Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘August Fregé

Science and civilization

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Over the last week, I picked up two books—at the annual Newberry Library and Oak Park Public Library book sales, which are always a high point of my year—that I’d been hoping to find for a long time. One is a single volume, Civil Engineering and Nautics, of Joseph Needham’s landmark Science and Civilization in China, which currently consists of twenty-seven huge books that I all unreasonably hope to own one day. The other is a slim fascicle, or paperbound installment from a work in progress, from Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming, which, if we’re lucky, will release its fourth volume sometime in the next decade. These two projects are rather different in scale, but remarkably similar in their conception and incubation. Needham worked on his book for close to half a century without finishing it, and Knuth has been laboring on his for even longer, with no obvious end in sight. I’ve been intrigued by such grand projects for most of my life, but I’ve become even more interested after embarking on my own venture into nonfiction. Replace “computer programming” with “science fiction” and “discovered” with “written,” and what Knuth once said in an interview gets very close to my attitude two years ago when I started writing Astounding:

At the time, everybody I knew who could write a book summarizing what was known about computer programming had discovered quite a lot of the ideas themselves…By contrast, I hadn’t really discovered anything new by myself at that point. I was just a good writer…I had this half-conceited and half-unconceited view that I could explain it more satisfactorily than the others because of my lack of bias. I didn’t have any axes to grind but my own.

Knuth concludes: “Then, of course, as I started to write things I naturally discovered one or two new things as I went, and now I am just as biased as anybody.” Which pretty sums up my experience, too.

And what really fascinates me about both projects is how monstrously these tomes grew past their projected dimensions, both in space and in time. Both Needham and Knuth thought at first that their work would fit within a single volume, and although they each expanded it to the magic number of seven, neither seems to have grasped just how long it would take. Knuth recalls:

My original motivation was to write a text about how to write compilers, so I began drafting chapters. I was seriously planning to finish the book before my son was born…In June 1965, I had finally finished the first draft of the twelve chapters. It amounted to three thousand handwritten pages of manuscript…I figured about five pages of my handwriting would be about one page of a book.

As it turned out, he was a little off: the real proportion was one and a half handwritten pages to a single page in type, which meant that he had already written two thousand pages without even getting past the subject of compilers. Needham had a similar moment of clarity. As Simon Winchester writes in his biography The Man Who Loved China:

Needham had decreed early on in the process, as he watched each volume begin to swell and threaten to burst out of its covers, that no one volume should be “too big for a man to read comfortably in his bath.” But it was happening nonetheless…One book became two, three, or four. Volume V, a special case, became not five, but thirteen formal subsidiary parts, each one of them big and complicated enough to be made into a separate, self-standing, and equally enormous new volume of its own.

It’s frankly hard to imagine reading any of these expensive books in the tub, but Needham says elsewhere, more realistically, that critics found the volumes “too heavy and bulky for meditative evening reading,” which led to the work being repeatedly subdivided.

The Art of Computer Programming was released by a commercial educational publisher, Addison-Wesley, but it isn’t surprising that most such books tend to appear at academic presses, which are the only institutions capable of sustaining a project that lasts for decades. (Their sole competition here might be the Catholic Church, which has been underwriting a critical edition of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas since 1879. They’re about halfway through.) Winchester refers in passing to “the beleaguered Cambridge University Press, which was obliged to tolerate the constant expansion of the project,” and for the full picture, you can turn to the book A Skeptic Among Scholars, by August Frugé, the director of the University of California Press. He writes of The Plan of St. Gall, a three-volume monument of scholarship that is probably the most beautiful book I own:

The St. Gall manuscript…was said in 1960 to be in semifinal draft, about one hundred and fifty pages in length. When approved by the Editorial Committee and accepted by me in 1967, it came to several hundred typed pages, about right for a single quarto volume. As the work moved through the production process during the next twelve years, we paused every now and then to call for new estimates of size and cost, and each time discovered that new sections had been added, along with a few dozen new diagrams and drawings.

At one point, concerns about cost threatened to derail the whole enterprise, and Frugé retired before the three huge folios were published. James H. Clark, his successor, saw it to completion, writing later: “But what is a university press for if not to take these kinds of risks, make these investments, and publish books that make a difference?” Aside from Knuth, one of the few comparable examples on the commercial side must be Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson, which was originally planned as three volumes to be written over about six years. Forty years and four books later, Caro still isn’t done, and the fact that he has been allowed to keep working at the same methodical pace is a tribute to his longtime editor Robert Gottlieb at Knopf.

And if there’s one key takeaway from the examples I’ve mentioned, it’s that none of these authors set out to devote their lives to these projects—they all thought at first that they could finish it within a few years. Knuth recalls:

It gradually dawned on me how large a project this was going to be. If I had realized that at the beginning, I wouldn’t have been foolish enough to start; I wouldn’t have dared to tackle such a thing…[But] I had collected so much material that I felt it was my duty to continue with the project even though it would take a lot longer than I had originally expected.

You also realize that you can’t explain the subject at hand without covering a lot of other material first. Caro treats his books on Johnson as windows onto such vistas as local politics, Texas, and the Senate, which is a big part of their appeal. (The equivalent in my case would be deciding that I couldn’t write the life of John W. Campbell in a comprehensible form without telling the entire history of science fiction, too, which might well be true.) Frugé, perhaps to his credit, ventures a more cynical reading:

In my skeptical and perhaps scatterbrained way, I sometimes wonder how a research scholar can work on the same project decade after decade and retain faith in its intellectual importance. Perhaps some do not, and that is why their books are never completed. But we can also observe an opposite phenomenon. As the years go by the object or document for study may swell and expand in importance until—until, for example, “The Plan of St. Gall is…one of the most fascinating creations of the human mind.”

He makes a good point. The cycle feeds on itself, with the work expanding in scope to justify the amount of time it takes. It’s human nature, and there’s something a little absurd about it. But it’s also the only way we get art, science, or civilization.

The Plan of St. Gall and the sacred act of reading

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The Plan of St. Gall

I’ve wanted my own copy of The Plan of St. Gall ever since reading about it two decades ago in The Whole Earth Catalog, which called it “the most beautiful book produced anywhere in a generation or two.” Because of its rarity and expense—only 2,500 copies were ever printed, and used editions generally go for $300 and more—I never seriously thought I’d own it, although I’ve browsed through it lovingly at the old Shakespeare & Co. bookstore in Berkeley. After literally saving my pennies and tracking it down online at a reasonable price at the Brattle Book Shop in Boston, though, I decided to treat myself for my upcoming birthday, and it finally arrived last week. The result is worth the price and more: it’s the most physically gorgeous book I’ve ever seen, with three enormous folio volumes printed on exquisite paper, lovely layout and typography, and a thousand immaculate illustrations. Even if the subject matter weren’t in my wheelhouse, I’d still love it as an example of the bookmaker’s art, but its contents are even more fascinating, touching on many ideas and issues close to my heart, including monasticism, medieval life, vernacular architecture, and how the deep interpretation of text and image can provide a window on the entire world.

The Plan of St. Gall itself is an architectural blueprint drawn on a piece of parchment about 45 by 31 inches in size, dating from around the year 816, that has been preserved ever since at the Abbey Library of St. Gall in Switzerland. It depicts an ideal monastery, complete with church, housing for the abbot and monks, buildings for guests and servants, gardens, workshops, privies, even a henhouse, and although it was never actually built, it served as kind of a paradigm for what monastic architecture could be. (The author of the plan is unknown, although it was likely commissioned by Haito, the abbot of Reichenau.) Using the plan as a starting point, the late authors Walter Horn and Ernest Born—both faculty members at UC Berkeley—have meticulously reconstructed how the building complex would have appeared, as well as what the lives of the monks there would have been like, in a remarkable feat of historical and architectural detective work. Not surprisingly, this requires the mastery and assimilation of an insane amount of material. If you want to learn more about the properties of parchment, barrel-making, wine and beer production, ecclesiastical design, bleeding, water management, timekeeping, horticulture, livestock, and more, it’s all here, with a density of content that goes all the way from the title page to the footnotes and index.

Map from The Plan of St. Gall

And the story behind the book is just as fascinating. It was originally conceived in the sixties as a modest project for the university press in Berkeley, covering a few hundred pages and three years of work. When it was finally published in 1979, it had taken fifteen years, with countless cost overruns and delays, thanks largely to Born’s obsessive perfectionism over the illustrations and design, as well as the project’s constantly expanding ambitions. It led to a highly publicized war of memos between the authors and August Fregé, the director of the press, who threatened to shut down production and retired long before the book itself ever saw the light of day. In his memoir A Skeptic Among Scholars, Fregé comes off as a little shellshocked by the experience, and he seems to think that Horn and Born exaggerated the importance of the plan in their own minds to justify creating such a monument. Yet if we think of the plan as a lens through which to examine the whole of life in the Middle Ages, it’s hard to imagine a better one. It’s a subject that deserves three big volumes and more, and it only could have been published by a university press. (In the end, according to a piece in the New York Times, the book cost $489,000 to produce and brought in $500,000 in sales, meaning that it barely broke even, even before you factor in the thousands of hours of work it required.)

When I look at proudly it on my office shelf now, it strikes me as exactly the kind of book we need, at a time when the physical act of reading seems especially vulnerable. Engaging with The Plan of St. Gall compels the reader to take on the role of a monk: it’s too large to be held comfortably on one’s lap, so ideally, you’d read it on a lectern, like the one provided to the reader who recited verses of scripture to the monks at every meal. (Fregé refers to it as “the only three-lectern book the Press will ever publish.”) As a result, you study it with special intensity, devoting an extra degree of attention to every page, to the point where the book ultimately embodies its own message. Think of it as the importance of humanism, the life of ideas, or the preservation of knowledge over time: whatever you call it, it’s a reflection of the same impulse that allowed the plan itself to survive over so many centuries. Reading it, you feel a sense of continuity with the unknown monk who traced it over a millennium ago, as well as all the others who kept it safe, and with Horn, Born, and those influenced by their example, including Christopher Alexander. As a reviewer wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times, it’s “an eloquent and exultant answer to those who still believe that print will soon give way to electronics.” That was written in 1980—and it’s a message that I’m glad this book, and all books that remember they were once sacred objects, is still around to provide.

Written by nevalalee

May 28, 2014 at 9:50 am

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