Saturday, June 26, 2010

&, &c.

I remember the day I first realized that an ampersand is a stylized rendering of the Latin word "et."

It was about eleven years ago. I was sitting in my office, about to go teach class, looking at a CD that a colleague had lent me:

Suddenly it all became clear—that "and" sign was actually the letters "e" and "t" swirled together in a fancy way.

Granted, it was a small epiphany, but for days afterward I looked with new eyes at every ampersand I found. Suddenly, looking at ampersands was like looking at one of those Magic Eye posters.

I thought of that moment just now when I came across this amusing blog, Shit Ampersand, and its companion site, Good Ampersand.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Levy on Huckabee

From Ariel Levy's article about Mike Huckabee in the current issue of The New Yorker, a fascinating passage in which she neatly refutes the Republican's comments about homosexuality:

One afternoon in Jerusalem, while Huckabee was eating a chocolate croissant in the lounge of the Crowne Plaza Hotel, I asked him to explain his rationale for opposing gay rights. “I do believe that God created male and female and intended for marriage to be the relationship of the two opposite sexes,” he said. “Male and female are biologically compatible to have a relationship. We can get into the ick factor, but the fact is two men in a relationship, two women in a relationship, biologically, that doesn’t work the same.”

I asked him if he had any arguments that didn’t have to do with God or ickiness. “There are some pretty startling studies that show if you want to end poverty it’s not education and race, it’s monogamous marriage,” he said. “Many studies show that children who grow up in a healthy environment where they have both a mother and a father figure have both a healthier outlook and a different perspective from kids who don’t have the presence of both.”

In fact, a twenty-five-year study recently published by the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that children brought up by lesbians were better adjusted than their peers. And, of course, nobody has been able to study how kids fare with married gay parents. “You know why?” Huckabee said. “Because no culture in the history of mankind has ever tried to redefine marriage.”

But in the Old Testament polygamy was commonplace. The early Christians considered marriage an arrangement for those without the self-discipline to live in chastity, as Christ did. Marriage was not deemed a sacrament by the Church until the twelfth century. And, before 1967, marriage was defined in much of the United States as a relationship between a man and a woman of the same race.

A Man of Letters

From a fan letter Nicholson Baker wrote to John Updike in 1985:

... there was something wonderful about having this story of yours waiting there, in a wicker basket of magazines, indifferent to whether I read it or not, yet written by a writer whose personality and changes of mood I felt I had some idea of in a way you can only have of a writer who has written a great deal, lots of which you have forgotten, only retaining a feeling of long-term fondness which is perhaps the most important residual emotion of the experience of literature. And I thought all this in a second, pleased with myself, and then, as I passed out from under the brief shade of the tuxedo shop awning and diagonally crossed Route 9, I thought that you probably had written all this in some other book review or essay that I hadn’t read, or had read and forgotten; and this pleased me too, because after all it is a simple thought, mostly compounded of gratefulness and the pleasure that Sunday mornings have, and the good thing about Mr. Updike is that he is a true writer, and writes out the contents of his mind, and that idea occurred to him once, no doubt, suggested by some book he was reviewing, and he wrote it down; and that was what being a man of letters was all about.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


This comment about the perils of the slush pile, from Laura Miller's interesting piece about the problem with a world in which everyone can be a published author, reminds me of some of my worst hours spent reading fiction by my students:

Being bombarded with inept prose, shoddy ideas, incoherent grammar, boring plots and insubstantial characters—not to mention ton after metric ton of clichés—for hours on end induces a state of existential despair that's almost impossible to communicate to anyone who hasn't been there themselves.

Friday, June 18, 2010

This Old House

This is the house my mom lived in for most of her childhood. It's on a little butt-end of Portis Avenue, south of Tower Grove Park.

I have fond memories of this place—Christmas Eves in my early childhood, Easter egg hunts in the backyard, riding my Big Wheel up and down the sidewalk, eating cookies in the living room while watching Scooby Doo. On the second floor, my mom's siblings had affixed room numbers to the lintels, thus naming the rooms 201, 203, 205, etc. There was a balcony off one of the second-floor bedrooms. It used to open onto a staircase that would lead to the backyard, but at some point that was torn down, so the balcony, which had no railing (and was in fact never accessible in my experience) looked out on a sheer drop.

Living in a ranch house in the suburbs, this house was magical to me as a child—partly because I loved my grandma (who lived here, with grandpa) so much, but also simply because of the architecture and atmosphere of the place. It looks pretty shabby now (and was probably pretty shabby back then, too—my mom once told me how ashamed she was of the place when she was growing up), but to me back then it possessed a grandeur that couldn't be found where I lived.

I was impressed by its age. My mom told me one time that the house had actually been moved from another location, which seems a bit unlikely to me now. She also told me that it used to be a two-family dwelling but was renovated for single-family use. I was impressed by its height—four stories, from its dank basement to its mysterious attic, which I never got to explore until my grandpa died (I was about 10; my grandma had died a few years earlier) and my parents and aunts and uncles were cleaning it out and preparing to sell it.

Its location is so out of the way that there's never any reason to drive past it. Yet every once in a while I'll ride my bike over there to take a look at how it's holding up, and to remind myself of the past.

Hamlet and the Improvisation of Life

Last night I saw Hamlet in the park with my brother. It was a great evening—the weather, the companionship, the production of the play.

My brother brought along, for reference, an old Signet Classic edition of the play. I borrowed it from him afterwards. This morning I was looking through some of the essays in the back, and I found this interesting comment by Robert Orenstein:

Subjected to philosophical analysis the great speeches in Hamlet yield commonplaces. We treasure them for their incomparable poetry, not for their depth and originality of thought—for their revelation of Hamlet's soul, not for their discovery of the human condition. Many questions are raised in the play but few are answered.... Even when Shakespeare seems to dramatize a thesis, he does not debate philosophical positions. He is not interested in abstract thought but in characters who think, who have intellectual as well as physical needs, and who, like Pirandello's characters, cry aloud the reason of their suffering. The "problem" of Hamlet is not an intellectual puzzle. It arises because the play creates so marvelous a sense of the actual improvisation of life that we can find no simple logic in its sprawling action.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Once More to the Sno-Cone Stand

In E. B. White's classic essay "Once More to the Lake," White takes his son to a lake in Maine that his own father used to take him to when he was a child. Reliving the experience through his son's eyes gives White a strange sense of deja vu:

We went fishing the first morning. I felt the same damp moss covering the worms in the bait can, and saw the dragonfly alight on the tip of my rod as it hovered a few inches from the surface of the water. It was the arrival of this fly that convinced me beyond any doubt that everything was as it always had been, that the years were a mirage and there had been no years. The small waves were the same, chucking the rowboat under the chin as we fished at anchor, and the boat was the same boat, the same color green and the ribs broken in the same places, and under the floorboards the same fresh-water leavings and debris—the dead helgramite, the wisps of moss, the rusty discarded fishhook, the dried blood from yesterday's catch.... There had been no years between the ducking of this dragonfly and the other one—the one that was part of memory.

I had a similar experience this evening, at Murray's Shaved Ice Shack after my daughter's softball game. It was about 8:00 p.m., mid-June in St. Louis. My daughter and I stood next to our car, which I'd parked in the gravel lot of an old-fashioned auto mechanic's shop right next to the sno-cone stand. The car was warm beneath me, but the day was cooling down. Breezes set the weedy-looking trees waving off in the distance .

As with White's lake experience, everything in the scene put me back into my childhood—the sweetness of the grape sno-cone (and the fact that we were at a sno-cone stand at all), the matching ball caps my daughter and I were wearing, the relaxed post-game feeling, the whine of crickets, the cool of the summer evening. Except now I was the dad, the one coaching the ball team, driving the car, buying the sno-cones, standing there towering above his child, mostly lost in his own inscrutable thoughts.

A Problem Rooted in Scientific Complexity

From Atul Gawande's great commencement address at Stanford's School of Medicine:

The truth is that the volume and complexity of the knowledge that we need to master has grown exponentially beyond our capacity as individuals. Worse, the fear is that the knowledge has grown beyond our capacity as a society. When we talk about the uncontrollable explosion in the costs of health care in America, for instance—about the reality that we in medicine are gradually bankrupting the country—we’re not talking about a problem rooted in economics. We’re talking about a problem rooted in scientific complexity.

Half a century ago, medicine was neither costly nor effective. Since then, however, science has combatted our ignorance. It has enumerated and identified, according to the international disease-classification system, more than 13,600 diagnoses—13,600 different ways our bodies can fail. And for each one we’ve discovered beneficial remedies—remedies that can reduce suffering, extend lives, and sometimes stop a disease altogether. But those remedies now include more than six thousand drugs and four thousand medical and surgical procedures. Our job in medicine is to make sure that all of this capability is deployed, town by town, in the right way at the right time, without harm or waste of resources, for every person alive. And we’re struggling. There is no industry in the world with 13,600 different service lines to deliver.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Special Edition

I'm currently reading a Library of America volume devoted to Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932). I like this little text, on the inside back flap:

Library of America editions will last for generations and withstand the wear of frequent use. They are printed on lightweight, acid-free paper that will not turn yellow or brittle with age. Sewn bindings allow the books to open easily and lie flat. Flexible yet strong binding boards are covered with a closely woven rayon cloth. The page layout has been designed for readability as well as elegance.

These really are nice editions. I bought my used copy on Amazon for about twelve bucks. It's an ex-library edition, from a public library in Loudoun County (Virginia), and the cover is protected by plastic and also conveniently attached to the book itself.

All of this attention to the physical object of the book, though, reminds me of one of Chesnutt's stories, "Baxter's Procrustes." It's a satirical piece about a club devoted to book collecting (the contents of the books are of secondary importance).

In this story, one of the members, Baxter, is urged by his fellows to publish an edition of his poem, called "the Procrustes," which some members have read parts of. He resists, but eventually gives in, under the condition that he be granted sole authority for the preparation of the volume.

He goes all out:

The paper was to be of hand-made linen, from the Kelmscott Mills; the type black-letter, with rubricated initials. The cover, which was Baxter's own selection, was to be of dark green morocco, with a cap-and-bells border in red inlays, and doublures of maroon morocco with a blind-tooled design.... When the Procrustes was ready for distribution, each subscriber received his copy by mail, in a neat pasteboard box. Each number was wrapped in a thin and transparent but very strong paper, through which the cover design and tooling were clearly visible. The number of the copy was indorsed upon the wrapper, the folds of which were securely fastened at each end with sealing-wax, upon which was impressed, as a guaranty of its inviolateness, the monogram of the club.

You can guess where this is all headed: eventually, one club member opens up a copy of the book, only to find that it's utterly blank inside.

In embarrassment and disgust, most of the club members destroy their copies of the book, with the result that it becomes the rarest and most valuable book ever published by the club.

For Chesnutt, whose stories are mostly clever and trenchant explorations of slavery and the post-Reconstruction-era South, it's a somewhat unusual story, with echoes of Borges and Twain. It was never published in Chesnutt's lifetime.

***CORRECTION*** "Baxter's Procrustes" was published in June, 1904, in the Atlantic Monthly. It was never collected during Chesnutt's lifetime.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

To Encourage Intellectual Depth

Some fairly sensible thoughts from Steven Pinker:

Yes, the constant arrival of information packets can be distracting or addictive, especially to people with attention deficit disorder. But distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work, put away your Blackberry at dinner time, ask your spouse to call you to bed at a designated hour.

And to encourage intellectual depth, don’t rail at PowerPoint or Google. It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism and debate. They are not granted by propping a heavy encyclopedia on your lap, nor are they taken away by efficient access to information on the Internet.

The new media have caught on for a reason. Knowledge is increasing exponentially; human brainpower and waking hours are not. Fortunately, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias. Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Belly Laughs

Last week I won the New Yorker's Cover Contest. I was the first to identify the titles of four books connected with the French Open.

My prize was a copy of Disquiet, Please: More Humor Writing from the New Yorker. It came in the mail today. My wife brought it up to me where I lay in bed with a stomachache.

I flipped through it, and two pieces by Jack Handey got me laughing so hard that I forgot about my stomach pains for a while.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

20 Under 40

Eleven years ago, the New Yorker selected 20 young writers that it called "the future of American fiction."

They were: George Saunders, David Foster Wallace, Sherman Alexie, Rick Moody, A. M. Homes, Allegra Goodman, William T. Vollmann, Antonya Nelson, Chang-Rae Lee, Michael Chabon, Ethan Canin, Donald Antrim, Tony Earley, Jeffrey Eugenides, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Franzen, Edwidge Danticat, Jhumpa Lahiri, Nathan Englander, and Matthew Klam.

From this distance, the 1999 list looks pretty good. Klam is the only one who's fallen off the map. The others have gone on to do good stuff—I've particularly enjoyed works by Saunders, Wallace, Alexie, Nelson, Chabon, Earley, Franzen, and Lahiri.

Next week's issue will feature a new list:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 32; Chris Adrian, 39; Daniel Alarcón, 33; David Bezmozgis, 37; Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, 38; Joshua Ferris, 35; Jonathan Safran Foer, 33; Nell Freudenberger, 35; Rivka Galchen, 34; Nicole Krauss, 35; Yiyun Li, 37; Dinaw Mengestu, 31; Philipp Meyer, 36; C. E. Morgan, 33; Téa Obreht, 24; ZZ Packer, 37; Karen Russell, 28; Salvatore Scibona, 35; Gary Shteyngart, 37; and Wells Tower, 37.

I wonder how this list will look in eleven years. I think ZZ Packer and Wells Tower are both very good, though Packer hasn't published much since her debut collection of stories, which I'm teaching again this fall.

Of the writers on the list, Mengetsu, Meyer, Morgan, and Scibona are the only ones who haven't appeared before in the magazine.

Thinking back on other writers whose work I've enjoyed in The New Yorker, I'm a bit surprised at the absence of these writers from the list: Cristina Henriquez, Maile Meloy, Rebecca Curtis, and Uwem Akpan.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Birds

Mowing the lawn the other day, I noticed a scattering of twigs by the downspout on the side of our house.

I soon realized the source of this curious assemblage: some birds nesting up near the eaves.

Look at that beady eye, mocking me.

I've had trouble with this in the past. The birds end up crapping all over the sidewalk and the house and adding to the decay of the paint job, which as you can see is already not in the best shape.

Since Saturday, I've climbed out on the porch roof and sprayed out nascent nests three times, but almost immediately these birds get right back to it.

Today, finally, I sprayed out the nest with the bird in it. Maybe now it'll get the message.