Archive for June, 2008


The Faculty of Attention

“Bill poster advertising” — the Google of the early 20th century, says Henry James:

The faculty of attention has utterly vanished from the Anglo-Saxon mind, extinguished at its source by the big bayadère [a female dancer or a colourful striped fabric] of journalism, of the newspaper and the picture magazine which keeps screaming, “Look at me.” Illustrations, loud simplifications … bill poster advertising — only these stand a chance. (qtd. in Bettmann, 48)

Bettmann, Otto L. The Delights of Reading. Quotes, Notes & Anecdotes. Boston, MA: David R. Godine, 1987.


The Library in the New Age

We are living in the Age of Information, and Nicholas Carr, among others, has made the case that the new IT technology has had a revolutionary impact on the ways we read and absorb information. In “The Library in the New Age” (discovered via Novel Readings), Robert Darnton questions the alleged “newness” of the information age. Although he grants that technology has changed the landscape of reading (availability in particular), he is sceptical of the extent to which the nature of conveying information has been revolutionised. He argues that news, for example, has always been subject to selection and distortion, and concludes that “[i]nformation has never been stable”. He adds:

That may be a truism, but it bears pondering. It could serve as a corrective to the belief that the speedup in technological change has catapulted us into a new age, in which information has spun completely out of control. I would argue that the new information technology should force us to rethink the notion of information itself. It should not be understood as if it took the form of hard facts or nuggets of reality ready to be quarried out of newspapers, archives, and libraries, but rather as messages that are constantly being reshaped in the process of transmission. Instead of firmly fixed documents, we must deal with multiple, mutable texts. By studying them skeptically on our computer screens, we can learn how to read our daily newspaper more effectively—and even how to appreciate old books.

The crucial difference between Darnton’s and Carr’s discussions, it seems to me, is their focus on the medium and the processing of the medium, respectively. I doubt Carr would question the notion that texts have always been distorted, limited, etc., but what interests him is the way in which the medium (and the technology behind it) dictates our perception and processing of the medium.

One of my history professors once warned me not to indulge in “technological determinisms”. This is true as far as it goes. We should never forget that we have the power to control our use of technology; we may be technology slaves to an extent, but only so far as we are willing to let ourselves depend on it. The internet, of course, is no exception. What we do with the internet and how we process the information it offers rests in our hands — as long we are conscious of our own actions and behaviours.

So I agree with Darnton that we tend to overestimate the “revolution” in technological revolutions. Such revolutions are often revolutions in degree rather than kind, in quantity rather than quality. I came to a similar conclusion while researching the consequences of Gutenberg’s printing press on medieval book culture. Surprisingly, during the incunabula period (1450-1500), the impact of the “invention of the millenium” turned out to be remarkably unrevolutionary. Existing book trends were intensified and books became more wide-spread, cheaper (at least after a while) and more readily available, but subjects and use remained more or less the same as they had been a century earlier. The actual revolution followed half a century later (or, depending on whom you ask, a century or two earlier).

On the other hand, I delight in explanations based on technological determinisms and the idea that our behaviour is driven by what we invent, mostly because they provide a neat fundament on which more detailed and differentiated models can build upon. The truth about how we read, I suspect, lurks somewhere in between the reader and the medium.


You Can Read This Post, It’s Very Short

I previously mentioned Josh Waitzkin’s article on multitasking but I wasn’t quite aware just how much this topic has been steam-rolling the blogosphere lately. It all started with an article by Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making us Stupid?”. The response Carr received was overwhelming. Carr’s blog features a lot of anecdotes from other readers who had similar experiences, and Christine Rosen’s article, “The Myth of Multitasking”, cites a couple of neurologists on the matter. A study quoted in Carr’s article:

It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of “reading” are emerging as users “power browse” horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.

Talking of reading in the “traditional” sense: ages ago, I stumbled upon a website propagating slow reading.


A History of Cheap Books

The history of reading is intricately linked to the history of the book. Only when books became a common commodity did reading as a pastime reach the masses. Of course, the history of the book and the craft of book-making are also fascinating in their own right. Web-sources abound. Take a look at this neat condensed history of book design (1501-1880). Notice item 10, Aldus Manutius’ famous mark, the anchor and the dolphin. Aldus can be credited with popularising the pocket book, or octavo, format.

A page from Aldus' octavo edition of Virgil's Georgica

His editions of classical texts emphasised the quality of the text while at the same time being comparatively cheap (Gutenberg’s Bible was a rather costly affair, its price exceeding that of a common manuscript at the time). Other printers soon adapted Aldus’ small format venture to produce cheap (qualitatively inferior and sometimes even smaller) books for on the way. In England, these came to be known as chapbooks. In the 17th century, the Dutch family Elzevir printed classics that were so cheap and popular that the aristocracy frowned upon them. The small cheap book had its true breakthrough, however, in the 19th century. The rising middle class created a new market for cheap books that focused on practicality rather than embellishment. Leather bindings were soon replaced by binding cloth (William Pickering introduced this technique in his Diamond Classics series in 1821).

The new techniques changed the marketing and the attitude towards books tremendously. W.H. Smith & Sons opened the first railway bookstall in 1848 (among the books sold there were those of Routledge’s Railway Library); Anton Philipp Reclam established the Reclam Verlag in 1828 and created one of the most successful publishing houses to date (the company also experimented with book vending machines); and Allen Lane came up with the idea of selling books in grocery stores, stationers and kiosks, and in 1935 launched the Penguin series. Today, Penguin is the world’s second largest publisher after Random House.


Cupi et disce!

Petrarch quotes Ovid in his description of his ascent to Mount Ventoux, the event that marked the beginning of the Renaissance: Velle parum est; cupias, ut re potiaris, oportet.* To want is not enough; you must crave a thing to master it. In the Secretum Meum, the same motto is hailed as the foundation of happiness by Augustine, who argues that the only requirement for true happiness is a passionate desire to be happy.

And one more excerpt from the Secretum, translated by Alberto Manguel in his History of Reading, on the topic of superficial reading:

Augustine: This manner of reading is now quite common; there’s such a mob of lettered men. … But if you’d jot down a few notes in their proper place, you’d easily be able to enjoy the fruit of your reading. Francesco: What kind of notes do you mean? Augustine: Whenever you read a book and come across any wonderful phrases which you feel stir and delight your soul, don’t merely trust the power of your own intelligence, but force yourself to learn them by heart and make them familiar by meditating on them, so that whenever an urgent case of affliction arises, you’ll have the remedy ready as if it were written in your mind. When you come to any passages that seem to you useful, make a firm mark against them, which may serve as lime in your memory, less otherwise they might fly away. (63)

Augustine’s words of reproach ring even more true today in the age of the hyperlink. We learn things superficially and come to depend more and more on the internet to grant us easy access to information, rather than gathering and storing that information in our heads. In a similar vein, Josh Waitzkin deplores the effects of the “multitasking virus” amongst school children and the decline in our ability to learn and stay focused.

*Scansion note to self: Velle pa|rum est cupi|as, ut| re poti|aris, o|portet.


And when life’s prospects…

I came across the poem “The Sprig of Moss” by the legendary William Topaz McGonagall, and that eternal truth:

And when life’s prospects may at times appear dreary to ye, / Remember Alois Senefelder, the discoverer of Lithography.

Which provides me with an opportunity to remind myself of the three main printing techniques: relief, as in Gutenberg, as in pressing a positive surface onto paper; intaglio, as in pressing paper onto a negative surface; and planographic, as in working with a smooth surface covered in oil.


My Secret Book

From Petrarch’s proem to his Secret Book:

Tuque ideo, libelle, conventus hominum fugiens, mecum mansisse contentus eris, nominis proprii non immemor. Secretum enim meum es et diceris; michique in altioribus occupato, ut unumquodque in abdito dictum meministi, in abdito memorabis. (via

And J.G. Nichols’ translation thereof:

Therefore, little book, avoid the places where men assemble, and be content to stay with me, remembering the name which I have given you. You are my secret book, and so you shall be called. When I think about important matters, what you have recorded in secret will be recalled in secret.