readings on reading

Some highlights from the ever-marvellous Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche: or, meta-medievalism as its finest, via the ever-brilliant John V. Fleming. Preceded, with apologies, by some more-or-less related verbiage and other foamings at the mouth from yours truly. It was not intended but it happened. You will appreciate Fleming the more, I promise you, for having endured me as introductory support-act…

As the title “gladly lerne, gladly teche” suggests, Fleming is a master of integrating teaching and learning, exemplifying what the contemporary Powers That Be would call “flexible learning” and pretty much every other fashionable buzz-kill-word that causes the Bureaucratic mouth to slaver. “Teaching and learning” might, radically, be called “scholarship” or just plain “active intellectual life.”

Fleming is someone from whom I learned a lot. In his Chaucer seminar, and working with him on the Roman de la Rose and other doctoral stuff; but also a lot on teaching and the central importance to it of the conjoining of sentence and solaas.

Conjonture, mout bele or otherwise, is of course another concept that translates exactly into 2014’s fashionable mouth-foamings; though The Powers That Be might approve less of extensions of the idea of conjunction to an application of pre-modern “and/and” (vs. “either/or”) to life as a whole. Except the bit where it means anyone working in academia in the non-bureaucratic roles must work all the time, and everything that goes on in their heads at all times is the property of the university. The latter is no longer the medieval guild it once was, let alone an anarcho-syndicalist cooperative of knowledge. It is now The University, and that entity is synonymous with Them. Hence this blog being written out of working hours (that is: regular weekday business hours for the rest of humanity), in an independent venue and medium, that is unpaid so as not to Conflict with Interest.

Fortunately, it’s highly unlikely that I (or any other medievalists, or other humanists) will post up anything that actually counts as “Research” and “useful” for Their purposes; that is, “Innovation” and “making money.”  Google “UBC innovation” and you’ll see what I mean. It’s actually quite amusing, in a “cake or death / laugh or cry” way.¹

death, in this case

Death, in this case

Besides, “Innovation” is and always will remain in mind as a second-rate run-down department store in Belgium in the 1970s, neither good nor innovative, that went bust and died a death. Says it all.

Before my time, it was “known for the disastrous 1967 L’Innovation Department Store fire” (Wikipedia). It had been one of the grand department stores of the late 19th to early 20th centuries, like the Grand Bazar, the Galeries Lafayette, and others of post-Arcades ilk. It was also a very beautiful building, by Victor Horta, and like his other buildings a mout bele conjonture of the functional and the beautiful, the old and the new, and for popular benefit.




The fate of Horta‘s other works? Deemed unfashionable and worthless; for example, the Maison du Peuple was demolished in what now seems, with hindsight, to be a period of scandalous Powers That Be crassness in 1960s-70s Belgium.


Fashions change; just in time for one house to be lovingly restored as the Horta museum; another commercial building as the Centre belge de la bande dessinée, which celebrates its twenty-fifth birthday this year; and for several of his remaining works to be granted UNESCO World Heritage status (2000).

The replacement Inno(vation) building in the Rue Neuve, to which I was often dragged mercilessly when small, is one of those bland featureless all-expense-spared late-1960s grimnesses with which central Brussels abounds, from one the worst periods of urban non-planning by monstrous Bureaucrats. As nicely satirised by Schuiten & Peeters in BrüselAgain: says it all.

Horta / Schuiten / Peeters, Maison Autrique

On a positive note: another Schuiten & Peeters work, this one an example of (magnificent and heroic) preservation, conservation, and continuation

So: “Innovation”  = a poor and inauspicious choice of word. It would almost be nice if there were actually a subtle allusion there to 1960s-70s planning and government in Belgium, as a little-known recherché model for Our Authorities. That would be neat as it would imply some historical and cultural knowledge, a sense for the metaphorical, and a sense of humour. “A place of mind” might turn out to be apt.

Alas, Ockham suggests that is unlikely and Eco suggests it’s also overinterpretation.

Perhaps next time it would be wise to expand the marketing focus-group to include people from the non-short-term fields; say, some historians and language and literature types … then again, that draws away time and energy from other actitivies. Reading, writing, research. All those things that keep us occupied with small pointless things; away from meddling with the affairs of our betters; out of sight, out of mind; and out of mischief.

That must be a Bureaucratic dilemma.


Actually we do “do” renovation, and basically everything else associated with and philologically related to the ~nov business.

“Business” in most of its original senses, what I like to think of as its deep, “true” sense.² Not the modern corruption. (Did you know—I did not, hence sharing this digression-within-a-digression-within-a-digression with you, in great excitement—that “business” is also the group noun for ferrets? Once again: says it all.)

~nov”: renovation; the novel, novas, novelle, nouvelle; Renaissance, refashioning and recycling. The preservation and cheap-to-free diffusion of knowledge. In the case of this here blog: add the avoidance of propagation via printed publication, partly For The Love Of Trees.

Horta metro station

Renovation, reuse, recycling, refashioning: métro Horta (Brussels), including some ironmongery originally from the (scandalously demolished) Maison du Peuple

All of which also happens to be very hip on the sustainability front, which is also a national research priority, and part of UBC Sloganeering.

I should add that matters here aren’t entirely awful: they could be worse, as they are elsewhere; my department and colleagues in others are nice and good; and there are solid grounds for hope. Two happy recent findings amongst publications that are supported, I should add, by The Powers. Perhaps They didn’t / couldn’t read, and for that we can all be thankful, in our small way, as well as smug and enjoying a bit of a LOL:

But back to the fine John V. Fleming. He is someone from whom I still have much to learn (but he is a master, and I am a windbag) on carrying one’s knowledge lightly, deploying a lightness of touch, and generally always keeping the lighter side of things in sight. Echoing my favourite quote (and I should add that I ****ing hate quotes):

“Never lose touch with silly.”

(Humphrey Lyttelton).


Digressions aside—and I blame Fleming in equal parts with Karl Uitti for perverting me in that direction—pretty much everything that follows in the main body of this here post is from Fleming’s blog, and everyone is encouraged in the strongest possible terms to tolle legge:

gladly lerne gladly techeFrom “Sent to Test Us” (2013-04-03):

[…] A standardized test is a mighty feeble curricular foundation, and teachers who “teach to the test” must be in my estimation a pretty feeble lot.  But the idea that standardized tests don’t tell us anything is absurd.  They just don’t tell us what we want to hear.

No child ever became a concert violinist by limiting his practice to an hour-long school class.  No child ever got to Wimbledon by limiting her time on the court to a daily hour-long gym class.  The way to become a good reader is to do a fair amount of good reading on a regular basis.  I shall risk the opinion that that is the only way.  Among the literate there will always be a wide range of reading skill, just as there will be among violinists and tennis players.  But the statement that a person can read the English language has a common-sense meaning that even the greatest experts cannot distort.  If you want to know whether children can read, hand them a page or two of text and listen to the results.  I insist upon neither Shakespeare nor Tupak Shakur.  Almost any page of the daily newspaper will suffice.

Read the rest of the “blog essay”...

The hilarious (and so true) start to “Dead Letter Scholarship” (2013-07-17):

           Most people are probably familiar with the alliterative advice given to fledgling professors: “Publish or perish.”  It means that the publication of scholarly research is a requirement of keeping a professorial position in an academic institution.  In general scholarly publication is a necessary but insufficient requirement for academic success.  Publishing your essay on “The Incidence of Incest among Lace-Makers in Seventeenth-Century Toulouse”—in a “good journal,” of course—cannot guarantee your advancement to a tenured position, but failing to publish it can seal your doom.

            These circumstances partly account for the generally uninspiring character of large swaths of the academic press—the thin books that might have made a tolerable journal article, the thin journal article that might have sustained a cocktail-party conversation for a minute or two.  Horace thought you ought to keep a finished manuscript in your drawer for nine years while you thought about the wisdom of publishing it.  But of course by then a junior professor would already be entering the third year of a second career as a taxi driver.

            In the calculus of academic evaluation books rank considerably higher than journal articles, but they are also more difficult to write.  Hence the academic vogue of the “edited volume”—and with it my eventual topic, the dead letter essay.  You dream up a topic and a title—Incest and Lace-Making: New Perspectives, perhaps.  Then you invite eight or ten desperate youngsters to contribute essays to your volume.  There were, after all, lace-makers in Genoa, Prague, Ghent, and Allentown PA as well as in Toulouse, plenty to go around.  And if they didn’t practice incest they sometimes had indigestion, which is close enough for volumes of this genre.  Eight or ten young scholars can add an item to the “Articles” subsection of their bibliographies, and you get to add a whole book!

            If you can actually get the book published, that is.  There has been known to be a certain slippage twixt cup and lip. […]

Read more

Read All About It” (2013-11-06):

[…] occasion to think a bit not merely about my book but the state of the book in general.

            It is hardly news that the entire book trade is in a state of crisis or of transition–or maybe it is “critical transition”—and I do not pretend to be able to predict the commercial future of the printed book.  I have not yet fully absorbed the implications of the advent of the mega-publisher, the mega-store, and e-commerce; yet much more is likely coming soon.  I recently met my first bookless English professor, that is, a literary scholar who, confident that everything he will ever want or need to read will be available in electronic form, refrains from buying printed books on principle.  Under these circumstances a large, high quality independent bookshop that gracefully navigates the markets for both learned and trade books is a precious community asset. […]

Read on: murder, mystery, mayhem

Last, of course by no means least, and latest of our excerpts: here is most of “Essential Bookishness” (2013-12-18):

[… commenting on] an essay by David Streitfeld entitled “Out of Print, Maybe, but Not Out of Mind,” published in the New York Times “Technology” section in early December.  […] Its subject very generally is the fascinating commerce between the printed book and the e-book.  Yes, I know–but this really is an excellent essay, and you should read it in its entirety, as I am engaging with only a few of its implications.

            Everybody knows that electronic technology can revolutionize the reading experience.  What Streitfeld is struck by is the reluctance of the book industry to let it do so.  You don’t need to turn pages in an electronic book.  However, makers of reading machines are going to extraordinary lengths to try to recreate the “feel” of turning a page.  Although the idea of an autographed or inscribed copy of an e-book ought to seem absurd on the face of it, canny Amazonians are inventing one.  I guess that if you can make an electronic cigarette, you can make an electronic anything. But why?

            Although literacy commands a legitimate private sphere (personal letters, diaries, etc.) the great historical impulse in graphic communication is directed toward the public sphere.  I have lots of reasons to be interested in “publication”, broadly understood.  I am a reader and a writer, the owner of a library, an expert on medieval manuscripts, an amateur historian of printing, and an actual letterpress printer.  I conclude that all major developments in the history of publication have been driven by one or more of four considerations: the authoritative accuracy of the published text; the durability of the publishing medium; the number of copies that can be produced; and the cost of the publishing process.  The first consideration—accuracy of text—may take you by surprise; but many early printers considered the new option of authorial correction of proof sheets quite as important as the capacity for the multiplication of copies.  From the analytical point of view an electronic text satisfies all four desiderata as well or better than all previous modes of publication.  Yet many of us resist. But why?

            Part of the answer—an important part—lies in universal habits of cultural conservatism.  “Most things that exist in the world,” said the great cultural anthropologist E. B. Tylor, “exist for the reason that they once existed.”  Contrary to popular academic belief the argument that “we have always done things that way” is among the most powerful one can muster.  We have always made books by the mechanical application of ink to paper—so long as “always” means perhaps a tenth part of the long history of publication and so long as we restrict ourselves to our own neck of the cultural woods.

            It is no easy thing, however, cleanly to separate the essential from the decorative.  That is a major point of Streitfeld’s essay.  The particular thought that captured Harry Pinch’s attention was this: “We pursued distractions and called them enhancements.” My late colleague and friend, Thomas Kuhn, the historian of science, became famous for his concept of the “paradigm shift,” a rearrangement of the mental furniture so thorough-going as in effect to supplant an old “reality” and establish a new one.  Such, for instance, was the triumph of the Copernican astronomy over the Ptolemaic.

            But few shifts were so dramatic or so complete.  The perfection of durable writing surely qualifies, and perhaps, but only perhaps, so does the invention of movable types.  But Gutenberg’s technology, however incrementally improved, remained essentially the same for half a millennium.  Now letterpress has been trumped by offset lithography, the process used to produce every book that most people alive today have ever read.

           The matter is perhaps semantic, but I cannot consider the advent of lithography as a paradigm shift, any more than I can so regard the shift from scroll (words laid out in a single long roll) to codex (words laid out in sequentially bound discrete sheets).  That shift, incidentally, has been reversed on your computer screen.  There is very little theological difference between a Torah procession in a Jewish liturgy and the gospel procession in a Christian liturgy; but you will see fossilized in the contrast two historical moments in the history of writing and reading.

           So what is “the future of the book”?  There will not be a single future, but many.  It is possible to read writing produced in a myriad of forms: spray-painted on the sides of subway cars, traced by a finger on a steamed-up mirror, puffed into the cold air by a sky-writing airplane.  Some poor souls will doubtless come to think of a “book” as a fugitive sequence of pixels on a hand-held screen.  But how can there be a real book without the tactile ghosts of the type on the backside of a sheet of laid paper, or the smooth feel and smell of old calf?  And how can you really read it except with the aid of green-shaded glass lamps on a polished old library table?

Read on … though most of the essay lies above.


¹ “Cake or death”

² That deep, true sense of “business,” to end on a non-commercial Chaucerian note c/o the OED:

Screen Shot 2014-01-11 at 10.52.04 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-11 at 10.52.22 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-11 at 10.52.31 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-11 at 10.52.43 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-11 at 10.52.56 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-11 at 10.53.11 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-11 at 10.53.24 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-11 at 10.53.42 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-11 at 10.54.05 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-11 at 10.54.24 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-11 at 10.54.49 PMSee also:

  • the full OED entry, all fifty-five pages of “business, n.” (PDF)
  • return to where you were before you were so rudely interrupted with yet another oh-so-Po-Mo multiply-embedded digression that’s also a lovely/annoying, overworked, and overly-self-conscious structurally-Pre-Mo loop

The future of the book, the web, knowledge, and cyber-post-humanity: an analogy

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