Saturday, August 27, 2011

Me, Myself and Irene

The summer holidays are about to end, and apparently this year's summer holidays are not among those holidays that prefer to end silently, fading into the last sunset of the last Sunday. No Sir! These holidays are about to end with a bang. Two bangs actually. An earthquake and a hurricane. And in the middle of New York City too!

It has been raining regularly for the last couple of weeks, and I have been enjoying it because I miss the Indian monsoon here. In fact, as I have noted here before, these thunderstorms are my favourite weather phenomenon here in the US because even with the double-paned windows of my climate-controlled room closed, thunder and lightning can make me sit up and take notice like nothing else can. I even went out in a thunderstorm one evening and took a picture of the Manhattan skyline. But even I was not prepared for a hurricane in the middle of New York City.
First there was the earthquake. I had just stuffed myself with free food from the international student orientation at the school and had settled down for an afternoon siesta in my lab chair when I felt dizzy. Before I could understand anything it was over, but then Facebook came alive with "Earthquake?" status updates. Later I learnt that people had run out of tall office buildings in Manhattan when the Richter Scale 5.9 earthquake hit.

But scary as it may sound, the earthquake was no match for what was in store for the weekend. Hurricane Irene is hitting New York City and the New Jersey coastline right now as I type this. For the first time in history, a partial evacuation of New York City has been ordered and the city that never sleeps may turn off its power. All airports of the city are closed. Public transit has been shut down in New York City and New Jersey, and parts of Maryland, Washington DC, Pennsylvania and Connecticut are affected as well. In fact the whole of north-eastern USA from South Carolina to Maine are under threat from Irene.

After repeated warnings from various sources regarding emergency-preparedness, I went to the supermarket to buy some ready-to-eat canned food this morning. The supermarket was crowded beyond what I had ever seen, and everybody was buying those canned foods. The most shocking sight was the bottled water isle - it was empty.

So here I am, sitting at home surrounded by candles and canned food, waiting for Irene to arrive. The situation can only be described as "Haate hurricane," a Bengali phrase which is so impossible to translate that I wrote a complete Bengali blog post on it. Now I better publish this before the storm hits and the internet goes away, although I have a real strong gut feeling that nothing worth mentioning will happen. Firstly, because the weather office is seldom right, and secondly, from what I have seen in these last three years, the Americans overreact to everything!

Saturday, August 06, 2011

The Future of Books

All three Borders bookstores in New York City went out of business recently. For me the Borders store on Broadway and Wall Street was not just a shop to buy books, it was one of my favourite hang out places as well. Whenever I felt low or bored and had a few hours to spare, I just went to the city and submerged myself among the rows and rows of colourful books until I lost track of time. I would always look forward to the next Borders visit. The other two stores were much smaller, but I visited them too from time to time. I won’t be able to do that anymore.

From a very early age, books have been my best companions. My grandfather owned nothing short of a library. I grew up with ceiling-high bookshelves in our rooms. The books my grandfather owned were very old, but then my father started buying new and shiny hard bound books for me right from my first birthday. So I have been the owner of books like The Inventions That Changed the World and The Family Encyclopaedia of the Animal Kingdom even before I could read. The animal kingdom book was my all-time favourite and my father showed me the pictures and told me all about them when I was very small. As I grew up, books poured in as gifts from my parents, my grandfather and my maternal uncle. All that I am today – researcher, photographer, blogger – I am because of those books. How can I even begin to explain what effect books like The World’s Best Photographs (seen in the photo), Encyclopaedia of the World, Physics Can be Fun, the Tell Me Why series and The Giant All Color Dictionary had on me? Yes, call me crazy if you will, but I actually spent hours reading that dictionary (and The Charlie Brown Dictionary too) like a novel, just because it had such nice pictures.

Add to that the numerous books on birds, animals, history, geography, science and arts whose names I don’t even remember, tons of Bengali and English poetry and prose, and magazines like Anandamela, Shuktara, Readers’ Digest and National Geographic, and you will get an idea of how I grew up. No computers, no iPhones, no video games, no Internet, hardly any TV or movies – just books all around me. Was it good? It was more enjoyable than the Internet could ever aspire to be.

The closing down of Borders seems surprising to me because I have seen smaller bookstores with far less business go on for decades in Kolkata. Maybe it has something to do with the business model here that makes large companies turn turtle in an instant. Maybe it is because of online bookstores that sell the books cheaper that it is no longer profitable to run physical bookstores. I, as a matter of principle, never browsed a book at Borders and later bought it online at Amazon – it seemed unethical to me. Surely everyone wouldn’t think that way. But coming to think of it, there is nothing surprising about bookstores going out of business. I could have predicted it long ago.

My father’s company gave him a desktop computer at home in 1996. It was one of the earliest multimedia machines and there was a free CD with it. It was Microsoft Encarta 1994 – one of the first multimedia encyclopedias. It was like magic – while reading about any country you could listen to its national anthem, you could listen to Pt. Ravi Shankar play the sitar, you could hear the voice of Gandhi, Einstein and Neil Armstrong, you could hear the calls of animals and birds and spoken language samples, and you could see photos of any place you wanted – from the Nile flowing by a Sudanese village to a sunset in San Francisco. Want to know how a volcano is formed? Want to know how a lizard catches its prey? No problem! Encarta had animations and videos to explain everything. You could browse the content in a variety of ways, and click on links in one article to move to another.

And that was just one CD. Compare that to the Encyclopedia Britannica, and you will see why bookstores are going out of business.
Books are a bulky, inconvenient and environmentally hazardous way of gaining knowledge or entertainment. Why, the Sony Reader that I bought for my sister can fit in a coat pocket, and yet can hold hundreds of books. You can move between books, save multiple bookmarks, look up meanings of words and annotate. Moreover, e-books are either free or much cheaper than their real-world counterparts which must be made by cutting down trees. No wonder paper books are becoming less popular with each passing day. When National Geographic Magazine gives me one year of subscription for $15, I know it means that the 125 year old magazine may not exist much longer in its familiar form.

Of course, the advent of e-book readers is not the only reason for books dying away. Our attention spans have been so severely shortened by the Internet and satellite TV that spending a few hours with the same reading material seems a waste of time. Why, I would be able to browse through a dozen blogs and hundreds of tweets in that time! Our brains no longer want to process a lot of information in the form of written words – everything must come with some audio/visual stimulus or we feel cheated. Everything that books gave us – knowledge, entertainment, pleasure – the Internet and TV give us better.

Everything, except for the limitless imagination that comes with slowly taking in the description of a place or an event word by word, line by line. That, and the smell of fresh printing ink or accumulated dust as you turn each page. Clicking on a “Next” button, even if on a touch screen, is just a poor substitute.

That is why the closing of Borders makes me sad. In spite of all the logic in favour of e-book readers, I love holding the real books in my hand, savouring every word, every picture as I turn each page. That is why, going against all logic, I ordered another year of National Geographic Magazine today. Borders was one place where I could browse through real books. Now I will have to look for other stores, like Barnes & Noble.

Until that closes down too. Eventually it will. I am sure of it.