printable mini-books revisit eighteenth-century pamphleteers

London-based creative studio and social think-tank Proboscis has put impressive effort into thinking through the incarnations and reincarnations of written material between printed and digitized forms. Diffusion, one of Proboscis’ recent-ish ventures, is a technology that lays out short texts in a form that enables them to be printed off and turned, with a few cuts and folds, into easily-portable pamphlets.
For now, it’s still in beta, though I hear from Proboscis founder Giles Lane that they’re aiming to make this technology more widely available. Meanwhile, Proboscis is using Diffusion to produce Short Work, a series of downloadable public-domain texts selected and introduced by guests. Works so far include three essays by Samuel Johnson, selected by technology critic and journalist Bill Thompson; Common Sense by Thomas Paine, selected by Worldchanging editor Alex Steffen; and Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism, selected by myself.
Though the Short Work pieces are not exclusively from the same period, it’s interesting to note that all these guest selections date from the eighteenth century. It can’t be simply that these texts are most likely to be a) short, and b) in the public domain (though this no doubt has something to do with it). But the eighteenth century saw an explosion in printing, outdone only by the new textual explosion of the Web, and the political, intellectual and critical voices that emerged from that Babel of print raise many questions about the ongoing evolution of our current digital discourse.

4 thoughts on “printable mini-books revisit eighteenth-century pamphleteers

  1. Bill Thompson

    You’re completely right about my choice of Johnson for the ebook – Giles did ask for something out of copyright, but the Johnson pieces seem to me speak to our current concerns more directly than almost anything I know, contemporary or not. Every time I flip through the Idler or the Rambler I come across another essay that could have been inspired by blogging, or Twitter, or Seesmic…

  2. sebastian mary

    I wrote a piece last year that looked at Keen’s The Cult Of The Amateur in relation to Pope’s The Dunciad. My sense is that new technologies, a sudden(ish) glut of new reading, competing hopes for emancipation/new voices against fears of diluted authority and information overload, combined with the exciting but unnerving emergence of new business models for writers, make for considerable parallels between the eighteenth century and the present day.
    But though I think we have much to learn from both the economics and the literary theories of that period, I haven’t read much Johnson. I’d be interested to hear any suggestions you have for further (vintage or other) reading on the eighteenth century and Web2.0.

  3. Alain Pierrot

    About economics and literary theories, to my knowledge, Diderot’s “Lettre sur le commerce des livres (1763)” is not available in any English translation, whereas it is a very important -? and modern -? text about the economics of publishing new titles as well as making sure that legacy “public domain” equivalent books can be reprinted and that the investors will be protected against forgery (if this is the right word! Pardon my English).
    I would be willing to set up a collaborative site providing the French text and facilities for the translation (CommentPress might be useful there!) if enough English native speakers, knowledgeable in French XVIIIth century literature, were willing to contribute.

  4. bob stein

    Alain, thank you for the offer. please send the text. we’ll put it in CommentPress and send out a request for translators. will be interested to see what happens.

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