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March 1, 2007

Interview with the Me
Posted by Patrick at 05:36 PM * 124 comments

Ernest Lilley of the science fiction news site SFRevu interviewed me in my office back in 2004. He’s finally posted the transcript, complete with some interjections by “PNH 2007.” It’s a bit shaggy and certainly rambling. I blame society. Wait, I said that already.

Comments on Interview with the Me:
#1 ::: Susan ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2007, 06:03 PM:

(Since the interview starts off talking about Banks)

I tried Iain Banks (with and without the M) on your strong recommendation, and while I more-or-less enjoyed the two books I read (Use of Weapons and Canal Dreams), both sort of hit my American Psycho button in that (MINOR SPOILER ALERT) both involve bad, gory, icky things happening to women. I sort of wonder if I'm going to find that sort of thing in all his books, and if so, I may not read any others, because it disturbs my sensitive subconscious and I end up with nightmares.

I don't know if this relates to his lack of an American audience or not.

#2 ::: Dan Blum ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2007, 06:09 PM:

I've read Use of Weapons, and I don't recall anything like that happening in the other Banks books I have read (Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games, The State of the Art, and Excession). Of course I could be forgetting something.

#3 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2007, 06:17 PM:

So did you get the tuning mechanism replaced?

(Goes off to look at his 1969 original Rickenbacker's hardware.)

#4 ::: Mike Kozlowski ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2007, 06:33 PM:

So what's the "small press" distinction you're making with Night Shade? Just that they're more ambitious than most small presses, or something else?

#5 ::: Zack Weinberg ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2007, 06:50 PM:

Susan @1: Every Iain (M.) Banks book I've ever read has had at least one passage gruesome enough to make me recoil in horror (which is not easy; my tolerance level is quite high). However, in the majority of the books I've read these incidents occupy only a small number of pages, are pretty easy to see coming, and are not crucial to the plot (though they may be important to understanding character motivation, e.g. the bit in The Player of Games where Gurgeh watches television). Use of Weapons is unusual, IMO, in that the horror was integral to the plot. Also, I have the impression that the victims of the gruesomeness are roughly gender-balanced over the entire oeuvre, but I could be wrong.

If you'd like to try again, I recommend starting with The Player of Games (very good) and Excession (not as good but lots of fun). I anti-recommend Consider Phlebas, because the gruesome in there is not only not crucial, it's totally unnecessary. Just about everything that happened on the destroyed Orbital could have been omitted with no impact to the plot, IMAO.

#6 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2007, 06:52 PM:

Susan, Banks's stuff tends to involve gory and/or icky things happening to people. I haven't noticed a preponderance of women among the victims. In fact in in [spoiler], [spoiler] [spoiler]. And in [spoiler], just when [spoiler] [spoiler] , [spoiler]!

Mind you, if you dislike icky things happening to sentient beings in general regardless of sex (if any), Banks is probably not your beaker of warm fluid.

#7 ::: Jeffrey Smith ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2007, 07:02 PM:

"science diction" is a great typo!

#8 ::: Dave Luckett sees an idiot ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2007, 07:04 PM:

Well, there you go. For me, "not crucial to the plot" is another way of saying "unnecessary and gratuitous". That is, the cruelty and horror in each of Bank's books is unnecessary and gratuitous.

The Banks I have finished was the one about scotch whiskey, which was lively, interesting, quirky, crotchety, opinionated and clever. I enjoyed it, and on the strength of that, I started on "The Algebraist".

I didn't finish it. Each to his own taste, I suppose.

#9 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2007, 07:09 PM:

Actually, my true favorite Banks book is the mainstream (but quite miraculous) novel Whit, which has no ultra-violence whatsoever, aside from a badly-behaved dog.

All I was trying to say about Night Shade is that it seems to me they're not building a "small press" outfit, just a regular book publishing company that doesn't happen to be in NYC.

#10 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2007, 07:17 PM:

I did it again. Sorry. The idiot in question is me.

#11 ::: Bruce Cohen, SpeakerToManagers ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2007, 07:25 PM:

At this point I've read several of Banks' mainstream novels, and (I think) all of his science fiction. The gruesomeness sometimes bothers me (I could not read "The Wasp Factory" and had to skip several nasty pages in "Consider Phlebas"), but I think there is a method to his grue, and it often works.

In the novels based in the "Culture" universe Banks contrasts the utopian aspects of the culture with the barbarism of its neighbors. As he's said that he does not believe the Culture could exist as he describes it, I think it's intended to provide an ironic contrast to the violence of our own world. Where that isn't a necessary part of the book in question, I agree it doesn't work.

The whole point of "Look to Windward", which may be my favorite, is that the protagonist must come to terms with his own and his society's desire for violent revenge and find another way to relate to others. Here I think the contrast between Utopia and barbarism works.

#12 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2007, 07:57 PM:

Shhhhh! I'm reading Look to Windward right now. Don't spoil anything.

Any new word on what Vernor Vinge is working on next?

A Fire Upon the Deep was the first novel in about a decade that got my moribund Sense of Wonder gland working.

Between reading it and the publication of "Deepness," a friend and I rescued Vinge from a dreary media convention meet the pros party. Spent maybe two hours shooting cosmic BS with him. Man, that was fun. Any conservation that includes a discussion of tine conciousness bandwidth requirements has got to be cool.

#13 ::: Max Kaehn ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2007, 08:04 PM:

Stefan, have you tried Karl Schroeder’s Lady of Mazes?

#14 ::: Scott Lynch ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2007, 08:17 PM:

A Fire Upon the Deep is one vast joygasm, double underlined, with five or six exclamation points.

#15 ::: Jon Baker ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2007, 08:23 PM:

>Fire upon the Deep

I've never managed to read that. The first time I tried, I got a terrible flu (in the middle of which, Debbie's grandfather died, and I couldn't go to the funeral, I don't even know if I made it to shiva). Every time I try to go back and read it, I just feel awful again. But that's just a me thing.

#16 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2007, 08:31 PM:

2004 was just yesterday, wasn't it?

I admired this, about getting a story started quickly:

I have a professionally cultivated low attention span.

#17 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2007, 09:35 PM:

In most cases, Banks' depictions of violence are either aesthetically justifiable (in my opinion), or, where gratuitous, sufficiently absurd that they don't get in amongst me. But Complicity is one long exception to that rule, and The Algebraist has a rape scene that I could very happily have lived without.

In addition to Whit, Espedair Street and The Crow Road are excellent ungruesome (unless I'm forgetting something) mainstream novels.

#18 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2007, 10:32 PM:

"Science diction" is, of course, the fannish accent.

#19 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2007, 11:41 PM:

#12: "Any new word on what Vernor Vinge is working on next?"

As I understand it, he's 40,000 words into a direct sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep. Complete with Tines.

#20 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 12:35 AM:

#13: I liked Schroeder’s first novel. I'll see if I can find a copy of that one.

#19: Ooooh, tasty!

Tines gave me a serious case of "Gosh, it would sure be fun to hang out with critters like those!" fever, an ailment I hadn't had since reading Poul Anderson books in High School.

#21 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 12:44 AM:

Banks' The Business opens with the main character learning a subordinate has been drugged and an apparently random selection of his teeth extracted, presumably because he'd been pursuing the wrong woman. Nothing like a nice little dental horror story (today, your teeth; tomorrow... your kidney!) to start things off.

#22 ::: Susan ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 03:19 AM:

Spoilers here for Canal Dreams.

I don't mean to trivialize the large number of people (male and female) blown away or murdered by various creatively gory means in this book, but that isn't what got to me. My dead body tolerance is fairly high. But if I have to deal with the personal emotional aftermath of reading a vicious gang-rape-torture (offstage but sufficiently graphic tidbits dropped to stick unpleasantly in the mind) in a piece of fiction, it needs to be pretty damned integral to the plot to be worth it. And since it's specifically established in the book that the gang-rape-torture isn't actually what makes the woman go icily Rambo and proceed to a series of more-or-less-justified gory murders, it struck me as an excuse to slide in the kind of lines I'd expect to see in graphic porn written by men.

So if he's prone to that sort of thing - which was more disturbing by far than the delicate and artistic gruesome bit in Use of Weapons - I think I can skip further reading.

#23 ::: Tim Walters ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 03:35 AM:

For what it's worth, Canal Dreams has the reputation of being much more violent than his other books (with the possible exception of Complicity). I haven't read it yet, in part because of that reputation, but I can't think of anything in any of his other books that resembles your description.

#24 ::: ethan ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 04:38 AM:

Not to gloss over Susan's impassioned bit at #22 (which, incidentally, I think I agree with, though I haven't read the book so I can't say), but Bruce Arthurs #21: Ugh! Can we please not talk about dental horror? Now I'm almost positive that tonight I'll have one of my tooth loss nightmares. Yuck.

#25 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 07:18 AM:

ethan at #24: Is it safe?

#26 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 09:14 AM:

From the interview: "I think Vernor's working on a novelization of the cookie monster. [PNH 2007: I have no idea what I was talking about. I blame society.]"

Forgive me if this is too obvious, but this is certainly a reference to Vinge's novella (-ette?) "The Cookie Monster."

#27 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 09:18 AM:

Alex: You're right. I had entirely forgotten that Vinge published a novella by that name.

#28 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 09:21 AM:

Alex: You're right. I had entirely forgotten that Vinge published a novella by that name.

Entirely in keeping with the plot of that story, actually. You're not supposed to remember.

#29 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 11:24 AM:

Remember what?

#30 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 11:45 AM:

Remember what?

[This post has been removed by the moderator.]

#31 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 12:33 PM:

IIRC from when I spoke to him, Banks said even he didn't like "Canal Dreams" very much, mostly because a) the plot is sort of generic thriller and b) he didn't think in retrospect that a 30-year-old Scottish man should have tried to narrate in the voice of a 45-year-old female Japanese cellist. "Espedair Street" and "The Crow Road" have a few deaths but no graphic grue. On the SF side, neither do "Feersum Endjinn" or "Against a Dark Background", and "Excession" has one that is fairly mild by his standards and also fairly central to the plot.

#19 is fantastic news. "A Fire on the Deep" rocks the free world.

#32 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 12:36 PM:

For Susan, on Banks:

If you lack a cringe reflex for things dental (and the tooth business is entirely off-screen), then "The Business" is pretty much violence free. (Unless you also have a cringe reflex at the idea of violence against beautiful automotive works of art ... there is a scene of explicit car-torture that some folks apparently get very worked-up about.)

I'll second the recommendation for "Whit", "The Crow Road", and "Espedair Street"; and I seem to recall that "The Bridge" is relatively lacking in gore (aside from the comic barbarian interludes).
But do not, under any circumstances, read "A Song of Stone". It's the one book of his where the grand guignol overwhelms everything else. It's just plain nasty. And I'll note that with the possible exception of "Look to Windward" and "Inversions", all his SF tends to get graphically grisly somewhere or other.

Incidentally, writing scenes that visceral is something of a black art; try as I might, I've been unable to reach those same heights of bleak nastiness, damn it.

#33 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 12:40 PM:

I feel like Banks is getting a pretty poor showing here.

He does have violence in his books, generally not crucial to the plot. But that doesn't make it gratuitous - it's part of the characterisation or the scene-setting. He seems to believe that violence is the first visible sign of a society (or community, or person) gone wrong, like the cracks that indicate subsidence. So it's classic "show, not tell" description.

Generally, he also provides an alternative or a contrast to the violence - for instance, in Player of Games, the Culture.

I'm quite squeamish about violence that you get dragged through in detail, with no contrast for relief - I gave up on John Courtenay Grimwood after one too many horrid scenes, and I barely made it past the start of Mother of Storms. I don't read thrillers, or many more recent murder mysteries.

But Banks' SF doesn't push those buttons for me. (I haven't read enough of his fiction to judge.)

(Well, apart from Complicity, which was a but much...)

#34 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 12:49 PM:

I'll chime in in agreement here - Banks' writing has a good deal of violence, but relatively few of his books SF or otherwise are centered on or all about the violence. Those which have a strong focus on the violence include: Use of Weapons, Complicity, Song of the Stone, and of course his debut The Wasp Factory. It's been too many years since I read Canal Dreams to comment on it.

#35 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 01:16 PM:

Charlie writes:
Incidentally, writing scenes that visceral is something of a black art;

It's not the viscera that bother me, it's all the bodily fluids.

#36 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 01:17 PM:

Canal Dreams is one of the few Banks novels I could never get into.

Oddly enough, it was The Crow Road that made me a Banks fan. What a delightful double cheeseburger of a book, dripping with story. Not totally violence-free (there's a murder mystery, although the book isn't a "murder mystery"), but a delicious multi-generation saga about people you want to spend more time with.

#37 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 01:37 PM:

One of the things which lastingly amuses me about Banks's SF about the Culture, who are allegedly dedicated, passionate, and accomplished hedonists, is that he's incredibly bad at portraying this.

We rarely see actual human individuals from the Culture; when we do, they're overfocused, obsessive, or downright creepy round the edges. The Minds dote on their simian cat analogs, and are otherwise terrors beside which the Great Old Ones are so many half-fledged parakeets.

#38 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 02:49 PM:

Graydon: I have thought about that too. The big problem w.r.t. the Culture as a locus for storytelling is that a centuries-long lifetime of uneventful, relaxed hedonism don't make for much in the way of Story. As a result, all we see of the Culture is its extreme misfits who can't get along with that program, and its clashes with other species and civilisations, because these are situations where possible stories emerge.

#39 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 04:07 PM:

Patrick, you and I have totally overlapping taste in Banks.

#40 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 04:40 PM:

Has anyone seen the BBC adaptation of Crow Road?

#41 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 04:43 PM:

I'm quite sure that someone has seen it.

Not me, though.

#42 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 05:10 PM:

I saw the BBC adaption of the Crow Road.

It was good, despite me being inefficent and watching the last and second-to-last episodes out of order. The story has a complex structure*, but they make it work on the screen. It being 10 years since I saw it that's as much as I can dredge from my memory.

Oh no, there was a change which seemed pointless at the time; Prentice was a history student in the book (who changes to philosophy by the end) but was a philosophy student on screen. It's always the odd things that stick in my mind.

* Banks never seems to want to tell stories from start to finish. Which is mostly a good thing.

#43 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 05:12 PM:

Well, we typically see normal humanoids in the background in the Culture, aggressively pursuing fun in various weird and creepy ways. Think of the extreme sports and the "disposables" in Look to Windward.

I enjoy the Culture novels, but I'm never quite able to make myself believe the Minds are as smart as they need to be to make it work. Probably, this is inevitable--once a Mind is in the story to any real extent, the author has to play its part. Banks is no doubt a clever guy, but he can't really impersonate something that compares to human intelligence the way humans compare to dogs . I think Vinge did this better, mostly by making the superintelligent things live offstage.

#44 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 05:40 PM:

Not only have I seen the BBC adaptation of Crow Road, I've just bought the DVD from Amazon UK. I have a region-free player, and thus it is not of any great interest to me whether I order DVDs from or :-)

I read The Crow Road and Canal Dreams on my last transAtlantic flight, the latter for the first time. I love The Crow Road, for the reasons Patrick described so well, and my comment in my LJ was "This is the one I'd recommend to someone wanting to try Banks for the first time -- it's dark and subtle, but without the truly nightmarish imagery of some of his other work."

Canal Dreams was more of a "not a waste of time, but I don't think I want to read it again". I didn't think the references to the gang rape were gratuitous, but they are disturbing, as is much of that section of the book.

"A Song of Stone" I just found *boring*. Predictable and "eight deadly words" boring, and I simply stopped reading it about a third of the way in. It felt to me that Banks was going all out to be as shocking and boundary-pushing as possible, only it wasn't in fact either new or all that shocking to someone who's read the better end of fanfic from political sf shows.

"The Wasp Factory" -- um. It's very, very good, but if it had been the first of his I'd read, it would have been the last. There's one specific image I really wish I could forget...

#45 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 05:47 PM:

Clifton (in #38) --

I have heard that explanation advanced, but do not find it structurally convincing. Even the people presented as having fun are being grim and overfocused about it.

Compare to Chesterton (or Ken Mcleod) having their characters talk about going out for a beer.

#46 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 05:51 PM:

The one thing I really, really don't like about Banks books are...their bindings.

I have looked at every edition of his books that I have ever managed to find, and they are all perfect bound. First editions, hardbacks, paperbacks, everything.

I would love to do bindings of some of his work, but I can't.

#47 ::: Nancy C ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 06:05 PM:

Abi, I will keep my eyes open for a battered paperback of Banks' novels, just for you.

#48 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 06:19 PM:

Nancy, only if it's sewn, not glued. But I don't think his publishers have done sewn editions.

I haven't seen him socially since before I started bookbinding, and I've never known him well. (I passed him on the street last winter, and he gave me the "I know I know you, but I don't know how" look). I am unlikely to get the chance to whinge at him about this, since I'm moving out of Edinburgh this summer.

So instead, I whinge here. Lucky all of you.

#49 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 07:27 PM:

abi, if I understand correctly, you don't like books with glued binding. Fair enough, I buy Folio editions of stuff I like when I can get them. But who has their first or current books published in sewn bindings?

I was in the library with my two older offspring last week, and came away with Susanna Clarke's collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other Stories, which is a lovely volume (even including thanks to both our hosts here at Making Light), but despite Bloomsbury's faith in her, the binding is glued.

Iain Banks is a huge bestseller in the UK, and even he doesn't get sewn binding. Does anyone? Or do you hate all books?

#50 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 08:19 PM:


Ugh! Can we please not talk about dental horror? Now I'm almost positive that tonight I'll have one of my tooth loss nightmares. Yuck.

If you ever listen to old-time radio programs and the episode of Lights Out by Arch Obler named "A Day at the Dentist's" comes on TURN IT OFF INSTANTLY. Nothing that ghastly happens on-mike: just between your ears. This has been a public service...

#51 ::: Aconite ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 10:40 PM:

Julia Jones@44: May I ask the specifics of that region-free DVD player?* I've been wanting one.

*If this is a stupid question, please ignore me.

#52 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 11:44 PM:

I'll third the recommendation for Whit, which is also my favorite. It is brilliant, delightful, and fabulously inventive. It makes most of the science fiction that is out there look very ordinary.

I'm surprised that nobody has mentioned my previous favorite, The Bridge.

#53 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2007, 11:51 PM:

Aconite at 51: the specific model (and brand) is somewhat patchily available now -- apparently one of the reasons it was cheap was that the manufacturer neglected to pay licence fees to Phillips, who complained mightily to whoever regulates such matters, and as a result a number of stockists lost their stock... However it's still available in places, including Amazon Marketplace. Cyberhome DVD 300, dual voltage, handles both PAL and NTSC, and is officially region-coded out of the box but is readily unlocked with the right sequence of buttons on the handset. Someone seems to be selling pre-unlocked ones on Amazon.

Cheap and cheerful and there have been reports of lemons, but mine lasted three years of light use before showing problems. Because mine was feeling a bit unwell last week I was looking at Amazon for a replacement, and the other brand that does the PAL/NTSC, dual voltage, easily unlocked thing is Coby. As it happens, sticking a high end cleaning disk in my Cyberhome has it feeling much happier now -- though the cleaning disk cost as much as the cheapest Coby model... Otherwise I'd have probably gone for one of these as a stopgap while I decided what sort of recordable DVD player I might want:

#54 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 12:41 AM:

Aconite & Julia Jones:
The other way to get a region-unlocked DVD player is to find a used computer from the first generation that had built-in DVD-ROM drives. I'm typing this post on one such: an Apple Powerbook, the Pismo model, made in 2000. You can watch the movie on the screen if you like, but there's also a video-out jack that you can connect to a TV.

#55 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 05:33 AM:

Niall @49
abi, if I understand correctly, you don't like books with glued binding.

For the purposes of my craft (bookbinding), that is correct. There are ways of rebinding perfect bound books, but they all reduce the already limited readability and durability of the text block.

(For the purposes of reading, my views are mixed. Perfect binding (the technical term for glued bindings, at least since the 1920's (don't let me get pedantic about previous techniques or we'll never get out of the parentheses)) produced the most drastic reduction in book prices since casing in (don't ask). The consequent improvement in literacy and access to the classics is an unarguable improvement in the lot of mankind. The current practice of perfect binding hardcovers, on the other hand, bugs me rotten, because most people expect a hardback book to have a more durable structure than a paperback.)

But who has their first or current books published in sewn bindings?

First books? Virtually no one, I suspect. Current books? The most recent hardbacks from Terry Pratchett and Ursula K Le Guin that I own are both sewn.

But this is a new problem. Five years ago, ten years ago, you had a decent chance of picking up a new hardcover book by a popular author and seeing signatures at the head.

And even back then, when he was midlist, other midlist authors had sewn bindings in their first editions, and he did not.

Or do you hate all books?

I'll not take that as the deadly insult that it feels like.

#56 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 06:19 AM:

Abi, I would be very interested to hear more about historical bookbinding techniques.

#57 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 07:03 AM:

Bruce Cohen: or you can buy a DVD player from a shop that sells them. Here in the UK there's a nice chain called Richer Sounds who do surplus or refurb stock at decent prices -- branches in most major cities masquerading as holes-in-the-wall (usually at one end of a gigantic warehouse, as they are one of the larger private hifi/video chains). I just upgraded my TV for the first time in 11 years last week, and among the items I bought was a lovely Cambridge Audio DVD player. It does upscaling for HD output devices, PAL/NTCS/Secam, HDMI, DVI out (in case you've got a spare DVI high-res monitor kicking around), and automatic region selection -- stick a Region 1 or Region 2 disk in and it just plays, with no fuss or magic key sequences on the remote needed. (I ought to go check on the back whether it takes 110 volts or insists on 220-250; but the other deterrent to buying one might be the price; I went for the more expensive model, and at the current exchange rate I can hear your sharp intake of breath from here.)

#58 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 07:33 AM:

Abi, I would be very interested to hear more about historical bookbinding techniques.

Oh, I'd be curious to hear about that as well...

On region-free DVD players -- a surprising number of Philips models can be made region-free by typing codes on the remote. (See, e.g., here). I have a clear memory from about a year ago of seeing a web page on the UK Philips site actually boasting about the fact that they made players that were easily convertible, but I can't find it any more. Amazon UK actually has a page with instructions for some models. At least some of these models are also sold in the US.

#59 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 09:02 AM:

TexAnne @56
Lee @58
Asking me to talk about binding history is like asking a cat if it would like some catnip.

I could do the nickel tour of the history of Western bookbinding, in five episodes. No problem. Might take me a day or two to get through it all - I have a few other things on in meatspace - but it sounds like a fun piece to do.

#60 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 09:09 AM:

A Brief History of Bookbinding
Episode One: Much Concerned with Materials

(Much of this information is undated, because we don't have any exapmples of these bindings left. It's based on pictures, later books, and a certain amount of guesswork.)

In the beginning was papyrus, made from the fibrous stems of a swamp plant that grows by the Nile. It was cheap, easy to make, took ink well, and lasted forever, but it didn't fold. So the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all made scrolls.

These scrolls weren't formatted the way you're think they were. The text wasn't written line by line down the scroll - portrait format, if you will. Instead, it was written in blocks, side to side, so a reader could read with a roll of papyrus in each hand, unrolling with one hand and rolling with the other to move through the text.

Over time, civilisation moved out of the swamplands beside the Nile, and papyrus became less convenient. Scribes cast about for new materials, and ended up with parchment, or vellum. This is the inner hide of either a sheep or a cow. It's whiter than papyrus, more durable, and you can get sheep and cows everywhere. (It's more pricey, but until Gutenberg, the most expensive part of the book was the writing inside it. Material costs were immaterial.)

One day someone got hacked off at scrolls. Maybe one too many got squashed - that leaves hundreds of narrow strips of papyrus to try to stick back together. Not fun. Or perhaps yet another pile of cylindrical scroll casings fell down on someone's foot after the library equivalent of an avalanche.

So they started fan-folding the vellum scrolls (this is why it matters that they were written landscape style.) It was a logical extension of the idea to sew one set of folds together, so that the book held together nicely.

Not much later, some bright spark realised you could get more book out of every sheep by writing on both sides of the parchment* rather than fan-folding it. And you didn't have to paste the sheepskins together to make a long roll. All you had to do was take a bunch of rectangles, fold them up, sew them together at the folds, and hey, presto! It was like the Mac revolution.

Thus was the codex born: the sewn book block that we now know and love.

* The Japanese, who used rice paper, made a different transition. Their inks penetrated the papers too much to print on both sides, so they folded the papers in half with the raw edges at the spines. This leads to some clever things you can do in spy novels, writing inside the folded sheets. But I digress.

#61 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 09:14 AM:

I went and bought a five-disk Sony DVD player several years ago. I've been unable to find a region-free hack for it.

This is not surprising, I guess, since Sony is one of the companies that benefits most from the stupid Region thing. But if anyone finds one...please let me know.

#62 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 10:12 AM:

Yeah, Xopher, the stupid Region thing... When I went to Quebec City in 2004 after a 9-year absence during which DVDs had been unleashed onto the world, I was looking forward to finding French DVDs adapted to the North-American region. After all, there'd be a market up there for les visiteurs du soir in the original language. No such luck. Most of what was available are the same darn titles I get here at my local Borders. I was, to say the least, bummed. Maybe I should get one of those universal players. It'd also give me the chance to some British DVDs that'll never be released here, like Star Cops and The Champions.

#63 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 11:32 AM:

Science Diction: neat!

I should go read the entire thread there before commenting, but one thing that leapt out at me was "fans pronounce all the consonants."

... Well, considering how many words fans use in conversation that they can't take for granted, it makes sense.

If everyone's talking about Rachel and Joey, you can mumble a little and everyone still knows what you're talking about; if it's Caras Galadhon and Lothlorien, not so much.

(I originally was going to say "Fans using words in conversation that neither of them really know"... but that's not quite right.)

#64 ::: Nina Armstrong ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 12:12 PM:

Thanks-really fascinating. very much appreciated.

#65 ::: Julia Jones ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 12:38 PM:

abi at #60: thanks for that -- fascinating.

Region-free DVD players -- the Sony ones are in general not hackable without a *lot* of effort, something I found on my emergency "what do I buy if it dies" Googling last week. Quite a few of the other big name brands are hackable (and in Europe are often sold region-free out of the box), but it's patchy and it is as well to check the specific model you have in mind. Some of the hacks do not stick and you will need to reprogram the player every time you want to play and out of region DVD, others permanently unlock the player.

Various UK-based internet shops will cheerfully ship DVDs to the US. The cheapest on-page price is not necessarily the cheapest ship price, owing to differences in P&P and how they handle VAT. Amazon will deduct VAT from the price of orders shipped outside the EU (unless it's stock shipped from Amazon Jersey which is VAT-free in the first place), which in the case of boxed sets can be enough to cover the extra cost of international shipping. Sendit did not deduct VAT when I ordered Star Cops from there, and they charge a per-item fee for every disc in a boxed set, not just the box as a whole. Hence boxed sets are likely to be cheaper from Amazon even if the headline price is higher.

The prices vary from week to week -- I've been meaning to pre-order the second series of Life On Mars, and there were a couple of other things I wanted to order at the same time. But I didn't get round to doing it, and the other things are now several pounds more expensive than they were a week ago. And I don't want to wait for LOM. :-(

Charlie, if we move back to the UK in the near future I will want to pick your brains on new household electronics. It's all *changed* in the last few years...

#66 ::: Jules ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 01:26 PM:

Alex Cohen #26

Thanks. I've been hunting high & low for that link for weeks. ;)

Re Banks... having just finished Look to Windward, being the last of the Culture books I have in my "to read" pile, I'm now stuck choosing between Whit, The Crow Road and The Bridge. You've all been an excellent help by enthusiastically recommending all three. Great. :)

#67 ::: Valuethinker ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 02:01 PM:

Ok dumb questions time.

Is one solution to the one region DVD problem simply to buy a second DVD player, and let it 'lock' to the correct region?

I ask this question because I don't have a TV (it improves my life in the same way not having junk food around the house improves my life) but I do watch DVDs on the laptop-- this means I make a conscious effort to select/buy/rent the audiovisual material I consume.

(as you can imagine, this causes the TV licensing authorities coniptions-- on their database, less than 0.2% of all UK households lack TVs and therefore do not require a TV license. To avoid trouble, I don't even have a TV card in my PC).

Unfortunately a lot of the American documentaries never get released here (UK), and if I stick them in my laptop DVD drive I get the warning that 'you can only set this to Region 0 a limited number of times, and then it is a Region 0 DVD drive').

#68 ::: Jules ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 02:07 PM:

Is one solution to the one region DVD problem simply to buy a second DVD player, and let it 'lock' to the correct region?

Yes, assuming your player is of the kind that can switch regions a number of times. I don't believe all of them are capable of this, but certainly a lot are.

as you can imagine, this causes the TV licensing authorities coniptions-- on their database, less than 0.2% of all UK households lack TVs and therefore do not require a TV license. To avoid trouble, I don't even have a TV card in my PC

I annoy them even more. I have a TV, but don't use it to receive broadcasts. About half of their operatives understand that this is perfectly acceptable, reasonable behaviour. The other half think I'm somehow dodging the license.

The sooner they give it up & replace it with tax (thus putting all those people out of work) the better, IMO. ;)

#69 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 04:59 PM:

A Brief History of Bookbinding
Episode Two: Sewing, Paper, Glue

By about the fourth century AD, pretty much all written information in Europe was stored in codices. A codex consisted of vellum or parchment pages, each folded once, sewn in variable-sized signatures. Sewing threads were linen, and connected the signatures with chain stitches. The stitching also attached wooden boards, which were the same size as the pages, and whose weight kept the pages from cockling and buckling (vellum and parchment expand and contract a lot with variations in atmospheric moisture.)

These books were stored lying down, with their titles written on either the fore edge or the spine. Spines were not glued in any fashion, so these books felt fairly sloppy in the hand. It wasn't a perfect style - the stitching tended to break at the covers, requiring the whole book to be re-sewn - but it beat scrolls. For four centuries, nothing much changed.

Then, once again, someone did something clever. Rather than sewing the book with chain stitches, they started sewing the signatures onto leather strips or linen cords running across the spine. These cords could then be laced into the wooden covers, providing a much more secure attachment.

Another four hundred years passed (these centuries are just zipping by! This is the pace of change you get when books are rare, expensive items produced by monks.). A trendy new material spread through Europe during the 1100's - paper. It was cheaper than vellum, not as prone to swelling like mad in the moisture, but it was fragile, particularly at the folds.

To protect this new stuff, binders began - tentatively - using leather rather than vellum to cover books. They started sticking the leather directly to the spines of the books, either with hide glues or with starch pastes.

Adhesives on spines changed everything. It made the books hang together better. Suddenly books were cohesive structures! They were also beautiful, on the outside as well as the inside. Binders started - tentatively - adding gold decoration to the covers and sewing brightly coloured silk headbands at the top and bottoms of the spines.

When Gutenberg arrived, bookbinding went (relatively) mass-market. Over the next century, binding moved out of the monasteries and into the royal courts. Monarchs wanted pretty books* in large. Spines became rounded, making the books strong enough to be stored standing up**. Endpapers were introduced, often marbled. And covers began to glitter with gold.

* Elizabeth I of England, for instance, had her entire library bound in different colours of velvet. It was said to be quite a sight.

** A good thing, too - library sizes grew an order of magnitude after moveable type reduced the cost of book production.

#70 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 06:04 PM:

A Brief History of Bookbinding
Episode Three: The Myth of the Ideal Binding

Every discipline has its mythic Golden Age, when sordid financial concerns didn't interfere with the practice of the Art. For bookbinders, it's the seventeenth century*. Our standards of "fine binding" are based on the work of the time.

A fine binding is generally covered in leather. It's pretty - usually gold-tooled - and many have gilt page edges. The head and tail have bright silk headbands sewn directly on the book, not stuck on, like modern headbands. Endpapers are generally marbled.

Structurally, the seventeenth century style consists of signatures sewn on raised linen cords (usually five). The leather of the spine is attached to the backs of the sections, usually with a couple of layers of paper, fabric or leather padding. This is called a tight back, or a flexible spine. The spine itself is rounded and backed, meaning it's shaped like the letter C, wider than the book block itself. (The difference in thickness leaves space for the cover boards.)

The greyboard (high density cardboard) covers are laced onto the book block with the ends of the cords (the ends of the cords are pressed and frayed so that they don't lump up). What's interesting to someone used to modern book styles is that there is no groove between the spine and the rest of the cover. It's called a tight joint, and it means that widest part of the shoulder nestles against the spine side of the cover board.

If you've never held a book with a flexible spine and a tight joint, I can't explain it to you. It feels right, in a way that makes the modern hardback book a mere pastische of what a book should be.

It's not an ideal style - it includes some compromises to make the covers open smoothly. The leather at the hinges is generally pared a bit thinner than is sustainable over centuries (a lot of these books have split there.) And it's time-consuming to bind, meaning that books in that style are expensive. I'm too much of a populist to approve.

But I love holding, reading, and opening this style of book more than any others in the world.

* This is mostly due to an Arts and Crafts-era bookbinder and printer, Thomas J Cobden-Sanderson. Although he was a forward-thinking man, adding his wife's name to his on marriage** and paying his workers a living wage for a limited work week, his taste in binding was nostalgic.

** And we all know where that can lead.

#71 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 06:41 PM:

Abi, these histories are delightful! (And despite what Cory says in the March Locus, I really do not want to read entire books onscreen -- much better to slouch in my recliner.

#72 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 07:10 PM:

A Brief History of Bookbinding
Episode Four: Filthy Lucre and the Middle Classes

The eighteenth century started out a lot like the seventeenth, in bookbinding terms. Books were beautiful, well-structured, and expensive. Rare.

But the eighteenth century also saw the growth of the merchant and middle classes in America and Western Europe. These people had money, and they wanted to have libraries. So binding styles changed, for the first time in fourteen centuries, due to economic pressures rather than the pursuit of quality.

The French started it, introducing the hollow back. This meant that the leather across the spine of the book was not attached to the backs of the signatures, but floated free of them. The book block was sewn on cords sawn into the signatures, or onto linen ribbons that lay flat across the spine.

English binders followed suit, since hollow backed books are faster to make and open more easily. Then they went one step further, creating the cover and spine separately from the book block and attaching the two by pasting the endpapers inside the covers. The ends of the tapes or cords (frayed flat) were trapped between the endpapers and the covers. It's called casing in, and commercial binders still do it today.

Books with hollow backs (cased in or not) don't open well unless there is a gap between the shoulder of the spine and the edge of the cover board. This gap - called the "French groove" in America* - persists in binding to this day. Go look on your shelves; you'll see it on every modern hardback.

Other cost cutting measures followed, as economic pressure spurred innovation.

Hand-sewn headbands look nice, but they take time to make. Nineteenth century binders started making the headbands separately and sticking them onto the spines. Sometimes they'd sew them, sometimes they'd fold striped fabric (often shirt fabric**) over a piece of string.

Leather, while strong and durable, is expensive. In the 1700's, binders began saving it for the spine and the fore corners, where the worst cover wear occurs, and using marbled paper for the rest of the boards. This is called half binding. Then they stopped doing the corners, creating the quarter binding style. Going one step further, Victorian commercial binders moved to cloth and paper bindings for all but their finest editions.

Some binders even considered giving up sewing. In 1836, the first patent was granted for a glued binding using caoutchouc (India rubber). Other patents used gutta-percha (a form of latex). Unfortunately, both adhesives become brittle with time, shedding leaves within a few years. The process was abandoned.

The upshot of all of these innovations was that, by the end of the nineteenth century, books were affordable by even the working classes. They weren't pretty, they weren't bound to last four hundred years, but they were being read.

* And the "American groove" everywhere else.
** I've seen photos of a modern equivalent from India, where someone used half a zipper track.

#73 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 08:11 PM:

Abi, enjoying your essays. You'll find a spot for them too on your own blog, I imagine?

#74 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 09:06 PM:

A Brief History of Bookbinding
Episode Five: Let Them Read Books

In the years between the birth of Jane Austen and the death of Oscar Wilde, books changed from being the exclusive property of the wealthy to the pleasure of the professional classes. Bookbinding played a large part in that change. But that was nothing in comparison of what was to come.

The classic late Victorian book was a hardback, its covers made of strawboard (medium density cardboard, basically) and covered in cloth or thin leather. The signatures were sewn onto thin cotton ribbons, and pre-made headbands were glued onto the spine along with a cotton lining. The book block was then pasted into a separate case, with the endpapers providing the adhesive surface.

A copy of Pride and Prejudice, bound like that, could be purchased for 3s 6d in 1900 - about the same price as a week's food for an adult. The book would still be structurally sound and readable now.

But the economic pressures that created the Victorian book didn't stop at the turn of the twentieth century. Literacy, leisure time and affluence spread, and everyone wanted to read. To meet this demand, the mass-market paperback was born, with a stiff paper cover wrapped around three sides of the book block. It had no endpapers or headband, and made no attempt to look like the seventeenth century Book Beautiful*.

Up until the 1930's, paperbacks were often sewn, though without any supports. But even when automated, sewing was too expensive, so publishers returned to an idea from the mid nineteenth century - the glued spine, now called perfect binding. Twentieth century chemistry delivered glues that stayed flexible longer than India rubber. After World War II, polyvinyl acetate (PVA, a variant of Elmer's Glue) became the adhesive of choice. In various formulations, it still is.

Now, in the twenty-first century, the downward pressure on book prices still continues. Its current effect is not on the mass-market paperback, which is already as inexpensive as it can be, but on the hardcover book. Until the late twentieth century, hardbacks were throwbacks to late Victorian bookbinding - sewn book blocks, cased in. The boards were covered in plasticised paper rather than cloth or leather, but the structure was sound. Current hardcover books are really mass-market paperbacks with hard boards - they are more often perfect bound than not.

This combination of a paperback's spine and a hardback's case is disastrous. Books with hard covers generally have squares, meaning that the covers are larger than the book block. Squares look nice, and they allow space for headbands. But they also mean that the edges of the pages of a shelved book hang suspended in the air. Gravity being what it is, the bottom fore corner of the book will slowly drop down, pulling the spine forward at the head of the book. A sewn binding has the integrity to withstand this, but a glued binding does not. Perfect bound hardbacks, given time, last less well than paperbacks, where the entire bottom edge rests on the shelf**.

Perfect binding may be a misnomer, particularly in hardback books, but it has its place in the wider picture. I can buy a new paperback copy of Pride and Prejudice for £1. A loaf of branded bread in a supermarket costs just about the same amount. In just over a century, books have become as affordable as bread.

Pause a moment and think about that, and the lives that have changed as a result.

What is the future of the book as a physical object? The Internet has already dropped the price of reading matter to effectively free, but I can't take my laptop into the bath***. Will electronic paper mean that we each only own one book, and change the content at will? Will the next generation read onscreen as well as I read on paper? Will civilisation fall, leaving me with a new career as a skilled bookbinder in a wasteland of crumbling perfect bindings?

* I am excluding discussions of paper quality from this overview. Trust me that it declines in tandem with the other elements of binding durability.
** And I can't rebind them. Did I mention that that bugs me?
*** Not twice, anyway.

#75 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 09:15 PM:

Faren, Rob, et alia,

Thank you for the kind words. That was a fun romp. I may post it, or a rewrite of it, on my blog later.

Right now, it's 2:15 AM and I have kids getting up all too soon. I'm going to bed.

#76 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 10:08 PM:

Abi: That was a wonderful and lapidary history of your subject. It deserves wider dissemination, perhaps as a small pamphlet, certainly online.

#77 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2007, 11:06 PM:

That was amazing abi. Certainly deserving of some wider distribution.

#78 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2007, 07:20 AM:

Brava, abi.

#79 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2007, 08:13 AM:

abi @ 74... I can buy a new paperback copy of Pride and Prejudice for £1. A loaf of branded bread in a supermarket costs just about the same amount. In just over a century, books have become as affordable as bread.

When I first saw Carl Sagan's Cosmos, manymnaymany moons ago, one scene really stuck in my mind, of him pointing out that, for the price of a meal, one can own a paperback copy of the complete works of Shakespeare.

Hats off to you, abi.

#80 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2007, 08:19 AM:

Abi, thank you. That was just as good as your sonnets.

74/79: That gives new resonance to the Erasmus Diet, doesn't it?

#81 ::: JC ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2007, 10:43 AM:

Abi, thank you so much for your series on bookbinding. It was fascinating. I kept hitting reload over and over again in anticipation of the next installment.

As for e-books, to steal a line from Cory Doctorow, lots of people are reading off of screens rather than paper now. That describes my work day pretty well. As for my recreational reading, I read the first couple hundred pages of Accelerando from the PDF. However, I also then bought the mass market paperback and read that instead.

I wouldn't be surprised if within a generation, reading off a screen recreationally is no big deal. However, the text delivery device needs to be as convenient and fault-tolerant as a book is. (e.g., It fits in a pocket. You can take it to the bathtub with confidence. You can read it on a sunny day at the beach. You can see enough words at once so that you are not constantly distracted by having to pull up more words.)

#82 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2007, 11:37 AM:

You know, I've spent my entire life hearing about how convenient books are because "you can fit them into a pocket." This is a stretch; not too many actual pockets are big enough for anything but the smallest books.

I personally don't think books are going to go away, but a lot of the claims made for them, and against the experience of reading screens, are oversold. You can't take a laptop into the bath. You also can't click on a book and make the type larger and more legible. The screen I'm looking at right now (nothing special, just a stock Thinkpad) is more legible than most of the books in the room.

Basically, my position is that I love books, but I love written language more.

#83 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2007, 11:41 AM:

Abi, that's a wonderful set of posts. Thank you!

#84 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2007, 11:53 AM:

At the risk of undermining my entire position, to the extent that I have one:

I first read The Scarlet Pimpernel on a PalmPilot in 1999. And reading it onscreen for me worked - my memory of reading the book is made up of my mental images of the scenes, not of the sight of the screen. The Palm was a transparent reading medium for me.

So I agree that there is a place for onscreen reading, and I do a lot of it from time to time. I think that the two media, electronic and dead tree, will exist in parallel for at least another generation, probably much more.

My love of books as physical objects is almost separate from my love of books as boxes of words. I actually got into bookbinding from a desire to have beautiful blank books, and I do a lot of blank book binding even now. I enjoy rebinding texts as well, because I get to play with the content of the text in the binding, and I enjoy making pleasing objects that people can read.

But what I would really love to do is bind one of the proposed "smart paper" books, incorporating whatever update mechanism that would allow you to change the text at will. Binding a book that could be everything from Austen to Zelazny...that would be a challenge.

#85 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2007, 11:54 AM:

Teresa @83, et alia:
Thank you.

#86 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2007, 12:42 PM:

Serge #79:

Since junior high school, I've equated the cost of a paperback with the price of lunch. They seem to track each other to within about 15%, as long as you define paperback to be a mass-market mystery or SF, and not that Ayn Rand thing seemingly made of neutronium that sold for $1.25 when spy stories were going for 60 cents.

I could get a volume of _Lord of the Rings_ for 95 cents--the cost of two school lunches--and did, three times. Lots of peanut butter crackers brought from home in November of 1967.

#87 ::: Victor S ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2007, 01:12 PM:

Patrick @82 -- I've been known to pick books that would fit in a pocket, but that's generally more true of my electronic devices than my books.

However, the financial risk of taking a paperback to the beach, the bath, or wherever generally doesn't exceed $8. I can take a book into the tub not because of its size, but because I can stand the risk of ruining it. We have some work to do before we reach that point with e-books.

#88 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2007, 01:15 PM:

That was delicious, abi. It's greatly enriched my very limited understanding of book binding.

#89 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2007, 01:34 PM:

PNH @ 82 not too many actual pockets are big enough for anything but the smallest books

Depends on whether you take that into account when shopping. I bring a book with my when I go jacket-shopping, to test the pockets. And most rack-sized books (and even the smaller oversized books) will fit in my jeans pockets.

#90 ::: Victor S ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2007, 01:45 PM:

Abi -- alas, I've checked my (American)(Harper-Collins) Pratchett hardcovers, and back through 1998's Carpe Jugulum, they're all perfect-bound, so far as I can tell. The only post-2000 sewn bindings I've found (in a quick scan of my books) are NESFA Press editions.
I've been using the even layer of glue, the indeterminate signatures, and a lack of visible threads at the center of a signature to identify perfect binding -- is this a reasonable diagnostic?

Also -- what are libraries doing as their modern hardcovers fall apart?

#91 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2007, 02:46 PM:

Victor @90:
My Pratchett is UK. Thus the difference, I guess.

The easiest way to identify a perfect-bound book is to look at the head (top) of the spine. If you see a lot of little inverted U's, you have a book whose pages are still in signatures. Sometimes they're sewn, sometimes they're glued (with glue injected into holes through the signatures, a rare process that smacks of indecision to me). In either case, it's rebindable, and more likely to last.

If the pages don't form U's, but all end in parallel with one another, or form broken U's, it's perfect bound.

I don't know what libraries are doing. I'm not in touch with that side of the book world. I can ask on the listserv I belong to and report back, if that is of interest.

#92 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2007, 03:20 PM:

what are libraries doing as their modern hardcovers fall apart?

Depends on the library, or the type. My medium-sized public library mostly just throws them away. If it's something we want to continue to have in the collection (rare), we buy another copy--assuming it's still in print. Rebinding is not usually cost effective, not particularly durable, results in narrow gutters, and loses the jacket-flap copy, which means the book rarely circulates again, because people can't tell what it's about.

#93 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2007, 04:08 PM:

Abi #84: "My love of books as physical objects is almost separate from my love of books as boxes of words."

Oh, perfectly put. Yes, to the extent that I appreciate really well-made books (and I do), that's exactly how I feel about them.

#94 ::: Kathryn from Sunnyvale ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2007, 07:11 PM:

PNH @82,
a lot of the claims made for them, and against the experience of reading screens, are oversold...The screen I'm looking at right now (nothing special, just a stock Thinkpad) is more legible than most of the books in the room.

If this was a poker game PNH has just shown four aces (two ace doubles?). But I'll play the same hand from the last time this topic came up [one by one, places a straight flush]:

Paper is 10 to 30 percent faster than reading electronically. This article is from 2001, and displays haven't gotten that much better*.

10-30%. My own experience is 20-25%. That's just too expensive, other than for times when space is at a premium. I'll read on my palm/treo on airplanes, or during unexpected queues, but that's about it**.

1-2 books a week = 500-1000 books a decade.

* Although I'm looking for more recent research papers on this now.*** While LCDs have some advantage over CRTs, the contrast still isn't as good as paper. Can't give a reference, but handwaving and anecdotes from what I've read about photo displays, contrast, etc. Of course if Sony hired Zaphiri to redo their e-ink ebook reader, maybe the math could finally change. But the track record for ebook makers hiring UI experts is bad.

** And, in 2006, for Hugo award nominees and nominations. Just noting this to be complete. Also just randomly noting that while I'm not going to Yokohama, I'm most definitely going to Denver.

*** What the heck am I doing researching anything online after writing the above? [Installs PageAddict and LeechBlock] Come to think of it, reading 10 blogs in 1 RSS feed per day equals Comment blocked by PageAddict. Get back to the libary!

#95 ::: Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2007, 01:53 AM:

Re #90 and #92: what are libraries doing as their modern hardcovers fall apart?

I do a lot of the mending at our library. This is how I do it. (Abi may want to avert her eyes -- this is NOT the elegant bookbinding she described so wonderfully above!):

A thin -- and I mean thin! -- bead of PVC glue (low acidity "archival quality" glue preferred, but Elmer's will do in a pinch) at the very edge of the spine of one part, then the other part set down carefully upon it (sometimes I glue both edges but this can result in too much glue*) and then set the book aside** for a few hours, overnight if possible. If it's done well, it's hard to tell where the mend was.

Sometimes, if a page or two comes entirely loose I'll pour a teeny bit of glue on a separate piece of scrap paper and run the edge of the page through the glue, then very carefully fit it in place. If the page is only partly loose (the top of it is loose from the spine but the bottom is still glued in) I'll put just a little bit of glue on a piece of paper, or a toothpick or even my finger, and then rub the glue onto the edge of the loose part (or as much of it as I can reach) that way.

After the glue dries, sometimes, if the spine itself is weak or torn, I'll use clear plastic "book tape" to mend/reinforce it.

These mends aren't really "archival quality" even when I use the good glue, but the book will hold up for a few more readings/circulations, and most of the time (most of the books that come to me for mending are bestsellers) that's all we really need.

*Usually I put a piece of paper -- cheap newsprint (though preferably blank), or tissue (yes, Kleenex, etc.) or wax paper or a paper towel, inbetween the pages where the mend was in case the glue runs into the printed part of the page. This absorbs any leaky glue and keeps the pages from sticking together (these papers can be more easily peeled away from the regular page), as well as reminding me where the mend was. As I've gotten better at this technique, and learned that it's not necessary to use great gobs of glue, I have fewer messy leaks and stuck-together pages, but I still do this.

** Also, instead of using a book press -- since I don't have one -- I sometimes press the book under a larger, heavier book or stack of books. But more often I wrap the glued-up book in rubber bands (the more the merrier, to create lots of tension; I usually use three or four) and then set it on its spine (with paper of some sort beneath it to catch any glue leaks), propped up by bookends or stacks of other books to hold it perpendicular while the glue dries.

#96 ::: Zed ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2007, 02:31 AM:

#94: Paper is 10 to 30 percent faster than reading electronically.

Current e-paper readers are around 160 pixels per inch. If E-Ink can double that, e-paper'll be better than an old laser printer (which is pretty good.)

I don't think it'll take long -- a few years -- for e-paper to deliver reading quality wholly comparable to good printed paper. (When it might be cost-effective is much harder to guess... the devices are around $300 now.)

#97 ::: Eimear Ní Mh&eacuteal&oacuteid ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2007, 06:06 AM:

The fannish accent rasff thread linked by Avram way up there at 18 was interesting. Though I've never met Teresa, I am unsurprised to hear that she pronounces commas (isn't that what they're for?).

Also there's some eerie foreshadowing of later events, with a discussion of how Jeb Bush succeeded in Florida politics after he made his manner more folksy and less New England-y.

#98 ::: James ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2007, 09:07 AM:

Sewn paperbacks survived a little longer than abi indicates -- I have, for example, a copy of a Penguin Classics edition of Virgil's Georgics and Eclogues which is sewn. (It is also unusual for English* paperbacks aimed at a non-scholarly market in that it has facing page Latin/English text.) I bought it second-hand in the 1970's, but I don't think it can be any older than the late fifties (I'm at the office and the book is at home, so I can't check it right now).

*As opposed to Italian. I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven when I went into a railway station bookstore in Rome and found a whole shelf of Latin classics in facing page Latin/Italian text, in paperback.

#99 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2007, 01:53 PM:

James, #98: Your comment about Latin/Italian classics reminded me of something I ran across years ago, that I still think is one of the funniest concepts in the history of undergraduate translations. Once upon a time I made a practice of purchasing the old Loeb Classical editions of various Latin works, on the logic that they were a) sturdy, b) cheap, and c) small and convenient. When possible, I bought used copies (see "b"). Eventually, I ran across an even older than usual version of Martial (I believe--I don't own the book anymore, so I can't check), which had Latin/English for most of the text . . . except for the really dirty bits, which were Latin/Italian.

The languages would change right in the middle of a paragraph. Gave me the giggles for days, when I realized what was going on.

#100 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2007, 02:56 PM:

James @98
I oversimplified a little. Penguin continued doing sewn paperbacks at least into the Forties, judging by the titles I have seen. But they were the only ones. The bulk of publishers abandoned sewing in the Twenties and Thirties.

The paper in the Penguin editions, however, was terrible. It's gone friable and yellow with age, so those sewn paperbacks are really not suitable for rebinding.

#101 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2007, 03:06 PM:

Mary @ 99: B-b-b-but how could they!? French is the canonical language for translating dirty bits from Great Literature! (That or Latin, which leaves something to be desired when it's a translation from Latin.)

#102 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2007, 03:13 PM:

Lois @95:
That's a good description of a pragmatic approach to repair. These are boxes of words you're working with, not works of art, and it sounds like you have the time/quality tradeoff just about right.

How much training do you get in this stuff?

#103 ::: Mary Frances ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2007, 03:43 PM:

#99, Clifton: Dunno why Italian and not the more traditional French. Maybe the early Loeb editors figured that *of course* every educated American schoolboy spoke French so It Wouldn't Have Served in this particular instance? Or maybe it was just a coincidence.

Actually, I have a very vague memory of one epigram going from English into Italian, and then--at the, ahem, appropriate moment--going back into Latin in the parallel text, leaving that passage completely untranslated . . . but it's been a long time, and I don't swear to it.

#104 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2007, 04:06 PM:

Clifton @ 101... French is the canonical language for translating dirty bits from Great Literature!

Anything sounds classier if spoken in French. Eet eez also zee language of Love, as Pepe le Pew would say.

#105 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2007, 04:10 PM:

I continue to be deeply bitter about the shoddy binding of the immediately previous (not most recent) edition of The Joy of Cooking, circa the late 90s. I have a hardback of the antepenultimate edition (mid-70s?) whose binding is still firm and sound, despite at least 15 years of sun-fading on the dust jacket and misc. splatters of recipes on the pages. By contrast, when I bought the late-90s hardback shortly after its release, within the first year of active use it started to shed large chunks of pages from the backing; the chunks eventually disintegrated further into individual pages. I ended up buying a replacement hardback a few years later, which did exactly the same thing.

The older edition seems to've had sewn signatures; the newer one just had individually-cut pages badly glued in.

#106 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2007, 05:06 AM:

French is the canonical language for translating dirty bits from Great Literature!

Which reminds me that I've always wondered where the phrase "pardon my French" (as an apology for using bad language) originally came from...

#107 ::: Heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2007, 09:26 AM:

Abi: The Japanese, who used rice paper, made a different transition.

One minor nit I just gotta pick: Japanese paper isn't made from rice. Actually, it is typically made from the fibers of a plant not entirely unlike mulberry, though its name escapes me at the moment. (Yay for Google! Kozo, also known as the paper mulberry.)

Rice, being edible, wouldn't last terribly well.

#108 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2007, 09:58 AM:

My father's edition of Boccaccio was lent to me at twelve, on the grounds that the naughty bits were in classical Italian, and that I'd never understand them. A finer inducement to learn romance languages is impossible to imagine.

I have, over the last ten years, come to realise that Mark Twain's estimate of his father's perspicacity is righteous to a terrifying degree.

#109 ::: Sandy B. ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2007, 10:39 AM:

My father's edition of Boccaccio was lent to me at twelve, on the grounds that the naughty bits were in classical Italian, and that I'd never understand them. A finer inducement to learn romance languages is impossible to imagine. I have, over the last ten years, come to realise that Mark Twain's estimate of his father's perspicacity is righteous to a terrifying degree.

I heard a story from a guy [in his 60's- Bell Labs alumnus and spectacularly smart man] about how his high school biology textbook came with about 50 staples through the chapter on evolution. And he spent SO much time getting staples back through the holes...

#110 ::: Glenda P ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2007, 11:49 AM:

Peter Erwin #106: Which reminds me that I've always wondered where the phrase "pardon my French" (as an apology for using bad language) originally came from...

The explanation I heard (which may be totally bogus) is the presumption that a gently-bred young lady would not recognize such words, therefore they must be in a foreign language...

It does seem somewhat illogical in that said gently-bred young lady most likely would have some familiarity with French.

#111 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2007, 12:07 PM:


A belated thank-you for your History of Bookbinding -- very interesting! (One or two bits of jargon I wasn't quite clear on, but otherwise quite absorbing.)

Apropos of perfect binding: I've occasionally noted a tendence for the covers of some trade paperbacks to curl back from the pages rather alarmingly over time. (Where "over time" = within a few months of purchase, sometimes.) Is there perhaps some known bad choice of plastic coating used on the covers that's responsible?

I don't think I've ever seen this happen to an SF/fantasy tbp; for some reason, I associate this with academic publishers (e.g., my copy of Ahmed Rashid's Taliban, from Yale University Press).

#112 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2007, 02:31 PM:

Hesiarch @107:

I could explain that I'm talking about paper from the rice paper tree, Tetrapanax papyriferus, but that's generally made in a pulping, rather than proper papermaking process, and has no decent tensile strength.

In reality, I am referring to kozo paper, and was using the term under which I buy it at the local art supply store. This says more about the local art supply place than anything else.

Sorry...I blame society.

#113 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2007, 02:34 PM:

Peter @111:
I did a vocabulary bit here, because you weren't the only one confused about some of the terms I used.

#114 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2007, 03:42 PM:

Glenda P @ 110:
I agree with you that it could be a bogus explanation -- but I rather like the overly elaborate euphemism involved: the acknowledgment that one really did do something wrong, and should apologize for it, coupled with the pretence that the actual fault was something completely different.[*]

[*] i.e., speaking in a foreign tongue such that others can't understand you.

abi @ 113:
Yes, I just noticed that -- perfect! (I was away from ML for a couple of days, and came back to this thread first, else I'd have noticed it earlier...)

#115 ::: y ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2007, 04:13 PM:

The edition of Boccaccio that I remember left certain bits untranslated, explaining that they described arcane details of magical practice that could not readily be expressed in modern English. The magical procedure in question, of course, was that of putting the devil into Hell.

#116 ::: James ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2007, 04:45 PM:

I remember an edition of Petronius Arbiter which left certain select bits untranslated; and I believe this also used to be a standard practice for the portions of medical texts on certain topics -- not that they'd be left untranslated, but that they'd be written in Latin.

The Penguin texts in question do have poor paper (although not as bad as the paper used during the war -- I have some English hc books of this sort which are rapidly aging) and I would not think that they could be rebound.

My father does a good deal of bookbinding, which he has taken up as a principal activity along with being an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, so I have some exposure to it (besides my basic acquaintance with basic bibliography from graduate work in English) and I wasn't thinking of the books in question as salvageable once they go.

#117 ::: Howard Peirce ::: (view all by) ::: March 06, 2007, 06:32 PM:

#69L Another four hundred years passed. (These centuries are just zipping by! This is the pace of change you get when books are rare, expensive items produced by monks.)

"Everyone needs help with the new system" (Streaming video; Scandihoovian with subtitles.)

#118 ::: Heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2007, 12:51 AM:

abi: [I] was using the term under which I buy it at the local art supply store. This says more about the local art supply place than anything else.

Sorry...I blame society.

Me too. It's one of those pernicious terms that sounds so natural (Japan=rice!) that its hard to avoid, even if you know better. I just feel that the Japanese make enough things from rice they ought to get a bit of credit when they don't.

#119 ::: Victor S ::: (view all by) ::: March 07, 2007, 07:10 PM:

Abi @100 -- I have a Scribner's edition of Heinlein's Between Planets from 1951 which I treasure because it's a sewn paperback edition. Interestingly, some of the visible thread is white and some purple.

#120 ::: sylvia ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2007, 07:33 AM:

That was a wonderful five-part series. I loved it.

#121 ::: Susan ::: (view all by) ::: March 08, 2007, 08:33 PM:

Now I have to go look carefully at my 19thc books. I noted long ago that the hold up better than some of my early 20thc stuff, but I've never looked at them with any sort of technical knowledge.

#122 ::: Rachael ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2007, 04:12 PM:

Abi, that was wonderful. I am a middle school art teacher and sometimes do book-making lessons. Might I use your history as a handout? If so how would you like me to credit you?

If I may use this could you e-mail me?

#123 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: March 12, 2007, 05:46 PM:

As I have emailed Rachael, I'm happy for it to be used under Creative Commons - please attribute it to me and don't change it round, but it can be reproduced at will.

#124 ::: Michael R. Bernstein ::: (view all by) ::: March 16, 2007, 07:25 PM:

Kathryn @94: Two developments you may want to factor in are:

1) Sony's new OLED displays which reportedly have a contrast ratio of 1:1,000,000 (no, that isn't a typo)

2) The radically different LCD display technology that the OLPC has, which provides both a normal resolution transmitive color mode and a high resolution greyscale reflective mode (which still falls somewhat short of the contrast ratio available from e-paper).

Both of these are entering mass markets (not the *same* mass markets, obviously), and will spur further investment in this area.

I think that we will see displays of some sort that rival or exceed paper in every way (with the exception of durability over deca-year timescales) within the next 5-10 years. Even cost, if it is amortized over a relatively small personal library.

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