Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, October 29, 2010


Jonathan Safran Foer made his forthcoming story Tree of Codes by cutting words and phrases out of Bruno Schultz's story "The Street of Crocodiles." A very three-dimensional object results. Take that, e-readers!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

what digital humanities is and isn't

On Twitter, Tim Carmody says that "Digital Humanities can be a methodology for doing history, but it can also be a methodology in other disciplines too." My first response was to say that DH is not a methodology but a set of questions and concerns in search of a method, but now that I've thought about it, I would revise that: DH is a set of tools which tends to generate certain questions, but neither the tools nor the questions have yet coalesced into a method.
If there is one overriding theme in the DH conversations I've seen, it's "What should we do with all these fabulous toys?" The answers to that question that I've seen are speculative and even tentative: I think DH is still waiting for someone (someones) to come along with really distinctive, powerful, and useful ways to slice and serve the data we now have available to us.
(By the way, Tim Carmody is one of the sharpest critics of and thinkers about the brave new world of DH, and someone needs to give him a job — or a fat book contract — so the rest of us can benefit further from a first-class mind.)

nature as information

Via Clay Shirky, some really important thoughts from Mike at The Aporetic:

A woman in a farm kitchen had a LOT to consider – just making a cooking fire took constant attention, and information about the kind and quality of the wood, the specific characteristics of the cook stove, the nature of the thing being cooked.

The modern cook flips on the burner, and his or her attention, freed up, diverts to other things. She or he has much less information to deal with.

So what appears to us as “too much information” could just be the freedom from necessity. I don’t have to worry about finding and cutting and storing fire wood: I don’t even have to man age a coal furnace. That attention has been freed up for other things. What we see as “too much information” is probably some thing more like “a surplus of free attention.”

Read the whole thing: it’s an excellent reminder of the value, density, and richness of what Albert Borgmann calls “natural signs,” a form of “information about reality.”

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

amplified authorship

Chris Meade writes — and please forgive the length of the quotation —

The amplified author doesn’t wait for a publisher to decide if his or her work deserves a readership or not. Before considering sending a manuscript to a traditional publisher, the writer may have tested out their ideas on a circle of readers via a blog, drawn new readers in through Twitter and a variety of online networks. Acceptance from a quality publisher gives a boost to profile and reputation, but the amplified author doesn’t need to cede control to any one gatekeeper.

A writer who has one book bought by a conventional publisher might want to self publish the next one, freed from the constraints of editors and marketing departments who have a view on what kind of book they think they can sell most effectively. And this approach can be adopted by writers at all levels, from emerging writers to global bestsellers.

Amplified authors aren’t prey to vanity presses selling them a pretence of publication; they study the analytics and comments to find out who actually reads their work and what they make of it. Few ‘conventional’ authors make anything like a living wage from the books they publish, yet labour under the belief that they should do. Amplified authors know they don’t need cash up front to put their work into the world, and can develop techniques to expand their readership and market their wares if they wish, buying in design, editorial and promotional skills when they choose. Amplified authors drive their own careers forward.

Meade paints a pretty rosy picture here, and I think he ought to concede that many people likely to make a success of “amplified authorship” — Seth Godin, for instance — have such hopes because they have built careers via traditional publishing. In the same way that DIY models of education are parasitic on established educational institutions, amplified authorship may, for some time anyway, need traditional publishing to make itself viable.

Still, I find myself thinking along these lines. On Twitter I’ve been posting a series of Theses for Disputation, mostly about technology, and when I have 96 of them — one more than Martin Luther — I’m thinking of writing commentary on each of them and turning the whole thing into a little book. But should I ask my agent (I have a fantastic agent) to try to sell it to a publisher? Or should I try one of the many varieties of self-publishing, just for the sake of fun and experimentation? Or maybe turn the commentary into a series of letters that people can subscribe to?

Don't know. But it’s fun to think about.

Monday, October 25, 2010

the relative value of innovation

Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From is primarily about innovation — about the circumstances that favor innovation. Thus, for instance, his praise of cities, because cities enable people who are interested in something to have regular encounters with other people who are interested in the same thing. Proximity means stimulation, friction. Iron sharpens iron, as the Bible says.

All very true, and Johnson make his case well. But as I read and enjoyed the book, I sometimes found myself asking questions that Johnson doesn't raise. This is not a criticism of his book — given his subject, he had no obligation to raise these questions — but just an indication of what can happen when you take a step back from a book’s core assumptions. So:

1) Almost all of the innovations Johnson describes are scientific and technological. How many of these are “good” not in the sense of being new and powerful, but in the sense of contributing to general human flourishing? That is, what percentage of genuine innovations would we be better off without?

2) A related question: Can a society be overly innovative? Is it possible to produce more new idea, discoveries, and technologies than we can healthily incorporate?

3) Under what circumstances does a given society need strategies of conservation and preservation more than it needs innovation?

4) Do the habits of mind (personal and social) that promote innovation consort harmoniously with those that promote conservation and preservation? Can a person, or a society, reconcile these two impulses, or will one dominate at the expense of the other?

Just wondering.

Friday, October 22, 2010

oh, for the good old days

You know, the good old days when I could safely sneer at people who hadn't read the Officially Approved Books of my social cohort:
I lived through a time when it was great to read. There were so many books that you just had to read, which would have been read by everyone you knew. Not merely read, though, but digested and discussed. We formed not merely our opinions but ourselves on them. There was a common culture — or, more accurately, a common counter-culture — which included music, art and film. If there was some faddishness in this, and a concomitant homogenisation of taste, there was the palpable upside of having plenty of people with whom to share one's enthusiasms. . . .
Of course I realise that what we read in Ivy League colleges and at Oxford was not representative of the general population. But the point still stands: within our middle-class, educated world there was a canon, which wasn't limited to Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Scott Fitzgerald. You could assume people had read the hot contemporary books; when they hadn't, it occasioned not merely puzzlement, but disapproval.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

what I would blog about if I had time

Robert Pippin defends naïve reading. Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Kevin Dettmar dissent, sort of. How I would love to weigh in.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Steven Johnson and the connected mind

Folks, I’m still way busy, so posting will continue to be light for a while. I’m hoping at some point to have substantive responses to Steven Johnson’s new book Where Good Ideas Come From, which I read last week. For now, check out Jason B. Jones’s review, and consider one important question, which will take me a while to elaborate.

Johnson’s great theme is the virtue and power of connectedness — “Fortune favors the connected mind” will end up being the tagline for the book — but he acknowledges that too much connection can be a bad thing:

The idea, of course, is to strike the right balance between order and chaos. Inspired by the early hype about telecommuting, the advertising agency TBWA/Chiat/Day experimented with a “nonterritorial” office where desks and cubicles were jettisoned, along with the private offices: employees had no fixed location in the office and were encouraged to cluster in new, ad hoc configurations with their colleagues depending on that day’s projects. By all accounts, it was a colossal failure, precisely because it traded excessive order for excessive chaos. . . . Slightly less ambitious open-office plans have grown increasingly unfashionable in recent years, for one compelling reason: people don’t like to work in them. To work in an open office is to work exclusively in public, which turns out to have just as many drawbacks as working entirely in your private lab.

Elsewhere he argues that “Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, and da Vinci were emerging from a medieval culture that suffered from too much order. If dispersed tribes of hunter-gatherers are the cultural equivalent of a chaotic, gaseous state, a culture where the information is largely passed down by monastic scribes stands at the opposite extreme. A cloister is a solid. By breaking up those information bonds and allowing ideas to circulate more freely through a wider, connected population, the great Italian innovators brought new life to the European mind.”

This buys too easily into a very familiar but now largely discredited narrative of the Renaissance as emancipation from the Dark Ages, and ignores the massive intellectual contributions of monastic culture, but the general point is surely right: there can be overly ordered, closed, and private intellectual environments, and there can be overly open and chaotic ones. The fact that Johnson celebrates “the connected mind” so strenuously in this book, in chapter after chapter, suggests that he thinks we need more openness. But here’s my question (at last):

Is that true? Is it really our problem today that we’re not sufficiently connected?

Monday, October 18, 2010

unpopular highlights

Virginia Heffernan:

Amazon is quick to point out that you can always disable the [Popular Highlights] feature. But there’s a genie-in-the-bottle problem here. As with many things on the Web, once you’ve glimpsed popular highlights, it’s hard to unglimpse them. You get curious about what other readers think, especially with a book like “Freedom,” which bookstore windows and airplane waiting lounges would have you believe everyone is thinking about. Reading, after all, is only superficially solitary; in fact, it’s a form of intensive participation in language and the building of common culture.

Well . . . I disabled it immediately and have never considered re-enabling it. I am not in the least bit curious about what other people underline. Does that make me arrogant? A misanthrope? Both? . . . Cool.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

and while I'm being grumpy

Let’s fact-check our meditations on the past and future of reading, okay?

No one knows where all this will end up, but it will be nowhere near as revolutionary as the change from reading scrolls to reading books in the middle ages. The e-reader revolution merely lures the same people to read books in a different format. The move from scrolls to books turned an immobile activity enjoyed by a tiny minority of educated people into a mobile phenomenon that would eventually be enjoyed by all. The unanswered question remains: who will control this revolution in knowledge, them or us? The answer, literally and metaphorically, is in our hands.

Christians had fully embraced the codex and abandoned the scroll by the end of the second century A.D. (Pagans and Jews would follow soon thereafter.) This is why virtually all surviving Christian literature is in codex form. The scroll disappeared long before the Roman Empire did.

Enough! or, Too much!

Kevin Kelly:

Today some 4.5 billion digital screens illuminate our lives. Words have migrated from wood pulp to pixels on computers, phones, laptops, game consoles, televisions, billboards and tablets. Letters are no longer fixed in black ink on paper, but flitter on a glass surface in a rainbow of colors as fast as our eyes can blink. Screens fill our pockets, briefcases, dashboards, living room walls and the sides of buildings. They sit in front of us when we work — regardless of what we do. We are now people of the screen. And of course, these newly ubiquitous screens have changed how we read and write.

I’ve said this before, ad nauseam no doubt, but: please. There is no such thing as “the screen.” A laptop screen is not a TV screen is not a movie screen is not an iPad screen is not a Kindle screen. They’re all different, and we experience them in significantly different ways. And “letters are no longer fixed in black ink on paper”? Really? All these books and magazines and newspapers and memoranda that I encounter every day are figments of my imagination?

Please, Kevin, stop it. Just stop it. Lose the oracular pronouncements and think about what you’re saying.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

charting Harry

J. K. Rowling's plan for key events in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. More information here. Via my indefatigable editor, Adam Keiper. So cool.

a brief, random thought

This week, as I'm helping my students get their first major projects written, and dealing — I am long expert in this — dealing with their anxiousness to please, their dutifulness, their fears of putting a foot wrong, their very strong desire to know exactly what needs to be done to gain both informal and formal approval, I am suddenly thankful that I grew up in a family with absolutely no academic expectations, a family who treated my interest in going to college as a nearly incomprehensible eccentricity. Almost everything I've done in my intellectual life that I now value I did because I was unconcerned about the approval of any officially designated authorities.

Monday, October 11, 2010

work in progress

Dear readers, there will be little activity around here this week — I've got way too much on my plate and not enough time to accomplish it. A shame, because I've been reading some stuff lately I really want to blog about. But even on the internet, late is better than never.
I'll still be tweeting from time to time, and there will be some action on the tumblelog.

Friday, October 8, 2010

stock overflow

Here’s a post by Peter Osnos on a book about Russian state security in the post-KGB era called The New Nobility:

PublicAffairs printed 8,010 copies of the book, and to date has shipped 4,964. The total sales in the first two weeks, according to our tracking report, are 304 copies. Most brick and mortar stores — the major chains and the independents — cannot possibly have more than two or three copies on hand, and these are unlikely to be displayed in any significant way. For all the whining about those numbers, however, the important fact to point out is that The New Nobility is available to anyone with interest in the subject, even if it admittedly is geared to an audience of finite size. Not only that, the consumer can choose from a variety of formats and price points in deciding where and how to make the purchase.

Osnos concludes by saying, “But the headline is that, if you want The New Nobility or any of the similarly specialized books released each year, you should now be able to get them without mounting a major exploratory exercise to find them.” This is true, largely thanks to Amazon, but the more important point — not original with me, of course — is that if you’re buying an electronic version of a book you never have to worry about its being out of stock. It’s always in stock.

I think this point strikes home for me because, as mentioned before, I’m reading Andrew Pettegree’s The Book in the Renaissance, and one of Pettegree’s striking themes is the difficulty the early booksellers/printers/publishers had in acquiring the capital necessary to print books when they had no way of knowing how many they could sell. They needed to be wealthy or to find “angel investors” who would bankroll a very expensive process of printing — and then the booksellers had to be prepared to store leftover stock somewhere for, sometimes, decades before selling out a print run. If it ever sold out. Aldus Manutius certainly made beautiful books in his Venice shop, but he was also an incredibly risk-tolerant, ambitious, and innovative entrepreneur.

Obviously, modern publishing has come up with ways of handling overstock — remaindering of hardcovers and trade paperbacks, stripping and pulping of mass-market paperbacks — but e-books make this entire frustrating system completely unnecessary. That at least is a significant step forward, and the old model — guessing, printing, shipping, returning, remaindering, pulping — seems more archaic by the day.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

first and last

Martyn Lyons, from an essay on "New Readers in the NIneteenth Century: Women, Children, Workers":
By the 1890s, 90 per cent literacy had been almost uniformly reached [in the Western world], and the old discrepancy between men and women had disappeared. This was the 'golden age' of the book in the West: the first generation which acceded to mass literacy was also the last to see the book unchallenged as a communications medium, by either the radio or the electronic media of the twentieth century.
(In this collection.) Lyons probably shouldn't say it was the golden age of the book, but rather of print, but this is still a rather stunningly provocative observation. I find myself wondering how the cultural history of the West would have been different had print reigned for another century before radio, movies, and TV emerged.
UPDATE: I wonder if this history — a brief period in which print is nearly universal and culturally dominant — could help to account for the bookishness of many Modernist writers. The reading of the great Romantic and Victorian writers is rarely overtly present in their works, it seems to me, while the writings of Joyce, Pound, Eliot, and even Woolf seem by contrast very scholarly, and full of references to books and reading. Just a thought, but there may be something to it.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

learning Greek

Sure, people think it's a good idea to learn Greek. But of course they would when you put the question that way. It's a good idea to learn all sorts of things. The problems come when you try to determine relative goods. Is learning ancient Greek more valuable than learning calculus?

For the last few years I've made a conscious decision to work on retrieving some of my lost math and science knowledge, primarily in order to facilitate my understanding and use of computers. But this has been a fairly rough road, in part because of many years of exercising my mind in other ways, but also because the computer science world is generally not friendly to beginners/newbies/noobs. Even in some of the polite and friendly responses to my comment on this Snarkmarket post you can sense the attitude: “I just don't have the time or energy to be introductory.”

Maybe I've just been unlucky, but with a few notable exceptions, that's how it has gone for me as I’ve tried to learn more about computing: variants on “RTFM.” I think this response to learners happens when people think that their own field is the wave of the future, and like the idea that they're among the few who realize it — as Neal Stephenson once put it, they're the relatively few Morlocks running the world for the many Eloi — and don't especially need any more company in the engine room. Whereas classicists like Mary Beard are advocates for their fields because they are pained by their marginality. Maybe I should be pursuing Greek instead of Ruby on Rails. . . .

But wait! Just as I wrote and queued up this post, I came across an interesting new endeavor: Digital Humanities Questions and Answers. Now this might restore one's hopefulness!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

picture books

David Abrams, new Kindle owner and speculator about the future of reading:

While I might initially object to the distraction of video clips in the middle of fiction narrative, I have to remind myself of how many times I've been pulled out of "Bleak House" or "Nicholas Nickleby" by the marvelous illustrations of Hablot Browne (aka "Phiz"). Perhaps video is the new engraving. Given my newfound enjoyment of e-books on the Kindle, I'm more than open to the possibility of reading e-only books. As the world (according to Thomas L. Friedman) continues to flatten, this will inevitably mean staying open to the occasional self-published book. But I'm okay with that. I'll just continue to apply the same standard I do to those "old-fashioned" books that smell like Grandma's kitchen: it's the content that matters, not the means of delivery.

Well, as we have seen in previous posts, the “means of delivery” does matter — more for some books than for others, and not absolutely, but nevertheless: the form of the book counts. Still, I’m interested in this comparison to illustrated Victorian novels. Phiz’s illustrations of Dickens were for many Victorian readers (and are for some modern ones) co-extensive with the novels themselves. Similarly the Pauline Baynes illustrations of the Narnia books, and Quentin Blake’s of Roald Dahl’s stories. I can imagine future readers for whom embedded videos in novels have similar associative power. I wonder if some filmmakers will attach themselves to particular novelists, creating future versions of the Boz/Phiz collaboration.

Monday, October 4, 2010

the binding of the vanities

Please don't miss this wonderful post from Matthew Battles about Nathan Myhrvold’s lavish multivolume celebration of “modernist cuisine”:

Modernist Cuisine is essentially a vanity work--a spectacular, brilliantly-produced vanity work, but a work of vanity nonetheless. Myhrvold and the master craftspeople in his service have poured an overflowing measure of passion, brilliance, and technique into an undeniably beautiful work. I'm reminded of the Très riches heures du Duc de Berry, the monumental manuscript book of hours created in the fifteenth century. With 416 pages, including more than one hundred major images and three hundred decorated intitials, it is arguably the great manuscript work of the waning middle ages. Commissioned by John, Duke of Berry, in 1410, it was not finished until 1489 — nearly forty years after the printing of the Gutenberg Bible.

Perhaps this will be the work of the book in the waning days of print: to serve as a platform for the sacrifice of spectacular vanity.

A comparable project from the dawning days of print — it appeared four years after the Très riches heures was completed — would be the Nuremberg Chronicle. Andrew Pettegree — see this post — calls this “a project that epitomises the energy, ambition and pride of achievement of the German book world at the end of the fifteenth century.”

This was not an especially original work; in large part it is an essentially unaltered reworking of earlier histories. But the ambition to place Nuremberg at the centre of an encyclopaedic rendering of world history from the Creation made it an especially important project for the city’s merchant elite. Intellectual ambition was matched by the opulence and complexity of the planned volumes. The whole venture was financed by two wealthy Nuremberg merchants. . . .

It seems that at every stage in the history of books they are closely linked with vanity. Well, the Preacher knew that long ago: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” he cried at the outset of his little treatise, and, near the end, “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

Friday, October 1, 2010

creepy lines (and those who draw them)

Follow-up to this post:

The end of the interview turned to the future of technology. When Bennet asked about the possibility of a Google "implant," [Google CEO Eric] Schmidt invoked what the company calls the "creepy line."

"Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it," he said. Google implants, he added, probably crosses that line.

At the same time, Schmidt envisions a future where we embrace a larger role for machines and technology. "With your permission you give us more information about you, about your friends, and we can improve the quality of our searches," he said. "We don't need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about."

Here. Eric Schmidt and I might disagree about where the “creepy line” goes.

the world between two covers

I don't think I understand all of William Germano’s essay on what books are good for.

“I've been wondering lately when books became the enemy.” Wait — are they “the enemy”? For whom?

“I'm struck by the fact that the designation ‘scholarly book,’ to name one relevant category, is in itself a back formation, like ‘acoustic guitar.’ Books began as works of great seriousness, mapping out the religious and legal dimensions of culture. In a sense, books were always scholarly. Who could produce them but serious people?” Okay, so are all “serious people” scholars? Virgil was a serious person, and he wrote books: was he then a scholar? Is the Aeneid a “scholarly book”? In some sense we could answer yes to both of the latter two questions, but only at the cost of misleading.

But then comes the part I like. Germano makes “the case for books” by playing on various meanings of the word “case” and then concluding: “So what are books good for? My best answer is that books produce knowledge by encasing it.” The value of books is then linked to some concept of wholeness, completion — of a story told from beginning to end.

Each single-author book is immensely particular, a story told as only one storyteller could recount it. Scholarship is a collagist, building the next iteration of what we know book by book. Stories end, and that, I think, is a very good thing. A single authorial voice is a kind of performance, with an audience of one at a time, and no performance should outstay its welcome. Because a book must end, it must have a shape, the arc of thought that demonstrates not only the writer's command of her or his subject but also that writer's respect for the reader. A book is its own set of bookends.

I like this because I make a similar argument in my review of the Oxford Companion to the Book, forthcoming in the next issue of Books & Culture. (I’ll link to it when it becomes available online, though I don't know when that will be.) For Germano, this sense of wholeness and completion is intimately — I think he might say necessarily — linked to the codex. I’m not sure about that, but it’s plausible. Certainly it is the physical form of the codex that undergirds some of the most powerful uses of the book as metaphor — for instance, these lines from the end of Dante’s Paradiso (I cite the Hollander translation):

O plenitude of grace, by which I could presume

to fix my eyes upon eternal light

until my sight was spent on it!

In its depth I saw contained,

by love into a single volume bound,

the pages scattered through the universe. . . .

See also the chapter called “The Book as Symbol” in that monument of philological scholarship, Ernst Robert Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages.