Sunday, May 25, 2008

In Brief: Three Favorites from the Past Week

--Stephen Sottong’s feature for May's American Libraries on e-books isn’t available online, but one can easily gather that it’s stirred the pot a bit. Sottong considers both “computer-based” e-books and portable readers, and finds them both wanting. His argument against the former is that “the innate workings of our eyes” present physical limitations when reading computer displays. Simply put, users that face lengthy texts on a computer screen will “either print the text or ignore it” instead of reading in a detailed manner. Regarding the portable readers, Sottong raises familiar complaints: high prices (over $300 for a Kindle or E-Reader) for poor resolution, the lack of an open format for book files, and the fact that portable readers only have one function.
It’s a provocative argument, as is Sottong’s proposal to libraries at the end, which is (very loosely paraphrasing) “Gut your e-book budget and use the money on print resources.” I admit that I’m somewhat sympathetic to this suggestion, as I’ve indicated before. Yet I also admit that I’ve been unaware of how, for instance, e-books might benefit older patrons. Additionally, Sottong’s argument highlights the need for more information on user reception and experience, both with computers and portable readers; there simply isn’t enough of it right now. That’s why I don’t think he marshals enough evidence to convincingly claim that libraries should drop their financial consideration of e-books. We’ve got quite a ways to go before libraries can even think about proclaiming e-books as a lost cause, regardless of how some of us may resent their presence.

--I don't know enough about global food systems to know if Bee Wilson's pessimistic analysis for the New Yorker is more accurate than, say, Bread for the World president David Beckmann's more hopeful take. Regardless, both are informative. Wilson may very well be right in claiming that it's "futile…to look to the food system for radical change," especially when agribusiness companies such as Monsanto have potential competition (and their clients) in a virtual chokehold. And it's helpful to remind readers about why seemingly good intentions—buying seafood to avoid factory-farmed meat—can be quite destructive. Beckmann, on the other hand, emphasizes the good news, such as attributing rising food prices to decreased hunger in China and India. He also exemplifies a classic Christian view of hope in the best sense—looking towards a world after this one "where there will be hunger no more," yet remaining determined to rectify the inequalities of here and now.

--Finally, a blog recommendation: Trinity College’s Spiritual Politics. Though it lists several contributors, editor Mark Silk handles almost all of the posts. That’s not a detriment, for Silk is a shrewd observer of media coverage and religious trends. His May 12 post on evangelical allegiance to the Republican Party is a good example. While many journalists are eager to jump on the “death of the Religious Right” train, it takes him one paragraph to convincingly claim otherwise. Also, see Silk’s insightful exchange with Jeff Sharlet, whose new book The Family is quite good (about which I’ll have more to say here in the near future).

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