The Emperor’s new Kindle

Napoleon, according to this article from Open Culture, owned so many books he needed his own personal librarian. He was also very keen on having a significant collection of his books with him whenever he went travelling. This worked well for a while…

Napoleon’s Kindle: see the miniaturized traveling library he took on military campaigns
… but eventually “Napoleon found that many books which he wanted to consult were not included in the collection,” for obvious reasons of space. And so, on July 8, 1803, he sent his librarian these orders:

The Emperor wishes you to form a traveling library of one thousand volumes in small 12mo and printed in handsome type. It is his Majesty’s intention to have these works printed for his special use, and in order to economize space there is to be no margin to them. They should contain from five hundred to six hundred pages, and be bound in covers as flexible as possible and with spring backs. There should be forty works on religion, forty dramatic works, forty volumes of epic and sixty of other poetry, one hundred novels and sixty volumes of history, the remainder being historical memoirs of every period.

In sum: not only did Napoleon possess a traveling library, but when that traveling library proved too cumbersome for his many and varied literary demands, he had a whole new set of not just portable book cases but even more portable books made for him. … This prefigured in a highly analog manner the digital-age concept of recreating books in another format specifically for compactness and convenience — the kind of compactness and convenience now increasingly available to all of us today, and to a degree Napoleon never could have imagined, let alone demanded.

A bookshop, but not as we know it?

The novelist Chuck Wendig visited an Amazon Bookstore for the first time recently. It was an unsettling experience.

My trip to an Amazon Bookstore: a review
Now, stepping foot into a physical Amazon bookstore is immediately surreal, in part because Amazon has for so long been a purely digital entity — so, when you enter this space, you become momentarily concerned that you have just shoved your Meatspace Body into a Cyberspace Realm, like you’ve broken some critical rule of reality. “WAIT IS THIS THE MATRIX. IS THIS THE OASIS. IS THIS REAL. ARE MY FINGER-TOUCHES ANALOGOUS TO MOUSE-CLICKS. IF I TOUCH A BOOK DO I BUY IT. AM I JUST TALKING IN BINARY CODE NOW.” (“Sir, you’re being weird,” one of the booksellers helpfully whispers into my ear.)

The other aspect of surreality comes from the fact that all the books are face out.

The trip left him a little cold, and not just because of that strange shelving choice.

A different kind of banned book

This is a fascinating story from Codex 99 — an incredible website I’ve only recently discovered, but so glad I have.

Topographische Anatomie des Menschen – Eduard Pernkopf
After he died suddenly in 1955, Pernkopf left behind the first three volumes of his monumental Topographische Anatomie des Menschen (The Topographical Anatomy of Man). The book was unlike anything attempted before—a watershed in the history in medical illustration. To many it was the most beautiful, detailed and important anatomical work ever published, but its troubled past eventually caught up with it and it became a contentious case study in biomedical ethics. Today the Anatomie is effectively banned; hidden away in library archives and listed as “out of circulation.”

[…]

The University of Vienna wasn’t particularly interested in reliving its’ Nazi past, but under pressure, especially from Yad Vashem, it eventually agreed to form an official inquiry—the Senate Project—to review the issue. Daniela Angetter, a young medical historian, was tasked with tracing records that, in many cases, simply no longer existed. What she and the Senate Project finally reported was beyond horrific; almost surreal in its’ scale.

[…]

Needless to say, the University’s report raised a considerable ethical debate in the medical community. It’s easy to dismiss the brutally flawed Nazi science of Josef Mengele or Carl Clauberg, but what do you do with the exemplary science of Pernkopf? What do you do with the Anatomie?

Counting the uncountable

“Not all things worth counting are countable and not all things that count are worth counting.” — Albert Einstein (Or was it?)

Chris Dillow reviews The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Muller, a book about “how the obsession with quantifying human performance threatens our schools, medical care, businesses, and government.”

The Tyranny of Metrics: a review
Muller provides lots of examples of this, mostly from the US. But you’ll all have examples of your own. In universities the Research Assessment Exercise (now the REF) contributed to increased administration costs and perhaps to the replicability crisis by incentivizing the publication of mediocre research. In schools, targets can encourage teaching to the test, endless revision and a focus upon the marginal student to the neglect of both the strongest and weakest. Waiting-time targets might distort clinical priorities. Immigration targets deter foreign students and lead to the harassment of people who have lived here for decades. Sales targets encourage workers to mis-sell financial products, cook the books, or increase risk by encouraging “liars’ loans. And so on.

It’s not all bad news, though. It’s just a question of balancing the quantitative with the qualitative.

The Tyranny of Metrics is not, however, a diatribe against targets. Muller points to the experience of some US hospitals to show that metrics can work. They do so, he says, when they are “based on collaboration and peer review”:

Measurements are more likely to be meaningful when they are developed from the bottom up, with input from teachers, nurses and the cop on the beat.

In other words, metrics can succeed when they are complements to knowledge: when they organize the tacit and dispersed professional judgements of people who know ground truth.

Apes on a stage

One of my favourite books is now a play, and Patrick Marmion’s stage version of Will Self’s Great Apes is getting great reviews.

Young British Apes
Transferred to the present day, complete with mobile phones, Twitter and “the statue of the colonial fascist Rhodes”, the story loses none of its satirical power. There is a hilarious scene in which a celebrated naturalist (Stephen Ventura) talks to Simon about the mating habits of humans in the wild. Office politics are shown in all their fighting, biting, bum-kissing glory. Monkey puns – “the green shoots of recovery”, “the swing of my group house” and suchlike – are good, but the funniest scenes are those that take place among the art mob. Simon, with his asymmetric quiff and endless supplies of drugs, is a composite of all the trendy artists of the past two decades.

Back in the Young British Artist era, Self’s novel was an early prophecy of artists losing their “sense of perspective”. Marmion’s version is cleverly done, playing on our nostalgia for the year when New Labour’s landslide victory was followed by Charles Saatchi’s show Sensation: Young British Artists – a feeling that endures because 1997 was “the future that never happened” (to borrow the title of Richard Power Sayeed’s recent book). Twenty years and Turner Prizes later, we are, in Busner’s words, “not into the woods yet”.

And here’s a section from the author on what he was aiming for with his novel.

Will Self on Great Apes
It became my objective to write the ape satire that would mark our annihilation of our near-conspecific: a prolonged and clamorous howl of approaching species-loneliness. My tactics were simple: to pile detail-upon-detail of chimp/human physical correspondence, until my readers had no option but to accept – in their very guts, muscles and sinews – the reality of their kinship.

Read more about Great Apes at the Arcola Theatre and watch the trailer and behind-the-scenes videos.

Left on the shelf

I’m not alone in having unread books on my bookshelf. (Sometimes they don’t even get that far.)

“Tsundoku,” the Japanese word for the new books that pile up on our shelves, should enter the English language
There are some words out there that are brilliantly evocative and at the same time impossible to fully translate. Yiddish has the word shlimazl, which basically means a perpetually unlucky person. German has the word Backpfeifengesicht, which roughly means a face that is badly in need of a fist. And then there’s the Japanese word tsundoku, which perfectly describes the state of my apartment. It means buying books and letting them pile up unread.

We readers all have books we can’t seem to finish, but the same seems to be true of authors.

In praise of unfinished novels
…A more accurate term, I think, is “agony.” Although the word now denotes intense mental suffering, the Greek word agonia originally meant a “struggle for victory,” and the combatant who did the struggling was called an agonist. The agony of authors like Ellison, Twain, and Wallace, along with others like Truman Capote, combined these senses. In their unfinished novels, we bear witness to a contest between an author and their work beneath which flows a current of psychological anguish. This palpable sense of friction is one of the chief beauties of unfinished novels.

[…]

In my ambles through the history of literary failure, I discovered that not every unfinishable novel is as tortured as Ellison’s was. Indeed, many embrace unfinishability as an aesthetic virtue. This is certainly true of postmodern novels like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which revel in their potential endlessness, but earlier centuries had their partisans of the unfinished, too. Herman Melville concludes a chapter of Moby-Dick, for instance, with the declaration, “God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.”

Not so much left on the shelf as never made it to the shelf in the first place.

Speaking of not reading books though, here’s a great passage from Umberto Eco’s review of Pierre Bayard’s book, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.

On unread books
But the most interesting thing is that Bayard has failed to notice that, in admitting his three intentional errors, he implicitly assumes that one way of reading is more correct than others, so that he carries out a meticulous study of the books he quotes in order to support his theory about not reading them. The contradiction is so apparent that it makes one wonder whether Bayard has actually read the book he’s written.

The book is mightier than the wall?

We mustn’t lose sight of how impactful ideas can be, in a seemingly thoughtless world.

A single book disrupts the foundation of a brick wall by Jorge Méndez Blake
Although a larger metaphor could be applied to the installation no matter what piece of literature was chosen, Méndez Blake specifically selected The Castle to pay tribute to Kafka’s lifestyle and work. The novelist was a deeply introverted figure who wrote privately throughout his life, and was only published posthumously by his friend Max Brod. This minimal, yet poignant presence is reflected in the brick work—Kafka’s novel showcasing how a small idea can have a monumental presence.

Here, a book becomes part of a larger sculpture, but there are many examples of artworks that use books as sculptural objects in themselves.

Carving culture: sculptural masterpieces made from old books
Sensual, rugged, breathtakingly intricate, ranging from “literary jewelry” to paperback chess sets to giant area rugs woven of discarded book spines, these cut and carved tomes remind us that art is not a thing but a way — a way of being in the world that transmutes its dead cells into living materials, its cultural legacy into ever-evolving art forms and creative sensibilities.

Artist takes old books and gives them new life as intricate sculptures
Dettmer puts on display his pretty fantastic creations, all while explaining how he sees the book — as a body, a technology, a tool, a machine, a landscape, a case study in archaeology.

Old books transformed into imaginative 3D illustrations of fairy tale scenes
Seattle-based artist Isobelle Ouzman creates 3D illustrations from discarded books found in dumpsters, recycling bins, and local thrift stores. She adopts these forgotten books as a way to give them a second life, cutting and pasting the books into layered fairy tale scenes instead of letting the novels collect dust or fall prey to the elements.

Or how about books as building material? They form the foundations of our societies, as well as being products of them.

Defiant Democracy: Parthenon replica made of 100,000 banned books
The titles include Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and George Orwell’s 1984. The books are wrapped around a metal frame like a shingled facade with their covers visible, proving that despite efforts to keep their contents from the public, they have endured.

5,000 books pour out of a building in Spain
Artist Alicia Martin’s tornado of books shoot out a window like a burst of water from a giant hose. The Spain-based artist’s sculptural installation at Casa de America, Madrid depicts a cavalcade of books streaming out of the side of a building. The whirlwind of literature defies gravity and draws attention with its grandeur size. There have been three site-specific installations, thus far, of the massive sculptural works in this series known as Biografias, translated as Biographies, that each feature approximately 5,000 books sprawled out around and atop one another.

Not sure what category to put these books in, though.

Terry Border’s whimsical ‘Wiry limbs, paper backs’ series
Books come to life as characters of themselves.

I think we’ve stopped worrying about the death of the book now, but even if there are fewer books in our libraries, there may well be more in our galleries.

Truth with a small t but a capital Trump

This book about Trump seems to be less biography and more gossip column. But I guess that’s appropriate?

Fire and Fury is a perfectly postmodern White House book
If Michael Wolff is writing fiction in Fire and Fury, this is the kind of fiction he is writing. Indeed, at the very beginning of the book, in an author’s note, Wolff declares himself an unreliable narrator: “Many of the accounts of what has happened in the Trump White House are in conflict with one another; many, in Trumpian fashion, are baldly untrue. Those conflicts, and that looseness with the truth, if not with reality itself, are an elemental thread of the book,” he writes. The traditional promise of the journalist is to find the single, fundamental truth obscured by all the partial, biased accounts he elicits. But Wolff explicitly declines to make that promise; he offers not the story but a whole chorus of stories.

Dry January, by the book

Don’t know why we make such a fuss over Dry January, it’s not as if there’s a problem, right?

From mother’s ruin to modern tipple: how the UK rediscovered gin
There are 315 distilleries in Britain – more than double the number operating five years ago. According to figures collected by HM Revenue & Customs, which hands out licences to produce spirits, nearly 50 opened last year, while just a handful shut up shop. Demand for interesting gins, made by small scale craft and artisan producers has driven a near-20% rise in the total amount of the juniper-flavoured spirit sold.

Not content to just drink it, there is now “the UK’s first gin spa, where visitors can indulge in a juniper foot soak and a gin tasting menu.”

But anything that’s good enough for Orwell is good enough for me.

The place of gin in Orwell’s 1984
One of the few permitted vices in Nineteen Eighty-Four is Victory Gin, which oils the outer party and offers suggestions of Englishness and party power: it’s always served with clove bitters, implying that Oceania’s boots are on the ground in Asia. Chemistry professor Shirley Lin wrote an interesting post about gin’s place in Orwell’s dystopia.

Oily gin: a chemist’s perspective on 1984
Can one shed tears of gin? Orwell describes one of Winston’s childhood memories involving an old man who “reeked of gin” to such a degree that one could imagine “[tears] welling from his eyes were pure gin” (page 33). In the last paragraph of the book, Winston’s tears at the end of the book are also “gin-scented” (page 297). While I was unable to find any studies examining the presence of alcohol in human tears, ethanol in the sweat of continuous drinkers has been detected and quantified.

Roll on February. I think.