Showing posts with label Literacy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Literacy. Show all posts

Friday, March 9, 2012

A few places around the web

  • From a comment on this Guardian article on foreign fiction translations: "There's one great plus about being brought up in a minority language and that is it forces you to explore literature from other countries." The truth is that it will take us many more years to begin to approach the diversity in world fiction many other countries have. The comments give rise to many different approaches to translations (from those who avoid them to those who embrace them), and make for very interesting reading.
  • The last remaining hope for eBook library lending has decided that it's going to go the jerk route. Great to see Random House understands the importance of libraries and has decided that instead of making its book freely and cheaply available to the same institutions that greatly encourage reading and book-buying, they're going to up the price...
  • ...which leads us to a nicely concise post from a while back about the recent publishing trends and the eMess*. Almost everything I've ever wanted to say (and have been unable to phrase) about publishing can be found in that post.
  • To end on a slightly cheerier note, I am quite impressed with this concept of a picture book library for small children. What better way to get these kids to love reading, if not give them a wonderful place to fall in love?

* I realize this is not an official term to describe the publishing industry's problems with ePublishing, but it fits nicely in this case...

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Define "good"

If I had to find the first thread of what would develop into my book-blogging mindset, it would probably be found in the question I asked myself one fall morning in 2007 - what makes a book good? To be honest, it's a question I've actively avoided on this blog. Though I've spent years with the question in mind (whether when reading, blogging, reviewing, writing or simply talking to random people), I continuously struggle to find the answer. Instead, I skirt around my fears that I'm reading "wrong", get annoyed that books suck but don't figure out why, and struggle to express my general devotion to finding the "meaning of books" or at least the meaning of a good book.

Today while walking to work, it hit me. Or at least, something hit me. Maybe it was just a pinecone.

Assume books aren't good because of technical, measurable standards. A book isn't good because of the quality of its writing, or characterization, or plotting, or originality. No, it's not what I've long postulated in my notebooks... in fact, it's completely different. Let's assume for a moment that a good book is defined not by its actual components, but rather by the balance between two further definitions: how enjoyable and how rewarding it is.

These sound like terrible options off the bat but grant me the benefit of the doubt for a moment. For starters, I don't mean "enjoyable" in the sense of necessarily fun or upbeat, but rather a book that one enjoys reading. Under enjoyable you can list several relevant factors (quality writing, emotional attachment to the characters, etc.) that ultimately make the reading experience pleasurable.

The chart below is a crude, preliminary representation of what I think might be my personal Chart to Define a Good Book.

Click to enlarge

The two categories are not mutually exclusive and are missing many possible factors of good books, such that the chart doesn't really cover all bases. I'm certain I've left some things out and included a few factors that other readers might not care about. The chart can't actually map the path to the perfect book. But it can make things a bit clearer. For me, at least.

For instance, it helps me figure out what my problem with Dubravka Ugrešić's The Museum of Unconditional Surrender was - it was a remarkably intelligent, rewarding book but I didn't enjoy reading it at all. It's bursting with technical greatness but lacked a personal spark. For me as a reader - just for me - this was not a good book. It's measurably good, yes, but that's not eough.

Or The Hunger Games, on the other end of the scale. It's fun and is quite entertaining... does that make it a good book? No. It lacks originality, breadth and fully formed characters. It's something I would recommend to certain readers (same for Ugrešić, for that matter), something I really enjoyed reading, but this also was not a good book. Enjoyable is not enough either.

Where do the two meet? Wolf Hall was endlessly intelligent and also bursting with living, breathing characters. The writing was brilliant, the pacing consistently smooth. The book is clearly enjoyable and clearly rewarding. Or Philippe Claudel's wonderful Brodeck's Report, a book that I was so pleased to have read and one I learned so much from. And of those other books, the ones that don't qualify as good... a lot of them are still worthwhile. I wasn't disappointed to have read John Green's Paper Towns or Scott Westerfeld's Behemoth (actually, Behemoth is so much fun and set in such a good world that it really does approach good). I recognized the literary merits of Han Shaogong's A Dictionary of Maqiao even if I couldn't enjoy it at all and struggled to finish it. Good is the ultimate honor in this case, not just a three-star rating. Good is the ideal book. Everything else is just approaching good.

Which is okay too. Just knowing what a good book means, just understanding the difference between enjoyable and rewarding and the juncture between the two is worthwhile in its own right. Maybe now I can stop stressing about why books have ceased to amaze me and just enjoy the reading process.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

On not buying anything today at the wonderful HBW

"I'm a bibliophile / and I also know what that means" - Even Hoshen

Hebrew Book Week or HBW (Hebrew site) is... awesome. Once a year, for a week and a half, my book-loving self finally gets to drag the others around me into the insanity of book-buying. There's nothing quite like it. A normally literate but unenthusiastic country turns into a gushing bibliophile within a few hours. Advertisements for the two leading bookstore chains line the bus stops. Signs point to the nearest fairground. Almost everyone in the street carries a plastic bag from either the bookstores or the publishers.

Instead of buying books, I collected catalogs
I could ramble about the many practical and beautiful aspects to HBW (and I will), but I want to focus on today's visit and that one, glorious fact: I did not purchase a single book.

This is, of course, a bizarre and unheard of notion. What's the point, one might ask, of a week and a half of book fairs and sales (3 for the price of 2! Buy 1 get 2 free! Buy 2 get 2 free! All books half price!*) if I didn't buy anything now?

I recently read an article about HBW that asked how relevant it is now that the bookstores offer year-round sales and deals (in response to a statistic that showed that only** 44% of Israelis plan to attend the events). My answer is simple: you don't go to HBW just to get cheap books. You go for the experience. You go for the crick in your neck from bending down to stare at so many books. You go to chat up the teens and adults who try to push you the popular bestsellers but after a few moments break down and recommend the really good books. You go to see authors signing books one minute and patiently listening to their kids' excited gush about a book they just discovered the next. You go for the joy of finding like-minded folk - people who love books, love literature and love this culture of reading we're working so hard to maintain.
"Reserved for HBW 2011" ad as mentioned here

Only after all these do you actually go to buy books. The books are the cookies on top of the ice-cream sundae. And boy, do I want those cookies.

Today I walked around with a small notepad. Because I went with a friend, I didn't have quite as many opportunities to talk to authors and the booksellers*** but I managed to scribble down a long and thorough list of books that interest me. Do they all fall in line with the deals? Probably not. But I'll buy more books than I really want and at the end of the day, I'll probably find some gems hidden in the stacks of bestselling thrillers, religious texts and wonderfully nostalgic kids books.

Really heavy, but the back ache was worth it...
By not buying anything today, all I had "going for me" was the experience. And you know what? It was worth it. Even though I didn't get that author signature I was hoping for, even though I didn't make it to all the publisher booths (my friend isn't quite as obsessive as me and after a long day, grew rather tired), even though I didn't get into any in-depth conversations with booksellers, even though I didn't buy anything... there's no doubt about it. HBW isn't about the sales. It's about the literary experience. Isn't that just wonderful?

* Real sales
** "Only" being, of course, a relative term. I'm sure if 44% of Americans attended such events, it would be considered monumental. Israel prides itself in HBW's influence and wide-spread appeal - 44% attendance is a somewhat embarrassing decrease, apparently.
*** I don't like using the term "bookseller" because the association is of a seller in a bookstore, but that's the most accurate description of these guys. They're sellers... of books.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Teens, in the library

Click to enlarge (link)

Unshelved offers a humorous but actually rather upsetting take on budget cuts for libraries. This week's strip (which essentially begins here) looks at the possibility of budget cuts to various library programs (originally mistakenly assumed to be storytime). While obviously not delving into the true problems behind budget cuts, today's strip does display the difficulties in cutting programs.

My middle school was located right by one of my public libraries. In the afternoons after school, my friends and I would all head over to the library, park our bikes outside and descend on the stacks. There we would find many of our classmates already situated in their favorite couches and seats. Some would sit at the three tables outside, the low benches and the sliding glass door giving the feeling to those sitting there that they were still within the library but allowing them the luxury of laughing as loud as they wanted to. My friends and I would typically sit at the designated "study" tables inside - round tables by the "New Arrivals" shelves - where we'd pull out our oversized history textbooks, the latest book we were reading (swapping copies, just to see what the other was into these days) and our often messily organized binders.

Sometimes we'd see our friends going into the teen section, sitting down with an adult or high school student, poring over a notebook or textbook. Many of the students took advantage of the library's teen study programs in order to catch up on subjects they struggled with. In the meantime, the rest of us would sit and study together, using the library computers to do research, carting around about fifty different reference books in order to find the answer to a single bonus question on a homework assignment and checking out dozens of books between us (which we'd then have to find some way to carry on our bike rides home).

Last time I visited this library two years ago, a big sign hung next to the entrance. It showed plans for rebuilding the library, including adding a large media center, a specifically for-teens study center, adding another two or three rooms for quiet study and adding significant room to the stacks. Next to this poster, the library had posted a plea to taxpayers, asking them to vote for a city bond that would pay for this project.

Though the measure passed in this one town, I know that in similar situations around the U.S. (and the world), the outcome is very different. It's hard to convince a taxpayer that spending money on a library will actually benefit the entire community. Though it's true, from the youngest children enjoying storytime, to moody teens gaining a wonderful place to learn and study with the help and support of a well-educated and dedicated staff, to the unemployed seeking computers and resources to find a job or write a resume and to the elderly, simply enjoying an afternoon discussing a good book (or getting the opportunity to read again, thanks to audio or large-print books).

So if someone asked me to cut programs from the library, I'd struggle. Local libraries do so very much for the communities around them... it'd be almost impossible to decide which program isn't "worth it". But I know one program I would never cut. Teens may not be the favored demographic when it comes to library budgets, but in the long-run I believe that by putting your money there, you really are putting your money in the future. My classmates and I benefited immensely from our local library - I'm sometimes saddened to think of the fact that most other kids didn't get that opportunity.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Summer reading for kids

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times is best known for op-ed articles about critical world issues. So it's interesting to see him talk about summer reading for kids and give a list of recommended books.
A mountain of research points to a central lesson: Pry your kids away from the keyboard and the television this summer, and get them reading. Let me help by offering my list of the Best Children's Books — Ever!
Kristof's list has a few age-old titles alongside immensely popular modern counterparts. He even described within series' which book is the best to start with, a point I've always wished would come included in lists of this sort. He encouraged readers of his column to come up with their own ideas, leading to the third post on the subject, where he offered some of the reader suggestions. In this post Kristof acknowledged that perhaps those who read his blog aren't the parents whose kids are at-risk and that they may not need to ensure as critically that their children read this summer, but it's still very important and obviously never hurts.

In regards to Kristof's original idea, there's quite a bit to be said. It's not surprising to hear that the lack of cognitive stimulation in the summer probably hits at-risk kids more than it does middle-class ones, and I certainly see how reading helps this problem. Encouraging literacy and reading is always good, but it's particularly important among kids. I definitely appreciate his efforts at fixing this situation and encouraging parents to help their kids read good books. This list may only be a starting point, but it's an absolutely great one. Mr Kristof, I tip my hat.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The liar within us

Are you a liar? Because if you are, this one's for you:

• 65% of people have lied about reading a book they haven’t, with 1984 being the most popular book to pretend to have read
• 41% of respondents confess to having turned to the last page to find out what happens before finishing a book
• 96% of people admit to staying up late to finish a book

George Orwell’s 1984 tops the list of books that people pretend they have read, in a survey carried out for World Book Day 2009 to uncover the nation’s guilty reading secrets. Of the 65% who claimed to have read a book which in truth they haven’t 42% admit to having said they had read modern classic 1984.

Those who lied have claimed to have read:

1. 1984 by George Orwell (42%)
2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (31%)
3. Ulysses by James Joyce (25%)
4. The Bible (24%)
5. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (16%)
6. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (15%)
7. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (14%)
8. In Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust (9%)
9. Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama (6%)
10. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (6%)
This, courtesy of "Spread the Word" is (justifiably and unjustifiably) getting quite a bit of attention throughout the web. Both the Telegraph and the Guardian wrote interesting summaries; I'm sure many others have too and I've just missed them. Still, I like this paragraph from the Telegraph:
There are a number of ways to negotiate the minefield that is unread literature. The best recent guide, which, as you'd expect, I haven't read but skimmed, is Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read. The author, a French university literature professor, divides books into those we are unfamiliar with, those we've glanced at, books we've heard about, and books we've read but forgotten. He recommends you bluff freely, skim novels if you want to and if you're challenged about an author you haven't read, just backtrack. But the beauty of the work, the Frenchness, resides in the fact that it's necessary at all. These are coping strategies for a culture which has certain canonical texts which, as Bayard claims, "it's practically forbidden not to have read". Don't you love that idea? I bet you anything the number of books you have to lie about is far longer there than here.
So here's what's interesting: People enjoy books by J.K. Rowling and John Grisham, but don't want to say. And on the other hand, they want to say they've read books like "1984" and "The Selfish Gene" (which, by the way, is the surest way to fall asleep... a most interesting book, but so amazingly boring). Some analyze this as a positive sign for the literary world. Someone mentioned how clearly this is a sign of how important reading is in our society, that we want to tout our knowledge and intelligence. Others find it a little weirder.

I find it a little weirder. While, sure, "War and Peace" is a great book (it's way more readable than it looks) and "1984" has its sparks of genius (even if it's pretty boring often), if someone hasn't read it, they shouldn't feel ashamed to the point of lying about it. I have read 2/3 of the Old Testament but I haven't read "Ulysses" (yet!). The two most surprising titles for me are "The Selfish Gene" (seriously?) and "Dreams From my Father" (they know the man's only been famous for about two years, right?), but this entire survey and the conclusions that emerge - that readers are very self-conscious about their reads - should give most readers quite a bit of food for thought. Should I be ashamed that I enjoy reading cheap fantasies or romances or law books? I'm actually throwing out examples here - I'm not a huge fan of romance. And if I am ashamed, does that mean I should specifically lie about it to make myself seem smarter?

A good solution is for everyone to read these "wish I'd read 'em" books so that they won't lie when asked about them. Another, simpler, solution is just to understand that each person has their own distinct, unique literary taste. Public perception shouldn't harm that. So what's the point of this survey? I don't know. Does it really say anything? I don't know.

And then, returning to the original survey, there are those "extra" stats. "96% of people admit to staying up late to finish a book." I was not aware that I needed to admit this. And as for the 41% who read the last page of a book to find out what happens before finishing? Another time.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Back to literacy...

It's sort of coincidental that I found these three things in the last week, but they all tied together in my head and warranted a couple of dusty internet pages of the book-book.

First, I finished reading "Three Cups of Tea" last week. After reading the entire book, including acknowledgments and index, I felt that the book was really about as good as most people had said it was. It's not the most superbly written book ever, but the story is enough to warm the hearts of any book-lovers hoping to improve literacy stats worldwide. A man facing all manners of danger in order to educate young, poor, Pakistani children? In order to teach them to read? Quite inspiring, to say the least.

Then, a few days after I'd finished reading that, I saw this video. Such a similar topic (or, the exact same topic, different story) in such a short amount of time was enough to make it interesting. And indeed, these stories are quite interesting. Part of loving books is encouraging others to read as well. Sometimes that means teaching. Often, in fact.

And a few hours after finding that video, I found this slightly more local but effectively similar website. A nice idea for a charity, no doubt, but nothing out of the ordinary. It just ties in well with the entire theme: reading makes a difference in people's lives, but a lot of people can't read (whether because they have no books, no teachers, no standards, or no knowledge). I mentioned in the earlier post that I hoped to improve literacy stats in 2009. These three ideas might be a start.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Literacy - more than a pivotal Civ II advancement

Turns out the U.S. is ranked no. 20 in world literacy (and is among 30 countries ranked as such), with a 99% literacy rate.

We should be happy, but then I realized North Korea is also at 20, with Russia beating the U.S., Canada, Britain, Germany, and much of the "western" world. I suddenly wondered if a Cold War ought to be declared just to improve that ranking. Look what it did for other things.

Then again, almost every country is beating Afghanistan... And everyone is better than Mali, it appears. Take a look at the map. It's sadly revealing.

Goal for 2009: improve literacy and reading rates.