Post-Gutenberg media could give have-nots an essential hand in shaping history — in the Studs Terkel tradition

rose seeds closeup

Last week’s entry on David Lankes’s ideas for redesigning libraries to be centres of brimming invention and maximally engaged enlightenment for communities led to two discoveries. The first was a new post on his personal blog about his recovery from a terrifying illness — a turnaround owed to a harrowing but successful stem cell transplant — which, we hope, will be swift, strong and complete. In this report, he tells – in passing – of having been the target of exceptionally nasty attacks by some fellow-librarians.

All genuine reformers have stories like this – and the hostility is often in direct proportion to the importance of the changes being seeded and sown. Anyone who doubts this need only read Tuesday’s report in The New York Times about the resentment at the World Bank of a reorganisation instigated by its president, Dr. Jing Yong Kim, who has also – as an expert in fighting epidemics — made it his personal mission to put the Bank’s resources at the disposal of Ebola-stricken African countries at a speed insiders thought impossible, before the fact.

Next, we learnt about a contest organised by the Knight Foundation in which competitors are invited to submit schemes for turning libraries into more or less the places Lankes envisages – although it does not actually say so in its brief for contestants. This organisation’s charter entails financing ‘transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts.’

The proposal of Phil Shapiro, the other future focused librarian mentioned here last week, captured our attention because it describes – down to its precise technological components – a way for ordinary citizens to create biographical and historical multi-media records by interviewing each other. Any fan of Studs Terkel’s brilliant and moving Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974) hardly needs an explanation for why that is such a good idea in itself. The contestants clarify their ideas in a crisp interrogation.

In one sentence, describe your idea as simply as possible.

Video booths at public libraries that allow community members to interview other community members over the web with the video and audio captured locally in high quality — and merged after the fact using free, open source software or a web video editing service such as

Briefly describe the need that you’re trying to address.

Libraries are about the sharing of ideas. Some of the best ideas are in the minds of people who are not famous and who also do not have the video or computer skills to create their own YouTube videos. By giving community members a chance to interview each other, many interesting new ideas will be uncovered that will spark new conversations and new thinking about communities.

Reading that Q and A revived a memory of how social inequality can unbalance the historical record – and of an unsuccessful attempt, a few years ago, to lobby for a remedy at famously left-wing Berkeley. It inspired the following contribution to the feedback that Knight wants members of the public to leave on the competing plans — which fits this blog because it could help some suffering traditional publishers, writers, artists and media workers to understand why it isn’t just that the post-Gutenberg revolution cannot be stopped. Painful as it is for us, it should and must continue, with our encouragement and support.

… Years ago, in researching a book about the culture and characters in the most cosmopolitan segment of American farm country – the Napa Valley — I drew on a superb collection of transcripts from the Bancroft Library’s Regional Oral History Project at Berkeley. Comparing what the same subjects told me with what they were willing to tell the Bancroft interviewers was fascinating.

A decade or so after that, I rang the BROHP director with a proposal to interview someone in California ranch country, a woman of about my mother’s age who was the librarian in a small town to which she and her husband had migrated when he got a job as a ranch hand nearby. She had a sharp and original mind, a biting wit, and a fabulous hoard of stories about her past — for instance, surviving the Depression with her family, as a girl, helping sheep to give birth, and working at two jobs to help keep the family afloat.

I told the Bancroft director: most of the records of the local historical society focus on the top strata of the ranching communities in the region. What if an interview with this particular subject was the first in a series about families at the other end of the economic scale?

He said that that wouldn’t be possible. His organisation relied on donations from the outside to supply the money for the video recording equipment, video editing, travel, and so on. The reason why the Napa Valley was so well represented in the Bancroft collection was that the ‘wine industry’ had been outstandingly generous with funding. But wouldn’t that unbalance the history of rural California, I asked. His answer amounted to a shrug. He agreed with me, but didn’t know how to solve the problem.

I don’t know that the Bancroft’s oral archive still has this flaw. I hope that the bias has been corrected …

roses setting seeds

Roses setting seeds in a drought (part 2 of a story in pictures)

Roses setting seeds in a drought (part 2 of a story in pictures) — postgutenberg [at]


O public libraries, what are you doing in the great indie book publishing revolution? A letter to a far-sighted master-librarian

Will the online ‘libreria’ or bookshop, where this picture was taken, replace the ‘biblioteca’ -- the Italian for library – everywhere, in the digital revolution? - photograph: MIL22

Will the flexible, accommodating online counterpart of the ‘libreria’ or bookshop everywhere supplant the change-resistant ‘biblioteca’ — Italian for library – in the digital revolution?
- photograph from Napoli: MIL22

This entry tells a true story of our time about a public library that recently turned down a modest proposal for listing on its web site books published independently by its patrons and members. Note that there was no request to include these – necessarily – in the library’s catalogue. The frame for our tale is an open letter about an exciting vision for libraries of the future by an inventive leading librarian.

cover expect moreDear David Lankes,

Can public libraries supercharge the flowering of indie publishing and go back to being vibrant centres of creativity?

I have been reading your slender Expect More a book I will call thrilling. As you know, that is not a word that I or anyone else thinks of, any more, in connection with libraries. Least of all, those of us who saw them as unrivalled homes of enchantment, growing up; entertainers for which no television set, nor the most luxurious cinema with the biggest screen was any match. Part of what you have set out so well is that if the visions of a true 21st-century librarian can be realised — in, around and beyond the stacks — libraries could return to their glory days, in ancient times, going all the way back to the legendary 3rd-century BC Library of Alexandria.

I note that you are a professor of library science in Syracuse, in New York state, and a leader in information studies exploring ‘how participatory concepts can reshape libraries and credibility’. You say:

Too many librarians see their collections, not the community, as their jobs. Too many librarians are seeking to survive instead of innovate, … [… ] Great libraries … require open communication about your needs, your challenges, and your dreams. […] Libraries ‘for the people’ is an old way of looking at libraries. The new view is the library ‘of the people.’

When a library director has to be replaced, does the typical library board – or electorate, when the vetting is democratic – know what to look for, to choose the right leader for our times? That would be someone like you or Phil Shapiro, whom I’ve seen described as an educator at a public library near Washington D.C., who ‘teaches an occasional graduate educational technology class at American University’. His @philshapiro  notices on the Twitter bulletin-board are quirky, sometimes impish, and essential reading, and led me to you and your book. In a 2008 entry on his ‘Community Voices’ blog on PC World’s site — ‘Should Public Libraries be Welcoming Homes for Ingenuity?’ — a biographical note explained:

In high school he built a hot water solar collector from an abandoned shopping cart and hauled it up onto the roof of his house with a rope. His parents thought that was a good idea. The neighbors were not entirely thrilled with the shopping cart. On the roof. Of the house.

That suggests that the questions people selecting library chiefs should be asking in job interviews or library-related elections are, ‘How young were you when — if — you appalled people by doing things that later confirmed you as one of the pioneers in your circle, and can you give us some examples?’

In my life divided between several perches, in recent years, experiences at public libraries amply bear out your characterisation of too many people working in them as ‘stuck in a sort of professional conservatism that favours what they do over why they do it.’

Not long ago, I asked one head librarian whether our library might support the indie e-book revolution by encouraging patrons to list on the library web site the titles of any independently published books for which they were responsible. I said that I envisaged a bare-bones listing of each book’s title and subject – with, perhaps, a link to the author’s personal web site. This stark recording, I thought, would discourage competitive promotional hype and one-upmanship. The idea for the list had occurred to me when I realised that a number of potential readers of my first e-publishing experiment — a short book (or long essay), Jung on men and women: a Swiss travelogue  — happen to live in this particular library’s catchment zone. It is not unusual to meet local residents who are widely travelled, devour travel literature, and are interested in psychology, Switzerland, the fight for women’s rights, and the theories of Freudian psychology’s chief 20th-century rival, Carl Jung.

It seemed to me that libraries might be able to link local readers to writers in ways that the algorithms of Google and Amazon cannot. I would love to glean, from a constantly updated record of books they were publishing, impressions of the obsessions, preoccupations, passions and undisguised money-making schemes of people who live nearby. Living in the same place can mean much more than a shared or neighbouring postal code. Among those of us situated where we are from choice, not just necessity, it seemed as if there could be indefinable but powerful resonances predisposing us to being interested in each other’s literary and graphic creations. Whether I was right or wrong in this assumption, it seemed worth a test.

The head librarian — someone said to be charming whom I have never met in person — replied both directly and through a mutual friend. The idea, I gathered, was a non-starter. The staff already had too much to do without making and updating my proposed list. Though the library is neither a valiant inner-city nor struggling rural branch but located in a large, rich suburb, there were no funds for hiring new workers. What about letting volunteers – patrons – do the job? No, that was out of the question. Why? Because the library chief had tried working with local volunteers and quickly been worn out by the complications of being assisted by those most in need of occupation, bossy ladies-who-lunch types, many of them strangers to workplace discipline. In addition, an overbearing patron who had just published a book for teenagers had been hounding library staff members for help with publicity.

I was sympathetic to these reasons for the proposal’s nervous reception. Well then, I suggested, how about making a specific request for help from seasoned professionals in the ranks of the town’s retirees? What about letting retired administrators or book-keepers, doctors, teachers, company managers, accountants, lawyers and so on, get involved? But I made this counter-suggestion hesitantly, in fading tones, accurately anticipating defeat – because I had by then detected a faint but unmistakable whiff of hostility in a reference in one email from the librarian’s intimate friend to ‘this promotional idea’. I had been careful to explain that the list of e-books published by locals that I envisaged was plain enough to be the antithesis of anything sales-y. To no avail, apparently.

Prejudice can get in the way of reading or hearing what someone has actually said. What would the prejudice be, in this case? At a guess – your characterisation of the typically change-resistant librarian’s view of the purpose of a library – ‘providing access to knowledge,’ where that is perceived as a ‘passive … accumulation of facts,’ and not, as you say it should be, ‘intimately tied to the passions of the individual … dynamic, ever changing and alive.’ Too many libraries, you add, ‘support consuming knowledge instead of creating it.’

Phil Shapiro, arguing along closely parallel lines in a post titled ‘Towards a National Transition Plan for Libraries,’ asks whether libraries should ever close their doors:

In an information-based economy where knowledge workers drive almost all innovation, shouldn’t the public knowledge place be open seven days a week? If 7-Eleven and FedEx Office and McDonald’s can stay open 24 hours a day, is it not possible for libraries to do so, too?

As it happens, a few days before I read that, I’d made the nearly identical point to the circulation staff of a library. I said that they were surely sealing their institution’s doom with rigid, daft rules and systems that make it look more out of touch with reality, every day, to patrons accustomed — for example — to being able to buy discounted books online at any time of day or night, and avail themselves of exceptionally elastic and forgiving returns policies to unload themselves of purchasing mistakes. Don’t libraries realise, I railed, that their worst policies are so despised by patrons that some of us have been whittling down our reasons for borrowing anything from them at all – and actively developing other routes to acquiring everything that they alone could once supply?

I’d been complaining bitterly about being obstructed from paying a late fee because it fell below the threshold for permitting a credit card transaction at the circulation desk – though, by some impenetrable logic, if I went home and logged into my library account from there, I would meet no obstacle to settling my bill with my plastic rectangle. When I actually attempted to do this a few hours later, there was a block on the account because … no, no, I’ll stop there: the reason is too petty, tediously complicated and batty to recount.

As for the good sense in Phil’s advice about adjusting to the information economy — well, a library worker in another branch for whom I have nothing but high praise once explained that the reason why the software download speed on his library’s network can slow to approximately zero megabits per second — even forty-five minutes before closing time — is that the staff do not want patrons getting in the way of closing time routines. They simply shut down internet access to encourage these patrons to leave. I asked how that was possible when the library’s wifi network is supposed to be on all day and night. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘So when you’ve all left, they turn it on again.’ This reminded me of a minder of the public internet-access section of a library, a woman I had never seen before, hovering nearby, tidying desks and watching me type my library card number into the login box at least nine times in a row, trying to get online — with no success. Only when asked for help did she explain that she had already tucked the wifi system into bed – fifteen minutes before the end of her work day.

So, David, imagine trying to make the mental transition from that — a set of far from uncommon reasons for contemporary libraries being a depressing subject of conversation — to your description of ancient Egypt’s fabled book-haven in Alexandria. A place that you say was ‘not a huge document warehouse’, but ‘much more akin to universities of today’, where ‘[s]cholars from the known world were brought together and encouraged to talk and create.’

The contrast is agonising and will get worse, unless you, Phil and other advocates for reform can find a way — fast — to add people like yourselves to the staff of public libraries in senior positions. My happiest discovery in your book is that my modest proposal for patrons letting each other know about their indie publishing projects is directly in line with the transformed library-land you perceive as essential:

In essence, too many libraries have defined access as providing access to their stuff. You must expect more from your library. You need to expect it to provide a platform where you can access the ideas of others, as well as a platform for you to provide others access to your own ideas.

I note, by the way, that you published Expect More yourself. I didn’t buy the e-book. I bought the attractive print-on-demand paperback, childishly delighted – as always – by the idea of a book printed specially for me.

Incidentally, I would love to know how you would have treated my suggestion for a continuously updated list of indie books published by members of a public library. If you ever see this post and feel moved to reply, I hope you will leave a comment here – or on some site of your own.

Best wishes,


Amazon needs competition as much as Hachette does … let’s do something about that and let the caravan move on

 Cherish the old and get on with the new: the classic, by way of the digital photographs by EF and postgutenberg[at]

Cherish the old and get on with the new: the classic, by way of the digital (lens)
– postgutenberg[at]

There has been a shortage of calm, witty, Establishment voices answering the foes of howling about Jeff Bezos hammering the last nails into the coffin of literary culture. One of these rare birds is Clay Shirky, an American writer and prescient media scholar. Though we had his permission to reblog the whole of his post on the subject on — within five minutes of asking — this entry will only link to it and quote its most courageous and wickedly entertaining sections.

Courageous? Absolutely – for anyone following the coverage of the Amazon-Hachette brawl in New York, whose leading newspaper last Monday had a banner headline in its business section shouting, ‘Literary Lions Join Protest Against Amazon’, and recorded Philip Roth (scowling ferociously in a photograph), Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul and Milan Kundera diving in to bash Amazon with their computer mice and vintage clack-clackers-with-carriage-return.

Restricting this post to extracts from Shirky’s consideration of all the good Amazon is doing – which makes it merely an agent of a revolution that can hardly be held back – leaves room for quotations of some of the most constructive reactions to what he has to say.

Like him, we wish that Amazon had found a less aggressive way to persuade Hachette to share the costs of its book-discounting strategy that it says is designed to put more money into authors’ pockets. But, as we pointed out in a post here two years ago, it is hugely surprising to hear anyone in charge of the commerce of publishing care about and speak up on behalf of writers. (See ‘Is Amazon a bully, beating publishers into submission?‘) … We are also worried about Amazon getting much too big. We would love to see as a competitor what DuckDuckGo and its anonymising search engine are to Google – an alternative filling a vital need that the giant leader did not acknowledge or accommodate.

Over to Clay Shirky and his first responders, now:

More energy is being spent right now attacking Amazon than defending the five big publishers … because they aren’t easy to defend. There is some handwaving around the irreplaceability of their discerning taste, an argument undermined by their recent habit of acquiring ebooks they passed on the first time around, like “Still Alice” and “The Toiletpaper Entrepreneur”; their willingness to produce print editions of books that initially found their readers electronically, like “Trylle” and “Fifty Shades of Grey”; and by their building or acquiring self-publishing platforms, as with Penguin’s Author Solutions and Book Country.

Similarly, the idea that only the Big Five will fund speculative work for small audiences doesn’t jibe with the growth of niche publishing enabled by lower publishing costs. (A quarter-million titles have appeared on the Kindle in the last 90 days.) Nothing here is magic. Books are large chunks of writing. Digital publishing creates many new ways to get those chunks from writer to reader. Only some of those new ways require the services of people who work in lower Manhattan.


I say this as a beneficiary of that older system. I earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in advances for my last two books, to say nothing of the opportunities those books opened up, so the system has worked admirably well for me. However, I am a WASP, an Ivy League graduate, a tenured professor, and a member of the Sancerre-swilling East Coast Media Elite. Of course the existing system works well for me — it’s run by people like me, for people like me.

Despite my benefitting from it, I am unwilling to pretend that this system is beneficial for readers or for writers who lack my privilege. I’d always aspired to be a traitor to my class (though I’d hoped it would be for something a bit more momentous than retail book pricing), but treason is as treason does, so here goes: The reason my fellow elites hate Amazon is that Amazon refuses to flatter our pretensions. In my tribe, this is a crime more heinous even than eating one’s salad with one’s dessert fork.

The threat Amazon poses to our collective self-regard is the usual American one: The market is optimized for availability rather than respect. The surface argument is about price, but the deep argument is about prestige. If Amazon gets its way, saying, “I published a book” will generate no more cultural capital than saying “I spoke into a microphone.”

Given their deep ambivalence about expanded participation in the making and selling books, it’s worth noting some scenarios Amazon’s critics aren’t afraid of: They aren’t afraid that books will become less accessible. They aren’t afraid that there will be fewer readers. They aren’t afraid that fewer books will be published.

Reactions by commenters on the site:

Baldur Bjarnason

Sep 18, 2014 at 10:41 AM

I’ve found the publishing industry supremely inhospitable to even debating important issues.

The debate in publishing circles surrounding Clay Shirky’s piece depresses me. It echoes and rhymes with every debate I’ve been in personally and it demonstrates just how little has changed over the past ten years in the publishing industry.

But, […]debating this is pointless.

You don’t change people’s world-views with dialogue. If you want change you have two options:

You wait until the believers in the old paradigm die, experience an apostasy, or become irrelevant.

You try and build things that don’t rely on them (i.e. work solely in the new paradigm) in ways that minimises the harm they can do to your work.

It’d be wonderful if the field could debate itself into some sort of sensible middle ground—in fact, that’s what the publishing world view people think they are trying—but world views and paradigm shifts don’t have a middle ground.

The publishing industry is stuck in the mythology that was invented when mass production took over publishing. Challenging that mythology is like challenging a religious fanatic: their response is to repeat themselves, just more loudly. […]

Hugh McGuire

Sep 18, 2014 at 04:59 PM

… No one is even near Amazon in terms of reach to the buyers of books; that “problem” is just going to get worse …so publishers who want to keep doing business as they always have, will be forced through the Amazon “value extraction choke point,” with decreasing leverage.

There are two solutions to this problem as I can see it:

a) support other channels (Oyster, Scribd etc) & hope that they really start to matter


b) start building businesses whose prime objective is to capture the relationship with the reader directly

For a) we’ve seen grudging signs of movement; and for b) nothing.

As Baldur says, for the loyal opposition, the only option seems to be: “You try and build things that don’t rely on (publishers)” […]

adam hyde

Sep 18, 2014 at 04:41 PM

It seems to me that these discussions increasingly go nowhere. It would be more interesting to have a forum where those that have the ‘outsiders’ view could gather and build on ideas. Each time I see this conversation brought to the ‘insiders’ it just turns into a pointing and frothing match. It stops creative discussion …

The dogs bark and the caravan moves on. We are all dogs barking about this remaking of media. Better to go silent and get on with getting to the next stage, making it as close to universally enriching as we can …

In the Scottish referendum’s brilliant success, there was a crucial message for everyone designing the future of publishing

from The Canterbury Puzzles - Henry Ernest Dudeney, 1907

The Canterbury Puzzles and Other Curious Problems – Henry Ernest Dudeney, 1907

While everyone else ruminating about the Scottish referendum has been preoccupied (or horrified) by the inevitable demands for English devolution that followed it, post-Gutenberg has been transfixed by the 84 per cent turnout in Scotland last Thursday. This is stunning when you consider the rules for who was allowed to vote – amounting to an invitation to participate that could be unique in the history of national referendums:

everyone aged 16 or over, even though the age requirement is usually 18 years in general elections

 alongside Scots, British citizens and those from the European Union and Commonwealth countries who live permanently in Scotland

We call this radical inclusiveness. The only competition we can think of was in an experiment in Switzerland in 2011 (‘See ‘E-votes for all! Switzerland looks to the web to integrate immigrants,’ Prospect, 12 February 2011).

What Scotland’s voting eligibility spelt out for people there is: your opinion counts, and you really can make a difference. We remember sixteen as an extraordinarily impressionable age, and Scots teenagers who seized their first chance to use a ballot box might well be more actively engaged in political decision-making for the rest of their lives. As Jonathan Freedland said in his commentary on the referendum in a Guardian blog post, ‘If what started in Scotland this late summer is not to disappear by midwinter, it is its spirit that has to be nurtured and replenished. … [I]f you want people to come up with the biggest answers, you have to trust them with the biggest questions.’

How might this apply in publishing? If our regular readers will kindly excuse us repeating ourselves ad nauseam, we have set out

… an outline of a means for old media organisations to move into post-print publishing in a Networking Age in which readers want to be more than passive audiences – to do more than influence stage management and be free to perform themselves. [It is] a scheme for turning readers into financial stakeholders or co-owners – experimentally, at first, on parts of newspaper sites …

With eye-popping Scottish inclusiveness on our minds, we stumbled on an observer most struck by extraordinary exclusion in the post-referendum debate. Tim Garton Ash hurled these thunderbolts:

The absence of references to Europe in the barrage of first reactions to the Scottish referendum result was gobsmacking. Ukip leader Nigel Farage told the BBC that the issue now is how we create “a fair, federal United Kingdom”, which he explained as “a fully devolved, federal UK”. So federalism, the dreaded F-word, trademark of all those nefarious Napoleonic designs of beastly Belgians, is now suddenly a good thing. […H]ow on earth can we talk about a federal settlement for Britain without discussing the powers that belong to Europe?

How indeed. The trouble is, citizens of EU countries do not seem to think of each other very much, from day to day. They know remarkably little about each other’s lives in terms of intimate – mundane – details. That requires frequent contact, which tends to deepen acquaintance and can inspire some degree of identification. Instead, there are language gaps that explain obliviousness and ignorance. Too often, national and cultural pride tend to encourage head-in-the-sand chauvinism.

…(ahem) Can the British man and woman in the street be expected to think of themselves as European when, for instance, knowing about the temperament of an ordinary species of farm animal a mere Channel-hop away still probably means you have to be a near genius like the mathematician Ernest Henry Dudeney, a hundred years ago – even after decades of virtual travel by television? See his last line, below, in his puzzle illustrated at the top of this post:

Catching the Hogs

In the illustration Hendrick and Katrün are seen engaged in the exhilarating sport of attempting the capture of a couple of hogs.

Why did they fail?

Strange as it may seem, a complete answer is afforded in the little puzzle game that I will now explain.

Copy the simple diagram on a conveniently large sheet of cardboard or paper, and use four marked counters to represent the Dutchman, his wife, and the two hogs.

At the beginning of the game these must be placed on the squares on which they are shown. One player represents Hendrick and Katrün, and the other the hogs. The first player moves the Dutchman and his wife one square each in any direction (but not diagonally), and then the second player moves both pigs one square each (not diagonally); and so on, in turns, until Hendrick catches one hog and Katrün the other.

This you will find would be absurdly easy if the hogs moved first, but this is just what Dutch pigs will not do.

- The Canterbury Puzzles and Other Curious Problems, Henry Ernest Dudeney, 1907


Alan Rusbridger must please not let ‘Guardian membership’ mean bread-and-circuses, and prove that he is sincere about ‘mutualised’ journalism

Guardian members will expect to share its media megaphone – on virtually equal terms - Hugh Lofting drawing for a book in his Doctor Dolittle series (1920-52)

Guardian members will expect to share its media megaphone – on nearly equal terms
- Hugh Lofting drawing for a book in his Doctor Dolittle series (1920-52)

It is the next stage in the rolling out of The Guardian’s new ‘paid membership’ scheme for readers and commenters that we want to see. This was the summary of the plan by The Financial Times last week — unaccompanied, as far as we know, by any comment or analysis, so far:

The Guardian has launched a paid membership scheme, as it seeks to narrow operating losses that reached £33.8m last year.

The newspaper, which has resisted charging for access to its online content, will offer readers access to events and a new purpose-built venue near London’s King’s Cross.

Top-level members, known as patrons, will be charged £60 per month and will also have access to tours of the Guardian’s newsroom and print site. Mid-tier “partners” will pay £15 per month, while non-paying “friends” will also be able to book tickets to events.

The Guardian has no pressing need for profitability, with £842.7m in cash as of March, after selling its stake in car magazine Auto Trader.

We hope that there is more to this idea than supplying forms of theatre – either professional entertainment, or the thrilling chance to watch genuine Guardian journalists and editors tapping at their computers. We resist cynicism, at post-Gutenberg. Yet the reminder that came instantly to mind was of the ancient ruses in Europe for diverting the populace from noticing social inequality – known as ‘bread and circuses’. This was an accusation also levelled at the splendid Medici family, at the pinnacle of its wealth and power in Florence during Italy’s Renaissance:

… The days of adventitious sharing in the noise and warmth within an open palace door and a hand-out of the leavings were over; the populace was firmly excluded from the pleasures of the rich.

A similar withdrawal took place with publicly organized occasions of holiday mood. Bread and circuses: Lorenzo de’ Medici was accused of soliciting in the 1470s and 1480s the support of those excluded from a voice in government by lavish public entertainments: tournaments, street pageants. … In a republic that had been subtly manipulated into a narrow oligarchy it was natural … for opponents of this tendency to remember with alarm how the emperors who subverted the republican constitution of ancient Rome had employed gladiatorial and wild beast combats to occupy simple minds. A century after Lorenzo, however, with the rising price of bread and popular insurgency that rose with it, the issue of diversion was seen in terms of practical contemporary politics. ‘Because the common people are unstable and long for novelty, wrote Giovanni Botero in 1589 in his Reason of State, ‘they will seek it out for themselves, changing even their government, and their rulers if their prince does not provide some kind of diversion for them.’

The Civilization of Europe at the Renaissance, John Hale, 1994

Bread-and-circuses is surely not what Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian’s editor, has had in mind, in his speeches and interviews about the ‘mutualisation’ of journalism. This is what he said on the site of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, in replying to a British commenter on a blog post about turning readers into paying members as an economic survival model for media organisations (part of their exchange):

Han Gough

It’s certainly interesting. And I’d be happy to support the Guardian. But I can’t for the life of me work out what benefits I would gain from membership. I live in a university town in the south west of England and there are no events scheduled in a 300 mile vicinity! And that building looks nice but I’m never going to get to use it. To be a Guardian “member” must one live in Islington???

I feel that the Guardian’s values, and it’s history as the Manchester Guardian, have been somewhat lost in translation. […]

alan rusbridger •

Han, this is a beta launch of something that will become more interesting in a few months and still more interesting once the Midlands Goods Shed is up and running. We haven’t forgotten the rest of the country (or the rest of the world) and will announce further and better plans. This is just the initial announcement…. a *very* soft launch. And thanks for kind words about the Guardian.

Han Gough •

Wow. Thanks for your reply. I wasn’t expecting that. I only posted here because there didn’t seem to be anywhere else to comment.

It sounds like a wonderful idea. And I can see how it would be really exciting if I lived in central London. But £15/month is quite a lot of money. […]. And even if you did put on an event at some point in Exeter (which is where I am), will you ever manage to put on £15-worth of events every month?

Also one of the reasons I like and read the Guardian is for its socially progressive values but this feels regressive at first sight. It’s providing opportunities for an already privileged segment of people: those who are cash-rich and live in London. That’s what I meant when I said it seemed out of step with the spirit of the Manchester Guardian. I can really understand why the Scots have had enough. It is this mentality that London and the south east of England gets the lion’s share and the rest of us roll over and pay for it. […] Thanks again for your reply.

The reason why Han Gough living in Exeter, in England, had to go to a site owned by an American university to react to the Guardian scheme is because that newspaper did not allow public comment on it. A box beneath the notice about it on The Guardian’s site invited readers to submit feedback on a form whisked invisibly into the paper’s mysterious innards. Ah so!

What would be better – much better – than what we have seen, so far, of The Guardian’s plan? Strangely enough, it was from the comments section of that Nieman site at Harvard that someone outstandingly practical contacted post-Gutenberg with the answer, three years ago. This is how our report about this most helpful encounter began:

A stranger, someone astute and entrepreneurial, emailed me about a comment posted in a discussion about the future of journalism on the site of Harvard’s Nieman Lab. ‘I think you’re on the right track with your focus on the business-model issue,’ he said.

He was referring to an outline of a means for old media organisations to move into post-print publishing in a Networking Age in which readers want to be more than passive audiences – to do more than influence stage management and be free to perform themselves. I set out a scheme for turning readers into financial stakeholders or co-owners – experimentally, at first, on parts of newspaper sites – suggesting that this might be an ownership structure for the future.

The essence of the idea was that every subscription would also be a share or financial stake in prospective profits. It would be an inducement for each reader or viewer to help bring many more visitors to a site. It would both help the site owner to attract more advertising and – implicitly – reduce dependence on advertising, if the concept of subscription-stakes caught on and went viral. …

[ continues here: 'Co-owning media is on the horizon ...' ... ]

Also see:

Can Alan Rusbridger do what he must to make a true mark on media’s future history?


Notes from the post-print transition, 4: the fetishization of (pre-print) handwriting

android dec 2011 to nov 2012 129

In this elegant script – the most original one we have ever known intimately – its owner recalls listening to aspiring Urdu poets on Indian trains - photographs: postgutenberg [at]

In this elegant script – the most original one we have ever known intimately – its owner recalls listening to aspiring Urdu poets on Indian trains
- photographs: postgutenberg [at]

None of the little grey cells serving post-Gutenberg believe that onscreen publishing will stop real readers from enjoying printed books. That is not least because, in weeks of acute eye strain — like this one — dead tree texts have a tranquillising effect on  eyeballs screaming about too much e-reading. Nor has the pleasure of writing by hand ever faded for us; not by the merest ink speck — since we felt the first thrill of shaping chalk letters by fist on a slate smeared with carrot-drool.

Nor do we ever study the most eloquent, distinctive or moving email with the delight, and anything like the same rewards, with which we re-read handwritten letters and cards, most of them antiques. And no, there is no equivalent satisfaction or fascination to be had in re-encounters with typewritten pages, no matter how jumpy, quirky or bizarre the lettering of a particular old typing machine.

All that should make it easy to see why we were startled to discover, of all things, a how-to article in a widely-read financial newspaper for people who have apparently lost the art of handwriting – and done so almost completely. How common is this lamentable fate? – more so, perhaps, among quants who get virtually all the news that interests them from The Wall Street Journal?

What comes after the death of – pre-Gutenberg – handwriting? If the WSJ contributor, Chris Kornelis, is to be believed, it is the fetishization of script on paper, using nothing less than the Kobe-beef-and-caviar equivalent of writing tools, once you leave kindergarten again.

Extracts from the piece — which, we are told, was published with the aid of a ‘styling’ specialist:

… When you are ready to invest in a more expensive pen, Mr. Wiederlight said that penmanship-focused writers should look for one feature in particular: a genuine gold nib, which is more flexible than a steel one. “It shows the variation of the lines: more pressure, thicker stroke; less pressure, thinner stroke,” he said, adding that the gold will get smoother over time. He pointed out that Sailor’s 1911 Large Collection($310, has the same 21-karat gold nib found on the company’s much more expensive models.

… Pick the Right Paper

You can reduce feathering—the effect of ink spreading through the paper’s fibers and creating an unkempt look—by using 100-percent cotton paper, such as Crane & Co.’s 32-lb. Pearl White Kid Finish ($20 for 50 sheets,, according to Capper Heffernan, owner of Seattle’s de Medici Ming Fine Paper.

… Improve Your Technique

Of course, the equipment will only get you so far. You also have to practice. Ms. Thorpe suggested finding a style that you admire and want to emulate. “Handwriting is shakable. People can consciously change their style of handwriting,” she said. “First figure out what your goal is.”

The next step is repetition. Ms. Thorpe recommended choosing a couple words—like your name—with letters that you use frequently and writing them over and over again. After you’ve mastered those letters, add a few more words until you’ve gone through the entire alphabet.

Good grief.


Leaked celebrity selfies, naked or clothed, are today’s frozen mirror-time: self-exploration never easier to capture without anyone’s help — or permission

Adaptation of Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe (Lunch on the Grass), 1863. Today, its central figure might be striking that pose all by herself, for idiosyncratic reasons - postgutenberg [at]

Adaptation of Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe (Lunch on the Grass), 1863. Today, its central figure might be striking that pose to please herself, for idiosyncratic reasons
– postgutenberg [at]


- Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) - Wikimedia Commons

– Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798)
– Wikimedia Commons

Some of the self-portraits that one actress was storing on her mobile appeared high on the first page of search results that came up with her name, on the first day of the furore over last week’s celebrity phone hacking. We looked, not just from curiosity about the expressions on her face, when she took them — but to understand why anyone would keep photographing herself in the nude, and not stop after a trial picture or two. More than a few images sparked an aha! moment: in them, we saw proof that the youngest adults are indeed being deeply affected, if not moulded, by pornography, as we have been told for some time. It was remarkable – even funny — to see evidence of a young woman with an intelligent, sensitive face creating an archive of self-portraits as an aspiring porn star.

But then we remembered reading that pornographic videos have been scripting, especially, the everyday bedroom dramas of millennials. Was the actress practicing seduction, or preparing for her next tryst with her partner? Or measuring her attractiveness against the assets of her competitors in the world of film – in which the most serious and gifted thespians are routinely asked to bare all, for the camera?

The expression on her face in some of the photographs is almost as curious as a scientist’s, inspecting a laboratory animal; surprised and almost startled, in others. What is most wonderful is that, whatever exactly she is up to, she seems in charge – the selfie being yet another post-Gutenberg phenomenon free of filters and signed permission slips.

There is not much self-conscious cringing in the bits of the archive we saw, and little evidence – in the precise moment of each camera click — of her feeling obliged to adapt for someone else’s conception of who she is; or telling her how she should present herself on the particular day; or instruct her more or less directly about what her place in the world is and is supposed to be. This is somehow true despite the overwhelming influence of pornography in several photographs.

The most powerful impression is of her trying to get to know herself, or decide who exactly she wants to be. Intensely private, yes – and this brought to mind an extraordinary extended monologue in the Hungarian writer Sándor Márai’s Casanova in Bolzano, one of the special pleasures of last winter’s reading.

It took the genius of a Márai to persuade a woman too disgusted by the mere thought of Casanova to care to read about him at all; and then become entranced by the delving into his psyche in Márai’s imaginative reconstruction of a phase of his life. The resistant female reader becomes a willing slave of this marvellous storyteller when he introduces into the tale a self-confident, beautiful and improbably young — but captivating — young female lover of the legendary seducer who delivers a long, passionate speech that is in equal parts adoring and castigating; icily and penetratingly analytical about his faults, including his pathological womanising. She comes as close as possible to winning the heart of a man who would rather not have one, and she grasps this ambivalence completely, then proceeds to outline her proposal for tailoring both their lives around it.

One professional American reviewer quoted on the book’s Amazon site detests this passage, and believes that it ruins the novel. (‘The harangue makes it hard to believe that anyone would fight over her.’) We would guess that the anonymous critic is a man; someone made uncomfortable by what was almost certainly Márai’s cold-eyed assessment of himself, and his own conduct – but also of caddish behaviour by all men who are prone to it.

The monologue is admittedly long-winded, and more or less an unbroken mass of text. Casanova in Bolzano is by no means this novelist’s finest work. But it does demonstrate rare insight into a female character by a male writer exploring her most private desires; and this impression persists, in spite of the improbably bold and decisive actions Márai designs for her, for the sake of narrative tension.

Thinking about the rumpus over the hacked selfies made a re-reading seem important:

Once, many years ago, you gave me a mirror, Giacomo, a present from Venice. A mirror was, of course, the only possible gift, a Venetian mirror, which is reputed to show people their true faces. You brought me a mirror in a silver frame, and a comb, a silver-handled comb. That is what you gave me. It was the best of presents, my dear. Years have passed, and every day I hold the mirror and comb in my hand, adjusting my hair, looking at my face as you imagined and wanted me to, when you gave me a mirror as a present. Because mirrors are enchantments – did you know that, you, a citizen of Venice, where the finest mirrors are produced? We have to look into mirrors for a long time, regularly, for a very long time, before we can see our true faces. A mirror is not just a smooth silver surface, no, a mirror is deep, too, like tarns on mountains, and if you look carefully into a Venetian mirror you will catch a glimpse of that depth, and will go on to detect ever deeper and deeper depths, the face glimmering ever farther off, and every day a mask falls away, one of the masks that is examining itself in the mirror that was a gift your lover brought you from Venice. You should never give a woman you love a mirror as a present, because women eventually come to know themselves in mirrors, …

- Casanova in Bolzano, Sándor Márai, trans.: George Szirtes, 2004