The beginning of the ‘end of books’

We’re very familiar with the assertion that printed books will soon be a thing of the past because we’ve moved away from that format. Well, that story began a long time ago.

Octave Uzanne’s “The End of Books” (1894)
The end of books has been declared many times. Over a century before the invention of the e-reader and the meteoric rise of the audiobook and podcast, ardent French bibliophile Octave Uzanne (1851–1931) wrote a story, inspired by rapid advances in phonographic technology, imagining how printed text might disappear.

[…]

One of these men — called the Bibliophile — is asked his opinion on the future of books. He replies as follows:

If by books you are to be understood as referring to our innumerable collections of paper, printed, sewed, and bound in a cover announcing the title of the work, I own to you frankly that I do not believe (and the progress of electricity and modern mechanism forbids me to believe) that Gutenberg’s invention can do otherwise than sooner or later fall into desuetude as a means of current interpretation of our mental products.

“Printing”, he continues, “is…threatened with death by the various devices for registering sound which have lately been invented, and which little by little will go on to perfection.”

Check out these marvellous illustrations or click through for more or to read this yourself from a digitised copy of Scribner’s Magazine.

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Every restaurant-table will be provided with its phonographic collection; the public carriages, the waiting-rooms, the state-rooms of steamers, the halls and chambers of hotels will contain phonographotecks for the use of travellers. The railways will replace the parlor car by a sort of Pullman Circulating Library, which will cause travellers to forget the weariness of the way while leaving their eyes free to admire the landscapes through which they are passing.

The future of the 90s

Nothing wrong with indulging in a little nostalgia now and then, right?

Do you remember Suck.com, the web’s first and best snarky internet/pop-culture magazine? It owned the show in the 90s, and I was a huge fan. It stopped publishing in 2001, but for the last four years the “Suck, Again” project has been serialising its archives as a daily e-mail newsletter, each article sent out twenty years to the day since the original.

Gen Xers rejoice: Suck.com comes back as a daily newsletter
Launched in 1995 by Wired staffers Joey Anuff and Carl Steadman — the same year as Salon.com and a year before Slate — Suck offered a daily riff on early Web culture, politics, pop culture and dating. It was done with a characteristically Gen X flare: arch, wry, ironic and smart. It was massively influential.

It’s fascinating to see just how deeply the internet and the other new technologies have become embedded into our societies since then — and just how ‘on the money’ the Suck.com team were in highlighting the issues that we’re still grappling with today, two decades later.

Like this from April 1999 — fifteen years before Alexa first appeared, for example.

Bit Rot
In the December 1998 Wired, Negroponte – director of MIT’s Media Lab and sharp-dressed retailer of broader-bandwidth tomorrows to corporate America (and to the unwashed AOL millions in his best-selling book Being Digital) – announced that he was vacating his bully pulpit on the magazine’s end page. After six years there, the man, whose audio-animatronic prose is to literary style what the Parkinsonian tics of Disneyland’s Mr. Lincoln are to fluid human movement, had decided to step down.

Negroponte’s departure marks the end of an era when Magna Cartas for the Knowledge Age and Declarations of the Independence of Cyberspace were taken seriously, at least by the self- anointed “digital elite.” Oddly, Negroponte himself seems not to have noticed how retro his Jetsonian visions of digital butlers and supercomputing cufflinks seem in the politically turbulent, economically anxious late-’90s. At the end of a century that has witnessed acid rain and global warming, Bhopal and Chernobyl, he beckons us toward a future where technology never fails, corporations are always benign, and there’s a high-tech magic bullet for every social malady.

Here’s a more favourable piece on him for 21C magazine.

Net prophet
In his immaculate Italian suit, Nicholas Negroponte looks more like an international financier than one of the leading thinkers of the information age. His new book, Being Digital, may have propelled the head of MIT’s Media Lab into the spotlight, but is he a true visionary or just a well-connected hype merchant?

For all that I might now think that Nicholas Negroponte was a little wide of the mark politically, I’ve had his Being Digital book on my bookshelf since it was first published in 1995, just next to Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs. They’re still two of my favourites. 

(Featured image c/o Phil Gyford on Flickr)

Book cover comparisons

Further to some previous posts about book cover design, here’s a birds-eye view of a whole load of them.

11 years of top-selling book covers, arranged by visual similarity
An interactive map of over 5,000 book covers, organized by machine learning.

It’s interesting to play around with the filters, to see how samey some of the genres are. It all reminded me of those photomosaic images from the 90s.

Lighter school bags?

Textbook publisher Pearson is moving to “digital first model, effectively killing future print editions of its college textbooks,” according to Publishers Weekly.

Pearson puts print books to bed
“Students are demanding easier access and more affordable higher education materials, with nearly 90% of learners using some kind of digital education tool,” Pearson CEO John Fallon said in a statement. “We’ve changed our business model to deliver affordable, convenient, and personalized digital materials to students. Our digital first model lowers prices for students and, over time, increases our revenues. By providing better value to students, they have less reason to turn to the secondary market. This will create a more predictable, visible revenue stream with a better quality of earnings that enables us to serve the needs of learners and customers more effectively. Our digital courseware makes learning more active, engaging and immersive, improving outcomes for students and their teachers, and helping college leaders meet the growing demand for lifelong learning.”

For the love of books

A new advertising campaign from Penguin that nicely off-sets yesterday’s article about unwittingly putting kids off reading — a set of posters celebrating the “life-affirming relationship that forms between a reader and the books they’ve loved over the years.”

Penguin celebrates dog-eared delights in new Happy Reading campaign
“The books are the ‘talent’ in this campaign,” Sam tells It’s Nice That. “Every reader has had the experience of falling in love with one and we wanted to showcase books that demonstrated evidence of these relationships and that told stories beyond those printed on their pages, whether through their cracked spines, dog-eared pages or the furiously scribbled notes in their margins.”

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There’s more info on the Penguin website.

The classics we fell in love with, as chosen by our authors and readers
This summer, we’re celebrating the individual books that readers have fallen in love with. We’ve sought submissions from authors to artists, musicians to booksellers, and from you, Penguin Classics readers.

It’s hard to imagine e-books having the same impact…

Raising kids these days

Bringing up children has never been very easy, but are we making it harder for ourselves these days?

Now some families are hiring coaches to help them raise phone-free children
In Chicago, Cara Pollard, a parent coach, noticed most adults have gotten so used to entertaining themselves with phones, they forgot that they actually grew up without them. Clients were coming to her confused about what to do all afternoon with their kids to replace tablets. She has her clients do a remembering exercise.

“I say, ‘Just try to remember what you did as a kid,’” Ms. Pollard said. “And it’s so hard, and they’re very uncomfortable, but they just need to remember.”

You could be putting your child off reading – here’s how to change that
From my interviews with the children, I also discovered that it was common practice for teachers and parents to ask children questions about the books they read and that reading aloud done by teachers at school was usually accompanied by questions. While this might seem like a useful learning technique, it’s not one that goes down well with the kids.

All the children I spoke with said they did not like being asked questions after reading – and that it took away the fun from reading. One boy said that knowing he would be asked questions about the reading “kind of makes me feel like they’re going to give us an exam or a test afterwards”.

And another thing

How often have you thought about your Shift + 7 key?

Ampersands: A beloved character
It began life as a shortcut for scribes and proved just as useful for early typesetters, eventually working its way into the English alphabet as the 27th letter. We collectively dropped it from the ABCs, and the decline of handwriting and manual typesetting made it less useful. But its flexibility and grace have kept it on our business cards and movie posters.

These Quartz Obsession e-mails are typically full of wonderful rabbit holes, and this one’s no exception. Let’s start with a quick introduction.

Where did the ampersand originate?
Developed from the Latin et (“and”), the ampersand, formerly the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet, is a character with a cult following among students of typography.

And not just students of typography — the lowly ampersand can count lawyers, entrepreneurs, movie producers and restaurant owners as fans, if these links are anything to go by.

For law firms, the ampersand is a character worth saving
Paul Hastings, Norton Rose Fulbright, Hogan Lovells, Proskauer Rose, Baker Botts: the list of new BigLaw titles built on the corpses of ampersands is almost endless. All these firms discarded their ampersands as if they were ashamed of them.

There are practical reasons so many hipster businesses follow the exact same naming structure
There’s also a nostalgic feel to this construction. “At some point in its early history, I’d guess the germ of that trend was an allusion to the common practice in 17th/18th/19th centuries of naming your company after its principals (e.g. Gieves & Hawkes, Dege & Skinner, Marks & Spencer, etc.),” says Simon. “Could be some of your fashion brands want to allude to handcraft, to pre-industrial or non-industrial processes.”

Stereotypography
So far, critical appraisal of the ampersand in Pride & Prejudice has been mixed. On Slate, David Edelstein calls the ampersand one of the “ominous first impressions” that he had to get over in order to like the movie. The Toronto Globe and Mail (or is it “Globe & Mail”?) says the ampersand signals a “contracted, contemporary approach” to the novel. The San Francisco Chronicle finds the typographical choice to be indicative of the movie’s “jaunty approach.” And the Detroit Free Press says “the only thing really new” in the film is “the hip ampersand of the title.”

Contemporary! Jaunty! Hip! That’s a lot of stereotypical baggage to put on a modest piece of punctuation that has been kicking around in one form or another for about two thousand years.

Petition · Restore the ampersand as the 27th letter of the alphabet
This isn’t just for us. Think of all the uses of the ampersand out there, and all the people and organizations that could benefit from allowing the ampersand back into our alphabet.

We’re not asking for much. And to be completely honest, we’re not exactly sure who calls the shots on these sorts of things, but having Merriam-Webster on our side seems like a good start.

Bring back the Ampersand

It’s fair to say that graphic designers and typesetters are this character’s biggest admirers, though.

Font Aid IV: Coming Together
The Society of Typographic Aficionados is proud to announce the release of “Coming Together”, a font created exclusively for Font Aid IV to benefit the victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The font consists entirely of ampersands, to represent the idea of people coming together to help one another. Type designers, graphic designers, and other artists from around the world contributed artwork to the font.

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Design by: Herb Lubalin
Herb Lubalin is best known for his logotypes, or as he called them ‘expressive typography’. One of his most famous works is the Mother & Child masthead he designed for a Curtis magazine, where the ‘O’ in the word mother is a womb for the word child. The use of the ampersand in this design is pure genius.

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Attitudes toward hyphenation and rag settings
In fact, Gill was even more willing to challenge convention than Dowding. Not only did he liberally use ampersands for “and” but he also used contractions (e.g., “tho’”), and superscript letters (e.g., “production”) to achieve even spacing. But most importantly, he advocated that text be set flush left, rag right (though he did not use that phrase) as not only more natural than justified setting, but as the best way to guarantee consistent word spacing. He considered the insistence on justified text to be nothing more than a superstition, remarking that “even spacing is more important typographically than equal length.” In his view justified text existed to satisfy man’s desire for neatness.

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That last link is my favourite, I think. I could read about typography and book design all day. There’s something very calming and comforting in a well set page of text like the one above. Those margins!

So it was a wonderful coincidence to see that today’s Aeon newsletter contained this link about book printing.

What’s as satisfying as a good book? Seeing one made the old-fashioned way, by hand
The director Glen Milner charts each step in the process as bookbinders piece together a new hardbound edition of the memoir Mango and Mimosa (1974) by the British writer and painter Suzanne St Albans. From folding pages to sewing and gluing paper to the leather spine, skilful human hands are front and centre throughout. Milner documents this melding of mechanics and craft with an almost musical rhythm, conveying skills and methods born of centuries of refinements.

Birth of a Book

And would you believe it, that printing and bookbinding company is in Leeds, just 5 miles away from me!

Video game nostalgia

It’s a big week for video games, with E3 2019 in full swing. But never mind all that, let’s look back to the good ol’ days with Sam Dyer, founder and book designer of Bitmap Books.

Bitmap Beauty: Exploring classic video game box art from the 80s and 90s
“Given the limitations the artists had, this pixel art is a real work of art and deserves to be treated as so. However, the box art also hugely influenced which games we purchased before the internet. It really was the cover art that would draw you in, when in a shop.”

The unsung design wonder that is classic video game packaging has been explored by Bitmap Books for five years now, with Sam founding the indie publisher following a decade as design head for brand agency The House. The first release was a visual compendium dedicated to the 1982 Commodore 64, and like all the vintage console-dedicated books on Bitmap, the tome is packed out with game screengrabs, creator interviews and lovingly annotated looks at box art from around the world.

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In a similar vein, here’s a link-filled piece from a pair of academics writing in The Conversation last year.

Finding nostalgia in the pixelated video games of decades past
Every day, it seems, new ultra-high-resolution video games are released, syncing with players’ social media accounts and ready for virtual reality headsets. Yet old games from the 1970s and 1980s are still in high demand. The Nintendo Corporation has moved recently to both quash and exploit that popularity, shutting down websites hosting old games’ code while planning to release its own back catalog on a new platform. […]

Playing old video games is not just a mindless trip down memory lane for lonely and isolated gamers. The average age of a U.S. gamer is 34, and many popular retro game titles have been around for 20 years or more. It seems Generation X-ers could be returning to their cherished childhood properties.

In fact, emerging media psychology research, including our own work, suggests that video game nostalgia can make people feel closer to their past, their friends and family, and even themselves.

Meanwhile.

Libraries of the past and the future

I’ve always thought of libraries as places that have existed forever, like cemeteries, or shoe shops — they’re just a necessary part of a normal society, right? (It’s thought the Library of Alexandria was founded as long ago as 285 BC, though its current incarnation is only 16 years old and closes at 4 pm today.)

But libraries haven’t always been around for everybody.

A history of the American public library
CityLab’s visual storyteller Ariel Aberg-Riger shares the story of how America’s public libraries came to be, and their uneven history of serving all who need them.

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That’s all a world away from the history of libraries over here, in our grand stately piles.

What was the real purpose of the English country house library?
In Mark Purcell’s all-encompassing study, The Country House Library, every aspect of this topic is researched and addressed on an epic, Girouardian scale. Whereas architectural and art historians are often uninterested in the actual books found in historic architect-designed libraries, Purcell argues it is impossible to separate them from a consideration of situation, appearance and design. Demolishing the commonplace belief that volumes were “bought by the yard”, he offers an opportunity for historians to think afresh about the way collections were read and valued within the elusive confines of the country house library.

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A gripping chapter covers the early 19th-century bibliomania that culminated in the great sale of the Third Duke of Roxburghe’s library in June 1812, described as a chivalric tournament between Earl Spencer, the Marquess of Blandford and the Sixth Duke of Devonshire. Purcell gives an excellent account of the arc of sales reflecting the decline in the fortunes of the landowning classes after the late 1880s. In 1966, Shane Leslie wrote in his memoirs, Long Shadows: “The empty shelves at Blenheim, Sledmere and Althorp gave me the ghastly gasp as coffins and vaults ravaged by body-snatchers.”

Here’s an idea of how to make more use of our present-day libraries.

How to be a library archive tourist
When I’m traveling and am at a loss for how to spend my time, I look up as many libraries I can in the area I’ll be traveling to, and I check to see if they have special collections. Then I make an appointment with the library to visit those special collections, and usually it means I get to spend a day in a quiet, climate-controlled room with cool old documents. It’s like a museum but with no people, and where you have to do all the work, which is honestly my idea of a perfect vacation.

But what of the future? As this high-tech university library shows (designed, coincidentally, by Snøhetta, the Norwegian architecture firm behind the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt), those old values of accessibility are still key.

A robot-filled, architectural marvel in North Carolina is the library of the future
Public libraries remain a critical public resource, but as budgets have been slashed and information digitized over the last several decades, many have been forced to adapt from book-storage rooms to high-tech public spaces. Indeed, libraries in urban areas remain an important space for those residents with limited incomes, education, and access to resources. By reimagining the relationship between information and technology and how humans interact with both, Hunt’s designers created a unique space in which the community can learn, create, or simply gather.

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“Whether or not you’re talking about a library focused on digital technology or on books or papyri, as the ancient libraries were, the most important thing is to make a library open and accessible,” he adds, noting that books weren’t invented until centuries after the first libraries came about. “[Libraries] had museums, they had lounges, they were interactive and in a very vibrant way,” he says, “more like libraries of the future.”

And yes, I know this is a bookshop and not a library, but you must check it out.

Mirrored Chinese bookstore offers readers a maze of discovery
The newest of China’s surreal mirrored bookstores is now open in Chongqing, offering a disorienting, Escher-like experience to all who enter. Designed by X+Living, the Chongqing Zhongshuge Bookstore leads visitors through an unassuming glass facade on the third floor of Zodi Plaza and into a reflective maze full of reading materials waiting to be discovered.

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Anyone else seeing Daleks there?

It’s still 1984, and always will be

It’s 2019, but are we any further on?

Nothing but the truth: the legacy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four
Orwell was both too pessimistic and not pessimistic enough. On the one hand, the west did not succumb to totalitarianism. Consumerism, not endless war, became the engine of the global economy. But he did not appreciate the tenacity of racism and religious extremism. Nor did he foresee that the common man and woman would embrace doublethink as enthusiastically as the intellectuals and, without the need for terror or torture, would choose to believe that two plus two was whatever they wanted it to be.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is about many things and its readers’ concerns dictate which one is paramount at any point in history. During the cold war, it was a book about totalitarianism. In the 1980s, it became a warning about technology. Today, it is most of all a defence of truth.

Speaking of liars.

Boris Johnson may be the UK’s next Prime Minister, but he’s up on criminal charges for Brexit “Battle Bus” lies
Ball’s complaint claims that Johnson knew that his NHS promises were lies, and as evidence, cites instances in which Johnson used accurate figures. The complain calls for a criminal sanction as remedy for these lies, because “lying on a national and international platform undermines public confidence in politics.”

There will be preliminary hearings tomorrow, and then one of four things may happen: Johnson may appeal, the Criminal Prosecution Service may allow Ball to continue with his own private proceedings, or the CPS may take over the proceedings, or they may shut them down on the basis that the prosecution is not in the public interest.

George Orwell jumped ahead 36 years. With his new TV series, Years and Years, Russell T. Davies only leaps from five to 15 years ahead, but his vision of the future feels likelier and far scarier as a result. Why do we, the audience, keep doing this to ourselves?

From Years and Years to Bird Box: why we turn to dystopian dramas in a crisis
Right now, it’s hard to think of a more prescient film than the 2006 thriller Children of Men with its depiction of environmental catastrophe and xenophobia; call me naive but not in a million years did I think we’d get so close to Alfonso Cuarón’s vision. Great art is supposed to reflect life, or so we are told. For me, the power of Years and Years lies not in its moments of high drama but in its more subtle drawing of the growing tensions between families, generations and cultures, and the line the series draws between now and the years to come. The future is here on TV, but the question is: have we got the stomach for it?

Years & Years (2019): Official Trailer

Oh, it’s you

I was searching for images of Duchamp’s Nude Descending A Staircase painting that had inspired Marco Brambilla’s animation, when Google showed me this photo.

A flash of recognition! I had seen it before, on that cover of The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien. I hadn’t realised who it was at the time, just thought it was some spooky old man.

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Victor Obsatz’s portrait of Marcel Duchamp
In March 1953, the Greenwich Village gallery owner Michael Freilich (RoKo Gallery) asked 28 year-old Victor Obsatz to photograph Marcel Duchamp in his apartment on West 14th Street. The resulting double-exposure print pleased Duchamp very much, as he chose it especially for the front and back covers of Robert Lebel’s 1959 catalogue raisonné.

The work has since become one of the most popular and sought-after images of the artist, and has been reproduced in a number of well-known texts on Duchamp, Dada, Surrealism, and recently in the The National Portrait Gallery’s 2009 exhibition “Inventing Marcel Duchamp, The Dynamics of Portraiture.”

It’s certainly a striking image of a very peculiar man, a great choice for a very peculiar book.

The Two Duchamps
He is known as the godfather of conceptual art, yet Marcel Duchamp was also a great admirer of the Pre-Raphaelites, and had strong affinities for their craftsman-like approach and their ‘tortured explorations of sex, chastity and desire’

What a load of crap

The world is full of it.

The curious history of crap — from space junk to actual poop
That’s the thing about our garbage: We have become experts at acting like it doesn’t exist. Space trash, in fact, barely registers as a blip compared to the enormity of the waste our species generates. In disused home appliances, computers, mobile phones, and other electronic equipment, or e-waste, we generate close to 45 million metric tons of waste every single year. That’s the equivalent of over 4,500 Eiffel Towers. Trash that could obstruct a city skyline. But not only do we not see it, most of us don’t even know where it goes. […]

But even then, what we toss out is just the tip of the proverbial trashberg. Most garbage comes from the manufacturing process. What we throw in the bin—the final product—represents a mere 5 percent of the raw materials from the manufacturing, packaging, and transportation process. Put another way, for every 150 kilograms of product we see on the shelves, behind the scenes there’s another 3,000 kilograms of waste that we don’t see. In total, the world produces approximately 3 million metric tons of garbage every 24 hours. That number is expected to double by 2025. And if business continues as usual, by the end of the century it will be an unfathomable 10 million metric tons of solid waste a day.

Some people produce more crap than others, though.

‘Staggeringly silly’: critics tear apart Jacob Rees-Mogg’s new book
“Absolutely abysmal”, “anathema to anyone with an ounce of historical, or simply common, sense”, “a dozen clumsily written pompous schoolboy compositions”, “yet another bit of self-promotion by a highly motivated modern politician”. […]

“No doubt every sanctimonious academic in the country has already decided that Rees-Mogg’s book has to be dreadful, so it would have been fun to disappoint them. But there is just no denying it: the book is terrible, so bad, so boring, so mind-bogglingly banal that if it had been written by anybody else it would never have been published.” […]

“The book really belongs in the celebrity autobiography section of the bookstore. At best, it can be seen as a curious artefact of the kind of sentimental jingoism and empire-nostalgia currently afflicting our country.” […]

“Before I started, the prospect of Rees-Mogg in Downing Street struck me as a ridiculous idea. But if this is what it takes to stop him writing another book, then I think we should seriously consider paying the price.”

Books and beds

I know I could be accused of wishing the days away, but one of the things I look forward to most each day is being back in bed with a good book at the end of it. For me, reading > bed > sleep. For Danielle Steel, however, books and beds are in completely separate universes.

How the hell has Danielle Steel managed to write 179 books?
Steel releases seven new novels a year—her latest, Blessing in Disguise, is out this week—and she’s at work on five to six new titles at all times. In 1989 Steel was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having a book on the New York Times best-seller list for the most consecutive weeks of any author—381, to be exact. To pull it off, she works 20 to 22 hours a day. (A couple times a month, when she feels the crunch, she spends a full 24 hours at her desk.)

Really, though?

Is it possible to work 22-hour days? Danielle Steel says it is the secret of her success
Steel says working up to 22 hours a day is “pretty brutal physically” – but is it even possible? “No, in a nutshell,” says Maryanne Taylor of the Sleep Works. While you could work that long, especially as a one-off, the impact on productivity would make it hardly worthwhile. “The idea that someone could sustain that pattern effectively – work, write, commit things to memory, use their full brain capacity – is just unbelievable to me,” agrees Katie Fischer, another sleep consultant. If Steel was routinely sleeping for up to four hours a night, she would likely be drastically underestimating the negative impact of it, says Alison Gardiner, the founder of the sleep improvement programme Sleepstation. “It’s akin to being drunk.”

Her approach isn’t one others are recommending.

How to write a novel – four fiction writers on Danielle Steel’s insane working day
The only thing I recognise from that brutal regime is the need for copious amounts of tea. For me, a productive day is four hours of writing. Four hours of focused, uninterrupted time at the keyboard. This morning, I wrote for two hours and managed just shy of 1,000 words. Even that is a decent day; a steady day. To wrestle those hours of writing time free, I’m postponing teaching preparation, leaving my marking until the evening, relying on childcare. Most of all, I’m doing my damnedest to ignore emails. When does Steel answer her emails, is what I want to know.

She’s certainly a focused author, though.

Danielle Steel’s surprising secret to success
How do you get things done? By doing. Isn’t that fantastic? It’s the best life hack out there and the one so many of us reject because we believe that there is some other, better secret, like being magical or exceptionally talented. Rather than rely on talent and inspiration, Steel just does the work. Every day. All day.

I liked that “Rather than rely on talent” line.

Boy meets girl meets robot

So what to read next, after Dune? More sci-fi? Ian McEwan’s “retrofuturist family drama” seems to be getting some attention.

Man, woman, and robot in Ian McEwan’s new novel
It’s London, 1982. The Beatles have reunited (to mixed reviews), Margaret Thatcher has just lost the Falkland Islands to Argentina, and Sir Alan Turing, now seventy, is the presiding spirit of a preemie Information Age. People have already soured on the latest innovations, among them “speaking fridges with a sense of smell” and driverless cars that cause multinational gridlock. “The future kept arriving,” Charlie ruminates. “Our bright new toys began to rust before we could get them home, and life went on much as before.”

Buyer’s remorse is a recurring theme in Ian McEwan’s witty and humane new novel, “Machines Like Me” (Nan A. Talese), a retrofuturist family drama that doubles as a cautionary fable about artificial intelligence, consent, and justice. Though steeped in computer science, from the P-versus-NP problem to DNA-inspired neural networks, the book is not meant to be a feat of hard-sci-fi imagineering; McEwan’s aim is to probe the moral consequences of what philosophers call “the problem of other minds.”

In “Machines Like Me”, Ian McEwan asks an age-old question
Amid all the action, there are sober passages of philosophical discussion between Charlie and Adam. But in parts the novel is funny, too. To Charlie’s disgust, Adam’s encyclopedic recall of Shakespeare makes him seem the better catch to Miranda’s father, a writer, who assumes Charlie is the robot, because he isn’t interested in books.

Late in the story it emerges that other androids around the world are committing suicide in horror at the behaviour of their flesh-and-blood masters. Adam wonders about the “mystery of the self” and his fear that he is “subject to a form of Cartesian error”. Strip away the counterfactual wrapping and “Machines Like Me” is ultimately about the age-old question of what makes people human. The reader is left baffled and beguiled.

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan review – intelligent mischief
This is the mode of exposition in which he [Kipling] seems to address the reader from a position of shared knowledge, sketching out an unfamiliar reality through hints and allusions, but never explaining it too completely. This inside-out style is the default mode of modern SF. It is economical and of special usefulness to makers of strange worlds, plunging a reader into a new reality and leaving them space to feel like a participant in its creation. It’s the opposite technique to that of McEwan’s narrator, who explicitly sets out his world, overexplains the historical context and never turns down a chance to offer an essayistic digression.

To my taste, this is a flat-footed way of doing sci-fi.

‘It drives writers mad’: why are authors still sniffy about sci-fi?
Machines Like Me is not, however, science fiction, at least according to its author. “There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future,” McEwan said in a recent interview, “not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas.” There is, as many readers noticed, a whiff of genre snobbery here, with McEwan drawing an impermeable boundary between literary fiction and science fiction, and placing himself firmly on the respectable side of the line.

But perhaps we’ve had enough about robots and AI recently.

Never mind killer robots—here are six real AI dangers to watch out for in 2019
The latest AI methods excel at perceptual tasks such as classifying images and transcribing speech, but the hype and excitement over these skills have disguised how far we really are from building machines as clever as we are. Six controversies from 2018 stand out as warnings that even the smartest AI algorithms can misbehave, or that carelessly applying them can have dire consequences.

Dune. Done.

So. They’re remaking Dune.

7 things we know so far about the Dune remake (& 3 things fans are hoping for)
Dune has quickly become one of the most anticipated upcoming movies. With plenty of talent and a beloved source material already behind it, there were plenty of fans looking forward to this big screen adaptation. However, with big names being announced to the cast seeming every day, excitement for the film has skyrocketed.

I thought now would be a good time to read the book, to see what all the fuss is about. All I knew of it was from the David Lynch film. It didn’t make much of an impression, to be honest.

Dune, 50 years on: how a science fiction novel changed the world
Every fantasy reflects the place and time that produced it. If The Lord of the Rings is about the rise of fascism and the trauma of the second world war, and Game of Thrones, with its cynical realpolitik and cast of precarious, entrepreneurial characters is a fairytale of neoliberalism, then Dune is the paradigmatic fantasy of the Age of Aquarius. Its concerns – environmental stress, human potential, altered states of consciousness and the developing countries’ revolution against imperialism – are blended together into an era-defining vision of personal and cosmic transformation.

The book is over 50 years old. You can buy this collector’s edition from the Folio Society for £75, or the e-book together with its five sequels on Amazon for £1.99. I chose the latter.

Manny Rayner’s review of Dune
So that was the Dune we know and love, but the man who rewrote it now would get a rather different reception. Oh my God! These Fremen, who obviously speak Arabic, live on a desert planet which supplies the Universe with melange, a commodity essential to the Galactic economy, and in particular to transport. Not a very subtle way to say “oil”! They are tough, uncompromising fighters, who are quite happy to use suicide bombing as a tactic. They’re led by a charismatic former rich kid (OK, we get who you mean), who inspires them to rise up against the corrupt, degenerate… um, does he mean Westerners?

Dune has made a huge impact on many people, one that it failed to make on me, but then I watched this. My goodness, imagine if this had been made instead.

Jodorowsky’s Dune | Official Trailer HD (2014)

I knew Jodorowsky from watching the incredible, hypnotic Santa Sangre many years ago, and knew he had wanted to do something with Dune, but hadn’t really appreciated the full extent of his surrealist and psychedelic project until I watched that documentary. Goodness me.

And what an incredible legacy that film-that-never-was has left us. Dan O’Bannon and HR Giger’s work on Alien, for example. But also Dan O’Bannon’s collaboration with Moebius.

“The Long Tomorrow”: Discover Mœbius’ hard-boiled detective comic that inspired Blade Runner
Alejandro Jodorowsky may never have made his film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, but plenty came out of the attempt — including, one might well argue, Blade Runner. Making that still hugely influential adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ridley Scott and his collaborators looked to a few key visual sources, one of them a two-part short story in comic form called “The Long Tomorrow.”

The Long Tomorrow, by Moebius
As we were still in the stage of preparations and concepts, there was almost nothing to do and he was bored stiff. To kill time, he drew. Dan is best known as a script writer, but is an excellent cartoonist. If he had wished, he could have been a professional graphic artist. One day, he showed me what he was drawing. It was the story board of ‘The Long Tomorrow’. A classic police story, but situated in the future. I was enthusiastic. When Europeans try this kind of parody, it is never entirely satisfactory, the French are too French, the Italians are too Italian … so, under my nose was a pastiche that was more original than the originals.

dune-done

And from The Long Tomorrow to Blade Runner and back to Dune, with the news that Denis Villeneuve, the director of the Blade Runner remake, will direct this new Dune remake.

Shakespeare’s dirty books

Here’s an eye-catching headline.

Is Shakespeare’s DNA hiding in the Folger Library’s vault? “Project Dustbunny” aims to find out
The Folger Shakespeare Library’s underground storage facility stretches a full block beneath the building, protected by a nine-inch-thick steel bank-vault door. It houses about 260,000 historically significant books, along with manuscripts, documents, and even costumes saved from 19th-century productions. But could the Capitol Hill research library—the largest collection devoted to the Bard in the world—also contain, quite literally, Shakespeare himself?

That possibility is the longest of long shots, but it’s one potential outcome of an ongoing effort at the Folger dubbed Project Dustbunny—so named because it involves analyzing human DNA and proteins harvested from dirt inside the Folger’s old books.

Heather Wolfe, the Folger’s curator of manuscripts, is keen to distance herself from such nonsense, however.

Wolfe is especially skeptical of this idea; when I met up with her in the conservation lab, before I could even ask about it, she volunteered her lack of enthusiasm for such efforts. “The first thing to say,” she told me, “is our goal isn’t necessarily to identify a famous person who has touched an item. But that’s the thing people are most interested in: Did Shakespeare hold this book?”

Might this be how a future ‘Jurassic Bard’ movie starts?

But why stop there?

Charlotte Brontë’s hair found in ring on Antiques Roadshow, say experts
“I’ve got goosebumps now thinking about it. It’s got a hinge on it, and inside there’s plaited hair, I think it may be the hair of Charlotte Brontë,” the woman told the show’s jewellery expert Geoffrey Munn.

Munn said there was “very little reason to doubt” this.

And here’s another.

Italians try to crack Leonardo da Vinci DNA code with lock of hair
“We found, across the Atlantic, a lock of hair historically tagged ‘Les Cheveux de Leonardo da Vinci’ and this extraordinary relic will allow us to proceed in the quest to carry out research on Da Vinci’s DNA,” said Alessandro Vezzosi, the director of the museum and Agnese Sabato, president of the Leonardo da Vinci Heritage Foundation in a statement.

How they all began

Enough of their ending, what of their beginning? Here’s a fascinating account of the earliest books and how they became established.

The birth of the book: on Christians, Romans and the codex
Our continued modern censure of the Romans for not adopting the codex sooner (its basic components were well known for millennia) forgets the most important resource in the Roman world: slaves. Slaves would copy, collate, retrieve, read and rewind book rolls for busy patricians (such as Pliny).

Today’s changing landscape of digital reading also presents a world dominated by negative externalities: invisible, poorly paid labourers scanning old books (viz, the occasional disembodied hand in latex glove flashed across a Google Books page); environmental and health challenges of mining rare earths and working long shifts to assemble our electronic devices; and the fossil fuels burned into the atmosphere to flash bytes of literature into storage arrays and send them on their way.

You bought it, but is it yours?

Microsoft has changed its mind about selling e-books. Not only is it not selling any more, but it’s unselling those it sold previously.

Microsoft removes the Books category from the Microsoft Store
Previously purchased books and rentals will be accessible until early July, but after this, books will no longer be accessible, officials said in a customer-support article today. The company is promising full refunds for all content purchased from the Books category; anyone who bought books via the Store will receive further details on how to get refunds via email from Microsoft.

People aren’t happy though, as you can imagine.

Microsoft announces it will shut down ebook program and confiscate its customers’ libraries
This puts the difference between DRM-locked media and unencumbered media into sharp contrast. I have bought a lot of MP3s over the years, thousands of them, and many of the retailers I purchased from are long gone, but I still have the MP3s. Likewise, I have bought many books from long-defunct booksellers and even defunct publishers, but I still own those books.

When I was a bookseller, nothing I could do would result in your losing the book that I sold you. If I regretted selling you a book, I didn’t get to break into your house and steal it, even if I left you a cash refund for the price you paid.

Via the Wired newsletter, which added that “this remains a stark illustration of the fact that you never really buy digital media that’s locked down with DRM: merely a licence to access it for as long as its provider sees fit.”

Looking back for a better digital future

A review of two books on the histories and possible futures of the internet, that try to position themselves somewhere between the more common approaches that recent studies have taken — either deterministic accounts of the “improbable marriage of countercultural hippie experiments and the military-industrial complex”, or heroic tales from Silicon Valley of “whimsical personalities and talents of digital entrepreneurs and inventors”.

Counter-histories of the Internet
Two recent books address similar speculative scenarios in the course of offering alternative histories of the internet: David Clark’s Designing an Internet and Joy Lisi Rankin’s A People’s History of Computing in the United States. Clark’s book introduces its readers to scientists who designed our networks, many of whom still dream of redesigning them. Rankin writes about groups of students and researchers who used early computers with uncommon egalitarianism. Both authors wonder why versions of the internet that they personally favor have not prevailed. They also hope that recalling such forgotten projects could inspire their readers to fight for a better digital future.

[…]

Rankin explicitly describes herself as “highlight[ing] the centrality of education—at all levels—as a site of creativity, collaboration, and innovation.” More obliquely, but no less forcefully, Clark tries to free his readers from a myopic view of web architecture as a given landscape within which we pursue our goals and interests without considering how that landscape came to be. He shows that knowing more about how the web was built, or could have been built, allows us to think more freely about how we distribute our capacities and resources within it.

It’s an interesting debate, though I worry it may be a little redundant — do the top execs at Facebook, Google and Amazon have these books on their reading list?

Instagrammable and Amazonable

Remember those cricked necks we used to get, wandering up and down the books shelves in Waterstones, Borders and the rest, head at an awkward angle to read all the spines? Book buying looks different now, with our stiff necks due to staring down at our screens.

Welcome to the bold and blocky Instagram era of book covers
None of these titles is available yet, but anywhere you find them online will likely direct you to preorder on Amazon. In fact, their covers are designed to ensure that you will. At a time when half of all book purchases in the U.S. are made on Amazon — and many of those on mobile — the first job of a book cover, after gesturing at the content inside, is to look great in miniature. That means that where fine details once thrived, splashy prints have taken over, grounding text that’s sturdy enough to be deciphered on screens ranging from medium to miniscule.

Social media has a part to play now, too, in our book-buying habits.

“Instagram is a major tool now in ginning up excitement that we used to see in print magazines,” says Emma Straub, Riverhead-published author and owner of the Brooklyn bookstore Books Are Magic.

She’s referring, of course, to the latte-laden still lifes that influencers post to brag about receiving an advance copy of a book, or the artful arrangements they use to signify literate lifestyles arranged in bold colors.