Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas 1941

When we think of December 1941 these days, we automatically think of the Pearl Harbor attack on the seventh, and the declaration of war.   To hear my parents talk about it, though, at the time most people in the U. S. had never heard of Pearl Harbor, and Hawaii seemed a long way away.

My Dad was a senior in high school at the time, and after he graduated the following June, he'd be drafted straight into the Army.  In December 1941, he wasn't thinking about any of that, though:  in his teenage techie geekdom, he was more concerned about recording a Christmas greeting to send to his older brother, who was doing his medical residency in Minnesota.

This was the result.

This was recorded on a paper disk with a thin plastic coating on it, made on a record-cutting machine that Dad borrowed from the Calhoun County High School.  Pretty remarkable that it's even held up for nearly seventy years, much less still be semi-listenable! 

My favorite line:  when Dad complains about his grandmother and sister's "backwardness" (i.e., shyness), saying, "Brother, I tell you:  this is a trial." 

From left to right:  my great-grandmother Sophie Hathaway, my aunt Virginia Hathaway Kirby (looking just as uncomfortable having her photo taken as she was being interviewed), Dad, and his mother, Eva Hathaway.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Things fall apart

After my last post about the Kindle and my wariness of e-texts, I have to follow up by saying that I more than understand the need to digitize older books.

Case in point, this relic of my childhood, The Cookie Book, which I got through the Scholastic Book Club at school when I was probably seven or eight (the publication date is 1973).

This was clearly not a book that was made to last:  printed on cheap pulp paper, it's literally falling apart:  the spine long ago broke, and the pages are loose, crumbling, and discolored by age and splattered cookie batter.

And yet, I can't bring myself to throw it away because I have such a sentimental attachment to it.  And what's more, I still use it:  I maintain that it has the best peanut-butter cookie recipe ever in it (even though it never worked well at high altitude in Colorado).

I could buy a "new" (used) copy--there appear to be plenty of them available for next-to-nothing on abebooks.  And the recipe isn't exactly complicated:  I could easily have typed it up in far less time than it took me to write this blog. 

But there's something important to me about seeing the recipe in its original form, with the kitschy 1970s illustrations and the over-detailed and vaguely patronizing instructions ("Use an 'eating' teaspoon.'").  What keeps it on the shelf is, in fact, its very falling-apartness, and the flour stains and the marginal annotations in my eight-year-old hand.  It's been well used and loved.  

I recently broke down and scanned the pages with the recipe, though I stopped short of scanning the whole book.  I still won't throw it away, but I've seen enough of what can happen to this kind of paper after decades to know that eventually it really will be nothing but a pile of brittle brown confetti.  Thank goodness for digitization, which allows us to shore up literal fragments against a book's inevitable ruin (apologies to T. S. Eliot). 

Will anyone hold onto an e-book for nearly forty years?  Or am I comparing apples to oranges?  Or just being a hopeless, old-fashioned, curmudgeonly twit?

Let me have a cookie and think it over.

(Pictured above is the dressed-up holiday version of the peanut-butter cookies:  baked in mini-muffin tins and decorated with a Hershey's kiss.  Click on the recipe image for a larger, more readable version if you want to try it out!)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Looking a gift horse in the mouth

I know you're not supposed to.  But...

A couple months ago I was gifted with a Kindle for my work with an educational group on campus.  Ironically, not long before I got it, I'd had a conversation with my mom about e-readers, and when she asked if I thought I'd ever want one, I said no.

You'd never have guessed that had been my answer if you'd heard my squeals of girlish glee when I opened the box and saw the Kindle.  Apparently, I did want an e-reader!

I've been using the Kindle long enough now, though, that I think I'm ready to weigh in about it.  I nearly wrote that my verdict was "meh," but that's too negative. 

I really do like the thing.  It's especially great for taking to the rec center.  In the past, I've stuck to reading magazines while I'm on the elliptical machine, because they're easier to keep open than a book.  Short of breaking the spine or bringing something to clip or weigh down the sides, there's no way to get a book to lay flat, and holding it open is just a pain. 

 And I love the fact that you can download samples of books--generally, the first couple of chapters.  I've found this especially great for new young-adult books, which I often want to preview as possible texts for my YA lit class.  The samples give enough of a sense of the text to let me know if it's something I want to buy.  

But if I do buy those books, I buy hard copies, because I can't imagine using the electronic text in class, unless everyone was using that text.  At a recent book study group I attended at a local high school, several folks had read the book on their school-provided Nooks, and it was hard to pinpoint specific quotes or passages, since their versions didn't have page numbers.  

E-readers do offer some impressive advantages for course readings, since most allow you to bookmark or highlight text, add notes, and see what other readers have highlighted.  But not being able to get everyone on the same page, literally, is a serious disadvantage.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, my family got together at a cabin in the Hocking Hills of southeastern Ohio.  I'd brought the Kindle along, since I had a couple books on there that I'd downloaded, and wanted to have plenty of reading material.  When I went to grab it on the first night, thinking I'd read in bed, I couldn't find it.  After a prolonged search, I concluded that I must've left it at home after all.  In desperation, the next day I drove into the nearest town and bought a couple of books at WalMart.

I chose two that I ended up loving:  the latest in the Wimpy Kid series, and Rhoda Janzen's memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.  

The first, a sort of hybrid traditional/graphic YA novel, just seems like something that wouldn't work on the Kindle, given the importance of the juxtaposition of the pictures and the text.  The other, of course, would be perfectly adaptable to e-reading, but I loved the book so much that as soon as I got home I passed it along to a friend...something you simply can't do with an electronic book.  

And therein lies my big problem with the Kindle and other e-readers:  they strike me as being inherently undemocratic.  You can't pass books you read on them along to someone else.  And at the moment, most texts are in proprietary formats, so since I use the Kindle, I can't buy or download books from Borders, or the new Google Bookstore.

I've also had some technical problems with the Kindle.  One book I purchased (Scott Westerfeld's Pretties) was so badly formatted it was almost unreadable.  My suspicion, from the kinds of errors it had, was that it was created by scanning the actual printed text.  Nearly every page had some kind of weird glitch like “Urn” for “Um” (as in “Urn, kind of”); “Fm” for “I’m”; and missing periods and other punctuation problems, as in the line "I know that was an unpleasant experience Tally But it was necessary We needed to take our children back from the Smoke, and only you could help us.”

But there were other problems that were less due to formatting and more just, well, unbelievable in a book put out by a big publishing house like Simon & Schuster--to wit, "The icy water crushed her like a vice.”

If it had been a free download, fine.  But I'd paid $9 for it.  Fortunately, Amazon's Kindle site allows readers to report formatting problems with books, and removes them from the store until they're cleaned up.

The bigger problem developed a week or so ago, when a vertical white line appeared on the screen, running all the way from top to bottom.  Initially, I assumed this was a problem with the particular file I was reading, but it turned out to be ubiquitous.  I tried to read past it, but it was really annoying.  After trying the troubleshooting tips Amazon mentions on its site to no avail, I called, and customer service said I'd need to return it.

Again, to Amazon's credit, they were incredibly helpful and generous about it.  I received a new Kindle the very day after I called, and Amazon sent along a link to print a postage-paid return label to send back the defective unit. 

My other concern about e-readers has to do with privacy.  On the one hand, the sort of "plain brown wrapper" nature of the readers themselves allow folks to read whatever they like in public (for example, see this interesting New York Times article about the popularity of romance novels on e-readers).

On the other hand, Amazon knows exactly what I've downloaded, and when, and whether it's still on my Kindle or not.  And because I can only buy books from Amazon, they have comprehensive knowledge of my Kindle library.  

I don't mean to be paranoid about it, but this does make me a little nervous.  In 2002, the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver fought a police order to hand over a particular customer's purchasing history.  This person was wanted on drug charges, and the cops thought they could bolster their case by demonstrating how the books he'd bought at the Tattered Cover incriminated him.  The state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the bookstore, and the case is often held up as a precedent for later decisions that protect the privacy of patrons' library records in terrorism investigations.  

I'd like to say I believe that Amazon would be as vigilant about protecting its customers' right to privacy as the Tattered Cover was.  But I'm not sure I can.  (Ah, Tattered Cover!  How I miss you!)

But for all my trepidation, I still love the Kindle.  And the main thing it's shown me is that all the "e-reader revolution" rhetoric is overblown.  Will they change people's reading habits?  Sure.  Will they replace paper books?  Heck no.  Each format has its own particular functions and aesthetics, and I suspect that people will sort out for themselves which one works best for them in specific contexts.

After all, as devoted a computer user as I am, there are still some things I'll only write by hand:  thank-you notes, grocery lists, comments on student papers.  

And nothing, nothing will ever replace for me the pleasure of browsing through a bookstore--looking at covers, picking up things that look interesting and flipping through them, finding a used copy of an out-of-print mystery that I've been looking for for years.  

But you'd better believe that the next time I go on a long trip, I'll take an equal amount of pleasure in downloading weeks' worth of reading onto a slim device that only weighs a few ounces.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cartoon meme followup

So, in the last post I described the cartoon-character meme that swept Facebook last weekend, and mentioned that the alleged  "purpose" of using a cartoon image as one's profile picture was to raise awareness about child abuse.  Specifically, the standard phrasing of the call to change one's profile picture, which people posted as their status after they changed their picture, went something like this:
Change your FB profile picture to a cartoon from your childhood. The goal? To not see a human face on FB until Monday, December 6th. Join the fight against child abuse...copy & paste this to your status to invite your friends to do the same.
Something about that last sentence, as I said, "set my folklore antennae a-wigglin'." 

Well, sure enough, yesterday Tom showed me a second "plea" that one of his former students had posted as her Facebook status later in the weekend (apologies for the dreadful grammar, but this is exactly as it appeared):

CHANGE YOUR PROFILE PICS BACK!!!! - This cartoon thing has been set up by a pedafile using a registered charities name to entice kids. apparently on the 6th dec you will be kicked off fb if u have cartoon pics. The more folk that put up cartoon pics the harder it is ...for the police to...catch .......these sickos!!!!! PLEASE RE-POST It was on this evenings news.

Classic!  The strange connection between cartoon characters and child abuse clearly struck some folks as suspicious, giving rise to this "explanation."  

The "it was on this evening's news" phrase is straight out of traditional urban legendry--the old "I know it's true because it was on TV/in the paper" truth claim.  And the threat at the end--"change your pic back or you'll get booted from Facebook"--echoes the trend in e-mailed legends to ensure that the recipient forwards them to others with a menacing guilt trip:  "If you care about the women in your life, you'll forward this to everyone you know!!!"  In this case, though, if you don't post this as your status, apparently it's your own damn fault if all your friends disappear from Facebook.

I know I'm a total geek, but I was delighted to see this.  More evidence that folklore is infinitely adaptable to new contexts.

And yes, it's on Snopes.  Grrr.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Penelope Pitstop revisited

This past weekend, Facebook was overtaken by a meme asking members to change their profile pictures to an image from their favorite childhood cartoon.  This was allegedly in an effort to spread awareness about child abuse--the kind of oddly illogical justification that always sets my folklore antenna a-wigglin'.

Regardless of the alleged purpose, it was fun to see what cartoons people chose...and how generationally defined they were.  Among the FB friends I know to be about my age, Bullwinkle, Underdog, Josie and the Pussycats, and Velma from Scooby Doo were especially popular. 

I myself went with Penelope Pitstop.  I have only vague memories of this cartoon, since--as I discovered from that veritable source, Wikipedia--it was only on for one year, in 1969, when I would barely have been four (the show was a spinoff from another Hanna Barbera cartoon, Wacky Races).  All I can figure is it must've been in reruns for awhile after that, because I certainly remember Penelope and her car, a pink roadster that doubled as a makeup compact.  I am embarrassed to say it, but I suspect I did some serious gender imprinting on Penelope.

That Hanna Barbera chose to give Penelope her own show seems apt given the 1969-1970 airdate.  However, Penelope is a dubious feminist "she-ro."  As the show's introduction explains, she's in "perpetual peril from her fortune-seeking guardian, Sylvester Sneakly, who--unknown to her--is really The Hooded Claw!"  And she depends on the help of her "ever-present protectors, the Anthill Mob," a troupe of seven little men who come to her rescue whenever The Hooded Claw ties her to the traintracks, or to a log floating toward a sawmill, or whatever. 

(Hadn't considered the Snow White connection with the seven dwarf rescuers, but it's clearly there.  Maybe that was part of the show's appeal for me?)

As unlikely a feminist role model as all of this makes Penelope out to be, there was nevertheless something deeply thrilling about her.  She raced cars (which my oldest brother also did, much to my admiration), and her car looked like a cat and was also a rolling makeup kit!  Plus, she wore awesome white go-go boots and jhodpurs.  However, she wasn't such a slave to fashion that she allowed style to cripple her, as the clip below illustrates:

As cool as the boots were, Penelope knew when to ditch them in order to save her own hide, and those of the Anthill Mob.  As she says here, she's going to "save the fellas, as well."

All things considered, there were a lot worse cartoon characters I might have imprinted on as a kid.  I'd pit Penelope against Disney's lame-o Princesses any day.  With those boots, she could kick any of their asses from one end of the Magic Kingdom to the other and then drive them all to the hospital in the Compact Pussycat.