Last week, Africa Is a Country, a blog that documents and skewers Western misconceptions of Africa, ran a fascinating story about book design. It posted a collage of 36 covers of books that were either set in Africa or written by African writers. The texts of the books were as diverse as the geography they covered: Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique. They were written in wildly divergent styles, by writers that included several Nobel Prize winners. Yet all of books’ covers featured an acacia tree, an orange sunset over the veld, or both.
"In short," the post said, "the covers of most novels ‘about Africa’ seem to have been designed by someone whose principal idea of the continent comes from The Lion King.”
Read more. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]
BookTraces is a new project to track down the human markings in 19th-century books that, in the era of digitization, will (at best) end up in deep storage throughout the nation’s library system.
The books are “a massive, distributed archive of the history of reading, hidden in plain sight in the circulating collections,” the site argues. “Marginalia, inscriptions, photos, original manuscripts, letters, drawings, and many other unique pieces of historical data can be found in individual copies… Each book has to be opened and examined.”
While the implications of this research are large for librarians (more on that anon), for the lay person, there is a fascinating question at the heart of this project to find and preserve unique copies of old texts:
What is a book?
In the Kindle era, it seems pretty obvious. There is an implicit argument in the act of digitizing a book and removing it from the shelf: a book is its text. A book is a unique string of words, as good as its bits.
Read more. [Image: Booktraces.org]
For most superheroes, fighting for truth and justice means fighting for the status quo. The typical plot: Supervillain(s) attempts to take over the world and/or steal property; superhero(es) stop them.
The journey from disjunction to order is only emphasized by the fact that the heroes are themselves often outsiders in some way. Superman is an immigrant; Batman has a traumatic childhood backstory; the X-Men are policed and persecuted mutants. Yet despite the fact that they are underdogs, the heroes nonetheless fight for the mainstream authorities. Thus superheroes are often fantasies of assimilation—a dream of outsiders being accepted by, or turning into, insiders.
At best, that fantasy offers a promise of acceptance to everyone, making for an inclusive vision of the American dream. At worst, superheroes end up as establishment lackeys, marginalized individuals currying favor with the mainstream by targeting other excluded groups on behalf of the Man.
Twenty-five years ago, though, in 1989 writer Grant Morrison and artist Richard Case began working on Doom Patrol, a comic that ended up telling a different kind of superhero story. Over four years and 44 issues, Morrison, Case, and a number of other fill-in artists inverted the usual connection between heroes and the law.
Read more. [Image: DC]
Forget the recent spate of books on the Fab Four. The only volume you need was published 20 years ago today.
When I’m introduced to someone as a writer, a now familiar pattern of events often follows.
“Oh, really! How interesting!” the someone—let’s call her Jane—says, sounding quite enthusiastic. “What do you write?”
“Science fiction,” I say.
Jane instantly glazes over. “I’m afraid I never read science fiction.”
In other instances, people who know me have read a book of mine out of curiosity and then told me, in some surprise, that they liked it—“even though I don’t normally like science fiction.” Indeed, when a short story collection of mine won a non-genre prize, it was apparently a surprise to the judges themselves: According to the chair of the judging panel, “none of [them] knew they were science-fiction fans beforehand.”
The assumption seems to be that a book that comes with a genre label like “science fiction” must necessarily be lightweight stuff—not really comparable with “non-genre” works.
This may partly be due to the fact that the word “genre” has two different meanings which are often muddled up. The basic meaning of “genre” is simply kind or category or form of fiction, and in that sense, any work of fiction can be assigned to some genre or another. But “genre” is also used in a different way to make a distinction between “genre” and “non-genre” fiction. “Non-genre” fiction is the stuff that is placed on the “general fiction” or “fiction and literature” shelves in Barnes and Noble. “Genre” fiction is the stuff that is placed in its own designated corners: Crime, Fantasy, Romance, Horror, Science Fiction.
What does it mean to be a tourist inside someone else’s suffering? Sometimes, it means taking a bus ride through Los Angeles’s gang-ridden neighborhoods, or watching a former addict bleed and sweat and grow blisters as he tries to run a hundred miles, or visiting a man in jail.
Leslie Jamison has done all that, and more.
But how does another person’s suffering affect one’s own emotional intelligence? What are you supposed to do with someone else’s pain?
Jamison does not know the answer. But she searches for it by writing about episodes of attempted empathy in her own life—for example, the time she became “obsessed” with her brother’s bout of Bell’s palsy: “I spent large portions of each day imagining how I would feel if my face was paralyzed too. I stole my brother’s trauma and projected it onto myself like a magic-lantern pattern of light.” Was that empathy, Jamison wonders, or was it a kind of emotional theft?
Read more. [Image: Colleen Kinder]
You think Twitter is weird? Look at early print culture and the practice of what book historians call anthropodermic bibliopegy. That would be binding books in human skin.
And while I now find the notion grotesque, the me of the 17th or 19th century would not have, apparently.
“While books bound in human skin are now objects of fascination and revulsion, the practice was once somewhat common,” writes Heather Cole, assistant curator of modern books and manuscripts at Harvard’s Houghton Library. “Termed anthropodermic bibliopegy, the binding of books in human skin has occurred at least since the 16th century. The confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the convicted, or an individual might request to be memorialized for family or lovers in the form of a book.”
Houghton, where Cole works, has one such books in its collection which is, putatively though not definitively, bound in skin.
Read more. [Image: Houghton Library]
Veronica Roth’s Divergent is not great literature. It is, as plenty of others have pointed out, a derivative revamp of the Hunger Games, which was itself a derivative revamp of any number of other future dystopias from 1984 to Battle Royale. Unsurprisingly given the inspiration thrice removed, “the book’s characters and themes are,” as Michelle Dean put it in the New York Times, “blunt, coarse things, with almost no nuance.”
The movie version is no improvement. Even Shailene Woodley’s considerable charm as the protagonist, Tris, can’t entirely distract from the fact that the dystopian future seems to have been assembled by a video-game designer in a hurry, or that the plot is less a plot than a series of arbitrary challenges, many of which are actually ranked on a scoreboard. Tris undergoes a test/simulation to see which personality-based tribe best suits her (Erudite, Amity, Abnegation, Dauntless, Candor). Tris chooses Dauntless and faces a series of staged fights and trials to see if she’s good enough to remain. Tris experiences more hallucination/simulations in which she must combat her fears. And so on.
The internal hallucination tests and the “real” adventures blur together more or less indifferently; they’re just pasteboard hoops to jump through on the way to the uplifiting alternaballad at the end. All the mind-controlled drones at the denouement seem like a self-parody of the actors themselves, who point their guns here and leap off buildings there, not because they seem to want to but rather because the plot commands them to do so.
Read more. [Image: Summit; Lionsgate]