Monday, November 30, 2009

the multi-taskable book

Recently, while engaged in a weeding project, I noticed that if there were several books on a topic, the big, thick one -- even if the thick one was the most respected title about the subject, or even a well-known classic -- would be scheduled for withdrawal because it had not circulated in the past couple of years.

"Lazy kids," I thought. "They see research as work and just want to get it done as soon as possible."

What was more surprising was how many big, gorgeous, picture books were going unread.

Then I realized that I -- a nerd who likes to study in depth -- would probably reach first for the slim YA volume divided into short chapters with lots of pictures. And how many of the coffee table books I'd glanced at, intending to get to them someday, but never had time to read.

What both scholarly books and coffee-table books (if one is to truly escape into their literary worlds) have in common is that they demand a long block of undivided attention. And long blocks of undivided attention are as rare as saber-toothed tigers these days.

Blame it on ever-faster-moving visual media shortening our attention spans, or economic and social changes that leave people with fewer and drastically shorter blocks of free time, but many people don't have as many opportunities as they used to for sitting at a desk or with a book on their lap for long enough to really get into it.

Some of the lure of watching tv or surfing the net is the colorful blinkenlights. But also there's the fact that people can have the tv going and be doing something else. Those cute cat pics or that online video or the chat with a friend are just a browser tab-click away from the e-mail or document you must write. In short, not only are the rivals of books shiny and exciting, but they allow for multitasking.

O.k. So what can be done to make books more multitasking-friendly? (For now we'll ignore the trend toward 500+ page books and interminable series; those are on the other end of the spectrum, read by people who do have large blocks of free time.)

We already have audiobooks. These allow for hands-free "reading," but the problem is that many people (myself included) find it difficult to maintain auditory attention. I miss parts, and then find it hard to go back and fill in the gaps.

We have e-texts. It's nice that they can be opened in another window or browser tab and therefore be switched back and forth to and from, but not all have quick and easy ways of bookmarking one's place (some do). And many of the free ones (i.e., public domain) are from a time when long periods of concentration were taken for granted (e.g., Sir Walter Scott's paragraph-long sentences).

What's needed is built-in redundancy, the kind of that can be seen from the corner of one's eye and register in the subconscious.

So -- I forsee literature that, like t.v. shows, a reader can look away from multiple times and still keep track of the story or information. Perhaps books will adapt the magazine article layout in which a key concept is repeated in large, bold type in the center of each page.

Chapters should be clearly titled for easy access, and divided into short and well-titled subchapters. -- Shorter chunks for shorter attention spans. (This has actually been going on for some time. Contrast 19th century works with 20th century ones, and you'll notice that fiction from the 1920s on tends toward breaks of about the length of movie scenes.)

Mutitasking-friendly texts would also provide all online reading (or listening) with quick and easy (and perhaps even hands-free) pausing and bookmarking tools.

The format of literature has changed in the past, and it may have to change again, but it doesn't have to disappear. The written word is a tough, adaptable species.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

bookworm heaven

Group of 25 Major Research Libraries Offers Full-Text Search to 4.6 Million Digitized Volumes
(Nov. 20, 2009 Chicago Tribune)

Hathi Trust is a scanned-book repository similar to Google Books, but in this case it's run by libraries.

With this site plus Project Gutenberg and Google Books, I have access to enough nerdly, obscure works to keep me happy to the end of my bookwormish life.

The interface is easy to use. The options for narrowing a search are far more numerous than those on the Gutenberg, and give more relevant and consistent results than Google. Books are displayed one page at a time, and, on a very slow connection, take a mildly annoying but not unacceptable time to load .

Unlike Google (sometimes, albeit only in annoying PDF format) and Gutenberg (always, in robust and convenient plain text and HTML), there doesn't seem to ever be any option to quickly download an entire book for offline reading. There is, however (with the inconvenience of setting up an account and logging in every time), a way to set up a "personal collection" on the site, and bookmark pages. Gutenberg is still the best site for collecting your own supply of portable books on a flash drive.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Friday, November 6, 2009

the socialization of everything

The 19th through 20th centuries were marked by the rise in individual privacy and increases in solitary behavior.
  • Dating as couples became the norm among young people, in contrast with primarily socializing in groups.
  • It became less common for neighbors to be considered automatic friends, and in some neighborhoods, even to know each other.
  • Fewer people joined clubs and other social groups, as pointed out in Bowling Alone, by Robert D. Putnam (2000). In fact, in some communities some such groups went from being respected and membership being considered socially necessary, to being considered "hokey." How many teenaged Scouts do you know? For that matter, how many kids do you know who went beyond Cub Scouts or Brownies?
  • Television went from a community experience shared with friends and neighbors, to a family experience, to individuals having their own sets in their bedrooms.
  • Groups of friends used to get together to listen to records. Beginning with the Walkman in the early 1980s, music became something often listened to through earphones on a personal device.
  • Games went from mostly being played by two or more people around a table to being played by one person in front of a computer. I remember when early video arcade games like Asteroids and Pac Man began to replace pinball machines in the student union. Looking back, I realize that it was more usual -- more "normal" -- to see a person playing those games alone than to see a lone pinball player without friends standing around watching while they waited for their turn. Solitaire had a reputation for being played by pathetically lonely people. Few admitted to playing it. There seems to be no such connotation or shame with computer solitaire.
  • The "populars" became a bit less universally worshipfully respected and the "nerds" a bit less despised. Respect for diversity and awareness of conditions such as Asperger's syndrome made people realize that not everyone is socially inclined; parents, teachers, and other caregivers became less likely to see shyness as a severely harmful character flaw or a sin. (Yes, people still laughed at the Trekkie in his parents' basement, but for the first time, there was sometimes some affection in that laugh.)
Recently, the tide seems to be turning.
  • Scientific research is placing more and more emphasis on the social aspects of the human experience. In The Ape that Spoke (1991), John McCrone presents a theory that human language began, not for practical hunting, gathering, tool-making, or survival reasons, but to keep track of social interactions and relationships and interact socially -- to gossip and schmooze.
  • In Gen Buy (2009), Kit Yarrow points out that the current generation of teens and young adults are more likely to socialize in groups (and especially shop in groups -- this is a business advice book), and to consult their peers before doing things (especially before buying things).
  • More and more computer games are made to be played against human opponents rather than the computer. The social component is even greater in online multiplayer games like Runescape and World of Warcraft.
  • Console video games have always been come with two or more controllers so that people could play together, but the games provided equally for a single-player experience. The games which seem to be growing most in popularity are ones like Rock Band and Wii Sports, which are primarily designed to be for multiple players.
  • Web authoring has become social with the rise of blogging and microblogging, which provides a place for reader comments, as do many national and local news sites. Many blog hosting sites make it possible to turn the commenting function off, but a blogger who does so will be seen as unfriendly.
  • Websites created solely for social interaction, such as Facebook and MySpace, are among the top sites on the internet.
  • There's an increasing tendency for any activity done in public to be done in pairs or larger groups. Now few people seem to even study alone. Until recently, many, if not most, of the people at public libraries (excepting, of course, children young enough to need a parent with them) came alone. They got their books and went home to read alone, or sat in the library reading or writing alone. There's a reason many libraries had solitary study carrels. Even when families or friends came together, the individuals in the group usually had their own agendas, their own books to look for. Recently the shift is toward groups coming in and doing everything together. Many of the requests we get at the reference desk are for someone else in the group -- "My sister needs help," "My friend's computer crashed," "My husband is looking for the westerns," "My cousin..." Chairs are moved from individual carrels and individual places at tables and clustered around computers. The chairs left at the tables are moved from their rows and grouped into configurations better suited to conversation and sharing books or a notebook computer.
Some reasons for the shift may be technological, e.g., social websites and cell phones make it convenient to keep in touch with many people. And some may be cultural; more working class people, who tend to be suspicious of private activity, now are using computers, and there are more people from non-western-European cultures who place a high value on doing things in family or friend groups. But there does seem to be a definite shift toward more social behavior, and with it a change in norms and values.

Monday, November 2, 2009

a bit of halloween fun

Mischief and mayhem -- a Renaissance lady, a witch, a wizard, a cyberpunk, a Star-bellied Sneetch, and the Cat in the Hat -- the little-known alter egos of some of the Tulsa City-County Library's usually mild-mannered staff.