Thursday, December 27, 2007

Mrs. Gaskell and the Internet

And just what exactly could this Mrs. Gaskell, who wrote in the mid-1800s, have to do with the Internet? Thank you for asking, Dear Reader. The answer, in a word, is "communication."

I'd never heard of Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell until my husband (also known as my favorite computer peripheral) downloaded Gaskell's final masterpiece, Wives and Daughters, onto my Sony Reader from Project Gutenberg. (Warning: This masterpiece was actually unfinished, although the intended ending of the story readily presents itself to the imagination.) Mrs. Gaskell's Wives and Daughters tells of the intertwined lives of a number of families in a British country village. Love, friendship, social position, and social responsibility are all dissected (think of a combination of Jane Austin, Charlotte Bronte, and Charles Dickens). But most interesting is her exploration of both communication and the comic/tragic miscommunication of an era in which the very most difficult issues were not discussed directly. Communication and miscommunication--does the Internet come to mind?

Mrs. Gaskell observed her characters from inside and out. There are no villains in Wives and Daughters. Just as you begin to think of someone as a villain, she zeroes in on the possible villain's point of view, and suddenly that reprehensible point of view becomes reasonable, given the limitations of understanding and sensibilities of the particular character. The Internet moves in tune with Mrs. Gaskell. On the Internet, you can find the varying opinions of more people than you'd ever want to meet. Certain posters can make some of their otherwise goofy, malicious, or even villainous ideas seem, if not reasonable, at least understandable from their peculiar points of view. On the Internet, we see straight into the thoughts of those who would convince us of their ideas, just as Mrs. Gaskell saw straight into the thoughts of her fictional characters.

The power of false rumor is also grist for Mrs. Gaskell's mill. Small town gossip can be the ruin of anyone, especially a young woman, in her village. Even if it's only gossip, not actual truth, it harms. The Internet, in turn, often publishes whatever a poster wishes to say without an editorial guard at the gate to question truthfulness. And just as often, these unquestioned opinions are repeated as expertise by others on the Internet. Small towns no longer own the gossip mills. The Internet does.

And then, there's Mrs. Gaskell's consideration of the irrational belief in words spoken by those we consider above us in rank. In Mrs. Gaskell's village, the lords, ladies, and squires are expert by virtue of their positions. On the Internet, celebrities of all kinds expound on subjects of which they know little, but hold passionate opinions. And the higher they are in the ranks of celebrity, the more weight their words carry. Just pretend I'm a really, really famous author. Does my opinion seem more plausible to you now?

Okay, then I'll tell you what I think. I think I've found Mrs. Gaskell's village more than a century later, a village filled with communication and miscommunication. I think it's called the Internet.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Devices and Desires - Techno-Lust

This article is about ebook readers, but I should start by saying I’m one of those Baby Boomers whose idea of a Palm Pilot is writing “Buy paper towels” on the back of my hand. Innovations and inventions fall into two categories for me. First are the ones that you can’t understand until they are demonstrated to you. Then there are the ones that you want before they ever exist.

I’m old enough to remember laughing at all the people lining up on the sidewalk to use the autoteller machines to get cash. What was THAT about? Why stay outside the bank? What if it rained? Once I tried the ATM however, it didn’t take long for me to realize the advantages: cash or deposits, 24/7 with a simple line on the pavement in front of the ATM. I was able to do without the human bank teller, they were always a little sniffy about my bank balance or lack thereof anyway!

On the other hand, I began to lust for the information superhighway before it was open to the general public. When I first started writing free-lance articles, I put together a piece called “A to Z on Where to Take the Kids in San Francisco.” I used library sources and some telephone research. Then I met a guy at a party who worked at a local television station. He said he could use their database and get in a few minutes what had taken me nearly two weeks of “sneaker research.”

The minute I heard about that instant information I wanted it. I had a bad case of database envy. My plight lasted until the Internet came along nearly 15 years later. After putting in some time getting acquainted, I fell deeply in love with the internet. Right now I’m still in the early phases of infatuation with e-books on an external reader.

I’ve already read e-books downloaded onto my computer as Adobe files or as text files from Project Gutenberg. I’ve enjoyed the immediacy of having the book within a few minutes. The last time I had that kind of instant gratification with books was when I lived on Clement Street in the days when there were five bookstores and a very good branch library within easy walking distance. Alas, only one of those bookstores remains and neither it nor the library are an easy walk for me from where I live now.

The search feature in both the Adobe and text e-books is quite useful. If I need to know, for example, where to find a scene in a tomb in Dracula, all I have to do is search and I can choose among tombs.

I haven’t been able to justify the expense of an external e-book reader yet, but I’m sure I’ll come up with some excuse fairly soon! I remember a 12-hour long airplane trip where I brought two books, one short and the other quite long, to keep me occupied. I finished the short book in a few hours and I discovered a few chapters into the second one that I loathed it.

When I heard that e-book reader devices could hold up to 200 books, I was entranced at the prospect. That many books could take you through the flight, the return flight and however many delays or cancelled flights an airline could throw at you.

At this point, it’s not a matter of whether I will get an external reader for e-books, it’s a matter of which one and when!


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Why I Love "My" SONY Reader PRS-505

Now that my mystery-author wife Jaqueline Girdner is being re-issued in E-Reads e-books, we had to find out about the wonderful world of e-reading devices. I ordered the $300 silver PRS-505 Reader from with free engraving of both of our initials, along with the optional "hot pink" sturdy leather cover for $40, with some premonition of things to come. She said, "Honey, you can order this techie toy for yourself," but as soon as we unpacked it and Wuthering Heights appeared, she swiped it and won't let me have it back! Nice marketing move, SONY.


A well-designed appliance becomes invisible doing its dedicated function. "The key feature of a book is that it disappears," says Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. I don't think he meant that my SONY Reader was going to disappear into my significant author's clutches. For long-form (aka long-haul) reading, this SONY ebook Reader appliance offers superb readability, large storage, and long battery life. She is getting our money's worth in easy-on-the-eyes usage and free ebooks.


The screen is 6 inches on the diagonal like a mass-market paperback. The unit with its pink cover weighs almost as much as a trade paperback, for easy holding and distance from the eyes during long-term reading. My word-hungry honey turns the pages with one hand while eating breakfast with her other hand. She finds the black letters on the slightly off-white screen to be a perfect contrast, strong yet not as intense as with some blindingly-white paper pages. She likes it that the screen has no flicker as from a computer screen and has no active backlighting that could create long-term eyestrain. She likes it that the lines on the non-glare screen don't curve like they do on a book, and that the pages don't bunch up while reading in bed as with a large book. My speed-reading demon says that page turning with an ebook falls into a natural rhythm that takes about the same amount of time as with a paper book. The display offers 6 font sizes (really small to really big print), and she adjusts them during the day for a personalized "right-sizing" of text.


My book-bearing weight lifter is pleased that the Reader weighs the same no matter how many ebooks are inside it. Our floor-to-ceiling bookshelves are overflowing, so this Reader device is saving us from (reluctantly) having to release any of our collections to accommodate new ones. The ebooks that go on the Reader are managed in a "library" on the host PC. An ebook can be downloaded from the web, read, and its content searched on the host PC. This makes the host PC the appliance for web searching and file managing. Ebooks can be purchased from the SONY CONNECT website. Free ebooks can easily be loaded into the library and onto the device. (In my next posting, I will describe how I find and convert free ebooks to the Reader to feed her favorite hobby.) The Reader works well for travel too. Not that I got to use it, mind you. While I was on the road, my voracious reader stayed home with it by herself and only ran down the battery after 8 days.


I used to print out all of Jaki's emails and lengthy articles of interest for her. Now she allows me to "borrow" the Reader for long enough to load her email, web articles, and more ebooks, which is long enough to charge its battery at the same time via the USB cable. We had switched from the computer screen to paper printout to read the lengthy articles more comfortably off-screen and off-desk. Now we can comfortably skip the desk and the paper with this display.

This brings us to why I love "my" SONY Reader: because it makes my wife happy!


Thursday, December 6, 2007

Luddite Loves E-books!

I confess to being the resident Luddite on this blog. I even looked up the word "Luddite" in my (paper or "dead tree") dictionary and found it defined as relating to one Ned Ludd, a workman who destroyed machinery, more broadly applied to those who oppose technological change. And yet, I must also confess, I can't wait to return to reading Vanity Fair on my Sony Reader.

Yep, I said "my Sony Reader." Ah, the kinder, gentler era of Vanity Fair. Who can resist? I can't, especially when I can flip the pages of my electronic reader with one fingertip.

It all started when an online publishing company called E-Reads offered to print twelve of my out-of-print Kate Jasper murder mysteries as e-books. "E" as in electronic. I could smell electrons sparking dangerously. But I could smell virtual paper too. Books that hadn't been on the shelves for too long would become available again. And they wouldn't even need a shelf. I found out E-Reads offered titles in almost all fiction genres and these were available from a host of online retailers.

Even for a woman who doesn't own a cell phone or a television, the idea was irresistible. And, of course, we had to have a Sony Reader to test the process. Was it possible to read electronically? Wuthering Heights went by so fast I forgot to ask the question. And Frankenstein and Wives and Daughters. I'm addicted. My fingers won't stop flying.

From my writing keyboard to the buttons on my Sony Reader. I'm a goner. Is it true love or a trifling affection? Only time...and words...will tell.