Monthly Archives: April 2010

cheap editions past & present

I’ve been reading Homer lately, particularly The Odyssey. Obviously, I should have read him a long time ago, probably in high school: I remember, vaguely, extracts from the book, but nobody ever made me read the whole thing. To a certain extent, it’s a book that you don’t have to read any more because everybody’s already read it for you. But it’s worth going back to read things for yourself, so I’ve been having a small project, picking my way through the various English translations.
While on a visit home, looking for something to read, I picked up the Great Books edition of Homer, volume IV in that series. This edition of the Great Books of the Western World, edited by Robert Maynard Hutchins and published by the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1952, was my family’s one real pretension to intellectualism. I am not entirely sure how it got into the house; it was never really read, because, as, my mother explained, the type was too small. It was also vexingly incomplete, as some religion-crazed relative had made off with Volume II of Thomas Aquinas, which bothered me immensely as a youth. I don’t think anyone actually read any of these; I’d periodically pick up one volume or another (“Darwin” or “Swift/Sterne”) with intent, but I don’t remember how far I would get. Looking at the list of authors now, it seems decidedly weird: Plotinus gets a whole volume? Is it really worth reading Lavoisier or Fourier or Faraday now? The English-language novelists consist entirely of the aforementioned Swift & Sterne, followed by Fielding (Tom Jones), then a big jump to land on Moby-Dick. The ending sequence, volumes 49 through 54, seems particularly ominous: Darwin, Marx & Engels, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, William James, Freud. Presumably there’s a good history of the Great Books project, though I haven’t seen anything other than Wikipedia’s entry, which points out that ours was the first edition of the Great Books of the Western World, and that Sterne and Fielding were dropped in the second.
But picking up their Homer, it turned out that the translations being used are by Samuel Butler. His is a translation that I’m particularly interested in because it’s the one that James Joyce used as the background for Ulysses. It’s a decidedly idiosyncratic translation: most prominently, names are given their Roman rather than Greek version, so Odysseus is Ulysses. Butler famously decided that Telemachus’ room must have been in a tower, which is why Joyce’s novel begins in one. Butler’s version is also prose. It’s an odd choice, really, for a version to include as one of the Great Books: while it’s eminently readable, Butler’s ideas about Homer and how he should be translated were very much his own, and his introduction and footnotes explain his view that the Odyssey was written by a woman (probably Nausicaa) and ferret out details in the text that support this view; Butler had first advanced this view in The Authoress of the Odyssey (1897), and came at his translation with an argument, albeit one argued in a way that leaves much to be desired. (This note on III.266 might be taken as typical: “The writer – ever jealous for the honour of women – extenuates Clytemnestra’s guilt as far as possible, and explains it as due to her having been left unprotected, and fallen into the hands of a wicked man.”
What I like about the Butler translation (there’s an online edition at the Internet Archive) is precisely how idiosyncratic it is: his Nabokovian concern for how Ulysses’ house was laid out led him to include his photographs of houses that he’d seen in Sicily which, he supposed, might be similar to the Greeks’. In his introduction, he apologizes that a man and a dog appear in one of the pictures: this, he says, was “accidental, and was not observed by me till I developed the negative”. Looking at the illustration in question, one notes that there’s also a person in the lower illustration; this person is not apologized for, and one wonders who he might be. But the reader is reassured that they are safely in the hands of a kook; Butler clearly had no interest in academic rigor, which is what makes it more interesting that his would be the translation selected to go into the Great Books. Maybe that’s why Joyce liked him: Butler’s ideas about Homer are wildly divergent from what everyone else thinks, but his prose is always entertaining.
What’s weirdly interesting about the Great Books edition, however, is that the editors have swept away Butler’s introduction and notes. Not, however, particularly well: consider the start of Book IV, which starts, in Butler’s original, in mid-sentence, the sentence having been started at the end of Book III. While the Great Books Book III ends in a comma (“Now when the sun had set and darkness was over the land,”), Book IV starts, in house style, with a drop-cap, capitalized, of course: “They reached the low lying city of Lacedæmon, where they drove straight to the abode of Menelaus”. The next phrase starts with a bracket: “[and found him in his own house, feasting with his many clansmen”; at the end of the next paragraph, we find the end bracket. No explanation, in the Great Books edition, is given for these brackets; however, turning to the scan in the Internet Archive, we find an interesting note:

The lines which I have enclosed in brackets are evidently an afterthought – added probably by the writer herself – for they evince the same instinctively greater interest in anything that may concern a woman, which is so noticeable throughout the poem. There is no further sign of any special festivities nor of any other guests than Telemachus and Pisistratus . . .

One wonders, really, how many people ever actually read Homer in the Great Books edition: did the editor? Butler’s ghost brackets, for what it’s worth, don’t end in 1952; the online edition at MIT’s Internet Classics Archives also has them and no notes; the Project Gutenberg edition, from 1999, includes Butler’s notes, but in unwieldy fashion (they are numbered, at the end, and don’t include his frequent use of Greek), and, inevitably, a huge number of people have issued cheap print-on-demand & Kindle versions of Butler’s Odyssey; looking inside one revealed it to be lacking notes though it did have brackets. Others can’t be inspected, and one has to assume the worst. (My favorite of Amazon’s lot is the nicely titled The Odyssey B utler – one hopes the extra space is significant – an unknown new work by Samuel Butler.) One knows, of course, that the people creating these POD and Kindle editions are hacks, if they’re even people at all and not a batch script running on the Gutenberg library. This isn’t, of course, a problem specific to Amazon: the same seems to be true with most of the easily accessible versions on the iPhone. It’s odd to realize, though, that the editors of the Great Books seem to have had the same hackish tendencies. The reason for the choice of the Butler translation for inclusion is almost certainly not because they thought Butler’s was the best (or because they realized the importance of this translation to Ulysses); rather, Butler’s was probably the most recent translation out of copyright in 1952. I wonder again about the ending sequence of the original edition of the Great Books: did the Great Books series come to that conclusion because copyright gets in the way?

alain pierrot on time chunks in books

Alain Pierrot gave us permission to repost this:

Martyn Daniel’s remark about Ether Books’ move into the digital short story, which can be “read as installments” (thanks to Virginie Clayssen for the link) rang a bell for me about the way many kinds of readings compete for chunks of my attention.
Can I read the next chapter of this essay, study or novel before I’m called to board the plane, before my train comes to the station, or should I pick a shorter magazine article or a short story from Ether Books, etc.?
On a more professional field, can I spare the time to read the full version of the report, or should I restrain to the executive summary, plus the most relevant divisions of the report before the meeting?  
Or in academic situations, what amount of reading time should I plan to spend on the textbook, on the recommended readings and extra relevant titles before I sit term/final examinations?
Cross this with the last remarks in the excellent post from Information Architects, about their work on Average Reading Time (ART): 

Imagine, when you read a book, it doesn’t show you how many pages are left or how many words you have read, but how far into the text you are time wise and how much reading time is still ahead of you. Imagine that, when you write a text it doesn’t count words but the right column tells you:

  1. how much time you spent to read your text until the cursor position (top number)
  2. the total reading time (bottom number)

And they prepare to manage calibration, which should allow to match individual skills, reading situations, with different texts – I don’t read Joyce’s Ulysses at the same rate as the last issue of Wired !
Wouldn’t it be a good idea to leverage all the occasions where digital texts are chunked in relevant spans to store their ART into metadata, made available to apps that would sort timewise what I’m proposed to read? Social media and relevant storage solutions might host measured ARTs at convenience.
XML structured editing affords many solutions for identifying the relevant sections of texts, and storing their length, timewise. I would love to see the feature embedded into a next version of ePub, or at least recommended as best practice.
Would that make sense for Google Books, Amazon, iBooks, publishers, librarians?

slow reading

Roger Ebert’s blog brings news of a very slow viewing of a movie – Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Ebert is in Boulder for the Conference on World Affairs; what’s going on is a shot-by-shot viewing of one of Herzog’s masterpieces, a process that Ebert calls Cinema Interruptus. Herzog and another director, Ramin Bahrani, watch the film together in front of an audience, stopping after every shot and discussing what’s on the screen. The audience – an ample one, from Ebert’s description – shouts out questions as well. Herzog’s director’s commentaries, of course, are some of the best exemplars of the genre: what was happening behind the scenes in his movies is almost always as interesting as the indelible images that appear before the lens. There are no end of things to talk about; and the shot-by-shot method takes a long time, eight hours in total, so the viewing is broken up over nights.
This is a fantastic idea, which makes me wish I were in Boulder to be part of it. I like the idea of this kind of slow and detailed “reading”: to take a work of art & to lavish time on it. It seems, in our age of media overload, almost luxurious: this idea of devoting so much time to one text. In eight hours, we can see four movies. To give that much time to one seems decadent. But maybe this is what works of art deserve; maybe this is how we should be reading. The problem of availability is something that seems increasingly to have been solved. To view or to read well is another kind of problem. In the past, when there was an economy based on scarcity, this might not have been as much of an issue: whatever was available was watched or read. Now we need to think about how we want to watch: we need to become better readers.

the iPad is more a re-invention of the book than the computer

As readers of if:book know, i’ve often referred to books as the principal vehicle humans have used to move ideas around time and space. Thanks in large part to the internet, over the past fifteen years that function is increasingly being supplanted by the internet/computer/screen combo. I know many people are disappointed in the iPad because they see it as a crippled computer (e.g. Cory Doctorow’s recent rant in Boing Boing). Perhaps, if Cory and other critics would stop thinking of the iPad as a computer, but rather think of it as the container for a new kind of book, they might see its potential in a different light. Although a book (in technology terms) is a closed system and certainly not a platform for creativity in the sense that a computer (or a typewriter is), that hasn’t stopped books from being invaluable to humanity. For me, the iPad is a an exciting baby step on the way to realizing Neal Stephenson’s astonishing conception of the future of the book as described in Diamond Age: Or a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. Well worth the read.
[NOTE: Having said all this, I am still very disappointed in all the ways that Apple limits that potential by insisting that the iPad live within the tightly controlled garden walls it has constructed.]

future of publishing? — not really

People keep sending me links to this Dorling Kindersley video expecting I’ll love it. Actually, although i find it cute in its construction, i think it’s fundamentally inaccurate in both directions. Young people are not as vacuous as portrayed in the “forward” direction. “Reverse” is even worse, as it suggests that no real cultural change is underway. Frankly i see this video as a dream piece constructed to reassure middle-aged intellectuals that the seismic shifts which are upending life as we know it are not really happening.