October 2011

The High Cost of Textbooks

Is it justifiable?
MSN Money has an article about the high cost of textbooks, and a few organizations who are working to curb the price trend. With the cost of college climbing every year, I really empathize with college students. The cost of textbooks seems pretty outlandish, and yet many students are essentially locked into buying them.
 
One thing to take into account is that most textbooks get used for an entire year. If you buy a $200 Physics textbook, the expectation is that it will cover you for Physics 101, 102, and 103 next spring. That's less than $70 per quarter, or about $5.50 per week. Just to put the numbers into perspective. I definitely understand the sticker shock, standing there at the bookstore staring at a book with a $200 price tag!

Foxing: Brown Stains On Old Books

These brownish "age spots" are an aesthetic problem, but not damaging
I recently learned that there is a specific term for the tan or reddish stains which appear on old books: foxing. Most sources say it's called "foxing" because the color resembles that of a fox's coat. However I found one blog which said it comes from one of the common sources of foxing, Ferrous Oxide, or rust.
 
The older a book, the more likely it is to experience foxing. However, newer books which are exposed to the wrong circumstances (like high humidity and inconsistent temperatures) can suffer from foxing, too. 
 
When examining a book, it is important to distinguish between foxing and mold or mildew stains. Foxing is essentially a cosmetic issue, while mold and mildew can both disintegrate paper and cause health hazards as well. This gets particularly tricky with older books, which may smell musty simply because of their age.

The Joy of Short Books

The Call of Cthulhu, The Old Man and the Sea, The Great Gatsby, Animal Farm, and Cannery Row
A short novel can be a wonderful thing, packing all the punch of a longer novel into a slimmer volume that's faster to read, and often a more concentrated form of the same great stuff. NaNoWriMo is looming on the horizon, a month that teaches us that you can pack a lot of greatness into a short work of fiction. 
 
Clocking in at about 30,000 words, a lot of people feel passionately about this novel, although I am not among them. I have a limited amount of patience for allegorical novels, and Animal Farm exceeds that in the first few chapters. That being said, it has a valuable message about how today's slaves are tomorrow's despotic rulers. Oink.

Jennifer Egan, The Keep

"I stand there listening, because a new sound has started up, like thousands of tiny glass pieces breaking above and below and all around me […] A tri
Jennifer Egan is gradually becoming one of a very small group of Important Cult Authors, along with the likes of Neil Gaiman and Chuck Palahniuk. I knew little about Egan before I started reading The Keep, aside from her rising status, and that her books often play funny tricks with the narrative thread. These things are true, but I was also pleasantly surprised that she has written a solid book which stands alone, not something that relies heavily on authorial trickery to get by.
 
The Keep is comprised primarily of two separate narratives (with a third, final narrative being woven in at the end). The basic level of relationship between them is made obvious, but on a deeper level, the reader is teased, led back and forth, and often left wanting. The Keep doesn't answer all of the questions that it asks, not by a long shot. As a sometimes short-tempered reader, I waver between being charmed and interesting, and being annoyed.

4 Reasons You Might Not Know If You Have A Kindle

 

According to a recent survey by the Puget Sound Business Journal, 57% of people do not have a Kindle, 41% do have a Kindle, and a staggering 2% answered "I don't know."
 
Interesting, very interesting. This is me, tapping my chin with a pen in the manner of a thoughtful scientist. Yes, yes, I see. 
 
Here's my theory on what the Puget Sound Business Journal would find, if it drilled down on that 2%:
 
1. You Are Too Old
What is "too old"? Well, it depends on the person. 
 
This is an interesting phenomena that I have observed: regardless of actual age, some people are just too old to understand what a Kindle is, what it does, or whether or not they have one, and what the difference is between a Kindle and the antique CDMA cell phone that the cell phone company keeps telling them they will need to upgrade soon because they're taking the network down.

Dangerous Books: "Gossip Girl, Psycho Killer"

 

Honestly, there is nothing about this that doesn't make me smile. The more I read about the newest Gossip Girl book (#13 in the series) the more I love it. This Washington Post blogger may be clutching her pearls at the unseemliness of it all, but me? I'm applauding!
 
Here is how this happened: editors approached Cecily von Ziegesar and asked her to write a "genre mash-up" version of her first Gossip Girl book. Von Ziegesar agreed, under the conditions that it not involve either vampires or zombies. (Showing excellent judgment, there - both of these tropes are pretty tired at this point.)
 
What von Ziegesar has written is a re-telling of her first book, except that the protagonist is not just a girl returning to the Upper East Side from boarding school: she is also a serial killer. It's basically American Psycho meets Gossip Girl. And I mean that in the most literal sense, because the violence in American Psycho the novel was ridiculously, preposterously, cartoonishly over the top. And in the end… well, no spoilers.)

A Strange New Book Phenomenon: Robo-Books

This fascinating New York Times article details author Pagan Kennedy's experience with "robo-books." It began when she noticed a book on Amazon titled Saltine Cracker which had been saddled with a whopping $54 price tag. After doing a little more research she discovered that the author, "Lambert M. Surhone," was the work of a German company which specializes in a bizarre and complicated sort of book publishing that closely borders on fraud.
 
If you spend very much time online, you have no doubt already run across one of those odious websites which simply scrapes content from Wikipedia and publishes it as its own (but with ads). What is essentially happening is that those content leeches have made their way to the real world, via online marketplaces like Amazon and eBay.

Books I Didn't Finish: The October Country

 

Ray Bradbury's classic collection of short stories, The October Country, is frequently cited as one of the best spooky books of the genre. It gets a lot of play in the weeks leading up to Halloween, for obvious reasons. 
 
I will admit that, although I am a long-time science fiction and horror fan, I have never much cared for Ray Bradbury's work. I always found it too stuffy, too mannered, too precise. Stultifying, even. Heresy to many, I know, but that's just my take on it. There's plenty of books for everyone out there, we don't have to like everything, etc etc.

Is Amazon Shouldering Publishers Out Of The Loop?

 

The New York Times has an article with a somewhat sinister air about it, detailing the various ways in which Amazon is trying to position itself in between the publishing houses and the consumer. Their lock on the Kindle platform makes it a natural for Amazon to start publishing their own titles, which (by all accounts) has the publishing industry terrified.
 
To be fair, there are few things that have happened in the last three decades that haven't terrified the publishing industry. From the advent of desktop publishing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to the rise of the internet and self-publishing meccas like Lulu. It seems like every advance in technology causes the publishing industry to run and hide.

 

An alternate approach might be to, like, embrace technological advances. Any published author with a modicum of technical savvy has loads of stories about how technologically behind-the-times most publishers are. The vast majority still require physical copies of manuscripts to be sent, simply because they don't have the ability to cope with emailed attachments. 
 
If you follow the publishing industry very closely, it soon becomes routine to hear that all of the publishing houses are about to be put out of business. In this case, as in the last few panics, it's "The Boy Who Cried Amazon."
 
The obvious solution to this conundrum is for publishing houses to contract directly with Amazon to print books for Kindle. Currently, these negotiations treat Kindle contracts as a distant consideration, trailing behind the more traditional hardback sales. Which is clearly ridiculous, given the sales numbers for eBooks over the last few quarters. EBook sales are one of the few growth sectors in our economy today; you would have to be a little foolish not to embrace it, right?
 
It's also not anything new for a major bookseller to have its own publishing wing. Barnes & Nobel has its own publishing, and has since the 1980s. They started by publishing out-of-print titles, and have since acquired both SparkNotes and Sterling Publishing. 
 
Ultimately, my biggest concern out of this is for Amazon. Going into the publishing businesses has to be one of the worst mistakes you could make as a business. I hope they don't sink too much money or effort into this project! But Amazon has proven itself to be fairly business-savvy over the years. My guess is that this is just a bargaining maneuver, nothing more. It's not pretty to watch someone  work the bully pulpit, but it's a far cry from The Death Of Books.

6 Scary Books for October

It's officially time to bring on the scares! 
 
1. Stephen King, The Shining
I consider this to be the scariest book of all time, and I know I'm not alone in that. (It was the subject of a Friends episode, where Joey put his copy of the book in the freezer every time it made him too frightened.) 
 
If you have read the book, try the audiobook. The performance is absolutely chilling. Listening to The Shining on audiobook is also how I learned that when I get scared, I read faster to get through the scary bits. But when you're listening to an audiobook, you just… can't. 

Book Swap Shelves I Have Known

 

There is a great New York Times Op-Ed piece by author Jami Attenberg who starts actively stalking the "free book" swap shelves at her local coffee shop. Many coffee shops have these shelves, but although I lived in the land of books and coffee (Seattle) for 15 years I don't think I ever saw an entire bookcase for swap books. 
 
Attenberg "seeds" the café's bookcase with copies of her own book, then (predictably) becomes obsessed with what happens next. If you have books in publication, I would not recommend that you do this. That way lies madness. 

Confessions of a Book-Burner

Can I get away with calling this Cracked article "incendiary"? Probably not, you're right. It was written by someone who openly admits to having shredded thousands of library books. Maybe hundreds of thousands, in the dead of night, under the cloak of secrecy.
 
Why? Because the library ordered him to.
 
Understandably, this article has raised a lot of hackles and sparked some pretty heated discussions online. A lot of people cannot stand the thought of a single book ever being destroyed. And even if you are less dogmatic about it, it's hard not to cringe when Davis mentions "a beautiful, dusty, illustrated volume of Shakespeare printed in the 1700s, a calligraphic message from its long-dead owner inscribed on the inside cover" being fed into the shredder. But that is what is happening, all around the world.

Infamous Books: To Train Up A Child

There are a lot of infamous books in the world. The Turner Diaries springs to mind. But a new book on child rearing is quickly running to the top of that particularly list of literary infamy. 
 
To Train Up A Child has been implicated in the deaths of several children across the country, including a recent case in Washington State. And its Amazon.com page carries a flurry of one-star reviews, many of them from the scared and scarred now-adults who suffered a childhood dictated by the teachings of Tennessee preacher Michael Pearl. (This polarizing book currently has 380 5-star reviews and 770 1-star reviews, with almost none in the middle.)

 

I have not read the full book. Michael Pearl is not the sort of person I want to give four dollars to. But the sample chapter available on Amazon is chock full of disturbing phrases like "conquering the child's will" and "we speak of consistently rewarding each transgression with a switching."
By the time I had read only a few paragraphs, I was dizzy with the urge to fact-check. Do the Amish really bury their dead in the orchard? (It seems unsanitary.) Is the purpose of military drills to break the spirit of the trainees? Hasn't it been repeatedly proven that "positive reinforcement and ignoring unwanted behavior" is the most effective way to train animals? (This is after all the method they use at SeaWorld.)
 
Pearl specifically advocates using a length of rubber plumbing line as a switch. He instructs parents to "Give ten licks at a time, more if the child resists." 
 
I'll give you three chances to guess what will happen if you tried to hit me ten times with a length of plastic tubing. Unfortunately, children can't defend themselves. This specific object has been involved in all of the horrific abuse cases which are connected to To Train Up A Child:
 
  • 13 year old Hana Williams was forced to sleep in a dark locked closet, bathe with a hose outside, and eat scraps. She lost 30 pounds in the last few months of her life, which undoubtedly contributed to the hypothermia which was her final cause of death. Her emaciated dead body was found wrapped in a sheet in the Williams' back yard.
  • Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz beat their 7 year-old daughter Lydia to death with plumbing supply line, after she mispronounced a word. They are also charged with the torture of their 11 year-old daughter and 10 year-old son. 
  • In 2006 a North Carolina child was killed by his mother, who wrapped him too tightly in blankets. Both he and his 9 year-old brother were covered with welts from plumbing supply line.
 
One wonders, how many more children will die in the name of this book?