Books Online

Books online are an interesting phenomenon. They represent the newest way for humans to store knowledge, specifically utilizing the hyperlink. The mix between eBooks, books online, and the interconnectedness of text through hyperlinking is a world of difference from just the last century.

That is what was different about Google in that early Internet era where Yahoo and Alta Vista were viable search options. Google made a cache of the website, an actual copy of the text. They, in essence, created a massive library and thereby became the fastest search engine. What once was impossible to think of because of computer memory is now standard practice because of memory. Things are becoming cheaper and the sky is no longer the limit anymore.

The Gutenberg project was one of the first online projects I remember reading about back when we used to refer to the Internet as the “information super highway”, a term that would make any self-respecting nerd/hacker-wannabe cringe. The Gutenberg project aimed to provide free books online of titles that were in the public domain. I believe it was crowd-sourced at the time, where donors would upload their text (and I assume present it to the review of some kind of scholarship) and make it available to the public.

Such an online library is making that private expression of wealth, a home library, something anybody from any walk of life can enjoy. That sounds obvious. As in, obviously it’s available around the world, of course. But what I am saying is that at one time a home library was something painstakingly constructed over time, perhaps over generations within a family, and became the repository sometimes of books nowhere else to be found.

This is still the case to some degree. Libraries and universities still house books of such ancient civilizations or brittle construction that one can only access them through appointment and only in a special room. The Rare Books collection is a way for libraries and institutions to distinguish themselves. With books online, such distinctions are made global. With books online, a kid in the projects has a fair shot at learning something that would otherwise require of him to take an hour bus ride into another city.

But what do I know. I am only certain that with the plethora of smart phone these days, books online are being READ more often than before. The size of screens is now making reading on the bus or subway, or wherever, that much less a strain on the eye! It’s amazing. Because of MORE technology, we have more OLD-FASHIONED love for books! I love it. It’s a technological revolution to the book industry. Books online are here to stay. And that’s a great thing.

On the other hand, my co-worker’s wife argues, that books online present copyright challenges for new authors and the book industry in general. She says everybody is stealing through peer-to-peer file sharing and the book industry is no exception. I have to admit she is right to an extent, because I myself have relatives who download movies (that are still in theaters!!) and watch them even though they sometimes prefer to go to the theater. It’s a convenience thing. But they don’t really see it as stealing. So many people do it these days, I’m sure the industry is losing money in some way (no matter how glamorous the Oscars portray the stars to be).

But to paraphrase Jay-Z, the recording industry is in trouble, not the music industry. Let me extend that to the world of books online. The publishing industry may be in trouble, but not literacy. Books online actually increase literacy.

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Hollywood Stories From Books

Hollywood stories from books are on the rise. I think the trend, always present, took off with the success of The English Patient in the mid-90s. That movie was based on a book by Michael Ondaatje. It’s always been around, but consider the Hollywood remake of The Iliad called “Troy”. I’ve read The Iliad and I’ve seen “Troy”. I think it is … wait for it … an excellent remake. (Don’t shoot me!)

The stories Hollywood provides us help to provide moments for us to understand our lives. Phrases become currency to spend and trade as we negotiate events and homes and dreams. In this way, the original Iliad as an ancient “Hollywood” provided the farming peoples of the Greeks a mechanism to understand war through the use of pastoral metaphors, etc., and immortalized the humanity of conflict. The modern version has two awesome components that reinforce this: the fight between Hector (Eric Bana) and Achilles (Brad Pitt). It has no special effects but is so awesome in its primal display of valor, excellence, bravery, and rage. Hollywood stories from books provides that visual for revenge, but then also provides the later visual of Priam (Hector’s father, played by the great Peter O’Toole) talking with Achilles, telling him he does not fear death now that Achilles has slain Priam’s son Hector.

It’s an ancient tale made modern because of Hollywood. You can blame the execution and say Hollywood is wrecking these classics that should remain in our imaginations. It is a conceit that imagination is ALWAYS better than special effects. What we learn from the professionals who help us glean lessons from the Hollywood stories from books is as viable as books, albeit in a different medium. The way we interpret visual is also in our imaginations. Some special effects are through the written word. What do you think a pun is? It’s a special effect. What do you think alliteration or meter is (and the Iliad was in ancient Greek meter) but a form of special effects in the written word? To paraphrase the great visual director of our generation George Lucas, movies can rhyme.

What he meant was his movies had recurring themes and even phrases that helped to connect the half-dozen Star Wars movies. Hollywood stories from books do not exactly place Star Wars in that sphere, but Lucas was hoping to make a series of movies based on myth traditions that appear in books across cultures and across time.

The Game of Thrones series is based on an amazing series of books that detail an entire world so well many fans of the current seasons are becoming disenchanted as the television version of the story is outpacing the books. No longer is it a remake of the book, but the book will retell what the episodes revealed. Hollywood stories from books in the modern era or from previous eras provide us with a private intoxication of imagination that can be enjoyed in a secluded environment. The theater is pretty close to a sacred space in our society. Where else but in a house of worship do you see millions every week go to see something transcendent in the company of total strangers. Oh sure, the opera, but you can’t eat nachos at the opera….  Can you?

Books We Love

The books we love define us. What we considered stupid at age twenty could become beloved at age thirty or forty. Something you thought was amazing at fifteen becomes hard to stomach at thirty. Or the reverse, it becomes a deeper story at thirty.

Take Catcher In The Rye. It is one of the books we love as a people but I am now a different reader than when I first read it as a teen. Now, I see many of the subtexts that really flew over my head as a younger person. Maybe I can read it from the view of other characters, not just the protagonist. This is why we love books, because they can capture us and we can relate and then we are transported to the dream. And we can jump into that dream whenever.

I think it was a website or something where people listed the books they loved as a way to describe who they wanted to date, or who they were as a profile marker. It is interesting. I’m not sure that’s the best way for figuring out whom you want to date, but it’s not the worst idea. Many people lie about stuff on those online dating profiles. I wouldn’t know, right? Not true. I tried it years ago and trying to make yourself sound cool, but not desperate, is an art form. I remember spending a whole half hour figuring out how to make my ability to make a salad sound, well, sexy. I should have just used the books-dating-profile site and put up Julia Childs as one of my ten favorite authors.

But the books we love define us. I know a number of African Americans who became Muslim because of reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I know several white friends who say that autobiography is required reading for anybody in North America.

Then again, the books we love can be an indication into how we have fun. I like some comic books, too. Some graphic novels by Neil Gaiman are required reading, I think, for creative thinkers.

Do hypertexts and experimental fiction count towards books we love? Not sure. Hypertext novels are not easily accessible so it may be hard to gauge for others. And by their very nature they may be obscure or incomplete as “books”, like a kind of fictional Wiki. But overall, the books we love are also a cultural marker: what we make a bestseller helps to define our openness to differing voices. It’s no coincidence that periods of darkness are linked with book burnings, etc. It takes guts for a society to love books that are of an opposite kind of nature. We can disagree without becoming violently disagreeable.

But there is a dark side. Sometimes the books we love are fake, or forced upon us through the propaganda machine that is the book industry. Is Fifty Shades truly worthy of being a bestseller? I have female friends who couldn’t “get through” the atrociously written fiction, no matter how hot they vowed to be plowing through the pages of BDSM fetishism. Books we love may be a product of over-exposure: Star Wars, once iconoclastic, is now the face of blockbuster Hollywood (now Disney) and the fiction related to these blockbuster comes out like clockwork to adorn shelf after shelf of big bookstores across the world. It’s a little sickening if you think about it (which we are not encourage to do).

Maybe books we love are as much a dating profile marker as the bookstores we love. Alas, there are no book burnings in America. These days, huge bookstores just run the independent bookstores out of business.

 

Rare Books

Rare books are the bread and butter of research. The world of academics hinges upon the acquisition and pursuit of rare books, their translation, and their review. What I mean by rare books are not first print books that are in book stores, but, rather the rare books housed in the backrooms of ancient (or very old) places, such as city halls or colleges that have been around for at least a few centuries.

The information in these books enables us to see the world of the past truly. If only to understand the prejudices and limitation of that view, it is still vital to forego judgment and witness how humans dealt with the problems of the day: how piracy on the seas was a diplomatic challenge needing international cooperation but implicitly negating national boundaries; of how many in a civil war pretended to shoot guns, rather than kill former neighbors; how scientific discoveries were known hundreds of years before commonly thought. These awaken us to the realities of our own preconceived notions, of our understanding of human capabilities, and the need for rigor in our scholarship.

I saw on someone’s Facebook recently (I have yet to look through the website in detail) that a rare book in some Egyptian or Turkish university has a small booklet written by a notable Islamic scholar from about two hundred years ago. This book, the subject of a conference, is essentially key to a lot of the Islamist ideology nowadays enabling the attacking of civilians, etc., but which, the conference organizers argue, is the victim of a typo. A typo that makes black and white something the booklet intentionally left gray or undefined. Such is the significance of rare books that current scholarship had to go to the original book to understand the typo.

From a purely fan-oriented view, rare books are awesome. I remember going up to Hamilton, Ontario, in Canada to the rare books room of MacMaster University. There was a tome there that was a translation of something I had sought for a long time. The only other copy was in Germany, I think. I may be wrong. It may have been in some other university. The point is that when I saw it for the first time, the translation seemed as an ordinary hardcover would be. Then I read it and saw in its writing a world before cars, before electricity, and a translation providing much more lush an example of the world than those grainy black-and-white films from the early Twentieth Century. Rare books are to be handled with care as a repository of our dreams not yet forgotten.

Rare books are like the imaginative storehouses of the world. Rare books are the visionary photo albums of the human family. What will be rare a hundred years from now? Maybe they will look at movie posters as we look at rare books now: an arcane artifact, something more useful as a work of art than a repository of information.

I think rare books comprise the bulk of the most expensive books ever sold. I looked it up recently when researching a random topic. It was a Bible from a rare press or something. There was a page from an ancient Koran that some British university found in its library. Now, how a page from such an ancient and rare book just happen to be “found”, is beyond me. Apparently it was brought to the university library in the 1920’s. Perhaps in the whirlwind of a post First World War event, a museum’s relic was transported unceremoniously to the British university in secret where it remained, like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, for nearly a hundred years? Ah, the world of rare books is fun.