Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

the World Brain

Quotes and links at least I can do.
The whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual. And what is also of very great importance in this uncertain world where destruction becomes continually more frequent and unpredictable, is this, that photography affords now every facility for multiplying duplicates of this - which we may call? - this new all-human cerebrum. It need not be concentrated in any one single place. It need not be vulnerable as a human head or a human heart is vulnerable. It can be reproduced exactly and fully, in Peru, China, Iceland, Central Africa, or wherever else seems to afford an insurance against danger and interruption. It can have at once, the concentration of a craniate animal and the diffused vitality of an amoeba.
This is no remote dream, no fantasy. It is a plain statement of a contemporary state of affairs. It is on the level of practicable fact. It is a matter of such manifest importance and desirability for science, for the practical needs of mankind, for general education and the like, that it is difficult not to believe that in quite the near future, this Permanent World Encyclopaedia, so compact in its material form and so gigantic in its scope and possible influence, will not come into existence.
. . . And its creation is a way to world peace that can be followed without any very grave risk of collision with the warring political forces and the vested institutional interests of today. Quietly and sanely this new encyclopaedia will, not so much overcome these archaic discords, as deprive them, steadily but imperceptibly, of their present reality. A common ideology based on this Permanent World Encyclopaedia is a possible means, to some it seems the only means, of dissolving human conflict into unity.
This concisely is the sober, practical but essentially colossal objective of those who are seeking to synthesize human mentality today, through this natural and reasonable development of encyclopaedism into a Permanent World Encyclopaedia.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

heads up

Friends, further health issues will probably keep things quiet around here for a little while. I'll get back into the blogging rhythm ASAP.

Monday, March 29, 2010

the disembodied reviewer?

Let me return to my previous comments on Jason Kottke’s distinction between old and new forms of reviewing, and to other people's thoughts. For instance, the question that my commenter Michael raises: “To what extent can reviews be docetic?” — a reference to the Christian heresy called Docetism, which claimed that Jesus was pure spirit who only appeared (Greek dokein) to have a body. Or this comment by Tim Carmody: “Some people — and I think Alan Jacobs articulates this POV excellently — think that a review should be, above all, an intellectual and aesthetic engagement with the transcendent work, removed as much as possible from the immanent details of the attendant capitalist transaction. (Let me quickly note that I never said that the “intellectual and aesthetic engagement” Tim describes is what “a review should be,” only that it’s what I try to do. And, implicitly, that it’s worth doing.)

So I take it what what Michael and Tim are saying is that my practice as a reviewer risks a neglect of material conditions (I’m mildly surprised that the word “Gnostic” didn't turn up) in its focus on the “transcendent” — the disembodied. I would disagree with these views on several scores, first (and maybe foremost) by insisting that there is a great deal of difference between the intellectual and the transcendent.

But let’s think about this is a somewhat more practical way, along the lines of an earlier post of mine. In my class this semester on Christianity and Fantasy, we just finished reading The Lord of the Rings (and are now moving on to Philip Pullman). I had ordered a particular edition of the text, as we teachers always do; but this is a book that many of the students know well, and, reasonably enough, rather than buying the ordered edition they used the ones they already owned. So in the class I saw one-volume hardbacks, one-volume paperbacks, and various versions of the good old three-volume sets: large trade paperbacks and cheap mass-market paperbacks of various vintages.

What I want to affirm is simply this: it makes perfect sense to say that we all read the same book. Or, to put it another way, the differences in the material forms of the various volumes are insignificant in comparison to the shared intellectual experience of encountering Tolkien’s story, a story which cannot be identified with any one embodiment. And when we start talking about Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy on Tuesday — another text a number of my students already own — the same will be true.

There are of course exceptions to this rule, but for most of the books we read it will hold: differences in printing, binding, and illustration from one edition of a text to another are quite minor in comparison with the cross-vehicular integrity of the text itself.

Friday, March 26, 2010

a report on progressive emancipation

So, how’s my little Google boycott going?

It’s a work in progress. I have ditched Gmail — though I admit, I had a couple of days of weakness not long ago, when I found myself missing Gmail’s wonderful system of filters, labels, and stars, which I had taken considerable time adapting for my use. But I recovered my nerve and set it aside. However, complete emancipation from the Gbeast will take a while. Let’s survey the territory:
1) I really miss Google Reader — no other RSS option is as fast and efficient — but so far I’m (mostly) staying away.

2) My family is on Google Calendar, so for the time being I am too. This is going to be the toughest one to get away from, because of the investment in it we already have and the lack of any other good online calendar. (Once upon a time 30boxes looked like it would be a player, but it’s been in maintenance mode for a couple of years.)

3) For my son’s homeschooling, we use Google Docs, which is convenient, but not that hard to get away from.

4) For a while I put my Google Voice number on correspondence, but hardly anyone has called me on it, so that will be a non-issue, I think. You can't delete your Voice number without deleting your whole Google account, by the way.

5) Google Wave . . . please. (That too can't be deleted.)

6) Logins. I probably have a hundred accounts around the internet that use my Gmail address, and it’s going to be a real pain in the neck to change all of those over to my Fastmail account. I suppose I should, but I don't have the wherewithal at the moment.

7) Blogs. This here blog is powered by Blogger, as are the blogs I run for my classes. Because my school shifted students over, a couple of years ago, to Google Apps for our domain, it’s trivial to get everyone signed up for a Blogger blog. Blogger is easy for newbies to use, also. But I think I can summon the strength of will to shift to another platform.

Overall, Google was worked its way into my life in ways that will be hard to undo. It’ll be a long-term project, but I really do hope someday to delete my Google account.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

an item that speaks for itself

The annual prize for the oddest book title has been won by the splendidly eccentric Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes, by Dr Daina Taimina. Last year's winner was The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais.

The Diagram prize has been awarded annually by The Bookseller magazine since 1978. Horace Bent, the magazine's diarist, who administers it, said: "I think what won it for the book is that, very simply, the title is completely bonkers. On the one hand you have the typically feminine, gentle and woolly world of needlework and, on the other, the exciting but incredibly unwoolly world of hyperbolic geometry and negative curvature."

"One hopes that Dr Taimina's win prompts other enlightened crocheters, knitters and embroiderers to produce similar works, so I look forward to seeing books such as Cross-stitching String Theory and Felting Feats with Phenomenology in the near future."

Taimina will receive no prize aside from "the sales boost that will now inevitably occur", according to Bent.

tournament of novels

I don't want to give my friend Joe Carter too much of a hard time, but there's some bad craziness going on here. The Pilgrim's Progress is not a novel, nor, without stretching a point, is Charlotte's Web. And the only way you get The Hunt for Red October in here is by opening the field to every team.
Worst of all: two number-one seeds (Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov) facing off in the first round. Anti-Russian bias, anyone?

immanence and transcendence

Here's Tim Carmody on the issues raised by the Kottke post on product reviews I was talking about the other day. No time to say more now, but do read it — it's smart.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

okay, let's review

Jason Kottke seems to like it when Amazon reviewers give a book, or some other item, a low rating because of availability issues: “the early reviews for Michael Lewis' The Big Short are dominated by one-star reviews from Kindle owners who are angry because the book is not available for the device.”

Compare this with traditional reviewers who focus almost exclusively on the content/plot, an approach that ignores much about how people make buying decisions about media today. . . .

Newspaper and magazine reviewers pretty much ignore this stuff. There's little mention of whether a book would be good to read on a Kindle, if you should buy the audiobook version instead of the hardcover because John Hodgman has a delightful voice, if a magazine is good for reading on the toilet, if a movie is watchable on an iPhone or if you need to see it in 1080p on a big TV, if a hardcover is too heavy to read in the bath, whether the trailer is an accurate depiction of what the movie is about, or if the hardcover price is too expensive and you should get the Kindle version or wait for the paperback. Or, as the above reviewers hammer home, if the book is available to read on the Kindle/iPad/Nook or if it's better to wait until the director's cut comes out. In the end, people don't buy content or plots, they buy physical or digital pieces of media for use on specific devices and within certain contexts. That citizen reviewers have keyed into this more quickly than traditional media reviewers is not a surprise.

Interesting that Kottke thinks that “reviewing” and “giving buying advice” are the same thing; or, in other words, there’s no difference between the “review” that appears in a newspaper or magazine and the “review” that appears on Amazon.com. This is a classic case of false synonymity.

When I review a book I don't even think about whether the reader of my review is going to purchase the book — it never crosses my mind. I am trying to engage, intellectually, with what I am reviewing, to respond fairly and charitably to it, but also with proper critical acuity (which I think charity demands). I am trying to be a good reader, but to be one in public, as it were.

This approach to reviewing is, first of all incompatible with handing out stars, which is an intrinsically stupid system anyway. But if we have to hand out stars, shouldn't we make a distinction between what we think about the movie or book or game and what we think about its delivery system? Isn't it possible that The Big Short is a terrific book that just doesn't happen to be available on the Kindle at the moment? And if that is possible, does the one-star review capture that distinction? Maybe Amazon needs a new system to take such matters into account.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

anxieties of influence

Ezra Klein’s response to the current books-that-most-influenced-me meme is interesting: He says that in such conversations, “I always feel like a fraud.” Though he lists some books, he continues,

These books meant a lot to me, but they were much less influential in my thinking -- particularly in my current thinking -- than a variety of texts that carry consider less physical heft. Years spent reading the Washington Monthly, American Prospect and New Republic transformed me from someone interested in politics into someone interested in policy. So, too, did bloggers like, well, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum and Tyler Cowen. In fact, Cowen, Brad DeLong, Mark Thoma and a variety of other economics bloggers also get credit for familiarizing me with a type of basic economic analysis that's consistently present in my approach to new issues. . . .

Going forward, I wonder how common canons like mine will become. Twenty years ago, someone with my interests would've spent a lot more time reading books because blogs simply didn't exist yet. Magazines were around, but the advent of the Web led to daily content, so I've also spent more time reading those. But I can't deny it: So much as I love my favorite books, the biggest influences in my thinking have been the continuous intellectual relationships I've had with blogs, periodicals and other people. Books aren't even that close.

Klein is making an important distinction here: most of us can name the books that most influenced our intellectual development, but it can be a little harder to assess all of the forces that shaped us and figure out which ones are the most important.

To say that a magazine, or a set of magazines, or even a series of blogs are the chief instruments of your intellectual formation is not — or should not be — a shameful confession. A lot depends on the quality of your reading. If you read an intelligent and active blogger over the course of a year, say, you are likely to be reading more than a book’s worth of that person’s words; and while you won't be getting the benefit of tracing a single argument through lengthy development — something relatively few books offer anyway — if you are an attentive reader you will learn a great deal about how that person’s mind works, how that mind encounters and assesses the many provocations that any smart person faces in a year. That kind of reading can be a useful intellectual education . . . in some fields.

But not in all. In my field, literary studies, I would say that you could (theoretically) get an education in criticism by reading smart blogs, but you can only get an education in literature by reading literature. And that means learning to reckon not just with short works — lyric poems, essays, short stories — but with great big things: novels, plays, epics. In literature the book-length work is central and irreplaceable.

Monday, March 22, 2010


Thomas Mallon has collected a book of letters, and laments the loss of letter-writing culture. Louis Bayard thinks things may not be all that simple:

There is, in short, a reflexive melancholy to Mallon’s self-appointed mission, and I’m not convinced that all his belletristesse is merited. (Then again, waiting for the mailman has always struck me as a dubious pleasure.) When I sift through my past week’s electronic in-box, I find easily half a dozen messages that qualify as letters in every traditional sense. They are coherently structured, written with care and design. They enlighten, they illuminate, they endear. They even follow the old epistolary ritual of signing off (not “yours ever,” but some venerable variant: “yours” . . . “cheers” . . . “all best” . . . “xo”). My e-mail may not ascend to the level of Madame de Sévigné, but then, neither did Madame de Sévigné all the time.

More to the point, these messages would probably never have come my way if the senders had been obliged to take out pen and paper. Indeed, it is the very facility of electronic communication that makes the Luddite soul tremble. When Mallon complains that e-mail has “made the telegram’s instant high dudgeon affordable to all,” it is clear that the access troubles him as much as the dudgeon. Look at me! I’m a belletrist, too! But does the relative ease of an e-mail’s composition necessarily detract from its value? Are postage stamps a bona fide of literary intent?

I’m reminded of Alex Beam’s regret that “the 25-cent paperback” somehow cheapened reading. Here again, we see the value of reading and writing yoked to an economics of scarcity. Sad, and wrong.

Friday, March 19, 2010

the Streak

Just read the story. It's wonderful.

pen in hand

Here’s a statement that will find its way into my book on reading:

Of course, you can’t take your pen to the screen. When it comes to annotating the written word, nothing yet created for the screen compares to the immediacy and simplicity of a pen on paper. The only effective way to respond to text on screen is to write about it. The keyboard stands in for the pen; but it demands more than a mere underline or asterisk in the margin. It demands that you write.

That, of course, was the reason for the pen all along: it’s a physical reminder that you are not reading merely to consume the words of others passively, but that you have an obligation to respond. If the democratization of publishing is to reap any rewards, it can only do so if we all become better writers. The first step towards that is to assume the stance of a writer—to read others’ words with an eye to improving your own. First, you must pick up the pen.

I would add, though, that this is not true of all books — some are best read with pleasure, at speed, and without thought of annotation. And such books are especially well suited for electronic reading.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

stop it. just stop it.

I wish people would stop saying things like this:

Books are changing from physical to virtual objects. . . . The 25-cent paperback took us halfway there; now we have fully arrived. The physical book does not exist, and has no value.

Not quite in the book-as-despised-Jew category, but still. . . . Let’s be clear: the physical book does indeed exist. Many millions of them exist. They have great value, both in dry economic terms (lots are bought and sold every day) and in unmeasurable personal terms. Those of us who love books are not cut off from the world, and no one is taking our books away from us.

The social role of the physical book may well change — may well decline — but for the foreseeable future books will continue to be available to people who want them. It doesn't help those of us who want to defend books when others (others who also love books) keep weaving these apocalyptic scenarios — especially when they are not claiming that the apocalypse is coming, but rather that it’s already here, that the book is dead. When book lovers talk that way, other people look around, see books everywhere, and conclude that book lovers are nuts. This does not help the cause.

And one more thing. “The 25-cent paperback” was a problem? Are books valuable only when just a few wealthy people can afford them? Does the book decline in worth when it becomes possible for almost everyone to own books? I couldn't disagree more. There are beautiful books, artfully bound and elegantly presented, and such objects are wonderful; but the most beautiful thing about a book is, or should be, the human utterance within it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

words reviewers like

The 20 most annoying book review clichés:

1. Gripping

2. Poignant: if anything at all sad happens in the book, it will be described as poignant

3. Compelling

4. Nuanced: in reviewerspeak, this means, "The writing in the book is really great. I just can't come up with the specific words to explain why."

5. Lyrical: see definition of nuanced, above.

6. Tour de force

7. Readable

8. Haunting

9. Deceptively simple: as in, "deceptively simple prose"

10. Rollicking: a favorite for reviewers when writing about comedy/adventure books

11. Fully realized

12. At once: as in, "Michael Connelly's The Brass Verdict is at once a compelling mystery and a gripping thriller." See, I just used three of the most annoying clichés without any visible effort. Piece of cake.

13. Timely

14. " X meets X meets X": as in, "Stephen King meets Charles Dickens meets Agatha Christie in this haunting yet rollicking mystery."

15. Page-turner

16. Sweeping: almost exclusively reserved for books with more than 300 pages

17. That said: as in, "Stephenie Meyer couldn't identify quality writing with a compass and a trained guide; that said, Twilight is a harmless read."

18. Riveting

19. Unflinching: used to describe books that have any number of unpleasant occurences -- rape, war, infidelity, death of a child, etc.

20. Powerful

Okay, I’ll admit to using . . . some of these. Fewer than half. Maybe fewer than a third. But I’ve published more than a hundred book reviews in my day, so, you know, there are only so many words available. . . .

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

two links on digital preservation

1) In light of recent posts on the fragility — supposed and real — of digital data, here's an interesting story on how Emory University is dealing with their trove of Salman Rushdie's old computers, disks, et al.:
At Emory, Mr. Rushdie’s outdated computers presented archivists with a choice: simply save the contents of files or try to also salvage the look and organization of those early files. Because of Emory’s particular interest in the impact of technology on the creative process, Naomi Nelson, the university’s interim director of Manuscript Archives and Rare Book Collection, said that the archivists decided to try to recreate Mr. Rushdie’s writing experience and the original computer environment.
Fascinating! A digital diorama!
2) And then there's the kind of fragility we all have to deal with from time to time: John Gruber's hard drive died and he used some very cool Mac apps — all of which I own, use, rely on, and recommend — to salvage every last byte of data. Let this be an example to you all!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Mr. Bowman and the fantasists

In a forthcoming issue of The New Atlantis, James Bowman writes:

Tolkien and the other old-time fantasists may have felt themselves to be working within the Western tradition, from which they would cite the gods and heroes of classical literature as their precedents. But to believe that is to overlook the fundamental difference between their fantastical creations and Homer’s: Homer believed in the reality of his gods and heroes and they did not. More importantly, Homer’s audience thought his gods and heroes were, or had been, real; that was why they incurred the censure of Plato. When Milton, two and a half millennia later, proposed to write the English national epic by making use of the legends of King Arthur, he reluctantly abandoned the project because he had come to think that the Arthurian stories weren’t true, weren’t real. Of the Fall of Man, which replaced them as his subject, he naturally had no such doubts.

(Before proceeding, let me pause to note that, while Milton indeed doubted the historicity of the Arthurian tales — in his History of Britain he wrote, “But who Arthur was, and whether ever any such reign'd in Britain, hath been doubted heretofore, and may again with good reason” — he never explained anywhere the reasons for his change of topic. It seems far more likely to me that in the aftermath of the Commonwealth's failure he was scarcely in a patriotic mood. But in any case, Bowman is guessing here, not reporting.)

(While I’m at it, let me also note that Tolkien certainly wouldn't have cited classical literature as his precedent: all of his key models are medieval.)

(And did Homer really believe in the personal, physical existence of Zeus, Hermes, Athena and the rest? How would one know? Okay, that's enough. . . .)

Confronted by howls of outrage from fantasy-lovers, Bowman has further developed his critique: his chief point in mentioning Tolkien et al. is that “the fantasy actually being produced in our culture today, [including] that which is, in one way or another, merely derivative from Tolkien or Lewis . . . represents a break with the Western mimetic tradition to which the fantasies of yesteryear still, more or less, belonged.” I am pretty confused by what Bowman says in elaborating this point. Is The Lord of the Rings one of those “fantasies of yesteryear” that “still, more or less belonged” to “the Western mimetic tradition”? If so, this contradicts what Bowman wrote earlier. If not, at what point do we place the historical line that separates the acceptably fantastic from the unacceptably fantastic?

Again, Bowman writes, “Fairies were believed in by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as recently as a hundred years ago, and I would not take my oath that Lewis and Tolkien did not believe in them too.” But in his New Atlantis article he says flatly that Tolkien did not believe in his “fantastical creations.” So which is it?

By the end of this second post Bowman seems to have shifted his critique from Lewis and Tolkien to the people he takes to be their contemporary successors. “What I objected to in our contemporary fantasists — the question of their predecessors was too complicated for me to go into in such a short article — was that they deliberately and as a precondition of their art cut me off from any possibility of belief in the worlds they represent to me because they do not believe in them themselves. And if they don't believe in them, why should I?” But Bowman did indeed “go into” “the question of their predecessors,” as can be seen in my first quote above. So is he withdrawing the charge he made against “Tolkien and the other old-time fantasists” that they only, and erroneously, “felt themselves to be working within the Western tradition”? Or is he prepared to reassert it? If he doesn't address these questions, then he’s not answering many (most?) the people who were angry with his article.

"the best moments in reading"

At the bookstore of the National Theatre in London you can pick up a bookmark that features these sentences:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.

These words are spoken by Hector in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys, and they’re strong words — fitting for a bookstore’s calling card. But are they true? Are the experiences of having your own thoughts echoed by another really “the best moments in reading”?

I’m not so sure. There’s a great deal to be said for what happens when you come across something quite alien to your beliefs, or your experience, and find yourself transfixed by the strangeness itself. Then, as you read, as you enter more fully into the fictional or poetic world, you discover more connections and commonalities with what you already know — you recognize that there really is such a thing as “human experience,” though you never lose sight of the dramatically different forms that experience can take across time, across cultures.

I’ve had these powerful simultaneous feelings of connection and difference often as a reader, sometimes through reading ancient texts (the Oresteia, say, or The Bacchae), sometimes through reading texts from other cultures (Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day, one of my very favorite books), and sometimes through reading books by people whose cultural situation is very close to my own but whose basic sensibilities are alien to me: this has been happening to me recently as I’ve been reading Iain Sinclair. For me, it’s encountering the strange, the different, and yet the fully human that is the best thing about reading.

Friday, March 12, 2010


On this London visit, I barely escaped from the magnificent Foyle's with my solvency intact — it's way better than it ever was though not nearly as eccentric as it used to be — so imagine my pleasure at seeing this story on its recent renewal.

things lost and found on the march

I’m back from England and full of ideas. I was not able to do what I went to London primarily to do — let me just say that the Jesuit Archive in London is a stern and jealous guardian of the documents in its care — but I had a productive time anyway. There are different ways to be productive, and one of them involves sheer thinking — and in the past week I had many opportunities to think, many provocations of thought.

For instance: I couldn't help meditating on our recent discussion of fragility as I was visiting the great manuscript room of the British Library. I always visit that room when I’m in London, and I never cease to marvel at what it holds. My first thought is, invariably: what a miracle that these things survived. The Codex Sinaiticus — are you kidding me? The only manuscript of Beowulf? And of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the other works of that magnificent unknown poet?

But then I think: what is missing? What has been lost? How do we know that there aren’t poems still greater than Beowulf and Sir Gawain that didn't make it? Thus Thomasina Coverly’s outcry in Tom Stoppard’s much-praised — and rightly soArcadia:

Oh, Septimus! — can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides — thousands of poems — Artistotle's own library brought to Egypt by the noodle's ancestors! How can we sleep for grief?

Her tutor Septimus Hodge gives a noble answer:

By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, and nineteen from Euripedes, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for corkscrew?

Noble, yes, but of course completely untrue — except for the good advice to count our stock. Many things of value have indeed been lost “on the march” and cannot be recovered or re-produced. And whether future productions — especially those that take only digital form — will be more or less persistent than their predecessors remains to be seen.

Friday, March 5, 2010


Folks, I will be traveling for the next week and may not be able to post, so let me leave you with a few chewy nuggets of information:

Kathleen Fitzpatrick has produced a really interesting online monograph on the future of scholarly publishing, Planned Obsolescence — a recursive scholarly project, that embodies its own subject.
Note also the upcoming special issue of Shakespeare Quarterly employing the same technologies. MediaCommons has great potential — I wouldn't mind doing a book in that medium someday. Here’s more evidence that reading changes the brain, and changes it in really good ways.
Financially challenged colleges are cutting classes, and sometimes whole departments, in physics, German, classics. . . .
On a more positive note, do, please, read Cathleen Schine’s story about being woefully ignorant of literature at age 26 . . . and then beginning a wonderful personal adventure of reading. Good stuff!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

book pirates

An excellent point by Ted Striphas:

Wax cylinders, forty-fives, LPs, eight-tracks, cassette tapes, CDs, mini discs, digital audio tapes: the fact is that music formats have changed significantly — indeed, regularly — over the last 50 or 100 years. Music lovers have long understood that “music” is not equivalent to “format.” Even before the introduction of digital music downloads, listeners were well disposed to format change.

The same isn’t true for books. With the exception of relatively minor disturbances — chapbooks and paperbacks come most immediately to mind — the bibliographic form [hasn't] changed all that much since the introduction of the codex. The result is that book readers are much less inclined to embrace format change, compared to their music-loving counterparts. And this inertia is, in part, what has held up widespread e-book adoption.

Very true. Though I don't think I follow Striphas’s view that what RapidShare is doing is not stealing, but rather “pirate pedagogy.” But I have a lot to learn in these matters, starting with — I hope, and soon, I hope — what looks like a fascinating book: Adrian Johns’s Piracy.

Interestingly, Johns’s book was available for free last month from the University of Chicago Press, and I downloaded it then, even though that meant having to use that execrable piece of software known as Adobe Digital Editions (to which I shall not even link). Presumably the press chose this venue because it’s resistant to . . . piracy.

Anyway, more on this later, I trust.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

a little more anxiety

It’s interesting to consider how the kind of work I’ve just been doing will change as more and more books assume digital form. For instance, I had to look at several different editions of The Age of Anxiety — and to buy them from the wonderful AbeBooks — and compare them page by page in order to discover any significant variations. Will scholars someday have multiple digital versions that they can compare with version control software or a simple diff command? Or will the very notion of different “printings” and “editions” disappear when digital versions can be altered and corrected instantly? People who specialize in texts of the digital era will still do textual editing, but it’s likely to look a lot different than what I’ve been doing lately.

For those who may be interested, here are just a few words from the end of my Introduction to The Age of Anxiety:

The Age of Anxiety remains a vitally important poem — in some ways a great one. It is surely Auden’s most ambitious work: formidably complex as his previous two long poems are, their themes are more bounded. “For the Time Being” meditates on the entry of the Divine into history; “The Sea and the Mirror” on the relationship between art and religious belief. These are large concerns, to be sure, but delimited. The question of what makes for an age of anxiety, on the other hand, is vaster and more amorphous: the condition itself must be described, and its etiology traced. A common anxiety manifests itself differently in those with and without religion; and for both groups alike it is fed by political, social, familial, and personal disorders. In The Age of Anxiety Auden tries to account for all of these, and if he falls short, that is a necessary result of such comprehensive ambition. . . .

In 1953 Auden would write of the moment when, each morning, we emerge from our private worlds: “Now each of us / Prays to an image of his image of himself.” The Age of Anxiety is an extraordinarily acute anatomy of our self-images, and a diagnosis of those images’ power not just to shape but to create our ideas. And it contains some of Auden’s most powerful and beautiful verse: the compressed lyric “Hushed is the lake of hawks,” the great Dirge of Part Four, the twin final speeches of Rosetta and Malin. This poem, for all its strangeness and extravagant elaboration of theme and technique, deserves a central place in the canon of twentieth-century poetry.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

anxiety's end

Posting has been light around here for a number of reasons, chief among them being (a) my recovery from surgery and (b) the last stages of my most recent major project: a critical edition of W. H. Auden’s long poem The Age of Anxiety), to be published by Princeton University Press later this year. (I think.) I just mailed off the typescript yesterday, and am still reeling a bit. Textual editing, let me say, is really, really hard work — at least if you want to do it well.

A few years ago Edward Said — thinking of the great humanistic scholars of the mid-twentieth century — wrote, “This is not to say that we should return to traditional philological and scholarly approaches to literature. No one is really educated to do that honestly anymore, for if you use Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer as your models you had better be familiar with eight or nine languages and most of the literatures written in them, as well as archival, editorial, semantic, and stylistic skills that disappeared in Europe at least two generations ago.” Thanks be to God, I did not need the skills of Auerback and Spitzer to edit The Age of Anxiety, but I did need skills I hadn’t been taught in graduate school, and it cost me a good deal of time and energy to acquire them. If I hadn’t had the ongoing assistance and direction of Edward Mendelson I’m not sure what I would have done, but I know that the final product would have been inadequate.

And it may be inadequate still — who knows? But I have worked as hard on this project as I have ever worked on anything, and at the moment I am pleased and proud. There’s something especially rewarding about doing all this work — visiting libraries and archives, working through vast tracts of mostly useless materials, trying to decipher Auden’s terrible handwriting, comparing multiple editions of the poem, reading much of what Auden read as he wrote the poem, carefully marking up the typescript in order to preserve the poem’s intricate formatting — not for the sake of my own critical reputation, but in order to make the work of a poet I love more useful and accessible and comprehensible. I can truly call this a labor of love. But boy, am I tired.

Monday, March 1, 2010

the form of the book

A Working Library says something very true very eloquently:
On the page, the rhythm of the text emerges from both the macro design—the pleasing shape of the page, the proper amount of thumb space—and the micro—the right amount of leading, the evenness of the word spacing, the correct break of a line. On the screen, the rhythm of a text encompasses all of these things and more—the placement of a link, the shift from text to video and back again, the movement from one text to another. The rhythm becomes more complex as the orchestra gets larger, but the desire for rhythm does not subside.
In order to create this rhythm, the book must be designed and composed for the screen. A beautiful digital text can no more be arrived at by “converting” from a print design than a beautiful print book can be created by converting a Word file. The digital book will never come into its own so long as it is treated as a byproduct, unworthy of attention.
Furthermore, digital books should no more adhere to identical designs than their print counterparts; different types of writing, different voices and tempos, require unique approaches to design. The current crop of ebook formats were designed for the novel, and on that they do a fine job; but countless other texts—cookbooks, technical books, graphic novels, books on art, plays, verse—are rendered unreadable by that conformity. If the form of the book is changing, it ought to lead to more variety, not less.
Amen and amen.