Archive for August 10th, 2010

Midsummer Rambles

August 10, 2010

I’m nearly done figuring student grades, and my summer vacation officially begins tomorrow — so very soon, I should be able to give my full attention to the novel-in-progress! The weather couldn’t be better: blue skies, sweltering heat, brilliant sunshine, green leaves, and the blue shade beneath trees offering portals into other worlds. It’s hot here — finally hot enough to satisfy me. (I have to enjoy it to the full, to make up for the 499,999 Niigatans who are complaining about it. Golly, don’t these people know about H.P. Lovecraft? That’s how you deal with heat: read H.P. Lovecraft. Or any good story!) For me, heat is one of the greatest incubators for the imagination. Everything seems to go better when it’s hot. Pens write better, because the ink inside them is all liquid and warm. I plant my flag here: I claim this season! “I sound my barbaric YAWP over the rooftops of the world!”

So anyway, I think I’m going to address two unrelated topics in this post. That’s the plan, anyway — let’s see how it goes.

First, here’s something that might be of interest to readers and writers, and it might spark some good discussion. (Recently Chris, another friend, and I were talking about print-on-demand technology and why it’s economical and may be the future of paper publishing.) Anyway, this is my recent experience:

At the last World Fantasy Convention, I attended a panel about often-overlooked, not-widely-known older works of fantasy that are well worth looking up. (It was one of the best panels last year, though there were many extremely good ones.) One panelist brought up The Garden at 19, by Edgar Jepson, written in 1910, a book that is “very chilling, with chilling illustrations” and is about Pan-worshipers. Since I had just read Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, my ears perked up, and like a shameless fanboy, I approached the panelist in the hallway afterward to make sure I had the particulars right. He was a spry little old collector/purveyor of rare treasures of the genre, very gracious and helpful, and obviously delighted to talk about good books.

So I made a note of The Garden at 19, putting it on my wish list to track down someday. Well, recently I had occasion to order some books from Amazon. (I needed a couple things for research on my current novel, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic! Is it not cool of me to do research for what I’m writing? I’m like the Scooby gang!) Before I went to the checkout, I typed in The Garden at 19, and I found two very different offerings: a really expensive collector’s edition, and a strange, generic edition for $19.66. Since I was buying and hadn’t gone on a book-buying spree for awhile, I decided to splurge on that one. [Paying 2,000 yen for a book doesn’t seem nearly as expensive as shelling out twenty bucks. . . . I wonder what the psychology behind that is? Does the money in our “second countries” seem less real to us, or is it something inherent in the nature of yen? I think that might be it: instead of a dollar bill, you have a 100-yen coin, which you treat and spend about like a quarter. You don’t get into paper money until the 1,000-yen bill, which is worth very roughly $10. I think that’s the reason. If a hundred yen were a bill, not a coin, it would feel like a larger sum of money. But I’m the last person who should be talking about economics.]

So . . . into my mailbox comes my shipment of books from Amazon. The copy of The Garden at 19 was . . . very interesting. It represents a phenomenon of the present age that didn’t exist even a decade or two ago. This book has been produced by optical scanning — using OCR software to scan a rare, original copy of Jepson’s book. The edition I bought comes with a disclaimer/apology inside the front cover: the publishers apologize for typos, because they employ no proofreaders. Proofreaders would drive up the cost, and most of the books they offer for sale sell only a few copies.

I did some looking around on their website ( They use robots to turn and scan the pages of old, rare books. No human is there to look over the robots’ shoulders. The books may be tattered, smudged, dog-eared, marked-up copies from personal collections, from libraries, gleaned from auctions, etc. The scanner does its best to see through the wrinkles, graffiti, and dirt. But scanning is still an imprecise science.

I’ve encountered some interesting mistakes made by scanners. One friend let me read a manuscript in which the scanner had interpreted “King” as “Icing”! See how that could happen? Also, the scanner repeatedly read “fairy dell” as “fairy deli”! Wow! I wonder what foods are sold at a fairy deli? Lembas? Probably you shouldn’t eat anything from a fairy deli, or you may sleep for a hundred years.

The company, General Books LLC, reformats the book to make it look nice. There are no interior or cover illustrations — OCR software can only read letters, not pictures. The cover just has the title and the author’s name against (in this case) a beige background that looks like the texture of leather.

When this reformatting is done, page numbers change, so generally the company removes the table of contents and the index — both would be meaningless.

If you buy the book, though, you can go to their website and download a free PDF copy of the original book they scanned; in theory, this would allow you to see the intent behind the incomprehensible typo. They claim 99% accuracy, but that still amounts to a lot of typos, if you do the math: every hundredth word is botched. I noticed that even before I read the disclaimer or looked at their site. The book begins in mid-sentence, which I don’t think was Jepson’s intent. Also, there are no bibliographic or cataloging details, but the company explains how you can find all this information on their website. (I only know the book was first published in 1910 because that’s what I heard at the panel — you don’t see that, or the city of its publication, inside the cover like in a normal book.)

They claim to offer “millions of titles.” They have free bookclub trial offers, etc.

I’m neither promoting nor condemning the phenomenon, but I think it’s highly interesting. On the one hand, I’m glad extremely rare books can be made available this way; I don’t mind the typos too much, because it’s still a pretty good glimpse at what long-ago and/or obscure authors wrote, and typos have always been a fact of life for book-lovers. The monks in the monasteries added typos . . . uh, “quillos”? . . . from time to time, and they weren’t robots.

On the other hand, I roll my eyes at the mindless, impersonal sloppiness of it all. I feel a little like Japanese farmers feel when they hear about the American practice of planting crops from an airplane. (Yes, that is really done in the States! I’m not talking about crop-dusting, I’m talking about actual crop-planting! From the air.)

And am I the only one who wonders about the legality of this? I assume it’s okay, since these are printed volumes with the publisher’s contact information on them, and I bought this copy through Amazon, not in some back alley. But they claim to offer “all the greatest books of all time” for free on the related site

Thoughts? Questions? Discussion?

Groiiinnk! (Changing the subject with a monkey wrench. . . .)

Okay, my second topic is just a nice summer experience I had last Friday. I helped gather lotus blossoms by boat!

Lotus blossoms are greatly in demand in Japan at the time of Obon (August 13th). Obon is somewhat similar to Hallowe’en, with the spirits of the dead coming back to Earth. People use lotuses to decorate their homes for this festival. It’s a flower with spiritual connections for Buddhists. Probably you know that Buddha himself achieved his enlightened grasp of all things when a lotus blossom popped open.

Well, my friend K. runs a flower/fruit/vegetable market, and she got permission to use a certain person’s boat and harvest lotus blossoms from his pond. She recruited me as “boat wrangler.”

Lotus flowers are really interesting: they completely take over a pond. The water becomes absolutely choked with the tall stalks. The leaves are broad, and if you’re sitting in a boat on the pond’s surface, the lotuses tower over you. I had to move the boat about thirty feet from a shed to the water’s edge — I used a convenient grove of weeds as runners, so that I wasn’t scraping the hull over concrete. We asked, and the owner told us it was okay to plow the boat through the lotuses. As long as their roots are intact, there’s not much you can do that will hurt them.

I launched the boat. To our consternation, it had no oars or paddles. K. called the owner on her cell phone, and he said, “Oh, just pick up a stick from the garden and use that.” I wielded the longest, stoutest stick I could find, but it didn’t work well: near the shore, it would sink into the ooze of the pond’s bed; I could push the boat forward a little, but when I pulled the stick free of the mud, the boat would reverse its course and come back to where I started. Once we got out onto the pond’s center, the stick didn’t reach the bottom at all!

This is all happening in a dense, aquatic forest of lotuses, which aren’t thrilled about letting a boat pass. It’s like being stuck in the Sargasso Sea. It’s muggy, sweltering, and buggy. The sun was swiftly westering, and K. was worried about being stranded in the dark. She kept reminding me of how quickly the sun sets.

We discovered the most effective way to move the boat was to grasp lotus stems and pull, gently but steadily. Hand-walking this way, pulling on the left and right, I was able to navigate the pond, and we collected quite a batch of the uncanny pinkish blossoms.

The stems have to be snipped off underwater. (The water was as warm as a bath!) Then you put your thumb over the severed stalk and transfer the plant to a tub of water, such as we had in the boat.

That’s all there is to the story. Nothing dramatic happened; no mud monster awoke from the slime; the boat didn’t capsize, and we got back to shore well before dark. But the whole thing was one of the best experiences I’ve had in a long time. It was like being 13 again: a chance to play with a boat on a pond. We got sweaty, muddy, itchy, and generally filthy. But it was one of those moments outside time, when you’re with a good friend, working together, the weather is hot, school is out, and all the cares of the world recede into the distance. If I happen to live until I’m sixty, seventy, or eighty, and wherever the paths of life take me, that will be a day I remember: I’ll say, “I wish I could go back and re-live that evening of gathering lotus blossoms.”

[It’s actually the unopened ones we were harvesting — more like “buds” than “blossoms,” but “buds” doesn’t sound as nice.]

Happy Stories to all! This is the season for stories!