Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, December 31, 2009

righting an old wrong?

When I was six or seven years old I started reading my father’s books, all of which were paperback novels, and almost all of those Westerns and science fiction. I read every novel Louis L’Amour had written before I was ten, and nearly everything by Robert A. Heinlein (I’m not sure I made it through Stranger in a Strange Land). And then one day I started on Frank Herbert’s Dune.

I was wandering through the house with the book tucked under my arm and saw on the kitchen counter a big bowl of strawberries macerating in sugar. Since strawberries were my favorite food, I decided those were for me. I took them back to my room and spooned sweet fruit into my mouth as I simultaneously devoured the first hundred pages or so of Dune.

But I ate too many of those strawberries. I became miserably sick and threw everything up. And then I discovered that the nausea returned if I so much as thought about . . . Dune. Yes, oddly, my mind linked profound queasiness not with the strawberries, which were at fault, but with Frank Herbert’s novel. I guess I loved strawberries too much to be revolted by them, so Dune took the hit instead. Every time I picked it up my stomach lurched. I set it aside and never got back to it.

Until now. My son Wes read it not long ago, so his copy has been lying around the house. I looked at it — picked it up — experienced no nausea — and thought, what the hell, maybe it’s time. Maybe I should make it up to old Frank for my inappropriately negative reaction to his book. So I started in, and . . .

It’s terrible. The writing is unbearably stilted, every scene (so far) contrived and clichéd. I know it must get better, and in any case you don't read a book like this for its style but rather for its world-making — but good heavens, Herbert writes like a fifteen-year-old. I bet I would have adored it at age ten, but forty years later I don't know whether I’m going to be able to persist. Maybe I’ll watch the movie instead.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

my most-used iPhone apps

In alphabetical order:

Instapaper: An amazingly useful app, and by far the best way to read articles of any length on the iPhone. Tilt scrolling is a beautiful thing.

Kindle: I have a feeling that one of these days this could render my Kindle useless. If it weren’t for the discomfort that backlighting causes my eyes over long stretches of reading, it might already have done so.

Tweetie: By far the best Twitter client for the iPhone, but I wish it would allow light text on a dark background, as Twitterrific does.

WeatherBug Elite: By far the best weather app for the iPhone. Very fast and very good-looking, two things that can't be said for the other options that I’ve tried.

WriteRoom: WriteRoom on the iPhone + Notational Velocity for the Mac = plain-text note-taking Heaven. And I’m a plain-text note-taking kind of guy.

I have sometimes said that, because of lousy network coverage in my neighborhood, when my AT&T contract runs out I may well ditch the iPhone in favor of something with Android, or maybe even the Palm Pre. But who am I kidding? Apps like this, plus the ability to sync with my music and my other personal data, will keep me in the iPhone camp for the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

minute bodies

"Digitized images of rare and beautiful historic books in the biomedical sciences," here.

"Anyone who doesn’t read Cortázar is doomed."

Over at if:book, Dan Visel has a nice post on the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, who is probably best known for his proto-hypertext novel Hopscotch — he was perhaps the most radically experimental of the writers of El Boom Latinoamericano. Years ago I read all his major novels, but oddly enough, when I think of Cortázar, what always comes to mind is a very simple and straightforward short story called “The Health of the Sick.” It’s one of the most beautiful stories I have ever read — and if you look for it online, make sure you avoid reviews that tell you what happens. I don't suppose I will ever forget its last sentence.

I read it in the collection of stories called All Fires the Fire, which was the first book of Cortázar’s I bought, and I bought it because of a blurb on the back cover. To this day I think of it as the best blurb I have ever read. It was written by Pablo Neruda:

Anyone who doesn’t read Cortázar is doomed. Not to read him is a serious invisible disease which in time can have terrible consequences. Something similar to a man who has never tasted peaches. He would quietly become sadder, noticeably paler and, probably, little by little, he would lose his hair. I don’t want those things to happen to me, and so I greedily devour all the fabrications, myths, contradictions, and mortal games of the great Julio Cortázar.

Friday, December 25, 2009

a merry Christmas to all

Alas, the extraordinary Craigie Aitchison died just a few days ago.
Posting will be light over the next week or so, as you might imagine. God bless us every one!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

deal with the devil

Ursula K. LeGuin’s letter of resignation from the Authors Guild:

18 December 2009

To Whom it may concern at the Authors Guild:
I have been a member of the Authors Guild since 1972.
At no time during those thirty-seven years was I able to attend the functions, parties, and so forth offered by the Guild to members who happen to live on the other side of the continent. I have naturally resented this geographical discrimination, reflected also in the officership of the Guild, always almost all Easterners. But it was a petty gripe when I compared it to my gratitude to the Guild for the work you were doing in defending writers’ rights. I went on paying top dues and thought it worth it.
And now you have sold us down the river.
I am not going to rehearse any arguments pro and anti the “Google settlement.” You decided to deal with the devil, as it were, and have presented your arguments for doing so. I wish I could accept them. I can’t. There are principles involved, above all the whole concept of copyright; and these you have seen fit to abandon to a corporation, on their terms, without a struggle.
So, after being a loyal if invisible member for so long, I am resigning from the Guild. I am, however, retaining membership in the National Writers Union and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, both of which opposed the “Google settlement.” They don’t have your clout, but their judgment, I think, is sounder, and their courage greater.
Yours truly,
Ursula K. Le Guin

Story, with response from the Guild, here.

the best of both worlds

Josef Beery has done well by his iPod Touch: he's using it as a book reader and only as a book reader, with a beautiful custom-made case. Sweet.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

support culture!

Some years ago Cullen Murphy, then editor of The Atlantic, told me in an email exchange that in his view John Wilson is one of the best editors around. And I've heard this from some other eminent authorities as well. In case you don't know, John edits Books and Culture, which is subtitled "A Christian Review" — but if you haven't read the magazine, you might be misled by that. B&C is indeed shaped by Christian belief, but key to that belief is the conviction that the world God has made is endlessly interesting in all sorts of ways, and that all sorts of people can help us to understand it better. So while the magazine does feature narrow-minded, blinkered, provincial evangelicals like yours truly — and incredibly learned Christian scholars like Mark Noll — and gifted Christian writers like Lauren Winner — it also features writers you are likely to find in some of America's most distinguished periodicals. The issue that arrived on my doorstep yesterday, for instance, features articles by Alan Wolfe and John McWhorter. I don't think there's a better magazine in America.
Like many magazines today, B&C ain't rolling in dough, and could really use your financial support. A subscription would be nice, but you can also make a gift contribution here. Please consider doing so.
Oh, and go ahead and subscribe to The New Atlantis while you're at it. Spend all the money Grandma gave you for Christmas on good causes. Future generations will thank you. Seriously.

taste-testing literary style

Nicholas Lezard looks at a new scientific “formula” that can, it is claimed, identify a given author’s stylistic “fingerprint”: the key, it appears, is “the frequency with which authors use new words.” Lezard is not impressed:

For any reasonably well-read person should be able to tell whether a text is by Hardy, Melville or Lawrence almost at a glance even if they haven't read it before. . . . Do you remember when, years ago, some dismal piece of doggerel (which began, as I recall, with the lines "Shall I die?/Shall I fly?") was, on the basis of word-frequency, claimed to be a hitherto undiscovered work by Shakespeare? A few people were impolite enough to point out that it was far too shit for Shakespeare to have written, but on the whole news agencies and those with a tin ear for poetry went along with the assertion. It even made it into an edition of his collected works, but I think now has been quietly dropped.

Leaving aside the question of whether this new formula is reliable — I don't know enough about it to have an opinion, and I doubt that Lezard does either — I wonder about Lezard’s claim that a given writer’s style is so readily identifiable by “any reasonably well-read person.” ("Almost at a glance"?) That would depend, I guess, on several things: first, how distinctive that style is — Dickens is more highly mannered than George Eliot, Pynchon more so than Philip Roth — , but also how large a sample one would get to work from, and what the sample happened to be. Distinctive as Dickens is, I could find paragraphs from his novels that would be hard to distinguish from Trollopian passages of similar length. Sometimes even the most peculiar writer just has to get on with the business of telling a story. (Similar caveats would need to be made about the evaluation of poetic style.)
When someone makes the kind of sweeping claim that Lezard makes here, I find myself wanting to put him to the test. So tested, he might discover that styles are more elusive than he thinks. In this context I am reminded of wine tasting: experts pronounce with great confidence on the traits of various wines, but their judgments are highly inconsistent and their palates easily fooled. Robert Parker himself was recently reminded of the perils of blind tasting. There’s no reason to think that the “tasting” of literary styles is any more reliable.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

now why didn't I think of that

Candace Sams, having read some negative reviews of her book by Amazon customers, decided to respond by (a) assuming a Lee-Siegel-like pseudonym, (b) blaming her editors, and (c) threatening to report her critics to the FBI.
I like it. Consider this a warning, naysayers.

Monday, December 21, 2009

you are here

Victorian infographics, from the ever-invaluable Bibliodyssey.

year-end reading report

I read more books this year than I have in quite a while, but I can't say that anything truly life-changing appeared on my horizon in 2009. I read one indisputably great book this year: Keith Thomas’s The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfillment in Early Modern England. I have written a review of it that I hope will soon appear, but let me just say for now that it’s one of the richest evocations of the texture of our ancestors’ lives that I have ever come across. I can't recommend it too highly to anyone interested in social history.

In general, though, this was a year of readerly disappointments: I came to a number of books with high hopes that weren’t realized: in varying ways David Post’s In Search of Jefferson’s Moose, Ted Striphas’s The Late Age of Print, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and Peter Wells’s Barbarians to Angels: The Dark Ages Reconsidered are all books that, in my estimation, promise more than they deliver. (About Striphas and Mantel I will have reflections in print.)

But I had some fun, too. I discovered the mystery fiction of Josephine Tey this year — her last, The Singing Sands, is especially fine. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is pure delight, as, in a very different way, is Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages.

Perhaps my best reading experiences this year were with books I had read before. This year I read Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday for, I think, the fourth time, but only this time did its full greatness come home to me. What as astonishing book, and how unlike any other book I can think of. I think this was also my fourth reading of Middlemarch, and its warmth and wisdom moved me as much as ever — though they do so in different ways each time. In this reading I found myself touched as never before by the great scene when Dorothea meets and comforts Rosamond — and by the fact (so true, yet so hard to face) that for all its power it has no lasting effect on Rosamond.

Re-reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy I concluded that my earlier judgment of it — that a brilliant beginning collapses into shameless preaching — was accurate, but also that I had been unfair and uncharitable to Pullman in certain ways. I apologized. And Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was even more delightful this time than the first time around. I do hope Susanna Clarke writes the sort-of-sequel she has sort-of-promised.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

consolidation, reactivation

I am always on a quest — apparently a fruitless one — to consolidate my online life. These days, there are just too darn many options for everything. I have had particular difficulty in figuring out what to do with those stories I come across that I don't plan to write about but that I don't want to lose track of. I used Delicious for a long time, then shifted to Pinboard — but then there's also Twitter, though just for links and the briefest of comments. I also have a tumblelog, which I grew disenchanted with a while back because of Tumblr's introduction of the bug — um, "feature" they call Tumblarity. But now I'm thinking that the tumblelog might be the way to go, largely because Tumblr makes it easy to post quotations as well as links. So for quotes, images, movies, and other stuff that doesn't quite fit here at Text Patterns, check out More Than 95 Theses. Gracias.
(P.S. Again in the spirit of consolidation, I may close down the Text Patterns Twitter feed in favor of the tumblelog. If anyone has strong feelings about that, let me know.)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

the mother of invention

More from Steven M. Johnson here.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Walking Stewart

James Bridle's newspaper-style account of Walking Stewart and his peregrinations through Victorian London.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

family tree

The characters of Kristin Lavransdatter.

mapping The Gift

Austin Kleon's map of Lewis Hyde's classic book The Gift. As always, click on the image for a (much) larger version.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cory Doctorow is making sense

Maximal, abusive, mindless copyright expansion isn’t just a disaster for the public, though. It’s also a disaster for creators. There’s this myth that those of us who write do something different from those of us who read, that there’s a fine line between writers and readers, but I’ve never known anyone to use more information than those who create information. The most aggressive copyists, the most aggressive owners of books and acquirers of books and all other media that I can think of are writers. The most aggressive users of the network to research and market, to reach out to their colleagues, to communicate with their publishers, are writers. So even though some writers might think that they might need this, even thought they might apply some Stockholm Syndrome that’s caused them to align themselves with the copyright maximalists that run giant industrial entities that figure that this would be a good idea—it doesn’t actually follow that this is actually good for writers, or for other creative people.

Copying creates new opportunities for writers and other creative people that have not existed before.

The talk is in some respects the usual Cory Doctorow message, but very well done. You should read and heed.


Bookfuturism is "mapping the future of the book." Looks very cool — please check it out.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

the incomprehending tweeters

It’s hard for me to believe that anyone — anyone — would think it a good idea to project a giant stream of Twitter commentary on a speech while the speaker is giving it — but that’s what they do at the big Web 2.0 conference, with predictably disastrous results for Danah Boyd. Note the comments by Kathy Sierra, who has been on the receiving end of some nasty commentary herself. And see some further reflections on this ludicrous practice here and here and here.

Let me make an observation that these other observers are, it seems, reluctant to make. That actual multitasking is cognitively impossible has been established beyond reasonable doubt: see Christine Rosen’s article in this very journal, or, if you prefer to look beyond our house organ, try here and here. In fact, it has become clear that the people who think they are skilled multitaskers actually are worse at it than other people.

So when you set up a Twitter stream to project as a speaker is speaking, and invite people to participate in it, you are simply asking them to fail, miserably, to understand what the speaker is saying. If a speaker makes a point that you find dubious, are you going to wait to see if later stages in the argument clarify that point, or perhaps make it more plausible? You are not. You are going to tweet your immediate reaction and therefore simply miss the next stage in the speaker’s argument. Every tweet you write, and every tweet you read on the big screen, compromises still further your comprehension of the lecture. I bet that after the talk was over there weren’t a dozen people in that audience who could have given even a minimally competent summary of what Boyd said.

Boyd understands all this: “Had I known about the Twitter stream, I would've given a more pop-y talk that would've bored anyone who has heard me speak before and provided maybe 3-4 nuggets of information for folks to chew on. It would've been funny and quotable but it wouldn't have been content-wise memorable.”

That is, she would have given a talk that did not make a sequential argument but just strung together sound-bites, because the audience couldn't have grasped anything other than disconnected aphoristic statements. In other words, she would have given a talk made of tweets, because that’s all that her tweeting audience could possibly have received. And even then they would have gotten only some of her verbal tweetery.

(Incidentally, or maybe not incidentally, there are certain ironies involved in Boyd being the one to complain about this situation.)

So what the people at Web 2.0 are saying to their speakers, loudly and clearly, is this: We don't want sequential reasoning. We don't want ideas that build on other ideas. We don't want arguments. Just stand up there and fire off a series of unsubstantiated claims that have no connection to one another. Preferably 140 characters at a time.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Albrecht Dürer, loser

Following 1,000 years of cultural decline and societal collapse known as the Dark Ages, the 15th century brought forth the Renaissance, an unprecedented resurgence in learning and the arts, which four or five guys pretty much just strapped onto their backs and carried the whole way.

"Our research indicates that da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, and Galileo basically hoisted the entire intellectual transformation of mankind onto their shoulders while everyone else just sat around being superstitious nimrods," said Sue Viero of the Correr Museum of Art in Venice, Italy. "Here's da Vinci busting his ass to paint such masterpieces as The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, while some loser like Albrecht Dürer is doing these dinky little woodcuts that are basically worthless."

"And how pathetic is it that Masaccio wasted so much time churning out his frescoes that barely revolutionized linear perspective or naturalism at all, when without Michelangelo's David, we wouldn't even have a Renaissance to begin with?" Viero added. "Honestly, it's not even friggin' close."

America’s finest news source, counting down the biggest stories of the past 4.5 million years.

altered books

the dead among the living

A provocative thought from the wonderful new book A Very Brief History of Eternity, by my friend Carlos Eire:

. . . few contrasts can be starker than that between John Calvin’s burial and that of Teresa of Avila. Buried in an unmarked grave outside the walls of Geneva, as per his own instructions, Calvin intentionally made himself disappear from the world of the living. After his death, no one prayed for his soul and no one prayed to him. Aside from his many texts, which continue to be read to this day, Calvin ceased to have any relations with the living. How different it was for Teresa. Continually exhumed and reburied, cut, sliced, carved, and scattered all over the world in pieces large and small, Teresa’s miraculously incorruptible body became the focus of intense veneration, even to this day. Even as Machiavellian a dictator as the Fascist Francisco Franco tried to claim her hand for himself. Though some masses and prayers were offered for her, as for all souls, no matter how holy, Teresa was soon venerated as a saint and prayed to instead. Canonized in 1620, elevated to Doctor of the Church in 1970, she remains alive among Catholics in myriad ways, beyond her texts.

Which raises the question: which of the two, Calvin or Teresa, has a greater influence upon the living?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

forgetting and remembering

When my colleague Adam Keiper wrote his incisive review of Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, little did he or Mr. Mayer-Schönberger know that Tiger Woods would show up to illustrate the dangers of an environment in which everything is remembered. Or did they know . . . ?

The fear of losing or forgetting has long been a motive engine of our culture. It was that fear that produced the scriptoria of medieval monasteries; it drove (along with other forces) the creation of the printing press and all technologies of mechanical reproduction. Thomasina Coverly, in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, asks how we can refrain from weeping when we think of all the great works of the ancients that have been lost: seven plays by Sophocles, for instance, when according to tradition he wrote 123. We might add that Beowulf survived in a single manuscript, as did the works of the Gawain poet; what if still greater works from the ancient world and the Middle Ages never made it to us?

Are those worries behind us now? Will we indeed devote our energies to covering our tracks and erasing our embarrassments, confident that everything that matters will be remembered? Probably not altogether. It’s hard to imagine that we might ever again lose — barring nuclear or other equally extensive holocaust — finished and published books, but the state of drafts and plans and sketches is a constant worry for libraries and archives. (Do we have a machine that can read an eight-inch floppy disk from a 1984 DEC computer, containing a file written in WordStar? And if we do, will the disk still have data integrity? — after all, no one knows how long these things last.) Likewise, many of the films made in the first decades of motion pictures have already deteriorated beyond any hope of recovery.

Some archivists have been encouraging figures of public significance to record their email passwords somewhere so that afte their death their correspondence can be retrieved. That may be the last thing that some of them want, except for those exceptionally shrewd ones who keep one email account for posterity and another, or several others, for whatever they’re ashamed of. Thus some people have expressed incredulity that adulterers busted by their text messages didn't have batphones set aside for just that purpose. But take all the precautions of that kind that you want: you’re still dependent on your correspondents’ being as secretive as you are. In that sense the modern playboy is no safer than the adventurer of early generations who wrote long passionate letters to his inamorata and at the bottom added “P.S. Burn this.”

Looking at the overall picture, I tend to think that we’re in strange territory right about now: the only documentary evidence certain to be preserved record the behavior that we’d rather forget, and have everyone else forget. Anything potentially scandalous has an indefinite shelf life. But things of value will always be under some kind of threat — even if books, thanks be to God, are safer now than they ever have been.

(P.S. I'll be out of commission for the next few days. Have fun without me.)
(P.S.S. Delete this.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

those darn screens again

As I have commented on several occasions, errors like the ones noted in my previous post often occur because people are working with a reductive and simplistic notion of what “the screen” is like. But as I have said before, often, there are may different kinds of screens, and we interact with them in different ways.

Let’s keep that in mind as we read this lament from Tim Adams:

The growth in sales of the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader – which can store thousands of texts, classic and otherwise, and which may eventually provide digital access to every book ever written – suggests that we are at an iPod moment: books, in particular novels, may well be about to face the fate of records and CDs. In America, Google is currently fighting a multi-million dollar lawsuit for the rights to 10m digital editions of books – a suit being countered by the French and German governments among others – which if successful will grant it a virtual monopoly over distribution of the digital word. This prompts a couple of questions: is reading from a screen the same experience as reading from a page? And further, is writing for a digital medium the same thing as writing for print?

The answers to these questions are maybe not as simple as they at first seem. One consequence of the digitisation of nearly all aspects of our lives is the increasing sense that we live through our computers, that they are extensions of our selves. Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been examining this phenomenon for nearly 30 years. In her prophetic book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, written as long ago as 1995, she suggested that our relationship with our laptops and hand-held devices gave us a Freudian sense of the uncanny. "Like dreams and beasts, the computer stands on the margins," she wrote. "It is a mind that is not yet a mind. It is inanimate, yet interactive. It does not think, yet neither is it external to thought. It is an object, ultimately a mechanism, but it behaves, interacts and seems in a certain sense to know."

All our engagement with the digital world carries elements of this mostly subconscious relationship. . . .

Notice how quickly, how seamlessly, Adams moves from “a screen” to “our computers” — as though reading on “a screen,” any old screen, simply is reading on “our computers.” But there’s not just one kind of screen. Though I have some reservations about the Kindle — often noted on this blog — one of the things I like about it is that it’s so hard to do anything except read on it. It’s not quite a single-use device, but it’s close (ever tried to use its Paleolithic web browser?), and if Steve Jobs is right in his frequent assertion that people are always going to want highly adaptable multi-use devices — like the iPod, or the much-rumored Apple tablet — and single-use devices will consequently fall by the wayside . . . well, I think that would be sad. Because the fact that the Kindle screen is nearly a single-use screen is one of the things I most like about it.

I’m really tired of the “At the Movies” model so many people employ in these debates: you get one thing (“the screen”) to vote on, and you have to give it a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. It’s way past time for judgments that simplistic to be featured, as they regularly are, in highly reputable and putatively serious periodicals.

delusions of originality

James Higgs writes:

When I buy a book, I’m buying a physical, real world object that has properties that can be appreciated beyond the words it contains. It can be beautifully bound, use attractive design elements, have respect for typography, and use the physical properties of the medium as part of the content.

For this last, I direct you to the novels of B.S. Johnson, in particular The Unfortunates, which contains a tied sheaf of booklets that can be read in any order, and Alberto Angelo, which contains holes cut into the paper to reveal hints of the contents on later pages. Neither of these techniques can be replicated on an eReader. The binding and physical form of the book is an intrinsic part of its content, rather like the frame in a Howard Hodgkin painting. (Another example: James Joyce once made a fuss over the size of a full-stop in Ulysess.) You very much should judge a book by its cover.

Saying that a book can be reduced to a screen is the same thing as saying that a JPEG of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is as good as the original. Thank heavens when we won’t be made to traipse around a physical space, but can have master works beamed into our houses, eh?

Okay. Faithful readers may recall that a few months ago I spent some time trying to decide which of my copies of Middlemarch I should read: a Penguin Classics edition, an old Oxford World’s Classics edition, a Kindle version, etc. So which one of these options was really George Eliot’s novel? Which, if any, is “the original”? After all, Mr. Higgs explains that “the binding and physical form of the book is [sic] an intrinsic part of its content,” so if I had chosen the Penguin rather than the Oxford, I would have been reading a different novel with different content, right?

But that’s just silly. There’s no doubt that each version I had available would offer me a slightly different reading experience, but that’s as far as one could reasonably go. Consider this: if two people got together to discuss Middlemarch, one of whom had read it in his Penguin paperback and the other on her Kindle, and if Mr. Higgs were granted the privilege of listening to their conversation, does he think he would be able to tell who had read what version?

He is right that there are some books that have been written with the technology of the paper codex very much in mind, and that those books have features that can’t be replicated in e-books. (On the other hand, people have written hypertext novels whose features can’t be replicated in codexes.) But the vast majority of books — including, and I would say especially, almost all novels — are capable of being transferred into many different formats, and indeed have been so transferred from the beginning. The notion that there can be an “original” version of a novel in the same way that there is an original version of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is patently wrong — unless, of course, Mr. Higgs wants to say that the only people who have ever truly read Dickens’s A Christmas Carol are the people who have read his scribbled and much-corrected manuscript.

Mr. Higgs likes codexes — variably sized, multiply colored, delightfully odorous codexes. So do I. I have strong memorial associations with many of my books and would not willingly part with them, or replace them with electronic versions. But the books I read on my Kindle are still books, and what I do with them is still reading. Attempts to deny these simple facts are misbegotten.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

"Please do not write to me again."

while we’re on the subject of the difficulties of the writing life, here’s another great Letters of Note entry, this one reproducing the form letter that Robert A. Heinlein sent in reply to every letter he received:

Robert A. Heinlein

Care of Mr. Lurton Blassirigame

60 East 42nd Street, Suite 1131

New York, N.Y. 10017

Dear Sir/Madam/Ms./Miss

An ever-increasing flood of mail forced me to choose between writing letters and writing fiction. But I read each letter sent to me and check its answer.

( ) Thanks for your kind words. You have made my day brighter.

( ) You say that you have enjoyed my stories for years. Why did you wait until you disliked one story before writing to me?

( ) Renshaw: Saturday Evening Post, You’re Not As Smart As You Could Be, April 17th, 24th, and May 1st, 1948.

( ) Essay Mental Telegraphy, Mark Twain’s Works, Harper & Brothers

( ) Don’t send books to be autographed; too many have failed to reach me. Registering or insuring is no answer; the post office is a 30-mile round trip.

( ) Story ideas come from everywhere and anything & writers are self-taught. The book WRITER’S MARKET tells how to prepare manuscripts & lists markets.

( ) My agent handles all business; your letter has been sent to him.

( ) I don’t discuss my colleagues' works or my own. A novelist writes from many viewpoints; opinions expressed even by a first-person character are not necessarily those of the author. Fiction is sold as entertainment, not as fact.

( ) The item you want is herewith/not available/: Ask your reference librarian.

( ) I don’t sell books. All my books are in print & can be bought or ordered at any bookstore or directly from publishers. Bookstores have “in-print“ lists.

( ) I get 4 or 5 or more requests each week for help in class assignments, term papers, theses, or dissertations. I can't cope with so many & have quit trying.

( ) It is not just for a student’s grade to depend on the willingness or capacity of a stranger to help him with his homework. I am ready to discuss this with your teacher, principal, or school board.

( ) Science fiction: stories that would cease to exist if elements involving science or technology were omitted. For full discussion see my lecture in THE SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL, Advent:Publishers. Chicago.

( ) Who’s Who in America; Encyclopaedia Britannica 1974; IN SEARCH OF WONDER, chapter 7, Damon Knight, Advent:Publishers; SEEKERS OF TOMORROW, chapter 11, Sam Moskowitz, World Publishing Company; Current Biography magazine; reference books about authors. I don’t discuss private life, politics, religion, philosophy

( ) Your question: Yes/No/No comment/My publishers announce new works/

( ) Please do not write to me again.

( ) Thanks for the stamped & addressed envelope — a rare courtesy today.

( ) Pressure of work causes me to avoid interviews, questionnaires, radio & television appearances, public speaking.

( ) For legal reasons I do not read unpublished manuscripts.

( ) Don’t plan to call at our home; we work very long hours every day of the year.

( ) Your letter was most welcome! — loaded with friendliness and with no requests or demands. You suggested that no answer was expected but I must tell you how much it pleased me. I wish you calm seas, following winds, and a happy voyage through life.

Sincerely Yours,

Robert A. Heinlein, by __

Note that even missives in the final category, which elicited such gusts of praise from Heinlein, still got no personal response. This is even better than "Edmund Wilson regrets."

the tired writer

Two years ago, soon after the release of her novel The Maytrees, Annie Dillard said — it wasn’t a formal announcement, just a comment, but apparently a thoroughly considered one — that she was retiring from writing, and from all the . . . stuff that accompanies the life of a writer: book tours, public readings, and so on. “I’m tired,” she said. “I worked so hard all my life, and all I want to do now is read.”
I’ve thought about this often, and my considered position is: Good for her. I’m going to miss her writing, but she’s earned a break. Writing well is really, really hard — it demands a great deal from one’s whole being — so much so that it’s rather surprising that more writers don't call it quits. And yet it seems that as people (people in the Western world, anyway) live longer and longer, so writers write longer and longer. John Updike wrote right up to the end; Philip Roth is clearly going to do the same. Maybe I’ve missed something, but I don't know that any other major (or at least celebrated) writers of the same generation — Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Tom Stoppard, William Trevor (to pick a few names from the air) — are planning to call it a career. And Dillard is about a decade younger than those figures.
So why aren't there more writerly retirements? The obvious answer is that “being a writer” is an especially intense form of identity, and that writers who don't write anymore feel like ciphers. (Writer - writing = zero.) But it seems to me that there’s an old belief that applies to the writer just as much as to the carpenter or cabinetmaker or nurse: after decades of hard work, you deserve a break, a period, in the last years of your life, of rest and contemplation. Dillard is obviously of that mind, and again, good for her. I wish her happy reading, and decades of it.

Monday, December 7, 2009

more about email

Continuing the email theme, here’s a familiar lament from Megan Marshall: email is so impersonal in comparison to handwritten letters:

“Please keep me alive with letters,” wrote V.S. Naipaul in 1952 from Oxford to his sister Kamla in Trinidad. Nineteen and devastated by the rejection of his first novel, he was suffering from a loneliness so severe it resulted in a nervous breakdown. Maybe Naipaul wouldn’t have felt so lonely if he and Kamla could have Skyped regularly or filed updates for each other and scads of “friends” on Facebook. Or would Vido have felt even worse? Is the virtual friend any more than a tease when genuine comfort is needed? Please keep me alive with your e-mails — ? It’s an appeal only Google could love.

So when people are separated from their loved ones, why do they Skype or email or IM instead of writing letters? Are they just stupid? Or do they want their loneliness to be assuaged now rather than three days from now?

Many years ago I spent a summer teaching in Nigeria, and I missed my wife very badly. I wanted to hear her voice. So I caught a ride to the nearest city, Ilorin and found a telephone office. It consisted of a desk with a clerk who took down your information and collected your money, and a set of five or six booths with telephones. I waited a few minutes for my turn, got a phone, and (through a scratchy and echo-filled connection) got to talk to Teri and find out that she was well and tell her that I was well.

Perhaps a letter would have been more romantic in the eyes of future generations — and we might well treasure, in our old age, letters we had exchanged then. Those are considerations. But at the time I wasn’t thinking about any of that, because I missed my beloved. If email or IM had been available I would have used that, and Skype video would have been best of all. So sue me.

(Also, shouldn’t Marshall at least acknowledge that this lament has been written several thousand times since the invention of email?)

email and other gluts

Nick Bilton’s “10 Proposals for Fixing the E-mail Glut” is mostly silly — limit emails to 140 characters? — but has one legitimately interesting idea:

Clay Shirky, author of the book “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations,” believes that “we don’t have information overload; we have filter failure.” I completely agree with this, but creating filters can become a chore too. My solution would add a single-click button called Auto Filter. Once pressed, it would do its best to analyze the message and create a new filter, and then file future messages into this new category.

Presumably the filters would only need to be new when you first started using the feature: after a short time the app would start adding new messages to already existing filters. (Otherwise you’d have a new filter for every message.) Another possibility would be to set up some filters manually at the beginning, and ask the app to try to fit new messages into one of the existing filters, only creating a new one if it can’t find any plausible matches.

This is one step beyond Gmail’s already excellent filtering system, which works only on the basis of criteria you explicitly set up. (The “smart folders” used in Mac OS X’s Mail application, and elsewhere in the system, are exactly the same thing: saved searches.) All that said, this is the kind of thing that should only be used by people who get email in enormous volume, because it’s a recipe for shunting messages into folders that you never look at.

I expect Gmail to offer something like this before too long. A number of desktop apps do this kind of automatic sorting already: my “everything Bucket,” Together offers the option to auto-tag new files based on existing tags — though in my experience it doesn't do this very well — and many people are devoted to DEVONthink because of its “Artificial Intelligence,” that is, its ability to sort and auto-classify large numbers of documents. I think addressing “filter failure” will be a major goal of many kinds of software in the coming years, and I expect Google to lead the way in this endeavor.

One more thing: How long will people be worrying about an “email glut”? Already many people use email only for business purposes, having redirected their personal communications to Facebook and Twitter. My teenage son, for instance, gets and sends absolutely zero personal emails. When email is a place for business and business only, some important filtering has been done.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


If any of you are trying to comment but having difficulties, please let me know by posting a comment below . . . Wait, that won't work. Okay, so try sending me an email at "jacobsar" followed by the "at" symbol followed by gmail.com.
When I try to post a comment, using my Google ID, and click "Preview" I get an error message; but when I click "Post" I get a preview. For what it's worth. Ah, Blogger.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

the costs of ideological amplification

Lisa Galarneau has recently completed a doctoral dissertation on (I think — some broken links prevent me from being sure) the culture of video gaming, and she’s not happy with her defense committee: some of them think she’s too purely celebratory of online/digital life, and want her either to be more critical or to take potential criticisms into account. So she has “developed this statement” in response:

Why is it considered mandatory in media studies and related disciplines to explore the dystopian perspective (see page 33 of the thesis), and why is my work considered faulty because I believe in focusing (while explaining rather comprehensively, I think) on what’s positive and possible and hopeful and different about digital spaces and my experiences within them? I in fact did review and integrate all the major 'negative' or 'dystopian' literature, as well, because my committee wished that I appear ‘balanced’, however I am in rather violent disagreement about this necessity. In fact, I think the focus on negative aspects of media culture are a bit of an albatross around media studies’ neck. I think the Internet is the most amazing thing to have happened to humanity in several hundred years. Not perfect, but amazing. I find the constant nagging to explore and predict all of the horrible facets quite disconcerting, and rather a waste of time. These aspects exist, yes, but are typically the outliers, sometimes sensational, yes, but I believe it is my right as a scholar to choose to focus on the positive aspects without being taken to task for some lack of judgment or critical thinking. . . .

But I am an unabashed techno-optimist, and I think our populous [sic] is becoming much more capable and empowered and broadly literate via these technological vehicles and venues, and I think that should be allowed with some suggestion that my decision to focus on what I believe to be the truth is somehow lacking. My focus on the positive does not mean I am not rigourous; it just means that I have dismissed the writings of pundits such as Oppenheimer as I think they are a bit crusty, certainly dogmatic and prone to fear mongering, and often have no actual experience in the areas they choose to consider so critically. In a way, I do not even believe they deserve any attention at all, however we continue to demand that their insight be heard and integrated. I am not sure this is right.

(Since someone else is bound to say it, let me: if you want people to believe that the populace is becoming more literate through digital technology, you need to be sure not to misspell “populace.” It would be good to avoid frequent comma splices as well. But let’s not make too much of that. I misspell words on my blog too. Also, I haven't read Galarneau’s dissertation and I haven't seen the comments of her committee members, so I can have no opinion about their disagreements. She may have dealt properly with technophobes, she may not have. She is certainly right that a scholar doesn't have to be “balanced” in the sense of treating all views as equally valid.)

What I find interesting about this “statement” is this: Galarneau has chosen to explore a phenomenon — the world of online play — that is socially quite controversial, and hotly debated, but she has no tolerance for controversy or debate, at least on that subject. I think that’s problematic. Galarneau is welcoming what Cass Sunstein calls “ideological amplification” when, in my view, it’s the duty of the scholar to resist it. Galarneau may be right that her thinking is sufficiently rigorous, despite her unabashed techno-optimism, but if she follows the path she articulates here it soon won't be. Rigor can't survive, over the long term, a determination to avoid dissenting voices.
It strikes me that this is one of the most important lesson to be learned from the recent scandal over leaked emails from climate scientists. Those emails show what happens when, instead of engaging with your critics, you mock or ignore them. Some climate scientists haven't figured this out, but some have: see the incisive comments by Judith Curry and Mike Hulme here. The model Curry and Hulme advocate is one that should be followed by all scholars, but especially by scholars working in fields that have generated significant debate in the larger culture.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


The recovery of an ancient European culture, described here. Wonderful stuff.
(But I never have liked this kind of graphic: no logical connection between the information presented and the organization of the visual field. Dorling Kindersley books do a lot of this kind of thing, and while it's often very pretty to look at, it doesn't have the kind of message-integrity that I'd like to see.)