Archives for the month of: October, 2017

“Set the Page Free”, a Xerox® project, has just published Speaking of Work: A story of love, suspense and paperclips for the benefit of the 92nd Street Y and Worldreader, a literacy promotion organization. This collaborative work can be obtained at this link for free as an ebook. If you’re a died-in-the-wool traditionalist your Xerox rep can give you a printed copy. It’s really easy to get the ebook though: enter your name and email address and they instantly send you an email link to the book with options as to how you want to download it. Took about 2 minutes total.

Business Wire has an account, and The New York Times wrote about it on publication day, 23 October. The contributors are Jonathan Ames, Lee Child, Billy Collins, Sloane Crosley, Joshua Ferris, Jonathan Safran Foer, Roxane Gay, Valeria Luiselli, Alain Mabanckou, Aimee Mann & Jonathan Coulton, Joyce Carol Oates, and Gary Shteyngart. Chip Kidd designed the cover. I’ve enjoyed the book, particularly the story by Lee Child. And the price is right!

Contributions include short stories, one in the form of a tele script, essays, a poem, and a song. Whatever Jonathan Safran Foer’s piece is about (it’s more about words than work, though I guess you could argue that words are the work-tools of a writer) it includes this interesting disclosure. “Have you ever come across the word ‘esquivalience’? It’s a made-up word — a ‘ghost word’— in the New Oxford American Dictionary, created to detect breaches of copyright. (There would be no other way to know if another dictionary-maker had simply stolen Oxford’s list of words; ghost words prove plagiarism.)” I’m not altogether clear why you’d object to other dictionary-makers following your lead, but obviously OUP thought it worthwhile. The word did turn up at and has since been taken down. Not sure just what good this does to NOAD. Surely you can’t copyright words, just the form of words used to describe/define them.

Esquivalience is defined as “the willful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities”, something which seems ever more relevant to current political debate. Now while I can see that you can add fictitious data to a map to detect unauthorized copying, inventing words is surely less effective: it’s something that goes on all the time in any case, and gives lexicographers a good deal of their work. Surely trying to invent words is a risky procedure for a lexicographer: do it well and the word risks becoming real: do it badly and people will think your product is error-filled. Would it do me any good to write of the verbifurs at as a method of detecting whether anyone as willfully copying my posts? If people think that the idea of a word-thief is one which needs a word, then verbifur may make it. If not, not. And what harm have I incurred either way? Esquivalience may have been invented in 2001 by dictionary editor Christine Lindberg, but surely it’ll have to be included in new editions of the dictionary as it gets used more and more. Ms Lindberg told the Chicago Tribune that she finds herself using it regularly.

Speaking of Work is sort of a promotion for Xerox’s ConnectKey® technology, a suite of apps which facilitate document handling and production. This was the system used to put the Speaking of Work project together. Xerox, a pioneer in so much, deserves our respect for being in at the origins of print-on-demand for books. It is good to know that PARC is still innovating.

At the end of the book there’s a description of how the software was used:

ConnectKey® Technology and the VersaLink® C405 Multifunction Printer enabled secure collaboration and communication across countries and continents, with enhanced productivity and security. DocuShare® Flex made content collaboration effortless. Easy Translator Service translated content around the world at the touch of a button. Xerox Apps for Google Drive & Dropbox empowered digital sharing through the cloud. Print Authentication provided device security using a smart phone. Voice Recognition Technology made productivity as simple as speaking. @PrintbyXerox App enabled printing from virtually anywhere. XMPie® software made the eBook personalized for each recipient*. And the printed book was produced on an iGen4® Press and Xerox Nuvera® 144 EA Production System using a FreeFlow® Print Server.


* The book does indeed contain a dedication page reading “To Richard and everyone, anywhere, who works.”

Codex is the word used to indicate that form of content holder which we think of as a book: a bunch of folded pages held together on one side and conventionally, but not necessarily, protected by some sort of cover. It can also be used to indicate a manuscript volume: The Codex Sinaiticus is a famous example. Indeed The Oxford English Dictionary gives this as its single bookish definition, ignoring the folded book/not-scroll definition, which meaning has presumably evolved in the last century or so, maybe as a result of the growth of book history as an academic subject: this OED entry is one of those not revised since 1891. They cite a listing of recipes for medicines as their only other non-obsolete meaning for codex. My school Latin dictionary (published by Cassell & Co. in 1927) gives “codex, codicis, m, = caudex, trunk of a tree; a book, composed of wooden tablets, covered with wax; a book, document.” This all seems a bit more definite than other sources suggest: but maybe there really are Latin documents which use codex in the sense of wax writing tablet. The editor, Professor Thomas, is obviously plumping at least for the derivation of the bound book from wax tablets. But if we are starting off with caudex, a tree trunk, log, block of wood, ending up with “book” may a bit of a stretch, but there are theories. Perhaps we’ll have to await the OED editors’ adjudication when they get around to updating this entry.

The development of the codex is often held to be associated with the Christians in 2nd century Rome. The earliest known reference however is from Martial in the 1st century who encouraged his readers to buy his poems in this new format. “You who long for my little books to be with you everywhere and want to have companions for a long journey, buy these ones which parchment confines within small pages: give your scroll-cases to the great authors – one hand can hold me.” Sounds a bit like paperbacks for railway journeys, doesn’t it? I still like my suggestion that the preponderance of early codex volumes from Christian sources is not a result of there being more of them in the first place. Rather I suspect it was a result of differential survival rates. Monks would no doubt go to considerable trouble to hide their codices — they well knew how laborious they were to create — and would clearly be more motivated to save the devotional literature on which their life was grounded rather than those bulky pagan classics, while reading laymen, thin on the ground anyway, might be less heedful about their books when the Vikings were landing. Thus more “Christian” codexes would survive the times of trouble, no matter whether there were more or fewer of them at the start. It’s dangerous to draw conclusions from the absence of evidence, but we shouldn’t altogether ignore it in making our guesses.

To come up with the idea of the codex we did first have to “invent” the page. Scrolls, the functional predecessors of the codex, weren’t of course written in mile-long lines; their text was indeed divided up into blocks which could be said to resemble pages. They were only written on on one side though. Some papyrus pages were first found at Oxhyrynchus in Egypt, written on both sides and thus presumptively from things we’d call books rather than scrolls. The presence of page numbers is also diagnostic — they were obviously not needed if you were just unrolling a scroll as you read. But papyrus was liable to break when folded, and was in any case more suited to the hot dry climate of Egypt than to Europe’s more humid environment. We can say with some confidence that the codex format couldn’t really take off till there was a regular supply of parchment. Exactly when parchment was invented, or more importantly was perfected is not know. Herodotus says that writing on skins was common in his time, the 5th century BC, but what’d be needed would be a regular supply of good quality, and we can only speculate rather circularly that such conditions began to appear in 1st century Rome, as attested to by Martial.

Keith Houston’s The Book has just been published, and is, as I’ve said in my review, an invaluable resource on many topics including this one. Here’s a piece of his for about the origins of the codex.

There are no doubt lots of books giving advice about sobriety — this post is not planning to deliver help in this area.

Here is video from Syracuse University Libraries showing how to save a water-damaged book. I bet it is harder than it looks here: “Repeat” no doubt conceals hours of work and a few rolls of paper towels. But the results do make it look worth while.

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

Link via The Digital Reader.

Photo: Getty

“What to read on a train journey” by Arthur Bingham Walkley first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on January 24, 1902, and was just reprinted this year in their June 23 issue. The author suggests “The modern passenger either reads merely to kill time or does not read at all”. O tempora! O mores! Nowadays we’d probably want to work on the second half of that sentence and try to get more people to read — anything. In 1902 Mr Walkley lays in on the sub-par selections made by the average passenger, attributable in his view to the trashy offerings at railway bookstalls.

William Henry Smith opened the first railway newspaper and bookstall on 1 November 1848 in Euston Station, just around the corner from where I started working in publishing 117 years later: the bookstall was still there. The company ran a lending library and printed “yellowbooks”, cheap reprints of public domain novels. For the same audience, Longmans initiated a traveller’s library series. History Today has an article recounting the story. In Scotland our railway bookstalls were run by John Menzies & Co. (which we’d pronounce Mingis) a company acquired by W. H. Smith in 1998.

If the offerings are any indication, people do seem to be reading fewer time-killers, and more decent books when they travel. Hudson News, present in so many U. S. airports and railway terminals seem to be expanding into non-travel bookstores, and have just announced the opening of their second “Ink by Hudson” store in Tucson. More are planned for later this year and beyond. While their store at Penn Station is already offering an impressively wide selection, their Ink stores feature a “contemporary style and indie-inspired design and ethos,” with an inventory of bestsellers, small press titles, classics, prizewinners and books by local authors or with a local focus. Hudson Group operates more than 950 stores in 83 airports, train stations and other transportation hubs in the U.S. and Canada.

And of course it’s airports we’d want to focus on now. A few weeks ago I was struck by the excellent, small selection at the bookshop in Edinburgh’s airport (not a Hudsons store of course). No doubt one of these days we’ll be worrying about filling- or electric-charging-station bookstalls as we all loll about in our autonomous vehicles. Some would say we’ll have no need of such retail outlets, having by then passed beyond anything as primitive as reading books on paper or buying things from a real place.

Book Riot brings us the unexpected news that football fans (soccer fans to you new worlders) of Lazio in Rome, guilty of much anti-Semitic chanting, are going to be read to before the start of home games. They will be being served up an extract from The Diary of Anne Frank. The Book Riot story carries a link to The Guardian‘s reporting. The choice of reading material appears to have been motivated by the Lazio fans’ posting of antisemitic stickers featuring Anne Frank at a recent game.

The reading will consist of these words “I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquillity will return once more.”

The anti-Semitism of Lazio fans is principally directed at their cross-town rivals, FC Roma, perceived (no doubt exaggeratedly) as drawing Jewish support. This problem was dealt with in England in 2013. Tottenham Hotspur’s fans had for many years self-identified as “the Yids”, despite having a mix of support not too different from other London clubs — including this transatlantic fan. The Jewish Chronicle has a thorough account of the history of this almost reverse discrimination chant. The use of “the Y-word” at Spurs games was disallowed and, after some kerfuffle, seems to be gone: though I have to confess I always find it hard to make out exactly what it is we are shouting in these chants. Racism in football is being addressed all around Europe: the action of the Lazio club is only noteworthy in their apparent belief in the power of reading. Good luck to them: I fear the cheering of fans may drown out any message.

The Daily Beast brings you The 5 Must-Read Books on Soccer. I would add Brian Glanville’s novel The Rise of Gerry Logan, and Ian Hamilton’s Gazza Agonistes. (If you need me to tell you that Gazza, Paul Gascoigne played for Spurs, maybe you needn’t bother.)

We all click our teeth about people trying to arrange for favorable reviews of their books or buying masses of copies so they’ll get onto the bestseller list. Now The Guardian (via Book Riot) reveals that Marcel Proust paid substantial sums to get favorable notices of Du côté de chez Swann onto the front pages of a couple of papers. He wrote the glowing reviews himself and sent them to his publisher to be retyped so that handwriting wouldn’t betray the evidence.

Is this OK? Does the fact that the book would (one assumes) have been a world-wide success anyway, somehow make this maneuver forgivable — was he just gilding the lily, but the flower remains a lily nevertheless? (Or should I strive here for a metaphor involving white and black swans?)

Not sure that it is OK, though of course, for all we know the practice may be much more common than we’d like to believe. Poor old Proust just got found out because copies of correspondence about the dodge surfaced in a copy of the book. Should we be more surprised that Proust was sufficiently lacking in self-confidence that he would stoop to such a trick, or that he was sufficiently unsure of the value of his work that he thought it needed such a boost? Or, perhaps, was this just what everyone did back then?

Log rolling may be quite widespread — you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours — but somehow we feel less censorious about a writer favorably reviewing a competitor’s book and then, surprise, surprise, finding that that competitor returns the complement with a similar rave. Though such a “deal” may not be a proper agreement discussed ahead of time, but merely based on an assumption of mutuality, such reviews could be said to be only half a step away from drafting the review yourself. Anonymous reviewing used to be the norm. The Times Literary Supplement started naming reviewers in 1974. What went on behind the anonymity? Maybe there’s a PhD topic in linguistic analysis of anonymous reviews to see how often they were written by the author of the book under review.

“Blurbing” has come to mean the writing of favorable comments which appear on the jacket or cover of a book. (Dictionaries appear to ignore “blurb” as a verb, though it is surely in fairly common usage.) There is no doubt a rich vein of mutuality in blurbing. We like to pretend that book reviewers are all honest and above cheap trickery. But even if you are not guilty of puffing a lousy book by a friend, reviewing something written by someone you share a lot with cannot fail to tempt you towards yes, rather than no. And this can be perfectly innocent/subconscious — you are bound, aren’t you, to find yourself agreeing with what a like-minded writer says, and what’s a friend but a like-minded acquaintance?

Reviews on Amazon are notoriously unreliable. It’s obviously a good idea to read these with a salt cellar to hand. I find them useful for factual information, about the content, say. I’ve never been tempted to act on the opinions or value judgements of a complete stranger (who could even be a robot) whose qualifications (or lack thereof) are not manifest.



A lawsuit against LeVar Burton has been settled. Vulture (via Book Riot) tells us he can now say “but you don’t have to take my word for it” whenever he wants to. The catch is that this phrase is apparently a catchphrase of Reading Rainbow, a TV show for which he was a long-time presenter. WNED in Buffalo got upset when Mr Burton used the phrase in his podcast LeVar Burton Reads, and sued for theft and extortion on account of his repeated use of a catchphrase which he’d been using on-air for over 20 years on their program but didn’t technically own. Can one be said to own a group of words? Sounds ludicrous in principle but of course if the phrase is trademarked that can indeed be the case. I assume that this case stopped because the phrase isn’t actually protected — nevertheless I have cautiously tagged it ™ in my title!

So look out: watch what you are saying. Who knows whether you are uttering protected phrases or not? It always seems way off from the true purpose of copyright when people try to restrict the use of what look like perfectly uncontroversial phrases. A bit like patenting a gene. Intellectual property is a slippery concept and we’d probably all benefit from it’s being binned. Now, I could try to register “intellectual property” as a trademark, but it would only be protected if I relentlessly sued anyone who used the words whenever they used them. That seems like a poor (and expensive) way to try erasing the words from the popular memory. If a trademark is constantly abused with impunity it effectively ceases to be a trademark. But you don’t have to take my word for it — you can look it up.

This Pompeiian lady holds the putative precursor to the bound book — a polyptych of wooden-framed wax tablets fastened together as a unit — while her more conservative partner strokes his beard with a papyrus scroll, the principal means of written communication for 2,000 years prior. Obviously an intellectual couple.

Wikipedia shows a modern reconstruction of a wax tablet: hollow out a ⅛” thick board, leaving a protective rim around the edge and fill the depression with wax so that it can be impressed with a stylus. When the message has been read it can be smoothed over, and the tablet reused. In the picture the woman is warming the end of the stylus in her mouth to heat it up and make writing in the wax easier.

If you pressed too hard you’d scratch the bottom of the case, and we’ve found lots of information about everyday life in Roman Britain from such survivals found in excavations. They are of course hard to interpret because the scratches come from many different writings. This example comes from The Museum of London. You can just make out the scratches of letters in the wood. Finds have been made of simple wooden units which were written on in ink, and this appears to have been a technique used for “postal” communications. The thin slices of wood would be folded over and tied together for delivery. Homer even refers in Book 6 of The Iliad to what is probably such a thing: “Many, of fatal import, all graved on a tablet infolded”. Pope puts it more elegantly if less specifically: “To Lycia the devoted youth he sent,/ With tablets seal’d, that told his dire intent.”

The Romans appear to have referred to these memo pads pretty straightforwardly as “waxes”, cerae, though an alternative term tabulae exists; but it appears to be a bit more general referring to any tablet on which one could write in any way (stone, metal, clay, wood), narrowed down as tabulae ceratae when used specifically for “waxes”. If there were multiple “leaves” bound (tied) together, the inner “pages” might be hollowed out on both sides. “Waxes” were not invented by the Romans: they took them over from Greece where the may be seen on vases from the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Inevitably this happy chappy looks to us like he’s working on his MacBook.

Douris cup, c.480BC. Berlin, Antikenmuseen

No wonder the guy in front of him looks a bit startled. But he is of course writing on a (rather large) triptych wax tablet set.

Nor did the Greeks invent them: they got them from earlier middle eastern cultures. The oldest surviving example of a wax writing tablet comes from fourteenth century BC Turkey.

Just because something new comes along doesn’t of course mean that any piece of technology instantly disappears.  People like to use tools they are familiar with, and if they work well there’s really no reason to innovate just for the sake of innovating. The everyday use of wax writing tablets continued for centuries after the invention of paper: they were apparently still being used in the Rouen fish market in the 1860s.


© Kei Acedera

The Times Literary Supplement, branching out a bit, reveals the existence of a Joseph Conrad bike tour of London. No harm in this of course — quite the opposite — mens sana in corpore sano. But why Conrad? Was he a notorious biker?

Turns out the tour has been put together by the Polish Cultural Institute in London to mark 2017 which the Polish Parliament has decreed shall be Joseph Conrad Year. (Sorry to be bringing you this news so late in the year.) Their rallying cry “Family fun tracking Joseph Conrad’s footsteps on bicycle” strikes a little oddly — but I guess tracking his footsteps on foot might take too long.

William Fotheringham brings us his top 10 cycling novels at The Guardian. No Conrad. H. G. Wells might be a better tour focus, but maybe you’d have to ride rather further: he always strikes me as more a suburban than an urban writer. Pushing it up those Surrey hills might make some demand refunds. Still one can imagine bicycular literary touring as a viable holiday option.

Knowing what you want to say, seeing it clearly in your head, and then just letting it rip at the keyboard may work with an essay (or a blog post), but with a book the length of the project will mean that sooner or later the words you just wrote will inevitably begin to influence your next line of thought, and soon you’ll be veering off on tangents on tangents. Writing an outline is something every author should confront sooner or later. Sooner’s better, as thinking it through will help you clarify your aims in your own mind. It’s also better because if changes are suggested, they are easier to implement before the passage in question has been written in full.

But it seems so cold and final. Much nicer to let your inner Heathcliff drive you along wherever he wants. Still, beware; if you want to get a publisher on-board, you’ll need to write a proposal indicating why the book’s needed and why you’re the one to fill the void. An outline will be a necessary part of that process: so you’re going to have to do it anyway — may as well get it done as early as possible when it’ll be of most help to you. So all writers, even self-publishers (perhaps especially self publishers who won’t have to go through the disciplinary step of satisfying an agent or editor), will end up benefitting from having to make a thorough outline.

Help is provided by a wide range of sources. This article from Publishing Talk by literary agent Sarah Such focusses on the writing of the outline. A more business-oriented tack is taken by Jane Friedman.