Archives for the month of: September, 2022

A short OUP quiz about first lines — just six questions. Click on the link, not the picture below, which is just a picture!

Kanye West claims “[I] haven’t read any book“. “Reading is like eating Brussels sprouts for me and talking is like getting the Giorgio Baldi corn ravioli.” (For the taciturn among us, Giorgio Baldi’s is a restaurant in Santa Monica.) Responding LeVar Burton tweeted “I hope however, that he shares a different message with the children enrolled in the school he’s founded named after his mother, who was an professor of English. I’m fairly certain she read a book or two.”

When I was a child, my mother, who was not a professor of English, always told me to eat my Brussels sprouts because they were good for me and would help me grow. Books too, Mr West?

Talk is cheap, and this isn’t sworn testimony — but everyone knows Mr West isn’t being literally truthful. He may not read books these days — probably doesn’t have enough time — but books he has read. Having barely caught up with the reality of Mr West, I now discover from Billboard that he wishes henceforth to be known as Ye. Short form rules with Ye, in nomenclature as in reading materials.

Once you glom onto a name, it gloms onto you: now here’s another Kanye piece; this one from LitHub, entitled On Kanye, the Chinese Surveillance State, and Our Post-Realist Future. It’s actually a review of Amit Chaudhuri’s latest novel, Sojourn.

The mature Henry James wrote English as if he would have the word-order freedom of Latin without the help of declentional signposting which that language provides. You’ve got to keep on your toes, and retain in active memory all the units of his sentences, mentally juggling them into position, and one hopes sense, after reading the whole thing. Dealing with Henry James’ late style is like deciphering a chemical formula; it seems to aim at mimicking mathematical precision. It is therefore a bit of a surprise to catch him out in linguistic imprecision.

In the first chapter of The Ambassadors, talking about the eyes of Maria Gostrey, he delivers himself of this sentence: “Their possessor was in truth, it may be communicated, the mistress of a hundred cases or categories, receptacles of the mind, subdivisions for convenience, in which, from a full experience, she pigeon-holed her fellow mortals with a hand as free as that of a compositor scattering type.”

Under just what conditions a compositor might scatter type we aren’t informed, but I suspect that the master must have been thinking about distributing the type after printing. Here “scattering” doesn’t really come into it: distributing type off press demands that you return each individual character to its correct location in the type case so it can be reused for the next job. It’s a very deliberate process. If you have to put all the “p”s into this little box and all the “q”s into that one, there’s a lot more intentionality involved than the word “scattering” suggests. I suppose years of experience might have led to a certain freedom of hand action in the journeyman printer, based on “flow”, but unless “receptacles of the mind”, “subdivisions for convenience”, “pigeon-holed”, and of course “cases” forced our author into a typographical metaphor, he’d have been better off alluding to the freedom of hand motion of a sewer casting seed, a chef throwing raisins onto the the top of his pudding, or a navvy shoveling gravel*. Isn’t it also a little odd that such a precision-maniac wouldn’t have bothered to find out the correct word for distributing type?

OK, it doesn’t really matter; but if you set your hand to the wheel of precision, well, precision is kind of what’s expected.


* In Scotland we had the tradition that as they left the church the bride and groom would have a “scatter”. This involved throwing out lots of thruppenny bits, sixpenny bits, and shillings, which the local kids, who always knew to be there, would scramble for.

It’s all over now, and we are awaiting the result of the DoJ’s lawsuit designed to save us all from the horror of a Penguin Random House Simon & Schuster merger.

Whether or not the proposed merger may be a “bad thing” from some sort of consumer-based perspective, the grounds on which the merger was attacked in court were clearly nonsensical. Jane Friedman gives us a cool analysis of the issues in her post “Why the DOJ v PRH Antitrust Trial Doesn’t Change the Game for Authors, Regardless of Outcome“. Clearly, even if the plaintiffs are right that the biggest advances will be reduced after a merger (which is by no means certain) apparently the general effect on advances across the board will if anything be that they become slightly larger! Protecting the interests of the 1,200 top-earning authors to the detriment of the 15 million others is a strange kind of protection for our government to be throwing money at.

Good news. Amazon has announced it’ll be changing its generous return policy on ebooks, which was discussed in my recent post. Here’s the Authors Guild trumpeting the change for which they hold themselves responsible. Now you won’t be able to return an ebook to Amazon if you’ve read more than 10% of it. You know, don’t you, that when it comes to ebooks, big brother has been watching you all along. “Buy” an ebook, look at it, read a couple of pages, and set it aside for future reading, and some Amazon analyst will start a-worrying what’s wrong with the damn thing!

This new return policy won’t kick in till the end of the year. Even then you’ll be able to return a book of which you’ve read more than 10% — but only after a discussion with a customer service representative who will determine whether your reason for wanting to return the thing is valid. Who knows what such a reason may turn out to be.

Parenthetically, given big brother’s knowledge of our reading practices, does it not amount to a criminal-like complicity in theft that Amazon was ever permitting readers to return their ebooks after reading them? They knew after all that the book had been read.

© 2021 Buffy and Ian Bailey

Hyperalleric relates the story of Buffy and Ian Bailey’s discovery of this gold bead in Yorkshire. The finders are described as metal detectorists* — a term new to me.

Hyperallergic helpfully tells us, “You might wear your favorite sports team’s jersey, and medieval people wore their favorite saints”. The book bead carries the images of St Leonard and St Margaret. Apparently Saints Leonard and Margaret (of Antioch) are both implicated in pregnancy and safe childbirth. A little piece like this, they tell us, would be quite affordable to the middlingly wealthy. Perhaps we can imagine the pregnant owner reading a book in her garden while absentmindedly twirling her necklace’s bead, and then the chain broke and she dre-a-dre-a-dropped it!

And it took the invention of the metal detector to ever find it again.


* In a comment Alan Aitken points to a BBC broadcast about detectoring. I found this episode of The Localist. It’s worth a listen. An important first step is to “observe the law and seek permission from the landowner”.

It’s probably not a result of typographical determinism, but around the second half of the fifteenth century we changed our basic attitude to knowledge from

  • “Everything’s already been known: our job is just to rediscover it as we’ve carelessly managed to lose much of it” to
  • “Our predecessors only had a partial view of things. We need to use their insights in order to gain ever clearer insights”.

The meaning of the word “original” moved along with this attitude change. To the medieval scholar the word “original” carried the meaning of as close as possible to the origin, to what God had told Adam, whereas to us it means just about the opposite. The word “research” is another signal of the same situation — search again for the knowledge which we’ve managed to lose.*

The basic problem for the knowledge industry in the medieval world was that everyone knew that God was perfect. That was axiomatic. God was perfect, He was omniscient, and He was omnipotent. Thus, as recounted in the first chapter of Genesis, God had created everything that there would ever need to be: if he hadn’t created it, it didn’t exist, and never could exist. The knowledge industries had the basic and limited duty of discovering what it was God had given us — looking for anything new was not only silly, it was dangerous heresy, implying as it did that God might be less than perfect. Thus, logic demanded that punishment as a heretic was obviously the appropriate treatment for anyone who suggested that we look for anything new in the natural world. God created perfection, and to suggest that there might be anything which might be added to it was clearly insulting to God, who knew what he was about and would have given us wings if he’d wanted us to fly, and obviously wouldn’t have made dinosaurs just to kill them off. This kind of authority was also accorded to the classic authors. If it hadn’t been discussed in Greece or Rome then it obviously wasn’t something you’d waste your time on. In the age of manuscript transmission only plants which had Latin names were deemed worthy of inclusion in learned treatises, as if the others couldn’t really exist. In 1559 John Geynes was forced by the College of Physicians to sign a recantation of his assertion that Galen was not infallible.

This kind of obscurantism couldn’t survive the floods of information released upon the world with the invention of printing. It didn’t happen overnight of course — but with every new bit of printed evidence, the barriers crumbled a little more. Now we’re approaching the other extreme; in danger of thinking we know everything, but perhaps with a dawning realization that there may be some things we’ll never know. Which kind of gets us back to the beginning.


* The Economist of 10 September carries a nice little article by language-columnist Johnson about these sorts of Janus-words.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports “The University of Sydney library will restrict access to sacred Indigenous materials and offer First Nations communities a ‘right of reply’ to historically inaccurate texts under changes aimed at making it less Eurocentric. The protocols will also stop the library acquiring new works from non-Indigenous academics and authors containing First Nations knowledge unless the communities involved have provided informed consent.”

Will this mean that non-native scholars won’t be as free to study indigenous culture? And if so, is that altogether a bad thing?

Social anthropology might be said to rest on a somewhat morally ambiguous footing. Obviously studying “primitive societies” was an urgent task for our Victorian forebears: Once you’ve figured out that studying “primitive” peoples might well teach us much about the origins of society, then getting out there becomes an urgent requirement. If academic anthropologists didn’t contact and study “primitive” peoples then they would cease to be primitive because nobody could prevent contact by the Mistah Kurtz-s of the imperial world, and once they’d been contacted we’d never really know how they had lived and thought before that. But the very act of studying them — participant observation was the approved methodology — would obviously lead to cultural contamination. You couldn’t just sit around and hope that the Trobriand Islanders would either on their own initiative record for us their “culture”, or having shared the knowledge with us remain unchanged by the transaction. But by having Bronisław Malinowski live amongst them and interact with them their culture could not but be affected, however careful the observer was. In the end the solution academics took — get in there and record (as sensitively as possible) what you can before it disappears — was no doubt the right one. But of course once those American Indians who had escaped annihilation and were confined to reservations, found they had nothing to do, we can understand that problems were inevitably going to develop.

Yes, maybe you could argue that the Europeans should have stayed home — but try enforcing that. Maybe you could argue that missionaries should have avoided trying to convert “natives” from their own religions, perfectly well adapted to their own needs. But of course the missionaries “knew” they were doing the Lord’s work; belief in your own omniscient and omnipotent divinity is an explosive tool, however misguided it may be. Maybe we shouldn’t have grabbed all those animal, vegetable and mineral resources and exploited them for ourselves; but we did, and we live with the economic benefits of this grab to this day. Reparations, anyone?

Funny (it can’t be intentional for this reason can it?) that at Cambridge University anthropology and archaeology were studied together in one faculty. They are the Schrödinger’s cats of the social sciences: the only ones where basic research involves the destruction of its subject matter. Dig up the Sutton Hoo ship and you can never again observe its location in the earth etc. surrounding it — which is what provides all the context. Study the Trobriand Islanders, and when you leave they’ll remember you and find their lives altered by the insights that has given them, leave aside the “gifts” they’ve been given. This is why publication of archaeological excavations and fieldwork by a social anthropologist is so important: it’s really part of the basic research. If it’s not meticulously reported on, nobody will ever be able to reproduce the evidence. Archaeological and anthropological truth is not like scientific truth: you don’t confirm it by repeating the experiment and seeing if it turns out the same way. Once the “experiment” has been done, it cannot be repeated: thus the write-up is vitally important, and ought ideally to be done in a standard format so that all aspects of the question can be covered. Of course this isn’t how it happens: Roe Fortune’s reports will be different from Margaret Mead’s, which’ll be different from Meyer Fortes’ and so on and so on. Archaeological site reports are hard to publish. They tend to be elaborate — photos of objects found, site plans, and illustrations showing sections of trenches and so on — large format to show all that detail clearly, and yet they don’t sell many copies — just the major departmental libraries and one of two specialists. In consequence they cost a fortune. But they can’t not be published: if only the people who were there at the excavation know what went on you might as well have saved money by getting a bulldozer in to dig it all up.

We tend to think of excavating the Sutton Hoo ship as an unambiguous good — but if you and your ancestors had lived for generations next to the mound, and had conducted rituals every month to commemorate what you believed to be the godlike leader who was buried in the ship, might you not think differently about getting a look at the boat? You and I might think that it was just fine, indeed highly desirable, to dig up and relocate the bodies buried in a downtown Manhattan slave cemetery, but if the remains include those of your great great grandparents might your attitude not be different? This sort of links in to the impulse to return the Elgin marbles to Greece, Benin bronzes to West Africa, or the Rosetta Stone to Egypt. I’m torn, but it’s hard to argue that return isn’t “right”.

This “hands off my heritage” impulse is pretty widespread these days. We see its influence most significantly in the rush to outlaw abortion, promote general gun toting, and, less life-threateningly, in the movement to remove books from school libraries. Book banning we object to; cultural sensitivity we applaud. If a group of tribal elders has to OK your doctoral thesis, is this a constraint on the free exchange of knowledge? No doubt it’d depend on the attitude of the elders — but I suspect (or is it hope?) that most indigenous groups would accept academic study as long as insult and misrepresentation were avoided. Still, the shenanigans around banning books from school libraries don’t fill one with optimism. Online abuse seems to be the idiot’s favored communication strategy these days. However I do think that now we are on the woke way we have no choice but to keep right on to the end of the road.

Thanks to Jeremy Mynott and Robin Derricourt for the Sydney Morning Herald link.

Just because Senator Josh Hawley, pictured here urging on the rioters at the Capitol on 6 January, proposes it, do we really have to click our teeth at the idea that the period of copyright protection might be reduced to fifty-six years? Torrent Freak, always alert to matters of freedom, brings us the story. Nate Hoffelder, in transmitting the link says “so much for being the party of freedom, and free speech”. But isn’t this a bit of an illogical reaction? The Republican Party seems intent on changing its direction, as who can say they should not be allowed to. It has happened before. However free speech has no connection with copyright law, and certainly doesn’t depend on being able to prevent people quoting your work for ever and ever. If it is surprising this is surely because we normally do not look to today’s party of “No” for any new ideas. The idea here seems to be to stick it to “woke” companies especially Disney — Disney? Woke? Wow!

But isn’t the period of copyright protection in fact too long now? Well, of course it is. As I’ve often asserted the length of copyright protection in America depends in large part on the life span of Mickey Mouse, i.e. the wishes of Disney. As Mickey ages Disney needs a longer and longer term of copyright — and they tend to be able to get it out of Congress. We should welcome discussion of this matter even when it’s called for by someone we may disapprove of — the current situation is far from perfect. Unlike Sen. Hawley, I don’t see any reason to punish Disney — indeed I’ve often proposed that corporations should be granted a longer term of copyright for works which cost millions of dollars to develop, whereas books, which can be written for a good deal less, might become public property much more quickly than they are currently allowed to. After all the original purpose of copyright was to encourage writers to provide information and knowledge to us — entertainment wasn’t much of a thing back then. So let’s encourage. Lifetime of the author? After all when the author’s gone no amount of encouragement’s going to make any difference. Where the author’s a corporation, lifetime clearly won’t work — 100 years if it cost over a million dollars to create? 50 if less?

See also Term of Copyright.

OUP’s sewing department in the 60s

Apparently compositors (all male, and, as the aristocrats of labor in the print works, determined to keep things so) were not allowed into Oxford University Press’s sewing department, shown here.

In the immediate post-World-War-Two period, many of the employees in book manufacturing, in the bindery mainly, were women. The beauty of employing women was that you got to pay them less, so in departments which demanded less of the “tote that barge, lift that bale” sort of thing, “girls” would rapidly become a majority.

I recently asked a retired British printer when it was that it became cheaper to print and throw away a portion of a job rather than to execute a more or less elaborate inserting operation: i.e when did materials become cheaper than labour? Without hesitation he named 1975 when the provisions of 1970’s Equal Pay Act came into force, and it was no longer possible to cheat women out of their just desserts.

As to what today’s gender balance in sewing departments might be, it’s hard to pontificate, since so few of them survive, but the many women working in book manufacturing now are getting more equitable pay.