Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Found Art of Getting Lost in an e-Book

The pros and cons of e-books have been enumerated and discussed frequently enough in the press lately that anyone who thinks reading is on the decline in this country (former NEA chairman Dana Gioia among them) should think again. Unless it turns out that all we ever read are reviews of e-readers.

But here's one thing that I haven't seen anyone writing about when they talk about the relative merits or frustrations of an iPad, a Kindle, or a nook: the way that some of these devices let you truly lose yourself in a book. And I mean lose your place, lose where you are in the story.

Last night, I was reading Simon Mawer's 2002 novel The Fall, on an iPad, using the Kindle app. With the Kindle app, all you see are the words on the page, plus the title of the book at the top. If you tap on the screen, you'll get a variety of menu-type buttons to appear, including the mysterious Kindle-speak marker that tells you where you are in the book. No page numbers, just "Location 6417-6429", in my case, and "97%". Apparently, when I left off last night, I was close to finishing the book. But I'd been reading for a while, and hadn't tapped the screen so I could see these buttons. Which meant that, as I was reading, I had lost track of how much more there was to go in the story.

If I'd been reading a print book, I'd have seen and felt, constantly, the thickness of the remaining pages in my right hand. Holding and reading a physical book, the reader is always aware of where he or she sits in the overall arc of the story. That knowledge is, I'd argue, part of the reading process. As children, we learn the shapes of various stories, and as older readers, we have that sense of the narrative arc hard-wired into our brains. But I think we cheat. We look at how much more there is in the book and that tells us whether what we're experiencing is the denouement or some other preliminary resolution that may well be challenged again before the story's done. We do the same thing with television and movies. If it feels as though something is winding down, we might glance up at the face of the dvd player, or glance at our watch, to double check. (This works will all movies, except the final Lord of the Rings film, which came to an end three or four different times.)

With print books, we process the story itself in some sort of combination with the physical knowledge of the shape of the book. With an e-book system like the Kindle or its app, we can't do that. I'd suggest that it's this lack of page numbers, lack of pages altogether, lack of markers that makes reading on an e-book (some e-books) a radically different way of processing a narrative.

Could I have cheated with the iPad/Kindle? Sure. I could have tapped the screen at any time to see what my percentage was. And indeed, when I first began reading The Fall, I did that fairly frequently, out of excitement to see how quickly I was moving through the story. But here's the thing: as I became immersed in Mawer's book, I forgot to check. I just read, with no sense at all of where the book would take me and when we would get there. I was completely at sea in a way that I would never have been with a physical book.

[A note to iBooks users: Apple's e-book interface does its best to make the experience feel as though you're reading a real book (there are page numbers, the title, and a trompe l'oeil book cover), but it gets one thing wrong: the clock is always visible. You can never lose track of time when reading something from the iBooks store.]

My new policy? I'll try to resist the temptation to check my progress in an e-book. I want to see how well I can do in predicting when a book is ending, without being able to turn that last page.

Q: Do you cheat? Do you like to know where you are in an e-book?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Laces Tied

I took two weeks off from rowing recently. Coming back to the river today for the first time, my technique was a bit rusty, my hands a bit tender, having lost almost all of their hard-earned calluses. Still, everything was familiar, as it would be after fifteen years at this sport. But I did notice the language we rowers use to communicate about our sport. It’s not the kind of stuff you get to say around the house, the office, or the grocery store. “Weigh enough.” “Hold water.” Huh?

A few years ago, I wrote something up to explain why I cherish these strange words, and why it would never occur to me not to use them, if I had the choice. Here’s that piece, dated by the ages of the children, but still true in many ways.

“Let’s have Laces Tied at 3:00. And Ball Kicked at 3:15.” This is my son the soccer player, sixteen years old and a wise guy, mocking the language of his mother’s sport. “‘Hands On!’” he scoffs. “Why can’t you just say ‘Get the boat’?” I try to explain it to him—the need for choreographed movement, the need for economy—but he brings his father into the game, and now there are two of them doing a call and response of phony rowing commands as we get ready for dinner. “Let’s have Table Set. In Two,” my son says, capturing the coxswain’s beat. “And Forks Raised at 7:00,” adds his father. My daughter mercifully, being thirteen, refuses to join in.

Once we sit down, I take up the challenge again, and try to convey to my resistant family the necessity of using such language in rowing. Of course, isn’t it obvious? That a coxswain who needs her crew to act quickly would rather say “Weigh ‘nough” than “Everybody stop now”? Or that the same cox, perhaps just as breathless with excitement as her crew is with effort, will choose to say “Up two in two” instead of the much sillier “In two strokes, we’ll take the rate up by two strokes per minute”? My family grants me this, though they balk at “weigh enough” which, for them, conjures up images of Admiral Nelson. Their objection lies, most of all, with “Hands On”. There is no need for such a phrase, they argue—no need for such economy or specificity when everyone’s standing by the boat rack or talking on the phone about the plan for race day.

And on one level they’re right. As long as the coxswain bellows loud and clear, the crew will understand that they have to get their hands on the boat and prepare to move it out of the rack. But there is more to it than that, and I lose the thread of the dinner conversation as I prepare a more thorough response. Economy makes rowers adopt this abbreviated language, but beauty makes us hold onto it and use it even when we could get away with what my family would call normal speech. Not the beauty of the words themselves, but the grace of the movements that the words call into being. I am not a military-minded person, nor have I ever worked on an assembly line. But on my very first day at a boathouse, I was seduced by the litany of phrases punched out in rhythm, and the rowers’ synchronized response to these commands. As a novice, I couldn’t yet feel the swing of the boat, but I could already participate in the elegance of the sport by reaching for the gunwales in unison with everyone else, in a perfectly choreographed lift.

Maybe I don’t have to tell my rowing partner “We’ll have hands on” at a certain time. Maybe I could just say “Let’s be ready to go.” After all, that’s what my son’s soccer coach says, and the players all know exactly what he means. But I can’t help it. The speech patterns of rowing, with their unique cadence and lilt, are too much a part of the sport for me to let them go. Here in the Northeast, we spend enough time off the water as it is. Why not bring the poetry of rowing into our lives whenever we can, even if we don’t need to?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Dateline: Paris (Movie Title edition)

I have absolutely no doubt that we mangle the titles of foreign films when we get them over in the US. (And I'd be delighted if anyone wants to jog my memory about some of these no-doubt howlers.) But I have now seen this from the other side, in two fine examples.

First, Leap Year. A nothing of a film (not great, not offensive either), with a clever premise, as these things go, about a young woman who sees her chance to make a wedding happen by proposing to her boyfriend on February 29th. Apparently, in the wacky world of the movie, a woman can only do this in Ireland and only on that day. God forbid that she could be so bold on any other day, in any other place.

I don't know what the French for "leap year" is, but it must not be evocative enough. The French title is: "Donne-moi ta main." Give Me Your Hand. Is it possible that in French even an imperative command can sound romantic? Am I missing something?

And then we have a translation of a translation. Stieg Larsson's second book in the Millennium trilogy was originally called "Flickan som lekte med elden," which translates to its English title: The Girl Who Played With Fire. The second movie is out in the US with that same title. In France, though, an attempt to be literal turns into this clunker: "Millennium 2: La fille qui revait d'un bidon d'essence et d'une allumette". Just trips off the tongue, doesn't it? The Girl Who Dreamed of a Can of Gas and a Lighter.

So the next time I roll my eyes at the English translation of some foreign film (snob that I am), I'll have to remember that it goes both ways.

Q: Any movie-title howlers you'd like to share?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Dateline: Ljubljana


I just spent four days in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, because of a book. It goes like this: Some time in the late eighties I read an article by Robert D. Kaplan about the break-up of Yugoslavia. When his book Balkan Ghosts came out, I snapped it up. When my son was about twelve and a precocious reader, I gave him his own copy. He couldn't get enough. Born the year the Berlin Wall fell, spending time nearly each summer in the Balkan part of Greece where my family's roots are, and growing up with newspapers full of Slavic names and datelines in small Balkan villages where events of enormity took place, he almost had no choice but to be fascinated by Kaplan's book.

Fast forward to college and his decision on where to study abroad. Still the Balkans, always the Balkans, with Kaplan's flame alive in his thinking. And so, for the skiing: Slovenia. Now I've been there for the second time in two years--and all because of a book.

There are many interesting things about Slovenia, this tiny country with a passel of alps, turreted churches, just enough coastline to hold a town that dates to the Venetians, and an entire population seemingly on wheels (either bicycles or rollerblades).

And about that population: two million. If there are only two million of you, you all learn English.

I don't know any of the great names in Slovene literature. But I do wonder what will happen to that tradition if, as seems to be the trend, no one outside Slovenia bothers to learn Slovene anymore. Even vigorous translation programs might not be enough to stem the tide of evaporation.

And here I am, worrying about Slovenia because of a book I read (and re-read) and admired.

Q: Have you ever made a major to medium-sized life choice because of one specific book? OK, even a small life choice?