Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Are e-books and unread, leatherbound classics the way of the future?

Anyone who knows me knows that I have two homes: the house I own and the local Barnes & Noble. It has comfy chairs, books to peruse, coffee, and is a place with clean enough floors that my one-year-old daughter can crawl around and explore without too much cause for worry.

Over the last few years, more and more of the space inside the store has been devoted to selling the Nook, Barnes & Noble's e-reader. Now, to get to the books or the coffee, one must pass through a phalanx of Apple Store-esque displays and proselytizing employees urging you to join the e-reader revolution. At first, I thought this was odd; it seemed like a bookstore would want people to buy books, after all. It seemed akin to attending a movie theater where employees at the box office urge you to go home and start a Netflix account instead of purchasing a ticket.

Of course, Barnes & Noble would not be pushing the Nook if it didn't see big profits in the future. Selling physical books at physical locations costs much more than selling a digital download, and with e-reader prices not significantly lower than that of physical books that translates to much more profit. As far as the Barnes & Noble is concerned, they would love it if the stores merely served as showrooms where visitors could browse and select which e-books to download, and that is direction they are trying to steer their customers.

Although I understand their logic, I think the chain is shooting themselves in the foot. Barnes & Noble hopes that visitors will wander the aisles, Nook in hand, and download whatever catches their eye using the complimentary Wi-fi. The problem is that people can just as easily wander the aisles, Kindle in hand, and download the same product, often for less, from or other competitors. Amazon, unlike Barnes & Noble, maintains no physical retail locations and can usually cut costs a little more and still reap huge profits. And for public domain books, free pdf's proliferate the Internet. How many copies of "Pride and Prejudice" or "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" do Barnes & Noble stores sell each year? Probably a lot. How many will they sell after everyone moves to e-readers, and can find a free download at Project Gutenberg?

The other potential downside of e-readers, from the sellers' standpoint, is the increased potential for piracy. As e-readers become more ubiquitous (as I'm sure they will, despite the grumblings of Luddites like myself), the publishing industry will have to face more and more of the problems that have plagued the music and entertainment industry ever since Napster came along. When the last Dan Brown novel came out a couple of years ago, its publisher proudly proclaimed that a new era of publishing had been entered because it sold more e-books than hardcover copies. What they weren't keen to publicize was the fact that within 24 hours of the book's release over 100,000 pirated copies had been downloaded for free. Despite whatever encryption they offer or how many people are prosecuted, there will always be ways to download a free copy of the latest bestseller.

Personally, I'm not going to be purchasing an e-reader anytime soon for reasons that are hardly unique. Like many bibliophiles out there, I love the feel of a book, the tactile quality of turning the pages and feeling the weight shift as I get closer to the end. I love the ability to scan ahead a few pages and know how much of a chapter I have left. For non-fiction books, I am an obsessive underliner and note-taker.

Most of all, I like having books on my shelf. This may be shallow of me, but I love having a collection of physical objects on display representing the various texts I have consumed. I love being able to scan across the titles and fondly recall my favorite books. I love being able to take an old favorite down from the shelf and flip through it, briefly reliving the experience of reading it before putting it back. And the OCD part of me loves organizing the books. Filmmaker and bibliophile Guillermo del Toro, in an absolutely fantastic lecture posted to youtube, summed up this impulse best: "We are animalistic creatures," he said. "We need talismans." Del Toro actually built a separate house just for his books (going into debt to do so), with seven libraries in seven rooms. "I'm a very, very organized hoarder," he explains.

Del Toro's library. As much as I love Barnes & Noble, I would rather hang out here.

Barnes & Noble, I think, is attempting to appease the talismanic nature of their e-book customers by ramping up their selection of "collectible" books. These include table after table of coffee table books, all on sale at bargain prices, as well as the Barnes & Noble Leatherbound Classics Series. These leatherbound classics are all very attractive and look the way a 'classic' should- and that's what they're designed to do. And that's all they're designed to do.

I've paged through some of these books. The bindings, attractive as they are, actually make for rather difficult reading. Most of these are fairly thick books (which makes them feel more important), and the bindings are not very flexible which makes reading pages towards the middle quite uncomfortable. The pages are stiff with gilt edges and do not turn very easily. To get a comparison with other leatherbound books, I walked over to the Bible section and paged through some of the deluxe leatherbound Bibles. The Bibles were all quite comfortable to page through. They were meant to be read and used.

The Leatherbound Classics, on the other hand, are not intended for reading (or so I've concluded). They are intended to look good on a shelf. These editions call to mind Mark Twain's saying, "A classic is a book which everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read."

A true Jane Austen fan would rather have their own, easily readable copy of Pride and Prejudice than have to find it wedged in the middle of a stiffly-bound leather collection of seven Austen novels. However, someone who just read Pride and Prejudice on their e-reader and loved it so much that they want something to show for it might be interested in a leatherbound classic. They don't need to ever read it (that's what the e-reader is for) but there it is, on the shelf in its leatherbound glory, proudly proclaiming, "Why yes, I do enjoy reading Jane Austen. So much so, in fact, that some dog-eared paperback from high school English class just won't do. I admire Austen enough to purchase a collection bound in handsome Italian bonded-leather adorned with decorative endpapers, a ribbon marker, and other features which make this collectible edition a perfect gift or addition to any home library."

"I'm important. I have many leatherbound books, and my apartment smells of rich mahogany."

Similarly, for anyone interested in reading Shakespeare, Barnes & Noble has all of the plays available in very readable editions. According to their website, "Each edition provides new scholarship with an introduction, essays on Shakespeare's England and language, unusually full and informative notes, essays on Shakespearean theaters and significant performances, an interdisciplinary look at the work's influence on other arts, and an annotated bibliography for further reading." As fancy as that sounds, these are hardly the footnote-fattened tomes of the scholarly Arden editions; just basic editions of the plays with the sort of notes and preface you'd expect to find in any edition for modern readers. After all, its nice to have a footnote or two when reading a 400 year-old play, being as words like "fardel" and "bodkin" aren't heard as often these days.

However, if you are less interested in reading Shakespeare than in having Shakespeare attractively displayed on a shelf, then the Barnes & Noble Leatherbound Classic Series Complete Works of William Shakespeare is for you. This handsome edition features no footnotes, essays or prefaces, but that's no matter as its unlikely anyone will be reading it. That's what the paperback and e-book editions are for. The leatherbound edition is there to proudly proclaim, "Yes, I value Shakespeare enough to have a suitably noble edition on my shelf. Not just copies of his more popular plays, mind you, but his complete works, for those times when I might want to read The Phoenix and the Turtle, Timon of Athens or all three parts of Henry VI."

If I had to guess which of the leatherbound books were the least read, I would put money on either Gray's Anatomy or The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln: A Tribute of the Nations. Gray's Anatomy has been through 40 different revisions and editions since its initial publication, but Barnes & Noble's leatherbound version is the original 1858 text. Therefore, it is definitely not for medical study, as the surgical field has advanced quite a bit in the last 150 years. It is, however a book of interest to students of medical history as well as artists (owing to the evocative quality of its creepy engravings). I'm guessing, though, that most who buy this particular edition just want to appear well-educated. Likewise, The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, an 1867 compilation of speeches given by various world leaders commemorating the life of Lincoln, may be a must-own for the most die-hard Lincoln fans but is probably low on the list of Lincoln books that might interest a casual reader. But it sure looks good on a shelf, especially beside Dante's The Divine Comedy or Homer's Iliad (both without footnotes, of course). 

Of course, stacking your shelves purely with this sort of book makes it a little obvious that you're just trying to impress. For those who want to start a leatherbound classics collection but want to avoid appearing pretentious, Barnes & Noble has recently started incorporating more populist titles in the series. Some examples include The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglass Adams, Jurassic Park/The Lost World by Michael Crichton and Wicked/Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire. 

Mark my words, this is next.

Having a leatherbound edition of an airplane read like Jurassic Park makes the idea that one actually reads the gilt tomes on display seem even more probable. And I'm sure anyone who buys it has read the book- years ago, in a $6.99 paperback. The collectible Jurassic Park/Lost World exists to justify the unopened copy of Wuthering Heights sitting next to it. "Look how well-rounded my tastes are!" it proclaims.

Lest I come off as sounding too negative about the Leatherbound series, let me be the first to say that I fully understand the appeal. I have often been tempted to purchase the leatherbound editions of The Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe since it seems so perfectly Gothic; and Grimm's Fairy Tales, since it reminds me of the books that you see being opened at the beginning of old Disney films. And I understand the desire to own a collectible edition of a favorite book, even if you never actually read that particular copy. For example, my wife and I are huge Agatha Christie fans, and have purchased several antique first editions as tokens of our fandom, which sit proudly on a display shelf, quite separate from our tower of well-worn Christie paperbacks.

I am also fully aware that this is hardly a new phenomenon. It is a tradition as old as books themselves. As books were expensive to produce, and with education being reserved for the upper-classes, books initially were quite the status symbol. I'm sure early book-buying involved a great deal of showing off.

The illuminated manuscript was the medieval way of saying, "My Bible is classier than yours."

As we get into to the modern era, books became cheaper at the same time as social classes more malleable, and affordable yet classy-looking leatherbound books became a great way of asserting one's societal aspirations. This perhaps reached its zenith with book clubs such as The Franklin Library, where subscribers were sent a new book every month from a series such as The 100 Greatest Books Ever Written.

The Franklin Library: the only reason your Grandma owns a deluxe edition of Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel. 

I'm not against leatherbound books, nor even e-books. I am merely pointing out the trend I have noticed: that the more big booksellers hype e-readers the more they push "collectible" editions of books as well. The consumer is being increasingly pushed towards the dichotomy of the convenient-yet-intangible (e-books) and the tangible-yet-inconvenient (collectible books). I don't think that either will ever entirely replace the sort of tangible-and-convenient book that lines my shelves, but I do worry that the sort of book I love will become less and less available. The more e-books that are sold, the less cheap paperbacks will be printed. And the more collectible tomes that are printed, the fewer modest hardcovers will be available. As a stick-in-the-mud old-fashioned bibliophile, I find this cause for concern.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Childhood Filmmaking Attempts

My wife and I just saw Super 8 (which was fantastic, by the way; I would highly recommend it), and being as the protagonists are a bunch of kids committed to making a movie, that naturally got me thinking about my own childhood attempts at filmmaking. I would bet that most people who eventually end up pursuing film and video work have stories about the films they made as children; this is mine.

My Dad purchased our family's first camcorder, a cumbersome VHS machine, when I was five years old. I distinctly remember immediately insisting that we make a movie. Somehow, we ended up filming a short video of "The Three Little Pigs" starring various stuffed animals (none of whom were pigs) and featuring magnificent sets of Lincoln Logs (for the 'pig' that made his house of sticks) and wood blocks (for the house of brick; I don't recall what the house of straw was made of). I'm guessing it was one of my parents' ideas to do "The Three Little Pigs," as my story suggestions would have most likely involved dinosaurs, trains, or both. But I was thrilled to be making a movie, any movie. Over the next few years, my Dad and I would occasionally play around with the camera, usually having fun with crude, in-camera special effects ("trick photography" as my Mom quaintly referred to it) such as making things disappear and reappear. Georges Méliès would have been proud.

My childhood career as an auteur began in earnest as I entered the third grade, which coincided with my Dad's upgrade to a Hi8 camcorder, a hand-held machine that seemed impossibly small for the time (1992). Naturally, it was too expensive a piece of equipment to hand over to a child with a propensity towards accidentally breaking things, plus I was to be the star of my films as well as producer, writer and director, and so my Dad served as de facto cinematographer; the Greg Tolland to my Orson Welles. That year saw the birth of my first masterpiece: King Kong Returns.

After the hand-drawn opening credits, we see a newspaper boy (my five-year old brother, of course wearing one of my Grandpa's "Newsie" hats) proclaim the latest news: "Extra! Extra! Read all about it! King King is alive again!" And that's all the exposition we need. A pause for suspense (and for my brother to remember his lines). The Newsie points offscreen, "Look, there he is!"

The mighty Kong (a ten-inch plastic toy) arises from behind painstakingly crafted HO-scale model buildings, and proceeds to smash things. As he can't really move his arms, he must do this by thrusting his whole body so that his outstretched arms smash the buildings, all the while wailing and howling. My nine-year old voice had yet to attain the proper level of growl for Kong, and so this Kong has a rather high-pitched shriek. As he moves about the city, an HO train approaches, and the camera strategically pans to the sky to hide the cut; when it pans back down Kong has wrecked the train in a carefully laid-out scene of destruction. Kong then moves to knock over a suspension bridge of wooden blocks, before a Pteranodon, apparently also escaped from Skull Island, appears. Hovering helicopter-like somehow, without moving its wings, the flying beast knocks Kong off a 500-foot cliff (which we know about because of the big sign that reads: "Danger: 500 Foot Cliff!"). This is the end for Kong; in case we had any doubts we now cut to an average citizen (me) reading a newspaper account of all that has transpired to provide the proper closure.

Having conquered the special-effects driven event movie, I was ready to craft some Hitchcockian suspense with my next film that summer: Cliffhanger! The film, shot on location at my grandparents' cabin in norther Minnesota, opens as the Villain (me), dressed in dark glasses, one of my Grandpa's straw fedoras and few other mismatched articles of clothing, explains directly to the audience all of his his evil plots. Not very subtle, but hey, Shakespeare got away with it in Richard III. The Villain (which is the character's name) has stolen a bunch of explosives and needs to destroy the evidence for some convoluted reason, and so sets the bomb on a timer and plants it by the cabin of an unsuspecting family.

This is witnessed by Alex (played by me) from the second story window of the building. He tries to escape but for reasons of plot convenience the door is jammed shut and cannot be opened, and our protagonist concludes that the only way is to climb out the second story window.

Hitchcock would often have an idea for a scene and build a movie around it; North by Northwest, for example, began when Hitchcock asked screenwriter Ernest Lehman to write a movie with a murder at the U.N. and that ended with a chase across Mount Rushmore. Cliffhanger! was made solely because I realized that with the right camera angles and (in-camera) editing, I could fall out of a first-story window and make it appear as if I had fallen out of a second-story window. This scene was the centerpiece of the film.

After miraculously surviving what, to my nine-year old mind, was an impossibly high fall, a limping Alex grabs the bomb, and throws it in the lake. He's just in time; my Dad provides some magnificent sound design and special effects by making explosion noises while shaking the camera. Meanwhile, I do my best Star Trek collision acting and pretend to be tossed about by the lake-dampened explosion. The End.

Much was left to be desired from this, so my next project was a gritty reboot of Cliffhanger! In th redux version, the Villain has a slightly more defined motivation: he wants to dig a mine on the land owned by our protagonist's family, who of course won't sell, so he plants a bomb to fake a gas explosion. This is still explained via soliloquy. The ante is upped by the presence of Alex's five year-old brother, Eric (played by my five year-old brother, Eric) who also must escape the mysteriously locked house. After escaping and heaving the bomb into the lake, Eric decides that he will go and catch the villain and gets away before Alex can stop him. The Villain is standing by the road, with a revolver in a holster at his side (like any good villain), when Eric runs past him. Then, remembering what he was supposed to do in the shot, he runs past again and snatches the gun away from the Villain. "Stick 'em up!" Eric yells as Alex arrives. Alex calls the police, and we cut to the Mayor (my Mom) awarding certificates of bravery and declaring it to be Alex and Eric Day. The End.

Later that summer, I made the sequel, the awkwardly-punctuated and aptly-titled Cliffhanger! II: The Sequel!. Eric is being babysat by his cousin Adam (played by our cousin, Adam). Meanwhile, the Villain breaks out of prison. Next he shows up and kidnaps Eric while Adam is distracted watching television. Seeing them leave, Adam chases after them, leading to a confrontation during which Adam is knocked off a cliff and left for dead. The Villain ties Eric to a bomb and is about to place a ransom call when Adam bursts in and punches the Villain, escaping with Eric. The Villain chases after them when the bomb explodes (via more camera shaking). We are informed by the Mayor, who is again handing out awards, that the Villain perished in the explosion. The End.

I would make one more movie that summer, before moving on to a project which grew exponentially in size and ambition and thus never got made. The completed film, Dino Days! concerns two time-traveling scientists, Professor Alex and Professor Michael (myself and my best friend Mike). First they travel to the Jurassic Period, where they are chased off by a Dilophosaurus, (a clay model that appears in a somewhat failed attempt at forced perspective). The Dilophosaurus eats Professor Alex and Professor Mike flees. This was achieved by some very crude stop-action, which was severely limited by the fact that we did not have a camera capable of shooting single frames (instead we just hit 'record' on and off as quick as possible). 

Jurassic Park had not yet been released at the time of filming, but the promotional tie-ins were everywhere and had already made an impact on me, as evidenced by my decision to depict the Dilophosaurus with a frill that appears around the neck. I knew full well that the frill was not present in the fossil record and had been made up for the movie, but it looked cool so I chose to include it. Clearly, Alex-the-movie-lover was struggling with Alex-the-dinosaur-nerd-with-a-strong-need-for-scientific-accuracy.

Not scientifically accurate.

In the movie, I also wanted the Dilophosaurus to fight a Tyrannosaurus Rex, but knew that they lived about 100 million years apart. Alex-the-dinosaur-nerd won this battle, as I then had the Professor Mike flee to the time machine while the clay Dilophosaurus stows away on board, and then they all travel to the Cretaceous Period (when T. Rex lived).

Prof. Mike gawks at the all the dinosaurs he sees (all of my prized Carnegie Collection dinosaur toys), and the T. Rex eats the Dilophosaurus before attacking the Time Machine (more crude stop-action). The Time Machine explodes (shaky-cam, which was beginning to be my hallmark), and Professor Mike proclaims, "Oh no! The T. Rex destroyed my Time Machine. Now I'll be stuck in the Cretaceous Period forever!" The End.

Dino Days! was the last film I completed until college, but not for lack of trying. Not satisfied with how Dino Days! had turned out, Mike and I began planning a remake which grew and grew in ambition. Eventually it turned into a feature-length script and we spent years trying to teach ourselves special effects and filmmaking techniques in preparation for this epic (which was soon re-titled Mesozoic Mayhem; I had a thing for alliteration). By the time we entered middle school, we'd spent years preparing for this thing but still hadn't shot any of it except some special-effects test footage. Around seventh grade we decided the whole thing was rather silly and the project was abandoned for good. I may sometime do a post recalling the years of work we put into the movie that was never made, but for now this post is long enough and I am up past my bedtime. And so, adieu.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

If at first you don't succeed, blog and blog again...

It's been over eight months since I've written anything on this blog, and prior to that I'd only written 5 posts. Perhaps that's par for the course for the personal blog of someone not all that comitted to blogging, and yet, for reasons outlined in my original post, I believe I could benefit from actually writing on this thing from time to time. And so, brushing the dust of failure off of myself, I am now going to give this a second go. I'll try to post at least once a month for starts, then every couple of weeks, and then if we're lucky once a week. I feel that's an acheivable goal.