Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Devil's Work in the Penny Press!

A great deal of interest in the week's harvestings from the Penny Press!

We'll start with the New Yorker and the brouhaha reported there over Google's much-ballyooed plan to scan bee-llions and bee-llions of books into a gigantic, enormous, gargantuan text-database that will be searchable in ever so many ways.

As with so much that Google does, your first response is 'well then, what's the possible harm that?' Such is the ultimate game-plan of the most powerful force in the Western world.

Apparently, though, there are those who do indeed find harm in the idea. Two different groups of plaintiffs are suing Google over the idea, according to Jeffrey Toobin's article on the whole subject in last week's issue.

As far as we here at Stevereads can tell (the issues get a bit murky, or at least murkily reported), the issue revolves around whether or not Google is telling the truth about what it's doing, and what it plans to do. Right now, it's scanning these bee-llions and bee-llions of books under a carefully-controlled regimen: works in the public domain will be fully scannable, fully readable, fully accessible. Works protected by copyright will only be available in 'snippets,' with the bulk of the work still available only through paying. And the vast middle-ground of printed works, the ones whose copyrights are somehow in doubt, well ... they're getting scanned too, and I guess we'll let gawd sort 'em out.

The bug up the ass of our plaintiffs is this: that Google is lying. That once they've scanned every book in the known universe, from medieval books of hours to the latest John Grisham, they won't, in fact, abide by 'snippets' like they promise. The basis of the case, so far as we can make it out, is that Google is simply too big to tell the truth.

But let's envision Google's version of things for a moment: an unprecedentedly gigantic book-database cross-indexed six ways from Sunday, with tantalizing tidbits of copyrighted stuff thrown in. Let's ignore the copyrighted stuff for a second and concentrate on Google's projected database of things for which no conceivable copyright claim could exist.

In other words, the many hundreds of thousands of good, worthy, and entirely forgotten books that molder untouched on library shelves all across the world. Books that you will never read even if their topics interest you, for the simple reason that you'll never know they exist. According to Toobin's article, Google is now scanning those books (or will be, once these lawsuits are settled, as everyone involved seems sure they will be) literally by the truckload, with the intent of making them readable, searchable, and cross-indexable to anybody with Internet access.

So you happen to hear one of the lovely hymns of Henry Francis Lyte and conceive a desire to learn more about him. You Google him, ironically enough, and perhaps you read a Wikipedia entry on him that, in Wikipedia's wacky way, has, shall we say, a playful, coquettish relationship with factual accuracy. Perhaps there's an audio file of 'Abide with Me.' But after that? If you're still curious, you better get out your beleagured credit card and spend time truffle-hunting on Alibris.

This projected Google database would change that process more dramatically than anything since Gutenberg. Lyte wrote volumes of poetry that were well-liked in his day, and there were at least two literary memoirs of him published in the mid-19th century. There've been considerable entries in hymnology reference works. All of this is not only long since out of print - it's also lock-solid certain to STAY out of print, if left to the devices of conventional publishing.

The sprawling, compulsively detailed journal John Quincy Adams kept throughout his long life on the world's stage? Likewise. The papers and letters of astonishing autodidact polymath Sir George Cayley? Likewise. The magisterial historical writings of Frantisek Palacky? Likewise.

Right now, if you're lucky enough to live near a first-rate research library (if you live almost anywhere between Cleveland and Salt Lake City, you probably aren't), and if you have several weeks to devote to your quest, you MIGHT be able to locate a couple of these works. In Google's proposed future, you'd be able to call them up at the touch of a button - and not only them, but works that have mentioned them.

With all due deference to litigious New Yorkers, such a future sounds like paradise.

The problem, as far as we can make it out, is that writers and publishers are afraid a) that Google isn't putting enough effort into determining whether or not the works it's scanning are, in fact, lapsed in copyright and b) that Google can't guarantee its copyrighted materials won't eventually find their way before the eyes of the public.

A) seems like sheer lunacy to us. If you're a major author and your copyrights are violated, well ... you're a major author! The courts are at your disposal, and Google has deep pockets. And if you're not a major author, if your best success in publishing landed you way, way back in the cheap seats of the midlist (or more likely, landed your dad there, or your grandfather, or your wacky uncle who nobody talks about), well ... are you saying you DON'T want two million people seeing your work who didn't see it before? Do you really think that isn't going to work out to your benefit?

No, the people who are worried here are retail publishers and bookstores (needlessly, since nothing, and that means absolutely NOTHING, will ever replace the feeling - the NEED - to curl up with a good book) and textbook publishers (deservedly, since after trial lawyers and CEOs, they're probably the most evil, money-grubbing SOBs in the country). What Google's proposing can only help the rest of us, wondering, as we are, what Pitt the Elder wrote about Cicero.

Names such as Pitt the Elder and Cicero don't enter into the standout story in last week's New York magazine - and delightfully so. 'Even Bitches Have Feelings' is by Vanessa Grigoriadis, and it's about the delicious rise and fall of publishing creaturatrix Judith Regan.

As should be obvious to everybody reading this blog, books are summitly important here at Stevereads. Books, literature, reading - the whole whirling world of it, highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, everything from the latest Musil translation to the latest "Smallville" novel. We search for quality everywhere we might find it - just like the rest of you.

That's why we're in the perfect position to tell you without doubt: Judith Regan is the Devil.

It's not just that she commissioned, bought, and publicized bad books. Tastes vary, after all, and not everybody is lucky enough to read this blog (and if by chance you ARE reading this blog, Ms. Regan - it's a longshot, admittedly, but still: none of us can be sure who Sebastian might currently be sleeping with - take our advice: stay away from publishing 100 percent entirely, forever. You are the Devil. Never even touch a book with your hands again).

No, it's not just that she championed bad books. And it's certainly not that she had a track record of hit bestsellers - one should never be faulted for having great instincts (although in this case it's distressing, since it makes her eventual return to publishing rather likelier than not).

No, the reason Judith Regan is the Devil is this: she championed anti-books. She championed - and got gigantic, other-author-pauperizing publishing deals for - books that are meant not to be read but to be SHOT UP, directly into the limbic system. Books that were conceived and packaged under the gross and cynical assumption that most of the book-buying public actively DISLIKES the act of reading. Anti-books, designed to GET YOU OFF in between video games.

Can it come as a surprise to ANYBODY, then, that the Devil would solicit a book from one of her foremost living minions, O.J. Simpson?

As some of you will know, we here at Stevereads think the O.J. Simpson trial was a twenty million dollar waste of the taxpayers' money. The suspect had motive, means, and opportunity, and he fled from the police. In any jurisdiction of any court in the entire history of jurisprudence, those four factors together obviate the need for a trial: they are in and of themselves an admission of guilt.

Nevertheless, the late great Johnnie Cochrane was a full-blown magician, and the American trial system respects the work of full-blown magicians, so O.J. Simpson walks unimpeded under the all-seeing sun.

And he's hurting for money, especially since a civil court found him guilty of killing his wife and her friend. That's where Judith Regan came in: she championed a book by Simpson, "If I Did It," in which he hypotheticizes about killing his wife. Regan is on record saying she viewed the book as a confession, which might or might not be true (she seems to have lied like it was a bodily function) - but one thing is certain: she didn't view the book as a BOOK. It was an event, a phenomenon, a happening, whatever you want to call it .... but it wasn't anything you sit down and READ - and more importantly, it wasn't anything you were SUPPOSED to sit down and read. Sitting down and reading ANYTHING ... actually reflecting on ANYTHING .... is and always has been antithetical to what the Devil wants. The Devil doesn't want readers - the Devil wants addicts.

Once Harpercollins and Rupert Murdoch fully realized what a noxious thing they'd been coerced to sign on for, they not only dropped the book, they dropped Judith Regan too.

This is hugely, overwhelmingly a good thing for the entire publishing industry. No shades of opinion: it's just a good thing. Judith Regan was a pea-brained potty-mouthed opportunistic misogynistic anti-Semitic manipulative least-common-denominator blabbermouthed force of Evil. Just the simple fact of her absence raises the publishing level of discourse across the board.

We can only hope there isn't some eager young Regan wannabe out there, dreaming of bagging a ten million dollar advance for a collection of Paris Hilton's text-messages ...


Jeff E. said...

"Judith Regan was a pea-brained potty-mouthed opportunistic misogynistic anti-Semitic manipulative least-common-denominator blabbermouthed force of Evil."

Steve, how come you never tell us what you really think?

steve said...

I'm shy ... awww...

steve said...

And that 'was' wasn't in any way meant to imply she isn't STILL all of those things ... just that she no longer has a major publishing house by the balls, is all.

Sam Sacks said...

I love that "playful, coquettish relationship to factual accuracy." And I agree that anyone doing more with Wikipedia than finding dates and correct spelling is nuts (the brief "analyses" of classic books are grimly hilarious--they're like Cliff Notes to Cliff Notes), but my question for the panel is this: which, if any, encyclopedias ARE good to have and use?

My parents dutifully bought me a set when I was growing up--I think it was World Book, but I can't remember--and I dutifully used it to look up dates and correct spelling and it's presently sprouting mold in the basement of my mother's house. We've all heard tale of the wunderkind who read the whole thing, A to Z, and then went on to...usually nothing, right? except endlessly, laboriously TALK about the time he read the whole thing. Who will step forth to defend the encyclopedia? And what about its value now, in the age of Google and Google Maps?

Jeff E. said...

I'm glad you asked about that Sam. My girlfriend's sister gave me a book for Christmas that is the story of one guy who recently tried to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. Apparently (I haven't read it because I haven't asked Steve's permission yet), it reads like a novel about the guy's life but is structured/punctuated A-to-Z with random (or not) factoids picked up from the encyclopedia.

It's called "The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World"
by A. J. Jacobs.

Steve, how is this? Worth a lazy afternoon?

steve said...

It stinks.

Your lazy afternoons - in addition to being a categorical evil in and of themselves, in a too-short mortal life - would be better spent reading Erasmus.

steve said...

Well, the old-style collaborative encyclopedia certainly HAS great merits, ESPECIALLY in the age of Google and Wikipedia. Their entries are compiled by experts, after all. Look at my beloved Cambridge Ancient History, for instance. Or the Oxford 'Companion' series.

I think most people grew up with an encyclopedia on the shelf only ever USED it to crib for school papers or to find a fact quickly. And in both those regards, the Internet beats any static book hands-down, no question.

But for those of us who also like to RUMINATE inside an encyclopedia, to bounce from one concept to another, to follow a trail of references as it worms its way through a volume ... and to do it all in the hands of experts who've actually studied what they're writing about ... well, there's nothing on the Internet I know of that gives you that experience. I'd love to hear about it, if there were.

Kevin Caron said...

"I haven't read it because I haven't asked Steve's permission yet"


Kevin Caron said...

I also used the encyclopedia, as a kid, to look at funky flags of the world and to find ideas for new superheroes.

Jeff E. said...

I had The New Book of Knowledge which was amazingly eclectic. I remember there was an entry on Parties (under P), which described how to host a birthday party on planet Leave It to Beaver. Pin the Tail on the Donkey was accounted for, whereas Spin the Bottle and gravity bongs were both curiously omitted.

Kevin Caron said...

I had Encyclopedia Britannica at home at my mom's, and maybe a '70s edition of the World Book Encyclopedia (or something similar) at my dad's.

John was excited to find, when he came over one day, that the entry on the novel in EB was written by none other than Anthony Burgess.

Sam Sacks said...

That Jacobs "Know-it-all" guy gave a reading (and quiz) at the Strand when I worked there and he seemed like a total attention-grasping loser, his "fame" being of the same sort as Jared the Subway sandwich spokesman's, accidental, weird, and totally meaningless. If anything, he only generated my bias that encyclopedias are just vast repositories of tepid party-humor trivia.

But I'm glad to be disabused of that bias in the exalted sanctum of these comment fields.

lockep said...

Wikipedia! Britannica! A.J. Jacobs! Reading encyclopedias! Where to start?

Okay, first Wikipedia -- folks, it ain't that bad. I mean, it's not that bad for what it is. If you're seeking the End-All source of knowledge in detail and unfailing accuracy on a single subject, then sure, Wikipedia suffers next to Britannica, but even Britannica is very flawed in that respect. NOT as flawed as Wikipedia, but still... after all, those of us posting on this little fiefdom in a corner of Blogvovia KNOW what the "End-All source of knowledge in detail and unfailing accuracy on a single subject" is, and its middle name is Thomas...

But here are Wikipedia's strengths and it's values:

-- It's PERFECT for pop culture. When some new weird craze is sweeping the Interwebs and you, as an aging hipster suddenly realize you don't know WHAT it's all about, there's Wikipedia with an entry on it. Web trends, new sexual slang, pop stars, reality tv freakshows, obscure cult followings for books or tv shows -- Wikipedia has them all covered. Best of all for some of us right here in this blog-room, it's GREAT for catching up on the long-running, complex continuties of comic books.

One of the problems with Britannica (or Titannica, as we used to call it) is that it takes FOREVER to turn the ship. Britannica simply cannot keep up with pop culture, nor should it bother (the very subject that led to many the heated discussion in the EB chambers over the past decade). But even if you take pop culture out of the equation, Britannica is not equipped to even keep its science and history articles updated as well as Wikipedia can. Sure, Wikipedia's wiki structure lets errors and intentional hoaxes creep in, but the nature of the wiki also creates a self-policing effect that does a decent job of weeding them out. Not perfect by a long shot, but managable.

-- It's the PERFECT place to start when you're trying to learn more about a subject and really don't know where to begin. As a writer and researcher, I can't use Wikipedia as a source, but I CAN and do use it as a 'first stop' -- it provides context, lists other keywords I can pursue, and often has weblinks and online references to more authorative sources.

Most of Steve's complaints about Wikipedia stem from the same place that Britannica's do: Elitism. The notion that anything created by the unwashed masses must be useless. (Well, to be fair, most of Britannica's hatred for Wikipedia is simply survival based: like Encarta before it, Wikipedia is slowly strangling EB's sales.)

Except that Wikipedia articles are often contributed and updated by experts in their fields. The "core" articles that is -- the pop culture articles are probably created by a very different sort of web dweller. I've found that Wikipedia articles are useful in almost exact proportion to the general importance of their subject. If you're looking for info about the Legion of Superheroes, the article is going to be written and amended by Legion-heads and is going to be pretty solid, other than a few disagreements over the validity of various re-boots. If you're looking for info on Paris Hilton, the article is going to be fairly loopy, often riddled with goof info inserted, then deleted. If you're looking for a list of the governors of New Mexico (which was one search I used wikipedia for last year), then bingo, just what you need. No one gives enough of a crap to intentionally mess with the information, the information itself is not controversial or shaky, and it's not in Britannica.

Wikipedia is a useful tool, no more, no less. Ask too much of it and you may get burned. Use it for what its good at, and it just makes research go that much faster and easier.

As for Britannica, well more on that in the next post....

lockep said...

As for Britannica, there's a lot I could say to condemn it. It's not perfect (yes! it's true! it's riddled with errors!). It can't keep up with the world. It's search engine is improving, but is still head-thumpingly obtuse.

But I think most of the higher-thinking folks' complaints about Britannica hinge on the fact that in your 20s and 30s, as you focus your laser brains in on specific academic areas--be they historical, literary, or scientific--you suddenly find that Britannica is not as authoritative or exhaustive as you want it to be. See, you missed your EB boat -- those of you who would never have dreamed, rightfully, of cribbing from Britannica for a paper in high school because that would be Wrong, come back to it in college or post-grad and suddenly you want it to help you out. Except that by that point you've left Britannica's depth of experise behind. Britannica is written for two users: The general home user who wants to learn more about something, and the academic user who simply needs to track down some background information on a topic OUTSIDE his or her area of expertise.

Steve says

"But for those of us who also like to RUMINATE inside an encyclopedia, to bounce from one concept to another, to follow a trail of references as it worms its way through a volume ... and to do it all in the hands of experts who've actually studied what they're writing about ... well, there's nothing on the Internet I know of that gives you that experience. I'd love to hear about it, if there were."

and I'd ask for some clarification. If you're talking about holding a book in your hands and reading in depth, then of course an actual printed volume is more fullfilling, more enriching on a READING level. But for following a trail of references, I'm not sure what Steve means, since the online version of Britannica is PERFECT for that. In fact, Online EB is so much better for tracing connections and following up on specific people, places, and ideas that it literally renders the printed volumes as decorative, or at least nostolgic. In fact, EB started increasing it's run of print encyclopedias a few years ago, after online EB had rendered them useless, simply BECAUSE they found that people still wanted to buy the print volumes as DECORATION, as staus symbols.

Steve, I don't know if you have an online subscription to BritannicaOnline, but it would seem to me -- if I'm understanding your complaint -- that it DOES exactly what you're asking for.

But you may just mean that you like to hold a book and read through it, which I understand.

Kevin mentioned the fact that some of the major EB articles were written by high-profile experts and/or practitioners in their fields (Houdini once wrote the EB article on "magicians", TE Lawrence wrote on guerilla warfare). I don't think that happens as much any more, but it should. In fact, that's where EB should be putting ALL of its editorial efforts toward: getting big names to write articles. The problems stem from two very different areas: 1) Big names aren't always the BEST people to be writing about their fields -- their big names come with big egos, big biases, big axes to grind, big myopias. Granted, Burgess was more scholarly than, say, Houdini, but still, the Platonic ideal of a Britannica article would be one that has NO discernable slant or even a particular voice. It's SUPPOSED to be bland and evenhanded. So the idea of "celebrity" EB writers (even if they're only celebrities within their small academic realms) brings risk and I believe that's why EB phased out the practice, though now EB hauls the old ones out as curiosity pieces -- my point is they should just publish books FULL of the celebrity penned articles.

The other problem? Money. Big names now demand it, Britannica doesn't have as much of it as they used to. If Stevereads was somehow 1/100th as widely read as our host likes to pretend it is, I'd be worried about commiting libel here, so let me couch this in very delicate vague terms: it is possible that in some situations maybe in recent years that one could speculate that maybe a certain encylopedia publishing house might have sometimes been less than quick to pay the academic authors of articles, sometimes taking more than a year to pay the main writers (no, I'm not hypothetically talking about myself -- I'm hypothetically talking about the phd professor-types who are hired to write or rewrite the BIG topic articles.) Mind you, I'm just hypothetically speculating about the possible validity of rumors. But let's just say that if you don't pay your primary writers in a reasonable amount of time, they won't come back and write for you again, and so your pool of academic writers will get shallower and shallower.

lockep said...

And so we come to AJ Jacobs, a man who I cannot claim to have met. We were supposed to work together once on a project for Britannica, but it never really gelled and I never actually spoke to AJ personally.

Basically, Britannica LOVED AJ and his book -- trust me, they LOVE anyone who comes along and grabs a bit of PR spotlight for the ailing brand. At one point, following the publication of AJ's Know-it-All book, Britannica wanted AJ to help them turn the buzz into an ongoing feature -- they dreamed of having Jacobs write and record weekly or twice-weekly little audio columns in the same vein as the book - finding interesting, odd little tidbits in the Britannica and then serving them up with wit and charm on radio spots that they would syndicate to high-brow radio markets (namely the one whose initials include P, N, and R.). Imagine Britannica's surprise when AJ asked to be paid real money for doing the spots -- book author money, Esquire writer money, not Britannica money.

So naturally, who does Britannica turn to to create cheap AJ Jacobs imitation pieces at a tenth of the fee?

It actually sounded like a fun idea except for a couple problems. First, AJ found all the little oddball tidbits because he read the entire Britannica. To recreate that effect and find equally interesting, catchy topics, one would have to read a LOT of the Britannica. A task that would reduce the dollars-per-hour value of the gig considerably. So it was very hard to just magically whip out little odd snippets of info that were fascinating enough to a general audience. Second, as usual, Britannica had trouble deciding on voice and tone -- they want to grab attention and garner a wider, mainstream audience, but in the end they shudder at the notion of ever letting go of the staid, stolid, respectable EB "branding." So anyone writing new types of pieces for them finds him or herself in a pretty tight editorial bind. The one time we were able to get away with shaking loose the Marble Column EB prose was over on the Dot.com side of things, and when that perished, so did the willingness to tamper with the editorial formula. Another problem was the length. In order to be syndicated to radio programs, the bits had to get in, get out the interesting tidbit, be funny and clever, and get out in under a minute, or about 150 words. And finally, what sunk the project was that when EB started doing market research, they found that most of the radio stations that might be interested in syndicating such a thing were CHRISTIAN radio markets, and honestly, there went my interest in the thing. It's a personal flaw of mine, a product of my atheistic, funeral home, fatalistic, morbid, perverted character that most of what I find interesting is exactly the sort of stuff that does not play well on family friendly outlets (and yet, I write for secondary textbooks for a living... go figure).

So there went the project and thus ended my brief passing of AJ Jacobs in the night. I did read about a third of his book in order to prepare for the gig and I found him pretty unsufferable.

However, you gotta give him this: he made it sell. His follow-up gimmick book, on following the 10 Commandments for a year, was optioned by a studio, though I can't recall offhand if it has yet to be put into development.

lockep said...

sorry. "insufferable," not "unsufferable."

I found AJ Jacob's tone INsufferable...

steve said...

What was that crack about this blog not being as widely read as I think?

I'm not sure I follow the gist of that ...

Beepy said...

Oh my sweet Creator. This is exactly what I read Steve's blog for! Thank you, Locke.

Beepy said...

Steve, not that your wonderful prose is not reason enough....

did I save that one?

Sam Sacks said...

I echo Beepy's delight, and add the blurted-out reply: Thomas!? Oh my lord. And all these years I had convinced myself it was Trevor.

lockep said...

"Trevor"?!?! What do you think he is, some sort of 20-something mewling spawn of yuppie PROTESTANTS?!?!

Enjoy the Britannica tales out of school while you have them -- I may have to delete or abridge some of the comments later -- I still occasionally do some work for EB and I feel a little bad airing the slightly dirty laundry in public (no, I know none of them would ever find this site themselves, but some of the PR folks might have those damn Google-bots set up to troll blogistan for mentions of the venerable institution....

Sam Sacks said...

Or Terrence? I was torn.

lockep said...

What, not "Tiberius"? I'm sure that's the one he was HOPING you'd guess...

steve said...

Tiberius it is! Glad that's settled!