Tuesday, August 23, 2011

They Feed They I-Pad: A Readerly Assessment

Seven days to go before I leave. Here, dear reader, is the short list--not exhaustive, and certainly not in order of importance--of all the things I have had to change, fix, reallocate or rearrange in order to travel around the world.

My house
My job (had, fortunately, applied for a sabbatical, but that only gave me a semester off so had to write and request time off for second semester)
My salary
My health insurance
My banking (to avoid those ATM and foreign transaction fees)
My credit cards
My retirements allocation (this will be the first year of my working life to NOT put any extra money into my retirement so I can take a few grand extra with me to survive those months in Europe, a period of time my father is now referring to as the The French Hemorrhage.)
My passport (renewed)
My driver's license (renewed)
My car state insurance (needs to be driven by my parents in another state now, so as to shuttle my dogs around)
My car's general health (so my parents don't get stuck by the side of the road, with my dogs)
My dogs' vet
My dogs' pet licenses
My dogs' pet sitter
My dogs' lives (such as they are, considering one is passed out on my parents' sofa and the other one seems to have fallen into a treat-based coma in the laundry room.)
My birth control (see June, "The Humiliation of the Vagina," Post 1.)
My computing equipment
My email account
My cell phone
My mode of communication (Skype)
My closets (cleaned for renter)
My kitchen pantry (installed washer and dryer for renter)
My gardening service (now I have one. For renter.)
My relationship status
My vaccination history
My relationship with the editors of my two forthcoming books ("Tell me how I can send this to you. Now. Now. Now. Seriously, NOW. What do you mean you can't have this sent to this address between this date and that date? What about the American Express office? Well, what about the embassy? Where the hell are you going again? WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU?")
My mailing address

And finally, my reading habits.

These changes have also cost me a TREMENDOUS amount of money up front (what with buying all those air and train tickets, new passports, visas, rental fees, e-books, and a year's worth of dog meds, human meds, sunblocks, and various and sundry ---AAAAAAAAAH! Just dropped the cupcake on my keyboard and all the cream cheese frosting got in between the tiny keys! Dammit, you fucking cupcake, now I'm going to EAT YOUR ASS!--drugstore products.).

I'm taking a short break now to lick down my keyboard.

Done. Anyhoo, it is amazing to me that I have rearranged, oh, every molecule of my life and that my life has so many molecules now to rearrange. When I was young (I like to think of this period of my life as late February, but let's be honest here) I used to travel at the drop of a hat, once backpacking alone for five weeks through China with, I kid you not, two black t-shirts, a pair of shorts, a sweater, one bottle of contact lens solution and a pair of sandals. Oh, and a copy of Moby Dick.

Now, I can't get out of the house without an IPad, my laptop, a coat, two books, my cell, my dog's meds and a receipt-stuffed wallet swollen to the size of Rhode Island. I'm the kind of woman who now keeps live typhoid vaccine in a plastic beer cooler and screams at fallen baked goods.

And I'm now also the kind of woman who has to read Moby Dick on an e-reader. Since this year is being supported by a writing fellowship (oh, add to that list of changeable molecules the line item "my writing schedule," since with all the work it's taken me to prepare to leave the country, writing has pretty much gone by the wayside), I need to take books, and I need to take a lot of them. From information I've gleaned from the internet, downloading books overseas is difficult at best, impossible at worst, so the last two weeks have been an ORGY of e-commerce. For those of you planning a trip like mine, or for those of you interested in this "e-reading thing" that alternately means the death or survival of the literary arts as we know them depending on which social crank on The Huffington Post you read, the next bits of information I'm going to give you may be critical. If not, please skip to the end for the useful advice.

If, like me, you read primarily read poetry (or any kind of contemporary scholarship), you are fucked. The number of poetry or other esoteric (read: not lucrative) books available to download is so slim as to be negligible. If, however, you absolutely crave a reader for your journey, then the I-Pad is the ONLY option, as it is the only reader that links up to IBooks, Kindle/Amazon, Google Books and Kobo. And from there, my friends, you have to go hunting.

Here's something interesting that anyone else but me probably already knew: not all books are available from all sites. For poetry, Kindle carries titles from Pitt, BOA, Wesleyan, and many but not all of the big NYC houses. Google Books carries all the university presses for poetry EXCEPT Pitt and Triquarterly/Northwestern (which doesn't seem to exist), and carries some--but not all--the Penguin poetry titles. IBooks carries one or two of the very biggest name poets (Robert Hass and Brenda Hillman being two, and only a very small handful of their books) but nothing else. Kobo, from what I can tell, carries almost nothing at all.

Best American Poetry can be gotten on all these stores, but individual titles follow where the presses have sold their rights. And here, my friends, is the rub.

Not all presses have partnered up.

This means you cannot buy a Copper Canyon, Alice James, Four Way Books, Asahta, Tupelo or Graywolf title. (Except for one: Eula Biss's last book of nonfiction, which won the NBCC award, is available. But nothing else from Graywolf.) You cannot buy a Black Sparrow Book, a Coffee House Press book, a Milkweed edition or anything by New Directions or Dalkey Archives. You cannot get anything from Tarpaulin Sky or Saturnalia or Sarabande. You cannot get anything small house or indie, and a backlist--even with the partnered or bigger poetry houses--isn't optional or, if optional, spotty. Which means that, while you can get many John Ashbery titles, you can't get a single Frank O'Hara. You can get Marianne Moore, but no Elizabeth Bishop. You can get Toi Derricote's latest, but nothing by Larry Levis. No Inger Christensen. Very limited Anne Carson. And while you can download as many Best Americans as you can stand until your eyes bleed, you can't get a SINGLE Susan Howe title or ANYTHING by C.D. Wright.

In short, you can't get 90% of the poetry you want to read.

(Aside: there's an interesting reason for this, and it has to do--quelle surprise--with money. Friends of mine who work with SPD and at small presses have informed me that it costs $800 to format a single book for Kindle. Research indicates that there is a certain average number of readers for a single book of poetry: the accessibility of this book over the web doesn't actually increase the average number of readers for that book overall, it means the average of those people already able to read on the Kindle will be increased. Basically, your readership numbers won't go up, and if they do, it won't be dramatic enough to cover the cost. In the long run for a press, it is still far cheaper to produce a physical book than to format one for the Kindle. Interesting.)

But not only does the e-reader change what you can read, it changes how you read and--maybe more frighteningly--how you feel about the poems themselves. I like to read books in bed, on my side, while eating a bowl of dry Cheerios. This has changed, because the I-Pad has this spinny screen that keeps trying to adjust its book face to where it thinks I'm looking, which means when I turn onto my side, the screen flips up and around, and when I readjust to read the screen THAT way, it flips again to another view, which means I readjust again just as it spins another time. All this means that I can't read without getting seasick or extreme muscle stiffness from refusing to move my body.

What's also strange is that the books I can download don't always come with enough of a preview for me to see whether the book is worth reading or not. This means I have to buy indiscriminately, or buy books I already own in physical form. At $10-$15 a pop, duplication is not a possibility, so I buy books of poetry that fall into an extraordinarily narrow category: books I want to read, but that I likely won't need to keep referring to after a year.

Most recently, I bought Olena Kalytiak Davis' book Shattered Love Songs, a book I'd read before and enjoyed but hadn't purchased in "solid form." I thought this would be a good e-addition, so I bought it only to discover that all the poems' stanzas (from what I remembered) had disappeared, and the poems themselves collapsed into a single long stream of what looked now like badly typeset rantings, "separated" by what one could only assume was the title merely because the line in question was in boldface. The poems which, in book form, I had found playful, now came across as insane. The more I read the poems (gagging them down, because now they had become literally painful to get through) I began to read and respond to the words the way the formatter had: as data. And now this data was no longer charming or witty but just, well, random. Like someone had just bitch-slapped the dictionary. And this really enraged me, because now I had not only just spent $15 on an unreadable e-book, I had also paid to have a previous pleasant experience of reading this book essentially, permanently altered. Because now I couldn't remember the first experience without this new experience sliding over it, writing through and over it, like an evil palimpsest.

But then something in the back of my mind started nagging at me. Perhaps, it gurgled, my first assessment of the book was wrong. Perhaps this book was ALWAYS bad; I'd just been suckered in by better formatting.

No, I argued back. It's the e-formatter's fault. Who can read this kind of layout?

But formatting has nothing to do with the quality of the language. The poems are still the poems. And they are basically the same, with some weird subtractions. You're being too picky.

I'm not being picky: these poems are cramped and horrible-looking. The whole book is ruined because the language means nothing to me now.

So, wait, formatting makes the language mean something? In ways the words themselves can't?

It's an enhancer. It's both. Why does it have to be so definite?

Because you're whining so much about it.

OK, take the sonnet then. Sonnets are a form that get read visually as well as sonically. To disrupt that visual form--to try and take away some of its essential "sonnet-hood" is a violation. A useful violation at times, at others, just a violation.

Well, that's just stupid. If it's metrical or rhythmic, you can still see the bulk of these line breaks, and where it gets weird, you can just break the damn lines in your own head.

But why should I? The author already did that. And isn't that part of the point of this whole book: the violation of expectation? And how can that be achieved at times EXCEPT visually? And why don't we admit that we think about what's NOT on the page as much as what is? That white space--we READ that. We HEAR it.

Oh, fuck off, precious. Poets love to talk like this. But frankly, everyone just glides their eyes over it and hears nothing.

That's what I thought before I bought this book. Now all I hear is noise.

And is that the fault of the formatter, the reader, or the writer?

The formatter! The formatter!

And on and on. Before you think I'm dumping on Davis' book, I had similar problems with the free volumes of W.B. Yeats and Hart Crane and Robert Frost that I downloaded. There, the poems were all in a depressing, cramped "typewriter" font that made all the e-books look like ancient grad students' dissertations. Luckily I discovered you could change the font (!), with one slight problem.

There were only four fonts available for selection.

So which font, I wondered, exudes most "Yeats"-ness? Which font is appropriate for Hopkins, for Frost, for all those poets anthologized by Conrad Aiken? Palatino for Hopkins? Times New Roman for Shakespeare? Arial for Millay?

When people complain about digital books, they talk about the pleasing heft and weight of a book, the fact that reading online hurts the eyes, the depressing selection of materials. But what they need to start complaining about is typeface and formatting. Because without careful attention paid to those things, I don't care how many poetry books are available, how long the backlist goes, how cheap and easily storable the books are.

They won't be readable.

Or, at least, they will only be readable to me in the ways that newspapers and gossip sites are readable, which is to say they will be read as data. This is good news for the work of conceptual poets like Kenny Goldsmith who argue that the internet has already changed our concepts about poetry from being a "creative" act of self-expression to one of random sampling, but bad news for the work of poets like Louise Gluck who are still spending their lives emoting all over everything.

Perhaps this is why, when I read poems on my I-Pad that are meant to be "emotional" or self-expressive, they start to read like slabs of data-meat. But when I read postmodern collage texts of randomly spliced together research fodder, they feel fresh. The medium, I'm learning the expensive way, really DOES make the message.

So perhaps the real problem I have with the e-version of Shattered Love Songs is NOT the terrible formatting of the book, but the first experience I had when reading it. If I could erase that first version from memory, would I now love this e-book? What if these formatting mistakes are generative? What if these mistakes actually change the book into a conceptual, rather than an expressive project?

What if, in other words, the formatter is--accidentally--another, possibly even better, author?

All this, and I still haven't even left the country.

So let this be a lesson to you, grasshopper: choose your medium carefully. Because if you're going to get seasick over your Cheerios, this should at least be accompanied by a startling aesthetic experience. Along with that, get the Conde Nast apps for your I-device. Buy the typhoid shot, forgo the pills. Map out the hospitals covered by your PPO in each city where you'll be living. Save receipts. Sephora doesn't let you buy cheaper in bulk so just get the drugstore brands. Find the converters before you go. Butter up your editors. Make sure everything you pack can match three other things. Ask about foreign transaction fees. sabbaticalHomes.com isn't a great site for finding cheap apartments in Asia but is good for Europe. Use Partners in Medicine to rent your home. Consider a vasectomy. Make copies of the medical records. Book early. And finally, don't eat cupcakes over a new Logitech keyboard. And if you do, don't ever let the other coffee house patrons catch you tonguing the keyboard.

Trust me on that last one.


  1. This is wonderful, and so true about the awfulness of e-poetry formatting! Still, I love my iPad for exam reading, and all those free books. Do you have the iAnnotate PDF app? Useful for what the title indicates: annotating PDFs. I like uploading illegally-scanned poetry books and writing notes this way.

    Safe travels! You will be missed in SLC.

  2. Okay. I think about this shit all the time, and not because I have an e-reader. I know that, indeed I rely upon the fact that form/formatting is one of the communicative devices in a poem, but dammit shouldn't the poem's language be, you know, interesting enough to excite the mind even without the form? Doesn't hearing, say, Donne's second elegy aloud offer a radically pleasurable experience? Of course it does--and that experience exists independent of the layout on the page. It strikes me as laziness, yes even in Yeats, to let the formatting do all that work. That's what pop songs are for.

    Also: The French Hemorrhage. Surely you got a shot for that.

  3. Hey V: I DO have IAnnotate, and now I have a year's supply of PDFs stuffed into it. Where do you get the illegal poetry scans? You can backchannel me the address. I am truly desperate to get my hands on stuff currently out of the e-commerce loop. RG: I agree overall that the language should carry the most weight, but I also am interested in the ways that typeface do carry meaning outside the Poem, something Joanna Drucker talks a lot about with the dada poets. Type in a line of poetry and try it again in a highly commercialized font and see what changes. The language gets mediated and altered for sure. This actually gets to the issue, for me, of SCHOOLS of poetry, some which clearly rely on formatting, typeface, visual repetition and visual alteration to make meaning, which goes back to conceptual poetry's better evolutionary ability to survive the e-onslaught. But other poets who rely primarily on language to make meaning and imagery will be, occasionally, screwed. To be honest, I think that the Davis book didn't age well overall, which the e- form just made screamingly apparent. But I also could be wrong about that, too. And I certainly don't want to make that book the single example. I imagine other poets I enjoy and admire will also fare badly on the e- format, such as poets like Goldbarth or Graham or almost anyone in a lyric-narrative camp. It's hard to tell what I'm really reading on the I-pad, but it makes me aware of how visually stimulated I truly am as a reader.

    Waldrep. It

  4. Thanks for sharing this with us. I've quiet enjoyed the experience of reading your blog so far. Maybe some cliff notes at the bottom would be a useful addition to summarize the lessons...regardless i will be checking back here so keep up the delightful work,your readers appreciate it...

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