September 12, 2009
Forgive me while I crow for just a moment: Mr. Penumbra just hit what I think is a new peak in the Kindle store. It's the 937th bestselling item in the entire Kindle universe. The fourth-bestselling short story. The third-bestselling "techno thriller."
The sad truth: As best I can figure, that rank was driven by about 30 copies over the past two days.
Alas, Kindle. Your universe is small indeed.
September 10, 2009
Mr. Penumbra Speaks
I haven't listened to it yet, but I'm really looking forward to it.
September 9, 2009
The Book's Terms of Service
It's a reminder that books at their best are not just intellectual objects, not just aesthetic objects, but democratic objects.
And it makes me think of Salman Rushdie's claim:
Literature is the one place in any society where within the secrecy of our own heads, we can hear voices talking about everything in every possible way.
Go go go read it read it read it.
September 7, 2009
Inside Every Don Draper Is Alexander Portnoy
If you don't watch Mad Men, and haven't read or don't know about Phillip Roth's novel Portnoy's Complaint, this doesn't mean anything to you.
If you do, and have, these two guys seem as far apart as any two white men inhabiting New York in the sixties could reasonably be.
And yet, there's something about Draper and Portnoy's shared desire to jump out of history (the history of the world, the history of their own families), their sense that this is the time to do it, and that sex and language are the mechanisms to do so, that pulls the two together. If they met, I think they'd have a lot to say to each other.
(Inspired by this 40th-anniversary article about Portnoy's Complaint in the Guardian.)
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Society/Culture, Television
September 6, 2009
The Xerox Moment
Joni Evans's memoir-ish essay nicely connects the late Mad Men-era (in her case, of publishing, not advertising) to the digital present by way of an archaeology of office technology. It's the intermediate transformations she registers that are more interesting, and maybe - arguably - more significant:
The Xerox machine meant that suddenly, not one manuscript was submitted to one publisher, but that 10 copies went to 10 publishers simultaneously. The first publisher to claim the book won, cutting a six-week process to six days or sometimes six hours.
Agents soon realized that they could auction books to publishers and not settle for the first bid. Knopf would bid against Putnam, Simon & Schuster would bid against Random House, and so on. The fax machine accelerated the process of signing contracts, and beamed manuscripts overseas for worldwide auctions.
Our lives changed. Agents descended on our formerly humble authors, empowering the new literary lions with Hollywood-like contracts and making us dizzy with new rules.
We were all drunk on the new attention. We hired public relations firms, sought Barbara Walters interviews and romanced the “Today” show. The heads of the B. Dalton/Waldenbooks/Borders/Barnes & Noble chains now sat next to John Updike at dinner tables at booksellers’ conventions.
It's nice, too, that the essay begins where her career does, in the early 1970s; an older observer would see the tech and cultural changes she inherited, the fleet of typewriters, rolodexes, and mimeographs, and the institution of "the manuscript girl," as the rupture, not the origin. The mood she establishes isn't so much nostalgia for a lost Eden as the excitement (coupled with dread) of an industry that was always living in the future.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Object Culture
September 4, 2009
Institutions Of Reading
What is happening here?
This year, after having amassed a collection of more than 20,000 books, officials at the pristine campus [of Cushing Academy] about 90 minutes west of Boston have decided the 144-year-old school no longer needs a traditional library. The academy’s administrators have decided to discard all their books and have given away half of what stocked their sprawling stacks - the classics, novels, poetry, biographies, tomes on every subject from the humanities to the sciences. The future, they believe, is digital.
“When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ said James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing and chief promoter of the bookless campus. “This isn’t ‘Fahrenheit 451’ [the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel in which books are banned]. We’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology.’’
Instead of a library, the academy is spending nearly $500,000 to create a “learning center,’’ though that is only one of the names in contention for the new space. In place of the stacks, they are spending $42,000 on three large flat-screen TVs that will project data from the Internet and $20,000 on special laptop-friendly study carrels. Where the reference desk was, they are building a $50,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine.
And to replace those old pulpy devices that have transmitted information since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1400s, they have spent $10,000 to buy 18 electronic readers made by Amazon.com and Sony. Administrators plan to distribute the readers, which they’re stocking with digital material, to students looking to spend more time with literature.
Earlier today I wrote: "This... is not about technology or pedagogy, but remodeling - and only accidentally the other things."
I should note that I mean exactly the opposite of "this is no big deal." To clarify - eliminating the stacks in favor of a) a coffee shop and b) spaces for laptops and digital readers is a reorganization of space and expenditure of money, for which the technological and pedagogical commitments and consequences, while absolutely real, have not been fully thought through.
Let's consider some of them. Well, let's start with just one.
At present, the Kindle, like all other electronic readers, is conceived, designed, and marketed as a consumer object. It is designed for individual readers to purchase individual libraries of digital books, which they can then carry with them anywhere. Its closest analogue in the technological world is probably the digital music and media player. Its closest analogue in the history of reading is the consumer-owned paperback book.
For the most part, we've internalized and naturalized this mode of reading and all of its rituals. Readers are people who own books. But those aren't the only kind of readers, and (maybe more importantly) that's not the only kind of reading.
We read books that aren't ours. We read stray pieces of paper that are shoved in front of our face and then thrown or tucked away. We read maps and charts posted on walls, newspapers left on chairs, business cards handled and filed, forms that we fill out and return, post-it notes that we wrote as reminders to ourselves weeks and months ago. And a hundred and one other things in a thousand and one different ways.
The Kindle models the reading behavior and rituals of the mainstream owner of books, who is also not accidentally, the mainstream customer of Amazon.com. While there is considerable demographic and behavioral overlap between this person and the library patron, the rituals of use are actually quite different. Here are a few things to look at:
- Most books (and nonbooks) in libraries are intended and frequently designed to be read by many different people over a long range of time. To use the language of kitchen-appliances, it's a commercial-grade item. To use the language of IT, books in libraries are terminals or workstations, not PCs. But there's no such thing (yet) as a multi-user, workstation Kindle.
- We usually privilege the big library ritual of picking out a book, checking it out, and taking it home, but most library materials are designed to be read in-place. Rare materials, noncirculating reference, the old card catalog, and of course, books you look up and thumb through, maybe even make some notes or photocopy a few pages from, and return to be shelved. Some of this reading, e.g., searching a library's entire catalog, a computer terminal performs admirably. But a Kindle doesn't actually do this very well. Its chief asset, portability, actually works against it; and when you tether a Kindle to a particular building, you've eliminated much of its function altogether.
- Libraries are collections, typically quite specialized ones, optimized in terms of audience (public, research, youth) if nothing else. And then there are collections within collections - subject wings and reading rooms. Kindles are omnibus devices, offering no particular specializations. In fact, you CAN'T make the Kindle a specialized device, either in its hardware or its software, because no particular reading specialization has a dominant foothold. (This is my impression, anyways; I'd love to hear otherwise).
In short, when it comes to electronic reading machines, there is no equivalent to the library stacks or the computer workstation. There is also no real equivalent to the newsstand or bulletin board, the teacher's chalkboard, or the family message board. Everything is geared towards the individual reader-owner.
One of my favorite talks, that I return to again and again whenever I'm trying to figure out consumer electronic media, is the joint interview Bill Gates and Steve Jobs gave with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher a few years ago. I'm paraphrasing, but one of the things Gates talks about are the different spaces of experiencing digital technology. The "four-foot experience" - whether you're watching TV or gaming or watching a movie - is fundamentally different from that of the office PC or the laptop or the handheld. They're reciprocally different. They require different technologies, different interfaces, to match their different possibilities and inherited rituals.
We haven't figured this out for digital readers yet - how to vary the hardware and software to match the different possibilities and rituals of reading in different contexts. We don't have the ordinary library experience, or classroom experience, let alone the Library of Congress experience. In that vacuum, the only thing you can recreate when you pull out the stacks is a coffeeshop or cybercafe. There is nothing else to offer.
By the way, please vote - today! - for our SxSW panel on Kindle 2020. This is one of the things we'll be talking about.
(Below the fold is the point in the thread where I can become a prematurely old man.)... Read more ....
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Technosnark
August 30, 2009
Scholars To Google: Your Metadata Sucks
Geoff Nunberg at Language Log on one of the biggest problems for scholarly use of Google Books: :
It's well and good to use the corpus just for finding information on a topic — entering some key words and barrelling in sideways. (That's what "googling" means, isn't it?) But for scholars looking for a particular edition of Leaves of Grass, say, it doesn't do a lot of good just to enter "I contain multitudes" in the search box and hope for the best. Ditto for someone who wants to look at early-19th century French editions of Le Contrat Social, or to linguists, historians or literary scholars trying to trace the development of words or constructions: Can we observe the way happiness replaced felicity in the seventeenth century, as Keith Thomas suggests? When did "the United States are" start to lose ground to "the United States is"? How did the use of propaganda rise and fall by decade over the course of the twentieth century? And so on for all the questions that have made Google Books such an exciting prospect for all of us wordinistas and wordastri. But to answer those questions you need good metadata. And Google's are a train wreck: a mish-mash wrapped in a muddle wrapped in a mess.
The devil here is in the details - Nunberg goes on to list dates and categories that aren't accidentally, but systematically misapplied, in wild, impossible fashion. There's a great discussion after the post, too - not to be missed.
It's actually surprising that this is such a problem, considering that the bulk of Google Books's collection is gathered from major research libraries, who DO spend a lot of time cataloguing this stuff for themselves. What happened?
In discussion after my presentation, Dan Clancy, the Chief Engineer for the Google Books project, said that the erroneous dates were all supplied by the libraries. He was woolgathering, I think. It's true that there are a few collections in the corpus that are systematically misdated, like a large group of Portuguese-language works all dated 1899. But a very large proportion of the errors are clearly Google's doing. Of the first ten full-view misdated books turned up by a search for books published before 1812 that mention "Charles Dickens", all ten are correctly dated in the catalogues of the Harvard, Michigan, and Berkeley libraries they were drawn from. Most of the misdatings are pretty obviously the result of an effort to automate the extraction of pub dates from the OCR'd text. For example the 1604 date from a 1901 auction catalogue is drawn from a bookmark reproduced in the early pages, and the 1574 dating (as of this writing) on a 1901 book about English bookplates from the Harvard Library collections is clearly taken from the frontispiece, which displays an armorial booksmark dated 1574...
[It's like that joke from Star Trek VI: "not every species keeps their genitals" (by which I mean, metadata) "in the same place."]
After some early back-and-forth, Google decided it did want to acquire the library records for scanned books along with the scans themselves, and now it evidently has them, but I understand the company hasn't licensed them for display or use -- hence, presumably, the odd automated stabs at recovering dates from the OCR that are already present in the library records associated with the file.
Ugh. I mean, the books in these libraries are incredibly valuable. But when you think about all of the time and labor spent documenting and preserving the cataloguing info over centuries, it's kind of astonishing that we're losing that in favor of clumsy OCR. Out of any company, Google should know that a well-optimized search technology is at least as important as the data it helps to sort.
Maybe they're just excessively cocky about their own tools. After all, the metadata problem isn't limited to browsing through Google Books. If you've ever tried to use an application like Zotero or EndNote to extract book and article metadata from Google Scholar, you find incomplete and mistaken information all over the place. You spend almost as much time checking your work and cleaning up as you would if you'd just entered the info in manually in the first place.
And in the end, manual entry is what we want to avoid. I'd say half the value of digital text archives for scholars is that they can put their eyeballs on a document - the other half is that they can send little robots to look at thousands and thousands of them, in the form of code that depends not least on good metadata.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Technosnark
August 28, 2009
Don't Take My Word For It
I married my wife because not long after we met, she told me that when she was a little girl, she would rehearse for a never-to-happen appearance on Reading Rainbow, reviewing her favorite book, Norman Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth.
That's a true story.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Self-Disclosure
August 26, 2009
Clive Thompson talks to the Stanford Study of Writing's Andrea Lunsford about the astonishing
decline super-tumescence of reading and writing:
"I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization," she says. For Lunsford, technology isn't killing our ability to write. It's reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.
The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That's because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it. Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up.
It's almost hard to remember how big a paradigm shift this is. Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn't a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they'd leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.
It's really easy to push this too far, and Thompson comes close. For one thing, I think it's more fair to say that before the internet, most Americans not in white-collar jobs (a much bigger field than just CT's three exemplars) never typed anything that wasn't a school assignment.
But in the broadest outlines, I totally agree -- and it's instructive that writing is SO dominant that it's gobbling up all of a lot of what used to be oral exchanges in favor of secondary literacy. And that writers are now particularly tuned towards a sense of TIMING in what they write. After all, classical oral rhetoric is where kairos, the Greek term for a sense of timing, moment, context, comes from:
Lunsford's team found that the students were remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across. The modern world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago.
The fact that students today almost always write for an audience (something virtually no one in my generation did) gives them a different sense of what constitutes good writing. In interviews, they defined good prose as something that had an effect on the world. For them, writing is about persuading and organizing and debating, even if it's over something as quotidian as what movie to go see. The Stanford students were almost always less enthusiastic about their in-class writing because it had no audience but the professor: It didn't serve any purpose other than to get them a grade.
The thing about kairos that doesn't come across in the plain-sense translation Thompson offers is that it's all about TIME. Timing, the moment of utterance, the moment of the speech, the sense of THIS moment in all of the times and places in history to give THIS speech. If chronos is cosmic time, the structure, the long duration, kairos is the event, the time when Things Happen. Cicero writing to Marc Antony, "you are Rome's Helen of Troy," knowing this will be read, out loud, by a reader who does not know what it says, in the Senate when Cicero himself is high-tailing it out of town, that he will be and has been part of the disaster he's describing ... That is kairos.
Writers coming of age today understand kairos because they write in time. And in-time. Has there ever been a moment where non-professionals have had to write so much in such an accelerated sense of time? In a not-quite-real-time, but a nearly-synchronized time, which is still nevertheless the quasi-timeless time of writing?
In fact, I think this is the proper philosophical response to "While I Was Away." Kairos Amok! (which is to say, chaos.)... Read more ....
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin'
August 25, 2009
Unicorns Bringing Up the Rear
Here's your oh-yes-it's-real chart of the day: the incidence of various elements on fantasy book covers. Swords hold a commanding lead, of course. But who knew boats would do so well?
August 24, 2009
A Constant and a Variant
I love stories like these, from poet Robert Creeley:
In the late forties, while living in Littleton, N.H., I had tried to start a magazine with the help of a college friend, Jacob Leed. He was living in Lititz, Pennsylvania, and had an old George Washington handpress. It was on that that we proposed to print the magazine. Then, at an unhappily critical moment, he broke his arm. I came running from New Hampshire—but after a full day's labor we found we had set two pages only, each with a single poem. So that was that.
Good enough, right? Nope:
What then to do with the material we had collected? Thanks to the occasion, I had found excuse to write to both Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. I didn't know what I really wanted of them but was of course deeply honored that they took me in any sense seriously. Pound very quickly seized on the possibility of our magazine's becoming in some sense a feeder for his own commitments, but was clearly a little questioning of our modus operandi . What he did give me, with quick generosity and clarity, was a kind of rule book for the editing of any magazine. For example, he suggested I think of the magazine as a center around which, "not a box within which/ any item." He proposed that verse consisted of a constant and a variant, and then told me to think from that to the context of a magazine. He suggested I get at least four others, on whom I could depend unequivocally for material, and to make their work the mainstay of the magazine's form. But then, he said, let the rest of it, roughly half, be as various and hogwild as possible, "so that any idiot thinks he has a chance of getting in."
Creeley goes on then to meet Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, all of the Beats... it just kind of runs on from there, a glorious march through almost all of the avant-garde poetry of the 1950s, from town to town, magazine to magazine... Just kids cranking away on their rusty old handpresses, broken arms be damned.
(Creeley's entire Collected Essays is available at the U of California press site - just follow the link above.)
And Suddenly You Feel Like An Alien
Um. Question. When you buy a hardcover book—or have one foisted upon you (because maybe you're like me, and you vastly prefer trade paperbacks—do you immediately peel off the jacket and, like, throw it away?
Apparently people do this. Seriously? I cannot even imagine. I'm not sure why, as I obviously don't like those filmy coverings. But to throw one away? It feels... transgressive!
Is this really a thing that people do?
Update: Wow, I'm not the only one. The battle lines are drawn! It's dust jacketeers vs. trashbots, and I think the DJs are winning.
Away We Go
See Winged Chariot press -- I think it's UK only for the moment.
August 22, 2009
DIY Book Scanner
The future is here; it's just not evenly distributed.
P.S. Something I find myself doing more often these days: snapping a passage out of a book with my phone's camera and emailing it to myself. Now if only Gmail had a little built-in OCR module...
P.P.S. I seriously want to build one of these things.
August 20, 2009
A Short History of Color Printing
So lately I've been thinking a lot about how color turns out to be a surprisingly important part of our experience reading printed books, and I came across this terrific website on the history of color printing, part of a special collections exhibit in the 90s from the University of Delaware's Morris Library.
I love this stuff:
Lithography was the first fundamentally new printing technology since the invention of relief printing in the fifteenth century.... Early colored lithographs used one or two colors to tint the entire plate and create a watercolor-like tone to the image. This atmospheric effect was primarily used for landscape or topographical illustrations. For more detailed coloration, artists continued to rely on handcoloring over the lithograph. Once tinted lithographs were well established, it was only a small step to extend the range of color by the use of multiple tint blocks printed in succession. Generally, these early chromolithographs were simple prints with flat areas of color, printed side-by-side.
Increasingly ornate designs and dozens of bright, often gaudy, colors characterized chomolithography in the second half of the nineteenth century. Overprinting and the use of silver and gold inks widened the range of color and design. Still a relatively expensive process, chromolithography was used for large-scale folio works and illuminated gift books which often attempted to reproduce the handwork of manuscripts of the Middle Ages. The steam-driven printing press and the wider availability of inexpensive paper stock lowered production costs and made chromolithography more affordable. By the 1880s, the process was widely used for magazines and advertising. At the same time, however, photographic processes were being developed that would replace lithography by the beginning of the twentieth century.
How The iPod Changed The Way We Read
Since I slid this claim in at the end of a long post with a lot of literary theory, you might have missed it:
When the media landscape changes, we actually begin to SEE things differently, even (or ESPECIALLY) things that haven't changed at all.
This is the reason why the iPod didn't just change the way we listen to music - and later, look at pictures or movies or play video games. It changed the way we read.
And (because I couldn't help my ever-qualifying self):
(As did movies, television, video games, and many, many other things.)
(The big one I Ieft out in this list was mobile phones, but since the iPod and the smartphone wound up being convergent/complementary technologies, I think they're more arguably part of the same story.)
Let me try to spell out point by point how I think the iPod - or more precisely, the evolution of the iPod - changed reading.
- Design Matters. The iPod elevated the level of aesthetic pleasure people expected from handheld devices, as well as the premium they were willing to pay for well-made things. Looking back at the first-generation Kindle, it's actually astonishing how much of the early commentary focused on the perceived ugliness of the device. In particular, the first Kindle didn't just look ugly - it looked out of date. This was something we used to care about with home theater equipment and kitchen appliances - the iPod taught us to care about it on our handhelds, even when we were walking around with cheap plastic phones. If the e-reader breakthrough had happened in 1999 or 2002, even if the device had been similarly awkward-looking relative to the technology around it, I don't think this would have been as much of a problem as it became.
- Software Matters. I almost titled this "Design Goes All The Way Down." It's a truism now that Apple was able to swoop in on the digital music market because they wrote better software than the Sonys and Samsungs they were competing with on the high end. But it's true. You're not just creating a piece of hardware; you're creating an interface for an experience. And in particular, if you get the experience of buying, sorting, finding, and selecting media wrong, you've got real problems. You have to make the software intuitive, powerful, and fun. The goal is to reduce the friction between a user's intent and their goal - whether it's buying music, listening to it, or flipping through album art. If there's friction anywhere in the experience, it had better be deeply pleasurable friction. (That's right, I said it.)
The Kindle actually seems to understand this really, really well.
- This is more specific: People Like Full Color. Was anyone complaining about the monochrome taupe-and-dark-taupe display of the first iPod? No. Was I when I bought my first iPod, in 2004? Not at all. Did I cry inside when they launched the first color-display, video-capable iPod about a month afterwards? Not exactly. I cried on the outside, too. Color is resource-intensive, and hard to get right on a small screen. But god - it's beautiful. It's also one of the things that easily gets lost in the transition from print to digital; there's nothing like a book with full-color prints, and the only thing sadder than an image-heavy book that's all in black-and-white is a digital version of the same book that doesn't have images at all.
- Images Make Reading Easier. I mean, this is one of the big lessons of the graphical interface on the desktop, right? Column after column of text is hard to look at, and it's hard to distinguish one version from the next. Seriously - sorting through an early iPod, like my third-gen one, is one of the most intense reading experiences you're likely to have, and I think it (along with text messages) totally softened people up for reading strings of text on small screens. But texts with icons - even generic icons that just look like little pieces of paper next to the text that identifies with them - reinforces the idea that you're dealing with distinct objects. Add covers - like book or album covers, or preview images of pictures, and you've got a hieroglyphic hybrid mode of reading that is frankly more powerful and intuitive than text or images alone. Create a software interface where you can manipulate those objects, and you've got something that's genuinely game-changing.
- Media Devices Should Do More Than One Thing. It's great that I can take my music with me, but I'd really like to listen to radio programs, too. (Podcasts.) I carry around all of these pictures in my wallet - maybe you could...? (Done.) What about TV? I like TV. And my kids like to watch movies in the car. (We can do that.)
Was it obvious that there was a hidden affinity between pictures and music and movies? No. But once you've got a screen with a big hard drive, a great syncing tool, and a solid store that can deal with media companies... You follow the logic of what you can meaningfully offer and what your customers can use the device to do.
The only thing more appealing for multiple media than a tiny screen with a big hard drive is a great big screen with a big hard drive. I can't believe that future reading devices won't take advantage of it.
- Make It Easy For Me To Get My Own Stuff On The Screen. Can you imagine if Apple had ONLY let you put stuff on your iPod that you'd bought or ripped through iTunes? The iPod moment benefited tremendously from the Napster moment, which in turn was driven by the CD-ripping and cheap fast internet moment. You had all of this digital material sitting on people's hard drives and floating around networks, and we just needed someplace to put it. There's no stuff we want more than our own stuff. Apple smartly opened itself up to it. Well, likewise, now, we've decades of office documents sitting on people's hard drives and hypertext pages floating around networks, and nowhere but our computers to put it.
I'll say it again: There's No Stuff We Want More Than Our Own Stuff. If Amazon, or Google, or anybody, could find a way for me to get MY print library on a portable screen, I would both love and pay them dearly for the chance to do so.
- Devices Should Talk To Each Other. My DVD player is an idiot. It has nothing to say to anyone except maybe my TV and some speakers. Now, I just leave it in a drawer. My TV is a little better, because it listens really well, but not by much. From the beginning, the iPod could both talk and listen to your computer. Now, because of its wireless connect, the iPhone can talk to almost anything.
The Kindle's networking ability, still limited as it is, stands on the shoulders of those devices. (And your computer, too, does a much better job of talking to small, post-PC devices than it used to, from video game consoles to mobile phones.)
- This last point is from Gavin Craig, and it includes the iPod, and the Kindle, but also is more general: "It should be possible to make the device useful in ways that the designer may not have intended." I call this half-jokingly "Media Existentialism." (Existence precedes essence; we come to terms with our determined place in the universe, and only afterwards do we define who we are and what we're for.)
The point is that users, not designers, ultimately determine what an object is for; and any attempt to engineer-through that process in a closed-ended way restricts value rather than creating it.
This is a short list of the expectations we have for reading machines now that we largely didn't have a decade ago. None of them came from devices that were designed (except largely accidentally) to read anything.
But this list only barely begin to speak to the expectations we'll have for an electronic reader decades from now.
What might those expectations be? Where will they come from? How might they change everything else?
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Design, Object Culture, Technosnark
August 18, 2009
Continuity in Nonfiction
Speaking of intertextuality, probably no readers are more explicitly intertextual than mainstream comic books. Everything you know about genres, the characters, the world(s) they inhabit, their history/histories, and how to read and make sense of what you see, comes from your experience with other texts -- usually a lot of them, and not all of them comic books.
Readers see that experience as an investment in literacy. At O'Reilly Radar, Brett McLaughlin looks at comic book fans' (and presumably, fans in other media/genres) investment in story continuity:
Putting aside issues of story, I'm struck by how much looking back and forth I tend to do in reading a comic. I'm scanning a bit ahead, and reflecting back on what I just read and saw, even while reading the current panel. I've got this constant sense of context; I have a continuity in which what I'm learning (about a comic book character, about a love interest, about an island that's about to be submerged by supersonic waves triggering earthquakes along fault lines, etc.) fits.
So why would we simply accept that in non-fiction--especially projects and products that purport to actually teach something--we can't have continuity?
I guess weblogs are one solution to this problem; and in its own way, academic writing is another. Both have mechanisms make their own continuities with other writing explicit, and signal when they're about to reboot.* But general nonfiction, especially journalism? Harder than it probably ought to be. More rewarding when it does pay off.
Which begs another question; why do readers get such pleasure out of continuity? Is it the happiness that comes with recognition, a feeling of belonging to a community, a function of reduced learning/transaction costs when you approach something new...?
*I think rebooting in a series actually pulls in more of your unconscious knowledge about characters, genres, etc. than even continuity does - not only are you establishing all of these new contexts, you've got this layer of old context, too -- "oh, that's how they're handling this event/character/place." It's like building a city on top of another city. This is why the ultimate trick to pull is to do a reboot that isn't really a reboot.
August 17, 2009
The Spines! The Spines!
More great covers at Book Worship.
Snark By Snarkwest: Kindle 2020
The iPod wasn't the first digital music player, but that doesn't really matter; when it was introduced in 2001, it was the first digital music player that made ordinary tech-inclined (but not necessarily tech-savvy) consumers pay attention.
I graduated from college that year, so I remember that time very well. Let's review; Napster had been shut down. I didn't own a DVD player. In fact, I didn't even have my own computer. (I bought both that December.) I didn't have a cellular phone, but some of my friends did. (In fact, I didn't get one until 2005.) I had never used wireless internet, ever. I had bought an APS camera two years before, on study abroad. (Digital cameras cost about a kajillion dollars.) Instead of writing a blog, I kept email lists of everyone I knew and periodically quasi-spammed them with prose poems, Nietzsche quotes, outlines for essays on Bulworth ("The key to understanding Bulworth is that it's not very good"), and news about my life. Oh, and I used telnet for email.
The time hardly seemed propitious to launch a device that would effectively break wide open handheld digital media. But that's what happened.
It's worth remembering this, because we've now had eight years of the iPod, iTunes, and the Apple Store, during which we've had to clear all of these technical and commercial and psychological and social hurdles to get to the devices that most of us carry around (in one version or another) every day.
What does this year's model of the iPhone (already almost three years removed from the announcement of the first version) have in common with the first iPod? It fits in your pocket; and maybe - maybe - you still put stuff on it from your computer - to update the firmware, if nothing else.
That's eight years of the iPod. I'm glad I saw it, because 21-year-old me wouldn't have believed it. All the more so because none of what happened is in retrospect at all ridiculous.
Now let's imagine twelve years of the Kindle.
Now the Kindle in 2020 might not even be the Kindle anymore. Maybe Sony or Apple or Google or Microsoft or someone we don't even expect might shoulder Amazon aside and take center stage, or readers will be more like the smartphone market right now, with a handful of solid competitors egging each other on.
But the Kindle now, like the iPod eight years ago, is the first electronic reader that most of us tech-inclined but not tech-savvy users have paid much attention to. It's already gotten better, it's already spurred competition, and the chances are good that we're going to see some significant advances in these devices before the end of the year.
In twelve years, we know electronic readers will do more, store more, work faster, look cooler, and offer more things to look at then it does now.
But what don't we know about the Kindle 2020 yet?
Robin, Matt, and I - yes, all three of us - have proposed a presentation for South by Southwest Interactive where we -- and some other supremely smart people -- are going to try to figure out just that.
Here are some basic questions:
- What kind of devices will we use to read?
- What formats will be used to deliver documents?
- What kinds of documents will be "read" - text, image, video, audio, hybrids?
- How will documents be written and produced?
- How will documents be bought, sold, and otherwise supported?
- How will contributors be compensated?
- How will reading work in different industries?
And here, I think, are - for me, at least, some more interesting ones:
- What could turn an electronic reader into a totally NECESSARY device - like a mobile phone, or iPod?
- What features will the reader of 2020 have that nobody's even talking about yet?
- What are we going to use it to do that nobody uses anything to do now?
- What's going to be your favorite thing to read on it?
- Forget your favorite thing - what are you going to use it to do over and over again, whether you like it or not?
- How are you going to write with it?
- Who's going to have one? How are they going to pay for it?
- How do we share what we read?
- What will we still want but not get?
- Here's the big one: how might it change the entire FIELD of media consumption, handheld devices, computing, reading, etc... Will everything restructure itself around the reader? Or will it be a fun, handy curiosity, plotting its own logic while everything else goes along unchanged?
Beginning today, you can vote to help get this panel accepted to South By Southwest. I am way excited. First, I am a nerd for all things related to the written word. Second, Robin and Matt are the most talented futuronomists I know.
Finally, in addition to being awesome, Austin is (oddly enough) geographically centered for the three of us. If you look at our locations (Philadelphia, Minneapolis, San Francisco), Austin is the country's fourth column, which (I think) bestows it with Penumbra-like magical powers.
Between books, papers, and screens, I think we might just have this covered. But see, this is where we start to worry about our own blind spots or idiosyncratic enthusiasms, not because we want to lose them, but because we need to put them in context.
So we don't just need your vote. We need to know what you know. And we're willing to use the patented Snarkmarket figure-four leg-lock -- by which I mean, your comments in the thread below -- to get the conversation started.
They say that hindsight is 20/20, but that's not really true; some people remember the past better than others. The future, however, really is 20/20 (especially in 2020). Right now, we all know just as much about the future of reading as everyone else.
The only difference is that we -- you and I -- are focused.
What do you see?
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Collaborations, Object Culture, Technosnark
For just $10, you can buy a share in Emma [Straub]'s future. As recompense for that investment, you get a signed and numbered copy of her first stand-alone book (above is an excerpt and the fabulous cover featuring beautiful art by Raul Gallardo). Buy multiple shares, get multiple copies. Give them away to friends, neighbors, and libraries; help start a career.
—but really it's the GIANT GREEN BUTTON that makes it work. From now on, every innovative publishing model needs a giant green button.
August 14, 2009
The Real Google Documents
Here's an idea for a great Google web application - an online archive where you can tag, sort, and store all of your used-to-be-paper documents, i.e., PDFs - and to share the same documents with other people, or even everybody.
I use many, many applications that perform a similar service with the PDFs on my hard drive; Yep!, Papers, Zotero, Scrivener, Evernote. And I use Dropbox to backup and sync my PDFs between machines. I also use Scribd to read PDFs and share them with the world. But Google could easily offer a service that does everything these applications do and more. They're already offering a web-reader for PDFs. What they need is something that actually lets you USE them.
Here's how I imagine this goes. Let's say someone emails you a PDF to your Gmail account, or appends a PDF to a feed you read in Google Reader. Instead of downloading it onto your computer (or, egads, a public machine), you have the opportunity to load it into Docs. Just like that, it's in your archive. You can also have Google Desktop scan for and index your PDFs and auto-load them into your archive, too.
Once you import it, you don't have to do anything else. It'll either pull the text -- or if there's no text layer, it'll OCR the document FOR you. You can auto-tag it or add your own tags to help you sort your docs together. It can also pull metadata, like Zotero. And you can create smart collections that link PDFs with text documents, emails, and stuff from Google Books, Scholar, even Maps or Groups.
You can also customize levels of privacy and security. Some files you might want to have public, like on Scribd. Maybe you'll even create RSS channels so folks can receive your new images/PDFs/ebooks/XML documents automatically. Others you want to share with specified users, like Dropbox or Groups. Still others (tax and employment info, etc.), you'll encrypt with extra passwords.
In fact, this is awfully close to the vision two enterprising chaps passed off years ago of the Google Grid.
Seriously; Google says it wants to index the world's information. Well, let me tell you - I'm chock full of information that I don't know what to do with. Why can't it start by taking some of mine - and giving me some tools so that I can do things with it as payment?
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Technosnark
The Future of Analphabetic Writing
A link, and then a long digression (or several).
Andrew Robinson at the Oxford University Press blog writes about attempts at universal languages:
In the mid-1970s, with increasing international travel, the American Institute of Graphic Arts cooperated with the United States Department of Transportation to design a set of symbols for airports and other travel facilities that would be clear both to travellers in a hurry and those without a command of English. They invented 34 iconic symbols. The design committee made a significant observation: “We are convinced that the effectiveness of symbols is strictly limited. They are most effective when they represent a service or concession that can be represented by an object, such a bus or bar glass. They are much less effective when used to represent a process or activity, such as Ticket Purchase…"...
Many scholars of writing today have an increasing respect for the intelligence behind ancient scripts. Down with the monolithic ‘triumph of the alphabet’, they say, and up with Chinese characters, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and Mayan glyphs, with their hybrid mixtures of pictographic, logographic and phonetic signs. Their conviction has in turn nurtured a new awareness of writing systems as being enmeshed within societies, rather than viewing them somewhat aridly as different kinds of technical solution to the problem of efficient visual representation of a particular language.
It's weird how the alphabet, as a sort of half-technology, lies in between the fully functional/universal/superficial pictographic language and the deep cultural contextualism of ideogrammic writing. It's a hybrid, a language of traders bumping against poets, where letters that used to name things (aleph = ox, bet = house in Phoenician) morph into pure sound (alpha, beta = meaningless in Greek).
When I was a kid, I was fascinated by Morse Code. My brothers and I had a set of walkie talkies that included a code on the handsets with the dots and dashes for each letter of the alphabet, and we tried to beep and boop out messages to each other, never getting much farther than "S.O.S." For me, it was the beginning of the digital dream - reducing information to a single variation between two elements.
But my ear was off. I couldn't turn long and short sounds into letters in my brain. Later, I did a science report on the telegraph, and was dumbfounded to learn that skilled telegraph operators COULD translate this text on the fly by ear - that it was faster for them than reading printouts of long and short lines (only useful, really, for receiving messages without an operator at the terminal).
Then, I saw The Hunt For Red October, watching Sean Connery and Scott Glenn trade messages back and forth optically, reading flashes of light through periscopes. That was my first real inkling that morse code could be something that was read in real time, like watching a stock ticker that only flashed one letter - less than one letter - at any given moment.
To this day, I still don't know what to make of morse code. It's a digital code that's based on the alphabet, but seems to go way beyond the alphabet. And what are you doing when you're interpreting morse code on the fly, whether by eye or ear? Are you reading? Speaking?
Sign language poses some of the same problems. Some signs are what we might call iconic or pictographic - they look like or have some connection to the things they refer to. But a lot of them, in American Sign Language at least, depend on writing or spelling out words, sometimes just the first letters of words.
The first principle of writing seems to be that it is language made visual and visible - of speech, that it's aural and oral. But there are visual forms of language that don't bear much of a resemblance to writing, and auditory communications (like listening to morse code) that are essentially dependent on writing.
The nineteenth century was all about reducing the quality of information - the richness of its readability - for quantitative transmission. In addition to the telegraph, there's also shorthand, well documented by Leah Price in this essay in the LRB. It's still pretty amazing that people actually read whole novels in shorthand:
Pen pals in Africa and Australia found one another through the classified pages of shorthand magazines that juxtaposed new material with reprints of published fiction: Robinson Crusoe, Around the World in Eighty Days, all the Sherlock Holmes stories and even an unabridged run of the Strand Magazine. The depositories of copyright libraries are littered with Victorian shorthand editions of A Christmas Carol, Aesop’s fables, English-Welsh and English-Hindi dictionaries, the Old and New Testaments, and biographies of Calvin and Galileo. Pitman’s Shorthand Weekly (later called the Phonetic Journal) featured ‘serials and short stories by well-known authors; miscellaneous articles; illustrated jokes and anecdotes; and prize competitions’. On 17 August 1901, it offered a prize for the best biography of Isaac Pitman by a colonial subscriber. Submissions, naturally, were accepted only in shorthand.
More important still might be the turn Price traces (which is the turn EVERYONE finds in the history of office and business culture in this period) from the not-quite-but-nearly-aristocratic culture of "men of letters" to the technical world, where women operated the machines of language more often than men:
You can still read every syllable from the first International Shorthand Congress and Jubilee of Phonography, thanks to transcripts produced by ‘an army of phonographers . . . not at all concerned with the economic rewards of shorthand, important as these are, but only with the service – personal, social – even professional – which one Pitmanite can render another in any part of the world.’ One delegate described shorthand as a ‘bond of brotherhood’. Like the open-source movement a century and a half later, Pitmanism was idealistic, distributed and male.
And then everything changed. The American Civil War and, later, the First World War removed men from the workforce; the commercialisation of the typewriter and the invention of the phonograph upped the demand for white-collar labour. Women’s delicate hands began to look like the right tools for turning speech into shorthand, or manuscript into typescript, or one copy into many. By 1901, the shorthand transcript of a Midlands stenographers’ club records a speaker arguing that ‘it seemed degrading for a strong, healthy man to be occupied all day long in using the pen upon what was little more than copying words.’ Advertisements for ‘wrist exercisers’ seemed to hint that a man who hunched over a desk all day would not stay strong and healthy for long.
As stenography fell into the hands of girls and hypochondriacs, its ethos changed from identitarian to utilitarian, from voluntaristic to vocational. By 1901, the Phonetic Journal was complaining that ‘the great majority of young girls study simply for the proficiency which will enable them to enter business.’ Isaac Pitman outlived the ‘brotherhood of the pen’. The metaphor was unlucky: while he continued to tinker with the system his brother Benn realised that ordinary users were tired of endless refinements, and froze the US version of the system at its 1852 release. By the time of Isaac’s death, there was a new threat from Gregg’s 1888 system, which cornered the American market by billing itself as user-friendly, and more specifically as a friend to the ladies. Gregg was to Pitman as Windows is to Linux, or Pilates to yoga: a technique stripped of the ideological baggage that had originally impelled its spread.
Shorthand on its face is an intermediate recording technology between (spoken) voice and (alphabetic) text; but any language can take on a life of its own. In fact, it's hard to know where the line between speaking ends and writing begins.
This gets confusing in contemporary software, too. I always get Google Talk confused with Google Voice, and not just because everyone I know calls Google Talk the old name of Google Chat or "gchat." What am I going to do, "voice" someone? There's also the difference between "voice recognition" and "speech recognition."
A friend of mine pointed out that when we're speaking, we almost always use the word "talk" to refer to speech; it's only when we're writing that we call it speech. Maybe the important distinction isn't whether language is auditory or visual, but whether it's recorded or ephemeral. Your voice, speech, mail is a record; your "talking" isn't, even if you keep a transcript.
Talking happens in real time, and to talk, you need a voice, even if it's not produced in the throat. Roger Ebert recently discussed his search for a way to communicate in real time to friends, family, and business partners:
Soon after my second surgery, when it became apparent I wouldn't be able to speak, I of course started writing notes. This got the message across, but was too time-consuming for communications of any length. And notes were unbearably frustrating for a facile speaker like me, accustomed to dancing with the flow of the conversation. There is a point when a zinger is perfectly timed, and a point when it is pointless.
There is a ground rule in the treatment of those who cannot speak; their written notes must take precedence. This was not happening. Something would be said, I would begin writing a comment, and someone else would speak. Then someone else would speak. I would finish my note, and hand it to a person who was speaking. They would hold it, finish, and be responded to by someone else. When my note was finally read, I would hear, What's this about? Or I don't know what that means. I would point to right (the past), to suggest I was responding to something said earlier. They wouldn't know what that meant, either.
God knows my wife tried to help out, but people...are people. Who knows how patient I would be? One on one, conversations-by-note went all right. Business meetings were a torture. I am a quick and I daresay witty speaker. Now I came across as the village idiot. I sensed confusion, impatience and condescension. I ended up having conversations with myself, just sitting there.
Some of the most moving writings I've ever read are the "conversation slips" Franz Kafka wrote at the end of his life, when he was dying of tuberculosis and could no longer eat, drink, or speak. One recurring theme: he continually asks those around him to water the flowers in the room, often while also self-deprecatingly about his own inability to drink:
That cannot be, that a dying man drinks.
Do you have a moment? Then lightly spray the peonies.
Mineral water - once for fun I could
Fear again and again.
A bird was in the room.
Put your hand on my forehead for a moment to give me strength.
Ebert finally opted for the canned OS X voice on his laptop -- that solved the speech in near real-time problem - but he's still searching for a solution that will give him back the full range of his instrument, in all of its analphabetic tonalities -- and that's what a voice is, ultimately, an instrument to play, even if it's played with the alphabetic keys of the keyboard.
[T]he barcode is a printed thing, meant for “reading” not by human minds, but by computers. Nonetheless, I’ve often wondered if a time will come when barcodes are legible, when we will read them as easily as any other typeface. In a sense that time has arrived: the iPhone and other mobile operating systems now offer applications that will “read” a photo of a barcode and instantly deliver product information to the user’s device—spectacles for a consumer consciousness, delivering into the magisterium of reading and writing an information transaction until quite recently restricted to machines.
An aside for a short prediction: in ten years, Kindles (and other handheld readers) will come with a stylus, not to write, but to scan barcodes as well as alphabetic text, and display data (or metadata) on-screen. Think about it! Your "reading machine" will actually be able to read things, not just show you text!
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language
August 13, 2009
Now Available: The Writer & the Witch
My new short story, The Writer & the Witch, is now available on the Kindle (and the Kindle iPhone app, too, of course).
Max Barry Pulls a Dickens
[T]his is a significant step for a publisher, and I’m really happy Vintage took it. I didn't want to take down my online serial. That would be like leading my child into a forest and abandoning her there. Then, I guess, going home and building a new child based on the first one. And offering her in print form. Wait. This analogy may have gotten away from me.
Give it a peek if you haven't already.
August 12, 2009
The Box Lunch Project
Tom Devaney, a terrific poet and friend of mine, teaches a perennial seminar at Penn on writing about food, variously titled "Food For Thought" or (in the advanced version) "The Art of Eating." The University of Pennsylvania Libraries recently put together a book based on writing and research from his courses, making use of a unique archive:
The boxes contain more than 3,000 recipe booklets from church organizations, small to mid-sized companies, food manufacture PR departments, and far-flung community groups. Every sturdy box is labeled with the implacable title, Victus Populi. The items in each box are not high-end cookbooks, but are all over the map: stapled together mimeograph copies, eye-catching (often kitschy) promotional pamphlets, one-off recipe booklets.
The boxes intrigued me. Each Victus Populi case was an archive in its particular a category: Bread, Fruits, Nuts & Olives, Seafood, Cheese, Meats, International Foods, Condiments: Herbs & Spices, Salads & Sandwiches, Health & Diets, Leftovers: Quick & Easy, Chocolate, Ice Cream, and one devoted solely to JELL-O.
And so the assignment took shape. Each student would choose a box to write about. The student essays would chronicle their journey and search of the primary source materials. They would use both large brush strokes (to provide an overview of the box) and develop one or two finer points in greater detail. To finish, they would find and cull all but two recipes from hundreds in each box.
The Art of the Box Lunch contains four of these essays, plus a generation selection of images from the collection, and a long introductory essay by Tom. I'm really stunned by how gorgeous it is - and also now feeling quite shamed into coming up with a similarly cool project for my seminar students in the fall.
And I know you were waiting for the best part: The Art of the Box Lunch is also now available as a free PDF.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Gastrosnark, Learnin'
Speaking of Airships...
Christopher Hsiang at io9.com just posted what looks like a terrific primer on steampunk novels new and old. This is perfect for someone like me; steampunk has always seemed right up my alley, but I haven't read much of anything.
August 11, 2009
These Books Are, However, Not Free
Nothing has saved more lives than statistics.
You know, maybe psychohistory has been staring us in the face all this time...
August 9, 2009
Sneak Preview: The Writer & the Witch
Coming soon to Kindle and the web!
Now that my dissertation is good and filed, I want to share a few fragments of what I've been working on, on-and-off, for the past few years.
Here's a few selected grafs from the first chapter:
The history of Modernism is part of the history of paper. That is, the transformation of literary and visual culture announced by Modernism and the avant-garde is inseparable from the transformation of the largely paper-based communication and information technologies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries...
From the daguerrotype to the cinema, the history of photography simultaneously parallels and intersects the development of paper and print. A single image, handmade by an artisan, is succeeded by a continuously-fed reel of industrially-made material. In fact, the chemical treatment of wood pulp cellulose with sulfurous acid to produce paper is only slightly different from the chemical treatment of wood fibers with nitric acid to produce celluloid film. Nitrocellulose (also called guncotton) in ether or acetone yields collodion, the albumen alternative that allowed for glass-plate photography; the evaporation of collodion in turn led to the discovery of celluloid film. Celluloid emerges as a paper alternative with Eastman Kodak, the company credited with the introduction of flexible film and the supplier of continuous film rolls for Edison's early motion pictures. Kodak had originally used ordinary paper treated with collodion in their famous “roll” cameras; amateur photographers could take multiple photographs then send their camera, including the paper film, to the company for development. Kodak’s invention democratized photography by eliminating the chemistry required to prepare a plate and develop a print, but when the plain paper stock produced poor quality negatives, Kodak quickly switched to celluloid, a paper-like (and paper-based) polymer. The earliest popular forms of photography, too, were paper products: the newspaper, which was quick to adapt photography for both journalistic use and graphic interest, and the codex photograph album of course, but also the carte de visite and cabinet card, both of which displayed portraits on thin paper prints glued to inexpensive card stock. The paper document had not been eliminated by the photographic image; the two had transformed together...
“It takes very little to start a little magazine,” Reed Whittemore writes. “As a minimum a secondhand typewriter, some paper, and access to a mimeograph machine will do.” And indeed, the mimeograph, invented in 1876 by Thomas Edison, helped to make several upstart avant-garde magazines possible. Its use is most notable during the postwar period, but what Stephen Clay and Rodney Phillips call “the mimeo revolution” of little magazines between 1960 and 1980 can easily be placed much earlier, in the 1920s, if not before. William Carlos Williams’s account of starting Contact in 1920 with Robert McAlmon gives an especially direct example:
Our poems constantly, continuously and stupidly were rejected by all the pay magazines except Poetry and The Dial. The Little Review didn’t pay. We had no recourse but to establish publications of our own. For after all, the outlets being so meager, we had otherwise far too long a time to wait between drinks. It was the springtime of the little magazines and there was plenty for them to do…
Pa Herman [Williams’s father-in-law, a paper manufacturer] cut up some paper for us and sent us a ton of it—I’m still using it and shall be for the rest of my life I imagine, I’m writing on it now… There were the first two issues, mimeographed and clipped together, then one printed on the same paper, with a printed cover; then a final issue printed and bound on white paper. That was the last. Nobody bought—and there was much else in the wind.
Williams and McAlmon could afford an issue printed on good paper while retaining editorial control because McAlmon had married Bryher, a wealthy heiress and writer also known as Annie Winifred Ellerman, H.D.’s companion who would later co-found the film journal Close Up. McAlmon’s Contact Editions was an early example of an independent American modernist press, and would eventually publish Spring and All in 1923. But it began with Williams’s paper, McAlmon’s earnings from nude modeling, and a mimeograph machine. I contend that Contact may be the first mimeographed literary magazine, predating Yvor Winters’s Gyroscope (Clay and Phillips’s candidate) by nine years...
In “The Rhetoric of Efficiency in Early Modernism,” Susan Raitt has shown how various modernist formal strategies, from Imagist poetry to stream-of-consciousness fiction, position themselves on the side of verbal, psychological, and social efficiency, in many cases following the model of contemporary theories of scientific management. I think this theory is essentially correct, but I would specify that the principal problem of scientific management during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is the efficient conservation of paper, whether in its scarcity and or its plenitude. During World War I, for example, paper shortages and increased government regulation of the printing trade made publishers and typesetters (who were equally responsible under British law) skittish of printing anything likely to run afoul of the censor or public indifference. D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow was seized and burned in 1915, the same year that the British government took steps to restrict and regulate the paper trade, control that intensified as shortages increased throughout the war. In 1916, Ezra Pound promised James Joyce that if printers refused to print A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with objectionable phrases intact, “I shall tell Miss Weaver to print it with blank spaces and then have the typewriting done on good paper and pasted in. If I have to do it myself.” When Portrait reached its second edition in 1918, Pound began his article in The Future by exclaiming:
Despite the War, despite the paper shortage, and despite those old-established publishers whose god is their belly and whose godfather was the late F.T. Palgrave, there is a new edition of James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” It is extremely gratifying that this book should have “reached its fourth thousand,” and the fact is significant in just so far as it marks the beginning of a new phase of English publishing… The actual output is small in bulk, a few brochures of translations, Eliot’s “Prufrock,” Joyce’s “A Portrait,” and Wyndham Lewis’ “Tarr” (announced), but I have it on good authority that at least one other periodical will start publishing its authors after the War, so there are new rods in pickle for the old fat-stomached contingent and for the cardboard generation.
It’s no accident, then, that once the shortage had ended, modernist writing found both more outlets for publication and room for longer and more adventurous works. However, it still had to frame itself in the terms of an aesthetic of scarcity formed during the war. As Pound notes in his “Paris Letter” for The Dial published May 1922, Ulysses’s “732 double sized pages” have “greater efficiency,” “greater compactness,” and “more form than any novel of Flaubert’s.”
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Object Culture, Self-Disclosure
August 6, 2009
The BLDGBLOG Book Is Not About Architecture
So I have to describe how The BLDGBLOG Book starts out. There are these full-page, full-color images, and then Geoff Manaugh's intro text begins. It's set in really big type, just airy and fresh and great.
This continues for a couple of pages, with the lush color images and the big airy text.
Then suddenly, one of the columns is just something else—a sidebar on "the architecture of spam," to be exact.
Next page. Another sidebar sneaks in. The main text is still going! It's trucking along—Geoff is describing the ethos of BLDGBLOG:
In other words, forget academic rigor. Never take the appropriate next step. Talk about Chinese urban design, the European space program, the landscape in the films of Alfred Hitchcock in the span of three sentences—because it's fun, and the juxtapositions might take you somewhere. Most importantly, follow your lines of interest.
A few pages later it's skipping back-and-forth—the ethos cuts out, there's a full-page interview with video game concept artist Daniel Dociu, then some two-page spread of I'm-not-even-sure-what in England, then it's back to the ethos.
And all together, I tell you, it feels like nothing so much as a cross-fade. I have never experienced anything quite like it in a book. It's a bit hard to describe, but trust me, it's really, really cool. Finally, back to the ethos:
Finally, I want to reiterate that BLDGBLOG is fundamentally about following, and not being ashamed by, your own enthusiasms, whether or not they are rigorous and appropriate for the academic mores of the day, or even interesting for your family and friends.
Reading this book, I'm realizing I never really understood what BLDGBLOG was about. I thought it was about weird architecture and the things that intersect with weird architecture. It's not; it's about enthusiasm and imagination, period. And so the book basically reads like a catalog of excitement and wondering-what-if.
So that's my main message, here: It's no surprise that I'd recommend The BLDGBLOG Book. But I want to make sure you give it a look even if you're not a fan of the blog, or of architecture in general, because really, it's about something else entirely—something entirely universal.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Recommended
The Strange, Sweet Tale of Etaoin Shrdlu
This is the best comment ever posted to Snarkmarket. I don't say that lightly, because there have been some great comments. I mean, hello? But, wow: I said hey, we need a story starring Etaoin Shrdlu! and, what seems now like only moments later, Mike Duncan wrote:
The first appearance of Etaoin Shdrlu in the public record is the issuance of a Reader Identification Card in 1976 from the main building of the Library of Congress (now known as the Thomas Jefferson Building). Shrdlu, born in Minsk in 1951 to an American mother studying Eastern European folk dances, began his daily trips to the library on Monday, July 5 -- the day after the Bicentennial celebrations. He attracted the notice of the staff by his strange book requests and by remaining in the famous circular reading room all day for the next several months.
The Etaoin Shrdlu broadsheets have been discovered in their entirety at this point, though collecting the early days' sheets proved difficult and remaining copies were auctioned to collectors for staggering sums. In particular, the July 7 front page incited a bidding war that ended with a then-record $1.1 million purchase price. The art publisher Taschen has released a book of retouched scans of the broadsheets under the title The Fanciful News from Etaoin Shrdlu: The Long Sweetness of the Simultaneity, a phrase that Shrdlu placed under the false masthead of every day's issue. (Incidentally, this phrase appears in John Ashbery's 1981 poem, "Here Everything is Still Floating," a fact that Shrdlu defenders point to as further evidence of his clairvoyance, and Ashbery himself claims is nothing other than a coincidence.)
In his seminal monograph on Shrdlu, Juxtaposition and Fictionalization, Elgin Hacking describes the artist's workday as such: "Creating a third American century on the scale he wanted to required nearly superhuman endurance. After a full day of research into past events' primary sources like any good reporter, Shrdlu would return home and craft the future stories well into the evening. By 10 pm, the false front page would be completely written, and Shrdlu would spend the next hours setting the type to print 50 copies of the broadsheet. These false front pages were delivered in the night to his friend William Bethell at the Washington Post manufacturing plant, where one stack of the newspapers would be stripped of their outer page and have the Shrdlu page added before delivery to a random newsstand... One can only imagine the surprise of the sanitation worker or aide or teacher who picked up the paper to find a well-researched account of the latest James gang robbery, a stub about Ronald Reagan's marriage effect on his Presidency, and the high-stakes negotiations for the 2017 annexation of Vancouver... As word slowly spread of the false newspapers, like-minded people saw them as a major artistic statement about the illusive nature of time and the equality between fully imagined events and actual events that only are encountered through the written recountings of strangers."
Shrdlu continued his project through the end of 1976, quitting at the end of the year when only a handful of people knew of it. The Post itself was the first to report on the project in 1977, as it was their complaint department that first had an idea that fictional Washington Posts were being manufactured. The focus of the first news story was on the oddity of his project, though over the next years people began to obsess over his many correct predictions (the Stockholm air disaster, the mode and month of Elvis Presley's death, the election of Reagan, many of the details of the Iranian hostage crisis, and on and on).
Shrdlu, who is now considered a pioneer in public art, was seen by many a modern Nostradamus and harassed as such. He later disowned his project as 'the meanderings of a bored and self-important young man,' and died on August 6, 2009.
File under: About Snarkmarket, Books, Writing & Such
August 4, 2009
BOOK SQUADRON, ASSEMBLE
Hugo Chavez's revolutionary reading plan:
[A] key part of the Reading Plan are thousands of 'book squadrons.'
These are basically roving book clubs that are intended to encourage reading on the metro, in public squares and in parks.
Each squadron wears a different colour to identify their type of book. For example, the red team promotes autobiographies while the black team discusses books on 'militant resistance.'
Props to the BBC for going beyond the obvious smirky weirdness of this story and sharing a detail that's actually interesting/important:
"I think there's a great contradiction there," says Mr Garcia [who runs Random House in Venezuela]. "That a government which on the one hand is promoting reading, giving out Les Miserables in a public square, but doesn't allow the free importation of literature—not, it should be said, for any ideological reason, but because of currency controls."
August 3, 2009
All this gabbin' 'bout Shakespeare makes me wonder - what are the sacred, that is, foundational, texts for us? (Feel free to variously define "us.")
I mean Shakespeare's plays are one; I think the Bible is or ought to be another; The Simpsons, seasons 2-8; the original Star Wars trilogy; Sophocles; The Great Gatsby; Goodfellas...
I'm half kidding, one quarter reaching, and one quarter deadly serious; what cultural references are now, for you, and in your interactions with others, just assumed, like the way Moby Dick assumes King Lear, Paradise Lost, and the King James Bible?
August 1, 2009
The Bard, Or What You Will
John McWhorter's exhortation to perform Shakespeare in modern-language adaptations caught my eye a while back. His case is that Shakespeare's language is more-or-less unrecognizable to us; we misunderstand most of what we pick up; and (I think this is probably uncontroversial) full-length 100% faithful readings of the longest versions of the texts are chorish.
Original Shakespeare should occupy the place original Chaucer does today: engaged by scholars and hard-core aficionados. However, to require intensive and largely unfeasible decoding in full three-hour live performances is to condemn us to ignorance of something that makes life worth living. As Liddell put it, for a people to genuinely possess, rather than merely genuflect, to a literature, its words "must convey expression not to one man only, but to thousands."
Maybe I'm an outlier, but I think I'm so conditioned by my professional position and highly personal Shakespeare fetish that it's almost unimaginable to me to go to a Shakespeare play and try to comprehend the action and language as if I'm hearing it for the first time. Do people actually do this? Should they?
When I see Shakespeare, it's more like going to a Bloomsday reading. I'm quite consciously seeing an adaptation/interpretation of texts that I have read and (usually) know quite well. My attitude is generally, "let's see how they do this." Again, maybe I'm in the minority on this. But I'm also probably squarely in the middle of the target audience for live Shakespeare.
I actually DON'T think that there's much of a market for middle-of-the-road contemporary-language Shakespeare. When people want the Bard, they want the real stuff, and feel cheated if they think they're getting anything less. Even if they don't understand the language. ESPECIALLY when they don't understand it.
But I think you could generate more interest from everyone if you avoided intelligibility for intelligibility's sake and offered a more stylized take on Shakespeare's language. McWhorter's counterexample to Shakespeare is August Wilson, and Wilson's language is NOT plain-language. It's often not even contemporary. If you wanted an August Wilson take on Shakespeare, you'd really be looking for something completely different.
My own preference for clever updates of Shakespeare - again, I'm a history freak - would be for lots and lots of adaptations that don't just port his text into the present, but into lots of different periods, including mishmashes of multiple times and places. (This is actually what Shakespeare does.) Do Julius Caesar during the American Civil War; give us a Prohibition-era Twelfth Night (I actually saw an adaptation like this in London). Put Shakespeare in masks, just any mask but our own.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language
July 29, 2009
Mr. Penumbra Would Like This
Each week postliteracy.org presents visitors with a single image, which will often have multiple layers of meaning in its visual content. Embedded within that image, though, is textual content hidden through steganography. The audience must decode the hidden text [...] in order to "read" the entire message.
And this sounds pretty new liberal artsy, doesn't it:
Thus, each post at postliteracy.org requires polymodal literacy—here, visual, interactive, computational, and textual literacies—to decode its full meaning.
Helpfully, they link directly to the tools required to find the hidden messages.
July 27, 2009
Make It More Swedish, Will You?
What happens when mass-market book stores don't matter as much anymore?
July 26, 2009
Oh yes. These Swedish book covers are quite fun.
I'd play a video game featuring these characters.
And I sorta desperately want to know the plot of this one. Mad moose attacks?
July 24, 2009
Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy
There's a great scene in Star Trek IV - yes, the one where the crew travels back in time to save whales - where Scotty, the engineer, tries to control a Macintosh by talking to it. When McCoy hands him the mouse, he speaks into it, in a sweetly coaxing voice: "Hello, computer!" When he's told to use the keyboard ("How quaint!"), he irritably cracks his knuckles -- and hunts-and-pecks at Warp 1 to pull up the specs for "transparent aluminum."
As recently as 2000, it seemed inevitable that any minute now, we were going to be able to turn in our quaint keyboards and start controlling computers with our voice. Our computers were going to become just like our telephones, or even better, like our secretaries. But while voice and speech recognition and commands have gotten a lot better, generally the trend has been in the other direction - instead of talking to our computers, we're typing on our phones.
(Which is arguably the hidden message of Scotty and the Mac - even somebody with the most powerful voice-controlled computer in the galaxy can touch-type like a champ. He probably only talks to the computer so his hands are free to text his friends while he's engineering! "brb - needed on away team" -- "anyone know how to recrystallize dilithium" -- That's why he's so inventive! He's crowdsourcing!)
The return to speech, in all of its immediacy, after centuries of the technological dominance of writing, seemed inevitable. The phonograph, film, radio, and television all seemed to point towards a future dominated by communications technology where writing and reading played an increasingly diminished role. I think the most important development, though, was probably the telephone. Ordinary speech, conversation, in real-time, where space itself appeared to vanish. It created a paradigm not just for media theorists and imaginative futurists but for ordinary people to imagine tomorrow.
This was Marshall McLuhan's "global village" - a media and politics where the limitations of speech across place and time were virtually eliminated. Walter Ong called it "secondary orality" - we were seeing a return to a culture dominated by oral communication that wasn't QUITE like the primary orality of nonliterate cultures - it was mediated by writing, by print, and by the technologies and media of the new orality themselves.
“When I first used the term ‘secondary orality,’ I was thinking of the kind of orality you get on radio and television, where oral performance produces effects somewhat like those of ‘primary orality,’ the orality using the unprocessed human voice, particularly in addressing groups, but where the creation of orality is of a new sort. Orality here is produced by technology. Radio and television are ‘secondary’ in the sense that they are technologically powered, demanding the use of writing and other technologies in designing and manufacturing the machines which reproduce voice. They are thus unlike primary orality, which uses no tools or technology at all. Radio and television provide technologized orality. This is what I originally referred to by the term ‘secondary orality.’
I have also heard the term ‘secondary orality’ lately applied by some to other sorts of electronic verbalization which are really not oral at all—to the Internet and similar computerized creations for text. There is a reason for this usage of the term. In nontechnologized oral interchange, as we have noted earlier, there is no perceptible interval between the utterance of the speaker and the hearer’s reception of what is uttered. Oral communication is all immediate, in the present. Writing, chirographic or typed, on the other hand, comes out of the past. Even if you write a memo to yourself, when you refer to it, it’s a memo which you wrote a few minutes ago, or maybe two weeks ago. But on a computer network, the recipient can receive what is communicated with no such interval. Although it is not exactly the same as oral communication, the network message from one person to another or others is very rapid and can in effect be in the present. Computerized communication can thus suggest the immediate experience of direct sound. I believe that is why computerized verbalization has been assimilated to secondary ‘orality,’ even when it comes not in oral-aural format but through the eye, and thus is not directly oral at all. Here textualized verbal exchange registers psychologically as having the temporal immediacy of oral exchange. To handle [page break] such technologizing of the textualized word, I have tried occasionally to introduce the term ‘secondary literacy.’ We are not considering here the production of sounded words on the computer, which of course are even more readily assimilated to ‘secondary orality’” (80-81).
This is where most of the futurists got it wrong - the impact of radio, television, and the telephone weren't going to be solely or even primarily on more and more speech, but, for technical or cultural or who-knows-exactly-what reasons, on writing! We didn't give up writing - we put it in our pockets, took it outside, blended it with sound, pictures, and video, and sent it over radio waves so we could "talk" to our friends in real-time. And we used those same radio waves to download books and newspapers and everything else to our screens so we would have something to talk about.
This is the thing about literacy today, that needs above all not to be misunderstood. Both the people who say that reading/writing have declined and that reading/writing are stronger than ever are right, and wrong. It's not a return to the word, unchanged. It's a literacy transformed by the existence of the electronic media that it initially has nothing in common with. It's also transformed by all the textual forms - mail, the newspaper, the book, the bulletin board, etc. It's not purely one thing or another.
This reminds me of one of my favorite Jacques Derrida quotes, from his essay "The Book to Come":
What we are dealing with are never replacements that put an end to what they replace but rather, if I might use this word today, restructurations in which the oldest form survives, and even survives endlessly, coexisting with the new form and even coming to terms with the new economy --- which is also a calculation in terms of the market as well as in terms of storage, capital, and reserves.
I doubt that "secondary literacy" will catch on, because it sounds like something that middle school English teachers do. But that's too bad - because it's actually a pretty good term to describe the world we live in.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Media Galaxy, Object Culture, Technosnark
New Liberal Arts in the Boston Phoenix
Woohoo! Mike Miliard provides a fine write-up, complete with commentary from Tim, in the Boston Phoenix.
July 22, 2009
Wednesday Comics Report
So I did go out and snag Wednesday Comics, as I mentioned. My verdict? Beautiful, inventive, and fatally flawed.
But the flaw is so simple! You see, Wednesday Comics #1 is comprised of sixteen giant pages. And each of those pages is a separate story. This renders it almost completely unreadable. Just as you build up a modicum of reading momentum—TO BE CONTINUED. And they're not even good to-be-continueds, because really, how could they be? Nothing has happened yet!
It's only worth mentioning because the whole thing would have been so sublime if they'd simply focused each issue on two or four stories instead of sixteen. I'm sure there's some sort of production logic at work here—Paul Pope is still madly scribbling out the back half of his Adam Strange story somewhere—but even so. The product, as is, is broken. It's fine fodder for "trends in media!" talk—and you know I love that—but as an actual reading experience it's no fun. Fresh formats are great, but you gotta get the fundamentals right, too.
However! A super-jumbo-sized trade paperback, collecting all of the issues, released around Christmastime, would be a fine thing indeed. I'll wait for that—and buy it with relish.
Lev Grossman's notes from Azkatraz, the giant Harry Potter convention held right here in San Francisco this weekend past. Here's an interesting hypothesis on the conjoined history of Harry Potter and the internet:
There was a great panel on the history of Harry Potter fandom online, starring Melissa Anelli, founder of The Leaky Cauldron and author of Harry: A History. She made an interesting point, which is that because Harry and the Internet both became massive mainstream phenomena at around the same time, and because Harry fans are kind of amazingly determined and resourceful, they wound up establishing a lot of the rules and social forms of online fandom in general. Harry Potter fandom is now the template for all future fandoms.
There are only so many delicious, refreshing Harry Potter-themed novelty cocktails I can drink and still feel like a man. There is no hangover like a Felix Felicis hangover.
July 21, 2009
Sword of Pulitzer Prize-Winning +1
If you haven't read The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao yet, you gotta. This is the only book I've ever read where I understood all of the allusions. That is because they were allusions to Superman, the D&D Monster Manual, and Darkseid's Omega effect. And it all opens with a line worthy of a Star Wars-style crawl:
They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles.
Oh man, just reading that makes me want to go through the whole book again.
Anyway, I mention it because there's a terrific interview with Junot Díaz up at Guernica. It's very long and nuanced—and it finally reveals the secret origin of Oscar Wao:
Junot Díaz: That's a far better story. No, I mean, the details are okay: I was living in Mexico City, I had a group of dudes and young sisters who liked to get together—we liked to go dancing, we liked to go drinking. One night I was out very late, this was like five months, no, maybe like four months into my trip. It was very late, and we were over at a friend's house; the guy's house who I was at turned out to—in the future—turned out to be a very famous Mexican actor. But that night we were just all hanging out and it was a bunch of Mexican bohemians and me and my Guatemalan buddy. And one of these Mexican cats just pulled a book off a shelf and just cornered me and was like, "My favorite writer in the world." He was telling me, "My favorite writer in the world is Oscar Wao, I love Oscar Wao, Oscar Wao is brilliant." And I was dying because I knew he meant Oscar Wilde. That's where the book began. After that party I went home and I laid in bed, and I suddenly had this idea of this fore-cursed family. This idea of this awkward fat boy and this idea that this family would be cursed in love, that they would have great trouble finding love. You know it just felt like a real good kind of novella, telenovela type plot. I just thought, "Hey, I can work with this, you know, I can really change this into something else."
I love chains of ideas—whole works—that start like that, sparked by a single phrase, or best of all, a name. I've got a couple.
July 19, 2009
Mark Sample spots a review of a David Foster Wallace collection authored by a Don Delillo character. McSweeney's? Nope. It was published in the book review section of the academic journal Modernism/Modernity.
Update: M/M editor Lawrence Rainey and former managing editor Nicole Devarenne 'fess up [kinda] in an open letter to Mark.
July 18, 2009
The Post-Orwellian Future of Connected Books and Everything Else
This is the post where I tell you I don't really mind that Amazon yanked "1984" from all those Kindles.
The backstory: Unauthorized editions of "Animal Farm" and "1984" were available, briefly, for sale in the Kindle store. At some point Amazon discovered this and removed them from the store, and also—this is the important part—from people's Kindles. The NYT quotes an Amazon rep: "When we were notified of this by the rights holder, we removed the illegal copies from our systems and from customers' devices, and refunded customers."
The poetry of the fact that this happened with "1984" is irresistible. And, to be clear, I agree with Jason Kottke when he says: This stinks like old cheese! It's obviously creepy in a lot of ways—and Amazon, for its part, has conceded that it was a bad decision.
But, here's the thought experiment that occurred to me: Imagine that this story didn't seem creepy. Or at least, didn't seem particularly noteworthy.
For that to be true, what kind of world would we have to be living in?
I think it looks something like this:
Nothing is sold as a static, flash-frozen object anymore. Instead, you buy things with the assumption they'll get better and better over time. In fact, one of the ways you weigh competing brands is by asking: Who has a better track record of upgrades?
- Each iPhone OS upgrade is basically like getting a new phone.
- Every month, your Prius downloads new fuel-management software, and its mileage steadily improves. (And there's an ongoing, Netflix-style competition to improve that software.)
- One day, your Oster blender beeps, because it now has a new blend mode. Puree 2.0!
Now, if that's true for objects, you know it's true for media. You don't buy tracks or albums, shows or movies anymore. It's all included in subscriptions to big libraries that are always growing.
There are many big, competing subscription services, and like the phone carriers, each is notorious for a different level of coverage and service. Apple has the widest coverage, but it also faces the sharpest legal challenges. One week, all the Bollywood movies will be blacked out on iTunes; the next week, after the dispute is settled, they'll be back. It's annoying in the same way that only getting one bar of reception in your neighborhood is annoying, and we've come to live with it.
There are lots of smaller sub services, too, most with some specific selling point: a deep jazz library, say, or the complete collection of 80s cartoons. Most people subscribe to many.
Generally, the pattern goes:
- Some new service springs to life in a blaze of publicity.
- People rush to join.
- They enjoy it for several years.
- The media starts to seem lo-rez, or it's not compatible with the newest devices, or some contract runs out.
- It shuts down.
But by the time 5 happens, there's a new 1 somewhere else. The migration from sub service to sub service is a hassle, but at least it's easier than switching insurance companies.
You'd better believe that repressive regimes are paying attention to who's watching what on the sub services in their jurisdictions. The media that doesn't live comfortably in this world is, therefore, the controversial and the political; too often, the tether feels like a trip-wire. So there are times and places when you want to truly download something—want to save a local, static, disconnected copy—and it tends to feel a bit cloak-and-dagger when you do.
(Several movie studios have been called out for trying to distribute their movies on these nonsub networks in order to create buzz—"playing at moral seriousness," one critic said.)
In this world, Googlezon's sub service for books is completely awesome.
For $4.99 a month (how can it be that low??) you get full access to all books ever printed, period. And even better: Because readers are always connected, whether it's a browser, a special app, or a device, each one of these books is surrounded with metadata about how people read them. There's a graph on every Googlezon book page showing how far people got before losing interest; it's a much more revealing review than the star rating.
Because books are all downloaded (or re-downloaded) at the time of reading, you're always looking at the very latest version. This capability creates a new expectation, and writing non-fiction is suddenly a lot more like blogging, or shepherding a Wikipedia page: your book always needs attention. It's a lot more work, actually, and you still don't make very much money.
You'd think fiction wouldn't be as deeply affected. You'd be wrong. The hot new literary form is the "living novel," constantly being re-written in real-time. This is exciting in a lot of ways; it's also frustrating. You read a section that moves you, and you want to share it with a friend—but by the time she gets to it, it's gone, replaced by some weird passage about the history of beekeeping.
And when you open your reader, you see the same thing. The section you liked has vanished. Beekeeping. Damn it.
Actually, yeah, it's really frustrating.
But it's hard to stop. Writers, especially young writers who grew up with the web, love the ability to revisit and re-edit text. It feels natural. The argument goes: "Why wouldn't I make it better? What's with this fetishization of the 'final draft'? If you want a static version so badly—print one out. But don't tell me to stop editing."
Remember that graph on every Googlezon book page that shows how far people got? In this world, every writer is addicted to that graph. "Okay, it dips at chapter three... I can tighten that up. I can keep them going." There are cautionary tales, here—writers who get "lost in the loop" and never publish a new novel because they're too busy optimizing the old ones—but there are also new books more widely-read than any in the last 50 years. The tether is a powerful tool not just for commerce, but for creativity.
And yes: The tether also means Googlezon can yank books from the shelves, and therefore from your life, at any time. There are, of course, sneaky ways to copy and save them, but there's not a huge market for the copies, simply because it's so easy to get them the legit way.
So last week, in this world, rogue editions of "Animal Farm" and "1984" were remotely deleted from a variety of reading apps and devices. It was annoying—especially for the people in the middle of reading them—but really, no more annoying than a dropped call or a momentary power outage. People routed around the damage; they found other editions and resumed reading.
And the record of that reading—page turn by page turn—flowed up through the air and into the network. It curled through a monitoring hub in Beijing, and one in Fort Meade. It glimmered across a dashboard on the desk of an assistant book editor in New York. And it found its way, finally, to Googlezon's library—a library no longer made up only, or even mostly, of books, but now, somehow, of reading itself.
How do you feel about this world?
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Media Galaxy, Technosnark
July 16, 2009
I think DC's Wednesday Comics project sounds really fun. Every week this summer, there's a new issue—and even though each one sits on the shelf at normal comic-book-size, it actually folds out twice to 28" × 20". That is big. Seems like it would feel really exciting to get one in your hands... sit down... slowly unfold it... "Whoah! Batman!"
Each issue has a bunch of stories from various writers and artists. Here's a peek at Paul Pope's contribution, starring Adam Strange.
Here's my beef: Why can't I order these online? Or subscribe to the whole series? I am reduced to scrounging on Amazon—thin pickings, and all at a hefty markup.
Update: Just caved and called Isotope here in SF. It is an awesome comic shop. Still want to subscribe, though.
July 15, 2009
Write Like It's 1856
Writing up the new Oxford Historical Thesaurus, Jason Kottke laments the lack of an advertised online version: "what a boon it would be for period novelists to able to press the 'write like they did in 1856' button."
So, being a total dork, and already in love with the not-even-shipping OHT, I tweet:
I want a "write like they did in 1856" button!
Actually, not a "write like ANYBODY in 1856" button. I want a "write like Flaubert" button. (Quiz: what writer in 1856 would you choose?)
This is harder than it sounds. 1856 might have seen just about the greatest confluence of writers ever. Do you want to write like Flaubert, Baudelaire, or Hugo? Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? Melville or Whitman or Dickinson? The Rosettis, the Brownings, or George Eliot? In nonfiction, you could write like Darwin, Marx, Carlyle, Mill, Schopenhauer, Lincoln, or Emerson.
All that said, I'm sticking with Flaubert. That's the year he finished and serialized Madame Bovary. (The next year, he went on trial for obscenity, and won, on the grounds that he wasn't a pornographer, but a genius. This changed everything for modern literature.)
Gustave's my guy. Who's yours?
P.S.: On the Oxford University Press page for the historical thesaurus, it includes a link for an online version - it's almost certainly going to be subscriber-only, and the link ends up with placeholder info for now. But it will happen.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Collaborations, Worldsnark
What Fun To Wreck [Language]
Conceptual writer Kenny Goldsmith introduces a new issue of Poetry devoted to probably the most divisive no-va-nt-guar-d writing in generations:
Our immersive digital environment demands new responses from writers. What does it mean to be a poet in the Internet age? These two movements, Flarf and Conceptual Writing, each formed over the past five years, are direct investigations to that end. And as different as they are, they have surprisingly come up with a set of similar solutions. Identity, for one, is up for grabs. Why use your own words when you can express yourself just as well by using someone else’s? And if your identity is not your own, then sincerity must be tossed out as well. Materiality, too, comes to the fore: the quantity of words seems to have more bearing on a poem than what they mean. Disposability, fluidity, and recycling: there’s a sense that these words aren’t meant for forever. Today they’re glued to a page but tomorrow they could re-emerge as a Facebook meme. Fusing the avant-garde impulses of the last century with the technologies of the present, these strategies propose an expanded field for twenty-first-century poetry. This new writing is not bound exclusively between pages of a book; it continually morphs from printed page to web page, from gallery space to science lab, from social spaces of poetry readings to social spaces of blogs. It is a poetics of flux, celebrating instability and uncertainty.
Anthony Grafton and Digital Humanism
I think, for folks interested in what's happening with digital books, at this point it's foundational to read Anthony Grafton's 2007 New Yorker essay on book digitization. Grafton is a historian of Renaissance humanism and early print culture; he writes with a great deal of sympathy even as he criticizes a lot of the ramshackle moves that have been made in getting print books up on the web.
It's a weird thing - I think I can say that age of digital humanism we're in shows the same enthusiasm as the Renaissance in getting old texts into circulation and generating new information, but much less care than the early humanists in making sure that the information is complete, accurate, or discriminating. And it seems as though this is what traditionalists and futurists argue about, endlessly.
This at least, is the tension in Peter Green's TLS review of Grafton's new book, Worlds Made By Words, which contains an expanded version of that New Yorker essay, plus plenty of tasty goodness about Renaissance humanists like Leon Battista Alberti, or Justius Lipsius, a Flemish philologist who "offered to recite the text of Tacitus with a knife held to his throat, to be plunged in if he made a mistake.” Green's review is titled "Google Books or Great Books," and it offers a nice peek into what Grafton's all about. Here's a slice of the good:
An editor at Cambridge University Press, reputedly the world’s oldest publisher, cheerfully admitted to Grafton that, conservatively, “95 percent of all scholarly enquiries start at Google”. Which, as Grafton says, “makes sense: Google, the nerdiest of corporations, has roots in the world of books”, to the point where (if you throw in Amazon and one or two others) “the Web has become a vast and vivid online bookstore”... Today all would-be members of the Republic of Letters, all hopeful explorers of past history, have, in a literal sense, the world at their fingertips. As Grafton says, “it is more than transformative to sit in your office at a small liberal arts or community college and call up, as you already can, thousands of books in dozens of languages, the nearest material copy of which is hundreds of miles away”.
And the bad:
Scanning by optical character recognition, ironically, commits some of the same errors as those made by careless medieval scribes, including long “s” read as “f” (German scholarship sometimes appears as Wiffenschaft), and the confusion of u and n. Thus, key in the meaningless qnalitas for qualitas (a key term in medieval philosophy) and you get over 600 hits for qualitas which you would miss if you only keyed in the correct word. Much of the old German spiky Gothic black-letter material (Fraktur) comes out in “plain text” as gobbledegook.Which Grafton synthesizes in a really lovely way, as follows:
Yes, the young scholar is told, take every advantage of the new electronic Aladdin’s cave. But – and here Grafton shows a rare moment of deeply felt emotion – these streams of data, rich as they are, will illuminate rather than eliminate the unique books and prints and manuscripts that only the library can put in front of you. For now, and for the foreseeable future, if you want to piece together the richest possible mosaic of documents and texts and images, you will have to do it in those crowded public rooms where sunlight gleams on varnished tables, as it has for more than a century, and knowledge is still embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable manuscripts and books.
Here's a thought. One term that I think we can use to bring the digital enthusiasts and the traditional scholars - besides humanism, which I still think is a super-powerful idea - is standards. One thing web and software people are actually surprisingly good at, considering the libertarian ethos that drives a lot of the best work, is at establishing standards of mutual interoperability.
What if scholarly bodies like the Modern Languages Association, American Library Association, American Historical Association, etc., worked together with the tech guys to establish standards for digital scholarly texts in their fields? Work to verify the scans, establish the bibliographies (it would really help to know, for example, if a full-preview book in Google Books is actually from a pirated or faulty edition), and verify the results? Hashtags for scanned books!
I think that could be beautiful.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', Technosnark
July 13, 2009
Meet The New Fetish, Pt. 2
If you want people to know what awesomely supercool books you are reading, you can use the internet to tell them.
Ezra Klein, "Can the Internet Be Your New Bookshelf?":
This is one of those spots where I imagine social networking really will save us. Back when I was using Facebook more, I was a big fan of Visual Bookshelf, which let you display what you were reading and, when you finished, let you rate and review the books. As a matter of signaling, it's quite a bit more efficient. Your friends don't have to catch you in a literary moment on the Metro. And being able to browse the collections of all my friends was a delight, and offered occasional surprises that helped me known them better: former football teammates who were now reading John Kenneth Galbraith, for instance, and libertarian friends who listed "The Grapes of Wrath" as one of their favorite books of all time.
I also found that displaying the contents of my bedside table helped counteract my tendency to get distracted 90 pages in and start something else. Now that the books were hanging out on my profile, I felt more pressure to finish them. Somehow, simply leaving books around my room didn't carry the same silent reproach. In fact, I sort of miss that pressure. Which is why I've added a little Amazon widget that does much the same thing to the right sidebar. Technology!
Meet The New Fetish, Same As The Old Fetish
James Wolcott laments the loss of personalized conspicuous consumption that goes with putting down a paperback and picking up a Kindle:
How can I impress strangers with the gem-like flame of my literary passion if it’s a digital slate I’m carrying around, trying not to get it all thumbprinty?
Books not only furnish a room, to paraphrase the title of an Anthony Powell novel, but also accessorize our outfits. They help brand our identities. At the rate technology is progressing, however, we may eventually be traipsing around culturally nude in an urban rain forest, androids seamlessly integrated with our devices...
The Barnes & Noble bookstore, with its coffee bar and authors’ readings, could go the way of Blockbuster as an iconic institution, depriving readers of the opportunity to mingle with their own kind and paw through magazines for free. Book-jacket design may become a lost art, like album-cover design, without which late-20th-century iconography would have been pauperized. (Try imagining the rock era without the gold lamé bravura of 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong or the modernist graveyard of the Sgt. Pepper cover or Andy Warhol’s zippered jeans for the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers—impossible.)
It's half tongue-in-cheek, sure, but Rex chops it at the root:
Argh! It's not that this form of nostalgia is unworthy of some passing historical fascination, because I'm sure digitization actually does represent a drastic change in how we perceive cultural objects. Rather, the obvious annoyance in this sentimental prose is its complete lack of awareness of just how silly the fetishized cultural object was in the first place. Shouldn't we be suspicious of anyone who thinks that showing off your CD collection was ever really the point?
I am all about passing historical fascination, so I'll stick around and dig a little bit. The first and maybe obvious answer is that the cool factor will transfer to the device rather than the book. If you're reading a Kindle DX, and I'm reading on my iPhone, and somebody else is furiously typing on a Blackberry - actually, in real life, I'd be that last guy - we've all effectively announced our identities. If that's not enough variety for you, give it time: capitalism will fill your need for an individualized brand. It's not perfect, but it is really good at that.
The second and maybe even more obvious answer is that you can still bring books on the train. This is Walter Benjamin 101: the outmoded technology gets its aura back. People still collect, and record companies still produce, vinyl records. (Some of them are actually really awesomely designed.) Actually - this may be news to Wolcott, who seems to be stuck on CDs -- people consider collecting vinyl to be kind of cool. As a friend of mine recently reported, "if you're like, a 6, collecting vinyl automatically makes you a 10."
In fact, in ten years, schlepping that beat-up paperback -- or, please, one of those coffee table books -- might make you the coolest guy on the train. It's like smoking a pipe, or wearing a monocle. Your retro aesthetic will identify you, Mr Wolcott, as exactly what you are.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Cities, Design, Object Culture
July 12, 2009
Romance, Manuscripts, and Cyborgs
Virginia Heffernan says that internet romances "are not romances between people at all. They’re affairs with the Internet" - like World of Warcraft, where you become your own avatar:
O Computer World! At its most elementary, it’s a marvelous place, filled with risk and surprises and novelty, unbounded by space and time, where you can be a teenager again, trade gossip, avoid your overseers, gab to friends and boyfriends — all while pretending to do homework. What a perfect realm for puppy love or love with that Sanford-patented “soul-mate feel” — unconsummated love, in other words. By removing the body from relationships, electronic communication makes romantic love less animal. The lovers’ discourse becomes simultaneously more childlike and more intellectual, more spiritual.
As Chapur wrote to Sanford, “I haven’t felt this since I was in my teen ages.”
Epistolary romance seems to have existed as long as romance itself. But letters — the ink-on-paper kind, the kind Byron and Anaďs Nin wrote — had a dense materiality, with handwriting that always suggested the beloved’s hand and thus her body. Besides, wasn’t writing paper always being supplemented with dried flowers, locks of hair and wafts of perfume? It’s not clear whether mp3 love songs or links to insightful blog posts, the value-adds that now come with love e-mail, contribute a sensory dimension or only amplify how nerdy and how platonic digital romance is.
The connection to communications technology — the connection to connection — has become part of what makes us human. In the idiom of those who are swooningly in love, it makes us “feel alive.” When we’re denied the connection to connection, it’s no wonder we lust for it. Probably the pundits are wrong: there’s no special problem with marriage or romance in this country right now. Instead, our current bind is with offline reality — real life. We’ve been cheating on it, all of us, for a long time, living in a wireless fairyland where we r all so giddily hot.
I wrote my college girlfriend love letters over two summers, when she was in Texas and I was in Michigan (and then London). It is completely different. But I fell in love with her, at least in part, not least because in our freshman year, she was my first constant email correspondent.
Manuscript is different. I disagree, though, about the total virtualization/dematerialization of the body with the internet - I think at one time, exchanging flirtatious glances on Friendster, or staring into a telnet terminal in your campus computer lab, that was true. There was something cold and immaterial about that world, where you had to wait hours for a response, when you couldn't take an email with you without sheepishly printing it out on a dot-matrix.
But the ubiquity and intimacy of our net-connected objects have changed that. Heffernan's friend hands her his Blackberry with a note from his mistress, and she recoils: "I didn’t like holding the device. It felt hot and even damp, as if it had been inside a human body. Lots of erotic energy was going into that thing." It's a secondary physicality, a different kind of fantasy of immediacy - a love letter that can reach your beloved wherever she is, finding her not at her office desktop but in her purse or pants pocket. And when your phone vibrates with her new message, you have received something real, something you can touch.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Object Culture, Society/Culture, Technosnark
Amazon vs. Paypal
Oh, and while I'm talking up Google forms, I probably ought to report back the result of my one-question survey. With a sample size of 110, the result was 76% in favor of an Amazon.com product page and 24% for Paypal.
July 11, 2009
I had never heard of this disorder before:
In hyperlexia, a child spontaneously and precociously masters single-word reading. It can be viewed as a superability, that is, word recognition ability far above expected levels... Hyperlexic children are often fascinated by letters and numbers. They are extremely good at decoding language and thus often become very early readers. Some hyperlexic children learn to spell long words (such as elephant) before they are two and learn to read whole sentences before they turn three. An fMRI study of a single child showed that hyperlexia may be the neurological opposite of dyslexia.
Often, hyperlexic children will have a precocious ability to read but will learn to speak only by rote and heavy repetition, and may also have difficulty learning the rules of language from examples or from trial and error, which may result in social problems... Their language may develop using echolalia, often repeating words and sentences. Often, the child has a large vocabulary and can identify many objects and pictures, but cannot put their language skills to good use. Spontaneous language is lacking and their pragmatic speech is delayed. Hyperlexic children often struggle with Who? What? Where? Why? and How? questions... Social skills often lag tremendously. Hyperlexic children often have far less interest in playing with other children than do their peers.
The thing is, this absolutely and precisely describes me in childhood, especially before the age of 5 or 6. (This is also the typical age when hyperlexic children begin to learn how to interact with others.) It also describes my son - which is how my wife found the description and forwarded it to me.
You walk around your entire life with these stories, these tics, and the entire time, your quirks are really symptoms. It's a little strange.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Braiiins, Language, Learnin', Science, Self-Disclosure
July 9, 2009
A Treasure-House of Language
I don't have a lot of criteria for friendship, but the one characteristic I think is invariant is a love of and care for language. If you don't take pleasure or find intellectual satisfaction in how words are strung together - maybe even especially written words - then you and I are quickly going to run out of things to say to or do with each other.
So that said, I think a good index of both your wordnerdery and the likelihood of the two of us becoming and remaining fast friends is your excitement in reading about the new Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, which will be published - in two glorious volumes! - this fall:
The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, published by Oxford University Press, is the culmination of 44 years of painstaking work by scholars at the University of Glasgow.
It not only groups words with similar meanings but does so in chronological order according to their history - with the oldest first and most recent last. According to its publisher, the OED, it's the largest thesaurus in the world and the first historical thesaurus in any language.
With 800,000 meanings, 600,000 words and more than 230,000 categories and sub categories, it's twice as big as Roget's version.
And if that doesn't have him turning in his grave, it also contains almost every word in English from Old English to the present day, or 2003 to be precise - the cut-off date for the new dictionary.
· The largest thesaurus resource in the world, covering more than 920,000 words and meanings based on the Oxford English Dictionary · The very first historical thesaurus to be compiled for any of the world's languages from medieval times through the present · Synonyms listed with dates of first recorded use in English, in chronological order, with earliest synonyms first · For obsolete words, the Thesaurus also includes last recorded use of word · Uses a thematic system of classification · Comprehensive index enables complete cross-referencing of nearly one million words and meanings · Contains a comprehensive sense inventory of Old English · Includes a free fold-out color chart which shows the top levels of the classification structure · Made up of two volumes: The main text, comprising numbers sections for semantic categories, and the index, comprising a full A-Z look up of nearly one million lexical items
Sweet mercy. Bless you marvelous pedants and this magnificent thing you have made.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Learnin'
July 8, 2009
Swimming Out Of The Death Spiral
And now for a note on the dark side of printed books: Michael Jensen, Director of Strategic Web Communications for National Academies and National Academies Press, collects and analyzes data about global warming and ecological collapse. At the AAUP meeting in Philadelphia, he presented "Scholarly Publishing in the New Era of Scarcity," an argument that the combination of financial and environmental necessity compels university presses to move away from printing, shipping, and storing books and towards a digital-driven, open-access model, with print-on-demand and institutional support rounding out the new revenue model.
(I'm posting Part 2 of Jensen's speech - the part that's mostly about publishing - here. Watch Part 1 - which is mostly about the environment - if you want to be justly terrified about what's going to happen to human beings and everything else pretty soon.)
This is one reason I'm kind of happy that we didn't print a thousand or more copies of New Liberal Arts. We can make print rare, we can get copies straight to readers, we can make print more responsible, but mostly we have to make print count. And - of course - share the information with as many people as possible.
July 7, 2009
Why Books Are Great, In One Link
From a neat presentation by the super-smart Matt Webb. He's talking about Bruno Munari, who in turn is talking about all the interesting ways there are of drawing a human face.
So, page one. As Webb says: "It's great prose, makes a lot of sense. And then you're halfway through a sentence, and you turn the page, and..."—(Click the "next" link on Webb's page, you'll see.)
What's great about this? The full-bleed-ness. There is no full-bleed on the web. And that totally sucks! It's such a crucial, powerful tool. Books and magazines get full-bleed. TVs and video game consoles get full-bleed. Even the Kindle and iPhone get full-bleed! But not the web. You don't ever get the full screen, the entire page, the total experience. In fact—the way browsers are going—you get less and less.
I hate to bump the New Liberal Arts off the top of the front page - go check it out! Buy it! Do it now! - but I've got a related meatspace publishing story to tell you. My Chronicle of Higher Education forum contribution on scholarship and teaching in 2029 - "The Faculty of the Future: Leaner, Meaner, More Innovative, Less Secure" - is out now, but the online version is sadly behind a very 2009 subscription firewall. So you'll have to have a login to read what Mark Bosquet, Anthony Grafton, Joseph Hermanowicz, Evelyn Hu-Dehart, Peter Stearns, and Cathy Ann Trower wrote. But here's my piece as it appears in full:
How is academe different in 2029? Let's begin with the basics: reading, writing, and teaching. If anything, Google is even more important. The 2009 author/publisher settlements that allowed Google to sell full access to its book collections didn't revolutionize books in retail, but subscription sales to institutions did fundamentally alter the way libraries think about their digital and analog collections. Access to comprehensive digital libraries allows teachers at any institution to compile virtual syllabi on the fly, seamlessly integrating readings, assignments, communication, and composition..... Read more ....
Automated subscriptions powered by Google's search services deliver articles on any topic or keyword of interest instantaneously; hyperlinked citations and references appear with the original document, as threads in a continuing conversation, creating the first genuinely hypertext documents.
Apple's popular iRead application (launched in 2011) enables reading, writing, and recording on virtually any device. Some teachers and students still use laptops or tablets, but others prefer handhelds, like phones or game consoles. But users' inherited assumptions about the casual use of these devices make both teaching and research more closely resemble the activity of online social networks than traditional lectures, seminars, or conferences. Courses typically emphasize collaborative research leading to immediate publication of short bursts of text. Reader feedback then powers incremental improvements and additions.
The curriculum, especially in the humanities, valorizes thoughtful curation and recirculation of material rather than comprehension or originality. The traditional unidirectional model of knowledge transmission (best represented by the now-deprecated "lecture") has been effectively discredited, although it persists through habit, inertia, and whispered doubts about the efficacy and rigidity of the new model. Many professors periodically pause to lecture, but only apologetically, or when distanced by ironic quotation marks.
The 'teens are as widely remembered for technical innovation and radical dissemination of knowledge as the '20s are for job loss, technological retrenchment, and economic concentration. In 2019, when Google used its capital to snap up the course-management giant Blackboard and the Ebsco, LexisNexis, and Ovid databases, it effectively became the universal front end for research and teaching in the academy.
Many university presses were shuttered in the transition from print to digital, especially those affiliated with public universities looking to shed costs following the catastrophic collapse of the University of California system following state budget cuts in 2020. The remaining presses make up for lost textbook sales by hosting blogs where established scholars and high-octane amateurs brush shoulders (and compete for shared advertisement revenue). These in turn drive production of traditional monographs, whether published electronically, in print, or both. Scholars also directly market their services as virtual lecturers to students and other institutions. All authors now have a broader view of their audience, across institutions, disciplines, and peer levels.
Everyone is excited, but everything is uncertain. No one knows what will happen next. Just like 20 years ago
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', New Liberal Arts
July 6, 2009
The Geography of New Media
If you hang around in the NYC media bubble long enough, you develop the social depression of a collapsing industry. The west coast is full of a giddy frisson about the inevitable demise of big media, while the midwest is skeptical of everything that gets force-fed to them from the coasts. NYC, which has essentially zero awareness of any of this, continues to constantly be shocked! when a TMZ or Pitchfork or The Onion comes along from the hinterlands with a massively successful enterprise.
The reasons for this amounts to a lack of vision. Even smart people, vampirically bound to the past, seem completely blind to developing new formats. The standard for online innovation right now is "launch another blog," which no one seems to recognize is about as depressing as launching another newspaper.
Sign One that Mediaite will be smarter than HuffPo: this Jeffrey Feldman column that turns Nico Pitney vs. Dana Milbank into Marshall McLuhan vs. Thomas Jefferson. Me likey, Jeffrey. Me likey a lot.
July 4, 2009
Evolution 2.0 (and 3.0 beta)
This is kind of a cool idea. Let's say that evolution writ large is only accidentally about the preservation, transmission, and development of living species, but essentially about the preservation, transmission, and development of information. On this view, organisms are just a means to an end, particularly well-adapted couriers for all of this chemical data.
If that's the case, then maybe there isn't anything particularly special about the specific form of that data (i.e. DNA) or the way it's been transmitted in humans (sexual reproduction). That's just one way of doing things - in nonconscious, nonverbal, or nonhistorical species, genetic transmission, instinct, inherited traditions are the only means you've got. But once modern humans arrive on the scene, with all their increasingly sophisticated means of representing information, then Evolution 1.0, internal transmission of information, isn't the only game in town -- you've also got Evolution 2.0, characterized by the external transmission of information.
Once you reframe evolution in this way, then you can say that our species' rate of evolution "over the last ten thousand years, and particularly... over the last three hundred" is actually off the charts.
So the guy who's arguing this is a physicist named Stephen Hawking. (Maybe you've heard of him - he's awfully smart, and was part of Al Gore's Vice Presidential Action Rangers.) He also says that our tinkering with evolution ain't over:
[W]e are now entering a new phase, of what Hawking calls "self designed evolution," in which we will be able to change and improve our DNA. "At first," he continues "these changes will be confined to the repair of genetic defects, like cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy. These are controlled by single genes, and so are fairly easy to identify, and correct. Other qualities, such as intelligence, are probably controlled by a large number of genes. It will be much more difficult to find them, and work out the relations between them. Nevertheless, I am sure that during the next century, people will discover how to modify both intelligence, and instincts like aggression."
If the human race manages to redesign itself, to reduce or eliminate the risk of self-destruction, we will probably reach out to the stars and colonize other planets. But this will be done, Hawking believes, with intelligent machines based on mechanical and electronic components, rather than macromolecules, which could eventually replace DNA based life, just as DNA may have replaced an earlier form of life.
I can't decide if this is totally anthropocentric, or exactly the opposite. But it's kind of exciting, isn't it? I'm evolving the species right now, just by typing this! And so are you, by reading it! And so are Google's nanobots, by recording all of it in their fifteenth-gen flash brains!
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Science, Technosnark
June 29, 2009
The Death of the End, the Birth of the Beginning
I don't have any answers just yet, but I like Rex's well-titled "The Death of Writing, The Rebirth of Words."
(See Roland Barthes's "The Death of the Author is the Birth of the Reader" and Jacques Derrida's "The End of the Book, The Beginning of Writing")
June 27, 2009
Sanford's Odyssey, Book III
See Books I and II here.
But now, O Muse, you must sing of how Sanford, so handsome and competent as to appear on television like unto one of the deathless Gods, and like them possessed by a lust both mighty and confused, came to this pass.
As Dawn rose from her couch beside Tithonus- harbinger of light alike to mortals and immortals- the press met in council and with them, State Senator John "Jake" Knotts, the lord of thunder. Thereon Knotts began to tell them of the many sufferings of Sanford, for while he was Sanford's enemy, he also secretly pitied him away there in the house of the nymph Maria Belen Calypso.
"O Press," said he, coyly, "and all you other gods of media that live in everlasting bliss, I hope there may never be such a thing as a kind and well-disposed ruler any more, nor one who will govern equitably. I hope they will be all henceforth cruel and unjust, for there is not one of his subjects but has forgotten Sanford, who ruled them as though he were their father. Now, if there were an emergency in this state of Carolina, there would be none who could rule in his stead; for our Constitution has invested the power only in him. There he is, lying in great moral suffering in Argentina where dwells the nymph Calypso, who will not let him go; and he cannot get back to his own country, for he can find neither ships nor sailors to take him over the sea. At least, this is what rumors have told - no one, not his wife Jenny nor even his loyal security retinue, knows where exactly he may be. Furthermore, wicked people are now trying to keep his only lieutenant governor Andre Bauer, who is coming home from Charleston, where he has been to see if he can get news of the governor, from exercising constitutional authority."
"What, my friend, are you talking about?" replied Leroy Chapman, editor of The State, "does no one know where the governor is? Because we had heard that he was hiking the Applachian trail, where all princes of Hellas return to clear their head, relieve their burdens, and ejaculate their noblest utterances. Besides, someone should be perfectly able to protect Sanford, and to see him safely home again, before the press has to come hurry-skurrying back to meet him at the airport, or wheresoever he may be."
When he had thus spoken, he said to his junior reporter Gina Smith, whom he had nicknamed, for reasons of his own, Mercury, "Mercury, you are our messenger, go therefore and tell Calypso we have decreed that poor Sanford is to return home. He is to be convoyed neither by gods nor men, but after a perilous voyage of several hours upon a plane he is to reach fertile Atlanta, the land of the Georgians, who are near of kin to the gods, where you will look for his car, and then surprise him with an interview. He will then take his car to his own country, where we will pay him more attention than he would have brought back from Minneapolis, if he had been named nominee Vice President and had got home without disaster. This is how we have settled that he shall return to his country and his friends."
Thus he spoke, and Smith, who, I've just said, is sometimes known as Mercury, guide and guardian, scooper of Argus, did as she was told. Forthwith, in this telling of the tale, she did not merely look for Sanford at the airport, but she bound on her glittering golden sandals with which she could fly like the wind over land and sea. She took the notebook with which she writes down her interview transcripts or makes notes just as she pleases, and flew holding it in her hand over the Caribbean; then she swooped down through the firmament till she reached the level of the sea, whose waves she skimmed like a cormorant that flies fishing every hole and corner of the ocean, and drenching its thick plumage in the spray. She flew and flew over many a weary wave, but when at last she got to Buenos Aires which was her journey's end, she left the sea, and the majestic coastline of Buenos Aires, city by the river called by the men of that land de la Plata, and went on by land till he came to the condominium where the nymph Maria Calypso lived.
She found her at home. There was a large fire burning on the hearth, and one could smell from far the fragrant reek of burning cedar and sandal wood. As for herself, she was busy at her loom, shooting her golden shuttle through the warp and singing beautifully. Round her condominium there was a thick wood of alder, poplar, and sweet smelling cypress trees, wherein all kinds of great birds had built their nests- owls, hawks, and chattering sea-crows that occupy their business in the waters. A vine loaded with grapes was trained and grew luxuriantly about the back door of the condominium; there were also four pretty terrific restaurants grouped pretty close together, and turned hither and thither so as to make a kind of outdoor courtyard over which they flowed. It was really, really nice, even for Buenos Aires. Even a god could not help being charmed with such a lovely spot, so Mercury stood still and looked at it; but when she had admired it sufficiently he went and knocked on the door.
Calypso knew her at once- for all gods and journalists all know each other, no matter how far they live from one another- but Sanford was not within; he was on the sea-shore as usual, looking out upon the barren ocean with tears in his eyes, groaning and breaking his heart for sorrow. Calypso gave Mercury a seat and said: "Why have you come to see me, Mercury- honoured, and ever welcome- for you do not visit me often? Say what you want; I will do it for be you at once if I can, and if it can be done at all; but come inside, and let me set refreshment before you."
As she spoke she drew a table loaded with ambrosia beside her and mixed for her a really tasty nectar and ambrosia cocktail, with just a little bit of lime and mint, so Mercury ate and drank till she had had enough, and then said:
"We are speaking as goddesses - and journalists - to one another, and you ask me why I have come here, and I will tell you truly as you would have me do. The State sent me; it was no doing of mine; who could possibly want to come all this way over the sea where there are no Starbucks full of people to offer me mochaccinos or choice cookies? Nevertheless I had to come, for none of us other reporters can cross the Press, nor transgress its orders. We say that you have here the most ill-starred of all those who fought before the state aid of President Obama and sailed home in the fifth month after having refused it. On their way home they sinned against Public Opinion, who raised both heckles and cackles against them, so that all his brave companions perished, and he alone was carried hither by wind and tide. The Press says that you are to let this by man go at once, for it is decreed that he shall not perish here, far from his own people, but shall return to his house and country and give us conferences again."
Calypso trembled with rage when she heard this, "You gods," she exclaimed, "ought to be ashamed of yourselves. You are always jealous and hate seeing a goddess (or god) take a fancy to a mortal man, and live with him in open matrimony, of the shacked-up, sometimes long-distance, sometimes quickly in the bathroom kind. So when the rosy-fingered pages sweetly enticed Mark Foley, you precious reporters were all of you furious till you went and defeated his reelection in Florida. So again when Ceres fell in love with Vitter, and yielded to him in a thrice ploughed fallow field, for thrice three hundred dollars, the Press came to hear of it before so long and tried to killed Vitter with their thunder-bolts. And now you are angry with me too because I have a man here. I found the poor creature sitting all alone astride of a keel, for he was lonely, and had no adventures, in the bubble of politics you made for him, while he himself was driven by wind and waves on to my land. I got fond of him and cherished him, and had set my heart on making him immortal, so that he should never grow old all his days; still I cannot cross the Press, nor bring his counsels to nothing; therefore, if he insists upon it, let the man go beyond the seas again; but I cannot send him anywhere myself for I have neither ships nor men who can take him. Nevertheless I will readily give him such advice, in all good faith, as will be likely to bring him safely to his own country."
"Then send him away," said Gina/Mercury, "or we will be angry with you and punish you."'
On this she took her leave, and Maria went out to look for Sanford, for she had heard the message. She found him sitting upon the beach with his eyes ever filled with tears, and dying of sheer home-sickness; for he had got tired of Calypso, and though he was forced to sleep with her in the cave by night, it was she, not he, that would have it so. As for the day time, he spent it on the rocks and on the sea-shore, weeping, crying aloud for his despair, and always looking out upon the sea. Calypso then went close up to him said:
"My poor fellow, you shall not stay here grieving and fretting your life out any longer. I am going to send you away of my own free will; so go, put some pants on, and use my credit card to buy a plane ticket, coach or business class, that it may carry you safely over the sea. I will put bread, wine, and water on board to save you from starving. I will also give you clothes, and will send you a fair wind to take you home, if the gods in heaven so will it- for they know more about these things, and can settle them better than I can."
Sanford shuddered as he heard her. "Now goddess," he answered, "there is something behind all this; you cannot be really meaning to help me home when you bid me do such a dreadful thing as to fly coach. Not even a well-found ship with a fair wind could venture on such a distant voyage: nothing that you can say or do shall make me get on board that plane unless you first solemnly swear that you mean me no mischief."
Calypso smiled at this and caressed him with her hand: "You know a great deal," said she, "but you are quite wrong here. May heaven above and earth below be my witnesses, with the waters of the river - and this is the most solemn oath which a blessed god can take- that I mean you no sort of harm, and am only advising you to do exactly what I should do myself in your place. I am dealing with you quite straightforwardly; my heart is not made of iron, and I am very sorry for you."
When she had thus spoken she led the way rapidly before him, and Sanford followed in her steps; so the pair, goddess and man, went on and on till they came to Calypso's condo, where Sanford took the seat that Mercury had just left. Calypso set meat and drink before him of the food that unadventurous Americans eat; but her maids brought ambrosia and nectar and delicious tapas for herself, and they laid their hands on the good things that were before them. When they had satisfied themselves with meat and drink, Calypso spoke, saying:
"Sanford, noble son of, um, Sanford, so you would start home to your own land at once? Good luck go with you, but if you could only know how much suffering is in store for you before you get back to your own country, you would stay where you are, keep house along with me, and let me make you immortal, no matter how anxious you may be to see this wife of yours, of whom you are thinking all the time day after day; yet I flatter myself that at am no whit less tall or well-looking than she is, for it is not to be expected that a mortal woman should compare in beauty with a super-hot Argentinian TV reporter."
"Maria," replied Sanford, "do not be angry with me about this. I am quite aware that my wife Jenny is nothing like so tall or so beautiful as yourself. She is only a woman, whereas you are an immortal. You have a particular grace and calm that I adore. You have a level of sophistication that so fitting with your beauty. I could digress and say that you have the ability to give magnificent gentle kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curve of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of the night's light -- but hey, that would be going into sexual details..."
"While all the things above are all too true -- at the same time we are in a ... hopelessly impossible situation of love. How in the world this lightening strike of Zeus snuck up on us I am still not quite sure. As I have said to you before I certainly had a special feeling about you from the first time we met, but these feelings were contained and I genuinely enjoyed our special friendship and the comparing of all too many personal notes...
"Nevertheless, I want to get home, and can think of nothing else. If some intrepid reporter wrecks my political future when I am on the way to the airport, I will bear it and make the best of it. I have had infinite trouble both by land and sea already, so let this go with the rest."
Presently the sun set and it became dark, whereon the pair retired into the inner part of Maria's condominium and went to bed.
To Be Continued...
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Gleeful Miscellany, Snarkpolitik
The Codex Climaci Rescriptus
Sotheby's is auctioning a palimpsest manuscript of the New Testament (and parts of the old). It's written in 8th-c. Greek, 6th-c. Aramaic, and overwritten in a 9th-c. Syriac script.
Apparently the sixth-century scribes who wrote it were living in what was then Judea, somewhere in present-day Israel. The document was taken to the Sinai desert in Egypt and stowed away for 300 years at a monastery called St. Catherine's, at the foot of the mountain where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments.... Then in the ninth century, a new set of scribes dug through St. Catherine's looking for parchment, which was very expensive in those days. They pulled pages from eight different books--six in Aramaic and two in Greek--and did their best to erase the original writing. They then turned the pages upside down and wrote over the ancient text in jet-black ink. The newer text, in Syriac, is a copy of instructions on how to run a monastery, originally written by a sixth-century monk named John Climacus.
This happened all the time, and was one of the best advantages of writing on parchment. It was expensive - anything made from animals rather than vegetables always is -- but you could scrape the top layer off and use it again and again.
There's a whole aspect of monastic discipline and spirituality that's tied up with manuscript and parchment culture. Preparing vellum for writing was hard, physical work - and the scraping of the parchment became a kind of allegory for spiritual renewal and an ascetic's soul. You're literally mortifying flesh, scraping it clean, in order to fill it with wisdom and the words of God.
But at the same time, it was prosaic and practical:
"It was like using yesterday's newspaper to wrap up your fish and chips," says Bolton.
I love the description of the appearance of multiple scripts in the document:
The resulting palimpsest looks like a pirate's cipher for buried treasure, written in several mysterious scripts. The Aramaic writing, in a pale, faded brown, appears loose and fluid, with the odd curlicue swirling outside the margin. The black Syriac is careful, tight and slanting. It's not exactly a key to a puzzle written in code, but it sure looks like one.
H/t to Gerry.
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', Object Culture, Worldsnark
June 26, 2009
Welcome to the Chimera
I agree with Nav; this post by Emily Gould is terrific. Less for her strong rebuttal of an errant "the internet is vulgar" argument -- which is so silly it requires no rebut -- than for this description of the internet itself:
Kunkel's experience of the Internet bears no resemblance to my experience of the Internet, but then, that's the funny thing about the Internet, isn't it? No one's Internet looks the same as anyone else's, and it's that exact essential fungibility that makes definitive assessments like Kunkel's infuriating. The Internet isn't a text we can all read and interpret differently. It's not even a text, at least not in most senses of that word. The Internet is a chimera that magically manifests in whatever guise its viewer expects it to. If you are looking at the Internet and expecting it to be a source of fleeting funniness, unchallenging writing, attention-span-killing video snippets, and porn, then that is exactly all it will ever be for you.
On one level, you might just say the internet is just a technology, and broad claims about content on the internet exist at the same level as broad claims about things printed on paper. On another level, you might say the internet is a chimera that magically manifests in whatever guise its viewer expects it to, and man, I want to be on that level.
June 25, 2009
Tolkein in Tehran
In Tehran, state television's Channel Two is putting on a "Lord of the Rings" marathon, part of a bigger push to keep us busy. Movie mad and immunized from international copyright laws, Iranians are normally treated to one or two Hollywood or European movie nights a week. Now it's two or three films a day. The message is "Don't Worry, Be Happy." Let's watch, forget about what's happened, never mind. Stop dwelling in the past. Look ahead.
Frodo: "I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish that none of this had happened."
Gandalf: "So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."...
Who picked this film? I start to suspect that there is a subversive soul manning the controls at Seda va Sima, AKA the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. It is way too easy to play with the film, to draw comparisons to what is happening in real life...
On the television screen, Boromir, human of Aragon, falls. He dies an honorable death defending the lives of his compatriots.
"In edame dare." This is to be continued. The phrase has become our hesitant slogan, our phrase of reassurance. "In edame dare." People are not going to let up so easily.
God. Wait until they get to the Battle of Gondor.
June 24, 2009
A Living Wage for Living Literature
If you hang around with me long enough that we get a chance to go to a fancy restaurant together, you might get to hear this parable. It used to be possible to be a professional waiter - one who thought of service as a career. And the service you received was service from a career professional. But as wages declined, so did service. A rotating cast of college students and twentysomethings can sometimes surprise you with their talent or enthusiasm, but they can't make a career of it. You come in, you do your best, and you rotate out, and what you end up with are a lot of chain restaurants where it's good to be a college student or twenty-something, good to drink a lot and eat a lot, but comparatively few places were you can feel like a gourmand.
The New Yorker's The Book Bench tells a similar story about wage cuts among younger workers in the publishing industry. The impetus to the post are cuts at William Morris, where entry-level workers saw their pay cut from 13.50/hour to 9.50/hour.
Tiny salaries in the low ranks of publishing are miserable for the young workers, but they’re probably worse for literature (You can insert “movies” for “literature,” if that’s the prism through which you want to read this.) It’s a truism of the industry that most of these jobs are held by people who can afford them—people with some parental support and no student loans. Often they’ve had unpaid internships, that most pernicious example of class privilege. Their superiors are the same people, ten years later. They—we!—are smart, cultured people with good intentions, but it’s easy to see how this narrow range could lead to a blinkered view of literature.
So, if you’re sick of coming-of-age novels about comfortable young men, a little solidarity with the lowly assistants might help.
Although now I'm scratching my head: the privilege thing I get, but are publishing companies and talent agencies overrun by dudes? I've never gotten that vibe.
June 22, 2009
The Only Blogger With Backup
With all the time and energy you've squandered on that blog, you could have written a book. So goes the self-reproach, and indeed, the book in question turns out to be 449 pages long...
All of the posts and essays included in The Wreck of the Henry Clay are available free already on this blog, so why should you buy it? I have no idea! I have given up trying to understand the internet's economics, but maybe it'll be like buying ringtones versus stealing MP3s? Who knows. It took a surprising amount of time to turn several hundred blog posts into a several-hundred-page book, so perhaps some of you will be willing to pay me for my PDF-creating skills? As I said, no idea. Let's not call this "self-published," by the way. That has a kind of disreputable sound. It's a chapbook, all right? Why am I doing this? I saw not long ago that someone had published a book of his Twitters, and I felt I was in danger of being behindhand. I am hereby restored to the bleeding edge. Also, now, when the electromagnetic-pulse device is detonated, I will be the only blogger in America with backup. And of course I'm looking forward to kicking back while the cold, hard internet cash at last streams in.
Of course, Snarkmarket, too, has its own experiment in meatspace self-publishing on the way...
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Marketing, Media Galaxy, Object Culture
My new favorite blog is Gary Dexter's How books got their titles. Dexter gives the biographies (nomographies?) of famous books according to the following criteria:
1) the title should not be explicable simply by reading the text of the book itself; 2) each title should be the title of a book or play that has been published as such (rather than e.g. a poem or story that appears as part of a collection); 3) no quotations as titles.
Here's the story of Freud's The Ego and the Id, part of the title and concept of which was adapted from George Groddeck's The Book of the It:
In the early years of psychoanalysis, practitioners were very anxious to establish their respectability as legitimate medical men. This was still an age of sexual puritanism, in which the sexual organs and sexual functions were not generally mentioned in polite conversation, and in which sexual categories as we now know them, or think we know them -- homosexuality, bisexuality, transvestism, transsexualism -- were still at an early and controversial stage of development. In this atmosphere, George Groddeck delivered a notorious speech to the congress of psychoanalysts at The Hague in 1920, opening his address with the words: "I am a wild analyst." This was somewhat crass. Analysts were regarded by the public as "wild" already: it was exactly the image the profession wished to avoid. In his speech Groddeck went on to develop the idea that unconscious forces were the rulers of the human organism: even bodily diseases were caused by unconscious conflicts and neuroses. Groddeck moreover insisted on bringing his mistress to conferences and was the author of a risqué novel, The Seeker of Souls.
Nevertheless Freud liked Groddeck personally. He wrote to Max Eitingon that Groddeck was "a bit of a fantasist, but an original fellow who has the rare gift of good humour. I should not like to do without him." And Freud and Groddeck were in regular correspondence about their projects in 1923. Groddeck wrote to Freud, explaining his concept of the It, an idea partially derived from Nietzsche:
I am of the opinion that man is animated by the unknown. There is an It in him, something marvellous that regulates everything that he does and that happens to him. The sentence "I live" is only partially correct; it expresses a little partial phenomenon of the fundamental truth: "Man is lived by the It."
And Joyce's Ulysses:
Joyce was from an early age deeply in love with the Odyssey. "The character of Ulysses has fascinated me ever since boyhood," he wrote to Carlo Linati in 1920. As a schoolboy he read Charles Lamb's Adventures of Ulysses, an adventure-yarn version of the story which presents, in Lamb's words, "a brave man struggling with adversity; by a wise use of events, and with an inimitable presence of mind under difficulties, forcing out a way for himself." Joyce said later that the story so gripped him that when at Belvedere College (he would have been between the ages of 11 and 15) he was tasked to write an essay on "My Favourite Hero", he chose Ulysses. (The essay title "My Favourite Hero" actually appears in Ulysses, on page 638 of the World's Classics edition .) He later described Ulysses to Frank Budgeon as the only "complete all-round character presented by any writer...a complete man...a good man."
Unsurprisingly therefore, this "complete man" surfaced as early as Joyce's first major prose work -- Dubliners of 1914. Joyce had originally planned that it include a short story called "Ulysses", the plot of which was based on an incident which took place in June 1904. Joyce was involved in a scuffle on St Stephen's Green, Dublin, after accosting another man's lady-companion, and was rescued and patched up by one Albert H. Hunter. Hunter, according to Joyce's biographer, Richard Ellmann, was "rumoured to be Jewish and to have an unfaithful wife" (in both of these respects a prototype for Leopold Bloom). In 1906 Joyce wrote to his brother Stanislaus: "I have a new story for Dubliners in my head. It deals with Mr Hunter." In a letter written shortly afterwards he mentioned its title: "I thought of beginning my story Ulysses but I have too many cares at present." Three months later he had abandoned the idea, writing: "Ulysses never got any forrader than its title." The incident with Hunter was only written up later, in Ulysses itself, in a passage at the end of episode fifteen in which Bloom rescues Dedalus "in orthodox Samaritan fashion" from a fight. The idea of Ulysses as symbolic hero -- and as a title -- was therefore present as early as 1906.
Not all of the stories are so ponderous. Here's Marshall Mcluhan's The Medium is the Massage:
Massage? Shouldn't that be "message"? Well, yes, it should. When the book came back from the typesetter there was a misprint in the title. According to his son Eric, McLuhan took one look at it and exclaimed, "Leave it alone! It's great, and right on target!".
It was a typical McLuhan strategy. The phrase "the medium is the message"; – coined by McLuhan in the early 60s and denoting the way new media such as film and television had by their very nature begun to manipulate the way ideas were conceived and received - was already a cliché by the time the book came out in 1967, and McLuhan must have welcomed the chance to ring the changes on it. As Eric writes on the Marshall McLuhan website: "Now there are possible four readings for the last word of the title, all of them accurate: 'Message' and 'Mess Age,' 'Massage' and 'Mass Age.'"
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Recommended
June 19, 2009
What Is An Academic Press (2029)?
In my back-and-forth with Robin about publishers' web sites hosting blogs by their writers, I simply assumed that everybody had read these four pieces, forgetting that I hadn't blogged about them yet! Here's my background.
- Macy Halford, "Blogademia"
- Chronicle of Higher Ed, Forum on Scholarly Publishing
- Peter J. Dougherty, "A Manifesto For Scholarly Publishing"
- Benjamin Kunkel, "Lingering"
The Chronicle Forum is particularly worth reading, especially the section at the end on new trends in scholarly writing. Here's one excerpt from Alan Thomas at University of Chicago Press:
There has been a welcome trend, still continuing, for scholars to use the security of tenure to frame book projects for wider audiences within the academy, and sometimes outside it. But for first books, things haven't changed much: The habit of writing to satisfy a dissertation committee carries over into writing to satisfy later professional gatekeepers, without enough regard for the book's potential audience. The peer-review process is sometimes to blame for that (well-meaning readers' reports sometimes have the effect of re-dissertationizing a first book), and we as editors need to help authors sort the good suggestions from the bad. One trend I don't see, but would like to, is greater attention to writing skills in graduate school. When I speak to groups of grad students, I always urge them to cultivate an ability to write in several registers (through book reviews, blogs, journalism, and so on), even as they write their dissertations.
Doug Sery at MIT press also notes that "[t]here seems to be a movement afoot to change the evaluation criteria used by universities for promotion and tenure. Specifically, there is a desire among some academics to allow participation in blogs, online journals, and other new media to count toward their promotion and tenure cases," while Doug Armato at Minnesota writes, "I see the blog form moving into scholarship through more diarylike texts. There is also a more European-influenced urge to write speculative scholarly essays or meditations with minimal footnotes and apparatus."
To me, the most natural way to convince tenure committees to count participation in new media is to get university presses to sponsor it, and the most natural way for university presses to help use new media to get better books is to help shape how it's done. University presses hosting and publishing blogs is Pareto-optimal.
In fact, I think this is going in my own essay on academia in 2029.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', New Liberal Arts
June 12, 2009
Number Four With a Bullet
I'm coming for you, Jhumpa:
June 11, 2009
Kindle Store Data Point
For the record: It takes about 25 sales to make it into the top 10 best-selling "technothriller" list in the Kindle store. (Technothriller!)
Question for you: Any blogs or boards where you think I ought to be promoting this? Kindle-centric blogs... book blogs with a penchant for new forms... hubs for short fiction? Just curious. Leave a comment or email me, robin at snarkmarket.
While I'm writing: Gotta give manifold props to John August, whose Kindle short story The Variant was what convinced me to put Penumbra on the Kindle as well. He's also written up some observations of the Kindle market as a whole, and the general takeaway seems to be: The numbers are all really low. The best-selling books in the Kindle store sell around 500 copies a day. And okay, that's actually a lot. But it's not iPhone-scale at all, and of course the numbers drop off steeply from there. How many Kindles are there in the world? Less than a million, right? It's still a tiny universe.
June 10, 2009
Snarkmarket Punctuation Drama
So in the post immediately preceding this one, I used this construction:
Is that right? The original phrase is "health care," with no hyphen, but when you turn a phrase into an adjective, you always drop in hyphens, right? Likewise, in the title of my short story I used:
...because the whole three-word phrase is a single adjective. Is that right?
As long as I'm at it, one more punctuation issue that's been bothering me. In my head, the words following a colon get capitalized (or not) like so:
I stole three things: a shirt, a tie, and a surface-to-air missile.
But I had a good reason: The fashion police were after me.
The first one isn't capitalized because it's not a complete sentence. The second one is, because it is. Do I have that right? I use a lot of colons. This is important.
This io9 essay on Dollhouse reminded me of something I bet a lot of slightly-less-hardcore Joss Whedon fans didn't know: Years ago, Whedon wrote a couple of action movie screenplays that got reviewed at Screenwriter's Utopia. The review includes a summary of one of the movies (called "Afterlife") that clearly prefigured the ideas Whedon's exploring in Dollhouse. The premise changed a lot in the intervening years, but it's somewhat fascinating to look at the progression.
June 9, 2009
The Seven Types of (Twenty-Four-Hour) Book Store Customer
Let me tell you: Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store does not operate around the clock due to an overwhelming volume of book-buyers.
In fact, whole nights go by without a single customer. Just me, my laptop, and the dusty heights.
But oh. That single customer.
There is, I have learned, a community of very strange men clustered in this part of San Francisco. They visit the store late at night. They come wide awake, and completely sober. And they are always nearly vibrating with need.
(Yes, I'm going to be doing this all week.)
Mr. Penumbra's Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store
Okay! My short story, "Mr. Penumbra's Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store," is available now on all platforms in all universes!
It's a 6,000-word story about recession, attraction, and data visualization. The keywords on Amazon are: books, book stores, cryptography, dating, the economy, Google, San Francisco.
"Customers who read this item also also read: the internet."
But I have to tell you: It looks gooood on the Kindle.
Finally, you'll enjoy this bit of background: The seed for the story was a tweet! Back in November, Rachel wrote: "just misread '24hr bookdrop' as '24hr bookshop'. the disappointment is beyond words."
That's the kind of phrase you copy and paste into your idea-file, if you're smart. Then, you rediscover it months later, and what does it turn into? Go find out.
June 8, 2009
La Gaya Scienza
According to Jonathan Jarrett,the whole humanities vs. science contention is (at least in part) an artifact of the English language:
This here is the ceiling of the old lecture hall of the Austrian Academy of the Sciences, at least as it translates into English. But, what's the French or German for science? `Science', `Wissenschaft', respectively, both of which also mean just `knowledge'. All the Romance languages have some version of Latin `scientia', which likewise means just `knowledge'. And that's what the artwork here was painted to express, wisdom being handed down by teachers and on tablets to a romantic and fascinated world. All kinds of knowledge.
The idea that science means the Popperian world of reproducibility, experiment and testing, by contrast, is modern and English. It's slowly being enforced on other languages' academies, but it's not something that people in the Middle Ages, where geometry was one of the Liberal Arts, or even the nineteenth century, would have recognised. Even now, the German-speaking states almost all have their Akademie der Wissenschaften, France has the Centre National des Recherches Scientifiques and Spain the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, and these are the premier research institutions of the humanities in their respective lands. But in Britain, which I know best, the current split between the Arts & Humanities Research Board, now Council, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Council, previously the Science and Engineering Research Council and previously the Science Research Council, goes essentially back to the difference between the Royal Society, founded 1660 in some form, and the British Academy, founded 1902. I don't know what the equivalent bodies in the USA would be but it would be an interesting comparison. [Note: My guess would be the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. --TC]
Elsewhere we don't have to have this separation, and one of the most interesting things about Snow's piece is therefore its potential to explain why in fact we do. And, indeed, it's pleasant to see that some people have used Science! and graphs and maps to argue that in fact, we don't, we just think we do. As a computing-in-the-humanities sort of guy, I can get behind that.
I don't absolutely buy this, but I think there is something to it. When I translate "Wissenschaft," I sometimes use "science," but more often I find myself writing "scholarship" - which is as close to a word covering both the humanities and sciences in a traditional liberal-artsy sense.
More to the point, I think the science/humanities divide is less a difference in the way Anglo-Americans and contiental Europeans think about the humanities, than a difference in the way we think about science.
In the US, at least, nearly ALL science is seen as applied science -- that is, closer to the PRACTICE of engineering, or medicine, then it is to history or sociology or (god forbid) comparative literature. None of those things can build a bridge or whup those Communists. But if you start to talk about "research," or especially "scholarship," then you start to see commonalities. Someone doing medical research, even for a for-profit purpose, is in a different business from someone working in a clinical practice, just as a lawyer is different from a law professor.
The beef with the humanities seems to be that there are no corresponding practitioners, no practical applications -- with the possible exceptions of K-12 teachers and professional writers (journalists, novelists, historians who write for trade presses). Couple that with a rump humanism that actively valorizes the uselessness, timelessness, and universality of the arts, and you get some misunderstandings at best and real problems at worst.
The shift that's happening seems to be with the younger generation of culture workers. (Here I'm relying in part on Alan Liu's thesis in The Laws of Cool.) One reason why I think the idea of Liberal Arts 2.0 / digital humanism seems to have some traction is that the work that younger people includes more of what we would traditionally call the humanities, and is governed by an ethos that is closer to what we would call humanism. If we begin to think of our technological galaxy as a media galaxy, then we start to see some clearer points of overlap between science culture and humanities culture.
Somewhere Friedrich Kittler points out that there's only been one time before now that the entire West was governed by the same information technologies. That was during the European Middle Ages, when the university's technologies of the book, the library, the postal service, the lecture, etc. were pretty much the only games in town. If you get bifurcated discourse networks, you'll get a bifurcated culture. You can't just try to understand a cultural rift; it will only close once its precondition changes.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', New Liberal Arts, Science, Worldsnark
Sneak Preview: Mr. Penumbra's Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store
Thanks to MorBCN for the CC-licensed source image.
Coming Tuesday to Kindle and the web.
I'm pretty excited about this. I did a test download onto my Kindle and, wow! It really feels like you published something!
Bit of a surprise, though: I tried to make it free for Kindle download, but Amazon wouldn't let me. Ninety-nine cents is the minimum. And yet, there is stuff in the Kindle store priced at zero cents. If you know the secret, and share it with me before Monday afternoon, I will price my story at zero cents. Otherwise, $0.99 it is.
June 5, 2009
Time to Write a Few Prob-Eds
Julian Sanchez, "The Perils of Pop Philosophy":
The function of the ordinary pop-science/social science/philosophy piece is to give the reader a sort of thumbnail-sketch of the findings or results of a particular sphere of study, while op-eds and radio talkers make the thumbnail case for a policy position. The latter are routinely criticised for their shrill content, but the really toxic message of contemporary opinion writing and radio is the meta-message, the implicit message contained in the form, more than any particular substantive claim. In an ordinary op-ed, the formal message is that 800 or 1000 words is adequate to establish the correct position on any question of interest...
What might be more helpful, at least in some instances, is an article that spends the same amount of space setting up the problem, and getting across exactly why it’s so difficult for brilliant and highly educated people to agree on an answer—especially when many people outside the field tend to have an opinion one way or another, and believe that they’re justified in holding it with some confidence. Not just a clash between two confident but opposed views—we get plenty of that all the time, and it’s part of the problem—but an examination (assuming good faith) of what’s keeping these smart jousters from reaching consensus. Not “the case for policy A” vs “the case for policy B” but “the epistemic problems that make it hard to choose between A and B,” as though (I know, it’s crazy) the search for truth were more than a punch-up between mutually exclusive, preestablished conclusions. The message is not (to coin a phrase) “we report, you decide” but “we report on why you’re not actually competent to decide, unless you’re prepared to devote a hell of a lot more time, energy, and thought to it.”
Sanchez adds that "these would, of course, tend to be incredibly frustrating articles, and given that journalism’s already on the skids, perhaps this isn’t the time to be proposing that publications deliberately frustrate their audiences." Maybe. But referencing Sanchez's earlier essay on the problem of one-way hashes, articles that clearly map out a problem and give you the vocabulary and background you need to understand it definitely serve a purpose; sometimes readers are shopping for opinions, but equally often they're rummaging for language itself - definitions, analogies, anecdotes. Maybe this could be a way to solve our problem of the arcane economist?
Also, do you know who's really good at doing this already? Doctors. Medical advertising and some reporting often peddle newfangled and overhyped solutions, but I think doctors and medical researchers are actually very good at "state-of-the-field" reporting.
This touches on an idea I've been kicking around for a while -- doing a Radio Lab-style podcast or report on current research in the humanities and social sciences. Basically you'd read a bunch of journals, newspapers, and blogs, interview people, and put together a 45-minute program. I would LOVE for a Jad Abumrad-esque figure to take a half an hour to explain what's important about, I don't know -- disability studies, or new digital archives, or theories of affect, or Giorgio Agamben.
Yes, I know a sociologist would come up with a completely different list of things to care about. But science, medicine, and technology are getting all the love, and we've got to start SOMEwhere. So think about it -- what kind of brainy cultural movements or ideas have you encountered kicking around lately that you might want to take for a quick foundation course?
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Journalism, Learnin', Radio
June 4, 2009
Luxuriating In Print
We slapped Dave Eggers around a little bit for his "nothing has changed" speech to the Authors' Guild, but his mass email for lovers of print is way more nuanced and inspiring in a constructive, non-cheerleaderish way:
Publishing has, for most of its life, been a place of small but somewhat profit margins, and the people involved in publishing were happy to be doing what they loved. It's only recently, when large conglomerates bought so many publishing companies and newspapers, that demands for certain margins squeezed some of the joy out of the business.
Pretty soon, on the McSweeney's website— www.mcsweeneys.net— we'll be showing some of our work on this upcoming issue, which will be in newspaper form. The hope is that we can demonstrate that if you rework the newspaper model a bit, it can not only survive, but actually thrive. We're convinced that the best way to ensure the future of journalism is to create a workable model where journalists are paid well for reporting here and abroad. And that starts with paying for the physical paper. And paying for the physical paper begins with creating a physical object that doesn't retreat, but instead luxuriates in the beauties of print. We believe that if you use the hell out of the medium, if you give investigative journalism space, if you give photojournalists space, if you give graphic artists and cartoonists space — if you really truly give readers an experience that can't be duplicated on the web — then they will spend $1 for a copy. And that $1 per copy, plus the revenue from some (but not all that many) ads, will keep the enterprise afloat.
As long as newspapers offer less each day— less news, less great writing, less graphic innovation, fewer photos— then they're giving readers few reasons to pay for the paper itself. With our prototype, we aim to make the physical object so beautiful and luxurious that it will seem a bargain at $1. The web obviously presents all kinds of advantages for breaking news, but the printed newspaper does and will always have a slew of advantages, too. It's our admittedly unorthodox opinion that the two can coexist, and in fact should coexist. But they need to do different things. To survive, the newspaper, and the physical book, needs to set itself apart from the web. Physical forms of the written word need to offer a clear and different experience. And if they do, we believe, they will survive. Again, this is a time to roar back and assert and celebrate the beauty of the printed page. Give people something to fight for, and they will fight for it. Give something to pay for, and they'll pay for it.
Eggers is basically now saying not that nothing has changed, but that EVERYTHING has to change. But it needs to change not because we've just progressed forward from print to digital, but that by first betting on the infinitely expanding profit potential of mass publishing and then paring the experience back to try to meet that bet, we've made a huge mistake.
So, in some sense, we need to go back to basics; but in another, we need to rethink our direction forward based on what's best for the people and the product, not the margins. We were pushing so hard for so long in one direction that we capsized the boat.
It's still a conservative vision, but it's a David Simon/Michael Moore kind of conservative -- i.e., a nostalgic but critical liberalism, in the tradition of John Ruskin. And that's a good mood to strike, if not for everybody -- not least because it's not at all intended to be a model for everybody.
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Design, Journalism, Media Galaxy, Object Culture, Snarkonomics
May 30, 2009
Finally, You Too Can Be Marcus Aurelius
I am a sucker for long histories, especially when they're summarized with simple schema. Phillip Greenspun wrote this for a talk on how the internet has changed writing, under the subhead "Publishing from Gutenberg (1455) through 1990":
The pre-1990 commercial publishing world supported two lengths of manuscript:
Suppose that an idea merited 20 pages, no more and no less? A handful of long-copy magazines, such as the old New Yorker would print 20-page essays, but an author who wished his or her work to be distributed would generally be forced to cut it down to a meaningless 5-page magazine piece or add 180 pages of filler until it reached the minimum size to fit into the book distribution system.
- the five-page magazine article, serving as filler among the ads
- the book, with a minimum of 200 pages
In the same essaylet, Greenspun has a subhead, "Marcus Aurelius: The first blogger?":
Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 160 AD to 180 AD, kept a journal during a military campaign in central Europe (171-175). It was not available until after his death and not widely available until printed in 1558 as the Meditations...
This was preserved because the author had been Emperor. How much ancient wisdom was lost because the common Roman citizen lacked TCP/IP? [By 1700 BC, the Minoans were trading with Spain, had big cities with flush toilets, a written language, and moderately sophisticated metalworking technology. Had it not been for the eruption of Thera (on Santorini), it is quite possible that Romans would have watched the assassination of Julius Caesar on television.]
It's not all since-the-dawn-of-civilization stuff -- there are lots of examples of writing that really only works on the internet and more pedestrian things like the virtues of blogs over Geocities. "Webloggers generally use a standard style and don't play with colors and formatting the way that GeoCities authors used to." This shows how in the weblog, content becomes more important than form. (Psst-- It also suggests that if Minoan civilization had survived and spread, Augustine's Confessions might have been excerpted on a lot of home pages with lots of crappy animated GIFs.)
Via Daring Fireball.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', Object Culture, Technosnark
May 26, 2009
The Right Combination
You are awesome.
Faking It In Translation
Suzanne Menghraj loved Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read so much that she read it twice. She wanted to read Bayard's 2000 book Comment améliorer les oeuvres ratées (How to Improve Failed Works). But it hadn't been translated, and she couldn't speak or read French. So she decided to bang it out herself anyways:
I came very close to failing French several times over the eight years I studied the language. This does not make me proud. But it does make me want to explore my persistent lack of facility with a language whose structure and habits I understand only well enough to catch a word here, a sense or mood there (let’s say I “skim” French). And so, a good French-English dictionary in hand, I read “Hélas!” (literally, “Alas!”), the introduction to Comment améliorer les oeuvres ratées and was as taken with the iconoclastic ambitions expressed in it as I am with those expressed in How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read—so taken that I decided to give translation of “Hélas!” a shot.
My own speaking French is terrible, and my reading French is so slow that I've read more than a few books with the original in one hand and a translation in the other, jotting notes with a pen between my teeth when I can't be bothered to put either book down. (I'm telling you - this is the only way to read Proust.)
And my German's probably about the same as Menghrai's French. I was astonished when I switched from philosophy to comparative literature, because suddenly everyone around me was fluent as hell - they were born in Austria, they spent every summer in Paris, they didn't just like to dick around with Kant or Baudelaire.
But I still think that my ambient awareness of, my ability to skim four or five different languages, has really helped me do a lot of things I otherwise wouldn't be able to do. I say, let's have more people half-assing it in languages not their own.
Language is like cooking, or sex: if you get all hung up on being really, really good, not only won't it be fun, you're probably never going to get around to doing it at all.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Worldsnark
Sonority in Translation
Marvelous profile of Svetlana Gaier, translator of Dostoyevsky into German:
Svetlana Ivanov was 18 years old when the Germans marched into Kiev (she acquired the name Geier later from her husband, a violinist). Although these events were the prelude to great suffering for countless subjects of the Soviet Union, it was a time of great promise for the young woman. Like others willing to work for the Germans for a one-year period, she was eligible to receive a scholarship to go to Germany. Having received private lessons in French and German from childhood, she was able to work as an interpreter for a Dortmund construction firm that was erecting a bridge across the Dnieper River.
Svetlana and her mother – who came from a family of tsarist officers - were victims of Stalinism. Svetlana Geier still recalls watching as a small child while her grandmother cut up family photos into tiny pieces with manicuring scissors: under the Communist regime, their possession could have been dangerous. Her father, a plant breeding expert, was interned during the purges of 1938. He remained in prison for 18 months, was interrogated and abused, but nonetheless eventually released. The following year, he died from the after-effects of imprisonment. Still ostracized even after his release, he spent his final months in a dacha outside of town, cared for by his daughter.
In the eyes of the young interpreter’s countrymen, her work for the Germans had discredited her: "As far as they were concerned, I was a collaborator." After Stalingrad, she could easily imagine what awaited her under Soviet rule. She took advantage of an offer to enter the German Reich with her mother, somewhat starry-eyed, and still hoping to receive a scholarship. That she, a "worker from the east" (her automatic classification in Nazi Germany) actually received it - one of two Humboldt scholarships reserved for "talented foreigners" - borders on the miraculous. Playing benevolent roles in her lengthy and stirring account of these events are a generous entrepreneur, an alert secretary, and a pair of good-natured assistants at the Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories...
Now, a year before the end of World War II, Svetlana Ivanov began her literary studies. She recalls the very first lecture she heard, Walter Rehm's "The Essence of the Tragic," which she attended in the company of her fellow students, all of them men with war injuries. She still has her notes.
I'm reminded, more than a little ironically, of the line the rabbi speaks at the beginning of Tony Kushner's Angels in America: "You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist. But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. You understand me? In you that journey is."
I really like this description of her translation method:
Svetlana Geier’s method, if one can call it that, is an acoustic one. She immerses herself in the text until she has absorbed it completely, is able to hear its unique tenor, or as she says, "its melody." Then she induces it to resound in German, and this again takes place acoustically, for Geier dictates her translations. They ring out aloud before ever becoming fixed on paper. Her Dostoevsky translations have received extraordinarily praise for this "sonorous" character in particular. Finally, it is said, the divergent voices of Dostoevsky’s protagonists have become distinguishable.
Geier's last translation, of a book by Dostoevsky that I haven't read, Podrostok - Geier's title, Ein grüner Junge, brings the German closer to Constance Garnett's A Raw Youth -- also sounds fascinating. But, I've already excerpted this short article to death, so you should click on it if you, you know, actually want to know something about her/FD's book.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Recommended, Worldsnark
May 25, 2009
The Editor as Wizard
Joanne McNeil over at Tomorrow Museum has a terrific post about self-publishing that deals with the idea more deeply than most things I've read. There's lots to dig into, but this part resonated with me:
[...] I was talking about some of this the other night with Diana Kimball, who recently wrote a paper on the subject. [...] She made the often lost point about a major publisher's role as validation for the author, as well as the reader. The author needs to know someone with expertise and good judgment found his or her material worthwhile. Otherwise, why risk the embarrassment of bringing unsatisfactory material to a wider audience?
(Here's Diana's paper. And yes, a post that cross-references Diana Kimball and Tomorrow Museum starts to feel like a cunningly-designed trap for Snarkmarket. I'm afraid my laptop is about to shoot me with a poison dart.)
"The author needs to know someone with expertise and good judgment found his or her material worthwhile." This is a deep point. Part of what makes blogging so "do-able" is the low stakes. First, the stuff you're pointing to is already published; you're operating entirely under a pre-existing umbrella of validation. Second, the work you're doing is pretty easy, anyway. If people don't respond immediately... no big deal.
There are other kinds of work that feel much more high-stakes. A short story, a novel. An EP. A long piece of research and analysis. Or, I guess, even a certain kind of incredibly labor-intensive blog. And it does seem to me that, in these cases, the editor's touch is transformative.
That doesn't have to exist in the context of publishing as we know it today. What you're really looking for is a smart mind, "with expertise and good judgment," who you trust to evaluate your work honestly, saying: Yes. There is a place for this in the world.
That doesn't have to mean print; it doesn't have to mean payment. It simply means solving this riddle, posed by Diana:
The problem with self-published books, for authors and for potential readers, is that the physical book no longer signifies that anyone has read it. In fact, the physical fact of a self-published book is far more likely to signify that astonishingly few people have read it.
I think there's a generalizable version of that problem, even for non-books, and even for work that stays digital forever. And the solution? I imagine a tiny editor standing on top of the work, shouting: "Hell yes someone has read this! I did! And you think I publish just anything? I've got standards, people. Come check this out."
I guess it's a kind of risk-shifting: You, as the writer, musician, researcher, whatever, no longer bear it all yourself. In fact, you suddenly bear very little. And, I mean, wow, thank goodness. Making things is hard enough as it is. Let me, as editor, take the chance here; if people think your work sucks (or worse, if they don't think about it at all) I'm the one who made a mistake. You just keep working.
I'm overstating it a little for effect. But to me, it feels like alchemy, or sorcery. It changes the terms entirely.
A lot of bloggers think of what they do as "editing the web," and I wonder if more shouldn't take it a step further. They (we?) could spend curatorial capital to bring new work into the world. Hey blogger: Why don't you expand that post about Proust and Professor X into a whole little essay? We'd love to work with you on it and cross-post it on Snarkmarket when it's finished.
In other words: Yes. There is a place for this in the world.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Media Galaxy, Society/Culture
May 23, 2009
Virginia Woolf on the Future of the Book
From a BBC radio debate with her husband (and publisher) Leonard, titled "Are Too Many Books Written and Published?":
Books ought to be so cheap that we can throw them away if we do not like them, or give them away if we do. Moreover, it is absurd to print every book as if it were fated to last a hundred years. The life of the average book is perhaps three months. Why not face this fact? Why not print the first edition on some perishable material which would crumble to a little heap of perfectly clean dust in about six months time? If a second edition were needed, this could be printed on good paper and well bound. Thus by far the greater number of books would die a natural death in three months or so. No space would be wasted and no dirt would be collected.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Object Culture, Radio
May 18, 2009
A Messe Of Pottage
So there's this huge political money scandal in the UK. The Telegraph's Simon Heffer says, let's get Puritanical -- as in the real Puritans:
Image via Wikipedia
What is now needed is the Cromwellian touch, for I do not believe Parliament's standing has been lower since Oliver dismissed the Rump in April 1653. Mr Cameron should sack from his front bench all those exposed in unacceptable use of taxpayers' money. Central Office should ask chairmen of constituency parties whose MPs have behaved disgracefully to consider whether the chances of the seat being held at the next election would be helped by the selection of a new, financially untainted candidate. To take this swift action now would secure Mr Cameron's moral advantage; it would greatly damage the Prime Minister and the Labour Party; it would put pressure on Mr Brown to do precisely the same.
Heffer even busts out one of my favorite Cromwell stories:
However, we all know what Mr Brown should do, and again Cromwell provides us with our lead. Remember the words he uttered to the Rump, in his anger at its failure to consolidate the new England after the second civil war: "It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonoured by your contempt for all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage... Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your god; which of you have not bartered your conscience for bribes?... Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; ye were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress'd, and are yourselves gone... In the name of God, go!"
The trouble is, this is EVERYBODY's favorite Cromwell speech, and he probably never said most of it. Mercurius Politicus has got the goods:
The earliest record I can find of it is in Thomas Mortimer’s The British Plutarch (1816), which gives this source for it:
The following piece said to have been found lately among some papers which formerly belonged to Oliver Cromwell is supposed to be a copy of the very words addressed by him to the members of the Long Parliament when he turned them out of the House. It was communicated to the Annual Register for 1767 by a person who signed his name T Ireton and said the paper was marked with the following words Spoken by Oliver Cromwell when he put an end to the Long Parliament.
I've had a look through the Annual Register on ECCO but can’t trace the original source. It's true that various letters and other Cromwelliana were turning up during the eighteenth century and onwards into the nineteenth, but a few things make the speech seem too good to be true. The fact that it purports to be a direct transcript, when it's unlikely anyone would have been recording it verbatim, is one. The reference to T Ireton is another -- perhaps an attempt to suggest authenticity by implying a descendant of Henry Ireton had got hold of the speech, but of course Ireton had died in 1651. So without wanting to be a spoilsport, the version of the speech being quoted in the press may not be what it purports to be.
I would look myself to confirm or refute MP's findings, but an injection my dissertation advisor gave me when I kept on doing research on "blood and treasure" instead of writing about Ezra Pound means that when I look at EEBO or ECCO for more than fifteen minutes at a stretch, my eyes begin to bleed.
For the record though, my all-time favorite Cromwell story involves another speech he purportedly gave, this time about torturing (probably) the Levellers (which Leveller John Lilburne somehow managed to overhear AND get to the printer while he was still in prison):
Lt. General Cromwell (I am sure of it) very loud, thumping his fist upon the Council table, til it rang again, and heard him speak in these very words or to this effect; I tell you, Sir, you have no other way to deal with these men, but to break them in pieces; and thumping upon the Council table again, he said, Sir, let me tell you that which is true, if you do not break them, they will break you; yea and bring all the guilt of the blood and treasure shed and spent in this kingdom upon your head and shoulders; and frustrate and make void all that work, that with so many years' industry, toil and pains you have done, and so render you to all rational men in the world as the most contemptiblest generation of silly, low-spirited men in the earth, to be broken and routed by such a despicable, contemptible generation of men as they are; and therefore, Sir, I tell you again, you are necessitated to break them.
Cromwell certainly did have a way of speaking his mind.
(Via Mercurius Politicus.)
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Learnin', Snarkpolitik, Worldsnark
Now That's What I Call "Inventio"
[Obama's] eloquence is different from what I think of as rhetorical prettiness -- words and phrases that catch your notice as you hear them, and that often can be quoted, remembered, and referred to long afterwards. "Ask not..." from John F. Kennedy. "Blood, toil, tears, and sweat" from Winston Churchill. "Only thing we have to fear is fear itself" from FDR. "I have a dream," from Martin Luther King. Or, to show that memorable language does not necessarily mean elevated thought, "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" from the early George C. Wallace.
At rare moments in history, language that goes beyond prettiness to beauty is matched with original, serious, difficult thought to produce the political oratory equivalent of Shakespeare. By acclamation Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address is the paramount American achievement of this sort: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right..."
The reason to distinguish eloquence of thought from prettiness of expression is that the former tells you something important about the speaker, while the latter may or may not do so. Hired assistants can add a fancy phrase, much as gag writers can supply a joke. Not even his greatest admirers considered George W. Bush naturally expressive, but in his most impressive moment, soon after the 9/11 attacks, he delivered a speech full of artful writerly phrases, eg: "Whether we bring our enemies to justice or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done." Good for him, and good for his staff.
Rhetorical polish, that is, can be a staff-enhanced virtue. The eloquence that comes from original thought is much harder to hire, or to fake. This is the sort of eloquence we've seen from Obama often enough to begin to expect.
(Sorry for the long quote, but I wanted to include all of Fallows's examples.)
Inventio is the system or method used for the discovery of arguments in Western rhetoric and comes from the Latin word, meaning "invention" or "discovery". Inventio is the central, indispensable canon of rhetoric, and traditionally means a systematic search for arguments (Glenn and Goldthwaite 151).
Inventio comes from the Latin invenire, meaning "to find" or "to come upon". The same Latin root later gave us the English word inventor. Invenire is derived from the Greek heuriskein, also meaning "to find out" or "discover" (cf. eureka, "I have found it").
May 10, 2009
Kindle Up Your Textbooks, Children
The Chronicle of Higher Education on the Kindle DX and the market for electronic textbooks:
Most college students—more than 80 percent, according to a survey by Educause—already own portable machines that can display electronic textbooks: They're called laptops. And more than half of all major textbooks are already offered in electronic form for download to those laptops.
Yet so far sales of electronic textbooks are tiny, despite efforts by college bookstores to make the option to buy digital versions clearer by advertising e-books next to printed ones on their shelves. "It's a very small percentage of our sales at this point," said Bill Dampier, general manager of MBS Direct, a major textbook reseller.
What the textbook industry needs is the equivalent of an iTunes store for e-books, say some experts, who note that sales of digital music never took off until Apple created the iPod and an easy-to-use online music marketplace. That's why Amazon seems like a promising entrant.
Except for one thing: Publishers have already set up a digital store meant to serve as the iTunes of e-textbooks, and it has been slow to catch on. The online store, called CourseSmart, was started two years ago by the five largest textbook publishers. Now 12 publishers contribute content to the service, which offers more than 6,300 titles. The e-books are all designed to be read on laptops or desktops, rather than Kindles or other dedicated e-book reading devices.
One problem for CourseSmart has been a lack of awareness by both students and professors that the service even exists.
Yep -- sounds about right. You think we'd be easy to target, but we're actually not. In fact, probably the ONLY two media/publishing companies with significant overlapping penetration among both students and professors would be Amazon and Apple.
Also of note: the only reason why publishers are really interested in electronic books is that they can use DRM to crush sales of used books beneath their foot forever. (I remember the first book I ever used that required you to register a CD w/ a unique ID number in order to use it; SBS sold it to me at about 75% of cover used and then refused to take it back. I had to buy the new copy again.)
Also also of note: one of the lines Bezos used again and again in his Kindle presentation (from the transcripts I've seen -- anybody know where I could find video) with respect to textbooks is "structured content." I actually think this is a hugely important idea. A book gives a text physical form, sure, but that physicality works together with paratextual devices to structure its content. Page numbers, title pages, tables of content, indices, volume and chapter devisions, footnotes/endnotes, captions, commentary, usw.
This is why Project Gutenberg or any other kind of throw-it-up-there text file service will always suck. It's also why a lot of digital archives don't work. We need ways to give content structure, and to make that structure easily and productively navigable to users. Ebooks have suffered from a lack of legitimate and visible marketplaces, but to borrow a metaphor, they've also suffered from really crappy gameplay. Whoever figures out how to solve these problems will solve long-form electronic reading.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Design, Learnin', Marketing, Object Culture, Technosnark, Video Games
May 5, 2009
Luxurious Artisanal Bibliophile Dada
Sweet Gods of Heaven and Earth! It's the best bookporn post ever!
That's Xu Bing's Tian Shu (Book From Heaven). Rachel Leow writes:
To make [the four hundred books and fifty-foot scrolls], Xu painstakingly carved Chinese characters into square woodblocks, in just the way his ancient printing predecessors would have done, had them typeset and printed, and the printed pages mounted and bound into books and scrolls.
The result is a truly spectacular display of bookmanship — volumes fit for an emperor’s library. Yet, there’s the astonishing, Borgesian catch: Out of the three or four thousand Chinese characters used in these volumes and scrolls, not a single one of them is a real Chinese character.
They are made up of recognizable radicals and typical atomic components of Chinese characters, but Xu laboured to ensure that while they all retain the unmistakable look of Chinese script, they are all, so to speak, nonsense. They do not exist in any dictionary, and do not mean anything. Chinese speakers and non-Chinese speakers alike approach the books with the same sense of wonder at their beauty, and the same sense of incomprehension at their content — though, for Chinese readers, the frustrated impulse to read might detract somewhat from their aesthetic enjoyment of the art piece. I’ve heard that some Chinese readers have spent days attempting to locate a character they can read — to no avail. It’s a piece of art whose meaning is to be found in its meaninglessness.
I want to GO to there.
Instead, you should go to a historian's craft to check out more images of Xu Bing's two books (there is also a Book of Earth) and read every gorgeous word Rachel's written about them. These are the internet equivalent of being touched by "beautiful calligraphy, by brushstroked words on fine paper, by sensuous lines of scripts that dance provocatively on the page, inviting comprehension." You wish you wrote this well this early in the morning. (It's still early in Malaysia, right?)
It's a completely different tradition, but I'm reminded of Augustine's theory of signs. For Augustine, a sign (whether a word or a symbol) is a tool, an instrument. Signification shows that things aren't used for their own sake, but in reference to something else. This chain of signification and interpretation goes all the way up to God, who is the only thing completely sufficient in Himself, that CAN'T be made to signify anything else. Since everything else is deficient, anything that isn't God, whether a word, a gesture, a picture, a dream, stars, a person, an animal, a tree, usw., can be turned into a sign. In fact, it HAS to be taken as a sign, at least in this broad sense of an instrument pointing to another purpose; otherwise, you're performing a kind of idolatry, taking a deficient thing to be self-sufficient and giving to it what you should reserve for God alone. At this point, Augustine's semiotics dovetails with his ethics; we shouldn't delight too much in food for its own sake, sex for its own sake -- in short, in pleasure, except insofar as it helps us to serve a godly and natural purpose.
So there is a universal potential for signfication. Any worldly thing can be a sign. But to refuse signification, to delight in the pleasure of the letter itself, is an act of rebellion.
Rachel's language may be more instrumental than Xu Bing's, but it's no less of a pleasure to read.
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Language, Object Culture, Worldsnark
May 1, 2009
Unique Viewers / Unique Readers
According to the webmaster, some hundreds of thousands of people (or "unique visitors," in the creepily Rumsfeldean turn) have read my posts over the year. Yes, in the web-world, where a nipple slip can net you a million sets of eyes in a breathless blink and click, these are Lilliputian numbers. In my world, however, those are towering digits, enormous for what they might say about the reading life: that there is still, in our noisy culture, a quiet but forcible interest in finding good books to read, and in debating what makes books good.
We "unique readers" know this, in our solitary hours. But it is pleasing, at times, to have company in that knowledge, to know that one isn't alone in one's enthusiasms. For my part, I have taken great pleasure in the enthusiasm of readers for this space, and am grateful for the time you've spent here. For now, know that I'm turning my attention to other tasks, with the expectation, at some point future, of returning to one not unlike this.
I can't quite put my finger on what I like about this farewell address (other than that I really like Mason's blog) -- all of the sentiments and tropes are expected, but their subtle, daisy-chained resonances are so gracefully done that it feels both fresh and sincere.
April 30, 2009
You Want Bookporn? Oh, Man. We Got Some Bookporn.
VERY mature books (is 8000 BC old enough?) with an astonishingly sexy zoom feature -- similar to Google Maps, but smoother and more natural, especially with a two-finger trackpad. It's all yours, for free, at the World Digital Library.
April 25, 2009
Snarkmarket Reading Survey
Something Walter Benjamin said has interested me for a while now:
If centuries ago [writing] began gradually to lie down, passing from the upright inscription to the manuscript resting on sloping desks before finally taking itself to bed in the printed book, it now begins just as slowly to rise again from the ground. The newspaper is read more in the vertical than in the horizontal plane, while film and advertisements force the printed word entirely into the dictatorial perpendicular.
--- One Way Street (1928)
If Benjamin's right, then this is a reading revolution that's still underway -- expanding from film, advertisements, and newspapers to television, computer, and telephone screens. Even though we're using all these different devices, they just might be participating in this dyad of vertical vs. historical reading.
I've become something of an amateur anthropologist of how people read -- watching people read books or papers or from their phones or laptops in public places -- but I'm curious: how do you read?
* What kind of device(s)? * Where is your body? * Where is your reading material? * How do you prefer to read? * How do you read most often? * Where/how is it hardest for you to read? * What are your reading surfaces -- desks, tables, a bed, your own body? * Do you use any prosthetic aids -- glasses, something to raise your laptop upwards? * How did you read as a child? Ten years ago? What's changed?
Send pictures or movies even! Images of reading!
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Collaborations, Object Culture
April 24, 2009
La Jolie Rousse
Guillaume Apollinaire, "La Jolie Rousse [The Pretty Redhead]":
Here I am before you all a sensible man
Who knows life and what a living man can know of death
Having experienced love's sorrows and joys
Having sometimes known how to impose my ideas
Adept at several languages
Having traveled quite a bit
Having seen war in the Artillery and the Infantry
Wounded in the head trepanned under chloroform
Having lost my best friends in the frightful conflict
I know of old and new as much as one man can know of the two
And without worrying today about that war
Between us and for us my friends
I am here to judge the long debate between tradition and invention
Between Order and Adventure
You whose mouth is made in the image of God's
Mouth that is order itself
Be indulgent when you compare us
To those who were the perfection of order
We who look for adventure everywhere
We're not your enemies
We want to give you vast and strange domains
Where mystery in flower spreads out for those who would pluck it
There you may find new fires colors you have never seen before
A thousand imponderable phantasms
Still awaiting reality
We want to explore kindness enormous country where all is still
There is also time which can be banished or recalled
Pity us who fight always at the boundaries
Of infinity and the future
Pity our errors pity our sins
Henri Rousseau, "La Muse inspirant le počte," 1909. (A portrait of Apollinaire and Marie Laurencin). Image via Wikipedia
Now it's summer the violent season
And my youth is dead like the springtime
Oh Sun it's the time of ardent Reason
And I am waiting
So I may follow always the noble and gentle shape
That she assumes so I will love her only
She draws near and lures me as a magnet does iron
She has the charming appearance
Of a darling redhead
Her hair is golden you'd say
A lovely flash of lightning that lingers on
Or the flame that glows
In fading tea roses
But laugh at me
Men from everywhere especially men from here
For there are so many things I dare not tell you
So many things you would never let me say
Have pity on me
-- From Calligrammes, 1918
... Read more ....
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Recommended
April 23, 2009
Marcel Duchamp, 1926:
I even like the John Fahey-esque score, added by whomever.
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Movies
The Loss Of Routine Beauty
Not that long ago, all books were handmade; now, most of the work is performed by armies of cleverly machined presses and binderies. Lost, in that consumptive progression, is not the beautiful book -- for many special books made by machine do manage to be beautiful objects that function well. Lost is the ordinary book being routinely beautiful.
April 21, 2009
Ink: Flock/Songbird For Writing
I gave a presentation to my students today on writing and research tools, doing what I always do -- apologizing for the limitation of every single thing that I showed them. Zotero is pretty good at building a research database -- but you can't use it to write. MS Word 2008 is a champ for layout and even does a good job at formatting bibliographies -- but it sucks for organizing research or pulling data from an application. Scrivener is a good place to organize research or notes and build drafts -- but it turns PDFs into pictures and doesn't really handle citations. Yep and Papers are great PDF organizers, but not much else. (I didn't even want to get into DevonThink.) But Papers builds in a WebKit browser, so you can do research and navigate into online databases and plug anything you find right into your library.
This feels like the big conceptual leap. We're finding our information on the web. We're writing our documents on the web. We're storing our data on the web. We're using the web to collaborate on docs. But while online storage and collaboration are winners, AJAX writing apps kind of suck. They're low-powered exactly where we need the full power of a rich client. We don't just need more formatting and layout options; we need to be able to manage databases, for research and reading material, and lots of interconnected projects that bridge online and offline work.
What I want is just what my title says: a specialized browser-based client devoted to writing.... Read more ....
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Collaborations, Learnin', Technosnark
April 16, 2009
Jigsaw-Fragment Models Of Tomorrow
Ozymandias on the history of tabbed browsing:
Multi-screen viewing is seemingly anticipated by Burroughs' cut-up technique. He suggested re-arranging words and images to evade rational analysis, allowing subliminal hints of the future to leak through... An impending world of exotica, glimpsed only peripherally.
Perceptually, the simultaneous input engages me like the kinetic equivalent of an abstract or impressionist painting... Phosphor-dot swirls juxtapose: meanings coalesce from semiotic chaos before reverting to incoherence. Transient and elusive, these must be grasped quickly.
This jigsaw-fragment model of tomorrow aligns itself piece by piece, specific areas necessarily obscured by indeterminacy. However, broad assumptions regarding this postulated future may be drawn. We can imagine its ambience. We can hypothesize its psychology.In conjunction with massive forecasted technological acceleration approaching the millennium, this oblique and shifting cathode mosaic uncovers the blueprint for an era of new sensations and possibilities. An era of the conceivable made concrete...
... And of the casually miraculous.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Media Galaxy, Technosnark
Library Culture / Information Culture
|LIBRARY CULTURE||INFORMATION-RETRIEVAL CULTURE|
a. quality of editions
b. perspicuous description to enable judgment
c. authenticity of the text
|Access to everything
a. inclusiveness of editions
b. operational training to enable coping
c. availability of texts
a. disciplinary standards
b. stable, organized, defined by specific interests.
a. user friendliness
b. hypertext--following all lines of curiosity
a. preservation of a fixed text
a. intertextual evolution
b. surfing the web
It is clear from these opposed lists that more has changed than the move from control of objects to flexibility of storage and access. What is being stored and accessed is no longer a fixed body of objects with fixed identities and contents. Moreover, the user seeking the information is not a subject who desires a more complete and reliable model of the world, but a protean being ready to be opened up to ever new horizons. In short, the postmodern human being is not interested in collecting but is constituted by connecting.
The chart is from an apparently unpublished lecture by computer scientist extraordinaire Terry Winograd; the commentary is by Heidegger scholar extraordinaire Hubert Dreyfus.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Object Culture, Technosnark
April 15, 2009
Conservation Of Outrage
When trying to explain one’s past actions, hindsight is always 20/400. With that caveat, I will say that the emotional pleasure of using the #amazonfail hashtag was intoxicating. There is no civil rights struggle in the US that matters more to me than the extension of equal rights without regard for sexual orientation. Here was a chance to strike a public blow for that cause, and I didn’t even have to write a check or get up from my chair to do it! I went so far as to publicly suggest a link between the Amazon de-listing and the anti-gay backlash following the legalization of gay marriage in Iowa and Vermont. My friend Nelson Minar called bullshit on my completely worthless speculation, which was the beginning of my realizing how much I’d been seduced by righteousness, and how stupid it had made me.
Eat The Document
Always good to reread Brown and Duguid's "The Social Life of Documents":
In this way, document forms both old (like the newspaper) and relatively new (like the television program) have underwritten a sense of community among a disparate and dispersed group of people. As newspapers recede before broadcast and on-line communication, and as the multiplication of television channels disrupts schedulers' control over what is seen when, the strong feeling of coordinated performance provided by these documents is changing. One possible result may be that the loss of simultaneous practice will reinforce the need and desire for common objects -- the wish at least to see the same thing, if not at the same time. Here the Internet is a particularly powerful medium for providing access to the same thing for people more widely dispersed than ever before. Moreover, the reach of the Internet is increasing a sense of simultaneity as ideas emerging on one side of the world can almost instantaneously be picked up through the Internet and absorbed into the local context by communities on the other.
This essay makes for a nice introduction to a handful of the brainsexy literary/social theorists and historians I like to read: Bruno Latour, Roger Chartier, Michel de Certeau. (Hmm. All French. I guess Benedict Anderson and Joanne Yates are in there, too.)
It also has one of my favorite-ever qualifiers: "Art and eternity are beyond the scope of this essay."
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Media Galaxy, Object Culture
Anti-Strunkites, Pt. 2
Pullum says that "many" of Strunk and White's recommendations are "useless," citing "Omit needless words" as an example. On its own, this advice is no more helpful than telling a musician to avoid playing wrong notes. But "Omit needless words" doesn't appear on its own; it's accompanied by sixteen examples of how to improve cumbersome phrasing (e.g., "the fact that") and a demonstration of how six choppy sentences can be revised into one...
Pullum's summing up — "Following the platitudinous style recommendations of Elements would make your writing better if you knew how to follow them" — seems to forget that The Elements of Style is, after all, a book, with examples and explanations to help the reader to put its recommendations into practice.
He also points out, as I did, that Pullum too often switches his targets.
Key takeaways for me from the Pullum: S/W too often creates sentences that NO ONE trained in comp would write as illustrations of types of writing to avoid, rather than tougher cases; the evidence of S/W "don'ts" in the writings of master contemporary stylists of English literature strongly suggests that these usages are in fact perfectly grammatical/appropriate.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Learnin'
April 14, 2009
Two weeks ago I praised Harper's Scott Horton, who in addition to tiptop legal/political commentary regularly serves up poignant and relevant chunks of older texts, and lamented that more bloggers don't mine the past as well or as often as they do the just-this-minute.
I don’t have to impress upon you the need to embrace the new... You have to continue to challenge yourself as a reader - a serious reader. And as one who learns - a serious student. That you have not calcified. That you do not know what you think you know, least of all who or what or where or especially WHEN is important... Get a library card and wander somewhere dusty. Find something real. And then blog about it — bring it into this world. Scan that creaky wisdom, make it sing. We need many things now, but wisdom most of all.
There are actually a whole microclass of bloggers and online commentators who do what Horton does. And I think I've come up with a good name for what they do: paleoblogging.
Like paleontologists, paleobiologists, and paleoarcheologists, Paleobloggers dig up blogworthy material from the past to see what makes it tick. But instead of our prehistorical past, paleoblogging focuses on our analog past, blending in somewhere in the mid-1960s. See after the jump for my abbreviated field guide to paleoblogging.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', Media Galaxy, New Liberal Arts
April 13, 2009
An Archaeologist of Morning
From Polis Is This, a documentary about the great poet, critic, and Black Mountain college rector Charles Olson:
I've said before and I will say again, I feel a spontaneous affinity for Olson like for no other American historical figure I've ever seen, heard, met, or read about.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Movies, New Liberal Arts
Bad Judgment in "Women's Literature"
Image via Wikipedia
Elaine Showalter just doesn't know what she's talking about:
Q. You say a literary history has to make judgments. Give us an example of whom you see as overrated, whom underrated?
Overrated: Gertrude Stein. She played an important role in the development of modernism, but she played it for men. And she is just not readable. She became viewed as a "sister": That doesn't sanctify her work. We can criticize it.
I look with a critical eye at contemporary poetry, too. There are a great many talented woman poets today, but I don't think any of them measure up to a Sylvia Plath or Adrienne Rich. I don't feel any male poets do either.
You know, if you're willing to write off contemporary poetry by women, then yes, it's a lot easier to say that Stein's development of modernist literature was only for men. And I think it's ridiculous for a professional literary critic, even an old, cantankerous one, to write off a major writer for not being "readable" and dismiss serious scholarship about her writing as motivated by "sisterhood." Because what it does it allows you to take Stein down a peg without having to similarly discount Joyce, Beckett, Faulkner, Celan, or any of the "unreadable" men who took on the writing of language as powerfully as she did.
Gertrude Stein stands at the front of every major American literary movement of the 20th century (and plenty of the European ones too). And it's not just the crazy experimental ones -- the minimalist-realist school of Hemingway and Carver, the creative-critical modes of a lot of our best thinkers. If you want to be a serious reader of literature, you have got to grapple with Stein -- at the very least with Tender Buttons and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which is as good and as readable a novel about literature as you're ever going to find.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin'
April 11, 2009
Loss Of Service
Matt Richtel whines:
Technology is rendering obsolete some classic narrative plot devices: missed connections, miscommunications, the inability to reach someone. Such gimmicks don’t pass the smell test when even the most remote destinations have wireless coverage. (It’s Odysseus, can someone look up the way to Ithaca? Use the "no Sirens" route.)
Of what significance is the loss to storytelling if characters from Sherwood Forest to the Gates of Hell can be instantly, if not constantly, connected?
Plenty, and at least part of it is personal. I recently finished my second thriller, or so I thought. When I sent it to several fine writer friends, I received this feedback: the protagonist and his girlfriend can't spend the whole book unable to get in touch with each other. Not in the cellphone era.
Then Christopher Breen whines:
As you may have heard, areas of San Francisco’s South Bay and coast lost their landline, cell phone, and Internet connectivity because an individual or individuals unknown deliberately sliced four fiber optic cables in San Jose, California. This action (currently termed “vandalism”), in addition to unplugging over 50,000 area residents, caused many businesses to shut down and threatened lives because 911 services were out for the better part of the day...
I had no Internet access. I couldn’t call the office to alert my boss that I was off the grid. And my iPhone was no good with its constant No Service heading regardless of where I drove. I was completely unplugged.
Voilŕ.... Read more ....
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Media Galaxy, Object Culture, Society/Culture, Technosnark, Television
Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write "however" or "than me" or "was" or "which," but can't tell you why. The land of the free in the grip of The Elements of Style.
So I won't be spending the month of April toasting 50 years of the overopinionated and underinformed little book that put so many people in this unhappy state of grammatical angst. I've spent too much of my scholarly life studying English grammar in a serious way. English syntax is a deep and interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don't-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can't even tell when they've broken their own misbegotten rules.
That sounds like standard-issue Chronicle of Higher Ed blunderbussery, but the author, Geoffrey K. Pullum, knows what he's talking about -- he's a linguist, and co-wrote The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language -- and the bulk of the essay is a startlingly comprehensive, point-by-point, and erudite take-down of Strunk and White.... Read more ....
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Learnin'
April 8, 2009
An Odyssey In Reverse
Bob Dylan on what intrigues him about Barack Obama:
He's got an interesting background. He's like a fictional character, but he's real. First off, his mother was a Kansas girl. Never lived in Kansas though, but with deep roots. You know, like Kansas bloody Kansas. John Brown the insurrectionist. Jesse James and Quantrill. Bushwhackers, Guerillas. Wizard of Oz Kansas. I think Barack has Jefferson Davis back there in his ancestry someplace. And then his father. An African intellectual. Bantu, Masai, Griot type heritage -- cattle raiders, lion killers. I mean it's just so incongruous that these two people would meet and fall in love. You kind of get past that though. And then you're into his story. Like an odyssey except in reverse.
Dylan obviously knows a thing or two about 1) being a fictional character and 2) being on an odyssey. He was drawn to Obama early after reading his memoir, Dreams From My Father. "His writing style hits you on more than one level. It makes you feel and think at the same time and that is hard to do. He says profoundly outrageous things. He's looking at a shrunken head inside of a glass case in some museum with a bunch of other people and he's wondering if any of these people realize that they could be looking at one of their ancestors." This also sounds like Dylan to me.
(PS: Link to the Times of London interview fixed.)
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Music, Snarkpolitik
April 5, 2009
In Praise of Phlegmatic Burghers
More good stuff on the journalism beat. Nicolas Lemann's "Paper Tigers" reviews new biographies of media moguls past and present, including a marvelous pivot between the flashy Hearst and Pulitzer to the double-breasted world of The Wall Street Journal's Barney Kilgore:
Kilgore and his colleagues did figure out how to publish a home-and office-delivered daily newspaper nationally, something that was far more difficult to accomplish in the nineteen-forties and fifties than people who have grown up with the Internet can imagine. The Journal's circulation, which was thirty-two thousand when Kilgore became its managing editor, in 1941, rose to just above a hundred and fifty thousand in 1950, eight hundred and twenty-five thousand in 1962, and almost a million when Kilgore died, of cancer, at the age of fifty-nine, in 1967.
When Kilgore started out at the Journal, reporters sometimes sold advertising, and Kilgore's own early work as a reporter entailed experimentation with forms carried over from the nineteenth century, such as articles written as letters to an imaginary friend. By the time the Journal had come to full maturity, it had helped establish the journalistic norms of reportorial nonpartisanship and of independence from advertiser pressure. As Tofel observes, it was less a standard newspaper than a news-and-business magazine published daily on newsprint, closer to Fortune and Business Week than to either Hearst's New York Journal or the Times, both of which were edited on the assumption that they would be their readers' sole source of news.
Still, Kilgore did much more than develop the manners and mores of modern élite journalism. The newspaper he built was full of idiosyncrasies and peculiarities, like the use of line drawings on the front page instead of photographs, the heavy use of peppy news briefs in lieu of stories, the not very funny daily cartoon cornily titled 'Pepper . . . and Salt,' the right-wing editorial page, and the goofy human-interest story in the middle of every day's front page. No less than Hearst's Journal and Pulitzer's World, the Wall Street Journal bore the stamp of Kilgore's personality, which turned out to be one that appealed to a large audience of phlegmatic businessmen like him.
I think Lemann actually goes too far in emphasizing the WSJ's blandness next to the rough-and-tumble world of the full yellows -- in the late nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century, the ecology of financial news and the stock exchanges -- "a late-nineteenth-century version of a Bloomberg terminal -- a high-priced, custom-produced collection of timely data on the financial markets which was distributed to people who planned to trade on the information" -- was every bit as crazy, with people fighting each other over information (and misinformation) -- less Bloomberg than CNBC.
(I'm including this clip of Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler slightly because it begins with a crazy scene where Mabuse has used the newspapers to manipulate the stock market into a mighty short-sell, but mostly because I just love this movie.)
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Journalism, Movies
Making Reality Operational
Friend of Snarkmarket Nav at Scrawled In Wax has a thoughtful meditation on the relationship of video games to other art forms (and to reality), spurred on by playing LittleBigPlanet:
Video games can also tell stories, but many people argue that narrative -- particularly telling stories, or "diegesis" - isn't their primary function. Instead of relying on the representation of a world to tell tales, video games rely on simulation, not to recreate the world but in order to create a world as an arena for simulated action. And by collapsing both play and creation into one experience, blurring the distinction between the two, LittleBigPlanet becomes a metaphor for gaming itself in which the uniqueness of games as a cultural form becomes clear.
If literary texts work primarily through representation, and secondly by reader interaction, the inverse is true of video games: even in the most "realistic" games, it is the creative, interactive element that is paramount, and it is through this that players produce their own narratives as they move through a world that references "life" but is neither constrained by it nor bound to its rules...
And while I myself will always be partial to the intensely interior nature of literature, LittleBigPlanet suggests that, as gaming develops, its potential and power will be found in its capacity to empower players to create worlds never before imagined - and then, as was never possible before, step into them.
Let me tweak Nav's terms a little, because I think actually that "diegesis" DOESN'T just mean narrative, and is flexible enough to cover the "reader interaction" that he's talking about. Broadly speaking, diegesis is the interaction, rather than the story -- we associate it with narrative because it's a way to describe all the tools a narrator uses to tell a story rather than simply recount what happened. When a good storyteller hooks you in, THAT's diegesis. (Narrative in this sense would be one kind of diegesis.)
I particularly like the idea that video games and literature/film are at opposite ends of the teeter-totter that is mimesis/representation and diegesis/reader interaction -- they're important aspects both, but actually diegesis (I guess we'd call this "gameplay") is way more privileged in video games, precisely because of the high emphasis on interactivity.
I'll add another wrinkle. In fancy-pants film theory we often talk about the way that a viewer is "sutured" or stitched into the mind-space of the film. Basically, when you're watching a movie, you've got to take some kind of subject position -- usually it's that of the third-person who watches, taking turns identifying with one or another of the characters' point-of-view. And traditional movie techniques are all about making that subject-position super comfortable. You're sitting back, watching Bogart and Bergman and Dooley Wilson talk in Casablanca, one of them kind of at the center-left of the screen and one kind of at center-right, cutting back and forth, and you never stop to think, "hey! what's going on! where the hell am I?" The movie's doing its job, making all of this stuff transparent. While crazy art movies, like Pier Paolo Pasolini's, flip the axis and do disjunctive montages, so you can't get comfortable or find an easy space to identify with. And that's the point.
Scott McCloud talks about something similar in comic books -- we can identify with a character as an avatar if there's just enough detail that he/she seems real-ish, but not so much that he/she seems like somebody else, which is weirdly uncanny. So the more precisely iconic a character is -- whether Homer Simpson or Batman -- the easier it is for us to say, "that could be me."
Video games definitely work on both levels. The characters themselves have to be iconic - enough detail to distinguish them from being merely generic, not so much that we reject the ID altogether. But what really hooks us in is the gameplay, and in order for the gameplay to feel right, it, too, has to feel iconic -- simple enough in its execution to be manipulable and masterable, complex enough in its representation to "feel" real. This is the difference between trying to make the character on the screen -- what my mom would call "the guy" -- do different things, and feeling as if you yourself were doing them. Where you can call the character "I," or intermediately, "my guy."
I feel like I'm venturing too far afield. Suffice it to say, this reality/representation/narrative/interaction stuff is surprisingly profound once you start to get into it. And the fact that most of it is, for us, unconscious, helps to show both how good games tap into our brain's capacity for this kind of agent-mediated thinking and how thoroughly acculturated most of us are to the representational/interactive grammar of video games. Just like with films, when it's working really well, we don't even notice it any more.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Braiiins, Movies, Video Games
April 4, 2009
What's Valuable, What's Real
I really admire Harper's Magazine blogger/lawyer Scott Horton, not least because he is a voracious and sensitive reader, who often serves up nice chunks of older texts. This, for example, is from today's excerpt of John Stuart Mill's essay on Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
'Lord, enlighten thou our enemies,' should be the prayer of every true Reformer; sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions, and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers: we are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom; their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength.
I've heard this quote before, without attributing it to Mill, and I'm guessing you might have too; but there's more, and it's all worth reading.
I know, I know; my bias on this is clear, since I read and reread old stuff as a matter of disposition - an irresistable need to know - as much as because of my profession.
I think what I want to emphasize, in this case and maybe in others, is that you, gentle reader, ought to be dissatisfied with the general knowledge you have of people like John Stuart Mill, whether from a college humanities course or wherever. It's too easy to say, "yeah, Mill, Utilitarianism, I know all about that." I mean, be thankful that you know that. But I think that kind of checkbox thinking about intellectual history is too easily encouraged by the way we teach this stuff.
What doesn't come through in that isn't the deep nuances of the different philosophies or systems or biographies that scholars and specialists concern themselves with. It's the knowledge that most of these people that we remember were really important because they were great essayists, occasional thinkers, men and women who could speak about anything great or small. And there's nothing to replace that feeling that you get, reading someone, that you're thinking with them, and that their thoughts and words are... irreplaceable and necessary and just.
I don't know. I am not saying this well. These thoughts are replaceable and unnecessary and almost certainly unjust. So I will take them to their limit. You have to continue to challenge yourself as a reader - a serious reader. And as one who learns - a serious student. That you have not calcified. That you do not know what you think you know, least of all who or what or where or especially WHEN is important.
I don't have to impress upon you the need to embrace the new. But get a library card and wander somewhere dusty. Find something real. And then blog about it -- bring it into this world.
Scan that creaky wisdom, make it sing. We need many things now, but wisdom most of all.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin'
April 3, 2009
Untitled, by Mira Schendel; from a new MOMA retrospective of Schendel and LeĂłn Ferrari.
April 1, 2009
Every Library Is A Lighthouse
Bad times do strange things to free, public places, especially those with internet access:
Urban ills like homelessness have affected libraries in many cities for years, but librarians here and elsewhere say they are seeing new challenges. They find people asleep more often at cubicles. Patrons who cannot read or write ask for help filling out job applications. Some people sit at computers trying to use the Internet, even though they have no idea what the Internet is.
“A lot of people who would not normally be here are coming in to use the computers,” said Cynthia Jones, a regional branch manager in St. Louis.
“Adults complain a lot about kids just playing games and you know, ‘I need to do a résumé, or ‘I need to write, I need some help,’ ” Ms. Jones said. “There’s a bit of frustration.”
Ms. Jones instructed her staff to tread carefully. “You don’t want to upset people,” she said. “You don’t know what might set somebody off.”
Philadelphia recently had a long and torturous go-round over proposed library closings. The idea I floated among my small and relatively uninfluential circle was to keep the libraries open and move other public/social services into space at the libraries and close THOSE buildings.
I still think this is a good idea, especially once you grant the notion that libraries are a place to access public information of all kinds, not just those found in books. If libraries are where people are coming for help, then that's where we should go to reach them. Every library is a lighthouse, a city's or town's beacon to guide the way in the night.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Cities, Snarkpolicy
March 29, 2009
Voting With Your Eyes
Josh Marshall on the paradox of electronic reading -- even people who complain about the available technologies (like Josh Marshall) find themselves unconsciously drawn to them.
I've always been an inveterate collector of books. Not in the sense of collectibles, but in the sense that once I buy a book, I never let it go. As I made my way through adulthood it was while dragging a tail of several hundred books along with me.
Finally, only a few months ago, I purged a decent chunk of my collection. And most are now in storage. But in our living room we have two big inset shelves where I keep all the books I feel like I need or want ready at hand. And last night, sitting in front of them, I had this dark epiphany. How much longer are these things going to be around? Not my books, though maybe them too. But just books. Physical, paper books. The few hundred or so I was looking at suddenly seemed like they were taking up an awful lot of space, like the whole business could dealt with a lot more cleanly and efficiently, if at some moral loss.
Don't get me wrong. Book books still have some clear advantages. Kindle is a disaster with pictures and maps. But I didn't realize the book might move so rapidly into the realm of endangered modes of distributing the written word. I was thinking maybe decades more. The book is so tactile and personal and much less ephemeral than the sort of stuff we read online.
I hope it's clear that I'm not of the attitude that this is a good thing or something I welcome. When I had the realization I described above it felt like a sock in the gut, if perhaps a fillip on the interior decorating front. All the business model and joblessnes stuff aside, that's how I feel about physical newspapers too. There's a lot I miss about print newspapers, particularly the serendipitous magic of finding stories adjacent to the one you're reading, articles you're deeply interested in but never would have known you were if it weren't plopped down in front of you to pull you in through your peripheral vision. Yet at this point I probably read a print newspaper only a handful of times a year.
When I think about it I kind of miss it. In a way I regret not reading them. But I just don't. I vote with my eyes. And I wonder whether I'll soon say something similar about books.
It's been a long, long time since a really OLD information technology went away. We're used to a continual junkheap of stuff that used to be new. CDs and cassettes had about twenty years each, gramophone records and celluloid film about a century. Newspapers, at least as we'd recognize them now, aren't too much older than that.
The book hasn't stood apart from technological change; an industrially-produced paperback book has about the same relation to a Gutenberg Bible as a new SLR camera has to a daguerrotype. But books, even printed books, are still OLD; phenomenally old compared to most dead technologies.... Read more ....
March 28, 2009
Speaking of the glossy magazine effect -- who in the world is working as the official or unofficial publicist for the Darwinian literary critics? There's another write-up of this non-phenomenon, this time in Newsweek. The writer, Jeremy McCarty, is appropriately critical, which is why I'm linking to it.
But let me reiterate -- this stuff is nonsense, bad science and bad aesthetics. Only about ten relatively marginal people care about it, even if one of them happens to be Arts & Letters Daily /Philosophy and Literature editor Denis Dutton. Serious research on the relationship between psychology and aesthetics could be so good. This is not serious.
Why this half-baked not-quite-research program commands so much attention in academic and popular journalism instead of any one of a dozen honestly legitimate movements in contemporary literature and language studies will forever elude me.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', Media Galaxy
March 23, 2009
There's Solitary and Then There's Solitary
The other day, a group of my friends, including two other PhDs, discussed the high rate of depression among graduate students. "It's the stress," one said; "the money!" laughed another. But I made a case that it was actually the isolation, the loneliness, that had the biggest effect. After all, you take a group of young adults who are perversely wired for the continual approval that good students get from being in the classroom with each other, and then lock them away for a year or two to write a dissertation with only intermittent contact from an advisor. That's a recipe for disaster.
So I read Atul Gawande's account of the human brain's response to solitary confinement with an odd shock of recognition:
Among our most benign experiments are those with people who voluntarily isolate themselves for extended periods. Long-distance solo sailors, for instance, commit themselves to months at sea. They face all manner of physical terrors: thrashing storms, fifty-foot waves, leaks, illness. Yet, for many, the single most overwhelming difficulty they report is the 'soul-destroying loneliness,' as one sailor called it. Astronauts have to be screened for their ability to tolerate long stretches in tightly confined isolation, and they come to depend on radio and video communications for social contact...
[After years of solitary, Hezbollah hostage Terry Anderson] was despondent and depressed. Then, with time, he began to feel something more. He felt himself disintegrating. It was as if his brain were grinding down. A month into his confinement, he recalled in his memoir, "The mind is a blank. Jesus, I always thought I was smart. Where are all the things I learned, the books I read, the poems I memorized? There's nothing there, just a formless, gray-black misery. My mind's gone dead. God, help me."
He was stiff from lying in bed day and night, yet tired all the time. He dozed off and on constantly, sleeping twelve hours a day. He craved activity of almost any kind. He would watch the daylight wax and wane on the ceiling, or roaches creep slowly up the wall. He had a Bible and tried to read, but he often found that he lacked the concentration to do so. He observed himself becoming neurotically possessive about his little space, at times putting his life in jeopardy by flying into a rage if a guard happened to step on his bed. He brooded incessantly, thinking back on all the mistakes he'd made in life, his regrets, his offenses against God and family.
But here's the weird part -- all of this isolation actually serves to select for a particular personality type. This is especially perverse when solitary confinement is used in prisons -- prisoners who realign their social expectations for solitary confinement effectively become asocial at best, antisocial generally, and deeply psychotic at worst.
Everyone's identity is socially created: it's through your relationships that you understand yourself as a mother or a father, a teacher or an accountant, a hero or a villain. But, after years of isolation, many prisoners change in another way that Haney observed. They begin to see themselves primarily as combatants in the world, people whose identity is rooted in thwarting prison control.
As a matter of self-preservation, this may not be a bad thing. According to the Navy P.O.W. researchers, the instinct to fight back against the enemy constituted the most important coping mechanism for the prisoners they studied. Resistance was often their sole means of maintaining a sense of purpose, and so their sanity. Yet resistance is precisely what we wish to destroy in our supermax prisoners. As Haney observed in a review of research findings, prisoners in solitary confinement must be able to withstand the experience in order to be allowed to return to the highly social world of mainline prison or free society. Perversely, then, the prisoners who can't handle profound isolation are the ones who are forced to remain in it. "And those who have adapted," Haney writes, "are prime candidates for release to a social world to which they may be incapable of ever fully readjusting."
I think we just figured out why so many professors are so deeply, deeply weird.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Braiiins, Learnin', Recommended, Science, Snarkpolicy
March 18, 2009
Blood and Treasure: Genealogy and Contexts
About three years ago, Robin noticed a strange phrase making the rounds in political talk about the costs of the Iraq war: "blood and treasure." I'd noticed it too, and when he posted about it, I started to do some digging into its origins. I thought that it would be a nice tidy little search, make for a fun thread and discussion, and we'd figure out that it came from Washington, maybe, or Lincoln, or Clausewitz.
As it turned out, I spent the better part of a year trying to find out where "blood and treasure" came from. I exhausted databases. I learned languages. I asked everyone I knew about it. I gave lectures on it. I contemplated scrapping my planned dissertation to write about it instead, and when that seemed like a bad idea, I contemplated leaving graduate school to write a book about it instead.
"Blood and treasure" is in its own way the key to all mythologies. Tracing the phrase traces the history of human thought about violence, whether in politics, history, religion, philosophy, or literature. I wanted to share here a fraction of what I have found so far.... Read more ....
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Language, Learnin', Self-Disclosure, Snarkonomics, Snarkpolitik, Society/Culture
March 14, 2009
This Is Our Media Revolution. Who Will Be Our Manutius? What Our Octavo?
During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change -- take a book and shrink it -- was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word, as books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, expanding the market for all publishers, which heightened the value of literacy still further..
That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn't apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can't predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.
And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won't break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren't in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.
There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie
Also see Shirky ventriloquize our own Matt Thompson: "Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead."
March 12, 2009
Beckett in the 1930s
In 1929 Beckett had already spent some time in Italy and in Germany, where he had relatives, and, after a dazzling career as a student of French and Italian at Trinity College Dublin, had just settled into a two-year post as exchange lecteur at the École Normale Supérieure where McGreevy, a much older Irishman, had been his predecessor. McGreevy, still living in Paris, had introduced Beckett to many of his friends, including James Joyce and Richard Aldington. The decade that followed was, for Beckett, restless in the extreme. He returned to Dublin, took up and then renounced an academic job at Trinity; wrote a little book on Proust, a great many poems, some of which were published, some stories, including the masterpiece “Dante and the Lobster”, which appeared under the title More Pricks than Kicks, and two novels, the first of which, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, failed to find a publisher, and the second, Murphy, was published as the decade came to an end; tried to settle in London and underwent pyschoanalysis with Wilfred Bion; experienced the death of his beloved father and of a favourite dog; tried again to settle in Dublin; undertook a six-month trip to Germany to study the art in its great museums; and finally settled in Paris, where he met and started living with Suzanne Descheveaux-Dumesnil. Almost at once, war broke out, and in June 1940, along with a large part of the population of Paris, the pair headed south in the face of the oncoming German army. If, at the start of the decade, Beckett was known in Dublin circles as a highly promising academic with an illustrious career ahead of him, by the end of it he was known to a small coterie of Irish and French intellectuals as a bohemian writer of obscure verse and almost equally obscure fiction, a shy, hard-drinking man of remarkable learning and a savage and witty turn of phrase. Had the war engulfed him as it engulfed so many of his contemporaries it is doubtful if we would now be reading his collected letters.
Whew! "The editors have transcribed more than 15,000 letters, written in the course of sixty years from 1929, when Beckett was twenty-three, until his death in 1989. Of these they plan to give us some 2,500 complete and to quote in the notes from a further 5,000." As Beckett said (in one of his letters, naturally) about reading Proust: "To think that I have to contemplate him at stool for 16 volumes!"
Teaching as Anti-Teaching / Writing as Anti-Writing
My friend (and fellow Penn Comparative Literature alumnus) Mark Sample on what's uncritical about the critical essay:
[C]ritical thinking stands in opposition to facile thinking. Critical thinking is difficult thinking. Critical thinking is being comfortable with difficulty. And this is something else that separates the expert learner from the novice learner: experts are at ease with uncertainty, while novices are uncomfortable with what they don’t understand, and they struggle to come up with answers — and quickly come up with answers — that eliminate complexity and ambiguity. The historian and cognitive psychologist Samuel Wineburg calls this tendency to seek answers over questions “schoolish” behavior, because it is exactly the kind of behavior most schools reward.
I want my students to break out of this schoolish mode of behavior. Instead of thinking like students — like novices, I want them to think more like experts, and I must coach them to do so. It requires intellectual risk-taking on their part, and on my part, it requires mindfulness, patience, and risk-taking as well.
This is the primary reason I’ve integrated more and more public writing into my classes. I strive to instill in my students the sense that what they think and what they say and what they write matters — to me, to them, to their classmates, and through open access blogs and wikis, to the world.
In addition to making student writing public, I’ve also begun taking the words out of writing. Why must writing, especially writing that captures critical thinking, be composed of words? Why not images? Why not sound? Why not objects? The word text, after all, derives from the Latin textus, meaning that which is woven, strands of different material intertwined together. Let the warp be words and the weft be something else entirely.
With this in mind, I am moving away from asking students to write toward asking them to weave. To build, to fabricate, to design. I don’t want my students to become miniature scholars. I want them to be aspiring Rauschenbergs, assembling mixed media combines, all the while through their engagement with seemingly incongruous materials, developing a critical thinking practice about the process and the product.
"Aspiring Rauschenbergs!" I'm way more
committed reflexively attached to writing (writ large) and literature (read wide) than Mark is -- but still, this makes me feel even more excited to seek out new modes of anti-teaching. Let's stay on the move.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', New Liberal Arts
The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Typing
Increasingly, Chinese people don't actually have to write (rite? right?) out these characters by hand. More and more, they key them in with mobile phones or at computers. And when they do that, it's just as easy to 'write' a traditional-style, complex, information-dense character as a streamlined new one. (Reason: you key in clues about the character, either its pronunciation or its root form, and then click to choose the one you want.) So -- according to current arguments -- the technology of computers and mobile phones could actually revive an important, quasi-antique style of writing.
Hmm -- Fallows is definitely one-up on me, since he reads Chinese and I don't, but I wonder whether other considerations (e.g. screen size and corresponding size of characters) might still put some pressure towards some kind of simplification of the character form. A lot of that information-density just turns into noise if it has to be packed into a tiny space.
Alternatively, kids (it's always kids, at first) might start using "abbreviations" that minimize the number of keystrokes required to type useful phrases -- maybe by not choosing the precisely "correct" character but an approximation of it (the root or a related pronunciation or whatever), like our "lol," "brb," "btw," etc.
In short, technology rarely has a purely stabilizing effect on tradition -- it might help block a particular chirographic attempt at reform/revolution, but only to displace it in favor of its own matrix. (And yes, I just quoted Spock from The Wrath of Khan.)
March 8, 2009
Kinetic typography refers to the art and technique of expression with animated text. Similar to the study of traditional typography of designing static typographic forms, kinetic typography focuses on understanding the effect time has on the expression of text. Kinetic typography has demonstrated the ability to add significant emotive content and appeal to expressive text, allowing some of the qualities normally found in film and the spoken word to be added to static text.
A classic example of kinetic typography is the Saul Bass-designed title sequence for North By Northwest:
This concept reminds me of Walther Ruttmann's great documentary film Berlin, which did kinetic typography the old-fashioned way: take a big, horking street sign and zip past it on a train:
But kinetic typography in these senses are in some sense old hat -- how are we taking kinetic type and making it new?
Here is a YouTube playlist of new, digitally produced exemplars of kinetic typography, assembled by Joăo Bordalo:
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Design, Movies
March 6, 2009
Ron Charles looks for college radicals -- er, kids reading radical books:
Here we have a generation of young adults away from home for the first time, free to enjoy the most experimental period of their lives, yet they're choosing books like 13-year-old girls -- or their parents. The only specter haunting the groves of American academe seems to be suburban contentment.
Where are the Germaine Greers, the Jerry Rubins, the Hunter Thompsons, the Richard Brautigans -- those challenging, annoying, offensive, sometimes silly, always polemic authors whom young people used to adore to their parents' dismay? [Abbie] Hoffman's manual of disruption and discontent -- "Steal This Book" -- sold more than a quarter of a million copies when it appeared in 1971 and then jumped onto the paperback bestseller list. Even in the conservative 1950s, when Hemingway's plane went down in Uganda, students wore black armbands till news came that the bad-boy novelist had survived. Could any author of fiction that has not inspired a set of Happy Meal toys elicit such collegiate mourning today? Could a radical book that speaks to young people ever rise up again if -- to rip-off LSD aficionado Timothy Leary -- they've turned on the computer, tuned in the iPod and dropped out of serious literature?
Gotta love that "13-year old girls" crack -- because 13-year old boys, you know, they're all reading Middlemarch. Is Steal This Book "serious literature" now? This whole schtick is some kind of weird fever dream, muddling nostalgias, a botched amalgam of Thomas Frank and Harold Bloom. It can't quite make up its mind which version of cultural decay it wants to endorse.
Speaking from ground zero, kids are as hard up for reasonably radical social messages as ever -- remember No Logo? Remember Fight Club? My students do. It wasn't so long ago.
Ultimately, though, radical literature is only as strong as the social movements that nourish it. Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Hunter S. Thompson, and co. had lots of readers because Something Big was happening, people were organizing and doing things, living new ways and trying new politics, and other people wanted to know what it was all about. If people are tuning into the internet rather than books, or rather than the newspaper, or rather than television or anything else, it's not least because it's on the internet that they're finding out all about what's new. Which means that all of those other media begin to serve a slightly different function. I think escapist YA lit is stealing more of its audience from television and the movies than campus radicals, but that's just my guess -- which is apparently as good as Charles's.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', Society/Culture
March 3, 2009
Well, There It Is: Kindle + iPhone
Starting Wednesday, owners of these Apple devices can download a free application, Kindle for iPhone and iPod Touch, from Apple's App Store. The software will give them full access to the 240,000 e-books for sale on Amazon.com, which include a majority of best sellers.
The move comes a week after Amazon started shipping the updated version of its Kindle reading device. It signals that the company may be more interested in becoming the pre-eminent retailer of e-books than in being the top manufacturer of reading devices.
But Amazon said that it sees its Kindle reader and devices like the iPhone as complementary, and that people will use their mobile phones to read books only for short periods, such as while waiting in grocery store lines.
"We think the iPhone can be a great companion device for customers who are caught without their Kindle," said Ian Freed, Amazon's vice president in charge of the Kindle. [emphasis mine]
Mr. Freed said people would still turn to stand-alone reading devices like the $359 Kindle when they want to read digital books for hours at a time. He also said that the experience of using the new iPhone application might persuade people to buy a Kindle, which has much longer battery life than the iPhone and a screen better suited for reading.
I think is pretty cool, and can potentially benefit everybody -- if reading e-books on the iPhone takes off, iTunes could make a play for the market. In the meantime, it might even help them sell some iPhones -- for Apple, the money's in the hardware. Meanwhile, Amazon gets to take a crack at a bunch of readers who can now read e-books on a device that, whatever its relative limitations for reading, is one they already own.
John Gruber has a short review of the app at Daring Fireball.
As the only Kindle-less Snarkmaster, let me say this: I'd really like a freeware Kindle Reader for my MacBook. I like to read to relax, sure; but I also like to read where I do my work (a good deal of which involves reading books). I'm sure whatever prohibitions you'd wind up having to put on the books (no cut-and-pasting?) would make the experience stink. But it is one I would be willing to accept.
Let me put forward this thesis. There will be a lot of portable digital reading devices in the near future: dedicated readers, phones and PDAs, digital paper that you can wad up and throw away, tiny projectors that can use any sufficiently bright surface. But the most important one is and will continue to be the laptop computer. People in the electronic reading business need to continue to think about how they can make that experience both better and sustainable.
And let me also advance thesis #2: Don't let the race to greater portability convince you that this is the end of the game. We need software and hardware that take advantage of BIG reading surfaces -- from the TV-sized screen in your kitchen or living room to Penn Station and the Library of Congress. We don't all always read tucked away in our own private worlds, nor should we -- sometimes reading needs to be a spectacle, on a big public wall, where you can always be dimly aware of it, where it can't ever be fully ignored.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Object Culture, Society/Culture, Technosnark
College and University Roundup
A fistful of education-related tabs that have been sitting in my RSS reader, waiting for me to say something insightful about them:
- The Library Web Site of the Future (Inside Higher Ed): "Several years ago academic institutions shifted control of their Web sites from technology wizards to marketing gurus. At the time there was backlash. The change in outlook was perceived as a corporate sellout, a philosophical transformation of the university Web site from candid campus snapshot to soulless advertiser of campus wares to those who would buy into the brand... I was one of the resisters. Now I think the marketing people got it right. The first thing librarians must do after ending the pretense that the library Web site succeeds in connecting people to content is understand how and why the institutional homepage has improved and what we can learn from it. Doing so will allow academic libraries to discover answers to that first question; how to create user community awareness about the electronic resources in which the institution heavily invests." My thoughts: Isn't it weird to have a portal at all? Why not something like Firefox's Ubiquity, that just lets you type "pubmed liver cancer" to connect directly to the resource? (Note: part of the genius of Ubiquity is that it shows you what commands are possible! it is potentially more user-friendly than any drilldown portal.)
- To Keep Students, Colleges Cut Anything But Aid (New York Times): "The increases highlight the hand-to-mouth existence of many of the nation's smaller and less well-known institutions. With only tiny endowments, they need full enrollment to survive, and they are anxious to prevent top students from going elsewhere. Falling even a few students short of expectations can mean laying off faculty, eliminating courses or shelving planned expansions. 'The last thing colleges and universities are going to cut this year is financial aid,' said Kathy Kurz, an enrollment consultant to colleges. 'Most of them recognize that their discount rates are going to go up, but they'd rather have a discounted person in the seat than no one in the seat.'" My thoughts: It's weird. If students don't enroll, we'll have to lay off faculty. So, in order to pay for an increased aid budget, we must lay off faculty.
- In Tough Times, Humanities Must Justify Their Worth (NYT): "As money tightens, the humanities may increasingly return to being what they were at the beginning of the last century, when only a minuscule portion of the population attended college: namely, the province of the wealthy. That may be unfortunate but inevitable, Mr. Kronman said. The essence of a humanities education -- reading the great literary and philosophical works and coming 'to grips with the question of what living is for' -- may become 'a great luxury that many cannot afford.'" My thoughts: Boooooo. This article, like its retrograde view of what the humanities are about, stinks.
- See Also: Siamese Twins (Wyatt Mason/Harpers): "Fowler's Modern English Usage, in any of its incarnations, is pure pleasure. There's doubtless a medicinal value to its entries, but they entertain so deeply and purely that it all goes down very sweetly. Over the years, I'm sure I've read it more for pleasure than with purpose, less in the hope of resolving a confusion over 'pleonasm' than to discover that 'pleonasm' was something at all. Where the New Oxford American Dictionary defines the term as 'the use of more words than are necessary to convey meaning, either as a fault of style or for emphasis,' Fowler's offers a little lesson." My thoughts: I love this.
- Collective Graduate School Action (The Economist): "If you're going to go back to school, now is the time to do it. Not only is the opportunity cost of the time spent extremely low -- wages aren't likely to rise any time soon, and there may not be a job available anyway -- but so to is the opportunity cost of the money invested. What, you'd rather have that tuition sitting in the market right now? Or in a home?" My thoughts: Clearly, it depends on the school and your goals. But not everyone should listen to that siren song. I entered graduate school during the last Big Recession. Now I'm leaving during the next Great Depression. There are no sure-fire ways to ride these out -- and a dissertation can be as much an anchor as a lifeboat.
February 28, 2009
The Future of the E-Book Marketplace
Farhad Manjoo's jeremiad about the dangers of the Kindle is, um, weird. Give him points for originality, though -- for Manjoo, the Kindle isn't a joke that nobody will read, or an electronic interloper that will kill the book.
Instead, the Kindle is too good -- which means that Amazon will dominate the market and control book publishing the way iTunes controls the music industry.
The Kindle isn't the first electronic device to impose unpalatable restrictions on users. Until recently, if you wanted to (legally) download a broad range of major-label music for your iPod, you had to buy it from Apple.* (Ironically, it was Amazon that launched the first big online store that sold music without restrictions.) The same goes for video games. You can't play just any game on your Xbox. You can play only the games that have been approved and licensed by Microsoft. Then there's the iPhone, a veritable electronic Attica. The iPhone lets you buy music wirelessly -- as long as you buy it from Apple. The iPhone lets you add new programs to your device -- though only the programs that Apple approves of. Other than that, you're free to do what you like!
But the Kindle's restrictions are more worrying than those associated with the iPhone, the iPod, and other gizmos. For one thing, if you objected to the iTunes Store's policies, there was always another way to legally buy music for your iPod -- you could buy CDs (from Amazon, perhaps) and rip the tracks to MP3. That's not an option for books; there's no easy way to turn dead trees into electrons. Moreover, books are important. As a culture, we've somehow determined that it's OK for a video-game console maker to demand licensing fees and exercise complete control over the titles that get on to their systems. Sure, this restricts creativity and free expression, but if that's the business model that keeps the game business alive, so be it.
But we've come to a different cultural consensus on books. First, we've decided that books should be sharable -- when you buy a book, you can pass it along to others freely. In fact, governments and large institutions actively encourage the practice; we build huge, beautiful buildings devoted to lending books to perfect strangers. We've also decided that there should be an aftermarket for books: When you buy a book, you're also buying the right to sell that book when you're done with it. This not only helps people who can't afford new books, it also encourages those who can afford them to buy more -- it's much less risky to buy a $30 hardcover if you know you can sell it for $15 in six months. (Amazon is one of the biggest players in the used-book market.) And we'd certainly balk at a world in which your books were somehow locked to the store where you bought them. Say Barnes & Noble signed a deal to sell the next Twilight book at a huge discount. But with a catch -- the book would be published in invisible ink, and in order to read it you'd need to buy a special Barnes & Noble black light. This is ludicrous, of course, and no bookstore would ever attempt such a deal. But what's the Kindle other than a fancy digital decoder ring?
I don't understand how Manjoo can move so effortlessly from totally legitimate comparisons -- the answer to this last rhetorical question is that the Kindle is very much like a video game console, and that's a powerfully suggestive way to look at it -- to "ludicrous" ruminations about invisible ink and digital decoders, usw.
We didn't "decide" that books were especially important for our culture and deserved a special status under the law, anymore than we decided that shoes or clothes deserved the same -- we trade and lend those secondhand, too. That's one of the intrinsic benefits (or, if you're a content owner, a drawback) of the technology. And we have, at different points in our history, placed pretty serious restrictions on what can be published, printed, and sold. We fought that out, politically and economically -- and if the Kindle starts to bring unnecessary weight, we'll fight that out too. As, if you haven't noticed, we are everywhere these days -- not least because industrious people are turning dead trees into electrons every day. (It may not be as easy as ripping a CD -- but it can be done.)
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Video Games
February 25, 2009
So long as we're talking about classic literature morphing into monster movies, let's take a moment to look at Dante's Inferno, a new video game, um, loosely based on The Divine Comedy:
EA's take still features Dante as the protagonist, but the poet-philosopher is now a hulking veteran of the Crusades. He returns home from war to find Beatrice, the subject of his love and admiration, murdered. When her soul is "kidnapped" by Lucifer himself, Dante dives down to the very depths of hell, armed with Death's scythe, to win her back...
Dante's Inferno stands in a rather awkward place. The source material is a treasured piece of culture, yes, but it's far less likely to incite fanboy wrath than would a videogame adaptation of a contemporary movie or comic book series. Liberal arts majors might be shocked to find Dante morphed into a hypermasculine action hero. Other people won't care...
On the bright side, the story behind Dante's Inferno was pretty much fleshed out back in the 14th century, detailing hell's nine levels and many of the potential boss characters, so the development team likely just needs to fill in the blanks.
Look, classics get adapted, translated, bowdlerized all the time. But it's important to remember that in popular culture, people don't remember the original -- they remember the bowdlerization. I bet in a few years, we'll start to see college students who "know" that Inferno is about Dante rescuing Beatrice from Hell.
All the same, if they get the centaurs and the lake of boiling blood right, I am there. And who knows? Maybe some of the kids might even learn what "simony" means.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Video Games
Yet another testament to the infinite remixability of Jane Austen:
First, it was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the Seth Grahame-Smith novel due out in May that intersperses Austen's familiar prose with scenes of "bone crunching zombie action," which reportedly already has Hollywood studios vying to acquire its rights. Now comes the news that Elton John's Rocket Pictures intends to produce Pride and Predator, "which veers from the traditional period costume drama when an alien crash lands and begins to butcher the mannered protags, who suddenly have more than marriage and inheritance to worry about."
Pride and Predator! Genius! And yes, I know, Northanger Abbey is already sort of a horror story, or a send-up of one. If you've got a better title idea, put it in the comments.
That Coffin Is A Lifeboat
One of my favorite people, um, ever is Charles Olson -- poet, amateur anthropologist, rector of Black Mountain College back when BMC was quite possibly the coolest place to be in the country. (Olson reportedly said, "I need a college to think with" -- something that I often feel myself whenever I take a stab at thinking about the New Liberal Arts.)
Olson's essay/manifesto "Projective Verse" helped build the bridge between modernist and postmodern literature -- in fact, Olson's sometimes given credit for helping formulate the whole idea of the postmodern.
One of Olson's most important contributions to American letters is his book Call Me Ishmael, a wonderful, idiosyncratic but authoritative critical take on Herman Melville and Moby Dick. Here, for example, are the first few sentences:
I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.
Olson himself was a giant -- 6'8" -- and knew a thing or two about spelling things large. (If you want to read more, I highly recommend picking up Olson's Collected Prose -- it's all really, really good.)
Now the University of Connecticut is digitizing Olson's notes on Melville -- which would be cool in its own right, but 100% cooler insofar as Olson's notes bring back a world that doesn't exist anymore:
Olson was one of the first scholars to consider the importance of Melville's reading and marginalia.
In the 1930s, Melville's surviving literary manuscripts, letters, personal papers and journals, and reading library were still, for the most part, in the possession of the family and a few institutional or private collectors. The most substantial collection of Melville materials unaccounted for at that point—and the materials that Olson pursued most vigorously—were the "lost five hundred," the approximate number of books Melville's widow had sold to a Brooklyn dealer in 1892. As a young scholar, Olson was indefatigable in his research; when he located a volume from Melville's library in a grand-daughter's home, in a private collector's hands, or on a public library's shelves, Olson carefully transcribed onto 5 x 7-inch note cards complete bibliographic information on the volume, as well as the content and location of Melville’s annotations and reading marks. Charles Olson’s note cards are, in a few important instances, the only account of Melville’s reading marks in books whose location is now unknown. Olson’s notes also provide scholars with Melville’s marginalia in volumes currently in private hands and not readily available to scholars.
In addition to the note cards on books from Melville's library, there are two other groups of cards at the University of Connecticut. On one group of cards Olson captured his notes of interviews and recorded his astonishingly thorough methods for tracking down relatives of those known or thought to have bought books from Melville’s library. Other note cards were used by Olson to record his reading and critical notes on Melville's published works. In all, nearly 1,100 note cards survive.
Unfortunately, when Olson moved away from Melville scholarship after the publication Call Me Ishmael (1947), he stored the results of his investigative work in a trunk in a friend's basement. Countless water leaks over the years damaged the note cards containing the transcriptions and research notes. Some cards were merely soiled; others were fused together in large blocks. After the University of Connecticut purchased the Olson papers in 1973, the note cards were stored separately while awaiting appropriate preservation measures.
That's right -- we can piece together Melville's library from soggy, seventy-five-year-old index cards.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', New Liberal Arts, Recommended, Science
February 22, 2009
Sometimes a New Medium Sneaks Up On You
I'd seen references to Prezi here and there -- it's billed as a new presentation tool, a way to pan and zoom through ideas instead of clicking through slides. Which sounds pretty cool but, having now used this thing, I gotta say: The potential is much bigger than that.
I haven't been this excited about a new format in a long time. The tutorial video actually gave me chills. (Pretty sure I have never typed that sentence before.)
So here's my first prezi, which is just a little anecdote laid out in space -- absolutely not a good use of the technology. But it will give you a taste of the potential.
Cross-reference this with our ongoing future-of-books discussion. Also with Scott McCloud's infinite canvas.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Comics, Design, Media Galaxy, Technosnark
February 17, 2009
The Book Is Better
Willing Davidson, "Great Book, Bad Movie: How Hollywood Ruins Novels":
This isn't an original complaint: Liking the book better than the movie is a middlebrow rite of passage. And novels are a constant, renewable source of stories for Hollywood, with ready-built brand appeal—from the kiddie franchises (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Narnia) to the airport bangers (Da Vinci Code, the Bourne etceteras). Nor are these always bad movies. It turns out that good plots and an epic dimension translate well from page to screen. But the attempt to scale this model by making midsize movies from literary novels has been an ugly disaster. In our post-The Reader world, I can safely say that I'd rather personally digitize back issues of Talk magazine than see another movie based on Harvey Weinstein's favorite book. Scott Rudin can fuck off, too.
I once interviewed to be a literary scout for a respected producer. The job, as described, was this: find the best novels before anyone else does so they can be bought and made into great movies. This sounds admirable. But it rests on the idea that what makes a literary novel good can be translated with any reliability into what makes a movie good. Three of the films that will be feted come Oscar night are based on recognizable literature. And while The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Reader are definitely terrible movies, Revolutionary Road is both the worst movie I saw this year and one of the best novels I've read.
Davidson has an intriguing theory: the movie industry is both too deferential to novels and clueless about how they work. "There's so much plot to get in that there's no time to tell the story."
Some movies that are better than the books they're based on: The Godfather, The Birth Of A Nation/The Klansman, The Shawshank Redemption, The Magnificent Ambersons, Goodfellas, The Bridge on the River Kwai, many of Stanley Kubrick's movies. Others equal to the task: Malcolm X, Blade Runner, Fight Club, Kurosawa's adaptations of Shakespeare.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Movies
February 13, 2009
Craig Saper is an amazing guy. When he couldn't get travel funds to deliver a paper on Bob Brown's "Readies" at a panel I chaired at the Modernist Studies Association conference a few years ago, he sent a DVD of himself, reading his paper from an airplane seat, wearing sunglasses. Midway through, the video began speeding up and slowing down, and the audio track was punctured by bleeps, like a badly edited R-rated movie on TV. It was all part of the performance, on reading technologies and obscenity. I wish I still had a copy of it.
-- Kenny Goldsmith, "Littany (for Albie)"
Well, Craig's curated (with Theo Lotz) an exhibition at the University of Central Florida called TypeBound, on books-as-sculpture. Warning: the web site is actually kind of crummy, animated image files and links that download PDFs instead of going to pages. But the exhibits! Amazing stuff: books made of shoes, books with type written on the edges of pages, books with pages going in every direction, and a slew of typewriter poetry. Well worth checking out.... Read more ....
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Object Culture, Recommended
February 11, 2009
The New Liberal Arts, 1912
From The Atlantic Monthly:
Can we not devise a system of liberal education which shall find its foundations in the best things of the here and now? Literature and art are all about us; science and faith offer their daily contributions; history is in the making to-day; industry pours forth its wares; and children, no less than adults, are sharing in the dynamic activities of contemporary social life. Not in the things of the past, but in those of the present, should liberal education find its beginnings as well as its results. Fortified by the resources, interest, and insight thus obtained, it can be made to embrace areas of culture and power which are relatively remote and abstract.
David Snedden, "What Of Liberal Education?," January 1912.... Read more ....
File under: Books, Writing & Such, New Liberal Arts
February 7, 2009
Everybody Needs One
Sometimes a single detail makes an entire story. I think that's the case with Jodi Kantor's profile of Richard Holbrooke:
(Many people have personal trainers; Mr. Holbrooke has a personal archivist.)
I was actually thinking about archives this morning, after reading this bit from Tim's Whitman post:
But Whitman's notebooks at this time are filled with images, just jottings, of these people, what they're doing, what they look like, what their names are.
Cross-reference with Michael Bierut's wonderful stack of notebooks. I love the idea of keeping a durable, written record like this... but I am congenitally incapable of using and keeping notebooks. I'm way more comfortable with digital notes -- emails to myself, short little Google Docs, etc.
What's a good compromise? Is there some easy way to physical-ize those notes? Maybe I need an app that literally scans my stuff for certain kinds of documents, saves them, and prints 'em out en masse.
I mean, until I get a personal archivist, anyway.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Self-Disclosure, Society/Culture
The Kid-Saving Business
After gobbling up last week's stellar NYT Mag cover story from David Leonhardt, I Kindled Paul Tough's book about the birth of Harlem's Promise Academy, Whatever It Takes. The book is stellar. Tough's NYT Mag piece from 2006 gives a nice intro, but it ends by recounting the successes of KIPP charter schools. Whatever It Takes is in many ways a chronicle of the academic underworld, the students beyond KIPP's reach. And it's a fascinating primer on how education in America is transforming.
Personality and Urban Affection
So, this morning, during the Snarkmasters' sequifortnightly transcontinental gathering over email, coffee, cold pad thai, and cinnamon swirls, the conversation turned to Walt Whitman, and I was reminded of the really quite lovely American Experience documentary on Whitman that was broadcast around a year ago.
I love Ed Folsom's account of Whitman's experience of "urban affection":
Whitman feels the power of the city of strangers. He's looking at a city of strangers and how something we might now call urban affection begins to develop. How do you come to care for people that you have never seen before and that you may never see again?
Every day we encounter people, eyes make contact, we brush by people, physically come into contact with them, and may never see them again.
But Whitman's notebooks at this time are filled with images, just jottings, of these people, what they're doing, what they look like, what their names are. 'What is this person doing? What's the activity that defines this person?
"If I were doing that activity that person would be me. If I were wandering the other way, rather than this way, that person could be me. That could be me. That could be me. What is it that separates any of us?'
Folsom co-edits The Walt Whitman Archive, a fantastic resource with complete e-texts, photographic images of all of the alternate editions, biographies, scholarly essays, you name it.
The only real downside to the online presentation of the Whitman Documentary (and it's a real downer) is 1) there's no way to watch the whole documentary straight through and 2) the videos can only be displayed as teeny-tiny Quicktime/WMA pop-ups. Come on, PBS! Broadcast TV has finally figured out how to rock the computer screen in fullscreen HD -- so has YouTube, Comedy Central, and, um, everybody. The people demand that their public digital television be done up right.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Design, Media Galaxy, Recommended
February 6, 2009
The Inevitability of Electronic Reading
Many of you have probably read John Siracusa's insightful, entertaining, and long anecdotal history of e-books at Ars Technica. Still, with Amazon set to make a big Kindle-related announcement early next week, it seems like a good time to highlight this sample:
In 2003, Apple started selling music for the iPod through its iTunes music store. Apple sold audio books as well, through a partnership with Audible. Perhaps unknowingly, Apple had just positioned itself perfectly for e-book domination.
It was all happening right before our eyes. First the device, already far past the minimum threshold for screen size and legibility, and rapidly gaining market penetration. Then the digital distribution channel, accessed via a desktop application used by every iPod owner. Then the deals with content owners—not just the independent labels or the scraps from the big table, but all the top record labels, and for their most popular content...
The e-book market was Apple's for the taking.
And then a funny thing happened: Apple never took it... The iPod sold in numbers that made the PDA phenomenon look quaint. And still Apple didn't move. No one moved. The entire e-book market was stalled.
These were the dark times for the e-book market, akin to the five years during which Internet Explorer 6 had over 90% market share and received no major updates. Here was this technology that had so much potential but was not making any substantial progress in the market because the players who were motivated to drive it forward had failed or been rendered powerless by larger forces.
February 4, 2009
Book Update: First Deadlines, Production Brainstorm
Wow! We're off to a great start towards a book on the new liberal arts. How do I know? My scrollbar gets teeeeny-tiny when I click that link.
We're talking about potential NLAs like archiving, attention economics, branding, collaboration, home economics, mapping, micropolitics, photography, play, urbanism, writing for computers -- the list goes on and on. And I'm realizing that we're going to have to get good at a bunch of these new skills, fast, just to make this thing.
So what comes next? Starting this weekend, we'll reach out to some contributors from the comment thread on that original post; then, we'll all spend the next week writing and editing. The deadline for copy will be Monday, February 16.
After that... we design the book!
Then, of course, there's printing; we're thinking hard about that step. If you have any tips, insights, or leads related to that part of the process, we'd love to hear them. You can leave a comment on this post or send an email: Is there a printing company you love? Some new print-on-demand scheme that we should know about? Elephant poop paper? Etc.
Look for another book update early next week. And, if you haven't yet suggested a new liberal art of your own -- now is precisely the time! Jump in.
Seriously, look at that scrollbar. It's barely there.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, New Liberal Arts
February 2, 2009
A SNARKMARKET BOOK PROJECT: The New Liberal Arts
Paper is the new black, so we're making a book.
Actually, we're making it because the comments and conversation on Snarkmarket deserve this kind of durability. And because, hey, we're a book-ish crew: This will be fun.
So here's the frame:
It's 2009. A generation of digital natives is careening towards college. The economy is rebooting itself weekly. We have new responsibilities now -- as employees, citizens, and friends -- and we have new capabilities, too. The new liberal arts equip us for a world like this. But... what are they?
The time is ripe to expand and invigorate our notion of the liberal arts. Is design a liberal art now? How about photography? Food? Personal branding?
We don't want to generate a canonical list, but rather a laundry list. We want pitches for new liberal arts that are smart, provocative, insightful, surprising, and/or funny.
Together, they'll read a little like the course catalog for some amazing new school. (The College of Snarks and Letters? Our endowment is untouched by the financial crisis!)
So now we'd like to ask for your help.
There are two ways to be part of the book:
- Make a pitch for a new liberal art. It can be something you know lots about, or something you wish you knew lots about. It can be general or specific. It can be anything. Leave your first draft as a comment on this post, and don't worry about thinking it all the way through. Don't worry about length, either. If we decide to include your pitch in the book, we'll work all of that out.
- Help promote the project. Even if pitching a new liberal art isn't your speed, someone in your network might have a great idea. So blog this post; Twitter it; email it to your two nerdiest friends. Here's a shortened link, if it's helpful: http://is.gd/i4lG
Let's move fast on this. We'll collect pitches for new liberal arts over the course of the next week. Then we'll switch quickly to editing, design, and production.
The book will be slim, and the print run will be small. And I'll post details on price (cheap) and availability as soon as I have them.
This is a Snarkmarket/Revelator Press co-production. We've admired the spirit and design of the Revelator e-chapbooks for ages, so now we're going to team up to make something you can actually hold in your hands.
Welcome to the curriculum planning committee. What does the class of the 21st century need to know?
Update: Wow! There are now over 100 contributions and comments below -- but don't feel like you have to read them all to post one of your own. We're going for free-form idea generation here, so have at it!
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', New Liberal Arts
February 1, 2009
Post-Office Correspondence Art
Dan Visel at if:book has a super entry/exhibition on postal art from Ray Johnson to Ben Greenman:
Johnson ran what he called the New York Correspondence School; he used the word correspondence not simply for its reference to communication but for the way he made associations with words and graphic elements in his collages... Membership was seemingly capricious and full of contradictions: members included institutions and the dead; the school committed suicide publicly at least once; and it was at best the most constant member of a baffling parade of clubs and organizations that Johnson ran, including, at random, Buddha University, the Deadpan Club, the Odilon Redon Fan Club, the Nancy Sinatra Fan Club...
"The whole idea of the Correspondence School," Johnson told Richard Bernstein in an interview with Andy Warhol's Interview in August, 1972 "is to receive and dispense with these bits of information, because they all refer to something else. It's just a way of having a conversation or exchange, a kind of social intercourse." Emblematic of Johnson's work might be his Book about Death, begun in 1963, which consisted of thirteen printed pages of collaged images and text, which were mailed individually to Clive Phillpot, chief librarian at the Museum of Modern Art, and others. (A few pages are reproduced below.) The Book about Death was discorporate, as befits a book about death; more than being unbound, Johnson made sure that none of his readers received a complete set of the pages of the book. The book could only be assembled and read in toto by the correspondents working in concert: it was a book that demanded active participation in its reading. The content as well as the form of the Book about Death request active participation: the names of his correspondents feature prominently in it, but understanding of what Johnson was doing with those names requires some knowledge of the people who had those names.
One of my favorite recent literature/history/theory books is Bernhard Siegert's Relays: Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System. Visel doesn't quite say this, but it's clear that despite Johnson's humanist intents, he was using the technology of the mails in a way that was pretty resolutely anti-nostalgic. (In his fake-manifesto "Personism," Frank O'Hara says that he once realized while he was writing a poem for someone that he could just as easily pick up the telephone and call them -- you might say that Johnson realized he could just as easily send them a cheap postcard.)
Greenman, on the other hand, with his de luxe edition "book" collecting accordioned pamphlets and postcards, is working in a different register, where similar gestures connote a backwards-looking resistance to both electronic communication and industrial book design. But (and here Visel is spot on) both foreground the notion that literature doesn't just have a reader but a recipient -- a correspondent, so to speak -- whose contact with the author begins with (but isn't necessarily limited to) buying or reading or thinking about or talking about the book.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Design, Object Culture
January 30, 2009
Virginia Heffernan at NYT would totally be way up high in my bloggers' fantasy draft, with Scott Horton, John Gruber, Carmen van Kerckhove, Jim Fallows, Daniel Larison, Ron Silliman, Ben Vershbow (ret.), Eileen Joy... anyways, you see where this is going.
Anyways, her new magazine essay on digital reading with her three-year-old son is eminently blogworthy, not least for the universal reference:
I'd like for Ben to sit with One More Story and come away with the impression that he'd been read beautiful books all afternoon. But Ben tends to ask for One More Story when he wants privacy, the same state of mind in which he likes videos. Books, by contrast, are for when he feels snuggly.
Which brings up something significant about books for a 3-year-old: whatever else preschool reading is, it's intimate. Before you can read, you get to see books mostly when you're cuddled up with an adult or jostling with other kids in a circle.
Heffernan goes on to say: "I'm not sure he's developing an appreciation for books. But he is learning how to enrich his solitude, and that is one of the most intensely pleasurable aspects of literacy." Other intriguing thoughts include the relationship between interactive digi-books and video games, TV, and movies, the Freakonomics thesis that having books in your house is more important than reading them to your children, and a reluctant skepticism towards viewing digital reading as "reading-plus." I don't agree with everything VH throws out there, but it's all worthwhile.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Braiiins, Learnin', Object Culture, Recommended, Video Games
January 28, 2009
This is great: a librarian identifies curiously common references to "cuddling" in newspaper discussions of print and electronic books. As in, nobody is ever going to use an e-book reader because you can't "cuddle" (up with) it.
Preferably, it appears, by a fire. Because apparently everybody's got a fireplace that they read in front of, and without a proper fire, chair, smoking jacket, and appropriate analog print media, there's no reason to spend hard money on a book, magazine, or newspaper.
My favorite rejoinder is the one outlier: "Forget about the warmth a real book offers when you cuddle up with it by the fire. People spend so much time on buses and planes, in boring meetings, or at kids' soccer practices or hockey games."
I've been spending a lot of time lately thinking about sites of reading and the different physical relationships to text they require. It's fascinating how particular sites and ways of reading crowd out others -- often to make a new activity seem MUCH more new than it really is.
January 24, 2009
Mega-Recommendation: M. T. Anderson
There are recommendations, and then there are recommendations. I am about to deploy the most powerful recommendation I can muster. This is my Trident missile of recommendations. This is my Mario bouncing star power-up of recommendations.
I discovered a short stack of copies of M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing on the floor in a hidden corner of Green Apple Books many months ago. They were steeply discounted, so I guess the truth is that they were trying to get rid of them, but in retrospect, having read this book, it feels more like I stumbled onto secret treasure. Say the password, make the right hand-sign, and the clerk directs you to the hidden cache.
Octavian Nothing is a story set against the backdrop of the American Revolution, but forget everything you know about stories set against the backdrop of the American Revolution, because M. T. Anderson makes it all strange and new again. I won't give you the big plot summary here; you can find that on Amazon or Powell's.
What you should know is that the voice of the narrator is completely infectious, that the book is incredibly presented (it play-acts at being a bundle of documents from the 18th century), and, most of all, that the story communicates, more than any book or movie I've ever encountered, more even than HBO's John Adams, the contingency of the time. Anderson renders the Revolution as a crazy, dangerous scheme that is almost certainly going to fail. It's thrilling.
So, okay, fine. Fun, smart book set against the American Revolution. But before you read Octavian Nothing (or the sequel, just published recently), you gotta read Feed.
Anderson wrote it before Octavian Nothing, and I like it even better:
People were really excited when they first came out with feeds. It was all da da da, this big educational thing, da da da, your child will have the advantage, encyclopedias at their fingertips, closer than their fingertips, etc. That's one of the great things about the feed -- that you can be supersmart without ever working. Everyone is supersmart now. You can look things up automatic, like science and history, like if you want to know which battles of the Civil War George Washington fought in and shit.
It's more now, it's not so much about the educational stuff but more regarding the fact that everything that goes on, goes on on the feed. All of the feedcasts and the instant news, that's on there, so there's all the entertainment I was missing without the feed, like the girls were all missing their favorite feedcast, this show called Oh? Wow! Thing!, which has all these kids like us who do stuff but get all pouty, which is what the girls go crazy for, the poutiness.
Okay, so you get what kind of book this is. Set in a dystopian near-future, it's a total riff on the media madness that surrounds us today.
But no number of clever blockquotes can convey how incredibly Anderson conjures the attitudes and argot (oh, the argot) of his teenage characters. Now can they convey how unconventional this book is -- in its merciless satire, in its determination to stay dark (and real) when it would be sooo easy and satisfying to get light and let characters off the hook and wrap things up with a bow. No bows in Feed.
And, oh, just wait 'til you read about the lesions.
Feed isn't about technology; in fact, the characters barely understand how it works. They barely understand anything about the world around them. Instead, it's about ways of thinking, and ways of living. If the story just stayed at the level of sharp satire, I wouldn't be recommending it. But that's only a springboard to something much deeper -- something deeply moral, I think.
Feed starts with this line --
We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.
-- and it ends up breaking your heart.
January 23, 2009
The great historian and librarian Robert Darnton weighs the consequences of the Google Books settlement:
Google has no serious competitors. Microsoft dropped its major program to digitize books several months ago, and other enterprises like the Open Knowledge Commons (formerly the Open Content Alliance) and the Internet Archive are minute and ineffective in comparison with Google. Google alone has the wealth to digitize on a massive scale. And having settled with the authors and publishers, it can exploit its financial power from within a protective legal barrier; for the class action suit covers the entire class of authors and publishers. No new entrepreneurs will be able to digitize books within that fenced-off territory, even if they could afford it, because they would have to fight the copyright battles all over again. If the settlement is upheld by the court, only Google will be protected from copyright liability.
Google's record suggests that it will not abuse its double-barreled fiscal-legal power. But what will happen if its current leaders sell the company or retire? The public will discover the answer from the prices that the future Google charges, especially the price of the institutional subscription licenses. The settlement leaves Google free to negotiate deals with each of its clients, although it announces two guiding principles: "(1) the realization of revenue at market rates for each Book and license on behalf of the Rightsholders and (2) the realization of broad access to the Books by the public, including institutions of higher education."
What will happen if Google favors profitability over access? Nothing, if I read the terms of the settlement correctly. Only the registry, acting for the copyright holders, has the power to force a change in the subscription prices charged by Google, and there is no reason to expect the registry to object if the prices are too high. Google may choose to be generous in it pricing, and I have reason to hope it may do so; but it could also employ a strategy comparable to the one that proved to be so effective in pushing up the price of scholarly journals: first, entice subscribers with low initial rates, and then, once they are hooked, ratchet up the rates as high as the traffic will bear.
This is Darnton's bleaker vision; at other points, he suggests that digitization may still yet create a new Enlightenment. On balance, it looks like there are winners, losers, missed opportunities, and new possibilities, but mostly a lot of work still to be done.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin'
January 19, 2009
Language Refracting in History's Gravitational Well
Listen to it!
I heard King's "I Have a Dream" on the radio this afternoon. Despite the grandeur of the visuals of the March on Washington, and the power of the text, I think that radio is the best way to experience it. I am amazed, as a writer, teacher, poet, and speaker, at the range of King's elocutionary instrument.
He doesn't just use every sonorous rhetorical tool in the book. He makes words rhyme which shouldn't. He finds transitory consonants and bends them to fit his alliterative schemes. He has the most versatile spondaic foot I've ever heard, so much so it could pass for iambic. (Try to find a genuinely unstressed syllable -- or unstressed thought -- in the way King says "We Will Not Be Satisfied.")
And he matches and varies his pitch to highlight his parallelisms of matter and mind, in his voice and in the air; a small, thickly built man, speaking from the roots of the trees, from the center of the earth, knowing that the extension of his own gravity stretches like a column from the molten core to the orbit of the moon. He is a single still point with the granted power to bend straight the crooked lines of history.
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such
The protagonists of disposable lesbian fiction—romances and mysteries—have had varied lines of work over the years. Back in the late 1950s and early '60s, Beebo Brinker—the butch anti-hero of the first pulps in which lesbian characters weren't all evil, sick, or suicidal—delivered pizzas and operated an elevator because those jobs allowed her to wear trousers... In the last few years, though, a new hero has emerged: Braver, fitter, and more sensitive than a cop, more honorable than a PI, the Secret Service agent is the perfect romance paragon, particularly for lesbian readers...
It isn't just a matter of looking good in a suit and being able to handle a trigger. Although lesbians no longer hide in the shadows, everyone appreciates discretion, and Secret Service agents are the ultimate strong, silent type—they fade into the background without hiding, they keep their mouths shut, and they have your back. But the question of protection is especially complicated territory for women involved with other women. Since our relationships aren't recognized by the state, we aren't always able to shield our partners from hardship and can't offer them the social-welfare benefits that marriage confers... In the real world, security is a fantasy even more desirable, and more elusive, than endless love.
Now here's where it gets (yes) even more interesting. The popular series Thomas references as her prime subgenre exemplar started in 2002. But check out Slate's terrific "Related in Slate" sidebar:
Scout Tufankjian, a photojournalist who spent almost two years covering the Obama campaign, became fascinated by his Secret Service detail; she said the experience "felt like traveling with the 40 or so older brothers and sisters I had never wanted: They were nosy and overprotective and fun to be around." Brendan I. Koerner explained who is entitled to Secret Service protection, while David Greenberg described how the protective service developed its mystique. Back in 1998, David Plotz described the gushing cultural representations of Secret Service agents as "protection porn."
Here's Plotz's truncated description of the idea (this time in hetero guise):
Protection Porn includes the movie In the Line of Fire, sundry authorized TV specials, and countless articles the service cooperated with. The notable qualities of Protection Porn: It is obsessed with the image of the stiff-suited, sunglassed, wrist-miked, stone-faced agent, and it dwells on the (admittedly impressive) fact that agents make themselves targets, spreading themselves to take bullets rather than ducking them. Unlike other law enforcers and soldiers, who have the ambiguous duty of attacking, Secret Service agents only defend. They are self-sacrificing, self-abnegating, irreproachable.
If I were to add anything to these two takes, it would be to say something like this: the dramatic arc of the secret service and/or bodyguard-themed romance inevitably begins with an adversarial relationship. Neither the protectee nor the protector trust each other, and they're resentful of the intrusion of the other onto their life/work. Only later, after near-constant nagging and dramatic demonstrations of loyalty, is trust gained and romance begun.
This is an allegory of all romantic relationships. Only it picks up at some midway point, when the relationship is contentious and you resent the other person's demands on your time and attention. (Historically, for me, this has been three months into any given relationship.) Then something happens and you clear the hurdle, convinced that your partner DOES have your best interests at heart and that your life would be unimaginable without them. And in fact, "hurdle" is the appropriate metaphor, because in the lifetime of a relationship, this is what happens again and again.
After all, what is the virtue of the protector? The protector keeps away the intrusions of the outside world, which allows for the intensity of the relationship to flourish in isolation. Protection porn is the fantasy of romance regained.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Fairy-Tale Marriage, Society/Culture
January 14, 2009
The Inaugural Inaugural
The Milestone Documents blog is counting down the top five inaugural addresses. (Even the act of assembling such a list sounds like the nerdiest bar game ever, the kind I would play with Sarah Vowell in my fever dreams.)
[Edit: Indeed, on the Milestone Documents front page, Kennedy's speech is today's "Spotlight Document," along with the tagline: "From George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to John F. Kennedy, presidents have used the inaugural address to outline their agendas and provide a vision of how they intend to govern. Which addresses have had the biggest impact?" So what's the suspense here? Which one is number one?]... Read more ....
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', Snarkpolitik
Here in Washington, the compound adjective of the moment is “shovel-ready.” That’s the description of stimulus projects that are ready to go on the day President-elect Obama takes office. For the most part, as the term implies, it refers to large infrastructure projects like the building of new roads or bridges..
But one obvious project that’s also ready to go on day one is the scanning of the contents of the Library of Congress. Today there’s a ceremonial event at the LC to showcase the thousands of books already scanned as part of the LC’s partnership with the Internet Archive, and to highlight the potential of a mass digitization project. It goes without saying that this project could be extended easily to other cultural heritage institutions. IA already has a dedicated scanning center in the LC, and just needs the funds to expand its project
Cohen goes on to defend the virtues of a mass public digitization project vs. the Google Books model. Let me add a dissenting voice to the chorus, though -- or rather, a complimentary optimism about the possibilities of for-profit digitization.
In particular, I'm holding out for some kind of universally-adopted, ad-supported, revenue-sharing remunerative model whereby books that are in copyright (whether they're in print or not) can be made more widely available for reading and/or preview. In short, I want the radio for books. And for private institutions like libraries and universities, I want something closer to a real virtual library, preserving old and new books alike. And I will posit that a large, for-profit entity like Google is in the best position to do that.
NB: I am not in any way discounting the value of digitizing out-of-print and rare books, journals, etc. My professional life as an academic depends on these projects. But I do think that it is far from the full story looking at how this whole show moves forward.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin'
January 8, 2009
The Seminary Co-Op
Man, all of my old haunts in Hyde Park are now famous. The Los Angeles Times writes up Barack Obama's favorite bookstore:
"Just a few days before the election, Barack was in here with his daughters," Cella recalls in a soft voice. He smiles. "I suppose I should say, 'the president-elect,' right? People around here are just so excited.
"There was a crew from 'Good Morning America' in here the other day," he adds. Journalists have been stopping by regularly to get a sense of the place that feeds Obama's intellectual hunger.
What makes the Co-op appealing to discerning customers such as the Obama family is the atmosphere and eclectic yet also wide-ranging selection of books. Credit for those virtues, many say, belongs to Cella, who has run the place since 1968. The Co-op is like a theme park for the mind: Walking through it, each twist and turn is likely to reveal a new intellectual thrill. You might come across a book you didn't know existed -- but whose theme instantly intrigues you -- or a book for which you've been searching all your life. The store is an adventure in itself, a series of forking, book-lined paths that wind around through room after room after room, and each subsequent area brims with amazing volumes. There is the philosophy room, the religion room, the history room, the language room -- and on and on it goes, an enchanted forest of multicolored spines and preoccupied customers.
The Co-Op does bring the goods. I love David Derbes's rat-a-tat catalogue of treasures:
"Want the 'Oxford Classical Text of Tacitus'? 'Annals'? The standard Freud in German? The Steinsaltz Talmud? A Hittite dictionary? Five volumes of Michael Spivak's 'Differential Geometry'? George F. Kennan's memoirs? Carl Sandburg's life of Lincoln? Sara Paretsky's essays? They're all on the shelves of the Seminary Co-op."
Rachel Leow bookporned the Co-Op in March. You have to see her pictures for the close attention she pays to the (ahem) unique architecture of the shop. And I want Good Morning America to ask some hard questions about the strength of the Southeast Asia section!
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Snarkpolitik
December 21, 2008
Poems from 1914
December 18, 2008
Obama As Writer (Well, Co-Writer)
I'm fascinated by Barack Obama's conception of himself as a writer, and doubly fascinated by his partnership with younger-than-me speechwriter Jon Favreau. This Washington Post article by Eli Saslow ("Helping to Write History") indulges both fascinations to the hilt. Enjoy.
December 16, 2008
Learning the Classics, Line-By-Line
Over at Brainiac, Christopher Shea writes about interlineal translation, where each line of text is followed by a native-language (and generally near word-for-word) translations. James Hamilton popularized the method in the early 19th century (interlineal translations are sometimes called "Hamiltonian"), but they've fallen out of favor as a method of language instruction in favor of immersion.
It's really hard to find published interlineal translations, but the writer Ernest Blum says that immersion education has failed and that we ought to resuscitate Hamilton's pedagogy (or something like it) using texts like the Loeb classics, which have opposing-face translations (a method that's still much more common). The Loebs aren't interlineal, but they're the next best thing.
Wait a minute, though -- we're not stuck with the books we've got! We've got computers! As long as we've got the text, we should be able to represent these books any way we want -- as pure foreign-language texts, straight translations, line-by-line, or page-by-page.
If we really want to try giving line-by-line translation a try, someone should design a super-slick front-end for something like the Perseus database that spits out beautiful interlinear translations just for students learning to translate. And make it easy to switch views; in fact, you could do different lessons using different methods.
In fact, I don't understand why we don't have crazy rich client applications like Rosetta Stone packed to the gills with classic texts in every language for people to learn to read great books in their original languages. You could add reference sources, digital footnotes, audio recordings (Ian McKellan reading the Odyssey, anyone?) -- lots of stuff.
There are so many more things -- just simple things, really -- that we could be doing with digital texts. As the other great Homer would say, "I could do a lot of things if I had some money."
December 12, 2008
Best of the Best
Really, really love the Washington Post's extended Best Books of the year -- better I think than the NYT's list or their own top tens.
Only serious omission -- no poetry. I'd feel worse about this if the other best books list didn't practically ignore poetry already.
Also, it's set up as a "holiday guide," which I think makes it easier somehow to get you interested.
December 10, 2008
I love the word "sportswriter." No need for a hyphen (like "letter-writer"), or dressing up the word "write" by writing as "graph" instead ("biographer," "pornographer") or the suffix "-er" with "-ist" or "-ian." "Sportswriter" keeps close company with "screenwriter," "typewriter," and "underwriter," and a wall separates it from "playwright" and "author."
But at the same time, nobody writes with more authority than a sportswriter -- if you don't act like you're pope of the game, nobody takes you seriously -- in part because every serious fan has their own equally infallible proclamations to make about the game, the value of players, coaches' decisions.
And the syntax makes it seem as though "sports" is what's written, not the thing written about; a parallel universe brought into being by the talk about the game, the recording of statistics, and the narratives of players, seasons, teams, the sport itself.
Sportswriters were the first writers I was aware of who actually got paid for writing down what they thought. In particular, it was Mitch Albom -- who before becoming a schmalzy best-selling novelist was a funny, knowledgable columnist whose super-cool photo in the Free Press fascinated me as a kid.
I am a paperwriter, a bookwriter, a blogwriter, a poemwriter. But secretly, I wish I could do all of these things the way a good sportswriter does them; following my object of affection around the country, hashing out opinions and arguments through daily viva voce argument -- in print, on the web, on the radio, on TV.
What if our attachment to all of culture was like our attachment to sports -- democratic, celebrating knowledge, unwavering in its fidelity? There are plenty of things that are deeply unhealthy about our sports-obsessed culture (cf. Burress, Plaxico, et. al.) -- but I still feel like the ideal of sportswriting is as salutary as it is unshakable.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Journalism, Society/Culture, Sports
December 8, 2008
These are all old-ish posts, so maybe this blog has already made the rounds, but I am mesmerized:
Le Corbusier's daily routine. No office 'til 2 p.m.!
Philip Roth's. Solitude.
Haruki Murakami's. Physical activity, repetition.
Benjamin Franklin's. My favorite.
December 7, 2008
Pretty Prose for an Ugly Sport
December 4, 2008
Kottke plugs The Millions' annual Year in Reading list, a collection of (not necessarily timely) awesome-book nominations from interesting Web people. I've actually wanted to read most of the books they recommend, which separates this list from most others.
November 30, 2008
Swann and Odette's Little Phrase
A terrific post by Blair Sanderson sleuthing the real-life identity of the fictional Vinteuil's Sonata from Marcel Proust's Swann's Way.
Since it's at All Music Guide, there are also streaming samples of some of the contenders, including Gabriel Fauré's Violin Sonata No. 1 in A major, Op. 13, César Franck’s Violin Sonata in A major, M. 8, Claude Debussy’s Violin Sonata, L. 140, and Sanderson's most likely candidate, Camille Saint-Saëns’ Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 75.
November 28, 2008
The Endless Shipwreck
Sarah Kerr reviews Roberto Bolańo's 2666 in the NYRB:
Instead of completion we have the physical sense of being in the presence of a confounding object, which we are not yet done investigating. For a while yet, our brain feels rewired for multiplicity. This is not just a cultural or geographical question, though if 2666 contains a lesson it is that people are always from some confluence of factors more bizarre than a country. And it goes deeper than the question of multiple voices. We have eavesdropped on characters and then felt ourselves in the funny, sad, and dangerous process of needing and making meaning. Since there is no logical endpoint, we close with an image from the novel that is out of time. A world of "endless shipwreck," but met with the most radiant effort. It's as good a way as any to describe Bolańo and his overwhelming book.... Read more ....
Three-Dimensional Reading... Read more ....
File under: Beauty, Books, Writing & Such, Recommended
Lévi-Strauss Turns 100*
* This is where it's important to point out that legendary French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss is still alive.
November 27, 2008
100 Notable Books
The NYT's annual booklist is out, in case you missed it.
(BTW, Rex's annual list of lists is also in process.)
November 26, 2008
The Two-Disc Special Edition and Blu-Ray Edition of The Dark Knight ships with a digital AVI copy of the movie; if you buy it on Amazon, you can stream it right away as an Unbox video-on-demand.
Explain to me again why Amazon couldn't make the same model work for books?
Violence to Books
Sin against the Holy Spirit: I'm debating buying a fast sheet-fed scanner and cutting up my library so I can have it with me all the time as PDFs.
Insane? Genius? Should I just get a Kindle instead?
Building Yourself Into Somebody
Rachel Leow with a letter to a young historian:
Only Collect; that is to say, collect everything, indiscriminately... Don't presume too much to know what's important and what isn't. Photocopy journal articles, photograph archives; create bibliographies, buy books; make notes on every article or book you read, even if it's just one line saying "Never read this again"...... Read more ....
November 25, 2008
Encyclopedia Joyceana, 1904
Amardeep Singh on teaching James Joyce's Ulysses:
The encyclopedic quality of Joyce’s novel does pose somewhat of a problem for people who write about Ulysses. There is simply too much there, too many examples, too many variations on the major themes. The best essays on Ulysses tend to take a narrow theme as a focus, and use the development of that theme as a way of finding an angle or a reading of the novel. A classic structure is to take a theme that interests you, and show how it develops in three stages (possibly, amongst the novel's three major characters). For instance, if you were interested in cooking and food, you could take a look at the food that is cooked at Martello Tower in Episode 1 (where Stephen does not eat), one or more of the episodes involving Bloom eating through the middle part of the novel, and finally Molly’s own references to food and eating at the end. The goal, of course, is to find an argument that shows some sort of movement or growing awareness relating to food, as described through these three glimpses into Joyce’s characters' minds.
Even if Ulysses weren't itself an encyclopedia, you could put all of these papers together and make one! Food in Ulysses. Porno in Ulysses. Jesuits in Ulysses. Tramcars in Ulysses. Soap in Ulysses.
You could do the same thing with Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Proust, or The Bible, but it is sometimes hard not to think that Joyce's book is the Borgesian book that contains all other books.
November 24, 2008
The Gift, The Commons, The Republic
Thanks to a timely permalinking intervention, I caught a NYTmag story from the 16th that I would have missed, about Lewis Hyde and crafting a new notion of copyright. Half-profile, half-summary, it wanders a lot over its five pages, but has great paragraphs like this one:
Thinker-politicians like Jefferson, Adams and Madison were just as familiar as we are with the metaphor that likens created work to physical property, especially to a landed estate. But they thought of that landed estate in a new way — as the basis of a republic. An American’s land was his own — he owed allegiance to no sovereign — but his ownership imposed on him an almost sacred moral requirement to contribute to the public good. According to Hyde, this ethic of “civic republicanism” was the ideological engine that drove the founders’ conception of intellectual property, and to his mind, it undercuts the ethic of “commercial republicanism” that dominates our current conception of it. Our right to property is not absolute; our possessions are held in trust, as it were. Seen through the prism of early civic Republicanism, Hyde asks, what might the creative self look like? Do we imagine that self as “solitary and self-made”? Or as “collective, common and interdependent”?... Read more ....
November 16, 2008
This Post Typed By A Robot
The installation 'bios [bible]' consists of an industrial robot, which writes down the bible on rolls of paper. The machine draws the calligraphic lines with high precision. Like a monk in the scriptorium it creates step by step the text.... Read more ....
Starting with the old testament and the books of Moses ‘bios [bible]’ produces within seven month continuously the whole book. All 66 books of the bible are written on rolls and then retained and presented in the library of the installation.
‘bios [bible]’ is focussing on the questions of faith and technical progress. The installation correlates two cultural systems which are fundamental for societies today – religion and scientific rationalism. In this contexts scripture has all times an elementary function, as holy scripture or as formal writing of knowledge.
In computer technology 'basic input output system' (bios) designates the module which basicaly coordinates the interchange between hard- and software. Therefore it contains the indispensable code, the essential program writing, on which every further program can be established.
September 13, 2008
In Memoriam: DFW
I've read these two or three sentences from Infinite Jest over and over since I first encountered them. Scenes from what may be a junkie's last hit, in a bathroom during a party:
'I say is someone in there?' The voice is the young post-New Formalist from Pittsburgh who affects Continental and wears an ascot that won't stay tight, with that hesitant knocking of when you know perfectly well someone's in there, the bathroom door composed of thirty-six that's three times a lengthwise twelve recessed two-bevelled squares in a warped rectangle of steam-softened wood, not quite white, the bottom outside corner right here raw wood and mangled from hitting the cabinets' bottom drawer's wicked metal knob, through the door and offset 'Red' and glowering actors and calendar and very crowded scene and pubic spiral of pale blue smoke from the elephant-colored rubble of ash and little blackened chunks in the foil funnel's cone, the smoke's baby-blanket blue that's sent her sliding down along the wall past knotted washcloth, towel rack, blood-flower wallpaper and intricately grimed electrical outlet, the light sharp bitter tint of a heated sky's blue that's left her uprightly fetal with chin on knees in yet another North American bathroom, deveiled, too pretty for words, maybe the Prettiest Girl Of All Time (Prettiest G.O.A.T.), knees to chest, slew-footed by the radiant chill of the claw-footed tub's porcelain, Molly's had somebody lacquer the tub in blue, lacquer, she's holding the bottle, recalling vividly its slogan for the last generation was The Choice of a Nude Generation, when she was of back-pocket height and prettier by far than any of the peach colored titans they'd gazed up at, his hand in her lap her hand in the box and rooting down past candy for the Prize, more fun way too much fun inside her veil on the counter above her, the stuff in the funnel exhausted though it's still smoking thinly, its graph reaching its highest spiked prick, peak, the arrow's best descent, so good she can't stand it and reaches out for the cold tub's rim's cold edge to pull herself up as the white- party-noise reaches, for her, the sort of stereophonic precipice of volume to teeter on just before the speakers blow, people barely twitching and conversations strettoing against a ghastly old pre-Carter thing saying 'We've Only Just Begun,' Joelle's limbs have been removed to a distance where their acknowledgment of her commands seems like magic, both clogs simply gone, nowhere in sight, and socks oddly wet, pulls her face up to face the unclean medicine-cabinet mirror, twin roses of flame still hanging in the glass's corner, hair of the flame she's eaten now trailing like the legs of wasps through the air of the glass she uses to locate the de-faced veil and what's inside it, loading up the cone again, the ashes from the last load make the world's best filter: this is a fact. Breathes in and out like a savvy diver –
'Look here then who's that in there? Is someone in there? Do open up, I'm on one foot then the other out here. I say Notkin someone's been in here locked in and well, sounding unwell, amid rather a queer scent.'
– and is knelt vomiting over the lip of the cool blue tub, gouges on the tub's lip revealing sandy white gritty stuff below the lacquer and porcelain, vomiting muddy juice and blue smoke and dots of mercuric red into the claw-footed trough, and can hear again and seems to see, against the fire of her closed lids' blood, bladed vessels aloft in the night to monitor flow, searchlit helicopters, fat fingers of blue light from one sky, searching.
September 8, 2008
House of Pancakes
September 7, 2008
I know this is ridiculous, but c'mon... I'm proud of it! My first appearance in a work of Popular Non-Fiction. Big thanks to Jeff Howe for including Current, and both my colleague Ezra and I by extension.
Clearly, you should buy the book, Crowdsourcing, immediately, so as to send an unmistakable message to publishers: Snarkmaster citations mean big money!
August 14, 2008
Ah, the mythic confluence of all things nerdy: Random House is publishing a book called Bat-Manga, edited by Chip Kidd (of course). Here's the story:
[T]he book features Batman and Robin as you've never seen them before -- in original Japanese stories from 1966 and 1967, written and drawn by Manga master Jiro Kuwata, creator of 8-Man! -- collected and translated for the very first time, over forty years after they originally appeared.
UnbeLIEVable. Why was I not told of this sooner?
June 14, 2008
Open That Drafty Window
"I try to observe the 42-degree rule," Mr. Furst said, explaining the cutoff temperature for working in the studio. "I've got radiators and an L. L. Bean vest I wear. I think that was the secret of the Romantic poets: they wrote cold."
June 11, 2008
Fiction With An API
Per Henry Jenkins, fiction is best understood as a platform: a system to build on. The thing you build can be as narrow as your own interpretation, or as expansive as fan fiction, fan art, movies, video games, or even physically-realized artifacts from the fictional world.
So one way to judge the success of a story is to look at how much additional creativity it inspires. By this measure, Harry Potter is a modern masterpiece, and Shakespeare is the king of all time. Seems about right to me.
P.S. No, I have never actually finished one of Henry Jenkins' blog posts, either. But the first three to four paragraphs are always super-smart.
March 31, 2008
Anne Shirley Forever
Whoah, Anne of Green Gables is a hundred years old!
The Guardian celebrates with an essay by Margaret Atwood which includes gems like:
The book was an instant success when it first appeared -- Anne "is the dearest and most loveable child in fiction since the immortal Alice", growled crusty, cynical Mark Twain [...]
(I was going to quote more, but it won't make any sense if you're not an Anne-fan. And if you are, you'll just want to read the whole thing.)
March 23, 2008
NMA Winners '07
March 6, 2008
What's a Library For?
This Slate piece was apparently precision-engineered to appeal to me: Witold Rybczynski on public libraries in the age of Google, set to pictures of some new-ish American Alexandrias.
Some of the spaces are very appealing -- the new Denver Public Library and, of course, the Seattle Public Library -- but I wonder if anyone has tried a more distributed approach? I think of all the branches of the San Francisco Public Library scattered throughout the city -- most are pretty lame and outdated at this point. But they could become an archipelago of coolness with the right kind of design and attention.
I almost think the public library of the future has more in common with Starbucks than the stately fortresses of old: comfortable, accessible, intimate, omnipresent.
And of course, there is coffee and free wifi.
(Via the excellent Design Observer.)
P.S. As an aside -- and I might have mentioned this before -- librarians were the single group most fervently interested in sharing EPIC with their colleagues and talking about its implications. This is a group of people that's actually thinking hard about their -- and our -- future.
February 14, 2008
Developer and Diarist
Wow, this is super-random, but great: a snippet of wonderful, atmospheric prose by... Blake Ross, cofounder of Firefox!
February 9, 2008
The Forbidden Fantasy of Utter Upeaval
This WaPo story by Hank Stuever is terrific, and weird, and a good example of that ripped-from-its-context thing the web does so well: I started reading it and had no idea what was going on. You'll see what I mean.
Even when do you figure out what you're reading, it never quite becomes normal. The story is totally fractured, almost impressionist -- but to good effect. Steuver is a terrific writer, and his subject matter is sublime: American culture as it's experienced in places other than New York and San Francisco. His book Off Ramp is terrific, and its subtitle says it all: "Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere."
February 2, 2008
Reading "The Revolution in Science 1500-1750" by A. Rupert Hall and absolutely loved this line:
Quite how the authentic philosophy of Plato [...] became the father of natural magic -- magical operations without the aid of demons -- seems to be somewhat obscure.
"Magical operations without the aid of demons"! So awesome! "Hey, uh, listen, so if you want to do some magic... but you don't have any demons... try science!"
I'm enjoying the tone of the book. Hall isn't afraid to make positive value-judgments about the scientific worldview (because, he says, that view actually does provide more useful, more complete theories about the world) but at the same time, he doesn't fail to detail all the weird, religious, dogmatic, and/or occult motivations of many early scientists: Vesalius! Mondino! Paracelsus!
January 22, 2008
The Ideas! The Ideas!
Clive Thompson remains the single journalist most perfectly calibrated to my interests, and his latest essay for Wired is no exception. It's about science fiction:
If you want to read books that tackle profound philosophical questions, then the best -- and perhaps only -- place to turn these days is sci-fi. Science fiction is the last great literature of ideas.
From where I sit, traditional "literary fiction" has dropped the ball. I studied literature in college, and throughout my twenties I voraciously read contemporary fiction. Then, eight or nine years ago, I found myself getting -- well -- bored.
I had a friend in college who, upon hearing a science-fiction book recommendation that cited plot, characters, setting, etc., would reply: "Yes, yes, but what about the ideas? The ideas?"
(P.S. So yes, it's probably me who is actually calibrated to Clive Thompson's interests, given the nature of media. That's fine, too.)
The Atlantic Rides Again
The Atlantic, favorite magazine of my middle youth, was kinda lame for a while there, but it's been getting good again -- a fact that had been bumming me out because, of course, I couldn't link to the subscriber-only stories.
So let us celebrate the magazine's resurgence and web-savvy with a couple of pointers:
- The new James Fallows piece on China is exactly what got me into the Atlantic in the first place: Themes of politics and economics, hugely abstract ideas, giant global actors and their dilemmas, etc. I love it that there's none of the usual attempt to concrete-ize and personalize here: No narrative intro with a factory worker in China, for instance. The only narrative in the piece involves the voyage of a U.S. dollar to China and back. I could not love it more.
- Caitlin Flanagan's piece about Katie Couric was the last one I read in this issue, and I almost didn't read it at all. Thank goodness my train was slow, because it was a revelation, in large part because it's as much about Caitlin Flanagan as it is about Katie Couric. Beautifully written, too: Flanagan is a great storyteller and has perfect "tone control," if you know what I mean.
January 18, 2008
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!
Ah, remember how large the Newbery Award used to loom? It seemed like every other book in the elementary school library bore one of those golden foil badges. Was just reminded of this by a lovely Ypulse post about the latest winner, a book called "Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!" by Laura Amy Schlitz:
Originally written in the form of monologues to be performed by her students, the Baltimore librarian wanted to make sure every one could get a part in the production of this piece. And no one wanted a small part.
There are 17 roles, a substantial piece for every single person in her fifth grade classes. She said in an interview that she wrote it with all of her students in mind. She remembered being so disappointed and sad when she would get a token tiny part in the school plays of her own childhood. If for only three minutes, she wanted everyone to be big, to be a star.
I am so going to read this book.
January 16, 2008
Writing in China
Very interesting (and long) write-up of literature in China over in the Guardian. There's this whole burgeoning scene of new writers with (of course) hugeaudiences, totally invisible to (ignored by?) the English-speaking world. Wish I could download Mandarin reading skills.
This bit caught my eye:
The general manager of Penguin China, Jo Lusby, is even more emphatic. "All credible interesting writing in China begins online at the moment," she says. "It's given an added boost because it exists in a relatively free space outside of the tight constraints of traditional publishers."
(Crossposted to Current.)
What's All This Fancy Stuff For, Anyway?
My favorite MacWorld analysis of all comes from Short Schrift:
At any rate, if Jobs' vision of Apple is an increasingly large number of devices on which we can watch Zoolander, I find myself much less enthusiastic about that vision or that world.
Agreed. Let's use technology to disrupt old formats and invent new ones -- not just deliver the same ol' stuff more efficiently.
January 6, 2008
Philip Pullman used to write in a shed in his backyard. Roald Dahl did, too. But here is my new favorite story of a writer and his lair, from Witold Rybczynski's heart-bendingly good book The Most Beautiful House in the World:
George Bernard Shaw was largely indifferent to his physical surroundings -- his house at Ayot Saint Lawrence, where he lived during the last forty-four years of his long life, was a nondescript Victorian rectory. But Shaw too was a builder, and the writing room that he erected in his garden was a Shavian combination of simplicity, convenience, and novelty.
He called it "the Shelter," but it was really a shed, only eight feet square. It contained the essentials of the writer's trade -- a plank desk, en electric lamp, a wicker chair, a bookcase, and a wastepaper basket. Beside the desk was a shelf for his Remington portable -- like [Mark Twain], Shaw was an early amateur of the typewriter. There was also a telephone (modified to refuse incoming calls), a thermometer, and an alarm clock (to remind him when it was time for lunch).
Inside the door was a mat where the fastidious writer wiped his shoes. The shed was austere -- a vegetarian's workplace, one might say; the pine boards and framing were painted white on the inside and left to weather on the exterior. The door, which was placed in the center of the wall, included a glass pane and had a fixed window on each side; a small window on the rear wall opened for ventilation.
The Shelter incorporated an unusual technical feature. Shaw wrote in the morning, and it was to warm the unheated interior that he had located almost all of the glazed openings on one side. To increase the effectiveness of these windows, he devised a curious solution: instead of resting on a foundation, the floor was supported on a central steel pipe, which permitted the entire room to be manually turned, like a revolving Victorian bookstand. This way, Shaw could benefit from the morning sun at different times of year. According to his secretary, however, the hut was never rotated; once it was loaded with furniture and books, it was probably too heavy to move.
I love the one-way telephone.
And seriously, this book was terrific -- not just quirky housing anecdotes (though there are plenty of those), but deep, accessible thoughts on what houses can and do mean to us.
December 23, 2007
Uncle Zip Is Leaving the Building
Now it looks like his blog is winding down; go enjoy it while you still can, and poke around in the archives. I liked his posts on worldbuilding in fantasy and science fiction. But best of all is this, which has a bit of commencement in it, you know?
December 7, 2007
"The iPod Moment"
The Kindle/iPod comparison keeps coming up, usually in service of the point, "Amazon, don't flatter yourself." Which I think is fair. But in reading all this talk about the "iPod moment" for books, I feel as though I have a completely different notion of what that moment meant for music. Sure, on the face of it, Apple's innovation was a tiny-but-capacious music player that allowed us to carry our music library everywhere we wanted. But wasn't the deeper surprise/lesson of the iPod that Apple had essentially invented a need where none had formerly existed?
When I remember 2001, I remember Apple launching a device that garnered some admiration for its technical savvy, but whose price and function drew something of a raised eyebrow from critics. "'Breakthrough digital device' might be pushing it," wrote David Pogue, in his review of the first iPod. ("Apple, don't flatter yourself.") Meanwhile, the first New York Times mention of the device was hardly breathless. The article quoted three people. The first was a Gartner analyst, who said, "It's a nice feature for Macintosh users ... but to the rest of the Windows world, it doesn't make any difference.'' The second was Steve Jobs, who was paraphrased as "disputing the concern that the market was limited, and said the company might have trouble meeting holiday demand. He predicted that the improvement in technology he said the iPod represented would inspire consumers to buy Macintosh computers so they could use an iPod." The RIAA declined to comment, and another analyst simply said, ''This raises the bar." The one actual description of the iPod in the article called it a "hybrid of existing products." The article included an estimate that the size of the market for all digital music devices would be 18 million units by 2005.
I remember this muted enthusiasm pretty clearly because I was one of the skeptics. What could be so impressive about a portable music player? The Walkman's been around almost as long as I have. Storage size? Honestly? What need could I possibly ever have to carry my whole music library around with me? How much music can I lsten to at one time?
32 million iPods were sold in 2005. That's not even counting other digital music devices. This year, the 100-millionth iPod was sold. Clearly there was a market need here for a vast mobile music library that most of us were blind to in 2001.
I now have three iPods.
When folks talk about Kindle doing (or not doing) for books what the iPod did for music, they usually seem to mean creating a tiny-but-capacious e-book reader that allows us to carry our library everywhere we want. But I don't think Bezos et al. are aiming at that at all. I suspect they're trying to create something we didn't know we needed. A leap of imagination so bold, it could only seem obvious in hindsight. Jury's still out on whether or not they succeeded.* But I'm wonderfully excited by the possibility that I could one day encounter something that just transforms my notion of what a book can be.
* Personally, I felt for the Kindle the murmur of a tug I hadn't yet felt for any other digital reading devices, although not strong enough to win me over.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Technosnark
December 6, 2007
While I've Been Out ...
Reader-diners know the pain of trying to balance a thick book and a meal without losing your page or spilling food. As a regular lunchtime reader, I went searching online for a tool that would allow for comfortable hands-free reading -- and eureka! Cleverly designed, this diminutive device is replete with intelligent features: a little pull-out stand supports the book, two sturdy clips hold the pages in place, a pair of pull-out legs holds the book upright on a table. Best of all, spring-loaded page holders on either end make for simple page-turning without the need for repositioning the text; you just grip both holders with one hand and squeeze. I've used the BookGem with a variety of types of books -- everything from thick hardcovers to slim-ish paperbacks -- and it's adapted marvelously. And because it folds down to a pocket-size rectangle, I can easily tuck it in with my book wherever I go.One note: the most ingenious design feature is not the spring-loaded page clips, it's that each of these clips features a little plastic nubbin, behind which you can slip about 10 or 15 pages for easy turning. Am I this guy yet?
December 5, 2007
City of Lost Books
BLDGBLOG's post on book warehousing could not possibly be more evocative and interesting. (He is a master of, among other things, slipping terrific photos into the flow of his text just so.)
But, don't miss the comments either. Autoautism writes:
I had the pleasure of working on the design for a storage library for Stanford a few years back. Three things that I still remember from that experience:
1. Books are placed in quarantine before being allowed into the storage area. Dust mites and other pests love book bindings and you have to make sure your incoming books won't infect the neighbors.
2. If there is a fire, they douse the books in water, and then freeze-dry them back to keep the paper from getting ruined.
3. Books in storage libraries are cataloged in the order that they are received-- the first book in the door is book #1, and so on. Without a very detailed and cross-indexed database, the books would be impossible to find (just like the ark?)
What a world!
December 4, 2007
'I Have Plenty to Say About Him'
Major upside to the impending release of The Golden Compass: lots of interviews with Philip Pullman making the rounds! This one is the best I've seen: an extended e-mail interview that goes deep, deeeep into his theology. And of course there's this bit:
[Interviewer]: Your trilogy does an amazing job of interpreting certain aspects of the Old Testament (and the legends surrounding it) quite literally (e.g. Enoch), and it touches on Church history too -- but if memory serves, there is no mention of Jesus as a character in this cosmology. To some readers, this has been a curious gap. Where does he fit into your mythos? Given that the depiction of everything that came before and after Jesus -- God, Enoch, the Church, etc. -- is pretty negative, would Jesus himself have been "bad" somehow? Or, as a "good" person, did he not fit in?
[Pullman]: His omission from HDM was deliberate; I'm going to get around to Jesus in the next book. I have plenty to say about him.
The next book, recall, is going to be called "The Book of Dust," and Pullman has been working on it for many years now.
November 27, 2007
November 21, 2007
Snarkmarket Holiday Book Recommendation
Briefly: Yes, I agree: Read David Markson's "The Last Novel." It's slim; it's inventive in form but timeless in spirit; and it will shake you up.
What's your recommendation? Stipulation: You only get one! (But you can tell us the runners-up if you want.)
November 19, 2007
It's sort of amazing how the blogosphere has completely inspected and chewed up the Kindle in like eight hours. Done and done.
Tim has a great round-up of links which is worth clicking through. I generally agree with the consensus ("Not shiny! So expensive. Why closed?") but I do think people ought to wait to touch one before completely writing it off. However bad the Kindle is, the Sony Reader was and is ten times as bad, and yet, when I actually held one, and flipped a page... I was intrigued. E-Ink displays are unlike anything else; it's almost unsettling to see what you know is digital information rendered absolutely matte, just like a piece of paper. I think it'd be a trip to see a web page on a display like that.
And that indicates where I part ways with Tim, who thinks Apple could make the device that beats Kindle and its kin. Here's my thing: I think the real revolution is going to be electronic paper -- or at least electronic cardboard. That is: a display that's kinda flexible, and matte, and cheap, and connected to the internet -- but without much style or content of its own. Maybe it's still five years away; but when it comes, I don't think Apple's going to make it. It's just not... shiny enough, you know?
Also: The thing that's really potentially interesting about all this stuff is that, per if:book, our very notion of the book could change: finding one gets faster, reading one gets more social, writing one gets... weird. This seems to be what got Stephen Levy excited in his Newsweek piece. But it also seems that, barring big changes, Kindle abdicates most of that, because it's a closed system. Boo.
November 16, 2007
This Sounds Like Something William Gibson Would Make Up
Regarding Google's plans to bid in the upcoming wireless spectrum auction, PaidContent notes:
Since the auction will be intense, Google has hired game-theory specialists to help plot its auction strategy, the story says.
One of those game theorists is totally a character out of a William Gibson book.
Actually, wait, no. In the Gibson book it would never be Google -- it would be some shadowy Russian holding company. Never mind.
November 12, 2007
The Title is Half the Battle
Poem for a Monday morning: Visiting the Library in a Strange City.
November 6, 2007
'You're Asking Me Whether the Book is True'
The A.V. Club interviews Yann Martel, the author of Life of Pi. No great revelations -- just smart and interesting throughout. Oh, but wait, there is this:
AVC: What's the film's status? Is there actually a director attached at this point?
YM: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the director who did Amélie.
That's pretty crazy! I hope it actually comes to pass.
October 31, 2007
Book of Chap
There's a new Revelator chapbook with nine poems by Gavin. It's called... Nine Poems. Number four is my favorite -- it seems exactly correct to me. (And it describes exactly my favorite kind of bookstore.)
And, not to be overlooked, Brandon Kelley's design continues to be absolutely terrific.
September 30, 2007
September 26, 2007
Today at work, I convened a tiny confab of colleagues for an inaugural, bimonthly, lunchtime essay-reading series. We kicked it off with the National Magazine Award-winning essay Russell and Mary, by Michael Donohue, a work he apparently spent five years putting together.
I've been enjoying the blog Nonfiction Readers Anonymous for its choice snippets of random tomes.
All Aunt Hagar's Children is finally out in paperback.
September 21, 2007
Where Writers Write
I absolutely love this sort of thing: images of the rooms where writers do their writing.
September 19, 2007
The Acts of King Arthur
Um, okay, who knew John Steinbeck wrote an adaptation of the King Arthur legend? Not me! But it sounds sorta mythically awesome in its own right, doesn't it? The lost Excalibur of YA fiction! Bring it on!
Joshua Glenn in the Boston Globe says:
Still, like everything Steinbeck wrote, the book teaches us about regional economic development, gender roles, class structure, and man's inhumanity to man... while remaining a gripping read.
Ha ha -- Steinbeck, the poet laureate of regional economic development. Awesome.
September 17, 2007
Book Club Challenge
All right, Snarketeers, the gauntlet is thrown: Help me come up with a theme and some nominations for readings for my book club.
Every month, one of my fellow book-clubbers is assigned to nominate three or four books. When we meet to discuss the past month's reading, we choose one of the nominees for the next month. Being something of an oddball, I like to organize my nominations around themes. The last time, for example, my theme was "Masters of Humankind." The books I proposed were No god but God (God), The Year of Magical Thinking (Death), The Time-Traveler's Wife (Time), and Moneyball (Money). (The club picked The Time-Traveler's Wife. The actual selection doesn't make much of a difference to me, because I plan to read all the books I propose, and I did.)
The theme can be oblique, clever, or straightforward. (In the straightforward camp, for example, I've been considering the four elements -- Cloud Atlas (Air), Snow (Water), American Prometheus or Dante (Fire), Coal: A Human History or Salt: A World History (Earth).) They can be either a prominent theme of the book or just a play on its title. We prefer books that have been out in paperback, and a nomination almost always goes unpicked if one of us has already read it. I aim for variety in the selection -- memoir, biography, journalistic non-fiction, literary fiction, magical realism, social history.
So, whaddya say? Help me out?
September 15, 2007
It doesn't exactly look comfortable, and it's not exactly pretty. But it's a chair-barrow with a lamp attached to it. It's even apparently got little shelves hidden beneath the armrests. I want one! Alas, all the text is in German, and I don't see anything that resembles an "add-to-cart" button.
September 14, 2007
Prepare for Massive Amazon Wishlist Expansion
What single book is the best introduction to your field? AskMeFi-ers respond. So awesome.
August 23, 2007
The Opening Lines
I have not read any Nabokov. However, based on these amazing opening lines, I think I am going to have to.
August 21, 2007
William Gibson and the New Baroque
Terrific interview with William Gibson over at The Onion A.V. Club -- it includes this bit:
I don't know what constitutes "noir" in 2007. I mean, would The Wire be noir? I don't think so. Actually, noir -- I was taught in college -- is a kind of baroque pop version of literary naturalism. Anyway, that's the way some critics have looked at it. I think that a show like The Wire is the closest we come these days to naturalism. It's a genuine, authentic attempt at naturalism. I've never really attempted naturalism before, but I value it a lot, so all of its more baroque forms have been very valuable to me. One of them, I think, is noir.
I haven't thought about stuff like that since I was an undergraduate. [Laughs.] I'm amazed I can still do it.
Any more nominations for modern baroque in any medium? Or, jeez, good definitions? I feel like I know what it means but can't necessarily articulate it with any great precision.
August 16, 2007
The Poe Toaster Revealed?
Edgar Allen Poe's masked fanatic has allegedly unmasked himself. A 92-year-old Poe-head named Sam Porpora claims to be the originator of the annual tradition of celebrating Poe's birthday with roses and cognac. But he says he's not sure who's continued the toast each year since 1976. The mystery remains ...
August 6, 2007
The Bridge and the River
If Gavin had asked me to link to the newest Revelator Press chapbook -- "The Bridge and the River," a collection of Tim Carmody's poems -- I would have happily done so. As it happens he did not, which gives me the opportunity to link naturally and of my own bloggy volition, for three reasons:
- Allegiance to Tim Carmody, who besides being a terrific blogger and poet (as you'll see), is a prolific & erudite Snarkmarket commenter. This domain is without exaggeration about 25 percent more interesting simply because he stops in as often as he does.
- The poems are really good! In particular, I like "Island," which is short but weighty; "February 13, 2002," which -- well, if movies should start with a murder, then poems should start with a moment you truly recognize, and this one does; and "Horn," which is just sort of titanic.
- The chapbook's design is pitch-perfect. Brandon Kelley knows what's up.
(Note: I love the word "chapbook." I suspect you do as well.)
July 24, 2007
The Power of Potter
I love this: Young legal scholar and blogger James Grimmelman (who I ran into at that Regulating Search conference back in the day) loved Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows so much that he is starting a short-term blog of Potter ruminations. (Be careful with that link! We are talking about a blog specifically predicated on spoilers!) It's terrific and I am totally going to hang out there.
July 17, 2007
There Are Alexandrias Everywhere
David Weinberger points to Open Library, a new project to collect all the world's information about all the world's books. (Rex mentions it too.) Lots of database nerdery involved, and a lovely design.
Related: I used Google's book search to actually read a book for the first time recently. I started online, then just went ahead and downloaded the PDF. It was fun!
July 16, 2007
The Story of Squonk
I just finished reading the McSweeney's story "The Tears of Squonk, and What Happened Thereafter," about a circus elephant hanged for murder in a small Tennessee town in the early 20th Century. Brilliant. Affecting, gripping, wonderfully written, and a little bit heartbreaking. It's one of those stories that you Google when you finish reading it, and then come to find out many wondrous things. For example, the story's not entirely fictional. In fact, an entire book has been written about it, attempting to get at the truth behind what happened that day in Tennessee.
And then there's the squonk, a legendary creature from the Pennsylvanian wilds said to dissolve into a pool of tears and bubbles when cornered.
There's a throwaway reference to a ballet, "La Chauve-Souris Dorée," by a choreographer named Plastikoff -- "a rare work," the story says, "in that it celebrated not courtship, but daily love, the often-pale and unnoticed emotions that pass between a man and wife." Google yields no English references to Plastikoff, but "La Chauve-Souris Dorée," or "The Gilded Bat," is the name of a promising story written and illustrated by Edward Gorey.
I love texts that make you want to Google every word. And I love that you can.
July 10, 2007
Prediction and Prose
Man, William Gibson is seriously one of the very very best writers working today. I feel like he gets most of his props for his prescient ideas and images, but his prose is near-perfect, too. The only writer I can think of who's sharper and leaner (if you like that sort of thing -- I do) is Ha Jin. That's important: There are sooo many guys in sci-fi who are full of great ideas but whose words on the page are liked flopping, gasping fish.
July 3, 2007
This Working Library
Jack Stauffacher, designer and printer, on his books:
"Without this working library," notes Stauffacher, "I would have no compass, no map, to guide me through the density of our human condition."
Hmm. Maybe that's what an alethiometer really looks like?
Tell me this has never happened to you waiting for a red light:
Like me, you probably don't associate the traffic lights on Southampton Row with the end of the world. But it was while waiting there in 1933 that the Hungarian polymath Leo Szilard conceived the idea of a nuclear chain reaction, and thus the creation of the atomic bomb.
In the Telegraph, Tibor Fischer continues:
The car contains Szilard and his de facto chauffeur, Wigner (only Szilard would use a future Nobel Laureate as his taxi service). They are trying to find Albert Einstein to convince him of the need to urge the US government to start building an atomic bomb before the Nazis do.
When they finally locate Einstein and outline how chain reactions can be achieved, Einstein comments: "Daran habe ich gar nicht gedacht" (I hadn’t thought of that). The resulting letter from Einstein to Roosevelt triggers the Manhattan Project. It’s an eerie example of how profoundly one man can influence history.
Someone write this book immediately: a compendium of eureka moments. It should include not just the canonical -- Archimedes in the bath, etc. -- but also the less-famous and, best of all, hitherto-unknown moments. Quantity would be the goal: an epiphany per page, hundreds of them in total, some big, some small.
The goal wouldn't be so much to infer patterns or derive some big Law of Lightbulbs (although you might end up doing both along the way) as it would be to simply create a storehouse of stories about insight... a book that, when browsed, might even generate some new ones as well.
June 19, 2007
Jenny 8. Lee Blogs
Jenny 8. Lee has a blog! It's keyed to her new book, and it's good. You know, blogs really are the great leveler, in that even New York Times reporters must at some point admit this:
Okay. I just registered for hosting at Dreamhost and installed Wordpress.
And indeed, as my friend promised, it was one-click installation + typing in some fields. I had a little stumble with trying to figure out a good nomenclature for the mysql database, as ‘wordpress’ and ‘blog’ (recommended) were being used elsewhere in the Dreamhost world.
Her publisher Twelve has a fun setup:
But instead, Karp launched a small imprint at Warner Books called Twelve -- the idea being that he would publish only twelve books a year and personally edit each one [...]
Seriously though, back to that MySQL thing: I love it that a generation of writers must all now learn a bit of database syntax to be successful.
June 17, 2007
'Steal from The Simpsons, Not Henry James'
Novelists can take from these new art forms [e.g., sitcoms and HBO-quality TV dramas] new structures and techniques for telling stories, as Joyce did from cinema. But who has? Weirdly, the modernists have a more accurate take on now than the most recent Booker winners. Finnegans Wake reads like a mash-up of a Google translation of everything ever. But John Banville and Anita Desai read like nostalgia (for Nabokov, for Dickens, for traditional virtues, for the canon). They feel far less contemporary than The Waste Land -- which is what Bakhtin would call a novelised poem: a poem that escapes Aristotle's Poetics and hitches a ride on the energy of the novel ... Since Joyce and Woolf (and Eliot), the novel's wheels have spun in the sand.
So steal from The Simpsons, not Henry James.
The line "Finnegans Wake reads like a mash-up of a Google translation of everything ever" is gold.
Seriously, though: I want a sharp, funny, forward-looking novel that reads like a cross between Samurai Champloo, Joss Whedon's run on "Amazing X-Men," and a Facebook wall. Not another tome about, like, "the nature of memory and loss"* set in 1965 Buenos Aires.
*Not actually a quote from anything but it might as well be.
June 11, 2007
David Brin's Respect
Discover Magazine has a short interview up with science fiction author David Brin. They ask him how he's chalked up such a good record as a prognosticator, and this is what he says:
Peering ahead is mostly art. We all have tricks. One of mine is to look for "honey-pot ideas" drawing lots of fad attention. Whatever's fashionable, try to poke at it. Maybe 1 percent of the time you'll find a trend or possibility that's been missed. Another method is even simpler: Respect the masses. Nearly all futuristic movies and novels -- even sober business forecasts -- seem to wallow in the same smug assumption that most people are fools. This stereotype led content owners to envision the Internet as a delivery conduit to sell movies to passive couch potatoes. Even today, many of the social-net and virtual-world companies treat their users like giggling 13-year-olds incapable of expressing more than a sentence at a time of actual discourse.
Good, prescient stuff throughout.
And! If you haven't read the thrilling tale of the Streaker and her neo-dolphin crew, then by all means, do so immediately!
June 9, 2007
Short Stack Stories
Nina Katchadourian tells little tales via titles on book spines, e.g.
Click through and look for the one called "Shark Journal."
Incidentally, I've been moving books today and thinking about arranging them by color.
May 30, 2007
Real Writers Use Courier 12
Slate asks a bunch of writers to describe the fonts they use to compose new drafts. An astonishing number love Courier! Ack!
Here's one of my favorite rationales, though:
I like Courier because it seems provisional -- I can still change my mind -- whereas Times New Roman and its analogues look like book faces, meaning that they feel nailed down and immovable. I also like the fact that in Courier each letter is accorded the exact same amount of space, which I think is only fair to the i and the l.
I have no special font preference but I do tend to draft things in 14-point instead of 12-. That way I can lean back a bit further... judge a bit deeper... also, it makes me feel like I'm accomplishing more.
How about you, Snarkmatrix?
May 2, 2007
... the cast of characters in what is arguably the worst administration since Nixon's strikes me as devoid of literary interest.
...is totally wrong. This cast of characters -- Cheney, Rumsfeld, the Bushes -- is full of literary interest! Reading Barry Werth's 31 Days, it struck me how long and strange their story has been. And the cauldron of spite, idealism, conniving, and hubris that is Iraq: It's tragedy in the deepest sense.
But this is not a confessional crowd, and that's unlikely to change even after they're out of office, so it is precisely the job of the modern novelist (as opposed to the journalist, or even the historian) to give us some insight into their psyches.
A good, honest, complicated psychological novel about George W. Bush? I would read that in a second.
April 29, 2007
2007 National Magazine Award Finalists
Decades before Lex Luthor, The Joker, Diabolik, Satanik, Catwoman, Fu Manchu, Doctor Mabuse and all the rest, there was Fantomas, arguably the first costumed super-criminal ever, who terrorized Paris in his monthly magazine appearances.
I've mentioned it before, but Pope's blog is a gem -- full of fun insights and sketches.
April 26, 2007
Frothing at the Brain
William Gibson's new book "Spook Country" comes out this summer. I cannot wait. Here is a sneak peek from TIME's nerdblog written by Lev Grossman:
Your heroine is Hollis Henry, a freelance journalist assigned by a Wired-like startup magazine called Node to write about (mysterious, reclusive) artist who creates hologram-installations of historic events on the sites where they actually happened. Gibson's books are usually about his pet topics of the moment, as much as they're about his characters, so here's a brief list of Spook Country's idees fixes: art, forgery, drugs, Manhattan, Los Angeles, large quantities of data, pirates (here I'm quoting the press release), the CIA, tramp freighters, weapons of mass destruction, war profiteers, and "vast amounts of cash leaving the country."
Actually, it kinda sounds like a parody of a William Gibson book, doesn't it? I don't care. I'm in.
April 23, 2007
Warren Ellis Rides Again
Transmet was a work of optimism. It was about Truth, and Authenticity. Doktor Sleepless, frankly, isn't. It's about liars, secrets, fraud and death. We're in a period where we distrust authenticity, because we've just been lied to too much. The minute someone stops being a cartoon and starts being real, we beat the shit out of them.
Ellis's Bad Signal email list consistently reads like the sort of thing one of his future-guerrilla-media characters would write.
April 20, 2007
A Bit of Foolscap, Talking to the Ether
Despite how dorky it looks, I am a little bit excited about this new Amazon.com e-book reader. It's almost entirely because it has high-speed wireless internet access. That's the whole point of an e-reader, I think: If I just want to tote around Harry Potter, books work fine. But if I want to tote around Bloglines... hmm!
April 15, 2007
Somewhere, There's an Aphorism Just for Me
After seeing Life of Pi yesterday on the shelf, picking it up for the nth time, and perusing the dust jacket, like always, I thought to myself, "I should get this book. It has been recommended to me by many readers I trust. It won the Booker Prize. It sounds like a rollicking good read. It meets the page 69 test." And then I put it back on the shelf. I'm still not sure exactly why, but I think I'm getting closer to an answer: I hate the cover. The illustration makes me unhappy, the fonts make me retch, the color offends me. It is an aesthetic aversion for which I can offer no defense whatsoever. None. I just gotta confess. It's irrational, I know. I'm depriving myself of cultural delights, I understand. But I think something about that cover makes me really not want to read that book. Anyone care to make a similar confession, or am I the only insane one here?
April 12, 2007
48 in 48
Pat Walters at Poynter (yo) is going to the National Writers' Workshop in Hartford this weekend. He's going to drum up 48 writing tips in 48 hours and post them here. I think this is a feat of public education Herculean enough to merit close attention.
(Plus, I've been to the NWWs, and they are seriously always full of good stuff.)
April 2, 2007
'Souvenirs of the Way We Felt'
Good piece in The Economist about the future of books:
Books are not primarily artefacts, nor necessarily vehicles for ideas. Rather, as Mr Godin puts it, they are "souvenirs of the way we felt"ť when we read something. That is something that people are likely to go on buying.
That's a good line, and at least a little true, I think.
Books are also expensive wallpaper -- not a bad thing -- and, I swear, little souls, too. It's all just patterns, right? So books are just crude, durable patterns. And probably still the best passage to 1,000 years from now that we've got. Write a book!
March 3, 2007
'Livable Utopian Subsets of the World'
Short interview with Jonathan Lethem in the Boston Globe's great Ideas section this week:
IDEAS: You allude to autism often in your work. In the new novel, you just about declare Carl to be a high-functioning autistic. Why so much interest in autism and Asperger's syndrome?
LETHEM: It's evocative for me. I'm enticed by it.
IDEAS: Not that I'm diagnosing you.
LETHEM: But don't be afraid of diagnosing me. I see Asperger's as a defining property in a lot of areas where it is denied by the participants. So I don't want to be denying it in myself.
And when I think about Asperger's syndrome I think about communities and subcultures, for example, the science fiction subculture, and science fiction conventions. What kind of people go there, to feel they have a people? When I go, it feels to me that they are bound by a thinly coded, super high-functioning Asperger's affiliation. And there's the Internet, which is a kind of autistic Greenwich Village, a place where people wander around trying to figure out whether they fit.
There are subcultures in a lot of my work. I see them as places where people try to make livable utopian subsets of the world.
That is awesome.
Recommended: Lethem's early (and not-that-well-known) book "Gun, With Occasional Music" is weird and terrific.
A Voice from Bangladesh
Solid op-ed in the NYT about Bangladesh's dire susceptibility to global warming. The piece also serves as a heads-up on Tahmima Anam, its author, who has a novel set in Bangladesh coming out soon. Cool!
But in Bangladesh, where millions of people live at or near sea level, even a small increase could produce a catastrophe. In a severe monsoon, 60 million to 100 million people could be forced to flee inundated areas, Schwartz warns, producing "the single greatest humanitarian crisis we have ever seen."
Lots more in that GBN report, too -- worth a look.
February 8, 2007
Jonathan Lethem has plagiarized together an entrancing paean to intellectual theft:
Artists, or their heirs, who fall into the trap of attacking the collagists and satirists and digital samplers of their work are attacking the next generation of creators for the crime of being influenced, for the crime of responding with the same mixture of intoxication, resentment, lust, and glee that characterizes all artistic successors. By doing so they make the world smaller, betraying what seems to me the primary motivation for participating in the world of culture in the first place: to make the world larger.You might not agree with all of it, but boy howdy, is it a rollicking great read. Definitely do not miss the footnotes:
The effort of preserving another's distinctive phrases as I worked on this essay was sometimes beyond my capacities; this form of plagiarism was oddly hard work.
February 1, 2007
There's More Than One Kind of Comics in Asia
Everybody knows about manga -- but what about manhua and manhwa? (Subtext: Rumors of U.S. cultural hegemony greatly exaggerated. Have you seen the manga aisle in Borders lately?)
December 24, 2006
My Father's Suitcase
Orhan Pamuk's Nobel lecture, reprinted in The New Yorker, rocks:
A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him who he is. When I speak of writing, the image that comes first to my mind is not a novel, a poem, or a literary tradition; it is the person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and, alone, turns inward. Amid his shadows, he builds a new world with words.(BTW, Io, Saturnalia!)
December 21, 2006
...and the Deathly Hallows
December 11, 2006
You Can Actually Get College Credit for This
Check out the comments brewing under the last post. Makers of possibilities! Seekers of solitude! Author-functions! Good stuff.
December 10, 2006
What's An Author?
What's an author? Why, just the sum of her readers, of course!
This is not to say that all networked writing will take place in vast wiki collectives. The individual author will be needed more than ever as a guide through the info-glutted landscape. But writers' relationship with their readers will change as writing moves from the solitary desk to the collaborative network. No longer just an audience, readers will become assets, and eventually writers will be judged not for the number of books they sell but for the quality and breadth of their networks.
And then imagine that perhaps it is not actually a new phenomenon. What's Plato but the collection of people who have read, discussed, and saved Plato? What's Rachel Carson without the same?
I am newly in love with the idea of authorship as the creation of a community -- by whatever means necessary or possible -- around your ideas.
English majors, have at it.
(Link from Forbes.com's great and completely-out-of-left-field report on books.)
December 4, 2006
The Original Miss Manners
One of the tons of literary references in The Year of Magical Thinking is to the section of Emily Post's Etiquette that deals with funerals. Didion mentions she ran across Etiquette on the Internet, and sure enough, here it is, with its ultra-authoritative tone, sage wisdom on matters particular, and wry wit:
A man whose social position is self-made is apt to be detected by his continual cataloguing of prominent names. Mr. Parvenu invariably interlards his conversation with, "When I was dining at the Bobo Gildings'"; or even "at Lucy Gilding's," and quite often accentuates, in his ignorance, those of rather second-rate, though conspicuous position. "I was spending last week-end with the Richan Vulgars," or "My great friends, the Gotta Crusts." When a so-called gentleman insists on imparting information, interesting only to the Social Register, shun him!
I move that we resurrect the verb to interlard.
November 29, 2006
The 69 Test
Want a quick-and-dirty measure of a book's quality? Open it to page 69 and see what you find. (Another variation is the page 99 rule but, come on.)
I like how John Freeman at the National Book Critics' Circle blog puts it:
So that's what I began doing from time to time when the first page of a galley sunk into that logey, comfortable, throat-clearing prologue rhythm -- I'd flip to page 99 and see what I found.
Note to self: Never write anything "logey."
November 17, 2006
Somewhere in Oxford
Recently, two of my favorites -- Scott McCloud and Philip Pullman -- had dinner together. If they did not agree during this time to collaborate on a graphic novel, then there is little hope for this world of ours.
November 15, 2006
E-Chapbooks for the Masses
Okay, there are like four things in that sentence you don't understand.
- Revelator Press: brainchild of Wordwright and crew. I have never heard a group of people use the word chapbook so enthusiastically.
- Andrew Hungerford: famous at MSU in my day for daring to double-major in astrophysics and theater. Should probably also be famous for owning the ofdoom.com domain name.
- "Between the Water and the Air": Andrew's play, produced at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and elsewhere. I think it's quite good, and not just because it takes place in Michigan.
- PDF-ness: You know, normally I'd be opposed, but honestly Revelator's Brandon Kelley did such a rad job on the design it's hard to complain. Print it out, read it on the couch.
One larger thing I will say is this: I really appreciate the dexterity and light-weight-ness of Revelator's approach. Wanna get your voice out there? No reason to wait for anybody to say it's okay, or tell you it's good enough. Just begin.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Media Galaxy
November 8, 2006
To Err Is Human
I've fallen in love with Philip Roth. Here's a metaphor for you: a glass of wine so perfect you sip it slowly and carefully, resting it on the table after every drop to consider it afresh, swish it around and marvel at its taste and texture, savor its interplay with the ingredients of your meal. That's Philip Roth for me right now. I love his books so much I want to put them down.
I want to live in Roth's America. I don't actually mean I want to live in Jewish New Jersey, but Roth's Jersey is an apt stand-in for an America I recognize completely, riven by an endless battle between disappointment and hope. At least in his recent novels, you can read America into his protagonists as well: they're giants with mythical qualities and deep, deep flaws, and antagonists whose motives are often (not always) sympathetic and understandable.... Read more ....
October 24, 2006
Best American Science & Nature Writing 2006
Another year, another anthology of science articles. The book is, as always, a highly recommended purchase. And if you're not already a subscriber to Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, well, what are you waiting for?... Read more ....
October 22, 2006
Magazine of the Future?
Atlantic contributor Marshall Poe asks MeFi, "If The Atlantic Monthly (or Harper's, or The New Yorker) were founded today, would it be Metafilter?"
October 16, 2006
28 Pages Later
I haven't read any of Cormac McCarthy's books, but his new one "The Road" looks good. It's post-apocalyptic literary fiction!
And -- this is a good sign, I think? -- it has generated a lot of well-written book reviews. The NYT review by William Kennedy was a good read in its own right, and this CSM review by Yvonne Zipp sparkles. For instance, it describes the book as taking place in a "cauterized horrorscape." Nice.
October 4, 2006
Chip Kidd's Got Competition
Best American Comics
October 3, 2006
Two gems from MeFi this morning:
September 22, 2006
That's a Hell of an Endorsement
Gotta say, I would not have expected this: After Hugo Chavez held up Noam Chomsky's book "Hegemony or Survival" during his UN speech... it jumped to number one on Amazon. WTF? Who knew the General Assembly was so good for product placement? Now I have this sort've awesome image of the president of Lithuania striding to the podium with a Zune peeking conspicuously out of his pocket.
Via MIT Advertising Lab.
September 19, 2006
An RSS Feed You Need to Be Subscribed To
I have previously avowed an interest in multi-book reviews that synthesize and illuminate (in general) and the New York Review of Book (in particular). And that publication's RSS feed just keeps bringing me good stuff!
Two worth printing out: Kristof on foreign aid. Didion on Dick Cheney. (P.S. I love the fact that Didion's piece 'draws on' like twenty books and approximately none of them are brand new. Who cares? It's a good read!)
September 13, 2006
Happy Birthday, Roald Dahl
You Know What I'd Completely Forgotten About?
Harry Potter. Awesome discussion and speculation at The American Scene. (Seriously though, Snape is totally a good guy, and totally going to die to save Harry in the end.)
August 29, 2006
Buy This Book
Okay I'm biased. I used to work at the Poynter Institute, where Roy Peter Clark hangs his hat, and I learned lots from him. Much of it was stuff that's now encoded in this book, actually. But even so, I am so glad to have it all in one place. Even better, the volume is a wonder to behold: simple, slim, elegant.
And, you know, I can tell just from the feel of it that this is the kind of book that will age like good leather shoes: One day it will be totally worn out and beaten up from overuse, but somehow handsomer for it.
Dude, I have a question though -- even when you're Roy Peter Clark, how do you score blurbs from Mark Bowden, Sister Helen Prejean, Eugene Patterson, Howell Raines, Tom French, and David Von Drehle?
Indeed, Von Drehle writes: "Roy is the Obi-Wan Kenobi of writing teachers..." Just for the record, if one of his Snarkmarket students is Anakin Skywalker (i.e. initially promising but ultimately a force for total evil) it is definitely Matt.
July 17, 2006
The Long Tail Book
You're familiar with the basic idea: mass culture is diminishing, and niche culture is ascendant. You probably know the reasons behind it:
a) It's becoming much cheaper and easier to produce stuff (books, music, movies), so there's a lot more of it.
b) That stuff is becoming much cheaper and easier to distribute, so you can get it no matter where you are.
c) Filters like search engines and recommendation engines are making it much easier to find the best stuff.
And you probably know what all this means for business: there's now significant money to be made in offering products that appeal to the few instead of the many.
And many of you already know that these ideas underpin a phenomenon that has been dubbed "the Long Tail" by Wired editor Chris Anderson. You may even, like me and Anil Dash, have been a subscriber to Anderson's blog on the topic.
Now there's a book. So what haven't you heard about the Long Tail?... Read more ....
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Media Galaxy
May 26, 2006
The e-mail forwards I've been receiving remind me commencement season is upon us. And that means one thing: great speeches. Here's a list of some great ones from the past 70 years.
May 5, 2006
'If you go for the ninja, turn to page 108.'
I predict that the entire stock of these books is going to be purchased by ironic and/or nostalgic twentysomethings. Actual kids will remain glued to the floor of the manga aisle. (Seriously, you've noticed that, right? Every big chain bookstore now comes with a sullen teenager pre-installed there. I think they might work in shifts.)
May 1, 2006
Last Month's Books
Just 'cause we never mention it, and it's the first day of the month, here's what I remember reading last month:
David Leavitt, Collected Stories: I love this man's short stories. So. Much. But for whatever reason, I'd never read a collection of them until now. Leavitt is a master of depicting the oddness of a family at the precise moment of dissolution. And the endings of his stories leave the world shifted just slightly askew. The cycle of stories about Lord Alfred Douglas near the end kind of disrupt the rhythm, though.
Anita Diamant, The Red Tent: I've always been fascinated by the Bible story of Leah, Jacob's first wife. As the story goes, Jacob sees a beautiful woman named Rachel tending sheep one day, and he goes to ask her father Laban for her hand in marriage. Laban says, "Sure, if you work for me for seven years." So Jacob does. Wedding day arrives, bride and groom are married, bride's veil comes off, and surprise! It's actually Rachel's un-hott older sister Leah. Jacob's totally disappointed, and he asks Laban, "WTF?" Laban says, "Yeah, sorry, here we marry off the older sisters first. But work for me another seven years, and you can have Rachel for realz." So Jacob does.... Read more ....
March 20, 2006
Best American Science and Nature Writing 2005
If you enjoy the articles below, I imagine you'll consider subscribing to the periodicals that published them, or at least buying The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2005, where they're all assembled. Enjoy.
- The American Scholar: My God Problem, by Natalie Angier
- The New Yorker: Hollywood Science, Connie Bruck
- The New York Review of Books: Out, Damned Blot!, Frederick Crews
- The New York Review of Books: Twilight at Easter, Jared Diamond
- Popular Science: My Little Brother on Drugs, Jenny Everett
- The New York Review of Books: Stumbling Into Space, Timothy Ferris
- The New Yorker: Getting Over It, Malcolm Gladwell
- The New Yorker: Personality Plus, Malcolm Gladwell
- The New Yorker: The Grief Industry, Jerome Groopman
- The New York Times: Keeping the Faith in My Doubt, John Horgan
- Wired: The Homeless Hacker vs. The New York Times, Jennifer Kahn
- Discover: 20,000 Microbes Under the Sea, Robert Kunzig ($) The Atlantic Monthly: A Two-Planet Species?, Wililam Langewiesche ($)
- The New York Review of Books: Crossing the Red Line, Bill McKibben
- Esquire: Please Stand By While the Age of Miracles Is Briefly Suspended, James McManus
- The New York Review of Books: Getting in Nature's Way, Sherwin B. Nuland
- Wired: To Hell and Back, Jeffrey M. O'Brien
- The New Yorker: The X Prize, Ian Parker ($)
- The New York Review of Books: In the River of Consciousness, Oliver Sacks
- The New Yorker: Miracle in a Bottle, Michael Specter
- Scientific American: The Curious History of the First Pocket Calculator, Cliff Stoll ($)
- The American Scholar: Dining with Robots, Ellen Ullman ($)
- Popular Science: 106 Science Claims and a Truckful of Baloney, William Speed
- Discover: Whose Life Would You Save?, Carl Zimmer
$ = subscriber-only. Here's 2004.
February 15, 2006
February 7, 2006
The 5-7-5 Review
Notes on three books I've read recently... in haiku format:
The earth has been wrecked
By the "Afternoon Cultures" --
Time for adventure!
--Viriconium, M. John Harrison
Answers to questions
Deeper than Pizza Hut cheese:
This ain't Dilbert, yo.
--God's Debris, Scott Adams
Books by the window,
Piled up, never to be read?
Yeah, I've got those too.
--So Many Books, Gabriel Zaid
February 5, 2006
Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Blink, has inspired two name-alike books mocking his argument (as it's commonly understood) -- Think! and Blank. The second comment in the MetaFilter thread on Gladwell's latest essay called him "collossally overrated." And although Rachel Donaldio doesn't come right out and say it in her NYTBR profile of Gladwell, I suspect she might agree with the MeFi poster. With a Blink movie in pre-production, are we at the tipping point of the Gladwell backlash yet?
Gladwell's response to the two books (e-mailed to FishBowlNY) is the best: "i'm slightly gratified that it took two writers to parody me. i'd hate to think i could be parodied by just one. :-)"
December 30, 2005
(P.S. It's no coincidence Powell.com's Review a Day RSS feed is a file called rad.xml.)
December 22, 2005
This post is putatively to mention that NYU journalism professor Mitchell Stephens, author of the rise of the image the fall of the word, has begun a new blog tracking the history of atheism. (He's writing a book on the topic.)
December 21, 2005
Far from Narnia
New Yorker profile of Philip Pullman? YES PLEASE.
(Related: There's a TNR piece on C.S. Lewis that's quite good, if you happen to subscribe or have a copy of the mag.)
December 16, 2005
But How Will They Film the Marbled Page?
December 14, 2005
Great Philip Roth Interview
Miyazaki Does Earthsea
Oh wow. Two favorites collide: Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli will do an adaptation of the Earthsea books by Ursula K. LeGuin.
(The Sci-Fi Channel did one, too, but it was bad.)
December 12, 2005
Comics Are So Weird
Now this is some serious cultural cutting-and-pasting:
Set in what appears to be the entirely Anglo-Pakistani city of Bradford, England, the unlikely hero of [the comic] ''Vimanarama" is Ali, an angsty Shiite 19-year-old who gets caught up in an ancient war between pollution-loving demons and the Ultrahadeen, giant beings apparently inspired by two enduring myths: stories of angels in the Koran and elsewhere, and Jack Kirby's ''The Eternals," a mid-1970s comic about a race of superheroic immortals whom humans worship as gods.
November 19, 2005
Of Flying Pasta Monsters and Loneliness
A dream-ish prose poem of reasonable length, by Haruki Murakami, on spaghetti.
November 17, 2005
Elementary, My Dear Blogger
Oh, TOO cool: A Stanford program is publishing Sherlock Holmes stories as they were originally serialized in The Strand magazine. You can get them via real mail (!) or e-mail -- and it's free!
November 9, 2005
Watchmen: Absolute Edition
Wow, I didn't know there was a fancy new hardback edition of Watchmen, the greatest graphic novel produced by mankind to date. (TIME called it one of the 100 greatest novels, graphic or not, of the century -- nice.)
I note it because I was actually just flipping through Watchmen last night, marveling as I always do at its really peculiar and appealing vibe. I guess it's probably just the vibe of the '80s... but there is something very nostalgic about it, too. If you've read the book, I'm curious to hear if you know what I mean.
November 1, 2005
Dylan Thomas Reads
This recording of Dylan Thomas reading his most famous poem is possibly the first time hearing a poet recite his work didn't disappoint me. Utterly excellent. This is from Boing Boing a while back. Boing Boing later linked to Thomas' reading of his poem "Lament," 'cause they're awesome like that.
October 22, 2005
Stephen Dubner has posted a previously unpublished interview with August Wilson on his Freakonomics blog, in which the playwright talks about the men he admired growing up. It's funny -- so many of the men Wilson identified with were fighters -- Sonny Liston, Charley Burley, Malcolm X -- but so much of this interview is about acceptance.
October 12, 2005
Does everyone have the same fond memory of sitting on the floor in front of a sunny window on a Sunday afternoon reading from a Calvin & Hobbes book? Survey says yes.
September 24, 2005
I ♥ Oprah
Chief among the tics of humankind that drive me to distraction is Oprah-bashing. She's too rich. She doesn't help the world enough. Her book club popularizes cheap literature.
That last one makes me absolutely insane. Not just because it unforgivably devalues some amazing authors, and not just because it bespeaks an unsufferable elitism, not just because it feels like a deep, indirect insult to the folks I know who got a lot out of the club.
It chafed me most because what Oprah was doing -- constructive an alternative, contemporary canon -- thrilled me. I'm kind of an inveterate detractor of The Canon, in general. Lists of recommended texts are useful, of course. But anything purporting to be The Authoritative List of Greatest Works is simply a religious artifact, founded entirely on faith. The way I see it, we each have a canon. The task of constructing it, work by work, to form a lens onto the world is part of why we keep reading our entire lives.
Of course, the idea that each person has her own canon subverts the Canon entirely. Of course, I'm all for that, 'cause I think the idea of the Canon subverts literature entirely. The idea that there's one complete list of Works To Be Read strikes me as anti-literary. (I understand the Canon is intended to be a basis for further enlightenment or whatever, but I don't think that's how most people who are not Harold Bloom treat it. His Western Canon is long enough to occupy most people for the majority of their lives.)
I was disappointed to hear that Oprah was abandoning the initial contemporary focus of her book club for a seemingly safer "classics" approach. It felt like she was retreating from the exciting business of creating her own canon and falling back on this boring old Canon that already exists. So I'm delighted to hear the real Oprah's Book Club is back.
Yes, there are great books. No, The Celestine Prophecy is pretty inarguably not the literary equal of, say, Remembrance of Things Past. But I can imagine a canon that includes the former and not the latter. And cheers to that.
September 20, 2005
A Large Volume of Adventures
A bit of blog-wandering just turned up this 2003 speech by the historian David McCullough titled "The Course of Human Events." It's quite good -- and reminds me of a speech I saw McCullough give at Michigan State, an early college "aha!" experience -- but it was actually a line he cited that grabbed me:
What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life by him who interests his heart in everything.
From Laurence Stern, an Enlightenment novelist. I love it!
September 12, 2005
Familiar Expressions of Unfamiliar Origin
While chatting online with a friend today about language, I ran across this wonderful list of expressions we use everyday with potentially nautical origins, including "by and large," "the whole nine yards," "jury rig," "taken aback," "windfall" and "toe the line."
August 26, 2005
Shining Like New Money
August Wilson, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who just completed his mammoth cycle of plays documenting black life in America throughout the 20th Century, has been diagnosed with liver cancer. His doctors told him about the cancer in June and said at that time he had 3 to 5 months left to live. I'm very happy he got to see "Radio Golf," the end of the cycle, open and close on Broadway, and I hope to eventually see the whole cycle myself. (Via Bejata.)
August 4, 2005
A Little Light Reading
The NY Observer asked a bunch of famous people what they're reading this summer. The very cerebral Harold Bloom reports:
I've been rereading all of Henry James and all of Faulkner and all of Whitman in preparation for a book entitled "The Evening Lad." The subtitle will be "Twelve Writers Who Define America," and they are three of the 12.
I love the fact that he is, ho-hum, re-reading ALL of James and Faulkner and Whitman.
But actually, I liked Bloom's book "Poem Unlimited" (an argument that Hamlet is the best story evar) and I think this one sounds pretty cool too.
For the record, this summer I read: "Waiting" and "The Crazed" by Ha Jin, "And Now You Can Go" by Vendela Vida, Harry Potter 5, the beginning of "The Egyptologist" by Arthur Phillips (lost steam), and one other I'm not remembering now...
will return with title later. It was "Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro.
August 1, 2005
The Unreliable Biographer
This latest book was well-paced, thoroughly footnoted, and boasted a very well-respected author. Biographies often seem like they're pasting together scattered shreds of the subject's life to try to divine some pattern that isn't there, and this one didn't seem to do that too much.
But the entire time I was reading both books, I found myself questioning the authors' claims that their subjects were unfairly sidelined by history. Not doubting, necessarily, just constantly refreshing a mental note that the authors have much to gain from inflating the person's importance. This tendency probably isn't helped by the fact that a third book I read this summer was a novel about two biographers chasing the life of an obscure but untalented singer whom they argue history overlooked.
So how do you gauge a person's objective influence on history? The easy answer is to just read another biography of the same person or a related one. But then, after you traipse through 600 pages on someone's life, are you really that excited about seeing the story retold one more time from another point of view?
Maybe it's not important, and we should just enjoy the account of a fascinating life, aside from any question of its influence. But that's no fun.
July 12, 2005
Memoirs of a Survivor
July 9, 2005
What I Learned from Witches
I love Dahl, but I've heardly read any of his books. Roll call:
- His two-part autobiography.
- "Witches." (More on that in a sec.)
- A big book of his short stories. (Which are really grim!)
No "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," no B.F.G., no giant peaches.
So I wouldn't be a proper Dahl fan at all, except for the fact that "Witches" was no mere grade-school read: It was an essential part of my moral education!... Read more ....