Aolib.comFragment of The Printing Press (showing Johannes Gutenberg) - by John White Alexander (1856-1915)

Aolib.com: Editorial


This page explains some ideas behind aolib.com and shares some thoughts on the single most important subject of aolib.com — the Book.

What Makes a Good Book?

I think it's fair say that the ultimate value of aolib.com hugely depends upon it's ability to help you find good books, and we made (and keep making) great efforts to facilitate that.

So what's a good book? There are many answers to that question, some of them are trivial, some less so... Some people would rate highly almost any book about a subject that are interesting to them, personally, even if that book is relatively poorly written. It is also pretty obvious that the value of a book (just like that of a piece of music) does not depend upon whether it is old or new. What else can be said?

All I can do is to share my personal opinion, and it boils down to the following.

I would say that the book is good if it creates a consistent world, and submerges its reader into it. Please note the word consistent — this is the essense of what Umberto Eco had to say on this matter. I do not think that I would ever be able to say it better than the Master, so here is a quote from Postscript to The Name of the Rose:

... To tell a story you must first of all construct a world, furnished as much as possible, down to the slightest details. If I were to construct a river, I would need two banks; and if on the left bank I put a fisherman, and if I were to give this fisherman a wrathful character and a police record, then I could start writing, translating into words everything that would inevitably happen.

As you see, as soon as one's invented world has been furnished just a little, there is already the beginning of a story. The problem is to construct the world: the words will practically come on their own. Rem tene, cerba sequentur: grasp the subject, and the words will follow. This, I believe, is the opposite of what happens with poetry, which is more a case of verba tene, res sequentur: grasp the words, and the subject will follow...

And, finally (this is my favourite):

It is necessary to create constraints, in order to invent freely. In poetry the constraint can be imposed by meter, foot, rhyme, by what has been called the "verse according to the ear."... In fiction, the surrounding world provides the constraint. This has nothing to do with realism (even if it explains also realism). A completely unreal world can be constructed, in which asses fly and princesses are restored to life by a kiss; but that world, purely possible and unrealistic, must exist according to structures defined at the outset (we have to know whether it is a world where a princess can be restored to life only by the kiss of a prince, or also by that of a witch, and whether the princess's kiss transforms only frogs into princes or also, for example, armadillos).

The works of Umberto Eco, of course, represent examples of good books depicting real (in the above-described sense), or consistent worlds. Another great property of Eco's books is that they, as mathematically precise as they are, still contain some enigma, and more often than not, reader gets involved into an astonishing investigation... Are Umberto Eco's books serious? You bet. After reading The Name of the Rose, you will know how an abbey functioned in 14-th century — down to the last bit. But do serious books have to be boring? Umberto Eco recons that No, and I wholeheartedly agree.

The ultimate example of an amazingly reach and (of course) consistent world... or maybe not even of a world but of a universe, is War and Peace by Leo (Lev) Tolstoy.

Interestingly, the translation of the Russian word mir with peace is not quite correct... Before last major reform, mir meaning peace and mir meaning community (also very close to world) were heterographs (a subclass of homophones), and Leo Tolstoy used the one that meant community. After the reform (which almost always is synonymous with simplification) there remained a single word, a homonym that combined all meanings. And later translations always have it as World and Peace, even though that is not what Leo Tolstoy meant... And, most importantly, not what the book is — a true world, or rather universe, in its own right.

The second class (but by no means second rate) of good books are those written by good storytellers. Their worlds may or may not be consistent (or may even be drastically inconsistent), but their narratives catch your imagination nonetheless. More than 30 years on, I still remember how this piece from The Hound of the Baskervilles

Footprints?

Footprints.

A man's or a woman's?

Dr. Mortimer looked strangely at us for an instant, and his voice sank almost to a whisper as he answered.

Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!

gave me creeps (and it seemed like Watson felt the same: I confess at these words a shudder passed through me., for which I could not blame him, as of all people I understood him so well...) As you might have guessed, I regard Arthur Conan Doyle as one of those Masters of Words, whose narratives sound so smooth and compelling (however plausible – or not – the story per se really is) that you happily let them totally grasp and submerge you, and they only let you go after you turn the very last page...

Edutainment is Big Part of Aolib.com

English language is lingua franca of our time — just like Latin language during Middle Ages. Maybe even much more than that; with Internet being ubiquitous, the power of English language to instantly connect millions (or should I say billions?) of people is truly unprecedented in the history of mankind. English is my third language, and I can certainly appreciate that power, which made my universe so much bigger, and made me so many friends.

So what do you do to master a language? That is, to understand not only overall meaning, but also hidden connotations, should there be any?

This is what I did: I read books. Many books. That has started more than 20 years ago, so I had to use dead tree dictionaries — I had two of them by my side: a small one (5,000 entries), and a big one (35,000 entries). Every time I stumbled upon a word I did not understand, I searched small dictionary for it, then (if I couldn't find it there, or suggested meaning did not fit the context) I searched the big one. In the small dictionaly, I made tabs (one per letter) with a razor, like those in a paper phone book, to make look-up as quick as possible, and yet it was slow — BUT it was the way to learn reading.

Why? Well, this is what Chinese philosopher Confucius had to say:

I hear and I forget.
I see and I remember.
I do and I understand.

In other words, you learn to do something by actually doing it, and we at aolib.com try to help you in the process — explanation for every word is just one double-click away. Wikipedia or Wiktionary look-up is just as simple, you do not have to mess with thick paper dictionaries anymore, as I had...

Oh and by the way, I do not imply that I had mastered English — well, not yet. I need this site just as some of you. In their 1994 interview, the founders of id Software said: We write the games we want to play (emphasis by id Software). While I most certainly do not compare DOOM to aolib.com, the latter is the site I want to use — and I do believe it turned out to be at least a little bit better because of that...

One last advice to those who are going to use aolib.com for educational purposes. In my opinion, one can only do really well what he/she really likes. That is, if you want to learn to read and understand written English well, do not try to pick right books (like recommended readers) — pick interesting ones, which might as well be A Discourse of a Method for the Well Guiding of Reason and the Discovery of Truth in the Sciences by RenĂ© Descartes — as long as it is interesting to you.

And whatever you are looking for, I wish you to find that at aolib.com.

Aolib.com as an Online Resource

I wouldn't go as far as saying that the days of desktop applications are numbered. However, desktop applications as we know them will cease to exist or transform beyond recogtnition, and rather sooner than later. The writing is on the wall, as they say. As for me, it's been there for quite some time, long before the news about the Google Chrome OS broke. The niche where classic desktop apps will stay untouched longer than anywhere else has to do with special needs such as highest possible performance, lowest power consumption, etc.

Don't overestimate those needs though. Even Quake II had been ported to Google Web Toolkit already, so the niche we're talking about is not going to be all that big. And it most certainly won't include such things as ebook readers. Granted, offline portable readers still make... some sense, because it is still possible to get into an area without Internet coverage, but that is being changed so quickly. Nowadays, you stay connected even in Moscow subway.

That is why aolib.com does not host books in FB2, MOBI, and/or other formats for ebook readers — we just do not believe in them. In our opinion, nothing can beat online experience with its instant availability (no installations), invisible and thus effortless upgrades, unprecedented accessibility of any external resources, and great many other important things.

Ultimately, Web sites will converge with applications, implementing more and more applications' traits, such as high degree of customization. That is the future, and we will take you there. In fact, we are already on the way; just have a look at our users' profiles or site skins... And we have great companions for that journey — our books.

Sincerely,
The Aolib.com Editor.

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