Archives for the month of: September, 2017

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, but who’s got the motivation to place hostile or wildly favorable fake reviews on Amazon? Hillary Clinton’s latest, What Happened was published last Tuesday, and overnight more than 1,600 reviews had been posted on Amazon. The reviews were extremely polarized, about half panning it and half giving it 5 stars. While it is of course possible that these people all stayed up all night to read the book, the assumption is that they were motivated by the same sort of animus on display during our recent election. Amazon has decided to remove all the reviews, as presumptively “fictitious”, except for the 338 which were posted by Verified Purchasers, customers who had definitely bought the book at Amazon and so had at least paid for it. It is of course impossible to know whether these Verified Purchasers had actually read the book overnight. Slate (via Book Riot) reports on Amazon’s response.

Polarization seems to be our default mode nowadays. Even people who don’t hold extreme views seem to feel the need to express their moderation in extreme terms. I was chided just the other day for demanding death and destruction for those who don’t toe my mild liberal line.

I dare say a bunch of reviews, good or bad, is not going to make much difference to the sales of Secretary Clinton’s book. You’re not going to be reading it because critics say it’s well crafted literature (I’ve no idea whether it is or isn’t): you’re going to be reading it because you are interested in what she has to say by way of explanation for an election loss which many still find hard to believe. It’s the sort of book you order without thoughts of quality: you just want to know what it says. I’d be surprised (if it weren’t for this kerfuffle) if anyone would have bothered to look at the Amazon reviews. And, other than letting off steam, what do the reviewers think their reviews are going to achieve? Does anyone think that a single person is going to decide against buying the book because “Wrathful of Podunk” claims it’s no good? Or the opposite I guess goes for the Clintoniacs.

All publicity is good publicity.


Bubbles by John Everett Millais. An early Pears Soap advert (with the addition of a bar of soap in the bottom right-hand corner). Chromolithograph © Victoria and Albert Museum.






Pears’ Shilling Cyclopaedia was first published in December 1897. It offered “A Mass of Curious and Useful Information about Things that everyone Ought to know in Commerce, History, Science, Religion, Literature and other Topics of Ordinary Conversation”. The Guardian has just told us that, according to Penguin Books who now publish it, the just published 2017-18 edition will be the last one. The editor, Chris Cook, has been at it for the past forty editions, and is now retiring, or being retired.

Pears’ Cyclopaedia (no doubt it hasn’t cost a shilling for quite a while) was unobtrusively omnipresent in the Britain of my youth. It would contain a chronological list of events, a list of prominent people, ancient and modern, a miniature encyclopaedia of general information and around a dozen or more other sections on various subjects such as cinema, classical mythology, current events, wine, astronomy, ideas and beliefs, gardening, medicine, as well as an atlas and gazetteer. Arguments could could there be settled. It was the pre-Internet equivalent of Google Search.

Robert Gray wrote an elegant nostalgia piece about Pears Cyclopedia on Shelf Awareness on 8 September. It can be found at his blog Fresh Eyes Now. Nostalgia for a book which you never saw might seem paradoxical, but he justifies it with reference to Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, where he writes “There are bars of Pears soap and a thick book called Pears’ Encyclopedia, which keeps me up day and night because it tells you everything about everything and that’s all I want to know.” It did provide vast amounts of information between two affordable covers. The same might be said for the phone book — when did you last get one of these dumped on your doorstep? Sales of the Cyclopedia have declined in recent years: the 2001/2002 edition sold just under 25,000 copies, while last year’s sold barely 3,000! Eager autodidacts have other routes nowadays.

The hollowed out book is common enough for book historians to spend time debating the whys and wherefores. One of them has graphed it all out: from Vasil Zagorov via the SHARP listserv.

I don’t think there’s anything more to be said.

If you click on the diagram you’ll be able to see it more clearly.

See also Killer book


Here’s a quiz from Sporkle where you have to type the full title of sixteen books based on their consonants only. Note that there’s a time limit on this, so if you’re as slow a typist as I am, read the questions before you start.

Sporkle have lots of other quizzes which you can access by clicking on the “Literature”, “Authors” or “Books” links near the top. The Digital Reader sent a link to one (simpler I thought) from the same stable, presented by Mental Floss. Click on their “play another book quiz” link and you’ll be taken to Sporkle’s book quiz page where you can find 7,910 quizzes. Could this be more than you need?

And, via The Digital Reader, the Boston Typewriter Orchestra, who dispense with the backing strings and do it all themselves:

This reminds me of the postal workers cancelling stamps at the University of Ghana post office:

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Barnes & Noble’s shares jumped 6.9% on one day recently because of rumors that the company was about to be sold. The rumors were denied; the share price readjusted. Whatever’s up, there do seems to be problems with our big chain bookseller. They recent announced that although sales were up profit was down — as reported in a Shelf Awareness story on 31 August. Fortune piles on (link sent via The Passive Voice) reporting  year-over-year decreases in same-store sales. They appear to have a proclivity for starting digital initiatives and then looking the other way as developments overtake them. The Digital Reader tells how they seem to have lost sight of Yuzu, their textbook platform, and for all we hear of it NOOK seems to be hiding itself in some remote shady nook. From the outside it surely looks like we are observing a company in trouble. The Digital Reader tells us that B&N’s big plan for salvation is to sell more stuff! Book people always emphasize that they personally don’t believe that B&N is in serious trouble, deprecate the very idea, and certainly claim not to be privy to any real information suggesting such a state of affairs. Of course we can’t afford to say anything different. To this chorus, obviously, I add my voice.

But the nasty question keeps being asked. What if Barnes & Noble went bankrupt? is is the title of a discussion between Nathan Bransford and Mike Shatzkin. Their answer is: bad news for publishers. We have grown accustomed to being able to get lots and lots of copies of big books in front of the public upon publication, and B&N’s a big part of that ability. But I often wonder just how important those front-of-store tables-full of the latest wannabe bestseller really are. Just because this is what we have become used to doesn’t have to mean that some other model (e.g. no chain bookstores) might not work adequately. As Bransford and Shatzkin indicate there are significant financial demands on publishers who deal with Barnes & Noble. At a minimum you have to pay to manufacture the books you print in large quantity: and that frequently means, pay for and kiss goodbye to the books they take. Barnes & Noble, with the encouragement of publishers’ sales reps it’s true, will tend to over-order to be sure they don’t run out of a runaway success. Few books, unfortunately turn out to be runaway successes, so many/most of the books they’ve ordered will be returned to the publisher for credit. Regardless of the cost of shipping stuff back and forth and issuing credit notices, the realities of modern warehousing mean that unless we are talking about an expensive book (and with books ordered in mass quantities we rarely are) the cartons of books will just be destroyed when they come back. To check them for wear-and-tear and then restock them just costs too much, so it’s cheaper to waste returns. Unsurprisingly smaller publishers have to think hard about whether they want to deal with a big customer who often seems almost to be paying for their new purchases with returns of older inventory.

The idea that retailing works best if centralized is only about 100 years old. Are we on the edge of a switch away from that model? It’s not just books that are being affected by on-line sales. We hear rumbles about Macy’s and other department stores. Similar changes can be expected in the grocery business: maybe 50 years is it for the supermarket model of food retailing. Consolidation in the bookstore business was a relatively recent phenomenon — certainly taking place during my working life — and it looks like it’s now going into reverse. Borders disappearance was an early indication of the withering of the mall model of general retail.

It does seem evident that the book business is undergoing big changes. Two words, Self-publishing and Amazon, are enough to indicate the shifting earth. Does it seem realistic to think that that’s the end of it?

Herman Melville (1819-91) wrote Moby-Dick here at Arrowhead in Pittsfield, MA. He purchased the 160 acre farm and house in 1850 with money borrowed from his father-in-law, Judge Lemuel Shaw of Boston. He and his family lived there for the next 13 years and there he also wrote Pierre, The Confidence-Man, Israel Potter, and stories later collected as The Piazza Tales. The window of his work-room, which is upstairs, is concealed in this picture by the tree. The old bearded guy is just that, a guy — in the British sense of a stuffed effigy (named after Guy Fawkes); though this one’s not destined for burning on the 5th of November I suspect. He’s sitting on the piazza (veranda or porch to non-New-Englanders) from which Melville took the name of the story collection. The great thing about the work-room (and the piazza) is their unobstructed view of Mount Greylock.

In the first story of The Piazza Tales, Melville recounts how his neighbors mocked the craziness of building a piazza on the northern side of the house, but of course this view is what he was after. As he describes it, it “is my box-royal; and this amphitheatre, my theatre of San Carlo. Yes, the scenery is magical — the illusion so complete. And Madam Meadow Lark, my prima donna, plays her grand engagement here . . .”

You can just make out Mount Greylock behind that same birch tree in the photo below. Melville would lock himself in the study and write furiously, with his table right against the window so he always had Greylock before him. The fanciful have suggested the mountain put him in mind of the great white whale; in “The Piazza” he refers to it as Charlemagne though. Pierre is dedicated to “Greylock’s Most Excellent Majesty”.

It is supposed that Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Melville met in 1850 on a group climb up Monument Mountain, had an influence in encouraging Melville to widen the scope of Moby-Dick* from a straight-forward narrative to the sort of encyclopedic meditation on life and whaling that now qualifies it as the great American novel. The book is dedicated to Hawthorne. While engaged on Moby-Dick Melville wrote about his writing routine: “I rise at eight — thereabouts — & go to my barn — say good-morning to the horse, & give him his breakfast. (It goes to my heart to give him a cold one, but it can’t be helped) Then, pay a visit to my cow — cut up a pumpkin or two for her, & stand by to see her eat it — for its a pleasant sight to see a cow move her jaws — she does it so mildly & with such a sanctity. — My own breakfast over, I go to my work-room & light my fire — then spread my M.S.S. on the table — take one business squint at it, & fall to with a will. At 2-½ P.M. I hear a preconcerted knock at my door, which (by request) continues till I rise & go to the door, which serves to wean me effectively from my writing, however interested I may be. My friends the horse & cow now demand their dinner — & I go & give it them. My own dinner over, I rig my sleigh & with my mother or sisters start off for the village — & if it be a Literary World day, great is the satisfaction thereof. — My evenings I spend in a sort of mesmeric state in my room — not being able to read — only now & then skimming over some large-printed book.” He was at this time a contented and moderately successful writer, rejoicing in a rather traditional life. He always wrote with a quill pen and was still using one when Mark Twain was already using a typewriter.

That his efforts may often have seemed in vain is evidenced by this Literary Hub post about the early reviews of Moby Dick.  These were by and large not calculated to encourage. “Who is this madman?” asked the New York Christian Intelligencer, though the Philadelphia Saturday Courier did allow that “No one can tire of this volume”. Melville himself wrote that a “book in a man’s brain is better off than a book bound in calf — at any rate it is safer from criticism”.

When Melville, unable any longer to afford the life of a gentleman farmer-writer, left Arrowhead and returned to New York City and a job, his brother took the place over from him. Herman would often visit Arrowhead, his last trip north being in 1885. The house stayed in the Melville family till 1927, and was acquired by the Berkshire Historical Society in 1975.


* Paradoxically Moby Dick only seems to get his hyphen in the book’s title. His original appears to have been Mocha Dick “an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength, . . . white as wool” reported in the Knickerbocker Magazine in 1839.

An Oxford hollow is “a flattened paper tube inserted between the spine of a book and its cover to strengthen the spine and allow the book to be opened flat more easily.” But it’s not just like taking an empty toilet-paper tube and flattening it: the tube, if properly made, is constructed in situ. A stout bit of kraft paper is glued to the spine of the book block. Then a piece, almost three spine widths wide is cut and folded. The middle part is glued to the first piece on the spine. This leaves two flaps, A and B, as shown in this diagram (from Cornell Library). B is glued onto the top of A, taking care to keep any glue out of the space below A. Then when you open the book and look down the spine, there’s the tube separating the pages from the binding.

You can see the top of the hollow (and the A/B join) in this photo from Parks Library Preservation.

Jeff Peachey tells when it’s better not to use one in book repair.

If you feel inclined to start checking your book collection to find an Oxford hollow, I suspect you’re going to be out of luck. Most commercial bindings are made with a simple hollow, a single strip of heavy kraft paper glued to the cloth in the spine space between the two boards. Nothing hollow about this at all, but the name has adhered to this degenerate survivor. The most likely place to discover an Oxford hollow in a modern commercial production is in a leather-bound Bible.

I did a short post on Auto-ordering in November 2011.

It often seems like all our jobs are going to be automated away. The Economist talks of autonomous electric vehicles whisking commuters to and from work as they sleep. But electric cars, and almost everything else it seems, have become so much simpler to manufacture than what’s gone before, now requiring so few components, being so comparatively simple to construct that they can easily be put together by robots, that there may be no jobs for these sleeping beauties to go to.

We’ve gotten our minds round automation affecting manufacturing, but it’s hitting office work too. Machines are plowing through legal case reports saving hours of legal intern grunt work. On-line medical diagnosis will soon be a widespread first line of defense. In publishing, if we haven’t done too much in this line it’s probably because we are reluctant to invest, rather than because the work cannot be automated. We all think we can tell when automatic spell-checker and style-checkers have been used, but that just means that they have been used — and will as they improve be used more and more, with less and less detectability.

When I was last at work we had lots of books which we never needed to consider for reprinting. Some were true print-on-demand titles where we held no inventory in the warehouse (of these there were thousands) and others were set up so that when the inventory on hand fell to a certain number (which might be calculated as say 1/6th of the last year’s sale) an order for perhaps half a year’s worth would automatically go to the printer via EDI, to be delivered to the warehouse a couple of weeks later. Nobody needed to raise a reprint request, get an estimate and do a costing, make a decision, write a purchase order, maintain a reprint progress report.

For the production and manufacturing department it’s a race to the bottom. The only reason why we might not all have automated reordering for our reprint programs some day soon, is that we may stop carrying stock of our books at all! Closing the warehouse delivers a bang for the buck which makes getting rid of the manufacturing department an almost inaudible tinkle. One has to reflect that there are few functions which the production department of my earlier days used to carry out which cannot now easily be freelanced out, left to the printer or typesetting supplier, or, most killingly, just programmed into the computer.

Exactly what we are all meant to do when all the human jobs go away remains to be determined. Maybe we’ll surprise ourselves and be able to tolerate limitless leisure-time without murder and mayhem. Massive education is going to be necessary: you’ll have to be taught to measure personal worth and dignity not by your job, but by what you do with your life.

And here’s tomorrow’s manufacturing department on the company outing.

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In response to a comment to the post Mind games in June I wondered why nobody had capitalized on the fact that we are able to read text using only the top half of letters — the space saving would be huge. I thought I was making a joke, but here comes word from Jeff Peachey’s blog that The Mechanics’ Magazine, Museum, Register, Journal, and Gazette had announced on September 30, 1843 that someone had taken out a patent on this very idea.






I quote the issue date of The Mechanics’ Magazine carefully, because one might be forgiven for thinking that it really came out on April 1st.

It’s probably reassuring that there really isn’t anything new under the sun, though it would seem that nothing came of this patent — or are there condensed books lurking unread in the basements of deposit libraries awaiting discovery?