Faint Indications of Intelligent Life

PG has one piece of advice – don’t develop pneumonia. He has discovered no discernible benefits from the experience.

Yes, you do pack 14 years of normal coughing into a few days, but despite this high-intensity training, PG is no better at coughing than he was at the outset of his illness.

He has lost a lot of weight in a short period of time, but since it’s coughing weight, he’ll undoubtedly start putting it back on since he’s coughing less now.

PG isn’t quite ready to ramp up the well-oiled machine that is The Passive Voice yet, but (cough) he can at least (cough) imagine the possibility. (cough, cough, cough . . .)

I once choked on a chip at a friend’s birthday when I was seven and had to be sent home, as I’d broken my collarbone coughing.

Stella Young

Yikes

PG is sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings and promises they will soon stop appearing here.

Two days ago, PG was diagnosed with pneumonia. He’s on appropriate medications and not in the hospital, but this illness is draining almost all energy from his body and mind.

He’ll be back soon, maybe with some insights into coughing. His coughing/speaking minutes ratio the past couple of days has been about 900/1.

UPDATE: PG is supposed to be the guy  who helps other people with their problems, not the one who needs help from other people.

He pretty much learned that from his father, who was an exemplar of service to all and died at the age of 82 immediately after shoveling snow from the sidewalk of his church.

That’s why he’s more conflicted than he would be otherwise.

When All of Your Family Heirlooms are Stories

From The Literary Hub:

There were six of us cleaning out my grandmother’s apartment after she died—all women, all related, and each with a different relationship to her. We sat on the floor of her cramped one-bedroom apartment, light streaming through the windows and illuminating the dust that scattered from the covers of the books I had stacked to give away.

My grandmother hadn’t really left a will, just her wishes that her things be divided up fairly—a difficult metric to go by, as her idea of fair was always subjective, aligned with whomever was in her favor at the time. My own relationship with her was a complicated one, hindered, as I got older, by the knowledge of her shortcomings as a parent to my beloved mother. I sat among clothes bought on sale, sometimes in duplicates, the tags not yet removed, pieces of fine furniture that had travelled across continents, art books that had been read hundreds of times, and a large tin of jewelry containing the few items that she had not sold. I reached in and pulled out a hand-painted, green wooden box and a pair of silver and freshwater pearl earrings, my heartbeat accelerating at my discovery.

“Oh, I loved those,” said my cousin, “Gran used to wear them all the time. Can I have them?” She reached over to admire them, holding them up to her face to see how they looked.

“They look great on you,” my aunt said.

“You should keep them,” my other cousin suggested.

“No,” I said, surprising everyone. “Please. I gave them to her. I want them.”

It was the only thing that I had asked for all day, my voice lost to the grief of having so many questions that I would never be able to ask her.

“Of course,” my cousin answered, gently passing them back to me. “I didn’t know.”

I was surprised and moved to see that my grandmother had taken such good care of the gift I’d purchased in Florence on a school trip ten years earlier. She had loved that city, and my experience of it was colored by her stories of the beauty of the land and its people. I had found the earrings and little box at a flea market and carefully transported them back in my purse. Green is a color I never wear, and yet, the two things that I hold dear from my grandmother—the jewelry box and the last card she gave me—are both this color. The color of the trees that flanked our weekly walks, the color of the money that drove so many of her motives, and the color of envy—a vice of which I was often guilty, jealous of my younger cousin’s seemingly carefree relationship with her.

Some families have many heirlooms, things that are passed down from generation to generation, but not mine. We have stories. Stories that my grandmother would share with me on our weekly Thursday visits together. It was the one day of the week that I would have her all to myself, giving me a glimpse into her strange and wonderful adult world, a world that she did nothing to alter to meet the needs of a child.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Speaking of Florence, here’s a photo PG took few years ago. He was standing on the Ponte Vecchio, a bridge over the Arno River in the heart of Florence. The Ponte Vecchio is more than just a bridge, small shops selling gold jewelry line each side and, in most cases, are cantilevered out over the river in ways that might not satisfy 21st century building codes. Click for a larger version that looks much more like the original.

 

The Wartime Spies Who Used Knitting as an Espionage Tool

From Atlas Obscura:

During World War I, A grandmother in Belgium knitted at her window, watching the passing trains. As one train chugged by, she made a bumpy stitch in the fabric with her two needles. Another passed, and she dropped a stitch from the fabric, making an intentional hole. Later, she would risk her life by handing the fabric to a soldier—a fellow spy in the Belgian resistance, working to defeat the occupying German force.

Whether women knitted codes into fabric or used stereotypes of knitting women as a cover, there’s a history between knitting and espionage. “Spies have been known to work code messages into knitting, embroidery, hooked rugs, etc,” according to the 1942 book A Guide to Codes and Signals. During wartime, where there were knitters, there were often spies; a pair of eyes, watching between the click of two needles.

When knitters used knitting to encode messages, the message was a form of steganography, a way to hide a message physically (which includes, for example, hiding morse code somewhere on a postcard, or digitally disguising one image within another). If the message must be low-tech, knitting is great for this; every knitted garment is made of different combinations of just two stitches: a knit stitch, which is smooth and looks like a “v”, and a purl stitch, which looks like a horizontal line or a little bump. By making a specific combination of knits and purls in a predetermined pattern, spies could pass on a custom piece of fabric and read the secret message, buried in the innocent warmth of a scarf or hat.

Link to the rest at Atlas Obscura

The Difficulty of Being a Writer in Prison

From The Literary Hub:

 As I write this piece, March Madness is taking place. It is 7 am and my fellow prisoners are gathered in the dayroom of the Cayuga Correctional Facility around a flatscreen TV, reliving last night’s basketball game. The final score was tallied eight hours ago, but the men are still fighting for points and disputing calls. Last night, a battle took place on the basketball court and in the dayroom. Men cheered, jeered, shouted and cursed.

Because it was still too dark in the dorm room to write—on the weekends, the lights don’t come on until 2 pm—I chose the dayroom, a raucous romper room of men watching sports, arguing and playing dominoes by slamming the plastic tiles down onto a Formica table. Here, even chess is a trash-talking contact sport.

Prisons are not set up to inspire writers; I have few choices of where to put down my piece of paper and write. That’s the whole idea of prison rehabilitation—limit the choices and temptations that daily life offers, and hopefully, men will learn to make the right decisions. But the reality is that many of us simply find a way to get what we want. Prison makes us smarter criminals.

Medium-security prisons offer many advantages over maximum-security prisons, but privacy, quiet and solitude are not among them. Sixty men are housed in a dorm at Cayuga, and for my first two months there, I had no desk or chair. My five neighbors were 30 inches from my face. I was in a double-bunk cubicle with two steel bunk beds, two metal lockers and 24 inches of “free” space. My bunkie had to leave the cubicle every time I sat on the bed.

Eventually, I was assigned a single cubicle, which offers a steel bed with an ultrathin “mattress,” a chair and two small lockers. It is delineated by four-foot-high metal partitions, the kind normally used to form bathroom stalls. Sometimes I write in the cubicle now, on top of my locker, in the shadows, as men snore through their ESPN hangovers. From a distance, I listen to the dayroom dialogue—the phrasing, expressions, prison slang—and catch myself repeating sentences out loud to remember them, to practice their sounds.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Crime After Crime

From Publishers Weekly:

There were skeptics when “I Heard You Paint Houses” (Steerforth Press), Charles Brandt’s book about mob hit man Frank “The Irish” Sheeran, came out in 2004 with Sheeran’s claim he pulled the trigger on teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa. Two years later, when mafia honcho Billy D’Elia turned state’s evidence, the FBI asked him what happened to Hoffa. He told them to read Brandt’s book.

But wait, there’s more. Brandt held back information from that first edition because he feared for his life. He says, “I purposely left out people’s names—I didn’t even mention their names in passing—because they were difficult. When you’re dealing with people where murder is part of their arsenal, you don’t mess with them.”

. . . .

 Now that those folks are no longer alive (or in the case of D’Elia, no longer a threat), Brandt included more information in an updated version of “I Heard You Paint Houses” published last June in anticipation of the movie, shooting this summer, based on the book.

. . . .

 How did Brandt, a former homicide prosecutor and chief deputy attorney general of Delaware, get Sheeran to confess to not only the Hoffa murder but others as well? The FBI had put Sheeran in prison for labor law violations. Brandt explains, “They gave him 32 years of jail sentences. I got this call from the Philly mob. Frank was about 70. He had health issues and was in a wheelchair in jail. Would I get him out on an early medical release? It was pretty easy. I took him before the parole board and pleaded his case with his medical records and got him out.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

A Most Successful Failure

From The Wall Street Journal:

 ‘The true paradises,’ wrote Proust, “are the paradises that we have lost.” F. Scott Fitzgerald would have enthusiastically seconded the motion. In his short life (1896-1940), Fitzgerald had come rather to specialize in lost paradises. His first novel, published when he was 23, was “This Side of Paradise.” The first major biography of Fitzgerald, written by Arthur Mizener, was titled “The Far Side of Paradise.” Now David S. Brown, a historian by training and trade, has written “Paradise Lost,” an excellent study of Fitzgerald that summarizes past scholarship on the novelist and sets out the argument that, in his fiction, he was both a moralist and a social critic working the same vein as Thorstein Veblen, Randolph Bourne and H.L. Mencken —that he was, in other words, a chronicler of the depredations of capitalism gone haywire on American life. Mr. Brown argues that Fitzgerald also joined “Freud, Conrad, Adams, Spengler, [Frederick Jackson] Turner, and Eliot in trying to make sense of the modern age.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald is perhaps best known as the chief representative, if not the leading exemplar, of the Jazz Age, that period in American life between the end of World War I and the onset of the Depression in 1929. The tendency has been to think of him as a romantic, a bit of a snob, and a boozer. He was all three, of course, but he was also much more—a vastly talented writer with a gift for imbuing what he wrote with a charm that, when he was at his best, seemed quite magical. His specialty was endowing the wishes and dreams of his characters with an aura of poetry.

. . . .

Fitzgerald wrote about his own youthful triumph with his novel “This Side of Paradise” (1920) and about what a mixed blessing it was. “The compensation of a very early success is a conviction that life is a romantic matter,” he noted in “The Crack-Up” (1936), adding that in his case early success meant “the fulfilled future and the wistful past were mingled in a single gorgeous moment—when life was literally a dream.” Whatever its joys, an early success does not supply the best training for the harder days ahead in later life.

As for winning the Southern belle, Zelda Sayre, of Montgomery, Ala., she agreed to marry Fitzgerald only if he could make money from his writing; after his first novel was accepted and proved a commercial success, they married. A writer with more than a proclivity for dissipation and a strong case of Irish flu (also known as alcoholism), Fitzgerald could not have found a worse partner than Zelda. She suffered her first breakdown in 1930 and, though thought neurasthenic, was evidently what is now labeled bipolar.

Mr. Brown devotes several judicious pages to the toll that the Fitzgerald marriage, with its infidelities and rivalrousness, took on both parties. “What is our marriage anyway?” Zelda wrote to Scott. “It has been nothing but a long battle ever since I can remember.” Fitzgerald told a friend that “I don’t know whether Zelda and I are real or whether we are characters in one of my novels.” Poor Zelda, in and out of sanitariums, lived on eight years after her husband, only to die of asphyxiation in a fire.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

Blog Probs

PG is having a little difficulty with the blog, so posting today may be a bit later than usual.

UPDATE: Another win for HostingMatters tech support.

Seven minutes after PG started a help desk ticket about blog problems (and after TPV woke back up) , he received an email from Annette politely reminding him that he had previously been informed of updates happening this weekend and that the server where TPV lives had just been rebooted.

Newspaper circulation at 77-year low

From The Washington Examiner:

Circulation of daily newspapers has dropped to a 77-year low, signaling an end to print and a shift to all-digital delivery, according to a new industry review.

The Pew Research Center said that circulation has reached a new low of 34.6 million, six million less than papers sold in 1940.

. . . .

The estimated total U.S. daily newspaper circulation (print and digital combined) in 2016 was 35 million for weekday and 38 million for Sunday, both of which fell 8% over the previous year. Declines were highest in print circulation: Weekday print circulation decreased 10% and Sunday circulation decreased 9%.

Link to the rest at The Washington Examiner

But readers will always prefer their books on paper.

What Frank Deford Meant to Sportswriting

From The Ringer:

No one ever described Frank Deford as modest. He wrote sentences and tucked handkerchiefs into his lapel pockets with the aim of getting attention. But as he gazed over his career, Deford, who died Sunday, understood the particular legacy he had carved out. He would be seen more as a great sportswriter rather than a great writer, full stop.

Deford thought out loud about this (again, no one accused him of modesty). And he decided — though he was more talented than many writers who pass through the gates of The New Yorker — that he was more or less comfortable with the slur. So a sportswriter Deford remained, and a sportswriter he always will be. One of his collections was called The World’s Tallest Midget.

The first thing to know about Deford is that he came from Baltimore — or, more precisely, escaped from Baltimore, like John Waters and James Wolcott would after him. “At Princeton, Deford was expelled for a year after being caught with a woman in his dormitory,” Michael MacCambridge reported in his history of Sports Illustrated. When Deford went for a postgrad interview at Time Inc., he denounced Henry Luce’s mothership: “Time is group journalism.” He wanted a real byline at SI.

. . . .

The first thing Deford did for Sports Illustrated was inform the magazine of the existence of basketball, which was still in the sub-basement of American sports. He pitched a profile of Bill Bradley — Bradley had been a freshman at Princeton when Deford was a senior. Deford noted in his memoir that no one at SI had heard of Bradley. The piece got his ticket punched. “Why, I was as much a prodigy in my line as Bradley was in his,” Deford wrote.

. . . .

Deford’s prose style was inviting, easygoing, never seeming to try too hard. From “The Toughest Coach There Ever Was” (1984):

Robert Victor Sullivan, whom you’ve surely never heard of, was the toughest coach of them all. He was so tough he had to have two tough nicknames, Bull and Cyclone, and his name was usually recorded this way: coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan or coach Bob (Bull) (Cyclone) Sullivan. Also, at times he was known as Big Bob or Shotgun. He was the most unique of men, and yet he remains utterly representative of a time that has vanished, from the gridiron and from these United States.

Link to the rest at The Ringer

Revirescence

From The Oxford English Dictionary:

revirescence, n.

. . . .

The action, quality, or fact of growing fresh or new again; return to a youthful or flourishing condition; an instance of this.

. . . .

1838 L. V. Vernon-Harcourt Doctr. Deluge i. 8 The Greeks expressed a strong opinion of the vitality and power of revirescence in the olive.

Link to the rest at The Oxford English Dictionary

The Pleasures of Pessimism

From The New York Review of Books:

Why do we read writers who are profoundly pessimistic? And what sense are we to make of their work in our ordinary, hopefully not uncheerful lives?

I am not speaking about the sort of pessimism concerned with the consequences of our electing this or that president, or failing to respond to world famine or global warming, but what in Italy came to be called il pessimismo cosmico. The term was coined in response to the work of the nineteenth-century poet and thinker Giacomo Leopardi, who at the ripe old age of twenty-one decided that “all is nothing, solid nothing” and he, in the midst of nothing, “nothing myself.” The only reasoned and lucid response to the human condition, Leopardi decided, was despair: hence all positive action and happiness must always have the quality of illusion.

This is existential pessimism of the most uncompromising kind. Who needs it? What could possibly be the attractions?

Toward the end of my graduate course in literary translation I introduce the students to Samuel Beckett, in particular Arsene’s speech in the novel Watt. Watt has just arrived at Mr. Knott’s house and since when one servant arrives another must depart, Arsene is leaving. Before he does so, he gives Watt the benefit of a lifetime’s disillusionment in a twenty-page monologue. This is the passage I offer my students:

Personally of course I regret everything. Not a word, not a deed, not a thought, not a need, not a grief, not a joy, not a girl, not a boy, not a doubt, not a trust, not a scorn, not a lust, not a hope, not a fear, not a smile, not a tear, not a name, not a face, no time, no place, that I do not regret, exceedingly. An ordure from beginning to end. And yet, when I sat for Fellowship, but for the boil on my bottom… The rest, an ordure. The Tuesday scowls, the Wednesday growls, the Thursday curses, the Friday howls, the Saturday snores, the Sunday yawns, the Monday morns, the Monday morns. The whacks, the moans, the cracks, the groans, the welts, the squeaks, the belts, the shrieks, the pricks, the prayers, the kicks, the tears, the skelps, and the yelps. And the poor old lousy old earth, my earth and my father’s and my mother’s and my father’s father’s and my mother’s mother’s and my father’s mother’s and my mother’s father’s, and my father’s mother’s father’s and my mother’s father’s mother’s and my father’s mother’s mother’s and my mother’s father’s father’s and my father’s father’s mother’s and my mother’s mother’s father’s and my father’s father’s father’s and my mother’s mother’s mother’s and other people’s fathers’ and mothers’ and fathers’ fathers’ and mothers’ mothers’ and fathers’ mothers’ and mothers’ fathers’ and fathers’ mothers’ fathers’ and mothers’ fathers’ mothers’ and fathers’ mothers’ mothers’ and mothers’ fathers’ fathers’ and fathers’ fathers’ mothers’ and mothers’ mothers’ father’s and fathers’ fathers’ fathers’ and mothers’ mothers’ mothers’. An excrement.

The students’ collective response is always the same, at first perplexity, faint smiles, frowns, widening eyes as the long list of “mother’s” and “father’s” begins, and finally a blend of giggles and incredulity: is “prof” really going to read that list to the end? So the passage becomes an exercise in showing how the most negative of visions can be smuggled into our minds without our hardly noticing, we are so distracted by the form. On my computer the autocorrect function of Word has underlined much of the passage in blue: “avoid repetition,” it suggests.

. . . .

Pessimistic essayists and philosophers may not cast the same narrative gloom as fiction writers, but the implications of their work tend toward the universal. Indeed, to believe that unhappiness was merely a question of immediate circumstance and particular character might be seen as a crass form of optimism. “Our chief grievance against knowledge is that it has not helped us to live,” observes Emil Cioran, dismissing the whole Enlightenment enterprise in a few dry words. Or again: “No one saves anyone; for we save only ourselves, and do so all the better if we disguise as convictions the misery we want to share, to lavish on others.” Or again, “Being busy means devoting oneself to the fake and the sham.” And: “Trees are massacred, houses go up—faces, faces everywhere. Man is spreading. Man is the cancer of the earth.”

. . . .

For essayists and philosophers, what we cannot forgive is, first, the suspicion that our writer has a personal axe to grind, and second, perhaps even worse, dullness, a lack of panache. The slightest feeling that facts are being manipulated in order to support a position in which, for some spoilsport reason, the author has a personal investment, is fatal. The reader, that is, must recognize that a genuine truth is being acknowledged. Beckett can get away with his long list of “father’s” and “mother’s” because it tells an undeniable truth: mine really is the same earth that all my ancestors walked, the same life all my forebears lived. And it is true, unavoidably, that as one goes backward in time so one’s forebears multiply—two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents, sixteen great-great grandparents—so that one’s own life becomes steadily less significant and could be construed as mere repetition.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

PG thinks optimism is a better way, but that’s only one guy’s opinion.

How the Owner of the Greatest Mystery Bookstore Pulled the Genre Out of the Muck

From Atlas Obscura:

The mystery genre is in a boom. Eight of the top 10 fiction books on the New York Times bestseller list are either straight-ahead mysteries—detective stories, murder mysteries, propulsive crime novels—or thrillers heavily indebted to or intertwined with the mystery genre. Prestige TV shows are heavily tilted in favor of mysteries; there are two currently-running Sherlock Holmes adaptations, but Top of the Lake, How to Get Away With Murder, Mr. Robot, The OA, Pretty Little Liars, Big Little Lies, Broadchurch, True Detective, and about a billion others are littering our screens, not to mention the true crime trend.

Mysteries have always been around and always been popular, but they haven’t always been respected. Otto Penzler has had a significant hand in that transformation. He’s probably the most important figure in the history of mystery fiction who’s never written a mystery story.

You get to Otto Penzler’s New York office through a door in the Mysterious Bookshop, the world’s oldest and biggest bookstore focusing on mystery, crime fiction, espionage, and thrillers. The door is roped off with a big X made of yellow police tape reading CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS. Down a flight of stairs, his office is a low-ceilinged basement cube with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on all four sides, stocked with anthologies and first editions as well as a random sampling of mass-market hardcovers and paperbacks. If his office was a store by itself, it would be the second-best mystery bookstore in the world.

Penzler is the owner of the Mysterious Bookshop (founded 1979) as well as The Mysterious Press, a publishing imprint he founded in 1975, and mysteriouspress.com, his ebook publisher. He has published most of the greats of mystery and crime fiction: Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, James Ellroy, Ross Thomas, Patricia Highsmith, Ross Macdonald, Ed McBain. Any of the major authors he hasn’t published are probably at least good friends of his. (In conversation, Robert B. Parker is “Bob” and Lawrence Block is “Larry.”) He has a trim white beard and a shock of white hair, and speaks with the confidence and enthusiasm of someone who works entirely too many hours for his age at a job he wouldn’t trade. He is not the least bit shy about criticizing authors he thinks are bad; he referred to both Thomas Pynchon and Isabel Allende as “dreadful!” in our conversation. “Otto is gentlemanly, courtly, and unfailingly gracious—but, when necessary, he can be strongly assertive,” writes author Joyce Carol Oates in an email. “I do have a story or two about Otto but don’t think it would be discreet to tell them….”

. . . .

Inside, every square inch of walls leading up to what must be 20-foot ceilings are packed with any book in which someone violently dies. There is an entire section for Sherlock Holmes books, including the many spinoffs written by dozens of authors. (The copyright on the character expired in 2014, meaning anyone can now write stories involving the characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle without paying a fee.) There are copies of long-defunct detective magazines like Black Mask. There is an entire section for what Penzler calls bibliomysteries—mystery books involving mysterious books. Murdered librarians, valuable manuscripts, that kind of thing.

Link to the rest at Atlas Obscura

How Fonts Are Fueling the Culture Wars

From BackChannel:

Typography is undergoing a public renaissance. Typography usually strives to be invisible, but recently it’s become a mark of sophistication for readers to notice it and have an opinion.

Suddenly, people outside of the design profession seem to care about its many intricacies. Usually, this awareness focuses on execution.

. . . .

 But by focusing on the smaller gaffes, we’re missing the big picture. Typography is much bigger than a “gotcha” moment for the visually challenged. Typography can silently influence: It can signify dangerous ideas, normalize dictatorships, and sever broken nations. In some cases it may be a matter of life and death. And it can do this as powerfully as the words it depicts.

. . . .

Why We’re Afraid of Blackletter

You’ve seen blackletter typography before. It’s dense, old-fashioned, and elaborate. It almost always feels like an anachronism. It looks like this:

.
But usually when you see it in popular culture, it looks more like this:

.

You probably know blackletter as the script of choice for bad guys, prison tattoos, and black metal album art—and you wouldn’t be wrong.

Blackletter looks esoteric and illegible now, but it started off as a normal pattern that people across Europe used every day for hundreds of years. It stayed that way until pretty recently. It reigned as the dominant typeface in the English-speaking world for several generations, and remains popular in parts of the Spanish-speaking world today.

Why don’t we use blackletter anymore? The answer is literally “Hitler.” Nazi leadership used Fraktur, an archetypal variety of blackletter, as their official typeface. They positioned it as a symbol of German national identity and denounced papers that printed with anything else.

Link to the rest at BackChannel

PG reminds new visitors that he doesn’t necessarily agree with everything he posts on The Passive Voice.

For example, the use of the Fractur typeface by any government office in Nazi Germany was abolished by decree in 1941. The reason given was that the typeface was Jewish.

Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium: A Forgotten Treasure at the Intersection of Science and Poetry

From Brain Pickings:

In an era when the scientific establishment barred and bolted its gates to women, botany allowed Victorian women to enter science through the permissible backdoor of art, most famously in Beatrix Potter’s scientific drawings of mushrooms and Margaret Gatty’s stunning illustrated classification of seaweed. Across the Atlantic, this art-science adventure in botany found an improbable yet impassioned practitioner in one of humanity’s most beloved and influential poets: Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886).

Long before she began writing poems, Dickinson undertook a rather different yet unexpectedly parallel art of contemplation and composition — the gathering, growing, classification, and pressing of flowers, which she saw as manifestations of the Muse not that dissimilar to poems. (More than a century later, Robert Penn Warren would articulate that common ground in his observation that “poetry, like science, draws not only those who make it but also those who understand and appreciate it.”)

. . . .

Dickinson started studying botany at the age of nine and assisting her mother at the garden at twelve, but it wasn’t until she began attending Mount Holyoke in her late teens — around the time the only authenticated daguerrotype of her was taken — that she began approaching her botanical zeal with scientific rigor.

Mary Lyon, the school’s founder and first principal, was an ardent botanist herself, trained by the famous educator and horticulturalist Dr. Edward Hitchcock. Although Lyon encouraged all her girls to collect, study, and preserve local flowers in herbaria, Dickinson’s herbarium — with which I first became enchanted at the Morgan Library’s fantastic Emily Dickinson exhibition — was a masterpiece of uncommon punctiliousness and poetic beauty: 424 flowers from the Amherst region, which Dickinson celebrated as “beautiful children of spring,” arranged with a remarkable sensitivity to scale and visual cadence across sixty-six pages in a large leather-bound album. Slim paper labels punctuate the specimens like enormous dashes inscribed with the names of the plants — sometimes colloquial, sometimes Linnaean — in Dickinson’s elegant handwriting.

Link to the rest at Brain Pickings

Google’s AI Invents Sounds Humans Have Never Heard Before

From Wired:

Jesse Engel is playing an instrument that’s somewhere between a clavichord and a Hammond organ—18th-century classical crossed with 20th-century rhythm and blues. Then he drags a marker across his laptop screen. Suddenly, the instrument is somewhere else between a clavichord and a Hammond. Before, it was, say, 15 percent clavichord. Now it’s closer to 75 percent. Then he drags the marker back and forth as quickly as he can, careening though all the sounds between these two very different instruments.

“This is not like playing the two at the same time,” says one of Engel’s colleagues, Cinjon Resnick, from across the room. And that’s worth saying. The machine and its software aren’t layering the sounds of a clavichord atop those of a Hammond. They’re producing entirely new sounds using the mathematical characteristics of the notes that emerge from the two. And they can do this with about a thousand different instruments—from violins to balafons—creating countless new sounds from those we already have, thanks to artificial intelligence.

. . . .

Engel and Resnick are part of Google Magenta—a small team of AI researchers inside the internet giant building computer systems that can make their own art—and this is their latest project. It’s called NSynth, and the team will publicly demonstrate the technology later this week at Moogfest, the annual art, music, and technology festival, held this year in Durham, North Carolina.

The idea is that NSynth, which Google first discussed in a blog post last month, will provide musicians with an entirely new range of tools for making music. Critic Marc Weidenbaum points out that the approach isn’t very far removed from what orchestral conductors have done for ages—“the blending of instruments is nothing new,” he says—but he also believes that Google’s technology could push this age-old practice into new places. “Artistically, it could yield some cool stuff, and because it’s Google, people will follow their lead,” he says.

. . . .

Magenta is part of Google Brain, the company’s central AI lab, where a small army of researchers are exploring the limits of neural networks and other forms of machine learning.

. . . .

NSynth begins with a massive database of sounds. Engel and team collected a wide range of notes from about a thousand different instruments and then fed them into a neural network. By analyzing the notes, the neural net—several layers of calculus run across a network of computer chips—learned the audible characteristics of each instrument. Then it created a mathematical “vector” for each one. Using these vectors, a machine can mimic the sound of each instrument—a Hammond organ or a clavichord, say—but it can also combine the sounds of the two.

In addition to the NSynth “slider” that Engel recently demonstrated at Google headquarters, the team has also built a two-dimensional interface that lets you explore the audible space between four different instruments at once. And the team is intent on taking the idea further still, exploring the boundaries of artistic creation. A second neural network, for instance, could learn new ways of mimicking and combining the sounds from all those instruments. AI could work in tandem with AI.

Link to the rest at Wired

What does this have to do with writing?

PG isn’t completely certain, but perhaps it might work as a writing prompt for a scifi novel.

Music of the spheres has long been an idea that the relationships of various stars, planets, moons, etc., created a form of music.

From Wikipedia:

An ancient philosophical concept that regards proportions in the movements of celestial bodies—the Sun, Moon, and planets—as a form of musica (the Medieval Latin term for music). This “music” is not usually thought to be literally audible, but a harmonic, mathematical or religious concept. The idea continued to appeal to thinkers about music until the end of the Renaissance, influencing scholars of many kinds, including humanists. Further scientific exploration has determined specific proportions in some orbital motion, described as orbital resonance.

Perhaps musica machina will become another form of relationship between machines and humans.

Or perhaps PG’s diet coke intake is out of sync with the universe today.

The Dangers of Reading in Bed

From The Atlantic:

Lord Walsingham’s servants found him in bed one morning in 1831, burnt to a crisp. According to a notice in The Spectator, “his remains [were] almost wholly destroyed, the hands and feet literally burnt to ashes, and the head and skeleton of the body alone remained presenting anything like an appearance of humanity.” His wife also suffered a tragic end: Jumping out of the window to escape the fire, she tumbled to her death.

The Family Monitor assigned Lord Walsingham a trendy death. He must have fallen asleep reading in bed, its editors concluded, a notorious practice that was practically synonymous with death-by-fire because it required candles. The incident became a cautionary tale. Readers were urged not to tempt God by sporting with “the most awful danger and calamity”—the flagrant vice of bringing a book to bed. Instead, they were instructed to close the day “in prayer, to be preserved from bodily danger and evil.” The editorial takes reading in bed for a moral failing, a common view of the period.

. . . .

Writings from the 18th and 19th centuries frequently dramatize the potentially horrifying consequences of reading in bed. Hannah Robertson’s 1791 memoir, Tale of Truth as well as of Sorrow, offers one example. It is a dramatic story of downward mobility, hinging on the unfortunate bedtime activities of a Norwegian visitor, who falls asleep with a book: “The curtains took fire, and the flames communicating with other parts of the furniture and buildings, a great share of our possessions were consumed.”

. . . .

In practice, reading in bed was probably less dangerous than public reproach suggested. Of the 29,069 fires recorded in London from 1833 to 1866, only 34 were attributed to reading in bed. Cats were responsible for an equal number of fire incidents.

. . . .

Until the 17th and 18th centuries, bringing a book to bed was a rare privilege reserved for those who knew how to read, had access to books, and had the means to be alone. The invention of the printing press transformed silent reading into a common practice—and a practice bound up with emerging conceptions of privacy. Solitary reading was so common by the 17th century, books were often stored in the bedroom instead of the parlor or the study.

Meanwhile, the bedroom was changing too. Sleeping became less sociable and more solitary. In the 16th and 17th centuries, even royals lacked the nighttime privacy contemporary sleepers take for granted. In the House of Tudor, a servant might sleep on a cot by the bed or slip under the covers with her queenly boss for warmth. By day, the bed was the center of courtly life. The monarchs designated a separate bedchamber for conducting royal business. In the morning, they would commute from their sleeping-rooms to another part of the castle, where they would climb into fancier, more lavish beds to receive visitors.

. . . .

People feared that solitary reading and sleeping fostered a private, fantasy life that would threaten the collective—especially among women. The solitary sleeper falls asleep at night absorbed in fantasies of another world, a place she only knows from books. During the day, the lure of imaginative fiction might draw a woman under the covers to read, compromising her social obligations.

The celebrated soprano Caterina Gabrielli was presumably reading one such novel when she neglected to attend a dinner party among Sicilian elites at home of the viceroy of Palermo, who had been intent on wooing her. A messenger sent to call on the absent singer found her in the bedroom, apparently so lost in her book, she’d forgotten all about the engagement. She apologized for her bad manners, but didn’t budge from bed.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

Kingly statue plunges sword into Tintagel’s Arthurian row

From The Guardian:

Perched above the Atlantic breakers, the imposing bronze statue of a regal figure clutching a sword and gazing back across the ruins of Tintagel castle and towards the Cornish mainland is certainly impressive.

“Brilliant, isn’t it?” said Matt Ward, the property manager of this most atmospheric spot. “I think the visitors are going to love it. Imagine it when a sea mist comes in. It will look amazing.”

Press Ward on who the statue represents, however, and he becomes a little more wary. Is it King Arthur? Is that sword Excalibur? “It’s up to you, it’s up to the visitors to decide. You can interpret it how you like.”

Ward is probably right to be careful. Earlier this year a row broke out over Tintagel, the legendary site of King Arthur’s conception, after its modern-day guardians, English Heritage, unveiled a carving of Merlin’s face in a rockface at the site.

There were howls of protest from Cornish nationalists and historians, who claimed English Heritage was guilty of the “Disneyfication” of Tintagel and ignoring its true Cornish history.

. . . .

Ashbee’s theory is that Tintagel was the summer seat of a dynasty that ruled the kingdom of Dumnonia, which stretched across Cornwall and Devon and into Somerset in the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries.

Ashbee says Tintagel should be about this sort of “real” history as well as Arthurian legend. “We’re trying to balance those two aspects,” he said. “We don’t accept English Heritage is simply glorifying the triumph of the Anglo-Saxons. But you cannot understand Tintagel without understanding how the legends shaped it.”

If English Heritage is simply trying to dig itself out of a row with Cornish nationalists, it would not be the first time storytelling and spin has been weaved around the site.

It was Geoffrey of Monmouth, that 12th-century arch-spin merchant, who launched the Arthurian bandwagon when he used the spectacular spot as a setting for his imagining of the conception of the king.

In his The History of the Kings of England, he described how Uther Pendragon, the King of Britain, fell in love with radiant Igraine, another man’s wife. She was hidden away in Tintagel, but Merlin provided Uther with a magic potion that made him the spitting image of Igraine’s husband. Uther got into Tintagel and Arthur was the product.

It was that tale, rather than any sensible, strategic reasoning that led to the romantic Richard, Earl of Cornwall, to site his medieval castle at windswept Tintagel in the 1230s.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

This story is about a year old, but was news for PG.

He hasn’t been to Tintagel for several years, but is sorry to hear that it has become highly commercialized. When PG and Mrs. PG visited, they were the only people there and it was a wonderful experience.

Here’s a link to some photos (not by PG) of Tintagel to give you a sense of the location.

Literary Tourism: Travel the World’s Book Towns

From BookRiot:

If you’ve ever heard the phrase “book town” and thought it was just a cutesy name for a place, then you’ll be pleased and/or surprised to hear that book towns are real, true destinations.

. . . .

A book town is defined, loosely, as a small town or village that is home to a large number of bookstores. The bookstores are primarily used and/or antiquarian, and many of these book towns play host to book lovers who travel to see them and experience a quaint world of book shops upon book shops. There are a few dozen designated book towns throughout the world, and some of them even host their own literary festivals, making a perfect reason for a trip or two.

. . . .

Hay-on-Wye, Wales

This might be one of the best-known book towns. It’s been featured around the internet and caught the attention of many a book lover on Tumblr. Hay-on-Wye is Wale’s national book town and plays host to the annual Hay Festival. This year’s Hay Festival — celebrating its thirtieth year — kicks off on May 27, and information about the event can be found here.

Fun fact: Jasper Fford, author of the “Thursday Next” series, is from Hay-on-Wye. Seems fitting!

. . . .

Stillwater, Minnesota

Did you know that the USA boasts its own book town? Located on the St. Croix River and an hour or so from the Twin Cities, Sillwater was America’s first official town to earn the distinction. Pictured above is the Loome Bookstore, which is one of five in town. Though there aren’t as many bookstores as some of the other book towns around the world, the focal point is the sheer number of antiquarian books available for sale.

. . . .

St. Martins, New Brunswick, Canada

With almost a dozen booksellers in this small, picturesque Canadian town, St Martins is a relative newcomer to the “book town” distinction, earning the title in 2007. St. Martins is a tiny town with just over 300 residents, so the proportion of books to people is pretty outstanding.

This isn’t Canada’s first or only book town. Sidney, British Columbia, also boasts the title, though the population and book ratio is a little different.

Link to the rest at BookRiot

The books every new graduate should read, according to a dozen business leaders

From Quartz:

New graduates may think they’re ready for the world, but even after all that learning, there’s still room in their heads for some wisdom. We asked a dozen business leaders—from CEOs of big companies and startups, to deans of leading business schools—what books they would put in the hands of a newly minted graduate. Here’s what they recommended:

The Boys in the Boat

Daniel James Brown’s account of an underdog rowing team beating the elite squads of the US and Europe on its way to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin is “a vivid description of grit, hustle and, perseverance,” said Mark Hoplamazian, CEO of Hyatt, the hotel company. “If you want to be part of a team, you have to be willing to give up some of your self.”

. . . .

Churchill

This 2001 biography of the UK prime minister, written by Roy Jenkins, is “a great tale of failure, perseverance, the importance of timing, and overcoming adversity,” said Peter Todd, dean of HEC, a top-ranked business school in Paris.

. . . .

1984 and The Weapons Shops of Isher

These two works of speculative fiction— the 1949 classic by George Orwell and an out-of-print 1951 novel by A.E. van Vogt—offer two visions of a dystopian future. “New graduates are charged with developing their relationships with society: family, co-workers, government,” said Jeff Jonas, CEO of SAGE Therapeutics, a biotechnology company. “While 1984 is embraced nowadays as being more prophetic, the Isher stories provide an alternative view of how one can deal with an oppressive government.”

Link to the rest at Quartz

On The Horror of Getting It Wrong In Print

From The Literary Hub:

“I love how you don’t care what anyone thinks about you—even your husband!” a young woman, calling herself a fan, wrote to me after I’d published an essay in the New York Times.

I laughed out loud. Not only has my husband read and edited just about everything I’ve ever published (he has been my first and best reader on everything since I was an alt-weekly intern in Texas, 16 years ago), but also I care about what everyone thinks.

Whenever I publish something—anything, anywhere—for a long time afterward I wake up at 3 am, thinking, “Wait, did I say 1988? But it had to be after 1990!”

One time, many years ago, when I was first writing for the New York Times, I heard from someone on the copy desk that in a theater review I’d gotten the director’s name wrong. I burst into tears. They said they’d run a correction. Then I pulled myself together and launched an investigation into how I’d made the egregious error. I learned that I’d been right in the first place, so the Times appended a correction to the correction.

“Have you ever heard the term ‘pure obsessive’?” a mental health professional once asked me.

“No, why?”

“Never mind,” she said.

I thought with my last book, St. Marks Is Dead, I had conquered my fear of errors by providing a flotilla of endnotes. I did roughly 250 interviews for the book and went back to a large percentage of those people with follow-up questions.

And yet, a few mistakes remained.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

PG says one of the many lovely things about ebooks and POD books is that errors can be almost instantly corrected.

When it rains . . .

PG discovered what may be a hack of one of his non-important accounts on a commercial website this morning (nothing to do with The Passive Voice). He has been scurrying around to batten down all his electronic hatches, change passwords, etc., etc. to make certain nothing spreads.

He is waiting for one response to make certain the last hatch is secure.

PG apologizes for falling behind with posts and will do some catching up in between bouts of paranoia.

Reading 100+ Books a Year to “Upgrade” Yourself is a Complete Waste of Time

From Medium:

There’s a new obsession with reading on the internet. I’m not sure I like it.

Everywhere I look, there seems to be a new speed reading hack, or someone preaching that the secret to success is how many books you can absorb.

Now, before I get into this, I’ll admit: most years, I probably do read north of a 100 books. That’s who I am. It’s something I prioritize, and it makes me feel connected. I like the idea of interacting with somebody else’s mind.

That said, I have no illusions as to why I do it. Reading is a trade-off activity, like everything else in life, and if I’m reading 100 books a year, I know that there are a whole bunch of other things that I could be doing that I’m not.

And even if speed reading was effective (beyond a certain point, it’s not) the practical return on investment of me reading that many books is not greater than the things I compromise on when I choose to spend my time doing so.

. . . .

Fundamentally, there are two reasons to read.

The first is to gain knowledge. It’s to increase the total information that we have available to understand the world. Reading for practicality falls into this area, and generally, seeing the world from new angles isn’t a bad thing.

The second is to expand our circle of empathy. It’s to feel what others have felt, it’s go to places we’ve never been, and sometimes, it’s to reinforce the things we, ourselves, are feeling. Reading for leisure is often the motivation.

. . . .

The world is complex. There is no doubt about that. But at the same time, there are a few simple ideas and mental models — maybe a total of 50 or so — that show up again and again to tell us a lot. These are the fundamentals.

Rather than reading 100+ books a year that re-frame the same concepts, it makes more sense to research and pick 10 absolutely great books that start with the fundamentals and that most of the other 90 books build off of.

Link to the rest at Medium

“It gets people killed”: Osip Mandelstam and the perils of writing poetry under Stalin

From New Statesman:

One of the most revealing photographs of Osip Mandelstam still in existence is a mugshot taken in the Lubyanka, on the occasion of his first arrest, in 1934. In the side-on view, it’s of little significance: he looks like any balding 1930s labourer from almost anywhere. Face on, though, arms folded and lips firmly pursed, he presents another proposition entirely. In this shot Mandelstam looks directly into the lens as though he is staring down the photographer. His eyes conceal any trace of the fear that must have been coursing through him; rather, his expression is the very manifestation of contempt. It is the face of a man who has never and will never let anyone, including himself, off the hook.

By the time of this first arrest, Mandelstam had already lived for several years with the knowledge that the long-term aim of the Soviet state machine was to take his life – the method and the timescale were all that remained to be revealed. “Only in Russia is poetry respected,” he is quoted as ­saying. “It gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?”

The truth of this statement had been borne out long before Russia arrived at the great Yezhov terror of 1937-38, which was to provide Mandelstam and so many others with their end. Anna Akhmatova’s former husband, the poet and founder of the Acmeist movement, Nikolai Gumilev, had been arrested by the Cheka, the secret police, framed for participating in a fictitious tsarist plot and summarily executed in 1921. Vladimir Mayakovsky, initially a vigorous supporter of Soviet ideology and evangelical in his profound personal admiration for Lenin, had fallen from grace and been driven, by a series of public accusations, to shoot himself in 1930. Later, in 1941, after years of torment at the hands of the state, including the execution of her husband and the imprisonment of her daughter, Marina Tsvetaeva hanged herself.

Nadezhda Mandelstam – the poet’s wife and invaluable support throughout his, and their, many years of persecution and exile – wrote in her powerful memoir of both the poet and the era, Hope Against Hope, about the many instances when, confronted with the desperation of their situation, they had asked each other if this was the moment when they, too, could no longer bear to go forward. The final occasion was to be the last night they spent in their Moscow apartment before being banished, without means of providing for themselves, to a succession of rural towns situated beyond a hundred-kilometre perimeter of all major cities. She awoke to find Mandelstam standing at the open window. “Isn’t it time?” he said. “Let’s do it while we’re still together.” “Not yet,” she replied. Mandelstam didn’t argue but she later reflected, “If we had been able to foresee all the alternatives, we would not have missed that last chance of a ‘normal’ death offered by the open window of our apartment in Furmanov Street.” Opting, in that moment, for a little more life changed nothing and Mandelstam soon found himself being moved inexorably towards Stalin’s endgame in the camps.

What has now been established – with as reasonable a degree of certainty as possible for a time in which wives, upon receiving official notification of their husband’s sentence to hard labour in the Gulag, were often casually informed that they were now free to remarry – is that in the Vtoraya Rechka transit camp, en route to Vladivostok in December 1938, Mandelstam, frail and worn out from his many years of oppression, malnourished, severely mentally unstable and without adequate protective clothing for the ferocious Siberian winter, succumbed possibly to typhus, probably to a heart attack. Nadezhda Mandelstam first discovered his death when a package of warm clothing she had sent was returned unopened, bearing the stark message: “The addressee is dead.”

. . . .

In line with most of the Russian intelligentsia, Mandelstam had been initially supportive of the ideals of the Bolsheviks and sought to embrace the spirit of revolution. He soon became disillusioned, however, by the increasing demands of the regime for poetry to serve the political and collective, rather than the personal and the human. The publication in 1922 of his collection Tristia, preoccupied as it was with love and the sanctity of the Word (a reverential phrase for the composition of poetry current at the time), only contributed to the antagonism between Mandelstam and his more pragmatic peers. Over time, the internal and ­external pressures created by the situation led him to lapse into a “poetic silence” similar to that experienced by Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak.

Link to the rest at New Statesman

The empathy machine

From Aeon:

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name Sherlock Holmes? It might be a deerstalker, a pipe or a violin, or shady crimes in the foggy streets of London. Chances are, it’s not his big, warm heart and his generous nature. In fact, you might think of him as a cold fish – the type of man who tells his best friend, who is busy falling in love, that it ‘is an emotional thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things’. Perhaps you might be influenced by recent adaptations that have gone so far as to call Holmes a ‘sociopath’.

Not the empathetic sort, surely? Or is he?

Let’s dwell for a moment on ‘Silver Blaze’ (1892), Arthur Conan Doyle’s story of the gallant racehorse who disappeared, and his trainer who was found dead, just days before a big race. The hapless police are stumped, and Sherlock Holmes is called in to save the day. And save the day he does – by putting himself in the position of both the dead trainer and the missing horse. Holmes speculates that the horse is ‘a very gregarious creature’. Surmising that, in the absence of its trainer, it would have been drawn to the nearest town, he finds horse tracks, and tells Watson which mental faculty led him there. ‘See the value of imagination… We imagined what might have happened, acted upon that supposition, and find ourselves justified.’

. . . .

Usually, when we think of empathy, it evokes feelings of warmth and comfort, of being intrinsically an emotional phenomenon. But perhaps our very idea of empathy is flawed. The worth of empathy might lie as much in the ‘value of imagination’ that Holmes employs as it does in the mere feeling of vicarious emotion. Perhaps that cold rationalist Sherlock Holmes can help us reconsider our preconceptions about what empathy is and what it does.

Though the scientific literature on empathy is complex, a recent review in Nature Neuroscience by a team of researchers from Harvard and Columbia including Jamil Zaki and Kevin Ochsner has distilled the phenomenon into three central stages. The first stage is ‘experience sharing’, or feeling someone else’s emotions as if they were your own – scared when they are scared, happy when they are happy, and so on. The second stage is ‘mentalising’, or consciously considering those states and their sources, and trying to work through understanding them. The final stage is ‘prosocial concern’, or being motivated to act – wanting, for example, to reach out to someone in pain. However, you don’t need all three to experience empathy. Instead, you can view these as three points on an empathetic continuum: first, you feel; then, you feel and you understand; and finally, you feel, understand, and are compelled to act on your understanding. It seems that the defining thing here is the feeling that accompanies all those stages.

. . . .

‘Sympathy’ is an idea with a deep history ­– in ancient Greek, sympatheia means, literally, ‘with suffering’ – but ‘empathy’ is a newcomer to popular use. The word was coined by the British cognitive psychologist Edward Titchener as late as 1909: ‘Not only do I see gravity and modesty and pride and courtesy and stateliness,’ he wrote, ‘but I feel or act them in the mind’s muscle. This is, I suppose, a simple case of empathy, if we may coin that term as a rendering of Einfühlung.’ To Titchener, empathy was a kind of ‘feeling into’ someone else’s emotional state.

. . . .

The basis of empathy is being able to see things from someone else’s point of view. Empathy lets us ‘walk a mile in another man’s shoes’, look at the world through the eyes of another, or any number of other now-clichéd phrases. But while that perspective-taking seems intimately tied to the emotion of the thing – you walk in someone’s shoes to feel their pain, look through their eyes to understand their feelings – it need not be. As recent research suggests, there are times when becoming too emotionally involved actually stifles our empathetic capacity.

. . . .

What would it look like if we were to imagine a personality that was deeply empathetic – and yet wholly unemotional? This person would be, I think, just like that emotionless paragon we invoked earlier: Sherlock Holmes, the world’s greatest fictional detective. Holmes is cold and logical. Holmes is detached. As he explains when Watson remarks on the attractiveness and saintliness of a certain young lady, ‘It is of the first importance not to allow your judgment to be biased by personal qualities.’ He explains the importance of leaving his own feelings out of his calculations: ‘A client is to me a mere unit, a factor in a problem. The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning. I assure you that the most winning woman I ever knew was hanged for poisoning three children for their insurance-money, and the most repellent man of my acquaintance is a philanthropist who has spent nearly a quarter of a million upon the London poor.’

Holmes, it seems, is a mere problem-solving machine, hardly human at all. But he is also a man of inordinate creativity of thought. He refuses to stop at facts as they appear to be. He plays out many possibilities, maps out various routes, lays out myriad alternative realities in order to light upon the correct one. His is the opposite of hard, linear, A-to-B reasoning.

Link to the rest at Aeon

Writers’ Union of Canada editorial sparks anger

From Globe2Go:

The Writers’ Union of Canada has issued an apology and the editor of its magazine has resigned after publishing an opinion piece titled “Winning the Appropriation Prize” in an issue devoted to Indigenous writing.

“I don’t believe in cultural appropriation,” began the editorial by Hal Niedzviecki in the spring issue of Write magazine. “In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities. I’d go so far as to say that there should even be an award for doing so – the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”

Some people were enraged, and the fallout was swift: TWUC issued an apology, a board member resigned, TWUC’s Equity Task Force issued a list of demands – and Mr. Niedzviecki left his position.

“I had no intention of offending anyone with the article,” Mr. Niedzviecki told The Globe and Mail Wednesday, after resigning that morning – his choice, he says.

“I absolutely understand why people are upset. I think that I was a little tone deaf, and I was failing to recognize how charged the term cultural appropriation is and how deeply painful acts of cultural appropriation have been to Indigenous people.”

. . . .

The TWUC Equity Task Force issued a statement, saying it was “angry and appalled” by the column, and shocked that it was approved by a TWUC editorial committee – saying it was an indication of structural racism, “brazen malice, or extreme negligence.” It issued a list of demands, including that the next three issues be turned over to Indigenous and other racialized editors and writers, affirmative action hiring for the next editor and future office staff and a future issue dedicated to bringing historical context to the issue.

Link to the rest at Globe2Go and thanks to Tudor for the tip.

A friend of PG’s was, long ago, the editor of an underground newspaper in Washington DC. Underground newspapers were part of the antiwar movement, cultural upheaval and general hellraising that went on during the Vietnam War period in the late sixties-mid seventies of the last century. Underground newspapers printed “news” and opinion that establishment papers were not printing. Such news was invariably inflammatory and reflected an alternate view of contemporary events.

PG and his friend were talking about the friend’s journalistic endeavors during this time and the friend commented, “Whenever we didn’t know how to respond to somebody (with differing views), we called them a nazi and they always froze up and freaked out. It worked every time.”

Name-calling is a propaganda and political control technique that certainly predates the 1960’s.

The name-calling technique links a person or idea, to a negative symbol. The propagandist employs this tool to persuade the audience to reject the person or idea on the basis of the associated negative symbol.

During the Inquisition, for example, successfully branding a political, business or social rival a heretic could make anything the person said or proposed completely unacceptable. Indeed, the only safe response to a heretic was to totally avoid him/her because of the likelihood that the heretic and his/her associates would be executed or otherwise severely punished. Galileo’s opponents branded him as a heretic for supporting heliocentrism in 1633 and his scientific discoveries became completely unacceptable thereafter.

Leon Trotsky, one of the heroes of the Russian revolution of 1917 and its brightest theoretician, was, for a period of time, second only to Lenin in the Soviet political hierarchy. After Lenin died, Trotsky contended with Stalin for leadership of the Communist party and the state. Trotsky lost that battle, was exiled and later assassinated. Trotskyism was anathema to Stalin’s continuing dictatorship. Branding anyone as a Trotskyite effectively removed that person from Soviet society and was often good for an extended visit to the Gulag.

During the 1960’s, Cultural Revolution in China utilized “counter-revolutionary revisionist” as a negative brand. Such a person would also invariably be guilty of practicing one of the “Four Olds” – old customs, culture, habits, and ideas. Once someone was categorized as revisionist, society could be certain that anything such a person said or did was tainted with the curse.

PG is not an expert on theories of cultural appropriation in either Canada or the United States, but much that he has read of this and other Social Justice activities currently being applied in various culture wars reminds him of the propaganda techniques described above.

Indeed, “Social Justice” has, for PG, a distinct Maoist/Stalinist ring to it.

 

 

Catching Up

PG has had some distracting stomach issues (nothing serious) the past couple of days and has been less than a paragon of regular posting on TPV. He’s catching up with posts a bit later than usual today.

Mrs. PG wanted to visit one of the PG offspring and her family after the difficult experiences of last week, which PG agreed was a wonderful idea. There is nothing like an active and very talkative four-year-old to claim the total focus of a grandparent.

PG and Mrs. PG will be on the road again tomorrow, heading back to Casa PG, so, tonight, PG will prepare some posts to appear tomorrow, creating the amazing illusion that he’s driving a car and blogging at the same time.

Fear not, the novel is not history

From The Bookseller:

This week the Telegraph newspaper laid a cloak of misery over the excellent UK book publishing results for 2016, concentrating of course on the negative element…(lordy, they talk of “the demise of fiction”).

In fact, the UK book industry delivered an amazingly healthy 7% increase in overall book sales (the best industry sales growth seen since 2007). Non-fiction grew by 9%. We also see the trend where e-books (Kindle books) have slowed in favour of a partial return to physical books. It’s becoming clear (in the USA too) that Kindles are liked by readers when reading books that will probably engross them once, as they read, but that they won’t return to again. And of course Kindles are so handy when travelling.

But the physical book makes sense when you might return to look at it again sometime in the future, a non-fiction subject or a literary novel say, and is, of course, the best choice for anything illustrated like cookery books etc. Plus the physical books we’ve read sit like old friends on our book shelves. Physical books matter to the publishing industry because they mean our author/publisher/agent “product” isn’t merely a file hidden within Amazon’s product. It gives the book a presence. Books give us bookshops and do something to curb the power of Amazon, the publishing Overlord. Note that Waterstones turned a small profit last year after years of losses.

The Telegraph points to the tough time being had by fiction (23% down in the past five years). That is a bad news trend; as an agent it can sometimes feel that there are as many aspirant writers of literary fiction as there are readers of new literary fiction. And yes that’s a phenomenon that everyone involved in writing needs to understand, especially authors. It’s a fact that potential readers, looking to be engrossed by storytelling, do have new choices (boxsets for me, gaming for others). And smartphones can end up owning our quiet times alone; where before a book made our best companion. But these trends don’t feel fatal at all. At an industry level they show we need the sales magic of a new writer to challenge JK Rowling’s massive historical revenue contribution to the industry (her new work, The Cursed Child is a play script and so, as far as the official statistics are concerned, is in a different category to fiction).

Link to the rest at The Bookseller and thanks to Nell and others for the tip.

What a safe and wonderful time we see ahead. The future will be the same as the present, but more so.

PG looks to a future time when a precocious child asks, “Mommy, what’s a bookshelf?” (Alternatively, “Mummy, .  . . .” if the child is English.)

Or, “Mommy, what’s a bookshelf and who are Bill Clinton and James Patterson?”

People Who Read Books are Nicer

From The Independent:

Want to become a better person? Then you might want to consider picking up a book because according to a new study, reading regularly could make you kinder and more empathetic.

After being quizzed on their preferences for books, TV and plays, 123 participants were tested on interpersonal skills including how much they considered other people’s feelings and whether they acted to help others.

The study, conducted by Kingston University in London, found that readers were more likely to act in a socially acceptable manner compared to those who preferred watching television.

Instead, TV lovers came across as less friendly and less understanding of others’ views.

But, no ordinary book will do because it turns out the type of literature you choose also has a huge impact on your emotional intelligence.

The study revealed that fiction fans showed more positive social behaviour while readers of drama and romance novels were found to be the most empathic.

Link to the rest at The Independent

The National Endowment for the Humanities Helped Save Literature in Tennessee

From Nashville Scene:

In 2009, on New Year’s Day, I got fired from my job as the book-page editor of the Nashville Scene. I was standing in line at Target when the paper’s editor-in-chief called my cell and got right to the point: “We’re canceling the book section,” he said. “I’m sorry, but I have to let you go.”

“OK,” I said.

“Happy New Year,” he said.

In the face of disappointment I’m normally a full-throated keener, so if I took this bad news better than I typically accept setbacks, it’s only because this bit of bad news didn’t come out of the blue. In fact, I’d been expecting the call for more than two years, ever since the Scene’s parent company at the time was bought by a rival syndicate — a company that had never covered books. When your job is to edit book reviews at a newspaper owned by a chain that doesn’t cover books, you don’t need to be John Grisham to know how the plot ends.

This is the tale of how Tennessee literature was saved from a fate closely resembling oblivion by an unlikely hero: the United States government. Specifically, it was saved by the tiny portion of the U.S. federal budget allocated to the National Endowment for the Humanities. More specifically, by the even tinier part of the federal budget that the NEH budget disburses to Humanities Tennessee, an independent affiliate of the national agency. The knight in shining armor who swooped in to save literature was Uncle Sam.

. . . .

But in Tennessee we can offer one perfectly transparent story of how writers are profoundly affected by federal funds disbursed through the NEH. It starts not with the cancellation of the Nashville Scene’s book page, but with the Great Recession. If you’re the editor of a newspaper whose advertising sales have dried up, you have no choice but to downsize and hope you can survive long enough with a skeletal staff for the economy to rebound.

I can guess what you’re thinking: It’s not like the book section of one newspaper in one town in one state of this vast country makes much of a difference in whether literature survives. This is the 21st century. If you’re looking for a new book to read, you go to Amazon, or Goodreads, or social media. Newspapers are so 20th century.

 Well, yes and no.

People outside the publishing world tend to assume that a book’s failure or success depends entirely on whether that book is any good. But people inside publishing understand that the very best book will sink like a stone to the bottom of the sea if readers don’t know it exists. And if you’re a debut author starting from zero — zero marketing budget, zero name recognition, zero famous writer friends — an online bookseller will not save you. Go ahead and upload your novel to Amazon, and let’s see how long it takes your friends to find it on their own. Don’t expect your mother to find it at all.

If you’re a debut author starting from zero, one thing you can do is give readings in 10 or 12 independent bookstores around the country and hope those readings inspire the local newspapers to give your book some ink. Especially for authors who are just starting out — or whose work is difficult or challenging or written for a niche audience — local bookstores and local newspapers can mean the difference between respectable sales and failure. An enthusiastic bookseller will push a good book into the hands of readers long after the author’s appearance is over, and a good newspaper review makes for a link even your mother can find.

But that do-it-yourself marketing strategy wasn’t an option in January 2009. By the time the Nashville Scene shut down its book page, the city’s daily paper, The Tennessean, had already stopped running book reviews. Across Tennessee, newspapers had fired their literary editors and shuttered their book pages. If a newspaper continued to cover books at all, it relied on short pieces taken from a wire service — reviews of books by established authors who had nothing to do with Tennessee.

. . . .

 With bookstores closing and newspapers killing their book pages, the staff at Humanities Tennessee had a brainstorm. What about starting a daily online publication to highlight new books by Tennessee authors in the same way bookstore shelves and local newspapers once had? A Tennessee-based New York Times Book Review for books that The New York Times Book Review wouldn’t touch?

. . . .

The publication Humanities Tennessee dreamed up is called Chapter 16: A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby. (The name is a reference to Tennessee’s history as the 16th state to join the union.) They built the site in-house by reading a book called Drupal for Dummies, and they hired me to run it. The reviewers who’d lost their gigs when newspapers killed their book pages got back to reading and writing, and in October 2009, on the first day of the Southern Festival of Books — in what later turned out to be the very worst quarter of the Great Recession — Chapter 16 went live for the first time.

The site offers book reviews and author interviews; excerpts from forthcoming books; original poems and essays; features on literary events around the state; and news about Tennessee writers. And this content is paid for out of a significant freelance budget — at Chapter 16 we hire professional writers, and we pay them for their work. 

Link to the rest at Nashville Scene and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Changes – Part 2

Our son’s funeral was yesterday.

It was an uplifting experience for both Mrs. PG and PG. We are well and feeling a wonderful peace about our son.

Sincere thanks to all who took the time to share their condolences with us. We very much appreciated those and the comforting words of many others.

As you might imagine, our normal lives have been placed on hold for several days. We have a great many things to catch up on, but I hope to be able to start posting again later today.

Thank you again for your kind thoughts.

Changes

Our son died last night and it will be a few days before I get back to posting anything here.

Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria

From The Atlantic:

You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.

At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.

It was to be the realization of a long-held dream. “The universal library has been talked about for millennia,” Richard Ovenden, the head of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, has said. “It was possible to think in the Renaissance that you might be able to amass the whole of published knowledge in a single room or a single institution.” In the spring of 2011, it seemed we’d amassed it in a terminal small enough to fit on a desk.

“This is a watershed event and can serve as a catalyst for the reinvention of education, research, and intellectual life,” one eager observer wrote at the time.On March 22 of that year, however, the legal agreement that would have unlocked a century’s worth of books and peppered the country with access terminals to a universal library was rejected under Rule 23(e)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.When the library at Alexandria burned it was said to be an “international catastrophe.” When the most significant humanities project of our time was dismantled in court, the scholars, archivists, and librarians who’d had a hand in its undoing breathed a sigh of relief, for they believed, at the time, that they had narrowly averted disaster.

. . . .

Google’s secret effort to scan every book in the world, codenamed “Project Ocean,” began in earnest in 2002 when Larry Page and Marissa Mayer sat down in the office together with a 300-page book and a metronome. Page wanted to know how long it would take to scan more than a hundred-million books, so he started with one that was lying around. Using the metronome to keep a steady pace, he and Mayer paged through the book cover-to-cover. It took them 40 minutes.

Page had always wanted to digitize books. Way back in 1996, the student project that eventually became Google—a “crawler” that would ingest documents and rank them for relevance against a user’s query—was actually conceived as part of an effort “to develop the enabling technologies for a single, integrated and universal digital library.” The idea was that in the future, once all books were digitized, you’d be able to map the citations among them, see which books got cited the most, and use that data to give better search results to library patrons. But books still lived mostly on paper. Page and his research partner, Sergey Brin, developed their popularity-contest-by-citation idea using pages from the World Wide Web.
By 2002, it seemed to Page like the time might be ripe to come back to books. With that 40-minute number in mind, he approached the University of Michigan, his alma mater and a world leader in book scanning, to find out what the state of the art in mass digitization looked like. Michigan told Page that at the current pace, digitizing their entire collection—7 million volumes—was going to take about a thousand years. Page, who’d by now given the problem some thought, replied that he thought Google could do it in six.. . . .He offered the library a deal: You let us borrow all your books, he said, and we’ll scan them for you. You’ll end up with a digital copy of every volume in your collection, and Google will end up with access to one of the great untapped troves of data left in the world. Brin put Google’s lust for library books this way: “You have thousands of years of human knowledge, and probably the highest-quality knowledge is captured in books.” What if you could feed all the knowledge that’s locked up on paper to a search engine?

By 2004, Google had started scanning. In just over a decade, after making deals with Michigan, Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, the New York Public Library, and dozens of other library systems, the company, outpacing Page’s prediction, had scanned about 25 million books. It cost them an estimated $400 million. It was a feat not just of technology but of logistics.

. . . .

The stations—which didn’t so much scan as photograph books—had been custom-built by Google from the sheet metal up. Each one could digitize books at a rate of 1,000 pages per hour. The book would lie in a specially designed motorized cradle that would adjust to the spine, locking it in place. Above, there was an array of lights and at least $1,000 worth of optics, including four cameras, two pointed at each half of the book, and a range-finding LIDAR that overlaid a three-dimensional laser grid on the book’s surface to capture the curvature of the paper. The human operator would turn pages by hand—no machine could be as quick and gentle—and fire the cameras by pressing a foot pedal, as though playing at a strange piano.

What made the system so efficient is that it left so much of the work to software. Rather than make sure that each page was aligned perfectly, and flattened, before taking a photo, which was a major source of delays in traditional book-scanning systems, cruder images of curved pages were fed to de-warping algorithms, which used the LIDAR data along with some clever mathematics to artificially bend the text back into straight lines.

. . . .

In August 2010, Google put out a blog post announcing that there were 129,864,880 books in the world. The company said they were going to scan them all.

Of course, it didn’t quite turn out that way. This particular moonshot fell about a hundred-million books short of the moon. What happened was complicated but how it started was simple: Google did that thing where you ask for forgiveness rather than permission, and forgiveness was not forthcoming. Upon hearing that Google was taking millions of books out of libraries, scanning them, and returning them as if nothing had happened, authors and publishers filed suit against the company, alleging, as the authors put it simply in their initial complaint, “massive copyright infringement.”

. . . .

As Tim Wu pointed out in a 2003 law review article, what usually becomes of these battles—what happened with piano rolls, with records, with radio, and with cable—isn’t that copyright holders squash the new technology. Instead, they cut a deal and start making money from it. Often this takes the form of a “compulsory license” in which, for example, musicians are required to license their work to the piano-roll maker, but in exchange, the piano-roll maker has to pay a fixed fee, say two cents per song, for every roll they produce. Musicians get a new stream of income, and the public gets to hear their favorite songs on the player piano. “History has shown that time and market forces often provide equilibrium in balancing interests,” Wu writes.

But even if everyone typically ends up ahead, each new cycle starts with rightsholders fearful they’re being displaced by the new technology. When the VCR came out, film executives lashed out. “I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone,” Jack Valenti, then the president of the MPAA, testified before Congress. The major studios sued Sony, arguing that with the VCR, the company was trying to build an entire business on intellectual property theft. But Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc. became famous for its holding that as long as a copying device was capable of “substantial noninfringing uses”—like someone watching home movies—its makers couldn’t be held liable for copyright infringement.

The Sony case forced the movie industry to accept the existence of VCRs. Not long after, they began to see the device as an opportunity. “The VCR turned out to be one of the most lucrative inventions—for movie producers as well as hardware manufacturers—since movie projectors,” one commentator put it in 2000.
It only took a couple of years for the authors and publishers who sued Google to realize that there was enough middle ground to make everyone happy. This was especially true when you focused on the back catalog, on out-of-print works, instead of books still on store shelves. Once you made that distinction, it was possible to see the whole project in a different light. Maybe Google wasn’t plundering anyone’s work. Maybe they were giving it a new life. Google Books could turn out to be for out-of-print books what the VCR had been for movies out of the theater.If that was true, you wouldn’t actually want to stop Google from scanning out-of-print books—you’d want to encourage it. In fact, you’d want them to go beyond just showing snippets to actually selling those books as digital downloads.. . . .

Those who had been at the table crafting the agreement had expected some resistance, but not the “parade of horribles,” as Sarnoff described it, that they eventually saw. The objections came in many flavors, but they all started with the sense that the settlement was handing to Google, and Google alone, an awesome power. “Did we want the greatest library that would ever exist to be in the hands of one giant corporation, which could really charge almost anything it wanted for access to it?”, Robert Darnton, then president of Harvard’s library, has said.

Darnton had initially been supportive of Google’s scanning project, but the settlement made him wary. The scenario he and many others feared was that the same thing that had happened to the academic journal market would happen to the Google Books database. The price would be fair at first, but once libraries and universities became dependent on the subscription, the price would rise and rise until it began to rival the usurious rates that journals were charging, where for instance by 2011 a yearly subscription to the Journal of Comparative Neurology could cost as much as $25,910.Although academics and library enthusiasts like Darnton were thrilled by the prospect of opening up out-of-print books, they saw the settlement as a kind of deal with the devil. Yes, it would create the greatest library there’s ever been—but at the expense of creating perhaps the largest bookstore, too, run by what they saw as a powerful monopolist. In their view, there had to be a better way to unlock all those books. “Indeed, most elements of the GBS settlement would seem to be in the public interest, except for the fact that the settlement restricts the benefits of the deal to Google,” the Berkeley law professor Pamela Samuelson wrote.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic and thanks to Valerie for the tip.

Publishing Still Matters – But Who’ll Pay For It?

From HuffPost UK:

In 1761, a businessman opened shop in a modest address in London. Nobody noticed; after all, modest businesses open all the time. There’s no blue plaque on the site and most of us have never heard of him.

But we should. Because when Joseph Johnson – a publisher originally from Liverpool – opened his press for the first time, he was precipitating a publishing revolution whose echoes would sound down through the ages.

The late Enlightenment was a time that saw an unprecedented rise in literary output, most of it from what would now be considered small presses and home publishing. With the big-money and specialized industries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries still to emerge, a publisher might also be printer, book-seller, distributor, advertiser, agent and many other things beside (Johnson also sold patent medicine as a sideline). His concern for authors is almost unheard of today. As scholar Leslie Chard explains, Johnson not only fed and often housed his authors, but “served as banker, postal clerk and packager, literary agent and editor, social chairman, and psychiatrist.”

It was this nurturing that saw some of the most important publications of the Enlightenment see their day. Johnson would go on to publish Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Thomas Malthus, as well as feminist economist Priscilla Wakefield and religious dissenters such as Joseph Priestley; he would have also published Thomas Paine’s manuscript of Rights of Man were it not for government intervention.

So a single publisher ended up helping to bring about feminism, secularism, Malthusian economics, and one of the most important political earthquakes in history. And yet he did it all from a modest series of addresses, on a modest income, with often modest returns. He did it, in a manner of speaking, because he took the time to care about his authors.

Link to the rest at HuffPost UK and thanks to Dave for the tip.

 

Robert Pirsig dies at 88

From the Los Angeles Times:

In the nearly five years it took Robert Pirsig to sell “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” 121 publishers rejected the rambling novel.

The 122nd gently warned Pirsig, a former rhetoric professor who had a job writing technical manuals, not to expect more than his $3,000 advance.

“The book is not, as I think you now realize from your correspondence with other publishers, a marketing man’s dream,” the editor at William Morrow wrote in a congratulatory note before its 1974 publication.

He was wrong. “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values” sold 50,000 copies in three months and more than 5 million in the decades since. The dense tome has been translated into at least 27 languages. A reviewer for the New Yorker likened its author to Herman Melville. Its popularity made Pirsig “probably the most widely read philosopher alive,” a British journalist wrote in 2006.

Pirsig, a perfectionist who published only one major work after “Zen” but inspired college classes, academic conferences and a legion of “Pirsig pilgrims” who retrace the anguished, cross-country motorcycle trip at the heart of his novel, died Monday at his home in South Berwick, Maine, the Associated Press confirmed. He was 88 and had been in failing health.

“Zen” and Pirsig’s less successful 1991 novel, “Lila,” are not easy reads. In both, he develops what he calls the “Metaphysics of Quality,” a philosophy that attempts to unite and transcend the mysticism of the East and the reason of the West.

“Zen” is the account of a 1968 motorcycle trip that Pirsig, his 11-year-old son Chris and two friends made from Minneapolis through the West. A fifth traveler was sensed but unseen: Phaedrus, Pirsig’s alter ego, brilliant, uncompromising and obsessed with the search for truth. Like the real-life Pirsig, the ghost-like Phaedrus had an IQ of 170, entered a university at 15 and, as a young man, was committed to mental hospitals where he underwent electroconvulsive therapy.

“He was dead,” Pirsig’s narrator writes in “Zen.” “Destroyed by order of the court, enforced by the transmission of high-voltage alternating current through the lobes of his brain.”

Link to the rest at the Los Angeles Times and thanks to Joshua for the tip.

The Deep Space of Digital Reading

From Nautilus:

In A History of Reading, the Canadian novelist and essayist Alberto Manguel describes a remarkable transformation of human consciousness, which took place around the 10th century A.D.: the advent of silent reading. Human beings have been reading for thousands of years, but in antiquity, the normal thing was to read aloud. When Augustine (the future St. Augustine) went to see his teacher, Ambrose, in Milan, in 384 A.D., he was stunned to see him looking at a book and not saying anything. With the advent of silent reading, Manguel writes,

… the reader was at last able to establish an unrestricted relationship with the book and the words. The words no longer needed to occupy the time required to pronounce them. They could exist in interior space, rushing on or barely begun, fully deciphered or only half-said, while the reader’s thoughts inspected them at leisure, drawing new notions from them, allowing comparisons from memory or from other books left open for simultaneous perusal.

To read silently is to free your mind to reflect, to remember, to question and compare. The cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf calls this freedom “the secret gift of time to think”: When the reading brain becomes able to process written symbols automatically, the thinking brain, the I, has time to go beyond those symbols, to develop itself and the culture in which it lives.

. . . .

A thousand years later, critics fear that digital technology has put this gift in peril. The Internet’s flood of information, together with the distractions of social media, threaten to overwhelm the interior space of reading, stranding us in what the journalist Nicholas Carr has called “the shallows,” a frenzied flitting from one fact to the next. In Carr’s view, the “endless, mesmerizing buzz” of the Internet imperils our very being: “One of the greatest dangers we face,” he writes, “as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control over the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system, is … a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity.”

There’s no question that digital technology presents challenges to the reading brain, but, seen from a historical perspective, these look like differences of degree, rather than of kind. To the extent that digital reading represents something new, its potential cuts both ways. Done badly (which is to say, done cynically), the Internet reduces us to mindless clickers, racing numbly to the bottom of a bottomless feed; but done well, it has the potential to expand and augment the very contemplative space that we have prized in ourselves ever since we learned to read without moving our lips.

. . . .

The fear of technology is not new. In the fifth century B.C., Socrates worried that writing would weaken human memory, and stifle judgment.

Link to the rest at Nautilus and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

From History Extra:

1) How do we know when he was born?

It seems that England’s greatest poet first appeared on the world’s stage on the feast day of England’s patron saint: St George’s Day, Sunday 23 April 1564.

The parish register of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon records Shakespeare’s baptism on 26 April. According to the Book of Common Prayer, babies had to be baptised either on the next saint’s day after their birth or on the following Sunday. In baby Shakespeare’s case, the next saint’s day was St Mark’s Day, the stolen patron saint of Venice, just two days after his birth. However, Elizabethan folk superstition considered this day to be unlucky, so Shakespeare was baptised after morning or evening prayer on the following day.

For corroborative evidence that Shakespeare was born on 23 April we can look to his monument on the north chancel wall of Holy Trinity Church. This tells us that he died on 23 April 1616, aged 53 – that is at the beginning of his 53rd year. Hence the assumption that he was born and died on the same date.

Shakespeare’s baptismal entry tells us that he is “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakespeare”: William, the son of John Shakespeare. Only one person of that name lived in the town.

. . . .

2) Where did young Shakespeare learn to read and write?

From the ages of 8 to 15, William Shakespeare would have found himself at Stratford-upon-Avon’s grammar school, which had been established under Edward VI to offer a free education to all of the town’s boys.

Founded in 1553 and based on Humanist ideals, Tudor grammar schools were a key element of the government’s stated aim of ensuring that “good literature and discipline might be diffused and propagated throughout all parts of our kingdom, as wherein the best government and administration of affairs consists”.

These were establishments that took education very seriously indeed. Shakespeare would have gone to school six days a week throughout the year, starting at 6am in the summer and 7am in winter, and staying until dusk (though there were half days on Thursdays and Saturdays). The major Christian festivals provided the few annual holidays.

There was little respite, even in the playground, where the boys were expected to talk to each other in Latin. The emphasis of the whole educational enterprise, in light of the teachings of the 16th-century Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1469–1536), was on the development of eloquence in speech and writing. A key textbook was William Lily’s Short Introduction of Grammar (1540), through which Shakespeare became familiar with a vast range of rhetorical devices.

The curriculum was highly demanding. The pupils studied Terence, Virgil, Tully, Sallust, Palingenius, Mantuanus, Cicero, Susenbrotus, Erasmus, Quintilian, Horace, Juvenal and Ovid in their original Latin. The latter’s Metamorphoses seems to have been Shakespeare’s favourite book from his school days, and he alluded to it many times in his work. The only writing in Greek to feature on the syllabus was the New Testament. Shakespeare’s grammar-school education is writ large across the whole body of his work. Above all, it taught him eloquence. As an education it was rigorous but limited and did not, for example, include numeracy.

Link to the rest at History Extra and thanks to Lucy for the tip.

An Hour Renting Emily Dickinson’s Bedroom Where She Wrote Her Entire Life’s Work

From Pictorial:

“Sweet hours have perished here;
This is a mighty room”

You can visit the café in Edinburgh where J.K. Rowling supposedly sat penning Harry Potter, tour Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West, still crawling with cats, or see William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak, a Mississippi home flanked by cedar trees. But few writers have written their entire life’s work—nearly 1,800 poems, in Emily Dickinson’s case—in just one room.

For one hundred dollars an hour, you can rent the second-floor bedroom in Amherst, Massachusetts where Dickinson spent a huge portion of her life. The Dickinson Homestead on Main Street was purchased by the Parke family in 1916, and sold to the Trustees of Amherst College in 1965 (it quickly became open for public tours). After twentieth-century wallpaper and floorboards from Dickinson’s room were removed, clues to the original floor coverings and interior design during the Dickinsons’ occupancy were discovered.

In 2003, Amherst College acquired “The Evergreens,” a dwelling directly next-door to Emily’s house, once inhabited by her brother Austin. The buildings were merged to create the Emily Dickinson Museum. In further attempts at historical accuracy, the two-year restoration of Dickinson’s specific room was completed in 2015. Although the Museum has been visited by thousands every year—eager to peer inside the eminent poet’s room on the guided tour—this is the first time her chamber has actually been rentable.

Link to the rest at Jezebel

Creativity Makes You Seem More Attractive

From The Atlantic:

Dos Equis’s most Interesting Man in the World ran a marathon just because it was on his way, is both left- and right-handed, and is fluent in all the world’s languages, including three that he alone speaks. The character was, until recently, played by a 70-something, little-known actor named Jonathan Goldsmith, whose earlier claim to fame was selling waterless car-wash products. And yet he—or at least his persona—was undeniably enticing.

According to a new paper published in Royal Society Open Science, the appeal of average-looking Interesting Men, both real and fictional, might be all in their interestingness.

. . . .

[Study participants were shown photos of an attractive or less-attractive female face or an attractive or less-attractive male face]

Each image was paired with a short story based on the painting The Lovers by René Magritte. The stories were written such that they were either creative—“even if you are in a relationship with someone, perhaps you don’t know how this person really is”—or unoriginal—“It seems they have white cloth/pillowcases over their heads to blind them from their environment.” The participants were told the people in the photos wrote the stories, and then asked to judge how attractive they were.

Though the subjects always thought the physically more handsome men were more attractive, the more creative men seemed more attractive than the uncreative ones. But creativity did nothing to enhance the women’s attractiveness in the subjects’ eyes.

Next, a new group of study participants were shown similar photos alongside descriptions of things to do with a car tire—some of which were creative (making a Loch Ness Monster sculpture) and some of which weren’t (using it as a seat.) With the explanation that the people in the photos came up with the tire uses, participants were told to rate their attractiveness.

Again, creativity made the average-looking men, but not women, appear more seductive. The results showed creativity was more of a boon to the men with less-attractive faces.

Across the study’s three trials, just one showed any attractiveness benefit of creativity in women.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

For the record, Mrs. PG is quite creative and PG finds her very attractive.

My invisible career: how can we preserve our digital stories?

From The Bookseller:

Imagine you had a message for the future that you wanted to preserve for 5,000 years. Something important that had to survive generations, wars and any number of environmental catastrophes. A message perhaps like: “There was mixed weather this Easter”.  How would ensure that this message would last?

Floppy discs, CDs, tape are horribly obsolete already. Emailing it is unlikely to last more than a couple of years, not least because some companies automatically delete emails after 60 days. So that’s out. Maybe print it out onto paper? This might last a few decades depending on the chemicals in the printer and the quality of the paper – remember how faxes faded after minutes in the sun? Actually, the best way to preserve a message would be to revert to engraving into a hard material. Without a diamond-engraving factory, perhaps the best material would be stone. So after a bit of chiseling, the message is now etched deep in the hardest stone possible.

. . . .

Fast forward 5,000 years from now, and a passing Martian explorer trips on an exposed piece of stone, and finds the message. The alien deciphers it and scratches his head, thinking: “There must have been a nice temperate climate in Northern Chile populated by English speakers.” The message has been kept but the context renders it useless.

While 5,000 years is a supreme challenge, the rate at which digital technology is being superseded means that this problem exists well within a lifetime. Indeed I have recently been wondering how to keep working copies of the many interactive projects I have produced over the years: The laserdiscs that were in the Wellcome Trust lobby, the CDi interactive story, the floppy disc and CD-ROM Macromedia projects for Penguin. Even the Guardian website relaunches in the late nineties whose aesthetic impact is still felt today. As I look back on these projects, most of them are now offline with no record even on the Internet Archive’s Way Back Machine, and the CD-ROMs simply do not work, even if I could find a computer with a CD drive in the first place.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Why You Should Read Books You Hate

From The New York Times:

Here’s a reading challenge: Pick up a book you’re pretty sure you won’t like — the style is wrong, the taste not your own, the author bio unappealing. You might even take it one step further. Pick up a book you think you will hate, of a genre you’ve dismissed since high school, written by an author you’re inclined to avoid. Now read it to the last bitter page.

Sound like hell? You’re off to a good start.

This is not about reading a book you know is bad, a pleasure in its own right, like an exceptionally dashing villain. It’s about finding a book that affronts you, and staring it down to the last word.

At a time when people are siloed into narrow sources of information according to their particular tinted worldview — those they follow on Twitter, the evening shoutfest they choose, AM talk radio or NPR — it’s no surprise most of us also read books we’re inclined to favor. Reading is a pleasure and a time-consuming one. Why bother reading something you dislike?

But reading what you hate helps you refine what it is you value, whether it’s a style, a story line or an argument. Because books are long-form, they require more of the writer and the reader than a talk show or Facebook link. You can finish watching a movie in two hours and forget about it; not so a novel. Sticking it out for 300 pages means immersing yourself in another person’s world and discovering how it feels. That’s part of what makes books you despise so hard to dismiss. Rather than toss the book aside, turn to the next page and wrestle with its ideas. What about them makes you so uncomfortable?

. . . .

I’ve hated my way through many books, thinking, I will read you no matter how hard you make it. But as I go on, I often find that loathing is mixed with other emotions — fear, perverse attraction, even complicated strains of sympathy. This is, in part, what makes negative book reviews so compelling.

One of the most scathing reviews I’ve ever written was for this newspaper as a freelancer. The book I’d been assigned was a parenting book. I wanted to like the book. I agreed with much of the book. But the authors were too credulous of certain research, and in ways that served their thesis. As I put it in the review, the authors’ “penchant for describing psychological studies and research projects as if they were chemistry experiments, with phrases like ‘the test of scientific analysis’ and ‘the science of peer relations,’ conjure up the image of Thomas Dolby repeatedly exhorting ‘Science!’ ”

It came across as manipulative, and I felt betrayed both personally (I had written a parenting book and bristled at seeing the genre compromised) and on behalf of readers who might not have the background to parse the data. New parents are a susceptible lot — I know because I used to be one.

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Columbia Room Has a Cocktail Literally Made With Old Books

From the Washingtonian:

Columbia Room has played around with plenty of unusual ingredients, like fig leaf milk and potato water, in its cocktails. But “In Search of Time Past”—the third drink on its current tasting menu—is the most Portlandia yet.

That’s because it includes a tincture made of old books. Literally. Really literally.

Owner Derek Brown got the idea after visiting El Celler de Can Roca in Spain, where he encountered candied page fragments on the avant-garde tasting menu.

“He was morbidly fascinated by it,” says head bartender JP Fetherston. So, the team began working on a cocktail that would replicate the sensation of opening an old book or walking into an old library.

. . . .

To make the literary tincture, the bar staff collected a number of 100-year-old books. “I was trying to avoid getting anything too iconic. It probably would have been interesting to do Proust,” Fetherston says, but he felt conflicted about destroying a great piece of literature.

Link to the rest at the Washingtonian and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Old Books – Book Candle

From Frostbeard Studio via Etsy:

We love the smell of old books! But not the rotten, mildewy kind – the sweet, papery sort. This soft, comforting scent makes you want to curl up in your favorite reading chair and leaf through stacks of worn, well-loved stories. Vanilla overtones transform into a lovely, complex aroma when melted.

. . . .

Scents: Paper, Dust, Vanilla and a hint of Fresh Grass

. . . .

Link to the rest at Etsy where you can also find Trashy Romance Novel and Sexy Librarian scents and thanks to Elaine for the tip.

Love ‘The Hobbit’? You Can Now Buy Your Very Own Hobbit Home

From Travel+Leisure:

Want to live out your own fairytale in the tranquility of Montana’s secluded countryside?

Now you can: The Hobbit House, also known as The Shire of Montana, is up for sale.

The Hobbit House, which sits almost fully underground, is located on 20 acres of Montana hillside, where visitors will find several attractions from the house itself to hundreds of tiny fairy homes.

. . . .

Bordered by the Cabinet National Forest, the property offers magnificent views of Courage Peak and the Whitepine Creek Valley, and is across from Michaels’ 80-acre alpaca ranch and two-acre pond.

The 1,000-square-foot home was modeled after the hobbit houses described in “The Hobbit” and includes a monolithic-dome ceiling, handmade juniper furniture, two bedrooms, a full bath, a kitchen with granite countertops and intricate woodwork, a living room, a dining room, and an outdoor deck.

Link to the rest at Travel+Leisure

Musicians with Books As Good as Their Albums

From Medium:

It comes as no surprise that musicians and writers are of a similar breed. For artists of language mining emotion, penning songs and music is just a step away from poems, stories, and memoirs. Below we’ve rounded up our favorite books by musicians, so put on a record, crack open a book, and fall in love with these artists all over again.

. . . .

Leonard Cohen: Let Us Compare Mythologies, Beautiful Losers

Before becoming the legendary musical icon he is today, Leonard Cohen actually started out as a writer, publishing his first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, in 1956 while still an undergrad at McGill University. Beautiful Losers was the last novel he published before embarking on his music career. Filled with folklore and heartbreak, it wasn’t until much later in his career that the book won a cult following and recognition as one of the first postmodernist Canadian works.

. . . .

Nick Cave: The Death of Bunny Munro

Australian artist, musician and performance artist, Nick Cave is known for his dark aesthetic and pioneering influence of “gothic rock” in Australia’s post-punk scene. He’s even been called rock music’s “Prince of Darkness”. The Death of Bunny Munro, Cave’s second novel, earned him solid literary cred and follows in step with his musical influences of death, love, and violence as a sleazy salesman and his son take to the open road after his wife’s suicide.

Link to the rest at Medium

The Greatest Poetry Reading I’ve Ever Seen

From Literary Hub:

An invitation to represent England at the 100th Anniversary of the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway was scary enough. But to share a stage with the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko at the same time: absolutely terrifying. I remember Yevtushenko from the 1960s when I was a Columbia student. He was the pop star of the intelligentsia in those days, everybody’s idea of a poet, passionate, young, courageous, glorious to look at. Women screamed and fainted at his performances.

The conference was to take place in Tromsø way high up above the Arctic Circle in the summer of 2001, a pretty town, an island city right out of a child’s toy chest. The theme was War and Peace—Tolstoy’s grandson as the guest of honor. The moderator of my session asked me if I minded speaking first.

“If you don’t,” he laughed, “you might not get a chance to speak at all.”

“Oh?”

“It is a little, er, difficult to stop this poet once he gets going.”

But there was no Yevtushenko in the theater when the session started. A minute or two into my speech, a figure appeared in the front row. I’m no good at faces, but I was pretty sure I’d spotted him because he stared at me in that disconcerting, unblinking way that Russians do. When I finished, the moderator thanked me especially—and pointedly—for keeping to my 20-minute limit. A Dane spoke after me. When he finished, the moderator thanked him too—again pointedly—for keeping to the 20-minute limit.

Then Yevtushenko approached the podium. He was nearly 70, hair thin, face deeply lined, back no longer straight. Even so it was clear at once what all the fuss was about. This was a hell of a delivery. Maybe his English belonged in a farce, but no Western voice soars and swings like that. Up and down. Loud and soft. Face and body in motion too. He began with an unpublished poem and went on to something about a Russian nutcracker, Tchaikovsky’s swans and great big dinosaurs. But he could have been saying anything, anything at all. With a delivery like that, who cares?

And he’s a man who knew how to handle a moderator as well as an audience. After 40 minutes or so, he turned to the moderator—visibly restive by this time—and said, “Is all right? I can finish? You permit?” Then came questions. As soon as the first one started, Yevtushenko leaned across to me and said, “What is phrase seel-kee prose? What this mean?” In my speech, I’d described an American I knew as being master of the New Yorker’s “silky prose.” I explained as best I could. “Is good,” he said. “Is little bit ironic, yes?” I nodded. He leaned back in his chair, then forward again. “You sink?”

Sink? “I’m not sure what you mean,” I said cautiously,

“You sink?” he said louder.

Could he mean think? Could I have said something really stupid? I gave him a puzzled look.

He leaned back in his chair. “You have beautiful voice. All seel-kee.”

Link to the rest at Literary Hub

PG says the best poetry is meant to be spoken and heard. In a tradition going back a few centuries, poets generally wrote and performed their poetry because the sound and tempo of the words was crucial to full understanding of the poem. Poetry was a performance art. Unfortunately, poetry is primarily a subject for academic study today.

In the middle of the twentieth century, several poets were well-known for their performance abilities. Dylan Thomas performed his poems on the BBC during World War II and even wrote and performed a poem, A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London, commemorating a young victim of a German bombing attack.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko was an accomplished performer of his poetry as well, both in Russian and English.

Below are a couple of YouTube videos of Yevtushenko’s poetry performances, first in Russian, then in English.

The poem is Babi Yar. The first lines of the poem are:

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.

Babi Yar is a deep ravine near Kiev where Einsatzgruppen (Nazi SS paramilitary squads who followed the German army to pacify and cleanse the civilian population in conquered territory) killed 34,000 Jews in two days, September 29-30, 1941. Later, additional Jews, gypsies, Communists and Soviet prisoners of war were slaughtered there.

Two years later, while retreating over the same ground, the SS tried to cover up any signs of this atrocity. The bodies were dug up, burnt, and all the evidence destroyed. Babi Yar is the grave of over 100,000 victims of the SS.

Following the war, the Soviet government refused requests to erect a monument at the site and it remained unmarked for over 30 years. An official memorial to Soviet citizens shot at Babi Yar was erected in 1976. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Ukrainian government allowed the establishment of a memorial specifically identifying the Jewish victims.

In 1962, Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 13 in B-flat minor, subtitled Babi Yar.  The first movement, Babi Yar: Adagio, includes choral settings for Yevtushenko’s poems including references to the Dreyfus affair, the Białystok pogrom and Anne Frank.

Following Yevtushenko is a recording of Thomas performing his wartime poem.

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‘Mystery Hikes’ to Undisclosed Locations Were All the Rage in the ’30s

From Atlas Obscura:

The quickest way to anger a traveler is to interfere with their plans; reroute, delay or cancel them. Deprive them of information, make them guess. But on March, 23, 1932, crowds descended upon Paddington Station, London after paying expressly for the privilege of being kept in the dark. They enthusiastically waited for a train with no known destination. Even the conductors had no idea where they would go. They were going to be passengers on London’s very first Hiker’s Mystery Train Express.

The train was a novel promotion dreamed up by the railroad that would transport hikers to a secret spot where they would then be set loose to tromp through the English countryside. The hikers looked anything but prepared for a wilderness excursion: the women wore long coats, skirts, stockings and heels. The men were more reasonably attired, as men’s fashions allowed, but they still had on shiny brogues and brimmed hats. A functional accessory that many carried was a walking cane; one grinning girl leaned out of the train as it left the station and waved hers triumphantly at a news photographer’s camera. The trip had whipped up such a frenzy of interest that several newspapers republished an account that described 1,000 “bare-legged, bareheaded” would-be hikers armed with knapsacks and walking sticks who had to be accommodated on a second “hastily provided” train, whose 14 carriages were packed to capacity.

. . . .

The Hiker’s Mystery Train Express was not a one-time novelty. It was part of a craze for mystery hiking that swept the globe—particularly England, New Zealand and Australia—during the 1930s. “Rambling” gained popularity throughout the 19th century, and walking clubs and groups sprang up. In 1931 the Ramblers Association was founded to protect the rights of British walkers and advocate for open hiking spaces. Many people were also feeling the devastating effects of the Great Depression, and hiking provided free entertainment.

. . . .

An account of mystery hiking in the May, 1937 issue of the New Zealand Railways Magazine reported that crowds about 700 strong patronized the country’s mystery hikes, circumnavigating routes around 10 miles long. In Australia, where mystery hikes were especially popular, thousands routinely swarmed the trains. In 1932 a crowd of over 8,000 flâneurs amassed for a mystery train departing Sydney.

Link to the rest at Atlas Obscura where there are lots of photos of mystery hikers.

PG was reminded of all the golden age detective novels where the crime took place on a train.

The Platonic Ideal of Book Clubs

From Bookriot:

I was in the perfect book club once. I know, I know, the perfect book club doesn’t exist, and it was probably only perfect for me. Since then, whenever I read a book and talk about it with other people, though, I want it to be like that.

I was living in Madrid, Spain, teaching English and constantly marveling at how unattached I was, unmoored – I didn’t know anyone. Sure, I skyped with people in the States still but realistically, I was one of those people that no one would be able to identify if they found me dead or something! I started joining clubs and events mostly to alleviate that feeling, not because I loved books.

Don’t get me wrong, I love books, but I have had negative interactions with discussions of “literature.” Most of the ones I’ve had were associated with classes and grades, which meant that people talked about books like they were writing a paper, like a performance rather than an exploration.

. . . .

In the perfect book club, though, I met really interesting people who had been meeting every month in an old coffee shop/bar in Madrid for years; the group was as small as 4 sometimes and as big as 12 other times.

. . . .

The people found a way to bring every part of the discussion back to the book: While it wasn’t a rule, we didn’t really discuss outside affairs, our personal lives, how the book related to us or our experiences specifically. I know some people love that, but I really liked that we stayed in the “world” of the books most of the time; it made occasional bits of personal information seem really important, not like someone was trying to sidetrack us into talking about his or her life.

Everyone either read the book or admitted they didn’t and spoke little: This wasn’t a book club that pretended to read the book in order to hang out with each other (that’s another kind of fun club, but I don’t think it’s really a book club).

Link to the rest at Bookriot

How Google Book Search Got Lost

From Backchannel:

Books can do anything. As Franz Kafka once said, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

It was Kafka, wasn’t it? Google confirms this. But where did he say it? Google offers links to some quotation websites, but they’re generally unreliable. (They misattribute everything, usually to Mark Twain.)

To answer such questions, you need Google Book Search, the tool that magically scours the texts of millions of digitized volumes. Just find the little “more” tab at the top of the Google results page — it’s right past Images, Videos, and News. Then click on it, find “Books,” and click on that.

. . . .

It turns out that the “frozen sea” quote is from Kafka’s Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors, in a missive to Oskar Pollak, dated January 27, 1904.

. . . .

Google Book Search is amazing that way. When it started almost 15 years ago, it also seemed impossibly ambitious: An upstart tech company that had just tamed and organized the vast informational jungle of the web would now extend the reach of its search box into the offline world. By scanning millions of printed books from the libraries with which it partnered, it would import the entire body of pre-internet writing into its database.

“You have thousands of years of human knowledge, and probably the highest-quality knowledge is captured in books,” Google cofounder Sergey Brin told The New Yorker at the time. “So not having that — it’s just too big an omission.”

. . . .

Today, Google is known for its moonshot culture, its willingness to take on gigantic challenges at global scale. Books was, by general agreement of veteran Googlers, the company’s first lunar mission. Scan All The Books!

In its youth, Google Books inspired the world with a vision of a “library of utopia” that would extend online convenience to offline wisdom. At the time it seemed like a singularity for the written word: We’d upload all those pages into the ether, and they would somehow produce a phase-shift in human awareness. Instead, Google Books has settled into a quiet middle age of sourcing quotes and serving up snippets of text from the 25 million-plus tomes in its database.

Google employees maintain that’s all they ever intended to achieve. Maybe so. But they sure got everyone else’s hopes up.

. . . .

When I started work on this story, I feared at first that Books no longer existed as a discrete part of the Google organization — that Google had actually shut the project down. As with many aspects of Google, there’s always been some secrecy around Google Books, but this time, when I started asking questions, it closed up like a startled turtle. For weeks there didn’t seem to be anyone around or available who could or would speak to the current state of the Books effort.

The Google Books “History” page trails off in 2007, and its blog stopped updating in 2012, after which it got folded into the main Google Search blog, where information about Books is nearly impossible to find. As a functioning and useful service, Google Books remained a going concern. But as a living project, with plans and announcements and institutional visibility, it seemed to have pulled a vanishing act. All of which felt weird, given the legal victory it had finally won.

When I talked to alumni of the project who’d left Google, several mentioned that they suspected the company had stopped scanning books. Eventually, I learned that there are, indeed, still some Googlers working on Book Search, and they’re still adding new books, though at a significantly slower pacethan at the project’s peak around 2010–11.

. . . .

LED lighting, not widely available at the project’s start, has helped. So has studying more efficient techniques for human operators to flip pages. “It’s almost like finger-picking on a guitar,” Jaskiewicz says. “So we find people who have great ways of turning pages — where is the thumb and that kind of stuff.”

. . . .

Like many tech-friendly bibliophiles, Sloan says he uses Google Books a lot, but is sad that it isn’t continuing to evolve and amaze us. “I wish it was a big glittering beautiful useful thing that was growing and getting more interesting all the time,” he says. He also wonders: We know Google can’t legally make its millions of books available for anyone to read in full — but what if it made them available for machines to read?

Machine-learning tools that analyze texts in new ways are advancing quickly today, Sloan notes, and “the culture around it has a real Homebrew Computer Club or early web feel to it right now.” But to progress, researchers need big troves of data to feed their programs.

“If Google could find a way to take that corpus, sliced and diced by genre, topic, time period, all the ways you can divide it, and make that available to machine-learning researchers and hobbyists at universities and out in the wild, I’ll bet there’s some really interesting work that could come out of that. Nobody knows what,” Sloan says. He assumes Google is already doing this internally. Jaskiewicz and others at Google would not say.

Link to the rest at Backchannel