books


readius1A few days ago, The New York Times ran another story about big-time changes in book publishing, called “Bargain Hunting for Books, and Feeling Sheepish About It.” Its author, David Streitfeld, says that both publishers and bookstores – and among the bookstores, both independents and chains – are not doing well in the current shriveled-up economy:

Publishers have been cutting back and laying off. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced that it wouldn’t be acquiring any new manuscripts, a move akin to a butcher shop proclaiming it had stopped ordering fresh meat.

Bookstores, both new and secondhand, are faltering as well. Olsson’s, the leading independent chain in Washington, went bankrupt and shut down in September. Robin’s, which says it is the oldest bookstore in Philadelphia, will close next month. The once-mighty Borders chain is on the rocks. Powell’s, the huge store in Portland, Ore., said sales were so weak it was encouraging its staff to take unpaid sabbaticals.

Is this only a blip in bad economic times, or is it the beginning of the end for books as we’ve known them in the past? Streitfeld says that the economy has little to do with it; it’s the fault of all of us Internet-savvy buyers, who hunt for the best book deals online from places like Amazon and skip local bookstores. Then we resell the books or give them away as gifts when we’re through with them, further cutting into book sales. I’m not so sure this is the primary reason for the apparent “end of the paper book.” Many of us readers are simply spending way more time with our electronics.

And of course, people continue getting books, “free,” from libraries. ALA keeps telling people that the number of folks using libraries is higher than ever – although if what I see in the branch of the Austin Public Library where I work, which serves a middle-middle-class clientele is any indication, when you add together the number of DVDs in circulation to the number of books on CD that go through the door every day, they leave the building in about equal numbers compared to books with covers and pages. This goes for both adult and children’s materials. People working in branches that serve lower-income folks have told me that if they weren’t circulating DVDs and CDs, they’d barely circulate anything at all.

What does this mean for the future of books, and the future of libraries? It’s pretty clear that society at large continues spending more time with electronic media, which I guess makes me feel optimistic that the proportion of library budgets going to media – DVDs and books on CD especially – continues to grow.

But I wonder how libraries will deal with the growth of the all-purpose device that is coming to dominate the lives of more of us – the Internet phone. Here’s the Pew Internet and American Life project’s new study, “The Future of the Internet III.” As in its previous versions, the study focuses on several main possibilities as to what the Net will be like in 2020, soliciting votes from Internet experts on whether those possibilities will actually happen.

Here’s the first few lines of one such possibility, “The Evolution of Mobile Internet Communications”:

The mobile phone is the primary connection tool for most people in the world. In 2020, while “one laptop per child” and other initiatives to bring networked digital communications to everyone are successful on many levels, the mobile phone—now with significant computing power—is the primary Internet connection and the only one for a majority of the people across the world, providing information in a portable, well-connected form at a relatively low price.

Seventy-seven percent of the experts interviewed agreed this would probably be reality in 2020, and although I’m far from an expert, I agree, too. We’re much more likely to be reading books from a mobile phone than from specialized e-book-reader devices like the “Readius,” above. If Internet phones become the unquestioned kings of communication in a manner far beyond their role right now (which implies that laptops and other PCs will be well on their way to obsolescence by then), I’m wondering how libraries will deal.

Downloadable movies, audiobooks, and books? Yes, yes, and despite what I said at the beginning, yes. I don’t think books, whether for adults or kids, will die that easily.

This New York Times article, “Using Video Games as Bait to Hook Readers,” by Motoko Rich, intimates, at least to me, that media companies are now headed down that road that leads to a largely bookless future.

Here’s the kernel of its message:

Increasingly, authors, teachers, librarians and publishers are embracing this fast-paced, image-laden world in the hope that the games will draw children to reading.

Spurred by arguments that video games also may teach a kind of digital literacy that is becoming as important as proficiency in print, libraries are hosting gaming tournaments, while schools are exploring how to incorporate video games in the classroom. In New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is supporting efforts to create a proposed public school that will use principles of game design like instant feedback and graphic imagery to promote learning.

It tells about several about-to-be-published, or just-published, books that tie in with video games, such as Scholastic’s “Maze of Bones” series.

Rich touches on the core question that has not yet been answered, namely, do video games, even if they include print, promote the kind of literacy that encourages young people to read printed books? While there are plenty of tech folks who promote computer literacy as a skill that fits right into print literacy, others say that the two have little to do with each other and that while a young person may spend hours or weeks trying to master a game’s minutiae, almost none of a video game’s skills carry over into the very different experience of getting lost in a book.

Reading this article, I could picture it all in my mind: Wait until we baby-boomers all kick the bucket (in 2058? or 2060?), and books will have been well along the way to dying. By 2020, they’ll all have been replaced for younger people by videogame/film/holographic worlds (and if you don’t think holographic TV is coming, read this) that folks can control and manipulate. A few retro folks of the upcoming generations will gravitate to books, but they’ll be seen in, say, 2068, as we see 78-rpm record collectors now – quaint. And maybe e-book readers will finally be cheap and truly functional by then. So, by the 2050s, or earlier, enjoying reading a printed book may be no longer relevant, since everyone will get their entertainment and information electronically.

Am I wrong? I hope I am. Should I care? As a booklover, it’ll be hard to watch. I wish I could be around to see what’s going to happen in 2068. Will there still be libraries by then?

I’ve been enjoying the discussion going on over at the SLJ Web site about how the Newbery medal winners have, since the 1990s, become, mmm, odd and hard to sell to kids. Here’s the article by Anita Silvey, which frankly surprises me, called “Has the Newbery lost its way?” (Silvey, a long-time editor, should know what the Newbery’s about.) And here’s a response (yes!) from Nina Lindsay, “The Newbery remembers its way, or ‘Gee, thanks, Mr. Sachar.'”

Here’s a sample from Silvey’s piece:

School librarians say they simply don’t have enough money to spend on books that kids won’t find interesting—and in their opinion, that category includes most of this century’s Newbery winners. Cash-strapped teachers, who spend part of their paychecks on paper, pencils, and other classroom essentials, say they can’t afford to buy any books. But the only recent winners they enjoy teaching are Bud, Not Buddy (Delacorte, 1999), A Single Shard (Clarion, 2001), and The Tale of Despereaux (Candlewick, 2003).

I usually stay away from literature issues, because there are so many other people ready to hash them out. But I did want to comment here because so many people involved in this discussion (both Silvey & those making “Right on!” comments) don’t seem to understand what the Newbery’s for or how it’s – mistakenly – used.

The Newbery Medal is supposed to be for a truly excellent book for children, NOT for a really appealing book for all, or for the huge majority of, children. Traditionally, just about every school and public library buys it because it’s supposed to be the best. But many teachers and many librarians appear to wish that it was for the best children’s book that appeals to lots and lots of kids the way that the Captain Underpants books or the Magic Treehouse books do. They want a book they can sell to lots and lots of kids, many of whom are reluctant readers in this Net-&-video-game era. But the award doesn’t work that way.

Often the “best” book, the kind that Silvey disses, only appeals to what we librarians often call the “special reader” – the child with deeper senses of taste or perception who you suspect will grow up and become a teacher, a librarian, an artist, or a writer. There aren’t that many kids like that in most schools. Lindsay doesn’t really discuss the need for a Newbery-sorta-award that deals with 4th-to-6th-grade books. But I really think we need one. These are the ages when many kids, the kids who frequently grow up to become computer technicians, or business managers, or mechanics, abandon reading fiction because they don’t see why reading it is worthwhile, and when we need to be working really hard to keep kids reading.

And another problem is that the “best” books that are chosen for the NM are often seventh- and eighth-grade level, and there are tons of teachers in the fourth through sixth grades – many of whose students are reluctant readers to begin with – who assign reading the Newbery winner to their children. Does this sound doomed to failure? It does to me.

We should not be assigning whole classes to read each year’s Newbery book. What many of us (including me) want instead are books that will get kids, especially the reluctant readers among them, excited about reading. The average kid out there needs to experience how reading can be just as absorbing as playing a videogame or watching a DVD. I’ve been suggesting something totally different for years. I think we need a new award for teachers to assign that looks for the best of books that appeal to the average kid – an award for non-arty, non-deep, but just plain fun and exciting books that don’t have big marketing budgets.

(Oh, and so I don’t get into legal trouble, all rights to the Newbery Medal image belong to ALSC, a division of ALA!)

You may have heard about the new Roald Dahl Funny Prize (I love that name) for works of children’s literary humor in the UK. If not, zip over right away and read this story in the online Guardian. I particularly like how this story ties children’s humor – which typically isn’t taken very seriously by children’s literature scholars, prize judges, and teachers – and literacy.

Lots of children – especially lots of boys in the middle grades – learn to read at least partly because they want to read books like Dahl’s and Dav Pilkey’s.

Here’s a quote from the story that I feel all of us in library land should read at least twice:

Moreover, humour is one of the best ways to make children into readers. Hence the source of support: Roald’s widow Liccy Dahl believes that not only did her husband think there was “nothing better than a row of giggling children”, but also that he longed for every child to be literate “and you can’t start them on Shakespeare”. Jokes are seductive. Rosen’s theory is that funny books liberate kids from their controlled lives – for the smaller ones by inverting what they know; for the older ones by puncturing teenage angst. And that the best funny books avoid improving morals.

It’s those kids, many of whom are boys, who really don’t want their “morals improved,” who are especially hard to reach, and who need to be told, “Hey, you can be literate and still be your cool and goofy self.” Although we don’t hear from Jon Scieszka in this British piece, I’m certain that he would be nodding along.

Here’s an interesting Newsday story I spotted on LISNews, called “Books for Dessert,” about a program of the same name at the Port Washington (NY) Public Library on Long Island. It’s a book club for developmentally disabled adults started by the mother of one of the young men in the group. After Jamie Comer graduated from high school at 21- he’s now 29 – she noticed that he was gradually losing his cognitive abilities:

As Comer, who has Down syndrome, began to gradually lose critical thinking skills without the aid of vigorous schoolwork, his mother struggled to find opportunities to keep him mentally sharp.

“People have always assumed that people like Jamie don’t really have opinions on anything remotely complex,” said his mother, Nancy Comer, 64, of Port Washington. “They’re just expected to work and be happy.”

Read the story to see how the group, run by the parent/advocates from the community with instructors they hire, gets the adults, some of whom are in group homes and are of varying intellectual abilities, to participate and discuss the books. Many of them have very low reading levels, but the group works through the stories bit by bit, each participating to his or her ability.

But the thing I enjoyed in particular about this article was that nowhere was the term “children’s librarian” or “children’s department” mentioned. Over the years, I’ve often seen the children’s librarian called upon when developmentally disabled adults are brought into the library, and the adults working with them browsing the children’s materials.

True, the group did read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, but they also read Around the World in 80 Days and other classics, and emphasis appears to be on treating the participants as the adults they are.

If, like me, you don’t read a lot of the children’s publishing blogs and newsgroups, you might miss a fascinating New Yorker article by Jill Lepore called “The Lion and the Mouse.” It’s about the almighty Anne Carroll Moore of a bygone era, the original grande dame of children’s librarianship, who from her post “behind the lions” of the New York Public Library’s big main building on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, established children’s librarianship, but also, for better or worse, passed judgment on children’s books published during much of the first half of the 20th century.

If you’ve never heard Moore’s story but work with kids in libraries, you should read this piece, because Moore had a big influence on how children’s books were written, illustrated, and promoted, and her influence continues. You can see a lot of the beginnings of children’s literature criticism in the article, too. Here also is the story of E.B. White, his wife Katharine – an early children’s book critic – and his first children’s book, the immortal Stuart Little.

Moore encouraged White to write it, but then ended up offended by the way White had mixed up fantasy and reality. A woman giving birth to an anthropomorphic mouse? Moore asked Harper, its publisher, and White’s editor, Ursula Nordstrom, not to release it. “I never was so disappointed in a book in my life,” Moore said.

It’s definitely worth your time. And there was a quote that caught my eye and drew me away for a few moments on a completely different path. Lepore writes:

Children’s literature, at least in the West, is utterly bound up in the medieval, as Seth Lerer, a Stanford literature professor, argues in “Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter.” Lots of books for kids are about the Middle Ages (everything from “The Hobbit” to “Robin Hood” and “Redwall”), but the conventions of the genre (allegory, moral fable, romance, and heavy-handed symbolism) are also themselves distinctly premodern. It’s not only that many books we shelve as “children’s literature”—Grimms’ Fairy Tales or “Gulliver’s Travels” or “Huck Finn”—were born as biting political satire, for adults; it’s also that books written for children in the twentieth century tend to be distinctly, willfully, and often delightfully antimodern. “The Phantom Tollbooth” has more in common with “The Pilgrim’s Progress” than it does with “On the Road.”

As I wandered around the publisher’s booths at the ALA Conference, I noticed that so many new books are fantasies – and I mean books for children, teens, and adults. (Have you noticed how many vampire romances appeared in the wake of Anne Rice? The Twilight series brought them to kids and teens, but now it seems as if there are hundreds, for all ages.) And have you noticed how little science fiction is being published and read these days? I feel that there’s something in so many modern middle-class Americans these days that longs for a good king who can command something and everyone must obey, or wizards who can wave wands and make wishes come true, and even vampires who can love us and protect us in this raggedy world. Science fiction reminds us too much of the pervasive technology that seems to be slowly strangling us as it daily transforms the world, and that so many people feel they can’t keep up with.

This is why I keep going on about the importance of libraries supporting literacy and the printed word. No medium develops our imaginations and stretches us the way the printed word can, whether we want to escape to a vampire romance or an article about global warming. But I digress.

Here’s a post titled, “Are books history?” on the InfoWorld blog by Sean McCown; while it sounds as if he’s crowing for the triumph of e-books, I think he’s really asking, “Are tech books history?” And to that I say, “Hooray!”

McCown makes software and Net training videos, and he’s been seeing more and more requests for video podcasts that allow people who need to learn tech procedures to learn them quickly and easily. He says:

Let’s face it. With podcasts becoming more ubiquitous in IT, and with screencasts (like with Camtasia) becoming more and more engaging and popular, do we really need books anymore? Wouldn’t you rather learn by watching someone actually DO it?

What I think he means is: “Do we need those big fat tree-killer computer manuals any more?” The answer, of course, is “no way.” How many of those big fat phonebooks that train people in Macromedia Dreamweaver or Windows 98 or other out-of-date software do you still have on your shelves? Macromedia, of course, has not existed for a while – Adobe bought the company in 2005 – and of course, Windows 98 was about three operating systems ago.

But lots of libraries keep those big bricks of books on their 000 shelves just in case someone wants them – which they almost never do. I just weeded our software shelves and threw these books out, but I’ll bet plenty of other libraries still own them.

Computer books and printed instructions were inferior to seeing someone fix your tech problem from day one; we only used them back in 1995 or 1998 because there was nothing better or more reliable back then when we had to solve a problem on our own. And, of course, lots of kids never read them at all to begin with – or watched the videos, either; they just waded in and solved the mysteries of a new piece of software by trial and error.

I, for one, will be glad when we no longer need to buy or own those fat computer books that go stale so quickly, but sometimes (like when your Net connection goes out and you must get back online) they can be lifesavers. Videos, if they’re well-made, are much more effective than print for things that can be recorded and can demonstrate, step by step, how to operate your PC and use your software. But, unless I’ve misread his point here, it sounds as if McCown has carried on to suggest that books (I mean books in general) are on their way out because a tech-instruction video is better than a few pages in an elephantine computer manual.

Actually, I don’t think he has; but I can’t help, simply from the way he wrote the piece, daring McCown to create a video that discusses in detail the arguments between Darwinists and creationists on the kind of budget most tech trainers have. Or to describe for us on video the political forces at play in the years leading up to World War II. Or to read us a full-length novel. For the moment, there are things that print still does a whole lot better than video.

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