Monday, April 26, 2010

New Twain in the Times

Our cars may not fly, but with every passing year technology does make our world more and more like the world of the Jetsons. Little Elroy reads his books on screen, and we all have handheld gadgets that facilitate our daily affairs.

Yet technology has recently allowed us a glimpse into the intriguing literary past. Anyone who has ever written a high school paper, shaped a brilliant manuscript, or simply shook his or her head at the language of certain television advertisements understands. Whittling words is a skill and an art. Mark Twain above so many others understood this, and now we can see a bit more from his standpoint.

Last week, the New York Times published notes from the personal library of Mr. Samuel Langhorne Clemens himself. These were not his forgotten stories or unfinished outlines. These were his critiques of published writing that were not up to snuff – to steal an idiom from his century.

Who were the targets of his brutal critiques? Samuel Johnson, Rudyard Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson were, among others.

“The English of this book is incorrect & slovenly & its diction, as a rule, barren of distinction,” Twain wrote in Lew Wallace’s 1906 autobiography, Wallace, of course, also being the author of Ben Hur.

Sometimes blunt, often brutal, and always sincere, the man the world knows as Mark Twain had a thought or two about what makes writing great. These books were examined and released in photos via the New York Times in honor of the one-hundredth anniversary of his death on April 21st.

A man of critical tastes but honorable intentions, Twain once wrote in The Prince and The Pauper, “When I am king, they shall not have bread and shelter only, but also teachings out of books, for a full belly is little worth where the mind is starved.” Twain certainly didn’t starve minds in his day, and due to this latest release, our want of worthy words has been satiated again.

For more:

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Ethereal Short Story

As great writing migrates to electronic devices, the short attention span of contemporary audiences seems to be the last hurdle for a beautifully crafted book. Suddenly, for the first time in a century, the oft forgotten short story is primed for a come-back. Ether Books saw the need and released an app for the iPhone this week.

The short story emerged with the arrival of the magazines and periodicals created to quench the new literary thirst of a larger literate middle class in the nineteenth century. Hawthorne, Balzac, and Turgenev’s fictitious wordplay won the readership of the public. Poe and Chekhov followed, as did others, yet as the twentieth century matured, so did the length of the popular story.

While in the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald was paid $4,000 for a single short story in the Saturday Evening Post, today, few publishers will acknowledge the writer and his short story collection, no matter how pleasant the prose. Literary journals have their readership, but this is a miniscule fraction of the reading public.

Yet in this age of immediate gratification and sound-byte attention spans, the short story may newly have rekindled audiences. Ether Books may be starting a new electronic reading trend. Short stories may be on the brink of revival. Starting with an exhibition at the London Book Fair today, the lusciousness of letters may have a new life. I’m hoping so.

Check it out for yourself:

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Aldiko: the first e-book reader app to win me over

I’m imagining a reluctant reader, tackling his school summer reading list. At a page break, he hits the menu button and clicks on “Show Progress.” He’s only 6.88% percent through the novel and at this juncture only 7.69% of the way through this chapter. He might groan painfully at this point, but I sit back in wonder at tools unimaginable in a traditional book. I didn’t think I would be intrigued by an e-book reader app on a smart phone, but Aldiko on the Android Operating System (OS) is very well done.

With options to alter font and font size, brightness, as well as a ‘day/night’ setting, which switches the black print on a white background to white print on a black background for better night-time reading, I easily could tap my finger on the screen to turn the page. I could bookmark my stopping point, as well as any pages along the way that I wanted to return to later. If I wanted to search the entire book for a word or phrase, Aldiko could tell me every page, highlighting the specific sentence, where that wording occurred.

Okay, yes, we all know technology is wonderful. It’s revolutionizing the world and making publishing houses rethink their business models. It’s changing the way we read, write, and process the world around us. But I’m old fashioned. I love writing with ink, not just on keyboards. I love curling up with a paperback novel, as if snuggling comfortably with a lover. All of that said, free downloads of literary classics, of books from Smashwords, of books commonly found on high school reading lists, and of public domain titles hooked me. I’m in a place where I would still rather buy a hard-back then purchase an e-book for a Kindle, Sony Reader, or any other similar device, but it’s funny how free can win me over.

Aldiko also plays to the bibliophiles of us with their wood-paneled background, with leather and clothbound tomes on the shelves. How old-fashioned, we might say. How stylish and smart.

I’m still not breaking down to say e-books are completely winning me over – I’m not convinced they ever will – however, Aldiko does a great job and has gained me as a user.

What's your reaction to the e-book revolution?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Vooks (no, this isn't a typo)

As children, we may have fought the transition to reading books without pictures. Thanks to the vook, that childhood joy has returned.

To quote, “A vook is a new innovation in reading that blends a well-written book, high-quality video and the power of the Internet into a single, complete story.” Imagine video trailers for books, documentary-esque footnotes within the pages, interviews with the author, and social media connections with other readers. As I type this, I feel like I’m channeling H. G. Wells, but this is no futuristic world. The release of the iPad has only furthered the possibilities for this new publishing medium.

I’ll admit my hesitancy. What about the loss of imagination here? Haven’t we all read a book and then seen the movie, realizing that the director’s vision of a character looked nothing like the image in our own heads? Should we let the videos dictate this detail for us? That takes away the glory of reading a book in my opinion, letting the world of film take over the beauty and simplicity of the written word.

However, imagine the new readers that may be pulled in with this multi-media glory. Imagine the total package of story, history, creation, and connection. If books are too old and dusty for some who crave more, vooks could bridge the gap creating larger reading audiences.

So while admitting my wavering, I’m still in favor of this swing. I think when I have my chance at the vook, though, my characters will all appear in silhouette to keep their faces in the imagination of the reader.

We all know people who are starting to speak up – no longer in a whisper – saying that they really love reading on their Kindle. Will the vook be the next revolution? The world is changing my word weaving friends, and it is in our best interest to keep up with it.

I wanted to end with some examples of video book trailers done really well. Not all were created for the vook, but they get the idea across:

(Nonfiction) Dean King’s Unbound:

(YA) Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall:

(Thriller) Katherine Neville’s The Fire:

If you know of others, please comment and add them. What do you think? Is the world ready for the vook?