System requirements for books

A friend posted a link to a review of a really interesting ebook edition of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. It includes a bunch of extras: a recording of Eliot reading the poem, several versions of the text, including one with comments by Ezra Pound, his editor. It’s by Touchpress, who did The Elements, which was one of the original arguments for buying an iPad in the first place. It’s gorgeous. And it’s a $14.95 app for the iPad. I’m a librarian, I work with the English Department, this would be cool to have. But I don’t have an iPad, and it would be awkward to get onto our departmental one. Which got me thinking about the pros and cons of different formats.

I’m not sure I agree this is what a next-generation classic should look like, because it has a five hundred dollar prerequisite. Touchpress has decided to make the (famously incomprehensible) Waste Land more interactive, and to include a variety of means (audio and text) to help you understand it. This is good.

The Poetry Foundation version, though, comes with the whole web. That is, if you can get to their website you can open another window and easily find Eliot’s audio as well as other readings of it and explanations of the inscrutable parts and the parts in foreign languages. That requires a computer and a web connection, which you could get from your local library if you didn’t have your own.

I also have a copy of it I bought for a dollar on the shelf behind me, the Dover edition. It only requires that I know how to read. I’m not sure that makes it superior, but it does mean that every library can have a copy. And, delightfully, that sometimes stationery stores have a rack of Dover editions as well.

Part of why something becomes a Great Book is that it is widely read and discussed. I tend to think that the web or a cheap printed book are still the ways to reach the largest possible audience.

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Chromebooks

There’s an opinion piece over at ZDnet arguing that there’s no good reason to buy a Chromebook. Unsure why I read it in the first place, and really puzzled why I read three pages of entirely predictable comments. But rather than post angrily there I thought I’d post thoughtfully here about why a Chromebook works for me.

Most of what I do online is web browsing, and most of my core tools live in the cloud anyway. I’m an instruction librarian, so it’s not unusual for me to work on two or three borrowed computers a day in classrooms and at the reference desk, in addition to my phone and home and work PCs. For several years I carried a flash drive around with me; now I mostly use websites like Dropbox and Simplenote and Google Drive to pass information back and forth. This means I can do my work from anyplace with an internet connection, which suits me just fine about 80% of the time.

Laptop ergonomics don’t suit me all that well, so I don’t use them unless I need to. Mostly this amounts to when I travel for conferences or meetings. Very occasionally I’ll have an academic writing project or take a class which requires a laptop. It doesn’t make sense for me to spend a thousand dollars on a device I’ll use as little as possible. It does make sense to have an essentially disposable $250 device with decent battery life and a full keyboard which I can set up the way I want. It’s a minimum viable laptop for me, and that suits me just fine. I have other computers I can do my high-end work on. I wouldn’t particularly *want* one device for all my computing. But that’s me. Your mileage may vary.

On the awesomeness of Byzantine history

I’ve wandered back into one of my periodic obsessions, the Byzantine empire. I’m reading Vasiliev’s two-volume history and enjoying it for its Slavophilia and the utter weirdness of its sources. That’s the history geek in me, who can appreciate that primary sources for a large part of a thousand years of history are sermons and letters and biographies of saints. But I think a lot of what I like about the Byzantines is pretty accessible.

1) There’s a Perils of Pauline aspect to much of the history of the empire, with everything constantly teetering on the edge of complete disaster. When their many external enemies were not threatening them there were palace coups and revolts to deal with, and frequently both at once. One of my college professors commented that, whatever else you can say about Byzantine politics, nobody who wasn’t pretty competent stayed emperor for long.

2) The Byzantines were pragmatic and political. When it was more convenient to bribe than fight, they had no problems with sending a bag of money to a barbarian chieftain so they could concentrate on other things. Byzantine armies were small, and they hired lots of mercenaries, which created the usual problems. But not having the luxury of being overwhelmingly powerful, they often negotiated their way out of problems.

3) The internal politics of the empire are a unique blend of almost every kind of political system but democracy: feudalism, monarchy, Eastern despotism, mixed in with odd remnants of Roman forms. It’s hard to read about how much the Byzantines obsessed over races in the Hippodrome and not think about Ben Hur.

4) They called themselves Romans, right up to the end.

5) Q: Why did the Western Roman Empire fall? A: Because Constantine the Great wrote it off as indefensible and moved his capital east, where it lasted another thousand years.

6) There’s something really charming about the Venetians feeling condescended to because a Byzantine princess married to a Venetian noble wouldn’t eat with her hands. She had special tools (a fork) to prevent herself from touching her food. Chad Ward’s history of the fork (via Smithsonian.com) includes the lovely detail that when she died of the plague some of the local clergy thought it was punishment from God for her overweening fork-vanity.

Love the Byzantines.