On the virtues of digital publishing and small press books

The book that just moved to my Past Reading list, Chris Baldwin’s Uh…Hey…Mom and Dad, I’m Dropping Out of College, is a little unusual in that company. Not because it’s a comic strip book; my lowbrow (um, egalitarian) tastes should be pretty apparent from the rest of the page. Not because it’s brilliantly written and fabulously illustrated, and contains the story of an incredibly complex young independent woman fighting against her own worst enemy, herself. Not really because it’s autographed (though it is the only book on that page to have that distinction).

Mostly, it’s distinctive among my other reading because it’s not for sale via Amazon. It’s only offered through a small press site, Moody Cow. A site at which, in addition to ordering the author’s books, you can buy official “patronage” of Baldwin’s strip, “Bruno.” Also because it was hand packed and shipped by the author, complete with a gorgeous pen and ink sketch of Bruno and her cat which is also autographed to me. And with all the self-publishing touches, it’s still among the finest works of graphic fiction I’ve had the pleasure to read. And the whole thing, minus introduction and some footnotes, is free to read on Baldwin’s site.

While Baldwin’s high-touch, highly personal approach is unique among the books on my reading list (though Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan certainly is in the same high quality circle), it’s not unusual among self-published graphic artists. I have similarly autographed works from R. Stevens, the cranky lo-res author of Diesel Sweeties, and am awaiting an autographed copy of the next book of John Allison’s Scary Go Round (together with a personalized sketch). And there are other similar high quality books being self published from free content that remains freely available, including works by Fred Gallagher and Drew Onstad.

What does this have to do with the content being free? Quite a lot, I think. The past few years were a fevered explosion of free comics content on the Web. Spurred by services like Keenspot, which automates the back-end operations of cartoonists’ web presences (and provides pervasive cross linking and site ads to get you to read more strips), there has been an explosion of free comic strips whose authors, if they make money from their creations at all, make it from t-shirts, coffee mugs, and the occasional printed collection. Lots of the strips are crap, of course, both well and badly drawn, but some are genius. And I think the daily competition, the close interaction with the readers (often directly through message boards), and, yes, the low cost of entry, both for authors and readers, had a lot to do with the explosion.

At the same time, there are fewer cartoonists getting their strips into newspapers than ever, largely because comics page editors are reluctant to bump unthreatening tired cash cow strips like Garfield and Beetle Bailey for newcomers who may be fresher but also controversial. In this light, the longevity of Bill Griffith’s Zippy and Trudeau’s Doonesbury must be applauded, though the latter survives mostly by virtue of being pushed to the editorial pages; and the widespread syndication of Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks, which while not always spot on is generally pugnacious and, at its best, howlingly funny, is a sign that there is a God in the universe. Meanwhile, the best the syndicates can do in the single panel format since The Far Side’s Gary Larson is the horribly drawn and insultingly unfunny Close To Home.

So why not self publish? You’ll be in much better company, with devoted readers and no editors. On the other hand, your book won’t be sold at Amazon. Which is why Chris continues to try to find the right material to make it in the confines of the newspaper pages—the only game where you can get to a broader audience of Joe and Jane Six-packs, and get access to their wallets. Blustering about micropayments notwithstanding.

On finishing a Delany novel

Finally finished Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, after seventeen years. And I have to say, there’s a certain amount of melancholy about it as well as the euphoria of just having finished reading a brilliant novel.

Euphoria: Stars is such a good book. Like Marq Dyeth, the narrator of half the work, it overflows with so many words that you almost miss what’s really happening. The strange love story at its heart is ultimately wrenching even though it’s foreign to everything I have ever experienced or felt. And the portrayal of both the cruel doomed world of Rhyonon and the almost as cruel but more beautiful world of the Dyeths and the evelmi. And the brilliant, tossed off insights: Dyeth’s connection to “General Information” is so exactly like what a conversation becomes when both participants are armed with Google that it’s only incidentally astonishing that G.I. is also called “The Web.” Written in 1984, folks.

Melancholy: Delany projected a larger work from this book, but the second book in the diptych (promised on an early page to be called The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities) was never written, leaving the hinted-at destiny of Rat Korga and Marq Dyeth unfinished, unwritten.

Poser (Pay No Mind)

I didn’t write a lot about our Portland trip, and my Current Reading link is partly dishonest. What’s the connection between those two statements? Powell’s Books.

We got into Portland late on Friday, went out for a quick dinner with Shel and Vik, and crashed. Saturday we visited Ponzi Vineyards for a quick tasting, went into downtown for lunch at the Tao of Tea, and then Vik and I wandered over to Powell’s. I came away with a rare slipcased edition of Watership Down, which I had re-read in Pennsylvania and fallen in love with again, and a hardcover first edition, with dust jacket, of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.

I spent almost a whole year trying to read Stars in the mid-eighties when it came out, renewing it month after month from the library, and ultimately gave up. After finishing Dhalgren, I’m ready to approach it again. The only catch, and my small dishonesty, is that I haven’t read more than a few pages because I promised Lisa I’d try reading some of her books first, starting with the Belgariad. I have to say, so far I’m unimpressed with Eddings’ craft, but the plot is OK (as it had better be for a book that sprawls across two trilogies) and at least it’s a quick read. For now, though, Stars is sitting in my Current Reading slot until I finish it. Is that elitist of me? Probably. I guess I’m a poser, baby. Soy un hipócrita, so why don’t you kill me?

On finishing Dhalgren

Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren has been my “current reading” since the beginning of the summer; I was beginning to think it had taken up permanent residence in the lower left corner of my blog. I finally finished it in the airplane on the way to Pennsylvania last weekend. The book is, as Jonathan Lethem writes in a cover blurb, a labyrinth that swallows readers alive; it is also a profane bit of countercultural magic. Delany’s Kid explores his own broken mind, his sexuality, and the landscape around him even as he discovers the magic of the written word. The sudden shift to multiple simultaneous viewpoints in the last 150 pages of the novel kicks everything into overdrive.

At the same time, I think I know why I never read the book before—for one thing, it’s a sure bet to have been removed from my hometown library shelves at some point or another. But I also think even if I had found a copy I would have had a hard time getting through it. It’s one of the few “science fiction” books I know that is an easier read if you’ve finished Joyce’s Ulysses first.

Gibson on the ending of Neuromancer

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone explain the end of Gibson’s seminal novel Neuromancer. Gibson answers a discussion group question on his blog today to provide that explanation:

And his voice the cry of a bird
3Jane answering in song, three
notes, high and pure.
A true name….

As to what the word is, well, I never considered it to be a word, really, though 3Jane, teasingly, calls it one. It is in fact three “notes”, something akin to birdcall. The key to the cipher, that is, is revealed as being purely tonal, musical, rather than linguistic. Case’s “cry”, a species of primal scream, the voicing of the emotionality he’s been walled off from throughout the narrative (and his life), torn finally from the core of his being, is what actually forces 3Jane to give up the key. Call and response, of some kind. Hearing him, she can’t help herself. When she taunts him (“Take your word, thief.”) she’s in fact daring him, and assuming he can’t — just as she was, a moment before, daring Molly to kill her.

So Neuromancer as therapy narrative. A new category of theses is born.

Worst novel ever

My friend and fellow Virginia alum Tim Fox (who, for the love of God, needs to start his own weblog), emailed a link to the “harshest author interview ever”, of possibly the worst novel ever published:

I am on the phone with Robert Burrows, author of the recently published political novel Great American Parade. This book has sold only 400 copies nationwide, and Burrows seems flabbergasted to be hearing from me. The most prestigious newspaper to have shown any interest so far is the Daily Student at Indiana University.

I tell Burrows that if he is willing to submit to an interview, I am willing to review his book at length in The Washington Post. The only catch, I said, is that I am going to say that it is, in my professional judgment, the worst novel ever published in the English language.


“My review will reach 2 million people,” I said.

“Okay,” he said.

Update: Metafilter already caught it. Hysterical commentary, though not as funny as the original review.

Samuel Pepys: Blogfather or patron saint?

Reading today’s Pepys diary entry, a thought occurs to me: is Pepys the patron saint of blogging? Is he the spiritual father? Or is he just my spiritual father?

A great while at my vial and voice, learning to sing “Fly boy, fly boy,” without book. So to my office, where little to do…and I to Mr. Wotton’s, and with him to an alehouse and drank while he told me a great many stories of comedies that he had formerly seen acted, and the names of the principal actors, and gave me a very good account of it.

Wintering—a novel (of/on/exploiting) Sylvia Plath

Kate Moses’s novel Wintering: A Life of Sylvia Plath uses Sylvia’s calendar, journal notes, and poems—especially poems—to novelize Sylvia’s life. According to the Salon interview.

How do I feel about this?

Let’s examine the last page of the excerpt published in Salon, specifically the last paragraph:

In the eye blink of a god, in a heartbeat, all that she clung to rises up with her like smoke, like ash, into the charged, dead air: The cakes of soap. Her wedding ring. His gold filling.

Hmm. Remind you of anything?

On the one hand, it’s really nice that someone is attempting to illuminate the interior chamber of Sylvia’s life. On the other hand, it’s a bit creepy, and more than a bit sad, that the best writing in the whole excerpt is a direct repurpose from her most strident poem. And that Moses had to work so hard to set up the “gold filling” part.

(On the other other hand, I think I need a “Books” category.)

Apophenia in our time

William Gibson’s book Pattern Recognition is still stirring my mind up. Perhaps in different ways than the author intended (warning: spoilers ahead). For instance, the book shows the recurrence of a theme in which the creator of art is profoundly disabled (cf. the pathologically mute Cornell box building artist-machine in Count Zero, and, if you stretch it, the AIs in Neuromancer who are really the only creative force in the book). Only the creator in PR doesn’t even finish her works; they’re completed, “rendered,” by prison labor after she lays out the initial strokes. This is almost certainly made necessary by the nature of the artist’s disability, but one wonders whether this reflects some sort of deepening cynicism of Gibson’s view of creativity: from the artist as black-box crazy robot to the artist as profoundly disabled savant who requires hordes of assistants to finish the task.

Okay, that was a little bleaker than I meant to make it, but I still wonder.

Anyway. For more speculation on PR’s themes, motifs, etc., check out the ‘PR’-otaku that Joe Clark (of Building Accessible Websites fame) is putting together. Also, be sure to keep checking Gibson’s own blog (and its attendant discussion forum, in which a listing of discussions of Gibson’s readings has sent me a bit of traffic recently).


  1. This was written earlier this morning but unpublished due to problems with my website’s back end.
  2. Apophenia means finding patterns that aren’t there.
  3. After writing this, I read the Gibson book discussion a little more deeply and found a thread in which someone made the same observation. If I’m seeing things that aren’t there, I’m not alone.

On meeting William Gibson

Okay, so I apologize for leaving the approximately 4.5 people who read this blog daily in suspense about my mystery meeting with a blogroll person. The secret is out: William Gibson, or “Bill” as he was introduced to us, was a guest lecturer at the Very Large Software Company for which I work.

The room was pretty packed, and a few of us who arrived late were standing along the back wall. One guy I didn’t know standing next to me was loudly proclaiming that he would “definitely have paid $5 at least” to buy Gibson’s book in advance as a download rather than have to stand in line, which he refused to do on principle. Another guy came out of the room behind us and said quietly to the first, “You know he’s right behind that door, right?” So much for respect.

That was the only sign of disrespect, actually. Everyone there was a rabid fan, clutching new copies of Pattern Recognition, dogeared paperbacks of Neuromancer, or, in one guy’s case, a printed copy of the samizdat Alien III script Gibson wrote that was rejected. I felt better for not having printed out Gibson’s poem “Agrippa”; now that it’s freely available from his website, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the story about how I downloaded the text from a newsgroup in the early 1990s.

Anyway, Bill came on, and it was a wonderful talk and reading. Some general notes:

  • He says he generally has avoided coming out and talking to computer people because he knows so little about computers (though he says that at lunch today, Greg Bear told him, “You know a lot more than you let on”). But he says that being so far behind the curve gives him a better perspective on its shape and where it’s going. (Strongly reminiscent of Gibson’s character Gentry, the mad artist/hacker who is obsessed with the shape of the “matrix,” of cyberspace. Which in turn reminds me of other things, other people.)
  • On how he got material for his early novels, when the only computer people had ready access to was the Timex Sinclair: he claims to have picked up much of his knowledge from eavesdropping in bars and at science fiction conventions around SeaTac. Unfortunately, he says, that means that he missed details, such as the fact that Microsoft was a company. This explains why in the Sprawl series, in Neuromancer particularly, a microsoft is a silicon wafer on which a program is written that can be jacked into the cranium to download knowledge directly to the brain. “Fortunately,” Gibson said almost straight faced, “Microsoft isn’t a particularly litigious company.”
  • The reading was the Forbes ASAP article, “Dead Man Speaks,” that Gibson published on his blog last Thursday. He introduced it as “an assignment to write 1000 words on whatever I wanted,” which turns out in retrospect to be the one of the first places that he worked out in writing ideas that appear in his latest novel.
  • In the Q&A afterwards, someone asked him where he eavesdrops now. He said, “On the Web. I don’t have to eavesdrop any more, I can Google.” He followed up by saying, “The Zen of search engines is that you are limited solely by what you can think to ask it for,” and compared much of what you find on the Web to the “invisible literature” about which he’s written before, “pieces you come across and ask, am I the first person to ever see this?”
  • I got the last question, somehow, and asked him, “A colleague of yours in SF and blogging, Cory Doctorow, just released a novel simultaneously in print and in free download. It appears to be working well for him. What do you think this says about the future of publishing, or the book business in general?” Which was in retrospect not the wisest thing to ask, since (a) I’m sure someone from his publisher was there and (b) I was almost inviting him to take a stand on DRM in front of a software publisher that does DRM. But hey, why not? —He replied, “Someone said to me, and it’s an idea that I’m sitting on but I’m not entirely sure I disagree with, that piracy is a tax on popularity; it’s only the guys who are already on the bestseller lists who get downloaded.” Which I think is a way of saying that whether books are downloaded or sold in hard copy, there is still the awkward question of fame to determine whether you can make a living from them. I think I need to think about it some more.

Afterwards I stood in line with my hardback first editions of Mona Lisa Overdrive and The Difference Engine. I felt bad about bringing two books until I realized (a) I was close to the end of the line, (b) there was a guy ahead of me with a shopping bag full of books, (c) Gibson said recently on his blog that The Difference Engine is his only book he’ll go back and re-read, because (since it was co-written with Bruce Sterling) he still has moments of discovery in it. So I was justified.

I stepped up with my books and thanked him for coming and for blogging during his book tour, as it gave me some real insight into what that process was like. He said, “Actually, blogging doesn’t feel like work at all.” I wanted to hug him and shout out, “Brother!”—but he looks rather frail in real life, being about 6’4″ and maybe a buck-thirty at the heaviest, and I didn’t want to scare him. But it made me feel happy, somehow, that here across this table, signing his books for me, was a man with whom I had at least this much in common.

Before I stepped away, I said, “I wanted to bring my copies of Isaac Asimov’s in which Count Zero was serialized, but I think I gave them to the library.” Yeah, he said, “those are pretty rare, most of them have crumbled to dust or been consumed by cockroaches.” If someone in the Psi Phi Club at Virginia is reading this, get out that stack of Asimov’s from the library and start going through them, and bring them to one of Gibson’s readings to get signed. I’ll buy them back from you for rather a lot of money.

The dark side of digitization

Ananova: Ancient Domesday Book outlives electronic version. It was only a matter of time before the other shoe dropped about digital content, as it usually does. While human languages change very slowly, digital languages, formats, and fashions age at an incredible rate. This is one thing that most tech people, especially, don’t think of as a hazard of junking paper in favor of bits, but it’s something to be aware of. For existing works, digitization is not a replacement for conservation, just a way to extend the effectiveness of the conservation by providing alternative means of access. For digital works that start out as digital, picking the right format is critical.

Digitizing Chaucer

The Guardian: British Library digitises Chaucer for the internet. Aside from the lowercase i, what’s interesting about this story is that they’re not talking about making the text available (it’s already pretty widely available), but high resolution images, as they helped to do with the Gutenberg Bible project.

There are two interesting things about this project:

  1. Typography freaks like myself will get to see in glorious hi-res the work of William Caxton, who was one of the earliest printers in England.
  2. The existing books are pretty fragile and this will make sure that people have an alternative to viewing them in person, which exposes them to additional damage.

I used to work at the Electronic Text Center when I was an undergrad at Virginia. I was reading Beowulf in Old English at the time, and was blown away when I saw the British Library’s first digitizations of the Beowulf manuscript. I could look at the passages that were debated by scholars and understand why they were debated (generally, the manuscript was falling apart in places).

Love in the Time of … Ada?

Having finished Gabriel García Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera on Friday, I was desperately grasping around for something new to read. The difficulty is that almost all my books are in storage in New Jersey, owing to the difficulty of fitting six bookcases into an 825 square foot apartment in Boston and still having room for many cases of wine.

Then I realized I still had some Nabokov on my shelves. I hadn’t read Ada, or Ardor in many years. It was time to pick it up again.

I had forgotten how genuinely strange the book is. I’m one chapter in and I’m in love with the book again. I hope that Dmitri Nabokov (the author’s son and translator) at some point approves a hypertext edition of the works, because his works cry out for linking, annotation, and just general explication. The book is set in a slightly different world in which Russia and the US coexist (as they did in Nabokov’s memory. Reading the place names alone is an adventure: the states New Cheshire and Mayne, the cities “Aardvark, Massa.” and “Lolita, Texas” (!), the transposition of Russia into somewhere in “‘Russian’ Canady, otherwise ‘French’ Estoty, where not only French, but Macedonian and Bavarian settlers enjoy a halcyon climate under our Stars and Stripes.”

But it’s a love story. More about that as I get further into the book.