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The Smell of Paper, the Weightlessness of Digital

28 Dec

Last night my bud and I were watching a very campy episode from Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s early days, “I Robot, You Jane.” As dated as the episode’s plot is, Giles, the antiquated British librarian, gets into an argument about paper vs. digital that is still surprisingly relevant. Giles argues,

Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower, or a-a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten. Books smell musty and-and-and rich. The knowledge gained from a computer is a – it, uh, it has no texture, no context. It’s-it’s there and then it’s gone. If it’s to last, then-then the getting of knowledge should be, uh, tangible, it should be, um, smelly.

Oh, Rupert, I get your point, I really do. I collect (aka hoard) books. I love the feel of the pages and the covers, I love flipping back and forth between passages, bookmarking with old ticket stubs or grocery lists, and yes, the smell. I don’t think tangible books are going anywhere anytime soon. 

But books are also heavy and space-consuming, and as much as I heap out the saying “You can never have too many books” in generous quantities, I feel like the saying should come with an asterisk:

You can never have too many books.*

*So long as you’re settled down and have ample space.

Neither of these criteria apply to me. As a 20-something, I’m far from settled down, and I have a hankering to travel abroad again, possibly to teach abroad for a year or more. A few years ago I got to travel in one-month blocks around Europe, and I did so with a 10-kg backpack. It was freeing to have so little, and since backpack space was precious, I would pass on a book to another traveler or leave it somewhere for a stranger to find once I finished it. Sharing a book I had just read and loved was even more fulfilling than running my hands over a well-read and well-loved book from my personal library.

But it’s hard to let go, especially when I’ve accumulated such a wonderful collection. Still, if I’m going abroad, I would rather share my favorite books than to hoard them up and store them in a box in my parents’ house until my return. The question then becomes, which physical books do I hold on to? Books that demand underlining and dog-earring of pages? Books signed by authors? Books given as gifts? Rare copies? And what is the maximum amount of books that can still be qualified as the “bare minimum”? 

I’m curious as to what others think. Physical copies of books will always be my preference when I’m at home, but when I’m traveling or my living circumstances are far from concrete, digital is an amazing convenience. I can carry thousands of pages, hundreds of authors and ideas and storylines, in my pocket and across the world. The words are, after all, the most important part of the story. But the smell is always a nice perk.


Incarceron and a look at the 2012-2013 ITA nominations.

12 Mar


It’51MscpKKInL._SL500_AA300_s been a while since I sat down and sunk my teeth into a YA novel! This one’s been on my list since last fall–it’s gotten a lot of buzz at the high school and junior high level, and the sequel, Sapphique, is already out.

While this book is technically a science fiction story set in a futuristic world, it often feels like a fantasy novel; there’s a quest narrative and a dose of magical elements, and an ingenious mechanism that allows for both a dystopian, futuristic prison, and an opulent kingdom designed to match “Era” standards, everything fitting into an aesthetic and social system from days gone by, to exist in the same book.

Let me break it down, because this is where things get a bit complicated. Incarceron is a living prison. It is sentient, constantly watching and recording its prisoners, and nobody has ever escaped. Finn is convinced that he was born on the Outside, but the only clue he has is a mysterious mark on his wrist and a crystal key.

In a separate part of the world, or perhaps in a separate world altogether, there’s the land where everything is designed to feel like the past; carriages, castles, gowns, and the works. Although there is some cheating on the sly with out-of-era technology, the social system stays dated. Claudia, daughter of Incarceron’s warden, is betrothed to be married, but when she finds a way of communicating with Finn, she begins to learn about the prison, which is entirely different from what she and her people have been told. In return, Finn begins to piece together his mysterious past.

In terms of prose, there’s nothing too exciting going on here, but the world Fisher creates is fascinating, and it gives way to some interesting ideas to chew over. I was particularly fascinated with what these worlds were ideally supposed to be and what they ended up being instead. Both Incarceron and the “Outside” were designed to be paradises, and so either side considers the other side as a paradise. In the beginning, Incarceron was to be a place where criminals were relocated and reformed to be a part of this amazing society with excellent education and technology, but instead factions split up and crime breaks out. And Claudia’s world, too, is far from perfect, even though it was designed to be.  “We will choose an Era from the past and re-create it. We will make a world free from the anxiety of change! It will be Paradise!” reads a decree that opens up an early chapter of the book.

That leads the reader to ask, why do we idealize the past? Is it because we only choose to see the good details and ignore the bad or inconvenient ones? It seems natural to become nostalgic for things gone, to shy away from change and to keep things old. Yet the citizens of this Era-restricted world constantly cheat with modern conveniences; hidden washing machines, secret elevators, carefully-used Skin Wands. It’s interesting that society seems unable to make a comfortable mesh of these old and new things; instead they pretend that everything is old, hiding away new conveniences like some ugly but necessary secret.

The fate of the prison, too, makes the reader wonder, as the characters in the book do, if man automatically reverts to evil. When criminals are given the best resources, will they still return to crime and evil, despite all best efforts? I really don’t think so. I mean, Australia turned out okay.

At 442 pages, this book is rather hefty, but the type is forgivingly large and the book flies by. There are some satisfying twists toward the end, including the very inventive and surprising location of the prison. It’s also a nominee for the 2012-2013 Iowa Teen Awards (ITA). While I wouldn’t deem it as the best book of 2012, it certainly is the most inventive one I’ve read this year, and I’m curious to read the sequel.

Then again, I haven’t gotten around to ANY of the other ITA nominations for the year! I need to get on that. Here’s a look at the other nominees:

  • Artichoke’s Heart, by Suzanne Supplee
  • The Big Field, by Mike Lupica
  • Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • I Am Number Four, by Pittacus Lore
  • Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld (my GRANDMOTHER has read this one and I have not. Goodness)
  • Lockdown, by Walter Dean Myers
  • Lost in the River of Grass, by Ginny Rorby
  • Maze Runner, by James Dashner
  • Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper
  • Payback Time, by Carl Deuker
  • Ruined, by Paula Morris
  • The Running Dream, by Wendelin van Draanen
  • The Truth About Truman School, by Dori Hillestad Butler
  • Virals, by Kathy Reichs.

Have you read Incarceron? If so, what did you think? How about any of the other ITA nominations? Any guesses for which one will or should win?

Readaloudable Books

4 Dec

Some books demand to be read aloud. The importance of reading stories aloud to children has already been explained in far more interesting and factual ways than I could do here, but let me step up on my soapbox for a second and defend the importance of reading aloud with a child even after she has become a confident reader.

No matter what your age, there is a joy to telling and listening to a story aloud, a joy which traces back to before words were written down at all. Reading aloud not only helps with fluency and creating a teacher-student/parent-child/friend-friend bond; it also brings the story alive in a whole new way. My mother and I would read books aloud at night well into my junior high years, taking turns reading alternating chapters (although I’d never admit that to my friends). Even in college, my roommate and I would read each other snippets from our books or little anecdotes before we went to sleep. Reading together is enjoyable in the same way that watching a movie or a TV show with someone else who appreciates it. You laugh together at the jokes, you yell in astonishment, you feel the same sense of awe at a perfectly woven sentence that pulls you both somewhere impossible and wonderful for a few moments.

The following are seven classics that only serve as a starting point. If you haven’t read them, please do. If you have, read them again, this time aloud to someone who will beg to know, “What happens next?”

With the bedtime storyteller in mind, I’ve given an estimate of how many nights the story would take to read, assuming that the reader would be devoting 20-30 minutes a night for reading.

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