The Unexamined Life and the Fate of Serious Reading


A serious book about serious reading. By “serious” I mean a book that takes comparatively serious effort. But Bound to Please is also a pleasing book, for those who make the effort. You’ll know what I mean by “serious” and “pleasing” when you read the following selection. Author Michael Dirda comments on a report issued by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)—called “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.” The preface to that report is by Dana Gioia, a distinguished poet and critic.

“’Reading at Risk’ is right to lament the decline of what I will forthrightly call bookishness. As the report implies, the Internet seems to have delivered a possibly knockout punch. Our children now can scarcely use a library and instead look to the Web when they need to learn just about anything. We all just click away with the mouse and remote control, speeding through a blur of links, messages, images, data of all sorts. Is this reading? As Gioia reminds us, ‘print culture affords irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex communications and insights possible. To lose such intellectual capability—and the many sorts of human continuity it allows—would constitute a vast cultural impoverishment.’

 

“Yes, the Internet has allowed fans of Finnegans Wake and Dorothy Sayers and the English ghost story to gather and share their knowledge. Web sites and chat rooms do encourage people from around the world to form digital communities. But the computer must seem a far more ambiguous gift to anyone who has ever faced screenfuls of spam, or discovered that hours are eaten up just answering email, or found their colleagues drooling over pixellated lovelies, or noticed that their children had stopped going outside because they were unable to tear themselves away from bloody, digitized battles, or simply realized that they themselves felt incomplete when not online every minute of the day—and half the night. In other words, virtually all of us recognize that that flat-screen monitor before our eyes casts an insidious spell, and all too often it seems that the best minds of the next generation—and more than a few of our own—are being lost to its insidious, relentless ensorcellments. Who now among the young aspires to be cultivated and learned, which takes discipline, rather than breezily provocative, wise-crackingly edgy’?

 

“Americans can still be smart and creative, but the pressure of the times is oriented toward quickness—we want instant messaging, live news breaks, fast food, mobile phoning, and snap judgments. As a result, we are growing into a shallow people, happy enough with the easy gratifications of mere speed and spectacle in all aspects of life. Real books are simply too serious for us. Too slow. Too hard. Too long. Now and again, we may feel that just maybe we’ve shortchanged our better selves, that we might have listened to great music, contemplated profoundly moving works of art, read books that mattered, but instead we turned away from them because it was time to tune into Law and Order reruns, or jack into a WarCraft game on our home computer, or get back to the latest made-for-TV best seller. Sometimes nonetheless, late at night or when faced with one of life’s true crises, we will surprise in ourselves what poet Philip Larkin called the hunger to be more serious.”

MDirda-Book Cover-Bound to Please

Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education—Essays on Great Writers and Their Books
Author: Michael Dirda
Publisher: W. W. Norton
Copyright 2005 by Michael Dirda
Pages xxv-xxvi

Questions to Consider:
1. Dirda compares serious reading with the Internet, to draw attention to the special value of reading real books. What values are compromised when the print-culture gives way to the Web-culture?
2. What is Dirda’s basic thesis? What do you find most convincing about his thesis?
3. How do these few paragraphs make you feel about your own reading practices?
4. What does the word ensorcellment mean? Why would Dirda use an unfamiliar word like this here?

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It is well that…


English: W. Somerset Maugham early in his career.

English: W. Somerset Maugham early in his career. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is well that a writer should think not only that the book he himself is writing is important, but that the books other people are writing are important too.

From the Preface to W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer’s Notebook

Page Numbers in Kindle


Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...

Cover via Amazon

This week I ordered the new Kindle, upgrading from the original Kindle that I bought a few years ago. My new Kindle arrived in the mail today. I’ve already enjoyed its improved features.

Amazon has recently created a new firmware version that includes several new features. The most welcome feature is the possibility of determining the page numbers in hard copy for the Kindle ebook version of a book you happen to be reading. This is critical to readers like me who write and lecture and need to be able to document references to the reading we site.

There are things to know about this new feature and its availability:

  1. Even my brand new Kindle came with version 3.0.2 of the firmware. This was superseded by 3.0.3. Why my new Kindle is loaded with the older firmware is unclear to me. But more important, my new Kindle should have the very latest firmware—3.1. Why doesn’t it?
  2. Amazon provides a page of instructions about how to upgrade your Kindle firmware to version 3.1. But I found today that the link for downloading the software is not working. So for the time being, I’m not able to upgrade to 3.1. (This may have something to do with the browser I’m using, which is Firefox. I’ll try this download with a different browser later.)
  3. Not every book purchased for Kindle makes use of the page numbers feature.
  4. When you use the page numbers feature with your Kindle, the way to be sure which physical copy it corresponds with is to go to the product detail page for that book at Amazon and scroll down to find a line that gives the “Page Numbers Source ISBN” under the “Product Details” section of the page.

For Amazon’s own information about the page numbers feature on the Kindle, go here and here.

 

From the Kindle to the iPad?


various e-book readers. From right to left iPa...

Image via Wikipedia

I have a first-generation Kindle and have written about it here before. I bought it when I was about to travel overseas and wanted the convenience of carrying lots of interesting reading without packing any books.

Things have changed pretty dramatically since then. The $400 Kindle of that day has been superseded by the $139 basic Kindle of today. And now there are other models to choose from, featuring 3G and a choice of screen sizes. For details, click here.

Kindle stills rules the world of e-Book technology. But it’s met with vigorous competition. Its greatest competition is the Apple iPad. And the main reason for that is that the iPad is so much more than an e-Book reader.

So I’ve come to the point where I’m tempted to upgrade my Kindle, or else switch over to the iPad. Now’s a good time since Kindle has improved its device, lowered the price point, and garnered my support based on a happy experience. On the other hand, Apple is about to release its iPad 2, and there are rumors of a September release of an iPad 3. (I’ve learned to wait for 2nd-generation products from Apple.) One way or the other, I feel ready to retire my original Kindle—though there’s nothing wrong with it.

If I’ve settled the question of whether to upgrade, I’m not yet settled about which upgrade to go with. I truly like the Kindle and I know I’d like the new versions even better. But what about the iPad? I’m an Apple fan who uses a Powerbook Pro, an iMac, and an iPhone. Why not an iPad, then? It’s far more versatile than a Kindle, and is nearly as compact.

Here’s the best case I can make for sticking with the Kindle and simply upgrading to its latest model:

  1. It has a more attractive price point.
  2. For reading books and documents, the Kindle is still a superior experience. It uses electronic ink technology that is easy on the eyes under all reading conditions.
  3. The iPad is no use for outdoors. The bright natural light washes out the screen. Not so for the Kindle.
  4. The Kindle is very light-weight and compact.
  5. The Kindle battery will hold a charge for an impressive length of time. Not so for the iPad.

Here’s the case for an iPad instead:

  1. For a few more dollars than it costs for the 9-inch Kindle, you get the full versatility of the iPad, with all of its countless apps.
  2. The iPad is good for reading at night, since it’s backlit.
  3. E-books on the iPad can be marked more quickly and conveniently.

Here are the reasons why I lean toward getting both, a new Kindle and the iPad (when it’s been refreshed):

  1. For most reading, I would prefer the Kindle. I do a lot of reading, and I like the convenience of being able to read while on the go. For regular reading that doesn’t require extensive note-taking and highlighting, the kindle is my first choice.
  2. For reading that requires mark-ups, the iPad seems the obvious choice.
  3. While I don’t actually need all the features of an iPad, it would be an improvement over my iPhone for on-the-go email, internet look-ups, working on presentations, etc. I might be able to leave my laptop at home when I travel.
  4. I could justify the added cost of an iPad if Dianne would be interested in using it, too.

The outlay of cash would be greater, of course. So the advantages of a dual approach have to be weighed against the combined price of a new Kindle and an iPad.

But which iPad? If iPad 2 is about to come out in the next few weeks, but an iPad 3 is slated for release as early as September, should I wait it out?

Here are some reasons to jump into the iPad with version 2:

  1. There’s really no telling for sure whether an iPad 3 will come out so soon.
  2. There’s no telling what an iPad 3 will cost if and when it’s released. The iPad 2 is supposed to be priced about like the current iPad.
  3. iPad 2 features may be perfectly adequate for my purposes.
  4. Technology becomes obsolete so quickly that waiting for the iPad 3 probably wouldn’t mean that I would be using a device with a longer shelf life if I waited and got the 3.

Maybe you can help me with this decision. Have you decided between a Kindle and an iPad? How did you make up your mind? Are you happy with your decision? Do you have both? If so, do you use both?

The Adventurous Reader


What is an “adventurous reader”? I’m two chapters into a novel by Jedediah Berry, titled The Manual of Detection. The CIP data on the copyright page indicate that subjects for this work of fiction include (1) private investigators, (2) femmes fatales, and (3) criminals.

Inside the front cover are three pages of accolades, many of them praising the book for its departure from conventions and its playful spirit. The Wall Street Journal says that the author “defies mystery novel conventions, but adventurous readers who stay with his strange and fabulous debut work will be handsomely rewarded.”

I wonder, what is an “adventurous reader”?

Here are some possibilities. An “adventurous reader” is someone who:

  1. reads literature in any genre that contains adventure: fantasy, science fiction, the detective procedural, etc.;
  2. steps outside his normal reading habits or patterns to read beyond “other stuff”;
  3. lives more fully within the pages of books he reads;
  4. reads what others in his field, or in his peer group, or in his circle of friends do not read;
  5. takes on authors who are challenging, difficult, mind-stretching;
  6. devotes much of his reading time to authors with whom he disagrees
  7. reads backwards, starting with the last word on the last page;
  8. reads only every other page.

There must be other possibilities. Is the adventure to be found in the act of reading—its how—or in the object read? Both?

I guess I consider myself an adventurous reader—though I think “adventuresome” might be the better word. But why? I read “broadly.” I’m patient about finding “just the right book.” But I will sometimes take a chance on something with little to go on.

Does the adventuresome reader read slowly, or quickly? Is speed irrelevant? Or has speed got to do with being one kind of adventuresome reader? Wouldn’t it be an adventure to read five novels in a day, allowing only thirty minutes for each? Or to pick slowly through a complex text, in an effort to notice everything worthwhile—what is written, how it is composed, the contribution it makes to our knowledge or a fulfilled life?

Adventure is a pretty pliable concept. Applied to the reader, it has interesting possibilities.

Are you an “adventurous reader”? Why would you say so? Do you know someone how is more adventurous than yourself?

Mysterious Opening Lines: Le Carré, Ludlum, and Others


GIGA Quotes, an online source for quotations, has listed 43 pages of first lines from books, beginning with Merrian-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. This amounts to more than 2300 first-line excerpts from “classical, notable and bestselling books” (here).

First lines interest me. They interest me as an author, and as a reader. Read more of this post

Do You Read Me?


Reading glasses. I didn’t think I’d ever have a use for them, except maybe to burn bugs by focusing the sun’s rays on their exoskeletons.

Today, I own and use several pairs . . . for reading. Read more of this post

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