Thursday, September 24, 2009

The future of books

As a bookseller and a (future) librarian, I'm deeply concerned with the future of books. Books are convenient, functional, relatively inexpensive, portable, semi-permanent and often beautiful physical objects, and I'm convinced that for those reasons the codex will be with us for many decades to come. (Image by Philippe Kurlapski.)

But there are immense pressures building to shift books into digital formats. And as you might guess, huge international media and consumer electronics conglomerates aren't doing this for your convenience. They're pushing for electronic books to replace print because digital licenses give them more control.

The Copyright Act of 1976 gives book owners rights--fair use and the first sale rule--which limit the restrictions copyright holders can place on the use of copyrighted material. Fair use means that limited portions of a copyrighted work can be reproduced and re-used without permission for purposes such as education, commentary and parody; the first sale rule means that once you own a legitimately obtained copy of a copyrighted work you can generally give it away or sell it to someone else.

But in the digital realm, licenses, electronic protection measures, and proprietary software allow publishers to prevent fair use or transfer. Now, you can't copy even a small portion of your e-book; once you're done with it, you can't resell it or even give it away. And even your right to keep a copy of a work you've paid for can be revoked at any time by the seller.

Big Brother, thy name is Amazon. This became rudely apparent this summer to owners of Amazon's Kindle e-book reader who purchased certain editions of George Orwell's novels Animal Farm and 1984. As reported by Brad Stone in the New York Times, when Amazon discovered that the vendor of the titles did not actually own the U.S. rights (the books are in the public domain in Canada but not the U.S.), it remotely deleted the books from its customer's Kindles. Amazon's Kindle terms of service states that customers are buying the "right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content"--but the 1984 incident shows how hollow that promise is. The irony that the books involved were Orwell's dystopian visions of totalitarianism is almost too delicious: in 1984, of course, Winston Smith's job at the Ministry of Truth is to delete records of the past that don't conform to current Party orthodoxy by dropping them down the "memory hole" where they will vanish forever.

Stone quotes Kindle owner Bruce Schneier, chief security technology officer for British Telecom: “It illustrates how few rights you have when you buy an e-book from Amazon...I can’t lend people books and I can’t sell books that I’ve already read, and now it turns out that I can’t even count on still having my books tomorrow.”

It wasn't just the texts that were deleted. Kindle allows readers to make their own notes, highlighting and annotations to electronic texts, and those were disappeared along with the e-books themselves. Stone writes of high-school student Justin Gawronski, who had a summer assignment to read 1984 and woke up to find that all of the annotations he'd made to his Kindle version of the book were gone. Gawronski said, "They didn’t just take a book back, they stole my work." Two months later, as reported by Miguel Helft in the New York Times, Amazon offered to replace readers' copies of the deleted Orwell works, including their annotations--an offer that probably comes a bit late for Justin Gawronski.

And as Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain points out in Heft's article, Amazon's ability to remotely delete Kindle content raises the specter of texts you've purchased being permanently deleted or altered in the future in response to lawsuits or government action. Only with Kindle editions, there's no need for anything so crude as an incinerator--a few keystrokes will suffice.

So is the Kindle any good? In a recent New Yorker piece, novelist Nicholson Baker compared the experience of reading a book on his Kindle 2 to driving "a white 1982 Impala with blown shocks." He details the Kindle's shortcomings--its clunky design, the low contrast of its screen, the "black flash" that occurs every time it displays a new page, the lack of page numbers (instead each section of text has a "location range"), the poor reproduction of illustrations such as photographs, tables and charts. Worst of all, Baker writes that a comparison of the print, online and Kindle versions of the New York Times reveals that the Kindle version is missing content: not only photographs, but "its Web-site links, its listed names of contributing reporters, and almost all captioned pie charts, diagrams, weather maps, crossword puzzles, summary sports scores, financial data....Sometimes whole articles and op-ed contributions aren’t there." In a check of the July 8th and 9th editions of the Times, Baker found five articles that are entirely missing from the Kindle versions. (Image by ShakataGaNai.)

Speaking of monopolies... Presumably, better-designed e-book readers will solve many of the Kindle's issues. And books and other texts that are created specifically for e-book readers, rather than converted from print versions, will offer photographs, tables, charts, and other illustrations that are clearer and more legible. But for the foreseeable future the vast majority of electronic texts will remain digitized print versions.

The largest print-to-digital conversion project is Google Books, and its history to date is not reassuring. For one thing, with any Google service there are significant privacy concerns. For another, Google now has monopoly control over a huge collection of digitized works taken from library collections. As Anthony Grafton writes in the online New Yorker,

"The out-of-print books Google has digitized come from nonprofit institutions that built their collections as a public good....These public treasures will now be monetized for the benefit of a private corporation. True, Google will give every public and university library one terminal where readers can access its entire collection. But these machines won’t be able to download or print texts--and you can imagine the lines. Libraries that want full access to all the books in Google will have to pay for the privilege, and for every download."

Finding the book you want isn't so easy, though. As UC Berkeley's Geoffrey Nunberg details in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Google Books' metadata is a mess. Nunberg found that titles were garbled ("Moby-Dick: or the White Wall"), authors mismatched to books ("Madame Bovary By Henry James"), publications misdated (Robert Shelton's No Direction Home: The Life And Music Of Bob Dylan was dated 1899), subject headings misassigned (Jill Watt's biography Mae West: An Icon In Black And White was in the Religion category--although she might indeed be a holy figure to some), and text links misdirected (the link for the 1818 tract Theorie de l'Univers took Nunberg instead to Barbara Taylor Bradford's 1983 novel Voice of the Heart). A 1995 book about the web browser Mosaic was given the publication date of 1939 and attributed to Sigmund Freud.

These examples point to two main problems with the way Google creates metadata. The first is that instead of paying for the thorough, detailed, and accurate metadata painstakingly created by librarians for their collections, Google is clearly relying on automatic assignment of metadata via computer scanning. Nunberg finds that an 1890 guidebook, London of To-Day, was given the publication date of 1774 (a very different "to-day" than 1890) because the first pages contained an ad for a clothing manufacturer founded in 1774. The medieval studies journal Speculum was assigned to the subject category Health and Fitness, because the computer didn't understand the difference between the Latin word for mirror and the medical instrument. These are the sorts of errors that arise from trying to automate a process that requires human judgment.

The second problem is that instead of using library classification systems, such as call numbers and the Library of Congress Subject Headings, Google has chosen to use the Book Industry Standards and Communications (BISAC) system. The BISAC system was designed for bookstores containing thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of titles, not for research collections of millions of volumes. BISAC's idiosyncrasies get magnified by the sheer size of the Google Books collection. Call numbers permit distinctions between and groupings of similar works; for example, when you find a book in an online library catalog, most allow you to browse a virtual "shelf" to examine all the books that are classified in nearby call number ranges. But the BISAC categories are too crude to be a useful browsing tool when the collection consists of millions of volumes.

In the absence of usable metadata, the only efficient way to access Google Books is through text searching. That doesn't work very well if you are looking for a specific edition of a work (since the text will be identical in each), or are trying to investigate the literature of a particular period. Nunberg doesn't say so, but it's clear that Google needs to hire some librarians to sort out its metadata.

Meanwhile, libraries are eliminating books. David Abel of reports that the administrators of Cushing Academy, a Massachusetts prep school, have decided to eliminate the books from its library:
"In place of the stacks, they are spending $42,000 on three large flat-screen TVs that will project data from the Internet and $20,000 on special laptop-friendly study carrels. Where the reference desk was, they are building a $50,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine.

"And to replace those old pulpy devices that have transmitted information since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1400s, they have spent $10,000 to buy 18 electronic readers made by and Sony. Administrators plan to distribute the readers, which they’re stocking with digital material, to students looking to spend more time with literature.

"Those who don’t have access to the electronic readers will be expected to do their research and peruse many assigned texts on their computers."

Perhaps this isn't an issue for students whose families are rich enough to send them to Cushing (which costs nearly $43,000 a year for boarding students), but 18 e-book readers seem laughably inadequate as a replacement for an entire library. Students doing research and perusing assigned texts will evidently have to purchase their own copies to do so. (Clicking on the catalog link on Cushing's Fisher-Watkins Library page led only to an error message the night I tried it.)

Of course, many textbook publishers are moving into e-book formats because digital protection measures prevent students from sharing or selling their used textbooks. Now every student must buy their books new and only new, which means greater profits for publishers. (Image by Mark Wilson for the Boston Globe.)

The good old days. Which is what book publishing has been about for centuries. As Richard Nash writes in his review of Ted Striphas' The Late Age of Print (Columbia University Press, 2009), e-books are just the latest strategy in publishers' long-term struggle to control consumers by "inducing demand" and "creating artificial scarcity." Restrictive digital licenses are "the apotheosis of the publishing industry’s capacity to restrict a reader’s ability to do what they want with their books." In other words, we shouldn't mourn a genteel, non-commercial literary culture that is largely illusory. But if we want to retain fair use and first sale rights, we must organize.

Update 24 September 2009: The New York Times' Miguel Helft is reporting that the settlement between Google, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers is being renegotiated. The settlement in the copyright infringement case brought by the authors' and publishers' groups against Google was reached last year, but is now being revised to address privacy and antitrust issues raised by many concerned individuals and groups, including a coalition of authors and publishers represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, UC Berkeley's Samuelson Clinic, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Side 2, Track 1

Last night over a drink at a local establishment I was talking with a friend of mine about the joys and frustrations of making mix tapes: choosing the right segue (each song had to have a musical, lyrical, or conceptual connection with the songs that preceded and followed it), the mechanics of choosing the right instant to lift your finger off the pause button of the cassette recorder, the difficulty (but necessity) of ending each side with 30 seconds or less of blank tape, etc. I mentioned that I generally tried to make the transition between the first and second sides as seamless as possible; his view was that the second side was a fresh start, and so could have a completely different mood or theme from the first side.

Which got us to talking about albums, and how we tended to listen to them by the side rather than as a whole (something that the CD, and now the i-Pod, has rendered a quaint memory along with mix tapes themselves). Because you had to get up and flip the record over halfway through, you'd often just put on your favorite side, or the side that matched a particular mood. And if you were spinning records with friends, you tended to alternate not albums, but album sides.

So the ordering of the songs on an album was crucial, particularly at the opening and closing of each side. My friend mentioned that one of his favorite Elvis Costello songs is "Hand in Hand," which leads off the second side of This Year's Model (1978). That got us thinking about other great side two track ones, and when a Clash song ("White Riot") came on the jukebox it reminded me of "Janie Jones" from their debut album.

Wait a minute, you're probably thinking. Isn't "Janie Jones" track one side one? After all, in Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity (Riverhead Books, 1995), it heads Rob Fleming's list of the five best side one track ones of all time*:

  1. "Janie Jones," The Clash, from The Clash (1976)
  2. "Thunder Road," Bruce Springsteen, from Born To Run (1975)
  3. "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Nirvana, from Nevermind (1991)
  4. "Let's Get It On," Marvin Gaye, from Let's Get It On (1973)
  5. "Return of the Grievous Angel," Gram Parsons, from Grievous Angel (1974)
High Fidelity, p. 147

In fact, "Janie Jones" is both side one track one (of the original 1977 UK issue of the album) and side two track one (of the 1979 US issue of the album; for a rundown of the many differences between the two versions, see Wikipedia).

Along with Elvis Costello and The Clash, I started thinking about my other favorite side two track ones. I limited myself to rock and pop albums, so "Flamenco Sketches," say, or "Preaching Blues" weren't allowed. Multi-artist and best-of compilations weren't eligible either, although single-artist singles compilations were. EPs were OK if they had at least four songs, but not if they had only three. And I limited my selections to albums I discovered or own(ed) on vinyl, which means the Pixies and Sonic Youth and pretty much all post-1987 groups were excluded.

I came up with a list of ten eleven a dozen favorite side two, track ones (in reverse alphabetical order by song title):
"The Wait," Killing Joke, from Killing Joke (1980)

"The Void," The Raincoats, from The Raincoats (1979)

"Teenage Lobotomy," Ramones, from Rocket To Russia (1977)

"Stir It Up," Bob Marley & The Wailers, from Catch A Fire (1973)

"Pumping (My Heart)," Patti Smith, from Radio Ethiopia (1976)

"Johnny's Gonna Die," Replacements, from Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash (1981)

"I Heard Her Call My Name," The Velvet Underground, from White Light/White Heat (1968)

"Heroin," The Velvet Underground, from The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

"Goon Squad," Elvis Costello & The Attractions, from Armed Forces (1979)

"Disorder," Joy Division, from the "Outside" (always the second side for me) of Unknown Pleasures (1979)

"Depression," Black Flag, from Damaged (1981)

"Bankrobber," The Clash, from the Black Market Clash EP (1980)

Responses (and alternative lists) are welcome.

Update 24 October 2011: I've written a follow-up to this post: Side 1, Track 1


* Worthy as all of these songs are, I don't think even one of them would be among my top five side one track ones.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Chandni Chowk to China

In his essay "Production style in Handel operas"* the great Handel scholar Winton Dean makes a telling point about the musical and dramatic integrity of Handel's operas. He writes,

" so placing the arias that they simultaneously advanced the plot and developed the characters, facet by facet,...Handel ensured that the opera, far from falling into detached segments, was in continuous fluid motion....The organization is so taut, and the equilibrium between the musical, dramatic and scenic components so nicely balanced, that almost any cut weakens the design. As a result, the duration appears longer, not shorter, when cuts are made..." (p. 253)

The point applies to movies, too: when a film is made up of disjointed set pieces strung together with voice-overs or onscreen titles, it can seem much longer than its actual running time. In Chandni Chowk to China (2009), director Nikhil Advani and editor Aarif Sheikh make this basic error, and so the movie feels both endless and completely uninvolving.

The plot isn't really worth summarizing in detail. Sidhu (Akshay Kumar), a cook, is proclaimed to be the reincarnation of the ancient Chinese warrior Liu Sheng, and travels to China to save a village that has been turned into a forced-labor camp by the evil Hojo. Along the way he encounters twin sisters (Deepika Padukone in a double role) who were separated at birth; Sakhi, raised in India, and Suzy (aka Meow Meow), raised by Hojo after he killed their father. Or so everyone believes: when Sidhu is rescued by (spoiler alert!) an amnesiac vagrant who looks amazingly similar to Sakhi's and Suzy's father (i.e., he hasn't aged a day in 20 years; neither has Hojo or his chief henchman), we can see exactly where the movie is heading. And many, many fight scenes (and almost no songs) later the movie finally gets there.

Akshay can't do much with the role of Sidhu, which oscillates between annoying slapstick and--despite Akshay's own real-life martial arts training--unconvincing fight scenes. (Doesn't anyone among the criminal hordes own a gun?) Deepika, who looks great as both Sakhi and Suzy, is largely wasted. Not only are both of her characters reduced at the end of the movie to watching Sidhu admiringly, there are hardly any dance numbers in the last two-thirds of the movie (one in particular has obviously been abruptly truncated). The script reels from incoherence to obviousness and back again.

I don't like to give bad reviews, and so I probably would simply have let this one go without writing about it. But in my view Chandni Chowk to China exemplifies certain current trends in Bollywood. As American money starts to flood in (Chandni Chowk to China was distributed internationally by Warner Brothers), it seems that Bollywood filmmakers are going to find themselves under pressure to reduce running times, keep dialogue scenes short and uncomplicated (i.e. cliché-ridden), limit the number of songs, and include English tag lines and choruses in the music. Some of these trends predate American studio involvement (Dhoom 2 (2006) comes to mind), but they will likely be accelerated by the influx of American cash.

So, unfortunately, we're likely to see many more movies like Chandni Chowk to China in the months and years to come. As Anupama Chopra reported earlier this year in The New York Times, "Warner Brothers has a dozen projects in the pipeline, including two more with Nikhil Advani..." On the evidence of Chandni Chowk to China, that's not a very appealing prospect.


* from The Cambridge Companion to Handel (Donald Burrows, ed., Cambridge University Press, 1997)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Cecilia Bartoli

I'm working on two Bollywood-related posts right now--one on the appalling Chandni Chowk To China (2009) and one on Guru Dutt--but Eye Bags' Mezzo Watch #6 on Cecilia Bartoli has derailed me for the moment.

I urge you to read, watch and savor Anik's appreciation of Cecilia; I know that I'll now be seeking out all of the earlier installments of her Mezzo Watch. For a taste of Cecilia at her most sublime, here is a video clip from her DVD Live in Italy (1998), recorded in concert at Vicenza's astounding Palladio-designed Teatro Olimpico. Here she sings Giulio Caccini's gorgeous "Amarilli, mia bella," accompanied only by lutenist Giancarlo Rado of Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca:

The words, in my halting translation: "Amarilli, lovely Amarilli / Do you doubt, my heart's sweetest desire, that I love you? / Believe me, it is true; yet should dread assail you, doubt not / Cut open my chest, and on my heart inscribed you'll see 'Amarilli, Amarilli, are my dearest love.'"

If you ever have a chance to see Cecilia Bartoli in performance, don't hesitate—hock your valuables, if necessary. It's a life-altering experience.

Update 10 September 2009: Purity McCall over at Se Vuoi Pace is celebrating her birthday with a post on Cecilia Bartoli's new website and upcoming album, Sacrificium. Happy birthday, Purity!

Update 12 September 2009: Sorry—now that I've started I can't help myself! "Gelido in ogni vena" from the opera Farnace (1727):

(Thanks to elderarce)

The words in English: "I feel my blood like ice coursing through every vein / The shade of my lifeless son afflicts me with terror / and to make my agony worse, I see that I was cruel / to an innocent soul, to my heart's beloved."

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Hitchcock's Motifs

Not long ago I read a book by Michael Walker entitled Hitchcock's Motifs (Amsterdam University Press, 2006). It's an alphabetical listing of some of the images, character types, scenes, etc. that recur from film to film: bed scenes, children, confined spaces, doubles, guilt and confession, handcuffs and bondage, heights and falling, keys and handbags, mothers, stairs, and many others. The first time I saw it I thought "Why hasn't this been done before?" After I read it I thought, "Why wasn't this done better?"

Of course, entire books could be written on most of these motifs, so Walker's treatment of each of them is necessarily going to be less full than it might be. In the category "Blondes and brunettes"—a pretty rich subject for Hitchcock, I'd think—instead of focusing on the iconic cool, elegant blonde, or on particular actresses (Grace Kelly or Ingrid Bergman, for example), Walker rightly points out that in Hitchcock's films "there are different types of blondes." Sure: in Vertigo (1958) Barbara Bel Geddes (Midge) is a blonde, while Kim Novak is both the cool, elegant blonde (Madeline) and the warm, available—not to say sluttish—brunette (Judy), until she becomes the cool, elegant blonde again, which she really isn't. What does it all mean? Beats Walker—he's just making as comprehensive a list as he can. By compiling every blonde actress and character in Hitchcock, Walker is left little room for analysis and an impossibly heterogeneous group to analyze. It would have been far better for him to concentrate on films where blondeness is clearly significant. A disappointment.

Update 3 September 2009: For a (brief) discussion of two better books on Hitchcock's films, Tania Modleski's The Women Who Knew Too Much (2nd ed., Routledge, 2005) and Slavoj Zizek's Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (MIT Press, 1991), see my earlier post on Jonathan Lethem's The Disappointment Artist (Doubleday, 2005).