This morning I started my day at Dalston Junction. The weather was so lovely and hot I wanted to stay overground for as long as I could. I’ve got my lovely new sticker on my front so that people don’t throw me away. It says, ‘Pick me!’, ‘Read me!’. I could be their new favourite book.
Oops, excuse me, watch out there, I’m only little. It’s a bit of a squash on the train this morning, people must have important jobs to go to. I can keep you company on your journey, take me home. It’s hard to find a seat amongst all these commuters.
Phew! I manage to get a seat at Caledonian Road. Oh, somebody’s picked me up, yay, I hope you like me.
This afternoon I’m going underground. The escalators are really high for a small book like me. I’m at Whitechapel, on the District Line, going west. Whoosh, this train is coming very fast, it’s a good job I’m standing behind the yellow line! I hop on and zoom, we’re off. All the way under the city, I speed past Westminster, ‘Hello, Prime Minister!’ and on to Earl’s Court. Oh, careful with me. Somebody has put me in their bag, I wonder if we’re going to the London Book Fair…
My final ride of the day is the Bakerloo Line, what a funny name! I get on at Baker Street, such a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, you know, I wonder if he will enjoy reading me. Oh well, no time to stop, racing all the way up the line to Paddington. Is he there? Perhaps I could share one of his marmalade sandwiches? Just catch the fast train to Oxford, I think I’ll pop in to the Infinite Ideas office and tell them about my adventure!
If you enjoyed reading about 5742 Days, Anniversary Edition’s day on the London Underground, check out the book, which is available now. Special thanks to @BooksUndergrnd for distributing our books.
The fifth book in Catherine Cooper’s bestselling Jack Brenin series published in February 2013, and the series is now complete. To celebrate, Catherine held a party on 4th May near her home town in Shropshire. The event coincided with the birthday of raven-boy Camelin (if you look closely at the photos underneath, you might spot him with his celebratory purple balloon. With spellbinding live music from Shropshire folk band Whalebone, Mrs Spike’s fairy themed cake that was (almost) too beautiful to eat, and the best live storyteller we’ve ever seen, Camelin’s birthday party isn’t a shindig we’ll be forgetting in a hurry.
In today’s information society the amount of text we receive on a daily basis is vast; newspapers, magazines and books now compete for our attention with blogs, emails, texts and social media discussions. But traditional reading can seem time consuming; for many, the need to be able to read more text and faster is a dilemma they can relate to easily. According to Forbes, an adult reading at an average speed of 300 words per minute spends at least two hours reading every day in order to keep up. Imagine the difficulties of a research student reading several one thousand page textbooks in a couple of months (yes, I know what I’m talking about where the need for superhuman speed-reading powers is concerned; and a photographic memory, for that matter).
So, what do we do? Read less, always having the feeling that we’re missing out or having to keep up? Be more selective and risk not having enough time to read what we actually want to read for pleasure? Or use speed-reading techniques, which may limit our ability to comprehend what we’re reading, let alone enjoy it?
Speed-reading techniques can involve skimming, a process that involves visually searching the sentences of a page for clues to meaning, or meta guiding, by visually guiding the eye using a finger or a pen. Or, more recently, a speed-reading app called Spritz, which promises to change the way people read, and make communication faster, easier, and more effective.
According to Spritz’s developer your eyes can easily become fatigued by having to move from word to word and line to line. We only need 20% of our reading time for processing content; the remaining 80% is taken up by scanning for the next ‘Optimal Recognition Point’ (ORP). From a more technological point of view traditional reading also consumes large amounts of physical space on a screen, which limits reading effectiveness on small displays and involves scrolling, pinching, and resizing a reading area.
Spritz works against this and removes the time consuming part of eye movement by using a technology that shows each word on a specially designed ‘redicle’ frame at the desired speed, and highlights the ORP of each word in red. The available Spritz speeds start at 250wpm and go up to 1000wpm, for those with a bit more experience. Spritz uses only thirteen characters in total to show all content, an advantage when reading on small screens.
So far it sounds promising, but what of the bit about comprehending what we read? Well according to Spritz tests showed that retention levels when Spritzing are at least as good as with traditional reading and that, with experience, you will retain even more than you did before. This is debatable, because when reading really fast – especially complex or difficult material – our understanding of the text suffers (like Woody Allen jokes: “He speed-read War and Peace and came away with the insight that ‘it’s about Russia.'”).
Keith Rayner, a professor of psychology at U.C. San Diego, who runs an eye-tracking laboratory, claims in The New Yorker that Spritz presents itself as the future, but ‘It won’t work on longer texts. Every time the brain needs to pause, it will be derailed.’ This becomes even more apparent when reading something we are not experts in. Something new and unfamiliar makes us stop, start, and re-read, struggling with unfamiliar words and concepts.
What do we conclude? Depending on what we want to gain from our reading experience Spritz can be a useful app. If it’s to quickly check the news online, read an article in our area of expertise or a memo at work it can make us feel more efficient. But as soon as we would like to really absorb the text we are reading and learn from it, Spritz doesn’t seem like the proper tool. Why even give in to this high-speed way of life? The existence of inventions like Spritz shows how little space time has in our society. What is the point in reading a smart book in half the time while only understanding half of its content?
Unlike speed-reading techniques, reading selectively helps us to prioritise while also allowing us time to really enjoy and understand what we are reading; it keeps a balance between work and pleasure. Reading isn’t just about quantity and speed, it’s about the experience and about how we can use information to develop ourselves and widen our minds.
We were interested to read this Bookseller article about a new prototype platform which aims to catapult the world of theatre into the digital age by providing an instantly accessible, portable and affordable way to experience play scripts.
The platform Uneditions, developed by Leeds-based Unlimited Theatre, enables the creation and distribution of digital play scripts for tablets, phones and computers. The key selling point here is that the scripts are much more than the boring old plain text found in any printed or ebook version of a play. These scripts incorporate lighting, sound, and text layouts designed to create the illusion that the reader is actually watching the action.
By bringing the art of theatre directly to you, the user – whether on your laptop at home or an iPhone at the bus stop – Uneditions are transforming the way plays are delivered and experienced, thereby making the art of theatre instantly accessible to a wider market than ever before. And because Uneditions will allow theatre companies to self-publish their own play scripts, the platform presents a massive opportunity for stimulating a previously untapped revenue stream. The developers say: ’This project is a sincere, rigorous wondering about how we … can better transpose the stories we’re telling to other mediums. I’m excited by the potential that our digital play script has to allow existing audiences to deepen their understanding of the work we make, and also, importantly, open our and our sector’s work up to a much wider range of people.’ The development of Uneditions is incredibly timely. Given the major switch to digital that many arts and media sectors are making, it is precisely the right climate for experimentation with new ways of creating, delivering and disseminating content.
Twenty-first century consumers expect to be able to access whatever they need immediately – with little fuss and at minimum expense, and the breadth of choice now available from online stores has led to a new kind of economy focusing on a ‘long tail’ of products. In music, the age of the CD album has given way to a dawn of discovery where you can try before you buy. Online stores offer a musical pick ‘n’ mix where you – rather than the record company – are in charge of how you consume; the age of the album may well be over. The rise of subscription services such as Last.fm and Spotify means you can listen online to the songs, artists and genres you are likely to enjoy; create playlists and customised radio stations to play on portable devices; match your musical tastes with those of others around the world and identify nearby gigs that you wouldn’t want to miss. Artists are able to reach a wider potential audience, not only through subscription sites but also through official accounts on social media sites.
The digital revolution has good news for writers too: internet bloggers and self-publishers are making themselves heard where otherwise their voices would be lost among a mountain of submissions and forgotten in a publisher’s slushpile. As a consumer, you can turn to your e-reader for faster access to cheap content where the text opens up a new online world beyond the story. Apps such as Readmill and Wattpad have developed to cater for a new breed of reader whose scribbles in the margin can be disseminated to, and discussed by, a whole community of readers – perhaps even the author. So publishers are increasing their digital output to cater to demand – and raking in the extra revenue that comes with it.
In many circles it is accepted that it is not the strongest of a species that survives, but the one most adaptable to change. This is especially pertinent in light of the threat posed by online stores offering instantaneous purchasing at rock bottom prices. Bookstores and music shops are having to think outside the box. The troubled UK high street retailer HMV has for some years stocked books, electronic equipment, T-shirts, posters and other merchandise to compensate for the falling sales of CDs (replaced by digital downloads) and DVDs (replaced by subscription and home mailing services). Services such as Netflix and Lovefilm make it possible to stream films and TV programmes directly whenever you want; Netflix premier content exclusively for subscribers, and have even commissioned brand new TV series, taking viewing habits even further away from the traditional model than ever before. Waterstone’s now stock luxurious hardback tomes with high production values – the kinds of books that can’t be replaced by an e-reader – next to stationery, gifts, and the latest reading devices, tablets and accessories. Many independent bookstores are transforming into coffee shops and luring in casual buyers with fine Victoria sponges displayed alongside the latest bestselling paperbacks. The canniest of booksellers are hosting a wide variety of exclusive in-store events such as launch parties, author signings and poetry evenings – and communities are growing around them.
So it is not only the way we purchase content that is changing, but the way we experience it. The effects of this can be seen in almost every sector of arts and media – in literature, music, film, TV and now even theatre. We are consuming more, and faster, than ever before. To profit from the growing demand for content in a variety of forms, it is necessary for businesses to act fast, be flexible and, above all, be imaginative. Sales in the arts and entertainment industries are no longer purely physical, and the way we experience content is changing almost beyond recognition. This presents not a threat, but an opportunity – those who fail to see it as such are missing a trick.
by Richard Burton, author of A strong song tows us
The old man in August Kleinzahler’s beautiful poem ‘The Bench’ is the poet Basil Bunting, the location Victoria, British Columbia, during Bunting’s disastrous winter at the University of Victoria in 1971-72 (LRB, 9 January). After a spectacular falling out with Robin Skelton, Bunting was left isolated, lonely and bitter, but Kleinzahler shows him keeping his eye on the horizon. Bunting’s preference was for the big picture but he also had a keen appreciation of the absurd and he would have relished some of the eccentricities in Michael Hofmann’s review of my Life of Bunting in the same issue. I am still trying to work out what an ‘exfoliated, whiskery’ biography might look like, and whether or not I have written one, and whether or not it is a good thing if I have; and I’m sure that Bunting would have found the comparison of the poet to Tintin as bewildering as I do. It’s not for me to quibble with Hofmann’s interpretations but I should correct the impression he may have left that Bunting’s relationship with biography was straightforward, because it wasn’t.
Hofmann writes that mine is the first ‘proper’ biography of Bunting but that I add little to his understanding of its subject beyond that provided by Victoria Forde, Richard Caddel and Carroll Terrell. He doesn’t mention Keith Alldritt’s The Poet as Spy: The Life and Wild Times of Basil Bunting, which was published in 1998. Forde and Terrell did include biographical chapters in their studies of the poet, and a clue to the strengths and weaknesses of Basil Bunting: A Northern Life by Caddel and Anthony Flowers, which is just 64 pages long and heavily illustrated, is embedded in its subtitle. Alldritt’s was in fact the first ‘proper’ biography but it is so heavily marbled with rumour and speculation that it is almost worthless. It was reading Alldritt’s book (which if anything damaged Bunting’s reputation) that stung me into writing A Strong Song Tows Us.
More important, Hofmann writes that I pay ‘lip service to Bunting’s personal opposition to biography’ and that I go ‘so far as to borrow the five parts of Briggflatts’ for my narrative structure. That often expressed objection is, however, compromised by Bunting’s full participation in the publication of Jonathan Williams’s Descant on Rawthey’s Madrigal, which told his story up to the mid-1960s, by his biographical introduction to the poems of Joseph Skipsey in 1976, in which he confesses to having sought out Skipsey’s surviving relatives for their memories, and by the fact that the subtitle of Briggflatts itself is ‘An Autobiography’. Bunting was not above using biography in pursuit of what he saw as a good cause. He did this because he recognised that the way to interest people in the work of a neglected poet is to tell his story. My ‘borrowing’ from Briggflatts was intended as a courtesy and recognition of Bunting’s ambiguous relationship with biography. Hofmann doesn’t seem to be too comfortable around ambiguity. He chides me for not telling readers whether Bunting was arrested in Paris in 1923 for biting a policeman’s nose or for kicking him in the pants. Nobody knows, and as the gritty wanderer of ‘The Bench’ would have been the first to insist, it really doesn’t matter.
For more information on the life and work of Basil Bunting, visit our dedicated site at www.basilbunting.com.
by Anne-Marie Cockburn, author of 5,742 Days
I’m not pretending, no poker face could disguise this, but admittedly I haven’t given the ‘bereavement’ adequate space despite it constantly vying for my attention – like two fighting siblings in the back of the car. ‘Muuumm, he’s squashing my leg’ … ‘Would you two stop it now – be nice to your sister’. Give me sparkly tinsel over a sobbing heap on the floor any day. ‘Give tinsel space’, I say, as the bereavement says ‘Ho, ho, ho’ and waits patiently in the corner.
I go to a Christmas lunch at a pub on Sunday. Everything looks appropriately cosy and inviting as we sit at our table for ten. The Christmas CD has been dusted off and is duly played on repeat and the Christmas tree, of a height the room is unable to accommodate, has a slight bend at the top – there’s no room at the inn for you 4 inches, said the innkeeper, you need to find somewhere else to stay, we’re full.
All the ingredients for a lovely Sunday lunch and enjoyable afternoon are mixed in the pot and lovingly stirred around, there, there. I feel it pulling at me; my eyes glaze up and I try to stop it – not now, not in a room full of happy people wearing Christmas hats and full of Christmas cheer, don’t do this now. Snap, the cracker is pulled and out I fall. I sob and can’t stop; I bend my head forwards and am glad of the ample cloth napkin to dry my tears. ‘Someone put a finger in the dam and save us all from drowning’, I wish. Jingle bells, jingle bells – the tune distorts in my head and sounds sinister. I realise I’ve exhausted myself for weeks by fighting the inevitable. Oh but what a good fight I’ve put up, I think as I sit in the corner of the boxing ring having blood wiped from my nose, waiting for the bell to ring again. Ding, ding, here we go, I think as I stagger to my feet, round two.
I feel as though my head is full of cotton wool; friends try to comfort me. They know as well as I do that there are no answers and they can’t make me feel better. Some find it hard to make eye contact with me and I don’t blame them as the pool of dark sadness that exists behind mine can reach into their soul and render them tarnished by witnessing what I’m going through. I look out from the stage at an empty audience; I can make out the vague figure of a cleaner hoovering with her back to me. ‘She’s behind you’, I shout out, but my call comes out silent. I laugh to myself then lie down on the stage to die, but then I hear the distant sound of hooves and suddenly a knight in shining armour comes galloping towards me. He’s coming to rescue me, I think. He stops his horse dangerously close and asks if I know the way to Sleeping Beauty’s Castle; typical, I think. I lie down on the stage to die again, my life flashes in my head page by page, I feel the wind from the pages turning, rippling gently across my face.
There’s so much to take in: there we are, my girl and I, with her giggle lighting up the stars and fuelling the sun. Chapters showing struggle, love, friendship, travel, hope and dreams – so much to take in. I stand back and gaze at it all – wow, it’s incredible, with nature as the quietly confident backdrop to it all, being ignored by many, but never complaining and getting on with it regardless. I peer out from one eye, ‘Am I dead yet?’, I ask rhetorically. I know ‘my’ book definitely hasn’t ended and there are many chapters to go from here. But I’m so incredibly tired, so I lie between two chapters, the text from the written/lived pages leaving an imprint on my bare back, with the unwritten/unlived ahead of me. I curl up and rest a while, recharging for the journey ahead. As I wake, I reach up and pull down the blinds as the winter darkness has returned prematurely again. An elderly man walks past on the street below in a lackadaisical manner, he’s in no hurry to get home this Christmas Eve, with his shopping bag for one, and I wonder why. Are you lonely?
As I hear the galloping fade off into the distance I bid this elderly man farewell and pour my love out of the window and down onto him to fill his heart with hope and love and to put a spring in his step.