Sunday, June 26, 2011

Nooks and Kindles and Kobos...

My boyfriend bought a Nook at Barnes & Noble the other day.  Quite frankly it’s adorable.  Small, black, with a muted magnetic screen that shows author caricatures when it’s asleep (Joseph Conrad – Jules Verne – Kurt Vonnegut – Oscar Wilde), snugly wrapped in a (sold-separately) navy and black leather cover, designed to look like a *real* book.  Even the name is adorable.  “Nook.”  I like to say it.  It makes me picture a cozy corner in a country cottage, with wicker furniture and golden sunlight streaming through the window.  Maybe there’s a cat too.

Until recently I hadn’t given much thought to the whole e-books trend, and what it meant for the physical, real book.  I was (and still am) pretty sure that the fate of the book will not be the fate of the CD, VHS, vinyl record of yore.  Books have centuries more history to rest upon.  They have a beauty of material and design that I don’t believe those other commodities ever attained.  The Bookshelf is a cultural touchstone, more than a simple piece of furniture; something etched into our cultural consciousness, more than the Record Store or the CD Tower.   But things like the Nook still make me nervous.  Could the death of one of my favorite art forms reside, innocently and insidiously, in these adorable little e-readers?

Its weapons are its instantaneity, its convenience, and its weight (or lack thereof).  It can be an entire bookshelf in your pocket.  Paul was exploring its features, including the two million free texts available for download, and I occasionally “oohed” or “aahed.”  In spite of myself.

Part of my goal in this blog is to remind people of the beauty of books, the physicality of them, the smell, the lived act of browsing through a space that stores them (rather than shuffling through a list of digitized titles).  There is something magical about buying a used book and seeing the pencil markings of past users, or holding a hundred-year-old tome and marveling at the fact that the library let you check out what is clearly an artifact.  Kind of an armchair activism- and incidentally, I’m picturing a giant leather armchair in a dark old library with high ceilings and oak accents, in a mansion.  Maybe with a fireplace.

I hope it sticks.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Heart of Darkness

Joseph Conrad, HEART OF DARKNESS and Selections from The Congo Diary.  Introduction by Caryl Phillips.  New York: The Modern Library, 1999.

Acquired at the BookShop, West Portal, San Francisco.  New.

This little 90-page masterpiece has an incredibly ubiquitous presence in imperial historiography.  It must have popped up dozens of times in my graduate school readings before I finally decided, okay, I've gotta read it already.  So here we are, Conrad.  Lay your weird narrative-within-a-narrative-within-a-narrative on me.

I liked this edition because it includes commentary, in various capacities, by the likes of E.M. Forster, Ernest Hemingway, Chinua Achebe and others.  Achebe most memorably accused Conrad of being a "bloody racist," in so many words.  (In those exact words, actually.  Of course the rest of his criticism is far less colloquial.)

[A comic posted in our history department lounge: "Heart of Darkness in one sentence: 'Africa makes white people go crazy.'"]

Besides for this book's numerous reincarnations in the form of Vietnam and Iraq war movies, I think what makes it so interesting is the continued debate around its nature, its appropriateness for both its historical moment and our own.  The way perceptions, worldviews, historical understandings rub up against each other- one paradigm does not simply become obsolete and get replaced by a new one.  Conrad was criticizing imperialism, it's true, and he was cynical about not only the enterprise but the true nature of all men, which under the veneer of civilization was essentially the same.  But he was also, as Achebe points out, a racist, a product and a perpetuator of the imperial worldview that dominated turn-of-the-century Britain.  Today, we largely abhor imperialism and the atrocities in Africa (at least, what we know of them... so much has been lost, or ignored).  But "civilization" ideology, which produces the non-Western savage as its Other, is alive and well.  The threads of thought that existed in Conrad's time are not entirely obsolete, and so it can be read in earnest, uncritically, even praised as progressive.

"The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.  What redeems it is the idea only.  An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea- something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to..." (7-8)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Books Inc.

This was me, three months ago.  I was in the throes of my most turbulent semester to date, juggling the book avalanche that was my master's exams with three classes and three part-time jobs.  I was reading more than I had ever read before.  I was also not reading; I can only claim to have gone through one of the fifty or sixty texts I was responsible for cover-to-cover.  (Sven Lindqvist's Exterminate All the Brutes, incidentally.)  I was blowing through works I was genuinely interested in, and completely ignoring others I simply didn't have time for.

So I emerged from that semester with a Master of Arts and a determination to tackle my own, my personal reading list.  Hence...