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.
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.”
An article from the Atlantic on a possible contributor to the educational gender gap in schools across the world.
Boys don’t read enough
In two of the largest studies ever conducted into the reading habits of children in the United Kingdom, Keith Topping—a professor of educational and social research at Scotland’s University of Dundee—found that boys dedicate less time than girls to processing words, that they’re more prone to skipping passages or entire sections, and that they frequently choose books that are beneath their reading levels.
But there’s nothing to say this can’t be turned around, though.
David Reilly, a psychologist and Ph.D. candidate at Australia’s Griffith University who co-authored a recent analysis on gender disparities in reading in the U.S., echoed these arguments, pointing to the stereotype that liking and excelling at reading is a feminine trait. He suggested that psychological factors—like girls’ tendency to develop self-awareness and relationship skills earlier in life than boys—could play a role in the disparity, too, while also explaining why boys often struggle to cultivate a love of reading. “Give boys the right literature, that appeals to their tastes and interests, and you can quickly see changes in reading attitudes,” he says, citing comic books as an example.
Topping suggests that schools ought to make a more concerted effort to equip their libraries with the kinds of books—like nonfiction and comic books—that boys say they’re drawn to. “The ability to read a variety of kinds of text for a variety of purposes is important for life after school,” he says.
A review from TLS of what looks to be a fascinating book.
Pass the tortoise shell: Eve Houghton explores reading and writing across time and space
The history of the book does not always involve the study of either history or books. As James Raven shows in this slim, engaging volume, the question of what sort of object might count as a book remains very much up for debate. The history of the book in the Western world has traditionally made “book” synonymous with “codex” – gatherings of leaves folded or stitched together – but in Professor Raven’s geographically and chronologically wide-ranging account, it takes a variety of material forms: Chinese tortoise shells inscribed 3,000 years ago; Sumerian clay tablets impressed with cuneiform scripts; knotted string records, or khipus, used for record-keeping by South American Incan officials. The boundaries of the book seem even less clearly defined in the era of the blog post and Kindle.
I’ve mentioned khipus here before. It’s so odd to think of a bundle of knotty string as a book. But of course books aren’t just written, using knots or otherwise — they’re read too, a trickier research topic.
The book also gestures towards emerging areas of scholarship, particularly in an illuminating chapter on the history of reading. Raven writes that reading is “the most significant and challenging dimension of the history of books”. Because it leaves few material records, reading remains one of the most elusive practices to capture in historical terms. For example, it is not always a silent, solitary activity. As Paul Saenger and other scholars have shown, there is significant evidence that many people in pre-modern Europe heard books more than they read them. But how can historians and literary critics account for a form of engagement with books that, more often than not, left no trace behind?
I was going to make a comment about the rich, varied and global history of the book standing in contrast to its bland, flat future, if Amazon has its way, but that could be a little hypocritical as I’ll probably read this on my Kindle, like everyone else.
Yes, I read my e-mail on my phone. And yes, I read the news on my tablet, where I found these two cheery articles from the Guardian.
Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound
The possibility that critical analysis, empathy and other deep reading processes could become the unintended “collateral damage” of our digital culture is not a simple binary issue about print vs digital reading. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read. Nor is it only about the young. The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.
Alan Rusbridger: who broke the news?
If journalists cannot agree on a common idea of the public interest – of the public service we claim to be providing – then it complicates the defence of what we do. And in an age of horizontal free mass media, it is even more important for us to be able to define and declare our values, our purpose – and our independence. Which includes independence from the state.
But five years after the Snowden revelations, it is now apparent that states themselves are struggling with the digital disruption that first tore through the established media and has now reshaped politics. The digital giants have not only unleashed information chaos – they have, in the blink of an eye, become arguably the most powerful organisations the world has ever seen.
Update 04/09/2018: I’ve just found another article on a similar theme that I’ll tack on to the end of this post, about watching less and reading more.
Why everyone should watch less news
While research has shown that visually shocking and upsetting news can contribute to anxiety, sleeping trouble, raise cortisol levels and even trigger PTSD symptoms, a University of Sussex study found that just six minutes reading a book can reduce stress levels up to 68%. A study done by former journalist turned positive psychology researcher Michelle Geilan found that watching just a few minutes of negative news in the morning increases the chances of viewers reporting having had a bad day by 27%, while Barnes and Noble just reported soaring sales for books that help people deal with anxiety and find happiness. Life Time Fitness, a gym chain with locations in 27 states, recently decided that tuning their TVs to FOX News and CNN was antithetical to their mission of making people healthier, so they’ve banned the news from the gym.
As a follow-up to that post about literary FOMO, here are two related articles from Quartz.
How to read freely
This is actually the best way to read more: with abandon, instead of with resignation. Read something that surprises you. Make a list and then lose it. Don’t force yourself to finish a book you don’t like. Read the books people give you as presents, even if they seem to have completely missed the mark. Think of reading as a very long, meandering stroll—not a scavenger hunt.
The case for taking forever to finish reading books
By keeping your book in one location each time, you free yourself from the distractions of a commute or the pounding waves of a beach. As a result, a strange new relationship forms, between you, the voice of the book, and the room. Your ritual creates a singular association between the book and a quiet, private place, which in turn gives your relationship a new dimension. Your friend never leaves your room, has never seen you with makeup on, or shoes.
That last one reminded me of this piece from The Atlantic.
Reading Proust on my cellphone
My friends are amused: “But how many times do you have to swipe through those tiny pages on your cellphone to get through a single Proust sentence?” they ask. Sometimes many. Sometimes not even once. Even that record-breaking sentence, which stretches over two and a half pages in my old paperback, takes fewer than a dozen swipes. And turning the page, strange to say, is one of the nautical joys. Each finger drag is like an oar drawn through the water to keep the little glass-bottomed boat moving. After a while you’re not even aware of rowing. You’re simply looking through the glass into an endless ocean, moving silently, blindly forward.
I think my equivalent of that would be Foucault’s Pendulum. Took me three years.
Another example of social media turning what should be a relaxing activity into a competitive sport, it seems.
Goodreads and the crushing weight of literary FOMO
Every few days or weeks, just when I started feeling positive about my biblio advancements, one of these messages would come across the transom: “Updates from…” Upon opening it, I’d find out that someone who I knew had a full-time job and active social life had finished two novels in the time it’d taken me to get through the jacket blurbs on David Sedaris’ latest essay collection. Deflation followed.
I know it’s just a light-hearted bit of filler from Wired which I shouldn’t take seriously, but surely we’re mature enough to stop comparing ourselves to others all the time? It’s a book, not a race.
Ofcom have published research into just how far our internet and smartphone addiction has grown over the last ten years.
A decade of digital dependency
2008 was the year the smartphone took off in the UK. With the iPhone and Android fresh into the UK market, 17% of people owned a smartphone a decade ago. That has now reached 78%, and 95% among 16-24 year-olds. The smartphone is now the device people say they would miss the most, dominating many people’s lives in both positive and negative ways.
People in the UK now check their smartphones, on average, every 12 minutes of the waking day. Two in five adults (40%) first look at their phone within five minutes of waking up, climbing to 65% of those aged under 35. Similarly, 37% of adults check their phones five minutes before lights out, again rising to 60% of under-35s.
We’re not all hooked, though. Here’s an interesting look at a (dwindling) demographic.
Meet the 11% of Americans who don’t use the internet
“We bought the first family computer in 1998, and the kids would sit around all day, tinkering on the internet,” she says. “I watched them go from playing outside with friends, riding bikes, talking to each other, to being obsessed with the machine. It was like a switch flipped in their heads.”
While her children and husband became accustomed to the internet, Simpson brushed it off as an “unnecessary evil.” Aside from an unfruitful and frustrating attempt to find a local plumber using Ask Jeeves 19 years ago, she’s completely refrained from logging online.
For the majority of us, though, the internet and its devices follow us everywhere we go. To be deliberately offline — our default position not that long ago, remember — is starting to feel contrary and unnatural, even in our own homes.
IKEA have a plan for that, though.
IKEA and the Man Booker Prize create reading rooms for relaxation
The initiative is designed to help alleviate stress and help make the home a haven again. Over half of workers (59%) feel they are under pressure to respond to emails even when they are home and have finished official work hours — which suggests that preventing the trials of workplace from entering our homes has never been more important. Sitting down and disappearing into a good book is a way to do just that.
IKEA ‘Reading Rooms’ to celebrate Man Booker longlist
Gaby Wood, literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, added: “If you associate reading with holidays then you probably associate it with indulgence. And – it’s true – reading fiction can be, at its best, a form of escapism. But that doesn’t make it a guilty pleasure. It’s more like a fast route to better health. Our homes are filled with devices that allow the digital world to encroach on our private lives.”
She urged people to “reclaim your privacy, and your imagination” through reading a book.
It seems crazy that we need a furniture store to remind us that putting the phone down now and then and picking up a book is a good thing.
This has been a bone of contention between me and my better half for a while now. She was trained as a touch-typist back in the Twentieth century. I wasn’t.
One space between each sentence, they said. Science just proved them wrong.
The rules of spacing have been wildly inconsistent going back to the invention of the printing press. The original printing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence used extra long spaces between sentences. John Baskerville’s 1763 Bible used a single space. WhoevenknowswhateffectPietroBembowasgoingforhere.Single spaces. Double spaces. Em spaces. Trends went back and forth between continents and eras for hundreds of years, Felici wrote.It’s not a good look.
And that’s just English. Somewrittenlanguageshavenospacesatall and o thers re quire a space be tween ev e ry syl la ble.
Ob viously, thereneed to be standards. Unless you’re doing avant – garde po e try, or something , you can’tjustspacew ords ho w e v e r y o u want. That would be insanity. Or at least,
I really hadn’t appreciated how much of an issue this was. Some US psychology researchers sought to determine the correct approach once and for all.
First, they put the students in front of computers and dictated a short paragraph, to see how many spaces they naturally used. Turns out, 21 of the 60 were “two-spacers,” and the rest typed with close-spaced sentences that would have horrified the Founding Fathers.
The researchers then clamped each student’s head into place, and used an Eyelink 1000 to record where they looked as they silently read 20 paragraphs. The paragraphs were written in various styles: one-spaced, two-spaced, and strange combinations like two spaces after commas, but only one after periods. And vice versa, too.
And the verdict was: two spaces after the period is better. It makes reading slightly easier.
So it seems scientific research is against me. I’m still not changing my mind, though, as the study’s methodology is not without its critics.
No, you still shouldn’t put two spaces after a period
The study used Courier New… This alone makes the test useless. One-spacers already agree that typewriters and monospace fonts use two spaces after the period (except some screenwriters, who use one space). But reading a proportional font and a monospace font are two completely different scenarios. The study even acknowledges this: “It is possible that the effects of punctuation spacing seen in the current experiment may differ when presented in other font conditions.” Of course it’s possible—that’s what the whole debate is about! Why would you use Courier New!
Much obliged to Christopher Hallas, over on Linked In, who pointed me in the direction of this pdf from the British Dyslexia Association, full of great advice for clear, accessible documents production.
Dyslexia Style Guide (pdf)
The aim is to ensure that written material takes into account the visual stress experienced by some dyslexic people, and to facilitate ease of reading. Adopting best practice for dyslexic readers has the advantage of making documents easier on the eye for everyone.
Couldn’t agree more. And here’s another take on recreating the exasperation of reading with dyslexia.
This font shows you what it feels like to be dyslexic
“What this typeface does is break down the reading time of a non-dyslexic down to the speed of a dyslexic. I wanted to make non-dyslexic people understand what it is like to read with the condition and to recreate the frustration and embarrassment of reading everyday text and then in turn to create a better understanding of the condition”.
We all feel for you — my pals parchment, clay tablet, cave walls, the whole gang. But as technology marches on, it’s time to move out of the way.
Daniel Akst: Papyrus to paper: Get over it
Kafka’s Wound, a Digital Literary Essay by Will Self
I think I need to spend some time to read this. I mean, watch this. No, I mean listen to this. Whatever. It’s Will Self, so you can’t go wrong.