Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sunflower Seeds and the Printed Book

The announcement that Border's is filing for bankruptcy has shaken not only the industry, but this devoted reader. How is it possible that one of my all-out favorite places to hang out has had to trim its sails and might even close-up shop? I know that there were hints that it wasn't going to be smooth sailing when Barnes and Noble began to expand beyond the "express" market it had originally targeted by picking up the tail end of B. Dalton in the 90s. But to make matters worse, Borders really missed the boat on adapting to online sales, allowing Amazon to swallow this market up whole; a comparison of their websites says it all. University of Chicago Law Professors Gary Becker and Richard Posner's response to Border's fiscal issues, "Can Bookstores Survive?" designated the eReader and internet sales as the two major threats to the bookstore industry. Yet apparently eBook sales count for only 9 percent of the market to date. Accordingly, although   these elements pose a serious threat to the walk-in bookstore, they may not be insurmountable.

It all comes down to adaptability and change. Careers, families and institutions must constantly adjust themselves in order to survive. My own brief life has seen numerous, quite sharp, career about-faces; recreating what I do, what I offer, how I spend my time and not less significantly, how I make a living is something I've just come to accept. Although I envisioned myself a professor at a small New England college when I began my doctoral studies, people now come to me to help them navigate the admissions' material needed to apply to those very same hallowed institutions. Every now and then I ask myself how I got here. Since the answer to that query is too complex to answer I move on to the more significant realization that not only have I managed to stay afloat, but furthermore, am truly satisfied with what I do.

So if this middle aged woman (I can't believe I just wrote that) can weather any storm, how difficult is it for a major book conglomerate to do the same? After all, the tenability of institutions such as Borders depends entirely on their ability to properly react to the age of the Kindle, the Kobo, and the seriously frightening IPAD. They're going to have to not only reach people sitting at home on their computer (which they've done fairly successfully with online sales) but furthermore, keep their customers coming in to look around. One thing eReaders still can't do is satisfy the craving for perusing intrinsic to selecting that exciting next read. No matter how you cut it, there is simply no way to comfortably browse on an eReader. 

My own personal Borders on Rittenhouse Square moved a few blocks away to the business section of town about ten years ago and left me primarily a Barnes and Noble client. Convenience is a big deal when you choose your bookstore. I'm fairly sure that we all have a list of our lifetime favorites; mine include the Chestnut Hill Bookstore, Borders (Philadelphia and the flagship store in Ann Arbor), the Brown bookstore and W.H. Smith (Paris and Brussels). I have spent countless hours wandering around these hallowed institutions looking for a great book and every trip abroad is punctuated by at least one visit to the local bookstore. However, the struggle to maintain a walk-in audience these days is much tougher. As the facility offered by eReaders, especially in terms of shopping, and their attraction as gadgets alone is enough to kill off the whole retail industry, bookstores are going to have to start offering attractions that will hold our attention.   
Proudly claiming myself a devotee of the actual hand-held book, I put off the temptation to buy an eReader for the longest time. I caved in last September and since then have become a confirmed fan. I'm pretty much the target audience as I actually need to have a book with me at all times. I carpool quite a bit, spending several weekday evenings sitting in my car, or by a pool, or out in the sunshine, waiting for my children to finish up with their athletic pursuits. Additionally, I just cannot bear to wait! Just how wonderful is it to be able to whip out my Kindle (so much smaller than a book) and while away those idle moments! Just last week my daughter climbed out of the pool at the end of a practice and found me wiping tears off the screen. I had long before left the side of that chlorinated pool and was somewhere in a leaky raft in the Pacific with Louis Zamperini, fending off starvation and circling sharks (Laura Hillebrand Unbroken). "Is it already time to go home?"   
Maybe it's all about time. Maybe no one has the time to walk into a bookstore and actually browse. It's definitely easier, and more time conserving, to just hear about a book and buy it online or, with that eReader at your fingertips, order it digitally in a matter of seconds. Why bother getting into the car or even walking down the street? The serious issues confronting bookstores should be taken as a wakeup call; as a major challenge to the coming generation. Maybe the fact that people are flocking to the IPAD, less for its ability to serve as eBook and more for its fun factor, says something scary about where we're all headed. Even my husband, who faithfully read book after book (all my recommendations of course!) for years, barely gets through a handful now.

 The number of distractions in our lives grows yearly: there are simply so many other things to do—and with far less effort. The satisfaction of reading a book, which normally can't be done in a day, probably isn't immediate enough to be all that attractive. John Swansburg's article, "I hate my IPAD," includes a survey of reactions amongst IPAD users which clearly pinpoint its biggest problem: excess. Faced with an endless number of entertaining options, all in a neat one and a half pound package, why would anyone restrict themselves to actually using it as a book let alone turn it off and actually go to a bookstore! Here is the place to mention the third threat to bookstores suggested by Becker and Posner, and what I fing to be most horrifying: the diminished appetite for books.

It's all about slowing down. While in London last December I took my family to see the Sunflower Exhibition by Ai Weiwei (pronounced: I WayWay) at the Tate Modern Gallery. One end of the enormous Turbine Hall, the centerpiece of the former factory turned art museum, has been filled, edge to edge, with porcelain sunflowers. Each one of these sunflowers was individually crafted so that no two are alike; that's a big deal when one considers the fact that there is something in the range of 100 million sunflowers on the floor. Each sunflower is its own individual work of art, ostensibly identical to the others but actually unique. The project pays homage to the ancient Chinese craft of porcelain, the concept of "Made in China," and the experience of the individual within the masses. 

The first view afforded to the spectator is from the bridge above. Looking down one basically sees an unmodulated field of grey. If you didn't know what you were looking at you wouldn't be able to figure it out and indeed, many museum attendees glance left, down, and then turn around and move on. For those others, the ones who understand that there is something worth checking out and are willing to take the time to do so, the rewards are enormous. After descending the escalator to the ground floor an endless sea of variegated porcelain sunflowers spreads out before the viewer presenting endless variety within so much sameness. The seeds are absolutely convincingly realistic and each one demands its own viewing; the spectator who has chosen to stop and take a good look receives an awe-inspiring artistic experience. 

Isn't that what reading is all about? Taking the time to be entranced and lifted out of one's world and into another. With so many reasons not to open a book these days, or even to take the time to flip through one at a bookstore, these suspended moments of beauty are fewer and farther between. The answer for bookstores in the modern age is going to have to be a digital one. If they don't embrace the fascination with electronic gadgetry and figure out a way to incorporate its versatility and sex appeal within the atmosphere of the store itself, perhaps by improving their ability to make recommendations based on intimations of taste which Amazon does in a rudimentary fashion, they will have limited appeal to this next generation. And to this devoted reader, the loss of these repositories of printed treasures is an unfathomable one.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Silence of the Lambs

How do we help young women find their voice? Last week I gave a lecture on Greek Mythology to my daughter's fifth grade class. I started off by asking them what they knew about the topic as this subject isn't included within the curriculum of the Israeli school system, including far too many Gods and Goddesses for our one almighty troupe. In any case, hands went up all over the room. That is, male hands.

Despite the fact that half of the class is girls, this group remained almost entirely silent. While the boys were jumping out of their chairs, eager to offer their comments, the reaction amongst the girls was something I can only describe as a stupor. When an occasional one did actually work up the nerve to raise her hand, her comment was either monosyllabic, virtually swallowed or offered up almost as an apology. In most cases I had to ask the girls to repeat their remarks as I couldn't quite catch their whispered answers and in more than one instance this resulted in a nervous, "Never mind." The brave girl who stood up and invoked the name of that most important Goddess of Wisdom, Athena, quickly plopped back down on her chair and squeezed her lips shut.

By contrast, I was assaulted by an avalanche of comments by the boys—some quite detailed and precise. This population felt comfortable contributing whatever information they had, whether right or wrong.  There wasn't a bit of hesitation amongst them, in fact I had quite a bit of trouble directing my attention back to the girls. For the record, I wasn't looking for anything too complicated. But even my question regarding the name of the Goddess of Love (understandably evoking a primarily female response) was answered in a hushed voice. I'm not sure Aphrodite, decisively responsible for so many major wars, fights to the death and competitions in Ancient times, would have been happy with being described in such a demure fashion.

Just as interesting was the fact that while the boys encouraged one another, constantly interrupting to add to, agree with or dissent from, their friends' comments, the girls showed no such solidarity. Where was the support rampant in Facebook? Distinct from the punctuated command words and other "unprintables" I find on my sons' Walls, my daughter's is full of "You look great," "You're so pretty," "Congratulations"  and that formidable LIKE. There was nary a sign of this within that heated boys' locker room atmosphere. These girls 
were left out on a limb; each of them isolated, both from the boys and one another.

What happened to that outpouring of confidence I saw at our local community center every afternoon? The girls hang out there after dance class for hours and there's no dearth of chatting, bossing and quite frankly, a lot of flirting. Whereas in the informal, and nonjudgmental, atmosphere of the local park their behavior with the boys borders on brash and downright bold, they assume a cloak of invisibility (such as that useful one sported by Harry Potter) in the classroom. Within those four walls these same girls didn't have enough confidence to contribute to the extremely informal discussion led by the mother of a fellow student who most of them knew well. They were completely unwilling to put themselves out, afraid of being devoured by their fellow classmates. Even my own daughter's feeble attempts to be part of the action were whispered to me in English. She was obviously checking to see if she'd gotten the right answer before officially putting in her two cents.

In Sex and the City 2 (2010), the flamboyantly dressed, self-assured character of Carrie Bradshaw receives an official shushing. A New Yorker review of her new book on marriage harshly criticizes her for pontificating on a subject she obviously knows very little about. They suggest that she'd be better off keeping her mouth shut and accentuate the point with a caricature in which Carrie's mouth has been taped shut by a large masking tape "X". All of her bluster disappears and this model of self-confidence makes a major retreat. The message is clear: This commanding woman has obviously ventured too far, inappropriately imposing her opinions on the public, and must withdraw in silence.

I don’t remember ever feeling inferior to my male classmates or considering how I might appear to them-- in elementary school. These were feelings I didn't develop until my early teens. How is it possible that, at a time when women increasingly hold top positions in the professional world, this is the case for my daughter's generation?  Looking around for answers I found a 1992 study, prepared for the American Association of University Women (AAUW) by Susan Bailey, which suggests that teachers actually "socialize girls towards a feminine ideal." Bailey writes that "Girls are praised for being neat, quiet, and calm, whereas boys are encouraged to think independently, be active and speak up. Girls are socialized in schools to recognize popularity as being important, and learn that educational performance and ability are not as important. Girls in grades six and seven rate being popular and well-liked as more important than being perceived as competent or independent. Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to rank independence and competence as more important."

This information goes far in explaining the steep decline in confidence amongst adolescent girls and directly inspired Peggy Orenstein's 1994 bestseller, Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self Esteem and the Confidence Gap. Here she explored the obstacles girls face (in school, in the home and in our culture) as well as the causes of their self-censorship and self-doubt. Prominent within her discoveries was the oversensitivity of our daughters to how they appear before their male peers. Orenstein's recent publication, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, which has received almost as much attention as that by the Tiger Mother, pinpoints the particular effect of marketing on the already fragile self-image of young girls. She posits that, overwhelmed with the "Princess" model, adolescent girls are virtually incapable of looking beyond their own physical appearance to find self-worth.

Describing the experience of her own daughter, Orenstein writes: "What was the first thing that culture told her about being a girl? Not that she was competent, strong, creative, or smart but that every little girl wants — or should want — to be the Fairest of Them All." The ramifications of this message are clear:: "Even as new educational and professional opportunities unfurl before my daughter and her peers, so does the path that encourages them to equate identity with image, self-expression with appearance" and "femininity with performance." 
The message of this second bestseller has provoked horrified reactions amongst female critics; mostly for the reality she presents—always the hardest bullet to bite. Kate Tuttle's review for the Boston Globe, for example, warned that "princess culture nudges girls toward a dangerously limited set of aspirations and a self-image built on beauty and pleasantness, not strength, intelligence, or competence." Jessica Bennett, reviewing for Newsweek, agrees that "young girls today face more pressure than ever to be “perfect” (like a princess?)--not only to get straight A’s and excel academically, but to be beautiful, fashionable, and kind." She confers with Orenstein's assessment that the more mainstream media girls consume, the more they worry about being pretty and sexy, and specifically cites the University of Minnesota study that found that even a limited exposure to advertisements can negatively affect girls’ self-esteem.

 Major decisions within government bodies also play a role in depressing our daughters' voices. Just last week the House of Representatives declared that it was cutting off public financing to Parent Parenthood. This one safe-ground for so many women of all ages, recently accused of promoting prostitution and sexual abuse, was no longer deemed worthy of the government's official support. This ludicrous situation was pinpointed by Gail Collins in her comment that by attacking an organization that provides millions of women with essential services, including family planning and basic health care, the government was basically suggesting, "Let them use leaches." What's next? How many more ways can we convince our daughters that they have fewer rights than their male counterparts and accordingly, are better off staying quiet?

The choices of female role models are becoming narrower every day. Stuck between Hannah Montana and Selena Gomez our daughters are left to design the image they present to the world within the safe, seemingly protected, world of social networks like Facebook. There pictures can be altered to suit their needs; sometimes dolled up with colorful stickers, sometimes made jazzier with negative contrast. As they're in control, they cannot be challenged. The image they project is entirely of their design. How can we expect these girls to affect any stance in the classroom, LIVE—on stage, which might detract from the deliberate one they control within that hermetically-sealed virtual world?

Luckily the silent persona assumed by many of this generation's girls reflects very little of their academic achievement. In fact most statistics suggest that they outperform their male counterparts within the school arena. Yet this success is executed like a stealth mission—quietly, and with intense subtlety, so that none of the boys will notice their achievement. Myla Goldberg summarized the situation in her review of Orenstein's book for Slate, writing that "a 21st-century girl is supposed to be a high-stakes combo of high-achieving and pretty that's arguably more unrealistic than anything foisted on her predecessors". I'm back to my original question: How can we help young women find their voice?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Expense of Brevity

Somewhere along the way, the seemingly irreplaceable act of writing has become virtually extinct. Picking up a pen to jot something down happens less and less, replaced by groping around for the cell phone to record something one's desperate not to forget or composing on the computer. One of the last remaining vestiges of my former romance with pen and paper is the weekly grocery list I prepare for my husband—and its execution is seriously hindered by the fact that it takes ages to rummage up something that actually writes! It's not as if I don’t have these valuable staples in the house, but their infrequent usage leaves them inaccessible exactly when I need them.   

More worrisome than the disappearance of the writing instruments which have been such a significant part of our lives since the cavemen scrawled away on their walls with sharp stones, is the vanishing skill of writing well. Our ability to express ourselves on the printed page is fading away. Struggling against its most serious contender, the short-cut style of writing developed for text messaging and chatting online, the art of good writing has been swallowed up whole. Where are those commas, periods and capitals? Since when has it been acceptable to consistently drop vowels? At what point did that saucy verb replace the formerly omnipotent subject? Facebook chatter, obviously executed while seated in a chair, is ironically one hundred percent action! Politesse, adjectives acceptable to prime time, and grammatical precision, have gone the way of the wind.

How paradoxical that literary theorist Stanley Fish has just published a book titled How to Write a Sentence (Harper Collins) critiquing the brevity in writing encouraged by Strunk and White's famous Elements of Style (1918). Fish's premise is that there is actually plenty of room for prose that runs on and on, sentences that meander before coming to completion and descriptions that seemingly veer off course before sliding their way back on to the tracks. But this alternative to that noted in the Elements of Style isn't even an issue for today's youth. Alternatively, the "bullet" style of writing most utilized by anyone under eighteen, and definitely encouraged by Facebook status updates and cell phone texting, makes even Strunk and White's recommendations seem long-winded.

How much of our control of the English language has fallen by the wayside merely by introducing a keyboard with a memory? I am certain that a serious study would reveal a clear connection between the move to composing only on the keyboard and the disintegration of writing skills. That being said, I personally don't want to lambast the word processor because it effectively saved my life. Being one of only two students in the sixth grade whose cursive writing was considered "seriously below par", I benefited most when we were introduced to typewriting the following year. Seated at my own little desk with its own little typewriter, fingers gently placed on the keys with the “g” and “h” left open to stare up at me, thumbs draped along the space bar, I felt as empowered as a concert pianist. Conquering first letters, words, sentences and eventually full texts--the world was our printed oyster.  Nostalgia for the exciting, trigger-like recoil of these early, clickety keys will forever make me a fan of the QWERTY keyboards found on Blackberry-style phones.

The development of the personal computer in the late 1970s made it that much easier to compose and edit lengthy texts. Being a draft writer I had spent much of high school and college retyping entire assignments--over and over. Although I was fortunate enough to work on a particularly fancy Brother typewriter that stamped a letter in white ink right on top of the black one I'd typed by mistake, this new invention changed my life. Its wondrous ability to process words and retain them, essentially cutting my work process in half, was revealed to me at the Brown University Computer center while writing my senior thesis. After conquering that cumbersome roll of perforated paper that sometimes stretched blocks long, I never looked back.

Living in a house with too many computers to count, my children are amazed at the fact that I made it through college without a personal computer. How could I have grown up without this example of modern ingenuity at my beck and command? I counter their incredulity with my own at the way that, albeit making our lives “oh so much easier” in so many ways, the computer has destroyed our ability to write. That might sound like a major generalization, but it's meant to. Computer word processing and personal electronic managers have seriously altered our ability to execute even the simplest task, i.e. compose a sentence.

As an art history professor here in Israel I was stunned to find research papers composed primarily of texts patched together from outside sources. My students had used that handy "cut and paste" technique that some say counts as writing. As in most cases they hadn't bothered to match the grammar of the source text to their own, this was easily detected. This experience in higher academia served me in good stead when I discovered that my own children were doing the very same thing. To add insult to injury, it was obvious that they weren’t even reading the texts they were pasting! When I verbalized my concern I was summarily informed that this is exactly what they had been instructed to do, that they weren’t actually supposed to learn about the given subject. Reading up on, say, the bombing of Hiroshima, was secondary to knowing how to find the information and re-present it within their own Word document; additional sentences were superfluous. The "cut and paste" technique, by curtailing the writing process, was actually curbing the absorption of material! Whereas that first computerized encyclopedia, Encarta, had offered baby boomers a wealth of material with which to enrich their own ideas, this generation simply took Wikipedia's authority for granted; add water and presto: assignment completed.  
As a third generation academic trying to raise the fourth, the encouragement of short-cuts within the education system, spurred on by new technology which allows them to take someone else's sentences and claim them as their own, is frustrating. Where has the artistry in writing gone? Where is the search for that perfect word? I still remember my excitement at receiving a copy of Roget's Thesaurus for my 18th birthday. With all those words at my command I could conquer any task. I still struggle over the selection of each and every word, sifting through a wealth of language so that each choice reflects exactly what I want to say. The Synonym option in Word has made this search that much simpler and I could not live without it. It beautifully helps me to compensate for the weakened state of my present vocabulary, the victim of speaking two languages daily. Yet I’m fairly certain that this exquisite tool designed to enrich our writing, something wonderful within modern technology, has never been used by any of my children. They haven't had enough reasons to take advantage of its ability to help them express themselves more clearly.

The ease with which our fingers tap away, causing an outpouring of words without limits, may have something to do with the petrifaction of language expressed by our youth. There is no question that language usage has been altered by the advent of chats and texting, in fact there was a flood of interest in the topic within the press a few years back. The results were clear: text messaging "stunts writing skills," "aims at getting as much said with as few words as possible," "is not suitable in formal or classroom writing." Students make "countless syntax, subject-verb agreement and spelling mistakes in writing assignments" and "don't want to be bothered with the writing process-drafting, revising and editing." As an occasional editor I’ve plowed through my portion of poorly written papers. While enjoying the challenge almost as much as I did the weekly Times crossword puzzle way back when, I'm horrified by students' overall weak command of language. The extremely limited range of their expression, probably an indication of equally inadequate oral communication skills, may be one of the biggest educational failures of this generation.  

The introduction of computers into the classroom, despite the litany of serious issues raised over the past few years, has effectively driven a nail in the coffin for the maintenance of any real “style” to writing. With it the well-publicized concern over the effect of all of this technology on writing skills has relatively disappeared. Ironically, considering my own concerns, my eldest child is petitioning for permission to use a laptop full-time in the classroom. His reasoning, supported by an official psycho-didactic evaluation, is that his cramped hand keeps him from recording the material presented in an efficient manner. Alternatively, his lightening fast typing skills--developed just how?-- will enable him to better record the important information relayed by his teachers. Despite the reality that in a few short years he'll be like every college student, opening their laptops and typing away as the lecturer speaks, my gut instinct is to delay this transfer of means.

There is something intrinsically important in holding the pencil, in making the effort to scribble something legible, whether meaningful or not, in a notebook. I worry that without this step the focus on the subject at hand, as well as its retention and digestion, might get lost. In addition, how can one dismiss the significance of that age-old experience of scribbling a brilliant idea in the margin of a notebook, perhaps accompanied by a tiny little light bulb! As one brilliant Columbia University graduate recently blogged, "I usually just keep some paper next to me in case I have to think, because I doodle when I think."  

When it comes to writing, there are absolutely no short-cuts. Although I could somehow live without that adrenaline-stimulating annual trip to the stationery store in preparation for the school year, a personal journey I've traveled from Chestnut Hill to Or Akiva, I maintain that this transfer of means, from the pencil to the keyboard, will do nothing to encourage my children's writing skills. Strunk and White's dicta that "vigorous writing is concise" and that "when a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter," were not meant to encourage the exclusion of punctuation and vowels or the ignorance of basic grammatical structure! The gift of using words to express exactly what one wishes to say is buried somewhere behind that screen. This next generation will have to make a gargantuan effort to find the good amongst the multiple evils released, somewhat like Pandora.