Archive for the ‘Potpourri’ Category

 


Watership Down author Richard Adams passes away

Richard Adams, the author of the 1972 book Watership Down and its 1996 sequel Tales from Watership Down, has passed away. He was 96.

I first encountered Adams' story in the form of its 1978 animated adaptation. I couldn't've been more than four years old, at which age the film's dark themes and imagery were entirely inappropriate. Likely my mother thought "Oh, a cartoon about talking bunnies! Kenny will love it," and taped it off TV for me. She couldn't've known it would probably scare me — and yet it didn't. At that age, I was drawn to dark, gothic stories. Every night before going to bed, I would watch Tom Baker as Dr. Who, which featured stories that I rightly should've found scary. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, these stories' creepy tones, I found myself watching them over and over.

Although my geek nature was becoming obvious, I was too young to have the social context in which to feel like an outsider. Yet Fiver's character nonetheless resonated with me. Unlike his bunny brethren, he was scrawny and needed help — but he had his own unusual strengths and contributions to offer. Hazel didn't always understand his brother, but he stood up for him. Ultimately, the band of rabbits never would've found their way to Watership Down without the two of them working together. As the youngest of four brothers, I hoped I would enjoy such support and success with my own family.

In 2001, I visited Ireland and bought a used copy of Watership Down. I'd never read the book, but I was drawn to the silhouette of a pained rabbit on its cover, using art taken from the movie. I began collecting all editions I could find of Watership Down — hardcover and softcover, printed and audio, foreign and domestic. The below photo is only a sample of my current collection.

Ten versions of Watership Down.

A sampling of the various book and audio editions I've purchased.

It was while searching my local bookstore for additional editions that I discovered Adams had written a sequel: the anthology Tales from Watership Down. I immediately purchased and read it, complementing the movie I'd grown up with. And yet I still hadn't read the original novel; I was afraid that doing so would somehow change my experience with the film. I'd heard that the book was used as a text in some political science courses, and I didn't want this adventurous tale to be dragged down by academic analysis.

But I did eventually read the book — an aged, yellowed copy that was older than me. It was a surreal experience to read a book for the first time and yet already know what was going to happen, sometimes down to the exact lines of dialogue — the film I'd been watching for twenty years proved an excellent adaptation. My memories of the movie are still stronger, but both versions captured all the tension, drama, and emotion of Adams' tale.

When I later became a high school teacher, I wanted to share the Watership Down experience with my 11th-grade film studies students — violating the exact principle that had led me to avoid the book for so long. But, motivated more by personal connection than academic value, I showed them the movie — and was shocked that they found it disturbing! Of course, it is disturbing, but I thought 17-year-olds would've seen worse. For them, there was a disconnect between the medium and the content: like my mother, they expected animated movies to be cartoonish, and they were horrified to instead be presented with frothing dogs and rabbits bloodily tearing each other's throats out. Although it was unfair of them to pigeonhole animated movies as being suitable for children, I nonetheless omitted the movie from my next syllabus.

My greatest experience with the story of Watership Down was still to come. Ten years ago, in 2006, I went on a three-day trip to London. Two of the days were already planned, and it wasn't until I was there that I thought how to spend the third day. Looking at a map, I realized I was only a day trip away from the real Watership Down. Although the story is fiction, all its settings are real — and I had an unprecedented opportunity to see them for myself.

My friend Laura and I got in her car and started driving. We knew we were getting close when we found an inn named after Watership Down, whose décor featured that exact same Irish book cover, blown up and framed as a poster. Nuthanger Farm, the iron road, and more were nearby … but the Down itself was my destination. It proved to be on private property, which I didn't hesitate to trespass. The proprietors spotted and confronted me but did not begrudge me when I explained, in my American accent, that it was a lifelong dream of mine to visit the Down and that I had no ill intent. They explained that I was in fact climbing the wrong down.

When I returned home, I shared my photos from the trip with Chris Boyce, whose website had been instrumental in helping me identify the Down. His response to my question of whether I was in the right place was lengthy and informative:

Have you photographed Watership Down? Yes!… and no… Your photos 1–5 are certainly Watership :-) Watership proper is the hilly bit on the left of these photos. The saddle of trees covers the road over the downs, to the right in these photos is Hare Warren Down. The downs being the hilly bits obviously. The two pylons are not the one featured in the book but the ones by the raod and to the east on Hare Warren Down. The one in the book stands in the field to the north of Watership, not right at the base by the road or, on the slope of the (a) down. So, I think your guy was right-ish — at that point you were not on Watership, or maybe you were, but only just. Your picture #10 entitled 'the pylon', was taken from on Watership looking down, but THE pylon is to the right of the photo. However, from what I can see your pictures from the top of a down, do indeed appear to be from Watership, though not from right on top. You have correctly located Nuthanger — that's it all right :-) and can be seen in your picture #7, well, the track to it can be seen on the far right of that picture! Even on that the pylon is off to the right.

I think that had you explored on top of the down, and gone further you would indeed have found the beech hanger. Yes, you were standing on Watership Down, though not part of the down specifically mentioned in 'Watership Down' if you see what I mean :-) Watership Down is about a mile long, and you maybe got only 1/8 of a mile onto it when you needed to be 1/3 of mile on to it to find the hanger.

I like the film quad — I presume it was in the pub. The photos of the Nuthanger outbuildings are atmospheric, its a pity the English weather was not more Watership Down-like (the book that is!). I hope it didn;t spoil your trip.

Even if I didn't see the beech tree or even climbed the right down, to know that I trod the same ground as the Saddleford rabbits was a dream come true, and one I'll always cherish.

Shortly after I got back from London was my birthday. I thought my book collection of Watership Down was complete, but my friend Erica surprised me when she sent me The Watership Down Film Picture Book, retelling the rabbits' tale using frames from the movie. I'd never known this 1978 book even existed, or that anyone knew me well enough to surprise me with it. It's rare that a gift brings me to tears, but this was such an occasion.

Four years later, in 2010, Erica invited me to join her at the Fryeburg Fair, a county fair filled with food, amusements, and livestock. Knowing my fascination with Watership Down and being a rabbit-owner herself, Erica was unsurprised that my camera got its most use once I spotted the rabbit hutches.



I've never owned a rabbit myself, and I don't think it's something I'd explore. But my neighborhood is rampant with the critters, and I often consider it a good day when I spot one on my walk to or from work.

My relationship with Watership Down continues to this day. I still have the VHS tape my mom originally recorded the movie on, 1983 commercials and all. For preservation and redundancy, I've also bought Watership Down on DVD and then on Blu-Ray, as well as the three-season animated series — which, unsurprisingly, I've never watched. Maybe some day I will. But even if I don't, I'll likely watch the movie again and revisit the books. I may've been to Watership Down only once, but it's been a part of me as long as I can remember — and for that, I thank Richard Adams.

From the official announcement of Adams' passing comes this passage from his book:

It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.

"You needn't worry about them," said his companion. "They'll be alright — and thousands like them."

My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today.


Reading Rainbow Remixed

Here's a remix that came out a few months ago but is still fun to hear. PBS Digital Studios conscripted John D. Boswell, aka melodysheep, to take footage from LeVar Burton's Reading Rainbow and produce a music video. The result is "In Your Imagination":

Although this remix is one of the best collaborations yet between PBS and Boswell, it has fewer than a million hits. Why not more love? I purchased the single on iTunes and still enjoy hearing it. Drop a dollar on this worthy tune, and be sure to check out remixes of Bob Ross and Mister Rogers, too!


The benefits of re-reading

booksI've lately taken to getting more of my books from the library than from Barnes & Noble. Not only did last year's effort of moving my collection of 600 books — small by some measures — from one town to another prove exhausting, but I've realized I rarely revisit books that aren't part of a series. Seeing them as part of my personal library can be a gratifying reminder of my literary pursuits, but the expense of purchasing, storing, and moving books that I would read only once has become difficult to justify.

But new studies suggest that my methodology is flawed, and that I should be re-reading books more often. Mail Online reports:

The first time people read — or watch — through, they are focused on events and stories.

The second time through, the repeated experience reignites the emotions caused by the book or film, and allows people to savour those emotions at leisure.

The 'second run' can offer profound emotional benefits… By enjoying the emotional effects of the book more deeply, people become more in touch with themselves.

If you think that such repetitive activity is exclusive to children and their reruns of Blue's Clues, think about your peers who re-read every Harry Potter book to date in anticipation of the release of each sequel.

I own few books that I've found myself revisiting over the years, in no particular order:

And there are admittedly books I'd like to read again:

But with so many unread books waiting to be read, how do I justify retreading old ground? Is it better to spend time with old friends than it is to make new ones?

What books make your "must read again" list, and what balance do you strike between old and new?


Publishing your virtual bookshelf online with Goodreads

Last month, I described how I created a virtual bookshelf, resulting in a digital database of my library's metadata. Once I had that local index, I wanted to find an elegant way to publish it online. The software I used offers a "Publish to FTP site" that produces an HTML listing, but it doesn't integrate with any CMS or social network that I use. I chose instead to investigate Web sites that specialize in this service and which offer social networking features that allow me to share my library with friends.

First I looked at LibraryThing, recommended to me by a librarian. Although its online tour presented a visually attractive interface, I eliminated LibraryThing as a potential contender almost immediately upon reading this caveat: "A free account allows you to catalog up to 200 books. A paid account allows you to catalog any number of books." Anyone with a sufficiently extensive collection that warrants indexing likely has more than 200 books. Since mine is in excess of 600, I chose not to join this community of 1.2 million readers.

By contrast, Shelfari is free and features a bookshelf that looks similar to the one on my computer. It's owned by Amazon.com and integrates with one's purchases there, which ostensibly is a benefit, but I actually don't prefer consolidation — Amazon.com is a store, not a social network, and I'd like to keep those needs distinct. Otherwise, I'd likely just use Amazon.com's own media library service.

One online service I did not investigate was aNobii. bookarmy, closed in December 2010, was also not a contender.

Ultimately, I chose Goodreads, which was founded in October 2006 (two months after Shelfari) and has 4.4 million members. Being one of the older and larger online book cataloging services, it seemed more likely to offer an extensive member and book database for me to exploit. Goodreads also provides a widget that I can easily embed into Wordbits.net to dynamically inform visitors what I'm currently reading.

Exporting my library out of my Mac software and into Goodreads was simple but required editing the CSV file's headers from the former's "Creator" to the latter's "Author" and the like. Even then, Goodreads did not acknowledge all metadata made available to it: importation of whether or not I owned a copy of the book, as well as when and where it was purchased, is not supported, even though that same metadata is included in an export out of Goodreads. I had to manually edit batches of my books to identify which I owned (ie, all of them). But since books can exist in my Goodreads collection without me actually owning them, Goodreads thus becomes practical as a list not just of my books, but of any books that I want to read or purchase, or books that I have read without having purchased (courtesy my local public library).

Goodreads has a couple other quirks. For example, it's not immediately obvious how to move a book among the mutually exclusive "To Read", "Currently Reading", and "Read" shelves. Simply removing it from its current shelf won't do; it must instead be added to one of the other two.

But that's a result of Goodreads being used not just for static metadata, like my local index, but also for dynamic content. I can mark when I started reading a book, how far I've progressed each day, when I finished, and what I thought of it when I was done. Each of these updates can be put into a newsfeed for your friends can see and comment on — though, despite its large audience, very few people I know are on the service, which limits its usefulness.

I don't know if I would find myself with more friends if Goodreads tried harder to be more like Facebook, but I'm glad it doesn't. In its discussion groups have been requests for half-star ratings and thumbs up/down on individual comments, both of which have been flatly denied. Neither of those features would encourage the sort of intelligent and literary discourse that will help me find and interpret books, and I'm glad to leave them to other social networks to implement. (That said, the Goodreads application for Facebook seems quite popular.)

I haven't yet found a ton of value in publishing my catalog to Goodreads, though once I start rating more of my books, it may help me find similar books to read — a problem I've never had, as indicated by the 132 entries on my "to-read" shelf! But as a social complement to my own inventory tracking software, I find Goodreads an effective and free service, and one I hope more of my friends will join me on.


Cataloging a collection with Delicious Library

I have what I consider a vast book collection. I'd never quantified its contents except to observe the growing physical space it occupied in my home, not always knowing how it was doing so. A few times, I bought a book twice, not realizing I already had a copy on my "to-read" shelf. I decided it would be a worthwhile undertaking to make some sort of index of my library, not only as reference but also as a backup: should my books ever be lost or damaged, I'll know what to replace.

Delicious Library 2I'd already compiled a similar catalog of my DVDs using the Macintosh program Delicious Library. It was a project that had to wait until I had a computer with an inbuilt webcam, as then I could hold my DVD cases up to the monitor and have their barcodes scanned, downloading all their metadata from Amazon.com. It didn't take long to scan all 200 movies or so.

But books are a different matter: they're larger, bulkier, and sometimes more fragile. It seemed too laborious to lug my laptop to each shelf of books (or to carry each book to my computer desk) and scan the titles individually.

I decided to get a handheld barcode scanner. Delicious Library supports Bluetooth devices and recommends (and sells) the Microvision RoV scanner, which costs hundreds of dollars. I opted instead for a secondhand Microvision Flic scanner off eBay, which proved to be a mistake. Although the scanner paired with my MacBook just fine and emitted the expected red light and beeped in recognition of a barcode, it never transmitted that data back to the computer, indicating a wasted purchase. Faced with that defeat, my project stalled.

But a pending move threatens those books with storage, and I wanted to know what I'd collected before they went out of sight. I finally caved and went about the scanning process the cumbersome way.

The part of the process that was least curmudgeonly was the software. Delicious Library recognized the barcodes easily and spoke their names as it downloaded their information. If I accidentally scanned something twice, it pulled up the existing entry rather than make a new one.

There were a few special cases that required manual entry. Some books didn't list their ISBNs at all, so I went searching on Amazon.com or Google for that data. And many older paperbacks have barcodes on their back covers that scan incorrectly; the right barcode is on the inside front cover.

Altogether, indexing just over 600 books took less time than I'd spent trying to get the Bluetooth scanner working. Many of those books had their original receipts tucked inside, so I later added the purchase date, place, and price to my digital metadata. This second pass was more tedious than the first, requiring as it did no scanning, just data entry.

Delicious Library book collection

A sampling of my actual shelf, represented virtually.

The result is an exhaustive and beautiful virtual bookshelf that catalogs my collection. With the trend toward e-books, this database of metadata only, without the books' actual contents, may seem antiquated — but I find it to be the best of both worlds.


Library theft results in jail time

The Associated Press is reporting that Brian Linebach is facing five years in prison for second-degree theft by failing to return 40 books and DVDs to the Kirkendall Public Library of Ankeny, Iowa. I can empathize — with the library.

Fifteen years ago, when I worked for Blockbuster Video, movies were released exclusively to rental outlets on VHS for $100/copy. It was only months later that these tapes became available to consumers at a more reasonable rate. Before DVDs turned that market upside-down, losing a copy of a movie was an expensive proposition, which is why BBV required credit card numbers on record for each of its customers: should a product disappear, its value could be reimbursed.

Libraries show their patrons much more faith: expensive books and videos can be borrowed with no more credential than a driver's license. That information is no guarantee against theft, and though DVDs are cheaper to replace now than VHS tapes once were, libraries lack the financial backing of multimedia conglomerates with which to do so. I tried to find some statistics about library material return rates, but the ALA's exhaustive Web site, which was instrumental in researching my recent column for Worcester Magazine, doesn't have any obvious reports on this data. Nonetheless, anyone who uses the public library to donate to his own collection has things backward, to the detriment of his community.

Why Mr. Linebach didn't return the products once confronted, or how long they were overdue, I don't know. But it could've been worse — imagine the penalties George Washington would pay for books 221 years overdue!


Local libraries' budgetary issues — and solutions

A few months ago, I was driving through Bolton and stopped to check out their expansion to the public library. It's a beautiful and natural extension of their existing building that is proportionate to the community's needs.


The visit had me wondering how it is that the Bolton, Leominster, and Worcester libraries have all afforded to expand in a decade when library budgets are being slashed by dangerous amounts. The answer was obvious — such expansions were planned well before the current economic crisis — but this question led to others about the budgetary issues being faced by local libraries and how they're coping. I decided it was an issue that warranted further investigation.

Fortunately, my social circle includes many librarian and literary people who were willing to engage me on this topic. I spoke with both CMRLS librarian Carolyn Noah and New York Times best-selling author R. A. Salvatore, two people who had previously spoken to each other on the topic of library funding (see time index 2:54 – 3:52 especially). I was also fortunate to speak with Christine Drew for her perspective as an academic librarian at WPI.

The result is "Bad economy checks us out of libraries", an editorial that ran in Worcester Magazine on Apr 22, 2010. It appears almost entirely intact, except for this sentence in Mr. Salvatore's interview: "Would there be some equitable way to consolidate town libraries into regional ones?" Of the entire piece, this is the most provocative proposal and the one with the greatest potential to cure what ails local libraries. As one concerned citizen recently told me, "It isn't good stewardship to duplicate services in towns [so] close … even in a good economy."

Independently, PCWorld.com recently suggested that libraries should take this opportunity to reinvent themselves as not just archivists, but studios and producers of original content by local artists. This approach similarly requires a community-oriented mindset in which content creators collaborate, not compete, with their neighbors. Is it possible?

Whatever fate befalls libraries, we cannot allow such a valuable institution to disappear. From a purely financial perspective, libraries offer an unparalleled return on investment. Cutting their funding to save the economy would be "like cutting West Point from the military pipeline to reduce the defense budget" — it's incredibly short-sighted. These are not easy times to live in, which means making hard decisions. Let's make sure they're the right ones.


Wordbits redesign

A week ago, I rolled out a new look for Wordbits. The old theme, Retro Book, was already old when I installed it three years ago and required significant editing to make it compatible with WordPress 2.2, which introduced support for widgets. Even with that functionality, the theme suffered from a narrow width that limited the multimedia content that could be embedded into posts. The new theme, flashy, is a far more modern design. It also required a good deal of customization, but I'm confident that it will stand the test of time better than Retro Book did.

It also behooves Wordbits to have a look that matches the theme of its content. The site was initially envisioned as a Web 2.0 successor to Prolific Quill, a message board that discussed the composition and consumption of literature. Although those topics will remain as potential sources for Wordbits content, the last four months have seen the site steering more toward coverage of the publishing industry and its evolution from print to digital media. Retro Book had the look of a dusty tome that doesn't fit the field's emerging trends, so it was time to close that book and open a new one.

Thanks to readers Peter, Gene, and Kahm for their advice in the redesign process!