FOSS Redux

After a hiatus of several years, I find myself thinking seriously once again about free and open source software (FOSS). Not that I ever fully stopped. One way or another FOSS worked its way into my daily software use, deployment choices, and broader considerations of community. Still, it’s nice to focus once again specifically on FOSS communities, especially those relevant to the work of librarians.

Whether it is the integrated library system (ILS) or the digital repository, search facilities or servers, end-user terminals or integration with the virtual learning environment (VLE), a library of almost any size these days will engage with and potentially find its technical staff participating in the onward development of FOSS. So I was both honoured and intimidated to be asked to participate on a panel at the Ontario Library and Information Technology Association (OLITA) conference, Digital Odyssey 2014: Code, the Most Important Language in the World. I’ll be part of the panel discussion entitled “Open Source Software Projects and Communities.”

The best part of this so far is that for the past month I’ve been turning my mind once again to the character of FOSS communities. It is a rich topic for debate, strongly held opinion, principled (and unprincipled) disagreement, and hope. I always find that I get more positive and enthusiastic about the possibilities for all of us, everywhere, when I think about FOSS communities. I love the very idea of using a legal instrument such as a copyright licence to facilitate social change. I love that even those who abjure the social engineering aspect behind some FOSS licences, who embrace instead the open development methodologies touted by many open source enthusiasts, end up promulgating social change in any case. Even the notion that communal development can be driven through a meritocratic hierarchy is exhilarating. It’s just so much fun thinking about FOSS communities.

The hardest part is going to be constraining my contribution to the panel to a mere fifteen minutes canvassing a variety of different types of FOSS communities that these librarians might encounter. Fortunately I’ve had a bit of experience with those communities, though admittedly that was a few years ago. Exploring various FOSS communities today I find much remains the same, but I also see a significant increase in the professionalism of and care towards community development. For example, it is great to see that Evergreen, the ILS used by a number of Ontario universities, is now part of the Software Freedom Conservancy. And so many projects have people now with community development as part of their job title or job description. I hardly think a mere enthusiast like me is going to have much to say to librarians who are already undoubtedly fully FOSS engaged. Or at least that’s what I assume when I see so much good work being done.

In any case, I’m looking forward to seeing some old friends at this event and to making some new ones. And glad to be thinking about FOSS once again.

eBook user experience

Ever since I got my Google Nexus 7, I have taken up reading eBooks. Having just completed my tenth eBook, I want to reflect, briefly, on the experience. These ten eBooks constitute 1/8th of the books that I’ve logged on LibraryThing as having been read by me this past year. That is not an insubstantial portion. It is safe to say that I have incorporated eBooks into my normal reading habits. Does the experience of reading an eBook measure up?

First, I should note that all of the eBooks I have read have been downloaded from our local public library. Public libraries in Canada appear to have settled upon the OverDrive Media Console as their default. Thus I have been using the OverDrive app on my Nexus to facilitate my reading. OverDrive functions principally as a broker of eBooks to libraries and other institutions. The eBooks themselves are generated by the publishing houses. As I understand it, the publishing house licenses its material to libraries (or whomever) via the OverDrive intermediary. So my experience of these eBooks is in part due to the product generated by the publishing house and in part due to the environment through which I engage with that product, i.e. the Overdrive app.

There are any number of issues that arise with the above distribution model. But there are other people better placed to canvas and comment upon these. For my part, the only thing that impacts my reading experience is the artificial throttle on digital goods expressed through the “one-copy/one-user” lending model. Typically, for the kinds of books I read, the library will purchase a single licence. When a library patron signs out the eBook, that book becomes unavailable to other users for the full period that it has been borrowed. Our library uses a two-week standard borrowing period. After two-weeks the eBook you have downloaded to your device becomes inaccessible to you and is later deleted. There is no way, currently, to return a downloaded eBook early. In the event of twenty-five library patrons desiring the same eBook for which there is only one licence, there could easily be a one year wait for the last person on the list. I confess that I do not see the logic in that with regard to digital goods. Surely it would be more sensible to simply allow all twenty five patrons to download the book at the same time and just count the instances of its use. But, as noted, there are others more familiar with the licensing models and the economics of eBooks who are better placed to comment on this. I’m only interested here in my user experience.

Of the ten eBooks that I have read, seven different publishing houses are represented. The books range from current literary fiction best-sellers to short story collections and even non-fiction. The authors and their publishing houses are all either Canadian, American, or British, and the original language of each of the books is English. I’ll consider this a limited cross-section.

The Good Stuff:

I like the control I have over the font size. Numerous inexpensive editions of literary classics are published with such tiny font sizes that reading them can be a strain. With an appropriate font size, I can read in bed without my glasses. Admittedly that makes it rather tempting to fall asleep, but then that’s what I would do with a print book as well.

I suppose the next point goes along with the previous, both being aspects of the app through which I am engaging with these eBooks. I like the uniformity of the textual experience. On another day, maybe I wouldn’t count this as a separate point. But today it seems noteworthy.

I like the fact that these books do not occupy space on my bookshelves. Of course no library book is going to end up on my bookshelf permanently. So this isn’t unique to eBooks. But since the majority of what I read is dross (and this may hold true for other people as well), I like that I don’t even have the temptation to fill my shelves with such books. There is a downside to this as well. At least two of these ten eBooks are books that I would very gladly have on my bookshelf for a long, long time. That has something to do with the way I think about my bookshelves, I suppose. Or my vanity. And although it isn’t properly part of my user experience with eBooks, it does make me wonder whether, after having read such an eBook, I would be tempted to purchase a print edition. I don’t have an answer to that question yet.

The Not-so-Good Stuff:

What I like least about eBooks is the poor production value. At times it felt like I was reading a “pre-print” version of the text: typos, elided words, failure to correctly display accents. In some instances, chapters were not separated from each other. In others, blank pages appeared between some chapters. Just plain shoddy workmanship. I confess that I regularly thought to myself, “I’m glad I’m didn’t pay for this.” (But of course I did pay for it one way or another since the public library is supported by my taxes.) And that must be a huge stumbling block for the growth of eBooks, if my experience is even remotely typical. I certainly am not motivated to spend anything like the amount that retailers are demanding for eBooks. Not until I have some reason to think that I would be getting value for money.

Consider a contrasting eReading experience. I have a subscription to the electronic version of The New Yorker magazine. I access and read this magazine on my Nexus 7, just as I do with eBooks. But my experience of The New Yorker is fabulous: the text is clear and flexible, the photos are brilliant, the enhanced multi-media content is always appropriate and welcome, and the content is suitably proofed such that I’ve yet to come across simple errors. Why is my experience of this eMagazine so much better than my experience with any of the eBooks I have read?

I can only speculate here. My guess is that future magazine sales are more directly impacted by the user experience. Provide a poor user experience and your reader will simply not purchase your next issue. Worse, you might be losing that golden chalice of a subscription. So, I think, magazine publishers must be incredibly focused on creating a positive user experience. By contrast, I suspect, book publishers are not really worried about the user’s next purchase. It is the current sale that matters to them, and you’ve already bought the goods, so to speak. Your next eBook purchase might come from any publishing house and is more likely to be due to that book’s reviews and marketing than any previous user experience you’ve have with eBooks. So naturally eBook publishers are not motivated to take poor user experiences to heart.

I suppose that’s pretty thin in the way of explanation, so perhaps I’ll leave further speculation to others.

My experience with eBooks has not turned me off them. I will continue to read eBooks. I will continue to download them from our public library. But I can’t see myself purchasing any eBooks from retailers any time soon. Meanwhile, another issue of The New Yorker has just showed up on my device, so at least I have something to look forward to.

On rereading Jane Austen’s Emma

Few novels return as much pleasure on rereading, for me, as Jane Austen’s Emma. I read it first more than twenty years ago. At the time, I was reading through Austen’s oeuvre quickly and systematically. I read the Austen novels in order of publication. Emma was the last of her novels published in her own lifetime. She had already had some success with Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. But with Emma, I think, Austen pens her first fully mature novel. It seemed to me, even on that first reading, to be the one novel in which she is in total command of her craft, thoroughly realizing a vision of . . . of what? Of love, certainly. Of honour and propriety and family and class and taste, both poor and perfectible, and marriage and, well, life. It is also, as all great literary exemplars are, transformative; it reshapes the novel form itself. Austen reworks here what a novel is and can be. Such novels demand to be read and reread and then reread again.

I was fortunate on this rereading to have at hand the wonderful new annotated edition from The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Edited by Bharat Tandon, this is a beautiful large format hardcover book. The oversize page width allows for the annotations to appear alongside the principal text. There are relevant drawings and reproductions of paintings and even stills from filmic adaptations. But the text is never burdened at any point. The annotations tend to be clarificatory or informational, but sometimes also helpfully interpretative, especially where critical opinions diverge on the importance of key scenes.

Bharat Tandons’ introduction is worthy of special note. It is accessible yet erudite. It points up some of the key tools Austen deploys in writing Emma, such as her liberal use of free indirect style. And it is rightly conscious of the fact that no one would purchase such a heavy, large and somewhat expensive edition unless they were coming back to Emma, coming back with love. This is an edition of Emma almost designed, as it were, for rereaders.

One of the special treats in returning to Emma with such a fine edition is that the reader has the perfect excuse to slow down his reading. There is no need to race along with the plot from one misguided intervention in the lives of others to the next. The reader can take his time. Time to savour Austen’s very precise observations. Time to revel in her withering, warts and all, presentation of grasping tastelessness (e.g. Mrs. Elton) and her superficially similar but in fact very different presentation of kind-hearted senselessness (e.g. Miss Bates). There is plenty of scope here also to take note of how intricately Austen has structured her plot. It is impossible not to imagine her, pen in hand, being delighted with the nuances she has placed on Emma’s self-deceptive insights, knowing full well that all will be revealed in the third volume. It is a delight that transfers naturally to the rereader.

I often claim Emma as my favourite novel. But that is a mere expression of subjective preference. Is it also a good novel?

I have, at times, declared Emma to be a perfect novel. By that, I mean simply that it fully realizes its own (re)vision of what a novel is. It’s in this sense that the novel is transformative. And naturally it admits that there are an indefinite number of perfect novels. As new authors take up the novel form and make it their own, different exemplars of perfection arise. (It’s not surprising that an author would only ever write one perfect novel in her lifetime.) But is a perfect novel also a good novel?

No, not necessarily. A good novel tends to be one in which the reader develops an emotional connection with the characters or events such that the insights and subtle reflections conveyed by the novel (either overtly or tacitly) enter into an ongoing dialogue with the reader. This dialogue is ongoing and open. In effect, the reader learns something, so to speak, through reading a good novel. (The ‘so to speak’ is not perfunctory; readers tend to learn less in this sense from didactic novels.) A sign (but not a foolproof sign) that readers have entered into such a positive relationship with a novel is their willingness to reread the novel again and again (or at least to reflect upon it often). On this ground, I feel confident in identifying Emma as a good novel.

One of the things that this rereading of Emma spurred me to think about is the clear-eyed blindness of love. Love in many forms is on display throughout the novel. It begins with the happy union of Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston. It ends with, “the perfect happiness of the union,” of Emma and Mr. Knightley. Between these points lie yearning, infatuation, admiration, obsession, and more. Harriet Smith is often the vehicle through which love takes its turns. But her love cannot be trusted, blinded as she is by misapprehension and false hope.

By contrast, Mr. Knightley’s love of Emma is clear-eyed. He can see her faults and willingly points them out. And yet despite these faults, he comes to find her faultless. He declares her, “faultless in spite of all her faults.”

That’s a curious state. And I don’t have any glib response to it. But it sounds like something I ought to hold on to and think about further.

In fact, it rather captures how I feel about the novel itself. There are many aspects of Emma that some readers dislike — the capricious and self-involved title character, the meddling in Harriet Smith’s life, the focus on one class in society, the lack of historical sweep (perhaps denoting a preference for a later transformer of the novel such as Tolstoi), or the distrust of unions of ‘so-called’ perfect happiness. To all of which, I can only nod and reply that I stand with Mr. Knightley: I think Emma is, “faultless in spite of all her faults.”

Which, I suppose, is love.

Chucklit, or the rise of the man-boy novel

I’m an eclectic reader. I will read serious literary fiction as well as Star Trek spoofs. I will read classics as well as contemporary fiction. I will even read works in translation. I’m an eclectic reader but I’m not uncritical. There are many types of novels and there are better and worse examples of each.

Recently I’ve spotted a new novel type. It has probably been around for a while, so no doubt it is only newish to me. For lack of a better term, I’m calling it ChuckLit.

Chucklit is typically written by a male author. Its protagonist is also male, usually over 30 but under 40.  He is presented as an everyman but a special breed of everyman. He is smart but under-appreciated. He is financially comfortable either due to his own efforts or the largesse of some fabulously wealthy friend or relative. He has male friends who range from the aggressive loudmouth to the emotionally fragile. But they are all good guys. The kind of guys you would go out to a bar with weekly (or more frequently). They stick up for each other and have been friends probably since they were teens.

In ChuckLit, the protagonist has a low self-image yet seems, perhaps miraculously, to be surrounded by young, buxom, and entirely available women who think he’s great. But it’s so hard to choose! Or having chosen, to stick with your choice.

These are relationship novels. Although there will eventually be some form of violent action at a moment of crisis, in reality the acting out is all about the restructuring of the protagonist’s self-image.  (Despite appearing somewhat weedy, the protagonist will typically summon inner strength that manifests itself in the form of punching some guy who really has it coming.) Once that self-image has been restructured, he is capable of new/better/different/longer-lasting/fulfilling relationships with one or another of the available buxom young women.

And that’s about it. There may be some glancing nod to a topical issue or superficial psychological insight. But mostly it’s about a man-boy becoming, not exactly a man, but at least a new and improved man-boy.

There is something tiresome about such books.

It’s not just the laddish behaviour. Or the gratuitous scenes written as though the real goal is the movie deal the author may be able to negotiate. (Thus there are typically one or more scenes set in bars where bands are playing, which offers opportunities for a cool soundtrack for a movie, and one or more scenes set in strip clubs, which offers opportunities for some gratuitous nudity that the lead actresses may not wish to partake of.) It’s not even the disproportionate relationships with entirely average guys taking up with incredibly beautiful women. That can happen.

It’s the lack of effort, honesty, and insight in the writing that I find disappointing.


Book club discussions

It never ceases to amaze me how discussion of a novel serves to round out your perspective. Last night, the local book club I attend was discussing Room by Emma Donoghue (see my brief review below).  The discussion focussed on the second half of the book, almost as though the content of the first half was too horrific to entertain. Nearly all thought the author had made good choices, especially in regard to the near absence of time spent on the perpetrator of the crime. The mothers present were nonplussed by the breastfeeding of young Jack well into his fifth year. And most had interesting comments to make about the value of attention and protection that Jack’s Ma is able to provide him prior to their escape.

No one, other than me, was troubled by the risks inherent in choosing to employ a quirky (almost alien) child narrator. But I still worry about it. Such a narrator provides lots of opportunity for an author to make witty and insightful observations. But I think that, increasingly, as the story develops, the reader must begin to lose emotional sympathy for the narrator. This is because we have no idea what goes on in the heads of these peculiar narrators, and thus we have no way of judging the naturalness of what they say and do. They could, in effect, say anything at all.

Most of the characters that we think are well rendered in a novel are not like that. 400 pages in, Jane Eyre is constrained by her character, her history, and our working understanding of what young women are like, to say and do only a limited number of things. That’s what gives a novel a kind of determinism, if that is an appropriate term. The preceding pages push the novel towards its conclusion, whatever that might be. In the case of Room, that cannot happen. Which, I think, is why the second half feels, to me, like it is meandering, and also explains why the tidying that occurs at the very end might be considered unsatisfactory.

So, once again a lively and friendly book club meeting has helped me sharpen some of my intuitions about aspects of a novel into a more or less coherent view that I can now test on my future reading. (I may well yet revise this view considerably.) Surely it is one of the reasons I enjoy these meetings so much.