What have you been reading lately?

July 25, 2014

I have a varied, some would say bizarre, reading list. Everything from popular fiction to science (in every branch) to fairy tales to dictionaries and encyclopaedias to old books of all kinds. Some very old books indeed.

Hello, my name’s CJ and I’m a Smooth-Reader.

I found Distributed Proofreaders just over five years ago, and fell in love. I’ve always spotted the misspellings and iffy punctuation in the books I read, and here was my chance to be as nitpicking as I wanted with nobody to tell me I was peculiar. In fact, everyone else was like me. So I couldn’t be that odd after all.

I started like everyone else, checking that the text we produce matches the original book as closely as possible. I graduated to putting formatting codes around text that needed it, and two months after signing up I did my first Smooth-Read. I’ve now read 146 books and I’m looking forward to reading many more.

It’s great to be part of a team effort like this, doing something as worthwhile as preserving all these old texts. I like it that we don’t just work on the classics of literature and the “big” scientific texts that everybody knows about. All those less known books deserve saving too—and can be more interesting because they’ve been forgotten. I love that I can talk about a shared interest to people from the USA to the Philippines, and Australia to Hawaii—as well as nearer to home in the UK. Whatever the time of day or night there’s always someone around. (Don’t tell anyone, but there’s fun stuff too—like word games and jokes.)

What was my first Smooth-Read? It was a set of three plays by Olive Dargan, The Mortal Gods and Other Plays, published in 1912. After reading them, I felt we ought to have let the playwright remain in obscurity. I didn’t like it at all, and this piece of dialogue should explain why. (Phania, allegedly an adult, is speaking to her father and, sadly, this is typical of her conversational style.)

Pha. Lose me? O, never, daddy, never! I’m
Your pipsey, wipsey, umpsey, ownty own!

It didn’t put me off Smooth-Reading, however, and eight days later I sent in comments on something much more enjoyable—The Eighteenth Century in English Caricature  by Selwyn Brinton. During the rest of the year, I read adventures and romances, fairy tales from China and Russia, science fiction, essays, archaeology, healthcare, history, science and cookery.

2010 brought a new list of books—more fiction of all sorts, biographies, political pamplets and books. I think my favourite of the whole year (and competition was fierce) was Jacko and Jumpo Kinkytail (The Funny Monkey Boys), a collection of bedtime stories for young children. Most of it was read while on a train home from work. My journey wasn’t normally that long, but something happened on the way home—something I felt compelled to share with the poor post-processor of the book.

I’m stuck on a train. Someone’s thrown a large tractor tyre on the tracks, we hit it at speed and everything rattled and shook and jumped, we did an emergency stop and then everything went off. The engine’s badly damaged (no fuel, water or oil, no electrics or anything) and we’re sat in a wooded cutting waiting for rescue. They’ve put detonators (yes, detonators!!) on the track ahead of us so that the relief train knows when it’s getting near. Oh—and it’s hot—very hot. I was going to the theatre tonight, having saved up for the ticket, but it starts in an hour, so even if the train arrives now, we can’t get to the town where I live in time for me to get home and back.

I also shared the progress of the rescue effort as I read on. At twenty past seven the rescue train arrived (three hours after we’d set off) and we were transferred to it. At eight o’clock the police declared it a crime scene and we weren’t allowed to leave. Finally, at ten past eight, we were on our way.

Hooray for Smooth-Reading—I would have been as bored as the rest of the passengers after three and a half hours on a stationary train in a heatwave. Instead, I walked into my house that night having done on the train what I would normally do in an evening at home, making the commute part of my leisure time instead of lost hours.

Among the books I read in 2011 were an account of explorers and missionaries in Africa and a compilation of Creole proverbs (two of which were far too indelicate for our sensitive compiler to translate into English). There were also fiction, natural history, political tirades, magazines, and a book on etiquette.

In the following year I had a bit of a break, while I did other things, but at the end of the year I picked up a some fascinating books from the 15th and 16th centuries that brought history to life. The first was a couple of volumes of The Paston Letters, a collection of letters, wills and other documents relating to an influential Norfolk family between 1422 and 1509. It gives an insight into not just the political events of the time, but also domestic concerns and family quarrels that sound very modern.

Image of Friction Clutch Mechanism

Aultman & Taylor Friction Clutch

The second was the first volume of Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. This overview of Britain as it was in 1587, and the history of how it got there, is informative, entertaining, even chatty. The author wanders off the topic, and then comes back saying “now, where was I again?” You get anecdotes, recipes and gossip in with your history and the description of every aspect of life in Elizabethan England.

2013 brought a new crop, including books about apples, George Washington’s first military campaign, Vasco da Gama’s first voyage and handicrafts for boys. There were works by Erasmus and Galileo, a somewhat gruesome (but informative) book on amputation from 1764 and a variety of novels.

A standout was Farm Engines and How to Run Them: The Young Engineer’s Guide, containing the most amazing technical drawings, of which my favourite is the one to the right. I think it’s the combination of the hugely detailed part and the outline drawing of the surrounding engine that attracts me. It’s worth downloading this book for the pictures alone.

This is why I love Smooth-Reading. There are so many different things to read that, whatever you like, you’re bound to find something you’ll enjoy. So do give it a go. You never know what you’ll discover.

I’m looking forward to what the next year will bring me to read, but in the meantime, I’ll just return to that philosophy book and an adventure novel from 1921.


Novanglus and Massachusettensis

July 4, 2014

Many people have a vague idea that the battle for American independence from Great Britain began with the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. But the battle really began much earlier—almost a decade earlier, when American colonists first began protesting “taxation without representation” in the British Parliament. Unrest turned to violence in 1770, when a crowd of angry Boston colonists surrounded a group of British soldiers, who fired into the crowd and killed three people in what became known as the Boston Massacre. In 1773 came the Boston Tea Party, during which saboteurs dressed as Mohawks dumped over 300 chests of British tea into Boston Harbor. Punishment was swift: the British government closed Boston Harbor and passed the “Intolerable Acts,” which, among other things, stripped the Massachusetts Bay Colony of its right to self-government.

The battle wasn’t just waged in the streets or in the harbor. A bitter war of words erupted among the intellectual elite of the colonies, who were split in their opinions of Parliament’s actions. Among the combatants was a feisty Boston lawyer named John Adams (1735-1826), a future Founding Father and President of the United States. Adams, ironically, represented several of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, and his strong self-defense arguments resulted in acquittals. But Adams was no less of a patriot for that. He simply understood how important it was for the American cause to ensure that the soldiers had a fair trial.

Adams

John Adams

A few years later, as American-British relations deteriorated, Adams employed his brilliant legal skills to respond to a series of pro-British letters, by someone calling himself “Massachusettensis,” published in a Loyalist Boston newspaper beginning in December 1774. Writing as “Novanglus,” Adams set forth his argument that the colonies were not answerable to the British Parliament.  In 1819, these letters were collected in a volume entitled Novanglus, and Massachusettensis; or Political Essays, Published in the Years 1774 and 1775, on the Principal Points of Controversy, between Great Britain and Her Colonies. The edition that DP volunteers used to prepare the Project Gutenberg e-book was the presentation copy to John Adams from the printers.

In 1775—more than a year before the Declaration of Independence—Adams was not yet arguing for independence from Britain; he expressly disclaimed such a treasonous view. Instead, he stuck to the more subtle argument that the colonies might be subject to the will of the Crown, but they were not subject to Parliament, because they were self-governing. He argued extensively from British statutes and cases involving the similar status of Ireland and Wales.

Adams’s arguments were brilliant, but his opponent “Massachusettensis” was every bit a match for him, arguing his Loyalist views with equal vigor and skill.  Indeed, because “Massachusettensis” was the better writer, his arguments can seem more compelling than Adams’s “huge pile of learning,” as “Massachusettensis” sneeringly called Adams’s scholarly legal citations.

The exchange between “Novanglus” and “Massachusettensis” came to an abrupt halt in April, 1775, with the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The revolution had begun, and there was no going back.

The 1819 edition identifies “Massachusettensis” as Adams’s onetime friend Jonathan Sewall, the last King’s Attorney General for Massachusetts, and Adams himself long believed it was Sewall. But “Massachusettensis” was actually Taunton lawyer and Loyalist Daniel Leonard, another friend from whom Adams later became irrevocably estranged in the turmoil of the Revolution. Leonard was forced to flee America when the British evacuated Boston in 1776; he later became chief justice of Bermuda and then retired to London. When the letters were published in London in 1822, he revealed himself to be “Massachusettensis.”

The 1819 edition of Novanglus, and Massachusettensis also features letters that Adams wrote to various friends and colleagues later in life, recounting the events leading up to the American Revolution. John Adams died on July 4, 1826, at the age of 90. His last words were said to be, “Thomas Jefferson survives”—but the author of the Declaration of Independence had also passed away that very day.

Today, July 4, 2014, is the 238th anniversary of American independence.


Ten Years of Music at DP

June 17, 2014

Today Distributed Proofreaders celebrates the 10th anniversary of its Music Team, which has been helping to make beautiful music for Project Gutenberg e-books since June 17, 2004.

music

Medieval French music notation

Founded by DP volunteer David Newman, a classical singer and voice teacher who provided dozens of music-related projects to DP, the Music Team was designed to bring together DPers who wanted to preserve more music books. Thus began a vibrant community of music-lovers, musicians and non-musicians alike, who share thoughts on finding, creating, managing, proofing, formatting, post-processing, and transcribing music-related projects.

Team discussions have wrestled with big issues, like whether and how to incorporate music transcription (i.e., creating sound files from printed music) into the DP formatting rounds, what music notation software should be the DP standard, and how to handle projects consisting solely of music notation with little or no text. DPers have conducted experiments in different methods, and the creative efforts to improve the overall transcription process continue to this day.

But these aren’t the Music Team’s only accomplishments. The team has long been a clearinghouse and sounding board for Content Providers in search of feedback and volunteers to work on important music projects. Post-Processors come to the team to find volunteer transcribers who can create sound files for a vast variety of DP projects, including children’s books and even novels. Some projects might contain some simple melodies; some might have dozens of pages of orchestral music. For projects with lots of music, team members have created “distributed transcription” systems in which any DPer with any music software can participate. One example is the delightful Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland, a two-volume set with dozens of children’s game songs, on which several Music Team members collaborated.

Music Team members also lend their expertise to answer a wide array of music questions from DPers. A project might have some arcane bit of music notation, often found in the older texts being worked on at DP. Or there might be a question whether some odd-looking notation is, in fact, a printer error. Music transcribers often ask the team to proofread (or even “proof-listen”) to the music they’ve transcribed, for accuracy or for aesthetics.

One thing is certain: being able to hear the music in an e-book enhances the reader’s experience immeasurably. Happy Anniversary, Music Team, and thanks for the melodies!

 


Thomas Jefferson’s Writings

May 26, 2014

I recently did a partial smooth-read of a book with a weighty title: The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Being His Autobiography, Correspondence, Reports, Messages, Addresses, and Other Writings, Official and Private. Volume 1.

Jefferson

I have long been interested in Thomas Jefferson’s writings. Of course, we all know him as the author of the American Declaration of Independence. (Well, most of us know that; I’m not sure this is still taught in public schools in the United States.) So, to have the opportunity to smooth-read Volume One of this work was something I considered a privilege.

Several years ago, I smooth-read some of the diplomatic correspondence that was written during the Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson’s perspective on the problems American diplomats faced during the Revolution gave me new insight into this time in the history of the U.S. Of course, European countries had grave doubts about supporting the upstart Colonies. The struggles that American representatives endured while trying to convince European countries to support the Colonies’ need to separate from Great Britain are fascinating to read about.

I learned a great deal about the early movement toward the Revolution, and about how the Declaration of Independence arrived in its final form. Most people today think that Thomas Jefferson was in favor of slavery. He was not, and fully intended to free his own slaves. He included a scathing denunciation of slavery in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, including pointing out how Great Britain was heavily engaged in the slave trade. But other statesmen would not allow this denunciation to remain in the final edition of the Declaration.

In this book, some of the correspondence is from the days before T.J. was famous. He was just a young man studying law, and engaged in romances with several different young women. Much of the early correspondence included in this volume has to do with his pursuit of one or two special young women. He teased his fellow students about their romantic problems, and I thoroughly enjoyed the glimpse into the younger T.J.’s life. He must have been an interesting companion!

Jefferson's signature

I wish that I had been able to read the entire volume. I look forward to the time that Volume 2 enters the Smooth-reading Pool, and I fully intend to read it.

My husband owns a 6-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson, written by Dumas Malone. Dr. Malone had access to the original documents that are in the Library of Congress, when he wrote his biography. I’m thrilled that I’m getting to read the same documentation, although in digital form, as was used to write the definitive biography of Thomas Jefferson.


A Diplomat in Japan: A British view of the Meiji Restoration

May 3, 2014

Every country has at least one historical era that forms the basis of much of its books, film, and television. The United States has the Wild West, and Japan has the Meiji Restoration.

The Meiji Restoration has the makings of great drama. Sparked by Commodore Perry’s opening of Japan, there was dramatic conflict between the Southern Coalition demanding the expulsion of “the barbarians” from Japan, and the Tokugawa Shogunate trying to placate everybody. In that conflict were lies and intrigue; plots, conspiracies, and assassinations; masterless samurai and royalty; and crimes of passion and honor.

There was also a story-book hero: Saigo Takamori. While he helped overthrow the Shogunate and form a modern government, he then led a rebellion against that government when it threatened the samurai class. He came to symbolize a romanticized samurai culture, and the Tom Cruise movie “The Last Samurai” presented a fictionalized version of his story.

Most of the stories about the Meiji Restoration focus on the internal conflict within Japan. The foreigners were mainly treated like secondary characters whose function was comical relief. In woodblock prints, foreigners were represented by grotesque caricatures of ape-like creatures with large noses and red cheeks.

After decades of knowing the story from the Japanese point of view, it was interesting to read A Diplomat in Japan, a recollection of incidents from the viewpoint of the secretary of the British legation in Tokyo. This story is told many years later, in 1903, after Ernest Satow became Sir Ernest.

Sir Ernest based his account upon diaries and letters written at the time of the events described. He did not rely on his memory of what happened decades before. For that I commend him.

In one instance, he wrote:

“My diary contains no further entry until the middle of May, and letters I wrote to my parents narrating the incidents which befel us at Kiôto have not been preserved.”

He states the foreign community has been described by an English diplomat as “the scum of Europe,” but said:

 “No doubt there was a fair sprinkling of men who, suddenly relieved from the restraints which social opinion places upon their class at home, and exposed to the temptations of Eastern life, did not conduct themselves with the strict propriety of students at a theological college. That they were really worse than their co-equals elsewhere is unlikely.”

Describing Yokohama society:

“There were few ladies in the settlement. Japan was a long way from Europe, with no regular steam communication, and the lives of foreigners were supposed to be not very safe at the hands of the arm-bearing classes.”

The danger of the arm-bearing classes is shown in the killing of foreigners, like a merchant named Richardson who was riding with friend when they met with a train of a daimiô’s retainers, who bid them stand aside.

“They passed on at the edge of the road, until they came in sight of a palanquin, occupied by Shimadzu Saburô, father of the Prince of Satsuma. They were now ordered to turn back, and as they were wheeling their horses in obedience, were suddenly set upon by several armed men belonging to the train, who hacked at them with their sharp-edged heavy swords.”

After the Richardson murder, the British demanded satisfaction. The Shogunate cooperated, but the Satsuma clan did not, so British ships attacked the clan in Kagoshima and burnt much of the city.

“The Admiral in his report, which was published in the London ‘Gazette,’ took credit for the destruction of the town, and Mr. Bright very properly called attention to this unnecessary act of severity in the House of Commons; whereupon he wrote again, or Colonel Neale wrote, to explain that the conflagration was accidental. But that I cannot think was a correct representation of what took place, in face of the fact that the “Perseus” continued to fire rockets into the town after the engagement with the batteries was at an end, and it is also inconsistent with the air of satisfaction which marks the despatch reporting that £1,000,000 worth of property had been destroyed during the bombardment.”

The bombardment convinced the Satsuma clan of the superiority of Western weapons, and Sir Ernest eventually became friends with the leaders of the clan.

Later, a conflict with the Choushûu resulted in naval operations against their Shimonoseki batteries. The Choushûu clan also learned the superiority of Western weapons, and Sir Ernest eventually became friends with the leaders of that clan as well.

This led to the situation where Great Britain was friendly with the Southern Coalition while the French were friendly with the Tokugawa Shogunate. The book speaks much of this rivalry between Great Britain and France.

Subsequently the writer witnessed the execution of two murderers by decapitation, and says:

“It was a horrible sight to see the attendants holding the headless corpse down to the hole, and kneading it so as to make the blood flow more readily into the hole, and I left the spot in all haste, vowing that mere curiosity should never induce me to witness another execution.”

There were other incidents, including times when his life was in danger, partly by his own recklessness. He was a bold man, sometimes more reckless than prudent. He was also a good storyteller, but part of the story that he told (maybe unintentionally) was the ignoble role that the European forces played in Japanese society. The British weren’t there for noble reasons, but then neither were the French, Dutch, Americans, North-Germans and Italians. They were all there for the great adventure, and the thrill of the chase for wealth.


Castes and Tribes of Southern India by Edgar Thurston

April 23, 2014

Image of front cover of bookBack in 1995-96, I lived in India for about one and a half years, with the initial idea of making a number of multimedia productions on Indian art, culture, and history, but ended up mostly working on Indian language dictionary databases….

One of the sources I encountered in India was the various multi-volume sets entitled “Castes and Tribes of…” for various regions, such as the Central Provinces, Bengal, The Punjab, and, one of the biggest sets, the seven volume work covering Southern India. All these books were put together at the behest of the British Government by officials and their Indian assistants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. There are even several volumes on “Criminal Tribes”. These sets describe, in its entire intricate detail, the mind-baffling complexity of Indian society a hundred years ago. A society that has been quickly changing and has already lost much of this complexity—sometimes for the better, but sometimes not—and is today changing at an even faster rate, losing much of its colourful diversity in the process.

For one of the multimedia productions, I proposed to digitize the entire set, and produce a CD “Castes and Tribes of India”, to make this massive piece of work available again. The project never made it.

Image of Malayan Devil-Dancers (pl4-441)

Malayan Devil-Dancers

The books are of an encyclopedic nature. After a relatively short general introduction, they treat the castes and tribes in alphabetical order, in articles, that can sometimes just encompass a single paragraph, but sometimes as long enough to fill a monograph. For the time, many of these volumes are lavishly illustrated with photographs (The original set on the Central Provinces even used collotypes, a costly raster-free reproduction technique that preserves the sharpness and details of the original photographs). As the articles are written by various people, and often based on older publications or articles, the quality and scope of the articles varies somewhat, but in general, they give an interesting oversight of each caste or tribe described. Since the terms “caste” and “tribe” are used liberally, you can also find very interesting articles in those books on for example Anglo-Indians, Mar Thoma Christians, and Cochin Jews, and groups living in almost stone-age conditions such as the Irula, as well as the highly secluded Nambudiri Brahmins.

A few years after my return to Holland, in 1998, I managed to purchase an original 1909 copy of Thurston’s 7-volume set on Southern India, as well as reprints of many of the other sets, for digitization and inclusion in Project Gutenberg. At that time, I started scanning these volumes, but just as quickly stopped doing so, as I found out that the scanning would damage the costly volumes, and put the project on hold. I did continue with the (less costly) 4-volume facsimile reprint on the Central Provinces. Several years later, I purchased a scanner that would cause less damage to the books, and continued scanning, and shortly afterwards discovered that the scans were being added to the Internet Archive collection, so I no longer needed to scan the remaining volumes (except for a few missing pages). Anyway, starting from 2006, the projects appeared on the Distributed Proofreading site, slowly but steadily making their moves through the rounds, until, finally, the last volume left the rounds in 2011, and the huge task of post-processing this work started, which was complicated, due to the many words with accents, and the numerous tables in the books. Finally, on 21 June 2013, the entire set got posted on Project Gutenberg.

Almost 18 years after first envisioning this project, and 15 years after starting work on it, one of the biggest projects I’ve worked on for Project Gutenberg has come to a close. If somebody is interested, the original volumes are for sale (they won’t be cheap though). For the time being, I will leave the remaining sets to be picked up by other volunteers.

The 7 volumes of  Castes and Tribes and of Southern India are available here: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII.

The 4 volumes of The Tribes and Castes of the Central Provinces of India are available here: I, II, III, VI.


A Very Special 27,000th Title

March 29, 2014

27,000 titles

It’s time to celebrate another Distributed Proofreaders achievement—our 27,000th title posted to Project Gutenberg, Storia della decadenza e rovina dell’impero romano, an Italian translation of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by the famed English historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794).

Decline and Fall is a monumental work, distinguished not only by Gibbon’s outstanding scholarship, but also by his witty, ironic commentary and iconoclastic views of the events he describes. His theory of Rome’s decline and fall was essentially that her citizens had become spoiled by success. The most controversial part of his argument was that Christianity contributed to Rome’s fall by shifting people’s focus from real-life practicalities to a spiritual afterlife.

The Italian translation, by the noted Italian author Davide Bertolotti, is a 13-volume tour-de-force, published in Milan between 1820 and 1824. He based his translation on a 1791 London edition, which Bertolotti described as “ottima e sicura edizione” (“an excellent and trustworthy edition”), mentioned by Gibbon himself in his Memoirs. Bertolotti promised that, unlike a previous Italian translation, “Non una idea, non una parola importante, venne ad essa tolta, mutata od aggiunta” (“Not a single idea, not a single important word, was deleted, changed or added”). That might be a motto for what DP does.

Congratulazioni e grazie to the dedicated DP volunteers who made this milestone possible!


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