize many a student.  There are few things so transcendent to me as a new, unused Moleskine.  The very blankness of the pages is like unto the whiteness of Heaven.  This is a place where thoughts can roam free, and I can feel the thoughts coursing from my brain to my fingers as the pen traces paths never before seen.  As this blog attests, my writing does not draw the countless masses.  The vast majority of it written on paper will never be seen by another human being.  Thoughts are captured there, mid-flight.  They’ve never been tamed or tagged or abstracted from their meaning.  In the mind of some, I must suppose, that means they really mean nothing.  When I hold them, however, which I can never do with an XML file, I know that some things are simply too important to convert to what someone else declares they must be.