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Man with e-reader that says "People who gave up on this book also gave up on..." and shows several other books.

It was the best of tomes, it was the worst of tomes

It was the best of tomes, it was the worst of tomes published on Purchase print

I’ve become a lot more ruthless about giving up on books than I used to be.

Time was when it would take an act of physical coercion to get me to abandon a novel, no matter how tedious or disturbing I was finding it. But somewhere along the line, I closed one too many back covers thinking, “What the hell was that?”

Maybe it was trudging my way through the back half of Philip K. Dick’s VALIS that pushed me over the edge. (It was ambitious as hell, this being Philip K. Dick… but damn, it was a mess.) I do distinctly remember bailing on Tolkein’s The Silmarillion with exactly zero sense of guilt.

Since then, I’ve become a sudden-death reader, tossining books aside for reasons ranging from misogynist writing to an irritating authorial voice. I dumped one highly-recommended book after the first few paragraphs made me realize I was in for two hundred pages of ersatz Neil Gaiman without the insight or wit.

I’ve dropped out of really, really good books because I could feel the clouds of grim foreboding, and wasn’t prepared to follow the narrative down into the depths of despair. Maybe someday I’ll develop the strength of character to return to Mistry’s A Fine Balance, but sweet mother of pearl, was that ever bleak.

Then again, I was wowed by the brilliant Fall On Your Knees, where the plot basically goes “Oh, you thought what just happened was bad? It’s actually so much worse than you think.” And where a novel gives me a perspective I can’t find elsewhere, or explores an idea I’m encountering for the first time, or is otherwise funny and entertaining as hell, I’m a lot more willing to hang in there.

What it comes down to is, in a world filled with terrific books, life’s too damn short for meh.

Okay: your turn. What’s your mid-book deal-breaker? What’ll make you toss a tome, reject a read or spurn a screed? And what books have you given up on?

E-book cartoon shows (kid holding paper book) It's okay, I guess. I just miss the tactile experience of swiping to turn the page.

A real page-turner

A real page-turner published on 2 Comments on A real page-turnerPurchase print

My reading has reached the point now where there are some books I prefer to read on paper (e.g. mystery novels), some on an e-book reader (e.g. science fiction and other novels), and some on a tablet, so I can see the diagrams in glorious colour (e.g. software guides).

And I suspect this may be where we land for quite a while, with our reading spread across several platforms depending on which one does the job we need it to. Print books aren’t dead yet, and won’t be for a long time.

Print newspapers, mind you—I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, in Canada at least, the days of the printed local urban daily newspaper are coming to an end. (The economics in the U.S. are a little different, I know; the legacy of CanWest/Postmedia debt casts a long shadow over the whole industry north of the border.) My wild-ass, irresponsible prediction? The costs of printing and distribution are going to sink them within (takes breath, looks to the ceiling) three years, except for maybe the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail.

And then in three more years, we’ll all be laughing that we ever thought e-readers and tablets were going to last… and then go back to reading J.K. Rowling’s latest, laser-projected onto our retinal implants.

Would you code it in the rain? Would you code it on a train?

Would you code it in the rain? Would you code it on a train? published on No Comments on Would you code it in the rain? Would you code it on a train?Purchase print

Commodore PETI love the mania today for teaching kids to code. I’m glad it’s a lot easier than it was when I first started stringing commands together.

When computers (in the form of the venerable Commodore PET) first came to Gloucester High School, I got the impression most of my teachers were scrambling to stay ahead of the geekier students, learning various BASIC commands a few days (or hours) before the more highly-motivated among us did.

I mostly learned it on my own time: staying very late at the school, worrying the hell out of my parents, entering line after line of code from magazines, and then tinkering with it to see what would change. Nearly everyone I know thought it was a little freakish of me. But something about this seemed incredibly compelling, even important—despite the fact that mostly what I was keying in were instructions for playing Hammurabi (“I beg to report to you, in the year 3, 0 people starved, 6 came to the city…”).

But something sticks with me from my Grade 10 Informatics class: a transparency my teacher threw onto the overhead projector that read “The man who knows how will have a job. The man who knows why will be his boss.”

(Okay, two things stick with me, and one of them is just how casual the exclusion of women from language was when I was a kid. )

Coding is very much a how activity. And I think it’s good to get some of that knowledge under your belt, and to understand the core concepts beneath it. If you’re into it, great; go a lot further.

But as Jeff Atwood wrote a few months ago, people drive cars all the time without knowing how fuel injection works; “By teaching low-level coding, I worry that we are effectively teaching our children the art of automobile repair.”

Learning to talk to the computer is the easiest part. Computers, for better or worse, do exactly what you tell them to do, every time, in exactly the same way. The people – well . . . you’ll spend the rest of your life figuring that out. And from my perspective, the sooner you start, the better.

I want my children to understand how the Internet works. But this depends more on their acquisition of higher-order thinking than it does their understanding if ones and zeroes. It is essential that they that treat everything they read online critically. Where did that Wikipedia page come from? Who wrote it? What is their background? What are their sources?

Learn to investigate. Be critical. Don’t just accept opinions you saw on Facebook or some random web page. Ask for credible data, facts and science.

That, to my mind, helps to get at the why. And with all due respect to my Informatics teacher, that goes a lot further than who gets the corner office. It’s part of being a citizen: not just in the formal sense, and not even just in the civic sense, but in the sense of someone who participates in the world around them – on- and offline – and helps in some small way to shape it.

Teaching our kids about variable scope in Java? That helps them become programmers. Helping them with the “why” – that helps them become adults.

(Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr)

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I drew this and six other cartoons about parents, kids and tech for Alexandra Samuel’s session at SXSW 2016, The Myth of the Family Tech Market. It’s based on her two-year study of how more than 10,000 North American parents manage their kids’ interactions with digital technology.

Find out more about Alex’s work around digital parenting here.

Feeling way too happy? Read a novel.

Feeling way too happy? Read a novel. published on No Comments on Feeling way too happy? Read a novel.Purchase print

Many great novels, like a lot of great art, force us to confront things we’d rather avoid. I get that.

But oh my lord, literature can be a massive downer. I first encountered that in high school, when we read the short story “Paul’s Case” back to back with The Mayor of Casterbridge. Let’s be clear: astonishing works of art are astonishing. But after years of stories where plucky protagonists invariably wrested victory from the jaws of defeat, they were a shock. As an introduction to tragedy, it was like learning how to eat spicy food by eating a scotch bonnet salad.

Later in life, I read Fall On Your Knees. It’s a truly beautiful novel, one of the best I’ve ever read. It’s also like peeling an Onion of Horror: just when you think the day at the centre of the plot couldn’t possibly get any worse, holy Jesus does it ever. I recommend it strongly, with the caveat that a list of trigger warnings would be longer than the book itself.

It’s taken me years to realize that I have a limited capacity for bleakness, even in the context of immense beauty. (Maybe especially in that context.) It’s what stopped me from reading the rest of A Fine Balance: after a few chapters, you get that dawning recognition that this is not going to end with everyone enjoying a hearty laugh and a second helping of trifle.

The cost of avoiding books like that is obvious: you miss out on some transcendent experiences, and some profound insight into what it means to be human. The older I get, the keener my sense of how steep that cost really is.

Maybe it’s not too late for me. Maybe someday I’ll get to the point where I seek out novels that unflinchingly stare into the darkest crevices of the human heart.

Until then, I’m working my way through the Jasper Fforde oeuvre.

Great moments of 2011: Rekindled

Great moments of 2011: Rekindled published on 4 Comments on Great moments of 2011: RekindledPurchase print

I think I’ve said this before. But no matter how interesting the book I’m reading is, no matter how important the subject matter, no matter how well-written and absorbing – if I’m reading it on the iPad, I can constantly hear the whispering of all the apps I could be using instead. That said, I read a lot of stuff on the iPad (both iBooks and Kindle), and I imagine the same would be true on the Fire.

On a related note, while we were flying back from our holiday a few days ago, my daughter looked up from her book, past me and my iPad, and over to the device in the hands of a passenger across the aisle. Her eyes went wide: “What’s that?”

“It’s called a Kindle.”

“It looks just like paper! Is it electronic?”

“Yep.”

“Wow.”

One last longing glance, and then back to her book.

Next chapter

Next chapter published on No Comments on Next chapterPurchase print

The last few years have seen a pretty serious shakedown in the book world. Bookstores closing their doors, publishers merging or shutting down, and overshadowing it all, Amazon and the Kindle. And now the iPad – with its spectacular adoption rate and the Apple-powered negotiating clout behind the iBook store – promises to turn it all upside down and shake hard.

No wonder, then, that book lovers are wondering if the ink-and-paper era is ending. I haven’t read so many anguished paens to the tactile feel of paper since I stumbled across a alt.sex.fetish.papyrus on Usenet.*

I can relate to that. Thirty-plus years ago, I read Foundation and Empire by flashlight under my comforter cover to cover for what must have been the third time while my parents thought I was asleep. I can remember turning the pages as gingerly as I could, so that the rasp of paper on paper wouldn’t alert my mom and dad to the transgression.

So yeah, tactile experience. Then again, the subtly-rounded back of an iThing filling your palm and the finger-on-glass squeak of a swipe are pretty tactile, too. And I wonder sometimes if books’ days are as numbered as their pages.

But then I see my kids — in a household where Macs, iDevices, gaming platforms and screens outnumber humans by about four to one — putting down the PlayStation controllers and chatting for hours with each other in imaginative play. It takes no effort to get them to abandon the TV in favor of making pancakes together in the kitchen. And with a little prodding, they’ll turn from YouTube to cuddling with one of us as we read them a favorite story… even one they’ve heard dozens of times before.

For them, the war between analog and digital doesn’t really exist. They frankly don’t care about the distinction. What matters to them is the experience, the content, the connection — the story. And sharing it with us and each other.

I honestly don’t know if books as form will survive. But I’m getting more and more hopeful that books as idea will.

And years from now, I’ll still be poking my head into the kids’ room before I go to sleep to watch for the tell-tale glow of a flashlight.


* I completely made that newsgroup up a moment ago. And three of you just tried unsuccessfully to mask your disappointment.

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