Adventures in eReading

I’m now going to now give you the eReader spiel: what I tell nonreaderly types what the whole deal is with eBooks and eReaders.

I could throw around some numbers about Amazon’s Kindle book sales trumping printed books sales and how industry experts project the phasing out of the mass market book altogether, but in doing so I would probably be boring myself more than boring you.

So I’m going to do something slightly different. I’m going to talk about my readerly experience with my eReader. Just to offer a glimpse of what the reading life is like with my device.

I often use my mother’s iPad, I’ve read on the Kindle, and I’ve played around with the Kobo, but at the end of the day I am more than happy with my device, which is a Sony Reader Touch Edition. I was prompted to buy it a year ago when I had a summer job at an educational publisher for which the commute via public transit was very long. I was tired of lugging around two or three heavy books at a time, and it is necessary for me to carry that many books because I never know what I’m in the mood for on any given day.

I was the first of my friends and family to get a dedicated eReading device, and no one was surprised. I’m very big on going digital. My friends crack up every time I insist that they send me e-cards only, that if they draw something for me they send me a scanned version of it as well, and that I don’t really see anything “endearingly personal” about receiving a handwritten note, as I’ll simply be too guilty to throw it away and annoyed at the prospect of finding a place to store it.

So it was only a matter of time before I jumped on the eReading bandwagon. And it’s been awesome. Here are the highlights from the year I have spent eReading:

  • I love the visual element of shelves filled with books. But I also really, really like it when when I don’t have too many things cluttering and taking up space in my life. So with an eReader, I started getting more exposed to and start reading all the possibly crappy books out there, and not even be worried about shelving it or returning it to the library. This experience is reflected in studies done on eReaderly habits: that people who are eReading are not only more open to trying out different genres; they are also read more in absolute terms.
  • A lot of books on things like relationships are not books I want to be seen carrying around, so my knowledge on how to handle men has increased exponentially ever since I bought my eReader. On the same reader, mind you, I also read more than half of Remnick’s epic biography of Obama. It was only out in hardcover at the time and weighs 2.5 pounds in that format. Had I not had it on my eReader, I wouldn’t have been bothered to carry it around and read as much of it that I did.
  • I look for content that speaks for itself. You know a book is good when you forget what you’re reading it on. In a weird way, I become a better judge of what’s good.
  • There’s not very many negatives to it, but there’s one downside with eReading that I experienced. Unlike printed books, I must admit that an e-reader does let you down. My battery is great and lasts me almost a week if I read for about 2 hours every day. But if I don’t get around to charging it, I do end up having it die on me and not having anything to read on the subway ride home.
  • Library eBooks are BRILLIANT. I’ve paid an alarming amount in library fines for printed books. An eBook that expires itself not only keeps me from racking up fines–it also pushes me to finish a book before it expires.

A lot of writers and readers are very spooked by the eReader revolution and dislike eReading. I sympathize with their attachment to physical books, but can’t help but notice that their reasons for sticking to printed books are not that practical; they are more romantic. eReading, I feel, has its own way of growing on you, and even if it doesn’t compare to reading printed books, it’s a whole new experience unto itself.

So what do readers think? Am I on to something here, or has my love for all that is digital gone to pathological extremes? Do you read eBooks, and if so can you relate to the highlights I listed above? If you don’t read digitally, do you think you will make the transition sometime? Why or why not? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Advertisements

Yep. Still a Parrot.

In the process of creating an eBook, I tried renaming an EPUB file to give it a .zip extension so that it is a zipped folder. It doesn’t work. I open it to find it’s still an EPUB file. Every time it happens, I am reminded of the anecdote where a parrot is taught to say the shahada and chants it all the time, only to squawk when its moment of death arrives. “Because it doesn’t matter what you make the parrot say,” my teacher explained. “Its heart is still the heart of a parrot.” Ergo, don’t just put the shahadah on linguistic repeat and think you’ll have it going for you in the Afterlife. It’s whether your heart is in a state of shahadah that counts.

So I tell myself, Stop renaming your file and think it will work, dammit. Its heart is still the heart of an EPUB file. At heart it’s still a parrot.

My mind is weird.

On Divine Ordinances through Literature

“Tool’s music,” said a friend as we readied ourselves to chow down on our burgers, “Taught me so much about God.” I love being part of such conversations. But at the same time, I was wary.

Such statements don’t scandalize me, but I’ve always been skeptical of the notion that art is the means to a transcendence, to knowing and being in awe of that which is incomprehensibly divine. I associate such ideas with hippies engaging in the idea of free love, or creative types duping themselves into thinking they have something over the rest of the world.

But a gem of the truth shone through to me one day; a truth that stunned me because it made me think of something I usually rarely ever give thought to.

I was reading Annabel, a story about a hermaphrodite who is growing up in a remote part of Labrador in the Canadian north. At one point in the story, the child’s mother is wistfully missing St. John’s, a much larger city compared to Croydon Harbour the small town she married and settled down in. She especially misses the fact that she could lose herself and escape from her thoughts in the cinema in St. John’s, whereas there are no such distractions in Croydon Harbour. This place was founded in order to be cut off from the rest of the world. Its residents–especially the indigenous inhabitants around the area–were too absorbed in nature to need such frivolities:

. . . if you were one of the Innu or Inuit . . . you had no need of cinema. Cinema was one of the white man’s illusions to compensate for his blindness. A white man, for instance, had no idea of the life within stones. Imagine that.

I love my films and music and shows and think such mediums are eye-opening in ways that day-to-day experiences cannot always be. But because of this passage, I for the first time saw a deeply compelling case for disavowing such forms of entertainment.

What if music, films, and TV shows really are illusions for the blind ones, the ones who commit kufr not in its misconstrued, hackneyed, and demonized sense, but in terms of concealing the reality of our world and the universe?

When there is  mention in the passage above of the life within stones, I was reminded of something a shaykh told me once: that all matter is continuously in praise of Allah. And I wonder if it’s possible for us, those who literally and figuratively live in places with millions of distractions, to be in tune with nature in such a manner so that we are doing dhikr with it.

We are told that there is life within stones and that nature is worshipping God. But if we could be aware of the life within stones, within trees, within the earth, we wouldn’t need to be told so.

Where Brownness and E-Reading Intersect

My father decided he wanted to return his Kindle DX, and the only thing we could find for packaging material to send it back were old Urdu newspapers. The situation was hilarious. “Hum yeh nahin parday,” I cackled, pointing at the Kindle. “Hum YEH partay hain!” I said, pointing at the newspapers. My parents laughed like crazy and I felt so cool. My life is average. My life is totally desi.

3 Truths From a Book About Networking That Made Me a Better Muslim

309 pp. Crown Business.

Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time is a book about networking for people who hate networking. It converted me, the most pathological introvert you’ll probably ever know.

At first I wasn’t sure what to expect when I read this book, which was over a year ago. I was at the stage of my life when I felt that my introversion was costing me dearly in terms of personal and social development. I had to break out of my shell. What better book to read than a guide by Keith Ferrazzi, one of the most heavily networked individuals in the business world?

Enlightening as it was, some parts in the book were very difficult for me to relate to. Only a brazen extrovert–someone who gets charged by being around and talking to people–can has as many connections as Ferrazzi does. But, ever so gradually, I realized that the message in this book is much deeper than most business books out there.

Although I no longer remember the specific techniques Ferazzi shares when it comes to building relationships, there are from this book three truths, three gems of wisdom, that have completely embedded themselves into my psyche. They have either manifested themselves to me in my life, or are so in tune with Islamic principles that I cannot help but adopt them. Without a doubt, these realizations have helped me start becoming the best social being I can be.

1. There is no such thing as a separation between the personal and the professional.

Ferrazzi shares a beautiful anecdote where he was sitting at a business dinner, struggling to act happy while his insides were in turmoil. He had recently gotten divorced and his misery was almost too much to bear. He tried making small talk with a woman sitting next to him, with poor results. His depression made the situation even more uncomfortable. Finally, he admitted to the woman what he was going through and apologized for not being himself. He thought the woman would find this level of openness disconcerting. To his surprise, however, she met his revelation with compassion and empathy; she had also been through a divorce. Their conversation became so animated and interesting that others caught on and started sharing their own experiences. In allowing a part of himself to be vulnerable, Ferazzi created a scenario where everyone let their guard down just a little and began to be at ease with one another.

Of course, qualifiers abound. Be prepared for those who don’t care about your personal side. Don’t over share. Respect other people’s privacy.

But the general principle remains the same. Networking is not about throwing your business cards around like confetti. It’s about nurturing meaningful relationships that have some level of trust. Each and every one of Ferrazzi’s connections is somehow personal. You can’t expect your relationships to be meaningful or to withstand the test of time if there isn’t a strong personal element to them.  Also, be interesting. Of the two people who are equally qualified to the letter, Ferrazzi shares, professional recruiters will ask themselves: “Which one would I rather be stuck at an airport with?” And they will go with the person who comes to mind.

This made me stop being scared of talking about my beliefs or being myself around non-Muslims or even other Muslims. Now, with non-Muslims I talk about growing up in Saudi Arabia, joke about the fact that I don’t drink, make an emphatic point of my prayer timings. With Muslims, I talk about listening to rock music, discuss variations in interpretations of the divine law, and make smart-alecky, quirky comments without worrying that my jokes will fall flat. Because I’ve always been such an introverted loner, I’ve always been paranoid that people don’t really want to know the real me. But most of the time, they are very, very receptive to me–as a whole.

2. It’s better to give than to receive. 

We as Muslims should take this at face value, but the reality is that we don’t. Ferazzi shares an anecdote of Person A who asked Person B to introduce him to Person C in regards to a career prospect. Person B complied. Person A asked again for another introduction to Person D. Person B became skeptical. “I don’t know, I already asked them for two favors, and I’ll be honest, I might be calling in those favors for something else.” Ferrazzi thinks Person B is nuts. It’s not even a matter of being unkind. It’s a matter of understanding that networking is not a zero-sum game.  There is always enough to go around, and that we should never hesitate in making our social resources available to others out of fear that they’ll get depleted somehow.

Ferrazzi doesn’t even attribute this to some higher being or spiritual power, although that may well be a part of his personal beliefs. This is something he’s seen in practice. Those who think that there are limited “favors” to be called in end up losing in the long run. They fail to make connections or play matchmaker to potentially successful relationships, and hence fail themselves.

There should be one word screaming in Muslims’ heads as they read all this.

Baraka.

We tend to attribute baraka too much to matters of food and money and not enough to matters of spiritual wealth, knowledge, and relationships. We must always remember that it’s better to give than to receive, not only because it benefits us in this world, but because it does in the afterlife as well. Hell, we should trump even people like Ferrazzi in slaying the zero-sum game outlook on relationships.

Reading about this has given me an even stronger urge to help facilitate growth and relationships whenever I can. The best part is, even though I’m doing it as a Muslim, I find that my efforts are always ultimately channeled back to me by manifold. F’reals.

3. The ideal work/play balance is relative to each individual.

This dude’s insane. He’s pings people across the globe on his Blackberry as he rides his limo to work, exchanges air kisses with Arianna Huffington at cocktail parties, writes, makes appearances, and gets consulted as a relationship expert. And he’s loving it. It doesn’t drain him. It nourishes him.

And that is what Ferazzi says as he closes this book. Some are terribly daunted by the level of social engagement he is involved in and how he is working all the time, and Ferazzi responds by saying that balance is not some magic formula that works for everyone. The idea of balance is completely different for every person, and while you have to be the best social being you can be, no one says that you have to do so in a specific way, or that your idea of balance has to coincide to someone else’s idea in order for you to succeed.

Upon realizing this, I stopped wondering why some people could work all the time and others could socialize all the time, why some people could be so frantically busy and be so happy and why others could be in the same situation and completely unhappy. Each one of us must listen to ourselves and must realize what balance is for us. That’s how Allah made us so beautiful and intricately complex. By making us so different from one another.

Because of the cultural baggage Muslims have to lug around, we end up being confined to expectations of ourselves and others that may not be true to our beings at all. And just like you shouldn’t impose black-and-white definitions on your relationships, don’t divide your life into work-and-play components. Balance means being happy in giving time to all kinds of goals. Ferrazzi’s very comprehensive categories of goals are:

Spirituality
Intellectual stimulation
Physical wellness
Financial success
Professional growth
Giving back
Deep relationships

So. Apparently, networking doesn’t suck. Especially if it makes one more of a person of faith, and helps her celebrate and rejoice in the fact that Allah has made people as social animals.

On Angst, Faith, and Family

I came home emotionally raw and weary one day. I thought the house was empty. I called out a big, hearty salaam anyway, the way my mother likes it. Fake it till you make it, like they say.

I went to the room to find my sister studying on the bed. And there was so much bliss in that sight of her sitting there, her books open. I felt like a parched man wandering across the desert who has suddenly come upon a well brimming with clear, cool water.

I was reminded of a scene in the final season of Big Love where Barbara is suffering from a crippling spiritual crisis that strikes at the heart of her polygamist family’s tenets. Things are chilly between her and her husband, and in this scene Bill is pleading with her, asking her what it is she wants. She shakes her head, nearly in tears, paralyzed with the need to be true to her convictions and her loyalties.

“I love my family,” she says. “That’s all I know. I love my family.”

Some days, that truth, that absolute, is so reassuring. It’s the kind of truth a neurotic needs. I put down my handbag and hugged my sister, thinking of Barbara’s words and how Allah has made my family my saving grace, my reprieve from the heaviness of my thoughts.

Alhamdulillah.

On Publishing: 3 Reasons Why None of it Matters

This post is for writers for whom getting published is a critical way to validate their existence, and, really, anyone who thinks that getting published is the grandest of all achievements.

It’s not. At least, not anymore.

Literary ambition is a wonderful and remarkable thing, for were it not for that ambition, we would not see a lot of works that are out there in existence today (a lot of them are good, too!). I have a view of the existence of books in the same way medieval philosophers viewed the matter of the existence of God: existence in itself is a better thing, so it should be.

That goes for crappy books, too, for if there weren’t any crappy books, however would we know which ones are worthy? My philosophy on good and bad books is like the take on a good and bad day: you never know what a good day is until you’ve had a crummy one.

Sorry. I’m going overboard with the philosophizing today.

This post is in response to the depression aspiring writers get into when they get rejection slip after rejection slip. Don’t do that to yourself. Getting published is not all it’s made out to be, and here is why:

1. You can only be so happy before you go back to being your crummy self. The Intern does an incredible job of describing this. She actually managed to get her book picked up, and in the stressful midst of the pre-publishing activities, she found herself realizing that while her situation had changed and she had been ecstatic to find out her book was taken up, she was not really any happier than she had been before. She linked this realization with the concept of the hedonic treadmill. Published or not, in the long run you will only as happy as you’ll ever be. Deal with it.

2. If the public chooses to ignore or reject your book, that fate could be worse than not getting published at all. I don’t know about you, but I would much rather suffer from a dozen rejections than get published and have a very lukewarm response to my book, or no response at all, or be one of the mediocre books that become the scum below the bar defining good books are. I wouldn’t want that for myself. I would want my book–the book I had spent ages molding and perfecting so that it is the most unique and original and incredible work that I could produce–to be met with some response. It doesn’t even have to be positive (we all know what the fatwa on Rushdie did to Satanic Verses sales). It just has to be acknowledged. To be responded to.

One could take a different view that failing in publishing is like failing in love: that it’s better to have gone out there, published, and sold very few copies than not published at all. Nope. That sounds way nicer in theory than in practice. In the real world, editors will be kicking themselves for taking you on and your future prospects of getting published will be even more dismal.

If chances of getting published are a hundred to one, then think of your book actually gaining significant popularity as a one to a thousand. Publishers try their best to gauge the marketplace, but ultimately a lot of book projects, especially fictional books, are a gamble.

3. We’re living in the information age–on speed. No one’s telling you your content can’t be made available to millions. Hello. Internet?

Are you seriously going to mope about the fact that the gatekeepers of the publishing industry are keeping the world from seeing a glimpse of your genius? Grow up. We now have all the tools to be seen and heard. With the right platform and outreach via social media, you have no reason not to get your content out there.

And here’s the real kicker: by publishing online, you’ll be reaching out to people who simply can’t be bothered to set foot in a bookstore. Someone stumbles across your blog and says “Hey, usually these things don’t do it for me, but this one’s onto something here.” Bam. That’s success. That’s all a genuine writer really wants. They want their work to matter, even if it’s for one person.

You might raise the very valid point, dear Muslim reader, that I must think traditional publishing matters, for I after all work in the industry. Much as I love being part of the process, seeing some of the content that comes out and the fact that not everybody is a reader does make me question some things. This is an issue I will explore further later.

But the message you should take away, aspiring writer, is this: do everything you can to get published. But don’t disillusion yourself too much about the merits of getting published, and don’t subject yourself to agony over thinking you are worthless. Tie your camel, and then trust Allah. Know that there is something better for you, and it may come in a form that you couldn’t have conceived of.