Accidental truth

February 19th, 2006 § Comments off § permalink

An article about the Winter Olympics in today’s New York Times included a strangely insightful misspelling:

[T]he Turin games have provided a vivid demonstration that gravity and fiction exist for a reason: they’re what keep us safely tethered in our place.

Only connect

February 19th, 2006 § Comments off § permalink

While I was browsing at Cody’s Books last night, I noticed that some wag had shelved Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type under “urban planning.” The reference to grids reminded me of a New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik that I had been reading that afternoon, in which Gopnik mentions the grid plans of Shaker villages. The article’s focus, though, is on describing the qualities that give Shaker crafts their distinct appearance:

…Shaker design, while reaching toward an ideal of beauty, unconsciously rejects the human body as a primary source of form. To a degree that we hardly credit, everything in our built environment traditionally echoes our own shape: we have pediments for heads and claw and ball feet, and our objects proceed from trunklike bases to fragile tops. Repetition and the grid are two alternatives to design that refers to classical perspective space and the roundly realized human body. …Once you have got rid of the body as a natural referent for design, and no longer think “pictorially” about objects, grids and repeats begin to appear as alternative systems, whether you are in Japan, Montmartre, or Hancock. …The Shakers made objects that look like objects, and that follow a non-human law of design.

One sees the pattern clearly in the evolution of the casement clocks—what we call grandfather clocks—made by the Youngs family of New York over three generations, in and out of the community of Believers. …Isaac Newton Youngs, the grandson, was reared as a Shaker, and the clocks he made became as reductive as a refrigerator case, with the sides of the clock neither tapering nor swelling, and, telltale sign, with a knob on the clock face as well as on the clock body to allow the worker to adjust or repair the inside: the allergy to putting a functional element on an object’s “face” was overruled, because the artisan was not thinking of it as a face. In each case, the clocks got not merely simpler—though they did that, too—but progressively less figural.

This doesn’t mean that the Shaker objects are “inhuman” in the sense of being cold. They aren’t cold. The brooms and clocks and boxes create an atmosphere of serenity, loveliness, calm certainty. But these are monastic virtues rather than liberal ones. We miss the radical edge of Shaker art if we don’t see that it is not meant to be “humanistic.” …Shaker objects are, like Zen Japanese ones, unworldly but material, far from sensuality but solid as a rock. They annihilate the body, and leave us timeless form to tell the time with.

And that recollection, in turn, reminded me that I had been meaning to get a book about David Ireland, a Zen-influenced artist whose work I saw at the Oakland Museum of California a couple of years ago.

I thought there was a point to this story, but I guess there’s not, except to describe the pinballing way in which I think.

Eustace Tilley, you magnificent bastard

June 1st, 2005 § 10 comments § permalink

The New Yorker is about to publish all of its back issues in digital form. Every issue from 1925 through last February, all on eight DVDs—and for just $63 on Amazon. Oh, sweet glorious day! Now I can read those legendarily interminable articles from the William Shawn era in the comfort of my own home. I haven’t preordered this yet, but it’s really just a matter of time.

Writing this made me realize that I don’t really know any other New Yorker geeks—plenty of people who enjoy the magazine, but few, if any, who are obsessed with it to the point of knowing its history. It’s probably just as well. I’d hate to find myself spending all my time in some New Yorker chat room, arguing about Peter Arno cartoons from 1932 and writing Harold Ross/Robert Gottlieb slash fiction.

Has any duck been doing you dirt?

March 27th, 2005 § Four comments § permalink

I didn’t have much time for fun during spring break—or “spring work,” as I’ve been calling it—but I did manage to reread McTeague, one of my favorite novels. It’s filled with evocative descriptions of San Francisco in the 1890s, such as this one of Polk Street:

It was one of those cross streets peculiar to Western cities, situated in the heart of the residence quarter, but occupied by small tradespeople who lived in the rooms above their shops. There were corner drug stores with huge jars of red, yellow, and green liquids in their windows, very brave and gay; stationers’ stores, where illustrated weeklies were tacked upon bulletin boards; barber shops with cigar stands in their vestibules; sad-looking plumbers’ offices; cheap restaurants, in whose windows one saw piles of unopened oysters weighted down by cubes of ice, and china pigs and cows knee deep in layers of white beans. At one end of the street McTeague could see the huge power-house of the cable line. Immediately opposite him was a great market; while farther on, over the chimney stacks of the intervening houses, the glass roof of some huge public baths glittered like crystal in the afternoon sun. Underneath him the branch post-office was opening its doors, as was its custom between two and three o’clock on Sunday afternoons. An acrid odor of ink rose upward to him. Occasionally a cable car passed, trundling heavily, with a strident whirring of jostled glass windows.

On week days the street was very lively. It woke to its work about seven o’clock, at the time when the newsboys made their appearance together with the day laborers. The laborers went trudging past in a straggling file—plumbers’ apprentices, their pockets stuffed with sections of lead pipe, tweezers, and pliers; carpenters, carrying nothing but their little pasteboard lunch baskets painted to imitate leather; gangs of street workers, their overalls soiled with yellow clay, their picks and long-handled shovels over their shoulders; plasterers, spotted with lime from head to foot. This little army of workers, tramping steadily in one direction, met and mingled with other toilers of a different description—conductors and “swing men” of the cable company going on duty; heavy-eyed night clerks from the drug stores on their way home to sleep; roundsmen returning to the precinct police station to make their night report, and Chinese market gardeners teetering past under their heavy baskets. The cable cars began to fill up; all along the street could be seen the shopkeepers taking down their shutters.

Between seven and eight the street breakfasted. Now and then a waiter from one of the cheap restaurants crossed from one sidewalk to the other, balancing on one palm a tray covered with a napkin. Everywhere was the smell of coffee and of frying steaks. A little later, following in the path of the day laborers, came the clerks and shop girls, dressed with a certain cheap smartness, always in a hurry, glancing apprehensively at the power-house clock. Their employers followed an hour or so later—on the cable cars for the most part whiskered gentlemen with huge stomachs, reading the morning papers with great gravity; bank cashiers and insurance clerks with flowers in their buttonholes.

At the same time the school children invaded the street, filling the air with a clamor of shrill voices, stopping at the stationers’ shops, or idling a moment in the doorways of the candy stores. For over half an hour they held possession of the sidewalks, then suddenly disappeared, leaving behind one or two stragglers who hurried along with great strides of their little thin legs, very anxious and preoccupied.

The description continues through nightfall, if you’d like to keep reading.

Maybe All This

September 18th, 2004 § Comments off § permalink

Maybe all this
is happening in some lab?
Under one lamp by day
and billions by night?

Maybe we’re experimental generations?
Poured from one vial to the next,
shaken in test tubes,
not scrutinized by eyes alone,
each of us separately
plucked up by tweezers in the end?

Or maybe it’s more like this:
No interference?
The changes occur on their own
according to plan?
The graph’s needle slowly etches
its predictable zigzags?

Maybe thus far we aren’t of much interest?
The control monitors aren’t usually plugged in?
Only for wars, preferably large ones,
for the odd ascent above our clump of Earth,
for major migrations from point A to B?

Maybe just the opposite:
They’ve got a taste for trivia up there?
Look! on the big screen a little girl
is sewing a button on her sleeve.
The radar shrieks,
the staff comes at a run.
What a darling little being
with its tiny heart beating inside it!
How sweet, its solemn
threading of the needle!
Someone cries enraptured:
Get the Boss,
tell him he’s got to see this for himself!

—Wislawa Szymborska (translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Claire Cavanagh)


July 26th, 2004 § Comments off § permalink

Do you suppose that Jonathan Safran Foer refers to his clothes as “Safran threads”?

The Fortress of Solitude

July 13th, 2004 § Two comments § permalink

Words are my sharpest tools, but they fail me when I try to describe a novel like The Fortress of Solitude. I’m left clutching at superlatives and wishing that my descriptive writing were stronger.

Writers who have strong voices, as Jonathan Lethem does, also remind me how much better I am at aping the style of others than developing my own. I’m sure I would find my own voice if I wrote more, and more frequently, but I don’t know if or when I’ll manage to do that. Alternatively, I could just copy Jonathan Lethem. Some of the techniques he favors lend themselves easily to imitation. Or, for that matter, parody.

Incomplete sentences appearing in pairs after longer paragraphs.

A random pop-culture reference to establish chronology.

Literary genius

June 28th, 2004 § One comment § permalink

I’m writing a book that offers something for everyone, from four-year-old children to adult fans of magical realism. It’s called If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler Gave a Mouse a Cookie.

Preorders, anyone?

Ordinary magic

May 11th, 2004 § Comments off § permalink

From a New Yorker article about Kirk Varnedoe, the art historian:

The appeal of football wasn’t that it “built character”—he knew just how cruddy a character a football player could have. It was that it allowed you to make a self. You were one kind of person with one kind of body and one set of possibilities, and then you worked at it and you were another. This model was so simple and so powerful that you could apply it to anything. It was ordinary magic: you worked harder than the next guy, and you were better than the next guy. It put your fate in your own hands.

When reading becomes dangerous

April 21st, 2004 § Two comments § permalink

A quotation from Proust, via a rather long New Yorker article about P.G. Wodehouse:

Reading becomes dangerous when instead of waking us to the personal life of the spirit, it tends to substitute itself for it, when truth no longer appears to us as an ideal we can realize only through the intimate progress of our thought and the effort of our heart, but as a material thing, deposited between the leaves of books like honey ready-made by others, and which we have only to take the trouble of reaching for on the shelves of libraries and then savoring passively in perfect repose of body and mind.

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