Once Upon a Story

I have recently been watching a YouTube adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. This series modernizes the novel and tells the story through a series of 5 minute YouTube videos. The series focuses on, Emma Woodhouse, a modern day matchmaker. Emma is driven and exudes self-confidence. She truly is the modern day example of the heroine that Jane Austen wrote of almost two centuries ago.

The series is entitled Emma Approved and is the second adaptation of a Jane Austen novel from the same team. The first adaptation was the Lizzie Bennet Diaries and was a surprising success. The videos, which featured Lizzie Bennet talking to a camera in her bedroom, told the story of Pride and Prejudice in an entirely new way. Lizzie, like Emma, is a heroine that Austen would be proud of.

 

I couldn’t help but think about while watching these videos that they are resurrecting story telling in a way that is well received in the digital age. Short YouTube videos uploaded twice a week allow for Jane Austen’s stories to reach a wider audience than she ever imagined. The videos are successful because they tell stories that are universally recognized and loved. The stories focus on character development while driving the plot forward in a way that allows the audience to become invested in the lives of these fictional characters. I believe that these videos are paving the way for a storytelling revolution. This revolution would see more and more adaptations of classic novels in a way that are increasingly accessible. The audience that the videos reach has not necessarily read the novel that is being adapted but might be interested in reading it after watching the videos. In this way, these videos encourage and promote reading as well as storytelling. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved have set the tone for a form of storytelling that will only continue to grow.

Digital Reading

Last week we discussed different methods and media that we use for reading texts, their merits and demerits, and the impact of some examples on our work. Of course, the central rivalry was between printed texts and digital ones–the book versus the computer. This dichotomy, however, comes dangerously close to assuming that for any given work, it is necessary to choose one or the other. You’re either a purist and you check out a printed and bound copy of a book, or you’re a hipster who will pick up reading on your iPhone in the exact place you left off on your iPad Mini Mega Micro Max. But I often find myself asking (in my head) those caught in this debate a question first posed by a little girl whose family was arguing about tacos:

¿Por que no los dos?
¿Por que no los dos?

My primary medium of reading is, to me, as close to a marriage of digital and print as I can get. I do most of my reading (of books) on my iPad through iBooks or the Kindle application. While this technology offers options wholly impossible with paper copies, I find that I try to keep my reading experience as “authentic” as possible. Both applications offer the reader the ability to choose the color of the “paper,” the size and font of the text, the color of highlighting, and where sticky notes will appear.

Personally, I like to set it at “Sepia,” a contrast setting reminiscent of old library book pages, with a standard font in a relatively small size. There’s even a page turning animation with a surprisingly responsive and accurate physics engine. In this, it seems that my aim–and to an extent, the aim of the developers as well–is to make my digital copy of a text mimic a printed copy as closely as I can, thus taking the focus off of the medium itself and returning it to the text. I adjust the medium to be the least noticeable aspect of the text, allowing me to engage directly with the words on the page.

146021-ibooksscreenshot_188

Yet, the amazing tools that are inherent in digital texts are still literally at my fingertips; they are simply waiting in the background. If there is a word or cultural allusion I don’t understand, I can look it up without ever leaving the text and see its meaning right on the page. I can then make a note that is directly connected to its physical location on the page without ever losing my place. These features, I feel, allow the reader to become not only more deeply involved with a text, but more continuously so, as the need to constantly scan for a word or sentence or reread to pinpoint where you left off is virtually eliminated.

In this, the possibilities I find in applying the digital amenities to a close replica of a “genuine” printed text are innumerable. To me, this combination not only expands the ways in which it is possible to read, but increases the potential to engage with and understand the text to levels I would never have imagined previously.

(Digital) Literacy

This past summer I spent a bit of time volunteering for an organization called Literacy Volunteers of Greater Syracuse. When I came in the office for an interview, the woman running the program was ecstatic that she had an inexperienced, untrained 20-year-old come in to help teach illiterate adults who need to learn to read to find a job. Why?

Because I’m young and, therefore, “naturally understand the internet.”

Being a member of this generation put me in a position of privilege I didn’t know I had and had never really appreciated before. I was placed in a program geared toward digital literacy that works one-on-one with clients in a computer lab. The program is very much tailored to the client’s needs, ability, and interest. What I mean here is that it can range from setting up a facebook account to write to their grandchildren to how to move a mouse and turn a computer on and off.

The client I worked the most with was a 60-year-old man from the city of Syracuse. He told me that he never did well in school (from my short time with him I’d guess he had dyslexia or another type of mild learning disability) and had to drop out after 3rd grade. It wasn’t a problem ~50 years ago though, and he had an easy time finding a job working in an airplane part factory. He said that he never had any incentive to learn how to read, because he knew how to do his job well, and could learn by watching other people. Then, this year, when he was only a few years about from retirement, his company shut down and he was left without a job in a market that was vastly different from the one he knew.

My client vowed he would take 2 years off to learn how to read and get his GED so he could find something else to do for the last few years before retirement. However, he quickly realized that wasn’t going to be enough. Most job applications are online now, and employers want to communicate via email. What’s the point of learning how to read/write in this day and age if you can’t Google search or type? A lot of resources LVGS uses to help people are websites such as USA Learns, which use games, quizzes, videos, etc to supplement their tutoring, and make it more interesting. None of this is accessible to someone who has low literacy AND low digital literacy, and what I found is these often go hand-in-hand. And this just reinforces the idea for me that nowadays reading/writing are inextricably linked to our screens and keyboards.

I guess technology and literacy have always been intertwined. How much good would it have done you 20 years ago to know your numbers if you couldn’t dial a telephone? But in this particular moment it seems especially crucial to be literate not just in a “knowing how to read” sense, but in a “knowing how to read in different contexts” sense. I’ve been thinking this in class as we wade through learning about XML, blogging, online texts, etc. I mean, why isn’t that sort of knowledge part of a well-rounded education, whether at the primary or secondary level? As important as it was for my client to learn how to email hand in hand with learning how to write, it seems important for English majors to learn how to access digital texts while learning how to read critically.

So, my time tutoring was very eye-opening as to the idea of the internet/digital world as a collaborative space. This space is becoming as important to access as a pencil and paper were in the past, for many reasons. I see this future of English classes as emphasizing what is done online, and becoming intertwined with what my high school called “computer class,” because really, what can one be without the other?

Does anyone have any thoughts? 🙂

You Can Be a Cyborg without Being a Techhole

Techholes

I stumbled across an interesting article posted this morning called Don’t be a techhole: A common sense guide to tech courtesy. In this piece, the author highlights a few capital offensives for users of technology that to me, seem like common sense. For example, he advises people to avoid using their iPads as cameras, especially in public settings like concerts where they might block others’ views; he also suggests not using your speakerphone in public (no one wants to hear your conversation amplified), not holding a “hands-free” device while driving, being mindful of the noises your smartphone/computer is making, etc. The author was compelled to write this article – coining technology offenders as “techholes” – after hearing about Google’s recent list of “do’s” and “don’ts” for consumers experimenting with the new Google Glass technology. Apparently, some users of the futuristic devices are being real “glassholes,” causing Google to put its foot down and define what appropriate (and inappropriate) behavior looks like.

Glassholes

If you’re unfamiliar with Google Glass, it’s a wearable computer currently being developed by Google X, the same company pioneering research on self-driving cars and glucose-monitoring contact lenses.

800px-Google_Glass_Explorer_Edition
Google Glass

Glass, which has many similar features as the everyday smartphone, allows users to connect with the Internet using voice commands and to see the results in front of them, hands-free. Considering the extent to which this new technology allows us to become more cyborg-like than ever, I suppose it makes sense that some would need an etiquette guide explaining how to appropriately use this new technology in a variety of situations. For instance, Google recommends users do explore the world around them, take advantage of different Glass features, and become a part of the digital community. However, they suggest to avoid being a glasshole by doing the following: don’t “Glass-out,” don’t “Rock Glass while doing high-impact sports,” don’t “Wear it and expect to be ignored,” and my personal favorite, don’t “Be creepy or rude.”

OD-AW929_TECHET_OZ_20130502165555Still, some people have already experienced issues assimilating this new device in everyday situations, like this guy, who wore his Glass into a movie theater and spent 3 hours being interrogated by FBI officials, accusing him of piracy. Come on now.

All of this comes down to a question of etiquette. Many of the points made by the techholes article and the Glass guide might seem like common sense to those of us who use technology considerately, especially while in public. Nevertheless, this article got me thinking about our discussion of how technology doesn’t become integrated into society without consequence, but that technology is created that then changes who we are as people. With that in mind, maybe it isn’t such a bad idea to consider the idea of explicit etiquette guides for our changing times. If we aren’t mindful of this, maybe manners will fall to the wayside, especially for people who are less inclined to be considerate in the first place.

21st Century Etiquette

IMG_4510 We’ve all had our fair share of laughs at some pretty ridiculous signs promoting etiquette. For example, and I wish I were making this up, I came across this sign in a bathroom stall in Welles. I naturally took a picture of it and sent it to some friends with the text, “Thank God for this. I’ve been wondering what to do with my toilet tissue for years.” I don’t want to know what some ladies were doing that made it necessary to add this lovely decoration to the stall doors, but it happened, and it means that somebody’s manners were lacking. I suppose if people exist who can’t figure out what to do with their toilet paper, maybe they need some help with more advanced 21st century skills, too.

Consider these images I found doing a simple search:

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Small print: “It’s a beautiful world all around you, be a part of it…”

FACEBOOK-STATUS-UPDATE-WARNING-SIGN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even Milne Library has signs upstairs warning students that they’re entering a cellphone-free-zone, and every movie you’ve attended in the last 5-10 years likely had some kind of public service announcement warning viewers to turn off their devices. Wikipedia has its own page entitled Etiquette in Technology, and multiple authors have written books on 21st century manners. This one by Emily Post, called Manners for a New World, even includes chapters devoted to technology use, addressing such critical, burning questions as, “When is it okay to unfriend someone on Facebook?”

Draw your own conclusions about what all of this means for our society. Part of me wants to laugh at the fact that we even need to be told what’s socially appropriate, but then I stop laughing when I remember classmates who do nothing but text throughout class, or girls taking weird selfies in public bathrooms. Are we hurting for some Digital Etiquette, 101? What do you think?

“Iceland: Where one in ten will publish a book”

Speaking of our class discussion today about an inundation of books bypassing the traditionally limited gatekeeping of publishing, and a new era of democratizing authorship, here’s an article I saw a while ago about how…

“Iceland is experiencing a book boom. This island nation of just over 300,000 people has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world.”

I couldn’t find anything else through an easy search online (everything else was simply referencing the BBC article), but it’s certainly interesting, and if anyone finds out anything more just comment about it! The article discusses literary culture in Iceland and possible causes of the boom…

“We are a nation of storytellers. When it was dark and cold we had nothing else to do. Thanks to the poetic eddas and medieval sagas, we have always been surrounded by stories. After independence from Denmark in 1944, literature helped define our identity.”

On an unrelated note, here’s the article Dr. Schacht mentioned in class– Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation (~only eight pages, worth a read):

“…Today… the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capacity, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art…

…In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”

 

 

“But don’t you think libraries are dying?”

Occasionally, I get into the following conversation with a family member or friend.

ME: (something about how much I love libraries and think they are humanity’s best, most democratizing invention since the Neolithic Revolution)
FRIEND/FAMILY: Really? But don’t you think libraries are dying?
ME: Why do you say that? Because of the Internet?
FRIEND/FAMILY: Well yeah. Who goes to the library to get a book when you can read for research and for pleasure on the Internet?

At this point, I tell them what I’ve discovered throughout my 200+  hours of library volunteering: I actually think they’re growing. They’re the most effective alternative for those who don’t use the Internet. First of all, not everyone can afford a computer let alone Internet service. Many patrons come exclusively to use the computers. Second, you’d be surprised how many people aren’t Internet literate, and find it simpler to use books.  Third, it’s free, which is only true sometimes for the Internet. Fourth, many video stores have shut down as a result of  successful online movie/tv sites like Project Free TV and Netflix (the latter being in the top 100 most visited sites on the Internet). The local library is one of the only places I know that you can still rent (physical) movies without needing to go through an online component. Fifth, there are no pop-ups in a library. Sixth, the library offers way more than books — audio books, movies, CDs, study space, community activities like book  clubs or knitting circles, and a comfortable environment where a real live person (maybe me, if you go to Wadsworth on Center Street!) can help you find what you need. And finally… if this doesn’t convince you, you have my word…

I promise, there will always be books.

Some people hold the notion that we are on the fast track towards all literature being entirely digitized. I just don’t see that    happening. How many bibliophiles are there in this world? In many ways physical books are art, and if less of them are being published, those in existence will become more and more valuable and desired. I am beyond convinced that, even among future generations who are raised using the Internet, many people will prefer books to online reading. The Internet is not here to supplant books. It’s not a competition.  I can’t see any reason why, no matter how far into the future we look, one will exist without the other.

When technology evolves, we don’t always abandon the prototype. Horses, oxen, donkey etc. were once instrumental to farm-work pulling carts, wagons, ploughs, and other wheeled vehicles. Then along came steam-powered ploughs, tractors, pick-up trucks, and other technology that in many ways obviated beasts of burden. Does that mean farms no longer have those animals? No. Do they serve the exact same function? Well, no, that’s not true either. But it doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared, and books won’t either.

When we were talking in class today about those who want to “put the genie back in the bottle,” this is what came to mind. The genie hasn’t left! It’s tempting to act alarmist at the rise of the Internet, because it truly has changed the way we perceive the world, as Benjamin pointed out. But I think we’re doing digital literature a disservice if we treat the burgeoning relationship between print and virtual texts as a Death of a Salesman scenario.

Ah yes, and one more thing. Libraries have huge historical significance, and I’m not just talking about the Alexandria deal. They are beautiful, architectural feats that — if nothing else — will certainly be kept around for historical and aesthetic reasons.

Cutting Down Your Words: A Thoreau Tale

To many writers, one of the most daunting things in the world is finishing their first draft. “There,” he or she smiles, holding their beautiful manuscript like a tiny new born, “it’s done!” But…is it? Of course not. While that one moment of elation does feel great and triumphant, there is still so much more work to be done. The next stage is the most grueling and challenging: editing your work. It is the most dreaded because now the question of “What stays and what goes?” must linger in the writer’s mind.

Thoreau didn’t seem to have this problem.

As we all know, he had many different versions of Walden. Version A, B, and C all are unique and different in their own way. There are some huge changes he made between them, like nixing entire paragraphs or passages. Then, there are tiny alterations, like changing word order or cutting out an extra verb. Looking over all these versions almost dumbfounded me since I’m worried I might never be Thoreau.

Well, to backtrack, I know I can never be Thoreau for many reasons; he lived in a different time period, was an amazing writer, and is a whole other, different, human being. What I mean to say is that editing my work, my writing, is worse than dry swallowing any large pill, or subjecting myself to any annoying shot. The mere idea that he edited his work so many times, and then edited his writing within the different versions, perplexes me.

I know it shouldn’t. In all of my writing classes my professors smile, nod, and say that everything you write is only your first draft. A writer’s work is never truly done. Yes, I agree with that. I know how to clean up my work, and fix silly grammatical errors and punctuation mistakes. But how does one cut down on the jibber-jabber?

Throughout Versions A, B, and C I noticed sometimes by just trimming a few extra words out of a sentence made it so much more stronger. Instead of carrying on and on about the same detail, Thoreau might just use a few select key adjectives to describe it.

Other times, however, he elaborates further.

My question as a writer and a reader, is how? How does one make the distinction between what enhances the reader’s experience, and what bogs it down? Sometimes when I’m editing my work I want to cry (just kidding…a little) when thinking about cutting out so many words. “Will it still flow evenly?” I wonder. “Will the reader still be able to clearly picture what I’m trying to say?”

This, I believe, is a struggle every writer faces. Thoreau must have felt this too since he did have so many versions. I’m only speculating by saying that he wasn’t daunted by his task, but perhaps, somehow, he was. While maybe he enjoyed having all of his different versions of Walden, perchance he too did wonder how he’ll ever get it to be one, crisp piece.

I’m not sure, but maybe one day in the far off future I too will be looking at Versions A, B, and C of my very own manuscript and wonder how in the world I was able to get there. Tis only the best of wishful thinking though!

Amen

lol

 

 

A Note on Annotations

META-ANNOTATING!

In class today, the lion’s share of our discussion was predicated on a discussion of annotations in works, and their pros and contras in both traditional manuscript format and digital editions of works. In this  blog post, I simply want to share two works dealing with these themes and review them to a limited extent in case they meet anyone’s further fancy.

The first is Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel, House of Leaves. If anyone has read it, or simply opened it to skim a few pages (you should do this, the hyperlink is to it in the Milne catalogue), you will see why it’s so difficult to explain.

To begin, it should be explained that as an entire whole, the book is composed as ergodic literature, defined superbly as Espen J. Aarseth, the coiner of the term:

“In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text. If ergodic literature is to make sense as a concept, there must also be nonergodic literature, where the effort to traverse the text is trivial, with no extraoematic responsibilities placed on the reader except (for example) eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages.”

The concept is best shown through a visual:

house-of-leaves-sample

Danielewski’s novel contains colored text (for example, the word “house” always appears in blue ink, most probably alluding to the blue-hued Internet hyperlink), sideways text, mirror writing, writing in different shapes, etc. More notably, and annoyingly, are the thousands and thousands of increasingly abstract and erudite footnotes. Danielewski uses this purposefully frustrating technique to create a satire of criticism in academia, notably literature studies, which is how he views the opinion of the “general public” on literary studies; that of a society looking scathingly upon a seemingly, purposefully difficult field of study– and possibly worthless, in the end.

Ironically, Danielewski fails to fully portray the frustration factor of this satire, because for all this mess, his narration carries us on, trudging and complaining, through the hundreds of pages. The story of the House of Leaves is really three: that of Zampanò’s (1) notes on the Navidson Record (2), a set of documents about an [ex-]adventurer who discovers in his newly purchased, seemingly domestic and plain house an impossibly huge labyrinth. First seen as just a discrepancy between the dimensions of the house (the inner dimensions are larger than the outer dimensions by a quarter of an inch), the interior of the housesoon grows astonishingly large, to utterly fantastic dimensions, of huge, hulking hallways of eerie grey walls, all of which possess… nothing. As the house grows, nothing is found within the huge abyss as they explore except an eerie growl (the source of which, be it the house or the adventurer, Will Navidson, is never explicitly confirmed). The final story is that of Johnny Truant (3), who finds the notes of the just-murdered (?) Zampanò, and then rambles in his footnotes about his personal life. Ultimately, the story questions what we find, if anything, as we dive deeper and deeper into literature– are the meanings we find our own, or the author’s intended? Etc. etc.

Though we who hate footnotes may find this complicated (again, purposefully) book unappetizing at first glance, it really is a good book. It is a horror story (the unending, ever-expanding labyrinth…) and love story (Will and his wife) in addition to a satire. Just for kicks, I would suggest going to see it in Milne and flicking through it just to see how crazy the book’s style is (and how Danielewski portrays the “general public’s” perception of erudite literary studies– it is so off the mark, even to english students, that most of us, I think, will be astonished, lose our confidence and interest, as we stare at this immense, labyrinthine book).

– – – – – –

The other book I will mention more briefly (having not yet finished it) is the novel S., by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. It, too, is a story within a story. The “real story” is called The Ship of Theseus, and is about a man (S) who has lost his memory. It is written by the fictional author V. M. Straka, whom the other story revolves around. Notes in the margins are from Jennifer and Eric, two college students trying to uncover the mysterious of this mysterious Straka figure. There are notes from both Eric and Jennifer on their first read, their second read, and so on, leading to a rainbow of colors in the margins denoting the chronology of the notes.

A1TzcxY6iBL

 

ship-of-theseus-3

In addition to the notes in the margins, there are further items stuffed within the pages, such as government documents, maps drawn on napkins, etc., which Jennifer and Eric put in, lending itself ideally to our discussion of the fluid-text edition of Walden, wherein Thoreau had multiple versions of his work which scholars had to piece together in a roughly chronological and version sequence, as well as any writings in his journals which were drawn on in Walden itself. It is interesting to see, rather than older and younger versions of a literary work juxtaposed together to compare and contrast, older and younger memories of a romantic relationship bound in the margin, side by side.

I think anyone who is a bit sketchy on the success of things such as public annotations and comments should check this book out. While things like Kindle seem to be a bit impersonal and distracting (“1,233,939 people highlighted this sentence”), S. creates a very personal story in the margin itself between just two people.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

Anyway, just thought I’d suggest these two books for anyone interested in the topic. The first one is in Milne, as I’ve linked to, and S. you’ll have to buy, unfortunately, if you want to read it, most likely (though I own a copy if you want to look at it to get a better idea of what it looks like). Sorry if the descriptions seemed a bit confusing– as I mentioned, Danielewski’s novel is purposefully confusing, and S. I haven’t finished yet! If anyone else has read these and want to expand on my brief descriptions, feel free!

-Matt Spitzer

 

—————————————-

 

1Some footnotes are outright invented sources and authors, while others are from real sources. The number of footnotes is in the hundreds, if not thousands.2

2Including footnotes of footnotes

3 The online forum for readers of the work, who try to solve what is probably a purposefully unsolvable puzzle.

 

Can crowd-sourced gaming teach us anything about social reading?

2437699-pokemon

Last night, I came across this crowd-sourced version of Pokémon Red, called “Twitch Plays Pokémon.”  The premise is that a bunch of people (reportedly as many as 50,000) control the character 24-7 through a text feed–in other words, by typing “Up,” “Down,” “Left,” “Right,” “A,” “B,” etc.–and try to see if they can actually get anything done.

Can social reading also be thought of as a type of crowdsourcing?  I see interesting resonances between the Pokémon game and our Reader’s Thoreau platform, especially in light of our conversation in class today.  We discussed how social annotations are premeditated by the their posters in a way that individual annotations might not be, and we brainstormed ways that those social annotations might be filtered for both relevance and validity in order to be any sort of productive.

The inputs in “Twitch,” however, are completely unfiltered.  In fact, the very name “Twitch” (despite the game’s 20-second lag) suggests a type of knee-jerk response to input; this action (or re-action) is directly opposed to the more carefully reasoned research and argumentation of traditional scholarship.  The platform also makes no effort to prevent trolling or spamming of the controls that that would intentionally impede progress.  The end result, as anyone can see from the live video feed, is chaos.

Yet, there is some order in this chaos.  The players of the collective Pokémon game, somehow, have managed to progress through the game over the four days since the social experiment’s launch: as of last night, the players have made it to Celadon City and earned four of the game’s eight badges.  Perhaps volume and purpose are not mutually exclusive.

P.S. If you’re bored, the continual (and often hilarious) Reddit commentary on Twitch Plays Pokémon is worth a look.

EDIT (2/18/2014): The platform’s creator has implemented a voting measure that attempts to filter out unproductive input from both trolls and too many earnest people trying to do different things (or the same thing, for that matter) at once. There has been some push back.