Monthly Archives: March 2009

Text is forever. Books are not.

A response to Where’s the Bailout for Publishing, by Stephen Carter:

A book is forever. A screen of text is not.

So says Stephen Carter, at The Daily Beast in his post, Where’s the Bailout for Publishing?

I would say he has it backwards: online is forever. Books are made of glue and paper, mostly of the high-acid type that quickly turns into so much dust and pulp. I have whole shelves doing so before my eyes, particularly the ones I had in Thailand, where the climate is particularly merciless to cheaply-made books. They’re churned out by a publishing industry mostly concerned with this quarter’s bottom line, not eternity. Pulp that quickly returns to pulp.

No, if anything stands a chance of being “forever” (which I take to mean “lasting a long time in many places”, not an ubiquitous eternity), it is an online posting. Like Carter’s. (Or this). Disseminated across ten thousand servers and a hundred million hard drives around the globe, once you hit that “publish” button, there’s no calling it back.

And a book, once out there, cannot be recalled. The author who changes his mind cannot just take down the page.

He can, however, prevent new copies from being printed. Good luck with that on the internet. Barring some global catastrophe that causes an eternal blackout, everything that has ever been up on the internet is being copied, every day, by servers all over the planet, such as at the Internet Archive, and will be preserved indefinitely. There’s no getting it back: if you put it on the internet, you give it away.

A book matches perfectly the ideal of reflection. The tougher the text, the more reflective we must be in absorbing it. This suggests the importance of reading books that are difficult. Long books. Hard books. Books with which we have to struggle. The hard work of serious reading mirrors the hard work of serious governing—and, in a democracy, governing is a responsibility all citizens share.

I agree whole-heartedly with this sentiment. But a book doesn’t have to be a paper book: I see no reason why an e-book, for instance, can’t be just as much a reflective experience as a paper book. I read Little Dorrit on my Kindle. I don’t think I’m any the worse off for it.

To be fair, Carter seems to object strictly to reading books off a computer screen. I’ve only done this once, when I’d downloaded a book and lacked the printer ink. So I read it off my laptop. Which, I should add, was not connected to the internet. It was all right. I’d rather have an e-book or a paper book, but I’d do it again if it was either that or read nothing.

But on an average day online, I probably read, conservatively, 50,000 words. That’s half your average novel off a screen. If I don’t read whole books, online, it’s only because I’m not conditioned to do so. And there are all those neat links to jump to and emails to answer and Facebook status updates to make … but this is not saying anything about reading off a screen itself. If there were a computer monitor that incorporated eInk and I had a comfortable chair, I bet I could get through Anna Karenina just fine.

Democracy is not alone in its need for the book. It is no accident that the great Western religions rely heavily on sacred texts—texts, moreover, that believers are able to touch and feel and carry about. The weight and heft of a Bible, its solidity, itself implies eternity.

As Carter goes on to note, believers were not able to “touch and feel and carry about” their sacred texts until the advent of the codex, or the modern book, courtesy Mr. Gutenburg. A book is a much a piece of technology as a pencil or the Space Shuttle or the Sony Reader. It just so happens that these days it is likely yielding pride of place to, well, the iPhone.

That’s all right. Gutenburg’s codex no doubt horrified the Monkly Bible-Writing Union. (Surely the Scroll Makers’ Guild was outraged by the upstart monks with their fancy schmancy quills.) But it made possible the Reformation. Which led to all sorts of interesting results. Including the founding of Yale University, where Carter teaches. What is the digital revolution unleashing?

Who knows. But I think it’s a safe bet that it’s something equally remarkable.

A text is a text is a text. Once text appeared on cave walls. Then scrolls. Then hand-written vellum. Then codexes. Now … ereaders and computer screens. It’s still text. It’s still words flowing one after the other in a coherent fashion.

It is difficult to imagine lavishing the same loving attention on the computer screen.

Difficult, but not impossible, no? Refer to Monks, Bible-Writing Union of, and Scroll Makers’, Guild of.

Such results might bear out Miller’s concern that, in cyberspace, the text “jostles side by side” with a thousand other possible destinations for the attention. And the reader, of course, freely flees. … Perhaps, when we read online, the perceptive part of the brain is, in a sense, confused by the intention of the reader who sits in front of a screen. Is the reader there to gather and reflect upon information, or perhaps to check email or play a game?

I’m don’t disagree with Carter on this – the skittery Google mind has very different ends than the quiet library reader of A Treatise of Human Nature. Whether this is a inherently A Very Bad Thing is the question. Perhaps by reading and learning differently online people are pioneering new ways to, well, read and learn. Doubtless they will not be like the old ways, but it does seem to me a little Cassandra-ish to presume that new methods are causing “the decline of democracy”.

I can just picture the village elders leaned together to head-shake and tongue-click at those young’uns with their heads stuck in those newfangled books, wondering what is to be done, what is to be done. Why, if anyone can just read whatever they like at any time all by themselves out of that unfoldy thing, how are we going to keep up all the old traditions and ways? How are we going to keep our authority?

Answer: you aren’t. Thankfully.

Absent the codex, ideas would still be the province of a privileged priesthood.

And absent the internet, ideas would still be the province of “information providers”, publishers, newspapers, magazines, to say nothing of radio and TV, and the corporations that control(ed) most of them. Good riddance to that, I say.

No, I consider myself thrice-blessed, to be born in a free society, with free access to books, and now, free access to the internet. I find it somewhat baffling, considering the essentially democratic nature of the internet (thus far, at least), that Carter identifies “democracy” so closely with “books”. I think democracy is better allied with the free dissemination of information. Which, I hasten to add, includes books. From weighty hardcovers to iPhone a
Note: A slightly modified version of this post first appeared at Teleread.

We’re back

And christ is it cold. 28 degrees and blowing snow as I write this. My fingers are numb. So please excuse any typos.

Among the highlights so far: the scioness’s mom claims she’s “not cold” and the scioness has thus far enjoyed several hours of Sesame Street on YouTube.

I should be back on a semi-regular posting schedule sometime this week. It’s a matter of building back up a routine, of thought, time, and space.

In the meantime, this will do:

We're back

And christ is it cold. 28 degrees and blowing snow as I write this. My fingers are numb. So please excuse any typos.

Among the highlights so far: the scioness’s mom claims she’s “not cold” and the scioness has thus far enjoyed several hours of Sesame Street on YouTube.

I should be back on a semi-regular posting schedule sometime this week. It’s a matter of building back up a routine, of thought, time, and space.

In the meantime, this will do:

Sayonara, Thailand

The next time I post we’ll be across the pond in your favorite Purple State, USA. When will that be? Don’t know. Probably a week, maybe more like two. In the meantime, have a look around and I leave you, somewhat incongruously I know, with what’s been on my car stereo during this, my last week of commuting Thai-style:

See you on the other side.

Dickens vs. America

The literature copyfight has been going on a long time. My hero Charles Dickens was intimately involved. Now here are some copyright-related highlights from Dickens vs. America, an essay by Matthew Pearl, author of the novel The Last Dickens. The essay appeared in More Intelligent Life:

In the 19th century publishing battles raged between Britain and the United States. A loophole in American copyright law enabled publishers to reprint British books at will. Until 1891, the intellectual property of non-citizens was up for grabs. Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson and other popular British writers lost untold amounts of income as American publishers profited. American writers, too, were commercial losers at home, as a book of poetry by Longfellow or Poe selling for one dollar had to compete with a 25 cent novel by Dickens or Thackeray.

It was an intellectual-property war every bit as fierce as today’s DVD black market in China. American publishers would send their agents to roam the wharves in New York, Philadelphia and Boston to intercept popular manuscripts coming in by ship. Across the Atlantic, English customs officials would search passenger ships coming from the States and confiscate pirated British books as contraband.

Dickens found himself in an awkward spot, torn between his financial interests and his fame. Though he did not earn royalties from his American sales, the inexpensive prices helped circulate his books and serials more widely, increasing his popularity.


When Dickens travelled to America for the first time in 1841, he crowed in a subsequent letter that “there never was a king or Emperor upon the Earth, so cheered, and followed by crowds.” He relished this adulation, which exceeded what he enjoyed back home. He also felt a natural kinship with America’s ideals of equality, democracy and liberalism. His own rags-to-riches story was embraced by the country’s public and press.

Still, he used his first visit to deliver speeches calling for an international copyright. Dickens expected right-thinking Americans to join him in the fight. But the country was going through an economic crunch, making even high-minded demands for more money unappealing. His tub-thumping especially irked American newspapers, which relied on free British content to fill their pages….

Dickens understood that there would be no international copyright in his lifetime. In 1867 he announced that Fields, Osgood & Co, a Boston publisher sponsoring his tour, would be his authorised American publisher for his forthcoming novel, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”. Though this could not prevent pirated editions, he made a moral plea to readers to purchase the official version.

Dubbed the Dickens Controversy, this unprecedented arrangement sparked fierce debate among American publishers, who were caught off-guard by an author’s ability to sway public opinion. Some of the most notorious pirating firms felt forced to re-evaluate their positions on copyright.

I don’t think we can draw an exact analogy to today’s situation and the Internet, but I think this much is clear: as long as there as profit to be made by pirating, there will be profiteering. Building more walls won’t solve the problem. Pirates will simply scale them, laughing. And unless you’ve written, say, Bleak House, Oliver Twist, and A Christmas Carol (to say nothing of Little Dorrit), you probably won’t command the adulation of an Emperor on your book tour.

So should today’s writers forget about quitting their day jobs? Is the future Smashwords and like services? Maybe letting readers set the price? Utilize Creative Commons? Or keep plugging away in “traditional” publishing, hoping for that break-through book deal?

(This is assuming that you’ve written a Very Good Book to begin with.)

Note: The photo by George Herbert Watkins is via Wikipedia.

This post also appeared at Teleread.

Le Globish

A fellow named Jean-Paul Nerrière has created an English “dialect” of 1500 words to enhance international communication. “The point is that Anglophones no longer own English … It is now owned by people in Singapore, Ulan Bator, Montevideo, Beijing and elsewhere,” says Nerrière.

Globish involves a vocabulary limited to 1,500 words, short sentences, basic syntax, an absence of idiomatic expressions and extensive hand gestures to get the point across … Mr Nerrière, 66, originally sought to help non-English speakers — and notably his compatriots from France — in the era when business meetings are invariably held en anglais. He advised that instead of struggling to master the Queen’s English, they should content themselves with Globish.

His two books, Don’t Speak English, Parlez Globish and Découvrez le Globish, became bestsellers in France and were also published in Spain, Italy, South Korea and Canada. They are also being translated into Japanese.

“Globish is a proletarian and popular idiom which does not aim at cultural understanding or at the acquisition of a talent enabling the speaker to shine at Hyde Park Corner,” he wrote.

“It is designed for trivial efficiency, always, everywhere, with everyone.”

I can certainly relate: if you want to make yourself understood in English in Thailand, you have to drop all idioms, mixed metaphors, and phrasal verbs. In that sense, I already speak fluent Globish. I can also tell you that only about 1 out of every 1000 EFL students who don’t spend significant time in an English-speaking country achieve anything like fluency. No, those who speak “well” speak … Globish.

And given that English is the globe’s de facto lingua franca (ahem), something like Globish is probably the future, if that future isn’t here already.

Here is the the Globish site.

Anyhow, don’t take my word for it. Pasted below is Mark Antony’s famous speech from Julius Caesar, and below that is the same speech rendered into “Globish”. Abomination or goodness? You be the judge.

According to William Shakespeare:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him;
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones,
So let it be with Caesar … The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answered it …
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest,
(For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all; all honourable men)
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral …
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man….
He hath brought many captives home to Rome,
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man
. I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then to mourn for him?
O judgement! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason…. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

According to Jean-Paul Nerrière:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him;
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is often buried with their bones,
So let it be with Caesar … The stately Brutus
Has told you Caesar wanted to be king:
If he said that, then it was a deadly mistake,
And it was deadly for Caesar today …
I am allowed to speak here by Brutus and the rest,
(For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all; all honourable men)
I come to speak at Caesar’s burial …
Caesar was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says Caesar wanted to be a king;
And Brutus is an honourable man….
Caesar has brought many prisoners home to Rome,
Whose fathers buy them back to our great profit:
Did this seem like Caesar was trying to take too much?
When the poor have cried, Caesar cries as well:
If he wanted to be king he should have had a stronger character:
Yet Brutus says Caesar was trying to be all powerful;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all saw that at the ceremony
I presented Caesar a kingly crown 3 times,
Which he did refuse 3 times: Did this man want to be king?
Yet Brutus says he wanted to rule us completely;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to argue with what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love Caesar once, not without cause:
What cause now keeps you from being sorry for him?
O wise thought! You have escaped to the animals,
And men have lost their reason…. Stay with me now;
My heart is in the ground there with Caesar,
And I must wait until it comes back to me.

10 literary one-hit wonders, cursed and spectacular 2nd novels

Some highlights:

One-hit wonders:

“I never expected any sort of success with [To Kill a] Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers, but at the same time I hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement – public encouragement. I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.” – Harper Lee

Salinger is a member of the one-hit-wonder club only if you consider Franny and Zooey, published in 1961, as a novella. Salinger’s last published work, a short story, appeared in The New Yorker in 1965. – JD Salinger

The author committed suicide in 1969, having given up hope of seeing his comic masterpiece in print. Eventually it was published in 1980. A “second novel”, The Neon Bible, followed in 1989 – but this was actually written by Toole as a teenager and, as an adult, rejected as juvenilia. – John Kennedy Toole

Cursed second novels:

Thirteen Moons – Charles Frazier
Frazier’s Cold Mountain sold in bucketloads and he received an $8million advance for Thirteen Moons. It flopped.

For the record: I thought Cold Mountain read like a warmed-over rehash of discarded first drafts collected from Cormac McCarthy’s teenage years.

Shirley- Charlotte Bronte
Published two years after Jane Eyre, Shirley’s most enduring impact is that, until publication, Shirley was a rare name – and a boy’s name at that. But Bronte’s Shirley was female – and now most Shirleys are too.

Spectacular second novels:

Ulysses – James Joyce
Joyce’s debut, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, though brilliantly executed, was an archetypal first novel – a barely disguised autobiographical coming-of-age yarn. Ulysses was something else entirely.

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
Eliot (real name Mary Ann Evans) published Adam Bede in 1859, and although her rural tragedy was praised by critics and fellow authors, including Charles Dickens, it is her second novel that became a set text, and the standard-bearer for Victorian social realism.

The Beautiful and Damned – F.Scott Fitzgerald
He confirmed the reputation won with This Side of Paradise two years earlier. The Beautiful and Damned was the Jazz Age chronicler’s first great novel, published by Scribner in 1922. His third was The Great Gatsby.

Not a bad trifecta for Fitzgerald, there. Though I’d say that of the three only The Great Gatsby has really stood the test of time. The other two are eminently readable, but not really classics.

Via the Times Online:
10 One-hit Wonders
Cursed Second Novels
Spectacular Second Novels

Book Review: Junk Sick

Review of Norman Savage’s autobiography Junk Sick inside:

I’ve had a long continuous fist-fight
with death. People were merely pre-lims.
– Norman Savage

Norman Savage’s life starts at 11 when he is diagnosed with diabetes. The whole anatomy of his life involves the disease. “Good diabetic control implies structure, work, planning, and deprivation, food deprivation. If you adhere to some rules and regulations, your odds are better of living a life relatively free of too many problems and complications. My gut instincts are to rebel against such a life.” And so he does, embarking on a 45-year odyssey of drugs, family, women, and poetry. He chronicles them in his autobiography, Junk Sick. (Get it at Smashwords.)

It starts with his family: “The helix of fate sealed with genetic glue grows like mold in the dark; it is moist, responds to secrets or silences, and needs no nourishment, except fear.” In the 50s very little was known about diabetes. Though they love him, Savage’s parents don’t know what to with their sick son. His mother preens over his every move. His father, a “disappointed gangster at heart”, treats his son like breakable china and withdraws. Savage wonderfully describes him as having “a heart, a twisted, misguided, loving, manipulative, judgmental, critical, ambivalent, divided, bleeding, granulated, diseased by hurt and betrayal heart, but he had a human, a very human heart.”

Fleeing his home in Brooklyn, Savage doesn’t have to search far for kicks. Introduced to heroin as a teenager, he is soon roaring full-bore down the substance highway, a junkie diabetic poet. Highlights: four amputated toes, a seduced and murderous socialite, knifepoint mugging in the Bronx, and friendships with Tom Waits and Allen Ginsberg. You wince at his drug-discombobulated days. When he passes out with a syringe in his arm, you think, how can he do that? The man is sick!

But the disease proves to be a deliverer. His ritual attention to diet and bodily functions, insulin shots, and close contact with the medical establishment keeps him alive. If he hadn’t been a diabetic, likely we wouldn’t be reading his memoir. But there’s no reckoning the price: “Even I could no more understand what my life was costing me than what your life really cost you.”

His other savior: poetry. Time and again he drags himself from the gutter to the page, never surrendering entirely to his narcotic demons, facing down the doubts a writer brings to the desk, privy to the holy madness of Ginsberg or Kerouac: “And so, with a niggling feeling inside me, a feeling that was not new to me, a feeling that told me I was copping-out, lying, that I was too easy on myself, that I was afraid, afraid of failure, looking stupid, unlearned, not assured, clumsy, awkward, and most importantly, vulnerable, I went back to concentrating on poems.”

Savage says there are “monsters of literature that have altered me in profound ways: Ginsburg, Selby, Celine, Pound, Pynchon, Crews, Roth, Morrison, Bukowski, who keep you going, restore your faith, patch up your pockmarked soul.” So imagine his wonderment when a teacher at the New School for Social Research offers to introduce him to number one on the list. Ginsburg becomes his mentor and friend: “I’d go up to Ginsberg’s pad on 10th Street and learn how to breathe life into my line and imagery into my words.” Apparently he made an impression on Ginsberg, as well. Twenty years later while student-teaching at Stuyvesant High School he casually calls Ginsberg and gets him to come do a reading.

Another luminary in Junk Sick is Tom Waits. Fast friends since the 70s, Waits “rekindled the writing bug” in Savage and would “call me up in the middle of the night from places that seemed like outposts in America, small cities in Idaho or Minnesota.” When Waits performed on Saturday Night Live, Savage was backstage in the green room. But their times together were no red carpet affair: “We would journey to Times Square arcades, catch flesh at some strip club like the Baby Doll Lounge, go to The Cedar or Doc’s pad or mine, talk and laugh and bullshit through the night and then get some food, the greasier the better, at an all night diner or café.”

Unfortunately, Savage’s good times continually bring him back to the substances: “Whatever intelligence or personality I possessed was in service of whatever drug I was doing.” Locked in a seemingly unbreakable cycle of dependence that subsumes hope and meaning into a quest for another high, Savage is unforgiving towards himself: “I became as boring and predictable as bad writing.” To himself, maybe. Not me reading it.

Junk Sick does have its rough patches. Sections about the politics of drug rehab centers are somewhat drawn-out. The physical descriptions are sometimes leave a little lacking, as in “through the picket fences of elbows and legs I managed to see how life drains out of someone.” He is a little free with the double quotes: not everything needs to be “explained”. I would have liked to get a little more detail about New York itself, CBGB’s, driving a taxi, scoring heroin in the Bronx projects, but Savage breezes over these as though they are everyday occurrences. I suppose it’s because the city is Savage’s oxygen.

One of Savage’s heroes, the poet Charles Bukowski, never much rose above his own credo of “Don’t Try.” Savage did, not keeling under to despair or bitterness. In the twilight of his life, finally clean and sober, he reflects with humility: “I’ve become an Everythingian. Knowing that the brain of an ant is more complex than our most advanced computer, how the hell am I going to choose one explanation for how I developed and survived?”

I don’t know, either, but as a reader I’m glad there is one, and that Junk Sick came of it. Junk Sick is an absorbing read. Read it for an eyeball-level look into a life most people wouldn’t have survived.

Note: You can read some of Savage’s poems from 1976 to 1998. For more on Norman Savage, see his interview with Smashword’s Mark Coker here. Junk Sick contains adult situations and language.

This review also appeared at TeleRead.