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.
Here’s another instance of scan-to-gibberish in a chapter title from Jaron Lanier’s 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget, followed by completely intelligible points he makes in the subsequent paragraphs.
an apocaLypse of seLF-aBDicanon (Make that: An Apocalypse of Self-Abdication)
“The Singularity is an apocalyptic idea originally proposed by John von Neumann, one of the inventors of digital computation, and elucidated by figures such as Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil… In some versions of the story…. the internet itself comes alive and rallies all the net-connected machines into an army to control the affairs of the planet. Humans might then enjoy immortality within virtual reality, because the global brain would be so huge that it would be absolutely easy—a no-brainer, if you will—for it to host all our consciousnesses for eternity.
“The coming Singularity is a popular belief in the society of technologists. Singularity books are as common in a computer science department as Rapture images are in an evangelical bookstore.
“(Just in case you are not familiar with the Rapture, it is a colorful belief in American evangelical culture about the Christian apocalypse. When I was growing up in rural New Mexico, Rapture paintings would often be found in places like gas stations or hardware stores. They would usually include cars crashing into each other because the virtuous drivers had suddenly disappeared, having been called to heaven just before the onset of hell on Earth. The immensely popular Left Behind novels also describe this scenario.)….
“The difference between sanity and fanaticism is found in how well the believer can avoid confusing consequential differences in timing. If you believe the Rapture is imminent, fixing the problems of this life might not be your greatest priority. You might even be eager to embrace wars and tolerate poverty and disease in others to bring about the conditions that could prod the Rapture into being. In the same way, if you believe the Singularity is coming soon, you might cease to design technology to serve humans, and prepare instead for the grand events it will bring.
you aRE hot a gaDset (the hapless scanner’s rendering of the book’s title in the chapter header with its eccentric font)
“But in either case, the rest of us would never know if you had been right. Technology working well to improve the human condition is detectable, and you can-see that possibility portrayed in optimistic science fiction like Star Trek.
“The Singularity, however, would involve people dying in the flesh and being uploaded into a computer and remaining conscious, or people simply being annihilated in an imperceptible instant before a new super-consciousness takes over the Earth. The Rapture and the Singularity share one thing in common: they can never be verified by the living.”
This is an amazing book.
Lanier, of Virtual Reality fame, slams a) the rampant digitization of everything; b) the quasi-religious impulse on the part of some digerati to anticipate a Rapture-like upload of human minds into digital existence; c) the open, information-wants-to-be-free approach to creativity, along with the popularity of mashing up existing creative artifacts – books, movies, photos – into new, derivative works; d) Google’s goal of digitizing every book it can grab, e) Net anonymity that breeds trollishness, and f) numerous other errors and sins of computer culture. Along the way he debunks the idea that creators can make a living with digital distribution. He did a survey of musicians and found precious few who made any kind of money with digital distribution! This does not bode well for authors.
At the same time, Lanier has insightful, occasionally wistful, hopeful, and profound observations about technology and life. The book transcends screed. It’s one to read and heed.
Yesterday I scanned some pages of You Are Not a Gadget into Word. My purpose was to put a few of Lanier’s choicest pages into my files for further study and easily quote a paragraph elsewhere, like here. The scanner I used is a wonderful piece of tech: it readily scans books and magazines and converts them into PDF, Word, jpeg, or tiff, and you can e-mail the results to yourself by touching your e-mail address into an alphabet touch screen or save to flash drive. The scanner is a good instance of digital technology being highly and almost magically useful.
Interestingly, the scanner had trouble converting Lanier’s book to Word. The book has atypical chapter and page header fonts and an offbeat approach to sidebars – so the Word version of the pages had some really odd glitches:
you aRe nox a gangeT
bll HaiL THe MeMBRane
__ ..,„,.. , ,e,i.!Mm.,„^u^.–l garage to bring the entire human story to a
THe nODSPHeRG IS JUST anoTHeR hbme for eveRyone’s inneR troll
THRPB WclRniri95 have been presented in the previous chapters,
|«The alternative to wide-open development is not neces-_,warily evil. My guess is that a i”poorly* encapsulated com- • munal gloop of organisms lost but-to closely guarded
‘species on the,”primordial Earth for the same reason that-the Linux community didn’t come up with- the iPhone: encapsulation serves ^ a purpose.- ,
This is an emphatic book – not quite strident, but assertively thought-provoking. It insists that computers and the Internet undermine the human mind’s ability – hard won ever since the advent of the printing press and wide-spread literacy – to pay deep and reflective attention. The book is The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (W. W. Norton, 2010.) His thesis may be overstated, especially in attributing deep, sustained, and reflective attention primarily to reading. After all, native peoples with oral traditions, craftsmen, and ascetics have always practiced intense attention.
But I think Carr is right when he says that computers and especially Web surfing have a destructive effect on attention. He laments the “permanent state of distractedness that defines the online life.” He’s right about that! He accuses the Net of being a nexus of ‘interruption technologies’.” I can’t quibble with that assessment. I’ve watched myself flit around the Net and respond to e-mails that interrupt excursions on the Net that have interrupted something I should be concentrating on…. Carr’s provocative book has me re-examining my Net habits. Fortunately, I’ve never fallen into the habit of Net-surfing while writing, and I’m not going to let that camel get its nose in the tent of my vocation.
Carr isn’t sanguine about e-books either. I hope he’s wrong, but this what he asserts:
“When Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, introduced the Kindle, he sounded a self-congratulatory note: ‘It’s so ambitious to take something as highly evolved as a book and improve on it. And maybe even change the way people read.’ There’s no ‘maybe’ about it. The way people read – and write – has already been changed by the Net, and the changes will continue as, slowly but surely, the words of books are extracted from the printed page and embedded in the computer’s ‘ecology of interruption technologies’.”