How Do You Take Your Words

Over the years I’ve seen a shift in my preferred ways to intake words.

Ten years ago and more, I read mountains of paperbacks. I started out as a young fella with mass-market paperbacks and by the late 80s and early 90s moved to more trade paperbacks. Through all this, I read only a few hardbacks, mainly just picking up a release day hardcover if there was some book I was particularly anxious for. I didn’t listen to audiobooks or there was no such thing as an ebook.

Today, I’d list my format preferences in this order.

1. Hardcover
I used to hate these. They’re big and heavy, and the dust jacket tends to slip up and down while you’re reading. Now I love them. They tend to be made with better paper. You can read them, loan them, share them, and they still look like new. If I have a book I want to keep, to hold onto and revisit again and again, it must be a nice hardcover. Recently, if I read something in paperback (or listen to it in audiobook) and end up really loving it, I end up purchasing a hardcover so I’ll have a “keeper” version.

2. Ebook
I started off the ebook era strongly opposed to the concept but the format has grown on me. As I read more and more, all kinds of tidbits and rough drafts and articles and e-zines and stuff, I get more used to this and no longer mind it. The best thing is the reduced clutter, if you’re someone who reads a lot. I can see how a full-time book reviewer might focus almost completely on ebook versions. Among these formats, I think EPUB is my favorite, for iPad compatibility. MOBI (for Amazon Kindle) or PDF work just fine too.

3. Audiobook
Many readers don’t consider this “reading” at all, but I do. I have a long commute. My car stereo lets me plug in an iPod full of audiobooks and listen comfortably without headphones. Some kinds of fiction, the more ornate, poetic or obscure I suppose, doesn’t work well when you’re partially distracted by driving. I tend to focus on more mass-market, mainstream or young adult fiction in audio format. Something like The Hunger Games, or a novel by Stephen King or Tom Clancy, is just about perfect. It’s engaging enough to make the drive seem to go by faster, but if my attention lapses for 1/2 second I won’t end up losing all track of the story.

4. Trade paperback
I used to love this format above all others. The late eighties and early nineties, when I read perhaps more than I ever have (finishing up a lit degree and just getting started writing serious fiction), this format was booming. I loved those Vintage Contemporaries by Raymond Carver, Nicholson Baker, Frederick Exley, Jonathan Carroll. This made for an attractive and classy paperback, more economical than a hardcover and also smaller and lighter.

5. Mass-market paperback
These used to form the bulk of my book collection, and I’m sure they still constitute a big percentage of the books sold in the world, even today. This cheap, junky format has given me countless thousands of hours of pleasure, enlightenment and escape. Thanks for all you’ve done for me, but I’ve moved on. All those mountains of yellowing, pulpy paper are overrunning the house. Piles and piles of Elmore Leonard, Greg Bear, Clive Barker, not to mention all the hundreds of classics any college Lit major accumulates. The format itself is neither aesthetically appealing nor especially durable. What I’ve always really cared about is the content itself. The words. That’s something I can get now from ebooks.

In summary…

My purchases of paperbacks will now be mostly limited to books released in only that format, or books I’m anxious to read on release date that come out in that format first.

For a quick, light or exploratory read, ebooks work just as well as paperbacks, and don’t pile up to the ceiling.

Audiobooks are a perfectly good way to increase one’s word intake, especially with straightforward and easy to follow fiction.

If the book is something I care about enough to want to keep, I love hardcovers.

Notes on a trip to the bookstore

I live in Portland, land of one of the world’s great bookstores, Powell’s Books, which I used to visit several times every week. I don’t live as close as I once did (I used to WALK to Powell’s several times per week) but still, bookstores are one of life’s real pleasures, and who wants to go through life buying everything at Amazon, anyway?

The bookstore visit that prompted this, though, wasn’t to Powell’s, but one of those mass-market-ish chain stores that starts with the letter B. The stuff on their shelves is much more slanted to the BRAND NEW along with PROVEN LONG-TERM SELLERS. Can’t blame ’em, that’s how they roll. But when you stroll through the SF/Fantasy section there, you see a whole different range of stuff than when you shop for your favorites at Amazon (where browsing Ubik gets you recommendations for Valis and Man in the High Castle and similar things), or a used book store, which has all kinds of new and old, popular and obscure.

Yeah, my favorite genres look a lot different from that vantage point.

It seems all the Fantasy now is written by women, and all the SF is written by men. Oh sure, more SF writers have always been male, and Fantasy has always had more female writers than SF did. But now I’d say Fantasy is a 90/10 split toward female writers, and SF is the reverse.

Speaking of Fantasy, it appears traditional, Tolkienesque “high fantasy” is dropping way off in favor of modern/urban fantasy. This means, you know, fewer book covers with dragons flying over the mountains, or armor-clad bands of adventurers comprised of wizard plus dwarf plus elf plus berserker/warrior human, carrying swords and axes. Instead, more books with a thin, athletic-looking single woman in tight-fitting clothes, a black pony-tail, and at least one very prominent tattoo. Maybe a demon in the background, or alternately some kind of cool animal familiar, if the heroine is “witchy” in nature. Seriously I must have seen books by two dozen authors, on a variety of publishers, with the exact same cover template. Nowhere else in the bookstore do you see such homogeneous covers, except in the Romance section.

You also get the sense the great majority of SF people are reading is movie tie-ins (Star Wars and Star Trek books), or video game novelizations (Halo, Mass Effect). I thought there used to be a stigma about “real” SF writers doing these novelizations but there seem to be plenty of decent writers doing them now. Maybe that’s a good thing. For the longest time, those books were a joke. Are they better now?

There are several authors I hadn’t considered “major” who have several shelves of their books all lined up, while several others who seem to have higher profiles (judging by mentions in the various SF blogs, and the awards, and the pages of Locus) have nothing at all on the shelves, or maybe a single book.

All in all, a rather strange and depressing view of the SF/Fantasy genres.

I need to get myself back to Powell’s.

SF Academy 06 – Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear

As I’ve discussed here previously, I believe some science fiction writers are more about the “big idea,” the concept that would be just as interesting in summary as in story form, and others are more about story and character, narration and philosophy, that is to say, the writing. My favorite science fiction writers are good at both, and one of my overall favorites is Greg Bear. His work can be uneven (avoid Dead Lines for example, which can’t decide whether it’s a ghost story of a muddled, supernatural-tinged attempt at sci-fi), but when it’s good, it’s really good. My favorites of his books include Blood Music (which seems to be out of print in the US, which is strange), and Moving Mars (which won Bear his first Nebula for Best Novel). I’ve been working my way gradually through his bibliography.

Darwin’s Radio came out in 1999 and won Bear the Nebula award. The book develops at a modest pace, with the discovery of mummified human remains which may suggest something unusual about human evolution. Coincidental to the very old remains being found, a virus that infects these mummies also begins to manifest itself among modern humans.

Bear’s strength is believable characters (especially scientists) and relationships that seem real, and run the gamut from love affairs to career betrayals. He’s also one of the few SF authors that attempts to write fairly explicit sex scenes in style that’s serious and unexaggerated.

By the end, Darwin’s Radio ends up being about a strange genetic trick that combines qualities of a pathogenic virus, and a mechanism for triggering a new stage in human evolution. The great majority of the book, though, is spent on political wrangling, and the formation and breaking-up of alliances between major characters including scientists, archologists, and political functionaries at the Centers for Disease Control.

The scientific ideas under exploration here are fascinating, but the book is much more about the struggle to understand, and scientific detective work thwarted by the need to compromise, all aspects of the process. The ending builds slowly but once crucial events occur the conclusion happens too quickly. Given that Bear wrote a sequel,
Darwin’s Children, I had to wonder whether he said to himself “Shit, this one’s getting way too long… better chop it off here, and finish it up in a sequel.” Then I looked up the sequel’s publication date and saw that it came 5 years later, so maybe not.

Maybe I’m the only one, but by the time the epilogue arrived, I thought we were just getting to the meat of the action. I’d recommend this one, but with reservations, and I wonder how I’ll feel after I read the sequel, which was not as well-reviewed as this book.

Overall, not dissatisfying exactly, but imperfect. At times, Greg Bear writes science fiction as well as anyone alive, and I’ll continue taking a chance on his books so long as there are more like this Blood Music or this one (successful, or almost), and not too many like Dead Lines.

Reading and listening

Yesterday’s post about Eye in the Sky reminded me of a subject that interests me, which is the difference between reading a book on paper, and listening to an audiobook.

I certainly wouldn’t say the audiobook experience is the same as, or even equivalent to, the experience of reading words on a page. There’s a difference for sure, a difference in how the information is received by the reader or listener’s brain. I’d say one’s attention is more likely to drift while listening, especially if you’re listening while driving or riding the bus, than while you’re reading a book, especially if you’re reading while relatively undisturbed. For that reason there are certain kinds of books — instructional material, or literature with a strongly poetic, ornate style — that I wouldn’t try to listen to, as opposed to reading.

Audiobooks are great for straightforward non-fiction like biographies, or for fiction in the realm of Stephen King, Anne Rice, or Tom Clancy.

Another difference between the two is that with audiobooks, the quality of the reader (I mean, the voice actor doing the reading of the book for the recording) makes such a huge difference in how it comes across. I listened to a Harlan Ellison reading of Ursula LeGuin’s first Earthsea book, and Ellison’s silly voice antics completely ruined it. Likewise, Stephen King reading one of his own Dark Tower books was very distracting. Other readers, like John Slattery who read Stephen King’s Duma Key, do a great job conveying difference voice qualities for different characters’ dialog, and also manage to spit out the words of complex sentences in a way that helps you decode them while you listen. With poorly-read books I often get the impression that the reader didn’t really know how to parse the sentence and was just speaking the words in sequence, without emphasis.

Before I started reading audiobooks, I always looked down my nose at the. I considered them kind of a half-assed way to consume a book, a reading alternative for semi-literates. Now, especially since I have a fairly long commute, and since I have nowhere near as much real reading time as I would like, I very much value the extra “story time.”

Eye in the Sky, by Philip K. Dick

At any given time I’m usually reading (at least) one book, and listening to an audiobook during my commute.  Sometimes I work on similar books for “reading” and “listening” at the same time, but most often I try to go down different paths with the two books.

Right now, I’m listening to Philip K. Dick’s The Eye in the Sky.


It’s one of Dick’s earlier novels, in fact arguably the earliest one that really had that provocative Phildick quality. It was first published in 1957, and the super-quickie plot summary is as follows: Following an industrial lab accident, an out-of-work engineer finds himself, along with his wife and a few others, catapulted into an alternate world of Old Testament religious fundamentalism, where prayer and miracles and plagues of locusts are part of daily life.

Philip K. Dick is one of those writers I find interesting enough to think about and talk about, but I don’t actually find myself reading his work very often. I think he’s more notable for his ideas, for pushing the envelope and questioning assumptions, than for his actual writing. Certainly he’s a beloved name in the realm of science fiction, but he’s one of those writers whose books are more interesting in summary than they actually read on the page.

Still, I’d say he has a lot of value even as just a provocateur. And Dick was certainly one of the more interesting personalities or “characters” in science fiction when I was growing up, along with Harlan Ellison.

Speaking of Philip K. Dick, there’s a Dick biography by Lawrence Sutin that is one of the more interesting author bios I’ve ever read. It’s focused quite a bit on Dick’s late-life religious/metaphysical/psychotic experiences, hence the title Divine Invasions.

I’m no more than 1/4 of the way through this audiobook so I’ll write more about it later. Just wanted to write a little something about it, as I’m having fun revisiting a writer I think about a lot, and regard highly, but don’t actually read often enough.