Serial Series is a six-part meditation on the production of text from the text’s point-of-view. It was written serially and published serially during the three-week run of Dexter Sinister’s The First/Last Newspaper, a project for Performa 09.
Like many of his books, Mark Twain’s 1883 travelogue Life on the Mississippi was published simultaneously in England and the U.S. in an attempt to ensure against piracy on either side of the Atlantic. In it, Twain recounts—among other stories from his young life on the river—the origin of and his decision to use the pen name “Mark Twain” instead of his given name, Samuel Clemens.
Chapter 50 introduces a captain Twain writes is “now many years dead. He was a fine man, a high-minded man, and greatly respected both ashore and on the river.” But he’s a two-sided figure: an able sailor on one hand, but a competitive storyteller on the other. His tales were designed to outdo all the rest. As older pilots bragged about their experiences on the river to newer men, Twain writes, “the stately figure of Captain Isaiah Sellers, that real and only genuine Son of Antiquity, would drift solemnly into the midst.” Capt. Sellers “dated his islands back to the misty dawn of river history; and he never used the same island twice; and never did he employ an island that still existed, or give one a name which anybody present was old enough to have heard of before.” Twain continues,
The old gentleman was not of literary turn or capacity, but he used to jot down brief paragraphs of plain practical information about the river, and sign them “Mark Twain,” and give them to the New Orleans Picayune. They related to the stage and condition of the river, and were accurate and valuable; and thus far, they contained no poison. But in speaking of the stage of the river to-day, at a given point, the captain was pretty apt to drop in a little remark about this being the first time he had seen the water so high or so low at that particular point for forty-nine years; and now and then he would mention Island So-and-so, and follow it, in parentheses, with some such observation as “disappeared in 1807, if I remember rightly.”
In an effort to impress his fellow young pilots, Twain signed his first article for the New Orleans True Delta, which was a parody of the captain’s style with his name, “I. Sellers.” When he found out, Sellers “did me the honor to profoundly detest me from that day forth,” Twain recalls.
He never printed another paragraph while he lived, and he never again signed “Mark Twain” to anything. At the time that the telegraph brought the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient mariner’s discarded one, and have done my best to make it remain what it was in his hands—a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found in its company may be gambled on as being the petrified truth; how I have succeeded, it would not be modest in me to say.
In 2002 Stanford University launched a “community reading project” called Discovering Dickens, making Dickens’s novel Great Expectations available in its original part-issue format and asking Stanford alumni and other members of the Stanford community to read along, exactly as Victorians first did, with the serial version that appeared from December 1860 to August 1861. In 2004, as Discovering Dickens readers were enjoying A Tale of Two Cities, Stanford joined the newly-formed Google Print Library Project, along with the University of Michigan, Harvard, Oxford, and the New York Public Library. A year later, the program would become know as the Google Books Partner Program, or, more simply, Google Books.
At the launch of Google Books, Google’s intent was to scan and make available 15 million books within ten years. By 2008, just four years into the project, 7 million books had already been scanned. When books are scanned, words are automatically converted by Google’s Optical Character Recognition software into searchable text. Occasionally, there is a problem with this conversion process, and Google’s OCR software either can’t recognize some text or it isn’t confident about its conversion, having checked the results against standard grammar rules. The only way to convert these wayward words and phrases is to introduce human eyes into the system. This September, Google did just that with the purchase of reCAPTCHA.
Text takes time. It takes time to read, it takes time to write, and it takes time to reproduce. Throughout the history of text production, people have been searching for ways to distribute the costs of producing text—financial, temporal—more evenly across a system. This search led a former goldsmith, Johannes Gutenberg, to develop and refine his system moveable type by the 1450s, which eliminated the laborious book-copying process used previously by monastic scribes. And with Gutenberg’s system in place, Venetian publisher Aldus Manutius was able to quickly popularize printed books by the late 1400s.
As text becomes easier and cheaper to produce, more copies of it get made. While Gutenberg’s Bible was printed in a small edition of 180, Manutius’s books were printed by the thousands. More copies need more readers and most readers like their text to be portable. While Gutenberg’s heavy Bible was best read at a library table, Manutius’s slim editions could be easily slipped in a saddlebag or vest pocket. You went to Gutenberg’s books, but Manutius’s books went with you. As increasingly numerous and increasingly portable copies of texts found their way into the world, they found new readers to buy them and they spread literacy with them.
In the next two hundred years, text continued to get swifter, more portable, and more widely distributed, giving rise to a new form by the late 1600s and early 1700s: the newspaper. By now firmly established in Europe and North America, the newspaper’s growth was spurred by a flowering of global trade. Access to time-sensitive political news and financial information was increasingly important, and publishers strived to invent new technologies to meet demand. By the early 1800s, as a result of the industrial revolution, the Times of London boasted a press that could print a daily broadsheet at 1,100 pages a minute, with a circulation to match. By 1830, presses could print on both sides, saving paper, and the “penny press” was born, offering a product that cost 1/6 of the competition’s price. Once again, more copies, cheaper copies, smaller copies meant better distribution of costs, and, as a result, ever more readers.
In this recent editorial for NYT, Slate founding editor Michael Kinsley makes a lot of sense out of the newspaper mess:
[T]he harsh truth is that the typical American newspaper is an anachronism. It is an artifact from a time when chopping down trees was essential to telling the news, and when you couldn’t get The New York Times or The Washington Post closer to your bed than the front door, where the local paper lies, sopping wet. The Times, The Post and a few others probably will survive. When the recession ends, advertising will come back, with fewer places to go. There will be a couple of surprises — local papers that execute their transfer to the Web so brilliantly that they will earn a national readership (like the old Manchester Guardian in England). Or some Web site might mutate into a real Web newspaper. With even half a dozen papers, the American newspaper industry will be more competitive than it was when there were hundreds. Competition will keep the Baghdad bureaus open and the investigative units stoked with dudgeon. Competition is growing as well among Web sites that think there is money to be made performing the local paper’s local functions. One or two of these will turn out to be right.
See also: Steven Johnson’s insightful (and similarly forest-invoking) post “Old Growth Media and the Future of News.”
ETAOIN SHRDLU is the approximate order of frequency of the twelve most commonly used letters in the English language, best known as a nonsense phrase that sometimes appeared in print in the days of “hot type” publishing due to a custom of Linotype machine operators.
See also: 1) French: ELAOIN SDRÉTU, 2) German: ENIS RATULO, 3) Spanish: EAOSR NITLU, 4) Italian: AEION LRTSU.