Category Archives: Books

Rolling Down the Highway with the Sum Total of Human Knowledge

Rows of books line the walls of the public library in Stockholm, Sweden

“Project Ocean,” a Google plan to scan every book in the world, might not have succeeded, but in the course of trying, they did scan over 25 million books—which now sit, untouched, on a Google server. The story of the lawsuit, settlement, and ensuing Department of Justice response a fascinating record of the tensions between art, technology, commerce, and copyright. James Somers tells the whole story in The Atlantic.

Every weekday, semi trucks full of books would pull up at designated Google scanning centers. The one ingesting Stanford’s library was on Google’s Mountain View campus, in a converted office building. The books were unloaded from the trucks onto the kind of carts you find in libraries and wheeled up to human operators sitting at one of a few dozen brightly lit scanning stations, arranged in rows about six to eight feet apart.

The stations—which didn’t so much scan as photograph books—had been custom-built by Google from the sheet metal up. Each one could digitize books at a rate of 1,000 pages per hour. The book would lie in a specially designed motorized cradle that would adjust to the spine, locking it in place. Above, there was an array of lights and at least $1,000 worth of optics, including four cameras, two pointed at each half of the book, and a range-finding LIDAR that overlaid a three-dimensional laser grid on the book’s surface to capture the curvature of the paper. The human operator would turn pages by hand—no machine could be as quick and gentle—and fire the cameras by pressing a foot pedal, as though playing at a strange piano.

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Considering the Wall

Max Adams | In the Land of Giants: A Journey Through the Dark Ages | Pegasus | October 2016 | 15 minutes (4,012 words) 

Below is an excerpt from In the Land of the Giants, by Max Adams. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

* * *

I am surprised when I come suddenly upon the Wall.

Just after dawn on a late November day the North Pennines air is rigid with cold. A thick hoar of frost blankets pasture and hedge, reflecting white-blue light back at an empty sky. The last russet leaves clinging to a copse of beech trees set snug in the fold of a river valley filter lazy, hanging drifts of smoke from a wood fire. The sunlight is a dreamy veil of cream silk.

I am surprised when I come suddenly upon the Wall. I have not followed the neat, fenced, waymarked route from the little village of Gilsland which straddles the high border between Northumberland and Cumbria, but struck directly across country and, with the sun in my eyes, I do not see Hadrian’s big idea until I am almost in its shadow. Sure, it stops you in your tracks. It is too big to climb over (that being the point), so I walk beside it for a couple of hundred yards. The imperfect regularity of the sandstone blocks is mesmerizing, passing before one’s eyes like the holes on a reel of celluloid. This film is an epic: eighty Roman miles, a strip cartoon story that tells of military might, squaddy boredom, quirky native gods, barbarian onslaught, farmers, archaeologists, ardent modern walkers and oblivious livestock. I am somewhere between Mile 49 and Mile 50, counting west from Wallsend near the mouth of the River Tyne. The gap in the Wall, when I find it, is made by the entrance to Birdoswald fort. Birdoswald: where the Dark ages begin.

There is no one here but me on this shining day. The farm that has stood here in various guises for around fifteen hundred years is now a heritage center. On a winter weekday I have Birdoswald to myself. Just me and the shimmering light and the odd chough cawing away in a skeletal tree. In places the stone walls of this once indomitable military outpost still stand five or six feet high. Visible, in its heyday, from all horizons, the Roman fort layout was built on a well-tested model: from above, it is the shape of a playing card, with the short sides facing north and south. Originally designed so that three of the six gates (two in each long side, one at either end in the center) protruded beyond the line of the Wall, the fort was not so much part of a defensive frontier, more a launching pad for expeditions, patrols and forays in the lands to the north. Rome did not hide behind its walls; the legions did not cower. Any soldier from any part of the Empire would have known which way to turn on entering the gate; where the barrack rooms would be; where to find the latrines and bread ovens; how to avoid the scrutiny of the garrison commander after a late-night binge or an overnight stay in the house of the one of the locals. Uniformity was part of the Roman project. Read more…

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Cheerful Novel of Climate Change

Kim Stanley Robinson is the rare sci-fi novelist that deals in utopias, rather than dystopias—government scientists are often the heroes of his novels, and their quick thinking and bureaucratic efficiency often save the day.

His latest book, New York 2140, takes place not at the moment of catastrophe—in the year 2100, sea levels rise and flood New York so that a majority of the city is 50 feet underwater—but 40 years later, as most city-dwellers do what they’ve always done, and simply gotten along with it. At New York Magazine, Robinson talks with Jake Swearingen about why he made a novel about climate change with a positive outlook.

I was expecting this very dystopian, grim novel. But it’s remarkably cheerful! It’s like one of Dickens’s happier novels, or Les Misérables where it’s this exploration of a city from the sewer system up, through all these different characters.

I thought of the book eventually as a comedy of coping, and to do that I picked a time, or perhaps 40 years after the disaster itself. If it was set in the midst of the catastrophic flood in 2100, the disaster would have dominated that work. It would not have been the comedy of coping — it would have been the disaster of refugee creation.

But I think, at some point, science fiction has to imagine the people who come after, when the situation will be natural, whatever it is. If that natural situation that they’re coping with is that new part of Manhattan that resembles Venice, there will be good parts to that as well as bad parts. There will be beautiful parts as well as moldy, horrible parts. So I wanted to convey that as part of the vibe of this novel.

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The Religious Iconography of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

logo for Old Dutch Cleanser cleaning product, 1940s

With eerie political timing, the Hulu version of Margaret Atwood’s prescient 1984 book The Handmaid’s Tale drops next month. In the introduction to a new edition, which also comes out in April, Atwood responds to the three most popular questions about it: Is her novel feminist? Is it a prediction? Is is anti-religious? In response to the third, she takes us through the influences that helped her build the world of the Handmaids.

The modesty costumes worn by the women of Gilead are derived from Western religious iconography — the Wives wear the blue of purity, from the Virgin Mary; the Handmaids wear red, from the blood of parturition, but also from Mary Magdalene. Also, red is easier to see if you happen to be fleeing. The wives of men lower in the social scale are called Econowives, and wear stripes. I must confess that the face-hiding bonnets came not only from mid-Victorian costume and from nuns, but from the Old Dutch Cleanser package of the 1940s, which showed a woman with her face hidden, and which frightened me as a child. Many totalitarianisms have used clothing, both forbidden and enforced, to identify and control people — think of yellow stars and Roman purple — and many have ruled behind a religious front. It makes the creation of heretics that much easier.

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The Immigration-Obsessed, Polarized, Garbage-Fire Election of 1800

A. Roger Ekirch | American Sanctuary: Mutiny, Martyrdom, and National Identity in the Age of Revolution | Pantheon | February 2017 | 33 minutes (8,149 words) 

Below is an excerpt from American Sanctuary, by A. Roger Ekirch.

For background, it is important to know that a seaman named Jonathan Robbins participated in a mutiny on the HMS Hermione in 1797, the bloodiest mutiny in British naval history. Afterward, he joined the American navy, but he was eventually recognized and jailed. To justify his actions, Robbins claimed he was an American citizen who had been impressed—that is, captured and forced into servitude—by the British navy. However, his American citizenship was disputed. The British sought his extradition, which the president, the Federalist John Adams, granted—an action which had disastrous political consequences for his party. Robbins was found guilty by a British naval court and hanged from the yardarm of the HMS Acasta in 1799.

This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky. Read more…

Leave Them Alone! A Reading List On Celebrity and Privacy

I read Alana Massey’s essay collection, All The Lives I Want: Essays About My Friends Who Happen to be Famous Strangerswith a pencil in hand. I read it behind the counter at work when it was quiet and customer-free. I read it in bed, long after my partner and cat had fallen asleep. I read it in Starbucks when I should’ve been writing but needed inspiration. Massey is a writer I’ve followed since I became interested in journalism. I admired her incisive blend of pop culture and literary criticism. I especially loved when she wrote about religion—Massey spent time at Yale Divinity School—because I went to a conservative Christian college and I was yearning to see how I could translate my weird, vaguely traumatic religious background into beautiful sentences. I bought her book as a reward for myself for meeting a writing deadline.

This reading list is partially inspired by Massey’s excellent writing about the way our society honors and rejects celebrated women—and also about society’s inclination, if not blatant desire, to know every little detail about our favorite celebrities and judge them according to our own arbitrary moral standards. (I’m not immune to this: I spent ten minutes in bed Googling potential paramours of one of my favorite YouTube stars, even though I know it’s none of my damn business.) Why do we feel like we own celebrities—not just their art or their products, but their images and their personal lives? What do celebrities owe us, if anything?

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The Sense of an Endling

Elena Passarello / Animals Strike Curious Poses / Sarabande Books / March 2017 / 12 minutes (3,100 words)

Illustrations from “The Last Menagerie” by Nicole Antebi.

The last Woolly Mammoths died on an island now called Wrangel, which broke from the mainland twelve thousand years ago. They inhabited it for at least eight millennia, slowly inbreeding themselves into extinction. Even as humans developed their civilizations, the mammoths remained, isolated but relatively safe. While the Akkadian king conquered Mesopotamia and the first settlements began at Troy, the final mammoth was still here on Earth, wandering an Arctic island alone.

The last female aurochs died of old age in the Jaktorów Forest in 1627. When the male perished the year before, its horn was hollowed, capped in gold, and used as a hunting bugle by the king of Poland.

The last pair of great auks had hidden themselves on a huge rock in the northern Atlantic. In 1844, a trio of Icelandic bounty hunters found them in a crag, incubating an egg. Two of the hunters strangled the adults to get to the egg, and the third accidentally crushed its shell under his boot.

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A Culinary Legend’s Next Fight

Paula Wolfert

Emily Kaiser Thelin | Longreads | March 2017 | 9 minutes (2,256 words)

The following is a Longreads exclusive excerpt from Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life, the new book by author Emily Kaiser Thelin about the extraordinary life of culinary legend Paula Wolfert, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2013. Our thanks to Thelin for sharing this story with the Longreads community.

***

In an impossibly narrow lane in the crowded ancient medina of Marrakech, a motor scooter zipped past, a horned ram bleating between the driver’s legs, bound for sacrifice for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. I jumped to get out of the way and promptly collided with a family headed home for the holiday, a small lamb chewing on weeds while straddling the shoulders of the man. I cinched my coat tighter against the wet, cold December day and pushed on against the crowds.

It was December 2008. I had come to Morocco on an assignment for Food & Wine to profile legendary cookbook author Paula Wolfert, a longtime contributor to the magazine whom I had edited as a staffer there since 2006. This was the culinary equivalent of a journey through the Arabian dunes with T. E. Lawrence or a trip to Kitty Hawk with the Wright Brothers—the chance to tour the place where a titan of my field first made her name. She and I had met in person only twice before, once at a food conference and then for lunch at her house in Sonoma. She had returned to Morocco because her publisher, HarperCollins, had suggested she update her first book, the 1973 landmark Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. Read more…

Literature by the Numbers

Jessica Gross | Longreads | March 2017 | 12 minutes (2,982 words)

 

If you’ve ever taken a writing class—or enrolled in high school English—you’ve probably been advised to use fewer adverbs. But does a glut of adverbs really degrade writing? Moreover, do the writers who’ve given this advice even follow it?

This is just the opening gambit of data journalist Ben Blatt’s deep dive into the mathematics of literature. In his new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, Blatt examines the stylistic fingerprints of writers (which follow them even when they write under pen names in different genres), whether Americans are “louder” than Brits in their writing, the differences between how men and women write, whether books are getting simpler (yup), and many other curiosities.

Blatt has a penchant for numbers. In his first book, I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back (co-written with his friend Eric Brewster), Blatt mathematically engineers the ideal baseball road trip. In this new book, he makes a convincing case that words aren’t any less suited for mathematical analysis than baseball is—and that data can actually help us see and appreciate rule-breaking that really works. We spoke by phone about why he’s drawn to treating art as data, as well as some of his most compelling findings.

* * *

I’m not sure if you chose the title Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve or if your publisher did—but if it was you, I wondered if you could walk me through that choice. Was that finding the most delightful to you?

So, the title was a collaboration between me and the publisher. But what we were going for was, the book covers a lot. It covers the reading level of New York Times Best Sellers, the adverb use of your classic authors, the difference in how men and women write, book cover design—and with this title, we were going for a bit of intrigue, and a bit of the possibilities of combining numbers and writing, or science and art. And yes, the specific finding about Nabokov was very exciting when I stumbled across it.

In an interview, Ray Bradbury had said his favorite word was “cinnamon.” If you look at the numbers, he actually does use the word “cinnamon” at a high rate. And his reasoning for liking cinnamon was that it reminded him of his grandmother’s pantry. If you look at a bunch of other words that relate to pantries, spices and smells, he also uses those at an extremely high rate. So I repeated that experiment on a hundred other authors, not knowing what to expect or if anything would come up.

For Nabokov, I found that his favorite word was “mauve,” and that struck me as a bit curious. And then I remembered, and found in some further reading, that he had synesthesia. He wrote in his autobiography about how when he would write a certain sound or letters, he would visualize, automatically, that color in his head. And mauve was one of them. I thought this was a nice way of showing that there’s not an opposition between the numbers and the words. This is probably what he would say his favorite word was anyway, but the numbers do back it up.

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Falling in Love with Words: The Secret Life of a Lexicographer

Kory Stamper | Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries | Pantheon Books | March 2017 | 24 minutes (6,691 words)

 

We’re proud to feature “Hrafnkell,” the first chapter of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper. Thanks to Stamper and Pantheon for sharing it with the Longreads community.

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Hrafnkell

On Falling in Love

 

We are in an uncomfortably small conference room. It is a cool June day, and though I am sitting stock-still on a corporate chair in heavy air-conditioning, I am sweating heavily through my dress. This is what I do in job interviews.

A month earlier, I had applied for a position at Merriam-Webster, America’s oldest dictionary company. The posting was for an editorial assistant, a bottom-of-the-barrel position, but I lit up like a penny arcade when I saw that the primary duty would be to write and edit English dictionaries. I cobbled together a résumé; I was invited to interview. I found the best interview outfit I could and applied extra antiperspirant (to no avail).

Steve Perrault, the man who sat opposite me, was (and still is) the director of defining at Merriam-Webster and the person I hoped would be my boss. He was very tall and very quiet, a sloucher like me, and seemed almost as shyly awkward as I was, even while he gave me a tour of the modest, nearly silent editorial floor. Apparently, neither of us enjoyed job interviews. I, however, was the only one perspiring lavishly.

“So tell me,” he ventured, “why you are interested in lexicography.”

I took a deep breath and clamped my jaw shut so I did not start blabbing. This was a complicated answer. Read more…