[Humanist] 22.658 a billion e-books

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Mar 30 07:58:53 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 658.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    "Michael S. Hart" <hart at pglaf.org>                        (12)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.655 a billion e-books

  [2]   From:    James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>                      (78)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 22.655 a billion e-books

  [3]   From:    "Kirsten C. Uszkalo" <circe at ufies.org>                    (34)
        Subject: re a billion books

        Date: Sun, 29 Mar 2009 03:28:24 -0700 (PDT)
        From: "Michael S. Hart" <hart at pglaf.org>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.655 a billion e-books
        In-Reply-To: <20090329074521.C2A3B307B9 at woodward.joyent.us>

My apologies, I skipped one question in my previous response, sorry.

> I could add to this: how much redundancy is there in a billion
> books?

Just be sure to ask the same question of any library, and expect
that the larger the library, the more the redundancy.

Again my apologies, the follow up line in the same paragraph did
something to me when it ended with a mention of comics.


Michael S. Hart
Project Gutenberg
Inventor of ebooks

        Date: Sun, 29 Mar 2009 10:55:28 -0400
        From: James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 22.655 a billion e-books
        In-Reply-To: <20090329074521.C2A3B307B9 at woodward.joyent.us>

Various replies:

So I've been put into a box, eh?  My first impulse is to say I don't
have words for the sheer banality of this reply, it's failure to grasp
the issues as they are being presented on anywhere near the level of
detail (which isn't really that much on my end) in which they've been
presented.  This is something that belongs on a bumpersticker, not in
serious conversation.

Perhaps you could -carefully- read my posts and describe the box to
me, quoting me, explaining what exactly you see in my words and why?
Describe to me the walls of this box in -very specific terms-, not in
general, cliche terms.   Begin with a summary of what I do think and
don't think.  Be specific. That might lead to discussion more
productive than the repetition of gung-ho cliches.

If the books you read in the second grade are just as meaningful to
you now as the books you read over the last year, you need to change
your reading.  I say this as a parent who knows what's really in
second grade level books and as a college teacher who knows the
difference between students who read deeply and those who read

Yes, reading can make us better people.  But this benefit from reading
does not work magically -- it is not automatic.  I can't believe you'd
actually think that if reading ten books makes you a 1% better person
then reading one hundred could make you a 10% better person.  Do you
really believe you can quantify goodness and that it exists in direct
proportion to the -amount- of reading?  I wish this were true, but
reality is more complex than this.

If you want an argument against the value of sheer quantity, I suggest
you read Plato's Seventh Letter and Milton's Areopagitica about the
effect of books and how they work.  Or perhaps read some books about
Nazi culture.  How much do you think Heidegger and Ezra Pound read?  I
guess not enough.

However, if this is the mind which produced Project Gutenberg, it's a
mind for which I am grateful.  I have benefited greatly from this
resource and should hesitate before criticizing the mind which gave
the world this wonderful gift.  It's not perfect, but it's
approximately a billion times better than nothing.  Thank you.

Next, I've never called into question the value of databases (literary
and otherwise) for various types of research.  This type of research
usually does not yield a great deal of insight into individual works
except after the fact -- what it gives us is knowledge of the uses and
frequencies of specific words and phrases, word clusters, lexical
info, etc., which in turn we can take back with us to the study of
individual works.  I'm a Blake scholar.  I can't describe how grateful
I am for the availability of Blake's works digitally on the Blake
Archive and the Blake Digital Text Project.  But our discussion was
about the average user -- not the language or literature scholar --
having a billion books on his/her computer and about the real value of
having this kind of access.

Of course I don't imagine that we read one and only one good book our
entire lives and that our opinion of everything is shaped by that one
book.  I can't believe some of the responses I'm getting here.  What
I'm talking about is a -proportion-: from what would I benefit more,
reading 100 books superficially or 10 books deeply in any given year?
In reality, we do both continually, but we take more of value away
from a book read deeply than several read superficially.

And yes, I make a distinction between "good" and "bad" books, and
between books with substantial content and books that lack them.
Reading Danielle Steele does not provide the same kind of experience
as reading Milton, Shakespeare, or virtually any non-fiction book
written on a professional level.  The challenge isn't the same, nor
the quality of content.  I spent three or four days getting through
Adorno's thesis on Kierkegaard during a period when I was normally
reading about 100 pages of scholarship per day (which isn't that much,
really) -- which means Adorno's book should have been a one day read.
But Adorno was trying something different -- a decentered text, a text
without topic sentences -- and I needed time to process the 25-30 or
so pages per day I could read.

I think he slips up and lets a controlling idea surface about every ten pages.

I can honestly say I took much more away from Adorno after a day spent
on just 25 pages than I would from a day spent with, say, 400 pages of
Harry Potter -- and yes, I love these novels and was reading them
about 300-400 pages a day every time a new one came out.  Now the
series is over.  Damn.  But there's nothing about plot, setting,
character, good vs. evil, magic, religion, language, narrative, etc.
in Harry Potter that I haven't already gotten elsewhere in more detail
and complexity.  It's okay.  I just -enjoy- those novels.  But if I
want more substantial literary content, I need Joyce, not Rowling.

Jim R

        Date: Sun, 29 Mar 2009 09:45:33 -0700
        From: "Kirsten C. Uszkalo" <circe at ufies.org>
        Subject: re a billion books
        In-Reply-To: <20090329074521.C2A3B307B9 at woodward.joyent.us>

Hey Michael,

You started project Gutenburg? Nice. Nifty thing that site.

It seems to me, and forgive me for jumping in too late in the  
conversation, but actually reading billion books doesn't seem to be  
the point. I am not sure how many of the billion would be of interest  
to me. Say five thousand, maybe? Add us all up and maybe we start  
getting to need a billion books.

However, I desperately want my part of the billion books on file, as a  
kind of literary avarice, of course, but I want to shift through them,  
look for what I am l looking for, see what patterns there are, and  
what might be flipped over in the page flipping.

Our library systems are excellent, but I can't look through the  
shelves, seeing into the books with a kind of transparency I could  
with an e-text. It seems the excellent information management folks  
out there can us look at the information, datamining kids to help  
build tools to better move through the information as it grows, and  
visualization people can help us make sense of what we are seeing, and  
scholars can sort ideas and find connections are they could in smaller  

I have done enough chatting about this to know that the physical  
artifact, the close reading, and the expert engagement in a field  
isn't going anywhere. But to be able to move through a large  
electronic collection, with the right tools to make it a useful trip,  
now that feels like an electronic archive. I like the feeling :)


Dr. Kirsten C. Uszkalo
Assistant Professor (LTA)
Department of English
Simon Fraser University
kirsten at uszkalo.com | circe at ufies.org

"Sure this woman is no witch, for she speaks many good words, which  
the witches could not"

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