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Mark the Husband joined a book club this month called 12 Books, 12 Months.  It started over at latter day bohemian and sounds like a terrific idea.  In my last blog post, I complained about not having a list of fiction to read and not feeling motivated by my non-fiction.

Well, lo and behold!  I stumbled upon a series this week that perfectly fits the bill.  The Canongate Myth Series is putting classic old myths into the hands of contemporary writers around the world and asking them to have a go at ’em.

The same day I found out about the Myth Series, I discovered that one of my favorite authors has a couple new books out (!joy!).  The author is Connie Willis and the new books pick up on themes started in her novels To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book, which i haven’t read in at least 10 years.  I’m curious to see if I still like these fun little time travel stories as much as I did when I first found them…  so that whole shebang got added to the list.

And to round it out, I saw that Salman Rushdie’s second children’s book is coming out soon.  I heard him talk about these books at the ALA conference this year, in which he created a personal mythology for his sons.  He made the process of storytelling sound beautiful.

Thus, we have 12 books in 12 months:

  1. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, 1992
  2. –  Three Men in a Boat, to say nothing of the dog by Jerome K. Jerome, 1889
  3. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis, 1998
  4. Black Out by Connie Willis, 2010
  5. All Clear by Connie Willis, 2010
  6. A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong, 2005
  7. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman, 2010
  8. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, 2005
  9. Dream Angus by Alexander McCall Smith, 2006
  10. Binu and the Great Wall by Su Tong, 2007
  11. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie, 1990
  12. Luka and the Fire of Life, 2010

You might have seen one of the 12 books, 12 months posts going around last month. It’s a very, very cool online book club idea in which the readers each choose their own books to read rather than trying to all agree on a title. Reactions to the books are shared on readers’ respective places and thus, everyone gets to read what they want while also learning about different books from their friends. A book lover’s dream!

I had intentions of writing my own 12 books post, but ran up against a problem I keep having over and over again. My “to read” shelf is packed with non-fiction books but my motivation is stubbornly tuned to fiction of late. Trouble is, I can’t even think of 6 fiction titles I want to read, much less 12. The non-fiction on my to-read list are things I really do want to read… someday, when I’m in the mood. Which seems to be never? 😦

A couple times now I’ve appealed to my Twitter crowd for fiction ideas and had wonderful suggestions such as Matt Ruff and Susanna Clarke. I promptly devour those suggestions and then find myself back where I started – wondering what to read.

This might not be so bad if I wasn’t … well, a librarian. Even with the extra credits in my MLS I somehow never managed to take a Reader’s Advisory class, and I am now kicking myself for that.

What I really want is a series or even just an author that keeps me coming back for more. I haven’t gotten lost in fiction like that for a long time. I’ve enjoyed the books read lately, but did you ever have the experience as a kid of being so thoroughly engrossed in a book that coming out of it was like literally and physically stepping back in the room you were sitting in? That’s what I want.

“There is in me, always, a nostalgic yearning for the lost pleasure of
Books.” — Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale

Today I had my mental model* of the e-book completely shook up.

I went to a brown bag presentation here on the UIUC campus called “Encounters with E-Texts“.  Catherine Prendergast from the Undergraduate Rhetoric Program talked about the adoption of an in-house developed e-textbook for the freshman composition classes.  Here’s the description that went out to campus listservs: “Cathy Prendergast discusses the process of adopting an e-text from preliminary research and implementation to student evaluation and feedback. Join us for a peek between the pages of teaching with e- textbooks.”

My notes below from the brown bag might not be entirely accurate, so please keep a look out for the video of the talk which will be up on the brown bag website eventually. [ Update: video is available here ]

The Undergraduate Rhetoric Program:

  • 4,000 students per year
  • 65 Teaching Assistants (graduate students)
  • 27 Adjunct Instructors
  • new paper textbooks every 3 years, roughly
  • students usually have to pay about $130 for the paper textbooks

Prendergast devoted a year and collaborated with several campus departments to develop a UIUC-centric textbook that would work better for the Rhetoric Program, be accessible, be cheaper for the students, be more flexible and allow more creativity.

Now, when I first saw the brief description for this brown bag, I imagine the kind of e-books I’m used to reading on my iPhone:  basic epub files that I downloaded from or Project Gutenberg, mostly fiction that doesn’t have any fancy formatting, looks pretty much just like a paper book.

The e-textbook for the Rhetoric Program, however, is a different animal altogether.  The keywords here are *flexible* and *interactive*.  I don’t mean the old-fashioned “ooo, we have hyperlinks” interactive.  Prendergast and her colleagues went out to professors in other disciplines at UIUC and interviewed them about citation styles, research methods and other writing issues, then incorporated these interviews as videos into the textbook.

But the most surprising part to me was how customizable the instructors wanted this text to be.  The Rhetoric Department includes several different classes, each taught by several different instructors.  They wanted to be able to rearrange the chapters for each class (the students purchase a log-in to the book, which then identifies them to a specific section and instructor).  Plus, the instructors can leave different “notes” throughout the text, which look like small thumbtacks off to the margin with prompts like “Think about such-and-such questions while reading this section.” or “Be prepared to discuss your reaction to this part in class.” Even though all the classes are using the same e-textbook, each instructor can tailor the experience for their students from within the text itself – setting up links to other sections of the book, inserting exercises, incorporating media.  What they envision this being in the end is a textbook and an LMS (like Blackboard, Compass) all rolled into one.

At first, the Rhetoric Department went with a vendor to distribute this e-textbook, which turned out to be a miserable experience.  But – very wisely – the department kept the copyright (and receives the royalties!  which will be funding better equipment in classrooms to view these e-texts).  So now they are in collaboration with another unit on campus to get the e-textbook made the way they originally wanted.  They hope to have it ready for the fall semester of 2010.  I’m very excited to see how it turns out.  More than anything, I’m blown away by how different the e-textbook could be from the traditional paper textbook I grew up with.  Although there are some aspects of the e-textbooks that I don’t like (won’t go into those details here though), I do see this move toward fluid, non-linear textbooks as a step toward some amazing learning tools.  This has completely changed my thoughts on what the textbook might look like 10 years from now.


* For a great discussion of mental models and looking at our assumptions, see the TED Talks “Weird, or just different?” and “What we think we know”.

5. you have to fight an urge to offer uninvited help when you overhear conversations at the coffee shop / post office / in line

4. you create spreadsheets / databases… at home

3. an ex has ever accused you of loving them for their books / bookcases / bookshelves

2. you wear corrective lenses (ooo, stereotype.  But no really, do you?)

1. when you hear a movie based on a book is coming out, you read the book anyway

If you can think of 5 more clues to librarian-tude, please share in the comments.

from Milan Kundera’s, The Joke,
Czech: 1967 / English: 1992, Harper Perennial

p. 164

“… I only asked with a calm (and well-rested) heart: why did I meet her? what did the encounter mean and what was it trying to tell me?
Do stories, apart from happening, being, have something to say? For all my skepticism, some trace of irrational superstition did survive in me, the strange conviction, for example, that everything in life that happens to me also has a sense, that it means something, that life speaks to us about itself through its story, that it gradually reveals a secret, that it takes the form of a rebus whose message must be deciphered, that the stories we live comprise the mythology of our lives and in that mythology lies the key to truth and mystery. Is it an illusion? Possibly, even probably, but I can’t rid myself of the need continually to decipher my own life.”

Me:  But more specifically, I want to decipher the now of my life as it is happening.  Some things I have deciphered – long after the thing passed and was just ready to be forgotten completely.  But that doesn’t satisfy.  I want the sense of right now, the meaning of right here.

This post has been in draft mode for a long, long time and resurfaced in my memory thanks to various conversations including this one at FriendFeed and this post on e-book reading.

It seems like a great way to get a bunch of librarians really going is to ask “Is paper dead?” and let them have at it.  For the most part, people immediately think of books and that’s how this post started, too.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my own personal paper-to-computer transition has been happening gradually for a few years and didn’t really involve the book aspect until recently.

I’ll start with music.  I’m including this in “paper-to-computer” because CDs are, after all, digital music so it’s not really “analog to digital”.  The change is really in packaging.  In 2003 I went from carrying CDs and a Discman to keeping all my music as MP3s on an iAudio.  Oh, the great magic of shuffle! And playlists that could be longer than a 70 minute CD-R! My listening habits started changing right away.  I eventually moved to an iPod after switching to a Mac and only in the last year have I started downloading a few songs off of iTunes and Amazon.  I still primarily like to own my music on CD because of the paper and physical media (or my perception of something closer to permanence than MP3s).

Gallery Leather

Gallery Leather

My calendar switch took me by surprise.  Before I started grad school, I used the same brand of beautiful little day planners each year.  In my first year of grad school I started using Google Calendar and within two months I wasn’t looking at my paper planner at all.  I was still optimistic that I would find some reason to use the paper planners (and still bought the same brand of beautiful little planner even last year) but found that I was adding events to my online calendar from too many different places (home computer, work computer, cell phone) to keep my paper calendar “synced” anymore.  For a back-up, I use iCal.

Grad school also changed my reading habits to some extent.  Perhaps reading blogs paved the way, but I found myself reading most of my articles for class as PDFs in Adobe Acrobat Pro, where I could highlight, bookmark, and annotate very quickly and then easily search my notes during class discussions.  At ALA Midwinter this past January I used a friend’s iPod Touch rather than lugging around a laptop.  Out of sheer boredom I started reading an e-book (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) on the plane trip home.  Once I got my own Touch, I continued reading on the bus trips to campus each day.  It was just so darn convenient!  The downside for me, however, was the lack of a trusty paper bookmark that I’m accustomed to using for jotting notes and quotes.  Right now my bus trip book is a hardback paper book again, and the trusty paper bookmark is almost full.  I could possibly keep a scrap of paper with the Touch for such notes, but I usually use the book as support when I’m writing the note and I wouldn’t want to press on the Touch like that.  For the most part, I think I would just use e-reading for the kind of books I would check out from a library and not actually own.  In other words, fluff books for pure entertainment.  All other books, I will continue reading as paper for a while longer.

And now in the last couple weeks I’ve made the paper-to-computer transition that was the hardest but the best:  journaling.  I have a small chest full to the brim of paper notebooks I’ve used as journals from the past 20 years (what?? not going to think about the implications of that…) and I’ve been toying with the idea of moving this very personal ritual to the computer for over a year but kept resisting.  I was too attached to the physical act of using pen on paper to give up paper journaling until recently when I looked through my current paper journal and realized that in the last 3 months I’ve only written 11 entries, the most recent being a month ago.

The final push came from talking with a good friend who had been using Word as a journal platform for some time now and who was generous enough to show me how he set up his files.  He used a new Word document for each month, with many entries that were simply a line or two.  Some days had several of these brief entries, some days were skipped entirely, and some entries were longer, more reflective.  For some reason, I never gave myself this much flexibility in my paper journaling and that is most likely one of the reasons my journaling had become so infrequent.

VoodooPad Journal

VoodooPad Journal

So I started journaling in VooDooPad, creating a page for each month with links to the page for each day that has any entries.  Sure enough – in the month of March alone I had 21 entries.  The most surprising benefit to me was how much more easily (and flowingly?) I could write when typing than when writing by hand.  I also appreciate the ability to search all my entries at once and back up the journal in multiple places (a factor that worries me a little re: my paper notebooks).  I’m not convinced yet that I have the right structure going (year / month / day) but it’s working for now.

With such big parts of my life now in my computer, I wondered what paper habit might be next to make the transition.  I looked around my apartment and here are some of the paper things I found:
to do lists / grocery lists
checkbook (only used for rent, though)
hand-outs from presentations
concert programs / tickets / flyers
class hand-outs & notes
doodles / outlines / sketches
paper scraps from collage book workshop
greeting cards

I have a shelf full of blank notebooks of various colorful bindings and another shelf of blank notecard box sets, one of which I use each month when I send my paper rent check to my landlord.

And honestly… do I *want* all these paper things to turn into bits & bytes?  I have to say “no” because I do still have a love affair with paper.

A brain dump of recent posts I’m seeing about e-reader devices.  Full disclosure:  I totally lean toward the iPod Touch.  It’s small.  It serves many, many other functions.  And it doesn’t seem nearly as clumsy as a Kindle.   But I also like the Sony Reader.  In fact, it’s the Sony Reader that I’ve seen a couple times on my city bus.  I have yet to see a Kindle *anywhere*.  But don’t listen to me, see what other folks are saying …

Roy Tennant

Sony Reader

iPhone / Touch app Instapaper:

iPhone as eReader:

I’ve mentioned here before that I enjoy doing quick informal visual surveys on the city bus to see how many people are reading.  A person reading a book in public always catches my attention for some reason, maybe because of all the “book is dead” naysaying.  I’m a gadget freak who has a love affair with paper, so that might also make me more excited by the sight of someone holding a form of paper and giving their attention to it.

Anyway.  This morning on the bus, I sat across the aisle from a young man holding a beautifully decorated book.  It looked like a Qur’an, and he was silently mouthing the words as he read.  I realized it must be prayer time.  Then a faster (or more direct) bus pulled up behind us so I dashed out and caught that one.  I took the first open seat I found, and the man sitting beside me was also reading a beautifully decorated Qur’an. This one was smaller, simpler, but the reader seemed to be really taking his time with it.  I didn’t want to be disrespectful, so I tried not to stare at the book, but I have to admit it was lovely.

But I was far more curious? interested? jealous? in the ritual than in the book.  This idea of having scheduled times each day for a brief spell of concentrated contemplation and quiet.  I remember being fascinated by it years ago when I read Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk, and again when I heard a story once upon a time about Italians using Virgil’s Aenid to turn at random to a page and divine some sort of answer to whatever was bothering them.

I don’t have a faith to follow, so I have no automatic community, no book, and no book ritual.  But when I have weeks like this one, and stressful days and frustrating moments, I wish I did have some friendly, familiar book that could offer nuggets of inspiration.

Okay, so it’s been – what – over a month? since my last post.  I could open a new tab and find out for certain, but I’m trying something out here … just writing for the sake of writing.

Or it might be more accurate to say I’m writing for the sake of letting anyone out there who only knows me through this blog know that I am indeed still alive.  Just very, very busy.

These two months – September and October – are the Run For Your Life Non-Stop months at my job.  I find this time exhilarating, challenging, breath-taking and exhausting. And my classes this term are dynamic, fun and  well-balanced.  It’s actually a very good term on the whole.

But, as you might have guessed from my last post, I’ve been thinking a lot about personal expression.  This includes a lot of different things for me — everything from individual style to creative outlets to one’s writing voice.  I’ve had some great conversations about this with various people this semester, giving me plenty of food for thought.

From an art student friend, I’m learning about using the influence of the great masters in your craft as a process toward finding your own voice.  I had always been frustrated by all the influences on me, feeling that I would never know what *I* wanted to say, because I have so many other writers buried in my sub-conscious.  But this friend has pointed out to me something rather obvious — that these influences blend together and form a mosaic that becomes a part of your voice.  That those masters had mosaics of their own, going back farther than we can see.

From a kindred spirit with a love of words, I’m rediscovering the subtle power of poetry.   My study of poetry has been  varied but rather lazy up till now.  I’ve always shied around the science of poetry, never really delving into the mechanics too much for fear of tarnishing the enchantment of poems with the nuts and bolts.  But this friend has shown me and reminded me that, linguistically, the careful and deliberate construction of poetry is key to its power.

So with all this in mind, I plan to steal away some time for myself to revisit some familiar and unfamiliar masters, unlock some favorite and foreign poems, and allow this mosaic I’m sitting on to show itself bit by bit.

book cover

book cover

Three books have been spinning in my head for a little while now — especially since last Friday, when I bought a copy of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being in an airport bookshop on my way home.  I thought I had read it a few years ago, but it was not the same book. I was confusing it with Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, which – strangely enough – takes its title from a line in the Milan Kundera book I bought.

But at the same time, I kept mixing these titles around in my mind with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, which – as far as I can tell from the jacket summary – has nothing in common whatsoever with the Foer or Kunera books.


That is what I aim to find out.  So I’ve been reading Kundera all week, almost done.  Perhaps I was confusing this book with the one by Dave Eggers because this book by Kundera is, in fact, heartbreaking and has many moments of genius.   The way he plays with language, the reality he gives his characters. It’s Prague in the 1960s but it might as well be today, you and me.

[ spoiler alert! ]

Vicky Christina Barcelona poster

Vicky Christina Barcelona poster

But for the purposes of this blog post, let’s pretend the story can be summed up thus:

Love triangle
wife is a photographer
mistress is a painter
mistress coaches wife on her art

Compare that to the very simple summary of another story this week, from Woody Allen’s newest movie (go see it) Vicky Christina Barcelona:

Love triangle
ex-wife is a painter
mistress is a photographer
ex-wife coaches mistress on her art

A lot of reviews for the Woody Allen movie said it was about love and sex.  I didn’t see that.  And I don’t see it in Kundera’s novel either.  I see in both Allen’s film and Kundera’s novel a struggle for expression.  Personal expression. Creative expression.  What have you.  The characters are all struggling to figure out how to SHOW something, anything to other people and be understood.  Love conveniently figures into the stories because it is one of the most misunderstood expressions humans deal with on a regular basis.  But to confine the tension of these stories to love is to be too simplistic.  In Kundera’s case, especially, there are themes of stifled expression explored on numerous fronts: sexual, sensual, political, familial, artistic and patriotic.

Am I projecting?  Well, sure, I’m the reader.  That’s what I get to do.  It’s my role as the reader to project myself onto the characters and into the story.  None of us know how to read any other way.

Expression, as I was saying, is the crux.   At one point in Vicky Christina Barcelona, Scarlett Johannson’s character blurts out that she has no talent.  That she has ideas, she has feelings she wants to express, but she can’t because she has no talent. The film’s tagline:  “Life is the ultimate work of art.”  The Unbearable Lightness of Being has so many examples, I don’t know where to start, but I’ll give you one of my favorites:  Tereza, the wife in the fore-mentioned love triangle, has a habit from childhood of staring at herself in the mirror, willing her soul to show itself in her face, searching for some sign of the soul in the body.  The only time she is truly happy is when she takes photos of the Russian tanks invading Prague.

Both stories end without conclusion.  No one ever really gets what they want because they never actually know what they want.  In order to express something sufficiently, wouldn’t you have to already know what you want to express?  Kundera’s answer:

“We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.”


“Einmal ist keinmal … what happens but once might as well not have happened at all.”

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