Monthly Archives: March 2013

Ask The Book To Read Page Two

computer graphics lines

Welcome to your book

Maybe we watched part of the future being born. I rode last Sunday with a friend to Charlottesville, Virginia (about two hours away), where the Virginia Festival of the Book was taking place. Our quest focused on one of the festival presentations, the location of which we spent a good while searching for. There was no sign saying where to go once you got there, so you knew literary people were in charge.

Still, the presentation was well worth the drive and the hunt to find it. We finally found ourselves at the Virginia Arts of the Book Center, which we entered through a room full of old printing presses and loose type, to a room where we saw a presentation on a digital edition of a book of poetry by Mary-Sherman Willis, called Caveboy. Months ago my friend and I heard Mary-Sherman read from that book, and I was impressed enough at the time to blog about it.

To circle back around to the future, let’s consider two things, the book Caveboy and the room where we were sitting. Part of Caveboy involves scenes of young people deep in a cave painting on the walls, perhaps the first time human beings made a recording of something from their imagination.

As to the room, during the presentation we were surrounded by a half dozen small plexiglass cases on white wooden stands, and inside each was a display of tiny colorful “books”, the sort of thing that art teachers may have their students create. These miniatures were all no more than three or four inches square, and many of them consisted of a long strip of paper that folded up. Would you call those small creations books? Or would you call painting on a cave wall a book?

Maybe not, so let’s go in another direction. Caveboy has been published in two forms, one of which is the traditional paper format. Looks like a book. The other form, created by Katherine McNamara, the publisher (who was also present), uses a new technology available so far only from Apple iBook. In this form, the text of a poem can appear line by line on the “page” (a metaphor, you know, as we’re really talking about a screen). The technology also includes images and a recording of Mary-Sherman reading the poems aloud.

Would you call digital Caveboy a book? One of the speakers for this presentation was Molly Schwartzburg, a librarian for the University of Virginia, a school founded, for those of you who can appreciate true coolness, by Thomas Jefferson. Schwartzburg called the current situation regarding books a state of “chaos” and said it is not possible to clearly name what is happening.

So what is a book?

As I listened, it occurred to me that the question is actually more profound than first appears. Consider the book as we have known it since the ancient Egyptians, through Aristotle, through medieval manuscripts, through the invention of printing, and down to e-readers like the Kindle. In a deep sense, from Cleopatra to the Kindle, they are all the same—they are merely different technological ways of presenting long blocks of text. Even when images are added, whether medieval or modern, those images are still, flat, and silent.

E-books, for all the talk of whether or not they are replacing “books”, are themselves an extension of an old-fashioned technology. The digital version of Caveboy, however (along with other things on the internet) is stepping into a new world conceptually. It is using, and helping to invent, a new way of presenting information that goes beyond a reader interpreting lines of text. In the way that the viewer experiences and interacts with the information, this is a new world. It is perhaps in some ways a more passive world, but I don’t have space here for that discussion.

A much more interesting question than whether an e-reader is a book is whether the “book” as long blocks of text will survive. We are hardly going to turn our backs on the amazing possibilities of digital Caveboy, but I believe books with long blocks of text will survive. (After the presentation I was interviewed by a local TV station, and in a clip I saw later, I made that point in my ten seconds of fame.)

Greek carving on stone

Still readable

There are advantages to the older books. This new digital format is deeply dependent on technology. To read the digital Caveboy requires an extremely sophisticated piece of technology plus electrical power. We can still read texts from thousands of years ago, but some digital recordings are already impossible to read because the technology used to record them is outdated.

Regarding books as page after page of text, this is true too: books as long texts will survive because we will want them to. We don’t want to lose the pleasure of losing ourselves in Poe or Pasternak, or in those writers 300 years hence who can roll out the same rich scroll.

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Say, Did You Just Make That Up?

men without faces

Members of They

What if we took some set of sounds that are only nonsense in English, such as “flickyfloop”. And then imagine that everyone who speaks English agrees (the agreement is the important part) that this combination of sounds will mean the way you stand in one place and jump up and down to show how happy you are.

All I’m doing there is illustrating the idea that words are nothing but noises until people agree to give them meaning. Words exist because of social agreement. Of course we don’t always completely agree, and sometimes it’s a wondrous muddle that we communicate at all. I’ve had some fairly stupid arguments myself, where my interlocutor and I laid aside our real topic of strife, to batter at one another about misusing a word, and then the meaning of the word became the argument.

I’m not saying you should try that at home. But if you’re not a writer, then you’re probably smart enough not to do that anyway. I’m that way, a word freak, a language geek, my mind swirling with sounds and variations and the subtleties of how to use them, and they need to be right. I notice words constantly, in speech, in writing, everywhere I go.

Since I don’t have a “topic” for this blog entry that would justify removing those quotation marks, let’s consider some words that have blown through my house this week, beginning in the kitchen. I have a housemate who lives in a world where logic is rarely allowed to intrude and disturb her opinions. In her special world, there is an important place for the pronoun “they”, or to more properly represent her usage, They.

Pronouns normally have very little meaning by themselves. They’re just quick summary noises that let us avoid having to repeat nouns all the time. The real meaning is in the nouns the pronouns point to, but my housemate is nudging “They” into nounhood, as there is no real noun, no actual thing, behind the word when she uses it.

Her mysterious They is an unknown entity that controls things, though one could not say They are part of an actual conspiracy, as that would step too far in the direction of logic. Instead, They are like quantum particles, showing up in unexpected places with no connection to the starting point. In the chaotic world of my housemate’s mind, They do whatever pops into her head at any given moment, like control the oil supply or refuse to replace slums.

In addition to a kookyville conversation, this has been an unusual week. I bought a car on Wedneday (the first day of spring, so my car is green), and I’ve had a bit of actual work to do. Drawing on my humble honest labors, let’s move from creepy pseudo-noun to a couple of real nouns, words that were new to me this week. I had to look them up, which I did on the internet, so I know I got this right.

Back on Monday I was editing an article on ceramics research sent to me by a researcher in China. And I know you’re thinking “Wow, Davy, you know about ceramics research?” No, of course not. I was an English major. I don’t know about anything. I can edit, though, and in the article I found the word “permittivity”. Does that look correct to you? It has an extra “t”, right? Not according to the ultimate source of all knowledge (Google). As to what “permittivity” means, who cares, we’re not doing ceramics research here. But it’s spelled correctly.

Also this week I was writing an article for the Penn State Hershey College of Medicine alumni magazine. (Isn’t that a mouthful? Like, say, chocolate.). In some information I was looking at before calling to interview a doctor, I found the word “motoneurons” that send signals to move muscles. Shouldn’t that be motorneuron, damn it? Where did the “r” go? Sheesh, these scientists. People who don’t do well in English classes go into science and start throwing away letters of the alphabet. We need those letters, people.

For lovely language, on the other hand, I’m reading a book of short stories by the Irish writer Edna O’Brien, who I was not aware of until last Sunday when I bought this book. She uses very interesting language sometimes, including words that I assume must be Irish dialect words, as I’ve never seen them before and can’t figure out where she got them.

Besides the dialect words, in the story “Manhattan Medley”, I found some words I could understand, but I think she made them up. I’m so charmed by the idea she invented them (something I like to do) that I’m deliberately not looking to see whether the words already existed. I’ve heard of a “miscreant” as a wrongdoing rascal, but O’Brien used the word “miscreance”, I suppose for the general act of doing wrong.

I plan to put that word on my flag, if I ever have a flag. In fact I want a flag now just to have that word on it. I’m going to make that word my motto. So watch out if you come to my house. It won’t be They causing problems. It will be me.

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This I/Me Wrote Yesterday

"Linen" by Natalya Goncharova

“Linen” by Natalya Goncharova

With a paintbrush, you can swirl any color in any direction, and that variety is basically infinite. For a painter, that opens a plenitude of possibilities, and I assume that having the universe at your finger tips can be very satisfying emotionally. We writers are remarkably limited in that sense. Until recently, and for the most part even now, what we do is black on white. In addition, because it is the nature of language (and thus writing) to move in one direction, writing is linear. A dramatic example of this is the fact that if you had a big enough piece of paper, the novel War and Peace could be one straight line.

Yet I would claim, with evidence that sparkles like the jewels of truth, that when it comes to imagination, creative ambition, or outright inconsolable craziness, writers can take on visual artists any day of the week. Except Fridays. We stay home on Fridays with all the lights turned off.

It makes tremendous sense to me that writers could be the sort of people who would on occasion feel rebellious against black and white in straight lines on a rectangle. It isn’t difficult to find such rebellion rising up in the Rectangular Kingdom. Almost from the moment the first novel was published in English (Robinson Crusoe in 1719, not that dull trash Pamela as many people claim), Lawrence Stern wrote the parody Tristram Shandy (1759) that included elements challenging the idea of what a book is, such as a blank white page for the reader to draw a picture.

More recently and vividly, the Russian futurists, having sadly arrived in the world 100 years too early for the internet (around 1910), created works using images and color and in which words did not follow straight lines. Stretching writing in a different way, James Joyce kept the black lines in a rectangle, but pushed the ideas and even the words themselves hard enough to fall off the edge (Ulysses in 1922, Finnegans Wake in 1939). I was told in college that Faulkner, writing most prominently around the 1930s, wished he could use color (although there’s a dude who managed some crazy shit without color).

We could find other examples of pushing the envelope on what writing is, and not just in English. The technological possibilities with the internet are in some ways leading us into a new world for writing, like an ancient Egyptian writing on a piece of papyrus who looks up to see a glossy modern magazine. Several years ago I published a hypertext story in an online magazine, written so that the reader would choose links of what to read, helping to create the story as they went. Many other writers have also tried this, and more will.

Of course, even if it’s exciting artistically to create a story like that, it has a serious downside. You can stick a paperback novel in your pocket and read it when you want, even years later. A hypertext story, no matter how glittery and cool it is with links and color and gosh who knows what, needs the technology for the reader to experience it. A computer. Electricity. Possibly the internet. With the story I published, for example, the page that says the story exists is still there, but the story is gone.

Mostly I write fairly straightforward narrative (if elements of magic are straightforward), but now and then the whiskey mood hits me and I’m tired of walking in a straight line. So I write in styles that I consider “experimental”, gathering my test tubes full of words and cranking up the machine that makes blue sparks. I figured out a few years ago that I seem to have two basic approaches to this. Either the story itself is a fairly normal tale of anguish and woe (human life) but with radically reaching on style, or else the style is an easy readable form, but the story does unusual things.

Lately I’m in a whiskey mood, and a week ago I finished a story using each of those approaches. In the “normal tale/stretched style” story, I wrote about a man murdering his wife, but the story is told entirely from the point of view of four animals, dog, cat, bird, and cockroach. Here, for instance, is a “sentence” from the dog’s section: “two-legged-dog-with-high-sounds give me touchtouchtouch, but MeMeMe hungry— two-legged-dog-with-deep-sounds come into room, loud, MeMeMe smell hair bristle/snarl/dry mouth.” I also inserted pictures of the animals to indicate who is speaking.

It’s probably not for everyone. Most readers would find the style of the other story much easier to read, but the story itself takes place in four time periods (1965, 1979, 2002, 2033), telling the life of a woman from ages 5 to 73. In this story I tried to keep the point of view focused on how the character might feel at each age. [1965] She waggled the doll back and forth, and influenced by the drawing she had just done, she spoke for the doll. “I’m going to the circus. I want to see the lions and I think I’ll ride on an elephant.” [2033] Unexpected memories seemed to swirl through Marci on a daily basis, tiny bits of the past suddenly filling her mind. It was certainly ironic, given how bad her memory was now.

At the moment, I’m working on two more stories, also experimental. Maybe sometimes when my own life feels small and restricted, I’m more in the mood to pick up a bag of words and fling them out into the universe, as a way of saying, “You can’t stop me.”

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Raise Our Hopes

Woman walking on airLet’s take an optimistic phrase like “raise standards”. If we were to attempt this wildly optimistic task, then fail, we might be “down in the dumps”. While I go get myself a beer, you take a minute and consider what these phrases have in common—hint, it’s two things. If you figure it out before I get back, you can have some of my beer. A little.

I don’t hear any volunteers, unless you’re pounding on your computer screen yelling, “I got it! Gimme a sip!” So let’s add a few more phrases: walking on air, lower expectations, climb the ladder of success, come up in the world, the computer system is down.

Every one of those phrases indicates two things—direction (call it up or down) and an emotional assessment (call it good or bad). More simply, up is good, down is bad. Look at them again and consider it.

With a little effort, we can think of more phrases like this, and I want to make the argument, without overloading this blog entry, that this phenomenon is not just in English, so a few quick examples.
French: They want to raise standards in schools. Ils veulent élever le niveau dans les écoles [élever—to raise].
Russian: raising standards—повышение стандартов [повышение—raising].
Spanish: raise standards—levantar estándares (or elevar los niveles) [levantar, elevar—to raise]

We see this phenomenon show up in language, which is how we express our understanding of the world, but the understanding itself lies deep within the brain, so deep, in fact, that only a very smart person could have realized that we do this. That person was not me. Although I have now given great thought to this idea, I took this example from the book Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

A metapor is not just something that English teachers use to beat students up with. Hell, I can think of plenty of other reasons to beat students up. Although a metaphor looks like a way of using language, it’s actually part of the way our mind tries to make sense of the world. When we encounter things that are unfamiliar (and starting from birth, that’s a mighty damn lot of stuff), the mind looks for what we already know, and tries to compare. Is this weird new thing at least similar to something I already know, so that I don’t feel so lost and freaked out?

A metaphor is a comparison of two things. You can tell when you’re dealing with a metaphor by asking whether the word or phrase in question is literally, physically true. Is it something I could see with my eyes? Going back to the phrase “raise standards”—am I holding the standards in my hand and lifting them above the floor? No. The phrase is just a metaphor, and up is good.

Why is it true that up is good and down is bad? What I’m going to say here is not based on what smart people have said, but only what I say. Start with the idea that every human being carries this metaphor in their subconscious. If that’s true (and it is), then the answer is probably not based on culture, since there are so many different cultures.

Nevertheless, some interesting possible answers arise before we consider that the answers depend on culture. Mount Olympus, for instance. It’s up high, and the gods live there. Or Heaven is above us and Hell is below. But do you really think Heaven is physically above us? Have our rockets just not flown far enough yet to bump into it? Some other possible answers: kings sit on thrones, rich people live in penthouses. But these are all cultural answers.

Consider instead, if it’s true that every human being carries this metaphor in their subconscious, what do all human beings have in common? We all breathe air, we all eat food, we’re all born, we all have a physical body that exists in the world and is affected by gravity…

Now add in what we have in common that relates to up and down.

able to run—helpless
free—held down

And of course some smartass will always say “I like sleeping”, but what if you were simply asked “which of these two columns would you say is good, and which is bad?” Up is good, down is bad. By the age of two we’ve experienced enough to already know this. Thus it shows up in our language. Now you can add your own phrase to that list I have up above. In fact, you might do it as a comment, so that other people can see it.

[By the way, up above I used the phrase “understanding itself lies deep within the brain”, in which “lies” and “deep” are both metaphors. We can’t say they are physically true.]

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Bastion Against the Barbarians

photo of the Library of Congress

This is your library

Just imagine how different America would be if more members of Congress knew how to read. I’m fantasizing pretty wildly, given that one of our political parties has turned slack-jawed ignorance into a noble virtue. (Yeah, I’m looking at you, “intelligent designers”.) Congress has the best and largest library in the world, and if they were to use it, think how much they could learn that would be useful to a legislator: the history of Russia, Muslim culture, basic junior high biology.

This past week with members of a science writing group I belong to I went to the Library of Congress. We were in the Adams Building, which houses the Science, Technology, and Business Division, behind the main library building. We entered through some of the usual security, then up the elevator, down a hall, through the reading room, up some stairs, down another hall, and to a small room with a big table. We began by meeting with Connie Carter, head of the Science Reference Section. Connie is clearly enthusiastic about her work, and when she talked it was obvious that she was excited by her topic.

Part of our presentation involved show-and-tell, as Connie passed things around, including samples from a series of pamphlets called Girls and Science Education. According to Connie, the library has a “fabulous collection” of science activities for school children. She also showed us a photograph of Isaac Asimov with a former librarian, framed with a limerick he had written for her, beginning “Said a certain young damsel named Ruth”. Unlike really good limericks, however, there was nothing obscene about it.

I’ve spent most of my life around and in libraries, and I was married to a librarian. Listening to the librarians here at the Library of Congress, I was struck by the fact that although the library is HUGE, it’s…just a library. You can go there, talk to librarians (or call or email them), and look at books. The librarians help you find things, and they stressed how much they want to do that.

Many people do go there for research, and while the science section may be mostly people working in science (I’m guessing), we were given the example of the novel The Family That Couldn’t Sleep that was researched there with help from the librarians. Another example Connie gave of helping people with research was a book she had located, in which a doctor talked about how he treated Lincoln after he was shot. She found that book for an actor preparing for a movie role about Lincoln (not the recent Spielberg movie). As she said of these activities, “It is fun to be a library of last resort. We have a great time.”

While we were visiting the library I was also thinking about something I’ve pondered on other occasions, the changing nature of libraries with new technology. One of the other science writers addressed this, asking whether the Library of Congress is working on digitizing the entire collection, to which Connie responded “We’ll never be able to do that.” Another librarian, later in the evening also said, “If anyone tells you the print book is dead, they are lying to you.”

Nevertheless, a little over 100 years ago we began creating new ways to record information other than on pieces of paper, and that process has shifted to high speed in the last 20 years. The Library of Congress, like any other library, has to respond to the changes. I asked whether they also collect things that only exist in digital form. One of the librarians (let it be noted, a young one) said she had proposed that the library collect certain science blogs, an idea that has been accepted. In addition, even now the library has not only a webpage, but a Flickr page and a Youtube page for videos of talks people are asked to give.

Following our talks with the librarians we were taken to the science reading room. The room is less grand than in the main library across the street, yet it has carved stonework and square pillars on the sides, and if you don’t look too closely, the carvings seem a bit Mayan in style. Another large room has somewhat the ambiance of an old-fashioned bank, back when banks believed in grandeur (before they succumbed to the American belief that tawdry cheapness looks “modern”).

The librarians emphasized that they want people to come in, to use the library in person. Every librarian who talked to us was very friendly, and all of them seemed enthused about what they do. Which was good to hear. They help to keep the barbarians from climbing over the walls, even if they can’t keep those barbarians from being elected.

[Since this is my personal blog and therefore not required to make sense in any fashion, I want to add an unrelated item—back in smarty pants school we called that a non sequitur. I learned this week that I did not get a science writing job I wanted very much. Well, the planet earth can kiss my ass, but as long as I’m forced to be here and endure this world, I will by God enjoy it. Yesterday evening I had an opportunity to spend time with Sergei Tolstoy, the great-grandson of the Tolstoy of War and Peace fame, and I made a point of speaking some with Sergei in Russian. He’s 90 years old, and I was a little shocked how healthy, lively, and intense he is. I thought “My God, you can be like this at 90? Sign me up.”

And I know, he’s only the great-grandson. That’s pretty far removed from great-grandpappy with the beard, and we didn’t talk about literature at all. But hey, did you get to spend the evening having wine with Tolstoy’s great-grandson listening to stories about being in Paris with his mother or working as an intelligence agent at the end of WWII? Huh, didya?]

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