A Mind @ Play

random thoughts to oil the mind

Tag: Books Page 2 of 4

The Paper mp3

Amazon Kindle

Amazon Kindle e-book reader

Reading this post recently, I found myself asking why ebooks haven’t really taken off as a medium. Certainly more recent efforts, such as Amazon’s Kindle, have helped to reignite the market after a rather dubious development period over the past decade or so, but if one compares the ubiquity of mobile phones or digital audio players, e-books are entirely missing from the landscape. 1According to The Guardian in April 2008, ebooks accounted for less than 1% of the total publishing market, albeit this share has no doubt increased since.

In purely utilitarian terms, should the technology ever be fully and appropriately used, ebooks have a lot to offer over their paper counterparts. There are far fewer requirements and resources needed for production, and distribution is much easier. Whilst a device on which to read ebooks might outweigh a single volume, additional books add nothing, and in terms of transporting books en mass, ebooks are clearly in favour. The ability to flick through a paper volume might be lost in the electronic form, but this is clearly compensated for by vastly improved tools for search and cross-referencing. Likewise combining other forms of media such as video and audio is a perfectly reasonable conception with ebooks, that the paper variety can’t really compete with on any level. They’re also more easily manipulable, in terms of being able to zoom, highlight or simple leave your own annotations about the place. All of which is to say nothing of the potential advantages for newspapers and other periodicals.

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1. According to The Guardian in April 2008, ebooks accounted for less than 1% of the total publishing market, albeit this share has no doubt increased since.

Recent Reads

It’s fairly rare for me to bother reviewing anything I read on here, however since I had some spare minutes and some actual opinions on some of the books I read this last month, there seemed to be enough to say to make up at least a short post. In fact it turned out to be a bit on the long side, so scroll down the relevant review if you’re really interested—being Stephen Fry’s strange debut The Liar, J.M. Coetzee’s rather aggravating Slow Man, Isabel Allende’s book for children City of Beasts, Zadie Smith’s impressive opener White Teeth and Murray Walker’s charming little autobiography Unless I’m Very Much Mistaken.

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Longitude

LongitudeLongitude is a short tale of an individual from an indistinct background and minimal education, striving to solve one of the most difficult conundrums of his day, through patience, diligence and a monumental attention to detail, combined with the exertions of half a century of labour. The story has plot twists and setbacks, rivals and allies, and if one wishes to stretch the imagination a little, even a villain. And of course, it’s all true.

In many ways, this book is little out of the ordinary, or at least its subject matter isn’t. Over the past few centuries this world has produced many remarkable personages: daring adventurers, shocking geniuses, revolutionary thinkers, and in this instance, plain hard-working pioneers. The age of discovery was perhaps particularly fertile in producing such remarkable characters, and a complete survey of the eighteenth century could easily fill a small library.

Which is precisely why Sobel’s book is so charming. In a period so active, a society so effervescent with ideas, Sobel has picked one lonely character, and one particular problem, and distilled a story that any layman can pick up and read. Despite the prominent cast of characters, the Isaac Newtons and Edmund Halleys, James Cooks and astronomers royal, the book in its entirety stretches to just 175 pages, and that in a fair spaced typeset. This brevity is precisely the book’s strength. The story needs no embellishment, it virtually tells itself, each iteration of John Harrison’s timepiece carried its own chapter heading in his life, each page a new development in the search for accurately keeping longitude at sea. Where many other books of this sort ramble on for a few hundred more pages about things entirely unpertinent to the theme, Sobel’s Longitude is concise and self-explanatory. What longitude is, how it proved such a problem to calculate, what rival solutions to the problem were being developed, and how John Harrison managed to essentially solve the riddle in one swoop, in a manner completely against the contemporary views of the time, all are clearly outlined and explained in this wonderfully distilled book.

Phantoms in the Brain

Phantoms in the Brain

In Phantoms in the Brain, V. S. Ramachandran has attempted to emulate the forebears he cites in the Preface, who inspired him to write science that is both informative and interesting to the general reading public. In this he has certainly succeeded, his style is highly approachable, and the content not only comprises interesting titbits, but wholly thought-provoking suggestions and analyses. I picked up Phantoms in the Brain on the basis of a recommendation from a friend more involved in the scientific fold than I am, yet found the book to be readily accessible to these with even only a meagre understanding of the way our brains function.

The book is for the most part concerned with the fundamental inner workings of the brain revealed to us through curiously specific medical conditions, often brought about by severe physical traumas such as strokes. Some of the findings are, perhaps, fairly well known by now, yet I’ve no doubt that many will still be quite shocking to most readers. However, Ramachandran keeps the presentation of both old and new findings fresh, in his natural inquisitive approach to each individual problem. His curiosity and novel attitude in dealing with many of these strange rarities of medical science at times remind one of the naïve questioning of a young child, who by approaching problems from altogether unexpected angles can come up with profound thoughts and solutions that would not normally strike an adult.

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The Cost of Reading

Costly pile

As an avid reader, it often occurs to me just how second-hand book retailers manage to turn a profit. Even assuming the raw stock can be acquired at very little cost, the vast majority of books can go unsold almost indefinitely, all the while occupying shelf or storage space that costs money to maintain. I read somewhere that on average a second-hand bookseller can expect a third of his stock to be sold within six months, another third to be sold on an indefinite timescale, and the final third to simply go unsold. Obviously this has a knockon effect where turnover is slow. On a recent trip to Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town, I came across plenty of bookstores that clearly have to elevate prices to remain profitable. No doubt in their case, the annual book festival and holiday season are a major source of revenue that would otherwise cause most to close their doors in an otherwise small and overcrowded market ecosystem.

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