Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Friday, March 12, 2010

A New Book nook: Trying to Unravel My Material World

by Kerry Blair

Just in case I needed a little more to feel guilty about to start the New Year, just after Christmas I borrowed a copy of Peter Menzel’s amazing Material World: A Global Family Portrait.

For this book—as well as a companion series on PBS’s Nova—Menzel’s team of photographers spent one week with “statistically average” families in thirty countries around the world. The author’s essays address each family’s work (merest survival in some cases) and their hopes for the future. As fascinating as the text is, what goes right to the heart is what Menzel calls “the big picture shot.” This is a photo of the family, taken outside their home (house, hut, high rise apartment, whatever) surrounded by all their material possessions. One of the first photos features an Ethiopian woman and her five children*, sitting in the dirt, surrounded by enough clothing, cooking utensils, and bedding to fill one tall kitchen garbage bag—with enough room left over for six or eight scrawny chickens she wishes she had. Deeper within the book, an average US family of four is shot with a wide lens, their stuff overflowing into the neighbors’ yards. (In the Nova version, I hear, the Americans’ possessions cover a football field.)

In this, if nothing else, we Blairs are above average. Admittedly, my family of seven encompasses three generations and is spread out over three apartments and a five-bedroom house. But if we pooled our stuff—which we have in the case of all the junk stored in a two-car garage at the back of the property—we’d not only fill that football field, we’d need at least a basketball court besides for all the antiques, china, and electronics I wouldn’t want to have sitting around outside.

I have been obsessing over this “plethora of accumulation” since January. Yesterday afternoon, I stood in the doorway of the aforementioned garage—trying to figure out how to squeeze in the small desk and five boxes my son is bringing down from Utah today—and decided that the time for mere obsession has passed; it is time to take serious action. Toward that end, I dragged out four crates of books and three bags of bedding that moved from Mesa to Salt Lake City to Chino—without ever being opened. On their way to Goodwill right now are more worldly possessions than the Ethiopian woman will see in her entire life. Still, I didn’t make a noticeable dent in my Great Wall of Stuff. But I will, and I’m starting with . . . drumroll, please . . . books.

As those of you who know me can attest, I am incapable of leaving a thrift store or antique shop empty-handed. The things I’m most likely to cart home (besides Blue Willow) are books; and those I’ve collected all my life. I have a caseful of treasured tomes that, carefully stacked, would occupy a negligible portion of a football field. What’s weighing down the many bookcases in my house are hundreds of “mundane” copies of the great works of literature; enough paper and pasteboard that they’d need their own U-Haul to get to the football field.

I truly love books. About the only way I part with even ratty copies of titles I love is if somebody pries it from my hand or sneaks it out under cover of darkness. (My husband does both.) But now I am able to box most of them up to move on to somebody else’s football field. Why? Because I took the good ol’ American way of eliminating clutter—by accumulating yet another material possession! (But this newest one is small. I swear!)

After years of turning up my nose at technology and swearing on Tolstoy’s grave that I would never, ever, ever trade paper-and-print books for a Kindle . . . I bought a nook. (Ha! Didn’t go back on that oath!) I’d been wavering for some time, but the Whitneys nudged me over the edge. nook* allows me to easily transfer any pdf file—making it about a hundred times easier to read the dozen nominees made available electronically this year. (My eyes are too light-sensitive to allow me to read very long on computer, so this was an answer to a prayer.)

But that’s not why I bought it. My primary motivation went back to the desire to unravel that material girl, if only a little. Thus, I’ve downloaded the complete works of Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Dickensen, Browning, and many, many more—all for free, and all with the look of cherished originals, thanks to the inspired Google Library Project. Works that once would have covered a baseball diamond (if not an entire football field) can now be held in my hand and referenced almost instantly.

As awesome as my new nook is—and it is awesome—there is part of me that still isn't sold on the idea. What about the magic of holding an old—or a new—book in one’s hands; of being the last in a long line—or the first person ever!—to crack its cover? I wouldn’t be happy with a digital picture of Blue Willow; can I learn to appreciate digital copies of the world’s greatest lit? I may have saved myself from being buried alive in a landslide of books, but at what cost?

What do you think? Have you ever read an e-book? Are electronic readers the answer to prayer, or the spawn of evil? Do you think our LDS market will allow people like me in Nowheresville to buy the latest LDS tiles when they are still new, without paying half again more for shipping? Do you think I’ll ever get the garage cleaned out and my material possessions down to a size that won't make me flinch? (Sorry. I couldn’t resist that last one.)

I really do want to know what you think. And if you happen to have bare spots on your football field of stuff, I would love to help you out! Bring your own U-Haul.

*This book was on loan and I have a terrible memory, so I’m making up the technicalities here. Trust me, though, wherever she lived and however many children, she was destitute.

*My capitalization isn’t that bad. Barnes and Noble went all e.e. cummings over this thing.


At 3/12/2010 11:22 AM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

Well...frizitstickles! About half the links I put into the blog went haywire. (Hope nobody followed the Nova one before I managed to pull it down. Scary.) Anyway, I am a ditz. I know I'm supposed to link to the book and TV series if I'm going to talk about them so extensively, but darned if I can get it right. Will you please look them up yourselves so nobody sues me? Nova can be found on PBS's website and the book series has a great write-up and review on Amazon. Best I can do, sorry.

At 3/12/2010 12:08 PM, Blogger Deb said...

I truly believe that the world will be reading from those electronic books in the future. My husband does it from his i-pod now. Those things are too tiny for my old eyes to see, but I'm not opposed to a Kindle or whatever a nook is. I'm supposin' its close to the same thing. Heck, for fifteen bucks you can download a new title within seconds, no shipping. How Star Trekish can we be getting anyway? Of course, anybody who actually watches Star Trek knows the captains all have real hard-covered books sitting on their night stands too.

Kerry, if you need more room in your cabinets, I'll meet you at the edge of town to take any Blue Willow off your hands. Anytime. Really. No problem at all. My pleasure.

At 3/12/2010 12:15 PM, Blogger L.T. Elliot said...

At some point, I know I'll own a nook. (Yes, prefferred over the Kindel. Am I brainwashed by B&N? Sure, but that happened years ago while purchasing an Italian soda in their cafe.) I'll appreciate the extra space but the truth is that I'll always need space for books. That's the one "item" I've allowed myself the pleasure of "hoarding."

I love to revist my tomes. I can take my tomes in the bathtub and I think I'd be pretty terrified to do that with an eReader. Besides that, I just like the feel of paper. =]

At 3/12/2010 12:35 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

I have to keep my books just so I can keep the dream of the big library with the ladders alive. However, I would have no problem reading an electronic book in my library. Something I'm really intrigued by is the concept some on-line stores are trying of giving you the e-copy when you order the hard copy. That is my perfect world. I've also been listening to a lot of audio book downloads. Great for trips.

At 3/12/2010 12:48 PM, Blogger Melanie Goldmund said...

I suppose one day I might, just might have some kind of e-reader, especially one for audio books, but at the moment, no. Even assuming that I could use the reader anywhere in the world to get any book in any language, I'd still be hesitant. Currently I am very happy with my frugal swapping of books online, but of course, things can change, and in the next five or ten years, my needs might be different enough that I would gladly fork over that amount of money for such a device.

At 3/12/2010 1:32 PM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

Laura & Jeff: My thoughts exactly. I sometimes feel guilty picking the thing up. But, when I'm in the middle of a good story, I tend to forget it's not printed on paper.

Melanie: It plays audio books (and music) as well. In fact, it will even read the books to you, albeit in a very computerized voice. :)

You're right about them being pricey. (Ouch!) I bought it with birthday money and justified it with 1) extra reading time on my hands due to illness and 2) what with paying an average of $6 per download -- rather than $16-$26 off the shelf, plus half-again more for shipping -- it might someday repay me. :)

Deb: Crazy Star Trek captains. Don't they also have pictures of ancient sailing ships on their walls? As for the Blue Willow, forget that edge of town thing. You come all the way to my front door (with an overnight bag) and we'll talk.

At 3/12/2010 1:40 PM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

PS to LT (Again): I've taken the nook into the tub successfully, a couple of times. I mean, aren't bubble baths the reason God inspired man to create nooks AND those super-seal, never-come-open, quart-sized, clear-plastic Ziplock bags? :)

At 3/12/2010 2:24 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

I really see myself as more of a cranny person than a nook...

I'm planning to purchase a Kindle for my mom on her next birthday (hope she doesn't read this blog!) I'm sure I'll get one for me eventually, but not soon.

Imagine the possibilities, though. What if you could ship atmospheric music with your book, or not just illustrations, but animation?

My dedication to music is such that I don't care about having the physical media - if I can download the MP3 from Amazon or iTunes and store it digitally, I don't need the album cover or liner notes or disc art. I've got the best part already! (If I could read books on my ipod, I probably would.)

At 3/12/2010 2:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I would love a nook, kindle, whatever, I am apprehensive to allow it to "replace" books. This doomsday side of me always thinks that one day, when the world crumbles and electricity (forget internet) is hard to come by, my books will still be useable. As for the electronic devices, they'll just be expensive paper weights.

Sick mind that I have!

At 3/12/2010 3:28 PM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

As a matter of fact, Anon, I am as "sick" as you are. I've long fancied myself as the old geezer in an apocolyptic story -- you know, the crazy old (wo)man who ensures the continuance of civilization with his/her hoard of great literature.

Obviously, my nook might break at some point, taking with it my entire collection. (Save the hundred or so antiquarian books I will never part with.) But even the greatest actual libraries (Alexandria comes to mind) have been "broken" by fire, flood or hordes of illiterates -- so there's no true security there, either. Anyway, electricity isn't a problem. I have a couple of those cool little emergency supply doohickies that allow me to charge a flashlight, radio, cell phone, and nook -- all with a crank of the handle. (Okay, to read the entire works of Shakespeare I'm talking a whole lot of cranking. Still...)

Other than that, good point. :)

PS to Everybody: Don't worry, my resolve to comment on everybody's comments is quickly wearing very thin -- on us all! I'm going far away from the computer now.

At 3/14/2010 5:56 PM, Blogger Marsha Ward said...

Um, Jon Spell, I read ebooks on my ipod all the time. That's the main reason I bought it! I've even got the Scriptures on there.

At 3/15/2010 3:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good point Kerry. Fire, flood, and a whole host of natural disasters could destroy a book. But... (big wicked smile on my face) the reverse is true for the electronic books. The same things that can damage a "real" book would completely destroy an electronic version.

I guess to be safe we should have both. Hah!

(Shall I admit that I have longed to have my own kindle...well, okay. I have.)

At 3/17/2010 2:27 PM, Blogger Cheri J. Crane said...

The Nook\Kindle approach sounds interesting. =)I may have to check into this new media attraction.

I'm like you, though, Kerry, I would have a very difficult time disposing of my treasured books.

As for material matters, I've decided it's time to empty the big scary closet in the computer room. Wish me luck. ;)

At 3/17/2010 9:37 PM, Blogger Karlene said...

I was checking out the Nook the other day. I like the idea that you can "loan" books to other nook-ers. But it was slower than my Kindle and the type wouldn't go as big as I need it.

As for e-books in general, I love my Kindle and I love the easy 24/7 access I have to new books.


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