Monday, January 31, 2011

Since We Were On the Subject Anyway

I was being rather facetious when I named my last post. It is true that I tend to be skeptical of innovation - at least, until it proves itself worth my time - but I must admit that I am heartily thankful for the technological advances that have made my life more comfortable, and my hobbies far easier to indulge in. It got me thinking, however, I realised that I have rather inadvertently collected a number of items that technology has rendered obsolete:

I actually do use most of these items too, some more often than others, of course. The blue fountain pen (and the black ink that goes with it) I use almost every day, the red ink and feather dip pen usually only for calligraphy projects. I have taken a number of fencing classes on and off for years, and got to be quite decent at it for a while. (I like fighting with two short swords best, but only own this one. Not to worry, it has a cap on the tip, which you cannot see in the picture. We want to 'kill' our opponents, not hurt them.) I use the sand-glass occasionally, when I want to get things done quickly. It has about 15 minutes worth of sand in it, and keeping an eye on the sand's level helps me to keep myself focused on the task at hand. I have used the Morse code key for practice. The recent obsession with WWII has rekindled my interest in Morse code. Back in the summer, I was seriously applying myself to learning it. What with one thing and another, I never quite got all the way through the alphabet, but intend to make up for that soon. The only object I cannot use at all is the slide rule. I picked that up recently, because I thought it ingenious. Unfortunately, I am not much good at math, nor do I have much call for advanced calculations in my daily life, so I have not yet seriously applied myself to learning it. I have discovered that there is a book on using the slide rule at the library, however, so one of these days, I shall add that skill to my list of rather odd accomplishments.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Is My Luddism Showing?

I work in a library, and in general, find that the jobs suits me very well indeed. There are a lot of benefits to it, for a bookworm like myself, not the least of which is that I am able to indulge my reading-addiction on a whim without bankrupting myself while I am at it. However, as with most things, there is also a side to modern librarianship, that annoys me exceedingly. To whit, the rather appalling tendency of certain Powers That Be within the public library structure, to talk about "making the library relevant to our times".

Perhaps I am even more old-fashioned than I generally give myself credit for, but libraries have always seemed to me to be rather above the need of re-invention. There primary function is educational. They are repositories of knowledge and literature. A really good library will have an extensive, and well-maintained non-fiction section, which will contain everything from works of the major philosophers, to study books for obtaining one's contractor's license. There will be plays, and poetry, the maths and sciences, books on languages, geography and geology. There should be fiction too, but in keeping with the educational function of a library, it should be good fiction, well written and of the sort that will be as worth reading 100 years from now as it is today. At least, that is how I have always thought of a library should be.

In practice, however, the relentless drive towards "making the library relevant" has meant that there is an emphasis on novelty, and that the novelties tend to have less and less bearing on the purpose of a library. This shows up in various ways: an unnecessarily generous portion of the book budget going towards shiny, new best sellers, even if works of classical (and therefore, enduring) literature must be deleted to make room for them. Or the introduction of clubs or programs, whose sole purpose is to get people through the doors (therefore proclaiming the library's relevancy) rather than promoting education. Fortunately, the library I work for, tends to be fairly restrained in this regard. Our librarian is very good at finding the balance between the new and shiny, and the old and worthwhile. The programs we offer, tend, for the most part, to both be educational, and entertaining. Every once and a while, though, some new trend comes along, and our library jumps at it. The most recent is the addition of e-books and online audio books to the system, and, much to my irritation, I was required, last week, to learn how to set up the software and use the vile things.

I shall now freely admit that I am very resistant to change. I am the sort of person who has to believe that the good coming out of a change is so great as to make up for the bother of changing at all. No, I am not afraid of change. If something is not working, it is not working, and the sooner we get that sorted, the better. However, change, in our present society, does not usually mean fixing something that is not working. More often than not, it is some clever individual's chance to re-design the wheel. And there is the problem that I tend to have with technology, especially when technology encroaches upon my personal indulgences. Not that technology does not have a place. I am not a complete Luddite. I have a blog, after all.

E-books, however, are a form of technology that I have very little patience for. I suppose they have a place. I could see downloading a number of books into a device when one is travelling, so as to avoid a 50 lb backpack, full of books, because you never know when you might need something to read. (Yes, that is how I travel.) I could see the benefit of buying an e-book of an out of print book, that one really wants to read and cannot get any other way. I could see the advantage of using an e-book in the place of the $200 college text books I have been hearing about lately. However, I cannot see a single benefit of e-books as a regular library service. It defeats the purpose of most relevancy schemes, in that it does not get people through the doors. The cursory run-through of the program, to which I was subjected, turned up only the usual selection of bestsellers. Since we order multiple copies of those anyway, and since we are only allowed to own a certain number of electronic copies of each book, I cannot see how the e-book will significantly cut down on the waiting list for those items. People who are interested in anything besides the usual commercial bookstore-type offerings are tough out of luck. The software necessary to run the books takes close to an hour to download, and is sufficiently tedious and confusing to permanently discourage me from ever doing it for myself. (And will, no doubt prompt a rather large number of calls from confused patrons, whom we will have to attempt to placate.) I was quite disgusted with the whole matter, and made my disapproval rather plainer than I ought.

I think, though, the main problem I have with e-books, is that I am passionately devoted to the experience of reading a book. Ideally, I prefer my books to be hard-covered, or at least, well-bound and attractive. I like the weight of a book in my hands. I like the sound the pages make when I turn them. I like the ability to fan through it, and look at the illustrations, if illustrations there be, or to see how long it is til the end of the chapter, and whether it is worth putting off something important, until I get there. I like the dust-and-excitement smell of old books, and the look of the printed word on the cream-coloured page. I compulsively collect books, and like the look of them, sitting companionably together in my shelves, full of knowledge, adventure, passion and character. For all the benefits and e-book might provide, it will never provide the same experience as reading a genuine book. I resent their encroachment into me life, even in so slight a fashion as an icon on my computer at work. (Which I have no intention of ever using.) I resent being told that e-books are the way of the future. I resent having people tell me what I could do to disguise my e-book (should I ever find myself in possession of such a thing) to resemble a real book as much as possible. I particularly object to other people finding my objections amusing. However, I rather fancy that I am not the only person to feel this way, so I doubt the demise of the book is quite so imminent as everyone says it is!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Jimmy James

Lieutenant Bertram 'Jimmy' James is one of my heroes. He was in the RAF during WWII, and was one of the fellows who took part in the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III, a supposedly inescapable POW camp in Poland. The soldiers who were sent there were all dedicated escapers. I don't think they could help themselves, and they caused no end of bother to the Germans responsible for guarding them. I first made Jimmy James's acquaintance last year, when I was reading a book about the Great Escape, written by Tim Carroll. Jimmy James does not come into it a great deal, but when he did, he always made an impression. Take, for example, his account of the escape:

"When I got to the exit shaft, I climbed up the ladder and the first thing I saw were the stars. I thought of the RAF motto, 'per ardua ad astra' (through adversity to the stars.) It was hard to imagine a more appropriate context for the motto at that time. There had been much toil for all concerned, I thought, as I climbed the ladder to the stars."

I liked the imagery of a prisoner, climbing a ladder to the stars, and the understated poetry of that paragraph gave me a decided fondness for the man. Unfortunately, Jimmy James was not one of the three lucky men who made good the escape. He was re-captured, but instead of being shot, as the majority of the escapers were, or being sent back to a POW camp, he was shipped to Sachsenhausen, a notorious concentration camp, where, in his own words he "began to contemplate what might remain of my life, and what might lie in the life hereafter, with the sanguine hope that my latter period on earth might shorten my stay in Purgatory." He might have resigned himself to his fate, with laudable Catholic detachment, but he was still a dedicated escaper. He, and another remarkable man, Jack Churchill, (who will no doubt have a post of his own sometime) managed to tunnel out of Sachsenhausen, and remained at large for a couple weeks before being caught again. I am happy to say, however, that he survived the war, living to a ripe old age.

After I finished "The Great Escape", I wanted to find out more about Jimmy James, and was pleased to find out that he had written a book about his experiences. "Moonless Night" is a very good book, indeed, which I would recommend highly. It is well written, and, though the poor man went through some terrible experiences, he is very restrained about them, showing a truly remarkable lack of bitterness. There are bits of genuine humour in it, and Jimmy James's inherent decency shines through in every page. I came away from it feeling very encouraged, and determined to be a better person myself. The only complaint I have about it, is an odd one for a book that is primarily biographical: there is not enough Jimmy James in it! I suppose that is a testimony to his humility.

Monday, January 3, 2011


When I first started this blog, I had several goals for myself, which, I am ashamed to say, I have largely failed in fulfilling. The primary point was to force myself to write more often, both prose and poetry. The prose I have managed, with indifferent success; the poetry, not at all. I wanted to post regular book reviews, and have so far only managed one. I do the occasional bit of doodling, and was hoping to post some of those here, and not a one of them has appeared. Indeed, my attention to the blog has been desultory at best. In my defense I shall offer the fact that I have been afflicted with a massive case of writer's block, and cannot get over it, even with the blog hanging over my head to motivate me.

However, we are in a new year now, and in the time-honoured tradition, I am making resolutions to take my writing a little more seriously. I shall make more of an effort, and try not to hide behind my writers block as an excuse for not writing at all. Whether I shall be able to keep this resolution or not remains to be seen, but I have put it out into the public now, so hopefully pride, if nothing else, will compel me to greater efforts!