Monthly Archives: July 2010

Amazon is Watching You

Amazon is Watching You

As has been widely reported over the last few days, Amazon decided to delete copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 from users Kindle’s in response to a copyright violation from the e-books’ publisher.

Aside from raising all manner of questions about how much trust should readers have in their E-book suppliers, and how copyright should be managed in the digital world, it’s another prime example of the wonderous surveillance state we live in. Be warned,  Big Brother Amazon is watching you!

Literature to Divorce Paper

Literature to Divorce Paper
There is absolutely no sense and no reason why written literature should be married to paper, but, nonetheless, I loathe their impending divorce with unbridled passion. Neither the promise of carrying 1,000s of searchable e-books in my pocket nor the promise of almost instant access to 100,000s of other e-books can sway me; my mind simply won’t let go of the idea that the natural spouse, chaperone and paramour for literature is, quite frankly, paper.
 
My music collection, news reading, address book, social calendar, and even shopping slipped into the digital age with barely a missed heartbeat. As did my television, telephone, camera, and the reams of paperwork demanded by the bureaucracy of contemporary living. Although my radio listening is currently stuck in a halfway house—with 1/2 my radio coming over the internet and the other half still coming over the analogue airwaves—that’s due to the ineptitude of the radio industry rather than any intrinsic technical or social grounds. However, for my collection of books the very idea of going digital fills me with a resonate abhorrence, a sure sign that a taut and far-ranging emotional battle looms with the onset of e-literature.
 
But even as I build up my resolve for the battle ahead, I can feel in my bones it’s a fight that cannot be won. As the digital champions make patently clear, e-books will take up so much less space than their cullulose forbears that they will single-handedly empty all world’s bookcases, freeing up enough wallspace to cover the great wall of china. Travelling to work, or on holiday? Then why not take your entire library with you. Instead of searching one reference book at a time, why not search all your reference books in one go? Read it on your computer, or someone else’s computer, or on your phone, or on your well-designed, not to mention desirable e-reader, or perhaps even your iPad. E-books also make it far easier and cheaper to publish than ever before, but While that might suit vanity publishing it seems unlikely to make many inroads into literature, which requires dedication and exertion that vanity alone can’t provide.
 
However, even though Amazon have announced e-books for their Kindle e-reader are now outselling hardback books, it’s still early days for e-books. As the early adopters are learning, there all manner of questions that assail the reader. With e-books being published in more than 10 e-book formats, each with differnt features, consumers need to decide which format they should go with? To make matters worse there’s all manner of competing e-readers on the market with each e-reader working with different set of formats. While consumers will find their preferred e-reader to be a matter of individual taste, since tastes and technology change consumers should be wary of their e-book library locking them into a single e-reader vendor.
 
For those with even the smallest of book collections, the cost of moving from paper books to e-books will be significant, with e-books often costing the same or even more than their paper counterparts. Although casual readers are unlikely to bother to buy their existing books as e-books, for those with a modicum of collector’s pride the idea of having 1/2 their collection in paper and the rest as e-books is likely to be irksome.
 
One issue that will never entirely go away, is that e-readers require electrical power to be used. While this might not be much of a concern to those with the always-on lifetsyles of the digitally developed world—except, perhaps, when taking long journeys or when reading near water—to the rest of the world power is a luxury rather than a commodity, making e-books yet another facet of the world’s widening digital divide.
 
Some of these issues will lessen in time. Ever increasing battery life will weaken one of the key arguments against e-readers, and as the e-book marketplace matures only a handful of formats will survive, making it easier to move books from e-reader to e-reader. But for some the ability to read the words in a book is only half the story. E-readers remove the tactile relationship that readers have with a book. From the turning of the pages, through to the folding the corner to remember a place, for some using the format of a book itself is an important part of the reading process. Some readers love permantenly scribbling their thoughts in the margin, or passing a cherished book on to someone else once they’ve finished, all of which have only pale imitations in the digital world.
 
As it’s only a matter of time before the divorce of written literature and paper is complete, it looks like a long, traumatic transition phase is inevitable for us children of the book. But until such time arrives, we should all continue to enjoy the feel of paper between our fingers, the intricate smells of second-hand books, and the endless pleasure of reading books in all those places e-books will never dare to go, like the bath.

What is Literature?

What is Literature?

When I first had the idea for this blog one of my key motivations was to boost my understanding and appreciation of literature. In the back of my mind I envisaged reviewing some good books, wearing my slippers, and quaffing brandy late into the night. Okay, perhaps my preconceptions weren’t quite so archaic and clichéd, but I had naively assumed I’d delve straight into literature itself and not get bogged down in the endless side alleys that lead off the subject.

Of course, investigating the myriad of festivals, awards, and changes promised by digital technology is interesting in its own right; add in the complexities of evolving media laws and the ongoing retrenchment of the publishing industry and it’s obvious there’s a myriad of complex issues that feed the literary Zeitgeist. However, although such issues have some importance to the contemporary world of literature, they are, at best, periphery to the heart of literature, which, with thousands of years of history, has a fundamental basis that transcends the capricious sway of cultural and social fashions.

While there’s a many approaches to dig into the fundamental character and form of literature, the most obvious starting point is, perhaps, to ask the age-old question what is literature? The simplest answer is to consider a literal translation from the Latin, which translates to acquaintance with letters. Although such an answer might be interesting for language scholars, it’s about as much use as scythe to the modern reader of literature. Enriching the translation a touch, then literature could be described as the art of the verbal and the written word, but while such a terse answer seems broadly reasonable, it fails to meet the qualitative aspect of literature which suggest that not all verbal and written should rightfully qualify as literature. The qualitative aspect of literature is, of course, an embodiment of the dichotomy between high-culture and low culture, and as such is an amorphous boundary that defies easy definition.

Although there’s little to argue that deep treatises on philosophy or fictional epics classify as literature, what about the text of a cartoon strip, the copy of an advert, an email, or perhaps just a tweet? Is there an ingredient that demarcates high-cultured writing from low? What aspect—by its presence or lack of presence—marks some verbal composition as worthy of cultural praise, and others as culturally void? Is it simply a matter of a composition’s aesthetic value, or perhaps its cultural permanence, a mixture of these, or some other, more complex values?

Since the question’s been grappled with by some of history’s keenest minds—such as Jean-Paul Sartre’s in his essay What is Literature—I’m by no means naive enough to assume I could ever approach an answer with anything but the most modest aspirations. So rather than set myself up to fail by attempting to answer the question with any more detail I instead intend use the question as a launchpad into the realm of literary criticism. Hopefully as my literary investigations expand so will my understanding of the true scope of literature, and if not I will at least find myself on common ground with writers and readers through the ages, even if the ground is decidedly shaky to boot.

Literaryfestivals.co.uk

Literaryfestivals.co.uk

With over 100 literary festivals flooding the UK’s burgeoning festival market, www.literaryfestivals.co.uk is devoted to publicising details about all the UK’s festivals, and is the perfect resource for anyone looking to indulge in their next festival fix.

Of course, if you were to try attending 1/4 of the available festivals you’d have no time for reading, writing, or even breathing, which raises the opportunity for a brand new kind of fictional death: death by literary festival.

Hampstead & Highgate Literary Festival 2010

Hampstead & Highgate Literary Festival 2010

The dates for the Hampstead and Highgate festival has just been announced as 19 – 21 September, 2010. The festival is one of London’s answers to the increasingly popular literary festival scene, and aims to celebrate North London’s literary heritage, with many of the  event’s authors come from North London.

Appearances from big names will include  Martin Amis,  JeffreyArcher, Steven Berkoff, and Joanna Trollope, and bookings are now being taken online at http://www.hamhighlitfest.com.

Of course, if you’re not a particular fan of Hampstead  but want to mix your London and your literature, then there’s always the London Literary Festival at the Southbank centre, which runs from July 1 -18th July, 2010,  or there’s the Richmond Festival in November 2010.

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili Review

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili Review


Poliphilo kneels before Queen Eleuterylida

Poliphilo kneels before Queen Eleuterylida

One of my personal goals for 2010 was to read through all the books on the unread books shelf in my lounge, the home for books that either don’t grab my interest, or that are heavy enough  to require significant bravery or brandy before opening. Virgina Woolf’s To the Lighthouse dwelled on the shelf for a year or so, as did Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad, and an anthology of  Isiah Berlin’s essays, The Proper Study of Mankind, has grown dusty in the corner for at least 3 years.

I was therefore happy to pluck the Hyperotomachi Poliphili, or, as it is sometimes known in English, Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream, off the shelf a couple of months ago. A 500-year old text written, purportedly, by Venetian monk Francesco Colonna, it tells the story of Poliphilo as he journeys through his dreams searching for his dream lover, the entrancing Polia. With a recursive plot and a cast full of beautiful nymphs, the text is as charming as it is colourful, and as Poliphilo, and then Polia, wend their way through the fantastic dream-scape, the symbolism builds from a classic veneer into an intricate and integral seam that runs contiguously through the book’s pages.

Undoubtedly the most fascinating and notable facet of the book is Poliphilo’s obsessive focus on architecture. Hardly a page passes when he doesn’t marvel at some form of stonework, architecture, or other construction-based aesthetic  ideal, which coupled with the text’s deep descriptive style would be challenging to even the  most architecturally adroit of contemporary readers. While the architecture is occasionally tempered with narrative flourishes on couture and music, the text is nonetheless a normative example of the Renaissance style and serves as an apt illustration of the cultural revolution that sired it.

Although  my general taste  for simplicity meant the endless symbolism and ceaseless ode to architecture dulled my interest the more I read, as an exposition of the Renaissance Zeitgeist the book serves as a priceless window into a bygone cultural age. So while I’ve now moved the book from my unread books shelf, I’ve been left wondering if I should create  a new shelf for books I’ve read but failed to understand apart from as cultural artefacts, which, of course, would also make the perfect home for Virgina Woolf’s insane ramblings.