From New To Old

(1) New Words Written

        -- Mary Ruefle, Trances of the Blast


(2) Old Words Unused

In the three decades I’ve been teaching, I find that the subset of students is steadily increasing who consider nearly all words of three or more syllables pretentious, with the exception of “pretentious”—which is for them an indispensable term. Meanwhile, in recent years, a word I’ve always been fond of—“artisanal”—has been swallowed by an enormous maw. Its fine associations of individual tooling and subtle calibration—the craftsman’s guild—have all but vanished. The word has been devoured by fast-food franchises, supermarkets, junk-food confectioners; any day now I’ll spot on some diner menu artisanal s’mores, artisanal pigs in a blanket. 

       -- Brad Leithauser, "Unusable Words" (via The New Yorker)


(3)  New Shelves Filled

Like the librarians of Babel in Borges’ story, who are looking for the book that will provide them with the key to all the others, we oscillate between the illusion of perfection and the vertigo of the unattainable. In the name of completeness, we would like to believe that a unique order exists that would enable us to accede to knowledge all in one go; in the name of the unattainable, we would like to think that order and disorder are in fact the same word, denoting pure chance.

It is also possible that both are decoys, trompe l’oeils intended to disguise the erosion of both books and systems. It is no bad thing in any case that between the two our bookshelves should serve from time to time as joggers of the memory, as cat rests and as lumber rooms.

       -- Georges Perec, "Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One's Books"


(4) Old Shelves Emptied

       -- For more artists and examples, see Inspiration Green.

The Art of Reading: Postcards from Malc

Each of us reads for different reasons. I daresay even when our reasons are said to be the same – e.g. “distraction,” “education,” “entertainment,” etc. – we’re usually describing something unspeakably and maybe unintentionally personal. There is an art to reading, and it creates as much as (perhaps more than) it consumes. In this series of posts, we highlight people who take this notion to heart.

* * * 

Postcards from Malc



This delightful Tumblr is not updated too frequently, but that doesn't matter. It is surely more inspired than most pages updated hourly. The nameless mind behind it describes it succinctly:

A random collection of imaginary postcards produced from the life and words of Malcolm Lowry.

It's okay, I hope, to be jealous of how clever some people can be. 

Three Good Things: On Good Books & Aphorisms

(1) Need another reason to love David Bowie? His wonderful list, Top 100 Must-Read Books will more than do, I trust. 

(2) If Susan Sontag's journals (As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh) are any indication, oh boy, would she have hated Twitter. (via Brain Pickings)

"Aphorisms are rogue ideas.

Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is willing to tell you; he thinks you should get it fast, without spelling out all the details. Aphoristic thinking constructs thinking as an obstacle race: the reader is expected to get it fast, and move on. An aphorism is not an argument; it is too well-bred for that.

To write aphorisms is to assume a mask — a mask of scorn, of superiority. Which, in one great tradition, conceals (shapes) the aphorist’s secret pursuit of spiritual salvation. The paradoxes of salvation. We know at the end, when the aphorist’s amoral, light point-of-view self-destructs."

(3) The always wonderful White Review excerpts the enigmatic opening chapter from Seiobo There Below, the newest (and magnificent!) novel by the contemporary Hungarian master, László Krasznahorkai. Krasznahorkai has been feted by peers and critics for his luxuriously long sentences -- each of them seemingly in search of something unidentifiable, somewhere between the commas and semi-colons that accumulate in his paragraphs like the wind-blown apocalyptic ruins of modernity. (Susan Sontag says of him: “the contemporary Hungarian master of apocalypse who inspires comparison with Gogol and Melville.") Ah, but here, these sentences that seem so similar are yet strikingly different, as though this "something unidentifiable" has been found, and maybe known all along. And that something is, in a word, beauty. Seiobo There Below may be Krasznahorkai's masterpiece.

[H]e doesn’t mention it because he doesn’t see it, as he points over there, because of its continual motionlessness, everyone has got so used to it, it is always down there, they don’t even notice anymore, yet it is there as if it weren’t even there, it stands motionlessly, not even a single feather quivering, it leans forward, raking with its gaze the foamy froth of the water trickling down, the snow-white unceasingness of the Kamo, the axis of the city, the artist who is no more, who is invisible, who is needed by no one.

In Defense of Purple Prose

Purple, I suggest, when it isn’t just showing off, is phrase-coining; an attempt to build longish units of language that more or less replicate sizable chunks of Being in much the same way as the hiss-crack-cuckoo words mimic a sound. There is language that plunges in, not too proud to steal a noise from Mother Nature, and there is language that prides itself on the distance it keeps itself at. Then there is purple which, from quite a distance away, plunges back into phenomena all over again, only to emerge with a bigger verbal ostentation. It is rather moving, this shift from parroting to abstraction, and then back from abstraction into what might be called symphonic hyperbole. . . I am suggesting that purple prose, ornate and elaborate as it sometimes is, reminds us of things we do ill to forget: the arbitrary, derivative, and fictional nature of language; its unreliable relationship with phenomena; its kinship with paint and voodoo and gesture and wordless song; its sheer mystery; its enormous distance from mathematics, photography, and the mouths of its pioneers; its affinities with pleasure and luxury, its capacity for hitting the mind’s eye — the mind’s ear, the mind’s very membranes — with what isn’t there, with what is impossible and (until the very moment of its investiture in words) unthinkable. Purple, after phrases coined by Horace and Macaulay, it may have always have to be called, but I would call it the style of extreme awareness.

– Paul West, “In Defense of Purple Prose“

As I’ve fully immersed myself back into the processes of writing, Paul West’s old essay, “In Defense of Purple Prose,” has become something of a manifesto. If I love writing, (and I suspect that I do) it is an affair matched only by my disinclination ever to write clearly. Even when I was an aspiring academic, I did all I could to feed my distaste for things I’d sneeringly describe as didactic. To this day, I still tease my professorial friends who are applauded for their articulate clarity. “Yes, your writing is very clear. So clear as to be nearly invisible . . . if there at all.” This speaks, I am aware, as much to my taste as it does to a certain unwarranted egotism on my part, but it is neither a preference nor a fault I’m willing to part with just yet.

And, yes, I know it is not for everyone: symphonies are expensive, hyperbole distracting, and the word “purple” sounds vaguely intestinal. Substance has more atomic weight behind it than does style; and if it doesn’t necessarily or always pack as powerful a punch, it has traditionally attracted a larger audience. And, yes, I’m fine with that. If nothing else, it gives stylists something other to blame than bad stylings when they remain unread. (The best deceptions begin at home — deceiver, deceive thyself – whether it be into self-confidence or lack thereof, it really doesn’t matter. History has proven either can be made to work quite well, thank you very much.)

So I continue, mazing my way through labyrinths of clauses and sub-clauses, stacking metaphor onto metaphor until they fall into a mess or meaning, interested more in the undulation of language than its utility. How to do things with words? — Speak them and see. Count me in for the certain dingy luster of a language that looks like the sickly sky before a hard rain. The color of this language may be called purple, but I think it’s more autumnal than that: a green pocked with red, neither of which shine so much as they dimly shimmer, and in so shimmering, become not simply the sight but somehow too the sound of the language worth seeking.


-- Brad J. 

The Art of Reading: Wake in Progress

Each of us reads for different reasons. I daresay even when our reasons are said to be the same – e.g., “distraction,” “education,” “entertainment,” etc. – we’re usually describing something unspeakably and maybe unintentionally personal. There is an art to reading, and it creates as much as (perhaps more than) it consumes. In this series of posts, we highlight people who take this notion to heart.

* * *

Wake in Progress

here comes everybody


Graphic artist Stephen Crowe has what he has called “an intense love-hate relationship with James Joyce.” With his books' notorious difficulty feared nearly as much as their adventurousness is beloved, it's hard to imagine time spent with the works of Mr. Joyce not changing you. Crowe's project, "Wake in Progress," is a prime example.

He describes it this way:

"Finnegans Wake is a comedy about language and human nature.

It’s a dream in which the psyche fragments and battles itself.

It’s the history of Dublin, humanity, and a family played out simultaneously, consecutively and concurrently. 

[. . .]

This site records  my foolhardy attempt to illustrate Finnegans Wake. Actually, I’ll be happy to finish book one for now. The curious may peruse the fruit of my hubris via the blog, the slideshow or the index."

Three Good Things: Dour Edition

 1) On Nobel Laureate Imre Kertesz's recent memoir Dossier K:

What all of this adds up to is very loosely a memoir, but it might be better described as an energetic and thoughtful introduction (or companion) to Kertesz’s other books. Kertesz, for his part, seems to intend “Dossier K.” as a kind of catchall interview that will save him not simply from having to sit for more interviews, but also from having the complexity of his life’s experiences and ideas reduced by others to sound bites. You hear echoes of this concern toward the end of “Dossier K.,” in his comments on the social realities of being a Holocaust survivor:

“It is painful to carry the brand of surviving for some unaccountable reason. You remained here so you could spread the Auschwitz myth; you remained here as a sort of freak. You are invited to attend anniversaries; your irresolute face is video-recorded, your faltering voice, you hardly notice that you’ve become a kitsch supporting character in a fraudulent narrative, and you sell for peanuts your own story, which bit by bit you yourself understand least of all.”

For more, see the New York Times . . .


2) Prescient as ever, George Orwell in a letter from 1944:

With this go the horrors of emotional nationalism and a tendency to disbelieve in the existence of objective truth because all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophecies of some infallible fuhrer. Already history has in a sense ceased to exist, ie. there is no such thing as a history of our own times which could be universally accepted, and the exact sciences are endangered as soon as military necessity ceases to keep people up to the mark. Hitler can say that the Jews started the war, and if he survives that will become official history. He can’t say that two and two are five, because for the purposes of, say, ballistics they have to make four. But if the sort of world that I am afraid of arrives, a world of two or three great superstates which are unable to conquer one another, two and two could become five if the fuhrer wished it. That, so far as I can see, is the direction in which we are actually moving, though, of course, the process is reversible.

For more, see the Daily Beast . . . 


3) Wislawa Szymborska's harrowing poem "Hatred" set to video:

The Art of Reading: Havisham Hour

Each of us reads for different reasons. I daresay even when our reasons are said to be the same – e.g., “distraction,” “education,” “entertainment,” etc. – we’re usually describing something unspeakably and maybe unintentionally personal.  There is an art to reading, and it creates as much as (perhaps more than) it consumes. In this series of posts, we highlight people who take this notion to heart.

* * *

The Havisham Hour



Julio Panisello, the artist behind "The Havisham Hour," describes his fascinating project:

"Each day I read a single page of [Charles Dickens's The Great Expectations]. After reading the page I use it as format to create artwork inspired by the words in it. I then scan the sketched page and publish it, along with a brief journal entry, exactly at 8:40 AM each day, on my local time, the time in the novel when Miss Havisham receives a letter on her wedding day announcing her groom is not showing up.

The project started January 7th, 2013 and it will end June 12th, 2014: 521 days, 521 pages, 521 sketches."

The execution of his idea is as stellar as the idea itself. Do yourself a favor and follow along


The Newspaper of Record -- but for whom?

In recent months the so-called "Newspaper of Record," the New York Times, has come under increasing fire for what its accusers consider a stark gender imbalance. (Though, as the annual VIDA count shows, it is far from alone in this respect. I'm looking at you New York Review of Books.)

Reasonable people, of course, are free to disagree about what this imbalance means . . . but, boy, the daily updates at the site "Who Writes for the New York Times" don't look pretty. See for yourself.

The History of English

The history of the English language in roughly eleven minutes. Not too shabby . . . though, as our island-bound friends would say, very cheeky indeed. 


Three Good Things: On Narration

1) There's a good chance you've not heard of or read Gary Lutz. This says nothing about you, though, and everything about his apparent allergy to self-promotion. Lutz's books are thin and too often tend to hide beside or slip behind their larger cousins. But, oh, what's packed inside! When we're not breathlessly awaiting our shipment of his recently re-released underground classic, Partial List of People to Bleach, we're re-reading books of his like The Divorcer. And then sometimes we're bowled over by something unexpected. Something like, say, a phenomenal, insightful interview with Blake Butler in, of all places, Vice. It's a pretty fabulous entryway into his thinking and style.

From my way of looking at things—and I have never been much of a looker—a word, enlarged to 24-point type (though I sometimes allow myself to go far larger, and I’m partial to the rondures of the Cambria font), presents itself to the eye as something hulky, just another lump of matter. The more colossal you get a word, the easier the meaning can seep out of the hollows and bowls and dimples of the letters. Sometimes, though, you have to scoop it out, and that can slow you down a bit. You’re left, ultimately, with something bony-looking and gutted, and you listen to the air whistling through the cavities, and something eventually comes over you: you want to fill those holes, pack them full, with something else, usually the plentisome slops and slimes from your own psyche. You’ve got to get something discrepant going on inside of the word. Then that word, with a louche sort of air about it now, and with a shifted import to it, can present itself to another word and start something swackingly unnatural. 


2) It probably goes without saying, and resist it all we like, but life is changing. Of course, not only is it changing, as life becomes more technologically mediated our perception changes as well. What's more, so do the stories we tell about the life we see and experience. It can all be quite dizzying. Fortunately, there are some very smart, creative people thinking about such things amidst the vertigo. frieze Magazine sat down with a few of them to talk about the effect of technological advances on our narrative structures.

Imagine a narrative format that has probabilistic outcomes.
Imagine a narrative format that can simulate unscripted contingencies against scripted choreography.
Imagine a narrative format that requires its authors to embrace contingency and irreversibly change during its making.
Imagine a narrative format that doesn’t promise a scheduled time to end.
Imagine a narrative format that erodes as you erode.


3) While we're thinking about narrative structure and the accumulative advance of technology, maybe a step backward in time and across in culture is in order. The three-dimensional stop-motion films of Ladislaw Starevich are visual wonders. In this one from 1911, "The Ant and the Grasshopper," Starevich returns to that most basic -- but also infinitely adaptable -- narrative form, the fable. And though the lesson of the story is, admittedly, a bit harsh, we can surely learn something positive from Starevich's ingenuity.