The Little-Known ‘Slow Fire’ That’s Destroying All Our Books

18 October 2019

From LitHub:

How to fix a book: first, gather your tools. The bone folder that feels familiar in your hand, the knitting needles still sticky with glue, the X-Acto knife, the tiny Tupperware of glue.

Then, diagnose the damage. If there’s scotch tape, grab the lighter fluid. If the book is on its last leg, worn out, prepare to make a box. Check that the guillotine is free.

Sometimes you need to be brutal, eschewing sentimentality as you cut off a spine or replace a book’s old, water-stained cover. At other times, gentle, delicate—especially with the books from Special Collections, those unique, fragile (and expensive) texts. And sometimes you find books with yellowed, stiff pages. The old dog-eared folds break off in triangles, flutter to the floor. These books can’t be helped by simple repairs—they’re acidified, dying, and the opposite of unique. In fact, they’re examples of a large-scale catastrophe that’s been quietly building in libraries for decades.

It’s called a “slow fire,” this continuous acidification and subsequent embrittlement of paper that was created with the seeds of its own ruin in its very fibers. In a 1987 documentary on the subject, the deputy Librarian of Congress William Welsh takes an embrittled, acid-burned book and begins tearing pages out by the handful, crumbling them into shards with an ease reminiscent of stepping on a dried-up insect carcass.

. . . .

The destruction is inevitable. Depending on how a book was made and how it’s been stored, embrittlement can happen in as little as 30 to 100 years. Already, books have been lost, and the methods of preservation are too limited, time-consuming, and expensive to address the scale of the problem. Mass deacidification, where an alkaline neutralizing agent is introduced via a spray or solution applied to paper, once seemed like the golden solution; but while it can be used to prevent slightly acidified paper from deteriorating, it doesn’t reverse the effects of prior damage. The fallback is digitization—a fancy way to say mass-scanning, and the most used method of saving the content of a text, but not the book itself. In an article about the Library of Congress’ digitization efforts, Kyle Chayka reports that it would take literally decades of scanning to preserve the institution’s over 160 million object collection. At our existing technology’s current scanning pace, preserving the prints and photographs division alone would take about 300 years.

As Ed Vermue, my boss at the tiny college preservation lab where I worked, put it: we cannot stop the slow destruction of our collections. From the mid-19th century until now, we’ve never had more paper, more print materials floating around our world. And there’s about to be a physical hole in the historical record that coincides precisely with the largest creation of printed materials in human history.

. . . .

In western Europe, from the 16th to mid-19th centuries, paper manufacturing was inherently a recycling industry. Old rags, dead peoples’ bedsheets, even canvas sails—all were collected, sorted, pulped, and turned into the material backbone for paper-making.

Paper demands fiber, and recycling was cheaper and faster than relying on the raw plant materials like flax and hemp to be grown, harvested, and readied for use. But as demand grew, papermakers started eyeing another kind of plant: trees, in all their abundance.

It wasn’t until the 1850s that someone figured out the code: an industrially intense process of pulverization and harsh chemicals that killed the fish in the streams that powered paper mills and, crucially, created highly acidic, weak paper. Think of newsprint, how quickly it disintegrates. For decades, and continuing into the 1970s, the material used to record both the mundane and profound thoughts of generations was just a few grades stronger than that notoriously short-lived medium.

Part of the reason wood-pulp paper is so weak is due to the comparably short strands of its fibers; it creates pages prone to break, and all the acids the paper retains from its production process creates pages that are already always burning up from the inside.

. . . .

The books and documents that history has deemed valuable, the ones made hundreds of years ago and kept in temperature-controlled vaults, will survive. Partly because of their importance, and partly because so many of them were made in the time before wood-pulp; many 500-year-old books are stronger and in better condition than texts created just a few decades ago.

Link to the rest at LitHub

When a man gets power

17 October 2019

When a man gets power, even his chickens and dogs rise to heaven.

~  Jung Chang


17 October 2019

From Thoughtco:

A mondegreen is a word or phrase that results from mishearing or misinterpreting a statement or song lyric. Also known as an oronym.

The term mondegreen was coined in 1954 by American writer Sylvia Wright and popularized by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll. The term was inspired by “Lady Mondegreen,” a misinterpretation of the line “hae laid him on the green” from the Scottish ballad “The Bonny Earl o Moray.”

According to J. A. Wines, mondegreens often occur because “the English language is rich in homophones–words which may not be the same in origin, spelling or meaning, but which sound the same” (Mondegreens: A Book of Mishearings, 2007).

. . . .

“The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original.”
(Sylvia Wright, “The Death of Lady Mondegreen.” Harper’s, November 1954)

. . . .

  • “I led the pigeons to the flag” (for “I pledge allegiance to the flag”)
  • “There’s a bathroom on the right” (for “There’s a bad moon on the rise” in “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival)
  • “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” (for the Jimi Hendrix lyric “Excuse me while I kiss the sky”)

. . . .

  • “The girl with colitis goes by” (for “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes” in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by the Beatles)

. . . .

  • “The girl from Emphysema goes walking” (for “The girl from Ipanema goes walking” in “The Girl from Ipanema,” as performed by Astrud Gilberto)

Link to the rest at Thoughtco and thanks to Karen for the reminder in her comment to an earlier TPV post.

Can Everyone Stop Slagging Off Brighton, Already?

17 October 2019

From Crime Reads:

It’s a sad fact, but from its earliest days as a resort in the late 18th century, the seaside town of Brighton has been treated pretty unkindly by literature, film and art. If I didn’t live down here on the South coast of England, I reckon that on hearing the name “Brighton” I would conjure up any number of depressing images, among which would be sad, guilty couples in Graham Greene novels coming to the out-of-season seaside to be even sadder and guiltier; characters in Carry On films sniggering over sexual innuendos on the Palace Pier; Walter Sickert’s defeatist pierrots performing in the garish Edwardian footlights; and Sixties mods and rockers in the film Quadrophenia brutally smashing deck-chairs over each other on the beach. But mostly, I suspect, I would think of Brighton’s famous fictional criminal underworld: of Bob Hoskins in the film Mona Lisa being chased by mobsters, and of the young Richard Attenborough in Brighton Rock having his cheek slashed by a razor, and looking incredibly annoyed about it. As an outsider, I would think of Brighton and automatically wince at how tawdry it is. Somehow or other, that’s how it’s always been.

Nowadays, the observable reality of Brighton is somewhat at odds with this received notion. It’s a thriving seaside destination, home to many media types and rock icons, famous for being only 50 minutes on the fast train from London.

. . . .

So why, over two centuries, have writers consistently shaken their heads and warned the world against visiting this cheery resort? Writers have continually told us, both implicitly and explicitly: bad things happen in Brighton. Nowadays, the first thing anyone sees in bookshops down here is a wall of moody, sinister black-and-white images of Brighton landmarks as depicted on the bestselling crime novels of Peter James—books with foreboding titles such as Not Dead YetDead Simple, Dead Like You, and Not Dead Enough. We love Peter James, of course: he’s very popular, he’s well respected for his excellent research vis-à-vis police procedure, and he’s hugely admired for the way he keeps finding new ways of using the word “dead” in a book title. But for obvious reasons, he is not a great publicist for a pleasant, crime-free visit to the seaside. If you’ve ever picked up a book thinking, “I wonder if anyone actually dies in this?” it won’t have been a novel by Peter James.

The beware-Brighton cautionary note, however, predates Peter James by a couple of hundred years. It was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) that struck the first, heavy blow against the town, when the flighty young Lydia Bennet begged to visit Brighton and then fell almost automatically into sin, dragging her devastated family after her. Even before that, Dr Johnson had famously warned his friend Mrs Thrale, who owned a house in West Street, that living in Brighton would make you want to hang yourself, but good luck finding a tree. Thus, from the very beginning, it was somehow built into Brighton’s reputation that behind the thin, bright façade of the gay seafront lay dismal vice and despair. This was a town where immoral people came to get away with things; where no one was innocent. As the writer Keith Waterhouse so beautifully put it: “Brighton has the air of a town that is perpetually helping the police with their inquiries.”

Link to the rest at Crime Reads

How America saved old-fashioned English grammar

17 October 2019

From The Economist:

IS AMERICA RUINING English or giving it new life? Most of this old transatlantic debate concerns words. Is elevator an improvement on lift? Why say transportation when transport will do? Sometimes it involves spelling, specifically the American reforms that made British centre into American center. Pragmatic change or dumbing down? And, of course, the quickest way to tell a Yank from a Brit is by pronunciation.

But the differences between British and American English go beyond words, sounds and spelling to grammar itself. Here they can be subtle, but they are many: the index of the “Cambridge Grammar of the English Language” mentions regional differences in 95 places. America being the parvenu, most people assume that any variations between the two countries result from American innovation, to the (sometimes mock) horror of Britons. In reality, America has often been the conservative one, and Britain the innovator. When British speakers borrow American habits, they are sometimes unwittingly readopting an older version of their language.

The subjunctive had also been on its way out in America, but started to reappear in the mid-to-late 19th century, as Lynne Murphy, a linguist, recounts in “The Prodigal Tongue”. No one knows why; theories include greater Bible reading (which would have kept Americans acquainted with older grammar) and immigrants who spoke subjunctive-filled languages. Whatever the reason, the subjunctive stuck out as a Yankeeism, irking British commentators such as Kingsley Amis, a novelist: “Be careful with any American writings, which often indulge in subjunctive forms.”

. . . .

Stereotypes often have a grain of truth. Americans have indeed innovated extensively with English, as with other things. But language never sits still: the British variety itself went on changing after 1776, as all living languages must. Americans, for their part, eagerly import fashionable British slang. Instead of bemoaning new-fangled Americanisms, British observers could spare a thank you to the old colonies for keeping traditional English safe.

Link to the rest at The Economist

If you would like more about the “subjunctive mood” you can check out a Wikipedia article on the topic. PG didn’t know that verbs had moods, but, as he considers it, why should they not?

The Diatomist

17 October 2019

PG had no idea some diatomists – those who study diatoms – engage in the art of arranging diatoms.

The first diatom arrangements date back to the early 1800s, but the art form reached its peak in the latter part of the century. It was a period of intense interest in the natural world and also a time when the arts and sciences were more closely aligned. Diatom arrangements are a stunning example of that particularly Victorian desire to bring order to the world, to display nature in a rational way.

If you’re a little rusty on your knowledge of diatoms, according to The Smithsonian, diatoms, very tiny forms of plant life, range in size from 5 microns to 200 microns. A micron is one-thousandth of a millimeter. A diatom arrangement of 100 forms would fit inside a punctuation mark of average-size text. A single drop of water can contain hundreds of thousands of phytoplankton, free-floating plant life, most of which will likely be diatoms.

Diatoms are also the tiny friends of all life upon the earth – about half of the oxygen in the atmosphere originates from plants living in the ocean, chiefly the untold numbers of phytoplankton in the oceans of the world. The other half comes from plants on land.

Diatoms are not to be confused with Zooplankton, microscopic free-floating animals which feed on phytoplankton and are, in turn food sources for slightly larger aquatic life forms.

Typically, you would view artistic arrangements of diatoms either through a microscope or via microscopic photos or videos.

Bezos will ‘break up his own company’ before regulators do

16 October 2019

From CNBC:

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos could break up his own company before regulators do so themselves, Atlantic writer Franklin Foer predicts.

Foer, who wrote the Atlantic’s November cover story entitled “Jeff Bezos’s Master Plan,” said in an interview Tuesday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that people close to the CEO believe spinning off Amazon Web Services from the e-commerce business “would be the obvious thing for [Bezos] to do in the face of this.”

“I think that eventually Bezos, who is seeing around corners, is going to break up his own company,” Foer said. “AWS exists as its own fantastically profitable business. There’s no reason that it needs to be connected to Amazon the e-retailer. And as he looks at what’s happening in politics, where there’s this increasing bipartisan consensus that Big Tech is a problem, I’m pretty sure he’s going to say, ‘OK fine.’”

. . . .

AWS accounted for 13% of Amazon’s total revenue in the second quarter of 2019, but a whopping 52% of its $3.1 billion in operating income for the quarter.

Link to the rest at CNBC

PG says antitrust investigations can and have hamstrung lots of large, successful companies, even if they don’t result in sanctions.

The antitrust investigations and suits against Microsoft in 1994 and 1998 arguably prevented MS from exploiting internet opportunities that were taken by others. Google Chrome displaced Internet Explorer as one example. Ironically, during its early years, Microsoft benefited from antitrust lawsuits against IBM in the 1980’s.

If Bezos can avoid serious antitrust actions by voluntarily breaking up the company, the minified-Amazons might continue the company’s success free of any throttling constraints.

Dav Pilkey credits his ADHD for his massive success

16 October 2019

From The Washington Post:

By any measure in publishing, cartoonist Dav Pilkey is a rock star.The children’s author created his characters Captain Underpants (a superhero for grade-schoolers) and Dog Man (a hound-supercop) while an Ohio second-grader, sitting alone in the hall during class as a result of his ADHD.Now Pilkey is 53, and “Dog Man” — a franchise that has sold millions — is perched atop the New York Times bestsellers list for children’s series, while “Captain Underpants” is at No. 8 (both books have sat on the list for years).

. . . .

Q: You have used puns like “The Hallo-weiner” in your books. What’s your most shameless pun?

A: It might be “Hally Tosis.” And I can’t take credit for that — that’s my dad’s joke. We had a dog when I was a kid and her name was Halle, and she did have a horrible breath. My dad used to call her “Halle Tosis.” And I just thought that was a funny, cutesy little name until I was a little bit older and I realized what it was.

Q: At what age were you diagnosed with attention deficit and dyslexia?

A: I was probably about 8. They didn’t have the term ADHD. They called it extreme hyperactivity disorder. Back in those days, the specialists prescribed caffeine for me, so I was drinking coffee for breakfast.

Q: How did that work out?

A: The only way I could get it down was, my mom would put in chocolate syrup with cream. I think I was so buzzed off the sugar that it didn’t quite work out.

Q: And you had to sit in the hall in elementary school?

A: So little was known about those conditions back in those days, and I think it was just seen as I was distracting everyone in the class with my silliness. I couldn’t stay in my chair and keep my mouth shut. So the teachers from second to fifth grade just put me in the hall. It ended up being kind of a blessing for me, too, because it gave me time to draw and to create stories and comics. I guess I made lemonade out of it.

Q: So you created Captain Underpants while in school?

A: I did. And Dog Man, as well. They were the first comics that I remember creating. In fact, my second-grade teacher gave me the idea for Captain Underpants. She mentioned underwear in class and everyone laughed and I was like: “Oh, that’s a good subject. I’ll do something with that.” And so that was that.

Q: So while you were sitting in the hall, you were also sitting on a future publishing empire?

A: Making comics was a way for me to stay connected to my classmates. I wasn’t just a kid in the hallway. I guess in a way I’m still trying to connect with my readers.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

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