Archives for the month of: December, 2015

imagesBook Bub’s list of the day consists of book recommendations from POTUS.

POTUS and SCOTUS are among my favorite acronyms. They roll so satisfyingly off the tongue. I part company with those who insist on drawing a distinction between acronym and initialism. The distinction, while it clearly can be said to exist, doesn’t carry any useful meaning as far as I’m concerned. I guess those who insist on the distinction, are focussing on the presence of “word” in many definitions. But does a word have to be pronounceable? Maybe it does.

Not messing about, The Oxford English Dictionary gives both definitions under “acronym”. Their first definition, the initialism one, they note as being primarily American. One of their examples of the pronounceable variety of acronym is Tea Party in its political sense. I had always imagined this title was a reference to “The Boston Tea Party”, but the OED listing of examples includes what Today I Found Out would have us regard as a “backronym” — “Turning tea into an acronym for Taxed Enough Already, demonstrators were expected to attend more than 750 rallies to protest government spending.”

The President has not been shy of recommending books to his fellow Americans. For summer reading this year he suggested All That Is by James Salter, All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (inevitably) and Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. These he hoped to read on his 16-day vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Not bad going if he managed it. He recently had a thorough-going discussion of books with Marilynne Robinson in The New York Review of Books. Part 1 was in the 5 November issue and Part 2 in the 19 November issue. The guy reads.

24 October 2016: Here’s another list of President Obama’s recommended reading, this one from Wired.


Does science fiction about climate change = a new genre?

The Digital Reader sends us a report from The Conversation on the phenomenon, which appears to have been introduced as a concept in 2007 by blogger Dan Bloom. Dissent Magazine had a useful survey article on it in 2013. Wikipedia, which is silent on the origin of the term, assures us that “Hundreds of universities worldwide now offer climate-change fiction courses that deal with both literature and film.”

UnknownSeems to have made it to the cover of Time in March 2014. I should pay attention!

As to whether cli-fi really does represent a full-blown genre, I remain skeptical. Does sic-fi have subdivisions for robots, dystopias, space flight etc.etc. or is it all just sic-fi? Surely one could write a romance novel which had climate change as its backdrop: would that be cli-romance? This difficulty has been taken care of by the website Eco-fiction, which makes no science-fictional demands. They also reveal the existence of the sub-genre Solarpunk, which slightly confusing term appears at bottom to be cli-fi with a happy ending.

Still, if it makes fans happy to live with cli-fi, what harm’s done? For such, there’s a Twitter hashtag, #clifi, and a Facebook YA Cli-fi community. For novices, keen to engage with the phenomenon, The Guardian provides a reading list of 10 YA cli-fi books to get started on, while Goodreads hits you over the head with 132 titles.


Want to read a book set in your state? Just one? The most popular books set in each of the fifty states are shown on the map attached to this Arts.Mic story. Closer to home we find the Literary Map of NYC and the website Literary Manhattan. Here’s yet another map/book site, this one from New York Public Library.

It’s happening all over. I recently reported on a similar venture covering Edinburgh and environs. This site, Placing Literature, holds out the promise of mapping wherever. Readers are invited to “add a scene” to the database, which already includes lots of references.

Here, from The Digital Reader, is a story about how your local library wants you to read local too.


Rebelling against the copyright laws by simply ignoring them may be something an individual cartoonist can do, but for a publisher there are a couple of obvious problems. The copyrights we need to copy tend to be cheaper than those typically owned by the large corporations who are at the heart of the use of copyright as censorship, so the battle isn’t worth the risk of punishment. We also rather relish the copyright payments we receive from elsewhere for quotations from our publications. And then of course what boss is going to instruct employees to engage in conduct which could land them in court? Ms Paley can contemplate bringing her film out in two versions — one with the copyright materials quoted omitted from it, and the other, black market edition with them in. I can’t figure out how we might apply that to books!

The general point she makes is good though. Copyright has been roiled up in the world of corporate assets. We need to break this connection which may be valid for hugely expensive products like Hollywood movies, but must be a different matter when it comes to quoting The Waste Land.

From The Digital Reader


Patentcomposing-1Perhaps the earliest mechanized typesetting machine, the charmingly named Pianotype proclaims its origins. A machine had been patented in 1822 by William Church, but it appears never to have been manufactured. James Young and Adrien Delcambre patented this machine in 1840. The Mechanics Magazine of 25 June 1842 describes the system in some detail.

Here is one shown from that 1842 source, being operated by ladies. The machine actually required seven people to run it, the keyboarder and the assistant shown, who added word spaces and justified the lines, as well as two boys to replenish the supply of types in the magazine at the top of the machine, one to operate the eccentric movement of the machine, and two to distribute the types after printing had been completed.

It’s a cliché, overworked as all clichés must be, that academics write opaque prose.

The Passive Voice tells us that The Atlantic has joined the long line of those who tell us how much they deplore this fact, a trend stimulated every year by the Ig Nobel Prize. It’s really too easy a target for any respectable magazine to be wasting its time and space on, but there we go. If academics feel the need for precision in their word-choice, and that word-choice is opaque to us laymen, so what? Laymen tend not to read this sort of stuff. Barbara Vinken didn’t write Flaubert postsecular: Modernity crossed out with the average Atlantic reader in mind, so why pick on her? If the Atlantic reader does pick up her volume, they just have to be prepared to do the extra work. This does not seem to me a situation which requires any comment or complaint.

Now of course, when an academic is addressing a wider audience than researchers, the equation changes. Steven Pinker has drawn fire from offended colleagues for his critiques and appeals for better writing, but his advice is good. In a paper addressed to your academic peers only there’s no real virtue in making it comprehensible to the high-school graduate. In a book addressed to an audience of high-school graduates there’s no virtue in using specialist jargon they can’t possibly understand. But habit is hard to break.

Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever has gone through a political correctness update which Bored Panda tells us about. I loved this book when I would look at it with my daughters. Luckily, the old rigidity over gender roles doesn’t seem to have damaged them.


With Donald Trump’s continuing flow of consciousness clogging the media these days, we are once again being forced to confront the question of political correctness. His supporters boast that he’s just saying things which “everyone thinks”. This seems less a reason to support him, than an utter disqualifier. Trump seems to suffer from political Tourette’s syndrome. Just because everyone thinks something that is not a reason for everyone to say it. I don’t, of course, know what goes on in your mind, but I do know mine contains lots and lots of thoughts, many of which it would not be wise to share. Violent, obscene, insulting, revolutionary thoughts fly hither and yon within all of our heads, but we have been socialized into the ability to sort out which can be expressed or even recognized, and which should get no more salience than the transient neuron tide embodying them. Trump’s calculation is that suppressing this self-editing mechanism will bring him attention. And it’s working — for the time being. But it is a doomed strategy because we all know deep down that this sort of inhibition-free raving is not something an adult should allow to happen.

Humor of the Archie Bunker racist rant type is not really humor, and should never have been allowed as popular television entertainment. Of course times change, and something which is offensive now may not have been offensive in previous centuries, but the “humor” in All in the Family resided mainly in the titillating conflict between what we all knew we shouldn’t say or believe and what he was being allowed to say. Norman Lear seems not to have spared a moment’s thought for the reaction of those who were the butts of Bunker rants — or if he did, he decided that that didn’t matter. For shame. As a Scotsman I have lived my life with people sniggeringly implying that the Scots are tight with their money. It’s not really a big deal, but at the time when I cared, it just meant that I could be relied on to buy more rounds at the pub than my English friends.

The Oxford English Dictionary has the first usage of the phrase “political correctness” in this non-specifically-political sense in 1979. Wikipedia tells us it gained wide currency as part of the debate around the publication of Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind in 1987. I guess the old U and non-U nonsense in Britain was a proto-political-correctness phenomenon. The embargo on mentioning the toilet or worse WC was a class-based phenomenon at bottom, but many/most people in Britain still refer to the politically correct euphemism “loo”.

I’d better shut up now: it is of course not politically correct to question political correctness.

Cut, cut, then cut some more. Helen Vendler read this paean to the editing process in this year’s Robert B. Silvers Lecture.

I bless thee, Lord, because I GROW
Among thy trees, which in a ROW
To thee both fruit and order OW.
What open force, or hidden CHARM
Can blast my fruit, or bring me HARM,
While the inclosure is thine ARM.
Inclose me still for fear I START.
Be to me rather sharp and TART,
Than let me want thy hand and ART.
When thou dost greater judgments SPARE,
And with thy knife but prune and PARE,
Ev’n fruitful trees more fruitful ARE.
Such sharpness shows the sweetest FREND:
Such cuttings rather heal than REND:
And such beginnings touch their END.
GEORGE HERBERT (1593-1633)








(The periods between stanzas are not there in the original. I had to add them to force my template to accept a line space.)

Among the many mechanisms we have devised to discipline and instruct ourselves is the bibliographical reference, something we scarcely notice now that we have it. A footnote sending the interested reader to a source relies on their being a source there when the reader, next week, next year, next century, decides to go alooking. It’s all very well for me to argue with you that satellite data over the last twenty years call into question the very idea of global warming. In a conversation I can get away with it by saying it in an authoritative tone, firmly, loudly and often. If I (or Ted Cruz) print my remarks, I will however have to back up my assertion with a reference to my source — a maneuver which instantly flags the fact that I am talking bunkum, so of course one I’ll be damned if I will indulge in. There’s quite enough to debate in the worlds of science and politics (or whatever) without wasting time on untethered talk. Show me the evidence: “Print settles it”.

Coleridge is alleged to have first said this, though as I can’t find the reference I hesitate to assert this too strongly. Hazlitt too has been cited as originator. Susan Howe, in The Nonconformist’s Memorial seems to implicate Massinger. Charles Lamb certainly did say it, in a footnote which he seems subsequently to have suppressed. He (no doubt self-mockingly) reports himself as appalled by all the revisions he found to have been written into Milton’s manuscript of Lycidas. “There is something to me repugnant at any time in written hand. The text never seems determinate. Print settles it.” He doesn’t attribute the words to Coleridge, who may along with the others be being given credit because of someone’s subsequent faulty, unreferenced, recollection. The idea that a poet will not rework their first draft — any writer for that matter — is obviously nonsense. Different drafts are almost a precondition of poetry. Even the oral bard would doubtless run over in his head various different ways of telling his tale. Once it gets printed though we all take some sort of ownership in the poem, and get upset at the author’s having second thoughts.

”We must love one another or die” Auden wrote in September 1, 1939 — “trash he was ashamed to have written” as he made Penguin Books say later. He changed the line later by altering “or die” to “and die”, something one can well see an older man deciding on. The immortality of youth tends to qualified by experience. Now of course the poem exists in its two printed versions: early Auden collections and later (more authoritative?) editions. He had it excluded from his Collected Poems. Are a poet’s revisions always improvements? In this case: the first version has the advantage of utterly unrealistic youthful romance, while the second is so “true” it’s almost not worth saying. My German teacher refused to let us read Goethe’s final version of “Willkommen und Abschied” because he found the Sturm und Drang passion of the “original” so much more moving. That version was the one given (in manuscript) to Friederike Brion, to whom the poem was addressed, though it wasn’t included in printed texts till Erich Trunz’s 1929 edition. The revised poem is the one usually printed now. Obviously print doesn’t settle anything here. Both versions exist, and neither is better than the other. We may prefer one version to the other, but having both is better than having none. We are all free to chose which one we’ll read.

The Robert B. Silvers Lecture for 2015 was delivered on December 8th at New York Public Library. Helen Vender’s topic was “Poets as Editors”. As she told us, W. B. Yeats pointed out to people who would complain to him about his revising his poems “It is myself that I remake”. The poet at forty-five is a different person from the poet of the same name who was once a twenty-year-old. Wallace Stevens wrote “Some of one’s early things give one the creeps”. The older Goethe, classicist statesman rather than romantic youth, may have been a bit embarrassed at his lustful impetuosity. We should be happy he rewrote without destroying the originals.

So one may have to conclude that although print settles many things, it doesn’t settle all.

This title was suggested by Jeremy on 8 November, in response, I suspect, to my remarks on the evanescence of digital referencing in Plagiarism.

Kelmscott Manor

Kelmscott Manor

In 1893 William Morris told an audience at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society “within fifty years printing books would be an extinct art — we should be carrying all our books about in bottles with patent stoppers. While there was still a chance, [we] should try and produce a few specimens of what was really good printing”. And of course that’s just what he did at The Kelmscott Press. His talk was about the history of printing, and his bottle forecast was ironic — as Jan Marsh tells us in the Times Literary Supplement for 30 October 2015. His meaning is somewhat clarified by Edward Burne-Jones who wrote in a letter that in conversation Morris “railed fiercely against the invention of printing and gave it a hundred years at most to come to an end. Already said he the magazines are driving books out of the field — presently newspapers will have killed magazines — then the telephone will come — bottles of talk — & the newspapers will be ended & that’s a comfort — as a centipede eats a cockroach & a cockroach eats a bug — a hundred years will do it said he.”

Morris’ “bottles of talk” are clearly sound recordings, and we can make the small leap to “books in bottles with patent stoppers” as audio books or even e-books. He wasn’t far off with his 100 year forecast, but as we know e-books haven’t managed to kill off the printed book yet. Just why such a famous printer should have railed thus against the invention of printing is not altogether clear to me. Maybe the medievalist in him wished that everything still had to be handwritten.