Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, February 28, 2011

resistance

Devin Friedman writes about social media; I need to quote at length:

[Silicon Valley] isn't just the place where they invent this shit; it's the single place where the life that's advertised is lived. Where the adoption rate, if the product is right, approaches 100 percent. Where the world has been mapped out by the inquisitive people with GPS-equipped smartphones and Foursquare, and difficult technical questions are answered by friendly experts you don't know. (It's hardly a coincidence that the one area of Quora that's already fleshed out is the part about how to build thingies.) It's like that because it's a small world, filled with highly educated people with similar interests and a deep philosophical understanding of what the point of all this stuff is. That it's the perfect social network doesn't just mean Silicon Valley is more efficient at making stuff. It affects the products they make. Products that promise to, if we can work together, systematize the world. It's a place where there's a deep belief that human society can be perfected. These people . . . are optimistic not only because theirs is the last ascendant American industry but because implied in all those products is the idea that the human problem can be solved. They're working in a world — the Internet — that's wholly manipulable, that behaves according to rules. A world like a geometry textbook. And that way of thinking bleeds out into how they design stuff for us to use.

But you know why I think they're really happy? Because they get to build all this stuff. The act of creation is maybe the most frictive thing going. Using the stuff is meant to be frictionless, but making it isn't. And their happiness comes from friction. Most happiness probably comes from friction. It's why having sex with someone you've fallen in love with (not the easiest, safest process, falling in love) is so much better than having sex with a prostitute (no friction there). And that is why the happiest and most fulfilled people who use social media are here. Making it. The only problem is that it's not scalable. That's the flaw, really, with this: The only way to scale it is to remove the friction.

The “friction” metaphor is a little odd, especially when applied to sex . . . but I think I know what he’s talking about. What he calls friction one might call, simply, complexity, or multi-dimensionality — or resistance. And making things to be used on the internet is more multi-dimensional than using those things — at least, most of the time. It poses problems that look intractable, so that solving those problems creates a great sense of accomplishment.

For makers and users alike, not all resistance is the same. Very few people find pleasure in trying to get Microsoft Word to do what they want it to do, or to stop doing things that it insists on doing that no one ever asked it to do, dammit. (There’s your problem.) But many people have had a great deal of fun trying to get Twitter to do things they want it to do, because the problems arise not from over-engineering and cruft but from strict intentional limitations: you get 140 characters of plain text, and that’s it. From this starting point, some people decided that they needed to figure out how to search Twitter; from that point other people figured out that if you used hashtags instead of plain old words you could make topics searchable; and from that point people discovered that mock-hashtags were a great source of Twitter humor. I could go on, of course. All this from 140-character chunks of plain texts and simple string searches. Twitter offered resistance to complex use-cases, wich just made it more interesting and fun to make it embrace complex use-cases. For me, here are the Big Questions arising from all this: Can the dominant social media be hacked so that they embrace complexity, multi-dimensionality, and resistance? Or will we, conversely, just come to accept less rich and dense and textured relationships as the inevitable price to pay for entrusting those relationships to the safety and security of the cloud?

Friday, February 25, 2011

McLuhan the digital humanist?


So I was having this conversation on Twitter the other day. I asked the question because I was thinking about Marshall McLuhan, about whom I am writing an essay that will (God willing) appear in a future issue of The New Atlantis: I was wondering whether it would make sense to call McLuhan a digital humanist. If Tim is right in his response, and I think he probably is, then McLuhan is actually the opposite of a digital humanist. If the digital humanist uses new tools to analyze old texts (and other media), McLuhan used the old tools of (a) early modern rhetorical analysis and (b) modernist literature and literary criticism to analyze new media. It was McLuhan's core conviction that if you want to understand contemporary audio and visual media, from radio to billboards to television programs to comic strips — McLuhan was especially fascinated and appalled by Dagwood Bumstead — your best tools derived from historians of ideas (Eric Havelock), literary historians (John Hollander), anthropologists and ethnographers (Mircea Eliade), and contemporary novelists and poets (Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, James Joyce).
What the world needs now, to coin a phrase, is someone with McLuhan's commitment to humanistic scholarship who is also geeky enough to know the world of code from the inside.
(UPDATE: I forgot to say that you need to read those tweets from bottom to top. I should have Storified them before posting. Sorry.)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

I want to believe

Returning to the subject of today’s earlier post: The authors of that study write this in summation:

Statistical findings, said Heuser, made us realize that genres are icebergs: with a visible portion floating above the water, and a much larger part hidden below, and extending to unknown depths. Realizing that these depths exist; that they can be systematically explored; and that they may lead to a multi-dimensional reconceptualization of genre: such, we think, are solid findings of our research.

Nothing this vague counts as “solid findings.” What does it mean to say that a genre is like an iceberg? What are those “parts” that are below the surface? What sorts of actions would count as “exploring those depths”? What would be the difference between “systematically” exploring those depths and doing so non-systematically? What would a “reconceptualization” of genre look like? Would that be different than a mere adjustment in our generic definitions? What would be the difference between a “multi-dimensional reconceptualization of genre” and a unidimensional one?

The rhetoric here is very inflated, but if there is substance to the ideas I cannot see it. I would like to be able to see it. Like Agent Mulder, I want to believe — but these guys aren't making it easy for me.

doing things with computers

This is the kind of thing I just don't understand the value or use of:

This paper is the report of a study conducted by five people – four at Stanford, and one at the University of Wisconsin — which tried to establish whether computer-generated algorithms could “recognize” literary genres. You take David Copperfield, run it through a program without any human input – “unsupervised”, as the expression goes – and … can the program figure out whether it’s a gothic novel or a Bildungsroman? The answer is, fundamentally, Yes: but a Yes with so many complications that make it necessary to look at the entire process of our study. These are new methods we are using, and with new methods the process is almost as important as the results.

So human beings, over a period of centuries, read many, many books and come up with heuristic schemes to classify them — identify various genres, that is to say, “kinds,” kinship groups. Then those human beings specify the features they see as necessary to the various kinds, write complex programs containing instructions for discerning those features, and run those programs on computers . . . to see how well (or badly) computers can replicate what human beings have already done?

I don't get it. Shouldn't we be striving to get computers to do things that human beings can’t do, or can't do as well? The primary value I see in this project is that it could be a conceptually clarifying thing to be forced to specify the features we see as intrinsic to genres. But in that case the existence of programmable computers becomes just a prompt, and one accidental, not essential, to the enterprise of thinking more clearly and precisely.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Gospel of the Trees

Some years ago I decided that I wanted to write a book about trees, and more particularly the strangely central role that trees play in the Biblical story. That role meant, necessarily, that they would find their way, profoundly, into Western literature, and I wanted to say something about that too. But I love trees as they are in themselves, as material things in the material world, so I did not want them to take on a purely symbolic or metaphorical significance.

Though I wrote and even published some thoughts about trees, I couldn't get the story to come together, no matter how hard I tried. My thoughts didn't want to coalesce, refused to become a book; they remained scattered and disjointed. Moreover, I knew that if I ever succeeded in weaving them together, the resulting book would demand images — and more images than a cost-conscious publisher would be likely to tolerate.

Only after a long period of worrying over this did I come to the conclusion that my thoughts, such as they were, didn't belong in a book, but rather constituted a website. So I contacted my friend Brad Cathey, a gifted designer, and he made a site for me.

It’s called Gospel of the Trees. Please check it out.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

about bookblogging

Here's the funny thing about bookblogging: I tend to feel that it's okay to blog my way through older books, and through brand-new books, but not through recent books. Something that's old enough to have a significant anniversary, like Winner's The Whale and the Reactor, or that is in the public domain, like Bacon's The New Atlantis, is fair game. So too is anything that has come out in the past three or four months. But I feel that if I were to blog my way through Shirky's Cognitive Surplus or Tim Wu's The Master Switch people would say, Dude, that's been done. Nothing feels more dead than the recently prominent.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Emphasis

Michael Donohoe at the New York Times has developed an ingeniously simple way to mark the key passages in online articles, for the reader's own use and for the use of others. He calls it Emphasis, and it's like Kindle annotations but for Times articles. Donohoe's hope is that it becomes a standard across the web (which is a consummation devoutly to be wished) and consequently has open-sourced the code and posted it to Github. Check out his explanation for it here.
I have for a long time kept an online commonplace book where I post quotations from online writing, but have been occasionally frustrated by the technologies involved. I was on Tumblr for more than three years, but in recent months the site has been down so often that it has been nearly unusable for me. I shifted to Posterous, but I do not at all like the way Posterous handles text copied from webpages (it preserves all the HTML, which means I often end up with some really crappy markup on my own site that I don't want). I may end up going back to Tumblr.
But if I could mark up the web pages themselves and just link to them via Twitter, readers would be able to see highlighted the material I find interesting. No need to copy and paste to a new site. That would be cool.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

supporting good writing

Until recently, the remarkable Matthew Battles, of Hilobrow fame, was writing a column for Gearfuse. Then the editor of Gearfuse parted company with Matthew in this oddly snarky way: you ain’t gettin’ the pageviews, smart boy, so move on along. We’re dumbin’ down.

This has prompted a conversation among some of us on Twitter, led by Sarah Werner of the Folger Shakespeare Library, about whether those of us who enjoy good writing on the web — writing like Matthew’s — need to make sure we support it by leaving comments on posts we like. Sarah has in fact committed herself to doing just that, though not without some reservations.

Well . . . I am puzzled. I have considered these issues occasionally on this blog, but have never been able to find a solution to the problem of trolling, much less the far more complex problem of how to register proper appreciation for the sites and posts I really like. I tend to think that adding a comment in praise of a post might make the author feel better, but if what the site Authorities want is page views, do comments help? Wouldn't tweeting the link (and re-tweeting when the author announces new posts) be more helpful? I suppose it depends on what kind of help is most wanted, and by whom, but . . . Any thoughts?

Friday, February 11, 2011

The New Atlantis (final installment)

One last thought about The New Atlantis. Here’s how the Father of Salomon’s House describes the various roles of the members of his college:

For the several employments and offices of our fellows; we have twelve that sail into foreign countries, under the names of other nations, (for our own we conceal); who bring us the books, and abstracts, and patterns of experiments of all other parts. These we call Merchants of Light.

We have three that collect the experiments which are in all books. These we call Depredators.

We have three that collect the experiments of all mechanical arts; and also of liberal sciences; and also of practices which are not brought into arts. These we call Mystery-men.

We have three that try new experiments, such as themselves think good. These we call Pioneers or Miners.

We have three that draw the experiments of the former four into titles and tables, to give the better light for the drawing of observations and axioms out of them. These we call Compilers.

We have three that bend themselves, looking into the experiments of their fellows, and cast about how to draw out of them things of use and practise for man's life, and knowledge, as well for works as for plain demonstration of causes, means of natural divinations, and the easy and clear discovery of the virtues and parts of bodies. These we call Dowry-men or Benefactors.

Then after divers meetings and consults of our whole number, to consider of the former labours and collections, we have three that take care, out of them, to direct new experiments, of a higher light, more penetrating into nature than the former. These we call Lamps.

We have three others that do execute the experiments so directed, and report them. These we call Inoculators.

Lastly, we have three that raise the former discoveries by experiments into greater observations, axioms, and aphorisms. These we call Interpreters of Nature.

I think we see here a profitable way to reorganize institutions of higher learning. Who needs “departments” (English, Philosophy, Physics, Business)? We should have categories of people: we need Mystery-men, Inoculators, and Lamps.

It might also be interesting for each of us to ask, Which of these am I?

And as a P.S., please check out this overview of the book from the pages of this esteemed journal. It's an account very different from my brief and amateurish one.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The New Atlantis (4)

The third section of The New Atlantis concerns the narrator’s interview with the Father of Salomon's House, “which house, or college . . . is the very eye of this kingdom,” or, as is later said, “the lantern of this kingdom. It is dedicated to the study of the works and creatures of God.”

When the narrator, having heard much of Salomon’s House, finally meets this Father — whose elaborate dress is, curiously, described in great detail — the great man describes the purposes and works of his community of scholars. What critics often note about this description is its emphasis on what we would now call experimental science, conducted according to an inductive method: this is the “Francis Bacon as the father of modern science reading,” and it’s right. But I’m interested in a few other things.

First: I noted in an earlier post that the effusive pieties of the early pages of the book seem to fade as the narrative moves on, and you can see that in the Father’s description of the House. It was the Governor of the city of Bensalem who had described the place as “dedicated to the study of the works and creatures of God”; but the Father says, “First, I will set forth unto you the end [that is the goal, the telos] of our foundation. . . . The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”

Enlarging the bounds of human empire — this does not exactly savor of divinity. And aside from a “God bless you” at the beginning and at the end of his discourse, the Father says not one word about their explorations as connected with those religious beliefs that, we are told, are so central to the life of this kingdom.

I think here of a powerful passage from C. S. Lewis’s great history of sixteenth-century English literature, a passage concerning the theory and practice of magic:

This glance at a forgotten, but influential, philosophy will help, I hope, to get rid of the false groupings which our ex post facto judgments of ‘enlightenment’ and ‘superstition’ urge us to impose on the past. Freed from those, we can see that the new magia, far from being an anomaly in that age, falls into its place among the other dreams of power when then haunted the European mind. Most obviously it falls into place beside the thought of Bacon. His endeavour is no doubt contrasted in our minds with that of the magicians; but contrasted only in light of the event, only because we know that science succeeded and magic failed. That event was then still uncertain. Stripping off our knowledge of it, we see at once that Bacon and the magicians have the closest possible affinity. Both seek knowledge for the sake of power (in Bacon’s words, as ‘a spouse for fruit’ not a ‘curtesan for pleasure’), both move in a grandiose dream of days when man shall have been raised to the performance of ‘all things possible.’ . . . Nor would Bacon have denied the affinity: he thought the aim of the magicians was ‘noble.’

So the calm, order, and harmony of Bensalem, indeed of the whole kingdom, exists so that the few wise men of Salomon’s House may without impediment dream their “dreams of power,” power that enlarges the bounds of human empire. Bacon repeatedly assures us that the wise men of Salomon’s House use their power wisely and for the benefit of their fellow citizens — that they are uncorrupted by their secret knowledge and the powers it yields them. Now that’s a dream.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Fujimura's Gospels

I just can't express how moved and fascinated I have been by Makoto Fujimura's Four Holy Gospels. It is a beautifully bound and printed volume, with the text of the four Gospels — from the English Standard Version — illuminated by abstract, delicate, and evocative brushstrokes. (Well, almost all of the illustrations are abstract.)
I have found myself sitting for long periods of time with the book in my lap, my eyes moving from the text to the illuminations and back again.
Restraint is perhaps the most notable virtue on display here. Each chapter has its own illuminated capital, and all of them are beautiful.
But beyond that, Fujimura has placed his mark upon each page in extraordinarily subtle and gently compelling ways. As a result, the few pages which do feature more detailed illumination stand out with particular power — but then passing from them to the more austere pages, with the black text and generous white space, yields another kind of power.
There's a PDF excerpt here that conveys more of the richness and sweetness of this wonderful work than I can in words. Please check it out, and if you'd like to buy your own copy — don't blink at the price if you can help it, it's an absolute bargain, considering the quality of the whole enterprise — you may do so here. This is a book I'll treasure for a long time, and then one day pass along to my grandchildren, I hope.

on Jeeves

Alex Massie is right to say that if you look at him in a certain light, the Inimitable Jeeves can be a rather sinister figure — or in any event, something less simple and straightforward than Bertie Wooster’s beneficent rescuer. Though he is that.

Given Jeeves’s sheer competence — and still more, the indefinable air of authority that he exudes, which is noticed by almost everyone, so that friends and family often “borrow” Jeeves to solve intractable situations — one must wonder why he chooses to work for Bertie Wooster, whom Jeeves himself acknowledges as “mentally negligible.” W. H. Auden explained this by envisioning Jeeves as an embodiment of Divine Grace in his love for the unworthy — and Bertie as an embodiment of the proper attitude of the recipient of such grace: he knows he doesn't deserve Jeeves.

However, there is a less generous way to read Jeeves’s apparent devotion to Bertie — especially when one considers that Jeeves’s elevated reputation as a problem-solver and all-around intellect derives from his skill in extricating Bertie from various astonishing messes. As Alex points out in his article, while Bertie creates many of those messes himself, or falls into them through no one’s fault, some are actually created by, or at least exacerbated by, Jeeves. Alex:

It is Jeeves who recommends Gussie Fink-Nottle attend [a fancy-dress ball] dressed as Mephistopheles. From this single suggestion flows all the drama and chaos of Right Ho, Jeeves. Plot considerations may demand it, but the fact remains that letting Gussie Fink-Nottle loose upon London dressed in red tights and sporting a false beard is tantamount to giving Disaster the seat of honour at the feast. Furthermore, it's a reminder that not all of Jeeves' wheezes hit the bullseye. Indeed, many of them are more complicated than seems sensible, especially given the quality of the men entrusted with putting them into action.

It is hard to imagine that Jeeves does not know that some of his advice is very bad advice, but gives it anyway in order to increase chaos — so that his own skills will appear all the greater when he steps in to make matters right. In this reading Jeeves remains a godlike figure, but not the embodiment of pure Grace: rather he becomes a trickster God, the kind that Thomas Hardy feared is running the universe.

Or, if that is too strong, then perhaps a model for Jeeves is the calculating Prince Hal, whose attachment to Falstaff may resemble that of Jeeves to Bertie. Would a Jeeves soliloquy sound like this?

I know you all, and will awhile uphold

The unyoked humour of your idleness:

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,

Who doth permit the base contagious clouds

To smother up his beauty from the world,

That, when he please again to be himself,

Being wanted, he may be more wonder'd at,

By breaking through the foul and ugly mists

Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.

If all the year were playing holidays,

To sport would be as tedious as to work;

But when they seldom come, they wish'd for come,

And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.

So, when this loose behavior I throw off

And pay the debt I never promised,

By how much better than my word I am,

By so much shall I falsify men's hopes;

And like bright metal on a sullen ground,

My reformation, glittering o'er my fault,

Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes

Than that which hath no foil to set it off.

I'll so offend, to make offence a skill;

Redeeming time when men think least I will.

This is surely too solemn for the holiday world of the Jeeves stories. But if Wodehouse had ever stepped out of that holiday world and back into our darker one, that’s how he should have done it: with Jeeves revealing himself as a manipulative monster.

The New Atlantis (3)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Bacon’s unfinished The New Atlantis falls quite naturally into three parts. The first merely orients us to the story by explaining how the narrator and his crew came to this mysterious island. The second and third provide the real meat of the fragment, and stand in interesting relation to each other.

The second section describes in some detail a central ritual of Bensalem:

One day there were two of our company bidden to a Feast of the Family, as they call it. A most natural, pious, and reverend custom it is, shewing that nation to be compounded of all goodness. This is the manner of it. It is granted to any man that shall live to see thirty persons descended of his body alive together, and all above three years old, to make this feast which is done at the cost of the state. The Father of the Family, whom they call the Tirsan, two days before the feast, taketh to him three of such friends as he liketh to choose; and is assisted also by the governor of the city or place where the feast is celebrated; and all the persons of the family, of both sexes, are summoned to attend him. These two days the Tirsan sitteth in consultation concerning the good estate of the family. There, if there be any discord or suits between any of the family, they are compounded and appeased. There, if any of the family be distressed or decayed, order is taken for their relief and competent means to live. There, if any be subject to vice, or take ill courses, they are reproved and censured. So likewise direction is given touching marriages, and the courses of life, which any of them should take, with divers other the like orders and advices. The governor assisteth, to the end to put in execution by his public authority the decrees and orders of the Tirsan, if they should be disobeyed; though that seldom needeth; such reverence and obedience they give to the order of nature. The Tirsan doth also then ever choose one man from among his sons, to live in house with him; who is called ever after the Son of the Vine.

The narrator then describes the liturgy of this Feast — for a highly liturgical ceremony it is — in considerable detail. It is clear that the whole point is to reinforce and consolidate the family patriarch as the source of social order. It’s strongly suggested that this is how a society is made to run smoothly: when its primary political unit is the family and its primary authorities the fatherly heads of families. It’s like Genesis 48 and 49 made into the first principle of political order — and make no mistake, order is what politics is about in this story.

But in light of the rest of the work, it would seem that this order is primarily good because it makes it possible for the natural philosophers in Salomon’s House to do their work. Bacon seems to be invoking a version of the Eloi-Morlock distinction — from H. G. Wells by way of Neal Stephenson — to suggest that the role of the Many is to preserve order so that the Few may pursue knowledge and wisdom. More about that knowledge and wisdom in another post. . . .

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The New Atlantis (2)

Reading the first few pages of The New Atlantis, I was surprised by its effusive piety. God is invoked at every turn, and our narrator places particular emphasis on the Christian orthodoxy of the people of Bensalem.

I was surprised because not only is Bacon not noted for his devotion to Christianity, but he was often in his own day suspected of atheism. (While invariably affirming Christian truth, he would also say things like this: “Atheism leaves a man to sense, to philosophy, to natural piety, to laws, to reputation; all which may be guides to an outward moral virtue, though religion were not; but superstition dismounts all these, and erecteth an absolute monarchy, in the minds of men” — from the essay “Of Superstition”). If you look at his most famous writings, his Essays, you'll see that while his moral meditations often invoke classical precedents and philosophical stances — especially Stoicism — references to Christian scripture are rare. Bacon certainly seems to be one of those figures of the early modern world, like Montaigne or Machiavelli, whose Christianity feels nominal at best, a discreet covering for skepticism.

Yet here we have repeated insistence on the orthodoxy of the inhabitants of the New Atlantic, coupled with many protestations of piety by the narrator.

Well, that stuff doesn't last all that long. As I noted in my previous post, Bacon didn't live to finish the book, and we don't know how long it would have been, how detailed its portrait of Bensalem would have become. (It's even possible that Bacon would have had his narrator visit other parts of the island, not just the city of Bensalem.) But it's still interesting to see how nearly completely the piety is left behind.

The New Atlantis may be said to fall into three parts. The first describes how the narrator and his men arrived on the island, how they were received there, and how they were housed and cared for.

The second section deals with the domestic arrangements of the Atlantaens, with a focus on an elaborate ritual called The Feast of the Family, accompanied by a discourse on the wonderful sexual purity of the island's inhabitants.

The fragment concludes with a detailed accounting of the works, inventions, and researches of the inhabitants of Salomon's House: the "natural philosophers" (as Bacon would have said) or "scientists" (as we would say) of the culture. This section is as devoted a commendation of technopoly as one could wish for. It will be the chief focus of my later comments.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

teaching e-books

I’ve been teaching The Lord of the Rings pretty much every year for the past decade, and as a result my old copy of the one-volume paperback edition has gotten quite battered. Moreover, I shouldn’t even be using it, since a revised edition, with many (mostly minor) corrections to the text, came out a few years ago. That’s the one I order for my students, which means that in a literal sense we are rarely on the same page. (Of course, many of the students bring in whatever editions they happen to own already, often the three Ballantine paperbacks.) So I have every reason to make a change.

But when you’ve marked up a book pretty thoroughly it can be hard to let it go. I have underlined and annotated passages, often referring to the page numbers of other, related passages. This has taken time and effort, and I don't want to start it all over again. But it’s time, it’s time.

But maybe, I have been thinking, I should buy the Kindle edition of the revised text. Maybe I don't need to lug that big old book around any more.

The problem is, though, that unless every student in my class also had their copies of the book on Kindle — thus enabling me to say, “Please turn to Location 1745” — it would be nearly imposible to teach from it. Even though now I am dealing with multiple versions of the text in the classroom, I can say something like this: “Turn to page 251; or, if you have a different edition, this is about three pages from the end of the chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring called ‘The Council of Elrond’ — it’s the passage that begins. . . .” And within just a few seconds we’re all looking at the same text. Even someone who has a Kindle can find it, though a little more slowly than others, by going to the Table of Contents, choosing the appropriate chapter, and then clicking through the pages until the right one shows up.

But if I’m the one with the Kindle, we’ve a problem. If I have passages marked by location, then I can pretty easily type in that location and go to it, though perhaps a little more slowly than by thumbing through the pages — but how do I tell others how to find it? There’s no way for me to know what chapter I’m in without scrolling backward until I get to the chapter title, because that title isn't visible anywhere on the Kindle’s screen. On some Kindle books I can use the 5-way controller to move to the next or previous chapter, but not all: for instance, that feature isn't enabled in the Kindle edition of The Hobbit. And I don't know any way to find out in advance of purchase what navigational features are enabled. (Curiously, navigational features are far more complete and consistent in Kindle magazines and newspapers than in books.)

Of course, all these considerations only come into play if the book you’re teaching is actually available for the Kindle (or other e-readers). Here are some of the authors whom I commonly teach in my Modern British Literature course:

  • W. H. Auden
  • Samuel Beckett
  • Brian Friel
  • Graham Greene
  • James Joyce
  • Philip Larkin
  • Iris Murdoch
  • George Orwell
  • Salman Rushdie
  • Tom Stoppard
  • Evelyn Waugh
  • Virginia Woolf
  • William Butler Yeats

Look in the Kindle or Nook or Sony stores for these authors and you’ll find most of you want only in a few cases (Orwell, Rushdie, Beckett, Murdoch); in others you’ll find minimal choices (Waugh, Woolf, Stoppard — one play), poor, outdated, or non-standard editions (Joyce, Yeats), or nothing at all (Auden, Greene, Friel). You couldn't create a reasonable course in Modern British Literature with e-books. Not yet.

Bacon and the New Atlantis

I think I may continue, at least from time to time, this practice of book-blogging. I hope no one minds. But even if you do mind, I'll probably do it anyway. I am an independent-minded blogger.

Anyway, I was thinking that if I can blog my way through a book that's twenty-five years old, why not blog my way through one that's four hundred years old? And why not let that be the book that this journal is named after, Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis? This one will just occupy two or three posts.

Bacon never finished The New Atlantis: it seems to have been one of his chief occupations in the few years between his being driven in disgrace from political power and his death. It is therefore impossible to know what his plans for it were: whether it would have been considerably longer and more detailed than it currently is, or only slightly longer; whether the scenes that we now have are essentially finished, or whether they would have been fleshed out more fully. So we'll just have to take it as it is, and assume that it's a fair general representation of Bacon's thinking on the issues that concerned him. And these issues are important ones.