Thinning out the stacks

I was recently asked to write an essay that would look at some current trends in literary criticism. In order to provide some background I wanted to talk a bit about earlier books like Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading and Cleanth Brooks’s The Well Wrought Urn. I have copies of both but since they’re buried away in boxes in my basement (I’m a slow mover), I thought I’d just walk over to the university library and check them out.

No luck. Neither book was available in the holdings of the university library, or any of the other university libraries that are part of the same library system. ABC of Reading was listed as being there but it wasn’t, while The Well Wrought Urn (available only in a single copy) was reported as missing.

What gives? These are two very well known, seminal books of literary criticism: the first a keynote of modernism and the other the signature work of the New Criticism. I was so sure the catalogue listings were wrong that I even went into the stacks to double check, but neither was there. Nor were they available in the city library system.

This would be weird enough, but just a month ago I’d had a similiar experience when looking for a copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Again, this is a landmark work and very well known. It was just recently republished as part of the Library of America series. And yet trying to find a copy in the university and city library systems I came up empty. They didn’t have a single copy available. And again the stacks were bare.

I don’t offer this experience as evidence that it’s the end of the world as we know it, but I do think it suggests how much is changing. Obviously libraries are being transformed into something more than just warehouses for books, but they do still have stacks and holdings. With gaps this wide starting to show up though I’m not sure how valuable a resource they’re going to be for much longer.


Borrowed DVDs

The discs were supposed to be indestructible. When CDs first came in (yes, I remember when) that was one of their biggest selling points. You couldn’t scratch them like an LP, or really do much to damage them in any way short of snapping them in two. I remember television hosts spreading peanut butter and jam on them and then scraping it off, wiping them down, and slipping them straight into the CD player. Technology!

DVDs shared this same magical power. VHS videotapes wore out on replay and were damaged by excessive pausing or rewinding. Anyone who rented a copy of Under Siege from Blockbuster in the early ’90s knew what that looked like when the girl jumped out of the cake. But with DVDs you could watch a movie as many times as you wanted, and freeze the action and play it back at any speed without any diminishment in quality. You could probably even spread peanut butter and jam on them too.

Of course now we’re living in the era of non-tactile media, streaming our music and movies directly onto our tablets and TVs. Or at least some of us are. I still borrow DVDs (no, not Blu-Rays) from the library and I also have a pretty extensive library of DVDs at home. Call me a Luddite or behind the times but I like the technology.

I also take care of the DVDs I borrow. I follow standard procedure in carefully removing the disc from its case, pressing the button in the center to release it and then only holding on to it by its edges. From the case to the machine and back again. That’s it. Such a disc may be indestructible, but why test it?

Well, discs aren’t indestructible. Which is something you soon find out when you borrow them from your local public library. While I have never had a problem with a DVD freezing or skipping on playback with a disc from my personal library, with borrowed discs it has become usual.

Now in itself this isn’t too surprising. We tend not to take care of things we don’t own but are just enjoying temporarily. People can be shit in that way. What never ceases to surprise me, however, is just how badly these discs have been treated.

I mean, while not indestructible the fact is you have to work hard to damage a DVD. When I remove a DVD that has frozen and flip it over to take a look at it I am shocked. What on earth are people doing with these things? They look like they’ve seen a tour of duty in a soldier’s backpack. They are scratched all over, as though they’ve been used as pucks in a game of air hockey or coasters in a bar. I’d like to say I’m joking but I think in some people’s homes perhaps they are being used to put drinks on. Because . . . what else can explain the state they’re in?

This truly puzzles me. Books get damaged because you take them everywhere. They get stuffed in bags and taken to the beach and are randomly tossed around. They have food dropped in them, and fall into tubs or sinks. Some people dog-ear pages to mark their place, or underline passages and make marginal notes. I can understand all that. But how do you do this to a DVD? I didn’t think there would be as many opportunities to be so destructive. Are they being used as coasters? Hung from trees and windows to keep the birds away? It seems weird.

We the Internet

The use of teasing headlines is well established as a hallmark of Internet news sites. The reasons for them are also pretty clear: they are designed as click-bait, which is a way of keeping viewers on the site while more ads are fed to them. That’s the point of making us click a link to “read more,” and it’s the whole point of writing headlines like this.

There’s another characteristic of Internet headlines that has become almost as common and that I find less easy to understand. This is the use of an inclusive point of view, usually signaled by the pronoun “we.” As in “We can’t stop talking about [whatever]” or “[Something] happened and we’re amazed!” Such headlines can also be prescriptive, announcing that “We need to” do this or “We need to stop ” doing that.

This is not the sort of headline writing that you see in print. In fact, I have a hard time even imagining such a headline in print, at least at any time before the current dispensation, when the boundaries between print and digital publication have blurred. On many online news sources, however, it has become nearly ubiquitous. Why?

Obviously it’s mean to be catchy. Every headline is meant to be catchy. But what is it about Internet publication that has given rise to this particular form of expression? I’ve called it “inclusive,” in part to set it apart from the “royal we.” I don’t think that’s how it’s meant. Instead, the author is apparently looking to adopt a sort of collective voice, expressing a common sense proposition that “we” would be foolish to disagree with.

Is striking such a note also meant to irritate? Like most Internet writing, there is a real value to pushing people’s buttons. So when your immediate response to such a presumptuous headline is to think “Speak for yourself,” then the headline has done its work. Perhaps you’ll even be drawn to make a comment!

At least I think that’s part of what’s in play. Perhaps another part of it has to do with the way that news sites on the Internet are so divided into political silos that the headline is meant as a bit of preliminary streaming. “We” all think this, and if you aren’t one of us then you probably shouldn’t be here. Or: This website is a community of the like-minded, and it addresses itself specifically, and exclusively, to those who identify with the sentiments expressed in the rest of this headline.

Whatever the explanation, I can’t say I’m a fan of these headlines. They seem to want to co-opt my agreement with whatever they’re going to say before they’ve even said it. At one point that might have been enough to get me to “read more,” but I’ve learned to ignore them. This leads me to hope that they may go away. I know that’s probably wishful thinking, but I like to believe that at some point the Internet will start getting better.

Screen time

I was recently re-reading Pierre Berton’s 1967: Canada’s Turning Point and was struck by the following factlet: among Canada’s middle class (54% of the population) the average time spent watching TV in 1967 was six hours and twenty-six minutes every day.

This seemed high to me, but not impossible. 1967 was still early days, right around the time stations were beginning to broadcast in colour. I wondered how things compare today, but then thought that given how much has changed this would be like comparing apples and oranges. We don’t speak of TV watching any more but “screen time,” which encompasses all of the time spent “consuming media” on our various devices.

It was only a bit later that I was watching a podcast with Timothy Snyder where he mentioned that the most recent (2016) Nielsen study had it that Americans spend over 10 hours a day looking at screens. This really did impress me. That’s well over half your waking hours! I looked around for some information and found a CNN story on the report that Snyder was referencing. Perhaps the most startling reveal in it was that the number was up a full hour from what it had been only the year before.

But wait, it gets worse! I thought that the amount of time people spent working in offices where employees have to look at screens for nearly eight hours a day might be skewing the results. But according to the report teens are spending 9 hours a day “consuming media,” and I assume most of this is not work related. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if work was included in the original figures. This is from the story as reported by CNN:

“We examine large trends in penetration, users and usage across all platforms, show how different demos and race/ethnicity groups spend their media time, and explore the contributions of heavy users,” Glenn Enoch, Nielsen’s senior vice president of audience insights, wrote in a letter accompanying the report.

So, the report concluded that out of 168 hours in a week, we spend more than 50 with devices, said Douglas Gentile, professor of psychology at Iowa State University, who was not involved in the report but has studied how too much screen time affects children.

“The work week still takes up 40 of those hours, sleep at seven hours a night is 49, and if we assume all personal care — such as eating, bathing, dressing, preparing food — is three hours a day, then we have 58 hours a week left over for all other things,” Gentile said.

“This includes hobbies, sports, spending time with children, spending time with friends and romantic partners, reading, learning, exercise, participating in a faith community, volunteer work, house maintenance,” he added. “If people are spending over 50 hours a week with media for entertainment purposes, then there’s really no time left for any of the other things we value.”

Either screen time really is an addiction or else we don’t really value those other things in life we’re presumed to care about (friends, family) very much. Or both. Whatever way you look at it, this strikes me as scary. We really are giving up on reality.

Zombie chic

Perhaps he just wants to keep his shirt clean.

Why do the people in The Walking Dead wear body armour? I could understand heavy, metal-mesh gloves like butchers wear. Or some kind of padding or shielding for arms. Think of the way people use such protection when training attack dogs: you hold out your arm and let the dog grab hold of it. Even greaves for the lower legs would make sense when wading through a herd of crawlers. But why armour for your torso? When has a zombie ever gone for someone’s chest or back?

Everyday rudeness #4: Telemarketers

Of course telemarketers and telescammers are annoying. But when they’re rude as well their behaviour is, even more than in the literal sense, uncalled for.

I’ve developed a special technique for dealing with them. Once I know I’m being contacted by a telemarketer (usually a delay on the connection is enough) I only respond by speaking Old English. Specifically, since I don’t really remember much Old English, I quote the opening lines of Beowulf in the original. I repeat them in a quiet but confused and questioning voice, pretending to be someone who simply doesn’t understand English and doesn’t know what the caller is saying.

I started doing this because I was curious as to how the callers would respond. I figured they would just give up, maybe apologize (though probably not) and then hang up. After all, I get the impression that English, in most cases, is not their first language, so I thought they might have some sympathy.

This has not happened. Indeed, after only exchanging a few words I have been told on nearly every occasion to “fuck off” or “fuck you.” Then the caller hangs up. I honestly find this surprising. They are that mad at someone they don’t even know, who they have targeted for their annoying (and often fraudulent) scam, just for not being able to speak English? Shouldn’t I be the angry one?

Yesterday, upon my standard opening of “Hwæt? We Gardena?” I got an immediate “Fuck you, motherfucker.” Really. It’s bad enough they have to do such an annoying job, but do they have to be so rude?