Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

what we read when we read

At a working library I read this:

In ancient days, written texts were inscribed on long pieces of parchment that were then rolled up on either side. The reader could unroll a short segment at a time in order to expose a manageable amount of text. It was called a “scroll.”

Scrolls weren’t the most user-friendly device. They didn’t stack well for storage; they could be hard to manage, often requiring two hands to read; and they required a strict linear reading—skipping around just wasn’t practical. Along the way, someone eventually got the idea to fold the parchment instead of rolling it up. Now the text could be stored flat, and the reader could flip to a later place in the text easier than before. This was called a “codex.”

The codex went through several revisions. It was sometimes wrapped in animal skins to protect it; in some places, a single folded piece of parchment (with the folded edges to the outside) was replaced with several sheets stitched together, folded edges on the inside. Different mechanisms for holding the paper together and protecting it arose in different parts of the world. In time, the codex evolved into bound sheets of paper wrapped with a stiff cover that allowed it to be stored upright. This new format was given a new name: it was called a “book.”

This leads our author to say that the e-book won't really come into its own until it gets its own name. But the history here isn’t quite right. A book in Greek was biblos throughout the shift from scroll to codex; in Latin liber. (Though liber is often used for a section of a larger work, an opus.) Writers didn't write scrolls or codexes, or for that matter papyri or clay tablets: they wrote books. “Book” is a concept — a rather elastic one — rather than a technology. I could read the Odyssey via clay tablets or a set of scrolls or a Penguin paperback or a Kindle and I would still be reading a book.

a working library a fine blog, though.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

the enemy of thought? really?

About three years ago I wrote an essay in which I claimed that “Right now, and for the foreseeable future, the blogosphere is the friend of information but the enemy of thought.” Well, don't I feel foolish now, with a blog of my own and a presence on another most excellent one?

No, actually. Well, I mean, yes, I do feel foolish, but not because of that statement. I still think I was right. The problem, as I said then, is the “architecture” of blogs, which is strangely invariant across the blogosphere. Everywhere you look, the post at the top of the page is the most recent; and almost everywhere you look, on blogs that enable comments, the comment at the top is the oldest. What this means is that time is the only criterion by which contributions to blogs are organized. The experience of reading blogs, and writing them too, is dominated by novelty rather than quality. On a news-focused blog, that makes sense; on an ideas-focused blog, not so much.

One of the few exceptions to this rule is the famous karma-based moderation system on Slashdot, and even it is a partial exception. You still have to look at comments in chronological order — which makes sense, after all, since some comments respond to earlier ones — but at least you get to filter out comments the moderators have “modded down.” This is by no means a perfect system: as has been pointed out for many years, not all moderators are well-qualified to make their judgments, and they tend to display a herd mentality. (Not incidentally, the same problems affect editors of Wikipedia, which is why there’s an ongoing push from within the WikiWorld for more control over the editing process.) Moreover, the karma system doesn't do anything to allow readers to rank and evaluate posts or authors. Slashdot has a Hall of Fame that allows you to see the most-visited and most-commented-upon posts, but those aren't categories of quality — and that makes sense on Slashdot, which is primarily a (geeky) news blog. Digg and reddit also run what amounts to popularity contests. Not what I have in mind.

I would like to see experiments with different versions of the karma system. For instance, what if, in addition to evaluating comments, readers evaluated posts? You may have noticed that you already have the ability to evaluate articles here on Culture11, according to a five-star rating system (though few people use the system, presumably because it’s not all that familiar to them). What if the same possibility were extended to blog posts? And what if when you visited a blog you had a choice between ordering the posts chronologically and ordering them by ranking?

One consequence of ordering posts by ranking — at least if the ranking is from high to low! — might be the continuation of interesting conversations that now tend to peter out because of the pressure of novelty, the attention demanded by today’s Brand New Post. No doubt, many comment threads go on far beyond their proper lifespan, unnaturally extended by spleen and bile (usually from one or two commenters who just can't let something go). But there are many other posts that deserve more attention than they get. On group blogs, especially on days when the bloggers are unusually active, some really worthwhile thoughts can be shoved down the page so fast that many readers never see them, or else are distracted from them by more recent events. If the best posts were more readily available, they would surely get more play, more comment, more attention.

Such an architectural change would be helpful to bloggers as well as their readers. You can tell something about a post if it prompts many comments, but (as I suggested earlier in my remarks on Digg and reddit) you can't tell much about its intellectual quality. Any blogger with half a brain knows how to write a post that will get people agitated enough to comment. But sometimes people can find a post really interesting and helpful without commenting on it. A rating system would help in such cases.

More recommendations for the architectural renovation of the blogosphere are welcome!

Monday, January 26, 2009

forget that earlier Facebook post, just watch this

A friend sent me this.

but everybody can see me!

Speaking of a lack of solitude, how would you like to try writing while the contents of your computer's screen are being projected onto a series of very large screens for anyone who passes by to see? Yes, your every hesitation, typo, edit, rewrite, and long period of doing absolutely nothing exposed to the whole world! The horror, the horror!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

addendum on Nicholas Carr

Regarding the post just below: Carr refers to Wikipedia as "a single source of information" — but is it? It's a single conduit of information, but a conduit is not a source. What are the sources of information that emerge through the Wikipedia conduit, having undergone the Wikipedia filters? Well, there's a great deal of dispute about that. Aaron Swartz — who not incidentally is instrumental in the creation of a more-or-less alternative to Google Books — wrote a fascinating and much-debated essay on this topic a couple of years ago. Check it out.

it’s Google’s world; we’re just living in it

Much of the Robert Darnton article I linked to in an earlier post is concerned with the power that Google now has over access to books, through its massive digitization project and, especially, the recent agreement it has reached with publishers to continue and expand on that that project. Darnton:

The settlement creates a fundamental change in the digital world by consolidating power in the hands of one company. Apart from Wikipedia, Google already controls the means of access to information online for most Americans, whether they want to find out about people, goods, places, or almost anything. In addition to the original "Big Google," we have Google Earth, Google Maps, Google Images, Google Labs, Google Finance, Google Arts, Google Food, Google Sports, Google Health, Google Checkout, Google Alerts, and many more Google enterprises on the way. Now Google Book Search promises to create the largest library and the largest book business that have ever existed.

Whether or not I have understood the settlement correctly, its terms are locked together so tightly that they cannot be pried apart. At this point, neither Google, nor the authors, nor the publishers, nor the district court is likely to modify the settlement substantially. Yet this is also a tipping point in the development of what we call the information society. If we get the balance wrong at this moment, private interests may outweigh the public good for the foreseeable future, and the Enlightenment dream [of a true Republic of Letters] may be as elusive as ever.

Nicholas Carr has some of the same concerns, only more so, because he would cross out Darnton’s “apart from Wikipedia” concession. Carr has been running a set of Google searches repeatedly since 2006, and while Wikipedia was prominent in the search results from the start, it now provides the first option for every single search in the series. Carr:

The first thing to be said is: Congratulations, Wikipedians. You rule. Seriously, it's a remarkable achievement. Who would have thought that a rag-tag band of anonymous volunteers could achieve what amounts to hegemony over the results of the most popular search engine, at least when it comes to searches for common topics.

The next thing to be said is: what we seem to have here is evidence of a fundamental failure of the Web as an information-delivery service. Three things have happened, in a blink of history's eye: (1) a single medium, the Web, has come to dominate the storage and supply of information, (2) a single search engine, Google, has come to dominate the navigation of that medium, and (3) a single information source, Wikipedia, has come to dominate the results served up by that search engine. Even if you adore the Web, Google, and Wikipedia - and I admit there's much to adore - you have to wonder if the transformation of the Net from a radically heterogeneous information source to a radically homogeneous one is a good thing. Is culture best served by an information triumvirate?

A thoughtful response to at least some of the concerns of Darnton and Carr comes from Tim O’Reilly. Note especially this point:

There has never been more competition either in electronic books, or for books, in the broader electronic ‘republic of letters.’ . . . In short, there's a strong economic motive for publishers to release digital editions of their books, and to treat Google Books as only one possible channel. . . . Frankly, I'd be far more worried about Darnton's wished-for utopia, in which the government had funded the equivalent, mandating that all publishers participate. That might well have nipped the competitive ebook landscape in the bud. . . . As it is, we see lots of different competing approaches to bootstrapping this market. I'd say it's opening up very nicely!

I don't know who’s closer to being right here. It’s likely that O’Reilly is too sanguine and Darnton and Carr too worried. But I have just enough Richard Stallman in me to distrust Google’s power. I’ve been trying lately to disentangle myself to some degree from Google’s services — though I’m not likely to shift from Gmail — and to diversify my online investments, so to speak. I’m also thinking about retrieving some of my stuff that’s now “in the cloud” and confining it to my desktop. But I have to admit, I use Google Books more and more and more, for reasons such as the ones noted here.

the sound of silence

There appears to be no end in sight of essays deploring what Modern Technology is depriving us of. Some of these are right, but not many of them, and the vast majority that are wrong — or greatly overstated, anyway — go awry because of their lack of historical context. Take this essay by William Deresiewicz in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

So we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude. Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone. Though I shouldn't say taking away. We are doing this to ourselves; we are discarding these riches as fast as we can. I was told by one of her older relatives that a teenager I know had sent 3,000 text messages one recent month. That's 100 a day, or about one every 10 waking minutes, morning, noon, and night, weekdays and weekends, class time, lunch time, homework time, and toothbrushing time. So on average, she's never alone for more than 10 minutes at once. Which means, she's never alone.

I once asked my students about the place that solitude has in their lives. One of them admitted that she finds the prospect of being alone so unsettling that she'll sit with a friend even when she has a paper to write. Another said, why would anyone want to be alone?

To that remarkable question, history offers a number of answers. Man may be a social animal, but solitude has traditionally been a societal value.

I don't think this complaint is wholly misplaced — there is a kind of obsessive connectivity fed by our current social networks — but it’s vital to understand that solitude, like silence, have rarely been available to human beings. Try reading Bruce Smith’s extraordinary (though too jargony) account of The Acoustic World of Early Modern England if you’re prone to think of the pre-industrial Western world as a silent one. Especially in cities, the noise — often literally deafening, in areas where blacksmiths and other craftsmen lived — went on twenty-four hours a day; though of course things were quieter in the countryside.

But not more solitary. In country and city alike, whole families slept in single rooms, often sharing those rooms with animals. Only the enormously wealthy could spread out into multiple rooms. (It’s worth remembering that throughout human history the vast majority of couples have had to have sex in the same room, and often in the same bed, with other people.) And all of these noisy and crowded conditions that we see in our studies of the European past are, of course, present-day realities for many people today; perhaps most humans on the planet.

As Diana Webb has recently shown in her new book Privacy and Solitude: The Medieval Discovery of Personal Space — reviewed here — medieval Europeans in general simply accepted their lack of “personal space,” but others valued it and desired it sufficiently to retreat from the world, as hermits and anchorites, in order to get it. But these were necessarily special cases. Until the nineteenth century in Europe and other economically developed parts of the world, very few people have been able to find either solitude or silence. (Deresiewicz actually acknowledges this, though without seeming to be aware that such facts compromise his argument.)

If our technologies are making solitude and silence harder to come by, they are merely returning us to the condition of our ancestors and many of our global neighbors. Welcome to the human race, then.

I recently wrote an essay for First Things — not yet online — about a movement in contemporary evangelicalism calling itself “the new monasticism.” But it seems to me that such a movement will truly be like the great traditions of monasticism if its adherents are willing to pay a great price in order to acquire silence and solitude.

Friday, January 23, 2009

the end of book reviews?

By which I mean not the reviewing of books but the kind of newspaper section called a book review, as in the New York Times Book Review or the Washington Post Book World, which may be closing down. I am not sure how much to be worried about this. For much of their history newspapers have not reviewed books at all — going back to the eighteenth century and through almost all of the nineteenth, book reviewing was largely the province of other kinds of periodicals — and few newspapers have ever had whole sections devoted to book reviews. Are we about to see considerably fewer book reviews altogether? Or are we just faced with a kind of dispersal of book reviewing into more and more varied locations? UPDATE: See Alex Massie's post on this subject from 2007.

the Republic of Letters

Here’s an excellent article by Robert Darnton, about which I will have more to say later. But for now here’s a taste:

The eighteenth century imagined the Republic of Letters as a realm with no police, no boundaries, and no inequalities other than those determined by talent. Anyone could join it by exercising the two main attributes of citizenship, writing and reading. Writers formulated ideas, and readers judged them. Thanks to the power of the printed word, the judgments spread in widening circles, and the strongest arguments won.

The word also spread by written letters, for the eighteenth century was a great era of epistolary exchange. Read through the correspondence of Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, and Jefferson — each filling about fifty volumes — and you can watch the Republic of Letters in operation. All four writers debated all the issues of their day in a steady stream of letters, which crisscrossed Europe and America in a transatlantic information network.

I especially enjoy the exchange of letters between Jefferson and Madison. They discussed everything, notably the American Constitution, which Madison was helping to write in Philadelphia while Jefferson was representing the new republic in Paris. They often wrote about books, for Jefferson loved to haunt the bookshops in the capital of the Republic of Letters, and he frequently bought books for his friend. The purchases included Diderot's Encyclopédie, which Jefferson thought that he had got at a bargain price, although he had mistaken a reprint for a first edition.

Two future presidents discussing books through the information network of the Enlightenment — it's a stirring sight. But before this picture of the past fogs over with sentiment, I should add that the Republic of Letters was democratic only in principle. In practice, it was dominated by the wellborn and the rich. Far from being able to live from their pens, most writers had to court patrons, solicit sinecures, lobby for appointments to state-controlled journals, dodge censors, and wangle their way into salons and academies, where reputations were made. While suffering indignities at the hands of their social superiors, they turned on one another.

By “Letters” these figures did not mean epistles, though obviously they produced plenty of those, but rather Writing, humane learning, what we might call “literature” in the broadest sense of the word. (They used the word “literature” quite differently than we do. To us it means — more or less — poetry, fiction, drama, and some kinds of essay; to them it meant the scope of a person’s reading, especially in the classics and the best moderns. “He is a man of great literature” is a characteristic phrase of the period: it means “he is exceptionally well-read in the best books.”)

Anyway, as I said, more on all this later. But read the whole essay.

teaching people how to use books

David Parry at academhack, in a post called “Teaching in the Age of Distraction,” writes, “Let’s be clear: I think wireless access in a classroom is at this point a necessity, any space which purports to be about the sharing and construction of knowledge that does not have access to the internet seems to me to be a severely crippled space.” (Parry is a PhD in English, but his grammar and syntax are shockingly bad. He’s especially prone to run-on sentences. I don't understand or approve, and I wouldn't trust him to grade a student paper, but hey, in other respects he’s a smart guy.)

Anyway, it’s just silly to make such a blanket statement. I spend a good deal of time talking to my students about technological resources available to them, and trying to get them to use those resources well and wisely. I think it’s pretty clear from this blog that I am anything but a Luddite or techno-skeptic. But I do not want any internet access in my classrooms. I forbid laptops in the classroom altogether. I teach literature, and I believe that my primary job in the classroom is to instruct students in better use of the technology of the book. There is no more evidently false assumption than the assumption that people — even academically successful people — are comfortable with books and use them well.

Every class I teach is focused in one way or another on helping people understand how books work and how to get the most from them. We can unplug for three hours a week or so in order to pursue that goal, can't we?

in the reign of King Josiah

For people interested in the relations between orality and literacy, there’s a fascinating passage in the Biblical book that Christians call 2 Kings. You may read the whole passage here. When Josiah was the young king of Judah — the Northern Kingdom of Israel having been overrun by the Assyrians some decades earlier — he decided to commission some serious repair work on the Temple. He commanded his men to look throughout the Temple to find any money that people had contributed, but while they were looking they came upon something else.

Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, ‘I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord.’ . . . Then Shaphan the secretary told the king, ‘Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.’ And Shaphan read it before the king.

When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes. . . . ‘Great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.’

And the king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the priests and the prophets, all the people, both small and great. And he read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. And the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people joined in the covenant.

Several things worth noting here. First, the knowledge of Torah is so long lost among the people that to the King’s secretary it is just “a book.” But second, and more important for the purposes of this blog, the significant reading experiences here are oral. It’s not at all surprising that the people of Judah would have the book read aloud to them, since few of them could have been literate; but I wouldn't necessarily have expected that the king would have the book read to him. This does not necessarily mean that Josiah was illiterate; whether literate or not, it’s likely that he would have thought that the proper way to experience Torah was by listening to it read aloud. The Israelites at this time were, and for a long time to come would be, what Walter Ong called a “hearing-dominant” culture. Think of the rabbis in the synagogues that would develop in the aftermath of the overthrow of both kingdoms, reading the text aloud and then commenting on it. And of course to this day Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worship all feature the oral reading or recitation of sacred texts to an audience — even if members of those audiences, instead of actually listening to the reading, are following their own copy of the text with their eyes.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Hey everybody, I have been away — from this blog, and from everything else — for the past few days because of the death of my father. It was not altogether a surprise (he had lung cancer) but he declined faster than anyone had expected, so I had to leave town suddenly. Posting will resume in the next couple of days.

Friday, January 16, 2009

a new life for old books

Over at boingboing, a very interesting post by Steven Johnson in which he discusses, among other things, the research he did for his new book on the great clergyman/chemist/inventor/revolutionary Joseph Priestley:

This is the first book that I have written where Google Books played an absolutely indispensable role. An amazing number of Priestley's original writings (along with other texts from that period) are available from Google as downloadable PDFs, with scans of the original page design and typography, along with full-text searching. Many of these are texts that would be very hard to find even in a major research library, and of course, even if you could find them, you wouldn't be able to search them. . . .

One thrilling thing about these Google Book resources is that you can now link directly to an individual page of a book that has potentially been out of print for centuries. We need to think a bit more about how to standardize these links, given multiple editions and multiple library sites that might have digital copies. But what you can see happening, slowly but surely, is the Memex and Xanadu and the Information Superhighway — all those inspiring dreams of information utopia — finally crossing crossing over into the vast universe of books. Slowly, over time, a page typeset in 1771 might start to get a whole new life, thanks to the growing authority we grant it through that elemental gesture of making a link.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

against Facebook fascism

I was a reasonably early adopter of Facebook — after it was opened to people as old as I am — though I can't remember precisely when I got on board. But I do remember that I lasted about six months before I shut down my account. The only thing I liked about Facebook was the status updates; everything else seemed to be way too much trouble, especially dealing with friend requests. So when I discovered that Twitter was out there, doing status updates only, I traded down and have never looked back.

Now Farhad Manjoo shows up to tell me, first, that “there is no longer any good reason to avoid Facebook” and that all of the reasons people give for refusing it are bogus. He even goes so far as to suggest that it is ethically unacceptable not to have an active Facebook account:

But what about your old fling, your new fling, your next employer, or that friend-of-a-friend you just met at a party who says he can give you some great tips on your golf swing? Sure, you can trade e-mail addresses or phone numbers, but in many circles Facebook is now the expected way to make these connections. By being on Facebook, you're facilitating such ties; without it, you're missing them and making life difficult for those who went looking for you there.

So I have some sort of obligation to make it easier for people to get in touch with me? — to match my life to the “expected way to make connections”? That seems like a philosophically suspect claim to me, but maybe I missed the social-web section of the Kritik der praktischen Vernunft.

I’m tempted to launch into a rant about how this is one more assault in American culture’s apparently unceasing war against introverts, but I’ll spare you that. Instead I’ll just point out that while Manjoo responds to a number of reasons for not using Facebook, he never mentions mine: I’m not freaking interested.


One of my first posts on this blog was about the rather sudden and unexpected shutdown of two web services, Stikkit and Sandy, and the anger that shutdown prompted against the services’ providers. We’re going to be hearing many more such stories, I think, during the recession/depression. Sites that have been funded by VCs while their creators have been trying to come up with a business plan are going to find themselves out of cash, and are going to shut down, and their users — accustomed to free services — are going to be seriously ticked off. And of course larger companies are going to be closing down unprofitable projects, with similar consequences. There’s even a website devoted to tracking such closings: It Died.

It Died took me to a really interesting rant by Jason Scott about the closing of AOL Hometown. (And there’s a follow-up rant here.) Jason’s point is that, just as landlords can't simply evict a renter for no cause and with no warning but have to follow carefully specified procedures, so too virtual landlords shouldn't be given unlimited right of eviction. There needs to be, Jason says, some kind of website eviction law — or, failing that, a volunteer Archive Team that vacuums up the data of doomed websites and hosts it until people can rescue their data. (Jason came up with the volunteer idea after his legal ideas were descended upon by the SLV.*)

I don't know what I think about all this, except that there seems to be more and more to be said for the 37signals philosophy: if the creators of web services charge money for their product, they’re more likely to be able to keep offering it. The people at Jott, an excellent phone-to-web service for reminders and to-do lists, have come to this conclusion: they’re eliminating their free plan. Howls of outrage to commence immediately.

*Slashdot Libertarian Vigilantes

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

“kill your word processor”

Word, Google Office and OpenOffice all come with a bewildering array of typesetting and automation settings that you can play with forever. Forget it. All that stuff is distraction, and the last thing you want is your tool second-guessing you, "correcting" your spelling, criticizing your sentence structure, and so on. The programmers who wrote your word processor type all day long, every day, and they have the power to buy or acquire any tool they can imagine for entering text into a computer. They don't write their software with Word. They use a text-editor, like vi, Emacs, TextPad, BBEdit, Gedit, or any of a host of editors. These are some of the most venerable, reliable, powerful tools in the history of software (since they're at the core of all other software) and they have almost no distracting features — but they do have powerful search-and-replace functions. Best of all, the humble .txt file can be read by practically every application on your computer, can be pasted directly into an email, and can't transmit a virus.

— Cory Doctorow on “Writing in an Age of Distraction”. I don't follow all the practices he suggests, but his advice is thoughtful and worthy of serious consideration by anyone who wants to write more and better.

the right tools

“Use the right tool for the job,” Walter Koehler says in response to this post, where I complain about having to use too many communications applications. That’s great advice for carpentry and auto repair, but I don't think it’s always applicable to life on our computers. There are a lot of highly specialized software applications out there, and while specialization brings certain benefits, it has significant costs as well.

A few years ago, I was using one application to write books, another to prepare class notes, a third for essays, letters, and so forth. Each of them was well-tailored for the jobs I was using it for, but I spent a great deal of time (a) switching between applications and (b) figuring out which tool to use for various projects. That got increasingly frustrating over time. Once I made the decision to write pretty much everything in one app my efficiency and clarity of mind increased dramatically. Whether I’m working on class notes or articles or blog posts or books, I’m in BBEdit — I even write a lot of letters in it, which probably doesn't look all that professional, but hey, I’m a tenured full professor, what do I care? It’s amazing how much you really can do in plain text files if you put a little of your mind to it.

And almost everything that I don't do in plain text I do in my browser, where I have my email (Gmail), and my personal organization. Which means that I spend about 90% of my time in two applications. This simplifies my life, and that makes me happier.

Of course, you can carry all this too far. I’m not going to go the Giles Turnbull route and put my whole life in one big-ass text file — though don't think I haven't been tempted — and I’m certainly not going to follow the example of those über-geeks who use Emacs for everything from basic text-editing to web browsing, email, life planning, and taking over the universe. Nor am I going to spend all my life in my browser, as some people do who write in Google Docs and have tricked out Firefox with fifty-seven extensions. But sometimes it makes a lot of sense to give up specialization for simplicity.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Franz Wright, “Learning to Read”

If I had to look up every fifth or sixth word, so what. I looked them up. I had nowhere important to be. My father was unavailable, and my mother looked like she was about to break, and not into blossom, every time I spoke. My favorite was the Iliad. True, I had trouble pronouncing the names, but when was I going to pronounce them, and to whom? My stepfather maybe? Number one, he could barely speak English; two, he had sufficient intent to smirk or knock me down without any prompting from me. Loneliness, boredom and terror my motivation fiercely fuelled. I get down on my knees and thank God for them. Du Fu, the Psalms, Whitman, Rilke. Life has taught me to understand books.


get yer red-hot news here

Yesterday Jack Shafer had a weirdly grumpy column in which he rags on the Kindle for, among other things, not doing video. Why a book-reading device should do video is not a question he answers, or even mentions. Ditto with his complaint that it doesn't have a touchscreen. Shafer wants the Kindle to be a PC and thinks every PC feature it lacks constitutes a bug, whereas I’m inclined to think that most of those absences are features.

But enough about that. Shafer goes on to praise the New York Times’s application Times Reader, and spends much of the column thinking about ways newspapers can come up with an “iTunes for news,” a program (or range of programs) that in a post-newsprint world will get people to pay for their news. Shafer concludes:

Why should a customer pay for newspapers online when they can get them free via the Web? Well, why does anybody pay for a print newspaper when they can get it free via the Web? The first answer is that despite the wonderfulness of the Web, the print version still does many things better than its electronic cousin. If you read newsprint, you know what I'm talking about. If you don't, I can't explain it to you.

Okay, fair enough, I guess. Shafer doesn't have to explain anything to anyone. But if the news companies themselves can't explain to readers why they should “pay for newspapers online when they can get them free via the Web,” they’re screwed.

the anguish of the English teacher

Take a look at this. Beautiful, no? I mean, this is web design — color, layout, typography — at something close to its best. Except for the spelling errors and the missing word, in about fifty words of text. I mean, as they say on ESPN, Come on, man!

They tell me they’re fixing it, so by the time you see it the errors may be gone, in which case, just enjoy the artfulness. But how can people put so much time and talent and energy into designing something so beautiful and then not bother to check to see if their spelling of “satellite” is the right one? Yeeeeeessshh. UPDATE: They corrected one of the errors, but others remain, and I even found an additional one at the bottom of the page. Ateries?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Camiroi curriculum, fourth grade

  • History reading, Camiroi and galactic, basic and geological.
  • Decadent comedy.
  • Simple geometry and trigonometry, hand and machine.
  • Track and field.
  • Shaggy people jokes and hirsute logic.
  • Simple obscenity.
  • Simple mysticism.
  • Patterns of falsification.
  • Trapeze work.
  • Intermediate electronics.
  • Human dissection.

Soon after this they will begin such subjects as “differential religion,” “alcoholic appreciation,” and “simple pseudo-human assembly.” Just thought y'all would like to know.

learning from the Camiroi

In related news, Megan McArdle worries that she’s not reading enough books, or, to put it more specifically, that she doesn't read fast enough to read as many books as she’s like to read.

To Megan and to all others who have similar concerns I recommend a story by one of the all-time great weirdos of American literature, R. A. Lafferty. The story is called “Primary Education of the Camiroi,” and it concerns a PTA delegation from Dubuque who visit another planet to investigate their educational methods. After one little boy crashes into a member of the delegation, knocking her down and breaking her glasses, and then immediately grinds new lenses for her and repairs the spectacles — a disconcerting experience for the Iowans — they interview one girl and ask her how fast she reads. She replies that she reads 120 words per minute. One of the Iowans proudly comments that she knows students of the same age in Dubuque who read five hundred words per minute.

“When I began disciplined reading, I was reading at a rate of four thousand words a minute,” the girl said. They had quite a time correcting me of it. I had to take remedial reading, and my parents were ashamed of me. Now I’ve learned to read almost slow enough.”

Slow enough, that is, to remember verbatim everything she has read. “We on Camiroi,” one of the adults says, “are only a little more intelligent than you on Earth. We cannot afford to waste time on forgetting or reviewing, or pursuing anything of a shallowness that lends itself to scanning.”

So maybe what matters most is not how many books we read, but how thoroughly we read them. Just something to think about.

(P.S. The Camiroi deal with recalcitrant children by placing them in a pit, without food or water, until they learn their lessons. They deal with extreme cases by hanging. Not that I’m making any recommendations.)

reading redux

In relation to an earlier post of mine on David Frum’s belief that literary culture is in decline, some news:

After years of bemoaning the decline of a literary culture in the United States, the National Endowment for the Arts says in a report that it now believes a quarter-century of precipitous decline in fiction reading has reversed.

The report, “Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy,” being released Monday, is based on data from “The Survey of Public Participation in the Arts” conducted by the United States Census Bureau in 2008. Among its chief findings is that for the first time since 1982, when the bureau began collecting such data, the proportion of adults 18 and older who said they had read at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the previous 12 months has risen.

Here’s a PDF of the full report. Some earlier NEA reports have had more troubling stories to tell, at least in the view of many: I’ve commented on some of the issues here.

And one more thing: We’re not ever going to get another director of the NEA with the energy and intelligence of Dana Gioia. Do yourself a favor and read the commencement address he gave at Stanford in 2007.

Friday, January 9, 2009


One of my favorite and most-used Mac applications is called Growl: it’s a utility that works with many different applications to give me notifications. I use it with many different applications, but primarily with three: Google Notifier for Gmail, Adium for messaging, and Twitterrific for Twitter. What this means is that when someone contacts me by email, chat, or Twitter, I learn about it in exactly the same way, via Growl.

Which makes me wonder: why should I use three different applications to communicate with people, when in communicating I’m doing exactly the same thing: typing? Now, I’m not saying that email, chat, and Twitter shouldn't be different services — they should. They all give me different levels of control over who contacts me and how often I am contacted. That’s valuable. But once I’ve set that up, I don’t see why I should use three different applications to reply to messages. Shouldn't someone come up with a really cool application that combines all of these media into a single window? — with visual cues to distinguish one from another, of course, but still: One Communications App to Rule Them All.

Now Gmail is two-thirds of the way there, since it incorporates chat, and saves chats in your All Mail folder if you want. But it’s not a very elegant implementation, and Twitter is left out of the picture. I’d love to see a beautifully designed Mac app that brings it all together in one visually striking presentation.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

alas, Babylon!

To what depths have we sunk as a society when our paper of record, the esteemed Gray Lady, devotes — well, not ink and paper, but electrons anyway, to the vexed question of whether anyone has ever used a slice of bacon as a bookmark?

another kind of scanning

There’s a wonderful article in the new Atlantic by Mark Bowden called “The Hardest Job in Football.” That hardest job is being the director of a television broadcast of a game. Bowden focuses on a man named Bob Fishman, whom he believes to be the best at this job, as Fishman sits in a control room before a bank of TV screens. Each screen shows what one of the many cameras scattered around the stadium is seeing, and Fishman’s job during the game is to scan that bank of screens and decide what the guy watching the game at home on his TV should be seeing at any given moment. It’s fascinating to think what cognitive skills make someone good at this. You have to be able to take in the import of an image in a millisecond — a moving image! — and, in a few milliseconds more, evaluate it in relation to all the other images you’re viewing. But can only do this well not by thinking of the intrinsic visual interest of a particular image, but rather by having in mind a narrative structure, a sense of what the game is about — and not just what it’s about in some general sense, but what it’s about at this particular moment. And that will vary according to whether a team is ahead or behind; whether they are deep in their own territory or deep in the opponents’; whether it’s near the beginning or the end of the game; even what stories have been in the news leading up to the game. The director’s narrative sense, then, needs to govern his visual sense. Fascinating stuff.

lines and interruptions

I’m still thinking — and will be for a long time — about the relationship between the act of reading a book or article or story and many other kinds of “reading” or visual “scanning.” (Earlier posts on this topic are here and here.) When you read a book your eyes scan a page, but do so with a certain regularity, with a linear motion that is only interrupted when you move from the end of one line, at the far right of the page, to the beginning of the next, at the far left of the page. (Assuming you’re not reading Hebrew.) But you know, those are very frequent interruptions of the lines! — though they are predictable, even rhythmical.

The less predictable interruptions come when you need to look at footnotes, which is one reason why books that wish to have a strong narrative momentum don't use footnotes. When I wrote my book Original Sin I wanted readers to experience it as a story, not as a work of scholarship — even though I did a great deal of research while writing it and believe that it is a work of sound scholarship — so rather than using footnotes or even endnotes I placed a “Bibliographical Essay” at the end.

You have to have great narrative skill and tact to produce a story with frequent interruptions of the line. I can think of two people who have done it well. The first is Jonathan Stroud, whose fabulous Bartimaeus books for young adult readers are lightly dotted with footnotes featuring witty and sardonic commentary from Bartimaeus himself. The other is Susanna Clarke, whose Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell has so many footnotes that you would think they would surely destroy the momentum of the tale. Yet the footnotes, most of which serve to fill in the details of Clarke’s alternative history of England, are my favorite part of the book, and many other have said the same. That was a daring move on Clarke’s part indeed, but a brilliant one, because the footnotes do as much as the story itself to create what Tolkien called a “secondary world.”

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Jonathan Zittrain has a new book called The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It. Zittrain’s belief is that we are headed towards a security nightmare, that without major changes in the architecture of the internet a lot of people are going to lose a lot of money through compromises of their online identities. And if that happens, Zittrain believes, there will be a kind of retreat from personal computers to “information appliances,” more specialized machines that do some of the cool stuff we’ve become accustomed to enjoying but that are locked-down in ways that make us less economically and personally vulnerable. (Zittrain thinks that the iPhone, with its closed system and centrally controlled App Store, is the biggest step so far in this direction.) And Zittrain believes that if that happens, if we start to close doors that have been open since the internet got here, we’ll lose a lot of creativity of dialogue and invention — we’ll lose what Zittrain calls “generativity.”

There’s a terrific review by Tim Wu of Zittrain’s book in the new New Republic. TNR tends to put some content online temporarily and then later remove it (except for subscribers), so I don't know how long a link will work, but for now here it is. Wu believes that the development of the internet has a strong parallel nearly a century ago in the development of radio, and the story he tells is fascinating. I’ll leave you with a taste of it:

While it sounds surprising, there were probably more broadcast radio stations in the 1920s than there are now (excluding satellite). A guide to the nation's stations in 1922 declined to provide listings for New York City, because "a list of all that can be heard with a radio receiver anywhere within three hundred miles of Greater New York would fill a book. At any hour of the day or night, with any type of apparatus, adjusted to receive waves of any length, the listener will hear something of interest." And early radio, like the early Internet, was aggressively non-commercial. At a radio conference held by the Commerce Department in 1922, all agreed that "direct advertising in radio broadcasting service be absolutely prohibited." Herbert Hoover, speaking at that conference, declared that "It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service, for news, for entertainment, for education, and for vital commercial purposes to be drowned in advertising chatter."

The point is that both radio and film were, in their early days, much like the Internet is today: new, unreliable, and full of content that was not ready for prime time. These were easy industries to get into, like dot-coms in the 1990s or Web 2.0 in the 2000s. To get into film in the 1910s required little more than converting a store into a movie theater, which is how William Fox (20th Century Fox), Adolph Zukor (Paramount), and Carl Laemmle (Universal) got their start. They were low-budget entrepreneurs, the Larry Page (Google) and Pierre Omidyar (eBay) of their day.

I do not mean to glorify the age of silent film or local radio. I have watched plenty of silent films, and there is much to be said for sound. I want only to insist that where the Internet is now, we have been before. What Zittrain calls a "generative" media was not invented by the Internet's founders. And that is why understanding what happened next may be our best guide to the Internet's future.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


I was just reading Adam Sternbergh’s review of David Denby’s new book Snark. Denby claims that snark is “a nasty, knowing strain of abuse spreading like pinkeye through the national conversation”; Sternbergh replies that, au contraire, snark “flourishes in an age of doublespeak and idiocy that’s too rarely called out elsewhere. Snark is not a honk of blasé detachment; it’s a clarion call of frustrated outrage.”

Many people will get caught up in this argument, no doubt, but it is impossible to imagine a greater waste of time. I will say that Sternbergh’s review is not coherent or specific enough to get a good handle on. He writes as though all so-called snark is just a way of speaking truth to power, and never even mentions the use of snark in conversations among social equals; and while he seems to think that there is good snark and bad snark, he doesn't give any examples — except to say that he thinks Tom Cruise is fair game — so there’s no way to know what in particular he likes and doesn't like. Denby at least gives (hundreds of) examples to illustrate his claims.

But all that said, I want to go back to the point that this is a useless argument. Here’s my prediction: not one person in a thousand is going to be confronted with a statement whose core idea they agree with and say, Yep, that’s too snarky. They’ll either say along with Sternbergh that that’s good snark or (what amounts to the same thing) they’ll say it’s not snark at all but rather legitimate irony or sarcasm which the target of the criticism richly deserves. When faced with actual examples of critical language, almost everyone will approve of that critical languge if it’s directed against their (political, social, artistic, religious) enemies and disapprove of it if it’s directed against something or someone they approve of. Democrats will lament Republican snark, Republicans will lament Democratic snark, world without end. Why even bother having this conversation?

I’ll confine myself to this one statement: whether snark is ever a good thing or not depends on what you want to achieve. If you want to buld solidarity among people who already share a set of core convictions, or if you just want to blow off your own built-up steam, then snark might be a good thing. If you want to find ways to get people who disagree with each other to come to some mutual understanding, and perhaps even agreement . . . not so much.

Monday, January 5, 2009

the age of correspondence

Fred Wilson says that we have entered an “age of correspondence” because now we write so much more than we talk on the phone. This has been noted before: if the telephone brought to an end the great age of letter-writing, a different kind of writing has been created by the age of email and text-messaging.

There are a lot of things that could be said about this, and I’ll probably say some of them later, but in this post I just want to reflect on one thing: the anxiety this situation is causing libraries and archives — the institutions that collect the correspondence of famous people. Fifty years ago those custodians worried that the telephone was going to eliminate correspondence, that the revelatory letters of great men and women were going to be replaced by electrical signals that vanish into the air, never to be captured, irrecoverable. And there’s no doubt that people wrote less in the Telephone Age; but plenty of correspondence has remained for archives to collect and scholars to study, especially among writers. One has to suspect that many authors kept writing letters precisely in order to create a future archival presence for themselves. Don't think they’re not aware of such things: even in the eighteenth century Sir Horace Walpole, one of the great letter-writers of that or any other day, knew perfectly well that his letters would eventually be collected and published.

And maybe authors today are carefully preserving their emails in Walpoleian fashion — scholars hope so. But even if they are, it’s hard to tell what this means for the archivists. Even if an author wills her collected correspondence to a library, how will that be done? Will the executor of her estate email a zipped folder of text files to the head librarian? And then will the libraries hoard such collections, making them available only to the few properly qualified — or will they just post them on the internet? In any case it’s hard to imagine families getting rich after a bidding war for a recently-deceased artist’s letters and papers, as has happened so often in the past.

I also imagine that scholars in the future will spend a lot of time scouring the web for evidence of authors’ online presence. If someone decades from now ends up writing a biography of the wonderful John Crowley, surely he or she will notice that Crowley had his own blog; but will he or she find that Crowley once discomposed John Holbo by commenting on a blog post Holbo wrote about him? And if someone writes a book claiming that James Wood was the great literary critic of his day, will that scholar discover Wood’s response to Daniel Green’s snarky blog post about him? This kind of thing happens all the time.

Of course, there are also those authors, like Lee Siegel, who participate in conversations pseudonymously or anonymously. How many of those interventions will be discovered?

Many questions to be answered in the coming years.

I will just add this, though: in writing my books about W. H. Auden and C. S. Lewis, I spent a lot of time poring over their correspondence in libraries — primarily the New York Public Library for Auden and Wheaton’s own Marion Wade Center for Lewis. Some decades from now it’s unlikely that many scholars will need to travel to particular archives or libraries in order to do their research: they will be able to do a great deal of it from their laptops, wherever they happen to be. But certain experiences will be lost: the quality and feel of the paper the authors wrote on, for sure; in many cases (whenever email dominates) the variations in handwriting and even in typescript. The material conditions of authors’ lives will be less vivid to scholars, with what consequences I do not know.

I have a vivid memory of my study of the Auden letters in the NYPL: they were organized by recipient, and every now and then I would come across a letter scrawled — Auden had horrific handwriting — on the curious orange stationery of the In Town Inn of Lubbock, Texas. They all bore the same date — it was the late Fifties or early Sixties, I believe — which suggests that Auden didn't find a lot to do that night he spent in Lubbock. I enjoy imagining what his room must have looked like, as he sat at the little desk and dashed off letters to friends, pausing from time to time to take what he called “an analeptic swig” from his flask of hooch. And I think of his wonderful comic poem “On the Circuit”. Future scholars are likely to have fewer small pleasures, small moments of imaginative vision, like that one.

Friday, January 2, 2009

advice to a prophet

My post a few days ago about natural signs received an interesting comment from Julana. She is wondering whether, if indeed we do largely lose our knowledge of the natural world — our very ability to name the things of Creation — we will also lose much of our ability to make metaphors. As it happens, there is a very wonderful poem by the great Richard Wilbur on just this subject. It is called “Advice to a Prophet.”

When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city, Mad-eyed from stating the obvious, Not proclaiming our fall but begging us In God's name to have self-pity,

Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range, The long numbers that rocket the mind; Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind, Unable to fear what is too strange.

Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race. How should we dream of this place without us?-- The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us, A stone look on the stone's face?

Speak of the world's own change. Though we cannot conceive Of an undreamt thing, we know to our cost How the dreamt cloud crumbles, the vines are blackened by frost, How the view alters. We could believe,

If you told us so, that the white-tailed deer will slip Into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy, The lark avoid the reaches of our eye, The jack-pine lose its knuckled grip

On the cold ledge, and every torrent burn As Xanthus once, its gliding trout Stunned in a twinkling. What should we be without The dolphin's arc, the dove's return,

These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken? Ask us, prophet, how we shall call Our natures forth when that live tongue is all Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken

In which we have said the rose of our love and the clean Horse of our courage, in which beheld The singing locust of the soul unshelled, And all we mean or wish to mean.

Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding Whether there shall be lofty or long standing When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.