1. Serial Reader: This app takes books that are out of copyright and chops them up into bite-sized chunks called “issues” (10-15 minutes reading time). It delivers one issue of your selected work to you every 24 hours. It’s been a great help to me in getting me to sit down and read full-length novels again. H/t to [personal profile] fred_mouse for bringing it to my attention. Since installing the app a few months ago, I have re-read most of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries (3-5 issues each), Northanger Abbey (30 issues), The Secret Garden (37 issues), The Importance of Being Earnest (9 issues) and Anne of the Island (32 issues). I’m in the middle of Moonfleet (32 issues), which is new to me, and also Anne’s House of Dreams (33 issues), which is a childhood favourite. I do most of my reading on the train or in the bath, and keeping up with 2-3 serials at once is perfect for those activities.

  2. Fitbit: The bloke got me a Fitbit Charge for UK Mother’s Day (back in March). Just to be clear that this was not foisted upon me, let me assure you all that I asked for it in advance. Exercise and weight stuff )

  3. Spotify: The bloke upgraded his Spotify account to the Family version so I could use and we could put it on the tablet for the kids. I don’t think I’m overstating matters when I say that this, combined with dropping a little cash on a decent pair of earbuds, has improved in my mental health. Over the past few years, I’d gotten out of the habit of listening to new music. Much as I love joking about being an aging rivethead with musical tastes stuck in 1994-2003 (which is still true of my preferences in EBM), I have missed the kick of finding a new song I really liked and listening it to death, seat-dancing to it on the train and memorising the lyrics. Amongst the things I’m currently obsessing over are the latest Goldfrapp album, MØ and the Suicide Squad soundtrack.

    Also, it was wonderful to be able to (almost) immediately download Ukrainian electro-folk band ONUKA’s entire oeuvre on the app in the middle of watching Eurovision. Learning to love Eurovision after moving to the UK is a whole entry in itself, but suffice to say it is now an annual ritual, involving cooking the food of the host country (Ukrainian flatbread and beetroot salad, thank you, the bloke!), drinking silly cocktails and shouting a lot in disagreement at the judging (Azerbaijan was robbed).

    In conclusion: Spotify! Brilliant! Yeah, yeah, I know I’m a decade late to the party. Whatevs. I still love my MP3 library, even if most of it is pre-2004.
Just Finished
Okay, I must admit, I got kind of stuck with Otter Country. It was all the internal eye-rolling at the overwrought Nice Middle-Class White Lady Deepening Her Connection with Nature stuff. I couldn’t take it after I realised I had another 220 pages of it left. So I did some fun re-reading to cleanse my palate and rejuvenate my interest. In rapid succession, I consumed Douglas Adams’ The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul and Margaret Atwood’s Morning in the Burned House.

In Progress
I then started Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table and got completely sucked into the autobiographical narrative. It’s an account of his crossing, by cruise ship, from Sri Lanka to England when he was eleven. His prodigious powers of observation (and diary-keeping) made it an absorbing nostalgic indulgence, written at the request of his children. The navel-gazing and bite-sized, evocative, anecdotal layout of the chapters is exactly to my taste (see: my love for DW and LJ)..

Up Next
Miriam Darlington’s Otter Country. I’ll give it one more try. I always get the sense she’s just on the brink of using the phrase “spirit animal”. If she does, I’m letting it go.

After that, it’s David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I got this for the bloke’s birthday, thinking it was The Bone Clocks. It turns out he’s already read it. Fortunately, his brother got him The Bone Clocks!
Does anyone else remember those closed-membership LJ communities where you had to post lists of your favourite things (books, films, etc) and then be judged by the members in order to be admitted? You know, those glorified “intellectual” popularity contests that those who've been judged similarly on, say, their looks or their taste in clothing or their preference in romantic partners should probably loathe on principle?

I remember starting to painstakingly assemble a list to apply for admission to a book community that I watched in order to pick up recommendations. And then I thought to myself, “Wait. I’m a scientist. I don’t read or review literary fiction or non-fiction for a living. I read books and watch films for pleasure, and I enjoy the authors I’ve either discovered for myself or found through friends or internet reviews. Do I really need to be judged inadequate and unworthy by a bunch of people who are getting their kicks out of telling others that their tastes are pedestrian and vulgar because they happen to actually like the required reading from their high school English classes? Or because they’ve never heard of that other Bronte sister? Or because they’d rather pick up a romance novel than, say, a famously impenetrable work, probably by a dead white guy? No. No, I don’t think I do.”

Just Finished
Ben Aaronovitch’s Foxglove Summer. PC (and magician) Peter Grant gets sent out of London to go tromping through the wilds of Herefordshire in a smelly 4x4 borrowed from a gay copper’s farmer boyfriend, looking for some missing children. Highly enjoyable, although I’ve already forgotten most of the details. Full of funny little nods to pop culture, including my absolute favourite Contains dialogue - mild spoiler ). A+ would read again with pleasure.

In Progress
Miriam Darlington’s Otter Country. This was a Christmas present from 2013, embarrassingly (see: 2014: the lost year). The title is not deceptive and there are indeed many otters involved. I find myself internally rolling my eyes a lot as I’m reading it, though. I’m enjoying the factual tidbits about otter habits and otter population fluctuation in the UK and otter conservation, but the florid, breathless style of the narrator when she goes on about her otter-finding quest exasperates me.

Up next
I’m not sure. Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table was going to be next but I may have temporarily had my fill of flowery poetical styles once I reach the end of Otter Country. I might go back to sci-fi for a bit.
I’m finally beginning to tackle the pile on my bedside table that’s mostly been gathering dust for the past year. I managed to finish less than ten fiction books in 2014, and only have strong memories of two: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie and Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho, both of which I loved. This is mostly because my attention span is shot to hell by the combined pressures of house maintenance, toddler care and an extremely full schedule at work. The latter is temporarily off and although I do now have an infant to look after, that actually affords me some time to practice my now-rusty reading skills. It’s better to pick up a book in the middle of the night than to refresh the Economist or the Guardian on my phone and get worked up about the latest injustice. So! Here we go.

Just Finished
John Scalzi’s Lock In. Now that was good fun and a very quick read. I enjoyed the crime-solving process. Then there were the added bonuses. The gender of the protagonist is never specified and doesn’t matter. Likewise, their (non-white) race is only mentioned once as part of a tangential plot point. It is heavily implied, thoughminor spoiler ). Racial diversity is evidenced through the use of names rather than physical descriptions. There are plenty of female characters in professional positions of authority. All of this is presented deftly and integrates smoothly with the plotline and the wry, witty dialogue.

I enjoyed this offering more than Redshirts, which is the only other book of his oeuvre that I’ve read.

In Progress
Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword. I had more difficulty getting into this during the first sixty or seventy pages than I did the first book in the series. Perhaps it’s because Breq’s motivation - the overriding sense of anger - is subsumed somewhat by her* need to play her cards close to her chest, as the political game she’s now playing requires. Even though it’s not spelled out as explicitly as in the first book, the sense of her non-human-ness feels stronger, as well. I found myself wishing for an occasional switch of point of view to a character I have more ease in sympathising with - Seivarden, for instance. Now that I’m nearly a third of the way through**, this desire has abated and I’m fully immersed in the action. I try to slow myself down to savour Leckie’s loaded dialogue and meticulous world-building, but it’s getting very exciting.

* I use the pronoun in the same gender-neutral manner as in the books.
** I wrote most of this entry yesterday. The baby had a very disturbed night, so I’m now twenty pages from the end.


Up next
Ben Aaronovitch’s Foxglove Summer. I missed out on Broken Homes (see: 2014: the lost year) but I’ll acquire it if I enjoy this offering sufficiently.
nanila: fulla starz (lolcat: science)
( Dec. 3rd, 2013 09:38 am)
[personal profile] pretty_panther asked: Do you believe there is life out there somewhere right now? As in, we think there WAS some form of life on Mars but do you think there is life somewhere NOW?

Yes. I do. Probably not humanoid life, though. We have only recently begun to be able to detect planets in orbit around stars in our galaxy. We’re not even very good at it and the count is already in the hundreds. I imagine that that number will increase by a couple of orders of magnitude before we get much better at it. And that’s just our galaxy. I find it hard to believe that there aren’t thousands more planets in thousands more galaxies. Given the amount of time that the universe has existed and the billions of galaxies in it, there must at least be a planet or two that is somewhere along life’s evolutionary tree simultaneously with us, although it may still be at the microbial/bacterial stage (which lasted an awfully long time on Earth). We may never come into close physical contact with it, since we are nowhere close to being capable of traveling near the speed of light, and even that might not be fast enough to reach it within a time span that makes sense to the continuity of human perception.

That’s not great news for sci-fi and its fondness for contact with alien beings, although that’s not by far the biggest problem with sci-fi anyway. A good deal of supposedly “hard” sci-fi suffers, in my view, from a spectacular lack of imagination. Why should a sentient alien race behave anything like humans? For that matter, why should future humans behave like modern humans? Can’t we imagine that we might actually one day be better to each other than we presently are? Far too much of sci-fi (and frankly, a lot of what gets classed as “literature”) seems to be based on the premise that humans are and always will be inherently awful to one another. Alien beings become analogues for other races, and then we get stuck in the imperial/colonial/xenophobia/dominance/oppression cycle. Sorry, we’ve lived that already, I don’t really need to read a fictionalised account of it in a temporally/spatially displaced setting. I’d rather read stories in which we humans choose to behave better towards one another and toward alien beings, to accept and learn about our differences, to make cultural exchange and migration into positive experiences. This is probably why I loved Star Trek: The Next Generation (and later iterations) so much as a teenager, although I didn’t know it at the time. (This is not to say it didn’t have its problems, but at least a fundamental premise of it was that people of any race or gender could fulfil any role on a star ship.) This is also why I love [personal profile] foxfinial’s story Found*, about a genderfluid person and migration and cultural integration, which made me cry like a baby because I was so tense reading it, and then I realised that I had spent the whole story expecting it to end badly and it totally failed to meet that expectation.

Major tangent there, sorry [personal profile] pretty_panther - I hope the first paragraph at least was coherent.**

* Accessibility note: An audio as well a text version of the story are available at that URL.
** Request a topic here
I have thus far failed to explore all three of the authors I mentioned at the end of my last post (Octavia Butler, Seanan McGuire and Ben Aaronovitch). I’m afraid this is because I got completely sucked into the Vorkosigan saga and have not been able to put it down since I started. (I can hear the gleeful cackles from the peanut gallery. Shush. I’ll get to that in a minute.) Also, I still haven’t moved from Cambridge to Birmingham so the dead-tree edition ban continues, barring me from obtaining Octavia Butler’s works.

In chronological order, here’s what I’ve read since the last post (DW/LJ).

Lauren Beukes Moxyland (near-future dystopian cyberpunk, author recommended by [personal profile] ceb)

I must say I’m glad I read Zoo City, her second effort, first. Moxyland was a bit like Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (which was better overall): trying too hard to be cool. The cyberpunk world, technologies and the self-absorbed twenty-something characters are underdeveloped and unconvincing. The invented jargon serves to confuse rather than enlighten an already muddled plot, and the ending, while successfully tying off some of the loose ends, left me cold. If the revolution falls this flat, I expect no one will even notice that it’s happening.


Verdict: Forgettable. Read Zoo City. I hope this indicates the author is on an upward trajectory and that her third effort will be better.

Ben Aaronovitch Rivers of London (urban fantasy detective novel, author recommended by [personal profile] pbristow and [livejournal.com profile] imyril)

Ah now, this was a breath of fresh air after Moxyland! The endearing bimbling of half-Nigerian, half-English PC Peter Grant into an alt!London full of magic, accompanied by his mentor, Thomas Nightingale, and his fellow PC, Lesley May, is peppered with wonderful historical anecdotes and wry humour. Nightingale balances a more mature perspective against the youthful Grant’s, while May* provides a healthy dose of skepticism and the rigour of proper investigative procedure against Grant’s intuitive leaps. Together, they work toward a solution to a set of grisly murders, with near-fatal consequences to themselves. A delight to read, with a full cast of multicultural characters.

*Side note: Why do so few of the reviews mention her? Grumble.


Verdict: Wonderful! Yes! More like this, please.

Ben Aaronovitch Moon Over Soho (urban fantasy detective novel)

RoL broke my determination to switch authors. I had to get the sequel right away and read it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as good as its predecessor. I suspect this is due in large part to the temporary shelving of both Nightingale and May. Although both novels are told from PC Grant’s perspective, I found him much less appealing without the tempering influences of the other two. The mystery is not quite as engaging, lacking the sense of discovery in the first novel and becoming a bit heavy-handed in its “acceptance of otherness” message (applied to fantastical creatures rather than human race or culture). Still, I liked it, and the little teaser at the end gave me hope that the next installment will restore the balance of characters and plotline.


Verdict: Mildly disappointing sequel, but still engaging enough to make me anticipate the third installment.

Lois McMaster Bujold Cordelia’s Honor (space opera, comprised of two novels, “Shards of Honor” and “Barrayar”, recommended by lots of people)

I admit it: I fell in love with this pretty much instantaneously. Cordelia Naismith! What a wonderful heroine. I was not at all put off by the heavy dose of romance that starts things off. In fact, I think it’s necessary to offset the horrors of the feudal political machinations in the story. I love the societies LMB creates in Beta Colony and Barrayar. I love their contrasts and complexities. Each has advantages and freedoms that the other lacks. Neither is better. On Beta Colony, for instance, all persons are encouraged the full range of sexual expression and experimentation from puberty, but you need to pay and qualify for a licence to have a child, and the barriers to having more than two are nigh insurmountable. On Barrayar, Victorian mores reign, but you can have as many children as you like. I love way these cultures are embodied, expressed and flexed by Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan. I loved reading about them so much that I nearly missed my Tube stop on three separate journeys.

Further thoughts are a bit spoilery )


Lois McMaster Bujold Young Miles (military space opera, comprised of two novels, “The Warrior’s Apprentice” and “The Vor Game”, recommended by lots of people)

The first of the two novels is all about wielding the power of an amazing ability to meet a situation and blag it. Miles is the son of Cordelia and Aral, born with brittle bones and barely 4’9” tall in a society that values physical strength and shuns deformity. Reason for this: mild spoiler. ) He has, however, both a brilliant mind and a remarkable gift of gab. He is a manipulator. A situation that he can’t talk himself out of, rare in itself, will usually end up going his way because of the loyalty his reckless personal risk-taking inspires in his associates. He manages, by dint of scraping people out of gutters and giving them second chances, to make himself a pirate captain. In space. Seriously. How was I not going to love this book?

The book introduces a dizzying array of cultures besides Barrayar and Beta Colony (both descended from Earth), including the Oserans and the Felicians. These are not quite as well developed as in Cordelia’s Honor, which delves deeply into Barrayar and Beta Colony through the two main characters. However, the tantalising glimpses given by the peripheral players in “The Warrior’s Apprentice” hooked me deeper into the series, if such an action could be deemed necessary. Miles’ internal dialogue is priceless and his eagle-eyed companions keep him from getting too enraptured with his successes - or sunk by his failures.

I resented the time I had to spend not reading this book.

The Vor Game’s pace proved less whirlwind than the first novel’s, maturing to match Miles’ development as he finishes his military training. A good portion of it is set in Barrayar rather than interstellar space. Barrayar being a rather sombre place, this made the tone less rambunctious. Once Miles manages to wriggle away from his minders (as usual) and off-planet, things pick up. They heat up a good deal more when he manages to land himself smack in the middle of his companions from the previous novel, an interplanetary struggle for control over a wormhole hub and a woman’s insane lust for power. Watching him attempt to sort all this out is both highly amusing and suspenseful.


Verdict: I’m trying not to rush through the entire Vorkosigan saga before the end of my pregnancy, when I expect I’ll be able to do little other than lie in bed read. I imagine, however, that there is a world of high-quality fanfic out there for me to explore when I do.

Currently reading: LMB Cetaganda (another Miles Vorkosigan, yes yes, I know, so much for not rushing), Thomas Levenson Newton and the Counterfeiter, and David Lodge’s Nice Work in dead-tree format. The last was a leaving present for the bloke from his Cambridge research group. It’s about a failed Cambridge academic who ends up taking a job in the fictional English town of Rummidge -- which happens to be positioned in the same place as Birmingham. Hrmmmph!
One of the positive things I got out of the discussion about EasterCon was a heap of recommendations for science fiction authors to check out. I started with the three listed in the subject line and bought, respectively, two collections of short stories and a novel to help me decide which ones to pursue.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Proto Zoa (author recommended by [personal profile] pbristow)

This is a collection of five early short stories. The first three are prosaic modern-life tales of woe in which the petty problems of ordinary people are solve humourously by the intervention of powers sufficiently advanced to look like magic. I was amused, but not engaged enough to consider reading something novel-length by this author.

Then I read the fourth and fifth stories.

These make the leap to wonderfully developed future worlds and hint at the potential for masterfully crafted space opera. The first, "Dreamweaver's Dilemma", is a psychological/technical suspense thriller in which an artist tries to solve a crime before it is committed. The second, "Aftermaths", is a gentler character exploration that deals, with melancholy tenderness, with the unpleasant business of post-war tidying up. It could easily have been transplanted from its setting in space to many points in humanity's history. I understand these last two are related to the Vorkosigan saga. As an introduction to and appetizer for those books, this pair of short stories performs beautifully.


Verdict: Moar please. What's the first book in the Vorkosigan cycle?

Maureen F. McHugh, After the Apocalypse (author recommended by [livejournal.com profile] pax_athena)

The first of these stories seemed promising. It reminded me of "I Am Legend", with a main character of unelevated social status (a convicted criminal) forced to survive in a collapsed society overrun by zombies. But the unsatisfying ending was, unfortunately, a harbinger of what was to follow in the remaining stories. Many of them can't rightfully be called short stories, but are vignettes. I couldn't find one that had a clear resolution and some of them seemed to be character sketches that made little sense without the context of a larger work. I found a few characters appealing enough to overlook the thinness of the plot, such as the Chinese girls taking on their corporate masters (and winning). But the attraction was to the characters rather than their context.


Verdict: I'm glad I sampled this, but I probably won't seek out more by this author.

Lauren Beukes, Zoo City (author recommended by [personal profile] ceb)

Ah, now this was satisfying to read. It's set in alt-present Johannesburg, with a highly intelligent sharp-tongued cynical ex-junkie anti-heroine (whom most other authors would probably have made male) named Zinzi December. Outcast in more ways than one - she's an aposymbiot as well as being an indebted ex-con - she ekes her living off her uncanny ability to sense what other people would very much like to keep hidden. Until someone hires her for an improbable sum and she senses that something is very wrong indeed. The twisted cyberpunk setting is well developed and woven cleverly into the plot, which can be read as a highly enjoyable detective novel or as a complex exploration of cultural mores or both. I note that some reviews of the book found the ending abrupt or slightly unbelievable, but I found it perfect. The good guys don't always win. And they're not always good. Or guys.


Verdict: There is only one other novel available, Moxyland, which I'll certainly be reading.

Up next are Octavia Butler, Seanan McGuire and Ben Aaronovitch. Further suggestions are most welcome.
My friend [personal profile] foxfinial has been getting a lot of undeserved flak for pointing out that some aspects of the dialogue at Eastercon were overtly misinformed and racist. Eastercon, for the uninitiated (which I certainly was before last weekend), is the annual British National Science Fiction convention.

I participated in Eastercon this year as a panelist and a speaker on the Friday. Now, I was fortunate enough to have been invited by a friend and colleague, [livejournal.com profile] purplecthulhu, who did a wonderful job making me feel both welcome and comfortable. He helped keep me included in the dialogue during the panel on the space race. I did some of this myself, mind, but I can't deny that it was a boon to have him checking to be sure that each time a topic was introduced, I got to have my say if I wanted, and to prevent me from being put on the spot by the more experienced members of the panel and the audience. This is not an action to be dismissed lightly when there are four people on the panel and you are the only person who is female and not white. [livejournal.com profile] purplecthulhu, I salute you.

Despite seeing positive responses to my talk on Twitter under the #eastercon hashtag, I can't ignore that the majority of the audience was male and white. And while I hope that being a "hardcore science bug" who loves her job, as one person labelled me, left the impression that women can indeed be dedicated, enthusiastic engineers and scientists, I have trouble believing that it's an impression that will have a lasting impact.

Why? Because I don't find that most science fiction speaks to me. I received two free books at Eastercon. I got about halfway through both of them, but have little motivation to finish because they didn't engage me. The main characters are male, angst-ridden and on journeys that involve a lot of interaction with other male authority figures. The women, if they are present, are either brawny sidekicks or romantic interests. Even if they're described as clever or technically adept, they never display it through dialogue or the mechanisms of the plot. And did I mention that everybody's white? At the very least, that's what the front covers would have you believe, and when you read the character descriptions - pale skin and white-blonde hair predominating - the image becomes indelible.

So I'm afraid that despite my willing participation in Eastercon and my enthusiasm for the future of space exploration and science, I am not willing to state categorically that science fiction and its fandoms are free of problematic racist and sexist associations that are being propagated by publisher's choices. Attacking people like [personal profile] foxfinial is not going to fix the problem. Pointing out that something is racist is not, in fact, worse than being racist. If you write science fiction, change your choices of main characters, the cultures in which you place them and the journeys you send them on. If you read science fiction, select, review and praise those books. Only then will the perception of science fiction become diverse and inclusive. Because it actually will be.
As amusing as sentences like "What be this strange futurebox?" and "All of my colleagues have [e-readers] and most of my friends - people I previously thought of as human beings with hearts, souls and inner lives" are, I must vehemently disagree with Lucy Mangan's recent Stylist column decrying the use of e-readers.

For a start, I think it is rather obvious that Ms. Mangan does not have to make the 2-4 hour daily commute to/from her job that many Londoners must. If she did, she would be as immensely grateful as I am that I have not had to carry dead-tree editions of The Life of Samuel Johnson and Le Morte d'Arthur around with me on my journey. Excuse me, I have to go on a tangent now. Speaking of the latter, I feel like people, particularly my high school English teachers, have been keeping things from me. Why oh why did no one ever tell me that it is, in fact, hilarious? I realise this will have been obvious to people who majored in literature and humanities and the like, but for this scientist, discovering that Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail is actually not a parody but a faithful re-enactment of the stories contained in L M d'A was a revelation. If you were an Arthurian knight whose history was being retold centuries later, you really were in danger of encountering dwarves who would leap out from behind trees and whack your horse on the head. The dwarf would then force you to fight two other knights and when you defeated them, would suddenly and inexplicably experience a change of allegiance, reveal that he knew exactly where you were going and would help you on your quest. Castles populated entirely by women were a terrible peril for all good knights. Every sexual encounter seemed to beget new knights determined to kill their fathers. Also, every joust ended in a bonfire's worth of shattered shields and lances. It's a wonder there were any trees left in the forests in Arthurian England. And do not get me started on Merlin, who reveals everyone's fate in the first ninety pages, including his own, thereby completely spoiling the rest of the book. Within four pages, he manages to fall in love and gets himself sealed up in a tree by a witch, removing him from the remainder of the story just as the reader has decided his character is the most interesting one in it. This was a clever literary device in the fifteenth century? What? I mean, it's amusing, but no wonder modern storytellers are so obsessed with giving Merlin something other than a deus-ex-machina persona.

Anyway, my point is that without this wonderful Kindle invention, I would never have read a good many of the classics of English literature that have been the bulk of my intake over the past two years, mostly because (a) it would never have occurred to me to seek them out without the assistance of Project Gutenberg and (b) I would never have voluntarily carried such massive tomes around in my handbag.

Much as I love my dead-tree Folio (and paperback and hardcover) editions of my favourite books, they're not without flaws. In a country in which you pay a premium for space, owning paper copies of all your books is a luxury that many people can't afford, whether they're a single person crammed into a tiny studio apartment or a spouse in a two-bed flat with a partner and a couple of kids. If my eyes are tired, I can't resize the text to a larger font so that I can still read, or if I have a headache from looking at screens all day, I can't activate the Text-to-Speech function that will read to me. (Granted, the Kindle does this in the creepy voice of our future robot overlords, but it is an option.) Both of the aforementioned also demonstrate the increased accessibility to books that e-readers afford people with vision problems.

I admit that loaning and gifting electronic books isn't quite as fun as doing the same with paper editions - you can only unwrap an e-reader once - but owning one hasn't stopped me from giving and receiving paper copies of books with pleasure.

So while I'm happy to stay old-school at home because I happen to be one of the people who can indulge in the luxury of space for my dead-tree editions, I can't agree that e-books are "eroding our humanity". They've made it possible for me to spend more, not less, time reading and increased the scope of my choice of material. I think this means they're enforcing - possibly even improving - my humanity.
As it turns out, my Kindle helps me to engage in arguments that I would previously have avoided like the plague. For instance, I was out with four friends last night at a pub, and someone brought up Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I don't remember what the conversation was originally about, but suddenly he uttered the phrase, "...it's not racist."

Now, normally this is the point at which I'd look round at my four white friends, who were clearly ready to prepared to let this pass without mention, and I'd drop it myself. I find it tiresome to be the one non-white person calling something racist and being talked down by a bunch of white people who are uncomfortable with the conversation and would rather be arguing about whose round of drinks it is. But I've actually read Heart of Darkness fairly recently on my Kindle. And what's more, I'd made a point of underlining certain passages that allowed me to state with certainty, "Yes, it is."

Then he started in with the "but it's a great piece of literature", "you can't judge it because of the prevailing attitudes in the time in which it was written" and "the definition of racism has changed over time" arguments. I patiently refuted the first - I was absolutely not saying that Heart of Darkness isn't a worthy piece of literature. It is. That doesn't mean it's not racist. As for the second, I can absolutely judge it to be racist no matter when it was written, because of the incorrectness of the third statement. Racism is discrimination against another person based on their race. It's really very simple. While Heart of Darkness certainly criticizes colonialism and discrimination in a passionate manner, the language used in many passages is racist.

So I took a deep breath and walked away from the group to go to the toilet. After using that noble facility for the purpose for which it was designed, I got out my Kindle and flipped through to "My Clippings". Then I walked back outside and read out the following passage (emphasis mine):

Imagine him here - the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a king of ship as rigid as a concertina - and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sandbanks, marshes, forests, savages, - precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink.


Trying to argue that it isn't racist to call the people of a country "savages" while referring to yourself as a "civilized man" is futile, which he eventually conceded. But damn, I really love my Kindle for giving me the armoury to tackle a conversation I would otherwise have been unwilling to have.

By the way, if you're wondering about racism, may I point you at this Tumblr: Yo, is this racist? (With snaps to [personal profile] ajnabieh.) My favourite entry is this one.
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