The Thing of the Year

For many Decembers now I have looked forward with great anticipation to John Wilson’s list of his favorite books of the previous twelve months — I always find fascinating items I never would have come across on my own. Alas, John will no longer be issuing his list from his customary perch as editor of Books and Culture, since Books and Culture is no more, but I am hoping that he’ll be providing me great reading material for many years to come from his new place — about which you’ll be hearing more in due course.

This year’s list offers the usual flair and fun, but also one extra surprise: he has chosen my friend Adam Roberts’s fabulous novel The Thing Itself as his Book of the Year. I say a few things about the book here, but if you just click on the “Adam Roberts” tag at the bottom of this post you’ll see what a stimulating interlocutor Adam has been for me on the past few years, and in how many ways. So it’s just delightful to me to see my friend and favorite editor commending so warmly the work of my friend and favorite active-SF-novelist.

a small crisis in my life as a reader

I mentioned in my previous post that I’ve been re-reading Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture, but I’m doing so in some perplexity. Here’s my copy of the beautiful Liberty Fund reissue of the book, with its perfectly sewn binding and creamy thick paper (available, you should know, at a ridiculously low price: any other publisher would charge three times as much).

It is a pleasure to hold and to read, a wonderful exercise in the art of book-making (with some nice apparatus as well, especially the appendix with translations of some phrases Cochrane left untranslated).

By contrast, here is the old Oxford University Press copy I’ve had for many years:

It’s worn, and the glue of the binding is drying out — some of the pages might start to come free at any moment. The cheap paper is yellowing. On the other hand, it contains evidence of my previous readings:

You can see in those photos the condition of the paper and binding, but also the evidence of the three previous readings: the first time marked in pencil, the second in pen, the third in green highlighting. (I almost never use highlighters, but wanted to distinguish that third reading from the other two.)

I keep going back and forth between the two copies. Part of me wants to have a new — or newish — experience with Cochrane’s great book, and to do so in a format that is maximally enjoyable. I’m also aware that the Liberty Fund edition is so well-made that it can be used for future readings, whereas the OUP edition is on its last legs. If I don’t abandon it now I’ll have to do so soon enough. And yet I really enjoy interacting with my previous reading selves, and seeing what I thought important earlier versus what I think important now. (I’m trying to remember when I bought and first read this book — I think it was around 1990.)

I am having a great deal of difficulty making this decision. I read and annotated 150 pages in the new edition, and then went back to the old one, and am now wavering again. What a curious dilemma.

designing the Word


Bibliotecha is a remarkably successful new Kickstarter project for designing and printing a Bible made to be read, in multiple volumes and with bespoke type design. Here is the Kickstarter page; here is part one of an interview with Adam Lewis Greene, the designer; and here is the second part of that interview.

Lots and lots of things to interest me here. At the moment I’m just going to mention one, an exchange from the second interview: 

J. MARK BERTRAND: Your decision not to justify the text column threw me at first. Now I think I understand, but since I’m a stickler for Bibles looking like books meant to be read, and novels are universally justified, could you explain what’s at stake in the choice to leave the right margin ragged?
ADAM LEWIS GREENE: This goes back, again, to the idea of hand-writing as the basis for legible text. When we write, we don’t measure each word and then expand or contract the space between those words so each line is the same length. When we run out of room, we simply start a new line, and though we have a ragged right edge, we have consistent spacing. The same is true of the earliest manuscripts of biblical literature, which were truly formatted to be read. I’m thinking of the Isaiah scroll, which I was privileged to see in Israel last year and is the primary model for my typesetting….
Unjustified text was revived by the likes of Gill and Tschichold early in the last century, and it continues to gain steam, especially in Europe. We are starting to see unjustified text much more frequently in every-day life, especially in digital form, and I would argue we are slowly becoming more accustomed to evenly spaced words than to uniform line-length. To me, justified type is really a Procrustean Bed. Too many times while reading have I leapt a great distance from one word to the next, only to be stunted by the lack of space between words on the very next line. I admit, I think justified text looks clean and orderly when done well, but it doesn’t do a single thing in the way of legibility. It is simply what we have been accustomed to for a long time, and since this project is partially about breaking down notions of how things “ought to be,” I ultimately decided to go with what I believe is the most legible approach; not to mention its suitability for ancient hand-written literature.

I couldn’t agree more with Greene’s decision here. I have long believed that we pay too high a price in legibility to get the perfect rectangles of fully justified text. In my experience, the single greatest source of distraction coming from a text (as opposed to the distractions that arrive from the outside) is variable spacing imposed by the demands of justification. 

When my book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction was being typeset for publication, I made two requests of the designer. First, I wanted it set in Eric Gill’s Perpetua; and second, I wanted ragged-right justification. To my astonishment, both of my requests were granted. 

theological theses on technologies of knowledge

These thoughts were originally formulated in the context of a faculty seminar at Wheaton College on theology and technology, but I thought it might be worthwhile to share them here. The “we” invoked at several points here may be taken to mean, generally and non-exclusively, “Christians in the academy,” but there are many others to whom these thoughts apply. Or so I think.

(1) No particular technology can be usefully evaluated in isolation from the whole network of technologies to which it is inevitably related.

(2) Technologies have become the chief means by which those networks — what Michel Foucault called “power-knowledge regimes” — are sustained.

(3) Brian Brock refers to the current regime as “technological modernity,” while Neil Postman calls it “Technopoly,” but both of them help us identify the key features of the regime: a commitment to rationalization and regularization of human behavior; a confidence that tools can direct human will into proper channels, with what is “proper” being wholly accessible to autonomous human reason; a belief in the inevitability of progress; and an insistence that technologies are always neutral, equally capable of being used for good or ill.

(4) Stanley Hauerwas has rightly said that to be a Christian is to work “with the grain of the universe,” but none of those core commitments of Technopoly run wholly (or at all) with the grain of the Christian story.

(5) Therefore, while working against the grain of anything is wearisome, to that we are called. Any thought that we can create a form of life that will allow us to live always with the grain, and therefore without struggle and tension, amounts to a wish-fulfillment fantasy. Paul’s images of “running the race” and “fighting the good fight” do not just concern internal “spiritual” struggles.

(6) One branch or department of technological modernity is called “higher education.” As individual teachers and scholars, we have, in order to be in the world though not of it, chosen some degree of accommodation to the standards of this regime in order to achieve its accreditation and recognition. Most Christian colleges and universities have done the same.

(7) Walter Ong points out that no society that has achieved literacy has even voluntarily returned to a condition of primary orality. This is a specific example of a general rule: When a once-dominant technology yields to a new one, it does not disappear, but its cultural role changes and it never becomes dominant again. Similarly, there is no point in imagining that either we as individuals or Wheaton as an institution can fully, or even mostly, extricate ourselves from the regime of higher education. This is the specific form the burden identified in point 5 takes for us.

(8) So our daily vocational prayer should be something like this: “Lord, I want to work with the grain of your story, your Creation, your Way. Teach me to discern the direction that grain runs, and help me to identify what runs against it. Through your indwelling Spirit and the common life of your Church, give me strength and courage to follow the path that you set before me.”

(9) Any thoughts about the role of the book in our professional lives and more generally our lives as Christ-followers must be pursued within the parameters of the reflections above. We should not revere the book or any other technology in itself, but value it insofar as it helps us to work with the grain of God’s universe.

(10) As a corollary, any decision to stick with paper codices instead of digital texts will be a trivial decision if in most other respects we are unreflective participants in Technopoly.

(11) The codex certainly seems to have been especially well-suited to the preservation and transmission of the Gospel, but we don’t have a control group for purposes of comparison, nor can we roll back the tape of history and replay it with the codex taken out. A Church without codices might have been worse than the one that arose; it might have been better; it surely would have been different, with a different mix of virtues and vices. There’s no way for us to know.

(12) There is no power-knowledge regime under which the Gospel cannot be preached and the Christian life practiced. God will not leave us comfortless, even if He allows our codices to be taken away.

(13) If we value codices, we should strive to preserve them. But we can only do this if we first think critically and seriously about why we love them — what virtues they embody that we do not want to lose.

(14) If we do this, then we will be better prepared to adapt if codices (or other technologies that we like) decline. Being practiced in working against the grain of our social order, we will remember that even unfamiliar and unpromising technologies can be turned to godly purposes.

(15) This does not mean that those technologies are neutral, only that they are to some degree redeemable. Remember, our decision to accept, even if only provisionally, the rules and standards of our disciplines and institutions means that we have given up a full range of choices about our technologies.

(16) “I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!” — Lesslie Newbigin

disrupting journalism!

(Nah, not really. Just wanted to try out that language for size.)

But: I was talking with some people on Twitter this morning about my frustrations with what has now become a very familiar set of experiences: the whole merry-go-round of publicity that accompanies the appearance of a book.

Before I go any further, I should note that my adventures on this merry-go-round amount to nothing in comparison with what people-who-make-their-living-by-writing go through. Only once in my career have I written a book that generated perceptible media attention, and doing the publicity for that absolutely exhausted me — which probably accounts for my dyspeptic attitude towards even small bouts of book-promoting exercises today. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to be Neil Gaiman: “I’m currently dealing with how to go back to being a writer. Rather than whatever it is that I am. A traveller, a signer, a promoter, a talker, a lecturer.”

So here’s how it goes: a journalist writes or calls to ask for an interview, and wants to do the interview by phone. If I agree — in violation of my profound dislike of the telephone — then commences the awkward dance of trying to find a time when we can both talk, and, when that’s finally worked out, I am permitted to try to improvise on the spot answers to questions that I have already answered, with considerably greater care, in the book itself. Then I just have to hope — though the years have almost cured me of hoping — that the journalist transcribes what I say accurately and in its proper context. And, for dessert, I get to be annoyed by the way I put things and wish I could go back and express myself more clearly.

(By the way, no belief is more sacrosanct among journalists that the belief that it would be profoundly unethical to let me rewrite my comment about, say, nineteenth-century controversies over the Ornaments Rubric — even though I’ve yet to find anyone who can explain to me why that would be so. They always invoke politicians and political controversy, without explaining why the same rules should apply to interviewing politicians and interviewing scholars or other writers.)

Perhaps you can tell that I’m not thrilled about this way of doing things? So my common practice now is to decline phone interviews and ask to do things by email instead. Sometimes I am told that this is not permissible, in which case, Oh well. (When I’ve been given a reason, that reason has always been “because in email you don’t get the give-and-take,” which always makes me wonder whether there are email clients without Reply buttons.) But when people agree, then I sit down to answer the questions and realize, wait a minute, I’m writing the article! I’m going to do all the work and they’re going to get the byline and the paycheck! Well, it was my choice, after all….

I’m supposed to be willing to do all this because it gets my book “exposure,” it has “publicity value,” and I suppose that once may have been true, but I wonder to what extent it now is? Certainly publishers believe in it, and promote the model; but I have my doubts that a model formed by a kind of handshake agreement among publishers (who want to get the word out about their books) and journalists (who need ever-new “content”) is all that it needs to be when we all have the internet and its social media at our fingertips.

I’m just wondering — genuinely wondering — whether there might be models of doing … this kind of thing … don’t know what to call it … that might be more flexible and generous and less taxing to everyone concerned. Especially, of course, The Author, but I’ve been on both sides of this fence: I have interviewed people for articles — almost always by email, though once I bought lunch for a well-known musician for an Oxford American piece that never saw the light of day — and I’ve written for dailies, weeklies, bimonthlies, monthlies, quarterlies, the whole show, so I know those challenges as well. There’s drudgery for journalists in the usual way of doing business, and maybe it could be made more fun for them as well.

Even small adjustments could help: Alex Massie suggested to me the value of IM interviews, and that made me remember the few times I’ve done those — I really enjoyed them. They have the spontaneity of conversation but also allow you to take a moment to get your thought into shape before committing to the Enter key. In another exchange that happened almost simultaneously — I like that about Twitter — Erin Kissane emphasized just this value of conversation, and I suppose that’s one reason why I have always enjoyed talking with Ken Myers for his wonderful Mars Hill Audio Journal: the dialogue gradually and naturally unfolds, and while Ken always edits with care and skill to make me sound smarter than I am, he never eliminates that conversational tone. If doing publicity were always like that….

Anyway, I’d love to hear some good — disruptive! innotative! — ideas in the comments, especially from journalists. And thanks to those of you who, over the years, have helped to put my ideas before the public.

And by the way: if you don’t subscribe to the Mars Hill Audio Journal, you should consider it. It’s great.

books by design

I’ve been really taken by the images in this blog post on the recent resurrection of the cover-design style of the old Pelican Specials. What strikes me, as I expect it will strike you when you click through, is that the attention given to reproducing the old cover art is, shall we say, not quite matched by the attention to typography.

The old Penguin/Pelican cover styles have been fetish objects for some time now. I am especially fond of M. S. Corley’s redesigns of the Harry Potter covers:


And this application of that classic style to bands and TV shows is pretty cool:

But when you’re making a cover for an actual book it would be nice if the fidelity to lovely tradition was carried through to the text itself. The dissonance between the quality of the cover of that Jacqueline Kent book and the unimaginative flatness of its text is troubling.

Now, this is not to say that we want books whose typographic style reproduces too slavishly the aesthetic of another era: when that happens the result is, as my friend Edward Mendelson has noted, “typographic kitsch.” (American Typewriter, anyone?) But in this post-TeX world there’s really no justification for the amount of typographic blandness or incompetence that we see today.

Not incidentally, this is one reason it has been such a pleasure for me to work — three times now — with Princeton University Press. Their attention to all the details of design is really admirable. I especially commend the books in the Lives of the Great Religious Books series to which I have contributed: they are lovely to look at, delightful to read, and a real pleasure just to hold. You can see a few of their admirable features just by clicking that link, but you really need to take one in your hand to get the full effect.

learning with books!

So today on Twitter I asked:

I mainly got recommendations for websites, which is cool, but some of the people who recommended websites were extremely adamant that it is totally wrong to try to learn CSS from a book. “Books are probably the absolute worst way to learn tech/web/coding stuff.” “Books on a topic like this are a total waste of time.” (See what I mean by “extremely adamant”?) The denunciations of books on CSS made two points: that any book will be incomplete — which isn’t really relevant to someone just trying to learn the basics — and that books are outdated upon publication — which might be slightly more relevant, but not much. I’d be looking for a very recent book, and the CSS standards, especially for the kinds of minimal styling that I’d be interested in, aren’t changing that fast.

But you know, I could use one or more of the many online CSS tutorials out there — so why wouldn’t I? They would be free, which a book would not be; they’re instantly accessible. Seems like a no-brainer.

Except I’ve discovered from my pretty minimal past experience with coding — or the closest I’ve come to coding — that I really struggle with online guides and learn much more easily from books. Part of it is what Erin Kissane said:

But I also seem to find it visually more helpful to have a book open next to my computer rather than switch back and forth between online resources and my text editor. If I can keep my text editor open and visible at all times and then cut my eyes back and forth to the page with instructions and examples, I can stay better focused on the task — and on what’s wrong with the stuff I’ve typed. I can also highlight passages in the book, underline or annotate them, dog-ear the pages, go back and forth quickly between one section and the next…. By contrast, online tutorials are mechanistic, relentlessly linear, and controlling of my pace and my attention.

I learned most of what I know about AppleScript from a book; ditto with LaTeX; and I think I’ve had so little success learning my first real programming language, Python, because I haven’t found the right book. (I’m going to try this one next.) But I’ve never had any success at all learning from online tutorials.

YMMV, of course. Which is my chief point.

fetishizing books?

Sarah Werner offers a thoughtful, informed take on some issues I’ve raised here in, well, thoughtless and uninformed ways: “The digitization folks talk about access and the book folks talk about being in the presence of the object. Neither side tends to present a more nuanced sense of how they might each have something to offer the other, or to recognize that there might be other considerations and uses at stake.”
Read the whole thing, as they say, and then read the follow-up post. Great stuff.

fetish object or the real thing?

James Gleick argues that widespread digitization of old books means that the books themselves are being reduced to the status of “fetish objects” — in other words, that, given sufficiently high-resolution digital imaging, the codexes themselves have no substantial value for scholars and readers. To this claim Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, responds:

Mr. Gleick is right to say that the digitization of precious materials gives them another life on the Web, and that research libraries can and should make these materials available to the broadest possible audience. But if we are interested in what an early document like Magna Carta or a Shakespeare First Folio really means, it is vital to place it among other like objects to know how it was created, used and valued.

If the Folger Shakespeare Library were to digitize all 82 copies of the First Folio that we possess — each of them unique — we would not have made the book fully accessible. Access is a matter of understanding, and that means, in this case, knowing how such a treasured volume was physically distinguished from its peers.

It is one thing to look at a digital photograph taken at the top of Mount Everest and feel the thrill of “being there.” It is quite another to pore over the broad pages of Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623) and ask what such a luxurious book meant to those who bought and read it.

While I want to be on Witmore’s side in this dispute, I’m not sure that this response offers much of substance. For instance:

But if we are interested in what an early document like Magna Carta or a Shakespeare First Folio really means, it is vital to place it among other like objects to know how it was created, used and valued. Right — but can’t that be done digitally? If we look at, and carefully compare, high-resolution images of “other like objects,” aren’t we getting the same information? (Especially if those images are accompanied by information about dimensions, or if two similar books are photographed together.) I need Witmore to tell me in more detail what, precisely, makes the encounter with the physical text superior.

Access is a matter of understanding, and that means, in this case, knowing how such a treasured volume was physically distinguished from its peers. Again, this can be done digitally, can it not?

It is quite another to pore over the broad pages of Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623) and ask what such a luxurious book meant to those who bought and read it. Why can’t I look at the digitized pages of the Folio and ask the same question? In fact, I know I can — so once more, where is the difference?

These are genuine, not rhetorical questions. If the digital images are poor, we all know what the problems are; I’ve done a good deal of archival research that would have been impossible had I had images significantly less precise than my own eyesight. (Pray that you never have to do archival work on a writer whose handwriting is as bad as W. H. Auden’s.)

But as digital images increase in quality, I can see all sorts of ways in which being able to spend as much time as I want “poring over” pages on my computer — zooming in on troublesome areas, say, or juxtaposing two pages on one large monitor for purposes of careful comparison — could be not just equal but superior to seeing the “real thing.” Help me out here, proponents of on-site research!