Archives for the month of: May, 2014

Of course the semicolon has gotten a new digital life as part of an emoticon — semicolon, close paren 😉 implying a sort of sly, knowing complicity, winking. It started its printed life in 1494 in a book printed by Aldus Manutius. Its use has fallen off in the last couple of hundred years as this Wikipedia chart shows (assuming it’s accurate!).SemicolonFreq


I guess these tattoos must mean something. Yahoo Answers suggests that it signifies having had part of your colon surgically removed, or having decided against suicide or self-harming — it allegedly represents something (a sentence) that could have ended but didn’t. Whether this is true of these young ladies, we have no way of knowing. Maybe they just thought it was a clever idea that fitted the available space neatly.

Who’d have imagined that the semicolon could come trailing class associations? This New York Observer piece suggests that its usage carries a different meaning in social media than in print. Wired magazine says that using semicolons in text messages is, basically, a socially lame and pretentious thing to do. “No one uses semicolons in day-to-day casual writing; it’s a literary piece of punctuation, not a colloquial one,” the magazine noted. “So using a semicolon in a text shows you’ve thought out, revised, and overedited your message. That means you’re trying too hard, and there’s nothing worse than trying too hard.”

Shelf Awareness of 10 April reports on concerns among researchers:

Cognitive neuroscientists are warning that humans “seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online,” the Washington Post reported, adding that this “alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.”

“I worry that the superficial way we read during the day is affecting us when we have to read with more in-depth processing,” said Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

Researchers are recommending closer study of the differences between text and screen reading and suggest “there are advantages to both ways of reading. There is potential for a bi-literate brain,” the Post wrote.

“We can’t turn back,” Wolf observed. ‘We should be simultaneously reading to children from books, giving them print, helping them learn this slower mode, and at the same time steadily increasing their immersion into the technological, digital age. It’s both. We have to ask the question: What do we want to preserve?”

Of course this is just The Washington Post version of the story, but it all seems pretty silly and non-scientific: but nevertheless the article appears to be getting a whole lot of attention. Professor Wolf implies that there is a special “superficial way we read during the day”. This is absurd. Why just during the day? Is it really impossible to read non-superficially during daylight hours? How does she know? Certainly the solution to the “problem” is not to make everyone read everything they see on the web slowly and carefully. Much of the stuff we get exposed to deserves no more than a cursory glance. We are offered such a huge variety of stuff now that the only way to cope (other than ignoring it entirely) is to scan quickly and then read more carefully those items which seem likely to be interesting. We never had to do this before — well maybe you could say people who used to feel compelled to read every page of the newspaper did something similar, but I’m skeptical about the claim that the brain is being changed in ways which make it harder for people to read novels! You might as well claim that people who watch television are unable to spend more than a few seconds looking at a more serious image like a painting in a museum because it doesn’t move. We all know that people can do both, though we also know there are people who don’t have any patience at all. At the same time we should all relax and accept that your scanning emails without reading every word has no bearing on how you behave when you sit down with War and Peace. Of course you’ll find people who find it hard to concentrate on reading a long book — but time travel back fifty years and, surprise, surprise, you’ll find lots of people having trouble concentrating on reading a long book. I rather suspect the proportions of such people remain fairly stable over the generations.

Wired has come out with what looks like a balanced treatment of the article and the issues it raises, but if you put any weight on the odd islands of evidence which they reference, your foot goes right through. The long and the short of it is nobody knows whether it’s “better” to read on paper than on a screen. I am pretty certain that in the long run, when we look back on all this, it’ll all seem pretty stupid: people will read stuff this way and they’ll read stuff that way.  The Digital Reader has a typically sane response to the same Washington Post article.

 We’ve heard all this before. Every middle-aged generation goes on about how today’s kids can’t/won’t/never will do this or that valuable thing which they and their middle-aged compeers had to learn to do when they were young. When I was a teenager the concern was we’d all be deaf from listening to rock ‘n’ roll. If our brains have adapted at all to reading (and I bet it’s been far too short a time for any reading-specific mutations to have taken place in the brain) I don’t think a little scanning is going to lead to some new adaptation. Rather than losing the ability to read, I suspect that some people are finding they have lost the time to read. When they eventually find they do have the time, they’ll discover that they have the tools, totally intact.

The Millions brings us a piece by Cody Delistraty suggesting that reading is good for you in the very direct way of making beneficial neuronal changes in your brain. Neuronal pathways can no doubt be established in the brain, but I’m not sure that an effect measured five days after the event can be allowed to count as proving the brain has been “permanently rewired”.  We should not be surprised that the brain effects of reading can be measured. We all sense that reading good books is good for us. Richard Rorty claimed “the novel is the genre which gives us most help in grasping the variety of human life and the contingency of our own moral vocabulary”. Elsewhere he referred to the novel as “the characteristic genre of democracy, the genre most closely associated with the struggle for freedom and equality”  Other philosophers, notably Martha Nussbaum, have joined him in insisting on the ethical value of fiction reading. I think we all feel reinforced in the goodness of our lives (to whatever extent our lives can be called good!) by reading about Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. (But why always Dorothea Brooke, though, when she spends almost all the book as Dorothea Casaubon?) Reading the book may not make us try to give large chunks of our wealth away, but certainly makes us wish we were better people.

I’m not sure whether this piece from The Atlantic about note-taking has any bearing on the question of digital reading as against hard copy reading, but I can affirm that I certainly find the best way to learn/really know a poem is to write it out by hand. Maybe it has something to do with the speed at which we write as against type (though my hunt-and-peck is quite possibly slower than longhand). Perhaps the effect (if it’s really real) has to do with something like mirror neurons; the process of focussing on each word giving the neuronal pathway time to consolidate, or reactivating a pathway already there.

Publishers got quite excited when MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) started about four years ago. (The name was invented in 2008.) With tens of thousands of students these courses would sell thousands of books. The bonanza never quite worked out like that, though lots of books must in fact have been sold. Of course it’s hard to measure the sale: students can live anywhere, so it’s not like a normal course adoption sale where you know you have shipped 500 copies of the textbook to the college bookstore. Over the last few months I have signed up for three MOOCs, and I have gotten the book for each: though maybe having come through the book business I am untypical. It is true that two of the books I purchased (as Kindle versions from Amazon) were self published by the course leaders, and the third, I actually already owned already, so no publisher sales boost from me I regret to say.

According to the admirably full description in Wikipedia, the completion rate for a MOOC is about 10% with a large drop out in the first week. The initial enthusiasm from the university community has somewhat dissipated, and there is some publisher skepticism that the large organizations offering such course will be able to survive. Still, the course I am currently doing rolls on — and is excellent — Peter Singer from Princeton on Practical Ethics. Actually all the courses I have done have been excellent; I learnt a lot from the one called “What does a plant know”. There do seem to be a lot of young students still “attending” Practical Ethics, but one of the problems of MOOCs has been that too many of the people doing them are like me — just tuning in for general interest, not striving to get a degree. So I don’t do the 750 word paper on deontology contrasted with consequentialism, saying to myself “Of course I could write such a thing, but what’s the point?”. The paper if I wrote it would be peer-reviewed — do I really want to know what some of those young whipper-snappers think of what I wrote! On the discussion boards there’s a lot of rhetoric about God and shrill assertions that all we need as an ethical guide is the good old Bible. So I tend not to post my opinions; I really don’t want an argument with fundamentalist youth.

Reviewing a book written as the textbook for a MOOC, Gregory Nagy’s The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours, in The New York Review of Books of 22 May 2014, Gregory Hays writes “It’s typical for new technologies initially to mimic an existing one; Gutenberg’s forty-two-line Bible is not easy to distinguish from a manuscript copy. It takes time to figure out what a new medium can do besides the same thing bigger, faster, or cheaper, and for its particular strengths and weaknesses to emerge. Fifty years after Gutenberg, printing had shown itself vastly superior for Bibles and legal texts, a cheap substitute for deluxe books of hours, and no replacement at all for wills, inventories, and personal letters.” He criticizes Nagy’s book as being too close in format to the lecture series, so that while you are reading it you almost feel that watching the lecture might be a better use of your time. He goes on to conclude “It may turn out that MOOCs will work best for teaching a basic skill: basic accounting, say, or the non-lab components of college chemistry—or even first year Greek”.

Whether one can regard as still relevant the early fears of academics that they would be made redundant by a series of MOOCs which did their teaching job once and for all, change is likely to come to the world of the university. Costs have gone up alarmingly, and some sort of change is surely inevitable. Maybe some sort of MOOC-like solution will evolve. Assessment might be more manageable on a university by university basis — after all they do it now. Hays may be right that the MOOCs could be used for the more basic skills, with testing and assessment hived off into other live classes in a course.

We are all aware of the pressure on libraries to find space to store their ever-growing collections. The New York Public Library owns about 7 million books for which shelf space has obviously got to be found. Their recent plans for rejigging the structure of their whole operation, closing the main branch opposite their landmark headquarters building, excavating space under Bryant Park, and moving lots of books to remote storage in New Jersey, have been shelved as a result of public protest. The idea behind Google’s big scanning project (now of course stalled) was that libraries would discard the hard copy books after digitizing them. You can obviously fit more e-books onto a shelf than those old baggy monsters. Clearly as more and more books get published every year, no library can keep them all out front and available. Lots get wasted or sold off. One wonders how the Copyright Deposit Libraries in the U.K. manage with this problem. Have they really got one copy of every book published since 1662 when the deposit requirement was instituted?  Probably yes, with all sorts of remote warehousing going on. I see from the Agency for Legal Deposit site that since 2013 digital books have been required too, though whether as alternatives to print or in addition I’m not sure — Looks like alternative might be a negotiable option.

 The Millions brings us this fascinating extract from The Shelf by Phyllis Rose (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) showing us the criteria used by librarians to CREW (Continuous Review Evaluation and Weeding) their collections. Apparently they assess eight factors: the number of years since the last copyright date; the number of years since the book was last borrowed; and the MUSTIE factors:  M = misleading (is the information out of date?), U = ugly (is it in bad condition?), S = superseded (is there a newer edition or better account?), T = trivial, I = irrelevant (to your patrons), and E = elsewhere (can you get it easily via e.g. library loan?). Describing the process in the Wesleyan University Library the author tells us of the list of books they had to consider for deaccessioning, 6% of their holdings,  “The scale of the operation is stupefying. I looked at the list for the Library of Congress category PR—English literature—and there were nine thousand entries. This means that nine thousand books, published before 1990, had been checked out only two times or less since 1996 and not at all since 2003.”  She suggests that the individual can combat the weeding process by simply borrowing a book — that’d obviously prevent it getting into the CREW process. Unfortunately now that everything’s electronic, it’s no longer so obvious which book is in most need of an outing.

The extract from The Shelf concludes with a discussion of on-line reviews.

I have often shouted that publishers were foolish, having failed to raise book prices enough when they were able to make savings in the cost of typesetting and printing as a result of technological developments. Seems I was wrong.

Here’s an inflation-converter from The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. So if you know that that book cost $1.25 in 1965 (as H.D.F. Kitto: The Greeks from Penguin Books did) then you can say that allowing for inflation it should cost $9.38 today. Amazon tells me it’s out of print (only available 2nd hand) but their cover image shows that the book was priced at $13.95 when it went OP, whenever that was. On the other hand Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy in the Oxford University Press (US) Galaxy paperback edition of 1970, cost $2.50. Today that would inflate to $15.28. However Amazon shows it (the imported UK Penguin edition), at $10.19 — a bargain — or a comment about pricing policies from two different houses. Cambridge University Press’s Poems of Goethe, German text with notes, edited by Ronald Gray was published in 1966 at $2.45. The Inflation calculator would raise that to $17.93. It is actually still available (print on demand) from CUP but at $28.99. Wrong again with a 288pp Tirso de Molina from the Laurel Language Library — if any publisher was rash enough now to publish two plays in the original Spanish with Introduction and Notes for American Students they’d certainly charge more than $3.75, the inflation-adjusted price corresponding to 50¢ in 1965. Of course these were relatively early days in the paperback revolution, and maybe two effects were at work: 1. people would buy almost anything so print runs could be larger (?), and 2. publishers were feeling their way. Just as today most publishers would loose a bundle on the Tirso de Molina project, so then maybe Dell was actually charging too little, and took a bath on this one. In other words, just because those were the prices, doesn’t mean those were the right prices.

Robert Darnton tells us in The New York Review of Books 22 May 2014 issue, that the average price of an annual subscription to a chemistry journal is now $4,044. In 1970 it was $33. The inflation calculator says it should be $200.97 now. We’ve all gotten used to the idea that there’s more than inflation going on with journal prices though. The article is a wide-ranging discussion of open access, journal pricing, access to information, and The Digital Public Library of America, with which he is closely involved. (My earlier post on DPLA had links)

Scott William Carter’s blog is the route via which I became aware of the inflation calculator. He’s mainly focussing on what self publishers should charge for their e-books. Strategic pricing looks like a better bet these days (especially with e-books) than the way we used to do it, increasing the retail price every year by something like the inflation rate, so that the book was in theory always selling at a price which would yield you replacement cost when you needed to reprint.

Not really sure what augmented reality can bring to books, apart from the whizz-bang impact of the new. But then of course until someone does it, we can never imagine what all a new technology can offer. The Guinness Book of World Records 2014 is printed with augmented reality tags. If you have the book, you can get a free app from the App Store. This app will enable you to see the twelve 3D animations in the book, which include meeting the world’s shortest woman, and having your photo taken next to her, to interact with (the inevitable) dinosaur, to see the view from the top of Mount Everest, to look at yourself with the world’s longest tongue in your mouth (can you resist?) or the world’s longest beard. The App store contains 3171 virtual reality apps for iPhones — I guess it’s really here. One of the problems, to my mind, is that there seems almost to be a different app for every offering — we haven’t settled down to a brand leader or even a dominant software yet. So if you are out in the world and you come upon a printed piece with augmented reality imbeds, there’s no guarantee that the apps you may have downloaded will in fact be the ones to work in this specific case. Eventually perhaps someone will develop a universal reader — though I’ve no idea whether this is even a possibility.

Here are a couple of augmented reality images provided by Sappi Fine Paper North America at a recent Book Industry Guild of New York meeting. You have to download the free AR app, Junaio, from the App Store or Google Play, and then open the app and tap “Scan” in the upper right corner and hover over this QR tag IMG_0116to open the Sappi channel. Then hold your iPhone (or whatever you are using) over the images below and see what happens. Now this is perhaps less impressive on a computer screen, as we are all used to computers doing stuff like this all the time. But be aware these images are just photos I made of a printed piece. So, if you had the piece of paper in front of you, this is exactly what would be happening. Amazing!

Layar has just released an app for Google Glass which brings augmented reality yet closer. The video at this link is quite interesting.

As I say, I can’t really think of a “real” application for a book. Making dinosaurs dance is perhaps fun, but isn’t really adding anything meaningful to the book. Maybe some sort of instructional use could be imagined. In the Layer video they show the movie trailer being played in response to a scan of the poster. One could see a medical textbook incorporating this sort of thing to make surgical training more accessible.IMG_0118


A story from Shelf Awareness of 24 April, 2014.

Reading Agency Survey: 63% of British Men ‘Rarely Read’

British men “are giving up on reading books,” according to a Reading Agency study that found “being too busy, not enjoying reading and preferring to spend their spare time on the Internet means men read fewer books, read more slowly and are less likely to finish them than women,” the Bookseller reported. OnePoll, which surveyed 2,000 British men and women, discovered that 63% of men “don’t read as much as they think they should. Many blamed a lack of time while a fifth said they find it difficult or don’t enjoy it,” the Bookseller wrote.

Among the key findings:

  • Nearly 75% of men said they would opt for the film or TV adaptation of a book, while the same percentage of women would read the book.
  • Women are more likely to have bought or borrowed a book this year, with more visiting bookshops, libraries, supermarket book aisles and online retailers than men.
  • 46% of men surveyed are reading fewer books now than they did in the past; a third prefer the Internet and 30% engage more with film and TV.
  • One in five men confessed they have pretended to have read a specific title in order to appear more intelligent.
  • Almost 30% of men admit that they haven’t really picked up a book since they were obliged to at school.

“We know reading is really important, so we’ve got to get more people in general, particularly men, to pick up a book,” said Sue Wilkinson, CEO of the Reading Agency, which commissioned the survey to mark World Book Night. “It seems that men recognize the value of reading books but admit that they don’t do it as much as they might for several reasons. TV shows and films, and the internet, are competing for people’s time these days, especially that of young men, and our focus is to remind them of the pleasure that can be derived from reading a book as well. This year’s World Book Night list of 20 books was selected with these young men in mind”

Am I alone in finding the fact that 25% of men apparently said they’d opt for the book over the movie rather impressive? (I bet some of the women respondents may have been giving what they took to be the “correct” answer.) Furthermore, I wonder if the guys were asked whether after seeing the movie they’d consider reading the book? Should we not be more worried about the 37% of men who appear to believe they are reading too much (or maybe just the right amount)? That 63% believe they are not reading enough should fill us with hope surely — it sounds like it’ll be easy to improve! Should I not feel happy that 54% of men are reading more books than they did in the past — or is that not what the results are saying? That 30% of men confess to not having picked up a book since they left school shouldn’t really surprise (just think of your school fellows); I think the 70% who have is more noteworthy, though of course we don’t really know what that means in terms of volume(s). It’s always been a commonplace that girls read more than boys, and women more than men — and enjoy shopping more. What’ll it take to make these people happy — does everybody have to read a book a month? I suspect that when that level’s reached, we’d find surveys saying how shameful it is that some people aren’t reading a book a week.



Nearly 64% of paper used in USA was recovered from recycling in 2010. This is more than any other material — 35% for metal, 27% glass, and 8% plastic. The industry has a target of 70% by 2020. Every day US papermakers recycle enough paper to fill a 15-mile-long train of boxcars.

Paper mills have always recycled their own material — paper that got damaged in the manufacturing process. This clean waste is called broke, and can be encountered in a print shop too, where the press makeready process can result in a quantity of broke. This reuse only makes sense: no point in paying for your raw material, then paying again to dispose of it. Almost any paper you use will have recycled fiber in it. The truly “recycled” papers will include a stated amount of post-consumer fiber.

Once the paper has been printed though it can’t be fed directly back into the system. The ink will have to be removed from it before it can be reused. Printed waste (and we all see lots of that on any visit to a printing plant) and post-consumer waste (the stuff your local authority picks up) gets pulped and “washed” to remove the ink. All those unsold books that get wasted end up (one hopes) in this stream. There’s a limit to the number of times this can be done before the end product begins to look dingy — the ultimate fate for much recycled paper is to be made into container board.

The waste paper business is affected directly by fluctuations in the economic cycle. With less economic activity there’s less demand for packaging where much of the recycled fiber ends up. Recently we have been seeing reports of the ships hauling goods from China returning with flattened cardboard cartons, as there just wasn’t enough demand for the fiber here. Here’s the 2013 breakdown of recycled paper usage from the American Forest and Paper Association.


Paper recycling is firmly established in New York City. Here’s a truck picking up from the local supermarket.


Well it’s not books, but I guess we publishing people should be happy that a restaurant chain is printing short stories on their paper cups. We spend altogether too much time worrying if people want to read anymore. Publishing Business Today sends a link to this story from Vanity Fair. The VF blog carries illustrations of the cups, and the text of four stories/essays.