Horrible Author Thinks Libraries Are Outdated Concept

LibraryEarlier this week, Terry Deary, author of the popular (in the UK) Horrible Histories series, started quite the shit-storm when he declared that libraries “have been around too long” and are “no longer relevant”, among other things. Apparently Deary just wants people to buy his books instead of getting them for free. Never mind the fact that he also says library use is declining in the UK, which would seem to lessen the impact on his bottom line.

First off, something I wasn’t aware of is the fact that UK authors are paid a small fee every time one of their books is checked out from a UK library, with the total amount capped at £6,600 annually. That sounds like an awesome idea that I wish was feasible to implement in the US. I have a feeling that it wouldn’t fit into library budgets, however. Even still, that payment wasn’t enough for Deary, who feels entitled to the sales he thinks he would have made if those were books bought instead of checked out.

Deary’s rant, focusing as it does on his need to get paid, manages to come off as petulant, greedy and classist to boot. In one gem of a quote, he declares that “this is not the Victorian age, when we wanted to allow the impoverished access to literature” because I guess poverty is no longer a worldwide epidemic, right? Poor people who want to read should just skip a meal and pay for books instead, and when physical books go the way of the buffalo, they should start paying for e-readers and internet access too. (But that’s a whole other issue.)

Never mind the fact that books are more than just commerce. A good book is food for the soul, and libraries make readers. Readers buy books. Just because it’s possible to get books for free from the library doesn’t mean people stop buying books as well, and it never has. I’ve always got a good half-dozen books checked out from the library, but I still spend $50-$100 a month on new and used books.

Also, it’s a fallacy to assume that if libraries went away that people would buy as many books as they borrowed. I buy a lot of books as it is, but I’d probably have to double or triple my budget to buy as many books as I check out from the library. It’s just not going to happen. It’s the same fallacy record labels use to claim that every pirated mp3 equates to a “lost sale”. When people can get things for free – from the library or by piracy – they tend to pick up more than they would ever buy.

Of course, libraries are about more than “free books”. They’re one of the few public spaces where you can sit and work or read and use the wifi without having to buy a cup of coffee. They provide easy access to computers and the internet for people who wouldn’t have access otherwise. They offer community events, meeting places, educational programs and more. Also, librarians do more than shelve books. They’re skilled researchers, talented educators, and passionate evangelists for great books. Every librarian I’ve ever met is a huge book-lover, and you don’t want to get on a book-lover’s bad side.

Ultimately, you have to wonder what exactly Deary was thinking when he decided to air his complaint. I suppose he felt like an iconoclast declaring a subversive opinion, but mostly he just came off like an avaricious, tone-deaf idiot. It’s bad enough that bookstores are closing by the dozens; if libraries started closing down at the same rate, I’d consider us lost as a species.

To paraphrase John Waters: “If you go home with someone, and they don’t like libraries, don’t fuck ’em!”

Old Friends -or- The Same Book Over and Over Again

The "double-reading" selfportraitWhen I was a kid I read and re-read the same handful of books. The complete works of Douglas Adams were in heavy rotation. Hitchhiker’s Guide, sure, but I also read Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency until the cover fell off. I also picked up Roald Dahl over and over again. I remember reading The Witches most often, despite the fact that when I tried to watch the movie version it terrified the hell out of me. (The girl stuck in the painting? Nightmare fuel.) Those are the books that stand out in my mind, but I’m sure there were others.

This habit didn’t stick with me, though; as I grew older, I got out of the habit of re-reading books. Part of it may have been that as I had more disposable income (and a car), I could pretty much always get my hands on something new to read, so I no longer felt the need to go back to familiar old books. I certainly have plenty of new books to read now, so It’s rare that I’m willing to make the time to re-read something, even if it was years ago.

However, whenever I talk to people who are regular readers, re-reading books seems like a fairly common pastime. Based purely on anecdotal evidence, I get the impression that re-readers are far more common than folks like me who only tend to read books once before moving on. The simple explanation for a lot of the people I’ve talked to is that they like re-reading books because it’s comfortable. Sure, they might know what happens in the story, but reading it again is like visiting old friends or a familiar place. I’ve never been drawn to re-read books out of comfort, but I can understand the appeal.

I can also definitely see the value in re-reading books like Catcher in The Rye at different points in my life. That book meant something different for me when I was in high school than it did when I was in college, and I’m about due for a third reading. I’ve also re-read books for purely practical reasons, such as when I had to read A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings for a second time because I was completely lost when I tried to start reading A Storm of Swords.

Lately I’ve been considering going back and picking up books and/or series from my childhood and reading them again just to get a new perspective. Despite reading Hitchhiker’s Guide a dozen times, I don’t remember too much about it, so reading it again now would be a revelation. I am a little hesitant, though. Sometimes the things we love in childhood don’t stand up to scrutiny when we return to them as adults.

I did actually start a Harry Potter re-read last year – this time listening to the audiobooks – but I only made it through the first two books before I got distracted by other things to read. I’ll finish the series eventually, but once I do, I want to take a crack at some other iconic authors from my childhood. I’m also seriously considering picking up some of the books ruined by my high school English classes. The Great Gatsby got it the worst, but I might also take another crack at A Tale of Two Cities. Not sure if The Scarlet Letter is worth a third read, though.

Ultimately, however, I don’t think I’ll ever be a re-reader by nature. I’m always looking forward to the next new book in line. I only pick up books I’ve already read by conscious choice… or if they were so unmemorable that I completely forgot about reading them (which has happened before). That said, I think I will be making a conscious effort to dive back into some past reads over the course of the next year, just to see what I may have missed back then.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster CallsPublished: September 27th 2011
Publisher: Walker Books
Genre(s): Young Adult, Fantasy, Horror
Format: Hardcover
Length: 215 pages

A Monster Calls is a young adult book with a deceptively simple plot – a thirteen year-old boy wakes up in the middle of the night and discovers a monster in his back yard – that reveals an unparalleled depth of emotion and storytelling prowess. Patrick Ness, working from an idea by the late Siobhan Dowd, takes that simple start and builds it into a novel that I would argue is a modern masterpiece.

The first complication to the story is that the boy, Conor, lives alone with his mother, who has been sick for months. She is in and out of the hospital, trying new treatments, bald and thin but always firm in her belief that the next treatment will do the trick. Over the course of this up-and-down cycle of treatment and relapse, Conor has become withdrawn and angry. He’s bullied at school and outcast from his peers by their knowledge of his mother’s sickness.

Then one day a monster wakes him in his room at 12:07 AM. The monster comes as a walking yew tree – the very same one that watches over Conor’s house from a nearby graveyard – but it is an ancient thing, older than the tree and apart from it, taller than his house and powerful enough to knock holes in the walls. Conor, strangely enough, is unafraid, because it “isn’t the monster he was expecting”, and he’s “seen much worse” in his horrible recurring nightmares.

The monster, only momentarily taken aback, smiles its evil, leafy grin and informs Conor that it will tell him three tales and then he will return the favor with a tale of his own. Thus begins the meat of the story, and it is quite a story at that. Ness weaves together fairytales, horror, fantasy and the crushing banalities of modern life in a strange and compelling novel that packs an incredible emotional punch.

The book is illustrated throughout with stark black and white paintings that splash across the pages, bleeding into the margins and evoking just enough of the story to fill in the corners of your imagination. The monster looks like something you might find hiding in the darkest shadows at the back of a closet, and its head is a bundle of spikes that could either be twisted branches or alien spines.

As I read the last few pages of the book, I had to stop several times to get my emotions under control. In fact, the book affected me that strongly several times throughout. It’s a powerful story with an ending that lingers long after the last page is done. A Monster Calls is sold as a young adult book, but I think Ness tells a universal story here, one that could – and should – be appreciated by readers of any age. It’s an intense experience, but well worth it. Very highly recommended.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Amazon | BookPeople | Indiebound

On Gender and Genre

The Particular Sadness of Lemon CakeI’ve been in a book club with some friends from college for a few years now, and a couple of months back we had a discussion about whether or not certain books could be considered “girl books” or “boy books”. The discussion was inspired by The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which my friend Aaron argued was more of a “girl book” than he would have liked to read.

Our book club – largely composed of women (and librarians, to boot) – ultimately did not agree with Aaron’s assessment, but the concept of books that are only appealing to a specific gender is not a new one. The romance genre, for example, is one that is traditionally considered targeted towards women, but it isn’t the only one. There are also sub-genres like books about shopping, cozy mysteries or anything involving quilts that are stereotypically female. Some, but not all, of these books exist under the designation of “chick lit”, a marketing term designed to simultaneously alienate men and patronize women.

However, when you try to turn it around and consider books “for men”, there isn’t a corresponding umbrella term. I would imagine that genres like military fiction, epic fantasy and hard scifi are considered stereotypically male, as are books about no-nonsense action heroes or middle-aged men reminiscing about sex, but I feel certain there are women who read and enjoy all of those genres. Surely even the “fond memories of vagina” genre has its female readers.

So what, then, does it actually mean when someone refers to a book as “chick lit” or “for women”? People have a habit of confusing genres with reading levels or target audiences. Young adult fiction is another case in point. Maybe what someone actually means when they say they think a book is too girly is that they don’t like or understand the book’s genre. More likely is that they haven’t read the right book or books in that genre. Ultimately, though, it all seems to come down to the marketing.

Literary fiction, for example, is a genre that likes to believe it isn’t one, and if a “romance” novel is marketed as literary fiction, it will probably reach a wider audience and gain more respect. In fact, I’ve read a number of books that were essentially romance novels sold under another name. For example, Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey is sold as fantasy but has a very strong romantic/erotic plot line. It’s also a fantastic book that I would recommend highly to readers looking for something a bit different. The Time-Traveler’s Wife is sold as literary fiction but has elements of both scifi and romance.

My good experiences with young adult books and “stealth” romance novels lead me to believe that there must be books I’d enjoy that are marketed as romance novels. If it’s simply a matter of being embarrassed to be seen holding the cover in public, then reading the ebook is an easy solution. I’m starting to suspect that I could find a book I would enjoy in every genre if I just knew where to look.

eBooks Might Not be the Death of Print After All

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Don’t Burn Your Books—Print Is Here to Stay“, Nicholas Carr discusses how the apparent decline in eReader and eBook sales seems to signify that physical books aren’t in their last gasp after all. While I do agree with the general premise of his article, i.e. that physical books won’t disappear from the face of the planet any time soon, I have to wonder what is causing the downward trends the industry is experiencing.

For example, I can tell you that I haven’t bought a new eReader because my 3rd generation Kindle still works just fine (despite the fact that the case seems to be swelling at the bottom). I was momentarily tempted by the new Kindle Paperwhite when it first came out, but they’re still fairly pricey and the plain fact is that my current Kindle doesn’t need to be replaced. Also, I’m not really sold on buttonless touchscreen readers. I like being able to hold my Kindle one-handed and turn pages without needing to move my hand.

I have to wonder how often Kindle owners feel the need to upgrade to the newest model as soon as it comes out. eReaders don’t seem like the sort of technology that would inspire upgrade fever. The hard drive on a Kindle is nearly impossible to fill up (unless you load it with audiobooks and music) and the main thing it needs to do is display text, which doesn’t require too many bells and whistles. If you really want to play games or use apps on a handhold device, you’re probably in the market for a tablet instead of an eReader.

It also make sense that the biggest customers for book purchases are book lovers who either 1) insist on sticking with physical books out of familiarity and comfort or 2) buy books in every medium (like me). That’s why I am particularly intrigued by Carr’s suggestion that ebooks “may turn out to be just another format—an even lighter-weight, more disposable paperback”. This definitely jives with my current buying habits.

When it comes to new books, I almost always buy digitally, but for most big new releases I buy audiobooks from Audible because I am far more likely to read a book quickly if I listen to the audio version. I do still buy a decent number of Kindle books, but usually only when they’re on sale. I’m a sucker for $1.99 price tags, so if I catch wind of a sale on a book I’m interested in, I’ll buy it despite the fact that I might not read it for years. As for physical books, I’m pretty much addicted to used book stores, so I walk out with books basically every time I walk into a Half Price Books. Additionally, there are still some books that can only be bought in print, such as the unabridged version of Jorge Luis Borges’ Collected Fictions.

Kindle Additionally, it makes sense that there are some books that are well-suited to buying on a Kindle. The recent upsurge of self-published books has created a glut of digital-only content, and although I am still wary of self-published books in general, I think they will continue to thrive on ebook stores. I’m also likely to buy lightweight fare like urban fantasy novels on a Kindle because they’re normally priced to match mass-market paperbacks.

Ultimately I think it’s likely that eReaders will live side-by-side with physical books for the foreseeable future. It’s possible that physical books will eventually become more of a specialty product for connoisseurs like vinyl records, but I think that’s a long way down the road from now. I don’t think print publishing has anything to worry about until we reach the point when grocery stores start stocking cheap, nearly-disposable eReaders instead of printed copies of the newest sensation like Fifty Shades of Gray.