from the nouveau roman to the nouveau romance 01.28.2005, 3:52 PM
from the nouveau roman . . .
I've been working out of the Brooklyn Public Library lately, which has free wireless internet and an interesting collection of books. The organizing principle seems to be, as far as I can tell, that everything remotely interesting gets stolen. This means, in practice, that they have an exceptional collection of criticism of the French nouveau roman, which seems to have gathered dust on the shelves there since the early 1960s. The nouveaux romanciers were a loosely-knit group of novelists from the 1960s determined to shake the French novel out of existential doldrums through the use of new styles of narrative. Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet's microscopic examinations of everyday life might be seen as exemplary of the movement, though the novels of Marguerite Duras are probably the most widely read today.
To me, the most interesting of them is Michel Butor, who wrote four increasingly experimental novels in the early 1960s, and then tired of writing novels altogether. Mobile, his next major production, confused the critics immensely, some of whom declared that not only was it not a novel, it wasn't a book at all. Mobile is fantastic: it's a travel guide to the United States presented as a collage, abandoning the author's voice for bits of history, advertising, and found text. Following the example of Stéphane Mallarmé, the texts are spread over the pages, an analogue to the spatial journey the book describes, presenting a range of sensory (and historical) impressions of America. The French version has the text rotated 90 degrees so you have to hold the book sideways, a feature sadly not carried over into Richard Howard's otherwise wonderful English translation (recently republished by the Dalkey Archive). While the author's voice seems to be absent in favor of his found materials, there's clearly a subtext: the history of racism underlying the country from it's deep history to the present Butor found in 1964. More than a book, the effect on the reader is like that of the film-essays of Chris Marker (I'm thinking particularly of A Grin without a Cat) and Agnes Varda.
Butor continued to experiment with forms: he made radioplays for simultaneous voices, and has worked in collaboration with just about any sort of artist that can be imagined. Though he's produced an enormous amount of work since the 1960s, only a tiny fraction of it has been independent work. One of the first of his collaborations was with the composer Henry Pousseur; in the late 1960s, the two of them wrote an opera called Votre Faust, "your Faust". It was a modern retelling of the Faust story, but with a twist: at certain points during the production, the audience was asked to vote on what should happen next. Depending on how the audience voted (or failed to vote, which was also taken into account), the opera might have any of 25 different endings. After a long public gestation, it was finally produced in 1969 in Milan. It went over like a lead balloon, and subsequently largely vanished from sight, though the critics' pre-performance excitement remains frozen in time at the Brooklyn Public Library. LPs were evidently put out at the time. I'm curious what exactly was on them - was it a full recording of all the possible music, letting home listeners construct their own personal opera, or did it only contain one version?
Butor is still happily alive and still churning out poetry and other works; at some point in the nineties, he had his own website, though he doesn't look to have updated it in a while. His art, though, seems to have been perpetually ahead of his time: while Votre Faust didn't work in a live setting, it might have made a fine CD-ROM or DVD. I don't know if he's ever written specifically for electronic media, as Chris Marker has; I'd love to see what he would do with it.
. . . to the nouveau romance
"Harlequin" has achieved brand ubiquity: a "harlequin" is a trashy, disposable romance novel, just like a "kleenex" is a tissue and a "xerox" is a copy. We don't even bother thinking about the word any more than we usually think about romance novels. Do the romance novel and the Future of the Book have anything in common? Of course not! any right-thinking future-bookist would angrily declare. The future, as everybody knows, is the domain of science fiction, not the romance. A look at eharlequin.com, Harlequin's website, suggests that this might not be the case. The first surprise: how much content they have online. The second surprise: how much is interactive, and how much is devoted to the process of writing. Look at how much there is in the writing bulletin board, dedicated to helping the users write their own romance: templates for various varieties of romances that Harlequin publishes, advice on business, suggestions for those with writer's block.
There's also participatory authoring: in the Writing Round Robin, participants take turns writing chapters of a novel, and critiquing others' chapters. Unlike some of the open source and wiki novels elsewhere on the web, this is highly moderated writing: note the rules here. This might be expected: Harlequin, after all, is a publishing house, and experimentation isn't being done for experimentation's sake, but because it fits into a business model.
But to bring this back around to Butor's opera: consider eharlequin's Interactive Novel, where chapters are added one at a time, and the readers vote on how the work should progress: a chapter's written (or put online) accordingly. Right now the meddling readers are worrying themselves over whether or not Tess is pregnant with Derek's baby.
It's become a truism that porn drives technology: see here for one of the many observations of this. (Who first made this connection? Does it date back to before the VCR?) It might not be so surprising that seems romance is doing the same thing in the popular arena of the novel. Even more surprising might be that it's romance where this is happening. Sarah Glazer, writing in the New York Times Book Review was surprised to find that the biggest current growth market for ebooks is in romances. Is the future of the book to be found in the romance? It seems counterintuitive, but there seems to be more of a participatory literary culture at Harlequin's website than a quick scrutiny of some scifi publishers' websites would reveal. (I'd love to be proved wrong about this - can anyone provide examples?)
There's almost certainly no direct line that goes from Butor and Pousseur's Votre Faust to eharlequin.com's Interactive Read, except, I suppose, in the head of this particular reader. There's a whole history of interactive fiction that I've omitted - Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch, Milorad Pavić's Dictionary of the Khazars, a whole slew of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. But it's interesting that Butor & Pousseur's unsuccessful attempt ("It was very difficult to play. . . But we both have made many efforts to make it easy to realize. Without success." notes Butor in an online interview) should be taken up in such an unlikely form.
The romance novel, everyone concurs, is not art. There's not a great deal of critical theory thrown around about romances. The New Novelists were all about creating critical context for their fiction: Robbe-Grillet kicked things off with Pour un nouveau roman, a collection of essays on the novel's past and present, and Butor wrote a piece titled "The Future of the Book", among many others. This might be why the nouveau roman is generally considered a failure: it didn't end up remaking the mainstream of fiction. The contrast with eharlequin might be instructive: outside of the critical eye (and with the support of publishers) romance readers are becoming authors, seemingly constructing their own possible future of the book.
sticking it to the gatekeepers 01.27.2005, 5:54 PM
Stranded in copyright limbo, the landmark civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize cannot currently be released on DVD or broadcast on television. But music activism group Downhill Battle has recently taken matters into its own hands by digitizing the 14-part series and making it available for peer-to-peer distribution. In addition, they've launched the Eyes on the Screen initiative to help communities coordinate local screenings of the film in time for Black History Month.
This could go down in history as an important skirmish in the copyright wars - when the public began to act in blatant defiance of the copyright gatekeepers. Rarely have the absurdities of the modern intellectual property system been cast in such stark relief.
But the brave souls at Downhill Battle are wrong to call this act of civil disobedience "fair use" (see Wired article). Few would argue that taking a 14-part film, not in the public domain, and slapping it on public access television is fair use. The big battles over what is and isn't fair use are yet to come, and they will be crucial in defining the parameters of scholarly and artistic production in the digital era. Let's not give ammunition to those who would further tighten the screws by blurring the distinction between acts of protest and legitemate fair use. The Eyes on the Prize case is about the public interest plain and simple. About protesting a system that allows public treasures to languish in forced obscurity.
no fortune in fishwrap 01.26.2005, 7:05 PM
This link to a New York Times article about maddening service disruptions on the New York City subway will self-destruct in 30 days. All right, so that's not literally true, but click in a month's time and you'll be whisked to a virtual tollbooth - a pay-per-item archive service that no one under any normal circumstances would use. It's just one of those nuisances of the web, a hyperlink hiccup slamming you into a brick wall. You wince slightly and move on.
This is by and large the experience of searching for all but newly minted news on the web. The older stuff, the stuff that goes in the recycling bin in real life, is slapped with a price tag. Most of us don't stop to wonder at this strange inversion of value. We've grown accustomed to the way things are, that newspapers are pre-digital dinosaurs - vital, but very cranky and paranoid when it comes to the web. They have set up citadels where most have built cycloramas.
"Papers like the New York Times have decided that their archives -- which were previously viewed as fishwrap, as in "today it's news, tomorrow it's fishwrap" -- are their premium product, the thing that you have to pay to access; while their current articles from the past thirty days are free."
He links to a fascinating and important piece on Dan Gillmor's blog, Newspapers: Open Up Your Archives. Gillmor wonders how newspapers will stay relevant if they don't unclench - move with the web rather than against it. He writes:
"One of these days, a newspaper currently charging a premium for access to its article archives will do something bold: It will open the archives to the public -- free of charge but with keyword-based advertising at the margins.
"I predict that the result will pleasantly surprise the bean-counters. There'll be a huge increase in traffic at first, once people realize they can read their local history without paying a fee. Eventually, though not instantly, the revenues will greatly exceed what the paper had been earning under the old system. Meanwhile, the expenses to run it will drop.
"And, perhaps most important, the newspaper will have boosted its long-term place in the community. It will be seen, more than ever, as the authoritative place to go for some kinds of news and information -- because it will have become an information bedrock in this too-transient culture."
It's really worth reading this post, and following Gillmor's blog in general. What is the future of the news if newspapers don't learn the language of hyperlinking?
In that spirit, I refer you to another worthwhile rumination on this subject, The Importance of Being Permanent by Simon Waldman, Director of Digital Publishing at The Guardian (one of those few newspapers that seems to "get" the web), also linked on Gillmor's post. From Waldman:
"It is the current policy of most American newspapers to be anti-Web in the key matters of linking out and permitting deep-linked content through stable and reliable url's. This policy is, in my view, wrong-headed. It was done to get revenues from the archive. There was a business reason. No one was trying to be anti-Web. They just ended up that way by trying to collect revenues from a "closed" archive.
"But being closed cannot be the way forward for journalists, and so they have to involve themselves in the business of linking."
I'll rest there for now, though it would be interesting to discuss this further. Newspapers, all news media, are already in the grip of crisis - both a general crisis of confidence, and crisis arising from the extreme pressure exerted by new technologies. Over the next decade or so we'll see how this plays out. But no matter how upset I am right now with the state of the mainstream media, I would be still more distraught if it were to disintegrate. Blogs and the rise of grassroots journalism are necessary revolutions, but they function best as counterpoint/collaborator/corrective to the the professional fourth estate. A kind of fifth estate?
I'll end with a few links (perpetual, I hope) to some recent news about the indelible expansion of Google, to whose every footfall newspapers should pay heed. Google:
wheels of (in)justice 01.26.2005, 3:00 PM
A blizzard of court papers blew out of the entertainment industry yesterday in anticipation of peer-to-peer file sharing's big day in court. Shouts of "piracy!" and "stop thief!" were common themes in this choir of outrage, whose ranks ranged across the legal, political and entertainment worlds, from Kenneth Starr to Orrin Hatch to Avril Lavigne. The Supreme Court is set to begin hearing oral arguments on March 29 in the case that pits Grokster and StreamCast against such industry heavyweights as the RIAA and MPAA.
What's needed at such a critical junture is an extended, nuanced discussion on the nature of intellectual property in the digital age, and on how these powerful new sharing technologies can be reasonably tempered to ensure that artists receive compensation for their work while preserving the dynamic modes of exchange. But what seems more likely is a big judicial slugfest.. brace yourself for a bloody spring.
fantasy ebook 01.25.2005, 10:51 AM
I'm still thinking about Steven Pemberton's estimation of when and why the shift from paper book to ebook will occur. Perhaps we, the book loving public, are waiting for something more than just a perfect screen. The question is, what, exactly, are we waiting for? What would it take to make the ebook absolutely irresistible? To follow is my attempt to imagine the perfect ebook.
First, I want to read ebooks on a beautiful portable device. Smaller than my laptop, larger than my palm pilot (about the size and weight of an actual book). The cover should be soft leather that, when folded back, reveals a flawless screen with jewel-like resolution. I want to be able to store all the books I own in this "book" so that when I go on vacation, or when I go to work, or when I go to an artist colony, I can read whatever I'm in the mood for. If I happen to be driving my car, or cooking, or gardening, or if I happen to be blind, I want to be able to tell my book to read to me.
If I am taking a class on a particular book, or teaching a class on a particular book, I want to be able to access all the scholarly work that applies to that book. Furthermore, I want to be able to search all notations made on the passages I am interested in. And I want to be able to search the book itself: to copy and paste quotations into my paper (instead of having to retype them). I also want to be able to add my scholarly work to the corpus that is building around the book I am studying.
If I am looking for a new book to read, I want to be able to look at reviews and excerpts. I want to be able to access recommended reading lists that have been posted online by people whose taste I respect.
If I suddenly decide I want to read a book that is not part of my collection, I want to be able to download it from the internet through this device any time of day or night because I don't feel like going to the bookstore.
Also, I need this device because I want to read all the newfangled multimedia ebooks that are coming out which combine text, image, video, and sound. I want to be able to "read" books that were written by visual artists in collaboration with writers and musicians. I want to be able to watch music videos that are starting to look like movies, movies that are beginning to read like books, and books that are morphing into songs.
If I really love a certain book, I want to be able to go to a blog where other people who love this book are talking about it. If there is a movie based on the book, I want to be able to download the movie and watch it on my leather bound electronic "book." Also, my book should have a keyboard that slides out on the side, or it should have a touchscreen that I can write on, because I might want to make notes in the margins.
And I guess my book should have addresses, phone numbers, a calendar, and pictures of my son. It should allow me to surf the internet, send emails, listen to music, and type papers, because I don't feel like carrying a bunch of other devices around.
our little community 01.25.2005, 10:45 AM
see PubSub tracking
tools for collaborative writing 01.24.2005, 5:58 PM
SubEthaEdit is an elegant collaborative writing and editing tool, originally designed for coders, but increasingly popular among educators, especially writing teachers. And if you're using it for non-commercial purposes, it's free! Here's a fun piece written during the blizzard by a 3-person group using the software, courtesy of Slashdot. It's a piece of collaborative writing about collaborative writing. Very meta. Reading it through once, I couldn't really pick out individual voices.
curling up with a good movie 01.24.2005, 8:53 AM
i spent the better part of the weekend in a marathon viewing of the first season of 24 -- the thriller TV show which has 24 episodes, one for each hour of a specific day. the first season (season four is on the air now) takes place on "the day of the california presidential primary" and follows the brilliantly interwoven story of politics, espionage and family relations. a non-stop roller-coaster ride with deligtfully unexpected and usually believable plot twists.
i watched 24 on a set of DVDs; most of the time the screen was on my lap (via my apple notebook) or right in front of me on a table. the intimacy of watching in that way, plus the duration created an experience that was much more akin to reading a novel you can't put down than watching a movie or tv show.
it would have been even more interesting and more novel-like if all 24 episodes were available simultaneously with a complete index of scene content and dialog so that i could have gone back to review key scenes the way you can in a book.
not arguing here that there are no differences between novels and films, but that some of what makes a book a book -- random access and intimacy -- can be found in new media and you can see the seeds of new forms of expression. figure that people coming out of film school in the next ten years will find themselves going in one or two ways; either making giant spectacle films intended for 3D imax or making very dense, intimate novel-like "films" that are intended for an audience of one at a time.
email mystery novel and remix reading 01.23.2005, 9:01 PM
Just back from the wonderful Decade of Web Design conference in Amsterdam - more to come on that soon. Catching up now on reading and turned up two interesting links on Boing Boing... First is a mystery novel that you read in email installments over a 3-week period. It's not free - costs $7.49 - but I figured I'd give it a try. I should receive the first part tomorrow.
"Remix Reading is an artistic project based in Reading, UK. It's aim is to get artists (working with music, video, images and text) to come together and share their work, be inspired by each others' work, and ultimately to create "remixes". All material on the web site is released under a Creative Commons license, which allows you to customise your copyright so others can use, copy, and share your work as you choose."
the untold (until now) history of the russian web 01.23.2005, 8:10 PM
Great piece in this week's Context, the weekly arts and ideas section of The Moscow Times, about the first history yet written about the Russian web. Feeling the Elephant (Oshchupyvaya Slona), by writer, journalist, and core member of Russia's online literati Sergei Kuznetsov, was published late last year and has already engendered a small storm of controversy for alleged omissions, mischaracterizations and the like. But Kuznetsov says he never set out to write a "proper" history, simply an insider's account - bias, warp and all - of the literary web he played a central role in creating. This lack of propriety is not altogether unfitting since there's much in Russia's neck of the web that, according to our stricter standards, isn't at all proper, and this goes beyond mail order brides.. Intellectual property is only a fledgling idea there, and you can easily find practically any text online, from Pushkin to Pelevin, including fresh-off-the-press, protected material. The most popular of these literary indexes is Maxim Moshkov's Lib.ru.
This loose, free-wheeling web culture has been both a boon and a curse to Russia's writers and readers. On the one hand, it is easy and free to publish, and likewise easy and free to read. But with the exception of the most popular authors - the churners out of mysteries and bodice rippers - it's damn hard to make a living writing in Russia (much harder than in the West, which is tough enough), and all this free literary trafficking, while rousing and diverse, bitterly emphasizes the underlying poverty. This begs the question, just as relevant here as anywhere else.. how can writers continue to make the web richer without becoming impoverished themselves?
(photo: Vladimir Filonov / Moscow Times)
future of the news? 01.22.2005, 6:28 PM
The year is 2014, and "everyone contributes to the living, breathing mediascape" by way of EPIC, the Evolving Personalized Information Construct. EPIC results when the hegemony of Googlezon (a media giant formed by the merging of Amazon.com and Google) trumps the Microsoft-friendster-newsbotster alliance, having long since obsoleted conventional news agencies. The "news wars" of 2010 are forever settled when Googlezon begins employing "fact stripping" technologies that customize news, usually bastardizing the truth in the process.
EPIC 2014 by Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson is an eight minute Flash production that charts the evolution of capitalist concerns in the digital world via flickering, faux-historic-newsreel footage that is as riveting to watch as a twenty-car pile up on the freeway.
Not only do Googlezon subscribers gain unlimited space in which to post the minutiae of their lives via Google Grid, they also shape their very own worldview by using "editors" which will harvest and (re)combine news that's been mined from the torrent of available articles. Though the potential for an in depth and complex view of the world is afforded, "for too many" EPIC consists of a "collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow and sensational"; thus, in "feeble protest" the New York Times goes offline, the "slumbering fourth estate" having awoken far too late.
This piece is a very sobering one to view immediately before I embark upon the Media Literacy class I've been so pumped about teaching. Indeed EPIC 2014 is not the work of chicken-little extremists, but issues from savvy techno-cultural critics and their cautionary tale is one that should give pause to any of us concerned with the future of the book (or any other communicative vehicle for that matter) in a consumer-driven individualistic society.
I think I've found the perfect text for the fist day of class....
the book is doomed 01.22.2005, 12:04 PM
"The book is doomed." That was Steven Pemberton's definitive answer to my musings about the future of the book in the digital age. It was the end of the first day of an international conference on web design, we were at the Friday night conference dinner, eating a crè me brulee that had been set ablaze just minutes before, and I don't mean the little blue acetylene flame that puffs out after a few seconds. The chef blasted our crè me brulee for several minutes with a torch that looked like something a forest ranger would use to execute a controlled burn.
So, I'm eating my crè me brulee, trying to understand this pronouncement; when someone like Steven Pemberton says that the book, in the digital age, is doomed, you have to take it seriously. He cites The Innovator's Dilemma, by Clayton M. Christensen. The thesis, Pemberton explains, has to do with the process of innovation and adoption. A new invention has to find a niche market that will allow it to improve and develop. Once the new invention advances enough to allow it to compete with the entrenched technology it is quickly adopted. This often radically changes an industry. Pemberton gives computer printers as an example. Anyone remember the old dot matrix printers? They had gears on the side that fit into corresponding holes in the paper. Remember how slow they were and how poor the quality was? The introduction of the laser printer made vast improvements in printer quality and as soon as printer technology improved, a revolution in desktop publishing was made possible.
The book, Pemberton contends, will experience a similar sea-change the moment screen technology improves enough to compete with the printed page.
writer invites remix of story 01.19.2005, 6:03 PM
Sci fi writer Benjamin Rosenbaum announced today that he has placed his short story Start the Clock under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Sharealike license, inviting readers and writers not only to share and reproduce (non-commercially) his work, but also to alter, rewrite, or remix it as they like.
This is not the first story Rosenbaum has made available under a CC license, but it is the first time he has explicitly welcomed derivative works and alteration of his material. Start the Clock began as part of Frank Wu's Exquisite Corpuscule project, a riff on the classic parlor game the Exquisite Corpse, in which phrases, even stories, are woven from the free associations of the players. Supposedly, the first phrase ever yielded by this method was "the exquisite corpse will drink the young wine," hence the name. So "unfreezing" this story is, in a way, only the most recent step in an ongoing experiment.
It is also marks the latest stage of a writer's hard but fruitful struggle with the notions of sharing, permission, and piracy in a digital world. Writing on his blog last July, he ruminated on the evolvution of his ideas vis a vis copyright:
"So I kept intending to write the piratical bloggers nice letters, full of appreciation, expressing how honored I was, while gently educating them on copyright law. And then magnanimously assigning them noncommercial reprint rights ex post facto, in return for a link to my site.
"It was never that inspiring a project though, and I never did it. Something felt weird about it. Like I was greeting a spontaneous expression of love with rules-lawyering. It would be a different matter if I firmly believed pirates were a scourge of artists, like Madonna and Harlan Ellison do. But I don't. I think there will be some ugly growing pains as antiquated business and revenue models adjust to cheap pervasive networking power and digitalization, but that ultimately freeloaders are useful. So it was like I'd be sending these letters on some kind of pedantic principle."
german library obtains "license to copy" 01.19.2005, 1:53 PM
Germany's national library, Deutsche Bibliothek, has been made exempt from key provisions of the European Union Copright Directive, giving it the exclusive right "to crack and duplicate DRM-protected e-books and other digital media such as CD-Audio and CD-Roms" (check out post on mobileread).
Further in mobileread: "The Deutsche Bibliothek achieved an agreement with the German Federation of the Phonographic Industry and the German Booksellers and Publishers Association after it became obvious that copy protections would not only annoy teenage school boys, but also prohibit the library from fulfilling its legal mandate to collect, process and bibliographic index important German and German-language based works."
Heartening to see a top-down hack like this.
the chilling effect of copyright law 01.18.2005, 4:35 PM
excellent article in the Toronto Globe and Mail today about the chilling effect of copyright law on documentary films. initial subject is Eyes on the Prize, the superb documentary of the civil war struggle in the U.S., which is no longer shown on TV or distributed because the rights to the historic footage have run out and the producer's cannot afford to re-purchase them in today's hyper-inflated rights market.
the present of print-on-demand 01.18.2005, 12:26 PM
I went to Boston over the weekend and grabbed a book at random from my bookshelf for reading on the trip - an English translation of Gabriele D'Annunzio's Il Piacere. D'Annunzio is probably best known to English-speaking audiences as being the novelist in residence for the Fascists - which he was - though he's also the closest thing the Italians have to Proust. I've meant to read D'Annunzio for a while out of a vague sense of duty; however, you don't often see him in English translations, and when I saw this copy for sale in a used book store a few months ago, I picked it up. Little did I suspect that it would provide fodder for rumination about the present and future of the book and publishing.
From the start, there seemed to be something a little bit off with this book. The punctuation of the title seems to be in a state of flux: "Il Piacere The Pleasure" says the front cover, "Il Piacere - The Pleasure" says the spine, and "Il Piacere (The Pleasure)" says the title page. The author's name is spelled "D'annunzio" on the cover, "d'Annunzio" on the title page, and "D'Annunzio" on an about-the-author page after the title page. The back cover doesn't say mention the title or the author, because it's devoted to advertising for the publisher, 1stBooksLibrary.com. A visit to the company's website made things much more clear: 1stBooksLibrary.com, now AuthorHouse.com, is essentially an online vanity press. For about $700 (as far as I can tell), they'll publish your book for you - in paperback and even in ebook form if you're willing to pay extra. Sadly, one can't get "Il Piacere The Pleasure" as an ebook. What seems to have happened here is that the translator, who I won't name, paid to have her translation of Il Piacere published. But more on the publisher later.
This book was clearly a labor of love. I won't comment about the quality of the translation, save to say that D'Annunzio's language is frilly in Italian, but reaches new levels of rococo here. I'm more interested in the book as an artifact. And an interesting artifact it is. The confusion of its cover (the background image which seems to be a family snapshot of the Spanish Steps from the 1950s) continues inside. The spelling isn't perfect in English: I suspect the trouble of dealing with all the Italian words (large patches are left untranslated, one presumes for color) and proper names made it annoying to run a spellcheck on it. It's even worse in Italian: on the first page, we find the church at the top of the Spanish Steps (Trinità dei Monti) referred to as both "Trinita de' Monti" and "Trinita dei Monti". And even a bilingual spell-checker wouldn't prevent malapropisms like the one on p. 29, where we learn that a character is subject "to unseen tenderness, to quick melancholy, to raped anger" - which makes your eyes widen until you realize that word should be "rapid".
Just as troublesome is the punctuation. Italian, like French, uses a long dash before direct discourse, called a lineetta. Although Joyce did his best tried to convert us to the French method, most English novels still use quotation marks. Here, both are used, kind of: there's a hyphen and a space before every quotations, like this:
- "Come, come!", Andrea said to Elena, taking her arm, after having left some money on the table.
Repeated over 281 pages, this soon ceases to be cute and becomes wearing. Dashes between phrases also become hyphens. There are two spaces after every period, a rule of thumb which should have disappeared with the typewriter. There's no hyphenation at the end of lines, which leads to large gaps between words. And the superstructure of the book is a mess. The four sections of the book are headed "Book I", "LIBRO SECONDO - SECOND BOOK", "LIBRO TERZO - THIRD BOOK", and finally, a terse "LIBRO". I could go on.
It's a laudable aim - I think it's great that anyone can translate D'Annunzio on their own, and it's fantastic to live in an age when anyone can publish such a thing, and I think the translator should be congratulated on her achievement. What this might point to, however, is a downside of a future without publishers. Nobody needs an editor to be published any more, or a book designer, or even a proofreader, which is a radical change in how books can be produced. But just because you can do it yourself doesn't necessarily obviate the need for them. This book needed a copy editor badly. A designer and a regular editor to make helpful advice wouldn't have hurt anything. Had I not taken such glee in marking up the textual infelicities, I almost certainly would not have persevered through the book.
Visiting AuthorHouse.com, I'm not sure what to think. (There, for what it's worth, the title of the book I have is Il Piacere, The Pleasure.) They've published some reasonably reputable things - a book by Senator Dick Lugar, for example, is currently being promoted on the front page. Searching for them as a publishing house on Amazon.com reveals that people are reviewing, and presumably buying, some of their books. Although Authorhouse publishes a huge number of books (they claim two million books, and over twenty thousand authors as of 2004), one can't help wondering if it's a scam. Kooks of all varieties seem to be well represented: one can buy a copy of The Shakespeare Code, The Book of Theories: Evolution, Metaphysics and Politics, or What Really Happens at the Rapture:: Rapture or Rupture- Your Choice, as well as such works of fiction as Nolocaust. Some of the people publishing there defy description: try reading a synopsis of any of the 31 (!) novels that the prodigious Robert James Warner has published through them, with such titles as Willy the Wonder Fish, That God Damned Hill!, and Robodick. It's pretty clear that it's a new variation on the old vanity press.
A less than scrupulous boss once told me that any kid out of junior high could do what I was doing as a book designer. That's partly true. This copy of D'Annunzio was almost certainly written in MS Word, dumped into a 5'' by 8'' template and printed to a PDF, which was sent to the printers. A junior high kid could, with a bootleg copy of Adobe Acrobat and fifteen minutes of training, put out a book that looks much like these print-on-demand titles. A little more work and you've got your very own ebook. But it takes more than software, and I think that in our rush for new technology, that's sometime forgotten. It's great to do away with the infrastructure of publishing: it's rotten and should have been done away with a long time ago. But the infrastructure of publishing - editors, proofreaders, designers - did ensure that books were readable. It's hard for readers to take your book seriously if it looks like an amateur job. If you're going to make your own books, you should make them well. There's human work to be done for print on demand before we can take it seriously as one of the futures of publishing.
moleskinerie - the steadfast fetish 01.17.2005, 5:09 PM
Last month, I had the good fortune to speak briefly with Peter Lunenfeld at the Scholarship in the Digital Age conference at USC. I was surprised to learn that this famous digital media theorist is currently obsessed with a print-based initiative. His new Mediaworks Pamphlets are "theoretical fetish objects for the 21st century" - elegantly produced collaborations between designer and writer, intended to break serious media theory out of "the hermetically sealed spheres of academia and the techno-culture" and into the public discourse, much like the famous collaboration between Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, "The Medium is the Massage." By shifting reading, writing and design practices to the screen, Lunenfeld argues, digital media have effectively "taken the weight off" of the print codex, enabling its tactile qualities to flower anew. There is room now to play and invent in the realm of paper, and a resulting emphasis on the pursuit of pleasure and grace in the experience of book objects. As evidence of the resurgent fetish book, Lunenfeld points to the immaculate productions of McSweeney's, which has made its mark by coupling serious literary output with elegant design at relatively low cost to the reader.
Another sign of this resurgence is the Moleskine phenomenon - those indelible oilskin-bound notebooks reissued in 1998 from the classic French design, famously employed by Chatwin in his travels, and, if the packaging is to be believed, by Hemingway, Van Gogh and Picasso as well. Nowadays, Moleskines are favored by aesthetes and design sophisticates with a propensity for jotting things down, and is especially beloved by the blogging and techie communities, further evidence that this renewed fetish interest is intimately linked to the experience of networked, digital culture. In fact, Moleskine culture is a flourishing niche on the web, with blogs, art sites, and a full Wikipedia entry devoted solely to the flights of invention (Moleskine hacks etc.) and cult of personal record-keeping arising from this little black book.
Returning to Lunenfeld's fetish theory with McSweeney's as exemplar, it's almost too perfect that McSweeney's founder Dave Eggers' new book of short stories, How We Are Hungry, should be bound exactly like a Moleskine, complete with elastic fastening band. But whereas my notebooks have held up admirably through miles of travel and years of abuse, the elastic strap of my copy of the Eggers book broke after a single day's jostling in my bag. Take note, McSweeney's...
networked book/book as network 01.14.2005, 8:49 PM
Book as Network/Networked Book? That's the koan I've been puzzling for the last few weeks. Can something made from, let's say, hundreds of semi-anonymous contributors or commentors be considered a book? Is this what the texting generation is going to want--something a little less single-author, a little more...bloggy? The possibility makes me slightly sick and dizzy (I'm still paying student loans for a single-author oriented MFA in creative writing). At the same time it's kind of exciting. Could, for example, my newest favorite blog Overheard in the Office a spin off of Overheard in New York be considered a dynamic anthology?
What about multi-player game-based narrative formats like Sims; are they the digital equivalent of networked novels? Bob recently sent me a link to an article entitled: Sims 2 hacks spread like viruses. Apparently, hackers have infected the Sims 2 universe, messing with individual games/narratives. About this Bob says: this seems so interesting to me if we consider it as one of the strands of future narrative where the author evolves into a god who creates a universe that people populate and mess with as people do; i.e. that the author creates a starting place for an unfolding story. Of course this has been a visible strand since the advent of computer games, especially the large multi-player ones -- but for me the added bit here, that the mortals are messing with the game's code and thus vastly increasing the scope of the game, brings the whole subject up with renewed interest.
The future book will be a networked book or a "processed book" as Joseph Esposito calls it. To process a book, he says, is more than simply building links to it; it also includes a modification of the act of creation, which tends to encourage the absorption of the book into a network of applications, including but not restricted to commentary.
A modification of the act of creation...what, exactly, does this mean for the craft of storytelling? Is it changing utterly? And is somebody going to tell the MFA programs?
btw. if you know any great examples of networked books let me know. I'm building a collection.
capturing the early history of interactive media 01.14.2005, 7:51 PM
some of the most important early work in interactive media took place at the Architecture Machine Group Laboratory at MIT (now the Media Lab). twenty years ago the lab made a videodisc, Discursions, containing videos of several key experiments. this early work at MIT was crucial in terms of fueling and defining my ideas about interactive media (see books unbound article).
yesterday i met with a group of freshman in the interactive media honors program at the University of Southern California who signed up to work with the institute on presenting the Discursions material in some as-yet-to-be-decided form. the response was fantastic. (remember, these are young kids -- none of whom were even born when Discursions was made). i know "awesome" is an overused word today, but that's a good description of what the students thought of what they saw. many of the experiments seemed as if they could have been done yesterday and they grasped the importance of making the work available to young people working in the field now. any fears i had that my interest in the Discursions material was merely an oppty. to walk down memory lane disappeared immediately.
we're planning to interview as many of the original researchers as possible, hoping that they can contextualize the work in terms of both its origin and its trajectory over the past twenty years.
powers of 10 01.14.2005, 6:25 PM
The Pew Internet & American Life project's recent report, The Future of the Internet, surveys the opinions of a broad assortment of scholars, web pioneers and technophiles on where they think the Internet is headed over the coming decade. Partnering with the Pew project, Elon University is running a related initiative, Imagining the Internet, which "examines the potential future of the Internet while simultaneously providing a peek back into its history." The centerpiece of this project is a "Predictions Database," pooling the prognostications of web luminaries and average joes alike. A great resource.
Pew and Elon aren't the only ones talking about that slender ten-year slice known as the history of the Internet. A conference next week in Amsterdam at The Institute of Network Cultures will be spending two days discussing "a decade of web design." Future of the Book will be coming to you live from the conference.
Pew participants more or less agreed on a few broad projections: that publishing and the news will undergo further dramatic change as blogs and other web phenomena continue to break apart and redefine the mass media structures of the past century (see also the Pew report on blogging); that "the Internet will be more deeply integrated in our physical environments and high-speed connections will proliferate - with mixed results"; and that network infrastructure will likely suffer a major attack.
This last point is echoed in another recent speculative work, in this case, a work of fiction by former white house counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke in the latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly (which annoyingly isn't readable on the web without subscription). The story, titled Ten Years Later, is a concocted transcript of the Tenth Anniversary 9/11 Lecture given at the Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge. If you like having nightmares, go read this piece. At this imaginary lectern, Clarke delivers a hellish litany of terrorist attacks and domestic security crackdowns, painting an America even more paranoid and locked-down than the one we live in now. Among his grim predictions is "virtual war" in 2008 in the form of a "Zero Day worm" launched by Iran in cooperation with al-Qaeda which effectively shuts down the US economy.
Scary stuff, but probably important to keep in the back of one's mind as we try to imagine the future of books and communication in the digital era. Technology does not develop in a vacuum, nor does culture. Think of the massive creative response to the wars that ravaged the earth in the twentieth century. How will artists and culture as a whole respond to the ravaging of a virtual world that is increasingly as real as the material one?
hyperlinking the eye of the beholder 01.13.2005, 3:20 PM
What if instead of just taking dorky pictures of your friends you could use your camera phone as an image swab, culling visual samples of the world around you and plugging them into a global database? Every transmitted picture would then be cross referenced with the global image bank and come back with information about what you just shot. A kind of "visual Google."
This may not be so far away. Take a look at this interview in TheFeature with computer vision researcher Hartmut Neven. Neven talks about "hyperlinking the world" through image-recognition software he has developed for handheld devices such as camera phones. If it were to actually expand to the scale Neven envisions (we're talking billions of images), could it really work? Hard to say, but it's quite a thought - sort of a global brain of Babel. Think of the brain as a library where information is accessed by sense (in this case vision) queries. Then make it earth-sized.
Here, in Neven's words, is how it would work:
"You take a picture of something, send it to our servers, and we either provide you with more information or link you to the place that will. Let's say you're standing in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. You take a snapshot with your cameraphone and instantly receive an audio-visual narrative about the painting. Then you step out of the Louvre and see a cafe. Should you go in? Take a shot from the other side of the street and a restaurant guide will appear on your phone. You sit down inside, but perhaps your French is a little rusty. You take a picture of the menu and a dictionary comes up to translate. There is a huge variety of people in these kinds of situations, from stamp collectors, to people who want to check their skin melanoma, to police officers who need to identify the person in front of them."
But the technology has some very frightening implications as well, chief among them its potential for biometric human identification through "iris scanning and skin texture analysis." This could have some fairly sensible uses, like an added security layer for banking and credit, but we're dreaming if we think that will be the extent of it. Already, the Los Angeles Police Department is testing facial recognition programs based on Neven's work - a library of "digital mugshots" that can be cross referenced with newly captured images from the street. Add this to a second Patriot Act and you've got a pretty nasty cocktail.
the digital aesthetic: what are we losing? 01.12.2005, 9:59 PM
Much as I love most things digital, I occassionally come across an example of how lacking the virtual still is in comparison to the material. A recent staged showdown between a traditional oil painter and a digital "painter" makes this all too clear. Somehow the digital "painting" just doesn't have the same vitality as the old-fashioned brush and paint version. Compare, which do you think is better?
I think there is some equivalent for books, but only for really fine books with delicious velvety (or thick toothy) paper, elegant typography, masterful craftsmanship. In short, the book as art object has the kind of appeal that probably will not be userped by its digital counterpart. However, there is a certain excitement to live, electric, dynamic, cinematic, interactive digital media that traditional forms can't compete with. Maybe the mistake of this "showdown" was to ask digital art to try to be traditional oil painting and what's the point of that?
One more thing, I will never give up my gorgeous Lynd Ward books, but if a digital version came along full of annotations, images of Ward at work, video or audio clips, biographical information, links to other fans of Ward, etc... I would buy it in a heartbeat.
elegant map hack 01.12.2005, 8:47 PM
i'm not sure how i missed it till now, but until two days ago i'd never heard of Flickr (the photo management tool and community). now i've seen at least a dozen references in the past 24 hours. the most recent is Mappr, a wonderfully elegant hack from Mike Migurski and Eric Rodenbeck of Stamen Design who have used the information people tag their photos with to make a real-time map of recent photos posted to Flickr.
makes me think about the possibility of a real-time "community of readers" which allows you to see everyone in the world who is reading the same electronic document you are (assuming they have "opted-in" and allowed their names to be public).
top selling ebooks of 2004 announced 01.12.2005, 8:14 PM
Though still tiny, the ebook industry has been growing steadily since everyone pronounced its stillbirth a few years back. But right now it pretty much tracks the print figures - a faint, crackling aura around the print goliath. Pretty predictable stuff. I say it's time for something new, for something born digital, to occur...
The Open eBook Forum (OeBF) announced the bestselling electronic titles of 2004 (press release) and reported double digit growth for the fledgling industry. Sci-fi, reference books, and the work of Dan Brown (who holds places 1 through 4) figure prominently on the top 30 list, along with a smattering of other print bestsellers. (yawn)
the ideal device 01.12.2005, 10:00 AM
Bob wrote a couple of days ago about the new French Cybook - a sleek, but heavy, new ebook reader. Everyone interested in serious electronic books is waiting for the ideal device to come along, so that screen-based reading will be as comfortable paper-based. The benchmark for most is: "can I take it into bed with me?" This is a very serious question (people who sleep with their laptops notwithstanding). But my hunch is that these successive generations of reading devices are missing the point. Who wants a device that is just for reading books? I don't have a bag devoted exclusively to toting paper books. I carry many things together - books, pens, magazines, cds, maps, pictures, food etc. People are already using their cell phones for just about everything.
I think what we're waiting for will be descended from laptops. They will likely resemble tablets, or even scrolls. It's hard to predict. But take a look at this nice post at Word Munger from last year. I think this is on the right track.
Would love to hear some ideas....
lunch with alex itin 01.11.2005, 12:42 PM
While we wait for our offices at Columbia, the Institute for the Future of the Book is conducting business in Bob Stein's kitchen on the upper west side of Manhattan. Though our location affords almost limitless opportunities for cuisine, we have, for various reasons, limited our gustatory experience to three restaurants: Saigon Grill, Miyako Sushi, Pizza Perfecto. This limitation makes choosing what to have for lunch both easier and more difficult at the same time, as no one wants to be the one who cries sushi on a clearly Italian sort of day. So we were all glad when Alex arrived to settle the question. Saigon Grill.
Alex also treated us to a viewing of his latest work-in-progress, an electronic book/hybrid artwork entitled "Willoughby." Alex uses electronic book technology (TK3, to be exact) to cast his black and white drawings as stage sets into which he embeds video clips of his performance. In the clips, he appears in elaborate make-up enacting bits of Willoughby's tortured monologue ("I don't want to die," is Willoughby's refrain). As Alex pages through the ebook, he casually narrates the story. This narration creates an engaging framework for the piece.
For a full-on Itin experience, you can download his electronic sketchbooks or visit the exhibitions section of our site for a description of his latest work-in-progress. Why are we so interested in his work? Bob, who has known Alex for some time, describes the progression, "When Alex started to bring his work as a painter into the electronic medium, an impulse to combine those images with sound, video, and narrative, quickly emerged and Alex went with it. It's interesting to watch an artist follow these impulses to invent a new form of expression."
e-culture report from the netherlands 01.11.2005, 12:15 PM
Recently translated into english, From ICT to E-culture is an "advisory report on the digitalisation of culture and the implications for cultural policy" submitted by the Netherlands Council for Culture in 2003. Survey of the changing landscape..
new ebook sighting (hardware) 01.10.2005, 4:05 PM
a french company has released a new ebook, the Cybook, which seems to have a decent size-screen (10" diagonal) and runs most of the e-book software formats.
but . . . it's very heavy (2.2 pounds), has a relatively low resolution (72 dpi running at 800x600), won't be visible outside; doesn't come standard with wireless connectivity etc.
contrast to the Sony LIbrie which has similar dimensions but is only 1/4" thick and weighs only 8oz., and uses an e-ink substrate rather than an LED so it is visible even in sunlight. of course the Librie is black and white, doesn't support video, doesn't connect to the net etc.
my guess is we're still a couple of years away from a reading device that people can really get excited about.
what's a library? 01.09.2005, 9:52 PM
In a recent discussion in these pages, Gary Frost has suggested that the Google library model would be premised on an inter-library loan system, "extending" the preeminence of print. Sure, enabling "inside the book" browsing of library collections will allow people to engage remotely with print volumes on distant shelves, and will help them track down physical copies if they so desire. But do we really expect this to be the primary function of such a powerful resource?
We have to ask what this Google library intitiative is really aiming to do. What is the point? Is it simply a search tool for accessing physical collections, or is it truly a library in its own right? A library encompasses architecture, other people, temptations, distractions, whispers, touch. If the Google library is nothing more than a dynamic book locator, then it will have fallen terribly short of its immense potential to bring these afore-mentioned qualities into virtual space. Inside-the-book browsing is a sad echo of actual tactile browsing in a brick-and-mortar library. It's a tease, or more likely, a sales hook. I think that's far more likely to be the way people would use Google to track down print copies - consistent with Google's current ad-based revenue structure.
But a library is not a retail space - it is an open door to knowledge, a highway with no tolls. How can we reinvent this in networked digital space?
more thoughts on salinas 01.05.2005, 4:28 PM
Instead of becoming obsolete or extinct, local libraries should become portals to the global catalogue - a place where every conceivable text is directly obtainable. Instead of a library card, I might have a portable PC tablet that I use for all my e-texts, and I could plug into the stacks to download or search material. In this way, each library is every library.
But community libraries shouldn't simply be a node on the larger network. They should cultivate their unique geographical and cultural situation and build themselves into repositories of local knowledge. By being freed, literally, of the weight of general print collections, local branches could really focus on cultivating rich, site-specific resources and multimedia archives of the surrounding environment.
In Salinas, for example, there are two bookshelves of Chicano literature at the Cesar Chavez Library - a precious, unique resource that will soon be inaccessible as libraries close to solve the city's budget crisis. With all library collections digitized, you wouldn't have to physically be in Salinas to access the Chicano shelves, but Salinas would remain the place where the major archival work is conducted, and where the storehouse of material artifacts is located.
It would be a shame for libraries to lose their local character, or for knowledge to become standardized because of big equalizers like Google. But when federal and municipal money is so tight that libraries are actually closing down, can we really expect the digitization of libraries to be achieved by anyone but the big commercial entities (like Google)? And if they're the ones in charge, can we really count on getting the kind of access to books that libraries once provided? (image: Cesar Chavez Library, Salinas)
another ann arbor thought: borders and google 01.04.2005, 1:27 PM
Ann Arbor is also the birthplace of Borders Books, a megabookstore similar to Barnes & Noble. It started in the 70s as a small used bookstore and evolved into a superstore which, according to their website, serves "some 30 million customers annually in over 1,200 stores."
The Borders' website credits their success to, "a revolutionary inventory system that tailored each store's selection to the community it served." In other words, they applied small bookstore strategy--get to know the particulars of a customer's reading habits--on a larger scale. Since Google has chosen Ann Arbor as one locus of its nascent megalibrary, I got to thinking, what might these two distributors have in common (besides A2)? Google might be taking a cue from Borders when it designs the cyberlibrarian to accompany its digital collection. The small bookstore owner learns, through interaction, what a particular community wants. Borders' inventory system tracked what the client was buying and selling. Google may, likewise, be able to track your buying and selling, your searching and asking. Perhaps the automaton Google librarian will "know" you based on information accumulated by all the various Google searches you have conducted. Problem is, that's marketing strategy, not educational strategy. Will the Google librarian be able to make intuitive leaps leading the browser to things he/she is not familiar with rather than to more of what he/she already knows? How will search engines answer the need for this kind of expertise?
closing down salinas 01.03.2005, 3:05 PM
The 150,000 citizens of Salinas, California will soon be without a single public library - a drastic measure taken by the city to solve a drastic budget crisis. After a pair of last-minute ballot measures failed to win funds for the city's embattled libraries, the doors will soon close on what is for many curious minds, the only resource in town.
Is the local community library going extinct? (image: John Steinbeck Library, Salinas)
after a holiday visit to ann arbor: the u of m library & google 01.01.2005, 5:21 PM
I have fond memories of studying in the University of Michigan libraries, (as a high school student, and later as a U of M undergraduate). The physical space of the library, the seemingly endless stacks of books, which allowed deep exploration of even the most obscure topics, and gave me a sense of how vast, (and how limited) the universe of human thought really is. How is this going to be translated in the virtual space of Google's digital library?
Isn't it the job of the University library to provide a young scholar with opportunities to "see" the scope of human knowledge? While at the same time, offering a kind of temple space for the engagement of these books. Without the marble staircases, the chandeliers, the stone pilasters, the big oak tables, the reference room, the stained glass windows, the hushed silence, how will we get the message that books are important, and that understanding them requires a particular "space." The physical space of the library serves as a metaphor and a reminder of the serious mental space that needs to be carved out for productive study. What will we lose when that space becomes "virtual?" Are we "saving" space by putting everything in the computer? Or are we losing it?