Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ring that bell

In prior years, I have been known to slip change into the Salvation Army bucket. But I just don't think I can do it anymore. I had heard a lot about the SA being anti-gay, but I thought I'd check it out for myself. Here are the secondary sources I consulted about the SA's policies (which talk about homosexuality, but also about checking IDs and immigration status of those they help - which they seem to have stopped doing once it was publicized).

And finally, let's go to the source: Salvation Army's own policies on many issues, including homosexuality (which is OK as long as you don't sleep with anyone). The Salvation Army says they won't discriminate against anyone in need, but reserves the right not to hire anyone who doesn't share their beliefs.

I know that the SA has helped a lot of people all over the world, but they're not the only ones. So this Christmas, instead of dropping money in the red buckets, I'm giving a donation to Rosie's Place, a homeless shelter serving women in Boston. I urge my legions of readers to find a worthy local charity in their area and follow suit.

Um, that's books in this one, just liberal propaganda. :) Happy holidays to all.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Middle ground

Well, looks like I'm slowing down in posting from previous years to about one post per month. I think I can live with that, if my legions of devoted readers can.

I've had this book - The University of Google: Education in the (Post)Information Age by Tara Brabazon - on my desk at work for a long time, and in the spirit of clearing things out before the new year, I finally read it (or most of it, anyway). I found it to present the best balance between two attitudes I normally encounter when it comes to information and learning: on the one hand, that the Internet/social media/Google are intellectually ruining us, and one the other hand, that Google/crowdsourcing /anything 2.0 have changed everything, and we don't need stodgy forms of information like books or indexes anymore.

Instead, Brabazon, a professor media studies in the U.K. (her website is here), combines her observations from teaching with studies and articles about online learning and related issues. This combined approach, also, is a breath of fresh air. One of my bugbears in this area is when people take their own experiences and generalize them without any outside support. There are two passages from the book at which I found myself nodding particularly vigorously; here's one:

"The second assumption of flexible learning is that 'new' technologies intrinsically create a productive learning environment....Technological platforms require care in their introduction. Only the applications that assist student learning should be mobilized, and this requires clear learning rationales to be determined. Technology does not create high quality learning resources: teachers and librarians do....Technology does not create learning. Teachers do not create learning. Students do not create learning. Instead, the space between students and teachers summons the transformative dialogue of an educational encounter. In that space may be an internet connection or a PowerPoint presentation, but just as likely it could be a soccer ball or a guitar. The best of teachers are able to deploy diverse sources to tease open these spaces between teachers, students and learning outcomes. They are not being valued in a flexible age." (emphasis mine; pp. 82-3)

Basically, there are no easy answers, especially when it comes to education. This, to me, is self-evident, but it's clear from discussions about technology and education, especially in the United States, that my view is not a widely held one. Here are the other lines, taken from later in the book:

"Information has no value in and of itself. It must be sorted, contextualized, and evaluated. When information is the aim, when information becomes a commodity, the interests of those groups already in power are reinforced. ... The consequences of digitisation are that it increases the speed and spread of information. Yet the quantity of trivial data that survives also increases. The crap of a culture is stored on multiple hard drives and endlessly returns through Google." (emphasis mine; p. 162)

Writing things down and providing access to them used to be much more precious and costly, so people wrote down only what they felt was most important. Current technology allows us to save virtually everything (though not necessarily find it as easily - you can't search for the subject of a photograph unless somebody labels it). Is this a re-definition of what's important? If so, prepare for the next generation's heads to explode with the sheer mass of it.

Anyway, I know that was a bit of a long post, but I highly recommend the book. It's well-written, concise, and insightful.

All quotations from Brabazon, Tara. The University of Google: Education in a (Post)Information Age. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007.

Sunday, November 07, 2010


I've been thinking a lot about language. And my forthcoming thoughts might not be the most eloquent thing I've ever written (I'm under the weather and can't find the initial notes I made on this topic), but I'll do my best.

First of all, I've been reading (as I've been meaning to for a long time) Naomi Baron's book Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World. It was published in 2008, and is already out of date in some ways - she talks about instant messaging and text messaging in totally separate ways, when the iPhone and its ilk have basically combined the two. Baron doesn't bemoan the degradation of language or anything over-the-top like that. She is trying to study the effects and evolutions of language online. But the following passage struck me:

Suppose I'm looking for some information on evolution. But it's late at night, or I'm feeling lazy, or I'm not sure of my spelling, so I type 'cHarlz dARwon" into the search box. Google politely inquires, "Did you mean charles darwin?" Sure, Google, that's exactly what I meant (give or take some capitalization). Thank you for obviating the need for me to express myself clearly. The problem is that if I come to rely on Google to figure out what I meant to write, what is my motivation for expressing myself precisely in the first place? (page 179)

I'll leave aside the information literacy implications of this paragraph and stick to the subject. The last sentence resonated with me, since precision in language is something I value very, very highly. I associate precision of language with thoughtfulness; the writer or speaker cared enough to think about how to say exactly what she meant. It's why I like reading (good) poetry. I get frustrated when I hear students or reality show actors utter barely constructed sentences with phrases like "it's almost to the point where" or so many "likes" and "I guess"es that any meaning is obscured. This lack of precision manifested itself in politicians and pundits over the past week, too. "Does the president get it?" "The American people are saying we need to turn this baby around." What do those sentences even mean? The more abstract and vague these talking points, and the more they are blindly repeated in the face of thoughtful, specific questions, the more frustrated I get.

I think that's all I have to say for now on the subject.I'm certainly not perfect, and I don't always say exactly what I wanted to (especially when speaking), but I try. And I just wish that people in general (but especially public figures) were more thoughtful about their words.

Quotation from Baron, Naomi S. Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Monday, October 25, 2010

We now pause for matrimony and long novels

I'm always pleasantly surprised when people complain to me that I haven't updated the blog in a long time. And I haven't, due to several factors. These include: The beginning of the academic year and its attendant workload. Having to finish a library copy of Jonathan Franzen's 562-page Freedom in four weeks.

And probably most of all, being involved in, and traveling to, three weddings. As calzone (in my blogroll) pointed out recently, these things are a lot of work. They also provoke a lot of thought and bring up a lot of emotions. First of all, there's the whole tradition of marriage, with its patriarchal overtones and its being recognized for same-sex couples only in a small handful of states. Wedding #3, for example, was a traditional Catholic one, with a lot of talk about children. Wedding #2, on the other hand, had part of the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision about same-sex marriage printed on the back of the pamphlet. And then there was the crying. I cried at all three weddings. I had met the couple of Wedding #1 once, but the groom's vows were so touching I teared up. One of the readings, along with the unrestrained happiness on the couple's faces, got me at Wedding #2. And it was a double feature at Wedding #3 - the groom started crying when he saw the bride, so I did too, and then when there was a prayer for "those not with us today," I lost it thinking about my stepdad. He's been gone for ten years, but every now and then a memory or thought of him overwhelms me.

Anyway. That's what I've been doing lately. I highly recommend Freedom, by the way. I recommend, with reservations, Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals. It is a deadly serious book - no jokes or inspirational moments or letting you off the hook (read Michael Pollan or Mark Bittman for that) - Foer presents a raft of facts and comes to what seems like the only logical conclusion. The whole thing is pretty depressing, but fascinating, and urgent.

There's your random-thoughts post. I promise to post more regularly this fall and winter.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Poet Persona

Last summer, my big heavy book was the correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. I kept thinking about Bishop's work and her life. Her poems (and I'm sure I'm repeating myself here) are nearly perfect; I would probably kill to write poems like that. But would I have wanted her life? She had sorrows early and late in life, suffered from asthma and alcoholism, and seemed always to be worrying about money. In the letters, she is always promising to take trips to see Lowell and other people, and rarely follows through - whether due to money, the vagaries of the Brazilian government (she lived in Brazil for many years), or something to do with Lota, her longtime partner. I got the sense that sometimes she felt stuck in Brazil. On the other hand, her isolated geographic position allowed her to be dismissive of things like awards, readings, and teaching honors - all of which she seems to have disliked.

This got me thinking about some of my favorite poets' lives, and whether I'd like being in them. While I certainly wouldn't say no to James Merrill's independent wealth (read: time to read and write and travel all the time), it doesn't sound like his childhood was any picnic. And even though he had lots of friends and lovers, there's something lonely in his poems, especially the later ones.

Then there's Philip Larkin, a fellow librarian. I love his sharp, dry poems, and his Collected Poems is the book I give to friends who claim not to like poetry. According to the Poetry Foundation, he hated the limelight even more than Bishop, and grew more and more reclusive after publishing his last book in 1974 (he died in 1985). He appears to have been a serial romantic partner (sometimes monogamous, sometimes not, but apparently with the agreement of the other parties). I admire that he managed to be both a good librarian and a good poet. But it does seem like he was terribly cranky most of the time.

And finally, there is Amy Clampitt, whose appearance on an episode of the Poetry off the Shelf podcast I was listening to this morning jump-started this whole line of thought. I had never heard of Clampitt until we studied her in a class I took my senior year in college. My professor invited a critic who'd known her to talk to the class, and the details of her life delighted me. She published her first book at age 54 - a fact that comforts me when I get all Sylvia Plath-y about how time is ticking away on me as a poet and a person. (Notice I left SP out of this entry altogether. Clearly.) And Clampitt was also a reference librarian, for the Audubon Society. The visiting critic told us that she met her partner at a Communist rally when they were both on the older side, and that they kept separate apartments. They only got married when one of them was dying (can't remember if it was him or her) so there wouldn't be legal trouble. There was a poet on the podcast who's currently living in her house in Western Mass. on a residency. (I kind of want to apply.)

And her poems - while they don't blow me away every time - are really good. They're about - and I swore I wouldn't mention the David Lipsky book about DFW till later, but I have to - about the kinds of things DFW said, in that book, that poetry needs to be about for people to care about it again: the 9-to-5, and married people sleeping in the same bed. (I can't seem to find the exact quote.) So yeah, I guess Amy Clampitt is as close to a poetic idol as I'm going to get.

(All these poets are bio-ed and critic-ed and bibliographied very well over at the Poetry Foundation.)

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Infinite Jest Diary #9: Final Thoughts

So I finished the book last Thursday night, and had to plunge the next day into a series of social engagements and obligations, so could not post to the blog.

I finished the book around 11 PM, then spent about an hour and a half searching online (and reading a lot of the Infinite Summer posts) to see what various members of the community of readers thought about the ending and the book as a whole. There is a quote by DFW about the end that I kept coming across, and that I think is very appropriate, but it sort of spoils it from the beginning if you read it and haven't read the book. So I'll just link to one of the places I found it, a blog post with some other interesting ideas about the book. Scroll down to just below the image of a map.

What I can say without spoiling anything, I think, is this: what's insane about this book is that it immediately demands to be read again. Not because it was so much fun the first time around, but because in order to understand it, you really do have to read it again. At least the way I'd been reading the book. Maybe if I'd read it in a shorter amount of time, I would have been more aware of what to be looking for and how to be reading. Also, DFW's original title for this book was A Failed Entertainment. That works too, I guess, but Infinite Jest is a perfect title. It works on many different levels, more than I thought in the middle of the book.

I'm glad I read Infinite Jest. Yes, I have questions without answers. Some things in the book lead nowhere. Some are only suspected of leading somewhere. DFW withholds some information, and gives you what feels like way too much of other information. People and events and tragedy and comedy and violence and consumerism and entertainment are all exaggerated, because that's the kind of world the book is set in. I believe the book is meant to challenge its readers, and that meeting all the book's challenges as a single reader is impossible. It demands study and speculation. And for that, I have to say, I come away from the experience with more awe than annoyance.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Infinite Jest Diary #8: Home Stretch

Progress: currently on page 938

That's right, ladies and gentlemen. 43 pages to go. I think I may finish this thing tomorrow. I have to say, I'll feel relieved when I do, though I've enjoyed the experience very much. The only problem? It's becoming clear to me that this is a book that demands a second reading. NOT back-to-back; that's for sure. Maybe someday in the future when I've read some criticism (I'm interested to see if there's been anything written on the multiple narrators in the book). (Or maybe the many uses of the word "entertain.") And maybe after I've re-read Hamlet. I'm going to try not to give anything away as I report on the final pages of the book.

Here are some quotes, passages, etc....

"This so-called 'psychotically depressed' person who tries to kill herself doesn't do so out of quote 'hopelessness' or any abstract conviction that life's assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom [this] invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise." (p. 696)
Well, here's me being presumptuous, but this sounds awfully like someone who knew what that feeling was like. And it's really sad.

Endnote 304 is all about a student doing research - the incredible machinations one goes through to plagiarize something successfully vs. spending that time writing the damn thing yourself. It's an interesting passage for someone interested in information me.

There's a passage that starts on page 896 where Hal considers all the times he'll repeat a given task, and all the times he'll breathe in and out, and all the food he'll eat - and becomes overwhelmed and discouraged by the thought. I've often thought about this too; so much of what we/I do is maintenance and repetition. This can depress you if you think about it too much, which of course is Hal's forte.

Then I don't know what I think about this:

"It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle...that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end....We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately - the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. The games or needles, to some other person." (p. 900)

This seems to me to be sort of a statement on both addictions and pseudo-addictions, and maybe the unavoidableness thereof. Maybe this is the antidote to thinking too much about thousands of breaths and breaded chicken cutlets...and some people take it to a dangerous level.

Okay, word time. Note: I am not including the barrage of vocabulary words on page 832 partially because I think you're not supposed to know what they mean along with the character who's hearing them, and partially because I'm tired.

1. hanuman (n.) An Indian monkey, Presbytis entellus, venerated by Hindus.
2. veronica (n.) A large genus of scrophulariaceous plants (herbs or shrubs) having leafy stems and blue (rarely white or pink) flowers borne in racemes or spikes.
3. gonion (n.) The outermost point on the angle of the lower jaw on each side.
4. entrepôt (n.) Temporary deposit of goods, provisions, etc.; chiefly concr. a storehouse or assemblage of storehouses for temporary deposit. Also fig.
5. colposcope (n.) Entry for colpo- prefix: comb. form of Gr.

{kappa}{goacu}{lambda}{pi}{omicron}{fsigma} womb, used = vagina in terms of Path., Surg., and Anat.

6. parturient (adj.) About to give birth; in labour; (of a plant) bearing fruit (obs.).
7. olla podrida (n.) 1. A highly spiced stew of Spanish and Portuguese origin, made from various kinds of meat and vegetables - or - 2. A diverse mixture of things or elements; spec. a mixture of different languages.
8. strigil (n.) An instrument with a curved blade, for scraping the sweat and dirt from the skin in the hot-air bath or after gymnastic exercise.
9. hulpil (n.) According to the Infinite Jest wiki, "probably a misspelling of "huipil," which is a kind of thin Mexican blouse"
10. parotitic (adj.) related to the inflammation of either of a pair of large salivary glands situated just in front of the ear
11. atheling (n.) A member of a noble family, a prince, lord, baron; in OE. poetry often used in pl. for ‘men’ (viri); in later writers often restricted as a historical term to a prince of the blood royal, or even to the heir apparent to the throne.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Infinite Jest Diary #7

I think I'm going to set this one up in fragments, since that's about all my brain can handle in this humidity wave.

Progress: currently on page 687

Obviously, in my profession, I read a lot about e-books. I've long thought the format lends itself better to some kinds of books than others. I think this would actually be a great book to read on something like an iPad. It might reduce the weight (the Apple site specs put the iPad at 1.5 pounds), and would definitely reduce the bulk. You could pop out to the dictionary or the Infinite Jest wiki; you could track characters and organize notes. I'm not saying I find the print version of the book difficult to do all these things, just that this particular book would be a good candidate for electronic form, in my opinion.

On a totally different note, characters utter a lot of malapropisms in this book; I think my favorite is Gately referring to a poet named "Sylvia Plate" on p. 593.

And here's a sentence I think sums up a lot of DFW's narration, not just in this book: "All this appraisal's taking only seconds; it only takes time to list it." (p. 609)

"At a certain level of abstraction it's like the brain recoils." (p. 570) Said about a science class, but obviously applicable to all disciplines. I reached this point in calculus.

"[P]eople of a certain age and level of like life-experience believe they're immortal: college students and alcoholics/addicts are the worst: they deep-down believe they're exempt from the laws of physics and statistics that ironly govern everybody else." (p. 604) This one was particularly authentic for the description of Boston-area pedestrians who cross the street whenever they feel like it - more than other cities' pedestrians, I think.

"Mario'd fallen in love with the first Madame Psychosis programs because he felt like he was listening to someone sad read out loud from yellow letters she'd taken out of a shoebox on a rainy P.M., stuff about heartbreak and people you loved dying and U.S. woe, stuff that was real. It is increasingly hard to find valid art that is about stuff that is real in this way." (p. 592, emphasis mine) This, to me, is DFW articulating postmodernism in one sentence, and it resonated, a lot.

1. caparison (v.) To put trappings on; to trap, deck, harness. Also fig.
2. cathexis (n.) The concentration or accumulation of mental energy in a particular channel.
3. rhynophemic (adj.) According to the Infinite Jest wiki: "a misspelled reference to rhinophyma, the reddening of the nose common to alcoholics"
4. anomic (adj.) Related to a form of aphasia characterized by inability to recall the names of objects.
5. saltire (n.) An ordinary in the form of a St. Andrew's cross, formed by a bend and a bend sinister, crossing each other; also, a cross having this shape.
6. tektitic (adj.) Related to one of the small, roundish, glassy bodies of unknown origin that occur scattered over various parts of the earth.
7. anaclitic (adj.) characterizing a person whose choice of a ‘love object’ is governed by the dependence of the libido on another instinct, e.g. hunger; also in extended use, characterized by dependence on another or others (see quots.).

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Infinite Jest Diary #6: Halfway Point

Progress: currently on page 490

Okay, first of all, a warning to fellow readers. Don't read pp. 375-379 while eating lunch, as I did. This book, especially in the brutally honest stories of its many addicts, goes to very dark places, and this one is particularly horrifying. Really, one of the worst things I've ever read (in content, not style). The passage is actually an extreme example of a style I've been noticing here and there in Infinite Jest. I was going to call it "farcical" - passages that verge on the ridiculous and incredible, both comedy and horror. I don't think that's quite the right word, but I'll go with it for now. These are the passages that remind me of Tom Robbins, or of what I know of J.G. Ballard. They push you to that verge, but don't knock you off the edge of tossing the book aside in disgust. There is an ongoing scene, for example, between two characters (Marathe and Steeply) that, written in a different tone, wouldn't be out of place in a Tom Robbins novel.

I also just want to note a couple of other characteristics of DFW's "near future" that have parallels in the present. For example, this representation of today's TV and movies:

"...what if, instead of sitting still for choosing the least of 504 infantile evils, the vox- and digitus-populi could choose instead to make its home entertainment literally and essentially adult? I.e. what if...a viewer could more or less 100% choose what's on at any given time?" (p. 416)

And in endnote 166, DFW makes reference to a computer that can hold lots of "various killer apps" (p. 1031). At first, I really thought he might have coined the word, but the OED tells me it was used in 1985 and 1992. It's certainly in much more widespread use now, though.

One more thing, something that has been steadily bothering me as I progress through the novel (I am at about the halfway point, I believe). One of the reasons I love DFW's writing is the empathy that comes through, especially in his nonfiction essays. In these essays, and his stories (especially Brief Interviews with Hideous Men), there is a particular empathy for women that surpasses what I would expect of a male author. That's missing in Infinite Jest. This may be because several of the characters are teenage boys, who generally lack said empathy. But I'm a little disappointed so far with the women in general. There are really only two who could be said to be major characters, and one of them is very compelling. Maybe this is a picky place to find fault, and maybe I'm just being a whiny feminist. But there is a quality missing from this book that is in DFW's other works.

Okay, enough from me; let's have a vocabulary quiz. (I believe #7 is meant to be a play on Hal's name and his father's profession.)

1. apical (adj.) Of or belonging to an apex; situated at the summit or tip.
2. cunctation (n.) The action of delaying; delay, tardy action.
3. fulgurant (adj.) Flashing like lightning.
4. panatela (n.) A long slender cigar, esp. one tapering at the sealed end; or, slang for marijuana.
5. catastatic (adj.) Relating to the narrative part of a speech, usually the beginning of it, in which the orator sets forth the subject to be discussed.
6. cuirass (n.) A piece of armour for the body
7. halation (n.) The term used to denote the spreading of light beyond its proper boundary in the negative image upon the plate, producing local fog around the high lights, or those portions of the picture which are brighter than the rest of the image.
8. picric (adj.) picric acid n. a yellow crystalline acid with a very bitter taste, obtained by nitrating phenol and used in the manufacture of explosives and in dyeing; 2,4,6-trinitrophenol, C6H2(NO2)3OH.
9. morendo (adv.) As a musical direction: with the sound gradually dying away.
10. mysticetously (adv.) In the manner of a whale of the suborder Mysticeti of baleen or whalebone whales.
11. propinquous (adj.) That is in propinquity (in various senses); nearby, close at hand.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Infinite Jest Diary #5

Progress: currently on page 364

The review of
Although of Course You Always End Up Becoming Yourself that I mentioned in Diary #3 contained some speculation about DFW's experiences with addiction. As you may know, Infinite Jest is set partly in an addicts' halfway house. I just finished reading a long passage about the characters there (actually I'm still in it), which concentrates heavily on addiction and the AA program. And I've come to the conclusion that either DFW did some serious research which had to have included interviews (which I can readily believe he did), or he or someone close to him personally experienced this process. The passages, of course, are filled with careful and meticulous detail. DFW writes as one of the most careful observers I've ever read. He literally takes care with every detail, and you end up caring because he cares. And just when you think the detail is really getting a bit too much, he'll say something that will keep you going.

Anyway, for all their detail, the passages about AA come around a couple of times to the same conclusion: that the program works, even for those who find it horribly simplistic, but no one knows why or how. See the following quotations:

"What metro Boston AAs are trite but correct about is that both destiny's kisses and its dope-slaps illustrate an individual person's basic personal powerlessness over the really meaningful events in his life: i.e. almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it." (p. 291)

A variation, perhaps, on John Lennon's famous quote about life being what happens to you while you're making other plans - but really quite difficult to accept (especially for someone like me) when you think about it. And then, further on, DFW breaks AA's axiomatic program down further:

"How do trite things get to be trite? Why is the truth usually not just uninteresting but anti-interesting?" (p. 358)

I can't figure out if this is the character or the author talking. In either case, I'm going to have to think about it for a while.

And now, words:

1. nystagmic (adj.) Characterized by involuntary, rapid, oscillating movement of the eyeballs (most commonly from side to side).
2. Levantine (adj.) Of or pertaining to the Levant [basically, the Far East]; in early use, pertaining to the east, eastern. Also, recalling or resembling the manners of the Levantines.
3. lordotic (adj.) Characteristic of anterior curvature of the spine, producing convexity in front (occurring as a physical deformity).
4. ascapartic (adj.) According to the Infinite Jest wiki: "A word coined by Wallace, it means gigantic, as Ascapart was a giant depicted in the fiction of, among other people, J.R.R. Tolkien."
5. bilirubin (n.) A reddish pigment, C33H36O6N4, occurring in bile.
6. candent (adj.) At a white heat; glowing with heat.
7. felo de se (n.?)- One who ‘deliberately puts an end to his own existence, or commits any unlawful malicious act, the consequence of which is his own death’ (Blackstone).
8. mucronate (adj.) - terminating in a point, as an organ.
9. solander (n.) - A box made in the form of a book, used for holding botanical specimens, papers, maps, etc.
10. GAUDEAMUS IGITUR - Latin for "Let us rejoice"
11. prognathous (adj.) Having projecting or forward-pointing jaws, teeth, mandibles, etc.; having a facial angle of less than 90°.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Infinite Jest Diary #4: All-Vocabulary Edition

Progress: currently on page 274

One comment before we get to the words: this book is full of names I would give a band if I had one: Madame Psychosis, Year of Glad, The Great Concavity...okay, I can't think of any more right now, but I'll start keeping track.

Well, page 223 didn't change much for me, though it is handy to refer to in times of confusion during the novel. No cheating; don't flip there if you haven't read 1-222 (plus copious footnotes)!

That said. My list of words penciled in the back cover has been mounting, so for your edification and for mine - here they are. I'm noticing a lot of words related to shapes and curves (expected from a mathematician) and specific anatomical words. As always, definitions come from the OED's electronic version, unless otherwise noted. And I just want to copy this quote I just happened to flip to:
"There are, by the O.E.D. VI's count, nineteen nonarchaic synonyms for unresponsive, of which nine are Latinate and four Saxonic." (p. 17) Hal Incandenza and David Foster Wallace: OED men.

1. guilloche (n.) An ornament in the form of two or more bands or strings twisting over each other, so as to repeat the same figure, in a continued series, by the spiral returning of the bands. See an example on flickr here.
2. aperçu (p. ppl.) A summary exposition, a conspectus. Also, a revealing glimpse; an insight.
3. murated (adj.) Surrounded by walls.
4. erumpent (adj.) That bursts forth.
5. ex cathedra (adv.) ‘from the chair’, i.e. in the manner of one speaking from the seat of office or professorial chair, with authority; also used attrib. = officially uttered.
6. rutilant (adj.) Glowing, shining, gleaming, glittering, with either a ruddy or golden light. [Fittingly, one of the quotations for this word in the OED entry is from Ulysses - another brick-weight novel.]
7. nacelle (n.) There are several definitions, most obsolete, but I believe the one DFW means is one of these (I've encountered the word twice in the book): 2. a. The basket or gondola of a balloon or airship. b. gen. Any hollow vessel or object resembling a boat in shape. rare.
8. superjacent (adj.) Lying above or upon something else; overlying, superincumbent. (Now chiefly in technical use.)
9. formication (n.) - that's with an M - An abnormal sensation as of ants creeping over the skin. [This is my new favorite word.]
10. meatus (n.) - A tubular passage or opening leading to the interior of the body; the external orifice of such a passage.
11. sephenoid - According to the Infinite Jest wiki, a misspelling for sphenoid (adj.) - a bone of irregular form situated at the base of the skull, where it is wedged in between the other bones of the cranium.
12. torticollic (adj.) - DFW seems to have made up the adjectival form of torticollis (n.) - A rheumatic or other affection of the muscles of the neck, in which it is so twisted as to keep the head turned to one side; wry-neck.
13. treillage (n.) - Lattice-work; a framework upon which vines or ornamental plants are trained; a trellis.
14. rostral (adj.) - Pertaining to a platform, stage, stand, etc., adapted for public speaking.
15. pia mater (n.) - 1. The innermost of the three meninges, consisting of a thin, vascular, fibrous membrane which is closely applied to the surface of the brain and spinal cord. 2. In extended use (chiefly humorous): the brain.
16. sulcus (n.) - 1. a. A groove made with an engraving tool. b. A trench
17. otiose (adj.) - 1. a. Of belief, principle, thought, etc.: having no practical result; unfruitful, sterile; futile, pointless. b. Having no practical function; redundant; superfluous. 2. At leisure; at rest; idle; inactive; indolent, lazy. [Depressingly, I found this word scribbled in an old notebook from when I was reading Consider the Lobster. I'm hoping that means I never looked it up, and not that I'm incapable of remembering a word I learned two years ago.]
18. glabrous (adj.) Free from hair, down, or the like; having a smooth skin or surface.
19. scopophiliacal (adj.) Pertaining to sexual stimulation or satisfaction derived principally from looking; voyeurism.
20. apotropaic (adj.) Having or reputed to have the power of averting evil influence or ill luck.
21. micturation (n.) Urination.
22. egregulous (adj.) According to the Infinite Jest wiki, "not a real word (possibly egregious + ridiculous."

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Infinite Jest Diary #3

Progress: currently on page 216

I was going to do an all-vocabulary entry, since I have somewhat limited time and brain power. I am, however, rapidly approaching page 223; I will probably read it tomorrow morning. This is the page touted by Matt Bucher in Infinite Summer as a landmark page, a key to the novel, with content that will make me think differently about what I've read before. So I'll dispatch some thoughts.

I just read a review in the New York Times Book Review of David Lipsky's memoir of DFW, Although of Course You Always End Up Becoming Yourself (which Brother K mentioned in my last entry's comments). In his review, Ken Kalfus writes succinctly of Infinite Jest:
"Set in a near-future America fixated by its tools for chemical and electronic self-gratification, the novel seems more prescient with the rollout of every new compulsively entertaining digital device."

As I read this book, written in 1996, I keep noticing things about DFW's "near future" that have come true, in spirit if not in letter, or at least pretty damn close. Cf....

  • "the Kemp and Limbaugh administration" (p. 177) might as well have been....
  • "[I]t takes effort to pay attention to any one stimulus for more than a few seconds." (p. 202) Pretty much captures the spirit of the age.
  • "Or just down in Harvard Square at Au Bon Pain where all those 70s-era guys in old wool ponchos play chess against all those little clocks they keep hitting" (p. 212) - Okay, this is just currently still true.
  • "'Yes, but did you actually hop in the truck and actually go to a real medical library?' Hal's his mother Avril's child when it comes to databases, software Spell-Checks, etc." (p. 213). Hal's approach is one after my own heart - trusting self-selected over machine-selected information, but it runs counter to those of his peers (and, I think, most 17-year-olds today).

And the whole theme of entertainment and addiction and how they relate to each other is just very prescient. The next entry I write will be just quotes and vocabulary words, and some of the quotes I put in there will be on that theme. I do just want to point out one more thing. I was talking about influences last time, and there is a passage in the book that reminds me of a similar passage in Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Maybe it's just a common approach to list things like this; maybe not. In Infinite Jest, it's a list of "many exotic new facts" acquired in a halfway house. In Robbins' book, it's a more nonsensical, meta-ish series of sentences that all start out "This sentence." The one I can remember offhand is something like "Like many italic sentences, this sentence has Mafia connections."

All right, that's all for now. Next time (whenever that may be) - quotes and vocabulary.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Infinite Jest Diary #2

The format of today's diary may be the format I choose to employ from now on, or it might not. My progress, a thought, a quote, and a list of new words may be appropriate or not for future diaries. We'll see.

Progress: currently on page 112

A thought:
I'm realizing just how much Mark Z. Danielewski's book House of Leaves owes to Infinite Jest. The invented parameters, the narrative structure, the endnotes and exhibits - it's not pure imitation, but there is a definite lineage. I was reading someone recently who reminded me of DFW who predated him, and now I wish I could remember - to point out the other end of the lineage. I was recently at Amherst College's Archives & Special Collections, whose exhibition "The Novelists of Amherst" highlighted DFW along with his "circle" and "influences," the only influence of which I remember was Don DeLillo. And I can see that, too.

A quote:
"Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise...You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same, as citizens of the human State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned over and over again." (p. 84)

I've read this quote about ten times, and have tried to think about what exactly is going on in it. When I read passages like this, which (even as tennis is being used as an internal metaphor) are referring to Life in a metaphorical manner, I can't help thinking that the author is also talking about writing. DFW was certainly a writer who pushed limits to destroy them, who commented on their destruction and their very existence. He was so thorough and exhaustive, seemingly obsessively so. It makes me admire but not envy him.


(and let me just say - I very much admire how DFW has an exact meaning he wants conveyed, and so goes and finds that exact word. Not an easy or quick process.)

1. Latrodectus mactans - Latin name for black widow spider (definition via University of Michigan)
2. leptosomatic (a.) Having a type of physique characterized by leanness and tallness.
3. prandial (a.) Of or relating to dinner or dining; relating to or occurring during a meal.
4. quincunx (n.) A pattern used in which objects are arranged in one or more groups of five, so placed that four occupy the corners of a square or rectangle and the fifth occupies its centre
5. varicocele (n.) Varicose condition or dilatation of the spermatic veins.
6. plosivity (n.) Descriptive of a consonant that is produced by stopping the airflow using the lips, teeth, or palate, and then suddenly releasing an outward flow of air.
7. teratogenic (a.) Relating to the production of monsters or misshapen organisms.
8. ephebe (n.) Among the Greeks, a young citizen from eighteen to twenty years of age, during which he was occupied chiefly with garrison duty.
9. creosote (n.) A colourless oily liquid, of complex composition, with odour like that of smoked meat, and burning taste, obtained from the distillation of wood-tar, and having powerful antiseptic properties.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Infinite Jest Diary #1

Hello readers! Sorry I let almost all of May slip by without posting anything. I'm going to make up for it with a vengeance this summer, hopefully, because this week I started reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. This has been an intended project of mine for a long time, and now I feel ready. According to Dave Eggers' foreword, I am two years older than the book's average reader.

There are several blogs and websites about people's experiences reading this novel, notably Infinite Summer, which provided a place for those reading it during the summer of 2009. I just now read the reading tips posted there by Matt Bucher, and am glad to see I was doing some of the things already, like:

Read the endnotes.
Use bookmarks.
Abuse your copy. (I already have quite a few dogears & underlines: part of what I'll share here.)
Keep notes.

One that I might do additionally is "Employ a reader's guide." One of the books Bucher recommends, for example, has a chronology. The book's chapters are arranged in a non-linear fashion, labeled with sponsored years such as "The Year of the Trial Size Dove Bar." I've been keeping a running list of the years to try to make my own chronology.

One note before I get into my own reading: I just looked up Infinite Jest in WorldCat, and it only has two subject headings: Addicts - Fiction and Compulsive behavior - Fiction. Is the second meant to describe the entire book, product and process?

I'm 60 pages in (921 + endnotes to go), and already I have so much to think about. I've already written quite a bit on this blog about how brilliant DFW's writing is, and what a tragedy it is that he won't write anymore, so I'll try to avoid generalizations like that. Why don't I start with something simple, like a quotation and a list of words?

"Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he's devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It's hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency." (p. 54)
(by the way, I'm reading the 2006 Back Bay paperback 10th anniversary edition)

To me, this is a classic DFW passage. A brilliant and concise observation that reflects a large theme but doesn't diminish the book's other details, followed by pull-back, a deflection that there might be judgment or superiority in said observation.

Okay, now for a list of the words I've so far encountered with which I was previously unfamiliar, and then I swear I'll stop. All definitions are (selectively) from the OED, unless otherwise noted.

1. wen (n.) A sebaceous cystic tumour under the skin, occurring chiefly on the head.
2. creatus (imagine a horizontal line over the a) "Latin for "creation," the line over the a indicates the vowel is pronounced as in "hate" rather than in "father." " (from the Infinite Jest wiki)
3. caries (n.) Decay of the bones or teeth or decay of vegetable matter.
4. amanuensis (n.) One who copies or writes from the dictation of another.
5. fantod (n.) A crotchety way of acting. ("gives her the fantods")

Friday, April 30, 2010

To Do

Every morning when I get to work, I make a to-do list for the day. I have one for the week, and one for the semester/summer. I have a personal one on my iPod. I email myself things to do, write them down, and think about them on the bus and when I'm going to sleep. And Molly Peacock wrote a poem about this process that I wish I'd written. It captures both the anxiety and reassurance of having, and coming up with, things to do on both the smallest and largest of scales - a distinctly adult feeling, I think.

I got her book Raw Heaven last night, at the money pit that is Harvard Bookstore's extensive and wonderfully organized used section. I know the poetry section well enough to know that a lot of the books were new additions, and this was one of them. Anyway, on the last day of National Poetry Month, here's the poem for you.

Things to Do

Planning and worrying and waking up
in the morning with items on the list
clanking like quarters in the brain's tin cup,
this and that and what you might have missed
or who pissed you off, suspends you in a state
that wishes and hopes for its goal like some
little one wiggling in a chair who can't wait
for when her legs will reach the floor. The numb
knockings of anxiety are like the heels
of sturdy little shoes steadily beating
on upholstery. It's how anyone feels
having been put into a chair, meeting
responsibilities from a padded perch
too big for anyone's ass. As monarchs
we make ourselves small and govern in search
of what we'll grow into. Except we are
as big as we'll ever get and have gone as far.

From Raw Heaven by Molly Peacock. New York: Vintage Books, 1984. (p. 18)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Slapdash & vigour

Though I finished Volume One of Virginia Woolf's diary a long time ago, I still have flags sticking out of pages everywhere, marking passages I wanted to record. (And you'd better watch out, because not only are there several more diaries, but I also picked up all six volumes of her letters for a very reasonable price at a used bookstore a couple of weeks ago.)

Without further ado, here are some thoughts V.W. had on writing.

"L[eonard] and I argued...about the worthlessness of all human works except as a means of keeping the workers happy. My writing now delights me solely because I love writing and dont [sic], honestly, care a hang what anyone says. What seas of horror one dives through in order to pick up these pearls -- however they are worth it." (20)

"It is fatal not to write the thing one wants to write at the moment of wanting to write it. Never thwart a natural process." (198)

"Its [sic] the curse of a writers [sic] life to want praise so much, & be so cast down by blame, or indifference. The only sensible course is to remember that writing is after all what one does best; that any other work would seem to me a waste of life; that I make one hundred pounds a year; & that some people like what I write." (214)

(That last sentence one of the understatements of the century.)

And finally, on writing her diary:

"[I] read as one always does read one's own writing, with a kind of guilty intensity. I confess that the rough & random style of it, often so ungrammatical, & crying for a word altered, afflicted me somewhat....And now I may add my little compliment to the effect that it has a slapdash & vigour, & sometimes hits an unexpected bulls eye....What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit, & yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace any thing, solemn, slight, or beautiful that comes in to my mind." (267)

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Bitchy book review

When I first saw the pile of copies of Marilyn Johnson's book This Book is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All at ALA Midwinter, I was naturally very excited. Not so excited that it didn't get in line behind a lot of other books, but still. Anyway, now that I've finished the book, I have very conflicted feelings about it. A librarian writing on her blog about a book that's about librarians and blogs and books is either very meta or very insular. I can't decide.

In any case. Around the halfway point of the book, I was feeling really irritated with the whole thing. I wasn't sure why Johnson was choosing to concentrate on things that I personally find sort of useless, like Second Life and book cart drill teams. Eventually I accepted that Johnson wasn't writing a comprehensive or focused book. She was following the random threads and paths that research often takes.

And she's narrating her personal experience the whole time. I think part of why I reacted to the book so personally was because her tone is so personal. (I also reacted personally because I'm a librarian, but I'll get to that later.) I just occasionally found her tone (well-meaning, enthusiastic) a little irritating. One manifestation of this is the generalizing about librarians as a group. She refers to cupcakes as the "official snack of young librarians" (211). "The silver-haired librarians who got their library degrees way back in the twentieth century came from backgrounds in history and literature" (26). The word visionary pops up about every five pages.

Of course, I am a member of the profession being written about here, so naturally I want to correct what I see as generalizations or inconsistencies. Johnson, for example, dismisses cataloging near the end of the book as one of the more "bloodless" parts of librarianship, but is impressed by how archivists and librarians organize and describe information, both online and in paper. Which IS cataloging. And most librarians I know thought this New York Times article about "hip librarians" (which makes an appearance in the book) was cringe-inducing. It's now become a stereotype to think of librarians as stereotypes (old, shushing, blah blah). And those librarians are hip(ster) because they live in Brooklyn.

Okay, I don't want this to become a total jeremiad, because I do appreciate where Johnson is coming from. I enjoyed many of the interviews she did, and I think librarians need all the positive publicity we can get. There were a couple of chapters that lived up to the book's subtitle, about Radical Reference, the librarians who challenged the Patriot Act, and librarian "missionaries" training students from developing countries. I wish the whole book had been like that. Johnson does get across, for the most part, that librarians are far from being obsolete, and that we want to help people escape "information sickness" and discover the best information for their needs. And she cites her sources, too.

Quotations from This Book is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

A room full of books of one's own

I promised to keep updating with things I liked from volume 1 of Virginia Woolf's diaries. So here are some things she had to say about books and libraries.

"L[eonard] found Desmond at the L.L. [London Library]: together they look up the word f--- in the slang dictionary, & were saddened & surprised to see how the thumb marks of members were thick on the page." (82)

On a London bookshop:

"He would not commit himself to name any probable price, from which I judge that he is calculating on the lust to possess it when I see it. And, after all, nothing gives back more for one's money than a beautiful book - obviously I'm slipping....These bookshops have an air of the 18th century. People drop in and gossip about literature with the shopkeeper who, in this case, knew as much about books as they did. I overheard a long conversation with a parson, who had discovered a shop in Paddington full of Elzevirs." (126)

Apparently the huge publisher Elsevier has been around for a long time, or else the name has been resurrected.

Then there's this slightly puzzling footnote by the editor, Anne Olivier Bell, about a librarian at the London Library who I want to know more about:

"Frederick James Cox (1865-1955) joined the staff of the London Library when he was sixteen and worked there until the year of his death. Installed near the entrance, he acted both as sentry and encyclopaedia." (177)

So there you go. As usual,

All quotations from The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume One 1915-1919, ed. Anne Olivier Bell. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1977.

Paper and electronic books - energy smackdown

I thought this was an interesting comparison of the relative environmental friendliness of e-readers versus books. I'm not against e-readers (though I think I'll always personally prefer a book), and this comparison isn't quite fair, since one e-reader represents several books (though it would have to be replaced more often).

See the NY Times' "op-chart" here.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Accelerated consciousness

Just a quick post. I've been catching up on issues of Poetry, and have had a page in the February issue dogeared for a while now. I've often wondered why poetry - a generally compact form - isn't more popular in a low-attention-span world. Is it because it takes time to create, unlike a Twitter update? Anyway, Durs Grünbein touches on this in a much more articulate way in his essay "Why Live Without Writing." You can read the whole essay here, but I liked this paragraph in particular:

"A few clusters of words express what the lavish epic draws out over hundreds of pages. Or to put it another way: couldn’t it be that poems, as long as they are alert and open to impressions, are novels by other means—and therefore do sterling service to readers short of time and hungry for intensity? What they have to offer are lessons in accelerated consciousness, machete slashes through a tangled world. For aficionados of the concentrated and powerful, they are distilled experience, abbreviations of existence, shocks and pronouncements in droplet form."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

They published your diary, and that's how I got to know you....

For the last couple of weeks, I've been reading volume 1 of Virginia Woolf's diary. Some of it is slow going (I can't keep straight all the people she mentions), but for the most part I am enjoying it very much. VW comes off unquestionably a snob and a classist; she really believes her servants are fundamentally different kind of people than she and her family are. That doesn't keep her, however, from saying wonderfully put things about books, ideas, and humanity (even the servants!). There are also lots of interesting details, especially about the Hogarth Press. Less than one hundred years ago, for example, she saw setting eight pages of type in one day as very fast and efficient.

I've dog-eared about every fifth page so I'll give periodic updates on my favorite bits, hopefully grouped thematically (there are lots of visits to the library). Today, I'll give you the "unclassified" quotations. Also, bonus points to whomever can place the quote that serves as this post's title.

"What a terrible grip Xianity still has -- she became rigid & bigoted at once, as if God himself had her in his grasp. That I believe is still the chief enemy -- the fear of God. But I was tactful enough to keep this view dark." (165)
I think here VW is not criticizing Christians per se, but how the structure and power of organized religion can stifle progress.

"But I was glad to come home, & feel my real life coming back again -- I mean life here with L.[Leonard, her husband]. Solitary is not quite the right word; one's personality seems to echo out across space, when he's not there to enclose all one's vibrations." (70)

"The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think." (22)

All quotations from The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume One 1915-1919, ed. Anne Olivier Bell. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1977.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mirror, Lamp

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a poetry reading by Dan Chiasson, an fellow alumnus who I've seen read before. He has a new book out called Where's the Moon, There's the Moon. I really like his poems; I could never write poems like his - there's something about them, I want to say detachment, but that's not quite right. The point of view is not dependent upon a personality, but it's not impersonal. I don't know. In particular, I liked this short section of a longer poem. I was trying to find a short version of "what M.H. Abrams called 'the lamp,'" but I guess I'll just have to check out from the library, and read, The Mirror and the Lamp. The poem is below. He may not have been talking about this, but it makes me think about fleeting and/or undeserved fame.

8. Abstruser Musing

To be no one at all, merely the latest
to have had his brain
turned inside out by vanity,
so that it shine entirely on itself--

is this what M.H. Abrams called "the lamp"?
I call it masturbation,
not as an insult but an accurate name:
it feels good doing it, and people like to watch.

From Chiasson, Dan. Where's the Moon, There's the Moon. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The miracle of adverbs

I was going to write about Adverbs by Daniel Handler along with Jonah Lehrer's book in the previous post, but then I decided it needed its own entry. So here you are.

One look at the jacket of this book and you have an idea of what you're in for. Cover art by Daniel Clowes, blurbs by Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon, and a meta-blurb by the author on the inside jacket about how authors often write their own dust jacket summaries. Adverbs is subtitled "a novel." Each chapter deals with a set of characters, sometimes with the same names as characters elsewhere in the book and sometimes not. It's clear that some things in the book happen before others (that is, the chapters aren't in chronological order), and there are several repeated themes and places (volcanoes, a San Francisco bar, diamonds, birds, obscure cocktails).

I was at lunch one day reading it, and thought, okay, I need to stop and make a chart with all these people and places and times, and figure out what's going on here. And then in the very next chapter, I read this, in which Handler implies that the same name doesn't always mean the same person:

" many people in this book have the same names. You can't follow all the Joes, or all the Davids or is not any of the nouns. The miracle is the adverbs, the way things are done. It is the way love gets down despite every catastrophe...." (p. 194)

I can't decide if this is an admission that there's not a logical grounding in time and (fictional) reality - or if Handler's just letting his readers off the hook, while secretly encouraging the more ambitious among them to track those images. Either way, I decided to stop worrying about it and just read, the way one of my college Spanish instructors encouraged us to read in a foreign language - just take in the picture the writer is painting, and don't worry about every little word. As a former English major, that's a little difficult for me to do, but not impossible. Especially when there are so many other books to read, and I'm already a couple books past this one.

Despite this quality, which might be frustrating, I did like this book very much. It has clear relatives in David Foster Wallace's stories and Mark Danielewski's books House of Leaves and Only Revolutions - all of which I love. There are very moving parts, especially the chapter entitled "Soundly."

Decisions, decisions

I can't remember how I noticed Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide. I think I was searching for something else in the library catalog and saw it - or maybe it was on the new books cart. In any case, I was very intrigued and checked it out. As someone who is indecisive, and often rehashes old decisions, I thought - ah, this will offer some insight into what my brain is doing. Well, the book turned out to be more about decisions where there is a clear "good" and "bad" outcome - not the sorts of decisions I was thinking about. Not a lot in there about decisions that involve relationships with other people. The interesting thing is, though, I got to a certain point in the book, and one of the illustrative examples started sounding familiar. I realized I had heard Jonah Lehrer on some NPR show, and not remembered his name - but maybe that unconsciously figured into my decision to check out the book. (How meta!)

Anyway. It is a very interesting book and a quick read. A lot of it is about how the brain uses both emotion and reason to make decisions, and when is the "best" time to use each of those. There was also one sentence that stood out to me: "From the perspective of the brain, new ideas are merely several old thoughts that occur at the exact same time." To me, this was very encouraging. To me, it means that innate ability and quick reactions mean very little without constant thinking and learning. That effort and study and actually thinking about things contribute to our ability to solve problems and make decisions. Maybe that's an obvious point. But I thought it bore mentioning.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Free thinkers

I just finished tearing my way ravenously through A.S. Byatt’s latest novel, The Children’s Book. There was so much stuff in it that I’m still thinking about a lot of it and how it fits together. It’s about Victorian and Edwardian England, artists and how what they do affects other people, the idea of “having” children and what that means, and the whole idea of progressiveness and free thinking –the way it sometimes leads to absolutely nothing, its unintended effects. Take “free love” in an era without widespread access to birth control. Guess who bears most of those consequences? (I’ll take “women” for $400, Alex.) Anyway, I raced through the end, as I often do, and was disappointed (as I often am; see my last post). Part of that disappointment, though, I think, comes from how realistic Byatt’s characters are. They make decisions based on circumstances, whim, pragmatism; they die suddenly; they don’t think about how their actions affect others.

Well, I’m done reading it now. It’s received a lot of critical praise, and I think that’s warranted. Now, however, I’m ready for something completely different. This is how I tend to read. I don’t go on “kicks” where I read a lot of the same kind of thing. I just finished an exhaustively researched and detailed historical novel by a British woman, so what’s next? Eldridge Cleaver’s 1968 memoir Soul on Ice (sure to be unsettling in many ways), alternated with Molly Peacock’s book of poems Take Heart. Then on, perhaps, to my long list of “Books to Check Out”....