Friday, December 14, 2007

Dearth and death

I just received Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past in anticipation of nine days of peace, quiet and books, both read and written. For me, reading and writing go together and having no demands on my time and no technological intrusions, other than my laptop, is a long awaited mental retreat.

Proust arrived in a battered and retaped box from Amazon that UPS hadn't managed to destroy. The book was sealed in plastic on cardboard and rested safely within the bulging and opened box about to burst from its hastily applied cellophane tape reinforcement. I fondled the weighty book while reading about much lighter book technology, namely Kindle, also from Amazon (I do hope they protect it if it's going by UPS, especially since it costs $400). The debate from technogeeks, literary Luddites, and everyone in between has been interesting. The geeks decry it's price tag and antique (if anything from 1980 could be considered antique) functionality while the Luddites scream about the death of books and the sensory experience of knowing the heft, tactile sensation and intoxicating scent of dust and cloth and leather bindings embedded between pages that rustle when turned and are marked in the margins with notable quotes and passages. You can't have that with the Kindle. I haven't seen or held one but I do admire the concept of having hundreds of books available anywhere, any time just by touching a few buttons. I'm in the wait and see camp although I do understand and admire the Luddites' position on books while I cringe at the thought of tens of thousands of trees razed and made into books, although no one ever mentions how many trees it takes to made matches or toothpicks or toilet paper.

I want to go back to a time when rag pickers pulled discarded clothing from the streets and alleys and sold them to bookmakers to make the pages on which the classics (and not so classics) were written and survive intact and white as the day they were created instead of the crumbling, yellowed pages of paperbacks that eventually will succumb to the destructive power of the light and the noxious vapors from avid readers whose sticky and salty fingers eagerly turn the pages from chapter to chapter and so to the end. Even the printed word, depending on the quality of paper used, is temporary at best while the impact of the words remain in the mind long after the book is dust or landfill or wrapped around the detritus of life. Kindle may be onto something if it, as some believe, makes reading more accessible to those who prefer the cyberworld to the real world. Reading comprehension test scores, we are told, are declining in the schools and businesses are rife with ignorance. Good thing we have all these tests and measurements of literary ability nowadays so that we can decry the death of literacy publicly and flash the news around the world. Was it so different in the not so distant past?

While it seems the golden age of literature is behind us, I doubt there is that much difference. Children in rural communities went to one-room schoolhouses with the same children from their earliest days until they were released from winter imprisonment to work their families' fields. They could read the Bible and do sums but very few had the literary comprehension of a fifth grader in today's world of standardized tests and variable curricula. Yes, more people go to college today than in the past, but there are also more people in the world now than then. Businesses employed clerks (clarks in Olde England) who could add prodigious lines of sums and get them right every time, poring over crabbed lines of numbers while shivering at their elevated desks perched on tall stools reading by candlelight, but few of them wasted their precious light to read at home and lunch hours were unknown at the time. Some of the people went to lectures and symposiums, but they were either hungry for knowledge or wanted to seem fashionable in a world obsessed with class, caste and fashion. The centuries before the nineteenth were even more ignorant. Most people had a rudimentary education at best and only the middle classes could afford tutors for their children. More people read, but probably with average or below comprehension. And yet, the book did not die.

For the first time in known history, there are more literate people in the world. Being literate doesn't mean always comprehending what is read, but for the first time in millennia the written word is available to more people. No longer is literature the sole province of religion and money; anyone can learn and everyone can own a book or pick one up at a library. Kindle is, at this point, not the printing press that freed the written word from painstaking copyists in monasteries nor is it the first working and affordable home computer, but it is the first reading machine that is easy on the eyes if not on the pocketbook. It is doubtful Kindle is saving the written word and books from death or the world from a dearth of literary comprehension, but it is at least a stab in the right direction.

People who want to read will find a way, whether that means saving money to cruise the local second-hand bookstore or buying leather bound books with gilt edges from a company that sells the classics, new and old. It isn't technology that has degraded literary comprehension or hastened the death of books, but it may be technology that makes books more accessible to those who prefer technology to lugging around their own hefty copy of Proust to read at bus stops, restaurants and breaks at work, or just in bed or on the sofa. Granted, the Kindle's hefty price is a strike against it, but the iPod and MP3 players that made it possible to download and create personal musical mixes once cost quite a bit and they're more affordable now. Give Amazon time to build up its literary database, clean up the clunky look, add color and bring down the price and Kindles may start popping up at restaurants and bus stops more and more, but whatever happens the book and reading will never die.

We may end up in an Outer Limits world where books are data easily accessed by a world-wide networked brain implant but there remain a few hardy souls visiting ghostly libraries to run their fingers lovingly along the edge of pages as they turn them and lose themselves in worlds and realms of fantasy and time among the printed word. When you get right down to it, knowledge comes in many forms and books are just one more form, a form I heartily endorse and enjoy. As long as there are people to tell the stories, they will find a way to pass them along because ultimately it's not the book that matters but the story.

That is all. Disperse.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Where Technology Takes Us

Hollywood has always been about illusion, the original dream factory, but somehow over the years people have become the illusion and Hollywood the fantasy everyone wants to make real. It has lost the quality of fantasy and blurred the lines between real and make believe. It's obvious when you look at the movie and TV stars who spend so much money and time on trainers, nutritionists and plastic surgery so they can take their fantasies into the real world. It's the story Rita Hayworth always told, that men went to bed with Gilda and woke up with her, confusing the fantasy with reality and unable to understand the difference.

In a world where fantasy is more real than reality comes Beowulf and we're back to fantasy again where talent is not forsaken in the face of cinematic beauty. That's the one thing that has been lost in the march to Hollywoodize the world, talent. That's not to say there aren't talented actors who look good (and sexy) naturally without plastic surgery, trainers and nutritionists or that there isn't value to treating your body well -- well, except for the plastic surgery -- but movies are all about fantasy.

The star of Beowulf is nowhere near the buff, gorgeous figure of Beowulf. Ray Winstone is overweight and paunchy and getting older. If Beowulf was a live action movie instead of computer generated, Winstone would not have been chosen to play the part, nor could he have done so without at least a year of intensive training and diet and a bit of plastic surgery. That's not to say he isn't talented, because he is, but Hollywood has finally found a way for talent to take center stage alongside real fantasy.

The movie isn't that good, but it's interesting because it remodels the actors' bodies into whatever the part requires (like Anthony Hopkins' huge paunch and bloated face) without the actors having to change their appearance. It is their talent that shines forth and not chameleon changes by knife. It doesn't matter that Winstone is 50 years old and Beowulf is in his early twenties. It works. Granted, the technique needs some refinement before it can take the place of real live actors, but it's getting there. Unlike Looker where models once perfected by plastic surgery were killed so their computer generated clones could take their places or The Stepford Wives where perfect robots made to order with the right bra size and figure killed their living templates, there is no need to walk blindly into the future Michael Crichton envisioned when technology replaces people. Technology can mold the physical without the use of plastic surgery or grueling training and starvation diets or Botox or any of the surface things actors do to fit the part and retain the spark of talent and genius that makes an actor worth watching. It can't be long before computer generated movies move into the realm where fantasy mimics reality without the need for fantasy to take over and supplant reality. Hollywood will have reclaimed the dream factory without sacrificing humans on the bloody altar in the name of money cloaked in the guise of art.

Bottom line? Actors can get old, can succumb to illness, gain a little weight and sport their wrinkles, stretch marks and saggy butts and knees without ending their professional lives and the dream factory can give them immortality, youth and beauty while borrowing their voice and acting talents without using them up and tossing them aside like old Kleenex. Somehow that seems like a much better and healthier world, although the gossip rags will suffer since no one will care about dimpled asses or deep wrinkles. Wouldn't that be a shame?

I'm a realist who knows that talent is not only contained in a plastic package and can be found in even the ugliest creature, as Stockard Channing illustrated in The Girl Most Likely To. Beauty isn't everything and when these plastic beauties die and their bones are dug up centuries from now by some curious archaeologist, their bones will tell a different tale than what was made from them when the actor was alive.

That is all. Disperse.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


When I discovered online bookstores like I was in heaven. Millions of books and all I had to do was sit at my computer and read and choose and buy, that is until I discovered the wish list and other online bookstores. I have dozens bookmarked and visit them regularly, some even send me emails about what's new and exciting and I am always hooked like a greedy catfish biting down on a chewy, misshapen dough ball hiding a double barbed hook.

The wish list is a safe way to save links to all the books I want; mine runs to several pages. I used to store them in the cart for later, but that list was getting too long and I can't search for just books or DVDs or whatever else I have put aside. You can't do that at the bookstore because they frown on you making piles of books and leaving them without paying. I would rather pay for them but that depends on my budget, especially nowadays since I became interested in buying actual food and cooking utensils to fill my empty cupboards. I figured that since I'll soon celebrate my third anniversary in this apartment -- a prodigious feat in itself -- I should begin filling the cabinets and freezer with something other than frozen dinners, which requires that I buy pots and pans and spatulas and all kinds of things to cook and serve the food. The wish list is no essential because it gives me a feeling of having access to the books I want to buy without feeling deprived and cutting into the food budget.

And now I'm going to have to fit bookcases into the budget somewhere since I can't leave all the books I now own in stacks on the floor or in boxes in the living room, bedroom and closets. I don't have that much closet space and it's time I established more than a squatting presence here now that the two-year curse has been lifted. In the past, books were more portable and didn't spoil as quickly as food and pots and pans and cooking utensils just seem sad without food and they have to be washed to be reused. Dried and fly-specked pots and dishes tend to smell up the trunk and draw vermin, not to mention how looking at them turns my stomach into a rumbling cement truck mixing gravel, sand and water just before it spits the brownish-gray slurry onto the ground. People tend to frown on dumping slurry on their shoes or all over their nice clean roads without a permit.

Nothing is more soothing or satisfying than spending hours perusing the descriptions and reviews of books that may or may not make it to the wish list and eventually to the shopping cart before they land on my front porch and all over my floors in serried ranks along the walls so they don't impede walking in the middle of the night when the lights are out. I would probably get more chores done if the books didn't call to me from their shelves and floor spaces to pick them up and dive into their pages for an hour or eight, but nothing and no one has been more faithful and more helpful than my books when I'm sad or depressed or just need to escape for a few hours at the end of a particularly grueling week of work. And they do like company. Nothing is sadder than a lone book on a shelf surrounding by knick knacks or pictures whose pages and spine are so stiff I'm sure they've never been handled, caressed and opened even once, not since they were exiled and left to stand alone and unloved simply because they looked good on the shelf and made people think the owner had taste. Sometimes a dish looks good but it tastes like cardboard sludge. Looks aren't everything and nothing is sadder than a brand new book without a little wear and tear up and down its edges or a crease or two along the spine to show it has been, like the velveteen rabbit, loved.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Winter at last

There's still snow on the ground and on the bare branches of all the trees. Smoke curls up from frosted roofs all over the neighborhood and cars whisper through the streets cutting dark pathways through the white. Winter finally arrived in a hushed whisper and I thought it would never get here. In this sheltered lee, we don't get much snow. While the areas around our little valley get pounded with drifting feet of snow, we get mere inches, but at least we finally got some inches that stayed around all weekend.

The apartment is cold and the space heater is running almost all the time, keeping the little green shoots in the sun room, otherwise known as my office, warm and comfy while they reach up through the dark, moist peat toward the sun streaming through the windows, and they are growing quickly now they've broken through the surface. I decided to plant a little herb garden so I'd have fresh herbs all the time and have anxiously watched for he first signs of life. I have not been disappointed.

Six little peat plugs with their green burdens remind me of the rows of clay pots and flats of seedlings that sat in the living room of the cabin in front of the deck windows during winter's cold that yielded all sorts of herbs and greens and pretty flowers now dried and in dark glass jars in the medicine cabinet of the bathroom. The chamomile is long gone, the honey scented blossoms still faintly perfuming the empty jar that remind me of fleeting summers when hummingbirds swarmed at my whistle in the morning to dip their darting tongues into the sugar water of their feeding station or perched on the picnic table on the deck where I ate my breakfast in golden dawns. In about a month, I'll begin to harvest some of the fresh herbs and the apartment will smell like spring and summer while outside the world is frosted in white. At least I know the seeds are still good and its time to get a planter or two and some soil to fill the sun room with chamomile and herbs and flowers growing in terra preta in the middle of winter.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Let's play 20 questions

Actually, it's Common Ties that is now devoted -- for now -- to 20 questions. They have suspended all poetry and essay submissions until further notice. If you're into art and would like to submit something for the Orphans they have quite a few waiting. Orphans are stories that have no art. CT even offers descriptions to give artistic creativity a boost. Looks interesting and if I had the supplies I would give it a shot. I might consider putting together some friends and acquaintances and doing a little photo shoot -- if I can find the time between now and Yule week since I'm going to be out of town and incommunicado for a week or so.

I did check out the questions and came up with eleven answers this morning. Since I've published with them before I have a very good chance of having a few of my submissions selected. The really hard part was telling a story in 50 words or less. Talking about paring down prose.

After a few weeks of dithering and letting the creative juices flow, I've decided to try a bit of flash fiction since there is a wide open market and the chances of being published are greater than with full length fiction and novellas. It's also a great way to make a first sale to a tough market as long as a story can be told in 500-1000 words (sometimes even less) and still retain the descriptive impact and flow of the story. I have a couple of stories kicking around in the back of my brain that have been nudging me and telling me they're flash fiction. I guess we'll see. One more thing to add to my writing to-do list during my vacation.

I have found that making up a To-Do list with deadlines, subjects, etc. is a great way to kick start the creative engine by giving me deadlines. I only put paying markets on my list and most of them are high paying markets. It's the high jump of writing and publishing, but you never get over the high bar without quite a bit of practice and perseverance, and the list provides that. As it nears the end of the year (I started the list a few months ago), I have made more submissions in the past six months and sold more stories than I have in a long time, so at least it works for me. Now it's time to get back to the reading. I have more reviews to write this weekend and I might even come up with a couple more submissions for the 20 questions.

That is all. Disperse.