Treasure Island, Buried

As some may remember from the distant past of this blog, I set out to actually read a whole e-book from start to finish on Book Glutton, all this in honor of read a book month, or read an e-book month, or some other kind of month. Given that most Americans don’t even read one book a year, e or otherwise, I am so proud of myself for managing to fulfill my quota in a mere three weeks. Or so. Anyway, I finished Treasure Island about a couple of weeks ago, but have been too swamped with work (and my kids soccer games) to collect any thoughts. And, of course by now, given that I am uncomfortably close to my fiftieth birthday, I have actually forgotten most of the experience. So the comments that follow are no doubt not anywhere nearly an accurate reflection of my experiences but more a kind of fiction of what I construe could have happened in my reading experience. Pierre Bayard and Roland Barthes would be so proud.

First Treasure Island itself. What a romp! One consequence of being an academic is that works in my specialization I am always reading as an academic. Which probably means dully and ponderously. So when I read for pleasure…well, I never really do read for pleasure. But let’s just say that in order to re-activate the pleasure zones in my reading brain, I often have to get far away from stuff I have to teach or write about in my official capacities.

Treasure Island is surely a boys book in a certain sense of that word. For all the sturm and drang about about the dominance of masculine narratives in the canon, it’s worth saying that boys books aren’t much appreciated as boys books per se. They have to first be turned in to “LITERATURE.” That is, something ponderous and masculine rather than, well, rompish. If “rompish” even qualifies as a term of analysis. And much of what we talk about as literature–things like The Great Gatsby as exhibit A; things like The Scarlet Letter as exhibit B–are really chick flicks dressed up to go out on the town. No wonder boys don’t read.

But then there are boys books. Romps that lose their fun in becoming literature, or which are ignored because they seem resistant to literary seriousness. Huckleberry Finn used to be sold as a boys book, in fact, though now it is banned from high schools. For my money Melville’s most readable works are Typee, Omoo, and Redburn. Works written for adolescent boys, and adolescent men, who were looking for a little tittilation in thinking about naked polynesian breasts. Let’s be truthful folks. How many of us really truly loved Moby Dick. Confession of the week. I can’t bring myself to finish Pierre. And I did my master’s exams on Melville. I think I read the Cliff’s notes. Perhaps if either book did more to foreground Polynesian breasts I would get more interested.

In any case, Treasure Island, falls into the category of a boys book so stereotypical that we now can hardly feel it as anything but predictable. The boy in search of a father since he’s lost his own. And finding fathers in all the wrong places, especially among barely disguised pirates who everyone and their mother knows are pirates except apparently Jim Hawkins himself.

I was struck in reading it by how much Jim is the characteristic “good boy.” The loyal son to his mother. Although the novel is often described as a coming of age story, there’s a peculiar sense in which jim is already aged. He is already formed as the good man that he will become, protector of his mother becomes protector of his friends and ultimately, even, the protector of his erstwhile enemy, Long John Silver.

In other words, Jim is already his own father, a boy seeking for a father he doesn’t really need or want. Thus, explaining Jim’s constant penchant for running off for no good reason, whether in to the apple barrel or jumping ship to gain the Island ahead of the others, or stealing the ship out from under the noses of the pirates themselves. Jim is a boy who doesn’t need a father because he is a father already, the one who can save those even whom he despises. Sprung whole and righteous from his own loins. (This is, of course, also a description of Milton’s Satan, but I won’t press the point).

For my money, this makes Treasure Island more of an adventure story than a coming of age story or bildungsroman. Jim is already who he is or will become. He is threatened by evil, but he is not tempted by it. Huckleberry Finn could worry about whether he is going to hell, and he could play his pranks on the slave Jim on the raft for his own selfish ends and pleasures, but Jim Hawkins always chooses the good and we always know he will. And perhaps more importantly, he always knows he will. Thus the story is not about whether Jim will be good and will grow as a human being–he doesn’t grow at all. It is more about whether goodness will out. Does goodness pay off in the end? Is goodness the treasure that we can have without seeking.?Will goodness save our own necks from the noose, and perhaps the necks of Long John Silver as well?

Well Stevenson seemed to think so. I’m tempted to say it’s a vapid vision of the world, where the mutineers of the world exist not to tell me that I too might be one, but as foils for my own moral self-display. Nevertheless, this criticism is awfully literary and ponderous. So I’ll stop before I lose sight of the fact that I actually loved reading it.

Of course, I also weep when watching Brian’s Song. What does this prove?

More later about the actual experience of reading on book glutton.

Blogging, so yesterday

Well, I’ve been away from this for awhile. I was at the Northeast MLA conference in Buffalo for one thing. For another, we’ve been having a furious though civil online discussion about race and racism amongst the faculty at my college. Finally, April is the cruelest month, at least at my school. Even as I feel “caught up” as of today, I just got 25 papers to grade by next Tuesday. Anyhoo, it means that there hasn’t been much time for thinking, much less blogging over the past several weeks, as the relative dearth of new material suggests.

Hope to have some new stuff to blog about Jeff Gomez’s book Print is Dead, and my experiences reading Treasure Island on Book Glutton. Also a couple of interesting things I picked up on reading from the conference. For the moment, I’ll just say that I discovered over at the Chronicle of Higher Education that in the week I’ve been away from my blog, blogging has become passe.

Hurley Goodall tells me that

“Blogs May Be Rendered Obsolete by New Technology!!!!!”

Figures. I thought blogging made me the It prof.

Should have known that by the time I discovered it blogging would be yesterday’s leftovers.

I don’t quite follow all the terminology, but apparently the problem is that new RSS technology hijacks the discussion on the blog away from the originator of the material–I guess that’s me, folks–and situates it in a different point in hyperspace.

Goodall wonders: “If discussion moves away from blogs themselves, one wonders if bloggers would still have incentive to publish.”

Well, in the first place, I think I would be flattered to discover that my blog meant enough that someone wanted to bother hijacking it and talking about it anywhere. I feel incredibly lucky to be getting about 40 to 50 hits a day, which makes me laughable to some of these blogomaniacs out there. To be honest, I got started on this thing thinking that I might get four or five people a week bothering to stumble across it. So I’m not completely sure that getting four or five or zero hits a day would matter that much to me.

EVEN THOUGH I ABSOLUTELY LOVE EVERY ONE OF YOU AND COULDN’T LIVE WITHOUT YOU ANYMORE!!!

Seriously though. This has mostly been more a way of meditating in public about things related primarily to reading, and other related stuff that interests me….like, for instance, myself and how interesting it must be to everyone to sit and read my narcissistic ramblings about how internally gratifying I have found blogging to be.

Whatever else, it proves again my absolute devotion to lost causes. Among other things literature, high modernism, Christianity, Italian opera, and the now completely anachronistic idea that some things are better than other things. I even got focused on my primary academic interest, Ethnic Literatures of the United States, at just the point that all the powers that be–that is, people who make a lot more money than I do, get published much more easily, and who happen to teach at ivy league schools–decided that categories like ethnicity and race don’t make sense any more.

I’ve even gotten interested in reading at just the point in history that no one really reads anymore.

As I think of it, my whole blog is passe.

Let’s just add blogging to my now long list of lost causes.  It’s in good company.

Death by Blogging

Tiffany over at Yawn at the Apocalypse sent me the following link to a story on the NYT re. the deadly effects of blogging. An excerpt….

Two weeks ago in North Lauderdale, Fla., funeral services were held for Russell Shaw, a prolific blogger on technology subjects who died at 60 of a heart attack. In December, another tech blogger, Marc Orchant, died at 50 of a massive coronary. A third, Om Malik, 41, survived a heart attack in December.

Other bloggers complain of weight loss or gain, sleep disorders, exhaustion and other maladies born of the nonstop strain of producing for a news and information cycle that is as always-on as the Internet.

To be sure, there is no official diagnosis of death by blogging, and the premature demise of two people obviously does not qualify as an epidemic. There is also no certainty that the stress of the work contributed to their deaths. But friends and family of the deceased, and fellow information workers, say those deaths have them thinking about the dangers of their work style.

Well, now I know what to blame my bulging wasteline on. You, Dear Reader. You. I am so dedicated to my blogging that I am giving up my health for the cause of….well…of something. Of course, before you came along I blamed it on my job, and before that my kids. And before that my mother. If I ever stop blogging I guess I can blame it on the high fructose corn syrup syndicate.

More seriously, I do think that there’s a peculiar way in which writing is degenerating in to the Grub Street model wherein poorly paid hacks scrabble around trying to make a living by the written word. Or should I say the processed word. Whatever. The more things change the more they stay the same. And other cliches.

The personal economy of Kindles: Or, “Say what????”

I admit I’ve been a little hesitant to buy a Kindle, not out of lack of interest or complete antipathy to e-books. Indeed, I’m kind of intrigued if not totally convinced. But the biggest thing stopping me has been the cost. When I realized this I just thought I should do a little mental calculating.

Professors aren’t as well off as people tend to think, but on the whole full-time professors–a diminishing breed–are still solidly middle class. My salary as a full professor with about 8 years of post collegiate education and 16 years of full time teaching experience is in the low 70s. And, to be honest, most professors, especially at small schools or third rank state schools make a lot less than I do. In general I make less than a high school teacher with similar experience and education; who, am I kidding, I make less than my plumber.

Yes, I’m griping, but I’m also realistic that this isn’t a bad life. I remember being thrilled a couple of years ago when I started realizing that I could afford to purchase hard cover books–it mattered not a whit to me that books were on their way out. Indeed, one of the reasons professors can be paid so little relative to their expertise and experience is that they are pleased with so little. Give me a book and four or five weeks clear of having to prepare for classes or other administrative work in the summer, and everything seems like gravy.

Still, I’ve hesitated on the Kindle. 400 bucks is at least an hour or two of my daughter’s prospective college education. Who knows, with interest I may be able to add an hour or two. And it makes me wonder just a bit about the business plan associated with dedicated e-book readers. I would be, I think, a prime candidate for an e-book reader. But on the other hand, I’m an absolutely atypical American when it comes to books purchasing. Most Americans say they buy five books a year and read four. My guess is the other sits on the shelf in order too look kind of impressive even though it’s never read. Reading as many as 12 books a year is considered being a dedicated reader by a lot of folks, and was the benchmark employed by the NEA in some of their recent pronouncements.

So let’s start with the typical American reading, or claiming to read, four books a year. For fun, I went to the Amazon web site. It’s not nearly as much fun a bricks and mortar store, but book lust may still be fed even online. I compared Kindle books prices to standard paperbacks, using the sale price for new books. I leave aside the fact that I could get the books much more cheaply via the Amazon sellers system. Let’s just be fair and try as much as possible to compare apples to apples, a new paperback versus a new e-book.

Roughly speaking I found that the e-books saved about three to four dollars on the e-book. I realize I could add to this if I considered shipping costs, but it’s not inconceivable that a person would buy four books at one time and have no shipping costs at all. Still four bucks. Not bad, you say. True. Who wouldn’t want to save four bucks when they can. This means that the average American book reader would save 16 bucks on the four books they read during the year–this is the best case scenario of assuming that all four of those books were actually purchased new instead of being borrowed from a friend–something hard to do with e-books–or borrowed from the library. Or shoplifted.

This means that it would take the typical American reader approximately…wait…I have to get my calculator. Yes, I wasn’t wrong. It would take the typical American reader about 25–that’s TWENTYFIVE!!!–years to pay off their 400 dollar investment in a Kindle.

But let’s be fair, there’s also a marginal cost of gas to drive the mile to Barnes and Noble, so let’s say it will take 24–that’s TWENTYFOUR!!!–years to pay off their 400 dollar investment in a Kindle.

Let’s assume that there are enough readers like me out there to sustain a Kindle investment. I probably buy about 25 books a year–whether I actually read them is another story. Many of them are hardbacks I get via Amazon resellers for a fraction of the original price, but let’s still go with the new paperback price, even though its more than I often pay for hardbacks in good condition. I won’t count the multitude of other books and journals I read or look at from the library, since, after all, I get them for free and I wouldn’t pay 400 dollars for something I now get gratis.

Assuming I buy 25 books a year and I can save 4 bucks a book–questionable, but let’s say it’s possible–I can payoff my Kindle in 4 years.

Now, I still have books on my shelf that I bought 30 years ago, and my parents still have books on their shelves that my grandfather bought and read 100 years ago. So far in my 20 year marriage we have gone through four computers and are on our fifth. That’s a new computer every four to five years. Can someone at Amazon promise me that I will get a brand new Kindle for free when mine wears out, or when I drop it in the lake, or when they upgrade so far that it can no longer read the e-book files which are created six years from now? Somehow I truly doubt it. This means that I’m likely looking at shelling out four or five hundred dollars every five years just to maintain my collection. That means the cost of my e-book purchase keeps increasing throughout the lifetime of the file, simply because I have to keep investing new money in order to maintain my e-books. (To be fair, this increasing cost will continue, but diminish if I maintain more and more books. But it will increase)

I freely admit that paperbacks have some similar marginal maintenance costs. A new book shelf every once in a while will cost me a 100 bucks–or 15 if I’m willing to have cinderblocks and boards–but on the whole, this cost is made up by the fact that I sell old books or donate them to charity, something I can’t do with Kindle books at all.

In other words, I actually think Steve Jobs is probably on to something when he says people don’t read anymore and so there’s no future in e-books. This isn’t quite literally correct, but it seems to me that the long term business model depends upon an extremely small demographic. People like me who read a lot of books, but also people like me who would be willing to shell out what is ultimately more money per book than the cost of a paperback.

And why exactly should I do this again??

Printosaurus

There’s a funny and insightful piece from Leah McLaren at the Globe and Mail about being out of step with the times as a thirty something who still reads the newspaper. The occasion for her fretting is a recent piece in the New Yorker on the end of newspapers. An excerpt from McLaren’s ruminations on being an anachronism.

There’s nothing left to do but give up and donate myself to the Newseum of printPrintosaurus journalism, which is about to reopen in multimillion-dollar digs in Washington. They can encase me in glass, under a plaque that reads Female Printosaurus Rex, last known example of the now-extinct species: newspaper columnist.

But maybe the situation is not quite so bad. After all, it seems a bit ironic that all this agonizing about the death of our literary culture has occurred in the pages of newspapers, books and magazines. As Ursula Le Guin pointed out in her Harper’s rebuttal to the New Yorker piece, the haute bourgeoisie (also affectionately known, in Web generation parlance, as “white people”) have always revelled smugly in the knowledge that only an anointed minority enjoyed the same privileges they did. In fact, the only thing educated upper-middle-class white people seem to enjoy more than reading books and newspapers is discussing the fact that no one else but them appears to enjoy reading books and newspapers.

Well, I have to say that I take some comfort in the fact that being a paper junkie still links me to other generations. And in observing my kids, it seems to me that things are really not so absolutely definitive as technophobes or digital utopians would have it. To some degree this kind of either/or–either everyone will give up paper or everyone will eventually recognize that digital texts are a waste of good silicon–is a little like what passes for debate on Fox News. Get the most extreme positions imaginable since people seem to like conflicts between clearly defined goods and evils.

Still, my son, 13, gets up every morning and reads the sports page. He even goes out in the morning and gets the paper if his trusty dog…er, I mean his parents…haven’t brought it in yet. He also reads an extraordinary amount of old fashioned books, wedging it in around the extraordinary amount of time he spends skateboarding and watching YouTube videos. My daughter facebooks more than I care for her to, but she also reads quite a bit and enjoys good old fashioned books.

In some ways my kids are unusual, but they aren’t unique. I suspect that books–even good old fashioned print books– are going to end up somewhere on a continuum of entertainment and educational choices. No longer dominant but still important. Same for newspapers. Just as television didn’t bring movies to and end, and movies didn’t bring novels to an end. More a menu of choices rather than stark divisions.

I am interested in McLaren’s take on Ursula Le Guin. It does seem to me that the readers of “serious” fiction, alongside “serious” readers of fiction–two groups that are by no means coextensive–have always been an influential minority. Maybe what’s at stake in a reading crisis, then, is not so much the sense that no one will read books anymore, but that books are losing the aura of necessity. Even if serious reading has always been the province of a minority, book readers have had the pleasure of social prestige. People always felt like they should read more even if they didn’t. Now, however, that perception has passed.

April 4, 1968

Today is the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The video is a montage surrounding the Civil Rights Movement and the life of MLK with the speech by Robert F. Kennedy playing in the background.

I was in many ways too young to completely understand what was happening in 1968. But even now these words and these images move me.
Martin Luther King Jr. speakingThe words speak for themselves. Related to the general interests of this blog, they make me think of one thing very simply: Words Matter. Whether in the life and preaching of Dr. King, or the eloquence of RFK, summoned from the heart at the instant of crisis.

I think I am no sentimentalist to say that I find myself longing for a leader who could quote Aeschylus by heart, who did not hold words in contempt, who knew enough to see that eloquence isn’t empty. Through words we imagine a life we can’t yet see.

Death of the (Paid) Author?

The London Times reports a great deal of panic on the part of British writers as they contemplate the gradual demise of the longstanding business model associated with print books. E-books legitimate and illegitimate are apparently the main culprit, or at least the main cause of fear. Writers note that digital piracy is rampant, not unlike the problems that the artists associated with the music industry have been complaining about for several years.

Google is doing something that appears more legitimate since it’s pursued by a big company, but if the universal library is successful without any form of compensation for writers, it’s hard to see what incentive will continue to exist for compensating writers at all.

Of course, it’s hard to remember now, but the “professional” writer who makes his or her living by the word is a relatively new invention. Samuel Johnson was, perhaps, the first, and was a rarity then. Writers used to be people who did their work as moonlighting, or because they had the money and the time, or else as officials of the court. In a more ancient vein, poets were troubadours, making their money through performance rather than through commodities.

I wonder whether we are entering a period when the very idea of a professional writer is coming to an end. And I’m not sure whether to be sanguine about that or not. I’m not a member of the cult of the amateur, even though I value anyone writing whatever may be on their minds and imagination. Still, there’s something to be said about the tradition of craftsmanship, the guild of writers that, at its best, professionalization managed to maintain on some level. Of course, there’s always been a lot of crap out there, but I’m not certain that craftsmanship will maintain the same aura in digital forms.

Maybe. Maybe.