Archives for the month of: March, 2018

Sorry Big Alastair; the Helvetica this blog uses (and other sans serif fonts) is all that conjures you into being. What I’m talking about is Artificial Intelligence — no doubt AI (ai) is clever enough to tell the difference from Al (al), but we humans aren’t, at least if we insist on using sans serif type.

This Ted talk, linked to via David Crotty at The Scholarly Kitchen, provides dire warning of what we are nonchalantly bringing on ourselves. No need for a Big Brother, we are all eagerly signing up for this ourselves. In order to get free ads for stuff we might like, under the guise of keeping in touch with friends, we are willingly allowing tech companies to track our preferences, and serve up more stuff which we “like”. Keeping your personal data private may seem a trivial problem to most of us (What have I got to hide?) until you reflect on its use in bulk to swing public opinion, even elections, as we are finding out in more and more detail in the current Cambridge Analytica investigation.

The way out is clear. Whether we can summon up the collective will to grasp it remains to be seen. Obviously understanding what’s going on in our minds is a big part of it. Why is it that we respond more to a post reminding us to vote if it has little thumbnails of people we know who have voted too? We love to think of ourselves as rational beings, but emotion trumps reason almost every time. No doubt one or two individualists will be able to withstand the emotional pull. About myself I suspect Facebook is mildly puzzled: as I rarely go there and almost never do anything when I do, their view of me and anything useful about me must be tenuous. Still, they probably know more than I’d imagine. Their AI-driven algorithms are clearly able to encourage any parti pris, and work on driving it towards the extreme. The more their customers get worked up, the more they find out about them and the more they can drive them towards more and more and more.

Clearly there are lessons for book marketers here. If you send me an email, Tweet or whatever, telling me about your latest book, apparently I’m more likely to buy it if you tell me Uncle Bobby or Fred Spoons bought it too. A subset of readers might think “Oh, I”ll just get Fred to lend it me” but most of us apparently react by thinking if Fred’s smart enough to do this, so must I be. All that buyer data buried in Amazon is important mainly as a measure of preference, something which enables the owner of the data to dangle fresh allurements before the gullible customer. And that’s why building their own website and offering their books for sale is vitally important for book publishers. Amazon’s never going to tell you what they know about your customers — in their mind they are their customers — you just have to get down there are develop a bit of knowledge for yourself. That you’ll never out-compete Amazon in data accumulation is irrelevant. Intelligence gathering counts: a little intelligence may be less good that a lot of intelligence but it’s certainly way better than no intelligence.

Atlas Obscura brings us a story about the digitization of The New York Society Library‘s lending records dating from 1789 to 1805. The Society’s Library is now on East 79th Street, but obviously started out way downtown (in 1754). Earlier records were lost during the British occupation of New York in the Revolutionary War. We are allowed to see that Alexander Hamilton was reading Goethe while Aaron Burr was engaged with Voltaire 14 years before their duel.

Early in the 20th century records were switched from ledgers to index cards, and thereafter the only records kept were those for prominent people.









You can enlarge the images by clicking on them.

Privacy laws now make it illegal to store this sort of information.

“Reading novels needs almost as much talent as writing them” as radical writer X. Trapnel used to say. Even if not sitting there looking over the reader’s shoulder, an author must wish for a reader who will bring completion to the work offered up in hope.

In his cabin by Walden Pond Henry David Thoreau reflected that “To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise . . . It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”

To a large extent I look on my university education as a training for reading novels. Not that I was tasked with reading a single novel written in English while I was there: it’s just that “education” is/used to be all about beefing up your critical faculties. My education (and life) seem to me to have prepared me for little more than the reading of books. Not that I’m complaining: it’s nice work if you can get it  — just hard to find someone to pay you a large wage for it. Obviously work in a publisher’s office is a good option: I can remember rubbing my hands together and giggling to myself “They’re paying me to read books; and before anyone else is able to read them too!” One is overwhelmed by the sight of a publisher’s reader like Edward Garnett directing the likes of Conrad and Lawrence to make this or that cut, such and such a rearrangement in the first drafts of texts which are now iconic. And they’d meekly follow his direction! Of course a hundred years makes a big difference in the fame and authority of an artist — Conrad and Lawrence had yet to become giants — but still . . .

Readers, even readers long after publication, can be said to have a role in creating the work of art: an intelligent, sensitive reading will make a novel come alive in ways it never could if just read through for the story only, or more extremely, just left unopened! Ralph Waldo Emerson was onto this. In “The American Scholar” he tells us “There is then a creative reading as well as a creative writing.” Kurt Vonnegut neatly described reading as “the only art form in which the audience plays the score”. John Cheever said “I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss — you can’t do it alone”. The reader is an essential part of the tale. Almost inevitably there’s now a branch of literary theory called reader-response criticism which maintains that only when the reader engages with the text is its real existence activated. This critical stance would seem to demand that you consider a large number of independent works of art all budding forth from the author’s single root stock: one for every creative reader. This must make the writing of criticism quite difficult, as you would logically need to talk to everyone who’s ever engaged with the text before you can confidently assert what it is!

But should the reader’s role extend back into the writing process? Here’s a piece by Vanessa Lafay about using readers’ reactions to inform the writing process. Crowdsourcing is easy enough nowadays, but is it a good idea when it comes to the creative arts? Yes, no doubt, if your primary motivation is to write a book which will sell more copies; probably not if you hope for literary immortality, though lightning can of course strike in the most unlikely places.

Since they’ve been incorporated into the Common Core documentation, Lexile scores are being printed on more and more children’s books as a supposedly value-free method of indicating reading level. As the Lexile website says “In order to Lexile a book or article, text is split into 125-word slices. Each slice is compared to the nearly 600-million word Lexile corpus – taken from a variety of sources and genres – and words in each sentence are counted. The sentence length and difficulty of the vocabulary is examined throughout the book. These calculations are put into the Lexile equation. Then, each slice’s resulting Lexile measure is applied to the Rasch psychometric model to determine the Lexile measure for the entire text.” (The use of “Lexile” as a verb perhaps reduces one’s confidence in the ability of these guys to adjudicate on reading.)

The difficulty of a book may not just be down to its sentence length and vocabulary, which is what Lexile measure, though they are quite up-front about this. The Digital Reader calls the whole thing into question because of some admittedly fairly surprising results. Still a guide is just a guide. There may be features other than Lexile score which might lead a teacher to assign To Kill a Mockingbird over Mr Popper’s Penguins.


I suppose this is all valuable in some sort of way. Standardizing our assessment tools is a laudable aim. But I can’t buck the feeling that a teacher, a parent, a friend, reading with a child will be liable to know just as much about that child’s reading abilities as any amount of scientific-looking analysis can tell them. On an idiot level: if you only read stuff Lexile tells you you can read, how do you ever progress to reading something more complicated? Struggling with unfamiliar vocabulary is something we all cope with, regardless of our age and experience. Still, we live in an age where having teachers think for themselves is seen as a danger: we appear to need to control everything.

This etching is one of the exhibits in the Folger Library’s exhibition “Beyond Words: Book Illustration in the Age of Shakespeare.” This exhibition goes on until June 3rd, 2018. This illustration comes from a 1745 edition of Abraham Bosse’s manual on intaglio printmaking, first printed 100 years earlier.

Previously printed sheets can be seen hanging from the clothes-line like ropes behind the pressman. In order to facilitate the transfer of the ink from plate to paper, hand press operators would dampen the paper before printing. As may been judged from all the pictures of intaglio presswork, considerable effort was required to create  enough pressure for a clean impression. (Intaglio printing works from an image recessed into a metal plate, not from letterpress’ raised image.)

Here Mr Bosse illustrates the method of pouring aqua fortis (dilute nitric acid) onto the copper plate in order to “bite” it.

Below is the frontispiece of Mr Bosse’s book, which is entitled Traicté des manières de graver en taille douce sur l’airin. A PDF of the entire book can be found at the Biliothèque nationale de France’s website Gallica, though it doesn’t seem to include all the illustrations.

Another of Mr Bosse’s etchings of the press in action, this one from The British Museum, shows plates being prepared for the press too. It also has drying sheets hanging in the background.

See also Printing methodsCopperplate and Starwheel press.

Gothamist (via Shelf Awareness) brings a little video of Gramercy Typewriters, the oldest typewriter repair shop in New York. Still going strong after more than 80 years.

And here’s another.

In 2006 a book entitled Useless America, listing Jim Crace as the author, appeared in Amazon’s on-line store. Once there it started accumulating sales (as pre-orders) and even a number of Amazon customer reviews. However such a book never existed. It seems to have gotten into the system via a misheard or mistyped preliminary title for a real novel, The Pesthouse, which Mr Crace was indeed writing, but for which he had, at the time the contract was signed, not fixed on a title. The placeholder title, This used to be America, got to Amazon as Useless America via the Viking-Penguin book feed and there took on a life of its own, despite the fact that it never existed — except that it does. Although Mr Crace never wrote a word of the book a joke edition of 75 copies of Useless America was subsequently produced by Crace’s American publisher as a blank book with a cover reminiscent of The Pesthouse.

This blank book, signed by the alleged author, can be yours for a mere £442.43 ($600 in USA)  at AbeBooks. Doubtless there’s no royalty for Mr Crace, who recounts the story at The Guardian.


Mr Crace is in any case a bit of a trickster, so this mix up couldn’t have happened to a more appropriate author. What the story does show is the size of the pinch of salt which you need by you as you read those on-line reviews* which appear below the listing of the book in Amazon: a rave about a book which was never written can’t increase your confidence in all the rest of them.  We hope and trust Amazon’s systems have improved in the last 12 years — but how would one know how many ghostly works there are out there?


* Not that you need permission to do  reviews at Amazon, but if you love it maybe you’d also like to review for the Online Book Club who just sent me a tweet encouraging me to sign up. Sounds superficially quite attractive.

For a discussion of the ethics of payment for reviews see Book reviewing.


Another quiz from Buzzfeed who’s tag line makes the claim that no one but a true expert will score better than 10/13.  I can confirm (as a clear non-expert) though I insist I did better than I expected.

Photo BBC

Every schoolchild knows about The Domesday Book (at least every British schoolchild) but few know much about it or have ever seen it. Now we can all get the chance to examine it with its loan to the British Library where it will be part of their Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition which opens in October and runs through next March. The Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog carries the news.

The Domesday Book (yes, Domesday does mean Doomsday: it got its nickname because its decisions, like those of the last judgement, were said to be unalterable) contains the results of a survey ordered by William the Conqueror in 1085 to figure out what it was he’d conquered in England and Wales nineteen years previously, and most importantly how much in taxes could be milked from it. The parts of England not covered are by and large places exempt from taxes like London and Winchester, or which owed taxes to someone else (e.g. County Durham whose taxpayers remitted to the Bishop of Durham), and Cumberland and Westmoreland, which were not fully conquered by 1086 when the survey was completed. Domesday contains records about 13,418 places.

The book is actually in two volumes, Great Domesday and Little Domesday. Great Domesday was apparently written by a single hand. Little Domesday, which covers Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex, is more detailed, listing assets down to the level of head of cattle. Both parts normally live at Kew in The National Archives whose website tells us that the books were actually rebound in the 1980s into five volumes in order to reduce the strains on the parchment pages in the fatter bindings. During the Second World War the books were evacuated to Shepton Mallet prison where they escaped the bombing but fortunately not the gaol. It’s not altogether clear whether one or all the volumes are now making the trip downtown. Both the Library and The Guardian consistently refer to it as “the book” so maybe it is the entire work that is being lent.

In another sensible piece at The Scholarly Kitchen, Joe Esposito looks at publishing (as I wish all the commentariat would occasionally do) as a bunch of different businesses all with a different relationship to the print/digital continuum.

There are lots of things digital publication can enable, but just because the computer can do X doesn’t mean that doing X would be a good (profitable) idea. As Mr Esposito asks, “Do you believe your business can flourish if you sell journals by the article or books by the chapter? Does that even remotely support the size of the investment?” Would the price we’d have to put on individual chapters and the quantity we’d sell be enough to deliver a profit without scaring off potential purchasers? I know there’s been a lot of talk about enabling the sale of books in bits, but maybe it’s not such a great idea. If you liked Chapter 17 why wouldn’t you also quite like Chapters 1-16 and any following 18? How would you find out that Chapter 17 was actually the one you wanted without being able to take a look at Chapter 17, which one might suspect could remove your need to buy it?

Simon Appleby’s Bookseller essay, The A-bomb, divides our industry into two parts: narrative and information publishing. Information publishing produces material which wants to be chunked — stuff people refer to, look up, dip into, but rarely want to read from start to finish, and so will be ready to buy in chunks. There’s a validity to this, and Mr Appleby is right to point out the fuzziness of our usual ways of dividing up publishing: trade/academic, conglomerate/independent, print/digital, fiction/non-fiction. But the world we live in happens to be fuzzy, and while his view-point does provide a good perspective, it still ends up battling the fog. Are Wiley, Cambridge University Press, Simon & Schuster narrative or information publishers? They are all both. He does recognize the problem, and suggests solving it by rationalizing imprints to reflect this divide. Dream on! We’ll all continue doing whatever it is we think we can make a little money at. All this chunking may not be as amenable to suitable charging as assumed.

Nevertheless the experimentation continues. Oxford University Press is partnering with the Copyright Clearance Center to offer chapters of their books on a pay-per-view basis. The story is told in the OUP blog. I suppose there’s really no reason not to give selling chapters a try. If it looks like becoming too popular and debasing your margin mix, you can always reconsider, or jack up the per-chapter price.

When all’s said and done publishers have the capability of choosing what it is they want to do. At the lowest level one has to accept that if you’re investing your money, you can/should/must invest it in something you want to do. If there are people out there who are keen on issuing books in which every word, as you get to it, turns into a picture, or changes to a different color — let them invest their own money in making their dream come true. Hard as it may be for the commentariat to accept, it is perfectly reasonable for a particular publisher to decide how they will invest their funds, whether to issue their publications in paper only (or perhaps less controversially in digital form only), in part or in whole. The issue is between them and their authors — no one else. Any real potentially profitable demand out there will inevitably be satisfied.