Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Dean Rader, a prof at the University of San Francisco, is creating a list of history’s top ten poets. I love games of this kind. With no attempt to defend or justify my choices, here are my top ten (unlike Rader, I’ve restricted myself to the English language):

1. W. Shakespeare

2. John Donne

3. John Milton

4. William Wordsworth

5. Samuel T. Coleridge

6. A. (L.) Tennyson

7. Emily Dickinson

8.Walt Whitman

9. W. B. Yeats

10. T.S. Eliot


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Or maybe the rodeo clowns. And taxes, man, taxes are the rodeo. I’ve tried riding the bull over the last week, but I think I’ve just been thrown and trampled. I’m only now finishing up what have been the most gruelingly complex sets of taxes I have ever done, and the hundreds of dollars I might have unnecessarily paid thanks to my own failure to understand the tax code is at this point less painful than the headache which has grown as a result of repeated attempts to reach said understanding.

Here is a short but good piece in last week’s New Yorker on additions made to the paperback edition of DFW’s The Pale King (which I have not read). I promise, it’s relevant.

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Where writers sleep

V. Hugo’s Bedchamber

This is entertaining to me: Literary Style: 15 Writers’ Bedrooms

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Those of you who’ve read Infinite Jest may recall a certain lengthy chapter in which the gifted young members of Enfield Tennis Academy play a game called Eschaton, which game involves mapping out the planet on a set of six tennis courts, complete with countries, cities, military bases, and other sites of strategic significance, and then blowing the hell out of that map with old tennis balls that represent five-megaton nuclear warheads. It’s sortof the play-within-a-play of the novel, and Wallace makes it sound both intentionally/perversely complex (gameplay requires a referree with a computer on a cart to calculate structural damage, civilian casualties, military impact, etc. of each tennis ball launched while accounting for localized geography and prevailing winds and the many other variables which come into play in any event of nuclear war) and weirdly also like a possibly fun game.

The Decemberists have an enjoyable but disappointingly bloodless* portrayal of the game in one of their music videos:

Last weekend at the pub I had a discussion with friends F____ and C____, who reminded me that many schools  already have Quidditch teams–that Quidditch is in fact fast becoming a major intercollegiate sport, with some schools I am told having official uniforms and large audiences and paid coaches and if you only click one link on this blog it should probably be this one–and so it stands to reason that the mathematicians and science nerds and tennis champions of America’s universities should also have a made-up game that suits their unique skills. The challenge, though, will be to simplify Eschaton sufficiently for it to actually be playable, without removing too many of the absurd statistical complications which are its raison d’etre. One example of a playable version (provided you have a few tennis courts and a lot of time at your disposal) is here (and thanks to F____ for the link). Next, I need to get a beanie cap with a propeller on it, just in case of Utter Global Crisis.

*In Wallace’s version (spoiler alert!), the game goes to hell a little more dramatically after Evan Ingersoll lobs his warhead at the head of Ann Kittenplan, which action results in a melee of unexpected and overt violence and ends with Otis P. Lord (who is the referee and thus God for the purposes of the game) with his head jammed through the glass screen of his computer monitor.

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This post is brought to you by Claritin Decongestant, vintage 2011. I have a minor cold, and the only decongestants I possess, as it turns out, expired in January over a year ago. The internet refuses to tell me whether there is any danger in taking expired drugs (apparently some other less courageous bloggers are concerned about things like liability), but I’ll let you know if any unexpected side effects take place. From what I’ve been able to glean online, the dangers of pseudoephedrine include weird rashes, shortness of breath, and an inability to pee. So far, so good.

I finished Infinite Jest. I’ll be trying to wrap my mind around all of that for a while yet, and maybe I’ll do some thinking in writing later on, but I won’t say much about it now except to note that I’ll never look at the game of tennis, the neighborhood of Allston, or people in wheelchairs the same way again.

For my next book, I went on an internet and used book store binge, and stocked up on a few new things*. Normally, I get my books from the library or borrow them from friends (unless people are good enough to give them to me as gifts, as was the case with Infinite Jest), because I shun material possessions (we must not underestimate inanimate objects),but sometimes I see certain pressing deficiencies in myself and then develop vague ambitions to cure those deficiencies by means of buying a book** (because merely borrowing a book just doesn’t speak of real seriousness of purpose). So, here is a list:

Breakthrough Rapid Reading, by Peter Kump.◊ I am a pretty slow reader. I always have been. Until I went to grad school, this wasn’t really a big deal, but it’s since become more or less fatal. Spending a month and a half on Infinite Jest was bad, but it wasn’t atypical. If I want to have time for both scholarship and adventure, I need to accelerate. I am a little skeptical of speed reading–I have a suspicion that I might already be reading as fast as my brain can process the words, and so the real hindrance is less my reading skill than my inherent stupidity–but I figure I don’t have much to lose and I’d really like to be able to read like this guy. I picked Kump because he had the most positive reviews on amazon. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Must We Mean What We Say, by Stanley Cavell. Cavell always has amazing things to say about literally everything, and is one of my two favorite literary critics named Stanley. As an undergraduate I was at least nominally a philosophy minor, which means that I took classes on the Greeks, the 18th century rationalists, and the existentialists. It turns out, though, that the real action these days has more to do with guys like Heidegger and Wittgenstein and J.L. Austen–people who talk less about ideas, and more about the systems of language that make those ideas possible. I’m still working to get in on that action. Stanley will help. He will also, probably, take about two months to read.

Beyond Good & Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (Walter Kaufmann translation). They actually spelled “and” as “&” in the title, and there is a stylized picture of a yin/yang type apple divided in twain, which I guess makes it look a little more hip and philosophy-of-the-futuristic. This is my speed reading practice book; I’m pretty sure the Übermensch can read really fast.

The Wine Bible, by Karen MacNeil. My friend C____ in New York just became a licensed sommelier. Long boozy talks to follow. This book is about 900 pages long, but I still feel like I should have paid more and bought the deluxe package–you know, the one that comes with samples.◊◊

*This blog is sometimes I think going to be an account of what I’m reading, which I acknowledge might not be the most fascinating subject. About a year ago, I created an account at goodreads.com, having always espoused the theory that what you read says a lot about who you are. I never used that account, never bothered to look at what any of my friends were reading, and was just generally bored by the entire thing. Maybe it was the lack of commentary that was bringing me down. In middle school, they gave us a gift certificate for a milkshake at Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza if you read like twenty books. Without that incentive, I feel like formal reading lists can get tedious.

**This  practice has served me well in the past. For instance, I wanted to learn to speak French, so I got one of those non-Rosetta Stone courses-in-a-book. Now I’ve moved on to Harry Potter Et Le Prisonnier D’Azkaban, and I’m making grand progress. I wanted to kick some ass on the LSAT, and so I ordered the Princeton Review prep book and a dozen practice tests, and now I’m on the fast track to success in the legal profession and, more immediately, potentially big bucks in the LSAT tutoring industry. Or, to get closer to the root of the method, consider the time when, twelve years old,  I asked my mom with complete innocence of intent “what is this sex thing I’ve heard so much about from my peers?” To which she responded “I’ll buy you a book.” The manual she procured had pastel pictures, and a title something like God’s Plan for Your Body, and although it was relatively short on technical details its fundamental lessons have withstood the test of time.

◊I feel like this last name must have some valuable use as a verb. Like maybe something vaguely onomatopoeic, ie. failing to properly execute an attempted leap and falling down. “I was trying to save time at the crossing, but I kumped into the creek instead.”

◊◊Note to self: create wine book that comes with samples. Why doesn’t this already exist?

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Dickens World

Among many things I learned yesterday, the best is probably that there is a Charles Dickens theme park in the UK. Apparently, the attraction has been heavily promoted as containing Europe’s longest indoors dark ride, the Great Expectations log flume*.

Other favorite attractions, I assume, include the pastie stand (at which an eccentric spinster who may be more than she appears sells meat pies of questionable origin, along with the latest gossip) and the Debtor’s Prison (where you spend all day chained to the floor eating gruel with a wooden spoon, but are then released thanks to the intervention of a mysterious figure from your past).

They should wise up and combine this very British attraction with Universal’s Harry Potter land, for the ultimate whimsical English literary amusement park (it could have the same Debtor’s Prison attraction, but instead of jail you’re stuck in Uncle Vernon’s closet and referred to only as “that boy”. Also, there are really fierce potions exams).

If these two parks are as successful as they clearly deserve to be, we could see a wave of novelist-inspired amusement parks in the near future. Here are some other literary attractions I’d like to see:

1. F. Scott Fitzgerald land: Charlston! Jet boat rides, cocktails, lots of smoking. It costs a thousand dollars to get in (but even then, no amount of money will buy you acceptance among the park’s high society).

2. Thomas Mann Land:(“The Magic Mountain”–no, wait, that’s already taken) Come for a day, stay all month. Naptime is Mandatory.

3. Oscar Wilde Land: Not unlike Dickens World, except with a thriving red light district.

4. James Joyce Land: It’s like every theme park ever made (you know, with like roller coasters, fantasy characters, mini-golf, rickety carnival rides, etc. and especially really impressively detailed bathrooms), all combined into one park that looks a lot like the city of Dublin. A perpetual fixture on “banned theme park” lists.

5. Jonathan Swift Land: First, things are much too small. Then, they’re much too big. Then, you have to play around in the muck while a noble race of horses shames you with its obvious moral superiority. Also, are you sure that’s chicken in the food court?

6. Thomas Pynchon Land: A consumerist wonderland, but the more spectacular souvenirs you buy, the emptier you feel inside**.

7. David Foster Wallace Land (A Supposedly Fun Theme Park I’ll Never Go To Again): Same as #6, but with really brutal games of tennis.

8. Hemingway Land: Attractions include the tavern, the bull arena, and a safari area where you can get as close to the animals as you want… if you’re brave enough. Also, there’s another tavern.

9. Joseph Conrad Land: Much like Disney’s jungle cruise, but with more surprises and hidden perils (the greatest of which lurks within your own soul!). Probably an equal number of animatronic hippopotami.

10. J. R. R. Tolkien Land: (One Amusement Park To Rule Them All) Pretty much the entire country of New Zealand.

*I need to do some rereading. I had entirely forgotten about Pip’s thrilling flume ride.

**No, this is not the same as every other theme park ever. Those lollypops with the mouse ears bring real spiritual satisfaction!

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Digital futures

Some good stuff on das internet this week.

First, Larry Summers made some bold but also weirdly plausible claims about the future of higher education, the central point being that even though we’ve been teaching people more or less the same way for the past fifty years (with semesters, classrooms, and other increasingly obsolete fixtures), there are plenty of other ways that we might teach things and those (other ways)  might be better. My favorite part is when he speculates that students of the future will all listen to podcasts of the world’s elite lecturers, while all the rest of the teachers everywhere just answer questions and lead discussions and grade papers. That sounds good in some ways (except for those of us who love to lecture), but it also sounds a little like 99% of PhDs of the future are going to be adjuncts. Which, I guess, how is that any different from the way things already are?.

Then, Stanley Fish posted yet another article in a series of columns which have (1.) explained what the “Digital Humanities” are* and (2.) suggested that they are in fact the future–the Next Big Thing–in literary criticism and theory. There must have been some confusion here (I know I’ve been confused), because Fish has written several increasingly specific columns on the subject, of which the latest is by far the best because it includes a Practical Demonstration of Fish Fishing around in Milton’s Areopagitica. It’s a persuasive and a fun essay about why computers will Change Everything, and why the people who are concerned by that possibility (Philistines who want to preserve the integrity of interpretation**) should stop worrying and learn to love the internet.

All of which he says better than I can: “whatever vision of the digital humanities is proclaimed, it will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play.” Apparently, it’s the death of the author all over again.

*Which has been helpful for me because I don’t really know anything about the field, although I did attend a very interesting presentation by Franco Moretti in which he retold the story of Hamlet through diagrams like this:

and talked about what happens when you try “mapping” the story rather than “reading” it. I should add that these maps are also great for graduate seminars and classroom presentations, because you can put them up on the projector and give everybody something to look at. It has always been my suspicion that computers will serve much the same purpose in scholarship as they have elsewhere: entertainment.  You can read some more of Moretti’s work on this subject, including a very excellent essay called Network Theory, Plot Analysis in the New Review, but only if you have access through a University or through your very own private subscription. Or if you just want to shell out a stupid amount of money◊.

**My words, not his.

◊Not surprisingly, there are some who have speculated (just last week) that the internet has the answer to this problem, too.

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