Monthly Archives: January 2011

Ebook Dreaming

(Though part of me wants to hyphenate e-book, I’m going to take a step of faith and ditch the hyphen. Ebook it is.)

This is just a quick note on my dream for perfect kind of ebook to please everyone, even folks who say how much they love the feel and smell of paper books. (Disclaimer: I’m an in-betweener. I’ve had a Kindle for two months and I love it to pieces, but I also love the physicality of books. I choose both/and.)

I’m reading a book now, and I’ve read books before, that just scream for multimedia add-ons. Either they post plenty of classical scores as examples, or they mention tons of pop pieces that seriously matter to the point of the book. In either case, I want to hear the things, but I often don’t go to the trouble, because I don’t want to log into my school’s library’s webpage, find the classical music database, and navigate to the piece I want to hear, just to hear a 30-second snippet that could legally, under fair use, be excerpted for me without all the work. Yes, there’s YouTube, but even that takes steps that I don’t always want to take–and that assumes I’m near a computer. (Wow, this sounds lazy, right?)

Alex Ross beautifully tries to fill this gap by providing a listening guide to The Rest is Noise (and also to his newer book that I haven’t read), which is full and rich in many ways: tons of excerpts, and an easy-to-buy iTunes playlist of the essentials already picked out. But again, I’ve got to be at the computer to hear it.

Yes, I’m complaining now, but this post is called Ebook dreaming for a reason. My dream:

  1. Paper books have invisible chips sewn into their covers or stuck to the inside flap as a sticker.
  2. These chips communicate seamlessly and wirelessly with portable music devices, including various brands of mp3 players and various kinds of phones. (Government regulation may be necessary to ensure standards.)
  3. When I read a place in a book where I want to hear the music described, I simply put on my headphones, touch my music device to the book, and scroll to track X (whatever the book tells me to scroll to), and listen. Ah, the comfort of musical knowledge.
  4. Digital versions of the books also include the same clips, playable through the headphone jack of the ereader or on the computer (or whatever device the book is being read on)

So, well–get on it. Thanks!

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Garfield v. Ginsberg: Arguing with Myself

I’m thrilled to begin teaching expository writing tomorrow, modeled on a professor‘s experiments in teaching expository writing as digital citizenship through blogging. The thing that is least decided at this point is the question of sound: how much shall we practice reading aloud, and how shall I explain why I believe in the live, voiced, spirited language that is both heard and read? (Yes, that’s shall. We’re in serious territory here, baby.)

Soaking myself in these questions, I picked up some old Peter Elbow this morning. In some ways I was encouraged, especially in his descriptions of how writing often trains our ears to pick up on mysterious resonances in writing. But he also says some things about audience that I’ll have to confront in a class about blogging–which is in many ways predicated on the crucial shaping effects of writing with audiences. In Writing with Power (the 1981 edition, bought in a low-ceilinged, yellow-lighted library bookstore in DC), Elbow writes:

Real voice. People often avoid it and drift into fake voices because of the need to face an audience. I have to go to work, I have to make a presentation, I have to teach, I have to go to a party, I have to have dinner with friends. Perhaps I feel lost, uncertain, baffled–or else angry–or else uncaring–or else hysterical. I can’t sound that way with all these people. They won’t understand, they won’t know how to deal with me, and I won’t accomplish what I need to accomplish. Besides, perhaps I don’t even know how to sound the way I feel. (When we were little we had no difficulty sounding the way we felt; thus most little children speak and write with real voice.) Therefore I will use some of the voices I have at my disposal that will serve the audience and the situation–voices I’ve learned by imitation or made up out of desperation or out of my sense of humor. I might as well. By now, those people think those voices are me. If I used my real voice, they might think I was crazy. (306)

There’s a lot there, and I know I’ve broken like every blogging recommendation by going on for so long. But I think his point needs to be dealt with: whether the voices we put on for audiences crowd out our ability to write with a real sense of power, real resonance, real voice.

I’ll be asking my students to write dialogues as freewriting on the first day of class, so I might as well try it here, since my feelings on this are kind of split and uncertain:

  • The part of me that looks like a 19th century photo of a staunch, bearded president, like James A. Garfield: Well, Elbow’s point has obvious problems. When, exactly, am I writing with my “real” self? No, really–I want you to point it out to me.
  • The part of me that looks like a hippy–perhaps if James A. Garfield stopped grooming, like Allen Ginsberg or something: But don’t you feel sometimes like you have a real self? When you write something that feels true and honest, doesn’t it feel true and honest and good? Couldn’t you point out those moments in your writing?
  • Garfield: Well, I suppose. But that’s not the point. The point is that I believe we always put on rhetorically chosen selves when we communicate with different audiences. These rhetorically chosen selves are collectively “ourselves.”
  • Ginsburg: Um, that’s really sad. Seriously, do you know how sad that sounds? You’re basically adopting the persona of secular humanism here, pushing aside all possibility of spirit, of true identity. And more to the point, you’re pushing aside the possibility that writing can be more resonant when writers push aside their fears of how audiences will judge them. That’s the real point here, isn’t it?
  • Garfield: But you can’t just push aside audience concerns, especially in the age of blogging. [Garfield pulls out an iPad or something in the portrait?] Audiences who don’t jive with how you’ve chosen to write won’t take the time to keep reading; they can go elsewhere, to places that fit their discourse style. Audience is king.
  • Ginsburg: If audience is king, then you’d better make sure that you don’t lose something personal and precious in the transaction. In other words, be careful that all that catering to audience doesn’t lead you to ape the content that you think those audiences want to hear. Say the things that you want to say, and to an extent, push the boundaries of what they expect, too. I mean, people like to be surprised, man.

So that’s that. I kind of thought writing this out would lead me to more fully embrace one side or the other, but instead I feel less decided than ever–but more comfortable with my indecision than ever. Nice.

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Background Music

I finished Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother last night (my second book read completely on the Kindle–and it’s free here, so why aren’t you reading it too?). It’s a fun YA read (interesting note on YA fiction: it doesn’t shy away from the sexy time but avoids the big MF bomb with underscores) that has me thinking about all kinds of privacy, terrorism, technology, hacking issues in fresh ways. Good stuff. It also ends with a few afterwords, including this quote from Bruce Schneier, security expert/hacker:

But really, security is a mindset. It’s a way of thinking. Marcus [the main character in Little Brother] is a great example of that way of thinking. He’s always looking for ways a security system fails. I’ll bet he couldn’t walk into a store without figuring out a way to shoplift. Not that he’d do it — there’s a difference between knowing how to defeat a security system and actually defeating it — but he’d know he could.

It’s how security people think. We’re constantly looking at security systems and how to get around them; we can’t help it.

All this is basically a rambling introduction to my thought for the day: background music. I’ve been working on and off on an audio submission for a special issue on “Writing with Sound” for the online journal Currents in Electronic Literacy, and part of what I’m thinking about is background music–in videogames, in silent films, in non-silent films.

And I find that the more I think theoretically about background music, the more I think about the background music that’s constantly around me. It’s like the Schneier quote: “It’s how [music] people think. We’re constantly looking at [or listening to] [music] and how to [make it, understand it, judge how it’s affecting us]; we can’t help it.”

I don’t really have much more to say than that. But really, here in Panera, what would my work be like with instrumental music playing from India or China or Ghana or New Zealand, as opposed to the Bach/Vivaldi/Scarlatti rotation they stick to? (That’s not critical, by the way; I love the music in Panera.) And in my car driving here, when I switched from NPR to Rubber Soul, my mood lightened, I started happily humming harmonies to songs I don’t really know; I was more adventurous, more casual. Walking from my car to my campus office with Portishead playing in my headphones gives the walk a different tint than it would with Pearl Jam.

I know, I know. This is all old news. There’s tons of work on movie sound design, real world sound design, videogame music, etc. etc. etc. But there’s something different between knowing something and starting to experience it, habitually drawing it to the forefront of consciousness. And that’s fun, and worth mentioning.

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