An American Editor

February 26, 2010

On Books: The Nature of the Book

I recently purchased The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making by Adrian Johns as an addition to my to-read pile. But I found I was anxious to get started reading it, so I set aside what else I was reading and tackled this tome.

The Nature of the Book is not a new book; it was published in 1998 by the University of Chicago Press. And it isn’t short, coming in at 775 pages; it lists for $40. It also isn’t lively reading. Unlike a previously reviewed book, The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, the writing style is relatively dry. But this book is packed with information about books in the pre-19th century era.

Johns notes what makes a book unique and important, what makes it different from the scrolls and handwritten “books” that preceded the invention of moveable type. And he writes about printing-house, the precursors to today’s publishers, and their importance.

When we buy a book today (of course, Johns was talking about the print book, not the electronic book) we do so with certain expectations in mind: We expect that the copy we buy will be identical to the copy bought elsewhere, in another time and place. We expect that the author has some credibility and that the author’s words haven’t been changed by a scribe who was capturing the essence of the speech rather than the exact speech.

We also expect that the book was not written with just us in mind; that it was written to withstand the scrutiny of thousands, if not millions, of pairs of eyes. We expect that the author really does exist, that the listed publisher really did publish the book, and that, as noted earlier, its contents are universally the same.

By highlighting these expectations for the printed book, Johns inadvertently (and only by implication) notes the problems that exist with ebooks, especially self-published ebooks. With ebooks, we have expectations but no assurances that the author exists, the publisher exists, the content is universally the same and is trustworthy — unless the publisher is a recognized, known publisher, in which event we have some level of assurance. With the ebook, especially the self-published ebook, we have no assurance of impartial vetting. Most importantly, we have no assurance that the named author was really the book’s author — anyone can put their name to an electronic file; just look at your daily spam for proof of that!

Johns argues successfully that it is the book in its modern manifestation (modern being post-Gutenberg) that has rendered possible the exponential growth of knowledge. Because a printed book’s content is universally the same, everyone who reads it has the potential to gain and apply the same knowledge. When books were handcrafted, knowledge was confined. (Of course, since some of the greatest literature of all time were products of premodern processes, it is impossible to know what interpretations and omissions were made that might shed different light on their content.)

The Nature of the Book is well-worth reading to understand the profound impact books have and have had on our society. Johns discusses the role of the printed argument in the advancement of knowledge and how the advent of the book gave credence to scientific theory that was contrary to what was popularly believed. By expanding the audience and giving each audience member an opportunity to build on the content of the book, books transformed science and knowledge. Where only the elite and wealthy previously had access to science and literature, books gave access to (and encouraged literacy of) broader audiences.

Johns explores, among other themes, what it meant to write and make a book in the days of the printing-house in the early modern era. The Nature of the Book focuses on pre-19th century book making and publishing, and is a fascinating look at the birth of book publishing.

Education on a mass scale, which is the foundation of modern society, became possible with the modern print book. A country like the United States was able to forge a single identity, instead of 50+ identities, because books and modern publishing gave readers from all parts of the country access to identical information. The Nature of the Book introduces us to the revolution that brought us to today’s world.

January 14, 2010

L.E. Modesitt, Jr. & Celina Summers: Fantasy in Contrast

As a book editor, my passion is books: I read them for pleasure, I edit them for my livelihood. I spend more time every day reading books, newspapers, and magazines than most people. I always have at least 1 hardcover and 1 ebook actively being read, and sometimes I add a third or fourth book to the mix. I almost never watch TV, maybe a total of 2 to 3 hours over the course of a year. I much prefer reading.

Most of my reading is nonfiction (see On Today’s Bookshelf for some of the books on my current to-read list), but I do have a few favorite fiction authors whose books I buy as soon as they are available. All my nonfiction is bought in hardcover; most of the fiction I buy is in ebook, the exceptions being my favorite authors whose books I buy in hardcover. Probably 90% of my fiction purchases are in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. To give you an idea of numbers, in 2009 I bought more than 100 hardcover books and more than 125 ebooks. True, I buy more in a year than I can read, but I do keep chipping away at the backlog.

One of my favorite authors is L.E. Modesitt, Jr., particularly the Saga of Recluce series and the new Imager Portfolio Series. With the release of Arms-Commander last week, the Saga of Recluce series is now 16 volumes — and I own every volume in hardcover. I looked forward to reading Arms-Commander, with the hope that the writing and story would return to the glory days of earlier volumes in the Recluce series.

I knew my hope would be stressed when I found, after the first evening’s reading of about 50 pages, that I was thinking of putting the dustjacket back on and simply putting the book in my library, not bothering to finish the book. The previous volume in the series, Mage-Guard of Hamor, was an okay read but not near as interesting or well written as earlier volumes. I had hoped that in Arms-Commander Modesitt would re-find that spark that ran through the early volumes, but, as further days of reading demonstrated, Modesitt didn’t.

In contrast to Modesitt’s two volumes (so far) in the Imager Portfolio series, each of which I read in a few days because I found them interesting and engrossing, the story in Arms-Commander is leaden and confusing and the characters have virtually no depth.

I don’t recall what happened in the very early volumes of the Recluce series and I don’t know if that knowledge is necessary to enjoying and understanding Arms-Commander, but if it is, it is the author’s responsibility to refresh the reader’s memory of the pertinent history and to write in such a fashion that a new-to-the-series reader can follow the story. In this Modesitt has failed.

As noted above, the characters in Arms-Commander have little to no depth. I find I don’t really care about any of them. They are wooden characters with wooden personalities, much less than I expected from Modesitt and a significant contrast to the characters in the first two volumes of the Imager Portfolio Series. Perhaps it is time to say goodbye to Recluce. I certainly wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone. Arms-Commander illustrates what happens when there is either poor editing or an author no longer connects with his or her creation.

In contrast to Arms-Commander, I heartily recommend Celina Summers’ ebook fantasy quartet, The Asphodel Cycle. The four books in the quartet are The Reckoning of Asphodel, The Gift of Redemption, The Temptation of Asphodel, and The Apostle of Asphodel. The story is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad with elves, humans, centaurs, immortals, and gods.

Unlike my struggle with Arms-Commander, I found that I didn’t want to stop reading Summers’ books. Whereas I usually spend a few hours each day with each of the books I am currently reading, I became so engrossed with Summers’ characters that I simply read The Asphodel Cycle from volume 1 page 1 until the last page of volume 4.

I enjoy a lot of books but there aren’t many that I read that I can say brought tears to my eyes, caused me to laugh, or caused me to feel choked with emotion. But Summers’ characterizations and dialogue in The Asphodel Cycle did bring all those emotions and more to me, enhancing the pleasure of these books. Don’t get me wrong: These books aren’t perfect. There are flaws, there are places that could have used some tightening, and some of the characters aren’t as well formed as others, but overall The Asphodel Cycle was one of the most enjoyable fiction reads I had in 2009.

January 7, 2010

On Today’s Bookshelf

I like to read and so I spend a lot of time finding books to read. The result is a backlog of books waiting to be read. What brought this to mind was yesterday’s trip to Barnes & Noble.

In nonfiction, I buy only hardcover and only first editions; I want these books to be permanent parts of my library. My fiction reading interests are not nearly as catholic as for nonfiction, I tend to read primarily fantasy and science fiction. When it comes to fiction, I am not a book publisher’s dream consumer. I prefer to buy fiction (with the exception of a few specific authors such as L.E. Modesitt, Jr., David Weber, and Harry Turtledove, to name just a few) in ebook form and then only if available in the ePub format and at the lower end of the price spectrum. That’s because I consider fiction to be “read once, then delete,” again, with some exceptions. I don’t buy Dan Brown or Stephen King novels; when I did I found them trite and boring. But because of my willingness (nay, eagerness) to buy fiction ebooks, I am exposing myslef to authors who I would never have otherwise found and who I enjoy, such as Celina Summers, Richard S. Tuttle, Hilary Bell, Fiona McIntosh, and Alastair J. Archibald.

In looking back over my book purchases in 2009, I was amazed at how many books I bought. From one ebook store alone, I bought more than 100 ebooks. As for hardcovers, 95% of those purchases were from B&N (I avoid Amazon because I don’t want to encourage its attempts to monopolize the book selling and publishing industries), and in 2009, I bought more than 90 hardcover books.

I find that reading fiction goes relatively quickly and that it takes more time for me to digest nonfiction. Consequently, my fiction to-read list gets whittled away much faster than my nonfiction list. I have at least 60 nonfiction books waiting to be read, probably more, but here are the ones that are at the front (or top) of my bookshelf waiting to be read:

  • Churchill by Paul Johnson (2009)
  • Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution by Kirkpatrick Sale (1995)
  • A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerillas in the American Civil War by Daniel E. Sutherland (2009)
  • The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition by Thomas P. Slaughter (2008)
  • The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithridates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy by Adrienne Mayor (2010)
  • Jewish Terrorism in Israel by Ami Pedhazur and Arie Perliger (2009)
  • The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of “Proper” English from Shakespeare to South Park by Jack Lynch (2009)
  • Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp by Christopher R. Browning (2010)

I know that in the weeks to come that list will grow and some of the above will be downgraded as new books take their place. But this is the bane, I think, of good editors — the need to read and expand knowledge and the need to own books.

What am I currently reading? In hardcover it is The War that Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War by Caroline Alexander (2009) and Arms-Commander by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (2010) and in ebook it is When the Gods Slept (Timura Trilogy Book 1) by George Allan Cole.

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