Archives for category: Reading

Thad McIlroy’s article tells me everything (well, a whole lot) about NFTs and blockchain. But what it doesn’t tell me is exactly what I’d be getting, in addition to the book, if I bought a book as an NFT, and why that’d be something I’d want. As far as I can tell I might be getting a different cover than some readers would get, but one which many others would also have. And I suppose, though he doesn’t actually say so, that I’d be the owner of an ebook which I a) actually owned, and b) could resell if I could find another sucker ready to take it off my hands at some wildly fluctuating price.

This Publishers Weekly piece tells us that Ingram has invested in, mainly it seems in the hope that owners will want to print a copy here and there utilizing Ingram’s extensive POD capabilities. I doubt if they could print a copy of’s first publication which is a replica of the Gutenberg Bible. This book “was published in mid-July, at an initial price of 180 ADA (the native currency of the Cardano blockchain, currently trading for about 37¢ each); 1,600 copies have been sold. ‘On the first day we generated $110,000 in sales within 12 hours,’ Stone said, adding that the company is already profitable.” $67 may not seem like a lot for a replica of the Gutenberg Bible, but after you’ve spent it what’ve you got? A computer file you can sell to someone else. Wow!

Publishers Weekly tells us that buying a book using cryptocurrency “adds an exciting element to the book buying equation”! (Come off it PW! So might one risk saying does shop-lifting. However excitement is not an element most of us want to add to our book buying equations.) One author choosing to publish with tells us that this method of publication “does a great job of bridging where we’re currently at with where things are headed.” Lucky the person who can discern so clearly where things are headed. I suspect they are looking at their iPhone rather than at the traffic while they cross the street.

This all seems to come from a different part of the battlefield than I’m on, a part I can just make out away over there in left field, but basically don’t care too much about. In my part of the struggle, the battle is to read books. Owning them is irrelevant to members of my battalion, though of course I do own way too many of them. I’m happy enough to read a library book, though our local library branch remains closed, I’m content to read a book I’ve borrowed from a friend’s shelves, or even, at a a pinch, a book I’ve stumbled across on the street. The identity of the person who paid for the object seems utterly uninteresting to those of us engaged in the struggle with ideas here in the center of the field. The fact that I have only bought access to an ebook file, not an ebook itself, is not something which gnaws at me as I read on the Kindle. Maybe Mr McIlroy and his ilk find this upsetting. If buying the thing as an NFT is going to make them happy, go ahead, be happy. It’s just so irrelevant to me that I find it almost impossible to imagine what such an attitude might feel like. If ownership is so important to you, go out and buy a book.

This has never really been my problem, but apparently many people like to have prompts about their reading choices. BookRiot gives a review of a new service, Tertulia, which does seem like it might be quite good.

My unsuitability for the service is however indicated by my inability to answer their first question:

I’m not aware of reading books in any of these categories! Well I suppose I could select “Literature & Fiction” and as a second, “Poetry”, but these just seem too dauntingly wide to count as real categories. Might as well select “Books”.

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.

Maybe I just don’t understand, but this Esquire piece (link via Technology • Innovation • Publishing) just seems to be an instance of mind games. Take an interesting idea and blow it up to maximal dimension, then stand back and say, “Wow, look how the world’s going to change”.

The author, Elle Griffin, suggests that we should all be able to purchase a share in the copyright of books. There are apparently one or two new companies designed to publish using such a business model. “Just imagine how that [— owning a investment stake in a book] would affect the reading experience. Suddenly a trip to Barnes & Noble becomes an investment opportunity. Early readers could spot ‘the next big thing’ and make a $100 contribution that becomes $10,000 or even $100,000 if the book’s popularity grows.” How insightful! What does Ms Griffin think publishing’s always been all about? And has she really been overwhelmed by the number of super-rich publishers she’s meeting at the gym, so that she feels she has to invite us all in to grab a share of the wealth? Does she really believe that only blockchain technology and crypto currency can unlock all this wealth that’s been hiding in books for all these years — wealth that up till now nobody realized was there?

If all books were like the Harry Potter books, then owning a stake in the franchise/the author/whatever might indeed be a profitable proposition — just why Ms Rowling might welcome this remains unexplained — but an investment in most of the books that get published would only represent a slower method of throwing money away than actually opening the window and throwing it out. And Ms Griffin even shows us she knows this. In what amounts almost to an aside she tells us: “According to Bookstat, there were 2.6 million books added to the market in 2020, and 96 percent of them sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Worse still, only 268 sold more than 100,000 copies.”*

She tells us, overly simplistically, “Typically a book’s rights are owned by a publishing house (if traditionally published) or by the author (if self-published), but these startups imagine a third option—where authors and investors jointly own the copyright—that could be made possible by technology known as the blockchain.” Jointly owning copyright could, I dare say, be organized via “technology known as the blockchain”, but if jointly owning copyright were an idea with any value, it could already have been enabled by “technology known as pen and paper” in the form of a contract; as indeed it typically is with the publisher acquiring some rights while the author retains others.

However, as the article assures us, “That’s the beauty of web3. At the end of the day, it’s all about ownership, and if you own something, you have the right to resell it. You have the right to lend it. For the first time in history, the author of the IP will always get something back.” Thus saith Margarita Guerrero, head of partner and publishing relations at the publishing startup Readl. (To be fair, we need to remember that Ms Guerrero is no doubt focussed on raising money for her start-up.) But when it comes to reading a book “it’s all about ownership” seems utterly nonsensical. It makes no difference to my reading whether I own the book, the file, the whatever. If I’m reading The Sun Also Rises in my Library of America edition, and when I’m visiting you, pick up at Chapter 3 in your Scribner paperback, who owns what, and who cares? I’d think ownership was just about the last thing reading was all about — still if you want to grind your axe, you can’t let silly details like that stand in your way.

It was recently reported that Pearson are considering selling their textbooks as NFTs. Now this just seems to me to be an empty gimmick. I guess the motivation is to be able to track (and get some benefit from) resales of the book — but I’m hung up on the thought that if I just told you the number of my NFT you’d be able to enjoy the book “pretending” to be me, and so on and so on.

The Esquire article turns out to be a puff-piece for crowdfunding, which is somehow made sexy by being linked to blockchain. “In a crypto crowdfund, what those ‘first’ investors get is tokens. Tokens act like our ‘stock’ here in that the number of tokens a person owns compared to the total number in existence determine what percentage of a book’s shares an investor owns.” People drunk on new technology will no doubt play around with stuff like this. Why anyone should regard it as fundamentally different from John Aubrey trying, in the seventeenth century, to sell subscriptions to his Monumenta Britannica is beyond my powers of discernment.


* The article linked to, which is actually from The Novelist, suggests that the remedy for this parlous situation is that publishing needs to “be disrupted”. It’s obviously the publishers’ fault that the ten best Netflix films can get 68 million people to view each one them while we can only squeeze one book past a million. OK, but as The Wall Street Journal tells us in its 10-11 September weekend edition “If you look at the biggest streamers, collectively they launched more than 2,000 series, and of those, approximately 15% were seen by a million people”. This rather strikes me as not totally dissimilar to the failure rate we incompetent publishers have managed to achieve, but with the big difference that the initial investment in a book is infinitesimal in comparison.

Nothing daunted Ms Griffin prescribes: “There’s no doubt that the current publishing model doesn’t work for authors.” Maybe one could counter that there’s no doubt the current public readership model isn’t working for publishers (or authors) either. Disrupt the schools so that pupils come bursting out eager to read a book at every free moment. Maybe that’s what all this book banning is designed to accomplish: frustrate their wishes and they’ll move heaven and earth to get hold of a book!

It’s all a bit like calling for the disruption of all caviare producers because millions of people eat sardines.

Courageously Randall Munroe at LitHub engages with the question “At what point in human history were there too many (English) books to be able to read them all in one lifetime?”

Well of course, as everyone really knows, this is an unanswerable question — we don’t know how many books there were at any point in the past, and we can’t know who’s doing the reading, at what pace, and how much time they are willing to devote to getting into The Guinness Book of Records. However, by recourse to simple mathematics to establish that the threshold would have been passed when there were a few more than a hundred active authors writing, Mr Munroe comes up with the answer: the late 1500s. I just “feel” that that must be too late, but I doubt if I really could read for 16 hours a day at 300 words per minute anyway. Call me lacking in ambition.

One who looks like he must have been aiming for the prize, despite being hopelessly too late in time having been born in 1746, might well have been James Lackington. In order to fit in as much reading as possible alongside working for 16 hours a day as a shoemaker’s apprentice young James would sleep only three hours each night. He’d earlier persuaded his master’s wife and sons to teach him how to read. He tells us in his autobiography that much of his early reading was of a religious nature; the Bible naturally and repeatedly, John Wesley’s journals and sermons, all of John Bunyan, moving on to Paradise Lost, Gay’s Fables, Pomfret’s poems, Walker’s translation of Epictetus, Hobbes’s Homer, Plato on the immortality of the soul, Plutarch’s, Seneca’s and Epicurus’s Morals, the Morals of Confucius “and a few others”, Shaftesbury, Bolingbroke, Tindal, Mandeville, “Helvetius, Voltaire, and many other free-thinkers . . . most of our English poets, and the best translations of the Greek, Latin, Italian, and French poets: nor did I omit to read History, Voyages Travels, Natural History, Biography . . . I had like to have forgot to inform you, that I have also read most of our best plays . . . almost all the best novels; by the best, I mean those written by Cervantes, Fielding, Smollett, Richardson, Miss Burney, Voltaire, Sterne, Le Sage, Goldsmith, and some others.”

Note the nice coincidence of the number of hours spent at his last by the shoemaker’s apprentice and the number of hours with which Mr Munroe tasks his long-distance readers. Clearly young Lackington didn’t have enough hours in the day to stand any chance. He nevertheless grew up to be a man of large achievement in the world of books: Proprietor of The Temple of the Muses, and founding father of British bookselling.

I took a slightly wider-angled stab at this topic a couple of months ago.

Nowadays you’d load up your Kindle or whatever. It used to be harder as we all remember. President Teddy Roosevelt’s, no doubt a big traveller, didn’t want to be caught short. Crusoe’s Books has a post about his traveling library, which included the following:

Obviously quite a serious reader. George Borrow matches Sir Walter Scott with the top title count. Not much read these days, George Borrow (Sir Walter either, I guess). I did read Lavengro 20 years ago, and there is a sort of fascination with all that gypsy lingo stuff.

Traveling libraries are clearly a bit of a preoccupation of theirs at Crusoe’s Books — here’s another post on the subject, featuring the collections of the young King Charles 1 and Napoleon as well as William Hakewell. I guess a precondition for having a traveling library is having stalwarts to lug it around for you. And of course money enough to pay them and also to get your books uniformly leather bound as they all seem to be. King Charles’ are the most impressive. (Presumably the polystyrene spacers are not original!)

The king’s books are mercifully small:

125 books about Brooklyn may seem a bit excessive, but clearly the temptation was too great for the Brooklyn Public Library, who, in celebrating their 125th anniversary, have compiled just such a list.

Don’t want such a narrow geographical focus? Here’s the New York Times with “The 25 most significant New York City novels from the last 100 years“. This is an immensely long piece, so here are the 25 titles:

No Henry James? No Edith Wharton? Anyway I fear I have a bit of reading before me. Do we now look for the Queens Public Library system to pick up the gauntlet? It was founded in 1907.

Open Culture brings a link to this literary map of Edinburgh. As the organizers say “We have created a very large database of place-name mentions in more than 600 books that use Edinburgh as a setting. We have then extracted the sentences immediately surrounding each mention and included those as an excerpt in our database. The data has then been mapped onto the city via the place-name mentions, and can be explored through a mobile app and online interface. With LitLong, you can walk your own paths through the resonant locations of literary Edinburgh.”

Plan your visit here. If you follow along with the readings as you go you’ll be going pretty slowly. For instance in Advocate’s Close, where we had dinner about two months ago (just on the right there), you’ll have readings from five different books to peruse as you come down a hundred yards of steps.

Ever cringed at the sight of someone licking their thumb in order to flick over the pages of a library book? Or their own book, for that matter? Or maybe even just the thought of unwashed sweaty fingers is enough to keep you away from the public library. We keep getting told how there’s a whole mass of sloughed-off skin cells lurking in our bedding: I even got an email the other day proposing to sell me a product which would help me to get rid of them! Well, even without thumb-licking we cannot avoid leaving our personal traces all over any book we read. (You’ve never found a hair in a gutter?) I try to comfort myself that the effects of such traces wear off after a few days and will be gone by the time I borrow the book, but of course that’s nonsense. Don’t get too upset though — this is true of anything we handle, so don’t stop reading. Maybe wash your hands more often as instructed by the CDC while singing Happy Birthday twice through.

Proteomics is the study of proteins — and as proteins tend to survive better than much genetic material they are an important source of knowledge about ancient DNA. Paleoproteomics is the result. It’s not about Jurassic-Park-like dinosaur cloning — proteomics can potentially reveal information about ancient peoples and artifacts.

Of course it’s hard to get hold a bit of any ancient relic in order to grind it up and subject it to testing. Matthew Collins, Professor of Palaeoproteomics in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge (happy to see the Cambridge archaeology department is still out front on the science of archaeology), emphasizes how difficult it is for conservators to yield up for testing any tiny bit of their unique charges, and this obviously slows down the analysis of ancient materials. In order to obtain samples for analysis Professor Collins makes use of the rubbings that conservators routinely make with erasers when they are cleaning their charges. “Since 2011, Collins has used the rubbings to gather biological information about medieval European cattle, sheep, and goats.”

Professor Collins is quoted in a New Yorker piece (referenced by Emma Smith: Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers, Allen Lane, 2022) describing the work of Pier Giorgio Righetti and Gleb Zilberstein on testing old manuscripts for what biological evidence they might retain. But of course it doesn’t just have to be manuscript you test: “In 2015, researchers at the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C., swabbed the gutter of a Bible from 1637 and found DNA belonging to at least one Northern European, who had acne.” Kissing the bible was not uncommon behavior (probably still is) among the committed: traces of proteins from drips from medieval lips and noses have been detected on the tenth century York Gospels. Learning that, if you’re upset about skin cells in your bedding (or worse bedbugs in library books), you’re probably never going to open any second-hand book again. But it’s obvious that such research can potentially yield fascinating information about who’s handled a particular book. Presumably, for instance, we might be able to prove just how much attention Samuel Richardson actually paid to Lady Bradshaigh’s annotations of Clarissa by finding his dabs all over it. Or finding traces of the sweat of Ezra Pound’s brow all over the manuscript of “The Wasteland” could be interesting — more interesting if it was some other poem I suppose.

Confronting the testing = destruction problem, Zilberstein has adapted a food packaging ethylene-vinyl-acetate film to pick up a range of chemicals from old and valuable objects without damaging them. Finding morphine all over Michael Bulgakov’s manuscripts may not be too earth-shattering, since we kind of knew he was addicted, but a second test “picked up twenty-nine human proteins, mostly from sweat and saliva, including three biomarkers of the renal disease that killed Bulgakov, in March, 1940.”

The Folger research referenced above comes from their Project Dustbunny, described here in Washingtonian. That test took place in 2015 and inaugurated the project.

Dustbunny involves going through the books swabbing the gutter margin: presumably not every gutter of every book. The dust thus recovered is stored in a bio-archive, where it will sit until it can be scientifically analyzed. Heather Wolfe, the Folger’s curator of manuscripts says “It’s not just a collection of texts but this biological archive that we need to preserve for future research we can’t even conceive of.” Professor Collins has been advising the Library on how they might best proceed with testing.


* Always a bit risky to embark on the explication of a pun: but my title is a bit of a pun. The word “reading”, as well as its obvious sense, is also the British term more or less equivalent to what in America we mean by “majoring in”.