Books, books, and more books

As I mentioned a couple of posts back, it was a social networking site related to books, Shelfari, that recently brought me back into the blogosphere. I’ll write some more about that (and social networks in general) in a bit, but for now I just want to talk about books themselves. Or, at least, books in the news. It was a busy week last week in book news.

This week, On the Media is dedicating the entire show to one of our favorite topics – books. From Oprah’s Book Club to the Google Library Project, the way we buy, search, read and even discuss books is changing. And so we begin with a look at some of the forces now tugging at the industry.

A new report from the National Endowment for the Arts reveals that Americans are reading less frequently and less proficiently. The report links the decline in voluntary reading among teens and young adults to poorer performance in school. It also raises questions about the role of reading in a world full of digital distractions.

  • And then, while I’m in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, I see the 26 November issue of Newsweek, with a picture of Jeff Bezos and the headline The Future of Reading.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos already built a better bookstore. Now he believes he can improve upon one of humankind’s most divine creations: the book itself. (If you’ve shopped Amazon.com recently, you know what Bezos is talking about: the Kindle.)

Like someone’s trying to send me a message: READ MORE BOOKS!!!

I’m the first to admit that I don’t read nearly as much as I used to. And the subjects of my reading has changed quite a bit too. I used to have a steady diet of fiction, then a bit of a mix of fiction / non-fiction, and now an almost exclusive diet of non-fiction.

Looking back, it seems that my taste in reading is somewhat tied to my life at the time. My interest in military / political fiction was undoubtedly sparked by my service as a military officer. Though fictional, the stories in these books provided great insight into leadership, conduct of operations, etc.

As I moved into the “corporate” world, where there is a bit less (a lot less, actually) fiction that can be helpful in learning and growing, I turned to non-fiction business books. The books that appealed to me most were the ones that have a bit of narrative feel to them. I have a few of the “checklist” type books, but never really got much out of them.

And as I’ve gotten older – and as my kids have gotten older – I’ve developed a bit more of an interest in the nature of the world and our place in it. My elder son’s autism has also inspired a deep interest in how the human mind works, and what it is that makes each of us unique (or not).

My wife, on the other hand, reads a lot. I mean a whole bunch, putting me to shame. This is consistent, though, with the findings of the study mentioned in the Talk of the Nation piece, so I don’t feel too bad. (Read “Why women read more than men” on the TOTN page for this story for more details.)

Still, that’s no excuse. I know it’s not quite New Year’s, but I’ll go in for a resolution anyway: I resolve to read at least as much fiction as non-fiction. Just watch me on Shelfari if you want to see how I do. (And let me know if you’d like to join my friends list, I’m curious what you are reading, too.)

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The new gamer generation: Not who you think

The New York Times today writes about the new gamer generation in Retirees Discover Video Games. Yep, retirees. They are making up a larger and larger part of the market for “casual” games, and game developers and distributors are taking notice. The Nintendo Wii, with its simple controls for many games, is making a splash of its own.

My favorite part of the article is that told by semi-retired businessman Dick Norwood:

Dick Norwood, 61, a semi-retired businessman who lives in a community for residents 55 and older in Crest Hill, Ill., spotted the Wii in a mall in December. After playing Wii bowling with two other couples at home, he persuaded Giovan’s, a local Italian restaurant, to begin a “seniors only” Wii bowling league, where nine couples now show up every Thursday.

“When I started calling people about it, they had no idea what I was talking about, and they were laughing at me saying, ‘You want to start a bowling league on a video game in a bar?’ ” he said. “Well, we got there the first time, and we were there for six solid hours. In the past, I probably would have agreed that video games are just for kids. But I’ll tell you, at our age when you bowl for real, you wake up with aches and pains. Those balls aren’t light. But with this you’re getting good exercise, but you’re not aching the next day.”

Regular readers here know my fondness for the Wii, and I’m not the only one. My wife, my brothers, even my mom love to play games on the Wii, especially Wii Sports. The appeal of the Wii, especially in a sports game, is captured by Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good For You, in 5 Thoughts on the Nintendo Wii:

What strikes you immediately playing Wii Sports — and particularly Tennis — is this feeling of fluidity, the feeling that subtle, organic shifts in your body’s motion will lead to different results onscreen. My wife has a crosscourt slam she hits at the net that for the life of me I haven’t been able to figure out; I have a topspin return of soft serves that I’ve half-perfected that’s unhittable. We both got to those techniques through our own athletic experimentation with various gestures, and I’m not sure I could even fully explain what I’m doing with my killer topspin shot.

In a traditional game, I’d know exactly what I was doing: hitting the B button, say, while holding down the right trigger. Instead, my expertise with the shot has evolved through the physical trial-and-error of swinging the controller, experimenting with different gestures and timings. And that’s ultimately what’s so amazing about the device.

Games for years have borrowed the structures and rules — as well as the imagery — of athletic competition, but the Wii adds something genuinely new to the mix, something we’d ignored so long we stopped noticing that it was missing: athleticism itself.

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Update:  For every silver lining, there is apparently a cloud, including for the Nintendo Wii.  The physical exertion that makes the Wii so fun seems to be leading to an increased risk of physical injuries, as described in Virtual video games cause real injuries.  Just like all games, people need to learn to play in moderation.

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Apple may credit iTunes album purchases

In my last post, I recommended buying just a couple of Liquid Tension Experiment songs from the iTunes store if you didn’t think you were up for the whole album. I must admit, I’ve never really considered how iTunes handles buying a whole album if you’ve already bought an individual song or two, but thanks to MacNN | Apple may credit iTunes album purchases, I know now. Interesting, since I guess I always thought this is how it should work anyway.

A good, though small, example of a company re-inventing how it does things.  Worth a quick read if you buy from iTunes.

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