Is just me, or has The New Yorker been resurgent the last few weeks? In addition to the David Grann piece mentioned below, we've gotten: Bloomberg, diving, James Wood's most cogent essay to date on atheism and belief, and a F-B-P triple play. (That's Friend to Bilger to Paumgarten, for those keeping score at home.) And I read the fiction for five issues in a row - a personal best. I know they assemble these things far in advance, but it still feels like the Ian Frazier "Siberia" two-parter, eight years in the making, started some kind of conflagration of awesomeness. Thoughts?
One of last year's big stories, the publishers' battle with Google over control of digitized books, has been on the back burner in recent months, but an aggressive move by HarperCollins is pushing it back into the spotlightIn late 2005, Harper, already vocal about its displeasure with Google over the search engine giant's digital book initiative, announced that it would take its own separate approach, building its own little island, as I wrote at the time.Since then, we haven't gotten too many updates on Harper's progress. On Thursday, however, the publisher announced that it would partner with LibreDigital, a division of newspaper digitizing firm NewsStand, while also making a "strategic investment" in NewsStand, with Harper president Brian Murray joining NewsStand's board of directors.We also got an update on how far Harper has progressed over the last year in its efforts to digitize its books. The company's press release announcing the deal indicates that it has digitized "more than 10,000 books and has enabled the 'Browse Inside' application for several thousand." The WSJ in its writeup (Sub. Req.) puts that total number of books digitized at 12,000, with 2,000 of those being online now. Based on these numbers, the publisher is making progress, if not at the pace of Google, which based on its contract with the California state university library system could be capable of scanning as many as 3,000 books a day. Harper has a backlist of 20,000 books, with 3,500 new titles published each year, and this new effort will likely enable the publisher to finish its digitizing efforts sooner than it would have otherwise. In addition, LibreDigital's technology will better enable Harper to store and manage these digital editions.In spite of being at odds with one another, to a certain extent the intentions and efforts of Google and the publishers don't entirely overlap. As the technology has evolved to facilitate the scanning of large quantities of books, Harper and other publishers are desperate to exert control over the digital versions of their books, allowing them to add value to their catalog by either selling digital books or by using those digital books to entice readers to buy the hard copies. The publishers' biggest fear is that Google will cannibalize their sales by giving the goods away for free.Google, meanwhile, is more interested in providing as complete a record of the world's published work as possible. To be sure, there is a profit motive here - Google has made its billions by helping us navigate the information it organizes for us - but the upside, for readers (and society, even) would be the vast store of human knowledge at our fingertips. The fact that a number of university libraries have cooperated with Google (for the Library Project portion of Google Book Search) would seem to indicate that librarians, who know a thing or two about making information accessible, are enthusiastic about Google's plan. And, as such, its fairly easy to argue that Google's book scanning efforts would hurt publishers little more than libraries do. As exciting as Google's book initiatives could be (and they certainly are pretty good already), it appears as though the dream of a universally accessible online library will be forever hamstrung by publishing companies and copyright law.
Languagehat is a freelance editor in Hadley, Massachusetts.This year I have two pairs of books to recommend, one pair on language and one on history.The subject I blog about, of course, is language, and this year I've read two books I can strongly recommend to anyone, The first is almost a decade old: Language Myths, by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill. The format is simple and brilliant: have a bunch of linguists take a bunch of popular myths about language and deconstruct them, explaining why linguists look at the issue differently and what the facts of the matter are. Some of the myths discussed are "the meanings of words should not be allowed to vary or change," "some languages are just not good enough," "women talk too much," "some languages are harder than others," "some languages have no grammar," "double negatives are illogical," and "Aborigines speak a primitive language." Obviously some sections are better written than others, but anyone who reads the whole book will have not a grounding in linguistic science but something more important for the average citizen: a basic grasp of how linguists think about language, and an understanding of why the silly ideas that irritate linguists so much are silly.The second book came out just this year: Michael Erard's Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean. Erard got a master's degree in linguistics before going into journalism, and it shows; he's one of the few reporters who consistently gets it right. He writes knowledgeably and with verve, packing in fascinating bits of information on each page; for instance, in talking about the "Freudian slip" he provides a detailed dissection of one of Freud's most famous examples, the case of the young man who tried to quote a line from The Aeneid but left out a word - for Freud, an extremely significant slip that stemmed from the man's fear that his lover was pregnant. Erard cites other researchers who point out that it can be analyzed as a perfectly normal speech error, and that if you take the Freudian attitude you could provide "insightful" interpretations no matter which word was left out. In Chapter 5 he gives "A Brief History of 'Um'," explaining that he started by assuming that the condemnation of "filler words" went all the way back to the ancients but found that it didn't really begin until the 19th century (Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote "Don't strew the pathway with those dreadful urs" in 1846) and didn't become popular until the 20th. He talks about Reverend Spooner (he who toasted Queen Victoria by asking for "three cheers for our queer old dean" and greeted a group of farmers as "noble tons of soil"), Thomas Edison (a recording of one of his public exhibitions of the phonograph is full of "uh"s), linguist Victoria Fromkin and her insistence on the importance of slips of the tongue, and all manner of other tidbits. If you're looking for a present for someone who loves language, I can't think of a more enjoyable one.The other topic is Russian history, which has been obsessing me for a few years now. Having worked my way through World War One and the Revolution, I've gotten up to the Civil War, and two books I've recently read, taken together, provide a nicely stereoscopic view of that terrible period. The first is Vladimir N. Brovkin's Behind the Front Lines of the Civil War: Political Parties and Social Movements in Russia, 1918-1922. I bought it a few years ago, but held off reading it until I had a basic overall picture (which I got from W. Bruce Lincoln's Red Victory), because Brovkin goes into considerable detail. Other histories of the period tell you about armies sweeping back and forth over much of Russia, giving you a good sense of the destruction that was wrought but leaving you wondering why exactly it was happening and what it was like for the people caught in the middle. These are Brovkin's questions, and his focus on the changing political climate in the cities and provinces, resulting from and contributing to the often viciously counterproductive policies of the occupying regimes, Communist and anti-Communist, gives convincing answers and provides a framework that helps the reader understand the war as something other than one damn massacre after another.Like any historian, of course, Brovkin is trying to give an overall picture, no matter how many details he provides; furthermore, he looks primarily at the regions overrun by competing armies, pretty much ignoring life in Petrograd (which of course remained in Communist hands). This gap was filled for me by a remarkable memoir I happened on in a bookstore, having never seen a reference to it: E.M. Almedingen's Tomorrow Will Come, originally published in 1941 and reissued in 1968. Miss Almedingen, who became a children's book author after she moved to England in 1922, spent the period of revolution and war in Petrograd, increasingly preoccupied with simple survival and ignorant, like almost everyone, of what was going on outside their immediate neighborhood. One striking result of this is that she doesn't even mention the October Revolution; she skips directly from the revolution of February 1917 (after which "never again in Russia was I to see water running from a tap in any house I lived in") to the spring and summer of 1918 and rumors of the peace of Brest-Litovsk. Her account of being driven from one shelter to another, increasingly shabby and tenuous, of the deaths of people she loved, of appalling cruelty from some strangers and courageous aid from others, is riveting. Her family is odder than most (her father was a famous professor who deserted the family when she was a child, her mother considered herself an Englishwoman and wanted her daughter to go to Oxford, her aunt lived in Paris and considered herself French) and as a result she takes an oddly outsider view of what was happening, but that in itself makes it easier for an outsider to see it through her eyes, and her infallible eye for the telling detail and vivid memories of childhood experiences (like the annual Lenten fair on the Horse Guards Boulevard) make it an unforgettable read.More from A Year in Reading 2007
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Could this be the start of a trend? HarperCollins paid the singer Billy Joel $3 million for a memoir back in 2008. Joel wrote The Book of Joel, the publisher edited it, and a June publication date was set. Last week, however, Joel abruptly backed out of the deal and apparently will return the portion of the advance he's been paid. His reason? He told the Associated Press he "was not all that interested in talking about the past."