Mental Floss is careful to exclude religious texts (the Bible presumably wins hands down) though some might argue that their #1 bestseller of all time, Mao Tse Tung’s Little Red Book should be read with a dose of faith.

This example will cost you $750. Damn: where did I put my copy?

You can find Mental Floss’ carefully named list, Ten of the Best-Selling Books in History, here.

See also: 100 Years of bestsellers.

Well, here we go? Or is this just a desperation ploy? I suspect it may be the former: college education, certainly in the early years, seems to have jumped the barrier and gone pretty much fully digital. Pearson certainly hopes so, as reported in Publishers Weekly. “All future releases of Pearson’s 1,500 current U.S. textbook titles will be updated in digital versions only rather than in print”. This chimes with Pearson’s recent digital courseware moves. Apparently 62% of their higher education revenue now comes from “digital or digitally-enabled products and services”. Perhaps slightly ominous for the education purist is their claim that this’ll make their publishing program “more like apps, professional software, or the gaming industry.”

For Luddite students Pearson say they’ll be willing to rent a print book for about $60. It’s not clear how this assorts with their statement that they’ll update only their digital versions. I’d image the print version they offer to rent would be a print-on-demand edition made (one hopes) from the most recent set of files. But if so, why wouldn’t they want to sell the book rather than rent it?

Still, let’s look again in another five years. The market is no doubt big enough that Pearson can probably survive on a part of it even if their bet proves off the mark.

See also my rather dyspeptic Digital textbooks post from 2014.

Today, 17 July, is World Emoji Day: a “global celebration of emoji” marked by emoji events and product releases. July 17th is the date displayed on the emoji for “calendar”, which explains why this day has been chosen. Seems every self-respecting thing has to have a World Day nowadays.

Shady Characters has done a nine-part series on emojis. As Keith Huston (the creator of Shady Characters) points out this is entirely appropriate for a blog dedicated to punctuation, since punctuation marks share much of the character of the emoji: graphic representations of meaning.  Here’s Part 1Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5Part 6a, Part 6b, Part 6c, and Part 7 of his exhaustive examination of what remains for me an odd phenomenon. However there’s obviously something in the air: emojis have been around long enough that they have to be studied now. Wired also has a history. Apparently we are resisting the introduction of a whole raft of new emojis Medium tells us. I say introduce them: you don’t have to use them and surely won’t suffer from their existence somewhere out there. Until everyone almost automatically recognizes the meaning all emojis they will go nowhere. When they do, they might. So what?

The wild growth of emojis started with a 🖤 for the pager in Japan in the nineteen nineties. By the end of the century an “alphabet” of 176 symbols was available on the Fujitsu F501i smartphone. Apple first introduced them to the Western world in 2011, though Part 3 of Shady Characters history includes a photo of a book published in 1935 which contained two emojis — convergent evolution at work. If you want to get a new emoji added to the already generous offering, you have to petition the Unicode Consortium. They’ve agreed to breaking down the Union flag into its Scotland, England, Wales components: 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿, 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿 and 🏴, though I can’t believe Wales really has a black flag: more likely a platform/recogntion issue.

The tears of joy emoji,😂, was the word of the year chosen by Oxford Dictionaries in 2015, but do emoji represent a new language? I doubt it. In 2015 Andy Murray tweeted about his wedding using only emoji (lots of tears of joy going on):

🌞☔😂👔💅💇😂👰😂🚗💒💃👫🙏💍💏👏📝🎹📷🎥🚗🍷🍴🎂🎊🎉👯🎶🎤🍹🍻🍷🍺🍩🍦🍷🍹🍸🍺🌙❤💕😘💤💤💤💤💤💤💤22 . While it may be possible to follow this if you are really determined, surely nobody would consider it narrative. Which symbols are the verbs? I guess you could say the little red car was acting as a verb, though it is disconcertingly taking Mr Murray away from the church. And of course it’s not really a verb, is it?

The world of emoji lacks any grammar, and is not open to innovation by users, both of which would be essential to their becoming a proper language. I suppose there’s an outside possibility that they could ultimately evolve in such a direction, but the directed effort involved would appear to militate against any such outcome. At most emoji represent the inclusion into written speech of a certain amount of non-verbal, gestural communication. There is of course an online emoji dictionary. The definitions given for 😂 at that link rather illustrate the problem. In a way I suppose we could see the growth in the emoji universe as analogous to the growth of the Chinese character set, which makes it unsurprising that they originated in Japan.

In Part 5 of the Shady Characters piece Mr Huston gives us a generous look at the use of emojis in sexting, another 21st century manifestation we might all have been better off without. There follows a good deal of discussion of the gyrations needed to overcome racial and sexual stereotyping in emojis, though isn’t that just an illustration of the basic problem with this whole system as a communication medium: if you’re going to use little cartoon pictures as a means of communication it could be said to be rather silly to expect there to be much sophistication of meaning available to you.

Towards the end of Part 7 Shady Characters discusses translations into emoji of various classics: notably Emoji Dick, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and under way The Bible. The “quotes” he displays from Moby Dick surely just make one regret the time wasted by someone striving to achieve the unachievable.

Atlas Obscura tells about a film on the creation of emojis.

Just for clarification an emoticon is a symbol made up of punctuation marks, e.g. the happy face 🙂 — which interestingly WordPress won’t let me show you. Although I typed colon, hyphen, parenthesis, the software converts it into the emoji you see. The emoticon would show just : – ) — without the spaces I used to defeat the software. Someone’s rooting for emojis!

On the Mac a host of emojis can be accessed by pressing Control, Command, Space bar.

Photo: iMore

Are bookstores a cultural good? And does this mean they should somehow be supported from public funds? Book Culture’s financial troubles make us think once more about public support for book shops. Mr Doeblin asks for a loan of at least half a million dollars.* Is this the only way to go?

With coincidental good timing The Economist‘s issue of 6 July includes an article about public support for bookstores in France. A law from 1981 bans the sale of any book at a price different from the price assigned by the publisher. The focus of the piece is just how the law should work in a digital world. “The fixed-price rule is meant to keep customers loyal to their local bookshop and out of the clutches of supermarkets and hypercapitaliste American corporations. But the advent of e-commerce and e-readers has prompted questions worthy of their own tomes. Can you fix the price of a book if it is part of an all-you-can-read subscription service? Are audiobooks books at all? And what of authors who self-publish?” In 2011 the law was adjusted to apply to ebooks. Used books are exempt, but of course you’re not going to have to check for fingerprints belonging to a putative previous owner when you open your Amazon partner package.

The argument against resale price maintenance projects is that they raise prices, or maybe more accurately, prevent them from falling. Britain got rid of its New Book Agreement in the nineties largely for this reason. Depending on your point of view this has been a great thing, or a national tragedy. Books are available in a wider variety of places, and sales have increased. Pricing is an essential tool for mass marketing, and bestselling books are more widely available and at lower prices than they were before the end of resale price maintenance. On the other hand as England’s Restrictive Practices Court foresaw, the number of stockholding bookshops has been reduced; although certain titles are cheaper, the price of most books is higher; and it has become much harder to publish titles of literary and scholarly value. I do believe that resale price maintenance does save bookstores.

I always feel I’m doomed to be on the wrong side of this argument about cultural goods. The trouble with state subsidization of culture like the opera, art galleries, symphony orchestras (and books, if they were subsidized) is that what gets subsidized is what we, the cultural elite, want to have subsidized, not what everyone might chose. I’m not sure I know what the masses would like to see subsidized, if such an issue was ever raised among them, but I doubt if it’s opera. I love opera and am delighted to benefit from state subsidization whenever I come across it, but I cannot really justify spending other people’s tax payments on making my seat at Götterdämmerung a bit less expensive. By extension, books.

Is there any way to parlay the fracturing of the book business represented by the growth of digital media and self publishing into some solution to the cultural good issue. Would it help serious publishing and serious bookselling if we were to have some form of resale price maintenance for print books? To some extent (a large extent?) print books are already a sort of elite product. A few years ago this would have been crazy to think this way: we were all worrying that print books were going to disappear before the flood of ebooks. Now I don’t think we fear this any longer. Do we have the confidence to say that print books are for committed print book readers, and discounting them is not essential to their sales success?

Part of me says “Yes of course”, but then another little voice says “Amazon, Amazon” and I have to admit that it may too late to think about saving any kind of widespread bookstore universe.


* We need to remove from the conversation the Amazon New York HQ deal which Mr Doeblin explicitly cites as a justification for help for his business. This sort of thing is an entirely different kettle of fish. Whatever one thinks of it, states and cites do often give tax breaks to (mostly big) companies to attract them to move into their locality, or often to persuade them not to leave. The justification for this is that the large company will generate so much tax revenue, via corporate taxes, income taxes, sales taxes and so on that the subsidy is a mere sprat next to the long-term revenue mackerel. This has nothing to do with culture, good or bad. It’s all about money.

Maybe the most striking thing about Marie Kondo is that you can make a fortune by going on about tidying up. The most recent stir has been caused by her advice to throw out all these books, though she has been harping on the theme for a while. I wrote about Ms Kondo before: see my 2015 post entitled Decluttering. Here’s The Passive Voice‘s take on the Kondo phenomenon. Tom Gauld as usual neatly sums up the real problem:

Why is it that a sparsely furnished room should be considered better than a cluttered one anyway? Still I don’t suppose you’d ever get a television show advocating cluttering up your home, office space, bookshelves. We all seem quite capable of doing that on our own without any expert help.


Book Culture, booksellers, have four locations in New York City: two near Columbia University, one near the Natural History Museum, and one in Long Island City. They are facing financial difficulties. Am I wrong to feel that they pushing it a bit in asking us to bail them out? The Columbia Spectator reports that the mini-chain’s owner, Chris Doeblin, claims they need $500,000 from taxpayers in order to stay open. We all acknowledge that there are problems with the economics of the book business, and obviously moving to a $15 minimum wage has a big effect on the equation. With 75 staff spread over four locations, it clearly adds up to quite a shock to the system when their hourly rate jumps quite sharply (if not altogether unexpectedly). Shelf Awareness of 3 July tells us Queens State Senator Michael Gianaris is working on the case. Will this do anything? Mr Doeblin says his landlords have been cooperative, so my normal reaction to bookstore problems, “blame the landlords”, isn’t the appropriate one here.

A report in Fast Company has Mr Doeblin justifying his request for help by citing the deal negotiated (and later repudiated by) Amazon. Well, yes; and well, no. Book Culture has a slightly smaller footprint that Amazon, and doesn’t need tempting to come to New York: that’s where they are. The Book Culture LIC location is right next door to where the Amazon headquarters might have appeared! However, though Amazon does of course sell books, the tax incentives they were offered were directed not towards funding a bookshop or two, but toward the establishment of a headquarters office with a supposed creation of 25,000 high paying jobs. These jobs were estimated to lead over 25 years to a $13.5 billion benefit to the city in tax revenues as well as the effects of consumption by new well-off residents. Can Book Culture suggest even a proportional boost for the city if we give them a loan? Sure we want bookstores. But we probably want them to stand on their own feet. The implication that $15 an hour is the root cause of the problem is a bit unfair: you can’t blame staff for the balance sheet. As the various articles cited suggest, Mr Doeblin has not always had the best of relations with staff and unions, and although he’s not baldly blaming staff pay for the stores’ financial troubles, the tendency of his argument does point in that direction. Might there not be other management issues? I still believe the key to bookstore economics should be rent control for “essential businesses”, with maybe some sort of culture-value discount on taxes. But a gift of half a million dollars? Should I feel better thinking of it as a repayable gift, given today but set off against future taxes?

According to Gothamist on 24 June, “On Monday afternoon, Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer issued a statement in support of Book Culture, saying, ‘Independent stores like Book Culture should get more support from the government. My husband and I are regulars at our local Book Culture, and to see it close would be devastating for the communities they serve.’” Maybe we are going to be able to work something out. Is “independent stores . . . should get more support from government” just something to say, or does it carry any real policy content?

Of course I don’t know anything about the details of the economics of Book Culture’s business, but how about cutting back to three locations? Two locations? Clearly Columbia University has been supportive. “When the bookstore realized that it would face significant hurdles following the minimum wage raise, Columbia lowered rent prices for the store’s 114th Street and Broadway location so they could stay in business” The Columbia Spectator reports. Although Columbia has a college bookstore deal with Barnes & Noble, Book Culture does act like a bit of a college bookstore: when I went in to buy a copy of Patty Smith’s Just Kids in their main location I was directed upstairs to the college department because the book was on a Columbia reading list. Does this not suggest that maybe they owe Columbia a bit of loyalty in return?

In the seventeenth century there evolved a habit of printing a duplicate half-title, printed vertically, as shown in this book from the Folger Library.


The practice is discussed at the Folger bog, The Collation, by Elizabeth DeBold who has checked the Library’s holdings to find example of this oddity. She tabulates the results for ten volumes.

The reasons for including this vertical half-title are not entirely clear. Was it meant for ID during production and intended for deletion during binding, or, as several examples attest, was it intended to be cut out and pasted onto the fore-edge, so that people who liked to shelve their books spine in would be able to identify their books?

The article includes this picture of William Cartwright sitting in front of two shelves of books shelved spine in. Of course this may not have been the intended purpose of the page, just a clever adaptation.

Apparently “vertical half-titles persisted into the nineteenth century (and paper labels meant for the spines of multi-volume works were printed with the books in the eighteenth century, although comparatively few of those survive)”.

CabbieBlog has a nice story about the original Highway Code published in 1931 at a price of 1d (one penny) net.* Wikisource has an online version of it for those who want to bathe in nostalgia.

CabbieBlog points out that “When it was introduced in response to the high number of deaths on Britain’s roads, 7,000 a year were being killed despite there only being 2.3 million vehicles – a figure not helped by there being no compulsory driving test. Today with more than 30 million vehicles on Britain’s roads fatalities are closer to 2,000.”

My mother never had to take a driving test: she like everyone else who was driving in 1935 when the test was introduced was grandfathered in. Given the death rate CabbieBlog mentions, maybe it would be fairer to say that any drivers left alive were grandfathered in. Now her great granddaughters are dealing with the driving test.

The current version of The Highway Code is available online. CabbieBlog emphasizes the politeness of the fist 18-page edition. The current edition doesn’t altogether abandon this aim, telling us “The most vulnerable road users are pedestrians, particularly children, older or disabled people, cyclists, motorcyclists and horse riders. It is important that all road users are aware of the Code and are considerate towards each other. This applies to pedestrians as much as to drivers and riders.”


* Fascinating that they made it a net book. The Net Book Agreement meant that booksellers couldn’t discount the price of a book with a net price. How was anyone going to give a discount on a book costing a penny? Well, today’s big spenders may be surprised to know that during my childhood we still had two coins smaller than the penny. The ha’penny (½) and the farthing (¼).

Inflation takes care of everything: Diary of an ADI tells us that in 2011 The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency offered us a 80-year anniversary copy of this 1931 Highway Code for £4.99.

Gyotaku is basically a letterpress process: ink up a fish and press a bit of paper against it. Focussing on Gyotaku-meister Naoki Hayashi, Atlas Obscura bring us the incredible story. I suppose there are lots of other things you could print like this, but who wants to print an omelette? The Atlas Obscura piece does show a rather creepy roadkill gyotaku. The idea that this technique evolved from fishermen recording the dimensions of their catch while still at sea does have a charm to it, though one wonders why they couldn’t just use the fish itself for bragging. If you have a fish lying around, and your fancy’s tickled enough, here’s a YouTube video showing you how to do it.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

In The Book, a custom book provider, has produced a map of the London Underground in which station names are replaced by the titles of novels set in the area around that stop. As you can see from their site, they are open to suggestions for additions, if you notice any glaring omissions. I assume non-fiction pieces such as Ian Hamilton’s Gazza Agonistes for White Hart Lane station (controversially slated for a name change to Tottenham Hotspur*) are not eligible. The alert reader will of course recognize that White Hart Lane’s not on this map: it’s an overland station, not a tube station.

This literary map strikes me as quite a fun idea. You can click on the map to enlarge it.

Shelf Awareness brings us the link to The Evening Standard‘s piece.

See also Literary map of NYC for a similar idea, this one a street map with quotes from books in which the location is alluded to, though.


* If anyone cares, I’d prefer the name to remain unchanged, just as I also wish the club had not changed their new stadium’s name from White Hart Lane to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.