The very cool Art Inconnu blog features ‘forgotten, little-known, and under-appreciated art’, and two recent posts have highlighted images of readers – check out Reading Part 1 and Part 2. [via BibliOdyssey]
I wanted to point out a great interview at The Casual Optimist with Ben and Eric of the Book Cover Archive. They talk about the impetus behind the site, favorite cover art, and books they’d love to redesign. The last question is the inevitable ‘Are we finally seeing the end of print?’ The response is thoughtful and, in my opinion, spot on. Eric explains that most books are not anything special, and that e-books could actually lead to more readers and a renewed emphasis on fine books and independent bookshops.
(That’s my opinion as a book lover, techie, and environmentalist. The historian part of my brain shouts, ‘But we can learn about a culture from their trashy novels!’ Oh, shut up for once historian lobe.)
If you follow me on Twitter you know that a lot of idiotic stuff goes on in my dorm, but I think that what happened yesterday was the greatest fail so far.
To provide some background, I share a bathroom with the other women on my hall. There are two shower stalls (not enough for the number of people they serve, but that’s beside the point) set up in a similar fashion to the toilets. There’s a divider that doesn’t go all the way to the floor or ceiling, the showers share a floor, and the water drains down to a (pretty gross) trough outside the stall. Though usable, the showers are not a pleasant place to be, filled as they are with soap scum, questionable stains, and other people’s hair. There’s not a bench to sit on or any place to put your things, which have to go in the floor. Like a McDonald’s, the International Hall bathrooms are designed to encourage an in-out mentality.
One stall was occupied when I went to the shower yesterday, so I stepped into the empty one. And the first thing that I saw was a huge paperback resting precariously on top of the divider. The weirdo person next door took the book down as soon as she heard me come in, so I didn’t get a good look, but it appeared to be a novel. Something the size of, let’s say, a paperback Neal Stephenson. (But definitely not Neal Stephenson because that would make this person fairly cool, which we cannot have.)
So here I am, standing in a damp shower stall in my bathrobe thinking, “Have five months of book history finally driven me mad, or does that person have a codex in the shower? With the water running.” A lot of things went through my head in those few minutes. Why would you take a book in the shower? I understand the bathtub in your own (clean) home, but the dorm shower, seriously? Where there isn’t even a dry place to put it, or a comfortable seat? Not to mention that if you’re using a public shower it’s pretty impolite to take up time with non-cleansing-related activities. Had she done this before, or was it a rash experiment? Pleasure reading, or a disastrously procrastinated assignment? And now that it’s no longer resting on the divider, what is she doing with it?
At least one of my questions was answered within seconds, as I heard a sickening thwack and turned to see the poor book lying with its spine broken, its leaves covered in the soapy water and whatever else lives on the floor of a public shower. She tried to retrieve it quickly, but the damage was done. (I pity the used book dealer she will attempt to sell it too, as she inevitably will.) And when she left it was an enormous struggle for me to not peek around the curtain to discover her identity.
Since then I can’t stop thinking about shower book person. Did she try to finish the soaking-wet book? Has she learned her lesson? Like most of us, I’ve taken books to some pretty odd places, but I thought it might be good to create a list of zones where you actually shouldn’t be reading at all. Please feel free to chime in with your own.
- while surfing/skiing/skydiving, etc.
- a burning building
- sewage treatment pond
- a riot
- Level 4 bio-containment unit (unless it’s on microbiology)
- demolition derby
- neo-nazi book burning party
- reactor core
- the lion enclosure at the zoo
— Robert Darnton has a thought-provoking essay on Google Book Search in the most recent New York Review of Books, in which he compares the modern information economy to that of the Enlightenment.
— The Guardian’s excellent series on the 1000 novels you must read is, indeed, available online. Check it out!
— The Cynic Sang points out that Google Maps has teamed up with the Prado to display extremly high-resolution photos of fourteen paintings. I checked this out and it is really cool; you can get close enough to see individual brushstrokes and tiny cracks.
— William found something wonderful in the back of a book.
— From the Book Cover Archive, Great War Dust Jackets.
— Also from the Guardian, Virginia Woolf on reading.
I’m very happy because this came in the mail today. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but it appears to be the only volume available that specifically tackles science books from a book history perspective. (I’m not counting Eisenstein, who was mostly using science books to demonstrate her theories about printing.) It was quite exciting to read the introduction, in which Frasca-Spada and Jardine explain all the things I’ve been thinking for so long (alone! in the dark!) about the intersections of science and books. But now I need to go to bed, because I’ve been up way too late reading it.
Oh, and, the picture on the cover is ‘The Elephant and the Bookseller’, from John Gay, Fables, 6th edition (London, 1746).
The Moneylender and His Wife (1514) by Quentin Massys/Metsys. I recently saw this painting at the Renaissance Faces exhibition at the National Gallery. According to the Louvre website the book represents spiritual duty, and the woman is being distracted by from it by the man’s activities, which represent worldly desires. At first glance I thought it might be a book of hours, but the text is wrong, so my next guess would be a book of saints’ lives. There were quite a few paintings in the exhibition featuring readers or individuals holding books, as well as two illuminated pieces, one a miniature by Simon Marmion (I wish I could remember the names of some of the other works so I could post them). Otherwise, the exhibit was just meh. But I did some googling and ran across a book that sounds interesting, The Look of Reading: Book, Painting, Text. I’ll try to pick it up at the library tomorrow.
If you’ve ever played a videogame or read a novelization based on a recent blockbuster you will know exactly how much thought and creativity typically go into movie merchandise. So it’s not much of a shock that children’s books based on action flicks aren’t that great. Nevertheless, today’s Slate slideshow by Erica Perl does a good job presenting the history of beginning readers and explaining exactly what’s wrong with the sloppily-produced primers based on movies (other than the obvious creep factor of pushing adult-themed franchises onto preschoolers.) She also makes some good book recommendations for children learning to read; I remember being quite the fan of Frog and Toad back in the day.
Today’s post is about a long article in the Atlantic Monthly in which the author argues that the internet prevents us from focusing on long articles.
I found this piece both overly alarmist and annoyingly deterministic. Carr argues that the internet, like previous media forms, alters not only our daily habits but the very essence of our neurobiology. And because the internet is inevitably fast-paced and distracting, it results in skimming rather than “deep reading,” turning us from intelligent, thoughtful individuals to hyper, impatient and shallow cretins.
When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image. It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. A new e-mail message, for instance, may announce its arrival as we’re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper’s site. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.
In reality the internet, or any other form of technology, is what we make of it, guided by both individuals and by social norms or institutions. It’s easy enough to avoid the condition that Carr describes simply by altering the way you interact with the internet. Leaving blinky, ad-filled sites for mature and thoughtful online spaces (which do exist,) exerting self-control when it comes to checking email and mobile phones, changing browser settings (or the browser itself) to calm your monitor down, cleaning off the desktop, making an effort to engage with serious literature and periodicals on a daily basis and leaving time for contemplation, long walks, etc. Certainly one would not argue that in public spaces you have no choice but to step in McDonalds rather than the bookstore. The same logic applies to the internet.
Carr’s piece, however, is full of this type of pronouncement. Here’s another example of the rampant determinism:
The clock’s methodical ticking helped bring into being the scientific mind and the scientific man.
In actuality, most historians of technology will probably tell you that the clock did not, alone, bring about a change in the mindset of society. Instead, it was the changing social sphere (the emergence of capitalism, the growth of transportation networks and the scientific revolution) that created the need for accurate clocks in the first place.
Another annoying aspect of the article is that Carr focuses on Google as a leading contributor to the problem, again, very deterministically and by making use of a bizarre comparison with Frederick Winslow Taylor’s theory of scientific management. Taylor’s methods were used to control workers in factory settings, and while this did bleed over into life outside the factory, the analogy breaks down pretty quickly when it comes to the internet. The last I checked no one can force me to search more efficiently. Google may work at making the algorithms better on its end, but that doesn’t affect the way that I choose to search, the keywords I enter, or how I parse and use the results.
I understand that there are serious concerns with Google’s page ranking system, and the ways that information can be either down-ranked or promoted by the algorithms (or censored entirely,) but this doesn’t seem to be Carr’s concern. He appears more worried by the idea of search as artificial intelligence that will one day replace thinking. Is it the case that people will replace cognition with Google? Perhaps, but I believe that these are the types who would not be very thoughtful in the first place, even in a Google-free environment. Not those who are reading the Atlantic Monthly on a regular basis, certainly.
Because, wait, haven’t we heard all this before? TV springs immediately to mind. Yet the dire predictions of a zombie nation seem not to have come to pass. Some people waste their lives in front of the tv, but others who are inclined toward reading and scholarly past-times, or sports, or socializing, are not forced into zombiehood just because there is a TV in the living room. Similarly, some scholars of the early modern era bemoaned the printed book, fearing that it made possible the rise of shallow, extensive reading versus the intensive reading of a few books over the course of a lifetime.
Thus, the whole thing seems just another iteration of the old, tired complaints. I suppose that’s what’s so frustrating for me. It’s not so much his attitude to the internet, but his poor grasp of information history and historical theory in general, which disappoints but doesn’t really surprise. Carr does give a shallow overview of book history on the final page, musing that new media technologies like writing and printing have often given rise to dire predictions not unlike his. Yet in the end, he brushes off these concerns:
The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.
What he fails to do entirely is justify his conclusion that the internet, by its very nature, prevents “deep reading” while print, by its nature, encourages thoughtfulness. To go back to my earlier point, the internet is what you make of it, and it is as well suited a tool for intensive reading as it is for skimming the headlines, celebrity gossip and latest YouTube videos. Compared to words on screen, there is nothing intellectually special about the printed page, save for an emotional attachment that many of us feel for it, for the pleasure of holding, leafing through and smelling a book (and the fact that some people have difficulty looking at computer monitors for extended periods.) But you could just as easily pick up a printed copy of the Enquirer as a volume of Voltaire, and likewise, spend an hour engaged with a scholarly article online rather than skimming search results.
Carr ignores the more complex perspectives offered by book history and concludes by predicting a troubling future in which the internet makes us more machine-like than HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Don’t buy it.