Thursday, January 28, 2010

Book Technology

Yesterday Apple unveiled their much anticipated ipad, a sort of cross between a computer and an mp3 player without a phone. There has been much excitement and anticipation around this launch as the device (which will cost between $499 - $829 depending on memory size)

"is a touchscreen computer designed for browsing the web, managing email, viewing pictures and videos, listening to music, playing games and reading electronic books." (John Collins in today's Irish Times)

As Steve Jobs of Apple says

"iPad creates and defines an entirely new category of devices that will connect users with their apps and content in a much more intimate, intuitive and fun way than ever before.” (Irish Times)

I'm not sure that I want to be intimate and intuitive with a machine but obviously some people do!

The interesting thing is that this acts as an e-reader to challenge the Kindle and Sony's device, there are others but these are the two market leaders. For those who don't know an e-reader is (or was until the ipad) a dedicated device into which you can download electronic books to read. The devices work on the basis of e-ink technology (don't ask me to explain, I have only a hazy idea how it works) which means that its less strain on the eyes but the device will hold hundreds of books.

When I heard about this I wanted one - so badly - but then I got to thinking.

The electronic 'books' are not that less expensive than their paper counterparts and the device itself is approx €250, that would buy an awful lot of traditional books.

Who do the books belong to? There is no physical object that you own, you can't even copy the book to a disc although (and I'm not sure about this) I assume that if you exceed the memory capacity of the device that any excess can be put on a memory stick or stored in an electronic library. This is a pertinent question, especially for Kindle owners that operate wirelessly. Recently Amazon were selling '1984' by George Orwell, they discovered that the book contained a breach of copyright. All the customers who had bought that edition of the book (and the irony of it being that book title) found that the books had been removed from their kindles without prior warning. So, I have paid my money for the book but the seller can still take it back - wouldn't happen with a paper copy.

Where do I read? I read at work, in bed, in the kitchen while cooking dinner, on the beach, in the bath - infact the list is endless. My favourite spot is in the bath with a glass of wine, how would an e-reader cope? OK until the inevitable moment where it's dropped in the bath. I doubt draping it over a radiator to dry out would work. Similarly, on the beach if sand got in to it can you shake it out and it would continue working? I doubt it.

There is however another piece of modern technology that is portable, can be read in almost every environment, will not short circuit if it gets wet, you can write on it, it can be read in most lights and is available in various font sizes for those with sight problems. This piece of technology is the book - why are we trying to reinvent the wheel with a price tag of €250 - $829 attached. Plus you can't decorate a room with an e- reader.

Love your books because once bought no one can take them away from you unless you loan them out, they are friends that you can return to again and again, they will provide comfort when down, humour and thought provoking discussion. To handle a good quality book is a joy that no electronic device, however expensive and interconnected, can replace.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Wednesday Word - LACUNA

Another word that fits quite neatly into the world of books.

LACUNA: a gap in a manuscript, inscription, text, painting or musical work.

There are four ways a lacuna can occur:

1. Parts of the physical manuscript are missing

2. Unfinished works

3. Gaps in time within the story

4. Information gaps in what is being read

Gaps in the physical manuscript need no explanation.

Unfinished works abound throughout literature, usually where the author dies before the completion of a manuscript or planned sequence of books. Some examples are Dickens' 'Edwin Drood', Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' and Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast series.

Gaps in time within the story are there for a reason, usually to set up a contrast between the how a person was before and how they are now. The most famous example is perhaps Virginia Woolf's 'To the Lighthouse' in which there is a gap of many years between part 1 and 2. In that gap World War 1 has been fought, the reader's imagination has to fill in the gap as to events on the basis of the readers own knowledge and the changes in the characters in the novel.

Lacuna in the information the reader is being given by the author occur both naturally and by design. Whilst reading we constantly fill in information because if an author wrote everything stories would be impossibly long. What is left out by the author can therefore range from the trivial right through to information central to the story, such as the identity of the murderer. Gaps can also be temporary, to be revealed later as a plot device, or remain completely unfilled, a good example would be Henry James' 'The Turn of the Screw' where an explanation for the events in the novel remain unclear and ambiguous (a similar and modern example is Sarah Waters' 'The Little Friend').

Gaps can enhance interest and curiosity and are therefore central to the readers involvement in the story. It is in the gaps that imagination takes flight for if everything is described for us then there would be no need for imagination, it is through imagination that we engage with the author. The author has a choice of how much to tell and when, so the reader when identifying gaps has to ask 'is this gap relevant and if it is relevant why is this information being withheld?' Obviously in the detective story the identity of the murderer is the culmination of the investigation which has gone before it and it makes sense that the revelation comes at the end of the book (although in Donna Tartt's 'The secret History' the identity of the murderer is known from the beginning - it is the why that is important). It is in books with an unreliable narrator that the author's power to give and withhold information comes into its own, not only does the reader's imagination have to fill in details that the author leaves out but the reader has to decide whether to believe the information they are given! Examples of this type of fiction would be 'The Turn of the Screw' and 'The Little Friend' mentioned above and also Sebastian Faulk's 'Engleby' and Poppy Adams' 'The Behaviour of Moths'

Gaps are therefore the way in which an author keeps the reader interested in what is happening in the novel and also how the reader's response to the novel is manipulated. Far from being silent spaces, gaps are filled with the readers own imagination and speculation.

Next Week: Debt

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Teenage Book Group - Update

Jimbo and Charlie are best mates, so when Jimbo finds out from his not entirely trustworthy sister that he is in big trouble at school and a transfer to a special school is being considered he takes his worries to Charlie. Charlie suggests bugging the school staffroom to find out what's going on, a brilliant plan that goes off without a hitch. What the boys overhear leads them to break in to a teachers house but then they are threatened and Charlie disappears. When Jimbo is attacked at home and is saved by his sisters boyfriend, Jimbo and his sister steal the boyfriends motorbike and head off to the Isle of Skye to rescue Charlie. What they find when they get there is a transport beam, an alien planet and a spider called Britney.

The members of the school book group that read this book are a mixed sex group of 1st and 2nd years, so ages range from 12 to 14. Generally they enjoyed the book, the relationship between the two boys was believable and they enjoyed the humour in the book - bugging the school staffroom, the alien spider Britney and the light tone of the book. Head of English particularly liked the way the boyfriend was described and the families reaction to him 'He had the brain of a toilet brush. Mum, Dad and I were in complete agreement about this.' The students also commented on the dynamic within Jimbo's family - his father struggling to come to terms with the loss of his job, his mother racing around in her car and the sister who when the chips are down stands by her brother.

When asked whether the book ended as they expected the students said they were completely taken by surprise by the ending, they thought that maybe Mark Haddon did not know how to resolve the story having got the boys to the alien planet - thus the aliens die. The general feeling was that the book was less than the sum of it's parts in that the various elements of the book were done well and humorously but that the ending let the book down. An average score for the book was 7/10.

As I said in my earlier post I suspected that the discussion on the book would run out of steam before the end of the meeting so I had been looking for ways of discussing alien fiction in general. I had found on Youtube the original broadcast of H G Well's 'War of the Worlds' by Orson Welles from 1938. The broadcast is broken into approx. 10 minute chunks on Youtube and the students were played part 2, where a field reporter reports from a farm in New Jersey on what at first appears to be a meteorite but then turns into a death machine with a death ray. Welles had not only turned the book into a play but in doing so had twisted it so that they events of the book were taking place in real time, news bulletins interrupting a programme of dance music.

The students were attentive to the broadcast, they listened to the whole 9 minutes. I then explained how the broadcast had caused panic and showed them newspaper headlines of the time. They did not understand why panic ensued, even when the events of 1938 were described to them. None of the students said that they would have believed what they were hearing, what was marked was how distrustful of modern media they are. Head of English pointed out that with the advent of the spin doctor we had all become more aware of how media can be manipulated. The students had great difficulty in picturing only being able to get news from two sources, the newspaper and the radio, they had not thought of themselves as sophisticated users of digital media to get the information they wanted compared to people in 1938. A good discussion was had with all of the group engaged and contributing to the discussion.

Next months book is 'Jackdaw Summer' by David Almond, again I'll keep you posted!

Answers to the Book Meme

I meant to post my answers to the Meme yesterday but got caught up in the drama and excitement of selling books! Anyway here are my answers to Friday's Meme

1. The last book I bought

'The Other Hand' by Chris Cleave, my book groups choice for this month. More on this in a later post.

2. The book I read the most as a child

'The Secret of Moon Castle' by Enid Blyton. I must have read this book 12 or 13 times

3. The book I've owned the longest

A first edition copy of 'The Secret of Moon Castle'

4. The total number of books I own

I haven't done a definitive count but I estimate over a thousand

5. The one book I would want on a desert island

'How to Survive on a Desert Island' I'd be dead in a week if I didn't have such a book!

6. The worst book I read in the last 12 months

'Eat Pray Love' by Elizabeth Gilbert. Where to start describing why I didn't like this book? It was a book group choice and for those lovers of the book most of the book group loved it. I thought Gilbert frivolous and despite her desire for change and the lengths she went to to achieve that change, by the end of the book she did not seem to have achieved any insight into herself or her situation.

7. The best book read in the last 12 months

Not many books get 10/10 but three made it into that category last year:

'John the Revelator' by Peter Murphy

'The Shooting Party' by Isabella Colgate

'The Archivists Story' by Travis Holland

If I have to chose one it would be 'The Archivists Story', a book about memory and how we use stories to make sense of our memories, both as individuals and as nations.

8. The book I most hated studying at school

'Jude the Obscure' by Thomas Hardy. I studied this for my A levels and gave up reading this most depressing book when the children all killed themselves because their parents weren't married. I never finished the book even though it was a set text. Since then I have read almost all of Hardy's novels but can not bring myself to reread this.

9. The book which made the most impression on me as a teenager

'To Kill a Mockingbird' by Harper Lee. Another set text but for O level this time. We were given the book one afternoon and I read it until I had finished it at 3am the following morning.

10. My favourite book Character

Either Scout from 'To Kill a Mockingbird' a feisty and brave girl or, a cliche I know but, Mr Darcy - do I need to spell it out!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Friday Book Meme

A book meme for you to think about over the weekend, I'll post my answers on Monday.

1. The last book you bought and why

2. Which book did you read the most as a child?

3. The book you have owned the longest

4. The total number of books you own

5. One book you would want on a desert island (not the bible or the Complete Works of Shakespeare please)

6. The worst book you read in the last 12 months and why

7. The best book you read in the last 12 months and why

8.The book you most hated studying at school

9. The book that made the most impression on you as a teenager

10. Your favourite book character and why

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Once a week we will take a randomly chosen word and try to link this to the world of books - watch out this might get a bit tenuous!

Today's word is CAMPUS: the grounds of a university or college.

An easy one to start as several novels have been set in and around universities, indeed 'The Campus Novel' can be regarded as a genre in it's own right. The idea of a novel set in and around university life can be traced back to 1925 with the publication of Willa Cather's 'The Professor's House' but it came into it's own in the 1950's and onward. There are several advantages to a novel set within the confines of university life

-the setting is a closed world in much the same way as the country house detective novel was for Agatha Christie,

-time within the novel can be clearly structured, broken down into terms and years,

-the university gives a clearly defined power structure both within the university staff and between student and teacher

The world of the campus is one that has clear structure which can be exploited for dramatic effect and which provides a microcosm of the more extended and messy world beyond its walls. David Lodge, author of many campus novels, is clear about their attraction for a writer "The high ideals of the university as an institution - the pursuit of knowledge and truth are set against the actual behaviour and motivations of the people who work in them, who are only human and subject to the same ignoble desires and selfish ambitions as anybody else. The contrast is perhaps more ironic, more marked, than it would be in any other professional milieu." It is therefore no surprise that the campus has provided several novelists with comic opportunities, Lodge among them.

Universities and those who have access to them have however changed over the years, they are less the preserve of the elite and now cater for the bulk of school leavers. This democratisation of the university is perhaps the reason that the emphasis has moved away from class and old ideas verses new towards issues surrounding the purpose of education itself. It is the question of whether education is solely for obtaining points at the end of 6th year or a degree for a particular job, or does education serve a wider more holistic purpose?

Where does the school novel fit into this, particularly that staple of children's fiction the boarding school, think Harry Potter, Vampire Academy and the Twilight series. It would seem that the campus novel is alive and well in children and teen fiction, perhaps because it provides that necessity for such stories - an almost adult free environment. Whilst the university novel has foundered in recent years (the last I can remember is Tom Wolfe's I am Charlotte Symmons published in 2004) the school novel seems to be alive and well and positively flourishing.

Some Campus Novels:

Pnin - Vladimir Nabokov

The Human Stain - Philip Roth

The Secret History - Donna Tartt

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark

Lucky Jim - Kingsley Amis

Wonder Boys - Michael Chabon


Monday, January 18, 2010

Support your local bookshop

In this weeks Sunday Times India Knight has written a piece entitled 'The bookshop strangler: It's a scary whodunnit' in which she looks at the fortunes of Waterstones, which took a nosedive over Christmas, and contemplates a future without this last remaining dedicated bookshop chain and various valiant independents and asks how did this happen and who is to blame?

Let us look at how the bookshop industry might have got itself into this situation. Online retailers and Waterstones themselves have huge clout with the publishing industry which allows them to demand large discounts on titles so they can sell them at less than cost price - hence the 3 for 2 offers and the huge discounting of new releases, independent bookshops can not compete with this and customers looking for 'value' buy books in droves from these sources hastening the death of the independent bookshops but without the independents the chains and onliners have no competition.

Equally, Knight points out, if a debut novelist wants his book not only published but distributed he is reliant on the large chains picking it up and promoting it, if they don't he's stuffed. Thus the large online retailers and chains control not only the price the customer pays for books but also the books that are available to buy.

Customers have turned away from local independents (and this goes for butchers, hardware and other shops) to large chain retailers who offer discounting and a one size fits all model with the only books available being the ones they deem to be the ones we want to buy - hence the sea of celebrity serial biographies. The result seems to be that the customer has got tired of this model, if the latest results from Waterstones are anything to go by, service, knowledge and not having to trek to the nearest large town or city for what you want may be something that book buyers are coming to appreciate we hope!

There is also a knock-on effect of the dirth of bookshops - how do you foster a love of reading and literature in the young if there are no bookshops in which children can physically pick up, touch and look at books. There is nothing like the wonder of a child who opens a book to find that the contents pop up towards them in an explosion of colour and fun or the thrill of picking up a book that you had never heard of a finding that you have read the first 10 pages without realising it. This is what we risk loosing if we loose our bookshops to online retailers, yes they may be cheap but, as Knight points out,

'Amazon is a huge and powerful behemoth that has crushed publishing in its fist. I know it’s nice to buy cheap books (Amazon demands massive concessions from publishers), but publishers have little or no margins as a result and authors’ royalties suffer, too.'
Support your local bookshop, its a place to browse, chat with knowledgeable staff and customers, it fosters the imagination in both young and old and will transport you away from where you are. What other shop can do this and all for an average price of about €9.99!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Teenage Book Group

I am involved in a secondary school book group as one of the required adult supervisors to any teen activity. What that actually means is that although the students pick the books to read I try to bring something to the meeting that they may not have thought of in connection with the chosen book in an effort to get them to 'think out of the box' - their English teacher brings chocolate brownies (Guess who's more popular!)

This months book is Mark Haddon's 'Boom' a tale of two boys who discover that two of their teachers are aliens who have a fiendish plot to take sci-fi fans and repopulate their world with them. It would be a great book for 9 - 12 year olds or those slightly older who are reluctant readers. Unfortunately I suspect the discussion on the book will not last the full hour we have available to us as, although humorous the book is not complex. I have therefore been casting about for ways to make the meeting more interesting and began to think about that other great alien invasion book H. G. Well's 'War of the Worlds'. There are at least two films of the book but far more interesting is Orson Welles' 1938 radio production which was broadcast on the night of 30th October 1938 - Halloween.

The production took the form of news bulletins which interrupted a programme of dance music and seemingly caused panic among the population. The original production is available on Youtube (in segments) and I have collected several newspaper headlines of the time not only dealing with the panic but, in an effort to try and put the public's reaction into context, of the surrounding political and world situation - the Australian Anschluss and the capitulation to Germany of their demand for part of Czechoslovakia and the unofficial war between China and Japan. The Americans of the time thought they were being invaded. The public had no TV and were not media savvy. All news was obtained from the radio or newsreels in cinemas and, if they missed the opening introduction, listeners had no way of knowing if what they were hearing was true or not. The task at the meeting is to get these 12 - 14 year old to imagine a world without TV where war is being openly talked about in a society that does not want to get involved in another European conflict.

I'll let you know how it goes!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Welcome to a New Year

Now that the Christmas rush is over and all the mince pies have been eaten it's time to sit back and look forward to the new year. I am busy preparing February's Book Newsletter for our customers setting out new releases for the month and news and info from the world of books. Delivered by email - you can request a copy of the newsletter by emailing us at the shop with your name and we will add you to the e-mailing list. We can post any book to you - subject to payment of postage. Have a look at the 'About Me' section of the blog for our email and phone details.