29 April 2010

The Gift that Keeps on Getting

Several of my co-workers and I recently completed a training called 24 Things, a sort free-range workshop which challenged our concept of the Internet and greatly expanded our minds (mine at least) as to what sort of stuff was out there. And make no mistake - I am a fan of the Internet, as you must know having read this blog.

The class worked like this: each week we were given two lessons to complete, and these could be anything from rating online TV watching experiences to posting a Powerpoint on a sharing site; creating a blog to dabbling in social networking. This blog, in fact, arose from that particular lesson.

I admit I was a little cautious in stepping my toe into these wildly uncontrolled waters. I find I am concerned about putting my identity "out there" in cyberland, and once I have, finding it to be like the genii out of the bottle. Only I am no longer the genii; my alter-self if running around out there, making goodness knows what sort of impression, completely beyond my control. It is the whole drastically changed and changing sense of identity with which I struggle.

For young people who grew up in a world in which this dimension (Internet) has always existed, your paradigms must be so differently shaped. Will virtual reality make it harder to obtain that rock-solid certainty which has, for my generation, been the hallmark of a well founded life? Or does the flexibility of this new medium ensure your survival? Does it make you strong, liberated, globally identified, tolerant? Does it enhance your ability to communicate across the historic brick and mortar of centuries of imposed walls? Does it find a level place where empathy begins?

I do worry that we will become too abstracted as humans. That we may forget we're human altogether. There abound symbolic substitutes: avatars, role plays, alternate worlds in which we mimic the functions of daily life. While we are drawn into our screens, are we risking the loss of real things? Real human touch, real emotion, real flowers and trees? I was in a class today in which the instructor suggested we make to-do lists in our e-mail or on our do-it-all-phones or on a website, and he included such examples as a reminder to cut the grass. (We won't even talk about the burning cat example). Folks - if the grass is over your Chucks and tickling your ankles, it may need cutting. If you cannot tell this without checking your e-mail, you may be a little too connected.

Believe it or not, I think the Internet is a gift. It's not family, not love, not sunshine and not human experience. Nothing can hold a candle to those gifts. It is more of a handy labor saving device you received for your birthday. It is a machine meant to make our lives easier and our knowledge broader. It can help us reach across boundaries, but it can't join in the soft, warm clasp of human hands once we get there.

28 April 2010

From the "Are You Kidding?" Files:

I blame the publishing houses. I know that some children's authors are quirky. I know that children like the gross, the weird, the improbable and the downright silly. It makes me laugh too. I also know that the creepily-inclined have the same First Amendment right as any other citizen of this fair land to write a children's book if they wish. But, good heavens, must they be accepted for publication?

Take the story of the egg who wanted to fly (Egg Drop, 2009). The story is about an egg with an apparently long gestation period, who, in the course of in-shell life develops such a yen to fly that it climbs to the top of a tower (an impressive accomplishment without legs) and hurls (since jumping or leaping is out of the question, I guess) off into the air. The result is predictable. The story ends with the egg finding its alternate destiny (as well as its person) scrambled on a breakfast plate.

What this is meant to convey, even as entertainment, to the innocent demographic to whom it is aimed (4-8 year-olds) is beyond me. Perhaps it is a cautionary tale about waiting patiently - after all, future limited flying capability is not out of the question for a chicken sans shell. Or, maybe "Pursue your dreams even if you smash onto the pavement below." I find myself asking, a bit rhetorically, "Who scrapes an egg off the pavement and fries it anyway?"

Maybe there is no point except humor - and here, I expect, I will be called a grouch. In what world is this a funny outcome? The cover does show a flying chicken. Apparently the illustrator had as much trouble with the stark reality of the ending as I did.

Reviews suggest that kids will find the story "hilarious." Really?

There is a fine line between cute-quirky and just plain weird.

19 April 2010

When It's OK to Read Over My Shoulder

As you may have gathered, I have a real fascination for books with an interactive element. There is one book I can open and my children will eventually all gravitate to me. It's almost like magic. And, for the record, my children are grown-ups. What book could work such a charm? It's I Spy. If Jean Marzollo and Walter Wick published a thousand of them, we would want them all.

In case you have been living on the Space Shuttle for the last twenty years or so, these are books which are heavy on the illustration and light on the text, and the object is to find hidden things on the pages. They usually tend toward general themes, such as cityscapes or scary rooms. Around these established backgrounds, the authors place found objects: small toys, coins, pins, and other detritus of the average household. Some pages look busy and complex, and some are seemingly straightforward. The text is a light verse listing of things to find. Little kids are fascinated by the colorful illustrations, but some of the objects are diabolically difficult to spot. Soon, adults are pulled into the effort and cozy togetherness ensues. You can see why I love these books.

In an effort to include several different audiences, the team of Marzollo and Wick has expanded their cunning notion from toddler board books to video games. There are even DVDs. I personally prefer the books, though (go figure). There is nothing like having your kids sitting beside you, draped over your shoulders, sitting at your feet, all up close and peering into the book with you, racing to find the next item. Get that sort of family time from a newspaper!

16 April 2010

Book Love

I have recently had a reading "dry spell." It isn't that I haven't read anything. In fact, like most humans who read, I read almost constantly. I look at labels in the grocery store, I note street signs and public advertising, I scan my incoming bills and bank statements, and I glance through the newspaper. To paraphrase Descartes: "I read, therefore I read." What I mean to say is that I haven't read anything good.

"Ah, 'good,'" you say. "How subjective." And, of course, you're right. I could tell you what I have attempted to read but that isn't totally fair. For the record, my analysis is that one was well written, just not on a topic that caught my interest. I thought the other rather badly written for such a fine scholar. It wandered almost as much as did my attention. But it isn't that either book was good or bad, but simply that they left me so unsatisfied.

I work in a library and consider myself a professional, so it is with some chagrin that I managed to come up with two losers in a row.

There seems to be a number of methods for choosing a book to read. If you are a sheep, you can read the NYT (or in all fairness, almost any other) book review. I find these uber snarky. Sort of in the "You are obviously too cretinous to possibly know a good book when you see it, so let me choose for you" category. "Wait!" say you. "How about you, Ms. self-important blogger?" And I would concede, except for one fine point: I have the sneaking suspicion that these reviewers have a vested interest in how a book review slants. Do I sell books? Do I receive galley copies? I think not. By the way, as previously mentioned, "bestselling" does not necessarily mean worthwhile.

If you really trust your friends' opinions, you can take their advice. That strikes me as dangerous: will I look at my friends differently when I read their books and find that they (the books, of course) reek? How will we look each other in the eye? What will we say to one another? Bashing a person's book choices can be as personal as criticizing their date.

You could read synopses from reputable publications. These (theoretically) don't have the taint of the reviewer's ego. It would be a respectable method as long as you factor in the particular biases of the publisher. There is also a matter of the skill and accuracy of those writing such briefs. Think TV programming guides. I rest my case.

I tend toward a tried and true method: the "strolling down the isles of the bookstore or library" method. I will admit that attractive cover art can sway me. When you think about it, this is the same method as falling in love. You scan the candidates; one makes your heart beat a little faster! You take some time, learn more, hold and touch, evaluate and weigh the relative merits. Then you commit. Sure, once in a while, it doesn't work out, and you are disappointed. But I am a believer that a great book, like enduring love, is just around the corner.

So back to the stacks we go, looking for the One.

09 April 2010

Language Conservation

It is my goal to write a post to my blog without any grammatical or spelling errors. Wish me luck.

I’m the cranky (youngish) biddy who rants, given any opportunity, about the demise of civilization as we know it, rants usually brought on by some assault to the English language. For example, I once had a very respectable car that misspelled “gauge” on the dashboard (you know, where the gauges are). I have seen misspelled words in glossy big-circulation magazines, news crawlers, highway signs, and places you would strain to believe.

Even more pernicious than the simple misspelling, though, is the cringingly awful grammar. From poor sentence structure to appalling word selection, some modern media is almost too painful to be borne. It seems that as print media falls to the tidal-wave of internet use, online magazines and e-news carriers surge to fill the void. In too many cases, they fill it with text-ers, not writers. Word-hacks.

These media companies are not roadside produce stands conveying their messages by means of hand-lettered signs on pieces of cardboard pizza box. They are often well known and respected journals. Why, then, are they now comfortable unleashing a herd of word wholesalers on an unsuspecting public? Did the demands of a new market reality outstrip journalistic pride? Or is the internet seen as such an informal medium that beautiful prose no longer matters? Are the well turned phrase and the carefully selected word considered passé? Does this not create a new poverty to pass on to our children?

Here’s the interesting part. I have read blog entries so beautifully written as to put shame to the big-time online media mills. These are voices crying in the wilderness. It is as though a generation of instinctive journalists has been dislocated. The process of writing has so changed that one has to find a footing again in a spelling- and grammar-checked world. These brave souls are saying, “Okay. The world has changed, but there is still a place for a well crafted sentence.”

And so, I return to my stumbling effort. I admit that I am spending more effort than usual to shape this idea. A lot depends on getting it right. It’s like environmentalism: a few see the need to conserve, preserve, treasure up; they persevere until the rest of the world sees and agrees and is saved. For all my passion about preserving language, I am like the new recycler, sorting the plastics from the orange peels: what is worth keeping?

In language, as in litter, the packaging makes all the difference.

04 April 2010

Why So "Touchy"?

Before I proceed, let me make one thing clear. I am no technology hater. I have an iPod; I have a laptop. I use an internet phone service. I use bluetooth; I save things to a jump drive. I know how to use Excel and Photoshop. I blog, for crying out loud. I have five e-mail addresses, and use them all extensively. I have an online picture account and am LinkedIn. I can do a powerpoint, a screen capture, a screencast. I have even uploaded to YouTube. I love all of it.

Even so, nothing beats an old-fashioned, wood pulp, paper-based, physical, touchable book. Oh, sure, I have a Sony Reader. And it's a gem for taking on vacation. Those whole suitcases full of books are not only hard on the arms, but they're charging excess baggage charges for them now. I listen to books on audio in my car because, let's face it, society frowns on people who read while driving. But sometimes I a need an actual book.

Not to be a stickler, but a book, by definition, is paper. To be precise, most of the accepted definitions and common usages of the word "book" involve bound paper. Even going back to the Olde English root, a book was a written charter. Written on paper. Yes, I know nowadays it can mean to place a bet (on paper?) and to run fast (OED doesn't have that one, but I'll concede).

I want to curl up with a book - one you can hold in your hand, feel the texture of paper as you turn a page, and smell the faint, musty foxing or the sharp inky newness. I want to use the bookmark my children made out of construction paper. If you fall asleep while reading a book, you don't run down the battery or waste electricity (or electrocute yourself). I want to be able to lend a book with my name in the cover. I want to know that the lendee will care for it and return it with the cover unsullied, the spine unbroken and the pages un-dog-eared. I want to read someone else's book and feel their presence on it. This exchange is a metaphysical exercise in trust and sharing. I want to feel ownership of a volume in a way that cyberspace will never satisfy.

A backpack full of books is a badge of honor and perseverance. It's noble somehow.

Read a book - recycle a tree.

02 April 2010

Why We Read

I am a librarian. I see a wide range of kids in a day and unlike times past, children don't necessarily come to the library to read, to be read to, or to take home a book. Growing numbers of children come to play on the computers or play with the toys or borrow a movie or video game. I have spent some time trying to decide how I feel about that.

I've always felt that it took a special child, a special person in general, to want to spend time in a library. For me, the feeling compares to standing in a cathedral: I am awed by what is represented there. It's like thinking of a library as infinite possibility. Information perched and waiting to alight on a willing intelligence.

This is why I am inclined to grieve for children who do not read. While reading a text message or the instructions for an internet game does technically qualify as reading, I am not sure it's enough. The experience of reading falls into roughly two categories in this case: the mechanical ability to process words, and the internalizing of a written message. Text messages are too abstract; online games are too repetitive and unresolved; movies do not allow the exercise one's own rich visualization.

The library offers prizes to children who read a certain number of books over the summer. One 12 year-old grabs 10 toddler books well below her reading level and reads them in an hour in order to quickly obtain a prize. Another child labors all summer at books well above his ability and claims the prize after much effort. One child took away a trinket, cheated. The other came away with something more precious than a thousand t-shirts.

Some would argue that any reading at all is a victory. But these children are not growing up in a sod hut on a barren plain. They are not limited to the five books available in their pioneer community. They have a universe at their command: millions of books, in every format, with almost endless vistas of knowledge and experience. How we shortchange them when we allow that universe to consist of the back of the cereal box! Today's child is the heir of a fantastic birthright of available knowledge.

Cereal isn't all there is. Ask Esau.