Kindle 2: A Progress Report

May 25, 2009

I’ve been using the Kindle for about two months and enjoying it. About the weight of two books, it travels easily in my backpack and my briefcase. Instead of taking the subway—too fast—I ride the bus so I have more time to read. I sit in parks and coffee shops before appointments and classes and read. I toggle between one book and another—nonfiction, poetry, contemporary and classic fiction—which is the way I prefer to read. I am not certain but I think I am reading faster though I don't know why this should be. My hypothesis: The screen is small, more concentrated than a page, fewer words. I "flip" them quickly.

I have accepted that it will take a while for the Kindle library to deepen and expand. Every time I want a book that isn’t in the Kindle bookstore, I click the little “request” box on the amazon.com site. I am hoping/assuming that negotiations with publishers in the English speaking world continue apace. I have noted that there is no Graham Greene available at all. Greene is surely a classic but the rights seem to be held by Penguin. I hope they release them for electronic download soon.

My Algonquin book club is reading Naipaul’s “Guerrillas” this month. Not only was this book not available in the Kindle store, it was also out of print in the US. That said, other members of the group who use the LIBRARY—how quaint—found copies there. I ordered a paperback copy; it was mailed from England. And I’ve been carrying it around and writing marginalia in it. I’m not unhappy. I’ll continue to buy “real” books, savor their heft and scent, their design. Which brings me to a serious caveat: Kindle is not good for book designers: there is no book cover, no page layout, no font to admire. Perhaps the next generation of the Kindle will find a remedy: a screen in full color.

Memorizing Poems

May 12, 2009

Jim Holt began memorizing poetry by heart a few years ago. In an essay, “Got Poetry,”published in The New York Times Book Review in April (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/05/books/review/Holt-t.html), he says that memorizing is a “physical feeling, and it’s a deeply pleasurable one.”

I began writing poetry myself some years ago and have even had a few poems published. But I have never studied it or memorized it. I haven’t even memorized my own poems. That’s strange.

What would I discover about language if I added the dimension of memorization and recitation? What would I discover about my mind and how it encodes and decodes language? What would I discover about a well-known poet’s mind and use of language?

I am at the very earliest stages of this very pleasurable experiment. I chose a very short rhymed poem—fourteen lines—to get me started and have taken Holt’s advice to learn it incrementally, a couple of lines a day. I have a goal of memorizing one poem a month but if I don’t, I don’t. The point is to have some fun, immerse in the language, and exercise weak neural pathways in my aging brain. What the spillover effects will be I have no idea but last night I was at a restaurant with my husband and said I’d like to recite ten lines of a poem to him, if he didn’t mind. He didn’t. First I wrote the ten lines out on the paper tablecloth stopping the busboy in his tracks. He looked over my shoulder and sighed. And then I looked away from the poem into my husband’s eyes and recited the lines I’ve learned thus far. He sighed, too, and so did I. In the midst of the din of the restaurant and our busy urban lives, we’d found a moment of peace.


World Voices Festival # 2: Highlights

May 3, 2009

It’s been a busy week and impossible, logistically, to get to all the events I had circled in my program. I worked at three of them and attended others at four different venues. The opening night, as described in my previous entry, remains unsurpassed. Personally, I prefer to hear a writer speak about his or her work/process before a reading or, if the author does not speak English, to hear a brief introduction by someone on the PEN staff, as in previous years. Unfortunately, the introductions were eliminated this year, possibly in the interests of time. Context is essential for understanding brief excerpts and appreciating the author’s effort and standing. I found myself referring to the program too much rather than following the on-screen translations at the 92nd Street Y and Cooper Union events, both with several readers entering and exiting the stage one after the other. Oddly monotonous despite the vividness of the works themselves.

Highlights: On Wednesday, April 29 at Cooper Union, Edwidge Danticat made a choice not to read her own work. Instead, she read two poems in Haitian Creole by Félix Morisseau-Leroy, “Tourist” and “Boat People.” You can find his poems in translation online. Powerful work.

On Thursday, April 30, at a panel discussion at the Institute Cervantes, co-sponsored by Peter Gabriel’s human rights organization, “Witness,” Iraqi-American performance artist Wafaa Bilal, who lost both his brother and his father in bombings and spent his childhood years in a refugee camp, spoke eloquently about the transformation of traumatic life experience into art. Emmanuel Guibert, a graphic artist from France, also spoke eloquently about his new work, “The Photographer,” soon to be released in the US, and how the work began for him-- with a friendship. In a long discussion about the uses of new technologies to tell stories—he said that if the internet brings us closer together, that’s fine. If we remain in our isolated, virtual worlds, the new technologies are useless. The philosopher, Josep-Maria Terricabras added a deeper ethical dimension: Does merely witnessing and recording bring change?

There was much to think about during the presentations, but little opportunity for questions or dialogue among the participants, or with the audience. PEN might want to consider training the facilitators of the panels, who may not be educators. The logistics of such preparation might be as daunting as the festival itself, as facilitators arrive in NY for one week from faraway places. But some preparatory work via email might be possible.

The Saturday night Cabaret was more satisfying with readings introduced by the authors themselves, extemporaneous comments, and yet another opportunity to hear writers from overseas as yet unknown or little known in the US. Nick Laird, the Irish poet and fiction writer (married to Zadie Smith who he met at Cambridge) was wonderfully funny and personable with the large audience as was Walter Mosley who reads his own work beautifully. That’s rare and perhaps one of the drawbacks of authors reading their own work; not all writers are good readers. Then onto the stage bounced Slam poetry artist Sekou with his collaborator Steve Connell, a high energy performance with plenty of stimulating content about love and free speech. The dramatic reading of a short play by Jonathan Franzen was a wash despite formidable actors such as Parker Posey and James Franco. The audience of writers, it seemed, was disappointed by this mediocre work and unimpressed with the celebrity of the actors; the work did not stand on its own. Laurie Anderson and her husband, Lou Reed, concluded the evening with a challenging, strange half-hour of music and words. I had never seen Ms. Anderson in performance before. I think one needs a flotation device though what this might be I don’t know. The last piece in particular was haunting. It was about problems and how we create them when they are not there or transform them into commodities. At least I think that’s what it was about. It was a pleasure to see a couple of older-timers still so active and innovative.

Despite some disappointments this year, I look forward to next year’s event. PEN is a formidable organization dedicated to “defending writers and promoting the free exchange of literature for more than 85 years,” according to their brochure. For more information go to: www.pen.org where you'll also find some recordings of the events.




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