Monday, February 28, 2011

on the HarperCollins/OverDrive lending limits

I don't like to get political here, and I think I've maybe only done it one other time in the past two years that I've been writing this blog. But because of the timing of all of this, and because I think e-books and digital libraries a lot (ask fishy) I have a multitude of thoughts on the whole HarperCollins/OverDrive fiasco that is being plastered all over the library social media world today. I think Jessamyn over at librarian.net does a better summary and round-up than I can, so I point you in that direction.

But there are a couple things I want to say. First of all is that anyone who reads books, be they paper or electronic, needs to take note of this. Yes, those of us who don't have e-readers yet, who still love our paper books, we are safe from idiotic moves such as those by HarperCollins, Amazon, MacMillan and Simon and Schuster to limit lending and/or ownership rights for e-books. But let's face it: the way the world is changing, e-books are here to stay. And that means that paper books, while I doubt they will disappear entirely in my lifetime, are going to become harder to find and more expensive to purchase. Unless something dramatic changes, I don't think it's fair to ourselves to pretend this is not the case.

So cases like this, where publishers want to put heavy restrictions on the use of e-books, are important. They set precedents. And while I think it's in the best interests of the publishers to stop copying the music industry heavyweights by panicking and doing things that are counter to good business practices (and then blaming the rise in piracy on Those Damn Kids) I also think that we as consumers do bear some responsibility for letting them get away with it. The fact that Amazon, despite their innumberable sins against intellectual freedom and property rights, are still North American market leaders in e-reader and e-book sales is my case in point.

Not that I think libraries are coming up roses in this either. The immediate reaction among many has been to set up a boycott of HarperCollins until the situation is resolved. Counterproductive, in my opinion, not to mention counter to everything libraries stand for. I'm not wild about a boycott at this stage for two reasons, the first of which is key for me:

1) We limit patron access because of an "internal" (to the world of books) dispute. While some patrons may understand why, the vast majority won't care beyond the fact that they can't get the latest title when they want it. Along with the fact that I am philosophically opposed to limiting reader access for any reason, as should any professional librarian be, we will damage our own standing with our patrons by voluntarily limiting access. Alienating the people who pay our wages and provide the money to build our collections? It's both hypocritical and bad business.

2) The speed with with this boycott call has happened screams kneejerk reaction. It is an adversarial stance, furthering the problem rather than solving it. While a boycott may be an appropriate tool at some stage in negotiations (though again, see my first point), at this point it reads like a playground fight: "You stole my ball! I am kicking over your sandcastle!" We need to give HarperCollins good reasons to get along with us, rather than screaming bloody murder. It is to libraries' detriment when publishers die; it is (though many don't seem to believe it yet) to publishers' detriment when libraries die. Kneejerk boycotts are not helpful in getting this point across forcefully.

Yes, that first point of mine handicaps libraries by taking away a key bargaining chip. But no one said that being a professional librarian would be easy. I'm not suggesting we sit by and weep and gnash our teeth and whine about how mean the publishers are because they won't play with us, either.

There's a really excellent document being disseminated through the library blogosphere right now, and I'm going to post it here. It's not the whole solution, but publicising the problem -- taking it beyond library walls and to the people who this sort of problem really affects, the readers and the future readers -- this is one way to make it clear that we believe that there's a better way. This is not how e-books are working now, but it's absolutely how I believe they should be working.

I originally saw it on the Librarian by Day blog, but have also seen it since on Information Wants to be Free and Confessions of a Science Librarian. The original document was written by Sarah Houghton-Jan of the superlative Librarian in Black blog.

***

The E-Book User's Bill of Rights

Every eBook user should have the following rights:

  • the right to use eBooks under guidelines that favor access over proprietary limitations
  • the right to access eBooks on any technological platform, including the hardware and software the user chooses
  • the right to annotate, quote passages, print, and share eBook content within the spirit of fair use and copyright
  • the right of the first-sale doctrine extended to digital content, allowing the eBook owner the right to retain, archive, share, and re-sell purchased eBooks
I believe in the free market of information and ideas.

I believe that authors, writers, and publishers can flourish when their works are readily available on the widest range of media. I believe that authors, writers, and publishers can thrive when readers are given the maximum amount of freedom to access, annotate, and share with other readers, helping this content find new audiences and markets. I believe that eBook purchasers should enjoy the rights of the first-sale doctrine because eBooks are part of the greater cultural cornerstone of literacy, education, and information access.

Digital Rights Management (DRM), like a tariff, acts as a mechanism to inhibit this free exchange of ideas, literature, and information. Likewise, the current licensing arrangements mean that readers never possess ultimate control over their own personal reading material. These are not acceptable conditions for eBooks.

I am a reader. As a customer, I am entitled to be treated with respect and not as a potential criminal. As a consumer, I am entitled to make my own decisions about the eBooks that I buy or borrow.

I am concerned about the future of access to literature and information in eBooks. I ask readers, authors, publishers, retailers, librarians, software developers, and device manufacturers to support these eBook users’ rights.

These rights are yours. Now it is your turn to take a stand. To help spread the word, copy this entire post, add your own comments, remix it, and distribute it to others. Blog it, Tweet it (#ebookrights), Facebook it, email it, and post it on a telephone pole.

To the extent possible under law, the person who associated CC0 with this work has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to this work.

***

*re-read* The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

The Wee Free Men
by Sir Terry Pratchett
Random House, 2004
317 pages

I love this book. I don't think there's anything much else I can say; I love it. I love it as much this time around as when I first read it, and was finally convinced that perhaps the Discworld was a place I might like to spend significant brain time in.

My book club, the one that reads genre fiction, is reading this. This is definitely one of the big advantages of running a book club where the members are basically all, "You pick! We'll try anything once!" It has come at a fortuitous time for me, when I'm not really feeling like reading at all and when I am in the need of something to cheer me. This book cheers me, but not in a sappy or vacant way (not that there's anything wrong with books that do that -- I am all for a sappy, vacant pick-me-up sometimes). It is funny, very funny, and it is linguistically a pleasure to read, and it is also touching and thoughtful. One of the few books that has made me both laugh out loud and cry a little. I didn't cry this time because I knew what to expect, and I was on lunch break at work. If I had been at home I think it probably would have been a different scene.

Upon re-reading, I am so pleased to report that it holds up to my initial adoration. Tiffany is the character I remembered, a little too clever but sometimes only nine years old, and well aware of her oddness; the Nac Mac Feegle are incredible and hilarious and both very wise and very unwise and extremely not-human. This time through, I picked up more on the themes of belonging and loss than I did the first time, I think. The inevitable passing of time and change and loss and how difficult it is, but also how universal. And while a book dealing with that might seem a little too heavy to be cheering, it's also very much about making full use of the time that we have -- enjoying it thoroughly, and making our mark in whatever way is available to us.

And did I mention this book is funny? I have not encountered too many authors who can get that perfect balance between the serious and the absurd, the funny and the sad. Not in a way that gives full honour to both sides of the coin, rather than deprecating one at the expense of the other. The humour isn't dark, it is full of amazement and joy, and the sadness isn't silly or played down. Because of this, the book feels real, despite its fantasy setting, in a way that sometimes other fantasy does not. This book is one of the best arguments I have for taking fantasy seriously.

I'm not exactly sure what we'll talk about at the book club. The discussion questions (and there are some!) are very geared towards the YA audience, and not really meaty enough for this group that I have. One of the members has the illustrated version; I can see discussing whether or not her reading experience was different. We have some fantasy fans and others who have never picked up a fantasy in their lives; and we have some who grumbled a little (very politely) about reading a YA book. So I'd like to see if this bucked expectations, or entrenched the Pratchett neophytes in their relative positions. I am a little nervous that someone (or all of them) might have hated it, although I can't really see how that would be possible. I suppose if they did, discussing their reactions will lend me a little bit of perspective I clearly don't have!

Overall, my gushing from the previous time I read this book stands. I love it; I think everyone should give it a chance and read it once, whether you think you like fantasy or not. It stands out for me as one of the best books I've ever read in my life, from many different perspectives (writing, characters, content, philosophy), and I would recommend it to anyone with an open mind.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

The Thief
by Megan Whalen Turner
Puffin Books, 1996
219 pages

I have been hearing about this book, and this series, for years. As long as I've been reading book blogs. It crops up throughout the blogosphere every once in a while, which is a fair bit of staying power for a YA book; when I first heard about it, I expected it to be a recent publication. Turns out it was a Newbery Honour book in 1997, which is about the time I would have read it happily as a teen if I had known it existed.

I think, unfortunately, there were a few expectations in play here. I have not heard anything from anyone who dislikes this book, and plenty from people who adore it and Gen, the main character, unreservedly. The praise is well deserved, as the book is excellent. It's not that there was anything wrong, or bad. I just didn't fall in love with it the way I had hoped to, which is always a bit of a disappointment.

So. We meet Gen as he is called out of prison into the magus' office, where he is recruited for a secret mission to steal a jewel so old as to be mythical. He has made a boast to the wrong people: "I can steal anything." And he backed that up with stealing something he shouldn't have on a dare, and then bragging about it publicly. After a too-long stint in the king's prison, he and the magus, the magus' two apprentices, and a soldier head off into the mountains, into the wilds of the enemy country of Attolia, to find and steal the jewel.

It's a simple adventure/quest storyline, and its success is in the telling and the world-building. The world is based, we are told in the author's note (which happily appears after the story, as is always preferrable), on ancient Greece. Reading this so shortly after reading Libraries in the Ancient World made the world seem almost sharper and more real to me; the smells, the sights, the baking heat, all of which I already had on the brain. I suspect that the world is strong enough to stand on its own without help, though, strengthened by the myths sprinkled liberally throughout the text. These are given to us as stories told to the characters by each other, and it worked really well.

It's hard for me to write a lot more about this book without spoilers, and believe me, you do not want spoilers. I had carefully avoided reading any myself, and I'm not about to ruin anything for anyone reading this. Suffice to say that what Turner set out to do, she accomplished magnificently with me, leaving me at the end of the book to admire her skill and forethought with what I can only describe as awe.

Despite the fact that I didn't love it the way I wanted to, I do recommend this book to anyone, really. It will be enjoyed by teens through adults, particularly those who like either history or fantasy, but I don't think either are a requirement. Gen is a bit of a prickly, slippery character, but a fascinating one without good analogues in other fantasy I've read lately. It's always good to discover something new, and I'm glad I did. This book deserves the accolades it gets, and I am not surprised at all at its staying power.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The Moonstone
by Wilkie Collins
Oxford University Press, 1999 (originally published 1868)
552 pages

This book took me forever to read. Happily, not in a bad way -- I've just been experiencing a definite slow-down in reading speed and down-turn in interest. Again. Sigh. It will change, I am sure. All that said, I have rarely stuck with a book as long as I did with The Moonstone, and there are several reasons I did.

First of all, it's excellent. This is an entertaining, interesting, easy read. It does start out a bit slowly -- a lot slowly, in a lot of ways -- but never once did "slow" equate to "boring." That's a feat in itself. Second, it was written (as @xicanti reminded me on Twitter, when I was feeling like a reading lump) as a serial. It works really well with periodic breaks in the reading. I never felt like I'd forgotten what was happening, or who people were, or what clues had gone before. This is with sometimes several days between picking it up, or even a week. I always settled back in quickly and easily. And that was really cool. In fact, it's kind of an ideal sort of read for me right now -- something really short that can be read in a matter of hours, or something of an indeterminate length that I can pick up and put down as necessary without feeling lost.

So! For those of you who don't know, The Moonstone is a mystery. It is often listed as the original mystery/detective novel. Wilkie Collins, that fascinating man, wrote it in 1868 as a serial published in his friend Charles Dickens' publication All the Year Round. A fantastic diamond of sinister, possibly cursed origins is left to Rachel Verinder, a young noblewoman, by her nefarious uncle upon his death. She wears it the night of her twenty-first birthday party, despite her mother's, cousin's, and closest servants' wishes. That night, it is stolen from her cabinet by a thief unknown. This sets into motion a series of dramatic events around the household, a tangle of relationships, events, and clues that even the greatest detective in England is hard-pressed to unravel.

As a fan of mysteries, particularly cozies and Sherlock Holmes, it was really quite fun to see some of the conventions pop up, knowing that this was probably the first or one of the first instances, and knowing that the original readers would have been drawn in to the twists and turns of the labyrinthine plot. At this point, I've read enough in the genre that some of the outcomes were clear to me at the beginning (not all, though!) and yet that didn't deter from my enjoyment.

Some of the specific conventions I noticed were, of course, the red herrings -- so many! And so skillfully deployed. The closed circle of suspects, all available and under suspicion thanks to a dinner party the night before the theft. And the detective! Sergeant Cuff, a man who could easily have been Sherlock Holmes' grandfather. He clearly deserves some of the credit for The Great Man: his slightly off-putting manner, his careful observation of the evidence and his attention to the slightest detail, his exasperation with the local constables, his clear intellectual superiority. There was a dramatic twist near the end, and a denouement that satisfied all the remaining questions.

But there were also things that made this read fresh and interesting. For one thing, I had no idea before I started that this was an epistolary novel, in the form of reports written for the record by the participants in the case. Collins' attention to his characters' voices was meticulous. There are several different narrators, though the longest portion of the tale is told by Gabriel Betteredge, the chief steward of the manor house in which the theft takes place. We can get a lot from what Betteredge tells us, even when he doesn't realize what he is revealing -- and he also reveals a lot about himself as a person, in what he says, how he says it, and what he doesn't say. This is the case for each of the narrators, but especially for Betteredge, from whom we hear the most. He can be sexist, extremely xenophobic, and astonishingly self-absorbed -- but he's a fully-developed, fully-rounded character and I found myself liking him for his good points while still being aware of his flaws. Given that his flaws are a difficult sort for me to get over, it's no small feat that I generally didn't mind spending time in his head.

Contained within these narratives are some surprisingly modern views. Collins' female characters are strong; and if they seem a little melodramatic, well, the entire book is written to be a bit over-the-top (it was a sensational novel, after all.) The foreign characters, the Indians, are treated with respect by the author as well -- they are operating under different cultural mores than the narrators, but they treat those they meet with dignity and respect except for those who stand in their way. It's not an entirely flattering treatment, but it's a startlingly even-handed one for the time. The treatment of the character Ezra Jennings, the mysterious and strange doctor's assistant, is even more compassionate and clearly out of character for the times; the poor man is deeply shunned by all in the small rural community where he resides. In Jennings we get the impression that Collins is directly challenging commonly held attitudes and conceptions on class and social conformity; the man is clearly an intelligent, compassionate, decent human being who has been hounded his entire life by a dark secret in his past that has destroyed his present. Held against him by some of the characters and others in the town is not so much his past but his odd appearance, his lack of roots in the local area, and his mysterious lack of history.

Sadly, sometimes one wonders if we've really changed all that much.

Highly, highly recommended book. Don't let the fact that Collins was a contemporary of Dickens scare you off, if you are (as I am) extremely wary of Dickens and other authors who were paid by the word/installment. Collins was an extremely talented writer, and The Moonstone reads easily. It's fun to read for its history and as a snapshot of English society, and even more fun for a fan of mystery and detective novels. But it stands on its own merits as well, and it's easy to see why it has stood the test of time.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson

Libraries in the Ancient World
by Lionel Casson
Yale University Press, 2001
177 pages

I like history, and I like libraries. This book has been on my radar since 2008, when it was reviewed at Bookwyrme's Lair. Just that brief little blurb rocketed this book onto my list, because: history, libraries. Yes.

It's not a very long book. The page count includes several pages of notes and an index. The writing is mostly quite readable if sometimes (infrequently) a little stilted in the way of academic writing. The descriptions are often evocative enough that with the accompanying (grainy, black and white) pictures, I can visualize what an ancient Roman or Greek library might have looked like. I can picture the people, the books, the spaces.

I like that Casson leaves some things to us to infer, as well, as when discussing theft and/or damage in the private libraries of Assyria. He just goes straight to the source text for us, with an ancient version of a book plate and theft policy:

Clay tablet of Ashurbanipal, King of the World, King of Assyria, who trusts in Ashur and Ninlil. Your lordship is without equal, Ashur, King of the Gods! Whoever removes [the tablet], writes his name in place of my name, may Ashur and Ninlil, angered and grim, cast him down, erase his name, his seed, in the land.

Or perhaps one prefers the caution against damaging a book (this one is my favourite, because it was clearly written by one hella pissed off librarian):

He who breaks this tablet or puts it in water or rubs it until you cannot recognize it [and] cannot make it be understood, may Ashur, Sin, Shamash, Adad and Ishtar, Bel, Nergal, Ishtar of Nineveh, Ishtar of Arbela, Ishtar of Bit Kidmurri, the gods of heaven and earth and the gods of Assyria, may all these curse him with a curse which cannot be relieved, terrible and merciless, as long as he lives, may they let his name, his seed, be carried off from the land, may they put his flesh in a dog's mouth!

You can bet that put the fear of the gods in some careless library patron. It's a good reminder that there really is nothing new under the sun.

Actually, that said, the public library as we might recognize it was really an invention of the Greeks, quite some time after Ashurbanipal was cursing the seed out of the rascals who stole and desecrated his private books. And though Casson works his way through the Assyrians and slightly before all the way through to the beginning of the Middle Ages, the bulk of his time is spent showing us Greek and Roman libraries, both private and public. This is, one realizes, because that's where a lot of the evidence is -- earlier and there's not a lot to go on, later and we're out of the Ancient period Casson is investigating.

Which leads me to two things: the first is that this is a great book that investigates one aspect of a culture I know less about than I wish I did. My study of Greek culture is... extremely limited to say the least, and my study of Roman culture is limited to a Grade 10 Latin class. I took a Classics course in first year uni, but there we mostly looked at mythology, not culture (to the extent that it can be separated, which is actually quite a bit.) Therefore, I think this book will be a good re-read once I've done a bit more investigating into those cultures. I'm particularly taken with the pre-Greek cultures. I got a lot out of this little book, but I think I would have gotten even more if I had a better depth of knowledge of the time periods and cultures covered.

The second is that the cultures covered are Western precursors, which is of course the tradition in which I stand here today. I would love to read something similar about Eastern precursors. Well, to be honest, I would probably do well to read something about contemporary Eastern libraries. I don't even know if there is such a thing, though I assume there must be something like what we have here. Anyone have any suggested readings for me?

Overall, I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in libraries, or anyone interested in the history of books or reading or literature in ancient Western cultures. Anyone who knows ancient Greek and/or Roman will find this an interesting addition and in-depth investigation into one aspect of those cultures, too. Extremely fascinating, generally well-written, and I'm very glad fishy was able to find it for me.