Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

What Good Are Printed Books? Here We Go Again…

October 26, 2010

Dear Readers, I ask you, what good are printed books?

This question grows old, I agree, after we spent weeks addressing it on this very site.  Still, a recent spate of articles has sent it chasing round my brain, so here we are again.

EXHIBIT A: “The Fate of the Book” in The Chronicle Review

Article One: William Germano’s provocative title “What Are Books Good For?” leads to the less provocative claim that even inside the “knowledge machine” of a digital text, the codex remains as a “ghost-like” presence.  The book, in other words, once “freed of its materiality,” yet lives.

Okay, maybe I’m a little provoked.  But hold that thought.

Article Two: “The Cult of the Book—and Why it Must End” by Jeffrey R. Di Leo.

Throwing around words like “cult” and “myth” is a dirty rhetorical gambit.  But Di Leo does it repeatedly, which makes me want to just kick him in the shins.

In his favor, Di Leo argues that digital multi-media offers exciting prospects for hybrid forms that should be valued by the academy.  Who could disagree?

But if Professor Di Leo wants to root out the cult of the mythic book, he’s going to have to hire meatier thugs than these three 90-pound weaklings: “Digital books are more affordable, accessible, and environmentally friendly.”

The Old One-Two-Three Knock-Out Punch, or What happens Your Opponent Brings His Own Strawmen to the Fight

Books on a shelf

Also not an e-book

More environmentally friendly? Having dispelled Di Leo’s cult-like myth before, I will repeat only briefly that e-readers are not made of pixie wings, and don’t run on dreams.  In fact, e-readers are MORE environmentally destructive than mowing down trees.  I’m tired.  YOU look up the environmental and human cost of manufacturing, transporting, running and disposing of the hardware required for e-media. Multiply that by the speed of planned obsolescence.  Then look up the data on the escalating CO2 emissions from server farms and weep.

More affordable? Affordability doesn’t end at the bottom of our pockets.  It ends when we’ve counted all the costs.  And costs to the planet (see above) are ultimately costs to our own well-being.  Perhaps on his next sabbatical, Professor Di Leo might invest in a good course on ecoliteracy, and another on environmental justice.

More accessible?  To whom? According to George Lucas’ Edutopia, half (HALF) the households in the U.S. have no internet access at home.  How many of those families can afford reading gadgets?  Globally, the picture’s even worse.

But Wait, There’s More

Here’s the kicker: Professor Di Leo writes that “Words may look better in print, and a book may feel better in your hands than a Kindle or an iPad, but the words are the same.”

Well, yes, and if I scrawled Ulysses on Dublin walls with the rusty point of a two-penny nail, I could say pretty much the same thing: The “words may look better in print, and a book may feel better in your hands…but the words are the same.” (more…)


Thoreau Just Last Wednesday

September 25, 2010

So in the great reality show that is contemporary life, comes this concatenation of events:


I’m on the bus eavesreading over someone’s shoulder.  “Justin Bieber Caught Canoodling in L.A.”  I think, “Canoodling”?  I think, “That’s a headline??”  I think, “Poor kid, forced to live in public.”


I am just getting started pondering the decline and fall of empires, of newspapers, of public discourse, of privacy, when the bus whooshes to a stop and on hops a teenage girl with her pleasant-seeming friend.  The first girl is laughing and talking at top volume, though not with her pleasant-seeming friend, but with an imaginary one.  Or so it seems.   For the next fifteen minutes, I listen, for example, to the following:

Real Girl: So did he call her a bitch?  Or did you?

Blue Tooth Fairy: ****  *************  *****  **********

Real Girl: You did?

Blue Tooth Fairy: ******   *************  ***  ******************  **

Real Girl: Who started it?

Blue Tooth Fairy: ***   ****    **  *****   **   ******

Real Girl: Yeah, I miss my iPod, too.

Blue Tooth Fairy: ****  ***** ** * ******    **

Real Girl: You did?

Blue Tooth Fairy: ***

Real Girl: OMG !  !  !  (*Raucous laughing*)

Literally, she said the letters,­ “O.  M.  G.”

While I’m overhearing and thinking about declines and falls, canoodling teen idols with weird hair (and why or why not I should know this), living or not living in public, coerced and voluntary eavesdropping, teenagers—both widely known and not—in the age of reality media, feeling glad that I feel my next blog post coming on—which launches a whole new cascade of thinking about writing and meaning and why or why not there is any irony here—the girl’s real friend gazes out the window, watching the city roll by, utterly alone.


I hop off the bus at the university where I teach, glad for the hush of fog at 8 a.m., and stroll across the damp grass to drop some books off at the library.  I stroll by the “New Arrivals” shelf and browse titles.  I spy a book by James Hawes, WHY YOU SHOULD READ KAFKA BEFORE YOU WASTE YOUR LIFE.


I sit in my office, check and answer email, check for new status updates, check on tweets, click some links, ponder culpability for declines and falls and participation in same.  Ponder futility.  Ponder monkey-mind.  Ponder Thoreau.  (more…)

Knowing Our Place: Learning from a Cracker Childhood

July 13, 2010

I grew up mostly unrooted, so when I read Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, I wished that I, too, had grown up poor in a rural Georgia junkyard with parents so religiously fundamentalist they forbade my wearing pants, cutting my hair, or having friends over to play.  That’s just how good a storyteller she is.   But Ecology is even more than a great story, it’s an act of devotion to place.   Ray’s embrace gathers in the human tales of family and Cracker culture, but also those of the longleaf pine forests that once blanketed the South.    For those of us who lack her deep connection to culture and land, this book is an occasion for longing.

Ray’s rootedness fascinates me, as rootedness always does when I meet people who have it.  Outside the South, they’re not that easy to find.   Most of us in the U.S. are mobility incarnate, variously attached—or not—to a series of addresses, but without deep knowledge of the places we live.   Even if we feel fiercely devoted to our city or neighborhood, we rarely know the deep, ecological story of the land our houses stand on.  Ray’s book is about roots in that deepest sense.  Its chapters alternate between yarns about family and tales of the longleaf pine and its whole forest ecosystem: the complex interdependence of pine trees and wiregrass, indigo snake and gopher tortoise, scrub buckwheat and chaffseed and the Mississippi sandhill crane.  She tells that story, too, in a way that will hold you spellbound. (more…)

Bill McKibben’s EAARTH. A review, a rant, an invitation.

May 31, 2010

Before we all head off into our gas-powered, coal-fired lives this week, I invite you to take the pledge: You will not let the summer go by without reading Bill McKibben’s Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.  It’s not exactly beach reading, unless your beach is on the Gulf of Mexico.  And the way I see it, that is now everybody’s beach, everybody’s wetlands, everybody’s ruin.  We all have a hand in that broken cookie jar.

Bill McKibben would have us know a few simple things:

1.  Climate change isn’t some hypothetical future event.  It’s here.  Now.  And it’s only going to get worse.

2.  Civilization as we’ve known it—the civilization made possible by a stable, abundant and richly diverse planet—is screwed.  Because that planet no longer exists.  It’s over.

3.  Modernity has been made possible by cheap fossil fuels—and those days are gone.

For doubters, there’s data—lots of it.  And the numbers add up to this: the planet that human culture has known for 10,000 years has been changed so dramatically by human activity, McKibben has rechristened it “eaarth,” with an extra ‘a’.  After you read the first half of the book, you might wonder why he didn’t just call it Planet Doom. (more…)

An Ode To My Students

April 16, 2010

My class “Literature and the Environment” is not for the student looking to sit back and chill.   It’s a class for champions.  And this semester, I got them.  This little ode is for them.

We started in late January.  It rained.  We read essays by Barry Lopez, bell hooks, Luther Standing Bear, Edward Abbey and Jonathan Safran Foer.  We read Wendell Berry on the Unsettling of America and pondered the ravenous drive for conquest that runs like a river of blood through our history.  What is nature, we asked?  Where is it?  In what ways am I in it, of it?  In the dance between nature and culture, must it be a zero sum game?  And most importantly, what is our paradigm?  What is the paradigm of western culture that has brought us so blithely to our current perilous brink?  Can we change it?

Can reading literature change it?  I want them to believe it can, because it has the power to change the way we think and see.  These students have been willing to entertain that possibility.  They’ve been willing to look into their own ideas and conceptions.  They’ve even been willing to change.

In February (still raining), Thoreau led us through the woods to rapture of his morning bath and the Homeric trumpet of a mosquito, while Michael Pollan brought us back out into the garden and reason.  Rather than roping “nature” off into wilderness preserves while we despoil every other corner of the planet, why not treat the whole thing like a garden?  Let us get what we need while nature gets what it needs to survive.  That way, when we have a woodchuck problem, we don’t have to firebomb the woodchuck burrow, we just need to build a fence. (more…)