Tag Archives: Books

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.”

What is the future of the book?–Anthony Grafton’s Keynote lecture at Messiah College

This past February we had the privilege of hearing from Dr. Anthony Grafton from Princeton University at our Humanities Symposium at Messiah College.  Grafton is a formidable scholar and intellect, and a generous soul, a too rare combination.  The following video is his keynote lecture for the Symposium.  Grafton’s instincts are conservative, readily admitting his undying love for the codex and its manifold cultural institutions (libraries, used bookstores, even Barnes and Nobles).  At the same time, he is under no illusions that the future of the book lies elsewhere.  His lecture looks at what is threatened, what should be valued and protected from the fast, but also what might be a potential for the future of the book, and what values we should bring to bear to shape the book, which is, after all, a human institution.

Many thanks to Derick Esch, my work study student, for his work in filming and producing this video.  Other videos from the symposium can be found at the same vimeo page.

Dr. Anthony Grafton: 2012 Humanities Symposium Keynote Address from Messiah Humanities on Vimeo.

Mark Sandel–The commodification of everything

I’ve enjoyed listening occasionally to Mark Sandel’s lectures in philosophy via iTunes.  He has an interesting new article in the April Atlantic focusing on the ways in which nearly everything in American life, at least, has been reduced to a market value.  Despite the admonition that money can’t buy me love, we are pretty sure that it can buy everything else, and that we are willing to sell just about anything, including body parts and personal dignity, for whatever the market will bear.

Sandel somewhat peculiarly to my mind traces this to a post-Cold War phenomenon.

WE LIVE IN A TIME when almost everything can be bought and sold. Over the past three decades, markets—and market values—have come to govern our lives as never before. We did not arrive at this condition through any deliberate choice. It is almost as if it came upon us.

As the Cold War ended, markets and market thinking enjoyed unrivaled prestige, and understandably so. No other mechanism for organizing the production and distribution of goods had proved as successful at generating affluence and prosperity. And yet even as growing numbers of countries around the world embraced market mechanisms in the operation of their economies, something else was happening. Market values were coming to play a greater and greater role in social life. Economics was becoming an imperial domain. Today, the logic of buying and selling no longer applies to material goods alone. It increasingly governs the whole of life.

The last gasp Marxists I studied with at Duke had a word for what Sandel sees and descries, commodification, and it didn’t mysterious just come upon us in the 1980s.  Commodification, the rendering of every bit of life as a commodity that can bought and sold, is the central thrust of capitalist economies in the 20th century, perhaps the central feature of capitalism per se.  The essential act of commodification is at the center of Marx’s understanding that the worker in some very real sense sells him or herself through selling his or her labor power.  Thus, human beings were commodified well before people became willing to sell tattoos on their foreheads to advertise products.  So Sandel’s perplexity and astonishment at this state of affairs in our contemporary economy strikes me as the perplexity of someone who has only recently awakened from a dream.

On the other hand, I do think Sandel is on to something.  It is the case that despite this thrust of capitalist economies (and, to be frank, I’m not sure that Marxist economies were all that different), there have been sectors of culture and their accompanying institutions that resisted their own commodification.  The edifice of modernism in the arts and literature is built on the notion that the arts could be a transcendent world apart from degradations of the social world, including perhaps especially its markets.  The difficulty and density of modern art and literature was built in part out of a desire that it not be marketable in any typical sense.  Modern art was sometimes ugly precisely to draw attention to the difficulty and difference of its aesthetic and intellectual properties.  It was meant not to sell, or at least not to sell too well.  Remember that the next time a Picasso sells for millions.  Similarly, the church and in a different way educational institutions retained a relative independence form the marketplace, or at least resisted the notion that they could be reduced to market forces.  Whether claiming to provide access to the sacred or to enduring human values, religious institutions and educational institutions served–even when they were corrupt or banal–to remind the culture that there was a world apart, something that called us to be better than ourselves, or at least reminded us that our present values were not all the values that there were.

Sandel rightly notes that that residue has all but disappeared, and the result has been an hollowing out of our public life, and a debasement of our humanity.

In hopes of avoiding sectarian strife, we often insist that citizens leave their moral and spiritual convictions behind when they enter the public square. But the reluctance to admit arguments about the good life into politics has had an unanticipated consequence. It has helped prepare the way for market triumphalism, and for the continuing hold of market reasoning.

In its own way, market reasoning also empties public life of moral argument. Part of the appeal of markets is that they don’t pass judgment on the preferences they satisfy. They don’t ask whether some ways of valuing goods are higher, or worthier, than others. If someone is willing to pay for sex, or a kidney, and a consenting adult is willing to sell, the only question the economist asks is “How much?” Markets don’t wag fingers. They don’t discriminate between worthy preferences and unworthy ones. Each party to a deal decides for him- or herself what value to place on the things being exchanged.

This nonjudgmental stance toward values lies at the heart of market reasoning, and explains much of its appeal. But our reluctance to engage in moral and spiritual argument, together with our embrace of markets, has exacted a heavy price: it has drained public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics afflicting many societies today.

Sandel wonders about a way to connect to some kind of moral discourse to inform public life, something that will reach beyond the reach of markets, but he clearly despairs that such a connection can be found.  I think there’s good reason.  Rapidly our educational institutions have become factories that shamelessly advertise themselves as places where people can make themselves in to better commodities than they were before, and which build programs designed to sell themselves to the highest number of student-customers possible.  Our religious institutions are floundering.  Only today I read in Time magazine that the rise of so-called “nones”–people who claim to have no religious affiliation–is one of the most notable developments in our spiritual culture.  Such people often seek to be spiritual but not religious on the grounds that religions are dogmatic and inflexible.  I have come to wonder whether that dogmatism and inflexibility points to the hard won truth that it is not good enough to just go along to get along.

One wonders, in fact, whether a spirituality based on getting along really provides a hard point of resistance to the tendency to see everything in life–whether my beliefs or my ethics–as an investment that must pay off if it is to be worth keeping.  I wonder, too, whether our educational systems and institutions are up to the task of providing an education that isn’t just another instance of the market.  As for art, writing, and literature.  Well, who knows?  Modernism was not always commodified, though it very quickly became  so.  I do find it intriguing that this point of hyper-commodification is also a time when there has been an explosion of free or relatively free writing and music on the internet.  There is a small return to the notion of the artist as a community voice, with musician and poets producing work for free on the internet, and making their living through performance or through other jobs–escaping or at least partially escaping the notion that we produce work primarily to sell it.  This is a small resistance, but worth thinking about.

I wonder if there are other ways our culture is equipped to resist in a larger collective fashion, the turning of our lives in to the image of a can of soup?

Living in an e-plus world: Students now prefer digital texts when given a choice

A recent blog by Nick DeSantis in the Chronicle points to a survey by the Pearson Foundation that suggests Tablet ownership is on the rise.  That’s not surprising, but more significant is the fact that among tablet users there’s a clear preference for digital texts over the traditional paper codex, something we haven’t seen before even among college students of this wired generation:

One-fourth of the college students surveyed said they owned a tablet, compared with just 7 percent last year. Sixty-three percent of college students believe tablets will replace textbooks in the next five years—a 15 percent increase over last year’s survey. More than a third said they intended to buy a tablet sometime in the next six months.

This year’s poll also found that the respondents preferred digital books over printed ones. It’s a reversal of last year’s results and goes against findings of other recent studies, which concluded that students tend to choose printed textbooks. The new survey found that nearly six in 10 students preferred digital books when reading for class, compared with one-third who said they preferred printed textbooks.

I find this unsurprising as it matches up pretty well with my own experience.  5 years ago I could never imagine doing any significant reading on a tablet.  Now I do all my reading of scholarly journals and long form journalism–i.e The Atlantic, the New York Review of Books, The Chronicle Review–on my iPad.  And while I still tend to prefer the codex for the reading of novels and other book length works, the truth is that preference is slowly eroding as well.  As I become more familiar with the forms of e-reading, the notions of its inherent inferiority, like the notions of any unreflective prejudice, gradually fade in the face of familiarity.

And yet I greet the news of this survey with a certain level of panic, not panic that it should happen at all, but panic that the pace of change is quickening and we are hardly prepared, by we I mean we in the humanities here in small colleges and elsewhere.  I’ve blogged on more than one occasion about my doubts about e-books and yet my sense of their inevitable ascendancy.  For instance here on the question of whether e-books are being foisted on students by a cabal of publishers and administrators like myself out to save a buck (or make a buck as the case may be), and here on the nostalgic but still real feeling that I have that print codex forms of books have an irreplaceable individuality and physicality that the mere presence of text in a myriad of e-forms does not suffice to replace.

But though I’ve felt the ascendancy of e-books was inevitable, I think I imagined a 15 or 20 year time span in which print and e-books would mostly live side by side.  Our own librarians here at Messiah College talk about a “print-plus” model for libraries, as if e-book will remain primarily an add on for some time to come.  I wonder.  Just as computing power increases exponentially, it seems to me that the half-life of print books is rapidly diminishing.  I now wonder whether we will have five years before students will expect their books to be in print–all their books, not just their hefty tomes for CHEM 101 that can be more nicely illustrated with iBook Author–but also their books for English and History classes as well.  This is an “e-plus”  world  where print will increasingly not be the norm, but the supplement to fill whatever gaps e-books have not yet bridged, whatever textual landscapes have not yet been digitized.

Despite warnings, we aren’t yet ready for an e-plus world.  Not only do we not know how to operate the apps that make these books available, we don’t even know how to critically study books in tablet form.  Yet learning what forms of critical engagement are possible and necessary will be required.  I suspect, frankly, that our current methods developed out of a what was made possible by the forms that texts took, rather than forms following our methodological urgencies.  This means that the look of critical study in the classroom will change radically in the next ten years.  What will it look like?

Giving students what they want whether they want it or not

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported that one study shows that in some cases e-textbooks are saving students the grand total of one greenback per course. Figuring in the costs of hardware, tech support, infrastructure, and etcetera that are adding immensely to the cost of tuition anyway—not to mention the disappearance of a secondary market where they can resell their textbooks–I really wonder whether, so far, e-textbooks might not be costing students money in the short run. Until there is a much larger economy of scale I suspect that cost savings will remain negligible. Even then, it’s not clear. Though general consumption of e-books has skyrocketed in relative terms over the past couple of years, the cost of e-books has actually crept upward such that the difference between the cost of an e-book and the cost of a paperback on Amazon is small, and clearly costs more than a good used paperback available easily through Amazon’s resellers or through good used bookstores like my favorite, Midtown Scholar here in Harrisburg.

In some ways I’m even more interested in the practical and usability costs that students are experiencing. According to the Chronicle, many students struggled to know how to use the technology effectively and lacked the basic computing skills necessary. Professors were called upon to be IT instructors. This flies in the face of our ideological conviction that young people naturally adapt to technology in a way their professors do not. I don’t have a grasp of the details here, but it surely seems that some professors are being required to spend time away from their disciplines in order to get students up to speed on how to use the technology.

The electronic rental model caused a few other headaches for students and professors at the college, according to the study. Some students struggled to use the e-textbooks, thanks to disparities in basic computing skills. Those problems led some professors to spend class time conducting their own in-class tutorials, and even afterward a few said it was unclear who should be providing continuing technical instruction—faculty, campus IT staff, or representatives from the publishers.

And, of course, predictably, there are massive infrastructure issues involved with swift changes to e-books as the basic tool of the university.

Even students who adapted to the technology quickly sometimes struggled to open up the digital course materials during lectures. Wireless networks in classrooms where several students were using e-textbooks at once sometimes became overwhelmed, making access to publishers’ sites inconsistent.

I should probably say that this is not a screed against technology or e-books. I do almost all my own occasional reading on my iPad, and I do read e-books, though I continue to prefer the old codex for anything over about 20 pages long. I do think, though, that we ought to proceed cautiously with the notion that technology is the salvation for better learning at a lower cost. Once we add in the infrastructure necessary to make sure students can use the technology effectively—hardware, software, sufficient bandwidth, tech support and training for students and teachers on a permanent and consistent basis (really 24 hours a day given the way education is heading)–its unclear that students will have really saved anything, because to be sure it will be the students or their parents who are paying for it.

I think, to be frank, that there is a certain inevitability about this transformation to which we will all have to adapt and are already adapting. But we really ought to justify that transformation on the basis of whether students are learning more or not rather than on costs savings that I don’t think are really happening. I just think we need to get clearer on the advantages or e-books to students learning, if they are there, before we give students even more of what they want whether they want it or not.

Libraries of the self: Or, are print books more ephemeral than e-books, and is it a bad thing if they are?

There’s a remarkable consistency in the way that readers write about their libraries.  Tropes of friendship, solace, and refuge abound, as well as metaphors of journey and travel that tell the tale of intellectual sojourn that books can occasion and recall for their readers.  Though I cannot recall the details of their first readings, I still treasure my Princeton paperback editions of the work of Soren Kierkegaard, the now ratty Vintage-Random House versions of Faulkner with their stark

Man made of books

white on black covers and yellowing pages,  my tattered and now broken copies of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Poems, and his Selected Essays, held together by a rubber band, the band itself now so old it threatens to crumble into dust.  I keep these books now, not so much because of the information they contain.  Even the notes I’ve written in them aren’t all that entertaining and hold only a little nostalgic value:  I was a much more earnest reader as a younger person, but also duller, less informed, and more predictable, at least to my 51 year old eyes.  Still, these books are the talismans of a journey, and I keep them as stones set up to my memory of that journey, of the intellectual and imaginative places I’ve come to inhabit and the doorways I passed through to get here.  In that sense, a library represents both time passages and the attendant loss as much or more than they represent the knowledge and the information that has been gained.

Ariel Dorfman has a very nice meditation on the relationship between his library and his intellectual, political, and material journey in the September 23rd edition of the Chronicle Review.  In it Dorfman tells the story of his lost library, a library that he had to leave behind in Chile at the beginning of his exile.  The library was partially destroyed in a flood during his absence, and then partially recovered again when he returned to Chile in 1990.  As with many memoirs of reading, Dorfman understands the library as a symbol of the self.

Those books, full of scribbled notes in the margins, had been my one luxury in Chile, companions of my intellectual voyages, my best friends in the world. During democratic times, before the military takeover, I had poured any disposable income into that library, augmenting it with hundreds of volumes my doting parents acquired for me. It was a collection that overflowed in every impossible direction, piling up even in the bathroom and the kitchen.

It was a daily comfort, in the midst of our dispossession in exile, to imagine that cosmic biblioteca back home, gathering nothing more lethal than dust. That was my true self, my better self, that was the life of reading and writing I aspired to, the space where I had been at my most creative, penning a prize-winning novel, many short stories, innumerable articles and poems and analyses, in spite of my own doubts as to whether literature had any place at all in a revolution where reality itself was more challenging than my wildest imaginings. To pack the books away once we fled from the country would have been to acknowledge our wandering as everlasting. Even buying a book was proof that we intended to stay away long enough to begin a new library.

But, of course, Dorfman did begin a new library in his many years of exile, and his Chilean library was altered not only by the natural disaster of the flood, but also by the human transience whereby Dorfman himself changed and so changed his relationship with his books.  The changing shape of Dorfman’s library becomes an image of historical and personal change that must finally be embraced since it is unavoidable.

Six months later I had left Chile again, this time of my own free will, this time for good. I have puzzled often how I could have spent 17 years trying to go back and then, when I did indeed return, I forced myself to leave. It is still not clear to me if it was the country itself that had changed too much or if I was the one who had been so drastically altered by my exile that I no longer fit in, but whatever the cause, it left me forever divided, aware that my search for purity, simplicity, one country and one language and one set of allegiances was no longer possible.

It also left me with two libraries: the one I had rescued back home and the one that I have built outside Chile over the years and that is already so large that not one more new book fits in the shelves. I have had to start giving hundreds of books away and boxing many others in order to donate them to Duke University, where I teach. But no matter how many I get rid of, it does not look likely that there will ever be space to bring my whole Chilean library over.

And yet, I had already lost it once when I left my country and then regained half when that phone call came in 1982, and rescued what was left yet again in 1990 and can dream therefore that perhaps, one day, I will unite some books from Santiago with the thousands of books bought during my long exile. I can only hope and dream that before I die, a day will come when I will look up from the desk where I write these words, and my whole library, from here and there, from outside and inside Chile, will greet me, I can only hope and dream and pray that I will not remain divided forever.

It’s possible, of course, to lament our losses, and I suppose in some sense the vision of a library of the self is a utopian dream of resurrection wherein all our books, all the intellectual and imaginative doorways that we’ve passed through, will be gathered together in a room without loss.  But I also sense in Dorfman’s essay a sense that loss and fragility is one part of the meaningfulness of his books and his library.  I know that in some sense I love my books because they are old and fragile, or they will become that way.  They are treasured not only for the information they contain, but for the remembered self to which they testify.

I started this post thinking I would focus on the ways we sometimes talk about the ephemera of electronic digital texts.  There is something to that, and we’ve discussed that some over at my other group blog on the Digital Humanities.  At the same time, there is another sense in which e-texts are not ephemeral enough.  They do not grow old, they are always the same, they cannot show me the self I’ve become because that implies a history that e-texts do not embody.  While looking at my aging and increasingly dusty library, I feel them as a mirror to the person I’ve become.  Looking at my e-books stored on my iPad I see…..texts.  Do they mirror me?  Perhaps in a way, but they do not embody my memories.

If I give a book away to  a student, I always miss it with a certain imaginative ache, knowing that what was once mine is now gone and won’t be retrieved.  Somehow I’ve given that student something of my self, and so I don’t give away books lightly or easily.  If I give a student a gift card for iTunes….well, perhaps this requires no explanation.  And if I delete a book from my iBooks library I can retrieve it any time I want, until the eschaton, one imagines, or at least as long as my iTunes account exists.

Uncreative Writing: Kenneth Goldsmith and Liz Laribee on Originality in the Digital Age

Professors have endless angst over the new possibilities for plagiarism and other forms of intellectual property theft in the digital age.  But according to Kenneth Goldsmith in the Chronicle Review, such anxiety misses the point that we long entered a new age of uncreative creativity, a fact to be celebrated rather than lamented since it points to our having gotten beyond simplisitic and romantic or modernist notions of the creative individual.  Of course, Goldsmith is promoting his new book, which I guess he would to take to be some kind of act of creation and for which I’m guessing he will gain his portion of individual profits—though if he wants to share the profits with all those from whom his ideas derive in an uncreative fashion, I’m sure they will oblige.

My snarky comment aside, I think there’s something to Goldsmith’s ideas, encapsulated in his title “It’s Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It’s ‘Repurposing.’”  As Goldsmith puts it.

The prominent literary critic Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term “unoriginal genius” to describe this tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that, because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of the genius—a romantic, isolated figure—is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination. Perloff has coined another term, “moving information,” to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process. She posits that today’s writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.

Perloff’s notion of unoriginal genius should not be seen merely as a theoretical conceit but rather as a realized writing practice, one that dates back to the early part of the 20th century, embodying an ethos in which the construction or conception of a text is as important as what the text says or does. Think, for example, of the collated, note-taking practice of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project or the mathematically driven constraint-based works by Oulipo, a group of writers and mathematicians.

Today technology has exacerbated these mechanistic tendencies in writing (there are, for instance, several Web-based versions of Raymond Queneau’s 1961 laboriously hand-constructed Hundred Thousand Billion Poems), inciting younger writers to take their cues from the workings of technology and the Web as ways of constructing literature. As a result, writers are exploring ways of writing that have been thought, traditionally, to be outside the scope of literary practice: word processing, databasing, recycling, appropriation, intentional plagiarism, identity ciphering, and intensive programming, to name just a few.

I really do think there is something to this notion that there is a mark of “creativity”—sanitized or put under erasure (to use that hoary old theoretical term) by the quotation marks—in the ways in which we appropriate and redeploy sources from other areas on the internet.  We create personae through citation, quotation, sharing, and commentary rather than through creative acts that spring fully formed from our minds and imagination.  What we choose to cite and how we choose to comment on it, who we share it with, what other citations we assemble together with it in a kind of linguistic collage.  On one level this is old stuff, as Goldsmith points out, stretching back to a particular strand of modernism and even beyond.  Indeed, to go with a different reference to Benjamin, the figure of the storyteller is one who is best understood under the sign of repetition and appropriation, retelling stories that take on new meanings through their performance within particular contexts, rather than creating novel stories that exist on the page in the effort to create their own context.

Good behavior is the proper posture of the weak. (or, Jamaica Kincaid)

I’m reminded in this of some of the work of my friend and former student Liz Laribee, whose art I find visually provocative and surprisingly moving on an emotional scale, made up out of assemblage of leftovers.  About her work, Liz says the following:

My work almost always involves the repurposing of something else, and it’s in this process that I am trying to find meaning. Here, I used discarded bits and overlooked scraps of this bookstore to continue telling stories. The authors I’ve chosen are layered in my life in ways I can’t even quite tell you about. The dime novel poems force a new meaning to make room for a cheekier, sleuthier past

I’m not exactly sure what Liz means by a cheekier, sleuthier past, but what I take from it is that detritus, the schlocky stuff our commercial culture seems to vomit out and then shovel in to a corner is not something to be lamented so much as it is to be viewed as an opportunity, an occasion for a new kind of creativity that takes the vacuous surfaces of that commercial culture and creates a surprising visual and emotional depth.

Goldsmith thinks we are still too absolutely captive to old forms of doing things and thinks writing and literature has descended into irrelevance as a result.  He advocated for the development of a writing machine that moves us beyond the cult of personality and intended effect and into a realm of fortuitous and occasional affect.  Students need to be forced, he thinks, not to be original in the old sense, but to be repetitive and find whatever newness there is through this act of what Liz calls “repurposing.”

All this, of course, is technology-driven. When the students arrive in class, they are told that they must have their laptops open and connected. And so we have a glimpse into the future. And after seeing what the spectacular results of this are, how completely engaged and democratic the classroom is, I am more convinced that I can never go back to a traditional classroom pedagogy. I learn more from the students than they can ever learn from me. The role of the professor now is part party host, part traffic cop, full-time enabler.

The secret: the suppression of self-expression is impossible. Even when we do something as seemingly “uncreative” as retyping a few pages, we express ourselves in a variety of ways. The act of choosing and reframing tells us as much about ourselves as our story about our mother’s cancer operation. It’s just that we’ve never been taught to value such choices.

After a semester of my forcibly suppressing a student’s “creativity” by making her plagiarize and transcribe, she will tell me how disappointed she was because, in fact, what we had accomplished was not uncreative at all; by not being “creative,” she had produced the most creative body of work in her life. By taking an opposite approach to creativity—the most trite, overused, and ill-defined concept in a writer’s training—she had emerged renewed and rejuvenated, on fire and in love again with writing.

Having worked in advertising for many years as a “creative director,” I can tell you that, despite what cultural pundits might say, creativity—as it’s been defined by our culture, with its endless parade of formulaic novels, memoirs, and films—is the thing to flee from, not only as a member of the “creative class” but also as a member of the “artistic class.” At a time when technology is changing the rules of the game in every aspect of our lives, it’s time for us to question and tear down such clichés and reconstruct them into something new, something contemporary, something—finally—relevant.

I think there is something to this, although I doubt traditional novels and stories will disappear or should, any more than the writing of novels did away with storytelling in the old sense in any absolute way.  But I do think we need to think through, and not only in creative writing classes, what we might mean in encouraging our students to come up with their own original ideas, their personal arguments.

How might this notion change what we are doing, recognizing that we are in a period in which creative work, either artistic or academic, is primarily an act of redeploying, distributing, and remaking, rather than being original in the old sense of that word?

In Praise of Reviews, Reviewing, and Reviewers

I think if I was born again by the flesh and not the spirit, I might choose to become a book reviewer in my second life.  Perhaps this is “true confessions” since academics and novelists alike share their disdain for the review as a subordinate piece of work, and so the reviewer as a lowly creature to be scorned.  However, I love the review as a form, see it as a way of exercising creativity, rhetorical facility, and critical consciousness.  In other words, with reviews I feel like I bring together all the different parts of myself.  The creativity and the rhetorical facility I developed through and MFA, and the critical consciousness of my scholarly self developed in graduate school at Duke.  I developed my course on book-reviewing here at Messiah College precisely because I think it is one of the most  challenging forms to do well.  To write engagingly and persuasively for a generally educated audience while also with enough informed intelligence for an academic audience.

Like Jeffrey Wasserstrom in the  Chronicle Review, I also love reading book reviews, and often spend vacation days not catching up on the latest novel or theoretical tome, but on all the book reviews I’ve seen and collected on Instapaper.  Wasserstrom’s piece goes against the grain of a lot of our thinking about book reviews, even mine, and it strikes me that he’s absolutely right about a lot of what he says.  First, I often tell students that one of the primary purposes of book reviewers is to help sift wheat from chafe and tell other readers what out there is worth the reading.  This is true, but only partially so.

Another way my thinking diverges from Lutz’s relates to his emphasis on positive reviews’ influencing sales. Of course they can, especially if someone as influential as, say, Michiko Kakutani (whose New York Times reviews I often enjoy) or Margaret Atwood (whose New York Review of Books essays I never skip) is the one singing a book’s praises. When I write reviews, though, I often assume that most people reading me will not even consider buying the book I’m discussing, even if I enthuse. And as a reader, I gravitate toward reviews of books I don’t expect to buy, no matter how warmly they are praised.

Consider the most recent batch of TLS issues. As usual, I skipped the reviews of mysteries, even though these are precisely the works of fiction I tend to buy. And I read reviews of nonfiction books that I wasn’t contemplating purchasing. For instance, I relished a long essay by Toby Lichtig (whose TLS contributions I’d enjoyed in the past) that dealt with new books on vampires. Some people might have read the essay to help them decide which Dracula-related book to buy. Not me. I read it because I was curious to know what’s been written lately about vampires—but not curious enough to tackle any book on the topic.

What’s true regarding vampires is—I should perhaps be ashamed to say—true of some big fields of inquiry. Ancient Greece and Rome, for example. I like to know what’s being written about them but rarely read books about them. Instead, I just read Mary Beard’s lively TLS reviews of publications in her field.

Reviews do influence my book buying—just in a roundabout way. I’m sometimes inspired to buy books by authors whose reviews impress me. I don’t think Lichtig has a book out yet, but when he does, I’ll buy it. The last book on ancient Greece I purchased wasn’t one Mary Beard reviewed but one she wrote.

I can only say yes to this.  It’s very clear that I don’t just read book reviews in order to make decisions as a consumer.  I read book reviews because I like them for themselves, if they are well-done, but also just to keep some kind of finger on the pulse of what’s going on.  In other words, there’s a way in which I depend on good reviewers not to read in order to tell me what to buy, but to read in my place since I can’t possibly read everything.  I can remain very glad, though, that some very good reader-reviewers out there are reading the many good things that there are out there to read.  I need them so I have a larger sense of the cultural landscape than I could possibly achieve by trying to read everything on my own.

Wasserstrom also champions the short review, and speculates on the tweeted review and its possibilities:

I’ve even been musing lately about the potential for tweet-length reviews. I don’t want those to displace other kinds, especially because they can too easily seem like glorified blurbs. But the best nuggets of some reviews could work pretty well within Twitter’s haiku-like constraints. Take my assessment of Kissinger’s On China. When I reviewed it for the June 13 edition of Time’s Asian edition, I was happy that the editors gave me a full-page spread. Still, a pretty nifty Twitter-friendly version could have been built around the best line from the Time piece: “Skip bloated sections on Chinese culture, focus on parts about author’s time in China—a fat book w/ a better skinnier one trying to get out.”

The basic insight here is critical.  Longer is not always better.  I’m even tempted to say not often better, the usual length of posts to this blog notwithstanding.  My experiences on facebook suggest to me that we may be in a new era of the aphorism, as well as one that may exalt the wit of the 18th  century, in which the pithy riposte may be more telling than the blowsy dissertation.

A new challenge for my students in the next version of my book-reviewing class, write a review that is telling accurate and rhetorically effective in 160 characters or less.

Read two poems and call me in the morning

I freely admit that we literary types are wont to say everything comes back to story and that words can change the world.  (We are also given to words like “wont” but that is another matter).  This is mostly just the self-aggrandizement that accompanies any disciplinary passion.  But I also really think there is something serious to the idea that stories can make a big difference to hearts and minds, and therefore our bodies.  This might be that this is because my father was a practicing physician, but also a storyteller, and somehow it seemed to me that these things always fit together in my mind:   The well-told story fixed something, put something broken back together, almost as literally as my father set a bone or wrapped a cast.

Some of you know that I have a growing interest in what is sometimes called the medical humanities, and I have been deeply interested in how the literary arts have been used in healing practices in everything from psych wards to cancer wards to Alzheimer’s facilities.  The recent lovely piece from Kristin Sanner in the  Chronicle Review, “The Literature Cure” is not quite so officially about the medical humanities, but it gets at this idea that somehow literature can be involved in our healing and our wholeness, even in the midst of dying and disease.  A few notes from Sanner,  on how her battle with breast cancer both changed her sense of literature and on how her commitment to literature changed her understanding of and response to her disease.

English majors and reluctant students of literature in my general-education courses often ask me questions like: “What exactly can you do with a degree in English?” “Why read all of these books from the past?” Before my cancer diagnosis, I would answer the English majors with practical examples. You could go into publishing or journalism, I told them, or go to graduate or law school. To the general-education students, I would answer with a vague “literature enriches our lives and makes us more well-rounded individuals.”

After my cancer diagnosis, my responses changed, becoming more universal and less practical. We read and study literature, I told my students, because it helps us understand how to live and how to die. It shows us how to persevere in the face of adversity, how to reach into our personal depths and find both meaning and will. It reminds us of the dichotomous fragility and tenacity of earthly living. It also teaches us how to care for those who suffer.

At a time when colleges and universities are making unilateral cuts to humanities programs, these reasons seem pertinent. Each of us, unfortunately, will experience adversity at some point in our lives. Many of us will find ourselves facing a tragedy, a trauma, or a loss that cannot be explained in simple terms. Conventional medicine and science may help us cope in a practical, physical sense—they may even cure us of our illnesses and pain. Religious faith will temper the suffering for some. But it is our universal stories—written, oral, and visual—that help us navigate through these adversities with grace and courage. For many of us, stories give us the hope that we may be able to bear the burdens of our afflictions and live fully, even as we are dying. Stories teach us that suffering and perseverance unify us as humans in a way that transcends race, religion, and class.

…………………………………………….

Throughout my battle with cancer, I have turned to literature and writing to make sense of this miserable and mysterious disease. Books help me understand that human suffering is universal. They have also taught me empathy—how to reach out to others who suffer. In a world where spite and hatred mark the rhetoric of so many, such an intangible attribute should be a vital, required outcome of every student’s educational experience.

Indeed.

Tchotchkes R’US: Formerly known as Barnes and Nobles, Booksellers

Like a beaten dog wagging its tail as it returns to the master for one more slap, I keep returning to Barnes and Nobles, hoping for a dry bone or at least a condescending pat on the head. Mostly getting the slap.  I’m wondering lately how much longer B&N can hold on to the subtitle of their name with a straight face. I admit that for purists Barnes and Nobles was never much of a bookseller in the first place, the corporate ambiance just a bit too antiseptic for the crowd that prefers their books straight, preferably with the slightest scent of dust and mold. But as a person that has spent the entirety of his life in flyover country, Barnes and Nobles and its recently deceased cousin Borders seemed something like salvation. If the ambiance was corporate, the books were real, and they were many. If there were too few from independent publishers, there were more than enough good books to last any reader a lifetime, and I spent many hours on my own wandering the shelves, feeling that ache that all readers know, the realization that there are too many good books and one lifetime will never be enough.

Barnes and Nobles became a family affair for us. One way I induced the habit of reading in my kids was to promise them I’d take them to B&N anytime they finished a book and buy them another one. The ploy paid off. My kids read voraciously, son and daughter alike, putting the lie to the notion that kids today have to choose between reading and surfing.  My kids do both just fine, and I think this is attributable in no small part to the fact our family time together was spent wandering the endless aisles of bookstores, imaging the endless possibilities, what the world would be like if we only had enough time to read them all. Other families go on kayak trips; we read books. I’m not sorry for the tradeoffs.

All that is mostly over, for paper books anyway. My son and I still go over to Barnes and Nobles, but the last three trips we’ve come out saying the same thing to one another without prompting–worthless. Aisle after Aisle of bookshelves in our local store are being replaced by toys and tchotchkes designed to…..do what? It’s not even clear. At least when the place was dominated by books it was clear that this was where you went for books. Now it seems like a vaguely upscale Walmart with a vast toy section. I’m waiting for the clothing section to open up soon.

I don’t think we should underestimate the consequence of these changes for booksellers and bookreaders. Although it is the case that readers will still be able to get books via your local Amazon.com, the place of books is changing in radical ways.  The advent of e-books is completely reordering the business of bookselling–and i would say the culture of books as well.  An article in the Economist notes that books are following in the sucking vortex that has swallowed the music and newspaper industries all but whole.  Among the biggest casualties is the books and mortar bookstore, and this is of no small consequence to the effort to sell books in general:

Perhaps the biggest problem, though, is the gradual disappearance of the shop window. Brian Murray, chief executive of HarperCollins, points out that a film may be released with more than $100m of marketing behind it. Music singles often receive radio promotion. Publishers, on the other hand, rely heavily on bookstores to bring new releases to customers’ attention and to steer them to books that they might not have considered buying. As stores close, the industry loses much more than a retail outlet. Publishers are increasingly trying to push books through online social networks. But Mr Murray says he hasn’t seen anything that replicates the experience of browsing a bookstore.

Confession, I actually enjoy browsing Amazon, and I read book reviews endlessly.  But I think this article is right that there is nothing quite like the experience of browsing the shelves at a bookstore, in part because it is a kind of communal event.  It is not that there are more choices–there aren’t, there are far more choices online.  Nor is it necessarily that things are better organized.  I think I have a better chance of finding things relevant to my interests through a search engine than I do by a chance encounter in the stack.   And, indeed, The Strand is a book store that leaves me vaguely nauseous and dizzy, both because there is too much choice and there is too little organization.  But the physical fact of browsing with one’s companions through the stacks, the chance encounter with a book you had heard about but never seen, the excitement of discovery, the anxious calculations–at least if you are an impoverished graduate student or new parent–as to whether you have enough cash on hand to make the purchase now or take a chance that the book will disappear if you wait.  All of these get left behind in the sterility of the online exchange.  The bookstore is finally a cultural location, a location of culture, where bookminded people go for buzz they get from being around other book-minded people.  I can get my books from Amazon, and I actually don’t mind getting them via e-books, avoiding all the fuss of going down and having a face to face transaction with a seller.  But that face to face is part of the point, it seems to me.  Even though book-buying has always fundamentally been about an exchange of cash for commodity, the failure to see that it was also more than that is the cultural poverty of a world that amazon creates.  With books stores dying a rapid death and libraries close upon their heels, I’m feeling a little like a man without a country, since the country of books is the one to which I’ve always been most loyal.

I am, of course, sounding old and crotchety.  The same article in the Economist notes that IKEA is now changing their bookshelf line in the anticipation that people will no longer use them for books.

TO SEE how profoundly the book business is changing, watch the shelves. Next month IKEA will introduce a new, deeper version of its ubiquitous “BILLY” bookcase. The flat-pack furniture giant is already promoting glass doors for its bookshelves. The firm reckons customers will increasingly use them for ornaments, tchotchkes and the odd coffee-table tome—anything, that is, except books that are actually read.

I suspect this may be true.  Bookshelves and books alike may become craft items, things produced by those curious folks who do things by hand, items that you can only buy at craft fairs and auctions, something you can’t find at Wal-Mart, or Barnes and Nobles.