Please note the date on this issue and don't put too much faith in the links, some of which are centuries old in Internet time.

At The Margin
Vol. 1, Issue 1
Thursday, September 16, 1999

Welcome to At The Margin. Obscure snippets, twice monthly, of interest to book readers... no gossip... no pretensions to journalism... no Harry Potter

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This Issue:
1. Electronic Books
2. Books for the Next Millennium
3. Bad Writing Contests
4. Jane Austen's Embrace of Class Conflict
5. A Brief Guide to Her Web Presence
6. Do You Know Me?
7. Blue Underlined Words

1. Electronic Books -- An Idea Whose Time Hasn't Come
Last year, a joke made the rounds of the Internet about the "Built- in Orderly Organized Knowledge Device (BOOK)." Styled as a product announcement, it proclaimed the advantages of a portable information disseminator: " ... no wires, no electric circuits, no batteries, nothing to be connected or switched on...." The joke went on to describe the interactive "browsing" feature, the "index" feature, and the "bookmark" feature (which was limited only by the number of pages in the BOOK). It was a reminder that the book really is a great technology, even if its last major technical advance was in 1453.

Nevertheless, innovators keep trying to improve on it. The latest is the Rocket eBook, which the vendor describes as "about the size of a paperback," weighing 22 ounces and capable of storing 4,000 pages (about 10 novels). The device sells in the $350-$500 range, and you can download text for it from Powell's Books as well as a big book retailing chain that we don't like to talk about in At The Margin. One interesting feature of the Rocket eBook is that you can underline passages and make notes in the text. For more information about the device, visit the vendor's website ( The Rocket eBook has a screen rather than pages. It's backlit, so it should be reasonably bright. But it's still not paper. The other day, I caught part of an analyst's remarks about this on the radio. The analyst said that some people feared this new technology. I didn't catch the analyst's name, and I don't know her motives, although I am quite sure they have nothing to do with improving the experience of reading.

But it occurred to me that what she was taking for fear of a new technology might just be people's reluctance to do their reading on an Etch-A-Sketch. Jakob Nielsen, my favorite expert on web usability, says electronic books are a bad idea. He points out that tests show people read about 25 percent slower from computer screens than from paper, because screens have a lower resolution. The Rocket eBook's screen resolution is 106 dots per inch, which is higher than the 96 dpi standard of PC screens or the 72 dpi standard of the Mac, but it still doesn't approach the 300 dpi output of even a first-generation laser printer, which of course is a quarter (or less) of the resolution you see on your average book page. You can get a computer monitor that displays 300 dpi, and it costs about a bazillion dollars. But Nielsen says that even if you could get hardcopy resolution on a portable screen, the electronic book is still a bad idea because it doesn't take any real advantage of what electronic text can do. He says electronic text shouldn't be based on page turning, but on interaction, hyperlinks, search, and continuous updates. These are the things that a book, as great a technology as it is, has a hard time providing. See Nielsen's article at

2. Books for the Next Millennium
Ask 20 writers to choose a single book they would want to take with them into the next millennium, and what do you get? Hungry Mind Review tried it for its summer 1999 issue, and here are the nominees.

The Diary Of Anne Frank
The Essential Rumi translated by Coleman Barks
Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke
The Revolt Of The Masses by Jose Ortega y Gasset
Hard Times by Charles Dickens
The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
Dream Palace by Herbert Morris
Ecce Homo by Friedrich Nietzche
The Varieties Of Religious Experience by William James
Essays Before A Sonata by Charles Ives
Call To Arms by Lu Xun
On The Road by Jack Kerouac
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
The Fourth Dimension by Yannis Ritsos
Down And Out In Paris And London by George Orwell
The Remains Of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Remembrance Of Things Past by Marcel Proust
The Way It Is: New And Selected Poems by William Stafford
Black Reconstruction In America, 1860-80 by W. E. B. DuBois
Selected Poems by William Carlos Williams

The editor in charge of the project, Bart Schneider, writes, "The single-book concept rankled a few writers who declined the invitation. Annie Proulx wonders if I had 'a morbid sense of humor, setting all those writers to clawing through their libraries and trying to reduce them to a single tome.' One writer, who will go unnamed, sent in three choices, and had to be disciplined... Emily Carter wonders if she should choose a book from the Hemlock Society since, 'I would rather kill myself than have only one book to read.'" Nevertheless, Schneider managed to round up the choices above from 20 bona fide writers, most of whom are sufficiently obscure to meet the test for inclusion in At The Margin. The article includes the writers' identities and their reasons for their choices. See it at the magazine's website:

3. Bad Writing Contests
Bad writing contests are becoming a growth industry, and at least two can be found on the web. The annual Bad Writing Contest sponsored by the journal Philosophy and Literature publicizes "the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles" of the last few years. The most recent winner is a sentence from the article "Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time" by Judith Butler, a professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley in the journal Diacritics. "The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power."

I always thought the rearticulation of Althusserian theory was a little overrated, if you want to know the truth. There is a summary at, which also showcases the second and third place winners, as well as other atrocities.

Professor Butler's sentence, by the way, has a Flesch Reading Ease score of zero, and addresses a reading grade level of 47. But the grandfather of bad writing contests -- run since 1982 by the English Department at San Jose State University -- is The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, "a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels." This year's winner was Dr. David Chuter, a 47-year-old government official from London, England: "Through the gathering gloom of a late-October afternoon, along the greasy, cracked paving- stones slick from the sputum of the sky, Stanley Ruddlethorp wearily trudged up the hill from the cemetery where his wife, sister, brother, and three children were all buried, and forced open the door of his decaying house, blissfully unaware of the catastrophe that was soon to devastate his life." It grows on you, doesn't it? The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest has a web page (where you can read the runner-up entries as well as a lot of background about the contest):

4. Jane Austen's Turn Toward Class Conflict
An English professor at Pennsylvania State University finds in Jane Austen's last novel (Persuasion) the emergence of something like class conflict. "In many respects," says Christopher Clausen, "Persuasion represents an unprecedented shift of direction from all the previous novels, especially its two immediate predecessors, Mansfield Park and Emma, in which country-house society seemed to reach an apotheosis." Clausen says that the novel is more contemptuous of the landed gentry than her previous books, which merely poked fun at the class's affectations. Clausen says that, although people have interpreted Jane Austen's body of work in different ways (ranging from those who see her as a radical feminist to those who see her as a conservative apologist for English class society), everyone has approached her work as being all of a piece. His new interpretation is that Persuasion represents a genuine shift in the author's thinking as well as in her style. Persuasion, unlike her other books, dispenses with subplots, and it is the only one of her novels that provides a date for its setting: 1814.

Persuasion, says Clausen, clearly presents the land-owning class in a bad light. "Her support for the landowning class was never unqualified; the squire had to live up to his position. But in the novels before Persuasion, there was always at least one landowner near the center of the action who did so well enough to exemplify the ideal, if not fully embody it. Here both the upper and lower gentry, the Elliots and their good-natured but ineffectual relations by marriage the Musgroves, are hopelessly unequal to their responsibilities." Clausen, to his credit, explains that Jane Austen was not an ideologue. But he believes her final book represents a change of opinion that opened a whole new world for her. On the whole, I think mind-changing is a good thing. If he had lived long enough, perhaps Che Guevara might have written a romantic comedy. The article "Jane Austen Changes Her Mind" appeared in the Spring issue of American Scholar, the journal of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. PBK is at, but the article isn't there, just subscription information for the journal.

5. A Brief Guide to Her Web Presence
An Alta Vista search for Jane Austen found 19,472 web pages, everything from a guide to the Jane Austen Collection of the Goucher College Library to a page of genealogy charts for the characters in Sense And Sensibility. If you want to do a Jane Austen tour of the web, you should start at the Republic Of Pemberley (subtitled "Your haven in a world programmed to misunderstand obsession with things Austen") at Here, you will find discussion groups, information, and links. One page of the site provides links to brief discussions (without intentional plot spoilers) of most of her novels. Another offers links to hypertext and ascii editions of her novels and stories on the web. Jane Austen Society Of North America ( web page attempts to bring scholars and enthusiasts together. Another page, Jane Austen Film And Television Adaptations (, provides information on where to obtain videos (did you realize there have been at least six films of Pride And Prejudice and three of Sense And Sensibility?). A web page of Hampshire County Council invites you to discover England, particularly Hampshire ~ The Inspirational Home Of Jane Austen ( The Jane Austen Homepage ( features listings, essays, film reviews, links, and a bulletin board. Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop, by the way, has copies of Persuasion on hand. Jane Austen sells quickly, but her novels come in regularly and are rarely out of stock. You'll like reading her in a book more than you will like reading her on the web, especially if you take a bus to work.

6. Do You Know Me?
For those who like puzzles as well as books, this department brings you the first sentence of a novel, currently out of print in the U.S., by a famous writer (caution: he or she may not be famous for being a writer). The name of the author and title of the book will be in the next issue, so write your guess down. If you want to send me your guess, e-mail it to Please include your name (so I can congratulate you in this space if you're correct) and let me know if you recognized the writer's style or if you know the book, or both.

The Sentence: "When he was seven years old, Belisarius was told by his widowed mother that it was now time for him to leave her for a while, and her retainers of the household and estate at Thracian Tcherman, and go to school at Adrianople, a city some miles away, where he would be under the guardianship of her brother, the Distinguished Modestus."

Employees, consultants, and contractors of At The Margin are ineligible, as are family members, cohabitants, parole officers, fellow travelers, neighbors, pets, masseurs, putative heirs, attorneys, dentists, agents, and godparents of employees, consultants, and contractors.

7. Blue Underlined Words
I follow a lot of links in the course of compiling this letter, and some of the pages I visit look like they may be interesting or useful to you. I have only visited them and know nothing about them beyond what I could gather from the visit. So I'm not endorsing anything, just bringing it to your attention. Click at your own risk.

Mark Twain Postcards
Mark Twain Virtual Postcards is a page on the the (formerly Mark Twain website. You select a card bearing a Mark Twain-related image (most of the author himself) and one of his quotable remarks. Then you write a personalized message, choose a background color or pattern (and music), and enter the email address of a friend. Your friend receives an email with instructions on how to pick up the postcard using a special ID that ensures the privacy of your message. The service is free, and you don't even need a stamp. Find a link to the page at

Humanities News
Science news sites are so common on the web that you risk fetching one whenever you make a typing error. Art & Letters Daily, however, carries links to news and reviews (refreshed daily) from the worlds of philosophy, aesthetics, literature, language, ideas, criticism, culture, history, music, and art. The last time I looked, I saw a story on how to become a leading French intellectual, one on the most spectacular cache of Egyptian mummies ever found, another on the politics of Geothe, and one on the absurdities of creationism. Check it out at

The International Trepanation Advocacy Group
Trepanning, the practice of drilling a hole in the skull, is the oldest form of surgery for which there is objective evidence (what could be more objective than a skull with a hole drilled in it?). It is thought that the treatment was supposed to let the evil spirits out. But the International Trepanation Advocacy Group is dedicated to gathering all possible information about the practice, "be it positively or negatively construed." Their website,, offers a great deal of information on it, as well as trepan tee shirts and a trepan shopping mall. It's pretty comprehensive, and I assume it's for real, but don't try it at home:

We Know, We Know
It continues to surprise me what you can find on the web for free. -- working on the theory that everybody is an expert in something -- encourages readers to post articles others can learn from. The last time I looked, there were recent articles on how to get and keep a good deal on an apartment and how to get paint out of carpeting. I read a very informative one on how to clean the printheads of an Epson inkjet printer. There is an area for feedback associated with each article, and the readers discuss them.

Y? The National Forum on People's Differences
Why do white people spend so much time on lawn care? Why would anyone consider a bag of old newspapers to be a work of art? At what age do cross-dressers usually start? There are things you might not ask people of other backgrounds and sensibilities, even if you really want to know. But these questions get asked in Y? Forum, whose goal is constructive dialogue. The questions are blunt, but the responses are generally thoughtful and good-humored.

The Bill Gates Personal Wealth Clock
Philip Greenspun, author of Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing, wrote a Tcl program to accurately calculate the wealth of Bill Gates and your contribution to it. The last time I looked, Gates was sitting on $104.6 billion. For those upset by this, the page offers an old Irish saying: "If you want to know what God thinks about money, just look at the people he gives it to."

Lemming Mobiles
The Ultimate Poseur Sport Utility Page decries the sport utility vehicle trend, suggesting it is ruining the automotive market "just when sports cars and family sedans were getting good." It features brochure-like material for vehicles such as "The New Kenworth SUV (Dominator model shown)," which is more than twice the height of a Ford Explorer and features eight wheels ("for those punishing trips to Sam's Club"). The photos are hilarious.

The Avenue Victor Hugo Mission
Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop is a small outpost of civilization that continues to exist because a few people still believe in the essential freedoms guarded by the first amendment to the United States Constitution. Few understand the Faustian bargain made in trading away the anarchy of individual freedom for the safety of government control. Avenue Victor Hugo is dedicated to those who have rejected the bargain. It is open to those who might reconsider.

*"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts." (The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. with Revisions, an Introduction, and a Chapter on Writing by E. B. White; Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.)

The Elements of Style had reached its fourth edition as of August 1999, but any edition of this book is a wonderful guide to clear communication, and if Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop doesn't have it in stock, they can get it for you.

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