The Electronic Breath


John Major Jenkins


                When it's done, there is no satisfaction of a whiff of fresh printer's ink. My name does not appear, anywhere. I midwifed a precious newborn through the production process of an electronic, computerized factory of words. Amidst uncaring wage slaves, eyes bleary from staring at computer screens 40, sometimes 50, hours a week, I nudge a book, a breath, through the transformation. It changes from letters printed on a page into a stream of on and off decisions, now viewable over a new medium, the Web.

            When Guttenburg got going, we lost the beauty of calligraphic writing, each t unlike other t's, each A lovingly applied by hand with intent and concern. Now, books are being converted into electronic files, for the masses, for archiving on the Web, the Net, and let the trees be saved! But new rules of speed and efficiency are being applied and inconsequentials like descending fonts, small caps, and odd page formats cannot be tolerated. There are quotas to be met, publishers to be pleased, and do you know what? No one ever talks about authors around here.

            I saw Breath on the Mirror sitting on the "ready for edit" cart. I grabbed it and scurried away to my computer cube. Dilbert is my new hero. No one could leverage this book into electronic eternity better than myself, I thought. I had read Breath cover to cover at least three times, much of it aloud.  I read each page of Breath three times, most of it out loud. I had read it, breathlessly, cover to cover exactly three times, certain parts orated. Transcribed ethnographic tapes; I knew it had special needs, and the author had implemented his own style of presentation. He used small caps, boldface, small fonts, descendingly small fonts, spaced-out letters, and little bitmap glyphs in the text. I could do this.

            I would de-spine the book, gutting it like a salmon, feed it through the scanner, rename those files and then zone each image-page with either text or image identifiers. Then I run it through OCR, an optical character recognition program. This converts the scanned images into text, but it generates thousands of misread errors that need to be manually corrected. You basically read and edit the entire book. In the fallible conversion procedure, hyphens become emdashes, 1s become ls, zeros becomes capital ohs. I'm some kind of grammatical atom-smasher, searching microscopic bits of pixels for some kind of pattern. Did you know that electronic eyes see accented o's as sixes? Think about it. If your vision was clouded, like breath on a mirror, wouldn't an ó look like a 6? Quiche doesn't get underlined with spellchecker, because that's something you eat, but Quiché the people are questioned. It's not in our dictionary. I could enter it in, all of them, but that'd be like building a car from scratch to drive to the corner store. Of course you'd eat quiche not Quiche, so it depends on where it occurs; the latter would get underlined but not the former. Oh, those old sources don't even spell it with an é, so you can't do a global search and replace on that one. One at a time. Ten bucks an hour. Hardcopy typos can't be fixed; honor the error—we're not authorized.  Big 21-inch monitors, ten of them within ten paces; extended exposure to high electromagnetic frequency is bad for your aura. This is Boulder; we should know. Diez dollares. After taxes that's $7.50 take home.

            That's my job. Editor. My name appears nowhere. I didn't make much money writing my books. Journey, Mirror, 7 Wind, Tzolkin, Center, Jaloj Kexoj, MC2012. But I didn't care. It was a love affair. Someone's got to do it. And do it well. Well, now I'm married with bills to pay. A mortgage in Denver, commute every day. I get home at seven, I work overtime. My bills are not large but I can't save a dime. They pay me ten dollars for each passing hour. My eyes they are dimming, I'm losing my power. I guess I deserve it, for not plugging in. The system confined me, like a prison. So I went my own way, and ended up dealing with production department's unconscionable squeeling.


"We can't do small caps."

"What's with the fonts?"

"No errors allowed in the edit-check log."

"Centered tables do not hold on the website."


And Human Resources:

"We don't make contracts with authors, only publishers."

I love that: Human Resources. With capitals. Just give me a number. And a day-sign. I'll be fine.     


            Friberg made me his literary executor, just weeks before he died. Blind since age five, there was no mist on his mirror. His Kalevala's out of print, originally published in 1988 with a grant from the Finnish Parliament. Nice color plates. The best translation; modern idiom. I edited his collected poetry, his unpublished manuscript The Presence is brilliant. He wanted his translation to get out there. I made the offering, but they only do deals with publishers. Big deals. Cash-ola belly-cultivating pork chompers. Burger barn barons.

            The litany of books I wrote cannot be converted. Because I published them myself, knowledge has been subverted. And I work here. But that don't matter; I'm on the bottom of the pile. I apply style.

            Then when all the letters have been corrected, we superedit. We need T-shirts with big S's on them. (Correction: Ss actually; S's indicate possession—but S's indicates, not indicate, for S's is a singular possessive, whereas the plural possessive would be Ss's.) Superediting is where you apply heading levels and create index links so you can jump around the book online. Then you build it, re-edit, create jumplinks, and run the edit-check tool, looking for "errors." That's where QA is going to look. Pass or fail. ABCDF.

            It's funny, I snagged Breath off the cart on February 25, Quiché New Year's Day in Year 2000. This day, 1 Caban or Hun No'j (who does know?)  begins the 13-year trecena that runs to 2013. I was born close to midnight on Quiché New Year's Eve in 1964. 4 Caban, the year-bearer, was coming in. End of the Age, 'mam. Opener of the Cycle. Aztec Calendar Stone. Earthquakes. I like the dueño del mundo, whose identity is strangely reflected in the modern Tzutujil figure Maximon. Come on in here, boy, have a cigar—you're gonna go far. I can be his attendant, as long as I keep my elbows off La Mesa. I corral the animals in the hills for him/her. One for you. And one for you. Lose it and you're history. 

            I saw my birth in a vision once. I flew over a landscape of steep, terraced hills and little lakes, pine trees and fire shrines. I came into life a little through a midnight fire ceremony, smells feeding my birthing. They, the fire shamans, looked right at me, saw me coming in, bearing the face of the year. I came out of the mama sweatbath crying, born during a thunderstorm up in Chicago, in the penultimate hour of a day that became my philosophy, my face: March Forth. Kinda crazy ain't it? I like to think so. I can weave complex compound sentences with many polysyllabic words. My grandpa was a doctor and pulled me into this life. I can make offerings to my ancestors.

            People in QA disagree with me. QA: Quest Aborted, Dilbert might say. Tedlock's book, I say, has special needs. They say, we must abide by the netLibrary style manual. I rebel, I talk to management. I call in sick. I drink a lot. Sometimes. A lot of writers do, I hear. The world is aching down into a heap of de-spirited meaninglessness. Burn it and start over. The Year Bearer can make you crazy. Or can help you see the light. I explored with clarity the unexamined areas of Mayan calendar cosmology. A lot can get lost in the conversion. Here it is. No printer's ink involved. I did my best. I talked them into it. They saw the light. I cared and fought the ghost in the machine. The  Breath is now electronic. A new medium well done. Maybe our descendants, seven generations hence, will read it. I'd like to think so.


April 12, 2000

9 Kan



P.S: April 13: 10 Serpent. (Same as May 20, 2012). The Directors of Web Format Control have issued a decree that rather than applying point-size differentials to effect the appearance of descending font sizes, it is better, in order to avoid noxious edit-check errors in the final stages of electronic book conversion, to apply either a subscript (8 point) or superscript (10 point) style level, and then manually raise or lower the selected text the appropriate distance with the layout/font/position menu, to align it horizontally with the rest of the text.