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Remarks and remembrances, on books and reading.

Posted: March 14th, 2013 | Filed under: language, words | No Comments »

A new kind of book.

I bought my first tablet (an iPad mini) last fall. It was an impulse purchase after I did some hard overtime working and had a small stack of dollars to spend on myself. An unusual occurrence. I’ve been surprised so far at its utility, and at my own frequency of use. I’m writing this blog post from it, in fact. It’s somewhat difficult, with squidgey buttons, but it’s lighter and cooler on my lap, so there’s that.

With this purchase came a new phase in my life: that of the ebook. I use the Kindle and iBooks apps (alternating purchases between the platforms largely due to price differences). I also still read and buy real, tangible books. The kind that can give you papercuts and take up more space in your messenger bag.

I see benefits to both. I realize I’m nowhere near alone in that.

My reasoning is colored by the fact that I am the daughter of an avid book lover and collector.

I learned to love books

Books tower on every wall of my father’s bedroom, stacked in every corner. His dresser looms, a small island in the middle of the room, concealed by turf of more books. And there are more, tons (without exaggeration) stored in the basement of the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, where my father worked for four decades before retiring earlier this year. Even more stacked in the attic of our home, and in the unoccupied (and currently unlivable) apartment that my grandfather built below my childhood home when I was a small child.

Books everywhere. A mix of the collectible sort with beautiful leather binding and gold edges and the handworn, loved sort — for instance, the Calvin and Hobbes collection with binding creased from all the times in my youth when I would crawl onto my dads bed and crack one open to read with him in the afternoon sun while he tried to nap.

My dad would even take my math textbooks from my sister and I after we finished a year of class, because brushing up on basic calculus was an enviable pastime to this engineer, and how terrible it would be to see those books full of knowledge get discarded.

It has been my dad’s first project of retirement to catalog them all. I fear the size of that database when it’s done.

My father was the type of book lover who admonished the dog-eared corner. I’d hide my penciled-up paperbacks from my English courses from him. To me, it was a method of learning to transcribe experience next to text. To my father, a disrespect of the item.

My dad covered the dust jackets of my well-read hardcover books with the plastic coverings you find on library books. My entire Harry Potter collection sits on the shelf of my San Francisco apartment, reflecting the light. The dust jackets are in mint condition under their crisp sheathes.

So I was raised to have a respect for the printed word. My father had significant influence (though he may not know it) on my decision to major in English in college.

As I’ve been adjusting to this world of ebooks, and enjoying it, loving that I have books with me everywhere, even if I didn’t think to pack them with me when I walked out the door, I’ve had that small pang of guilt.


What has helped has been a deliberate and inquisitive look into the ways my consumption of tangible and e-books differ. This is still evolving, but here are some of my initial inclinations:

I’ll still buy beautiful books, to touch and hold. Vintage illustrated encyclopedias. Children’s books that are meant to be wide, thin, and tactile. Large-format overpriced Taschen books bound in cloth. They mostly don’t exist as ebooks, because why.

I will buy books to support authors I know and hold in esteem, especially if they are “small time.” The other night, at the Green Arcade bookstore on Market (which you should patronize, if you get a chance), I was attending a meeting of folks to strategize around getting SF to divest from fossil fuels. Rebecca Solnit, a long time SF resident, activist and prolific author was there, and I was so delighted to make her acquaintance, and support her (and Green Arcade) right then and there by purchasing her gorgeous anthropological masterpiece, Infinite City. She signed it: “To Rachel, the cool.” There’s not much to describe the feeling of reading that.

I feel a unique sense of anxiety about ebooks. There are admittedly more books on my shelves that I’ve never read than those that I have (I have this tendency to give away books once I’ve read them, and never see them again). But I never stare at my shelves and feel the weight of those unturned pages. Owning the books carries its own sort of personal satisfaction. They decorate space, and are such patient waiters.

Conversely, the ebooks on my Kindle shelf, while light as air and invisible to the eye until sought out, have this strange weight of utility. “I downloaded you so I could read you. You serve no other purpose,” I think. I must finish them because they are waiting for me. It’s a magnified version of the feeling I have when looking at the significant unread count in my Google Reader (sniff sniff), or every time I hit the “save to Pocket” link in my browser. These words are queued up. No one likes waiting in line.

The ebook is preferable when I’m in learning mode. If you were to take a look at my Kindle bookshelf, you’d probably get a good idea of the world in which I work: Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky; Republic, Lost by Lawrence Lessig; The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver; Contagious by Jonah Berger; and so on. It’s helpful to be able to highlight passages and refer back to them easily later at the touch of a few buttons. Particularly if the moment when I might need to do that is impossible to predict (even for Nate Silver).

I’m finding increased utility for ereaders’ search functions for novels too, but haven’t yet given in fully. But for those kinds of books with a million characters and innumerable parallel story lines, the ability to quickly find out when someone was first introduced, and be reminded, “oh yeah, that’s one of the Riders of Rohan” is quite handy. Like with many of the ways technology has made tasks in our life easier and more automated, I feel a hesitance: do I embrace this new laziness? Is it tainting the authentic experience? What is the cost of such passivity? As I said, I’m not sold.

I feel weird taking my iPad in the bathroom, or to the beach. There’s still a need in this life for books that can go to unsavory or messy places, or can afford to get lost or be left behind in a hostel.

I’m reading more, now that I have an iPad. It’s inarguable, and simple. I’m a more voracious reader, now that its so much easier to have books with me, and buy them at a moment’s notice. I like this.

These are just some of my initial thoughts. There are more to come, as I wrestle with my love for the printed word, my geekery, and nostalgia. It will be an interesting few years, watching how this little glowy device changes my reading habits while I watch my father sort through and remember each and every book he’s collected.

Some thoughts on conversational tone and campaign messaging

Posted: October 31st, 2012 | Filed under: design, language, politics, social media | No Comments »

I was sorting through email on a flight the other day and started thinking about all the subject lines I was seeing. Quickly jotted this down before we landed in LA.

Over time, the difference between paid and organic content, between mission/brand-oriented and unaffiliated-human-created content, has become more and more blurred. (By paid content I mean not only traditional “paid media” – i.e. advertisements – but also content placed by paid employees – social marketing and content created by employees for their employers’ online presences.)

Advertisements use social language. Presidential campaigns send email blasts with the subject line “Hey.” Nonprofit organizations create photo petitions and video contests so they can hear and feature the voices of their supporters. Organizations, businesses and individuals who are spending money or paid time on social content are trying more and more to approximate our authentic social language.

With that, our ability to discern between paid and organic content has also evolved. I can tell spam from a mile away. And as much as President Obama’s campaign team tries to become the embodiment of a “friend,” I’m never fooled by their “friendly” language. We are evolving with new media, marketing and campaign strategies. Our personal boundaries, while they seem to be disintegrating with the increasing transparency of the social web, are in fact staying as solid as ever.

So what is the takeaway for the creators of paid content? I don’t believe that steering toward conversational tone is misleading or misguided. Neither do I believe that this content is 100% inauthentic. I’m sure our President does say “hey” from time to time, and I know several of the individuals who manage the social media properties of national NGOs, and I can assure you the tone of those properties reflects their individual personalities.

No – we shouldn’t steer away from this trend. It reflects increasing transparency in institutions, and, by extension, reflects increased opportunity for impact and engagement on behalf of the consumer/supporter/subscriber. But with this shift toward transparency, we mustn’t lose true authenticity. I don’t buy the “Hey” messages not because I don’t support Obama (I do), but because I know it’s actually not Obama saying “hey.” But when I see a tweet from NWF saying “hey” I know exactly which staff person that’s probably coming from.

If you are going to project authenticity, be authentic. Or else your efforts will come across as thinly as a 1950’s advertisement for a pack of cigarettes (“Great for your health!”).

Does poetry need paper?

Posted: May 8th, 2012 | Filed under: language, quotes, words | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

excerpted from The Best American Fax from Don DiLillo, in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011.

On Technology

…Will language have the same depth and richness in electronic form that it can reach on the printed page? Does the beauty and variability of our language depend to an important degree on the medium that carries the words? Does poetry need paper?

Read on paper, in a book. excerpted into electronic form, arguably losing more than literal weight.

A letter about love

Posted: May 2nd, 2012 | Filed under: language, quotes, words | No Comments »

A letter from John Steinbeck to his eldest son Thom, in response to the teenage boy’s letter confessing that he has fallen desperately in love with a girl named Susan while at boarding school. via Brain Pickings.

New York
November 10, 1958

Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.



Shakespeare is everywhere.

Posted: September 13th, 2011 | Filed under: fun, language, quotes | No Comments »




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