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Why BookSwim Is Bad for Reading

October 13, 2009 15 comments

BookSwim is a business that essentially claims to be the book version of Netflix.  I’d been to their website a few months ago, but when someone reposted it on Twitter I revisited.  I was immediately struck by how the whole thing bothers me.  After a bit of pondering, I realized why.

BookSwim is attempting, subtly, to become a monopoly in the supply of books.

They claim to be more convenient and better than borrowing from a local library, cheaper than buying books, and more trustworthy than eReaders.  They also claim to be better than swapping services like SwapTree, since you’ll be getting new or barely used books instead of old copies.  However, they understand you may still want to buy a book, so you always have the option of buying a book you have rented from them and then just not returning it.  Soon, all you will need for books is a BookSwim account.

Everyone knows monopolies are bad from an economic standpoint.  Where there’s a monopoly there’s horribly high prices, and the item being offered becomes a mark of wealth rather than something everyone uses.  However, I see a monopoly of this type as dangerous to literacy, intellectualism, and even freedom.

How easy would it be to censor what the public reads if everyone attains their information from the same book provider?  Can you imagine the nightmare for freedom of thought it would be if one congolmerate controlled all collection development for an entire nation?  Already they claim to have almost every book you would ever want to read, yet when I searched for five books on my to be read list, only the most recently published one (this year) was held by BookSwim.  (Most of the other were from 1960s to the 1980s, though one was a classic).  They claim to be willing to buy any book they don’t have that you want, but I honestly am skeptical about this.  Maybe I’ve received too many promises like that from cell phone providers, but I can just see the “sorry, there wouldn’t be enough demand to warrant the price” email now.

I know most users wouldn’t limit themselves to just BookSwim for getting their books.  At least not right now.  Yet this scenario of a Big Brother monopoly over where we can acquire our books is clearly what BookSwim wants.

“But, Amanda,” I can hear you saying, “Shouldn’t a business want to become a great succcess?”  Well, yes, but they could have come up with a business model that is more supportive of the community of reading and learning.  A website such as IndieBound, for instance, that makes it easy for users to find local independent bookstores.

Reading and learning isn’t just about “Oh I got this book that’s popular right now, and it came so conveniently in my mail.”  Reading and learning are about the journey and the connections.  When I go to my local independent bookstore and browse for something to read, I not only get a used book cheap, but I also chat with the owner and other browsers.  I leave knowing that my book came from someone else in the community.

I like knowing that the books I read come from many sources.  I use the local public library, borrow from friends, buy used from indie bookstores, buy new copies, receive ARCs from LibraryThing and blogs, and plan to swap via SwapTree in the near future.  My knowledge-base is fluid and about a community.  It isn’t one business that ships my books to me in the mail.  It’s the various communities of readers that overlap and interact to make for my own unique learning experience.  If a company such as BookSwim did become a monopoly, I would lose all that, and that is one of my favorite aspects of reading.

Book Review: Fourth Realm Trilogy By John Twelve Hawks

October 9, 2009 5 comments

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Summary:
John Twelve Hawks presents us with a near-future dystopia in the Fourth Realm TrilogyThe Traveler, The Dark River, and The Golden City.  In this vision of the world Earth as we know it is actually just one of six realms of parallel universes.  Travelers are the only ones who can move between these parallel universes.  Saints with visions of heaven and hell and motivating, compassionate people such as Buddha are examples of past travelers.  They seek to keep people aware of their “Light” aka soul.  An evil organization called The Brotherhood has been seeking for generations to wipe out travelers, as they believe they cause dissent.  Working against The Brotherhood are Harlequins–people raised from birth to defend travelers at all costs.  The Brotherhood thought they had succeeded and have started building a panopticon–a virtual prison in which everyone is constantly under surveillance for “their own protection.”  However, two brothers–Michael and Gabriel–are actually travelers.  Michael sides with The Brotherhood in an effort to ensnare humanity, while Gabriel teams up with Maya, a Harlequin.   The two brothers thus are pit against each other in an effort to enslave or save humanity.

Review:
The Fourth Realm Trilogy is decidedly a series with a message and an agenda.  “John Twelve Hawks” is actually a pen-name, and the publisher claims that he does try to live off the grid out of a concern about loss of freedom via invasion of privacy with new technology.  There is skepticism as to whether this is true or a marketing hype.  Regardless, whoever the author is, his main concern is definitely loss of privacy to technology, and this is abundantly evident in the trilogy.

This is a plot-driven trilogy.  It reads like an action film in the feel of The Matrix.  Further it is exciting because the world the characters live in looks exactly like our own, right down to the surveillance cameras in London.  The only difference is these parallel universes, which is a feature I enjoyed a lot.  Dystopian novels are usually either completely bound in our world or take place in an entirely different one.  This trilogy utilizes both approaches, and this kept it from feeling like an updated version of 1984.

There are many characters.  Thankfully, they are distinct enough that keeping track of them is relatively easy, but sometimes Twelve Hawks does not pay enough attention to character development.  Particularly toward the end of the trilogy, characters will suddenly make a decision or behave in a manner that comes out of nowhere and is completely out of character.  These moments are jarring and distract from the plot.

The plot itself is a good, complex one.  It takes place all over this world and journeys to every single realm.  Two plot sequences I particularly enjoyed were one in an off-the-grid commune in the south-west US and another in Japan.  Twelve Hawks must have travelled extensively, because the descriptions scream “I’ve been there. I know what it’s really like.”  There was one plot hole in The Dark River that still bothers me.  I think what probably happened is there’s an explanation for the action, but Twelve Hawks neglected to write it in.  However, the ending makes up for the plot hole as I was unable to predict it.  I absolutely love unpredictable endings that keep me page-turning right up until the end.

Another enjoyable element of the trilogy is the violence.  It is chock-full of creative deaths, and even characters who don’t die get beat up a lot–in all realms.  An example of the level of violence is a scene where three characters’ limbs are simultaneously wripped off in front of an audience.  However, most of the violence is more of the ninja type, due to the presence of the sword and martial-arts trained Harlequins.  Twelve Hawks’s strength is writing action sequences, so these are great fun to read.

A mark against the trilogy is periodic character speeches that are obviously Twelve Hawks voicing his opinion.  This a typical short-coming of dystopian novels though.  Authors with a dark vision of the future can’t seem to help proselytizing in an attempt to save it.  I don’t hold this against the novels, but other readers might find it more annoying.  There’s essentially one speech a book.

If you enjoy Quentin Tarantino movies or want a more grown-up, spiritual version of The Hunger Games, definitely give the Fourth Realm Trilogy a chance.  I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Bought The Traveller, borrowed The Dark River and The Golden City from the library

Buy The Traveller
Buy The Dark River
Buy The Golden City

Your Job as a Librarian

April 1, 2009 5 comments

I’m a librarian, currently working on my master’s degree. Some people are concerned about technology being the downfall of libraries. Observing my fellow classmates makes me far more concerned that they will be the downfall of librarianship.

There’s the students who just cannot seem to properly research anything.
Idiot student: “What?! I couldn’t find the answer to that anywhere!”
Me: “Really? Cause it took me all of 2 minutes…..”

There’s the students who can’t write properly to save their lives, which is particularly a problem for academic librarians who must be published in order to stick around.

I could go on and on with my list, but I’ll get to my point. What I consider to be absolutely the worst idiocy is the students who just don’t get the ethics behind or the point in being a librarian.

Last night we were discussing working the reference desk and having a patron come up and ask for assistance in researching a medical issue such as diabetes or weight loss. (A pet peeve I have with this class is the idiot professor’s assumption that we are all going to be working in public libraries. *sigh*) A student piped up that she would first advise the patron to go to a doctor. I assumed the professor would inform her that it’s none of her damn business to go around telling people to go to a doctor. Imagine my surprise when she didn’t. I put in my two cent’s worth, which led to an epic debate.

Why do I have a problem with this?

Libraries are an essential element in democracies. If we as a populace are expected to actively participate in our governance and to keep an eye on our government, we must be informed. A library is a place where people can self-educate. They can fact-check. It’s largely about not believing everything you are told and investigating it yourself.

So a patron shows up to do just that and your immediate response is to tell them to go to some “authority” the culture has deemed appropriate and to just automatically trust them? See the problem here?

People are not complete idiots. They are aware doctors/lawyers/other authorities exist. If they are coming to the library to conduct their own research, there has got to be a reason.

Your job as a librarian is not to assume your patrons are idiots.
Your job as a librarian is not to reinforce the system.
Your job as a librarian is not to believe you can read people’s minds.

Your job as a librarian is to assist people in educating themselves.
Your job as a librarian is to help maintain (or, hell, produce) a questioning, educated public.

Librarianship is about being radical; it is not about reinforcing the norm.

The fact that my classmates simply do not get this core essence of librarianship makes me envision a Fahrenheit 451 type future where instead of firemen burning houses down, librarians only provide government-approved information and report questioners to The Man.