Charles May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 1 – Genre and the Short Story

The difference between the many critics who doubt that a definition of the short story is possible and those few, like me, who argue for the validity and value of such a definition, revolves around two different concepts of generic definition… I do not need to argue for a definition that satisfies necessary conditions to distinguish the short story from the novel. I do argue, however, that if we develop an understanding of the generic characteristics of the short story, we will be able to read individual short stories with more appreciation and understanding.

~~Charles E. May, “I Am Your Brother”: Short Story Studies (2013)

What is a short story? Is it merely defined by length? Or is there some more underlying characteristic? Is there a type of tale best suited to this short form, as opposed to the novel? These are some of the questions Prof. May looks at in this essay, printed as Chapter 1 of his book. This is not a review of that book, by the way; I wouldn’t presume. I’m using it as a springboard for my own exploration, at a much simpler level, of the ideas and materials he incorporates.

As before, I’ll focus on a couple of source documents he uses in his argument. Neither of these are short stories – one is a philosophy treatise, one a book review – but that’s what this chapter holds; we’re looking at the genre of the short story, and, to some degree, the history of that genre (the history will be continued in the next chapter). Edit: I added in a short story on reconsideration of my overall purpose here.

May begins with Wittgenstein. In Philosophical Investigations, aphorisms 65 – 67, Wittgenstein argues for a description of language that uses, not a checklist of features every language use must have, but a group of characteristics generally shared:

(65) …Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all,—

but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all “language”… (66) And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall

similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. (67) I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”…

~~Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

I stumbled across Wittgenstein last Fall and Winter, running into him over and over again – in a philosophy class, obviously, but also in a math class and a poetry class (not to mention one very odd but compelling film). I was also in a Norwegian loop at the time, encountering references to Norway in several venues (including three works of fiction new to me, and one pre-existing one). Turned out Wittgenstein retreated to Norway at a particularly troubling time in his life. Networks, indeed.

I was also struck by the similarity of this “family relationship” classification to the medical diagnostic model. Not everyone with a cold has the whole menu of a sore throat, stuffy nose, cough, mild fever, fatigue, and body aches, but your doctor will diagnose a cold if you have three or four of those, and lack certain others (high fever or rash, for instance). For some reason, we expect literature to behave more rigidly than a rhinovirus. This is amusing, since there is no such thing as “the” cold virus – there are hundreds of them, and new ones crop up all the time, which is why some prefer your sinuses and some your trachea, and they will land in different places thus set up shop in the nose, eyes, or throat and spread from there. Isn’t this a great analogy for literature? I know I can enjoy stories in different ways for different things: beautiful writing (and that alone can define a multitude of beauties), a moving theme, a charming/hilarious/admirable character, a clever narrative or structural technique. They’re all stories. Why shouldn’t the definition of the perceived “story” – the symptoms – also be given some latitude in diagnosis?

At some point in what passes for my formal education, mediocre as it was, I came across a definition of “short story” that limited them to events occurring in a limited amount of time – hours, days, maybe weeks. By this definition, the number of words was irrelevant. I took that as The Definition, only to find it wasn’t (like I said, a mediocre education). In my periodic explorations of fiction writing (once a decade, I check to make sure I still can’t write fiction or play the guitar), the “short story” required of editors has word limits. That’s a rather superficial definition, however. So just what is a short story?

May looks at Poe’s consideration of the short story, through his 1842 review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales. I found a copy of Poe’s review online via Eldritch Press; it offers a comparison of the “tale”, and poetry, but demands both uphold the same primary standard: “unity of effect or impression.” While rhymed poetry is his #1 choice for “how the highest genius could be most advantageously employed for the best display of its own powers,” it seems that he feels prose, thanks to its lesser intensity, can sustain the all-important unity for a longer period, and that the tale – the short story – is the highest form of prose.

I find his writing advice to be remarkably similar to that offered even today, when the short story has had nearly two centuries to develop and evolve; new schools and structures seem to crop up in every generation, but this unity remains:

A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents–he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.

~~Edgar Allan Poe, “Twice-Told Tales: A Review” from Graham’s Magazine, May 1842

Many of us, thanks to our ninth-grade English teachers, associate Poe with horror, mystery, and the macabre, and thus dismiss him as a serious artist. He was, in fact, a diligent literary critic and analyst; none less than Jorge Luis Borges claimed him as a major influence, writing several “doubles” to Poe tales.

Poe’s expertise is borne out by the longevity, not only of his stories, but of his advice. One of Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules of Writing – rules often given as laws in high-level writing programs, by the way – is: “Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.” Steve Almond, a devotee of Vonnegut, relayed an anecdote in his itty-bitty book of half-writing-advice/half-flash This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey that echoes this:

Years ago, at a writers conference, I asked one of the teachers the sort of question that I now dread having to answer. “When I revise,” I said, “what am I supposed to cut?”

The teacher responded by quoting the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, which I suppose served me right. “Ask yourself, ‘What work does it do?'”

“What work does every sentence do?” I said.

“Every word,” she said.

Poe’s exhortation to unity, and the technical process through which that needs to be achieved, is upheld and passed along from Brecht (early 20th C) to Vonnegut (mid-late 20th C) to Almond (late 20th/early 21st C) to the unknown author writing her first lines today. And whereas in the public mind the short story has been of late eclipsed by the novel, abandoned to “new writers” as a kind of introductory offer, there are those – Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, for example – who still work exclusively, or nearly so, in this medium.

Poe’s essay looks at other differences between poem and tale. His concept of what is and is not poetry is, I think, what limits its scope in his view; I’m glad that the modernists and their successors have freed poetry from strictures of structure and allowed such things as blank verse and prose poetry to flower. I think the dividing line is much less apparent today, as our idea of “beauty” has shifted:

The writer of the prose tale, in short, may bring to his theme a vast variety of modes or inflections of thought and expression–(the ratiocinative, for example, the sarcastic, or the humorous) which are not only antagonistical to the nature of the poem, but absolutely forbidden by one of its most peculiar and indispensable adjuncts; we allude, of course, to rhythm. It may be added here, par parenthèse, that the author who aims at the purely beautiful in a prose tale is laboring at great disadvantage. For Beauty can be better treated in the poem. Not so with terror, or passion, or horror, or a multitude of such other points.

~~Edgar Allan Poe, “Twice-Told Tales: A Review” from Graham’s Magazine, May 1842

To continue my exploration into short story, I read one of the Twice-Told Tales Poe refers to in his review: “The Minister’s Black Veil” (also available online through Eldritch Press). I chose that particular story, first, because Prof. May also mentions it in his Introduction (though I didn’t mention it when I wrote about that chapter), and secondly, because of the distinctly snobbish attitude Poe brings to his comments:

“The Minister’s Black Veil” is a masterly composition of which the sole defect is that to the rabble its exquisite skill will be caviare. The obvious meaning of this article will be found to smother its insinuated one. The moral put into the mouth of the dying minister will be supposed to convey the true import of the narrative; and that a crime of dark dye (having reference to the “young lady”), has been committed, is a point which only minds congenial with that of the author will perceive.

~~Edgar Allan Poe, “Twice-Told Tales: A Review” from Graham’s Magazine, May 1842

Apparently Poe considers that Hawthorne’s mention of the funeral was sufficient cause for the reader to conclude that the reason for his veiling was an encounter with the young lady funeraled. As I read the story, I did indeed think it was odd that a young woman would die and no mention of the cause of her death would be made; I realize life was a bit more precarious in the early 19th century, but I’m not under the impression that the death of someone described as “young” would be regarded as routine, as if they were dropping like flies in the streets. I wondered if her death had significance that I lacked the historical/cultural background to understand. Now I wonder if suicide was the cause, and it was not mentioned out of propriety, and the very non-mention would have signalled that to a contemporary reader. In any case, to me it’s flimsy evidence.

I far prefer May’s reading of the story in the Introduction to this book, comparing it to the double-layered “parable” of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:

It is not a simple story from which a moral lesson can be drawn, but rather a verbal construct that presents basic Enigma, essential Mystery. The minister puts on the black veil that shuts him off from the rest of the world as a symbolic objectification of what he has realized to be implicitly true. It is the townspeople’s intuitive awareness of that reality that strikes fear into their hearts when they see the veil.

~~Charles E. May, “I Am Your Brother”: Short Story Studies (2013)

There is no mention of a specific sin that drove him to don the veil, though it may be inferred anyway. I had thought of it more as Original Sin, the minister being a minister and all. It is a core tenet of most Christian sects that “sin” is “separation from God,” and some see the terrors of Hell not as fire and brimstone, but as that separation made manifest and eternal, generating a suffering of the soul that is equated with fire and brimstone. A veil would do the trick on this mortal plane, as it physically separates the Minister in a rather trivial way, but goes on to separate him in a more fundamental, human sense, from his fiancée, from friendships and relationships – from the community at large. And yes, I can see May’s interpretation that, like the Mariner, the Minister is a walking reminder of the existential isolation we all experience.

The next chapter broadens the question of genre when it looks at the historical development of the Short Story. Be back soon.

Joel Christian Gill: Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History (Fulcrum, 2014)

As an undergrad, I had researched some ideas for paintings based on lynching photographs. Now, I felt was the time to follow through. I listened to the song “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, based on the poem by Abel Meeropol, and I decided to call my paintings “Strange Fruit Harvested: He Cut the Rope,” showing me with a noose around my neck, holding the frayed end. I was trying to say that I was in some ways freed from the fear that had plagued my father and grandfather. However, I also wanted to convey that because the rope was still there, we still had a ways to go.
What does this have to do with black history, you might ask?… I wanted to tell stories – sometimes great and sometimes tragic – of other people who were also able to “cut the rope.” So, I began to research and draw comics about obscure black history. I looked for stories of people who were not in mainstream history books. I wanted to tell stories that people had not heard.

I’ve just recently gotten over the major stick-up-my-butt about graphic novels thanks to Matt Madden’s One Story #182 selection, “Drawn Onward”, a wonderful piece that introduced me to the heretofore unknown (to me) grammar of comix. So when I saw a post on Brain Pickings for Gill’s collection of nine lesser-known black history biographies presented in comic-style, I had to check it out. I’m so glad I did.

In How To Be Black, one of Baratunde Thurston’s riffs starts with the notion that Black History Month recycles the same five or six historical biographies of African Americans, and that’s about the extent of it. That’s what I love about this book: these aren’t people anyone’s likely to know. They lived before television, certainly, but they also lived before anyone in the mainstream thought ordinary people, let alone ordinary black people, could possibly live lives worth celebrating. Yet their lives have been preserved and celebrated, and now, Gill recelebrates them with all the nuance and significance of a Great American Novel. Because this, though denied for centuries, this is the Great American Novel. Maybe not the one we expected. But it’s the one that shows us, all of us, for who we are. Heroes are everywhere, especially when mere survival requires a level of personal heroism most of us never approach.

My favorite of the biographies – if “favorite” is the right word; perhaps I should say, the one that struck the hardest, since it happened here in Maine – is “The Shame”, Gill’s casting of the story of Malaga Island, and the wholesale institutionalization, criminalization, and in some cases, sterilization of members a law-abiding, hard-working, but mixed-race community. For those who keep insisting slavery was a long time ago, the eviction of these people occurred in the 20th century; an official apology to the descendents was issued in 2010.

Gill’s own favorite is “Two Letters” featuring, as the only text, two letters written by escaped slave and Union army soldier Spottswood Rice. The first letter he wrote to his children, still enslaved, to assure them he would be back for them, and that, though their owner at the time claimed that would be stealing property, he believed God would give precedence to the relationship between father and child over that of child and slaveowner. The second letter was to the slaveowner, to inform her in no uncertain terms that he and an army of black men would be coming to get his children. Gill’s artistic interpretation uses a unique grammar of comix, one I’m delighted to learn about –speech bubbles devoid of words, with the intensifying colors signifying escalating anger and fear; images instead of words; and, of course, the use of the letters as the only text.

This is great work, and makes innovative and powerful use of the combinations of words and images. Gill’s website includes more information about the construction of the book (happily, Volume 2 is in the works). I again must apologize for my years of dissing this art form.

But, more importantly, the timing of this book reminds me we are living now – last weekend, this week, as we watched Americans line up to yell at and threaten frightened children, this past year, in which voting rights are being etched away day by day, these past two years in which teenagers can be shot with impunity as long as someone believes black skin is itself a danger – in a moment for which we will again be apologizing for a long, long time, if we don’t destroy ourselves first.

Alexandra Horowitz: On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (Nonfiction; Scribner, 2013)

In this book, I aimed to knock myself awake. I took that walk “around the block”—an ordinary activity engaged in by everyone nearly every day—dozens of times with people who have distinctive, individual, expert ways of seeing all the unattended, perceived ordinary elements I was missing. Together, we became investigators of the ordinary, considering the block—the street and everything on it—as a living being that could be observed.
In this way, the familiar becomes unfamiliar, and the old the new.…What follows is the record of eleven walks around the block I took with expert seers, who told me what they saw.

I was looking for something to read: an “interim read.” Something quick, something light, to break up my recent intense streak of emotionally intense and/or intellectually challenging coursework reading. The stars aligned, and I happened to notice a Brain Pickings post on this book. It sounded fascinating: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, read the subtitle. Perfect – a quick, light, purely fun read.

And it was a fun read, very much so – but it also sent me scurrying to google Clochan na bhFomharach, a volcanic formation in Northern Ireland consisting of thousands of columns of basalt pushed out of the ground. And that’s just in a footnote. I learned more than I ever imagined about the swooping patterns of bird flocks, and, for an embarrassingly long time, pondered the possibilities of a sentence which included the evocative phrase, “the Washington [DC] sewer, which sweeps away the excreta of some of the country’s most powerful people.”

A “walk,” according to my toddler, is regularly about not walking. It has nothing to do with points A, B, or the getting from one to the other. It barely has anything to do with planting one’s feet in a straight line. A walk is, instead, an investigatory exercise that begins with energy and ends when (and only when) exhausted.… A walk is exploring surfaces and textures with finger, toe, and – yuck – tongue; standing still and seeing who or what comes by; trying out different forms of locomotion (among them running, marching, high kicking, galloping, scooting, projectile falling, spinning, and noisy shuffling). It is archaeology: exploring the bit of discarded candy wrapper; collecting a fist full of pebbles and a twig or torn corner of paperback; swishing dirt back and forth along the ground.… It is a time of sharing.

What surprised me most was how enchanted I was by the second chapter: “Muchness,” guided by the expert eyes of Horowitz’ 19-month-old son. I’m fairly immune to the charms of children, but this was engaging and informative. Horowitz is trained in cognitive science and teaches animal behavior at Barnard, and here she weaves nuggets from developmental psychology in to explain her son’s adoption of a standpipe as a pet, and his reaction to shadows.

Minerals and Biomass,” her walk with geologist Sidney Horenstein of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, is when I got curious about volcanic leftovers in Northern Ireland. “Flipping Things Over” featured field naturalist Charley Eiseman and insect life; I confess, I’m not a fan of insects, no matter how interesting they are, so I didn’t spend much time here. Horowitz also ventured “Into the Fourth Dimension” with artist Maira Kalman, who provided some of the art for the book; this walk lent itself to an examination of the evolutionary value of eye contact.

Since I went crazy over Simon Garfield’s Just My Type, it makes sense one of my favorite walks, “Minding our Qs,” was guided by typographer Paul Shaw, who observed typefaces everywhere. But Horowitz puts her spin on this as well, delving into the perception of letters as objects and not linguistic symbols. She also comes to appreciate the more humanistic qualities sometimes attributed to fonts:

An O, squished between an S and N, looked “uncomfortable.” Another letter was “jaunty.” In prose and speech, Shaw appropriated the language of the human body to highlight anything unusual about the characters he found: an ampersand was “pregnant”; an R “long-legged”; and an S “high-waisted.” On the web, lettering and typography discussion boards sprinkle animistic characterizations among the professional jargon: an S is “a bit depressed,” another is “complacent”; an R “curtsies,” a G is “tipsy”, a J “suicidal”; one letter design “needs more humanisticness.”

Other walks were just as interesting, each in its own way. A walk with a blind woman led into a discussion of compensatory sense development, which has its roots in neuroscience. A sound engineer noticed sounds that Horowitz had long screened out as irrelevant; she differentiates between sound and noise (“a sound we don’t like is noise”) and talks about the so-called “diabolical chord,” the augmented fourth, that I mentioned a few weeks ago on a Project Runway recap of all things. Another of my favorite walks was with a physician, who diagnosed passers-by; while it is a bit creepy to realize someone may be evaluating your health while you’re going about your business on any given day, gait and physiognomy are very revealing to someone who both knows what to look for, and pays attention.

And that is, at its heart, what the book is about: paying attention. Sprinkled throughout are results of fascinating experiments: observers of basketball practice who, when told they’d be tested on the number of baskets thrown, didn’t even notice an elaborately-dressed gorilla mascot, for example. It isn’t necessarily about having expert knowledge or a particular field of interest, it’s also about the evolutionary advantage of screening out overloads of input. Focus is quite efficient when the objective is to get from point A to point B. But sometimes it’s fun to see what’s there along the way.

You can take a brief walk with Horowitz via the trailer available at the publisher’s website. This book was just the break I wanted: an almanac of captivating anecdotes which will stick with me – and who knows, maybe one day I’ll take a walk, myself.

Non-Fiction – Simon Garfield: On the Map (Penguin, 2013)

For physical maps have been a vital part of our world since we first began finding our way to food and shelter on the African plains as hunter-gatherers. Indeed, Richard Dawkins speculates that the very first maps came about when a tracker, accustomed to following trails, laid out a map in the dust; and a recent finding by Spanish archeologists identified a map of sorts scratched on a stone by cave dwellers around fourteen thousand years ago. Dawkins goes on to speculate as to whether the creation of maps – with their concepts of scale and space – may have even kick-started the expansion and development of the human brain.
In other words, maps hold a clue to what makes us human.

I loved Garfield’s book about typography, fonts, and printing, Just My Type; as I came to the end of the book I read slower and slower, trying to stretch it out, not wanting it to end.

Now he’s done the same thing for maps. And again, he’s a master story-teller crafting non-fiction.

Let me, as I often do for non-fiction, start by explaining what this book is not. It is not a book of maps. You will not learn how to make maps, or, except at the most general level, how maps are made; it’s not a technical book. It is not an academic study of cartographical history. Instead, Garfield takes much the same approach with maps as he did with fonts: it’s a string of highly entertaining anecdotes grouped into thematic chapters, arranged more or less chronologically; a sort of collection of stories about the history of maps and mapmakers, and the effect they’ve had on the world. Each story is absolutely charming. And while it overall shows the evolution of cartography and the increasing uses for maps as the world became more complicated, each chapter is more or less standalone; feel free to skip over the ancient Greeks if they bore.

I enjoyed it thoroughly, though not with quite as much slavish devotion as Just My Type. I think there’s an inherent reason for this: color, and size. While fonts are almost always completely reproducible in black and white on a standard book-sized page, maps rarely work under those conditions. It’s a book that’s greatly improved by reading it with a computer nearby. But, even with that unavoidable limitation, it’s an excellent read.

I have a thing for maps. Not “good” ones; not the historic ones you find in this book. No, I’m more of a map slut. I have a truly gaudy gold foil version of the 1630 world map by Henricus Hondius, in a wood and linen frame, no less; it was love at first sight and I’ve dragged it all over New England for the past 25 years. Or the oddball world map, long lost, showing the world divided between “Christian, Mohammedan, Heathen,” which always struck me as saying more about the mapmaker and the world he lived in than the geographical distribution of religious preference. I even have a Map of the Universe (at least, from the Northern Hemisphere), though it’s partly hidden behind one of my bookshelves at the moment.

So I was primed for this book, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Some of my favorite sections:

Chapter 2: The Men Who Sold the World: In 1988, the Very Reverend Peter Haynes, Dean of Hereford Cathedral, nearly auctioned off “the most important and most celebrated medieval map in any form” to the highest bidder in order to pay for a new roof.

Pocket Map: Here Be Dragons: Contrary to all those stories we’ve heard about Medieval and early Renaissnce sailors relying on maps with warnings, “Here be Dragons” marking unknown seas, those words never appeared on any historical map. The words “hic sunt dracones” do appear on the 12-cm Hunt-Lenox Globe from 1505. They appear over what would be present-day China, not over the ocean. And it might refer to Dagronians, a cannibal tribe described by Marco Polo.

Pocket Map – J. M. Barrie Fails to Fold Pocket Map: Before he wrote Peter Pan, Barrie wrote a scathing article about the evils of maps that, once opened, cannot be refolded, the folly of buying such a pocket map regardless of the assurances and demonstrations of the bookshop clerk, and helpful hints on what to do after you have indeed purchased a map and find yourself with an uncooperative pile of paper: “Don’t speak to the map… Don’t deceive yourself into thinking you have done it…. Don’t blame your wife.”


Chapter 7 – What’s the good of Mercator? I was particularly happy to see the discussion of Mercator’s distortion in the service of navigation, and the alternate Gall-Peters Projection, included a lengthy reference to the Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality segment from The West Wing, which is just as hilarious now as it was when first broadcast in 2001.

If you’re more academically inclined, you’ll find lots of solid historical information about who made what map (Manhattan, Antarctica, Australia) when and why, and it’s all told in just as interesting a fashion as the more humorous anecdotes. Those more entertainment-oriented will fnd chapters on maps in literature (from Treasure Island to Harry Potter), movies (Casablanca was the first major movie to use a map, and of course we all remember the Indiana Jones series) , and the creation of specialty maps like guidebooks and maps to movie star homes.

I never realized until I read “Pocket map – The Biggest Map of All: Beck’s London Tube” how difficult it is to map a subway system. I spent 20 years in Boston, and the Beck map looked very much like what I was familiar with. Turns out it was quite a milestone in 1933, and was the first time a subway map was genuinely useable; the secret was in sacrificing scale and precision for clarity. Since then, the style has been used (and parodied) many times: Simon Patterson’s Great Bear of actors, philosophers, saints, and other “stars” (from the constellation of the Great Bear, see?); the map attributed to “Journalist F” of the Daily Mail including “obsessions and fears of Middle England” such as ear cancer, Nigella Lawson, and speed daters; and, tying back in to Garfield’s original book, the Typographic Tube Map by Eiichi Kono. And, as Garfield used the Periodic Table of Typefaces for endpapers before, now he uses Mark Ovenden’s Urban Rail Systems map, in the London Tube Map style, as endpapers here, showing the railways of the entire world as a single transportation system.

There’s much more, of course; I could use five posts, like I did with Just My Type, talking about all the chapters: the “ghost map” that stopped a cholera epidemic; Churchill’s map room; the map created from Marco Polo’s travel diaries, which hangs, incongruously, in “a dimly lit corridor above a Venetian stairwell.” The “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands” map, with Christ embracing the world, literally, in the religious allegory typical of medieval maps.

But you’d be better off to get the book and read it – leisurely. Linger over the lives and times, and enjoy the stories Garfield tells. He’s very good at it.

Michael Erard: Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners (Free Press, 2012)

At the outset, all I had were such stories, the tantalizing tales told over the centuries about people with remarkable linguistic gifts. Most of the stories are legends, unreliable as wholes. Yet hidden in them are kernels of truth that are subject to discovery, assessment, and testing, which in turn can guide further exploration. Do such language superlearners really exist? How many are out there, and what are they like? What could this gift for learning languages amount to, if it’s real? And what are the upper limits of our ability to learn, remember, and speak languages?

I have this theory that when a reader is disappointed by a well-written book, it’s because she thought it was a book about something else. So be forewarned: this is not a book about how to learn languages, nor is it a psycholinguistics text. Think of it instead as a narrative: the story of one man’s journey into the world of hyperpolyglots. It starts off reading like a novel, and chapters often end with cliffhangers of sorts; you’ll meet some great characters along the way. While parts of it were terrific, overall I found it a bit scattershot, with topics raised and dropped, sometimes returned to later, sometimes not.

But here was the truly frustrating thing for me: none of those questions raised above were clearly answered. For the most part, they weren’t even defined.

Erard acknowledges an existing threshold of “hyperpolyglottery” (a term coined by London linguist Richard Hudson) at six or more languages, but suggests that might be too low; perhaps eleven would be more accurate. What exactly it means, to “have” a language – ability to speak, converse (how well, with whom, about what, under what conditions), read a newspaper or classic text, pass a test – is discussed, but there’s no conclusion. Though, to be honest, these nuggets might be buried in there somewhere; these issues came up again and again, with varying observations, but I don’t think there was ever a definitive set of criteria.

He begins with his captivating trip to Italy to study notes left by Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti (1774 – 1849):

On one occasion, Pope Gregory XVI (1765-1846), a friend of Mezzofanti, arranged for dozens of international students to surprise him. When the signal was given, the students knelt before Mezzofanti and then rose quickly, talking to him “each in his own tongue, with such an abundance of words and such a volubility of tone, that, in the jargon of dialects, it was almost impossible to hear, much less to understand them.” Mezzofanti didn’t flinch but “took them up singly, and replied to each in his own language.” The pope declared the cardinal to be victorious. Mezzofanti could not be bested.

We’ve all heard about people who “pick up” languages just travelling around; these accounts may or may not be true, but the hyperpolyglots described here work at it: Mezzofanti had boxes of what might be called flash cards, and devoted himself to a program of study.

Other legendary hyperpolyglots are investigated, but the first living subject Erard hears about is Ziad Fazah, who seemed to make a fool of himself in a Mezzofante-like demonstration on Chilean TV. Thanks to YouTube, his performance has been preserved; I can’t interpret what I’m seeing at all, but it seems he answered some native speakers nonsensically, as if saying what he had memorized rather than understanding and answering their comments, and didn’t even bother to answer another. Poor guy: he never knew YouTube would happen. Erard never meets him, though someone on a message board passes along his email address, but this lead gets (frustratingly) dropped.

Through that same message board, Erard met a more willing subject, Alexander Arguelles, in what was for me the highlight of the book. Arguelles has an entire YouTube channel where he offers advice on language learning, some actual lessons, and a discussion of this book. He also maintains a presence on the discussion boards attached to the website HowToLearnAnyLanguage, which is free though registration requires a brief explanation of why you’re interested in visiting the forums (apparently they’ve had a lot of trouble with spam and trolls; it’s easy, I just said I’d read the Erard book and was curious to look around, and three days later I got my authorization).

Arguelles is another hard-working hyperpolyglot: his daily regimen (which he describes on YouTube) includes writing “a few pages” each in English (his native language), Arabic, Sanskrit, Cantonese, which he refers to as his “etymological source rivers.” Then he’ll write in Turkish, Persian, Greek, Hindi, Gaelic, or something else; he tries to write 24 pages a day, and has nine volumes to show for it. Once he had kids, he cut back his study time from nine to four hours a day. And he loves to involve his children, when they feel like it.

He’s also a proponent of a technique he calls “shadowing.” It seems to mean listening to and repeating a recorded text, loudly, while walking outside, as the first step in learning a language, whether a translation is known or not, even whether or not the sounds are repeated correctly. It seems bizarre to me, but it’s the cornerstone of his technique.

Erard watched Arguelles demonstrate this technique with another student in a public park in Berkeley, prior to using the technique to begin his own study of Hindi:

As the two men orbited by, shouting and gesturing dramatically, as if they were declaring opinions in the midst of some vehement argument, I spoke to one sunbather, who had wandered down the hill.
“Does this look weird to you?” I asked.
“Kind of,” she said. “What’s going on? Is he learning Italian?”
“The guy on the right, he’s the teacher,” I explained.
“He’s good.”
“Do you speak Italian?”
“No, I speak Spanish, but I’ve been to Italy. Where is he from in Italy?”
“He’s not Italian, he’s American,” I said her eyebrows went up. “Actually, he knows a lot of languages, he says, and he wants to start the school to make more people like him.”
“Oh, like a language cult,” she said, as if this were commonly recognized phenomenon.
When Justin finished, Alexander offered the tape recorder to me. I’d chosen an Assimil Hindi tape. Le Hindi sans Peine, the label read.
“You’ve just promised me Hindi without pain,” I said.
“I’ve promised you nothing like that,” he said.

Erard tried shadowing, and reported his experience:

After shadowing three dialogs again, it happened: Hindi opened up. I’d never set out methods or secrets; all I knew was what I knew about study: you plug away, you memorize, you write out sentences, you practiced endlessly. Flash cards. At first shadowing seemed absurd. Yet the gates to Hindi were – I could feel it – parting before me.…
Sunshine, sunshine. Now give me someone from whom I can elicit words. Let me play board games with a little kid. Give me a Hyperpolyglot, who will baptize me in his confident shadow, who has no inhibitions, even though he’s not a native speaker.

Arguelles has posted a video of shadowing, and a discussion of it, as well as an hour-long step-by-step guide, on his YouTube channel.

In the third section of the book, Erard discusses the brain, and possible neurological clues to this phenomenon of learning many languages. Here’s where the structure of the book really came apart for me; it seemed like a succession of anecdotes and a general outpouring of (albeit interesting) information – Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, the Geschwind-Galaburta hypothesis, what PET scanning reveals about how the brain stores and accesses learned languages, the possibility of a dopamine feedback loop that makes learning language pleasurable) – often referring back to the hyperpolyglots mentioned earlier and sometimes recounting issues mentioned earlier. Again, it’s a story, rather than a hierarchically-organized text of neurolinguistics. I could’ve used more structure.

I decided to read this book after Dr. Erard gave a talk about it at my local library a few months ago (on Cardinal Mezzofanti’s birthday, by chance). It’s interesting I found his talk to be a little disjointed as well, though he was very willing to answer questions after the lecture and even later by email – so I feel extra-guilty that I don’t have unbridled enthusiasm for his book. Then again, this is all just my opinion; The New York Times seemed to have none of my reservations.

To be clear, I don’t regret reading the book at all; I was delighted with much of it. In fact, I plan to read his first book, Um… Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What they Mean, some time next year. Arguelles and his Shadowing technique alone was worth this read, and I had a great time following up leads online. I just wish, even if there aren’t any answers, there were more concrete questions, or at least a more organized framework in which to wonder.

Sunday with Zin: Non-Fiction: Monica Wood, When We Were The Kennedys (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)

In every household in town, the story we children heard — between the lines, from mothers, fathers, mémères and pépères, nanas and nonnas, implied in the merest gesture of the merest day — was this: The mill called us here. To have you.
This was one powerful story. Powerful and engulfing, erasing all that came before, just like the mill that had made this story possible. In each beholden family, old languages were receding into a multicultural twilight as the new, sun-flooded story took hold: the story of us, American children of well-paid laborers, beneficiaries of a dream. Every day our mothers packed our fathers’ lunch pails as we put on our school uniforms, every day a fresh chance on the dream path our parents had laid down for us. Our story, like the mill, hummed in the background of our every hour, a tale of quest and hope that resonated similarly in all the songs in all the blocks and houses, in the headlong shouts of all the children at play, in the murmur of all the graces said at all the kitchen tables. In my family, in every family, that story — with its implied happy ending — hinged on a single, beautiful, unbreakable, immutable fact: Dad.
Then he died.

Hello I am Zin! On July 25, 2012, Monica Wood came to the Portland Public Library to present a Brown Bag Lecture about her just-published memoir about life in Mexico, Maine! She lives in Portland now.

This book is not about the Kennedys at all, except in a metaphor. The title is a play on We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates, I suppose, but it is a memoir about Monica and her Catholic blue collar family in a mill town in the 60s. When she is 9, her father dies, and life gets quite scary and Mom goes into a depression! Then a few months later President Kennedy is assassinated, and Monica felt her mother drew on the strength of that widow and that family – even though there were so many differences between them, they were from completely different worlds, but they had this similarity of a Catholic family who lost a husband and father – to pull them together, gather strength, and cope.

It took years for me to see how loss can tighten your grip on the things still possible to hold.

Monica Wood is primarily a fiction writer; she has not included autobiographical material in her stories or novels (I have been reading her story collection, Ernie’s Ark, and I think there is an autobiographical family in one of them!), and she never really thought about writing a memoir! This book started as a short piece for the nonfiction anthology A Place Called Maine; the editor wanted something from interior and industrial Maine, which wasn’t as covered as the coast or the farmlands. That became the prologue, which you can read, along with Chapter 1, on her website! She put it away while she was working on her story collection Ernie’s Ark (maybe it was the timing that had her shade the stories with some autobiographicality) but at a low period went back to it as a comfort and started adding to it as a full-length memoir!

Mexico, Maine was named in support of the Mexican revolutionaries fighting for independence from Spain in the early nineteenth century! But she never met any Mexicans there! There were French Canadians, Lithuanians, Russians, Italians, and others, though, descendants of immigrants who came to work there in the 19th century! The Mill (originally owned by Oxford, now owned by NewPage) in Rumford, which underwent the kind of stresses you would expect a paper mill to have undergone over the past century, was her first metaphor and so she knew it would have to be a major character in the book!

She is very happy with the cover! She gave the publisher – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a different publisher than she used for her fiction – some photographs. There were some from a family trip to Niagara Falls, taken by her uncle, the Father Bob of the story (he is a priest, and he was part of the inspiration for a character in her novel Any Bitter Thing). They made them the cover! She especially likes that they moved her older sister Anne to a position so it looks like she is supporting all the kids on her shoulders! She was puzzled by the back cover, which is plaid – there is nothing about plaid in the book! But they told her it is the Prince Edward Island tartan – and that is where her father emigrated from! She was very happy to learn that, and to see it on the book!

She found the memoir much easier, and quicker, to write than a novel! But still it was hard, because all writing is hard! The first draft was straight narrative, because she was worried about “violating the truth.” But her younger sister said, “Shove us aside and make yourself a character!” So she rewrote it with scenes and dialogue and an eye towards weaving threads through the whole text, and her sister said, “Now it is true!” She talked to most of the people in the book, the ones who are still alive, to make sure her recollection was accurate and to show them how they were being portrayed, and she found it warmly received all around! No one asked for any changes, she felt her sisters accepted her as an artist!

She was very pleased by a review that appeared on the online New Yorker blog Page-Turner (the same one that includes all the author interviews from their fiction)!

I found her to be a very polished and engaging speaker! Her sister was in the audience with us so it was fun to see her too!

I am not going to read this book; it just is not the sort of thing I want to read at this point, though of course that may change, but I am very happy to know about it! And I do like her writing! So now I have checked out her short story collection, Ernie’s Ark, from the library, and I am reading it and will post about it next time!

(Non-Fiction) Baratunde Thurston: How To Be Black – HarperCollins, 2012

The Company Office Party…
Your food
Often these events are catered, and if you’re in the job long enough you will face a food choice dreaded by black people since breaking the Corporate America color line: whether or not to eat the watermelon. First of all, don’t panic….Is it the only fruit? Is it arranged on its own plate adjacent to other segregated fruits? Is it mixed in with a fruit salad? Again, take a brief moment. Smile at the person across from you in the buffet line. We’re going to get through this together.

Yes, it’s a funny book. But it also, in the finest tradition of humor, makes a point. Several, in fact.

Baratunde Thurston got his autobiography into his humor – or maybe he got humor into his autobiography. In any case, it’s a fun read. He’s a stand-up comic, writer, director of digital for The Onion, and political blogger at Jack & Jill Politics (the logo of which is a watermelon). He’s also a Harvard grad, and an alumnus of Sidwell Friends (pre-Chelsea; she started the year after he did). His mom was a computer programmer in DC, and an unrepentent hippie who started him early on organic foods and a world view. She did good.

There’s a lot of him on youtube, including There’s a #Hashtag for That (a few f-words show up, mostly around #swineflu) which, at the 7-minute mark, recounts the hashtag war with friend and fellow comedian Elon James White that began after he tweeted he just selected a bottle of wine purely because it was labeled “Negroamaro.” Among my favorites from both of them: “I not only know why the caged bird sings, I feed it, clean its cage, and named it Taniqua” and “Despite the possession of an Ivy League degree, I occasionally ‘axe’ people questions.” A HarperCollins editor picked up on it. A whole book on hashtags seemed improbable, so it broadened into How To Be Black.
I chose to read this book after Melissa Harris-Perry (who did a cover blurb for the book) put it on her Summer Reading List. Melissa Harris-Perry is my Black Friend. You’ll learn more about the Black Friend in the chapter titled, “How to Be The Black Friend” and “How To Speak For All Black People”. Fact is, Melissa, in addition to being a Tulane professor of Political Science, and an excellent policy analyst and discussion leader on her weekend show on MSNBC (well, of course, where did you think it would be?) is very funny and very patient – two important qualities of a Black Friend – and her Teachable Moment on Black Hair will live forever (but don’t forget it was part of a more broad-ranging segment – it’s just that she gets a lot of email about her hair so she answered all the questions, plus a few more. That she’ll be remembered for the hair thing is probably as sad as Bobby McFerrin being remembered for “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” but that’s how it goes sometimes; hair is more universal than the economy, taxes, or Congress).

In 1926, Negro History Week was established by the black historian and author Carter G. Woodson. It was expanded to a full month in 1976 after the government realized that black people’s demands for self-determination and an equal seat at the table of American opportunity could be satisfied either through a comprehensive program of economic and political empowerment or by extending the buying season for postage stamps featuring noteworthy Black americans by a factor of four.

In addition to the gently satirical sociopolitical and interpersonal commentary, Thurston also gives us a look at his life. Not just what it felt like to be black growing up, as a student at those prestigious schools, but what it feels like to be him in the world. After all, he got that chapter on “How To Be The Black Employee” from somewhere. And, he assures us, he can swim.

Featured in several chapters is The Black Panel, a group of seven of his friends – Cheryl Contee (cofounder of Jack & Jill Politics), damali ayo, Jacquetta Szathmari, Elon James White, W. Kamau Bell, Derrick Ashong, and Christian Lander (a white Anglo-Saxon Canadian included as a control group and to “defend against the inevitable lawsuits claiming reverse discrimination”) – who offer their opinions and experience. Among other things, they recount their recollections of the moment they first realized they were black; just the title of the chapter gave me a “whoa” moment, because of course those of us who are white never have a moment when we realize we are white. And no, realizing other people are black is not the same thing.

I was a little puzzled by the chapter title “How’s That Post-Racial Thing Working Out for Ya?” I thought post-racial was a someday-we’ll-get-there thing; I never realized someone actually thinks we are now in a post-racial period. The Black Panel gets quite a kick out of the notion, too.

It’s just a funny guy writing about his life, and how what is all around him in the media and society strikes him. For pure sweetness, he’s included a picture of his mom hugging him at his graduation from Harvard. The satire is gentle rather than biting, but I can see myself in a few places. I never felt called out or scolded, though. More like a tap on the shoulder, a whispered word to the wise. From a Black Friend.

Funny, warm, interesting – highly recommended reading.

Non-Fiction – Simon Garfield: Just My Type: a book about fonts – Part 5 (final)

After 560 years of moveable type, why is our job not yet done? Why is the world still full of serious people trying to find great names for different new alphabets?….Because the world and its contents are continually changing. We need to express ourselves in new ways.

I’ve put it off as long as I could: sadly, we have reached the final chapter.

Chapter 22: Just My Type

What does your favorite font say about you? This is what Lexmark thought in 2001:

Don’t use Courier unless you want to look like a nerd. It’s a favorite for librarians and data entry companies.
Alternativesly, if you see yourself as a sex kitten, go for a soft and curvy font like Shelley.
People who use Sans Serif fonts like Univers tend to value their safety and anonymity.
Comic Sans, conversely, is the font for self-confessed attention-seekers because it allows for more expression of character.

It seems “big round O’s” seem friendly, and, as you’d expect, more rectangular letters appear technical. Italicized Humana Serif Light is the font for a love letter; a Dear John letter could be gentle in Verdana, or more absolute in Courier. But all that’s from 2001; now we have Pentagram’s online therapist who will determine What Type Are You? I turned out to be Archer Hairline, which, I’ll admit, is appealing, but is far too light for everyday use.

Fonts are fun, and font designers know it; look at all the games and sites we’ve come across so far – and don’t forget Max Kerning (kerning is the art of spacing; once you design a letter, you have to decide how much space goes between them). Apple has TypeDrawing, and MS-Word has had WordArt for decades now – for that matter, remember ASCII-art?. Or you can play Cheese or Font online. Look how much time is taken picking out business cards and wedding invitations; and if you’ve ever tried to create a flyer on your computer, you know how much fun you can have – and how much time you can waste – er, spend.

Type is emotional. Way back on page 2, when I saw Chicago, the Apple font, it brought me right back to the mid-80s when I encountered my first Apple. I couldn’t have reconstructed the font from memory, but seeing it, yes, I remember exactly where the computer was, what I did on it (a calendar was my primary project), and I remember Ivy Seligman (name changed to protect the innocent) accusing me of deleting files since I was the only one in the office capable of accomplishing such an advanced feat. Remembering the Superior Cub printing press brought back all sorts of memories of my brother.

Type matters. I recently came across (thanks to Paul Debraski at IJustReadAboutThat) a remarkable short fiction piece by Jonathan Safran Foer titled “About the Typefaces Not Used in This Edition.” As Paul says, “it works as meditation on what a book is, what words are and how we will ultimately read or experience books in the future.” That’s what type is for, after all – to affect, one way or another, the aesthetic experience of reading.

When I started this blog, I added a little at a time. One of the last things I played with was adding a feature font through TypeKit. Several free options were offered, and I ended up with what you’re reading now, FertigoPro from ExLjbris. I spent about two weeks, several hours a day, trying to figure out how to incorporate this; the directions were less than helpful. A few months later, WordPress sent out a directive that they were changing their system, and panic is the only word to describe what I felt. I’d actually like to change this font – while it’s lovely, in practice it’s too small, it’s not that readable, I don’t like the “1,” and the italics aren’t easily distinguished – but I never could figure out how, and now, from what I understand, if I change anything I will have to pay at least $30 a year for the service. While that’s not exorbitant, I’m pretty rigid about not paying for stuff on the Internet since it can get out of hand very quickly. I’ll probably relent one of these days.

I suppose there are people who think this is all foolishness, this font business – that Times New Roman is good enough for anything, and if not there’s always Arial. I choose to believe those people are rare. I prefer to hang with people like Karen Kavett, who has an entire series of videos on YouTube about typography. Or with John Boardley, whose I Love Typography site is full of delights – or with Simon Garfield (who was kind enough to answer an emailed question immediately), who was inspired to write a book about fonts, and who provides plenty of further reading therein.

Did I mention I love this book?

Non-Fiction – Simon Garfield: Just My Type: a book about fonts – Part 4

Paul Felton's #1 Type Heresy

Paul Felton’s #1 Type Heresy

We’re done with sagging now; it’s all party from here on out.

Chapter 18: Breaking the Rules
In most human enterprises, there’s a conflict between craft and creativity, between minding the rules and pushing the envelope. In most things, the mantra is: you have to know the rules to know when and how to break them. That’s where progress comes from, after all. Paul Felton crystallizes how this phenomenon affects the typographical world with his twin-book, The Ten Commandments of Typography (“Thou shalt not apply more than three typefaces in a document”) which flips over to reveal Type Heresy, a graphic rendition of how to break the rules by the Fallen Angel of Typography, including the image above as Heresy #1. Another book I just have to get.

fontbreak: The Interrobang
The combination question mark and exclamation point, proposed in the 60s by ad exec Martin Spekter, was offered on a few IBM and Remington typewriters, and exists in Wingdings but it never caught on. Garfield speculates: do people just like typing all those symbols to emphasize astonishment!?!?!?! It does feel satisfying somehow, even if you edit them out later. He speculates on punctuation’s resistance to change.

Chapter 19: The Serif of Liverpool
If you’re a fan of “popular” music (or just cover art) this chapter alone is worth the price of the book. And it could keep you busy for hours, looking for yourself to find Bootle, the font, complete with dropped “T”m modelled after the logo used by the early Beatles. Maybe you’d prefer Floydian, the scrawl from The Wall. Or I Blame Coco, derived from Coco Sumner’s handwriting as used on her album of that name. Songs have been sung about fonts: “Boring Arial Layout” by The Grace Notes seems to contain only the lyric “That’s me, I’m so famous!” “German Bold Italic” by Japanese singer Towa Tei and Australian Kylie Minogue doesn’t really make sense (“I am a typeface…I can compliment you well Especially in red Extremely in Green…I fit like a glove”) but I think it’s just supposed to be strange, which is fine. I’m reading a book about fonts, for god’s sake, I’m down with strange.
Returning the focus to type, we learn about the work of Peter Saville (New Order, as well as Kate Moss and Dior). For a grand finale, the creator of the Rolling Stone masthead (as well as Doobie Brothers album covers and former Hallmark card font designer) Jim Parkinson gets his nod.

Fontbreak: Vendome
Because: “Sometimes you just need a type that says Pleasure, possibly in French.”

Chapter 20: Fox, Gloves
Someone actually shot a video of a quick brown fox jumping over a lazy dog, but that phrase has become passé as a font display. Others with all letters of the alphabet, such as “Quick wafting zephyrs vex bold Jim” and “Zany Eskimo craves fixed job with quilting party” never achieved widespread use. Besides, they’re all too long when new fonts are released every day. The current rage is “Handgloves” or “Hamburgerfont” – there is a method to this, since some letters better show the differences between fonts than others. But FontShop has a better idea: for email updates, why not choose a word that fits the use of the font? Alas, their online site uses “Handgloves” but I do wish I could find the best example of all, if most cynical: the words “Removes unwanted hair” demonstrating the Chernobyl font.

Chapter 21: The Worst Fonts in the World
See this video: Trajan is the Movie Font. That doesn’t make it a bad font – it’s lovely – just overused. The idea of “worst font” could include many things – the inane, like Comic Sans, or the gross, like Grassy, “a type with hair” (let it be noted it won Linotype’s design contest in 1999). But Garfield has his own definitive list:
#8: Ecofont, the well-meaning, ink-saving font. It’s not so much a font as a process that puts holes in Arial, Verdana, et al. “and prints them as if they had been attacked by moths.” It is, however, available free.
#7: Souvenir, “A sort of Saturday Night Fever typeface wearing tight white flared pants” says Mark Batty (whose ITC owns the font) of the font that graced the BeeGees albums (and Playboy) in the 70s. Peter Guy of the Folio Society is blunt: “A souvenir of every ghastly mistake ever made in type design gathered together – with a few never thought of before.” I’m not sure why – I think it’s pretty. I’ve always said I have no eye for art.
#6: Gill Sans Light Shadowed. “…it will soon induce headaches.” I agree.
#5: Brush Script.I think everyone with Word has tried to use this at one time or another, but it never really works. I regret to say that my beloved city library uses this as a headline for event promotions. Garfield’s complaint is that it’s phony. All printing is imitating handwriting, so what? I just think it’s too squat. Here’s the pay dirt, though: you can get a font of your own handwriting, or anyone’s handwriting for that matter, at fontifier.com, for $9 (you do need a scanner).
#4: Papyrus, another ok but seriously overused font. But you can fight back: website Papyrus Watch “sets out to document and expose the overuse of the Papyrus font.” [tiny whisper: I happen to like it, and I don't see anything Egyptian about it, other than that's how it's used by fifth graders writing reports. But it's so cool that fifth graders are using computers - and fonts! - says one who thought the Flair felttip was innovative technology]
#3: Neuland Inline “says Africa in the way Papyrus says Egypt.” Meaning, it says “stereotype.” Again, I don’t see anything particularly African about it (I’m not even sure what an African font would look like; Africa is a big, diverse place), other than its now-permanent association with The Lion King.
#2: Ransom Note: This isn’t so much a font as a category; many similar fonts use the torn-out-of-a-magazine-and-pasted-together style: “the names are often better than the type.” Very true: my personal favorite is Got Heroin?
#1: And the Worst Font in the World (if you ever saw either of Keith Olbermann’s news shows, you’d hear the echo in your head): the 2012 Olympic Font known as 2012 Headline. The logo is bad enough – “some detected Lisa Simpson having sex, others a swastika” – but the font “is based on jaggedness and crudeness, not usually considered attributes where sport is concerned.” And of course, there’s that stereotypical thing again,the nod to Greece, “the sort of lettering you will find at London kebob shops and restaurants called Dionysus.”

My own font faux pas: About a decade ago, one of my more interesting if less frequent work duties was the writing and pre-production of a client newsletter. One month I did some work on it at home, and emailed the result to the office, where my boss intercepted it. Somehow, his computer changed the headline font to a hideous thing (I thought it was called Dancin’ but no, it was much worse, more like Party Mush). I didn’t even bother to explain that it was Century Schoolbook (or some such thing, maybe Garamond or Georgia or Calisto or Perpetua, I’m fond of serifs, though Verdana has its moments) when it left my home computer. From then on I used what I knew worked across platforms. It may be boring, but it doesn’t make a fool of me.

My personal Microsoft Word (circa 2000) least favorite list? Blackladder ITC and Gigi. Most of the scripts, really (except Lucida Calligraphy, which I sometimes use in condensed form for my name on stationery header). And the goofy things like Curlz and Jokerman, though they might have some use, in extremely small quantities, in some applications.

I’m saving the last chapter for next week. I’m having such a good time, I don’t want this to be over. For those of you wondering if I’ve lost my mind – long ago, but this phase is almost over.

Non-Fiction – Simon Garfield: Just My Type: a book about fonts – Part 3

Art by Tom Gabor

Art by Tom Gabor

Just like people, many books sag in the middle. That isn’t to say the group of chapters here is boring; I was still fascinated. But in some of them, there is less of a “fun” factor, and readers who aren’t generally interested in printing and typography might wonder where the magic has gone. Don’t worry – it comes back, in spades. But there’s still interesting stuff to discover here.

As an incentive – just today I got “I Shot the Serif (but I did not shoot the san serif)” game (unrelated to the image above, which is also fun; you can it, or variations, on a t-shirt) in my feed from the NYT’s newly named “Page-Turner” blog.

And now back to our scheduled book:

Chapter 6: The Ampersand’s Final Twist
Caslon, then Garamond, created what many consider to be the finest examples of ampersands, the typographical character even the most staid designers get a little wild with. You can get Caslon’s on a t-shirt (oh, how I want one). In 2010, the Society of Typographic Aficionados released “Coming Together“, a digital font of over 400 different ampersands to raise money for victims of the Haitian earthquake. They did something similar with Japanese characters in 2011 for the Japanese tsunami relief. Typographic Aficionados care.

Chapter 7: Baskerville is Dead (Long Live Baskerville)

…it has one one attribute that makes it infallibly recognizable and timelessly stunning – the upper-case Q. This has a tail extending well beyond its body width…The lower-case g is also a classic with its curled ear and its lower blowl left unclosed, as if all the ink was being saved for that Q.

In spite of Benjamin Franklin’s support, Baskerville never enjoyed much success during his life. But all things come to those who wait: his font was one of the five initially available on the iPad. And it’s a beautiful Q.

Font Break: Mrs Eaves & Mr Eaves
Baskerville may have missed out during his lifetime because of social disapproval: his wife came to him first as a housekeeper after her husband abandoned her and her five children. When things turned romantic, they couldn’t marry until the absent husband died. In honor of this sad and romantic tale, Zuzana Licko used the name Mrs Eaves for her 1996 update of Baskerville. And Australian artist Gemma O’Brien took the name Mrs Eaves for her “Write Here, Write Now” video project to support creation of open-graffiti zones as places of self-expression.

Chapter 8: Tunnel Visions
Even if you live in a city with a subway system, you may never consider that thought went into the signs used. First was the London Underground. During WWI, Edward Johnston – friend of Evelyn Waugh, teacher to Edward Gill – created the first modern sans and the first created for random public(as opposed to academic) use.

In the lower case the key letter was the o, whose counter (the internal white space) he created equal to twice its stem width, thus giving it “ideal mass-and-clearance.” His most distinctive letter was the lower-case i, which had an upturned boot…. The most beautiful was the i, on which Johnston placed a diamond-shaped dot that still brings a smile today.

But that was 1916, and of course things change. In 1979 Eiichi Kono was brought in to update the Underground font: “when he came to present his work for the first time he displayed his vaious New Johnston fonts with just one word: ‘Underglound.'” Now there’s a man with a misch sense of humor.

Chapter 9: What is it about the Swiss?
It’s the title character in a movie and the sole subject of a book. Type designer Cyril Highsmith tried to avoid it for one New York day and couldn’t travel, eat, shop, or get dressed, without great difficulty. Bloomingdales, Jeep, Gap, American Airlines, Panasonic, North Face, Toyota, Nestle, Verizon – and countless other companies – stake their corporate images on it. Only on the French Metro has it failed.
Oh, Helvetica:

…it’s Swiss heritage laying a backdrop of impartiality, neutrality and freshness….The font also manages to convey honesty and trust…a friendly homeliness….designed with some wit, and certainly with the human hand….the inner white shapes serve as a form guide to the black around them, an aspect that one designer called ‘a locked-in rightness”.…..[the lowercase] a has a slightly pregnant teardrop belly and a tail… the t a nd j have square dots….[The capital] G has both a horizontal and vertical bar at a right angle, Q has a short straight angled cross-line like a cigarette in an ashtray, and R has a little kicker for its right leg.

But Helvetica is not just one font: it is a typeface family, Helvetica Neue by Linotype, and contains over 50 fonts from Ultra-Light Italic to Black Condensed Oblique. How is the amateur to tell? The most telling distinction seems to be “horizontally cut finals” particularly on the c and s. It’s the sort of thing I never noticed before, but will always see from now on.
This feature also applies to Univers by Swiss-born Adrian Frutiger, which marked a new era: “the point when the design of type moved from something performed primarily with the eye through the hand, to something that resulted from science….Men in labcoats and clipboards were now defining our alphabet – a long way from ‘gutenberg, Caslon, or Baskerville.” It’s such an interesting point, I’ll resist trying to imagine men in clipboards.

Fontbreak: Frutiger
Though the successor to Univers (a little more relaxed, less mathematical, with some quirks that are simply pleasing to the eye) is the focus, it’s really an excuse to discuss use of fonts on sports jerseys around the world – an issue that most likely has never crossed anyone’s mind before, except the people who decide what players will wear. Germans use something like Serpentine, the French Optima, and those crazy Argentines go Bauhaus. Don’t you just love it?

Chapter 10: Road Akzidenz
This chapter would have been a lot more interesting if I knew more about English roadways, though it does end in New York City. The takeaway for me: only Germans would design a font named Grotesk Akzidenz for road signs.

Chapter 11: DIY
My cheeks hurt from smiling when I got to the end of this chapter. I remember the toy printing press my brother and I used to churn out a newspaper. “Just the mention of it may send a grown man to Ebay” – or a grown woman, who’ll find a Superior Cub for $9.00. And Letraset – oh, the agonies, one letter would get stuck halfway down the stem and break off, or something would be crooked. I’ve never had the eye for lettering: spacing matters.

Chapter 12: What the Font?
So you want a reference book of fonts listed alphabetically by name? Try 1953 Encyclopedia of Typefaces (the next chapter will bring in Fontshop’s more recent Fontbook). Say, though, you want to identify a font, maybe the lowercase “g” on the cover of the Encyclopedia – Rookledge’s Classic International Typefinder might be more helpful, listing fonts by characteristics such as a sloping e-bar. Or you can go digital and try WhatTheFont, an iPhone app. The author found that highly unreliable, and turned to the MyFonts.com Forum which was far more helpful (odd, since MyFonts makes the iPhone app; but in a forum, you have all kinds of crazy people with nothing better to do than flaunt their arcane knowledge; that’s how Dan Rather got fired, IIRC).
Would it surprise you to find out I spent a couple of days fooling around with this stuff, trying to identify fonts on everything from prescription bottles to clothing tags? Hey, I don’t laugh at your hobbies (I found Identifont to be very helpful)! And now maybe you understand why I’ve been discussing fewer short stories lately. And by the way, Eyehawk at the MyFonts forum had an answer for Garfield: the “g” on the cover of the 1953 Encyclopedia within minutes: “Font identified as ACaslon Pro-Regular. Case marked solved.” I love geeks of all stripes.

Chapter 13: Can a Font Be German, or Jewish?
Erik Spiekermann, co-founder of FontShop, is an authority on type. He’d have to be, since his FontBook contains 100,000 fonts, including things that will never show up on a PC, like Stoned, Elliott’s Blue Eyeshadow, and Monster Droppings. And he has his own interpretation of a little-known facet of the Third Reich. Up until 1941, roman type was in the same category as modern art and music: degenerate. Only gothic script would do. Then there was a change, as gothic type was labeled Jewish; now roman type was required. Spiekermann’s explanation? The elaborate blackletter script was barely legible outside Germany. And the Reich was running out of typeface; French and Dutch foundries didn’t have much, since they hardly used it. But what I’ll take away from this chapter (besides Monster Droppings) is the 1933 arrest of Paul Renner, designer of Futura, for being “too sympathetic towards roman types” in his college lectures. But he did have the last word: in the next Fontbreak, we discover Futura was used for the plaque left on the moon in July, 1969 by Appollo 11.

Chapter 14: American Scottish
American type didn’t start until 1790 with Binny & Ronaldson, two gents of Scottish descent who broke away from the previous English monopoly on type used here (the Declaration of Independence, for example, was printed in Caslon) with Monticello. But the “most enduring” American font is Franklin Gothic, named after Benjamin Franklin: “Things ‘All-American’ have a habit of using Franklin Gothic to press their case, be it the titles on the Rocky films or the block capitals on Lady Gaga’s album The Fame Monster.'” I find these examples of All-American-ness hilarious. Frederick Goudy was our premier type designer: “one of those rare things – a prolific type designer with a penchant for the jazz life.” So prolific, his fonts were used by William Barrett to create “My Type of People” – a series of graphic representations of various people made up entirely of Goudy-created typographic characters.

Fontbreak: Moderns, Egyptians and Fat Faces
As technology developed in the eighteenth century, the Moderns emerged: fonts with more extremes of thick and thin strokes, and more delicate serifs, such as Bodini. Then fonts went in the opposite direction, with Fat Face and Egyptians.

Chapter 15: Gotham is Go
In 2000, Tobias Frere-Jones of Hoefler and Frere-Jones designed a new typeface for GQ, based on the sign over the entrance of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. In 2004, it was used for the cornerstone of the in-progress Freedom Towers at Ground Zero. Is it coincidence the Obama campaign decided to use it in 2008? Maybe – they started with Gill Sans, but found more variations with Gotham. For the record, the McCain campaign used Optima, the same font as used on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And oh, by the way, Sarah Palin adopted Gotham for SarahPac. Politics, and fonts, make strange bedfellows.

And finally there is the ultimate tribute, that point when you know your typeface has really joined the pantheon of the greats. This is the point where people decide not to pay for it.

Chapter 16: Pirates and Clones
It ain’t easy being a type designer. The simplest typeface can consist of 600 characters – the alphabet, plus numerals, punctuation, accents, and special characters, in multiple varieties (bold and italic at the very least) and a comprehensive one far more. Obviously this is easier in the digital age than it was when each character was punchcut and molded, then produced in metal or wood, but it’s still an investment. Max Miedinger designed Helvetica, one of the most used fonts in the world, was “virtually penniless” at the time of his death because the company, Stempel, got the royalties, while he was paid a fee for services rendered back in the day. And piracy isn’t only about movies. Microsoft’s Arial is regarded by type designers as a ripoff of Helvetica – a situation played for humor in this CollegeHumor video, “FontFight“); though it looks different, it fits the same grid and was designed to be swapped in for the more expensive-to-license font. Lawsuits have historically been unsuccessful; just ask Hermann Zapf, creator of Zapf Dingbats (subject of another hilarious CollegeHumor video, Font Conference) who pushed for greater protection as early as 1974. And piracy isn’t always done with malice: the French agency conducting an anti-piracy campaign released their materials in what turned out to be a pirated font.

Chapter 17: The Clamour from the Past
Sue Shaw oversees the Type Archive in London, a collection of typeface from the past from 1500 to the dawn of the digital age:

…all the 23,000 drawers of metal punches and matrices, hundreds of fonts in every size, all the flat-bed presses, all 600,000 copper letter patterns. All the keyboards and casting machines setting hot metal type, all the woodletter type collections and machines from the DeLilttle company in York, all the steel history from Sheffield, all the hundredweights of artefacts that made the great libraries of the world. This is where it ended up when computers arrived. All quiet now….
The names of other fonts may be found elsewhere in the archive in the bound records of Stephenson Blake, Britain’s oldest and longest surviving typefounder in Sheffield and London – or it was until it shut for good in 2004 and sold the Sheffield site to be made into flats. In its heyday,which covered 1830 to 1970, it swallowed up the punches and matrices of the vast majority of British typefoundries, streching back to John Day in the sixteenth century, and encompassing hallowed designs and equipment….. Stephenson Blake manufactured typefaces for the world, and the names are regal, distant, and grand…They even had a precursor of Comic Sans: Ribbonface Typewriter, created in 1894.

Ozymandias springs to mind: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, this storage awaits you, some day.
And where is this treasury of type, printing machinery, and historical documentation housed? In a stone fortress with a marble façade? A modern glass and steel tower? No, it’s in an abandoned horse hospital.
The chapter also covers the rise of Monotype and Linotype, from automated typesetting to digital composition. There’s a palpable sense of history in the description of White Books, who publish only eight classic titles but treat each one with care; and the disappearance of the font notation from the title page of most modern books. That’s what charmed me most about Pear Noir!, you know: a little blurb about the Garamond type they used in issue 4 (where Zin was featured). And Rabbit Catastrophe, which not only names the type but hand-makes their journals. These may not be the most august literary journals around, but they are doing things worth doing.

Fontbreak: Sabon
It’s the font used for the main chapters of the book (not the Fontbreaks), and is considered one of the most readable book fonts.

And next time, things start getting a little wacky again…as if Monster Droppings and those College Humor videos aren’t wacky enough.

Non-Fiction – Simon Garfield: Just My Type: a book about fonts – Part 2

Beatrice Warde's manifesto

Beatrice Warde’s manifesto

And we pick up where we left off in Part 1, right after Chapter 2: Let’s be a little more serious (don’t worry, just a little, and just for a while), starting with a Fontbreak:

Fontbreak: Gill Sans
In the mid-1920s, Eric Gill painted a sign for a bookstore with what evolved into one of the most common typefaces in Britain, used by the Church of England, the BBC, and Penguin Books. In 1989 Fiona MacCarthy published a biography of the designer, which may give you pause the next time you see this “most British of types….spare, proper, and reservedly proud” – he kept a detailed diary which included the notation, “Continued experiments with dog… and discovered that a dog will join with a man.” Oh, and then there’s the incest and pedophilia… Yes, the guy was a pervert of the lowest order. Maybe that’s why the penguins waddle, y’think? It creates an interesting question for organizations like the BBC and Westminster Cathedral, both of whom use Gill Sans: Is it censorship (and artistic treason, not to mention economic hardship) to replace the work of a pedophile, or common sense?

Chapter 3: Legibility vs Readability
Is the perfect font a crystal goblet – transparent so the wine is the star – or a golden chalice, to be admired on its own? Opinions differ. Beatrice Warde, publicist for the Monotype corporation in the 20s and 30s, and, lord help her, “friend (and sometimes lover) of Eric Gill” wrote the eloquent essay The Crystal Goblet, stating the case for her point of view. The sign above (it’s not the same version as printed in the book) was her Credo, and was found in most printing offices of the time (and is well-known enough to be parodied and adapted to the printing press of today). Kind of makes you want to salute when you walk past Kinkos, doesn’t it?
As I understand it, readability is legibility in practice, and in volume. A bold all-caps stylized headline can be legible from across the room, but would be a poor choice for a paragraph. While I was able to prove the “dot test” to my satisfaction – the dots of the “i” in New Times Roman and other serif fonts is indeed slightly shifted to the left – I’m dubious about the “stem test” – the stem of the “t” is thicker at the bottom to keep it from falling over (visually, of course). Unless they mean that extra couple of pixels which curve more quickly on the left side, resulting in an extremely brief increased thickness.

Font Break: Albertus
First a fairly thorough description (“…combining Roman values with individual flair….The large rounded letters are complemented by the narrow horizontal E, F, L, and T, which are even more effective when doubled. The S has a smaller counter at the bottom than at the top, which can make it appear upside-down”) with examples, and history (Berthold Wolpe created it in 1932 for use on bronze memorial tablets), the punch line comes in the explanation of why it (with some small modifications) was used for the signs in the old TV show The Prisoner (which I was just barely old enough to appreciate on first run): it was “visually stunning” and “perfectly suited to the unnerving psychological landscape” but above all else – for use on late-1960s televisions – it was highly legible. A clone of the variation (the dots of the “i” removed, and some minor changes to other letters) is available; and a restaurant in France has deliberately recreated the look, emphasizing the Celtic elements, to mimic The Village. That’s the power of a well-chosen font: it evokes a forty-year-old tv series that only ran for seventeen episodes, and it makes a French chef want to appear Celtic.

Chapter 4: Can a Font Make Me Popular?
Matthew Carter, creator of Verdana and Tahoma, has trouble at movies:

…so often when Carter sees films he notices niggly things wrong with type. How could a story set in Peru in the nineteenth century possibly have a sign on a restaurant door that had been composed in Univers from 1957? How could the film Ed Wood, set in the 1950s, use Chicago, a font from the 1980s, as the sign at the entrance of a studio? And how did the props team of a movie set at the start of the Second World War get the idea that it would be okay to print a document in Snell Roundhand Bold, when Carter, watching in the muliplex, would recognize the face as something he himself created in 1972?

Designer Mark Simonson devotes a section of his website to such faux pas.

Font Break: Futura vs Verdana
The consumer backlash when Ikea switched fonts was so dramatic – and unprecidented – it even made the Business section of Time.

Chapter 5: The Hands of Unlettered Men
The post-Guttenburg proliferation of type in the late 15th century, from the da Spira brothers in Venice, epicenter of the printing explosion, to William Caxton in England.

Font Break: Doves

Doves type is most easily recognized by its ample space between letters, a y that descends without a curl, a ligature connecting c and t, and the bottom bowl of its g set at an angle, giving it a sense of motion, .like a helicopter tilting at take-off.

The type that was drowned – creator and owner Thomas Cobden-Sanderson threw it in the Thames in 1916 to keep it from passing to his former Doves Press partner upon his death. Too bad – the Doves Press Bible is beautiful, with a drop-cap for the ages.

Join us next time for the Ampersand Chronicles and the tale of a Superior Cub…

Non-Fiction – Simon Garfield: Just My Type: a book about fonts – Part 1

Periodic Table of Elements by Cameron Wilde/SquidSpot

Periodic Table of Elements by Cameron Wilde/SquidSpot

I love this book. How can you not love a book with the Periodic Table of Typefaces on the endpapers?

I love it so much (and I’m not quite done with it yet), I’m going to stretch it out over a series of posts, so I can include all the things I loved. Sure, I know I have a problem with editing, but this book, even if you don’t care about fonts or typography, there’s probably going to be something in it that appeals to you. Like one of the greatest April Fool’s Day hoaxes ever perpetrated on Great Britain. Or the quandary Westminster Abbey was in when it was discovered the designer of the signage at the Stations of the Cross was an incestuous pedophile (among other things). Or the games people play with fonts. Or the story of the font that was drowned to keep it out of the wrong hands. I don’t want to leave anything out.

It’s arranged in a rather stream-of-consciousness style rather than chronologically or by sections and subsections. Most of the 22 chapters – they’re fairly short, maybe six to eight pages each – end with some kind of lead-in to the next. They’re separated by Fontbreaks, two- or three-page spotlights on a specific font.

You won’t learn much about type design or page layout here; for that, you need a different kind of book. If you’re a total type novice, a two minute browse of any site explaining typeface terms – bowls, stems, descenders and counters – might be helpful in a few places. But it’s not essential; most of it’s pretty intuitive, and plenty of illustrations are included. In fact, the Introduction is mostly a fifteen-page graphic essay of how type is used in everything from TV show logos to the New York Times classifieds to iPhones.

It’s a wonderfully entertaining book, informative, readable, and fun – particularly when read at your computer, with the book in one hand and your mouse in the other. I spent nearly an hour on some chapters, just checking out what’s mentioned. I’ve included links to some of the most fun stuff; the book provides an appendix of online resources.

Introduction: Love Letters

Typefaces are now 560 years old. So when a Brit called Matthew Carter constructed Verdana and Georgia for the digital age in the 1990s, what could he possibly have been doing to an A and a B that had never been done before? And how did an American friend of his make the typeface Gotham, which eased Barack Obama into the presidency? And what exactly makes a font presidential or American, or British, French, German, Swiss, or Jewish? These are arcane mysteries, and it is the job of this book to get to the heart of them.

Chapter 1: We Don’t Serve Your Type
The introduction ends with a warning:

But we should begin with a cautionary tale, a story of what happens when a typeface gets out of control.

You know what’s coming, don’t you? Comic Sans, developed by Vincent Connare, originally designed to accompany Microsoft Bob, a dog-icon that would serve as a Help function on Office. The idea was to make computers, and Microsoft Bob in particular, less threatening to first-time users. But the font proved too big, so it was never incorporated; Bob wasn’t a hit, and was discontinued (replaced, I suppose, by Paper Clip Man, whom I despise with a passion unaccounted for by reason). Since it was there, Comic Sans was included in the supplementary fonts package for Windows 95. It’s now the most hated font in the world. The first six or ten sites you’ll find if you google “Comic Sans” will be anti-CS groups and websites. In my travels I’ve noticed some literary journals (like Plain Spoke and Puritan) specifically forbid it; the Futures SF column of Nature also forbids it on a guidelines page in a font that looks very much like CS, lending an ironic tone to the whole thing. A friend of mine used CS for her personal emails – purple, no less – and it suited her. But, like a hoodie, it could lead to trouble.

Chapter 2: Capital Offenses
In 2007, Vicki Walker, New Zealand insurance worker, was fired for causing “disharmony in the workplace” by sending an email in upper case (plus red and bold sections); her later wrongful termination lawsuit was successful. The chapter blends into history: Guttenberg, and the origins of moveable type; Upper Case referred to the box in which capitals were stored.

But that’s all preface to the main event: On April 1, 1977, the UK’s Guardian ran a seven-page supplement touting the newly discovered vacation spot, the islands of The Republic of San Seriffe, complete with map of the two major islands of Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse, with feature stories on the lovely beaches of Gill Sands and the charming port of Clarendon, and a profile of President Maria-Jesu Pica (helpfully archived online by the newspaper). This was, of course, before everyone had a PC on his or her desk with those font names in a drop-down menu at the top; no one knew from serifs. Travel agents, swamped with requests to book passage to this unknown paradise, could find no Bodoni Airport, no Garamondo Inlet. It ranks as one of the best April Fool’s Day hoaxes in modern history.

See why I love this book?

More to come…

Non-Fiction – Alan Huffman & Michael Rejebian: We’re With Nobody: Two Insiders Reveal the Dark Side of American Politics (Wm Morrow 2012)

We’re opposition political researchers, which means we’re hired by campaigns to compile potentially damning profiles of candidates. Our lives during the campaign season are a coast-to-coast series of behind-the-scenes interviews and paper chase sorties – clandestine missions that revolve around facts, truths, lies, surprises, and dead ends…. One day we’re in New Orleans, staring cross-eyed at court records in the hazy morning aftermath of a late night on Bourbon Street. The next we’re in New York City, resolutely standing on the last nerve of a records clerk who frowns as she looks at the request I’ve just handed her.

I chose to read this book after watching Jon Stewart interview the authors on The Daily Show. I was looking forward to it: two former journalists – writers – doing a job I’m somewhat aware of, and an overall topic that interests me: how candidates market themselves (and get derailed). Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped.

Right off the bat, I’ll confess: I didn’t read the last two chapters of this book. I gave up. That isn’t to say there aren’t some “good parts” to the book – there are, definitely. I think this would’ve been a terrific article. A longish article, perhaps, maybe even a two-parter, but really great. Trouble is, it’s a 187-page book. A book written by two people. Two authors, that’s always trouble for the writers, but when the authors alternate chapters with less coordination than I would have expected, the trouble is passed on to the reader.

For example: the mainstay of their job is checking public records in courthouses, municipal offices, etc. Which means they frequently have to ask government clerks to pull files. Not all government workers are charming and helpful; we’ve all been to the DMV, we know how it is. But it seemed to be mentioned so many times over the course of the first half of the book, I began to feel sorry for these clerks, and get pretty defensive on their behalf. Just in time, one of them acknowledges the clerks are not well paid, have tedious jobs, and have work to do other than pulling records, but by that time I saw these guys as ogres picking on defenseless middle-aged women who have to pay the rent just like everyone else. Did they really need to repeat that annoyance so many times?

The assignments related feel muddled and, sometimes, incomplete. There seems to be some confusion of gossipy news coverage – which opposition research has nothing to do with – with misuse of “oppo” (as they call it). Accounts of assignments are spread out with so much intervening material, it’s hard to realize that the mayoral candidate they’re talking about at the end of a chapter is the same one who was featured at the beginning. This may sound like a reading problem. And, I’ll admit, it could be. But I’m a pretty careful reader. I think that’s documented pretty well throughout this blog, in fact. And I found the individual adventures difficult to follow and a lot less interesting than they could have been, had they been presented more sequentially.

Maybe the problem is that they can’t reveal too much in the way of detail. I’m not talking about names, of course – there are none, this isn’t a tell-all, and I wasn’t expecting it to be – but there’s a murkiness to this that really makes it less readable than it could be.

I think another problem is that their job ends when they turn over their report to the campaign that hired them:

While we objectively investigate and report on the subjects of our research, what separates us from full-time journalists that we never directly publish our political work…As a result we have little control over how it’s eventually presented to you…

Maybe I’m reading the wrong book. Maybe the book I want to read is the one about the campaign manager who takes the report and ignores it, or distorts it. How a campaign decides what’s worth disclosing, and what will just make them look bad. How they disclose it, and when. The strategy side of things, rather than the process. If so – my bad. But I still think this would make a great article if edited down.

My favorite section was the self-research chapter. A campaign manager wanted to hire them to do research on his candidate, to see what the other side’s oppo would turn up; the candidate refused, quite angrily, insisting it wasn’t his first campaign and there was nothing to find (not that hadn’t been found before, at any rate). And of course something was uncovered and he went down in flames. Read Chapter 12, for sure, it’s a good one. Chapter 13, on the other hand, is a travelogue about different places they’ve been (though it’s Chapter 9 that contains an interesting observation: “It may be useful to talk country in rural areas, or no-nonsense in Chicago, or to present yourself as a charming curiosity, which, in our case, may mean laying on the Southern charm in Idaho. It is also sometimes useful to flirt with the person, whether male or female, depending on your gut feeling”), and chapter 14 is full of general observations about deadlines, with little specific material at all.

They do make several valuable points along the way, such as:

But it’s distressing to see how political lies have adapted to public scrutiny….The purveyors have become increasingly effective despite increasing access to the facts, in part because of the successful use of dazzle camouflage – whereby complicated imagery is superimposed on the truth to fool the eye.

While I agree heartily with this sentiment, it’s rather tenuously connected to their job, since, as we’ve already seen, they don’t publish anything. If incidents when this happened to them, when their research was used poorly, were included, I might feel differently, but either they always work for Good Guys, or they couldn’t include specifics for other, perhaps legal, reasons.

The title of the book is one of their often-repeated lines of dialogue: every time they go anywhere to request information, someone will ask, “Who are you with?” “We’re with nobody” is how they avoid answering. They never, ever say who they’re working for.

If you like atmosphere, the book starts with them talking to a guy sitting on his porch holding a gun, squinting at a pickup truck rolling by. There’s an investigation in New Jersey which includes thuggish undercover police hanging around for no discernible reason. And there’s an interview with a potential opponent’s ex-wife (ex-wives will talk, police won’t) which results in the discovery that the candidate may have a domestic violence arrest:

…one thing polls show is that voters will tolerate and even accept an awful lot of misgivings by politicians. They have tolerated cheating spouses, dalliances with prostitutes, the occasional DUI, college drug use, and even cocksucking in the White House. But they will never condone domestic violence. Slapping a woman around is a political killer.

What’s sad is what is tolerated. We’ve come a long way from when a simple divorce was a scandal, I guess. In this case the potential candidate was convinced, through undisclosed back channels, not to run.

Now that’s the book I wish I’d read.

Non-Fiction – Michael Paul Mason: Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury and its Aftermath FSG 2008

The first thing I tell her is that I cannot help. Her son Jake is thirty-four, my age. His gray, bruise-flecked limbs are splayed out on a bed before me; his mouth is dry and agape. I know I cannot help him. I cannot file a lawsuit against the insurance company, I cannot conjure a way out of this dead-end nursing home, and I cannot sucker punch the aloof psychologist or throttle the ignorant psychiatrist. I hold no sway over the waiting list in my own hospital. I explain to her that I can do nothing at all, and she sighs. She is desperate to see Jake in a program where there is a sense of progress and direction. She knows that the rehabs and specialty hospitals are as inaccessible as the moon. She has called them herself, and she knows that nobody can help. She knows I cannot help, but she asks me anyway. She asks, in all earnestness, to do the impossible and find her son a bed, and in my weakness, I agree. It’s my job to agree.

Mason is not a doctor; he’s “an editor, writer, speaker, and journalist.” At the time this book was written, he was also a brain injury case manager for Brookhaven Hospital in Oklahoma. In this book, he blends medical information with patient stories and philosophical musings in smooth prose that’s a pleasure to read. But his main purpose, I think, is to generate awareness of brain injury: to improve prevention, treatment, and most importantly, rehabilitation.

Most of the chapters use a single patient’s story to illustrate some aspect of brain injury. He never gets lost in medical jargon, but includes considerable technical material, though I often wished there was more. I’ve been reading “doctor” books since I was a teenager, so I’m not afraid of a few Latinate words. Still, I greatly enjoyed the book, and I’m glad to know a little more about the issues he raises.

There are some happy endings here, but it’s more of a clarion call to action than an inspirational book of hope.

The Hermit of Hollywood Boulevard

In snowboarding parlance, Cheyenne had a yardsale – a crash so intense that personal effects are strewn over a wide area. In a grimmer manner of speaking, Cheyenne had just suffered a catastrophic injury.

In this story of Cheyenne Emerick’s snowboarding accident, we’re introduced to various classifications of seizure disorders and the effects of frontal lobe injury. We’ll return to Cheyenne at the end of the book for an update.

A Prisoner of the Present

We place a peculiar spiritual value on memory. Notwithstanding Revelation, the allure of heaven itself depends on memory. Most people act appalled when confronted with the prospect of having no memory of this life in the afterlife, and yet none of us seem to have a problem with the fact that we don’t remember our first few years following birth…..In some future dementia or god-forbidden accident, we may, like Julie, forget our first kiss or our best childhood friend, or we may forget the times we begged for death or let down our loved ones. Forgetting is hell, forgetting is heaven.

Julie’s short-term memory was disrupted in a car accident.

An Insult to the Brain

There’s a good chance you already have a brain tumor….Every fifth person has a tumor somewhere in his or her skull, quietly embedded in a gland or elsewhere, too small to see and too scary to want to see. For most of us this tumor will remain still and undetected, and we will pass our lives pleasantly unaware of its presence.

Rather than focusing on a patient, this chapter discusses what’s included under the term “traumatic brain injury.”

Rob Rabe Cannot Cry

Kathy Herring, Rob’s mother, is widely regarded as the matriarch of brain injury advocacy in Iowa – no small accolade, since Iowa has a reputation as one of the most progressive and survivor-friendly states. More options exist for Iowans with brain injuries than for most other Americans, and Iowans have Kathy Herring and a handful of others to thank.

Rob was injured in a car accident, spurring his mother into her role as advocate. Rob himself works with brain injury survivors at for the Greeley Center for Independence in Colorado.

Portrait of an Injury
At age twelve, Asya Schween was injured in a bike accident in Russia. This chapter details her successful efforts to deal with the sequelae: now living in California, she has earned two Masters degrees and a PhD, and has a successful career as an acclaimed photographer. Of her self-portraits, she says:

When I see them here on the wall, it is like looking at fossils. Sometimes I notice them and they are funny. They are humorous, not macabre. People look at my photos and say what a sad, sad creature I am. It’s probably the person looking at the photo that is sad, not me.

The Only Thing That Works
Violence and psychiatric disturbances as a result of brain injury; the process of rehab hospitalization, which can last years and may include transition to a step-down setting.

The Resurrection of Doug Bearden
Due to a brain injury caused by herpes encephalitis, Doug sometimes believes he’s dead. The chapter details the struggles he faced with the VA system, and refers to the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the levels of Bardo.

Ultraviolent Bryan
As a young child, Bryan suddenly started having behavior problems. These were eventually diagnosed as a seizure disorder traced to a diffuse brain tumor. The difficulties of negotiating the California special education system are described. Mason distinguishes between treatment of mental illness and brain injury; this is a bit vague, maybe the only part of the book that’s not very clear.

Fugue of the Pony Soldier
A Cherokee construction worker is injured on the job and begins to suffer dissociative fugues. Mason participates in a sweat and details the experience.

In All Earnestness
Post-concussion syndrome following a car accident – disorientation, memory problems, concentration issues, and the rare occurence of psychogenic anaphylactic shock. How Eastern-based mindfulness exercises, meditation, and yoga helped with various problems.

The Hospital in the Desert

A hundred years ago, a horse’s kick to the head wuld have done you in. In Iraq, you can take a golf ball-size missile through the skull and survive. Thirty years ago, a severe brain injury meant that you couldn’t go to work anymore, and five years ago, a severe brain injury could mean a long coma, a minimally conscious state, or a daily condition of total dependence. In the regrettable math of the Iraq War, truly severe brain injury now comes with polytraua: brain injury plus a plastic arm, minus your balls, divided by weeping burns. You can survive more injuries than you’d care to know.

Military care of brain injuries at the Air Force Theatre Hospital at Balad Air Base in Iraq, The Brain Injury Capital of the World. A fascinating and frightening chapter.

Balad Hosopital proves that we are no longer asking most soldiers to die in service; we are asking htem to accept a lifetime of severe disability.

A soldier and a three year old Iraqi girl are followed through the hospital; we see the differences in their care and aftercare.

Should a brain injury befall you in America, you stand a 71 pecent chance of being alive one month after your ER visit. If a brain injury occurs anywhere in Iraq and you’re medevaced to Balad, your chances of survival skyrocket to 98 percent, the highest rate of survival for any trauma hospital in history. .. Twenty years from now, American trauma care will be modeled after Balad Hospital’s pioneering work. It is healthcare unencumbered by insurers and accreditations.
….
“It’s the purest medical mission in the world,” Powell explained to me, “but it’s not one you would wish on people.

Wood of the Suicides

Get a serious head injury in Council Bluffs, Iowa, a town that borders Omaha, and odds are that you’ll qualify for a special healthcare waiver that will allow you to access a number of brain injury services and programs. Depending on the severity of your case, the state of Iowa may pay for years of rehabilitation, without any significant cost to you or your family. Cross the street into downtown Omaha, get the wrong kind of brain injury, and you’re f*cked six ways from Sunday – a predicament that isn’t exclusive to Nebraska.

Daniel is one of those caught in this predicament. As Mason details his case – anoxic brain injury due to attempted suicide by hanging – he’s torn by the memory of the hanging suicide of his artist friend, John. I’m not sure the multiple juxtapositions in this chapter work – Daniel, bureauocracy, John, a visit to a Buddhist monastery. They’re all important, and it feels cluttered; I’m distracted by so many themes.

Conclusions

Before that day, brain injury had always been my business; now it crossed into the personal. I felt violated by the intrusion, as though working with survivors had somehow inoculated my family and me from the risk of injury. With the development of the complication, that line had been erased.

In this brief chapter, Mason considers his own reaction to the possibility his baby will be born with brain damage (which happily does not happen).

The book ends with appendices of sources and a resource directory.

I chose to read this book almost on a whim. Since I spent virtually all of last year reading short stories, I wanted to read more novels and non-fiction this year, while keeping up with the three major short story prize volumes and a few other sources. I’ve been reading medical non-fiction since Dr. William Nolen’s Making of a Surgeon was excerpted in Reader’s Digest when I was a teenager. I have just about everything lay-medical: from the 50s’ The Intern by Dr. X (in which cancer isn’t treated – there isn’t any treatment – and an intern’s lunch of chicken a la king, pie, and coffee are outrageously expensive at 85 cents) to the hilarious and irreverant House of God by Samuel Shem (loose inspiration for the TV series St. Elsewhere to the philosophical musings of Oliver Sacks. So medical non-fiction was a logical place to start, and during a library visit I picked this book right off the 617 shelf because it looked interesting. To my surprise (that isn’t usually a successful tactic), it was.

I read this over a couple of weeks, usually one chapter at a time. If I’d read more per sitting, it might’ve seemed a bit oppressive; it’s not a happy book, although some of the people involved have done quite well after their injuries. But I thought it was excellent, informative and moving.

(Non-Fiction) Steve Almond – (Not That You Asked): Why I Crush on Vonnegut

I ordered this book of “Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions” mostly out of curiosity. And I’m again swept away in the joy of pure reading, of saying, “Yes, yes!” and forgetting about plot and POV and tense and pace. I am thinking non-fiction is so much closer to my heart than fiction. And I say that with more than a little trepidation. Because, what if it’s true?

At any rate, this book is wonderful. I must comment on the three-chapter section titled
“Why I Crush On Vonnegut”, which fits in with Zin’s post on the purpose of literature, and the difference between Art and Entertainment that was raised in the introduction to BASS 2011. And with what has transpired in the US over the past few days.

Steve Almond is fiercely obsessed with Kurt Vonnegut, has been since he did his thesis on him years ago. The chapter covers, among other things, his attendance at a panel presentation by Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jennifer Weiner. I have never been a huge fan of JCO, though I thoroughly enjoyed her recent New Yorker story, “I.D.” And I was embarrassed to admit I don’t know Jennifer Weiner at all until I found out she writes some kind of “chick-lit” about shoes which get turned into movie vehicles for people like Cameron Diaz and Justin Timerlake. Now, if she had written “Love Story” it might be different (in my defense, for our Senior Class Song I voted for the Randall Thompson setting of Frost’s “Choose Something Like a Star” rather than the theme from Love Story, but I and the two others in our class of 500 who knew the song from chorus were seriously outvoted).

Almond’s account of the panel has an eerie similarity to the Singer panel and lecture related in the BASS 2011 introduction, except it is Steve Almond style rather than Richard Russo style. That is not a slam on either one of them. I can like two different things equally well. In this case, they both work beautifully.

But back to the point, which is the purpose of Art, or Literature. Steve Almond attributes to Vonnegut the belief that “artists should serve as instruments of destiny;” and reports “He had spent his entire life writing stories and essays and novels in the naked hope that he might redeem his readers…every one was written under the assumption that human beings are capable of a greater decency.” He found, in the archives of Vonnegut’s papers: “I now believe that the only way in which Americans can rise above their ordinariness, can mature sufficiently to rescue themselves and to help rescue their planet, is through enthusiastic intimacy with works of their own imaginations.”

Literature is here to save us. From ourselves.

It was a fortuitous convergence that this book arrived today, as I watched more news coverage of the craziness from the weekend, including the actions of the state legislature of Arizona which today voted to prevent protesters from approaching within 300 feet of the funeral of the nine year old girl who was murdered on Saturday at a public forum with her congressional representative. This legislation was necessary because the God-fearing Christians that make up the Westboro Baptist Church have decided they will vocally and visibly demonstrate, at the funeral of this child, as her parents walk her to her grave, that her death was the result of homosexuality. Or God’s anger at Catholics, I have seen both explanations, I am not sure which one is true. I am grateful to Steve Almond and his paean to Kurt Vonnegut for offering me some comfort at this bleak time, when I am in despair about our endless capacity to make things worse. Because Steve Almond goes on to say: “But something occurred to me…something Vonnegut has been trying to explain to the rest of us for most of his life. And that is this: Despair is a form of hope. It is an acknowledgement of the distance between ourselves and our appointed happiness. And at certain moments, it is reason enough to live.”

Thanks to both of these fine gentlemen, on a day when we all need to be saved from ourselves.