The Universe of Discourse
           
Wed, 09 Sep 2009

You think you're All That, but you're not!
I have long been interested in term rewriting systems, and one of my long-term goals is to implement the Knuth-Bendix completion algorithm, described by Knuth and Bendix in their famous paper "Word Problems in Universal Algebras". This paper grabbed my attention around 1988; I found it in an anthology edited by John Leech (of Leech lattice fame) that I was probably looking into because it also contained an enumeration by J.H. Conway of all knots with at most eleven crossings. I found the Knuth-Bendix paper very hard to read, but the examples at the end were extremely compelling. I still find the paper very hard to read, but fortunately better explanations are now available. (For example, this one by A.J.J. Dick.) One of the also-ran topics for Higher-Order Perl was a structured drawing system based on Wm Leler's "Bertrand" term-rewriting system.

So I was delighted to discover that there was a new book out called Term Rewriting and All That. The "...and All That" suffix is a reference to the tongue-in-cheek classic of British history, 1066 and All That, and promised a casual, accessible, and possibly humorous treatment.

Unfortunately the promise was not kept. The book is very good, but it is not casual or humorous. Nor is it especially accessible. It is a solid slab of term rewriting, one of those books that make me think "I would not want to drop it on my foot." That is not a bad thing; the Barendregt book is superb, an enormous superb slab of lambda calculus that you would not want to drop on your foot. But it is not titled "Lambda Calculus and All That".

So why the title? I don't know. The authors are Germans, so perhaps they don't understand the joke?

[ Addendum: There's exactly one review of this book on Amazon, and it says the same thing I do. It begins: "My main criticism of this book is its title." ]


[Other articles in category /book] permanent link

Sat, 19 Apr 2008

A few notes on "The Manticore"

Order
The Manticore
The Manticore
with kickback
no kickback
This past week I reread Robertson Davies' 1972 novel The Manticore, which is a sequel to his much more famous novel Fifth Business (1970). I've read Fifth Business and its other sequel, World of Wonders (1975), several times each, but I found The Manticore much less compelling, and this is only the second time I have read it.

Here are a few miscellaneous notes about The Manticore.

Early memories

Here is David Staunton's earliest memory, from chapter 2, section 1. (Page 87 in my Penguin paperback edition.)

Dr. Von Haller: What is the earliest recollection you can honestly vouch for?

Myself: Oh, that's easy. I was standing in my grandmother's garden, in warm sunlight, looking into a deep red peony. As I recall it, I wasn't much taller than the peony. It was a moment of very great—perhaps I shouldn't say happiness, because it was really an intense absorption. The whole world, the whole of life, and I myself, became a warm, rich, peony-red.

Here is the earliest memory of Francis Cornish, the protagonist of Davies' novel What's Bred in the Bone (1985):

It was in a garden that Francis Cornish first became truly aware of himself as a creature observing a world apart from himself. He was almost three years old, and he was looking deep into a splendid red peony.
That is the opening sentence of part two, page 63 in my Penguin Books copy.

The sideboard

This is from chapter 3 of The Manticore, David's diary entry of Dec. 20:

Inside, it is filled with ... gigantic pieces of furniture on which every surface has been carved within an inch of its life with fruits, flowers, birds, hares, and even, on one thing which seems to be an altar to greed but is more probably a sideboard, full-sized hounds; six of them with real bronze chains on their collars.

The following quotation is from Davies' 1984 New York Times article "In a Welsh Border House, the Legacy of the Victorians", a reminiscence of the house his father lived in after his retirement in 1950:

Until my father had it dismantled and removed to a stable, the Great Hall was dominated by what I can only call an altar to gluttony against the south wall. It was a German sideboard of monumental proportions that the Naylors had acquired at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Every fruit, flower, meat, game, and edible was carved on it in life size, including four large hounds, chained to the understructure with wooden chains, so cunningly wrought that they could be moved, like real chains.
This is reprinted in The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies, Judith Skelton Grant, ed.

What do Canadians think of Saints?

Davies has said on a number of occasions that in Fifth Business he wanted to write about the nature of sainthood, and in particular how Canadians would respond if they found that they had a true saint among them. For example, in his talk "What May Canada Expect from Her Writers?" (reprinted in One Half of Robertson Davies, pp. 139–140) he says:

For many years the question occurred to me at intervals: What would Canada do with a saint, if such a strange creature were to appear within our borders? I thought Canada would reject the saint because Canada has no use for saints, because saints hold unusual opinions, and worst of all, saints do not pay. So in 1970 I wrote a book, called Fifth Business, in which that theme played a part.
Fifth Business does indeed treat this theme extensively and subtly. In The Manticore he is somewhat less subtle. A perpetual criticism I have of Davies is that he is never content to trust the reader to understand him. He always gets worried later that the reader is not clever enough, and he always comes back to hammer in his point a little more obviously.

For example, Fifth Business ends with the question "Who killed Boy Staunton?" and a cryptic, oracular answer. But Davies was unable to resist the temptation to explain his answer for the benefit of people unable or unwilling to puzzle out their own answers, and the end of The Manticore includes a detailed explanation. I think there might be an even plainer explanation in World of Wonders, but I forget. I have a partly-finished essay in progress discussing this tendency in Davies' writing, but I don't know when it will be done; perhaps never.

What would Canada think of a saint? Fifth Business is one answer, a deep and brilliant one. But Davies was not content to leave it there. He put a very plain answer into The Manticore. This is again from David's diary entry of Dec. 20 (p. 280):

Eisengrim's mother had been a dominant figure in his own life. He spoke of her as "saintly," which puzzles me. Wouldn't Netty have mentioned someone like that?

David's old nurse Netty did indeed mention Eisengrim's mother, although David didn't know that that was who was being mentioned. The mention appears in chapter 2, section 6, p. 160:

She had some awful piece of lore from Deptford to bring out. It seems there had been some woman there when she was a little girl who had always been "at it" and had eventually been discovered in a gravel pit, "at it" with a tramp; of course this woman had gone stark, staring mad and had to be kept in her house, tied up.

If you want to know what Robertson Davies thinks that Canada would make of a saint, but you don't want to read and ponder Fifth Business to find out, there you have it in one sentence.

[ Addendum: The New York Times review of The Manticore is interesting for several reasons. The title is misspelled in the headline: "The Manitcore". The review was written by a then-unknown William Kennedy, who later became the author of Ironweed (which won the Pulitzer Prize) and other novels. Check it out. ]


[Other articles in category /book] permanent link

Thu, 21 Feb 2008

Crappiest literary theory this month
Someone on Wikipedia has been pushing the theory that the four bad children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory correspond to the seven deadly sins.


[Other articles in category /book] permanent link

Sun, 20 Jan 2008

Utterly Useless Book Reviews (#1 in a series?)
This month I'm reading Robert Graves' awesome novel King Jesus. Here's the utterly useless review I wanted to write: It does for the Bible what I, Claudius did for Suetonius. And yeah, if you've read I, Claudius and Suetonius, then that's all you need to know about King Jesus, and you'll rush out to read it. But how many of you have read I, Claudius and Suetonius? Hands? Anyone? Yeah, I didn't think so.

Order
I, Claudius
I, Claudius
with kickback
no kickback
Okay, here's the explanation. Robert Graves was a novelist and a poet. (He himself said he was a poet who wrote novels so that he could earn enough money to write poetry.) I, Claudius is his best-known work. It is a history of the Roman emperors from the end of the reign of Julius Caesar up to the coronation of Claudius, told from the point of view of Claudius, who, though most of the book, is viewed by most of the other characters as harmless and inept, perhaps mentally deficient, or perhaps merely a doofus. It is this inept doofosity that explains his survival and eventual ascension to the Imperial throne at a time when everyone else in line for it was being exiled, burnt, poisoned, or disemboweled. The book is still in print, and in the 1970s, the BBC turned it into an extremely successful TV miniseries starring Derek Jacobi (as Claudius, obviously) and a lot of other actors who subsequently became people you have heard of. (Patrick Stewart! With hair!)

Graves was a classical scholar, and based his novel on the historical accounts available, principally The Twelve Caesars of Suetonius. Suetonius wrote his history after all the people involved were dead, and his book reads like a collection of anecdotes placed in approximately chronological order. Suetonius seems to have dug up and recorded as fact every scurrilous rumor he could find. Some of the rumors are contradictory, and some merely implausible. When Graves turned The Twelve Caesars into I, Claudius, he resolved this mass of unprocessed material into a coherent product. The puzzling trivialities are explained. The contradictions are cleared up. Sometimes the scurrilous rumors are explained as scurrilous rumors; sometimes Claudius explains the grain of truth that lies at their center. Other times the true story, as related by Claudius, is even worse than the watered-down version that came to Suetonius's ears. Suetonius mentions that, as emperor, Claudius tried to introduce three new letters into the alphabet. Huh? In Graves' novel, this is foreshadowed early, and when it finally happens, it makes sense.

Order
King Jesus
King Jesus
with kickback
no kickback
In King Jesus, then, Graves has done for the Bible what he did for Suetonius in I, Claudius. He takes a mass of material, much of it misreported, or partly-forgotten stories written down a generation later, and reconstructs a plausible history from which that mass of material could have developed. The miracles are explained, without requiring anything supernatural or magical, but, at the same time, without becoming any less miraculous.

There is a story that Borges tells about the miracles performed by the Buddha, who generally eschewed miracles as being too showy. But Borges tells the story that one day the Buddha had to cross a desert, and seven different gods each gave him a parasol to shade his head. The Buddha did not want to offend any of the gods, so he split himself into seven Buddhas, and each one crossed the desert using a different parasol. He performed a miracle of politeness.

(The trouble with Borges's stories is that you never know which ones he read in some obscure 17th-century book, and which ones he made up himself. I spent a whole year thinking how clever Borges had been to have invented the novelist Adolfo Bioy Casares, with his alphabetical initials, and then one day I was in the bookstore and came upon the Adolfo Bioy Casares section. Oops.)

Anyway, Graves lets Jesus have the miracles, and they are indeed miraculous, but they are miracles of kindness and insight, not miracles of stage magic. When Graves explains the miracles, you say "oh, of course", without then saying "is that all?" I have not yet gotten to the part where Jesus silences the storm and walks on water, but I am looking forward to it. I did get to the loaves and fishes, and it was quite satisfactory. I am not going to spoil the surprise.

I recommend it. Check it out.

[ Addendum 20080201: James Russell has read both I, Claudius and Twelve Caesars. ]


[Other articles in category /book] permanent link

Sat, 16 Jun 2007

Frances Trollope arrives in America
More than a year ago I mentioned Frances Trollope's book Domestic Manners of the Americans, which I have at long last checked out of the library and begun to read. I am only at page 40 or so, but it is easy going, and entertaining.

Trollope's book begins with her arrival from Europe in New Orleans. I was drawn in early on by the following passage, which appears on page 5:

The land is defended from the encroachments of the river by a high embankment which is called the Levée; without which the dwellings would speedily disappear, as the river is evidently higher than the banks would be without it. . . . She was looking so mighty, and so unsubdued all the time, that I could not help fancying she would some day take the matter into her own hands again, and if so, farewell to New Orleans.

The book was published in 1832.

It is available online.


[Other articles in category /book] permanent link

Thu, 14 Jun 2007

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
I have not been too impressed with the Harry Potter books. I read them all, one at a time, on airplanes. They are good for this because they are fat, undemanding, and readily available in airport bookshops for reasonable prices. In a lot of ways they are badly constructed, but there is really no point in dwelling on their flaws. The Potter books have been widely criticized already from all directions, and so what? People keep buying them.

But The Goblet of Fire has been bothering me for years now, because its plot is so very stupid. I am complaining about it here in my blog because it continues to annoy me, and I hope to forget about it after I write this. The rest of this article will contain extensive spoilers, and I will assume that you either know it all already or that you don't care.

The bad guys want to kill Harry Potter, the protagonist. The Triwizard Tournament is being held at Harry's school. In the tournament, the school champions must overcome several trials, the last of which is to race through a maze and grab the enchanted goblet at the center of the maze. The bad guys' plan is this: they will enter Harry in the tournament. They will interfere subtly in the tournament, to ensure that Harry is first to lay hands on the goblet. They will enchant the goblet so that it is a "portkey", and whoever first touches it will be transported into their evil clutches.

They need an evil-doer on the spot, to interfere in the competition in Harry's favor; if he is eliminated early, or fails to touch the goblet first, all their plotting will be for naught. So they abduct and imprison Mad-eye Moody, a temporary faculty member and a famous capturer of evil-doers, and enchant one of their own to impersonate him for the entire school year.

The badness of this plan is just mind-boggling. Moody is a tough customer. If they fail to abduct him, or if he escapes his year-long captivity, their plans are in the toilet. If the substitution is detected, their plans are in the toilet. Their fake Moody will be teaching a class in "Defense Against the Dark Arts", a subject in which the real Moody has real expertise that the substitute lacks; the substitute somehow escapes detection on this front. For several months the fake Moody will be eating three meals a day with a passel of witches and wizards who are old friends with the real Moody, and among whom is Albus Dumbledore, who supposedly is not a complete idiot; the substitute somehow escapes detection on this front as well.

Even with the substitution accomplished, the bad guys' task is far from easy. Harry procrastinates everything he can and it's all they can do to arrange that he is not eliminated from the tournament. None of the other champions are either, and the villains have a tough problem to make sure that he is first through the maze.

Here is an alternative plan, which apparently did not occur to the fearsome Lord Voldemort: instead of making the Goblet of Fire into a portkey, he should enchant a common object, say a pencil. We know this is possible, since it has been explicitly established that absolutely any object can be a portkey, and the first instance of one that we see appears to be an abandoned boot. Then, since fake Moody is teaching Harry's class, sometime during the first week of the term he should ask Harry to stay behind on some pretext, and then say "Oh, Harry, would you please pass me that pencil over there?" After Harry is dead, fake Moody can disappear. A little thought will no doubt reveal similar plans that involve no substitutions or imprisonments: send Harry a booby-trapped package in the mail, or enchant his socks, or something of the sort.

In fact, they do something like this in one of the later books; they sell another character, I think Ginny Weasley, some charm that puts her under their control. This is a flub already, because they should have sold it to Harry instead—duh—and then had him kill himself. Or they could have sold him a portkey. Or an exploding candy. But I don't want to belabor the point.

Normally I have no trouble suspending my disbelief in matters like this. I can forgive a little ineptness on the part of the master schemers, because I am such an inept schemer that I usually don't notice. When evil plots seem over-elaborate and excessively risky to me, I just imagine that it seems that way because evil plots are so far outside my area of expertise, and read on. But in The Goblet of Fire I couldn't do this. My enjoyment of the book was disrupted by the extreme ineptness of the evil scheme.

One of Rowling's recurring themes is the corruption and ineptness of the ostensibly benevolent government. But perhaps this incompetence is a good thing. If the good guys had been less incompetent in the past, the bad guys might have had to rise to the occasion, and would have stomped Harry flat in no time. Lulled into complacency by years of ineffective opposition, they become so weak and soft that they are defeated by a gang of teenagers.

Okay, that's off my chest now. Thanks for your forbearance.


[Other articles in category /book] permanent link

Sun, 10 Jun 2007

Backsies

Order
A Bargain for Frances
A Bargain for Frances
with kickback
no kickback
One of the books in the bedtime-reading rotation for my daughter Iris is A Bargain for Frances, by Russell and Lillian Hoban. (Russell Hoban is also the author of a number of acclaimed novels for adults, most notably Riddley Walker.) The plot and character relationships in A Bargain for Frances are quite complex, probably about at the limit of what a two-year-old can handle. I will try to summarize.

Frances the badger is having a tea party with her friend Thelma, who has previously behaved abusively to her. Thelma's tea set is plastic, with red flowers. Frances is saving up her money for a real china tea set with blue pictures. Thelma asserts that those tea sets are no longer made, and that they are prohibitively expensive. She offers to sell Frances her own tea set, in return for Frances's savings of $2.17. Frances agrees. End of act I.

When Frances returns home with the plastic tea set, her little sister Gloria criticizes it, saying repeatedly that it is "ugly". She reports that the china kind with blue pictures is available in the local candy store for $2.07, and that Thelma knows this. Frances rushes to the candy store, where she witnesses Thelma buying a china tea set with her money. End of act II.

There is an act III, but I do not want to spoil the ending.

There is quite a lot here to engage the mind of a two-year-old: what does it mean to make a trade, for example? And Thelma is quite devious in the way she talks up the benefits of her plastic tea set ("It does not break, unless you step on it") while dissembling her own desire for a china one. Iris has not yet learned to deceive others for her own benefit, and I think this is her first literary exposure to the idea.

I mentioned at one point that Thelma had told a lie: she had said "I don't think they make that kind [of tea set] anymore" when she knew that the very tea set was available at the candy store. Iris was very interested by this observation. She asked me repeatedly, over a period of a several weeks, to explain to her what a lie was. I had some trouble, because I did not have any good examples to draw on. Iris does not do it yet, and Lorrie and I do not lie to Iris either.

One time I tried to explain lies by telling Iris about how people sometimes tell children that if they do not behave, goblins will come and take them away. Of course, this didn't work. First I had to explain what goblins were. Iris was very disturbed at the thought of goblins that might take her away. I had to reassure Iris that there were no goblins. We got completely sidetracked on a discussion of goblins. I should have foreseen this, but it was the best example I was able to come up with on the spur of the moment.

Later I thought of a better example, with no distracting goblins: suppose Iris asks for raspberries, and I know there are some in the refrigerator, but I tell her that we have none, because I want to eat them myself. I think this was just a little bit too complicated for Iris. It has four parts, and I try to keep explanations to three parts, which seems to be about the maximum that she can follow at once. (Two parts is even better.) I think Iris attached too much significance to the raspberries; for a while she seemed to think that lying had something to do with raspberries.

Oh well, at least I tried. She will catch on soon enough, I am sure.

Perhaps the most complex idea in the book is this: when Frances and Thelma agree to trade money for tea set, they agree on "no backsies". This is an important plot point. After the second or third reading, Iris asked me what "no backsies" meant.

I had to think about this carefully before I answered, because it is quite involved, and until I thought it through, I was not sure I understood it myself. You might want to think about this before reading on. Remember that it's not enough to understand it; you have to be able to explain it.

My understanding of "no backsies" was that normally, when friends trade, there is an assumption that the exchange may be unilaterally voided by either party, as long as this is done timely. You can come back the next day and say you have changed your mind, and your friend, being your friend, is expected to consent. Specifying "no backsies" establishes an advance agreement that this is not the case. If you come back the next day, your friend can protest "but we said there were no backsies on this" and refuse to undo the trade. (The trade can, of course, be voided later if both parties agree.)

So to understand this, you must first understand what it means to trade, and why. Iris took this in early on, and fairly easily. You also have to understand the idea that one or both parties might want to change their minds later; this is also something Iris can get her head around. Toddlers know all about what it means to change one's mind.

But then you have to understand that one party might want to annul the agreement and the other party might not. Tracking two people's independent and conflicting desires is probably a little too hard for Iris at this stage. She can sometimes understand another person's point of view, by identification. ("You sometimes feel like x; here this other person feels the same way.") And similarly she can immerse herself in the world-view of the protagonist of a book, and understand that the protagonist's desires might be frustrated by another character. But to immerse herself in both world-views simultaneously is beyond her.

"No backsies" goes beyond this: you have to understand the idea that an agreement might have default, unspoken conventions, and that the participants will adhere to these conventions even if they don't want to; this is not something that two-year-olds are good at doing yet. You have to understand the idea of an explicit modification to the default conditions; that part is not too hard, and everyday examples abound. But then you have to understand what the unspoken convention actually is, and how it is being modified, and the difference between a unilateral annulment of an agreement and a bilateral one. Again, I think it's the bilaterality that's hard for Iris to understand. She is still genuinely puzzled when I tell her we should leave the public restroom clean for the next person.

Really, though, the main difficulty is just that the idea is very complicated. Maybe I'm wrong about which parts are harder and which parts are easier, and perhaps Iris can understand any of the pieces separately. But at two years old she can't yet sustain a train of thought as complicated as the one required to put all the pieces of "no backsies" together. This sort of understanding is one of the essential components of being an adult, and she will get it sooner or later; probably sooner.

This is not the only part of the book that repays careful thought. At one point, during Thelma's monologue about the unavailability of china tea sets, she says:

I know another girl who saved up for that tea set. Her mother went to every store and could not find one. Then that girl lost some of her money and spent the rest on candy. She never got the tea set. A lot of girls never do get tea sets. So maybe you won't get one.
One evening my wife Lorrie asked me who I thought Thelma was speaking about in that passage. I replied that I had always understood it as a pure fabrication, and that there was no "other girl".

Lorrie said that she thought that Thelma had been speaking about herself, that Thelma had saved up her money, and her mother had gone looking for a china tea set, been unable to find one, and had brought home the plastic set as a consolation prize.

The crucial clue was the detail about how the "other girl" spent the rest of her money on candy, which is just a bit too specific for a mere fabrication.

Once you try out the hypothesis that Thelma is speaking personally, a lot of other details fall into place. For example, her assertion that "A lot of girls never do get tea sets" is no longer a clever invention on her part: she is repeating something her mother told her to shut her up when she expressed her disappointment over receiving a plastic instead of a china tea set. Her sales pitch to Frances about why a plastic tea set is better than a china one can be understood as an echo of her mother's own attempts to console her.

My wife is very clever, and was an English major to boot. She is skilled at noticing such things both by native talent and by long training of that talent.

Good children's literature does reward a close reading, and like good adult literature, reveals additional depths on multiple readings. It seems to me that books for small children are more insipid than they used to be, but that could just be fuddy-duddyism, or it could be selection bias: I no longer remember the ones I loved as a child that would now seem insipid precisely because they would now seem insipid.

But the ability to produce good literature at any level is rare, so it is probably just that there only a few great writers in every generation can do it. Russell Hoban was one of the best here.


[Other articles in category /book] permanent link

Sat, 30 Dec 2006

Notes on Neal Stephenson's Baroque novels
Earlier this year I was reading books by Robert Hooke, John Wilkins, Sir Thomas Browne, and other Baroque authors; people kept writing to me to advise me to read Neal Stephenson's "Baroque cycle", in which Hooke and Wilkins appear as characters.

I ignored this advice for a while, because those books are really fat, and because I hadn't really liked the other novels of Stephenson's that I'd read.

But I do like Stephenson's non-fiction. His long, long article about undersea telecommunications cables was one of my favorite reads of 1996, and I still remember it years later and reread it every once in a while. I find his interminable meandering pointless and annoying in his fiction, where I'm not sure why I should care about all the stuff he's describing. When the stuff is real, it's a lot easier to put up with it.

My problems with Stephenson's earlier novels, The Diamond Age and Snow Crash, will probably sound familiar: they're too long; they're disorganized; they don't have endings; too many cannons get rolled onstage and never fired.

Often "too long" is a pinheaded criticism, and when I see it I'm immediately wary. How long is "too long"? It calls to mind the asinine complaint from Joseph II that Mozart's music had "too many notes". A lot of people who complain that some book is "too long" just mean that they were too lazy to commit the required energy. When I say that Stephenson's earlier novels were "too long", I mean that he had more good ideas than he could use, and put a lot of them into the books even when they didn't serve the plot or the setting or the characters. A book is like a house. It requires a plan, and its logic dictates portions of the plan. You don't put in eleven bathtubs just because you happen to have them lying around, and you don't stick Ionic columns on the roof just because Home Depot had a sale on Ionic columns the week you were building it.

Order
Quicksilver
Quicksilver
with kickback
no kickback
So the first thing about Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy is that it's not actually a trilogy. Like The Lord of the Rings, it was published in three volumes because of physical and commercial constraints. But the division into three volumes is essentially arbitrary.

The work totals about 2,700 pages. Considered as a trilogy, this is three very long books. Stephenson says in the introduction that it is actually eight novels, not three. He wants you to believe that he has actually written eight middle-sized books. But he hasn't; he is lying, perhaps in an attempt to shut up the pinheads who complain that his books are "too long". This is not eight middle-sized books. It is one extremely long book.

The narrative of the Baroque cycle is continuous, following the same characters from about 1650 up through about 1715. There is a framing story, introduced in the first chapters, which is followed by a flashback that lasts about 1,600 pages. Events don't catch up to the frame story until the third volume. If you consider Quicksilver to be a novel, the opening chapters are entirely irrelevant. If you consider it to be three novels, the opening chapters of the first novel are entirely irrelevant. It starts nowhere and ends nowhere, a vermiform appendix. But as a part of a single novel, it's not vestigial at all; it's a foreshadowing of later developments, which are delivered in volume III, or book 6, depending on how you count.

Another example: The middle volume, titled The Confusion, alternates chapters from two of the eight "novels" that make up the cycle. Events in these two intermingled ("con-fused") novels take place concurrently. Stephenson claims that they are independent, but they aren't.

So from now on I'm going to drop the pretense that this is a trilogy or a "cycle", and I'm just going to call this novel the "Baroque novel".


Order
The Confusion
The Confusion
with kickback
no kickback
Here's the really funny thing about the Baroque novel. People have been complaining for years that Stephenson's books are "too long". But it seems to me now that the real problem with his earlier books is that they were not long enough. His earlier novels are full of leftovers, half-baked ideas, and miscellaneous detritus. I had imagined that with good editing to make the novels shorter, some poorly-integrated material could have been cleaned up. Perhaps so, but it hadn't occurred to me that there is another solution. Instead of making the novels shorter, make them longer, to accommodate all the flotsam. In the Baroque novel, Stephenson finally has enough space and time to deal properly with all his ideas. The flotsam is all still there, but it has been lashed together to make a boat, or a raft, or something like that.

This was quite a surprise to me. The world is full of incoherent ramblers, and most of them, if you really take the time to listen to them carefully, and at length, turn out to be completely full of shit. You get nothing but more incoherence.

Stephenson at 600 pages is a semi-coherent rambler; to really get what he is saying, you have to turn him up to 2,700 pages. Most people would have been 4.5 times as incoherent; Stephenson is at least 4.5 times as lucid. His ideas are great; he just didn't have enough space to explain them before! The Baroque novel has a single overarching theme, which is the invention of the modern world. One of the strands of this theme is the invention of science, and the modern conception of science; another is the invention of money, and the modern conception of money.

I've written before about what I find so interesting about the Baroque thinkers. Medieval, and even Renaissance thought seems very alien to me. In the baroque writers, I have the first sense of real understanding, of people grappling with the same sorts of problems that I do, in the same sorts of ways. For example, I've written before about John Wilkins' attempt to manufacture a universal language of thought. People are still working on this. Many of the particular features of Wilkins' attempt come off today as crackpottery, but to the extent that they do, it's only because we know now that these approaches won't work. And the reason we know that today is that Wilkins tried those approaches in 1668 and it didn't work.


Order
The System of the World
The System of the World
with kickback
no kickback
The Baroque novel is a work of historical fiction. That is, it describes people who never existed meeting real historical figures, in (mostly) real places, during (mostly) real events. The history in the book is similar enough to real history to be familiar and understandable.

I find that almost all of Stephenson's annoying habits are much less annoying in the context of historical fiction. For example, many plot threads are left untied at the end. Daniel Waterhouse (fictional) becomes involved with Thomas Newcomen (real) and his Society for the Raising of Water by Fire. (That is, using steam engines to pump water out of mines.) This society figures in the plot of the last third of the novel, but what becomes of it? Stephenson drops it; we don't find out. In a novel, this would be annoying. But in a work of historical fiction, it's no problem, because we know what became of Newcomen and his steam engines: They worked well enough for pumping out coal mines, where a lot of coal was handy to fire them, and well enough to prove the concept, which really took off around 1775 when a Scot named James Watt made some major improvements. Sometime later, there were locomotives and nuclear generating plants. You can read all about it in the encyclopedia.

Another way in which Stephenson's style works better in historical fiction than in speculative fiction is in his long descriptions of technologies and processes. When they're fictitious technologies and imaginary processes, it's just wankery, a powerful exercise of imagination for no real purpose. Well, maybe the idea will work, and maybe it won't, and it is necessarily too vague to really give you a clear idea of what is going on. But when the technologies are real ones, the descriptions are illuminating and instructive. You know that the idea will work. The description isn't vague, because Stephnson had real source material to draw on, and even if you don't get a clear idea, you can go look up the details yourself, if you want. And Stephenson is a great explainer. As I said before, I love his nonfiction articles.

A lot of people complain that his novels don't have good endings. He's gotten better at wrapping things up, and to the extent that he hasn't, that's all right, because, again, the book is a historical novel, and history doesn't wrap up. The Baroque novel deals extensively with the Hanoverian succession to the English throne. Want to know what happened next? Well, you probably do know: a series of Georges, Queen Victoria, et cetera, and here we are. And again, if you want, the details are in the encyclopedia.

So I really enjoyed this novel, even though I hadn't liked Stephenson's earlier novels. As I was reading it, I kept thinking how glad I was that Stephenson had finally found a form that suits his talents and his interests.


[Other articles in category /book] permanent link

Wed, 20 Dec 2006

Reader's disease
Reader's disease is an occupational hazard of editors and literary critics. Critics are always looking for the hidden meaning, the clever symbol, and, since they are always looking for it, they always find it, whether it was there or not. (Discordians will recognize this as a special case of the law of fives.) Sometimes the critics are brilliant, and find hidden meanings that are undoubtedly there even though the author was unaware of them; more often, they are less fortunate, and sometimes they even make fools of themselves.

The idea of reader's disease was introduced to me by professor David Porush, who illustrated it with the following anecdote. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is prefaced by an introduction called The Custom-House, in which the narrator claims to have found documentation of Hester Prynne's story in the custom house where he works. The story itself is Hawthorne's fantasy, but the custom house is not; Hawthorne did indeed work in a custom house for many years.

Porush's anecdote concerned Mary Rudge, the daughter of Ezra Pound. Rudge, reading the preface of The Scarlet Letter, had a brilliant insight: the custom house, like so many other buildings of the era, was a frame house and was built in the shape of the letter "A". It therefore stands as a physical example of the eponymous letter.

Rudge was visiting Porush in the United States, and told him about her discovery.

"That's a great theory," said Porush, "But it doesn't look anything like a letter 'A'."

Rudge argued the point.

"Mary," said Porush, "I've seen it. It's a box."

Rudge would not be persuaded, so together they got in Porush's car and drove to Salem, Massachusetts, where the custom house itself still stands.

But Rudge, so enamored of her theory that she could not abandon it, concluded that some alternative explanation must be true: the old custom house had burnt down and been rebuilt, or the one in the book was not based on the real one that Hawthorne had worked in, or Porush had led her to the wrong building.

But anyway, all that is just to introduce my real point, which is to relate one of the most astounding examples of reader's disease I have ever encountered personally. The Mary Rudge story is secondhand; for all I know Porush made it up, or exaggerated, or I got the details wrong. But this example I am about to show you is in print, and is widely available.

Order
The Treasury of the Encyclopædia Britannica
The Treasury of the Encyclopædia Britannica
with kickback
no kickback
I have a nice book called The Treasury of the Encyclopædia Britannica, which is a large and delightful collection of excerpts from past editions of the Britannica, edited by Clifton Fadiman. This is out of print now, but it was published in 1992 and is easy to come by.

Each extract is accompanied by some introductory remarks by Fadiman and sometimes by one of the contributing editors. One long section in the book concerns early articles about human flight; in the Second Edition (published 1778-1783) there was an article on "Flying" by then editor James Tytler. Contributing editor Bruce L. Felknor's remarks include the following puzzled query:

What did Tytler mean by his interjection of "Fa" after Friar Bacon's famous and fanciful claim that man had already succeeded in flying? It hardly seems a credulous endorsement, an attitude sometimes attributed to Tytler.

Fadiman adds his own comment on this:

As for Tytler's "Fa": Could it have been an earlier version of our "Faugh!"? In any case we suddenly hear an unashamed human voice.

Gosh, what could Tytler have meant by this curious interjection? A credulous endorsement? An exclamation of disgust? An unedited utterance of the unashamed human voice? Let's have a look:

The secret consisted in a couple of large thin hollow copper-globes exhausted of air; which being much lighter than air, would sustain a chair, whereon a person might sit. Fa. Francisco Lana, in his Prodromo, proposes the same thing...

Felknor and Fadiman have mistaken "Fa" for a complete sentence. But it is apparently an abbreviation of Father Francisco Lana's ecclesiastical title.

Oops.


[Other articles in category /book] permanent link

Thu, 19 Oct 2006

Boring answers to Powell's questions
A while back I answered some questions for Powell's City of Books web site. I didn't know they had posted the answers until it was brought to my attention by John Gabriele. Thank you, John.

They sent fifteen questions and asked me to pick at least five. I had a lot of trouble finding five of their questions that I wanted to answer. Most of the questions were not productive of interesting answers; I had to work hard to keep my answers from being super-dull.

The non-super-dull answers are on Powell's site. Here are the questions I didn't answer, with their super-dull answers:

  1. Have you ever taken the Geek Test? How did you rate?

    Hardly anyone seems to answer this question, and really, who cares? Except that Sir Roger Penrose said something like "There's a Geek Test?".

    I did take it once, but I forget how I scored. But if you read this blog, you can probably extrapolate: high on math, science, and programming. But really, who cares? Telling someone else about your geek test score is even more boring than telling them about your dreams.

  2. What do you do for relaxation?

    I didn't answer this one because my answer seemed so uninteresting. I program. I read a lot; unlike most people who read a lot, I read a lot of different things. Sometimes I watch TV. I go for walks and drive the car.

    One thing I used to do when I was younger was the "coffee trick". I'd go to an all-night diner with pens and a pad of paper and sit there drinking coffee all night and writing down whatever came out of my caffeine-addled brain. I'm too old for that now; it would make me sick.

  3. What's your favorite blog right now?

    I answered this one for Powell's, and cited my own blog and Maciej Ceglowski's. But if I were answering the question today I would probably mention What Jeff Killed. Whenever a new What Jeff Killed post shows up in the aggregator, I get really excited. "Oh, boy!" I say. "I can't wait to see What Jeff Killed today!".

    It occurs to me that just that one paragraph could probably give plenty of people a very clear idea of what I'm like, at least to the point that they would be able to decide they didn't want to know me.

  4. Douglas Adams or Scott Adams?

    I think they're both boring. But I wasn't going to say so in my Powell's interview.

  5. What was your favorite book as a kid?

    This should have been easy to answer, but none of the books I thought of seemed particularly revealing. When I was in sixth grade my favorite book was "The Hero from Otherwhere," by Jay Williams. (He also wrote the Danny Dunn books.) A few years back Andrew Plotkin posted on rec.arts.sf.written that he had recently read this, and that it occurred to him that it might have been his favorite book, had he read it in sixth grade, and had anyone had that experience. I wasn't the only one who had.

    I reread it a few years ago and it wasn't that good anymore.

    Robertson Davies writes about the awful juvenile-fiction magazines that he loved when he was a juvenile. Yes, they were terrible, but they fed something in him that needed to be fed. I think a lot of the books we love as children are like that.

  6. What new technology do you think may actually have the potential for making people's lives better?

    I couldn't think of any way to answer this question that wouldn't be really boring. That probably says a lot more about me than about the question. I thought about gene therapy, land mine detection, water purification. But I don't personally have anything to do with those things, so it would just be a rehash of what I read in some magazine. And what's the point of reading an interview with an author who says, "Well, I read in Newsweek..."?

  7. If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?

    This seems like it could have been interesting, but I couldn't figure out what to do with it. I might like to be Galileo, or to know what it's like to be Einstein, but that's not what the question says; it says that I'm me, living the life of Galileo or Einstein. But why would I want to do that? If I'm living the life of Einstein, that means I get to get up in the morning, go to an office in Zurich or Princeton, and sit behind a desk for eight hours, wishing I was smart enough to do Einstein's job.

    Some writers and scientists had exciting lives. I could be reincarnated as Evariste Galois, who was shot to death in a duel. That's not my idea of a good time.

    I once knew a guy who said he'd like to be David Lee Roth for one day, so that he could have sex with a groupie. Even if I wanted to have sex with a groupie, the question ("scientist or writer") pretty much rules out that form of entertainment. I suppose there's someone in the world who would want to be Pierre Curie, so that he know what it was like to fuck Marie Curie. That person isn't me.

  8. What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?

    I came really close to answering this question. I had an answer all written. I wrote that I wanted the computer to be able to manufacture pornography on demand to the user's specification: if they asked for a kneecap fetish movie featuring Celine Dion and an overalls-wearing midget, it should be able to do that.

    Then I came to my senses and I realized I didn't want that answer to appear on my interview on the Powell's web site.

    But it'll happen, you wait and see.

    I also said I'd settle for having the computer discard spam messages before I saw them. I think the porn thing is a lot more likely.

  9. By the end of your life, where do you think humankind will be in terms of new science and technological advancement?

    First I was stumped on this one because I don't know when the end of my life will be. I could be crushed in a revolving door next week, right?

    And assuming that I'll live another thirty years seems risky too. I'm hoping for a medical breakthrough that will prolong my life indefinitely. I expect it'll be along sooner or later. So my goal is to stay alive and healthy long enough to be able to take advantage of it when it arrives.

    Some people tell me they don't want to be immortal, that they think they would get bored. I believe them. People are bored because they're boring. Let them die; I won't miss them. I know exactly what I would do with immortality: I would read every book in the library.

    A few months ago I was visiting my mother, and she said that as a child I had always wanted to learn everything, and that it took me a long time to realize that you couldn't learn everything.

    I got really angry, and I shouted "I'm not done yet!"

    Well, even assuming that I live another thirty years, I don't think I can answer the question. When I was a kid my parents would go to the bank to cash a check. We got seven channels on the TV, and that was more than anyone else; we lived in New York. Nobody owned a computer; few people even owned typewriters. Big companies stored records on microfiche. The only way to find out what the law was was to go to the library and pore over some giant dusty book for hours until you found what you wanted.

    And sixty years ago presidential campains weren't yet advertising on television. Harry Truman campaigned by going from town to town on the back of a train (a train!) making speeches and shaking hands with people.

    Thirty years from now the world will be at least that different from the way things are now. How could I know what it'll be like?

  10. Which country do you believe currently leads the world in science and technology? In ten years?

    In case you hadn't noticed, I hate trying to predict the future; I don't think I'm good at it and I don't think anyone else is. Most people who try don't seem to revisit their old predictions to see if they were correct, or to learn from their past errors, and the people who listen to them never do this.

    Technology prognosticators remind me of the psychics in the National Enquirer who make a hundred predictions for 2007: Jennifer Aniston will get pregnant with twins; space aliens will visit George Bush in the White House. Everyone can flap their mouth about what will happen next year, but it's not clear that anyone has any useful source of information about it, or is any better than anyone else at predicting.

    I read a book a few years back called The Year 2000: A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty Years, by Kahn and Weiner. It has a bunch of very carefully-done predictions about the year 2000, and was written in 1967. The predictions about computers are surprisingly accurate, if you ignore the fact that they completely failed to predict the PC. The geopolitical predictions are also surprisingly accurate, if you ignore the fact that they completely failed to predict the fall of the Soviet Union.

    But hardly anyone predicted the PC or the fall of the Soviet Union. And even now it's not clear whether the people who did predict those things did so because they were good at predicting or if it was just lucky guesses, like a stopped clock getting the time right twice a day.

    Sometimes I have to have dinner with predictors. It never goes well. Two years ago at OSCON I was invited to dinner with Google. I ended up sitting at a whole table of those people. Last year I was invited again. I said no thanks.

The answers on the Powell's web site are more interesting, but not very much more. If I were writing the Powell's questions, I would have put in "what question do you wish we had asked you, and what is the answer?"


[Other articles in category /book] permanent link

Fri, 10 Mar 2006

The Wrong Alcott
I went to the library yesterday, and as usual I was wandering in the stacks hoping for a lucky find. This time I got "The Young Husband" (subtitle: "Duties of Man in the Marriage Relation") by "Alcott".

This book was written in 1846 by William Andrus Alcott, as a sequel to his 1844 (presumably successful) book "The Young Wife". It is a book of domestic advice for recently-married men. Like many advice books, it is a curious mix of good advice, bad advice, and totally bizarre advice that apparently came from the planet Zorkulon. For example, Alcott advises the young husband to forbid his family all fictional literature. He thinks it's all trash, and time spent reading it is time wasted that could have been spent reading something moral and improving, such as (presumably) Alcott's own series of moral and improving advice books. He says that arguments in favor of any particular novel are akin to arguments in favor of champagne: this particular liquor may seem tasty and harmless, but it's still the demon alcohol in a pretty disguise, sure to lead the imbiber to ruin and despair.

I took the book off the shelf not because I have a specific interest in moral advice for Victorian-age Americans, but because I knew a bit about Louisa May Alcott's family life. Louisa May Alcott, as I am sure you recall, was the author several extremely popular books for children, including, most notably, Little Women, which has been continuously in print since its publication in 1868. I settled down to read her father's advice book intending to savor the delicious irony, because Alcott's father was an amazingly bad husband, and this is visible throughout all of her fiction.

Little Women, for example, concerns the life of the four March sisters and their mother. Where is Mr. March? He's off fighting in the Civil War, not because he was drafted, and not because his family doesn't need him, but as a matter of principle. He barely appears, while the female Marches struggle along without him.

I'm more familiar with Eight Cousins, which is even weirder. The story concerns Rose and her extended family, twenty-one people in all, and among those twenty-one people there is no example of a wholly and happily married couple. Rose, the protagonist, has been orphaned shortly before the story opens. She is sent away into the care of her aunts. The aunts include Aunt Plenty, who is a widow; Aunts Clara and Jessie, whose husbands are away on a trading voyages for the entire book; Aunt Myra, also a widow, and Aunt Peace, whose fiancé died the day of their wedding.

Aunt Jane does have a husband, who is a busy, industrious merchant—except when Jane is around; then he is always asleep. Rose's guardian is Uncle Alex, who is a bachelor.

This theme of the absent or ineffective husband and father runs all through Louisa May Alcott's fiction, and it's easy to guess why: her own father was often absent, and when he was around he was still useless. He made little money, and spent what money he did make on utopian schemes. Lorrie told me a story about how he got the idea that they should eat nothing but apples, and so they did. The only thing that stood between the Alcotts and starvation was the income from Louisa May's writing.

So I was really interested to see what advice Alcott's dad would have to offer on the subject of being a good husband and father, and chuckled whenever he talked insistently about the duties that the husband owes to his family. I quite enjoyed it.

Unfortunately, it was all in vain, because the author, William Andrus Alcott, was not the father of Louisa May Alcott. He was a cousin. Louisa May's father was Amos Bronson Alcott. Whoops.

All of which is presented as a partial explanation of why I have not posted any blog items this week. Sometimes the stuff I'm reading and thinking about is suitable for the blog, sometimes not. I was all excited at the prospect of writing about William Andrus Alcott's advice book, but the humor and irony vanished in a case of mistaken identity.

I could post about what I had for breakfast, but I foreswore such stuff when I decided to start the blog in the first place. If you want that kind of blog, you can't do better than to visit the always engaging blog of Eric Brill.


[Other articles in category /book] permanent link

Sat, 18 Feb 2006

On the prolixity of Baroque authors
As readers of my blog know, I have lately been reading scientific and philosophical works of Robert Hooke, the diary of Samuel Pepys, and various essays by John Wilkins, all written during the 17th century. I've also been reading various works of Sir Thomas Browne, also from around the same time; I'm not sure how I've avoided mentioning him so far. (Had I been writing the blog back in December, Browne would have been all over it. I'm sure he will appear here sooner or later.)

Order
Gulliver's Travels
Gulliver's Travels
with kickback
no kickback
As any reader of Gulliver's Travels (another contemporaneous book) will know, the literary style of the time was verbose. The writers had plenty to say, and they said it, with plenty of subordinate clauses, itemization of examples, parallel constructions, allusions to and quotations (sometimes in Latin and Greek) from previous authors, digression, intermediate discussion, parenthetical remarks, and other such. For example, here is a sentence I chose at random from Wilkins' essay That the Earth May Be a Planet:

The reason why that motion which is caused by the earth does appear as if it were in the heavens, is, because the sensus communit in judging of it, does conceive the eye to be itself immoveable (as was said before) there being no sense that does discern the effects of any motion in the body; and therefore it does conclude every thing to move, which it does perceive to change its distance from it: so that the clouds do not seem to move sometimes, when as notwithstanding they are everywhere carried about with our earth, by such a swift revolution; yet this can be no hindrance at all, why we may not judge aright of their other particular motions, for which there is not the same reason.

There is a reason why this style is called "Baroque".

Baroque writing suits me just fine. The sentences are long, but always clear, if read with care and attention, and I like being required to read with care and attention. I'm good at it, and most modern writing does not offer the reader much repayment for that talent.

The long discussions full of allusion and quotation make me feel as though I'm part of a community of learned scholars, engaged in a careful and centuries-long analysis of the universe and Man's place in it. That's something I've always wanted, something I think we don't have much of today. In these authors I've at last begun to find it. When Wilkins mentions something that Vossius said on some topic, it doesn't bother me that I've never heard of Vossius. I feel that Wilkins is paying me a compliment by assuming that I will know who he's talking about, and that I might even recognize the quotation, or that even if I don't I will want to find out.

These authors do not patronize the reader or try to amuse him with cheap tricks. They assume that the reader wants to think, and that to be instructed is to be entertained.

But as usual I have wandered from the main point, which is to present a couple of contrasts to the usual 17th-century verbosity.

One is from Robert Hooke, in a review he wrote about John Dee's Book of Spirits. Dee was a mathematician, scholar, and occultist of the previous century. Hooke starts by saying:

Having lately met a book, which . . . I never had the Curiosity to examine further into, than upon opening here and there to read some few Lines, which seeming for the most very extravagant, I neglected any further Inquiry into it. . .

Hooke says he eventually decided to read it and see how it was:

Nor was I frighted from this my Purpose, either by the six pretended Conjurers prefixt to the Title. . .; nor by the Title, viz. A true and full Relation of what passed for many Years between Dr. John Dee (a Mathematician of great Fame in Queen Elizabeth and King James, their Reigns) and some spirits, tending (had it succeeded) to a General Alteration of most States and Kingdoms in the World, &c. . . . No, nor thirdly the long and frighting Preface of the Publisher. . .

Even Hooke was put off by the long and extravagant title and the "long and frighting Preface". That must have been some preface!

Another contrast is provided by Wilkins again. He is discussing the same point as the sentence I quoted above: what would be the observable effects of the rotation of the earth. In particular, the current point is whether a spinning earth would cause tall buildings to fall down, I suppose because their bottoms would be swept away by the earth while the tops stayed in place. (Yes, Wilkins provides a reference to someone who thinks this.) Wilkins answers at some length:

The motion of the earth is always equal and like itself; not by starts and fits. If a glass of beer may stand firmly enough in a ship, when it moves swiftly upon a smooth stream, much less then will the motion of the earth, which is more natural, an so consequently more equal, cause any danger unto those buildings that are erected upon it.

But then he quotes another writer's dissenting view:

But supposing (saith Rosse) that this motion were natural to the earth, yet it is not natural to towns and buildings, for these are artificial.

Wilkins' response to this is not at all what I expected. Here it is, complete:

To which I answer: ha, ha, he.

Order
Graphical Evolution
Graphical Evolution
with kickback
no kickback
Finally, I'm going to add that of all the books I've ever read, the one with the longest and most baroque title was a work on extremal graph theory, published in 1985:

Graphical evolution: An introduction to the theory of random graphs, wherein the most relevant probability models for graphs are described together with certain threshold functions which facilitate the careful study of the structure of a graph as it grows and specifically reveal the mysterious circumstances surrounding the abrupt appearance of the unique giant component which systematically absorbs its neighbors, devouring the larger first and ruthlessly continuing until the last isolated vertices have been swallowed up, whereupon the giant is suddenly brought under control by a spanning cycle. The text is laced with challenging exercises especially designed to instruct, and its accompanied by an appendix stuffed with useful formulas that everyone should know.

The rest of the book is similarly eccentric, including, for example, a footnote pointing out that fish do not obey the Poisson distribution.


[Other articles in category /book] permanent link

Wed, 15 Feb 2006

Saguaros
In a recent post, I discussed an uninteresting travel book I had read recently, and compared it with Kon-Tiki, which is an interesting travel book. I'm sure I'll write more about travel books later; I have at least one post coming up about Kon-Tiki, and at least one about William Bligh's book about the mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty. This latter one may not sound much like a travel book, but it is, and it's a corker.

Order
Blue Highways
Blue Highways
with kickback
no kickback
But today I realized I'd forgotten to mention one of my favorite travel books of all, Blue Highways, by William Least Heat Moon. Heat Moon lost his job and his wife, and decided that it was time to take a long trip. He got in his van and drove around the United States, staying away from big cities and big highways, driving on the little roads, the ones that are marked in blue on the maps. (My grandmother had a Bud Blake cartoon hanging in her kitchen for my whole life. It depicted an annoyed husband, driving a small, 1940's-style car, being crowded almost out of his seat by the large folding roadmap his wife was consulting. The caption said "And then, in about half an inch, you turn onto a tiny blue road...".)

Everywhere he went, Heat Moon stopped and talked to people: men refurbishing an 18th-century log cabin in Kentucky; a monk in Georgia; hang-gliders in Washington; farmers in New York and fishermen in Maine; old folks and young folks. All of them have interesting things to say, and Heat Moon has interesting things to say about all of them. You can open up the book anywhere and strike gold.

For example, on page 11, Heat Moon stops in Shelbyville, Kentucky, for dinner:

Just outside of town and surrounded by cattle and pastures was Claudia Sanders Dinner House, a low building attached to an old brick farmhouse with red roof. I didn't make the connection in names until I was inside and saw a mantel full of coffee mugs of a smiling Harlan Sanders. Claudia was his wife, and the Colonel once worked out of the farmhouse before the great buckets-in-the-sky poured down their golden bounty of extra crispy. The Dinner House specialized in Kentucky ham and country-style vegetables.

One of my favorite passages is right at the beginning:

She came back with grape jelly. In a land of quince jelly, apple butter, apricot jam, blueberry preserves, pear conserves, and lemon marmalade, you always get grape jelly.

Another is right at the end:

Order Point, Long Island, was a few houses and a collapsed four-story inn built in 1810, so I went to Greenport for gas. At an old-style station, the owner himself came out and pumped the no-lead and actually wiped the windshield. I happened to refer to him as a New Yorker.

"Don't call me a New Yorker. This is Long Island."

"I meant the state, not the city."

"Manhattan's a hundred miles from here. We're closer to Boston than the city. Long Island hangs under Connecticut. Look at the houses here, the old ones. They're New England-style because the people that built them came from Connecticut. Towns out here look like Connecticut. I don't give a damn if the city's turned half the island into a suburb—we should rightfully be Connecticut Yankees. Or we should be the seventh New England state. This island's bigger than Rhode Island any way you measure it. The whole business gets my dander up. We used to berth part of the New England whaling fleet here, and that was a pure Yankee business. They called this part of the island 'the flikes' because Long Island even looks like a whale. But you go down to the wharf now and you'll see city boats and a big windjammer that sells rides to people from Mamaroneck and Scarsdale."

He got himself so exercised he overfilled the tank, but he didn't pipe down. "If the East River had've been ten miles wide, we'da been all right." He jerked the nozzle out and clanked it into the pump. "We needed a bay and we got a bastard river no wider than a stream of piss."

I really would like to know what would have happened if the East River had been ten miles wide instead of the stream of piss it is. No Brooklyn, for one thing; and that would be a shame.

But as usual, what I planned to write about was a completely different passage:

The saguaro is ninety percent water, and a big, two-hundred-year-old cactus may hold a ton of it—a two-year supply. With this weight, a plant that begins to lean is soon on the ground; one theory now says that the arms, which begin sprouting only after forty or fifty years when the cactus has some height, are counterweights to keep the plant erect.

That's pretty interesting all by itself. I wonder if he's right? The arms do need an explanation, not just because they are weird-looking, but also because they would seem to be survival-negative. The big problem that desert plants have is the same one that desert animals have: how to stay out of the sun. Unlike animals, they can't hide in underground burrows during the day, or move to shady spots. So most of them do their best to be as narrow and vertical as possible; hence the barrel cactus and the saguaro. Deviating from this pattern, as the saguaro does, exposes more of the plant to the burning rays of the sun, so the plant wouldn't do it without good reason.

I wonder how you'd test something like that? You can't just tip a saguaro over a bit and see where the arms grow out, because those arms can take years and years to grow. (Also, it's not good for the plant, which is an endangered species. There's a reason that biologists like to study fruit flies.) Well, there's another thing on my list of things to look up after I'm granted immortality.

The Monday I drove northeast out of Phoenix, saguaros were in bloom—comparatively small, greenish-white blossoms perched on top of the trunks like undersized Easter bonnets; at night, long-nosed bats came to pollinate them. But by day, cactus wrens, birds of daring aerial skill, put on the show as they made kamikaze dives between toothpick-sized thorns into nest cavities, where they were safe from everything except the incredible ascents over the spines by black racers in search of eggs the snakes would swallow whole.

Climbing snakes, wow! One of the legends of my house comes from a nature show that Lorrie and I once saw about alligators. The show depicted a woodpecker that lives in pitchy pine trees and pecks the trees to encourage a flow of the irritating sap down the outside. This deters the corn snakes from climbing the trees to eat the woodpeckers' eggs. This show followed the slow and careful ascent of a corn snake up one of the trees. As it was almost at the nest, it lost its grip and fell twenty feet to the ground. Stunned, it gathered its snaky wits and slithered away, apparently embarrassed, into the water nearby--where it was immediately devoured by a huge gator. A corn snake having the worst day of its life.

But the cosmic balance was preserved, because the cameraman was having the best day of his life.

I can just imagine how Mirza Abu Taleb Khan would have related this same journey:

We saw some large and remarkable plants as we left Phoenix. Mr. Charles Hightower informed me that they are called "cactus". These plants grew in many surprising and diverse shapes.


[Other articles in category /book] permanent link

Mon, 06 Feb 2006

The Almighty Dollar

Order
Martin Chuzzlewit
Martin Chuzzlewit
with kickback
no kickback
I continue to read Martin Chuzzlewit. I have reached the point in the book at which Dickens realized that sales were poorer than he had hoped, and threw in a plot twist to raise interest: Martin has decamped for America. Dickens is now insulting the Americans as hard as he can. I find that the book has suddenly become substantially less interesting and that Dickens's keen observation and superior characterization are becoming sloppy. Or perhaps I'm just taking it too personally.

(On the bright side, we are getting to see more of Mark Tapley. Mark is kind, astute, thrifty, and above all, cheerful. Born with a naturally jolly disposition, he has chosen it as his life goal to remain jolly under even the most trying circumstances. In pursuit of this goal, he seeks out the most trying circumstances possible, the better to do himself credit by his unfailing jollity. When we first meet him, he is working at the Blue Dragon pub, but is planning to quit:

`What's the use of my stopping at the Dragon? It an't at all the sort of place for me. When I left London (I'm a Kentish man by birth, though), and took that situation here, I quite made up my mind that it was the dullest little out-of-the-way corner in England, and that there would be some credit in being jolly under such circumstances. But, Lord, there's no dullness at the Dragon! Skittles, cricket, quoits, nine-pins, comic songs, choruses, company round the chimney corner every winter's evening. Any man could be jolly at the Dragon. There's no credit in that.'

`But if common report be true for once, Mark, as I think it is, being able to confirm it by what I know myself,' said Mr. Pinch, `you are the cause of half this merriment, and set it going.'

`There may be something in that, too, sir,' answered Mark. `But that's no consolation.'

Anyway, that is the end of my digression about Mark Tapley. I started this note not to discuss the delightfully insane Mark Tapley, but to bring up the following passage:

Martin thought this an uncomfortable custom, but he kept his opinion to himself for the present, being anxious to hear, and inform himself by, the conversation of the busy gentlemen . . . .

It was rather barren of interest, to say the truth; and the greater part of it may be summed up in one word. Dollars. All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues, and associations, seemed to be melted down into dollars. Whatever the chance contributions that fell into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars. Men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up, and knocked down for its dollars. The next respectable thing to dollars was any venture having their attainment for its end. The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard from the ship of his Good Name and Good Intent, the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars. Make commerce one huge lie and mighty theft. Deface the banner of the nation for an idle rag; pollute it star by star; and cut out stripe by stripe as from the arm of a degraded soldier. Do anything for dollars! What is a flag to them!

This reminded me of something, and it took me a while to dredge it up from my memory. But at last I did, and I present it to you:

I heard an Englishman, who had been long resident in America, declare that in following, in meeting, or in overtaking, in the street, on the road, or in the field, at the theatre, the coffee-house, or at home, he had never overheard Americans conversing without the word DOLLAR being pronounced between them. Such unity of purpose, such sympathy of feeling, can, I believe, be found nowhere else, except, perhaps, in an ants' nest. The result is exactly what might be anticipated. This sordid object, for ever before their eyes, must inevitably produce a sordid tone of mind, and, worse still, it produces a seared and blunted conscience on all questions of probity.

That's from Domestic Manners of the Americans, by Frances Trollope, published 1832. (Thanks to the Wonders of the Internet, it is available online. I have not read this myself; I remembered the quotation from The Book of Insults, edited by Nancy McPhee, and thanks to more Wonders, was able to track down the source for the first time.)

Martin Chuzzlewit was written in 1843-1844. Dickens had travelled in America for the first time in 1842. I wonder how much of what he saw and thought was colored by Trollope's account, which I imagine he had read.


[Other articles in category /book] permanent link

Fri, 27 Jan 2006

Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan
In a couple of recent posts, I talked about the lucky finds you can have then you browse at random in strange libraries. Sometimes the finds don't turn out so well.

I'm an employee of the University of Pennsylvania, and one of the best fringe benefits of the job is that I get unrestricted access to the library and generous borrowing privileges. A few weeks ago I was up there, and found my way somehow into the section with the travel books. I grabbed a bunch, one of which was the source for my discussion of the dot product in 1580. Another was Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan, written around 1806, and translated into English and published in English in 1814.

Order
Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan
Travels of Mirza Abu Taleb Khan
with kickback
no kickback
Travels is the account of a Persian nobleman who fell upon hard times in India and decided to take a leave of absence and travel to Europe. His travels lasted from 1799 through August 1803, and when he got back to Calcutta, he wrote up an account of his journey for popular consumption.

Wow, what a find, I thought, when I discovered it in the library. How could such a book fail to be fascinating? But if you take that as a real question, not as a rhetorical one, an answer comes to mind immediately: Mirza Abu Taleb does not have very much to say!

A large portion of the book drops the names of the many people that Mirza Abu Taleb met with, had dinner with, went riding with, went drinking with, or attended a party at the house of. Opening the book at random, for example, I find:

The Duke of Leinster, the first of the nobles of this kingdom honoured me with an invitation; his house is the most superb of any in Dublin, and contains a very numerous and valuable collection of statues and paintings. His grace is distinguished for the dignity of his manners, and the urbanity of his disposition. He is blessed with several angelic daughters.

There you see how to use sixty-two words to communicate nothing. How fascinating it might have been to hear about the superbities of the Duke's house. How marvelous to have seen even one of the numerous and valuable statues. How delightful to meet one of his several angelic daughters. How unfortunate that Abu Taleb's powers of description have been exhausted and that we don't get to do any of those things. "Dude, I saw the awesomest house yesterday! I can't really describe it, but it was really really awesome!"

Here's another:

[In Paris] I also had the pleasure of again meeting my friend Colonel Wombell, from whom I experienced so much civility in Dublin. He was rejoiced to see me, and accompanied me to all the public places. From Mr. and Miss Ogilvy I received the most marked attention.

I could quote another fifty paragraphs like those, but I'll spare you.

Even when Abu Taleb has something to say, he usually doesn't say it:

I was much entertained by an exhibition of Horsemanship, by Mr. Astley and his company. They have an established house in London, but come over to Dublin for four or five months in every year, to gratify the Irish, by displaying their skill in this science, which far surpasses any thing I ever saw in India.

Oh boy! I can't wait to hear about the surpassing horsemanship. Did they do tricks? How many were in the company? Was it men only, or both men and women? Did they wear glittery costumes? What were the horses like? Was the exhibition indoors or out? Was the crowd pleased? Did anything go wrong?

I don't know. That's all there is about Mr. Astley and his company.

Almost the whole book is like this. Abu Taleb is simply not a good observer. Good writers in any language can make you feel that you were there at the same place and the same time, seeing what they saw and hearing what they heard. Abu Taleb doesn't understand that one good specific story is worth a pound of vague, obscure generalities. This defect spoils nearly every part of the book in one degree or another:

[The Irish] are not so intolerant as the English, neither have they austerity and bigotry of the Scotch. In bravery and determination, hospitality, and prodigality, freedom of speech and open-heartedness, they surpass the English and the Scotch, but are deficient in prudence and sound judgement: they are nevertheless witty, and quick of comprehension.

But every once in a while you come upon an anecdote or some other specific. I found the next passage interesting:

Thus my land lady and her children soon comprehended my broken English; and what I could not explain by language, they understood by signs. . . . When I was about to leave them, and proceed on my journey, many of my friends appeared much affected, and said: "With your little knowledge of the language, you will suffer much distress in England; for the people there will not give themselves any trouble to comprehend your meaning, or to make themselves useful to you." In fact, after I had resided for a whole year in England, and could speak the language a hundred times better than on my first arrival, I found much more difficulty in obtaining what I wanted, than I did in Ireland.

Aha, so that's what he meant by "quick of comprehension". Thanks, Mirza.

Here's another passage I liked:

In this country and all through Europe, but especially in France and in Italy, statues of stone and marble are held in high estimation, approaching to idolatry. Once in my presence, in London, a figure which had lost its head, arms, and legs, and of which, in short, nothing but the trunk remained, was sold for 40,000 rupees (£5000). It is really astonishing that people possessing so much knowledge and good sense, and who reproach the nobility of Hindoostan with wearing gold and silver ornaments like women, whould be thus tempted by Satan to throw away their money upon useless blocks. There is a great variety of these figures, and they seem to have appropriate statues for every situation. . .

Oh no---he isn't going to stop there, is he? No! We're saved!
. . . thus, at the doors or gates, they have huge janitors; in the interior they have figures of women dancing with tambourines and other musical instruments; over the chimney-pieces they place some of the heathen deities of Greece; in the burying grounds they have the statues of the deceased; and in the gardens they put up devils, tigers, or wolves in pursuit of a fox, in hopes that animals, on beholding these figures will be frightened, and not come into the garden.

If more of the book were like that, it would be a treasure. But you have to wait a long time between such paragraphs.

Order
Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft
Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft
with kickback
no kickback
Order
Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah, Vol. 1
Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah, Vol. 1
with kickback
no kickback
There are plenty of good travel books in the world. Kon-Tiki, for example. In Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl takes you across the Pacific Ocean on a balsa wood raft. Every detail is there: how and why they built the raft, and the troubles they went to to get the balsa, and to build it, and to launch it. How it was steered, and where they kept the food and water. What happened to the logs as they got gradually more waterlogged and the incessant rubbing of the ropes ropes wore them away. What they ate, and drank, and how they cooked and slept and shat. What happened in storms and calm. The fish that came to visit, and how every morning the first duty of the day's cook was to fry up the flying fish that had landed on the roof of the cabin in the night. Every page has some fascinating detail that you would not have been able to invent yourself, and that's what makes it worth reading, because what's the point of reading a book that you could have invented yourself?

Another similarly good travel book is Sir Richard Francis Burton's 1853 account of his pilgimage to Mecca. Infidels were not allowed in the holy city of Mecca. Burton disguised himself as an Afghan and snuck in. I expect I'll have something to say about this book in a future article.



[Other articles in category /book] permanent link

Mon, 23 Jan 2006

The Bowdlerization of Dr. Dolittle

Order
The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle
The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle
with kickback
no kickback
In 1920 Hugh Lofting wrote and illustrated The Story of Doctor Dolittle, an account of a small-town English doctor around 1840 who learns to speak the languages of animals and becomes the most successful veterinarian the world has ever seen. The book was a tremendous success, and spawned thirteen sequels, two posthumously. The 1922 sequel, The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, won the prestigious Newbery award. The books have been reprinted many times, and the first two are now in the public domain in the USA, barring any further meddling by Congress with the copyright statute. The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle was one of my favorite books as a child, and I know it by heart. I returned the original 1922 copy that I had to my grandmother shortly before she died, and replaced it with a 1988 reprinting, the "Dell Centenary Edition". On reading the new copy, I discovered that some changes had been made to the text—I had heard that a recent edition of the books had attempted to remove racist references from them, and I discovered that my new 1988 copy was indeed this edition.

Order
The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (Bowdlerized)
The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle (Bowdlerized)
with kickback
no kickback
The 1988 reprinting contains an afterword by Christopher Lofting, the son of Hugh Lofting, and explains why the changes were made:

When it was decided to reissue the Doctor Dolittle books, we were faced with a challenging opportunity and decision. In some of the books there were certain incidents depicted that, in light of today's sensitivities, were considered by some to be disrespectful to ethnic minorities and, therefore, perhaps inappropriate for today's young reader. In these centenary editions, this issue is addressed.

. . . After much soul-searching the consensus was that changes should be made. The deciding factor was the strong belief that the author himself would have immediately approved of making the alterations. Hugh Lofting would have been appalled at the suggestion that any part of his work could give offense and would have been the first to have made the changes himself. In any case, the alterations are minor enough not to interfere with the style and spirit of the original.

This note will summarize some of the changes to The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle. I have not examined the text exhaustively. I worked from memory, reading the Centenary Edition, and when I thought I noticed a change, I crosschecked the text against the Project Gutenberg version of the original text. So this does not purport to be a complete listing of all the changes that were made. But I do think it is comprehensive enough to give a sense of what was changed.

Many of the changes concern Prince Bumpo, a character who first appeared in The Story of Doctor Dolittle. Bumpo is a black African prince, who, at the beginning of Voyages, is in England, attending school at Oxford. Bumpo is a highly sympathetic character, but also a comic one. In Voyages his speech is sprinkled with inappropriate "Oxford" words: he refers to "the college quadrilateral", and later says "I feel I am about to weep from sediment", for example. Studying algebra makes his head hurt, but he says "I think Cicero's fine—so simultaneous. By the way, they tell me his son is rowing for our college next year—charming fellow." None of this humor at Bumpo's expense has been removed from the Centenary Edition.

Bumpo's first appearance in the book, however, has been substantially cut:

The Doctor had no sooner gone below to stow away his note-books than another visitor appeared upon the gang-plank. This was a most extraordinary-looking black man. The only other negroes I had seen had been in circuses, where they wore feathers and bone necklaces and things like that. But this one was dressed in a fashionable frock coat with an enormous bright red cravat. On his head was a straw hat with a gay band; and over this he held a large green umbrella. He was very smart in every respect except his feet. He wore no shoes or socks.

In the revised edition, this is abridged to:

The Doctor had no sooner gone below to stow away his note-books than another visitor appeared upon the gang-plank. This was a black man, very fashionably dressed. (p. 128)

I think it's interesting that they excised the part about Bumpo being barefooted, because the explanation of his now unmentioned barefootedness still appears on the following page. (The shoes hurt his feet, and he threw them over the wall of "the college quadrilateral" earlier that morning.) Bumpo's feet make another appearance later on:

I very soon grew to be quite fond of our funny black friend Bumpo, with his grand way of speaking and his enormous feet which some one was always stepping on or falling over.
The only change to this in the revised version is the omission of the word 'black'. (p.139)

This is typical. Most of the changes are excisions of rather ordinary references to the skin color of the characters. For example, the original:

It is quite possible we shall be the first white men to land there. But I daresay we shall have some difficulty in finding it first."
The bowdlerized version omits 'white men'. (p.120.)

Another typical cut:

"Great Red-Skin," he said in the fierce screams and short grunts that the big birds use, "never have I been so glad in all my life as I am to-day to find you still alive."

In a flash Long Arrow's stony face lit up with a smile of understanding; and back came the answer in eagle-tongue.

"Mighty White Man, I owe my life to you. For the remainder of my days I am your servant to command."

(Long Arrow has been buried alive for several months in a cave.) The revised edition replaces "Great Red-Skin" with "Great Long Arrow", and "Mighty White Man" with "Mighty Friend". (p.223)

Another, larger change of this type, where apparently value-neutral references to skin color have been excised, is in the poem "The Song of the Terrible Three" at the end of part V, chapter 5. The complete poem is:

THE SONG OF THE TERRIBLE THREE

Oh hear ye the Song of the Terrible Three
And the fight that they fought by the edge of the sea.
Down from the mountains, the rocks and the crags,
Swarming like wasps, came the Bag-jagderags.

Surrounding our village, our walls they broke down.
Oh, sad was the plight of our men and our town!
But Heaven determined our land to set free
And sent us the help of the Terrible Three.

One was a Black—he was dark as the night;
One was a Red-skin, a mountain of height;
But the chief was a White Man, round like a bee;
And all in a row stood the Terrible Three.

Shoulder to shoulder, they hammered and hit.
Like demons of fury they kicked and they bit.
Like a wall of destruction they stood in a row,
Flattening enemies, six at a blow.

Oh, strong was the Red-skin fierce was the Black.
Bag-jagderags trembled and tried to turn back.
But 'twas of the White Man they shouted, "Beware!
He throws men in handfuls, straight up in the air!"

Long shall they frighten bad children at night
With tales of the Red and the Black and the White.
And long shall we sing of the Terrible Three
And the fight that they fought by the edge of the sea.
The ten lines in boldface have been excised in the revised version. Also in this vicinity, the phrase "the strength and weight of those three men of different lands and colors" has been changed to omit "and colors". (pp. 242-243)

Here's an interesting change:

Long Arrow said they were apologizing and trying to tell the Doctor how sorry they were that they had seemed unfriendly to him at the beach. They had never seen a white man before and had really been afraid of him—especially when they saw him conversing with the porpoises. They had thought he was the Devil, they said.
The revised edition changes 'a white man' to 'a man like him' (which seems rather vague) and makes 'devil' lower-case.

In some cases the changes seem completely bizarre. When I first heard that the books had been purged of racism I immediately thought of this passage, in which the protagonists discover that a sailor has stowed away on their boat and eaten all their salt beef (p. 142):

"I don't know what the mischief we're going to do now," I heard her whisper to Bumpo. "We've no money to buy any more; and that salt beef was the most important part of the stores."

"Would it not be good political economy," Bumpo whispered back, "if we salted the able seaman and ate him instead? I should judge that he would weigh more than a hundred and twenty pounds."

"How often must I tell you that we are not in Jolliginki," snapped Polynesia. "Those things are not done on white men's ships—Still," she murmured after a moment's thought, "it's an awfully bright idea. I don't suppose anybody saw him come on to the ship—Oh, but Heavens! we haven't got enough salt. Besides, he'd be sure to taste of tobacco."

I was expecting major changes to this passage, or its complete removal. I would never have guessed the changes that were actually made. Here is the revised version of the passage, with the changed part marked in boldface:

"I don't know what the mischief we're going to do now," I heard her whisper to Bumpo. "We've no money to buy any more; and that salt beef was the most important part of the stores."

"Would it not be good political economy," Bumpo whispered back, "if we salted the able seaman and ate him instead? I should judge that he would weigh more than a hundred and twenty pounds."

"Don't be silly," snapped Polynesia. "Those things are not done anymore.—Still," she murmured after a moment's thought, "it's an awfully bright idea. I don't suppose anybody saw him come on to the ship—Oh, but Heavens! we haven't got enough salt. Besides, he'd be sure to taste of tobacco."

The reference to 'white men' has been removed, but rest of passage, which I would consider to be among the most potentially offensive of the entire book, with its association of Bumpo with cannibalism, is otherwise unchanged. I was amazed. It is interesting to notice that the references to cannibalism have been excised from a passage on page 30:

"There were great doings in Jolliginki when he left. He was scared to death to come. He was the first man from that country to go abroad. He thought he was going to be eaten by white cannibals or something.

The revised edition cuts the sentence about white cannibals. The rest of the paragraph continues:

"You know what those niggers are—that ignorant! Well!—But his father made him come. He said that all the black kings were sending their sons to Oxford now. It was the fashion, and he would have to go. Bumpo wanted to bring his six wives with him. But the king wouldn't let him do that either. Poor Bumpo went off in tears—and everybody in the palace was crying too. You never heard such a hullabaloo."

The revised version reads:

"But his father made him come. He said that all the African kings were sending their sons to Oxford now. It was the fashion, and he would have to go. Poor Bumpo went off in tears—and everybody in the palace was crying too. You never heard such a hullabaloo."

The six paragraphs that follow this, which refer to the Sleeping Beauty subplot from the previous book, The Story of Doctor Dolittle, have been excised. (More about this later.)

There are some apparently trivial changes:

"Listen," said Polynesia, "I've been breaking my head trying to think up some way we can get money to buy those stores with; and at last I've got it."

"The money?" said Bumpo.

"No, stupid. The idea—to make the money with."

The revised edition omits 'stupid'. (p.155) On page 230:

"Poor perishing heathens!" muttered Bumpo. "No wonder the old chief died of cold!"
becomes
"No wonder the old chief died of cold!" muttered Bumpo.
I gather from other people's remarks that the changes to The Story of Doctor Dolittle were much more extensive. In Story (in which Bumpo first appears) there is a subplot that concerns Bumpo wanting to be made into a white prince. The doctor agrees to do this in return for help escaping from jail.

When I found out this had been excised, I thought it was unfortunate. It seems to me that it was easy to view the original plot as a commentary on the cultural appropriation and racism that accompanies colonialism. (Bumpo wants to be a white prince because he has become obsessed with European fairy tales, Sleeping Beauty in particular.) Perhaps had the book been left intact it might have sparked discussion of these issues. I'm told that this subplot was replaced with one in which Bumpo wants the Doctor to turn him into a lion.


[Other articles in category /book] permanent link

Wed, 11 Jan 2006

Typographic conventions in computer books

Order
Perl Medic
Perl Medic
with kickback
no kickback
Order
Perl Debugged
Perl Debugged
with kickback
no kickback
At OSCON this summer I was talking to Peter Scott (author of Perl Debugged, Perl Medic, and other books I wanted to write but didn't), and he observed that the preface of HOP did not contain a section that explained that the prose text was on proportional font and the code was all in monospaced font.

I don't remember what (if any) conclusion Peter drew from this, but I was struck by it, because I had been thinking about that myself for a couple of days. Really, what is this section for? Does anyone really need it? Here, for example, is the corresponding section from Mastering Algorithms with Perl, because it is the first book I pulled off my shelf:

Conventions Used in This Book
Italic
Used for filenames, directory names, URLs, and occasional emphasis.
Constant width
Used for elements of programming languages, text manipulated by programs, code examples, and output.
Constant width bold
Used for use input and for emphasis in code
Constant width italic
Used for replaceable values

Several questions came to my mind as I transcribed that, even though it was 4 AM.

First, does anyone really read this section and pay attention to it, making a careful note that italic font is used for filenames, directory names, URLs, and occasional emphasis? Does anyone, reading the book, and encountering italic text, say to themselves "I wonder what the funny font is about? Oh! I remember that note in the preface that italic font would be used for filenames, directory names, URLs, and occasional emphasis. I guess this must be one of those."

Second, does anyone really need such an explanation? Wouldn't absolutely everyone be able to identify filenames, directory names, URLs, and occasonal emphasis, since these are in italics, without the explicit directions?

I wonder, if anyone really needed these instructions, wouldn't they be confused by the reference to "constant-width italic", which isn't italic at all? (It's slanted, not italic.)

Even if someone needs to be told that constant-width fonts are used for code, do they really need to be told that constant-width bold fonts are used for emphasis in code? If so, shouldn't they also be told that bold roman fonts are used for emphasis in running text?

Order
Common Lisp: The Language
Common Lisp: The Language
with kickback
no kickback

Some books, like Common Lisp: The Language, have extensive introductions explaining their complex notational conventions. For example, pages 4--11 include the following notices:

The symbol "⇒" is used in examples to indicate evaluation. For example,

        (+ 4 5) ⇒ 9
means "the result of evaluating the code (+ 4 5) is (or would be, or would have been) 9."

The symbol "→" is used in examples to indicate macro expansions. ...

Explanation of this sort of unusual notation does seem to me to be valuable. But really the explanations in most computer books make me think of long-playing record albums that have a recorded voice at the end of the first side that instructs the listener "Now turn the record over and listen to the other side."

Order
Higher-Order Perl
Higher-Order Perl
with kickback
no kickback

I don't think omitted this section from HOP on purpose; it simply never occurred to me to put one in. Had MK asked me about it, I don't know what I would have said; they didn't ask.

HOP does have at least one unusual typographic convention: when two versions of the same code are shown, the code in the second version that was modified or changed has been set in boldface. I had been wondering for a couple of weeks before OSCON if I had actually explained that; after running into Peter I finally remembed to check. The answer: no, there is no explanation. And I don't think it's a common convention.

But of all the people who have seen it, including a bunch of official technical reviewers, a few hundred casual readers on the mailing list, and now a few thousand customers, nobody suggested than an explanation was needed, and nobody has reported being puzzled. People seem to understand it right away.

I don't know what to conclude from this yet, although I suspect it will be something like:

(a) the typographic conventions in typical computer books are sufficiently well-established, sufficiently obvious, or both, that you don't have to bother explaining them unles they're really bizarre,

or:

(b) readers are smarter and more resilient than a lot of people give them credit for.

Explanation (b) reminds me of a related topic, which is that conference tutorial attendees are smarter and more resilient than a lot of conference tutorial speakers give them credit for. I suppose that is a topic for a future blog entry.

(Consensus on my mailing list, where this was originally posted, was that the ubiquitous explanations of typographic conventions are not useful. Of course, people for whom they would have been useful were unlikely to be subscribers to my mailing list, so I'm not sure we can conclude anything useful from this.)


[Other articles in category /book] permanent link

Tue, 10 Jan 2006

Book economics

[I sent this out to my book discussion mailing list back in November, but it seems like it might be of general interest, so I'm reposting it. - MJD]

People I talk to often don't understand how authors get paid. It's interesting, so I thought I'd send out a note about it.

Basically, the deal is that you get a percentage of the publisher's net revenues. This percentage is called "royalties". So you're getting a percentage of every book sold. Typical royalties seem to be around 15%. O'Reilly's are usually closer to 10%. If there are multiple authors, they split the royalty between them.

Every three or six months your publisher will send you a statement that says how many copies sold and at what price, and what your royalties are. If the publisher owes you money, the statement will be accompanied by a check.

The 15% royalty is a percentage of the net receipts. The publisher never sees a lot of the money you pay for the book in a store. Say you buy a book for $60 in a bookstore. About half of that goes to the store and the book distributor. The publisher gets the other half. So the publisher has sold the book to the distributor for $30, and the distributor sold it to the store for perhaps $45. This is why companies like Amazon can offer such a large discount: there's no store and no distributor.

So let's apply this information to a practical example and snoop into someone else's finances. Perl Cookbook sells for $50. Of that $50, O'Reilly probably sees about $25. Of that $25, about $2.50 is authors' royalties. Assuming that Tom and Nat split the royalties evenly (which perhaps they didn't; Tom was more important than Nat) each of them gets about $1.25 per copy sold. Since O'Reilly claims to have sold 150,000 copies of this book, we can guess that Tom has made around $187,500 from this book. Maybe. It might be more (if Tom got more than 50%) and it might be less (that 150,000 might include foreign sales, for which the royalty might be different, or bulk sales, for which the publisher might discount the cover price; also, a lot of those 150,000 copies were the first edition, and I forget the price of that.) But we can figure that Tom and Nat did pretty well from this book. On the other hand, if $187,500 sounds like a lot, recall that that's the total for 8 years, averaging about $23,500 per year, and also recall that, as Nat says, writing a book involves staring at the blank page until blood starts to ooze from your pores.

Here's a more complicated example. The book Best of The Perl Journal vol. 1 is a collection of articles by many people. The deal these people were offered was that if they contributed less than X amount, they would get a flat $150, and if they contributed more than X amount, they would get royalties in proportion to the number of pages they contributed. (I forget what X was.) I was by far the contributor of the largest number of pages, about 14% of the entire book. The book has a cover price of $40, so O'Reilly's net revenues are about $20 per copy and the royalties are about $2 per copy. Of that $2, I get about 14%, or $0.28 per copy. But for Best of the Perl Journal, vol. 2, I contributed only one article and got the flat $150. Which one was worth more for me? I think it was probably volume 1, but it's closer than you might think. There was a biggish check of a hundred and some dollars when the book was first published, and then a smaller check, and by now the checks are coming in amounts like $20.55 and $12.83.

The author only gets the 15% on the publisher's net receipts. If the books in the stores aren't selling, the bookstore gets to return them to the publisher for a credit. The publisher subtracts these copies from the number of copies sold to arrive at the royalty. If more copies come back than are sold, the author ends up owing the publisher money! Sometimes when the book is a mass-market paperback, the publisher doesn't want the returned copies; in this case the store is supposed to destroy the books, tear off the covers, and send the covers back to the publisher to prove that the copies didn't sell. This saves on postage and trouble. Sometimes you see these coverless books appear for sale anyway.

When you sign the contract to write the book, you usually get an "advance". This is a chunk of money that the publisher pays you in advance to help support you while you're writing. When you hear about authors like Stephen King getting a one-million-dollar advance, this is what they are talking about. But the advance is really a loan; you pay it back out of your royalties, and until the advance is repaid, you don't see any royalty checks. If you write the book and then it doesn't sell, you don't get any royalties, but you still get to keep the advance. But if you don't write the book, you usually have to return the advance, or most of the advance. I've known authors who declined to take an advance, but it seems to me that there is no downside to getting as big an advance as possible. In the worst case, the book doesn't sell, and then you have more money than you would have gotten from the royalties. If the book does sell, you have the same amount of money, but you have it sooner. I got a big advance for HOP. My advance will be paid back after 4,836 copies are sold. Exercise: estimate the size of my advance. (Actually, the 4,836 is not quite correct, because of variations in revenues from overseas sales, discounted copies, and such like. When the publisher sells a copy of the book from their web site, it costs the buyer $51 instead of $60, but the publisher gets the whole $51, and pays royalties on the full amount.)

If the publisher manages to exploit the book in other ways, the author gets various percentages. If Morgan Kaufmann produces a Chinese translation of HOP, I get 5% of the revenues for each copy; if instead they sell to a Chinese publisher the rights to produce and sell a Chinese translation, I get 50% of whatever the Chinese publisher paid them. If Universal pictures were to pay my publisher a million dollars for the rights to make HOP into a movie starring Kevin Bacon, I would get $50,000 of that. (Wouldn't it be cool to live in that universe? I hear that 119 is a prime number over there.)

If you find this kind of thing interesting, O'Reilly has an annotated version of their standard publishing contract online.

[ Addendum 20060109: I was inspired to repost this by the arrival in the mail today of my O'Reilly quarterly royalty statement. I thought I'd share the numbers. Since the last statement, 31 copies of Computer Science & Perl Programming were sold: 16 copies domestically and 15 foreign. The cover price is $39.95, so we would expect that O'Reilly's revenues would be close to $619.22; in fact, they reported revenues of $602.89. My royalty is 1.704 percent. The statement was therefore accompanied by a check for $10.27. Who says writing doesn't pay? ]

[ Addendum 20140428: The original source of Nat's remark about writing is from Gene Fowler, who said “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” ]


[Other articles in category /book] permanent link