Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, June 22, 2009

a few links on my way out the door

Readers, I am about to decamp for a couple of weeks in the wilds of northern Alabama — “wilds” because my mother lives in the country with no internet access and spotty cell-phone signals. I’ll be reduced to sipping refreshing beverages under the pecan trees and watching Canoe Creek drift by. In other words, things could be worse.

In the meantime, you might want to compare Ross Douthat’s take on copyright with Cory Doctorow’s. I very much like Ross’s suggestion:

Why not, then, simultaneously extend copyright and narrow its scope? Let the Helprins continue to earn royalties into the distant future, but let adaptations, derivations, parodies and borrowing flower more quickly and completely than the current system allows. Leave the Tolkiens the rights to “The Hobbit”in perpetuity, but not the right to prevent two enterprising film companies from going forward with competing adaptations. Leave the Mitchells the rights to “Gone With the Wind,” but not the right to tie up a would-be parodist in court for years on end because they don’t like what she’s doing to their Scarlett. Leave the Lucas family the right to “Stars Wars,” but not the right to prevent me from writing my own competing version of Anakin Skywalker’s life story.

So how would this affect the book about Holden Caulfield that J. D. Salinger is trying to suppress?

And then there’s this: if you ever wanted to disassemble all your books, scan them, use OCR software to identify the text and make it searchable, and then reassemble them all, well, here’s how you do it.

Ciao for now.

Friday, June 19, 2009

don't forget magazines

Following up on Farhad Manjoo’s love letter to newspapers: Here is Michael Hirschorn’s mash note to The Economist:

For a magazine that effectively blogged avant la lettre, The Economist has never had much digital savvy. It offered a complex mix of free and paid content (rarely a winning strategy) until two years ago and was so unprepared for the Internet that it couldn’t even secure theeconomist.com as its Web domain. (It later tried, unsuccessfully, to claim the URL.) Today, access to the site is free of charge, excepting deep archival material, but while editors have made some desultory efforts at adding social-networking features, most of the magazine’s readers seem to have no idea the site exists. While other publications whore themselves to Google, The Huffington Post, and the Drudge Report, almost no one links to The Economist. It sits primly apart from the orgy of link love elsewhere on the Web.

This turns out to have been a lucky accident. Unlike practically all other media “brands,” The Economist remains primarily a print product, and it is valued accordingly. In other words, readers continue to believe its stories have some value. As a result, The Economist has become a living test case of the path not taken by Time and Newsweek, whose Web strategies have succeeded in grabbing eyeballs (Time has 4.7 million unique users a month, and Newsweek has 2 million, compared with The Economist’s 700,000, according to one measure) while dooming their print products to near irrelevance.

I wonder if the return-to-print crowd is getting bigger? I can't tell, not yet anyway.

get your paper here!

Farhad Manjoo on what’s good about reading actual newspapers:

But both versions of the Kindle are missing what makes print newspapers such a perfect delivery vehicle for news: graphic design. The Kindle presents news as a list—you're given a list of sections (international, national, etc.) and, in each section, a list of headlines and a one-sentence capsule of each story. It's your job to guess, from the list, which pieces to read. This turns out to be a terrible way to navigate the news.

Every newspaper you've ever read was put together by someone with an opinion about which of the day's stories was most important. Newspapers convey these opinions through universal, easy-to-understand design conventions—they put important stories on front pages, with the most important ones going higher on the page and getting more space and bigger headlines. You can pick up any page of the paper and—just by reading headlines, subheads, and photo captions—quickly get the gist of several news items. Even when you do choose to read a story, you don't have to read the whole thing. Since it takes no time to switch from one story to another, you can read just a few paragraphs and then go on to something else.

Those of you who thought I was uncritically admiring of the Kindle earlier — by the way, you should really go back and read all my Kindle-tagged posts — will now think that I’m slamming it. But not at all: I post, you decide. About the Kindle, as about other matters, I’m fair, balanced, and unafraid.

I look into your reading future . . .

I’m not getting especially helpful advice from the Book Seer, but maybe you’ll do better. I read about the Seer at booktwo.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

embedded previews from Google Books

Google says I can now embed certain passages from Google Books — those books with previews — on my website. Let’s see if it works:


Hmm. Well, sort of. You don't seem to be able to choose what you want to show — I thought I was choosing to embed a portion of the text, but evidently not. Not sure what this is good for.

an interesting concept

Pagehand is a new word processor for the Mac whose native file format is PDF — yep, it saves its documents as PDFs. I’m not sure what I think about this. Whatever you write in it is immediately shareable across all platforms with maximum compatibility, and that’s good. But the documents won't be readily editable, which is not so good. I can see this being an attractive option to people who regularly need to print their documents and want those documents to keep their formatting — but how many such people are there these days?

a brilliant new archive

Now this is fabulous: the British Library’s enormous archive of 19th-century newspapers. (Story in the Guardian here.) The terms are somewhat confusing, and only paid subscribers will be able to download stuff — but still. Amazing. It might not make Nicholson Baker happy, but it makes me happy. I have to get Wheaton’s library to subscribe ASAP.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

delivery vehicles

That essay by Ann Kirschner I linked to the other day beat me to a punch: I had been planning a post about choices of, shall we say, reading venue. It’s been about ten years since I’ve read Middlemarch — one of the two greatest English novels, the other being Bleak House, if you want to know — which means that it’s time to re-read it. All I had to do was decide what the delivery vehicle would be.

  • I have a Penguin Classics paperback, with a nice font and good notes.

  • I have a recent Everyman’s Library edition, which seems to be photo-offset from an old two-volume edition. Nice hard covers and a silk bookmark.

  • I have an old Oxford World’s Classics hardcover — small (4x6 inches) and blue, with very slightly yellowed pages — I picked up in Hay-on-Wye some years ago.

  • I had a Project Gutenberg version on my Kindle until I lost my Kindle, but I still have it available on my iPhone. (I could use the Kindle iPhone app or Stanza.)

  • And I could read it on my laptop, say with the Gutenberg text and Readability.

This was actually an easy call for me. Want to guess which one I chose?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


When I was a kid I didn't really dislike brushing my teeth, but sometimes that was just one too many things to do. So when I had forgotten, and my mom asked me whether I had remembered, of course I lied. But then she started checking behind me: “Your toothbrush isn't wet.” Okay, well, at that point it became a challenge. So I would wet the toothbrush and then head for bed, feeling victorious. But then one evening she said, “It’s wet, but it doesn't smell like toothpaste.” Dammit. So the next night I wet the toothbrush, I put toothpaste on it . . . and at that point I realized that it was actually less trouble to brush my teeth than to try to fool Mom. So I brushed them.

I often think of this experience when it’s time for my students to turn their papers in. Now, Wheaton is a Christian school and while we’re not sinless by any means, there really is a good deal less cheating and manipulating than I experienced in my state university days — but still, some people do look for ways to game the system. And they find them, even when, sometimes, the gaming is more trouble than getting the work done.

The only way a teacher assigning papers can certainly avoid being gamed is by adopting a policy that’s impossible to sustain, for instance: “You will hand your paper directly to me by 5 PM on the date assigned. No extensions, no excuses.” That would work — except that sometimes people have legitimate excuses. So you try to factor those in — and bingo, you’re open to being gamed. Someone’s computer crashed just as he was about to print. Someone else put her paper in your mailbox and can't imagine why it’s not there. Someone else emailed the paper to you last night — what, didn't you get it? (I have my students email their papers, and a couple of years ago I had a student tell me not only that she had sent a paper that somehow never made it to my inbox, but also that she failed to get my email messages telling her that I didn't receive a paper from her. Though she got all my other emails. Curious.)

So you try to close the more obvious loopholes, but — if you’re realistic — you’ll know that can't close them all. Indeed, you could go crazy trying, especially with options like this one available. Now that’s clever!

Monday, June 15, 2009


So you know how people — like, for instance, me — have pointed out that if you lose your Kindle you lose all your Kindle books? Well, at about the time that I wrote that post Amazon released its Kindle app for the iPhone, which I dutifully downloaded, and now I’m really glad I did, because . . .

I lost my Kindle.

Yep, I left it on an airplane. I’ve never left anything on an airplane; I guess I was just waiting until I had a four-hundred-dollar reading device so I could make my first time truly special. I left it in the seat-back pocket, and though I called Southwest as soon as I got home, I haven't heard anything back from them. All I could do was deactivate the Kindle so whoever kept it can't charge books to my account.

I don't think I’m going to buy another one. In the previous couple of months I had been using it less and less, for several reasons. First, I was coming more and more to miss the look and feel of different books — I realized that many of my memories of books were linked to their appearance, to cover designs and typefaces, and I began to suspect that I was not remembering as much about the books I read on the Kindle. (That’s just a suspicion, though.) And then there’s the fact that the iPhone Kindle app does a number of things better than the Kindle itself. It turns pages faster, and while you can't highlight or annotate with it, those are really awkward functions on the Kindle anyway; and on the iPhone app it’s easier to book mark pages and to retrieve your bookmarks.

I haven't done a great deal of reading on my iPhone so far, and I haven't read for long periods of time, so I’m not prepared to agree with Ann Kirschner that “the iPhone is a Kindle killer”. Battery life is going to be a problem; and backlit screens are harder on the eyes than ink on paper or e-ink on matte screens. But I don't think I can justify going back to Amazon and forking over several hundred bucks to get another Kindle, even a new and improved one. I’m going to stick with my books, and use my iPhone as a backup for emergency reading needs.

Friday, June 12, 2009

learning writing

Very interesting article by Rachel Toor in the Chronicle of Higher Education on trying to get people to understand the value of writing well. She focuses particularly on friends of hers who are scientists and who, though they have to write a good deal, can't be bothered to learn how to do it skillfully.

There's something crucial here that often gets lost in academic writing (it's worse in fields like literary criticism and history). Because the work is so important to academics, sometimes they don't do a good job of convincing readers that they, too, should find it valuable. In many cases, the writer doesn't do a good enough job of explaining what the idea is, and then making the best argument for it.

When Godfrey [a friend of Toor’s an academic physician] told me that he'd had a manuscript rejected because the reviewers didn't get the importance of his findings, I explained that the failing was most likely his, not theirs. It's the burden of the writer to be clear and to let readers know why they should care. . . .

If you want a journal to accept your paper, or a federal agency to grant you coin, you have to make clear what is at stake and why the reader should care. Then you have to put forward the strongest reasoning based on evidence you provide in the clearest language you are able to rally. And then you need to know when you need help.

Erin O’Connor adds a comment:

A secret I learned during my year teaching high school students at a small Massachusetts boarding school: They like grammar (and vocabulary and syntax and usage) lessons, and want them, and want to write better. A secret I learned when I returned to Penn from that job: Same is true of college students. I had always done massive grammar and syntax commenting on student papers along with more global commenting on structure and framing and even more global commenting on the content of the argument itself, but after that year in high school I started devoting some formal class time to it as part of the writing component of the lit courses I taught. That was an unusual thing to do in a literature course, and I worried at first that the students would find the whole thing beneath them (even though they needed the work). But they didn't. And they improved. And it was good.

Again and again in my career I have seen that people who can write well — in almost any field — give themselves a great advantage over their competition. I have former students in the business world, English majors all, who have kept their jobs or even gotten promotions when people with business and economics degrees were being laid off: their ability to communicate, especially in writing, was always the key. What Toor and O’Connor show is that there are basic writing skills that almost anyone can learn and employ, skills that will save them a lot of time and effort later — if they are willing to take some time and effort now. But of course, it helps if they can find someone to teach them. . . .

Thursday, June 11, 2009

the religion of the book

Here’s a fascinatng interview with Remi Brague, author of the recently released history The Legend of the Middle Ages: Philosophical Explorations of Medieval Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The interviewer begins by asking Brague, “How do you view the relationship between the three religions of the book and philosophical activity?” Brague answers the question, but pauses to say that there really aren't “three religions of the book”:

But at that point we see that the expression conceals a . . . trap: it implies that in these three religions, which do, in fact, have a book — as do other religions — the contents of revelation would be that book. As it happens, however, in Judaism that content is the history of God with his people, whom he liberates and guides by giving them his Teaching (torah); In Christianity, it is the person of Christ, who, for Christians, is a concentrate of the previous experience of Israel. The written texts record that history, or, in the case of the Talmud, gather together the discussions of the scholars regarding the interpretation and application of the divine commandments. But in no way do those books constitute the actual message of God to humankind. It is only in Islam that the revealed object is the Book. In the final analysis, the only religion of the book is Islam!

The whole interview is very much worth reading, as, I suspect, is the book, which I have just added to my wishlist. (That’s a long list, though.)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

tales untold

We know, thanks to the poet Keats, that “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter” — but might something similar apply to stories? Told tales fascinate, but those untold fascinate more.

Recently on the Happy Days blog at the New York Times, Tim Kreider wrote a brief essay that began like this:

Fourteen years ago I was stabbed in the throat. This is kind of a long story and it’s not the point of this essay. The point is that after my unsuccessful murder I wasn’t unhappy for an entire year.

And then he goes on to tell the story of his happiness without ever describing the stabbing. This created an immense curiosity in his readers, as he knew it would — but no problem: he later provided a link to a PDF of a comic he drew called “The Stabbing Story” in which he tells . . . a story about telling the stabbing story. But the stabbing story itself he doesn't tell. Clever boy.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


I despise the recently constant chatter about Twitter, and here I am adding to it twice in twenty-four hours. Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

On Twitter I follow, basically, some friends, some Mac sites, and . . . this: an hourly feed of prayers attributed to St. John Chrysostom. The juxtapositions create some interesting food for meditation. For instance, yesterday, during the keynote presentation at Apple’s WWDC, I got this from The Unofficial Apple Weblog:

iPhone 3GS: Faster, with video, environmentally friendly. Available July 19, $299 for 32GB, $199 for 16GB

And immediately following, from chrysostomhours:

O Lord, save me from temptation.

commonplace books

I wrote an article a while back about the ancient tradition of keeping a commonplace book — and about my contemporary version, which is on a kind of hiatus at the moment.

And now I learn from Daniel Seidel that he has started a website, mycommonplacebook.org, where people can create online commonplace books and share them with others. The site needs some design work, I think — while it’s visually simple, as is fitting, it suffers from undifferentiated elements, so that the reading eye can't clearly distinguish the content of immediate interest from the wrapper — and it needs a name. “My Commonplace Book,” for instance. But I love the idea.

If you choose to make your commonplace book public, and then identify quotations by author, a reader can find all the quotations people have posted by any given writer. That’s cool. There are “Categories” too, which I think most of us would call tags, but because people tag so idiosyncratically, that’s not as useful a way of slicing and dicing the data. (Delicious suffers from the same problem, though there is so much data on Delicious that the tags are useful. As mycommonplacebook.org gets more users, it will become immensely more fun and profitable to browse. Check it out.

Monday, June 8, 2009

beautiful libraries

The page takes a long time to load, but don't miss it; or you could browse the related Flickr pages. Wow. Here's a sample:

And another:

tweeting for Godot

Very funny piece on Slate about "orphaned tweets" — people who set up a Twitter account, posted one tweet, and then never returned. Think of them as a series of miniature Beckett plays and they take on a certain eerieness. "Sitting next to a big, hairy, smelly guy on the bus." "weeping gently." And sometimes they get positively creepy, as in this one-timer: "I am writing an email to the makers of Spray N Wash to thank them for making a product that got the blood stains out of my new PJs and robe. "

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Galileo Goes to Jail

Ron Numbers is one of our leading historians of science and pseudo-science — his The Creationists is the definitive account of that strange movement — and he has edited a fascinating new book called Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion. At the Harvard UP website you can download a nice excerpt from the book as a PDF.

The “warfare model,” the notion that science and religion are somehow necessarily inimical to each other, arises far later than most people think — in the later nineteen century, more or less — and that period is the origin of many of the myths that are debunked in Galileo Goes to Jail. There’s a nice interview with Numbers here in which he says that he doesn't actually expect the warfare model to recede in influence anytime soon:

In recent years there's been a lot of activity, focusing on the relationship between science and religion, often with an eye towards showing the harmony between science and religion. As a historian it's hard for me to say what fruit this effort will bear. But, I guess that I'm somewhat sceptical about much of importance coming out of it. I think most people are fairly entrenched in their opinions. Whether it's their dedication to fundamentalist Christianity, or atheistic science, and I think that it will be very hard for those who are advocating the harmony of science and religion to make the sort of progress that they want.

This is not encouraging. But anyone who reads Galileo Goes to Jail will find that old conflictual model harder to sustain.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

promise to buck up: kept

I mentioned in an earlier post Dave Eggers's promise to buck you up if you're in despair about the future of print. Well, he has come through.


There have been some problems with the comments, but I think they're fixed now. Fire at will.

creative writing

Louis Menand's long essay in the New Yorker on Mark McGurl's new book The Program Era is, typically, superb. McGurl's book deals largely with the relationship between creative writing programs and recent American fiction. Here's an excerpt from Menand's review:

A second thing that “The Program Era” does well, and sometimes entertainingly, is to treat the world of creative writing as an ant farm, in which the writer-ants go about busily executing the tasks they have been programmed for. Writing is a technology, after all, and there is a sense in which human beings who write can be thought of as writing machines. They get tooled in certain ways, and the creative-writing program is a means of tooling. But McGurl treats creative writing as an ant farm where the ants are extremely interesting. He never reduces writers to unthinking products of a system. They are thinking products of a system. After all, few activities make people more self-conscious than participating in a writing workshop. Reflecting on yourself—your experience, your “voice,” your background, your talent or lack of it—is what writing workshops make people do.

McGurl thinks that this habit of self-observation is not restricted to writing programs. He thinks that we’re all highly self-conscious ants, because that’s what it means to be a modern person. Constant self-assessment and self-reflection are part of our program. . . . So the fiction that comes out of creative-writing programs may appeal to readers because it rehearses topics—“Who am I?” issues—that are already part of their inner lives.

McGurl's book has gotteb mixed reviews — it appears to be heavily jargonized — so Menand's lucid review may be a good way to get a grip on McGurl's argument.

thoughts from Finland on books and more

Teemu Manninen ruminates:

Enter the papernet: the internet as a platform for producing, on demand, paper products (maps, organisers, notebooks, social travel guides and the like). Imagine, for instance, that your printer had its own email-address, and instead of your newspaper delivered to your door each morning, your printer would print it out for you. Depending on what kinds of feeds you are currently following, your morning paper could be a mix of the best of New York Times, Helsingin Sanomat and Le Monde, for instance. (And I’m not talking about the kind of printers we have now, but much better ones; ones that could print out not only newspapers, but paperback books or broadsheets or even glossy magazines.) Imagine, also, that books were no longer tied to the cost-heavy machinery of traditional publishing houses, which can only produce one book in one edition at one moment of time. If the audiovisual industry is already changing because of electronic distribution, imagine when the same thing happens to books.

See also Farhad Manjoo on Mine magazine. I don't know about all this. I have had to deal with too much paper in my life, and have been trying for the past few years to limit it to books. I love my books, but newspapers, magazines, and my students’ papers I prefer in digital form.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

a lengthy post

The well-known computer scientist/entrepreneur Philip Greenspun has a recent post which is an interesting combination of insight and nonsense.

Nonsense first. Greenspun writes, “The pre-1990 commercial publishing world supported two lengths of manuscript: 1. the five-page magazine article, serving as filler among the ads; 2. the book, with a minimum of 200 pages.”

What? Has Greenspun ever actually looked at “pre-1990” newspapers and magazines? If by “the commercial publishing world” he means Time and Newsweek, he’s not too far off; otherwise. . . . Now, he does acknowledge that “a handful of long-copy magazines, such as the old New Yorker would print 20-page essays.” (Not sure what he means by “old” in that sentence.) Yes, and Esquire and the Atlantic and Harper’s and Playboy and Rolling Stone and The New Republic and the New York Review of Books and a great many literary and cultural quarterlies that paid their contributors; and then there were all thee venues for shorter pieces, 800-word op-eds and the like. Oh, and then there's the notion that there has ever been a 200-page minimum for books. . . .

So: nonsense. But the larger point of the post is an insightful one, or at least would have been if Greenspun had developed it more clearly. Let me do it myself. When you’re writing for a newspaper or magazine, especially if you’ve been commissioned to write something, you always have a rough word limit in mind. A little experience teaches you whether there’s a fit between an idea and a word limit. Sometimes I have turned down a writing assignment because I didn't think I could do it in the number of words available; sometimes I have said “I couldn't do it at 1500 words, but I could do it in 4000” — and I have found that editors tend to be open to such counter-proposals if they’re allowed the flexibility. And of course, while in “commercial publishing” there is and always has been much greater variation in article or story length than Greenspun acknowledges, it’s true that different publications specialize in different lengths; so when you have an idea that you know is going to come to a certain number of words once it gets written, and you’re thinking about where to send it or pitch it, you don't just think about the editorial stances of possible outlets, you also think about the length of article they typically publish.

Greenspun’s point is that online writing eliminates these concerns. When you’re writing for web publication you can just write what you want and need to write, because there are no word limits as such. Now, there still will be appropriate lengths for the development of a given idea — incoherent rambling is incoherent rambling, whether in print or pixels — but there are no artificially imposed ceilings. And the more prominent e-readers become — as I have suggested in this post — the more this wil be true in that environment as well.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

if you offer it. . .

I read this some months ago but have unaccountably neglected to link to it — an essay by John Parker on why we should be hopeful about what he calls "the expanding market for intelligence":

One of the commonest complaints by cultural doomsayers is that nobody reads good books any more. Yet in the past two years, the Oprah Book Club in America recommended Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and three novels by William Faulkner — good by any standard, and they all made the bestseller lists. This year, Waterstone’s, which owns over 300 bookshops in Britain, asked two celebrated novelists, Sebastian Faulks and Philip Pullman, each to choose 40 titles and write a few words of recommendation. The chain then piled copies of the books on tables next to the entrances of its main shops and waited to see what would happen. Faulks and Pullman hardly dumbed down their choices: they included Fernando Pessoa’s “Book of Disquiet”, Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim”, and Raymond Queneau’s “Exercises in Style”. The sales increases for these books over the same period the year before were, respectively, 1,350%, 1,420% and 1,800% — clear evidence of latent demand. If you offer it, they will come

Monday, June 1, 2009

a bit o' linkage

Some doubts about Google Wave.

The estimable Ted Striphas asks whether Google’s foray into e-book sales is likely to succeed.

David Kelly asks about re-reading classic books only to be disappointed.


about that moose

I just finished reading David Post’s quirky book In Search of Jefferson’s Moose: Notes on the State of Cyberspace, and I’m not quite sure what to say about it. At the end of the book Post confesses that his editor wanted him to clarify whether he was writing a book about Thomas Jefferson or about the Internet, and agrees that he never was clear about that himself. For the reader of the book this really is a problem.

Post’s book, as best I understand it, has two governing ideas. The first is that, just as Thomas Jefferson wrote his Notes on the State of Virginia in order to describe a complex, emerging, not-yet-perfectly-defined environment to people who didn't have a clear idea what it was all about, so Post wants to write a description of the complex, emerging, not-yet-perfectly-defined environment of the Internet. The tasks are remarkably similar, Post wants to say.

His second governing idea is that Jefferson was an incisive and prescient thinker about matters of intellectual property, and therefore is worth heeding as we imagine what the Internet could and should be. (Post distinguishes the wide-open unregulated “Jeffersonian” model of the Internet, which tends to dominate legal thinking about these matters in the United States, from the more controlled, governed “Hamiltonian” model, which is much stronger in, for example, France.) This is absolutely right, which is why Jefferson gets quoted extensively by almost every legal scholar writing about the Internet.

But this second governing idea really doesn't have much to do with the first one except that Jefferson is involved. So as I read In Search of Jefferson’s Moose I enjoyed the individual parts of it very much, but couldn't find a unifying argument at all.

If you’re interested in a seriously Jeffersonian account of the Internet’s legal situation, I would recommend the slightly less sprightly but far more forcefully coherent book by James Boyle, The Public Domain. You can, if you choose, download a PDF of Boyle’s book here.