Trying to think a bit outside the box or at least change my conception of the box Post date  06.02.2009, 3:02 AM

posted by bob stein

There's endless talk these days about ebook readers, Kindle and all its e-ink cousins, and future tablets from Apple and other phone makers. There's nothing wrong with the fact that these devices are all designed to emulate the experience of reading printed material, but this is a starting point not the end point. The forms are going to evolve in ways we can't imagine and they may not be best served by 2-D paper emulators.

Reading this description of new functionality in Microsoft's XBox, I started wondering whether as game box evolves into an all-purpose "entertainment hub" which is thoroughly integrated into major social networks, whether it might extend it's reach to host new forms of (social) reading. if a "book is a place" perhaps one strand of the near future will be to explore that space with a joystick. I hadn't thought about it before, but perhaps the interview of me in This Spartan Life is a thought experiment in this direction. It would be interesting to re-imagine The Golden Notebook project which proved the viability of an asynchronous reading group as taking place inside of a virtual space where sometimes you would really be "with" other readers and sometimes on your own.

The article that kicked off this little reverie is from this morning's MIT Technology Review is about a new camera/controller for Microsoft's X-Box. The sentences that caught my attention:

Microsoft also debuted 10 exclusive new games and the ability to access social networking sites Facebook and Twitter as well as streaming music service on the Xbox Live service. The popular social networking sites Facebook and Twitter will be fully integrated into Xbox Live beginning this fall.

There were several announcements about the Xbox 360's video capabilities including increased functionality with the online Netflix service, 1080p high-definition video downloads, live TV in the United Kingdom and the ability to watch movies online with friends.

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Noah Wardrup-Fruin sums up his experience with open peer review Post date  05.13.2009, 1:27 AM

posted by bob stein

Noah Wardrup-Fruin has a book coming out from MIT Press this summer -- Expressive Processing. Together with Doug Sery, his editor at MIT and Ben Vershbow a former colleague at the Institute, Noah used CommentPress to conduct an open peer review of his manuscript. He sums up the experience in an extensive post on his blog, Grand Text Auto.

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The Presence of Print Post date  05.07.2009, 2:47 PM

posted by sonja drimmer

About two years ago, Dan Visel ended a thoughtful post on the New York Public Library's newly-installed Espresso Book Machine by proposing: "There's a discussion here that needs to happen."

In light of the second version of the Espresso Book Machine (EBM) coming out here in England, I'd like to take up his proposal.

First, a little bit about the machine and how it's improved over the last two years. The machine, produced by OnDemandBooks, put simply, is a device that allows individuals to print books from a digital catalogue on demand. The original idea was to facilitate customers' access to books on backlist, or, in its more ambitious conceptualization, to function as a vending machine that provided books in places lacking the space in which to store them (think cruise ships). As Dan Visel noted in his original post, the version installed in the NYPL was a hulking contraption that took a long time to produce books outstanding only for their poor quality:

"Holding my copy of Faulkner in my hands, the overwhelming feeling was one of cheapness: the book had been reduced, finally, to being a disposable consumer object, available as easily as a latte at Starbuck's. The books that the Espresso was putting out every twenty minutes existed for demonstration purposes...I sensed that the books probably wouldn't be read."

Since then, ODB have made the size of the machine itself more compact (it still looks like a photocopying machine), decreased the printing time, and significantly widened the material available. As Blackwell's CEO put it upon the EBM's installation in its Charing Cross store two weeks ago, "It's giving the chance for smaller locations, independent booksellers, to have the opportunity to truly compete with big stock-holding shops and Amazon." Put bluntly, the unique selling point of the EBM from the perspective of book store owners is that the breadth of titles immediately available will lure customers away from sites like Amazon and back into their bricks-and-mortar shops.

Also since then, a lot has happened in the publishing industry. Not the least of which is Kindle 2, as well as the iPhone, Apple's imminent Kindle-Killer, and the expansion of GoogleBooks' content (which includes magazines as well as books). Instantaneous access to limited, but rapidly-expanding, content is now expected and easy in numerous digital formats.

So, what has the EBM got that the digital formats haven't? One thing, really. Presence. While the cost of books printed by the EBM is low, swathes of online content is free, and e-readers will, like all technology, decrease in price in due time. On-screen readability has progressed impressively and may even have an advantage over the smaller fonts used in standard printed books. If the iPod is any indication, people are willing to pay a more significant amount up front in exchange for total and ubiquitous access to their personal catalogue--up until now, of music, but perhaps soon of books as well. Many music stores now allow customers to download music from in-store digital stations in order to avoid purchasing the physical CD itself. The EBM, with a comparable catalogue, suggests that the same will soon be available to people toting along their E-Books to the store. Plug in, download, read. All these factors would seem to spell a speedy end to the EBM.

So again, I ask, what has the EBM got that the digital formats haven't? And again the answer is Presence. If people are going to continue to purchase paper books, publishers have got to do for books what the music industry failed to do for CDs. While the CD-stand or -case was almost de rigeur in 1990s interior decor, people soon realized that a tower of transparent plastic was not the personality statement piece they imagined it could be. Yet vinyl records, despite their obsolescence, retain their appeal for many, from nostalgic Baby Boomers to cool-hunting teens. Perhaps it is, after all, the sound quality, but I'm willing to bet that the labor put into sleeves and liner notes is what has guaranteed their enduring appeal. Records are fetishized objects, while CDs are shiny detritus disks. At this moment in time, books seem poised to go either way.

How can the EBM and the publishing industry at large promote the permanence of the paper book? Capitalize on what already makes the book appealing. Its Presence. Looking at my own bookshelves at the moment, my eye is pleased to see three elegantly-designed paperbacks of Murakami's works leaning against one another, while lamenting that the fourth was produced by a publisher with a lesser eye for design and display. My Penguin Classics form a band of black crowned with a single red striation, and my cookbooks' spines flash an array of color that, frankly, makes me hungry.

Of course, all of these are mine. I chose them, I own them, I feel their presence in my home. But many, many other people also own them. They have what I have like the certain green-and-white paper coffee cups alluded to in the Espresso Book Machine's name. But what if, instead of being a customer, accustomed to the books that weren't customized to me, I were a patron? What if books, instead of being made more disposable, were restored their status of belonging? What if printing allowed us to imprint ourselves on the books that we've printed? All of this seems to oppose what printing inherently is and what it revolutionized, as Elizabeth Eisenstein argued. But it is easy to argue that standardization was not an inevitable end to a technologically-determined progression.

What if the EBM allowed us to design books the way we want to see them and want them to be seen? At present, the only choice allowed is paper color. And the desire to keep prices low--an appeal that Amazon and online content already have--demands that options be limited. But what if I could change the cover of that fourth Murakami book to a design more fitting with the other three? What if publishers commissioned more than one artist to produce cover designs that competed for our attention and won them pretty royalties? What if I could hide my Harlequin romance novel behind a cover bearing Kafka's name? What if I could expand the margins of pages in order to accommodate my written conversations with the text? What if I could append an index with a concordance of a single character's use of the word "phoney"? What if I could print up the journalistically-toned novels of Marquez in Courier font and the Iliad in Herculanum? What if I thought something as precious as Poe deserved octavo? What if I printed the Wife of Bath's Tale before the Knight's?

The what-ifs are many and obviously expensive. But what if we could bend and shift the standardization that is the essence of printing? What if we could change printing to be more present that it already is? Physical witness to a choice made now and in the present.

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Gamers Anonymous Post date  04.12.2009, 9:50 PM

posted by alex rose

I am not a gamer.
I do not consider myself a gaming enthusiast, I do not belong to any kind of "gaming community" and I have not kept my finger on the proverbial pulse of interactive entertainment since my monthly NES newsletter subscription ran out circa 1988.
Save a few momentary aberrations--a brief fling with "Doom" ('93), a torrid encounter with "Half-Life" ('98), a secret tryst with "Grand Theft Auto III" ('01)--I've worked to keep my relationship to that world at arm's length.
Video games, I'd come to believe, had not significantly improved in twenty years. As kids, we'd expected them to evolve with us, to grow and adapt to culture, to become complex and sophisticated like the fine arts; rather, they seemed to remain in a perpetual state of adolescence, merely buffing-out and strutting their ever-flashier chops instead of taking on new challenges and exploring untapped possibilities. Maps grew larger, graphics sharpened to near-photorealistic quality, player options expanded, levels enumerated, and yet the pastime as a whole never advanced beyond a mere guilty pleasure.
Every time a friend would tug my sleeve and giddily drag me to view the latest system, the latest hyped-up game, I'd find myself consistently underwhelmed. Once the narcotic spell of a new virtual landscape wore off, all that was left was the same ossified product game producers had been peddling since 1986. Characters in battle-themed games still followed the tired James Cameron paradigm--tough guy, funny guy, butch girl, robot; stories in "sandbox" games were as aimless and hopelessly convoluted as ever.
This is to say nothing of the interminable interludes that kept appearing between levels, clearly designed by wannabe action movie directors. Fully scripted scenes populated by broad stereotypes would go on for five or even ten minutes at a time, with the "camera" incessantly roving about, punching in, racking focus, jump-cutting., as though an executive had instructed his team to "make it edgier, snappier, more Casino."
Where was the modern equivalent to the Infocom games, those richly imagined text-based worlds that put to shame any dime-a-dozen title from the Choose Your Own Adventure series? This isn't nostalgia talking. Infocom, like its predecessors in BASIC, put out games written by actual authors; not only did they know how to construct engaging stories and fleshed-out characters, they foresaw the opportunities presented by non-linear narratives and capitalized on their interactive potential.
Was it me, or had "refinement" in the subsequent years become a dwindling pipe-dream, like accountability in broadcast journalism?

Recently, however, I had a change of heart. On a trip upstate to visit a friend, I was somewhat reluctantly introduced to the latest installment of the "Fallout" series, third in the sprawling, post-apocalyptic trilogy, only to emerge three days later, transfigured.
Here's the gist: your character has been born into an alternate reality, one in which nuclear war has ravaged the planet at some point immediately following World War II. Subsequent generations have grown up inside elaborate subterranean fallout shelters where culture, if not technology, has remained frozen in the 50s--faded pastel colors and lollipop iconography share space with rusting robots and exotic weaponry, almost as a form of collective denial. Those that have ventured out into the radioactive wasteland have cobbled together ersatz settlements from the ruins, a la Mad Max, in which they are able to form intimate, scavenger communities subsisting on scraps. You enter the game as an infant, grow up in an underground vault, and eventually embark on a journey that takes you deep into the perilous outdoors.
So far, a familiar, setup. But a few things set the game apart from the standard fare. For one thing, the relationship between the player and the character is mediated by something called the "pip-boy"--a digital interface strapped to the character's arm which holds all the information relevant to your status: health points, radiation levels, weapons & ammo, etc., plus a working map of places you've explored and the details of your current quest.

As far as I know, this is the first time a game has come up with anything like this. The pip-boy acts as a bridge between the 'diegetic' and 'non-diegetic' worlds, a thing rooted in and motivated by the artificial construct of the game, yet positioned w/r/t the player such that he has a lifeline to the virtual realm at all times. This simple step--providing an internally-justified means of communication between player and character--makes a crucial psychological difference. It's a bit like having a "Dungeon Master" along with you, only this time it's not an extremely annoying child.
The overall effect on one's consciousness is unnerving. That strange, not-quite-real sense of space that follows a day spent in a museum, or even an amusement park, permeates the outside world for long stretches of time.
Broadly speaking, this is something we ask of all art: to tweak and enrich our subjective experience of reality. (Good stuff does this for a day; great stuff does it for a lifetime.) But we also ask it introduce us to concepts, to construct microcosms that allow ideas to take shape and find a sort of aesthetic cohesion--and this is where video games, indeed all games, have historically fallen short.
"Fallout 3" is a totally different animal. It's a game, yes, but only insofar as it adheres to a set of specific gameplay rules; beyond that, it's a nest of integrated narratives more in keeping with Julio Cortazar 's novel, Hopscotch, than, say, a game of hopscotch.
Indeed, the playing of the game is merely the entry point, a framing device that allows you access to a furiously detailed world. Is this in-itself new? To some degree, the same could be said about last year's "Grand Theft Auto"--the player enters the alternate New York as Nico Belic, a Slavic thug just in from Eastern Europe, and the story unfolds more or less according to the manner of one's choosing. Missions are accepted or denied, bad guys are mowed-down or spared, items are acquired or neglected.
The difference is that the game "doesn't care." Like "The Sims," "Grand Theft Auto" does not offer meaningful consequences to irrevocable actions. Getting a prospective girlfriend to invite you upstairs after a date simply results in an opportunity for another date; outrunning a cop means only that you will no longer be chased by him.
Conversely, a particular course of action in "Fallout 3" actually affects the way in which the story is told. Defusing a bomb in the center of town doesn't just award you with karma points, it opens doors in the story while closing others. Enslaving a citizen doesn't just turn a once-friendly community against you, it puts you in good standing with the slavers you encounter later on, which in turn enables a set of otherwise unavailable choices. The game "cares" what you do, though it does not "judge" you--again, like a Dungeon Master.
In Aristotelian terms, the dramatic action ultimately takes precedent over the "obstacles." No matter which choices you make, or in what order you make them, the game is predicated on an ingeniously organized narrative architecture that presents a nested series of dramatic events and corresponding consequences, the constellation of which determines the "plot points" of your particular quest. Like life, what you do is who you are.
Which is not to suggest that we begin judging games by the standards of drama proper. Equating the two raises the same red flags we find ourselves facing when we start calling jazz "America's classical music" and comic books "graphic literature." Neither idiom seems to benefit from the association. On the contrary, it suggests that we continue evaluating them on their own terms, for what they can accomplish given their own advantages and constraints--only with the bar set much, much higher.
It also means that those of us too snooty to accept certain terms for ourselves might have to buck up and swallow our pride.
Hell, I'm a gamer.


Alex Rose is a co-founding editor of Hotel St. George Press and the author of The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales. His work has appeared, most recently, in The New York Times, Ploughshares and Fantasy Magazine. His story, "Ostracon," will be included in the 2009 edition of Best American Short Stories.

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notes from around the web Post date  04.01.2009, 4:54 PM

posted by dan visel

  • On April 26 in Los Angeles, haudenschildGarage presents a performance entitled The Last Book, an "attempt to resurrect the medieval illuminated manuscript through the invocation of our current alchemy, the new technologies, to conjure a future as the past in reverse". The artists and writers involved include Steve Fagin, Mary Gaitskill, Mian Mian, Leslie Thornton, Davina Semo, and Greg Landau; their site has more information.
  • Max Bruinsma has an interesting essay at Limited Language entitled "Typographic Design for New Reading Spaces", addressing the issue of designing for screen reading and why text on screens is still generally so ugly.
  • Mediabistro points out Moulinarn Mobile Books (website under construction), devoted to publishing content specifically for the iPhone platform. Their content doesn't seem especially interesting, but it does look like it's not a generic e-book reader.
  • Those with a subscription to the Chronicle of Higher Education might be interested in this article about Matthew Kirschenbaum work on writers' digital archives.
  • DiRT is the Digital Research Tools wiki, a collection of useful resources for scholars doing research digitally. Most of the tools they point out are open-source; it's nice to have all these things in one place. More advanced users might look at XTF, an interesting new public domain extensible text framework designed to make archives digitally accessible.
  • The Digital Poetics blog suggests a new method of film criticism: grabbing a screen shot at 10 minutes, 40 minutes, and 70 minutes into the movie & talking about what's on the screen at that instant and how it relates to the rest of the movie.
  • Dene Grigar's "Electronic Literature: Where Is It?" has been up at the Electronic Book Review for a while, but it's still worth a look. I'm not entirely sure it will convince skeptics, but it is a good overview of the present of electronic literature and its place in the academy.
  • Brazilian novelist Claudio Soares has put his 2006 novel Santos Dumont Número 8: O Livro das Superstições into the Institute's CommentPress. He's given all of the characters Twitter accounts; an impressive online presentation introduces the online version of the novel, which looks to be a fairly serious undertaking although put together with free tools. Once again, I wish I spoke Portuguese. (Edit: Claudio Soares suggests three auto-translated links –,, – for English speakers who wish to get a better idea of the project.)
  • And finally, if:book London presents Songs of Imagination and Digitisation, a variety of new media responses to the work of William Blake.

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oulipo in new york Post date  03.30.2009, 4:16 PM

posted by dan visel

The most prominent members of the Oulipo are making a rare descent upon New York this week; there are readings at the New School tonight and in Pierogi in Williamsburg on April 3rd. (A complete schedule of events can be found here.) Oulipo is the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (the workshop of potential literature), a group of mostly French mathematicians and writers who use constraint to generate new literary forms. The most well-known Oulipians are the late Marcel Duchamp, Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, and Georges Perec; the group, however, carries on, and Marcel Bénabou, Anne Garréta, Hervé Le Tellier, Ian Monk, Jacques Roubaud, and Harry Mathews will be talking about their work.

Part of the occasion for their arrival is the publication of Jacques Roubaud's The Loop in Jeff Fort's English translation by the Dalkey Archive. (There's a launch party tomorrow night at Idlewild Books.) The Loop, originally published in France in 1993, is the second volume of a series of works collectively called The Great Fire of London; five volumes have been published in France, and a sixth and final volume is in the works. While the first volume (published under the same name as the series) was translated into English in 1992, it's taking a while for the rest of them to appear here. The Great Fire of London is worthy of mention here because it's perhaps the most extended literary use of hypertext. The two volumes published here have "Fiction" stamped on the back cover, but that's not entirely accurate: these books are writing about writing, a metafictional memoir if you will, arranged around Roubaud's inability to write a novel entitled The Great Fire of London. (Marcel Bénabou confronts this issue more concisely in a book of his own entitled Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books.)

"Metafiction" is a word used in criticism to damn writing more often than not; especially in this country, it's frequently presented as ivory tower excess, obfuscatory, the enemy of American plain-speaking. The Great Fire of London is certainly subject to these criticisms: Roubaud is dazzlingly intelligent (while a professor of mathematics at the Sorbonne he studied for a second doctorate in poetry), and his writing pulls no punches; within the first chapter of The Loop, the reader is faced with explorations of the ideas of Nicholas of Cusa, Wittgenstein, and Kripke, to name only the philosophers. But The Great Fire of London is also a very personal work: as explained in the first volume, Roubaud began writing the work after the death of his wife Alix as a means of working through grief. His wife's presence hovers over the first two volumes of the work, albeit obliquely: her death is never discussed directly. Roubaud wakes every morning before dawn and writes a section of his evolving book; he forces himself to work linearly, not to revise, not to leave anything out. The first volume focuses on his conception of his project and his writing, though there are memoiristic departures: Roubaud's ideas about how croissants should work and how jam was prepared in his childhood in Provence; the memory of an American love affair and his tastes in English novelists all make their way in to his narrative.

Roubaud does not constrain himself to a strictly linear writing style: periodically there are interpolations, glosses on passages of his linear book that go on for a few pages; interpolations frequently have their own interpolations. There are also bifurcations: sometimes Roubaud sees another way that his narrative could go and follows it for a longer period. The reader flips back and forth through the sections of the book; to follow Roubaud's suggested pathway (which, he points out, is not the only way to read the book) requires three bookmarks.

Here, as a demonstration, is a diagram of the first chapter of The Loop, showing how 90 pages of the book's text are interconnected: the chapter itself is about 30 pages, there are about 30 pages of interpolations, and the bifurcation also lasts for 30 pages. Horizontal connections are interpolations, where linear text is interrupted to suggest a possible digression; vertical connections are linear connections. The complete book is about six times this length; I'd love to see a complete map of the book, though I haven't found one yet.


It should be noted that this diagram only captures the explicit interconnections in the book; there are also implicit interconnections, and especially in the bifurcation Roubaud refers back to other interpolations that the reader trying to follow the explicit map will not yet have read. Like Cortázar's Hopscotch, this is a book that demands re-reading. Dominic Di Bernardi's afterword to the English translation of The Great Fire of London, "The Great Fire of London and the Destruction of the Book", argues that Roubaud's work is the future of the book: the future was hypertext. Read 17 years later, this feels like a flying car vision of the future; the hypertext future that everyone imagined in 1992 never really arrived.

Roubaud's work, by contrast, now feels like a deeply personal project: one man's attempt to map out his memory as accurately as possible using the formal tools available to him, trying to smash the architecture of memory into the Procrustean bed imposed by the strict linearity of our readership of text. In The Great Fire of London, Roubaud explains how he works with a typewriter, an electronic model named Miss Bosanquet III (named after the secretary of Henry James); Miss Bosanquet III's primitive word-processing capabilities allowed him to edit one line of text before it was printed. With The Loop, Roubaud started composing using a Mac. The results are obvious as soon as one opens the book: text is bolded, italicized, and underlined, and the type size changes. The Loop is primarily about Roubaud's childhood, but it's also necessarily an exploration of how writing can approach the problem of mapping memory, and, by extension, how technology changes writing. The problem for the reader of Roubaud is that technology changes reading as well: we're left trying to catch up.

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design and dasein: heidegger against the birkerts argument Post date  03.26.2009, 12:18 PM

posted by dan piepenbring

Here and elsewhere in the blogosphere, much ink has been spilled -- or rather, many pixels generated -- regarding Sven Birkerts's "Resisting the Kindle," which contends that the e-reader's rise augurs ill for our ability to contextualize information. The argument hinges on a conditional premise, the soundness of which I doubt: "If ... we move wholesale into a world where information and texts are called onto the screen by the touch of a button ... [then] we will not simply have replaced one delivery system with another." At his most dystopian, Birkerts foresees "an info-culture ... composed entirely of free-floating items of information and expression, all awaiting their access call."

Birkerts's skepticism seems more an indictment of human nature than of the Kindle itself, and I think his assumptions about our capacity to "replace" are misguided. In defending or repudiating his stance, bloggers have invoked everyone from McLuhan to Pascal to Derrida. Bearing this continental mélange in mind, I'd like to call to the stand Herr Martin Heidegger, existentialist and phenomenologist par excellence.

Don't worry -- I'll try to keep this painless.

In his seminal Being and Time, Heidegger considers equipment and utility: how we relate to our tools, how the tools relate to one another, and how a network of tools mitigates our surroundings. "Equipment," he avers, "can genuinely show itself only in dealings cut to its own measure" (98).* Well-designed tools possess something he dubs "readiness-to-hand." Roughly defined, the more something is suited to the use it is made for, the more ready-to-hand it becomes. Readiness-to-hand entails a kind of integration with the environment, an invisibility; the tool belongs so much in the world that we seldom realize we're using it as we work. So that we may gape at his obscurity, here's how Heidegger puts it:

The peculiarity of what is proximally ready-to-hand is that, in its readiness-to-hand, it must, as it were, withdraw in order to be ready-to-hand quite authentically. That with which our everyday dealings proximally dwell is not the tools themselves. On the contrary, that with which we concern ourselves primarily is the work -- that which is to be produced at the time; and this is accordingly ready-to-hand too. The work bears with it that referential totality within which the equipment is encountered. (99)

Consider, for example, a computer keyboard. When I type on mine, I'm ordinarily unaware of it. Since it's well-designed and fully functioning, I have no phenomenological reason to take notice of its existence -- instead, I concentrate on what I'm typing. The keyboard is incorporated in my location, existing in tandem with my monitor, my lamp and, yes, the intimidating paperback edition of Being and Time resting on my desk.

Of course, if the keyboard broke, or if it were inherently flawed, this wouldn't be the case, and it's for this reason that Heidegger introduces "obtrusiveness," one way of distinguishing between well-wrought equipment and defective tools. The latter make us increasingly aware of their presence and less at ease in our environs; they simply don't seem to fit into the world as we've constructed it. This is the last time I'll quote our man:

When we notice what is un-ready-to-hand, that which is ready-to-hand enters the mode of obtrusiveness. The more urgently we need what is missing, and the more authentically it is encountered in its un-readiness-to-hand, all the more obtrusive does that which is ready-to-hand become -- so much so, indeed, that it seems to lose its character of readiness-to-hand. It reveals itself as something just present-at-hand and no more, which cannot be budged without the thing that is missing. The helpless way in which we stand before it is a deficient mode of concern, and as such it uncovers the Being-just-present-at-hand-and-no-more of something ready-to-hand. (103)

Onto Birkerts, then. The Kindle may feel, at present, isolated and bereft of context, but this is because its readiness-to-hand is concealed by a lack. Something is missing, or, to use Heidegger's jargon, "obtruding." Birkerts maintains that the issue is one of context, but this is perhaps irrelevant. What matters is not the nature of what's missing but that something is missing at all. In Heidegger's philosophy, people will resist imperfect equipment, especially when its faults obtrude upon their interactions with the world.

If designers solve the Kindle's problems -- whatever they may be -- satisfactorily, e-readers could supplant traditional, printed books. We might, that is, come to use the Kindle for identical tasks, in otherwise identical environments, and so enable a radical shift in information access without surrendering anything. But if designers can't remedy this sense of Heideggerian obtrusiveness, then the risk of wholesale displacement is practically nil. Unless its successor is fully accommodating, the "delivery system" will not be replaced. What obtains for e-readers instead will be tenuous coexistence at best and outright failure at worst.

Thus, the most tendentious part of Birkerts's argument has little to do with the Kindle or context. It's that he believes humanity would wittingly adopt deficient tools at the expense of effective ones. This fundamental cynicism is, to a point, understandable; much of marketing and advertising, after all, devotes itself to convincing us that what's new is necessarily superior, and in the marketplace we're suckers for such baseless claims. (At this point, any sticker that reads "New and Improved!" seems almost redundant.) But Birkerts underestimates, I think, the functional and aesthetic requisites of an average reader. If Heidegger is right, then the catastrophic, decontextualized info-culture of Birkerts's imagination is patently absurd -- readers won't, in the short- or long-term, shutter our libraries just because some novel, convenient alternative has asserted itself.

"We misjudge it," writes Birkerts of the Kindle, "if we construe it as just another useful new tool." But this is exclusively what it is, at the moment. In order to advance as equipment, the Kindle must demonstrate the readiness-to-hand of that which it endeavors to replace. It hasn't. Until it does, any talk of supersession strikes me as alarmist.

*These citations come from the John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson translation. Heidegger's style, especially in English, is notoriously labyrinthine and often straight-up unreadable. If, someday, someone can endure the entirety of Being and Time on a Kindle, I think we can safely say the e-readers have won.

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extraordinary book sculpture Post date  03.20.2009, 6:11 AM

posted by sebastian mary

Brian Dettmer creates these extraordinary sculptures by amalgamating, modifying and mutating books.

Looking at these images of the physical matter of books, remixed into sculptures, I'm reminded of the process that texts are increasingly going through once digitized: amalgamated, remixed, reformed into new entities.

Dettmer's sculptures invite us to think about deeply-held taboos around the sanctity of books as objects; a conversation that recurs - especially in the context of e-readers - around discussion of digitized text.

Recycling, reimagining, repurposing the cultural glut amidst which we currently exist feels in many ways an appropriate artistic mode for today. Is authorship really so sacred that remixed works cannot themselves be things of beauty and value? Or, like European villages dismantling local medieval chateaux to build outhouses, are we taking our cultural history so completely for granted that we're in danger of forgetting or destroying millennia of culture in a thoughtless reappropriation of its materials for our current preoccupations?

Dettmer's show opens April 3 at the Packer Schopf Gallery in Chicago.

(Via Boing Boing)

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will the real iPod for reading stand up now please? Post date  03.19.2009, 10:00 AM

posted by sebastian mary

OK, so first of all: this isn't an article about whether or not ebooks are a good thing. But I was thinking this morning about the now hackneyed idea that we're moments away from an 'iPod moment for ebooks', and trying once again to work out why I think this is so very wrong. I've concluded that it's because of the physical qualities of books. But not in the way you'd think.

No discussion of the future of the book is complete without someone saying, as if they'd thought of it first, 'But books are tactile and sensory as well as intellectual, what about the feel and smell?'. Yeah, I like to read in the bath, I like to scribble in the margins, etc. This discussion has been extensively rehearsed, by people much smarter than me, so let's sidestep this issue for a moment. But the physicality of books impacts on their contents, too, and it is this that makes the iPod a misleading comparison for the kind of content that might work on an e-reader.

Let's look at books for a moment. While in the early Wild West publishing days of the 18th-century print boom works were produced in a bewildering array of formats (elephant folio, pamphlet, poster, flyer, handout along with more familiar books) in today's mature publishing industry there is an inverse correlation between the size of the print run and the variation in the book's dimensions. In other words, the more mass-market a book, the more likely it will be to conform to the average book dimensions: 110-135mm wide, by 178-216mm high. This is the easiest size to produce inexpensively, and sell at a price point the market will bear.

Length is determined as well, by manufacturing constraints at the top end, and the fixed overheads of printing at the bottom. Bookshops are crammed with full-length books whose contents could just as well be communicated in a short essay, or even in the title alone: I'm thinking of Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, but a glance at the self-help or business shelves of your local bookshop will show you plenty more. And yet to make economic sense they have to be padded out for publication in 'proper' book size. But to conclude from this (as many unwittingly do) that long-form books are necessarily the best, rather than just the most familiar, way of communicating ideas is mistaken; and to assume that this practice will transplant to e-readers, imagined as a kind of iPod for these long-form essays, is just wrong.

Look at the Web. The attention economy at its most feral. Whatever you're writing, there is always better, more engaging, more pornographic or immediately relevant content only a click away. If I make this article too long you won't finish it. In terms of print tradition, long-form writing is best; but online, brevity really is the soul of wit. Or, rather, the soul of not being ignored. Does this mean that - on the assumption that long-form is intrinsically good - the Web is ruining our ability to think deeply? Birkerts' recent Atlantic article 'Resisting the Kindle' (see Bob's post below) rehearses, after a fashion, some of these concerns; but a counter-perspective might argue simply that, without the physical constraints of print publishing, we are experimenting with new ways to communicate.

I read books, read blogs, I twitter compulsively. I use these different formats for different kinds of experience. I see no contradiction: what I'm getting at here is that the e-reader is being treated as though it is a viable vehicle for long-form writing, in a way that ignores the essential fact that long-form writing and reading is rooted in paper, and book manufacturing.

So, back to the 'iPod for reading' metaphor. Its proponents generally don't dig deeper than 'here is a small square device for storing and consuming lots of music'. The implication is that we can hop blithely from that to 'here is a small square device for storing and consuming lots of text'. Regardless of stirring promises of e-books containing audio, video, fancy schmancy links and so on, the common understanding - and, indeed, the hope of the publishing industry - remains that this is a digital device for reading long-form texts. But this ignores the effect that iPods - or, more generally, mp3s - are having on how music is distributed. Once sold as albums, whether on LPs or CDs, music is increasingly sold by the micro-unit - a single song. A unit of content typically around 3 or 4 minutes long rather than 60-75 minutes.

It makes economic sense to sell LPs or CDs at a runtime of 60-odd minutes. It makes economic sense to sell books of around 80,000 words. But music for iPods can be sold song by song. So, extrapolating from this to an iPod for reading, what is the written equivalent of a single song? In a word (or 300), belles lettres.

And the Web is full of belles lettres. Now and then in my wanderings around the Web, I come across something and think 'That's a really important essay'. And I worry about the ability of the Web to take care of it for me: link rot always sets in eventually, Wayback Machine or no. I can't print it all out. So how do I keep such articles? I would welcome a device designed for downloading and archiving essays I think are important, a virtual library device for the belles lettres of today.

Armed with such a device, creating playlists, mashups, collages of our favourite short works, we might become a generation of digital Montaignes, annotating and expanding our collective discourse. Blogging is already, in effect, the re-emergence of belles lettres; and while blog posts are typically written for the moment, a device that could earn the blogger a small sum (and the cachet of being considered worthy of archiving) for every essay downloaded might well inspire a renaissance in short work written for a longer lifespan.

As a device for consuming a kind of writing - long-form - developed within the constraints of physical print, e-readers are a niche product. Reading a long-form book on an e-reader is a bit like teleconferencing: it's OK as far as it goes, but the meeting format evolved from haptic, as much as informational, constraints and still works better that way. There may be people out there who listen to entire albums, from start to finish, one at a time, on their iPods; I'm willing to bet there will a few who will enjoy slogging through long-form writings, one at a time, on a digital device. I don't see it going mainstream. But a device for collating and archiving good, important, digital short writing? I want one.

So, please, can we forget about the handful of eccentrics who want to ruin their eyes wading through War and Peace on a tiny LCD screen. Instead, let's bring on the real iPod for reading: something that lets me download, archive, tag annotate, share, playlist and categorise short-form works that would otherwise disappear into the link-rot mulch of yesterday's Web. Let's figure out a business model, an iTunes for micro-articles. Let's take short-form digital writing seriously.

(Cross-posted from

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sven birkerts on the kindle Post date  03.06.2009, 1:30 PM

posted by bob stein

The Atlantic just posted a short piece by Sven Birkerts, Resisting the Kindle, voicing his concerns over what is being lost when reading moves from page to screen. The challenge is to take the kernel of truth in what Birkerts says and to figure out how to extend our notion of electronic documents to include the deep contextualization he refers to.

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wednesday miscellany Post date  03.04.2009, 10:27 AM

posted by dan visel

  • Arc90 has released Readability, a bookmark that strips away most of the cruft that generally surrounds text on the Web to focus on the main text column. It doesn't work on every website, of course, but it does point out how messy our reading environments generally are. (An analogy might be drawn to Kenneth Goldsmith's Day, in which the poet transcribed every word in a single day's New York Times; set like a novel, the result was a 836-page book. A good deal of the act of reading is knowing what to ignore.) It seems a reader-oriented version of the full-screen writing environments in tools like WriteRoom or Scrivener. Probably also of interest as a model for making websites more accessible to the blind: this would make sites much easier for a screen reader to read.
  • John Willinsky has a paper in the Journal of Electronic Publishing entitled "Toward the Design of an Open Monograph Press": he presents a very detailed model for how academic publishing could work online which should be read by everyone interested in the subject.
  • There's an interesting blog entry by Johannes Görannson about the Stephanie Strickland piece on electronic poetry noted here recently. Görannson notes that network-based writing practices (like those of inveterate prankster Tao Lin) seem more radical than the multimedia works than Strickland presents, which generally don't acknowledge community ad the network.
  • Dan Green has a pair of well-reasoned posts on ideas about how text should be written differently for the perceived problem of the lack of attention. Green doesn't believe that breaking books into smaller chunks (smaller chapters, smaller paragraphs) is likely to help anything; to argue this is to miss the point of what books can do.
  • Have we mentioned TextSound here? It's a fairly new journal presenting sound poetry; what's interesting to me is the sheer volume of material that can be presented in it. Their second issue would take up 6 CDs, if presented that way; on the web, projects can swell to their own sizes. Artist Paul Chan's My Own Private Alexandria might be mentioned in the same breath: Chan has created his own library of audio books, nicely tagged.
  • If you happen to be in Oakville, Ontario, you could do worse than to pay a visit to "Novel Ideas", an exhibition on the changing book at the Oakville Galleries. Alex Itin is showing his Orson Whales; the other work also looks interesting.

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why is text on screens so ugly? Post date  02.27.2009, 11:09 AM

posted by dan visel

There have been a raft of reviews of the new Kindle and the various iPhone reading applications lately. In general, reviewers are more positive about the experience of reading from a screen than they have been in the past. However, I've noticed that one enormous factor in reading tends to get passed by; maybe it's not something that people notice if they don't think about book design. See if you can identify it from these screenshots, which you can click to enlarge:

The new Kindle 2:


The latest Sony Reader:


Stanza, a popular iPhone ebook app:


eReader, another popular iPhone ebook app:


All of these screen-reading environments fully justify their paragraphs of text: there's not a ragged right margin. This is what we tend to expect books to look like: typically, a book page has an even rectangle of text on it, a tradition that extends back to Gutenberg's 42-line Bible:


One might notice here, however, that Gutenberg's page has something that the screen-reading environments do not: hyphenation. When Gutenberg's words don't fit in a line (see, for example, the third line down in the right column) he broke them with a hyphen, starting a tradition in book design that has made its way to the present moment. The reason for hyphenation is apparent if you look at the shots of the screen-reading devices: if words aren't split, often the spacing between words must be increased, making it harder for the eye to follow. This is more apparent when the width of the text column (called the measure) is narrow, as is the case on iPhone apps: notice how spaced-out the penultimate line, "necessary to effectiveness in an", is in the eReader screenshot. The Kindle and the Sony Reader look a little bit better because there aren't such glaring white spaces in the text, although weirdly both appear to have lines in the middle of paragraphs that aren't fully justified.

Why don't these reading devices hyphenate their lines if they fully justify them? This isn't, for what it's worth, a problem that affects more than just these devices; plenty of text on the web is fully justified and has no hyphenation. The problem is that hyphenation is trickier than it might initially appear. To properly hyphenate a paragraph, the hyphenator needs to understand at least something about how the language that the paragraph of text is written in works. Here's how Robert Bringhurst outlines what he calls the "etiquette of hyphenation and pagination" as rules for compositors in his authoritative Elements of Typographic Style:

2.4.1. At hyphenated line-ends, leave at least two characters behind and take at least three forward.
2.4.2. Avoid leaving the stub-end of a hyphenated word, or any word shorter than four letters, as the last line of a paragraph.
2.4.3. Avoid more than three consecutive hyphenated lines.
2.4.4. Hyphenate proper names only as a last resort unless they occur with the frequency of common nouns.
2.4.5. Hyphenate according to the conventions of the language.
2.4.6. Link short numerical and mathematical expressions with hard spaces.
2.4.7. Avoid beginning more than two consecutive lines with the same word.
2.4.8. Never begin a page with the last line of a multi-line paragraph.
2.4.9. Balance facing pages by moving single lines.
2.4.10. Avoid hyphenated breaks where the text is interrupted.
2.4.11. Abandon any and all rules of hyphenation and pagination that fail to serve the needs of the text.

Rule 2.4.5 might be worth quoting in full:

In English we hyphenate cab-ri-o-let but in French ca-brio-let. The old German rule which hyphenated Glockenspiel as Glok-kenspiel was changed by law in 1998, but when össze is broken in Hungarian, it still tuns into ösz-sze. In Spanish the double consonants ll and rr are never divided. (The only permissible hyphenation in the phrase arroz con pollo is thus arroz con po-llo.) The conventions of each language are part of its typographic heritage and should normally be followed, even when setting single foreign words or brief quotations.

Can a computer hyphenate texts? Sure: if these rules can be made comprehensible to a computer, it can sensibly hyphenate a text. Donald Knuth's TeX typesetting program, for example, contains hyphenation dictionaries: lists of words in which the various points at which they can be hyphenated are marked. Hyphenation points are arranged by "badness": it's worse to use hy-phenation than hyphen-ation, for example, but it would be even worse not to break the word and leave a gap of white space in the line. The TeX engine tries to find the least bad way to set a line; it usually does a reasonable job. Not all hyphenation is equal, however: Adobe InDesign, for example, will do a much better job of hyphenating a paragraph than Microsoft Word will.

And: as rule 2.4.5 suggests, if a computer is going to hyphenate something, it needs to know what language the text is in. This is a job for metadata: electronic books could have an indicator of what language they're in, and the reader application could hyphenate automatically. But that won't always help: in the text on the Kindle screen, for example, der Depperte isn't English and wouldn't be recognized as such. A human compositor could catch that; a computer wouldn't guess, and would have to default to not breaking it. The same problem will happen with proper names.

There aren't really easy solutions for this problem. A smarter ebook reading device (and smarter ebooks) might hyphenate automatically; if this were the case, the reader would need to rehyphenate whenever the user changed the font or the font size. (There are some possibilities in HTML, but they do require a lot of work on the part of the author or designer; some day this might work better.) It's not a problem with PDFs, of course, but PDFs don't allow reflowing text. There's no shame in using a ragged right margin; at least then one might not subject to Bringhurst's opprobrium towards to poorly justified in The Elements of Typographic Style:

A typewriter (or a computer-driven printer of similar quality) that justifies its lines in imitation of typesetting is a presumptuous machine, mimicking the outer form instead of the inner truth of typography.

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briefly noted: iphones & o'reilly Post date  02.19.2009, 4:31 PM

posted by dan visel

  • Ars Technica has a review of an interesting-sounding iPhone application called Papers, designed to make it easy to carry around a library of scientific papers on your iPhone. It works with a desktop app also called Papers; it also interfaces with various scientific search engines so you can download more papers on the go. It's not free, and it's not for everyone, but it's nice to see software that seems to understand that different kinds of reading need to be done differently.
  • Thematically related: Adam Hodgkin argues that dedicated e-book devices generally lack an awareness of the place of the network in the task of reading; this is more natural in things like the iPhone.
  • Jason Epstein's keynote from O'Reilly's Tools of Change conference is now online. There's not much in here that's particularly surprising to anyone who's been paying attention to the field for the past few years – the Espresso Book Machine is still his hope for the future of publishing.
  • And James Long, over at the digitalist has a wrap-up of Tools of Change.

  • Michael Cairns points out that the trouble with e-books is that publishers still think of them only as an electronic version of the print book.
  • Ted Nelson, who we mention here from time to time, has a new, self-published book out, entitled Geeks Bearing Gifts, which is his own deeply idiosyncratic take on the history of the computer and how we use them, starting from the invention of the alphabet and explaining exactly where things went wrong along the way. Ted Nelson, of course, is the inventor of hypertext among other things; I hope to have an interview with him up here soon.
  • And there's a new issue of Triple Canopy out; not all the content is up yet, but Ed Halter's piece on Jeff Krulik and public-access TV – something of a Youtube-before-Youtube and Bidisha Banerjee & George Collins's memoir/video game combo are worth inspection.

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briefly noted Post date  02.17.2009, 4:22 PM

posted by dan visel

  • In Mute, Tony D. Sampson reviews FLOSS+ART and Software Studies: A Lexicon, two books on software studies and digital art.
  • At the Poetry Foundation, Stephanie Strickland a manifesto for e-poetry, which nicely defines how e-poetry might differ from traditional poetry. Examples are provided, though most aren't very compelling.
  • Richard Kostelanetz, who has a long history in visual poetry, has some Flash-based e-poetry in Little Red Leaves. He's also part of a concert put on by the Electronic Music Foundation at Judson Church in New York on February 27.
  • The current issue of Episteme focuses on the "epistemology of mass collaboration"; Larry Sanger, formerly of Wikipedia and currently of Citizendium, has an article about Wikipedia and expertise, one of the chief causes of his falling out with Wikipedia.

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announcement: itin film on sunday Post date  02.17.2009, 1:41 PM

posted by dan visel

Alex Itin, the Institute's artist-in-residence, currently has a show up in Frost Space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. If you're around this Sunday afternoon, he's screening his films and giving an artist's talk. I'm not sure exactly what he'll be up to – Alex is nothing if not unpredictable – but it will certainly be interesting and entertaining.




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wikipedia before wikipedia Post date  02.11.2009, 4:50 PM

posted by dan visel

I've been reading Tom McArthur's Worlds of Reference: lexicography, learning and language from the clay tablet to the computer, a history of dictionaries, encyclopedias and reference materials published in 1986. The last section, titled "Tomorrow's World" is interesting in hindsight: having looked at the major shifts that have occurred in how cultures have used lexicography, McArthur is aware that things change in unimaginable ways. He shies away from making detailed predictions about how the computer will change the dictionary or the encyclopedia; but he does find an interesting model for how the collaborative creation of knowledge might work in the future. Because I haven't seen this mentioned online, I'll quote this at length:

. . . I am considering something much more radically interesting: turning students on occasion into once-in-a-lifetime Sam Johnsons and Noah Websters.

At least one remarkable precedent exists for this idea: a project undertaken between 1978 and 1982 on the lower East Side of New York City which produced a "Trictionary" without a single really-truly lexicographer being involved.

The Trictionary is a 400-page trilingual English/Spanish/Chinese wordbook, covering a base vocabulary of some 3,000 items per language. Much of the basic cost was covered by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the bulk of the work was done on the premises of the Chatham Square branch of the New York Public Library, on East Broadway. The librarian there, Virginia Swift, was glad to provide the accommodation, while the original idea was developed by Jane Shapiro, a teacher of English as a Second Language at Junior High School 65, helped through all the stages the work by Mary Scherbatoskoy of ARTS (Art Resources for Teachers and Students). They organized the work, but they were not the compilers as such.

The compilation was done, as The New Yorker reports (10 May 1982) "by the spare-time energy of some 150 young people from the neighborhood", aged between 10 and 15, two afternoons a week over three years. New York is the multilingual city par excellence, in which, as the report points out, "some of its citizens live in a kind of linguistic isolation, islanded in their languages". The Trictionary was an effort to do something about that kind of isolation and separateness. One method used in the project was getting together a group of youngsters variously skilled in English, Spanish and Chinese and "brainstorming" over, say, the word ANIMALS written on an otherwise empty blackboard. They would think of animals and considered how they were labelled in each language, putting their triples on the board and arguing about the legitimacy of particular terms. Another method was the review session, a more sophisticated activity where a stack of blue cards with English words on them was used to create equivalent stacks in pink for Spanish and yellow for Chinese. It was out of this kind of interactive effort that the Trictionary developed, until in its final form it had a blue section with English first, a second section that was yellow and Chinese, and a third section that was pink and Spanish. Each part had three columns per page, with each language appropriately presented. In all three sections, the material was punctuated here and there by line drawings done by the youngsters themselves.

Jane Shapiro told The New Yorker that when she first went to work in the area she had had no idea what the language situation was like. The neighbourhood is about 80% Chinese and 20% Spanish-speaking, and in class she had often found herself in the position of comparing all three languages. Out of that "small United Nations" came the idea for the book, because she had often wished for such a book, but of course no right-minded publisher had ever thought of that particular combination as commercially viable or academically interesting. Additionally, and damningly, Shapiro felt that what dictionaries were available "were either too stiff or out of date or written on a linguistic level far different from that of the students". In other words, because formal lexicography had nothing to offer, grass-roots lexicography had to serve instead.

As with Vaugelas, neighbourhood usage was the authority, and as work progressed the women and their charges actually kept away from published dictionaries so as to be sure that the words came from the youngsters themselves. Reality also prevailed, in that there is a fair quantity of legal and medical terms in the book. These were included because the children often served as interpreters between their elders and lawyers and doctors. Motivation was high, despite a shifting population of helpers, evidently because the children could see the practical utility of what they were doing. One youngster engaged in the work was Iris Chu, born in Venezuela of Chinese parents and brought to New York about five years earlier. She told The New Yorker that she made a lot of friends while working on the Trictionary (the opposite to what often happens to lexicographers), adding: "It's funny to see it as a book now – before, it was just something we did every week. I'm really sorry it's over. For us, it was a whole lot of fun."

It was also a prototype for a whole new kind of educational lexicography (with or without the additional advantage, where available, of electronic and other aids). The ancient Sumerians and the medieval Scholastics would have understood the general idea of the Trictionary very well, and Comenius would certainly have approved of it. I approve of it whole-heartedly because it simply broke the mould of conventional thinking. Additionally, we can see in the brain-storming sessions and the use of the cards the two modes of lexicography creatively at work side by side: themes and word relationships on one side, alphabetic order on the other. The women of the lower East Side certainly discovered a formula for getting the taxonomic urge working in ways that are just as spectacular as any instrument that beeps, blinks and hums.

(pp. 181–183.) There doesn't seem to be much trace of the Trictionary online; a cursory search finds the New Yorker article that McArthur refers to (behind their paywall). The New York Center for Urban Folk Culture seems to be selling copies for $5; their page for the project gives it a minimal description and has images of some of the pages.

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Using the back and forth of a wikipedia article to get closer to the truth Post date  02.06.2009, 7:43 AM

posted by bob stein

When Jaron Lanier disparaged the Wikipedia in his 2006 essay on "the hazards of the new online collectivism" I wrote an impassioned defense including our oft-mentioned point that the most interesting thing about wikipedia articles, especially controversial ones is not necessarily what's on the surface, but the back and forth underneath.

Jaron misunderstands the Wikipedia. In a traditional encyclopedia, experts write articles that are permanently encased in authoritative editions. The writing and editing goes on behind the scenes, effectively hiding the process that produces the published article. The standalone nature of print encyclopedias also means that any discussion about articles is essentially private and hidden from collective view. The Wikipedia is a quite different sort of publication, which frankly needs to be read in a new way. Jaron focuses on the "finished piece", ie. the latest version of a Wikipedia article. In fact what is most illuminative is the back-and-forth that occurs between a topic's many author/editors. I think there is a lot to be learned by studying the points of dissent; indeed the "truth" is likely to be found in the interstices, where different points of view collide. Network-authored works need to be read in a new way that allows one to focus on the process as well as the end product.

Recently a group of researchers at Palo Alto Research Center (formerly Xerox Parc) announced that they have created a prototype of a tool called "wikidashboard" which they hope will help reveal the back and forth beneath wiki articles in a way that will help readers get closer to the truth of a matter. in their own words:

"Because the information [the back and forth history of a wiikipedia artilcle] is out there for anyone to examine and to question, incorrect information can be fixed and two disputed points of view can be listed side-by-side. In fact, this is precisely the academic process for ascertaining the truth. Scholars publish papers so that theories can be put forth and debated, facts can be examined, and ideas challenged. Without publication and without social transparency of attribution of ideas and facts to individual researchers, there would be no scientific progress."

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judging a book by its contents Post date  02.05.2009, 2:34 PM

posted by dan visel

There's a post at the Harper Studio blog about Stephen King's recent denigration of Stephenie Meyer's talents as a writer. Meyer is, of course, the author of the Twilight books, a chaste vampire saga. The post asks:

Can a book be deemed "good" or "bad" based solely of the quality of its writing?

I haven't read the Twilight books so I can't weigh in on King's assessment. But it seems to me that Stephenie Meyer has activated something profound in people- mostly teenage girls - and the ability to do that may be as rare as the literary gifts of a writer like... Stephen King. Put another way: In terms of literary merit, Twilight may not be "good," but that doesn't mean it's not great.

I have not read these books, though people whose taste in writing I trust more than Stephen King's have assured me that the writing is abysmal. I have been repeatedly entertained by having what goes on in these books described to me; I have also seen the movie based upon the first of them, which I found quite thoroughly astonishing. From my perspective, it seems clear that these books are a Jesse Helms-level assault on American morality. It's tempting to pull out Theodor Adorno, bête noire of the blogosphere: should you need a fix, his miniature essay "Morality and Style", from Minima Moralia, will do the trick nicely.

But I'm interested not so much in Twilight's merit but in the attitude toward books that's on display in this post. Books can be many things, but by this argument they stand mostly as commodity: Twilight is culturally valuable not because of anything that it might be saying – or the method in which it's said – but because it's reached a lot of people. By this reductionist perspective, Twilight might as well be a movie or a videogame as a book. And I think it's this sort of thinking which is causing the downfall of publishing: for big publishers, a great book is simply one that sells a lot of copies. This is an attitude which makes sense to the people in charge of the numbers at a big publishing house, but I'm not sure that it plays so well with consumers. I can't imagine that anyone – beside their employees – would be particularly upset if Hachette (publishers of Twilight) goes under. If a book is just a vehicle for the consumer to get content as quickly as possible, another vehicle can easily be found.

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on john updike Post date  02.04.2009, 4:42 PM

posted by dan piepenbring

If:book certainly isn't an obvious venue for a John Updike remembrance. In 2006, his "The End of Authorship" vehemently misconstrued the ideals of digital publishing. At remix culture, he bristled; at collaborative reading, he balked; at the notion of books on screens, he cringed, seeking the refuge of his conventional library and its dusty tomes. In a single, hair-pullingly obtuse sentence, Updike pegged his era's headstrong mentality: "Books traditionally have edges."

At the time, if:book responded, to much less fanfare, with a scorched-earth rebuke in which Updike's entire oeuvre was reduced to "juvenilia," his brain purportedly "addled" by decades upon decades of "hero worship."

And yet.

Updike, who died last week at 76, came to me on the recommendation of my high school English teacher, shortly after I'd realized that reading was not an altogether painful pastime. I fawned over the glittery prose of his early fiction and promptly tackled the Rabbit tetralogy; soon enough, I was writing the requisite rip-off stories and mimicking his vow "to give the mundane its beautiful due." By now an unseemly number of Updike imitators have weaseled their way into print, but without his delicate touch, the mundane only yields the saccharine.

No detail was too minute for Updike -- he was at his best when he pursued the microcosmic, finding analogs for the Big Questions in the small ones. Atomically, his sentences were as expansive and accommodating as any I've read. At, Sven Birkerts eloquently elected him "the sentence guru; he showed me just what lyric accuracy a string of words could accomplish."

Lyric accuracy, indeed. Updike's brand of prose, however stylized, rarely sullied the acuity of his observations. The people and places that he conjured felt alive to me in a way that few had, prior to then. Those worlds were immediate. Puzzlingly, their immediacy materialized from the calm, considered measure of the prose. The perspective of an Updike piece is always enveloping. I'll outsource my thoughts again to Birkerts: "Harry Angstrom working the remains of a caramel from his molar is a straight shunt to the living human now."

Nowadays, I find those tribulations of suburbia moderately less gripping, but some of the passages I marveled over have retained their luster. Though it may be damning it with faint praise, I regard Updike's work as a kind of gateway drug. Certainly it whetted my appetite for capital-L Literature, for words that faced the thrum of contemporary life without further obfuscating it. What he generated in his finest work is the crackle of a full-fledged consciousness, a voice: the sentences have a cadence, the cadence has a tone, and the tone, somehow, becomes human.

His death is, in a sense, another nail in the coffin of a kind of literary vanguard. I can understand why this blog's readership might relish, openly or in private, the extinction of these writers, particularly given the old school's knee-jerk aversion to new methodologies and shifting boundaries. By 2006, as the sensationally-titled "The End of Authorship" attests, it seemed that Updike opposed progress in the humanities more than he furthered it. The voguish sentiment, for better or worse, was disdain for his belletristic ways.

Still, I'm saddened by his passing. Updike and his ilk presided over fiction when more Americans read it, debated it, engaged with it. He took his writing seriously, yes, without proffering it as panacean. By the time I picked him up, to be sure, his heyday had come and gone. Legend has it, though, that the phrase "man of letters" was in those days uttered without an ironic smirk, and that one could reasonably endeavor to devote his or her life to words without appearing highfalutin or deranged. Writers could even expect to see their work in mass-market paperback editions. Imagine that.

I hope that, through the very transformation that Updike disparaged, literature in any and all forms will see an era of renewed relevance, and soon. Even he, after all, regarded books as "an encounter, in silence, of two minds." There's plenty to cavil about, sure -- the degree of silence, the number of minds, the mode of the encounter -- but at an elemental level, his assessment rings true to me. To millions of readers, Updike demonstrated the solicitous vitality of that truth, of those encounters. He will be missed.

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a defense of the webcomics business model Post date  02.02.2009, 10:06 AM

posted by bob stein

Syndicated comics artists who are seeing their livelihood disappear as the newspapers their work appears in shrink from sight, are starting to look with more interest at the world of online webcomics. Unfortunately, they seem to misunderstand what they see or are just too quick to disapprove. Jeph Jaques, one of the early webcomic pioneers posted a wonderful description and defense of the webcomic business model. Read it here.

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