Monthly Archives: December 2012

Papyrus, Paper, Pixel

ereaderFor Christmas, did Santa Claus tiptoe quietly across your hearth with the source of your heart’s greatest delight? I’ve spent Christmas deep down in Dixie, in Georgia, where I sit now, writing to the sound of a cold wind late at night. Here is what Santa Claus brought me for Christmas. Really. No, really.

  • a box of treats for my computer mouse
  • a blanket to put over my car, which is old and complains of the cold
  • X-ray glasses that let you see through people’s clothing (I will only use these in an emergency)
  • anti-itch powder for something I don’t want to talk about
  • a bottle of whiskey, but it was half drunk, so I don’t know if Santa meant to leave that

But he didn’t bring me an e-reader. How am I supposed to read Great Expectations? During this trip south, I stopped in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I examined the e-reader of a friend’s son, I got an email from a friend talking about her e-reader, I watched my sister-in-law reading hers, and another friend at a party talked about how she had learned to love her e-reader. All within one week.

The use of this technology is spreading quickly. According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, by November of 2012, 33% of Americans owned some kind of e-reader. The year before, it was 18%. The same survey also says that the percentage of those who read a printed book in the past year went down.

Book lovers like me bemoan this trend, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad reasons. The bad reasons to resist reading on an e-reader really come down to being uncomfortable with change. In fact, this technology has some fantastic advantages over paper books. For a person of my age, who begins to wonder why the print in most books has to be so goddamn small, you merely click and it gets bigger. As big as you want.

It can also be possible with an e-reader to have instant access to the definition of a word merely by touching it. The ability to learn new words so easily actually increases the potential for literacy. One could also shift to an encyclopedia for additional information on the topic being read about. Your book takes place in Bodrum, Turkey? You can quickly find out that the city held one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, then go back to reading.

There are other advantages to e-readers. They can have built-in lights, making it possible to read at night, they are light and easy to hold, as opposed to Les Miserables or War and Peace, they can contain hundreds of books in the palm of your hand, and the the book never closes itself while you are trying to read it, as paper books sometimes will. And there are still other advantages, such as the ease of acquiring a book by wifi.

So why don’t we rush out and buy this amazing device? In part, for the bad reasons of simply resisting what is new. At the same time, there are also good reasons to love the paper forms of books. The interaction with an e-reader will be very different, as one maneuvers through “pages” that can never be seen except one at a time, as opposed to flipping around in a paper book.

Our emotional attachment to paper books really comes from transferring to them the pleasure derived from books we’ve read. Can’t that happen with an e-reader? Probably, yet the e-reader will not only represent the book you loved, but the book you hated. You can’t look at them as separate physical entities and pick up the one you loved. You can never see that book on the shelf and remember that you loved it, as it will only be one of the potential choices in the reader. The book we loved will really exist only in our head.

But we will get used to the change, or more correctly, we will raise generations who will not change at all, as they will never experience paper books. To most people in the future, the old paper books will seem like a strange thing to have been in love with. After all, is a book simply a physical object? Isn’t a book a set of ideas, regardless of how they are transmitted? Cicero loved books as much as anyone ever did, but every book he read was on a papyrus roll.

Still, if you love books, walking through a bookstore is an experience that the computer, however magical it continues to be, will never come close to. In a bookstore, we are physically surrounded, literally, by ideas. It is partly an experience of the body. There are shapes, colors, fonts, graphic styles, images—so that we might stop and briefly examine a new Turkish novel, a cookbook of African recipes, a biography of Robert E. Lee, a book with photographs of treehouses, and a book on learning new software.

If you respond that you can do all of that on your computer screen, then you have no idea what I’m talking about. Replacing paper books with e-books will probably bring more advantages than disadvantages as far as individual books are concerned. But the fact that e-books are going to destroy bookstores (already underway)—this is a cultural tragedy. I’m glad I live in a time when bookstores still exist.

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Jolly Little Luddites

broken electronicsAs a special entry for the holiday season, there will be a break here from the normally thoughtful blog entries that convey information in an articulate, clever manner with a hint of je ne sais quoi. Whatever that is.

Instead this blog entry will be thoughtless and inarticulate and tell you nothing. Please don’t write to thank me. I’m just happy to do it. This story was reported, oddly enough, only by newspapers in northern Canada. Needless to say, it is as true as the promise of a prince or I would not repeat it.

The incident happened in early December, according to the newspaper Yukon Dogtrail Mail, and it occurred at the Creation of Magical Wonder toyshop in Santaland. Though forbidden by toyshop rules, elves have been known—often—to sneak in bottles of Old Grandelf whiskey to celebrate the end of each shift. Knocking back a few small ones after a shift would not generally be a problem, except for the fact that among elves, every shift lasts one hour, so there are many shifts during a normal work day.

It has also been reported from time to time over the last ten years that among the seasonal workforce known as “Santa’s elves” there has been a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the loss of traditional craftwork. The increasing trend toward childhood digital technology has reportedly left many elves feeling “dwarfish” and “not in the Christmas spirit”.

In early December, as one workday came to a close, the head elf, by the name of Squintle, was working on a toy that allows Barbie to send text messages with special photos to Ken.

“I’m sick of these electronic toys!” cried Squintle. “These aren’t real toys!”

His exclamation was followed by lifting the Barbie toy above his head, then hurling it to the floor. Granted the distance wasn’t very far, but the force of the fling destroyed the toy, shattering it into several pieces.

Other elves could see from the look on Squintle’s face that Rudolph’s nose wasn’t the only one turning red, as Squintle was one of the most insistent on drinking a toast to Santa’s health at the end of every shift.

The matter might have ended with Squintle, but Santa was much respected, and every elf gladly drank to his honor when shifts ended, so every hour rang out with “Here’s to the jolly fatman!” Under these circumstances, it is not a surprise that smashing the Barbie toy brought to a head the grumbling against electronic toys that had been going on for years.

“That’s right!” yelled Meeniepie, who normally worked in the Naughty or Nice Assessment Department, but who was picking up an extra shift as the deadline approached. “All these stupid buttons and red blinky things! That’s not how children should play!” Meeniepie raised a hammer he was holding and brought it down on a singing toy that allowed babies to pick their own lullabies.

Nude Barbie doll

Hi, Ken, I thought you might like the attached photo.

A small pandemonium ensued. Other elves, stimulated by Old Grandelf, squealed approval and began tossing electronic toys around the Creation of Magical Wonder toyshop. What they created was a smashed chaos of digital toys. Some elves tossed things through the air, others broke the items on their workbenches, and still others simply jumped up and down on whatever landed near them.

When the frenzy of breakage had passed its peak, Squintle looked around as supervisor and said, “Of course we still have to start packing the sleigh in a couple of weeks.”

The elves have managed until now to keep the product changes from Santa, who still doesn’t know what he will be carrying. On Christmas day, instead of toys that need batteries and a computer program, you may find yourself with wooden blocks or stuffed unicorns. Instead of an iPad you might have a Hello Kitty hotpad, or instead of an iPod, you may get a bag of bean pods (soybean, most likely, as the elves eat a lot of edamame).

For next year Santa has indicated plans to install wifi in the workshop. Making toys has its tedious moments, and elfish attitudes may alter once they are able to stream Christmas movies over the internet. So there is a small reason for hope.

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Getting Away From Ireland

painting of Irish hillside

Painting by Barrie Maguire

Because Christmas is coming, and because you’ve been good (except for that one thing I won’t mention), I have a present for you here, a recommendation of a very nice novel. There is still time for you to buy this for yourself for Christmas, if you believe you deserve it, or you might buy it for someone else who you can borrow it from.

The novel is My Dream of You, by Nuala O’Faolain, an Irish writer, and the book is partly, but only partly, about the history of Ireland. Irish history is brought in as the modern protagonist of the book, Kathleen, tries to learn what happened to a possible love affair that occurred during the famine in the late 1840s, a time when a million people starved to death.

So we’re starting our discussion with oppression, starvation, and falling in love. These three tragedies are common motifs in literature. I once talked with a friend who had the fairly unsavory aspiration to become a critic of literature, and she said something (from lack of memory I’m forced to paraphrase, i.e. make stuff up) about why writers keep writing when everything has been written about already.

OK, other than landing on Mars, pretty much everything has been. One answer might be that human experience has a billion subtle permutations, and if you pay attention to the subtlety, each time is different. My Dream of You is also not about Irish history, but about the life of Kathleen and how many ways she has screwed up, how many mistakes she has made and—if you are normal and honest—about how she is just like you. She has reached middle age alone and wonders, like most people as they reach middle age, how she came to be at this point and why so many things did not work out as she expected. If you haven’t wondered that, it’s because you are still young.

One aspect of the novel, and background to much that happens, concerns how Kathleen deals with her family, including her father, who is adamant about being Irish, and her brother, who never left the village where they grew up (he goes once to a Thai restaurant and asks if they have dishes with potatoes). The author O’Faolain also made Kathleen an international travel writer, which then contrasts so starkly with the provincialism she was running from when she left home.

So it’s all been written about before, except until this book there was never a Kathleen thinking about Irish history and her own history and falling in love with the wrong person at the wrong moment. There has never before been a Kathleen who abandoned her home country in horror at the abuse her mother suffered from living in Ireland. Kathleen vows never to set foot in the country again, yet she goes back in pursuit of the historical love story from the famine times.

The language in this book is beautiful, and as a writer myself I stopped over and over (I read books pretty slowly) to admire O’Faolain’s phrasing. Look at the use of both color and light in this sentence: “And the clear light that molded the old fields like a loving hand stroking them—fields that were turquoise up at the top of the hill and deepened into jade-green in their sweep down to the glittering bay.”

The sentence begins with light and ends with reflected light on the glittering bay. In between O’Faolain invokes two unusual colors, turquoise and jade-green, to describe the landscape. In spite of Kathleen’s ambivalence toward Ireland, the land itself is described beautifully and as being shaped by a “loving” hand.

Look as well at these two examples where the author brings an unusual perspective to seeing people:

[a rich woman] “Her forearm was so faultless that I decided that rich people are actually less hairy than poor people…”

[wives dealing with their husbands coming home from work] “They had to pull themselves upright, like tired waitresses going back on duty after a break, when the husbands turned up.”

In addition to skilled attention to language and rich character development, My Dream of You has layers of the past woven into the story, along with the occasional commentary, a sign of a mature writer who is bold enough to let ideas color the writing and enrich the story. It can work if you’re the kind of person who likes a rich layered story with turquoise hillsides.

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We Love You, Bashar!

Syrian protestLet’s take a break from contemplating peace and goodwill for a few minutes, to look at a brief example of one of the millions of ways that evil works. It is not the cartoon version of evil, the way we perceive it when we wake up in the middle of the night: Satan with horns, a large monster with claws, scowling ugly women in dark clothes with black cats.

Those metaphors mislead us from real evil, which rises from natural aspects of human psychology. Real evil may be men who work in offices, who dress neatly in expensive suits and ties, and who speak carefully and with cold calculation.

In June of 2012, in response to the Civil War in Syria, the Russian Foreign Ministry made a statement that the implementation of Kofi Annan’s proposal for negotiations “opens a real opportunity… for launching a full-fledged dialogue in Syria and returning the situation into a peaceful stream.”

This sounds good. Not only dialogue, but “full-fledged dialogue”, which must be even more extensive than regular dialogue. Everybody takes part. Plus a peaceful stream. The Russian statement went on to say that the negotiations should be on condition of “constructive cooperation between all sides involved in the conflict.” This also sounds good.

“Cooperation” means people working together, and if their cooperation is “constructive”, better still, as they are working to achieve some positive goal of creating something. Who did the Russian Foreign Ministry have in mind to engage in this constructive cooperation?

The two sides were (1) the government of Bashar al-Assad, and (2) the people who had slowly begun to take up weapons and fight against him. For months the Syrian people protested against the government of Assad, part of the general movement of the Arab Spring. Like every dictator, Assad resisted, until he was consistently killing people not only during the protests, but killing even more during funerals for those killed.

When a government begins to routinely gun down its citizens, should other countries in the world be involved in this? If so, what should the world do? As the killing in Syria increased, most of the world waved their arms in the air in dismay with discussions as to whether or not other countries should eventually do something maybe, under certain conditions. And in the meantime, wasn’t this just awful?

Also in June of this year, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, said, “We will not support and cannot support any interference from outside or any imposition of recipes.” So the Russian position was that there should be no “interference from outside”, that no country or group from outside Syria should be involved. Apparently, negotiations led by Kofi Annan did not count as “interference”. The Russian statement went on say of this noninterference, “This also concerns the fate of Bashar al-Assad.”

Still further in June, Russia and China put out a statement that the Syrian crisis should be resolved in an impartial and peaceful way without any interference from the outside. Russia seems to have been really concerned that nobody outside the country do anything.

Back in the time of the Soviet Union, the Soviet government often used the phrase “noninterference in internal affairs”, a concept beloved by every dictatorship in the world: As long as we only abuse and kill people inside this line (our national boundary), you can’t touch us.

It’s no surprise that Russia and China still use this line of reasoning. After all, if we allow the idea that the historical accident of a national boundary is not enough to hide murderous behavior, well, just think. No dictator in the world would be secure. To avoid this pernicious idea, dictators need to stick together, and thus Russia and China have voted three times to veto UN resolutions that would have condemned Assad’s government.

Assad and Putin

Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin

But maybe “interference from the outside” means something different when you’re sitting in the Kremlin than it does in the rest of the world. At the same time that Russia was making such pious statements of wanting to help solve the conflict peacefully, they were printing money for the Syrian government, flown into the country in huge batches, and in the same month that Russia made the statement above about returning to a “peaceful stream”, they were sending attack helicopters to Assad.

Evil does not come from a red devil with horns. Evil comes—in part—from a swaggering former KGB agent who is now president of Russia. No amount of clever words will hide that.

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It Looks Like It Could Rain

Man in a cowboy hat playing a guitarWe have so much politics here in Washington that it slops and spills over where you wouldn’t expect it, like freakish levels of security in places that seem about as political as a Walmart. It’s what we do here. If you’re not wearing a plastic badge with your photo on it, you’re obviously not employed.

One place the focus on politics has shown up here in in the name of a very popular bookstore called Politics and Prose. When I first heard of it I figured it must be a political bookstore with books on American foreign policy in Indochina in the 1950s. Or something.

In fact, it’s just a normal independent bookstore (or maybe not normal, as it seems to be staying in business). Downstairs there is a large children’s section—maybe they’re political children—and upstairs is a wide space filled with books, and on frequent occasions the staff will clear a space, set out chairs, and let some writer be wise if possible, or at least try to seem human.

On Monday I braved the evening traffic to the bookstore, as I wanted to hear a writer who has done a new biography of Winston Churchill. Instead, a different writer showed up, so I listened to him instead. This was James Wood, and according to Wikipedia, he was born in Durham, England, where I once saw an interesting cathedral. James Wood (not James Woods—when you make him plural he’s an actor) is a critic who writes for The New Yorker.

Mr. Wood read us an essay about the idea of collecting huge personal libraries, and what such a library might mean in various ways. One thing it means is when you die, what do other people do with all those books they don’t want? After the reading, he took questions, and in the course of answering them, while talking about what happens in a piece of writing, he used the phrase “the mystery of character”.

I wondered just what he meant by that. I intended to go up afterward and ask him, but then I saw a line forming for people to get books signed, and I realized that even if I stood in line with no book, a normal conversation would hardly be possible. So I came home.

I don’t know what James Wood meant by that phrase, but it could mean the mystery of how the right words on a page make people begin to imagine someone who doesn’t really exist, to the point that in some cases, in some mysterious way, the literary character does exist. Even before the movies, didn’t Harry Potter seem real to a lot of people? How many people suffered with Dr. Zhivago as they read the book, because he was a real person to them?

For me as a writer, part of the mystery is not just that this can happen, but how to make it happen. For the kind of writing I do, trying to have “real” characters is extremely important. When we first introduce a character, there is never a fully developed person there, but this is true of live human beings as well. When we meet someone, they present us with the potential of what they might be if we get to know them, but we don’t know them yet.

For a literary character, if I say a man walked into the laundromat and sat down, that he was tall and thin and wore a cowboy hat, I have five elements that start to lean in a particular direction—the setting (which implies that he must not be rich or famous), the fact that the character is male, tall, and thin (these imply things about what he might do or could have done), and the cowboy hat, which of course carries certain cultural expectations.

And yet still there is almost nothing there. If we could talk to this guy, we might learn that he took two college classes, then dropped out to play in a band. We might somehow learn that he hates turkey, so Thanksgiving is not his favorite holiday. So now we have a slightly more filled out character, but still, a human being is so much more.

Let’s try taking him to a bar, and after a few beers maybe we’ll learn that he used to be in love with a girl named Bridget, but she wanted more stability than a traveling musician could provide, and now he doesn’t even know where she lives. And maybe he’ll tell us that in high school he wanted to play basketball, but he hurt his foot and couldn’t play. Then we recall that on the way to the bar, he was limping slightly.

And knowing his name is Roscoe, is he now a real character? But how would we ever know that sometimes at night he wakes up and is scared, and wonders if he will live until his next birthday, even though he has no reason to feel that way?

Woman being decorated with tumeric

Tumeric wedding ritual

Part of the mystery of character, perhaps, is that a writer can choose words to go in literally a million directions. A woman named Amrita, wearing a green sari in a village in India, remembers songs her mother would sing in Bengali. Amrita thinks of this as she walks into a store to buy tumeric for a wedding ceremony for her brother.

This is certainly nothing Roscoe could relate to. But part of the mystery of character is to find what makes people human. Because Amrita also wakes up at night afraid, wondering how long she will live.

For me as a writer, however, creating a real character is so much more complicated than I’ve just illustrated. No matter how many facts I pile up, the character remains abstract for me. Only when I see them move and hear them speak do they come alive and turn real for me.

“Do you think it’s gonna rain?” Roscoe asks. He leans toward the window and frowns a little as he looks out. “I wore the shoes that have a hole in the bottom. I hate wet feet.” He turns back toward me, still frowning, then smiles.

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