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Week 45, because I am, of course, afraid of the librarians

Illustration of a Steam Locomotive Running on the Takanawa Railroad in Tokyo

Illustration of a Steam Locomotive Running on the Takanawa Railroad in Tokyo, Utagawa Kuniteru, ca. 1873

Earlier this week, driving in the darkness before dawn, I found myself—and my enormous box truck—leaning into one of I-580’s broad curves, following behind a BART train on its tracks in the center of the highway, keeping pace exactly, so the train appeared frozen, held in that same curve, a serpentine, glowing object floating in front of me. This persisted for half a minute. It was quite beautiful—BART trains are definitely more appealing in the dark—and a little bit magical, and I felt a sudden wash of the train sublime, the awe that accompanied their creation and never went away entirely.

A while back, the popular video game Fortnite did something strange and interesting. A week passed and I realized I was still thinking about what had happened, which is sometimes a sign you ought to write about it.

So, earlier this week, I did.

With luck, this short report will be interesting even to people who don’t play Fortnite or any video games at all. I think this line might be the most important one:

It establishes a confusing, important new genre.

I came across this on Twitter: a very successful petition by the American Library Association protesting a recent policy change by the publisher Macmillan.

Some quick context to understand policy and protest alike: libraries now routinely lend e-books in addition to physical books. They do this by purchasing “copies” of an e-book which they can lend out, each to one patron at a time. So, the Sloantown Public Library might purchase five “copies” of the Sourdough e-book, which means five patrons can read it simultaneously—usually with a mobile app like Overdrive—during which time additional patrons who want to read that e-book can, as with physical books, place “holds” on those copies. (This is all very familiar to some of you, but I wanted to say it clearly because there are still plenty of people who have never borrowed an e-book from the library.)

So, here is Macmillan’s policy change: for the first eight weeks of a new book’s life, the Sloantown Public Library will be able to purchase just one e-book “copy” for lending. After eight weeks, the library can go ahead and purchase its desired five—or fifteen, or five hundred. (And, to be ultra-clear, none of this affects the availability of physical books; the SPL can buy a thousand physical copies of Sourdough on the book’s pub date. As it should.)

The ALA has protested this change. They write:

This is personal.

This embargo limits libraries’ ability to provide access to information for all. It particularly harms library patrons with disabilities or learning issues. One of the great things about eBooks is that they can become large-print books with only a few clicks, and most eBook readers offer fonts and line spacing that make reading easier for people who have dyslexia or other visual challenges. Because portable devices are light and easy to hold, eBooks are easier to use for some people who have physical disabilities.

Now. I am a first and foremost an enthusiastic, grateful user of libraries. Way back in week 7, I wrote:

The modern public library is the best thing people ever made. What’s good for public libraries is good for everybody and everything.

As an author, I’ve done dozens of events with libraries big and small; as a reader, I borrow books from the Berkeley Public Library regularly. So, I hope I can establish some meager bona fides here—a baseline for arguing in good faith.

Because I think the ALA, in this case, is wrong.

I just don’t believe an eight-week embargo is in any way inappropriate or even particularly limiting. Eight weeks! In the whole lifetime of a book! If a patron can’t wait eight weeks for that library e-book… or if there’s a sense that, after eight weeks, the world will have moved on, and no one will even be interested in reading the e-book anymore… whew, I just don’t know! Any way you interpret the complaint, it feels to me like an impoverished view of books and their paths through the world.

(An aside: Macmillan owns FSG, which includes my publisher MCD, and thus, I am connected to Macmillan. You’ll just have to trust me when I tell you that, if it was a different publisher implementing the same policy change, I would be writing the same thing exactly.)

In the ALA’s protest, I detect a sense of “holding the line”: a fear that eight weeks might become six months might become a year. That’s not unreasonable, but/and, if it is indeed a component of the complaint, it would be helpful for them to say so clearly.

All of my favorite discoveries at the Berkeley Public Library have been books that are two years old, or five, or twenty. I get it: not everyone is like me. There are surely some library patrons who focus (almost exclusively?) on the new arrival shelf, snatching up the freshly-published titles as soon as they arrive. Should these patrons determine the library’s priorities, though? Libraries are—or can be—powerfully atemporal: setting material from decades ago up alongside material from months ago and making it all seem equally appealing, even equally urgent.

In Penumbra, I wrote:

Walking the stacks in a library, dragging your fingers across the spines—it’s hard not to feel the presence of sleeping spirits.

The spirits are patient. Eight weeks is nothing.

I understand that e-book lending is a matter of libraries meeting readers where they are, and I understand, too, that e-books have been profound engines of access, particularly for the vision-impaired—a foundational value of the public library.

However, I get a bleak feeling when I consider the case of, say, a Berkeley Public Library patron who, five years ago, moved to San Jose and hasn’t visited the BPL in person since, but who avidly borrows e-books every week. This is a new kind of “ghost patron” who never “pays into” the library in the same way that every in-person patron does: with their presence! The rustle of their coat, the creak of their chair, the beep of the book-scanner when they use it, the overall murmur of their humanity—taken all together, these contributions are what give any public place the feeling of vitality and safety. These are real things, not imaginary. People make a library as surely as books do.

(Again, there’s the dimension of access: public libraries have long provided the service of book delivery to patrons who live in remote areas or can’t get out of the house. This is really important! But it would be dishonest to “launder” the ghostly reading of the patron I just described through those values.)

It seems to me that the vision of a public library as virtual e-book lending hub gives away too much. I wish there existed a system in which patrons, to initiate an e-book loan, still had to visit the library, if only to tap their phones on some device, Apple Pay-style. Impractical? Probably. Retrograde? Possibly! Or… maybe not. Maybe getting people into the library is really, really important.

Listen: I’m not a librarian, so of course there are dynamics and demands totally invisible to me, and I acknowledge that. But I am an avid library user, and also someone who thinks a lot about the overall economy and culture of reading and writing. And, more than anything else, it’s the uproar over eight weeks that surprised me.

Eight weeks! In the whole lifetime of a book!

I’m a bit nervous to send this because I am, of course, afraid of the librarians. One ought to be. They come during the night. They come with books; the secret books…

Actually, there’s a lot more wrapped up in this than just Macmillan and the ALA. I’ll continue a little further down.

Locomotive Tracks at Takanawa

Locomotive Tracks at Takanawa, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1872

Look at these beautifully tubby lil planes.

I received this treasure from a secret correspondent this week: a slim little chapbook, almost a zine, but the best-printed zine you’ve ever seen:

In Search of Aldus Pius Manutius

Reader of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore know all about Aldus Manutius. This volume is, honestly, a clue in an unwritten Penumbra story (maybe I’ll put it in the new book): it argues that the plaque in Venice currently proclaiming “The Aldine Press was here!” is wrong, and provides succinct historical evidence to establish its true location.

There are, of course, maps.

In Search of Aldus Pius Manutius

I learned from Jesse Solomon Clarke that “hocketing” is the compositional technique in which a melody is shared between many voices. Meara O’Reilly, a great composer and music technologist, has just released an album called Hockets for Two Voices and it’s really wonderful—almost trippy in parts.

Jesse himself scored a short film, recently posted online, called Condition Yangon that, while technically a promo for the Yangon Sport Federation, is basically a dance film. Lovely.

From my notes file:

A curse:

May your blood all flow out of your body.

May your blood all clot.

May your blood be just right, but with the knowledge that it's only because of this curse, and the attendant fear that one day, the curse might expire.

OMG, look at this word:

In an interview with Eater at the end of 2016, [Final Fantasy XV] director Hajime Tabata cited “meshitero,” a dramatic portmanteau of “food” and “terrorism” that roughly translates to “food imagery that strikes indiscriminately.”

That’s from a piece about food in video games. Hello, overlapping interests!

A classic:

Death is coming

An update :)


That’s the archmage, of course, who has just announced a new animated Netflix series based on the Ramayana that sounds terrific.

It does make me think of Shah Rukh Khan’s quote from week 29, though:

See, it’s like Ramayana on television. I think it is exploitative… in a certain sense. It’s entertainment based on exploitation, for one cannot, just CANNOT not like the story of Ramayana. You can’t say, ‘Arre yaar story main mazaa nahi aaya.’ [This story isn’t entertaining.] The story is a super-hit. And you can exploit that aspect.

(I quite like the process of Riso-printing Instagram story frames on 8.5×17 paper; the aspect ratio matches perfectly.)

The ALA/Macmillan e-book thing is sorta depressing because e-book distribution, in general, is sorta depressing.

I’ve been thinking about it this week, hauling olives across California, and I’m now convinced that, with e-books, the economy and culture of reading and writing got stuck at a “local maximum”—a configuration that is stable and somewhat profitable, and from which to depart would mean short-term loss… but a configuration that is potentially MUCH WORSE than the true global maximum, which is still out there, waiting to be discovered and/or designed.

Like this:

Local maximum

There are SO MANY OTHER scenarios for e-books that are SO MUCH better than the one we’re stuck in now. You don’t have to be a sci-fi writer to imagine them.

Unfortunately, this local maximum feels very “sticky,” in part because its boundaries are patrolled by Amazon. And of course, this complicates the ALA/Macmillan discussion, because, at least in the U.S., any policy intended to encourage more commercial e-book sales is de facto a policy that sends readers over to Amazon.

Some indie bookstores do offer e-books; I believe (?) these sales mostly go through Kobo. If there was a way to powerfully support this approach, to make bookstores the default gateways for e-book sales… see, right there! A glimpse of a better scenario. It doesn’t take much.

Given the stickiness of this local maximum, it seems to me that we—by which I mean, people interested in a more decentralized, more resilient, more interesting economy and culture of reading and writing—need to think about the future of e-books not like an industry symposium…

Not like a grad school seminar…

Not EVEN like a startup…

But like a prison break.

Solitary Traveler's Guide to Railway

Solitary Traveler's Guide to Railway, Utagawa Yoshitora, ca. 19th century


November 2019, Oakland

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