Friday, February 27, 2009

Reading to earn freedom

Did you see this piece by Leah Price in The New York Times about prisoners who can join a book club to earn time out of jail? English professor Robert Waxler at UMass-Dartmouth started it, working with a judge and a probation officer. Here's how Price describes a class: The eight others are convicted criminals who have been granted probation in exchange for attending, and doing the homework for, six twice-monthly seminars on literature. The class is taught through Changing Lives Through Literature, an alternative sentencing program that allows felons and other offenders to choose between going to jail or joining a book club.

What an unusual and smart idea. The biggest hurdle I can see is fundamental literacy. I have taught in jail before, and some felons have such challenges with simple reading and writing that they will need to do a lot of work before a book by John Steinbeck or Toni Morrison makes sense to them. For those who read well, though (and I encountered some highly literate people in jail, too), this is a creative and constructive idea.

There are also two fair arguments that (a) it's not right for prisoners to get personal tutoring from college professors and access to their otherwise expensive classes when many of their victims cannot afford such luxuries; and (b) books shouldn't be transformed into punishment. I'll grant both arguments have merit. But I still like to see people thinking laterally about alternatives to incarceration, especially for nonviolent offenders.

Why I agree with the Author's Guild lawsuit

The new Author's Guild lawsuit regarding Amazon Kindle's text-to-speech feature is quite controversial. Many who supported the Guild when it sued Google over digitization of books under copyright and won are now not supporting it on this fight. His eminence (at least to me) Neil Gaiman has weighed in, saying that he doesn't understand why the Guild opposes free text-to-speech, since it's the equivalent of having the right to read it aloud himself. Gaiman's agent argues the opposite, that Amazon is infringing on quite valuable audiobook rights. That's the Guild's position as well.

Why do I support the Guild? Simple. I don't think we're talking about the technology as it exists today. Text-to-speech at the moment is still robotic and largely uninteresting -- it would never compete against your favorite readers of audiobooks. But what happens when it gets better? What happens when you can even tweak it to sound like your preferred gender, age, and region of the country? What happens when it's so good you think you're hearing a live person read?

What happens is that the book's author, who under today's rules would have earned a nice profit from that audio version of the book, won't get anything. I think authors make precious little enough as it is. And though I enjoy my Kindle, I think Amazon is dead wrong on this one. Unpopular position? Yes, I know. But that's where I am.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Pogue said it

If you like new tech toys, how you feel about David Pogue probably says a world of other things about you, such as your clothing choices (Brooks Brothers or quirky designer?), your food preferences (three squares a day with meat, or vegan grazing?), and your voting habits (red or, um, you get the picture). The only problem is, I'm not sure whether liking or loathing Pogue makes you one way or the other. It just says something.

I like Pogue most of the time, and if he should fail to please me then I just don't keep reading him. But mostly he makes me smile, and today he did with his review of Amazon's new Kindle. I've had Amazon's old Kindle for about a year and a half now, and I love it. My only gripes are small -- I keep forgetting to bring it with me, and when I do remember it, such as on vacation, I keep forgetting to bring the charger. But the Kindle is convenient, easy to read, and (best blessing of all) you can download a book while stuck on a city bus without having to pay for a monthly account.

Nothing in Pogue's review made me want to buy the new Kindle. I'm fine with the one I have. But here's the nut graf (for me) when he discusses those who claim one type of e-reader will win out over all others, who will of necessity fade away: The point everyone is missing is that in Technoland, nothing ever replaces anything. E-book readers won’t replace books. The iPhone won’t replace e-book readers. Everything just splinters. They will all thrive, serving their respective audiences.

Amen, and I think that statement can be expanded to include the false dichotomy between paper books and e-books. I welcome e-books, but some who know my paper-loving, rare-books-buying ways are horrified. Am I nuts? A traitor? Nope, I simply agree with Pogue. Different products will serve different audiences in various specific applications.

Not scary at all.

Monday, February 23, 2009

How much do I love this?

At last, someone even odder than I when it comes to re-reading. I am a compulsive re- and re-re-reader of certain special books, even when stacks upon stacks of unread books beckon. It makes no sense (or maybe it makes all sense), but now The Rumpus has a story about a woman who has read Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native over and over again for twelve years.

That reminds of the summer a few years ago, when I still taught in Georgetown's English Department, that I decided to read three Thomas Hardy novels back-to-back: The Return of the Native was one, along with The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude the Obscure. I had twice taught Tess of the d'Urbervilles as part of an 18th-19th Century Survey course ("snortin' the Norton" as students waggishly called it), but I hadn't read the rest, so this was a great treat. Between books I'd wander down the hall to John Pfordresher's office and ask him questions about them, which he'd patiently answer. I loved them all and became an enraptured Hardy admirer, though I can't quite imagine reading one over and over again for twelve years. But cheers to Julie Vanderburg, that noble reader, and to The Rumpus for writing about her.

Thanks to @MaryContrary08 on Twitter for tweeting the link...

E-textbooks? Really? NPR reports.

Are physical college textbooks due to to become relics? At Northwest Missouri State the change to digital is already happening. This NPR piece by Sylvia Maria Gross demonstrates through audio clips how this "new generation of textbooks" capitalizes on interactive technology.

For those of you who want to publish textbooks, is there a way to make this work in your favor? Are there ways you can think of to make your proposed textbook intelligently (rather than arbitrarily, I suppose) interactive? Think about it -- you can have more maps and images, alternate text, audio. This represents a serious change, but also (possibly) a serious opportunity.

NB: On this piece, the comments section has some interesting tidbits (see the bottom of the article accompanying the audio piece), and are worth reading.

Kudos to a writer

Laurence Hughes has a strong and resonant article in the last-page "Soapbox" section of Publisher's Weekly for February 23 about how it feels to be laid off in publishing right now. All I can say is that I hope he considers writing a book of his own if he hasn't already.

The piece is so well written, and while what's happening in publishing is heartrending (don't these companies imposing such brutal layoffs know the meaning of the words pull together?), I found myself cheering for him to find his true north as an author, and have the last laugh.