Read Only

The NY Times today released the first part of a series dedicated to investigating “how the Internet and other technological and social forces are changing the way people read.” Hoo boy. Let the games begin.

On first read, I’d say that author Motoko Rich strives for an admirable balance between two factions dedicated to defending their particular reading practices. For every study of declining test scores and reading for pleasure, she cites online readers’ descriptions of their own practices or new literacy scholars.

From this format, we can see a surprising tone that both boosters and naysayers of digital reading share: a relatively consistent dismissal of alternate format. For instance, Rich cites Dana Gioia of the NEA:“Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.” At the same time, we have fluent digital readers who have this to say about print books: “The Web is more about a conversation. Books are more one-way.”

The article carefully cites the number of material factors to consider as we weigh a shift in reading habits: the socioeconomic benefits of print literacy, its deep integration into school curricula, the challenges it presents for students with learning differences. But these considerations are buried deep on page 3 of the article, in a way that suggests they’re simply fodder for the bigger issue–the deep psychological investment in the way that reading inflects our daily lives, and that no one is willing to be told that their preferred method is lacking in some way.

I find myself perched uncomfortably between these two ways of reading and the assumptions of superiority they promulgate. When Gioia says: “What we are losing in this country and presumably around the world is the sustained, focused, linear attention developed by reading,” a portion of my heart goes pitter pat. Does reading a novel require that sustained attention? Obviously. And I’m willing to believe (until a neuroscientist tells me different) that there’s a cognitive benefit to it, as well as a pleasure to be taken in it. But I’m also not willing to believe that all digital reading is the short-attention span theater that Gioia assumes and of which Rich provides examples. When Nadia is reading fan fiction stories that run “45 web pages,” we’re talking about focused attention, and we’d have to study Nadia’s reading practices to convince ourselves that it wasn’t sustained or linear. In addition, the statement ignores the sociality of reading a number of digital sources on a similar topic.

On the other side of the fence (here I am, perched on a cliche), I’m taken aback by the digital readers’ characterizations of books. At least two of the young people interviewed take issue with books’ unitary nature–either as a fixed plot structure or singularity of voice. This also seems to be a mis-characterization of what print readers love about books, wherein the process of interpretation makes a book an archive of alternatives. [This assumes, of course, that you include interpretation in your definition of reading, I suppose.]

I’m anxious to see how others perceive the coverage in the Times. For now, however, I’m struck by the gulf between readers, and the very little coverage (and study?) of how omnivorous readers characterize pleasure, benefit and drawbacks of their reading practices across media

Stop the Press!

Sweet fancy Moses, apparently I can now blog from my ITouch, thanks to a WordPress app that comes via the new suite of iPhone 2.0 software. Hot diggety? Now no subject is safe from my critical eye? Every piece of pop culture shall know my wrath?

Will this make me a more consistent blogger? My guess is no, probably just one with fewer excuses and thus more guilt about my spotty blogging schedule. Of course, if this post is any indication, the new app may well turn me into a one-fingered typist. So long, carpal tunnel syndrome—and good riddance!

Stay tuned for further updates, gentle readers.

Cho, Round Two

I was delighted to see that Margaret Cho is returning to television with a new show on VH1.  It doesn’t take a deep knowledge of tv history to know about Cho’s first sitcom (and notably, the first Asian American sitcom), All-American Girl and the debacle it became (all of which she chronicles, with a characteristic synthesis of pathos and humor, in I’m the One that I Want).

The LA Times article above features this description of the new show:

“It’s kind of a cross between Madonna’s ‘Truth or Dare,’ ‘Joy Luck Club’ and ‘Little People, Big World,’” she said. In truth, the series follows Cho and her family as they improv their way through scripted situations. During the first episode, Cho tells her parents that a magazine has named her Korean of the Year, and the show follows the family’s trip to San Francisco, where she’ll accept it.

In some ways, the format sounds more like Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm to me.

Cho’s return makes me contemplate the significant changes that television has undergone since All American Girl aired in ’94-’95.  In many ways, the sitcom seems like such a dead and deadening form, while the advent of reality television has pushed audiences and performers alike to explore new ways of including live footage into shows.  Meanwhile, the scrum of channels fighting for niche markets has apparently turned VH1 into the home for nostalgia, forgotten celebrities (hello, two Coreys!), and subcultural icons.  Having said that, I’m surprised that Cho isn’t airing on Bravo—can you imagine a Margaret Cho/Kathy Griffin lineup?  Perhaps an end of the season smackdown?  [Cho has already appeared on an episode of Life on the D List, where she joins Griffin and Cyndi Lauper for the Gay Pride Parade in Australia.  If Cho rates a float there, doesn’t she seem to belong to the Bravo family?]

Regardless, I have high but cautious hopes for the success of Cho’s new show.  In part, it’s personal: I have such a soft spot for her, and am so ready to see Asian Americans on television that aren’t pretending to be from another country (see Lost, Heroes, etc.).  Better yet, I think Cho may have a better chance outside the confines of the sitcom structure (which, I speculate, may have been more of the problem of the show than America’s unwillingness to see Asian Americans on television.  But perhaps I’m too optimistic).

So let’s hear it for the move beyond the sitcom, and look forward to the August 21st airing.  Keep your fingers crossed…

Confronting the Gap

Courtesy of PopCandy this morning comes a link to a short video interview with Ira Glass, host of the transcendent This American Life on NPR.  In it, he talks about initial artistic endeavors, and the “gap” between our excellent taste in a medium and our not-yet-up-to-par ability to create something that satisfies our taste level.  Take a listen:

Now, admittedly, I don’t read many interviews with writers and creative types, so feel free to confront me on my ignorance.  However, this is one of the first times that I’ve seen someone articulate the major impediment to creative work so clearly.  Once Glass has said it, of course, it all seems so clear: we want to make the thing that we love, but we love that thing for its best possible representative pieces, to which our own early attempts bear no resemblance.  This makes me think of the deep pain of learning a musical instrument.  You know, you only want to learn to play the piano because you love Glenn Gould, or Diana Krall, or Chris Martin.  But when you first learn to play, you’re of course butchering “The Entertainer” or some such crap, and you’re nowhere near whipping through Mozart concertos with deep pathos.  And thus, the temptation is to abandon it forever.

Glass does a beautiful job here not only explaining the need to soldier on, but does so with such compassion for the beginner, and a good deal of gentle mocking of his early self.  I love the fact that he pulls out his own early efforts, and is willing to share it.  What’s more convincing than hearing the less-than-perfect early attempts of those who have mastered the medium?

Good on you, Ira.

Fluff on Spoon

When you spend a good couple of hours in the morning searching for fan videos on YouTube, it’s almost unbelievable what you’ll happen upon.  Somehow, this morning, I ended up watching a video of the Keepon rhythmic robot dancing to a song by Spoon.

According to this article on the PBS site (courtesy of Wired Science), the video was a viral YouTube hit in 2007.  So sue me; I’m a year behind.  Regardless, see if you aren’t mesmerized by his little yellow groove.  Don’t be surprised if you find yourself unconsciously imitating his moves, either.

Fantastic, no?  I find that I think I’m done about 30 seconds in, but then I keep coming back to it.  Is it the blank stare?  the mellow, spongy rump-shakin’?  [There’s something in the Keepon’s motions and expression that bear a faint resemblance to audience members at a Phish show.]  Apparently, the little guy was designed to work with autistic kids.  But what about his little, unacknowledged friend, the Peepon?  Oh god do I love a good video response.  Take a look-see for yourself:

Equally as mesmerizing, but somehow also a bit nauseating, no?  All of that gelatinized sugar.  To quote one of the best comments about the video from RustiSwordz, “Its Jabba the Hutt’s funky cousin.”  Hi-Larious.

This is now the second post I’ve written about Peeps in the last two years, and I’m a bit disturbed by that.

Back to work now.  Get out and get your groove on.

Print-less

If my theme for summer is “procrastinate until the point of panic,” then no single event typifies the theme better than my inability to order books for the fall.  I’ve hemmed and hawed about books for both the “fate of the novel” class as well as the asian-american studies course.  Tuesday, however, I awoke with the name of a book (Helen Zia’s Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, if you must know) clear and present in my mind, and figured it was a sign from the book fairies.  Order!  Order now!!  [The book fairies must be the fantastical creatures that do the bidding of our long suffering and truly wonderful bookstore manager, B.  It is a credit to him that these mystical beings are fairies and not devils.]

So I gamely sat down to make some hard decisions about what to order, in accordance with the secret logic of guiding each of these courses.  [The secret?  There is more than one logic, and it’s not always evident until I get into the course and students themselves begin to make connections that I never anticipated.  Wanna know why I love seminars?  That’s it in a nutshell.]  As I started to narrow the lists down, I logged onto Amazon in order to copy and paste ISBN numbers.  Horror of horrors: three of the books I was interested in were out of print!

This is a travesty in almost every case.  First off, it seems that any number of crucial texts in Asian American studies are out of print.  Throughout graduate school and most of my early teaching, Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea was unavailable, which is a real pity.  As many critics have noted, Chu’s novel does some amazing work with mapping the bachelor society of New York’s Chinatown in the first half of the century.  The language is fantastic.  A quick google search seems to indicate that Lyle Stuart did a publication run in 2002, but that the book is, yet again, out of print.

I knew enough not to depend on Chu’s book, but I was surprised to find Cynthia Kadohata’s The Floating World unavailable as well.  Kadohata’s novel came out in 1989, and was a NY Times notable book.  It tells the story of a Japanese American family post-WWII, unable to settle anywhere due to lingering resentment and fear of the Japanese.  Kadohata has moved on to a successful career writing for young adults, and her skills there show through in this novel.  It’s very readable, and introduces some complex topics to students who aren’t dyed-in-the-wool lit fans.  In short, it’s great for an introductory Asian American class.  If you can find 25 copies of it used, that is.

If I was surprised about the fate of Kadohata’s book, I was shocked to find that David Wong Louie’s The Barbarians Are Coming is also out of print.  That novel came out in 2000.  2000!!  I wrote a big fat chapter of my dissertation on that novel!  Louie has a great sense of humor, a narrative style that both sympathizes and critiques his characters, and close eye on the morays of popular culture.  At the height of the Iron Chef craze, Louie gave us a Chinese American protagonist who wanted nothing more than to use his Cordon Bleu training, but was constantly asked to “cook Chinese.”  It’s a story about food, about masculinity, about generations and interracial relationships, about the effects of television on cultural identity and performativity…and now it’s unavailable.  There is no justice.

And on a completely different note (different course, after all), I’ve decided to brave the judgment of my senior seminar folk by teaching Gore Vidal’s scandalous Myra Breckinridge in the fall.  Because who can resist this opening paragraph:

I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess. Clad only in garter belt and one dress shield, I held off the entire elite of the Trobriand Islanders, a race who possess no words for ‘why’ or ‘because’. Wielding a stone axe, I broke the arms, the limbs, the balls of their finest warriors, my beauty blinding them as it does all men, unmanning them in the way King Kong was reduced to a mere simian whimper by beauteous Fay Wray whom I resemble left three-quarter profile if the key light is no more than five feet high during the close shot.

[For the record, I know the film was a hot mess—in true Christian Siriano form.  But the novel, oh, it is glorious!]

You can see where this is going, right?  OUT OF DAMNABLE PRINT!!  Like Myra, however, I will not be held back.  We WILL read this novel!  We WILL find copies!

The larger question, of course, is what economic and/or cultural restraints are causing these books to fall out of print runs, and in the case of the first two above, so quickly and regardless of their critical reception?

There has been academic attention to the crisis in scholarly publishing for sure, but I begin to wonder if we should be just as concerned about the longevity and health of the popular publishing market.

[!sevil aryM]