Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: books (page 1 of 1)

department of corrections

danah boyd: “Over the last two years, I’ve been intentionally purchasing and reading books that are banned.” The problem here is that none, literally not one, of the books on the list boyd links to have been banned. Neither have they been “censored,” which is what the article linked to says. That’s why boyd can buy and read them: because they’ve been neither banned nor censored. 

What has happened is this: Some parents want school libraries to remove from their shelves books that they (the parents) think are inappropriate for their children to read. You may think that such behavior is mean-spirited or otherwise misconceived — very often it is! — but has nothing to do with either banning or censorship. 

But, of course, the American Library Association has been quite effective in redefining the words “banning” and “censorship” to include actions that are far less drastic — less drastic and not especially common: as Micah Mattix has documented here and here, there simply is no widespread movement to keep books off school library shelves.

In a sane world, the term “ban” would be reserved for books whose sale and circulation are illegal in some given place, and “censorship” would refer to the removal, by some legal or commercial authority, of certain portions of a text or film or recording. (I say “commercial” authority because sometimes companies that own the rights to works of art decide, without legal pressure, to delete some lyrics in a song or change certain words in a book.) But thanks to people who want to smear their RCOs, it is now common to use precisely the same words to describe (a) what the nation of Iran did to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and (b) a polite letter from a parent to a school librarian asking that books that offer anatomically detailed descriptions of sexual practices not be readily available to third graders. Of course, many concerned parents are not polite, but polite letters on this topic still count, for the ALA, as a “challenge,” and the organization defines a challenge as an attempt at censorship or banning.

This failure to make elementary distinctions is neither politically nor intellectually healthy. 

I sometimes wonder whether this kerfuffle isn’t something of a smokescreen, intended to distract our attention from more serious and troubling attempts at what George Orwell called “the prevention of literature” — for instance, removing books from sale altogether, pulping offensive books, or ensuring that they aren’t published at all. (In some cases that means that the authors aren’t published at all.) You can buy books that some parents have protested; you can’t buy books that, because of political pressure, have never seen the light of day. So you know what I’m craving today? A little perspective

From my dear friend John Wilson:

Ever since I “discovered” book reviews, when I was in high school, I have been in love with this simple but infinitely flexible genre. Much of my adult life has been devoted to scouring publishers’ catalogues and other sources of information on forthcoming books, reviewing books myself and assigning them for review, editing reviews and seeing them into print, and of course reading thousands of reviews over the decades — a practice I will continue as long as I have my faculties. […] 

At the same time, I feel some reservations. When Nadya Williams invited me to lead off this series, she spoke of “the value/virtue of book reviews in this day and age,” and she added: “My thought is that we can encourage much more productive discussions about cultural crises using books than via provocative op-eds.” But I don’t want to encourage more discussion about “cultural crises”; in fact, I think much of our public conversation, across the ideological spectrum, is characterized by an obsessive focus on “cultural crises.” I’m not saying that these “crises” are simply manufactured (though certainly some of them are). Rather, I believe that endless talk about these crises characterizes public discourse to an unhealthy and extremely tedious degree. Of course, that is apparent not only in op-eds and essays and books claiming to unpack these “crises” but also in reviews. And yet the blessed range of reviewing ensures that such voices do not dominate. 

Amen to all this. But goodness, is it difficult to get many editors interested in books that aren’t somehow implicated in (or can somehow be shoehorned into) the American crisis discourse. 

These beauties arrived: 


So now the set is complete: 


Had to do my review from PDFs, so this seems my just reward. 

In David Thomson’s The Big Screen, largely a history of movies, there’s a chapter on television that contains a sentence, a simple and straightforward sentence that’s nonetheless worthy of serious and extended reflection: “This book is not interrupted every sixteen pages by a cluster of advertisements.”

New York City Libraries End Late Fees, and the Treasures Roll In

When New York’s public library system announced last October that it would be eliminating all late fines, its goal was to get books and people back to the city’s nearly 100 branches and research centers after a year and a half of limited hours and access.

The goal was achieved: A wave of returned overdue materials came crashing in, accompanied by a healthy increase (between 9 and 15 percent, depending on the borough) of returning visitors. 

Since last fall, more than 21,000 overdue or lost items have been returned in Manhattan, some so old that they were no longer in the library’s system. About 51,000 items were returned in Brooklyn between Oct. 6 through the end of February. And more than 16,000 were returned in Queens. (Libraries are still charging replacement fees for lost books.)

Some books were checked out so long ago that they had to be returned to different addresses. In December, Flushing Library in Queens received a package containing “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” a novella by the English novelist James Hilton, that had been checked out in July 1970 from an address that is now associated with a shopping plaza.

ebooks bad

This Ian Bogost essay on e-books is an oddity, in the sense that about a decade ago we had thousands of essays on this same theme, but have had very few since. That, I think, is because everything got hashed out back then as thoroughly as it is likely ever to be. I am not sure what Bogost’s essay adds to that long-ago conversation, but I know the chief thing it neglects: eyesight. Many people who love codex books (myself included) read e-books when the combination of poor eyesight and poor book design makes reading a given codex painful or even impossible. 

Gorey as designer

Rosemary Hill on Edward Gorey:

Gorey’s first book, The Unstrung Harp, was published in 1953, the year he moved to New York. He was working for Anchor Books, a new imprint of Doubleday, set up for the production of ‘quality literature … in mass-market paperback format’. Despite his own literary ambitions and the fact that he was trying and failing to write a novel, Gorey wasn’t employed on the editorial side but in the art department, where he worked variously as a cover artist and book designer. It was here that he hit on the form and order that [his former teacher John] Ciardi saw he needed. Having no training in typographic design, he found marking up layouts for the printer difficult. In an early example of what Dery calls his avant-retroism, Gorey decided that rather than look up all the fonts and calculate the point sizes it was ‘simply easier to hand-letter the whole thing’. The use of manual processes to imitate technical ones became an essential feature of his work. The delicate cross-hatching that gives his monochrome illustrations the velvety depth of 19th-century engravings was all done by hand with a crow quill dip pen. Having worked out his modus operandi, Gorey became ‘fast and competent’ at his job and used the rest of his time at the office to produce his own books.

Here’s an example, from a copy I bought at a used book store in, I think, 1976:

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After writing my recent post on my enthusiasm for the writing of C. V. Wedgwood, I realized that I didn’t have a copy of her brief biography of Oliver Cromwell, so I ordered one from AbeBooks. It duly arrived, and I have just read it, and can report that it’s fine but by no means one of her best works. But I find myself thinking about the actual physical book, the codex. 

It’s a discarded library book — from Stephens College in Missouri — and was acquired by that library in 1956. It’s a small book (4.5 x 7.5 inches) and has a basic, unadorned cover, and when I first opened the book I thought that the paper wasn’t great. But then I realized that the paper is sixty-three years old, and in that context it’s pretty darn good. It hasn’t yellowed much, and isn’t as brittle as paper that age often is. The binding is sewn, and the book easily lies flat. 

Though the book, as you can see, was published by a New York house, it was actually printed in England. 

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The Jarrold Group sold their printing business around fifteen years ago, after which it seems to have closed, leaving only a small and rarely open museum of printing

But in their day they knew their craft. It’s the typography that really struck me, even though it’s not unusual or obviously distinctive. Here’s a sample page: 

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As I say, not dramatic — but look at how lovely all the proportions are: the layout on the page, the spacing and kerning, the simple but elegant (and highly readable) typeface — Baskerville, I think — you can’t go wrong with Baskerville. It’s very rare for a book to get almost every element of typesetting and layout right the way this one does. (The kerning might be a tiny bit wide at times, but that’s because the book is small and the lines are therefore short. The compositors have done very well to make you forget about that.) 

Consider this recent and nicely-designed book, Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

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Now that’s a lovely typeface — Minion, I think? I’m not expert in these things — and note the generous spacing between lines: important when a book is as big as this one (over 600 pages). But the margins are too narrow. Look how the ends of the lines disappear into the gutter. I think with slightly wider margins and slightly narrower spacing between the lines the book could have been more readable at the same length. (Though, as you can see, the paper is too thin. Compare the older book, in which nothing shows through from the other side.) 

Obviously, every typesetting decision creates tradeoffs: you get a good feature in exchange for putting up with something a little less good. It’s like working with a stringed instrument: something is always out of tune, at least a little, thanks to the perversities of equal temperament. But those bookmaking people at Jarrold & Sons did the job about as well as it can be done. Hats off to them. I wish I could buy new books made by them, or by craftsmen who can do what they could do. 

the enlightenment of books

I think all the time about alternative ways of organizing my books, but am always thwarted by the fact that some are at home and some at the office. Probably what I’m most looking forward to about retirement is having all my books in one place. (But that may be what my wife is least looking forward to.) I think at least half of the Kindle books I own I bought because that was easier than getting into the car and driving to the office where I already had a codex copy. I cherish the fantasy that when I finally have all my books in the same building, and discover the ideal way to organize them, then all the chaos of my mind will resolves itself in a single great orderly pattern, and all the connections I have failed to make over the years will suddenly snap into place, and everything I have so persistently proved incapable of understanding will reveal itself in a moment of perfect clarity and unity. And then I will sit cross-legged in the midst of my books smiling like a Buddha. Enlightenment at last.

Neil Gaiman: Why I love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Neil Gaiman: Why I love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Selling Books

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An interesting trio of books for Random House to be advertising in the April 24, 1944 issue of The New Republic — in the margin, by the way, of an extremely negative review of two C. S. Lewis books, written by Alistair Cooke, later of Masterpiece Theater fame. Also, I plan to find a use for the phrase “Tolstoyan it flows with laughter, tears and scotch.”

A new journalistic recipe is afoot: find once ubiquitous technology that is on the wane and write about its quirky history. The latest exhibit at the LA Review of Books: the phone booth.

Ah, the phone booth, haven of bacterial infestation, coin-operated dysfunctionality, and cinematic obsession. We’ll miss you.

Of course the more interesting question is not to treat media like cats (so cute, so sad), but to ask why it is that we need to rehearse these disappearances. Why are we so drawn to the mourning work of missing media?

Andrew Piper, who has written elsewhere about the comfort people take in “eulogizing media technology, like a warm blanket for the overconnected.”

We have gone long enough without raising the question of whether reading makes you a better person. The short answer to that question is No. It doesn’t. And the long answer doesn’t differ too dramatically from the short one….

Responding to the claim that not just reading but “high culture” in general is morally improving, Terry Eagleton points out that, during World War II, “many people were indeed deep in high culture, but … this had not prevented some of them from engaging in such activities as superintending the murder of Jews in central Europe.” If reading really was supposed to “make you a better person,” then “when the Allied troops moved into the concentration camps … to arrest commandants who had whiled away their leisure hours with a volume of Goethe, it appeared that someone had some explaining to do.”

There’s simply nothing about reading, or listening to Mozart sonatas, or viewing paintings by Raphael, that necessarily transforms or even improves someone’s character. As the eighteenth-century scientist G. C. Lichtenberg once wrote, “A book is like a mirror: if an ass looks in, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.” Nevertheless, I am going to argue, from time to time throughout the course of this book, that if you really want to become a better person, there are ways in which reading can help. But the degree to which that happens will depend not just on what you read … but also why and how. So consider yourself either warned or promised, according to your feelings about moralistic exhortation.

If you read advertisements for books in eighteenth-century journals, you will be struck by the emphasis on the primary material of literature: ‘Printed on the best-quality paper from Angouleme.’ That line of salesmanship would be unthinkable today, when readers rarely notice the quality of the paper in books. In the eighteenth century they often found splotches made by drops from a poorly held deckle or bits of petticoat that had not been properly pulped. Remarks about paper turn up so often in the letters of booksellers—and even a few readers, though the STN [Société typographique de Neuchatel] rarely heard from individual consumers—that I think a peculiar paper consciousness existed in early modern Europe. It must have died out with the advent of machine- made paper from pulped wood in the nineteenth century. But in earlier times people looked at the material substratum of books, not merely at their verbal message. Readers discussed the degrees of whiteness, the texture, and the elasticity of paper. They employed a rich esthetic vocabulary to describe its qualities, much as they do for wine today.