samizdat express 04.17.2007, 9:21 AM
posted by ben vershbow
In his latest NY Times column, Edward Rothstein meditates on the vastness of the public domain and the pleasures of skimming it in simple digital editions prepared by B+R Samizdat Express. Since 1993 B+R, run by Barbara and Richard Seltzer of West Roxbury, Massachusetts, has been selling bundles of plain text (ASCII) digital literature scooped from Project Gutenberg and arranged by theme, genre or period into anthologies -- first on floppy disc, and now on CD-ROM and DVD. It's all stuff you can get for free by grazing the web's various public domain repositories, but B+R have done the work of harvesting and sorting and they'll ship these multi-shelf-spanning chunks to you for the price of a single print volume. Browse through nearly 200 book collections they've assembled so far and you'll find packages ranging from "Anthropology and Myth" ($19), "Works of Guy de Maupassant" ($12), or "The American Revolution and Early Republic as witnessed by Mercy Warren and Others" ($19). Some works are provided in audio through text-to-voice conversion software.
As Rothstein notes, the bare-bones formatting and sheer volume of the anthologies makes these works hard to digest, but there's no doubt B+R provides a valuable service, especially for people in places where books are scarce and net access unreliable. All in all, it's an e-book advocate's playground but more of a hallucinogenic head trip for the average reader -- a way to sample vastness. It does make one's wheels start to turn, though, on what other elucidating layers could be built on top of the vast murk of the digital library.
bowerbird on April 17, 2007 12:48 PM:
um, you have his name wrong; it's richard seltzer.
as for the "bare-bones formatting" of p.g. e-texts,
that's my particular area of concern. ends up it's
possible to write computer routines to discern the
underlying structure of books, even in plain ascii,
so as apply the kind of typographical niceties that
we've come to expect from our history with p-books.
this was the genesis for the notion i've developed of
"zen markup language" -- a no-markup form of markup.
you will find some examples at http://www.z-m-l.com
at some time down the line, i will be providing a
"mirror" of the project gutenberg library where
all of the books are offered with nice typography
plus all of the features we expect from e-books.
in addition, having determined the _structure_ of
each e-text, yes, we will be able to start exploring
those "other elucidating layers" that you mention.
some of these are basic (like library-wide search),
while others are more esoteric (e.g., programmatic
interbook auto-cross-linking of related concepts).
still others will involve the kind of annotation,
collaboration, and communication that is a frequent
topic of conversation here, which is why i'd like
to have more work done on actual operationalization
of these ideas, rather than their endless repetition
without any real meat on their bones. for example,
how does the design of sophie bring about these ends?
maybe i'm missing something, but i just don't see it.
ben vershbow on April 17, 2007 1:58 PM:
>um, you have his name wrong; it's richard seltzer.
Thanks! Corrected. Revenge of the Stray Cat Shuffle, or something...
bowerbird on April 17, 2007 4:04 PM:
except that would be brian _setzer_... :+)