Archives for the month of: June, 2015

Was Finnegans Wake really an example of hypertext web fiction avant la letter? The Guardian, via its new Bookmarks e-newsletter suggests as much.

Maybe I’m a Philistine, but I can’t say I really get the point of writing in ways which people can’t understand. Well, maybe not “I can’t see the point”, because I suppose I can really. You want to shock, disorientate and thus cause some sort of fundamental reevaluation of the reader’s relationship to the world and the word. Maybe I’m just complacent, and don’t think I need my viewpoint refocussing. Conceptual poetry just gets my back up. Cutting words out of a newspaper, putting them in a bag, shaking the bag, and taking out a word at a time will of course produce something, which if you lay it out in short lines will look like a poem. But what’s the point? Are you suggesting that poetry is a dead convention? That the sense isn’t what’s important, it’s the rhythm (though how you ensure a good rhythm with random withdrawals is hard to figure)? If you really think so badly of poetry, just don’t do it. Nobody’s forcing you to compose. One could of course program a computer to select random words and plonk them down in lines of about five syllables, and in the end we might say, isn’t that clever. (Well, I wouldn’t, but some might.) But that doesn’t mean computers can write poetry, or even that programmers can, though I suppose one might find the odd programmer-bard. The verses in the quiz about machine writing are admittedly hard to identify as not human-written, but a few lines may enable the computer to get away with that. The Turing test is one thing: a Tennyson test would surely be a horse of a very different color.

Difficult literature does of course appeal to some. I guess they are puzzle-solvers. I remember a dinner guest many years ago assuring me that he just like to let Joyce’s words wash over him. I’ve never cottoned to literature as intellectual testbed or as verbal massage. It’s often said the way to get Finnegans Wake is to read it aloud — so what could be better than hearing the author himself administer the massage. Geoff Wilkins’ website gives the recitation along with the text. (Make sure your speakers are on before you follow this link: he starts right away.)

If you liked that you may be ready to move on to the entire work read here at UbuWeb by Patrick Healy. It’s a feat: how does he read it so fast? I find it hard to keep up with him just following along. Still at 35 hours total I guess you feel the need to up the pace. Hyperlinks would be a nightmare it seems to me. If you stop to check everything you’ll never get anywhere — the journey’s long enough without detours. But paradoxically without the detours maybe the journey’s not worth taking? Do we have to devote a lifetime to this one work?


Joe Wikert, at his Digital Content Strategies begins his report on BEA thus “The Javits Center must have some sort of time warp technology. I recently attended the BEA event there and I kept asking myself the same question: Is this 2015 or 2005? The digital vibe was almost nowhere to be found in the expo hall. For example, publishers are still handing out stacks of print galleys and samples. Is that really more effective than digital copies? Wouldn’t it be better to distribute e-versions and gather customer info along the way? All this talk of establishing direct relationships with readers and having access to the resulting data still seems to be the stuff of fiction.”

This, like the comment from Michael Bhaksar which he reports with approval: “Publishers treat ebooks as a secondary priority”, demonstrates a fixation which obscures a reality which digital enthusiasts seem unable to take on board. Digital sales represent something like 20% to 30% of total book sales.* We’d be insane to focus exclusively on the 25% to the detriment of the 75%. If all the publishers’ booths were just screens with no books (and some of the larger trade houses at BEA did actually seem to be tending in this direction) then some of us would be justified in complaining “The print vibe was almost nowhere to be found in the expo hall”. I can see that it might be nice, and cheap, to give people an e-book rather than a bound galley — but Joe — that’s obviously not what people want! Didn’t you see all those young ladies running about jamming ARCs into their book bags? Furthermore, although we now have the BookCon add-on at the end, the BEA show is actually designed to be an interface between bookstores and publishers. We don’t really need e-proofs to “track” what a bookstore buyer does with an ARC. We know when we see their order.

It’s all well and good to be ready (even eager) to greet the future — but don’t forget today in your rush to leave the past behind.


*  The Bookseller’s Future Book does some extrapolating from the case of Bloomsbury to the whole industry, which is no doubt a risky procedure. However their analysis does show some interesting breakdown numbers. The recent standstill/drop-off in trade digital sales does appear to be a widespread phenomenon. We all wait to see what happens next! But for the moment, digital has to be secondary.

No need ever to look dumb again in this digital age; you can always ask (without anyone knowing). Oxford University Press gives us spelling rules which can be consulted on the go. The owners of triple crown winner American Pharoah obviously failed to look.

I’ve always been a poor speller. Immediately after I came to America I was able to hide behind the claim “Oh yes; that’s the way we spell it in Britain”, but that’s wearing a bit thin now. As I type these words WordPress’s ever eager spellchecker keeps me on track — except when it throws me to the dogs with an assumption that what I was really trying to say was X, not the somewhat similar Y I actually had in mind. With luck I notice these glitches. I did get a complaint about this blog once  from someone in Germany who said that although the posts were quite interesting she refused to go on reading because of all the spelling errors. I had to put this down to her expectation (perhaps) that words with dual US/UK spelling variants should follow the UK pattern. My spellchecker doesn’t however agree, and when I type the UK variant it will silently “correct” me, or at least query the word by a dotted red underline. So I think it takes some determination to misspell a word when you are writing on a computer. (I must have typed Pharoah above at least six times.)

I wonder if this is why spelling seems to be less emphasized in school these days. If spelling is just a mechanical thing which computers can take care of, should we then still value good spelling and drill kids in it? Obviously there are misspellings which can lead to misunderstanding, but not too often. The purpose of writing is communication and spelling spelling as “speling” doesn’t really get in the way of that. You might think it odd that I sometimes spelled the word with one “L” and sometimes with two, but you wouldn’t mistake what it was I was on about. According to the OUP rules the past tense of travel is spelt with one “L” in America and two in Britain. I hadn’t realized this before — however whether I type travelled or traveled my spellchecker remains happy either way. Maybe we see them both as acceptable alternatives now.

Which leads me on to another part of my anti-spelling stance. It keeps on changing. Not overnight, but certainly within a lifetime. Dictionaries usually take account of such movement by labeling* the new version as “rare” “obscure” “slang”, then in their next edition as “alternative” “variant” until the order is switched an the old version graduates to “archaic” “rare”. If everything is relative why shouldn’t I develop my own personal brand of orthography? But we don’t do we? Not even George Bernard Shaw would spell fish ghote. I guess it’s simpler to stick with the well-worn pathways of recognized spellings.

Am I just being old-fashioned in my prejudice against misspellings in books? After all I have spent a lifetime dedicated to getting them out of there. Is it just something publishers do, or does it really make a difference? I believe in a timid sort of way that spelling shouldn’t be allowed to become a shibboleth, and that as long as the message gets across that’s enough, but it will be a brave publisher who first willfully publishes a misspelled book (which isn’t some sort of experimental, Finnegans Wake-ian writing). I tend to lose confidence in the author and publisher if there are obvious spelling errors — though I do still insist that that must just be my conditioning. What is I think beyond dispute is the reduction in proofreading of books: the fact that we are unwilling to spend money to avoid spelling and vocabulary errors means inevitably that we see more and more of them. As we get more used to them, maybe we’ll get used to them!


* Spellchecker insists on one “L” though Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary assures me it has two.

Stan Nelson of Atelier Press whose videos of punchcutting (in the previous post) showed how the type punch was cut and the matrix made, now demonstrates hand casting of type.

In the third video he assembles a hand mould, making clear if you missed it, exactly how the mould worked. The molten type metal that’s getting squirted into the mould is an alloy of lead, antimony and tin. The recipe would vary from place to place, but the overall intention was to reduce the coefficient of expansion between matrix and type. Obviously you want the type metal to be soft enough to enable easy casting, but hard enough to stand up to the pressure of the press so you could print enough copies.

The intense physicality of everything just 50 years ago is something which I suspect young people today are just not aware of. We touched everything: the manuscript and the letter from the author which accompanied it in the brown-paper parcel tied with string which we had to unwrap. Type was type, an object — those little bits of metal, not this series of dots on the screen you are looking at while you read this. The book, which traditionalists today laud as such a satisfying physical object, was just the end of the process. All along the way there were things which had had to have been touched: proofs, rough sketches for the jacket, the stamping die (well that’s still a physical object: it’s just not as likely to go through your hands in the publishing office as it used to). The need to touch things is perhaps infantile, but like so much from that age it was deeply satisfying. Maybe we are now fully adult in our digital domain: or are we working towards tactile-deficit-syndrome?

See also Casting type

link-to-bauer-mahr-hand-punch-cutter-sf0Well, you can hardly see that picture — which is quite appropriate since the hand punchcutter working on a type punch could hardly see what he was doing. Imagine working all day with that magnifying lens in your right eye. A punch is a steel original used to punch an indentation into a matrix, so that many duplicates could be cast from the matrix. The punch had to be harder than the matrix, which in turn had to be harder than the resulting piece of type. Cutting a punch for a piece of type is incredibly finicky work, especially in the smaller type sizes. It would require a good eye, a strong arm, and lots of patience. Insofar as there are any short cuts in the laborious process, that would be represented by the counterpunch. In many characters the counter, the hole in the middle, is fairly regular: thus R and P might share a counterpunch as might p, b, q, d and g in this font, while A, a, e, o, D, B would need one each. By annealing the steel of the counterpunch it could be made hard enough to beat out a hole in the middle of the type, leaving the punchcutter free to deal with the outer edges only. The shape of the punch would need to represent the character in reverse (as a mirror image) so that the matrix would be right-reading, the cast piece of type wrong-reading, and thus the printed piece right-reading. These videos featuring Stan Nelson of Atelier Press of Ellicott City, Maryland, give an excellent overview of the handwork which lay behind the casting of type for about 300 years. Of course, once the punch was made, many matrices could be struck from it, and from each matrix many thousand bits of type could be cast. See a subsequent post for Mr Nelson’s demonstration of typecasting.

We hear more about this all the time: the writing robots are on the march. We are assured that sizable portions of our newspapers are written by machines rather than people. How to know?

The New York Times has a quiz enabling you to tell just how well you can distinguish machine-written from hand-written stuff. (I did badly.) Of course you might legitimately argue that if you were given more than a snippet, your performance would improve. This quiz was brought to our attention by Joe Wikert’s Digital Content Strategies in a post about automated curation. If we are unable to identify work written by computers, why should we be leery of having a computer make our selection from our reading subscription service of what’s worth looking at and what we can safely ignore? We’d give it our own preferences to guide the search, and of course the patient bot isn’t going to harm you if you ignore its advice. The mass of stuff available on-line written by mere humans is already so many thousand times greater than that which any one of us can hope to read in a life time, that some way of judging it (other than just ignoring what you’ve not heard of) is necessary.

However, as The Digital Reader points out Joe’s worries about being overwhelmed with content apply more to magazine and news services than to book subscription services. Still, once we get on a roll with machine-generated books, and I’ve no doubt we will sooner rather than later, Mr Hoffelder’s attitude may change. Even deciding not to read something takes time.


poets-cornerInteresting Literature brings a piece about Poets’ Corner in the south transept of Westminster Abbey — though I’m not sure the “fun facts” in their subtitle should really be the terminology used when discussing burial sites.

Oliver Goldsmith and Samuel Johnson visited Westminster Abbey together, and Boswell reports the latter’s speculations as to whether their fame would mingle with those interred in Poets’ Corner: “Forsitan et nostrum nomen miscebitur istis”. (If you want to follow up this reference, Boswell recounts it on 30 April 1773.) They both made it; Johnson is buried there, Goldsmith memorialized with a tablet and bust. Johnson wrote the Latin epitaph on Goldsmith’s memorial, claiming that “he would never consent to disgrace the walls of Westminster Abbey with an English inscription”. Sounds like he felt compelled to talk in Latin while there too.

Wikipedia, inevitably, has a list of all those buried in Poets’ Corner, as well as the second rank, represented only by a memorial. Philip Larkin, as reported by the BBC, is the latest poet to be enshrined. A sign of how far we’ve travelled far since Johnson’s day perhaps: that a poet famous for his use of the “f-word” is welcomed.


UnknownWhen I start in about “The man in the golden helmet”, they try to stop my ranting with the question “What would you think if it was discovered that Hamlet had been written than someone other than Shakespeare?” I like to think I wouldn’t care. It’s fundamentally different, isn’t it? When “The man in the golden helmet” was declared in 1985 to be not by Rembrandt but by a student of his its estimated value dropped from $8,000,000 to $400,000, and visitors to the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin stopped going to look at it. It was the self-same picture, raved over for years as one of Rembrandt’s greatest, but now it was 95% less “good”! Well, that’s obviously ridiculous: the skill with which it was painted didn’t change between 1984 and 1986, all the praise the art critics lavished on it still had to be just as true, didn’t it — unless those critics really only meant “This picture is beautiful because, and only because, it is worth so much money”. Cynically I suspect many of them of saying exactly that: the whole of their training may be just a long course in wrapping that truth up in high falutin’ words. But whether a picture “speaks to you” ought not to have anything to do with what critics and art historians say about it. Now that I need glasses to read the labels in museums I find the experience more rewarding: I walk through, eye-glass-less, ignorant of the name and thus status of the painters and can look at the things I like rather than the things “they” say I should.

An interesting piece by Matthew Bown in The Times Literary Supplement of 10 April 2015 addresses the idea of artworks as the modern equivalent of religious relics. Their value, he suggests, inheres in the idea that “the master” touched them, thus making them unique. This would explain why quite pedestrian modern works, made without any apparent skill or talent (beyond a talent for getting public attention) should command such outrageous prices. And also why a van Meegeren, although indistinguishable to anyone but an expert (and often apparently to them too), should be available for a fraction of what you’ll pay for a genuine Vermeer.

This just isn’t the picture in the book world. Despite some dilettanti projects (mixing the author’s DNA with the ink, or printing the book in blood) what we readers want in a book is the content not the physical manifestation. We don’t care if it’s the Oxford World Classics, the Penguin Classics, the Modern Library, the Wordsworth Classics edition, or the hardback first edition, or even an e-book from Project Gutenberg. We just want to read it. Now if it were revealed that a tramp named Paddy O’Riley not James Joyce had in fact written Ulysses there would presumably be a drop in the asking price for the original manuscript, the author’s corrected proofs, and maybe those few inscribed first editions. Or maybe not: they might paradoxically be seen as more valuable: who knows what collectors are after? But I’m pretty sure that anyone wanting to read the book wouldn’t be at all deterred by the fact that O’Riley had used a nom-de-plume, even if it was a non-de-plume of another active author. Would it make a difference if A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Finnegans Wake weren’t written by Paddy, but by the famous James Joyce? Not much I think. Ulysses is Ulysses and it stands by itself. After all, who cares that books by Robert Galbraith are in fact written by J. K. Rowling? Or more touchingly that books by Gavin Black were written by Oswald Wynd, an almost forgotten novelist who went to university with my mother? Having a pseudonym for a different genre of your writing seems a fairly common practice.

People do tend to get rather excited when a new work by a famous author, like Shakespeare turns up: academic reputations have thus been made. But I suppose that was more a poem unrecognized, rather than misattributed. There’s a correspondence going on in the TLS now about the authorship of Arden of Faversham. Does it matter (except in the world of academe) whether it was written partly or not at all by Shakespeare? I suppose it does to the extent that we don’t feel we have to read all the works of Thomas Kyd, but if it were to be taken into the Shakespearian canon, we’d all have to engage with Arden just as much as we do with Two Noble Kinsmen.

This gets us to the one area of publishing where misattribution of authorship does matter — academic publishing, more particularly scholarly journal publishing. Here’s a case in point from COPE, the Committee on Publication Ethics. Clearly it matters in the world of research who’s actually responsible for the work. The weight readers attach to research will be correlated to the respect induced by the name of authors. Academic papers, especially scientific ones, often list many authors. Obviously hitching a ride without doing the work might be seen by the unscrupulous as a good career move. In book publishing publishers have generally provided a gate-keeping function to prevent such passing-off. If I turned up at Random House with an outline and sample chapter for Robert Galbraith’s latest, I suspect someone might rumble me — Gavin Black maybe I’d get away with. But I really don’t know what would happen nowadays if someone self-published a book under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. I wonder if the Kindle algorithms would suss them out, or whether Jo would ever discover, and/or care. I do not recommend trying this: it sounds illegal, and even if not, sleazy.

This has ever been a bit of a bee in my bonnet. Publishers Weekly now picks up the running. I could never get my mind around the lack of care given by many cover designers when it came to the spine. 95% of the time a book is going to be seen spine out on a shelf either in your home, or in a bookstore (if it’s lucky enough to be there in the first place) yet as far as design goes the spine just seems in too many cases to be a barren divider between the front and the back. This piece from explores the same terrain with some good examples.

My bonnet starts buzzing even louder when it comes to the design (if that’s what it is) of the stamping die. All to often — nowadays almost always — this is just left as a duplicate of the author’s name and the title from the spine of the jacket. Now if I’m saying that the jacket was boring, what about the case cover: don’t most hardbacks end up jacket-less showing the spine stamping as the only external ID after they’ve been around for some years?

I rather like this book, Mort(e) by Robert Repino. No jacket; a 3-piece binding with dramatic 2-color stamping on the cloth spine, and nice matte laminated sides. Soho did a good job on this one.


This suggestion from The Washington Post (via The Passive Voice) that novels might be published in installments does seem to me to make sense. We do so many things merely because that’s what we have always done, that outside-the-box thinking often seems more likely to get you fired than promoted. Publishing a book in serial form, chapter by chapter, just as Dickens did, is now dead easy because of the 180º turn in the basic economic foundations of publishing brought about by the digital revolution. You don’t have to print thousands of copies of the whole book and attempt to flood the market so that in order to keep their heads above water all readers will rush to buy a copy. You can easily bring it out chapter by chapter (doing it, as people have, 140 characters at a time on Twitter, may be going too far) and this would seem to fit perfectly with the burgeoning book club, book group movement. There’s nothing to stop you printing it after the final chapter is done, but importantly there’s nothing forcing you to do so.

Now maybe a chapter a month is too slow for some — isn’t pent up demand, nevertheless demand? If you get people bitching to their friends that they can’t bear waiting for the next installment of Dombey and Son, isn’t that likely to boost sales?