50 books

Yes, I am a bit late again here.  But on my honour, I’m not simply posting about the 50 Books You Can’t Put Down government initiative to use popular books (this year Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and The Girl that Kicked the Hornet’s Nest make an appearance in the list amongst others) to plug Australian authors and get less bookish people buying and reading books for the sake of a freebie.  The 50 Books thing is familiar to anyone in this country who has ever walked through a mall and past a bookstore at the right time, or found the piles of leftovers at remainder or secondhand charity sales.

No, I’m more amused and interested by the first-chapter free previews and events.  Of which there are none in my city.  In fact, there seems to be a distinct lack of the walk-in public reading spaces in most towns and cities outside of the very big ones.  It is a bit baffling to me that an initiative aiming at increasing readership is targeting city centres that are chock-full of literate workers and libraries and bookshops rather than more remote and less culturally accessible areas of Australia, but that’s hardly anything new.  It seems that there are authors’ events at some smaller towns, but I have yet to find a way to search for smaller events by state, so I would recommend browsing the tags at the blog which seems to be where all the information actually lurks.  Though the month is mostly over now, there are still a few events here and there that might be worth checking out.

There’s a few this year that I know I want to buy, even if I cannot afford new books right now.  But I am very excited about the preview chapters.  Go here to find a list of the books on the list this year, and to get free previews of them all.  It’s not much, and I think I’d have rather had a free ebook or two of Australian based writers than an ipod app, a bright red website and fifty first chapters, but I’m a crazy open-source kind of girl and my brain just likes ideas like that.

I like to think that having access to books freely increases the chances of reading, not lists or sales figures, and I’ve always felt a bit dubious about lists and promotions like this.  Why can’t we buy any book published in Australia and get a free ebook of both ‘free’ books?  Why are pro-reading campaigns often centred more around bookselling than making libraries more visible and accessible?  I have nothing at all against making books affordable or the 50 Books system, I just wish… that small local libraries and pro-literacy programs got half as much flashy publicity.

On that note, a lot of Australian public library systems offer e-book ‘loans’ that have varying levels of downloadability and accessibility, and are well-worth checking out.  There are also sometimes e-audio-books available.  These systems are great not only for people with limited access to library services, but for those who need larger print or alternative forms of text to help with vision impairments or issues like visual dyslexia.  Australian libraries are awesome; even the 50 Books list can be found there!

Do Readers Dream of E-lectric Books?

I’ve wanted an e-ink energy efficient ebook reader for some time, but as I do not travel very often and I have a reasonably low income, I have never been able to suffer the price of it.  When I confess to this while amongst my more affluent (the word affluent here meaning securely employed) and gadget-savvy friends I get a lot of strange looks.

‘But how do you read ebooks?’ they ask, as well as ‘Surely the lower cost of ebooks for a reader would be better for your small income than buying hardcopy!’

This reveals an attitude towards ebook consumption that baffles me.  Isn’t it common knowledge that there are a lot of public domain and generously creative commons ebooks that are released in non-DRM and often .txt formats?  Isn’t it common knowledge that you can not only run ebook purchasing and .pdf reading software on your PC, but also use simpler and easier formats that work with software bundled in most operating systems?

My most important question is mainly raised by these gadget using friends, many of whom have had top-of-the-line phones for the last decade.  Why aren’t you using devices that you already own and are in contact with throughout your day to read ebooks?

I feel the need to make some affirmations here and now, that a lot of people do not seem to be aware of.

You can read ebooks on your phone

Not necessarily the DRM-ful .pdfs, but most phone models are capable of opening basic text files and there are many free software options that can convert .txt, .pdf and other formats into java applets that can run on your phone.  If you have polyphonic ringtones and colourful games, chances are with an hour of google-fu you’ll be able to read books.

ebooks are not restricted or expensive

Project Gutenberg is quite comprehensive, and has downloadable .rtf and .txt versions of so many public domain books that most bibliophiles will never read them all.  I’ve known about it for years, and it shocks me daily how many of my bookish friends don’t seem to know of it when our conversations turn to ebooks.  Project Gutenberg is free.  Project Gutenberg has Pride and Prejudice, Alice in Wonderland, and The Pickwick Papers.  In multiple languages, often, for the more popular books in particular.  There is much fun to be had.

Creative Commons books are newer (effectively within copyright by law), but freely available for copying and download and usually conversion to whatever format your computer, dedicated ebook reader or phone needs.  There are more restrictions than public domain, but Creative Commons is incredibly rad and you can find all the guidelines at the site I’ve linked.

All gadgets are only as useful as they are useful

A common criticism of solar panels is the resource cost of creation and development that may not be clear to the consumer.  While many people are excited by the energy efficiency of e-ink, there are more things in my mind to consider.  The energy cost of creating the device, as well as the cost of recycling or destroying it at the end of its usable life should factor in to any decision to buy a gadget.  Even if I had reliable income I am unlikely to run and purchase an ebook reader because my need is not greater in my mind than the cost.  If I travelled, weight of books and energy consumption may indeed make the device worthwhile, and I love e-ink readers for this very reason.  But my lifestyle means it is far more efficient and rational to simply use devices I tend to be passively using while reading (phone, PC, laptop) than to buy into the production of another device, another charger and battery.

I can knit while I read

This is not a mentionable point for most people, but knitting is often tedious and I love being able to knit and read without juggling things in my lap.  I can simply page down with the end of one needle as I go, which is quite lovely and convenient. This works better with computers than phones or ebook readers.

I do hope one day to have the income and lifestyle that would justify the purchase of an ebook reader, but for the moment I simply live a life of rampant and indulgent consumption of ebooks and invite others to explore the versatility and usefulness of ‘ebooks’ in their lives.

‘The Winter King’ by Bernard Cornwell

As I mentioned earlier, it’s been years since I’ve dipped into any books based on Arthurian stories and legends.  Though I loved T.H.White’s Once and Future King, I’ve run across far too many wish-fulfillment and idealised anachronistic sappy pulp fantasy to ever want to revisit the sub-genre of Arthurian fiction.  As many writers and readers are now saying the literary world has vampire fatigue, I myself had Camelot fatigue.  I imagine this is familiar with many Australians with British genetic heritage; there is a sense of past and connection to the Arthurian mythos that many other epic sagas cannot inspire in readers.  It had lead to over-saturation and some very poor retellings (as well, of course, as good ones).

So it took me a while to work up to Cornwell’s saga, and I was astonished when I finally and guiltily picked up my borrowed copy of The Winter King to discover that this series not only works quite hard to maintain historical sustainability of disbelief, but also has a few laughs at the expense of the romantic and dashingly out-of-time notions of knighthood, war and politics.

In The Winter King, there is viscera and spitefulness and awful failings in all the characters.  Merlin, an absent figure for most of the book, is stupendously mad.  Arthur’s ideologies are never set in stone or taught, but shown to evolve and change with time and experience.  I think the most striking thing about the narrative as a whole is the honesty and self-awareness of the narrator, Derfel.  His perspective tints the entire world that we see; he sees things in others that others may not have, observes the effect of war, peace and power-mongering at a level that a more… er… noble… narrator may have been entirely blind to.

I rarely love books this much.  I want to save other observations until I have taken the chance to savour the other two thirds of this series, but as a first instalment in an epic historical fiction trilogy I have come away with a sense of fulfilment and closure that is uncommon in books like this, particularly Arthurian ones.  There is triumph and failure and resolution, a sense of completion even though the storyline clearly has inertia, leading into the next book and making me eager for it.

I think I am maybe a little bit in love with this series, I’ve already got Enemy of God beside me.  Hopefully I’ll have stopped gushing and will have some more useful thoughts on the other two books.

‘The Janus Stone’ by Elly Griffiths

The Janus Stone is quite typical of crime and light thriller formulas: there’s a bit of unsubtle foreshadowing and I have my usual personal issues with dialogue and the overuse of the present tense. But that’s not why I read the thing; I’m looking at this not as a regular reader of this type of fiction, but as an archaeologist. Unlike other books I’ve read that dabble in archaeological and forensic themes, The Janus Stone did not have me screaming and fuming and itching to draft acerbic letters to the author. This was surprising and refreshing.

In this second novel of the series, Ruth Galloway is a Forensic Archaeologist who liaises with the local police – and just happens to be pregnant. There is more than one love interest for her, and at the start of the novel more than one suspect for fatherhood. It is this drama that is central to the story; the pregnancy and self-identity of Ruth. The archaeological incidents and investigation deal with infanticide and concepts of family and Christianity that tie into Ruth’s parents’ and past lover’s attitudes towards parenting and relationships. This sort of story isn’t really my cup of tea either, but it is a relief to see more accurate than average archaeology being used as symbolism for a character journey than the alternate that we see far too often: forensic and archaeological trivia being wilfully misinterpreted to serve for greater plot impact.

There are some slip-ups. Once, at a location quite transparently based upon ‘Seahenge’ – a real life beach site with a circle of wooden posts surrounding a central inverted oak stump – the visual description seems to accidentally suggest that in recent history the wooden posts were tall and magnificent looking. I suspect this references an occurrence in the first book, which I have not read, but even allowing for fiction it seems quite unlikely that wooden posts near a beach could have possibly lasted so long and not been noticed and heritage listed or studied earlier. “Seahenge” itself was only discovered due to erosion and luck; the only remaining wood had been protected below the surface from oxygen, sunlight and visitors.

At several times I was confused concerning the human remains and descriptions of lab procedures. Vagueness has protected against inaccuracy here; dialogue and statements of conclusions obfuscate most of the procedures that might be needed to assess or confirm conclusions. While my hackles rose during the post-mortem investigation of the female child’s remains, I could not for example assert that they had not measured the right markers and used the best methods because apart from basic statements these were not described. My main complaint was really when excavating the child’s body – having already noted that the body was buried while articulated – Galloway suspects in vague bone-related terms that it might be a secondary burial. This does make sense given the final revelations of the murder and deposition of the body, but the description of Galloway’s assessment lacked enough of a description to avoid confusion regarding methods and bio-deterioration.

What I liked most about the book was the endnotes. Griffiths acknowledges her sources and assistance. She admits that she is married to an archaeologist. But most importantly she acknowledges that she has taken liberties and possibly introduced errors into her own work. The most repulsive thing to many Classicists and historians about The Da Vinci Code was the inaccurate assertions in the flyleaf of the book that all cited documents were true and accurate when they were not.

Not only is Griffiths honest and up-front about her research and resources, but she’s done a pretty all right job of bringing some good (albeit somewhat vague) localised archaeological theory and practices into the world of crime fiction. There are snippets of glimpses into very British cultural heritage concerns and academia that intrigued me and kept me reading despite this not being my preferred genre. It might not have been perfect, but it was certainly fun, and I’m quite glad that I took the time to read it.

“The Infinte Book” by John D. Barrow

This wasn’t a book about the mathematics of the infinite (though there are some references to very basic infinities), or the science or history. While I’m not very well versed in the infinite, I’ve looked around and heard from some more immersed in it that this book doesn’t cover the complete nature of the infinite; it lingers on the huge and exciting. I’ve heard that what history of human concepts of the infinite it does include are flawed and a little misrepresentative.

So it’s not a book for historians, mathematicians, any form of astronomers, scientists or those fascinated with the infinite. But (apart from occasionally a historian), I wasn’t in those groups when I started reading. Now, of course, I care a great deal more about infinities. But for someone with limited access to tertiary mathematics and very little experience of the infinite, this book has been fun to read. Some phrases and glossings over of content have left me feeling a little wrong inside, and having read it I certainly wouldn’t buy myself a copy new, but I did have fun.

If you’re looking for an entry-level description of some infinities, or just light fluffy popular science, then this is a pretty good book. But if you care about endlessness enough to want a very finite book on it, I’d recommend that you look around and check out other books on this topic to get a more rounded and complete picture.