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The library’s demise: tearing down the temple

“Tear down the temple; we’ve got shrines at home.” True enough; we can erect little altars to literacy on our bookshelves and nightstands. But how long can we justify this quaint luxury in a digital age? Printed books will become relics: hallowed icons mounted to the wall–first decoratively and then ironically.

Spouting the “spiritual, not religious” cliché, we’ll eschew reading’s rituals: type-set paragraph, licked finger, page at the ready, musty incense. Digital evangelists will shrug off these losses, proclaiming sola scriptura (“Content alone!”). Literary Reformers, like the iconoclasts of old, will sweep away the traces of a sacred era.

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books technology Uncategorized

How ebooks mute texts.

Texts used to speak for themselves.

Once upon a time, the scribe hunkered over his parchment, squinting through the candlelight, ignoring his aching back and cramped wrist. Yet no matter how hard he concentrated, he made mistakes. Inevitably, words were duplicated, key letters left out, entire lines forgotten. In other words, the text asserted itself—it spoke up.

Via the author’s lazy penmanship, the copier’s fatigue, or the typesetter’s clumsiness, new words and worlds emerged. The literati’s unconscious oversights became the text’s improvisations. Dirty little ‘mistakes’ piled up in the corners, and wicked, wonderful things grew in that fertile soil. Freudian slips, unruly bugaboos, and half-hidden assumptions congealed and sprung to life. Later readers noticed such oddities; they highlighted, celebrated, and codified them. The text, over time, was adding riffs and harmony to the author’s original tune.

But now we have digital text, perfectly preserved, pristinely programmed, faithful to a fault. The author dictates, the computer records, but the text can’t get a word in edgewise. Clinical, binary precision has banished those fruitful ‘errors.’

Efficiency and accuracy are all well and good, but at what cost? Do we really want a muted text? What would happen if we relearned the value of imprecision? Could we reprogram our texts to have minds of their own? Could we reintroduce entropy to digital copies? Could we—willingly—allow our ebooks and blog posts to ‘corrupt’ themselves—just so that our texts could sing again?

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Libraries and ebooks.

Libraries may be doomed. The digital age will force these beloved community institutions to streamline, prioritize, and (ultimately) reinvent themselves. In fact, this transformation is already underway. Libraries (like mine) are incorporating digital assets into their collections. At the moment, I’ve got Born to Run, The Accidental Billionaires, and the A Game of Thrones quadrilogy queued up on my iPhone.

Now, this new service may not stem libraries’  long-term financial blood loss. But for patrons like me, library eBooks offer some great advantages. First (and foremost), they’re free. All you need to check out titles is a local library card. Second, they’re convenient. Lending periods are comparable to those of dead-tree books, and you can browse, check out, and download eBooks from the comfort of home. At last, you can visit your local library in just your underpants.

But there are some significant downsides to library eBooks, too. For one, transferring books onto your device is clunky. Here are the steps: visit the library website on my PC, download an authorization ticket, email said ticket to my iDevice, open it with my favorite reader app, download the book itself. In other words, the process is too complicated for the average bibliophile!

Other disadvantages are common to all eBooks, whether borrowed or purchased. For example, the hardware still isn’t ideal. On phones, the screen is too small. Get ready for a lot of swiping; because so little text fits on each tiny page, the average book easily balloons up to a thousand pages. Tablets fare better, but their resolution is so low that text can look jagged and fuzzy–not ideal for extended bookworm sessions. Such problems are exacerbated by poorly formatted eBooks (all too common). Often, you’ll lose precious screen real estate to weird spacing bugs, irremovable margins, and mal-adapted images.

A final disadvantage: eReading demands serious self-discipline. My phone is packed with apps–most of them far shiner (and less productive) than my eReader. Who can press through another paragraph, when faux Scrabble awaits? Why exegete another endless sentence, when Angry Birds requires no such concentration? Why strain to follow a chapter-long argument, when bite-size tweets are infinitely more digestible? By the time I finish with my other apps, any leisure time I had is long gone.

Still, despite the problems, publishing’s future lies with the eBook. Presumably, then, eBooks must figure prominently in libraries’ future, as well. Hopefully, they survive long enough to work out the kinks.

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books culture sports Uncategorized

Kindles at camp?

Camps have traditionally banned gadgets. In the woods, iPods and cell phones are illegal contraband, banished along with fireworks and drugs. Life at camp, many argue, should hearken back to a simpler time: when a game of “Angry Birds” involved dodging bird poop and “conversation” meant a fireside face-to-face rather than thumbed pseudowords at 140 characters or less.

Camps therefore confiscate kids’ electronics. But books have always been welcome. Counselors praise the kid who spends his rest hour nose-deep in a novel. Camp brochures highlight the iconic image of a teenager flopped beneath a tree, flipping through a book. Sure, Harry Potter can distract from camp life just as surely as a Gameboy, but only the gizmo gets the boot.

But the line between books and gadgets continues to blur as digital reading goes mainstream. Last summer, Amazon sold more eBooks than hardcovers for the very first time. Low prices have contributed to this growth; eBooks cost less than their print counterparts, and the Kindle’s price may hit $0 by year’s end.

Within a decade or two, devices like the Kindle and the iPad seem destined to dethrone the printed book for good. If eReaders become ubiquitous, can camp directors realistically demand that kids leave them at home? How can camps encourage literacy while still offering a sanctuary from digital distraction?

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Why no electronics at Harry Potter’s Hogwarts?

Hogwarts is a no-gizmo zone. The Harry Potter books make it clear that electronic contraptions simply don’t work within the magical castle’s confines. But why not?

The ever astute Hermione Granger offers an explanation: “All those substitutes for magic Muggles use–electricity, computers, and radar, and all those things–they all go haywire around Hogwarts, there’s too much magic in the air” (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire). Fair enough; maybe spells and potions create electromagnetic interference–shorting circuits and stymieing radio waves.

But why would Potter author J.K. Rowling conjure up such an arbitrary complication? Why impose this limit? What does she have against electronics? Is she a technophobe, weaving her gizmo-hateinto the story? Consider: Rowling prefers writing by hand and resisted publishing the Harry Potter series in eBook form until just a few months ago.

But Rowling is no Luddite. Or if she is, I doubt this explains why she banished gadgets from the Hogwarts grounds.

Instead, Rowling’s writing suggests that tech has a sinister side. For example, she links modern conveniences with Muggle oafishness. Consider Dudley’s birthday from Sorcerer’s Stone: “It looked as though Dudley had gotten the new computer he wanted, not to mention the second television and the racing bike. Exactly why Dudley wanted a racing bike was a mystery to Harry, as Dudley was very fat and hated exercise – unless of course it involved punching somebody.” Here, electronics made you dull and brutish and wretched.

Another possibility: maybe Rowling wanted to preserve Hogwarts as a world unto itself. She recaptures a lost, golden age of British education–the boarding school, completely secluded from wider society. Before academies were perforated by digital communication–social networks, email, texting, instant messaging–each school was a self-contained universe. Here, the social world was all, and children could become kings, queens, and villains.

Harry Potter, then, is about rediscovered relationships–kids escaping from gadgetized distraction and plunging headfirst into the joys of actually connecting with other real people.

If that’s true, then Rowling eschewed technology at Hogwarts for the same reasons the Amish do.

These “Plain People” famously reject electricity, telephones, and computers from their homes. Often, they are lampooned for this “backwards” lifestyle. But there is purpose to the Amish people’s caution. Many such technologies threaten to disrupt the sacred cohesion of the community-at-large. The mobility that cars make possible, for example, disconnects us from our immediate neighbors. Telephones distances family members from one another. By banning such inventions, the Amish recover a relationality often lost in modern American culture.

In the same way, banning technology from Hogwarts doesn’t just make room for the wizards’ magical escapades. It also reintroduces a shared life that communications technology has banished from most modern academic communities.