Archive: Books

Odd Measures #1: Shelf encumbrance index

Books · Jeux d’esprit · NewAPPS ·· More from June 2011
You can never be too thin or too rich, they say. But perhaps you can have too many books. How many is too many?
Several factors are relevant. First of all, of course, how many books you have. But whether you have too many depends also on how much space you have. Some people have enough space for all their books; each one sits neatly on its shelf with selected others, and nothing hinders the eager reader from contemplating the titles on an orderly row of spines, and plucking from amongst them the desired tome.
Low SEI.
Unfortunately, unless you are fabulously wealthy or else a “man of one book”, your books are probably not in this edenic condition. Not only may some books be shelfless, or placed ad-hockily on surfaces other than shelves, but quite possibly those that are shelved may not be entirely accessible. Some may be encumbered by others.
It is not my purpose to prescribe limits on the possession of books. Instead I aim only to provide a handy measure by which readers may decide for themselves whether their acquisitive instincts have exceeded the bounds of prudence.
To this end I offer the Shelf Encumbrance Index. In theory it is easily calculated. You have merely to determine, for each book in your collection, how many other books must be moved so as to permit that book to be available for reading. Call that its “encumbrance”. Divide the total encumbrance of all your books taken together by the number of books, and that will be the SEI. In the ideal library it is zero: no book is encumbered. Likewise the SEI of an e-library is always, sadly, zero. In Borges’ Library of Babel, on the other hand, the SEI may have been greater than zero (it can never be less), because according to Borges, a few frustrated librarians turned into vandals.*
High SEI.
In real life there will be complications. For example, in the library on the right books are not only shelved; some are stacked. Clearly the encumbrance of a book beneath the stack, if it cannot be extracted without disturbing the stack, will be at least as great as the number of books in the stack. On the other hand, the encumbrance of a book within the stack will vary. A bit of thought shows that the SEI for a stack of height n will be (n–1)/2. In yet more complicated situations empirical tests may be required.
As I said, I do not presume to determine how many books are too many. But an SEI greater than ten is clearly cause for concern. After all, you probably do want to spend more time reading your books than retrieving them (inveterate procrastinators may think otherwise).
Perhaps the easiest remedy which does not involve actually relinquishing possession of any books is to lend them. Your friends, and their friends, will soon sniff out your generosity and before long that hefty SEI will shrink fabulously.
*The alert reader will have noticed that in an infinite library, such as the Library of Babel is said to be, the SEI is not well-defined. I suggest that for infinite libraries the SEI be defined as the limit, provided it exists, of the SEIs for finite sublibraries as the diameter of the sublibraries increases without bound. This may take some time to calculate.

LinkJuly 30, 2011

Patron saints

Bibliography · Books · Religion ·· More from July 2008
St. Isidore. Source:
Wikipedia Commons
What with budget-cutting, FBI snoops, and book-stealing, libraries need all the help they can get. In the US, the patron saint of libraries is St. Jerome, translator of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin; in Europe St. Lawrence (probably the first of that name) watches over them.
The patron saint of that branch of the Library of Babel known as the Internet is Saint Isidore (lnglabeng.png,lnglabfr.png,lnglabdeu.png), best known for his Etymologiæ, an encyclopedia of ancient learning that became the most-used textbook of the early Middle Ages. The Hindu protector of libraries (and of learning generally) is the elephant-god Ganesh.
One thing libraries do well (when they’re not burned down, censored, or pillaged) is to preserve old books and manuscripts, and to make them available to the public. The Codex Sinaiticus, which is thought to be from the mid-4th century, is the oldest surviving complete copy of the New Testament in Greek. It also contains some apocryphal texts and a version of the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament;
Codex Boernerianus, f12 (from the Epistle to the Romans), Greek with interlinear Latin translation.
Source: Sächsischen Landesbibliothek - Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden (SLUB), Digitale Bibliothek.
the first part of this, from Genesis to I Chronicles, is missing. Only one other manuscript, the Codex Vaticanus, is as old; manuscripts older than these two contain only fragments of the New Testament. Four institutions now own parts of the Codex Sinaiticus:
  • The British Library, UK
  • Leipzig University Library, Germany
  • St Catherine's Monastery, Sinai
  • The National Library of Russia, St Petersburg
These four are cooperating to conserve the text and to digitize it for online distribution. Eight books so far have been processed, including Jeremiah, Psalms, and Mark.
Other early codices now online include the Codex Boreelianus at Utrecht (11th century) and the Codex Boernerianus at Dresden (9th century).

LinkJuly 27, 2008

Sunday cat pix

Books · Cats ·· More from July 2008
Below you see HS on the coffee table with some light reading. Elbert Hubbard was a successful businessman, so successful that he was able to retire at a young age and found Roycroft, a community influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, and in particular by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press. Politically he began as a socialist and ended as an ardent defender of free enterprise. The Scrapbook is a commonplace book of quotations, mostly of the uplifting sort, from a surprising variety of sources. It’s not at all rare, although it seems that copies that include the original box are not easy to find. Hubbard and his second wife, Alice Moore Hubbard, a well-known suffragist, died together in 1915 when the Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine. The Roycrofters continued until 1938.
Among his many publications were the Little Journeys, a series of brief biographies of great men and women. The tenth volume, Great Teachers, includes a chapter on Hypatia.


LinkJuly 12, 2008

If Hillary wins…

Books · Society ·· More from February 2008
In 1971, when this book was published, 1992—the year Bill Clinton was elected—was still part of the hazy future. On another branch of time, Big Brother would have been in power for at least eight years.
Concerning Parley J. Cooper, I find nothing online except titles of books, mostly from the 1970s, all of them genre fiction (romance, horror, sci-fi).
John Grant at Infinity Plus has reviewed The Feminists. He finds the writing “drab and uninspiring”. What I’ve skimmed is like the blurbs, but less punchy. Grant adds that “one cannot imagine any front-line commercial publisher being willing to take such a thing on” now. That is too optimistic. All that a present-day Parley Cooper need do is to wrap the tale in sociological jargon, and call it a “projection”. Regnery would publish it as non-fiction, and Mr. Cooper would soon be a commentator on Fox.
For background, see Laura Quilter, “A short history of the backlash against feminism in SF/F”, Feminist Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Utopia. Find The Feminists at Bookfinder.

LinkFebruary 9, 2008

Click on the picture below…

Books ·· More from December 2007
… and make me an “influenceur”. I promise to use my influence only for good, never for evil.
Bouquinosphère 3
Recommandé par des Influenceurs
If the link doesn’t work, there’s a little more information at La Feuille lnglabfr.png.
When you’re done with that, go to the collection “Manuscrite” at Léo Scheer and watch works in progress (via Léo Scheer’s weblog, via La Feuille). Unfortunately, the manuscript pages are displayed in a rather slow Flash presentation, but once it’s loaded you can read the work; and on another page you can rate it. I’m not sure I like that idea. Imagine writing Ulysses or La vie mode d’emploi under those conditions.

LinkDecember 22, 2007

Sunday cat pix

Books · Cats ·· More from September 2007
LG uses Emerson’s Miscellanies for a pillow.


LinkSeptember 23, 2007

Only one copy left!

Books · Jeux d’esprit ·· More from May 2006
An author must have a small ego indeed not to check his or her Amazon rankings every so often. Amazon now has a link to each book’s spot in yesterday’s ranking. You can see who your neighbors are in the estimation of book buyers everywhere, where by “everywhere” I mean of course the United States.
On Friday I just happened to look at Spirits and clocks which, as readers of this weblog will know, has been remaindered (but not at Amazon). Usually S&C sits comfortably in the five to eight hundred thousands. But on Friday it had shot up to the 87,000s!
Someone must have bought a copy.
Ever since then it has sunk precipitously. Apparently people have been buying other books. Yesterday it had sunk to 239,871 and today it has plunged yet further to 319,410. Eighty thousand places in a single day! At this rate I will soon be in the Amazonian equivalent of the Oort Cloud.
Only you can prevent this catastrophe. Spend much more money than you need to and buy Spirits and clocks at Amazon. There’s only one copy in stock!
In the meantime, here are my recent neighbors in the rankings: Russell and Hissy Fit.
13 May
14 May
  • 319,409.
    Hissy Fit CD Low Price [Abridged]
    by Mary Kay Andrews, Keating Isabel (Narrator)
  • 319,411. 
    Reinventing Film Studies (A Hodder Arnold Publication)
    by Christine Gledhill, Linda Williams

LinkMay 14, 2006


It was bound to happen, I suppose. Cornell has remaindered my books. You can get them cheap at Labyrinth. Elsewhere too, no doubt. All under $15.
I’d rather the books were read than sitting in a warehouse. In case you’re wondering, remainder sales don’t pay royalties. In that respect I’m entirely disinterested.

LinkApril 30, 2006

Friday nights at the Library

On foundations and folklore
Maria Cristina Pedicchio (also lnglabeng.png) and Walter Tholen, eds. Categorical foundations. Special topics in order, topology, algebra, and sheaf theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. (Encyclopedia of Mathematics and its Applications, 97) See also the item “Atlantis” in Tholen’s publication list.
In Scholastic philosophy, a local assumption—that is, a premise that is not the conclusion of some prior argument—is often called a fundamentum, a “foundation”. To be a fundamentum is a rhetorical matter; distinctions treated as fundamenta in one context may be argued for at length elsewhere. A fundamentum functions as a point granted by both sides in a disputatio, because it is obvious, perhaps, or a matter of faith. Of course what is obvious to a well-trained Jesuit may not be obvious to you or me.
Mathematical argument is replete with fundamenta in the Scholastic sense. For example, I may start a proof by saying “let f : AB be a map and let Im f be the image of f ”. I’m assuming of course that you know how to interpret the symbols; I’m also assuming a lemma of the form “Every map has an image”.
One fundamentum that turned out not to be easily proved is the Jordan Curve Theorem. The Theorem states that every simple closed curve in the plane divides the plane into exactly two pieces separated from one another by the curve. Everyone assumed, most often tacitly, its truth; but even Camille Jordan, after whom it is named, did not succeed in proving it; Oswald Veblen finally proved it in 1905. A rigorous proof (a formal proof, that is, checkable by a computer) was completed only in 2005 after fourteen years of effort. See Yakusa Nakamura, “Culmination of a complete proof of the Jordan Curve Theorem” (Sep 2005); the proof itself is accessible from the “abstract” at the Mizar Home Page.
It is my expectation that either you will have seen a proof of the lemma or that you will grant it for the sake of argument. In every branch of mathematics, as it develops, there is a collection of fundamenta, theorems that everyone takes as proved—the “folklore” of that branch. Some have in fact been proved; but some, taken as obvious, may not be explicitly proved until someone writes an introduction to the subject for outsiders. You won’t, after all, make your mark by proving what everyone “knows”—even if in fact they don’t. Though fundamenta are supposed to be obvious, and (so you’d think) easy to prove, sometimes the obvious and the easy-to-prove part ways. The worst case is when the obvious turns out to be false; but that, I think, is not so common. More often it turns out that what was taken to be obvious is not—that is, it depends on hitherto unstated conditions.


LinkDecember 24, 2005

Friday nights at the Libary: Bénabou

Books ·· More from December 2005
Several authors have written reviews of nonexistent books. Nowadays that’s child’s play. You could hardly call yourself a modernist, let alone a post-, without having attempted something in that line. But almost no-one has written a nonexistent review of an existing book.
Comment je n’ai écrit aucun de mes livres is, whatever its origin, a book. But I am not reviewing it. How, after all, could one review a compendium of the means by which someone whose vocation is to write convinces himself that avoidance, in all its guises, is not not-writing but rather being-about-to-write? How could one describe an author who is best known as a member of OuLiPo, the Ouvroir de la Littérature Potentielle, or ‘LiPo’ for short, who joined OuLiPo in 1969, not long after Georges Perec, and nine years after its founding by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, and who has been its “secrétaire définitivement provisoire” since 1970 (he is now also the “secrétaire provisoirement définitif”)? How could one exhibit enthusiasm about the wonderful passages in which Bénabou recalls his early fascination with paper, his relations as a Francophone Jew in Morocco with the French language, his methods of being a writer without writing, and the eventual happy ending of an impossible love?
De fait, j’avais déjà,In fact, I had already, in imagination, established myself solidly in the heart of the future and, at the very instant I accomplished the most ordinary acts (a conversation with a friend in the courtyard of the School, an amorous walk on the Isle Saint-Louis, dinner on the sidewalk at a hole-in-the-wall place on the Rue Mouffetard or Contrescarpe), I preoccupied myself above all with imagining the memory I was going to preserve later, when—my life having finally found its fulfillment in literature—I could, fondly, recall my old acts and confer on them that dignity of being steps or signs which they were sure to have acquired. en imagination, solidement établi mes quartiers en plein cœur de l’avenir et, à l’instant même où j’accomplissais le plus ordinaire de mes actes (une conversation avec un ami dans la cour de l’École, une promenade amoureuse dans l’île Saint-Louis, un déjeuner à la terasse d’un petit bouiboui de la rue Mouffetard ou de la Contrescarpe), je me préoccupais surtout d’imaginer quel souvenir j’allais en garder plus tard, lorsque, ma vie ayant enfin trouvé dans la littérature son accomplissement, je pourrais, attendri, me remémorer mes gestes anciens et leur conférer la dignité d’étapes ou de signes qu’ils n’auraient pas manqué d’avoir acquise.
How, indeed, could one catalogue the nonexistent results of his summertime labors?
Ainsi, au fur et à mesure que l’été avance, Thus, bit by bit as the summer goes on, my self-imposed requirements wither away. I abandon the dreamed-of book. No jury will have the pleasure this fall of bestowing laurels on Parapets of old or False windows. No publisher will kick himself for not having accepted into his most prestigious collection A schoolboy’s ways, or for not having brought out, in a printing of more than a hundred thousand, Chestnuts in the fire. No magazine critic will boast of having penetrated the secret of Cryptograms or of having presented for the admiration of his readers A pear for the thirsty. Booksellers, as they design their holiday displays, will not have Cartes blanches; and the public will not en masse be asking for Manna. I did not, all the same, take refuge in their being “not yet ripe”; I was not fooled by that.mes exigences décroissent. Je renonce au livre rêvé. Aucun jury cet automne n’aura le plaisir de déposer ses couronnes sur Les anciens parapets ou sur Fausses fenêtres. Nul éditeur ne se mordra les doigts de n’avoir pas pris, dans sa collection la plus prestigieuse, Les chemins de l’écolier ni tiré à plus de cent mlle exemplaires Les marrons du feu. Pas un critique de magazine ne pourra se vanter d’avoir percé le secret de Cryptogrammes ni proposé à l’admiration de ses lecteurs Une poire pour la soif. Les libraires n’auront pas, lorqu’ils composeront leur vitrine pour les fêtes, Cartes blanches ; et le public ne viendra pas en masse demander La manne. Je ne me réfugie pas pour autant dans le «ils sont trop verts», qui ne suffit plus à me tromper (41–42).
It is plainly an impossible task, which has, in any case, already been performed. Not only can all the books not written by Bénabou be found scattered through the libraries of the world, but all their unwritten reviews too…
Les livres queDon’t go thinking, dear reader, that the books I have not written are pure nothingness. On the contrary (let it be said once and for all), they are as if in suspension in universal literature. They exist in libraries, word by word, or by groups of words, or in certain cases, entire sentences. But around them there is so much useless filler, they are caught up in such a superabundance of printed matter that I myself, to tell the truth, despite all my efforts, have not yet succeeded in isolating them and putting them together. je n’ai pas écrits, n’allez surtout pas croire, lecteur, qu’ils soient pur néant. Bien au contraire (que cela une bonne fois soit dit) ils sont comme en suspension dans la littérature universelle. Ils existent dans les bibliothèques, par mots, par groupes de mots, par phrases entières dans certains cas. Mais il y a autour d’eux tant de vain remplissage, il sont pris dans une telle surabondance de matière imprimée, que moi-même à vrai dire, malgré tous mes effort, n’ai pas encore réussi à les isoler, à les assembler.
Marcel Bénabou. Comment je n’ai écrit aucun de mes livres. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2002 (orig. publ. Hachette, 1986). See Warren Motte, “Reading Marcel Bénabou” at oulipo.net.

LinkDecember 2, 2005