Monday, January 30, 2012

Paper vs. Pixels


Lately I’ve been wondering, wearing my historian’s hat, what changes in technology have meant to people for the past few thousand years. No, I’m not off my head, though sometimes I do wonder if indeed I am whilst in my day time, cubicle-bound state. Lately I have jumped headlong into the world of e-books by attempting to convert the original Word.doc manuscript of CHILDREN OF APOLLO to e-book format for release on Amazon, the iBookstore, Sony store etc. etc. I shall plug and promote shamelessly in later posts.

To my great surprise, making my work available in e-format is not just a matter of going to the appropriate site and uploading my lovingly crafted, nicely honed manuscript as is. I did try that and the whole thing blew up in my face, one big formatting disaster with font sizes changed on an ad hoc basis, several blank pages where there should be none and several other headaches for which no over-the-counter drugs provide any form of relief. In the online communities, there are discussion groups, or rather therapy groups, on just this topic. I found myself in the chat room with other green hopefuls being given various bits of helpful advice from veterans of the formatting war. The campaign from paper to pixels can be a frustrating affair.

Ancient Greek text in stone
So what have changes in method or technology done to the artistically inclined of history? I laugh at the thought of someone in the Academy of Athens, circa 400 B.C. complaining to his teacher that the Iliad and the Odyssey were just too long to memorize. “Well then, my dear block head,” said the teacher, “ you had better set it down in stone.” But then, wouldn’t the finely chiselled stones be too heavy to carry about, or read from an odd angle? Maybe another student received a visit from a merchant uncle of Alexandria who brought some rolls of papyrus and the student thought, “Now these are much more portable! I shall set down the works of the poet here.” Little did he know that if papyrus got too wet it would not last, depending on the quality of the papyrus of course.

Papyrus text
Flash forward to ancient Rome. Ah, yes. The quality of papyrus scrolls improved a great deal with the annexation of Egypt and the subsequent drop in prices of Egyptian products. Wax tablets became popular, they were portable, waterproof and reusable. But how many would you need to carry about the works of Homer? Perhaps they had abridged versions at that point, ‘SPQR Notes’ or something of the sort. Oral tradition, mind you, is still going strong in the Celtic lands of western and north-western Europe, bards still recite lengthy works from memory. But we must set things down for posterity!

Enter the Middle Ages and vellum as well as improved parchment. Hunchbacked monks are copying everything down and basically saving western civilization from being forgotten. They are also adding to the reading enjoyment of those who could afford books by illuminating them in brilliant colours and gold leaf. What a joy it must have been to caress the pages of an illuminated edition of Geoffrey of Monmouth, or the Roman de Brut.

Vellum book
Books, the format of varying qualities and thicknesses of paper bound together within the protective folds of a cover, have lasted for hundreds of years.

Now, it seems that we are moving away from that.

Everywhere you go, you see more people reading, gaming or texting etc. on some kind of mobile device or iPad. There are still quite a few who brave crowded subway cars with thick tomes of textured paper. But there are more and more e-readers out there now, more and more people ‘flipping’ through their e-ink pages. Some even say, ‘Books are dead’.

But are they? Are paper books well and truly, dying?

I don’t think so. A few weeks ago, before learning about formatting text for e-books, I would have through that yes, at the back of my mind, paper books are fading into the mists of time. I don’t think so now. Here’s why…

Yes. Books.
A paper book and an e-book both provide very different reading experiences. With a paperback, for instance, you can change up the fonts a bit, choose your quality of paper and have a flashy back cover. One thing that I have found out is that there is not a lot of elbow room to mix up the fonts in e-book format. Even though you should not have more than three different fonts at most, it is still nice to be able to have your title or chapter headings in a different font. For the paperback version of CHILDREN OF APOLLO, I chose a font that looked a bit more ancient than what I have for the text. It adds a nice touch along with bits of Latin. When I converted the files the font wasn't recognized and it all became uniform.

A friend of mine who just received an e-reader and loves it noted that it is not the same as reading a paper book because you don’t have the sense of being able to flip back to previous scenes or a map as easily in order to refresh your memory.. I know I refer back to maps and glossaries etc. if they are there. E-readers do allow you to bookmark pages but then you have the fiddly thing of going through a menu to get there. It is a strange thing but with an e-book, there is not such thing as page numbers. Because readers can change the font size to whatever they wish, the amount of text on a page is variable. If there was a book club the members of which all had e-readers, how would they refer to particular events and go back to those events in discussion? How could they possibly be (sorry about this) on the same page? Might be an issue for some.

E-readers and Tablets
For myself, I would only use an e-reader for works of fiction or to review my own manuscript in PDF. When it comes to reference books, I want full colour pages showing me the ruins of a lost civilization in detail, not greyscale pixels on a small screen.

I could go on about little things for and against both formats but, either way, I don't think it really matters which format one prefers. Both are readily available now, and both have their uses. I like both and though e-books seem to be making headway, it seems that paper books are still in the game.

I suppose that papyrus would have lasted if preserved in the right conditions and many texts have come down to us as such. However, the chiselled stone monuments also still stand today. Both contribute equally to the preservation of history and its stories.

Read on folks!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Keeping History and Legend Alive

BBC's Merlin series

Happy New Year to everyone. Hope your various celebrations were enjoyable, sweet and wine-filled. My holidays were also filled with history and magic.

The past week, I have been watching the recent BBC series, Merlin, for which I obtained a copy of season one at the local library. After the first episode of this show, my first reaction was – “What a complete load of rubbish. I can’t believe how they have butchered my beloved Arthurian tales.”

John Boorman's
Ok, I didn’t say ‘beloved’, though, for me the Arthurian cycle is indeed sacred ground. It should not be meddled with lightly. However, like many a good book, sometimes the initial chapters can be slow or misleading, disappointing even. So, I pressed on and watched another couple episodes. I realized that, despite the completely inaccurate setting (Camelot as a late medieval castle), the unfortunate character of Uther Pendragon (I much prefer Marion Zimmer Bradley or Jack Whyte’s versions of the man), and the anachronistic dialogue among other things (Guinevere is a servant!), the show actually focuses on some important themes. Richer is the Arthurian cycle for the entwined destinies of Merlin and Arthur, the opposing forces of paganism and Christianity, ideals of kingship and knighthood and even elements of the magical that add to the legend. Merlin has all of these, the show’s faults notwithstanding.

If you can look past the show’s appearance, it can be quite gripping. Though I much preferred the setting of the late 90’s version of Merlin, with Sam Neill,  I now look forward to the next episode of this new Merlin and find it hard to watch only one. Now that I am over my Arthurian purist’s prejudice, I am reminded of other television series that also meddled with favourite bits of history and legend. Certainly, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, and Xena: Warrior Princess are at the top of the list. Those two shows were chock full of anachronism and cheese but they also tapped the deep-rooted archtypes of ancient tradition and storytelling which appeal to us on quite another level of consciousness. Ancient tradition is often a part of the very fibre of our being.

Lucy Lawless and Kevin Sorbo as
Xena and Hercules
I think that it has become absolutely necessary for tales from Greek mythology, Arthurian tradition or others to be retold and given fresh new garb every so often, for successive generations. That is how the tales endure, how they remain relevant as the years go by. The clothing may be different than the original period in question but the essential messages, the human strife, remain the same. Indeed, new life is given to them, new interest created. I’ve said it before that there is nothing wrong with a Hollywood version of history, even if some things are inaccurate – if interest is sparked, then people will read up on something more and as a result find out what is fact and what is fiction, and where the two live amiably side by side.

Manuscript page of Chr├ętien de Troyes'
Yvain or Le Chevalier au Lion
As for the Arthurian tradition, let us not forget that even Chr├ętien de Troyes and Sir Thomas Malory reinvented the Arthurian cycle, setting it not in the immediate post-Roman world of Dark Age Britain, written about by Nennius or Aneirin, but rather in the courtly world of 12th century Aquitaine and the shiny armour world of 15th century England. Every generation has its perspective and a language that appeals to that perspective. If adapting the telling of these tales in media to speak to the current generation is what keeps history and legend alive, then that is a good and honourable thing.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Garamantian Finds in the Sahara

Mud-brick Garamantian Compound
Photo: Toby Savage
I’m quite excited about a recent article I read on the National Geographic website about some recent finds in the Libyan Sahara, approximately 620 miles south of Tripoli. It seems that archaeologists have found extensive remains of Garamantian settlements including very well preserved mud-brick fortresses. And now, satellite photos are giving us an aerial perspective.

The finds are important because they will shed some much needed light on this mysterious civilization that harried the southern reaches of the Roman Empire for many years. My own experience with this subject is not extensive but the Garamatians do make an appearance in Children of Apollo as one of the leading tribes involved in the fictional assault on the legionary base at Lambaesis in Numidia. From my research into the goings on at the beginning of the 3rd century, I found out that the Garamantians and other desert peoples of the time were involved in a series of raids that caused a bit of unrest in the far southern Empire.

Satellite Image of Garamantian settlement
Photo: University of Leicester
Just goes to show how little details found in the midst of research can add a bit of fuel to the creative fires. Finding out more about this briefly mentioned civilization is an added bonus.

If you would like to read the full article the full link is: