The Lit Maven

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

CardCatalogOver the past few years, I have seen comments by people wondering why libraries are needed. The exact question is: “If we have Google, why do we need libraries?”
Let me rephrase the question:
If I have cleaning materials, why should I hire a cleaner to tidy up my house? (time)
If I have roofing materials, why do I need a professional to replace my roof? (skill)
If I have a computer, why can’t I access the article I want from home? (money)
One of the saddest times of my life was disbanding the brick-and-mortar corporate library at a pharmaceutical company. The young, up and coming accountant stars questioned the need for a traditional library amid the wealth of information on the internet. They earned their Bachelors degrees poking around online sites and databases at their universities, so, they asked, “Why would anyone need a brick-and-mortar library?”
There are a number of reasons:

  1. Not everyone has access to the internet
  2. There is A LOT of junk out there
  3. To search properly and refine results, you must have skills, time and money
  4. Libraries are comfort places – a place where discrimination, racism, sexism and prejudice can be left at the door; everyone is equal, everyone is welcome; knowledge is for all
  5. Libraries are quiet places — in the midst of this exceedingly noisy world, libraries offer a place for meditation, reading and studying without noise pressures.
  6. Librarians are like bartenders without the alcohol. Listeners, caregivers, shoulders – you name it!
  7. Some people have a preference for books and like to be surrounded by them
  8. Most people do not have the money to license databases and journals for themselves – publications are expensive; databases and journals are offered for free to patrons (see #4 again)
  9. There are national give-and-take organizations (like Docline and AccessPA) that allow libraries to swap resources resulting in a 99% success rate in procuring articles and books

Does the internet help with searching? Absolutely. I use the internet in all of my searches. Sometimes, I am confronted with a search topic that I know absolutely nothing about – I don’t even know what it IS. The internet tells me. But, I have to wade through junk, advertisements, broken links, and wayward sites that have nothing to do with my topic. A professional searcher (a/k/a a librarian) will know how to navigate these roadblocks.
Having a real, live human being in a physical place is an extraordinary boost to any organization or company. How so? I have answered every question from “How do I convert a Word document into PDF format?” to “What methods can be used to combat bullying in the workplace?” to “How exactly is Narcan used in a heroin overdose situation”?
Where is all this coming from? In February, 2015, the terrorist group, ISIS, destroyed over 10000 books in a public library in Mosul. 8000 of these books were rare manuscripts, one-of-a-kind documents that cannot be replaced. I, and several of my librarian friends, mourned this irreparable loss. Much of Iraq’s history and culture were erased forever.
So, whatever your question, the answer is here in your library – come visit, anytime, whomever you are.

JinniI’ve always prided myself on my knowledge of books. I’ve never balked at offering my opinion about particular authors or titles that I’ve read – even if I haven’t been asked for it. One of the genres of literature that I’ve read as a guilty pleasure over the years has been fantasy. Often clumped together with science fiction, fantasy novels highlight the impossible. Science fiction, with its base in science and technology, is possible, but most times not probable. While flying around space visiting different planets may be fun to dream about, the chances of me building a rocket to do so is a stretch. Fantasy is the one genre that has its origins in the ancient world. Think of myths and legends – Hercules, Zeus and his family of wrathful/loving/boisterous gods and goddesses, Pandora, Medusa, Finn MacCool, Sir Gawain. Every culture has had fantasy literature whether it is oral or written, told by storytellers or read in books. In today’s reading world, fantasy has become a cultist magnet. George Martin’s Game of Thrones, Stephenie Mayer’s Twilight series, Coraline by Neal Gaiman, J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter and, of course, Tolkein’s legendary Lord of the Rings series among many others have become best sellers, films and TV shows. But, what IS fantasy – and should I be embarrassed to admit that I like it? A fantasy novel contains unrealistic elements like magic and wizardry; it caters to the supernatural. It celebrates what is outside the norm and, while we read from a distance, we are drawn into the fantasy writer’s world. Fantasy revolves around things that do not exist or are not real (ogres, genies, unicorns, mermaids). But it focuses not just on unrealistic characters, but on unrealistic settings and themes. Think of Star Trek vs. Game of Thrones. Space travel and visiting other planets? Possible. Seven kingdoms fighting for a drop-dead ugly throne made out of swords? Impossible.
As Hugo and Nebula Award winner, Robert J. Sawyer says, “Succinctly: there’s discontinuity between our reality and fantasy; there’s continuity between our reality and science fiction”. Many fantasy novels are parts of series – think Hunger Games or Harry Potter. If you’ve gone through the trouble of creating a world, why not use it a few times? Adults as well as children enjoy fantasy. Who doesn’t like talking animals, inanimate objects coming to life, worlds where we are giants – or the size of ants? I’d like to try to train a dragon, meet a genie or climb up a beanstalk to see what’s at the top.

Favorite single volumes:
The engrossing and lovely The Golem and The Jinni
Harry Potter for adults Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
The beautifully magical The Night Circus
The now classic Watership Down
The passionate and haunting The Graveyard Book
The juvenile and funny Half-Magic

I like fantasy novels because I can immerse myself in them, but I also like fairy and folk tales (Native American and Asian are the best!). Most of these feature fantasy themes – witches, spells, curses, changelings, monsters. But, don’t take my word for it! Explore yourself. Take a look at some of the best fantasy books and folk and fairy tales out there.

Back in 2003, a newspaper editor, author and blogger named Robyn Jackson came up with some scary factoids about American reading habits.  She used statistics from a website, www.parapub.com and painted a very dour picture.  In a nutshell, self-publisher Dan Poynter of Para Publishing noted that:

  • 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
  • 42% of college graduates never read another book after college.
  • 80% of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
  • 70% of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
  • 57% of new books are not read to completion.
  • 70% of books published do not earn back their advance.
  • 70% percent of the books published do not make a profit.

Dan wrote a blog in 2008, however, that book industry profits were much higher than first thought.  Hmmm…

In 2007, a CBS News article, “Americans Reading a Lot Less” based on a 99-page study by the National Endowment of the Arts, noted that, while 54% of all 9 year olds read every day for fun, 72% of high school students are deficient in reading.  Watching television has taken reading to war and has won:  Of Americans aged 15-24, 2 hours a day is spent on television vs. 7 minutes on reading. Reading scores, even for the higher educated (college and above) have declined.  The article rambles on about how dire things are and how dumb Americans are compared to people of other countries.  Even a slight rise in book sales in 2006 did not make book industry pessimists happy.  It was blamed on the Harry Potter phenomenon – oh, there was another little bump earlier in 2005. I think that was the Twilight series.  Or, vice versa.  Doesn’t matter: there was a bump!

I am sure that the good people at Turn Off Your TV are saying that this is all due to television watching.  And, some of it is.  We watch too much television in our civilization and sometimes it drives me crazy.  But, there are other factors as well.

Very simply, life is too chaotic.  There is too much to do and we are bombarded day and night by information.  Those little fiber optic things are whizzing by us at amazing speed and we are grabbing them by the handful.  That said, I did some more digging for other answers. People are still reading – Amazon and Barnes & Noble are doing extremely well, thank you, but how are people reading if the Book Industry is standing at the door of the poorhouse?

Ebooks!  Alison Flood in The Guardian, (article entitled “eBooks pass another milestone”), notes that “America’s ebooks enjoyed a 202.3% growth in sales in February [2011] compared with the same month the previous year…Print books fared much worse by contrast, with the combined category of adult hardback and paperback books falling 34.4% to $156.8m in February. The children and young adult category of print books fell 16.1% to $58.5m.” Amazon announced in January 2011 that Kindle Books outsold traditional paperback books for the first time in history this past year. As PC World noted, is this due in part to holiday sales in December?  Who knows?   Industry gurus predict that by 2015, digital books will comprise 50% of the entire book market and will plateau. (Does this mean that no more ebook readers will be sold or that those of us who have electronic book readers will stop buying books for them?)

I am finding comfort in numbers these days.  When I got my Kindle three years ago now, I was alone – the only one in my family, the only one in my department at work, the only one in my book club, the only one on the beach, in a train, on a plane to have one.  Now, they’re everywhere along with Nooks, Sony Whatever-They-Are-Called and others Who Shall Not Be Named.

We are a digital family.  We cancelled our Philadelphia Inquirer print subscription more than five years ago and read news online.  We also still look at the news on television, but wading through fires, robberies, murders and political upheaval gets a bit depressing.  Anything I want to know I a) go online and read about it; b) order and receive a book on my Kindle in seconds; c) ask a friend and/or 4) listen to the radio or look at television.  I don’t, sorry Print Publishing Industry, buy a newspaper.  The Philadelphia Inquirer was kind enough, for the past two Sundays, to leave a hugely obese newspaper at the end of the driveway.  Attached to the protective plastic bag was a little note that read, “Courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer. You can have this paper delivered to your door every week, just subscribe.”  I thought, “Why should I pay for a print newspaper when I can get news for free on my computer (well, not exactly, I still have to pay for a provider!)?”  Print newspapers are great, though, for lining the floor underneath kitty litter boxes and throwing into the recycle bins for RecycleBank points.  Face it, Publishing Industry, you are going obsolete like typewriters.

Does it really matter how we read, though, if we are reading?  There are lots of forums dedicated to the battle between ebook readers and traditional book readers.  What’s great about living in 2011 is that we have a choice.  We can read anyway we want – we can even store audio books on our MP3 players and listen during our commutes or to drown out spousal ravings.

Let’s go back to kids not reading.  Here’s my reason for that:  Teachers still require students to read Dickens and Shakespeare.  All well and good, but has it ever occurred to anyone in the National Education Association to suggest that students read fun, contemporary stuff?  I am a Dickens fan and have read A Tale of Two Cities and Our Mutual Friend this past year.  I enjoyed every word – and there are a lot of them!  But, to expect a 16 year old to enthusiastically chomp through Great Expectations and spew out all kinds of interesting factoids about 19th century life in London is nonsense.  Has anyone in the educational system had the idea that the Disney Channel, MTV and ridiculous Jack Black movies are more appealing to teenagers than 19th century writers? And, don’t get me started on  Beowulf  Ugghhh!

What‘s the bottom line?  Get teachers to require interesting, contemporary reading.  Be an example to your kids: If they see you reading (with or without a cat on your lap), they will read.  Buy a Kindle and take 12 books with you on vacation in your handbag or backpack without the weight. Read to your little ones so they may form good reading habits – make a scheduled appointment if you have to, just do it!  Enroll your kids in your local township’s summer reading program.  Create a book club with 12 of your favorite buddies (even “non-readers” will enjoy the camaraderie and food).  If you insist upon reading print books, at least buy them at a discount by looking at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Albris seller websites – like mine!  Go the public library and discover books by browsing through the shelves.  The beauty of it is that it doesn’t matter whether you read a book via paperback or Kindle, just read!

Everybody loves a pristine textbook – the fresh, straight-off-the-printing-press smell, the pages that are so sharp you are in danger of slicing into a finger while studying for that early morning exam, the pictures devoid of etchings donated by students long ago (you know, the moustaches, airplanes flying over a civil war battlefield). But, at what cost? Textbooks are among the highest priced titles in the publishing industry. In an About.com article, “Most.Expensive.Textbook.Ever” by Jackie Burrell, college students have reported science textbooks that sell for $190, $225 and even (gulp!) $3000. In 2008, College Trends reported that U.S. students pay $3.5 billion for their textbooks. An average student could shell out $1000 or more per school year. The NY Times editorial, “That Book Costs How Much?” highlights the new (and, as yet, not very popular) trend of some colleges to have students pay a nominal fee to access their textbooks online. With the increasing popularity of digital book readers (Kindle, Nook, etc.), more and more textbooks are available in e-form. But, beware: just because the popular fiction titles are cheaper in digital form, doesn’t mean that a textbook will be. The title, Textbook of Clinical Trials by David Machin (2007), is available in e-book form for $421. The same title is $216 in Kindle format, BUT it is the 2004 edition. You have to be very careful when purchasing to get the right edition. Consider buying a used textbook. Book distributors, like Amazon, have a dedicated section for buying. You can search by ISBN, title or author and receive discounts off used books. There is a drawback to this method, however. My daughter is taking a summer class at a local community college to fulfill a liberal arts requirement. Four days before the class she mentioned that she didn’t know which textbook she needed and was “starting to panic, Mom!!” Her father checked the college’s website and – would you believe?? – the course number was listed on the website, along with a description and a list of required and recommended textbooks. Although I found the book for $1.99 on Amazon, I didn’t want to pay $17.99 for expedited shipping (did I mention it was July 4th weekend, too?), so we ordered the book through the college’s bookstore. We had the option of purchasing used or new. We chose used. Within three hours, I received an email from the bookstore saying that the used edition was ready to be picked up. Easy, easy! Yes, this should have been done a week or two before, but, as much as we all want our children to be responsible and independent, they are still first and foremost procrastinators. What happens when the semester ends? Most colleges allow students to sell back their textbooks for a percentage off what they paid – like automobile depreciation. The student dispenses with the book for cold, hard cash. This is handy in that your child doesn’t have to lug his books home along with the stereo, television and mounds of clothes at the end of the school year. Or, you can sell it through a distributor. My favorite is Alibris, but Amazon features a Textbook Buyback option as does Barnes & Noble. Be aware, though, of yet another problem with textbooks: they are updated so quickly (especially in the sciences) that the $190 biochemistry text that you bought in August may be replaced by another edition. Your book is now worth a mere fraction of what you paid for it. Some editorialists believe that these upgrades are not done to improve the quality of the text, but to keep prices up and revenue streaming into the publishing houses. How can you help your college-age student? Do your homework. Search out deals for buying and selling and the school year will be a bit cheaper for you.

Technology has opened up a lot of new ways to read.  Since Amazon’s Kindle exploded on the market in 2007, the art (or science?) of reading has changed.  The debate continues, though:  Do I digitally read or do I read the old-fashioned way?  Will I miss that comforting feeling of physically holding a book in my hands, the feel of turning the pages, the joy of seeing a much-loved book on my shelves?  Will books “go away” all together, leaving heaps of Kindles and Nooks behind? Will libraries disappear only to re-emerge in the Virtual Universe?  In various industries, the pharmaceutical industry for one, they all but have.  I love my Kindle.  I love the portability (yes, I take a good dozen books with me on vacation), the contrast (able to read the device outside at high noon as well as in very low light), the convenience (WhisperNet, I love you!).  Not only has the digital book industry grown over the past few years, but so has the audiobook industry.  Statistics don’t lie – people are listening to their favorite books now.  Sales of audiobooks and audiobook downloads are up 17% in 2008 and 21% in 2009.  For nine years, I drove 45 minutes to work each day each way and began my love affair with the art of listening to books then.  Starting with audiocassettes about five years ago, I switched to CD’s when the technology changed.   And now?  MP3 downloads — the convenience, the storage on a small device, less clutter, better quality.  Audiobooks allow me to return to a time when Mom read to me.  There is a caveat, however. They must be well narrated.  Most authors are not very good at reading their own books.  Lisa Genova of Still Alice is monotone.  The anger and pain of the family watching their matriarch slide into Alzheimer’s are delivered in a drab delivery.  Better to read this one in book or in digital book form.  An exception is Paul Auster.  The Book of Illusions is a good narration by an author — moody, dark, well-toned — a nice listen.  Would Charles Dickens have narrated his own books?  Not sure, but to have missed the rich tones and facets of so many entertaining characters of Our Mutual Friend narrated by David Timson would be criminal.  British actor Jim Dale has been listed in the Guiness Book of World Records for voicing the most characters in an audiobook ever.  Throughout the Harry Potter audio series, he gives life to over 200 characters — each one unique.  Genius!  Recently, I became acquainted with Audie-award winner, Kathryn Kellgren‘s narratives.  Try out Austenland or the Bloody Jack series — pure paradise for the ears!  There are many companies that offer audiobooks for rent and for sale.  Some like Amazon’s partner, Audible.com, have only downloads for sale.  Others, like The AudioStore.com and Just Audiobooks.com offer CD rentals as well as downloads.  Can’t part with your cassette or CD players?  It’s difficult to find new copies of audiobooks on cassettes (and getting to be more difficult on CDs), but you can find used items on Albris, Amazon or Barnes and Noble.  What are the costs?  Competitive.  Most audiobook dealers have memberships via monthly or annual fees.  These fees will cost roughly $7.49 (for newcomers) to $14.95. If you buy annual memberships, each book credit will cost $12.50 or under.  There are membership perks as well.  I downloaded a wonderfully narrated, excellent quality rendition of A Christmas Carol read by Tim Curry as a gift from Audible.com.  Just recently, I received an email offer to buy three audiobooks for two credits.  All of the audiobook dealers I checked will allow you to download samples before  you buy.  I also recommend reading customer reviews. Customers seem to comment more honestly on vocal nuances and download quality much better than professional reviewers.  Your public library may have downloads for free as well – so check it out!  Warning: watch out for a site called freeaudiobooks.com.  The last time a book was added to its collection was February, 2008.  They also hawk an MP3 book reader called Archos with 1000 books already loaded and is the size of a small truck.  Why would I want that when I have a Zune and the Audible.com Reader on my iPhone?  Not only that, the books are not really free.  Check other sites for free downloads as well – you can get classics, but the quality may be poor.  For more information about the audiobook industry, check out the APA (The Audiobook Publishing Association) that sponsors the Audies each year – awards for the best audiobooks of the year.  Enjoy reading with your ears!