How paper is better than e-books

You know it's a good bookstore when... by Ben+Sam

If yesterday’s post seemed a trifle touchy, it’s because the author I was criticising was himself unbalanced. I can rectify that today thanks to Jim W who pointed to this: 5 Ways That Paper Books Are Better Than eBooks this list is balanced and sensible, it takes the technological differences into account and points out not only why e-books don’t/can’t have the significant feature, but what they might have that is similar…
It is a really interesting post – read it! Thank you Jim :) Though your only comment:

And then take that e-reader and put it in the closet.  With thanks to Elaine Reid for the heads up.

…suggests that you have not actually read the post you point to. Perhaps that’s how you get all those posts every ten seconds, you’re a content sniffing machine, not a reader?

A sad, dull, pedestrian take on e-books

Illustration by Joon Mo Kang which accompanies the article.

Why, oh why, do the very people who ought to be the most gripped by the possibilities that new things open up so often fall into a defensive wishful thinking? The latest example concerning e-texts (though already the author has blinkered his vision by focusing only on e-books)1 was pointed to by Jonathan Robinson (on FB).

It’s a really well-written article that is on the whole simple and (when dealing with history) fairly accurate. But novelist Lev Grossman when thinking about: The Mechanic Muse: From Scroll to Screen (the title of his NY Times piece) fails to imagine a move from print to screen, but instead restricts himself to the current woeful capabilities of e-books. By limiting his imagination in this way he can conclude:

But if we stop reading on paper, we should keep in mind what we’re sacrificing: that nonlinear experience, which is unique to the codex. You don’t get it from any other medium — not movies, or TV, or music or video games.

Which is about as bananas as you can hope for. It is demonstrably factually inaccurate. To suggest that computer games sacrifice “nonlinear experience” suggests he has even less experience of such games than I have! But beyond that to suggest that e-books sacrifice the non-linear reading that codexes allow is plain daft. Admittedly current e-book devices seem woefully limited in how they exploit the possibilities of non-linear reading (and writing). But such limitations are not inherent in the electronic medium. They seem to be built into e-books to make them familiar, and so acceptable, to cautious change-phobic readers like Lev, by mimicking the difficulties the codex entails.

A true e-text not only has hyperlinks, either built in or generated on the fly, it has interactivity so that readers can communicate with each other about their reading experiences, it is searchable, bookmarkable, one can add comments and notes without defacing the medium… In fact it offers everything the paper codex offers except the limitations and sensual attractions of paper itself, and then adds huge and exciting new possibilities.

What a shame that an author’s fear of having to learn to WRITE differently should give him a platform to infect readers with his own fear of the new. Surely a good writer ought not only to have capacity for wrangling words, but also an imagination?

I wonder what Lev Grossman’s novels “The Magicians” and “The Magician King” are like? If they are as empty of imagination and daring as his article suggests, they must be sad, dull, pedestrian things. Perhaps the poor man does indeed have a merely “Mechanical Muse”?

  1. An e-book is a current delivery vehicle for e-texts usually based on texts delivered also in other [print] forms thought of as the primary form. []

Academic publishing in Biblical Studies: Time for a change

llustration by Daniel Pudles

The traditional broadsheet media have hosted a broadside on academic publishing: Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist trumpets the Guardian. Writer George Monbiot’s argument is summed up in the subtitle and a simple cartoon:

Academic publishers charge vast fees to access research paid for by us. Down with the knowledge monopoly racketeers

The discussion is based on the sciences, where all the numbers are bigger, a single yearly subscription to a prestigious journal can cost thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars. The costs of the research that produced the article are also far higher than those in Biblical Studies (even when you take the salary of the researchers into account).


But is the problem the same?


Jim West clearly thought so. He swiftly (does the man do anything slowly?) posted Yes, We’re Looking at You, Brill cutting highlights from the Guardian piece and agreeing.  Duane basically also agrees, adding value linking to the referenced version on Monbiot’s website and by reporting also (though with a link that merely leads back to the original essay) John Hawks’ response Make journals work better recognising that the current system does not work (at all well) for us users, and suggesting that Amazon would make a more caring and convenient publisher.1


But still, are things the same in Biblical Studies? We have only begun to move to the commercial publishers, most of our journals, even many of the most prestigious ones, are still published by learned societies (even the name sounds old-fashioned in a good solid dependable way), or by institutions. There are however, a growing number “captured” by Brill and their like. They may well make a decent, or even indecent profit, but the learned societies and institutions don’t.


I think the discipline faces two alternative futures, Capitalist and Socialist, with a mixed economy also being possible.


On the Capitalist model gradually all the “best” journals move to commercial publishers, who strive to (between them) carve out a near monopoly and charge growing prices.2 Individual scholars will be priced out of the market and Biblical Studies will become even more closely part of the academic-industrial complex.


On the Socialist model scholars will altruisticaly decide to offer their best articles to the JBLs and CBQs (to an even greater extent than they already do) these will move (as several have been) further towards an “open” model and the bulk of “important” scholarship will remain accessible to all.


On the mixed model we will get both sorts of publisher continuing to control a significant share of the BS journal market. So things will continue much as now, but in more extreme ways, the learned societies will move slower toward openness, and the Brills will raise their prices more slowly… and individual scholars will continue to get uneven access.


Two (at the very least) colossal forces are operating. On the one side “publish or perish” will ensure Brill won’t die easily. On the other the whole tendency of our culture is towards openness and the learned societies have prestige and clout.

  1. Having read some of the small publisher’s comments on Amazon’s cut throat tactics and inflexibility, I have some doubts whether we should trust their renowned altruism so far ;) []
  2. Jim if you think Brill is steep now just wait till they publish JBL, CBQ and a few others as well as their current stable… []

The first and the last

Photo “Written in Gold” by Anonymous Account

Opening sentences matter. As Charles pointed out using First Sentences from Ford and Fretheim they either draw readers in or repel them. But last sentences could be important too, they are one’s last chance to leave an impression on (at least sequential) readers minds.

With such thoughts in mind (see Why is academic writing turgid?)I looked with unusual trepidation at the first and last sentences of my Colloquium article (concerning how even critical historically-minded scholars seem programmed to invent authors when reading Amos).

My article starts:

Paul Ricoeur speaks of metaphor as ‘semantic impertinence,’ for it is lack of pertinence which makes metaphor work.

That’s an OK first line… but I am much less sure of the concluding marathon of a sentence:

In this subversion lies a new freedom – of the text and its readers – from the dead hand of an “author,” this permits even encourages the invention – through a collaboration of text and reader – of “Amos” the hero and “author” of the words; or as Keep, McLaughlin, and Parmar conclude their brief discussion of hypertext and the death of the author: “The Author may be dead, but his ghosts may be even more eloquent.”

I like the ideas, KM & P’s sentence is great, but the turgid mess of a paragraph-like sentence should have been edited out. I suspect many academic final sentences are worse than their corresponding firsts. I hate to think what Fretheim’s might have been ;) For when we get to the end of a piece we are tired and want rid of it. When our long-suffering proof-readers get to the end they are tired and bored. Result a misery of a final sentence :(

The article is:
Tim Bulkeley, “L’auteur est mort, but won’t lie down: inventing authors while reading AmosColloquium 43.1, 2011, 59-70.

I believe the copyright remains with me, except the typesetting, so I’ll post it here soon…

Now to look at the final sentence of the one I’m working on (about the confessions of Jeremiah, lament and complaint):

Thus, in this larger sense, the narrated drama of Jeremiah, his opponents and his God serves to explore theological responses to this disaster, and thus serves similar functions to the complaint psalms.

As I feared, I am running true to form. Long and turgid. I must improve that!

Why is academic writing turgid?

Charles contrasts First Sentences from Ford and Fretheim the differences are really striking!

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

Ford Maddox Ford in the novel The Good Soldier

The Pentateuch (that is, a book in five parts) has been a designation for the first five book of the Old Testament (and Hebrew Bible) since the second century CE at least.

Terrence Fretheim in an academic work The Pentateuch. Charles notes, and I agree, that Fretheim is a stimulating thinker. So, he poses the question of why academic writing is so often dull and lifeless. I have not much wisdom to offer there. Read his post.

He offers his own suggestion for improving Fretheim’s sentence:

In contrast to the abstract and immovable god of the philosophers, the Pentateuch portrays a god that is, in the best sense, all too human.

Which I think is good but too long, I suspect the original paragraph in a sentence led him astray ;) How about editing it to:

God is all too human in the Pentateuch.

The prophet Jeremiah. Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle (from Wikimedia)

So, with this terrible example (from an academic hero) in front of me I am looking closer at my own first sentences from now on. I’m currently working on an article for the book on Lament and Complaint. I’m ashamed that the current first sentence reads like this:

The claim by Shakespeare’s Juliette “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” is often quoted to assert that naming is arbitrary.


The “Confessions of Jeremiah” present the emotionally turbulent and violent world of a prophet caught between God and family.

Of course, I’d need then to make clear by “prophet” I do not mean a historical figure, but a literary construct, yadda yadda yadda, but that might make a better start?

Next-generation digital book?

TED often has inspiring and intriguing short talks. Though, as a long-time visitor to the site I’m less easily wowed than I used to be. One from the latest crop is a commercial demo. It’s what Push Pop Press (or possibly TED) think is “the next-generation digital book”. Take a look, it is impressive:

I suspect the technologically clever windmill that turns when you blow will lose its wow in a few weeks, but the possibilities of the visuals is stunning. Though in the demo the data “visualizations” were on the whole less than impressive. Not a patch on for example the more static data visuals TED demonstrated a while back.

And that’s my frustration with Push Pop Press’ Al Gore book, it looks good, it may be fun, but it is static. Umberto Eco classified literature on a scale from closed to open texts. Closed texts tell you what to think, open texts encourage exploration and readers to form their own understandings. (Although his distinction was intended to describe a significant feature of fiction, I think it applies at least as powerfully to educational and “factual” books.) Looked at with Eco’s eyes, Al Gore’s sequel to An Inconvenient Truth is a closed text, it fails to encourage exploration or imagination, but tells us what to think. Despite its title Our Choice is not about us learning and growing, it’s about us watching and enjoying a masterful performance by the programmers and designers.

This iBook is a digital equivalent of the bread and circuses TV or the mega-Church “worship” that are the opium of the people in the wealthy and comfortable bubble that is Western Culture. It is indeed a next-generation digital book as the corporates would like it to be, saleable and static, a disposable commodity. A true next-generation digital book would by contrast be open, it would encourage exploration and conversation far from being disposable it would open new possibilities and thoughts on return readings.

The technology for such a book does not need teams of expensive programmers. With minimal coding skills we could do it with a combination of HTML and WordPress. The linkages and connections made possible by <a href=http://… together with the ongoing conversation and community that blogging tools allow are all that is needed for a true Next-generation Digital Book. I love to see us produce a FOSOTT (free, open source Old Testament textbook) that as well as a paper edition offered an e-book version that included such interactivity.

Why proprietary file-formats are bad for institutions

By Paul Downey

A growing institution that despite growth is somewhat strapped for cash has most of its staff on OfficeProduct 2006, it less than the latest thing, but does everything the staff need. New staff are employed (it is a growing institution) new laptops are bought, they come with OfficeProduct X an easily “upgradeable trial version”. So, of course, to keep things simple they run OfficeProduct X.

Now disaster strikes, OfficeProduct 2006 cannot read OfficeProduct X files and the whole institution must be upgraded to OfficeProduct X. Strangely the same institution runs OpenOffice (a standards compliant open source Office package) on the public access terminals in the library. They do not need to upgrade, for OpenOffice CAN read the OfficeProduct X files…

As a further bonus advantage OfficeProduct X uses strikingly different menu structures from its predecessors, that means staff will need training, or possibly will just suffer the frustration of wasting hours learning the new “improved” product by trial and error, and then more hours helping their colleagues who are slower at learning such arcane 21st century skills.

A further disaster, but one that in the past could not have been avoided, many staff still have files from OtherOffice 2.0, those files are now unreadable by almost every modern Office suite. Lost data :( Now in the past such disasters were unavoidable, now however, suppose the files were saved in Open Document Format (an open standard that non-proprietary office suites use). Guess what in 10 or 15 years if ODF 2.0 has come out there will be plugins available to read the old files.

Now remind me, just how does paying for Microsoft Office make economic sense?

Clear and Simple Tweet-Act Theory

If you’ve ever been put off or confused by the complex language of Speech-Act Theory (think “perlocutionary” and “illocutionary”) John Dyer simplifies it beautifully and then raises questions about Twitter (for the twits) and Facebook (for those who today will change their faces).

I won’t give you the permissable short extract, since those often keep you here, and my goal is to send you to his post: This Lent: What is the Perlocutionary Effect of Your Twitter Feed?

So, there’s noting doing here, you might as well click the link :)

Literature and e-books

Brilliant photo by The Daring Librarian: Gwyneth Anne Bronwynne Jones hinting at the possibilities of e-readers.

The Books and Publishing blog (it comes from the organisers of the annual Book Conference and the International Journal of the Book) has reprinted an extract of an article from the LA Times, using the title “E-books are good news for the literary world”. B & P is a fairly conservative blog, linked closely to traditional publishing, so as you would expect the main “good news” seems (in both their extract and the full article) to be that e-books provide yet another distribution channel for “real books” and that they are more popular than Twitter, and therefore the world is not after all going to hell in a 140 character handbasket.

Their comments are “moderated” so I am not certain if my comment will be published, and anyway most of you probably don’t read either B & P or LAT, so I’ll repeat it here:

Of course e-books and other e-publication possibilities are good news for the literary world. Duh! Wasn’t the codex (which made texts smaller and easier to carry, print (which made them cheaper) so if earlier communications revolutions were good news how could electronic text (which makes “books” both cheaper and more interactive in many ways) be anything else?

Of course the codex was bad news for the spindle turners, and print for the scriptoria, perhaps e may not be good news for traditional publishers (as long as they remain merely traditional publishers).

And that last bracketed comment points to the key failing of e-books so far. Even Amazon singles (which could break open traditional genre restrictions) does little to make text more interactive. So far most of what we have are codexes that imitate scrolls, print that looks like manuscript… but change will come and with change the “literary world” will be renewed and revitalised.

In other words, the real good news for the “literary world” (which is a far larger and more vibrant creature than the traditional publishing industry) is that e-publication is growing, is already breaking down traditional economic restrictions on genres of literature and is showing signs of promise that it will begin to breqak down the walls that separate writers from readers as well as those that separate readers from each other. That is indeed “good news for the literary world”. Though it may not be for traditional publishers, unless they cease from dreaming of the past and begin to dream the future. Those who look only to the past are doomed to repeat it.
And that indeed is the conclusion of David Ulin’s article:

Here, perhaps, we have the true lesson of the Pew findings — that even in the digital world, we want more connection rather than less. This, I think, is what e-books have to offer: the promise of immersion, enhanced or otherwise, just as their analog counterparts have always done.

Though I read almost to the end before getting clues that he would end like this ;)

Recapitulation, the failure of “publishing” to actually “publish”

This season between Christmas and New Year seems a time for nostalgia, so I was looking back through my December 2004 posts. Among them one in which I pointed to an article from Christian Century. I was not the only, or even the first blogger to appreciate the article, indeed I only found it because Jennee at textweek mentioned it. It was (and still is, if anyone has access to a library with back issues of the paper edition of Christian Century) a fine article. BUT it is not available on the Christian Century website.1

I thought/think the article was good. I’ll reproduce below my blog post, so you can judge for yourself. But has it actually been “published”. The online Merriam Webster lists as the first two meanings of “publish”:

  1. to make generally known
  2. to disseminate to the public
Now perhaps between 1999 and 2004 Christian Century achieved both of those things for Ms Taylor’s words. Today (at least by my, 21st Century, standards of “generally” or “disseminate to the public”) the article has been aggressively UNpublished. It really is time we started calling the print “publishers” “unpublishers”. Surely the claim: “My new book is being unpublished by Brill” is more true than the more usual verbal form?
Post from Sansblogue: Thursday, December 09, 2004 (incidentally still published, really and truly, here)
Seasonal reasons – Christmas and secular ceremonies ::

Jenee pointed me to a fine article from Christian Century “Holy Instincts“. Barbara Brown Taylor back in 1999 offered great stuff to reflect on at this season. She notices a bunch of “county prisoners” putting up the decorations in the town square.

Only two of them are really working. The third is making faces at the ball in his hand, in which he has discovered his own reflection.

Things like this, stimulated by secular celebration of the season should cause Christians to notice

…the holy spark that smolders underneath all this gratuitous tinsel and voltage. … While true believers lament the crass commercialization of Christmas and the loss of Jesus as the reason for the season, the Holy Spirit haunts the most secular ceremonies:

She admits:

There are all kinds of things wrong with the way we celebrate Christmas. We eat too much, we spend too much, we sentimentalize too much, we worry too much. Those excesses cannot douse the holy instincts that underlie them. We really are hungry. We really do want to give and receive. We really do want to feel deeply, live peaceably, sleep soundly and rise renewed.

And concludes:

God is in the midst of it, after all, still hunting new flesh in which to be born.

Or to put it the way Yancey does, in the book I’ve been reading for the last few months, at this time of year much that ordinary people do offers rumors of Another World.

Our job, if we choose to accept it, is not to beat people up and make them feel faintly guilty for not attending our church despite the “reason for the season”, but somehow to find ways to help them (but first to help ourselves!) catch the whispers in the tinsel ball, even taste the Christ in the dry turkey breast, eaten with family and friends…

  1. Actually it IS available online still, as a Google search will reveal, but in what I suspect is pirate unlicenced copy. []