Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

last week's reading

One of the fun — but also challenging — aspects of teaching at a liberal-arts college is that over the years you end up teaching many different courses. Which means that you end up reading many different books. So after having taught many surveys of the major Western traditions in literature, plus courses in classical literature, Renaissance and seventeenth-century literature, the novel as a genre, the essay as a genre, twentieth-century British literature, African literature, and the literature of modern India, along with many special-topics seminars — well, I’ve covered a good deal of territory in my twenty-eight years of teaching. But until last week I had never read The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde.

Let me tell you, friends, that’s one great story. But most of you probably know that. . . .

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

a word to the wise

Joseph Addison, from the Tatler, on “the Critic” (1710):

This, in the common Acceptation of the Word, is one that, without entering into the Sense and Soul of an Author, has a few general rules, which, like mechanical Instruments, he applies to the Works of Every Writer, and as they quadrate with them, pronounces the author perfect or defective. . . . The Marks you may know him by are, an elevated Eye, and dogmatical Brow, a positive Voice, and a Contempt for everything that comes out, whether he has read it or not.

Jonathan Swift, from The Battle of the Books (1704):

Mean while, Momus fearing the worst, and calling to mind an Antient Prophecy, which bore no very good Face to his Children the Moderns; bent his Flight to the Region of a malignant Deity, call'd Criticism. She dwelt on the Top of a snowy Mountain in Nova Zembla; there Momus found her extended in her Den, upon the Spoils of numberless Volumes half devoured. At her right Hand sat Ignorance, her Father and Husband, blind with Age; at her left, Pride her Mother, dressing her up in the Scraps of Paper herself had torn. There, was Opinion her Sister, light of Foot, hoodwinkt, and headstrong, yet giddy and perpetually turning. About her play'd her Children, Noise and Impudence, Dulness and Vanity, Positiveness, Pedantry, and Ill-Manners. The Goddess herself had Claws like a Cat: Her Head, and Ears, and Voice resembled those of an Ass; Her Teeth fallen out before; Her Eyes turned inward, as if she lookt only upon herself: Her Diet was the overflowing of her own Gall: Her Spleen was so large, as to stand prominent like a Dug of the first Rate, nor wanted Excrescencies in form of Teats, at which a Crew of ugly Monsters were greedily sucking; and, what is wonderful to conceive, the bulk of Spleen encreased faster than the Sucking could diminish it.

Sunday, September 27, 2009


Speaking of being Against Social, let me comment on this post from the publisher of Seven Stories Press:

One reason that we’re beginning our push to blur the lines between print and electronic publishing with Hwang Sok-yong, however, has to do with Mr. Hwang’s reputation as a pioneer in popularizing online fiction in Korea. Mr. Hwang wrote his 2008 novel Hesperus as a serial on his personal blog at popular Korean portal site naver.com. The novel — a Catcher in the Rye-tinged coming of age story about a young man who slowly breaks free from the stultifying education system of Korea in the 1960s — was followed religiously by Internet-savvy young people throughout the country, many of whom left comments on the story as it was unfolding — to which Mr. Hwang responded each day before continuing the novel. It was a rare and appropriate opportunity for a writer and publisher to use the Internet as something more than a novel method of distribution or publicity. The book is about the experience of youth breaking free from conventional thinking, whatever the generation. The Internet allowed the generations to speak to one another, informing and broadening the content of the book.

Reading this, I’m reminded of the academic bureaucrats who want college students to be able to evaluate their professors on a daily basis, and who expect those professors to constantly restructure their classes in light of the constant feedback. (Yes, there are such people — I have met them.) I can imagine some few circumstances in which ongoing interaction between author and reader during the writing of the book could be a good thing . . . but I wonder how many of the works we most admire could have been produced within such a regime.

improving the e-book experience

Some good ideas from Mike Elgan, except for number 4 — I am so sick of “social” I could barf:

1. Bundled multimedia books. Work to make the default "version" of every book, the "everything version." For about $10 more than the hardcover price, we should get the hardcover, eBook and audio versions together.

2. eBooks that can be revised and corrected. Instead of the medieval practice of correcting and updating books with whole new editions, eBooks should be improved electronically, and on the fly. Of course, we need a notation system for telling readers what has changed, and the option to accept or decline the changes. But there's usually no reason for a new edition. Just upload the changes.

3. Audio books that can be borrowed electronically. Sony announced that it will get behind library loans for eBooks. Nice, but what we really need is to be able to borrow or rent audio books directly from our cell phones. Why is it that I can borrow an eBook from the library for free, delivered over the Internet, and can download and watch a $200-million blockbuster from Netflix for free. But if I want to listen to an audio book, I have for fork over more than $30 for the full book? What's so special about audio books?

4. Social books. Obviously people like to discuss books. Why not enable every book to come with its own social network, accessible directly from the electronic version of the book and on the Internet. Every major book should have its own social Web site, just like every movie does.

5. eBooks that are published ahead of the print edition. The electronic and even audio versions of books can be placed on the market long before the print version. The standard practice now is to withhold digital formats until the dead tree version has been on the market. This is a small act of violence against readers. It's bad enough that the editing and production process takes a year.

Friday, September 25, 2009

the right tool for the job

Says Brad Stone: “What Amazon could do . . . is release a software development kit and open up the Kindle to third-party applications, turning a device with a single purpose — reading — into something that is conceivably much more flexible.”

Well, Amazon could do that — and the result would be a really, really bad imitation of a netbook. If you want a multipurpose device, get an iPhone. I did! And I’m really glad!
No, the best path for Amazon would be to focus all their attention on making the Kindle the best possible tool for one purpose: reading text.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

dubious assertion of the day

Terence Kealey writes, "The great academic novel of the 19th century was George Eliot's Middlemarch. The great academic novel of the 20th century was Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man. Both books chronicle lust between male scholars and female acolytes. . . ."
So, never quite got around to reading Middlemarch, did you, Terence?

Monday, September 21, 2009

slow week ahead

Friends, I have a very full few days ahead, so there probably won't be any posts. However, I'll manage the occasional tweet-with-linkage, so keep an eye on the space to the right. (Now there's a sentence that wouldn't have been imaginable a few years ago.)

Friday, September 18, 2009

book covers and the pricking of desire

I enjoy beautiful book covers: I present images of them sometimes on my tumblelog, and I subscribe to the RSS feed for the delightful Book Cover Archive. But we — I — should keep in mind this thought from Lynne Sharon Schwartz, who meditates on books she owns but hasn't read:

Others were just too gorgeously packaged to resist. Book jackets nowadays have become an art form, and browsing through a bookstore is a feast for the eyes. In some cases the jacket turns out to be the best thing about the book. I am not one to snub beauty, wherever it turns up. Yet I have come to distrust book jackets calculated to prick desire like a Bloomingdale’s window, as if you could wear what you read. The great French novels used to come in plain shiny yellow jackets, and the drab Modern Library uniforms hid the most lavish loot.

(From Ruined by Reading.)

in defense of genre fiction

In the British journal New Scientist, Kim Stanley Robinson makes a case for Virginia Woolf having been influenced by star Maker and Last and First Men, novels by the science-fiction writer Olaf Stapledon:

These strange novels made a real impact on Woolf. After reading them, her writing changed. She had always been interested in writing historically, but her stream-of-consciousness style made that difficult to accomplish. Her character Orlando's fantastically long life, and the chapter "Time Passes" in To the Lighthouse, were two attempts at solving this problem. The modular structure of The Years was another. But after reading Star Maker, she tried harder still. In her last years she planned to write a survey of all British literature that she was going to call Anon; and her final novel, Between the Acts, concerns a dramaturge struggling to tell the history of England in the form of a summer village pageant. The novel ends with Stapledonian imagery, describing our species steeped in the eons. Woolf's last pages were a kind of science fiction.

I tell this story here because it has not been told before (Woolf's letters to Stapledon are in his papers at the University of Liverpool, and were not included in her Collected Letters); and also because it shows so clearly how open Woolf was to science fiction. When it came to literature, she had no prejudices. She read widely and her judgement was superb. And so I am confident that if she were reading today, she would be reading science fiction along with everything else. And she would still be "greatly interested, and elated too" - because British science fiction is now in a golden age.

I think he’s right about that “golden age” — my essay about one of the best British SF writers, Iain M. Banks, will be in the next issue of The New Atlantis — and I think he’s also right that it’s a shame that none of these writers is going to end up on the Booker Prize shortlist anytime soon. The distinction between “literary” and “genre” fiction gets less tenable every day.

The Booker Question is explored at some length here.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Beyond the Wild Wood

My commendation of that masterpiece The Wind in the Willows is online at the First Things site — though only temporarily, I think.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

flipping fast

Google's new Fast Flip intrigues me — I'd like to see it develop into a replacement for my RSS feed reader, and I think it might. Presumably Google's Marissa Mayer is thinking of Fast Flip when she says this:
The atomic unit of consumption for existing media is almost always disrupted by emerging media. For example, digital music caused consumers to think about their purchases as individual songs rather than as full albums. Digital and on-demand video has caused people to view variable-length clips when it is convenient for them, rather than fixed-length programs on a fixed broadcast schedule. Similarly, the structure of the Web has caused the atomic unit of consumption for news to migrate from the full newspaper to the individual article. As with music and video, many people still consume physical newspapers in their original full-length format. But with online news, a reader is much more likely to arrive at a single article. While these individual articles could be accessed from a newspaper's homepage, readers often click directly to a particular article via a search engine or another Website.
Presumably this is the future of journalism as Google sees it. And Google will have a big say in the future of journalism, whether we like it or not.

a librarian rants


No sooner do I bristle at the college rankings and decide to ignore them for another year, than along comes the Beloit College Mindset List, guaranteed to make me feel both antediluvian and out of touch with the new clientele. Ouch!, I thought, when I saw item #4 for the Class of 2013: “[Students born in 1991] have never used a card catalog to find a book.” Now that hits home. It’s not the obsolescence that disturbs me—although I’m emotionally attached to anything that measures 3-by-5 inches — but my suspicion: have college freshmen used anything to find a book?

I don’t doubt young students are all literate to some degree (we’ll discuss their writing ability another time) and that they have all read books, but I seriously question where and how they get hold of them. Are they required texts they purchase at a bookstore, or more likely via Amazon? Are they volumes they find at home or receive as gifts? Do they browse shelves in their school or public library, a big box store, used-book shop, or flea market? Do they download a novel to their Kindle? I’m completely in favor of all those tactics, but my experience as a reference librarian tells me that most freshmen and many older students cannot search an online catalog fluently and don’t know how to proceed when they do spot a book they want.

It’s probably true that most students can’t “search an online catalog fluently” — hell, I can’t search an online catalog fluently, largely because library search software is, in my experience, uniformly terrible. I’m always restricting my search more narrowly than I mean to, or opening it up too wide. (For instance, again and again I enter exact titles of book I know are in a library and get no results.) Fifteen years ago I used to telnet into library catalogues and find everything I wanted; now it’s a crapshoot.

But wait, that’s my rant. Back to the librarian . . .

Is it really true that when students find a book in an online catalogue — I still prefer than old spelling — they don't know what to do next? I know high school and college students have poor research skills, but you’re telling me that they don't know how to jot down a reference number and find the book on the shelf? That I find rather hard to believe.

(Also, I don't think too many college students are using Kindles. Am I wrong about that?)

Monday, September 14, 2009

at least they're writing . . .

Some time back I posted about the idea that even if young people are reading stuff their elders and betters think are trash, “at least they’re reading.” The question was simply whether reading anything is better than reading nothing. Well, we can ask the same question about writing:

As the school year begins, be ready to hear pundits fretting once again about how kids today can't write—and technology is to blame. Facebook encourages narcissistic blabbering, video and PowerPoint have replaced carefully crafted essays, and texting has dehydrated language into "bleak, bald, sad shorthand" (as University College of London English professor John Sutherland has moaned). An age of illiteracy is at hand, right?

Andrea Lunsford isn't so sure. Lunsford is a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, where she has organized a mammoth project called the Stanford Study of Writing to scrutinize college students' prose. From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,672 student writing samples—everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. Her conclusions are stirring.

"I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization," she says. For Lunsford, technology isn't killing our ability to write. It's reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.

The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That's because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it. Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up.

It's almost hard to remember how big a paradigm shift this is. Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn't a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they'd leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.

(For links to Lunsford’s work, follow the link above.) Lunsford has discovered that textspeak is not making its way into student papers, and further argues that student writers today are highly “rhetorical” in the sense that they’re always aware of the audience they’re writing for. But does all this textuality make for better student papers? Do students who text frequently and spend hours a day conversing with friends on Facebook do a better job of producing sound, clear discursive prose than students who aren't so textually active? I can't tell from the article. Well, at least they’re writing.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

the Vigilant School lives!

Here’s J. C. Hallman:

I was at a dinner party one night. There was a nice pork loin and a big oval table, and good wine, and cheerful table-talk through the main course. Then, somehow, the subject of “good books” came up — by which was meant a common standard of objective aesthetic merit. Another tricky subject, to be sure, but not one that necessarily has to lead to discord. In fact, precisely to establish some common ground, I threw out what seemed to me — in a room full of sophisticated readers — to be a fairly obvious truth: a book like Dracula, say, had been very popular, of course, but it was in fact a very poorly-written book.

There was silence for a moment. And then the Victorianist next to me said, “I like Dracula.”

Was I itching for a fight? Had I drunk too much? Probably. But I didn’t steer the conversation directly to authorial intent. First, I allowed that bad books can make for interesting subject matter. . . . [But] Good, serious books were written by good, serious people who knew what they wanted to say! People who took pains — suffered! — to say it. To assume that you could treat books with authors in the same way you treated authorless “texts” was an abomination. And to then turn around and assign some standard of quality to a book that had an author, but might as well have been authorless (Stoker having merely organized a set of tropes bouncing around in vampire literature for a hundred years by the time he came along), was not only wrong, boring, and frightening, it was actually a pretty good description of what’s become of the modern practice of literary criticism. I won’t describe the melee that followed — suffice it to say we corked the wine and some people went home early. Relationships were compromised. Not that I’m bothered by it. What I came away with was a new sense of impetus, a new drive.

Well, good for you, J. C.! I’m sure your “new sense of impetus” was worth ruining a dinner party for. I mean, it’s not as though you could just sit there and drink your wine while sitting next to someone who likes a book better than you do.

Hallman portrays himself as an anti-academic, but notice that here he’s doing the snooty, superior thing that academics are usually accused of: How dare you approve of a book whose poor quality is, among people who truly know, “an obvious truth”?

Hallman’s problem with modern academic literary criticism is that it isn't elitist enough — clearly he’s a fully-paid-up member of what C. S. Lewis used to call “the Vigilant school of criticism,” for whom reading is a form of “social and ethical hygiene.”

Well, whatever floats his boat, I guess — but dear readers, if any of you end up sitting next to me at a dinner party and you express your approval of a book I don't like, I can assue you that, while I might think you’re wrong, I won't automatically think you “boring” and I certainly won't find the experience “frightening.” Even if you’re an English professor.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

bookstores and supermarkets

In Richard Nash’s review of Ted Striphas’s outstanding The Late Age of Print — a book I still need to say more about here — Nash reveals this little historical nugget:

In the history of shop design, it is bookstores, strangely enough, that were the precursors of supermarkets. They, alone of all types of shop, made use of shelves that were not behind counters, with the goods arranged for casual browsing, and for what was not yet called self-service. Also, when brand name goods and their accompanying packages were non-existent or rare in the sale of food, books had covers that were designed at once to protect the contents and to entice the purchaser; they were proprietary products with identifiable authors and new titles.

You learn something new every day. Or I do, anyway.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

work in progress

Folks, I'm still getting used to this new system — I'm struggling to get the posts looking the way they're supposed to, and to have consistency from post to post, and from browser to browser. (The text looks rather different in WebKit browsers than it does in Gecko ones — and what it looks like in IE I couldn't begin to guess.) Also, you may notice that we're working on displaying the most recent Text Patterns tweets in the right column, though here too there are some browser-to-browser variations.
Ah, web languages — is there anything they can't do?
(calligraphy by Hassan Massoudy)

Gutenberg’s revolution, which made possible many other technological revolutions in Western Europe and North America, couldn’t have happened without two highly significant characteristics of the Roman alphabet. First, the isolated nature of its letterforms and, second, the fact that the shape of each letterform is wholly independent of its context.

Visual language says a great deal about a culture and in particular these two alphabetic characteristics say a great deal about that of ‘the West’. This was a culture that valued the breaking down of things into simple, consistent and context-independent components - so as to exercise greater control and effectiveness over those things - whether the ‘thing’ in question was a system, a process or an aesthetic composition. And the monks of the mediaeval scriptoria, whose incanabulae Gutenberg so carefully copied, clearly understood this: they had produced the alphabetic characteristics that enabled Gutenberg’s revolution to facilitate a proto-industrial process of document production. It was this emphasis on decontextualisation – literally, separating the letterform from its context – that later gave birth to the stripped back aesthetic of modernist typography.

The Arabic alphabet, which was common to all of the languages of the Islamic world (principally Arabic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish and Urdu) provided a different trajectory to modernity. Arabic may only have 28 letters but in writing the appearance of each one of those letters depends, critically, on whether it appears at the beginning, middle or end of a word (and in fine calligraphy this is extended to include a much wider range of variations). Furthermore, although its letterforms are no less considered than their Roman counterparts, each is valued less, aesthetically, than the beauty of the unique word shape they contribute to (and, indeed, than the form of the whole text). The Arabic letter is inseparably part of a whole – which makes for exquisite calligraphy, dependent entirely upon the fine judgment of the calligrapher – but does not lend itself to a simple, repeatable set of mechanical rules.

Monday, September 7, 2009

bricking the Kindle

When I lost my Kindle I had some of the same thoughts:
Samuel Borgese, for instance, is still irate about the response from Amazon when he recently lost his Kindle. After leaving it on a plane, he canceled his account so that nobody could charge books to his credit card. Then he asked Amazon to put the serial number of his wayward device on a kind of do-not-register list that would render it inoperable — to “brick it” in tech speak.
Amazon’s policy is that it will help locate a missing Kindle only if the company is contacted by a police officer bearing a subpoena. Mr. Borgese, who lives in Manhattan, questions whether hunting down a $300 e-book reader would rank as a priority for the New York Police Department.
He began to see ulterior motives when he twice sent e-mail messages to Amazon seeking an address to send a police report and got no reply.
“I finally concluded,” Mr. Borgese said, “that Amazon knew the device was being used and preferred to sell content to anyone who possessed the device, rather than assist in returning it to its rightful owner.”
Here's another recent story along the same lines. Bricking the Kindle would deter theft, but would mean less money for Amazon. So their policy, or non-policy, can't really surprise anyone.


FireFly Letterpress from ilovetypography.com on Vimeo.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Tetris and tetrameter

See those four numbers? Those are the four beats. Four stresses, as we say in the meter business. Tetrameter. Four. "Tetra" is four. Like Tetris, that computer game where the squares come down relentlessly and overwhelm your mind with their crude geometry and make you peck at the arrow keys like some mindless experimental chicken and hurry and panic and finally you turn your computer off. And you sit there thinking, Why have I just spent an hour watching squares drop down a computer screen?
Paul Chowder, the narrator of Nicholson Baker's new novel The Anthologist. He needs to write his introduction to an anthology of poetry but gets distracted, by life and sometimes by other things.

Friday, September 4, 2009

a book in space

Explanation of this wonderful project at BLDGBLOG.

Innis and McLuhan on media

Marshall McLuhan by Yousuf Karsh, from an interesting site introducing the work of McLuhan and Harold Innis. The descriptions of their ideas are rather basic and in some respects inaccurate, but the site is worth checking out all the same.

Hobson's Choice

Whatever I do as a writer, it seems that as a reader I am going to be forced to choose between Google and Amazon. I think here of Hamlet's words:
'Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes
Between the pass and fell incensed points
Of mighty opposites.
Guys, whatever you do, just don't be evil, okay?

Friday linkage

Sorry for the light posting — I've been a bit under the weather. Here are a few links to keep you occupied:
The British Library's Sound Archive is amazing.
Cushing Academy in Massachusetts is getting rid of its books. Who needs a library when you can have a "learning center" with big-screen TVs and a $12,000 cappuccino machine?
The Public Index is a site created by people at NYU's Law School to gather information about the proposed Google Book Settlement and to create a conversation about that settlement. It's clearly the one-stop shop for people interested in the implications of Google's agreement with publishers. I am coming to believe that the settlement is not going to survive all of the various legal challenges being made to it — I doubt it will ever go into effect.
More later, I hope.
UPDATE: Ted Striphas has some thoughtful comments on the self-decodexifying of Cushing Academy.
ANOTHER UPDATE: More smart thoughts from Jessamyn the librarian.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Libreria Acqua Alta (a Venezia)

More images here. Thanks to SVN for the link.

politics in the classroom, one more time

Peter Wood wants some help. On behalf of the National Association of Scholars, he is asking,

Who are the key authors and what are the key books in the liberal, conservative, libertarian and radical traditions? The National Association of Scholars is designing a project to examine how political theory is conveyed in the American undergraduate curriculum. To that end we need to compile lists of works that (A) unambiguously represent different strands of political theory, (B) are widely recognized, and (C) are plausible material for undergraduate courses. We are interested in contemporary books as well as older works, but nothing published before 1750.  Our goal is to compile lists of ten books in each category that all sides would agree are a fair sample of these political traditions. 

As he explains elsewhere, “The disparities on campus between the percentages of liberal and conservative professors is well-documented, but the effects of this disparity are still in dispute. In principle, it is possible that leftist professors are teaching (in a fair-minded way) important authors and books that are associated with the traditions of classical liberalism, conservativism, and libertarianism. The National Association of Scholars has embarked on a project to find out whether this is so.”

Okay. But, some thoughts:

  • political theory isn't the whole story of politics on campus, and maybe not even a significant part of the story;

  • many vitally important thinkers are not associated with particular traditions of political thought, indeed are not political in any conventional sense at all — think about the endless controversies over Shakespeare’s politics;

  • liberal education isn't just (or even primarily) a matter of “exposure” to certain texts — the “how” is often more important than the “what.”

More on that last point: it’s relatively easy to figure out what is being taught, because that kind of information tends to be on the internet. But how are the books being taught? The attitudes of teachers are probably more important for the political (in the broadest sense) orientation of a given class than the explcit political views of the authors studied: condemning Jane Austen for her complicity in British colonialism, or Milton or Plato for misogyny — these are common political stances in the academy, and they wouldn't show up in an list of texts for a particular course or sequence of courses. That’s the big problem with the new ACTA guide to campuses: it’s based on one kind of information only, and not, I think, the most important kind.

Note that I’m not taking a stance here on the question of what counts as legitimate “politics in the classroom” and what doesn't — maybe I’ll do that another time. For now, I’m just pointing out that if you want to understand the political orientation of a particular professor or program or department or college, you need to know a lot more than the list of texts being assigned to students.

here at the new digs

Welcome to the new Text Patterns, with fluffier pillows and a mini-fridge in every room! Our new platform (Blogger) will make it easier and more fun for me to post here, and will make commenting much less painful as well. Many thanks to Adam Keiper and Ari Schulman for their hard and good work in making this transition happen.

In other news, I'd like to announce that I have just agreed to write a book about the joys and struggles — but especially the joys — of reading for Oxford University Press. I will be working with the divine Cynthia Read, one of the best editors in the business, and I am thoroughly chuffed.

Needless to say, many of the themes pursued on this blog will make their way into the book, so look for me to try out some ideas here in the coming months.

Whoops, here comes François with the bubbly — TTFN!