Category Archives: e-books

Hermeneutics of the stack and the list: unreading journals in print or online

The New York Times reported yesterday that The Wilson Quarterly will put out its final print issue in July ( Wilson Quarterly to End Print Publication – NYTimes.com). The editorial staff seemed sanguine.

“We’re not going on the Web per se,” Steven Lagerfeld, the magazine’s editor, said in an interview. “We already have a Web site. The magazine will simply be published in a somewhat different form as an app,” first in the iTunes store and later on the Android platform.

And, to be honest, I’m sanguine too.  Although, I noted a the demise of the University of Missouri Press with a half shudder last week, I have to admit that I don’t greet the demise of print journals with the same anxiety.  I’ve recognized lately that I mostly buy paper journals so I can have access to their online manifestations or because I feel guilty knowing that online long form journalism and feature writing has yet to find a way to monetize itself effectively. I try to do my part by littering my office and bedroom with stack and stacks of largely unopened New York Reviews, New Yorkers, Chronicles of Higher Ed, and a few other lesser known magazines and specialist journals. But most of my non-book reading, long form or not, is done on my iPad.

I will leave the question of what we will do if good journals like the Wilson Quarterly really can’t survive on iTunes distribution (WQ only survived in paper because of the indulgence of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars). I’m more interested at the moment in the fact of the stack and what it signifies in the intellectual life.  Every intellectual I know of is guilty of stockpiling books and journals that  she never reads, and can never reasonably expect to, at least not if she has a day job.  The stack is not simply a repository of knowledge and intellectual stimulation beckoning to the reader, drawing him away from other mundane tasks like reading or preparing for class with an ennobling idea of staying informed. (Side note:  academia is the one place in life where every activity of daily life can be construed as tax deductible; just make a note about it and write “possible idea for future article” at the top of the page.)

No, The stack is also a signifier.  It exists not so much to read, since most academics give up hopelessly on the idea of reading every word of the journals that they receive.  The stack exists to be observed.  Observed on the one hand by the academic him or herself, a reassuring sign of one’s own seriousness, that one reads such thing and is conversant with the big ideas, or at least the nifty hot ideas, about culture high and low.  The stack also exists to be observed by others:  the rare student who comes by during office hours, the dean who happens to drop by to say hello, the colleagues coming in to ask you out for coffee–“Oh, you already got the latest issue of PMLA!” The stack suggests you are uptodate, or intend to be.  The stack communicates your values.  Which journal do you put strategically out at the edge of the desk to be observed by others, which do you stack heedlessly on top of the file cabinet.  Even the hopelessly disheveled office can signify, as did Derrida’s constantly disheveled hair; I am too busy and thinking too many big thoughts to be concerned with neatness.

The stack, like the Wilson Quarterly, is on its way out, at least for academics.  I realized four or five years ago that e-books would signify the end of a certain form of identification since people would no longer self-consciously display their reading matter in coffee houses or on subways, every text hidden in the anonymous and private cover of the Kindle or now the iPad.  While I could connect now with other readers in Tibet or Siberia, I could not say off-handedly to the college student sitting next to me–“Oh, you’re reading Jonathan Safran Foer, I loved that book!”

The stack too is going and will soon be gone.  Replaced now by the endless and endlessly growing list of articles on Instapaper that I pretend I will get back to.  This has not yet had the effect of neatening my office, but it will remove one more chance at self-display.  I will soon be accountable only for what I know and what I can actually talk about, not what I can intimate by the stacks of unread paper sitting on my desk.

Enjoy your summer reading. Faster! Faster!: Technology, Recreation, and Being Human

A nice essay from novelist Graham Swift in the New York Times on the issues of reading, writing, speed and leisure.  A lot of what’s here is well travelled ground, though travelled well again by Swift.  I especially noted his sense in which time-saving has become the means by which we are enslaved to time.

A good novel is like a welcome pause in the flow of our existence; a great novel is forever revisitable. Novels can linger with us long after we’ve read them — even, and perhaps particularly, novels that compel us to read them, all other concerns forgotten, in a single intense sitting. We may sometimes count pages as we read, but I don’t think we look at our watches to see how time is slipping away.

That, in fact, is the position of the skeptical nonreader who says, “I have no time to read,” and who deems the pace of life no longer able to accommodate the apparently laggard process of reading books. We have developed a wealth of technologies that are supposed to save us time for leisurely pursuits, but for some this has only made such pursuits seem ponderous and archaic. ­“Saving time” has made us slaves to speed.

via The Narrative Physics of Novels – NYTimes.com.

To some degree Swift is picking up on a perpetual conundrum in the advancements of technology, a dialectic by which we pursue technological ends to make our lives easier, more convenient, less consumed by work and more open to enrichment. Making onerous tasks more efficient has been the dream of technology from indoor plumbing to the washing machine to email. In short we pursue technological means to make our lives more human.

And in some ways and places, we are able to achieve that end.  Who would want, really, to live in the Middle Ages anywhere except in Second Life.  Your expected life span at birth would have been about 30 years, compared to a global average today in the mid to upper 60s, and it would have been a 30 years far more grinding and difficult than what most of the world experiences today (with, of course, important and grievous exceptions).  You would likely have been hopelessly illiterate, cut off from even the possibility of entering a library (much less purchasing a handmade codex in a bookstore), and you would have had no means of being informed of what happened in the next valley last week, much less what happened in Beijing 10 minutes ago.  It is little wonder that  becoming a monk or a priest ranked high on the list of desirable medieval occupations.  Where else were you guaranteed a reward in heaven, as well as at least some access to those things we consider basic features of our contemporary humanity–literacy, education, art, music, a life not under the dominion of physical labor.  What we usually mean when we romanticize the ancient world (or for that matter the 1950s) is that we want all the fruits of our modern era with out the new enslavements that accompany them

At the same time, of course, our technological advances have often been promoted as a gift to humankind in general, but they have as readily been employed to advance a narrow version of human productivity in the marketplace.  Our technologies facilitate fast communication;  This mostly means that we are now expected to communicate more than ever, and they also raise expectations about just exactly what can get done.  Technology vastly expands the range or information we can thoughtfully engage, but increases the sense that we are responsible for knowing something about everything, instead of knowing everything about the few dozen books my great grandparents might have had in their possession.  One reason the vaunted yeoman farmer knew something about Shakespeare, could memorize vast expanses of the bible, and could endure sermons and speeches that lasted for hours is because he didn’t have a twitter feed. Nor did he have an Outlook Calendar that becomes an endless to do list generated by others.

I do think the novel, even in its e-book form, resists this need for speed.  On the other hand, it is worth saying that reading like this must be practiced like other things.  I find that when I take a couple of vacation days for a long weekend (like this weekend), it takes me about 2/3 of a day to slow down and relax and allow myself to pause.  Luckily, I can do this more readily with novels, even at the end of a hectic and too full day or week.  But that might be possible because I learned how to do it in another world, one without the bells and whistles that call for my attention through my multiple devices with their glowing LCDs.

Novel reading is a learned skill, and I wonder whether our students learn it well enough. Re-creation is a learned skill, one we need to be fully ourselves, and I do wonder whether we lose that capacity for pause in our speedy lives.

Do all Canadian Professors wear funny robes and require a moderator? The Book Is Not Dead [jenterysayers.com]

Jentery Sayers at the University of Victoria posted a really interesting video set from a debate the humanities faculty put on about the book or the death thereof.  Couldn’t help being interested since it’s what’s absorbed me generally for the past several years, and since we here at Messiah had out own symposium on the book this past February.

I embedded one video below with part of Jentery’s speech–unfortunately split between two videos, and Jentery’s head is cut off some of the time, a talking body instead of a talking head.  The whole set is on Jentery’s website and apparently somewhere on the University of Victoria and of course on YouTube.  Worth my time this evening, though perhaps it says something about me that I am spending my time on a Friday night watching Canadian professors dressed in robes and addressing one another as “Madame Prime Minister” and “Leader of the Opposition”. Better than Monty Python.

The event is described as follows:

 As independent bookstores close their doors, newspapers declare bankruptcy and young people are more familiar with negotiating digitized data, it seems that the era of the printed word may be on it’s way out. Indeed, the emergency of digital humanities research seems to imply that, even in the most book-centric fields, the written word may be obsolete. Join us for a good-humoured look at whether the book is dead or if rumours of its demise are premature.

via The Book Is Not Dead [jenterysayers.com].

Takeaway line from Jentery:  “New Media Remediates Old Media”.  I’m still unpacking that, but I like Jentery’s general sense of the commerce between the traditional Gutenberg book and New Media.  It does seem to me that in a lot of ways this interaction between media forms is really what’s happening right now.  Every book published has a web site, a Facebook page, and the authors interact with readers via twitter and personal blogs.  A lot of what goes on in new media is repackaging and mashups of old media.  I do think though that its also the case that old media repackages new media as well.  Movies end up as books, and blogs become books that become movies.

It seems to me that our divisions between English and Film/communication/digital media might make less and less sense.  Would it make more sense to imagine books as such as “media” and simply have media studies, rather than imagining these things separately.

Other memorable line was someone quoting McLuhan.  “Old technologies become new art forms.”  Or words to that effect. I think this is right, and in the long haul I keep thinking this may be the destiny of the traditional book, though i could be proven wrong. I think book binders could be a growth industry, as well as publishers that specialize in high end book products.  I’ve mulled over the question of the book becoming an art object several times before, so I won’t bother to do it again here.

Side note:  Jentery Sayers was extremely generous with his time, attention, and intelligence in engaging with a number of faculty and students at Messiah College last week.  A lot of good ideas and great energy even if the computer hook up was less than desirable. Much appreciated.  The clip of Jentery’s speech is below:

 

Book futures, or, apocalypse now.

I led a discussion in the Adult Forum down at St. Stephens last Sunday in which I suggested that apocalyptic literature falls in to basically two types: apocalyptic nihilism and apocalyptic redemption, the one seeing an end to everything the other seeing destruction as the necessary precursor to renewal. Theres an awful lot of apocalypticism out there about the book these days, a good bit of it just assuming the book is going to hell in a handbasket.

I mentioned in my post earlier today that prognosticating the future of the book seems to be a growth industry. Indeed, we devoted an entire symposium to it here at Messiah College. Besides the recent articles I mentioned earlier from my colleague Jonathan Lauer, and another by Jason Epstein, I ran across this from John Thompson at Huffington Post. A lot of it was the usual and obvious grist for the blogging mill, but I was intrigued by his final point, that the death of our current models for book production and dissemination may well lead to a flourishing of smaller independent publishing concerns

Seventh, small publishing operations and innovative start-ups will proliferate, as the costs and complexities associated with the book supply chain diminish, and threats of disintermediation will abound, as both traditional and new players avail themselves of new technologies and the opportunities opened up by them to try to eat the lunch of their erstwhile collaborators.

This strikes me as a plausible idea, and an exciting one. Although Anthony Grafton lamented the loss of the demanding professional editor, I think there’s an awful lot of talented creative people out there who could bring new energy and innovation to the world of ebooks and print books alike. We might be able to look back at this time fifty years from now and see this moment as one that heralded a new beginning for the book rather than its demise. If that’s not just so much rose colored glasses.

Digitization and the fulfillment of the book

My colleague in the library here at Messiah College, Jonathan Lauer, has a very nice essay in the most recent Digital Campus edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Jonathan makes an eloquent defense of the traditional book over and against the googlization and ebookification of everything.   He especially employs an extended metaphor drawn from the transition to aluminum bats in various levels of baseball to discuss his unease and reservations about the shifts to electronic books and away from print that is profoundly and rapidly changing the nature of libraries as we’ve known them.  The essay is more evocative than argumentative, so there’s a lot of different things going on, but a couple of Jonathan’s main points are that enhancements we supposedly achieve with digitization projects come at a cost to our understanding of texts and at a cost to ourselves.

In the big leagues, wooden bats still matter. Keeping print materials on campus and accessible remains important for other reasons as well. Witness Andrew M. Stauffer’s recent Chroniclearticle, “The Troubled Future of the 19th-Century Book.” Stauffer, the director of the Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-Century Electronic Scholarship, cites several examples of what we all know intuitively. “The books on the shelves carry plenty of information lost in the process of digitization, no matter how lovingly a particular copy is rendered on the screen,” he writes. “There are vitally significant variations in the stacks: editions, printings, issues, bindings, illustrations, paper type, size, marginalia, advertisements, and other customizations in apparently identical copies.” Without these details, discernible only in physical copies, we are unable to understand a book’s total impact. Are we so easily seduced by the aluminum bat that we toss all wooden ones from the bat bag?

Let’s also acknowledge that our gadgets eventually program us. History teaches us that technologies often numb the very human capacities they amplify; in its most advanced forms, this is tantamount to auto-amputation. As weavers lost manual dexterity with their use of increasingly mechanized looms during the Industrial Revolution, so we can only imagine what effect GPS will have on the innate and learned ability of New York City cabbies to find their way around the five boroughs. Yet we practice auto-amputation at our own peril. We dare not abandon wooden bats for aluminum for those endeavors that demand prolonged attention, reflection, and the analysis and synthesis that sometimes lead to wisdom, the best result of those decidedly human endeavors that no gadget can exercise.

I have a lot of sympathy for Jonathan’s position, things like the revamping of the New York Public Library leaving me with a queasy hole in my stomach.  I’ve had a running conversation with Beth Transue, another of our librarians, about our desire to start leading alumni tours of the world’s great libraries, but if we’re going to do so we better get it done fast because most of them won’t be around anymore in a few more years, at least if the NYPL and its budgetary woes are anything to judge by.

At the same time, I think Jonathan overstates his case here.  I don’t think serious thinkers are assuming we’ll get rid of books entirely.  Although I currently think we are already living in what I’ve called an E-plus world, print will continue to be with us serving many different purposes. Jason Epstein over at the NYRB has a blog on this fact and progrognosticating the likely future and uses of the traditional book seems to be a growth industry at the moment. I don’t think the average student is too terribly interested in the material textuality that Jonathan references above, nor for that matter is the average scholar, the vast majority of whom remain interested in what people wrote not how the publishers chose to package it.  But those issues will continue to be extremely important for cultural and social historians, and there will be some forms of work that will only possibly be done with books.  Just as it is a tremendous boon to have Joyce’s manuscript’s digitized, making them available for the general reader and the scholar who cannot afford a trip to Ireland, authoritative interpretations of Joyce’s method, biography, and life’s work will still have to make the trip to Ireland to see the thing for themselves, to capture what can’t be captured by a high resolution camera.

That having been said, who would say that students studying Joyce should avoid examining the digitized manuscripts closely because they aren’t “the genuine article.”  Indeed, I strongly suspect that even the authoritative interpretations of those manuscripts will increasingly be a commerce between examination of the physical object and close examination of digitized objects since advanced DH work shows us time and time again that computerized forms of analysis can get at things the naked eye could never see.  So the fact that there are badly digitized copies of things in google books and beyond, shouldn’t belie the fact that there are some massively important scholarly opportunities here.

Jonathan’s second point is about the deeply human and quasi-spiritual aspects of engagement with traditional books that so many of us have felt over the years.  There’s something very true about this. It is also true that our technologies can result in forms of self amputation.  Indeed, if we are to take it to heart we need to admit that the technology of writing and reading itself is something that involves self-amputation.  Studies have shown that heavy readers alter their brains, and not always in a good sense.  We diminish the capacity of certain forms of memory, literally making ourselves absent minded professors.   Other studies have suggested that persons in oral cultures have this capacity in heightened form, and  some people argue that this generation is far more visually acute than those that preceded it, developing new abilities because of their engagement with visual texts.  So, indeed, our technologies alter us, and even result in self-amputation, but that is true of the traditional book as well as the internet.  This second is Jonathan’s larger claim since it seems to claim for traditional books as such a superiority in terms of something central to humanity as such. I am intrigued, with this argument that the book is superior for serious reflection and the quasi spiritual aspects of study that we have come to treat as central to the humanities.

I admit, I don’t buy it.

First, I admit that I’m just wary about attributing essential human superiorities to historical artifact and practices.  Homer as a collection of aural songs is not inherently inferior to the scrolls within which they were originally collected, then finding their apotheosis in the book form.  We have come to think of the book as exhibiting and symbolizing superior forms of humanity, but it’s not clear that book form was triumphant in the west because of these attributes.  Indeed, traditional Jews and others clearly think the scroll remains the superior spiritual form even to this day.  Rather, the codex triumphed for a variety of complicated reasons.  Partly Christian Churches for ideological reasons apparently wanted to distinguish their own writings from the writings of the Jews.  There may have been some more substantive reasons as well, though that’s not entirely clear: Anthony Grafton points out that many of the Christian innovations with the codex seemed to focus on the desire to compare different kinds of texts side by side (an innovation, I will point out, for which the internet is in many ways easily superior).  The codex also triumphed not because it was spiritually and intellectually superior but because it was, frankly, more efficient, cheaper, and easier to disseminate than its scrolly ancestors.  One good example is from the poet Martial who explicitly ties the selling of his poetry in codex form to making them easily and efficiently accessible to the common person:  “Assign your book-boxes to the great, this copy of me one hand can grasp.”

The entire trend of book history has been toward this effort to make texts and what they contain more readily and easily available to more and more people.  From the early clay tablets to the mass market paperback that let you carry Plato in your hip pocket, the thrust of the book has been toward broader and broader dissemination, toward greater and greater ease of use, toward cheaper and cheaper accessibility.  The goal of writing, even when that writing was imprisoned in libraries that only the initiated could enter as in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, has been open access.

The digitization that is occurring now comes to fulfill the book, not destroy it.

Secondarily, I guess I no longer believe fully in the spiritual or intellectual superiority of codex forms simply since it doesn’t comport with my experience.  As I do more and more of my reading of books with my various e-readers, I find that I have serious, contemplative, analytical, and synthetic engagements with all kinds of texts, from those hundreds of “pages” long and those not.  As I get used to the tools of various e-readers, theres almost nothing that can’t be accomplished in some way on an e-reader that is accomplished in traditional books.  Although I interact with texts differently now in a spatial sense, I am able to take fuller and more copious notes, I am able to mark texts more easily,  and if I can’t quite remember where something was in the book I can use a search engine to find not only a specific phrase or topic, but every single instance of that topic in the book.  Moreover, because every text represents an act of contemplation on and conversation with other texts, I can at the touch of a screen go and read for myself the interlocutors embedded within a book, just as those interested in Jonathan’s essay can touch my link above and decide for themselves whether I am reading him fairly.  Thus there are very obviously and seriously some ways in which e-readers are superior for serious analytical and interpretive readings of texts, or at least the equal to them.

All this having been said, I will say that there remains one way that I find the traditional paper book the clear superior to the e-book, and that has to do with my ability to make it mine.

I spoke a couple of days ago about the personal connection I felt to Kierkegaard in rereading him and discovering my many years of underlines, highlights and marginalia.  I even confess that I real Kimi Cunningham Grant’s new memoir on my iPad, but I still bought a hard cover at the reading–not because I thought I would be able to analyze it more effectively in hard cover, but because I wanted her to sign it for me.

This is a personal connection to the book that isn’t unimportant, but that is about my personal biography, and Kimi’s.  It’s not about the text, and frankly I doubt it will in the long run even be about literary history.  Some literary archivist somewhere is collecting all the shared comments on the Kindle version of Kimi’s book, and that massive marginalia will be fodder for some graduate student’s dissertation in a few decades.

I pity the poor graduate student who decides on such a project. But at least she won’t have to strain her eyes to decipher the handwriting.

Teaching Latin on an iPad: An experiment at Messiah College

An example of some of the things that Messiah College is trying to do in experimenting with digital technology in the classroom.  My colleague Joseph Huffman is more pessimistic than I about the promise of iPads and e-books, but I’m just glad we have faculty trying to figure it out.  See the full post at the link below.

You might not expect a historian of Medieval and Renaissance Europe to be among the first educators at Messiah College to volunteer to lead a pilot project exploring the impact of mobile technology—in this case, the iPad—on students’ ability to learn. But that’s exactly what happened.Joseph Huffman, distinguished professor of European history, and the eight students in his fall 2011 Intermediate Latin course exchanged their paper textbooks for iPads loaded with the required texts, relevant apps, supplementary PDFs and a Latin-English dictionary. The primary goal was to advance the learning of Latin. The secondary goal was to determine whether the use of the iPad improved, inhibited or did not affect their ability to learn a foreign language.Why Latin?“A Latin course is about as traditional a humanities course as one can find,” Huffman says. Because any foreign language course requires deep and close readings of the texts, studying how student learning and engagement are affected by mobile technology is especially provocative in such a classic course. In addition, Latin fulfills general language course requirements and, therefore, classes are comprised of students from a variety of majors with, perhaps, diverse experiences with mobile technologies like iPads.One aspect of the experiment was to explore whether students would engage the learning process differently with an iPad than a textbook.

The assumption, Huffman admits, is that today’s students likely prefer technology over books.Huffman’s experiences with his Latin 201 course—comprised of five seniors, two sophomores and one junior—challenged that commonly held assumption.

via Messiah College: Messiah News – Messiah College Homepage Features » iPad experiment.

Is the laptop going the way of the codex; technological nostalgia in the iPad imperium

My colleague John Fea over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, pointed me to this essay by Alex Golub on the relative merits of the iPad and the laptop.  For Golub, the iPad is indispensable, but, as he puts it “it’s not a laptop and it never will be.”  Golub goes on with a litany of limitations that, in fact, I mostly agree with–too hard to produce things, too hard to multi-task, etcetera, etcetera.

On the other hand, I’m struck by the degree to which his lamentations strike me as just the sort of thing people are saying about the demise of the book.

Perhaps I am one of the old generation who will someday be put to shame by nimble-fingered young’uns tapping expertly away on their nanometer-thick iPad 7s, but I don’t think so. People may get used to the limitations of the device, but that doesn’t mean that it’s better than what came before.

In fact, I see this as one of the dangers of the iPad. I see them everywhere on campus, and I wonder to myself: Are my students really getting through college without a laptop? Frankly, the idea seems horrifying to me. I don’t doubt that they can do it — I worry what skills they are not learning because of the smallness (in every sense of that word) of the devices they learn on.

Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/04/09/essay-use-ipad-academics#ixzz1rbBPGr4L
Inside Higher Ed

Substitute the word “book” for every reference to laptop and you’ve got a pretty good rendition of the typical concerns with the demise of the codex, profs in horror at the idea that students may someday come to their classes without books in hand and they may be required to teach students from text on a screen. (Who am I kidding, the thought horrifies me still).  As if somehow there were an inherent depth or proficiency of knowledge that is unavailable through this other form.  My college began an iPad experiment this year, and so far there’s been quite a bit of success, even if there are also hiccups.  Just yesterday I read an interview with Clive Thompson who is reading War and Peace on his iPhone.  On his iPhone!

As I said, I’m reading War and Peace on my iPhone. But you can’t tell I’m reading War and Peaceon my iPhone. When I take my kids to the park and they’re off playing while I’m reading War and Peace, I look like just some fatuous idiot reading his email. I almost went to CafePress and designed a T-shirt that said, “Piss off, I’m reading War and Peace on my iPhone.”

I mildly object to the notion that people look like fatuous idiots answering their email.  It’s what I spend about 80% of my day doing.  Nevertheless, I agree with the sentiment that simply because the embodiment or the tools of our intelligence are unfamiliar, we should not assume intelligence and learning aren’t present.

We’ve had the codex for about two millennia in one form or another.  We’ve had the laptop for less than 40.  I admit to being just a bit bemused at the foreshortening of our nostalgia for the good old days.

Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

I know right now that I am partly subject to the enthusiasm of the new convert in seeing my object of adoration everywhere I turn, but truly, it seems that everywhere I turn these days I see the landslide toward a total digitalization of the world of the humanities.  Like a landslide, it may have looked a long ways off at first, but its upon us now, and rumble has become a roar.   As I said in this previous post, I think we’re a long way past a print plus world and we better figure out how digital tools, either simple things like e-books or complex tools and methodologies associated with digitalization, are going to change what we are doing with ourselves and our students.  A few rumblings:

1. Robert Darnton announces that the Digital Public Library of America will be up and running by 2013.  Darnton, an advocate of public digitalization efforts that will prevent private entities like Google from controlling access to information, has spearheaded the effort to bring together the digitalization efforts of libraries around the globe.  According to the DPLA’s website, the purpose of the the DPLA is focused in the following ways:

Many universities, public libraries, and other public-spirited organizations have digitized materials that could be brought together under the frame of the DPLA, but these digital collections often exist in silos. Compounding this problem are disparate technical standards, disorganized and incomplete metadata, and a host of legal issues. No project has yet succeeded in bringing these different viewpoints, experiences, and collections together with leading technical experts and the best of private industry to find solutions to these complex challenges. Users have neither coherent access to these materials nor tools to use them in new and exciting ways, and institutions have no clear blueprint for creating a shared infrastructure to serve the public good. The time is right to launch an ambitious project to realize the great promise of the Internet for the advancement of sharing information and of using technology to enable new knowledge and discoveries in the United States.

2. Appearance of the Journal of Digital Humanities:  I already mentioned this yesterday, but I’ll go ahead and do it again.  It seems to me that Digital Humanities is coalescing in to a force in academe–rather than a marginalized crew on the ragtag end–not unlike the massive changes that occurred in humanistic studies after 1966 and the advent of deconstruction and its step-children.  In my estimation the change may be even more massive–and perhaps more painful and more exciting–than those earlier changes since deconstruction did not essentially change the tools of the trade–we still read books (and gradually included film, pop-culture, and other media) and we still wrote papers about them.  While deconstruction may have been a more sophisticated and nifty looking hammer, it was still basically a hammer.  Digital Humanities is changing humanistic work at the level of the tool, creating houses without hammers.

3.People Who read e-books read more books than those who do not--A new Pew Research Center study suggests the following:

a survey from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project shows that e-book consumers in the U.S. are reading over a third more books than their print-only customers. According to the report, titled “The Rise of E-Reading,” the average reader of e-books says he or she has read 24 books in the past 12 months, compared with an average of 15 books by non–e-book consumers.

Overall, Pew found that the number of American adults who say they have read an e-book rose to 21%, compared to 17% reported just a few months ago in December 2011. That jump comes following a holiday season that saw a spike in the ownership of both tablet computers and dedicated e-readers.

I admit that I want to cavil a bit about this news.  It’s also been demonstrated that e-readers so far are overwhelmingly dominated by pulp fiction romances and mysteries, the kind of thing you can read easily in a day.  On the other hand, book selling and reading in general has ALWAYS been dominated by the romance and mystery genres, so that’s nothing new.

The same Publishers Weekly article points to a study saying that e-readers are poised to take off with a massive global spike.  We’ve heard this before, but….Well, I asked my boss the other day if I could purchase a Kindle so I could experiment with the Kindle library program.  I am over the edge and into the dark side of the abyss.

4. The New York Public Library opened up an amazing new database tool for the 19040 census–itself an amazing database just released by the U.S. government.  I haven’t totally figured out how to use it yet, but your can search for persons in the census, tag their location in GIS based maps of New York City and do multilayered searching of NYC based on the crowd-sourced effort at developing a digital social history of New York City.  According to this article in the Gothamist,

Kate Stober at the NYPL tells us it’s “more than just a research tool, we’ll be helping New Yorkers create a social history map of buildings and neighborhoods in the five boroughs. When you find an address, the tool pins it to both a 1940 map and a contemporary map, so you can see how the area has changed. You’re then invited to leave a note attached to the pin—memories, info about who lived there, what the neighborhood was like, questions… As people use the site, we’ll build a cultural map of New York in 1940 that will assist both professional historians and laypeople alike.” And that’s pretty amazing.

I’m especially fond of this article because it goes on to point out that famous recluse, J.D. Salinger was indeed living in plain site on Park Avenue in New York City in 1940.  You just had to know his first name was Jerome and have faith that there couldn’t be more than one Jerome D. Salinger’s in Manhattan.  I think the question for humanist scholars will be what responsible teacher of the culture, art, history, and politics, etcetera of America in the 1940s would not want to use this tool and insist that their students use it to.

It’s more than a rumble.

Anthropodermic Bibliopegy: Books in a pound of flesh

Among the other advantages of Twitter–besides finding out what famous people ate for breakfast–I discover knowledge that I find both nauseating and compelling.  In his recent discourse on the history of the book at Messiah College, Anthony Grafton did not manage to get in to the arcana of book binding, else he may have filled us in a bit more on Anthropodermic Bibliopegy, a term I picked up via a tweet from the LA Times book review.  From the blog the chirurgeon’s apprentice: a website devote to the horrors of pre-anaesthetic surgery:

The process of binding books using human flesh is known as ‘anthropodermic bibliopegy’. One of the earlier examples dates from the 17th century and currently resides in Langdell Law Library at Harvard University. It is a Spanish law bookpublished in 1605. The colour of the binding is a ‘subdued yellow, with sporadic brown and black splotches like an old banana’. [1] On the last page, there is an inscription which reads:


The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma [possibly an African tribe from modern-day Zimbabwe, see below illustration]on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Mbesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace. [2]

Although it seems macabre to our modern sensibilities, this book was rebound as a way of memorialising the life of Jonas Wright. In this way, it is similar to mourning jewellery made from the hair of the deceased and worn by the Victorians during the 19th century. It is a poignant reminder of the life that has been lost.

Poignant indeed, though I doubt I’ll be asking my wife if she would like a skin-covered book to remember me by.  The post goes on to note.

Anthropodermic bibliopegy reached its height of popularity during the French Revolution, when a fresh supply of bodies was always available. All sorts of books were wrapped in human skins, including a collection of poems by John Milton. One of the last known books to be bound in this fashion dates from 1893 and currently resides at Brown University. The binder did not have quite enough skin for the book, and thus split the piece into two – the front cover is bound using the outer layer of skin; the back cover and spine are bound using the inner layer of skin.

If you didn’t know better, you would think it was suede.

Gives new meaning to the idea of “Kindle Skins.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Zombie Author–Or, I am the hype that I descry

I picked up via twitter yesterday that a Kurt Vonnegut novella that was twice rejected by major magazines has been published for the first time via Amazon singles.  Dutifully, I downloaded the book and now have it available via my Kindle app on my iPad and ready for reading. Perhaps a review will be in the offing if I can get around to it. (If I would blog less, I’m sure I would read more.)  The ways in which this leaves me feeling strange and uneasy requires a catalogue.

1.  If the book has been rejected multiple times and Vonnegut in his later life never chose to publish it when he most assuredly could have, as an e-book or otherwise, why should I buy this book now.  Is it because “it’s a Vonnegut,” and therefore worthy of my time.  I think this must not be true since in the end Vonnegut didn’t think it was even worth his time.  Am I somehow trading in a cult of celebrity in which the Vonnegut industry keeps pumping out the undead wisdom–even if the quality of the book might end up being something akin to a black velvet painting of Elvis being sold on the roadside beside a 7-Eleven in Arkansas.  Somehow I think here of Foucaults inquiry in to what exactly constitutes the work of an author.  I always kind of smiled at the question of whether an author’s laundry list is a part of his or her work.  I am now wondering whether Vonnegut’s laundry lists will be imaged and sold online as amazon singles.

2. I haven’t read half of the Vonnegut that Vonnegut himself thought was worth publishing.  Why should I purchase this latest for 1.99.  Because its easy and I didn’t even have to leave my couch to do it?  On the other hand, I have wasted a good bit more money than that on impulse purchases of literary magazines that now serve landfills, or perhaps could be fodder for Liz Laribee’s latest art project(the latter a worthy demise, I should say)

3.  Should I really enrich Rosetta Books and Amazon.com in pursuit of Vonnegut’s ghost.

4. Is there a problem with the fact that the internet erases distinctions between ephemera and things of “enduring value”?  What is the nature of “enduring value” when essentially everything can endure on an equal plane and theoretically in to eternity. ( I know here that my colleague Samuel Smith thinks the internet is more ephemeral than a paper book, but I have my doubts.  If we really get to the point of apocalypse in which all our digital resources are essentially unavailable through some massive destruction of the grid, we won’t be reading our paper books either.  We’ll be burning them in our fireplaces.  Or cooking them in our soups.)  The intellectual world is flat, and if Rosetta books had not chosen to publish the work, some enterprising graduate student with a scanner and an email account could have.

5.  Is it a problem that in writing this blog post, linking to websites, retweeting GalleyCat missives, posting to Facebook, I am flogging a book that I haven’t even read, part of the industrial–internet–publishing complex that makes Kurt Vonnegut a Zombie Author who continues to fascinate and destroy.  I am the hype that I descry.