Farewell to Leaves

I can see, from where I’m sitting here, now, that it is still possible to buy a book in paper.  Paper books line the walls of this room, pile on the floor, under the bed, cram themselves in odd and awkward places.  Many are new, many are old, quite a few are used and signed and occasionally singed.  There are first editions amongst them, and hundred-year-old copies, copies with notes in the margins and odd, second-hand bookmarks: an ace of spades, an old postcard, a yellowed newspaper advertisement.

There will be, I’ve heard it said, no substitute for books. Oh, you cannot have a textbook made of bytes and bits, you cannot download the feel of paper.  We’ll still have hard copies, I’ve heard it said, and paperbacks, and special printings.  We’ll still have signings and dedications, the weight of them.  The electronic book is just a fad, a cheap toy.  It’ll be the medium of dime novels, cheap novels, the medium of green writers, the Stephanie Meyers of the world.  Real writers will stay with the paper book, they say.  Real writers, they care, they won’t switch to the electronic medium so quickly, not completely.  They’ll keep a paper copy on the shelves.

Or so I’ve heard it said.  I’ve heard a lot of things said.  I am not fooled.  The book has been cheapening since the invention of the printing press, where it was made available to the masses, and tired scribes put up their brushes with a sigh of relief.  Even with that momentous invention, something was lost, and in our paper books today even the most ornate and cared-for editions have for the most part forgotten the care, the nearly-illegible brushstroked script, the bright illuminations on the pages of old texts.  Even today our paper holds less weight, and the bindings fall apart in only a few years.

Oh, but books are cumbersome things!  Large, heavy, worth infinitely less than their weight in gold.  Why, for twenty dollars, one can get a hardback copy of a book worth seven, maybe eight, dollars in a paperback edition, available should a person wait another year or so to purchase it, and both with the exact same text!  The pages are easily torn and even the lightest splash of any fluid whatsoever does irreparable damage, no matter how quickly one wipes it away.  The well-loved book is, after only a few years, held together by tape and ABC gum in a half-hearted attempt at rebinding.  So-called “collector’s editions”, collections of authors’ works with half-decent bindings and perhaps a built-in bookmark (to discourage the terrible habit of dog-earing the pages, apparently acceptable in paperback copies) are uncommon, and therefore cost good deals of cash in the golden age of their first printings, whereupon they sink into oblivion.

Why would a person even think to buy a paper book?  Oh, certainly, when print was new—suddenly a painstaking, expensive, and time-consuming process was simple and available to the general public.  The illuminated texts became a thing of religion and expense, and grew ever more obscure.  Printed text was simple, and more importantly, it was cheap.  Why would a person spend the time–often their entire life–learning how to make the paper, grind the inks, bind the leaves together, measure the widths and lengths of passages, and carefully, with an artist’s hand, copy out every single word of a manuscript, if not for a holy purpose?  Today, illuminated manuscripts are saved for Torahs and the like, and when men devote their minds to the task it is for a holy purpose only.  The Gutenberg Bible became the Shakespearean Folios became the cloth-bound books of study became the dime-novel.  We have left behind the illuminated text.  We are moving forward, always forward, always looking for accessibility; we are pushing literature, reading, stories into the hearts of the masses.  The easier it is to obtain, to own, the more people our stories and knowledge will reach.  This is, of course, the theory.  And it is a good goal, a good theory.  Or so I’ve heard it said.

And thus here we are, with the advent of a second printing press, publishing poorly-written Gutenbergs by the thousands.  Anyone’s knowledge, anywhere the internet can reach, widely available, cheap, even free!  Hundreds of books all packed into the shape of a small, slightly-dense paperback.  The printing press allowed the common man a library; the electronic book allows the common man a library tucked into a large coat pocket.  Farewell, then, to towering stacks; farewell to the cumbersome searching of shelves, the pince-nez stares of old women from behind a check-out desk.  Farewell to lost pages and missing volumes, to incomplete collections, to the vacancies on a shelf where an old friend failed to return a lent copy.  Farewell to bubblegum-bound pages, to the paper cuts obtained when running a thumb along the pages of a fresh text.  Farewell to indecision upon travel, when only a few well-chosen words will fit in a case; farewell to torn corners accompanying too many down-turnings.  Farewell to water-withered pages, to misprints, to notes in the margins that cramp with original words.  Farewell to worm damage and yellowing of paper.  Farewell to broken backs.

We will face this technology as we did the last, with open arms and inquiring minds, blank, ready to absorb these new thoughts that barrel towards us.  They will knock at our eyes with ever-shorter phrases, ever-changing grammar, wild, untamed, free.  Our collective opinions, thoughts, even consciousness, already shrinking with the world, will draw ever closer.  We will embrace it.  We will adore it.  We will not look back.

Perhaps, as with illuminations, we will even forget what we have lost.


Farewell to Leaves was written in 2011, shortly after I got an e-reader.  As with all my work, this piece is available for free right here: Farwell to Leaves.  Please do not distribute it without credit given to me or for money.


The Shift in Literature

I have a love-hate relationship with e-books.  I’m sure I’m not the only one.

I hate them because I love paper books.  I love bookshops, which have been chased out of my area by e-books; where we used to have several large chains in the area, we now have one small Books-A-Million outlet in a mall.  I love to thumb the pages and write notes in the margins.  I love used books where I can find the notes left by previous owners.  I love bookmarks: playing cards and newspaper articles and torn bits of paper.  I love the feeling of being surrounded by books, piled up or on a shelf or whatever; they make me comfortable.  I love my well-read books, held together with glue and tape and the occasionally bit of bubble gum.

And I hate e-book copyrights.  I hate that publishers are suddenly terrified of libraries and are trying to make the market as profitable as they possibly can– not that I’d expect any different.  I hate the way the monetary side of the market is handled.

But I love e-books too.   Continue reading

Here is a List of Problems.

This whole writing-for-profit thing is weird.

I’ve been a writer my entire life, so it’s counter-intuitive how new I am to the publishing world.  Especially since there are a million different ways to enter the world of being a Paid Writer, especially when your end goal is Paid Novelist.

Continue reading

The Transmission

The Transmission


The transmission came like a godsend. The discoverers were two young students in cargo pants and button-up shirts, running on coffee fumes and sheer force of will. They were lucky, not good. And the first transmission was small. A trilling whistle, a buzzing noise, some clicks. There was no grand dictation, no brilliant alien tongue. The grad students nearly wrote it off as a mechanical glitch, but they didn’t–they made a note of it, and that made their careers. The next day brought another transmission, and another, and within months they were coming in droves.

Our first reaction was a blend of excitement and fear. SETI found itself the centre of a media windstorm; linguists rushed to the problem like moths to a flame. The clicks and trills and rough aspirations proved incomprehensible for a time, and so we were worried–was this a message? A warning? Was it even meant for us? Did we catch this as a fluke or was it meant to be read by some other grand civilization? Was it a challenge, an invitation, a threat?

As we fretted, the linguists toiled away, and time passed. The transmissions frequently interrupted our own, becoming regular interference for radio stations, communications systems, and television. Airlines were the most affected–suddenly there was a killing to be made in forecasting the frequency of extraterrestrial interruptions. We developed workarounds. We adapted.

But eventually someone cracked the code. A young woman in Switzerland discovered that each method of speech–each click, each trill, each buzz–followed the same patterns, the same constructions. She hypothesized that these related not to the inherent meaning of the words, but to the tense! A pattern in clicks meant a thing about to occur. The same pattern, trilled, meant it had already happened. And with that discovery followed another–pitch as aspect, frequency as declension–and suddenly an alien race was at the edges of our fingertips.

Everything changed. The grad students of the original discovery met up with the Swiss linguist and released a translations of that first message to the world. In a discovery that thrilled the followers of science everywhere, it meant this: “Can you read me?” It was a message of discovery, the alien equivalent of the first telephone call. And it hit so close to home, it felt so human, that we latched on to it. The following messages detailed the discovery of this new, unfathomably fast method of communication, which was immediately tested and verified by our own scientists. And then, in that explosion of alien chatter, that new method had caught on. It had travelled the stars to be caught in our good fortune.

Their era of discovery was mirrored in us. As the communication spread across their culture they told us their technology, their history, their stories. And as we learned, we analyzed; we put their science to use, studied their past. Their culture leaked into our lives. New methods of creating energy appeared in our stations–simple, cheap, clean. New architecture appeared in our cities, new vehicles on our streets, new art in our museums. We began to teach their history in our schools. Alien churches popped up on street corners as a new religion blossomed. A new genre of music, exopop, showed up on our radios, based on the musical and poetic traditions of a species we’d never met.

We were a people infatuated, captivated. We began to dream of meeting them. We wondered to each other–what would it be like to shake their hands (or tentacles, antennae), to thank them for their contributions to our world. Politicians reassured us: if we met them, surely these people wouldn’t attack us. We knew these people, trusted them. We were their friends even if they didn’t know us. Novels emerged–first contacts, meetings, even romances. More often than not they arrived at the last minute to save us from destruction, our valiant heroes.

The question emerged: where were they? How could we reach them? As if they’d read our minds, the transmissions began to speak of space travel. We were ecstatic–these friends of ours, our international crush, would provide us with the method to reach them. Collectively, we held our breath. We waited. They delivered. With their usual brilliance, the transmissions provided us with innovations in propulsion, in life support. They provided us with theories advanced far beyond ours in on hyperspace travel, on light speed. Between their theories and our mathematics, we soon had a ship. Tracing their transmissions, we soon had a location.

Men and women lined up from all over the world, hoping to be the first to meet these incredible people. Eventually a team of four was selected, trained, and presented to humanity. We were a planet in waiting now, glued to our televisions as the astronauts boarded. For months–mere months!–we waited, breathless, following news of the mission like a great interstellar show. Our scientists combed the transmissions in the meantime. Surely there would be some news of colonization, perhaps even other life…

There was indeed news. Their scientific progress plateaued after a few small trips off the planet, and suddenly the transmissions were peppered–then overrun–with talk of economic priorities, of budgets, of the small slices and cuts their funding took before the money vanished completely. We were stunned, somewhat disappointed, somewhat ashamed. But no matter. We had picked up the slack, after all. We would come to them.

The final transmission came without warning, unceremonious and bleak. By this point, programs had been created to translate the broadcasts as they came in–radios came with them, standard. So it was heard, unfiltered, across the world: “Near-planet object detected. Collision imminent.” The message was followed by a short prayer to their deity. Dread settled onto our shoulders like dust. A million hands checked their dials, but this was no program, no War of the Worlds. This was real. In the final minutes, our planet was flooded with the panicked transmissions of a dying world. And from such a great distance, we listened, helpless.

The number of transmissions rose, and suddenly they blocked each other out. Ten minutes and an eternity later, one broke through: “If you can hear this, anyone, if we aren’t completely forgotten, remember that we are–”

Then, deafening, silence.

We spent that night in contemplation. We hardly spoke to one another. For once in our history, our conflicts and battles seemed small. Petty. Nothing really mattered in the face of extinction like that. And it seemed so senseless-how easy it would have been to simply inhabit another world, for them! We thought about our astronauts, heading for a dead planet, perhaps nothing more than dust. It seemed so lonely.
Night spread across our tiny planet, leaving daylight in its wake. Inch by inch, darkness touched the corners of our world. And one by one, we looked up to stare it in its multitude of eyes. One by one, we turned to face the stars.



I wrote this short story a few years ago, in one sitting at a coffee shop while waiting on a professor. A while ago, I published The Transmission under a pseudonym while I was trying to figure out the whole self-publishing thing.  Amazon’s minimum pricing made me loathe to market it, though– I’m a big fan of free distribution and at-will pricing.  And it’s such a short story, I felt like it would be an uphill battle. If you liked the story and wish to purchase it, it’s still available here; I also have my own .epub available upon request.  A PDF copy is available right here, for free.

The Transmission

First Post.

I’m new to this whole blogging thing: the closest I’ve ever come to doing something like this has been a sporadic series of diaries and journals over the years.  So: I thought it somehow fitting to start this off with something I wrote a year and a half ago.  I found this a couple hours ago in a long-forgotten corner of my hard drive, completely forgotten.

Without further ado, I present A Sketch of Dying, from Alex Penland of 2013.

Winter comes and locks us all indoors.

It’s been sudden this year, and we’ve been spoiled. All through December, the weather’s been warm and inviting. Iowa’s felt like late fall at the worst. But come January, Winter pounced like a cat on a mouse, and we felt our cheeks crack and our freedoms break, and we slunk into the cold darkness. Now the ground is white and the sky is grey and my car has frost problems on the insides of the windows when condensation from the heater freezes. It’s horrible.

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. Death and friendships, death and how life leads up to it. I keep imagining those final moments, the last few seconds your entire life leads up to. I wonder how I’ll spend them. I think of Oscar Wilde, lying in bed, his brilliant mind infected and turning against him; how he must have ached for the grace and wit that he polished all his life, and how they abandoned him. I think of Giles Corey and the unbearable pressure on his chest, how it must have felt as his ribs cracked, as his lungs ached. I wonder what it felt like to expel his final words from airless cavities: “More weight”. I read about car crashes, think of my own hands turning at the wheel, the burst of adrenaline, the scream rising in my throat only to be silenced by collision. Or wrecking in an airplane, from 36,000 feet: a jolt of turbulence that never stops, just gains speed, breath leaving your throat, oxygen masks fallen from overhead that there’s no point in donning, and suddenly the front of the cabin rushes at you in a great tearing roar and there’s–

This is nothing new to me. This is how I’ve thought since I was a young child. Partially it scares me. When I’m lying in bed in the dead of night, imagining myself in a small space in a small apartment clinging to the surface of an unimaginably huge world, tumbling in a perpetual fall around an even more unimaginably huge sphere of fire. It scares me then. But it works in reverse too. I look outside the window at the grey-slated trees sprouting from the ground, and I don’t see death there. Life’s just hidden at the core of them, fresh and green and waiting. I see death in the air, in the brush of energy that comes in biting wind and bright reflections off snow. It’s there and then it’s gone.

Because when I experience something, it is. It exists to me. When I cease to experience it, it is not. It ceases to be. That’s death, all there is to it. When I cease to experience, I cease to be. And I’m not sure how I feel about that.

I want my last moments to be good.

I remember when we put my dog to sleep. She was old, and her kidneys were failing, and she was very loved. We agonized over it, waited until we were sure it was best for her. She wasn’t in pain, my dog; we were doing her kidneys’ job for them, and–in the words of the vet–at her best she simply felt “blah”. But she was never going to be happy again, never going to feel good. And her problems were going to make things worse. We didn’t put her down because she was hurting. We did it because we were given a choice: let her have her last moments while she was all right and among loved ones, or have her last moments be a whirlwind of pain, blood, possibly vomit and blindness. It was a choice between serenity and panic.

Those last moments were lying on the front porch. I stroked her ears and sang softly to her, held her close as we waited for the doctors to show up. When the vet came, her head was in my lap, and aside from a startled moment at the needle entering her skin, she went peacefully. It was a beautiful day. It was one of her favourite places to be. I would love a death like that: surrounded by those I love, at peace. It was beautiful, and sad though it is that ending is a good memory of her.

I remember when a friend of mine died, when I was young. According to those who were there, she was playing a hand game at summer camp, with a fellow camper. One moment she was included in things. The next she was falling. Then she was gone. She was a close friend, one of the few people back then I truly loved, and I don’t remember the last time I ever saw her. Now, when I say goodbye, I’m sure to tell people I love them. I never leave a house in an argument, never go to sleep after a fight. Not without resolving it. I can’t. I’m too afraid to. What if I never see them again? What if they die? What if I do?

I remember when my great-grandmother died, and we were at dinner with a friend of mine. I was maybe nine. My friend cried, and I didn’t. I wondered if something was wrong with me, because I didn’t feel sad. All I could think of were the happy stories I knew of my great-grandmother. My mother had refused to tell me the worse, as the woman had grown older and her memory betrayed her. I was aware of that. In my mind, the woman who had died was a stranger; my mother’s grandmother was someone I had only met when I was very little.

I remember death. It’s peppered my experience of life from an early age. And I remember death before that as well: I experienced nothing for all of time before my birth. It wasn’t so bad. That doesn’t scare me. I have more experience with being dead than anything else; a loose, free eddy of energy, molecules, time. I’m not afraid to cease to be.

What terrifies me is the act of dying.

We were spoiled this winter. The snow outside right now is hardly even a few inches, less than a foot. The past few winters we’ve had feet and feet of snow, enough to cancel classes and make the child in me squeal in delight. Today, all it does is keep me in the apartment: confined to my small room, typing, putting off homework assignments as I get lost in my words.

In a few months, though, it will be spring. The ground will thaw, the world will dampen in humidity and melting snow. It will rain, but the air will be warm and the sun will leak through the clouds. There will be transition. Grass and leaves and weeds will grow, dandelions sprouting their yellow heads and lace-sphere seeds, and we will venture outside. I have plans to travel the world in the summer, Greece and England and perhaps, next year, the Middle East again, or Hawaii. I will graduate, and I will cease to experience Iowa, and my room, and the confinement of the cold. I will cease to be present here.  Things will change. I will travel. I will live. I will age. Eventually I will cease.

I like this post for a number of reasons.  First: they were right, this writer.  They’ve ceased.  The person who wrote this snippet of procrastination is dead. They changed: the winter ended. I went to Greece for two weeks just as predicted; I tried to go to Israel and England last fall and was stopped by the attacks on Syria.  In that year and a half I’ve gone through half a dozen potential futures. I’ve dated men– new to the Alex of 2013– and broken hearts. I’ve re-evaluated my LGBT identity, my (non)religious identity, my physical identity a thousand times. I’ve lost at least 20 pounds.

I can no longer imagine being the Alex of 2013.  And I’m sure the Alex of 2016 will look back and say the same thing about this.  (So hello, Future Alex.)

Second: I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately, too. I think everyone my age does, to some extent.  I’m 23, I’m a new adult, and suddenly I realise it’s a straight shot to mortality from here.  No one’s going to shove me through the upcoming milestones that make the ride worth it.  Love, family, careers, leaving an impact: that’s all something I’m now responsible for.  No system, no parent, nothing is going to push me through those things the way they pushed me through growing up.

And I’m okay with that.  I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way.

The third reason I like this piece: it reminds me how much I do not miss Iowa winters. God. I love snow but consecutive weeks of subzero temperatures? Not for me.