Month: February 2014

“Iceland: Where one in ten will publish a book”

Speaking of our class discussion today about an inundation of books bypassing the traditionally limited gatekeeping of publishing, and a new era of democratizing authorship, here’s an article I saw a while ago about how…

“Iceland is experiencing a book boom. This island nation of just over 300,000 people has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world.”

I couldn’t find anything else through an easy search online (everything else was simply referencing the BBC article), but it’s certainly interesting, and if anyone finds out anything more just comment about it! The article discusses literary culture in Iceland and possible causes of the boom…

“We are a nation of storytellers. When it was dark and cold we had nothing else to do. Thanks to the poetic eddas and medieval sagas, we have always been surrounded by stories. After independence from Denmark in 1944, literature helped define our identity.”

On an unrelated note, here’s the article Dr. Schacht mentioned in class– Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation (~only eight pages, worth a read):

“…Today… the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling. Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capacity, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art…

…In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”



“But don’t you think libraries are dying?”

Occasionally, I get into the following conversation with a family member or friend.

ME: (something about how much I love libraries and think they are humanity’s best, most democratizing invention since the Neolithic Revolution)
FRIEND/FAMILY: Really? But don’t you think libraries are dying?
ME: Why do you say that? Because of the Internet?
FRIEND/FAMILY: Well yeah. Who goes to the library to get a book when you can read for research and for pleasure on the Internet?

At this point, I tell them what I’ve discovered throughout my 200+  hours of library volunteering: I actually think they’re growing. They’re the most effective alternative for those who don’t use the Internet. First of all, not everyone can afford a computer let alone Internet service. Many patrons come exclusively to use the computers. Second, you’d be surprised how many people aren’t Internet literate, and find it simpler to use books.  Third, it’s free, which is only true sometimes for the Internet. Fourth, many video stores have shut down as a result of  successful online movie/tv sites like Project Free TV and Netflix (the latter being in the top 100 most visited sites on the Internet). The local library is one of the only places I know that you can still rent (physical) movies without needing to go through an online component. Fifth, there are no pop-ups in a library. Sixth, the library offers way more than books — audio books, movies, CDs, study space, community activities like book  clubs or knitting circles, and a comfortable environment where a real live person (maybe me, if you go to Wadsworth on Center Street!) can help you find what you need. And finally… if this doesn’t convince you, you have my word…

I promise, there will always be books.

Some people hold the notion that we are on the fast track towards all literature being entirely digitized. I just don’t see that    happening. How many bibliophiles are there in this world? In many ways physical books are art, and if less of them are being published, those in existence will become more and more valuable and desired. I am beyond convinced that, even among future generations who are raised using the Internet, many people will prefer books to online reading. The Internet is not here to supplant books. It’s not a competition.  I can’t see any reason why, no matter how far into the future we look, one will exist without the other.

When technology evolves, we don’t always abandon the prototype. Horses, oxen, donkey etc. were once instrumental to farm-work pulling carts, wagons, ploughs, and other wheeled vehicles. Then along came steam-powered ploughs, tractors, pick-up trucks, and other technology that in many ways obviated beasts of burden. Does that mean farms no longer have those animals? No. Do they serve the exact same function? Well, no, that’s not true either. But it doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared, and books won’t either.

When we were talking in class today about those who want to “put the genie back in the bottle,” this is what came to mind. The genie hasn’t left! It’s tempting to act alarmist at the rise of the Internet, because it truly has changed the way we perceive the world, as Benjamin pointed out. But I think we’re doing digital literature a disservice if we treat the burgeoning relationship between print and virtual texts as a Death of a Salesman scenario.

Ah yes, and one more thing. Libraries have huge historical significance, and I’m not just talking about the Alexandria deal. They are beautiful, architectural feats that — if nothing else — will certainly be kept around for historical and aesthetic reasons.

Cutting Down Your Words: A Thoreau Tale

To many writers, one of the most daunting things in the world is finishing their first draft. “There,” he or she smiles, holding their beautiful manuscript like a tiny new born, “it’s done!” But…is it? Of course not. While that one moment of elation does feel great and triumphant, there is still so much more work to be done. The next stage is the most grueling and challenging: editing your work. It is the most dreaded because now the question of “What stays and what goes?” must linger in the writer’s mind.

Thoreau didn’t seem to have this problem.

As we all know, he had many different versions of Walden. Version A, B, and C all are unique and different in their own way. There are some huge changes he made between them, like nixing entire paragraphs or passages. Then, there are tiny alterations, like changing word order or cutting out an extra verb. Looking over all these versions almost dumbfounded me since I’m worried I might never be Thoreau.

Well, to backtrack, I know I can never be Thoreau for many reasons; he lived in a different time period, was an amazing writer, and is a whole other, different, human being. What I mean to say is that editing my work, my writing, is worse than dry swallowing any large pill, or subjecting myself to any annoying shot. The mere idea that he edited his work so many times, and then edited his writing within the different versions, perplexes me.

I know it shouldn’t. In all of my writing classes my professors smile, nod, and say that everything you write is only your first draft. A writer’s work is never truly done. Yes, I agree with that. I know how to clean up my work, and fix silly grammatical errors and punctuation mistakes. But how does one cut down on the jibber-jabber?

Throughout Versions A, B, and C I noticed sometimes by just trimming a few extra words out of a sentence made it so much more stronger. Instead of carrying on and on about the same detail, Thoreau might just use a few select key adjectives to describe it.

Other times, however, he elaborates further.

My question as a writer and a reader, is how? How does one make the distinction between what enhances the reader’s experience, and what bogs it down? Sometimes when I’m editing my work I want to cry (just kidding…a little) when thinking about cutting out so many words. “Will it still flow evenly?” I wonder. “Will the reader still be able to clearly picture what I’m trying to say?”

This, I believe, is a struggle every writer faces. Thoreau must have felt this too since he did have so many versions. I’m only speculating by saying that he wasn’t daunted by his task, but perhaps, somehow, he was. While maybe he enjoyed having all of his different versions of Walden, perchance he too did wonder how he’ll ever get it to be one, crisp piece.

I’m not sure, but maybe one day in the far off future I too will be looking at Versions A, B, and C of my very own manuscript and wonder how in the world I was able to get there. Tis only the best of wishful thinking though!





A Note on Annotations


In class today, the lion’s share of our discussion was predicated on a discussion of annotations in works, and their pros and contras in both traditional manuscript format and digital editions of works. In this  blog post, I simply want to share two works dealing with these themes and review them to a limited extent in case they meet anyone’s further fancy.

The first is Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel, House of Leaves. If anyone has read it, or simply opened it to skim a few pages (you should do this, the hyperlink is to it in the Milne catalogue), you will see why it’s so difficult to explain.

To begin, it should be explained that as an entire whole, the book is composed as ergodic literature, defined superbly as Espen J. Aarseth, the coiner of the term:

“In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text. If ergodic literature is to make sense as a concept, there must also be nonergodic literature, where the effort to traverse the text is trivial, with no extraoematic responsibilities placed on the reader except (for example) eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages.”

The concept is best shown through a visual:


Danielewski’s novel contains colored text (for example, the word “house” always appears in blue ink, most probably alluding to the blue-hued Internet hyperlink), sideways text, mirror writing, writing in different shapes, etc. More notably, and annoyingly, are the thousands and thousands of increasingly abstract and erudite footnotes. Danielewski uses this purposefully frustrating technique to create a satire of criticism in academia, notably literature studies, which is how he views the opinion of the “general public” on literary studies; that of a society looking scathingly upon a seemingly, purposefully difficult field of study– and possibly worthless, in the end.

Ironically, Danielewski fails to fully portray the frustration factor of this satire, because for all this mess, his narration carries us on, trudging and complaining, through the hundreds of pages. The story of the House of Leaves is really three: that of Zampanò’s (1) notes on the Navidson Record (2), a set of documents about an [ex-]adventurer who discovers in his newly purchased, seemingly domestic and plain house an impossibly huge labyrinth. First seen as just a discrepancy between the dimensions of the house (the inner dimensions are larger than the outer dimensions by a quarter of an inch), the interior of the housesoon grows astonishingly large, to utterly fantastic dimensions, of huge, hulking hallways of eerie grey walls, all of which possess… nothing. As the house grows, nothing is found within the huge abyss as they explore except an eerie growl (the source of which, be it the house or the adventurer, Will Navidson, is never explicitly confirmed). The final story is that of Johnny Truant (3), who finds the notes of the just-murdered (?) Zampanò, and then rambles in his footnotes about his personal life. Ultimately, the story questions what we find, if anything, as we dive deeper and deeper into literature– are the meanings we find our own, or the author’s intended? Etc. etc.

Though we who hate footnotes may find this complicated (again, purposefully) book unappetizing at first glance, it really is a good book. It is a horror story (the unending, ever-expanding labyrinth…) and love story (Will and his wife) in addition to a satire. Just for kicks, I would suggest going to see it in Milne and flicking through it just to see how crazy the book’s style is (and how Danielewski portrays the “general public’s” perception of erudite literary studies– it is so off the mark, even to english students, that most of us, I think, will be astonished, lose our confidence and interest, as we stare at this immense, labyrinthine book).

– – – – – –

The other book I will mention more briefly (having not yet finished it) is the novel S., by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. It, too, is a story within a story. The “real story” is called The Ship of Theseus, and is about a man (S) who has lost his memory. It is written by the fictional author V. M. Straka, whom the other story revolves around. Notes in the margins are from Jennifer and Eric, two college students trying to uncover the mysterious of this mysterious Straka figure. There are notes from both Eric and Jennifer on their first read, their second read, and so on, leading to a rainbow of colors in the margins denoting the chronology of the notes.




In addition to the notes in the margins, there are further items stuffed within the pages, such as government documents, maps drawn on napkins, etc., which Jennifer and Eric put in, lending itself ideally to our discussion of the fluid-text edition of Walden, wherein Thoreau had multiple versions of his work which scholars had to piece together in a roughly chronological and version sequence, as well as any writings in his journals which were drawn on in Walden itself. It is interesting to see, rather than older and younger versions of a literary work juxtaposed together to compare and contrast, older and younger memories of a romantic relationship bound in the margin, side by side.

I think anyone who is a bit sketchy on the success of things such as public annotations and comments should check this book out. While things like Kindle seem to be a bit impersonal and distracting (“1,233,939 people highlighted this sentence”), S. creates a very personal story in the margin itself between just two people.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

Anyway, just thought I’d suggest these two books for anyone interested in the topic. The first one is in Milne, as I’ve linked to, and S. you’ll have to buy, unfortunately, if you want to read it, most likely (though I own a copy if you want to look at it to get a better idea of what it looks like). Sorry if the descriptions seemed a bit confusing– as I mentioned, Danielewski’s novel is purposefully confusing, and S. I haven’t finished yet! If anyone else has read these and want to expand on my brief descriptions, feel free!

-Matt Spitzer




1Some footnotes are outright invented sources and authors, while others are from real sources. The number of footnotes is in the hundreds, if not thousands.2

2Including footnotes of footnotes

3 The online forum for readers of the work, who try to solve what is probably a purposefully unsolvable puzzle.


Can crowd-sourced gaming teach us anything about social reading?


Last night, I came across this crowd-sourced version of Pokémon Red, called “Twitch Plays Pokémon.”  The premise is that a bunch of people (reportedly as many as 50,000) control the character 24-7 through a text feed–in other words, by typing “Up,” “Down,” “Left,” “Right,” “A,” “B,” etc.–and try to see if they can actually get anything done.

Can social reading also be thought of as a type of crowdsourcing?  I see interesting resonances between the Pokémon game and our Reader’s Thoreau platform, especially in light of our conversation in class today.  We discussed how social annotations are premeditated by the their posters in a way that individual annotations might not be, and we brainstormed ways that those social annotations might be filtered for both relevance and validity in order to be any sort of productive.

The inputs in “Twitch,” however, are completely unfiltered.  In fact, the very name “Twitch” (despite the game’s 20-second lag) suggests a type of knee-jerk response to input; this action (or re-action) is directly opposed to the more carefully reasoned research and argumentation of traditional scholarship.  The platform also makes no effort to prevent trolling or spamming of the controls that that would intentionally impede progress.  The end result, as anyone can see from the live video feed, is chaos.

Yet, there is some order in this chaos.  The players of the collective Pokémon game, somehow, have managed to progress through the game over the four days since the social experiment’s launch: as of last night, the players have made it to Celadon City and earned four of the game’s eight badges.  Perhaps volume and purpose are not mutually exclusive.

P.S. If you’re bored, the continual (and often hilarious) Reddit commentary on Twitch Plays Pokémon is worth a look.

EDIT (2/18/2014): The platform’s creator has implemented a voting measure that attempts to filter out unproductive input from both trolls and too many earnest people trying to do different things (or the same thing, for that matter) at once. There has been some push back.

Seizing the White Perimeter

In the chapter “Reading,” Thoreau writes, “…we must laboriously seek the meaning of each word and line, conjecturing a larger sense than common use permits out of what wisdom and valor and generosity we have.” Obviously the Digital Thoreau project is accomplishing this by having readers think more deeply about the meaning of Walden and start a conversation about it, and that’s a great tool. It seems particularly appropriate for a text like Walden, which we think of as more “scholarly” than something along the lines of, say, The Twilight Saga. It seeks to call you to some kind of action, rather than simply existing for its entertainment value. It’s meant to be read, meditated on, and thoroughly processed. All of this made me wonder, however, if someone could read our digital version of Walden simply to experience it without any outside influences.

Annotations are distracting and a lot of times I hate them. There, I said it. Before you skip the rest of this and tear me apart in the comments, let me just say that another part of me thinks that annotations are great tools for understanding a text. I really appreciate them the second time through when I’m ready for that information. I’ll get to that later on.

The first time I read a book, I tend to go about it in a somewhat childlike way. I’m curious, but I just want to get to the meat of the story and don’t want anybody stopping to explain what certain things mean; I can usually get past that and look them up later. Annotations disrupt my feeling that reading a book is an intimate experience between the author and myself. It’s also sometimes challenging to figure out my own opinion with everything else in the way.

The first digital book I read was The Great Gatsby on my iPad. It wasn’t a horrible experience, but I can say that the one thing I hated was seeing “3,487 people have highlighted this” next to certain sentences. This is embarrassing to admit, but I found it downright upsetting at times. Why did all those people highlight that? What’s so important there? Am I supposed to find something deeper in that sentence? ‘Cause I’m not finding anything, and I’m supposedly an English major, so obviously there’s something wrong with me. I just wanted to spend some quality time with F. Scott Fitzgerald, but 3,487 people had to come in and ruin it with their highlighting by making me doubt my own reading abilities. How could I possibly engage with the text myself when all those other readers were butting their noses in and interrupting every few pages?

Even though I didn’t always find myself moved by the things other people highlighted, I had highlighting and comments of my own stuck in there too. Andrew D. Scrimgeour writes that “The jottings we make in the books we own may well be among the highest tributes we pay to authors. They are signs of respect, signs of engagement.” It wasn’t that I wasn’t engaging with the text, I just wasn’t quite ready to engage with others yet. Scrimgeour also suggests that our marginalia reveal a lot about how we personally are engaging with texts. What better way to develop our own thoughts regarding a text? I think that sometimes we have to figure it out for ourselves first, uninhibited by others.

I haven’t had a chance to look at all the Walden annotations, but I’d guess that most of us are approaching it from an analytical perspective rather than a “Wow, I just really like this sentence that Thoreau wrote so I’m gonna mark it” angle, and for the purposes of this class, that’s good. It’s easy as English majors to forget to read for enjoyment, though. We can’t forget to entertain our less academic-sounding thoughts, such as thinking Emily Dickinson is a ninny, along with more serious reflection. The background behind how an author like Thoreau wrote (as seen in the Fluid Text edition) is obviously very important, but since it’s a text with which we’re meant to engage as readers and scholars, I’m of the opinion that our personal reactions are just as valid.

All in all, while it may be intimidating to put our thoughts out there on the digital text because we worry that what we think is wrong, if the text prompts us to think something, we’re probably not alone. The text is supposed to make us think, and those organic responses are sometimes the most interesting, in my opinion. As for getting distracted by other people’s annotations, well, there’s always an unmarked print copy available somewhere if we need it. When we’re ready to engage with others, though, a network like Digital Thoreau can’t be ignored.

Technological Judgment

Andy Clark writes that we are a group of “Natural Born Cyborgs,” and I think this is a fine assertion. Technology, especially technology used for social purposes has become a working part of a great majority of people. This is okay! Contrary to William Powers who writes about taking a “digital sabbath” to take a break from being consumed by technology, I believe (and really hope) that people today will develop an ability train themselves to discern what is the correct time to use technology, specifically phones and cameras, and when it is inappropriate.

In the twelfth paragraph of “Sounds” in Walden, Thoreau writes about how much better it is to see, smell, and experience certain things, and the feelings he gets from them could never be written down. Upon talking about sailboats he has seen, he writes, “Who can write so graphically the history of the storms they have weathered as these rents have done?” No one. And even further, a tweet, a post, or a picture (even if it has a cool filter on it), will never bring about these same feelings.

I believe everything Thoreau writes in this section, as I have had an experience just like it. I was in Ghana for a good part of this past fall, and although I was certainly not as “connected” technologically, I still had my iPhone and its camera. Naturally I wanted to take pictures of everything that struck me as beautiful or memorable, and I did end up taking a lot of pictures. One evening at about dusk, a teacher at the school, who is now a good friend, offered to take me and my friend Patrick to a place he called “Pito Base.” Pito is an alcoholic drink that originates in the northern area of Ghana, where the teacher grew up, and “Pito Base” is a place where people who grew up in the north but now live in the south gather to meet and enjoy each others’ company. I knew immediately that I was being taken somewhere that no tourists ever go, and that what I was doing was an absolute privilege. We walked through dusty, beat up dirt roads that were far away from the cozy college hostel we were staying in, and little children pointed and yelled, apparently not used to seeing large white men walking around their village. We turned into a small “yard” that ended up being “Pito Base.” There were wooden benches arranged so that those sitting could see and converse with everyone around. A bowl was placed on a metal ring on the ground in front of me, and it was filled with the drink. For what seemed like hours, I conversed with locals about their culture and what they believe. We sat in this circle and drank pito out of bowls. It was dusk and it was beautiful. The sun was setting and the moon was already out and I was doing something people rarely do and that I will likely never do again. I wanted so badly to take my camera out and capture all of these moments…  but I used my judgment. It would have been so disrespectful to take out my iPhone and snap pictures of these people who so kindly let me into their life. Like Thoreau says, nothing would be able to recreate that moment I had, and I will never forget any of it.

I wonder if such a judgment can be taught or if it is just something that has to be felt. I hope that people can learn this sort of technological judgment and remember that life is all about little moments that cannot be captured or recreated.


Alone Together?

I’ve been enjoying people’s recent posts on the question of anxiety over technological change.

In contemporary social critics’ and social scientists’ efforts to grasp the cultural consequences of digital technology, one theme that has emerged is epitomized in the title of a book by Sherry Turkle. The book is Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT and the director of the Initiative on Technology and Self.

Turkle’s book offers evidence for the idea that in some ways digital technology is driving us farther apart even as it offers new possibilities for making connections. So it wouldn’t be fair to say that her thesis is refuted by a few images at Kids These Days, the Tumblr maintained by Nathaniel Rivers, an assistant professor of English at Saint Louis University who studies rhetorical theory, blogs as pure_sophist_monster and tweets as @sophist_monster.

But the images do offer reason to be skeptical of the near-apocalyptic claims you sometimes hear about “kids these days” and their devices. (To be fair to Turkle, her own approach to this question isn’t in the apocalyptic vein but is in fact more nuanced.) I routinely hear it said that “kids these days” just aren’t capable of having “real” social interactions — only the “virtual” ones made possible by social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

As Oscar Wilde has Algernon say in The Importance of Being Earnest, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either…”

Medieval Helpdesk

As I was sitting in class on Wednesday, I couldn’t help but remember a certain YouTube video I’d seen a few years back called Medieval Helpdesk.

I don’t include this clip because I think it’s of any great quality, but because I believe it contributes to our conversation of Walden in some interesting ways.

1. Adaptability – Let’s be honest, the content of this video is silly and long-winded in its delivery, which will lead to my third point in a moment. But for now, I think it’s interesting to reflect on the idea that people of a previous culture had to become accustomed to the idea of something as “simple” as a book. Before this, it was parchment and scrolls, but never a codex with a binding and hundreds of purposefully constructed pages. Maybe the character in this video is a bit slow, because I doubt the operation of a book was honestly puzzling for the masses. But satirical or not, humans have had to adapt to every single piece of time-tested technology ever created from the beginning of mankind. The anxiety Thoreau feels in Walden about society shifting in different ways was felt by his ancestors, and will inevitably be felt by ours, and by theirs, etc.

2. Language, Accessibility, & Artistic Reproduction – I find it interesting that many of us commented on Thoreau’s (pretentious) attitude towards classic literature, especially the part in “Reading” where he talks about the importance of text being understood in its indigenous language. The original YouTube video was created in Norwegian, and is posted online with English subtitles.

This is obviously not a piece of classic literature, but does my comprehension, enjoyment, and appreciation for it diminish if I watch it in my native language, rather than learn Norwegian and watch the original video? Consider the following comments left on the remade English version:

“Yes, the original is better, but kudos to the people who made this version, for making it available to a wider audience. The copy is very rarely better than the original. just look at all Hollywood remakes of European movies…”

“I think that the fact that the original IS in a foreign (to us) language and subtitled in fact makes the reception and mental processing of the humour even more salient. It’s the translation that allows the viewer to really consider how this is a ‘common experience’ since sub-consciously we are also relating to foreigners who experience this same thing, making the humour ‘Universal’. Just a complex view of a simply brilliant satire on how we adapt to change, no matter what or when!! :)”

This video also speaks to Benjamin’s article in the sense that the remake – a close reproduction but not exact, and for multiple reasons – may never live up to the original art object. But I suppose that’s the question: could it ever?

3. Technological Evolution & The Critic – The English version of this video was posted in 2008. I’ve been thinking about how audiences change so vastly in light of new technologies, that though this was no masterpiece to begin with, I wonder how much worse this clip is now received in 2014 than it was merely 6 years ago. I find myself in the position of critic (another idea borrowed from Benjamin) as I mentally comment on various aspects of both the original and the remake that could have been done more artfully. For example, I’m thinking that the (candle)lighting needs work, the original’s subtitles could be placed more strategically as to not block the book from view, and that the remake could have been shorter and sweeter, but still have gotten the point across. I believe this shows that as technology evolves and produces outcomes of greater quality and deeper meaning, our reception grows alongside it. Perhaps this subtle evolving goes unnoticed on a day-to-day basis, but it’s certainly clear as a viewer comes in contact with any media produced even a decade ago.


P.S. I want to say how beautifully written and insightful the previous posts are. Seriously, you all killed it!