Digitally challenged

I’ve been reading a lot lately. This is partly why I haven’t been writing much on my blog. With my limited evening free time, I’ve been choosing to read more lately than do anything else like writing or knitting.

It’s been hot and humid outside, so when I’m feeling all limp and wilted I just want to stretch out in cool air-conditioned comfort with some good reading material. And the Stieg Larsson Millennium series has been great reading material: mentally engaging, thrilling, sordid, and with a kick-ass female lead.

I had picked up the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, last summer to take on vacation with me. But I never got around to reading it and and it sat on a shelf for many months. Then a couple months ago, the reviews of my friends compelled me to pick up the book and away I went. (Until Lisbeth Salander was introduced in the second chapter, I frankly found it rather a slog. But once she appeared I was hooked.)

Book one of the series went down pretty fast and easy, and I found myself running out to the bookstore one evening (coupon in hand, at least) about an hour before they closed because I had to pick up the second book in the series, The Girl Who Played with Fire. That one went pretty quickly, too, and then I was faced with a real predicament: how to get a copy of book three as quickly as possible, without purchasing it in hardcover. Since book three, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, had only been released in May 2010 that was going to be a challenge.

Of course I checked the library first. Yeah, right. Chicago Public Library may be a very large system and it may be my first choice for books and other media, but it has to serve a population of over 3 million people, and it’s been used pretty heavily since the recession started. The catalog showed every one of the many, many copies on hold or checked out. From previous experience, I knew this meant it would take months to get my hands on the book. B lives in a close suburb, so he checked the suburban library system’s online catalog and saw the same thing.

This desire I have to not purchase books in hardcover is not just me being cheap. As a bibliophile and a collector of books that are truly special to me for one reason or another, the hardcover format is the best hands down. It’s more durable and can withstand quite a bit of knocking around. (Although the hardcover format is no match for Hannah dog’s mighty jaws and high anxiety levels. She easily destroyed a copy of Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver while I was only a few pages into it.) But hardcovers are a pain to lug around on my commute to work and during business travel.

I’ve also been trying to cut down on the amount of Stuff I bring home these days. The massive de-cluttering and purging my friend Adrienne has been doing lately is a big inspiration for me to do the same. I’m slowly but surely getting rid of a lot of the books I’ve collected over the years. I’ll still keep the ones that I like to reread again and again, as well as my knitting books. But most of the others are going to the Half Price Books store where I can recover a little bit of the massive cash outlay in books that are simply sitting in bags and boxes in my basement right now.

So, the day after I finished The Girl Who Played with Fire I packed up a box with some of these books and went off to Half Price Books hoping they may have a copy on hand, even if it would require me putting up with a clunky hard cover. But they didn’t have a copy. (Although I did walk out with $20 in cash from my small box of salable books. Woot!)

Then B came to the rescue: he sent me a copy of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest in ebook format. I don’t know where he got it from, and I don’t think I want to know. I could load this on my iPhone, he told me, and use the iBook ereader with it. Now, I had been intrigued with using my iPhone as an ereader already, and this would be the ultimate test. With such a large book and such a smallish screen, there would be much page turning involved and I wasn’t sure how I’d like that.

What happened is I liked it a lot. I never would have thought that I’d like reading from a screen, but it was comfortable for my eyes (with the great back lighting I was able to read pretty well without my new reading glasses) and the convenience made up for the little usability issues. Overall, the only complaints I had were that it was a bit of a challenge to lay in bed to read since I couldn’t prop the phone up and still see it, and that the iPhone doesn’t allow you to lock the screen in either vertical or horizontal mode, unlike the iPad. (I had to be extra careful when I read in bed at night that I didn’t accidentally engage the rotation of the screen.)

That was a small price to pay for the amazing convenience of being able to read a page here or there, anywhere and anytime. I always have my mobile phone with me and I could pull up a page while I was waiting at the chiropractor’s office, in line at a shop, or while my slow work computer booted up in the morning. I could also read while commuting and not have to add to my daily load of laptop, files, lunch, water, coffee, etc.

So now I find myself wanting to consume more books via my iPhone. Good ‘ol Chicago Public Library does have some compatible ebooks that can be checked out, but the more popular books are still wait listed even in ebook or audiobook download format. I’m sure this must have something to do with licensing, but it seems a bit odd that one has to be waitlisted to download a book from the library website.

I looked up a couple books I’d like to read to see how much they would cost in ereader format and was disappointed to see that they cost just as much as a paper back book. Why? Is it a marketing thing? Is the the cost of printing and paper and shipping books that cheap? Are the bulk of book production costs the non-tangibles like writing, editing, design and marketing? Maybe someone out there knows and can comment.

In the meantime, I’ll just have to make up my mind about whether I want to get on the library wait list or suck it up and pay the $8.99 to get the ebook.

Books, books, books

One of things I”ve been doing more of lately is reading. I’ve always been big into reading, but finding time (and for while there the energy) to read has been difficult at times. In a normal day, I find time to read a few pages of something before I go to sleep, but one doesn’t accomplish much reading this way.

I recently started using the library a lot, though, and this has helped me make time for reading. After all, when you have a book for a limited period of time, you must commit yourself to it.

In my younger, poorer days, I used the library all the time. About every 2 weeks, I’d stop at the beautiful, main library (the Harold Washington Library Center) after work. I’d drop off the books I had finished reading and browse for new books. The library was only open late 2 nights a week, so I had to plan my book excursions carefully. Also, while I could look up books in their online catalog, it was a hit or miss proposition as to whether the book was actually there. And it if wasn’t showing as being there, well, the best I could do to plan for getting the book I wanted was to fill out a hold slip.

This made really using the library to my best advantage a bit cumbersome. As long as I had little money, I would make it work for me. But, as I moved up the income scale, I often found it easier to buy books at the bookstore. Now, though, services have changed for the better in a big way.

First of all, I can not only look up materials in their catalog online, I can place them on hold for pick up at the branch library of my choice. I get an email notification that the item is ready for pick up and am given several days to do so. The branches are open until 9 PM every week night, so it’s not hard to make time to drop by. I can renew the item online, too.

This is a fabulous service, and I am really, really happy to see my tax dollars being used this way! Way to go Chicago Public Library!

So, I’ve been taking good advantage of this service. If I hear about a book that sounds interesting (through a podcast or a friend or a website) I look it up. I have yet to run across a book that is not already in the catalog, and once I locate it I place it on hold. Within a week or two, I get to pick it up and enjoy it.

Obviously, there’s still some planning involved here, but it’s no more complicated than handling a Netflix queue. You just keep placing books on hold and by the time you’re done with one and ready to drop it off, there’s a new one waiting for you to pick up. So neat and efficient it makes me want to squee. Plus, I can get to the local branch library in about 7 minutes on my bicycle, so it’s another reason to get out there and pedal.

I’m usually a big consumer of fiction, but lately I’ve been getting into a mix of stuff. In the past month, I’ve read Twenty Chickens for a Saddle (a memoir about growing up in Botswana which gets a definite thumbs up: a good story that was entertaining and intriguing), The Thyroid Diet (some useful info, but nothing too surprising), and Suite Francaise.

I just finished the last few pages of Suite Francaise today, and I must say that the end material made the book especially poignant. The English translation is very thoughtully put together with a short introduction followed by the two novellas (Storm in June and Dolce), and then some appendices. It’s in the appendices that we get to really connect with the writer herself, Irene Nemirovsky.

After reading just a few pages of the novel, I sampled a few pages from the first appendix, which was derived from her notes on the book. But I quickly realized that it was best to wait until after I had finished the story so I could better understand the characters she mentions and how they fit in. In these notes and in her letters in the following appendix, it is clear that Irene realized that as a foreign-born Jew her position in occupied France was quite tenuous.

The truly heart-breaking part of the book is in Appendix II, which contains personal correspondence relating to Irene’s situation from 1936 through the end of the war. It’s incredibly sad to read the emploring letters of her husband seeking some information on the whereabouts of his wife. Irene was suddenly taken to a concentration camp in July 1942 and was dead one month later. Even worse, her husband is picked up in October 1942 and sent immediately to the gas chamber, leaving their 2 children orphaned and on the run.

The story itself is very compelling and it would have been such an incredible novel in total if she had been able to finish it. It is also sobering. It made me reflect not just on this time period, but also today.

We are so lucky not to have lived through an experience like this, nor to be so threatened. I know today is a day of memorials in this country, but even this most painful experience for our country’s psyche is nothing like living through a war on our own soil, experiencing the depravations, disgrace, and duplicity of living in an occupied country.