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From Michael Dirda, “an exhortation to read, read, read”

Over at The American Scholar, Michael Dirda is retiring his wonderful “Browsings” column. (In case you’re somehow unaware of Michael Dirda — a crazy thought — he “is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.”)

Naturally, his column, which has been published weekly for the past year, is devoted to exploring, reflecting, meditating on, and celebrating the world of books and reading, as refracted through Michael’s magnificently rich sensibility for such things. The final installment, published just yesterday, takes the form of “an exhortation to read, read, read,” as articulated in these oh-so-choice words of wisdom about the deep meaning of books as such:

Books don’t just furnish a room. A personal library is a reflection of who you are and who you want to be, of what you value and what you desire, of how much you know and how much more you’d like to know. When I was growing up, there used to be a magisterial librarian’s guide entitled Living with Books. I think that’s the right idea. Digital texts are all well and good, but books on shelves are a presence in your life. As such, they become a part of your day-to-day existence, reminding you, chastising you, calling to you … [T]he world is full of wonderful stories, heartbreakingly beautiful and witty poems, thrilling works of history, biography, and philosophy. They will make you laugh, or hug yourself with pleasure, or deepen your thinking, or move you as profoundly as any experience this side of a serious love affair.

— Michael Dirda, “A Positively, Final Appearance,” Browsings, The American Scholar, February 1, 2013

If such thoughts and sentiments speak to you, then be advised that much wonderful reading awaits you in the column’s previous installments.

“The book is elegiac. Books, I think, are dead.”

Here’s an excerpt worth pondering from a brief email interview with humorist, critic, and author Joe Queenan at The New York Times‘ ArtBeat blog, occasioned by the publication of Queenan’s new memoir One for the Books, about his lifetime of passionate engagement with books and “his own eccentric reading style.”

Q. One of your book’s biggest themes is the superiority of books to
 e-readers. Are you optimistic about the future of books on paper? And do 
you consider this book more of an early eulogy or a rallying cry?

A. The book is elegiac. Books, I think, are dead. You cannot fight the zeitgeist and you cannot fight corporations. The genius of corporations is that they force you to make decisions about how you will live your life and then beguile you into thinking that it was all your choice. Compact discs are not superior to vinyl. E-readers are not superior to books. Lite beer is not the great leap forward. A society that replaces seven-tier wedding cakes with lo-fat cupcakes is a society that deserves to be put to the sword. But you can’t fight City Hall. I also believe that everything that happens to you as you grow older makes it easier to die, because the world you once lived in, and presumably loved, is gone. As I have said before, when Keith Richards goes, I’m going too. Same deal with books.

— John Williams, “‘Books, I Think, Are Dead’: Joe Queenan Talks About One for the Books,” ArtsBeat, The New York Times, November 30, 2012

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The future of reading at the interstices of print and digital literature

Here are some highly interesting remarks and reflections on the rise of electronic reading and the shape of the literary future (and present) from Yale University literature and reading scholar Jessica Pressman, whose “current research focuses on how 21st century literature — both in print and online — responds to the threat of an increasingly paperless and multimodal society.” The excerpts come from a recent installment of the always-worthwhile series of “FiveBooks Interviews” published by The Browser. Note that Dr. Pressman references several specific texts that are pertinent to the question of what books and literature can and may become.

We’re talking about digital textuality and what happens to literature when it interfaces with the prospect of the digital — of digital technology and digital culture. And we’re talking about readers who are becoming literate, and perhaps even more literate, on the screen rather than on the page … [P]eople are just reading in different ways online. Rather than engaging with a single book and a single author for a sustained amount of time, people are reading in the kind of Web 2.0 social networking ways … [T]hey’re reading hypertextually across web pages, and they’re also producing their own content … I think the place to look to see these changes is the location where conventional print literature and digital literature meet. That’s where these works live — House of Leaves , The Raw Shark Texts , and digital literature too — at the interstices.

— “Jessica Pressman on Electronic Literature,” The Browser, October 18, 2012

Image courtesy of adamr / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Recommended Reading 8

This week’s link list is slightly shorter than usual, because my time and energy have been dominated for the past few days by the task of writing three essays for ABC-CLIO’s “Enduring Questions” academic reference database, in the enticingly titled category, “World Religions: Belief, Culture, and Controversy.” But there’s still plenty of worthwhile reading here, covering the categories of apocalyptic fears, the possibility (probability?) of a US military strike on Iran, the Wall Street-White House-Capitol Hill nexus of corruption, the rise of the American prison-industrial complex, the fate of paper books and speculative fiction genres in the era of the e-book, the influence of the I Ching on renowned Western intellectuals and artists, the role of Christianity in helping to launch Western science by shaping its philosophical foundations, a possible paradigm shift that’s in the offing for the theory of evolution, and the absolutely fascinating story of a man whose head injury from a mugging has resulted in his becoming a mathematical genius who sees mental image of mathematical diagrams and is apparently the only person in the world with the ability to draw fractals by hand.

Read the rest of this entry

Liberating, efficient, utilitarian — bloodless? The evolving Kindle experience

In August of 2009, I bought a Kindle. I was immediately quite happy with it (see “Impressions and advice from a new Kindle DX owner“), and I continue to be so these two and a half years later. My Kindle has become a major part of my reading world as a whole, particularly as a device for liberating me from the backlit screens and chair-bound posture of laptop and desktop computers, since my main use of it has been to read the multitude of articles, essays, blog posts, books chapters, and other items that I find every day on the Internet.

But that doesn’t mean I’m a fan of the current and near-universal trend away from print and toward a wholly electronic world of reading. Nor am I fan of the evangelistic zeal displayed by some of the trend’s proponents. As I mentioned last week, it’s important to maintain a vital relationship with paper, and this means, at least for me, remaining engaged in an ongoing balancing act, in the course of which certain truths about the digital reading experience have become ever clearer. Read the rest of this entry

On the demise of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s print edition

Have you heard?

After 244 years, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is going out of print. Those coolly authoritative, gold-lettered reference books that were once sold door-to-door by a fleet of traveling salesmen and displayed as proud fixtures in American homes will be discontinued, company executives said. In an acknowledgment of the realities of the digital age — and of competition from the Web site Wikipedia — Encyclopaedia Britannica will focus primarily on its online encyclopedias and educational curriculum for schools. The last print version is the 32-volume 2010 edition, which weighs 129 pounds and includes new entries on global warming and the Human Genome Project.

— “After 244 Years, Encyclopedia Britannica Stops the Presses,” The New York Times, March 13, 2012 Read the rest of this entry

Published: Ebook edition of ‘Divinations of the Deep’

During the past couple of years, I’ve been receiving requests for an ebook edition of Divinations of the Deep with increasing frequency, and today I’m pleased to announce that the wait is over. Divinations, the ebook, is now available in both Kindle and ePub formats (the latter for Nook, Kobo, and other ereaders).

You can purchase it from either Amazon or the publisher, Ash-Tree Press.

On their catalog page, Ash-Tree describes the book as “Matt Cardin’s highly acclaimed collection of glimpses into the primal chaos which God fashioned into an ordered cosmos, and the threads which occasionally unravel at the seams of the universe.”

Ash-Tree was of course the publisher of the original print edition — which booksellers are now listing for prices ranging from $60 to $200 — and I was pleased when they recently contacted me to ask if I would be interested in having it published in their newly launched line of ebook titles. For this new version, I gave each story a light stylistic revision.

Praise:

“This collection was everything I’d hoped it would be, and that doesn’t happen often. Divinations of the Deep contains five stories that share the same Judeo-Christian religious theme. But this isn’t a book that you’ll find in Jerry Falwell’s library. This collection goes far beyond Judeo-Christian tradition, far beyond God, into the dark possibilities of what existed before God…Like Lovecraft and Ligotti, Cardin excels in creating a truly terrifying atmosphere of dread and decay by revealing what may lurk just beyond our view of reality. Few people succeed in this, but Matt does it with aplomb. His prose is intelligent and poetic, his execution, effortless. I believe this collection will become a classic of weird fiction.” — Durant Haire, writing for Feoamante.com

“This whole book is Fiction-as-Religion in action. It is truer than truth.” — D.F. Lewis

“It’s a bold writer who, in this day and age, tries to make modern horror fiction out of theology, but Cardin pulls it off. Like most heretics, he may be wrong in the eyes of the Church, but he can cite texts: lots of scary Old Testament passages that suggest a gnostic mystery underlying perceived reality. What was the ‘face of the deep’ upon which there was darkness, before the first act of Creation? Was God’s act one of pushing back or containing a primal Chaos older and vaster than Himself? Cardin manages to turn this into a vision of terrifying, Lovecraftian nihilism. No mean feat, that.” — Darrell Schweitzer

“Cardin massages the dark and hidden, and penetrates the ancient deep to fashion unique visions of horror and deity. Each piece has its own depth and unwavering regard to the theme. The settings are universally dark, murky, and decadent, putting you in mind of Poe especially, but also some of the more depressed turn-of-the-(20th)Century writers. In each of these stories, the author personalizes the apocalyptic question of ultimate power and order. It is a fascinating approach.” — Cemetery Dance

“Matt Cardin’s stories display a thorough appreciation of what cosmic horror is all about…[H]e knows that the Bible staked out the territory long before Lovecraft came on the scene. You might even say that he saw where Lovecraft went off the tracks by dismissing the power of the pre-existing symbols. In Divinations of the Deep, he has steered the train back onto the mainline of Western religion. I don’t want to suggest that these stories are devout or uplifting, or that they follow the Christian party-line. Far from it. The reputed consolations of faith are notably absent from Matt’s bleak universe. He comes by his credentials as a horror writer honestly: not by reading Stephen King with a felt marker in hand and one eye on the cash-register, but by suffering through a dark night of the soul that very nearly undid him. He merely writes what he knows.” — Brian McNaughton

Free ebook: A Course in Demonic Creativity

My ebook about daimonic creativity for writers is now available for free download.

A Course in Demonic Creativity: A Writer’s Guide to the Inner Genius clocks in at 40,000 words and 174 pages, and is optimized for reading on a Kindle, Nook, iPad, or other ereader. Or you can of course read it on your laptop or desktop computer. The current PDF edition will soon be joined by Kindle and ePub editions.

Here’s the text of the virtual “jacket copy”:

Where does creativity come from? Why do ideas and inspiration feel as if they come from “outside,” from an external source that’s separate from us but able to whisper ideas directly into the mind? Why have so many writers throughout history—and also composers, painters, philosophers, mystics, and scientists—spoken of being guided, accompanied, and even haunted by a force or presence that not only serves as the deep source of their creative work, but exerts a kind of profound and inexorable gravitational pull on the shape of their lives?

These are all questions addressed by A Course in Demonic Creativity: A Writer’s Guide to the Inner Genius. This 40,000-word ebook (175 pages) was written and developed from key articles that I first published here at Demon Muse and other Websites. It represents a major expansion of those articles, and features full notes and an extensive bibliography detailing all of the sources of information — more than 40 books and 20 essays, articles, interviews, and videos — that I consulted in the writing of it.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos actually *gets* books and their value

Photo: Jeff Bezos

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos displays a Kindle

I’ve been quite enthusiastic about the Kindle and the e-reading revolution ever since buying a Kindle DX last year. I’ve also been pleased at the way Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos continues to say things that demonstrate his authentic commitment to positioning the Kindle as a device that doesn’t destroy the reading experience but instead preserves what’s most valuable about it.

Case in point: In connection with yesterday’s release of the most affordable Kindle yet, Bezos spoke to USA Today this morning about the stunning growth of the e-book market. And what he said indicates that both his head and his heart are in the right place regarding books and reading and their translation into a new digital environment:

USA TODAY: Why not add multimedia to e-books?

JEFF BEZOS: You want to enter the author’s world, the great novel or engaging non-fiction narrative. In the case of a physical book, you’re not noticing the stitching and the glue and the paper and the ink. That all disappears. We’re always trying to make Kindle get out of the way.

If it’s a book about music history, having music people can play at certain points in the book can be useful. Maybe biology textbooks can benefit from certain animations. You’re not going to make Hemingway better by adding animations.

— “Volume of Kindle book sales stuns Amazon’s Jeff Bezos,” USA Today, July 29, 2010

To which I reply: Yes! And not just because I agree passionately with the idea Bezos is advancing, but because I’ve actually experienced that disappearing of the physical technology and absorption into the author’s world that Bezos describes and the Kindle successfully accomplishes. Books have always done this. It’s their signature magical power. I well remember Stephen King describing his own experience of test driving a Kindle a couple of years ago, before I bought mine. He specifically highlighted the aspect of the experience that we’re talking about here:

Will Kindles replace books? No. And not just because books furnish a room, either. There’s a permanence to books that underlines the importance of the ideas and the stories we find inside them; books solidify an otherwise fragile medium.

But can a Kindle enrich any reader’s life? My own experience — so far limited to 1.5 books, I’ll admit — suggests that it can. For a while I was very aware that I was looking at a screen and bopping a button instead of turning pages. Then the story simply swallowed me, as the good ones always do. I wasn’t thinking about my Kindle anymore; I was rooting for someone to stop the evil Lady Powerstock. It became about the message instead of the medium, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

— “Stephen King: Books with Batteries — Why Not?“, Entertainment Weekly, January 23, 2008

And now, of course, the necessary disclaimers or caveats: Yes, I’m aware of the problems involved with Amazon’s insistence on using their proprietary, DRM-protected .azw e-book format instead of something that’s cross-usable like e-pub. Yes, I’m aware of the financial problems they’ve caused for book publishers by pricing most e-books at $9.99. Yes, I’m aware of the valid concerns about their odd new semi-incarnation not just as a bookstore but as a by-God publisher or publishing adjunct, which seriously muddies the waters of the publishing world, and especially the part having to do with the role, status, and ultimate fate of authors.  Scott Turow, who’s currently serving as president of the Authors Guild, talked to NPR two days ago about Amazon’s shocking new deal with the Wylie Agency. He called Amazon the “behemoth” behind the current turmoil in the publishing world, and identified them as the entity that really needs to get sand kicked in its face instead of the authors whom he says are suffering.

So all of this is duly noted. But nevertheless, I think a long-term e-book revolution is clearly inevitable — barring, that is, a (semi-possible) return to pre-industrial technological conditions within the next century or so — and so it’s great to know that a behemoth like Amazon is helmed by somebody who actually respects and loves reading in itself, and disdains the possible corruption and devolution of the printed word into a mere adjunct to whiz-bang digital videos and music and such.

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Image credit: aamazon_0622, used under Creative Commons from TimYang.net

Impressions and advice from a new Kindle DX owner

The Kindle DX

The Kindle DX

A few weeks ago I announced here that I had decided to get an e-reader. Well, I’ve gone and pulled the trigger and am now the owner of a new Kindle DX, which I bought as a gift to myself for my birthday. (Clever man that I am, I asked family members who intended to give me a gift to make it cash in support of the purchase.)

And I’m here to tell you that currently, these three weeks in, I’m completely delighted with the thing.

Please note that I say this as somebody who for years has loathed reading e-books on a computer screen, to the point of wanting to slit my wrists or someone else’s. I also say it as someone who, although he lives half his life on the Internet at this point, is possessed of a red-hot Luddite impulse when it comes to techno-evangelism, and a tendency to regard modern digital media culture through a dystopian lens.

But as a book reviewer I often receive pdfs instead of paper books, and for personal and professional reasons I also read vast amounts of articles and essays on the Web. I’m talking about scores of them per week. This has become not just a pain but a biblical millstone around my neck. And I’m here to tell you that my experience with the Kindle has been like a liberation from prison. I’m now a believer. If this is the Matrix, then plug me in.

IMPRESSIONS

I think the Kindle’s salutary effect may come from a combination of two things: the device’s portability, since it effectively serves as a book, or actually a compact library of texts, that I can carry anywhere instead of being chained to my laptop computer; and the E Ink technology that makes the visual experience qualitatively different from reading text on a backlit computer screen, and more like (although not identical to) reading print on paper. For me, at least, reading books etc. on the Kindle really does substitute quite nicely for reading text from a printed book, although I’m certainly not about to abandon the latter.

So now my take on e-books is radically changed. I have always hated them without measure, but it turns out it was the interface (my chained-ness to a computer plus the pixelated backlit visual nightmare) that accounted for the hating. I had half-suspected this might be the case, and had been told as much by a few friends, who have now been proved right. Of course, I’m sure a Sony Reader or another device using the E Ink technology — and there are several — would achieve exactly the same effect. I researched the market heavily before making my purchase, so I know there’s more than one worthy e-reader out there, and the market is getting ready to explode with new competition. Personally, I’m most eager to see how the forthcoming Plastic Logic and IREX readers perform, especially given their new partnerships with Barnes & Noble.

But for now I’m thrilled with my Kindle DX, whose large screen I wouldn’t want to trade for even a second for the smaller Kindle or Kindle 2 (or Sony Reader), and nearly all of whose features — page turning, bookmarking, note taking — are wonderfully intuitive. The thing really and truly promises to “reinvigorate my reading life,” as I have heard a few other owners describe their experience of it. I’m presently using it to reread Dracula — the e-book version of the Modern Library edition, which I got cheap-cheap from Amazon — as well as a host of essays, studies, and papers about vampires and vampirism in preparation for writing my essay about religion and vampires for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of the Vampire: The Living Dead in Myth, Legend and Popular Culture (Greenwood Press, 2010), edited by S.T. Joshi. And the experience from both a scholarly and a readerly-enjoyment  perspective is truly excellent.

GENERAL E-READER ADVICE

Before making my purchase I came to really appreciate any useful advice I could find, so I figured I’d pass on some of my own.

Here’s some general advice if you’re considering diving into the e-reader fray:

  • If you can, for Cthulhu’s sake go for the Kindle DX with its bigger screen. I have messed with the other, smaller readers — the previous Kindles and the Sony Readers — and while they are indeed cool, I can tell you that the reading experience is immeasurably enhanced by the larger screen size of the DX, which allows for more words per page and an overall smoother, more satisfying time. Of course, if you wait just a few months you’ll see a slew of new large-screen readers hitting the market, so that’s something to consider, too.
  • There are several really excellent free e-book resources that you’ll want to look into for stocking your e-reader: Feedbooks, Munseys, Open Library, and more. Plus there is, of course, the longstanding universe of e-texts a la Project Gutenberg, the Internet Classics Archive, and so on. All of the texts at these latter sites can be converted for reading on e-readers. (For some specific advice about doing this on the Kindle, see the next section below.)
  • Try to get your hands on one or more e-readers so that you can actually test drive them before making your decision. Short of that, avail yourself of the really excellent online resources — especially the sites offering comparisons of different e-readers — that you can find through some careful searching

ADVICE FOR NEW AND PROSPECTIVE KINDLE OWNERS

Here’s some specific advice for those of the Amazonian tribe:

  • Go to the Kindle store at Amazon and check out the top 100 list. You’ll find many free books listed there. Simply click to “buy” them and they’ll be transferred instantly and wirelessly — and free of charge — to your Kindle.
  • Contrary to widespread rumor, the Kindle 2 can handle pdfs. It just can’t do so natively, which means you have to take pdfs through a conversion process instead of dumping them directly to the device. The DX, by contrast, does have native pdf capabilities, which is nice, but don’t pay the extra money for it — and it is a lot! — if you’re thinking that one of the benefits will be the ability to use pdfs, since Kindle 2 can do it, too.
  • If you’re looking to put your own files on your Kindle, bear in mind that all of them will have to be converted to a Kindle-friendly format, unless you’re transferring pdfs to a Kindle DX. You can do this in one of two ways. In the first you’ll attach the file to an email and send it to your Kindle user address, which you’ll be given when you buy the device. The format is “username@kindle.com.” Sending files to this address will cost you something like 15 cents each (charged to your Amazon account) and the files will show up in Kindle format automatically on your device via Amazon’s so-called Whispernet wireless connection. But — and here’s the second method — you can also do this for free by adding the word “free” to the address, thus: “username@free.kindle.com.” This method will cause the converted files to show up in your email in-box, after which you’ll have to hook your computer to your Kindle with a USB cord (provided with your purchase of the thing) and do a manual transfer.
  • Although the Kindle file conversion service can handle many file types, I’ve personally gotten the best results — as in, the most consistent in terms of the resultant formatting — from sending documents saved in Rich Text Format (RTF). Also bear in mind that, as already mentioned, you don’t have to send pdfs through the file conversion service if you have a Kindle DX, since it has that native ability to handle such files. But pdfs are NOT zoomable on the Kindle, and you can’t use the text highlighting and note-adding and read-aloud functions with them. The Kindle just displays pdfs at a single size in a frozen format, as it were, and lets you read them. This being the case, if you’re making your own files to transfer to the Kindle, I really recommend that you save them as RTFs instead of converting them to pdfs, and then send them through the file conversion process in order to be able to take advantage of the various cool features. Also bear in mind that pdf texts can show up as terribly small and difficult to read on the Kindle’s screen, although the DX’s ability to show you texts in landscape format helps to enlarge things. If you have to use or make pdfs for Kindle reading, you’ll want to make sure the texts are plenty big if all possible.
  • Contrary to widespread rumor, the Kindle 2 can handle pdfs. It just can’t do so natively, which means you have to take pdfs through a conversion process instead of dumping them directly to the device. The DX, by contrast, does have native pdf capabilities, which is nice, but don’t pay the extra money for it — and it is a lot! — if you’re thinking that one of the benefits will be the ability to use pdfs, since Kindle 2 can do it, too.
Contrary to widespread rumor, the Kindle 2 can handle pdfs. It just can’t do so natively, which means you have to take pdfs through a conversion process instead of dumping them directly to the device. The DX, by contrast, does have native pdf capabilities, which is nice, but don’t pay the extra money for it — and it is a lot! — if you’re thinking that one of the benefits will be the ability to use pdfs, since Kindle 2 can do it, too.

  • Contrary to widespread rumor, the Kindle 2 can handle pdfs. It just can’t do so natively, which means you have to take pdfs through a conversion process instead of dumping them directly to the device. The DX, by contrast, does have native pdf capabilities, which is nice, but don’t pay the extra money for it — and it is a lot! — if you’re thinking that one of the benefits will be the ability to use pdfs, since Kindle 2 can do it, too.