Digital Humanities as Culture Difference: Adeline Koh on Hacking and Yacking

My colleague Bernardo Michael in the History department here has been pressing me to understand that properly understood Digital Humanities should be deeply connected to our College-wide efforts to address questions of diversity and what the AAC&U calls inclusive excellence.  (Bernardo also serves as the special assistant to the President for Diversity affairs).  At first blush I will admit that this has seemed counter-intuitive to me and I have struggled to articulate the priority between my interest in developing new efforts in Digital Humanities that I tie to our college’s technology plan and my simultaneous concerns with furthering our institutions diversity plan (besides just a general ethical interest, my primary field of study over the past 20 years has been multicultural American Literature).

Nevertheless, I’ve started seeing more and more of Bernardo’s point as I’ve engaged in the efforts to get things started in Digital Humanities.  For one thing, the practices and personages of the digital world are talked about in cultural terms:  We use language like “digital natives” and “digital culture” and “netizens”–cultural terms that attempt to articulate new forms of social and cultural being.  In the practical terms of trying to create lift-off for some of these efforts, an administrator faces the negotiation of multiple institutional cultures, and the challenging effort to get faculty–not unreasonably happy and proud about their achievements within their own cultural practices–to see that they actually need to become conversant in the languages and practices of an entirely different and digital culture.

Thus I increasingly see that Bernardo is right;  just as we need to acclimate ourselves and become familiar with other kinds of cultural differences in the classroom, and just as our teaching needs to begin to reflect the values of diversity and global engagement, our teaching practices also need to engage students as digital natives.  Using technology in the classroom or working collaboratively with students on digital projects isn’t simply instrumental–i.e. it isn’t simply about getting students familiar with things they will need for a job.  It is, in many ways, about cultural engagement, respect, and awareness.  How must our own cultures within academe adjust and change to engage with a new and increasingly not so new culture–one that is increasingly central and dominant to all of our cultural practices?

Adeline Koh over at Richard Stockton College (and this fall at Duke, I think), has a sharp post on these kinds of issues, focusing more on the divide between theory and practice or yacking and hacking in Digital Humanities.  Adeline has more theory hope than I do, but I like what she’s probing in her piece and I especially like where she ends up:

If computation is, as Cathy N. Davidson (@cathyndavidson) and Dan Rowinski have been arguing, the fourth “R” of 21st century literacy, we very much need to treat it the way we already do existing human languages: as modes of knowledge which unwittingly create cultural valences and systems of privilege and oppression. Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks: “To speak a language is to take on a world, a civilization.”  As Digital Humanists, we have the responsibility to interrogate and to understand what kind of world, and what kind of civilization, our computational languages and forms create for us. Critical Code Studies is an important step in this direction. But it’s important not to stop there, but to continue to try to expand upon how computation and the digital humanities are underwritten by theoretical suppositions which still remain invisible.

More Hack, Less Yack?: Modularity, Theory and Habitus in the Digital Humanities | Adeline Koh

I suspect that Bernardo and Adeline would have a lot to say to each other.

Mark Sandel–The commodification of everything

I’ve enjoyed listening occasionally to Mark Sandel’s lectures in philosophy via iTunes.  He has an interesting new article in the April Atlantic focusing on the ways in which nearly everything in American life, at least, has been reduced to a market value.  Despite the admonition that money can’t buy me love, we are pretty sure that it can buy everything else, and that we are willing to sell just about anything, including body parts and personal dignity, for whatever the market will bear.

Sandel somewhat peculiarly to my mind traces this to a post-Cold War phenomenon.

WE LIVE IN A TIME when almost everything can be bought and sold. Over the past three decades, markets—and market values—have come to govern our lives as never before. We did not arrive at this condition through any deliberate choice. It is almost as if it came upon us.

As the Cold War ended, markets and market thinking enjoyed unrivaled prestige, and understandably so. No other mechanism for organizing the production and distribution of goods had proved as successful at generating affluence and prosperity. And yet even as growing numbers of countries around the world embraced market mechanisms in the operation of their economies, something else was happening. Market values were coming to play a greater and greater role in social life. Economics was becoming an imperial domain. Today, the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to material goods alone. It increasingly governs the whole of life.

The last gasp Marxists I studied with at Duke had a word for what Sandel sees and descries, commodification, and it didn’t mysterious just come upon us in the 1980s.  Commodification, the rendering of every bit of life as a commodity that can bought and sold, is the central thrust of capitalist economies in the 20th century, perhaps the central feature of capitalism per se.  The essential act of commodification is at the center of Marx’s understanding that the worker in some very real sense sells him or herself through selling his or her labor power.  Thus, human beings were commodified well before people became willing to sell tattoos on their foreheads to advertise products.  So Sandel’s perplexity and astonishment at this state of affairs in our contemporary economy strikes me as the perplexity of someone who has only recently awakened from a dream.

On the other hand, I do think Sandel is on to something.  It is the case that despite this thrust of capitalist economies (and, to be frank, I’m not sure that Marxist economies were all that different), there have been sectors of culture and their accompanying institutions that resisted their own commodification.  The edifice of modernism in the arts and literature is built on the notion that the arts could be a transcendent world apart from degradations of the social world, including perhaps especially its markets.  The difficulty and density of modern art and literature was built in part out of a desire that it not be marketable in any typical sense.  Modern art was sometimes ugly precisely to draw attention to the difficulty and difference of its aesthetic and intellectual properties.  It was meant not to sell, or at least not to sell too well.  Remember that the next time a Picasso sells for millions.  Similarly, the church and in a different way educational institutions retained a relative independence form the marketplace, or at least resisted the notion that they could be reduced to market forces.  Whether claiming to provide access to the sacred or to enduring human values, religious institutions and educational institutions served–even when they were corrupt or banal–to remind the culture that there was a world apart, something that called us to be better than ourselves, or at least reminded us that our present values were not all the values that there were.

Sandel rightly notes that that residue has all but disappeared, and the result has been an hollowing out of our public life, and a debasement of our humanity.

In hopes of avoiding sectarian strife, we often insist that citizens leave their moral and spiritual convictions behind when they enter the public square. But the reluctance to admit arguments about the good life into politics has had an unanticipated consequence. It has helped prepare the way for market triumphalism, and for the continuing hold of market reasoning.

In its own way, market reasoning also empties public life of moral argument. Part of the appeal of markets is that they don’t pass judgment on the preferences they satisfy. They don’t ask whether some ways of valuing goods are higher, or worthier, than others. If someone is willing to pay for sex, or a kidney, and a consenting adult is willing to sell, the only question the economist asks is “How much?” Markets don’t wag fingers. They don’t discriminate between worthy preferences and unworthy ones. Each party to a deal decides for him- or herself what value to place on the things being exchanged.

This nonjudgmental stance toward values lies at the heart of market reasoning, and explains much of its appeal. But our reluctance to engage in moral and spiritual argument, together with our embrace of markets, has exacted a heavy price: it has drained public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics afflicting many societies today.

Sandel wonders about a way to connect to some kind of moral discourse to inform public life, something that will reach beyond the reach of markets, but he clearly despairs that such a connection can be found.  I think there’s good reason.  Rapidly our educational institutions have become factories that shamelessly advertise themselves as places where people can make themselves in to better commodities than they were before, and which build programs designed to sell themselves to the highest number of student-customers possible.  Our religious institutions are floundering.  Only today I read in Time magazine that the rise of so-called “nones”–people who claim to have no religious affiliation–is one of the most notable developments in our spiritual culture.  Such people often seek to be spiritual but not religious on the grounds that religions are dogmatic and inflexible.  I have come to wonder whether that dogmatism and inflexibility points to the hard won truth that it is not good enough to just go along to get along.

One wonders, in fact, whether a spirituality based on getting along really provides a hard point of resistance to the tendency to see everything in life–whether my beliefs or my ethics–as an investment that must pay off if it is to be worth keeping.  I wonder, too, whether our educational systems and institutions are up to the task of providing an education that isn’t just another instance of the market.  As for art, writing, and literature.  Well, who knows?  Modernism was not always commodified, though it very quickly became  so.  I do find it intriguing that this point of hyper-commodification is also a time when there has been an explosion of free or relatively free writing and music on the internet.  There is a small return to the notion of the artist as a community voice, with musician and poets producing work for free on the internet, and making their living through performance or through other jobs–escaping or at least partially escaping the notion that we produce work primarily to sell it.  This is a small resistance, but worth thinking about.

I wonder if there are other ways our culture is equipped to resist in a larger collective fashion, the turning of our lives in to the image of a can of soup?

The United States–Land of the Second Language Illiterates

Approximately 80% of American citizens are monolingual, and the largest part of the rest are immigrants and their children. This statistic from Russell Berman, outgoing President of the MLA, in his valedictory message to the MLA convention in Seattle this past January. Berman’s address is a rousing and also practical defense of the humanities in general, and especially of the role of second language learning in developing a society fully capable of engaging the global culture within which it is situated. From his address:

Let us remember the context. According to the National Foreign Language Center, some 80% of the US population is monolingual. Immigrant populations and heritage speakers probably make up the bulk of the rest. Americans are becoming a nation of second-language illiterates, thanks largely to the mismanagement of our educational system from the Department of Education on down. In the European Union, 50% of the population older than 15 reports being able to carry on a conversation in a non-native language, and the EU has set a goal of two non-native languages for all its citizens.

Second language learning enhances first language understanding: many adults can recall how high school Spanish, French, or German—still the three main languages offered—helped them gain a perspective on English—not only in terms of grammar but also through insights into the complex shift in semantic values across cultural borders. For this reason, we in the MLA should rally around a unified language learning agenda: teachers of English and teachers of other languages alike teach the same students, and we should align our pedagogies to contribute cooperatively to holistic student learning. We are all language teachers. For this reason, I call on English departments to place greater importance on second language knowledge, perhaps most optimally in expectations for incoming graduate students. Literature in English develops nowhere in an English-only environment; writing in any language always takes place in a dialectic with others. With that in mind, I want to express my gratitude to the American Studies Association for recently adopting a statement supportive of the MLA’s advocacy for language learning.

Berman goes on to recognize, however, that this strong and reasonable call for educated people to be conversant in more than one language is largely sent echoless in to the void. Less than .1% of the discretionary budget of the Department of Education goes to support Language learning. Indeed, I suspect this is because so many of us, even in higher education, are dysfunctional in a second language. I often tell people grimly that I can ask how to go to the bathroom in four different languages.

Nevertheless, in an age where we call for global engagement and in which we imagine the importance of preparedness for a global marketplace and want our students to be citizens of the world, it is irresponsible to continue to imagine that world will conveniently learn to speak English for our sakes.


Tchotchkes R’US: Formerly known as Barnes and Nobles, Booksellers

Like a beaten dog wagging its tail as it returns to the master for one more slap, I keep returning to Barnes and Nobles, hoping for a dry bone or at least a condescending pat on the head. Mostly getting the slap.  I’m wondering lately how much longer B&N can hold on to the subtitle of their name with a straight face. I admit that for purists Barnes and Nobles was never much of a bookseller in the first place, the corporate ambiance just a bit too antiseptic for the crowd that prefers their books straight, preferably with the slightest scent of dust and mold. But as a person that has spent the entirety of his life in flyover country, Barnes and Nobles and its recently deceased cousin Borders seemed something like salvation. If the ambiance was corporate, the books were real, and they were many. If there were too few from independent publishers, there were more than enough good books to last any reader a lifetime, and I spent many hours on my own wandering the shelves, feeling that ache that all readers know, the realization that there are too many good books and one lifetime will never be enough.

Barnes and Nobles became a family affair for us. One way I induced the habit of reading in my kids was to promise them I’d take them to B&N anytime they finished a book and buy them another one. The ploy paid off. My kids read voraciously, son and daughter alike, putting the lie to the notion that kids today have to choose between reading and surfing.  My kids do both just fine, and I think this is attributable in no small part to the fact our family time together was spent wandering the endless aisles of bookstores, imaging the endless possibilities, what the world would be like if we only had enough time to read them all. Other families go on kayak trips; we read books. I’m not sorry for the tradeoffs.

All that is mostly over, for paper books anyway. My son and I still go over to Barnes and Nobles, but the last three trips we’ve come out saying the same thing to one another without prompting–worthless. Aisle after Aisle of bookshelves in our local store are being replaced by toys and tchotchkes designed to… what? It’s not even clear. At least when the place was dominated by books it was clear that this was where you went for books. Now it seems like a vaguely upscale Walmart with a vast toy section. I’m waiting for the clothing section to open up soon.

I don’t think we should underestimate the consequence of these changes for booksellers and bookreaders. Although it is the case that readers will still be able to get books via your local, the place of books is changing in radical ways.  The advent of e-books is completely reordering the business of bookselling–and i would say the culture of books as well.  An article in the Economist notes that books are following in the sucking vortex that has swallowed the music and newspaper industries all but whole.  Among the biggest casualties is the books and mortar bookstore, and this is of no small consequence to the effort to sell books in general:

Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is the gradual disappearance of the shop window. Brian Murray, chief executive of HarperCollins, points out that a film may be released with more than $100m of marketing behind it. Music singles often receive radio promotion. Publishers, on the other hand, rely heavily on bookstores to bring new releases to customers’ attention and to steer them to books that they might not have considered buying. As stores close, the industry loses much more than a retail outlet. Publishers are increasingly trying to push books through online social networks. But Mr Murray says he hasn’t seen anything that replicates the experience of browsing a bookstore.

Confession, I actually enjoy browsing Amazon, and I read book reviews endlessly.  But I think this article is right that there is nothing quite like the experience of browsing the shelves at a bookstore, in part because it is a kind of communal event.  It is not that there are more choices–there aren’t, there are far more choices online.  Nor is it necessarily that things are better organized.  I think I have a better chance of finding things relevant to my interests through a search engine than I do by a chance encounter in the stack.   And, indeed, The Strand is a book store that leaves me vaguely nauseous and dizzy, both because there is too much choice and there is too little organization.  But the physical fact of browsing with one’s companions through the stacks, the chance encounter with a book you had heard about but never seen, the excitement of discovery, the anxious calculations–at least if you are an impoverished graduate student or new parent–as to whether you have enough cash on hand to make the purchase now or take a chance that the book will disappear if you wait.  All of these get left behind in the sterility of the online exchange.  The bookstore is finally a cultural location, a location of culture, where bookminded people go for buzz they get from being around other book-minded people.  I can get my books from Amazon, and I actually don’t mind getting them via e-books, avoiding all the fuss of going down and having a face to face transaction with a seller.  But that face to face is part of the point, it seems to me.  Even though book-buying has always fundamentally been about an exchange of cash for commodity, the failure to see that it was also more than that is the cultural poverty of a world that amazon creates.  With books stores dying a rapid death and libraries close upon their heels, I’m feeling a little like a man without a country, since the country of books is the one to which I’ve always been most loyal.

I am, of course, sounding old and crotchety.  The same article in the Economist notes that IKEA is now changing their bookshelf line in the anticipation that people will no longer use them for books.

TO SEE how profoundly the book business is changing, watch the shelves. Next month IKEA will introduce a new, deeper version of its ubiquitous “BILLY” bookcase. The flat-pack furniture giant is already promoting glass doors for its bookshelves. The firm reckons customers will increasingly use them for ornaments, tchotchkes and the odd coffee-table tome—anything, that is, except books that are actually read.

I suspect this may be true.  Bookshelves and books alike may become craft items, things produced by those curious folks who do things by hand, items that you can only buy at craft fairs and auctions, something you can’t find at Wal-Mart, or Barnes and Nobles.

Scott Cairns: Recovered Body

Recovered BodyMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

I admired these poems more than I loved them. Though that may say more about me than about the poems. Believing with the Konstanz school that the work of art is an event occurring only when an object is encountered, reviewers should probably preface what they have to say with self-critique, admitting that, after all, every act of criticism is disguised autobiography, or at least disguised desire. (How else to account for the different ways a person takes a book in the course of a life—thrilled in youth and bemused or embarrassed in middle age that we took the time once to be enthused.) In that spirit I should say that I was tired when I read these poems, and more tired when I read through a second time. It also likely didn’t help matters that I had read through Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do” earlier this week, a collection that left me feeling shaken and undone, as if in counting her losses she had fingered the raw places left by mine. Finally, it may be that in the recesses of my brain I’m carrying the memory of Cairns visit to Messiah College several years ago, delivering a reading that I felt was both profound and down to earth, deeply serious while also good-humoured.

By comparison, these poems seemed to me this time around more accomplished than moving, as if written while attending more to other poems than to readers. This is not to say that there’s not a lot to admire or that there is not a great deal of accomplishment. Indeed, it a poet’s great advantage that if even half a dozen poems that strike the anvil, an entire collection will have been worth the reading. By comparison, fifty good pages in a novel otherwise full of dreck leave me infuriated that the promise in those pages had been such a tease. Cairns is at his best in taking the old, old stories and finding the new thing. His curiosity presses the “Why?” and “What if?” Why, after all, did Lot’s wife look back. Could it have been something like compassion? And, if we were truthful with ourselves, won’t we admit that we are, in the lurid eye of our imaginations, looking back too at smoldering Sodom? What if Jacob slew Isaac after all, the story of rams and angel a good tale to give God a little cover. Perhaps the most moving of these to me was his rendering of Joseph, long after the successes of his life and the moral triumphs of his forgiving spirit, never quite forgetting the terror of that adolescent grave he’d been assigned by his brothers:

“And in succeeding years, through their provocative turns of fortune—false accusations, a little stretch in prison, a developing facility with dreams—Joseph came gradually into his own, famously forgave his own, pretty much had the last laugh, save when, always as late in the day as he could manage, he gave in to sleep and to the return of that blue expanse, before which all accretion—accomplishment, embellishment, all likely interpretations—would drop away as he found himself again in the hollow of that well, naked, stunned, his every power spinning as he lay, and looked, and swam.”

This is old hat defamiliarization. But it is also really good stuff. How absolutely true it must be, or at least could have been, about Joseph. We want triumph without memory, and redemption without regrets. This and other poems like it tear Biblical and historical figures out of the thick mask of their necessary reputations, places where, as Cairns puts it in another poem, they are “all but veiled by chiaroscuro and the prominence.”

All of this is praise, and it may say something that I find myself admiring, and even liking, these poems the more I write about them in this review, writing, after all, an act of thought, an exercise of the imagination on the idea of poetry and literature and these poems and this literature. But in the reading I found all this just a little distancing, as if the manner of these poems was too far from my need. While the technology of the poetry was to make remote figures human for me again, to, as the title of the collection suggestion suggests, give testimony to the “recovered body,” the poems’ achievements seemed primarily intellectual or literary or interpretive, rather than visceral. Someone said they wanted poetry that made them feel as if the top of their heads had been taken off, and I tend to agree. But again, perhaps that only speaks to my own needs, my own place, my own embodiment, the facts of my father’s gradual descent in to dementia and my mother’s grappling with depression, that I miss and worry anxiously about my daughter away at school, or fret and feel tired already at the sense that the past summer never actually began and now it is all but ended. So perhaps it is not surprising that the poem I liked the most in the collection was also clearly the most lyric and personal. The one in which Cairns, remembering the death of his father, struck me as a person more than an imagination:

As we met around him
That last morning—none of us unaware
of what the morning would bring—I was struck
by how quickly he left us. And the room
emptied—comes to me now—far too quickly.
If impiety toward the dead were still
deemed sin, it was that morning our common
trespass, to have imagined too readily
his absence, to have all but denied him
as he lay, simply, present before us.

This poem–unlike the others, all occupying their own form of goodness–made me say Yes.

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Book Glutton: Two Thumbs Sideways

Ok, I’m finally getting back to talk about Book Glutton, and I’m probably not being fair to them since I actually finished Treasure Island more than three weeks ago. I’ve probably been delaying because it’s always easier to review or talk about something that you love or hate. Easier to get exercised and visceral when you want to damn things to perdition, or when you think we’ve arrived at A-MOMENT-OF-WORLD-HISTORICAL-REVOLUTION. Perhaps unfortunately for Book Glutton, it strikes me as neither world-historical or revolutionary. It is–in that damnably tepid turn of phrase–“OK.” Or as I sometimes say on my student’s papers: “Not Too Bad.” No wonder they hate me.

First what is Book Glutton? On the one hand it is just another of many online sites where one can get full-text versions of literary classics and not-so-classics, though they also promise to be a publishing venture for contemporary writers. The books are loaded into a reader in your computer browser. The reader is the approximate size of a typical paperback, and through several nifty features the reader gives human readers a lot of options that aren’t available either through other e-book services and readers or via traditional board and paper books. For one thing, I can join an online club reading the book I choose, and we can leave each other notes filled with our readerly wisdom. We can also communicate in real time via a chat window attached right to the reader window itself. Thus I can talk and read at the same time, something my children and my students seem to find unexceptional but which I still find somewhat like patting my head and rubbing my stomach at the same time.

I’ve been on record as having my doubts about e-books, so let me go on record first with what I liked or found interesting about the whole experience. The first thing to say is that reading the book itself was, well, surprising like reading anything else, at least insofar as the story itself was concerned. I liked the yellowish-white cast of reader’s pages since it looked a little bit like a slowly aging paperback, and it reduced eyestrain to boot. I also liked the page-like feel of the presentation itself. One problem with many online texts is something we might otherwise think would make them convenient, the scrolling itself. I’m not alone in finding the long lines and the unending page of text in a lot of online e-texts completely maddening. There is something comforting and rhythmic about completing 30-40 medium size lines of text and turning a page, the sense of completion somehow necessary to the process of going on. A little bit like  breathing in a swimming stroke.

Book Glutton accomplishes this in much the same way as dedicated ebook readers, recreating the approximate page size of a normal books such that I can attend to the text, complete it and move on. And for the most part, the story was still the story that I could read and absorb and be absorbed by just as I might any other novel. As I suggested in my last post on Treasure Island, I found the book great fun. As an academic, I found it thought provoking in ways no one else would probably care to find thought provoking. In other words, its being an e-book by itself didn’t do too much to alter my reading experience as such.

I think I would go so far as to say that there are a couple of features of Book Glutton’s presentation that I even liked better than traditional books. The scroll bar at the bottom of the page told me how much further I had to go in a particular chapter. Thus the reader has both the best features of a traditional book–page length chunks of prose–while also overcoming one of the few annoying features of traditional books. When I get bored with a book I’m reading, I’m given to flipping through pages to see just how many pages I have to the end of the chapter. It can be vaguely exasperating to flip and not find what I’m looking for, whereas Book Glutton let’s me know exactly how far I have to go, and I can determine whether it’s worth my time to just plow on through or give up for the day until I can get more interested.

I also have to say I liked the fact that at the click of a button I could enlarge the text so that my aging eyes could read just a little more easily.  The text automatically reorients while still retaining page length chunks of prose, just less prose per page.

Some features of Book Glutton hold a lot of promise, but didn’t work too well for me. I created a book club, but no one came. I invited the entire faculty of my college to join me. I think three people said they would, but I don’t think anyone actually read it. I had three anonymous online folks say they wanted to be part of the group, and I signed them up, but they were never on when I was reading, and I couldn’t find that they left me any nifty notes with pearls of wisdom.

Clearly Book Glutton requires a more hands on and somewhat fascist book group leader than I am. Someone who demand more participation. Maybe someone who would get everyone on board to be reading at the same time. Theoretically I can see an interesting place for this kind of thing. Studies show that people who read with groups or who at least are around other people who read are more likely to keep reading through their adult lives. This, in general, is a great service the web provides, connecting readers from around the world. Book Glutton is another take on this general principle, enabling real time participation in common reading. I could see this kind of thing as being really useful for secondary and even college classrooms, and especially for the task of getting kids interested in reading. In this age driven by buzz, it’s not the thing itself that is inherently cool, it’s the fact that everyone around you is in to it. So Book Glutton or similar services could be a route toward making books “the bomb” so to speak. But it just didn’t work out for me.

There were some negatives. I found lugging my computer around, booting it up, connecting to Book Glutton all just a little bit tiresome and inefficient. Why can’t I just open my books and start reading, I wondered. I also had the problem of connecting. I brought my laptop several places and tried to get connections while I was waiting around for something else to happen–a common time to spend reading. Problem is that Wifi isn’t everywhere, no matter what the TV commercials tell me.

The heating pad effect of my laptop lying on my capacious belly was also a bit unnerving. I’m not used to getting belly sweat from a novel.

As I suggested above, most of the reading experiences themselves were not terribly different from a regular novel, but I did find the lure of the internet a bit astonishing even for an incipient codger such as myself. In the normal course of reading a section of a book that started to bore me, I’d skim through until my interest picked up again. With BookGlutton, however, the ready availability of email or other texts was all but irresistable. Rather than skimming through the book, a way of sticking with it, I would abandon the book and go read my email for a half hour. At the end of which I couldn’t quite pick up the thread of the reading again.

Similarly, the chat mechanism is promising, but I also found it insidiously distracting.  I actually had a conversation online with one of the poohbah’s an BookGlutton.  A really nice and helpful guy who was very receptive to some of my suggestions.  Sorry, I can’t remember his name.  It was the only chat time I got during the whole experience, and I found after thirty seconds or so that i was more interested in chatting than in reading.  This is, of course, a common feature of book groups.  They don’t actually talk about books, if they even read them.  However, it is a peculiar thing to have this happening while you’re reading.  It’s almost as if you’re in a library but people you don’t know come up and start talking to you about the book you’re reading.  Many of the people who do this in library, of course, are either homeless or otherwise imbalanced, so what does this say about denizens of Book Glutton.  No, just kidding.  However, I did actually end up disciplining myself to not open the chat feature while I read a chapter, only opening it at the end of chapters.  The temptation to keep seeing if anyone else was around was compelling, a feature of the internet that interferes with the kind of absorption typically associated with literary reading.

This distraction is an important consequence of reading online I think, something that digital utopians champion as a “new literacy.”


I tend to think that describing the frantic skimming that goes with reading on the web as “new literacy” is a little bit like me saying my belly fat is a form of stored energy. It is, but does that really tell me anything or make me feel any better. No, but it does give me a convenient reason for not working out. Call it conservation.

In a similar fashion I think all the discussion of new literacy is a somewhat fancy name for the inability to attend.

Still, overall this is not too many negatives associated with BookGlutton. So why only two thumbs sideways?

I guess I feel like e-books need to demonstrate a clear superiority to board and paper books, a reason that this technology is clearly superior to the technology I already have in hand. At this stage they don’t present themselves to me as such. While there’s some nifty things associated with Book Glutton, I’m not sure most committed readers are really interested in being nifty persons. Book Glutton is kind of neat, but not neat enough to make me spend my time on Book Glutton instead of in a book store.

It’s a little like a decent three star summer movie. Kind of glad I went to see it, and might go see another one, but I don’t feel like my life will miss much if I had missed it.

Or even more, it’s almost as if we’ve got a good television show that a movie theater decides to show on a big screen. It might be kind of neat to watch “Lost” on the big screen, but at some point will you really start watching all your television shows down at the theater. I kind of doubt it.

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.


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.