Learning to Love Reading: Grade School Library Edition

It was my last library period before spring break in grade 3. I usually only signed out library books for a few days, reading them surreptitiously under my desk while the teacher yammered on. The librarian approached me and said, “We just got this new Almanac of Birds in. You should take it home and read it over Spring Break.”

“Sure” is what I may have said, but I remember being somewhat dumbfounded. I didn’t (and don’t) care much for birds.1 We had shelves full of books at home, and until this point, library books seemed somehow sacrosanct. But now I’d been entrusted with a book that didn’t even have a card in it yet.

I remember almost nothing of the book,2 but the feeling of a crisp new book that wasn’t even mine remains. It wasn’t a thin book, but I read and browsed through it several times over that week. In my first post-spring break library period, the librarian treated it like no big deal when I handed the book back, even asking if I wanted to sign it out for longer. I stammered that I’d read it thoroughly and moved on to a new Hardy Boys book.

I relate this vignette not because of any inherent charm, but rather because it contrasts against the experience of eight-year-olds today. Let’s just imagine that most of their reading happens on some gamut of smartphones, tablets and/or desktops. They may not even have a library period at school. Or a library. If they do, what about in ten years? 20 years? Will they ever feel the wonder of being entrusted with a crisp, brand new book? Could receiving a heretofore unknown URL compare?

The point here isn’t so much that my childhood embodied the Platonic Form of Developing Love For Reading. Rather, I wonder how this world of multi-functional-devices-on-which-you-can-also-read will inculcate a love of reading? I seldom took library books home because I read them in a dedicated library period in which you were physically incapable of doing anything else.3

What if I lived in age where a library period consisted of time spent on multi-functional-devices-on-which-you-can-also-read? There’s a good chance I would have screwed around, circumventing to the best of my ability the Internet filters in place attempting to keep me focused on Serious Learning. Would I have learned habits of reading a single text at length over a solid period of time?

These aren’t just rhetorical questions trying to bemoan the current state of affairs. We always complain that things are moving too fast. I sincerely don’t know how “kids these days” will develop a love for reading, let alone the ability to read at length with sustained concentration. This doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t: most kids my age didn’t either.

I have to hope that, no matter the learning medium, insatiable curiousity will win out; that the pursuit of knowledge will always trump distractability, and that as romantic as libraries may be, they merely encode this drive towards learning, but cannot contain it.


  1. Some people, on the other hand, are too into birds
  2. I only recall looking at the entry on blue jays frequently, being a Canadian and enamoured of baseball. 
  3. And, as mentioned earlier, I also often read under my desk in class. I was occasionally caught, at which point I suspected my teachers were secretly delighted. I doubt under-the-desk tablet computers would evoke the same sentiment. 

For Ebooks

The topic of ebooks and the digital reading experience continues to interest me. I’ve asked if you can love an ebook, and wondered about how the digital medium will shape the form of writing. Despite the shortcomings of ebooks and the pathetic lack of care with which content is being produced for digital consumption, most of my reading over the past year has been digital. Here’s why:

Ubiquity

Just like with a camera, the best book is the one you have with you. I have an entire library’s worth of books in my pocket, ready to read at a moment’s notice. Even better, when I open my latest read on my iPhone, it’s in sync with where I’d left off on my iPad, and vice versa.

Space Constraints

Since I can fit a library in my pocket, I don’t need to find space for bookshelves in my very small 325 square foot living space. I am definitely concerned about the future of this library due to DRM, but I remain hopeful that this will sort itself out like in the music industry.

Cheaper, Faster

The Kindle edition has always been cheaper in my experience of browsing Amazon.com. Not only this, but it’s instant. The space between “I’d like to buy this” and owning the book moves from the hours or days of shipping or trips to bookstores to a minute or two. This makes me buy many books that I wouldn’t have bothered with previously, due to both lower prices and hassle.

Unobtrusive Notes

This point marks the transition from “already here” to “just over the horizon” in terms of digital reading experiences. You can highlight and annotate ebooks on many ereading platforms, but I haven’t yet seen an implementation that beats the marginal note for ease and non-interruption of reading flow. But, since I both like taking notes and hate reading books that have them (unless I’m explicitly looking for them), the ability for ereaders to toggle their display on and off increases my reading pleasure greatly.

In a future where ebook annotation is no longer a hair-pulling experience, we’ll see some interesting things come out of the data that can be mined from the aggregate of these notes. Publishers and authors will get some of the best feedback ever from their readers. Professors will be able to annotate their student’s texts. We’ll be able to overlay our own texts with the notes of some of our intellectual heroes. This is going to be awesome.

Custom Reading Experience

Nothing beats a well-typeset text produced with skill and care by a real typographer. But nothing’s quite as frustrating as reading a good text that’s been mishandled with amateur typography. The ability for users to control the typography, layout and style of any text they read will lead to many improved reading experiences (and many a diminished one, sadly).

Another thing I’m hoping for is never having to read another bloody endnote again in my life. Texts can indicate notes and leave it to the ereader to display them it whatever way it sees fit. Prefer endnotes? Go ahead and enjoy your terribly mistaken preference without damaging the rest of us who know that footnotes are the only way. Even better, ereaders might even allow an entirely new notes design that beats both.1

Part of the Semantic Web

Imagine being able to seamlessly link in and out of ebooks. Tap/click a footnote reference right into that particular work2. Imagine the lines blurring (or even disappearing) between books, journals, magazines, weblogs, and other forms of writing that are digitally distributed. This is not the case right now, but the conversation is happening.

In Transition

Digital reading is in transition. I’ve only listed current and currently imaginable advantages to ebooks over their paper siblings, but the true ereading revolution is yet to come. We’ll know it’s here when books are treated like vinyl records today: a collector’s item for purists; a higher fidelity, more sensuous experience. Until we move beyond the current template of the printed edition being canonical and the digital version being an afterthought, we won’t really be able to weight the pros and cons of printed vs digital reading. Even so, ebooks make a compelling argument for themselves today, and will only make a stronger one in the future.


  1. The design challenge and reading experience of notes is a minor obsession of mine. I probably will write a post about this in the future. 
  2. Assuming you own or have access to it. That’ll be far more complicated than the linking standard. 

Harry Potter and the Botched Adaptation

The excellent Harry Potter series saw its final movie adaptation this past summmer in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows II. On its own merits, it was a fine movie, if not an altogether satisfying finale for the characters we’ve come to know and love for the past 10 years. But, as an adaptation, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows II was wretched.

I was so upset after watching the movie that I started writing this review directly afterwards. I then needed to reread the book in order to corroborate many of the details I wanted to discuss, not to mention washing the bad taste of the movie out of my mouth.1 The reread was so satisfying that the review was forgotten until now.

I fully understand that books and movies are different media with different storytelling strengths and weaknesses. Movies’ time constraints require often painful edits and changes to the source material. I think that in this case, however, the adaptation could have been considerably more faithful to the source material and have produced an even better movie. (What follows is of course heavily laden with spoilers.)

1. Harry Spills the Beans

One of the most emotional sequences in the book is Harry coming to grips with the fact that he is a Horcrux and must let Voldemort kill him in order to defeat Voldemort. It’s one of Rowling’s finer pieces of writing as we accompany Harry on his journey of self-sacrifice for his friends.

Part of this lyrical passage is Harry’s decision to use his invisibility cloak to prevent his friends from dissuading him from giving himself up. That would just make it harder for him. But in the movie, Harry does tell them, robbing this sequence of so much potency.

To be fair, filming Harry’s interior journey would be hard. Maybe it could be done, maybe not. This is the scene I have the most grace for in terms of film adaptation. Still, it galled me to see one of my favourite passages fall so flat on screen.

2. Snape’s Patchy Story

The redemption of Severus Snape is another high point of this novel. His tragic story of love for Lily Potter, inadvertent betrayal of her, and subsequent anguished dedication to protecting her son and aiding Dumbledore is one of many moments in the novel that had me tearing up.

The movie, however, only might have provoked tears of anger at the short shrift they gave to Snape’s story. My wife, who has not read the books but has watched every movie to date, did not even understand from this sequnce that Snape had been in love with Lily Potter. To not make clear the central fact of Snape’s entire story is to treat his character with contempt. Pathetic.

3. Boss Fight Porn

The book’s final showdown between Harry and Voldemort is amazing, not least because Harry defeats Voldemort without firing a shot after a great expository taunt. The only real action in this finalé is amoungst the secondary characters2, as Harry’s death cast a protective spell similar to that which his mother had laid upon him when she died for him, leaving all at Hogwarts likewise protected from Voldemort.

But this would have robbed the filmmakers of a Big Boss Fight™, and we, uh, need one of those. So we get a ridiculous battle that looks cool but is ultimately a big waste of time that could have been better spent on all the deficiencies I’m outlining. This was the final movie guys, it’s not like you need to stoke the series’ engine any more. Couldn’t you have eased up on the cliché?

4. Why’s Harry Alive?

Like Snape’s love for Lily, the reason Harry is still alive after being hit with Voldemort’s killing curse is not made clear in the movie. For what might be the most important plot point in the whole damn series, this sure gets short shrift in the movie. The relevant passage from the Harry’s conversation with Dumbledore in the book:

“I let him kill me,” said Harry. “Didn’t I?”

“You did,” said Dumbledore nodding. “Go on!”

“So the part of his soul that was in me … has it gone?”

“Oh yes! said Dumbledore. “Yes, he destroyed it. Your soul is whole, and completely your own, Harry.”

“But if Voldemort used the killing curse,” Harry started again, “and nobody died for me this time — how can I be alive?”

“I think you know,” said Dumbledore. “Think back. Remember what he did, in his ignorance, in his greed and his cruelty.”

“He took my blood.” said Harry.

“Precisely!” said Dumbledore. “He took your blood and rebuilt his living body with it! Your blood in his veins, Harry, Lily’s protection inside both of you! He tethered you to life while he lives!”

…”He took your blood believing it would strengthen him. He took into his body a tiny part of the enchantment your mother laid upon you when she died for you. His body keeps her sacrifice alive, and while that enchantment survives, so do you and so does Voldemort’s last hope for himself.”

…”Without meaning to, as you now know, Lord Voldemort doubled the bond between you when he returned to a human form. A part of his soul was still attached to yours, and, thinking to strengthen himself, he took a part of your mother’s sacrifice into himself. If he could only have understood the precise and terrible power of that sacrifice, he would not, perhaps, have dared to touch your blood…. But then, if he had been able to understand, he could not be Lord Voldemort, and might never have murdered at all.”

This scene is probably the major denouement for the book, and Rowling handles it well. The book’s themes of the power of love and the foolishness of evil come together brilliantly. As with Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, evil undoes itself and love wins because evil cannot, in the end, understand love in the slightest.

But the movie treats this crucial scene with frustrating flippancy, not even mentioning Lily’s protective charm nor Voldemort’s hubris. Without those, I don’t even remember what hackneyed explanation they attempted to give for Harry’s survival, but I know that the group I saw the movie with–none of whom had read the books–were very confused as we left the theatre, leading me into a rant about all the critical stuff the movie missed, later leading me to (eventually) write this critique.

No adaptation can perfectly mimic its source material. I get that, and mention that my first gripe is just a gripe. But the others I mention are infuriating. If the movie had ditched the unnecessary final fight scene and had instead focused more on Snape’s story and the deep significance of how Harry survived, the movie could have been more than a blockbuster. It could have been a great story.


  1. Yes, that is a fantastically mixed metaphor. Thanks for noticing. 
  2. Molly Weasley’s “Get away from my daughter, you bitch!” to Bellatrix Lestrange thankfully made the movie cut. 

Can you Love an Ebook?

My idea of misbehaviour in elementary school was to read a book under my desk while we were supposed to be paying attention—books generally had more interesting things to say. I readily affirm that some of my best friends are books but, as the age of ebooks1 appears to be dawning, I’m trying to ask myself how firmly wedded my love of reading is to the form of the book.

It has fascinated me that, although text is the easiest thing to transmit online, ebooks are one of the last analog media to truly make the transition into the digital age.2 Who reads novels or dissertations in a web browser?

While there have been a variety of ways to read and purchase ebooks for a while, it was only with Amazon’s late-2007 foray into the market with the Kindle device and store—aiming for an iPod-iTunes synergy—that ebooks really seemed to be arriving as a viable way to read content. Fast forwarding to the present, we’ve seen an explosion in this space. Amazon’s Kindle Store is the current premier content publisher (Apple’s iBooks store has fallen flat thus far), especially since Amazon has foregone an Apple-style lockdown by virtue of providing reader apps on iOS, Android, and Blackberry platforms in addition to their own Kindle device.3

But this state of the ebook matters little compared to the fundamental question animating this essay: can I bear to transfer my love of reading into an ebook medium? Spoiler: I don’t have an answer yet, but this essay is part of trying to answer it.

Physicality

A book is a sensory playground. Hardcover or soft? Trade or paperback sized? Does the cover entice me to crack its spine or not? The texture of the paper and the quality of typesetting, the new vs. old book smell; underlines and highlights from a previous owner: these are all sensory indicators that help us to judge a book before we’ve read a word. But an ebook is ephemeral, independent of whichever device will be used to display it.

The ebook’s ephemerality also gives me a poor sense of spatiality within a text. Or, in plain English, I don’t have a clue how far into the book I am while reading.4

Sociality

The physicality of an ebook matters to my experience as a reader, but it also affects those around me in some surprising ways. When I’m reading an ebook, my wife can’t tell if I’m reading a book or using any of the other (generally entertainment-driven) aspects of my iPad,5 and has no cues to know if I’m in “engrossed in reading, interrupt at your own peril,” or “feel free to interrupt, I’m not doing anything useful” modes, respectively. Also, since she has no book cover to look at, she has no idea what book I’m reading and has no easy way to segue into a conversation with me about what material I’ve been engaged with once I put my device down.

But perhaps the most damning aspect of ebooks is that I can’t share one with a friend.6 DRM’d ebooks can’t be shared, and non-DRM’d books aren’t so much shared as duplicated. In the latter case, I haven’t parted with my copy of the book, making the act less significant. In either case, my friend is not holding the physical artifact I once held. She cannot see the place where I underlined an important point or where I made a marginal note questioning the author’s sanity, since she has her own copy.7

An even worse implication here is for libraries, and especially public libraries. What does a library mean without books? How can I sign out an ebook? Will there be artificially-imposed DRM that demands the the book be erased from my device after a few weeks? Public libraries exist to democratize knowledge among the population that cannot necessarily afford to purchase books, yet this population may not be able to afford an ebook reading device8, leaving them with the unpalatable option of sitting at a dumb terminal during library hours.9

Environment

There’s an implicit, but rarely articulated, argument that ebooks are more environmentally friendly than their printed brethren, as seen in the epithet “dead tree edition.” But, does this hold? I’ll likely only use my current ebook reader10 for another 2-3 years before replacing it with the latest model, a pattern which most will follow, contributing to the mostly-silent dilemma of digital component disposal. And I certainly never stop to think of the energy demands of constantly recharging my digital reading device, nor of the massive data centres that distribute ebooks at enormous energy cost. I would be interested indeed to see a comprehensive cradle-to-grave comparison between ebooks and paper books.

Scholarship

Another aspect that doesn’t get much play when it comes to ebooks is very basic: how does one cite a quote from an ebook? Page numbers are no longer relevant when content fluidly adapts to various devices’ screen size, and ebooks are still too new to have an agreed-upon standard of responding to this variability. We could use some combination of chapter, section and paragraph numbers for our citation (as in the days prior to page-numbered books), but this is tedious and largely useless without 1) agreed-upon standards and 2) implementation of these standards in ebook readers. For instance, as an academic, I should be able to highlight a passage and invoke a function to provide a citation for my research in an acceptable format.

A good citation standard would also beg the question of a good linking standard, which also doesn’t yet exist. I should be able to click/tap on a citation and (if I “own” the cited book) be brought to that passage in the cited work. But DRM and the continued halfhearted embrace of the true potential of ebooks on the part of big publishers provides little hope on this front.11

And, speaking of citing, there’s probably little need to point out the utter and complete stupidity of disallowing copy & paste functionality in ebook readers like Kindle and iBooks. The lesson of iTunes’ success is simple: be better, easier, and less frustrating than piracy. Artificially locking out one of the fundamental advantages of digital text due to fear and outdated business models is no way to move into this new medium.

Not All Bad

New technology is always a tradeoff. Early adopters love to tout the advantages, while those entrenched in the old paradigm respond with a mixture of fear and ostriching.12 A more nuanced perspective asks, what have we gained, and what have we lost? This essay has detailed my sense of loss in moving into the new medium of ebook reading. While many of the drawbacks enumerated in this essay are due to ebooks being relatively new and therefore immature, the specifications and software will grow in power and nuance to not only address many of these issues, but also to produce an entirely new paradigm of publishing, learning, and knowledge-sharing. I both welcome and dread that day. Paper-based books are familiar, and therefore comforting. And yet, I cannot help but believe that the easy distribution of learning via electronic text holds potentiality that those of us living through this transition cannot even being to grasp. Whether these are good days or bad, they are not dull.


  1. I wish we had a better name. Ebook, e-book, eBook, digital book? I’ve chosen ebook in accordance with the convention of calling electronic mail email. 
  2. Sure, we’ve been doing a lot of reading on the web for the last 15 years, but little to none of it has been at lengths comparable to paper & ink books. 
  3. This is not to say that that Amazon is not attempting a platform lockdown. It is simply attempting to promulgate its locked-down platform by virtue of ubiquity: you can use their proprietary platform everywhere. 
  4. This is a design concern, addressable in a variety of ways. But none that I have seen or experienced thus far beat the quick glance at a physical book’s progress. 
  5. This is less important on dedicated reading devices such as the Kindle or the Nook, but it is unlikely that they will have much staying power. Digital = convergence. 
  6. Although the Kindle platform allows lending, it’s currently hobbled in that books may only be lent one time for a 2 week period, lend-ability is opt-in for publishers, and only currently available to US customers. 
  7. Technology might catch up here in interesting ways. Craig Mod has interesting thoughts on ebook heatmaps (and many other things ebook-related). 
  8. Although many cellphones may be technologically advanced enough within a few more years. 
  9. Which might be the solution in any case due to DRM issues. 
  10. An iPad 
  11. There’s work being done on this front, but it’s still early days and subject to the approval of publishers who do not appear to want to embrace electronic publishing.. 
  12. If I just put my head in the sand, it’ll go away. 

Wendell Berry on Intellectual Property

In an era where “intellectual property” (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) is a large issue due to the unprecedented ease with which information can be shared online, I found the following quote from Wendell Berry to be fantastic in contrasting an economy of ownership with an economy of gift:

I do have an interest in this book, which is for sale. (If you have bought it, dear reader, I thank you. If you have borrowed it, I honor your frugality. If you have stolen it, may it add to your confusion.) Most of the sale price pays the publisher for paper, ink, and other materials, for editorial advice, copyediting, design, advertising (I hope), and marketing. I get between 10 and 15 percent (depending on sales) for arranging the words on the pages.

As I understand it, I am being paid only for my work in arranging the words; my property is that arrangement. The thoughts in this book, on the contrary, are not mine. They came freely to me, and I give them freely away. I have no “intellectual property,” and I think that all claimants to such property are thieves.

Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992), xviii.

Eagleton and Ditchkins

Terry Eagleton’s 2008 Terry Lectures at Yale University have been transcribed into a new book entitled Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. It’s the first rebuttal to Dawkins and Hitchens (whom Eagleton reduces to the solitary signifier “Ditchkins”) that isn’t relegated to the Christian ghetto, but appears to be gaining traction outside of it. Salon covers it in an article entitled Those ignorant atheists, while Stanley Fish reads through it appreciatively in a blog post called God Talk over at the New York Times.

I have not read the book, but I listened to the fantastic originating lectures, which combined wit, intellectual sophistication, political radicalism and good theology. If you prefer free to paid and/or audio to text, you can go listen to the 2008 Terry Lectures on iTunes U. In fact, I think I might just have to listen again.