Sunday, April 22, 2012

Reading Landscapes and Books

The warm, dry spring continued through last Friday.  I planted out some more lettuce and also some mustard greens. The hermit thrushes have taken up residence, their songs the most interesting and beautiful of them all. They prefer to sing at dusk, letting the other birds have the dawn hours. They're very difficult to see; I'm hoping to see one this year--but then I say that every year. Back in 1998 I made some recordings of the hermit thrushes hereabouts on the island, and then a few years later I was able to include a short segment from a song on a CD recording accompanying a book about the music of the world's peoples. The thrush is not one of the world's peoples, of course; its song was there to illustrate something about the boundaries between music as humanly organized sound, and the musical sounds of the natural world.

On my walk I noticed a warbler and tried to get a close look through binoculars. By the way it flitted about in the lower branches, I thought it must be a warbler, here a little early but then it's been an early spring. Unfortunately by the time I got my binoculars to my eyes and focused, it had flown. It may have been a black-throated green warbler, but as it was not singing--and I've not heard the black throated green's song yet--I suppose it was another one, perhaps the magnolia or yellow-rump. The skunk cabbages had exposed their spadixes fully and were sending up green leaves. I didn't see any insects going in and out of the spathes, even though it was plenty warm--near 60--and would have been warmer inside the spathes. 

On Saturday I had to run some errands on the mainland. With some sadness I've noted that bookstores are closing up--that is, the mid-size and large-size chain bookstores can't compete with the Internet bookstores and eBooks. The small, neighborhood bookstores with eccentric owners and developed relations with readers have a better chance. One that closed near my territory was Borders, the large chain store where one would shop chiefly to get a better price or larger selection--but nowadays one can shop from the computer and what is paid in postage is saved in auto wear and gas. The other was a small chain called Mr. Paperback, which had populated the small shopping malls and did not have very much to recommend it besides a reasonably large selection of magazines and quality paperback books along with the usual popular romances and mysteries. The clerks earned minimum wage, owners were absent, and I saw no evidence that anyone much cared to cultivate readers. The going out of business signs symbolize the chain's bland imagination. 

An antiquarian book dealer I'm acquainted with, Bill Lippincott, closed his storefront a few years ago and now works entirely over the Internet, I believe. In a neighboring town one of the small bookstores, complete with eccentric owner and cultivated readers, remains in business. There is much to be said for browsing in a bookstore, for the serendipity of finding books you hadn't known existed (and would not have looked for on the Internet), for the superiority of being able to hold them and read in them before buying--or not. Interestingly, the Internet sites have tried to duplicate those features of bookstores, and offer the computer-generated half-dozen selections supposedly like the one you searched for, along with that one--but invariably these are uninteresting; and the sites also offer the chance to take a virtual look inside--usually to an irrelevant page.

I wonder about the impact of the bookstore closings on the local public libraries. In hard economic times such as we've had since 2008, their funding is cut, and some don't survive. In East Providence, RI, for example, two of the four public libraries are going to close. But this is a funding issue, not the result of competition from the Internet. And yet it may be an indirect result, for as more readers use mobile devices such as iPads to download and read popular and classic books, public libraries become expendable. University libraries, which I'm familiar with, face their own series of problems from the Internet, but they are transforming themselves into electronic portals for research on the Internet, and will survive in that form, along with their collections of hard-copy books. But most people don't use college and university libraries--they use public libraries, and these, too, are becoming Internet portals where librarians can offer good advice on how to use the Internet for research.

Certainly the Internet is the harbinger of an information revolution. Fifteen years ago my students and I went to the library to do most of our research, where we checked out books, read journals and their back issues, and borrowed what our libraries had, and borrowed the rest on interlibrary loan. Although it's still possible to do that--and I continue to do it as much as before, as I still prefer the object, reading from a hard copy book or journal more than reading from a screen--the generation of students born about 1980 and afterwards has learned to use the Internet for most of its research, and as a result college and university libraries are not as busy as they once were. Even the reserve readings, which used to be very much in demand in hard copy, are now easily available behind password-protected Internet pages, and are accessible at all times. With so much sophisticated searching and copying options available now--I can get most of the scholarly research articles I want, now, as pdf files from my university library portal--I wonder whether students and scholars are reading more than before. Probably not, but we are liable to find things to read which more closely bear on our research topics, and more of them.

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