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 2
Wednesday October 13, 1999

Details, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.

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This Issue:
1. From Alexandria to the Internet
2. Librarians and Freedom
3. Healthy Growth in Book Retailing
4. Can Advertising Support Fiction on the Web?
5. Do You Know Me?
6. Messages to the Editor
7. Blue Underlined Words

1. From Alexandria To The Internet
It's a little late for reproach, but we lost an awful lot when the great library at Alexandria was destroyed by Christians in A.D. 391. Three hundred thirty plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes were on the shelves there; only 46 survive to the present day. The corpus of Greek lyric poetry went up in flames there -- almost none of it remains. There were also works of physics, medicine, astronomy, geography, philosophy, mathematics, and biology, many of which represented knowledge that had to be rediscovered when Europe was ready to start learning again around the middle of this millennium. For a detailed and impassioned web page devoted to this legendary library, see http://homepages.tcp.co.uk/~hamwic/spooky/library.html.

It's sobering to think that an entire civilization's literature (and even its knowledge) can be so vulnerable, but that's what happens when you keep it all in one place. The only ancient books around today are those that had the widest circulation in 391. When it comes to preserving books for posterity, redundancy counts for more than security. Hence my hopes for Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg aims "to make information, books, and other materials available to the general public in forms a vast majority of the computers, programs and people can easily read, use, quote, and search." It has created "etexts" of about 2,000 works since 1971. The etexts are all ASCII (sometimes known as "vanilla text") and can be read by virtually any computer and many different kinds of software.

The books are just files and have neither typography nor design, and the project eschews "authoritative" editions. But you can download a Gutenberg etext whenever you need it, then delete it from your disk when you're done with it. The uses are limited only by your imagination and the capabilities of your software. Search for and count the number of times Sherlock Holmes used the word elementary. Use the 1998 CIA World Fact Book to create a personal gazetteer. Design your own edition of Jane Eyre with decorative typefaces. See how Paradise Lost scans when you change Satan's name to Frank. The best part, however, may well be that Project Gutenberg has FTP sites on all five continents (eight in the U.S. alone), which gives it sufficient redundancy to preserve a chunk of our civilization's learning (at least the stuff that's in public domain) in perpetuity. To get a Project Gutenberg etext (or to volunteer to prepare new ones -- they always need help), go to http://www.promo.net/pg/.

 

2. Librarians And Freedom
As long as we're on the subject of book burning, did you realize that The Grapes of Wrath was burned in 1939 at the St. Louis Public Library? The week of September 25-October 2 was Banned Books Week, and the American Library Association devotes several pages of its website, which is where I got that tidbit, to information about book banning and challenges. Here are some other facts about book censorship. In 1998, Modern Library compiled a list of its choices for the 100 best novels of the 20th century -- one third of them (including The Grapes of Wrath) have been banned or challenged in schools, bookstores, or libraries. You don't have to love Modern Library's list to be a little disgusted by this. In case you think attacks on books ended in 1939, the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom has a database of 5,246 challenges to various books (a challenge is when a person or group attempts to force the removal of a book from a library or bookstore) in the period 1990-1998. Of these, 1,299 were for sexually explicit content, 1,134 for offensive language, and the rest for a half dozen other reasons (including 744 for "occult theme or promoting the occult or Satanism").

The books most frequently challenged in 1998:

If books for children and young adults seem disproportionately represented, it's because children and young adults are most frequently the intended beneficiaries of book banning. The annual celebration of Banned Books Week is sponsored by American Booksellers Association, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, American Library Association, American Society of Journalists and Authors, Association of American Publishers, and National Association of College Stores. The celebration is a reminder of how much vigilance is required to ensure freedom of inquiry and expression, even in a society as open as ours. Take a minute and go to the American Library Association Banned Books page: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/. And next time you think of it, kiss a librarian or a bookseller; they are called upon to stand up to jackbooted thugs more often than most of us.

 

3. Healthy Growth in Book Retailing
According to PW Daily for Booksellers (the daily e-mail newsletter from Publishers Weekly), bookstore sales jumped to their year's best monthly total in July, presumably the most recent month for which there are figures. With sales of $993 million, the total was up 13.4 percent over the previous year's July. Sales through July are up 5.1 percent over the same period last year, and bookstore sales growth is ahead of the rate of growth for retail overall. I don't have a website reference for you. You'll just have to take my word for it.

 

4. Can Advertising Support Fiction on the Web?
A website called Mind's Eye Fiction looks like an interesting experiment. It offers stories in a number of categories, including fantasy, mystery, horror, science fiction, humor, romance, urban, and western. You can read one of the stories for free, but if you want to read the ending, you have to pay. Reading the ending doesn't necessarily cost money, however. "You don't need to pay cash," writes Ken Jenks, the site's editor in chief, in an editorial, "you need only pay attention." When you click the button to get the ending of the story, you get a page that allows you pay for the ending (16 cents), or you can choose to see the ending of the story with a banner ad on the same page, no charge. You can find Mind's Eye here: http://www.tale.com/. But Mind's Eye, which claims two million visitors annually, found itself up against technological "cheaters." According to Jenks, three to four percent of their visitors use ad-blocking software. Mind's Eye countered with a technological solution: a JavaScript program on the site's web server that prevents visitors with ad-blocking software from reading free endings. You can read a news story about this in Computerworld: http://www.computerworld.com/home/news.nsf/CWFlash/9907084block. As an aside, here's a website that explains why web advertising probably won't last very much longer: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/990711.html.

 

5. 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 fkemske@thirdlion.com. 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.

This Issue's Sentence: "A good song, I think."

I'm waiting for your guesses. Employees, consultants, and contractors of At The Margin are ineligible to participate, as are family members, cohabitants, parole officers, fellow travelers, neighbors, pets, masseurs, putative heirs, attorneys, dentists, agents, and godparents of employees, consultants, and contractors.

Last Issue's 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."

One Reader Response: "The excerpt is from Count Belisarius by Robert Graves. The book's first paragraph is rounded out by the following lines: 'She bound him by an oath on the Holy Scriptures -- she was a Christian of the Orthodox faith -- that he would fulfil the baptismal oath sworn on his behalf by his god-parents, both of whom were recently dead. Belisarius took this oath, renouncing the world, the flesh and the devil.' " -- Judge Phillip Rapoza Massachusetts Appeals Court

Exactly! Congratulations, Your Honor. Robert Graves, of course, is best known for the novel I, Claudius and its sequel Claudius the God (both published in 1934 and widely read even before Masterpiece Theater turned them into great television). He wrote several autobiographical books, including Goodbye to All That and Occupation Writer. He is also famous for The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar Of Poetic Myth (which he himself characterized as "difficult") and for a considerable body of poetry. He wrote a number of other historical novels, including King Jesus, Wife to Mr. Milton, and Hercules, My Shipmate. He died in 1985 at the age of 90, and he has a six-line entry at Biography.com.

 

6. Messages to the Editor

Which Book Would You Choose?
...and speaking of single books to choose above all others ["Books for the Next Millennium," At The Margin #1], I quote John Dryden, who in turn quoted Theodorus Gaza, "a man learned in the Latin tongue, and a great restorer of the Greek, who lived about two hundred years ago," says Dryden. "'Tis said that, having this extravagant question put to him by a friend, that if learning must suffer a general shipwreck, and he had only his choice left him of preserving one author, who should be the man, he would preserve, he answered, Plutarch; giving this reason, that in saving him he should secure the best collection of them all." Agree.

Brian Doyle

 

Adventures of the Avenue Victor Hugo Cat
We were putting a new book display in the window. The theme was doctors and crime (I was thinking of HMOs, all right) and in addition to books, needed some props. There was our ever-suitable plastic skull and the only other thing I could come up with were a couple of pill bottles. For pills something was needed that could be scattered around a little and not be dangerous in case someone picked up a few and tried them. God forbid we should have a customer with an aspirin allergy. The best I could come up with were Kitty Nibbles. They seemed harmless enough and a little bad tasting as well, so I scattered a few around the bottles -- several times, cause they kept disappearing. The cat's been jumping up in the window and eating all of them. Next time I use Chiclets.

Tom Owen
Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop

[I've asked Tom to send cat stories from time to time. -- the editor.]

 

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.

The Virtual Mummy
The University of Hamburg shares its computer-aided tomographic scan of a 2,300-year-old mummy (a female about 30 years of age) via QuickTime VR movies at The Virtual Mummy site. I downloaded a 1.3 MB movie of the mummy's head that let me rotate it, wrap and unwrap it, and look inside. It's hard to stop fiddling with it.
http://www.uke.uni-hamburg.de/virtualmummy

Can Writing Be Taught?
"Can You Really Teach Fiction Writing?" is an article in The Missouri Review by Jean Braithwaite, who writes, "No one says, 'But can you really teach piano?' " The whole article is at the journal's website.
http://www.missourireview.org/editorial/

How Do They Expect to Find Them on the Web?
The Luddite Reader bills itself as "the website for the technology dysphoric, phobic, paranoiac, and the merely cranky." It features books, music, and news for those who would turn their backs on technology. The headlines included "Stop Worrying About Y1K" and "Luddite Band ('the loudest acoustic band on Earth') Wins Awards." The webmaster has a sense of humor, and it's often quite subtle.
http://www.ludditereader.com/

Book-related Resources
Overbooked is a substantial collection of links related to books: reviews, author interviews, booksellers, book news, discussions, clubs, and a lot of other stuff.
http://www.overbooked.org/bkgate.html

The Skeptic's Dictionary
Robert T. Carroll, professor of philosophy at Sacramento City College, subtitles his site "A Guide for the New Millennium." The site features over 300 definitions and essays on ideas and practices from the occult, paranormal, supernatural and pseudoscientific realms. He may be very unkind to your favorite New Age ideas, but he posts comments from his readers (and answers them), and it is lively reading in any case.
http://skepdic.com/

The Ad Graveyard
Advertisements, believe it or not, are like movies. Not all of them get produced. The Ad Graveyard site offers a number of ads that were developed and then rejected by the clients. I don't know if they are for real, but I don't have any reason to doubt it. I was particularly struck by one created for a brew pub: "One of our authentic double bock beers, and you'll feel like you're in Germany. A few more, and you'll feel like invading Poland."
http://www.zeldman.com/ad.html

If you liked this issue of At The Margin, forward it to a friend, and encourage him or her to subscribe.

A Message from Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop
Most readers know what they like -- when they read it. But -- like the regular customer who swore he hated westerns until he had a copy of Jack Schaefer's Shane forced on him -- judging a book you haven't read is tough. Reading the same old stuff every week is a waste of precious time. Come here and drop us a note: http://www.avenuevictorhugobooks.com/feedback.htm. We'll find something good for you.

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At The Margin is published twice monthly, somewhere near the beginning and sometime around the middle of the month. (c) Copyright 1999 Floyd Kemske


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