Reasons for Declining Ebook Sales: My Update on the Ebook Industry, and Musings on My Participation in it

In 2011, I wrote a blog post titled, “The E-publishing Experiment.” This was at the very beginning of my ebook publishing journey, and at the time the hype over the future of ebooks was high. Several ebook authors had begun to make enough money to be noticed by the publishing industry. Bloggers all over the internet were encouraging new authors to jump on this ebook publishing bandwagon. While everyone held some nostalgia for the printed book, the idea was that the ebook tide, spurred by the Amazon Kindle, would just rise and rise and rise—until almost all versions of the printed book had been swept away.

 

This week, the Observer published an article entitled, “Are E-Books Finally Over? The Publishing Industry Unexpectedly Tilts Back to Print.

 

I’m actually not surprised at a decline in ebooks sales, for several reasons:

The first is that the online hype over ebooks seemed to have died down.

The second is that my personal peak in sales was several years ago (though this is due to a variety of reasons), which supports the reports of a decline in sales.

The third is that every reader with a deep love of books that I talk to expresses their love of the printed version over ebooks. Ebooks are vaulted for their convenience while travelling, but not for the experience the reader has while using them. There are a few exceptions—I’ve heard of at least one pastor who actively promotes the advantages of ebooks. But I don’t know him personally.

The fourth is that I work in a library, and many readers express their frustration with incompatible ebook technologies. For example, in Canada you cannot check out library books on your Kindle. This is besides the technological complications that often come along with reading ebooks. Many, many ebook readers have no tech issues with their ebook reading—but many do, and troubleshooting their ebooks becomes a barrier to their use of their service.

  • Further evidence of ebook decline is that the library used to lend out ereaders as well as ebooks, and this was initially so popular that the waiting list for these devices stretched out for months. Now the library has discontinued this service. This was partially due to the incompatible technologies most ereaders have—making it hard for multiple library patrons to use the same device—but it was also due to a reduced level of interest. A reduced level of interest could indicate that all the patrons bought their own device instead of getting it from the library, but I have not observed this to be the case.

The fifth is that ebook prices are usually not much cheaper than printed books. On one hand, this seems fair, since the author’s words have just as much value whether they are printed or displayed on a screen. But on the other hand, from a customer’s perspective—if the experience of reading an ebook is so greatly inferior to the reading the printed version, a customer can’t help but wish the price would reflect this fact. Unfortunately, there’s also a whole thriving network of websites ripping off ebook authors by publishing their work for free—and I assume a good number of readers flock to sites like these instead of paying $20 for words on the screen. Just a reality of life.

The sixth is that, sadly, interest in reading overall seems to be declining (see this New Yorker article for more information). This is backed up by what I know of library stats. While libraries remain immensely popular for other reasons, their rates of actual books or ebook checkouts as a whole are declining slightly every year.

 

I always maintained that the printed book would never die. I wanted the ebook to succeed to a certain extent, since I’d published several short stories in the ebook market, but even in 2012 I asserted that the worst case scenario was that printed books would be reduced to limited runs of high quality volumes. Physical book enthusiasts will always exist. I’m very glad that the market for printed books is still so healthy, and even gladder that independent bookstores appear to be doing well.

 

As for my prediction for the future—I believe the ebook industry will survive. In nonfiction, especially in academic areas, ebooks are incredibly useful since they are searchable. In fiction, ebooks are portable—many young people read ebooks on their phone. However, the fact that a reading culture is more easily constructed around physical books, especially when nurtured in the environment of an independent bookstore, leads me to put more emphasis on the physical book once again.

 

As I mentioned before, my sister and I collaborated on a physical, printed booklet this year, and I was incredibly pleased with how this was received. I hope, in the future, to do more with beautiful, physical, printed items. My work in electronic format will remain available, but stay tuned for more information on physical forms to come! And thank you to everyone for all your support during my many years of my publishing journey. I think we’ve all learned a lot!

 

Here’s a few posts I’ve published on ebooks, if you’re curious—I find it kind of fascinating to see my reflections on the ebook industry as it developed:

The E-Publishing Experiement (2011)

Will Ebooks Kill the Printed Book? (2012)

Let’s Call the Ebook Something Else—It’s not Really a Book, Anyway (2013)

Ebooks Have Not Killed the Printed Book (Yet) (2014)

Independent Bookstores Have NOT Disappeared—They’re Doing Fine, Actually (2014)

 

To end off with, I’m going to post an old infographic that a commenter posted on my blog in 2012—it’s fascinating to see the similarities and differences between the ebook industry then and now.

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What I Learned at my First Local Author Book Festival

When I was a teenager, I ran into a relatively well-known Edmonton author at the Fringe Festival. I recognized him immediately, because his picture was always in the Edmonton Journal newspaper. I was completely unknown to him, but for whatever reason I was compelled to duck and hide, my face burning with embarrassment. It was like I thought he could see right through me, see I wanted to be a writer too, and would laugh at me.

Teenage emotions aren’t always rational, are they? I don’t know why I was afraid a “real” writer wouldn’t take an aspiring writer seriously. But at the time, I was.

Have I grown out of this? Well, as I’ve gotten older I’ve also gotten much braver about going to writing events, and actually talking to the other writers that attend. I’ve gotten braver about asking questions when events are open to audience questions. And to be sure, some of my questions have been shot down by writers as “dumb” questions. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve felt less and less bad that I’m eager to learn. I’m more excited to share writing experiences with fellow writers. And I’m no longer so afraid other will judge me about my goal of becoming a highly competent and engaging writer.

Anyway, all of this is just to say that I displayed my work at the Capital City Press Book Festival this past weekend, and it was an amazing experience. Facing other local writers was not as terrifying as I’d imagined long, long ago. This was the first time ever I’ve presented myself as a writer to the public in person (ie: not online, or by submitting to events that I wasn’t able to attend in person). It was eye-opening to study what kinds of pitches or descriptions of my work worked on the public that browsed my table, and which were less effective. It was eye-opening to see the tactics of my fellow local authors who were also at the festival. And it was incredibly helpful to meet these other authors and publishers and commiserate about the difficulty of getting noticed in a crowded marketplace.

I’d say first of all I was grateful the product I was displaying was highly visual, with my printed words capably illustrated by Paulina Van Vliet. In a crowded space, it’s hard to demonstrate your work with printed words alone. Now, there’s other ways of capturing the public’s interest with visuals – having a captivating cover on your book, for example. Or lining up multiple copies of your book so the repeated visual of your cover is hard to miss. Or, as my neighbouring author did, bring additional visuals that illustrate your printed work (his work was based on a real-life event, so it was easier to illustrate with photographs in this way). But overall, this event increased my appreciation of the power of visuals for drawing interest.

Still, it was a challenge for all of the local authors there to stir up interest in a public that was mainly interested in browsing our work. For me, I found the most success with customers who had a personal connection either to the subject of my work (Edmonton), or to supporting me as a writer in general. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to appeal to others based on their personal connection, especially at first. Authors tend to be successful in general because their work connects with others’ experience. And if you correctly define the communities your work appeals most to, you can focus your efforts on displaying your work to those people. However, it is tricky if you hope your work will have broad appeal. If you find yourself selling exclusively to friends and family, it can be tricky to figure out how to expand beyond that. Events like book festivals might be a useful way to gauge the appeal of your work to the general public, and it did teach me a lot about what piqued interest in people.

So those were two observations I gained from doing a public event: how to use visuals to help sell, and how to use these events to test the broader appeal of your work. It also really brought home the benefit of having some of my work in print—the work I displayed was the first actual physical printing of my writing I’ve made.

And lastly, a benefit of these events is just the people in the writing community you meet. I was so excited to see and meet so many local authors and publishers. I’ll mention a few that stick out in my memory, even though I am afraid there may be some great local authors that I fail to mention.

 

Michael Hingston of Hingston & Olsen Publishing, who was displaying the new “Ghost Box” short story collection. Now, I must admit I can’t handle reading scary stories (even though I don’t believe in ghosts!), so I can’t vouch for the stories—but the quality of the design impressed me. After printing my work with my sister, who is a designer, I learned a lot about the challenges in production of physical items. This short story collection came in a beautifully proportioned box that clicked shut with a magnetic closing, and the individual stories were stapled with brass staples that coordinated with the design of the booklet covers. The attention to detail in the design impressed me. Personally, I still love print very, very much, and I’m excited to see new ways of presenting print items.

Katherine Koller, who was displaying Art Lessons— a book I recognized as a result of my job working in the library (there were several books there I recognized from my work, and it’s a bit of a thrill to see the “real” people behind the familiar covers). This is a book about growing up as a creative child—something I agree is a useful topic to explore, because I’m sure my parents could’ve used a bit of advice! They were probably surprised to discover they had a writer and an artist on their hands.

Matt Bowes, general manager of NeWest Press, who talked up one of the press’s upcoming fantasy novels to me—a novel set in Edmonton, where all of the crazy development ideas people have dreamed up over the years were actually built. You know, like a gondola over the river valley, or the freezeway ice-skating lane going right through downtown. This sounds like an exciting premise for a novel, especially a fantasy novel. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for when this is released.

My neighbouring author, Don Levers, who wrote a fictional novel based on a real heist. I love quirky stories from history, so this was a great author to have on one side of me.

And on my other side was my fellow author that I shared my table with, Gerda Vandenhaak, who was displaying her personal memoir growing up in Word War 2, immigrating to Canada, and other struggles in her life and with her Christian faith. We share similar Dutch backgrounds, and both think deeply about the impact of our faith in our lives, so this was an inspiring author to sit beside for the day.

Like I said, there were many more intriguing local authors present – check out #CCPFest on Twitter to see more of them.

 

All in all, I had a great time. I guess I’m growing up, because I never once had the urge to duck, hide my face, and run!

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Guilt When Reading Books

“Make sure you schedule a few hours a week to devote to reading.” What heavenly advice! Yet somehow the fact this was given as advice shocked me. I suddenly realized I am more used to hearing, “Stop reading and start doing something useful.” But the idea reading should be scheduled into your life feels strange and foreign to me. Reading is “fun”–this is what they repeatedly taught us in school. You’re supposed to do it because it’s fun, not because it helps you live.

Maybe this contributes to us reading books less often.

It was fair for teachers in my schooldays to try to stop me reading books, because I did read them in class, and I did neglect more productive work (like my math homework) to read. It also makes sense that teachers insist “reading is fun!” in order to get more students to read. However, somehow I internalized these messages as: reading is good but should only be done when you have nothing better to do. Which is not a problem as a kid, since you have quite a bit of free time. But as an adult, reading suddenly becomes a less justifiable activity–when in reality this is a problematic way to view reading!

I certainly still read a lot, but I mainly read a lot of articles online, and the shortness of these articles probably deceives me into thinking I’m not actually wasting much time on them. I imagine I’m briefly and efficiently informing myself. But, of course, what I’m actually doing is feeding and fueling my addiction to information. You can never read enough interesting facts on the internet. But in order to gain a deeper understanding of reality you need more than interesting facts on the internet. You need books.

In other words, I need to get past the idea that reading is not meant to be scheduled into your productive time, but only into your leisure time.

If reading is only ever done for pure leisure, the result is you never pick up a challenging read. Reading that takes work is too much to do when your brain is already over-strained and tired. You end up reading only really light novels, or popularizations of fun topics (such as hygge or Nikola Tesla). Do you want to read about the categorical imperative after a hard day’s work?

In other words, the important works–the works that have changed our civilization–never get read. We never apply ourselves to answering the questions they raise, because we don’t know what questions they raise. We never seek to face the challenges of humanity because we never justify applying ourselves to learning about them.

It is, in fact, a nice solution to consider certain types of reading work. To consider this reading as necessary, and not just for building the practical skills that may in some way help you in your job. To consider reading as a thing that can form and shape character, and as a thing we actually should invest in in order to form and shape our own character. That this is not merely a leisure activity that is optional, but that we are justified in carving out space for this pursuit in our lives.

I almost don’t dare to schedule in directed reading in my schedule. First of all, I hardly know where I’d fit it in. Second, many great works of great writers intimidate me. However, I should be more aware of the consequences of not doing this. Of reading lightly, and assuming I am well-read.

Recently I was reading Augustine’s Confessions–a very classic work that has impacted Western civilization–and I was lying on the couch and feeling like very strange about being on that couch reading. In fact, I was even reading it in order to review it, but I still felt self-conscious. Then I realized that while I used to devour books when I was younger, I now intentionally push myself to read a physical book, and when I do sit down to read I feel like I really should be writing or cleaning my house or studying my schoolwork. Reading, as a mere input of information, feels like a sacrifice of the time you should be devoting to output. And the genius of the online world, and online reading, is that it creates the illusion you are both inputting and outputting information. You read articles in order to share them. You take in information in order to comment on it publicly. You create artistic representations of what you are doing by posting on Instagram, etc. While none of this online chatter really impacts the world greatly, your conscience doesn’t tug as much because you feel you’re using the information presented. You’re not just taking something in, but you’re offering something up to the world in return. It doesn’t matter how trivial what you offer is, you still gain the sense of accomplishment that comes by just offering it.

But this overemphasis on output–on our individual response to the information that seems to be demanded by the internet, and our culture in general–glosses over the necessity of taking the time to input good information. Our responses are expected to be instant. If something takes a long time for us to process, it has to be really, really worth it before we decide it is justifiable to set that time aside.

This year I actually took a year off to go back to school and study, and what I am learning is that to truly understand you actually need to do more than read the quick summaries of topics that float around on the internet. I thought I knew a lot about theology (my topic of study), and that some of the questions I’d fruitlessly searched for answers to probably did not have good answers, since I could not find any. However, the reality is that some of these answers were book-length, not internet-friendly listicles, and therefore I actually was justified in taking a year to study such things. In fact, I should really take a lifetime.

The job of professional scholar is not an incredibly realistic role in our current society, but we do have unimaginable access to information in our modern world. Therefore I do have the opportunity to devote a lifetime to learning, even outside of school. The hurdle that I have to get over–and perhaps you do too–is the tendency to devalue the time we spend on the couch with a book. To devalue the patience that lets the classic authors of the past speak for themselves, instead of watching YouTube summaries.

I must reorient the value I place on reading, so that the time it takes to read is not slotted into that category of “wasted time.”

 

***

Ready to dive into reading again? Try my short retelling of Cinderella–is prince really such a catch for Cinderella? Prince Charming is available at Smashwords and Amazon.

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Finding a Home for Your Writing–The Struggle for Publication, and My Latest Projects!

The way you’re supposed to know you’re a writer–or any type of artist, really–is if you just can’t stop creating. Even if you receive no recognition or payment or readers, you can’t help but write. In fact, the world is so overwhelmed by writers that you’re really advised not to dive into the world of writing unless you truly do feel this drive. Unfortunately, I am one of those people who writes incessantly, whether or not anyone cares. And I understand the struggle to launch bits of your work out into the world where other people can see and enjoy them. Finding a home for your is work can be more of a struggle than the actual work of writing.

The only advice I can give to aspiring writers is just to keep trying. Successful writers have proven themselves, and they may have people falling all over themselves to invite them to write something, but until you reach that point you have to keep proving yourself. And to prove yourself you have to keep searching out opportunities, which can be hair-pulling-ly frustrating. But the benefit of this is that you can be involved in all sorts of unexpected projects!

One of the most fun projects I involved myself in this year was a collaboration with my sister, who is a graphic artist. We created a small illustrated booklet of a memoir piece I wrote, and printed a limited run in hard copy. We had a great opportunity to display it at the Edmonton Design Week! And though I was not sure how sales of a hard copy of my work would go, since my experience has all been in electronic markets, I was pleasantly surprised to see there was a small market for the kind of stories we created after all! It’s funny how just the smallest bit of support can give a writer encouragement to keep going.

Here’s a great quote from Neil Gaiman about the writing life that really connects with this idea: “A freelance life, a life in the arts, is sometimes like putting messages in bottles, on a desert island, and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles and open it and read it, and put something in a bottle that will wash its way back to you: appreciation, or a commission, or money, or love. And you have to accept that you may put out a hundred things for every bottle that winds up coming back.”

So all in all, my experiments with launching my work into the world has provided me with amazing learning opportunities, as well as great experiences. Maybe this is why creators have to go through the struggle of finding openings for their work, as it forces them to be creative and try things they might never have tried otherwise. In my journey, I’ve gotten to observe enthusiasm from my readers, and received reassurance that what I do can benefit at least a few individuals. I’ve learned about what works and what doesn’t in marketing (though I’m far from an expert). I’ve learned about various ways you can get your work out there. And most importantly, I’ve learned that by trying I can not only learn, but that trying feeds back into my writing, and my writing gets better.

If you’re interested, my recent work includes not only the story booklet collaboration, but also two articles where I explored the impact of my faith in my life: “You Too? What Friendship Is and Why It’s So Hard to Find” (for the Reformed Perspective), and “On Not Hurting Anyone While Dating” (for Christian Connection). I’m excited for a few other nonfiction projects I’ve got in the works–we’ll see what happens in 2018! Previously I also explored the world of ebook publishing, which you can explore here. And of course this blog is my primary platform for putting my thoughts out into the world! Blogging itself is an experience that provides growth in writing, and this I really value.

Finding a home for your work can be the most frustrating part of being creative, especially if you prefer to give yourself to the world in a way that benefits the world, rather than create for your own sake alone. I’ve spent days searching for places to submit my writing, and come up with empty hands. However, when I’ve imagined there was nowhere for me to go, and all opportunities were blocked, it was never the end of the story. I hope you can relate, or will be able to as your journey goes on.

 

Are you working on any unique writing or creative projects? Can you relate to the struggle of finding a home for your work?

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Three Posts (and Books) Worth Reading

Blogs are supposed to end the year with a top-ten list. Looking back over my year, I realized there are a few posts whose messages really are worthwhile, but I don’t feel the necessity to list ten of them. Here are three, in the order of popularity:

You Might Relate to Mary Bennett, but You’re Not Supposed to Imitate Her
This is a post about a one-trait character showing all the reasons you shouldn’t be a one-trait character. As I said in this post, I myself have a tendency to view intelligence as my defining characteristic, but I found a remedy for that this year. Find people more intelligent than you! Let this post convince you of the necessity of being a well-rounded person.

Let the Children Grow Up–They Do in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
This post resulted from one critic complaining the professor did not hover over the children enough in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, while another critic complained the children did not grow up. First, helicopter parenting is not a good strategy to encourage children to grow up, and second, anyone who’s read the ending of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe know the children do in fact grow up.

Out of the Silent Planet Awoke My Imagination – Let It Awake Yours Too
This is a post about how I should not have enjoyed Out of the Silent Planet, but I did. It breaks some of the cardinal rules of fiction, and still manages to blow your mind.
If you’re on the fence about reading C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, let this review convince you. And if you’ve read it, let me know whether you agree!

Have a wonderful New Year!

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The Books You Fight With

Jane Austen’s been in the news a lot lately, due to her death happening two hundred years ago. As with most occasions Austen is mentioned, discussion turns to ranking her books. Pride and Prejudice is apparently preferred by the popular vote, while Emma is lauded by the critical vote. And I have no argument with this—I’d put one or the other of those at the top myself, except—what book do I find myself meditating on the most? Which one do I wrestle with, and spend hours studying thematically and artistically? It’s not my favourite book, but it has the power to haunt my thoughts more than all the others combined. It’s Mansfield Park.

Does this mean it’s the best one?

Some books you’d never choose as your favourite, but they’re the ones with the power to haunt your thoughts. And a book with that kind of power is perhaps more genius than we want to give it credit for. So maybe we should recognize some of the books we fight with more than we do.

This is not to say these books are perfect. Often it’s some of their very flaws that cause us to wrestle with them so deeply. I, for one, will never forgive Mansfield Park for ending with the very same scandal as Pride and Prejudice (though Jane Austen is really not to be blamed—how many exciting societal events did she really have to work with for the climaxes of her novels?) Flaws are part of the reason, but not the whole reason. For instance, I fight with the protagonist’s (Fanny’s) passivity every time I read it. But I can’t shake the feeling her passiveness means something. I can’t shake the feeling this novel displays something more fundamental about Austen’s worldview than all the others. In which case, it might be some of her most important work.

And I get this feeling when I read That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis as well.

Just like with Mansfield Park, among the people that know such a book exists, opinions are divided between those who highly dislike the novel, and those who love it. It was while discovering my brain was stuck in a loop pondering the message of this book, actually, that I realized the books we fight with might have more power over our thoughts than the ones we love.

Because we love easy-to-understand. We love comforting concepts. But the ideas we may need to grapple with are not always easy or comforting.

For example, I need to consider whether passivity and helplessness, as Fanny shows in Mansfield Park, does have value. Despite my modern context screaming at me about the value of assertiveness and standing up for yourself, I need to not despise Fanny for not being ‘modern’ in this way.

When it comes to That Hideous Strength, I need to accept it’s not going to feed me comforting ideas that I really like, as the first book in the trilogy did (Out of the Silent Planet). Sure, I may have issues with some of the plot, and the time spent with unlikable characters, and the possibly ludicrous events that happen. But what I may be avoiding thinking about by doing this is how much some of these unlikable characters resemble me. Or worse—how I’d like some of the unlikable protagonists to be squashed like a bug because they remind me of unlikable people I personally know—but the novel shows them grace. So I should maybe do so too.

I’d go into the plot more but this book is so obscure for a C.S. Lewis book that I don’t know how many of you will have heard of it. I’ll just say check it out if you like his work. My brain thinks about it more than all my other favourite parts of the Space Trilogy.

So start appreciating those books you fight with. They’re at least as powerful as your favourites.

Drop me a line below about which books these are for you!

 

 

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How to Find Your Life’s Passion

pathJust do things. That’s my answer to that question.

Just do things. That’s my answer to that question. Most advice about finding your passion tends to be either ‘follow your heart,’ or, ‘don’t follow your heart, they’re lying to you.’ What neither of these pieces of advice take into account is—how does your heart know what it loves? How do you know you’ll love being an astronaut if you’ve never done it? And how do you know a career as an archaeologist won’t surprise you?

We all know people who from birth knew what their passion was, achieved it, and love what they do. But we may also know people who achieved their dream and hate it. Lawyering bores them to tears. Charity work stresses them out more than they realized it would. Etc. And both of these types of people had to experience their passion in order to find this out. Your heart’s inclinations in and of themselves do not guarantee joy in what you do.

So if life is in fact rather capricious, leading you on to think your love of numbers would make you a great accountant when it really doesn’t, how do you find a passion at all?

First, let’s clear away the issue of whether we should have passions. We can argue all day about whether we should be searching for a passion in life. It is fair to say you should be practical and support yourself. It is fair to say you shouldn’t think of yourself only, but also of other people (as someone has to do the dirty work). It’s fair to tear down the myth of ‘following your heart.’ However, it is also undeniable that passion motivates us in a way nothing else does. We can’t ignore it completely, and force people to slot themselves into open careers like some kind of dictatorial sci-fi society.

But keep in mind that you can be passionate about more than what rises up in your dreams. You can be surprised about what enjoy (and what you don’t enjoy). And by having an open mind and trying all sorts of things you can feel out your way.

I thought I’d hate being a salesperson because I thought I’d hate being measured by sales targets. Then I discovered I really loved knowing exactly how well I was performing at any given moment, just by looking at my sales numbers. I also far exceeded my wildest sales expectations (which, admittedly, weren’t very high at first).

I thought I’d enjoy learning about computers, but I didn’t want to spend the thousands on education needed to work in the field. But an agency recruited me to work in a computer store, an opportunity that I definitely wasn’t sure about. After all, agency work can be unreliable, and my education had nothing to do with retail. But doing something is better than nothing, and it was something I’d always wanted to learn about. Several positions later I am still constantly using tech troubleshooting skills that I picked up, because I confirmed I really do have a passion for that kind of thing.

I thought I’d love having a worthwhile career that contributed to society and was indispensable, so I went to nursing school. I learned all of the abstract reasoning of selflessness did not translate into me being a good nurse.

And presently I have made another major life decision—to go back to school to study theology. I know I have a passion for the subject, but I don’t know that that passion will translate into academic study on a daily basis. It may not. I’ll find out.

If you already have a passion and a reasonable opportunity to pursue, go for it. If you have a passion and there’s no open opportunities at the moment, you have an opportunity to try something else. Experience something new. Don’t go and try something you know you’ll hate, but if you can’t do something you know you’ll love, do something you don’t know if you’ll love or hate. Experience allows you to find out.

And if you’re really groping in the dark, as I’ve been for periods of my life, you can’t sit back and wait till you’re one-hundred-percent sure you’ve found your passion before you do anything. Granted, life usually doesn’t let you sit back and do nothing (bills to pay and all that), but ESPECIALLY if nothing sounds appealing you’ve just got to try things. Try to pick things that might lead to other things to try.

Because after all you don’t find your passion by looking deep inside and thinking as hard as you can about what your heart is telling you. Your heart doesn’t know what’s out there in the world. Your heart is ruling out a thousand careers you didn’t even know existed, simply because you haven’t heart of them. Go out and discover what you didn’t know before.

Passion springs from being busy, not from sitting still.

 

What do you think?

 

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Let the Children Grow Up–They Do in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

‘Neglectful’ was the word tossed around by one reviewer of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Apparently the Professor was neglectful of the children he’d taken into his house during the bombings of WWII, letting them run through his house on their own and not over-scheduling every minute of their day with dance class, extra tutoring, or athletics.

Let’s leave aside the fact that a bachelor professor who appears to be entirely unused to children decides, out of the kindness of his heart, to shelter a group of four children seeking refuge from the bombing of London. Such a man might not be exactly up-to-date on the recent recommendations of the mommy blogs, nor might he think it harmful for children to just take care of themselves for some hours of the day (as children used to do in decades past). Let’s leave all that aside and look at how the children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are actually allowed to grow up in this book.

Now that our society has invented the idea of childhood (and this is not a bad thing), we have created a very specific, protected idea of what childhood should be. However, in order to grow up children have to eventually step outside of this safe, protected bubble. You might even let them blunder through your house and through a half-forgotten wardrobe that sometimes is a portal to another very dangerous and magical world.

In other words, they become independent and make their own decisions.

It’s very interesting that one well-known criticism of Narnia is that the children don’t grow up–or at least, not in the right way.

“The idea of keeping childhood alive forever and ever and regretting the passage into adulthood—whether it’s a gentle, rose-tinged regret or a passionate, full-blooded hatred, as it is in Lewis—is simply wrong,” the famously outspoken critic of Narnia, Philip Pullman said once in an interview in The New Yorker. His own series, His Dark Materials, attempts to rectify this by having his protagonist grow up and awaken to her own sexuality at the end. Now, as far as I can tell, the children don’t embark on any sexual relationships in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but I don’t think this is the only valid marker of growing up. They do grow up.

And this is why I loved this book. At the end, they actually get to live out their whole lives in Narnia–become kings and queens and put into practice everything the story taught them up to then. So often as a child I’d read fiction where the characters went back in time, or went to another world, and learned something, but they never got to use it in that world. They always had to come back. They always remained children. The reader never fully saw the consequences of the story’s ideas.

And besides the ending of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which so satisfyingly lets the children have a life in the world they helped to save, they have to ‘do’ things throughout the book.

I, who was raised in the safe, coddled confines of ‘be careful!’ ‘safety first!’ and ‘accidents are always preventable!’ was astonished to read about Peter picking up his sword when Susan is attacked by the wolf, and to read Aslan saying, “Back! Let the prince win his spurs!”–just after Aslan finished telling Peter about how he must become king one day. My heart was in my mouth–they weren’t actually going to let Peter do something, were they? Of course he would want to rescue his sister, but there must be some more experienced, more adult character around that should save her.

But no, if Peter is to be a king one day he must shoulder the responsibilities of adulthood himself.

Here we come to another controversial aspect–the children fight in the story. Now, we could point to the times, and argue that children in history had very different lives than they have today, and nobody at the time thought it at all odd. We could point out that Lewis lived through WWI, when very young teenagers died by the thousands in the trenches. We could point to the fact the story is set in WWII, when ‘fighting the enemy’–physically fighting, and not with economic sanctions or making a show of army exercises on a country’s borders–was viewed positively. But really what it comes down to is allowing the children to learn that not everything in life comes easily, or without a struggle. The villain won’t helpfully toss himself off the cliff for them. They must act.

This is not to say violence is glorified here–the children don’t especially like fighting. But they certainly have to back up their beliefs with their deeds.

Now, there may be books where children must grow up even more than the children do in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. They may have to, say, face a thousand more deaths of close friends, and watch graphically described gore pass in front of them. You could certainly imagine a ‘grittier’ children’s book than Narnia, even if you’d hesitate to actually give such a book to a child. I’m just arguing this was the first time I read a children’s book that showed me how to go beyond childhood. It showed me the good and bad in the challenge of growing up.

Millennials, a group of which I am a member, are frequently derided as a group that doesn’t know how to grow up. And I obviously can’t point to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a guide that taught me how to grow up–of the typical markers of adulthood (marriage, children, house, career), I can only possibly point to career as an objective marker of the level of adulthood I’ve achieved. Reading literature in this vein is not a cure-all for the ‘millennial problem’ (and I’ve read His Dark Materials too, lest you argue that series would’ve helped me more). However, children need a vision of adulthood to aspire to. They need to read different ways of shouldering the responsibility of living. And if we only present fiction where parents and guardians are not ‘neglectful,’ and hover over children just as much as parents and guardians actually do nowadays in real life, we’d hold back the whole process.

Give the kids some space. Let them grow up.

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You Might Relate to Mary Bennett, but You’re Not Supposed to Imitate Her

The novels and letters of Jane Austen (1906) (14596328597)Mary Bennett gets a lot of good press. In Pride and Prejudice, she’s one of heroine Elizabeth Bennett’s three younger sisters, and she’s described as the bookish one. Maybe because readers of Pride and Prejudice tend to be bookish as well, we tend to feel the story overlooks her, and write multiple blog posts and articles and sequel novels bemoaning this. This is in spite of the plentiful evidence Jane Austen herself did not like her. Despite her being bookish, Austen did not mean to point to her as a character that we should imitate.

This is astonishing, as the bookish girl is a pretty strong stereotype for female heroines by now—just think of Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Hermione in Harry Potter, and Jane Eyre. All of them readers, some a bit know-it-all, but all with a heart of gold. The character of Mary Bennett is swimming directly against the current in this matter.

And readers relate to Mary Bennett—we know what it feels like to be ‘plainer’ than those around us, to feel less intelligent even though we’re desperately trying to appear smart, to be more than just a background character in someone else’s story. Who can’t relate to wanting some distinction of your own, even if it’s not beauty? We like books about bookish characters proving themselves because we’re reassured that our bookishness will not be our undoing, and that someday those that laugh at us in real life will agree our bookishness has value. But Jane Austen does not give us that satisfaction with Mary.

Evidence of dissatisfaction with Mary’s story can easily be found. Both The Guardian and The Atlantic wrote articles last summer about the proliferation of sequels about Miss Mary Bennett (including The Independence Of Miss Mary Bennet, The Forgotten Sister: Mary Bennet’s Pride and Prejudice, The Pursuit of Mary Bennet: A Pride and Prejudice Novel, and of course, one called There’s Something About Mary, Bennett.) Many, many authors have seen potential in her character, and clearly many readers want to read about that potential.

So what are Mary Bennett’s faults, according to Jane Austen?

It’s not that she’s bookish and plain. It’s that she appears to read only in order to lecture others about what she’s read. She appears to practice music only in order to draw attention to herself with it. As a result, neither her speeches on the books she reads nor her performances on the piano avoid sounding ‘affected.’

“Mary had neither genius nor taste; and though vanity had given her application, it had given her likewise a pedantic air and conceited manner, which would have injured a higher degree of excellence than she had reached.”

And despite in other places defending the reading of books and applying oneself to improving oneself, Austen never vindicates these aspects of Mary. She really doesn’t do much with her character plot-wise, and appears to argue her way of being is just as ‘silly’ as Kitty and Lydia’s way of living. Mary does not get a character arc or much development at all. She has no romantic events come her way either.

I don’t think Jane Austen was against bookish girls. I don’t think she was subtly fighting against education for women, or against women having an opinion. I think she had a more complex idea here.

In reality, what Jane Austen is trying to show is how one trait, overemphasized and over-developed, can be ridiculous. You can’t have a personality that relies on only one characteristic—you need to develop your whole personality.

It’s kind of amazing how, despite all of Mary’s deficiencies in beauty and intelligence, her self-absorption is still derided as vanity by Austen. This is an important point! We like to think if we haven’t been given all the advantages other people have, we’re protected from vanity. We’re given a free pass to focus on ourselves, because after all, we aren’t as advantaged as everyone else. People should recognize and encourage us in what we do have.

However, this very lack of humility can prevent improvement in the areas we might have relative strength in! It’s Mary’s air of condescension and pedantry that makes her sisters dislike her speeches more—no one likes to be talked down to. Her piano-playing, while better than some, is less pleasant to listen to because of how conceited she makes it sound—she all-too-aware she is more skilled than Elizabeth. Her vanity in these things prevents her from using her gifts in a way that would actually give pleasure to other people (as Elizabeth proves you can give some pleasure to a listener even without being the best piano-player ever). And her vanity likely prevents her from even seeing the ways her gifts fall short of what she thinks they are. She doesn’t improve in the areas of attitude and mannerisms because she doesn’t think she needs to.

Does this mean she deserves to be laughed at by her sisters, or shamed by Mr. Bennett at the Netherfield ball? Of course not. I think Mr. Bennett’s treatment of her, in particular, is meant to short his shortcomings as a father and his insensitivity to what might improve his daughters’ characters. As he has with his wife, he’s basically given up on them, and endures their silliness instead. Now, if Mary actually is meant to have a character arc, perhaps one of Elizabeth’s or Jane’s attempts to rein in their younger sister’s vanities would sink in. As it is, we as readers as only left with the impression her vanity leaves on us, with the implication it is a warning—do not get so consumed in creating your own space for your own gifts that you blind yourself to how useless they are to anyone outside yourself. This is basically the opposite of every ‘find yourself’ novel released today.

So perhaps for us bookish types, we can take the message that there’s nothing wrong with being bookish, but it’s our attitude to others as a result of that can be the problem. Even if others don’t understand us, it doesn’t give us justification to feel superior to them. Even if we are actually better in one area than someone else we know, rubbing that in everyone’s faces will not help anyone else, and can even be destructive to ourselves. And I don’t mean this to lecture everyone else–I know I am prone to rely on my own intelligence and knowledge as my number one characteristics when relating to other people.

But then again, this is not meant to be the main message of the novel—Mary is merely one of dozens of Austen side-characters that demonstrate how one over-developed characteristic renders one ridiculous. It’s Darcy and Elizabeth who get character arcs, and who change throughout the novel. Austen uses their story to tell her message. Though if you look at how Austen takes down her main character’s characteristics of ‘pride’ and ‘prejudice,’ maybe Mary Bennett’s characterization does support the overall theme of the novel after all.

What about you? Do you find yourself with a lot of sympathy for Mary Bennett, or do you find her tiresome (as her sisters did)? Was Jane Austen too harsh on her?

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Out of the Silent Planet Awoke My Imagination – Let It Awake Yours Too

C.S. Lewis, by Paulina Van Vliet. All rights reserved.

C.S. Lewis, by Paulina Van Vliet. All rights reserved.

I’ve been meaning to read Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis for a long time, ever since I discovered Lewis really did write fiction besides the Chronicles of Narnia. Now that I have I can’t resist blogging about it, because it excited me so much to find out how good it was. I rarely review books here, but some books are worth it, and if you’ve been looking for a worthwhile book I’ll write down some things to consider with this one.

Out of the Silent Planet always sounded like such an intriguing title, but I probably haven’t touched it till now because it’s sci-fi. Also, you hear so much less about it than the Chronicles, so you assume it can’t be quite as highly regarded. And after a brief survey of the internet writings on it, I think opinion on this book is a little more divided. But those who love it really love it, and now I’m one of them.

Basically, in this book a professor, Elwin Ransom, gets kidnapped and taken to another planet, Malacandra. The book actually has many reasons to inspire dislike, or a more tepid reception, including its out-of-date science and scientific errors, its theological ideas sprinkled throughout, and some weaknesses in story construction. I’ll first list all the irritations and dislikes I had while reading (skipping over any scientific discussion, as I know very little about scientific beliefs at the time), and then I’ll explain what blew me away.

I shall attempt to talk about it without spoiling too much of it, and obviously will not bring in any of the rest of the trilogy, since I haven’t read them yet.

The Bad:

It was incredibly difficult to get into the story. There is nothing especially compelling about Ransom as a character—you don’t start chapter one and immediately get excited you get to follow this character for the rest of the story. I picked it up several times without making it through the first chapter. I ended it without a real strong idea of what the guy was like. You don’t get any sense of his life outside the events of the story. Is he motivated to escape Malacandra and get back to his life as a professor on earth? Does he have any human relationships he’s missing? What brought him to the point where he decided to take a walking tour? He doesn’t seem to have any internal struggles, other than the small character arc of overcoming his fear-based response to everything.

The rest of the characters are somewhat caricatures too. There’s a scientist whose sole focus is human progress, and whose speeches mainly consist of his ideas of human progress. There’s another bad guy who’s solely driven by greed. There’s a lot of ‘good’ characters who don’t change throughout the novel, because they’re good already.

Yes, there were a few points where I was reading it that I thought to myself—can this really be C.S. Lewis? This is a very poorly constructed novel! People must just read it out of loyalty to him!

On top of the rest of these flaws take the very limited and slow amount of action this novel contains. There’s certainly conflict—why was Ransom kidnapped? Can he escape? Can he find food and drink on this new planet? Etc., etc. But most issues just sort of resolve themselves without Ransom having to fight too much for them. The climax, in the worst light, could be seen as everything in the story just easily resolving themselves.

 

The Good:

The first part where I suddenly found myself being drawn into the story was during Ransom’s philosophizing on the spaceship during the journey to Malacandra. And I HATE philosophy, so it’s shocking for me to say the philosophy in this book are some of the best parts of the story. But it’s true.

These parts are written very beautifully, which is no surprise considering Lewis was a very adept writer. They confront our stereotypical ideas of space travel and ever so subtly turn them inside-out. Is space empty? Are aliens inferior to humans? Are aliens hostile to humans? What do you think?

About halfway through I would have described it as an excellent philosophical treatise with a story tacked on. But the plot kept turning, and despite the characters being somewhat motivation-less and wooden, there were several emotional moments that absolutely hit home. I was surprised to discover I really did care about what happened to them.

There’s some incredible descriptions in here as well. Lewis does what many authors forget to do (in the books I’ve read, anyway), and grounds his perspective in his character so deeply that the reader sees what the character sees. For example, when getting off the spaceship Ransom is initially unsure which colours are ground, which as water, which are trees, etc. Which is absolutely true—if you don’t have any context for figuring out a new location, you are confused at first! Just think about getting out of a different subway station and being completely unsure which street is which. Lewis also does not immediately have Ransom realize the spaceship he travels to Malacandra in is shaped like a sphere–he first describes the odd shape of the room from Ransom’s perspective, and the slow realization that the shape is due to the spaceship’s overall spherical shape. Few authors do this–they immediately have the characters perceive they’re on another planet and describe it, or on a spaceship and describe it, without exploring the process of realization that occurs in a character’s head. There’s more than one passage like this, and these ground the story in reality in a strong way.

So, after good philosophy and unique descriptions, this book also hinges on languages in a way that excites me as a person who loves words. Ransom does not have a ‘universal translator,’ but actually has to learn the alien language. Then he has to translate some ‘Earth’ ideas into this alien language, which is an ever-so-subtle device to explore some of the ideas we take for granted. It’s lovely, lovely. You’d never see this in a blockbuster movie, but it drives the action in such a different way than you’d expect.

Lastly, this book made me realize how long it’s been since I read a book that really thrilled my imagination. I didn’t think C.S. Lewis could pull it off and really bring the story together in a satisfying way, because I’ve gotten so good at predicting with the first few chapters of a novel how bad the novel is going to be. I’ve also had far too many promising novels fade away into gibberish and frustration. It’s so wonderful to discover you’re actually in the hand of an author you can trust–an author who writes well and plots well and will not disappoint you even in a story with weaknesses. My imagination was so fired up this week, and it was a shock to discover I’d forgotten what that felt like.

In Conclusion:

What is really interesting about super-good books, and the one thing I love about them, is how so many of them do not follow the advice writers are constantly being given today. I can’t imagine any publisher publishing this book nowadays. It starts off soooooooooooo slow—just a guy walking through the back lanes of England. It has such wooden characters, characters without real character arcs. It takes sooooooooo long for any sort of action to occur, and the action that does occur fails to create much suspense. Why would a publisher take it on?

But yet—you care about these wooden characters! Somehow by the middle the shocking thing that happens affects you emotionally. You even feel pity and some sympathy for the bad guys at the end. And the climax and ending is somehow satisfying, even though a reader could so easily feel cheated if these events were not well-written.

I think, despite the good behind teaching writers how to better their craft, we sometimes risk making all writing exactly the same. We could be overlooking the next C.S. Lewis by insisting on being dropped into the middle of the action. And I do not say this under any delusions that I am the next C.S. Lewis who should not be ignored, because I know there’s so much about character and plot that I need to keep on learning about until the end of the my writing days. But stories can somehow, some way, work without these things. Our confidence in our knowledge about what is ‘good’ storytelling may be far too similar to our confidence in the progress of history and the idea we’re superior to civilizations that have come before us. We’re missing the context. We unknowingly blind ourselves to what they can teach us.

However, to conclude this review–Out of the Silent Planet will likely not change anyone’s mind about C.S. Lewis. If you dislike his philosophizing and general outlook on life, you won’t find this book any different. If you dislike his neat and logical prose, you’ll find that here as well. Even if you love C.S. Lewis because of the Chronicles of Narnia, you may find this one a little ‘weirder.’ But if you love inventive settings that inspire you to think about the world in new ways, give this one a shot. It’s worth it.

 

 

Have you read Out of the Silent Planet, and if so, what did you think?

 

Related Book Reviews of Out of the Silent Planet:

While writing this post I discovered there were not a lot of people writing about the Space Trilogy, so I thought I’d link to a few good reviews I came across here.

The Silent Planet of C.S. Lewis – why this book counts as good classic sci-fi despite having angels in it.

The Cosmic Trilogy 1: Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – a deeper review of the books as a whole.

Out of the Silent Planet – a comparison with Gulliver’s Travels that I didn’t notice myself.

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