The titles of academic books can run toward a string of verbiage studded with a colon amounting to nothing memorable. Scholars must fantasize about writing a reputable book with the perfect title: both apt and unforgettable. One of my favorites is Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization. Historian Robert Darnton scored with The Great Cat Massacre, about an episode in French history. Now here is a brand-new book with a title that may be a bit too vivid for its own good, because a title should make readers open the book, not hold it by one corner like a loaded mouse trap. Cambridge University Press has published this work by law scholar Allan C. Hutchinson: Is Eating People Wrong? – Great Legal Cases and How They Shaped the World.
In the April 17 Chronicle of Higher Education online, Robert Darnton – Harvard’s University Librarian – calls five prevalent ideas about the Information Age a font of proverbial nonwisdom. “The book is dead.” But more print books are produced every year than the last. “We have entered the information age.” But every age is an age of information in its own way and with the media available. “All information is now available online.” Not for researchers who spend much time in archives! “Libraries are obsolete.” Actually libraries are seeing increasing numbers of patrons. More than simply warehousing books, libraries offer the public much-needed guidance in the wilderness of cyberspace and give crucial help to job-seekers, since want ads have disappeared from newspapers. (I’ve heard this from someone in the Harris County Library System: they’ve been helping job-seekers left and right.) “The future is digital.” Yes, but new modes of information tend to not obliterate older ones, for example, radio did not destroy newspapers. Darnton also wrote The Case for Books, which is a very fine book, and The Great Cat Massacre, a classic example of an academic book with a vivid title.
This came up when a Library patron asked where the QT’s were, because that section is not marked on our floor maps. In point of fact it doesn’t exist! But this book was listed in the online catalog. There was some discussion and a quick investigation as to whether the Library of Congress call number system actually might have opened up the QT range for the blazingly new field of nano-bio-technology, but such was not the case.
SF Signal has a Mind Meld in which some of us weigh in on “Books That Are As Good Today As They Were The First Time.” An interesting variety of books and stories are named – and some named again and again.
At the Circulation Desk today we had three stacks of books returned by a graduate student who set some kind of record in number and variety of bookmarks left in the books.
- Two gum wrappers, one silver and one green, both fortunately empty and dry.
- Self-checkout machine receipts (no surprise) plus receipts from several other sources.
- Post-it notes. We do not like Post-It notes in books. If they stick around too long they damage pages. Beyond one or two understandably overlooked, we grumble when we have to remove Post-it Notes from books.
- Besides intact Post-It notes of at least two sizes, there were torn pieces of yellow Post-It Notes and a solitary pink Post-It note piece.
- A short stack of unused Post-It notes still on their brown paper end sheet. Great. We can use them.
- Bits and strips of otherwise unidentified white paper, some with scribbled notes: “Crucial ideological value of media,” “Ford(?) and Post-(scribble) in cinema.” Also,
- A scrap of yellow legal pad paper.
- A shred of newspaper (Rice Thresher. I think.)
- A short coil of wire.
- An airline boarding pass (Quantas)
- A vintage Man Ray postcard with its back side covered in page numbers and scribbled notes.
- An old Catalog card for a political science treatise in German,with the call number of a book about recent Ojibway cultural history jotted on the back. (When the Card Catalog was supplanted by the Online Catalog and phased out, the cards with their blank backs were repurposed as freely available jottings cards for Library patrons.)
- A computer-printed receipt for a Standing Room Only ticket to Live Nation Presents LCD Soundsystem. And:
- A Fondren Library bookmark. Imagine that. Using a book mark for a book mark!
Here’s a grammar book that is so not stuffy. Sin and Syntax – How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale (Broadway Books 1999) is almost too self-consciously post-modern with its “sin” riff. Each of three parts – Words, Sentences and Music – consists of a chapter in four sections: Bones (“the grammar sermonette”), Flesh (“the lesson on writing”), Cardinal Sins (“true transgressions”) and Carnal Pleasures (“playful, riotous, sometimes subversive pieces of writing.”) This could be an irritating book if it weren’t written so very well and didn’t lift up such luminous examples and instances of the written word in English. Given the sin riff, here’s an instance one might not have expected, in the appendix on recommended books:
“The King James Bible. … Its poetry works whether or not you’re a believer, and it resonates profoundly through our literary culture. If you like this stuff, you may also want to check out The Book of Common Prayer. For musicality, few texts beat the Prayer of Consecration…. or some of the Collects (try the First Sunday in Advent….)”
From the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, here is the Collect for the First Sunday in Advent, which is today.
ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.
Here is a lavishly illustrated new book: WEEDS OF THE SOUTH. Published by the University of Georgia press, this looks like a highly reputable reference work. Which is deliciously ironic, because the subject matter is rather disreputable.
The English language has amazing names for weeds.
- Lesser Swinecress. What a name! Presumably pigs find it tasty. It’s a native of Europe.
- Daisy Fleabane. It’s native to North America.
- Annual Fringerush.
- Blessed Milkthistle.
- Henbit. Cute little purple flowers. Originated in Eurasia.
- Beaked Cornsalad, a North American member of the Valerian family.
- Purple Deadnettle. It’s a relative of henbit.
- Jimsonweed a.k.a. Purple Thornapple.
- Bitter Sneezeweed.
- Catchweed Bedstraw.
- Clammy Groundcherry. This belongs to the nightshade family, other members including Horsenettle, Silverleaf Nightshade, (ahem) Nipplefruit Nightshade, and Hairy Nightshade. Most of this family is prickly, toxic, or both.
- Nightflowering Catchfly.
- Morningglories – a pretty name for delightful plants (although my friend who grew up on a farm weeding these out of the corn field would disagree.) Well, well, well. Here is one called Cypressvine Morningglory. Mom used to have this in her front yard. She said it was called Cypress vine; it atttracted hummingbirds. I’m glad to know more about this nice little vine!
- Common Chickweed a.k.a. starwort and winterweed. It’s a native of Eurasia. Under Toxic Properties, the book says “None reported.” I certainly hope not – I’ve had this stuff in a salad.
- London Rocket a.k.a. London Hedgemustard. So that’s what the mystery weed in my front porch planter last year was!
Just added to the Rice University Library’s collection: a Klingon translation of Hamlet by Wil’yam Shex’pir (sic!)
The Klingon Hamlet was published by the Klingon Language Institue in 1996 and evidently reprinted by Pocket books in 200o. The trade paperback has Shakespeare’s English on the left-hand pages, and the Klingon translation on the right-hand pages. The cover illo is a rufflle-collared Klingon holding up a skull with a ridged forehead….
I like working in a library. You meet the most interesting books. Here’s another one: Enough: Breaking Free From the World Of More, by John Naish (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008.) Naish is a journalist for The Times. Contrary to the stereotype of the adrenaline-addicted, hyper-connected modern journalist, he and his wife opt for voluntary simplicity of life, and in this book he advocates that all of us do exactly that. With more of everything than we can ever use, enjoy or afford, he says, we urgently need to develop a sense of ‘enough.’ Not that it’s easy. In the first place, our brains evolved in the Pleistocene when avidly seeking all things novel and edible was a survival tactic. And: “we are girdled by multimillion-(dollar) industries that use an ever-growing array of overt and hidden persuaders to get us to want things, work for things, and buy more of them.”
Naish breaks our surfeit down into categories: Information, Food, Stuff, Work, Options, Happiness, and Growth. I’m still in the Information section and enjoying the read. Naish writes well, and as a palliative to our plight in which more and more has become way too much, he recommends steps to take. Here’s his advice on digital infotainment:
“The only sane alternative (to 24/7 multi-channel consumption of entertainment) is to create your own enoughist policy. Many of us already try to do this by imposing a quality threshold – namely, the ‘I don’t watch crap’ rule. But quality is such a slippery thing, and the gravitational pull is always downwards. Anyway, what’s wrong with slumming it in front of some junk every now and then? Instead we can take a much more pragmatic approach to infotainment by appeciating its true nature and enjoying it for what it is – a pleasurable yet habit-forming, mind-altering and potentially depressing substance that is evermore cheaply abundant. This description may sound rather familiar. It’s just like alcohol. Treating infortainment with the same cautious hedonism that we employ with booze offers a sustainable answer, because we are at least already practised at this approach. Amid all the headlines about binge drinking, the vast majority of us manage to use alcohol to lighten our lives without completely lacerating our livers.”
Never thought of it that way. Not a bad comparison at all.
What Makes Liberty Different from Anarchy Is Biological Realism
The open culture crowd believes that human behavior can only be modified through involuntary means. This makes sense for them, because they aren’t great believers in free will or personhood.
For instance, it is often claimed by open culture types that if you can’t make a perfect copy-protection technology, then copy prohibitions are pointless. And from a technological point of view, it is true that you can’t make a perfect copy-protection scheme. If flawless behavior restraints are the only potential influences on behavior in a case such as this, we might as well not ask anyone to ever pay for music or journalism again. According to this logic, the very idea is a lost cause.
But that’s an unrealistically pessimistic way of thinking about people. We have already demonstrated that we’re better than that. It’s easy to break into physical cars and houses, for instance, and yet few people do so. Locks are only amulets of inconvenience that remind us of a social contract we ultimately benefit from. It is only human choice that makes the human world function. Technology can motivate human choice, but not replace it.
I had an epiphany once that I wish I could stimulate in everyone else. The plausibility of our human world, the fact that the buildings don’t all all down and you can eat unpoisoned food that someone grew, is immediate palpable evidence of an ocean of goodwill and good behavior from almost everyone, living or dead. We are bathed in what can be called love.
And yet that love shows itself best through the constraints of civilization, because those constraints compensate for the flaws of human nature. We must see ourselves honestly, and engage ourselves realistically, in order to become better.