Monday 28 May 2012

Books Versus E-Readers

Recently it was Library and Information week at my library. I recalled that the previous year I had co-presented information sessions showing people how to use e-readers. The sessions were popular, as they were this year. Since last year I’ve noticed that e-reader use has increased amongst my fellow train commuters and with library patrons. With bookstore chains such as Borders collapsing (mainly due to online commerce?) and with talk of the possible demise of the book in the media I wonder what we may gain or more importantly what we may lose if e-readers become the medium of choice for publishers and readers alike.

The main thing I took away from presenting the information sessions about e-readers is that I didn’t like them. Some people I know may roll their eyes due to the fact that I don’t even own a mobile phone – but I’m no Luddite. I can understand the convenience of being able to store hundreds of books on one device. They solve the problems of lugging books away with you on holiday, or having to find room to store books you’ve bought over the years. Another advantage is if you need to read a large print version you can just increase the font size, whilst in the book world you need to wait until the large print version is released. Downloading books is also cheaper and saves you time because you don’t have to go to a shop.

There are disadvantages of course. The e-reader can break down and if the data is not backed up then you’ve just lost your collection. I’ve also been told, from a library patron, the tale of a woman who took an e-reader with her on holiday to Bali and the screen failed, leaving her with nothing to read.

Although these are valid issues, my views regarding e-readers are not particularly concerned with their inherent problems, but rather the potential demise of the overall experience that books provide. For a start I don’t like the idea of everything I read looking the same. E-readers are, at the moment, banal looking objects. I love the variety that books offer – the cover artwork, their size, shape, feel and smell. I love the way these objects look on my bookshelf, or scattered about my home. In this way they become a part of your life, reminding you of what you have read and also holding the promise of what you may read next.

A collection of books at home and the books on the shelves in a bookstore offer a sublime sensory experience. Quite simply there is no romance or adventure to be had from e-readers. You can’t book cross with an e-reader and you can’t lend a well-loved and battered old copy of a novel to a friend via an e-reader. You can’t go in search of a first edition copy of your favourite novel with that special cover art or author’s signature – it becomes meaningless in the e-reader world.

I guess what I’m getting at is that e-readers devalue the cultural impact of books. Do we want to live in a world in which books are reduced to data and displayed as pixels on the bland screens of e-readers? In the rush of progress important cultural artifacts can be swept away and almost forgotten about. A good analogy is when compact discs became the principal medium for recorded sound. We gained convenience and a clean sound but lost all the natural warmth and presence that vinyl records provided.

I believe that books will survive the rush towards the digital medium. Vinyl records have survived and over the last twenty years sales have increased steadily. The same situation may come to pass with books. Apparently the recent hardcover book release of Murakami’s novel 1Q84 sold in huge quantities. The allure of a great writer published in a quality format is an indication that there will always be a market for books. Independent bookstores that offer quality books can survive and if you want to experience that special feeling of browsing shelves of books for your next read, you will still be able to indulge yourself.

So, what do you think - e-readers or books? Will books survive or will e-readers become ubiquitous on the morning train to work?

Monday 21 May 2012

That Deadman Dance – Kim Scott (2010)

Kim Scott is a Perth writer of Aboriginal decent who has previously won the Miles Franklin Award for his novel – Benang (1999). The Miles Franklin Award is Australia’s premier literary prize and Scott is in the fine company of previous winners such as Peter Carey, Tim Winton and Patrick White. That Deadman Dance has won Scott his second Miles Franklin Award and like his previous work it involves a narrative that provides an examination of Aboriginal Australia.

The novel is set in the colony that would go on to be called Albany in the period 1833 to 1844. It is written in the third person from the perspective of both the colonists and the Aboriginal people known as Noongars. Albany was the first colony to be established in Western Australia, preceding the capital – Perth, by three years.

In Scott’s author’s notes at the end of the novel he indicates that the Albany region was known as “the friendly frontier” due to the relatively peaceful relationship between the settlers and the Noongars. The principle Noongar character is Wabalanginy, known as Bobby to the colonists. Bobby is the bridge between the two cultures and we meet him on the very first page. He’s a charismatic character who charms both the colonists and his fellow Noongars. It’s Bobby who performs the “deadman dance” - a dance that mimics the effects of European diseases that wipe out a significant portion of Aborigines throughout Australia.

Scott’s writing is an interesting proposition. Stylistically it can be impressionistic and the narrative is not always linear so that events can seem jumbled up in an almost organic fashion. Not having read his other books I’m not sure if this is his usual style, or whether it is a particular stylistic choice that conveys how the Noongar people perceived their world. Either way once you get used to Scott’s writing it becomes quite an engaging way to spin a tale. Scott’s descriptions of the Australian bush and its animals are also beautiful and really capture the uniqueness of the Australian wilderness, with its primeval atmosphere of isolation and immense age.

The colonist characters provide an effective insight into just how tough it must have been to live in such an isolated region. Killam, an ex soldier and convict Skelly are certainly rugged individuals who make their way as best they can in an alien environment. How they carry themselves and the decisions they make are in direct contrast to the Noongar characters such as Bobby and the elder – Menak. Yet somehow the divergent groups find a middle path and benefit from each-others technology and knowledge. The contrast between the two groups is one of the ways in which Noongar culture is revealed to the reader and it works quite well.

There’s trouble of course, in the form of spearings, shootings, thieving and tension created by the exploitation of the whales that travel down the coast. The sections detailing the whaling, carried out in a bay where the poor creatures stop to rest, have an emotional punch and are also fascinating in a macabre way. It’s in this context that the mostly British colonists, the Noongars and American whalers converge into a mostly cooperative group, that is until the whales start to become scarce.

The quality of Scott’s writing is such that I can understand why That Deadman Dance won numerous awards. Scott readily evokes time and place as well as culture and the inevitability of historical change. The book is both heartening and sad – it reveals the promise of what could have been and therefore saddens due to the contrast of what followed for the Noongars and their fellow Aborigines throughout Australia.

Unfortunately I was not ready for this book as I was not in the mood for a novel about colonial Australia. This is sometimes the case when a novel read for a book club does not correspond with what you’d like to be reading at the time. In hindsight this saddens me as I feel like I did not benefit from Scott’s deft handling of a significant time in Australia’s history; but for other readers I recommend That Deadman Dance as a book worthy of your attention.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution – Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending (2009)

As a long time reader of science books I was immediately attracted to this book due to its great title – titles are important, take note publishers. The last science book I read was the great The Fifth Miracle by Paul Davies, which was an examination of how life evolved. Cochran and Harpending’s book promised an argument against the long held theory that humans stopped evolving fifty thousand years ago, just after emerging out of Africa. The book describes itself as the “…the latest edition to the fast emerging discipline of biohistory.”  There’s been quite a bit of news related to this area lately, so I thought that it was time to give it a read.

The book opens with a refutation of “conventional wisdom”, with the authors claiming that human evolution has accelerated in the last ten thousand years due to various selection pressures, such as agriculture, geographic expansion and climate change. They go on to examine the period that started fifty to forty thousand years ago when modern humans moved into the European territories of the Neanderthal. Ten thousand years later the Neanderthal were extinct and humans were flourishing. No one knows for sure but it seems that humans displayed better adaptations such as advanced language, tools and hunting techniques. There is convincing genetic evidence that we interbreed with Neanderthals and picked up and kept various advantageous genes – just ask Ozzy Osbourne.

The ensuing four chapters examine the impact of the advent of agriculture some ten thousand years ago and how the changes to what we ate affected our genetic makeup; the genetic flow of humanity as expressed by selective sweeps of particular genes and also the impact of expansion on humans throughout the globe. A succinct summary - but if you want to know the facts then read the book! But is it worth reading?

The ideas presented in The 10,000 Year Explosion are certainly well argued. The authors blend history, archaeology, paleontology and biology to weave their arguments convincingly. They refer to their work as “genetic history” – a “new kind of history.” This is all very well but unfortunately the flaw of this book is that the writing style is relatively bland. There is an effort to engage and give the facts some personality, but as interested as I was in the arguments presented I often found myself bored. I believe that writing popular science is a tricky thing, because, after all, you don’t want to dumb it down; but also you don’t want to put the average reader off either. After reading this book I appreciate science writers such as Paul Davies and Marcus Chown for their efforts to both explain and engage.

The 10,000 Year Explosion ends with a case study of the Ashkenazi Jews – Jews that were confined to Europe from medieval times and that were restricted to money lending and clerical professions; the kind of jobs that required a certain level of intelligence. The combination of the demands of their profession and their tendency to marry within their faith meant that the European Jews were selected for a higher intelligence than Jews in the Middle East. Five hundred or so years later descendants of this group were making the major scientific breakthroughs throughout many disciplines and they also displayed higher IQs than other groups. A fascinating case study, but once again the bland writing created a nagging sense of boredom.

The story of human evolution is an amazing tale to behold - one that’s obsessed me on and off for years. It’s compelling, fascinating and most of all it’s our story. Unfortunately this book does not really capture the sense of wonder that our story can engender, which is a shame. Read this book if you want the facts, but perhaps look elsewhere if you want to feel that elusive sense of wonder. Although I was slightly disappointed overall, the one interesting thing this book did do for me was to make me ponder just how our present point in human evolutionary history will be viewed in five hundred years; and that’s not such a bad thing.